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.
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.)
One of our first stops at NAMM 2018 was to visit our friends at Qu-Bit Electronix to see what they are up to. They have three new modules, Synapse, Nebulae MK2, and Scanned. We had a chance to try them out for ourselves – you can see a bit of our experience in this video.
We at CatSynth own and enjoy using the original Nebulae module, but the MK2 is a significant improvement, with more versatile and expressive controls for pitch, speed, and granularity (rate, window, etc.). The main speed button traverses quite a range both forward and backward, and features a quick reset to unity by pressing. Similar functionality is available with the pitch button. The granularity features go beyond the original, including the ability to freeze the sound in place to create a steady timbre from any section of a recording.
The Scanned module is perhaps the first hardware implementation of scanned synthesis technique pioneered by Max Matthews and others. The simplest way to describe it is as a system that provides the control of a struck or plucked string, but with a far greater range of sound than a vibrating string, such as any wavetable source. The module has independent controls for pluck, tension, and many more parameters, of course all individually controlled via CV. With pitch and gate input, it becomes the starting block for a rich modular instrument.
Although not included in the video demo, the Synapse is an interesting and handy module for mixing, switching, and otherwise routing a variety of CV sources to various destinations all from a single module. It makes your CV sources more like a mixer with cross-fades and such.
It’s always fun to check in with Qu-Bit, and we look forward to seeing more of these modules.
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.
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…
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!
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.