Thursday, March 1, 2012

Akai MiniAK Review

The Akai MiniAK is a budget VA synth. For some people, “budget VA synth” is the musical instrument equivalent of the bubonic plague. For others, such as those of us on a budget, we have to get by with what we can get. And, in this price range, there are basically four new synths to choose from: the Novation Xio25, the MicroKorg, the Roland Gaia, and the MiniAK. I’ve only had limited exposure to the MicroKorg & Gaia, so I’ll try to not stick my foot in my mouth. Still, I’m going out on a limb right from the start: the Akai MiniAK is the best of this group. So, now that I’ve established my position, I better defend it.

Sound: You have a wealth of choices. Two aspects separate the MiniAK from the rest of the pack, the modulation matrix capabilities and the filters. The Mod Matrix is versatile: one full page in the manual for sources, two pages for destinations: endless hours of fun to be had here. Sonically then, the other three VAs cannot come close to the programming possibilities offered by the MiniAK. Then, you have 21 filter options (you can use two in series), including Oberheim, Moog, Arp and Roland (303 & Jupiter8) emulations. Now, how well the MiniAK emulates the different filters it tries to mimic is irrelevant - what does matter is that each of these filters has its own distinct characteristics. Also, you can go nuts with your filter combinations and create unique/bizarre sounds. On the other hand, you can recreate classic sounds (fine, you won’t fool a Minimoog owner, but you can create better sounding patches than Arturia’s Minimoog emulation), and if you join the Yahoo Ion/Micron Group, you’ll find some exceptional Polymoog patches that will have you playing Gary Numan covers all night.

So, what does it actually sound like? Well, the MiniAK excels at basses and pads. I’m getting close to vintage 70s Tangerine Dream / Klaus Shultze sounds out of the MiniAK (an unexpected yet pleasant surprise). At the same time, it will do contemporary; at least judging from the presets that I subsequently deleted because I personally can’t stand 303 Acid lines and such. I’ve read some complaints that the MiniAK sounds flat, and to a small degree it does, but since I’ve started running it through a Hardwire Delay, flatness is no longer an issue. On the other hand, I’ve yet to hear undying praise for the sound of a Xio, MicroKorg, or Gaia. Hell, people complain about Nords that cost twice as much as these synths. Some people don’t even like Moogs, so what can you do?

Ease of Use: This is where the MiniAK loses ground. Those who hate menu diving will hate the MiniAK. Mind you, those who hate menu diving typically appear to be those who can afford more knobby/slider synths, and many of these folks still don’t care much for the Gaia, so it really is a no-win situation.

Anyway, one of the biggest complaints about the MiniAK is its lack of USB. Furthermore, Akai really missed the boat by not coming out with its own editing software. For some people, this is a deal breaker. For me, programming through the keyhole isn’t that much of a big deal once you get used to it (which in my case wasn’t very long), especially since the rewards can be so great. However, because of its programming layout, I wouldn’t recommend the MiniAK for a total noobie, which helps explain why the MicroKorg is on its way to becoming / already is the best selling synth ever. And yes, the Xio has knobs, but they have the tendency to come off in your hand (more on that later). Also, I can’t stand the MiniAK’s arpeggio – why did they have to make something so standard into such a pain in the ass? Another bit of weirdness is the fact that when you write a sequence, no matter which notes you write, the first note will always be C, regardless of where you play it: if you write a G-A-D sequence and then play a G, it will be a C: you have to transpose your sequence before you write it so that the first note is C. Not a big deal if you know before hand. So, now you know.

A question that came up regarding an earlier post was can the MiniAK hold a chord. Yes, it can in two different ways. First, patches in the Comp bank are somehow different than patches in other banks in that they will arp latch, and yes, you can use them to hold chords. If that doesn’t work, set up a single note sequence (assuming that the patch has a long enough sustain) and latch that.

Versatility: This is the main reason why I own a MiniAK. In Multi (performance) mode, you can perform a 4-track (drums, bass sequence, pad, & lead) song. Not that you were likely to, but 8-note polyphony allows for serious jamming fun. Anyway, setting up splits is dead easy – splits, you know, something you can’t do on a Xio, MicroKorg or a Gaia (although it is possible on the MicroKorg XL and the much-maligned SH-201). Also, parts One and Two of the Multi receive on midi channels 1 and 2, so they can be used with an external sequencer (in my case, an Electribe EA MKII). For a typical song, I’ll have three different sounds mapped across the keyboard: bass and pad/counter melody sequenced in the Tribe, plus a lead or arp/sequence. The MiniAK has allowed me to expand my sound considerably: its Multi Mode leaves the other three dead in the water.

Construction: Simply, the MiniAK is built like a tank. If you dropped a MiniAK on a glass table, the table would shatter. If you dropped a Xio on a glass table, the Xio would shatter. Furthermore, you could use the MiniAK's vocoder mic to beat someone to death - try doing that with a MicroKorg mic. Also, I still refuse to deal with the MicroKorg’s mini keys, never mind its horrible colour scheme. I’m still divided about the Gaia – just seems too plasticky, like something will break off of it if you looked at it too hard.

Conclusion: The MiniAK is niche synth – a serious VA for those who can’t afford a more serious VA/Analogue/etc. Yet, I can safely say that it would be a decent addition to anybody’s (live) set-up. Akai has already discontinued the MiniAK, so prices have dropped dramatically. Get one while you can.

March 6 Edit
A couple of things I discovered last night.

The Bad: I’ve long wondered why patches sound different when they are used in the Multi Mode. Now I know: the patch’s effects do not transfer over to the Multi Mode. You have to set the same FX parameters in the Multi Mode to get the same sound. Problem is, if you have different patches that have very different FX assigned to them, something will suffer. The Manual says nothing about this: rather annoying.

The Good: Create three or more sequences with slight variations, using the same sound. In Multi Mode, split the keyboard for each sequence C>B (or as you see fit), so you have:
Seq 1: C0>B0, Seq 2: C1>B1, Seq 3:C2>B2, etc.
Now, transpose Seq 1 up two octaves, Seq 2 up one octave, leave Seq 3 alone.  Go nuts.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

New EP: The Future is Cold


Thursday, December 8, 2011

In Praise of Delia Derbyshire, Pink Floyd and Krautrock

In 1963, the music world changed. I don’t mean with the release of “She Loves You,” the breakthrough single by The Beatles. No, what transformed everything was the “Doctor Who Theme”, written by Ron Grainer and realized by Delia Derbyshire. Delia’s work on the theme represents a seismic musical shift, in that she took electronica out of the confines of academia and brought it into peoples’ homes. As important, the theme had elements that had been noticeably missing from electronic music up to that point: rhythm and melody. In other words, an actual “song” that people could relate to. Sure, Stockhausen, Schaeffer and others were hugely influential at the time, but you can’t actually hum along to one of their tunes. Experimental and avant-garde music have a place, but most of us do not listen to music while stroking our beards and nodding approvingly through clouds of pipe smoke at the use of:

(1) a scale of twelve tempos analogous to the chromatic pitch scale, (2) a technique of building progressively smaller, integral subdivisions over a basic (fundamental) duration, analogous to the overtone series, (3) musical application of the concept of the partial field (time fields and field sizes) in both successive and simultaneous proportions, (4) methods of projecting large-scale form from a series of proportions, (5) the concept of "statistical" composition, (6) the concept of "action duration" and the associated "variable form", and (7) the notion of the "directionless temporal field" and with it, "polyvalent form" (Stockhausen Texte 1:99–139).

(If anyone can translate this into a comprehensible form of English, I would be appreciative.)

Now we have a song. Unfortunately, for many, there were limited means to create anything similar because commercial synthesizers were still in their infancy. So, it is back to playing with conventional instruments. However, as the Sixties progressed, a number of groups began to use conventional instruments to create unconventional music. Of these, one group in particular provides the vital link between Delia and Krautrock: Pink Floyd. For those of you unfamiliar with early Floyd, start from album 1 of Ummagumma and work backwards. Then listen to Tangerine Dream’s Electronic Meditations (the first album to emerge from the Berlin underground). Actually, don’t, because at this point TD sounds like a third-rate Pink Floyd cover band. As further evidence, Mason’s drumming on “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” gets lifted almost in its entirety by Chris Franke on Atem and Part 1 of Ricochet.

Furthermore, two Floyd songs lay the groundwork for what will become an essential part of the Berlin School. The first of these is “One of These Days” (Meddle, 1971), which not only borrows heavily from the Dr. Who theme for the bassline, but also directly quotes from theme at several points  The second is “On the Run” (Dark Side of the Moon, 1973), probably the first song to be sequenced using a VCS3, more specifically the AKS. Conveniently enough, the first ever VCS3 was used by Delia, who was a good friend of Peter Zinovieff, the creator of EMS. The VCS3 was the first relatively cheap (retailed for £330 in 1969, but don’t look at the prices the originals command today unless you are prepared for the ensuing heart attack) commercial synthesizer: not surprisingly, it shows up most electronic Krautrock records from the early 70s.

These two Floyd songs are proto-Berlin School: simple, repetitive sequences over-laid with soloing. However, these Floyd songs and early Berlin School all lack that vital element that made the “Doctor Who Theme” memorable: melody. We had music, but we still didn’t have tuneful songs. What was needed was marriage between sequencing and melody; or, perhaps, melodic sequencing. What we needed was Kraftwerk’s masterful “Europe Endless” (Trans Europe Express, 1977). Granted, by 1977, the technology to achieve such beauty was finally available: the synth revolution had, by this time, started to gain ground. Yet, synth music was still a novelty on the Pop Charts. Gary Wright’s Moog-heavy Dream Weaver reached #2 on the charts in 1976, but, in essence, the songs were just conventional pop that featured synths: it wasn’t synth-driven pop. Explains why Gary Wright is hardly ever referred to as a synth pioneer. On the other hand, every keyboard player from the first generation of British synth-pop was a Kraftwerk fan.

Before being accused of narrow-mindedness, another song from 1977 needs mention, and who better to describe it than David Bowie:

"One day in Berlin ... Eno came running in and said, 'I have heard the sound of the future.' ... he puts on 'I Feel Love', by Donna Summer ... He said, 'This is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next fifteen years.' Which was more or less right."

Giorgio Moroder, conveniently for this conversion, started his music career in Berlin.

Bless you, Delia.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Progress Report: Or, A Guide to Creating a Budget Synth Studio in Istanbul

Months have past since the last post for one good reason: I've been playing music instead of talking about it. As you can see, much has been added. Someone in a Gearslutz thread said that VSTs are a gateway drug to hardware synths. I couldn't agree more. I love the way they feel, look and sound. Besides, I spend all day at work staring at a computer monitor - I no longer want to do the same in the evening.

The purchase of the Roland Juno-Di in January touched off a spark: specifically, the Di's arpeggiator. I don't know if there is a ranking of the synth world's slowest arps, but the Juno-Di would likely be near the top of such a list: 1/4 notes at 5 BPM. One and a quarter beats per minute. So, you may well ask, how could this be of any use? Well, drone lovers and those with an affinity for slowly evolving pads, the Juno-Di is your dream machine. Find a suitable sound (not particularly difficult), pick from any of the over 100 sequence patterns, play a chord, adjust the attack and release until the notes blend into each other, turn the arp speed down and latch it, and you are in ambient paradise. For sonic doubleplusgoodness, the Juno-Di is midied out to the Roland JV-1080 (in Performance mode), with two parts (at the moment, using the same patch for each part, but further experimentation lies ahead) panned hard left/right, one channel an octave higher or lower, one or both detuned to taste.

Things Not In the Manual 1: In performance mode, the lower split of the Juno-Di transmits on midi channel 2, the upper split on channel 1.

...and while I'm here...

Things Not In the Manual 2: To delete a Juno-Di user performance, save it with no name.

For about 6 months, I worked with a combination of hard and software. Also went on something of a effect pedal buying spree. But most importantly, I started seriously listening to early Krautrock. Here, I found kindred spirits and a sense of direction. For electronic music, the Germans did it first and they did it best.

In July, my sisters arrived from Canada, bearing the Korg Electribe EA MKII, the Boss Dr. Rhythm DR-3 (granted, not the most interesting of drum machines, but capable and user reviews are generally positive) and the FM3 Buddha Machine 2 (finally, a cheap noise toy that makes something more than an annoying buzz, and with a better effort-to-result ratio than the Monotron). Conveniently, my mother had sent with my sisters $500 CDN in birthday money - a sum that covered the price of the gear. Happy Birthday to me. Getting the EA MKII was another turning point. First, any VST sequences/arps I had been using got transcibed into the EA MKII, taking the computer out of the mix. Second, any sequences/arps I had been using on the Xio or the Juno-Di got transcibed into the EA MKII, freeing them up to make more interesting sounds (see above).

Electribe Aside 1: I am glad I purchased this without first listening to it - Laura got it from e-Bay months before I received it. The presets on the EA MKII are, to put it politely, completely useless to me (I've kept only one). Also, it is not easy to get a truly decent sound (as in, something that doesn't sound like a third rate TB-303) out of the thing - useable patches have often been the result a lucky tweak. This is less of a problem now, as I'll discuss after. On the other hand, it is dead easy to sequence and it has something of great value: a start button. The EA MKII now functions as the command centre: midi-out to the Akai Miniak, midi-through the Miniak to the DR-3. Rhythm section perfectly in sync, which brings me to...

(Rant on) The biggest problem with the Xio is that it doesn't play well with others. It is impossible to tempo sync it with any other hardware synth (confirmed through e-mails with the Novation tech department). There is NO MIDI IN. Midi out will not sync with other devices. USB is useless. And this sucks, because one of the great things about the Xio is its arp: I've gotten wonderfully TD-like sequences out of the Xio which are often useless to me because I CAN'T SYNC THE DAMN THING with any of my other gear. (Rant off)

Things Not In the Manual 3: With the Xio in the "as played" arp mode, hold the first note, quickly hit the second and third notes a couple of times before you hit the fourth note, as in (1 - 2 - 3 - 2 - 3 - 4) or (1 - 2 - 3 - 2 - 3 - 2 - 3 - 4). With a square-based bass patch and the proper delay, you'll soon be Ricocheting across the Rubicon.

Things Not In the Manual 4: The Behringer XENYX 1002 is sold as a 10 input mixer. However, you can easily add two inputs by using the CD/Tape RCA input - simply push the CD/Tape to Mix button in. Only downside is that you have to control the volume at the source. As the DR-3 also has RCA jacks, I have it plugged in to CD/Tape when using unprocessed drums (see below).

Akai Miniak vs. Yamaha DX-7: The Miniak came about three months ago from Lafa Muzik after the sale of my old Ovation acoustic (took over a year to find a buyer, hated to see it go after owning it for close to 25 years, but I just didn't play it much anymore, so I hope it is now getting the love and attention it deserves). From the reviews and Youtube vids, it was clear that considering what was available in Istanbul for the money (there aren't a wealth of options here anyway), the Miniak was the best choice. As I had bought the Xio at Lafa and been stopping in occasionally to say hi and take a look, they sold it to me tax free, which saved about $100.  Now, some knowledgable readers may be disturbed to hear that I choose an Akai Miniak over a Yamaha DX-7 (which had been sitting in Lafa being ignored for months). However, in terms of practical functions (especially in Multi mode), the Miniak blows away the DX-7. The way I'm working involves having everything creating as many textures as possible in real time. I need a synth that is conducive to the way I work, not an old, slightly beat up, notoriously difficult to program synth famous for its electric pianos and bells (two sounds that I typically avoid).

As I said above, the Miniak is midied to the EA MKII: in Multi mode, Miniak Part One receives Part One/Midi Channel One from the EA MKII: this is the bass sequence. Part Two receives Part Two/Midi Channel Two from the EA MKII: this sequence depends on the song. And, I can still add a number of Multi parts on the Miniak, such as sequences/arps, pads, lead, and drums. Dead easy to split and arrange the keyboard.

Electribe Aside 2: Volume from Part One of the EA MKII is zero or minimal, and I may eventually use that jack on the mixer for something else. EA MKII Part Two is usually balanced in the opposite channel to Miniak Part Two and run through a Boss HR-2 Harmonist (octave down/detune), a Nux PH2 Phaser (I had never heard of Nux either before I bought the pedal, but it ain't half bad), a Digitech X Series Turbo Flange (some truly wacked settings available on this, including "Step", which is essentially sample & hold), and a Boss DD-3 Digital Delay.

Things Not In the Manual 5: In an effort to dirty up the Boss Dr. Rhythm DR-3, I've started running it through the Miniak's filters (there are a number of Ext In presets in the Vocoder/FX Bank on the Miniak, find something close and start tweaking - it is worth it). However, if you do this, you may experience a substantial stereo-separation loss: not a big deal with a kick/snare/hat pattern, but anything with panned toms is seriously affected. I will continue to experiment and hopefully find a solution, but until then, any pattern using toms has to played clean (see above).

Things Not In the Manual 6 (this was unlikely to appear in the manual, but anyway...): When duplicating a Arturia Minimoog patch on the Miniak, you'll get fairly accurate results if you open the Miniak filter about 150-200 Hz more than the Arturia setting, while cutting back on the resonance and envelope/contour amount. A little time consuming, but a great source for bass patches, and I even closely copied two of the pads Klaus Schulze programmed for Arturia - like having a private lesson with the master.

Two weeks ago, I added my classic synth to the set-up: the Roland JV-1080. And found it at a price that is closer to generally accepted market value, not inflated Istanbul value. Yes, many of the presets are dated. (Dear Roland, please let users delete your precious presets. Thank you.) However, for creating ambient pads, this is a beast. The JV-1080 had also been sitting in Lafa being ignored for months: it was literally in the corner with a few other rack units, with other gear in front of it obscuring the view, and the guy I deal with had forgotten it was there - I had to show him it existed on their website. Now, the fun part: I used a  Microkorg to play the JV-1080 in the store (it was just sitting right there, and fit on top of the Roland.) Now, I'd only previously played a Microkorg briefly once, before I had anything to properly compare it to and I must say that the keyboard on the Microkorg is something I would rather not touch again. The vocoder mic is also somthing of a joke: you could use the Miniak's mic to beat someone to death; you could possibly use the Microkorg's mic to strangle someone. And ugly. How a synth with wooden ends could be so hideous to look at is a mystery to me (actually, I think it is the beige/green combination that puts me off).

A note on gear shopping in Istanbul: The music stores I generally deal with here are privately owned, not part of a franchise chain: the people there are always there, with minimal staff turnover. So, they tend to remember you after your first purchase, especially if you are a foreigner and natural blonde (not many blonde men in this city; not many natural blondes in this city either). The secret is to be a repeat customer, and you'll often get better deals on subsequent purchases. The JV-1080 was listed for $300. I got it for $250 without even trying to haggle.

Things Not In the Manual 7: Despite the 15 year age difference between them, two of the Jupiter 8 string patches on the Juno-Di are identical to those on the JV-1080.

That's enough. Time to get back to playing.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Gakken SX-150 Review: Taming the Beast

(Editor's Note: I finally deleted my Myspace accounts, but I wanted to save this review. So, you're getting a recycled post instead of something new. I've been busy learning the Juno and falling in love again with the Xio.)

When I accidentally discovered the SX-150 in late summer, 2010, I felt compelled to own this handful of cheap analogue goodness. The first thing you notice is the size: yes, it really is a handful, and not much more. (Note: I wrote that sentence before my Monotron arrived). The DIY part of the project takes about 15 minutes and fills you with the vague satisfaction that you have understood some Japanese. (Yes, they still ship it with the magazine). And you also have now created an analogue synth: a cheap, plastic synth that you play with a stylus smaller than an IKEA pencil. Oddly enough, the SX-150 is also capable of creating some very lovable low end. What you’ve got sounds good, but is a pain in the palm to play in a meaningful way.

I doubt that anyone has that has owned a SX-150 for more than a week has left it stock. Much of what has been written about the SX-150 concerns modifying it in order to impose some control over what notes you play, taming the beast using whatever means available. Indeed, the SX-150’s popularity appears to be directly related to how easily it can be modded / hacked. Honestly, some of these mods (especially the midi mods) are way beyond me, but then I have trouble telling the difference between a circuit board and a billboard. At the same time, some mods cost more than the SX-150 itself, which seems a little self-defeating. Most SX-150 owners have probably seen the Novation BassStation sequencing video ( However, it has also been pointed out that it is a little silly to have a $400 piece of gear driving a $40 synth. Still, the BassStation video demonstrates best what needs to be done with a SX-150: plug it in to whatever you’ve got, or plug whatever you’ve got into it: I plug it into a SansAmp GT2, crank the bass and get an amazing tone. With the Monotron and the Punk Cosole, you have the Poor Man's Modular. Connecting the PMM to the Electribe promises to be great fun.

My Mods

As you can see from the photo, I haven’t done much: the main thing was removing the original speaker, which really should be the first mod everyone makes to their SX-150 – it is a piece of crap that does not do the synth justice. With the extra space, I was able to install a ¼” jack (which is a much hotter signal than the stock 1/8”) and The Big Black Knob.

i. Terminal A to the left of the ribbon
ii. Terminal B to the stylus connection
iii. Terminal C to the right of the ribbon

- Don’t have to play with the stylus: instantly less geeky
- Can set a note & leave it: drone, excellent with tremolo or flange
- You get to play with a Big Black Knob

- Sound is constant, thus making Attack and Decay redundant. And as the Pitch envelope barely works and the Cutoff only works from 12:00 to 5:00, you are really only left with the LFO Rate/wave to shape the sound. However, if you ask me, that is enough: get the LFO and the pulse-wave working together and you’ll understand.

I promised myself not to cover this synth in stickers, but I really messed up the resonance switch hole: I wanted to replace the switch with a pot, but while trying to remove the switch (which was solidly soldered in place) I made a right mess of the circuit board and had to abandon the idea. However, I had already made the hole big enough for the pot, so I had to cover it up somehow, and if you have an eight-year-old daughter, Hello Kitty stickers are easily available.  


Monday, January 10, 2011

Roland Juno Di Review (OR: How I released my GAS )

(Editor's note: this review was written after only two days of ownership. Please forgive the over-exuberance.)

Price (new): $820 US, tax included, from Zuhal Müzik, Istanbul.

Well, that was quick.
1. Does it do something that you can’t do now? __Yes__
2. Does it have lots of flashing lights and knobs and/or sliders to play with? __No__
3. Can you afford it? __Yes__

Buying the Juno-Di was a new experience for me: I actually planned this purchase. I read the manual and reviews before buying it. I was even ready to compare it with another similarly priced keyboard. I really did try to use my head. In the end, though, it was the same old story: I followed my heart and my ears.

The Juno-Di is a hybrid: it is loaded with presets like a home/school keyboard, but all parameters can be edited like a real synth. Apparently, Roland is trying to cut into Yamaha’s profitable home/school market, while at the same creating an affordable board for gear heads. You’ve never heard me say this before, and may never hear it again, but this my kind of “Middle of the Road.”

Where to start? From the top left, of course. Under that little door is one of the features that first got my attention: the USB memory port. Think of it as bringing the concept of midi files on floppy discs (remember those) into the 21st century. In typical Roland fashion, they don’t include a USB device, but this is hardly a deal breaker. Anyway, you can load wav, mp3, or midi files onto your flash, and access the files with the very easy to use song player on the right hand side. Everything comes up on the huge LCD screen. This set-up is brilliant, and certainly a huge step up from plugging an mp3 player into an external source jack. The sound quality of the playback is excellent, with no coloration from the Juno. So, basically, you can have the backing tracks at your finger tips. Doubleplusgood. Don’t be surprised if you start seeing this feature become commonplace.

Moving along, we come to the D-Beam. Meh. Cool for about 30 seconds. If I want a Theremin, I’ll buy a Theremin.

Next, the volume. Self-explanatory. What is handy, however, is that with a quick global edit, you can increase the output by 12db.

Mode/Mic: Haven’t even touched the Midi controller or Preview buttons yet, though I guess they do something. The Menu button, however, let’s you do all kinds of wonderful things. Well, actually, it only allows you to see the Menu, and then you can do all kinds of wonderful things. Trust me, we’d be here all day if I started listing all you could do. But this is one of those points that sets the Juno on a higher level than a home/school keyboard – the Menu is so gear heads can go nuts.

Unlike the volume level, you can’t adjust the global level of the Mic. However, it does have its own dedicated reverb.

Ahhhh, the Keyboard section. Lovely bits here. Especially those top three buttons: Split, Dual, & Super Layer. Split does what you think it does – splits the keyboard. Simply pressing the button automatically assigns the split at keyboard C3. However, you can also easily assign your own split by holding the Split button and pressing any key on the board. May not sound like much, but I’m impressed.

Confession: when trying this out in the store, the Dual was THE BUTTON that pushed me over the edge. Dual, here, means layer, or two sounds at the same time. Okay, fine, we have a 20-year-old Yamaha PSR-38 at home that can do the same thing, big deal. BUT, we are truly into tons of fun territory here. Let us take a brief detour, and consider some sounds. More specifically, some synth sounds. Oh look, a saw preset. And over there, a square preset. Gee, wonder what they sound like together. A familiar scenario? Yep, basically a two oscillator synth. And yes, you can adjust the levels of the two layers/oscillators.

Super Layer is a fancy name for unison detune. You can stack up to five layers of the same sound and detune to your hearts content. Clearly designed for gear heads. Unfortunately, you can’t use Dual and Super Layer at the same time, but you can’t have everything (at least, not in this price range).

The Arpeggio requires some Menu work to get the most out of it, but it is nothing special. Chord Memory I haven’t bothered with, and the V-Link (to control video/images from the keyboard) requires another investment I’m not ready to make. Transpose, Octave, self-explanatory. 

The poor next section, it didn’t even get a name. Battery indicator – you can run it on batteries for your next techno busking gig. Numeric – something to do with numbers, haven’t been bothered yet. Favorite – oh, yes please. Okay, I haven’t mentioned this yet, but now is the time to get a little fact out of the way: the Juno-Di has over 1200 sounds. Naturally, there are hundreds of these sounds that I will listen to once and never want to hear again (most of the natural sounding Brass immediately come to mind). However, that still leaves several hundred more that I will want to use at some point. And, like all lazy bastards, there are some that I will want to use again and again. Favorite lets you organize up to 127 of your, well, favorites.

The Middle: good bits here too. First, big thumbs up on the LCD screen. Big, bright, legible, the only negative thing I can say about it is that it is orange (a hideous color). The Dial is even better, mostly because it is black.

Under the screen are the Banks: Rhythm, Piano, Organ/Keyboards, Guitar/Bass, Orchestra, World, Brass, Vocal/Pad, & Synth. Again, I could spend all day here, but I won’t. Suffice to say, if you can’t find something useful among all these sounds, you probably already own higher-end gear. Personally, I wanted the Juno to replace the computer/VSTs while playing. So, I was mostly looking at the Vocals (See my previous Mellotron post), Pads, and Strings, all of which are of a high quality, though not always particularly useful (the Vocal bank starts with two Jazz scats – why?).

In the Vocal Bank you will also find three vocoder settings – the other is in the MFX section which I haven’t fully explored. As someone with a severe Kraftwerk obsession, I have wanted a vocoder for ages. Now, this is one area where the Juno is kicking competitor butt. Forget about the e-Bay price, in Istanbul a Microkorg will cost you 1000 TL / $630 US. The new Mini AK by Akai/Alesis is 1200 TL / $755 US. So, to get a vocoder, I could by something with miniature keys – no, if I want to play miniature keys, I’ll get out my Casio VL-Tone or my Monotron. Or, I could by something that wants to be a Novation Xio 25 – no, got one already that I’m madly in love with. Or, I could buy something that costs a little more and get 61 keys and tons of features. Bit of a no-brainer.

The next no-name section is where you do a lot of the Menu stuff, so I don’t know why the Menu button isn’t located there, but anyway. I haven’t written anything yet either, mostly because I am not sure what I’ll be over-writing, but I’ll get there soon enough. Looks easy.

I’ve already discussed the Song Player section, so let’s skip over to Sound Modify. Again, this is a point that sets the Juno on a higher level than a home/school keyboard. The Attack, Release, Cutoff and Resonance are all amazingly responsive – you almost want to sit there doing filter sweeps all afternoon. Okay, so there’s no decay or sustain – but you can’t have everything (at least, not in this price range). Déjà vu.

Moving down now, the Pitch/Mod wheel is alright – haven’t seen if you can modify its parameters, but I’ll keep looking. And the finally, the keyboard. Alright, so I’ve not played a lot of high-end boards, but it feels good to me – light, responsive, good sized keys. When discussing the keyboard velocity settings in the manual, you see how Roland is thinking about the home/school market:

"LIGHT: This sets the keyboard to a light touch. You can achieve fortissimo (ff) play with a less forceful touch than MEDIUM setting, so the keyboard feels lighter. This setting makes it easier for children, whose hands have less strength."

Roland is right – my nine-year-old daughter has no problems achieving fortissimo. She even knows what fortissimo means: comes from having a music teacher for a mother.

Right, that’s about it. Just a few more things:

a. You can plug in just about anything you need to in the back.
b. You can modify any parameter via the computer using the Juno-Di Editor provided by Roland.
c. Dude, it’s a Juno.


The Juno-Di is serious value for your money. Music Radar said it well when they called it “definitely one to check out if you're on a budget and need a workhorse keyboard.”

Friday, January 7, 2011

On the Causes and Effects of G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome)

A quick look at the Wikipedia article on G.A.S. revealed a shocking fact: I am a narrow-minded bigot. Really, I thought only musicians suffered from this condition. Although it only took seconds to say, “Yah, well, of course photographers too,” it took a few minutes to understand how fishing enthusiasts could have G.A.S. But then you have to consider that anyone willing to wake up in the middle of the night so he can go stand waist deep in water is insane enough to have will naturally develop G.A.S.

The Primary Cause of G.A.S.

No one, except the filthy rich, starts playing music with great gear. Instead, we typically begin with cheap pieces of crap: guitars with horrible intonation, M-Audio keyboards*, whatever. Because we start at the bottom and work our way up, musicians are, by definition, incredibly wonderful people. Now, as we begin to progress as musicians, we naturally start to think that we deserve better. So, we want to buy a better instrument, which, in our minds, will make us sound better. In these early stages, buying a better instrument will, nine times out of ten, actually make you sound better. Unless you are filthy rich, in which case you are forever cursed to sound like a third-rate Richard Clayderman.

However, the problem starts here: there is always a better instrument out there. And, even if the next instrument is not inherently better, it sounds different from what we currently own. Maybe it is a vintage classic. 

Maybe it is new and red. 
 Or blue. 

At the very least, it has lots of flashing lights and knobs and/or sliders to play with. 
(Editor’s note: the Gaia is causing serious G.A.S. pains these days, but is likely to lose out to a Juno-Di, which has some terribly appealing features).

Whatever the reason, we must own it. We deserve it. We even have a chart.

Dealing with G.A.S.

As was conclusively proven by the 1999 Nobel Prize winning research into the subject, the complete suppression of G.A.S. leads to spontaneous combustion. While this would be an awesome stage effect, it suffers from an extreme limitation: you can do it only once.

Now, there is a concept called hedonic adaptation. In general, hedonic adaptation refers to how people quickly become used to changes, great or terrible, in order to maintain a stable level of happiness. For consumers, hedonic adaptation means buying something new because they stopped getting pleasure from a previous purchase. It has been suggested that one way consumers can deal with hedonic adaptation is to buy many small pleasures instead of one big one. So, instead of buying a big new synth, you buy a Punk Console (which finally arrived after three months), a Monotron, a drum machine… Guess what – that doesn’t work. I want a new synth.

Questions that Need to be Addressed

A more detailed list of questions can be found HERE, but I believe it can be boiled down to the three basics:

1. Does it do something that you can’t do now?
2. Does it have lots of flashing lights and knobs and/or sliders to play with?
3. Can you afford it?

If you have answered yes to any two of these questions, get thee to a store immediately.

Shopping in Istanbul 

In one way, Istanbul is a very Asian city: in the Western world, a store that sells something would not open right beside a store that sells the exact same thing. I first noticed this while living in South Korea, where I would see strip malls that had only bridal shops. Across the road from where we live now, there are six pharmacies within 500 m. 

Now, this set-up isn't really helpful when buying medicine, because you don't need to compare prices. However, if you want to buy a new musical instrument in Istanbul, it is easier than looking on the Internet. Istanbullu know I am talking about Tünel. And yes, Tünel is the Turkish for tunnel. In this case, a tunnel built by the French in 1871 for what is possibly the world's shortest subway system - the tram goes it goes up the hill, and then it goes back down the hill. A one way trip takes 90 seconds. For this discussion, it is the top of the hill that matters because this is the home of Istanbul's music stores. Nice place, you really ought to visit. I'll be there sometime within the next two weeks, relieving my G.A.S. pains.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On Musicians and Depression

NOTE: The following was written in response to THIS POST on Waveformless, but the contents are based on observations and conversations.

The perceived wisdom that a true artist must feel pain is rubbish. It starts with the Van Gogh Myth - the poor, struggling, misunderstood artist who is posthumously recognized for his genius. Nine times out of ten, you are not misunderstood. Instead, you are not a genius and you wouldn't be poor and struggling if you were in a different line of work.

Next came the rock and roll / working class myth. For this, I blame the Americans, and, to a lesser degree, the British. The birth of this myth seems to coincide with the rising stardom of a former truck driver from Tupelo, Mississippi. The idea that rock music is for / a product of the working class and is therefore born out of a desperation sounds great if you are looking for street cred, (or writing a Springsteen song) but it conveniently overlooks the fact that some of the most influential bands ever (oh, just to pull a few names out of the air, like the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk) were formed when their members meet at university. Life does not have to be crushingly hard to create brilliant music, but the myth prevails.

Finally, rock music and its offshoots are firmly based upon the myth of manliness. Manliness, of course, has nothing but disdain for the weak. And, for many years, depression was seen as a sign of weakness.

The existence of these myths has meant that within the music community, people have been too slow to fully recognize depression as a medical condition. Now, I don't know what causes your depression. Me, I lived through several black years until I was diagnosed as a diabetic. However, I do know these myths have caused great damage to many people. Screw the myths, go see your doctor.

Monday, December 20, 2010

An Incomplete Guide to the Mellotron

(NOTE: Instead of embedding all the links in this post, there is simply a list at the end for the curious.)

Even if you don’t know what a Mellotron is, you’ve heard one. If you know what a Mellotron is, you probably want one. If you own a Mellotron, don't waste your time reading this.

How could something so lo-fi become such a classic? How could an instrument that included sounds recorded by the Lawrence Welk Orchestra be embraced by __________ (fill in the blank with the name of any worthwhile band from the past 45 years)? How could something musicians’ unions on both sides of the Atlantic objected to become something many musicians would kill love to own?

Let us start with the basics. This is a Melodica.
Not to be confused with a Mellotron (MK400 to be precise), which looks like this:
The birth of the Mellotron

In the late 40s, an American named Harry Chamberlin developed a mechanism that allowed a keyboard to playback short pieces of recorded tape (thus inventing sampling). The recordings were produced and supervised by Lawrence Welk in Harry Chamberlin's house: all Chamberlin recordings performed by members of the Lawrence Welk Orchestra in the late '40s and throughout the 1950s. In the early 60s, one of Chamberlin's salesmen, a rather unscrupulous fellow by the name of Bill Fransen, takes a Chamberlin keyboard to England where he claims to be the inventor and sells the idea to some unsuspecting Brits, namely the brothers Frank, Norm, and Lesley Bradley. Harry, who has had no idea where his salesman went, gets a phone call one day from the American distributors of a new British instrument called a Mellotron. I think we can all agree that Harry had every reason in the world to be pissed off. After a business chat with the brothers and a few choice words for his former salesman, Harry agrees to let the Bradleys produce the Mellotron. One of the conditions was that the Mellotron used the famous "3 violins" that was created in 1952 for the Chamberlin. This violin sound became the Mellotron's main sound used on much of the output of British Mellotron music beginning in the mid-1960s.

How a Mellotron Works - Give it a few seconds to load...

Mellotron Fun Facts

- Welk was impressed with Chamberlin's idea of a tape playback instrument and offered to fund its manufacture if it was called a "Welk" machine. Chamberlin refused Welk's offer.

- In 1975, Tangerine Dream had to pay a £2000 fine to the British Musician's Union in compensation to three chamber orchestras which they had allegedly made “redundant” with their Mellotron.

- Harry Chamberlin pulled one of his keyboards from production because of fears that he would upset the American Federation of Musicians.

- The choir sounds on Kraftwerk's Radioactivity and Trans Europe Express are NOT produced by a Mellotron, but instead by Orchestron, manufactured by Mattel. Yes, that Mattel, as in Barbie and Ken. The Orchestron attempted to remedy the instability of the Mellotron by using a disk instead of tape, but the instrument flopped and few were manufactured. Kraftwerk would later show their allegiance to Mattel products by using a Bee Gees Rhythm Machine on Computer World.

What a Mellotron Sounds Like (Or; We finally Get to the Purpose of this Post)

Here's where you get to have your fun: there are two free VSTs available that use actual Mellotron samples (sampling a sampler, how post-modern can you get?). First is the very excellent Redtron 400, available HERE. Unfortunately, for my Turkish friends, the link might bring up this familiar sight:

Google sites remain blocked by the main service provider in this country - I had to check the link at work to ensure it was still valid. Anyway, enough politics, the Redtron 400 looks like this…

…and it sounds even better. Clicking the On/Off switch brings you here…

…where you can mess with the sounds to your heart's content. For authenticity, don't click the LOOP buttons so the sound only plays for eight seconds. Likewise, go back to the first screen and put the ABC dial in-between any two of the letters and the sounds will overlap, just like the original. I can and have played this for hours. The quality of this VST is amazing.

Less amazing, definitely less versatile, but still quite functional when I need a more lo-fi Choir sound, is the Nanotron, which is available HERE.

Knowing that there are people out there who create and distribute instruments like these for free helps restore my faith in humanity.