Author Archives: Menno de Boer

NAMM 2017: part II

As it turned out, I had some time last Saturday and decided to stop by NAMM again on my way to a gig. I was there for less than two hours, but that was enough time to check out a few more things.

One of the things I really wanted to check out, was Brazilian manufacturer Stay Music Stands. I found out about these guys two years ago, loved their keyboard stand designs, and wanted to get one. At the time they didn’t have US distribution, but the rep told me I could buy one of their floor models if I came back on Sunday right before closing time. I couldn’t make it and was bummed. So this time I made my way over there and was happy to learn that they have secured US distribution and will be available on Amazon soon. I was less happy about the fact that prices have gone up as a result, but that was -of course- inevitable.

Behringer had a large number of their DeepMind 12 analog synth set up, and that is a fun little synth at a competitive price. Direct competitors are the DSI Mopho, which is the same price but has only 4-voice polyphony, and the Moog Sub Phatty, which is a little cheaper but monophonic. DeepMind offers 12-voice polyphony, an excellent-feeling 4-octave keyboard, and aftertouch. I hope someone swill do a head-to-head shootout with these three synths. DSI and Moog are the analog gold standard, and it will be interesting to see if Behringer can take the fight to them, sonically.

By chance I walked into a demo by Shaun Martin at the Waves booth, which turned out to be for a new virtual instrument, Grand Rhapsody. It is a sampled acoustic grand piano, and sounded pretty good in Shaun’s capable hands, although the demonstration was occasionally marred by audible CPU spikes. Rep says it will be available in February for an introductory price of $69.

I also went upstairs to check out the Kawai booth. I’ve never had a bad experience with Kawai’s acoustic pianos, but I can’t say I have loved their digitals as much. This time I went to try out the MP-7, and I was not disappointed. I love the way it feels and the acoustic piano sounds are competitive, but while the rest of the sounds are good enough, I’m not sure the instrument’s over-all sonic footprint would compel me to deal with the considerable weight and bulk.
I also tried out the new ES-110, which is decent enough for the price, but it doesn’t really stand out. Still, it is a viable alternative to Yamaha’s and Casio’s offerings in that price range, and probably the one I would pick if I was shopping for something like that.

On the way out, I was surprised to see Neumann with a new active studio monitor, the KH-80. Surprised, as I tend to follow industry news, and this one somehow totally passed me by. It is a 4″ woofer version of their popular KH120.

That was all I had time for, although I do want to mention I nearly bumped into Stevie Wonder. I would have actually bumped into him, but for his security detail.

A few things I missed in my previous post:
Touch Innovations had two excellent multi-touch displays in their booth, one ‘regular’ and a very ‘Tony Stark’-y see-through model. They offer bespoke software that tightly integrates it with MacOS, but comes as a subscription only. The day I can ditch point-and-click for a true multitouch desktop experience can’t come soon enough, but it is really just waiting for the DAW developers to recode their applications for this new input method. Until then, products like these are a nice interim solution.

Austrian company Alpha Piano was there with two products. Their haute-couture (Porsche-designed) Alpha Piano, which is powered by VSL’s Imperial Bösendorfer sample library. It features an actual hammer-action, and comes at a price far north of $30,000 for the studio model.  Expect to pay about ten grand less for the “portable” touring model.
They also had their M-Piano on display, but something was wrong with the computer, and a demonstration wasn’t possible at the time. It looks like a really great idea, like the Roli, but better. And again, astronomically priced (~$12,000).

I did see a couple of other interesting things on the way out, like Thonet & Vander, a German speaker company making Bluetooth products that do not look like props from a Star Trek set.
All in all, this NAMM wasn’t as packed with new and exciting stuff as some of the previous ones, but it remains a great way to try out things you don’t usually see in the store, learn about new products you would otherwise never hear of, and it serves as a barometer for where the industry in general is headed.
As always, I’m glad I got to go!

 

NAMM 2017: Day One

The NAMM Show in Anaheim is a pretty big deal for manufacturers, dealers and artists alike. I believe only the Frankfurt Musik Messe can rival it in terms of size and scoops. But I doubt the Messe boasts as many A-list musicians. NAMM is where you can literally bump into Stevie Wonder or another legendary musician of your choosing. Oh, and I say day one, but I’m not even sure I’ll be able to go back tomorrow or over the weekend, as I’ll be pretty busy.

I’m covering NAMM from my own perspective, which is as a keyboardist and computer music producer. I won’t be talking about guitars, drums, or kazoos.

With major new products already having been announced the day before, my first stop was the Roland booth, where I got my hands on the new RD-2000. It looks great and seems thoughtfully designed, but I’m not sure just how new it is under the hood. It sounds good, but it all felt very familiar. Not to say that’s bad, though. What is new is deeper computer integration, which is an area where Roland had some catching up to do. At $2499, this keyboard seems like excellent value. I finished my Roland visit with a demo by Omar Hakim, Scott Tibbs, Jerry Brooks and Mike Phillips. It was a great mini-concert, despite some technical difficulties.

I veered off to the 88 lounge, where the acoustic piano manufacturers reside. My parents are both proud Bechstein owners and I was hit by a wave of nostalgia as the first thing I saw when I walked in was a pristine looking pair of their grands. But when I sat down and played one, I was disappointed. The sound, the action, this is not how I remember them.

Next stop was Korg, where I hoped to get my hands on the mysterious GrandStage, but all they had was a non-playable prototype. But it is amazingly compact, with the right features, and if it has the acoustic and electric piano sounds from the Kronos or even Krome, at a price close to the SV-1, this would be a total no-brainer. I could see this replacing my aging Nord Piano. I took a look at the Odyssey with full-size keys, and was surprised at how big it was. People were crowding around it so I didn’t get to play it. I’m not much of an analog guy, but this is the synth that is all over ‘Headhunters’, and for that alone I want it.

I really looked forward to getting my hands on Kurzweil’s Artis SE and Forte SE, as they are impossible to find in the LA area. I wanted to love it, but came away a little dissatisfied. At the same booth (AM&S), I got hands-on with the Studiologic SL88 controllers, both the Grand and the Studio version. They are identical except for the action, and I had my eye on the Studio as it is temptingly cheap at $499. Alas, I didn’t get on with the action, but the Grand felt really good. It costs more, but I’d say it’s worth it.

Right next door was Nord, where I got to noodle on the Nord Piano 3. It feels different from my first-gen NP, the action is a little lighter but with more snap at the bottom. I like my NP, but somehow I don’t see a 3 in my future.

Then I got to see some studio stuff, like the next-gen Aurora converters from Lynx Studio Technologies. The old ones have a stellar reputation, but the new ones are going to cost a lot more. An Aurora 8 USB retails for $1995, with the new one coming in at $2599. With Thunderbolt, it is $2195 and $2999 respectively. Ouch.

Apparently they have been around for a while now, but I hadn’t heard of HEDD, a German speaker company headed by ADAM Audio founder Klaus Heinz. I spoke with his son, who told me they have two guys at the factory in Berlin who do nothing but fold ribbon tweeters all day. When I commented that must be boring work, he shrugged and said they used to be watchmakers. Love that story.

I dug into a Silvertop at the Vintage Vibe booth, which really is as good as any Rhodes I have ever played (except maybe the short-lived and ill-fated Mk7). I would love to have one of these in my home studio, but I’d call this a luxury purchase.

I wanted to try Dave Smith’s Rev.2 but it was impossible to get near one. DSI seems to be very popular these days. But I was really touched by the Moog booth. Rather than having all their products set up, it was a sort of memorial/tribute to all the synth pioneers and legends who passed away in 2016. It seemed out of place and appropriate in equal measure.
Then I visited the Yamaha hall in the hotel next to the Convention Center, where Robert Glasper was having a little fun with the Montage. But in terms of products there was nothing new there, so I didn’t stay long.

After a long line and a short lunch, I descended into the basement where I found a couple of interesting things. First I found the booth of Schertler, a Swiss company making combo amps with gorgeous wooden cabinets. They specialize in amplification for acoustic instruments. Unfortunately, I missed the demo, just for that I may have to go back today or tomorrow. They have no US distribution at this time, but they will ship from Switzerland, with shipping and import duties on their dime, AND a 30-day money back guarantee. I fell in love with the cabinets and can’t wait to hear them.

Next I found Isovox, a Swedish company with an unusual product that almost completely encapsulates your head and microphone, giving you an actual vocal booth just about wherever you go. Interesting product, retails in Europe for 799 Euro. They await US distribution.

Another clever idea is the BomeBox. A small MIDI hub that connects to DIN, USB, Ethernet and WiFi, and allows configuration via a web app.

The Valente is a 61-key electro-mechanical keyboard (like the Rhodes and Wurlitzer) weighing just 50 pounds. It is made in Brazil and looks absolutely superb.

My perennial quest for the right keyboard amp led me to stop by the booth of Elite Acoustics, which had an ultra-compact combo amp with nifty features. First, it runs off an internal rechargeable battery, it has a USB charging port, and plays back bluetooth audio. It’s not really powerful enough fot the type of band situations I deal with, but I can think of scenarios where this would come in really handy.
Last stop in the basement was Shi Tuo, Taiwan-based manufacturers of studio furniture. Unfortunately, the rep spoke no English, but indicated someone who did would be there tomorrow.

Back on the main floor, I was surprised to learn about this keyboard manufacturer I had never heard of, Dexibell. Their Vivo S7 and S3 stage pianos felt like mature products. Hard to tell just how good they were from a brief encounter on a noisy exhibition floor, but I would like to try them out in a more appropriate setting.

I once again marveled at the sheer number of Chinese manufacturers with clone products, and next thing you know it was 6PM. There’s a bunch of other stuff I still want to check out, so I may have to come back tomorrow. If I do, I’ll post a follow-up report.

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!