Korg’s Volca FM2 Synthesizer Is a Worthy Successor

The updated synthesizer is ready for the big leagues

  • The Volca FM2 adds more voices, reverb, and velocity sensitivity to the already-great original. 
  • It’s a 1980s pop synth or a 2020s noise machine in a purse-sized portable package.
  • Batteries included.
Korg’s Volca FM2 Synthesizer

Korg

Iconic Japanese music gear maker, Korg, is on a rip with its Volca line of battery-powered, purse-sized grooveboxes that cost less than many software plugins. 

The Volca FM2 has double the number of "voices" (notes that can be played simultaneously), is now velocity-sensitive via MIDI, adds a reverb effect, plus a bunch of other small upgrades. But why would you buy it?

"It's not hard to understand the appeal for these little synths. Musicians love the idea of being able to make music on the go," musician Ade Robinson told Lifewire via email. "All we need is to pull out a bit of gear and start making music, and we've transformed a coffee table or a park bench into a mini-concert stage or an on-the-go studio. All with just enough gear to hold in a backpack."

Cute Extreme

FM, or frequency modulation, is one of several ways to synthesize complex sound waves from simple basic waves, and it has a very distinctive sound. If you’ve heard any 1980s synth-pop, you’ve heard an FM synthesizer. In fact, you’ve heard the Yamaha DX7, which is as much a foundation of 80s pop as hair gel and unnecessary saxophone solos.

The Volca FM2 can even load "patches" or presets designed for the DX7, which alone might be worth the price. But the real appeal is the combination of rich sound, its cute and portable form, and all those knobs and buttons. 

person using the Korg Volca FM2

Korg

"Nothing beats the immediacy of hardware! While software brings into it a lot of conveniences and makes completing songs really easy, it lacks the immediacy of hardware and the convenience of twisting real knobs instead of relying on a heavily mapped midi interface or moving everything with a mouse," designer, musician, and Korg lover Pooria Sohi told Lifewire via email. 

"Performance is another factor, [as] playing live is much less exploratory or performative with software," Sohi continued. "Developing synth sounds that shift and morph in a song is certainly possible in software, but it’s not as convenient as playing with hardware and getting feedback immediately."

Which is to say, musicians love the solid control and feedback you get from hardware. Imagine using a mouse to somehow select the strings of a guitar, and you’ll immediately see the difference between hardware and software controls. And these Korgs put the hardware into a tiny little box that is also cheap enough that you can add it to your setup guilt-free. 

That’s not to say Korg doesn’t work with software. You’ll need to use an app to load those DX7 presets, for instance, and thanks to its MIDI connections, you can do things like plug in a full-sized piano-style keyboard for the aforementioned velocity sensitivity or send a sequence of notes to the FM2 from software like Ableton Live.

The Competition

Thanks to the price, there’s not much real competition for the Volca range, but if you want an FM synth for a little more, the options both come from the Swedish synth and drum-machine maker Elektron. The flagship Digitone costs way more ($799) and doesn’t run on batteries, but it’s a lot nicer to use and has more features. Elektron’s Model:Cycles ($329) is probably the best bet, although it’s still not as portable as the Volca. 

"Nothing beats the immediacy of hardware!"

But in some ways, the Volca beats everything, just because it’s so immediate. Like an acoustic guitar, you can just pick it up and start playing. You don’t have to find a power outlet, plug it into a computer, or hook it up to a companion app on your phone. Immediacy is an important part of creativity, and the Volca’s are about as immediate as things can get, for an electronic instrument, at least.

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