Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Choir and Strings, Believe them or Not.

Choir and string sounds often sound too large or too small to me when it comes to samples.  What I mean by this is that it either sounds very large - like a whole orchestra string ensemble or a large choir (which often just sounds too big to be useable), or it sounds small in an unrealistic sort of way -  usually where the realism of the sample is only convincing in a certain range of notes. 

What I want is a believable, simple, small-room, close-mic'd group of voices or strings that sound like a string quartet or caroling group.  I want the ability to call this up in my EMU 4XTultra sampler and play these sounds whenever I need a believable string or choir group.  The best way to get these sounds is to not dig through library after library to find the sound that you want - but to sing or play the instruments yourself or get a few friends over to sing or play a few scales of notes, sample these into your instrument and map/spread them across the keyboard so they are playable.  You might ask "Why not just play the parts separately and mix them together?".  While this is possible to do, sometimes you want to try different ideas and see what types of sound accomplish the direction that you want the song to go.

When doing this, I usually record the raw session into a track on Protools, then use my Conn Strobotuner to see how close the pitches are.  If they are flat or sharp, I will shift them a few cents to compensate, but making this too perfect or using autotune will suck the life out of any convincing realism; so it is important to leave some pitch fluctuation or nuance in the recording.  Once this is done, it is easy to add a compressor or EQ to get the sound exactly where you want it to be.  I don't like to use echos, delays, or reverbs before I sample the instruments because it is much more flexible to add them after they are sampled where you can tailor the sound and mood to the song you are working with.  Sampling every chromatic note in the scale is ideal, but only if the instrument or voice was played or sung for similar note durations, with similar vowel, vibrato, and tone. 

Typically, when I have a section of strings, choir, horns, etc., I record a track of samples first to see if I like the way things fit together, then I will record some tracks of real instruments on top of these where the slides between notes, nuances of playing the same note, and subtle variations are captured to make the entire group of instruments sound real and convincing.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Roland CPE-800 and VCA-800

I recently acquired a working, vintage Roland CPE-800 and VCA-800 from my friend Jacob Graham.  His obsession with early 80's Roland gear had led him down the rabbit hole to this beautiful and interesting piece of gear.  He came across it on EBAY and bought it to add to his Roland studio (which consisted of all Roland gear at the time, nothing newer than 1983).  After a few years of owning it, Jacob found he was not using it much and put it up in a local store NYC music store where no one wanted it, and it sat for another year.  I found out that he was selling it when he told me that the music store asked him to come and pick up this large paper weight that nobody wanted.  I immediately said “Oh – your actually selling that?  I will buy it!!!”
There were very few of these made and hardly any in use today, from what I can tell.  There are not many references to the CPE-800 online.  There are few photos.  Where there is a reference, it is always a vintage ad or someone saying how obsolete this equipment is.  They could not be more wrong.  People have admittedly destroyed these, piecing them out for parts for the Jupiter 8 or TR-808 – which is a shame and tragedy. 
This is not a rant about using some obsolete equipment and trying to do things “old school”, somehow believing that you are preserving some piece of history in the process.  Once I had heard about this piece of gear and understood what it does, I was blown away that something like this even exists.  With a modification, I saw a potential to have one of the most versatile, stand-alone modular synthesizer control surfaces ever made.
In many ways, the technology that this product was intended for is indeed obsolete.  When this product was introduced, it was intended to be used for the motion picture industry.  It would sync to SMPTE time code.  It would allow automated volume control over 15 channels for up to 99 hours provided that it would not run out of memory.  Memory usage only occurs when changes occur – in other words, if the levels stay the same, no memory is used for automation.  The original list price was close to $8,000.  Jacob had bought his for a small fraction of that price and relayed the same price to me. 

In a conversation with someone who worked at Roland during the time of the release, it originally had a problem with the SMPTE time code where the 1’s and 0’s were reversed and it would not work with other SMPTE products but would work great with itself.  This was fixed in software, but the first impression to the industry had already caused some damage and sales were low.  Roland only had schematics and a user manual for this.  No service manual was ever made for this product.  The user manual mostly talks about using the CPE-800 with the VCA-800, but there is also several references to using it as a lighting control and putting it in“scene” mode.
When used in conjunction with the VCA-800, to call this a mixer would be a false statement.  Even though it looks like a mixer, there is no summing amplifier so channels are not combined in any way.  Each channel has a single VCA, with its own input and its own output...     To call this a controller is an understatement. The board unit by itself automates CV’s (control voltages) that span from 0 to 10 volts.  This is much like the Flame knob recorder or the Modcan CV recorder except it has 15 channels instead of 2-4 channels.  Although the CPE only has a fixed timebase (unlike the Modcan and Flame, where there is a variable speed), the length of the recording can be anywhere from less than a second to 99 hours!  This can also be looped, paused, or restarted...    

These voltages go into the VCA-800  box (shown in the photo above) to control the amplitude/volume.  You can use the faders manually (and they are high quality Alps 100mm faders!), or you can record or playback the changes that you make over time.  The faders are not motorized, but there is a nice pair of LED’s that show if the memory value is higher or lower than where you have the channel set. With a modification that I did, this is an amazing CV controller, can be used with ANY modular equipment, and blows away most modern controllers that are being made today.  15 channels can be used as level controls or voltages, or both, to send signals anywhere in your modular patch.  My modification is shown in the photo - it is the grey rack on top of the VCA-800, with a row of 15 attenuators and a row of 15 CV output jacks.

On a technical note, the VCA’s are DC blocked so the lowest frequency that they pass is around 15 Hz.  This cannot pass LFO’s to other modules through the VCA-800, but you can use the voltage outputs that I added to control VCA’s that are not DC blocked and can pass LFO’s or other CV signals.  I added attenuators to each of the 15 voltage outputs so I can scale them down to work with various modules.  I also added another modification where I can start and stop this with a gate signal from an analog synthesizer – so it can be used as a 99 hour, 15 channel, arbitrary envelope generator.
I would love to buy more of these, add my modification, then sell these as a control voltage source or offer a modification box as a service.  The problem is to find another.  Contact me if you have one of these that you wish to sell.

Video examples of this unit in action will be posted soon.  I just need to edit some footage together.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

My thoughts on the future of music

I think that there will be a point in music where we think of something, and we physically hear it.  Like a brain to sound translator.  I like to think that all instruments work that way to some extent, but you are always limited to what the instrument can do.  As limitations decrease, the sounds will approach our ideas with even more and more precision, until the resemblance is indistinguished from our original, independent thought.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Knobcon 2015

If you are in the Chicago area and love synths, you won't want to miss Knobcon!  It happens this weekend!  I will be making a guest musician (extra set of hands) in Geoff White's set AND I will be speaking on resonant acoustic synthesis.  Should be FUN.


Tuesday, August 25, 2015


So I made this video a while ago, but I finally got around to editing it together.  It compares my MS-20 mini with an original MS-20 from the late 1970's

Thursday, August 20, 2015

a random thought

I have something to say to other artists and musicians.  I am constantly baffled when I listen to new records and words are squeezed into a phrase for the sake of rhyming.

Not everything that you do has to rhyme
and if you don't, it is more sublime
It is not that rhyming is a crime,
but not everything has to rhyme.

Monday, July 27, 2015

A Video Lull

It has been a while since I have posted any videos.  There is a good reason for this - the camera that I was using was borrowed and no longer available and I don't particularly like the videos that my cell phone or iPad take (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFFe7Zor3f0  or the link directly below is a good example).     
 Well guess what!?!

I just got another camera a few weeks ago and am working on some new video demonstrations to post.  Please stay tuned and check back soon!   In the meantime, here are a couple of videos that I have done in the past.  These videos can always be found with the Youtube links on the right side of this page.