2013 Mini Synth RoundUp

This is a follow up to my previous post where I was wining about not having a proper keyboard to play.

This weekend I was at one of the local synth stores in Stockholm (4sound) messing around with some of the smaller synths (BassStation 2, MS-20 Mini, MiniBrute, Sub Phatty) that have entered the market recently. Smaller in footprint but not in sound. I thought I’d collect some of my thoughts on them, but this is not a comparison in anyway. Remember, they are different instruments with different character so comparing them would be unfair and pointless.

Novation BassStation 2

Base-Station-II-elevated-rear-3quartersNovation’s reincarnation of the classic BassStation. Very intuitive panel with lots of hands-on goodness. The keybed felt sturdy and nice, with just the expected action for a smaller, somewhat cheaper synth. During the 15 minutes I played around with it I found it really easy to get lost (in a good way) in tweaking a sound to go all the way from a subby bass to a crunchy lead.

I have to say the sonic palette was really impressive, and I would not write this one off as just a Bass synth. Compared to the Moog Minitaur, which I feel is an amazing, great sounding, creamy and fat one-trick-pony, the BassStation 2 might not have that warm, Moogy sound but who cares? It’s not a Moog, instead it’s much more versatile, hands-on and fun.

The Acid filter is an obvious (and great) nod to the X0X machines of the 80s and 90s where you can easily dial in great, classic acid techno sounds. In fact, it felt like the machine was quietly beckoning me to do just that. ‘I know it’s cheesy but admit it, that’s what you want me to sound like…’ Or perhaps that was just in my head… The signal path also contains an overdrive stage where you can really fatten it up and add plenty of dirt.

Thumbs up for this one, especially if you want a dedicated Bass synth, but really for any classic techno sound!

Korg MS-20 Mini

Such a difficult instrument to approach. I’ve dreamt of owning an MS-20 ever since I discovered that all my favourite sounds in the Arturia library came from their MS-20 emulation. Now that I’m standing face to face with one that’s actually within reach it feels so strange that it’s not 100% the ‘real’ thing. I know it’s almost exactly the same components, but I kind of want to find some problem with it to give me an excuse to get the vintage one.. Silly, I know…

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Anyways, the MS-20 Mini is simply put a blast to play. While the keys feel a bit flimsy and the knobs have quite a lot of wiggle to them, the patch bay felt sturdy and extremely inviting.

With my modular background I immediately felt at home and within just a few minutes I was able to patch bells, drones and straight out weird noises. (Yes, the filter is fantastic!)

The layout of the panel is very easy to understand, and since everything is given plenty of on-panel explanation I think this would be a fantastic beginner synth that’s both easy to get in to and extremely deep thanks to it’s semi-modular nature.

Thumbs up on this one too, especially if you are looking for your first analog synth.

Moog Sub Phatty

I have a Little Phatty Stage 2 in the studio, and I’ve always felt it’s like a Rolls Royce of synthesisers. Not necessarily the most exciting synth, or the most innovative, but very well built (despite it’s plastic front panel) and with a very reliable sound and character. For some reason I alway use it either as a Bass synth, or in combination with delay, reverb and distortion pedals. I feel like it lacks just that little extra spice to make it interesting as a Lead synth.

Sub-Phatty1wht-e1369738309637Not so with the Sub Phatty. In fact if it was my only chance of owning it I would trade my Little for a Sub any day. The new panel layout is an order of magnitude easier to get around and much better for live tweaking and performance. The oscillator section (with the sub osc), dedicated noise knob, the separation of the amp and filter envelope sections and the overdrive all combine to make this an excellent instrument for sound creation and live playing.

Some might say that the 2 vs 3 octave keyboard is thing to consider, but I disagree. I have no problem dribbling the octave up and down buttons when necessary and I actually think the smaller foot print is a big plus.

Of all the synths I played with this day I have to say the Sub Phatty was the most fun, and I found myself seriously considering buying one.

If you own a synth or two but you want to add that classic Moog sound, albeit in an updated and in my opinion more interesting incarnation, the Sub Phatty is a no-brainer.

Arturia MiniBrute

I have a complicated relationship with Arturia. I love their software emulations and the presets they bundle, but the quality of their hardware has never impressed me. I find this interesting since many reviewers of both their MIDI controllers and synths give them praise for great build quality.

The gear I’ve owned (2 Analog Factory boards, a MiniLab and the Spark Drum machine) have all broken down in one way or the other. That said, their prices are very competitive and the software is ace…

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So is the MiniBrute any different? Yes and no. Yes, the build quality of the chassis and keybed feels reassuring compared to their MIDI controllers, but the the knobs and faders feel like they would easily break or get cranky if you get too excited during a live session.

The MiniBrute has one of the most interesting oscillator sections I’ve ever seen, essentially allowing you to mix 3 waveforms, noise, a sub oscillator and an external audio input in a 6 channel mixer. What’s really interesting though is that the waveforms are all generated from a single oscillator. Add to this waves haping capabilities on each wave and the famed ‘Brute Factor’ and you’re in for a ride.

Yes, the MiniBrute lives up to it’s name. I found it to be gritty, dirty, growling and just awesome in sound character. Very disrespectful of any fancy Moog smelling classical synth lead sounds, instead just begging you to steal it and start a punk band. My only fear is that the knobs, keys and faders might fall off before you make it to the first gig…

In summary, definitely a unique and fun sounding synth, and if I found a used and functioning one for a good price I would probably buy it. Is it a must-have? No, I would save the cash for the MicroBrute slated to be released on November 1st.

Why you should practice DJing

I’ve never really been interested in the art of DJing, but lately I’ve started lusting for a Digital DJ Controller. Why? I think the spark came when I visited one of the huge DJ stores in Tokyo a while back. They had rows and rows of beautiful controller lined up, and I have to admit that it was pure looks that pulled me in.

At the time I had only a vague idea of how they work, but I guy in the store was kind enough to give me an overview of the standard controls and he also gave me a quick intro to Traktor and Serato DJ.

As I got home that night I downloaded the demo version of both and started playing around with them. While they are limited they do contain all the basic functionality, and since then I’ve been fooling around with more and more often.

Here are some really cool takeaways, and the reasons why I’m now considering buying an actual controller:

1. Building a library of tracks to practice with has forced me to listen to and buy a lot of new music. This has ben crazy inspirational and a really good kick in the ass to explore and listen to more music! (Especially more mainstream music.)

2. Practicing mixing has taught me a ton of new details about track composition and timing. How long is a typical trance lead in? Lead out?

3. Rhythm practice and appreciation of EQ and frequency bands. Understanding what to take away, what to emphasize and how to adjust speed and tempo to seamlessly blend and mix tracks has forced me to think more about where in the frequency band certain sounds or instruments lie and why.

4. Greater appreciation for sampling. I’ve found myself not just listening to more music (remember 1 above?), but also out in record stores digging through old vinyls and CDs looking for interesting, fun or just unusual loops and sounds to sample.

I think dabbling with DJing (really, I suck but hey…) has gotten me thinking about structure, tempo and sound in new ways. Before I could talk and reason about it, but now I feel like I ‘understand’ and can appreciate it even more.

If you haven’t tried it yet, I really recommend you do!

The Instrument Village of Tokyo

The sprawling district of Shibuya in Tokyo is home to some of the most interesting vintage synthesizer stores in the country (if not the world) and a Mecca for music lovers and up and coming artists.

Walking around its streets and alleys on any given day at any time (even the wee small hours of the morning) I guarantee you wont have to go far before you stumble on a bar or club that invites you with music you’ve never heard before. Shibuya is known for being one of the most important testing grounds for new genres and artists in Japan.

IkebeGakkiMura14I’ve written before about some of the off-the-track stores in the area (here and here), but today I’m going to show you some pictures of the largest and perhaps most mainstream or commercial collection of instrument stores in this part of Tokyo.

If you are looking for a new Tuba or Trumpet, a built to order exclusive guitar, a gold-plated Moog or simple new strings for your Bass, this is where you’ll want to go, but make sure you bring a map or otherwise orient yourself before heading out, the area is a bit chaotic.

Exit the Shibuya train station on the western side towards the bus terminals and you’ll soon find yourself facing a large network of pedestrian overpasses (the purple / grey parts in the picture below). Cross over this overpass and you will soon arrive at the ‘entrance the the Ikebe Gakki Mura (イケベ楽器村). The ‘instrument village’ is really a collection of stores situated close to each other making up a complex neighborhood of specialty shops.

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Here’s a stylized map showing the locations of some of the major stores in the area.

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When you see these signs you are on the right way.

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Inside some of the shops in the ‘DJ’ tower (Power Rec is a great one).

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One of the keyboard / synthesizer specialty stores.

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Lots of Nord gear.

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A golden Moog (17/30 if I remember right).

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And a signed one.

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Yep I miss my Prophet 12…

IkebeGakkiMura13Check out these links to the official Ikebe page where you can find detailed information on the various stores, the opening hours and locations.

http://www.ikebe-gakki.com/

http://www.ikebe-gakki.com/realshop/

http://www.ikebe-gakki.com/web-ikebe/shibuya-ikebe_gakkimura/

New Bitwig Video Released

It’s been a while since I wrote anything about Bitwig Studio, but this latest video shows off some of the features (specifically around modulation) of the much anticipated DAW.

It also shows how much the software has matured since last time. Also, the UI seems to be heading in a very pleasant direction. What’s your take on Bitwig? Still excited?

Echigoya, another synth power-spot in Tokyo

In January this year I presented the FiveG store in Harajuku, Tokyo, but the city is home to many other fantastic gems for synth heads. Today I’ll post some pictures from the Echigoya Music (えちごやミュージック) store in Shibuya.

Along with FiveG, I would list Echigoya as probably one of the best spots in Tokyo to go searching for vintage or just used synthesizers and other studio gear. It’s a small shop but filled floor to ceiling with some really fantastic gear. Prices are reasonable too, and the manager is more than happy to assist with shipping to just about any region of the world.

To get to this store you get off at the Shibuya station and walk towards Harajuku along the JR (Yamanote) line tracks. You’ll bump into Tower Records on your right side.

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Echigoya will be across the street.

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You have to take the elevator up to the 9th floor.

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Inside you’ll find keyboards, synth modules, rack gear, accessories and tons of other gear.

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Look at that, a used Korg Volca Beats makes a surprise appearance. I would have bought it but my mind is set on a Elektron Machinedrum now…

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Lots and lots of gear.

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If I had the means I would have picked up a SEM or two…

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Lot’s of MPC goodness. With some custom skins too…

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On a side note, when I was walking back to Harajuku I spotted this charming sign near the Yoyogi park:

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It basically says that all unauthorized live music performances using amps are forbidden in the park. The background is most likely that this has traditionally been one of the most popular spots for amateur bands and performers to do impromptu shows. Thus, today the area was entirely devoid of any music and mostly desolated. Sad to see such a nice ‘tradition’ go, but I’m sure they will find other spots across the city.

Check out the Echigoya Music website here!