Volca Beats/ Bass/ Keys: too short for volcano


The Volcas have been reviewed many times and I don’t need to go into much detail. Many of the reviews excuse them from being particularly good, because after all what do you expect for $150?


But that guesstimate never applied, and even if it did you’d have to point out some serious omissions in each of the units that annoy at any price. The poor bastard that bought mine originally paid $240 each – must have realised that they’re severely limited and sold them after a few disappointing hours of use. This is when I swoop in.


They all loop a couple of bars. You can’t chain those like on a Roland TR808, and you can’t transpose them like a TB303. Without manual adjustment they just do the same couple of bars, relentlessly. Compared to the equipment they imitate, the Volcas are as thick as a brick. So ignore the referential design.


That they are analogue doesn’t really matter that much in the scheme of things. Digital or analogue the end result is something you are going to want to screw with – amps, delays, flangers and I’d be hard pressed to describe the subtle beauty of these compared to my virtual analogues. In fact the best of breed is likely the digital Volca Sampler which has only just been announced.




Considered in isolation the Beats is a good basic drum machine. You can easily programme in little riffs and the sounds themselves are useful. For variations you have to manually switch between the 8 memories, which distracts from whatever you were trying to achieve on the other two units. The way it’s done is to make a pattern, save that to a memory, now add a variation, save to another memory, load the first one, tweak it, save to a third and so on. It’s not hard and it can be done on the fly even by non-DJs. What’s obviously missing is the programming of pattern changes, so you’re like the guy that spins plates. Back and forward keeping it all spinning.




The Bass is not a TB303 and thank Christ, because the TB303 was complete shit. This can make sounds other than choking a chicken. It can make similar noises and idiots are upset that it’s choking a turkey rather than a chicken, but I appreciate that the Volca Bass can also make non avian bass sounds. It is possible to program it without learning FORTRAN which is a definite win over the 303’s pitiful interface. As I said, you can’t transpose the riff, which is shit. It can however run three different loop lengths on each of the three oscillators so you get more complex melodies. I’d prefer that on the Keys, but I guess that 4K RAM was used up with the extra knob twiddlies.




I’m not the first to point out that the Keys makes a better bass than the Bass. But it’s also able to do a variety of paraphonic arrangements – octaves, fifths etc. that don’t really constitute a melody so much as a musical strike taking place every couple of bars. It’s got a wider range of pitch and can be loosened from the grid for swooping along the ribbon. This and the ring mod and a (noisy) bucket brigade delay line tend to suggest you will doing a lot of spacey/dubby shit.


All Together Now


Compare these with the groove boxes e.g. the Yamaha AN200/DX200 which are the 20th century, digital versions. Instead of having to set up all three and cable them together and then find a mixer, the groove boxes do all of that in the one unit. But truth be told I couldn’t be arsed programming loops on either of those, particularly the drum patterns which I guess would sound better but require so much data entry that you just use a computer anyway. The Volcas do in fact invite play, and part of that is that expectations are low – you may as well play around as nothing serious is demanded.


I’m coming from a previous life where I had a TR808, TB303 and an MC202 and while none of the Volcas are as good at making a piece of music, they certainly inspired me to start banging out some ideas – which sound awfully like the ideas I had back in 1982. They have a very narrow intent and range of music. Would the Roland Aira range be a better bet? Probably, but you’re starting to spend just enough to expect great things, which is a different ideal. The Volcas have found a spot where things don’t matter.


You do need a mixer and you do need some guitar pedals. I’m using my Zoom recorder which has a multi effects pedal built in but I’m planning to get a few more (cheap) pedals so as to have more twiddles. The result are little concoctions that can be cut into more careful arrangements. I give it three knobs.








It was either this or a red car and I think I chose wisely.