The Korg Monotron Delay
Above: Don’t be fooled by the keyboard; you are never going to get a precise note out of this thing.

Say “hello” to my little synth

Although not particularly versatile as an instrument, the Korg Monotron Delay can make some fun, irritating noises.

I got this Korg Monotron Delay as a Christmas present from my partner. This little device was totally not on my radar, probably because it is so extraordinarily tiny – just slightly larger than palm-sized.

Korg calls it a synth and I guess technically speaking it is, but it’s really an analogue delay effects box. The single-oscillator voice is really just there to provide an audio source to delay in the absence of any other signal. None of the knobs actually change this voice – they all drive the delay effect.

To play specific notes on this thing, you’ll have to have very teensy fingers and excellent spatial memory.

Here’s what it does. Flip the switch on the left out of “Standby” and the device comes on; press anywhere along the keyboard to play a note. Ignore the keys; they are decorative only. Although it looks like you get a range of about fifteen semitones, out of the box it played a much greater range. To play specific notes on this thing, you’ll have to have very teensy fingers and excellent spatial memory. Anyway, anyone who tries to play Frère Jacques on this thing is missing the point. You’re supposed to make space noises with it. By fiddling with the five knobs and the waveform switch you can get everything from cartoon lasers to classic Doctor Who sirens. It’s a hell of a lot of fun on its own, and sure to irritate everyone on the subway.

The clear knob furthest right is an LFO which modulates the delay effects. The waveform selector on the switch drives the shape of the LFO. You can choose from a triangle wave form, where the modulation sweeps smoothly from high to low values, or the square waveform, which cuts between the minimum and set values. The former creates more swoopy sounds and the latter more siren-sounds.

The fun really begins, though, when you connect a different audio signal into the “Aux” port in the back. This cuts out the ribbon signal entirely, and now all the delay effects are run on your new source. The processed audio is routed back out either through the eensy speakers or out of the headphone port – in stereo, no less.

Since it has an in and an out I was able to run it as an FX loop through my mixing board and I had a lot of fun running everything through it I could also jack into the mixing board. I ran the Casio VL-1 through it, of course, and the result was huge. At very low delay settings this thing is basically a reverb, and a little reverb gives that nearly forty-year-old toy some interesting depth. The stylophone was nice, too, but not a significant improvement over the built-in keyboard. It works as you would expect with a guitar, but there are probably better, more ergonomic pedals for not much more money.

I Am Sitting in a Room

Lucier recorded himself speaking, played the recording back into a mic in the same room, then recorded the playback of that recording, over and over again, until the sonic limitations of the recording equipment and the natural acoustics of the room turned his speech into a kind of ambient hum. You can find many different versions performed by several different artists; Lucier himself recorded it multiple times.

The real revelation was when I used my iPad to pipe Alvin Lucier’s spoken word piece I Am Sitting in a Room into the Monotron Delay. That piece is about the technological degredation of audio over time, and the Delay speeds things up quite a bit. It feels like it was made for breaking vocals.

Anyway, it’s a clever little box and less than $50, so if that sounds like something you’d be interested in it’s certainly no risk to give it a whirl. If you want to hear a few examples, I posted them on SoundCloud.

Lucier’s work is under copyright so instead you get to hear LBJ order pants.

Contents © their respective publication dates or 2019. This John Williams did not write the theme to Star Wars. “Elfin John” was originally a Tim Conway character.