Saturday, September 12, 2009

Chimera Synthesis bC16 handheld modular synthesizer

In May of last year I bought a Chimera Synthesis bC16 synthesizer, and it finally arrived just the other day. The bC16 is a fully patchable synthesizer, nothing’s prewired for you. It’s not quite a modular because you can’t change the modules or move them around, but for all intents and purposes it may be the worlds smallest modular synth. It has sorta two VCOs, sorta two LFOs, a VCF, ADSR envelope generator, VCA, ring modulator, MIDI interface and an arpeggiator.

I say “sorta” because there aren’t really two fully accessible VCOs. Rather, there are two linked VCOs with one set of knobs and patch points. There’s a Difference knob (and control voltage input) to let you spread the two oscillators apart. They’re both really in there but you don’t exactly have individual access to them, and there’s just the one output jack. This isn’t a problem, it’s just something I felt I ought to point out. The LFOs are similar. There are two of them but knobs for only one. You’ve two less knobs for the LFO when compared to the VCO, and the VCO’s FM input jack is changed to a Ring Mod input for the LFOs.

The bC16 ships with 10 micro-sized banana-style patch cables. That will probably be more than enough for most purposes. It also comes with a patchable signal inverter so you can take a standard envelope, for example, and invert it before sending it to, say, the filter.

The envelope is loopable as well. If you set the sustain knob to 0 the envelope will repeatedly retrigger itself. You can get nice long drones that way. If you move the sustain knob up just a touch it functions in the normal one-shot way.

There’s still a million things I haven’t yet figured out. The manual is, shall we say, somewhat lacking still. For example, the VCO page simply says “work in progress” and nothing more. At least there is a manual, though. From what I can see in the forums there wasn’t one at all for quite some time. It’s freely downloadable from their web site, though, if you want to take a look at it.

The bC16 is not exactly your “normal” synthesizer (whatever that means!). For one, it uses the 0.586 volts per octave standard, according to the manual. I’m not 100% sure that that’s really a standard that I’ve ever heard of, but just because I’ve not heard of it doesn’t mean it isn’t one. Another oddity is the patch cables and jacks. The bC16 uses 2mm banana jacks, which are really small. There’s nothing wrong with that but it might make it difficult to find pre-made cables from sources other than Chimera. I’m not saying that’s a problem, but it’s something to keep in mind.

I’ve only had the bC16 for a day, but I have to say I’m pretty darn impressed. The build quality is amazing. The thing feels totally solid, and all the knobs and jacks are firm yet smooth. It’s a modular synthesizer that you can hold in the palm of your hand. It’s incredible flexible, sounds good and can make all sorts of noises. I may even hook it up to a MIDI keyboard one day and try to play some actual notes with it.

The piece below isn't really a tune but it's not really a demo either. About five minutes long, it's nothing but the bC16 recorded live into Ableton Live. No sequencers, arpeggiators, or overdubs.

Photo credit: bC16 front panel layout graphic was downloaded from the Chimera Synthesis web site as a PDF and formatted to fit this page.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

OhmSound FM softsynth

Just came across a new synthesizer today (or maybe more accurately, it came across me).

I have a Livid Instruments Ohm controller, designed specifically for VJing, but it's basically a MIDI controller that can be used for anything you'd like to use it for. You can use it quite easily with Ableton Live as it's USB plug-and-play. Mine is a beautiful wood and metal version, and it's just fun to touch let alone to use.

Livid recently updated the design of the Ohm and came out with the Ohm64. It's basically similar to mine except that it has a 64 button matrix rather than my 36 button version. What's new here is that I just got an email from Livid which aside from other software update announcements had an oh-by-the-way-here's-our-new-FM-soft-synth section. I've been putting off sending in my Ohm to take advantage of the Ohm Recycling Program, but now I almost have to do it just to have a go at the new synth.

It's called simply OhmSound, and it's a two operator FM synth. Two operators doesn't sound like a lot, but it's not limited to the "traditional" sine waves, you can change the waves to any number of waveshapes, complete with graphical LFO and envelope control of the operator levels as well. Tied to the Ohm64 controller, which lets you use knobs, buttons and sliders to control all the synth parameters, you end up with an easy to use and fun to play with synthesizer.

It's still in very early development apparently, and, Oh Yeah, they're also working on a sequencer as well!

This is totally cool, as Livid basically created a VJ controller but have now expanded its capabilities via software to turn it into something completely different from the original concept. I can't wait to see what else they come up with.

Update: Lived just posted three videos on the use of OhmSound.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Nine Inch Nails - Wave Goodbye

Saw Nine Inch Nails last night, maybe their last ever New York show. They’re not my usual sort of topic here, but you have to love a rowdy “industrial” band that uses an incredibly cool modular synthesizer, has keyboards played live by all four band members and releases synth-heavy albums. Supposedly, they’re going to stop touring but still record new albums.

It was a great show, though. They played for almost two and a half hours, rocking hard the whole time although they did slow down for some tender moments as well. There were a few synth interludes, many of them sequences and rhythms to provide backgrounds for the rowdy guitars. It’s great to see a modular synth used live, and they actually tweak knobs and change sounds from time to time. It’s not just thrown in, they actually make good use of it, which is refreshing in a hard rocking band.

There are other bands I like who use synths for a bit flavoring. Dishwalla comes to mind right away, though they’re much more mainstream than NIN. Also Stabbing Westward, another industrial band from some years ago, had some great synth textures behind them. There are plenty of others out there as well, but those two are particular favorites of mine.

I probably shouldn’t write these at 2:00 am after getting home from a concert, but I just couldn’t help myself. I have more concerts coming up in the near future as well. There’s Todd Rundgren doing the A Wizard/A True Star album in its entirety, with Roger Powell and Greg Hawkes on synths. That’s in a week and a half. A couple of weeks after that is U2, although probably not so synth-heavy. I’ll most likely have things to say about both of those shows.

Update: I just posted some photos from the show on Flickr

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Morton Subotnick live at the Issue Project Room

I didn’t quite know what to expect as I made my way to Brooklyn to see Morton Subotnick play live. When I got there, sitting outside the room before they let us in, you could hear all sorts of bleeps and bloops coming through the closed door. Piles of synthesizers? The legendary Buchla? No way to tell from my side of the door. When we were let in, though, there was a small table with a Mac laptop and a Korg nanoKONTROL on it and not much else. Not what I expected, but then again since I didn’t know what to expect it seemed to fit.

The space was very interesting. PA speakers in four corners, seats in the center. It was small, too, maybe 50 seats if even that many. Hanging from the ceiling were 15 speaker pods, which I think had a separate computer controlling the sound going to them. We were surrounded.

Subotnick was introduced, and then still standing started to explain what he was going to play, what his near-term plans were, and several incredibly funny stories of things that happened in his career. He was very personable and very friendly, seemed quite at ease. My favorite quote, from when he was describing the record company exchanging his four-track reel-to-reel for a new, modern eight track version: “If heaven is anything like an eight-track tape recorder it’s a pretty good place.”

Then he sat down to play.

I don’t know. I was maybe expecting cacophony, maybe expecting “difficult” music. What I got was simply amazing. He started slowly, triggering sounds and bits of music, going back and forth between the nanoKONTROL and the Mac’s keyboard. He spent quite some time putting together complex rhythms and melodies, slowly building up steam, taking us along with him. It was fascinating, but more importantly it was good music. I guess I was expecting synthesized weirdness, but what he gave us was instead masterly. It was almost like an explosion of sound in reverse. It was the musical equivalent of an explosion on video played backwards. At first, all the parts are scattered and random, but over time they start to accelerate towards each other and then faster and faster they all coalesce into a recognizable whole. It was exhilarating, completely unexpected, amazing. And that was only his first piece, a bit of Silver Apples of the Moon.

His second piece was similar, but very different. He explained how he had Don Buchla build him an early envelope follower (if not the very first one). Subotnick would then sing into it, storing his voice on tape to use later to modify sounds from the Buchla. The second piece used this technique, and parts of it sounded eerily like heavenly choirs singing square waves. He also used the vocal-formed envelopes to start some long, evolving rhythmic patterns and the joint was rocking. He even took his hands off the keyboards a few times, sat back and raised his eyebrows when the rhythms turned into something interesting. Then he’d smile and reach for a knob on the nano and completely mangle it into something just as amazing but totally new, almost looking like an evil professor with a gleam in his eye as he did it. When the piece was done he got a tremendous ovation, and then it was over. It was fabulous.

It was bug music, it was slamming rhythms, it was synthesizers being thrown around among the 19 speakers above the audience. It was ethereal beauty, it was entertainment, it was mesmerizing. I saw in places where Tangerine Dream came from, where Robert Rich came from, and even where Moldover came from. And if they had been there at the end of the show, they would have eagerly joined in with the standing ovation.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Midnight Rain on Pavement Glistens

New tune, in a bit of a different style. Not a different style of music, just made in a way I haven’t done in a while.

I have a lot of synthesizers nowadays, but in olden times when I only had a Minimoog and a Casio CZ-101 I had to stretch myself and my equipment when trying to make complex tracks. The CZ-101 was four-note polyphonic, but there was a mode you could put it in which would let you split each note out onto its own separate MIDI channel, basically giving you four individual monosynths. At first glance this may seem like a major bummer, removing any possibility of chords. However, what I usually did back in the day was to have a bass sound on one channel, some sort of “paddish” sound on two more with maybe a lead sound on the last channel. And, because I had to record each pad note one at a time I ended up playing things I maybe never would have if I had better equipment and more instruments. Necessity ended up mothering my invention.

Which brings me around to what I’ve been doing lately, which is going back to my roots, so to speak, and recording a few tunes mostly with monosynths. In this day and age of spectacularly powerful computerized synthesizers, sometimes it just feels good to lay your hands on a Minimoog and start turning knobs. Lay down a track, then lay down another one on top of it in harmony. Then lay down another one on top of that to maybe provide some contrast to that harmony. Lather, rinse, repeat and maybe end up with a new song full of textures made only (well, mostly) with monosynths.

Somehow it feels very comfortable. Waaaaaaay back in 1979 or ’80 my recording studio consisted of my Minimoog, a Space Echo and my Radio Shack answering machine, back when answering machines were new and somewhat expensive technology (and people didn't like to leave messages because it was weird and strange). I still have some of those tapes somewhere in fact. It was a great day when I got a Yamaha QX7, though, as I could record multiple tracks (two of them at a time, I think) and then bounce them down. Then I got my first Mac and a copy of Performer. Not Digital Performer, mind you. The sheer luxury of “unlimited” MIDI tracks was overpowering. We’ve certainly come a long way to get to Ableton Live and mixing and matching eight-bar clips to compose our tunes.

Which brings me around (finally!) to the new tune. Eight mono tracks, each one building on the next, with the lone exception of a pad track where I played fifths. I might still add a crowd of robot voices (or maybe human ones, or both) over the beginning build up and ending slow down, but I'm not 100% sure of that. It was great fun, composing one line at at a time, and I definitely ended up with things I would not have gotten if I had played them on a polysynth. If I had used a modular it would have come out differently. Same if I had used a Monomachine, or a Prophet ’08. They’re just such different mindsets, and it’s good to have a supply of different kinds of tools at hand. Heck, I even sat down at a grand piano a couple of weeks ago. It’s still me making the music, but the tools you use definitely have an effect on the music you produce.

<a href="">Midnight Rain on Pavement Glistens by Seth Elgart</a>

Friday, June 19, 2009


Flying Through The Forest. Seven tracks in Ableton Live, all made using Synplant. I saw it on Matrixsynth maybe a couple of weeks ago and was intrigued. I downloaded the demo, and then purchased it more or less right away. Basically, there’s no knobs or buttons. To design your sounds you instead “grow” them. It’s a little bit hard to describe, but once you try it it just makes sense. There’s a seed in the center, and 12 branches, one for each note. What you do is grab hold of a branch and drag the tip in towards the seed in the center or out towards the edge of the circular window, thereby changing the sound. Remember, though, that there are the 12 branches, so you’re only really changing the sound of the note you’re working on. You can make all 12 notes completely different, just a little bit different, or, by cloning the branch, all the same. You can even automate a note/sound rotation, which ends up making each note play a different sound each time you play it. You can go crazy if you want to, or you can use it as a subtle effect to make your sounds move and change over time.

It’s very easy to get completely chaotic “sound effects” but you’re also able to get all sorts of “normal” synth patches, too. Also, it’s fast and very easy. I usually start with a random seed, drag the branches around until I have a bunch of sounds that interest me and then save the “plant” as a template of sorts. I can then go back and clone a branch and refine it until I have something I like. If you sit down and play with it for an hour or so, you can get a whole family of new patches. It feels completely organic somehow, more like making scrambled eggs than working with a synthesizer control panel. It’s also totally intuitive once you get used to the idea, not in the way that you would “know” what turning a knob on a synth would do, but more like the way you, well, scramble eggs. You don’t have to think about it, you can just do it.

And that’s what I did this morning. Actually, I started last night, with a completely different synthesizer. I just got the Waldorf Edition, mostly so I could finally have my PPG Wave. It’s amazing, great fun, and sounds, well, incredible. So I made a burbling texture, threw in some (G-Force) Mellotron and some (Arturia) Minimoog, and sprinkled over the top I put in some extra burbles from Synplant and recorded a tune. However, this morning I went back to my Synplant sound and worked on it for a little while. I ended up with a whole folder full of good sounds, taking special care to make “useful” types of patches. I then fired up Live and went to work. It all just sort of easily flowed together. I then decided I needed a new sound, not quite a lead synth sound, but more like something to add one more bit of texture. I went back to Synplant and was able to quickly make a new patch which fit in quite well.

It’s all so, well, organic. The sounds are simply grown, and they’re lively and in motion and never static. It’s like the thing’s alive. However, don’t be under the impression that you have no control over the sounds you make. If you need to, there’s a “DNA” button you can click to get to all the parameters. In fact, you don’t have to grow your sounds at all if you don’t want to, you can tweak sliders to your heart’s content. I generally use both techniques, however. I grow my sound, then often go in and manually mess with the synth engine, usually just refining but occasionally radically altering the sound. I’ve only had it a week or so but already I’m getting familiar with the controls, but even if you’re brand new to the synth there’s a totally helpful Help button. When you click it you get a good explanation of what the control does. There’s also a good manual that comes with the program as well, so it’s relatively easy to learn the ins and outs. I ended up buying it long before the three week evaluation period was up.

Synplant. It’s totally worth a try.

Synplant tune (seven tracks of nothing but Synplant)
<a href="">Floating Through The Forest by Seth Elgart</a>

Waldorf PPG Wave 2.V tune (with Synplant track)
<a href="">The Dawn Star by Seth Elgart</a>

Monday, June 8, 2009

Piano vs. Synthesizer

I just read an interesting article on the cost of pianos and why you should maybe get a synthesizer instead (thanks @tarabusch for retweeting @podcasting_news). Most of the reactions are in the “good idea” category, but some have been in the “I’m never coming back to this site again” category. One in particular caught my eye, saying simply “They most definitely do not sound better than a real piano.”

Here’s my reply.

I think we have to define what we mean by a “real” piano, rather than simply throw out knee-jerk reactions. I’m a musician. I have probably 20 synthesizers, a couple of guitars, and three pianos (although the “three” might need an asterisk).

One piano is a baby grand in the family summer home (built by my parents in the 1960s), another piano is a spinet in my apartment, and the third is a Yamaha digital piano. Which sounds best? The Yamaha, by about a thousand miles. The spinet is old and almost at this point unmaintainable, and in fact I’m thinking of simply putting it on a couple of dollies and rolling it out to the dumpster as I can’t get anyone to take it from me, not even for free, and frankly I don’t blame them. It needs work, and hasn’t been in tune in decades. The baby grand is in slightly better shape, but as it’s 200 miles away from where I live and I might only see it every other year or so it’s just not worth putting the money and time into it to maintain it properly. In comparison, the Yamaha digital is small, fits in my living room, sounds great, and never goes out of tune or needs any sort of maintenance other than dusting.

As to “real” pianos sounding better, sure, a US$35,000 Steinway concert grand is going to be unbeatable. However, I don’t think I’ll be able to fit it into my apartment somehow let alone ever being able to afford one. I’ve had the immense privilege of being able to play them a few times in my life, and yes, they’re incredible, but that’s not the point here.

The point is that my Yamaha is in tune and can be played. It sounds good, too. Is it as good as a Steinway? No, but on the other hand the Yamaha is in my living room and the Steinway isn’t. It even has a hammer action, so in a blind taste test I’m not sure I’d be able to tell the difference.

But, my Yamaha is not a synthesizer (although that could be argued both ways). It’s more or less a piano. Some of my “real” synths have semi-weighted keyboards, though. The action of a semi-weighted keyboard is much lighter and faster than a piano. In fact, I prefer these to unweighted synth keyboards as I feel they have a better “feel” than a “regular” synth keyboard. (Sorry for all these double quotes. I’ll try to control myself from here on out.) While my Yamaha fits nicely into my living room, it simply won’t fit into a car. For playing out I need something much more portable. For that I use a rather old 1980s device from Roland called the P-330. Plug a MIDI keyboard into the P-330 and you’re ready to rock and roll. Nowadays, though, there are much better choices (although I still use the P-330 now and then).

But wait, I just got distracted. The P-330 isn’t a synth either. I’m more of an analog guy myself, but pretty much any modern digital synthesizer nowadays will have have a dozen or so onboard piano sounds. Even though I play the piano, I’m not a pianist, but it would be interesting to have someone who was play a short piece with both an acoustic piano and, say, a Korg Oasys and then play them back for a group of listeners without telling them which was which. Done well, I think the success rate for identifying the correct instrument would be around 50%, no better than a random guess. I admit that the Oasys is itself somewhat large and maybe a bit, uh, expensive, but I’m pretty sure the results would be the same with a more affordable synthesizer as well.

So here’s the bottom line. Is a synthesizer a piano? Nope. There’s no room acoustics, you need good speakers, and when designing one you need to pay attention to things like the sympathetic vibration of strings when pedaling. However, with a good synthesizer that’s well recorded, it’ll sound just as good for most purposes. Solo recital in Carnegie Hall? Well, no, I’d use a concert grand (as if!). Rock and roll fightin’ against two guitar players? Definitely. Your 10-year-old in your living room? Absolutely, and you’ll be thanking me later when they can practice with headphones on so you don’t have to listen to them.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The New Oberheim SEM

Tom Oberheim has announced a new version of the Oberheim Synthesizer Expander Module (SEM). The basics are that it’s going to be almost exactly like the original SEM from the ’70s but with an included MIDI/CV interface. There’ll be a few differences, mostly because a few of the original’s odd switches and knobs are no longer being made. Also, most of the circuitry will be surface mount which will keep the cost down compared to through-hole. The new SEM should be available in six months or so and be under US$1000.

When I was just starting to get into synthesizers in the mid- to late-’70s, one of my favorite albums was Larry Fast’s first Synergy album. When listening to it, I had teenage visions of a giant Moog modular synth. However, when I re-read the liner notes a year or so ago I was surprised to rediscover he basically used only a Minimoog and an Oberheim SEM, and reading that reminded me of my teenage synth gear lust. I eventually got a Minimoog when I was 19 or 20, but I was never able to get an SEM, so to hear that Tom Oberheim is preparing to release a modern-yet-the-same SEM has made me pretty darn happy.

I wish I had some original information about this, but the announcement happened in a small show-and-tell session up in Boston. Fortunately, there’s a decent chunk of his presentation available on video on the Stretta blog, including an awesome sounding snippet of Tom playing a working SEM. There’s a good summary of all the news over on the Matrixsynth blog, of course, including links to Flickr sets and a pile of comments.

I wish there was more to say about the new SEM, but that’s pretty much all the info we have so far. I hope to get on a waiting list for one of these, but at the moment there isn’t one. In fact, Oberheim doesn’t even have a working website ready yet. Hopefully as the year goes on we’ll get more information, but I have to say that with only the little bit we know so far I’m incredibly excited about this.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

MacBeth M5N Analog Synthesizer

The MacBeth M5N. It’s darn cool. I don’t think you can ever realize how big the thing is until you see one in person. I have a 27" Sony TV. The MacBeth is bigger. (Although to be fair, it’s not as deep.) Also, this isn’t the first one I’ve seen. I attended the first annual Unwieldy Synthesizer Potluck in 2007 in Brooklyn (and sadly there was no second one) where Tim Love Lee brought his futuristic, ’60s psychedelic typeface, white and baby blue M5. It could indeed make some noise, and it was just beautiful.

The thing with the M5 is, you don’t necessarily buy it for it’s sound generation power, although it certainly has plenty. There are more flexible synths available in much smaller sizes. However, none can match the M5 for first impressions. You see one and immediately say, “Wow.” That’s it. There’s no other reaction. It’s simply massive. There’s no other way to describe it. You look at it and you just want to touch those long-throw sliders. No fiddly little knobs here, just those nice, large slider caps that you just want to move. Sliders also have a huge advantage over knobs in that you have an immediate graphical representation of the state of the synth in just a glance, even from across the room. And given the size of the M5, the front panel is 30" wide and 26" high, seeing it from across the room is no problem.

Sadly, the M5 is at the moment no longer in production. (And the reason I’m only writing this now is because I just saw a beautiful red orange M5N at Analog Heaven Northeast a few days ago.) Don’t lose hope, though, because there are several new synths coming from MacBeth in the near future. One is the X-Factor Analogue Synth, which might be what happens when a Minimoog mistakenly stumbles into a science lab on a dark and stormy night. Also, in the research leading up to the X-Factor, Ken decided to break out his X-Factor circuits into individual modules. Nothing definitive on the X-Series Modular Synthesizer yet, but there are artist’s renditions up on his web site and promises of more information to come shortly.

To admittedly be slightly unfair about it, I sometimes look at the new Yamahas and Rolands and just sort of yawn. “Yup, another new synth. Whatever.” Which is what makes me truly grateful that there are still people out there like Ken MacBeth who make interesting, unusual, delightful and powerful instruments, and who keep the analog “tradition” alive.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Analog Heaven Northeast 2009

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

I’m on the bus home from Analog Heaven Northeast, with Takla Makan in my headphones appropriately enough. There were around 20 synth setups, almost all of them modulars, which was just a little surprising. I brought my Mattson Mini Modular, which generated a lot of interest. I could have fit my entire 22-module MMM synth inside of one of the SKB popup mixer cases someone brought that had “only” 10 MOTM modules in it. And I might have actually been able to fit a second MMM in the case as well. I’m a big fan of MOTM modulars, don’t get me wrong, and in fact I have around four SKB cases’ worth myself. However, there’s something to be said for being able to fit my entire modular synthesizer inside my suitcase.

There were all sorts of interesting things at AHNE this year. One of the standouts was Matthew Davidson demonstrating Mark of the Unicorn’s Volta. Volta is software which runs on a Mac and lets you control a modular synthesizer using your choice of sequencers on your Mac. It does this by using some of the ins and outs of your audio interface to transmit control voltages rather than the more usual audio. Before I saw his demo I was mildly interested, now I’m totally sold. Total computer control of your modular right from your Mac. I want one. It works in most of the currently available Mac sequencer programs, and hopefully in the future will work with Five12’s Numerology as well.

I’m uploading a Flickr set at the moment, so I won’t go into great detail on what was there. I enjoyed trying out the Harpejji, sort of a Chapman Stick for keyboard players. There was also a couple of synths which were redone by CustomSynth. I’ve seen loads of pictures, but seeing them in the flesh was something else entirely. They were absolutely stunning. In fact, with one of them I didn’t even realize it wasn’t stock that’s how good it looked. I was happy there was a recently restored Minimoog there as well. I have a Minimoog Model D which unfortunately needs some work, so it was good to see one in such good shape. No matter how many synths I play or own, there’s still nothing like a Minimoog.

It may take me a few days to match up names with photos in the Flickr set but I’ll get them all in. This year’s show was really well attended, and it looked like all had a good time. If you’re in the northeast US somewhere think about coming next year. I missed a few years, and was very glad I could make it this time.

If you do attend, be prepared for some noise, though. Just sayin’.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mattson Mini Modular - Pre-AHNE Photos

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

It’s AHNE time, and after several years I’m finally getting a chance to go again. AHNE stands for Analog Heaven Northeast, by the way, and it’s a synth geek gathering held annually around this time of year about 30 miles west of Boston. I’m going to bring my Mattson Mini Modular, possibly for its first public showing on the East coast. In my preparations for the trip I had the modular out and open, so I decided to take some photos, both of the whole thing and of each module. Once it’s set up at AHNE I’ll take a few more “action” shots. I’ll take photos of everyone else’s gear as well, so expect another post next week.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Bolero and Bionics

So I’m innocently minding my own business, just sorta idly going through some Gizmodo posts, when I see one titled From the Archives: Wired’s Bionic Quest for Bolero. That’s just too darn intriguing on too many levels for me to possibly be able to ignore.

I’ve always loved Ravel’s Bolero (but according to the article he himself was always a bit dismayed by its popularity). I’ve seen it performed live a good number of times, but I have to admit that pretty much all of those were by Todd Rundgren’s Utopia in the early 1980s. The first time I saw them do it I had basically no warning, and I ended up being totally blown away. I’m a huge Todd fan, so it was a special treat to see him do Bolero. They first played classical instruments, then their rock ’n’ roll instruments. Completely amazing.

But I digress. This was supposed to be about bionic ears.

The Wired article was from maybe four or five years ago, which I didn’t realize at first, but that doesn’t matter so much. It was also filled with interesting science and technology, but that wasn’t so important either. What made it worth reading was the sheer amount of angst, hope, worry and joy. I cannot possibly imagine what it would be like to lose my hearing, and to then against all hope be able to use technology to fight to get my hearing back. I also can’t think of a more joyful thing to strive for in that regard than to hear Ravel’s Bolero. To keep trying different technologies, each with it’s successes and setbacks, to finally be able to hear a voice but to not have the capability of hearing music, and to keep on persevering through years of effort, that is a story worth knowing about.

I can hear music. I take it for granted. I have friends who don’t quite hear what I hear though. They can certainly hear a song but can’t separate the bass from the rhythm from the lead. It is almost beyond my ability, however, to imagine what it would be like to finally once again be able to tell the difference between two notes an octave apart, and to be able to call that a total victory. And then a year later to be able to get a software upgrade for your hearing which lets you distinguish five different notes in an octave instead of one is simply mind boggling.

We live in an age of miracles.

Photo: from the Wired article. CT scan: Valley Radiology; Matt Hoyle.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Mobius Music

Mobius music. Such a simple idea, yet absolute genius.

It’s been a long time since I posted something, missed a whole month in fact. I’ve been somewhat busy, doing the occasional music thing but mostly with life in general. I have a bunch of posts lined up, just waiting to be written. However, there was just something that to me was completely mind-blowing about this mobius strip music box that compelled me to write about it.

It’s a simple music box, it’s a piano roll, it’s a little twisted. The notes sequence through the tines in all different directions; backwards, forwards, upside down and around and around.

Some of you may be scratching your head and saying, “eh, whateva, it’s a music box.” I have no problem with that. For me, however, it’s simply a thing of beauty.

It’s Escher’s music box.

Hmmm. Anyone have a spare player piano they don’t need? I suddenly have an idea…


And a tip o’ the hat to Cikira on the synthsights mailing list for posting the link, thereby allowing me to be amazed this evening. Thanks!

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Foxwoods and the Buddha Machines

A number of weeks ago, I went to Foxwoods. I’m not a gambler, had never been to a casino, thought it would be a little odd and a little sleazy and didn’t think I’d like it at all, really. Executive summary: I had a really good time, and it wasn’t at all what I expected.

But this is not about gambling, it’s actually about Buddha Machines.

Foxwoods is somewhat hard to describe. It’s like the nicest shopping mall you’ve ever been to, except there’s no teenagers hanging out and no candle stores. There’s music everywhere, much of it live. People are working hard to make sure they’re having fun. There’s food, drinking and gaming, and Foxwoods works very hard to make sure it all looks elegant and sophisticated.

And there’s sound everywhere.

There’s echoes in the parking garage, muted footsteps on the carpet as you walk in, people talking everywhere you look. There are bars in the middle of walkways with really good bands playing. There’s music in the restaurants. You’re immersed in sound and music, but the wonder of it all is that it’s not a sensory overload situation. They seem to manage it very well, making sure the sound levels aren’t overwhelming. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have a team of acoustic engineers hidden away somewhere in the complex, working feverishly in some deeply hidden control center monitoring noise levels all over Foxwoods.

We went there to play the slot machines. You’re walking down long and very wide hallways, rooms of various types all around you. There’s a poker room like you’d see on TV, there’s “typical” gaming rooms with roulette wheels and craps tables somewhere around, but just to the left is a giant room full of slot machines. As you turn into the room, all you can see for what feels like miles are millions of sparkling LEDs on what seems like thousands of machines. There are blinking lights everywhere, and quiet people sitting at the machines pressing buttons to spin or stop the wheels. The machines are in short rows and aisles, but the layout is so well planned that it never feels crowded, you never bump into anyone, and there’s plenty of room. It’s almost eerie, being in that large a room with so many people and having it be so quiet.

But although it’s quite, it’s not silent. As you walk among the machines, maybe playing one here, one there, you realize that every machine in every row and aisle all make the same sound. There’s none of the old-fashioned ratchet of one-armed-bandit levers, there’s no thunk of wheels stopping. There’s only one muted but clear note, coming from every single machine. They’re not synchronized at all, of course, as each machine plays its tones to follow the actions of the players and the results they manage to infrequently earn. It’s like a quiet cacophony, thousand of the same notes playing at seemingly random times, all around you. It’s like being in the woods while surrounded by crickets and frogs at twilight, when you can’t really see anything but you’re enveloped in their sound.

It’s like being in the middle of a new age ambient music piece. All around you are machines, all playing more or less the same note, more or less at random. It was beautiful, and I would never have imagined so much beauty to exist in a gambling casino, of all places.

It was like being surrounded by a million Buddha Machines.

A Buddha Machine, if you don’t know, is a small plastic box, the size of a handheld transistor radio, for those of you old enough to remember those. They come in various fluorescent colors, and have chips in them with maybe nine different sound loops. There are only two controls, a wheel and a button, and a speaker. The wheel controls volume, and the button advances to the next loop. That’s it, nothing else. I have four of them. What I like to do is stand them up on a table, in a rough arc in front of me, and then turn them on one at a time. This creates a small “sound environment” around me, unsynchronized, semi-random, uncontrolled and unplanned. It can at times be quite beautiful, mesmerizing even.

I hadn’t played with them in years, in fact, but finding myself in Foxwoods, immersed in that amazing sound environment, instantly reminded me. Every person in that casino, pressing those buttons which made a quiet click sound followed shortly by those magical notes, was, although unaware, creating the soundspace of thousands of Buddha Machines around us all. It was a magical moment of collective musical creation, and I was grateful to have been a part of it.

FM3 Buddha Machine
Buddha Machine - iPhone version

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Patrick Moraz Live With Yes - 1974

Last week I received my copy of Yes Live at QPR (stands for Queens Park Rangers, for those of you who don’t follow English football). I have to say, it was both surprising and very satisfying. In my earlier post on Moraz and his double-keyboard Minimoog, I talked about how I was a teenager when Relayer came out. 35 years ago and that album still resonates with me, those silky smooth synth lines, which at the time and in fact only until just recently seemed rather mysterious since I had no idea what he used to produce them. A few weeks ago I found out he played Minimoogs. Once I knew that, I had to see video of him live, which is where YouTube is your friend. Many of those videos were from the DVD of the QPR show, so after a bit of searching I went out and bought it.

So, a couple of observations. One is that the DVD does not have the entire show. There’s a separate DVD of part two of the show, but I don’t have it yet. Two is that it’s not an official release. I’m not quite sure if it’s 100% bootleg, but it’s also not quite official either. There were more than a few sound quality issues with the recording, which a Wikipedia article claims were actual problems with the sound at the show. It sounded a little implausible to me, but after reading a number of reviews of the two DVDs on Amazon, there apparently were sound issues and it’s not just a poor recording. The reviews of the second disc say the sound got much better at that point, though. So if you’re looking for a flawless recording, this ain’t it, but if you’re looking for documentation of a great show and can deal with some sound quality issues in the first half, this is definitely for you.

But aside from all that, what I really wanted to talk about was the show. Even all these years later, all the way back from 1974, it’s a standout. One of the biggest surprises for me, actually, was that Jon Anderson played electric guitar for much of the show, as well as a bit of drums. Looking back on it with 20/20 hindsight, there’s of course no way they could have played Gates of Delirium without that extra guitar. I was honestly quite impressed. Anderson did a fine job adding a rhythm guitar to the song, and that allowed Steve Howe to have the freedom to let loose and play. It would have been a much harder job to recreate such a complex and involved song without Anderson’s help (and besides, it kind of gave him something to do through all those long instrumental passages). I’ve seen Anderson play, uh, somewhat cheesy acoustic folky guitar at any number of Yes shows over the years, but to see him A) play electric and B) actually really play it was darn impressive.

Perhaps, though, the most amusing aspect of the show was Chris Squire’s poodle boots (barely visible as an odd puffiness as Moraz crosses behind Squire). Now, it’s probably not fair to criticize 1974 fashions 35 years down the road, but still...To compensate for any hurt feelings my statement may bring up, I have to say that Squire’s Doctor Who-style coat was pretty cool. So Chris, if you’re reading this, please, no hard feelings about the boot thing, OK?

As far as equipment goes, Moraz had four Minimoogs. Two of those were “regular” ones, although one was black, and the other two were in his custom-made double-Mini. He also had an organ, with a Fender-Rhodes on top of the organ and one of his Moogs on top of that. That was on his right if he were facing the audience. On his left was a Mellotron and the double Minimoog. In front of him was the black Mini. Behind him I believe was a Clavinet, but I don’t recall him playing it in the video so I’m not sure. He also had a grand piano on the other end of the stage as well. Lastly, it looked like Alan White also had a Minimoog, but I didn’t see that one get played either so I’m not sure what he was doing with it.

I’ve seen Moraz live a few times, playing acoustic piano with Bill Bruford at the Bottom Line in New York City. It was a real treat, though, to see him go wild on a pile of synths, even if it was only on DVD.

Photos are single frames from the Yes Live at QPR Part 1 DVD.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Eddie Jobson and UKZ

Eddie Jobson proves that prog still lives.

UKZ rolled into New York last night for the final show of their One City World Tour. Uh, wait, I think that was the debut show of the tour. No, really, they meant that literally. The only show on the “tour” was in New York. One does have to wonder about the economics of a single-city tour, but I’m not complaining.

Let’s start again.

UKZ, Eddie Jobson’s return from retirement after more than 25 years, came to New York last night and blew the doors off of the rather elegant Town Hall. The show was incredibly interesting, and Jobson was fantastic. Thick swirling textures, incredible organ, and of course his trademark violin leads. It’s almost like I’d forgotten all about him in the 25+ years since he “retired” and have now been forcibly (and happily) reminded of his existence.

When my friend and I first walked into Town Hall we couldn’t quite figure out what keyboards he had with him. He had a what looked like a Goff-modified B3 straight out of the backpage ads of Keyboard magazine from the ’80s. It looked like galvanized aluminum side panels somehow miraculously supported by very thin legs at the back. On closer inspection it was revealed that those thin legs were actually metal tubes which held the wiring, and that really there were nearly invisible lucite panels holding up the keyboards. On even closer inspection, I was rather astonished to see that Jobson was playing two Prophet T8s! I would never in a million years have guessed that he would bring, here in the 21st century, some vintage synths to his debut show. I have no idea what MIDI gear if any he had in external racks offstage, but he played no other keyboards besides those T8s. I’m still shaking my head about it in a way, and am having a little trouble expressing my sheer wonder at and appreciation of his doing that, especially in the current times when even Tangerine Dream uses Moog Modular emulation software and large onstage video monitors rather than actual hardware.

But regardless of his equipment, what really counts is that he’s still got it, and pretty much tore it up all night long. This is what prog is all about; having chops, and knowing how to use them. I realize there are bands like Dream Theater out there, and while I’m certainly a fan of theirs and they can certainly play millions more notes per minute, the sheer power with tastefulness of Eddie Jobson just can’t be beat. With Jobson, it’s all about the music, not necessarily all about the players. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Jobson has the chops, but doesn’t really need to have the flash of, say, a Keith Emerson with his knives in the organ. He doesn’t have to show you he’s the star, but his playing certainly shows that he’s the foundation.

I don’t want it to seem that Jobson was alone out there, though. He had an incredible group of players with him, including Trey Gunn on Warr guitar, Marco Minnemann on drums (with a little guitar), Alex Machacek on guitar, and Aaron Lippart on vocals (with a little guitar). After the initial U.K. album with Bruford and Holdsworth, Jobson didn’t have a guitarist with him. It was interesting to have that extra bit of texture this time, allowing him the freedom to work less and play more in a sense. To top it all off, near the end of the show they added Pat Mastelotto and Tony Levin from the opening band Stick Men for a searing rendition of one of King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part 2. For me, this was almost the perfect King Crimson lineup. Double bass, double guitars, drums, all on top of Jobson’s incredible textures and violin. If only...

It was a fantastic show, and I hope they go on to extend their One City World Tour to other cities. UKZ has a four-song EP coming out soon, with hopefully a full album to follow.

Jobson’s back, and it feels great.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Guitar Hero

Well, I finally got a chance to play Guitar Hero. Last year I got my teenage daughter a Nintendo Wii for Christmas. Nobody had them in stock at the time, of course, so while she did get it as a Christmas present we actually only got it sometime this Fall. It’s actually a lot of fun, and definitely different from the PS2 we had previously. The games are much more “body oriented” on the Wii because the controllers are much more physical than a “regular” video game controller. They take your movement into account and not just your finger dexterity. It adds a third physical dimension which other video games lack, bringing the games into the room with you rather than having them confined to the TV screen. It’s an interesting difference.

My daughter had wanted Guitar Hero for quite a while, and has played it often at friends’ houses. I hadn’t really pre-formed an opinion about it, but sort of assumed it was similar to Dance Dance Revolution but with guitars instead of feet. On the surface that’s somewhat true, but I found that the games do have important differences. While the gameplay is similar, DDR is not so much about the music as it is about your movement. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter which song you’re dancing to, but rather the difference is that for Guitar Hero the point is the music whereas in DDR the music is an adjunct. I don’t feel that I’m expressing this well enough to be understood by people who have played neither game, but I hope this will become clearer later on.

Before I talk more about Guitar Hero, let me put a few facts out there. First, I’m a musician. I’ve read that some musicians are very good at Guitar Hero, but also that some great musicians just can’t do it at all. This puzzled me before I had played the game, but it makes sense to me now (but I’ll get to that). Next, I’m not a guitar player. I can play guitar, and in fact many of my songs which have lyrics are written on an Ovation acoustic six-string, but really I’m a keyboard player, and in some ways it might be more accurate to say I’m a synthesist. I also have a Gibson SG, which is probably more in the spirit of Guitar Hero than my Ovation. Lastly, while my daughter can play a number of instruments, mainly flute and piano, she’s not really a musician. Also, she’s much more of a gamer than I am.

OK. I’ve now gotten all that out of the way.

And now we get to the “problem” with Guitar Hero. I said earlier that it’s about the music, but after playing the game a number of times I’ve found that may not be true. As a musician, I rarely play a song the same way twice. (I know this because bandmates have told me so.) It’s definitely recognizable as the same song, though, and while I do play it mostly the same, it’s never exactly the same. In fact, sometimes a song may be radically different when played at different times. As a musician, this is good. It’s called creativity, often with improvisation mixed in. And this is where the problem with Guitar Hero becomes apparent. The goal of the game is to play the songs as “accurately” as possible. While this is not a bad thing in music, it’s actually the entire goal of Guitar Hero. In music, you’re (hopefully) rewarded for improvising, but in Guitar Hero you actually get “punished” for improvising, mainly because the game console notices that you’re not playing exactly the right notes. It doesn’t matter that your notes may be very good ones, very musical ones, it only matters that they’re the correct ones, at least according to the programmer’s idea of the way the song should be played.

Now I have to say that this isn’t bad, but it also isn’t music. Once I had noticed it and figured it out, it made me very aware of the fact that I was playing a game rather than playing music. It didn’t matter if my “extra” notes were better than what I was supposed to be playing, it only mattered that I wasn’t supposed to be playing them.

One of the interesting things about the game is that if you play enough wrong notes in a row, or don’t play notes you should have played, the crowd starts to boo. It’s actually pretty funny, and adds a bit of tension and feedback to the game. I’m not nearly as good as my daughter is at the game, so I tend to experience this more than occasionally, shall we say. But this is one of the main ways I figured out what was wrong with the game. One time I played it, the song we were doing (maybe Eye of the Tiger?) had a long and somewhat boring intro section where you weren’t supposed to be doing anything. As a musician, I “naturally” started strumming the rhythm with what on a guitar would have been muted strings. Imagine my outrage when the crowd started booing! What I had played was perfectly correct and acceptable from a musician’s standpoint, but from the game’s standpoint I was playing illegal notes. I was never able to recover from my quickly accumulated negative rock meter levels, and eventually got booed off the stage. Imagine!

It was actually hilarious, but at that moment it was clear to me that the game had a fatal flaw. There’s nothing wrong with it as a game, but it definitely is not about making music.