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Maschine Heart.


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I finally picked up Native Instruments Maschine last week and have spent all day today working on a remix so that I can learn how it works.  I’m not going to review it just yet because I’m still getting my head around it all.

All I can say right now is “MY BALLS!!! THIS SHIT IS DOPPPPEEEE!”.

Seriously.

You always take a gamble when you buy new gear.  This is particularly so when you buy complex gear like samplers and midi controller interfaces and software etc.  So far, Maschine has been awesome.  I’ll do a gear review of it in the future when I’ve mastered it a bit.

However, my experience with Maschine so far is bitter sweet.  I’m actually legitimately saddened.  The reason for my sadness is this:  I can see Maschine coming to replace my MPC2000XL for the majority of my production.  That is seriously heart wrenching for me.

I bought my MPC2000XL in about 2000/2001 when I got my first proper job.  Since then I must have produced well in excess of 1000 beats on it.  It has never faltered or caused me any issues.  It has travelled thousands upon thousands of kilometres with me.

Perhaps people who aren’t producers wouldn’t understand but the truth is – you build up a relationship with your music making equipment.  Sometimes these bits of circuitry and buttons are your only respite from all the bullshit that is happening in your life.  If I had a bad day, I always knew that I could go into the lab, fire up the MPC and forget about all my problems for a little while at least.  And you come to know ever little function, feature and quirk of the gear that you use regularly.  It really does become like a friend.

It’s not mere nostalgia talking here.  There is a genuine sadness.

However, the MPC2000XL does have its limitations and they are limitations that are now limiting my ability to keep up with the demands of my production cycle.  Primarily, the fact that I mix in Logic (and the MPC doesn’t interface with computers like Maschine does) means that I spend far too much time bouncing individual tracks out so that I can mix my beats.

I’m about to move my MPC2000XL to the small “ideas table” in the corner of my lab.  This is the place where I leave stuff to use irregularly whenever I’m looking at changing my workflow and generating some new ideas.  I’m going to put Maschine here in front of my iMac as my primary production tool and sequencer.

Just know that I do it with a very heavy heart.

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2012 in Audio production, gear, Production

 

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The Perfection of Imperfection.


Akai EX85P... mmm.

Hi folks,

The advent of digital recording and the unrelenting pressure of pop music has ushered in an age of super-clean recordings. For the most part, this makes me sad. I tend to comfort myself by going on eBay.

I’m a fan of eBay. I can frequently be found scouring various lists on the hunt for audio gear of all types. Generally I buy obscure, unknown bits and pieces just to see what they sound like. Rarely do I bother bidding on well-known kit because the savings to be had are pretty slim – you just can’t get a TR808 for $250. Everybody knows that.

Most recently I picked up an Akai EX85P parametric equalizer for about AU$50. I’d never run across one before but it looked interesting. It’s a circa 1990 model of prosumer gear with all the classic beige and red design elements that old school MPC users can’t help but love. Aside from it’s appearance and what I could read from the screen, I knew nothing else about it. However, I’m yet to buy a bit of gear that I haven’t put to good use so I figured it was worth a bid. And, lo and behold, it’s an absolute cracker of an EQ.

The specs are as follows:

  • Mono, 6.5mm balanced ins and outs (hence prosumer)
  • High and low shelving (40hz and 12000hz respectively) with +/- 18db
  • Two sweepable mids ranging from 100Hz to 8000Hz (with considerable overlap) at +/- 18db
  • Adjustable Q for each mid frequency band (the Q factor isn’t listed but it seems to be about 6 to .7)
  • It has a footswitch input too, but I haven’t got a pedal for it and, moreover, I can’t see what it would do except engage and disengage the effects bypass.

Overall, it’s pretty standard in terms of features. However, the amount of boost/cut is pretty substantial and it can really have an enourmous impact on the shape of the sound. I haven’t put it on any tracks yet but I’ve been having a great time doing super-resonant filter sweeps on everything from synth lines to dodgey mariachi records. Good fun.

Many years ago I also bought a mono Ashly peak limiter/compressor for something like $40. Again, information on these units is thin on the ground. In short, it is simply not pro-grade gear. That said though, I’ve used this compressor on numerous recordings in the signal chain of numerous instruments and vocals and it is a lovely bit of kit. The design doesn’t allow you to set a threshold (a true peak limiter), which means you have to drive a signal hard into it before it starts to operate. However you can adjust attack, release and ratio settings (the ratios are all pretty intense) and you can adjust the level of output. The thing I love about this compressor, though, is not it’s features nor even it’s intended sound. Rather, I love it’s terrible design flaws and angry grittiness.

Since owning the unit, I’ve discovered that the manufacturers made a terrible mistake when they put it together. They used a kind of foam to line the top and bottom plate of the casing which worked fine for a year or two before age and heat began to make it disintegrate. Consequently particles of foam would build up on the circuitry causing the various transisters and op-amps to overheat and, essentially, malfunction. As a result, the unit I now own (though cleared of any residual foam lining) generates considerable harmonic distortion which, although far below “hi fi” standards let alone “pro audio” is not entirely unpleasant when used in certain circumstances.

Of late, I’ve been running the compressor as a parallel compression unit, driven very hard and then filtered and layered with clean vocal recordings to generate a gritty low end warmth. It’s pretty solid on live bass, too, particularly if you’re using a DI approach.

So, what’s my point? Well, just this – sometimes the best tones you can create don’t come from ultra-high end, super-clean studio gear. Sometimes, you’ll only achieve your own brand of perfection if you let the imperfections run wild for a while.

Any of you have stories about temperamental or downright lo-fi gear that has made you smile?

PEESHE

 

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Gear review… Rocktron Banshee 2!


Hi folks,

Ever found that your own vocal skills are a little too human?  I mean, we all need a unique selling point – I read that somewhere.  Let’s call it a USP.  And what can be more unique than not sounding like a human being?  I know what you’re thinking… Bob Dylan has already cornered the market on that one.  True, true.  But haven’t you ever wanted to go one step further?

Alternatively, if you’re one of those people who (like myself) have stared in the face of a complete lack of singing ability and laughed (then cried… then sort of half laughed and cried) then the Rocktron Banshee talkbox is for you!

Talkboxes are nothing new.  The first incarnations came in the form of bagpipe-looking devices that were made in the 50’s.  These were little more than speakers in a bag with a tube attached.  Similar ideas such as transducers that were strapped to a singers throat were also developed shortly after.    But it wasn’t until the mid 70’s and early 80’s that talkboxes in their current guise were used in any meaningful way.  The two stand out artists that popularised this strange device were Peter Frampton on his classic album ‘Peter Frampton Comes Alive’ and the undisputed king of the talkbox, Mr. Roger Troutman in his recordings with Zapp.

So, what then is a talkbox?  Well, it’s actually a very simple device that produces a very unique sound.  If you live in the USA you can put one together pretty easily and cheaply – those of us in places like Australia have a lot more trouble getting our hands on the parts.  However, the way it works is like this:

1.  A signal is sent to an amplifier.

2.  The amplifier drives a compression/horn driver that has an operational frequency range of approx. 300Hz to 6000Hz (that is, a midrange driver).

3.  A tube is fed from the throat of the compression driver (where the sound comes from) and directly into the mouth of the performer.

4.  The performer uses their throat and mouth to modulate the sound much like they would if they were talking.

5.  A microphone placed before the performer picks up the modulated sound emanating from the performers mouth.

In short, you can make the music played on your guitar or keyboard sound like it’s talking or singing.

Playing a talkbox well is actually very hard to do.  You don’t actually make any noise yourself like you would if you were singing or talking, you simply manipulate the sound that is being played through the tube into your mouth.  The only exception to this is with regards to ‘fricative’ and ‘sibilant’ sounds – like F, S, T, SH, TH, K etc.  When you make these sounds in speech, you are not using the sound that is resonating in your vocal chords but rather creating the sounds by forcing air between your tongue, teeth, lips or at the back of your throat.  Thus, when playing a talkbox (which in effect replaces your vibrating vocal chords) you will still need to add in these sibilant and fricative sounds.  You can give this a shot right now and get an idea of how hard it can be.  Try saying “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” but only expressing the fricative/sibilant sounds e.g “TH. Q…K B…. F..X J….D .V..TH. ..Z. D.G”.  If you don’t put these sounds in, the talkbox doesn’t really sound like it’s talking.  The art of playing well (and it really is an art) is to find a balance between the tone of the talkbox, the fricative sounds and the musical progressions.

Why not watch the legend Roger Troutman do this live.  Please bear in mind the clarity of articulation he achieves is so very, very hard.

Anyway, back to this review.

The Rocktron Banshee 2 is a solid piece of kit.  It’s designed as a steel-cased stompbox and aimed more at the guitarist market than the keyboardist – but works perfectly fine for keyboard signals.  Inside the box there is an amplifier that drives a compression driver.  The box has three knobs and 3 buttons on top.  One button is your typical stompbox in/out switch.  The other two buttons allow for the original signal to be simultaneously sent to a separate amplifier and also to send the signal through an effects loop prior to running it into the compression driver.  The knobs are labeled ‘Gain’, ‘Tone’ and ‘Output’ and do exactly what they appear to do.  The Gain increases the signal being input into the amplifier (allowing you to drive it into healthy levels of screaming distortion), the Tone is pretty much a gentle low-pass filter that controls the brightness of the amplified sound and the output increases the volume of the signal being sent up the tube.  The tube plugs into the top of the box, directly above the compression driver, and is of a generous length to allow for pretty much all uses to which you might put the talkbox (and, if you’re like me, you probably just thought of some uses to which you should definately NOT put the talkbox).

Generally, a talkbox is a simple design and pretty hard to mess up.  Rocktron have consequently produced a nice little device.  However, it is not all sunshine and daffodils.  There are some minor issues.  Firstly, the way the tube connects to the box is a little lacking.  The tube “plugs in” to a hole in the top of the box, but it could easily be knocked loose in the heat of live performance.  That would be a disaster.  If no sound comes up the tube, then the talkbox does not work.  I would have much preferred a screw on type fitting.  Secondly, the driver is pretty noisy.  This is probably unavoidable.  You see it in any talkbox to greater or lesser degrees and it stems from the fact that pushing a useful volume of sound up a tube into someone’s mouth requires significant amplification.  The more you amplify a sound, the worse the signal to noise ratio becomes.  Additionally, complex frequencies produce the best sounds – so you will want to use a sawtooth based synth patch and drive the gain (or run your guitar through a fuzz box of some sort).  These factors will also increase noise.  It’s not really a “fault” of the Roctron Banshee 2 but I have heard talkboxes that handle the noise issue better.

The talkbox is probably the most fun you can have with your mouth without being arrested but it really is a limited tool for a musician.  You can vary the tone and the signal that is being fed into the device, but you can never escape that “talkboxy” sound.  That said, if you like weird musical experiments then you’ll never be disappointed with a talkbox.  And the Rocktron Banshee 2 is a fine example with which to begin.

PEESHE

 

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Gear review… Korg microKorg.


Korg microKorg

Hi folks,

If you’re anything like me then you love a bit of synth action.  It’s funny, actually.  I don’t listen to music with synths in it that much – I prefer the character of acoustic and electric instruments rather than the buzzing, filter-driven sound of oscillators at work.  However, there are few things that are more fun to play than a synthesizer.  There’s a deep-seated desire (particularly among young men, it seems) to twist knobs and flick switches. Go figure.

Ordinarily, synthesizers of any merit are well beyond the budget of your average music maker.  I’m talking about classics here: the Minimoog Voyager XL will run you back a cool $5000; the Prophet ’08 from Dave Smith Instruments is a mere $2100; why not get an EMS Putney VCS3 – that’s only $21000 (and that’s not a typo).  All of this is quite disheartening for the synth lover.  Even if you could afford a few hundred dollars for a synth – surely it’s not going to be much good, right?  Well… not necessarily.

Dave Smith Instruments - Prophet 08

I got a Korg microKorg a couple of years ago (it was AU$899 at the time but your can get them new for as little as AU$400 these days).  At the time I was looking for a controller keyboard but I was browsing around the store, playing stuff I couldn’t afford to buy and I stumbled across this mini-keyed wonder.  Immediately I doubled my budget and snatched it up.

Different types of music require different approaches to synthesis.  Dance music is big on “fatness” with heavy use of unison samples and pulsing LFOs.  Progressive rock is partial to watery pads and the occasional screaming lead – choruses and distortion are the order of the day here.  Hip hop folks like punchy, crunch basslines and sine-driven melodic leads.  Meanwhile, the dubstep crew just want to gate everything.  It is this diversity of demands that allows the microKorg to shine.  It is truly a flexible beast capable of providing solid sounds for each and every one of the above listed purposes.

In fact, the potential for sounds that lies within this synth is often masked by the light-weight nature of its design.  It’s aesthetically pleasing, but it doesn’t give you that “Surely this button controls the universe” feel of epicness.  It has nice wooden ends, but if you pick it up it feels like a hollow, plastic toy.  The thing can even run on batteries – what on Earth says “I’m not professional kit!” like battery operation?  And, yet, plug it into an amp and you will be impressed.

In terms of specs, the microKorg has two independent oscillators, a noise generator and two LFOs.  It allows the parameters of these elements to be edited independently but not entirely, freely – there’s no ‘real’ patchbay, though there is a virtual routing system which is fiddly but very flexible.  There’s a master envelope/filter section, accessible via five knobs on the top right hand of the keyboard.  These knobs offer cutoff, resonance, attack, release and tempo – all of which affect all sounds in a particular patch.  You can modify the envelope, EQ, effects, arpeggio, voice, pitch etc etc settings for each individual oscillator via a bit of knob-jockeying.  At first, this process seems complex and slow but, as you use the synth more and more, you will find that it all becomes quite quick.  It’s only when you try to do something out of the ordinary that you’ll find yourself leaning closely over the screen printed menu on the case looking for the place they’ve hidden the particular parameter you’re after.

Many people have complained about the keyboard on the microKorg.  It’s a plastic, unweighted but velocity sensitive affair with keys that are about 3/4 the size (or maybe 2/3) of regular keyboard keys.  That’s why they called it the microKorg, I guess.  The issue with the keyboard has nothing to do with it’s sensitivity or durability – only the most hammer-fingered player would break it in ordinary use – rather, people haven’t found the undersized keys particularly “playable”.  A friend of mine raises this complaint, occasionally.  For me, it has never been a problem – in fact, I like the small keys.  The issue, I think, comes down to whether you are a trained pianist and a long-time keyboardist or not.   I’m not.  I quickly became used to the keys.  A few of my friends are pianists – they really struggle to overcome the muscle memory they’ve developed in working with fullsized keys.  I can see their point of view but this is a personal issue, not a fault with the product in itself.

We can talk all we like about specs and design.  In the end, synthesis all comes down to the sound.  I’ll readily admit – the microKorg does not have the “sparkle” of a Prophet ’08.  It doesn’t rattle your windows in quite the same way as the Minimoog Voyager XL, either.  However, it gets damn close to producing comparable sounds to both of these units and pretty much everything in between.  There’s no way I can explain the sound adequately in words.  You’d have to hear it and make up your own mind.  Suffice to say, though, that everyone who has come around to my studio since I bought the microKorg has been impressed by its performance.  And, for AU$400, I’m sure you’d be impressed too.

Oh… and it has a Vocoder.

PEESHE

 

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