A few years ago, the idea of compact and affordable hardware production instruments seemed like a ridiculous prospect. Sure, we had stuff like the Stylophone or the various toy keyboards, but they were just that: toys with limited features. To get something small, sturdy, feature-packed, and sounding meaty, that won’t break the bank would be a break from everything so far. Then, in 2010, Korg released the MONOTRON analogue ribbon synthesiser, a battery-powered little box that paved the way to something truly innovative: the Korg Volca series.
For me personally, the idea of being able to own a practical synth has always been appealing. I already own the Volca Beats and Bass, so seeing the Kickstarter campaign for the minijam Studio got me excited about this compact set of noise makers. Then we got a parcel from Patchblocks containing the tek.drum, tek.waves, .hub, and the .boom portable speaker. Unfortunately, the tek.filter wasn’t ready for the press preview set, which is a shame, as the little all-analogue unit looks quite useful. We’ll just have to take a look at it when the final hardware is launched.
EDITOR’S NOTE: These units are strictly pre-production, thus rendering this a first look piece only, and most definitely not a review of what the final units will be. Indeed, a lengthy tome arrived with the units saying exactly what would be improved or just outright not working yet. So please view this as a mere taster of what the minjam Studio will be, and whatever Dan has mentioned below, rest assured that the final units will be a big improvement.
What is the minijam Studio?
The minijam Studio started life on Kickstarter, with the aim of bringing a super affordable set of hardware noise-makers that all work together. All the devices are around the size of a smartphone, making it light and easy to take anywhere.
The heart of the set is the .hub mixer, offering three channels of volume control for your instruments, as well as a trigger signal for keeping everything in sync. Both the audio and sync use the same 3.5mm socket, with one mono channel going to the instrument, and the other mono audio going back to the mixer. It’s a clever system that does a good job of minimising cable spaghetti.
There’s also a microSD slot for recording your jams as a wave file. You can then transfer them to your computer.
The drum machine has eight percussion samples to play with: Bass drum, snare, high hat, clap, tom, percussion, cymbal, and a dirty synthbass. it’s also got eight recordable pattern memory presets, as well as individual effects for each percussion sound.
A powerful wavetable synthesiser, the tek.waves can range from meaty bass sounds to interesting pads. While it definitely has a distinctive sound, it features an arpeggiator to really give you some epic sequences. The keyboard plays tracks in a selected scale, based on a root note, meaning any idiot (ie me) can bang out some epic sounds.
This is the only part of the set we didn’t get to test, but it promises to be a fully analogue filter unit with low-pass and band-pass mode. It has audio input and output for simple setup.
Included is a portable mono speaker that you can plug in to be truly on-the-go. It’s not the best sounding speaker in the world, but does the trick. It’s always going to be difficult getting much low-end sound from something so compact, but it get pretty loud, regardless.
All the units in the set have built-in rechargeable Li ion batteries which are meant to last a good while on a charge. Patchblocks claim the tek.drum and tek.waves last up to 12 hours, the tek.filter lasts 40 hours, and the .hub lasts 6 hours.
Some cool things
While they might not be the most powerful electronic musical instruments in the world, there’s been a lot of thought gone into all the units in the minijam set. The team at Patchblocks has gone to a lot of trouble to squeeze every bit of functionality they can without sacrificing the most
The first (and in my opinion, coolest) feature, is the fact they sync with the Korg Volca hardware. All you need is a 3.5mm splitter cable, with one end plugged into the .hub, and the other two connectors plugged into the sync-in and output of the Volca. As long as you have the pair connected the right way round, you’ll have a sync pulse controlling the Korg going out, and the mono audio from the unit going back into the mixer.
Another nice feature is that you can link patterns on the tek.drum to create sequences longer than 16 steps. By pressing multiple pattern buttons at once, the patterns will follow each other, looping through up to all eight patterns, one after the other. This lets you create much more complex sequences.
The set are designed with a clever casing system that’s built almost like packaging. The outside is made from soft, durable plastic, folded around the components and tucked into itself, with solid plastic ends to hold everything securely.
Yep, all cool so far? There are some caveats. The biggest one being that the portability and build of the units comes at a compromise to tactile feedback. The way the buttons are bubbled from the top of the case, coupled with the somewhat cramped controls, means that not only can it be easy to mis-hit the right step or note, you get the trouble of hard presses causing phantom actions on neighbouring buttons.
There also seems to be difficulty with Volcas staying tightly in time with the .hub mixer’s sync. In the time I’ve played around, I noticed that the Volca Bass loops have drifted on occasion. This is obviously a secondary issue, as you’ve already got a pretty complete set here.
Since these are pre-production models of the product, there’s still time for niggles to be fixed. In fact, some of the problems I’ve encountered have already been sorted. The print on the front of one of the units has come off within about 30 minutes of use. This has been rectified with some changes in materials and inks. LEDs will be brighter, batteries will be bigger, and the enclosures will be sturdier.
The speaker is probably the least essential part of the set. You can get more range by plugging headphones in, and you won’t be annoying the table next to you in Starbucks. If you’re buying the full set of minijam devices, I’d consider this a bonus. You can also use it with a phone (or any other gadget with a 3.5mm socket), but it’s only mono, and most phones will probably have better range.
My only other criticism as an amateur user of this sort of gear, is that the shape of the units doesn’t easily fit together. Most gear has square edges that fit close together, but the rounded sides of the units make them a bit less cosy. It’s not the end of the world, as they are so small already, but something noticeable in playing with them.
The thing you have to bear in mind with the minijam studio set, is that it’s all designed for fun, not to sit on your instrument rack in your home studio. That’s not to say you couldn’t incorporate them in your production projects, but with 3.5mm jacks, small controls and cheaper components, you’d have to be accommodating to the noisier sound output and riskier workflow.
And the whole set costs £170, which is cheaper than most other single electronic instruments.
The minijam Studio is expected to be available around October 2017, for MSRP of £170/$200.