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KORG Monotron analog ribbon synths: Fun pocket-sized music accessories

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KORG has been manufacturing amazing electronic instruments since 1963, and now it's developed the Monotron line of pocketable analog ribbon synthesizers that can work with your favorite Mac or iOS music-making apps. These pocket wonders are useful for adding a classic electronic touch to your live performances as well. To give you a feel for all three of the Monotron synths, there's a video at the end of this post. Read along for a quick hands-on review of the original Monotron.

Analog synthesizers like the Monotron use a voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO) to generate a tone, a low-frequency oscillator (LFO) to create a rhythmic pulse or sweep, and a voltage-controlled filter to vary the cutoff frequency of the oscillator. The touch-sensitive ribbon on the Monotron is used to vary the pitch of the sounds being generated, and there are five adjustable potentiometers to adjust pitch, LFO rate and interval, and the VCF cutoff and peak. For those of you who understand circuit diagrams, here's how the Monotron is set up:

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Sure, you could buy the parts and build an analog synth yourself, but for US$59.99 you can get a Monotron pre-made and ready to rock. All of the Monotron units are powered by a pair of AAA batteries. The original Monotron has a volume control, AUX jack for input, and a headphone jack plus a built-in speaker.

I decided to test the Monotron with GarageBand on my iMac, using a standard 1/4" line from the headphone jack to an iMic connected via USB. The sound came in nicely, and I recorded a short sample (below) of the hypnotic effects you can get from an analog synth. I played with analog synths in the mid-1970s and built two from the kits that were available at the time, but this was much more fun!

You can also take sound from GarageBand or other instruments, run it through the Monotron, then pass that along to your speakers or recording setup. Whether you use the Monotron output as a backing track on a GarageBand recording, use it for providing a musical beat in live performance, or use the Monotron to process other sounds, it's an inexpensive and fun way to explore electronic music. Check out the video below to see the other Monotron synths in action.

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