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.
So much for so little
When you see it in the flesh you'll be surpised at just how small the Volca Beats is, so to give you a rough guide, the front panel is about the size of a 7in tablet. Into that space, Korg has found room for 26 knobs and buttons plus a 16-step keypad. Many of the controls are backlit, which helps if you're playing in a live venue or around the campfire, as we were when we took this pic. Yes, thanks to a built-in speaker and the option of AA battery power, you can take the Beats wherever you go.
Volca Beats: the analogue sounds
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.