Korg Monotron Classic review

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Provides: “True analog synthesis satisfaction.”
Developer: Korg
Minimum Requirements: Stylus for precise input, two AAA batteries (included)
Price: $49.99
Availability: Now

I know what you’re saying. You’re saying, “Kirk, what does a miniature analog ribbon synthesizer have to do with Apple?” To be honest, I have no idea. But I’m reviewing it anyway, because if anything captures the inherent spirit of exploration and fun of GarageBand and the iOS music apps in a piece of hardware, it’s the Korg Monotron.

Korg Monotron

For the sake of relevancy, I’ll first point out that you could use the headphone output to patch the Monotron into your computer to record the audio effects it creates (provided you’re using a cable with a monaural plug). You can also run your iPhone or iPad into the Monotron using the auxiliary input. But let’s otherwise assume you just want to play around, because that’s pretty much the whole point to this device.

Now, for those who really want to know what the Monotron does, it does this:

Korg MonotronIf that makes as little sense to you as it does to me, then I’ll describe it this way: The Korg Monotron makes funky sounds.

You simply select your modulation (pitch or cutoff), hit notes on the tiny ribbon keyboard, then adjust the audio with the various knobs: VCO pitch, LFO rate and intensity, and VCF cutoff and peak. If you know what that means, great. If you don’t, don’t worry about it. After playing around with the Monotron for just a few minutes, you’ll be able to figure out what does what.

It’s worth noting that this is an actual analog synthesizer, not some digital reproduction of one. Precisely, it’s the original analog (VCF) filter taken from the classic MS-10 & MS-20. As such, the device takes up to 30 seconds to warm up, and the range of the ribbon keyboard is subject to change due to temperature. The only thing cooler than that is the audio this little device can produce. Although it’s possible to actually play music with it (a stylus provides better precision), it’s most fun when you’re just creating ambient sounds and experimenting with those sounds. Once I found a good laser noise, that’s pretty much all I wanted to do for a day.

But the functionality goes deeper than that. The Korg Monotron is the kind of device that can inspire bigger projects, and allow you to remain musically creative when you don’t have access to your full rig—when you’re stuck on the subway, bored at a relative’s wedding ceremony, waiting to be called to jury duty, and such. Weighing only 3.35 oz. (without batteries) and measuring 4.72″ x 2.83″ x 1.10″, it’s easy enough to fit into a jacket pocket or laptop bag.

I can also see the Korg Monotron being used effectively in one of those geeky iDevice bands you’ve seen pop up at various shows and on YouTube. I’d enjoy the irony of a Korg synthesizer being the only analog instrument in a tech band.

At $50, the Monotron may be too expensive to be a musical toy, especially when you can get apps that have more functionality for less than 1/10th of the cost. But musicians should be able to justify the price based on novelty alone, and I won’t deny that the Monotron is a lot of fun to play around with. It’s also quite functional, depending upon what you’re trying to achieve. If you can find a way to work into your music, you’ll be glad you did.

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