Outsound Benefit Dinner with the Actual Trio

We are just a few weeks away from the 2018 Outsound New Music Summit!  And as always, we kick off the countdown with the annual benefit dinner featuring live creative music by local artists.  This year we were pleased to have Actual Trio perform.

Actual Trio is led by composer and virtuoso guitarist John Schott and features John Hanes on drums and Dan Seamans on upright bass.  To simply label them as a “contemporary jazz trio” would be a disservice to all three musicians, who bring a wide range of compositional and performance experiences to this group.  Their music ranges from laid-back grooves to fast frenetic runs to sparse percussive punctuated passages.  Overall, they delivered a highly dynamic performance that was well received by all in attendance.  You can hear a bit of it in our recent CatSynth TV video.

As Schott states in the video, there is something special about the trio format.  Trios are three-legged stools which depend on the contributions of each member and their ability to listen and perform together.  But it is still relatively sparse and spare compared to larger ensembles.  Actual Trio has a very small toolset of drums, bass and guitar (although Schott brought quite a few bits of vintage and modern electronics along as well).  But they get a lot out of what they have.  Schott and Hanes function together as a rhythmic and melodic unit, and they seemed to be able to finish each others lines, whether fast runs or vamps.  Seamans brought a melodic sensibility to his bass performance even while providing a solid foundation for the music.  And they were just fun to watch and listen to.


[Vintage amp and spring reverb units used by John Schott]

The Outsound Benefit Dinner is a “thank you” of sorts to our core supporters in the community – an instance of the time-honored tradition of plying supporters and donors with food, drink and entertainment.   All in attendance enjoyed the performance by Actual Trio and the food provided by Slippery Fish Catering.  But this year, Outsound owes an even greater debt of gratitude to its individual donors and supporters as grants for small arts and music groups becomes even harder to come by than it has in the past.  But we are looking forward to another excellent summit this year.  Please visit the website for tickets and to find out more about the shows, which take place at the Community Music Center in San Francisco from July 22 through July 28, 2018.

UnPopular Electronics (Robair + Djll), Lx Rudis, Franck Martin at Robotspeak

It’s been a little while since we last attended Church of Thee Super Serge at Robotspeak in San Francisco, but we made a point of going this past weekend.  For those who have not been there or read our past reviews, it’s an almost-ever-month show on a Saturday afternoon with live hardware-synthesizer performances.  As the name suggests, some acts do include Serge synthesizers, but it is not required, and a wide variety of instruments are used.  All three sets are featured in our most recent CatSynth TV episode.

The first set featured Lx Rudis performing on an Oberheim Xpander, a somewhat underappreciated instrument from the 1980s.

Lx Rudis on Oberheim Xpander

At its heart, the Xpander is a 6 voice analog synthesizer, but with a complex array of digital controls that can be programmed and applied independently to each voice.  Lx Rudis took full advantage of these, especially the LFOs and lag generators, to create subtle and minimal metric patterns.  He constantly moved voices in and out, configuring them on the fly, in a way that was very expressive and musical.  I particularly liked the sections which had staccato rhythmic textures against slowly moving timbres deliberately out of sync with one another.

Next up was Franck Martin, who performed a solo set on a modular synthesizer with several standalone instruments.

Franck Martin

Martin’s setup included a Moog Subharmonicon, which he built while attending Moogfest this year (we at CatSynth are a bit envious), as well as a DFAM (Drummer From Another Mother).  There were also additional voices provided by Braids and Plaits modules from Mutable Instruments that he could bring in and out using a touch-plate interface.  The result was a slowly changing beat pattern with an eerie inharmonic voicing and gentle undulation.

The final set featured our friends Gino Robair and Tom Djll teaming up as the brilliantly named Unpopular Electronics.

They had a wide variety of gear, including Serge panels in addition to Eurorack modules and standalone instruments from Bugbrand and others.  In addition, Gino had an interesting small case that included touchpads.

The music was frenetic and intense, an avalanche of pops and hits and loud cloudlike tone clusters.  And there were trumpet sounds entering into the mix at various points.  But there was an exquisite detail to the madness with changes among the different instruments and sounds, and musical pauses and rests before the pair dived back into the frenzy.  There were also many moments of humor and not just Djll’s book about why there aren’t any Zeppelin-style airships in the United States.

In between sets, it’s fun to browse around Robotspeak and see what’s for sale, or on display in the big glass case.

It’s also quite dangerous, as I am often tempted to leave with another module or instrument.  On this occasion, I exercised restraint, but probably not next time…

Denny Denny Breakfast at the Luggage Store Gallery, San Francisco

A couple of weeks ago we saw a fun and intriguing performance by Denny Denny Breakfast at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco.  It was the subject of a recent CatSynth TV.

Denny Denny Breakfast is an ensemble project led by Robert Woods-LaDue.  The personnel changes per event, but on this occasion, it included Sarah Dionne Woods-LaDue (dance),  Mark Clifford (vibraphone), Crystal Pascucci (cell0), Jordan Glenn (drums), David Young (keyboard), Max Judelson (upright bass), and Rent Romus (alto saxophone).  They had recorded an album together in December 2017 and the mix of improvisations and noted sections informed the live performance at the Luggage Store.

Several of the parts were improvised once again, but others were relatively fixed, including the final piece that was a note-for-note transcription of an improvisation from the recording sessions.  There was also a piece originally conceived while the group was playing in the Finnish Hall in Berkeley but did not make it onto the album.  It was a simple concept of repeated patterns slowly changing in speed between two groups of performs, creating a phase pattern in the acoustic space.  The Finnish Hall has very unique acoustics, and so does the third floor of the Luggage Store Gallery, making it an ideal location to recreate the piece.  Throughout there was a large variation in the music between pieces, ranging from melodic and theatrical to noisy and percussive, to minimal with large amounts of empty space.  Each of these styles and textures left room for the dancers Sarah and Robert Woods-LaDue to be front and center.

We were happy to have been introduced to Woods-LaDue’s work, and are enjoying his recordings as well.  There is a wide variation in style among the different albums, but that will be a topic for another review in the not-too-distant future.

Voltage and Verse: Ruth Weiss/Doug Lynner/Hal Davis, Pitta of the Mind, Ramon Sender at Adobe Books

It’s been a busy season for Pitta of the Mind!  We had three shows in the span of two months, beginning with our blue set at Pro Arts and culminating with ¡Voltage and Verse! at Adobe Books in San Francisco.  You can get a taste for the show in our CatSynth TV video.

It was an honor to once again share a bill with ruth weiss.  A Holocaust survivor and founding member of the San Francisco beat poet scene in the 1950s, she is still going strong, performing and supporting local institutions and artists.

Maw Shein Win, ruth weiss, Amanda Chaudhary

We were glad to see that she is continuing her collaboration with our friend and synthesizer virtuoso Doug Lynner.  Together with log percussionist Hal Davis, they performed a set of poetry and music that simultaneously evoked earlier eras and the latest electronic experiments.  Davis’ log drum provided an expressive metronome, undulating between a trot and a gallop.  Lynner’s synthesizer lines filled in the spaces, sometimes with rhythmic appeggios and at other moments with long eerie drones.  The synthesizer timbres and phrases complemented the words in multiple ways, sometimes underpinning the narrative in the manner of a good film score, at other times emphasizing the rhythm of the words and making them into a musical whole.

ruth weiss and Doug Lynner

Our Pitta of the Mind set was part of a month-long celebration for the release of Maw Shein Win’s new book of poetry Invisible Gifts.  The book is divided into four sections based on different colors.  This works perfectly for our use of color themes in our performances.  For this night, we chose silver and performed selections from the silver section of the book.  There were some familiar poems that we have performed before, and some that were new to me.  There were a variety of styles and subjects in the words that inspired different musical backings, from jazzy electric piano (my favorite) to abstract synthesizer explorations.  I was able to reuse some of the modular patches I had developed for my recent show in Portland and make them work with the rhythm of the texts.

Pitta of the Mind

Maw and I have performed together so many times now that it has become almost second nature to realize a new set; our three shows this season went off (nearly) flawlessly, and have been among the best we have done in our nearly seven years of collaboration!  We have developed a toolset and pallete of instruments (including the Nord Stage and Prophet 12) and sounds that we can quickly turn to with each new text, which makes the process of learning new pieces both simple and fun.  I certainly hope we can keep up the momentum in the remainder of the year, even as I turn my own attention to other musical projects.

In between our set and weiss/Lynner/Davis, we were treated to a presentation by Ramon Sender.  Sender was a co-founder (along Morton Subotnick and Pauline Oliveros) of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the early 1960s, but on this evening he regaled us with stories of his time at the Morning Star and Wheeler ranches in Sonoma County in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Morningstar, founded by Lou Gottlieb, was a radical experiment in communal living, populated by an interesting cast of characters along with folks who “commuted” between San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and the ranch west of Sebastopol.  It only existed in its communal form for a short period of time before being shut down by Sonoma County. Sender and others then moved to the nearby property of artist Bill Wheeler, who followed Gottlieb’s lead and opened his ranch as a commune open to all.  I found myself fascinated by Sender’s stories, and would love to learn more about the history of the area and these communal experiments.

It was a fun night of music and words that lived up to its billing, and I certainly hope to have a chance to perform with everyone again.  And thanks to Benjamin Tinker and Adobe Books for hosting the event!  Please support your local bookstores and performance spaces.

[Photos not marked “catsynth.com” in this article courtesy of Maw Shein Win.]

Life’s Blood Ensemble at the Ivy Room

It’s time for another round of catch-up on recent musical adventures around the Bay Area.  And so today we look back at last month’s performance by Rent Romus’ Life’s Blood Ensemble at the Ivy Room in Albany, California, where the celebrated the release of their new album Rogue Star.  It was the subject of a recent episode of CatSynth TV.

As Romus explained on stage (and in our video), Rogue Star is a deliberate reference and homage to David Bowie’s final masterpiece Black Star.  In particular, it is inspired by the work of saxophonist Donnie McCaslin (Romus’ brother-in-law) on Black Star.  Indeed, the title track of the new album as performed that night did reference the style and material of McCaslin’s work.  But this was a point of departure, and the ensemble moved in different directions as they performed other tracks from the new album.

Life's Blood Ensemble

Several of the band members contributed compositions to the album and to the performance that evening, including “Think!” by Heikki Koskinen (e-trumpet) and “Space is Expanding” by Safa Shokrai.  Shokrai’s piece picked up on the theme of space and cosmos that winds through many of Life’s Blood Ensemble pieces as well as through Romus’ other projects.  Koskinen’s composition offered frenetic ensemble runs punctuated by silences and small staccato hits from his e-trumpet as well as other instruments.

Rounding out the ensemble were Mark Clifford on vibraphone, Timothy Orr on drums, and Joshua Marshall on tenor saxophone.  As always, I was impressed at the way the ensemble functioned as a unit, whether in the middle of a swinging “cool jazz” idiom or more seemingly free and chaotic sections.  In some ways, it is in the silences between phrases where this is most apparent.

Before closing, I should also say something about the Ivy Room.  This venerable institution has gone through multiple incarnations in the ten years since I moved to San Francisco and started playing and attending shows there.  Of course, I had a lot of fun performing at “Hootenannies” back in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and enjoyed the kitschy decor.   But from a musical point of view – and especially a jazz-ensemble point of view – this current incarnation is the best, with a sizable stage, lighting and sound reinforcement.  I hope to bring my current band there sometime soon.

NAMM 2018: Blipblox

Among the more unique instruments that we saw at NAMM this year was the Blipblox, a fully functional synthesizer in a plastic shell reminiscent of children’s toys.

Blipblox at NAMM 2018

Don’t be deceived by its appearance. The Blipblox is a full-featured monophonic synthesizer with selectable signal topologies and oscillators; a low-pass filter; a sequencer; and even a drum machine.  There is also a modulation matrix to complete the feature set.  In some ways, it seems similar to overall style and concept of the Moog Mother-32, though it is of course a very different instrument.

You can hear a bit of our attempt to play the Blipblox in this video.

It certainly seems like an interesting way to introduce kids to synthesizers and both the science and art of sound.  But it also seems quite usable for live performance – if it’s rugged enough for kids, it’s probably rugged enough for the stage.  We look at it an immediately think of the repurposing of musical toys for experimental electronic performance via circuit bending.  Whether a Blipblox is bendable or not is beyond the scope of this initial look, but it would certainly fit in with a setup that includes such modified instruments.

More info can be found at https://blipblox.com/

NAMM 2018: Arturia MiniBrute 2 and RackBrute

We continue to work our way through our experiences from NAMM 2018 with the Arturia MiniBrute 2.

Arturia MiniBrute 2 and RackBrute

The original MiniBrute made quite a splash a few years ago with its all-analog signal path, usability, and low price.  It also had a sound that was distinct from other low-cost analog synths, in part because of the “Brute Factor” knob.  That knob is back in the MiniBrute 2 along with a Steiner-Parker filter that together with the Brute oscillator gives the instrument its sound.  But there is now a second oscillator, and, perhaps more significantly, a modulation matrix and patch bay.

The built-in synthesizer topology includes a lot more modulation than the original, and the patch bay allows for reconfiguration and expansion with the RackBrute Eurorack cases that integrate 3U or 6U or modules with the MiniBrute in a single case.  This does seem to be a trend we are seeing with built-in patch bays to full analog mono synths (the Moog Mother-32 being the prime example).  One can also interpret the MiniBrute 2 as incorporating ideas from the flagship MatrixBrute writ small.  The ecosystem also includes an alternate form-factor, the 2S, which has drum pads reminiscent of the BeatStep Pro instead of the keyboard.

We were only able to scratch the surface at NAMM, and also had a bit of difficulty with our video.  So we are hoping to provide a more in-depth look at this instrument both here and on CatSynth TV in the not too distant future.

NAMM 2018: Erica Synths Drum Sequencer and More

We continue to work our way slowly through the embarrassment of riches from NAMM 2018 with a look at new modules from Erica Synths.

The biggest of the new modules, both physically and in terms of garnered attention, was the Drum Sequencer module.  It has an attractive retro look and feel with a raised keypad and red LED display, reminiscent of instruments and studio gear from the 1980s.  It also features 12 independent trigger outputs and 12 separate accent outputs – of course in the context of a modular synth one need not use the accent outputs for “accents”.

Erica Synths drum sequencer

The sequencer itself is full-featured with separate meter and length per track as well as independent shuffle and probability per step.  The probabilistic step function is intriguing, and one I did not have a proper opportunity to explore at NAMM, so hopefully I will get a chance to do so in the not too distant future.

The Graphic VCO returns to a more contemporary design found in many digital Eurorack modules.

Erica Synths Graphic VCO

This module allows the user to draw his or her own waveforms Etch-a-sketch style to use in two simultaneous wavetable oscillators.  In addition to mixing, they can be arranged in different topologies for FM, ring modulation, waveshaping and more.  The waveform selections and configurations can be sequenced for continuously morphing sounds.  It would be interesting to use with the Drum Sequencer.

The final module we looked at was the Resonant Equalizer.  It is basically a 12-band bandpass filter with each band independently controllable via CV.  One can also control all the bands with a single CV input for sequencer-based changes.  Again, this feels like a module that would work well in tandem with the Drum Sequencer.  It also has an attractive visual look for live performance use.

Erica Synths Resonant Equalizer

You can see all these modules in action in our recent video, which also features a “virtual appearance” by Tuna, the official Erica Synths cat 😺

We congratulate Tuna and rest of the team from Erica Synths on their offerings for this year’s show, and hope to someday visit them in Latvia.

For more information, please visit http://www.ericasynths.lv/

 

NAMM 2018: Mellotron!

Mellotron Mk4
[Mellotron Mk4]

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 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.

NAMM 2018: Nord Electro 6

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…