Korg Monotribe Mods – Complete!

A couple months ago – September, after the h&s release and shows? – I impulse-bought a Korg Monotribe, which I’d always thought looked fun. The Monotribe is an analog synth, drum machine, and sequencer. It sounds kind of like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou soundtrack (the Mothersbaugh pieces) in a box, but weirder and angrier if you want it to be.

It arrived, and little jams immediately started pouring out. Designer Tatsuya Takahashi and the Korg team did incredible work on this project, incorporating a wide variety of cool sounds into a simple interface. The 1-shot LFO, per-part Active Step sequencer, Flux mode for the synth sequencer, and sequenceable VCO gate time, drum roll, and VCO volume are particularly brilliant.

By necessity it has limitations – the drum sounds are fixed, the VCO can’t be turned off to play the filter or external input, the VCA is clicky, and all sounds get mixed down to mono – but the Monotribe’s PCB has some test points that open up possibilities for addressing most of these limits.

I read a bunch of message board threads, made a list, tested things, made a hardware plan, drilled the case, fixed some issues with the hardware plan, soldered, re-soldered, and did a couple more days’ worth of troubleshooting than I expected, but here’s what I’ve come up with.

Several of the mods came directly from the massive thread on Muffwiggler, including:

  • VCO mute (allows for playing the noise, resonant filter, and/or external audio input on their own without the VCO)
  • VCA slew (the Monotribe’s VCA is notoriously clicky. This is an on-off-on toggle with two levels of click suppression. Internally, I also replaced the one-turn VCA biasing trimpot with a 10-turn trimmer and re-biased the VCA)
  • Bass drum / Rhythm mix / Hi-hat direct outs (the Rhythm mix out becomes a snare out when all three are used)
  • BD and SD gain controls (higher gain = longer decay)
  • SD noise and HH decay toggles

Stuff I came up with on my own:

  • VCF touch controller (lets you play the filter with your fingers. Pressure-sensitive! Can do some fun almost-formant sounds)
  • Giant arcade button to mute the drums while held down
  • Put the SD noise and HH decay capacitors on a IC socket in the battery compartment so they can be any value, instead of hard-wiring in two decay lengths. Using small value resistors instead of caps can turn the SD into a tom sound and mute the HH

This should be great for little jams around the house, taking on the road, and as the heart of a pretty versatile mini rig with a few guitar pedals or other small boxes for collaborations or performances.

Listening Rig

I finally had to buy an external hard drive to house my music library. (I’d replaced the old Mac Mini’s internal one 5+ years ago.) Below is my current daily listening rig.

Intel Core 2 Duo Mac Mini (circa 2007)
1 TB WD Elements external HD
OS X 10.5.8
iTunes 10.6.3 (<– a version that’s still good!!)
160 GB iPod classic (<– best ever!!!!!!!!)
Library: 35,000 items; 100 days of music end-to-end

The iPod will die some day – it’s already been through a few total fritz-outs and and full re-syncs – but that’s survivable. (This will probably be the event that prompts me to enter the smartphone era.) I’m not sure I can go on living without iTunes 10 and my library, though. I probably need to investigate some kind of solid state drive machine that will boot Leopard.

Or maybe there’s library management software on Linux that could replace iTunes.

“Utopia Parkway” 20th Anniversary

The other week as I read the liner notes for Fountains of Wayne’s Out-of-State Plates while importing it to iTunes (yeah, still do that) I realized the 20th anniversary of their album Utopia Parkway had come and gone this past April, and I hadn’t seen anyone mention it.

Below is a lightly edited version of the email conversation Cory and I had about it.

Continue reading “Utopia Parkway” 20th Anniversary

Monotribe Modding

A couple months ago I impulse-bought a Korg Monotribe synth. It proved even more fun than I expected to play, but its variety of sounds are necessarily limited.

After a lot of googling, planning, and testing, parts arrive tomorrow for a suite of modifications that will expand the Monotribe’s palette in some moderate but meaningful ways.

Enhancements include:

  • Hi-hat, Bass drum, and drum mix (snare when the other two are used) direct outputs
  • Hi-hat and snare noise decay toggle switches
  • Bass drum and snare frame decay knobs
  • Drum mix momentary mute button
  • VCA de-click trim pot and toggle switch (the Monotribe’s amp envelope is notoriously clicky)
  • VCO mute toggle switch
  • VCF touch-sensitive cutoff control

Together, I hope these mods will take the Monotribe from the top end of the “fun-to-mess-around-with” bracket into the lower end of “serious instrument” territory. I fully intend to make a Monotribe-focused Night Mode record or two, and make it the centerpiece of a travel/jam synth rig with a very small footprint (think briefcase).

My hat is off to Korg for this incredibly creative and inspiring design. There are a lot of features that may not be obvious from the front panel, but that make the Monotribe incredibly musical, including:

  • The various LFO modes
  • Per-part active step (polyrhythms!)
  • Gate length and amp level automation
  • Wide mode on the ribbon controller
  • Flux mode on/off on the VCO sequencer
  • The interaction of the sequencer and the VCO active steps, which allows some really distinct sequences to be made easily

I could go on. Nothing could replace the MS-20’s place in my heart of hearts, but for instant playability I don’t know what beats the Monotribe.

Nash on Songs

“Songs, they have to be recorded or they drive you crazy just being inside your head.”
— Graham Nash, summer 2019

What pushed Graham Nash, the quiet one, to record his solo masterpiece

Rings true to me.

Sometimes it’s not even songs; it can be synth patches, or guitar sounds, or circuit ideas. Wrestling ideas out from the imagination and into the world.

Today it’s a drum beat, and maybe some synth mods.

Who knows what it might be tomorrow.

Neighboring Artists

My music library makes for some interesting bedfellows. Here are the real alphabetical neighbors for Mr. Furious artists:


Big Star
Bike
Bilal

Converge
Cool Drugs
Cory Kibler

Cosmic Ground

Echo & the Bunnymen
echoes
Econoline Crush

Gift of Gab
GiLMO
Girl Talk

How to Destroy Angels
howie&scott
Howl

Maroon 5
Mars Lights
The Mars Volta

Pat Benatar
Pat Bradley
Paul and Paula

Robin Pecknold
Robot, Creep Closer!
Robotboy

Saint Vitus
Sally Ride
Same Old Crap

Shabazz Palaces
Shacker
Shanice

h&s Sound + Vision Dates

This is more for my reference than anything else, but I recorded drums for V for Voice at Sound + Vision / Lawrence Public Library on September 22, 2016, and March 6, 2017.

I remember both dates clearly, and it doesn’t seem like the September one could have been three years ago. At all.

I had some nerves, both about whether I’d play well and about being in a new studio. I can feel the weight of the drums as I walk up 7th street from my parking spot to the library’s front entrance. I feel as at-home on those streets now as I did on the streets of my hometown growing up.

Anyway. The recordings went pretty well those days. The tracklist was basically set already, so on the first date I played When Breathing through Beams, then the rest of the record on the second date.

Time is deeply strange.