Friday, October 28, 2011

Tempest Ahoy?

All right, I've placed my order this week, but it's not yet in stock at Thomann...
Ugh, I hope it won't be too long.

I mean, check these out :

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Korg Monotribe Review

Yes, the Tempest is here, but till I get one, let’s review something much much more primitive, the Monotribe.

It’s a fully analog monophonic synthesizer, drum machine and sequencer, and it’s Korg’s follow-up to the diminutive Monotron. 

Now the Monotron was a fun little thing, and I bought one as soon as it was released. It was small, and I mean really small, hardly bigger than an Iphone. It sported a single oscillator and a recreation of the famous MS20 filter. The sound was dirty and gritty and vicious, and blatantly analog. There was just one problem. It was impossible to play. Thanks to the awful ribbon controller, there was simply no way to produce a melody or at least a musically sane succession of notes. Yes, I know, some people used stylets to play melodies, but they were far more patient than I am. So, you were basically bound to produce beeps and screechs and crazy effects, and it was not very versatile at that either. So I sold it back.

That said, I knew that the Monotron was only Korg testing the waters for some more serious analog gear, and there it is, the Monotribe.

The construction is good. It’s actually surprisingly good. The Monotron was a cheap piece of plastic, the cheapest you’ll ever see on a synth. The Monotribe on the other hand is bulky and solid, with a nice reassuring metal feel. The knobs feel right and so do the switches. It’s much less portable than the Monotron, but feels more professional and trustworthy, especially since it’s designed to travel along with you.

On the rear, you’ll find a mono line output, a small headphones output, an audio in to process external sound and a couple of sync in and outs, so you can sync the Monotribe with another instrument or an external click.

The filter is still glorious. It isn’t your mellow, warm, round Moog filter, and it sure ain’t digital either. No, it’s an aggressive, buzzing, in-your-face filter, with that special analog flavor.

One issue though, you can’t filter external sound without having it mixed to the oscillator. This is plain stupid and actually is the only thing that makes one regret the Monotron. For all its limitations, the Monotron was able to process sound without adding the oscillator in the mix. Why in the world the Monotribe can’t seem to do that, I have no idea. The Moog LP can filter external sound, and if you want the external sound alone, you just have to put the oscillator volume to zero. On the Monotribe, well, screw you, you can’t. That’s really dumb and renders external filtering largely unusable. Too bad.

The drum machine is limited to 3 sounds, which, uh, is not much. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of much, it’s awfully less. How lesser can you get. A kick, a snare, a hat, and there you have it. To some extent, I like that, it’s primitive and simple and straightforward, but come on, 3 sounds? Not that I was expecting a complete kit at this price, but some sort of cymbal or tom would have been nice.

That said, the drums sound superb. The kick is powerful and warm. The snare has a very pleasing 1978 sound and the hat is crisp without being too harsh. You can’t change the relative loudness of them, so take note that there’s a slight emphasis on the kick. In action, they all click in perfectly, providing that tight, groovy sound we’ve come to expect from a real analog drum machine, as opposed to sequenced samples.

One big issue is that you can’t pass the drum sounds through the filter. And you can’t change the drum tones either. So you’d better like these 3 sounds because you’re going to hear them a hell of a lot. That’s a bit of a shame, really, because, as great as they sound, it’d be useful, to say the least, to be able to introduce some variation in there. But you can’t, at least not without custom modification.

On the back, yup, that’s right, it’s a speaker. While not as bad as the Monotron speaker, it hardly does the Monotribe justice. It’s decent, but the low end of the drums is basically gone, leaving us with the question : why oh why. Why a speaker. I haven’t got a clue. Well, I guess it’s meant to be able to play everywhere without headphones, but why would you do that? It’s not like the speaker is good enough or powerful enough to do an impromptu gig in front of people. And trust me, if you actually do that, it won’t be long until they get bored and start to hit you on the head with it. So, I guess, my real question is: why not using the space that’s wasted with this in order to add something, I don’t know, useful.

Let’s state it once and for all: these Korg ribbon controls are bad. They’re atrocious. If you thought their mini-keys were bad, you haven’t put your flabby finger on this awfulness of a controller. Oh, but there’s improvement there actually. The Monotron was impossible to play. The Monotribe is merely a pain in the backside. Having realized how useless the Monotron ribbon was, Korg has added the option to turn the ribbon into a fac simile of chromatic keyboard. Thank you, but what about simple buttons? Do we really need a ribbon that bad? What about a MIDI IN? Sure, the Monotron was too small to implement MIDI, but the Monotribe? Which brings me back to: why waste valuable space for a speaker, considering the drastic limitations the user faces elsewhere? Ha, well…

All right, I’m complaining a lot here, because there are lots of flaws in the product, but the truth is, I’m glad I’ve bought one and I have no plans to give it back. Why is that? Because it’s so damn fun to play! It’s small, not too expensive, and sounds awesome. There’s a minimal set of features, but just about enough to produce a very decent array of different sounds and grooves, and the mini-drum machine itself sounds very good. You can program an 8-steps sequence on the synth and juxtapose it with a 16-steps sequence on the drums, and introduce some swing if you use the iPod/Phone SyncKontrol application. While it’s playing, you can short the whole sequence to any number of steps or have it skip any particular step. Overall, the simplicity of the controls turns the Monotribe into a nice performance tool, with all the unpredictability of analogue.

Now should you buy one? Well, if your setup is purely digital and you’re looking for some cool, cheap analog flavor, you might want to consider the Monotribe. It’s a luxury of course, because the same amount of moment would get you a second-hand Doepfer Dark Energy, or for that matter, a number of overlooked analog polysynths.  But if you’ve got the cash on hand, it’s a nice little addition to any studio, with a distinctive and punchy sound.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Quick Look at the Korg Kronos

Disclaimer : This is NOT by any means a review, just quick impressions from playing the Korg Kronos at my usual music shop the other day.

I have conflicting feelings about workstations.
On the one hand, I do believe they tend to produce a very pro but tame sound. To put it simply, they all sound the same, in a clean, generic, cheesy, dull sort of way. And the integration of zillion of features sometimes make them overly complicated, with very few knobs and lots of screen menus. And of course it also makes them pricey.
On the other hand, they've often become very fun to play, with their in-box grooves and sophisticated arpeggiators and evolving patches. I certainly liked playing the Korg M50 once in a while when my ex-keyboard player was using it live.

That said, I was at the store the other day, asking about the Tempest, and spent some time on the new Korg Kronos. I have to admit, I was pretty impressed by how powerful, complex and musical that thing actually sounds.

The juxtaposition of high-end drum samples, assembled in swingy, groovy beats, with deep synthesis engines and the old Karma system to produce intricate, evolving motifs, well, this all makes the Kronos a blast to play. Just browsing the presets and fiddling around the parameters is a joy. There's an immediacy to the performance that reminds me of the Wavestation, in that you can conjure up a whole song with a single patch, just by improvising and tweaking the parameters in real time. And like the best instruments, it's pretty unpredictable too. Also, when you switch from one patch to another, the lingering notes on the first patch continue to ring, without being cut off by the change of patch. This is rare and very pleasing, because you can hop from one patch to the other in a smooth, musical way.

Not many knobs of course, but you get a big touch screen, with menus laid out logically. In a matter of seconds, I was able to find my way through the basic settings and start to alter the presets composing a patch. The screen interface itself is a bit ugly and cheap, as you can see on the following pic.

The keyboard itself didn't impress as much. It's decent, but in that price bracket, you would expect better response. The overall build quality is okay, although the design is pretty boring. I mean, hey, the 90's are gone, get over it.

All in all, a very exciting experience (which was enhanced by my subsequent playing on the new Roland Jupiter-80, which is bulky, awkward to play, ugly, and doesn't sound nearly as good).

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Buy Pot

So I finally got myself to purchase the Pot upgrade for the Prophet 08.

The original Prophet had a couple of issues
One was that all knobs were rotary encoders, which meant that you couldn't picture what the sound parameters were just by looking the panel, because the knobs were rotating endlessly.
The other problem was that a whole batch of these early Prophets came out with a set of faulty encoders, leading the owner to periodically do Deoxit surgery.

Both these issues are solved with the Pot edition, which brings back traditional, trustworthy potentiometers. And for the encoder version, the upgrade is available from DSI for 249$ (I've got a better deal, actually, because my Prophet was one of the faulty units).

It might seem a bit pricey, but the truth is, the upgrade brings the Prophet 08 back to where it should have begun. That is, the price of the instrument plus the price of the upgrade is pretty much the correct price one should pay for an 8-voice analog synthesizer. The instrument becomes a LOT more fun to program and play, so if you're a serious Prophet user like myself, you might definitely want to consider the upgrade. There's no doubt in my mind it's a safe bet on the future of a classic instrument.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

What's Up

I guess I'm procrastinating a bit. Don't seem to be able to finish off projects.
But this is well under way : "The Crack-Up".
Electro-pop EP, in the 80's vein of the previous "Broken Sails" albumette, very poppy and very analogue.
Demos from these have been posted now and then, but the final product should be ready this winter.
Here's the work-in-progress CD artwork.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Free Album : "Upon a Sleepless River"

As mentioned by a reader, the netlabel which hosted this instrumental album has gone missing...
So I'm releasing this again here.

"Upon a Sleepless River" is a dense, dark, political, cinematographic album with moody piano improvisations, noise experiments and a mix of cold digital landscapes and searing analogue leads.

This is a work about victory in the XXth century, from Harry Truman to General McArthur, with Kurtz the European Son providing historical perspective.

1 - Harry S. Truman at Hiroshima

2 - The European Son

3 - Last Words of Mistah Kurtz

4 - A Remarkable Man

5 - McArthur visits Unit 731

6 - Upon a Sleepless River

Main instruments : Moog Little Phatty, Prophet 08, M-Tron, Korg Wavestation, Roland D50.

Groove on “Last Words” and ambient sound design on “McArthur” by John Fisher aka Ricemutt aka Bagger288.
“McArthur” is featured on short film “Cold Sweat” by Thomas Lesourd.

Cold Sweat from Thomas lesourd on Vimeo.