SFJAZZ Honors Zakir Hussain

Just before departing for NAMM back in January, we had the opportunity to attend the SFJAZZ Gala honoring Zakih Hussain with a lifetime achievement award.

One of the unexpected guests of the evening was a torrential rain that peaked just as we were arriving. This video from our Instagram gives a small taste.

Crazy rain for #sfjazzgala ☔️

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But inside it was warm, the drinks were flowing, the music was as expected. We had seats in the bleachers which provided an excellent view of the stage. And the backs of the musicians, including the maestro himself.

You can see a much better view of Zakir Hussain performing with saxophonist John Handy is the Instagram photo from SFJAZZ.

It was a sweet and delightfully simple jam, which capped an evening of performances featuring the SFJazz Collective, saxophonists Joe Lovano and Joshua Redman, guitarist Bill Frisell, vocalist Mary Stallings, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, and drummer Cindy Blackman-Santana.

The award presentation itself was preceded by a tribute video made by Hussain’s daughters, which highlighted his genius as a musician and rhythmic master as well as his good humor and down-to-earth nature as a person. This was also apparent in his remarks upon accepting the award. (The same could not be said for the verbose and pretentious introduction by Mickey Hart.)

After the presentation, it was time to party, with more music and dancing filling the hall.

We didn’t stay too late because I was off to NAMM the next morning, but I am glad to have braved the storm to celebrate a great musician.

Ides of March (or March of Ives)

For the Ides of March, we present this take from the Mensa Cats.

March of Ives

This cartoon was created by J.B. (Jason Berry) of Vacuum Tree Head, who also shares Ides of March by John Cale and Terry Riley, from the album Church of Anthrax (1971).

And finally, we share this classic from the band Ides of March.

For a special treat, we recommend playing both tracks at the same time. 😺 🎶

Pi Day Composition Redux

It’s a bit of an on-again-off-again tradition on Pi Day (3-14 in the United States) to share my composition based on the digits of Pi.

It was based on the binary digits rather than decimal digits of Pi, which seemed more universal and also more logical to work with. It uses stretched impulses and square waves for the sounds themselves. At least that is what I recall. It was written in 2011. It’s probably time to revisit the concept with a new piece…

Ensemble Signal Performs Steve Reich in Berkeley

The time between NAMM and this past weekend’s performances has been quite busy for music, not only performing but also attending a variety of concerts. Today we look back at a concert featuring the work of Steve Reich by Ensemble Signal at Hertz Hall in Berkeley, California.


[Ensemble Signal performs music by Steve Reich on Sunday, January 29, 2017 in Hertz Hall. Photo by EMPAC Rensselaer, courtesy of Cal Performances.]

We also had the opportunity to hear a full concert of Steve Reich’s music last year by the SF Symphony – the composer has been receiving a great deal of attention since his 80th birthday. Two of the pieces from that concert were on this program as well, including Clapping Music and Double Sextet.

Clapping Music opened the evening, with the composer himself joining Ensemble Signal conductor Brad Lubman. Similar to last year, I consider it quite a treat to here Steve Reich performing this piece. Double Sextet closed the concert. It is a large and complex work, with the two quartets performing similar but non-identical parts that come in and out of phase rhythmically and harmonically.

Vibraphones feature prominently in Reich’s music and in this concert in particular, including the second piece Quartet for two pianos and two vibraphones. Interestingly, the use of two pianos featured prominently this concert as well. The piece has many of the characteristic elements of interlocking harmonies and repeating patterns, but there were more sudden changes and gaps in this piece (composed in 2013) than in some of his earlier works, where the changes only occurred gradually.

However, the two pieces immediately before and after the intermission were what made this concert unique. First, there was the U.S. premiere of Runner a piece for large ensemble co-commissioned by Cal Performances (who hosted the concert). It featured winds, percussion, piano and strings in a series of rhythmic patterns over five movements, played without pauses. It forms a rhythmic palindrome of sorts, with even sixteenths followed by irregularly accented eighths, and then a standard bell pattern from Ghana before returning backwards to the eighth-note patterns and finally the even sixteenths. It’s a long and complex piece, and was undoubtedly an endurance test for the musicians, but Reich’s music in the hands of the right performers can sound effortless.

Radio Rewrite had perhaps the most interesting backstory of any piece in the concert. It was composed by Reich in 2013 after hearing Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead (who had made backing tracks for Reich’s Electric Counterpoint). The piece, also in five moments, draws upon two Radiohead songs “Everything it its Right Place” and “Jigsaw Falling Into Place.” It’s not a set of variations or quotations in the traditional sense, although bits of the original songs to make their way into the melodic and harmonic material. And the instrumentation is quite unlike a standard rock band, save for the inclusion of electric bass. Musically, this was probably the most distant from the idioms of Clapping Music, but a powerful contrast to the other pieces on the program. It was lush, intense, and once again quite an endurance test at 17 minutes.

Overall, this was a great concert in a gem of a concert hall, and it’s always great to see composers like Steve Reich on hand. We will continue to follow his music and hope to see new works.

Vacuum Tree Head and Census Designated Place at HSP2017

It’s been a busy musical time for us at CatSynth. Last week I performed a solo set and collaborative pieces with Amy X Neuburg at the Jewish Community Center in Berkeley. This weekend, I have two more performances, again in Berkeley, as part of Hardly Strictly Personal 2017. It’s a three-day event featuring a wide range of experimental and adventurous music, and benefits EarthJustice and the Homeless Action Center. You can see the full updated schedule, as well as ticket and location info here.

Vacuum Tree Head will be playing tonight, and my fusion/experimental project Census Designated Place (CDP) will be playing on Sunday. I have been busily preparing to make my debut on the Roland VP-03 Vocoder in both bands. Needless to say, between that and the various everyday tasks of an adult in San Francisco, we haven’t had as much opportunity to post here. Regular (?) CatSynth pics and more resume next week.

NAMM 2017 Apocrypha and Final Thoughts

In this article, we go over a few remaining items from NAMM, and share some final thoughts as well.

The DATA module from Mordax takes the trend of built-in displays to another level. The large color screen displays a variety of functions, including oscilloscope, tuner , waveform generator and clock. It also has quite a few utility signal functions. It seems like quite the useful item for a medium or large modular system. Plus it looks great!

It’s a common problem with modular synthesizer systems to end up with 2hp empty and nothing to fill it with, except maybe a branded plate. 2hp quite literally fills this niche with a large selection of functional modules exactly 2hp wide.

We could all use extra multiples, or another envelope generator, or VCA. But their 2hp offerings include oscillators and filters. We could see these in various cases to get some handy functionality when needed.

Delptronics has made quite a few modules for percussion synthesis as well as for complex triggering of other modules. Their product line has grown; and we were particularly curious about the new spring module an its electro-acoustic possibilities.

We are always curious to see what 4ms has to offer, as the Spectral Multiband Filter has become one of our favorite modules for a variety of musical purposes. Their new offerings this year included a sampler module and tappable delay, which are shown in the upper right of the following photo.

There was of course more at the modular super booth and in the neighboring booths beyond what we have been able to cover this year. It will be inevitable that some products and manufactures don’t get mentioned in the blog, though we do have more on our Instagram feed during the show. We will have to figure out if there are any logistical changes we might want to try next year in order to see more while still remaining authentic and having the fun time at NAMM that we always do.


The trip home, despite the pouring rain and flooding in the LA Basin, ultimately turned out to be a pleasant one. I suppose I had a bit of a glow from the show, and full of ideas on how to move forward musically and personally in the challenging times ahead.

Even with the literal rainstorms outside and the dark pall cast by the political situation, inside the convention center we were all able to be ourselves and follow our passions for music and music technology. That doesn’t mean that outside reality didn’t intrude. It was impossible not to despair a bit on inauguration day; and by contrast Saturday with the Women’s Marches gave a bit of optimism. Mostly, I just kept doing what I came to NAMM to do. We hope you have enjoyed following our coverage, and we’ll be back doing it again next year barring some world-changing catastrophe (which unfortunately could happen).

NAMM 2017: Behringer DeepMind 12

Our somewhat drawn-out coverage of NAMM 2017 comes down to two final articles. We would be remiss if one of them did not include the Behringer DeepMind 12.

Perhaps no product was more anticipated and controversial among synthesizer players and enthusiasts this year than the DeepMind 12. A lot of this has to do with Behringer’s history and reputation in some parts of the industry, as well as the intense hype and frequent teasers last year. But as an instrument, the DM12 stands on its own. It has rather impressive specs including two DCOs, VCA, VCF and multiple LFOs and envelopes for each of its 12 voices. It connects to a PC or tablet to control all onboard parameters – something we at CatSynth think is a nice touch. And it has a professional-looking industrial design, with an attractive front panel and wooden-looking sides.

In terms of sound and playing, it felt like an “ordinary” analog poly synth and reminded me a bit of a Juno or the popular Korg Minilogue. It doesn’t have the distinctive or super-intense sound of a Moog synth or a classic Prophet or Oberheim, which seem to pack more punch sonically into fewer oscillators. The DM12 seems to sound it’s best doing stacked voices rather than at 12-voice polyphony, but this might be my bias for intense timbral-rich sounds. So if one already has an analog synth from one of those legendary makers, the DM12 probably won’t hold as much personal appeal. But it does seem like a convincing choice as a “first” analog polyphonic synth and something to bring to gigs, especially if one needs a variety of classic synth pads and 80s-esque sounds in one’s music. It also is a little less intimidating to program than some other poly synths. And of course the $999 USD price tag is much less than a high-end mono synth or most analog poly synths. Those who were excited about the Minilogue and similar instruments will probably want to check this out as well.

NAMM 2017: Qu-Bit Electronix

Our friends at Qu-Bit Electronix have quite a few new modules this year, as well as a refresh of their overall design.

The heart of the new modules is Rhythm, a multichannel pattern generator with real-time control over variations. Together with the Wave multi-sampler and Chord four-voice oscillator, the new set forms an autonomous instrument in itself. But the Nano Rand is still our favorite 😉

You can see the entire suite of Qu-Bit Electronix modules inside a bubble in this video.

New Qu-bit modules in a bubble. #namm2017 #namm

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

You can find out more about Qu-Bit Electronix offerings here.

NAMM 2017: Bitwig Studio and BASTL Instruments

Music software maker Bitwig teamed up with modular-synthesizer maker BASTL Instruments as booth featuring hardware and software together. Bitwig’s new Studio software was running on a YUGE Microsoft Surface tablet and controlling a special BASTL modular system.

We wrote about BASTL Instruments last year, in particular about their modules that allow external sensors and actuators to be used with modular synthesizers and their unique “wooden” design for the faceplates. Bitwig Studio is a bit of a new discovery for us. It has many of the features and characteristics of Ableton Live!, but with its own more modular architecture for instruments and compatibility with Linux in addition to Windows and macOS. You can see a bit of these systems working together in our video.

So the question is whether Bitwig Studio is a reasonable alternative to Ableton Live! – for us, it would probably occupy the same functions as Live!: a secondary DAW to use with Pro Tools for performance elements, and a software hub for live performance. The demo suggests that it could do those functions, but whether or not it would a better option or not is unclear. In particular, Max/MSP integration would be missed. But it does have a powerful scripting system.

For BASTL Instruments, we are still most intrigued by their rich offering of external I/O beyond traditional musical instruments, along with their percussion synthesizers. The combination of this with a touchscreen DAW like Bitwig Studio opens up some new possibilities…