At least since 2010, all of my trips to NAMM have been road trips, heading east from San Francisco on I-580 to meet Interstate 5 for the long trek south through Los Angeles to Orange County.
I-5 takes a more direct route through the sparsely populated western side of the Central Valley, compared to CA 99 (former US 99) that connects the major towns and cities of the region, including Fresno and Bakersfield. The small communities that one does pass are related to travel on the interstate itself or to the farms and orchards that dominate the landscape between stretches of emptier space.
It is a long trip, and one that I know many people would find boring. But for me, it is something I look forward to, an integral part of the experience along with the show itself, the after-parties and all the other little adventures. This year there was the added fun of testing out Highway☆ on the road trip, but even without that heightened sense of purpose, it is simply an enjoyable “flow experience.” Once over the Altamont Pass and into the Central Valley, stresses begin to fade as the mostly straight line of the road and the low stimulation of I-5 takes over. It may seem “empty” but there is still is just enough detail along the route to provide balance. After many years, I have come to know just about every major junction and many of the other details, such as the names of the small communities along the highway. By the time I arrive in the Los Angeles basin, I am recharged, enough to even remain unfazed by the notorious traffic!
The return trip along a nearly identical route is similarly an opportunity for psychic calm and flow after the nonstop overstimulation of NAMM (I do spend a half day after the show either with friends or at a museum as part of the decompression process before getting back on “The 5”). This year was no different, as I headed back with a tailwind and sense of optimism. Life seemed calm, free, but also filled with curiosity and excitement about professional opportunities in technology, music, and even travel. That feeling lasted into our arrival back in San Francisco, at least until my second bout of this year’s awful flu kicked in, along with some other stressful local responsibilities. One of the mental exercises to help through the ensuing week was to focus on how my mind and body responded positively to the I-5 trip (and to the many tendrils of travel in and around L.A.) and thought experiments on how to capture that sense of enjoyment and calm even when not traveling down a straight and empty stretch of road. I come back again to flow experience and how much that seems to be a product of solitude for me, but it can also come in playing together with musicians at the highest levels. And then there are situations where flow is stymied or non-existent. It is important to recognize both, and I hope to explore these topics more in upcoming articles.
See more of Interstate 5 in California and many other fine places across North America in our Highway☆ app, available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
Among the more unique instruments that we saw at NAMM this year was the Blipblox, a fully functional synthesizer in a plastic shell reminiscent of children’s toys.
Don’t be deceived by its appearance. The Blipblox is a full-featured monophonic synthesizer with selectable signal topologies and oscillators; a low-pass filter; a sequencer; and even a drum machine. There is also a modulation matrix to complete the feature set. In some ways, it seems similar to overall style and concept of the Moog Mother-32, though it is of course a very different instrument.
You can hear a bit of our attempt to play the Blipblox in this video.
It certainly seems like an interesting way to introduce kids to synthesizers and both the science and art of sound. But it also seems quite usable for live performance – if it’s rugged enough for kids, it’s probably rugged enough for the stage. We look at it an immediately think of the repurposing of musical toys for experimental electronic performance via circuit bending. Whether a Blipblox is bendable or not is beyond the scope of this initial look, but it would certainly fit in with a setup that includes such modified instruments.
More info can be found at https://blipblox.com/
We continue to work our way through our experiences from NAMM 2018 with the Arturia MiniBrute 2.
The original MiniBrute made quite a splash a few years ago with its all-analog signal path, usability, and low price. It also had a sound that was distinct from other low-cost analog synths, in part because of the “Brute Factor” knob. That knob is back in the MiniBrute 2 along with a Steiner-Parker filter that together with the Brute oscillator gives the instrument its sound. But there is now a second oscillator, and, perhaps more significantly, a modulation matrix and patch bay.
The built-in synthesizer topology includes a lot more modulation than the original, and the patch bay allows for reconfiguration and expansion with the RackBrute Eurorack cases that integrate 3U or 6U or modules with the MiniBrute in a single case. This does seem to be a trend we are seeing with built-in patch bays to full analog mono synths (the Moog Mother-32 being the prime example). One can also interpret the MiniBrute 2 as incorporating ideas from the flagship MatrixBrute writ small. The ecosystem also includes an alternate form-factor, the 2S, which has drum pads reminiscent of the BeatStep Pro instead of the keyboard.
We were only able to scratch the surface at NAMM, and also had a bit of difficulty with our video. So we are hoping to provide a more in-depth look at this instrument both here and on CatSynth TV in the not too distant future.
We continue to work our way slowly through the embarrassment of riches from NAMM 2018 with a look at new modules from Erica Synths.
The biggest of the new modules, both physically and in terms of garnered attention, was the Drum Sequencer module. It has an attractive retro look and feel with a raised keypad and red LED display, reminiscent of instruments and studio gear from the 1980s. It also features 12 independent trigger outputs and 12 separate accent outputs – of course in the context of a modular synth one need not use the accent outputs for “accents”.
The sequencer itself is full-featured with separate meter and length per track as well as independent shuffle and probability per step. The probabilistic step function is intriguing, and one I did not have a proper opportunity to explore at NAMM, so hopefully I will get a chance to do so in the not too distant future.
The Graphic VCO returns to a more contemporary design found in many digital Eurorack modules.
This module allows the user to draw his or her own waveforms Etch-a-sketch style to use in two simultaneous wavetable oscillators. In addition to mixing, they can be arranged in different topologies for FM, ring modulation, waveshaping and more. The waveform selections and configurations can be sequenced for continuously morphing sounds. It would be interesting to use with the Drum Sequencer.
The final module we looked at was the Resonant Equalizer. It is basically a 12-band bandpass filter with each band independently controllable via CV. One can also control all the bands with a single CV input for sequencer-based changes. Again, this feels like a module that would work well in tandem with the Drum Sequencer. It also has an attractive visual look for live performance use.
You can see all these modules in action in our recent video, which also features a “virtual appearance” by Tuna, the official Erica Synths cat 😺
We congratulate Tuna and rest of the team from Erica Synths on their offerings for this year’s show, and hope to someday visit them in Latvia.
For more information, please visit http://www.ericasynths.lv/
We are always on the lookout for something (or someone) different at NAMM, especially in the deep dark depth of Hall E. This year we found it in the booth of Yudo, a company out of Japan that presented prototypes for two radically different concepts.
The flagship Neuman synthesizer features a standard keyboard with an instrument-spanning touch screen. It looks like an iPad stretched out to fit a full-sized keyboard.
The keyboard plays well, and there were standard sounds such as electric pianos, brass, etc. The touchscreen controls for the patches were fascinating, but not particularly intuitive. It was hard to see using it for sound design in its current incarnation. But it is a prototype with an estimated two years or more of development ahead, so we will see where things go.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the KAMI-OTO, a small cardboard based keyboard controller to use with iPads. It is a simple cardboard cutout that folds around a simple electronic main board and includes a stand for your tablet. There are wired and Bluetooth models that go for $28 and $36, respectively via the company’s Kickstarter campaign.
We did have a chance to try it out. It is adorable, and it does look like a fun and simple DIY project to assemble. And there is some delight in being able to decorate it in whatever manner one desires. As a keyboard, however, the latency was extremely high, which would render it less than usable for us in a performance setting. Nonetheless, for composing on the run, it could come in handy.
More info about both products can be found at https://www.yudo.jp/en/.
We at CatSynth have a soft spot for the Mellotron, the electro-mechanical precursor to digital samplers made famous in recordings by the Beatles – remember the opening flute riff from “Strawberry Fields” – as well as King Crimson, and many others. We have used sounds from the Mellotron in our own music and in collaborations with Vacuum Tree Head. So was a treat to visit the Mellotron booth at NAMM and see versions both old and new. We featured them in a recent CatSynth TV. It is particularly interesting to see the inside of the vintage Mk2 in action.
The Mellotrons (and their predecessor, the Chamberlain) generate sound by passing a tape head over a strip of magnetic tape for a particular pressed key. The sound is determined by the tape, the speed of the head, and other idiosyncratic factors of the instrument. Although originally intended as home/parlor instruments, they found a place in the rock albums of the 1960s and 1970s before falling out of favor for digital samplers. They were heavy, temperamental, and difficult to maintain. But Mellotrons have had a bit of a revival in the early 21st century with a reissue of the electromechanical version as the Mellotron M4000 and its all-digital counterpart, the M4000D. Most recently, the new Mellotron line has been extended with the M4000D Micro.
[Mellotron M4000D Micro]
The Micro has most of the features of the larger digital Mellotrons, including a large library of samples from original Mellotron and Chamberlain tapes. Two different “tapes” can be loaded at once and blended with a mixer control. It has speed and tone controls, and a post-sample audio engine that adds some of the non-linear characteristics of the originals. The Micro is an attractive size (and at $990 is the least expensive) for those who want a playable portable version of the celebrated instrument. There are less expensive ways to get some of the sounds – we have the Mellotron XL app for iOS that has been sanctioned by the company, but it doesn’t have MIDI support they way the standalone instruments do. Good patches can be found in the Nord Sample Library (see our recent Nord article) as well as older instruments such as the trusty E-MU Vintage Pro that we use at CatSynth HQ. But the M4000D series is the closest one can find digitally to the original – if that is important to one’s music, these instruments are worth checking out.
We resume of coverage of the 2018 NAMM Show after a few days break – and a nasty bout of “NAMMthrax” – with the latest spin on an old favorite: the Nord Electro 6.
Longtime readers know that I have been a user of Nord keyboards since I got my trusty Nord Stage EX back in 2010. It has served me well, but have sometimes been envious of the features in subsequent generations, notably the expandable Piano Library and Sample Library (the original Stage does not support the sample library at all). With the Electro 6, the separation from the Stage line is much more blurred, and it calls into question the need for a Stage at all for those of us who fell in love with Nord keyboards for their electric pianos. The Electro 6 supports up to 3 layers and splits (something previously limited to the Stage). The electric piano (and acoustic piano) section is enhanced with new layering features and its own filter section that allows one to dial in different tones within a particular model. And the piano library is expandable with 1GB of memory. The organ section uses the C2D engine, and a rock organ is quite handy in a variety of situations. The sample library allows for classic Mellotron sounds as well as a variety of others. The one section from the Stage that is missing is the independent A1 synth (similar to the Lead). Personally, it is the section I use the least, so I wouldn’t miss it if I moved over to the Electro. Plus, this model would be a little bit easier to schlep back and forth to gigs.
The Electro 6 comes in three models: 61-key and 73-key semi-weighted with mechanical organ drawbars; and the “HP” version with 73 fully weighted keys and LED drawbars. As a pianist, the latter would be my preference.
If you are already fortunate enough to have an Electro 4 or 5, the 6 probably won’t be a big enough change to warrant an upgrade, especially at the high prices these instruments command. But if one has been waiting eight years, it might be the time…
We would be remiss if we didn’t visit the Korg booth at NAMM, especially as Waldorf was there as well. We took some quick peeks at some of the new offerings, which you can see in this video.
The Korg Prologue synthesizer was among the most hyped instruments leading up to NAMM, so we of course had to check it out.
It is quite pretty, with a sleek black front panel and wooden side panels. The analog synth was not that exciting to us, as we at CatSynth are rather spoiled by the offerings of Dave Smith Instruments such as the Rev2 or Prophet 6. And it doesn’t fill the niche of the Minilogue as an affordable polyphonic analog synthesizer. What intrigues us is the open architecture for the digital oscillators that will allow advanced users to add their own programs. At NAMM, it is difficult to impossible to explore this, but we look forward to learning more about in the future.
By contrast, the Waldorf STVC string synthesizer and vocoder was fun to play and sounded great on our first test. The vocoder played more smoothly with my voice than the Roland VP-03 that I frequently use (including in the opening for CatSynth TV). But it does require dialing in the exact right patch for one’s voice. When we returned to the booth to record our video segment, it took a while to find something that worked, and it wasn’t quite as good as that first time. But we know this is part of the deal with vocoders, and they require practice to play well.
We visited our friends at Rossum Electro-Music at NAMM and were treated to an in-depth demonstration of their Assimil8or module by Marco Alpert.
We are grateful to Marco for his demonstration, not just because it made our video awesome, but because it helped better understand what is a complex module. The Assimil8or is a sample engine with many of the features one found in classic E-MU samplers, and more (Dave Rossum being the mastermind behind E-MU’s popular instruments). One particularly intriguing advance was the timed switching among samples, which allows one to move between different tracks seamlessly while remaining in time (the Cars example in the video demonstrates this quite well). There is also “virtual tape-scrubbing” of audio. Of course, everything is CV controllable.
Combining the Assimil8or with the Morpheus module (which we at CatSynth own and enjoy) and the Control Forge, one can assemble something akin to an E-MU sampler on steroids, with vastly more complex and rich control options, including at audio rate! Even the Morpheus on its own is rather overwhelming, but having seen the modules in action by the folks who made gives us ideas on how to use it better. We look forward to more experiments with these modules from Rossum Electro-Music!
More info can be found at http://www.rossum-electro.com.
(Disclosure: Amanda Chaudhary of CatSynth used to work for E-MU Systems, several of whose principals are now at Rossum Electro-Music.)