Dovetailing with the ground-breaking Volca Beats and Volca Bass, the hyper-portable Volca Keys brings chords and melodies to the party. And while the Beats and Bass steal the show, this third member of the band is the one that completes the picture.
First let's bat away any suggestion that the Volca Keys is just a toy. It's built to the same £120 pricepoint as its playmates, and yes, in order to get there it's had to ship with a Stylophone-style keyboard, but that doesn't matter because its analogue circuits are capable of creating some fantastic sounds.
Volca Keys in action
In this video it's tempo-locked to a Volca Beats via the 3.5mm sync connection that allows you to chain a few Volcas in sequence and play them, in perfect time, without any other gear. Even so, you'll probably want to put the Keys through some sort of effects processor, and here it's running through a cheap reverb and delay unit, set up to add some skippy swing and echo effects.
Volca Keys: how it sounds
On its own the pint-sized Keys can sound a bit harsh, depending on how you tweak the array of front-panel knobs, and it can also get quite loud when it gets excited but you can run it through a compressor to keep its volume in check. It can also sound very warm and soft, partly thanks to the analogue filter which transforms screeching squelches into warm, fuzzy blobs of ear candy.
For the benefit of anyone wondering what all the fuss is about when it comes to analogue synths, have a quick listen to the classic Stella by Jam & Spoon and its beautifully evolving chord pattern. That's analogue in a nutshell, and so is the Volca Keys, offering us a grid of mostly tiny knobs that say "Tweak me."
Actually, they don't say that. They say things like "VCO" and "EG INT" which isn't very helpful to a beginner but they're standard synth terms, so if that means nothing to you (Voltage Controlled Oscillator and Envelope Generator Intensity, by the way) you can either read up on them or just start playing and see what happens. Whether you know what you're doing or not, you'll feel like a mad scientist and appear to onlookers to be at least 40% more intelligent than you actually are.
Volca Keys: what you get
As a partner to the Beats and Bass, the Volca Keys works well because it can play three notes at once over eight 16-step loops. That means you can add chord sequences or secondary basslines and additional melodies. Programming it from the touch-sensitive keyboard isn't easy but it can be done with patience, especially if you wind the tempo down while you're poking your notes into the internal sequencer.
While the keyboard is only two-and-a-bit octaves in length, you can still access the full scale by notching it up or down in single octave steps. A knob on the top left of the panel switches the way the three voices are combined, allowing you to flesh out simple melodies with automatically generated notes an octave or five notes above, or to add metalic ring modulation effects.
Tricks and treats
For all the jargon, the Keys is quite a basic synth at heart, so it's great to see how it's been embelished with a variety of tricks and features to expand your music-making options. It's possible to record your adjustments to many of the controls, so that when your sequences are played back you get the filter sweeps and other tweaks you made as part of the performance.
If you want to perform live you get a helping hand in terms of timing, so when you switch from one pattern to the next, the Keys changes the pattern but starts it from whichever step would be next in the sequence based on where you are in the current pattern. That means you won't be sweating about missing a beat if your timing isn't bang on. Another neat addition is the ability to set the length of the pattern to anything from one to 16 notes, so you can create a loop of say, five steps, which can be dropped over a 4/4 drum pattern and weave its way in and out of the main time signature without ever sounding wrong.
One of the less successful elements is the built-in echo (or Delay) effect. It should mean that you could confidently play the Keys without plugging into any external effects boxes, but the poor sound quality means it's likely to be bypassed by many users. If you're not too bothered about a clean sound it can be put to use for creating lo-fi special effects.
You can't have it all for £120. MIDI output is one of those things, so while you can control the Volca Keys from an external keyboard or a sequencer, you can't export patterns you've programmed on the unit for use at a later date. That is unless you get handy with a soldering iron and make your own MIDI Out modification, which is possible.
Failing to bundle a mains power supply would usually be a serious offence but Korg just about gets away with it here, including batteries that enforce the mobile, go-anywhere ethos that's set out by the internal speaker and sync chaining system.
Volca Keys review summary
It's overshadowed by the Beats and Bass but the Volca Keys is an obvious next step for anyone who's been bitten by the Volca bug. In the few weeks we've lived with it, it's risen in our estimation from an also-ran to a dark horse, a secret weapon that can be used to deadly effect.
Review by Tony Horgan.