2016 has not been a good year for our musical heroes. And we have just lost one more, Don Buchla.
[Photo by Michael Zelner]
Don Buchla was producing his first synthesizers about the same time that Robert Moog released his earliest models. But he took a very different approach, eschewing keyboards and other traditional interfaces to make a truly radical instrument. This led to some describing “East Coast” and “West Coast” schools of synthesizers – something that we at CatSynth largely reject. But there are nonetheless characteristics that set apart Bucvla’s instruments, such as the use of metal plates as controls; the ubiquitous use of low pass gates (LPGs) as sound units; the crispier/crunchier sound compared to Moog-inspired synths; and the visual beauty and oddness of the instruments. Indeed, they have appeared on CatSynth many times – follow this link to see a few.
In addition to his synthesizers, Buchla also created numerous controllers, such as the Thunder, Lightning, and Marimba Lumina. Indeed, I was introduced to Buchla’s instruments and the man himself through David Wessel at CNMAT, who used the Thunder extensively in his performances. My personal memories of the two of them together mostly revolve around the wine-and-beer-fueled gatherings after formal events at CNMAT, ICMC conferences or elsewhere. They would talk endlessly but anyone else could chime in, and occasionally Don and I would have a sidebar, less often of a technical nature than lamenting strictures in one institution or another, or non-musical scientific concepts. Overall, however, he was often a laconic presence, off in a corner or just off frame, but then fully engaged when the moment arrived.
[Buchla sighting at Roger Linn’s NAMM booth in 2015]
It was rare to see him perform. I did get a chance to do so at the
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
Strymon has long been known for their effects pedals, which are highly regarded. Now they have entered into the worked of Eurorack synth modules with the Generalissimo.
The Generalissmo (cute name, by the way) is a four-head tape echo simulator with a range of additional features. The four delay tops can be switched on and off and independently controlled. There are also independent controls for each tap/head’s playback time. The taps each send an individual clock out, allowing one to drive a sequencer that in turn feeds into the delay unit for interesting rhythmic effects. A clock input allows this all to be controlled externally.
There are additional global controls that affect the quality of the sound, including familiar speed and feedback as well as tape age, crinkle and wow and lutter; and even a separate spring reverb control. Quite a lot in one unit. I wasn’t able to hear the tape age, crinkle and wow&flutter knobs work in the demo, though the main controls worked well and the unit sounded great. It was very smooth and the clock sync is quite a nice touch. There also a “sound-on-sound” mode that turns it into a tape loop simulator, though I wasn’t able to try that out.
An interesting question for me is what this module provides that the combination of a Make Noise Echophon and Phonogene do not (I currently own both of those). Clearly it packs more into one unit, and on the echo side has the four taps. But the clock(s) make be what set it apart musically, as well as the differences in sound characteristics. I hope to see and hear more if this module when it is released later this year.
During a break at NAMM, a friend showed me the tag line for Biotek that described it as an “organic synthesizer.” That sounded quite intriguing, though also a bit baffling. Did it contain biological elements or designs based on organic systems? It turned out to be a new software synthesizer from Tracktion. It uses high-quality field-recordings from nature as sample sources and incorporates them into a full-featured synth architecture. The centerpiece of the synth and its user interface is a function that morphs between the natural sound and different degrees of processing from the rest of the synthesizer.
It is quite striking to look at. Playing with just the central control is fun. The sounds are unique, especially in the middle between fully synthesized and fully nature-sample. I had fun playing a patch based on avian sounds from the connected keyboard and found myself thinking of musical ways to combine it with analog sounds. Whether it would be a novel feature for a handful of tracks or an regular instrument is hard to say – I leave that to other musicians to explore and decide.
All during the demo of Biotek, I was listening to the sound on Tracktions new (and first) hardware interface, the Copper Reference.
As one can see in the photo above, it is gorgeous. The case is a shiny copper finish with soft edges, topped with two vacuum tubes. The vacuum tubes are part of a selectable overdrive circuit for the inputs. It also contains high-end high-sample-rate D/A and A/D converters. It sounded great in the Biotek demos, though a NAMM booth is not an environment where I can discern its character compared to others. It is definitely a boutique interface that will carry a high price tag ($5000 USD), especially for just stereo. But it is gorgeous!
In the midst of all the excitement about music technology and gear, we need to remember that our ears are our most important music technology, and a very difficult technology to replace. I have been quite protective of mine over the past few years, especially while I was playing in an exceptionally loud band (Surplus 1980). But I misplaced on my custom Sensaphonics ear plugs last year. And while I did use generic protection at times after that, I also got a bit lax, and likely paid a price for it.
So as NAMM came around again, it seemed right to get fitted for new replacements from Sensaphonics, who offer a discount and free fitting during the show. The combination of the custom shaping and active reduction element (I got the -15dB version) have generally given me both better protection and better fidelity of the reduced sound, especially when at loud rehearsals or on stage. The fitting was a bit uncomfortable due my rather petite ears, but well worth the effort. And as a treat, they come in a variety of colors and I chose a translucent blue (similar to the photo shown above). Sensaphonics also makes custom in-ear monitors, but that is not as much of a priority for my musical performance as ear protection.
We close reminding all our musician friends, and those go to hear live music, to please take care of your hearing!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?