Sonic LAB: Korg MicroSampler Reviewed

US A sampling keyboard for all      25/09/09

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    MP4 13:26 mins

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Korg's latest brace of product announcements has generated a whole bunch of excitement amongst music makers. The idea of introducing an actual hardware sampler after we've already learned -  that software really is the only way, to go seems bonkers right? Perhaps not, lugging along your computer and audio hardware every time you want to fire off a bunch of samples seems like a bit of an overkill in some situations doesnt it?

Here's the Korg microSAMPLER then, a mini sized - think microKORG or microKORG XL sized sampling keyboard with Kaoss Pad effects algorithms and a 16 pattern sequencer.

Okay then, lets have a look...

What you get:
37 mini keys  of fixed assignment - no octave shift or pitch or mod wheels
Each key has an LED above it for easy viewing of edit parameter or triggered sample.

14 voice polyphony

Connections: Headphones, stereo out, stereo line in, mic in with provided Gooseneck mic, MIDI IO and USB.

: 8 banks of 160 secs @24-bit 48kHz mono dividable amongst 36 samples per bank (or less) in mono, or stereo with dialable sample rates of 48kHz, 24kHz, 12kHz and 6kHz.

Thats around  of 22.4MB sample RAM for live use and 179.2MB for storage - it's all built in. No slots for SD cards or the like, but you do have the USB port for hooking up and feeding/saving sample and bank data to and from the computer using the inclded editor.

When you consider just how cheap sample RAM is these days, that seems a little on the low side. But interestingly, it didnt feel memory light when in use, but still, I'm sure with the price of RAM these days it could have had a bunch more in there without too much of a hike..

There's also a Kaoss Pad derived effects processor in there. Now don't get excited, while it's fine sounding and covers a lot of ground with its 21 algorithms, its not got the pad style effects control. Rather, you get a couple of assignable knobs for realtime control of the key parameters. Pretty much all the effects have some BPM or time based sync capability so they will all tie in nicely to your master tempo should you require.

Operation - Can I Have A go?
Parameter access and editing is taken care of with backlit Edit button (all buttons are backlit btw), then selecting the required parameter using one of the 37 keys - each key has a parameter above it - while still holding the edit key - making it a two handed operation. Additional parameters and value are handled by two knobs on the far right. It is possible to just dial up the parameter via the top of the two knobs, but this highlights a slight issue - sometimes, I found it hard to "aim" the knobs at the right parameter/value - I would have liked to have seen a +/-  pair of buttons somewhere.

A La Mode
With the washing machine style Sampling Type select knob, you can choose from five sampling types:


Auto looping from start to end of sample
plays to sample end (release set to 127)
plays only while key is pressed
select a range of keys, set a time division based on BPM and auto slice
samples while key is pressed, play additional keys to auto create next sample

This is quite handy for quick sampling, it's worth noting that all samples sampled in any of these modes can have their loops switched on or off or their release turned down to behave in GATE mode.

A note on loops: they are really only of the from start to end repeating type. You cant create loop points within a sample and you can't create crossfade loops either. If you want seamless loops for playing keyboard type sounds, then you'll be better off creating your samples in a DAW or audio editor and dropping the samples into the microSAMPLER using the Editor. Incedentally, the USB connection also turns the unit into a MIDI interface so you can play both the microSAMPLER and the MIDI out port as well use the keyboard to play your DAW and reciev input from the MIDI in.

Inputs to the sampler can be either the stereo line in (or mono), the included gooseneck mic, or resample. This takes the live output of the microSAMPLER wether it be a sequence playing, keyboard trigger including effects, and samples that - this is a really key feature and one that allows multi-layering or bouncing if you will.

Once the samples are in memory, they can be played either via triggering their assigned keys on the keyboard or, if you switch to Keyboard Mode, over the range of the keyboard.
What is nice about this feature is that you can set one or more into continous loop mode with the Loop Hold button, switch to Keyboard mode, then select a sample suitable for pitched triggering and play that over the top.

Stretch It

There are other rudimentary sample editing functions, such as pitch, truncate, reverse, normalize etc  but probably the most useful is the BPM sync feature, it has two modes: Timestretch and Pitchshift - Timestretch will do a maintain the pitch and change the tempo based on the tempo change made by the tap tempo  or master BPM setting. If you enable Timestretch, the voice count is reduced by 50% to 7 concurrent voices. This is pretty light and in some ways highlights the limited processing resources this keyboard has. The stretch algorythm is pretty good though, unless you take it to extremes.

Sequence It
The last of the main features is the on board pattern sequencer, with 16 patterns per bank and 99 bars per pattern, it's reasonably capable. You can either record into the device realtime and overdub - with basic quantize, or work up your sequences in your main sequencer and import them into memory via the editor software. You also get to assign which (if any) sample will play in keyboard mode per pattern. This is pretty handy, mainly because, when playing a pattern and attempting to select which sample you want to use to play over the keyboard, the display keeps reverting back to the sequencer display, making it hard to select the correct sample.

Bank It
Each of the eight banks stores sample data, effects settings and sequencer patterns, so the whole lot is  recalled in one go. Storing is quite a swift process, but if recalling a full bank of memory with a lot of samples can take several seconds (I counted 10). This seems a little high considering the small amount of RAM involved, but you'll just have to get the singer to tell a joke or two.

My major gripes are: No way to mute the sampling input - if you are using this as a performance sampler, how can you avoid feedback?  Your mixer feeds the sampler, but your sampler is in the mix, unless you send on an Aux or bus and mute the sampler output or the source. They really should have allowed you to mute the input when sampling to avoid this issue.

  The microSAMPLER is not going to be a sampling workhorse for you if you require large string libraries or hours of storage, but as a simple loop replay device or maybe sound effects trigger for a theatre production, it could really fit the bill. Where the microSAMPLER's strength lies is in the ability to quickly set up loops or phrases. With some careful planning and arrangement, I dont see why it couldn't run the show, negating the need for a laptop - assuming you dont need to run a LOT of audio and backing vocals etc.  

Available now $750/£449 RRP - much cheaper on the street.




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