About untergeek

Early digital immigrant. Father. Maker. Tinkerer. Serendipist. Journalist. Synth nerd.

Falling in love with the Korg R3 – again…

Rediscovering an old love of mine, for a simple reason: The R3 is an ideal piece of gear to take on a holiday – compact yet with a full-sized 3-octave keyboard, extremely versatile, powerful sound – and really good fun.

The setup: The R3, vocoder mic inserted, my Volca Beats drum machine synched to the R3 via a sparkling blue MIDI cable, and inserted with another audio cable into the R3’s two audio inputs, and optionally, the ModStep sequencer app on my iPad as a phrase recorder, connected via the new Camera Connection Kit and an USB cable. Apart from my headphones, there is even a small autonomous Bluetooth speaker that can be wired to the R3’s output, via another audio cable. As the R3 is a full-blown synth rather a sound toy (also known as “Tischhupe”), and everything mentioned fits effortlessly into a small gig bag, and thus in my overstuffed car, I conclude that the R3 is ideal travel gear, and suitable even for camping holidays.

Yet the R3 is so much more.

Modstep app screenshot

Bass and melody tracks in Modstep, you can even override the Volca Beat‘s patterns and control the sounds directly from a Modstep grid

Came as a substitute, stayed as a champion

Many, many years ago, I was looking for a small beginners’ synth to get back into music. I had been looking for a MicroKorg but without the MK’s obvious limitations – four-voice, monotimbral, small keys simply not suited for my clumsy fingers. I realized that there was a MK XL, and then I realized that there was a slightly larger version of the same engine packaged with full-size keys, more FX, the capability to produce two different sounds at once, and a slightly better user interface, called R3. Which was to be had cheap. So I bought a second-hand one on eBay.

It was a good choice for getting back into music. The same qualities that make it a good holiday companion made it a good choice for jamming: It’s portable, it’s playable, and it’s capable. And gradually I started falling in love with the R3. Let me tell you why.

Genesis fans from the Prog-Rock as well as the „Mama“ factions hate it. Well, „Duke“ it‘s not, but it contains some truly unique pieces of music.

For one, I do love underdogs. And the R3 is an underdog synth. You see, the R3 is a bit like Genesis’ “abacab” album. Prog-Rock Fans hate this record for, well, Phil Collins, you know. Pop fans hate it for its handful of admittedly truly horrible songs. Just like Microkorg enthusiasts hate the R3 for sounding cleaner than a first-gen MK or an MS-2000; VA enthusiasts hate it for not sounding like an analog. I love “abacab” for its unique, electronic, Prophet-5-heavy sound, and for showing off what a terrific musician Phil Collins actually is, whatever you think of his songwriting.

Well, the analogy stops here – as I have mentioned the magic word “Prophet-5”, let’s be honest: The R3 is not a good VA to replicate vintage P5 sounds. In case you should be desperate to replicate the sound from Genesis’ “Lonely Man At the Corner”, better known as the sound from PC’s “In The Air Tonight”: There are much, much better VAs for that – please do look at Creamware’s Pro-12. So let me break down what I like – and dislike – about the R3.

The depth of the Radias engine

The R3’s basic layout is a traditional substractive synthesis setup, with two oscillators, two multimode filters, 3 EGs, 2 LFOs. The first oscillator features classical as well as sampled wave forms. The filters are not too bad for digital filters. A small mod matrix complements a couple of hard-wired modulations such as velocity/EG and LFO2/pitch. Some extensions and variations on the classic theme, under Korg’s “MMT” label from the Oasis line.

Some of that stuff is weird – Format wave forms, anybody? – some is really good. I love switching OSC1 to VPM – this is Korg’s variant of Casio’s Phase Distortion synthesis from the 80s, which was Casio’s variant of DX7-like FM synthesis for normal humans without a second brain or PhDs in acoustic physics. A wave shaper, technically a lookup table but very versatile. Filter2 working as a comb filter, i.e. a resonator for Karplus-Strong type string plucking sounds. And up to three independent effects per sound, including another bit crusher as well as a ring modulator.

The best thing of the R3’s mod matrix may be the feature that is not part of it: a sixteen-step modulation sequencer. Apart from sequencing, well, pitch, it can animate parameters like OSC1’s harmonics in VPM mode, which you cannot reach from the mod matrix. It can even modulate the mod matrix’s modulation depths. I would wish that the mod matrix could reach all the targets the mod sequencer can reach, but it is unfortunately much more limited. They fixed that in the Radias – a Radias is two R3s packaged with an Electribe and many, many knobs – but the software update enabling the additional targets never was back-ported to the R3. Underdog indeed.

I do own a Radias, by the way. It understands R3 sounds, and they are among the best for this synth.

Pain points

Let’s face it: in terms of digital technology, the R3 is old. 8 voices – 4 per split – are not enough. (Still, its even more limited Microkorg brethren are sold to this day.) There are fresher VA alternatives that are just as cheap, like Novation’s Mininova. And there are some things to hate about this small machine.

The plastic housing is cheap. The full-size keybed is playable but nasty. (Take my word for it: the keys don’t feature the usual metal springs but are attached by flexible plastic working as a spring load – ewww!) They tend do turn yellow over the years as well. Really, really nasty. They could also do with an aftertouch, but even if the R3 HAD aftertouch, the limitations of the mod matrix would mean that you could not program it to control vibrato independently of the mod wheel.

In summary: Rational causes for a a love affair

Pros:

  • Full-sized, 37-key keyboard
  • Light and compact
  • Deep VA engine capable of some unique sounds
  • While not knobby, it is still easy to program without an editor
  • Rich in effects
  • Bi-timbral
  • External inputs
  • Vocoder

Contras:

  • No aftertouch… yet
  • Keybed is not so great
  • Modulation targets are infuriatingly limited
  • Plastic housing not too stable
  • Delicate plastic housing
  • 8 voices only

Bitte nicht nach einer Kalibrierung für das Pitchbend-Rad beim Blofeld suchen. (Macht er selber.)

Waldorf Blofeld Keyboard white, view on the pitchbend wheel

One day, my trusty Blofeld started drifting out of tune – pretty unusual behaviour for a digital synth. Even if it was in tune first, the drifting started as soon as I touched the pitchbend wheel, so I suspected that this was the culprit.

Blofeld wheelbox

Opening the Blofeld (all 18 screws on the bottom – remember?), removing the wheelbox, and measuring the pitchbend pot confirmed that the potentiometer was indeed damaged – while an end-to-end-measurement showed 9k, the end-to-mid-resistance could be virtually anywhere, screaming “Mechanical Damage!” to me.

The potentiometer is 10k lin with a knurled 6.3mm shaft and an M10x0.75 mount. Waldorf seems to have used a Piher T-21Y type (datasheet). As I did not find something fitting in my parts boxes, I took it apart, cleaned it, adjusted the pickup spring, applied a bit of contact grease, refitted the pot and closed the Blofeld

And now for the good part…

Although I measured that the wheel now zeroed around the pot’s 5kOhm mark, it had most definitely shifted slightly, so I started looking for the calibration routine. There has to be a calibration routine, right?

But the good Blofeld seems to calibrate on power-up and on the first usage of the wheel – no calibration routine for the wheels needed. Phew!

Waldorf Blofeld Keyboard white, view on the pitchbend wheel

Important note: Be careful to ensure that the Molex connector for the wheelbox sits correctly – when I pulled the plug, the plastic holder for the pins got pulled towards the edge of the PCB so when I reattached the plug, it did not sit correctly. Rule of thumb: If the plastic of the connector is visible from the top, you might want to push it back under the PCB.

I am still testing the new shop, and I have just discovered a working plugin for showing shop and blog in English and German.

crash test dummies giving each other a thumbs-up

My, this is SO exciting.

I figured out that I have reached the point where the unpleasantness of having to buy, install and maintain a proper web shop has dropped below the unpleasantness of having to do everything by hand. (I am sure there is an XKCD cartoon for this.)

And there is also the fact that the many buyers of Bob’s firmware deserve professional handling of their inquiry. A machine is much, much better at this than me.

So this little blog is running WPShopGermany now – although I am not at all happy with their multiple documentation, things look reasonably well so far.

A German shop – for English speakers?

The WPShopGermany is fantastically well adapted to German laws and regulations, but not quite as well to speakers of other languages. To offer foreign language support, the makers recommend using the commercial WPML plugin – for which a license comes in at impressive 79 dollars, much more than I paid for the shop plugin. Which is all the more infuriating as the language files for US-English are all there (wp-content/plugins/wpshopgermany-free/lang/). And no, I am not using the free version.

Ve vill finally get se hang of your humour, was!

Luckily, I discovered that there is a newly developed free alternative to WPML, WP Multilang. Installing and activating the plugin made the shop run fine, with German and English texts – but I have not come round to translating every important title and page into two languages, so you might still have to employ GTranslate at some point or another.

To err is human. To blunder spectacularly is untergeeky.

I tell myself that this is the downside (backside?) of serendipity, but I tend to overlook things and produce errors. If you should serendipously stumble upon one of those – a missing translation, a missing order form, something running wild – drop me a line, will you? Cheers!

[:en]

Your Message

Let me know what's up. And how to get back to you.

[:de]

Worum geht's? Und wie kann ich mich zurückmelden?

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Midifying Jenny, Step 1: Replacing the old keyboard chip with a Teensy

This is the first post in a series of small projects for retrofitting my JEN SX-1000 monosynth with a simple and cheap MIDI interface controller. Read about the basic idea here. Today, I am designing and building the micro-controller brain of the Jenny retrofit – if you are capable of basic soldering, it should not take you more than two hours and a couple of very common electronic parts.

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Jenny and friends in action

Vanity post: This is what a session with the JEN sounds and looks like, mainly playing it as a bass synth. Look out for the freshly integrated phaser from 20:05 onwards. Other electronic sounds are from my Blofeld, a Ferrofish organ and Synthstrom Audio Deluge beatbox, a Meris Enzo guitar synth, an occasional Octatrack sample, and Eberhard’s guitar.

The glorious monkey art was conceived and painted by my friend Gerald, who – apart from playing organs and the Deluge – edited the video as well.

The chip shop is down…

…as I am installing proper shop software after all. Safer and faster for you, easier for me.

Might take a couple of days though until the webshop plugin is running and properly translated.

If you are about to lose patience, or would like to contact me about any issue or question, please use the contact form. (Yes, I DO know that it stubbornly mistakes some people for spammers but please stick with me; there is also a mail address on that site.)

Jenny getting her very own phaser…

…and my sweet Lord, does it make her shine!

Nothing fancy here. After inserting the booster/overdrive in between VCO and filter section, I took another of those lovely Musikding.de kits for a phaser, built it, drilled some holes into Jenny’s housing and fitted it.

I have been using Jenny as a bass synth recently, and I am quite impressed by the quantities of life and fun this old machine is adding to the mix. She doesn’t do that much in terms of tonal range, but what she does, she does well.

Drilling holes in Jenny’s front

I rediscovered an old trick when drilling metal: use a bit of alcohol, not on the person drilling, but on the surface you want to drill. And don’t go too fast.

A Pre-Filter Booster Stage for Jenny

Giving my JEN SX-1000 a bit of additional low growl by adding a pre-filter overdrive.

A nice little addition: Insert a booster circuit kit where the coupling capacitor between oscillator and the filter used to be. Come on, you’ll have to take out that damn capacitor anyway. And it sounds really nice, punching through the mix (samples below) – especially in combination with the sub-oscillator mod.

I do admit that you might think that this is a superfluous mod. After all, when you drive this circuit – any circuit – into overdrive and into clipping, the resulting wave form will, gradually, start to resemble a square wave.

But I could do it, so I did it. And I like it. So let’s get started.

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