I've been using Logic Pro for a few years now (and GarageBand before that) and have always marveled at how good the Drummer function is. You can choose one of several styles (Rock, R&B, Songwriter...) then pick a drummer (Duncan, Logan, Kyle...) and you get a great drum track that sounds like a human. You can have the drummer track follow another track (typically the bass track) and there are controls to adjust the volume / complexity, fills, etc. I used the Drummer feature extensively on my rock opera and it sounds like a real drummer, even to my drummer friends. (Added bonus: at least one person is playing in time!)
I've wondered why there aren't additional features like this for automatic accompaniment, like Band-in-a-Box but with a user interface from the 21st century. (Yes, Band-in-a-Box pioneered this approach, but they seem to delight in cramming more and more features and musical styles over several decades making the product somewhat byzantine.)
To my delight, I recently discovered Hexachords Orb Producer Suite 2.0. It's a series of four inter-connected plug-ins: Orb Chords, Orb Bass, Orb Arpeggio and Orb Melody all for 99 EUR. The suite operates as VST plug-ins and work with any major DAW. I took it out for a spin this weekend and found it to be a great experience.
What the Orb Producer Suite does is automatically generate musical patterns. You can pick from categories of Chord Progressions (minor, major, epic, dark, uplifting...), set the key, tempo, how many bars and then Orb does the rest. If you don't like what it comes up with, you can adjust several parameters (density, complexity, polyphony, spread...) or just re-generate again until you get something you like. I went for a pretty straightforward I-V-IV-II main chord sequence in the key of D, that is D A G E. Once you've set the chord sequence, whenever you generate a bass, arpeggios or melody it will lock-in with the chords and scale you've set.
The Orb Producer Suite includes a pretty decent wavetable synth with dozens of worthwhile presets. I opted not to use the synth except to evaluate the parts, and once I got something I liked, I dragged and dropped it into Logic Pro and used its built-in synths and MIDI instruments.
Of course, some of what Orb Producer Suite generates sounds awful, but with a bit of adjustment you can get something that sounds quite good. In fact, about 95% of this song was generated by Orb Producer Suite. I made a few adjustments to the MIDI tracks to vary the solo with a few staccato notes and to make the horn stabs sound more, ah, horn-like. But the bass track, the arpeggios are all 100% as generated.
The end result may or may not be your cup of meat, but I can honestly say, it's unlikely I could have come up with the melody on my own. My contribution (other than the slight changes to the MIDI) was in deciding which of the dozens of generated parts sounded good and then picking the appropriate arrangement in Logic Pro including the instruments, effects, mix, adding a bridge, adding horns and strings (also generated by Orb Producer Suite), adding a Drummer track, and so on.
Orb Producer Suite claims to be AI-powered, which might be true, or it might be marketing speak for some basic if-then-else logic about what chords or notes go well together.
Some of the melodies or bass parts generated by Orb Producer seemed more random than musical to me, but clicking again or adjusting the parameters helped me narrow in to the kind of pattern that I wanted. I look forward to working more with Orb Producer to help me break out the usual I-IV-V / pentatonic rut that I often find myself in.
While Orb Producer Suite works great, Hexachords has a bit of a mixed reputation. They had previously shipped a comprehensive AI-powered DAW called Orb Composer which, while very powerful, also was apparently rather buggy. I think they are turning around their reputation with the Orb Producer Suite. I found no major problems while using it in Logic Pro. (It stuttered a few times on playback, repeating the first bar, and I had to restart Logic pro once.)
Sadly, it looks like Orb Composer is currently no longer supported by the company. I'm hoping they create a new more full-featured version of Orb Composer that builds on what they've shipped with Orb Producer Suite 2.0.
What do you think? Can AI help humans compose music? Have you tried any other generative music programs? Let me know in the comments below.
(Update: I added a few more tracks on Soundcloud in different styles.)
I must admit, I've fallen down the rabbit hole into synth nerdvana lately. I'm not sure, maybe it was with Daft Punk's demise, and a Sound Opinions podcast that mentioned French synth pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre. I was vaguely familiar with Jarre's breakthrough 1976 instrumental album Oxygène. I was mostly listening to classic rock back then, before the 1977 new wave / punk tidal wave from the UK. Somehow, Jarre's work never really surfaced again for me, despite my recent interest in the KrautrockMotorik synth sound of Krafwerk, Neu! and similar proggy instrumental artists like Mike Oldfield and Tangerine Dream.
A bit of research revealed that Jean-Michel Jarre (or JMJ as he's known), despite turning 72, has remained prolific for 50 years with Guinnessrecord-breaking concerts in Paris, Houston, China and Moscow. More interesting, he'd continued to delve into new technologies including including Virtual Reality and releasing a generative music application called EōN.
EōN is basically an infinite album. It's based on seven hours of Jarre's work, presumably thousands of samples, that get combined into unique, unrepeated songs. The app is $9 on iOS and twice that (!) on Mac OS. An Android version is in the works. The app runs offline without internet connection and requires little battery power to run in the background.
I cannot recommend this app enough. For anyone interested in generative music, or synth music in general, this is an amazing application. It generates unique and interesting instrumental music. Of course, whether you like the app will depend on whether you like Jean-Michel Jarre. Personally, I find it fascinating and I've been listening to it non-stop. The music ranges from ambient background synth pads to light industrial / techno EDM.
I have listened to EōN for more than 100 hours at this point and I can't say I've heard anything repeat. I will occasionally recognize an ambient sound (variations of water flowing) or a particular clacking drum sound, but that's it. The app also generates some interesting trippy graphic patterns, though mostly I'm using this with the display off.
I find EōN is great for background music while working, writing, reading, running, driving, you name it. Tracks mostly blend together seamlessly, but once in a while (maybe 2-3 times so far) I've found a song doesn't work for me, in which case you just hit the "next" button and move on to something else.
You can find some samples on Youtube and there's also a limited edition Snapshots of EON album. (Though it costs way more than the application, so I'm not sure why you would want that.)
I find EŌN to be much more interesting and compelling music than other generative music applications I've seen. It's got a mix of styles, textures, beats, instruments and effects that keeps me engaged. Brian Eno has certainly done some pioneering work in this area and his apps are more interactive, but the music is, frankly, boring. (Of course, that's a matter of taste. Some people like Music for Airports.)
The EŌN app was developed in conjunction with iOS synth developers BLEASS systems who built the audio engine and audio algorithms. The graphics were developed with Sony Computer Science Laboratories in Tokyo.
My only wish is that the application had just a hint of interactivity. For example, I would find it interesting to know how many hours or songs I've played. Presumably songs could be recreated with a unique seed and it would be cool if you could share your favorites with other users of the app or recall them later, perhaps generating interesting random names. As it stands you can record 30 second fragments in realtime, but once a song has played, it's gone. And if you were connected, it would be fantastic to see a map of other EON listeners and somehow share your favorites or vote on tracks.
What's clear is that despite the lack of interactivity (or perhaps because of it) you are listening to music that has been designed by JMJ himself. I'm fascinated to understand what kind of rules are behind the generation. Does he build songs up from the bass line and/or rhythm? Are sound samples modified at runtime? How is the instrumentation determined? How does one song evolve into another?
I would love there to be a more general-purpose generative application from BLEASS that exposed more of the rules, perhaps with other artists samples. One can easily imagine a Kraftwerk or Neu! flavored application that generated Motorik music. Or heck, why not an app where you could load your own samples into a massive library, control the instruments and create your own rules. Zappa created a technique called Xenochrony where he re-purposed guitar solos into different songs to interesting effect. Why not do that for any instrument or sample? Just imagine what you could generate with samples from Erik Norlander on the Uno Synth Pro.
EŌN opens up a fascinating new era of generative music and is a new milestone in the creative arts.
I was fortunate to snag an interview with synth designer, prog-rock keyboard wizard and IK Multimedia Product Manager / Sound Designer Erik Norlander about his work on the new UNO Pro synthesizer. Erik is an accomplished keyboardist, composer and producer with over 40 album credits. He has toured for many years with his own band as well as with Asia featuring John Payne. He has been involved in synth design since the early 1990s and has worked extensively with the Bob Moog Foundation.
Q. I thought the original UNO synth was fantastic. Great sound, cool design, nice presets and features that make for a great first synth, which is why I picked it up. The new UNO Pro is quite a substantial upgrade. What was it you were looking to do with the new model that went beyond the original?
I’m so happy to hear that you enjoyed the original UNO Synth. Our goal with the original product was to bring analog to the masses, an analog synth that anyone could afford and could easily understand. We gave it a simple, intuitive interface so you could take it out of the box and start playing right away without needing to read a manual or even a quick start guide. Plug it in, turn the knobs and hear what happens!
The UNO Synth Pro is exactly what the name connotes: a pro synth with pro features and pro sound quality. We kept the same basic interface with the 4 sound programming knobs and selectable rows for each section like oscillators, filters and envelopes. But we also have a deep editing system that you access through the display and push encoder where you can get to many more parameters than appear in the more simple sound programming matrix. So the interface remains simple if you want to work on that level, but it also allows more serious and experienced synthesists to dive into the depths of the instrument’s architecture for advanced voicing work.
Uno Pro Desktop
The UNO Synth Pro also has a more sophisticated signal path. There are now 3 oscillators, and we include hard sync, analog FM and ring modulation. Those modulation capabilities had to be omitted from the original UNO due to cost issues and also to avoid complicating the interface. The UNO Synth Pro also has a dual filter configuration similar to what we did on the Alesis Andromeda 20 years ago. The UNO Synth Pro’s dual filters can be placed in series or parallel and in or out of phase. Between the routing options and the different modes of the two filters, there are 24 possible filter modes available when they are combined. This lets you emulate the filter sound of nearly any mass-produced analog synthesizer, from the 4-pole transistor ladder low pass filter of Bob Moog’s great synths to more radical filter modes like those of the Oberheim Matrix-12 or Elka Synthex or, of course, the Alesis Andromeda.
We also added a modulation matrix for modular-style synthesis where nearly any source can be routed to nearly any destination. I say “nearly” just to avoid hyperbole, but honestly, I can’t think of a practical routing that you are unable to do in the UNO Synth Pro. Our architecture allows for extreme modular-style flexibility. And speaking of modular synthesis, we include 2 pairs of Gate and CV I/O so that you can interface the UNO Synth Pro to Eurorack, 5U or even non-modular gear with similar connections. Plus an input to the filter and effect sections for processing external signals gives you the ability to use parts of the UNO Synth Pro to filter, shape and effect other instruments, even things like guitars and vocals. Add to that balanced audio outputs for noiseless operation and 5-pin MIDI DIN connectors, and the result is … well … pro! That’s the difference between the original UNO Synth — the simple analog synth for everyone — and the UNO Synth Pro, a professional instrument that will meet the expectations of the most fussy synthesists … like me!
Q. Since everyone in the world was quarantined and locked down for much of the last year, how did that impact working with the team in Modena, with SoundMachines, Fatar, SSI etc? Were you on Zoom calls at 6am?
I live in Northern California, so I’m 9 hours behind the Modena, Italy office and 3 hours behind the IK US office in Florida. When I started working with IK, I chose to put myself on an early schedule where I start quite early in the morning to maximize the available real-time interaction with the team in Italy. I’m really not a morning person at all, and after 20-some years of being a touring rock ’n' roll musician where you often don’t get to bed until 3 or 4 AM, it was a bit of hard transition. But I don’t regret it at all, and I’m happy to have been able to make that shift. Of course, that also means I often find myself falling asleep at 9 in the evening now … ha! My wife gives me a hard time for that.
Before Covid, I would go to Italy usually once a year, sometimes more. I think in 2019 I actually went 3 times as I spent some time there around the Superbooth convention in Berlin. Modena and Berlin are not exactly close to each other, but once you come all the way from San Francisco, it make sense to visit the main campus when it’s only a few hours away by plane.
As far as Skype and Zoom and all that, we’re all major users of video communication just because of the distances between us. While email and text messaging is great, it’s not the same being able to look at your colleagues and have a more personal interaction with them, even joke around a bit and all that. And that of course benefits the products in the end when the whole team is better in sync and pushing in the same direction.
Q. Since you’ve had a 20+ year recording career, touring with your own band as well as Asia, did you ever have to play the “rock star card” with the engineers and say “guys, I know you think that’s a cool idea, but as a musician….” and change up what they were doing?
Erik with Asia
Actually it's been more than 30 years a recording and touring musician... but thanks for being generous about my age. :-)
As far as using my experience as a musician to make a point and convince others, it doesn’t really work like that at IK. It's a fairly flat organizational without a lot of hierarchy. For the most part, everyone has an equal voice, and usually the team can come to an agreement without requiring a mandate to be laid down. Although when that does happen — and sometimes it does happen — then we have a CTO and of course the owner of the company who is a great designer and a super smart guy. Experience is recognized, and appreciated. That’s just human nature. And it’s not just about age or life experience. Often I learn so much from a code writer who is 20 or 25 years younger than me, and I will defer to their knowledge and recommendation without hesitation when they're the expert. They don’t need to have spent time on a stage in front on 20,000 people to have the right answer.
Q. I love that you’ve made the step sequencer longer (64 steps) and there’s Song mode. Can you tell us how that came about and how it works? Also, the effects (vibrato, wah, tremolo, delay) were limited in the original Uno. What changes have you made in this area?
The OG Uno Synth
It’s all in the spirit of making a “pro” instrument. Having 16 steps in the original UNO sequencer lets you keep track of what’s going on without too much worry, and it’s an easy way to make one or two bar looping phrases without any fuss. But if you want to do more serious and in-depth sequencing, you’ll find that you usually need more than just 16 steps. So we quadrupled the size of the sequencer and also the number of parameters that you can automate per step. Now you can sequence over 80 parameters per step, so you can truly morph the preset from one sound to another on the step level. Since we are talking analog synthesis here, there is no zippering or clicking or anything you might get with a digital synth when quickly changing values. It’s smooth, baby, smooth!
As far as the performance effects like vibrato, was and tremolo, the original UNO had simple buttons for these, not unlike the modulation button in synths like the Roland Juno-60 and SH-101 or auto-bend on the Yamaha CS80 and its earlier ancestors like the SY1 and SY2. We provided these articulation buttons for simplicity and immediacy of use. Now on the UNO Synth Pro, we have traditional mod and pitch bend wheels on the keyboard version, and mod and pitch bend strips on the desktop version. So you can create your performance articulations with the wheels instead of simple buttons, and of course using the modulation matrix, you can customize what the wheels do per preset. We give you deeper access to customize the controllers.
The UNO Synth Pro has 4 effect slots. The first is an analog overdrive circuit, and then there are 3 digital effects slots for Modulation, Delay and Reverb. The digital effects are taken from the latest IK software products. The reverbs were first developed for AmpliTube 5 and MixBox, and they sound fantastic with really nice density and a great tone overall. In the Modulation slot, one of the models if the Ensemble effect that we developed for Syntronik that models the great chorus-phaser of the ARP String Ensemble and the rich chorus from the Roland Juno-60 and string machines like the RS-505. That’s a standout effect for me. A cool usage of the UNO Synth Pro — especially the desktop version — is to use the external audio input to process any kind of signal with the UNO Synth Pro as a high-end effects processor. The external signal can go through the filters, so you can pre-filter your effects with both high and low pass filtering, then go into the effects section and use the 3 digital blocks like the best multi-effects boxes. For me, the Ensemble effect alone is worth the price of admission!
Q. I love that the original UNO had 100 presets. 256 presets in the Uno Pro almost seems like it could be too much. How do you keep that organized? What additional sounds were you looking to capture? Are there certain sounds you think are a “must have” I’m thinking of classic '70s Moog sounds or those famous FM synth sounds from the '80s.
When you create a bank of presets, there are few ways to organize them. You can put similar sounds in groups of 10, like presets 1-10 are leads, 11-20 are basses, 21-30 are pads, that sort of thing. Many manufacturers also organize them where similar sounds are grouped by the last number so that you have more variety when scrolling through a bank. Meaning that presets 1, 11, 21, 31, etc. are leads, 2, 12, 22, 32 are basses, 3, 13, 23, 33 are pads, like that.
Erik & Keith Emerson
As far as designing a bank of presets for a factory set, you really want to create a cross-section of musical styles so that there is something for everyone. Some users might be fans of Keith Emerson Moog sounds and want big, detuned leads and basses. Other users might be into EDM and not even know or care about Keith Emerson and prog rock. They want edgy, distorted and ultra-modern sounds. Or the hip hop user that wants something in between but still faithful to that genre. So you really try to include something for everybody.
The music that I personally like really has no influence on my voicing work or programming approach. I actively listen to all sorts of music when voicing a synth to make sure I’m in tune with what’s current and that I’m not missing anything. Then I combine that with the classics, things like the detuned sawtooth wave lead, the Minimoog-style ballad bass, the whistle-y portamento triangle-sine wave lead, the resonant acid bass and so on.
Q. The new UNO Pro has three oscillators and dual filters including the new SSI filter. How did that come about? Also with 24 filter modes, I’m wondering if that isn’t going to be a bit overwhelming, almost like a modular synth. How do you keep it easy while still giving hardcore synth players flexibility?
We wanted to create a professional synth that a super fussy and demanding professional can use without compromise. That means drawing from the best classic synths and make sure we have equivalent sound-generating capabilities. In my opinion, the Minimoog is the greatest synth of all time. The Memorymoog is pretty freaking cool as well. So is the EMS VCS3. All of those synths have 3 oscillators (3 per voice in the Memorymoog). So it was important, especially in a monophonic synth, to have those 3 oscillators available. And of course, you don’t have to use them all all the time. If you want to make a more simple SH-101-style lead, just turn off Oscillator 2 and 3. Or use Oscillator 2 an octave down as a square wave suboscillator.
Three oscillators also lets you have an actually useful paraphonic synth. You could do paraphony going back to the ARP Odyssey, of course. But with just 2 oscillators, that means that you only play 2-part chords. That’s pretty limited, in my view. With 3 oscillators, you can do full 3-note chords. That becomes super practical when you use the digital ensemble chorus effect — then you basically have a classic string machine like the Solina or Logan. I own an absurd number of classic stringers. And I can honestly say, how often do you really play more than 3 notes at a time on them? Not often. Usually you are playing monophonic lines, sometimes in octaves. Or if you are doing string pads, 3 notes is really enough for that kind of super dense, modulated sound. Even if you’re playing something like a major 7 chord or 11 chord, you probably will want to leave out the 3rd in your voicing as it often just sounds too “closed” with all of that close harmony interaction.
About the filters, you bring up a great point. With 24 filter modes, holy cow, how are you going to navigate those? Option anxiety x 100! Luckily it doesn’t really happen like that way in real life. That’s what the presets are for, of course. If you’re not sure of the exact sound you want, you can find a preset that you like, and then edit from there. Or if you are more of an expert synthesist, you probably know what kind of filter you want. For example, if you know you want a 4-pole bandpass filter, you just dial that in straight away. There are also some filter modes on the UNO Synth Pro that are not usually found on analog synths. For example, if you run both filters in phase and in series and set them both to low pass, you can have a 6-pole low pass filter. That creates some pretty extreme bass and some super dramatic filter sweep sounds.
Q. I’m mostly a guitar player and sometimes it feels like no one is interested in any design that occurred after 1959. In the synth world, there seems to be be an equal obsession with vintage synths. So I’m encouraged when I see new designs that break free from the past. You’ve obviously seen this evolution up close, designing some pretty important synths in your career. How do you balance homage to the past with new sounds and new tools?
It's a good question question, and it’s super relevant to the UNO Synth and UNO Synth Pro design philosophy. We want to innovate, naturally. We’re not making clones or low-cost reproductions of vintage instruments here; We want to say something new. But at the same time, you must respect the past and learn from the wisdom of the great designers that did this 30, 40, 50 years ago. Chances are, those guys have already solved the problem you are facing at the moment. You just have to know where to look. I have probably a hundred synths here at my studio, so whenever there is a design issue, I go back to the well. I look at the various classic synths and see what they did, how they solved the problem. The answers are there for the finding.
Erik & Bob Moog
I was fortunate enough to have known Bob Moog, for example, and I still actively work with his daughter, Michelle, and the excellent Bob Moog Foundation. When we were designing the Alesis Andromeda at the end of the 90s, I actually tried to get Bob to be the electrical engineer for it, the hardware designer of the actual circuits for the synth. We had an amazing NAMM meeting that I remember vividly, followed by lots of drinks at the bar later that night. Bob was already working on the Voyager then, so he couldn’t take on the gig. But he remained as a mentor during the project, and he would often send me faxes (faxes … !) checking on certain aspects and giving advice constantly. I would take the fax (fax!) to the team and hold it up like Moses holding the 10 Commandments and say, “Bob Moog says THIS!” And of course everyone would listen with laser beam focus as this was coming from the one of the most legendary — okay, THE most legendary — synth designers of all time.
With the UNO Synth Pro, we also got to know the legendaryDave Rossum a bit since we are using chips from his SSI company. I actually did a cool video interview with Dave and his partner, Dan Parks, that you can find on YouTube. This is the guy that democratized sampling with the Emulator and also created the ultra-classic SP12 and SP1200 drum machines. And of course all the great Emu products that came after, and now his super cool Rossum Electro Music line of Eurorack modules. And of course, you would not have had the original Prophet-5 if it were not for Dave and the SSM chips that made it possible to build a polysynth with presets and reasonably sophisticated modulation back in the 70s. There is so much to be learned from these guys!
Erik, thanks for such detailed answers. I know people are looking forward to this new synth. I can't wait to get my hands on it for a full review; some of the samples I've heard are mind-blowing. What do you think of the UNO Synth Pro? What else is on your wish list? Let me know in the comments below.
Sometimes I try to put a moratorium on buying new gear. It lasts for maybe 12 months and then something pops up and I'm like a weight-watcher walking into a pie shop. Lately, I've become intrigued by low-cost portable synthesizers. It all began with a Christmas gift of a Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator. This was like receiving a puppy; it's a gateway into more gear. If you're debating the merits of a Prophet 5 versus Oberheim for integrating with Eurorack, this blog post is not for you. But if you're synth-curious, read on to learn about your options.
The ideal first synth would be battery powered, include a speaker, have a built-in keyboard, full MIDI support, a modern sequencer, arpeggiator, polyphonic ability, a fat multi-oscillator sound, built-in presets, knobs and sliders, learnable in ten minutes and cost under $100. While nothing meets all those criteria perfect, some get surprisingly close. None of these are going to compete with intermediate-level synths in terms of features or build quality, but they're all great for learning, experimenting and creating happy musical accidents. Let's take a look, starting with our cheapest option and working up.
Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator
Swedish design firm Teenage Engineering launched their Pocket Operator line of barebones mini-synths back in 2015. These are calculator-sized AAA battery-powered devices ranging in price from $49-89. It's basically a printed circuit board that generates retro synth sounds with a tiny on-board speaker and a range of built-in effects (filters, distortion, stutter, delay, etc.) which vary depending on the model. There are now 10 different models (drums, bass, lead, noise, robot, sampler, arcade sounds, etc.), all with the same form factor, 16-step sequencer and a couple of control knobs. You can chain sequences together to create songs, but for most users, it's more like a fun lo-fi toy than a super expressive instrument.
You can buy a case to make it a bit more rugged and you can combine several together or with Volcas to get some interesting, if quirky, sounds. But keep in mind, they are definitely addictive. if you buy several, you may be better off putting the $$$ towards a Volca or Uno synth.
Korg Volca Series
I recently picked up a used Korg Volca Keys analog synth on Reverb. While it's not the most refined synth around, it is definitely a ton of fun. First introduced in 2014 (along with the Volca Bass and Volca Beats drum machine) there are now 8 models including Volca FM, Volca Sample and even the Volca Modular for that crazy west-coast science fiction sound with tiny patch cables. All the Volcas have the same compact form factor and range in price from $150-200. They are all battery powered (or optional 9V DC adapter) and they all have a simple ribbon keyboard, a primitive sequencer and plenty of knobs and dials. You can use an external MIDI keyboard (cable not included) or headphones and you can sync multiple Volcas together.
I rate the Volcas high on the fun factor, and the sounds they produce are interesting, fat and squelchy (in a positive way). That said, they are showing their age. There are no presets, so finding your way back to a sound you like is problematic or part of the fun, depending on how you think about it. There's no built-in arpeggiator. The Volca Keys is paraphonic (you can hold three notes) while the Bass is monophonic (you can only play single note at a time).
There's a lot to like in the Volcas. They're great ways to learn the ins and outs of analog synths. And they're cheap enough that if you buy one and outgrow it, it's not a major cost. (Hello, Reverb!) You can find them used for $110-150 depending on the model.
IK Multimedia Uno Synth
The Uno Synth was my first synth and I can recommend this for anyone who wants to get started in this field. List price is $200 and you can find them used for $150 or less on Reverb or eBay. The Uno is a modern take on a budget analog synth, and perfectly targets the synth newbie. It's battery powered, has a rich, buzzy John Carpenter / Stranger things sound, a hundred presets, built-in flat but effective capacitive keyboard, very good arpeggiator (up, down, reverse, multiple octaves), and an excellent modern sequencer that lets you record in real-time or in step mode, recording effects also. Some of the effects (delay, drive, tremolo, wah) are a bit underwhelming as there's no mod or pitch wheel, but they can still be used to add some expressiveness. The only thing it's missing is a built-in speaker, which will probably be appreciated by your spouse or roommates anyways. There's also an Uno Drum machine with a similar user interface and sequencer and the two can be connected together, much like Volcas.
At NAMM 2021, IK Multimedia announced new Uno Pro and Uno Pro desktop synths that add more power, more filters, more presets, more sounds, better effects as well as pitch and mod controls. At $400 the Uno Pro Desktop is more of an intermediate level device and there's a higher-end version with a full Fatar keybed for $649. So if you like the original Uno, there's plenty of room to grow within the product line. (I'll be posting an exclusive interview with synth designer and IK Multimedia product manager Erik Norlander about the Uno Pro later this month.)
This next one is definitely not for everyone. In 2014, at the annual MoogFest conference, Moog had a hands-on build a synth session. Later because of demand, they issued a commercial kit in limited quantity. And then in late 2020 a new version of the Werkstatt-01 kit with a CV expansion bay was released, again in limited supply. It's by no means the perfect synthesizer, but it's the best DIY synth kit you can find and good as a learning tool. You can build it in under 20 minutes with just a Philips screwdriver. You get a beefy monophonic single oscillator dual filter Moog sound with a fairly easy set of controls, and tiny 13 button keypad in a solid metal case. That said, there are no bells & whistles: no presets, no sequencer, no arpeggiator and no MIDI support. But still, it's a Moog for $200!
Since it's a modular synth, you've got a patch bay and patch cords that can further customize the sound in all kinds of weird science fiction ways. You can also connect it to an external keyboard like the Arturia Keystep via CV patch chord. I wish it had a built-in speaker and battery power, which would make it more fun to have on your desk. Still, if the idea of building a kit is intriguing, go for it!
Behringer is sometimes (ok often) criticized for issuing clones of vintage synths. I have no problem with this as a business model as these older units are out of production, expensive and no longer covered by patents. That said, I think there's a lot of improvements that we've seen with more modern instruments which are mostly missing from the Behringer clones. For example, you don't always get presets, or a modern step sequencer.
Behringer has issued a lot of synths, but the one I think is most interesting for a newcomer is the MS-1 which is basically a clone of the the Roland SH-101. It's an analog monosynth with a growly sound made famous in the 80s and '90s. It's not battery-powered, but it does have a decent keyboard and a vintage sequencer and arpeggiator. If you're a fan of the original but don't have two grand to splurge, a recent price cut from Behringer brings it's clone in at $300, which is the synth bargain of the century. And like the original, it comes with a hand-grip and guitar strap, so you can rock it like an 80's keytar, mullet and scarf optional.
Modern Sounds Pluto
This last one is more of an intermediate level synth than budget, but in the world of modular west-coast synths (e.g. with patch cables) it's pretty unique. Technically, the Pluto synth is still in pre-production but they have done a couple of early runs and have been selling out at $450. So it's not really for beginners, but it's unique and worth considering as a second or third synth. Interest in this synth could also indicate you are likely to buy three or more synths in as many years.
The Pluto is modular, so not much happens until you plug in some patch cables, but compared to most of the modular synths I've seen it's way more musical. If the idea of creating semi-automated Brian Eno style sounds is interesting, this may be the synth you've dreamed of. It's small, cute, and has a re-chargeable battery. No presets, no speaker, only a four button keypad, but wow, that sound.
What are your thoughts on the Pluto or any of the synthesizers mentioned here? Add a comment to let me know what you think.
A few months back, Robbie Robertson released "Once Were Brothers" a biography of The Band, adapted from his autobiography "Testimony." As with any good rock doc, it's a bittersweet story of the rise to stardom, fame and fortune followed by an inevitable decline.
If you're at all interested in this story, you might know a little bit about The Band already, including backing Bob Dylan on his infamous 1966 world tour where he "went electric" to a chorus of boos every night from the die-hard folk fans. The roots of The Band go back earlier than that, though. It was formed by four Canadians from Southwest Ontario (Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel), who joined up with Arkansas drummer Levon Helm to become the backing band for rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins in the early 1960s.
The Band had its moment in the limelight in the late 1960s through the mid 70s. Their music created the American genre of music, as ironic as that is. Their first three albums stand the test of time with such classic songs as: The Weight, Stage Fright, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, King Harvest. They influenced artists as diverse as George Harrison, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Elvis Costello, The Wallflowers, the Black Crows, Drive-by Truckers and Paul Kelly. They continue to influence contemporary artists like My Morning Jacket and Nathaniel Rateliff.
The band was together (more or less) for 16 years when Robbie Robertson decided to call it quits with a final concert, what became "The Last Waltz," filmed by Martin Scorsese. As this film makes clear, The Band was heading for destruction due to alcohol and drug issues and Robertson hoped they could take time apart to heal and pull things together. They pulled together an all-star set of musicians including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Ron Wood, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Hawkins, Neil Diamond and more. The film also includes perhaps the greatest version of their masterpiece The Weight ever recorded with the sublime vocal harmonies of the Staple Singers.
Sadly, the original lineup never played together again, though Manuel, Danko, Helm and Hudson toured without Robertson in the 1980s. Richard Manual sadly hung himself on tour in 1986. The band continued in various configurations in the 90s, but without Robertson's songwriting, the new albums were lackluster. Rick Danko died in 1999 and Levon Helm passed away in 2012.
Robbie Robertson is the only member of the band with contemporary interviews in the film, and it's very much his story. He wasn't the singer, but he was lead guitarist, songwriter and the dominant creative force behind The Band. The film does a good job representing Helm's point of view, who bitterly resented not getting songwriting credits. But as Ronnie Hawkins notes, there's a difference between arranging a song and writing it.
It's very much a story worth watching. It's equal parts inspiring and sobering.