The microKORG is one of the great music instrument product hits of recent years. It’s a product that has managed to reach out of the claustrophobic, aging niche of traditional keyboard buyers to a wider audience of rockers and music enthusiasts. It’s not the only keyboard to be “cool” – hello, Moog – but it’s the rare keyboard that’s both cool and cheap, not to mention small. The cheap plastic-y mic and army beige color only added to the appeal, and encouraged people to write on it with metallic pens and apply stickers and make it theirs. And the sound combination – lovely MS2000-style analog modeling with accessible vocoder – hit the market right on the nose.

Korg has already tried to come up with a sequel, the Korg R3, which we saw at NAMM in 2007. Now, I don’t know how the R3 sold, but I do know that while I was impressed by it on paper, it hasn’t really inspired the love and affection the microKORG did. Somewhere on its way to being a more grown-up microKORG, it became a boring grown-up synth. It’s still small, and it still has a mic and vocoder. And theoretically having real keys should have been a selling point, as should the improved MMT synth engine from the RADIAS. But something about that charcoal-colored case and generic design sucked the soul out of the microKORG and failed to connect to people’s hearts in the same way. People liked the microKORG because it seemed eccentric and toy-like, not in spite of it. Then there’s the problem that “R3” is meaningless and impossible to remember. I’m sure the R3 made many people happy, but I think it’s safe to say it wasn’t the phenomenon its quirky stablemate was.

The R3 was positioned as an older sibling. The microKORG XL, which I expect will be unveiled at NAMM and got its specs released today, is the real successor to the microKORG.

microKORG XL Product Page [Korg UK]

I’ve been utterly scooped by the UK again. MusicRadar gets specs, photos, and the first official announcement (Korg, see my side note about that at the end of this story):

Korg microKORG XL: official specs and photo

Korg microKORG XL to launch at NAMM? 

And Synthtopia got the first scoop and video:

Updated: This video is an excellent illustration of exactly how the XL will sound if you’re at the bottom of the ocean. Inside the stomach of a shark. Broadcasting on a satellite phone from inside the stomach of the shark on the bottom of the ocean. (Sorry, I had neglected to watch the video as I was having connection problems, or the sun was in my eyes, or something.)

This time, the strategy is different. Beige is out, as are the endless silkscreened presets printed on the outside. But the tiny keys and retro-inspired design remains.

How do the two compare?

Streamlined controls: The XL has a layout that actually seems to make some sense. Big knobs, oldskool rocker toggles, and no wasted space: just a few, carefully-chosen controls laid out neatly so even big fingers can get around them. There are still dedicated vocoder and arp buttons, and the octave shift, while replaced with a toggle switch, remains accessible. All in all, this looks like an improvement, though I suspect some people will miss the eight buttons for quick access to programs.

Better mic: Okay, the mic on the microKORG was charming – but also seemed liable to break. The XL now has the R3’s more rugged mic and windscreen.

Improved sound engine: Like the R3, the XL will get the MMT “Multi Modeling Technology” from the RADIAS. That means, like the RADIAS, it’s also a PCM-based ROMpler as well as virtual analog synth. I’m of a mixed mind on this one. While the PCM functions should broaden the appeal of the keyboard, I think it was the microKORG’s laser-like focus that made it so appealing. On the other hand, MMT’s virtual analog sounds reasonably good, and you get a much-needed vocoder improvement, with the MMT 16-band vocoder in place of the not-so-fantastic vocoder on the original.

New key action: Korg promises improved action and better proportioning of key size. I’ll believe it when I touch it.

Oddest decision: The two knobs now select presets instead of just one. One selects bank, the other instrument – okay, fair enough. But the one knob is genre (“ROCK/POP”) while the other selects “BASS,” “LEAD,” etc. I think that runs dangerously close to insulting people’s intelligence, which is rarely a good way to reach out to new players. The original microKORG was picked up as a first synth by people because they connected with it emotionally, not because it pandered to them. Clarification: the original microKORG also had a knob with genre labels. Most people ignored it, which I think is probably the right answer. It’s a bit silly, but it’s not a deal-breaker. That said, let’s go have some fun with this idea.

I’m going to make an odd prediction: I think original microKORGs may actually rise in value with the XL’s release. I’m not entirely convinced Korg got what made the original appealing – things like its unusual color, and not things like putting genre on a knob. That said, I think the XL will be a big hit in a way the R3 won’t. For my own mind, I’m most interested to see what they did with the key action. If they nailed that, then the combination with a better vocoder could make this a really fun buy.

There is some competition in this market, like Novation’s Xiosynth and the Alesis Micron. Those two synths have unique sounds of their own that could make them worth buying. But the microSYNTH still oozes personality, and the vocoder as icing really makes people love the thing. For that reason, I think the XL will be hard to beat – especially as people more interested in sound can go to soft synths or trade up to real analog with Dave Smith or Moog.

Price is likely to be a huge factor. I can tell you that it won’t be easy for Korg: economic instability and the surging Yen make cheap pricing a challenge. But I am hopeful they’ll be able to keep list low, because it’ll be good for them and good for us. Stay tuned. February 09 availability is the word.

We’ll be watching – Korg’s US office is just a short Long Island Railroad ride away.

Original microKORG

Side note: Can we just be an honorary UK publication? Hey, CDM’s #1 city for readership is London. (Really, ahead of NYC.) The UK readers were overwhelming in their response (and depth of response) in our recent holiday survey. And you UK press folks seem to get all the scoops. I can just stay up late playing Left4Dead to sync up with your time zone. I’ll be waiting on your response. Remember, the Financial District of NYC was loyal to the crown during the Revolution.