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: Yudo KAMI-OTO and Neuman

We are always on the lookout for something (or someone) different at NAMM, especially in the deep dark depth of Hall E.  This year we found it in the booth of Yudo, a company out of Japan that presented prototypes for two radically different concepts.

The flagship Neuman synthesizer features a standard keyboard with an instrument-spanning touch screen.  It looks like an iPad stretched out to fit a full-sized keyboard.

The keyboard plays well, and there were standard sounds such as electric pianos, brass, etc.  The touchscreen controls for the patches were fascinating, but not particularly intuitive.  It was hard to see using it for sound design in its current incarnation.  But it is a prototype with an estimated two years or more of development ahead, so we will see where things go.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the KAMI-OTO, a small cardboard based keyboard controller to use with iPads.  It is a simple cardboard cutout that folds around a simple electronic main board and includes a stand for your tablet.  There are wired and Bluetooth models that go for $28 and $36, respectively via the company’s Kickstarter campaign.

We did have a chance to try it out.  It is adorable, and it does look like a fun and simple DIY project to assemble. And there is some delight in being able to decorate it in whatever manner one desires.  As a keyboard, however, the latency was extremely high, which would render it less than usable for us in a performance setting.  Nonetheless, for composing on the run, it could come in handy.

More info about both products can be found at https://www.yudo.jp/en/.

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.

NAMM Classics: Bastl Instruments and Bitwig Studio

That most wonderful time of year known as NAMM is fast approaching!  As we prepare to cover this year’s show, we’re sharing some of our past NAMM videos on CatSynth TV!

This year’s show starts on January 25.  Please let us know in these posts about anything specific you would like us to investigate or review while we are there.

NAMM 2017 Apocrypha and Final Thoughts

In this article, we go over a few remaining items from NAMM, and share some final thoughts as well.

The DATA module from Mordax takes the trend of built-in displays to another level. The large color screen displays a variety of functions, including oscilloscope, tuner , waveform generator and clock. It also has quite a few utility signal functions. It seems like quite the useful item for a medium or large modular system. Plus it looks great!

It’s a common problem with modular synthesizer systems to end up with 2hp empty and nothing to fill it with, except maybe a branded plate. 2hp quite literally fills this niche with a large selection of functional modules exactly 2hp wide.

We could all use extra multiples, or another envelope generator, or VCA. But their 2hp offerings include oscillators and filters. We could see these in various cases to get some handy functionality when needed.

Delptronics has made quite a few modules for percussion synthesis as well as for complex triggering of other modules. Their product line has grown; and we were particularly curious about the new spring module an its electro-acoustic possibilities.

We are always curious to see what 4ms has to offer, as the Spectral Multiband Filter has become one of our favorite modules for a variety of musical purposes. Their new offerings this year included a sampler module and tappable delay, which are shown in the upper right of the following photo.

There was of course more at the modular super booth and in the neighboring booths beyond what we have been able to cover this year. It will be inevitable that some products and manufactures don’t get mentioned in the blog, though we do have more on our Instagram feed during the show. We will have to figure out if there are any logistical changes we might want to try next year in order to see more while still remaining authentic and having the fun time at NAMM that we always do.


The trip home, despite the pouring rain and flooding in the LA Basin, ultimately turned out to be a pleasant one. I suppose I had a bit of a glow from the show, and full of ideas on how to move forward musically and personally in the challenging times ahead.

Even with the literal rainstorms outside and the dark pall cast by the political situation, inside the convention center we were all able to be ourselves and follow our passions for music and music technology. That doesn’t mean that outside reality didn’t intrude. It was impossible not to despair a bit on inauguration day; and by contrast Saturday with the Women’s Marches gave a bit of optimism. Mostly, I just kept doing what I came to NAMM to do. We hope you have enjoyed following our coverage, and we’ll be back doing it again next year barring some world-changing catastrophe (which unfortunately could happen).