We Need to Talk About the Volca Beats

It’s not just a simple case of recording a pattern through the Volca’s direct output… the resulting sound is a mile away from what you hear through the speaker

I’ve blogged before about my fondness for the Korg Volca synthesisers, and also about Volca jam sessions. I love the simplicity and immediacy of the Volca synths, and through these periodic jam sessions, I’ve come up with 3 or 4 ideas which could easily be turned into decent full tracks.

The Volca Bass sounds awesome recorded directly through its headphone output, and I’ve already used Volca Bass sounds recorded this way in tracks (e.g. Dystopia). The Volca beats on the other hand presents some challenges. I’m currently trying to adjust to weaving music writing sessions into full-time work, and at the moment I’m working on turning the first of those 3 or 4 Volca jam session ideas into a full track. And this means taking the sounds from the Volca synths and recording or replicating them into Reaper (and Kontakt in the case of the Volca Beats).

The Volca Beats has some good and bad points. Internet forums are full of people complaining about the snare drum sound, and I agree it’s the low point of the synth (although by turning the decay right down it can become a pretty good rimshot). The cymbals also are pretty rough sounding… OK through the Volca’s speaker, but fairly grainy when recorded into a DAW. On the plus side, the 808-style bass drum sounds huge recorded through a DAW with longer decay settings, the clap sound is quite good, and the clave is very versatile. The problem I’m having at the moment is replicating the sound produced through the Volca Beats speaker in a higher quality context.

It’s not just a simple case of recording the pattern through the Volca’s direct output… the resulting sound is a mile away from what you hear through the speaker. There are a couple of reasons for this. This first is just the simple limitations of the speaker. I’ve mentioned this in a previous post but the Volca’s speaker is tiny, and trying to push heavy bass tones and sharp attacks through something less than 1″ diameter results in all kinds of inaccuracies. There’s nothing much at all below 350Hz (to be expected), and the pushing of all these strong tones through a speaker which is in no way capable of properly handling them results in all kinds of (ultimately pleasant) side-effects… distortion, compression, and a big chunk of excess mid range. The other, and more important problem that makes the speaker sound hard to replicate, is that the speaker significantly affects the decay of the drum sounds. One of the most interesting things I learnt during my ‘sabatic’ year producing, was how small changes in the length and decay of percussive sounds can have a huge effect on the overall groove/feel of a beat… comparing the same Volca Beats pattern through the direct output and the speaker is a great case-in-point of this. Basically the speaker tends to significantly shorten the decay of notes, so if you compose a pattern through the speaker, what you then record through the direct out ends up with longer decays which completely change the groove/feel of the pattern.

So, you’re left with the following situation…

  • You can’t really use the sound recorded through the direct out (at least on its own) as it sounds completely different to the speaker sound
  • You can’t use the speaker sound through a mic as it has no low end at all

The best you can do is to try and replicate the sounds you hear through the speaker in your DAW, and then try and rebuild the pattern from there (messing with decay and note lengths to try and replicate the groove/feel). I’ve had only mixed success with this so far… a lot of failures, and lots of persistence has been required. The best result I’ve had in replicating the tonality is to use a layered combination of…

  1. The Volca speaker sound recorded with a mic (and type of mic seems to be a bit important here too… I’ve had more luck in capturing the ‘grittiness’ of the sound with an SM57 than my usual condenser mic).
  2. Some similar synthesized drum sound to provide the low end, and bolster the mid
  3. Potentially some blending with a similar sounding sample or 808/909 sample to give a bit more polish

… and in my last session I found that distortion is like a ‘secret sauce’ for getting a more present, compressed, and harmonically rich sound.

Trying to replicate these Volca Beats sounds and patterns has been a long struggle so far, but I need to keep pushing on. The ultimate reward will be that once I figure out the right way to do it, I can quickly materialise the 2-3 remaining jam session ideas I have into full tracks… will definitely post details of the techniques when I finally figure it out.

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