The 1976 Polymoog film reminds us of when polysynths were new

In case you missed it, Moog’s re-release of an aging red-tinted, humming copy of the original 1976 Polymoog promo is a treat. And it’s a reminder of how far we’ve come.

Yes, there’s no question that a lot of today’s synths seem lifted from the pages of the 1970s, from monosynth to modular. And yes, a lot of keyboard chops today are shameful, though – well, if you’re going up against Chick Corea, you really ought to practice, regardless.

But there’s something charming about watching some of the great musicians of the last century explain what it means to use more than one finger at a time to play a keyboard instrument. And they approach the Polymoog almost gingerly, more a Rhodes with effects than a new instrument. That mid-70s sound is itself something unique and nice, and if anyone stands out as sounding contemporary, it’s Herbie Hancock. But you begin to appreciate that it’s only recently that the avant-garde and keyboard tradition have merged together in the mainstream ear. If we all bumble a little to keep up both chops and sound design, maybe we can be forgiven as those universes continue to squish together. It makes me optimistic.

Ten fingers, man.

In any event, going back in time is a wonderful historical exercise, and it just might give you some fresh musical ideas – or at least a different perspective on what you’re doing now.

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7 Bob Moog images that say a lot about electronic music history

The story of electronic music making is ultimately a human one, even as those humans work with machines. So as the Bob Moog Foundation plans a Moog museum and expanded education, we share seven images from the archives that follow a thread through that history.

The Bob Moog Foundation is a non-profit American organization dedicated to continue the legacy of its namesake. And now they’re expanding their educational project for kids, the Dr. Bob’s SoundSchool, which uses sound technology to teach engineering and science as well as culture. Plus they’re raising funds to create a physical Moogseum. And to do that, they’ve got some classic instruments to give away as fundraising items in a raffle (details below).

There are tons of amazing images and artifacts now in the foundation archives. But let’s examine a few that capture a set of moments across that history. Thanks to Bob’s daughter and Moog Foundation Executive Director, Michelle Moog-Koussa, for sending these to CDM. (Captions also courtesy Michelle.)

1974.

Roger Powell and Bob Moog with custom modular controller designed by Bob for Roger, at Radio City Music Hall.

Roger donated this controller to the Bob Moog Foundation, and it is now part of their archives and will be present at the Moogseum.

1975.

Bob Moog fixing Patrick Moraz’s Polymoog in Switzerland.

1978.

Bob Moog and Less Paul with the LAB Series Amp.

1984.

Bob Moog, Suzanne Ciani, Roger Powell, UIW.

1988.
(date unconfirmed)

Bob Moog, Herbie Hancock, Will Alexander, NAMM.

1989.

Bob Moog lecturing at University of Michigan about Alwin Nikolias’ first commercially available Moog synthesizer.

1992.

Chick Corea and Bob Moog, Asheville Civic Center.

About that raffle:

A Memorymoog, Moog Source, and Moog Rogue will be offered as first, second, and third prizes, respectively. The Moog Trifecta Raffle marks the first time in the Foundation’s history that it is offering more than one raffle prize.

The raffle begins on August 27, 2018 at 12:01am EDT, and ends on September 24, 2018 at 11:59pm EDT, or when all 5500 tickets sell out, whichever comes first. Tickets are $25 each or five for $100, and can be purchased here: http://bit.ly/MoogTrifectaRaffle
Funding raised from the raffle will be used to expand the Foundation’s hallmark educational project, Dr. Bob’s SoundSchool, and to help fund its newest project, the Moogseum, which was announced last week. The Moogseum, a planned interactive, immersive facility that will bring Bob Moog’s legacy and the science of sound and synthesis alive for people of all ages, will be located in downtown Asheville, NC. It is expected to open in April 2019, with an online Moogseum to follow later that year.

All three synthesizers were built in Moog Music’s Buffalo, NY factory in the early 1980s, have been fully restored, and are in excellent technical and cosmetic condition with minor flaws typical with vintage instruments.

The Memorymoog, serial number 1460, has an estimated value of $7,500. It combines six voice polyphony to create a unique polysynth with three voltage controlled, articulated oscillators. Each voice has its own 24dB voltage controlled filter. It is often referred to architecturally as six Minimoogs, and is renowned for its rich sound.

The Memorymoog being offered has been retrofitted with a sequencer and MIDI capabilities, normally found only in Memorymoog Plus models. It has been meticulously serviced by vintage synth specialist Wes Taggart, a lauded technician for Memorymoog restoration.

The Moog Source is a 37 key, two oscillator synthesizer with unique features such as patch memory storage, flat-panel membrane buttons, single data wheel assignment, and more. It has two voltage controlled analog oscillators and the legendary 24 dB Moog filter. The unit being offered is serial number 2221 and has an estimated value of $2,400. The Source has been used by such legends as Tangerine Dream, Jan Hammer, Depeche Mode, Devo, and Vince Clarke.

The Moog Rogue is a compact, two oscillator monophonic synthesizer often referred to as “small but mighty” for its legendary powerful bass sounds. Versatile and user-friendly enough to be used as the Taurus II Bass Pedal synth, the Rogue has been used by Will Butler of Arcade Fire, Vince Clarke, Peter Gabriel, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, Howard Jones, and more. The unit being offered, serial number 4462, has been restored by acclaimed restoration house Tone Tweakers, and is valued at $2,000.

https://moogfoundation.org/

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The amazing classic synth and experimental moments on children’s TV

Before it reverted to Internet age-blandness, American kids’ TV enjoyed a golden age of music, scored by oddball indie composers and legends alike.

And, wow, it could even teach you about synthesis.

Perhaps the most famous of thesse moments is when none other than Suzanne Ciani went on 3-2-1 Contact in 1980 to step inside her studio:

Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood fame was actually a composer before going into television, and the show’s deep commitment to music education reflected that. That music was generally of the acoustic variety, but he did one day tote a rare ARP Soloist synthesizer along with his trademark shoes and handmade sweaters – and his message and song about “play” might well be an anthem for us all.

Canadian-born composer Bruce Haack made an epic appearance on that same show in 1968, where he demonstrated a homemade electronic instrument. Haack himself as as prolific a composer of far-out sci-fi music for children as he was (much darker) experimental compositions and psychedelic works.

The best all-time “Fairlight CMI on a kids’ program” (because, amazingly, there’s been more than one of those) – Herbie Hancock, Sesame Street, 1983. Herbie keeps a terrific sense of cool and calm that all kids’ shows could learn from in this day of cloying, sugar-sweet patronizing programming:

Synths were all over vintage Sesame Street, often providing sound effects as in this oddly hypnotic Ernie puzzle:

Steve Horelick, the composer behind Reading Rainbow, showed off his Fairlight CMI and how digital sampling worked. (I have vivid memories of watching this as a kid – sorry, Steve.) Steve apparently came up at a time when Fairlight ownership was rare enough to get you gigs – but a good thing, too, as a whole generation still sings along with that theme song. And you probably got a second educational gift from Steve if you ever followed one of his brilliant video tutorials on Logic.

Even better than that is Reading Rainbow‘s synesthesia 3D trip – John Sanborn and Dean Winkler’s Luminaire, which was made for Montrea’s Expo ’86, to music by composer Daniel “No, I’m not Philip Glass” Lentz.

Better video of the actual animation and music, which – sorry, Mr. Glass, I actually kind of prefer to Glassworks:

Somehow this looks fresher than it did when it was new.

A young, chipper Thomas Dolby explained synthesis to Jim Henson’s little known 1989 program The Ghost of Faffner Hall!:

Oh yeah, also, apparently Jem and the Misfits imagined an audiovisual synth in 1985 that predicts both Siri and Coldcut / AV software years before their time. Plus dolls should always have synthesizer accessories:

Apart from education, there’s been some wildly adventurous music from obscure (who’s that?) and iconic sources (the Philip Glass?!) alike.

For a time, an experimental music Tumblr followed some of these moments. Here are some of my favorites.

Joan La Barbara does the alphabet (1977):

And yes, trip out with a composition by Philip Glass written especially for Sesame Street:

You can read the full history of this animation on Muppet Wiki,

More obscure, but clever (and I remember this one) – from HBO’s Braingames (1983-85), evidently by a guy named Matt Kaplowitz.

Not growing up in the UK, I’d never heard of Chocky, but it has this trippy, gorgeous opening with music by John W. Hyde:

American composer Paul Chihara’s 1983 score for a show called Whiz Kids is hilariously dated and nostalgia-packed now. But the man is a heavyweight in composition – think Nadia Boulanger student and LA Chamber Orchestra resident. He has an extensive film resume, too, which now landed him a position at NYU:

From Chicago public access TV, there’s a show called Chic-A-Go-Go, which in 2001 hosted The Residents.

But The Residents were on Pee-Wee, too:

Absurdly awesome, to close: “The Experimental Music Must Be Stopped.” This one comes to us from 2010 and French animation series Angelo Rules:

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In the 80s, Keyboard Mag released sounds on flexi vinyl

Before the Web and SoundCloud, publications wanting to share sound examples – whether that was from artists, tutorials, or whatever – had to get creative. And so it was that Keyboard Magazine included flexible discs in the magazine, some time in the 80s.

Based on a discussion from various Keyboard editor and contributor veterans, it seems there have been a number of attempts to digitize these over the years, along with lots of other useful content like those Brian Eno DX7 presets I shared yesterday. But the sheer content volume of a monthly magazine published starting around 1975, plus the lack of even scans let alone a proper digital archive for most of that span of time, atop complex copyright issues around the musical materials keyboard featured, have meant this is done in fits and starts.

That also means that what you hear here is definitely of … marginal legality.

Still, it’s a reminder of the power of sound to illustrate ideas. And those sounds are charmingly leisurely in their pacing, in contrast to today’s algorithm-heavy, clickbait-driven world. (Sigh.)

Indeed, oddly, it was in the Flexi-Disc age that magazines shared all sorts of random content that they might not do today. And I love the trained radio voice introducing sampling resolution concepts.

It’s all a reminder that it isn’t so much the medium itself that matters as it is a commitment to editorial. There are commercial struggles now, as ever.

There are some heavy hitters in these releases, too. (Yeah, about that copyright.)

Herbie Hancock, Jan Hammer, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Chick Corea sit alongside some seriously obscure stuff. Have a listen, at least until these are found and deleted.

The history here is terrific. But while I think some archival work is interesting, I think it’s even better to spend energy building new stuff. Part of what made Keyboard special was the sense that obscure experimentalists and the likes of Herbie Hancock were part of a single community. That spirit ought to be more possible today – and perhaps less exclusively men, less limited to the US or US and UK.

And, heck, maybe we should see about producing some flexi-discs for record fairs.

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Herbie Hancock with the ARP ODYSSEY

Tweet Curious about the ARP ODYSSEY? Go in the studio with the legendary Herbie Hancock and the historic ARP Odyssey. The ARP Odyssey was the first synthesizer that Herbie ever worked with. Here he explains how the unique features and his engineering background helped him embrace the sound creation power of the ARP Odyssey. More […]

Flashback Friday: The Great Synthesizer Showdown Of 1985

The 27th Annual Grammy Awards, held thirty years ago, on Feb 26, 1985, featured an all-synth performance by the epic lineup of Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Thomas Dolby, and relative newcomer Howard Jones. The performance has been described as “The … Continue reading

Everything You Need to Know About KORG’s Arp Odyssey Remake

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KORG, having resurrected their own MS-20 monosynth, have now turned to another analog classic: the duophonic ARP Odyssey. We’ve known for some time that they would begin manufacturing a new edition of that in collaboration with its original creators. Now we know what it looks like, and what it’ll cost.

If you already love the classic ARP Odyssey, there’s not much to say. KORG’s launch, in fact, focused on the ARP you know – the fact that its sound is something you recognize from songs. That’s partly an explanation of why such instruments deserve recreation.

And the original holds up today. It’s a beautifully playable synth with great character, plus terrific envelope controls, a one-of-a-kind, accessible front panel layout that makes everything clear, and nice extras like the Ring Mod and Sample & Hold. It doesn’t have the modular features and some of the more unusual sound possibilities of the monophonic MS-20, but it’s a great keyboardists’ instrument.

And recreation, this is. ARP co-founder David Friend oversaw this effort, so you can count on a certain amount of authenticity – and, as with the MS-20, they didn’t change the circuitry so much as put it back in production. They might not be as obsessive-compulsive as our friends at Moog – we don’t get any mention of hand-stuffing wires – but the sound should be well within the normal degrees of variation on these instruments. The architecture and the circuits themselves are electrically the same, only built via modern parts and methods.

Price: US$1400 suggested list. Street price appears to be about a grand (US$999 – obviously expect it to cost more via the weaker Yen, Euro, and Pound Sterling, plus more tax). That puts the price above the mass-market focused MS-20 mini, but it also includes its own case – and it’s a duophonic synth.

Availability: KORG isn’t saying yet.

But beyond that, what we want to know is what differs between this ARP Odyssey – erm, KORG Odyssey? – and a used instrument? Now we know that, too.

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First, what’s retained from the originals:

You get all of the filters. One challenge of recreation is which instrument to recreate. In the case of filters, the ARP shipped with different filters at different times. As on the recent MS-20 kit and new MS-20M, KORG lets you choose – circuits for each generation are included:

TYPE I (Rev1) is a 12 dB/Oct circuit that produces a sharp, punchy sound. TYPE II (Rev2) is a 24 dB/Oct filter with great-sounding lows. TYPE III (Rev3) maintains excellent stability even when resonance is raised. These distinctive filters have been reproduced just as they originally were.

You get a portamento choice. Original revision and later revision behaviors are included.

You get all the Control Voltage connectivity. CV in/out, gate in/out, and trigger in/out are included.

And what’s new?

It does MIDI. You get MIDI in, plus USB for MIDI in from a computer. Now, here’s a gripe: On an instrument this large and representing some investment, it seems a MIDI out port would be welcome, even if just for operation as Thru. But, anyway, you don’t get one.

It’s not mini, but it is leaner. Let’s say “swimsuit season ready” rather than “mini-sized.” KORG has trimmed down the case – no need for the extra room required by the original. This model is 86% of the size of the first. These aren’t tiny keys, but they are what Korg describe as “slim” – reduced in size from the original.

You do well on weight, too – 5 kg / 11.02 lbs.

But it claims improved playability (faders and keys). First, you get smoother sliders. Second, Korg says the slim keys are both lighter and more playable. (Now, note, Korg are still being historical with the keybed – there’s no velocity and no aftertouch.)

And you can transpose. KORG have added a transpose function so you get seven octaves. Actually, apart from MIDI, that’s maybe the biggest change from the original, since it gives you quick access to more pitch ranges. There are two ways this is accomplished:

1. Transposing the whole keybed: 2 octaves down, normal, 2 octave up.
2. Proportional pitch: the pitch pad pitches down or up about -2/3 octaves.

There’s a Drive switch. This one’s interesting – a 2015 addition. Flip a switch, and you get some sort of analog overdrive distortion. We’ll have to hear what it sounds like, but it proves that Korg are willing to try new ideas. Contrast that with the religious fundamentalists over at Moog and their literalism with the modular recreations.

Also, if you don’t like the black-and-orange paint job – though I must admit, it’s my favorite – the other two liveries are being made available as limited editions with launch.

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By the way, a couple of final touches. If you’re wondering about the price, KORG has really done something nice here. They’ve included all the patch cables, and even thrown in a nice hard case that looks really road ready – the idea being you’ll gig with this thing. That’s a major advantage over the MS-20, which even in the mini version has an odd shape that’s hard to haul around.

case

All in all, this looks like a real success. If you’ve a grand burning a hole in your pocket, this isn’t the only option. Suitcase modular rigs are very doable for that price, and offer arguably more sound options. (Doepfer just came out with a starter case I’ll be writing up soon, for instance.) Tom Oberheim has his SEM. There’s Dave Smith. Moog have its keyboards, a number of which are at or below this price. And there’s Korg’s own MS-20 and much more inexpensive MS-20 mini, which certainly deserve comparison. But I suspect most of the ARP’s initial buyers will be the folks already waiting on one. And, hey, you’re in good company – Herbie Hancock looks happy.

Enjoy.

http://www.arpsynth.com/

http://www.arpsynth.com/en/arpodyssey/specifications/

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Herbie Hancock and Meyer Sound: Experimenting with Concert Surround Sound

In summer 2013, at Stanford University’s Bing Concert Hall, keyboardist and jazz pioneer Herbie Hancock rolled out a concept he has been fascinated with for over 20 years. Using a multichannel surround system from Meyer Sound, Hancock brought the surround sound of movie theatres to a one-of-a-kind live concert experience that cannot be heard elsewhere. […]