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.