It's no secret that we loved the Korg monotron. The pocket-sized analogue synth was an instant hit on its release last summer, offering classic MS-20 inspired sounds at an absolute bargain price.
At the time, many of us suspected that the Japanese synth giants were testing the waters for bigger and better analogue products - after a three-decade hiatus, it always seemed unlikely that Korg would resume development of analogue technology for the sole purpose of selling a £50 pocket synth.
"A few clever features make the sequencer much more versatile than it might initially seem."
Nearly a year later, our suspicions were confirmed at the recent Frankfurt Musikmesse with the announcement of the monotribe, a brand new analogue groovebox loosely based on the monotron sound engine.
What is it?
As the name suggests, the monotribe falls somewhere in between the monotron and Korg's Electribe range of groove sequencers.
Korg describe it as an analogue Electribe or a ribbon station, but you could also think of it as a beefed up monotron with a drum section and a built-in sequencer.
The synth section of the monotribe retains all of the monotron's key features, but adds a few excellent new twists to make the sound more versatile.
The rhythm section consists of three fully analogue drum sounds - kick, snare and hi-hat - which can also be programmed using the 808-style push-button sequencer.
Pulling the UK's very first monotribe from its packaging, the first thing that's apparent is that this is truly a portable device, easily small and light enough to throw in a rucksack and carry around just in case you get the urge for an impromptu acid jam.
An optional DC power adapter can be used but the unit is designed to run from six AA batteries, while the built-in speaker means you can get instant results without any other hardware.
Thankfully, separate headphone and line out connectors are also included for higher quality monitoring and studio use. Just like the monotron, the monotribe's headphone output is disappointingly noisy. Thankfully the main line out is much cleaner, making it much more usable for serious studio work.
From the ribbon controller to the synth section, it's obvious that a large chunk of the monotribe is derived from the monotron. However, there's a lot more to the monotribe's synth engine than you'll fi nd in its little brother.
The low-pass filter, based on the legendary MS-10 design, is still present, but the monotribe VCO features triangle and square waves in addition to the monotron's sawtooth. A noise source is also included, while the monotron's fiddly continuous pitch range knob is replaced by a rotary detent switch.
As we found with the monotron, a continuous ribbon controller can make it difficult to play with perfect tuning. Switch the monotribe's ribbon from the standard 'narrow' mode to the chromatic 'key' setting and your finger position is automatically quantised to the nearest whole note, with the auto-tune feature ensuring that the VCO is perfectly in tune every time. Melodies can now be played with ease.
Alternatively, 'wide' mode spreads the full six octaves across the ribbon, allowing dramatic FX and pitch sweeps to be achieved with the flick of a finger.
Rather than a fully adjustable envelope generator, the dynamics of the monotribe's synth output are controlled using a three-way switch to select from pre-defined VCA envelopes.
The 'decay' setting ramps down from full volume, 'gate' remains at full volume as long as the note is held, while 'attack' slowly ramps up from nothing.
It's a seriously basic setup but it in this context works remarkably well.
As with the VCA, there isn't a dedicated envelope generator for the filter, but the monotribe's LFO offers a surprisingly capable range of modulation options.
"It just takes things to the next level. If you liked the monotron then you're going to love the monotribe."
Whereas the monotron offered a very basic sawtooth LFO, the monotribe offers sawtooth, triangle and square waves which can be routed to VCO pitch, VCF cutoff or both, with an intensity control to determine how much modulation should be applied.
The range of the rate control can be adjusted using the mode selector switch, with slow mode offering 0.05-18Hz, while fast mode stretches all the way from 1Hz to 5kHz for dramatic audio rate modulation effects.
In one-shot mode, only the first half-cycle of the LFO signal is used to modulate the VCF or VCO, creating a basic but effective filter envelope effect.
In fast and one-shot modes, the LFO re-triggers with each new note, meaning that it can effectively sync to the clock tempo with the sequencer running - great news for all the Dubstep heads looking to create perfectly timed wobble basslines.
In slow mode, the LFO is a free-running wave, with small amounts of modulation creating subtly shifting timbres. The only modulation feature we miss from the monotron is the visual LFO rate indicator, omitted this time round in favour of a standard knob.
The monotribe workfl ow is based around the step sequencer, with drums programmed using the step buttons while synth parts are played live in record mode and then automatically looped.
On the surface, the sequencer appears to be very basic, but a few clever features make it much more versatile than it might initially seem.
On the synth side, Flux mode is the main option, allowing the sequencer to play back a continuous, gliding synth note. With Flux mode off, one note plays for each step, with the pitch sampled and held throughout.
For drum programming, the sequencer offers half steps in between each of the main eight, edited by holding down each drum part button and offering a total of 16 steps per bar.
The Active Step button also allows individual beats to be skipped altogether, creating odd time signatures or allowing cool effects by re-arranging your groove on the fly.
Recorded synth notes can also be deactivated and reactivated during playback in much the same way as drum beats, albeit without the half steps. Holding down the Gate Time button allows the duration of each note to be adjusted from 1.4% to 100% of the step, with the synth signal (plus external audio input) gated after the filter.
A further neat touch is that synth notes triggered by the ribbon controller always have priority over the sequencer, so you can play back a sequenced loop then jam using the ribbon.
The sequenced note is effectively cut each time you play a note, but we found it surprisingly effective at creating the illusion of two completely separate synth parts.
Given the versatility of the sequencer, it's a shame that the drum synth section is so limited. The kick drum, snare and hi-hat sounds are all perfectly usable, but there are absolutely no adjustment options for any of the (admittedly excellent and analogue) three sounds. The sounds can't even be run through the filter for processing.
We're assured that the drums are 100% analogue and we strongly suspect that the circuit bending community will be able to unlock a few settings, but why not let us tweak the drums without having to reach for a soldering iron?
What's not to love?
With the street price starting somewhere around £169 the workflow and sheer fun factor of the monotribe make it worth a look.
Like the monotron we predict that many will be sold purely by virtue of being able to filter your own external sounds with that famous MS-10/MS-20 filter. It really does sound very sweet indeed.
Compared to the monotron, the monotribe just takes things to the next level. The synth section is a genuine all-rounder, capable of everything from monstrous bass to subtle string sounds via FX.
As simple as the envelope modes and LFO options might be, they create a huge range of sounds. Despite the shortcomings of the drum section, the sequencer and tempo sync feature make the Monotribe genuinely useful live or in the studio.
Put simply, if you liked the monotron then you're going to love the monotribe.
For audio samples of the Korg monotribe, head to the Future Music website.