tePO_13

“Pocket” is a term often used loosely to mean anything small. Not so the Teenage Engineering PO-12 series of instruments. They’re each literally small enough that you could put them in your jeans comfortably and still cram in your phone.

We’ve got units from TE (and collaborator Cheap Monday) here at CDM, so let’s talk about what our wacky Stockholm friends have done this time.

Remember Nintendo’s Game & Watch series? These business card-sized pocket games used crude but charming LCD animations, characters making jerky, repetitive movements for basic games. The ultra-cheap toy titles preceded the NES, the ingenious work of game designer Gunpei Yokoi. They were brutally simple, but stunningly addictive. Oh, and they also doubled as a clock/alarm clock – battery draw was so impossibly minimal, you could prop them on your bedside and count on them to wake you up in the morning.

Here’s where we enter the weird and wonderful imagination of Teenage Engineering and founder Jesper Kouthoofd – and their usual Japan fetish, down to the writing on the box. The PO cross-breeds the Game & Watch with synths and a drum machine and a step sequencer. The lab coat-wearing TE team have unveiled three models – a “Factory” melodic synth, a “Sub” bass synth, and a “Rhythm” drum machine. Each is US$59.

CDM was the first to see the PO-12 when the drum machine – sans display – showed up in a talk I hosted at Moogfest last year. Now, the Game & Watch connection is explicit: that blank space on the board hosts a gaming display. And yes, it’s also an alarm clock. And no, the TE guys haven’t come up with any housing: this is still a board with a hanger and a wire stand for the back. You pop in AAA batteries and go. There’s not even a power switch: it powers off automatically; any key brings it (nearly) instantly to life.

So, okay. It’s a cute toy, a nerdy gimmick for design lovers. It’s available in Colette in Paris. Skinny jeans maker Cheap Monday is in on it. Fine. It’s a fun hipster throwaway. It’s certainly not a musical instrument.

Wrong.

Actually, completely wrong. Continue reading »

Advance49_angle_1200x750_web

Smart keyboard controllers that integrate with software have been something various makers have tried frequently over the years, with various degrees of success.

Propellerhead helped lead the way with Automap in Reason, which could cleverly link on-screen controls to devices. But by the time this was translated to multiple pieces of software, the resulting “automatic” features could be harder to use on than off. I tried at various points Novation’s ReMOTE, M-Audio’s Axiom Pro, and Cakewalk’s A-PRO keyboards, and found them all to be perfectly nice hardware – once I gave up and turned the automatic stuff off and just mapped MIDI the old fashioned way. I know I’m not alone on this, as I’ve heard frequently from readers in comments.

Recently, though, keyboards with a more modest scope have resurrected the idea in compelling ways. Nektar’s Panorama keyboard and siblings is nicely designed and works well with certain software – especially Reason. (It’s also a no-brainer if you’re one of the handful of people using Bitwig.)

And then there’s Native Instruments’ Komplete Kontrol. At first glance, it looked nearly perfect. Tight integration with NI’s software means automatic hands-on control with no additional configuration. The design is attractive. The keybed is top-notch (it’s a simple synth action, but the best one available, the Fatar). I’ve been using the 25-key model, and it’s a lot of fun – doubly so when you use it alongside Maschine.

But then come the caveats. Komplete Kontrol is useless the moment it’s disconnected from your computer: there’s no standalone operation, which for a MIDI keyboard seems fairly unforgivable. The arpeggiator and chord feature work only with NI’s software, not with other plug-ins. You sacrifice pitch and mod wheels for ribbon controls, but actually taking advantage of their flexibility is tough, since you can’t easily swap settings without diving into the software. And all this is more expensive than rivals (for instance, from Korg) which lack the same limitations. Unless you own and spend most of your time in Komplete, it’s hard to get excited about a keyboard that costs more, but does less. (That is, there’s no question it’s a godsend for heavy-duty Komplete users, but some of us have other software and hardware we want to use, too.)

And that’s why Akai Advance looks interesting. The keyboard, scheduled for delivery in spring, at least promises to do more with its whiz-bang premium features. Continue reading »

Nord-Electro-5-Angled

Year after year, a lot of what the music instruments industry does is iterative – evolutionary, not revolutionary. But for the day-in, day-out operation of a lot of gigging musicians, some of the less-thrilling announcements are the ones that simply make life better.

That means, for example, Clavia’s announcement of a new Nord Electro 5 keyboard matters. The number of stage musicians who rely on the signature red keyboards from Sweden is simply stunning. Nord aren’t cheap, but their attention to detail has earned them a lot of impassioned enthusiasts.

I actually had the pleasure of visiting Clavia when I was in Stockholm last year, hosted by the city. These things really are built by hand in the middle of the city, in a tiny assembly line tucked away in an unassuming residential block. Now, that wouldn’t ordinarily make any difference, except that the keyboards’ success I think is owing to some careful design and construction and a lot of listening to customers. (The Scandinavian wood is just icing on the cake.) This isn’t an enormous business, but it represents what modern electronic instrument building is about – it’s making highly tailored tools for a small but dedicated clientele.

Now, the Nord Electro 5 series doesn’t really have any banner features; it’s just the old Electro, but better. In fact, you might have some trouble working out what’s new from the press materials, so let me help. A lot of this borrows from Nord’s combo organ and piano – but that could mean the Electro is the Clavia axe you really want: Continue reading »

The_Moog_Modular

Synthesizers are now old enough to become “classics,” to have a canonical form – much like the Steinway D in pianos or the Stradivarius violin. So, that leaves us a choice: do we make something new, even if fashioned out of the old, or do we reissue the historical instrument as it originally was?

Answer: all of the above.

At NAMM this week, I expect you can find representatives from the whole spectrum between past and future. But the company that more than any other has defined what it means to be a “classic” is now setting their time machine firmly to the past.

Moog is remaking their modulars.

Now, let’s remember, Moog Music’s original reentry into synthesizers was very different. Dr. Bob Moog’s Minimoog Voyager is a rethinking of its predecessor. While the basic architecture follows the original Minimoog, the Voyager added new control and playing possibilities, and additional modulation. It keeps its tune (ahem) and can be controlled via MIDI. The Minimoog Voyager was a sequel, not a re-release.

But then last year, we got a first indication Moog Music (now absent Dr. Moog) might restart the assembly lines on its historical products, too. The Keith Emerson modular was a nearly exact copy of the historical instrument. Continue reading »

automate

We hope that music will always have tribes of people keeping esoteric traditions alive – your Renaissance musical ensemble, your Slovenian folk instrumentalists. It just happens that electronic technologies have attracted their own followings, cultivating knowledge of Texas Instruments chips found in specific arcade games the way some people might maintain a balalaika.

Chip singers have never gotten the kind of attention synthesizers have. But if Moog – and the synth itself – can look to Keith Emerson’s “Lucky Man,” fans of robotic sung vocals will always have Humanoid.

The seminal acid track “Stakker Humanoid” was the work of artists who would become 90s legends Future Sound of London. And so it’s only right that Humanoid (and FSOL) would come to open the coming of the most exhaustive effort yet to recreate classic vocal synths. (Future Sound of London sound excited, too, if their Facebook page is to be believed.)

Coinciding with the release of Chipspeech from Montreal developer Plogue, the free “chipspeech AUTOMATE SONGS .01″ compilation on Toy Company is a cross-section of compulsive chip artists from around the world.

Toy Company, the chip-focused label based in Montreal (with some strong New York connections), has been a lone stalwart of music made with vintage synthesis tech. The “chip” loosely refers to ICs – integrated circuits. These are what came after the first synthesizers; they’re the mass-produced analog and digital soul of a generation of electronic sounds. Real chip music isn’t just a nostalgic, ironic hipster production by people who miss afternoons playing NES. No, that doesn’t begin to explain the level of obsession that drives these musicians. We’re talking people who can tell the difference between an emulation and original chips, who know the model number of particular TI devices that went with specific consoles, and who coax sound out of this gear in the way a concert master might drive a string section.

In particular, I want to pull out some music you might otherwise miss on the compilation, partly because several go far from the sort of tracks you likely expect. Continue reading »

Talk_family2

I’ve just gotten lost making my computer sing. And now I can’t stop.

You see, a funny thing happened on the way to the future. As speech synthesis vastly improved, it also became vastly more boring. Intelligibility robbed synthesized words and singing of its alien quality, which was what made it sound futuristic in the first place.

Chipspeech takes us back to speech synthesis as many of us remember it growing up. It’s weird-sounding, to be sure, to the point of sometimes being unable to understand the words. But it’s also loaded with character.

And there’s a history here. To fans of robotic baritones and sopranos, a particular chip can represent the Stradivarius or Steinway of machine song. These are the bots that sung Daisy Bell in the first-ever computer serenade, that have been featured in classic electro and techno records – and, perhaps, that inhabited your toy bin or represented your first encounter with the computer age, intoned in clicking, chirping magic.

But in a revolutionary transformation, you can make them do more than just speak. You can make them sing. And the result is one of the most enjoyable digital instruments to play you’ll see this year.

Montreal’s independent plug-in maker Plogue Art et Technologie embarked in a somewhat ludicrous labor of love, curating a collection of the greatest chips of yore and then painstakingly recreating them in software. Now, the chips themselves are great fun to work with for hardware geeks, whether directly or in circuit-bent form. But historical chips are a non-renewable resource; some are plentiful, others rare.

And there are advantages to reimagining these in virtual form. CDM has had world-exclusive early press access to Chipspeech, our chance to roam the possibilities of the software emulations. And the software allows these chips to perform whatever you ask them. You can type in lyrics, and immediately hear the results sung back to you, something the original chips couldn’t do in tune. You can mix sounds and transform the chips’ output in ways that would be impractical (or at least challenging) on the original hardware. And, in a unique touch, you can even make software modifications that are the equivalent of circuit-bending the hardware.

Here’s an in-depth look at what that means, how it sounds, and how it came to life.

Chipspeech_Interface_Shot Continue reading »

30drop

30drop has mysteriously arrived from Detroit Underground (aka “detund”), those purveyors of strange and wonderful techno and experimental music.

You may think you’ve heard of 30drop, but apart from the release last week, you almost certainly haven’t. Oh, sure, there have been releases — a second EP showed up in December — but for the most part, this act has flown under the radar. As per usual, detund are digging up precisely what isn’t on trend or rising in popularity, an unknown artist making cooly-weird noises.

But the pace is picking up – and this looks to be one of a couple of releases early this year.

And that unknown artist might well have arrived from another planet. Just read the record notes for the release, titled “Tools For The Dimensional Step LP”: Continue reading »