LIKE IT OR NOT, CONTEMPORARY ROCK and pop music has fully embraced the influence of electronic music. Whether it’s the pumping peaks of EDM, the subsonic throb of hip-hop, or the innumerable indie, prog, and electro bands integrating synthesizers, sequences, and electronically derived pads, bleeps, glorps, booms, and sizzles, electronic music technology is now an integral facet of popular music. Bass players who aspire to work in this environment should familiarize themselves with the way this evolution has impacted the instrument’s role. Beyond a potential career boost, getting friendly with synths can be a newly inspiring way to conceive of what it means to be a bass player.
The challenge is how to dive in without spending too much on gear that may only be a burgeoning interest. The Korg Volca Bass may represent the best value out there for developing basic synth skills, in a portable package that sounds as good as synths costing thousands more. The Volca Bass is the conceptual descendent of the Roland TB-303, a legendary monophonic synth from the early ’80s whose fat sound, small footprint, and built-in sequencer made it responsible for the emergence of the acid-house genre and its many stylistic descendants—putting the Volca at the cutting edge of a recent resurgence in affordable analog synthesis.
As with so many other intersections of art and technology (photography, home stereos, recording, etc.) the key differentiator among synthesizers is whether they function in the analog or digital domain. For reasons outside the scope of this article, the general consensus is that when it comes to synth bass, an analog source is somehow more intrinsically likable, rich, and big-sounding. In the Volca Bass, three analog voltage-controlled oscillators (VCOs) feed an analog lowpass filter (VCF) and analog amplifier (VCA). Other aspects of the synth are managed digitally for precision and programmability, but the Volca’s sound remains in the analog domain. Without even getting into the Korg’s clever feature set, the fact that an analog three-VCO synth is available for under $200 is reason enough to give the Volca Bass serious consideration.
While the Volca Bass offers a surprisingly functional onboard ribbon controller, it really comes alive when you connect a MIDI controller to its DIN jack. It precisely tracks pitch and responds to MIDI Continuous Controller (CC) messages, to control a variety of its onboard parameters via an external controller, including velocity and pitch/mod-wheel changes. The Volca Bass offers three VCO-grouping modes, allowing independent control of each of the three oscillators, a 2+1 configuration, or a stacked threevoice grouping for maximum impact. It also includes a dedicated (but basic) low-frequency oscillator (LFO) to modulate (rhythmically alter) pitch, filter cutoff, or amplitude, with variable rate and intensity.
Many TB-303 addicts get giddy at the Volca Bass’s onboard sequencer, and it is indeed cool, although I think it’s superfluous to the needs of most bass players. You can create cool, looping lines that integrate portamento, parameter changes, and more with the sequencer—and you can even get three independent lines courtesy the VCO grouping options—but I conceive of the Volca Bass more as the cheapest possible introduction to analog keybass playing in a performance environment. The rest of its many features are a bonus if having a cheap, killer-sounding keybass option is your primary goal. And the Volca Bass is huge-sounding indeed, especially when you connect to its audio output and bypass its puny (though welcome) onboard speaker. It is lacking the modulation flexibility, multiple oscillator waveshapes, and sophisticated envelopes of other monosynths, but it still delivers enormous-sounding bass that covers many of the standardissue tones we bass players might need to cover a gig. Its 2-pole filter is unusual—not as fat as the classic 4-pole Moog lowpass filter, but still gnarly and compelling in its own way. The ability to choose between sawtooth and square VCOs provide the seeds for the two main branches of synth bass tone, and its responsiveness to external MIDI control means you can use a proper, performance-size keyboard.
If you’re just dipping your toe in the keybass water and don’t mind shelling out a little extra for a MIDI controller, the Volca Bass is one of the most value-packed options available. On top of its expensive sound, it’s just a ton of fun. As I’ve continued to explore and integrate synths into my skillset, this fun-factor is what keeps me hungry for more. If the bug hasn’t bit you yet, the Volca Bass will.
Pros Fat-sounding analog goodness for a song
Cons Limited modulation; requires an external MIDI controller for real-time performance
Bottom Line Simply the best value in analog bass synthesis.
Oscillators 3 voltage-controlled with sawtooth/square waves
Filter Resonant 2-pole 12dB/octave lowpass
Envelopes Filter & voltage-controlled amplifier ADR w/switchable sustain
Modulation Triangle/square wave LFO, assignable to VCO, VCF & VCA
Output ¼" audio
Input DIN MIDI
Sync 5V pulse input and output; MIDI clock
Power 9V DC w/external power supply (not included) or six AA batteries (included)
Dimensions 7.60" x 4.53" x 1.81"
Weight 13.05 oz
Made in Vietnam