It’s meant as a “spiritual successor,” say the creators – with both emulation of the classic E-mu sound and new features. But the SP 2400 in preorder still hope to bank off the renown of one of the most popular samplers ever, the genre-defining E-mu SP-1200.
All of this could be a test of the clone craze. Sure, 12-bit lo-fi sound has some real potential for music making. And the E-mu layout, with faders and pads, is accessible.
But at US$949, and only a preorder shipping some time in the winter, the SP 2400 isn’t the most practical choice. You’ve now got plenty of options from KORG, Elektron, Roland (including their wildly popular TR-8S), and even smaller makers like MFB for a grand or less – some of them a fraction of this cost. All of those can be had right now, without dropping hundreds of bucks in June to get something that could take until January or longer. Not to mention we may see a Behringer take on this idea shortly, knowing how that company follows social media.
In a way, then, these sorts of reboots are beginning to become like the remakes of classic cars – a sort of genre all their own. There’s a price premium and a practicality cost, but if you want something that looks like a classic with some upgraded innards beneath, you’ve got options.
That said, there’s a nice feature set here. I like the idea of the 12-bit/26k mode, though I wonder if they’ve recreated the signature filter sound of the E-mu. And while I’m a bit too skeptical to endorse dropping cash just for half a year of “bi-weekly progress reports … via this website, social media channels, and emails,” it could be worth a look when it arrives.
The real draw here is probably that this actually samples – including a looper mode. That’s a feature missing on a lot of current gear.
It’s the creation of ISLA Instruments, who also made the KordBot. I’m curious how people fared with that crowdfunding project and the final result, which would be a great indicator of how to take this one.
I just hope that new ideas get as much attention as reboots of old ones. Heck, I feel that way about TV and movies. It’s obviously summer.
But here are those admittedly rather appealing specs –
• Sturdy 4-piece Steel/Aluminium enclosure.
• Mains Powered 100-250V AC.
• Dual Audio Engine:
12-Bit/26.04khz Lo-Fi Engine (Classic SP Sound) and 24-Bit/48khz Hi-Fi Engine
• Stereo Recording/Playback.
• Channels 1-8 Pannable to Main out L/R Channels 7+8 can be ‘linked’ to support stereo audio content.
• Headphone Output (9-10) w/independant monitoring of channels.
• Dedicated Microphone Pre-Amp.
• Looper Pedal Mode (with full duplex recording/playback).
• Record and overdub live audio during playback.
• USB Host & Device Ports:
Connect usb thumb drives, keyboards, midi controllers directly into the SP2400.
Arturia’s V Collection 7 continues to expand as the go-to software library of every vintage synth you would ever want. But let’s focus on one new gem: the brilliant CZ-101 remake.
First off, V Collection 7 is worth a look. Arturia keep making their mega-bundle software instrument bundle better. That means both reworking the modeling inside these tools, and adding new features, as well as – of course – continuing to expand the library of available instruments. As modeling has improved, these instruments have gotten more and more like the originals in sound and not just in function and look. At the same time, Arturia keeps beefing up those originals with new features – so the authentic sound engines get new sound design features atop them.
The EMS Synthi V makes an appearance in the new V Collection, too – if your tastes go more 70s than 80s. And it’s a big deal.
Version 7 continues to balance the desires of the casual keyboardist and the obsessive synth sound designer – and everything in between. So if you just want to add a convincing Mellotron or B-3, you’re covered – with an all-new Mellotron and a total ground-up sound engine overhaul for the B-3 V2. Jimmy Smith Strawberry Fields Forever, check and mate.
If the idea of a whole bunch of unfamiliar keyboards and control layouts is unappealing, V Collection 7 also includes the new Analog Lab 4, which consolidates all these things into easy presets and macro controls, and hundreds of new presets in their “Synthopedia.” That way if you do want to look up the way a familiar sound was produced – then tweak it yourself – you can.
Of course, if you read CDM, your favorite preset may be “default template,” and the idea of getting lost for hours in a vintage synth control layout may be the whole selling point. For that crowd, the V Collection 7 adds the EMI Synthi V and the CZ-101 from Casio, circa 1985.
The ability to just dial up a menu and say, “do I want an Oberheim SEM or a CS-80” is already pretty crazy, and the number of choices continues to grow. So my approach to V Collection is actually to ignore all those presets – apologies, dear sound designer friends – and try to focus on one instrument. It’s a bit like what you do in a packed studio – you pull out one piece of gear, and say, hey, tonight is going to be about me and this instrument and very little else.
I want to talk about the CZ-101 because it’s long been one of my favorite instruments, and it’s a fairly unsung one. The CZ is somehow too easy, too friendly, too compact, too inexpensive to have the kind of adoration of some of the other 80s and 70s throwbacks. It’s not a collectors’ item. You can still find them at flea makrets. So yeah, Arturia are quick to drop names who have used it, like Salt-N-Pepa and Vince Clarke. But to me the whole appeal of the CZ-101 is that it’s for people who love synths, not people trying to emulate their heroes.
Of course, you could for these reasons go get an actual CZ-101. That means Arturia has to sweeten the deal a bit so the software can compete. They did just that. Let’s dive in.
CZ V reproduces the simple hardware interface (at bottom) but also expands to this view with lots of additional visual feedback and features, at top.
Phase Distortion lovers, rejoice
The original CZ-101 is about two things: a simple front panel layout, and phase distortion. If you just want to drop the CZ into a session as-is, CZ V does that.
Phase distortion synthesis isn’t so much a different synthesis method as it is a compelling way of mucking about with two digital oscillators. It’s easy enough to dismiss PD as Casio’s cheaper, non-patented answer to Yamaha’s DX7 and frequency modulation (FM). But now as we grow more accustomed to digital, non-harmonic timbres, PD is better appreciated on its own terms – as a way of producing unique digital color.
In short, what phase distortion does for you is to add rich harmonic content to sound. It can be a distortion. It can sound something like a resonant filter – in its own way. And because it’s normally using synced oscillators – here’s the important bit – it’s way easier to control than FM generally is.
On the Casio, this allows some unique filtering and sound shaping and distortion sounds that can easily be controlled by macros. And on the Arturia remake, graphical access to envelopes and expanded power means that you can use that shaping creatively.
The CZ V kind of goes a bit nuts versus what an original CZ-101 would give you. Let’s compare 1985 and 2019.
Arturia’s effects mean you don’t have to listen to the CZ dry.
The modulation matrix makes this feel as much modern soft synth as 1980s hardware.
The original oscillators are there – sine, saw, square, pulse, resonance, double-sine, saw-pulse – as are the 8-stage envelope generators and vibrato and LFOs. You can even import SysEx from the original. But being able to program these features on a display makes sound design accessible.
In addition to making hidden CZ features more visible, Arturia have expanded what’s possible:
32-voice polyphony (the original had just 8).
A modulation matrix – no, really.
More modulation: a Sample and Hold module, 2 LFOs with 6 waveforms, 3 sources combinators and an Arpeggiator
New effects – while an authentic approach to the CZ might leave it dry, now you get all the Arturia multi-effects (adding things like chorus and reverb sound especially nice, for instance)
There’s visual feedback for everything, too.
Where the CZ fits in
In some ways, the CZ-101 is weirdly going from dated 80s thrift store find to … ahead of its time? After all, we’re seeing modular makers embrace these kinds of digital oscillator effects, and phase and phase distortion even inspired the upcoming sequel to Native Instruments’ Massive, the new Massive X.
Envelope editing is powerful – and includes animated visual feedback.
The CZ architecture is uniquely suited to making a lot of different sounds – including percussion and modulating timbres and edgy digital business – with a minimum of resources. So there’s a noise source built-in. You can modulate with the noise source. There’s ring modulation.
Using the CZ, DADSR, and multi-segment envelopes, you can them sculpt those percussive and metallic timbres over time – including using the DCW (Digitally Controlled Waveform) envelope that morphs between a sine wave and distorted wave.
The reason I’m using the CZ V to talk about the new V Collection edition, though, is that it’s an instrument where it feels like Arturia’s authentic side matches up with the “vintage on steroids” additions. So, by the time you have something like the new Synthi, you’re already presented with tons of sound design possibilities. Arturia has added some amazing ideas there – a step sequencer, a beat-synced LFO, plus onboard effects, atop all the new graphical options for working with envelopes and modulation.
The thing is, on a Synthi, that starts to feel like too much. I almost was tempted with the Synthi to force myself not to expand the tab full of new stuff. If I want an open-ended sound environment on a computer, I can use Reaktor, not try to recreate a 1970s take on the idea.
On the Arturia edition of the Casio, though, all these additions help the CZ graduate from fun toy to serious sound design tool. The visual envelopes make more sense. Effects are something most CZ owners invested in anyway. And more polyphony means you can run one instance and do a lot with it. Heck, even the matrix is easier to follow than on the original EMS Synthi because the architecture of the CZ-101 is so straightforward. In other words, because the original did less, it’s both a good match for software remake and for some thoughtful additions – which Arturia delivers.
Check these templates for an easy way to get started making your own sounds.
Here’s a little sketch I made with this. This is all one patch – noise and ring modulation and layering the ring source, plus some DCW and pitch envelope use, are what generate all those sounds. I added Arturia’s Trid-A Pre and some reverb from Softube’s TSAR-1 Reverb and … that was it.
808 day, sure. But let’s pause for 606 day – the logical anniversary of the 1982 TR-606, a drum machine squeezed inside a tiny enclosure that looks like a 303 but isn’t. It’s the lesser known runt of the Roland family, and you kind of love it for that alone.
If you think about it, the 606 was way ahead of its time. Now selling customers on buying a little bass machine, then buying a little drum machine to go with it is par for the course. But in the early 80s, the music that would make the 303 and even the 606 desirable … hadn’t been made yet.
The TR-606 is certainly simple. It’s got all analog circuitry inside, for seven parts – kick, snare, two toms, open and closed hats, cymbal. There’s an accent control. It isn’t the most sought-after sound of the TR series, by any stretch, but now that you’ve heard way too many 808 and 909 hats, you might appreciate this just for some variety.
It can trigger other gear. It’s got accent. It was designed so you could chain 606 models together. So it’s not a terrible little machine. And it is – I’ll stand by this – the cutest drum machine Roland ever made. (I have to admit, I just went back to my boutique TR-09 this week and had a blast. Sometimes getting something tiny and restricted is oddly inspiring. An itsy bitsy teenie weenie silver TR drum machine-y?)
It’s famous, and yet mercifully no one has ever called it iconic. It just is what it is. Here’s Tatsuya of KORG fame giving it a one-over – as he should, as nothing channels the spirit of the 606 (even from Roland) quite like the entry of the KORG volca series he helmed:
And here’s Reverb.com giving it the once over:
The 606 has been in some great music – Aphex Twin, Nine Inch Nails, Autechre, Orbital, plus one favorite artist that shares its name – Kid606. Moby I think also used one, probably in that spell when he and I were dating that he doesn’t like to talk about. (Man, did that beetroot smoothie we shared together while programming 606 patterns mean nothing to you? Nothing?!)
It’s also been heavily modded and copied. It’s a reminder, basically, that drum machines need not look like a truck. They can be a funny sidecar you can easily squeeze into spaces where no one else can parallel park. When people talked about buying unloved Roland drum machines for $50 in pawn shops in the 80s – the TR-606 was one likely candidate. This was one of the machines cheap enough to enable people without cash to change music.
You know the sound. Because it was tinnier than the 808 and 909, the 606 often stood in when someone wanted something with an even thinner Roland sound.
Put that sound with the 303, and you really do get a combo that makes sense.
Bonus – this bit. You can swap between PLAY and WRITE pattern modes while the TR-606 is running – so you can edit as a pattern is playing. The other TRs would ideally work that way, but they don’t.
And yes, Roland at various times has brought this back in … strange ways, like on the SP-606 which really … has nothing to do with the TR-606. But here it is, because D-Beam! It’s also been spotted inside the recent recreations like the TR-8S and even the Serato-collaboration DJ controllers.
You know the Minimoog and the modular. But do you know The Operator – a business telephone? Or the Moog air hockey game? The Moog name wound up in some strange places in the 80s.
These creations have little to do with Bob Moog. The company first known as R.A. Moog underwent buyouts by other manufacturers, before Bob Moog left the company bearing his name in 1977. Then around 1981, Moog turned to contract manufacturing – at aroundthe same time as the last Minimoog came off the assembly line. Management bought out the company in 1983 and did even more contract work.
But some of the weird side tracks that happened next are nothing if not intriguing. And synth manufacturers diversifying isn’t actually that strange a concept. We have to remember that part of what allows our industry to make weird devices like boutique modules is that we can source components and contract manufacturing from companies making other stuff. (Case in point – I spent Friday morning at ALFA in Riga, who partner with Erica Synths, Gamechanger Audio, and others. Even ALFA gets the lion’s share of revenue from other stuff – in their case, it seemed to be electronic safe circuitry and supplying the Russian car industry. That’s to say nothing of factories in Shenzhen, China.)
So, sure, the most infamous contract synth was the SSK Concertmate for Tandy Corp (aka the brand name used by Radio Shack). But there’s more. As Moog Electronics in the mid-80s, the company made subway door openers and climate control systems. And then these:
The Operator (originally the Telesys 3) in 1983 was a business phone with some features I’d find handy today, even if they’re dated:
A digital clock with stopwatch, automatic call timing, and alarms
Custom ring tones, plus a timer that sets the ringer to mute automatically
Tons of memory positions and automation
Built-in paper address book
Automatic redial for getting through on busy numbers
A “privacy detector” that warns you if someone has picked up the line and is listening in
— plus this being the 80s, it also boasted all kinds of archaic compatibility features so it would work with touch, rotary, and pulse lines and corporate PBX and interfacing. Some things we definitely won’t miss.
Of course, the main synth connection here is, Moog Electronics accidentally predicted the FM synth that would one day come from Ableton. Ahem. But the “Moog Telecommunications” name tells you they aspired to make more devices, even if that never happened.
The Moog air hockey table surfaced in 2012 on a Gearslutz, captured by user plaidemu. If we look back to 2004, we find some trivia background on what this was – evidently also around 1983 or so.
Moog’s logo is on the scoreboard because they made the sound generation circuits. User vorlon42 (whoa, is that a Babylon 5 reference crossed with a Hitchhikers’ Guide reference?):
About 20 years ago, a Buffalo, NY-based company called Innovative Concepts in Entertainment rolled out a heavy-duty arcade-quality table hockey game called Chexx. Like the old “slot hockey” games many of us who grew up in the northern US and Canada had when we were kids, we could control each player (forwards, defensemen, and goaltender) by pushing and pulling a rod for each player, and turn the player by twisting the rod left and right. The playing arena was encased in a hard lucite dome, so that the puck wouldn’t fly out of the arena.
On top of the dome was an box scoreboard with three lights on each of its four sides, and sound-generation circuitry that would play crowd noises and organ “charge” riffs. The electronics for the game was manufactured by…..Moog Music. The Moog logo was featured prominently on the scoreboard.
The Chexx game, and successive versions, can be found in various game rooms, arcades, amusement parks, and sports bars around the world. The most recent version is called Super Chexx. (Unfortunately, it lacks the Moog music circuitry.)
I love that the Russia-US matchup lets you recreate the miracle on ice. (Well, unless Russia wins, of course.)
A music system for the Commodore
The Moog Song Producer was a very useful looking interface for the Commodore 64 – something you might want even now, if you’re a chip music fan. It’s a combination of software (for sequencing) and I/O for both MIDI and analog signal:
· 1 MIDI in
· 1 MIDI thru
· 4 MIDI outs
· 8 drum trigger outs
· 2 Footswitch ins
· 1 Clock/sync in
· 1 Clock/sync out
Friend of the site (and Retro Thing alum) Bohus Blahut wrote into Matrixsynth in the heady days of 2005 to add more detail:
These aren’t actually rare at all. I’ve seen them on Ebay dozens of times. I think that I got mine for $30 a few years back. I haven’t used it yet (know how that feels?), but it is an amazing package. The thing that would make it even more amazing is if Moog had ever come out with the device mentioned in the manual; an analog sound module. How hip would that be?
Long before the 2008 Paul Vo Moog Guitar, there was the Gibson-Moog collaboration RD series guitar. This even predates Moog Electronics, so Bob Moog himself designed the circuit – an active preamp intended to widen tonal range and make the sound compete with the synth. Or something. With bright, treble, and bass modes, plus compression and expansion, it was more complex than guitarists might have wanted at the time – but also more capable. You can read up on it at Reverb.com:
It was the stuff of legends – a richly capable polysynth from the mind of Dave Smith, with only 800 units making it into the world. But now as makers chase the same clones on repeat, the T8 finds its way onto another innovative and overlooked flagship, today’s Sequential Prophet X and XL.
I wouldn’t normally write about sample packs, let alone add-ons for particular hardware. But Sequential’s Prophet X and XL are already uniquely sophisticated instruments – monster polysynths combining dozens of gigs of “deep sampling” sample content with analog synthesis, in a hybrid giant. The sample shop that assembled the sounds for that Prophet, 8dio, have gone back to painstakingly recreate the T8 as an add-on to the new Prophets.
The resulting combo could be the best modern Prophet available at the moment. The T8 had the soul of a Prophet-5 architecture, but was decades head of its time by unveiling polyphonic aftertouch keys (take that, MPE). Those T8 sounds, sampled here in detail, are a natural pairing with the Prophet X’s stereo analog filters, deep modulation, dual digital effects, and polyphonic step sequencer, plus its own superb keyboard.
8dio worked with Dave’s own, immaculately maintained T8 for the samples.
8dio has also made add-ons featuring the ARP 2600 and OBX.
The pack is just US$48, so while picking up a Prophet X or XL is hardly cheap, what you do get here for your investment is a serious alternative to assembling a bunch of software plug-ins for this sort of sound design depth.
The bad news here is really about a limitation of the new Prophets – Sequential doesn’t do polyphonic aftertouch or MPE on their new keyboards (though there is polyphonic glide). I’m rather hopeful that the reemergence of the T8 prods Dave and team to consider doing that, following Bay Area leaders like Roger Linn who helped drive the adoption of polyphonic expression in MIDI. These sounds deserve some control from more than one of your fingers at a time. (You get just mono aftertouch on the Prophet X/XL.)
But whether you’re a Sequential owner or not, it’s worth spending some time revisiting the T8 in all its 1983 glory – this is an early 80s synth that seems more like something you’d get now.
You absolutely should check out this copious review / history from greatsynthesizers.com for everything you could hope to want to know about this axe:
It’s not about which gear you own any more – it’s about understanding techniques. That’s especially true when a complete modular rig in software runs you roughly the cost of a single hardware module. All that remains is learning – so let’s get going, with Softube Modular as an example.
David Abravanel joins us to walk us through technique here using Softube’s Modular platform, all with built-in modules. If you missed the last sale, by the way, Modular is on sale now for US$65, as are a number of the add-on modules that might draw you into their platform in the first place. But if you have other hardware or software, of course, this same approach applies. -Ed.
Classic Style Polyphony with Softube Modular
If you’ve ever played an original Korg Mono/Poly synthesizer, then you know why it’s so prized for its polyphonic character. Compared to fully polyphonic offerings (such as Korg’s own Polysix synthesizer), the Mono/Poly features four analog oscillators which can either be played stacked (monophonic), or triggered in order for “polyphony” (though still with just the one filter).
The original KORG classic Mono/Poly synth, introduced in 1981.
The resulting sound is richly imperfect – each time a chord is played, the minute difference in timing between individual fingers affect a difference in sound.
The cool thing is – we can easily re-create this in the Softube Modular environment, using the unique “Quad MIDI to CV” interface module. Follow along:
Our chord progression.
To start with, I need a reason for having four voices. In this case, it’s the simple chord sequence above. In order to play those notes simultaneously using Modular, I’ll need a dedicated oscillator for each. Each virtual voice will consist of one oscillator, ADSR envelope, and VCA amplifier. Here’s the basic setup – the VCO / ADSR / VCA modules will be repeated three more times to give us four voices:
Wiring up the first oscillator.
For the first oscillator, I’ve selected a pulse wave – go with whichever sounds you’d like to hear (things sound especially nice with multiple waveforms stacked on top of one another). With all four voices, the patch should look like this:
Note that each voice has its own dedicated note and gate channels from the Quad MIDI to CV. Now, we need to combine the voices – for this, we’ll use the Audio Mix module. I’m also adding a VCF filter, with its own ADSR. Because the filter needs to be triggered every time any note is input, I’m going to add a single MIDI to CV module to gate the filter envelope. It all looks like this:
Now, let’s hear what we’ve got:
That’s not bad, but we can spice it up a little bit. I went with two pulse waves, a saw wave, and a tri wave for my four oscillators – I’ll add a couple LFOs to modulate the pulsewidths of the two pulse waves and add some thickness. For extra dubby space, I’m also adding the Doepfer BBD module, a recent addition to Softube Modular which includes a toggle option for the clock noise bleed-through of the analog original. I’m also adding one more LFO, for a bit of modulation on the filter.
Adding in some additional modules for flavor. The Doepfer BBD (an add-on for the Softube Modular) adds unique retro delays and other effects, including bitcrushing, distortion, and lots of other chorusing, flanging, ambience, and general swirly crunchy stuff.
Honestly, the characterful BBD module deserves its own article – and may get one! Stay tuned.
Here’s our progression, really moving and spacey now:
And there we have it! A polyphonic patch with serious analog character. You can also try playing monophonic melodies through it – in Quad MIDI to CV’s “rotate” mode, each incoming note will go to a different oscillator.
Want to try this out for yourself? Download the preset and run it in Modular (requires Modular and the BBD add-on, both of which you can demo from Softube).
We’re just scratching the surface with Modular here – there’s an enormous well of potential, and they’ve really nailed the sound of many of these modules. Modular is a CPU-hungry beast – don’t try to run more than one or two instances of a rich patch like this one without freezing some tracks – but sound-wise it’s really proved its worth.
Stay tuned for future features, as we dive into some of Modulars other possibilities, including the vast potential found in the first ever model of Buchla’s legendary Twisted Waveform oscillator!
“God Said Give ‘Em Drum Machines” is the story through the eyes of a documentary team that grew up in Detroit – and with time running out, they’re short of their funding goal. Happily, you have the power to change that.
Behind all the history and legend, there’s always a human story of how things happen. What’s appealing about this film above others is, it’s not just one icon or one machine, but the relationships between the artists that takes the spotlight. And, it’s at last a film about Detroit’s influence from Detroit’s perspective – not just the European scene where the genre eventually turned into a runaway financial success.
The requisite originators all star – Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, Eddie Fowlkes, Blake Baxter, and more – so this is definitely one I look forward to watching.
Of course, funding independent film is these days a major ordeal, particularly for American filmmakers. And so it’s disheartening to see that with days running out on crowd funding, the filmmakers haven’t made their very modest funding goals. There are some lovely benefits in there – just US$5 gets you an exclusive mixtape – so I hope you’ll get the chance to give this a nod.
Motor City natives Kristian Hill and Jennifer Washington are looking just for the finishing funds to put this out.
I asked Jennifer to walk us through some stills from the film, so here’s an exclusive gallery for CDM.
Young child at Movement Festival, Detroit.
Motor City, now.
Cover of Record Mirror, June 1988.
The Scene Dance Show, Detroit, circa 1983.
Cybotron’s vision of future cities, 1983.
Blake Baxter plays those drum machines.
Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, Juan Atkins.
Juan Atkins, Eddie Fowlkes.
Classic Transmat label, illustrated by Alan Oldham.
“Shoulder synthesizer”? “Strap-on keyboard?” No, Roland is calling their latest keytar a keytar – and giving into 80s retro vibes. And it’s a vocoder. And… you might kinda want one.
Roland says the new AX-Edge is built on “decades of refinement and input from artists around the world.” Apparently, that “refinement” came when the keytarists said: “give it blades.” “All black keys.” “I want to look like I could play in Jem and the Misfits.” “Please stop calling it a strap-on. It’s a keytar. That sounds really dirty.”
Well, who are we to argue with any of that?
The AX-Edge comes in red and black or white. What’s onboard:
49 keys with velocity and channel aftertouch
Bluetooth MIDI wireless connections – which even allows wireless use of the editor
MIDI DIN in and out
USB and a USB-B slot for a memory stick
The paddle-style modulation bar, plus a touch strip (both of those designed to be accessible under your thumb)
One assignable control knob, next to the volume knob (though that one looks tricky to reach)
More sounds: lead, bass, poly, pad, brass, keys, “other”, FX
Vocoder sounds (you knew that mic input was for something, right?)
Performance controls, which Roland says are easy to reach: portamento, hold, octave, and program change buttons, plus 7 assignable buttons
Effects: EQ (per part), 79 types of per-part multi-effects, chorus (8 types), reverb (6 types), master compressor, master EQ
The sound engine is divided into 4 parts + the vocoder part.
You can also “favorite” sounds. And there are more performance features: an arpeggiator (thank you), two displays for more visual feedback, and a song mode with backing tracks.
Roland promises four hours of mobile playing time on Ni-MH batteries, or you can tether to power with an AC adaptor.
This is a pretty similar arrangement to the previous AX-Synth, so I’ll need to talk to Roland to find out what exactly has changed. The obvious omission: the D-Beam wireless controller. But that was awkward to use on a keytar, since it was designed to be aimed up from a keyboard in front of you on a stand, and you still get control modulation.
Clever placement of buttons under your fingers on the neck, in combination with the existing paddle and ribbon controller plus a lot of additional assignable buttons and one assignable knob, open up more serious performance options. The engine promises to back that up, too.
Other than that, on specs: the AX-Edge has roughly twice the number of sound presets, presumably using a more up-to-date Roland engine, and a whole bumper crop of effects you can apply to each part. That suggests there’s way more horsepower under the hood. The AX-Edge has also gotten ever so slightly heavier – 4.2 kg instead of 3.9 kg – and has shifted its dimensions around if in roughly the same space.
But mostly what I notice is, this looks a hell of a lot better. It at least embraces the ridiculousness of a keytar with something that looks badass. And that’s what’s likely to make it move better in stores, whereas the AX-Synth looked weirdly toy-like for a product with a four-figure price tag.
For an added gimmick, you can swap out different-colored blades to customize the appearance. (The white comes with gold, the black with silver, and you can customize blades.)
Normally at this point, people start griping in comments about how most people will look horribly dorky playing a keytar, which is true, but you’ll look horribly dorky playing anything unless you clean up your appearance and practice your chops, so there’s that.
We’ll keep an eye out for price (critical), and some details on sound engine.
But if this is affordable and sounds great and looks as good in person, you might have to start an electro band.
For years, manufacturers have been substituting small minijack connectors for MIDI – but there wasn’t any official word on how to do that, or how to wire them. That changes now, as these space saving connections get official.
Our story so far:
MIDI, the de facto standard first introduced in the early 1980s, specifies a really big physical connector. That’ll be the 5-pin DIN connection, named for the earlier German standard connector, one that once served other serial connections but nowadays is seen more or less exclusively on MIDI devices. It’s rugged. It’s time tested. It’s … too big to fit in a lot of smaller housings.
So, manufacturers have solved the problem by substituting 2.5mm “minijack” connections and providing adapters in the box. Here’s the problem: since there wasn’t a standard, no one knew which way to wire them. A jack connection is called TRS because it has three electrical points – tip, ring, and sleeve. There are three necessary electrical connections for MIDI. And sure enough, not everyone did it the same way.
In the summer of 2015, I had been talking to a handful of people interested in getting some kind of convention:
Some manufacturers even used that diagram as the basis for their own wiring, but since no one was really checking with anyone else, two half-standards emerged. KORG, Akai, and others did it one way … Novation, Arturia, and ilk did it another.
The good news is, we now have an official standard from the MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA). The bad news is, there can be only one – the KORG standard beat out the Arturia one, so sorry, BeatStep Pro.
Wiring diagram. The “mating face” is also what I put on when I start a flirtatious conversation about TRS wiring.
That said, now that there is a standard, you could certainly wire up an adapter.
2.5mm is recommended, though bigger TRS jack (1/4″) is also possibly. Mainly, your caveat is this: standard audio cables are not
If you’re thinking this now means you can use standard audio minijack cables The MMA document adds that you should use specialized cables with shielded twisted pair internal wiring. Shhh — audio cables probably would work, but you might have signal quality issues.
Twisted what? That’s literally twisting the wires together and adding an extra layer of shielding, which reduces electrical interference and improves reliability. (See Wikipedia for an explanation, plus the fun factoid that you can thank Alexander Graham Bell.)
The recommendation is made by the MMA together with the Association of Musical Electronics Industry (AMEI), and was ratified over the summer:
MMA Technical Standards Board/ AMEI MIDI Committee
Letter of Agreement for Recommend Practice
Specification for use of TRS Connectors with MIDI Devices [RP-054]
News and (for members) link to the PDF download on the MMA blog:
The most likely use case would be users plugging in minijack headphone adapters. But part of the reason to use 2.5mm minijack is, those other examples – microphones and guitar jacks – don’t typically use the smaller plug.
Anyway, to the extent that people would do this, presumably they were already doing it wrong on gear from various manufacturers that use these adapters. Those makers helpfully include adapter dongles in the box, though, and as the MMA/AMEI doc recommends, manufacturers may still want to include electrical protection so someone doesn’t accidentally fry their hardware. (And engineers do try to anticipate all those mistakes as best they can, in my experience.)
Really, nothing much changes here apart from because there’s an official MMA document out there, it’s more likely makers will choose one system of wiring for these plugs so those dongles and cables are interchangeable. And that’s good.
Roland now routinely enjoy the fact that August 8 is “808” day. But we aren’t seeing new product announcements today as in some past years. What you get instead is a bunch of updates for existing gear. Here they are in one place so you can see what’s relevant to you.
All AIRA products – a new Web resource with free sounds. Roland have a newly redesigned AIRA website. Instead of splashy promotional things being thrown at you, you get a tidy selection of news and updates – and, importantly, a Sound Library with free patches and sound content. For now, that includes the TR-8S drum machine and SYSTEM-8 synth, but Roland tells us the site will cover the whole AIRA lineup over time. And there are some gems in there already, like polymeter stuff from live virtuoso and producer KiNK, and FM and percussion sounds that use the synth engine in the SYSTEM-8.
TR-8S / TR-8 – STEP LOOP. Firmware update 1.10 adds STEP LOOP to the TR-8S flagship (808-inspired) drum machine, plus the earlier (and more neon green) TR-8. What does it do? It repeats steps as you hold them down, including repeating multiple steps if you hold multiple steps down, and then returns to the pattern when you release the buttons. Simple feature, big results – because you can jam with variations over top of a pattern, without losing your place. (Some other drum machines have had a similar feature, so it’ll be even more welcome to those users on the TR-8/8S.) It’s easier to show than describe, so we’ll have a video hands-on later.
Oh yeah, and the SYSTEM-8 has been coming into its own this summer. It got an FM oscillator for a wider range of timbres, plus new filters. Now, you get a model of a great polyphonic synth for free, too. (Remember when Roland was charging for PLUG-OUT add-ons for hardware owners? Seems they’ve gotten away from that.)
Speaking of the SYSTEM-8, that platform also got a boost with the US$19.99 Synthwave library, designed by our friend Francis Preve along with Jim Stout, showing off some of the retro Roland sounds you can get out of this engine. And in case you didn’t get the 80s / 90s nostalgia flowing yet, their promo video will do it for sure:
It covers the Juno-106 and Jupiter-8 engines as well the SYSTEM-8’s own original modeled synth engine. Of course, what’s nice about this is you then have access to the sounds in both software (Roland Cloud) and hardware, and then you get hands-on tweakability on the hardware – so you can start with one of these presets and then shape it a bit.
All of this says something about value in 2018 instruments. It’s not just about the new gear when you take it out of the box, but the value over time. (See also major firmware updates lately from Novation and Elektron, among othes.) Add in the JX-3P, and maybe that sound library, and the SYSTEM-8 is really maturing into a lovely bit of kit.
The SYSTEM-8, now with JX-3P sounds on top of Juno-106 and Jupiter-8 (plus its own original engine).
And yeah, maybe some people will be disappointed about no new gear, but… that STEP LOOP. That JX-3P. Not paying for either. So, hey, like: