NAMM 2016: Moog!

Moog cartoon

We at CatSynth love Moog Music and their instruments. I already own 4 of them (MiniMoog, Sub Phatty, Theremini, Animoog). And now I find myself coveting their newest addition, the Moog Mother-32.

Moog Mother 32

The Mother-32 is a small tabletop unit that is also compatible physically and electronically with Eurorack modular systems. It has a single oscillator (plus a noise source), but it’s common to see them combined into sets of two or three – Moog provides enclosures that facilitate such configurations. It of course has a Moog ladder filter, switchable between high pass and low pass. And it has a 32-step sequencer and extensive options for CV patching and external input. The instrument is configured so that no patching is necessary to start playing. But the real power is integrating into a larger system with other synth modules or external gear. Indeed, the audio-rate control and extensive patching are the mainthings that make this a worthwhile addition even for those who have Moog keyboard synthesizers, along with the high-pass filter. I find myself comparing it utility-wise to Tom Oberheim’s SEM module, though these are very different instruments sonically.

The Moog both featured quite a few demos and performances, and I got to see a few from artists I quite respect and admire. In this video, we hear a bit of Bana Haffer using the Mother-32 and other gear.

Erika also performed on multiple Mother-32 units, along with her own external sequencer.

As one can see from these videos, there was a bit of a tropical and desert theme to the booth. Indeed, it was set up as “Moog Island” with a mix of warm-weather themes. All the instruments were arranged around a central island only inches above the floor, with visitors sitting on yoga pads to play the instruments.

Moog Island

The idea was presumably (in addition to being cute) to give users more focused time with the instruments without distraction. It unfortunately made it difficult and uncomfortable for those of us who wear skirts or dresses at the NAMM show. But it was nonetheless still fun to play the new instruments and see the performers.

NAMM 2016: TomOberheim.com SEM Synthesizers

Following up on our experience with the OB-6 as Dave Smith Instruments, I wandered over to Tom Oberheim’s own both. Under the official name of Marion Systems or “TomOberheim.com, he has released a series of remakes of of his classic synthesizers. The flagship of these instruments is the Two-Voice Pro.

Tom Oberheim two-voice pro synthesizer

It is a dual voice analog synth powered by two SEM modules, along with a built-in sequencer and a series of 56 CV inputs for controlling most features of the voices and overall synth. Playing it felt more like a vintage Oberheim instrument than the OB-6, which is very contemporary. As such, it is a bit more spartan, but it looks and sounds like a true Oberheim synth from the past.

There are also individual tabletop versions of the SEM, as well as two new Eurorack modules, most notably the SEM Plus.

Tom Oberheim Eurorack modules

The SEM Plus is an entire Oberheim SEM voice as a module. It would be useful entry point into a larger and crazier modular system, a good partner for a Moog Mother 32.

Tom Oberheim himself had returned to his booth when I visited, so I got a second chance to talk with him – he is very approachable and generous with his time. We did talk about our respective musical interests, especially our shared fondness and inspiration from the jazz fusion greats of the 1970s like Herbie Hancock. As I return to that sort of music, I hope to apply some of Oberheim’s technologies to the project.

Dave Smith Instruments: OB-6 and Prophet 6 at NAMM 2016

Dave Smith Instruments has consistently made a big splash to the instruments they have presented at NAMM, and it’s almost always something I quickly find myself wanting. This year the unveiled the OB-6, a collaboration of Dave Smith and Tom Oberheim.

Whatever comes out of such a collaboration should be good, and indeed the OB-6 a strong, solid and professional instrument. It combines the playability and polish of a Dave Smith keyboard with the unique sound and architecture of an Oberheim SEM. Indeed, it employs voice cards based on Oberheim filters and oscillators, with a Prophet 6 architecture underneath. It it is quite pretty as well.

OB-6 synthesizer

Close-up of OB-6 synthesizer

I did have a chance to both play the OB-6 and talk with Tom Oberheim about it. You can see his description of the instrument and how the collaboration happened in this video.

And here I attempt to play it.

It was only once I put down the camera and played with both hands that I could understand what the Oberheim technology adds. In addition to the distinctive sound, the SEM filter allows sweeping between different topologies (high pass, notch, and low pass) in real time.

However, the OB-6 does not completely eclipse last year’s big announcement from Dave Smith, the Prophet 6. It is still quite impressive, and a pleasure to play.

DSI Prophet 6

It is perhaps because I am more familiar with the sound and feel of Dave Smith instruments that I found the P6 still more approachable than the OB-6. But I do like the distinctive sound. Another option for that is Oberheim’s SEM synths issued by his new company. That will be discussed in the next article.

NAMM 2016: Arturia MatrixBrute

When first saw previous of the MatrixBrute from Arturia, I was sure it was a hoax. The synthesizer in the images was huge and monstrous mix of everything, and I figured it must be a riff on Arturia’s well received compact analog synths, the MiniBrute and MicroBrute. But the MatrixBrute is in fact real, and his here at NAMM.

Arturia MatrixBrute

And it is a beast! It has a fully analog signal path headed by three “Brute” oscillators (the same ones found in Arturia’s smaller analog synths), plus both a Steiner filter and a traditional ladder filter. It has a lot of knobs for controlling…everything, as well as 12 CV inputs and outputs in addition to Trigger CV, and of course MIDI. The place where this machine gets both very powerful and a bit overwhelming is in the modulation matrix. The matrix is literally that, an array of 256 LED buttons that can be used to route from anything to anything.

Arturia MatrixBrute closeup of modulation matrix

This is not new, modulation matrices have been part of synthesizer architecture for a long time. But seeing it laid out on a panel like this in more unusual. It makes it both powerful and immediate – one can just press any of the buttons at any time. But it also a bit difficult to get the hang of. It’s challenging to keep track of and predict what a particular matrix configuration will do. In this video, you can see my attempt to play this instrument, including the matrix points.

It’s quite difficult, but presumably someone one can master with patience and practice (and a quieter listening environment). One thing that I would have expected from a synth of this magnitude is polyphony, like the much more modest Korg Minilogue. The MatrixBrute is monophonic/duophonic. Polyphony in an analogue synth is no small feat, but I would have liked to see it. Nonetheless, coming in at just under $2000, it does have quite a lot to offer.

Roland Aira modular and Boutique Series

The a few years during which Roland was no longer a major stop at NAMM for me. After a burst or more esoteric instruments, it felt like they veered strongly to the most conventional and commercial. But like with other companies, they have taken a turn towards synthesizers, analog and otherwise, that are worth time and consideration.

The Series 500 modules are new designs that recall classic Roland modular synthesizers in Eurorack format. Combined with the new A-01 controller, it becomes a standalone system.

Roland Series 500

Note that this is not a replica of vintage Roland modulars (e.g., 100m or 700), but a new instrument for its own sound. The oscillators and filters do sound good, a bit darker and coarser, though not quite at the grit level of the Korg MS-20. In addition to these classic-inspired modules (the panels look the part), Roland has a few other modules in the AIRA modular series called “Effectors.”

Roland AIRA Effector modulesw

In addition to the more colorful and modernist design, these modules serve different functions from the Series 500. These are really standalone effects boxes in Eurorack format, with high-sample-rate digital signal and control paths, as well as programmability via a computer or tablet to reconfigure their signal paths. The Bitrazer and Scooper were the most interesting out of the box. For both sets of modules, the real power would be incorporate them into larger heterogenous modular systems rather than as standalone units.

The Boutique series rounds out Roland’s offering based on their vintage instruments. There are three small units that model the classic Jupiter 8, Juno 106 and JX-3P synthesizers, respectively. And when combined with the optional keyboard, they are absolutely adorable.

Roland JP-08 Boutique series

The cuteness factor alone attracts me – I had seen a few of these before NAMM and that was what stood out to me. You just want to adopt one and take it home. Musically, the JP-08 would probably be the most interesting to me. But if one is a fan of the Juno 106 or JX-3P, the others are worth considering. They are also metal and look like they could withstand sitting next to a modular on stage. Did I mention that they are cute?

Buchla LEM series and Eurorack adapter

Buchla synths are weird. That is of course the charm. They are also known for being quite expensive. The LEM systems and h-series modules from Buchla Electronic Music continue to push lower in price, including this self-contained LEM4 system with “Music Easel-style” keyboard.

Buchla LEM4 system

It contains a Buchla dual complex oscillator, vactrol low-pass filters/gates, and MIDI and CV options. The combination contains what one needs to make distinctive Buchla sounds with the crunchy high-pitched oscillators, and of course the percussing low-pass gates in odd rhythms. At $2499, however, it is still quite pricey for an entry-level unit.

Another way to get started with Buchla modules would be use one of the adapters that allow Eurorack modules to be embedded in an e-Series system.

Buchla Eurorack module adapter

While billed as “the solution to fit that ‘must have’ Eurorack module in your 200e or LEM system”, it would allow one to combine a Buchla oscillator or gate with an existing Eurorack system. Something that is certainly an intriguing possibility (a delightfully dangerous one).

And for sheer aesthetics, the 252e Polyphonic Rhythm Generator still remains my favorite.

Polyphonic rhythm generator

NAMM: Korg minilogue and Volca FM

Among the traditional big manufacturers of electronic instruments, Korg has stood out has having some of the strongest and most interesting offerings. This year, they introduced the minilogue which was perhaps the most discussed and hyped synthesizer in the lead-up to this show. It seems everyone is talking about the minilogue. So here it is.

Korg minilogue

It’s a four-voice polyphonic analog synthesizer with an estimated street price of $499. That alone would get a huge amount of attention! It is also a completely new instrument rather than a remake or model of an existing one, like Korg did with the MS-20 mini and ARP Odyssey. It’s filters and oscillators have their own sound, though it did remind me a bit of the Arturia Minibrute. It is quite approachable and playable, sleek and light. The little waveform display is a really nice touch as well. A few of the controls were a little tricky to get at first, including the preset selector and some of the controller options. Like many other friends, colleagues, and fellow synth nerds, I may find myself getting one considering the price. Though that $499 could go part way to a Prophet 6 instead.

Another new release, the Volca FM was more a surprise.

Korg Volca FM

It combines the Volca keyboard and sequencer with a 6-operator FM synth, much like the Yamaha DX7 and others. Indeed it supports existing DX7 sounds (presumably that includes TX802 and other instruments from the DX7 series). In addition to being more portable and playable than my 1980s Yamaha FM modules, it has some new real-time features that like, including the ability to change the algorithm while playing via a knob or automation. If one wants to experiment with FM synthesis again in the context of modular synths, as I do, this seems like good choice.

Big City Music at NAMM

No visit to NAMM is complete without a stop at the booth of Big City Music. There were familiar faces and instruments, but a few new things as well.

The Mellotron micro is the latest in the Mellotron series. It’s small and compact, and with an expected price $800-$1000 USD it’s more affordable than the others in the series (although still quite pricey).

Mellotron micro

Metasonix is at it again. The big yellow box that Big City Music always brings to the show sported some new modules in silver.

Metasonix modules

Among them was the RK2 XSVCA. It’s not just a VCA, but has distortion, feedback and out-of-phase outputs among other features. The marketing material is everything we have come to know and love from Metasonix.

Horsecock

There are always some odd and unusual pedals. These pedals from Indu Trielectric were quite visually intriguing.

Indu Trielectric

The maker’s descriptive text – much less colorful than Metasonix’s – suggested that this was a bit of a Swiss Army Knife with lots of features, including “chaotic reverb” but it also came with the admonition to the user to expect weirdness and imprecision, traits that can be quite useful for music. I wasn’t able to hear it at the time, but might get a chance to later.

Rossum Electro-Music synthesizer modules at NAMM

Rossum Electro-Music

We at CatSynth have long been fans of E-MU Systems’ synthesizer. The Proteus 2K and Morpheus remain vital parts of my music studio – and some long-time readers may recall that I used to work for E-MU many years ago. So it was excited to see the new Eurorack modules from Rossum Electo-Music, the new project of E-MU founder and synthesizer inventor Dave Rossum.

Rossum Electro-Music

The main module available is the Evolution, a Moog-style ladder filter with some unique twists. It allows the user to switch among topologies, from 3 to 6 poles, in real time. And of course this function is controllable via CV for some interesting effects. The filter itself sounds great, with signal conditioning to allow resonant sweeps while maintaining strong bass tones from the original signal. The Morpheus module is a Eurorack implementation of the legendary E-MU Z-Plane filter, which allows interpolation on three axis between different 14-pole filter configurations. All of the parameters for the Z-Plane filter are CV controllable. Unfortunately the Morpheus wasn’t ready for me to hear, but I certainly looking forward to it.

Booth 5000 (Modular Synths) at NAMM, Part 1

Our friends in the modular-synth world are moving up at NAMM, with a collective booth at the front of the show right near giants like Moog and Dave Smith Instruments.  It’s a bit much to take in all at once, as modules and module-makers continue to proliferate.  This will be the first of a few articles covering just this booth.

One new set of modules, and perhaps the oddest, comes from BASTL Instruments.

BASTL Instruments

In addition to the wood texture, there are modules that can control motors, solenoids and other outboard electronic elements.  It does bring to mind some ideas for sound installations and live performances.  You can hear a bit of these modules in this video.

Soulby presented Eurorack modular versions of 8-bit processing modules more messing with voice and other input signals.

Soulby

Delays and looping seem to be a thing this year. 4ms had a new looper and delay module whose novel feature is audio rate control of the functions for unusual flange delays and other continuous effects.

4ms

While the 4ms Spectral Multiband Resonator is not new for this year, it is still one I am excited about.

QuBit Electronix has a new sequencer module with a circular pattern; and a new polyphonic oscillator with individual controls and VCAs. You can see and hear both of them in this short video.

@qubitelectronix polyphonic oscillator in action! #namm

A video posted by CatSynth / Amanda C (@catsynth) on

Synthrotek is focusing on full systems, including a MIDI-CV converter that supports bi-directional clocks. One can use heavily modulated CV clocks to control time-based elements on MIDI synthesizers with this feature.

Synthrotek

And KOMA Elektronik returned with their massive sequencer, looking more refined. And it has a lot of lights!

KOMA Electronik Sequencer

More from this both and beyond in coming articles.