Sonic LAB: Korg Monotribe Review

Analogue Ribbon Station      26/05/11

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11:30 mins    


I cant remember the last time we got so much interest from a low cost soon to be released piece of gear, but if the comments from the un-boxing video  are a gauge then you lot are gagging for something like this - this being the Korg Monotribe - Analogue Ribbon Station (hey! they spelt it right..).

Its the big sibling of the Monotron - the single voice with the filter of the MS series, toy-like synth.
The Monotribe expands the single synth voice, adds an eight step sequencer plus three drum voices for a diminnuative groovebox that screams.

Questions, Questions
After we saw it at Musik Messe, there have been a lot of questions asked about what the capabillities really are. Lets start with the basics:
The synth voice is a single OSC - with SAW, TRI and SQUARE waves with range from 64” to 2” and a noise source.
The filter remains the same MS20 modelled Low Pass with Resonance.
There are three preset VCA Envelopes, decay, gate and attack, an LFO with three settings - Fast - for those audio frequency and bell-like tones, Slow - more traditional and 1Shot - which is triggered every time a key is pressed.  
You get three LFO waves: SAW, TRI and SQUARE, modulation can be routed to the VCF, VCO or Both with a variable amount.

Sonically its superior to the Monotron - with a quieter output, though there is still a little noise when battery powered - alas although the 6 AA were supplied - you don’t get a 9v wall-wart in the box.
The filter screams like the Monotron and the three waves give you some scope for tonal change. You can enter the hallowed territory of the 303, though you are missing glide (portamento) for that “I cant believe its not a 303” feeling.

Drums are fixed voices, Kick, Snare and Closed Hat - sort of analogey style, with no ability to change either the sound nor the level of individual voices (overall level is on single knob) - though if you are brave , there are labelled points on the circuit board for level and decay control.
They are well-  inoffensive - which may not suit all taste.

Eight steps, four channel - five if you count the gate length which can be overdubbed  separately form the notes. You program the drums in by step method - select the voice then hit the step buttons, the synth voice can be recorded real-time via the frankly rather inadequate ribbon keyboard - fine if everything you do is in C or Am. The interesting stuff starts to happen when you do either or both of two things:
Hit the Flux button - this decouples the synt voice from the 8 steps available and lets you freestyle - it records warts n all.
Activate the 8 Extra Steps -  holding any drum voice down reveals an additional 8 steps that fall between the basic 8 - so with use of clever tempo and resolution you can get 2 bars of beats.

Step Off
Another trick is the Active Step function - adjust the length of the sequence from 8 down to 1 and any length or combination of steps in between  - in practice it means tyou can to 3,5,6,7 step loops and flip around  - a handy little touch. Oh yeah, and you can save a single sequence which will load on power on.

Most excitement seems to have been around  the external interfacing options - with Sync IN and Sync Out ports. I can confirm that it will sync to 15ms Pulse - from your clock output or in my case the Korg MS-20 Trigger out, but I couldn’t get much joy with external audio signals from my DAW (say a synth click or metronome). However, I did get it to work by simply recording the sync out from the Monotribe and playing it back from the DAW - that was fine. Experiments connecting the synth to LFO clock and returning Triggers from the MS20 also worked fine.

Filter Me Bad
One area where it didn’t quite work as expected was the external audio in, while this is routed through to the filter and LFO, it’s triggered from the keyboard or sequencer gate - which means it is no longer possible to process external audio without it being mixed with the internal synth voice. In the Monotron, it was possible to feed an external signal in and just process it with the filter independently of the synth voice. This I feel is a bit of an oversight and limits the Monotribe’s applications.

Overall, the Monotribe is a whole lotta fun, the major limitations for me are the ribbon keyboard - its just impossible to play, and the external processing routing. I would love also to have seen some Control Voltage  in and outs for real analog compatibility - indeed there may still be some patch point on the PCB, but Korg remain tight-lipped about this one, no doubt preferring not to encourage potential warranty voiders or class actions.

The pricing still remains a bit of a mystery - in the UK we know its £199 RRP (£169 street), but at the time of publishing a USD price was not available.
The response to the unboxing video was phenomenal, so I suspect Korg will struggle to keep up with demand, despite it being a little too expensive for what you get in my opinion. But to be fair, anyone attempting to make a mass market analogue synth of any kind has to be applauded...



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17 Comments...  Post a comment    original story
Marc JX8P    Said...

Cool review! Also some great patterns that you were playing. Maybe it's time for some Sonic Loops? :-)

26-May-11 12:11 PM

spider-dan    Said...

I saw a video of a guy using the monotribe to process external audio without triggering the keyboard. I think he had all the steps selected and the sequncer was playing but no sound was coming from the VCO. Is this a possibility?

26-May-11 12:16 PM

Mattsynth    Said...

Too toy like for my taste.

26-May-11 01:07 PM

Benedict Johnson    Said...

Knowing Korg, they'll release a version with the 37-note mini-keys. I'd rather just wait for that.

26-May-11 01:31 PM

James L    Said...

Great review as always.

This looks like it would be a blast to play around with. Not sure if it would stay fun very long, though, because of the limitations.

And I'll 2nd the Sonic Loops idea!

26-May-11 07:52 PM

Nick B    Said...

Thanks for the comments guys - I'm pretty sure the ext in will not sound without the synth voice, the circuit diagram seems to support that.

27-May-11 05:06 AM

Eric    Said...

What are we supposed to do with this microscopic keyboard? I don't understand... What is the point of releasing a synth we can't even play?! Was it too expensive to make this ribbon controller at least 200% larger? or include a MIDI IN to plug a keyboard as an alternative?

27-May-11 07:43 AM

Rob willson    Said...

I can't understand why they don't just stick nano keys on the thing. As someone above said korg will probably release one sooner or later. There has to be room in the market for korg against a mopho or little fatty especially with the mass with their mass appeal. Perhaps these are korgs tentative first steps.

27-May-11 02:22 PM

coconut    Said...

Promising features, but... C'mon Korg! Please bring in an analogue mono-synth with a real keyboard. Not a toy ;-)

28-May-11 03:27 AM

s r dhain    Said...

i think this is a fairly versatile and useful bit of kit considering the price. Bear in mind that youve got a "proper" analog synth with a useable drum machine in there and an 8 step sequencer. there ARE limitations ( synth voice input scenario, for example), but its still very useable for the price.

28-May-11 04:36 AM

Dan    Said...

Monotron with rubbish drum sounds and limited sequencer. Just make a proper analogue synth for gods sake! Something worth paying for!

28-May-11 05:12 AM

hypertrance    Said...

Great review!

Lovely monophonic sound architecture, with analogue drum synthesis...

Missing Features: MIDI + proper keyboard + proper knobs/sliders!!!

30-May-11 02:29 AM

AnnaLogan    Said...

More hyped up crap from the one of the Japanese big 'three' synth manufacturers. What happened to these once great synth companies? I wouldn't spend my enemies money on this garbage. At least Akai is trying to stay 'semi-professional' (and barely so) while the other Japanese companies have lowered themselves to making overglorified ROMplers that outdate in a year and now, junk toys like this thing. Thank God we still have the likes of Dave Smith and Roger Linn out there, trying to release quality gear (albeit at quality gear prices), but you get what you pay for and I want musical instruments, not modern equivalents of an Atari or Speak and Spell.

27-Jul-11 09:25 PM

AnnaLogan    Said...

PS-ever notice how steep the learning curve has become on most of these little novelty gizmos synth-a thing a ma jigs? You pay 250 bucks for something without even a Midi interface and at the end of the day, it makes whoops, beeps and farts that you can whip up in ten seconds with any old 5 dollar Iphone app at a fraction of the time than it takes you to figure out the dumb manual and user interface on these little things. Sadly, again, you get what you pay for when the ease of use factor seems to be nonexistant on most of this hardware garbage, anymore.

27-Jul-11 09:29 PM

TeslaY    Said...

Wow, there is a lot of monotribe hate going on here... ( how many of you haters have in the past or currently own one? ) As with all electribe products the monotribe has sacrificed "feature overload" (hello Roland!) for useability.. I recently bought a monotribe and am very happy with it. I recently used it for the baseline on a dubby techno track and through a decent recording chain it held it's own with a jomox 999, machinedrum, and jupiter6... The monotribe is basic but what it does is pretty sweet... And it's cheaper then a lot lot of crap vst software!

27-Oct-11 01:30 PM

Sm    Said...

Anyone else a little confused as to why they have a pentagram printed on the circuit board?

31-Oct-11 04:39 AM

ATH315T    Said...

The sounds these things can produce are endless. Combined with some effects, you can make any kind of synth- keyboard- guitar- theremin- bass sound you can imagine. I've been messing around with the monotribe, kaoss pad quad, and a multitrack recorder for about a year now. It's always fun and direct.

Check out some of the things I've come up with on the monotribe.

22-Jul-12 09:30 AM

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