Friday, March 13, 2009

Fabio Biondi (Europa Galante), classical virtuoso

Today I'll take you a bit away from the usual electronic, synthesizer, soft-synth stuff.  We stay well inside the musical domain, but in a different area.  Classical.

I was surfing on YouTube this evening and listened to some Jordan Rudess stuff.  I'll probably make a blog entry alter about Jordan Rudess, but for the moment let's say that, although I appreciated very much his technical skills, I had to admit that musically speaking, we were not connecting.  Don't get me wrong: I liked what he was playing.  It was just not my cup of tea artistically.

I don't know how many of you are like me, but after listening to music that I'm not "that much" into, I need to compensate by listening to material that I feel more connected to.  The problem is, Jordan Rudess is a very skillful player, so I needed to listen to material that was at least as challenging technically speaking.

Spontaneously, my finger wrote the name: Fabio Biondi.  It was the first time I ever looked up Mr Biondi on the net, and I was pleasantly surprised to find quite a few descent videos of him and his formation Europa Galante.

To me, Fabio Biondi is a great source of inspiration.  The first time I ever heard Fabio Biondi was in a Quattro Stagioni interpretation ... that literally blew my hat off.  I mean, wow.  He picked a composition that everybody knows, and interpretated it in a way that took it in a whole other level.  It felt like I heard this piece for the first time.  It revealed aspects of the material in bright new light.  Some of you might think: OK, so the guy got impressed because he  heard too few "contemporary" versions of Vivaldi's stuff.  It's not the case.  Although I'm very much into electronic music when it's time to compose, I'm much more into classical and jazz when I listen to music.  And I've heard my share of fair, and bad, interpretations of the Quattro Stagione - or of the full Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione.  Would I go as far as to say that the guy is a genius?  Well time will tell, but as far as I'm concerned, yes.  If you disagree, you'll have to at least admit he is, at the very least, a virtuoso.

So I invite you to get a listen to the man's work.  I've find this Scarlatti video that will enable you to hear his skill, with a descent audio quality:

And also:

Friday, March 06, 2009

5 reasons not to get a Monomachine or Machinedrum

Reason 1:
I can't like them.  In real life that is, because in pictures, on videos and in demos, they seem great.  But I've tried them.  More than once.  And I just can't like them.  Their sound, their interface. I just don't like them even if I try hard.  And believe me, I tried.

Reason 2:
They are expensive!  I mean, please!  We're not talking about analog circuits here.  It's a hardware platform with a dedicated software.  And limited functions. I prefer saving for a Kyma system.  Not that I plan to buy a Kyma, or that they are a replacement for Elektron stuff, but buy a Machinedrum & a Monomachine and you're getting in this price league, a Paca is 2970$. It's just that people consider a Kyma system to be in another league, being expensive and all this. Well just consider that a Monomachine and Machinedrum combo will cost the same as a Paca.  I'd think twice before spending that kind of money.  And thinking of it, I did spend that kind of money not too long ago, and I got an euro-rack modular for it.  I consider I got my money's worth.

Reason 3:
I want USB.  Or Firewire. MIDI is about 25 years old now.  Ok, it's still fine to get the connection with other hardware gear, but come on, we're mostly using plugins now, right?  So, if I'm gonna get a plugin sequenced by my Monomachine, I should get this done with a bog standard MIDI jack?  USB connection is getting pretty standard now with pretty much any hardware synths now.  If we're talking about a synth that is also a very reputable sequencer, and that just hit MkII last year ... I expect it to have a USB or FW connexion.  Oh check this, they came up with a TM-1 interface to get better timing, er, from the computer to the external.  Oops! Sorry, it's the opposite we need.

Reason 4:
Of all the gear that's been release in the last years, these are some of the most revered and sought after.  It's growing to a cult status.  Personally, I stay away from cults.  The idea of a cult instrument is pleasing, but should not be a factor in the buying decision.  You buy gear to increase your sonic palette, not for adoration.  Although we often do on accasion fall into this trap.  The analog vintage trend was very much a matter of cult items.

Reason 5:
I like the idea of those piece of gear.  I dream of owning them when I see the ads.  Their marketing works: I WANT THEM!  Yet, I've been offered a Machinedrum for 800$ and a Monomachine for 900$... and I could just not like them in real life. So? I'll let them live in my dream, and see how I can come up with a setup that would get me the kind of result and control I expect from them, but with my current gear.  That's more creative than buying another 1000$ box to sit there and making the kind of bleeps all the DJ on the planet are making with this exact same instrument.

It all comes down to: what are you going to do with your gear?  If you plan of investing hours and hours learning a piece of hardware inside out, the Elektron gear are probably worth exploring. And so is my 300$ Alesis Micron.  I kid you not.

Be bold, be original: don't get a Machinedrum or Monomachine.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Bass with guts: Hotelsinus ReeseBassline

Sometimes you want the full gamut of oscillators, filters and modulation, but sometimes you don't. A very flexible architecture is fun: bringing in complex modulations with combinations of envelopes and LFO will get you complex and expressive sounds.  But it's also very time consuming and not the fastest way to get to the result you want fast.

On the other hand a very specialized synth with a limited palette might be OK on occasions, but those limitations might become frustrating if too limited and having a gallery of very specialized instruments is usually something that is far from ideal.  

So, if you're like me, you'll want some powerful synth to get the job done for certain kind of sounds with well chosen parameters and some fixed choices already made. This is the case here with Hotelsinus ReeseBassline.  A free VST instrument that is built for bassline.   Usually this would mean: yet another 303 clone. Thank God, not this time.

I find that Hotelsinus made good choices to put together an valuable instrument. This means that it's got what it needs to make a descent 303 emulation, like you expect of any synth with "Bassline" in its name. Saw/Square oscillator, amp envelope, low-pass filter, distortion, glide setting for the portamento.

We're talking of a single oscillator synth, but it's got a unisson mode that you can push to 8 voices with variable detune, so that you get have a massive sound in no time. Then you take this massive sound into a double-filtered (LP & HP) distortion. Here you get only what you need, three knobs: LP, HP, Amount. If there's one thing a don't like about the ReeseBassline, it's the way the signal is sent from the oscillator to the distortion.  There's no way to set what the velocity modulates. It seems to be fixed to the volume of the oscillator before the distortion stage. This sometimes leads to a schizophrenic behavior at high distortion level where a low velocity gives a soft undistorted sound and a high level gives a massively distorted and compressed sound, with little variation in-between. Maybe I would have placed the velocity to affect amplification after the distortion stage, not before, but at some settings this isn't such a problem. I think that a switch to choose between those settings could be useful.

Next we have a a triple filter: band-pass, low-pass and high-pass.  Not a multi-mode one, but three independent filters.  A change from the usual single 3-mode filter! This choice of path is good, but I'm not sure I quite like the chosen filter type.  A matter of personal taste maybe.  

Then the signal goes into a phaser (why don't we find them more often?), a switchable stereo-widener, and a final multi-mode filter. A chorus could be expected in this path, but then the massive 8-voice detune more than makes up for it.

The end result is a loud, raw, strong and large bass sound. One that you can use easily and that is musically useful. The way ReeseBassline distort and compress it sound gives it a very manageable behavior that will make it a instrument I like to use in lots of situation. I've read a few comments on this synth saying that there's nothing here you can't achieve with other more complete synths. This is absolutely true. What I like here is the choices that are made and the limits that are set. Limits are good for creativity.  You want limits. They just have to be well chosen, and what I like here is the choices made and, above all, the end result.

For the Drum and Bass, DubStep, Reese-like sound ... I don't know and don't care either.  So I can't comment on that. One thing for sure, this thing is not subtle.  You get a punchy sound that gets the job done.

Sadly I must also add that there's a bug in it that makes it go into an unwanted high pitch tone on some occasions.  For that reason, it can't be used in a live situation.  I hope this will get fixed as it is annoying. It's also here that I must repeat that it is is a freeware.  So it's a terrific value, but it also means that the developer may have only limited time to support it.  The last update, 1.3.1, dates from march 2008.

PS: please note that I managed to not use the "fat" word once! A hard task with such f*t  instrument.

More information:

KVR thread:

To know more on HotelSinus:

The VST page:

Sunday, March 01, 2009

A brief history of Analog Shift Registers (ASR)

There are obvious modules: VCO, VCF, VCA, LFO, EG (ADSR, AD, etc). They are the basic building blocks of synthesis and you can't do without them. You need them and every aspiring sound designer has a good idea of what to expect of them.  

There's also the less obvious modules. The ones you learn about along the way.  Not absolutely essential, but useful nonetheless: S&H, Ring Modulator, Clock dividers, Slew Limiters. These are creative tools that will stretch your sound pallet, and are well documented. Any basic book about synthesis will be mentioning them.

Then, there is what we'd call more esoteric modules. The ones for which you must take a pause and either mentally figure how they could be actually used or, take a plunge and experiment ... and waste a lot of time having fun with unexpected results. Here you'll find special designs like MOTM's Cloud Generator, Livewire's Dual Cyclotron, Plan B's Heisenberg Generator. You'll also find more generic ones like Random Control Voltage Generators, Trigger Delay, and Analog Shift Registers.

I'd like to spend some time on the latter one: Analog Shift Registers aka ASR.

My first contact with Analog Shift Registers was in an interview Electronic Musician did with artist Steve Roach. The interview was revolving around the integration of the latest modular technology in the making of the Possible Planet Album. Among the modules used, Steve puts a focus on the impact that Plan B's Analog Shift Register had on it's composition. It caught my attention.

Ok, so what is an ASR? An ASR module is a sophisticated S&H. It will, at every clock pulse, sample the CV value of the input and makes it available at the first output. So far, it's a basic S&H. The thing is, a ASR has many outputs, and what it does is that at every clock pulse, it shifts the value of output 1 to output 2, and likewise, value of output 2 gets to output 3. So at every clock pulse, the CV values gets' shifted to the next output with the exception of output 1 that samples a new value at every clock. 

An article by Stan Levine in the 1976 November/December edition of Synapse, leads to think that the ASR was an original concept of Serge Tcherepnin: "His approach from the beginning has been a personal one; Serge designs for an individual, not a mass market. Serge's are modular systems including, VCOs, VCAs, VCFs, and some modules of his own invention, such as, positive and negative slews, the smooth and stepped generator and the analog shift register."

For sure, the ASR takes it's root in CalArts as Serge was there at that period.  But so was Barry Schrader. Although it seems certain that Serge Modular Music System was the first company to offer an ASR in a commercial system, the concept first appeared in a serie of custom modules, known as the Fortune Modules built by Fukushi Kawakami for composer Barry Schrader in the early 70s. According to Barry Schrader, Fukushi asked him for ideas to complement the Buchla 200 aka Electric Music Box. This collaboration resulted in four modules, the ASR being one of those.
Now, what are the current ASR incarnations:

Serge - ASR
The Serge Modular Music System, or Serge synthesizer, was created by Serge Tcherepnin at CalArts. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first proposal of the ASR in a commercially available system. From, here's how this module is presented in the Serge Catalog:

"The ANALOG SHIFT REGISTER is a sequential sample and hold module for producing arabesque-like forms in musical space. Whenever pulsed, the previously held voltage is sent down the line to three consecutive outputs to produce the electrical equivalent of a canonic musical structure."

The circuit diagram of the Serge ASR can be found in the 1976 September/October issue of Synapse Magazine, p.30.

Plan B - Model 23 
Peter Grenader of Plan B offers his own version of the circuit in the form of the Model 23 a 3 output ASR based on a Atmel 2051 chip. I say it's own version, because Peter took notice of some caveats inherent to the ASR concept and made a design that wouldn't exhibit these problems. Quoted from PLAN_B_analog_blog, these are:

A) Outputs do not track the input voltage, making driving them with a keyboard problematic.

B) Output taps not tracking one another so that a voltages vary as they are passed down the line of outputs.

C) Incoming clock causing a droop in held voltages at it's falling edge.

Peter also gives possible usage of the ASR and points to some historical audio usage of it in audio examples. I would add to that selection an except from Steve Roach's Possible Planet that can be heard directly on Steve's site.  

Metalbox - Gate Comparator
I can't test this one, but according to the description, we're talking about an 8 stage ASR with what seems like a RCV. Wow! Seems very good.  More expensive than Plan B, but more that just ASR functionnalities. If you're into Frac-rac, it deserves a thought.

CGS/Ken Stone - ASR
Ken Stone has a ASR circuit available that differs form Serge's way of doing it, for the DIY fans among you. Or, if you prefer having it already built, you can have a look at Cynthia.

Cynthia - Psycho Shift Register
This one is based on the Ken Stone circuit, but like the Metalbox offering, the Psycho Shift Register module does more than just ASR. Here's from the Cyndustries site:

"Ken's latest development is his own modern and improved design of an Arabesque Pattern Generator similar to the classic Serge Analog Shift Register schematic originally published in Synapse years ago.  Thus it is incredibly useful for auto-compositional harmonies as it is, but what sets this version apart is that in this module it is combined with a certain popular little quad LFO called The Psycho LFO which is also from the lineage of the Australian Cat Girl Synth system. 

(...) when the "Link" switch is thrown, one of the oscillators acts as a simple clock driving the Analog Shift Register, while the other three are free to create the jumble of control voltages that the register actually shifts!

(...) an exclusive control voltage "Modulation" input has a hand in adding more of your own animation to the Monster. The unique "Blend" and "Character" controls are useful for transforming the total output from something joyous to downright disturbing!"

Doepfer  - A-152
I own a A152, and my opinion is that the claimed ASR function of the A152 will not get you the true ASR results you might expect.  The A152 is a switch. A very powerful and sophisticated one, but it will not push the value of one output into the next.  

Therefore, not a ASR as we defined. - Q960
I doesn't own a Q960, so I can't make a claim check, but I must say I'm sceptical about's as an ASR. But I can't verify, so here's how they put it:

"The Q960 is a 9 stage shift register. Each stage is linked to the next like a chain. Stage #9 is linked back to stage #1. Each stage is either ON or OFF.

Each time a shift occurs, the state of each stage is shifted forward and the last stage is sent to stage #1. In other words: a circular rotation."

So there you have it.