A true titan of the modern pop world despite its diminutive stature, the MicroKorg has carved out a pretty impressive niche for itself over the years since its launch in 2002.
It’s easy to see why; bundling a truly powerful and impressive analog synth modeling engine into a highly portable package that can even run on AA batteries, the MicroKorg brought a professional-quality synth to the market at a price point suitable for indie musicians and bedroom producers.
Built on Korg’s extraordinary DSP analog modeling engine, it is a sonic powerhouse with almost endless editing possibilities and a huge, warm sound. The MicroKorg is no low-budget slouch though. As at home in a sweaty basement club as a huge arena, it has graced stages worldwide with legends like Janet Jackson, Beck, the Foo Fighters, and Chromeo.
You will have heard the MicroKorg on a whole host of your favorite records. If you want a slice of the pro synthesizer world in your hands there are few better places to start, and if you’re adding to your synth collection, the biggest question is why you don’t own one already.
The MicroKorg is, by definition, small. It is less than 21” long and 10” deep, and it weighs practically nothing, just under 5lb without batteries. On first impression, it is hard to believe that something so little can create sounds so big. Korg has packed a huge range of features into such a small package.
The Back Panel
Looking at the rear face, you’ll find a pair of 3.5mm outputs for stereo signal, with the left side being the mono send. There is also a 3.5mm headphone jack port.
You get two audio inputs, with audio input one specifically designed to drive the vocoder engine. Input one has a 3.5mm input for a dynamic microphone or any other instrument, so you can plug your favorite SM57 or even a guitar right in, but it also has a mini-jack connection for the condenser mic that comes bundled with the MicroKorg itself.
You can select which of these two ports is in use with the mic/line slider switch. Audio input two is a 3.5mm line input, and both have independent volume controls so you can prevent clipping.
The MicroKorg is designed to play a role at the heart of your synth set-up and, as a result, it has a classic three-port MIDI arrangement on the rear face, offering options to send your MIDI signal into the MicroKorg, out, and also through. This gives you a load of options with regards to running your MIDI signal in your rig and is a very versatile arrangement.
Finishing off our look at the rear of the MicroKorg, you have the on/off switch and the connection for a 9V DC adaptor, which comes included with the MicroKorg. There is also a dock for the bundled condenser microphone.
The View From the Front
This is where the fun begins. Looking at the MicroKorg’s front face, you will immediately see that there are a lot of knobs and buttons. These may appear overwhelming at first, but they are arranged logically once you understand their functions. There is a central LCD screen that functions as a display for a whole host of different parameters.
It displays which patch you have currently selected, but it also gives you information when editing sounds, showing you what values you have assigned to a particular parameter; for example, when editing a timbre, the display changes to show you which waveform you have selected for your oscillator.
It’s a little restrictive and you may need to refer to the manual to understand what some of the abbreviations mean, though they are generally self-explanatory, and over time they become very familiar. The display is appropriately bright for use in live settings.
Twist and Shout
There are six knobs on the MicroKorg that enable you to make real-time granular adjustments, those being for master volume, set on its own to the far left, and the bank of cutoff, resonance, attack, release, and tempo.
All the real-time knobs are the same size and offer the same physical sweep, which makes getting to grips with adjustments very easy and intuitive. These real-time knobs are also multi-functional. As well as acting on those main parameters, they also edit the values listed in the table beneath them.
Three other knobs act as selectors for different parameters. The largest is the program selector, which sits to the left of the LCD screen. This allows you to choose which bank of sounds you are using, all of which are labeled on the front panel and which we will discuss in more detail later in this review.
The other two are the editing knobs in the very center of the MicroKorg’s face. Clearly labeled again, these knobs select which parameter you are adjusting with the real-time knobs, which is cross-referenced in the table to their right. This system makes for easy and intuitive patch editing, without having to memorize any complex menu systems.
Push the Button
Next up, there are a collection of grey square buttons with various functions. Starting from the left of the fascia, there is the arpeggiator on/off button with its attendant LED. This button lights up to show you that the arpeggiator is active, and the LED displays the tempo it is running at.
Beneath that, you have two octave selector buttons. These allow you to pitch up and down three octaves in each direction, with each octave lighting up the button in a different color. This is super-handy on a dim stage and makes octave changes very easy.
Next to the main program select knob is a bank button, which switches between the sub-banks within the program you have selected. This synthesizer is packed with sounds, and this makes it simple to navigate to the one you want.
Beneath the program selector, you have eight numbered buttons that fulfill two purposes. Firstly, they select the patch from the bank you have selected. They also allow you to program arpeggiator patterns as an eight-step sequencer, and they light up to show which steps are selected.
Underneath the main LCD is a pair of buttons. The write button is used to save your edits to patches, which is fairly self-explanatory. The shift button provides access to a collection of hidden functions, including canceling that save process, selecting which timbre to edit, and turning write protection on and off.
The last button is the formant hold button, which gives you a powerful tool to use with your vocoder. Essentially, this button lets you capture and freeze a sound from your input, effectively sampling it for playback.
Wheels and Keys
The MicroKorg has a simple set of control wheels to the left of the keyboard for pitch bending and modulation control. The pitch-bend wheel is spring-loaded and returns to the center when released. The mod wheel is not, and allows you to perform smooth mod sweeps.
The keyboard itself is small, as you would expect from a chassis this size. Rather than limiting the number of keys too much, the MicroKorg has a 37-key sprung keyboard that offers a great tactile response.
It’s velocity sensitive too, so you can bring out the dynamics of your playing. Velocity can also be used as a patch source, meaning that you can use it to modify other aspects of the sound than just volume and tone.
The one issue with the keyboard on the MicroKorg is that it is not spacious at all. If you’re used to playing on full-size keys, these can feel quite poky and restrictive.
However, they are a decent width and the sprung response is appropriate to their size, which means that after you acclimatize to it the keyboard is very playable. It’s nifty for leads and basslines, and because it covers three octaves it gives you lots of range for laying down pads.
Playing the MicroKorg
Now that you’ve got the physical measure of the instrument, the next thing to do is to play it! The first thing we’ll cover is the different programs available so you have an idea of the sort of sounds the MicroKorg comes with straight out of the box. Then we’ll take a look at how you can change those sounds up while playing using the real-time knobs and arpeggiator, and then follow that up with some information on editing.
Get With the Program
The first step is to select your sound. A quick spin of the program selector knob will show you quite how varied the MicroKorg’s pre-installed sounds are, ranging from thumping trance and techno to smooth hip-hop leads and basses, and a great selection of retro sounds too.
Each bank has 16 programs within it for a total of 128 sounds (more if you have a later edition of the MicroKorg like the MicroKorg S, which has 64 additional programs). To select them, simply move the selector knob to the bank you wish to use and press the numbered button to select the program.
The bank selector button toggles between the A and B sides of the bank you have selected, and the LCD shows you the program you are using. Say you want to choose the third program from the B side of the electronica bank.
You would turn the program selector knob to electronica, press the selector button to choose the B bank, and then the third button on the numbered strip to choose program three. The display would then read B.33, and you’re ready to go.
One of the greatest things about synthesizers is the ability to shift your sound as you play, and the MicroKorg makes this easy.
The bank of small knobs above the editing table enables you to make changes on the fly, be they subtle tweaks to blend your sound better or huge filter sweeps for a dramatic impact, perfect for epic builds and big drops. It’s an intuitive and adaptable arrangement that is simple to learn if you’re a newbie and is familiar to seasoned synth players.
As you turn the knobs, the current value for the parameter you are adjusting is displayed on the LCD screen, ranging from zero to 127. This helps you keep track of where your preferred position is.
Because of the deep editing possibilities offered by the MicroKorg, you can assign the mod wheel to change a huge range of parameters. This gives you another way of modifying your sound while you’re playing, but be aware that the mod wheel doesn’t have a value read-out on the LCD screen.
The arpeggiator is a great feature of the MicroKorg, allowing you to create driving rhythmic pulses or shimmering pads. It’s easily activated with the button, and simple to edit in the menu.
You can set the tempo either manually via the tempo knob or by using an external MIDI clock (similarly for any other tempo settings). You can also change whether or not the arpeggiator latches (carries on playing after you release the keys) in the arpeggiator settings section of the menu.
Meet Me in the MIDI
The MicroKorg is a highly functional MIDI controller. Most of its controls can be mapped to MIDI signals, making it perfect for running an Ableton rig or similar. It also accepts MIDI control inputs, enabling you to set global tempos and trigger events from an outboard MIDI controller.
One of the most powerful and attractive features of the MicroKorg is its vocoder. Plugging in either the bundled microphone or one of your choice enables you to use your vocal as a carrier signal.
The selection of vocoder presets included runs the gamut from classic to slightly off-beat, and they’re all editable in the same way as any other program. This is a hugely powerful tool for adding interesting vocal effects to your music.
Editing programs on the MicroKorg is relatively easy, though the lack of screen space is a little frustrating at times, and the Korg software for editing is not exceptional. The basic workflow is to select the parameter you want to edit using the edit select knobs and then modify it with the real-time adjustment knob that aligns with it in the edit table.
You can edit every aspect of a sound, starting from the waveform and building upwards. Then, having made your edits, saving them is simple. Just turn off write protection by pressing shift-eight and turning the tempo knob until the LCD screen says off, and then press the write button twice.
Once you get this workflow under your skin, it’s very intuitive and powerful. The only other gripe with editing programs on the MicroKorg is that you can’t do it on the fly while performing, but for the sake of the ease of use of the rest of the functions and the small form factor it’s an understandable omission.
The MicroKorg is a perfect expression of the concept that good things come in small packages. Sonically versatile, easy to use, and packed with features in a tiny, portable frame, it’s as close to a must-have item as you can imagine in the world of synthesizers and at a price-point that makes it viable for almost everyone.
A rare example of an instrument that offers entry-level accessibility but is also beloved by professionals worldwide, the MicroKorg should be on your list of synths to consider.