Drum machines have played an important role in the history of modern dance music. Originally designed to accompany practicing musicians or to replace session drummers in the studio, the drum machine was adopted by electronic dance music in its early years and has been a staple of the genre ever since. Analog drum machines in particular, like the legendary Roland TR-808 and TR-909, have been so widely used that their sound is ingrained in the very fabric of dance music, and these units sell for multiple thousands of dollars even today. This fascination with vintage analog gear (and the sequencers that made them so easy to use) has not gone unnoticed by equipment manufacturers, and the new Volca line by Korg represents what may be the very best value in newly produced analog gear.
Specifically, the Korg Volca Beats is a unit which emulates (or perhaps I should say channels) the Roland TR-808, and to some extent the TR-909, while eschewing the title of “clone” and instead proving itself as a powerful and innovative drum machine in its own right. Before I jump into the Volca Beats’s features, however, I’ll take a moment to address a few key differences between the Volca and the older Roland units. First, the Volca Beats is much, much, much smaller and lighter. It fits into a backpack without a problem; in fact you could probably throw all three Volca machines into your bag and still have room for a laptop and headphones. That said, the portability and affordability do come with a slight reduction in features, though certainly not a loss of character. For example, the individual outs are missing on the Volca Beats, leaving only a headphone jack to listen to the final stereo mix. Sync options are also limited to gate in, gate out, and MIDI in, with MIDI out unavailable. The inclusion of sync jacks makes it easy to link three Volcas together in time, however the lack of a MIDI out makes it difficult to chain a Volca with other devices. (Both the individual outs and MIDI out can be created by hacks with the proper tools, but for most consumers this is probably not a viable option.) Lastly, the Volca Beats has only ten sounds, and only up to three parameter controls for each sound (in some cases, less). Still, the included knobs provide plenty of sonic flexibility – certainly more than you’d find in an 808 or 909 digital sample pack.
If it sounds like I’m being too critical of the Volca Beats’s shortcomings, I should say that these missing features in no way compare to the benefits and the sheer joy somehow packed into this amazing machine. I still can’t believe that six analog sounds (4 of the 10 sounds are PCM digital samples, just like the Rolands) are packed into this micro-sized box, and lest I continue on too long without mentioning this, the sound is just incredible. I was a little anxious when I first powered on the unit and pressed play through the Volca’s built-in speaker (why this awful speaker is included, I have no idea) only to hear a thin, pathetic pitter-patter of sequenced sputtering. When I ran the stereo out through my studio monitors, however, I was blown away. The kick and toms sound just as full-bodied as my modular synth at its best, and the snare and hi-hats are plenty snappy when you want them to be and smooth when you don’t. A few twists of the various decay knobs can take you from fat, minimal clicks and punches to massive big-room stomps, and anywhere in between. One of the Volca’s greatest drawbacks may be the lack of swing, however the unit’s sequencer does include a stutter feature which can be assigned either to a single instrument (snare and hi-hat stutter are particularly fun) or the whole mix.
At an unbelievable $150, the Volca Beats by Korg is one of those pieces of gear that’s just not to be missed, unless of course you can throw down the capital for a used TR-808 or TR-909. Sure, some samples and VST plugins can pretty well approximate that old analog sound, but the physical user interface with an integrated sequencer is really essential to foster hours of mesmerizing beat generation and experimentation, and that’s something you really don’t get too often with samples and a MIDI control surface. The portability, ease of use, and most importantly the rich and enveloping sound work together to make this device one of the best values in studio gear today. With the Volca line, and with the Volca Beats in particular, Korg has really got a good thing going.