An edited version of this text also appears in
SOUND ON SOUND magazine Vol.14 No.10. August 1999

Review by Chris Carter


There's been quite a buzz since pictures and specification of the Korg Kaoss Pad were released and I have to admit to being a mite excited at the thought of getting my hands on one. Originally this review was to be part of my ElecTribes review but the Pad turned up too late to be included. But this is probably for the better as I can devote more space and detail to it on its own.

The aptly named Kaoss Pad is a cross between an effects unit and a budget sampler. It features 60 built-in preset effects including filters, phasers, flangers, delays, reverbs, autopanners, ring modulators and a 5 second, stereo looping sampler. Impressive eh?

The Kaoss Pad's main claim to fame and notoriety is its totally unique, illuminated, dynamic real-time, X-Y ribbon controller pad (what a mouthful, so let's just call it the pad).

The pad is 3" x 4" and covered with a plastic membrane and seems to be prepared for some heavy duty rubbing action, but only time will tell on that score. Underneath the pad are large orange lights in each corner with a red one in the middle that illuminates whenever you touch the pad (the lights are probably jumbo size LED's or the like). Having seen a few promo shots of the Kaoss Pad I was expecting a little more interaction and pizzazz with the lights, although the the 2-digit LED does rapidly change values as you caress the pad.

The case is a fairly lightweight plastic affair, approximately 7" x 8" x 2" and would easily slip into a small bag, although there's a substantial 700mA wall wart PSU that comes with it (which runs pretty warm too) and as with the Korg ElecTribes there's no option of using batteries.

The back of the Kaoss pad is surprisingly busy for such a small unit. All audio is handled by regular phono sockets, there are stereo pairs for line out, line in and phono in (for a turntable). There's a mono 1/4" jack socket for a microphone, with a tiny trim pot to adjust the input level and a small screw type Ground terminal for the phono input. Additionally there's an FX LOOP switch that will turn off the direct signal if the Kaoss Pad is to be used in the send/return chain of a mixer. A MIDI out socket is also included and there's a headphone socket and volume control on the front.

On the top of the unit there's an Input Volume control to the left and a continuous Program selector knob to the right. The 2-digit LED also shows the currently selected program, when not showing Pad values. The HOLD button is for capturing the current pad X-Y position and a dual purpose EFFECT ON/OFF - RECORD button activates the effects or begins sampling (if in sample mode), both buttons have LED's. A useful three-way rocker switch allows you to select an input from the rear connections and above the pad are 6 PROGRAM MAP buttons for storing your favourite effects (more on this later).

In use the Kaoss pad is simplicity itself. Connect a source to the rear inputs select an effect, turn on the effect, tap or rub the pad and have some fun.

If an input source is playing and the EFFECTS ON/OFF button is illuminated the sound passes through the Kaoss Pad unaltered, it's not until you touch the pad or the HOLD button that the current effect is introduced. This happens immediately, without any clicks, pauses or glitches and if you know an effect program well (and with a little practice) you can touch the correct part of the pad to give you exactly the type of effect modification you want.

For instance, Program No. 23 is stereo delay with feed back effect. Touching the left or right-hand sides at the bottom of the pad has no effect at all, however if you move your finger up the extreme left side a short slap-back delay is heard with more and more feedback introduced as you rise to the top of the pad, if you try this on the right side you get the same increase in feedback but the delay is much longer. By moving diagonally from the bottom left to the top right of the pad you start with a short delay with no feedback progressing smoothly to a much longer delay with lots of feedback. So by moving your finger around you can match (by ear) the delay times with the BPM of your source and you can even tap the effect on and off at different pad positions using two fingers.

When you've got a satisfactory setting you can save the pad X-Y position by pressing the HOLD button. Then whenever you press HOLD the effect and same pad position will be heard without having to touch the pad. You can save up to 6 of your most used effects with the Program Map buttons above the pad. These will also remember your favourite pad X-Y position associated with the saved effect. It's also possible to switch between the Program Map buttons while you are playing the pad allowing for some pretty wild jumps from one effect to another. These buttons retain their settings when you switch off, so there must be an internal back-up battery.

For a relatively budget priced preset unit the effects sound surprisingly good and most seem to be true stereo effects. The multi-effects such as Distortion/Filter/Delay, Ring Modulator/Filter and Distortion/Voice Filter are very good for live rubbing and tapping manipulations. But there are many good effects to choose from and your choice is probably going to be decided by the type of music you are treating. Many of the multi-effects include delays which always adapt well for use with rhythmic tracks (if you get the timing right). The reverbs aren't anything to write home about but the stereo pitch shifter, although decidedly flangy, is great fun to use with the pad.

Programs 51-60 handle sampling with up to 5 seconds of stereo recording on offer, a reasonable amount, although it's only available in one chunk, and no there's little editing or trimming to speak of.

Sampling begins when you press the RECORD button and stops when you press it a second time. The Kaoss Pad isn't too fussy about loop accuracy, no matter how hard you try to hit the record button on the beat it can still often be a bit hit and miss, literally. Definitely 'flying by the seat of your pants' type sampling.

In some of the sample programs the pad changes the end loop point, with maximum loop to the right and shortest to the left and volume controlled by top to bottom movement. With other programs the sample will slow down as you reach the middle of the pad then go into reverse as you glide across to the other side, a similar effect to DJ scratching. There's a time stretching program that plays normally in the middle of the pad and does a pretty good job of stretching to the left and squeezing to the right. The rest of the sampling programs are versions of the above that go into auto-record when they detect sound at the inputs and also other versions that allow you to sample and pan using the pad.

The quality of the sampling is fine, at least as good as the wonderful Dr Sample, but not quite up to S6000 standard. Also, because there's no battery option be prepared to loose any samples when you switch off.

MIDI implementation is quite limited with only a MIDI out socket. But the Pad does transmit various MIDI controller messages for modulating and affecting other MIDI gear.

These include: separate X and Y parameters, an X+Y (diagonal) parameter, pad Touch on/off, FX Button on/off and Program change.

The default controller settings and MIDI channel can be changed by pressing all 6 PROGRAM MAP buttons simultaneously (not easy !) which puts the Kaoss Pad into MIDI Edit mode.

While writing this review I tried hooking up the Korg ElecTribe EA-1 and ER-1 to the Kaoss MIDI out just to see how well they integrate. But to be truthful it wasn't as successful as I would have hoped. I could change Patterns on both ElecTribes from the Kaoss Program knob and Program Map buttons but apart from introducing Pitch Bend to the EA-1 synths from the Kaoss pad that's was about all I could do. I wouldn't expect much response from the ER-1 (maybe some effects control) but part of the problem lies with the ElecTribe EA-1's lack of MIDI modulation response, because I successfully managed to modulate another non-ElecTribe synth.

However, putting the audio output of either ElecTribe through the Kaoss Pad produced some wonderfully complex and rich combinations, but you would expect that with most decent effects units anyway.

I was initially under the impression that the Kaoss Pad was part of the ElecTribe family, but now I'm not so sure. It doesn't look like any of the Electribes either and if anything has a slightly, dare I say it...bland look. That is until you turn it on, then it metamorphoses into a 1940's Flash Gordon prop. I'm not complaining mind you I'm only the reviewer, you can form your own opinions on how it looks.

Korg have built-up quite a reputation for innovation over the years and the introduction of the Kaoss Pad will reinforce this impression even further. It's refreshing to see a completely new take on a well tried product (the preset effects unit). Korg are promoting this heavily as a DJ effects unit, hence the phono and mic inputs, and in this respect a pre-effect monitor option for the headphone output would have been useful for setting-up effects and samples. The ribbon controller pad is very easy and intuitive to use, either by rubbing or tapping it. It's also great fun and unlike the Roland D-Beam it isn't adversely affected by bright lights or smoke and is more predictable as a control source. The quality of the effects and sampling are all up to the usual Korg standard for a product in this price range, though lack of any real programmability is frustrating.

The cost to features ratio may seem a slightly lopsided but that's the price of innovation and flashing lights. If you are still undecided go to your local Korg dealer and give it a test drive it won't fail to impress you.




PRICE: £249

A well implemented and innovative spin on a familiar product. Top quality stereo effects and relatively long stereo sampling time. The illuminated X-Y ribbon pad is VERY intuitive and easy to use and bound to draw comments, even crowds. Lack of any real programmability may deter some but this won't make much difference to its intended market, live remixing and DJ'ing. It'll be interesting to see how Korg can top this.

Intuitive pad control of parameters
Quality effects and stereo sampling
Versatile input options
Very easy to use
Sure to draw a crowd


Lack of real programmability
No MIDI input
More effects would be nice
Mains power only

Programs: 60
50 effects algorithms
10 sampling programs

Sampling Time:
5 seconds, in stereo

Dynamic real-time X-Y ribbon control pad

MIC - 1/4" jack, mono
PHONO - RCA phono, L+R
LINE IN - RCA phono, L+R
LINE OUT - RCA phono, L+R
PHONES OUT - Stereo mini-jack
MIDI out
Power: External 12v PSU

Copyright © 1999 Chris Carter / SOS Publications.  
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