Saturday, February 11, 2012

Korg Monotribe Review

Click here for an a closer look at the Monotribe's front panel.
A couple months ago I got my hands on the Korg Monotribe, one of the newer members of the Monotron collection.  I figured it would be worth reviewing since it's recently had its software updated.  The Monotribe is basically a rethought version of the Monotron, the single-oscillator analog module, with more features added, including a sequencer for the synth and the added analog drum sounds.  The three drum sounds included are a bass drum, a snare, and a closed hi-hat.  The synth is a single oscillator with selectable waveform (square, saw, and triangle) with the classic Korg MS-20 low pass filter with resonance.  The synth is played by ribbon keyboard, which can be locked into key across an octave, played continuously across an octave, or set to wide mode, which can encompass the entire frequency spectrum of the synth on the ribbon.

Perhaps one of my favorite features of this synth is the fact that the LFO, which has square, triangle, and saw forms, can be set to one shot mode, which allows the wave to be completed just once.  This increases the depth of sound dramatically.  One of the "needed" sounds with a sequencer like this is the quick-snap funk-type filter modulation.  The one-shot mode can pull this off perfectly without an envelope.  Also, the triangle mode allows for great white-noise and pitch sweeps, again, without a real filter or pitch envelope.  There is, of course, three dedicated settings for the amplitude, which is nice as well.

Drum sequencing on the Monotribe is fun.  While there's only 8 visible buttons, the drum sound buttons can be held to access the even numbers of the 16 steps.  While I think the biggest miss here is the lack of an open hi-hat, the other sounds are still great, albeit non-editable from the panel.  They sound especially fat when properly recorded or heard through headphones instead of through the built-in speaker.  The drum sounds can also be modded for any of you tinkerers out there, but this requires soldering and some experience if you're going to try it.  The new software has added drum rolls, which can add some unique twists to your beat.  The tempo can fortunately be synced using the sync-in jack at the top of the synth to keep it in time.  Programming the drums are fun, but they definitely take the back seat to the synthesizer of the Monotribe.

The synth's oscillators sound great.  My only thoughts on the oscillators themselves are that the sawtooth and triangle sound a bit closer to each other than some other synths, but this is pretty small flaw.  The filter is nice and fat, and sounds great when other sounds are processed in it through the audio-in jack.  The LFO section has both slow and fast modes, with the fast modes reaching far into the audio range for some screaming synth modulation.  The slow mode can go down to half a hertz, so the slower modulations are also present.  With the newer software, the LFO can also become a sample and hold modulator, which can create some great sci-fi computer sounds.  The LFO can be tied to the cutoff, pitch, or both, with the amount editable.    As I said before, the oscillators and filter sound great, but as the Monotron taught us, can one really play a ribbon keyboard, even with great analog sounds?  This is part of the Monotribe's saving grace, which is the sequencer and pitch-lockable keyboard.  Some basic parts could be played on the ribbon keyboard now, but it sounds best when it's sequenced.  The sequencer was originally 8 steps for the synth, but can be switched to a full 16 with the new software.  The easiest way to record a sequence is to slow the tempo, play it on the ribbon keyboard until it's what you want, and speed it back up to the tempo you'd like.  Of course, it's probably a bit more fun to just experiment and tap away.  The synth sounds are locked into the 16 or 8 steps, but if you click the flux button, the sequence can be played out of the locked time, allowing for even more creativity.

So who is the Monotribe really for?  While it lacks a proper keyboard, it's definitely playable and fun.  I don't own any other drum machines, so it's fun to have a hardware drum machine to create on.  The sounds of the drums are definitely recording-quality, so I don't doubt they'll be used by artists around the world, but I can't imagine many would go through the work (unless they were just jamming away and recording) of syncing the drum machine to a project.  It would be easier to simply sample the sounds, which would allow for longer, more complex sequences, and I think that's fine for the price of the Monotribe.  Of course, if the drum sounds were editable from the front panel, this might be a must have drum machine for everyone.  Unfortunately, the Monotribe fits in a place where it's not essential to anyone-- it lacks a proper keyboard to be played live.  It works nice as a fun addition to a studio, but ultimately, it's beat out in many ways if compared to something like a used Dave Smith Instruments Mopho, which can go as low as 250 USD, despite it lacking the knobs of the Monotribe.  The Monotribe would probably be good for anyone who enjoys a simple creative station for drums and a sequence.  It would also be great for the hackers and tinkerers, as Korg has marked many of the patch points on the PCB board in the synth.  Of course, because of its full knobby nature, it could also help someone on a small budget learn some basic analog synthesis.

For me, the biggest thing missing from the Monotribe is MIDI.  While on one hand, it feels like they've packed alot into this little box and perhaps it was never designed to have any MIDI implementation, the truth is, it can easily be modified to have MIDI input. Amazing Machine's MIDITRIBE demonstrates perfectly that only a couple of components need to be added to get the Monotribe to respond to MIDI for both the synth and drum sounds.  The MIDITRIBE is priced at 75 USD plus 24 USD for shipping, putting it at 99 USD-- a price that is way higher than the components that create it.  So why wouldn't Korg add their own MIDI implementation, or at least a different MIDI model, for a few bucks more?  They obviously have the resources and people who could program it, so why should it take a small company to add MIDI to your Monotribe?  Seems like a fumble to me, considering the number one complaint people have about the Monotribe seems to be the lack of MIDI.  This video demonstrates nicely the capabilities of the Monotribe with added MIDI.

Overall, the Monotribe is worth looking into for its price, fat drums and synth, and creativity factor.  The 250 USD price tag is good, but this might be a must-have for everyone if it came down to 200.  I'd be lying if I said this wasn't an incredibly fun synth to play, and that's ultimately the reason I'd recommend it.  Hopefully this marks the movement of Korg into more analog synths though-- I know everyone out there is wishing for a proper analog monosynth, like a modern MS-20 without the vintage price tag.  Check it out if you're a modder, looking for a new simple creative station, or have a love for analog sound.

  • Incredibly fun to build sequences and ideas for tracks on
  • Awesome fat analog drums and synth with a great filter
  • Simple, knobby interface with more playability than the Monotron
  • Gives hope for future Korg analog developments
  • Lacks MIDI, although it can be added with an easy non-solder purchasable mod
  • Missing an open hi-hat in the drum sounds
  • Ultimately a non-essential piece of gear
Final Say:

1 comment:

  1. 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.