Thoughts on the Korg Monotribe

To stave off the inevitable depression following last week, I decided to buy myself some momentary respite. I wanted a new music toy, something to kick back in bed with and tweak out some sounds before sleep, and the Korg Monotribe “analogue ribbon station” (what.) looked to fit the bill. It’s got a relatively low price point, and it looked to be similar to the Korg DS-10, and a true analog DS-10 would make me very pleased indeed considering how much joy that little package has given me. From a musical point of view, as I’ve always run with digital measures for sampling and the like, I’ve never been much of an “analog guy”, but I’ve played around with a Juno 106 before and I can certainly tell the difference. So off I go and pick it up.

I should probably point out that I have no experience with Korg’s previous analogue toy, the Monotron, but from what I can tell it seems completely useless to me, so I’d be the wrong guy to ask anyway.

Initial impressions are both good and eyebrow-cockingly puzzled. The box contents reveal a short manual (uncharacteristically rife with typos and errata), 6 AAA batteries and the unit itself, about the size of a hefty pocket book – By which I mean one of those pocket books no pocket on this planet would hold. I was sort of disappointed no DC9V adapter was included, but I understand, as with most things Monotribe, concessions were made to keep the price in check.

The front panel is chock full of switches, buttons and pots. While there are certain features I’d be desperate for (more on this later), I don’t see where exactly those features would go in terms of physical space. This kind of unit lives and dies on its commitment to simplicity of use, and from past experiences with “groovebox” type devices – lord how that term makes me itch – an excess of features at the expense of live programmability can be a creative death sentence.

Every function on the Monotribe is available with a wonderful immediacy. The pots are smooth with wonderful resistance, the switches are pronounced and chunky, the buttons have a satisfying travel and in general the device is very inviting to touch. There are no menus to navigate. There are a pair of shift-key type interactions though these are both dead simple and never got in my way. Having a setup filled with somewhat esoterically laid out synthesizers, being able to ignore five-deep nested menus and value-skipping digital endless pots and simply tweak the parameters right where you want them is the kind of experience that makes me reevaluate my fetish for deep and abstract patch programmability. I’m looking at you, Blofeld.

Sidenote: While I feel that Roland’s modern lineup is dull as dishwater and hopelessly bound to fashion, their front panel designs have been not much short of stellar. A HOTAS philosophy where you are allowed to build a muscle memory of your instrument is, I feel, a really noble cause, and I’ve even ogled the SH-201 just for the sake of having an R3-like instrument with that programming immediacy. But don’t worry R3. You are the awesomest.

The Monotribe has a signal path so simple it’s practically unique. A single self-tuning(!) voltage-controlled oscillator with saw, triangle and square waveforms is available, which you can mix with a white noise generator and pass through a single 12db voltage controlled resonant low-pass filter. The filter and pitch can be controlled either individually or in unison by a single LFO, running at speeds up to 5khz for some warbly frequency modulation if you’re so inclined. Finally the whole shebang is run through an amp envelope generator.

It’s all fine.

Viewed in isolation, every component of the Monotribe can be described as “fine”, perhaps with the exception of the filter, which is really quite lovely.  There is no pulse width modulation for the square waveform, so beyond tuning the osc there isn’t much in the way of motion. The amp envelope has three preset attack/decay shapes (decay, flat and fade in), but no temporal adjustments beyond that. The filter is probably as dynamic as you are going to get, but with only a single LFO the complexity of motion you are going to get out of a “patch”, if you can call it that, is extremely limited if you intend to do any oscillator frequency modulation. All in all, the synth section is obviously designed to be messed with and tweaked on the fly, not “programmed” and played like a traditional keyboard.

In fact, you might even question the innate musicality of the Monotribe. The ribbon pitch controller is recessed so deeply in the panel my girlfriend couldn’t play it effectively with her long nails, and nailing any pitch across its short width is a real test of patience. There is a range switch for flipping between a wide band and a shorter one-octave band, as well as quantizing to notes, but no matter of practise here makes the ribbon particularly comfortable to use. It feels ironic that the main musical input mechanism of the unit is so woefully inadequate for generating actual musical notes with any precision.

The sequencer part is, in a word, rudimentary. A row of 8 buttons, each with their own LED, makes up the step sequencer shared by both the drum and synth sections, though they operate somewhat differently; The synth sequencer keeps some properties “behind the scenes” to offer more resolution, and also offers some glide between notes, but using these features in any intuitive or precise manner is hit (at best) and miss (for the most part).

The Monotribe incorporates a three-drum analogue rhythm section, offering a kick, a snare and a hi-hat, none of which are user-editable. They all have their own 16-step (double the synth sequencer resolution)  tracks, and they all pass through the same amp circuit, so you have no individual velocity control over drum hits. The best you can do is balance the entire drum section against the synth section. All the drum sounds are “fine”. The kick is nice and deep with a pronounced click, and the hi-hat is a.. hi-hat. If you’ve used the DS-10 or MS-20 for patching drums before, you’ll know what kind of sound to expect here. The snare has too much low and mid for my taste and not enough punch to cut through either the synth or the kick, so I’ve tended to avoid it for the most part.

There is no MIDI, but there is a sync input and output with variable edge triggering for the input, so you could theoretically run a metronome from your DAW through it to sync it up. It seems to me that Korg has envisioned setups of multiple Monotribes daisy chained together for greater ensembles, but I haven’t tested this functionality nor do I have any interest in it, so I can’t rightly comment. The flashing tempo knob and tapping to set bpm on other devices is working fine for me.

What..? Why?

Some bits of the Monotribe seem utterly bonkers from a design point of view. The Monotron was apparently known for letting you pipe in external audio and use its filter as a signal processor; A great way to get a cheap analog 12db lowpass. The Monotribe offers this as well, but doesn’t disable the gate when the feature is engaged, meaning you must play a synth key to be able to hear the external audio through the filter. Why this seemed like a good idea to ANYONE at Korg is a real mystery, as it effectively kills the entire usefulness of the function.

Further, the device has a gate envelope with no release; What this means is every time a note stops playing, it “snaps” quiet with an audible pop. When notes are played in close succession, this is not an issue, but when played from the ribbon it means you can’t trigger notes independently of the envelope; Release that ribbon and POP, no matter what envelope shape you’ve chosen. Adjusting the note gate time from the ribbon is possible, but shortening the gate time for a sequence results in a sharp series of these pops that are very unattractive.

This is particularly frustrating if, like me, you intend to run the Monotribe through an external effects processor such as the Mini-KP. These pops introduce high end where otherwise there should be none, so reverbs and short delays with high feedback sound horrible, when they could have sounded smooth and luscious.

Summary

It probably sounds like I’m really down on the Monotribe, but in fact I don’t regret my purchase one bit. I’m disappointed in it in the same way I was disappointed in the DS-10, because it is so close to being very special, and makes some embarrassingly idiotic decisions on the way there. I’m disappointed in it because the sequencer offers way, way less than I had made myself believe it would, and because the zero-release gate feels like someone clicking their tongue in my ear while I’m trying to make rad sounds.

The thing is, the Monotribe is a piece of garbage if you want deeply expressive musicality, or a travelling workstation for sketching out your next track. It’s not that kind of unit. What it IS is a playground where you can experiment very freely and very intuitively with the core principles of analog synthesis. It’s easy, when you’re patching a Nord Modular G2 with dozens of oscillators and LFOs, to forget how much can be done with a single oscillator and a single LFO, and the Monotribe gives you the ability to not just make crazy noises (you can), but also to *understand* what makes these noises.

I’ll go as far as to say I didn’t understand how to construct an FM patch until i spent a while on a couch with the Monotribe simply experimenting with the musicality you can get from subtle shifts in modulation.

No, this is a wonderful little gadget, and you could even argue that its blatant deficiencies shave a strictly unnecessary layer from your ambitions, and let you simply play with sound with no pretensions. It’s a synth and sequencer my girlfriend picked up and had fun with instantly, and with a few more sessions it could be her first real entry to analog synthesis in a very tactile package.

Still I’d strongly recommend giving a demo unit a spin before committing to the purchase, as I can imagine the Monotribe easily ending up in some forgotten cupboard gathering dust. Me, I’m happy making clicky, random monophonic acid techno at 3am when I can’t sleep.

One thought on “Thoughts on the Korg Monotribe

  1. never tried this piece of kit (yet), but I just wanted to spread some general praise for seeing something music-related in my morning flash-site round up.

    (now where can we check out your tunes? : ) )

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