Giving the Korg R3 Its Due

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Giving the Korg R3 Its Due

When I looked into adding a synthesizer to my sonic palette, it seemed like the obvious choice was the ubiquitous microKORG. The microKORG is one of the top-selling synthesizers of all time, and with good reason—it features a wide variety of sound and features in an inexpensive, easy-to-use package. It’s been used by everyone from the Killers to LCD Soundsystem to teenagers in their bedrooms.

But as I was researching, I discovered a number of limitations that soured my desire for a microKORG. The arpeggiator was rather limited, there was no built-in reverb effect (and I needs my reverb), and I was iffy on the miniature keys. But while I was reading through forums and web archives, I stumbled upon another member of the Korg line—the Korg R3. It delivered on all of the microKORG’s shortcomings and then some, so I tracked one down on eBay and made the plunge.

Over the last few years, the R3 has been a vital part of my arsenal. But for some reason, it seems like I’m mostly alone in my affinity for it. I can’t seem to find very much love for the Korg R3. In fact, it was discontinued sometime in the last decade. It is, in my limited estimation, one of the most underrated synthesizers ever.

Here’s why.

General Specs

Like the microKORG, the R3 is a 37-key, touch-sensitive synthesizer with octave buttons, programmable pitch bend, and tonewheel, and includes vocoder functionality. But unlike its little brother, the R3 features full-size keys. It has 128 preset slots which by default are separated into banks by general purpose (lead, polysynth, bass, sound effects, etc.). The R3 runs on Korg’s famed Radias engine. It’s essentially the same instrument as the Radias, but with its knobby menu hidden behind a scroll menu.

The R3 has an 8-voice polyphony (that is, how many notes will play at the same time), which, while unimpressive on its own, is twice as much as a the microKORG. The R3 allows you to combine two timbres at a time, either in a layer or split. There are a number of built-in effects, including reverbs. Each timbre can be assigned two effects, as well as one master effect for each preset. You can even route a microphone or instrument cable through the effects chain so you can use the synth as an effects unit for your voice or guitar.

None of this is particularly impressive for a synthesizer, but considering how affordable the R3 is (I found mine on eBay for $400), it more than delivers.

One of the most attractive features of the R3 is the Formant Motion function. You can assign predetermined motions to a number of parameters, from modulation to effect level to cutoff to pitch. But more on that later.

A Huge Range of Sounds

The R3’s default 128 patches already feature some dynamic sounds. But if you dig into the parameters menu, you can get a lot of variation.

Each timbre has two independent oscillators, which can be tweaked independently and mixed in any combination. Each oscillator can be set to a different waveform, which includes simulations of real instruments like organ, piano, or guitar. Of course, there’s the standard attack/decay/sustain/release envelope that makes up the base of almost all synthesizer sounds, but there is also a deep virtual patch bay that I have never once actually dug into myself.

There are four knobs that can be assigned to any parameter, as well as the tonewheel and optional footswitch, so you can edit them in real-time while performing.

USB Capability

In addition to the standard MIDI in, out, and thru jacks, the Korg R3 also has a USB output which allows you to connect to a computer or tablet. You can use this to turn the R3 into a MIDI control to software synths.

But the real value of the USB output is the R3 Sound Editor program. This program allows you to edit and save new patches on your computer, which gives you a near unlimited number of patches. I have a number of banks saved on my computer that I switch between depending on what project I’m using the synth in.

There are also a few forums online where fellow R3 users share patches that they have created. I’ve even found a few 128-patch libraries for sale on eBay. Most of my favorite sounds are patches that I downloaded from other users and then edited for my purposes. But since the R3 is so underappreciated, these collections are rather limited.

No Sequencer? No Problem

One of the biggest complaints of the R3 is that it doesn’t have an onboard sequencer. But I’ve found a few workarounds.

First, there’s the arpeggiator, which has six modes (up, down, two alternating modes, trigger, and random), a latch function, and subtractive rhythms. The arpeggiator also has a resolution control, which allows you to set how much time each note gets (eighth notes, triplets, two measures per note, etc). I will often use the arpeggiator to create a looping melody or a droning chord that will play until I turn it off. This video from my band shows what I’m talking about (excuse the shameless plug).

And then, there’s the Formant Motion control, which I mentioned earlier.

The Formant Motion section allows you to set as many as 16 steps, including the resolution of each step. You can adjust the settings of a number of parameters for each step, including pitch. So if you set a droning chord with a long formant motion resolution, you can set the Formant Motion parameters to match the tone and rhythm of a chord progression. Or, you can line up the arpeggiator and formant motion so that the arpeggiator’s melody matches the rest of the song.

It’s very limited compared to a dedicated sequencer, but it does open up a world of possibilities that many synths—such as the microKORG—can’t access.

Why No Love?

So why doesn’t the R3 get the love it deserves? Why did Korg discontinue it after such a short production cycle?

As far as I can tell, most of the discontentment with the R3 has to do with the scrolling LCD menu. There are over fifty pages of parameters to scroll through, and that can get frustrating when you’re trying to dial in that perfect sound. Most synthesizer enthusiasts are big on real-time control, and while the R3 has an immense capability for customization, it’s difficult to do that on the fly. If its controls were routed out to a knobby front panel (like the Radias, for instance), I wager that the R3 would be one of the most celebrated items in the Korg catalog.

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About the Author

Nathaniel Fitzgerald
Nathaniel FitzGerald is a longtime audiophile and independent musician living in South Bend, IN. He has been collecting records and vintage stereo equipment for over ten years. He also runs a blog called A Year of Vinyl, where he reviews every record in his (sizable) collection one disc at a time.

4 Comments on "Giving the Korg R3 Its Due"

  1. Cyrus Freeman | February 16, 2019 at 3:18 am |

    I love mine! I got it because I needed a compact synth and it just blew me away. The menus are horrible and scary, but definitely powerful.

  2. A REMINDER | June 6, 2019 at 12:03 am |

    My name is Ed. I play synths in A Reminder. One of the great features I learned about the R3 is that there a lot of combinations from the analog emulation oscillators and the digital synthesis waves. ave to thank the Radius engine underneath that the microKorg also uses. My biggest gripe for live use however is the output. It is weak. The microKorg has a much better output stage. Connecting the R3 to compressor and overdrive pedals, or increasing the gain on a mixer, does bring out some life however.
    At home I have had a lot of success recording patches in Ableton Live and layering them to get a fatter sound. Here is an example: https://soundcloud.com/covertsweetness/interlude-jam-2
    I did read on a forum somewhere that an R3 enthusiast was trying to mod the output stage with a cleaner circuit but not sure if I want to do that to my trusty little R3.
    Finding a decent case or carry bag would be nice. Right now I carry the R3 in a large keyboard bag shared with a mono synth. That works but would love something i can carry on a plane and put in an overhead compartment.
    As an alternative to carrying the R3 (the plastic body can get banged up while doing shows) I got a Korg microSampler and bounce out R3 patches as WAV files to load into the sampler. The microSampler actually does allow for playing in keyboard mode and triggering loops and the time stretching works great! The microSampler has Kaoss effects also so I get an extra set of effects in addition the the effects I had to R3 patches. Of course, Ableton Live effect racks also help me sound design for the microSampler.
    Finally, has anyone found anyone who has taken the guys of the R3 and put it into a metal or wood case? i know there is someone out there who mods the microKorg to ditch the keys and sells them as a module and you can use your own controller.
    That’s all for now. Cheers!

    -Ed

  3. I like the sounds in mine and the vocoder. However, mine suffers from a common issue (and probably why they discontinued it, sadly) which is intermittent output drop outs. The vocoder input may not work, then it works. One side has no sound, the other has no sound. Both have no sound (from left / right OR phones output). There was a solution, I hit the thing on the left side until it corrects it. It’s not something loose. Search Korg R3 output and find others have even taken it apart to see it connected properly. It’s just something with the circuitry. If I could find a reliable repair place I’d get it fixed for good but I see no solutions on Google. I can buy another and it’s a gamble if it will be okay or not. Mine is in mint condition. Not a scratch. Had minimal use always covered in a studio as a midi controller until I tried taking it to live gigs over a year ago. It wasn’t long until all this started.

  4. There is absolutely an onboard sequencer on the R3. It is pretty good, too. It is on page 26. When it’s running, the rotary LEDs even run with each step! The LED’s only run when you are actually ON page 26/27, and I wish SO BAD that the R3 would display these lights when on home page.

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