“With the Minilogue, Korg have set a new benchmark.” Greg Scarth falls in love with Korg’s new analogue synth.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s put the Minilogue in context. What you see here is the logical – and long-awaited – continuation of a development process that was first made public back in 2010, when Korg released the Monotron. That little unit was notable not just for the fact that it was an affordable, hugely fun instrument, but also because it was the first analogue synth that Korg had produced since the mid 80s, complete with a recreation of the legendary low-pass filter from the MS-20.
Korg have beaten rivals like Arturia and Novation to the punch, releasing one of the most desirable new synths in years at a price point that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
We’ve been anticipating the arrival of a new affordable analogue polysynth for at least four years, roughly since Arturia released the MiniBrute at the 2012 NAMM show. If Arturia could produce such a good monosynth at that price point, what was stopping them taking that idea to the next level and creating an affordable polysynth based on the same design principles? We’ve seen a number of polyphonic analogue keyboards on the market over the last few years, but aside from the flawed and largely unloved Akai Timbre Wolf, the serious options still retail for quite significant sums: in the region of £750 for the DSI Mopho x4, for example, or over £1,000 for the Elektron Analog Keys.
The Monotron, the Monotribe and the Volca series that followed were, in large part, the pet projects of Korg engineer Tatsuya Takahashi. Known to most as Tats, Takahashi is one of the rising stars of Korg’s design team, reinvigorating the company’s interests in analogue synthesis. The four-voice Minilogue is his brainchild, developed from the ground up rather than drawing on circuits from vintage Korg models. It’s Korg’s first foray into polyphonic analogue keyboards since the Poly800 mk2, but perhaps just as importantly, at its RRP of $499/£435, it marks something of a watershed moment in the synth market: Korg have beaten rivals like Arturia and Novation to the punch, releasing one of the most desirable new synths in years at a price point that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
The 37-key Minilogue is clad with an aluminium front panel, which combines with the smooth black plastic knobs and metal toggle switches to give a slightly 80s-home-stereo-system feel to the whole thing. The wooden rear panel houses a small selection of inputs and output, including headphone and line outs, audio in, sync in and out (mainly for compatibility with the SQ-1, Volca units and Electribes), 5-pin DIN connections for MIDI in and out, USB (for MIDI only – there’s no built-in audio interface like you get with the Roland Boutique synths) and an input for the DC power supply.
The synth architecture itself is fairly standard stuff but implemented with a lot of thought: two oscillators, a low-pass filter (switchable between 2-pole and 4-pole modes), two envelope generators and an LFO. The synth can operate in eight different modes – Poly, Duo, Unison, Mono, Chord, Delay, Arp and Sidechain – most of which are self-explanatory and all useful in their own way. Each mode is adjustable via the Voice Mode/Depth control. In the case of Chord mode, for instance, it scrolls through 14 different chord varieties, whereas in Duo or Unison mode it adjusts the amount of detuning between voices.
The keyboard is a SlimKey design, like the unit found in Korg’s ARP Odyssey reboot. In this case it’s also velocity-sensitive, unlike the Odyssey. Some will no doubt dismiss the Minilogue on the basis of the mini keys alone, but you’d be foolish to do so; I’ve got big hands, but the keyboard still feels perfectly acceptable to me. The usual complaints about mini keys relate more to quality than size; in the case of the Minilogue, the keys might be undersized, but they’re well built and responsive, with a nice, progressive feel and very little side-to-side play.
There are only two controls on the keyboard that I’d change. The first is the large knob that controls filter cutoff: it’s placed just slightly too close to other knobs for comfort, meaning that it’s easy to knock the resonance and envelope intensity controls by accident when reaching for it. The second is the combined pitch bend and modulation slider, which is the one control on the Minilogue that feels unpleasantly cheap. It’s got a loose feel in the central position and it rattles when moved.
In use, the synth the Minilogue reminds me of most isn’t a vintage Korg model, but the Roland Juno-106. There are only a few similarities in terms of the synth architecture (the Minilogue is better equipped in a lot of areas, with two oscillators to the Juno’s one, switchable filter modes and an additional envelope generator), but the common characteristic is the simplicity of dialling in usable sounds. It’s hard to make the Juno sound bad, no matter what you do. The Minilogue offers a bit more scope to push things into wild territory thanks to options like oscillator cross-mod and ring-mod, but it’s still incredibly easy to make it sound good. The 100 presets are the ideal starting point (mostly created in-house by Korg, but with a selection of contributions from Jimmy Edgar and Richard Devine too). Almost all of them lend themselves perfectly to dance production.
Full programs (that is to say, synth patches plus all the associated effect settings, sequencer patterns, voice modes and the like) can be initialised via the Edit Mode button below the OLED, but after a few days getting to grips with the Minilogue, I found that my favourite approach was to pick a preset as a starting point and then tweak it. The basic patches like ‘BassRide’ (a 303-esque acid sound), ‘PWM Strings’ (a classic analogue pad) and ‘DeepHit’ (a housey chord with delay) allow you to pick a sound in the general ballpark you’re after, then adjust it to create something more personal. There’s nothing unusual about that, but what’s impressive with the Minilogue is how easy it is to turn those presets into quite different sounds. Within a couple of minutes of adjusting parameters you’ll usually find yourself in new, uncharted territory, at which point you can save the program and build up your own bank of sounds in the 100 user slots (all of which are set to the simple sawtooth ‘Init Program’ by default).
The sound of the Minilogue is best described as classically-inspired without necessarily being distinctive
The sound of the Minilogue is best described as classically-inspired without necessarily being distinctive. I think most people would be hard pressed to identify the Minilogue in a blind test, but that’s not necessarily a fault. In the same way as the Juno-106, it’s the kind of sound that just works in any context without drawing too much attention to itself as being, say, brash and bombastic like an 80s Oberheim or bold and funky like a Minimoog.
The versatility of the synth engine gives you a lot of choice in terms of what kind of sound to aim for. The oscillators are very stable and accurate (the synth goes through an automatic tuning routine each time you switch it on, which can also be triggered at any time by pressing Shift and Record) but can be detuned easily for thicker sounds, either using the oscillator pitch controls or the aforementioned dedicated Voice Mode/Depth knob in Unison and Duo modes. The two VCF circuits sound quite distinctly different, and both are capable of being pushed into self-oscillation at high resonance settings (with the oscillator levels both set to zero in the mixer section and the filter’s key tracking switch set to 100%, you can play note-perfect melodies using the self-oscillating filter, which is a good sign that the VCFs also track accurately).
There are so many impressive things about the basic synth engine that the rest feels almost like an added bonus, but there are a wealth of genuinely useful features crammed in around the synth circuitry. The Minilogue’s ultra-intuitive programming interface only uses menus and shift buttons as a last resort, which means that the small OLED screen spends most of its time displaying an oscilloscope, which might seem a little gimmicky but turns out to be genuinely useful for visualising the effects of parameter changes on the signal. The built-in delay is a digital unit, very loosely modelled on the sound of classic tape echoes. It’s a great addition, which can also be pushed into self-oscillation at higher feedback settings, allowing for some freaky effects when you start playing the controls in real time. (Setting the delay to post-filter mode but with the delay feedback set to zero also allows you to use its integrated high-pass filter without the delay.) The 16-step sequencer is also remarkably good fun, bearing some similarities to some of the sequencers found in other Korg products like the Kaossilators and Electribes, with an emphasis on real-time looping and motion sequencing (recording automation for up to four parameters per sequence).
In case you hadn’t already guessed, I love the Minilogue. Quite frankly, it’s hard not to; this is such a fantastically well-realised instrument, with a simple but versatile synth architecture and a superb sound. There’s very little I’d change other than a smoother pitch bend lever and a bit more space around the cutoff knob. If I was being really picky, a hold button would be a nice addition to the arpeggiator mode, and how about a Juno-style analogue chorus effect? Those additions would be a bonus, but they’d also be likely to push up the price of. Ultimately, none of the omissions detract too much from the overall experience.
The Minilogue is a fantastic package with very few rivals at this point. What other comparable analogue synths can you purchase for this kind of money? It has to be second-hand, of course, unless you can afford to stretch the budget up to something like a Mopho x4. With a £435 budget, you’d be hard pressed to find a Juno-106 or a Polysix, but you’d easily be able to pick up a good condition Poly800 if you wanted something from Korg’s own back catalogue, or if you were really lucky you might be able to find a Roland JX-3P with the PG-200 programmer. We’re fans of both as far a budget vintage choices go, but they’re so much less user-friendly and so much more limited in their feature sets that it’s hard to make a particularly strong case for them.
With the Minilogue, Korg have set a new benchmark. It’s a superb instrument even if you ignore the price, but when you take into account the fact that it costs less than £450, it’s also incredibly good value for money. If this represents a new generation of synths, count us in. One thing’s for sure: it’s going to make a much better introduction to the world of synthesisers than that fiendishly complex DX100.
Purchase: Korg Minilogue
The Final Word
If the Minilogue represents a new generation of synths, count us in.