Chris Randall: Musician, Writer, User Interface Designer, Inventor, Photographer, Complainer. Not necessarily in that order.

Archives: January 2012

January 27, 2012

Secret Weapons...

by Chris Randall

Okay, I figure this subject is interesting enough to warrant its own post. In the previous topic, we discover that we generally agree that the following synths, which can be had for a song for the most part (or at least they could before this post, sorry...), are all worth space in your studio:

1. Ensoniq ESQ-1 / ESQ-M / SQ-80 I lump these together because they're all essentially the same thing; the SQ-80 has moar of everything the ESQ has. I just bought an ESQ-M for $100 last week, and this is right in line with what I've paid for the four I've owned. This one is kind of a no-brainer. I am personally baffled as to why these are not more desirable. DCOs with CEM filters and VCAs.

2. Yamaha TG-33 / SY-22 I've never used one of these, so I can't speak to them, but apparently people feel strongly about them. Enough to where I'm considering hunting one down. It is a vector synth like the Wavestation, Prophet VS, Microwave, et al, but unlike those, it combines that with a full FM synthesis engine. The reason, I think, that they don't command higher prices today is that there are no filters. At all. My research shows they go for about $150 to $200, with occasional $75 - $100 bargains.

EDIT: 3. Kawai XD-5 This is a drum synthesizer that creates sounds with DCO oscs similar to those found in the ESQ, DW8000, etc. It is a sophisticated drum synth that is capable of both normal (albeit somewhat dated) and rather strange percussion sounds. They go for $125 to $175. (Or did today, anyhow.)

EDIT: 4. Pearl Drum-X This is an all-analog drum synth with kick, snare, and three tom voices. It has patch memory for 8 kits, and five trigger inputs. (No MIDI.) It is easily modded. Not terribly common, but they go for $75 to $150.

EDIT: 5. Lexicon Vortex Typical Lexicon semi-preset effects box of the era; however, it has one interesting feature. You can attach an expression pedal (and thus a modular synth) and "morph" between two states of a given preset. There is also an internal envelope morphing function. This unit requires some patience, and is really shitty as a send effect because the mix parameter is soft, and part-and-parcel of many of the presets. However, used inline on a synth or guitar, very strange and wonderful things are possible. I've seen these anywhere from $50 to $200.

Since we've already discussed the first two (or five, depending on how you count) ad nauseam, and all seem to agree they're desirable, let's start the list with them, and I'll add to it as others come up that we all seem to agree on. The Ensoniq Fizmo can't really be on the list, as it is borderline rare, and commands a minimum of $350 to $450 when it comes up (and works.) The Yamaha FS1R is also quite expensive; I rarely see them going for under $750. We're looking for instruments and effects that can be had in the $50 to $200 range without looking too hard, that are innovative and unique enough to fit in the Secret Weapon category.

A side note: since I last mentioned it, we've updated Vapor and Rough Rider (free) to 32/64-bit. Adam is working on Dr. Device right now. We're about 2/3 of the way done, and most of the remainder are pretty simple. So we should be done with this 64-bit update and back to making new shit Real Soon Now.

January 23, 2012

NAMGLA Day Three & Home Again...

by Chris Randall

On the third day of the convention, I mostly just talked to people about AD stuff and the suchlike and played pianos. I didn't make any earth-shattering gear discoveries, unfortunately. I didn't go to the fourth day, because that's the day they let the Dirt People come and touch things, and I don't want any part of that.

One thing I did do that was interesting was listen to Morton Subotnik give a little Q&A at the Buchla booth. The conversation wound, in a circular fashion, towards limitations, and someone asked about intentionally limiting one's palette (a subject, as you all know, near and dear to my heart). He basically informed the questioner, who was thankfully not me, that limitations are stupid. He rhetorically asked "why would you not want to be able to make the sound you know you need?"

Obviously I have a fairly fluid idea of intentional limits, and I have my reasons for imposing them, but it was an interesting point. He's a smart man. He's also touring all year in various parts of the world, and it's probably worth going. Info here.

After Saturday's NAMGLASTRAVAGANZA, I went in to L.A. to grab an ESQ-M off a friend, because I suddenly needed one of those. (You know how it goes.) When I got home and started fooling with it, I realized this 25-year-old synth that I paid $100 for is easily on par with most of the current analog offerings I saw at NAMM. This made me sad, for obvious reasons. We get all excited about new shit, just because it's new shit. We overlook the fact that it is lacking in many ways. The Minitaur could have been released in 1986. Easily. So could the Aurturia Minibrute. There is _nothing_ in these products that makes the intervening 26 years seem relevant, except maybe some construction methods and materials science.

And then the Trash_Audio BBQ. Which wasn't a BBQ at all, but rather Taco Time. So they might want to re-examine their naming paradigm. Good fun that; saw many people I normally only speak to in the twatscape, hung out with Tom Erbe, who is very smart, and Peter Nyboer, who is also very smart. Basically I just stood around feeling stupid. There were several AI regulars there, and I had some excellent conversations about meta-stuff, which I always enjoy.

Anyhow, home again, and back to work, which is stacked up like planes waiting for approach vectors at O'Hare. Shit just got real.

January 20, 2012

NAMGLA, Day Two...

by Chris Randall

I hit all the obvious highlights yesterday, so this morning I spent some quality time in Hall E, the Basement Of Failed Dreams And Sadness. This is the fun hall, because it has all the booths where an inventor is risking everything on a throw, plus all the hyper-aggressive English-challenged Chinese clone-mills. (Remember last year's classic signage: "Nearly Zero Defects!") There's a lot of heart in Hall E. I tweeted a lot of the fun stuff I came across, and for most of it there's not much more to tell than that. I mean, Chord Dice? Those are so patently obvious, it doesn't bear explaining. Lots of that sort of thing.

One thing I did spend a little time with was the Rhizome SXE. Aside from Empowering Your Creativity?, it is actually a pretty cool live performance tool, especially if you're in to the whole streamlined workflow thing. Unlike a lot of Linux-based all-in-one tools, it is _very_ quick. I tweeted a video of me switching modes and such on it. While I tend to give this sort of thing the Hairy Eyeball, the Rhizome actually intrigues me a bit, surprisingly. The creator wasn't in his booth when I stopped by, so I'm going to hit it again tomorrow (twss) in the hopes of getting a full demo.

It seems like there are about 20,000 boutique pedal makers at NAMM. The vast majority of them are slinging the usual clones (Octavia, FuzzFace, Tubescreamer, Orange Squeezer, etc.) and Jam Pedals is no exception. However, what sets them apart is that each and every pedal is hand-painted; not like ZVex, where there's a general style for a particular kind of pedal, but rather each individual one is its own work of art. Jam is a Greek company, if that matters. One thing they do is combine their pedals in to single multi-pedals, where you pick the signal flow and features (within reasonable limits) and they make you your pedal. Each one is decorated uniquely, and you effectively have an all-in-one pedalboard built to your specs, that is also a small work of art unto itself. I like their style. Pure Hall E.

I went through all the guitar displays in the main hall today, and came across a couple nice guitars (the Fano stuff really caught my eye) but NAMM really isn't the environment for noodling with something, and honestly, one quirky tube amp sounds pretty much like another after a while. And the guitar area is right next to the drum area, and you know how I feel about drums, so it was just pretty stressful all around.

Saturday is my reward for a job well-done. This reward consists of hanging out in the Fender area, where I have several friends, and spending some seriously quality time in the piano room, fondling $200,000 instruments and pretending I can, like, play and stuff. I'll also attempt to get to any questions that you have that I didn't manage to answer today via the twatscape. And the Trash Audio BBQ is tomorrow night, of course.

January 19, 2012

NAMGLA, Day One...

by Chris Randall

Just got back to the RPV after the first day of NAMM. The best thing I saw today was the Schmidt Polysynth. While it is somewhat comical when you're sitting on your couch reading about it (and I laughed when I saw the Messe announcement, just like the rest of you) in real life it is as close to a work of art as a synthesizer can be in this day and age. Completely over the top? Sure. But you get a lot for your synthesizer dollar. Good thing, because it's a lot of dollars. Absolutely beautiful synth, though.

Its panel is a little overwhelming, honestly. But at the end of the day, it is a sophisticated synth with a lot of programability. Sonically, it wipes the floor with any other modern analog I've played. (No offense to my many friends who make modern analogs, but this thing swings for the fences, no expense spared, no corners cut.)

A lot of people here and on Twitter asked about the nord drum, so I asked for, and received, a full demo. They cut a lot of corners to keep the costs low on it, and it has some interesting design choices as a result. A single monophonic output is probably the most glaring oddity. No headphone out will probably disturb some people too. The way the nord rep explained it to me, this is for that rock band that has one pad to trigger the big 808 foot. (Think Korn.) In that context it is fine.

Sonically, it sounds very nord-ish. I've always thought that nord products had a particular boxy sound to them, sort of like every solo Greg Hawkes ever played all jammed in to one red box. The drum is right in line with that. If I had to pick one word to describe the sound of this box, it'd be "electro." The trigger inputs work incredibly well, but that's no surprise considering Clavia's situation with ddrum. Lots of good IP for drum triggering up in there. The salesman told me $250 street, but I got the impression that's not a final number.

I fiddled with the Minitaur briefly. It is exactly what it says on the tin: a cheap-ish way to get a big ol' Moog bass sound. Very limited, sonically. It essentially makes about 6 sounds total, all of which you've heard a bajillion times before. If you need that particular bass sound, here's yet another way to get it.

The Arturia Minibrute is about the size of an SH-101, maybe a touch smaller. It really reminds me of the Novation BassStation, sonically and features-wise. The keybed feels like ass on a platter, and it is about 8 keys short of playable, in my opinion. But there was a Roland rep at the Arturia booth laying down some serious stank on the thing, so it's certainly possible. Another one-trick pony. If that's the trick you need, you'll find it here.

I got a full demo of the Solaris from John Bowen and (shit, I'm sorry, dude, I forgot your name...). The Solaris is the logical progression of the Prophet VS and Wavestation. It takes those concepts and just extrapolates them out in to what a DSP-based synth can pull off in 2012. The panel is really well laid-out, and super playable. Some very crafty features internally as well, and the many mod routing possibilities, coupled with an extensive oscillator and filter library (and user samples, natch) gives it a really broad palette. I think this is going to be my next synth purchase.

That Alesis keytar everyone is crowing about is a complete piece of shit. It feels like a RockBand controller. About as cheaply constructed as they could get away with. Setting aside the fact that it's a keytar and thus pre-retarded (pretarded?), it's a shitty controller. Period.

iPad docks. iPad apps. iPad accessories. iPad. iPad. iPad. To quote Art Gillespie, Alesis/Numark/Akai went all Honey Badger on the iPad. So did everyone else. There's so much iPad-related gear at NAMM this year I don't even know where to start. So I won't.

Anyhow, that's my general take-away from today. My mobility is somewhat limited so I couldn't cover the ground I could last year. Tomorrow morning I plan to spend my time looking at guitar-related things, so if you have any guitar, bass, pedal, or amp requests, now's the time. And I'll field any and all questions about what I saw today until I fall asleep.

January 18, 2012

Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. Hit Me Slowly. Hit Me Quick.

by Chris Randall

Leaving for NAMM in an hour or two. L.A. is a five-hour drive on what is both the most boring and most exciting highway in America. Boring because it is essentially a straight line all the way there, and the only visual stimuli are dirt and the occasional rock; exciting because you could easily get crushed by a tractor-trailer driven by a methed-out redneck talking on his cell phone, so you drive in this constant state of near-catatonic boredom, with occasional doses of adrenalin red-line.

Anyhow, needless to say, I'll be hard to get ahold of for the next 5 days. There is no wi-fi worth the name at the Anaheim convention center, so my "live" updates and pithy comments will be made chiefly via my Twatstream. If there is some piece of gear you'd specifically like information about, and if it isn't too physically taxing to find this information (keep in mind that I am still somewhat handicapped in the locomotion department) then I'll be happy to hunt it up for you. Let me know in this thread, or if I'm actually at the show via Twitter.

And the first person that says anything about my fucking cane except "hey, nice cane!" is getting beat with same. Soundly. Anyhow, this is an open thread. Subject is NAMGLA.

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