Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Band play Abba's 'Mamma Mia' on numerous beer bottles

Haukur writes: "I thought you might like this band from Denmark (apparently dressed as the Pakistani cricket team) who play Abba's Mamma Mia on beer bottles". They're called Inflastikas, and they have a blog. But not a sampler, apparently.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Why is this electric guitar worth €2,500,000? Because it's made of pure cocaine

La Repubblica have a story (Google translation) and pictures about a 30-something guy who flew from Costa Rica to Fiumicino airport in Rome with a guitar (a black Squier Strat, with the label still on the scratchplate) and 10 thermos flasks in his luggage. The customs official noticed white powder leaking out of the guitar which tested positive for cocaine. Cocaine in solution was also found in the thermos flasks - a total of €2.5m worth. (Yes, there's some weird photoshop action in the first photo, not sure what that's about). Seems music-related smuggling is fairly popular: NY Times has half a pound of heroin in a guitar, and this chap 19kg of coke in three guitar amps 'bought while wandering around the shops in Trinidad', and these jokers wanted to stuff a piano with E and coke and bring it over from Holland. (Thanks, Paolo)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Infinite Response Vax 77: Folding full-sized keyboard to fit in overhead locker

This is the Vax 77 - a MIDI keyboard which folds in half, weighs 25lbs, is made of unobtanium powder coated Magnesium alloy and has two OLED screens (with a rumoured upgrade to a small polytouch screen). It's 77 keys because that's the most they could fit in and still make it small enough (when folded in half) to fit in an overhead locker. But, but, but, there's no price yet, and their site is just a bunch of renders. The most interesting suggestion for synth geeks is that the keyboard will have polyphonic aftertouch - the semi-legendary feature where each key can be pushed harder after the initial attack to control the filter (or whatever) of that individual note. It's the first time any manufacture has offered poly aftertouch for years. Synth designer John Bowen says in this thread and this one that there's nobody making a mass-market PA keyboard, so the Vax will have to be custom manufactured (rather than churned out in China) so expect costs to be somewhere between $$$$ and $$$$$. Still, it does fold in half...

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Incredibly cool Zerotronics mini passive spring reverb

While I was at wandering around AES in New York last week I made a startling discovery. I'm pretty sure that I have now seen enough super expensive vintage-ey boutique rackmount audio gear to last me a lifetime. The first twenty boxes looked shiny and exciting, the next thousand didn't, really. Anyway, here is something expensive and boutique, but a bit different. Zerotronics make passive spring reverbs - line level goes in, mic level signal (+ reverb) comes out. They have no controls and no mains cable - just a monolithic black rack box with four XLR sockets on the back. Their new thing is the Mini-LE, which is the same principle but in a hardback book-sized box. Inside are two old-stock reverb springs for Baldwin electronic organs. Zerotronics found the springs on eBay, then tracked down an organ technician with a small stash. $795, limited run of ten units. More rock'n'roll but less chic are valve-powered stand-alone spring reverb units like the Guyatone FR-3 and Valvetrain Spring Thing. (More springy goodness) (Thanks Ian)

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Q: What happens if you find a vast Moog Modular from 1969 in a cupboad at work?

A: The synth geek gods will smite you down... Guitarist Drew (aka badhatharry) works in Bakersfield at Buck Owen's Crystal Palace. Buck was big country star. In 1971, Jeff Haskell released Switched on Buck, an album of synth versions of his songs. It was recorded on a huge Moog Modular, bought by Buck in 1969. The synth has presumably been hanging around his Crystal Palace club/museum/restaurant ever since. Until Drew found it and asked his boss if he could get it out and fire it up - from the pictures it looks to be in phenomenal condition and must be worth tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. He also joined the Vintage Synth Explorer forum and posted a very polite 'Oh wow, I might need some advice' post, which has received a string of patronising, angry and jealous responses (representative quote: "You should REALLY put this thing away and stop messing with it... Put it back where you found it, apologize to your boss for the harm you've done to it so far, and hope they don't discover what you've been doing and fire you.") Still, I guess the huge modular synth is some kind of compensation... (via Matrix Synth where there are more 'hey, you are a moron' comments and a long response from Drew)

Friday, October 12, 2007

Sequencer controlled by Rubik's Cube - playable online

American/Frenchman Douglas Edric Stanley is professor of digital arts at Aix-en-Provence school of art, where he gets to build things like this sequencer controlled by a rubiks cube. It's an installation thing, not very clearly illustrated in this video. More excitingly, there's a playable online version (instructions here). This is Douglas' point: Most electronic instruments have a more-or-less obscure interface (lots of knobs and buttons), which can be intimidating. However, once you know what the knobs do, they're often very simple to use, with limited possibilities. With this thing, the interface is very immediate (everyone knows how to manipulate a rubiks cube) but it's phenomenally difficult and complicated to actually play - because every move messes up another side.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

R.I.P Phil Dodds, synth guy from Close Encounters

Yann writes: "I don't know if you know about Philip Dodds...he was the guy who played the ARP 2500 in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He was VP of Engineering at ARP, he wrote all of the service manuals and
schematics and helped design and build many ARP synths, from the 2600 to the Chroma. He then went on to work for Kurzweil, developing the digital pianos. He was even involved in the creation of the MIDI standard. He also happened to be my uncle. I thought you might be interested to know that he died last weekend."
Phil is the young, nervous looking chap who says 'What are we saying to each other?' at 1:05 in the clip above. Read more at the AICC blog and Wikipedia.

Arturia's Analog Factory keyboard controller with little Moogy knobs

Arturia, maker of quality retro soft synths, are planning a dedicated controller for their Analog Factory software. This is the prototype from AES - 2.5 octaves, 11 knobs, four sliders, metal case, really nice chunky WOODEN END PANELS. Outputs MIDI and USB. Looks like $349/£229, shipping in January. It's being built by CME in China, unlike the rather more exepensive Origin and, for extra hotness Origin Keyboard

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Yamaha Tenori On review: Many good things, many bad

I've had the Yamaha Tenori On for about five days now, so these are first thoughts. Summary version: It's awesome that this thing exists, that Toshio Iwai got a chance to make it. It's intuitive (in the pic on the right, Alex isn't just jabbing buttons, he's holding down a function key and selecting sounds). Does that mean you'll want to spend £599 buying one for yourself? Well, I can think of better ways to spend the money. Epic list of pros and cons after the jump. I'd also recommend Sonic State's video review if you want something more in-depth and less opinionated.

The good things:

1. It's unique. Almost every part of it - the shape, the look, the interface, the sound - is unlike anything else I've ever seen.

2. It's fantastic that Yamaha used a tiny slice of their profits from selling electric pianos and workstations to let Toshio Iwai get his dream manufactured and into the shops. Even if it's only in a few record shops in Britain at the moment. It must have cost them a lot, and it's the kind of thing that's normally left to passionate enthusiasts.

3. It's a complicated, sophisticated little machine. It's self contained, with a real operating system, a detailed display and so on. I LOVE that it has batteries and speakers. It's slightly unfair to compare it with the sexier, cheaper Monome, which is essentially a bunch of switches and lights in a pretty box, with all the heavy lifting done by the computer.

4. 16x16 step sequencing is great - very fast, intuitive, fun way to enter beats and chords.

5. It uses a clever key/scale system, which makes it even easier to enter notes. You can really just doodle with your finger and make something which sounds roughly like music.

6. In the dark, it looks incredible. The lights on the back look ace. Play it in the evening near a window and watch the reflections.

7. Many of the sounds are great - there's a definite Toshio Iwai sound, if you liked Elektroplankton, you'll like these. Warm and organic and original.

8. It's great while running on batteries - very compact, quick to load, nice to sit on the sofa and fiddle. The weight of 6xAA batteries also makes it feel a bit more sturdy.

9. Choosing presets with one key for each sound = Very nice. (I can see where Art Lebedev is coming from)

And yet... the bad things:

1. No getting away from it. It looks and feels like a toy. The main buttons don't feel great, and they all rattle. It may be deliberate, so you can run your fingers across a row, but it feels cheap cheap cheap.

2. I think the main chassis is aluminum, but coated in so much plasticy varnish that it looks and feels like plastic.

3. Maybe a third of the 256 sounds are non-great General Midi sounds - piano, strings, bagpipes(?).

4. There's no touch sensitivity, and I haven't found any easy way to add any dynamics apart from track mixing - which can only be automated in the 'record song' system.

5. There's no hardware volume control. You have to fish in a menu to change it.

6. It's designed for people with four thumbs. If you're holding the thing in both hands, you can reach the 'shift' buttons, but then can't reach the main buttons, so you have to put it down.

7. It's absolutely not a synth. You can't modify any of the internal sounds in any way - no filters, envelopes etc. They're mostly very short one-shot samples (some loop, and a few evolve interestingly). There are no musical sequences or loops.

8. Every note is fixed length across the sequence. You can't have a long and a short note together in any sequence. You can't slide or tie notes together in any way, even in the real time 'draw' mode.

9. It feels a bit churlish to say it, but the effects are hopeless - a reverb and a chorus/flanger, both master effects on the mix - and both on by default.

10. The MIDI out works - it was quite fun hooking it up to four channels on the Nord G2 and triggering sounds. It sends MIDI clock, but doesn't seem receive it (The manual is ambiguous, says it recieves clock, but also says it only syncs to another Tenori - anyone experimented with this more?). I briefly connected it to the MPC, which would have been great, except the notes ouputted didn't play nicely with my programs, so... it would be a blah to make a workaround.

But most of all... It costs £599. That's $1,200. I can understand there are reasons for the price - a limited run, a more sophisticated machine than most boutique gear. But if they're selling this as an ultra-luxe treat for geeks, then it has to look and feel sexy and expensive. It doesn't. Yes, the comparison with the Monome is slightly unfair, but I suspect it would be a simple job to recreate all the Tenori functions on a Monome.

Many of my objections might be fixable with a software upgrade, but I suspect the Tenori is in a tricky place: I don't know if it's really lovable enough to be on every rich kid's Christmas list, and I'm pretty sure it's not geeky enough to be on mine. Which is a real shame. Most importantly, it's a really good lesson for geeks like me. It's easy to complain that big synth companies never do anything innovative or exciting. Then one comes along and does exactly that, and we're left saying 'not good enough'. Which is a real shame. But feeling sympathetic to Yamaha and Toshio Iwai wouldn't make me spend £599 on this.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Look what just arrived!

A Tenori On just arrived from Yamaha. I'll write more once I've got the hang of it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Deviant Synth is the synth blog for people who hate synth blogs

Deviant Synth is the new blog from Eric Barbour of Metasonix (among other contributors). Eric has helped Music Thing out many times with facts/background/knowledge etc. The blog has a great manifesto - "We want readers to post twisted, schizophrenic synthesizer bullshit. Anything posted will be taken down if it is at all synth-collector oriented, chiptune-related, dull, or sheeplike... Links to schematics of exact copies of CS-80 filters are not welcome. Neither are links to fansites for Kraftwerk, Klaus Schulze, Can, Tangerine Dream, Ultravox, Gay Fairy Twinkle, or any other hideous 70s or 80s funny-haircut nostalgia keyboard act.... All tech must be ODD. Germanium transistors, arcane synth modules, vacuum tubes, steam-powered piston oscillators, whatever -- it has to be WRONG.. The picture above, of a prototype Sheryl Crow Sodomy synth is par for the course. Eric is looking for more contributors - anyone with a Wordpress account can post.

How to: Turn a pizza box into a laptop DJ controller in two minutes

Dave sends this excellent instructional video, showing how to turn an optical mouse, a greasy pizza box, a pair of scissors and some sticky tape into a reasonably functional DJ scratch controller. That said, I don't think it will be replacing the awesome new Livid Ohm Controller which Peter reports on at CDM.