Friday, December 26, 2008

Numerology 2.0

Numerology, by Five12. It’s your typical modular Moog sequencer on steroids, capable of chugging away furiously in the background whilst you lay down those exquisite textures on top in sequenced heaven. Oh, did I mention it’s software?

There’s good things and bad things about that. The bad thing, of course, is that it requires a computer to make use of it, Mac OS X to be specific. You can’t just throw a MIDI hardware box in a backpack and then later hook it up with one wire. That’s about all of the bad stuff, however. The good stuff is that it’s incredibly flexible and extremely powerful, and that’s with me really only scratching the outer surface of it. The beauty of Numerology is that it’s modular. You can drag in a new module at any time to add further controls. It’s tough to do that with a hardware box.

You can also have presets. In the screenshot I have six different presets, ranging from 16 basic pulses all at C3 in preset number 1, going on to increasingly complex rhythms as you change to the higher numbered presets. (I think the name “preset” is the tiniest bit unfortunate as they’re really closer to drum machine patterns rather than synthesizer presets. I don’t want anyone to think the program comes with preset sequences that you’re stuck with.) Note that you’re not limited to 16-step sequences. You can have as many as 128 steps, and there are several sequencer modules to choose from, including a polyphonic sequencer, a drum sequencer, and a matrix-style (i.e., piano-roll style) sequencer and arpeggiator. Plus, you’re not limited to controlling only the pitch of notes. You can also control velocity, step length, accent and many other parameters, including three CV values. In the analog synth world, CV stands for control voltage, but since we’re in the software world CV stands here for control value. You can route any of these parameters to any other parameter via the port patching area. In all honesty this is not something I’ve done yet as I’ve only had version 2.0 for a couple of weeks, but the potential for powerful modulations of all sorts is there.

I find Numerology 2.0 to be a lot of fun to play with and incredibly musical. That’s 2.0, though. For me, version 1.0 was not quite so usable. I’m not sure what it was, but I never really “got” 1.0, whereas 2.0 just seems to be intuitive and to make sense to me. 1.0 seemed overly complicated and hard to patch up to get it to run, whereas 2.0 seems ready to go. It’s quite possibly me, although I have to say that there are several how-to videos on the Numerology web site that may have made all the difference. It’s a simple concept, really. Make a video to show people how to use your software. I can’t quite understand why software companies aren’t doing it more often. Kudos to Five12 for taking the time and putting in the effort to make these videos. As a user of their software, I can’t say enough how much of a difference that has made for me.

I’m including a sequence I made a week or so ago. It’s only the “raw” sequence, no textures or other flavorings just yet but they’re coming. I’ve only just now read the section in the manual on how to synchronize Numerology with Ableton Live, so this piece is so far a stand-alone sequence. I’ll be able to fully integrate it into Live in the near future. You also need to run a program to route the audio around your computer. I installed Soundflower, but there are others. Numerology is not a plug-in that runs in other software, rather it’s a stand alone sequencer. It’s not at all difficult to integrate it into your recording environment, but it is something you’ll have to think about a little bit rather than simply selecting it from a menu in Live

The sequence in six variations is running in Numerology and is playing an instance of Arturia’s Minimoog V. There’s also a carefully timed delay as well, which is what’s letting the pulses continue on and which makes it seem at times to be more than one sequence. Once I get all the MIDI and audio routings set up and tested, I’m going to replace the soft synth with a real synth. I’ll post again when I get that finished, hopefully sometime next week.

I didn’t intend for this to be a review of Numerology, nor did I intend for it to be this long. I was only going to post an example sequence along with a few words of explanation. I guess I once again got a little carried away with my enthusiasm. Now all I have to do is figure out how to do that Tangerine Dream-style ratcheting and I’ll be all set. (You can see right at the beginning that the sequencer is moving very slowly, but on every other step Froese makes it put out five notes. Another example is at 1:30. Before that moment, the sequencer is putting out sixteenth notes, but after 1:30 it's spitting out rapid-fire notes for each step. Classic Tangerine Dream.)

Numerology 2.0, from Five12. US$119, but for a short time you can get it for $99. No, this is not a commercial or endorsement. I just happen to really like the software and find that it allows me to make music I could previously only imagine.

Update: the TD-style ratcheting is dead-simple to do. Just pick a note and set the Divide control for the number of fractional repeats you want.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The MMM Arrives

Snowstorm in New York City, modular synth in a plastic bag on the subway, just another normal day.

My Mattson Mini Modular arrived today. An entire year since I ordered it, taking a lot on faith, trading emails with George and getting pretty regular updates. And now it’s sitting in my living room with blinkenlights and a spaghetti of patch cords. It’s hard to even think of it as finished. It’s been a process for so long that it’s hard to think of it as a product. I’m not criticizing or anything, far from it. Some things simply take time to design, build and test.

It’s hard to describe how small it is. It’s shockingly small. The modules are half the size of my MOTM modules. The whole thing, all 22 modules, could fit in a large-ish backpack. I don’t mean a camping trip backpack, I’m talking about an on-one-shoulder book bag type of backpack. A Minimoog has 10 or 11 modules, more or less. My MMM has 22, with room for two more, and it’s smaller than my Mini. I could put together two more cabinets for a total of 48 modules and it would still be smaller than my Minimoog. And, it’s a modular. I can hook things up any which way I want. I have SKB popup mixer cases filled with MOTM modules. Each one holds maybe a dozen modules (if you get a bunch of small ones). I could fit the entire MMM modular with its 24 modules inside the SKB case and still have room for plenty of other gear.

I can see getting plenty more modules. I’ve had it for two hours, and I can already see needing more. I know, it’s a sickness. I haven’t even hooked it up to a keyboard yet, just patched together a pile of modules and flipped the envelope generator switches to make them cycle. It sounds great, too. I’ll post some mp3s over the weekend, but I can’t right now because all my gear is 1/4" and the MMM is 1/8" (sheepish grin). I’ll have to get some conversion cables before I can plug it into my audio interface.

George has shipped the first batch of MMM systems. I hope plenty more people order them and he can spend the next bunch of years making more and more modules. If you’ve been on the fence about getting one, get off the fence. It’s totally worth it. I’ve been the guinea pig so you don’t have to. Go for it.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Too many b0xen

I posted a note earlier today to the Analogue Heaven mailing list letting everyone know that I’m going to sell some of these, but I wanted to post some photos as well as a bit more information. Here’s what I’m going to sell:


I put up a post on the x0xb0x a couple of months ago, so I won’t go into too many details about it except to say that’s it’s a really good machine. I’m selling it for US$850, exactly what I paid.

Future Retro Revolution

I bought this new less then six months ago. It’s in perfect condition, with the original box and manual. $650.

Korg ER-1/EA-1

These are a great pair of boxes, Korg’s first entry into the field. They’re unique in two interesting ways. One is that you can program several of the tracks to have a unique sound rather than having just the sounds the box comes with, and the other is that every knob is recordable, meaning that if you turn a knob, that movement is now part of the recorded sequence. Very powerful. $300 for the pair.

Future Retro 777 (NOT for sale)

This one’s why I’m selling the others. I’ve been interested in 303s, but they’re so darn expensive nowadays. Once I found out about the 777 that was it, I wanted one. The problem was that I was maybe a year too late and they had stopped making them. That’s why I got the Korgs, because they were good and they were affordable. A few years later when I had some money I got a Monomachine, mistakenly thinking it would be 303-ish. It’s an incredible box, but I view it as more of a “regular” synth than a 303. Earlier this year, I decided to get the Revolution. It’s another really good box, and it does the 303 thing. A few months later, I was a x0xb0x crossed my path, and even though I had the Revolution, I couldn’t pass the x0xb0x by. I was pretty happy with the state of affairs, but I did start to think about the fact that I was starting to accumulate the things. Then, just last week I came across a 777 on eBay which I won for a quite reasonable price. Finally, I had the one I had originally wanted, but in the meantime I had accumulated all these other boxes. That’s how I ended up here; I simply have too many of them. I have the 777, and that’s really all I need. So the others have to go to good homes where they’ll be played, with feeling. The 777 stays here, though, as do my Monomachine/Machinedrum.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Patrick Moraz Double Minimoog

It might take me a little while to get there, but give me a minute or two and I’ll make it. I promise.

It all started many years ago when I got Chris Squire’s solo album Fish out of Water. I’m a huge Squire fan, and I’ve always loved that album. The problem is, I only had it on vinyl so I couldn’t really play it anymore. I don’t really like re-buying the same albums again and again, except for a very few. (Some notable exceptions are Close to the Edge, of which I have far too many copies, mostly because I kept wearing them out from playing the LPs so often when I was a lad, and also 2001, which sorta counts and sorta doesn’t because it’s both a book and a movie and I have several copies of each. But I digress. Although I -did- warn you of that at the beginning.)

Anyway, I’ve never really loved buying music from iTunes because of the DRM, although I’ve bought a good amount of music there over the years, so I’ve recently started to buy mp3s from Amazon’s music store. No DRM, which is actually rather refreshing (but I digress again). The beauty of this is that it’s actually pretty inexpensive for many older albums. I got Fish Out Of Water and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway for US$14 for both of them together. That’s not a bad deal.

I’m getting there. Trust me.

The point of this is that I just about a week ago got Fish Out of Water, and while I certainly remembered the album, I had more or less forgotten that Patrick Moraz plays most of the synthesizers on it. It was almost a revelation. After the first time I listened to it, I almost immediately played the Relayer album. And that brings me to Moraz’s incredible synth sound. I’ve had Relayer since the early ’70s when it came out, but despite having played many synths in my time I was never sure how Moraz got that “liquidy” in-motion kind of joyful sound out of his synths. 

If you want to hear what I’m talking about, it’s in the middle of The Gates of Delirium, after the “war” section but before Soon, right after the drum bashing and right before Steve Howe’s slide guitar solo. The Moraz solo synth part comes in at 12:48 in the studio recording. It’s like he’s got a slow sweeping LFO on the cutoff frequency at the same time that he’s got a much faster frequency modulation going on for vibrato (which maybe he did with the pitch bend wheel). Incredible technique.

I was just a little too young to have seen him with Yes, being only around 13 or so when he was with them. I’ve seen him play with Bill Bruford several times on their piano and drums tours, though, so I don’t feel deprived too much. But ever since I got Relayer I’ve always wondered what he used to get those sounds.

So naturally, in order to find out I turned to the Analog Heaven mailing list, where I enjoyed a good discussion with several people who were there at some of those early ’70s Yes shows, and where I was also directed to various YouTube videos. It turns out that Moraz played a pile of Minimoogs! I was completely surprised when I found this out. I actually own four Moogs—two Minis, one a Model D and one a Voyager, a Little Phatty and a Multimoog. I would never have guessed in a million years that Moraz was playing a Minimoog. I’m going to have to try a few things now, such as a Harmonizer or my Moogerfooger phase shifter, to see if I can get something approaching that incredible sound. It just doesn’t sound like a Minimoog to me.

I’m almost there. I promise.

So, in my research I was directed to the Yes show at Queens Park, where I saw him playing some kind of odd keyboard thing that could do two notes at once. Not the one he played for the solo mentioned above, but a different one on the side facing the drums. Unfortunately, the only decent shot of it was from below him. You could only see that he was using both hands, but not what the instrument was. I couldn’t for the life of me think of a black duophonic synthesizer that existed at around that time. And now that brings me to the Cantos Music Foundation. Unbelievable! They actually have the very instrument Moraz was playing in the video. And guess what? It’s a Minimoog also! Apparently Moraz had the some custom work done on two Minis, one black and one natural wood. They took the electronics section out of one and the keyboard out of the other and swapped them, putting the electronics into the space the keyboard one occupied and vice versa. He ended up with a dual keyboard in one case and a dual Minimoog in the other, and those two-note synth lines I was hearing was Moraz playing both keyboards at once. In fact, you can see him doing that but using only one hand at times, leaving his other hand free to play something else. Another incredibly innovative technique and a sound that’s very hard to duplicate.

I feel like I’ve learned a lot this week. I’ve talked to a lot of people on the AH list, seen a lot of videos, and been to more than a few web sites. I was hoping to find a good photo taken from the audience so I could see exactly what Moraz was playing, but finding the Cantos Foundation photos was a huge stroke of luck. I’ve been to their web site before, and I’ve actually seen that photo before as well, but I never really made the connection between those early Minimoog photos and Patrick Moraz. True serendipity. I don’t often find myself in Calgary, but the next time I do I’ll be sure to drop by so I can see some of their amazing instruments in person.

Photo, number 79, used with the kind permission of the Cantos Music Foundation

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Mattson Mini Modular - Almost Done

A few shots of the Mattson Mini Modular. I hope to have it in my hands soon.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mattson Mini Modular Under Construction

Here’s a photo of my MMM modular synth, still under construction on George Mattson’s bench. It's basically complete and ready to go except for the filter, which you can see on the breadboard. Can’t wait to get my hands on it.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


I just brought my new x0xb0x home, and all I can say is, “Wow!”

I have a few boxen of various types, some low-end, some high-end and some “middle-end.” The x0xb0x is the real deal, however. Not that the others aren’t good, but they’re not 303s. Some would say, “well, neither is the x0xb0x,” but it’s as close as I’m going to get without spending a zillion dollars (actual, genuine cost of a real 303 in 2008 US dollars).

The boxes I already had are a good assortment. I first got a Korg ER-1/EA-1 pair. They’re awesome, sound great, are fun to use and can do things a 303 can’t (such as recording every knob movement as part of the stored sequence). I was perfectly happy with them, but still, the EA-1 is not a 303, even though it sounds quite good.

I also have an Elektron Monomachine/Machinedrum pair. I wrote about the Monomachine in an earlier post, and have recorded several tunes with it. It’s awesome, sounds great, and is fun to use. When I first got it, I thought it would fulfill my 303 lust, but it’s not that sort of box. Well, maybe it is, but not in my hands. I think of it as another synthesizer in my arsenal, one that happens to have a 303-like interface.

Lastly, to fulfill my need for excessive squelchiness, I got a Future Retro Revolution. It worked. I finally had “that” sound.

But then, I had an opportunity to get the x0xb0x for a non-usurious price. I thought about for a day or three and decided I couldn’t pass it up. I brought it home this evening, and not counting a two hour break at Nevada Smith’s to watch Man City, my team, defeat Stoke 3-0, throughout which I could feel the presence of the x0xb0x in my backpack at my feet, I’ve been playing with it non-stop since I returned home. It’s the real thing.

Now admittedly I’ve only had it for a few hours, but there have already been a few bumps in the road. This is not a critique of the x0xb0x as it works more or less exactly the same way a 303 would as far as I know. However, and I could be wrong, but it seems to me that you can’t edit a sequence live while the machine’s running. I have a funny feeling that I’ve been totally spoiled by the Monomachine and the Revolution as both of those are completely editable while they’re chugging along.

It don’t matter though. The thing just sounds amazing. <grin>

Also, the x0xb0x came with a few mods on it. From right to left, top row, as you’re looking at the back of the unit are the bass boost, resonance boost, and unholy distortion, with an amount knob and an on/off switch. (The last switch on the left is the as-far-as-I-know “normal” on/off switch.)

Which brings me around to my original thoughts about whether or not I had to get the x0xb0x considering that I already had the Revolution. The jury’s still out on that one, but the large reason I decided to get it was that I couldn’t refuse the price I was offered. No, that doesn’t sound quite right. I got it because of the sound, but I’m still a little in shock at coming across a reasonable deal for a fair amount. In fact, I’m honestly not sure I could tell the two apart in a blind taste test. Also, I have a friend who has and actual TB-303. At some point in the near future I hope to get all three machines together in the same room along with a video camera and my laptop so I can record one of those which-fader-is-the-real-303 videos.

I’ve got to go now, there are hours of squelches I have to get to.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Live vs. Mostly Live

I’ve thought a lot about this issue over the years, and during the past few days on the SynthSights mailing list there’s been a discussion on live music being performed on laptops (and note that this post is a slightly longer and mildly improved version of a post I put up there a day or so ago).

I’ve seen a few live shows where I wasn’t exactly sure how much of it was actually being performed live. The most disappointing one was Tangerine Dream. My heros. It was still a great show, but one would expect that when Edgar Froese comes out from behind the keyboards to play guitar there would be a noticeable change in the music behind him. I realize it’s only three guys, or nowadays several people, but it seemed more like they were tending the music rather than playing the music. I suppose I’d prefer six people playing rather then three people and a tape. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy their shows, but there’s always something about it that makes me wonder.

Another example is Peter Gabriel. His shows are amazing, and I’m a huge fan. The early “solo” shows were just great shows, almost as if he were finally getting to do things the way he wanted them done. Larry Fast playing keyboards didn’t hurt either since for me seeing Synergy live was a total bonus (and note that he did a solo show, presumably with much computer help, at NearFest X back in June). The more recent shows, however, sometimes make me question what I’m hearing. There are a lot people with him and there’s a lot going on, but fairly often I find that my ears perk up and I’m unable to figure out who, if anyone, is playing something. Gabriel has some large screened device on his keyboard table, which actually I’m now wondering what it is, so it’s a bit up in the air as to how much of the show is not actually being performed live. In some ways I feel a little cheated when I see him. The music is so good, but there’s always that little voice in the back of my head questioning the veracity of what I’m hearing.

Then there’s Todd Rundgren. He’s done all sorts of shows, some with bands that had three keyboard players so he could do it all live, and some solo shows where he would introduce his Roland sequencer as his bandmate. Totally up front, you always know what was live and what wasn’t. However, there have been times (such as when I saw him live last week) when there was a small bit of the show which was a slightly awkward bit of pre-recording. Last week there was a moment in the middle of a song where they had a short sequencer break that intro’d a different section of the song. You couldn’t leave it out, but you also couldn’t really play it live. Me, I would have preferred it if they had brought in one extra piece of equipment rather than having it be something done offstage. Even if it were done offstage, at least trigger it with a keypress onstage. That’s what MIDI is for, after all. It was pretty amusing to see them all mill about for a moment during that momentary break before they started to play again. This isn’t a critique at all, it was just a little surprising to see them all stop playing for a moment.

The other extreme is something like Jordan Rudess at Moogfest a year or so ago. An amazing performance, but it was just a bit distracting to hear an entire prog band blazing away but to only have one guy up on stage. Also at Moogfest, although at an earlier edition, was Thomas Dolby. Very entertaining and a good show, but it was obviously one guy with his computer. In fact, he was having a bit of trouble with the software. That wasn’t a bad thing, though, as he’s such a good performer and kept up his chatting with the audience throughout. The problem with both of those performances, though, is that they were accompanying their CDs or their computers. For me, seeing these two great performers just sort of “playing along” to their music was just the tiniest bit of a letdown.

And then there’s Robert Rich, also. I’ve only seem him live once (so far). It was a really good show in a really good venue with a really good MOTM modular behind him. I had a bunch of his records, but I was wondering how he’d do them by himself in a live situation. Well, it took him two laptops but he pulled it off. A substantial portion of the show had him playing “effected” guitar or PVC flutes whilst being accompanied by his own music. However, I believe he was using Ableton Live, which allowed him to mix and vary things as the mood struck. It was a bit more interesting than a simple recording with him playing along. Was it fully live? No, not really, but it was interesting and entertaining. I appreciated that while the show contained pre-recorded music it was also under the control of the performer rather than simply being a “tape recorder” playback.

I want to make it clear, though, that I am in no way trying to slam any of these artists. In fact, I'm a huge fan of most of them and the rest I “only” like a lot. We’re talking about fully live vs. partially live here, not whether the music is good or bad.

Anyway, this is starting get way too long. My vote: I prefer live. I’d rather bring in a couple of extra people to help me out if I have something I can’t fully play on my own in a live situation. I’d also rather start a sequence with my own two audience-visible hands on a hardware device than to click a mouse. Same music, different perception.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Music for Babies

There’s been a thread going on on the Analog Heaven mailing list about music for babies, and that immediately reminded me of early 1994. Alice in Chains had just released their EP called Jar of Flies, which actually went to number 1 on the Billboard charts, and my second daughter was born. I really like Alice in Chains, but there’s just something about this EP which is magic. I thought maybe it was just me, but when I went onto Amazon a moment ago to get the link to the album, many of the reviews said the same thing.

This is what I posted on the mailing list earlier today:

When my daughter was a baby and was fussin’ late at night, I used to put her up on my shoulder and slowly walk her around the living room late at night with Alice in Chains’ Jar of Flies on the stereo. The first song, Rotten Apple, with that incredible liquid bass line and talkbox lead guitar to go along with the chime-y rhythm guitar and those amazing dual vocals and wah wah guitar at the end; my daughter, even at that age, was mesmerized. Chilled her out every time, she just listened to the music and relaxed.

That was a while ago as she’s now 14 years old (going on 24, of course).

Don’t ever underestimate the power of music, even with newborns. Humans, most of them at least, all react to music. Both my kids grew up with me playing synths and rock and roll and acoustic guitar and music all the time on the stereo.

Every time I hear Alice in Chains, it makes me remember those long, quiet nights of walking slowly around my living in the dark with my newborn daughter on my shoulder. I’ll never forget it.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Todd Rundgren at the Tarrytown Music Hall

Just got back from seeing Todd Rundgren up in Tarrytown. For those of us from New York City, Tarrytown is best known for being at the eastern end of the Tappan Zee Bridge. It’s about 45 minutes north of New York by train, and I don’t recall ever going there before. It actually seemed like kind of a cool town, although all I actually saw of it was a few blocks of Main Street and the inside of the Tarrytown Music Hall.

I realize this blog is “supposed to” be about synthesizers and electronic music, but really it’s about music in general. And although I’m a total synth head, I have to say that Todd is utterly and completely my favorite musician. I’ve probably seen him a couple of hundred times since that first show back in 1977. In fact, in the past year I’ve seen him four times already: twice last December at the Blender Theater, once in the round at the Westbury Music Fair doing the Sgt. Pepper album and tonight in Tarrytown. He’s also doing another two shows at the Blender again this coming December which I’m going to.

Opening the show was Gillen and Turk. They’ve played all up and down the Hudson River Valley, doing both electric and acoustic shows. I hadn’t heard of them before, but I thoroughly enjoyed them and bought Backs to the Wall, their latest CD, in between their set and Todd’s. They played a relatively short acoustic set and were darn good.

Todd’s portion of the show was amazing. His latest album is called Arena, and he and the band played it from top to bottom (as Todd put it during the show). In some ways it was a bit of an odd show. They did six or so tunes, maybe more, and then did the entire Arena album after which came two encores. It wasn’t a bad kind of odd, but it was a bit different from his usual. The band was hot, too. With Todd was Jesse Gress on guitar, Prairie Prince on drums, Rachel Haden on bass (who’s birthday it was, by the way) and Kasim Sulton on keyboards and guitar. Rachel Haden’s new to the band this year, but the rest have played with him in various combinations for years.

It was a great show. For several years Todd did a “four man” power trio show. It started out with guitar, bass and drums, but they pretty quickly added a fourth in the person of Jesse Gress. Problem is, they still called it the power trio tour. It’s even worse now as Todd has added Rachel Haden on bass and in addition has brought Kaz back, not to play his usual bass, but to fill out the sound with keyboards and as the third guitar player. It’s still the incredibly powerful heavy rock of the power trio, except it’s a trio only in the same way as the Hitchhiker’s Guide is increasingly inaccurately still called a trilogy. Same spirit as the power trio, only it’s two people tastier!

For you Todd fans out there, he totally rocked from start to finish. Black Maria, the two covers he’s done lately, a golden oldie or two, all of Arena and then ending the show with Just One Victory. Unbelievable!

I’ve been somewhat under the weather for the past few weeks, but after this latest hit of Todd, I suddenly feel somewhat better.

(And, if you don’t happen to be a Todd-head please accept my apologies. We’ll return to our regularly scheduled programming tomorrow.)

And remember kids, when going to rock shows, don’t forget your earplugs.

(Sorry about the photo quality, but I forgot my camera at home and all I had was my iPhone. Also note that the iPhone mic can’t register higher than 105dB, so it was probably a bit louder than indicated.)

Thursday, October 2, 2008

DSI Mopho 2

My Mopho arrived today! I got mine from Sweetwater in the US. Serial number 39, bright yellow, and way smaller than I expected. It more or less fits in your hand, as you can see from the photo of it, uh, fitting in my hand. I haven’t played with it much yet, but I did want to put up a few photos.

I also downloaded the free Mopho editor from Sound Tower. Turns out it’s the LE version and there’ll also be a Pro version down the road. The LE version is free, the Pro version most likely won’t be. They’re not yet saying what the Pro version will have that the LE version does not, nor do they mention what the cost will be. Amusingly, the Mopho editor window is larger than the actual Mopho!

I’ll post on the Mopho again once I’ve recorded a few things with it, either this weekend or next week.

Jean-Jacques Perrey and Dana Countryman Live

It’s almost midnight and I just got back from (Le) Poisson Rouge on Bleeker Street in New York City where I saw Jean-Jacques Perrey and Dana Countryman. I really didn’t have much of an idea of what to expect, but I thoroughly enjoyed the basically hilarious and interesting show.

Opening the show was Circuit Parade. Didn’t know who they were by the name of the band, but it turns out that I’ve seen Joe McGinty posting on mailing lists I read and I’ve also run across Leon Dewan’s Dewanatron page before. It was almost like seeing some old friends play in a club, even though I’ve never met them. Plus, how much more analog can you get than a live cello?

After their set came the main attraction, Jean-Jacques Perrey and Dana Countryman. Perrey was absolutely charming and totally hilarious! He introduced every song with a story, sometimes also pointing out some of his musical partners who were in the audience (Gershon Kingsley, for example). Perrey and Countryman played mostly analog equipment. Countryman had a Prophet ’08 as his main instrument, and Perrey had a Poly Evolver Keyboard, Minimoog Model D and an Ondioline. Countryman also had an Arp 2600, but it sounded like it was constantly playing a sample and hold pattern in the background while Perrey was talking, so Countryman leaned over and switched the 2600 off.

Most of the songs had CD backing tracks which Perrey and Countryman then accompanied. The tunes were short, happy, bleepy and bloopy and Perrey’s occasional conducting, singing along and/or silently mouthing synthesized or recorded sound effects was just too funny. It looked like he was having the time of his life and brought the whole audience along with him.

If you happen to be in the Montreal area on October 3rd, it’s worth catching their second and final show of the “tour.” It wasn’t deep or serious music, but it was certainly great fun.

Friday, September 26, 2008

DSI Mopho

There’s a new synth called the Mopho, just announced by Dave Smith Instruments. It’s small, bright yellow, inexpensive and for me totally fascinating. It’s only 5" by 7.5" and contains one complete voice from the Prophet ’08. Sweetwater claims it will be available the week of October 5th and cost US$400.

It has four dedicated buttons for cutoff, resonance, attack and decay/release. It also have four assignable buttons under a two line display. That may not seem like much to program something as interesting as a Prophet ’08 voice, but DSI has two answers for that. One is that they’re including a free Mac and/or Windows editor, and the other is that if you happen to have one laying around you can use the front panel of a Prophet ’08 to access almost everything in the Mopho.

I say “almost” everything because there are a few nice additions built into the Mopho that the Prophet ’08 doesn’t have.

The first addition is a set of suboscillators. Each oscillator now has a sub. I’ve done some good basses on my ’08, but now with suboscillators I fully expect to be able to blow the roof off the joint. Next comes an audio input. You can process external audio with the Mopho. But it’s not only that as you can also gate the synth from the audio input. This means that the Mopho can be silent until it detects audio at its input, then once it does, all sorts of things can happen.

Now let me talk a moment about the awesomeness of the Push It button. I’ve been wondering how I could do some of my tunes live as I used multiple Prophet ’08 tracks on some of them. With a Mopho or two, I can simply push the button and have it latch the sequencers on. Instant performance backgrounds. Plus, you can use it in conjunction with the audio input to gate the Mopho so the sequencers play only when audio is sensed at the input. Can you think of any other synthesizer that can do that? And even if you can, can they do it for $400?

There’s been a bit of growsing on the Analog Heaven mailing list about the Mopho. Much of it is because it’s a super bright yellow, which for some reason has upset a few people. Personally, I have nothing against yellow as I’ve owned both a Waldorf microQ rack and a full Q rack in the past. (I sold the Micro Q so I could get the Q, then I sold the Q so I could get a black Q keyboard.) All consideration of color aside, the Mopho is arguably more powerful than a Minimoog, it’s the size of a large format paperback, it comes with free editing software, and, as if all that wasn’t enough, it’s friggin’ cheap.

I’ve already ordered mine from Sweetwater.

Photo credit:
Photo is from the manufacturer’s website
Dave Smith Instruments

Processing 2

I haven’t posted for a few weeks, and I thought I should mention why that’s so. My last post was about Processing, and since I wrote that, it’s taken up pretty much all my spare time. I’m still learning the language, but it’s actually a good bit easier than I thought it would be. I’ve worked in a number of scripting languages before as well as flirted with “real” programming in C many years ago and RealBASIC more recently. This has given me a good headstart in learning Processing as I’m more or less familiar with the general concepts. Even for someone with no prior programming experience however, it should be easy enough to pick up if you start with a good book. I’m using Learning Processing, and I’ve found it to be clear and easy to understand, even if you’ve never had any previous programming experience.

The best part, though, is that as I’m working my way through the book, new ideas for interesting things to do constantly come to mind. I’m not advanced enough yet to be able to pull them off, but I can see that it won’t be long before I’ll be able to. Starting from zero a month ago, I can see possibilities now of what can be done. I don’t know yet how to generate sound or output MIDI, but I can see that once I get to that point there I’ll be able to have my sketches, what programs are called in Processing, make noise. It should be relatively “easy” to make a string module that drifts down the screen from the top to the bottom. Once that string moves past a certain point, a note could be triggered. Now make many instances of the string module fall at random times, or trigger random notes when they fall, and all of a sudden you’ve got programmatically generated music. Easy to do? Maybe not, but possible with a bit of sweat and hard work? Definitely. There are also possibilities opened up by doing a little programming for the Arduino board to make use of sensors to trigger things in Processing, or conversely, for taking the output of Processing sketches and making them do things in the physical world rather than just on a screen.

There’s also a Processing community forming. Earlier this week I went to the first meeting of the Processing Study Group at NYC Resistor. The room was pretty much filled to capacity with a wide range of people interested in visual and musical programming. There were a lot of beginners, which was good, and the atmosphere was pretty charged up with lots of enthusiasm. I’m totally looking forward to next month’s yet-to-be-scheduled meeting, and hopefully I’ll be ready with a few interesting code examples I’ve been able to cook up by then.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been doing for the past several weeks; diving into Processing. I’m going to resume my “normal” amount of posting about synths and music. In fact, I’m going to write a post about the new DSI Mopho as soon as I finish this one. I did, however, want to explain what I’ve been doing lately and why my posts may have seemed to taper off. I’ve got plenty to write about, though, so hang in there.

Friday, September 5, 2008


It’s funny how things work out sometimes, bad things and good things. The bad thing is that my laptop died. The Firewire ports disappeared, which isn’t that big a deal except that I need them for my MOTU Ultralight audio interface. No complex recording in Ableton Live without it (although I did manage to record two Elektron Monomachine tunes in GarageBand on my iMac). The ports have been dead for several weeks now, but it just hadn’t been convenient for me to be without my laptop for a week or so, mainly because I had been scheduled to take a series of three Arduino classes at NYC Resistor. I’d become interested in the Arduino because I figured if I learned enough of the programming language I could do some interesting music stuff with it. Sadly, this was not to be as the iCal calendar links I downloaded were in the wrong time zone and I showed up for the first class four hours late.

So I missed the programming class, and was a little bummed as I was really looking forward to it. I’ve done a bunch of scripting over the years and have sorta dabbled in programming but not really gotten serious about it. That was on Saturday. On Monday I saw a post on CDMo (on my blogroll on the right) about a book called Learning Processing. I’ve been interested in the whole visualist/VJ thing for a while now and have looked at Processing a time or two, so a new book on Processing for beginners sounded just about right, especially with what happened with my Arduino class. It was good timing, so I ordered the book. It hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s on it’s way.

Then, on Thursday, first on CDMu, also on my blogroll, I started seeing talk of a new version of iTunes. The most interesting thing about it was rumors of the new visualizer, supposedly Magnetosphere, which apparently used to be downloadable but lately no longer available. Regardless of the truth of the rumors or the lack thereof, the demo movie of Magnetosphere is absolutely beautiful. What cemented this for me, however, was that the visuals were generated in Processing, so we’re now back around to the beginning, starting at programming for the Arduino (whose IDE is based on Processing, by the way!) through a series of incidents and and coincidences involving music and computers and ending up back at programming, in Processing.

But aside from the incredible visuals, the music, also, of the Magnetosphere video was hauntingly beautiful. Simple, interesting, calm, but also, just, compelling. Thankfully a link on the page took me to Trentemøller, where I more or less instantly bought and downloaded the album The Last Resort. Excellent, beautiful; calm but rhythmic, ambient but dance, simple but complex. Highly recommended.

So. I haven’t posted for a while, much longer than I wanted, as I’m without my usual computer. But because of that “impediment” I’ve been opened up to new possibilities through new music and upcoming new endeavors. I’m not deceiving myself that learning Processing will be easy, but I’m looking forward to it nonetheless. I’m not sure that I’ll ever be able to do incredible visuals (and music) like Richard Lainhart’s Lux, done in After Effects and then rendered, or the incredible generative visuals of Robert Hodgin’s Magnetosphere, hopefully on computers everywhere after next week’s iTunes announcement. I hope I’ll be able to use Processing to make visuals that evolve slowly and interact with my music, ideally in live performances. Maybe a lofty goal, but one I think well worth pursuing.

Does this post exactly reflect the stated purpose of this blog? Not exactly to the letter, but I feel it’s definitely following the spirit.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Whoo hoo, I finally got one!

(Although this photo is from the BugBrand website.)

Uh, sorry about that, but I’ve tried to get a Weevil so many times now that I didn’t really think it was actually possible. The stars all aligned properly yesterday, apparently, as I happened to check my email while at work, which I’m not really supposed to be doing, of course, just after the Bug Brand email came in. Also, this time there were an unusually large number of Weevils available, 20 of them, rather then the usual 5 or 6. I jumped on it, and have just released a 24-hours-held breath as I checked my email, again from work, and found my congratulations note from Tom.

In my excitement, though, I’ve more or less started at the end, so let me start from the beginning as I’ve probably lost a few people along the way.

Tom Bugs of BugBrand makes all sorts of boxes which make all sorts of noises (and in fact some of them don’t even come in boxes). Here’s how he describes it on his website:

BugBrand offers a constantly expanding and mutating range of electronic sound & effect devices, all built by hand in Bristol, singly or in small batches. All designs mix experimental audio circuitry with ideas taken from the techniques of circuit bending, and bring together many different controls and playing methods to give intuitive and inspiring instruments.

Most of the boxes have small touch pads, nine of them in the case of the Weevil08, and a selection of knobs and switches. They’re not exactly a synthesizer because that implies full control, but they’re more than a Cracklebox because those have pretty much no controls at all.

Here’s BugBrand’s description of a Weevil:

Weevils are built around lofi squarewave oscillators which are quasi-ringmodulated together. Add on power starvation, body contacts and other features and you get versatile noise’n’drones, full of chaotic and analogue life.

There have been many incarnations of the Weevil, ranging from tiny postcard versions up to the latest AudioWeevil. There’s a fascinating history of the Weevil with lots of photos on the BugBrand Sound Devices page. The one that I’d really like to have is the Drone Machine, but unfortunately only five were ever made. There’s also a BugBrand modular, but they’re not available for purchase as there’s only one. Also, if you’re in Europe there’s an occasional BugBrand performance and/or installation.

I hope to have my Weevil08 in a week or so. Once it arrives I’ll post photos and maybe a video.

Update: Some of the Bugbrand links have changed since I wrote this. The current BugBrand Sound Devices page is more of a what's-currently-available page rather than a history. Also, unfortunately the Drone Machine page isn't there anymore. The BugBrand modular is actually being produced now, though. There are 12 being made as of mid 2009 (all of which are spoken for).

Monday, August 18, 2008

Synthesizers of the (Not-Too-Distant) Future

It seems to me that this is an incredible time in the history of synthesizers. When I first started playing, the choice was basically between a Moog and an Arp. Nowadays, there are piles of interesting instruments to be had, many for (more or less) reasonable prices. That’s what’s available right now. This post, however, is about a few new synthesizers which are coming over the horizon, some nearer then others.

The first that comes to mind, maybe because it’s the closest to being released, is the Mattson Mini Modular (hereafter referred to as the MMM as it’s way easier to type). George Mattson, notable as the maker of the Syntar back around 30 years ago, has started up again to make what is possibly the worlds smallest “true” modular. I say “true” in quotes because it’s actually made up of individual modules which can be purchased and arranged in a cabinet in any order you like. There are other semi-modulars out there which are small, but many of them while possibly fully patchable have controls permanently mounted in a metal panel, meaning you can’t move them around.

And when I say small, I mean small.

No, that’s not one giant modular synthesizer. What you’re looking at is a wall of eight complete MMM synths. If I remember correctly, mine is the one in the middle row on the left.

I haven’t held one in person yet, but no matter how amazingly small it looks in the photographs, the size of two New York City phone books, I have a feeling it will feel shockingly small in real life. If you ignore the size, however, the MMM is a full featured and powerful modular synthesizer, regardless of the size of it. I’m hoping it will be ready this fall.

Another synth coming in the near future is the Solaris, by John Bowen Synth Design. John Bowen started at Moog in 1973 and a few years later was at Sequential Circuits and has done many things after that as well. While working with Creamware he designed the Solaris soft synth plug-in, which in a departure from the usual is now being converted to a hardware version. The Solaris, now in the prototype stage, looks to be a best-of-both-worlds merging of hardware and software.

There are a number of synths which have knobs linked to displays so they can use the same set of knobs to control many different functions. The Solaris is no different, except that it doesn’t have just one display/knob set, it has six of them! Add to that four oscillators, four filters, six envelope generators, five LFOs and a pile of effects and it starts to sound truly dangerous.

Last for today is the Waldorf Stromberg, mostly because to me this one seems the farthest away. Waldorf has made some incredible instruments in the past such as the XT and Q, and this latest incarnation of the company has designed the Blofeld, a tiny desktop synthesizer that sounds huge. I hope they sell tons of them so they can thrive and keep going until the Stromberg makes it out of the mock-up phase and into production. The Stromberg promises to encompass all of Waldorf’s previous synth engines in one sleek and silver package. While not holding my breath yet, I am definitely looking forward to it.

In writing this I’ve tried to not sound like a commercial for any of these companies. I’m not sure I’ve succeeded in doing that, but I hope I’ve conveyed my enthusiasm for these very different and very interesting new instruments. In the interests of full disclosure, I have already ordered both the MMM and the Solaris and am eagerly (and somewhat impatiently!) awaiting the actual delivery. They may not be scheduled to arrive immediately, but I’m pretty sure they’ll most definitely be worth the wait. The Stromberg may be further off, but I feel that one also will be an amazing instrument.

Photo credits:
All photos are from the manufacturers’ websites
Mattson Mini Modular
John Bowen Solaris
Waldorf Stromberg

Monday, August 11, 2008

Elektron Monomachine

The Elektron Monomachine. I’m not sure what made me go out and get one, and even after several months I’m not completely sure how I feel about it and what it stands for. However, that being said, I have not been able to stop messing with it since I got it.

My original thought was something along the lines of, “Oooh, I’ll get this and now I’ll have my TB-303.” It’s nothing like that at all. In fact, now, looking back on it, I bought it on a rather large leap of faith. It didn’t turn out the way I expected, but I could not have asked for a better, uh, whatever the thing is.

Here’s what I’ve found so far:

It’s not a 303. You could fairly call it a beat box, but it’s not at all “limited” to that. What you get is basically five separate synthesizer engines (although they’ve just recently added two more via a downloadable update) and a six track sequencer, each track having up to 64 steps. It’s programmed like a drum machine: hold down one of the step buttons and enter your note (although you can record from a keyboard as well). I first thought that was a limiting approach. I’m a keyboard player, after all. However, it turns out that that’s simply not a problem. The interface is so beautifully designed that it just stays out of your way and lets you work quickly and easily. After an initial period of “what the heck am I doing?” I’ve grown quite comfortable with it.

In fact, getting around the “I’m a keyboard player, darn it” mindset has been one of the biggest problems for me with the Monomachine. I’ve written several pieces now but I’m left sitting there “performing” them rather than playing them. I feel more like a DJ than a musician at times because of that. It almost doesn’t feel legitimate somehow. (I don’t think I’d make a good composer because I can’t imagine not playing my own pieces.) One of the ones I’ve done is a drone-y, ambient, Frippertronics-ish piece. I’m not sure how I’ll go about playing it live, though, except to stand still as a statue for eight and a half minutes except for 10 or so button pushes (start button for the first track, push on the other five tracks in turn, push off the tracks in not-quite-reverse order). I’m almost tempted to do it as a performance art piece.

My “problem” with the Monomachine is more existential then musical. As a musical device the thing is amazing. However, it’s making me question what it means to be a musician. I went to college and majored in Radio (and Psychology, but I suppose that would be for a different post), thinking I’d be a DJ in the old-fashioned sense of the word (i.e., playing LPs on the radio). I more or less quickly lost interest in that as a career because I wanted the supposed purity of being a musician and playing my own music rather than someone else’s. In the past year or so, now, I’ve seen Moldover a few times and thought the performance was incredible but questioned whether he was or was not a “real” musician. Well, after playing my Monomachine for several months if I ever sit down and chat with Moldover for any length of time I’m going to have to apologize to him for ever doubting. My 10 minimalist button pushes are no less “true” than if I was furiously playing it all with two hands on a dozen keyboards. Basically, I’ve somehow realized, as my buddy and musical partner E. Doctor Smith would say, it’s all good.

I was originally intending this post to be about the instrument and not about the philosophy, but hey, sometimes you have to just go with it. I plan on posting more about the Monomachine in the near future, more about the hardware and its musical capabilities, less about the thought processes.

Anyway, here are three tracks I’ve done recently, entirely with the Monomachine and nothing else, for what I’m intending to be my next album. The first, called My Memories of You, My Dreams, was intended to have a bit of that “Berlin School” feel to it. It came out a bit too “happy-sounding” for my taste, so I made another version of it with the aim of having it be much darker. I ended up combining them into a single longer piece.

The next piece, Like Sparks in Smoke, started out life as a bass line I heard in my head and grew from there.

The last one, Saw No Signs of Madness, came seemingly out of nowhere. I had just loaded up the two new wavetable-ish synth engines and was experimenting with them. I made a long, slow sound so I could hear how one wave crossfaded into another and somehow it turned into this song.

I have plenty more patterns recorded, and several other songs made out of them. I could see doing an entire album out of just Monosynth tunes, although I’m not sure I’d really want to do that. In addition, though, I liked the Monosynth so much that I went out and got its twin, the Machinedrum. Unfortunately, the new Monosynth engines were released at almost the same time I got the Machinedrum, so I haven’t even had the chance to fire it up yet as I just had to dive into that new sonic potential. I can’t imagine how the two will of them together will affect me, given how only using the one so far has blown me away.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Two Kits Arrive

Earlier this week two kits arrived in the mail. One requires a soldering iron, the other only some glue.The first, the soldering one, is a Thingamakit from Bleep Labs. I already have a couple of Thingamagoops, which are great fun, but the idea of making my own has a lot of appeal. I got the version of the kit that came with a case, but I’m considering building it into some other device/enclosure/box. I’ll have to look around the apartment to see what I’ve got available.

Here are some “unboxing” pictures:

I anticipate that the second kit will make far less noise than the first but will also be somewhat easier to assemble.

This came with a CD I got recently, Gas 0095. It’s some really good music, well worth checking out. Plus, as a complete bonus it came with this build-it-yourself Minimoog. Can’t argue with that. Highly recommended, although I believe they’ve sold out all of the Moog kits (but the CD’s certainly worth it even without the Moog). Note that the thing’s tiny, palm-sized. A US quarter would completely cover the manual.

Another source of papercraft synth kits is SDIYcut. They’ve no more left at the moment either, but the site says there may be more at some point. Not necessarily more of what’s already there, but possibly other models. There’s also some other papercraft synths over on Matrixsynth from about a year ago, a Korg MS-20 and an Arturia Moog Modular V.