Posted by: Rich Sherkin | April 8, 2015

PAiA Arrives At Lower West Side Studio

When we think of vintage synthesizers names like Moog, Korg, Arp, Roland and Oberheim come to mind.  One name that seems to slip by is PAiA (pronounced Pie-ah).  I discovered PAiA in the mid 1970s while gathering information on various musical instruments.  With no Internet back then we had to write letters to manufacturers for information on their products.  Most manufacturers were happy to send out glossy catalogs of their products full of information.

I learned of PAiA through Larry Fast.  Larry was Peter Gabriel’s keyboardist for quite some time but also had his own band project called Synergy.  In this latter Larry fashioned sounds that were absolutely marvellous and new for the time.  My particular favourite album of his is called Cords.  Check it out if you have a chance.

Among Larry’s listed instruments on the album were those by a manufacturer called PAiA.  The information I found about them at the time indicated they made Do-It-Yourself kits for keyboards.  Their Strings and Things was of particular interest to me at the time as it seemed within my reach but that never ended up happening.

You’ve probably heard PAiA instruments before.  Do you know Peter Gabriel’s Games Without Frontiers?  The drum machine track is a PAiA drum machine.  The PAiA was actually the first programmable drum machine available.

So flash forward 40 years and modular synthesis is all en vogue again.  I thought the idea of building some modules would be cool and PAiA would be a great place to start.  Their 9700 modular features a MIDI to CV converter, a dual VCO, a VCF and a VCA.  Just what you need to get started.  In this thread I’m going to tell you about my build experience…

First, a little background

In the early ’80s I got my start building electronics working at a shop making clone 80 column cards and internal modems for Apple ][ computers.  We also made RS232 and Centronics parallel cables.  Back then you couldn’t just walk into Best Buy and purchase them off the shelf.  My teacher was a guy named DL.  He was tough and would throw away any half-assed work I’d do.  Our boss, Rod The Man, got pissed off if stuff got thrown out so I learned to solder well, quickly.

I ordered the 9700 kit from PAiA February.  It arrived within a few weeks, the delay mostly due to Customs.  The packaging of the kit was outstanding with each module packaged separately.  It is easy to keep the components organized and separate from one another.

I’m not going to review the modules themselves (yet) but rather the build process.  I’m a lightly experienced assembly guy and this is a very ambitious project.  I can solder pretty well but my skills beyond that are long from developed.  I used a multimeter before but that was 30 years ago.

I’m here to tell you how this build went for me.

The 9700

The 9700 MIDI2CV module is the starting point of the project.  Not only does this module convert signals from MIDI input devices to Control Voltages it supplies power to the entire rack of modules.  This build went very smoothly and the unit functioned perfectly when I was done.

Things I learned;

  • Do NOT let solder bleed over onto holes next-door.  It’s a nightmare!

IMG_3124 IMG_3126

The 9720 

The 9720 is the Dual Voltage Control Oscillator and Modulator.  In effect it is the noise maker of the synthesis unit.  My build ran into a few road bumps.

First, while soldering in an Integrated Circuit (chip) a drizzle of solder ran out the top of the board and bridged to and adjacent resistor.  I applied heat while desoldering and was able to suck up most of the excess metal.  Using a razor blade I was able to scratch the remaining bridge free.  Testing with a multimeter indicated no bridge.

When I fired up the unit (connected to the 9700 for power) everything seemed ok.  The modulation test worked and Oscillator 1 was working fine.  Oscillator 2, however, made no sound.  I grabbed my multimeter, which I am very inexperienced with, and started doing some testing.  When I was done Oscillator 1 no longer made any sound.

HOLY CRAP!!!

Ok…Like the late Douglas Adams says… DON’T PANIC!

I contacted PAiA and, long story short, their support is OUTSTANDING and the VCO is going back on an RMA.  I’d like them to fix it and tell me what I broke so I can avoid something like that in the future.  I’m also wary of my desoldering skills at the moment.  If an IC needs replacing I’d rather the pros do it.

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The 9730

I went on to build the 9730 Voltage Controlled Filter.  Once again the kit was excellent and the documentation easy to follow.

While building this kit I got careless on a transistor from a matched pair set and soldered it in backwards.  I got to practice my desoldering skills on it.  While the board was fine the middle connector of the transistor became detached from its body.  I’ve written to PAiA requesting replacements.

At this point the entire board and front panel are ready to connect but I have to wait on the transistors before I go on.  Stay tuned…

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Holding Pattern While I Wait For Some Matched Transistors Lesson – Check Twice Before Soldering

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The 9710

The last module in the build is the 9710 Voltage Controlled Amplifier / Mixer.  I will be starting its build later this week and will keep you posted.

Once all the modules are built and working I’ll cover connecting them up, interfacing them with the outside world and adding more modules to the mix.

So Far…

Working with these kits has been exceptionally easy.  They are well packaged, well designed and the documentation is laid out in a step by step build methodology.  Any problems I’ve had so far have been my own and the folks at PAiA (Scott in particular) have been great in resolving my problems.  As my build continues and when my 9720 returns I’ll write of the updates to my build.

Some Tips

  • I cannot state how important a good soldering station is to your project.  Forget soldering guns or even soldering irons.  A temperature controlled soldering station can be had for well under $100.  You want  35 watts max or at least adjustable around there.  I use a Weller WLC100 Station.  Don’t scrimp.  Make sure to get the correct soldering tip as well.  You’ll want a fine pin-head tip for precision soldering.
  • Remember The Green Mile?  If the sponge isn’t wet the job won’t get done.  Not dripping, soaking wet.  Just wet it.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about… read the first point.
  • Don’t let position position you – If your soldering target is in an awkward position… move it.  Don’t bend all bendy to get to it.  Take that extra time to make the target easy to hit.  Stop and move things around to suit you.  Not vice versa.
  • Ventilate your work area – Otherwise you’re breathing in lead.
  • Having said that – Breathe.  Don’t inhale while you’re soldering the part but time your breathing so you’re not holding your breath.
  • Go slow and relaxed.  Don’t work when agitated, rushed, pissed off, nagged at by your significant other, tired, drunk, or otherwise in a condition where you think you might do good work but will actually do a pile of damage.  This project will not happen in a few days so stretch it out and enjoy it.
  • Have your documentation handy and make sure you PRE-READ IT!  You will run into far less surprises if you just skim the documentation to see what’s in store.  Make sure to have all the tools and materials described so you don’t have to stop mid-way.
  • DO NOT second guess the documentation – Nuff said
  • Be organized.  There are hundreds of components in the 9700 rack project.  Isolate the projects from each other, especially if you’re working on multiple projects at once.  For me, one at a time is the way to go and while I have a couple of setbacks I can proceed forward with the last project while I wait for parts and my repaired VCO.

Live and learn….

But I can’t wait to play with these toys once they’re working!!!

Stay tuned…..

PAiA - DIY Sound

PAiA – DIY Sound

Posted by: Rich Sherkin | March 10, 2015

Bye Bye Spock Bye Bye

Leonard Nimoy’s recent passing was very sad.  I learned of if through a text by my son.  Our family are a group of Star Trek nerdlingers.  My wife and I dragged our son to all the conventions and shows.  We even got a chance to meet Leonard Nimoy and get his autograph after hearing him speak at one of the Toronto shows.  Lots of fun.

Last week my Fizzbin bandmate John brought over his new toy; a Korg MS2000.  This vintage beauty has thick, rich sounds that can be easily shaped through its ample control panel.  I really love analog synthesis!  John is using the MS2000 with his Ploytec PL2 synthesizer.

Our last rehearsal ran a bit late so John decided to leave his gear here.  For me that was a major bonus as I could experiment with MIDI setups as well as get to know a vintage synth a bit better.

After setting everything up in a playable manner I flipped on the TV.  I like some visual stimulation and often have a TV on with the volume muted.  This particular day they were running a Star Trek marathon in honour of Leonard Nimoy’s death.

I set my Yamaha Motif XF on a backbeat pattern but not a Performance setting.  I’m finding the Performances all sound mostly alike and the music that comes out of using them sounds canned.

Instead I went free-form with all the synthesizers, switching from one to the other and playing with the various sounds.  These included John’s PL2, MS2000 and my Sub 37.  To make matters more fun I ran the Sub 37 through John’s Roland Space Echo.  WOW!

The song is more or less a dirge which I think is fitting for the subject matter.  After recording in a single take I went on to pilfer some Spock sound clips but then ended up recording most of my own.

I’m very sad that Leonard Nimoy is gone.  He brought me a great deal of joy and inspired me to constantly seek knowledge.

Created on a Yamaha Motif XF6, Moog Sub 37, Ploytec PL2 and Korg MS2000

Created on a Yamaha Motif XF6, Moog Sub 37, Ploytec PL2 and Korg MS2000

Posted by: Rich Sherkin | February 13, 2015

Guitar Tech – Trial # 2 – The 5-way Switch

So here I am pretty much one year later and I’ve decided to rip apart my old Squire Strat and finally fix the cursed 5-way pickup selection switch. First let me say to those out there who think even for a second that a Squire or a MIM Strat are even close to the American Standards; Fugget about it.  There’s a reason these and other knock-off’s sell so cheaply.  They’ve got cheap components.  From machine heads that won’t stay in tune to pickups with barely enough copper to function to bodies made from wood-ite and other horror show materials.  They’re cheaper because they’re made cheaply and subsequently reflect that in their playing and sound. In my last round of playing guitar technician I shielded the pickup cavity of my Squire Strat.  this is where I noticed the sub-standard quality of the body.

Check Out The Crappy Laminate Body

Check Out The Crappy Laminate Body

Prior to this I replaced the machine heads with Fender Locking Machine Heads.  These are quite awesome and the guitar has stayed in tune for the first time since replacing the garbage that came with the guitar.  The shielding seemed to help as well, however, the big problem was still the 5-way switch. This switch has been a nightmare for as long as I can remember.  It would crackle and short out at random.  Cleaning it seemed to help for a very short time but the guitar was so unreliable nobody would have anything to do with it.  Poor sad Strat : ( I set up my guitar workstation and prepared to replace the nightmare switch with a Musical Accessories Profile SW40 5-way switch.  First and foremost make sure to take pictures of the existing configuration of the instrument.  Even better, draw out your own schematic.  I did.  It helps you to better understand what you are seeing whereas with a picture you only see what it shows you.

Draw it out - It'll make more sense

Draw it out – It’ll make more sense

Next came removal of the existing switch.  It was at this point I noticed that the switches were different in their configurations.

The Old Switch

The Old Switch

The New Switch - Connectors

The New Switch – Connectors On Both Sides

I searched the Internet for details on wiring the type of switch I was installing.  I found an article by Alan Ratcliffe called Hotrodding a Stratocaster which included an excellent wiring diagram. Prior to soldering my new switch into place I used alligator clip connectors to test the connections.  It’s way easier to switch around alligator clips that to re-solder.  They are a definite asset to your toolkit. So after testing then soldering then testing again I tightened everything up and replaced the pick-guard.  One more test to make sure nothing got strained and then in go the screws.  The good news is that there was no noise or popping when the switch moved from position to position. Now for a new set of strings.  Stringing up the guitar with the locking machine heads is a slightly different process than standard stringing.  To refresh my memory I used this handy video.

Once tuned I ran through each pickup position.  AMAZING!  For the first time in I can’t remember how long there was a smooth, silent transition between pickup configurations.  This guitar can actually be used in combat now! Now, the replacement switch I used was $19.95.  I’ll bet the one I replaced didn’t cost that (yeah, yeah, retail, I know but I think you get my point).  Don’t kid yourself; Made In America with quality parts will always cost more – and be worth it.

Posted by: Rich Sherkin | January 16, 2015

The Ploytec PL2 Visits Lower West Side Studio

Last week my Fizzbin bandmate John brought his new toy to Lower West Side Studio.  It’s a duophonic, 2 oscillator synthesizer that fits in the palm of your hand.  It’s the PL2 (pronounced “Pie Ell Squared”) from Ploytec GmbH.

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This little beast pumps out some incredible sound from just a little package!  This article is not a review of its features although they will be mentioned.  There are plenty of YouTube videos featuring the PL2.  I’m going to talk about hooking up the PL2 to a Roland A-300 Pro as well as tests with other gear by EMU, Moog and Yamaha.

The first test involved plugging the PL2 directly into the MIDI OUT port of the A-300 Pro.  Polytec has been good enough to produce several templates for keyboard controllers and the A-300 is among them.  We downloaded this to the A-300 using the Roland A-Pro Editor, plugged in the PL2, connected it to the amp and…. nothing : (

As I’ve mentioned in the past the A-300 is a very advanced device with numerous, and sometimes partially hidden, options.  The A-300 has both USB and MIDI connections and getting them configured correctly is the trick.  To connect the PL2 directly to the keyboard and have no software involved you must first shut off the USB MIDI Interface.  That is done in the MIDI menu of the A-300.  Press ACT + Left Arrow to call up the menu then scroll to MIDI SETTING.

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Turn the MIDI I/F Switch to OFF.  The USB Interface to the keyboard is no longer connected.  You should note that you can still take power from the USB port with this setting.

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At this point you can start playing the PL2.  MIDI signals from the A-300 will be sent directly out the MIDI part to the PL2.  Just make sure the A-300 is set to MIDI Channel 1 (the PL2 default).

Looking forward, however, we will have to connect both the PL2 and the A-300 to a computer.  This is so that we can access a nice user interface to control the PL2 as well as allowing us to customize the layout of the A-300 as we see fit.   Once we turn the USB interface back on we have to tell the A-300 to send MIDI IN signals it receives.  Back in the MIDI SETTINGS Menu you must set the MIDI MERGE DEST to MIDI OUT.

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You must also switch the MIDI I/F SWITCH back ON

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At this point plinking away on the keyboard will no longer trigger the PL2.  The MIDI IN signal is going into the USB port and vanishing into computer heaven.  What we need now is software.  There are two options available;  the first is the Ploytec Editor which provides a nice user interface to control the PL2.  The second is an Ensemble for Reaktor by Native Instruments.  It is a really slick interface for the PL2 as well.  One note is that while the Ploytec Editor already recognized the A-300’s controls (knobs and sliders) Reaktor did not and had to MIDI Learn the controls.  No big deal but worth noting.

DSCN0389

Setting up the Editor took a couple of tries to get the correct MIDI IN and OUT ports setup.  What finally worked was this;

  • MIDI In 1: A-Pro 1
  • MIDI Out 1: A-Pro
  • MIDI In 2: A-Pro 2
  • MIDI Out 2: A-Pro MIDI Out

Our original mission was to connect the A-300 to the MIDI IN of an EMU ESI-2000.  The EMU’s MIDI Thru port was then connected to the PL2.  The PL2 was set to MIDI Channel 1 and the EMU to MIDI Channel 2.  In this configuration the A-300 can control each sound module simultaneously through its Split and Dual modes.  To make a long story short;  this didn’t work.  The EMU’s MIDI THRU port didn’t have what the PL2 needed to drive it and was subsequently added to Ploytec’s compatibility list as such.

The good news is that by adding a MIDI THRU box to the setup each sound module can be triggered without being connected to one another.

I also tested the PL2 with a Moog Sub 37 and a Yamaha Motif XF6.  Both worked fine at triggering the PL2 but the Motif went one step better with the controls also working with the PL2.

So there it is;  a fantastic little synthesizer with a big synthesizer sound for a very reasonable price!

Oh yes, one final note… I received excellent, prompt technical support for the one question I had!

Posted by: Rich Sherkin | January 3, 2015

2014 – The Year In Review

So another year has gone screaming by at Lower West Side Studio.  It was a busy year for making music both live and in the studio.  Once again the budget for gear was less than previous years as I worked on learning to play my instruments better and to understand their workings more completely.

So in the fashion of my previous reviews, here goes;

Drums / Percussion

This year was incredibly slow for kit purchases.  Honestly I don’t need more stuff.  My two sets serve me just fine.  I’ve learned that having these wonderful monster sets is great for the basement but when playing live – not so much.  Some venues don’t have enough space for the entire kit.  Those that do are great until I realized how much extra gear I had to bring.

Then there was the gig where I took my Gretsch instead of my Pearls.  The Gretsch kit has DW hardware versus the Pearl which has… Pearl.  The DW hardware is significantly heavier than it’s Pearl counterparts.  I have some pretty descent Pearl hardware.

I did purchase a Roland OctaPad II Pad-80.  It’s an pad MIDI trigger which I have been using to trigger drum (and other) sounds on my Yamaha Motif XF6.  It is also where I plug in my dog Baxter’s synthesizer so that he can trigger sounds too.  Now I can’t play a note on the synthesizer without Baxter coming into the room wanting to join in.

Roland OctaPad II PAD-80

Roland OctaPad II PAD-80

I also finally settled on the double bass drum thing.  I was on-again, off-again pleased with the DW-3000 double kick pedal.  Mostly because I felt the extra hardware slowed the pedal down a bit too much for quick tempo double kicks on the main pedal.  At one point I set up my second kick on the Pearl kit again.

I made some adjustments to the DW-3000 bit the bullet and got rid of my second bass drum.  I’d still like the option of two kick pedals, I just fear the idea of ever having to take two kick drums to a gig.  The double pedal stays!

Electronics

This year involved a bit of a change-over.  I got rid of the TC-Helicon VoiceWorks, not because there was anything wrong with it but rather because I wasn’t using it for anything but maybe a little reverb sometime.

To replace the reverb on the vocals I purchased an Electro-Harmonix Nano Holy Grail Reverb.  This pedal, which works for guitar or vocals, is a great entry-level toy to patch into the Send on your mixing desk.

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I also picked up an Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress.  This combination Chorus / Flanger adds incredible dimension to not only my bass but my synthesizers as well.

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I plan to add a few more rack effects to my setup.  These include a tube preamp, compressor and delay.  I’m going to stick with hardware because… well… it’s hardware.

With the new options opening up by the effects and instrument that have been added to the studio over the years I’m also considering adding a patch bay.  Designed correctly it would provide practically unlimited connectivity options for the devices in the studio allowing me to create previously un-thought of sounds.

Software

I consider this year a bust for software.  I finally bit the bullet and purchased Cubase 7.5.  It’s recommended by Yamaha as the preferred interface to the Motif.  It’s an industry standard.  Etc…  Etc…

I found that while I’m able to get some things done with it, the learning curve has slowed me down immensely.  I’ve even tried to hire people to teach me 7.5 (specifically this newest version).  I don’t know if the folks aren’t out there or nobody around here (geographically) knows enough 7.5 to teach it.  I spun my wheels for months spending hours on tasks I could do in Reaper in seconds.

The funny thing is that I find the Motif’s interface to Reaper far smoother than that to Cubase.  I finally switched back to Reaper, shelved Cubase and will see what the future brings.

Keyboards

Another great keyboard year here at LWSS.  This fall I picked up a Moog Sub 37 Bob Moog Tribute Edition.  This is Moog’s latest combination of analog synth sound with the advanced programming capabilities provided through digital control.  But really what I mean to say is – THIS THING IS FREAKING AWESOME!

I’ve got the PAD-80 triggering sounds on the Motif while the Motif outputs clock data to the Sub 37.  I’ve got some rocking sounds going with practically no effort.  The Sub 37 is also a joy to program.  Anyone who loved twiddling knobs on synths of the ’70s will fall in love with this instrument immediately.  Stay tuned for more info as I learn more.

Bands

Coming of Age – Well the Silvertone Rock Camp changed it’s lineup a bit as well as its name.  Our guitarist / vocalist and teacher Rick graduated us to full band status.  We added a new vocalist while our former lead vocalist switched to rhythm guitar and backup vocals.  We’ve done several gigs this year and plan many more for the next year.  Most of all, everyone is having a great time playing together.

CoA

Fizzbin – Fizzbin has been busy working on both cover tunes but has switched focus to more original creations.  Our act will become a mix of both.  John and I love covering our favourite music of the ’70s and ’80 but also want to use the cool tools we have to express ourselves musically.  So far it’s working great!  Oh yeah, we also played a small set in Collingwood.  What a blast

With all the time being spent with these two awesome groups of people I haven’t had much chance to jam with my old friends from the GTA.  My buddy Randy apparently build a very cool studio which I have to drop by and see.

So 2014 is a wrap and 2015 is underway.  I can see a lot of very cool music coming on strong!  Check back now and then and see what’s up.  Thanks once again for dropping by!

Posted by: Rich Sherkin | December 26, 2014

Big Boys and Their MIDI Toys

Just prior to going on stage to perform back in November our Lead Guitarist Dave received a telephone call notifying him that his Grandson had wiped out in a motocross event and had broken something, possibly his hip.  The lad is 10.  Yikes!

Fortunately it turned out to not be super bad.  A break of the femur but at his age he’ll heal well and reasonably quickly.  Dave took the opportunity to write a song about the incident called Little Boys and Broken Bones.  All the members of our band contributed portions and we mixed a version of the song to accompany a slideshow Dave created.  The compilation was presented to his Grandson on Christmas day.

Santa showed up about a month early for me though.  After a lifetime of lusting after Moog (pronounced correctly the name rhymes with vogue) synthesizers I purchased a brand new Moog Sub 37 from Long & McQuade on Steeles in North York.  Incidentally, great store with a friendly, helpful staff.

The Sub 37 is Moog’s new throwback to the days of analog sounds and twiddly knobs.  While the Sub Phatty line gave back the thick analog sound from the early days of synthesis, the Sub 37 expands on that by giving the artist faster access to the synthesizers controls.  I’ve spent the past few weeks playing with the Sub 37 and finding its place in my setup.

The most important aspect of my kit is that the studio setup and the stage setup be the same, but different.  That is to say I want control over the system through my computer when I’m in the studio but I want the devices themselves to be functional without a computer.  I don’t want a PC on stage with me.

The 3 devices I want in the mix are my Yamaha Motif XF6, my Moog Sub 37 and my Roland PAD-80.  I also like to throw an iPad into the mix now and then.  I love Moog’s Animoog software for the iPad plus I use the DM1 drum machine. I want the clock on the Motif to run the show.  I also want the PAD-80 to trigger sounds in the Motif.

Here’s what I did;  PAD-80 MIDI Out to Motif MIDI In.  Motif MIDI Out to Sub 37 MIDI In.  Sub 37 MIDI Out to USB/MIDI adapter which is connected to the iPad via the Camera Connection Kit.

The Motif is configured to send it’s clock while the Sub 37 is set to receive an external clock signal when the Sync button in the Arpeggiator is depressed.  I also set whichever iPad app I’m using to receive the clock and everything syncs up nicely.  It’s great for running arpeggiated performances on the Motif and having instant drum tracks playing on the iPad.

I’ve only had the Sub 37 for a few weeks but every time I use it I discover incredible features that produce absolutely remarkable sounds.  I’m not surprised though;  It’s a Moog and I expected no less.

So back to Dave’s song…  We all recorded tracks for the song at my studio, first the drums, bass and some rhythm guitar.  A few days later we added more guitar, solos and vocals.  Dave and I worked on the production together and I handled the mix down.

At some point during this process I sat down with the score  to work out a little something on the Sub 37.  What ended up happening was a new song based on the original’s note structure.  With my proggy tendencies I ended up with a track which had an ELP flavour to it.

So, here for your enjoyment is the original Coming of Age version of Little Boys and Broken Bones followed by the Lower West Side Studio re-imagining of the same song.

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Posted by: Rich Sherkin | November 8, 2014

Adventures With The Roland A-300 Pro Keyboard

A while back my Fizzbin bandmate John purchased a Roland A-300 Pro MIDI Keyboard Controller.

a-300 side

The A-300 Pro is an extremely versatile keyboard controller for either USB connection to a PC for VST Instruments or for hardware devices through its MIDI interface.  When John purchased it he had no particular purpose in mind although he does have a Mac full of VSTis as well as an EMU sampler (you may have read about the EMU elsewhere on this site).

I’m not going to write a big technical review of the product as they are readily available on the Net.  As you can see it is a 32 key keyboard with 9 sliding faders, 9 control knobs, 8 pads a transport bar, pitch and mod control, a few interface buttons and an LCD with a control knob as the main interface to the computey bits.  For all the technical stuff you can visit Roland’s site here.

What I am going to write about is a practical problem which plagued us for months in the hopes that if you’re suffering the same issues you may resolve them more quickly.

Hooking the A-300 up to the EMU with MIDI cables was a snap and worked exactly as expected.  Hooking up to our VST Instruments, however, was a different story…

When setting up on a Mac you must add the following ports to the MIDI configuration according to the documentation; A-PRO MIDI OUT, A-PRO, A-PRO MIDI IN, A-PRO 1 and A-PRO 2.  Sound confusing?  A bit.  Once these ports are added you must tell your DAW software about them.  Which ports are enabled and which ports are set up to receive control messages.  If you’ve been following this site you’ll know that I prefer using Reaper by Cockos.  I’ve done a number of MIDI connections to the DAW and haven’t had too much trouble.

To start out in Reaper’s configuration I enabled all the ports with the Control Message option (Enabled + Control in Reaper-speak).  Without much problem I was playing my keyboard into Native Instrument’s Monark synthesizer on Track 1, MIDI Channel 1.  I found that the A-PRO 1 port was the one that worked while all the other ports didn’t seem to.

I then added a second track containing one of my favourite VSTis, Synth1.  I set it for MIDI Channel 2.  My intention was to set up John’s computer with these two soft-synthesizers and have him switch between the two via either the MIDI channel selector or the Upper / Lower / Dual / Split buttons on the A-300 Pro.  This was all working fine until…

Until I tried to use the MIDI Learn function of the soft-synths.  Everything seemed ok with the first synthesizer, Monark, however, I noticed that activating certain knobs and sliders on the A-300 caused unwanted movements of some of Reaper’s controls (pan and volume).  The second thing I noticed was I was unable to MIDI Learn any controls on Channel 2.

Futzing around with this problem was an ongoing thing for months but this month I finally decided enough was enough and I was going to figure out what was going on.  A member of the Reaper Forum, DarkStar, suggested I put a MIDI monitor into each channel’s Effects Chain and really see what was going on.  He suggested a freeware product by IPH Audio Software called MIDIMonitor.  This beautiful piece of software showed me exactly what was going on;  Although the A-300 was sending data out MIDI Channel 2 it contained messages that were going to Channel 1.

What The Frock?

During the course of my explorations I often visited the A-300 Pro’s MIDI Setup screen.  I did not, however, visit the System Setup.  Buried in it is a command called OMNI.  With OMNI set to Off (as it was) the keyboard will only send CC commands out the Channel that the interface is configured to.  With OMNI set to On the keyboard transmit commands on whichever MIDI Channel is selected.  RTFM – Page 70.

Now I am able to use the MIDI Learn functions of each VSTi by simply selecting MIDI Channel 1 or 2.  I’ve done it with more VSTis at once but 2 is practical, especially with the keyboard splitting options.

Next I removed the + Control option from my Reaper settings on each of the MIDI ports.  This stopped the unwanted movement of Reaper’s controls when I turned knobs and moved sliders.  I then disabled all the A-PRO ports with the exception of A-PRO 1 and everything works great now.

Incidentally the MIDIMonitor also showed me that my Yamaha Motif XF-6 was vomiting MIDI Clock data down MIDI Channel 1 without mercy.  This was causing the unaccounted for timing problems I was sometimes experiencing.  The issue is now fixed.  I highly recommend this tool for setup and maintenance of your MIDI kit.  Definitely worth kicking a few bucks to the author for the time it’ll save you.

So there you have it; a keyboard that was kind of useful due to a bad setting is now a totally awesomely useful musical tool.  All from turning Off to On.

Posted by: Rich Sherkin | October 15, 2014

Yamaha Motif XF6 – One Year Later

So I’ve had my Yamaha Motif XF6 now for just over a year now and I have to say that while I love this synthesizer, I haven’t yet uncovered most of its cool functionality.  It is a massively powerful computer wrapped up in a keyboard and there are so many features that it is possible to enjoy the keyboard while still not understanding everything about it.

That is, in fact, the biggest drawback; there are insufficient training resources for this cool toy.  There are eight manuals that accompany the keyboard.  EIGHT!  What the hell is up with that?!?!?

I’ve even searched for a teacher on Kijiji without response.  I specified fluency in the XF series and got nothing back.

The best resource I’ve found is a website called Motifator.  This site is an awesome resource for all things Motif or MOXF.  They have a fellow there who goes by the name BadMister.  He’s the Motif Guru and has been very helpful to me both directly and indirectly through his support of other users.  Thanks dude!

I purchased the Motif as the primary synthesizer for the New Wave band I play in called Fizzbin.  Fizzbin consists of two members; Myself and John Hall, drummer extrodinaire from the Aaron Garner Band.  We’re both drummers but formed this band to play instruments outside our comfort zone.  In Fizzbin we record MIDI and analogue tracks onto the Motif and then play along with them.  This often involves recording live drum tracks and storing them in the Motif.

As with all new toys, the first thing I looked at were options for the unit.  These included the Flash RAM and the FireWire interface.  The Flash RAM made a lot of sense so I added 1GB.  It is REALLY expensive and Yamaha uses proprietary RAM that they charge you way too much for.  Still, it’s extremely useful because you don’t have to load all your samples each time you boot up.  If you use a number of recorded tracks like we do it can be time consuming.  With the Flash RAM the samples remain in the Motif until you say otherwise.  That said…

Managing the Flash memory can be a bit tricky.  When data is in the Integrated Sampling memory or Local Memory it can be manipulated and edited.  Once it is moved to Flash memory it is fixed.  If you want to alter a sound it must be copied back into the keyboard’s local memory, edited then copied back to the Flash.  Not too much trouble but tricky to work out at first.

I have to say the keyboard is outstanding for what I’m using it for!  The sound libraries are excellent with many cool choices available.  I immediately added the Vintage Keys and the Bee’s Knees sound banks.  Vintage Keys provides some excellent samples of…. well…. vintage keyboards.  Moogs and Korgs and Oberheims and more.  One of the Journey samples is used in our Coming of Age cover of Who’s Crying Now.  

The Bee’s Knees is a Hammond B3 sample pack that finally makes my bandmate John happy.  He (and my buddy Rick) are B3 freaks and only accept the real thing.  While the organ samples that came with the Motif are pretty good, this package is…. well….. the bee’s knees.   The modelling is incredible including the Leslie speaker and drawbars.  If you have a Motif but not this library you are missing out!

The Modes I use on the keyboard are primarily Song and Voice.  Song Mode is the multitimbral mode which allows up to sixteen voices to simultaneously play.  If you have MIDI files in your computer that you want to play through the keyboard this is the mode to use.  We take it one step further;  Once the files are satisfactory we record them into the Motif.  The USB port allows the Motif to act as a MIDI device on your computer.  While the FireWire interface provides access to each channel of the Motif (all sixteen) the USB interface is more of a bulk thing.  For the most part, however, that’s all that is required.  Several software packages provide an interface to the Motif through the USB port but we’ll get to them later.

One nice feature the Motif sports is Assignable Outputs.  These are secondary Left and Right Outputs.  We use them to assign drum tracks to a separate set of speakers so as not to muddle the sound coming out of the Mains.  That’s only one use they can be put to.  Very handy.

As a performance tool I’ve found the Motif to be excellent.  Not too heavy it sets up quickly on my Hercules stand with four cables (2 for stereo and 2 for stereo drums out the Assignable Outputs).  Once you’ve got your set loaded into memory you don’t have to drag any USB sticks along with you.  That is unless you didn’t buy the Flash RAM to load your samples.  If that’s the case then bring your stick and calculate load time into the equation.  Oh, and pray the power doesn’t fail.

The Sound:  The Motif’s sound is  awesome!  Come on, we’re talking Yamaha and samples.  You really can’t go wrong.  I’ve created my own samples, purchased add-on samples and used some of the vast array of sounds that come with the Motif.  It’s an incredible synthesizer, the flagship of its manufacturer.  The only difference between the Motif XF 6, 7 and 8 is the keyboard.  They 8 has the high-end weighted keyboard.  Thy guts in all three are the same.  I cannot stress how high quality this keyboard is.

Not only are the samples incredible on the Yamaha Motif XF but the routing and effects are an awesome add-on.  Choose from a wide variety of effect to route your sounds through.  There is even a Vocorder available for playing with vocals.  Two inputs are available on the Motif for microphones or other sample inputs.  Internal effects routing allows you to shape your sounds and create just what you’re looking for.

There are numerous Modes on the Motif, some which I haven’t even explored.  Those include Master, Pattern and Perform  Modes.  I have a basic understanding of how each of these modes works and where it is used but I haven’t yet had occasion to explore them in depth.  These are another area of the Motif where some external guidance would be useful.

Samples vs wave generation:  I was brought up in the ’60s and ’70s which meant the dawn of analog synthesis.  It wasn’t until the ’80s when Ray Kurzweil decided to start sampling sounds and playing them back.  That said I have to say that while samplers like the Motif are absolutely outstanding at re-creating sounds, there is nothing like sculpting sounds from the oscillator on up.  When I purchased my Motif from a fellow I found on Kijiji he showed me the Korg Kronos which he purchased to replace the Motif.  The Kronos doesn’t use samples like the Motif.  Now I sort of understand why he switched platforms.  Not that I want to switch.  I really love my Motif and it works perfectly for what I need it for.  I do, however, long for the joys of analog waveform shaping.

I think I might buy a Moog Sub 37 – stay tuned ; )

Back on topic – There is also some cool software you can use along with the Motif.  These include the vastly useful Motif XF Editor by Yamaha and John Melas’ Motif XF Tools.  These latter are an invaluable set of tools to control various features on your Motif.  While all the functions it performs can be done directly on the keyboard they are far more easily accessible through software.

The caveat to using the software, however, is learn to use the machine’s features.  If you’re on stage during a sound check with no computer and you need to adjust the EQ of an instrument you’d better know how to use the Motif natively.

There are also iOS applications for the Motif to control its various features.  Here is an interesting little disappointment however;  if your Motif is using a wired Ethernet connection you cannot use wireless CoreMIDI applications.  For example, my Motif is plugged into my network via an Ethernet cable.  This is incredibly useful for loading, saving, transferring and backing up files.  My iPad is connected to this same network through a wireless router.   Even so, the Yamaha iPad applications cannot talk to the Motif over the network.  I must either purchase a wireless adapter for the Motif (not going to happen) or plug the iPad into the Motif’s USB connector using the iPad Camera Connection Kit.  That’s too bad because the iPad application for the Motif are quite comprehensive.

So there you have it.  My first year with the Motif XF6 has been an adventure in learning.  Learning mostly that there are very few resources which can fully help me understand this incredibly powerful machine.  Still I was able to manage to interface the Motif to my DAW (Reaper by Cuckos), load it with songs and samples and most importantly, use it live to perform.  It is an excellent workstation who’s capabilities I haven’t even begun to discover.  As I do, I’ll write about them here.

 

Posted by: Rich Sherkin | September 26, 2014

Political Support

Join Coming of Age as we rock out at the Casbah in support of Bob Madigan who is running for Collingwood Town Council.  Come on out, meet Bob and rock and roll the night away!

VOTE FOR BOB POSTER

EDIT:  Bob Won!!!

Posted by: Rich Sherkin | September 20, 2014

Cover Tune: Melissa

Originally Recorded by The Allman Brothers, Coming of Age recorded this track live off the floor during rehearsal mid September 2014. It was one of the first times any of the band played the song.

The guitar amps were micd individually with Shure SM57s. The bass went line out directly into the board as did the keys. Drums were micd with 2 overheads, a kick and a snare mic. These were AKG C1000S, AKG D112 and Shure SM57 respectively.

Mixing was done with Reaper with only some EQ and Tape Saturation. These were done with Native Instruments Solid EQ and Kramer Tape Saturation plugins. Also used were Solid Dynamics compressors and TAL Reverb II on the vocals.

 

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