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Korg SoundLink Review

Korg making mixers? That’s a bit like Dyson making cars, isn’t it? We take a deep dive, and find out what’s so special about the brand’s new SoundLink series.

I’m a desk guy. I love desks of all shapes and sizes, but obviously some I love more than others. So when I see yet another small analogue desk with digital FX onboard, I wonder if we’re not already a little spoilt for choice.

Even with my poor memory, I remember soon after I started hooking up my Korg M1 and S3 to my Atari ST 1040 running C-labs Creator software, Korg brought out a product bearing the Soundlink name, but that was a DAW with a fader surface and 8-bit processing.

So when a company like Korg - a pioneer in the digital instrument and effects market - suddenly turns tail and releases an analogue desk, there has to be a reason.

The English Channel

I’ve made no secret of my love for analogue equipment, especially vintage analogue; and while I have placed a few small-frame analogue desks into pubs, clubs, and dance studios, most of my work is in digital.

Having said that, there is something good about being able to simply plug it in, turn it up, and route it where you need it - all without having to delve into a complicated and on occasion unfamiliar menu structure.

Just looking at this little board, it’s obvious a lot of thought and time has been spent making it as flexible and as comprehensive as possible. No surprises then to find out that the desk was designed by a couple of legends of the audio world: Greg Mackie and Peter Watts.

The former is one of those people who pretty much started the rush in small format sound desks. The latter started work at Trident in 1976 at just 16-years old, and was responsible for early forays into computer automation of analogue Trident recording consoles, namely the Di An; then later as chief engineer on the Vector series desks after Malcolm Toft left the company.

In 1995, Watts became VP of engineering at Mackie Designs. During the ‘90s and early noughties, Mackie became known as the brand offering a certain quality at an attractive price. One of its most successful products - and the only one I have used and know anything about - was the Mackie 8-Bus: a desk which had no particular outstanding feature, except for the price.

I also remember a session I did on one of these consoles where, after managing to go through two power supplies in a little over three weeks (they had five on rotation), I put the engineer in touch with a guy who built them a more reliable PSU. It’s still working to this day – and so is the desk.

There are 16- and 24-channel versions of Soundlink, and I am reviewing the smaller of the two (the MW1608). It’s described as a Analogue/Digital Hybrid, but in reality it’s an analogue board with a digital effects processor. Looking at the front, it’s obvious a lot has been shoehorned into this board.

There are eight mono channels and four stereo channels: the four stereo channels have a pair of TRS balanced jacks, but there is also a single XLR, should you prefer or need further mono mic channels.

The mono channels all feature a gain pot, a high-pass filter, and a compressor, which is dialled in with a pot – and there’s an amber LED built in to show when it’s active. This is something you do find on some small desks – Soundcraft, for example - but it’s normally only the first two or four channels, not all your mic channels.

Next is the EQ section which provides a high cut and boost at 12kHz, a sweepable mid with cut and boost, and a low cut and boost at 100Hz (all cut and boost +/–15dB).

Following this are four aux sends - all on XLR – and it’s worth mentioning that many aux sends on small desk are TRS jack which can be frustrating, as all pro multicores and theatre-installed multis are XLR.

The first and second aux sends are fixed pre-fader, while auxes three and four are switchable pre/post. All four aux busses have a master bus pot controlling overall level to the XLR outs, and a handy AFL button so you can monitor that aux send in your headphones. Auxes three and four are also bussed directly to a pot control for ‘phones out’ on stereo jacks on the back of the desk.

Furthermore, there’s a clever blend pot for each of these outputs which allows you to send the stereo master to the phones along with audio from aux three or four.

Although it’s the same as having the aux send on the master bus, it does look a lot tidier this way; and finding a direct to aux send from a L/R bus is not a feature I’ve seen on an analogue desk for some time. So this gives you a total of six auxes: four mono, two stereo.

There is also a dedicated post-fader FX send pot to the onboard FX processor, and below this, the pan pot.

Now here’s something I don’t recall seeing on a small format analogue board before: a mute button, assignable to up to four mute groups; just keep the mute group button of your choice depressed then tap the corresponding channel’s mute button(s) to assign them to the group.

Next, we have the group assign and master L/R assign buttons, and the channel fader, making this also an eight-bus mixer. I checked on the back, and there are indeed eight TRS outs from the group out assigns via four stereo group faders.

Just above each channel fader is a green and red LED: the green reads channel signal at -20dB, so is pretty active the moment it sees signal; the red just says OL, and is the overload indicator. Just below the fader is the PFL button which has its own orange LED to show it’s active.

Everything I was able to put through it sounded natural and alive, and right there in front of you.

The stereo channels are very similar, but don’t feature the compressor pot, and have four fixed frequencies in their EQ sections instead of the sweepable midrange. These frequencies are 12kHz, 2.5kHz, 250Hz and 100Hz, all +/–15dB.

The last stereo channel strip [15/16] also acts as a return for the USB computer interface. When I connected it to my Mac, core audio made it available as ‘Basic Korg Interface’, and it is a stereo I/O.

The USB output from the desk to computer is a digital copy of the desk’s main output, while the return appears on 15/16, and is subject to all EQ and routing of that channel – absolutely perfect for a backing track.

Mastermind

On the analogue master section is a dedicated FX return fader which is always a nice touch – and feels more ‘pro’ - as onboard FX returns on so many smaller desks tend to return on a pot.

The FX return has its own mute and PFL, and also the provision of two pots to send it: prefader to aux one and two.

Beside the FX fader are the four stereo subgroup faders, each with their own PFL and ‘Assign to Master’ button. This is helpful for grouping when recording as well as some clever matrixing, should you so wish. Then to the right again is the master fader.

Above the group faders are the four ‘Mute Group’ buttons, and above those a talkback mic level pot with ‘Assign to L/R’ and ‘Assign to Aux’ buttons. And above the master fader is a pot return for stereo channels 17/18 which is on a stereo mini jack top-right of the console next to the large headphone jack socket - very useful for interval playback via your iPhone/iPod, for example.

Below that is a monitor pot which is designed to feed a set of control room monitors; further down is the headphones level pot; and below that, a button which says ‘Break’ on it, which mutes everything except channels 17/18 mentioned above.

Furthermore, there is a very nice sized double row of LEDs which displays your master output levels, and will assist you in setting up the correct gain structure. This is actually as important today with digital as it ever has been - maintaining a good signal to noise ratio that wraps up the analogue side of things nicely.

Hybrid Digital

Back in the days when analogue ruled the world, a few clever Trevors invented the digital FX unit - and then another, and another... And that’s essentially what we have here: a bunch of digital FX available from within the console. It sure beats carting around all those FX racks and outboard control we got used to in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Ironically, I still have a Korg SDE3000 kicking around with a couple of other nostalgic bits of kit I just couldn’t bring myself to get rid of. So while this is nothing new, again, it’s a welcome addition to have graphic EQs, dynamics, and an FX engine together with a feedback destroyer all available from within this compact board.

The really great thing about this digital add-on is most of it is actually really useful.

This is a very musical little desk with everything on board you need to do a first class job.

So let’s start with the Dynamics. There is a little screen at the top right of the surface, below which are nine buttons - these are your prompts to select the type of effect and the parameters to adjust within each effect.

Below this are six buttons: three are dynamics for the L/R Aux 1 and Aux 2 buses, and the next three are EQs for the same. I found these really easy to use; in every case I was able to select a narrow band which gave me the ability to EQ up to nine bands within a 31-band graphic EQ.In nearly all cases, if you’re finding yourself needing to adjust more than this, then there’s probably something wrong with your PA!

All the dynamics programs only feature two parameters, so they’re quick and easy to use.

The Limiter and Soft Knee Compressor are both very smooth, and actually the same can also be said for the whole FX library which boasts a wide range of useful reverbs and delay programs.

Given the two parameter situation, users are pretty much restricted to length and brightness of the tail for the verbs, or length and feedback for the delays, together with a button to tap in the delay time - but it’s all great sounding stuff, and for the target market which is presumably the aspiring musician/ engineer, if anything, this is actually an advantage: it keeps it simple.

There’s also a chorus and exciter together with a tone and noise generator. An Overview button shows you what’s engaged where, and an Analyser button provides you with a graphical representation of the audio in the L/R bus.

Magic Touch

I’m a bit limited at the moment in terms of what I can do or who’s in my little studio from a test point of view due to the ongoing Covid restrictions in West Yorkshire, but I was able to run audio from a couple of fairly recent projects to get an idea of what we have here.

I also do the odd test of playing some electric and acoustic guitar through the desk using a trusty old AKG C414, and out through the group buses to my interface.

I was quite taken aback by how sweet the channel preamps sounded. It would be nice to have an EQ cut button, as I suspect the channels are a little presence heavy, but then if that’s a characteristic of these channels, it’s certainly not unpleasant – and if anything, I would describe it as pleasantly musical.

I was always drawn to Soundcraft consoles back in the ‘90s for the very same reason.

Likewise, the other permanently engaged circuit is the compressor - but again, to my surprise, this is a really clever circuit which simply moves the audio closer to you in a very musical and almost transparent way. I can see this being a key feature of this desk in helping to reign in unruly and inexperienced singers!

And furthermore, I’ve heard equally strange noises from engineers who simply couldn’t seem to get their compressors to do what they wanted - and ended up just overcompensating, so the full range of the vocal would be choked and lose its depth and warmth. No such chance here: this compressor really is lovely for a single pot compressor. Well done Korg.

All the dynamics programs are quick and easy to use.

The next really noticeable thing was noise: there wasn’t any! I really had to push some faders before it became anywhere near noticeable, and that’s the tell of any quality console over something that’s been constructed for functionality over quality. In this particular instance, it’s great to see that Mackie and Watts have not compromised one for the other.

I can’t wait to take this little desk out and do a gig with it. Sadly, there are no financially viable gigs around at the moment, so it’ll have to wait, but it didn’t stop me checking to see if I still had my drum of 16-way and four returns, which of course would do the trick perfectly.

The FX, too, are really very nice and clean; as I said earlier, my only slight criticism is that all the reverbs start off a little on the long side, and there’s nothing that really falls into the ambient category - but this really is a minor thing, and just my personal preference - and for live work, that’s not something that would be a problem.

Summing Up

When it comes to analogue, there’s something inherently simple about the audio signal path which suits it to a pub or club, an open mic night, in a church, a conference hall - the list just keeps growing.

But more importantly, this Korg mixer could do all of it - and do it quicker, with no pre-programing and no iPad to go missing by the end of the night! It’s also the perfect feature set for an install board with enough quality to keep the experienced happy, and enough simplicity to keep the less experienced up to speed with the live action as it happens.

For small bands that only need a couple of wedge mixes and a couple of mono headphone feeds then this desk might well also be the answer; and more importantly, no learning curve of menus and layers, just everything in front of you all at the same time.

So it would seem those crazy people at Korg are not quite so crazy after all. I for one am very impressed with this compact desk - and while it has the look of a Mackie-designed board, this one is not just about gimmicks and gizmos, it’s about quality audio.

I’m particularly impressed with the mic pre / compressor combo on the mono mic channel. Providing you set your gain structure correctly, this combination is a winner; and everything I was able to put through it sounded natural and alive, and right there in front of you.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a speedy return to a time when we can go back to what we do best: entertaining, and all that entails!

This would have been the perfect product to take out with my friend’s blues band. Equally, there’s a theatre show I tour with that this little desk could also work very well on.

It’s kind of because analogue had to be big to accommodate all the facilities you need to get the sound you want that has spurred on the mass move to digital, because in the early days I wouldn’t have said it was sound quality - however, this is a very musical little desk with everything on board you need to do a first class job. Assuming, of course, you have something musical to put through it..!