Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Juno Waltz

The "sea songs" EP will probably be called "Broken Sails"...
Here's an idea for the back cover, with what should be the final track list (unless I change my mind, which is also quite probable because I tend to do that a lot) (I actually changed my mind a couple of times while writing this about whether or not I should write about my habit of changing my mind) (if you are reading this, then I changed my mind again, because for a moment I thought it'd be silly to expose how foggy my brain really is) (but I digress...).

There's still quite some work to do, but in the meantime here's an all-Juno waltzy mix I've extracted from "Broken Sails" (there are other instruments in the real song mix).

Juno Waltz (beat, piano and Juno-1)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Wavestation and Juno demo

A little sunday improvisation, kinda reminiscent again of John Carpenter's early soundtracks.
The clockworks and digital pad are Korg Wavestation, the rest is Roland Juno-1.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Casiotone MT-11

(as always, click on the pics for hi-res pics)
You know what ? Enough with the hi-tech stuff… let’s go back to something basic, primitive, oh so primitive…
The Casiotone MT-11 is a preset keyboard from you know who. It sports 32 totally non-sensitive mini-keys, something like 2 octaves and a half, starting rather oddly on F

As you can see, the MT-11 features four sections.

The first is labelled “Power” and contains a single switch that must trigger something inside the keyboard because when you switch it on, a red diode lights up and strange eighties sounds begin to pour out the tiny speaker on the right.

The second section, “Tone”, allows you to access to no less than eight presets, which happen to be really good. Admittedly, the harp and pipe organ aren’t very realistic, the organ evokes a lilliputian version of a Moog lead, and there’s little chance the piano would fool anyone but a deaf squirrel with a bad drug habit. But given you pay attention to the third “Effect” section, and switch both vibrato and sustain on, the accordion, violin and clarinet will provide a nice, warm, analog-ish tone.

The last section is called “Volume”, and really speaks for itself.
The MT-11 works on a DC7,5V adaptor, or five 1,5V batteries. There’s some sort of line output in the back.
I bought it 1€ (or was it 2€, I can’t remember) last spring in a garage sale, and used it on a couple of songs along with the usual armada.

For educational purpose, here’s a demo I did today on this flamboyant and japanese machine.
Moog bass (your musically astute ear won’t fail to identify it) and heavily compressed Böhm drums, all the rest is Casiotone MT-11 in all its lo-fi glory.

Casio Tune

Friday, December 26, 2008

Prophet 08, Zelda and some Brutal Deluxe

While working on a song for the "sea songs" EP, I took some time off playing with MIDI files of video games oldies...

So, here's two all-Prophet demos!

Speedball Theme

The first one... the sequel also had some killer music, and O the hours we played in our young years on this game. The amazing David Whittaker wrote this.

Zelda 3 Lost Woods Theme

The third one, of course, the best! (I know, I'm so old school). Written by Mr Kōji Kondō. Praises to Him.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Moog

Happy holidays to everyone, and a little Moog Little Phatty demo...
It's basically all Moog, including most of the glitch sounds that complement the beat.
Some Solina strings in the background courtesy of Virtual String Machine

Sunday, December 21, 2008

In progress : fiddling with the Juno

Still working on the "sea songs EP"...
I spent most of my sunday stacking up parts around a demo I had done with the Virtual String Machine just after buying it...
For demonstration purposes, here's a selective mix of the Alpha Juno parts (that is, a bass line, some analog flutes, a string sound and a warm pad.

alpha juno 1 demo

The Alpha Juno has a very distinctive sound, which I would describe as lo-fi, gritty, dirty, which comes as a good surprise because it provides a complement to the more sophisticated, "educated" sound of the Prophet 08...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

On the finish line : Mercenaries

Is it quite baked, I'm not sure... but I don't think I'll work further on it, since it's only a cover song, and actually started as a Prophet 08 demo...

Nothing to much to say except that it's mostly Prophet 08, Moog Little Phatty and some Microkorg vocoder.

The vocoder part is heavily treated : first passing through the FAT1 compressor, then recompressed in the digital domain with Solid State Logic's free LMC-1 plugin

The song itself is from the outstanding Sabotage album by John Cale

"I'm just another soldier boy
Looking for work
My rifle is my friend
I clean my rifle everyday
That's why my rifle is my friend

Did some work in Zaire, the jolly old Belgian Congo
Went back to Geneva to get paid
Back there in Geneva, that's were the money grows
That's where the money grows, that's where the money flows
They didn't wanna pay me
They didn't wanna pay me, but they did
Try to separate me from my money is try to separate me from my life"

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Used Toy

Just bought an Alpha Juno 1 on ebay...
Good working order and nice sounding, I'll post soundbytes and demos this week and eventually do the mandatory review

As always, just click on the pics to get higher resolution synth (and feline participant)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Today’s studio piece… the often maligned, and quite undeservedly so, Microkorg.
(click on the pics for hi-res photos)

First thing to notice about the MK is the nice retro design… Ok, maybe second thing… the first being the awful mini keys. Why O why? Let’s deal with that right away and move on : the biggest issue with the MK might be the keyboard, and no, making it black don’t change anything.

Admittedly, the MK is really compact, featuring 37 keys where the similarly sized Micro-X only grants a mere two octaves. But small keys are hardly a convenient way to play, and probably didn’t make much for the MK’s reputation among serious keyboardists. Unfortunately, the new MK XL, as seen on the photo below my original MK, will follow the same pattern.

Nonetheless, I like the overall looks… the color scheme, the thin microphone, the wood panels and even the knobs have a great 70’s feeling. The MK is lightweight but decently built – speaking of knobs, they’re solid and reassuring, more so than the brittle-looking ones on my Moog Little Phatty (which is quite a paradox considering the general quality of Moog’s gear).

The big wheel on the left provides quick access to the various patch banks. These are listed by genre (trance, electronica, hip hop….), which isn’t a very bright idea. Much more useful would have been to list the sounds by categories (“pads”, “leads”, “bass” and so on). Actually the XL adds such a wheel, as seen on the official photo below, but still retains the useless genre switch. In the end I would gladly get rid of this big thingie and get more knobs instead.

All editing is done using the two main knobs in the middle in order to assign various functions to the five small knobs on the right. This might seem very impractical, but is in fact quite easy to deal with, because all functions are clearly labeled on the panel. The real issue, programming-wise, rests with the LED screen, so number-ish, so unreadable…. There is something like, you know, being too vintage (ask Moog Music). The new XL, on the other hand, features a nice orange screen, on which, wonder! you can actually see parameters and preset names. Overrall, it has to be said that programming sounds is intuitive enough… I’ve seen a lot worse than this and you would have to be lazy like a hippie walrus to stick with the factory presets.

About the sound structure… very straightforward, but quite complete : you got your two oscillators (sine, saw, square, triangle, vox and DWGS waveforms), with sync and ring modulation (the new XL, apparently, will use a sound structure closer than the Korg R3). The filter generously offers four different modes : -24 dB 4-poles low pass, -12 dB 2-poles low pass, high pass and band pass. Not bad for a “toy”, I would say, given that they're quite good.

Of course, there’s the polyphony… 4 voices only. That’s not much, but I can live with that. Actually, as odd as it might sound, I kinda like limited polyphony… take the Prophet 5 for instance : a lot of classic sounds rely on the fact that only 5 voices are played at any time, and the way the notes use the limited amount of voices. That said, I would agree that 5 or 6 voices would have been more practical on the MK, but hey, what about the Oberheim Four-Voice!

I guess if you’d stop reading this review now, you’d be left with the feeling that the MK is quite a failure. But there’s one thing I haven’t talked about yet, and that’s how it sounds! And it sounds really good. The synth engine, as we saw in the previous episode, is well-conceived and provides the tools to shape up some excellent vintagey patches. Let me be clear. You won’t use the MK for getting the fabled fatness… you won’t get window-shaking basses or piercing leads that make you wanna strangle the cat. What you will get, though, are excellent, vintage-sounding pads and leads, that can do wonders to fill up the gaps in an otherwise dull mix. There is a MK sound… it’s thin, musical and retro. You may program Solina-esque strings or smokey organs, you may come up with a warm electric piano or amazing formant pads. The MK is a solid complement to “big sound”, complex synths, with its simple, engaging sonorities.

There are effects too (chorus/flanger, phaser, ensemble), although I find them a bit superfluous. The XL comes back with a load of 17 Kaoss effects. That may be overkill, but then again, I’m not a big user of on-board effects anyway. I suppose it expands on an already well furbished engine. That said, the MK effects are quite good and when pushed a bit, can generate surprising results. Note that there’s also a decent distorsion.

Then, there’s the vocoder. While far from being the most powerful on the market, it has itself a special lo-fi sound. You’ll find it hard to sing something in there and actually recognize the words. The vocoder is muddy and dirty. Of course, you can get rid of the cheap MK microphone and plug something professional, in which case you’ll be able to get a more precise sound. The trouble is, you’ll also lose that peculiar MK grain. As been suggested by some commentators, the limitations of the original mic might in fact be best suited to those of the vocoder itself. Coupled with a good compressor, interesting textures can be coaxed out of it.

I began this review by criticizing the mini-keys, but on the bright side, the portable aspect is truly a seller. That thing is really tiny, and run on batteries. It’s the perfect tool to bring on holidays with a laptop and build old-school tunes track after track. Sure you can bring a controller on, but the MK is an instrument. It stands on its own, immediately enjoyable, and has personality.

lead 2

In conclusion, I'd say that the Microkorg is a fine, underrated instrument, and a real bargain. It sure has its shortcomings, but remains a very attractive, fun musical toy...

Sunday, December 7, 2008


As a Microkorg owner, I was pleased to know there's an upgraded version coming up, the MicrokorgXL, with a rather nice retro-futuristic design...

I'll post a Microkorg mini-review early this week, with the usual hi-rez photos and mp3 examples and cover the new MicrokorgXL features as well.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

And for some more Prophet 08 sounds...

First, a notice to my good visitors : comments are now enabled for all users
Now, I've been recording all day on "The Ghost of India Supreme"... part of the next EP...
It will be a quiet, warm and fuzzy ballad

Here's a snippet...
Prophet 08 and beat

And another one :
Moog bass line, Solina pad and some great M-tron vibraphone

The M-tron is Gforce's software emulation of the oh-so-classic Mellotron...

Friday, December 5, 2008

Prophet 08 demo

Now that my new albums are done, the next order of business is to record a 4 songs EP... sea songs, that is...

Yes, the sea... you know, XIXth century dark romantic stuff, with opium and analog synths...

Here's the tracklist so far :

1 - Heart of Darkness
2 - The Ghost of India Supreme
3 - Broken Sails
4 - Endgame

I'll be using my new setup quite a lot, and most notably the DSI Prophet 08.
Here is the early sketch that got me started on the first song :
Heart of Darkness demo mp3
I don't usually use factory presets, but the main rhythmic part here is played on a great Prophet 08 factory patch called "Softie", then I wrote lyrics and developed the whole song on that basis.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

In Progress : Mercenaries

I'm working on another John Cale cover, again from the 1979 Sabotage album...

Here's the basic Prophet 08 loop around which I'm building the song :
It's a single patch, which shows how you can program little sequences within the Prophet to create simple, funky and analog grooves.

Here's another groove from the song : Mercenaries-groove2.mp3
This has the same Prophet 08 loop, plus an Oberheim DMX beat and a sequenced Moog bass (Electribe EMX) juxtaposed with a single acoustic guitar line.
The guitar is processed through this hardware valve compressor (worst design ever?) :

I'm overdriving the input gain to create this mean bass guitar line.

And finally : Mercenaries-groove3.mp3
What you hear now is the same overdriven/overcompressed guitar hitting the same chord over and over, Velvet Underground-style, and a string sound courtesy of my Gforce Virtual String Machine plugin :

The basic foundations of the track are in place, I'll be recording the vocals soon and post the completed song.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 08

From the rather prolific Dave Smith Instruments, the 8-voices analogue wonder that is the Prophet 08…
First thing that should actually be said is that the Prophet 08 isn’t meant to be a recreation of the Prophet 5. Hence the name. I’d like to be nice about it, but the truth here is that online comments about how the Prophet 08 isn’t a Prophet 5 are badly misguided, if not completely stupid. They’re tantamount to criticize the Oberheim Xpander from not being, say, an OBX. It’s a brand new synth for 2008. Now, is it indeed a true Prophet or not? Well, on the one hand I do think it is, but on the other hand I’m not really sure that I give a damn anyway because it sounds fantastic in its own right and comments like “I just played some Prophet 08 presets in a shop this afternoon and it’s not like a Prophet 5” make me, if not mad, at least slightly out of balance.

That said, whether it's the good synth for you or not is matter of personal taste. Some people seem to think its sound it's too thin. I do believe it's rich and musical (possibly light on the low-end on pad sounds, but that's actually a bonus in my book, since it usually fits better in the mix for that very reason). Not all analogues need to be gritty... some, like the aforementioned Xpander, are smooth and sophisticated. The Prophet 08 fits in that category, while still being able of nasty, snappy sounds. In any case, it wouldn't be the first analogue gear to be found unimpressive by early "specialists", then to be considered a classic...

But enough with the geekery and to the point…
The synth is well-built, lighter than most polysynths, especially analogue. It is unfortunate that the power supply be a wall wart, but other than that, it feels like a serious piece of gear. The interface is clean and well thought, with solid knobs – note here that they are very sensitive, and endless rotary, something I don’t care much for since it prevents you from acknowledging the parameters of a sound at sight.

audio example 1
audio example 2
audio example 3

Sound-wise, what we’ve got here are 8 voices of good analogue signal, with a very sophisticated modulation system. More precisely, its analogue oscillators are digitally controlled, which ensures a very stable tuning while a special “slop” function takes care of the random drift we’re bound to expect. The result is most satisfying, and can be best described in good Trekkian fashion as “the best of both worlds” (and I promised myself I wouldn’t geek it up again…). You won’t get crazy over the oscillators going haywire at random, but at the same time the Prophet 08 sounds reasonably “sloppy”, as in “analogue sloppy”, not “G. W. Bush sloppy” (all right, all right, that was an easy one…).

audio example 4
audio example 5
audio example 6

The Prophet 08 sound can be rich and smooth, even creamy, or – especially if you push the Audio Mod knob up – gritty and mean. The Prophet 08 makes excellent use of the stereo field too (you can “pan spread” the sound so that the voices are played alternatively on both sides, which can also be linked to the LFO), and the keyboard lets you control the sound with subtlety and character. Furthermore, each patch comprises two layers A and B, which can be stacked or splitfor deeper, more interesting sounds.

audio example 7
audio example 8
audio example 9
audio example 10

Now, the shortcomings… First, while the low-pass filter can be set to 4 or 2 poles, it stands a bit lonely in there. A bandpass filter would have been nice too, and so would have been a sub-oscillator, in order to beef up some sounds, but then again, stacking up 2 or 3 Prophet 08 parts will already fill up much space in your mix without the single sounds having to be too thick. Furthermore, patches can be split on the keyboard, or stacked, and the unison mode guarantees you won’t have to worry about getting powerful leads.

Another minor bit of criticism, there’s an arpeggiator all right, and I’m always fond of that, but it doesn’t have a random mode. I don’t understand why, but I would qualify this as minor, because it can still be addressed in a further OS update. There’s also a primitive sequencer, useful to work out some grooves and complex sounds, but it’s a gated one, meaning that you have to press a note (or send one by MIDI to the synth) to make it work. Here again, I don’t quite understand the rationale behind that decision, but I guess I can live with it. More importantly, you can’t process external sound through the filter. That’s always a neat trick and it’s a shame the Prophet 08 is lacking it.

Overrall, the Prophet 08 is a great synthesizer, which should probably be preferred to most virtual analog synth in the same price bracket, especially if you go for the rack module. It’s not a workstation, and arguably it ain't the most complete polyphonic synth, but in a way, that's beside the point. The Prophet 08 is an instrument with its limitations, and there’s vast amounts of character and musicality here. It's complex enough to be versatile and thrilling to experiment with, but at the same time, elegant and straightforward, an instrument for musicians who don't care for fumbling through zillions of options and want something to play music with.

Some noise and FX
Some noise and FX, the sequel

Useful links









Specifications (from DSI's site)

5-octave keyboard with semi-weighted action, velocity, and aftertouch.
Spring-loaded pitch wheel and assignable mod wheel.
256 fully editable Programs (2 banks of 128) with 2 Layers (2 separate sounds) in each Program.16 x 4 gated step sequencer.
2 digitally controlled analog oscillators (DCOs) per voice with selectable sawtooth, triangle, saw/triangle mix, and pulse waves (with pulse-width modulation), and hard sync.
White noise generator.
1 Analog Curtis low-pass filter per voice, selectable 2- and 4-pole operation (self-resonating in 4-pole mode).
3 Envelope Generators: filter, VCA, and assignable (four-stage ADSR + delay); Envelope 3 can loop.
4 LFOs.
Glide (portamento): separate rates per oscillator.
Analog VCAs.
Dimensions: 12.1" (30.73 cm) W x 34.8" (88.39 cm) L x 3.875" (9.84 cm) H (2.25" at front edge; the feet account for 0.25" of the total height).
Weight: ~22 lbs. (9.98 kg).
Ins and Outs.MIDI In, Out, Thru, and Poly Chain.Main stereo audio output: 1/4" unbalanced.Output B stereo audio output: 1/4" unbalanced.Sustain pedal input: accepts normally on or normally off momentary footswitch.Pedal/CV input: responds to expression pedals or control voltages ranging from 0 to 5 VDC (protected against higher or negative voltages).Headphone output: 1/4" stereo phone jack.