Sonic LAB: Korg Monotribe Review

US Analogue Ribbon Station      26/05/11
    MP4 11:30 mins    

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I cant remember the last time we got so much interest from a low cost soon to be released piece of gear, but if the comments from the un-boxing video  are a gauge then you lot are gagging for something like this - this being the Korg Monotribe - Analogue Ribbon Station (hey! they spelt it right..).

Its the big sibling of the Monotron - the single voice with the filter of the MS series, toy-like synth.
The Monotribe expands the single synth voice, adds an eight step sequencer plus three drum voices for a diminnuative groovebox that screams.

Questions, Questions
After we saw it at Musik Messe, there have been a lot of questions asked about what the capabillities really are. Lets start with the basics:
The synth voice is a single OSC - with SAW, TRI and SQUARE waves with range from 64” to 2” and a noise source.
The filter remains the same MS20 modelled Low Pass with Resonance.
There are three preset VCA Envelopes, decay, gate and attack, an LFO with three settings - Fast - for those audio frequency and bell-like tones, Slow - more traditional and 1Shot - which is triggered every time a key is pressed.  
You get three LFO waves: SAW, TRI and SQUARE, modulation can be routed to the VCF, VCO or Both with a variable amount.

Sonically its superior to the Monotron - with a quieter output, though there is still a little noise when battery powered - alas although the 6 AA were supplied - you don’t get a 9v wall-wart in the box.
The filter screams like the Monotron and the three waves give you some scope for tonal change. You can enter the hallowed territory of the 303, though you are missing glide (portamento) for that “I cant believe its not a 303” feeling.

Drums are fixed voices, Kick, Snare and Closed Hat - sort of analogey style, with no ability to change either the sound nor the level of individual voices (overall level is on single knob) - though if you are brave , there are labelled points on the circuit board for level and decay control.
They are well-  inoffensive - which may not suit all taste.

Eight steps, four channel - five if you count the gate length which can be overdubbed  separately form the notes. You program the drums in by step method - select the voice then hit the step buttons, the synth voice can be recorded real-time via the frankly rather inadequate ribbon keyboard - fine if everything you do is in C or Am. The interesting stuff starts to happen when you do either or both of two things:
Hit the Flux button - this decouples the synt voice from the 8 steps available and lets you freestyle - it records warts n all.
Activate the 8 Extra Steps -  holding any drum voice down reveals an additional 8 steps that fall between the basic 8 - so with use of clever tempo and resolution you can get 2 bars of beats.

Step Off
Another trick is the Active Step function - adjust the length of the sequence from 8 down to 1 and any length or combination of steps in between  - in practice it means tyou can to 3,5,6,7 step loops and flip around  - a handy little touch. Oh yeah, and you can save a single sequence which will load on power on.

Most excitement seems to have been around  the external interfacing options - with Sync IN and Sync Out ports. I can confirm that it will sync to 15ms Pulse - from your clock output or in my case the Korg MS-20 Trigger out, but I couldn’t get much joy with external audio signals from my DAW (say a synth click or metronome). However, I did get it to work by simply recording the sync out from the Monotribe and playing it back from the DAW - that was fine. Experiments connecting the synth to LFO clock and returning Triggers from the MS20 also worked fine.

Filter Me Bad
One area where it didn’t quite work as expected was the external audio in, while this is routed through to the filter and LFO, it’s triggered from the keyboard or sequencer gate - which means it is no longer possible to process external audio without it being mixed with the internal synth voice. In the Monotron, it was possible to feed an external signal in and just process it with the filter independently of the synth voice. This I feel is a bit of an oversight and limits the Monotribe’s applications.

Overall, the Monotribe is a whole lotta fun, the major limitations for me are the ribbon keyboard - its just impossible to play, and the external processing routing. I would love also to have seen some Control Voltage  in and outs for real analog compatibility - indeed there may still be some patch point on the PCB, but Korg remain tight-lipped about this one, no doubt preferring not to encourage potential warranty voiders or class actions.

The pricing still remains a bit of a mystery - in the UK we know its £199 RRP (£169 street), but at the time of publishing a USD price was not available.
The response to the unboxing video was phenomenal, so I suspect Korg will struggle to keep up with demand, despite it being a little too expensive for what you get in my opinion. But to be fair, anyone attempting to make a mass market analogue synth of any kind has to be applauded...


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