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…

NAMM 2018: Pedro Eustache Plays a WMD Synchrodyne

NAMM is full of serendipitous moments. One of those occurred as we passed the WMD booth and saw a live performance unfolding with flute and woodwind virtuoso Pedro Eustache performing on a vintage wind instrument controlling a WMD Synchrodyne module.  We featured it on CatSynth TV.

Eustache informed us that his wind instrument was an unusual one from the 1970s, and that he was using it as a CV controller for the Synchrodyne.  He found the combination to be quite expressive and complete, and we can certainly hear that in his performance.

WMD Synchrodyne

The Synchrodyne is intended to be a complete synthesizer voice in a module, and it has the combination of sawtooth VCO, filter, and VCA that are the building blocks of subtractive synthesis.  But it also includes a built-in Phase-Locked Loop (PLL) controlling the VCO, which adds a variety of new sound and control dimensions.  PLLs can be challenging to use – the concept implies stability but often includes chaotic phases – but controls on the PLL for dampening, speed and input influence provide more musical control.  Additionally, the VCO provides support for frequency modulation.  Finally, there is a wavefolder on the front end of the filter that provides additional non-linear signal processing and distortion options.  WMD puts it succinctly in their description of the module:

Containing several pieces to a traditional synthesizer voice, the Synchrodyne is a powerful addition to any subtractive oriented system. However, it is designed primarily as an experimental sound source/filter, intended to push the limits of modular synthesis…WMD style.

This is not your classic subtractive analog synthesizer voice, as one might find in a Moog synthesizer or the Korg Prologue that we reviewed in an earlier article.  It is a beast, but with practice, we see how it can be an expressive musical instrument on its own. We look forward to trying it out ourselves one of these days.  And we thank Pedro Eustace for being so gracious after the performance and sharing with us his process making music with the Synchrodyne and his wind controller.  From his official website:

“In Pedro’s own words: ‘I simply hope–and I really work hard at this, through ‘active submission’–that someday, whenever I see my Creator I would be able to give Him an answer worthy of the ‘package-of- grace’ he entrusted me with.'”

 

http://wmdevices.com
http://pedroflute.com/

NAMM 2018: Korg Prologue and Waldorf STVC

We would be remiss if we didn’t visit the Korg booth at NAMM, especially as Waldorf was there as well.  We took some quick peeks at some of the new offerings, which you can see in this video.

The Korg Prologue synthesizer was among the most hyped instruments leading up to NAMM, so we of course had to check it out.

Korg Prologue

It is quite pretty, with a sleek black front panel and wooden side panels.  The analog synth was not that exciting to us, as we at CatSynth are rather spoiled by the offerings of Dave Smith Instruments such as the Rev2 or Prophet 6.  And it doesn’t fill the niche of the Minilogue as an affordable polyphonic analog synthesizer.  What intrigues us is the open architecture for the digital oscillators that will allow advanced users to add their own programs.  At NAMM, it is difficult to impossible to explore this, but we look forward to learning more about in the future.

Waldorf STVC

By contrast, the Waldorf STVC string synthesizer and vocoder was fun to play and sounded great on our first test.  The vocoder played more smoothly with my voice than the Roland VP-03 that I frequently use (including in the opening for CatSynth TV).  But it does require dialing in the exact right patch for one’s voice.  When we returned to the booth to record our video segment, it took a while to find something that worked, and it wasn’t quite as good as that first time.  But we know this is part of the deal with vocoders, and they require practice to play well.

 

NAMM 2018: Rossum Electro-Music

Rossum Electro-Music Assimil8r.

We visited our friends at Rossum Electro-Music at NAMM and were treated to an in-depth demonstration of their Assimil8or module by Marco Alpert.

We are grateful to Marco for his demonstration, not just because it made our video awesome, but because it helped better understand what is a complex module.  The Assimil8or is a sample engine with many of the features one found in classic E-MU samplers, and more (Dave Rossum being the mastermind behind E-MU’s popular instruments).  One particularly intriguing advance was the timed switching among samples, which allows one to move between different tracks seamlessly while remaining in time (the Cars example in the video demonstrates this quite well).  There is also “virtual tape-scrubbing” of audio.  Of course, everything is CV controllable.

Combining the Assimil8or with the Morpheus module (which we at CatSynth own and enjoy) and the Control Forge, one can assemble something akin to an E-MU sampler on steroids, with vastly more complex and rich control options, including at audio rate!  Even the Morpheus on its own is rather overwhelming, but having seen the modules in action by the folks who made gives us ideas on how to use it better.  We look forward to more experiments with these modules from Rossum Electro-Music!

More info can be found at http://www.rossum-electro.com.

(Disclosure: Amanda Chaudhary of CatSynth used to work for E-MU Systems, several of whose principals are now at Rossum Electro-Music.)

NAMM: Qu-Bit Electronix New Modules

Qu-Bit Electronix modules

One of our first stops at NAMM 2018 was to visit our friends at Qu-Bit Electronix to see what they are up to.  They have three new modules, Synapse, Nebulae MK2, and Scanned.  We had a chance to try them out for ourselves – you can see a bit of our experience in this video.

We at CatSynth own and enjoy using the original Nebulae module, but the MK2 is a significant improvement, with more versatile and expressive controls for pitch, speed, and granularity (rate, window, etc.).  The main speed button traverses quite a range both forward and backward, and features a quick reset to unity by pressing.  Similar functionality is available with the pitch button.  The granularity features go beyond the original, including the ability to freeze the sound in place to create a steady timbre from any section of a recording.

The Scanned module is perhaps the first hardware implementation of scanned synthesis technique pioneered by Max Matthews and others.  The simplest way to describe it is as a system that provides the control of a struck or plucked string, but with a far greater range of sound than a vibrating string, such as any wavetable source.  The module has independent controls for pluck, tension, and many more parameters, of course all individually controlled via CV.  With pitch and gate input, it becomes the starting block for a rich modular instrument.

Although not included in the video demo, the Synapse is an interesting and handy module for mixing, switching, and otherwise routing a variety of CV sources to various destinations all from a single module.  It makes your CV sources more like a mixer with cross-fades and such.

Qu-Bit Electronix

 

It’s always fun to check in with Qu-Bit, and we look forward to seeing more of these modules.