Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Doepfer A-110-2 Basic VCO Demo

Warning: This is a hardcore technical modular synth post! I recently got my hands on the first copy of a Doepfer A-110-2 Basic VCO Eurorack module that was ever sold worldwide. It showed up at Schneidersladen in Berlin and I was the lucky one, the first one!

Doepfer A-110-2 Basic VCO and friends

The A-110-2 is the follow-up to the A-110-1 which has been selling for many years now. The A-110-2's basic features: Three waveforms (saw, square and triangle), 3-way octave switch, exponential FM (with attenuator), linear FM (without attenuator), pulsewidth modulation (with attenuator), hard and soft sync. It is only 8 units wide which is really cool. I decided to make a demo showcasing the basic and raw oscillator sound as well as two more musical snippets demonstrating various features of the A-110-2. In all examples whenever all three waveforms are presented they appear with their original volume in relation to one another. Warning: The audio files are big! Format: 44.1kHz, 16 Bit mono.

Let's start with the basic waveforms. You are hearing saw, square (50% duty cycle) and triangle in a range of 7.5 octaves. For pitch I used a Doepfer A-145 LFO (triangle waveform) through a Doepfer A-156 quantizer, set to output only 5ths and octaves:


Now let's add some pulse width modulation to the square wave. PWM source is a slowly moving sine wave LFO:


The A-110-2 has a nice feature: Linear FM. In this patch a Doepfer A-171-2 VC Slew Processor serves as the source for the modulation with a frequency modulated sawish triangle waveform. The result is not as dramatic as with Exp FM. Again saw, square and triangle:


Now for exponential FM. Modulation source is the Doepfer A-171-2 with the same configuration as in the Linear FM patch above:


Let's take a look at hard sync. With each of the 3 waveforms (saw, square and triangle) you first hear the A-110-2 slaved to a steady-pitch master oscillator while being pitch-modulated by an EHX 8-step sequencer. After a few seconds I add some LFO modulation via the EXP FM input. You can hear the timbre of the slaved oscillator changing along with the LFO swings:


Now it's soft sync. I must admit that I haven't managed to fully wrap my head around the theoretical implications of soft vs. hard sync. All I can say is that soft sync does not reset the waveform to 0 when the master oscillator finishes a cycle (unlike hard sync) so you won't get any such dramatic changes in timbre as in hard sync. Interestingly modulating the slaved oscillator's frequency does change the perceived pitch as well (again unlike hard sync). Same modulation as in the previous clip:


Now let's go "all in". I have put together two patches that are more musical than the above examples to showcase what the A-110-2 can do if you combine all those nifty features. What you hear in clip 1 is all three waveforms cycled through a Doepfer A-152 quad sequential switch (accounting for some clicking audio glitches here and there) with some random resetting. I have added PWM, Lin FM and Exp FM from various sources as well as hard sync. No filtering, just some amplitude modulation via MFB Megazwerg VCA (AHDSR modulated):


The following patch circumvents the VCA completely. However, there is some amplitude modulation on the saw wave. Later in the clip I start tweaking some of the parameters. Again, no filtering:


I hope I have managed to give you a good overview of the Doepfer A-110-2 basic sound and its most important features. Enjoy the demos!

Arp Axxe & Roland CSQ-600 (Youtube video)

Celebrating my freshly repaired Arp Axxe's resurrection, I hereby present to you this little demo jam. A Roland CSQ-600 sequencer is driving the Axxe with CV and gate information (a 32 note loop). Watch me manipulate the Axxe's controls as the sequencer is rolling on. Just a bit of Korg SDD-1000 delay and Roland RSP-550 chorus added to spice up things.

When I was first offered my Axxe a year ago, upon first inspection it was in a somewhat pitiful state. A good friend of mine offered to repair it so I decided to buy it from its former owner for a good price and have it fixed later. All good. However, following last year's move, my Axxe started having trouble staying in tune; its pitch would fluctuate by +- 30 cents, even after hours of operation. So I handed it over to my buddy Tobi Tubbutec who repaired it by replacing its power transformer with a new one so it can now return in full splendor.

I don't want to repeat any of the Axxe's well-known specs as you can find them all over the internet. It is true that being a stripped-down 1-osc synth the Axxe cannot hold up to its older brother Odyssey's grandeur feature-wise. However, it does have THAT powerful Arp sound due to its massive oscillator and filter. Speaking of filter, this Axxe has the Timothy Smith filter mod that fixes a design flaw in the original filter circuit preventing the filter to open up completely. With this mod the filter works as intended and has improved response. Anyway, playing the Axxe is pure joy. It's so simply laid out that you can't get lost even if you try. You can build a new sound within a minute. Admittedly I am not a huge fan of the Axxe's PPC pitchbender as I have to press really hard in order to bend a semitone but it sure gets the job done. Another one of Axxe's quirks is its strange Sample and Hold feature. When turned on, pitch drops to the lowest C on the keyboard when you release the last key. Strange. Summing up, the Axxe excels at basslines and leads and actually quite a lot in between (effects, sequencer lines, percussive sounds, noise sweeps etc.). Sure I can imagine eyeballing its bigger brother, the Odyssey, but for its price I think the Axxe is a great alternative if you want that big ballsy Arp Sound.

Arp Axxe

The Roland CSQ-600 is a fun sequencer. It hails from the early 80s and has a strikingly familiar design. Sure enough it's from the same era as the TR-808 and has probably even been designed by the same person. For today's standards its 600 notes memory does not sound like much but I bet in 1980 it was a huge thing. And huge the CSQ-600 is, by all means (physically, I mean). It has great build quality, its buttons are a joy to push and it is ridiculously easy to operate, making sequencing other analog synthesizers a real breeze.

Roland CSQ-600

Sit back and enjoy this demo featuring two great vintage pieces of studio equipment and keep in mind: Never underestimate the Arp Axxe!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Korg Mono/Poly vs. EHX 8-Step Sequencer & Doepfer Modular Skiff (Youtube video)

Today I wanted to try out how I could spice up a simple 3-note arpeggio on my Korg Mono/Poly by sending some CV modulation to its filter CV input. So what you are hearing here is the Mono/Poly with its lowpass filter cutoff frequency being externally modulated by a small modular rig. I just added some delay and reverb from the Korg SDD-1000 and Dynacord DRP-20.

Running on its internal arpeggiator the Mono/Poly sends out a gate signal for every note. I took this gate signal and used it as a clock source to synchronize an Electro Harmonix 8-Step Program analog sequencer and a Pittsburgh Modular Cell 48 case with 5 Doepfer Eurorack modules.

Korg Mono/Poly

Electro Harmonix 8-Step Program Sequencer

Doepfer A-143-9, A-151, A-138m, A-133 and A-140

My latest modular acquisition is the Doepfer A-138m 4x4 matrix mixer. It really doesn't look flashy at all nor does it have a fancy name. But looks can be deceiving. This IS a highly versatile and mighty tool. What does it do? Well, the principle is simple: It has 4 inputs and 4 outputs. You can route any input (arranged in horizontal rows) to any output (arranged in vertical columns) with whatever level you like. One really useful feature is that you can set each output column to "bipolar mode", meaning you can turn each level knob to the center position for no signal or clockwise for positive and counter-clockwise for negative (inverted) signal. That's a great thing for CV signals, but you can also use it for audio signals for example in order to change the characteristics of a filter or for M/S processing of a stereo audio signal.
So here you can see (and hear) the A-138m in action. The A-143-9 VC Quadrature LFO is providing the Mono/Poly's filter with some nice audio-rate FM while the A-140 ADSR Envelope Generator modulates the amount of LFO signal going through the A-133 Dual VC Polarizer. You can clearly spot the effect of the ADSR in the youtube clip as it creates those "a-u" and "u-a" vowel sounds. The A-151 Sequential Switch is a real funky tool, too. It can be used to cycle through 4 independent signals by routing 4 inputs to 1 output or 1 input to 4 outputs at a time, making for some very interesting rhythmical modulations. You can use it both on CV and audio signals. Hey, you can even build a sequencer with it but I will go into this another time.
This skiff really is a fun little toolbox with lots of functionality in such a small space. Enjoy the demo!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Oberheim DMX Demo / Jam Session (Youtube video)

On a late August sunday afternoon me and a couple of good friends met at Astro Chicken studio for a jam session. We recorded about 4 hours of material with my Oberheim DMX, Korg Mono/Poly, Arp Axxe, Roland Juno-60 and SH-09. We moved through various styles and moods of electronic music together. It was truly inspiring. This Youtube video shows you some of the greatest moments of this 4-hour improvised jam session. Enjoy!

Let's go through the technical details:
We wanted to use the DMX's internal sequencer so we could edit the DMX's patterns on the fly. In order to do that we had to run the DMX in record mode. Additionally we wanted to slave the Mono/Poly's arpeggiator to the DMX. Since the DMX cannot be the slave when in record mode we had to make the DMX the sync master for this jam. I patched the DMX's MIDI out into an MFB Megazwerg's MIDI input. The Megazwerg is capable of converting MIDI clock to analog clock pulses (96 or 16 pulses per measure). I set it to 16 and routed the clock pulses through Megazwerg's inverter to feed the Mono/Poly negative clock pulses (the Mono/Poly's arpeggiator triggers on the falling edge of a square wave). So we managed to slave the Mono/Poly to the DMX's clock which is great fun! Arp Axxe, Juno-60 and SH-09 were all played by hand. 

Oberheim DMX

Korg Mono/Poly

Arp Axxe

Roland Juno-60

Roland SH-09

We routed the DMX's single outputs into an Ibanez RM80 mixer for EQ'ing and effects routing. The RM80's aux sends were routed to different effects processors. The Soundcraft Spirit M12 mixer was used for more signal and effects routing. We used a Korg SDD-1000 digital delay for long dubby delay effects. In some parts of the jam you can hear the delay time being modulated by the SDD-1000's internal LFO which makes it slowly vibrate in pitch. Yes, a simple and often used effect, but superb-sounding nonetheless. The long reverb tails are from a Lexicon LXP-1, possibly one of the greatest underrated cheap FX processors out there. And we got a Korg DRV-3000 taking care of some atmospheric chorus & delay work.
Note that we recorded the whole jam session as a finished stereo track into Ableton Live. No further effects were added! Just some dynamic processing and EQing with Waves plugins.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Akai S1000

Akai S1000 sampler

The mighty Akai S1000. When it arrived in 1988, it was the first affordable 16 Bit, 44.1kHz Sampler, making it a highly desirable studio tool. By today's standards, its stock 2MB RAM configuration and 3.5" Floppy drive seem really low-spec and outdated, but back then it was the bee's knees. This was high-tech that cost thousands of dollars! Today these machines can be had for really cheap. Well, why would anyone want to have one in the first place? Why go through the hassle of getting this clunky 3U machine to work with your studio setup, to learn its operating system, to go about buying sampling disks, to take care of SCSI storage, cabling, termination etc.? When you can have a super duper software sampler for free?
Well, the answer is simple: because it sounds great and it is FUN! And it is a reliable machine with tight MIDI timing. Once you figure out how to sample and to create programs it becomes second nature. I sampled quite a few drummachines with it and built my own little library. The S1000 is an excellent drum sampler.

When I got mine on eBay, the seller had advertised it as having 4MB of RAM, so it came as a pleasant surprise when I discovered that it actually had 8MB fitted (The S1000 displays RAM as MWord, and 1MWord = 2MByte!). 8MByte really is a lot when you are using the S1000 as a drum sampler. I might top up the RAM to 32MB some day if I find a good opportunity but so far I am very happy with the amount of RAM installed. It also has the latest OS installed (4.4). However the OS version history is poorly documented so I am not entirely sure what has changed since Version 2.0. My S1000 also has the Digital I/O and SCSI Expansion cards installed (the ones by Mutec, DIB-01 and DIB-02). You really want to use a SCSI drive with the S1000!

I recently got my hands on a mint-in-the-box 2x SCSI drive enclosure which had obviously never been used before. A look inside the case revealed that it was manufactured in 1988, a genuine time capsule! Nice.

New old stock SCSI case from 1988

I took an old internal SCSI Iomega Zip drive (100MB) along with a 5.25" adapter frame and installed it in the enclosure. I also disconnected the fan power connector as the fan was pretty loud. I figure it should not be a problem since the ZIP drive does not really get that warm. Although there are ways of installing a SCSI drive inside an S1000 (which can be quite a complicated undertaking for various reasons) it seems a good idea to have an external enclosure with a convenient power button in the front. Whenever you are done loading or saving your stuff simply turn the enclosure off and it will stay cool and quiet.

External SCSI enclosure with internal 100MB Iomega Zip Drive

Unfortunately the S1000 does not store your external drive's SCSI ID. When you turn the S1000 off and on again, the drive's ID is reset to 5 which is the default ID. Actually that's pretty logical since the S1000 doesn't have a battery for data storage. I guess one could store the config to a floppy disk along with the OS and have the S1000 boot from that disk. Rather impractical. I would recommended you set your drive's ID to 5 and you are all set. 

Things to look out for if you want to buy an Akai S1000:
1. Which OS version? You want to have at least V. 2.0.
2. How much RAM inside? Remember, 1MW=2MB!
3. Any expansions installed? Think Digital I/O and SCSI.
4. Floppy drive functional?
5. Display background illumination: Still fresh or dim?
6. High-pitched display whine? LED inverter could be bad.
7. High-pitched power transformer whine? Could be due to vibrating transformer windings.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Astro Chicken Studio

Welcome to Astro Chicken Studio, my abode of creativity. My man cave. Here I have focussed on an oldschool workflow and layout, 'cause I love to do music the oldschool way. I have more modern stuff as well but it's not all in my studio. Here I wanted to recreate something like an early 90s electronic music production setup with equipment ranging from the late 70s until the early 90s. My favorite era hardware-wise.

Astro Chicken Studio

Late 80s design in its full bloom


Let me give you a little tour of my workflow:
The main sequencer and audio hub is a desktop PC running Ableton Live 8 on Windows XP. I sequence my synths via 2 MIDI interfaces (Musicquest 8Port/SE and Steinberg Midex 8). I do all the sound sculpting, effects processing and mixing with my sound generators, analog mixing consoles and effects processors, OUTSIDE of Ableton Live. And NO SOFTSYNTHS here! All I do here with Ableton Live is MIDI sequencing and audio recording / summing. I have produced music with softsynths but I am trying to avoid that by any means. At least here at Astro Chicken Studio it's totally hardware.

Roland Juno-60, SH-09, MKS-50, MKS-70, Korg Mono/Poly, EX-800, EX-8000, Wavestation AD, Arp Axxe, Waldorf Microwave I (Revision B), Casio VZ-8M, Kawai K1m

Oberheim DMX, Yamaha RX5 with WRC04 ROM, Simmons SDS800, Lell UDS, Kawai R50 with custom ROMs, Roland TR-505, Akai XR10, MFB-712

Akai S1000, Ensoniq Mirage Keyboard

Effects / Outboard Processing:
Dynacord DRP-20, Korg DRV-3000, SDD-1000, SDD-1200, Roland RSP-550, Lexicon LXP-1, ART Proverb, Vermona Phaser 80, Boss RCL-10, Audioforce FourGate

Soundcraft Spirit M12

My main mixing console is a Soundcraft Spirit M12. It's been around for a while and I really love it. Great sound, low noise, very reliable. My only gripe: I wish all aux sends were post-fader. Other than that it's pretty much perfect.

Ibanez RM80

This is an old Ibanez RM80 which I use as a submixer mostly for drums and for bass duties. Very warm and beefy sounding! It really adds lots of balls to the rhythm section of  my tracks. And it's got VU meters! I got it for little money from an old Krautrock pioneer in Berlin.

I am using a 48-channel Klotz patchbay to route all my audio signals through my setup. Fortunately the Spirit M12 has all the patchpoints on the front so patching is a breeze.

When I finish a track I lay down single tracks of audio into Live via a Marian Adcon ADAT interface through an RME Digi96/8 PCI ADAT card into Ableton Live. I mostly record these tracks "wet" i.e. with their respective effects as stereo tracks. So basically I do all the mixing in my analog mixers and only record the stems in Ableton Live for summing. That's my workflow.

I will go through my equipment in detail another time, so stay tuned!