Korg Volca Beats is one of the most popular drum machines on the market, and for a good reason. It’s an incredibly affordable piece of gear that packs a serious punch and sounds great. In this article, we’ll look at what makes the Volca Beats so special and why it’s our top pick for the best drum machine of the year.
The Beats is one of the original OG trio of Volcas, which, back when they hit the scene, were groundbreaking in their offering real analog hardware sound generation for less than $200. It is a portable form that could be run on batteries, and they all had 16-step sequencers with “Active Step,” allowing for non-standard rhythms.
This best drum machine is designed in Japan and made in Vietnam and has a “full analog signal path”. However, as Korg explains, “the control signals are generated digitally,” while the CPU has a 10-bit DAC that delivers incredible near-analog resolution. We can happily prove it.
It is a hybrid unit; This allows you to fine-tune your composition, record note information in your sequencer, and access it via MIDI. Some of Volca’s front parameters are MIDI CC, which can be addressed via the MIDI controller. For example, you can control the decay of “grain,” “stutter,” and hi-hat tom of the beat.
The Volca’s sequencer is limited to 16 steps, but you can create longer sequences using it as your DAW’s sound/sequencing module. Real-time recording is possible, and Beats has fully editable step recording. It can also store eight sequences, and while there is no sequence chain, loading sequences from memory is instantaneous.
- Excellent sound quality
- Intuitive and easy to use
- Incredibly versatile
- Great for beginners
- Limited sequencer
- No USB connectivity
- No visual cues on the step buttons
Korg Volca Beats Modding Possibilities
Like the Monotron and Monotribe, Volcas can be modified and expanded even if you lose your warranty. People are already customizing them for MIDI output and CV control, and you can add individual audio outputs for drum sounds in Beats.
However, they work harder than Monotron / Tribe, so be careful with that soldering iron! Korg quickly re-identifies key solder points on the PCB (MIDI-out, kick-out, etc.) that indicate how they are connected to their user base.
It is essential (if you are using an iOS device) to view Korg’s free SyncKontrol app. Connect the sync cable from your iOS device headset to the Sync In of your main Volco, and you can start/stop sequencers, set the tempo, or add a swing.
This last point is crucial because it is not surprising that there is no swing parameter in any of the Volcas. The SyncKontrol swing is also a bit choppy at higher percentages (although it’s suitable for creating twisted/irregular rhythms), so we hope to find a better application or ‘swing mode’!
Korg Volca Beats Performance Notes
Based on the “common analog vintage circuits'” (which sounds like the Roland TR606), Beats has six analog voices and four PCM.
The kick can be tapped or deep, the caps are nicely cut, and the snare has a woodsy tone that can be further enhanced by PCM clapping or increasing the “snap”. Active Step mode is excellent for single-time signatures/differences, while Step Jump is significant for live fills (place your finger on a step for the loop).
A stutter can also cause fills and twists, gated FX, delays/reverb, and bit-crushing, and can be applied globally/individually and then “motion sequences.” Muting (press mute + sound) and changing part volume is easy, while PCM sounds have a speed control that can drastically change the pitch. All that’s missing is a filter and a swing.
Entering notes and rhythms into the Volcas sequencer is done via a “multi-touch” keyboard (or MIDI), which is surprisingly easy and accurate overall (much more accessible than Monotron / Tribe).
However, to get the most out of your performance/sequence (especially when playing chords on your keyboard), we recommend connecting an external MIDI keyboard. Beats do not react to velocity via MIDI, but all Volcas respond strongly to MIDI note input. Each device can have its MIDI channel, but the Volca does not have multi-voice.
Also, along with the Func button, the key acts as a function button for accessing secondary functions, and the system works well and is easy to learn. The balance between features, ease of use, and reproducibility is excellent, and it’s incredible how much money you have piled up.
Greet the Beats of Korg Volca Beats
The sequencer works firmly and is ideal for one-on-one films, entertaining children from production, live instrumentalists/singers who love baking machines / analog audio modules, and exclusively for producers. In space, you want quality analog drums without making money. Modding options are a real bonus, and Korg also mentioned that he prototypes a combined case / stand for all three Volcas.
Of course, with this small trade-off, there are no standard MIDI outputs, no combo / recorded PSUs, no audio input, no swing, no way to copy tracks, and no pattern string.
Anyway, now we’re digging towards Korg, hoping it will inspire other big manufacturers to improve their games and get in touch with what their customers want. It’s worth selling with the ship, and we can only imagine that we are excited about what Korg is around the corner.
Korg Volca Beats Comparison in 2023
These days you’ll find a plethora of analog hardware synths/drum machines, most imbued with 16-step sequencers, making the Beats feel much less interesting or special than it did in its heyday. Moreover, Behringer has released their copycat Roland TR-606 (Behringer TD-3), TR-808 (RD-8), and TR-909 (RD-9) analog drum machines which rival the Volca Beats in almost every way – and in the case of the TD-3, for a lower price.
Roland TR-6s isn’t much more expensive than Volca beats and does very decent analog modeling. Its sampled drums plus and FM drums plus act as a USB audio interface that streams each instrument over its own input channel!
TR-6 has cycles Elektron model and various models, which offer much more variety in sound than the Volca Beats and far more sophisticated sequencers.
Honestly, the Volca Beats has been eclipsed in many ways by its nascent brethren: the nature of sampling makes the other Volca Sample far, far more versatile than the Beats. In addition, now that its second version adds USB import/export, the Volca Kick makes the Volca Beats’ kick drum feel extremely boring.
The Volca Drum loses the analog vibe but gains a torrential downpour of sophistication, versatility, depth, and fresh new sounds – not to mention a much-improved user interface via the LCD.
The snare drum
From the bat, Korg Volca Beats (vBeats) users lamented the snare drum. While sporting the TR-808 snare’s “snappy” variable control and depth control, it sounds disappointingly weak compared to other analog drum machines’ snare drums, whether 808-inspired or not.
Users came up with popular mods with this – such a route is DIY, meaning you benefit from these mods being tried & successful for many people already. However, you’ll need the skills and confidence to do it yourself at the risk of breaking your device. Speaking of mods, there’s also a mod to imbue vBeats with outputs for each drum sound – in all honesty, if you’re recording your drums all on a single track, you should temper any expectations of sonic greatness.
What We Like
We were surprised that Korg allows the PCM sampled drums (hi-hat, crash, claves) with so much variability in speed/pitch – We weren’t expecting that.
It also offers what most analog drum machines lack completely because it’s not analog; it’s digital technology generating these sounds. Its technology makes sense Korg did this for the same reason that Roland did in the venerable TR-909 – you’ll get realistic sounds for a very low cost compared to generating from scratch with analog circuitry.
The hi-hats in Behringer’s TR-808 copycat sound better than those in Volca Beats – but not by a ton, and they’re not much more sculptural, either. The toms are rather decent, being almost as good too. The “stutter” effect is poorly-named and a bit awkward to control, but everyone loves to have this repeating facility on drum machines.
Its Active Step is great in that departures from the ubiquitous “4 on the floor” time signature and rhythm of virtually all modern electronic music are 1) easy to implement and 2) easy to understand what’s happening, and 3) easy to revert.
The Volca Beats is still an okay instrument for drum machine education. Unfortunately, Korg forgot to include the visual cues they usually do on the step buttons – to mark 5, 9, 13, or default to starting. Blank programs with a kick on those steps (the Electribe EM-1 did this) are much easier to wrap one’s head around than the Behringer RD-8. Its UI is more immediately comprehendible than the Novatoon Circuit or Volca Drum.
The Beats is good as a beginner’s first drum machine, a stepping stone, but anyone would grow bored of it eventually. The lack of individual part outputs, velocity sensitivity, swing, recall of half of the parameters, just 8 memory slots with no memory bulk dump/load ultimately makes vBeats is not a serious contender.
On a shoestring budget, Teenage Engineering’s Pocket Operators or Novation’s Circuit are better choices for serious creators. With a plethora of free to modestly priced software, it could serve the aspiring room producer far better than vBeats. Arturia’s SparkLE, $10 for iPad, for instance.
Just $40 more than vBeats, Mac owners also can buy the entire Logic Pro X full-featured professional DAW, which includes very capable electronic drum instruments, not to mention an entire studio’s worth of software instruments and recording/sequencing facilities.
We’re giant hardware proponents when it comes to electronic musical instruments, but We’d be in denial of reality if we didn’t mention this. For less than vBeats, you could buy a nice 4×4 set of velocity and aftertouch sensitive pads for finger drumming – far more expressive, tactile, and limitless than vBeats.
Moreover, iOS users can get a software emulation of the Electribe ER-1 drum machine for $15, and we imagine they would find it far superior to vBeats except for the inherent lack of physical controls like knobbage. The ribbon controller step buttons or volcas are no better than tapping a screen, but the knobs are inviting and likely encourage more real-time tweaking than iELECTRIBE, we suppose.
The midi controls we mentioned earlier can be set up to tweak software instrument parameters. It’s true in theory, but in reality, we suspect less than 25% of the midi controller knobs and sliders purchased are ever configured and regularly used. That conundrum is a reason for the existence of hardware like the volcas which seems ridiculous when compared to the value of software otherwise.
Korg Should Update Or Retire
We find it disrespectful that Korg still offers this product, at its original price, unchanged (never updated), alongside the newer Volcas, which cost equally and are far more sophisticated. They’re just taking advantage of buyers too foolish to know better.
They updated the Volca Sample with USB I/O knowing it was a winning product but never bothered to even release firmware updates for the existing hardware to allow drum machine basics like a swing, which you can do manually. Feeding it a swung click track into its SYNC IN. The first generation of Volcas has fewer memory slots, no memory dump, and no warp active step (the latter is a variant of active step, which is far more usable in 4/4 time signature compositions, albeit less adventurous).
The vBeats isn’t versatile, the vDrum and vSample both have it beat in that regard. Plus, its stutter functionality is mediocre – if you really want an analog drum machine, you’ll be much better off with Behringer’s TD-3, which costs less than the Volca Beats and is a much better re-make of Roland’s TR-606.
Ultimately, its analog-ness is most likely the rationale for keeping vBeats in the catalog alongside far more capable and sophisticated drumming Volcas. A big analog fan myself, this situation is the type that reminds me favoring analog can be more of an ideological fascination without any musical or sonic benefit for me or my listeners.
Analog circuitry makes the vKick great, but with such a weak snare drum on vBeats we’re just talking sculptability of the kick and toms’ length and pitch – both of which can be accomplished on vSample and vDrum just as well as vBeats.
Analog synths’ sonic character inspires me with joy even if the benefit is inconsequential to the listeners of my music – but the vBeats’ analog circuitry barely produces any magic that can’t digital can’t do just as well. It’s a reminder that at budget prices, digital is usually far better than (inexpensive) analog – Behringer’s newest analog offerings are a surprising exception to this rule of thumb!
If a vBeats mkII could have the analog Kick, Snare, Toms, Clap, and Hi-Hat of Behringer’s RD-8, their TR-808, that’d be a different story and We’d wholeheartedly recommend paying $160 for such an analog drum machine. Like a real TR-808, it’d lack the versatility of tone offered by vDrum and vSample, but would provide the perfect (and sculptable) percussion tones underlying more than half of electronic music from hip/hop to dance.
We cannot fathom Korg’s continuing to sell the vBass still for $160 given the vNuBass, but the vKeys may still be a worthwhile purchase; it was the only affordable analog synth on the market upon release, which is no longer the case, but it’s wonderful for leads, basses (as good as vBass), and chords (for the later it’s best played via an external midi keyboard).
The vKeys is even a decent 16-step midi sequencer without using Its sound engine! Volca Bass tried to be a TB-303, and now Behringer does that better, cheaper, with the TD-3.
Most Frequently Asked Questions
Is Volca beats stereo or mono?
The Volca beats a mono machine. So it sounds better and produces a more detailed stereo image than the Yamaha CS1. But its limitations are not all that great when creating good remixes. And its rules are better for hip-hop and more commercial songs. So you won’t want to hear the Volca beats without a sound hip-hop track or a rock song for better bass or higher energy.
Do Korg Volca beats have a speaker?
Korg Volca Beats has a rechargeable battery and built-in speaker to enjoy anywhere. With its compact size, battery power, and built-in speaker, the Volca can quickly be taken anywhere and is always ready for use.
Does Korg Volca beat stereo?
Korg recommends using only stereo (TRS) cables to output Volca’s audio, even on mono Volca; This also applies if you connect a stereo cable to the mono input of the mixer. It doesn’t hurt because the mono jack on the mixer doesn’t use a repeating mono signal on the other side of the stereo connection.
Korg Volca Beats is an amazing little machine that gives you a lot of features for the price. It’s easy to use and sounds great. We highly recommend it to anyone looking for an excellent entry-level drum machine. It’s a good machine for anyone who has just started drumming.
However, if you’re thinking of getting a better drum machine in its group, we recommend Behringer TD-3.