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’.