Korg Volca FM2 review

Reviews

Today we’re looking at this teeny weeny Korg Volca FM2, the new version of the very popular Volca FM. It’s a little DX7 in a box or at least that’s what we like to say. It has that styling, It has the sound and now perhaps with version two it also has the feel of a DX7 to a degree. It’s a really interesting little box because it is everything that people think it is and it isn’t, all at the same time. It has this ability to delight us with these cheesy old DX sounds that for some reason we still quite like, while simultaneously frustrating us by having a worse interface than the DX7 had in the first place. I mean how do you do that? How do you design an FM synth that’s even less accessible than the original was? Everybody else who does an FM synth tends to expand upon it, tends to pull parameters out and give them to you in an easy-to-access fashion, but not this little fella. And this has given me reasons to dwell, and to think, and to take my time over doing my review on the Volca FM2 because I think my initial reaction to it was one of absolute horror.

This review is an edited transcript taken from my video review (below) for people who prefer to read.

First Impressions

The first synthesizer I owned was a Yamaha DX100 many, many years ago and I knew that thing inside out. And so, coming to this machine with a hobbled selection of knobs that somehow lets you dig down and edit into every single parameter is like some kind of user-interface nightmare. I don’t want this! Why would I want FM in such an inaccessible way? But after a little bit of time, I kind of found that it started to open up that I started to cotton on to what it is that Korg was doing and what the purpose of this thing was. Because although it’s trying to be a DX7 in a little box, it’s not, it’s a Volca for heaven’s sake! It’s a cheap and cheerful box of melody and movement and fun, and I think once you try to force it into being a big professional classic heritage synthesizer it does not live up to the job. And it’s not for that; that’s not its purpose, although it does a bloody good job at almost being that sort of thing but not quite.

Buy a Volca FM2 from Perfect Circuit: https://tinyurl.com/molten-volca-fm2

Or from Thomann Music Store:

What I hope to show is a little bit of what it can do, why it’s a great little box, why it’s a fun little box, and why the version two is so much better than the original. I can sum it up quite quickly to say that the first one was quirky, fun, interesting and with three notes of polyphony it was a bit of a toy, a bit of a laugh, oh look it sounds a bit like a DX7. However, version two has six notes of polyphony, I can actually play a flippin’ chord like with most of my fingers and move to another one without it all cutting out. It has reverb which takes this mono sound and spreads it around along with the chorus. It has velocity over MIDI so you can actually play it like a synthesizer. So these simple enhancements really do elevate it from the position of being just a playful little toy of an FM synth into something far more elegant and nuanced and potentially interesting. But then it all falls apart again because you can’t actually get into all the bits you want to get into particularly easily, and it lacks some fundamentals like sustain support. I mean, that’s ridiculous right there. No, I can’t use a sustain pedal with it, and yet I’ve got access to all these DX7 style sounds, and I can now play them with velocity, and I can wrap around the notes and bits and pieces, but then I can’t sustain. There’s no mod wheel support, and the arpeggiator doesn’t have a latch, so you’ve got to hold it the whole time on the crummy touch-plate keyboard. So there’s a lot of wrongness about it if you are expecting a DX7 experience, but there’s also a lot of rightness about it if you treat it how I think Korg intended it.

So that’s my plan I’m just going to show you what I think was intended and why that’s fun. I know you can use an external editor with it but what has frustrated me by watching some of the demo videos and review videos of the FM2 is that all the time is spent somewhere else, it’s spent in an editor in DEXED or in Synmata which is great as it gives you access to all of the parameters within here, but surely the point of a Volca is that you play with the Volca. If you’re having to spend your whole time in a piece of software you might as well take your 150 quid and spend it on the OP-6 native plug-in, which is excellent, and also by Korg. Korg knows how to do FM; they’ve proved it with the OP-6 synthesizer and now the software version of that fantastic, advanced, modern, interesting synth that uses all sorts of different waveforms and craziness. is brilliantly graphical and visual and engaging. That’s how you do modern FM synthesis. This is not that, and it shouldn’t be that; it’s his own thing. So let me show you why I think it’s it’s a cool box while also being deeply flawed.

Keyboard and Velocity

The keyboard is terrible as a keyboard. It’s really there for pumping in sequences or for turning steps on and off, but with the FM2, it’s inviting you to play it as a keyboard, and it’s a rubbish experience.

It is possible to play in a ham-fisted kind of way, but of course, you can plug in a midi keyboard which I’ll do in a moment, but I just want to focus just on the box. So the keyboard is not fantastic, but it’s not supposed to be, it’s not what Volcas are about, but it gives you just enough to play some chords.

Now I said that it responds to velocity. It always has responded to velocity via this Velocity slider, just not over MIDI unless you got the later hack that allowed you to do that by using an alternative firmware. But putting that aside, you can now inject velocity using a MIDI keyboard, but there’s this Velocity slider, and it’s a little bit genius. It’s not really about velocity sensitivity; rather, it’s changing something within the sound. It doesn’t change the sound as it plays; it changes what the next note will be. Velocity, it seems, is tied to a lot of different tonal changes. So, as you move the velocity, there’s actually a lot of change going on, and it acts in some ways a little bit like a filter. You can sort of do that with a MIDI keyboard and regular velocity, but this relationship between playing notes on the Volca keyboard and moving the Velocity slider is quite unique to the experience of playing the Volca FM2.

Volca FM2

It gets really great once you add in something like the arpeggiator. The arpeggiator is so important it gets its own knobs on the front panel, which is great, but now, if you play with the Velocity it becomes another level of awesome. And that very simply is why this is a beautiful little box. I’m just using the first preset, we haven’t explored any of the others yet, and within that preset I can adventure into all sorts of different places.

Front Panel knobs to play with

These two bunches of knobs here are the Modulator and the Carrier, Attack and Decay. The Modulator envelope is changing the way that the timbre or tone changes over time. The Carrier envelope controls how the volume level changes over time, in the traditional way of shaping the level of the sound. These envelopes control the modulators and carriers within the algorithms and that’s been curated and provided for you by Korg. But what it does is bring in this level of change, this level of interest, where you can take a preset and explore away without having to get down into the nitty-gritty. The nitty-gritty is all here. If you press the Edit button and you want to get into all your different parameters then, you know, fill your boots, go through all your Operators and get in there man. This is one of those times when you wish the arpeggiator could be latched.

Another thing you have access to on the front panel is the Algorithm knob. You can just rotate it through whatever algorithms you like. The algorithms are just a way of combining modulators and carriers together in different ways. Some of them create more intense harmonics, and other ones create smoother sounds there’s no way of knowing exactly what changing to a different algorithm is going to do

Randomizer

The other new feature is the randomizer. Now often with randomizers on soft synths or hardware you just tend to hit that button, and there’s an explosion of activity, and nothing sounds anything like something that you’d want it to sound like. It’s like a button of last resort; I don’t know what to do so I’ll hit Random, and it just sounds stupid now; that’s the usual randomization experience. Within here it’s different, it’s contained, it’s sort of safe and interesting. It will randomize stuff that’s still keeping it within the realms of where it was. So although the sound is different, it’s not gone crazy town, it’s not gone radically somewhere else where it becomes no longer musical or no longer useful.

So that’s the fun for me; the change, the tonal interest, the messing about with velocity, being able to do it all in a very much a real-time playing with a synthesizer kind of way, is what really sets this up as a fantastic little box of FM. It’s awesome in its own way. I mean it’s still FM so that’s kind of like weird and crazy but it’s just nice.

Sending it DX7 Sounds

The last thing to show is just a little bit of how to get DX7 sounds in. Now, I’m not going to go into the DEXED thing (FM soft synth editor), I’m going to show you a simpler way to load DX7 sounds. What you need is a MIDI interface on your computer because the Volca doesn’t have USB; I mean, why doesn’t it have USB? I don’t quite understand that. And the other annoying feature is that the MIDI in and out is on TRS, and Korg seems to use a different TRS version to absolutely everybody else and it took me ages to find the right adapter to make that work, and you don’t get one in the box which is a shame. It’s just a level of frustration you don’t really want to have to deal with, but there we go.

The utility we’re going to use is called the DX7 Bank Individual Patch Extractor from Retrokits.com. Apparently, the FM2 doesn’t support sound banks, it only supports individual sounds. So when you find DX7 sound banks online you’ll need this utility to pull out the patches and send them to the Volca.

I found a lot of original DX7 factor patches here:

https://yamahablackboxes.com/collection/yamaha-dx7-synthesizer/patches/

Retrokits made a cable that introduced velocity to the original Volca FM, and for some reason, they also created a webpage which lets you load DX7 cartridges. All you have to do is select your interface, and then I get my sound banks and it onto the cartridge. And then I can choose a patch and send it over to the Volca FM2.

Volca FM2 and Retrokits DX7 Bank Extractor

You can spend the rest of your life finding all the terrible cheesy sounds that were in the original as well as some of the nicer ones. Now, while the Volca FM2 is being awesome in loading the DX7 banks via SysX directly into its MIDI in what it can’t do is do it the other way around. You can’t export your sounds from here via SysX into a piece of software to save it. The only way of saving stuff at least as far as I understand is in that old-school way of connecting the sync out to some kind of recorder and record it onto your computer as an audio file which you can then sort of pipe back in. But I can’t think of anything that’s more inconvenient than having to do that since it has a MIDI Out. Why can’t you just send the bank out and save it? Because as I bring these sounds across none of them are saved, and as soon as I move something it’s gone back to the preset it was before. So in order to save any of these onto this unit I have to overwrite a preset that’s in there and there are only 64 spaces. So if I want to bring a whole bank over I’ve got to decimate the presets within the Volca. I find that completely strange so once again it’s awesome and then flawed all at the same time.

Conclusions

The Volca FM2 is both brilliant and cheesy, frustrating and weirdly wonderful. It’s full of holes and full of highs. It has a lot of interesting tonal possibilities, it gives you a simple front end to an FM engine and brings out of you a whole different number of emotions. Is it a professional DX7 that’s going to be an awesome replacement for that on your desktop? No it is not, although it can have the sounds, so kind of it is. It has wonderful velocity response over MIDI but it doesn’t have sustain so you can kind of play it as a synth and then you kind of can’t. And yet it has these fantastic controls on the front that curate your way into crafting interesting tonal differences and timbres within FM that actually would be difficult to do on a bigger editor. With that you would need to know what you’re doing with this you don’t, you just turn a couple of knobs and explore the changing sound and how you react to that.

Volca FM2

So this box is something of a dilemma, but that’s only if you take it too seriously. If you treat it for what it is; it’s a Volca, so it’s a fun box of sound that you can connect to other Volcas and create an entire jamboree on your desktop, then it’s awesome! Great sounds if you like those sounds a great reverb, six notes, the randomizer tool throws in a bit of spice and difference, the controls on the front give you something to play with, and something to craft with. It has an awesome sequencer like on all the Volcas and putting in some automation is great and who knows you could probably make a song on it. But I doubt that you would, you’re more likely to associate it with other bits and pieces and just have it as one of your sound sources.

If you want to get down into the nitty-gritty you can via some kind of software editor and fudge your way in but I don’t think that’s what it’s for. I think it’s for playing with as it is and maybe exploring all of the thousands of DX7 presets which are out there that you can easily just dump in one at a time. So there are a lot of things wrong with it a lot of things right with it, whether the Volca FM2 is good for you is entirely down to your own way of thinking.

Buy a Volca FM2 from Perfect Circuit: https://tinyurl.com/molten-volca-fm2

Or from Thomann Music Store: