Another year another retrospective look at what’s been going on at Lower West Side Studio.  It was a really busy year featuring changes, new music and new products.  Here we go….

Drums / Percussion

Lot of playing but few additions.  There was a slight paring down of the live Pearl kit I use.   Because most of the music I play live involves Classic Rock there isn’t a huge call for the 8″ and 10″ toms.  Sure they add some flavour but dragging them around plus the heavy duty stand they live on is just extra work for me and for my band who graciously help move my gear in and out of our venues.  I’m sticking with the 12″, 13″, 14″ and 16″ drums (plus snare and kick).  That’s enough to satisfy most sonic requirements plus a little easier in the schlepp factor.

One new and now invaluable toy I picked up last year is the Tune-Bot drum tuner by Overtone Labs.  For decades I’ve been a purist when it comes to tuning drums relying on ear alone to get the right sound.  When the early tuning tools came to market I didn’t even consider them.  They relied primarily on lug tension to get the drum head in tune.  As most drummers know, however, some lugs are stickier than others.  This makes using lug torque as a benchmark for the frequency the head vibrates at unreliable.

The Tune-Bot is different though.  It measures the frequency coming off the resonating drum head as its basis for tuning.  This ensures that despite the differences in lug tension the head is tuned equally around its circumference.  Tune-Bot takes it one step further with their tuning application.  The application allows you to specify details of your kit (number of drums, tom sizes) and tuning preferences (resonant head higher than batter or vice versa, resonance time, frequency).  It will then provide you with a list of frequencies which you should tune your heads to in order to get the perfect sound.  I was skeptical at first but I have to admit it really works well.  I’ve been able to quickly tune my kits in a variety of different ways with this great tool.  Some tunings I liked while others not so much but with a quick edit of the parameters and an even quicker re-tuning I could experiment with a wide variety of tuning options that would be much more difficult to do on the fly by ear.

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The device is small, well built and easy to use both in the studio and live.  In fact Tune-Bot has recently released Tune-Bot Gig with fewer buttons, a large display and a bright silver case making it easy to spot in your gear bag.  The Gig model is also apparently good for both studio and live applications.

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I don’t know about giving two choices to drummers though… It might cause brain overload : D   Seriously though.  The Tune-Bot is a great addition to our studio’s gear.

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Electronics

2016 marked the addition of a new service for Lower West Side Studio – production of analog synthesizer modules.  This all began in early 2015 when I built a PAiA 4700 modular synthesizer.  Modular synths were something that always intrigued me and having some background in electronics helped me get the project off the ground. By the beginning of 2016 I had acquired a Synthesizers.com modular and had already built some Oakley Modular components for the system.  Throughout 2016 the building technique had been improved upon as well as the creation of silk screened panels.  Over the course of the year I built over 30 modules for my synthesizer and several dozen for other synthesizer enthusiasts.

There are a large number of synthesizer PCB vendors and I have built modules from several different manufacturers.  These include Oakley Modular Systems, Cat Girl Synthesizers, Barton Musical Circuits, Moogah, Stroh, Music From Outer Space, Hexinverter, DJ Thomas White, Yusynth and others.  Many of these boards can be purchased from Synthcube.com and ModularAddict.com.  Both companies are excellent to deal with and offer a wide variety of products.  Oakley is available directly from the manufacturer who also is outstanding for support and service.

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Summer 2016 Production Run In Progress

In addition to offering complete modules for sale Lower West Side Studio also sells screened and drilled MU format panels for DIY enthusiasts who wish to do their own builds.

You may have noticed that the LWSS website now has a Products Page where you can get more info on our offerings.

2017 is already shaping up to be a busy year with new products being added to our line of products.

Modular Synthesizers

2016 was a breakout year for modular synthesis in Lower West Side Studio.  We went from a pair of small modular systems with more conventional modules to a 110 unit system with some powerful sonic features.  This monstrosity has been named SWAN (Synthesizer With A Name) as an homage to the movie The Phantom of The Paradise which features the ’70s super-synthesizer T.O.N.T.O.

While the Moog Unit or MU format is less radical than its Eurorack counterpart, mainly because MU focuses on analog rather than digital modules, there are still a wide array of complex wave and voltage manipulation tools.

Extremely creative patches can be built using the modules available as there are really no rules for hooking up the wide variety of modules in the system.  Learning about synthesis is very clear as you can follow the signal flow visually unlike synthesizers which perform numerous functions “under the hood”.

One drawback with modulars is that once a patch is created it is very difficult to replicate exactly once it is dismantled.  For this reason we’ve been doing lots of patch sampling or recording as the sounds are created.  Consequently we’re building up a large sonic library which is available for our various projects.

Modular synthesis is in high gear now and won’t be slowing down as we enter 2017.  Presently a new portable system (Phoenix) is being developed to house another 33 modular units including a bizarre reverb unit dubbed the TLN-156 Neural Agonizer.

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SWAN Now At 110U – Further Expansion Coming in 2017

Keyboards

With so much to learn about modular synthesis less attention was devoted to slab synthesizers than in previous years.  More patches were created for the Moog Sub 37 for both original and cover songs.  Preset patches that come with the synthesizer are avoided in order to create sounds that aren’t used by other artists.

We did, however, add one new synthesizer to the stable.  Arturia’s MiniBrute single oscillator, monophonic synthesizer doesn’t store presets but produces deep, rich sounds that are extremely pleasing and a lot of fun to work with.

The MiniBrute also comes in an SE version which contains a step sequencer as opposed to the standard MiniBrute’s arpeggiator.  Fortunately one of the MiniBrute’s designers, Yves Usson (of Yusynth) released a software patch which will upgrade the standard MiniBrute to SE capabilities.  The patch can be found on Yves’ Hack A Brute site.  It should be noted that in order to run the SE upgrade the MiniBrute must have the latest version of firmware.  The firmware upgrade can be obtained from Arturia’s MiniBrute Resources page.

One other modification made to our MiniBrute was the removal of the keyboard and the rehousing of the MB’s guts.  This was done using GMUSynth’s SkiniBrute retrofit.  The SkiniBrute retrofit is an easy modification involving removing the keyboard then replacing the electronics in a new wooden frame with a new bottom panel.  There are a wide variety of wood types and finishes available and the quality is excellent!  If your setup already has enough keyboards which can be used as MIDI controllers and you wish to conserve space this is a highly recommended modification.

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MiniBrute Loses Bulk In SkiniBrute Case

Software

2016 didn’t mark any huge changes in software.  We’re trying to keep music making in the hardware realm here at Lower West Side Studio.  That doesn’t mean recording.  We still use Reaper and a number of audio plug-ins from Native Instruments and Waves.  Making music, though, is being done with hardware.  Synthesizers, drums, stringed instruments, etc.. are all being favoured over their soft counterparts.

One small addition to the software side of things in fact has to do with tuning hardware.  A wonderfully useful app called VCO Tuner by TheSlowGrowth on  the Muff Wiggler forum has streamlined the process of calibrating Voltage Controlled Oscillators being built.  Without getting too technical the app controls the oscillator’s output and then monitors that output for analysis.  It makes the process of calibration very easy compared to using an oscilloscope or doing it just by ear.  Details on the VCO Tuner can be found on Muff Wiggler  (the greatest modular synthesizer resource on the Internet) at this link.

Bands

A lot has happened in 2016 with both Fizzbin and Coming of Age.

Fizzbin has been focussed on creating original music in 2016 with much of the year’s rehearsal time being devoted to experimenting and music creation.  John also added a Korg MS-20 to his synth setup and has come up with some incredible sounds.

Last year Fizzbin also performed live at the Mad River Rocks festival.  The performance was very well received and we had a great time entertaining the audience. Our set consisted of a mix of both original and cover songs which were in contrast to many of the other (excellent) performers at the show.  We hope to return this year!

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Fizzbin Performs At Mad River Rocks Festival

Coming of Age had an interesting 2016 as well.  After the summer where we performed at  some events our lead guitarist Dave left the band.  The departure was on good terms and we were lucky to have such a talented musician perform with us.  Dave totally rocks!

Fortunately we were able to welcome a new lead guitarist, Darren, to Coming of Age.  Darren brings with him years of live performance experience and together we’ve been expanding our repertoire and improving our musical skills.  It’s great having him in the band!

December marked our first performances with the new line up including an outdoor concert at Collingwood’s Frozen In Time festival and Craighleith Ski Club’s New Years Eve party.  Both were wonderful experiences although the former was quite chilly!

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Coming of Age Sets Up For 2016 New Years Eve Party @ Craigleith Ski Club

2016 also marked to reuniting of my old teenage heavy metal band.  Through sheer luck I was contacted by Jim my old bass player.  Jim coordinated communication between our lead guitarist Jason and soon we had the old band back together.   Thirty-Six years ago we’re were called Menion but we’re not quite sure if we’re sticking with that name.  To make matters more awesome Johnny G., CoA’s rhythm guitarist and vocalist is performing with us as lead vocalist (and rhythm guitarist).  We’ve only had a few rehearsals but 2017 will be a lot heavier.  It’s great seeing my old friends again and I’m excited to see what we’ll all be able to pull off!

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Menion Performs @ Newtonbrook Secondary School’s Battle of the Bands In 1979

So that’s what’s been going on here in Lower West Side Studio over 2016.  It was a very excellent year for music and technology.  2017 will be even better!

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