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Digital Subscriptions > MusicTech > May 2019 > KORG Volca Modular £179

KORG Volca Modular £179

Want to get into modular synthesis and explore the more intricate ‘West Coast’ sound without spending a fortune? We say ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ again…

Korg isn’t afraid to do something a little bit different – that, we should all know by now. From my first experiences testing its original Wavedrum, some 25-odd years ago, I know the company can and does like to release curveball products.

On first inspection, its latest Volca Modular – the latest in a line of devices that focuses on particular aspects of sound making, like bass, beats, kick drums and so on – appears to be ‘just’ a patchable semi-modular synth. And it’s probably aimed at those starting out in modular synthesis. I mean it’s less than £200, after all. Korg confirms this by describing Volca Modular as “a semi-modular analogue synthesiser that makes modular synthesis more accessible and understandable than ever before”. Yet Volca Modular is very much focusing on what has been labelled ‘West Coast synthesis’, perhaps the more complex variant of modular synthesis, which deserves some further explanation.

Key features

Analogue monophonic semi-modular synth with multi-touch controller keypad

Eight modules: Source, Functions, Woggle, Split, Dual LPG, Utility, Space Out and Sequences

Sequencer: 16 parts, 16 patternsConnectors: headphones (3.5mm stereo mini jack), sync In and Out (3.5mm), CV In (TRS mini jack)

Power: 6x AA battery (supplied) or KA-350 AC adaptor (optional)

Battery life: 10 hours

Included: sync cable, pin cable for patching (1 set), module reference sheet

Dimensions (W x D x H mm): 193 × 115 × 39

Weight (g): 377 CONTACT


History has probably already exaggerated the ‘versus’ aspect of this so-called synthesis battle between the USA’s East and West Coast. Really, it was just a few synth pioneers experimenting with different ways of manipulating sound electronically in the 1960s, who just happened to be on opposite sides of the United States. In New York, Bob Moog was working on the synthesis we all know and love: subtractive. Think oscillators generating square, sawtooth and pulse waves, with filters sweeping across them. From there, the signal passes through a Voltage Controlled Amplifier (VCA) and envelopes to shape pitch, filter and amp characteristics.

It’s subtractive synthesis in its purest form. On the West Coast, Donald Buchla (think Doc from Back To The Future, if you like) had clearly got his kicks on Route 66 and was opting for a wilder approach to synthesis. West Coast synthesists like Buchla and Serge Tcherepnin opted for a complex oscillator which could act more like a pair, with one (modulator) varying the frequency and amplitude of the other (carrier). Another West Coast angle might employ a wave folder that could be applied with a shaping function to alter its character. Often, a Low Pass Gate would refine frequency and amplitude, tweaking a little like a filter and reacting like a VCA with control voltage applied. Add a 2-stage AD/AR Function Generator, rather than 4-stage ADSR envelopes, and the resulting sounds would generally be more percussive, random, experimental and dramatic than the smoother, more predictable results from subtractive synthesis. So Buchla was, perhaps, more experimental, while Moog was a more ‘one note, one speaker rattle’ kind of guy.

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About MusicTech

Many, many years ago, when pop music was in its infancy, artists would record at multi-purpose recording facilities that were typically designed simply to capture the live performances of the bands and artists. During the 1960s, when pop music had seized the mantle as the dominant entertainment medium in popular culture, bands such as The Beatles and The Beach Boys grew frustrated by the limitations imposed on them by the technology of the time. Their desire to sonically innovate (not to mention the genius-level work of the producers and engineers they worked with) spearheaded the advancement of multi-track recording technology, as well as several techniques and recording approaches that are still widely used today. In our cover feature, John Pickford examines how much of this classic technology was used – and how we can replicate those approaches today in our own home studios, using very faithful recreations of key kit from decades gone by. Elsewhere this issue, we learn more about the art of stem mastering from London’s Wired Masters; discover how an effective understanding of social media can hep you grow your audience; talk to a range of producers and engineers (including the Grammy-winning Darrell Thorp) and review all the latest hardware and software. I hope you enjoy the issue.