Incoming: Arturia DrumBrute

2016 turned out to be the year of the affordable analogue poly synth and the affordable analogue drum machine! Wish it had happened twenty years ago.

I’d had my eye on the MFB Tanzbar since it came out. It sounds fantastic but the price and apparently iffy build quality put me off. Thankfully I waited, and in November Arturia hit the market with the first of what will hopefully be a new generation of cheaper analogue machines.

It just arrived today. I haven’t tried it much yet, but there’s plenty to work with. In a straight shootout, I think I’d still prefer the Tanzbar sounds, but the DrumBrute looks much more versatile. The pads and easy-to-use sequencer set it apart too. Brilliant design.

Init Pattern 001

Half-finished and too sedate but what the hell. First try on the Electribe2.

The Electribe 2 is a sixteen part groove box. All manner of timbres to use as sound sources. Filters, modulation, effects. 250 patterns, each split into four bars of sixteen steps. Up to 24 animatable parameters for each pattern. All in all a great little machine for knocking out quick sketches.

You can also use the Electribe as a sixteen channel, 64 step (more if you use multiple patterns) sequencer for other instruments over MIDI. Plus, there’s a stereo audio input which you can either mix with the Electribe signal as is, or use as an oscillator source and apply the same filter, modulation and effects as you would to an Electribe oscillator. I’ve tried sequencing my Mother-32s, and it works very well.

Next I’d like to try something more rhythm-driven and get some external machines involved.

The King Of The World

Four months without a post!

Same as usual. Full of good intentions to begin with – a nice gritty delay on one of the Mother-32s, the Minilogue sitting ready to add some nice modern-sounding elements over the top. But instead I did what I always do and started playing a melody. And that was the end of that. Instant eighties. Without thinking, I had even added a bell sound to fill in underneath the lead – exactly what I was doing twenty or more years ago! It’s like I’m in a maze and I walk for miles but every time I look up I’m still in the same bloody place. Haven’t moved since 1985.

I’ve been really busy these last few months, but I took what free time I had to finish setting up my gear. So now I have everything hooked up to a midi sequencer, a mixer, a recorder and a patch bay. I’m all set. Well, almost all set. The equipment and time to make music is there. What I really need, though, is an escape route from my stubborn musical habits.

2004 – Jig

More music from the past.

I started using FL Studio around 2003 I think, and Sonar a little later. Same as everyone else, amazed at what was becoming possible with a single computer and a bunch of plugins. And so much of it was free! This piece here is all free stuff – mostly the PC51d soundfont and a couple of freebies from the now defunct PapelMedia.

Despite the genre – someone once asked me why I was doing ‘Riverdance music’ and I wanted to shrink to invisibility – I’m proud of this one. I wrote it on a Casio VL-tone when I was about fifteen and never forgot it. The Casio had this step sequencer that allowed you to input one note at a time. I never would have been able to play it on those tiny keys otherwise.

I always had an image in my head of how I wanted it to sound, so as soon as I was able to lay my hands on half-decent sounding orchestral samples I made the effort. Unfortunately, it’s one of the very few things I did manage to finish on the computer.

Bees And Onion Flowers

I took these a couple of weeks ago but only just put them in the computer. Another win for the humble Ricoh CX-1. That you can casually snap macro shots like this with such a small, basic and ageing camera, it’s amazing.

Click for full resolution.

Unfortunately, they don’t make the CX-1 anymore, and they discontinued the subsequent series. I’ll use this one until it breaks, but if I was after a new camera I would go for the Canon Stylus TG4 Tough. It’s marketed as an all-weather waterproof camera, but it has a pretty impressive-looking macro mode. The sample photos include shots of snowflakes.

Walk the Walk

Not exactly what I was aiming for but ….

Two multi-effects devices – the Korg Mini Kaoss Pad 2S and the Zoom MS-70CDR.

The Zoom is an epic pedal. CDR stands for chorus, delay, reverb, and there are a whopping 86 types to choose from. Plus you can chain up to six effects in series (on the one pedal!). Plus it’s stereo. Plus patch memories. Plus onboard tuner. Plus the price! It’s so cheap!! For this video I have a stereo delay, a filter delay, a modulated delay and a plate reverb applied in that order to the volca keys. The quality of some of the effects falls short of the more expensive pedals they’re meant to be mimicking, but for the price you can’t complain. Ever since the volcas came out, people have been bugging Korg to produce a volca mixer. I’d like to add …. if you do, please incorporate sends and something like the MS-70CDR.

The Mini Kaoss Pad is also a multi-effect (100 types), but you can only use one at a time. Each effect has two parameters wired to the X-Y touchpad for creating all kinds of motion in the sound. It’s a DJ tool, not a guitar pedal, and I’ve still to get to grips with it. Maybe in the next video.

1996 – Korg Trinity Plus

Continuing the retrospective. Fast forward a decade. 1996-ish? No more bellowing into a tape recorder. No more bellowing at all in fact. I’d given up on singing, instead playing melody lines on a synth. This prompted one of my friends to comment that my stuff sounded like the (crap) muzak covers you hear in shops. Which in turn prompted me to spin a musical cocoon from which I didn’t emerge until very recently.

In the nineties, the only instrument I had was a Korg Trinity Plus. But what an instrument! Beautiful PCM-based sounds, analogue modelling synthesis, multiple drum kits, tonnes of insert and master effects, and best of all a 16 track sequencer. Felt like a moon landing compared to my old Model T mono, the Teisco 60f.

Thin skinned no more, here are a few unfinished pieces, replete with crap muzak melody lines. Still blissfully unaware of EQ and compression techniques, still believing layered reverbs were the solution to any problem. But all performed, arranged and sequenced on one machine. It doesn’t sound that impressive now, since the phone in your pocket can do as much and more, but at the time it was heaven.

Korg Trinity Plus 01

Korg Trinity Plus 02

Korg Trinity Plus 03

Korg Trinity Plus 04

Pretty camp, eh? If left to my own musical devices, what comes out mostly falls into two categories – pseudo-disco and pseudo-classical. There wasn’t much rock in our house when I was young. Plenty Bee Gees, Boney M and Abba though. I expect that’s where the disco comes from, but the pseudo-classical? Who knows.

I still have the Trinity and roll it out occasionally. Some of the patches have aged a little, but it’s still a smooth machine.

Snowflakes Are Resting

Testing the “flux” function of the volca keys with a Tomita-ish piece.

The first time round is just the volca keys, the second with a Mini Kaoss Pad delay, and the third with the volca bass doing a passable theremin impression over the top. Listen to the tone of the volca bass. Can’t praise it enough.

The volcas are basically 16 step sequencers, but there are ways to get more out of the volca keys. First off, it has settings for 1/1, 1/2 and 1/4 tempo. If you set to 1/2, the sequence cycles once to every two cycles of the volca beats for example, so the unit’s 16 steps last 32 steps in all. At 1/4 they last four cycles, i.e. 64 steps. But even if you set the keys to 1/2 or 1/4 tempo, there are still only 16 notes in the sequence – they’re just spread out over double or quadruple the time. You can sustain those 16 steps, but you can’t play anything between them.

Luckily, the keys has another mode – “flux”. Flux allows you to play and record notes freely across any tempo without the 16 step restriction. The resolution isn’t infinitely fine though – after a bit of experimenting I found its limit at 8 notes per step – but still, that gives you 16 x 8 = 128 steps stretched over four cycles to play with.

Here’s how to input the notes cleanly ….

  1. set “tempo range settings” to “full”
  2. set flux on, tempo to 1/4
  3. tempo dial all the way down to minimum
  4. connect to the volca beats with the keys first in the chain
  5. set up a snare metronome on the beats ….
  6. set the beats snare on 1, 4, 8, 12 steps
  7. stutter time to 1.2 and depth to taste
  8. use active step to activate only the steps you want to record
  9. record notes

If you use the volca key’s Tempo Delay or an external delay, you can get some very nice sounding arpeggios.

Active Step is also useful during performance. Instead of enabling and disabling single steps, you’re dealing with groups of eight notes. I expect you can do all kinds of things with 128 steps if you plan ahead a little. If you use the keys in polyphonic mode, that’s 128 sustaining chords in 16 groups of 8.

Since the tempo is set to 1/4, and the tempo dial to something low, the beats will be crawling along. I was thinking though, you could maybe run the sync signal through a delay to multiply it x8 to get the beats and bass moving at a cycle of 16 notes rather than 16 steps. Something to try later.

1985 – Iain and Me

One year later, I think, and me and Iain are upstairs jamming.

Nice one Iain!

At the time I was using two borrowed keyboards – a Hohner String Performer and a Korg Sigma. I loved that string machine. In fact, I love the sound of string machines full stop. I bought a couple in auctions a few years ago (a Roland RS-202 and an RS-09), I snapped up the GForce Virtual String Machine when it came out, and last year added the Waldorf Streichfett to my arsenal.

The Streichfett was a huge surprise. I couldn’t believe that a modern company would bother to reprise the string machine sound in such a small, cheap and useful package. It was as if I’d made an unconscious wish and it had come true. Fantastic little machine.

1984 – Still Life

An intense 16 year old Mark doing his best to reconcile teenage angst with the day-glo world of 1984. Howard Jones, oh how you encroached on my musical sense. Makes me wonder where I’m getting my influences from now. I suppose you never truly find out until after the event.

There you are again,
Holding hands with a smile on your face,
But a look that cuts like a knife,
Living on again,
Statuettes in a game of still life,
Still life.

And it’s strange to think,
There’s a part of you in me,
And it’s hard to believe you’re just part of history,
Yes it’s one thing to look but another to see,
When in time our memories fade and fail.