Posts filed under 'Low End'

Requiem for the Netbook

2012 is the year the netbook died. Netbooks are, or were, mini laptops with a footprint similar to that of a tablet. But unlike tablets, netbooks can run either Windows or Linux operating systems and have numerous ports for SD cards, HDMI cables, and USB peripherals. I bought my first netbook, an ASUS Eee PC, around 2006. It was cheap and it ran Windows XP. I needed a MIDI capable device for sequencing, and the ASUS was a perfect fit since I could balance it on top of a keyboard. Even with a lower end processor, I was still able to use the ASUS to record multi-track audio. But late last year, my netbook finally gave out after years of use and abuse. Many keys had been ripped out by my cats and the battery was providing poor performance. I guess I’ve been out of the loop a bit on consumer electronics, because I was surprised to discover there were few options for replacing my ASUS. Up until late last year, there were only two manufacturers left making netbooks: ASUS and Acer. Few retailers stocked netbooks in early 2013, but I was able to find a new Acer for pretty cheap after a long online search.

The only real advantage netbooks had going into 2012 was price, but that quickly changed as manufacturers started to offer traditional laptops at netbook prices. I suppose I’m one of the few people out there who prized the small form factor of netbooks and didn’t mind the tiny keyboard and display. For me, the only portable device that might work as a netbook replacement would a tablet running Windows 8. Something like the HP Envy X2 might fit that bill, but it’s expensive and I’m not sure it has all the ports I would need. Of course there is the Chromebook, but all of my music apps are Windows based, so that’s not an option. I’m hoping in a couple of year ultrabooks will come down in price since I’m sure my Acer will be used and abused by then.

1 comment April 23rd, 2013

Mini Review: Nexus 7 Tablet

Trying out the Nexus 7 tablet this week and thought I would share first impressions. This is Google’s answer to Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD, a product not intended to complete directly with the iPad, but rather fill a niche in the content delivery category. So far, I’ve been really happy with it. For those unfamiliar with this diminutive tablet, it’s manufactured by ASUS and retails for $200 through various outlets (I bought directly from Google). Mine also came with a $25.00 credit for the Google Play — which is the online space Google uses to sell media like books, music, and movies. I really like the fact this tablet arrived pre-installed with all my Google account information. Basically, all I had to do was turn it on and enter my Google password. One of the things that really attracted me to this tablet over the Kindle Fire HD is the fact it runs an unaltered version of Android. The Amazon tablet is built on Android, but it has a custom operating system that sits on top and doesn’t allow the user to run standard Android apps. No worries about that with the Nexus 7. I also like the design and construction. The iPad has a smooth metal back, which I’m not crazy about. The Nexus 7 has a textured rubber back, which I think makes the tablet easier to hold. The screen is not quite as nice as the iPad, but it’s IPS, so viewing from an angle works fine. Here’s my quick list of pros and cons for the Nexus 7:

Pros
1. Solid construction
2. Fast processor
3. Good integration with Google apps
4. GPS and mapping

Cons
1. No HDMI out
2. No rear facing camera
3. No SD or micro SD card slot
4. Bad internal speaker

Despite the negatives, I think the Nexus 7 is a great product. I’ll even go so far as to say I like it a little bit better than the iPad (although Apple has a better selection of apps). We had a Samsung Galaxy Tab here at work a while back and I really enjoyed using that tablet as well. There are probably some folks who are just going to prefer Android over iOS and I’m beginning think I might be one of those people.

Add comment October 4th, 2012

Digital Bolex

For the most part, I find Facebook to be a complete waste of time. I equate it to gold mining — you have to sift through yard after yard of dirt and rock to find that tiny fleck of precious metal. I found one of those rare nuggets last week as I was digging through the frozen tundra of Facebook. One of my “friends” posted a news article about a Kickstarter effort to create a new digital video camera. I would generally ignore this, except the headline mentioned “Digital Bolex”. Being a fan of small gauge filmmaking, this sparked my interest and I researched a bit further. It turns out there are two filmmakers who are trying to resurrect the Bolex name, but to grace a digital camera. What they are planning is not your average low-fi digi-cam though. One of the things I don’t like about my Canon T2i is the compression it applies to video. The compression is not terrible, but it puts one at a disadvantage if you plan on doing any serious post production work like color grading. The Digital Bolex will shoot uncompressed 1080p HD footage using an off-the-shelf Kodak(?) sensor roughly the size of the super 16 frame. Actually, it sounds like the footage is a sequence of RAW images instead of a tidy little .mov file like those generated by my DSLR, but turning those individual images into a video file is pretty easy. I do this all the time with the time-lapse footage I shoot. Right now it looks like the makers of the Digital Bolex are way past their fundraising goal, so I think the project will actually come to fruition. I can’t wait to see what the early adopters have to say (note: I will not be an early adopter). I the closest competition would be the A-Cam dII, which I think uses the same c-mount lens system as the Digital Bolex. However, the A-Cam dII uses a proprietary memory storage solution rather than something more conventional. The Digital Bolex uses more practical CF cards, which are relatively cheap and plentiful. There are a couple of things that don’t excite me when reviewing the Digital Bolex’s specs:

Audio Inputs: Two XLR inputs, which is great, but no phantom power. To me it seems pointless to offer XLRs without phantom power. And those inputs should also offer channel switching so either channel 1 or 2 can be routed to both channels. My DVX100 use to do this and it was a great feature I used all the time. Maybe the Digital Bolex will do this via software?
HDMI Outputs: Needed for an external LCD monitor. I think there is an adaptor that allows you to do this, but there should be a dedicated jack for a standard HDMI or HDMI mini cable.
Ergonomics: To be perfectly honest, I never really liked the way my old 16mm Bolex felt in my hands. The only saving grace was the brick-like weight. Some of the old super 8 camera makers made cameras that felt wonderful in the hand, like Eumig and Nizo. Not a big deal though, since I shot using a stabilizer rig a lot these days.

Of course the cost of the Digital Bolex won’t be cheap when they finally start building them. Sounds like they will be in the $3k neighborhood, which isn’t all that bad considering a Canon D5 Mark II DSLR runs about the same. I still have a bunch of great c-mount lens, so this camera is totally something I would love to have. But I’m not sure I’m ready to make that kind of investment for my minimal documentary work. If the audio options are improved and if an HDMI jack is added, I might consider a stretch for the camera though.

Add comment March 19th, 2012

All Hail the Meeblip

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So I recently purchased another little noise-maker to join my Stylophone, Gakken SX-150, and FM3 Buddha Box in my modest collection of annoying sound devices. This little guy is called the Meeblip and is the brain child of James Grahame of Retro Thing. Like the Gakken SX-150, this is something you have to put together yourself, although it doesn’t require any soldering. Unlike any of the other aforementioned boxes, the Meeblip can be controlled over MIDI. Actually, this guy is really a full-on monosynth, which kind of surprised me. From what I gather, the Meeblip is a monophonic virtual analog synth, meaning the synthesis is performed on a chip rather than older, conventional methods like DCO and VCO sound generators. But no matter, it still sounds great. And every parameter has a switch or dial just like those old monosynths from the ’70s. The versatility of the Meeblip is pretty amazing once you start messing around with it. Of course you don’t have a fancy modulation matrix or anything like that, but the simplicity of the design makes it a lot of fun to experiment with. I guess my only real complaint is the USB port, which is only used for power. This means you need to have some USB enable device close by, like a laptop, to power the Meeblip. I use something called MintyBoost! for my USB power. The real problem with the USB port is expectations though. I see that port and assume I can stream audio or MIDI over it (which the Meeblip doesn’t support). I would rather just see the USB port dropped in favor of a battery compartment.

UPDATE: There is now an external power supply option for owners of early Meeblips. All new orders ship with the external power supply.

4 comments February 9th, 2011

Crazy Cheap Digital Effects

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I love analog effects yo, but that stuff is crazy expensive. Lately, to satisfy my craving for audio mangling, I’ve been picking up unloved digital effects from the early ‘90s (and some of a more recent vintage). One of the best finds was from a couple of months ago: the Alesis Wedge, made for a short period of time circa 1997. The one I found on eBay was covered in grim, but it was also dirt cheap – I think around $35.00. This is a great little reverb box that lets you actually edit the effects parameters via four sliders, which is insanely cool. I’ve been using it to create these huge ambient washes. If you want an idea of what this sounds like in a mix, checkout this six minute jam with Mike Spicer from a while back. It’s mostly my Kurzweil K2000VX played through the Wedge. That other synth noodling is Mike playing his Casio keyboard through a tremolo pedal. Everything was tracked to an Alesis ADAT.

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The Wedge and a MIDIVerb III chained-up via a ProCo patchbay. The beginnings of my modular effects rack.

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Another, and newer, digital effect boxes I’ve picked-up recently is the DigiTech RP50. I got this one off of CraigsList for $25.00. It’s the crappiest constructed effects boxes I’ve ever come across, but it sounds great. It was designed for guitarists, so it’s really easy to use. I bought it because I love the older DigiTech whammy and pitch shifter pedals – but both of those are super expense on the used market these days. The RP50 has both of these effects, along with a ton of other ones like reverb and delay. And I think you can chain up to five effects at once. To make the whammy or wah effect work, I just hook-up my controller pedal. Apparently there is even a built in drum machine, but I haven’t tried that yet. And it has stereo inputs and outputs. And it works fine with a line level signal. The list of cheap awesomeness goes on and on. Here is an example of my K2000VX played through the Wedge with the RP50 in whammy mode at the end of the effects chain.

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I did make one extravagant analog purchase recently though. With some of my tax return money I bought a used Frostwave Resonator effects pedal. I wanted to by an Analogue Solutions Filtered Coffee from the UK, which features the filter, LFOs, and envelope follower of the Korg MS-20, but it runs about $500.00 new (maybe more because of the dollar’s continuing weakness against the Pound). For around $200.00, I bought an Australian built Resonator off of eBay, which just features the filter section from the MS-20. That means no crazy Goldfrapp style vocal effects, but still lots of fun. I’ve found this pedal is most useful when the knobs are not turned to “11” since the Resonator tends to get a bit wild and unpredictable when pushed to the edge. Rather, I’ve used the filter to give character to otherwise boring sounded synths. Here is my junky Yamaha TG-33 played through the Resonator. Here is an ARP Quadra sample on my K2000VX played through the Resonator (with apologies to Boards of Canada).

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Cholula loves the warmth of my Lexicon LXP-15. Unfortunately this one has blown capacitors, so I’m looking to replace it with the smaller LXP-1. Oh, one other thing I wanted to mention, Cholula is on Matrixsynth this week. My cat blogging continues unabated.

Add comment May 15th, 2008

In Praise of the MiniDisc

I don’t know why I’m so attracted to obsolete technology. Maybe it’s ingrained in my American DNA to root for the underdog. And what a glorious underdog the MiniDisc (MD) is. Introduced in 1992 by Sony, it was a digital alternative to the more expensive DAT format. But Sony has a history of poor marketing when it comes to new media formats (Betamax, Hi-8, etc.) and the MD was no exception. Sony tried to market the MD as a replacement for the CD, but it would have made more sense to sell it as a replacement for the cassette tape, something Philips had tried unsuccessfully with the Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) format.

MD limped along for the rest of the ‘90s before finding its niche, which was affordable digital recording. Because MD cartridges are so small, about 2 inches across, the player/recorders are also small – especially compared to DAT. In 2000, Sony upgraded the MD format to fit more data on a disc using digital compression, allowing more recording time. But Sony totally dropped the ball when the iPod was released by Apple in October of 2001. Instead of allowing the option of playing back MP3s like on the iPod, Sony forced MD users to encode their music files in their proprietary ATRAC format. Finally in 2004, Sony introduced Hi-MD which offered MP3 compatibility and uncompressed audio recording, but they still didn’t have anything like iTunes for users to download music easily (SonicStage=crap!).

I still use my MD player/recorder for a couple of reasons. First, it runs on a single AA battery. If you’re traveling overseas, having something that takes a standard battery and doesn’t need recharging is a plus. Second, the MD is an unobtrusive recording device. I’ve used it for wild sound when filming super 8 and it works great for that. Third, MD player/recorders are cheap. I paid $150.00 new for mine. If I lost my MD, it would be easy and cheap to replace. Would I ever pick my iPod over MD? Well, not until iPods become cheaper and offer easy digital recording. For now, I’ll stick with MD.

August 22nd, 2007

Low End Theory: Digital Synths

I’m a super fan of all things analog. So it may surprise some to hear I recently purchased a digital synthesizer off eBay. I’m going to try and explain this odd purchase (partly to rationalize it for myself). You see, I’ve been looking into buying a decent analog synthesizer for some time, but the search has thus far been fruitless. Really, there are no good deals out there on analog synthesizer, except those PAiA kits requiring soldering and assembly. During my search though, I began to run across all these ‘80s era digital synthesizer selling for peanuts. For example: Kawai K1s fetching $35.00 on eBay. Christ, you can’t buy one of those crappy digital keyboards at Radio Shack for $35.00 these days. And when it comes to the K1 and its ilk, we’re talking fully programmable synthesizers with thousands of user made and commercial sounds online. So against my better judgment, I recently bought the K1’s big brother, the Kawai K5. This monster is the antithesis of analog since the sounds are created completely digitally on a little chip. To understand these instruments, you have to step back in time to the wonderful ‘80s when digital was king. In those days, the compact disc ruled the audio world. People dumped old LPs by the millions. The digital fad bled over into the electronic music world as well, where the all digital Yamaha DX-7 rode the ones and zeros fade and made Yamaha a fortune.

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But the Kawai K5 had the unfortunate luck of coming late to the digital craze. By the end of the decade, electronic musicians had grown indifferent to the bonanza of digital products flooding the market. Synthesizer designers had basically created machines that were impossible to program due to the bewildering number of parameters required to make even the simplest of sounds. Most digital instruments simply became factory preset machines and few electronic musicians dared to poke around under the hood. And Kawai really shot itself in the foot by designed the K5 around a new form of synthesis (additive, rather than the traditional subtractive championed by Bob Moog). In the K5, you can choose one of 126 harmonic levels as the building block of your sound. WTF are harmonic levels? Kawai doesn’t make it any easier by throwing around other bits of arcane terminology like “envelope-to-harmonic routing” – what, did they intended to market this thing to MIT graduate students? But the K5 wasn’t Kawai swan song. In the late ‘90s, Kawai took one more stab at additive synthesis with the K5000, which tanked almost as bad as the K5. After that, Kawai went back and focused on mining the real money vein: pianos.

I’ll probably keep my K5 despite its many shortcomings. I haven’t managed to program anything useful out of it yet, but I now recognize its potentional. There is a PC program out there allowing samples to be resythesised and loaded into the K5 which looks really cool. Luckily, there is still a very active K5 community on the internet and they seem more than happy to share tips and tricks to get the most out of this strange synthesizer. Recently I downloaded some raw waveforms that had been resysthesised from other keyboards, like the Korg DW-800 and the Kawai K3 (I’m really waiting for some Waldorf Microwave waveforms though). These are actually pretty cool and could serve as building blocks for sounds of my own. But honestly, I doubt programming is really a short term options unless I end up w/ a ton of time on my hands…like if I was laid up with lupus or avian flu and needed something to pass the time.

Mucking around with the K5 has got me thinking about all the synths I’ve owned in the past. A lot of them sucked, but there are a few I regret getting rid of. And there are some I still have, sitting in the basement waiting to be powered up and explored. Below is a chronological list:

Korg 707
My first synthesizer purchased new around 1987 w/ paper route money. The 707 used licensed FM technology from Yamaha for synthesis, but it didn’t really sound like the DX-7. Not a bad little keyboard despite its limited features and poor present sounds. It had only 49 keys, but it looked really cute and it had pegs for a guitar strap if you wanted to use it as a keytar (the horror!). Couldn’t program this thing to save my life though, but I did find a ROM card with a ton of great sounds. I eventually sold the 707 to a sketchy storefront church in McMinnville sometime in the early ‘90s.

Kawai K1rII (rack mount)
This was a little rack mounted synthesizer I purchased new in 1989 for around $225.00. Damn, what a deal! Wish I still had it. The K1 had great strings sounds and all manner of weird noises lurking around inside this simple 8 bit sample playback synthesizer. But with the low price point, many corners were cut giving the K1 an undeserved bad rap.

Yamaha Portasound VSS-30
This was given to me by Matt Barker back in high school and I still have it. The VSS-30 is shit-hot; much better feature-wise than the more popular Casio SK-1. You can do these crazy Philip Glass like arpeggiated riffs. You can also sample sounds with the built in mic or with the line in RCA inputs. You can even apply evenvelopes to samples. These would be great thrift store finds.

Korg M1
Purchased new in 1992 from the same place I got the K1rII. As it turns out, the M1 wasn’t my cup of tea…too polished and slick sounding. There was this preset sound called “Pole” and you would hear it on every other popular Top 40 songs during the early ‘90s. Plus, I couldn’t program this thing either due to it’s minimalist interface. Sold the M1 in 1996 to a McMinnville based Ranchero band to pay for graduate school.

Yamaha TG33 (table top)
Purchased used in 1998 while I was living in Virginia. Still have it and use it from time to time. Similar to the Wavestation (see below), this synth features vector synthesis developed by Sequential Circuits, but uses 8 bit waveforms instead of 16 bit like the Wavestation. I used one as an undergrad in college in the University of Portland’s wonderful electronic music lab, so when I finally had some money, I decided to pick one up. Like the K1, this little bastard lacks filters (D’oh!).

Ensoniq Mirage (rack mount)
Purchased used in 1998 for about $50.00. Technically not a synthesizer, the Mirage can do additative synthesis with special third party software I have on floppy discs. I still have the Mirage, but don’t use it much, even though it has sweet sounding analog filters. All the sample discs I have are hopelessly cheesy: lots of orchestra hits that were so vogue in the ‘80s when the Mirage came out. But hey, if the orchestra hit ever comes back, I’m set.

Roland JX-8P
Purchased used in 1999 from some guy who was paranoid about Y2K and need money to buy emergency supplies. Overall, it was a nice synthesizer, but mine had issues, like bad keys and dodgy buttons. On the upside, it was pretty easy to program and there are some good computer editors floating around on the internet (would have been even easier with the hard-to-find PG-800 controller though). And it had some analog goodness lurking inside, like the filters. Sold it 2004 to some weirdo on Craigslist.

Roland U-220 (rack mount)
Purchased used in 1999 for no good reason other than it was really cheap. This thing sucked big time. I totally hated it in so many ways. Hopelessly impossible to program and Roland’s supplied manual read like it was translated by a Japanese high school student. Sold in 2002 to Trade-Up Music in SE Portland just to get it out of my sight.

Roland D-110 (rack mount)
Purchased used in 1999 around the same time as the U-220 for peanuts. This thing sucked worse than the U-220 and wasn’t event worth the little I spent on it. Like the U-220, Roland made these things impossible to program — it’s a wonder these products didn’t sink the company. Sold the D-110 in 2002.

Elektron SidStation (table top)
Purchased new in 2000 directly from the manufacturer in Sweden. A love/hate relationship quickly developed. This thing was designed around the sound chip from the old Commodore 64 computer and paired with analog filters and wavetables (like the old Waldorf PPG). But the SidStation turned out to be really flakey. Often times it would just freak-out and reset itself, erasing all my carefully programmed sounds. And it sure was noisy – even when notes weren’t being played, the SidStation would buzz like an angry bee. Subsequent operating systems and a new chip minimized these problems, but by then, I was done with it. Sold in 2004 on eBay for more than I bought new. Apparently, the SidStation is now considered a “classic” synthesizer and commands a premium price. Frankly, I’d rather have my K1rII back than another SidStation.

Korg Wavestation
Purchased used in 2003 with the proceeds from winning fantasy football that year. The Wavestation was developed in the late ’80s by the folks from Sequential Circuits and is a direct descendent of the fabled Prophet VS. Still have it and use it quite a bit, even though it’s very difficult to program. The Wavestation has a really nice feel to its keys, so I use it as a controller for the most part.

Wish List

Oberheim Matrix 1000
This is the rack mounted version of the Oberheim Matrix 6. Like the JX-8P, it has analog components mixed in with digital ones. Since there are no knobs for programming and it’s not fully analog, it tends to be overlooked on the used market. I’ve seen them going for around $150.00, so I’ll probably pick one up sometime in the near future.

PAiA Fat Man
These are cheap, around $150.00, but you have to solder them together. I’m still pretty shaky with the old iron, so this project will have to wait.

Pie in the Sky

Waldorf Microwave
These were made in West Germany during the late ’80s early ’90s and are the offspring of the wonderful PPGs. I almost bought one in the late ’90s for $350.00, but backed-out at the last minute because it seemed like an insane amount of money. They probably still cost about that much (if not more), but are definitely worth it. It would be great if Waldorf started making them again, but I’m not holding my breath since Waldorf hasn’t fully recovered from its bankruptcy. There is also the Microwave II from the late ‘90s, but it has digital, rather than analog, filters.

Alesis ION
This is a synth often categorized as a virtual analog. All the sounds are created by a computer processor instead of by circuits. But it’s supposed to sound pretty good even though it’s really just a computer with a keyboard attached. Not really analog, but pleasant none the less. And it has lots of knobs making it easy to program. The Alesis Fusion looks pretty cool as well, but doesn’t have the kind of hands on control like the ION. Like the ION, it has virtual analog capability but it also does sampling and FM synthesis. And it has an internal hard drive. Just wish it would playback soundfonts.

Dave Smith Mono Evolver
I think these sell for around a grand. A nice combination of analog and digital with lots of knobs. I think I would pick this over the Moog Little Phatty because of all its features, but I’d have to take a closer look at both.

MOTM modular synthesizer
When I get student loan paid off, I might seriously consider doing the whole MOTM (Module of the Month) thing. You send them, like $150.00 every month, and they send you a module. At the end of the year, you have a modular synth. And the MOTM stuff sounds and looks great — very Moog like. Actually, after looking at the website, I don’t see any references to the whole module a month thing, so maybe I’m confusing MOTM with synthesizers.com.

2 comments October 16th, 2006


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