by Francis Preve
Saying that analog synthesis is having a renaissance is kind of like saying Deadmau5 is an up-and-coming producer. The fact of the matter is that
analog is back in full effect—and with good reason. After a decade of
virtual synths that are kinda-sorta like analog, hearing the real thing
can be life changing. Of the “big three” Japanese synth makers, Korg
has really started delivering the goods when it comes to affordable
analog synths. After sticking a big toe in the water last year with the
pocket-sized Monotron (reviewed Nov. ’10), a true analog synth with
the same filters as their legendary MS-20 patchable monophonic synth,
Korg kicks the whole game up a notch with the new Monotribe.
Scroll down for audio examples and video.
While rumors of the Monotribe circulated late last year, the full specs
weren’t announced until last spring—and believe us, the specs are a
doozy. Based on the Monotron’s synth architecture, the Monotribe
adds improved VCOs, a noise generator, selectable preset envelopes, an
LFO that should be standard on every synth, and a realtime sequencer
that blends the best of the step-oriented ’80s approach with a bunch of
interactive parameters that make it truly playable. Oh, there’s also a fully
analog drum machine onboard with kick, snare, and hi-hat sounds.
The Monotribe’s additional amenities read like an analog junkie’s
wish list. Analog sync in and out? Check. External audio input for
sequenced processing of other instruments through its filters and
envelopes? Done and done. Battery power? Yep. Seriously, Korg has
kind of thought of everything.
On powering up, the Monotribe loads a factory sequence that ably
demonstrates its drum and synth capabilities. While you can easily
replace this sequence with your own, there’s only one memory slot,
which struck me as a tad odd considering that this is a groovebox,
albeit one that’s obscenely easy to program.
The sequence can use four tracks: kick, snare, hi-hat, and synth. The
kick, snare, and hat all have a lovely vintage sound, with a Kraft werk-like
thwip on the kick attack. Solid stuff . The synth track can be programmed
with or without “flux.” This is Korg’s term for the note values not being
quantized. When flux is active, you can have pitch swoops galore. When
it’s inactive, the pitches are discrete, even if they’re not part of the twelvetone
scale. This is perfect for electro bass lines and those Dutch house
boo-boo-boo riff s that Afrojack basically trademarked.
The Monotribe’s synth engine is very flexible, capable of both squelchy
TB-303-style riff s and warm ’80s retronica. The oscillator sports three
waveforms: sawtooth, triangle, and square. The saw and square deliver as
expected, but switching to the triangle raised an eyebrow. Technically, a
triangle wave consists of odd harmonics and sounds like a muted square
wave. Here, the triangle sounded like a sawtooth with really beefy low
end. Sure enough, viewing the recorded waveform in an audio editor
revealed that it’s a saw/triangle blend. In an instrument like this, that
makes a lot more sense thanks to the waveform’s bass emphasis. Beneath
the oscillator is a knob that allows you to add white noise to the signal for
classic techno builds and old-school electronic percussion.
The filter is absolutely wonderful—it’s creamy at low resonance settings
and ravey if you turn the resonance up. In fact, at its highest settings, the
Monotribe’s filter can shred tweeters and eardrums without breaking a
sweat, so beware if you’re on headphones.
Instead of de rigueur ADSR envelope parameters, the ’Tribe relies on a
simple three-position switch for its volume envelope. The three modes—
decaying, organ-style on/off , and softened attack—do a surprisingly good
job of covering the bases for a box like this. Diehards may disagree, but I
was fine with this design decision.
Finally, there’s a very clever LFO section that delivers both as a
modulator and a timbral resource, thanks to its ability to operate in the
audio frequency range. It can be applied to the oscillator, filter, or both
equally, and has three modes: fast, slow, and one-shot. Fast mode is rather
interesting, as it operates from 1Hz to 5kHz, so you can do everything
from wah-wah to FM effects. In addition, fast mode retriggers with every
note event, so pseudo tempo-synced effects are quite easy to conjure. Slow
mode is free-running and operates in the 0.05Hz to 18Hz range. The oneshot
mode is the clincher, though, as it forces the LFO to stop after half a
cycle, which lets it double as a really cool envelope effect, with the rate knob
seeming to affect things like attack, decay, and gate time simultaneously.
Speaking of gate time, the Monotribe lets you play the sequencer’s gate
duration via its ribbon controller when holding down the aptly named
Gate button. Better still, the ribbon gestures can be recorded as part of the
sequence. This is really freakin’ cool.
The back panel is shockingly well endowed. There are sync in and out jacks, a
headphone out, external audio input, quarter-inch audio out, and DC power
in. There’s no MIDI, but really that’s not that big a deal for the following
reason: The sync input responds to standard sixteenth-note audio pulses—
as long as they’re 15ms long. In fact, if you simply record the sync out as
audio, then crop one of the pulses, put it into your favorite sampler, and
play a straight sixteenth pattern, you’re in business. More than a little cool.
The sync I/O is also compliant with the Roland five-volt standard. Can
it trigger the sequencer in my vintage Roland SH-101 synth? Yessir. Can
it slave to my DR-110 drum machine? You bet. Between the sound and
functionality, the Monotribe feels old school through and through.
The inclusion of an external audio input is the cherry on an already
delicious sundae. With it, you can send another synth (or guitar) into the
Monotribe’s filter and VCA section, which allows insanely cool wah, gating,
and even ring modulation effects when the LFO is applied to the filter.
That said, the external input highlights an omission in the Monotribe’s
design: There’s no way to turn off the oscillator. Why is this an omission?
Because turning off the oscillator would let you create noise-only patches.
It would also let guitarists use the ’Tribe as an AdrenaLinn-style effects
unit. But since the oscillator is always audible, gated guitar effects are a
non-starter unless you don’t mind playing a duet with a synth.
So what do I think? Well, the week I got it, I used two instances of
Monotribe on a new remix for Gabriel and Dresden’s “Dust in the
Wind,” if that says anything. For a street price of about $250, the
Monotribe delivers honest-to-goodness analog for the price of a
good soft synth. Heck, you could buy two and get duophonic synth
voices over six-part drum grooves, thanks to the sync. Naturally, the
comparisons between the Monotribe and Roland’s classic TB-303 are
flying, so let’s just get this out of the way now: Forget hunting down
a 303 on eBay, go buy a Monotribe, and get happy. This thing is so
overqualified for our Key Buy award it’s insane.
09-2011 Korg Monotribe by KeyboardMag
PROS Fully analog signal path. Built-in analog drum machine. Gate time and
sequence length can be “played” on the fly. Can process external audio. Sync
in/out jacks let you sync Monotribe to another unit or vintage analog gear.
CONS VCA clicking can be heard at low filter cutoff settings. Oscillator cannot
be silenced for noise-only sounds or audio processing. Single sequence
memory is lost on power-off.
CONCEPT Analog groovebox, based on Korg’s Monotron and
POLYPHONY Monophonic synth voice plus discrete kick, snare,
SYNTH ENGINE Single oscillator with saw, square, and triangle waves;
noise source, resonant lowpass filter; VCA envelope with three preset shapes; LFO with
saw, square, and triangle waves.
PRICE List: $340
Approx. street: $250