NAMM: SpaceHarp

There is usually at least one completely out-there “what exactly is that” instrument at NAMM, and this year that was the SpaceHarp.

It is visually unique, looking a bit like something off the original Star Trek or other early science fiction. Each of the circles contains multiple optical and sonic sensors which respond when the performer moves and blocks the light from above. The input from the sensor arrays is converted to MIDI for controlling an external synthesizer. I’m not exactly sure what the large illuminated crystal does, but it adds the classic science-fiction quality of the instrument.

SpaceHarp at NAMM

I did make an attempt to play the SpaceHarp.

It was fun, though not quite as easy to control as the description suggests. Given all the degrees of freedom, it was quite different from a theremin (even an optical theremin) in the way one interacts with it.

At a technical and visual level, the SpaceHarp was interesting. While it didn’t come across as a “must have” for me, I can see others finding this a useful and creative tool for live performance. The tendency towards New-Age hyperbole in their product literature was a bit of a turn-off, suggesting a different target audience. But perhaps it just needs another chance with some harsher and more abstract sounds, like from one of the many analog modules at this year’s show.

NAMM: Roger Linn and the LinnStrument

Our visit to Roger Linn Design featured both the man himself as we as the LinnStrument.

Roger Linn

The LinnStrument is an expressive controller with a grid of continuous sensors that capture independent velocity, X, Y and Z-axis position for each of multiple touches. As such, it is an extremely expressive instrument that can afford control as dextrous as a traditional piano keyboard in some ways more versatile between all the degrees of freedom and abstract layout. It is also quite compact.

LinnStrument

While the LinnStrument is primarily MIDI, it would be interesting to see it in a CV-based environment as well.

We were also treated to a demo by Roger Linn, including several of the featured sounds and programs.

We definitely appreciate his time talking with us and showing his invention.

NAMM: New Korg Synths and ARP Odyssey clone

One of the big announcements before the show was Korg’s new clone of the ARP Odyssey. It was up there with the Moog Modular and Sequential Prophet 6. So I had to see and play this one for myself.

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Like most of Korg’s recent reissues of classic analog instruments, this version of the ARP Odyssey is about 80% the size of the originally. I’m not sure what it is with Korg making things “just a little smaller” than the original. But it did have the sound of the original – I tried, somewhat poorly, to play some lines from Head Hunters. And I was happy to see that had the original industrial design, including the Helvetica-style red lettering on black background that remains very distinctive. It would be interesting to play this along side my vintage Octave CAT. At just under $1000, it’s even possible one day.

Another new offering from Korg this year was the MS20-M kit, a kit variation on the MS-20. It was paired with the new and very compact SQ-1 CV sequencer.

MS20-M kit and SQ-1 sequencer

The MS-20M has no keyboard, but that’s not much of an impediment as one can control it via external CV.

At the small end of the spectrum there was the LittleBits SynthKit, a collaboration between Korg and LittleBits. We actually have one of these kits at CatSynth HQ.

LittleBits Synth Kit

NAMM: Big City Music

A trip to NAMM always includes a visit to the booth of Big City Music. As always there was a mixture of old favorites (e.g.,an entire collection of Metasonix modules in a matching yellow case, the Mellotron, etc.), as well as new and unusual things. Upon arrival I was greeted by this rack containing Intellijel synth modules and a Mellotron rack-mount unit.

Mellotron 4000D rack and Intellijel modules

This the digital Mellotron M4000D in rack-mount unit. It sounds like the classic Mellotron in a unit that is more practical for live gigging or integration into a studio setup. Of course, there are no tapes in this one.

The polyphonic analog synthesizer from Schmidt was on display and I had a chance to play it.

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This thing is a beast! Beyond the polyphony, it has four oscillators and seven filters per voice. Quite feature rich and very playable. But it’s price is this instrument’s most infamous feature. It comes in at about $20K USD, similar to the price one might pay for the car to schlep it around in.

This odd but intriguing electromagnetic contraption was from boutique manufacturer Analog Outfitters. We still have no idea what it does.

Analog Outfitters

And of course there were lots of large modular installations, including this “Wall of Cwejman.”

Wall of Cwejman

It’s a dangerous booth to visit, as I start to get purchase ideas…

NAMM: New and odd modules at Muff Wiggler

The Muff Wiggler Store was onsite at NAMM this year, hosting quite a few module makers whose work I had not encountered before.

Minigorille

These eye-catching modules from Minigorille have graphic screens (an unusual feature for a Eurorack module) for manipulating control voltage. It includes several programs such as a pong-like game and an XY freehand drawing unit, and has an expander for input from a handheld controller.

Next was the rather psychedelic Circuit Shaman, featuring modules with purple knobs and colorful LEDs, all to be viewed through distorting rainbow glasses.

Circuit Shaman

The flagship module was the Spectra Mirror, a resonant down-sampler with a variety of controllable parameters allowing it to sound like a clean VCA, a bit-crusher and various things in between such as downsampling the signal with a high-pass filter. It would be interesting to run the shape controls through an LFO, or through the Minigorille module.

While not in Eurorack format, this complete system in Moog format from Synthetic Sound Labs was quite playable, and included a newly released Steiner filter.

Synthetic Sound Labs

There was a lot more at the booth, some old some new, but more than I am able to cover in this article. Visit the Muff Wiggler Store to find more, including some you may have never heard of before.

NAMM: New Modules from Make Noise

Our friends at Make Noise were back at NAMM this year including a few new modules. The Telharmonic is a 3-voice additive synthesizer with a variety of controls including spectral centroid, triads quantized to scales, a more. This module is another collaboration between Make Noise and Tom Erbe of Soundhack.

Make Noise / Soundhack Telharmonic

You can see a bit of the Telharmonic in action in this video. Our little mascot gets a starring role :)

Make Noise also introduced the Fixed Filter, and the RxMx which pairs with it to do all sorts of interesting gate-like effects.

Make Noise RxMx

The RxMx is expected to be available soon after NAMM, but no word on the release date for the Telharmonic. Both are intriguing enough to consider for the collection.

NAMM: Buchla 200h series and LEM3 Spider

Buchla introduced several new instruments and add-ons this year, including an entirely new modular series, the 200h. The 200h aims to be a more compact (and hopefully lower cost) series of modules, but the same esoteric sound and control that make Buchla instruments infamous. They have been assembled into “mini-systems” including the LEM3 Spider shown below.

Buchla LEM Spider

That colorful circular thing is actually a 200e series, specifically a 252e polyphonic rhythm generator. It is visually gorgeous!

Here is a short video of my attempts to play the LEMs.

NAMM: Moog Modular and More

Moog Music seems to have a bigger presence and NAMM every year. This time they had a large enclosed space complete with retro neon signs.

Moog neon sign

But that merely prepared the way for what was inside. The centerpiece and main attraction was the reintroduced Moog Modular.

Moog modular

There was quite a bit of excitement with the news about the modular. Besides being huge and impressive, it also boasts simple and easy to control modules with distinctively Moog sound.

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While some sounds that one could get out of the demo system reminded me of the Minimoog, it was a different instrument. It is a modular, so the combinations can go quite distant from the classic Minimoog subtractive sound. Since the modules are fairly basic in terms of function compared to the recent Eurorack modular releases, it does take quite a few to make a patch. The larger size of the modules and knobs does make it easy to handle and play. But it is probably more of a studio instrument than a live instruments (especially with the high price tag).

More down-to-earth but perhaps odder was the Moog, a tiny patchable synth with Moog sound that interoperates nicely with Eurorack systems.

Moog werkstatt

This one is indeed something for live use. I’d love to see how it works together with the Theremini. It does make some weird crunchy sounds, and would make a great first stage of a modular in between the Theremini as controller and various Eurorack modules as post processing.

In between, Moog does continue to provide its “Phatty” line, including the Moog Sub 37. These are quite practical to get a Moog sound for live-stage situations.

Moog Sub 37

Of course there was quite a crowd to see the Modular. We at CatSynth certainly wish them well with the new instruments and exposure.

NAMM: Dave Smith Instruments and Sequential Prophet 6

Our first stop at NAMM 2015 was Dave Smith Instruments. And they certainly had big news, with both the acquisition of the legendary Sequential Circuits (aka “SEQUENTIAL”) brand name and their first instrument under the new name, the Prophet 6.

We were able to talk with Dave Smith himself about the “new old name” and the new instrument.

The Prophet 6 itself is quite a sight. It includes the industrial design, lettering and other features from the Prophet V, and includes custom component based VCOs and analog filters.

Sequential Prophet 6

It has a rich sound that ranges from the lusciousness of the Prophet 12 to the nastiness of the Evolver, though it doesn’t really do the same things as either of those instruments. As described in the video, it doesn’t have the complexity and feature set of the Prophet 12, but it’s not intended to. It is it’s own creature, and probably best as a lead synth used in conjunction with others. And it was definitely fun to play.

Amanda tries out the Prophet 6

It does appear that both the Dave Smith Instruments and Sequential brands will be used on future offerings, which we look forward to seeing and hearing.

First visit to Cat Town Cafe

The Cat Town Cafe in Oakland, California is the first cat cafe to open in the United States. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to visit for the first time.

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The cafe is essentially divided into two sections. The first resembles a standard small cafe but covered with cat photos. Here is where one checks in to visit the cats as well as order drinks and small snacks, all made by local Oakland-based businesses. After ordering, visitors can cross an airlock to the cat room. This is a spacious area designed at least as much with the cats in mind as the humans. They are plenty of places to play, hide, eat, and sleep. The interior wall is covered with a mural featuring Oakland cityscapes and a few celebrity cats like Grumpy Cat and Li’l Bub. The cat furniture pieces are one-of-a-kind based on landmark Oakland buildings, including city hall, the twin Federal Building, and the Oakland Tribune Building.

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The largest concentration of cats during my appointment was in the Tribune building. For the first half hour they were all napping, but one could gently reach through the openings to pet and stroke the cats. One little girl particularly seemed to enjoy the attention, and eventually she got up to stretch and explore.

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Turns out her name is Athena, and she was quite playful after her nap. A few of us took turns playing with her as she wandered the space. She particularly enjoyed feather toys.

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Like most cats at the cafe, she comes from local shelters via Cat Town, an Oakland-based organization that recused and fosters cats in the community. The cafe has been extremely successful in adopting out cats. As of my visit, 77 had been adopted since the they opened in October. And it is always crowded with humans, especially on weekends. Indeed, they have sold appointments for every weekend since opening!

I’m sure I will be back to see the cats and find out more about the workings of the cafe. We at CatSynth also hope their success will help others get off the ground. There is at least one now open in New York, and there is currently one planned for this year in San Francisco.