Sunday, November 30, 2008

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Second Hand Sequence

I've got two songs on this great cover compilation.
The label is Bitkins and you may get the CDR or MP3s

I did covers of Springsteen's State Trooper, from the 1982 Nebraska album, and Captain Hook, a John Cale rarity from the live Sabotage album, 1979.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

What's Sarah Palin stance on analog gear again?

So, once upon a time there came analog synthesizers...

They were warm and funky, but they also ran on voltage-controlled leprechauns which made them unpredictable and generally prone to detune like if there was nothing that would make them happier than watching you hit your head on the floor in disgust after an afternoon spent trying to record a 4 parts harmony with a constantly drifting monophonic Arp Soloist (which incidentally caused Donald Fagen from Steely Dan to throw the instrument down the studio stairs and kick it viciously before setting it on fire).

Some were big, and I mean suspiciously big, and you could contact aliens with them.
(Young Mister Spielberg fiddles with an Arp 2500 synthesizer)

Others had funny names, like Multimoog.

After a while, the musicians got bored with the analogness and craved for new sounds and synths that wouldn't humiliate you in the middle of a lifetime's keyboard solo by going totally out of tune, Schönberg-style. The mere idea of an analog oscillator made them cry, at that point.

The new instruments had crazy names like D50, M1, or EPS.
They looked clean and slick and mysterious and Japanese.

They had microprocessors and digital thingies that would magically produce sounds out of ones and zeroes.

You could do a whole bunch of nice sounds you couldn't do before, but they also sounded stiffer, and thinner, and stiffer again. Oh, they were stiff all right.

Then the musicians got bored again and wanted some sort of X-Filesque hybrids, without the suffocating green blood, but with some analog character. Virtuality was big in those days, so the new instruments were virtual analog...

Some were hardware and some were software, but they were all digital synths dressed in their analog brothers' clothes.

Then the real analog synthesizers came back as well, with new models and spacey names, like Andromeda.

The circle was full and that sort of things.

But now we ask ourselves, is virtual that virtual? Is reality really real? Is Sarah Palin really real, for that matter?
Here's what I think :

1) You can do good music with virtual analog and bad music with real analog
2) When comparing two isolated sounds, it can be hard to tell some really accurate virtual analog from the real thing
3) When you pile up tracks of real analog, it sounds a lot better than the same thing done with virtual analog, and that has to do with the imperfection of analog technology : the subtle drift of the tuning, the various quirks and oddities of that old school circuitry.
4) Either Sarah Palin is unreal, or I am unreal. Or maybe we're all part of Sarah Palin's dream. In all cases, I probably shouldn't have eaten all that raw fish.
To illustrate my point, here's the same song, from the oh-so-unreleased "Strawberry Blonde" album.
It's the intro and first verse, without the vocals.

I first recorded it last year using virtual analog (hardware and software)
I've recorded it again this year using analog gear

The mixing is better, that's a point, but further than that, it's clear that the same music played with real analog sounds fuller, richer, well, nicer!

And that's the end of that chapter.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Korg Wavestation

The Wavestation is a great digital beast from 1990. I bought mine second-hand for 215€, which is a good deal considering the sonic qualities of that synth.

The Wavestation is indeed a nice piece of gear, with a reassuringly solid built (metal was used rather than plastic). Two points that should be looked closer if you consider buying one are the LCD brightness (it had a tendency to fade with the years, and can't easily be replaced (you can see on the pics that my own second-hand Wavestation has a very dimly lit screen) and the lithium battery (see here for details). It's a machine of respectable dimensions, and if you're already running out of space, the rack versions (Wavestation A/D and Wavestation SR, each one adding new features) or the software version (Korg Legacy) might be better choices.

hi-res photo

So... what about it?
At first glimpse, the Wavestation suffers from the infamous "80’s interface" bug…. No knobs, but a LCD screen and some buttons. It sure looks slick, but what about programming? Well, I would certainly prefer a vintagish array of knobs to control the parameters in real time, but as digital synth design goes, I've seen worse than the Wavestation. The screen, after all, is quite big and although fumbling through menus and sub-menus isn't the most practical way to tweak the sound, everything is laid logically enough and with a little practice (because the manual is very thin), programming becomes somewhat easier. While the factory presets are decent (including the cool Mini Lead patch used by Tony Banks on "Fading Lights"), the Wavestation isn't a preset machine, but a real synth with vast programming capabilities.

audio example 1
audio example 2
audio example 3

This synth works with "performances", which are combinations of patches, each one able to stack up to 4 oscillators. That allows for very complex sounds, bearing in mind that the Wavestation is a vector synthesis synth, allowing the player to "move" inside the sound with a joystick (Dave Smith brought this to Yamaha and Korg from the ill-fated Prophet VS - my first synth was a Yamaha SY35, one of these surprinsingly rare vector synths). Toying around with the juxtaposition of patches, their respective envelopes, the split keyboard mode and the vector joystick is a perfect way to create rich, sophisticated, highly evolving sounds and landscapes.

audio example 4
audio example 5
audio example 6

This alone would grant you interesting creations, but the Wavestation has one more trick up its sleeve : wave sequencing. Simply put, it's a way of chaining waveforms in order to produce a rhythmic/melodic sequence (see pic below) that can then be supplemented with other patches, in unison or split mode. You can for example program a sequence for the left hand, juxtaposed with a bass sound, and a lead patch on the right hand, itself enriched by a pad… If programming a wave sequence will surely prove too scientific and tricky for most users, you can always tweak up an existing one by editing its waveforms and their duration, pitch, etc…... Of course, the overall effect is so distinctive that you can’t really use wave sequences that often in finished songs, but it's still a very fun way to experiment, improvise and try out ideas.

The Wavestation's main flaw, unarguably, is the lack of a proper filter. What we've got here is a digital non-resonant low-pass filter that doesn’t do much to shape the sound. This is really a pity, as we can but imagine how great the machine would have been with a good one, not even mentioning some bandpass, hi-pass or more exotic capabilities. Or even better, a combination of digital synthesis and analog filter, like what could be found on the Ensoniq SQ80. This serious issue forbids that the Wavestation produce any of the warm, smooth sounds of a D50, for instance, and explains why it excels in lush, but somewhat icy atmospheric pads and FX.
One final word about the built-in effects...… Like many digital synths, the Wavestation tends to rely heavily on them to make up for the relative weakness of its sound compared to that of an analogue polyphonic instrument. The effects supplied here are quite good, but I would definitely advise in most cases to turn at least the reverb off. This has a very metallic, harsh sound that needlessly contribute to the coldness of the sound. On the following audio example, a wave sequence is played, first with the built-in reverb the patch was created with, then with a VST hall reverb.

audio example 7

As you can hear, while the Wavestation's reverb provide for a peculiar ambience, it can prove difficult to make the whole patch work in the context of a whole mix. That’s why it might be a good idea to record the synth dry, even if it sounds a bit shallow at first, and then use a mellower, lighter reverb.

Useful links

That's all folks

Monday, November 24, 2008

Man is the Warmest Place to Hide

The man with the moustache is John Carpenter.
He has a nice moustache and he's quite a film maker as well, but he's also a damn great musician and synth aficionado...
I'm mostly fond of his late 70s/early 80s soundtracks, what with the vintagish gear and reverby drum machines...
If you aren't familiar with the work, I strongly suggest you go listen to the Halloween and Fog OSTs, and I positively order that you listen to the 1976 Attack on Precinct 13 (all right, here's the main theme, between you and me, and yes, it's the Bomb the Bass sample)
The man has used a variety of classic instruments, most notably, and I'm so totally not-exhaustive :
Prophets 5 and 10 (Choice of the Year 1980 for HoboSynth Magazine)

Arp Quadra (notice that this particular synth has also been used by another famously moustached man) (but also Tony Banks from Genesis, which to the best of my knowledge has always been moustacheless)

Oberheim DMX (an excellent digital drum machine which I think he actually used, although I can't seem to find the exact reference now, so really you'll have to take my word on it... I mean, the wikipedia page doesn't mention him as a user but who you gonna believe, wikipedia or me? I mean, come on)

Arp Avatar (stolen from the gods of the keyboard bestowed on the disciples of the guitar, a legend that never made any sense to me)

So, in tribute to our man John and all the hellish moustaches of the underworld, here's a little instrumental track I did last Halloween.
It's basically Prophet 08 and Wavestation...

That's all folks

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Moog Little Phatty

As a first review, this great analog synthesizer from Moog Music... hi-res pics, original audio examples and useful links....

The Little Phatty is an analogue monophonic synth with 2 oscillators and the classic Moog filter.
I won’t get into the detailed specifications, but let’s just say that all the usual basic functions are there, plus the very useful Overload knob, that helps you create a most musical and warm overdrive.

hi-res photo 1

hi-res photo 2

hi-res photo 3

It’s a 100% analog signal path, but you get some of the comfort a 2008 keyboardist might expect : MIDI and patch storage obviously (it was before Moog Music got into the unhealthy retro fetishism that produced the Voyager Old School), but also a very useful auto-calibration routine.

So… what about it?
It’s a superb instrument for sure. First, it’s a nice, solid piece of gear, with a lovely design. That may be kinda anecdotal, but that’s one point where hardware is superior to software as far as I’m concerned. Just watching that Moog thing makes me want to play it and create something and I very rarely get that feeling watching my switched-off computer. But more importantly, it sounds great. Interestingly, the oscillator section allows you to move in a continuous fashion from waveform to waveform, instead of switching from a fixed one to the other. The filter is the classic low-pass 24db that defines the Moog sound, but as a good surprise, it can be set in the OS menu to 1, 2, 3 or 4 poles. Note also that external audio can be fed into the Little Phatty, which is a very smart move. Just plug your digital drum machine on the synth input, put the oscillators' volume to zero and your dull lifeless beat magically transforms into groovy vintage perfection (okay, maybe not, but it's an effective trick in a lot of cases!). Sure, it ain’t the most versatile synth on the market. It’s a monophonic all right, suited for huge basses and soaring leads, but you won’t get the variety of sounds of the more expansive Minimoog neither... Nonetheless, the Little Phatty stands as a very useful addition to any studio, especially a computer-based one.

I won’t indulge here into the current analogue fixation. After all, you can produce absolute crap with the finest analogue gear (I’m not about naming names, I’m a gentle person, but as I write this I’m thinking about the solo album of a guy whose first name is Roger and who has a band that ends in Cookbook) and I love digital sounds as well. I’m also one of those who find tiresome the blind zealotry of a lot of people on all things Moog. Mind you, there were other great manufacturers in the past, and other visionaries (what about Thomas Oberheim, Dave Smith, Vogel&Ryrie, Mario Maggi, and the obscure people behind such CS80s or PS-3100s...). I love the Little Phatty, I would sure love a Minimoog Voyager if I could afford it, but on the other hand, let’s face it, the innovative days of Moog hark back to the 70’s (no, a MIDI-less, patch-less Minimoog replica ISN’T innovative, or else I’m really confused about the definition of common words like INNOVATION) and the cult of personality, may it be the good Dr Moog, isn’t my thing either.

All that said, there’s something about a real analogue instrument that can’t be emulated easily… not every sound needs to be FAT (oh yeah, I’m also dead tired about FATNESS), but there’s something about the depth, warmth and musicality of a true analogue mono synth that makes wonders in an otherwise digital mix. Layering lead sounds is magical and just adding a Little Phatty bass line can alter dramatically a song, giving it a lot more weight without being overwhelming.

In conclusion, the Little Phatty may be something of a luxury. After all, you can get a Prophet 08 rack for approximately the same price, that is, 8 voices of analogue sweetness, but what you wouldn't get... is a Moog! It's truly something to switch the bastard on and automatically get that magical Moog tone. That's why the synth is worth every cent if you’re wanting to add the unmistakable Moog flavor in your mixes.




Useful links

First post!

A word about this blog...
This is not a "best of links of the world wide web" blog but it's not a blog about my fascinating opinions on politics or the new Lost season (not that I would care anyway)...
I am a musician (check out my main site for downloads and CDs) and this is my blog.
Here I will talk about music-making, post some gear reviews and sonic experiments, discuss synth-related news and showcase work-in-progress songs and so on...
I will also post on design, photos and videos.
So welcome, and hope you'll enjoy!