• Volca Beats analogue drum machine

    Korg Volca Beats

  • Volca Beats drum machine
  • Korg Volca Beats LED lights
  • Korg Volca Beats analog sounds
  • Korg Volca Beats
  • Korg Volca Beats PCM sounds
  • Volca Beats Active Step
  • Korg Volca Beats Stutter
  • Volca Beats CV Sync
  • Volca Beats modifications
  • Volca Beats test
  • Volca Beats analogue drum machine

    Korg Volca Beats

  • Volca Beats drum machine

    Korg Volca Beats

  • Korg Volca Beats LED lights

    Korg Volca Beats controls

  • Korg Volca Beats analog sounds

    Volca Beats knobs

  • Korg Volca Beats

    Korg Volca Beats

  • Korg Volca Beats PCM sounds

    Korg Volca Beats digital sounds

  • Volca Beats Active Step

    Korg Volca Beats Step Jump

  • Korg Volca Beats Stutter

    Volca Beats Stutter control

  • Volca Beats CV Sync

    Volca Beats MIDI port

  • Volca Beats modifications

    Korg Volca Beats, fat sounds

  • Volca Beats test

    Korg Volca Beats review

One third of a trio of analogue grooveboxes, the Korg Volca Beats is an incredibly compact and affordable drum machine, and despite its amazingly low price, it sounds brilliant.

The Volca series is set to change the way electronic music is made, dragging technoheads away from their computer monitors and mice, refocussing hands and eyes on physical knobs and buttons. The Volca Beats has clearly been inspired by Roland's long-discontinued TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines (just as its triplet sibling the Volca Bass harks back to the Roland TB-303). This is a very good thing, as those are the two best drum machines ever made. They'll fetch anything from £1,500 to £2,500 on eBay these days. The Volca Beats is available for £120. Well, in theory at least; the intial production run sold out on pre-orders alone, so newcomers might have to wait a few months before they can get hands-on.

Analogue meets digital

Those drum machines were at the heart of the electro, hip hop, house, acid, garage and techno movements that stemmed from the mid-to-late-80s. The TR-808's calling card was a huge bass drum crafted from a pure analogue sine wave. The Volca Beats uses the same technique to generate its bass drum and the results are stunning. Analogue synthesis is also used for the snare drum, toms and high hats, while the remaining four sounds are digital samples.

Volca Beats: the analogue sounds

Korg Volca Beats LED lights

Korg Volca Beats controls

Korg Volca Beats analog sounds

Volca Beats knobs

You get just eight built-in drum sounds but each of these is tweakable in a number of ways, so while the Beats does have its own "sound" and character, there's still a lot you can do to stamp your own mark on it. That kick drum has controls for Click (to increase or reduce the tiny click at the start of the sine wave), along with Pitch and Decay. This lets you take it from a sub-bass "Booooooom!" to a much tighter "Pop!", although even at its highest pitch the kick drum is still right down in the lower registers. In fact, it's so low pitched that it can be tricky to balance it up with the other sounds if you're monitoring through headphones or a small sound system.

The snare pinches the Snappy control from the 808, which turns it from a discreet knock to a trashy splash, especially when combined with the Pitch and Decay knobs. Still in analogue territory, the high and low toms also get their own Pitch and Decay controls which makes them deployable as an alternative bass drum or tuned percussion that can double up as a bassline of sorts.

The analogue high hats are again reminiscent of the TR-808, so rather than sounding realistic they have more of a vintage rhythm machine character. Decay controls allow you to adjust them from a short, clipped "Pst!" to a longer "Fizzzzz", and a Grain knob alters their pitch in a quite endearingly lo-fi fashion.

Volca Beats: the digital sounds

Korg Volca Beats

Korg Volca Beats

Korg Volca Beats PCM sounds

Korg Volca Beats digital sounds

The rest of the sounds are digital sound samples (referred to as PCM sounds here). That needn't be a bad thing – Roland's TR-909 used both analogue and digital sounds to brilliant effect (here's a video of Jeff Mills being absolutely awesome with nothing but a TR-909) but in the case of the Volca Beats this is where some disappointment sets in. The hand clap is just fine and very similar to the 909's, which is one of the best hand claps ever. Each of the digital sounds can be adjusted with a pitch control, and in the case of the clap this works well. However, the clap, claves, agogo and crash sound as if they're stored at a very low bit rate. This seems an unecessary step to take in this age. Despite the current nostalgia for the 8-bit era, nobody ever really liked the sampling noise you got on low bit-depth recordings (these sound as if they're recorded below 8-bit resolution), and anyone who thinks they did clearly didn't understand the technology.

Aside from the noise, the claves and agogo are handy for adding clinks and bonks, but the crash cymbal is a total let-down, more akin to someone dropping a teaspoon in a kitchen sink than walloping a big cymbal.

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Performance tricks

Volca Beats Active Step

Korg Volca Beats Step Jump

Korg Volca Beats Stutter

Volca Beats Stutter control

Live performances can be enhanced with a few other tricks. The Stutter controls re-trigger the current sound (or all the sounds at once) at timed intervals depending on how much you dial up the pair of knobs. It can be used as an echo effect or to add some very welcome swing or shuffle, breaking the robotic rigidity of the 16-step patterns.

Those with swift fingers and accurate timing can also employ the Step Jump and Active Step features to skip beats, shortern loops and add fill-ins, but these should be used with caution as it's easy to mess up your time signature. In the right hands they can be used to great effect.

MIDI and Sync

Volca Beats CV Sync

Volca Beats MIDI port

You can play the Beats purely as a standalone machine or synchronise it with other gear. There's a MIDI In port which means the Beats can be played or sequenced from any other MIDI controller or a computer running music software, but no MIDI Out nor MIDI Thru. However, there are also Sync In and Sync Out connections, which use a 3.5mm audio cable to send or receive timing pulses. These connections come into their own when you combine the Beats with its siblings, the Volca Bass and Volca Keys, which have identical connections. All three (or even more than three) can be daisy-chained and locked to the same tempo. You can even use Korg's free SyncKontrol iPhone app to set the tempo and add some swing.

What's missing?

Volca Beats modifications

Korg Volca Beats, fat sounds

To get this much drum machine for just over £100 is amazing, but to reach that price Korg has had to make some compromises. For example, there's just one audio output, which carries a mono signal that's doubled to both stereo channels. The lack of separate outputs for each sound and no dedicated volume control for each sound means that balancing everything up can be quite a challenge. Batteries are included but if you want a mains power supply you'll have to buy that separately, and cost savings are evident in the teeny knobs and flat, touch-sensitive key strip. Still, if you're handy with a soldering iron you'll find it relatively easy to add a MIDI Out port and perhaps other control enhancements.

Verdict

Volca Beats test

Korg Volca Beats review

Of course the Volca Beats can't compete with a genuine TR-808, and at this price is was never going to do that. However, there's nothing even close to the Beats for this sort of cash and hardly anything close at any price. Along with the Volca Bass and Keys, the Beats is sure to inspire a new generation of music makers. What we love most about the Beats is that it frees electronic musicians from the blinkered tedium of modern laptop tinkering and brings performance back to the front.

Review by Tony Horgan.

Stuff says... 

Korg Volca Beats review

A diddy drum machine with a huge sound, the Volca Beats is an instant techno classic
Volca Beats analogue drum machine

Korg Volca Beats

from £120.00
Good Stuff 
Analogue sounds
Very low price
Portable
Realtime knob tweaking
Bad Stuff 
No separate outputs
No MIDI Out/Thru
Power supply not included
build
0
design
0
features
0
sound
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