Casio SK-1: Overhaul, Part One

Tuesday, October 8, 2013 at 2:42 am

Casio SK-1 (artist's rendering)

This is part of a series of posts about the Casio SK-1. For more, see the introduction page.

Stage One: I Accidentally A Pattern (Intro)

I’d had a long day at the office. I wanted to mess about with some music stuff, but I figured I was too wiped for any sort of serious effort. I decided to dig out my Casio SK-1, which I hadn’t used in ages. After a bit of messing around, I decided to record myself playing it, then went to sleep.

The next evening, I found myself in the same situation: tired, but still wanting to do some musics. I played the SK-1 for a bit, then recorded myself playing it. Again.

When the situation repeated itself the third evening, I realized I’d “accidentally a pattern,” and decided to keep going. I created a soundcloud for it. I made up a set of rules for the project to keep it on track: Sample whatever beforehand, do a bit of noodling to warm up, then record it, maybe with some aux effects. No more than one a day. Try to do it daily; but OK to skip it.

After about two weeks, I’d been all over the thing — gotten around to all the more obscure functions, like additive synthesis and the built-in sequencer (“memory”). My SK-1 was circuit bent, but only ever so slightly: three switches; that’s it. Worse, it was grungy. Dust in all the crevices, someone (possibly me) spilled beer on it a few years ago, and so on. None of these things had bothered me before, but now that I was doing A Thing, I increasingly felt need to do the SK-1 justice. I wanted to make it owsum. So, I put SK-1 Jams on hiatus, and promptly got in over my head modding the thing.

More below the cut.


Casio SK-1: Introduction

Monday, October 7, 2013 at 9:49 pm

Casio SK-1

The Casio SK-1 is a sampler. Press a button and yell into its mic, and it will staidly BLARP, indicating it has stored your exclamation. Either that, or it will crash and not BLARP. If it doesn’t crash, you can then play your voice on the keyboard: it shifts the pitch to match the notes. Have your dog bark into it, and do your own rendition of “dogs sing jingle bells.” Dig into it further, though, and there’s actually a lot more: envelope settings, additive synthesis, a primitive sequencer, and some basic FX. In short, it’s pretty powerful for something you’ll find buried in thrift shops across the country. What’s more, the thing is a riot: no piece of musical equipment I own is better suited to entertaining a bunch of drunk people at a party. The ability to turn anyone’s voice into Alvin the chipmunk is inherently hilarious, and once people get the basic concept, the thing becomes a party game: people want to take turns trying it with their voice. Some people make funny noises, some people say dirty words, others sing a note, and still others simply yell “HELLO” at it. Eventually, someone gets impatient and starts yelling over someone else, and the resulting jumble of noise is even more hilarious.

Yet, the SK-1’s general popularity derives from something else entirely: It’s a goldmine for circuit bending. Get into circuit bending, and you’ll immediately hear about the SK-1 — and all the other Casio SK models. The SK-1, in particular, is easy to bend, and the results are amazing. The SK-1 is not terribly rare, or hard to find. They’re amazingly resilient, despite their age. If the Speaks & [VERB]s are the de facto ambassadors of circuit bending, the SK’s are cultural attachés, quietly laying the groundwork for circuit bending’s popularity as a whole.  People typically bend a Speak first: it’s quick and easy. Move on to an SK-1, though, and you’ll tumble down the rabbit hole in short order. In a sense, while the Speaks are very straightforward, they’re also shallow. The SK-1, on the other hand, is crazy deep. With oodles of info on the internet (including the service manuals!), it pushes a lot of people to move beyond merely shorting contacts together at random. After trying bend points for a bit, you notice the best bend points are in neat columns. When you figure this out, it’s tantalizing. It dawns you that you might actually be able to comprehend how this thing works on a deeper level; do things deliberately, not accidentally. The Internet will promptly serve up as much info as you can stand. It’s addicting.

Recently, I overhauled my SK-1, and I felt like writing it up. Once I do, I’ll update this post with links… figure I’ll also re-link all the SK-1 sites, too, rather than force people to dig through the overhaul posts for hyperlinks.

I do diary-style jams on my SK-1; you can find them here:

Free Agent

Tuesday, February 21, 2012 at 10:05 pm

I wake up every day, and there is stuff to do; things to make. I use tools to make things and do stuff, because they accelerate and expand what I am individually capable of. One such tool is the computer. I get an amazing amount of stuff done on computers, and I’ve come to rely quite heavily on them to make the gears in my life turn. Work, family, my personal projects, ordering from Domino’s Pizza — all of these things are gradually getting vacuumed up into the Internet. Ziggurats like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Apple squabble to own the master key — your whole life, as run by Apple. Or Google. Or Microsoft. I’m just an individual trying get stuff done, and I’ll use whatever works. It’s extremely irritating to be treated as a “thing” that a bunch of rich kids are fighting over. I got involved with these companies in the first place because they allowed me to get a lot of stuff done, but once we became enmeshed they put a gun to my head: keep feeding us your cash, or we’ll shut your whole life off. No work will get done, no books will be written, no e-mails will be sent to mom, no funny cat videos will be liked…. unless you become a piece of intellectual property owned by a bunch of squabbling billionaires. I think a guy named George Orwell wrote something about this, but he missed the capitalism angle.

As my disgust for all these companies skyrockets, I seek alternatives. I’ve become exponentially aggressive in taking ownership of my digital life, because I fear if I wait much longer, I’ll never be able to escape. Facebook technicians will break into my house and forcibly graft a device to me that announces whenever I move my bowels (and publicly shame me if my movements are not regular enough). I could become some crazy old coot and go live in the woods for the rest of my life, but I quite like everyday society. I’d like to participate in all the wonders life has to offer without being “branded” like a cow. Are you a Google Person or a Microsoft Person or a Facebook Person or a Samsung Person or a Verizon Person? It’s as gross as factory farming, except we’re the cattle.

I decided to start disentangling my life from G-Mail, once Google announced their grand unification scheme. I can’t axe it completely, unless I want to delete all my youtube videos, lose touch with people who don’t know I’ve switched emails, have every copy of my resume go to a dead email address, etc. I set up my own personal email server. It was time-consuming and difficult, and it still doesn’t work 100%, but it’s mine. All things considered, G-Mail is incredibly slick, handy, and accessible. Yet, I’ve gotten so incredibly pissed off at Google that I’m essentially willing to become an old coot living in the woods at this point. I’m a techie, a computer nut, and that’s why I was able to set up my own email (build a house in the woods). But what about everyone else? It really bothers me. It threatens to kill what makes the Internet wonderful — anyone can pile on to share, learn, and create. But now, huge walls are being built. Google and Microsoft don’t play nice; neither of them want you to leave their little theme park. So they build bigger walls, and add barbed wire. Welcome to the internet concentration camp….

There is no silver bullet for this problem. The only answer is for millions of individuals like myself to step up and clean up the mess: once I get all the bugs worked out of my own email system, I’m setting one up for my parents. Then maybe another for a friend, in exchange for a case of beer. Linux (Ubuntu in particular) is getting really good. It still needs a bit more elbow grease before it’s grandma-proof, but the days of beating your head over Xconfigurate are starting to end, and not a moment too soon. Become a free agent, or risk being stuck on the same team forever.

If Microsoft Were A Pizza Parlour

Saturday, January 7, 2012 at 8:36 pm

This is a rant that has been over 20 years in the making. By and large, I’m a quiet lad; I keep to myself. But, things are coming to a head, so here it is (and I pray to God I don’t get sued for expressing my opinions):

If Microsoft were a pizza delivery place, it would go something like this:

1. You see an ad for a delicious pizza. It looks real good. Price is reasonable. You decide to give ’em a ring and order a deluxe pie.

2. The person answering the phone sounds young, hip, enthusiastic. Your order is quickly taken, and the anticipation starts to build.

3. The pizza arrives after 29 minutes of the promised 30-minute delivery time. So far so good. But you open the box, and….

4. The pizza is raw. Uncooked. What’s more, many of the toppings you expected aren’t there. Angry, you phone them up…

5. “Please hold for tech support. For increased priority, you can sign up for the Gold package…”

6. Finally, you get someone on the line. They explain that they won’t be able to deliver a baked pizza until third quarter 2016, and if you want the rest of your toppings, you can have a handful delivered each week for a monthly subscription fee of just $10 ($100 if you pay for a year up front). Furthermore, by ordering a pizza from them you agreed to a binding contract full of long legal words you don’t understand.

7. Disgusted, you hang up the phone and put the pizza in the oven yourself. It turns out like crap. You don’t have one of those brick-fired pizza ovens that pizza places have, and half the toppings are missing.

8. You eat, but you don’t eat well. You feel distinctly unsatisfied and more than a little screwed over.

9. Next week, you try to order a pizza from somewhere else — screw those clowns after last week! — only to find there is no one else. Microsoft, in the middle of the night, has gone around town and burned all the rival pizza places down, captured the managers, and held their families for ransom; their chestnuts to the fire, etc.

10. You’re left with a choice of A) Willingly get screwed over B) Make the pizza yourself (Linux). Obviously, you pick B.

11. Annoyed that you’ve chosen B) over A), Microsoft buys out the Pepperoni manufacturer (Office Software), and the dairy that makes the Mozzarella (Video Games). “Can I get half a pound of pepperoni and a bag of mozzarella for my pizza?” “That’s only available by subscription when you order a Microsoft Pizza. The cows won’t be milked until third quarter 2016, so you can expect your mozzarella sometime in 2017. Meanwhile, please pay us $10/month.”

12. Microsoft takes all the money they’ve strongarmed people out of, and uses it to corner the Pizza industry in the next town over.

Microsoft has never been a very good company, just a powerful one. Their is general strategy is to bullhorn their way into newer, fertile markets while bankrolling the effort off the tolls they exact from markets they’ve already cornered. Sometimes it takes them years (X-Box) and sometimes they simply give up (Zune). Once they have a market, they hook people into a never-ending stream of “updates,” many of which serve no purpose but to squeeze people that have already paid for their nonsense (Windows, X-Box).

Windows 95 was heralded by Microsoft as revolutionary, amazing, etc. and it certainly looked different. I rather approved of the interface change, actually. It could have been nice. Instead, it was slow, buggy, and…. well, rude. The more interesting bits of the computer got buried in ugly messes. For example: Windows 3.1 used .INI files for most of its internal configuration. The files were unhidden, and plain text. You could go in with a text editor and mess around, if you felt so inclined. You got no help in doing so, but people like me that like this stuff don’t need any. We just enjoy tinkering and exploring.

In stark contrast to the simplicity of .INIs, Windows 95 introduced the registry, a hairy, dark-magic mess that requires a special tool to edit. While I agree that things were becoming too complex to manage with .INI files, Microsoft’s solution simply traded a small problem for a larger one. Then they charged people for it. Then they charged people again to fix the bugs in their flawed design.

It’s not just the poor design decisions — mistakes that some freshman comp sci student would make — it’s the general lack of quality. Windows 95 was buggy and aggravating! It took Microsoft multiple versions of Windows to nail it down. Windows 98, then Windows ME, then Windows 2000, and finally Windows XP. I’ve purchased licenses for all of these, and not once was it by choice. A Dell laptop I bought around 2001 came with Windows ME (which, by most accounts, was actually worse than Win98), and I couldn’t opt out of buying it. The Microsoft Bully Monopoly made sure of that. They also made sure the buggy piece of crap I was forced to pay for was unusable on any other computer. If, for some reason, I wanted to take my copy of Windows ME and use it on my desktop, it wouldn’t let me. The install CD was keyed to the laptop. It was at this point that I started more seriously using Linux, simply because I was starting to get pissed off. Not because Linux is better (we’ll save that argument for another day) but because I resented being pushed around; being treated like cattle.

What’s changed since Windows 95? Not much. When I bought my Thinkpad in 2008 (having had my Dell for about 7 years) I had to buy Vista with it. Six months after I was pressed into buying Vista, Microsoft came knocking again, suggesting I should upgrade to Windows 7. Meanwhile, both Vista and 7 are the same old crap — ship it out the door this quarter; never mind that it’s not actually finished. It takes Microsoft a year or two of “software updates” (internet connection and legal copy required) to actually finish anything they release.

Then there’s the X-Box. I was in college and I saw people with the first X-Box (not 360). They were using them as media servers; storing music and video on them in between playing Halo. Cool! I’d like one, please. I buy a 360. Since I intend to store media on it, I splurge for top model — the 360 Elite — with 120 gigs.

Then it arrives. Right away, I’m presented with disappointment after disappointment. From watching all my friends with the first X-Box in college, I assumed I could copy some MP3s to the X-Box’s hard drive via Windows file sharing (which I have also paid for) and then play music on my TV with pretty visualizations as I cook dinner.

But, the answer is no. Even though I’ve bought their top-of-the-line console, I still don’t own it. The hard drive is dominated by Microsoft, and I can’t put anything on there that Microsoft doesn’t want me to, even though I’ve already paid for the hardware. I can’t copy my own content to the drive. So what do they want me to put on the hard drive? Anything that costs money. Microsoft points, Disney Dollars, or whatever. The hard drive exists purely to hold “licensed” content, which is really more like “leashed” content. Never mind that I want to have a legal mp3 of my friend’s band playing when I cook dinner, because Microsoft can’t make money off of that.

I wound up having to buy 3rd-party hardware to get what I wanted. A little fileserver box with a pair of RAID’d 2TB hard drives stores my media with redundancy. It acts as a “media server” and streams content to the X-Box. It runs Linux. Finally, I can play an MP3 while cooking dinner…. but that giant hard drive I sprung for in the X-Box was a waste. Even then it’s still infuriating — the X-Box has no system for 3rd-party codecs. You can’t play MKVs, along with any number of other formats.

Since that stupid overpriced hard drive is empty and just sitting there, I figure, “Oh, I can copy my games to it and not have to switch discs….”

Nope. Even when you copy the game to the X-Box’s hard drive, it still requires the disc. I still have to go rustle through the shelf and find the disk I want. Why? Because someone could copy the game to a friend’s hard drive, unplug the ethernet, and the friend could play your copy of the game forever. And Microsoft would get no money from them. How terrible.

Halo 3 is the killer app for X-Box, and it’s a pretty good game. But then they pull the same nonsense, recursively. Pay $50 for Halo 3. Pay $50 for Halo ODST. Six months later: NEW MAP PACK! Buy it with Microsoft Points, or you won’t be able to play Halo 3 online anymore, even though you’ve already paid for the game twice, in addition to paying a $10 monthly subscription fee for X-Box live.

$300 for something that fails to deliver on its promises and locks you into contracts, $100 to buy a game twice and still not own it, $5 for new maps every six months, all while eternally paying a $10/month fee for multiplayer. $500 for 3rd-party hardware to actually do what you need to do.

Meanwhile, my roommate Dan subscribes to Netflix. He held a weekly “Anime Night” with a friend a few states away. The X-Box/Netflix combo was actually quite nice at first, aside from the usual piss-poor interface. Dan would crash in bed in front of his TV with a headset, and the anime was synced with his friend many miles away. It struck me as a beautiful way to keep in touch with distant friends. The movie is synchronized on both ends, and you can chat as if you’re on the same couch, thanks to the headset. It’s not quite being in the same room together, but it’s good enough to be almost magic. This is the core of what is beautiful about technology.

Then it was gone. Poof. Stolen. Software update. Microsoft brings you the “Metro”! The update was forcefully applied to Dan’s X-Box. It kicked him off Netflix, and physically removed the Party Watch feature. It didn’t even let them finish the episode they were on. There is no more anime night now. Microsoft blew it to pieces.

Meanwhile, I fire up my own X-Box, apply the update, and see ads everywhere. 3/4 of the screen is advertising some movie I have no interest in seeing, and I have to hunt around to figure out how to play a video. I didn’t even want a new dashboard; the old one did just fine. Is there anything good about this? Let’s see… I read that there’s voice commands now, like Siri. Oh, that sounds nice…… wait, never mind, you have to buy Kinect for that. Kinect costs $100.

Another $100? And then you want me to buy a Microsoft Phone, too? Pardon my french, but fuck you. This is a scam; a pyramid scheme. Mafia/mob tactics. Economic slavery. Whatever you want to call it.

Now I spy Microsoft astroturfing — paying off journalists and manipulating bloggers — to try and build “buzz” about how great the new Windows Phone OS is. The one that just raped our X-Boxes, and took away things we’ve already paid for, over and over and over. Microsoft’s conveniently-owned media outlets like pump out puffery saying how delicious a Microsoft Pizza is…….

The Windows Phone OS will be buggy and disappointing, even if it does look nice. Features promised on delivery will remain unfinished for months (did you know copy/paste still doesn’t work?). Then you’ll have to buy a new phone to get features you were promised on your current phone, and never got. You won’t get all of them on your next phone, either, and some stuff you already had will have gone missing.

This goes back to the very beginnings of Microsoft. Microsoft has never actually invented anything; they’re just very good at being a middleman. Remember MS-DOS? It’s what made Microsoft an economic powerhouse. You think they wrote MS-DOS? Wrong. They licensed it!! From the very beginning, their strategy has been to steal something valuable from the population at large, hold it hostage on the top shelf, and then charge access — domination. It’s akin to the feudal landlord that builds a grain silo and offers to store everyone’s grain for free; then turns around and says they own the grain once everyone’s put theirs in the silo.

In Microsoft’s wet-dream future, the X-Box will cost $500, the games $100 for a six-month license (plus $20 every six months for map packs) and then you’ll have to pay $50/month for X-Box live on top of that. Your Microsoft Phone will cost $500 in addition to the $100/month plan. You’ll buy a copy of the latest Microsoft Bieber single for $5 on your phone, then you’ll pay another $5 to buy it on your X-Box, then another $5 to buy it in your car. Then they’ll decide they can squeeze a bit more out of you, and it’ll go up to $10. Don’t like it? Too bad. They’re the only game in town. And next year’s platform will be completely incompatible, meaning your three legally purchased copies of the the Microsoft Bieber single are now worthless.

To this, I say: I like Halo, but it’s far from the most important thing in my life. There comes a point where it won’t be worth the price. Microsoft is very close to that point.

What’s In A Name

Monday, June 13, 2011 at 9:23 pm

The Hot Sauce Aisle

The Hot Sauce Aisle

I’m a lifelong fan of hot and spicy foods, especially hot sauce. Once you get away from the venerable tabasco and into the specialty stuff, it gets pretty wild. The first time you see a proper collection of specialty hot sauces all together, it’s enough to give you vertigo. They have all manners of crazy labels and names. There seems to be a constant arms race to out-do each other — it takes a hell of a lot to stand out in the hot sauce aisle. Some are overwhelmingly colorful, others attempt to stand out simply by having a lack of color. Humor is important, as are certain keywords like “fire.” Weird bottle shapes. One-off batches referencing media events or public figures, that aren’t around for more than a few months. I get the feeling the same hot sauce is still on the shelf somewhere, but with a different label.

If you’re new to the hot sauce aisle, you have two options: Pick the one with the label that appeals to you most, or buy based on someone else’s advice. It takes a lot of time and effort to even begin to know the brands, and it’s virtually impossible to become a connoisseur unless you do it for a living — especially as the selection is constantly changing. Most people buy one or two every year and stop there, as it’s not terribly important to them. Some people collect them. Others become obsessed.

Hot Sauce Collection

Lots of weird hot sauce and obscure electronic equipment -- this guy isn't me, but it could be.

I find the competition in the hot sauce aisle to be a remarkable parallel to the plight of “internet musicians,” and the constant free-for-all to get some attention — any attention! The internet is a world where everyone is ADD and quick to judge. We have to be — there’s such an overwhelming amount of STUFF on the internet that no one could ever get a handle on it. So we fall back to snap-judgements. If something doesn’t send the right signals, we conclude it won’t be worth our time and move on to something else.

People regularly link to my music (and to this site) with absolutely no background information. It’s just one thing on a list of many things they like well enough to link. Look no further than the “blogroll” every wordpress has. Having someone else vouch for you by linking is the first half of the battle… but if the name is boring, chances are the person will click on another link instead, and you still wind up with nothing. There is no halfway.

Consequently, people try all sorts of wacky shit. Some try to be clever or topical, others try to be funny, while still more merely go for an interesting word or three. I thought the “LAKE R▲DIO” name floating around on was a particularly sharp move. The triangle stands out, it’s keyed to their identity, but you can still google for it (a name made entirely of webdings wouldn’t fly).

What’s simultaneously funny and infuriating about this is that it has absolutely nothing to do with music. It’s about promotion. Lots of great music gets missed due to a boring name, while lots of crap takes off because of a clever one. Like hot sauce, most people don’t have the motivation to sift through it all, as it’s only a casual interest. So they buy based on the label.

The Devil Is In The Details

Monday, July 19, 2010 at 6:15 pm

There is a patch of rust on a fence, underneath an overpass, in Massachusetts, that is unlike any other patch of rust in the universe. No two patches of rust are identical, and hence they are all unique. Most people don’t think about this sort of thing, unless you point it out to them. The complexity of the world is simultaneously thrilling and overwhelming. There is essentially unlimited detail, yet we have a limited amount of focus with which to take it in. No two clouds are identical. No two trees… No two cookies! Can you imagine remembering every detail of every cookie you’ve ever eaten? So, for the sake of our sanity, the unique, detailed patch of rust becomes just a patch of rust. Walking by, you may just remember the fence as being rusty. You remember the fence, but not all the details and irregularities of it. You could stop and take in more detail, should you feel the need… or even take it to a lab, and scan it with an electron microscope. On the other hand, if you drove by in a car, you might not remember the fence at all.

In the studio, it’s easy to drown in unnecessary detail.  People lose hours fiddling with EQ or FX, compulsively massaging details that are so small as to essentially be static. It’s quite insidious, because often you’re too laser-focused to realize how much time you’re wasting. You get up to take a piss, and when you get back, you say, “…the hell was I doing, fiddling about with that so much?”

Goals break down into smaller goals, ad infinitum. Once you get a few layers down, it becomes easy to lose the overall picture. You have to periodicly back off and check yourself.

Clarify what you’re trying to do, and train yourself to avoid pits of distraction. If you get mired down in EQ, take some time to understand what you’re trying to achieve with all that tweaking, if anything. In all likelihood, you’re just fumbling around blindly, because you’ve lost sight of what you’re doing. If there is some grander goal, figure out why you’re having problems achieving it. Later, when composing, this analysis will come back to you, and hopefully short-circuit the trap. Sometimes it can actually take quite a bit of willpower to just leave it alone!

Finally, and most painfully, sometimes you have to forego indulging yourself on things that don’t give you a good return on your effort. There have been times when I know exactly what snare noise I want, but I can’t for the life of me find the sample. It’s infuriating, and there have been times I’ve literally wasted an hour digging through WAV files. The proper response is to just use another snare noise, and get on with the song. By the time I find the one I want — if I ever do — I’ve lost the overall vibe of the track. The snare noise matters, but not as much as the overall song itself. You have to compromise.

If you go search the Analogue Haven archives, there is a thread called “The TR 808 Myth” from 2004. Allegedly, 808s all sound unique, with their own sonic personalities and quirks. A quote from “panflet”:

You only have to listen to old Chicago house records and early Detroit
techno to hear all the 808 variations
Especially if you get into listening to one artist,derrick may`s 808
sounds really slappy..ok trax are produced differently but you can still
hear the differences.

Ive had 2 808`s and the bass drums were almost identical ,which created
a mad flange when played together but nearly all the other sounds were
really different and run side by side sounded totally wicked!

Ol’ panflet sounds serious, though it’s possible he was just having a laugh, trying to make people go deaf playing Derrick May’s snares over and over. So, curious, I started queuing up tracks in Winamp, intending to figure it out for myself. Then I realized: I don’t have an 808, I don’t have the money for an 808, and I definitely do not have the money to start collecting 808s. So what the hell am I going to do with the ability to recognize “quirky” 808s? Nothing. It’s just compulsive curiosity, which would be better aimed at things I can actually make use of.

Your time and energy are limited. Choosing to spend your time on one thing means choosing not to spend it on something else. Don’t let curiosity, perfectionism, and compulsion drive you all over the map — set a direct course.

For some practical tips on this, try my post on creating a set of rules.


Monday, April 26, 2010 at 6:59 pm

Manuals have a rightly-deserved rep as boring and terribly written. While I’m sure no one tosses manuals (right?), they still tend to remain on the shelf unless there’s a problem or quandry. The manual comes out, the answer found, and then it is returned to the shelf.

Sometimes, like today, this pattern is pleasantly disrupted: I’d unshelved my mixer’s manual to look up a tidbit, and I found myself drawn in. The writing was lively, funny. More importantly, I started to get neat ideas as I read it. It got me thinking about other manuals I’ve enjoyed. Certain manuals are just fantastic — hidden gems.

One that particularly sticks out in my mind is the manual for the Prophet VS. I suspect it was, in large part, penned directly by the synth’s designers. It’s nerdy and technical, but you can feel their enthusiasm as they explain the guts of the thing. Another good one was the Yamaha DX 200. It isn’t exactly Shakespeare, but it’s full of zillions of ideas, and impeccably organized.

But, as per their general rep, some manuals totally suck. If you get anything from MFB, expect a single sheet of paper with both sides covered in broken English. The manual for my Roland EF-303 is 90 pages and plenty thorough… but it’s also a terrible mess, and the writing sucks.

The good ones, I read. The bad ones I just use as references. Make sure you haven’t missed the good ones!

Korg, Roland, and Yamaha: Please Stop Faking It

Wednesday, March 24, 2010 at 8:17 pm

I am, admittedly, biased in how I view any particular piece of gear. I exist in a particular zone of music: IDM, electro, and acid house. Raymond Scott, Aphex Twin, and Brian Eno. I regard most workstation keyboards such as the Korg Triton to be the realm of dull pop producers. This doesn’t mean they aren’t any good; it just means they are of little use to me — the aesthetic they strive for is one I avoid in droves. They are designed to strip the studio of its complexity and allow J. Random Hiphopper to focus on his MCing. Me, though, I relish that complexity. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

Recently, there are many more J. Random Hiphoppers than there are Electronic Musers. This is reflected in what you see when you walk into a brick-and-mortar music store, and in what gear manufacturers build: workstations for hip hop and pop. Keyboards with organ and rhodes sounds for kids covering Pink Floyd. Electric pianos for people who play classical music. There will be five or six offerings in each of these three categories… and maybe, buried in the back somewhere, is whatever limp-dicked “virtual analog” synth Roland put out that year, and a couple Korg Electribes. It bums me out.

I got into writing music in the late 90’s, when virtual analog (VA) was still a new thing. Plugins were just starting to get serious, and Propellerheads relased Reason. There was a Guitar Center down the street from my high school, and I’d often head there during lunchbreak or after school to kill time — my friends quickly learned not to let me in there, because I’d refuse to leave. Many well-known, loved lineages were just kicking off: Access Virus. Korg MS2000. Novation Supernova. There were at least a dozen grooveboxes, which were regularly swapped out for new ones. There was a computer running Reason, which I’d never used before.

Since then, I feel most major manufacturers have been coasting. I am entirely bored with VA synths. I bought a couple, and I really have no need for any more, especially ones that are pretty much the same as last year’s. Access released the Virus B, then the Virus C. The MS2000 grew a cancerous mass and became the Radias. Reason is now in version 4. New Electribes come out every year, largely the same as last year’s… and the floor space devoted to all these has continually shrunk, to the point where I don’t bother going to Guitar Center any more. What happened?

I don’t think there’s any one reason, but I can think of many that definitely contributed. First and foremost is the decline in electronic music’s popularity. People went wacky for it in the late 80s through most of the 90s, then largely abandoned it for hip-hop. This is no one’s fault; it just is. I’m sure it’s been fantastic for anyone that likes hip-hop too, and I’m not bitter about letting those people have a turn. Someday, the wheel will come around, and electronic music will be trendy again. There’s still enough of a market that they update their keyboards each year, but not much is put into R&D. Just more polyphony and storage.

The second reason is the rapid advance of computers, and plugins. Why buy a synth when you can download one for free? Well, hardware sounds better, it’s more fun… but it takes some experience to get this, and even those with the experience often lack the cash. I feel this is best exemplified by Native Instruments — their software is iconic, innovative, and succinct. Why buy a handful of grooveboxes when you can build custom ones in Reaktor? The only thing missing is the tactile control. Consequently, NI branched out into hardware controllers. It’s a reversal I find amusing — instead of hardware inspiring software, software is now inspiring hardware.

But, most hardware is now DSP-based — a purpose-built computer that would be a useless hunk of metal and plastic without — you guessed it — software. This gives us reason three: software is not only more convenient for many musicians, it’s more convenient for manufacturers. They can design one computer board and put it in a dozen products, changing only the software and external controls. If there’s a glitch, they can release a patch instead of having to do a recall. The engineering is easier — three guys at computers can do what used to require 30 people, oscilloscopes, multimeters, wave-soldering machines, PCB prototypes, and more. Why not design one board, fire 27 of those 30 engineers, and do it all with software? It’s an accounting exec’s wet dream, and a nightmare for someone like me.

A handful of smaller outfits still cater to me and my ilk — doepfer, analogue solutions, MFB, frostwave, and so on. Unsurprisingly, they charge a premium. So, people scour eBay and Craigslist for hardware. 20-year old keyboards command a higher price than new ones. A big company like Roland spots this, and tries to capitalize on it. They develop something like the Roland SH-201, a same-board-different-software DSP synth. The name is a mashup between the absolutely classic and beloved SH-101 and MC-202. Initially, I was excited to see Roland drop hints like that… then I tried the thing, and I nearly lost my lunch in the middle of Guitar Center. Most plugins I have sound far better than the Roland SH-201. I bought a real SH-101 instead, off the Internet. Roland, meanwhile, keeps squeezing out turds that completely miss the point. They sell a few to people who know enough to recognize the naming references, but not enough to recognize what they’re actually buying.

This is not to say that everything they put out is bad — when it comes to synths that are openly DSP-based, such as the V-Synth, Roland still has plenty of balls left. But, for the analog-and-modulars crowd, most of the huge names — Korg, Roland, Yamaha — are completely out of touch. There’s still oodles of innovation all over, just not from these companies. Today’s products resemble yesterday’s in name only. The proper stuff is left to small, new companies, to Craigslist, to people building things themselves. Perhaps it’s in the best financial insterests of these corporations, but it sure is depressing to me.

Today, though, I found out about something that gives me hope: The Korg Monotron. The thing is actually analog! It’s not a computer. I have no idea if it sounds any good, but they claim to have used the MS20’s schematics (and the MS20 is fantastic). The real kicker: it’s going to cost under $100. If there’s anything I miss about having bigger companies on the boat, it’s their ability to drive the price down, through volume.

So, Korg, if you’re listening: thanks for trying something, anything like this. If reviews are good, I will buy one… and I am really hoping that they will be good. Roland, Yamaha — are you watching this?

Take a look at the Electrix Warp Factory. The signal path (sound) is analog, but it has all the benefits of digital (MIDI, tuning accuracy, and so on). The sound is there, and it integrates well. I’m only against digital when it tries to squeeze analog out of the picture — when it fakes the orgasm. Faking it makes for lame sex unless the gal is really good at faking it. Even then, it’ll never be as good. I’m not expecting Korg to dig some dusty old parts off the shelf and start building MS20’s — that would be backwards and financially insane. The monotron, on the other hand, represents a formula I hope to see much more of: take a classic design, slim it down, figure out a way to manufacture it with modern parts and techniques… without faking anything.

Update: Someone has pointed out to me that the Warp Factory is in fact entirely digital. D’oh! Let’s pretend I said “Moog Voyager” instead, OK? 🙂

GAS: Gear Acquisition Syndrome

Monday, March 8, 2010 at 10:00 am

GAS: Gear Acquisition Syndrome. A longstanding in-joke amongst synth-heads, it is in reference to how easy it is to start acquiring waaaay more equipment (gear) than you need. Impulse buys off Craigslist; some classic synth you’ve always wanted… never mind the dozen you already own. It’s a hard thing to fathom if you’re just getting rolling in the hardware game, but many people find themselves with bad GAS before they even know it’s coming.

How much gear do you NEED? It’s a nebulous question; impossible to answer completely. The bare minimum is the computer. Other than the computer, having certain things makes the job easier — knob boxes for making things hands-on, hardware synths for better, weirder sounds. At some point, you start to have more than you can use at once… but even this is not unreasonable. What guitarist uses every stomp box he owns at once? Creating novel combinations of kit is part of process… so you keep buying. You wind up leaving synths in the closet for weeks, but when you dig them out, it’s like getting a new synth all over again! So, why not get a couple more keyboards? A slippery slope… demon on one shoulder, angel on the other.

Clearly, there’s no distinct line between “not enough” and “too much.” I look at it in terms of return on investment:

Gear Return On Investment

As you get more gear, you get more results… but it’s not entirely linear. In the above graph, the green line shows Gear vs. Results, and the blue line is y=x for reference. If you get less than 1 unit of result for 1 unit of your gear, you’re wasting your money. Obvious enough, right? I’ve marked a couple “phases”:

  • A: You got your computer and not much else. You start off by buying knob boxes to control your plugins. They make it easier to jam out.
  • B: You have all the knob boxes you could want, and start to buy hardware synths, drum machines, groove boxes. However, you don’t have enough to really do much. In fact, it’s kind of out of your way.
  • C: You have a physical mixer, a decent soundcard, and enough hardware to start really cooking. The hardware starts to take your tunes to another level.
  • D: You have all your bases covered, but not duplicated. You can use pretty much all your gear at once. You can rock the fuck out.
  • E: You start to acquire gear purely for flavor and variety. Instead of using the same monosynth every time, you pick one of three, whichever you feel most appropriate for your mood (or something). As you get more stuff, ROI tapers off.
  • F: You have a pile of synths gathering dust in a closet. You buy a second SH-101 “just because”. Your spouse issues an ultimatum regarding future synthesizer acquisition.

I feel that A, B, and E are the best cutoff points:

  • A: If you’re happy using just the computer, stay with it.
  • B: Hardware controllers let you bust the computer open. Plugins feel almost as good as hardware. This is enough for some people.
  • E: You have enough hardware to ignore the computer, but not enough to start a museum. The butter zone for those that want to seriously get into gear.

If you’re just getting started in this, it might be a good idea to think about what you’re shooting for… as with any sort of financial thing, planning ahead is the best way to keep a handle on your enthusiasm. Avoid GAS — gear should be used, not collected! 🙂

The Computer Is Just Another Piece Of Equipment

Friday, February 5, 2010 at 10:33 pm

Recently, I realized I’d come to think of the computer as this monolithic entity — above it all or off to the side, but never in the thick of things. The computer often dominates the studio. You can write entire tracks inside the box, and even people with a lot of hardware often record to the computer.

This started to unravel for me a few weeks ago, when my computer (guess what?) flaked out. There’s something wrong with it, but for the life of me, I cannot figure out what. I’ve taken it apart and rebuilt it twice before, and when it flaked out this time, I was, to put it lightly, pissed off. Rather than try and debug it again in that sort of mood, I’ve just abandoned it for the moment. In a couple weeks, when I’ve forgotten I am angry at it, I will fix it…

Meanwhile, I’m confined to my laptop, which comes with its own set of problems. For ages, I was stuck in software limbo. It’s never run my DAW of choice (Cubase SX) properly, so I had to figure out something else. I tried a couple things — Reaper, Renoise, Ableton Live — but all they did was annoy me. I kept my music going by doing tracks entirely with hardware, recording to Sound Forge, but it wasn’t long before I was itching for the computer’s plasticity again.

Last Monday, I was staring at my gear and brooding over this. Working on a laptop is really a much different vibe from a desktop with dual LCDs. I’ve loved laptops since I was a little kid (yes, I am a nerd). They’re one of those things that give you the weird sense of having the future here in the present. I feel the same way about synths and grooveboxes.

In that hazy soup of vague ponderances about my almost sexual feelings for hi-tech devices, some wires got crossed. I feel the same about the aesthetics of laptops as I do about the aesthetics of synthesizers… why do they have to be separated in the studio? I realized that I needed the computer to be just another piece of equipment, like a synth or a sampler or a drum machine. Doing things any other way causes a clash at the seams. It makes the tech fight you, rather than free you.

It’s kind of a zen point, really, more an attitude difference than anything else: The computer is just another piece of equipment. The computer is just another piece of equipment. Say it over and over, and let it sink in.

The most common DAWs — Cubase, Reason, Ableton, whatever — are designed to replace the studio, rather than augment it. They’re akin to a Korg Triton — one of those “studio-in-a-keyboard” things you can write entire songs on. They’re very nice to work with on their own terms, but they’re walled gardens. They don’t integrate well. The synth voices, the FX might sound great, but you can’t use them outside the keyboard. How frustrating!

When I realized this, I immediately thought of Native Instruments Reaktor. I’d dicked around with Reaktor a bit before, but I’d never really gotten into it. I saw it as a plugin and noisemaker, not something to replace my beloved Cubase. You can’t even edit audio in it, in the multitrack nonlinear sense. Reaktor is not a DAW… but, that’s kind of the point.

Reaktor lets you use the computer like a modular — connecting widgets with wires. The computer’s functionality is reduced to pluggable, discrete widgets. Things are only as complicated as you need them to be — if all you need is a single filter, you create the widget, hook up the in’s and out’s, and that’s it. However, if you want, you can build your own sequencers, synthesizers, whatever. It is, in a word, very meta.

As soon as I got it fired up, I got excited. Giddy, even. I got a huge rush of ideas: I could create my own custom looper… strange MIDI arps… weird FX to put on the aux send… hack up a MIDI-controlled audio patchbay… It was like I’d taken a huge dump. It solved so many problems, and had so much potential. I’ve been absolutely glued to it since.

Eventually, I’ll fix my computer, and I’ll have Cubase back. It’s still the best** for audio editing, for detailed MIDI programming, and so on. Reaktor will never replace Cubase, or any other DAW… but if you’re the sort that’s constantly rewiring your studio, Reaktor makes a hell of a lot of sense. It lets you bust the computer open.

Computers are a potent symbol of unleashed creativity and unlimited potential… but it’s no good if you can’t get at that potential, and get at it quickly. The software you use determines what you can do, and how easily you can do it. If you’ve never thought about it — take a moment to do so. You might be surprised at how much the software is actually holding you back! It shouldn’t… and there’s no reason for you to continue letting it.

P.S. — As I’m sure many of you know, Reaktor is not the only piece of software like this. Max/MSP, Pure Data, and other software packages do similar things. I had a copy of Reaktor, so I went for that.

** For me! Replace “Cubase” with whatever DAW you prefer.