Plush Toy Zombie remix

I did this remix of “Plush Toy Zombie” by Cyan D’Anjou. I haven’t done this kind of music in a while, and it was refreshing and a lot of fun! I think I got too deep into the whole Smooth Jazz thing, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but in a way this was liberating!

Finished the whole thing really quick, too. Spend practically zero time on mixing it, just nudging the levels up or down a little, and some Alloy2 on the beat. That was it.

I’m definitely looking to do more of this stuff, so if you’re a rapper/singer, hit me up!

SPECTRASONICS OMNISPHERE

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test systems: MacPro W3520 (12GB RAM) | OSX 10.9.5 | Cubase 6.5.5 (64-bit) | MacBookAir i5-4250U (4GB RAM) | OSX 10.10.5 | Mainstage 2 | VSTLord

Disclaimer: I am definitely biased when it comes to Spectrasonics, as its founder Eric Persing was the man responsible for some of Roland’s best sounds in the 1990’s. His sounds just work for me, and Atmosphere and Trilogy were my favorite software synths for the longest time.

I have already reviewed Trilogy’s successor Trillian, and now I’ll tell you what I think of Omnisphere, Spectrasonics’ flagship.

This does not aim to be an in-depth and thorough review, there are quite a few of them readily available elsewhere, so I’ll simply share what works for me and what doesn’t.

For the most part, it sounds bloody great, it covers a wide variety of synth sounds and the only thing I could wish for is Spectrasonics’ take on more conventional sounds like run-of-the-mill piano/rhodes/organ/brass etc.

All the good stuff from Atmosphere is included, and I find myself still reaching for them because I already know how they will work in an arrangement and they generally load quicker, as some of Omnisphere’s patches are positively gargantuan in size.

Other than sheer volume, the biggest difference between Atmosphere and Omnisphere is the engine. Atmopshere was powered by the venerable UVI engine, whereas Omnisphere is built around Spectrasonics’s own STEAM engine. While the UVI was very reliable and efficient, it was essentially a sample-player, and Spectrasonics needed more if Omnisphere was to be a proper synthesizer.

Inside my DAW, Omnisphere is great. You get Spectra’s signature sounds in an 8-part multi-timbral package, with insert and send FX on every channel, great stuff. STEAM needs more cycles than UVI, but on a reasonably modern computer it shouldn’t tax your system too much.

So all praise so far, which is boring and what you really want to hear is about the cons, right?

Well, there is one thing: there is no standalone version of Omnisphere. I think this is a regrettable omission, as it makes Omnisphere less ideal for live use. In my particular situation, hosting Omnisphere in Mainstage on my humble 2013 MacBookAir is not really a viable scenario. Thankfully, Spectrasonics support pointed me to the excellent VSTLord freeware host app, and it works really great with that (hardly ever taxing the CPU over 30%).

Also, cheap it ain’t. And Spectrasonics doesn’t do price drops like some of its competitors do, but the upside of that is that you’ll never have to feel duped when you buy it at full price only to see it on sale at half price one week later.

But that’s it. Everything else is great. I have a free upgrade to Omnisphere 2, and plan to install that sometime this year. It’s hard to imagine how it could be better than the original, but I’ll be happy with just as good!

 

 

sE Electronics Reflexion Filter

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I bought this around three or four years ago, when I had my home studio set up in a tiny room with tiled floors, wall-to-wall mirror closet doors on one side and french patio doors on the other.

This thing does what they say it does, so you can’t complain, but it is NOT a one-stop solution for vocal recordings. It will eliminate much (not all) of the room sound, but only with moderate levels. It is defeated as soon as a vocalist belts out.

I spent $299 on it, and in the end I feel it hasn’t quite been worth it. I moved house and now have a decent amount of acoustic treatment in my home studio; in this situation the Reflexion Filter adds little value.

Another gripe I have is its weight: my boom stand got bent at the hinge because of it. In addition, the weight requires you to really screw the clamp on tight, which damaged the rubber grip:

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In conclusion, I’d say that if you have no alternative, this thing can help take quite a bit of room out of your signal. But it is no silver bullet, and I question the wisdom of forking out $299 for this. Perhaps that money is better spent on room treatment.

 

 

 

 

2015 LA Auto Show

ONE WORKING MUSICIAN’S TAKE ON THE L.A. AUTO SHOW

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I think this photo really illustrates how much more bulky cars have become over the last 50 years

I’m definitely a car guy, but over the years my taste has evolved; away from super cars and luxury barges, towards efficiency, practicality, affordability and reliability. Perhaps that is just another way of saying I’m getting old, but nevertheless I remain a car nut, and the LA Auto Show is turning into an annual pilgrimage for me.

I get a kick out of going to a car show by public transport, so I park and ride from Redondo Station where I take the Green Line to the Blue Line and about 50-60 minutes later I get off at Pico Station, which is right in front of the LACC.
Sure, even in typical LA traffic driving may still be (a little) faster, but getting to and fro downtown is a hassle, and with the insane parking fees in and around the convention center, I don’t bother.
And did I tell you, taking the train from Redondo to downtown costs $1.25? That’s right, a roundtrip for two whole dollars and fifty cents! My car would probably burn about two gallons of gas, which currently works out to around seven bucks. Add $20 for parking and taking the train becomes an unbeatable value proposition.

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the possible future of urban transportation according to Toyota

But really, I’m a car guy. No, really. I keep up with auto industry news, know quite a bit about the history, and most importantly, I love to drive.
My current ride is a 2005 Infiniti FX35, which is basically a Nissan 350Z on stilts. With its higher center of gravity (and 4000+ lbs. curb weight) it’s not quite as agile as a proper sports car, but it’s closer than you’d think.
The best part is you can haul stuff in it, which is great for a working musician like me. I have to schlep keyboards and amplification to and from gigs, so a hatchback with collapsible rear seat is all but a necessity for me.
For the most part, the FX has been an enjoyable mix of brawn and practicality, but after ten years and 132K+ miles, the clock is ticking. Also, averaging 15-16 mpg around LA is becoming unjustifiable, so this year’s Auto Show was to be my opportunity to check out a bunch of potential replacements all in one place.

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Toyota’s RAV4 Hybrid left me unimpressed

I was most looking forward to the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid. I had previously driven a 2013 RAV4 rental, and the experience had been a pleasant surprise. Stop and go traffic is pretty much the norm in this town, so from that perspective the hybrid thing makes a lot of sense. You don’t burn any unnecessary fuel while idling. Unfortunately, the RAV4 Hybrid’s batteries are stowed right behind the rear seat. Not an issue with the seats up, but with the seats down there is an ungainly and impractical bump right in the middle of the floor, which is pretty much a deal killer for me. I have (part of) the rear seat down 60% of the time, and with that bump my keyboard would be seesawing. So without ever having driven one, my enthusiasm for it has cooled considerably. For good measure, I checked the cargo hold of a Toyota Prius V with the seat down, and that was a lot more even.

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the RAV4 Hybrid’s utility is compromised by this hump

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with the seats down, the cargo area of the Prius V is nicely level

Market leader in the segment is the Honda CR-V, which just about ticks all boxes except for its looks. Maybe other people love it, but I sure don’t. Then there is the Mazda CX-5, which purports to be a sportier alternative, and my personal favorite, the Subaru Forester. I got to take one for a spin around the block at the show, and it seems like a perfectly agreeable companion for the LA grind. Domestic contenders are the Chevy Equinox (or GMC Terrain) Ford Escape and Dodge Journey. I have driven all of them as rentals, and while they were decent, I would not consider owning any of them. Then there is the Jeep Cherokee, but I have yet to get my paws on one.

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the Subaru Forester remains my favorite in its class

Direct competitors for my old FX would be the Acura RDX, Audi Q5, BMW X3, Mercedes GLC300, Lexus RX and maybe the Volvo XC60, but I don’t think I’ll be shopping in that price bracket. Not on a working musician’s income, anyway. Of those models, I think I’d like the RDX the best. It is basically a luxury version of the aforementioned CR-V, with a V6 and minus the ugly.

These days I don’t pine much for unattainable exotic sports cars, and a vehicle has to make economic sense for me to be interesting. The Buick Cascada does just that. In Europe it is sold as an Opel, and it has just the right mix of affordability, luxury and style. If I didn’t have to schlep gear all the time, this would make my shortlist.

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Buick Cascada, semi-affordable luxury convertible

I did walk through Porsche’s room, but that was no fun. It is like walking through a jewelry store, where everything is locked up in glass displays; look but don’t touch. Based on that, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to give Porsche a sale, even if I had that kind of money.

There was a bunch of aftermarket stuff, like custom RV’s or van-based executive limos, but as far as new models go, the show wasn’t all that exciting.
Still, I look forward to doing it all again next year!

Keyboards through the ages

I am probably dating myself, but I just realized I am looking back on more than 20 years of electronic keyboard ownership!

I decided not to include non-keyboard/sampling gear as I had a studio back in the day and that list would run pretty long. Also not included are VI’s.

My list in chronological order:

roland_d20

ROLAND D-20
It was great because had an internal 9-track sequencer (8 tracks + 1 rhythm track) and a floppy disk drive, which meant you could create songs and arrangements and save them. I was in heaven. Of course, polyphony restrictions meant you could realistically never use more than four or five tracks simultaneously, but who cared? The sounds varied from cheesy (EP’s) to unusable (pianos) to passable (guitar/strings/drums) to really phat (bass/synths). The only thing missing was a sampler, which I needed for my Hiphop aspirations.

 

akai s01

AKAI S 01
A friend of mine bought this, and let me keep it. You could sample/playback 8 different sounds and editing was limited to trim and pitch, IIRC. You had like 10 seconds of sampling time (mono), but it was great in combination with my D-20 and a newly acquired Atari ST520!
Beatz, baby!

 

Roland sc-55-1

ROLAND SOUND CANVAS
The same friend dropped this little box off at my digs, which meant I could make full arrangements with just an Atari ST and Cubase. The sounds were small but believable, and they worked well together. The only thing that sucked were the drums, but that’s because I was doing Hiphop/R&B. It was really great for its time, and I cut my first record with just this and the Akai S01.

 

SQ2

ENSONIQ SQ2
Doing gigs on the Roland D-20 sucked. Bad. So I had to get something with better piano and EP sounds, and the SQ 2 happened to be the most affordable step up at my neighborhood music store. I use the term step up lightly, though. Sure, the sounds were better than the D-20’s, but not nearly as realistic as the JV80/JV90’s that started popping up in every cover band around that time. I think the Ensoniq would probably sound better today than its Roland contemporaries, but at the time I regretted the purchase. I later sold it for the XP-80. One thing I do credit this keyboard for is my lasting appreciation for 76‘ers. They just feel right to me.

 

akai s900

AKAI S900
I obtained this unit from a studio owner as payment (sort of) for a remix I did for him. He had an S 1100 and it was just sitting in his rack, collecting dust. The S01 was a more modern machine, had better sound quality and more(!) sampling time, but the S900 trumped it with more flexible programming and filters! Wow, filters were cool!

 

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CLAVIA NORD LEAD
I was starting to work in bigger studios and did work for one of the 2Unlimited producers. He told me about this new keyboard he had seen and heard at a trade show and he had ordered one on the spot. He said it was something unique and as easy to program as an old-school analog synth.
As soon as they hit my town, I got the first one of the truck. It was bulls-eye. This thing really raised my game as a budding producer. I was one of the few who could now emulate the sounds on Snoop’s records etc. Loved it to bits; it only had 4-voice polyphony, but in spite of that limitation it was surprisingly flexible. Polyphony was not restricted, so I could play back four mono-timbral sounds simultaneously, which was often all you’d need in Hiphop anyway. Oh, and I loved the pitch stick. And the Swedish-design cut-off corners. The Nord Lead 1 was also the first piece of gear I bought new.

 

roland jv-880

ROLAND JV880
This was sold to me by an acquaintance way below market value. In many ways it served as a replacement for the Sound Canvas, albeit with fewer parts (8 instead of 16) and slightly higher polyphony (28 vs. 24). It sounded a little classier, too, and you just had to have some of that Roland goodness in the mid-90’s. It served me well for some time, but I never loved it, and once I got the XP-80 I never looked back.

 

akai mpc 2000

AKAI MPC 2000
I had been working in a studio centered around the original MPC60, and I loved the concept, sound and groove of that thing. The MPC2000 was a somewhat affordable alternative, and I got it expanded to a whopping 16MB of RAM (16 times more than what was in my S900), 8 extra individual outputs, and a ZIP drive! I was the man. For the next couple of years, the MPC and Nord Lead were the backbone of all my productions, dressed up with duffs of Ensoniq and dollops of Roland. But while it was light years better than Cubase on an Atari in terms of MIDI timing and groove, it was a step back as a composition/arrangement tool, and it showed in my work sometimes.

 

NORD_LEAD2

CLAVIA NORD LEAD 2
Why get a Nord Lead 2 when you already have the original one? Because you left yours on the train to Paris. Twice. The first time it was found -miraculously- sitting on the platform in Rotterdam. The second time my luck ran out and it was gone. So a Nord Lead 2 had to replace it. Not much of a loss, better polyphony (16-voice) meant I could now actually play chords on it, but I always regretted the absence of those “Swedish-design cut corners” of the original one! Otherwise it served just as well as the original one, perhaps better, as I could now use it live, too.

 

roland_d70

ROLAND D-70
Our neighborhood music store had a used one for an agreeable price, and I wanted one because Teddy Riley talked it up in Keyboard Magazine, and thinking I could replace the Ensoniq SQ2 with it for live use. Turns out it was pretty meh, it was less of a schlep and the piano sounded a little better, but over all it was a disappointment.

 

sqr

ENSONIQ SQ-R
Given to me by a friend, it was the rack version of the SQ-2. Came in handy once in a while when I didn’t feel like unpacking the SQ-2 between gigs, but redundant for the most part. However, owning it made it easy to trade in the SQ2 for the Roland XP-80.

 

roland xp80.l

ROLAND XP-80
One of my fav keyboards of all time. It does just about everything well, and excels at pad and bell-like stuff. Some of it remains unsurpassed to this day. The layout of the board is logical and intuitive, with all the controls in the right place, and switching sounds/performances is near-instantaneous. The sequencer is super-easy to use, everything sounds credible, although the drums are its weakest point. Still, it was the only thing I took with me when I moved to Kenya, and a true friend.

 

roland fantom x7

ROLAND FANTOM X7
When the XP80 succumbed to the rigors of African life, replacing it with the Fantom X7 seemed like a logical choice. I couldn’t try it out beforehand, but I figured what could go wrong? As it turned out, it was a mixed blessing. The Fantom X7 generally sounds good, but its menu-driven UI makes it cumbersome to use live, and the piano and organ sounds feel insubstantial. As a workstation, though, it is great. Clearly, the UI was designed with that in mind.
Since I got the NordPiano, I use it primarily as a top-tier board and I like it much better in that capacity. It does mostly synth stuff, and it really is pretty excellent for that. You can’t get those lush pads anywhere else.

 

yamaha p85

YAMAHA P-85
Needed something with a weighted action and this was about the cheapest thing on the market. Not bad value for the money, but a forgettable instrument all around. Sold it less than a year after I bought it.

 

KX8

YAMAHA KX-8
Even more forgettable than the P-85 to which it is closely related. At least the P-85 had sounds onboard. I guess the KX-8 didn’t suck, and at least it was cheap. But my off-the-cuff low-budget purchases have invariably turned out to be poor choices.

 

roland a70

ROLAND A-70
Got it for $150 as a controller for my VI’s. At that price it is pretty great, but I don’t like the action as much as the Fantom’s or even the XP80’s. It has amazing controls and functionality, none of which I have ever really used. But I am thinking of having it shipped here and learn to work it as a live controller for VI’s.

 

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CLAVIA NORD PIANO 88
Sometimes something just works, and the NP88 is one of those things for me. The action isn’t really great, but my only real problem is its limited functionality. I guess the NP2 addresses many of those limitations, so perhaps at some point I could trade up if a good deal comes along.

Spectrasonics Trillian

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test system: MacPro W3520 (12GB RAM) | OSX 10.6.8 and 10.8.5 | Cubase 6 and 6.5 (64-bit)

I can keep this review pretty short; like its predecessor Trilogy, Trillian is THE definitive bass sample library. That said, there are certain synth bass tones in NI Massive that I prefer for some things, but as a one-stop-shop bass solution, Trillian is the business.

But as good as the synth bass sounds are, the library’s true strength is its excellent acoustic and electric basses. These are simply in a league of their own, nothing else comes close. Indeed, you’d have to have a pretty great bass-player and premium signal chain to approximate the sound quality on offer here.

Playability, too, is second to none. Most of the stuff feels lively and responsive, although I typically set a MIDI velocity limiter at value 125, to avoid trigger the slides etc. While it is cool and fun to play with, it can be distracting and somewhat restrictive in conjunction with the velocity response of my Roland Fantom X7.

Compared to Trilogy, the tweakability has been noticeably improved. Each sound has a few quick controls assigned to the most relevant parameters, but the old edit pages are still there. Multi-timbral operation is logical and intuitive, and many synth sounds really lend themselves well for exploration beyond the bass register. One of my personal faves is using the Chapman Stick as an electric guitar!

Drawbacks? Nothing much. The new acoustic and electric sounds are huge and can take up to twenty seconds to load (I run them off a dedicated 7200rpm HDD), and I often grab legacy Trilogy sounds because they load faster. Oh and you’ll need a lot of RAM for the new sounds, too.

Otherwise, I really can’t think of anything else, it is that good. Trillian is not cheap, but it sure is worth every penny.