Maximizing Your Korg Volcas for Recording and Performance

While many Korg Volca module owners are attracted to the little guys for their great sound and attractive budget value, it’s likely they aren’t the workhorses in a musician's live setup or a producer’s studio. But if you have Volca or are thinking of acquiring one, we’re here to convince you otherwise.

The Volcas, whether paired with each other or other hardware (or software, for that matter), are incredibly complementary pieces of kit. They sync well with each other and, with a little effort, also sync well with other types of hardware. So there really is no reason that the Volcas cannot become nice focal points in a studio or live setup, whatever genre sandbox the musician or producer tends to play in.

Volcas As Serious Sound Generators

For budget gear, the Volca instruments pack some serious sonic character. They may look like Casio gear of yore. They may not rise to the complexity and beauty of, say, a Teenage Engineering OP-1, but these little guys are so much more than they appear to be at first glance.

Take the Volca Beats, Korg’s diminutive but excellent drum machine. It’s a minor miracle that something that sounds so good can still be so cheap ($159.99). The Volca Beats’ all-analog circuitry does an impressive approximation of the classic Roland TR-808. It’s not meant to be an exact simulation of an 808, but something in similar sonic territory.

Some message board trolls will split hairs over its snare sound, or perhaps the limitations of its 16-step sequencer. But well-placed effects and equalization can enhance the snare, while the same—plus some DAW-based sequencing—can bring out the drum machine’s hidden depths.

The newer Volca Kick analog kick generator provides yet another aural dimension to the kick sound with circuitry modeled after Korg’s much-loved MS-20 filter. It may seem absurd to drop clams on a bass drum machine, but remember that it’s giving you a broader spectrum of sound. And one can never have too much variety when it comes to kicks.

At the end of the day, what musicians and producers have with the Beats and Kick are the raw foundational sounds for authentic house and techno beats. And beyond this, some clever tweaking and signal processing can achieve more contemporary possibilities, whether that be for the studio or live performance.

The same goes for the 3-voice paraphonic Volca Keys and monophonic Volca Bass analog synthesizers, as well as the Volca FM digital synth. Taken together, these three synths give musicians and producers a very broad palette of sound sculpting capabilities. And if you want to add even more sonic variety, there is the Volca Sample, a sampler and sequencer that comes with 100 onboard samples, which can be paired with an iOS app to record and input samples in real-time.

Each of these Volcas has a 16-step sequencer, and, like many of Korg’s newer products, they can be put together via the Sync inputs and outputs, or via MIDI. Even if you were to purchase all of the Volca products, new or used, you would be getting a wide variety of synthesized sounds for far less than, say, a top-of-the-line monophonic or polyphonic keyboard synthesizer.

Augmenting Volcas with Pedals and Digital Effects

Each Volca’s sound can be amplified and manipulated far beyond its modest size with effects like reverb, delay, EQ, and various types of modulation, whether it’s via hardware effects (rack units and pedals) or VSTs in a user’s DAW. With rackmounts, a multi-effects unit like an Eventide or Lexicon might be the best option in bringing the best out of a Volca.

The pedal route, with an abundance of major and boutique brands, offers near endless sound sculpting possibilities. Pairing the Volcas with select pedals from Strymon (the Big Sky, for instance), Earthquaker Devices, Walrus Audio, or Dwarfcraft’s line of effects would result in some amazing soundscapes. And they would work equally well in studio or live performance environments.

The Hologram Electronics Infinite Jets Resynthesizer, which samples and reinterprets individual notes and chords, would be a more radical way of augmenting the Volca arsenal’s sonic palette. Another radical approach to processing the Volca series would be to run them through an Eventide H9 Harmonizer Multi-Effects Pedal, which allows users to augment the signal with custom effects algorithms.

Interfacing the Volcas with Each Other

Apart from the Volca line’s inspiring and budget-conscious sonic profiles, interfacing them is one of the main draws. In fact, it’s criminally easy.

Each Volca has Sync inputs and outputs (3.5mm TRS jacks), which lets you easily daisy chain them together for tempo and LFO sync. The Sync jacks also let users sync the Volcas to some other Korg gear, like the Minilogue and Monologue analog synthesizers. Assuming one obtained each Volca, Sync would allow one to pretty quickly make them function in a quasi-modular way, like some hybrid analog-digital audio organism.

It must be noted, however, that the Volcas’ one big design flaw—a compromise made to keep it small and mobile—is that they aren’t fully MIDI capable. That is, the Keys, Kick, Bass, FM and Sample each only feature MIDI In, not MIDI Thru or Out. For some, this limitation is a non-starter.

But as many YouTubers have demonstrated, this limitation isn’t so bad when one considers how easy and seamless the Sync function is in creating songs in the home studio or when performing live.

Another way around the limited MIDI functionality is to do a DIY hack on the Volcas to give them MIDI Out. There are a number of videos and websites that dive into this DIY process, but just remember that hacking the Volcas voids their warranties.

Strategic Volca Module Pairings

With interfacing locked down, the real fun begins. This is where you can really figure out what two or three for rhythmic, melodic, and tonal sculpting.

Pairing the Volca Beats and Bass, for example, gives you an instant two-pronged techno machine. If you’re after that original Detroit Techno vibe (notable for Roland TR-808s, TB-303s, SH-101s and even the Sequential Circuits Pro-One), dial up a four-to-the-floor beat on the Beats, then program the Bass’s sequencer and fine-tune its modulation before running it through some effects like reverb.

Adding and cutting, even if they’re minor alterations, yield really interesting results. And very quickly the Beats and Bass will take your song from Belleville Three territory to early Warp Records stylings.

Combining the Volca Kick and Beats is another intriguing option—one that will take your beat-making into more experimental or multi-layered vistas, as one hears in the music of Aphex Twin, Autechre, Burial, M.E.S.H., and others.

Aphex Twin - CIRKLON3 [ Колхозная mix ]

First, lay down a basic with the Kick, then sculpt its sound and sequence it to your liking, before adding the Beats for more complexity with functions like motion sequencing, stutter effects, active step, and step jump. And if you really want to get silly with beat-making, throw the Volca Sample into the mix, whether you’re using onboard samples or ones you’ve loaded onto it via the iOS app.

Of course, while these modules clearly excel at techno and other various genres of dance music, any kind of electronic music is possible with them. Take the Volca Keys’ three-voice chords, the Volca Sample’s multi-layered arranging, and run them both through some hardware or software effects.

You can get anything from intriguing ambient soundscapes to ‘80s New Wave, J-Dilla-esque hip-hop, Flying Lotus and Animal Collective’s distinct strains of electronic psychedelia, or whatever else you want to try. The Volcas may have some technical limitations, but this should not at all stop you from experimenting freely.

Interfacing the Volcas with Other Gear

The Volcas’ limited MIDI functionality makes it somewhat frustrating to interface with other gear, but not impossible. If you want to connect a few (or all) of the Volcas with samplers and synthesizers, in addition to a laptop running your DAW of choice (Ableton, Logic, and so on), use a MIDI splitter or interface to control and sync all of this gear.

As noted above, pairing the Volcas with a Korg Minilogue results in some very powerful music-making possibilities. Want to make music like Boards of Canada? Pair the Minilogue, which brims with inspiring potential for dreamy psychedelic sounds and rhythms, with the Volca Beats and plenty of effects (reverb and the Z.Vex Instant Lo-Fi Junky for that wow and flutter sound).

This configuration would also get you on the road to the sounds of experimental electronic musicians Oneohtrix Point Never and Tim Hecker. Maybe throw in the Volca Sample if you want to upload and warp vocal samples in the vein of BoC, Flying Lotus, and The Avalanches.

As hinted at above, combining a Volca with an Infinite Jets Resynthesizer, which mangles notes and chords in so many different ways, is a really inspired approach. On its own, the Volca FM (inspired by Yamaha DX7’s legendary FM sculpting capabilities) already produces all sorts of intriguing tonalities and sonic juxtapositions. Pair this little puppy with an Infinite Jets and, truthfully, you will very quickly achieve a wide variety of new and unique sounds.

Oneohtrix Point Never - Problem Areas

Since the Volcas can send and receive clock through their Sync inputs and outputs, they can also be integrated with a eurorack modular setup. Whether you make modular music like Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s folksy electronica, or NIN’s harsh industrial sounds, this ability to get the Volcas into the mix would definitely prove useful.

One way of integrating the Volcas with eurorack gear is to set the Volca up as the master clock, then output it to a sequencer that controls the modules. Other Volca users have modified or circuit-bent their Keys, Bass, and Beats to integrate with control voltage (CV), which allows it to communicate better with modular gear. (Again, this voids the Korg warranty, and you better know what you’re doing.)

Some people in the eurorack community like to process samples on the Volca Sample—or any Volca for that matter—using their modular setup. If this setup sounds intriguing, it’s probably best to get in contact with modular gear makers, or shops that sell modules, as they will be able to better instruct you on the finer points of getting all of this gear working as harmoniously as possible.

Buying Guide: Korg Volca Series
Explore the popular synth series and find the right model for you.
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