Oct 19

The Korg Monotron Analog Synthesizer Review

I want to say straight away that this review is going to be a very positive review. This is because before I have even taken it out of the box, I have watched “a most excellent” You Tube clip. If you see this, no matter what I say below,  I am sure you are going to agree with the man that has said ” This just goes to show that limitations are far better for creativity than endless options”. What a wonderful statement and a very creative piece of film from what is basically the Stylophone of 2010.

Here is the clip, please watch this and read on:-

OK so now I have the excitement of taking this out of its box. I can’t believe how small this is, just right to take on holiday and play with whilst you are waiting for your flight. With the on-board speaker you can also annoy everyone else around you especially cats. The dimensions are  Width 4.72” , Depth 2.83” and Height 1.10”. That is what I call portable. As you open the box there are just three things inside, the Monotron, a brief fold-out manual and 2 AAA alkaline batteries.

So what is a Monotron? It has been a good many years since Korg released a true Analog Synth and maybe they are testing the waters with this tiny offering. The Monotron is a very small hand-held analog ribbon controlled synth and Korg have given it one VCO, one LFO and one VCF. Well these are meant to be the main building blocks to creating sound. Lets hope I can create something more than an American Police Siren from a B Movie.

I am sitting out in the Sun ,batteries in, I switch it on and the LFO rate knob glows red. With finger poised I start to make a sound. As I turn the LFO rate knob, the red light starts to pulse in time with the speed of the LFO. Well it wasn’t a Police siren that I created straight away but Birds tweeting. I suppose that is a start. Hold on I am just starting to sound like Gary Numan. I get the immediate feeling that this synth does a better job at effects than melodic pitch-perfect sounds. The LFO works very well and you can quickly have it pulsating like a helicopter, pushing the peak knob on the VCF gave me some raunchy growls with a touch of distortion. Using the Ribbon-controlled keyboard provided me with some sliding-glides and I managed to produce a realistic whistle.

The speaker is not as loud as I imagined, but given its size, it is not surprising. It is definitely much better with a set of headphones and so much better still when you use the headphone socket as a main output and amplify it in your studio. I remember being in a band where the keyboard player had a Korg MS10. I loved the sound of that synth and I am hoping to find some traces of it here. With only five knobs and one switch this looks to me like this could also be used as a teaching device to understand sound and analog synthesis. Like all Analog Synths you have to take into account that even the smallest tweak can alter the sound characteristics and take you off somewhere else and the Monotron’s tiny controls mean that extra care is required.

To assist you, Korg have a chart on-line that you can download and see how 6 sounds are setup and advice on how to use them.The six setups are for an 80’s pulsating Arp, a K-Arp, a Big Bass, a Talking Bass, Rocket Piano, and a Ray Gun, They also provide a blank template for you to write the settings down for patches you create yourself. This takes me back to the days when I had my Roland Juno 6. I had a go at the six sounds starting with the Pulsating Arp. I found that it is best to follow the diagram to get the rough layout of where the knobs should be and then slowly make very small adjustments and let your ears tell you the best positions.I think my Ray Gun turned out to be a Screeching Car – Great Fun. I think the person who said that “This is a Game Boy for Synth Fiends” completely understood the concept of the Monotron. The game is simply to create unique sounds and effects. An understanding of Oscillators and Filters can go a long way but despite you knob-twiddling skills in my opinion your ears are you best asset here.

The Monotron can only be powered by 2 AAA alkaline batteries as there is no option to power it by mains. On the back you will only find a couple of connections. There is an eighth of an inch single stereo auxiliary input. You can connect external devices such as CD players and process sounds through the filter with this. There is also an eighth of an inch headphone jack that can also be used as a standard output using one stereo jack, and a small disk dial for a volume control. Lastly you will find a small recessed screw which can be used to tweak the range of the ribbon keyboard.There are no MIDI connections, in fact the unit is not large enough for a MIDI connection.

The Stylophone was invented in 1967 and was larger than the Monotron. it had a Stylus attached to it to play the keyboard. I think Korg made the decision to make the Monotron to not resemble the Stylophone in anyway and therefore not provide a Stylus. I think this is a shame because the tiny Monotron keyboard is crying out for one. You cannot easily play melodies if you hands and fingers are large. Investing in a stylus is the best option here and you can pick these up very cheaply.

The LFO can affect either the oscillator pitch or the filter cutoff. You can adjust the speed and the intensity to create anything from a gentle vibrato effect to a massive sweep of a sound. The LFO re-triggers each time you touch the ribbon controller keyboard. I must say I can’t believe that this all comes from such a small box.

There is no doubt in my mind that the best part of the Monotron is the Filter. With the ability to put external audio through this, I decided to try it out on my Boss DR 880 Drum machine. I think this was by far the best fun and it made my DR 880 sound like a DR 202. I enjoyed this as much as playing with Korg’s Kaosillators. There really is not anything on the market with a filter this good for this price. Even if you totally forgot about the Monotron’s other attributes and shortcomings, the filter alone is worthy of this cost and whats more it is excellent. As I experimented with my drum patterns, I also discovered that the LFO was also usable to modulate the filter producing some crazy drum sounds. As I said earlier the LFO re-triggers each time you touch the keyboard and with my drum pattern playing, I managed to play a few bass notes. What I really liked about this was that the bass note took out the drum beat adding some unique syncopation to what I was doing. the result was stunning as I had a real drum and bass groove going. Whilst the filter gave that much needed character to my plain DR 880 drum sound, the bass added that extra ingredient to start pushing it towards song creation.

It is difficult here still to make that big decision as to which way the Monotron leans to either being a “Toy” or a “Serious Musical Instrument” as it seems to be a bit of both. It looks like a toy but as you have seen from the You Tube clip it sounds like a pro piece of kit. It certainly is not expensive and because of this most of the music stores quickly sell out. If the price ever drops, I think nearly every synth player (or person interested in sound creation) will want one for that sheer portable fun to use absolutely anywhere. For the person that is both a synth player and plays games on their iPhone all afternoon, then the decision to buy should be a no-brainer. For me I think that what has captured my interest and hooked me is its ability to process external audio through a great Korg filter. It is going to make a great Christmas Present if you can get your hands on one.

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