For years, Synthtopia readers have been asking for an inexpensive polyphonic analog synth. And for years, Synthtopia readers have had to settle for two out of three.
There have been inexpensive analogs, like the Arturia microBrute. There have been inexpensive polysynths, like the Roland JD-Xi or the Novation Mininova. And there have been polyphonic analogs, like Dave Smith Instruments’ flagship instruments.
But the inexpensive polyphonic analog has been elusive.
That changed this week, with the official introduction of the Korg Minilogue Polyphonic Analogue Synthesizer – a $500, fully-programmable four-voice polyphonic analog synthesizer, complete with a 16-step polyphonic note and motion sequencer, arpeggiator, and delay.
Can a $500 analog polysynth deliver the goods?
Read our Korg Minilogue synthesizer review to find out!
The Korg Minilogue is a four-voice polyphonic analog synth that features a traditional two oscillator + Noise, VCF, Dual ADSR, VCA architecture.
But while Korg’s recent analog synths have duplicated the architecture and styling of vintage synths, the Minilogue goes in a different direction, offering a variety of features that are either unusual or unavailable in the world of classic analog synths:
- The most obvious of these unique features is that the OLED display boots up to be an oscilloscope, showing you the shape of a cycle of the sound you are playing.
- Another unique feature is the Shape knob on the oscillators, which let you fine tune the shape and sound of the oscillators’ waves.
- The Minilogue also offers two filter types, per voice, with 4-pole and 2-pole cutoffs.
- A Delay section includes a single high-pass filter & a vintage-style delay.
- It offers a total of eight voice allocation modes that give you exceptional flexibility.
- It also includes a step sequencer that sequences voice parameters, in addition to notes.
The Minilogue does not compete with the power of high-end analog synths, of the past or the present. But it delivers traditional analog synth sound, combined with the flexibility and power of modern control, at an impressive price.
Design & Build Quality
The Korg Minilogue offers impressive build quality for its $500 price.
Other keyboards in the sub-$500 price range typically feature primarily plastic construction. And the Minilogue’s base is made of heavy plastic, too. But the areas that typically take the most abuse on a keyboard – the faceplate and back – are made of very rugged materials.
The faceplate is made of thick, sand-blasted aluminum. The back is a chunk of solid wood (Pyinkado). The controls feature chassis-mounted potentiometers and rubber-coated knobs.
As a result, the Minilogue looks and feels very sturdy, making its build a standout among minisynths.
Just as important is the Minilogue’s interface design.
Minisynths tend feel cramped and some are plain confusing, because they pack so many features into a tiny design. Korg does several things to avoid this, with the Minilogue.
First off, the front panel is taller than most minisynths. This helps keep the Minilogue’s controls from being cramped together.
The Minilogue has its main controls laid out in a traditional left-to-right signal flow. Almost everything on the Minilogue has a dedicated knob or switch, which makes it highly tweakable. In typical use, most sound design and performance changes can be done using with a twist of a knob.
There are a few functions that require some menu-diving, but this is reserved for tasks that you are not likely to need to change frequently, like the pitch-bend range, how velocity maps to the VCA or LFO sync settings.
The panel is very legible, with high contrast black type over an aluminum background.
And Korg makes interesting use of the Minilogue’s OLED display.
By now, you’ve heard that it serves as an oscilloscope, giving you a visual display of the way that your patch changes affect the synths’s sound. As you adjust the Square wave’s Shape, for example, you see the width of the pulse narrow or widen. And as you close the filter down, you see how it changes the wave’s harmonics.
Korg also makes effective contextual use of the display, displaying info that reflects whatever control you’re changing.
As a result of the intuitive layout and smart use of the display, the Korg Minilogue should be a fast learn for anyone that’s familiar with subtractive synthesis and a great first synth for people new to synthesis.
But what about the keys?
The keys are one of the few places where it feels like Korg had to compromise to get to the $500 price.
The Minilogue’s keys are about the same width as what you’d find on other minisynths, but longer. Here’s a comparison to the keys on a microKorg:
As you can see, the key width is about the same, but the keys on the Minilogue are about 50% longer, improving playability. Here’s how they measure up:
- Typical minikeys are about 3″ long.
- On the Minilogue, they are about 4 1/4″ long.
- And on a grand piano, keys are about 5 1/2″ long
We expect that the minikeys on the Minilogue will be a deal breaker for some players. If you’re a keyboardist that plays fast chromatic runs, the reduced key width means that your fingers can ‘stick’ between the black keys. For typical lead and bass line performance, though, the Minilogue keyboard is very usable.
One other quirk of the design is the diagonal mod slider. Some people will miss the standard pitch and mod wheel duo. We didn’t miss the modulation knob, since you can reach up and adjust any synth parameter you want, as you play. And the slider is assignable, which opens up some interesting performance options. The slider can control pitch bend on one patch, gate time on another and EG decay on the next.
Minor pet peeves of the Minilogue design are the headphone output on the back of the keyboard, rather than the front and the lack of MIDI Thru.
The basic architecture of the Minilogue is straightforward: two VCOs & Noise feed into a mixer; the output of the mixer feeds into VCF, which has a dedicated ADSR EG; this feeds into the VCA, which also has a dedicated ADSR EG. The output goes through an analog effects section, which features a high-pass filter and vintage-style delay.
With these elements, Korg gets the basics right. But Korg also includes some features that introduce significant sound design possibilities:
- The oscillators offer three waveshapes, but a Shape knob is also provided that lets you change the shape of the selected wave. This lets you get much more variety than static oscillators.
- The Minilogue also offers key modulation options, like oscillator cross modulation, pulse width modulation, envelope modulation of the oscillators, and LFO modulation of pitch, oscillator shape and filter cutoff, that expand the sonic capabilities beyond the basics.
Here is Korg Chief engineer Tatsuya Takahashi explanation of the Minilogue’s synth architecture. It’s worth watching in its entirety, because it offers a good introduction to the Minilogue’s architecture and musical demos of its capabilities:
Here’s a detailed look at the Minilogue voice architecture:
The Minilogue’s wave shape capability lets you fine tune the oscillators’ harmonics, giving you a much broader oscillator palette than the Sawtooth/Triangle/Square selectors would suggest. For example, with the Square wave, the Shape knob controls the pulse width – which can also be modulated by the LFO.
The Minilogue’s designers seem to have focused on providing as many options as they could provide dedicated controls for. So the Minilogue has dedicated controls for cross modulation, EG pitch mod and LFO routing to Pitch, Shape & Cutoff. But it doesn’t offer the power (and complexity) of deep matrix modulation that some synths offer.
One of the most interesting aspect of the Minilogue’s architecture is the flexibility of its Voice Mode section, right.
The Minilogue’s four voices can be allocated in eight different ways:
- Poly – this allocates the four voices as four individual notes
- Duo – this allocates the voices as two notes, letting you create richer sounds
- Unison -this mode is monophonic, with the additional voices creating a chorus effect
- Mono – this mode is monophonic, with the additional voices adding sub-octaves to the lead
- Chord – this allocates the voices to let you play ‘one-finger chords’
- Delay – this mode is monophonic, and the additional voices play after the lead voice, creating a delay or echo effect
- ARP – this is a standard arpeggiator, with many choices of arp styles
- Sidechain – this mode lets you hold a chord and, when you play over it, the new notes will reduce the volume of the held notes, bringing out the lead.
In each Mode, the Voice Mode Depth knob lets you customize how the mode works. For example, in Unison mode, the knob controls the amount of detune between the multiple voices. In Delay mode, it controls the delay amount. And in ARP mode, it lets you select the style of arpeggio.
The modulation Slider can also be assigned to Voice Mode Depth, which opens up some interesting performance options. This means that in Unison mode, for example, you can use the slider to control the detune of the voices; in Mono mode, you can use the slider to fade in the suboscillators; and in Delay mode, you can use it to add delay to one phrase of a solo.
Here’s a diagram that shows how the individual voices fit into the Minilogue’s synthesis architecture:
The Voice Assigner controls four voices, which then go through a single high-pass filter and an optional delay circuit prior to output. An audio input is also available.
Synthesis control options include:
- VCO1 – Octave, Wave (Saw, Triangle, Square), Pitch, Shape
- VCO2 – Octave, Wave (Saw, Triangle, Square), Pitch, Shape
- VCO2 MODULATION – Cross Mod Depth, Pitch EG Int, Sync, Ring
- MIXER – VCO1, VCO2, Noise
- FILTER – Cutoff, Resonance, EG Int, Filter Type (2-Pole, 4-Pole), Keytrack, Velocity
- AMP EG – Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release
- EG – Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release
- LFO – Wave (Saw, Triangle, Square), EG Mod (Int, Rate, Off), Rate, Int, Target (Pitch, Shape, Cutoff)
- DELAY – Hi Pass Cutoff, Time, Feedback, Output Routing (Post Filter, Pre Filter, Bypass)
Finally, the Minilogue offers a 16-step sequencer. You can vary the sequence length, and each sequence also supports four motion sequences, which record the settings for the Minilogue’s knobs or switches. This means you can make drastic changes to your patch, on each step of the sequence. Each of the Minilogue’s 200 patches can have a unique sequence saved with it.
The sequencer is missing one important feature – the ability to transpose a playing sequence from the keyboard. We hope that this can be addressed with a firmware update.
See the Minilogue’s Owner’s Manual, downloadable as a pdf, for details on MIDI support and more.
Minilogue Audio Demos
Features and build quality are meaningless if a synth doesn’t deliver the sound you want.
Here are a set of audio examples that demonstrate the power and range of the Minilogue:
The Minilogue excels in many of the classic analog synth roles, especially bass, leads and sequences. It also can do great polysynth sounds, but isn’t as strong a performer in this role, because of the limited polyphony and effects options.
Readers who are not familiar with classic analog synths should be aware that the output of the Korg Minilogue is more ‘raw’ than what you may be familiar with, because most modern synths include a standard set of effects, like chorus and reverb, and a stereo mix out. If you’re looking for more of a ‘finished’ sound, you’ll need to pair the Minilogue with external effects.
The Korg Minilogue impressed us out of the box, with its solid build quality, good looks and usable layout. And the Minilogue doesn’t just look good, it delivers the goods – raw polyphonic analog power.
The Minilogue excels at bass, leads and classic poly sounds. If you’re looking for lush, evolving pad sounds or to do more advanced sound design, a synth that includes a richer effects section, more flexible synthesis options and greater polyphony would be a better choice.
WIth the Minilogue, Korg has set a new standard for affordable polyphonic analog synthesis. We are impressed by how much Korg packs into the Minilogue and we think that many readers will be, too.
- Inexpensive. Polyphonic. Analog.
- Great build quality for the price
- Solid analog sound
- Great variety of performance modes
- Good performance ‘feel’ and tweakability
- Limited effects compared to other synths in the same price range
- Limited polyphony
- Fewer patching and modulation options than some similarly priced synths
Pricing and Availability
The Korg Minilogue will be available Jan 21, 2016, with a list price of US $499.99. See the Korg site for more info.