We recently featured the KORG Volca FM in our 2016 Sonic Joy awards in the Best Fun Boxes category and, boy oh boy, this compact gem truly deserved it!
If you have already added a Volca FM to your setup, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, here’s a few considerations that just might convince you to make that purchase…
Why Should You Get the Volca FM?
1) It’s FM For The Masses It makes FM synthesis accessible and relatively easy to use. If you’re into ’80s electronic sounds and contemporary trends (Synthwave anyone?), sooner or later you’ll want an FM synth. If the notorious complexity of this technique makes you unsure what to get, the Volca FM is an ideal option.
It offers direct access to a handful of main parameters, which means you don’t have to be a scientist to program it. It sounds great and it even imports DX7 patches. It doesn’t come close to the polyphony of a DX7, BUT due to its smart design, the three voices become an inspiring limitation.
2) It’s VERY Affordable Unless you look for old second-hand items (with their pros and cons), the KORG Volca FM is probably the most affordable way to add some sweet FM sounds to your setup (with a device you can physically interact with, unlike a plugin or an app). Probably the best $159/£115/149 € (approx.) you’ll spend on a new instrument for awhile.
3) It’s Heaps of Fun Speaking of the instrument’s design, KORG engineers really made the most out of those few available inches. The velocity slider brings the same joy you get from tweaking your favorite synth’s filter cutoff knob. The arpeggiator – while basic – is heaps of fun (just try its note division control!) – AND you can create up to 4 bars of arpeggiated sequences! Last but not least, almost all of those knobs and sliders (yep, even the Transpose!) can be motion-sequenced. Sounds like fun? It is!
4) It Can Do A lot Last but not least, it’s a very flexible sound unit. Despite its limited size, the Volca FM can be used for plenty of things, from 3-note pads to solid bass and lead sounds, as well as for drones and experimental stuff (play with the tempo, the arpeggiator and parameters like the LFO!). Simply add some effects (my favorite being the Eventide Space or Eventide H9 – pure Nutella magic for this synth!)
How To Make The Most of Your Volca FM
1) Add Velocity Sensitivity
If you’re a keyboard player, the ribbon keys of the Volca FM are not exactly a pleasant experience. The fact is, you can easily plug in an external MIDI keyboard but it won’t respond to velocity. To work around this, I recommend the RK-002 from Retrokits.
The RK-002 is a sort of smart (or magical?) MIDI cable boasting a microprocessor that performs some nice tricks on the fly. This cable works with the Volca Sample, Volca FM, Roland Boutique synths, adding relevant functionalities (including extra controller mapping to key, aftertouch, pitch and modulation for various MIDI devices). Check out the page linked above to read more about the RK-002. It may not be cheap, but you have to remember this is not just a simple cable. Money very well spent here, trust me.
2) Import DX7 Patches and Edit Your Sounds
If you’re one of those musicians that wouldn’t think of using a preset, please skip this paragraph. Since FM synthesis has been around for decades, there are tons of lovely sounds ready for you to download and import on the Volca FM. This means you’ll need a computer and a piece of software to do the transfer. I recommend Dexed, a multi-platform, multi-format plugin synth, modeled on the Yamaha DX7. Among other features, Dexed allows you to load sound banks freely available on the internet AND export them to your Volca FM.
If Dexed seemss a bit complex and you just want to transfer single patches, try Retrokit’s web uploader.
If you’d rather use an iOS device to edit, organize and transfer your synth patches, look no further than Patch Base.
This app supports a huge list of classic and modern synths (including the DX7, of course), it offers iCloud integration and it’s even able to generate random patches.
This nifty piece of software enables you to control your volca fm inside Ableton Live, giving you control of the modulation matrix, the ability to generate new sounds on the fly with a randomization feature. FYI: it’s a beta version and more features will be added soon.
3) Get a Splitter Cable
KORG Volcas are quite addictive and you might easily end up getting more than one. Unfortunately, this also means having more power adapters and cables to deal with unless… you get a daisy chain splitter cable! Even if you only have two Volca units I would suggest getting one of these ASAP.
Now, how about a quality stand to play with your Volca? On the market, you’ll find plenty of models and I had a chance to try some of these out.
European customers should check out Zerack, a French company that offers beautifully crafted stands in wood, plexiglas and mdf, for Elektron, KORG, Roland machines and more. You can also order custom stands (note the stand below, with an extra Eventide stompbox and our logo!).
Quality stuff, friendly service, reasonable prices and short turnaround times, bravo!
The already mentioned KVgear has some of the most attractive premium stands money can buy (start from here).
The US company also offers the Stiletto Stand, a handy tool to place a Volca unit (or other compact devices) on a mixer, keyboard or console. It may not look as exciting as their full-featured stands, but trust me, sometimes an accessory like this can save the day!
Together with the Volca Sample (see our Volca Sample review), the Volca FM is the most versatile unit of this popular series. It has that lovely FM sheen, it’s affordable and can be an ideal companion for your couch sessions, as well as an integral part of a complex studio setup.
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