Posts filed under 'Electronic Music'
I occasionally write little reviews for synths on this blog, but I recently came across an effects pedal some synth users might be interested in. It’s called the Logidy EPSi and it processes audio using something called impulse responses (more on this later). There are two flavors of this pedal offered by Logidy - one that’s designed to produce reverb and another aimed at guitarists looking for speaker cabinet simulations. Really, both version can run on the same device, since it’s just separate operating systems. The EPSi I have is designed to produce digital reverberation, as opposed to natural reverberation from something like a spring reverb tank. In the case of the EPSi, it uses impulse responses to generate reverb, which is a method commonly found only on PC platforms where lots of processing power can be harnessed from beefy CPUs. An impulse response is basically a .wav file, but the impulses can be created by recording natural spaces, like a subway station or phone booth. The .wav files are stored on an SD card, which is conveniently provided with the pedal.
The build of the pedal is impressive. No cheap plastic here. And using the EPSi is extremely straight forward. The impulses are organized by type, and there is a knob that allows you to navigate between files. Load time is quick and is based on the size of the .wav file. I don’t think any of my files take longer than, say, three seconds to load. There is a heavy duty bypass foot switch and the audio jacks are of high quality (and stereo!). There are a couple of small things that I find annoying though. First, this pedal cannot run on batteries, which could be related to the power draw of the processor. It’s not the only effects pedal I have that can’t run off of batteries, I just always find it annoying when I can’t slip in a 9v to free up the power strip. Another thing that is mildly problematic is switching between impulses, which requires the turning of that small knob. Not the best setup for playing live. It would be great if there was a foot switch jack, which was something I use to have on my old DSP-128+ and used all the time. And one other thing that’s not really a criticism, just more of a wish list thing. There is a time limitation on the impulses to five seconds. Not a big deal, but I have some great files that are 10+ seconds long. I imagine there are limitations based on the processor at play here that dictates the restriction, but I would pay double the price for deluxe model that would allow for longer times…if that’s even technically possible. For those longer impulses, I’m stuck using my Muse Receptor, which is just not a very portable even though it’s rack mounted.
October 29th, 2014
I occasionally blog about the seasonal National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show when interested stuff is exhibited. Like a less nerdy cousin to the consumer electronics CES show but with more ponytails, NAMM is crack for gear junkies who are always interested in new musical instruments and associated products. While most attention is lavished on what new variation of the Les Paul electric guitar is in the pipeline, I’m always curious to know what kind of new synths are on the horizon. The winter NAMM this year was pretty interesting from an electronic music perspective. The synth to receive the most attention was without a doubt the reissue of the MS-20 from Korg. The MS-20 is an analog mono synth from the ’70s that has been a popular item on the second hand market. Korg basically kept all the original electronics intact, but added MIDI, USB, and shrank the physical dimensions by about 15%. While I’m not crazy about the smaller form factor of this remake, I’m 100% buying this synth when it hits stores in April. The MS-20 has always been an aspirational synth for me, since it’s featured on some of my all-time favorite albums like Air’s Moon Safari, Daft Punk’s Homework, and Goldfrapp’s Felt Mountain. The release of the new MS-20 didn’t come without some backlash though. Many smart folks lamented the lack of imagination on the part of Korg, since this synth doesn’t break any new ground. That’s a fair complaint, since the only new features are MIDI and USB. But I’m just happy to see a brand new MS-20 I can buy for a reasonable price and comes with a warranty.
There were some other cool synths on display at NAMM in other booths as well. Moog has a new mono synth which sounds great, but has a name that escapes me (something phatty?). Dave Smith Instruments (DSI) had a new poly analog synth on display which looks and sounds fantastic. It costs a fortune, but people now can’t complain about not having options for new analog poly synths. I suppose this sets the stage for Moog and everyone’s hopes for a poly synth from them. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
February 8th, 2013
It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a synth, but honestly, I haven’t bought much lately. Typically, there’s a revolving door of music gear in my life. Normally, I’ll pick-up some old digital synth via Craigslist and then sell it six months later after deciding I don’t like the way it works and/or sounds. But my current line-up is pretty stable. Most synth work is handled by my faithful Kurzweil K2000. The Nord Micro Modular has been used quite a bit as well now that I’ve finally got my head around the software editor. And even my lowly Yamaha TX81Z has seen some regular talkbox use. One other piece of gear that I’ve been trying to dive into is my Use Audio Plugiator synth module, which I purchased used off eBay about a year ago for around $250. First off, I hate the name “Plugiator”. I like the way companies named synths back in the ’70s — Plugiator leads to smirks when people see it emblazoned on the case. Anyway, the name is suppose to provide a hint as to how the module functions, since it’s basically a host for computer plugin similar to what the Muse Receptor does for VSTs. Unfortunately, the Plugiator isn’t an open-ended host like those boxes from Muse, rather, only Use Audio plugins can be slotted into the available plugin destinations, of which there are eight. So I should back up a bit and explain that Use Audio was born when the German company Creamware crashed and burned around 2006. Creamware had developed a number of successful software based synths during their run, so basically the Plugiator is a standalone host for these. In the Plugiator, four of these softare based synths are preinstalled out-of-box: A Moog Mini emulation called the Minimax, a Hammond B-3 emulation called B4000, and a completely new synth called Lightwave, which doesn’t apparently emulate any historic synthesizer of note. The fourth slot is for a vocoder plugin, but I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet. The remaining four slots are empty, but are reserved for plugins available for purchase from Use Audio. These include a Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 and ARP Odyssey emulations along with a rudimentary FM synth and a drum machine. Here’s a rundown of my impression of the plugins I currently have installed:
Minimax: As mentioned above, this is a Mini Moog emulation. It’s a nice sounding clone, although nobody would likely mistake this for the real thing since it sounds pretty sterile. As with all the plugins, there are two digital effects that can be applied to a plugin and those are limited to delay and chorus. Unfortunately, nearly all of the presets have effects applied to them. I went through and turned the effects off for all of the sounds and resaved, since I felt they really detracted from the overall punch of the Plugiator. Here’s what a I really like about the Minimax plugin though: polyphony! The real Mini Moog is single voice, meaning; only one note can be played at a time. The Minimax doesn’t have this limitation, so you can play chords, so it’s more like a Poly Moog or Memory Moog.
B4000: This is a pretty weak imitation of the Hammond B-3, but it also doesn’t sound terrible in its own right. I typically use it for dirty organ sounds by running it through a distortion preset in one of my effects boxes.
Lightwave: I use to have an Ensoniq SQ-R, which was a hardware synth from the ’80s. This plugin reminds me a lot of this old synth. The Lightwave is not really a wavetable synth like my Korg Wavestation, which is a disappointment, but like the SQ-R, the Lightwave has a bunch of waveforms you can select for the four oscillators with all sorts of modulation options. It’s an extremely fun plugin to play around with, but I haven’t programmed any fantastic sounds with it yet, which was also true of my old SQ-R. I think I just need to spend some more time with this plugin.
Pro-12: Being someone who has never used a Prophet 5, I can’t say the Pro-12 is a good emulation. This plugin sounds great though — once the effects are disabled. I really like some of the bass presets the plugin came with. Haven’t had a chance to try my hand at programming completely new sounds, but I think this will be a pretty useful plugin. This one did cost extra money and was not included in the module I purchased. How could this plugin be better? An arpeggiator would be nice. And a spring reverb option would be nice for this, and any of the other plugins.
One of the great things about the Plugiator is there are no latency issues — something that can be a complete nightmare with VSTs running on a laptop or on the Muse Receptor. Latency is related to the time someone hits a key to when the sound plays. In some VST plugins, you have to reduce the number of notes you can play to get acceptable latency. No worries of that with the Plugiator, which is great. One of the things that really sucks about the Plugiator is the unclear process required to purchase additional plugins, like the Pro-12 I downloaded. The software that comes with the Plugiator also includes a connection to the Use Audio online store where plugins can be purchased. My expectation is once you complete the transaction via PayPal, the needed activation codes would show-up in the interface. Not so in my case. It took multiple emails to Use Audio support before I was able to install the plugin in the module. This should be seamless and simple, but was anything but. Because of this, I would caution anyone considering buying a Plugiator since Use Audio seems a bit scattered and possibly not long for this world (the Creamware curse). Unlike some other small companies I’ve dealt with, Elektron back when I had my Sid Station comes to mind, Use Audio is not very responsive. And they don’t seem to offer any user forums. Hell, it doesn’t even look like they’ve updated their website in the past couple of years. Even the modest Meeblip synth is better supported. On the plus side, the physical construction of the Plugiator is quite nice. The rotary knobs are solid and don’t feel cheap and the all the audio connections are heavy duty. I’ve lugged my Plugiator back-and-forth between work and home and it’s held up well.
January 31st, 2012
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.
February 9th, 2011
October 2nd, 2010
In 1991, Krafwerk released a sort of greatest hits collection of reimagined tracks from previous albums called The Mix. It was met with heaps of scorn from diehard fans, who felt it was somewhat sacrilegious for the group to get under the hood and tinker with their classics. I feel like this album is under appreciated and is itself a classic (right up there behind Trans Europe Express). Kraftwerk has always been about reinventing itself. Most fans don’t even know the band had albums before Autobahn because Florian Schneider and Ralf Hutter downplayed their earlier, more psychedelic, sound. For the band and fans alike, Autobahn has always been considered Year One because Kraftwerk wanted it that way. But this whole idea of reinterpretations you own work is pure Kraftwerk despite the lamentations of the faithful. And because it was executed so well, I think The Mix stands on its own as something between a thoughtful greatest hits collection and a musical curiosity.
October 7th, 2009
Back when I worked at the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory and shared an office with Mike, I had the privilege of unfettered access to a vast collection of CDs. Mike is part of that disappearing segment of society still buying compact discs rather than downloading digital files. One of the most intriguing CDs Mike ever brought in was Cypher 7’s Decoder, a 1996 release from a supergroup of sorts which may or may not have included Jeff Bova, Alex Haas, Bill Laswell (producer?), and Yellowman(!?!). The CD starts off with a sprawling 17 minute jam titled “Dead Drop”, a reference to the outdoor nooks and crannies Cold War spies used for stashing secret microfilm. The song is perfect at evoking nocturnal scenes of rainy winter avenues and the dull glare of sodium vapor street lamps. The track also still feels fresh, even though it came out at a time when the Dave Matthews Band and Alanis Morrisette dominated the pop charts.
There doesn’t seem to be much information on Cypher 7 out there other than it was formed by Bova and Haas in the early ’90s. I believe both worked at major New York studios during the late ’80s early ’90s, so that might have been the connection. Laswell is probably best known for his work producing Herbie Hancock, who Bova played keyboards for. I’m not sure if Yellowman was actually involved in the recording of the Decoder album since he is not mentioned on the liner notes (Amazon does list him though), but he is a well know Jamaican dub DJ who might have provided some of the beats and might have traveled in the same circles as Laswell, who had a close connection to Chris Blackwell and Island Records. It wouldn’t surprise me if Laswell was the one who provided the bass playing on the album. On the surface, Bova seems like an odd musician to be involved in Cypher 7 since most of his work tends to be more mainstream with performers like Celine Dion, Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, and Billy Joel. But then again, he also had a long relationship with Laswell, which probably exposed him to more avant-garde musical forms.
I don’t know if this is true or not, but I’ve also read the primary synth used on Decoder was the Waldorf Wave, a massive keyboard that cost around $8,000 USD circa 1994. Jeff Bova did own a Wave and is reported to have used it on numerous albums from artists as diverse as The Backstreet Boys to Meat Loaf. As an owner of Waldorf’s Microwave II, which came out later in the ‘90s, I can report that many of the atmospherics of Decoder have that Waldorf trademark to them. This is especially true of “Dead Drop”. I don’t know how many Waves are floating around out there, but I bet the numbers are pretty small. And I wonder if Bova still uses his? I would love to hear it on another Cypher 7 album someday. Oh, I almost forgot. Bill Laswell also release a couple of albums called Dark Side of the Moog that are quite good as well. They make a nice complement to Cypher 7.
Listen to “Dead Drop” on last.fm
August 14th, 2009
I’ve purchase two used late model digital synths over the past couple of months: the Novation XioSynth and the Waldorf MicroQ. Both of these create their sounds using a synthesis method called “Virtual Analog” or VA for short. This basically means software on a little chip models classic analog technology. Both of these synths have pretty much the same architecture, three oscillators w/ various waveforms, multiple filter types, digital effects, etc., but the Waldorf adds some nice extras which I’ll explain in a second. Both of these synths are cool in their own special way, so I’ll do two mini reviews.
This is actually three devices in one: A controller, a synth, and an audio interface. I bought it because I’ve always liked Novation’s VAs and I wanted a battery powered controller (the XioSynth can also run off a USB connection)…the audio interface is just a nice additional feature. Novation deserves credit their great documentation and website, which has up-to-date drivers and additional sounds. Getting the XioSynth to work w/ computer applications has been easy so far. Numerous audio and MIDI programs recognize it without a lot of fuss, an unusual Windows experience for me. There is a nice Java based editor that makes it easy to program sounds, but that can also be done using the handful of knobs along the top of the keyboard. Still, there is a fair amount of menu diving if you really want to the program this thing without a computer. The LCD certainly helps here though. So one of the great things about the XioSynth is the arpeggiator and the X-Gator, a sort of jazzed-up step sequencer that I think is really just an audio gate, which may explain why I can’t get it to transmit over MIDI like the arpeggiator (I can be so dense sometimes). Both of these are pretty awesome, but you have to be creative in using them or everything just sounds like awful Euro-Trance™. The keyboard action is quite nice for a synth this cheap — far better than the action on my old 49 key controller I bought over a decade ago. So how does this thing sound? Pretty good really, but nothing spectacular. Many of the presets are drenched in digital effects, which I think are of pretty mediocre quality. I tend to just disable the internal effects and us outboard processing. This synth sounds great running through analog guitar pedals or older digital effects.
This is a cut-down version of Waldorf’s Q series, part of a long legacy of synths designed by German legend Wolfgang Palm of PPG fame (think Rush circa Power Windows). What has been excluded from it’s big brother are dedicated knobs for every function, a step sequencer, and less polyphony; although the everything else pretty much stays the same. I wanted to get the newer Blofeld, which is sort of an updated version of the MicroQ but w/ user sample memory and an amazing interface, but MicroQs are really cheap these days. Like the XioSynth, the MicroQ is a virtual analog synth, meaning the sound is generated by software. Waldorf mixes things up a bit though by adding wavetables. So what are wavetables? It depends on the design and manufacture, but typically this means a number of small audio samples stored in ROM controlled by a table that points to the ROM sounds. It’s kind of hard to explain how this works, but it basically means a larger sound pallet to draw from when building a patch. Wavetable can also be used to create evolving sounds since the samples can be “scanned” — jumping from one sample to another. The MicroQ also adds in FM and ring modulation, which is great for producing bell-like sounds (think Yamaha’s DX-7 from the ’80s). Really, the MicroQ has a lot of sonic potential under the hood. But all that potential is useless if you can’t tap it, and the MicroQ, despite it’s lack of knobs, offers some pretty intuitive programming thanks to its matrix borrowed from the long discontinued Waldorf Pulse. There is also a Windows based software editor, but I have yet to try it since I’ve been able to do most of my basic programming from the four matrix knobs. Like the XioSynth, the MicroQ also has an arpeggiator, which can often make things way to trancy. But it’s also programmable, so you can do more abstract things w/ it as well. Perhaps one of the most intriguing features, and one I haven’t used yet, is the vocoder. I won’t go into the technical details of what a vocoder is, but if you’ve listened to Air or late ’70s ELO, you know what it sounds like. I just need to go through all the hassles of setting up a microphone to experiment w/ this, but I might finally get around to it this weekend. Overall I really like the sound of the MicroQ — more than the XioSynth, although that synth sounds perfectly fine in most contexts. The MicroQ reeks of a certain “sparkly” character that is quite pleasing to my ears. Oh, I forgot to mention the random patch generating function — every synth should have this feature.
My time spent w/ the MicroQ has gotten me lusting after the Waldorf Microwave II, which often goes for pretty cheap on eBay these days. It lacks a lot of knobs (unless you get the more expensive XT), but it still offers the matrix programming, which I think is adequate for basic sound design. The Waldorf company is quite interesting, having gone into bankruptcy a couple of years ago only to emerge strong and vibrant.
- Power button: You have to hold the power button down to turn the thing off. This is really annoying — should just be a standard power switch like on most synths.
- No audio input on the front: I love the fact there is an audio in at all, but I wish they would have put a jack on the front as well as the back.
- Screen saver: When I updated the OS to 2.2, I noticed this new screen saver that comes on when not in use. It freaks me out, because I think the thing is spontaneously resetting itself like my old SidStation. And I don’t thing there is any real need for a screen saver — the chances of characters “burning” into the screen during prolonged stretches of discuss are probably pretty low.
- Interface: I can’t complain about the interface being complicated too much, since Novation was trying to squeeze a lot of functionality into a small form factor. But just trying to get the arpeggiator to send a MIDI signal necessitated grabbing the manual a couple of times.
- Lettering: In low light situations it virtually impossible to see the labels above the knobs. It would be nice to see a higher contrast color used on those fonts.
- Internal effects: You can use a bunch of effects at once, but the quality, to my ears, is not all that great. I usually rely on outboard processing (XioSynth + Boss Super Chorus + Lexicon Reverb = Hot!)
- No MIDI in: Well, it not really a big issues, since I do patch editing via USB, but without a USB connection there is no way to send patches via system exclusive. Not a big deal, just annoying.
August 1st, 2009
OK, I don’t need a new project this summer, but I’ve recklessly put another one on my plate. I found the ARP Omni II pictured above on Craigslist for a pretty good price due to a couple issues I’ll mention in a minute. So why bother buying an ARP Omni II you might ask? Good question! The Omni II was a popular “string synth” from the late ’70s to early ’80s and was used by bands as diverse as Joy Division and Supertramp. The whole string synth fad came about in the early ’70s as an alternative to the Melotron, which was an expensive and cumbersome tape-based proto-sampler keyboard. The idea behind the first string synth, the Eminent, was synthesize string sounds rather than play back tape recorded strings like the Melotron. The Eminent lead to the Solina which lead to the ARP Omni I/II, which I guess used the basic design of the Solina, but added a couple of additional features. Pretty much every synth manufacture offered some kind of string synth back in the day (probably thanks to disco) including Roland, Yamaha, and Korg. The key to any of these old string synths is the built in analog chorus/phase effects — without it, a string synth just sounds kind of bland.
The Omni II is a bit of an odd beast even by ARP standards. It is basically three analog synths in one box sharing a common keyboard. It’s neither monophonic (meaning it plays one note at a time) or polyphonic (meaning it plays chords) but paraphonic which means that it is capable of playing all the notes on the keyboard using something called divide down technology. Polyphonic synths were quite rare in the ’70s. On of the few was the the Prophet 5, but it was also quite expensive. These string synths used the same technology as transistor based organs used allowing for chords but cost far less than standard polyphonic synths.
So what does my Omni need in the way of repairs? Well for one, all the ‘E’ notes sustain when I play the string sounds, which means there is probably a blown capacitor on one of the circuit boards. This is a pretty common issue with a lot of ARP synths from the ’70s. I guess the Omni was the product that kept company executives in cocaine and champagne, but to maximize profits, I think they cut corners wherever they could — like using cheap capacitors prone to failure. I’m also gonna need to either clean or replace all the sliders. I think someone tried to clean them with WD40 or similar, so now they’re pretty much shot. Right now I’m leaning toward replacing, since pretty much all the parts used on the Omni are still being made. Below are some links for other Omni owners to use when sourcing parts.
Arp Omni II Switches
Arp Omni II Chorus Phaser Chip
Arp Omni II Synth and Bass Voice Chip
Arp Omni II Voicing Circuit Chip
Arp String Ensemble Bass Section OP Amp
Arp String Ensemble Knobs
ARP Omni II Problems
Hear the Omni II in action on one of the best songs ever…
Love Will Tear Us Apart - Joy Division
June 30th, 2009
A few regular readers might remember some old posts where I talked about my attempts to create new discs for the Mattel Optigan organ. I won’t rehash the detailed explanation of what the Optigan is, but in a nutshell, it’s a cheesy home organ that hasn’t been in production for about 35 years. To produce the sounds, audio loops are read from a transparent sound disc. Various discs covered specific musical genres, like country, folk, or polka just to name a few. I’ve always wanted to make my own discs with my own sounds, but technical obstacles always got in my way. I was able to scan existing discs and print copies, but the fidelity was not all that great and it was difficult to punch out the center hole of the disc. Making a disc with brand new sounds presented even more challenges, since software was involved. But some folks with far more technical expertise have managed to do what I never was — create a new Optigan disc. Go here to see a demo. I’m super excited about this development and I’m eagerly awaiting the opportunity to buy a new disc.
October 11th, 2008