Sunday, February 19, 2017

Hyboid's adventures at Schnittstelle vinyl cutting studio

Being able to attend a lacquer cut is an awesome experience! I have mastered quite a few releases for vinyl but never got the chance to attend when they are cut on lacquer. Until recently when I went to Schnittstelle in Berlin for my next release: Hyboid - UFOs over Berlin.

What is a lacquer cut? When you want to make a vinyl record, your music must be cut into a so-called lacquer: basically an aluminum plate covered with nitrocelulose. Using a cutting lathe (the rather large machine used to cut the lacquer, looking like a gigantic turntable) you engrave the audio signal into the lacquer layer using a cutting-head which in principle works the same way as record player pick-up, only in reverse. These cutting lathes are bulky but very delicate equipment. Maintaining and servicing them is an expert job! The Cutting heads are even more fragile and damn expensive. That's why cutting lathes have several levels of protection making sure that the audio signal does not damage the cutting head. I will go into that later.

Once the lacquer disk has been cut (one for each side of a vinyl record!), it goes into what is called the plating or galvanic stage which involves several steps of metal coating and basically making a physical copy of the master lacquer. You end up with a metal duplicate of the lacquer disk which is then used to make the metal stampers for the actual vinyl pressing run. A very work-intensive process that requires a lot of diligence to ensure an optimal result.

Now back to the lacquer cut. Many pressing plants have in-house cuting facilities. The advantages are obvious: less cost for the customer and less hassle for the pressing plant in case something goes wrong or the customer wants a re-cut. I have opted to use a dedicated cutting studio this time because I wanted to have more control over the cutting process. After all, Schnittstelle is basically around the corner from where I live. I asked Andreas Kauffelt, the boss at Schnittstelle, if it was OK if I could attend the cut. He agreed which is a super nice thing because customers don't usually attend the cutting session. I really appreciate the opportunity!
Andreas is incredibly knowledgable and a very nice guy. I learned a lot from him. Since I master my own releases, it is always incredibly important to know how your audio material will change when cut and later pressed on vinyl. You probably know that there is a direct relation between the duration of a vinyl record and the volume at which it can be cut. The shorter the program duration, the louder you can cut the vinyl, since the groove takes up more space on the disk if it is louder. Very simple. So, taking into account the duration of your material is an important aspect. In my case, each side of the record has about 12:30 minutes which transfer onto a 33RPM side without any problems and with a decent level. I could also have cut it at 45RPM which has a better high-frequency response, but it would also have meant a quieter cut. So I chose good-old 33RPM.
I always pay attention to the side band of the stereo mix when mastering my releases for vinyl. In case you don't know, the stereo signal in vinyl records is encoded in M/S stereophony (Mid-Side), where the mid signal (the mono sum) is engraved horizontally on the disk, whereas the side signal (containing everything that is different from the mono signal) is cut vertically. Neither the cutting head nor the pickup on your turntable like it when the side band has too much energy in the low end. Strong out-of-phase signals roughly below 200 Hz, for example from chorused bass lines or boomy stereo reverbs, should be avoided. If you don't pay attention here, the cutting head may get damaged or the resulting groove could be interrupted and cause the needle to skip. But also taming the highs in the side signal can make sense. Even the mono signal (M band) should be low-cut to avoid unnecessary deep frequencies. The high end above 16kHz shouldn't be too pronounced either since the stylus will have trouble picking up all the high frequency information from the groove, especially in the inner part of the record. Since a vinyl record rotates at a constant speed, the information in the center is much more condensed than on the outside of the record. So, near the label towards the end of your record, it gets increasingly hard for the stylus on your pick-up to follow all those high-frequency wiggles in the vinyl. That is why the highs often sound muffled in the last track of a vinyl record. All of this (and much more) needs to be considered when mastering for vinyl.
So, after loading my master tracks into his DAW, Schnittstelle boss Andreas Kauffelt thoroughly analyzed the audio material with his vector scope, FFT analyzer and level meter and found nothing to nitpick on. I took that as a compliment! He then took a partly used lacquer disk to do a test cut of some portions of my audio material to see how it would sound on different parts of the disk at different levels. That was actually pretty interesting. It works like this: you take a lacquer disk that has been used before but still has enough blank space to cut some material on it. Then you feed your audio signal into the cutting lathe and listen back to what you are presently cutting with a turntable pick-up right behind the cutter head. The pick-up plays back your vinyl groove only fractions of a second after it has been cut. Listening to a record doesn't get any fresher than that, for sure! Since Andreas's desk has a nice monitoring switcher/mixer, he could easily match our playback levels so we could A/B both signals to compare how the audio will sound when played back from the DAW vs. from the lacquer disk. My "UFOs over Berlin" EP transfered nicely to lacquer. The test pressing which arrived two and a half weeks later sounds dope!

AC07 "Hyboid - UFOs over Berlin" test pressing

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Roland MSQ-700 Digital Keyboard Recorder (a.k.a. the world's first ever MIDI sequencer)

The MSQ-700 was released by Roland in the year 1984. It was the world's first MIDI sequencer ever, so it deserves special mention. The MIDI standard was established only a year before in 1983. Roland's leading role in developing the MIDI protocol certainly gave the company an edge in developing their own matching product, they had a headstart!

Roland MSQ-700 MIDI Sequencer

The MSQ-700's design reminds us of the TR-909 which was released a year earlier. The similarity is striking! They surely were designed to match. However, looking at the layout of the MSQ-700 I can't help but realize it's based on its indirect predecessor, the Roland CSQ-600, a CV/Gate sequencer from 1980. I bet both machines were designed by the same team! Remember, there was no existing standard as to how a MIDI sequencer should behave and what its user interface would be like, so of course Roland took an existing philosophy (in this case their CSQ-600 design) as a starting point.
Looking closer at the MSQ-700 you will realize that it does not have any menues. Only a couple of buttons have double functions, so it's mostly "what you see is what you get". I find that very refreshing!

So, what is the MSQ-700 for? It is an 8-track MIDI/DCB event recorder and player. In case you haven't heard of DCB: "Digital Control Bus" was Roland's pre-MIDI design of a digital transfer protocol for musical instruments. It was released in 1982 and only saw use in a couple of Roland products such as the Juno-60 and later Jupiter-8 models. As soon as MIDI was established, the fate of DCB was sealed. To make things easier, I will from now on be referring mainly to its MIDI functionality although most functions are identical if you use the MSQ-700 with a DCB-equipped synthesizer.
Each track on the MSQ-700 can record on up to 16 MIDI channels simultaneously. The overall limit for note events is about 6500. You can play each track separately but also play several tracks (up to 8) simultaneously. There are 2 input modes: realtime records what you enter via MIDI or DCB input without quantization (other than the standard 24ppq resolution). Step recording enables you to conveniently enter your note data with a MIDI input device step by step (a keyboard in most cases, but feeding it via your DAW's MIDI output is possible as well). If you want to correct the timing of your realtime recording (a.k.a. quantization) you can do this after your recording is finished. Roland calls quantization "timing correct". Timing correct is an operation that requires an extra empty track. The MSQ-700 copies a quantized ("timing corrected") version of your track to another track of your choice. A silver plastic slider selects the resolution for this quantization, in most cases you will select either 1/8 or 1/16. This works really well and reliably. Note that the MSQ-700 not only quantizes the note onset (i.e. the start of the note) but also the note length (i.e. the note off event's position).
Once you are happy with your track you can either play it from start to finish or have the MSQ-700 repeat it endlessly. Using the chain mode, you can build a complete song using your tracks 1-8. Simply tap in the numbers of the tracks that you want to chain in the right order, press play and off you go! There is also an option to merge several tracks into one.
The MSQ-700 can run in several different synchronization modes. "Internal" uses its own clock, with a big grey knob adjusting your master tempo and your LCD displaying the corresponing BPM count. In "Tape" mode the MSQ-700 syncs to a tape sync signal (originally for syncing analog tape machines to your MSQ-700 or vice versa) but even today this mode has its uses. You can generate your own tape sync signal and play it back from your DAW to sync the MSQ-700. The next mode, called "Sync" is for synchronizing your MSQ-700 to other devices using Roland's DIN Sync 24 standard. Machines equipped with this sync interface include Roland MC-202, TB-303, TR-606 up to TR-909 and MC-4, plus several Korg devices that run at a different resolution though (48ppq). I am slaving my MSQ-700 to a DIN sync signal generated by my beloved E-RM Multiclock. This setup is steady as a rock and makes for ultra-stable MIDI timing! Last not least, in "MIDI" mode you can sync your MSQ-700 to an incoming MIDI clock.

Using the DIN Sync input to slave the MSQ-700 has two advantages. First, it frees up the MIDI input that can now be used to connect your MIDI master keyboard to program your sequences. If you were to sync the MSQ-700 to incoming MIDI clock you would have to find a way of merging that MIDI clock with your keyboard MIDI data, requiring you to uzilize a MIDI merger box or to switch cables as needed. Second, you can slave your MSQ-700 directly to your other DIN Sync devices without having to worry about converting DIN to MIDI. I really love the DIN Sync 24 standard!

Using the MSQ-700 is super-easy and straightforward. All you have to do is arm your track for recording by pressing a track button, then press Load and start inputting your notes (in step modes) or press Load and then Start (for realtime recording). Of course, realtime recording can be synced to incoming sync signals (see paragraph above), so recording in sync with your master clock is possible. The 2-bar count-in of the internal / free-run mode is skipped in this mode, however. So, just to be sure, add an extra bar for safety so you don't miss your first note when you reach for your MIDI keyboard.

Now for a couple of gripes and shortcomings that I have to mention. First, editing capabilities are very limited. Once you have recorded a sequence, you can't delete notes or measures at will. You can't even alter your pattern's length. If you want to record a 4-bar pattern, you must stop the recording precisely by the end of bar 4. A foot-switch to control start and stop might come in handy here. However, you can utilize the MSQ-700's overdub function to start recording at any bar within the sequence, overwriting anything that was originally written in that bar. You CAN extend your sequence's lenght this way, but mind you, you can't shorten it once it's written. This is a HUGE bummer.
Programmable punch-in and punch-out for realtime recording is sorely missed.
Additionally, what you can't do on the MSQ-700 is select or switch tracks during playback. You can only do this when the sequencer is stopped. Hell, this even worked on the CSQ-600 and CSQ-100 which are much older! Definitely not intended for live use then. And it would have been so easy to implement!
Another glitch that I haven't seen any mention of is the fact that using the MSQ-700 in "Normal" mode introduces a slight lag in playback of about 5-10 ms. When in "Chain" mode this lag does not occur. So even if you have only one track / sequence that you would like to play back, it is advised that you use the chain mode for your track! Simply program step 1 of your chain to playback your desired track and flick the "Repeat" switch.
That's about it for nitpicks.

Talking briefly about the MSQ-700's memory and tape backup procedure. The MSQ-700 features a battery that ensures that your data will not be lost when you power off your machine. So far, so good. But you can also backup and load your sequence data using the MSQ-700's tape input and output jacks on the back. This procedure is really straightforward and features a handy level test to overcome that dreaded "looking for the right tape level to record and playback" problem. I simply use my DAW to record and store the backup data. Saving and restoring your data should not take longer than a minute.

Minimalism: Chunky buttons and absence of menues

So, you may ask why I am putting up with all the hassles of using such an ancient and limited device instead of a modern DAW? My answer is: 'cause it's fun! I just love limiting myself to equipment that was available in the early to mid 80's. To me this is an authentic way of getting a feeling for true 80s electronic music production methods. Capturing an idea using a hardware MIDI sequencer can be much more immediate and quicker than using a software solution. Using the MSQ-700's step entry mode works super-fast and is a great way of capturing ideas and creating sequences on the fly. The MSQ-700 is THAT easy to operate! And those large, chunky buttons really invite you to press them. It's fun!

And don't forget about MIDI timing! This still is an issue for a lot of DAW users, even today. It doesn't get any tighter than a hardware MIDI sequencer (well, maybe with the exception of the Expert Sleepers system). Syncing my MSQ-700 to the ultra-stable E-RM Multiclock via Din Sync gives me the tightest possible MIDI timing for my synths and I really really love this! 
And... the looks! The MSQ-700 looks absolutely freakin' AWESOME and is a true adornment to any vintage synth studio. It's a piece of history, the first damn MIDI sequencer ever, dude!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Roland JX-3P Analog Synthesizer Review + Demo (Youtube video)

The Roland JX-3P was released in the year 1983 as a 2-DCO 6-voice polyphonic analog synthesizer. It has 1 LFO, 1 ADSR envelope, cross-modulation and oscillator sync capability as well as an analog stereo chorus effect. Additionally to its MIDI interface (actually one of the earliest synthesizers to sport a MIDI port) it has an inbuilt step sequencer. I have read on several occasions that the JX-3P was designed by Roland's guitar department. That's a really strange move and seems to be unparalleled in Roland's later years.

Roland JX-3P Polyphonic Analog Synthesizer (1983)

The JX-3P was the first Roland synth to cut corners in terms of "knobbiness" in the user interface. That is to say that if you look at some other analog synths that came out before 1983 (Juno-6 / 60, Jupiter 8, the SH Series) they were full of knobs and sliders, giving the user hands-on editing and tweaking capabilities. The stock JX-3P only has a couple of sliders and pots for editing, brilliance, sequencer speed and master volume. The Yamaha DX-7 really took its toll with its futuristic slider-less design. From 1983 on, a synthesizer was considered modern when it had a "digital interface", meaning buttons instead of knobs, ideally with an alpha-numerical display, that was the pinnacle of futurism. Instead of simply grabbing the knob of the parameter you want to change you would now have to select your parameter and then dial in your desired value with incremental +/- buttons, alpha dial or whatever "user-friendly" interface was designed for your "modern" synth. This push toward digital interfacing really took away a lot of fun from the synths that were designed from 1983/1984 on.

Roland PG-200 Programmer

At least Roland came up with a way of giving the user a "knobby" interface for the JX-3P: The PG-200 programmer. This little helper neatly sticks to a spot specifically reserved for it on top of your JX-3P with the help of magnetic adhesive strips. It connects to your JX-3P using a 6-prong DIN cable. The PG-200 gives you direct access to all parameters of the JX-3P right at your fingertips. Roland continued this trend of detachable programmers for synths like the Alpha Juno 1 and 2, JX-8P, JX-10 and their counterparts in the MKS range. The PG-200 really opens up your JX-3P, it really is strongly recommended. It feels sturdy and durable enough, matches the JX-3P`s design and is a worthwile investment. There's one catch though: You cannot use MIDI and the PG-200 at the same time. There's a switch on the back of the JX-3P that selects either MIDI or PG-200, not both unfortunately. So, sequencing your JX-3P via MIDI and tweaking away on your PG-200 at the same time is not an option. There is a solution for those who don't mind modding their JX-3P. One is the Organix MIDI mod, the other one the KIWI 3P upgrade. Both modifications allow simultaneous use of MIDI and the PG-200, along with loads of other improvements.
Speaking of MIDI, the JX-3P's MIDI implementation is very rudimentary. There's not much more going on than note on/off, pitch bend and program change. But hey, MIDI is there, making the JX-3P very easy to integrate into a modern setup.
The JX-3P has 32 preset sounds and 32 user-programmable ones. You might expect the usual 80s preset cheesiness but to be honest, I find some of these presets very usable. At least they're a good starting point for creating your own timbres.
Since my JX-3P came with a PG-200 I have no idea how cumbersome it is to program your sounds with the JX-3P's interface in the long run, but it looks pretty straight-forward to me. At any rate the JX-3P is much easier to use than some later Roland synths that have unnecessarily convoluted operating systems.

So how does the JX-3P sound? Well, if you have read this far you will already have listened to some of the great demos available on Youtube (Retrosound, Analog Audio and WC Olo Garb / Jexus come to mind). To me, the JX-3P is a connecting link between Roland's 70s and early 80s vintage and mid-late 80s sound. It can sound warm and fuzzy if you like it, but it really excels at making those bright 80s sounds that you can expect from a polyphonic DCO synthesizer. To me it sounds more modern than, say, a Juno-60 or Polysix. There seems to be an old debate going on which is better, the Juno-60 or the JX-3P. I would say, if you can afford both, get both! They compliment each other perfectly. If I could have only one, I would most likely take the Juno-60. The JX-3P's 2 DCOs give you a lot of options to combine, tune and detune your two oscillators to create some nice timbres. The lowpass filter (a Roland IR3109 chip) sounds classy and brillant. The ADSR envelope is snappy enough for your everyday needs but it lacks the clickiness of some more expensive synths. The LFO has a reasonable range as well as some different waveforms but it's pretty standard. One word about the LFO delay parameter. It has no effect when sequenced via MIDI, nor does it work when using the internal step sequencer. It only works if you hand-play the JX-3P usings its own keyboard.

The JX-3P's controls: buttons instead of knobs

Let me elaborate a little on the JX-3P's sequencer. It can store up to 128 steps with 1-6 notes, rest or tie per step. That's an awesome feature. You might think "well, I can do all of this with MIDI using my DAW, right?". Sure, but it's not as badass as using the JX-3P's onboard sequencer. It's so easy to operate, making it a great tool to quickly come up with a sequence or capure a musical idea, and it's polyphonic! It's also really useful for jamming. And if you try to avoid using your DAW for MIDI as much as possible (as I do), using a synthesizer's own arpeggiator or sequencer is always welcome. And timing-wise it's rock solid and stable. Ah yes, I forgot to mention the fact that the JX-3P's sequencer can't be synced to incoming MIDI clock. It wants analog clock pulses or triggers. Audio signals might work as a trigger source, but it is highly recommended that you use proper analog trigger pulses from a MIDI to CV/Gate interface, modular synth, clock generator or drummachine (for instance using the trigger outputs on your Roland TR-606/707/808).
If you clock your JX-3P's sequencer with a signal that is not periodical or steady but rhythmically changing, you can end up with nice ever-changing sequences that can be very inspiring.

Wrapping it up, the JX-3P is a real workhorse! If you are into 80s inspired music (Synthwave, Italo, Synth Pop, Soundtrack) or 90s Techno and Electronica, the JX-3P is still a very viable and usable synth. It sounds classy and has a presence that makes it stand out in a mix.

Let me share a youtube clip with you that I made earlier this year. It features the JX-3P for all synth sounds and a Linndrum for the, you guess it, drums! I multitracked my JX-3P parts using its internal sequencer and by hand-playing on its keyboard. Some external effects were used to spice up the track. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Linndrum – A gold mine for 80s beats

Linndrum: At last! I have been yearning for one for quite a while. They are incredibly rare here in Germany so it's a very difficult endeavor to find one. This June, I was leafing through eBay Kleinanzeigen and tried looking up "Linn" as a search word. Wow, look what's there! A Linndrum, here in Berlin! The ad was just a couple of days old and had about 55 page views. The price was more than humane, actually I was afraid that it was a scam, the price was that good! Anyway, I immediately sent the seller a message, declaring that I could drop by any time to collect the Linndrum for cash. I had to wait a couple of painful hours for the seller to reply to my message, but later that evening, he did, and: the Linndrum was still available!

So, the next morning I set out to collect the cash needed for the transaction from my bank's ATM. This is when the trouble started, since my bank was having issues with double bookings and false bookings, 13 million customers' accounts were affected, it was a huge outrage. So my account was suspended that day and I couldn't withdraw my own money! I was starting to panic... I was afraid that my Linndrum would be gone by the time I showed up at the seller's home. Totally unwarranted as it turned out, hehe... So I somehow managed to scrape all that cash together from some other account that I own, and with only 1 hour delay I showed up with a wad of cash in my wallet at the location where the Linndrum was staying, and my fears of it being a scam were swept away when I met the seller. I realized that I knew him! He used to work at a large music store here in Berlin and I had chatted with him many times before. We had the usual synth small talk and he let me try out the Linndrum which was wired up and connected to a pair of speakers. Half an hour later I left for my studio with a very heavy Linndrum under my arm and a big grin on my face!

The Linndrum

The Linndrum, what a classic! It was released in 1982 by Roger Linn, the inventor of the groundbreaking LM-1 a couple of years earlier. By the way, there is no such thing as an "LM-2", it was never called that way. It's called Linndrum, period. The Linndrum is all over the 80s, so many artists and producers were using it at that time. Its sounds really hit the spot if you are after synth pop or 80s disco drums. Bassdrum, snaredrum and hihat are simply gorgeous. The backbone of your 80s rhythm seciont! I also heavily rely on its toms, cowbell, clap and ride. Some of the other sounds are not that essential to me but it's still great to have them. I have it hooked up to my trusty old Ibanez RM80 mixing board. The Linndrum has a load of single outputs (one for each instrument), so you can treat each single voice differently with your mixer channels and outboard processors. Additionally, the Linndrum has an inbuilt stereo mixer for all instruments, so this way you can even mix and pan all instruments on the Linndrum without the need for a large mixing board.

The Linndrum I bought doesn't have MIDI. This is not a problem at all since it can be easily synced externally via its clock input. There IS one catch to external clocking, though: Linndrum wants a clock signal that has the format 48PPQ, meaining 48 analog pulses per quarter note. Most available MIDI to clock converters offer a maximum resolution of 24PPQ (the same as DIN Sync and MIDI clock), so if you feed your Linndrum a 24PPQ clock it will run at half speed. If you can live with this, and it is certainly possible to work this way, fine. I found a solution (thanks to Martin Sternrekorder for pointing me at this): My Kenton Pro Solo MK3 has a MIDI Clock to 48PPQ conversion option. It works very reliably!

This way, clocking the Linndrum externally, I started using the Linndrum's internal sequencer to drive this wonderful classical drummachine. Programming patterns and fills, chaining them up using the song mode. This is the real oldschool way, the way the Linndrum is supposed to work! And the timing and punch of the Linndrum when sequenced internally is simply impeccable. It's just fat as hell!

The controls. Oldschool, baby!

It does have a couple of quirks though. First of all, the Linndrum is notorious for its underpowered power supply. My My Linndrum vibrates audibly when it's powered on, I suppose it's the transformer which is vibrating heavily.
Next, the song mode takes some time getting used to. Say, you want to edit position 7 in your song and replace it with a different pattern. To accomplish this, you need to go to position 6 and THEN enter the pattern number you want AFTER position 6, thus changing position 7. A very weird concept. Also, when syncing the Linndrum externally (i.e. slaved to an external master clock), each time you stop your master clock and the Linndrum stops, you have to manually reset the Linndrum by pressing Play/Start twice so it will start from the beginning of the current pattern when you restart your master clock from the beginning of a bar. The logic behind this is that in the early 80s when the Linndrum was designed, it was supposed to be slaved to a tape machine. And of course,  if I stop my tape machine and then press play again I want my Linndrum to continue from the same position. But today, with your DAW acting as master clock in most cases, it's pretty annoying to have to reset the Linndrum every time you reset the master. Well, I guess I will have to live with it. These nitpicks aside, using the Linndrum is a breeze. I only had to to look up the manual a couple of times in the very beginning. Later on, everything was pretty hands-on and self-explanatory. 

So, why would anybody want a sample-based drummachine that costs 1-2 grand with a potential risk of failure (It's over 30 years old,after all), when all of this can be had "in the box" or with a cheap 90s hardware sampler? Well, my answer is this: first of all, the sound. The Linndrum sounds very crisp. Its snaredrum, toms and congas can be tuned individually using their own tune knob. If you wanted to faithfully sample the Linndrum, you would have to painstakingly sample each tunable sound with lots of different tuning settings. And the hihat is a special case. The hihat sample is based on a loop that cycles endlessly within the Linndrum. When you trigger the hihat, what the Linndrum does is actually open an analog envelope-modulated VCA (nerd detail: the VCA is located on a Curtis CEM3360 chip) to gate the infinitely-looping hihat sample. So, everytime the hihat gets triggered, it sounds slightly different. Also, the hihat has a decay parameter (controlling the VCA envelope), so this is difficult to emulate correctly in a sampler as well.

Also, the internal sequencer is a huge plus on the original Linndrum. Hell, the whole ergonomy is awesome. Large buttons, volume faders, single outputs, ease of use... And most of all: It's beautiful to look at and is loads of fun to use!

To sum it up: If you love the Linndrum's sound, if you don't mind fiddling around with analog sync, an internal sequencer and dealing with an ancient operating system, if you're not afraid of buying vintage hardware. And if you love working with old instruments in the oldschool way, using a piece of music history: Look for a Linndrum and buy it by all means!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The making of "Hyboid - Terrör of the Üniverse"

It has been quite a while since I last posted on this blog, for a simple reason: I was totally caught up in making music! Between June 26 and September 25 I locked myself up in my studio and recorded like a maniac, track after track. I spent 58 days in the studio, ending up with 14 pieces, 12 of which made it on my new album: "Terrör of the Üniverse"!

Here is the story:

I have a friend in Spain, he is a fellow electronic musician called Tvnel. In May he asked me if he could record his new album in my studio in Berlin. It would take about one week and we would be recording 9 or 10 songs during that week. It sounded like fun, so I invited him over. He stayed in my studio for a week and we arranged and recorded like crazy. We actually managed to lay down 9 tracks during that week. So, what was so extraordinary about this session? Well, up until then my workflow would be like this: Record MIDI data into a DAW, edit the data, quantize it where necessary, trigger my synths, drummachines and samplers with this MIDI data and record the resulting audio as a stereo sum or separate stems.

Tvnel working his Machinedrum. Astro Chicken Studio, June 2015

My friend Tvnel had a completely different approach. All he brought to the recording session was his Elektron Machinedrum. It had all the patterns stored inside that he needed to record the album. The rest would be hand-played keyboards and real-time arpeggiated stuff, as well as my drum boxes running on their internal sequencers. We also used my Roland CSQ-600 sequencer to provide the sequences that we needed. All sequencers, all the live-playing, hands-on arpeggiator experience and drummachine programming was so much fun. Much more fun and more inspiring than I had ever expected.
Don't get me wrong. Of course I have worked with hardware sequencers, arpeggiators and built-in sequencers before (I have a modular system that I like to play with). However, when it comes to "serious" track making and producing I always felt I had to rely on my DAW and MIDI software sequencers to be the core of my setup.

I had wanted to make a new album for ages. My first two albums were released in 2010 (Aliens ate my Synthesizer!) and 2011 (Where Androids come to die) so it was about time I released something new on vinyl. However, during the last 3 years I made a lot of tracks that I think are pretty good but way too diverse and not coherent enough to make an album.

Well, here I was. After an intense week of recording sessions Tvnel went back to Spain. I had my studio all for myself and was all pumped up, inspired and motivated to make some tracks! I started to incorporate the new workflow into my own music making. What exactly did I do? First of all I decided to do away with software MIDI sequencing altogether. All that pushing around MIDI events, quantizing and fine-tuning with my mouse really had me fed up. I wanted to get my hands dirty, play and arpeggiate my synths live as much as possible. I started by declaring my Oberheim DMX drummachine master MIDI clock generator for all the other machines involved. I multiplied the DMX's MIDI clock signal and converted it to analog triggers via my Doepfer A-190-8 MIDI sync interface. I also converted it to DIN Sync 24 to synchronize my Roland TR-606.
I used the analog trigger signals from the Doepfer module (usually 8th or 16th notes) to sync the built-in sequencers and arpeggiators of my Korg Mono/Poly and Polysix (both modded and equipped with the awesome ModyPoly modifications by Sometimes I would also arpeggiate my Juno-60 using these analog trigger signals. Last not least my trusty old Roland CSQ-600 sequencer would get its sync signals either via these analog triggers or from the TR-606's trigger outs.
When starting a new track, I would simply run my DMX and 606 in sync and start fiddling with basslines and arpeggios all in synced to the master clock as well. As soon as I got a musically pleasing idea I would record it to my DAW running Ableton Live 8 via my Marian Adcon ADAT interface (using an old RME Digi96/8 interface card). I would then record my audio tracks one after another and slowly build up a track in my DAW. However, I soon realized that the DMX's internal clock was all but stable. It would drift out of sync for several milliseconds over the course of a couple of minutes, making it very hard to keep all my audio tracks in sync. So I recorded a 606 trigger signal serving as a "click track" whenever I recorded an audio track, later using this click track to align the recorded audio tracks with each other. This workflow slowed me down quite a bit so after three tracks I decided to use my DAW's MIDI clock as the master clock source. Now MIDI clock and audio tracks were sample-locked together, making overdubs and editing a 1000 times easier. No looking back ever since!
All the effects you hear on my album are hardware effects from the 80s. In some cases I recorded the effects signal mixed with the dry signal when I was confident that it sounded good. Sometimes I recorded dry and wet signals separately, giving me the option to balance dry levels against wet levels later in the mixing process. All tracks were then mixed "in the box" in my DAW (Ableton Live 8) and rendered to stereo tracks for mastering.

Astro Chicken Studio, July 2015

A word about my signal chain: All drums go through my old Ibanez RM-80 rack mixer with pretty hot levels to get that nice punchy mixer compression. A Roland SRV-2000 reverb processor and a Korg SDD-1000 digital delay were patched to the RM-80 mixer's aux send and returns, so the effects also profited from that punchy crunchy RM-80 sound. I then recorded the RM-80s tape output directly into my DAW via ADAT interface.
I had all other synths and effects run through my Soundcraft Spirit M12 mixer for monitoring and routing purposes. From there everything went straight into my DAW via the mixer´s direct out.
During the recording sessions 2 of my 8 ADAT inputs died on me, making it a little cumbersome to record stereo pairs, but hardships are meant to be overcome, right?
Let me give you a run-down of the instruments I used during the production of my "Terrör of the Üniverse" album:

Roland CSQ-600

Roland CSQ-600

An old CV / Gate sequencer from the early 80s. It has 4 memory slots that can each store a maximum of 150 notes. The CSQ-600 is insanely easy and intuitive to use and very reliable at that. I used it with the Octave Kitten for ALL bassline sequencing duties, as well as for some additional sequencer lines. I programmed the CSQ-600 using my Roland SH-09 since they are conveniently located right next to each other. So I basically used SH-09 as the master keyboard for the CSQ-600! The CSQ would get its trigger (sync) signals from my modular Doepfer MIDI-to-clock converter or from one of the 606's trigger outputs.
Only 4 memory slots in the CSQ-600 and you wonder how I managed to make proper tracks like this? Well, to tell you the truth, 4 memory slots WAS actually enough for me to lay down all basslines for all the tracks. Keep in mind though that this required some clever programming at times (pat my own shoulder, ahem...). Also, during the recording process I would have to manually switch between the 4 memory slots to play the sequences in their desired order. At the same time I would then tweak the Kitten's filter cutoff so this method often took me quite a number of attempts to get everything right. To stop the CSQ-600 at the right time (at the end of a track, for instance) I would frequently have to pull out the trigger cable at the right moment (sometimes between 16th notes!). So there was some crazy perfectionist business going on at Astro Chicken studio at times. To sum up, the CSQ-600 was an essential workhorse for my album.

Oberheim DMX

Oberheim DMX

A legendary early digital drummachine. My DMX is fitted with Electrongate's MIDI interface. Running on its own clock the DMX has a tendency to drift away over time, giving away that its clock generator is not very stable. Running in slave mode synced to MIDI clock, however, the DMX is as tight as you could ever wish for! I simply adore this drummachine. Its samples sound crisp and punchy, the sequencer is super easy to use, the timing is right on and it looks amazing! The DMX is featured on many tracks on my album. On some tracks I would use the song mode to actually chain individual sequences to make a complete track. Sometimes I would simply record individual sequences and cut them up on my DAW later to arrange the final drum track. Check out the track "High-Gloss Üniverse" for some funky DMX drum action!

Roland TR-606

Roland TR-606

Another legendary drummachine. I only got my 606 this year so it is a fairly new addition to my setup. I don't know what took me so long to get one?! I love it. So easy to use, very simple yet effective layout, and the sound of course... Classical punchy analog drum sounds, can sound very 808-like, hence the nickname "poor man's 808". I used it on most of the tracks. Sometimes I recorded the sum (the 606 does not have individual outputs, only a mono sum output), sometimes individual instruments one after another to different audio tracks. Check out "Flight of the Astro Kitten" for a pure 606 experience!

Octave Kitten (Revision 1)

Octave Kitten

My bass machine number one at the moment. The Kitten is the little brother to the Octave Cat (as the Arp Axxe is to the Arp Odyssey). It's a 1-VCO synth but don't let this technical detail fool you. The Kitten sounds HUGE and has major balls. Its super-fat sounding discrete VCO with 2 (yes, TWO!) sub-oscillators plus its SSM2040 filter give it a great, classic 70s vintage sound that is up there with other more famous 70s monosynths. The Kitten is super-rare here in Europe. I got it from a music shop in Germany for a very acceptable price. A synth to fall in love with and a definite keeper in my studio. All basslines on the "Terrör of the Üniverse" album were done with the Octave Kitten, sequenced via Roland CSQ-600 sequencer. "Flight of the Astro Kitten" sports quite some Kitten for example, including hand-played lead sounds at 1:38 min and 2:59 min.

Roland Juno-60

Roland Juno-60

My workhorse polysynth. Not much to say about the Juno-60´s qualities that hasn't been said a 1000 times before. I hand-played many, many, MANY parts on the Juno-60 for my album: Strings, chords, some leads, arpeggios... Totally essential instrument. Keeper! The Juno-60 is all over my album, there is no particular track to highlight this synth. Simply listen to the entire album. OK, wait... To give you an example: On "Terrör of the Üniverse (Intro)" all pads are from the Juno-60.

Roland SH-09

Roland SH-09

I got my SH-09 from a friend of mine, the man who is behind the legendary syntheticmachines series of vintage synth demos on youtube. It is the very machine demoed in this youtube clip:
I love the SH-09 for its classy, late-70s tone. A very simple 1-VCO synth, but BOY does it sound good! A perfect example of a simple design that ended up as an awesome synthesizer. I hand-played most of the SH-09 stuff on the album (with the exception of a few percussion and effects sounds that I sequenced using the 606's trigger outputs). For hand-playing the SH-09 I sometimes resorted to using the Mono/Poly as a remote (master) keyboard for the SH-09 (using Mono/Poly´s CV and Gate outputs) as the Mono/Poly has a keyboard with a wider range plus less issues with double-triggering keys (which my SH-09 does have, unfortunately). Check out the track "Terrör of the Üniverse (Intro)" for some hand-played lead sounds starting at 0:44 min or "Marauder Joe´s Adventures in Space" for the bass-sound that kicks in at 3:22 min.

Korg Polysix (with Tubbutec ModyPoly modification)

Korg Polysix

I bought my Polysix from my friend Tubbu-Tobi who is the man behind the company Tubbu-Tobi is a real expert (dare I say "guru") on the Polysix and the Mono/Poly and is well-experienced in repairing and modding these old synths. The Polysix is infamous for its leaking-battery problem which fortunately can be resolved in most of the cases. I got my Polysix repaired and fitted with Tubbutec's ModyPoly modification which adds MIDI in and out connectors as well as many useful features. For example there is the Power Arp which adds an SH-101-style step sequencer or the Poly Chord feature adding the capability to store individual chords to each key of the Polysix's keys (all of the above holds true for the Mono/Poly, too, which can be fitted with the ModyPoly mod as well). I made heavy use of both features mentioned above (Power Arp and Poly Chord) during the process of making the album. The Power Arp is insanely useful and dead-easy on top of that! I used the Poly Chord mode for the chord progression on the track "Marauder Joe´s Adventures in Space" (kicking in at 0:14 min). I also used it for some of the chords on "High-Gloss Üniverse" and "Lament for My Eta Carinae", where I remote-controlled my Juno-60 via the Polysix´s MIDI out, using the Polysix´s Poly Chord mode. I know this is quite a convoluted way of working with synths, but hey, what ever works... It's the result that counts.
I also hand-played lots of stuff on the Polysix, for example the squarewave bell sound on "Cosmo Speedrun" starting at 2:57 min.

Korg Mono/Poly (with Tubbutec ModyPoly modification)

Korg Mono/Poly
My Mono/Poly is fitted with Tubbutec´s Mody/Poly modification which adds MIDI in / out functionality, a step sequencer called Power Arp, Poly Chord mode and other useful features. During the making of my "Terrör of the Üniverse" album I re-discovered how widely useful the Mono/Poly really is. In the recent years I had been using the Mono/Poly for bass duties mostly so I had really been neglecting its other timbres (which there are a lot of!). Now, with the bass part being covered by my Octave Kitten, the Mono/Poly was freed up to do whatever I pleased. So I used it mostly for arpeggios, sequencer lines and lead sounds. The Mono/Poly has super-snappy envelopes that let it do great punchy sequencer lines. On top of that, its SSM2044 filter makes for some really smooth filter action when used as a lead synth. For example, on the track "Starfighter Romance" I hand-played the lead line starting at 1:45 min using only one of the Mono/Poly's VCOs (PWM via LFO). Not really a trademark use of the Mono/Poly's 4 VCOs and crazy modulation possibilites, but a great example of what the Mono/Poly can deliver in terms of bread-and-butter sounds. 
For the track "High-Gloss Üniverse" I made good use of the ModyPoly mod's Poly Chord feature. I programmed a row of 4-note chords and mapped these chords across different keys on the Mono/Poly´s keyboard. I then hand-played and recorded 2 solos using the Poly Chord mode, so each key that is pressed plays a chord of 4 notes. You can make some crazy shit happen with this feature. Listen to "High-Gloss Üniverse" (starting at 1:20 min and 3:43 min respectively) and you will know what I am talking about.

Arp Axxe (Mk. III with Timothy Smith filter modification)

Arp Axxe

I bought my Axxe a while ago from a colleague who told me he had a broken Axxe lying around at home. I picked it up for a decent price and had my friend Risk Risk repair it. A week later or so it was up and running again! I think the Axxe is still an underrated synth. It is a stripped-down 1-VCO version of the Odyssey (very much stripped-down, that is!). Still it is capable of delivering earth-shattering lows and soft, elegant lead sounds (and pretty much everything in between, including awesome FX sounds!). It is a synth begging to be played (I mean hand-played). A very expressive instrument. There is quite nothing that comes close to its PWM sound, it really is outstanding! I used the Axxe for lots of FX and percussive stuff like noise bursts or toms, but also for additional basses and lead lines. "Kingdom of the Laser Dwarves" sports hand-played Axxe leads making use of its PPC modulation button for vibrato (1:08 min and 2:51 min). Or check out "Flight of the Astro Kitten" for that deep PWM sound at 1:54 min and 3:16 min.

These are the effects processors I used:

Roland SRV-2000

Nice early digital reverb by Roland (wasn't this actually the first digital reverb by Roland?). Great for drums. That's why I used this box entirely and completely for drums on my album. So: All drum reverbs on "Terrör of the Üniverse": Roland SRV-2000. Simple as that!

Dynacord DRP-20

I bought this German reverb processor from my friend Risk Risk a couple of years ago. When it was released in 1989 it was supposedly intended as a direct competitor to the Lexicon PCM 70. I can testify that the DRP-20 is a superb reverb processor. It has some very interesting algorithms and allows for some deep editing. I really dig the long reverbs that you can get out of this box.

Korg SDD-1000

Dead-easy to use early digital delay. Simple interface, great sound (negative feedback = great for flanging effects). I used it as a flanger for drums on some tracks.

Korg SDD-1200

The SDD-1200 is basically two SDD-1000s in one box (I say "basically" as there ARE differences, but of very technical nature). The SDD-1200 played a major role on my album: I used it as a stereo delay on every track. Whatever signal needs space and stereo width, I send it through the SDD-1200 and it sounds awesome. You have to be very careful about setting the input gain pots as they are very sensitive. There is a very nice feature on the SDD-1200 that deserves mention: You can modulate delay times with 2 individual built-in analog LFOs or you can set the first LFO to modulate delay time for both channels. Hell, you can even have the second delay channel´s time to be modulated by a phase-inverted version of the master LFO! That´s what I did at the end of "Flight of the Astro Kitten". Can you hear how both delays change their pitch periodically in reverse directions?

Deltalab Effectron JR 1050

Great early American-built digital delay. Pretty no-frills but very good sounding. I used it as a static (= non-modulated) delay on some basslines and many sequences and arpeggios.

Aria DEX-1000

Obscure digital delay from the Japanese guitar maker Aria. Built around 1983 I think. It has 2 features that deserve special mention. The first feature is a very practical one: The DEX-1000 has input and output jacks on the back and on the front! A very practical and strangely pretty rare feature.
The second feature: It has a CV input that can modulate delay time. This is a great feature if you have a modular system. You can throw any CV signal at it (as long as it is positive voltage, I suppose) and modulate to your heart's content. I made good use of this feature on the track "Toxic Avenger vs. Marshmallow Man". I used the DEX-1000 for a subtle flanging effect on the bassline. In order to modulate the DEX-1000´s delay time I used the Mono/Poly´s Power Arp (clocked with 16th triggers) to send CV data to the DEX-1000´s CV input. If you listen closely, you can hear the periodic timbre changes on the bassline.

Lexicon LXP-1

Neat little box that can be had for really cheap. Nothing spectacular about this box. It is very easy to use and what is really practical about the LXP-1 is that it has knobs for input level and dry/wet level. I used it as a delay effect on one or two tracks of the album.

Vermona Phaser 80

East German all-analog effects box from the late 70s or early 80s. I think it sounds more like a flanger, though. Apparently there is a version of the Phaser 80 that has adjustable effect depth and input sensitivity. Mine does not have this feature. I have used the Phaser 80 on a couple of tracks on my album. Great sounding little unit.

Let me give you a few notes about a couple of tracks on the "Terrör of the Üniverse" album.

Terrör of the Üniverse (Intro)

This was the last track I recorded. I wanted to do the intro last as I felt it was going to play a key role and I was really looking forward to making a track with no drums at all. A kind of orchestral overture. I knew it was going to feature a Berlin school bassline and some thick Juno-60 pads. The Oxygen-style glissando was quite easy to do. I simply let my right-hand index finger slide up along the black keys of my Arp Axxe. The piece being in E flat helped here, of course. The sequencer line that emerges at around 1:01 min is the Mono/Poly. I recorded it just as a sketch while fiddling around with its oscillator mix, noise and filter cutoff. It ended up in the final mix. Another example of random byproduct being the final take! Note to self: Always record your takes, even if they are just rehearsals.

High-Gloss Üniverse

This track was quite tough to do. First of all, I wanted to do something different for a change. Not my usual 8th or 16th octave bass (admittedly a perennial Hyboid trademark). High-Gloss Üniverse is about as funky as I could ever get. I wanted to hand-play as many parts as possible. The only things that are sequenced are the drums (Oberheim DMX), Disco Toms (Arp Axxe) and the bassline (Octave Kitten). All other parts are hand-played. That includes chords, pads and square wave lead (Juno-60) and Mono/Poly (Poly Chord lead). The Mono/Poly lead was especially tricky to do. I wanted to play it with a set (composed) beginning and then improvise as I go. It took me a lot of attempts to end up with a satisfactory result. I played the Mono/Poly using its Poly Chord mode (see Mono/Poly section above) and twiddled the cutoff knob as I was playing. I routed the Mono/Poly´s output through the Vermona Phaser 80 to give it that nice funky sizzling top-end modulation. I also added some short Korg SDD-1200 stereo delay, giving a nice slap-echo, almost room reverb type of effect.
The Juno-60 chords were also real fiddly to do but I will spare you the messy details here. Oberheim DMX and Roland CSQ-600 sequencer driving the Octave Kitten (bassline) were fun to program. They make a really nice rhythm section with precise and tight timing. Great combo.

Flight of the Astro Kitten

This was the first track I recorded for the album. I still had lots of creative energy from the recording sessions with Tvnel when I started recording the track. A couple of days prior to my first solo day in the studio a synthesizer that I had just bought online was shipped to me: The Octave Kitten! It took ages to arrive due to the postal service and DHL strike in Germany at the time. Originally I had intended to use the Kitten for the Tvnel sessions but as fate had it, it arrived right when Tvnel left! Anyway, after fixing a minor keyboard issue (J-wires gone loose during shipment), the little Kitten was all ready to go and willing to spit out some nice ballsy synth sounds for my Astro Chicken studio. The first track I recorded was all inspired by the newly acquired Kitten (yes, new gear IS an inspiration to me!). The Kitten also gave this track its name, which is: "Flight of the Astro Kitten"!
I used the Kitten for the sequence in the beginning and end, for the lead sound that pops up twice during the track, and for the bassline. In fact, I was so blown away by the quality of the Kitten´s bass sound that I used it for ALL the basslines on the "Terrör of the Üniverse" album. Yes, all basses are Octave Kitten basses.

Lament for My Eta Carine

This one was quite challenging. "Lament for My Eta Carinae" is based on an older track that was originally a demo for a drum sample pack. You can still find it online if you try. It took me a lot of work to get the Rhodes-style E-Piano sound right on the Juno-60. Wanting to hand-play the chords added another level of difficulty. In the first part of the track I played the chords live, as I wanted to get these little arpeggiated chords and irregularities that make up a lively piano performance. The later E-piano parts in the track were too complicated to play the way they sound, so I used a trick: I took the Korg Polysix and programmed the chords I wanted to play into its Poly Chord mode. I then routed the Polysix´s MIDI out to my Juno-60´s MIDI in and remote-played the Juno via the Polysix. So, on the Polysix I only had to play single notes, and the Juno-60 played triads! This way I was able to hand-play the difficult parts on the Juno-60 with some help of her brother: The Polysix!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Hyboid - Marauder Joe´s Adventures in Space ("Terrör of the Üniverse" 2x12" Album Teaser)

After quite some time I am reporting for blog duty again. I was really busy recording tracks, and .... drum roll...

I am proud to announce the upcoming 2x12" vinyl album "Hyboid - Terrör of the Üniverse"! It will be released in spring 2016 on my label Astro Chicken. There will be a whopping 12 tracks on the album, amounting to over 53 minutes of pure space age synthpop, soundtrack madness and some chiptuney vibes as well! More details about the album and how it was born are due in a couple of months, so stay tuned!
For now, enjoy the teaser. The track is called "Marauder Joe´s Adventures in Space":

Let me give you a couple of technical details about the track. The bassline is purely Octave Kitten, driven by my Roland CSQ-600 sequencer, clocked to 16th triggers from my Doepfer modular. The chord pattern on the Korg Polysix was done using the polychord mode which is part of the Tubbutec Mody/Poly modification. This mode allows you to map individual chords (up to 6 voices since the Polysix has 6 voices) to individual keys / notes. So you can play complex chord progressions just by playing single keys on the Polysix keyboard. Now here's the trick: Since the Mody/Poly mod also features a step sequencer, you can now sequence chord progressions rhythmically and have them play in a loop if you want. That's just what I did on this track. There's a bit of Deltalab Effectron JR1050 delay on the chords, as well as some reverb from the Dynacord DRP-20.

The Mono/Poly lead is hand-played and really simple. Just a single squarewave with some vibrato and filter envelope. That's all. Ah yes, some delay from Lexicon LXP-1 and Korg SDD-1200 to make it nice and round.

The Arp Axxe lead is also hand-played. Also squarewave with some portamento. I pressed the PPC button for some vibrato as I played. Some Korg SDD-1200 delay here as well.

The Roland Juno-60 arpeggio is hand-triggered with a free-running fast arpeggiator clock. This makes it practically impossible to repeat the arpeggios exactly the same way. This way you get some nice variation.

The drums are really simple, the explanation in the video tells you which comes when. I added some Roland SRV-2000 reverb to the clap, actually it is more of an ambience than a real reverb.

Well, that's about it. As I said, more details (and lots of them) will come at a later time. I am talking in-depth description of the whole album thingie and how it came into existence.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Roland TR-606, Juno-60, SH-09 & CSQ-600

It took me forever to get my hands on a 606. Now at last I did it, on a whim. In earlier years (speaking of the 90s and early 00s) I was highly suspicious of everything pre-MIDI. How the heck are you going to sync an old drummachine to a DAW the way you do it with MIDI sound generators? Naaa... go away. That was my way of thinking. Getting an 808 for a couple of hundred bucks: Gone are the days. The 606 is still super-affordable in comparison. So, anyway, my way of seeing CV and DIN sync and analog clock and whatnot has changed drastically in the last, say, 5 years. I have acquired quite a bit of vintage stuff since then. I doubt if I can say anything about the 606 that hasn't been mentioned before. Hey, it's a legend alright!

Roland TR-606 + Roland SRV-2000

Taking my newly purchased 606 on a test drive I ended up with this little track showcasing the fun you can have using its trigger outputs to drive an arpeggiator. In this case I am triggering my Juno-60's arpeggiator with triggers from the 606's High Tom channel. The great thing about rhythmically triggering an arpeggiator is that you can create interesting patterns that don't necessarily repeat (at least not right away), Instant fun!
For the technical details: 606 is being synced by a Roland CSQ-600 CV/Gate sequencer. The CSQ-600 has a DIN sync output so it can sync other TR machines or sequencers while being the master. Here the CSQ-600 not only slaves the 606 but also drives a Roland SH-09 for the bassline of the track. SH-09 and CSQ-600 are a perfect couple. They were practically made for each other. So much fun. There is a tiny bit of Roland SRV-2000 reverb on the TR-606 signal. Other than that, no audio processing.
Enjoy this little demo track!