Korg ESX-1 Electribe sampler review

This is my most recent gear acquisition and so far it has been a rock solid music making machine. I was looking for a piece of gear that let me make music without having to turn on my computer and stare at the screen. It is super hands on, and making music on it seems very “analog” to me.

First, let me clear up something that I had problems understanding at first. There are two current models of Electribe, the EMX and the ESX. Quite simply stated, one is a “synth”(EMX) and one is a “sampler” (ESX). Of the two, I opted for the sampler because it is possible to load any synth waveform or drum sound into it. There are some differences in effects offered on the two, but there is plenty of modulation which can be automated using what Korg calls “motion sequences”.

One of the very cool features this sampler has is the ability to “re-sample” its own output without signal degradation. This is handy because it allows you to apply effects and modulation to a sample, then “bounce” it. Those of you who use a DAW might be familiar with that term, but basically your new sample does not require any effects or automation to sound the way it did, and you are free to apply other modulation or effects to other samples or to the same sample again, in essence double modulating the sound.

One thing I was a little disappointed in is that there is only one true envelope generator per part. Korg calls it EG and it can be applied to volume (in the traditional amp decay sort of way which makes the sound decay quicker than the samples original length) and/or to the filter. The manual did not specify that the envelope generator knob in the filter section uses the same envelope generator timing that the amp section does, so adjusting a shorter amp decay time will also affect the filter decay time.

Many people have complained about the built in effects on this unit and I have to agree that they are a little lackluster. They are usable of course, and many are fine, but there are only two adjustable parameters and each individual part is either sent to an effect or not and their send level is 100% of the volume.

The sequencer is great on this. Simple X0X style step sequencer like old 808s. Using the “Motion Sequences” it is possible to record knob movement in real time. The values are recorded only on the sequencer steps themselves (16th notes generally), but there are 2 settings for the motion sequence playback. The “Smooth” setting seems to smoothly transition from one value to then next, whereas the “Trig Hold” setting jumps from value to value. I use this to record pitch warps, filter sweeps, LFO speed, volume automation (since there are no velocities recorded to the step sequencer except an “accent” part which accents all sounds which are playing on the “accented” step of the sequence. I find it nice to use the “Trig Hold” motion sequence mode to record slight volume alterations to hi-hats in order to keep them from sounding too robotic. )

Another nice thing about this unit is the LFO/ modulator. It can be assigned to the pitch, cutoff, amp or pan and has 4 traditional shapes plus one decay shape which is handy for creating pitch drops. The decay shape can also be used as a second basic envelope generator. The LFO is also BPM syncable, meaning you can do some nice dubstep bass filter wobbles, or set up 1/4 note volume swells which sounds a lot like sidechain compression when done to a pad in a 4 on the floor pattern.

One gripe some people have about this unit is that although it has a built in beat slicing tool and two beat slicing tracks, you are unable to re-order the slices in order to alter the beat (read squarepusher). There is a work around which I will show in my tutorial section which involves using the a stretch sample track and automating the start time of the loop being played back.

The audio input is great. If you create a sequence of 16th notes on the audio input track, you can do trance gating. You can also sequence in a single whole note when you want a less stuttery sound and your audio will pass through un-chopped. This allows you to route the audio input track to the effects section and use the electribe as an effects box. Of course dedicated pedals sound better though. It is nice for cool tempo synced filter sweeps or tempo synced delay though.

After having purchased an MPC1000 I realize one more strength of the ESX, everything is instantly written to memory. This memory remains after turning the unit off and the unit only takes about 10 seconds to boot up with all samples online. If you want to save everything in memory you can get a card to write the internal memory to. This process can take about 40 seconds. Reading esx files from the card and writing them to internal memory can take about a minute and a half.

Another thing the ESX does that nothing else I am aware of can do is handle reversing samples in realtime. I have a video tutorial about this, but basically when you hit the reverse button, it begins instantly playing backwards from the point the sample is at at that moment. Very much like a record spinning then getting reversed. This can be a cool way to get infinitely sustaining sounds out of shorter sounds without clicks at the loop point, or even turntable type sounds.

I was fortunate to find one of these units for $220 an I would say that it has been totally worth it. If you are looking for more in depth sequencing and sampling, try Ableton, but be prepared for a learning curve with any DAW. The Electribe ESX is hands on and intuitive. It can pump out some really cool music. I plan on using it as a scratch pad, then dumping the loops into Ableton for major work and mixing. Look for some of my tutorials on this unit.

My previous workflow with Pro Tools, Logic and Kontakt was overwhelming me with the amount of options and my inability to pick one and move on. I really enjoy this piece as a dedicated synth and sampler. No need to look at a screen, no knob assignment or master midi controller. Everything is on the unit and the knobs are all one knob per function. Select your part then turn a knob. Bam. Even a unit that is over 8 years old can get lots of great stuff out of it, and I am sure that if I looked, many people use these live. I highly recommend this piece for a great scratchpad for ideas and getting some solid beats. Look at my tutorials for tips on it.