Each of the Volcas features MIDI-in, as well as sync-in and -out. The latter utilizes the supplied mini-jack cables for instant communication between boxes. The immediate benefits of this include sync of the internal sequencers and/or the LFO speeds. There are further similarities, as each box features an upper panel of controls, a lower portion featuring a keyboard/sequencer and a series of commands accessible via a function (Func) key. In other words, to use one Volca is to familiarize yourself with the working methods of the others. Lastly, each features its own internal speaker. This in no way represents the best way to hear the sonic richness of each device, but it's great for auditioning sounds or making music on the move.
Let's start with Volca Beats. The signal path for its assorted drum and percussion sounds is hybrid, with the kick, snare, toms and hat sources being analogue, and the clap, claves, agogo and crash sounds generated from PCM samples. Each of the analogue sounds features three parameter dials; the kick, for instance, features click, pitch and decay. Through assorted placements, these can produce everything from techy, clicky kicks to speaker-busting 808 subs. Don't be surprised if your jaw drops upon plugging Volca Beats into your studio monitors—subtle, this ain't. The snare, featuring a 909-style control for "snappiness" amongst its parameters, is also capable of a range of flavours. (For me, it works best when layered with the clap.) Parameter control over the PCM sources is more limited than the analogue ones, with the PCM Speed dial controlling sample frequency and, as a consequence, both length and pitch. This might sound restrictive to a fault, but in practice it yields pleasingly malleable results possible from just this and the Part Level dial, which helps set a mix balance between sounds.
Recording parts into Volca Beats' sequencer is fun, with a range of possibilities to match your chosen beat-making approach. The first is real-time recording. This is actually a touch more confusing than it needs to be if you're pattern-building from scratch, as Volca Beats doesn't provide a metronome—you have to rely on your eyes to place notes on the running sequence of LEDs at the bottom. Easier, perhaps, is the first of two step modes, which lets you click on sequence positions for each part to enter notes into the right slots. The second step mode may prove more popular for those who favour wonkier patterns. Here, the Part button is used to move sequentially through the steps of a pattern; at each step, you enter which percussion sources will play. It's easier to create unexpected results here than completely predictable ones.
The sequencer will also let you record parameter motion, so if you want to commit real-time tweaks into a pattern, you can. Up in the top-left corner are two controls which, for many users, may well be the best thing going here: Stutter. In context, this sounds like a built-in delay, which on closer inspection proves to be a decaying note repeater function for all of the active sounds playing at any time. The Time control lets you choose how close together or spaced out these repeats will be, and the Depth control either triggers quieter, smaller numbers of repeats or full-on, longer and louder ones.
The style and colour-scheme for Volca Bass are nods to Roland's original bass monster. But its sonic flavour is very different from the 303, mostly due to Korg's filter choice here. The filter is a Korg classic, the same as that found inside 1974's miniKorg700S (and in Volca Keys). It's a 12dB low-pass design that until now hasn't landed in a dedicated bass synth. It holds up very well in this context, and anyone hoping for track-ripping bass won't be disappointed. The sound engine within Volca Bass is actually based around a three-oscillator (VCO) system. There's control here too, with three architecture options: three independent oscillators; oscillators 1 and 2 acting as one with the third independent; or all three tied together. The more independent modes run surprisingly deep—with three sound sources completely separated, the sequencer will actually let you record steps for each voice independently, allowing for the possibility of three intertwined but sonically diverse basslines playing at once. Each VCO can also be independently tuned, and the pitch range of the unit (when twiddling the Octave dial or playing Volca Bass from an external MIDI keyboard) is so wide that there's no need to consider this just a Bass module. The filter section rocks, and with resonance cranked up, it'll bother your speakers impressively. There are onboard LFO and envelope generator controls, too. And again, LEDs are employed to show you these in action when added to a sequence.
Anyone expecting a fully-fledged pocket-sized synth should prepare themselves for the fact that Volca Keys is by no means a conventional synth. This is perhaps best illustrated by its assorted playback modes, each of which goes a long way to governing the overall sound. The waveform choice of each mode is locked, so for instance, in main poly mode, the waveforms are fixed as sawtooth waves for each of the three VCOs, and square waves are employed for the unison and poly ring modes. In terms of sound engine parameters, this is the most fully spec'd of all of the Volcas. A matrix of 12 dials controls three parameters in four sections: VCO, VCF, LFO and envelope generator. So, having chosen a synth mode and the playback octave via prominent black dials on the left, you can hone the sound. Further to the right, you'll find a dedicated delay (unlike the quasi-delay Stutter of Volca Beats), with time and feedback dials. Delay can also be synced to tempo if picked up over MIDI or sync. The sequencer on Volca Keys has some quirks—it does feature an internal metronome to aid real-time recording, but unlike the other Volcas, there's no step-time mode. This obviously places more pressure on the onboard keyboard to perform. Fortunately, Korg have prepared Volca Keys with a larger playing area and a customary piano layout. Once a sequence has been recorded, it can also feature motion recording, with all parameters except the resonance dial available to add to a sequence. Indeed, as a pattern plays back, Volca Keys will flash LEDs for any recorded parameters.
Korg already has a proud tradition in this field, but the previous products in this mould—the Monotribe and Monotron series—are comprehensively outgunned by the Volcas. They represent outstanding value for money, with each module containing true analogue synthesis, sequencing and motion capture of parameters in real time, plus portability, syncability and more. A collection of all three boxes won't break the bank, so even if you have to pick your favourite to start, saving up for the others won't take forever. All for one and one for all.
Ease of use: 4.5/5