Korg Volca FM 2

Our Favorite Affordable FM Synthesizer Revisited

Ryan Gaston · 04/14/22

FM synthesis is notoriously complex. It's a vast and rich method of sound design—but historically, it's gotten sort of a bad rap. There a number of reasons for this...but it boils down to mostly two things: when compared to "traditional" analog synthesis, FM synthesis usually has way more sonic variables, and as a consequence, most FM synthesizers to date have made some serious compromises in terms of user interface...making many members of the original generation of FM synths quite confounding and frustrating to use. Of course, another side-effect of this is that much music made with these early FM-based instruments relied heavily on factory preset patches—leaving many with the impression that FM synths always sound like pop music from the 1980s. (Check out our article on the history of Yamaha's DX Series for more context about this topic.)

The thing is...FM synthesis can sound amazing...and many modern synth manufacturers have turned their eyes back toward this severely under-explored synthesis method. This has led to some of the most interesting instruments of the past several years, from Elektron's Digitone and Model:Cycles to Korg's Opsix (a general favorite instrument of our staff at PC).

We're beyond excited to see that Korg's Volca Series has a new family member: Volca FM 2, a revisitation of one of our favorite synths of the last ten years. While Volca FM 2 may not have all the bells and whistles or significantly reimagined user interface of the Opsix, it does provide a unique workflow that makes FM synthesis much more approachable and downright fun than it is with the typical 1980s FM synth. Let's take a quick look at how Volca FM 2 works—we'll point out some differences with the prior version of the Volca FM as we go, and discuss what exactly makes it so special altogether.

Volca FM 2: FM Synthesis Made Fun + Accessible

Our experience with the original Volca FM tells us that this new iteration is going to be rad. It does all of the things that the original could do, but adds quite a bit. Where the originally had only three voices of polyphony, the new version has six; the new version doubles the internal preset memory (for a total of 64 internal programs); the new version adds an internal reverb in addition to the chorus effect. In terms of connectivity, the original featured only audio sync and a 5-pin DIN MIDI input—but the new version features audio sync and MIDI In and Out via 3.5mm TRS connections. (Worth noting—it also now responds to velocity via incoming MIDI!)

And our favorite feature—Volca FM 2 adds a randomization function for instantly creating surprising new sounds. If you've ever used a Yamaha DX7 random patch generator, you'll have a decent idea of how powerful, bizarre, and downright fun this function could prove to be.

Of course, if you're not otherwise familiar with the Volca FM, its basic features are well worth repeating: Volca FM is a six-voice FM synthesizer based directly on the synthesis architecture of the iconic (or, depending on your perspective, the infamous) Yamaha DX7. The connection between these instruments is much more than a passing similarity: each is a six-operator FM synth sharing the same set of 32 FM algorithms...and in fact, the Volca FM is fully compatible with the DX7's patches. You can easily import classic DX7 patches directly onto the Volca FM via MIDI SysEx.

So, what does all that mean? Well, in short, it means that the Volca FM is a quite direct replica of one of the most powerful FM synths of all time, capable of all of the quirky sounds and character of the original. It's great for musicians looking for classic FM bells and FM electric piano sounds, and it's great for musicians who want to dive deep into programming their own peculiar, experimental FM creations. Now, the catch is—the Volca FM also carries with it a fairly simple user interface. This is great in some respects, in that it does surface the most immediate and impactful parameters available in the synth engine, and is considerably simpler to program than an original DX synth. But the same basic truth about classic Yamaha FM synths remains: there are a lot of variable parameters, so programming the Volca FM requires some time and patience. However, it makes up for this in a number of interesting and patently Korg-esque ways.

First and foremost, it's important to remember that Volca FM is indeed a Volca synth, and as such carries with it a number of very interesting features for modulation and performance. Like other models of Volca, this new iteration of the FM features a built-in capacitive keyboard, a 16-step sequencer, a highly programmable arpeggiator, and motion recording. The sequencer is extremely playable, allowing for Active Step programming for on-the-fly sequence alternations, as well as a Warp Active Step function which allows you to automatically compensate shorter sequences to occupy the same playback time as sixteen steps would. This can lead to bizarre and exciting performance opportunities, and when paired with the pattern chain functionality, it becomes possible to create highly structured compositions and performances.

Motion recording also allows you to program sequenced automation for the synth engine's various parameters...making it such that you can easily and intuitively change the way each step of a sequence sounds. This could even include automation of the FM algorithm itself. That is a huge deal, and to me, one of the most incredible and unique characteristics of the Volca series altogether. In this particular instance, it can feel almost like the Volca FM is shifting shapes right before your eyes: taking on a drastically different character from one step of a sequence to the next.

Of course, the built-in patch randomization is an amazing way of discovering unexpected new sounds—but you can also use the free Volca FM online editor from Synthmata to easily make more intentional changes to your patches.

In Summary? Volca FM 2 is Sick

From our perspective, Korg's Volca FM 2 is a more than welcome addition to the synth universe. We were quite sad to see the original version's discontinuation, as it was always a blast to have around our shop. After all, what's not to love? It's affordable, it's small, it's battery-powered. It easily interfaces with other gear. It's easy to program. It has an awesome and quirky sequencer that opens up the potential of the sound engine enormously. And it sounds like a classic FM synth—from cheesy bass sounds to fake Rhodes sounds to outright fizzy, digital-feedback-ridden sonic peculiarities. Whether you're a seasoned synthesist looking for a travel-worthy sound design tool, or a newcomer looking for an affordable-yet-powerful polysynth, it checks all the boxes.

It maintains a super accessible price while still adding a ton of vital new features: MIDI output, patch randomization, expanded effects, expanded polyphony, etc. We're thrilled to see that the Volca FM is back and better than ever before.