Korg’s follow-up to the Minilogue includes features designed by Aphex Twin and newly developed analogue circuits with notable differences from its bigger brother. It’s not released until January, but Greg Scarth has spent the last couple of weeks getting to know it…
Over the last few years, it’s become standard practice for synth manufacturers to develop a single model into a full product range. Take, for example, Arturia, who gave us the MiniBrute, then the smaller MicroBrute, expanded the concept into the much bigger MatrixBrute and then took a sharp left turn with the announcement of the DrumBrute: the Brute name signifies not just a shared aesthetic, but also common synth circuitry and design philosophy. So here, less than a year after the Minilogue was introduced, the new Korg Monologue arrives looking like a stripped-down version of Tatsuya Takahashi’s hugely popular analogue polysynth. In the case, appearances are deceptive: internally, the Monologue isn’t just a cut-price Minilogue, but we’ll get to that in due course.
If you don’t know what made the Minilogue such an instant hit, get familiar with our review from earlier this year and our interview with its designer, Tats, because the shared DNA sets the framework on which the Monologue will inevitably be judged. Side by side with its bigger brother, the new synth is clearly from the same family. It’s smaller, of course, but there’s a similar front panel layout to the controls and an equally attractive wooden panel on the rear. The front panel itself is flat rather than curved like the Minilogue, but it still looks and feels like a quality piece of kit and as an added bonus it’s also available in a range of colours this time around. Overall, the Monologue possesses the same impressive build quality of the bigger synth, with solid, PCB-mounted potentiometers and the same OLED screen with built-in oscilloscope. The pitch bend slider even feels more solid and well-built than the identical control on my first-production-run Minilogue.
Switch the two synths on, and the comparisons become more complicated. It’s immediately clear that it’s not quite as simple as saying that the Monologue is a stripped-down version of the Minilogue with a few features missing. For a start, there are important differences in the synth circuits: the oscillators are largely similar to those of the Minilogue, but VCO 2 forgoes its pulse wave option in favour of a noise generator setting. Most notably, the filter is a new circuit. This time it’s a fixed 2-pole model as opposed to the two switchable units in the Minilogue, and its sonic character seems to fall somewhere in between the classic Roland TB-303 filter and Korg’s own MS-10/MS-20 low-pass filter depending on what you feed into it and how you modulate it. It’s best with the drive control pushed up slightly, giving it an aggressive, naughty tone. Turn up the resonance a little and it also moves into acid territory, squelching and burbling nicely in combination with the sequencer’s slide option. The drive control (which operates an analogue overdrive circuit right at the end of the signal chain) is effective, but I found myself wanting slightly more gain on a few sounds. In some cases it breaks up the signal quite heavily, but the intensity of the effect seems to depend a lot on other parameters.
The modulation section is quite substantially different to the Minilogue in practice, with a single (and basic) envelope generator to control amplitude, oscillator pitch or filter cutoff, plus an LFO to control pitch, wave shape or cutoff. Rather than the now-commonplace four-stage ADSR approach, the envelope can operate either as an AR type or ASR, with a third setting that routes the gate signal straight to the VCA, freeing up the AR envelope for modulation. The simplified envelope does feel like a cost cutting exercise (or possibly just a matter of fitting the controls into limited front panel space), and it would definitely have been nice to have more flexibility. There’s no doubt that it’s nowhere near as flexible as the Minilogue’s dual ADSR envelopes, but it still just about gets the job done well enough. On the other hand, the LFO is actually more powerful than the Minilogue’s, with the ability to operate at extremely high frequencies for FM sounds, or to act as a one-shot modulation source. All in all, the modulation section is certainly unorthodox compared to most modern synths, but it gets the job done. It’s really more a question of accepting its idiosyncrasies and learning how to get the most out of it.
Elsewhere, the delay circuit from the Minilogue is gone, but to make up for that omission you get an improved 16-step sequencer with a much better workflow than the sequencer found in the Minilogue. Korg seem to have drawn heavily on their experience from other products here, combining step sequencing with real-time recording to great effect. In addition to the basic note on/off and slide functions you’d find on most step sequencers, setting the toggle switch to its lowest position, Motion, allows you to access the four independent layers of ‘motion sequencing’ (Korg’s term for recording or programming automation of individual parameters). These can be recorded in real time or edited manually by holding down a step on the row of 16 buttons and then adjusting a parameter on the front panel. Visual feedback is much more prominent this time around than it was on the Minilogue, and the motion sequencing feels much more a part of the overall package.
With the ability to record and play back smooth, continuous parameter automation or discrete, per-step values, the motion sequencing capabilities on offer here feel like a simplified version of the parameter-lock approach found on Elektron sequencers, and the ability to create complex sequences with multiple layers of automation more than makes up for the lack of arpeggiator (the sequencer can create arpeggio-style effects using the “Key Trg/Hold” button, albeit only with a single finger input rather than by holding down chords). With the combination of the filter and sequencer, there’s more than a hint of Monotribe to the feel of the Monologue, but it’s a much more advanced instrument overall.
One of the big surprises with the announcement of the Monologue was that Korg had enlisted the help of Richard D James, better known as Aphex Twin, to help out during the development process. James has never been officially involved with the production of a synth before, so this is big news, even if it’s clear that his involvement hasn’t necessarily played the greatest role in defining the overall approach or sound of the synth architecture itself. There are two main areas in which he was involved: microtuning and presets. The former is still rare in hardware synths – especially analogue ones – but it’s implemented nicely in this case, with a number of scales and tunings to choose from (six by James) and five slots for user scales. Meanwhile, the presets are one of the most immediately appealing features of the synth. Of the 80 factory patches, the 30 by Aphex are undoubtedly the stars of the show, really demonstrating what the Monologue can do, with a particular focus on the microtuning capabilities and motion sequencing. As obvious starting points, ‘AFX bAss’ is a classic Aphex sound in its own right, coming to life with a little tweak of the drive control and filter settings, while ‘afx beats’ goes wild with the motion sequencing to create a full-on bleep’n’bass loop.
The Monologue doesn’t feel like a poor man’s version of the Minilogue. OK, if you want polyphony then you’ve got no choice but to go for the more expensive model, but the little monosynth feels perfectly complete, rather than ever coming across as a bigger synth with features removed. The synth architecture is remarkably versatile considering its simplicity. Beyond that, the motion sequencing plays to Korg’s strengths, making perfect use of a workflow which has been honed and refined for years across their product range.
When I first tried the Minilogue, it reminded me of the Roland Juno-106 in the sense of how easily it let you access its sweet spot. The Monologue reminds me of another vintage Roland classic. Just like the classic SH-101, it’s simple, user-friendly and surprisingly powerful despite what appear to be relatively limited synthesis options. It’s a basic but fantastically powerful synth with an inspiring sequencer built in. It can turn its hand to the same kind of powerful acid sounds and deep, heavy basslines, but just like the SH-101 it’s also got a weird side which can be exploited for experimental sounds and FX. Oh, and both come in a choice of colours.
If there’s one final thought to sum up the Monologue, it’s that it’s definitely not just a cut-down version of the Minilogue. It’ll be compared endlessly to the larger synth, but it deserves to be judged on its own merits first before you start comparing features. The price means it’s not quite such a must-buy as its bigger brother – after all, there are plenty of alternative analogue monosynths around this price point – but nevertheless it’s a great addition to Korg’s range and a synth with a lot of potential. I have no doubt we’ll be hearing a lot of it over the coming years.
Purchase: Korg Monologue