Sunday, February 27, 2011

Radio Show

The complete Hit West radio show, songs and interview. 23/02/2011. In French!

Two songs from the upcoming "Up the River" album were played live : "End of Words" and "Nixonia".

The sound isn't optimal, but later this week, I'll post the songs again, hopefully from a better recording.

Part.1 (interview, "End of Words", interview).

Part.2 (interview, "Nixonia", interview).

"End of Words" (standalone MP3).

"Nixonia" (standalone MP3).

Friday, February 25, 2011

Something New

I might have sold a lot of gear these days, but it's part of a changing of the guard. I'll most probably get a DSI Tempest when it's out, which is why I sold back my Electribe. And here comes a new synth.

I had been interested in the JX series for some time and that one good opportunity came along.

More on that later on, but let me state here that the JX3P is a lovely instrument with a poppy, open analogue sound in the same mold than the Juno series.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

On the Air

Along with my trusted bassist, I played a couple of acoustic songs yesterday on French radio Hit West. Good performance, I hope, and nice interview.

I'll be sure to post this when I get hold of the recording.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bye-Bye Trony

Last to go today, the Korg Monotron.

A cool quirky instrument, but the ribbon is useless, confining the Monotron to external source filtering and bleeping experimentation.

Both tasks are taken care of by my Doepfer Dark Energy, so the Monotron was basically redundant, though I had lots of fun with it on stage.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Bye-Bye Juny

Another good soldier gone, but I wasn't using much the Juno-1 apart from the live act, and a newcomer from Korg got here this weekend (more on that tomorrow).

Again, to celebrate this fine instrument, let's repost the review.

The Alpha Juno-1 is a 1986 analogue polyphonic synthesizer from Roland.

It is actually a hybrid analogue, meaning that it features analogue oscillators with a digitally controlled tuning.
It's also a very underestimated instrument.

Browsing the web isn’t very informative. There are two comments I’ve read pretty much everywhere, one of which is debatable, the other downright wrong. First, that the Juno-1 sounds “colder” than the other Junos. Second, that the Juno-1, since it has DCOs (analog oscillators controlled digitally) rather than VCOs (the traditional voltage controlled analog oscillators), sounds “digital”.
The latter argument is irrelevant and probably uttered by persons who either have never actually played a Juno-1, or else have rotten burgers in lieu of ears. Since I can’t believe that there might be people on the internet with nothing better to do than bashing instruments they didn’t really play, I can only assume there is a rampant wave of burger infection affecting the synth-oriented population.
DCOs have received a considerable amount of scorn from analog purists all along the years. I don’t think they deserve it, because they made possible cheaper analog synths that regular musicans could actually buy, and reliable analog synths that regular musicians could actually bring on tour without having to fear night after night that the big fat analog chord that was supposed to bring the audience to their knees would come out as a pathetic yoink because of a nasty oscillator detune. Good DCOs don’t compromise sound quality as much as their detractors pretend. I actually read in a Juno-1 online review that since this Juno moved to DCOs, it sounded more digital than the VCO-based Juno-60. This, of course, is wrong, since all Junos are DCO-based. The reviewer could nonetheless tell the difference between the Juno-1’s DCOs and the Juno-60’s imaginary VCOs.

About the alleged coldness of the Juno-1, to be frank, these endless debates about “warmth” and “fatness” are somewhat tiresome to me, and trying to figure out by ear which Prophet revision sounds “warmer” is more likely to put me to sleep than a Lars Von Trier movie (I’m kidding, of course, I’ve seen “Dancer in the dark” and there’s no way you can fall asleep when assailed by such vapid nonsense).
Warmth, for one thing, is very subjective, and when discussing synths, it’s always useful to remember than our perception of analogue synthesizers as being “warm” relies on the way our ears are trained to grasp subtle nuances in audio quality. To most people, all synths pretty much sound “synth-ish”, and we all heard time and again music lovers averse to electronic instruments say that they were cold and lifeless, and I’m talking about the very same beloved analogue gear we know to be “warm” and “fat”.

All Juno track : Think of the children

Furthermore, you rarely tend to hear a synthesizer alone. A particular synth might be slightly “warmer” than another in a direct comparison, but provides the same general impression within the whole song mix. In that respect, I believe that the Juno-1 is true to the classic Roland Juno sound, and instead of “colder”, I would use words like “grittier”, “darker” or even “murkier” to describe how the Juno-1 is different from a Juno-60. I would also say that in most uses, I seriously doubt that anyone, listening to a song, could tell the difference between a Juno-1 and a Juno-60 string pad. You are, of course, free to believe otherwise. And also that the imaginary VCOs of the Juno-60 sound warmer than the DCOs of the Juno-106.
But I digress… how’s that Juno-1 anyway?

The Alpha Juno-1 is very compact, quite a small instrument with a four octaves keyboard. Very unfortunately, it isn’t velocity or pressure sensitive (unlike the bigger Alpha Juno-2), which means that although it’s not a rack, you might want sometimes to control it with a master keyboard.

Juno tweaking

The interface, let’s face it, is an abomination. All parameters, displayed on a tiny screen, are accessed by a combination of the big dial on the left, and the value button. This is, ha, I can’t even find the words to describe how unconvenient it is, so I’ll invent one, it is the one of the schprotziest synth interface I ever seen. There’s worse, but not many. Picture yourself programming a sound on the Juno-1. First you push “Parameter select”, then turn the dial clockwise to get to the parameter you want to modify, let’s say the chorus effect. Then push “Value”, then the dial again to change the value. Then “Parameter select” again, then the dial again to get to the next parameter, say the sub-osc level. Then “Value” again and the dial again to modify the value. And so on… That is tedious, dull, boring, well, total schprotz.

What you want to do for serious programming is get the PG-300 programmer along with the synth itself. The prices fly high and it’s not unusual to find the programmer at the same price than the synth. Now, I wouldn’t go as far as saying that Roland “made programming optional” (I’ve read that in an ebay bid some time ago). If you’re dedicated to creating your own sounds, I think you can cope with the schprotz, and there are some software editors to help you.

You’d be ill-advised and lazy to stick with the factory presets. But bring along the PG-300 and everything changes, because you’re back in secure analog-style interface land.

To set it up, connect the Juno-1 MIDI In to the PG-300 Out, then push the MIDI button on the Juno-1 and set the channel to 1. When it’s done, push again the button until you come to the MIDI EXCL parameter, and change it to ON. Now, the PG-300 panel allows you to control the Juno-1. Push Manual on the PG-300 to have the Juno-1 instantly follows the current knob configuration. Very easy to use, but note that there is heavy stepping on some parameters.

The combination of Juno-1 and PG-300 should probably be considered like the complete Alpha Juno synthesizer, and very often you’ll find both on sale as one package. The Juno-1 itself may be one of the cheapest analog synth on the market (I’ve got mine on ebay for 180€). Add the PG-300 and you jump to the prices of a reasonably priced Juno-106 or Juno-60, which begs the question : why would you buy an Alpha Juno instead of a Juno-60, for instance?

Let’s begin to say that it does have that special 80’s analog Roland sound. Is it a Juno-60? Well, the answer is in the question. People who criticize the Alpha Juno for not sounding exactly like the Juno-60 must be the same kind who criticize the Prophet 08 for not being a Prophet 5. Just as the Prophet 08 is a Prophet, not the Prophet 5, the Alpha Juno is one kind of Juno, with a distinctive quality shared by all Junos, but in a darker, muddier flavour.
Whether it’s a good choice depends on the kind of sounds you’re after. It’s true that the Alpha Juno lacks the visual appeal of the other Junos. It is a rather bland, unremarkable black thing. It’s also true that it lacks an arpeggiator. But sound-wise, the difference is a matter of taste. The Juno-60 sounds more “educated”, while the Alpha Juno seems to drift closer to SH-101 territory. I love that actually. There’s a special gritty quality to the Alpha Juno that eludes the other Junos, and which I find very complementary to my smoother Prophet 08.

The Juno-1 works on a single oscillator with a choice of sawtooth and pulse, but also noise and 6 sub-oscillators. This is quite sparse, so a built-in chorus is added to fatten the sound a bit. Of course, it has been suggested that Roland needed on-board chorus in order to make the synth sound good. So what? There is no such thing as “cheating” in synthesizer design. The aim is to make a good-sounding instrument, right? How you achieve that aim is irrelevant. The chorus is intregral part of the audio chain that makes the Juno sound, and arguing that they wouldn’t sound as good without the chorus is like criticizing the Minimoog for not sounding as good without its third oscillator.

It's a good chorus, but you can choose to bypass it and put your own external effect unit. On the following example, the first part is played with the on-board chorus. The second and third are played with the on-board chorus off, and the Juno-1 passing through a Electro-Harmonix Small Clone pedal at two different settings.

There’s a very useful chord memory function. Simultaneously press the chord memory and write button, then hit a chord. When you release the keys, the chord is memorized. Switch chord memory on, and each key triggers the whole chord. This is more than a fun gimmick, as it allows you to play chord blocks like you would play a mono line, with the voices being instantly reallocated to each new chord.
If instead of memorizing a chord, you memory a single note, what you get is a mono Juno…. But then try memorizing something like C1-C2-C3 and you’ve come across a nice way of creating complex mono leads.

Juno chord memory 1

Juno chord memory 2

Overall, the Juno-1 is a great instrument, with plenty of character, and in a way it’s thankfully underestimated, because that allows for a very affordable street price. I found it to be reliable, although my unit has a tendency to “forget” its first 8 user presets from time to time. The oscillators are of course very stable, but they remain analog… the Juno-1 may sometimes sound a bit odd in the first minutes, until it gets warmer. It is definitely a bargain polyphonic analog, that I would recommand any time against VSTs in the same low price bracket.

Juno chorus

Monday, February 21, 2011

Bye-Bye Korgy

My good old Electribe EMX is gone, alas.

You were a great compositional tool and groovebox, but a mighty Tempest is approaching and I need to make space.

I didn't review it, but I might do something later on.

Meanwhile, you can use the "Electribe" tag to find some EMX tracks.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bye-Bye Poly

I'm in the process of streamlining the setup now and getting rid of instruments I'm not using much.

First to go is the Korg Poly-800.

Let's repost the review to celebrate this fine retro instrument with lots of character.

First, to have something relevant to listen to while reading this little review : the following track is all Korg Poly-800.

Mutant Monty by khoral

The Korg Poly-800… here’s a quirky synth for sure.
It may look like a toy or home keyboard, but it’s a real, vintage analog synthesizer with plenty of retro character.

The interface (or lack thereof)

Now of course, this is a 1984 instrument, so don’t expect useful stuff like, I don’t know, KNOBS. What you get is a numerical board, a couple of value buttons and a graphical layout so you can understand what’s going on.

Programming obviously isn’t as easy and straightforward as it should, but as 80’s interface design goes, it’s decent. It certainly beats the Roland Juno-1, which is much more of a pain to program without its PG interface.

Oddly enough, Korg used sliders for functions like Pitch bend range or Oscillator tuning, at which point I should remind you that these are DCO, or digitally controlled oscillators, and they’re very stable. Why the dedicated slider, instead of a couple ones for filter cut-off/resonance, I have no idea.

The joystick is actually more than a simple pitch bend, as it also controls modulation and filter, a really nice feature.

The built is cheap, all plastic and please, please, beware of the fragile joystick, but its simple design seems to have aged very gracefully. Mine works like a charm anyway.

It works on batteries (yeah!) and again, because it’s 1984, you’ll find buttons on each side to use with a guitar strap.

Synthesis (play up to 8 notes at a time! with 1 single filter!)

Wait, did I say it was a 8-voices synthesizer?

Well, on the paper it is. If you only use one oscillator for your sound, a polyphony of 8 voices is what you get, but also your sound will often be thin and uninspiring.

For a richer sound, you’ll want to switch to the so-called Double mode, using both oscillators and reducing the polyphony to 4 voices.

Limited, eh? But it wasn’t so long ago you only had 1 voice, so…

I myself like the effect of notes stealing voices from one another on a limited polyphony instrument.

And speaking of limitations, let’s come to grips with the biggest : all oscillators pass through the same low-pass 24dB filter. So if you play legato, the filter envelope will trigger for the first note only, which makes for some funny playing.

This is a big limitation but one that I rather like, as it’s another quirk that adds up to a very distinct character.

The filter itself is a fine one, best suited for retro pads, sizzling analogue leads and early 80’s synthpop magic. A Polarity function allows for filter envelope inversion.

The oscillator section is quite interesting, as the Poly-800 uses additive synthesis to generate waveforms. The basic material is a squarewave, while on top you’ll add different harmonics at octave intervals, the volume of which reacts according to either a sawtooth or a squarewave form (that is, if you choose sawtooth, the volume curve of the various harmonics will be shaped like a sawtooth). Oscillator 2 can be be transposed on a full octave.

In Roland Juno fashion, Korg has added a great chorus, which should be considered an integral part of the audio chain.

Envelope (as in : lots of 'em)

Also notable is the rather complex envelope section. Each oscillator sports its own 6-stages envelope : Attack, Decay, itself split in two at Break point, with Slope setting up the time for envelope to go to Sustain, and finally Release.

If the Break point is set at a lower value than Sustain, what you will hear is the Attack, then Decay, a second Attack, and up to Sustain. A good way to create more sophisticated, evolving sounds.

The LFO section, on the other hand, is a bit primitive. A sinewave LFO controlling VCF and DCOs, and that’s it.


The Key Assign section too is reminiscent of my Roland Juno-1.
The Poly mode is the standard polyphonic mode you’ll use most of the time.
In Hold mode, notes will keep sounding until their voices are reallocated, as if all release values were set up on infinite.

Chord memory, often mistaken for a useless gimmick, is a great tool to create interesting sounds. Press Hold, then play a chord, hold it and press Chord memory. Every note will rep. Play a single C note instead and you’ve got a monophonic synth.

Finally, the Poly-800 features a simplistic 256 events sequencer and early MIDI.

So what?

Sonically, the Poly-800 falls square into the early 1980’s fuzzy, raw, poppy analogue family, and because it’s so overlooked, you’ll often be able to find a working unit for ridiculously low prices.

I bought mine 111€ shipping included on Ebay, and for such a fine analogue synthesizer, it’s basically a steal, so if you’re looking for eighties-styled analogue, and hesitate to pay 600€ or more for that soooo hip Juno-60, consider getting the Poly-800 instead, it’s no Juno-60 all right and you won’t show off with it, but it’s great value and I hardly think you’ll regret it.

I sure as hell don't.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Live : "End of Words"

Recorded live last december at L'Absence.

Mr Guienne on bass guitar.

From the upcoming "Up the River" album.

End of Words (Live Absence) by khoral

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Banjo from Hell

There hasn’t much new material on the blog lately, eh ?

That’s partly because I spent a good amount of time on non-music projects, including photography, and partly because I’m still adding production and remixing the forthcoming folk-electro album « Up the River ».

In particular, I’m currently struggling with this evil object to add variety to its acoustic landscapes.

It’s a nice and cheap Epiphone banjo and boy is it hard! I’m not an expert guitar player, far from it, but I manage to play decently. Banjo is a whole new affair altogether, whether you want to play fast-paced bluegrass (I don’t) or try to find interesting arpeggios that contrast with the usual guitar parts (I do). You’ve got to play fingerpicking style, the neck is thin, the shape is awkward, it’s very very very heavy and there’s that odd high-pitched string in the middle of the neck.

In any case, I’m still practising and I’m not skilled enough to get what I want, hence « Up the River » is still a work in progress.

The track list also is evolving.
The first “Up the River” draft was recorded some three years ago, and songs have been coming in and out, and lots of re-recording has taken place.
For instance, I’m replacing some vocals recorded with the Joemeek ThreeQ with new ones recorded on the superior-sounding Universal Audio 710 preamp.

Some songs on “Up the River” are already featured in my live act, and next post, I’ll upload some live recordings from our acoustic session back in December. There’ll be “Up the River” songs like “Nixonia”, a character study of the late Richard Nixon, “End of Words” (rework of the Tsinam song) and “The Element of Blank” (inspired by, or more accurately stolen to, Emily Dickinson).

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Lady Gaga Fan Art

What’s the definitive proof one has no soul?
Lady Gaga fan art.

You’re the parasitic life form of a parasitic life form.
You’re lower than the lowest emanation of modern pop culture.
You’re vapor.
You’re TS Eliot’s Hollow Man.
You might as well be fucking dead.

So, if you’re out there attempting to draw a portrait of Lady Gaga wearing a dress cut in a trash bag, please don’t.
Get a grip on reality.
Stop killing your brain.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Listening Mode : Pink Moon

“Pink Moon” is often regarded as Nick Drake’s best album. There’s a lot of truth to that, although we may be biased by the fact that it is the artist’s final work. There are, of course, polished gems like “Things behind the sun”, “Place to be”, “Parasite”, with sophisticated chord progressions and complex lyrics. But it’s arguable whether tracks like “Horn”, “Free Ride” or “Know” show Drake at his best, composition-wise. “Five Leaves Left”, in that regard, is more cohesive.

On the other hand, “Pink Moon” is Drake’s truly timeless album : a guitar and a voice, captured with intimate, detailed precision. “Five Leaves Left” and especially “Bryter Layter” sound dated in comparison, with their typical late-60’s English folk arrangements.

“Know”, “Pink Moon” and such embryonic songs can’t help but capture imagination. Their brevity alone is striking, like stark musical aphorisms. “Know” only features a primitive, hypnotic and, well, somewhat uninspired guitar riff, far-cry from the elaborate arrangements of his previous output. But then Drake wails : “Know that I love you - Know I don’t care - Know that I see you - Know I’m not there”. That’s all he has to say. I’m fine with that. This really set the tone of the album, which sounds less like flowery poetry and more like a factual observation of one’s state of distress.

“Parasite” is exemplary. “Take a look you may see me on the ground - For I am the parasite of this town”. That kind of statement may look commonplace after New Wave, Grunge and so on… But this is 1972, remember… such confessional lyrics are somewhat unusual to the era, and especially unusual for Drake, who would generally use a much more circumvoluted and abstract vocabulary. But now the man is down and he tells us so in no uncertain terms. That is what you do when you’re at the bottom and you don’t give a damn about what the world will think of that display of honesty.

The words even verge on nihilism: “Hearing the trials of the people there - Who’s to care if they lose”. The whole song is a cry of alienation, reflected elsewhere on the album by his plea for a shelter : “And I was green, greener than the hill - Where flowers grew and sun shone still - Now I’m darker than the deepest sea - Just hand me down, give me a place to be”. That is the portrait of the artist as a metaphysical outsider. When you don’t fit in, there is no place to be, as in “to exist”.

The choice of words is also remarkable. The pastoral imagery of the first couple of sentences brings us back to his early, “English-countryside-poetry” work, a nod to the delicate, civilized and peaceful wanderings of “Five Leaves Left”. The nostalgia here is striking since Drake is only alluding to three years in the past. He was green at the time, but 1972 is darker than the deepest sea. There’s only guitar on most of “Pink Moon”, giving the same sense of isolation and dread than Springsteen’s tenebrous “Nebraska” album.

There’s still something of that youthful style, and interestingly so, Drake has chosen to close the album with a fairly optimistic and serene “From the morning” that could easily feature on “Five Leaves Left”. Pure esthetical choice, heartfelt feeling of completion despite the bleakness at the work’s core? Who knows…

What we do seem to know is that, having completed the album, Drake just left the tapes at the record company’s desk, wrapped in an anonymous envelope. Only after several days did the company realize that the new Nick Drake album was here. Cioran once said that an obscure writer with no readers feels at his publishing house like an aging whore with no clients at the brothel.

These songs were recorded almost 40 years ago. The man and his suffering, which meant all the universe to him, all is lost. Every now and then I read something what would have happened if he hadn’t die so young, and speculations on the cause of his apparent suicide. Well, ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether you live 20 years or 80 years. Life is a process of exhaustion. Or as Shestov put it, life, to sustain itself, must destroy itself. The small victories you held dear when you were a kid are null today. Whatever prize you think you’re winning by making it through 80, you’re taking it to the grave. Hence, regarding voluntary death, motive especially doesn’t matter. Suicide arises from the belief that life is a purposeless void, thus it makes no difference whether the trigger is personal catastrophe or a flat tire. Nick Drake died because he couldn’t live anymore, and I guess that’s it.

"I saw it written and I saw it say
Pink moon is on its way
And none of you stand so tall
Pink moon gonna get you all
It's a pink moon
It's a pink, pink, pink, pink, pink moon"