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Korg do it again with an extension of the Volca range, the Volca FM has everyone jolly excited.
It's weird how FM synthesis has rolled with the times, back when it first appeared, it was the bees knees. Then it sort of became cheesy and out of fashion - too many klangy FM pinaos and horrid buzzy slap bass sounds. And now its another favoured synthesis method for great bases and interesting percussive sounds,pad and the like.
But between those extremes, there's a mine of wonderful sounds to explore. It's just that exploring them has been a painful process. Programming FM sounds is not a pleasant pastime generally.
Enter Korg with the Volca FM - a three voice, 6 operator, DX-7 compatible - yes you can load SYSEX banks and programs.
Volcas are very popular, the price, the immediacy and fun have made them an infectious pastime. There's a challenge with FM though, all those parameters are still unfamiliar.
The Volca Fm adds front panel controls for Carrier and Modulator portions of the sounds, which means you can sculpt the tone of the sound, certainly the attack portion which FM is so famous for quite easily. You can also change Algorithms - any of the 32 with a dedicated knob too.
This Volca adds a couple of extra features - an arpeggiator - with multiple patterns and a fairly comprehensive clock division control lets you get glitchy or not. There's also the Active Step Warp function - turn off active steps in a sequence and the remaining notes will be stretched to fit a full measure - great for polyrhythms. You also get a basic chorus function (on/off), ability to switch between poly (3 notes), Mono and Unison - which greatly thickens the sound for even bigger bass sounds.
Additionally, there's an octave control slider, and a velocity slider. This does however highlight one of the drawbacks I found with the Volca FM - it does not respond to velocity over MIDI, at least via the usual method - like when you hit a key harder or softer. Instead, you need to dial it in either using the Velocity fader (which you can automate with motion control) or from an external MIDI control.
This may well put paid to any plans you have to use the Volca FM as a sort of hardware FM module. It's a shame as FM is SO responsive to velocity, that it removes one of the major reasons to use it.
However, if you can get over that, you still can access any one of 32 internal programs, and assign them to any of the on board 16 patterns. Oddly, FM doesn't respond to program change either.. Ah well.
What you can do though is mine the literally 1000's of free banks of DX 7 sounds and send them into your internal memory - either as a bank or one program at a time using a suitable librarian (DEXED is good) or just SYSEX recorder/player (Snoize SYSEX Librarian is fine on OS X)
It is also possible to edit each program via the Volca FM menu system - thats right, all parameters are there, though it's about as much fun as programming a 1980s VCR.
I rather hoped that as the SYSEX format was the same we could use a generic DX7 editor (DEXED again) to access the parameters individually too, though sadly, and inexplicably you can't. I think there is a slight difference in the SYSEX format string, but haven't been able to fathom it, I'm sure that will be coming though, someone can build one in a generic MIDI control software.
What you do get is a lovely sounding FM engine with the classic Volca Motion Sequence - all knobs except program and tempo are recordable, meaning you can create some really wonderful moving FM sequences.
Saving patches and sequences is done using the Sync Out jack - memory is dumped as audio, you can save current/all sounds, current/all Sequences or Clone - all the memory. This can either go to a 2nd Volca FM for 6 voices, or into your DAW as audio backups.
Most certainly, the Volca FM is another hit for Korg, though I am disappointed about the velocity thing. Of course, some people think the whole Volca concept is not for them, in which case I doubt if this will persuade you.
Volca FM available now(ish) price £129/$159