NAMM 2016: Booth 5000, Part 2 (more modular synths)

We opened this year’s NAMM coverage with a visit to the embarrassment of riches among modular synths at Booth 5000, so it is feeding that we return there for our final article. You can read the first installment (with a separate article devoted to the new offerings from Rossum Electro-Music).

We at CatSynth are fans of Make Noise Music and their modules. This year they introduced the TEMPI.

Make Noise TEMPI

The TEMPI is a “six channel, polyphonic time-shifting clock module” that allows to create and store clock-signal arrangements using both algorithmic and manual techniques. The channels can be linked to do classic clock-divider and multiplier patterns, as well as manual entry. The divider/multiplier are continuous so can go beyond integer ratios. And it has storage for 64 6-clock configurations. I often complain about my current lack of clock sources (especially for driving the Make Noise Rene), so this would be a potential great addition.

Make Noise also released standalone synth, the 0-Coast.

Make Noise 0-Coast

Like the offerings from many manufacturers this year, the 0-coast is intended to be an integrated full synthesizer voice, complete with CV and MIDI control. As one would expect, it’s a bit more esoteric than the equivalents from Roland and Moog. The parameters remind me a bit more of a Serge or Buchla synth.

Pittsburgh Modular also released a new standalone modular system, Lifeforms.

Pittsburgh Modular Lifeforms

The Lifeforms is a single-voice unit with oscillator and Pittsburgh Modular filter plus integrated controls. It can be paired KB-1 pressure-sensitive controller to make a fully autonomous instrument. You can here a bit of my attempt to play it in this video.

@pghmodular Lifeforms in action! #namm

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

The Lifeforms does seem like a rebrand. While the sound character reminds of me of existing Pittsburgh Modular synths and it retains the iconic knobs, the stenciling on the faceplates is different – the old “typewriter” look of previous modules has been replaced with a more contemporary style. The system would make a good entry to more advanced modular synthesis.

Endorphines was presenting their own colorful line of modules.


The heart of their system is the Furthrrrr Generator, a complex VCO reminiscent of Buchla synthesizers with its simple functions based on harmonic relationships. Similarly, the Fourierrrr module provides waveshaping using harmonic relationships. These are complemented by a serious of function and control modules, including the Shuttle Control that converts between USB, MIDI and CV. You can hear a bit of fun with their modules in this video featuring our little mascot.

WMD presented the new Aperture Filter, a full-module version of their existing Aperture Filter card for Black Market Modular’s ColourCV system.

It is described as “a variable width bandpass Butterworth filter (designed by Tyler Thompson).” You can hear a bit of this filter, along with WMD’s new Performance Mixer.

We conclude with the Haken Continuum, which was on display amonst the modular madness. Not a new instrument by any means, but one that is always fun to return and play. The control surface feels liquidy and comfortable, but familiar enough for an experienced pianist.

Amanda C on the Haken Continuum keyboard

The demo included an iPad synth with a string patch that took advantage of the Continuum’s multi-dimensional degrees of freedom. But sitting among the modular synths, one can contemplate other possibilities. To this end, Haken has introduced the CVC that allows direct analog CV control from the fingerboard without the need for a MIDI converter.

There really was a lot at the show that I couldn’t get to, or did not fit into an article. It can always be a bit overwhelming, but very rewarding. In the end, NAMM visits are always a mixture of wanting the new instruments I see, and reaffirming things I wanted from previous years. I will be working on my list…

Omega Sound Fix, Alfa Art Gallery

Today we look back the Omega Sound Fix Festival, which took place at the Alfa Art Gallery in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The festival spanned two days, Saturday, November 20 and Sunday, November 21, and I was myself scheduled to perform on the second night. (You can read an earlier article about my preparations for the event here.)

As with other events this year, I was live tweeting during the performance @catsynth, using the tag #omegasoundfix. Additionally, PAS has posted videos from the first night of the event, several of which are included below.

After a brief trip to lower Manhattan on Saturday, I headed across the river via the Lincoln Tunnel (which the iPhone assured me had the least traffic of any crossing) and south on the New Jersey Turnpike towards New Brunswick. It was comforting to finally arrive at Alfa Art Gallery after the long trip and come in out of the cold air to the abstract electronic sounds. I arrived in time to hear the second half of Richard Lainhart’s set (I wish I had arrived in time to hear the whole thing). You can see part of Lainhart’s performance below:

Richard Lainhart live at Alfa Art Gallery (Part II) for the Omega Sound Fix Festival from PAS on Vimeo.

I had not arrived in time to hear Lainhart’s introduction in which he explained that piece was by the renowned 20th Century composer Oliver Messaien – a 1937 piece Oraison that was was one of the early pieces written purely for electronic instruments. It was later adapted for acoustic instruments as part of Messaien’s “Quartet for the End of Time”, composed while he was in a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1941. Lainhart’s arrangement of the piece uses the Haken Continuum with a Buchla synthesizer. The music starts out very quiet and melancholy, like a mournful piece of acoustic chamber music. But one can hear the timbral details, suble pitch changes and effects that make it unmistakably electronic. Every so often, there is strong feedback in the sound, but it remains very expressive within the context of the piece. The harmonies move between minor and very anxious augmented. It feels very much like piece of music for a dramatic film, set in forlorn ruins or a desert approaching dusk.

Lainhart then joined Philippe Petit for the next set. I would characterize Petit’s performance as “virtuosic experimental turntable”, as that was the primary instrument he was using (along with a laptop) to generate his sounds that were at once very natural and very constructed. The set began with Lainhart playing long bowed tones on the vibraphone set again Petit’s liquidy granular sounds, scratches, low rumbles and anxious harmonies. There was a strong contrast between the more ethereal and natural timbres, and the lower-frequency and louder machine noises. Petit’s sounds moved from more natural and machine towards snippets from other recordings with bits of distorted harmony, and urban city-like environments. It then changes over to turntable effects, pops and skips and speed changes, and gets noiser and more agressive. Lainhart’s bowed vibraphone provides a constant dreamlike quality against Petit’s changing textures.

Philippe Petit collaborates with Richard Lainhart live at Alfa Art Gallery for the Omega Sound Fix Festival from PAS on Vimeo.

At some point during the set, the duo were joined by a guitarist to form a trio. [Note if anyone can provide me the guitarist’s name, please let me know!] The trio with guitar began scratch and percussive, but became more tonal over time. There is a section which I referred to as the “thud march”, which electrical pops forming a march-like rhythm with other turntable effects filling in the space in between. The rhythm breaks apart after while, with the electronic pops continuing in a more chaotic pattern, and scratching and percussive effects on the guitar providing a counterpoint. Quiet inharmonic synthesizer pads can be heard in the background. The set drew to a large close, starting with a quiet turntable solo and then into a big finish, with loud howling wind-like sounds, and dark harmonies.

They were followed by PAS (Post Abortion Stress). Petit remained on stage and joined regular group members Michael Durek, Robert L Pepper and John “Vomit” Worthley and guest saxophonist Dave Tamura.

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The set began with a very simple pentatonic sequence. On top of this, Worthley played a bowed waterphone waterphone, and Durek soon joined on thermin with a melodic line. Tamura’s saxophone provided a strong counterpoint to the other elements, alternating between very expressive jazz-like lines and a “skronking”. There were moments where the saxophone and thermin seemed to respond to each other, melodically and harmonically. At some point, the original pentatonic pattern cut out, and the music centered around saxophone, theremin and electronic violin. This was followed by a purely electronic section with dark analog sounds and driving electronic drums. Pepper repeatedly slammed his electronic violin against the table, while Tamura played fast runs on the saxophone. Another interesting moment was Pepper using a standard fishing rod as an instrument (perhaps the first time I have seen that), set against synthesizers, guitar and saxophone. Gradually the music gets louder and more insistent, with driving percussive guitar, loud saxophone, and synthesizer sweeps, howls and sound effects in the background. Below is a video of PAS’ entire performance.

PAS live at Alfa Art Gallery with Dave Tamura & Philippe Petit from PAS on Vimeo.

The Sunday program began with blithe (doll). The performance combined acoustic drums as a foundation with live electronics and voice. I particularly liked the combination of loungy Latin rhythm and harmony in one piece with eerie electronic sounds and Phrygian vocal melodies that permeated much of the set. There were sections that were more “spacelike” with analog square waves and loud hits. Overall, the slow rhythms and melodies were reminiscent of goth or darker electronic club music.

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This was a fun set to watch and listen too, and the band drew a relatively large crowd. I guess that should be surprising given that the band is local, and husband-and-wife duo of James and Lisa Woodley were well known from the previous band.

Blithe (doll) was followed by Borne (aka Scott Vizioli). He created a large dramatic and very visual soundscapes. Although his sounds included ambient, environmental and noise-based material, there was also a somewhat unsettling minor harmony that seemed to be just under the surface. Nonetheless the overall sound it was quite meditative, and easy to get lost in the soundspace. Over time, a beat emerged, very sparse and minimalist with metallic sounds. It gradually became stronger and more drum-like, with ethereal bell sounds in the background. I also recalled a single sample of a dishwasher (or something that sounded like a dishwasher) towards the end.

Next up was Octant, which could be described as a band consisting of one human and several robots. The electromechanical robots play acoustic instruments (drums, etc.) while the human member of the band, Matthew Steinke performs on lead vocals.

This was a unique set to watch. My focus was definitely on the robotic performance, but I was also listening to the music itself, which reminded of 1960s British rock with lots of chromatic chord changes. (@catsynth It’s not every day I see retro rock music performed by robots #omegasoundfix ). In order to get a rock rhythm feel, the timing among the robots needs to be well controlled – too much jitter or drift between machines and the musical quality is lost. Octant seems to have that down from a musical and technological perspective. Among the individual songs were “Bowl of Blood”, and another that was introduced by Steinke as being a “song about my cat.”

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Octant was followed by Ezekiel Honig. As stated in the program notes, “He concentrates on his idiosyncratic brand of emotively warm electronic-acoustic music.” The set began with sounds that evoked water as well as machinery. I was able to hear that we was making extensive use of looping, although as he states he is “using the loop as more of a tool than a rule” and elements come and go freely outside the context of strict looping. A strong heartbeat sound emerged, and then later other elements joined to form a calm rolling pattern. At one point a strong major 7th harmony emerged. The beating changed sublty over time, as did the implied harmonies, which became more minor. Towards the end, the sounds seemed to focus on voices in the distance and other evidence of everyday human activity.

I had to begin setting up for my set after this, but I was able to part of Trinitron, the musical project of local artist Mark Weinberg. More so than Honig’s set, Trinitron’s performance was very focused on looping of processed electric guitar. Weinberg sat with his guitar in the middle of a circle of candles, and began to layer different lines and effects on top of one another. The resulting sounds from were alternately harmonic and gritty or noisy. Overall, his performance had an ambient dream-like quality to it.

Then it was time for me to play. I started the set with one of the “Big Band Remotes”, old radio broadcasts of big band shows made in the 1930s and 1940s. In particular, I used a recording of Count Basie and the Blue Note in Chicago, under the control of the monome so that I could start, stop and jump to different sections at will. I immediately segued from the final note to the Chinese prayer bowl and a similar metallic resonance on the Evolver synthesizer. After a while, I attempted to add the Smule Ocarina to the mix, though attempting to induce feedback from the speakers was a little more unstable than I had hoped. The second piece involved live sampling and looping of several of my Indian and Chinese folk instruments, including the newly acquired dotara, the gopichand, and Chinese temple blocks. Once again, this was under control of the monome. The piece transitioned to more electronic sounds, otherworldly crashing waves and loud resonances, and into a meditative solo using a guzheng app on the iPad. You can see a video of the first two pieces below:

Amar Chaudhary at Omega Sound Fix (Part 1) from CatSynth on Vimeo.

I then performed 月伸1, the video piece featuring Luna that I did at the Quickening Moon concert in February. In this instance, I did not have the Octave CAT synthesizer, but instead used the Smule Magic Fiddle and Korg iMS-20 on the iPad as the main electronic instruments, along with the Bebot app, a simple synthesizer on the laptop controlled by the monome, and the Evolver. I liked the new iPad apps for improvising against the video, it gave it a different musical quality from the premiere performance, though not as different as one might suspect. The video projection was a challenge – it covered the entire back wall, and I found myself standing “inside” the images, sometimes next to a gigantic projection of Luna. The effect of the projection against the artwork was also quite interesting visually. You can see this performance in the video below:

Amar Chaudhary at Omega Sound Fix (Part 2) from CatSynth on Vimeo.

My performance was the last of the evening, and of the festival. Overall, I thought it was a great experience, both as a performer and audience-member. Thanks to Michael Durek and Mark Weinberg for organizing this event, and to the Alfa Art Gallery for hosting.