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.

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…

NAMM 2017: New offerings from Synthrotek and Division 6

Our friends from Synthrotek teamed up with Division 6 for a delightfully noisy and retro NAMM display.

This unique enclosure has that future retro look at we at CatSynth adore. It is unfortunately one of a kind at this moment. But we had a chance to admire it. Sitting above the panels, however, was a new product, the Division 6 “Business Card Sequencer”, available as a kit. It’s a dual 16-step sequencer with CV and gate out, as well as clock in. Quite handy and smaller than my iPhone.

Division 6 also introduced Mr Crotchety. It is a control-less Eurorack module that generates a non-linear CV source. It also has the best name of any product I encountered at NAMM.

Synthrotek is also continuing to come out with new modules and such. This ribbon controller looked quite interesting to us, and fits well in the 1U area of their cases.

We can also see at the top of the image the enclosures that allow the Business Card Sequencers to be mounted in groups into a Eurorack system. And off to the right is the new Roboto module. It’s hard to see in this picture, so here is a demo from Synthrotek.

Roboto is an audio-signal transformer based on old voice-transformer chips. One could of course use this for “robot”-like vocoding, but also for manipulating another other type of sound that crosses the wires of a modular synth. We also quite like the logo. There was also an affordable in interesting-sounding reverb module, with degrees of freedom that turn it into an instrument rather than simply an effect at the end of the chain.

We are looking forward to seeing more of these modules. But we really want that future retro case!

@catsynth in the namms!!!

A photo posted by Synthrotek (@synthrotek) on

NAMM 2017: KOMA Elektronik Field Kit

Being immersed in music technology does not mean one forgets the joy and beauty of acoustic sounds, whether a finely crafted violin or the incidental collisions of everyday objects. Our friends at KOMA Elektronik introduce the Field Kit, which brings these worlds together in a single box.

The Field Kit fits quite a bit in a small space. There is a four channel mixer at the heart of the unit, which accepts input from contact microphones or other audio sources, with gain, mix level and tone controls. A radio section generates audio and CV from AM, FM and short wave signals. A DC section can be used to control outboard electronics such as motors, solenoids and LEDs. A signal generator section allows all of these tools to be used to generate more conventional signals for modular synths and other gear. It also includes utilities such as an LFO generator and envelope follower.

What makes this unit intriguing to us at CatSynth is the ability to use it an interface to physical objects, as shown in the photo above, with springs, marbles and other items used as input and output. It can be hard to wrap ones head around how that works in practice. This video from KOMA Elektronik’s Kickstarter page makes it more accessible.

We at CatSynth would love to get our hands on one of these, even for a couple of upcoming shows in February. It would be great to combine the visual and physical nature of the devices musical possibilities with video. Unfortunately, it isn’t shipping to the general public until May. We look forward to then.

More information available at koma-elektronic.com.

NAMM 2017: Fabulous Silicon Paradigm

One of the fun things at NAMM is finding new and unexpected technologies for music. We found an intriguing example in the Paradigm synth from Fabulous Silicon.

The uniqueness of this analog synthesizer is on the inside. Its architecture is based on four Apex programmable analog chip by Anadigm Corporation. What this means is that parameter changes rather than simply changing the voltage running through a fixed circuit, the circuit itself is reorganized. Many of us working in experimental technologies at the turn of the century were familiar with FPGAs, reconfigurable digital gates, but the idea of reconfiguring analog circuits in a single chip is a step beyond our thinking from that moment. How much of that is technological or cultural I cannot say, given that compared to the turn of the century we are in the midst of a renaissance of analog electronics in music. To make this concrete for others familiar with analog modular synthesizers, consider turning a knob or switch and having the synthesizer re-patched on the fly, or even turned into a completely different set of modules in response to CV input.

The prototype was unfortunately not working at the time we visited the booth and spoke with the Paradigm’s creator Bryan Pape. But we came away quite interested in both the musical and intellectual possibilities of this “paradigm.” We look forward to seeing this instrument in action in the near future.

More information available at www.fabuloussilicon.com

Rossum Electro-Music Morpheus and Other Modules

Last year, I was excited to see the debut of Rossum Electro-Music. This year, the excitement is that the Morpheus module will finally be available soon.

Since our picture, although appropriately cute, isn’t the best, here is an official image.

The Morpheus module features a 14-pole Z-plane filter similar to one in the classic E-MU Morpheus (which I still use in some of my music), but goes beyond the capabilities of the original. As it is a module, one can use any sound source with it rather than just built-in ROM samples. And all the the dimensions of the filter – which are visualized as a cube – can be manipulated in parallel from arbitrary CV sources. On top of that, a step sequencer allows one to move through different configurations of the filter in real-time.

I was only able to scratch the surface of the sound possibilities with this. One thing I’d like to explore is whether with all the degrees of freedom this filter is even more unstable than the original. That’s not a bad thing per se (as long as one has a limiter handy), as it can be a thing of beauty to bring a filter just to the edge.

The Morpheus is actually part of a full suite of modules that Rossum Electro-Music is offering. The Evolution ladder filter was already debuted last year, and is a fine filter in itself. There is also the Control Forge CV generator, Assimil8or phase-modulation sampler, and Satellite CV generator. It occurs to me that putting these modules together (plus a MIDI to CV converter) one could theoretically construct an “E-MU Morpheus on steroids”.

We at CatSynth shall eagerly await the public release of the Morpheus in the coming weeks and keep an eye out for things to come from our friends at Rossum Electro-Music.

NAMM 2017: Moog Music Tribute to Synthesizer Pioneers

This year our friends at Moog Music, Inc. had a very different sort of booth. Instead of the usual array of gear for demonstration, the space was bare and stark, with a simple kiosk and a wall dedicated to the many synthesizer players and innovators we lost in 2016.

It was a rough year for the synthesizer community. Among those we lost were Pauline Oliveros and Don Buchla, both of whom were memorialized here on CatSynth and whom I had known in person. There were also images and statements for Keith Emerson, Bernie Worrell, Isao Tomita, and Jean-Jaques Perrey.

Visitors were invited to wander the space in contemplation or with a mix of music from the artists on classic Walkmans. Visitors could also leave social media tributes to one or more artists and have an opportunity to win one of several current Moog instruments, including a Werkstatt, Mother-32 and even a new Model D.

We didn’t win, but were very touched by the way Moog used their space to pay tribute to the many heroes we lost in 2016. It was a unique and moving experience at this year’s NAMM show.