This review of the MicroKorg XL comes courtesy of Vince Jones...
MICROKORG XL - INTRODUCTION
The MicroKorg XL comes from Korg’s 'mini' line of devices and follows on from the massively popular original MicroKorg, which has been seen at a number of prestigious gigs including those of synth legends Devo and Jean Michel Jarre, as well as on Nick Rhodes' setup alongside a V-synth and an Alesis Andromeda, so it’s certainly keeping good company!
The MicroKorg XL is cosmetically a little different to the original MicroKorg. It has more of a ‘retro’ look to it with its black casing (although there are other colours available) and a simplified layout with big, chunky knobs and waterfall style keys. The Microphone on the MicroKorg XL is also more durable looking and plugs into a standard XLR socket on the top of the keyboard. It’s exceptionally light (it even makes an iPad seem a bit heavy!) and it can also run on batteries, so this is definitely a mobile instrument! Plus, internally it offers double the polyphony of the original Microkorg.
Playing the keys on the MicroKorg XL is surprisingly easy… being someone with chunkier fingers, mini keys can often be a problem, but Korg seem to have struck an excellent balance between size and usability and another little gem on the XL is that the keys are velocity sensitive.
MICROKORG XL - PRESETS
Presets in the MicroKorg XL are organised by genre and type; not your usual way of working but it’s interesting and fun, as well as a feasible and quick way of accessing sounds. There are 8 genres with 8 sounds in each and two banks, equating to 128 sounds onboard, and all of these sounds are user editable and can be overwritten. One of the biggest selling points (apart from that amazing MMT sound which we’ll get to) is the ease with which sounds can be manipulated and tweaked in real time. To keep the front panel clear and provide as much user interaction as possible, the MicroKorg XL uses a rotary ‘menu’ style system. Turn the editor knob to the right of the display to its starting position and you can define what the three knobs along the bottom of the matrix will affect. The next option down then allows you to tweak the filter type (continuously morph-able between 4-pole Low-pass to 2pole Hi-pass), cutoff and resonance. Next you have Amplifier Envelope generator controls for attack, decay and release, followed by the effect controls, arpeggiator controls and lastly, the full edit control.
Yes, despite its tiny appearance you can fully edit the MicroKorg XL using the front panel… this isn’t quite the ‘painting the hall through the letterbox’ procedure that it might initially appear. Those who are familiar with the Radias or any other Korg synth of recent years will find the terminology and voice structure anything from familiar, to a walk in the park… but the ease of editing doesn’t end there! Specialised software is also available to make it even easier to edit and store your sounds, as well as back them up.
MICROKORG XL - VOICE ARCHITECTURE
The ‘voice architecture’ is quite straightforward but the terminology might take some getting used to depending on what you have previously used. There are a maximum of two timbres available and these can be used singly, split, layered or as a multi (for multi-timbral use). Each timbre in the MicroKorg XL consists of a voice. Voices are made up of two oscillators, which pass into one or two filters (which can be routed in serial, in parallel, individually split or through just a single filter), followed by the amp stage before the signal reaches the effects (of which two are available). With three envelopes, two LFOs, virtual patch ‘cables’ (for modulation control), wave-shaping, EQ and effects, there is an awful lot of sound creation and shaping available at your fingertips in such a tiny package. You can also process external audio through the synth engine using the audio input on the back panel.
And what of those sounds? Well, as you’d expect from a synth of the Radias stable, the sounds are really something else! [B]The MMT technology of the Radias seems to give the virtual analogue sounds on the MicroKorg XL a real live and full bodied sound. The basses really do have a solid low end and the resonant filters are capable of everything from a squelch to a self-oscillating whistle. I found it extremely easy to produce anything from a Moogy bass, to a multi-saw string sound (using the unison oscillator mode), to weird spacey effects. Part of the beauty of the Microkorg XL though, is that it is no one trick pony. Because Korg have bred this one from the Radias stable, there are 64 PCM waves as well as traditional synth waveforms and modulation possibilities beyond standard VA fare. If steppy wavetables are your thing, then try routing an LFO, env or the modwheel to patch source 1 and the destination to waveform 1, control 2 and set oscillator 1 to a PCM/DWGS wave. Modulation will then step through the PCM waves a la Waldorf! Couple this with the glorious, silky smooth 16-band vocoder and you’ll be up all night getting the Microkorg XL to sing “Mr Blue Sky”!
If you take some time to go through a few of the presets on board, you’ll find that the time just flies by as you get caught up in the fantastic playability of the sounds and the Microkorg XL itself. Just a few examples: ‘A11 Synbrass’, the first preset, is very ‘Toto’ and the assignable controls make it quick and easy to take it from a gentle brassy pad to more of a cutting synth-brass sound. ‘A13 Robosync’, shows the harder side of the MicroKorg XL sound and I’m a sucker for oscillator sync sounds! ‘A14 Timeline’ will have you sounding like a new ‘80’s’ retro band in no time, while ‘A15 PWM string’ is your straight-down-the-line bright string pad. There are just too many to list, but ‘Ob Jumper’, ‘Pray Arp’ and ‘Trancer’ were a few more of my personal favourites.
For slightly less analogue-sounding patches, there are offerings such as ‘A25 Strings’ – a very Mellotronesque string patch and ‘A26 Acoustic Piano’, although this particular sound does not even close to the sort of piano that you’d expect on an M3 or a Kronos, although it is more than passable in a band setting (or for that good old house piano sound!)
MICROKORG XL - SUMMARY
I admit that I was surprised by the MicroKorg XL and I’ve not even covered everything in this review! I had an idea of what to expect having owned a Radias for a while, but the fact that so much is packed into this tiny box really surprised me, combined with the fact that it is so playable! The polyphony goes a surprisingly long way and little extras like waveform modulation on all waves and the drive options give you choices to produce sounds that appear to be using more than just two oscillators. I bought the Microkorg XL to supplement a two keyboard setup for live use, but I can see this being used with a controller for a starter band, as a mobile studio with a laptop or for a new breed of electro buskers, along with battery powered amps. It really is an XL in micro clothes!
For more information on the Korg MicroKorg XL or to buy one, click the link below: