Korg VOLCASAMPLE Playback Rhythm Machine
- Swing function generates grooves. Reverse function lets you play samples backward
- Motion sequencer records and plays back up to 11 parameters
- Active Step and Step/Jump functions let you insert and remove steps
- Analog Isolator provides powerful and great-sounding possibilities
- Reverb Per Part Song mode for more dynamic performances
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The Volca sample is a sample sequencer that allows the player to edit and sequence up to 100 sample sounds in real time for powerful live performances. It's a powerful addition to any existing Volca setup, or simply on its own.
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That being said, I think this is a 5-star product...provided that you educate yourself in advance of what it does and doesn't do. It's an extremely small plastic box that runs on 6 AA batteries and features no slot for external media (USB, SD card, etc.). I don't know how you reasonably look at those specs and expect this to be a $150 mini-MPC. But if that were your expectation, yes, you'd be a little disappointed.
The Volca Sample is special from the other Volca machines in just how flexible it can be towards a variety of needs. You could load it up with acoustic or drum machine samples and have up 10 instruments loaded with 8-instrument/note polyphony. You could load up a series of tuned notes and generate a walking bass line using either motion sequencing/automation, or by setting the same sample to different pitches. Pitch control is handled very well on the Volca Sample, in my opinion. You can change pitch with a numerical up/down value, or by semitones (2 octaves down all the way to two octaves up). This is done by the speed knob, and while lower pitched notes are basically the same sample played back more slowly, you can edit sample length, decay, and other features to balance things out. In fact, the 4x4 matrix with mini knobs in the gray section are 16 step programmable sampling parameters for you to adjust. Not only can these be adjusted for each sample, but you can live record automation or program the changes to occur at different steps. Is it a professional caliber sampler? No. Is it accessible to all levels of users and deceptively powerful for a battery powered, affordable device? Absolutely.
SAMPLE EDITING & iOS INTEGRATION - Some of the biggest complaints about the Sample are that the device was marketed as requiring an iOS device to change and edit samples. However, I view that as one of the device's selling points, and an excellent 3rd-party app from the Caustic developer quickly emerged to allow even more power over sample creation and uploading (I believe this is also available for Android and PC). iOS integration is a strength of the Sample, in my opinion, because there is such an insane wealth of affordable music content in the iOS app store. The Caustic Volca Editor easily links up with an app called AudioShare to import samples stored on your device, or imported from a cloud service like DropBox. Aside from uploading obvious samples (like .wav files of 808/909 sounds available all over the web), you can create your own without leaving your iPhone or iPad and store them in AudioShare. For example, I recorded a simple C2 note in a great app called iFretless Bass, sent it to the Caustic Volca Editor via AudioShare, and had a pitch tuned electric bass sound available on my Sample, and the whole process took maybe a couple of minutes.
Some tips/caveats: Some people have complained about the 4MB storage limit on the Volca, which is admittedly quite small. The best way to deal with this is to use the Caustic or AudioPocket editor and identify some of the longer factory samples (1 second or longer) and target those to be replaced. There are 100 sample slots for storage, but whatever you upload needs to be in place of something else, so you can free up more storage that way. Generally speaking, the Volca Sample is better suited for "one-hit" brief samples like a drum, brass hit, or clap. Sampling can also involve longer clips like 5-second guitar riffs, but the Volca Sample really isn't suited to handle that.
The fact that patterns are limited to 16-step single bars is another oft-cited problem with the entire Volca series, but there are workarounds. You can set different patterns and chain them with Song mode, or trigger them with the ribbon keys. Part of the fun of the entire Volca series, however, is taking a very brief and straightforward musical idea and then mutating with filter sweeps, modulation, and effects. The Sample excels at that, and the sound quality is great (through headphones or monitors though, just skip the built-in mini speaker). I like the "Analogue Isolator", which is basically an fancied-up name for a 2-band EQ, but which allows for some additional tone shaping and automation possibilities.
MIDI ISSUES - Unfortunately, the Sample isn't controlled via MIDI the way you might expect it to be. My understanding is that the 10 different samples respond to different MIDI Channels (1-10), as opposed being triggered by separate pads/keys on a single MIDI channel. That's a bit of bummer, but less than the other Volcas, since Live Play actually responds quite well with the touch keys (and quantizes to nearest 16th note), and you'll spend most of your time programming grooves with the step sequencer anyway. It does not respond to velocity control, though you can set the "Level" for each sample.
One final note - I think some of the negativity for the Volca Sample comes from the fact that what it offers isn't as "rare" as the Keys, Bass, and Beats. There are desktop and even mobile sampling apps that do much of what the Volca Sample does, and perhaps even more cheaply. In that sense, it isn't the same "freak of nature" that my little Volca Bass is, belting out warm, analog tones from an inexpensive, battery-powered box. But that doesn't make the usefulness of the Sample any less impressive - this little box really can do a ton. While the other Volca devices surprise you with quality of their sounds, the possibilities with the Sample are limited by only your imagination and willingness to experiment.
UPDATE (06/28/2016): Just a quick update on my review to attach a picture showing how much of a giant nerd I am, as well as the versatility of the Sample. I created a micro-sized table showing all the instruments uploaded to the device, as well as a table showing how many semitones away different notes are (since I am pretty bad at music theory). All of my pitched samples are tuned to a "C" note, so it becomes pretty easy to generate basslines and simple melodies using these charts for quick reference. The Sample allows you to load the same sample in multiple instruments slots, and since you have 8-note polyphony, you could program chords or even set up a custom keyboard where each note is within the scale/mode of your song. Again, this more of a hobby/amusement for me than serious music production, but I love exploring what this little device can do and even pushing it do things musically that it wasn't necessarily "intended" to do.
Since the Volcas lack a song mode or chain playback, they part of a trend of performance instruments like the Akai Professional Rhythm Wolf and Tom Cat, or the Roland TR-8. Changing beats in a performance has to be done completely manually by holding the memory button and tapping the memory location. Unlike the Akai and Roland drum machines, the newly selected pattern will not hold until the last step of a current pattern plays out.
Creating beats isn't difficult, but the instructions should be read first before step recording and saving patterns to memory. Korg Electribe-style motion sequences may be recorded also for adding a dynamic character to the beats. This includes a stutter effect that can be quite fun and applied globally (all sound playing).
All the Volcas have a MIDI in that allows the unit to respond to MIDI clock, start and stop, note number (for voice triggering), and some control changes. Program changes cannot be made via MIDI. So, still no way to change patterns except manually during playback.
Analog synchronization with other Volcas, the SQ1 step sequencer for the MS-20 Mini, and even Teenage Engineering's pocket operators. However, the Volca clock pulse is constant and other synchronized instruments will have to be manually stopped and started.
For those who are not rhythmically challenged, the manual requirements for starting, stopping, and changing patterns liberate from creative performance restrictions. Otherwise, MIDI Solutions offers a four output MIDI thru box to start up to four Volcas on cue.
I own the other drum machines and instruments mentioned in my review as well as roomful of other instruments collected and played over three-and-a-half decades. I like the Volca Beats sound overall and the price is a very nice considering the cost of vintage instruments that tend to be less reliable. The Volca Beats is even more fun when linked up with its siblings, Bass and Keys, or an SQ1 driving the MS-20 Mini. The Volca Beats "retro" beatbox quality makes it choice for EDM genres like electro, house, and acid. Tweaking those knobs sure is fun.