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…

Minibrute

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.

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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.

TowerRecords

Echigoya will be across the street.

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

EchigoyaElevator

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:

Sign

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!

Portable Sound System / Live Setup

I’m about to head out on the road for a couple of months or so which means I wont have access to my regular music making machines. All the keyboards, synths and the modular and other gear will be out of reach.

My wonderful modular ;-)

My wonderful modular ;-)

Naturally I can’t go for 2 months without making music, and so I was researching various ways of staying productive while on the road. I came up with 4 different alternative setups that I think would have worked for me. I’m sure there are others but those are the ones that felt viable in terms of what I was looking for.

Figuring there might be others looking for the same I decided to write up a short explanation of how and what I ended up with.

Scroll down to the end for pictures of the end result :).

First the Criteria:

  1. Portable
    I wanted a system that I could carry or lug around without too much effort. Pocket size was not a requirement.
  2. No Computer / DAW dependency.
    I wanted to be able to set it up and jam / mess around without having a computer nearby.
  3. New
    I wanted the setup to be a new learning experience with gear and/or a workflow that I had not used before. Also, I wanted those learnings to be relevant not just to the system at hand but for other scenarios / tech / workflows as well.
  4. Full circle
    The system had to be capable of producing a full track with all parts and sounds necessary (under realistic constraints of course).

Option 1. The Groovebox

At first I was looking at various self-contained groove boxes like the Korg Electribes and the Roland MCs. They are certainly capable boxes, but the Rolands I ruled out right away as being to big for their feature sets, and having to out-dated i/o options. The MC808/909 looks like a lot of fun, and as a future addition to the studio I think they would be great, but not for on-the-road work. On the other hand the Electribes have the perfect size but felt like they were to restricted sonically (at least for the type of music I want to create). Finally, any workflow or techniques that I would learn from these boxes felt like they would be tied very closely with the particular box and not translate well to other tools.

Option 2. The Pocket Synth

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last year or two you know about the Teenage Engineering OP-1 synth. A fantastic little instrument that is kind of like a groove box on steroids, shrunk to fit in your palm. However, the hardware has gotten a lot of negative reviews/feedback as a novelty toy, and with little to no expansion options, for the price it felt like a very limited way to go. Also, the OP-1 seemed like a dead end in terms of live, cooperative jamming. I’m all for setting up constraints to explore creativity but the OP-1 was simply to far from where I’m heading with my music.

Option 3. All Software

While certainly the most portable solution, this violates the 2nd criteria. And seriously, how fun is that?? ;-)

Option 4. The Portable Studio

So finally I started asking my self what the minimum required instruments are to be able to create the music I strive for without a DAW or any of my larger modular systems or synths. What would it take to essentially shrink down the sonic palette that I want to work with into a system that would meet the 4 criteria and also be fun and inspiring to work with.

I knew I would want some kind of percussion / drum sequencer, a dedicated bass voice, at least 1 dedicated lead voice, something to experiment with for atmospheric sounds and effects, and some way of mixing all the voices together.

Looking at what I had at hand I decided that my Elektron Analog Four should have a spot in the setup, as well as the Meeblip. For effects I could bring my Eventide Space and Timefactor pedals, and to spice things up even more I ordered a Nebulophone from Bleep Labs. Next I needed some form of note / melody source so I decided to include a Doepfer Dark Time sequencer, and for percussion a Korg Volca Beats. Also, to add another voice to the mix, and because it pairs so well with the Dark Time, I’m considering throwing in a Dark Energy synth as well. Finally to mix them all together I’ve included an Allen & Heath ZED10-FX mixer which will also allow me to record the stereo mixdown over USB to a computer.

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SketchUp model

I figured I could build a custom, heavy duty but portable, case that would hold all of this gear so I started looking into custom ATA cases, but a friend pointed me in the direction of the Pelican brand cases instead. Those cases come in a huge variety of sizes and colors so after some measuring and careful modeling in SketchUp I decided to go for one of those.

In the end I would agree that this setup is far from the most simple or portable solution, but it feels extremely inspiring and I can’t wait to set this rig up and start exploring it.

If you have any questions about the case or any of the gear inside it please leave a comment and I will answer as best I can.

Here’s a complete list of the gear:

  • 1x Allen & Heath ZED10-FX Mixer
  • 1x MeeBlip SE
  • 1x Korg Volca Beats (to be added in Japan)
  • 1x Elektron Analog Four
  • 1x Eventide Space
  • 1x Eventide TimeFactor
  • 1x Doepfer Dark Time
  • 1x Bleep Labs Nebulophone
  • 1x Doepfer Dark Energy mkII (TBD)
  • 1x Pelican Cases 1610
The Pelican 1610 Case

The Pelican 1610 Case

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Inside the case. The mixer is one level down.

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Jamming with the setup.

Moog Little Phatty Road Case Review

This is a short review of the Moog Little Phatty Road Case from (tada!) Moog.

It works. It fits. It’s well built. Buy it.

LPCase1Now for the details. Since I’m about to move some gear and I’ve been wanting a good case for the Little Phatty I decided to go all out and order the official Moog branded Little Phatty road case.

The case is actually made by Gator as you can see on the hatches that locks the lid in place. The interior foam however has been custom fitted to a Little Phatty, including the wedge shaped front panel.

The case also comes with 2 extra pieces of thick padding that you can move around to a position that gives you the greatest confidence in terms of securing the synth.

LPCase2

I put them behind the synth to keep it from rocking back and forth. When the case arrived they were placed in the bottom to raise the synth about 3 inches, but with this configuration the lid will not  close. If you look at the official product picture on the Moog site it shows the synth sitting level with the interior foam. This will not work as the wedged front panel will then be too high for the lid of the case to close.

Overall I think the build quality and the fit is very nice. It is not exactly a cheap case, but since the Little Phatty is an oddly shaped, expensive piece of gear I think it is totally worth its premium price.

You can buy it either at the Moog site directly, or from Sweetwater and get $20 off and free shipping. (Why Moog charges such outrages shipping prices is beyond me…)

Highly recommended!

FiveG, the Vintage and Used Synth Mecca in Tokyo

This post could also be called Day 19 in Japan, but on this day I had a very specific goal so I’ll talk mostly about that.

Since I was heading out to Tokyo, I decided to check online if there were any particularly interesting stores or other spots that a synth head should check out while in the city. I have lived in Tokyo for many years but when I did I wasn’t very interested in synthesizers or electronica beyond listening to it.

A quick search turned up a place called FiveG, close to Harajuku station on the Yamanote line. Online reviews talked about it as a place where you might find interesting used synths, and it looked like they had a selection on used Doepfer modules for sale too.

At this day, my friends Adam and Frederic were also arriving in Tokyo for the same business reasons as I, and since Adam is as much of a synth nerd as I am I decided to invite them to come with me.

fiveg1FiveG is located on the fourth floor of an anonymous looking building just outside Harajuku station. You have to walk in to the back of the entrance were you’ll find a dress up store for Japanese maid costumes. Next to this store is an elevator, which you ride to the fourth floor. Once there, you have to look around the corner of a very narrow hallway and you’ll find the store entrance.

Inside though the store is actually quite big, and stuffed from floor to ceiling, in multiple rows, with the most amazing vintage and used synths and other hardware you could ever imagine. At the time they had everything from Memory Moogs to the keyboard version of the Elektron Monomachine and several Korg MS 10, 20, and vocoders. I even spotted a used Elektron Analog 4!?

On the modular side they had hundreds of Eurorack modules and a whole section dedicated to Moog modular gear. I can’t even begin to list them all, but you can’t help but asking yourself where all that gear came from…

fiveg2The prices were reasonable too. And they offered to ship anything back to the states as well if needed. If you are in Tokyo looking for some interesting, unusual gear, and you have some space in your bags, I highly recommend checking out this store. Even if you can’t afford some of the more esoteric instruments and accessories its still a great way to spend time in the company of some of the most famous electronic instruments ever. I do recommend that you bring a friend who can speak Japanese since that makes the visit even better!

Check out the photos and the link below if you want to know more.

FiveG, Harajuku – Tokyo

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