Roland's TB-303 (the silver box that unwittingly sparked the acid house genre and was subsequently taken to a higher plane by the genius of Hardfloor), has for years been priced beyond the reach of most mortals. Clones of this, the most sought-after synth ever, come and go, but they're often too expensive themselves or lack that 303 spark.
Korg's Volca Bass is clearly a budget 303 but there's no shame in that. Acid for all? Yes please.
Volca Bass: how it sounds
Using the Volca Bass just for basslines would be a terrible waste. It can do great bass sounds but its potential goes way beyond that. The obvious thing to do is create some squiggling acid loops, which is incredibly good fun. If you're not playing live (here's one on Soundcloud we prepared earlier) you can do both: record a bassline, then record a wild, warbling melody and drop it over the top in whatever music software you're using. The ideal scenario would be a set-up with two or three Volca Basses synced to each other, where one did the bassline donkey work and the others got fruity with the filters. Seriously, because at this price that's a realistic proposition.
Volca Bass: how it works
Volca Bass controls
Volca Bass filter
Let's assume for now you've just got one Volca Bass. Even then you can still have three separate patterns playing at once because, unlike the Roland TB-303, it has three voices, each of which can be assigned to its own loop in the onboard sequencer. Each of those loops can be anything from one to 16 steps in length, and that's cool too because you can have a pattern based around an odd number of steps bubbling under a main 16-step loop. It's a neat trick to use when you want to break away from rigid 4/4 repetition.
However, those three voices all end up going through the same filter, and because that's the section that adds most character, they can all sound a bit "stuck together" when they come out of the dual-mono headphone output.
The Volca Family
This is not just another TB-303 clone. The Volca Bass is part of a family including the Volca Beats and the Volca Keys; a family that's sure to gain some new members soon. They work well as a team because they've all been designed simultaneously with a consistent vision. Thanks to battery power and a low-tech syncing system, virtually any number of Volcas can be joined up and played in harmony without the need for mains power, a computer or any other controllers. You'll probably want to put them through effects and a mixer, but built-in speakers mean that even that is optional. Because all the connections are on the top panel rather than round the back, they can be tessellated on a tabletop and used in the smallest of spaces.
Programming the Volca Bass
Volca Bass keyboard layout
Volca Bass key strip
Volca Bass front panel
Getting your notes into the sequencer is harder than you might expect, and it's not helped by the arrangement of the touch-sensitive keyboard. White notes are black, black notes are gold and they're all aligned in a single row, not offset as they would be on a regular keyboard. Perhaps adding stickers to the C keys would help in the short term (keys 4 and 16, in case you were wondering).
A damn good read of the "manual" is in order too, which will explain how to enter single notes or record in realtime. One of many economies that's been made with the Volca series is that you don't actually get a full manual but instead a sheet of paper with an annotated diagram of the controls in a number of languages. We suggest you download the PDF from Korg's website and view it on a tablet instead.
Fun fun fun!
It's quirky for sure, and not all the quirks are positive ones. For example, there's no way to export your patterns, so while you can save them to one of eight memory slots, once you overwrite them they're gone forever. But getting bogged down in what's not there would be missing the point. Remember what you're getting: a portable 3-voice analogue synth with a built-in sequencer for just over £100. That's unbelievably good value and it's incredibly good fun.
While it lacks a few TB-303 features, such as the Accent control, it still makes a superb 303 substitute and it's a powerful, versatile synth in its own right. For example, the ability to combine all three voices in three different ways, and to offset the tuning of each voice allows you to build thick, heavy lead synth sounds.
Korg Volca Bass: summary
Whereas the Roland TB-303 was a fluke, the Korg Volca Bass is a calculated, expertly crafted box of magic, albeit one heavily inspired by that fluke. Along with the Beats and the Keys, the Volca Bass is paving the way for a new wave of old-school music making. Leave the laptop at home, pack a few Volcas in a rucksack then go forth and filter.
Review by Tony Horgan.