Coping with GAS!

There was a good post on Redit (picked up by MusicRadar) on a young man who seemed to have succumbed to an extreme case of GAS -- Gear Acquisition Syndrome.  Noah is just 22 and has bought more than $20k worth of synthesizers and related gear and finds himself in the awkward position of obsessing on gear rather than making music. (The good news is, he worked at a musical instrument store and got pretty good discounts!)
Hey, we've all been there. I have spent way more than $20k on gear. That said, it was over several decades. I've bought basses, guitars, keyboards, amps, pianos and synthesizers out the wazoo. Since I traveled a lot, I had basses stashed at multiple locations. The money is not really the issue  (I have saved a lot over the years and have few hobbies and inexpensive tastes.) Mostly I have bought fairly cheap used gear on Reverb. Other than a grand piano I bought 25 years ago, my most expensive items are a MusicMan guitar (around $1k) and a Marshall Amp ($500.) 
Still, buying gear can definitely get in the way of making music. So periodically I have taken action to try to better manage my GAS.

1. Cull the herd
Gas 2Every few years, I make a point of culling underused gear and selling it on Reverb. A couple of things worth considering: if you have two or three things that are similar, sell the duplicates. Maybe you don't have three Memory Moogs, but if you have three monosynths, or samplers, or basses, sell 'em. Similarly, if you have gear you have not used in 12-24 months, sell it. Forget the idea "one day I might need it." If you really do need it for a song in the future, you can buy it then. I sold a bunch of synths and guitar pedals I wasn't using this summer and it felt great! More recently, I've consolidated several basses and guitars from multiple locations and I'm going to get those listed on Reverb soon. (That'll be an Ibanez Art B-100 bass, a Steinberger Spirit 4 string bass, a Squier Bass VI six string and a red Epiphone SG.)  It hurts me just to list them, but it must be done! 

2. One year - No new gear!
Once you've sold stuff off, make a commitment to not buying anything for a year. Think of how much time you will save! You won't be on Reverb or eBay, you don't have to watch all the videos on youtube, You don't have to read the reviews of anything. Put that time to use learning your craft, practicing, composing music, recording and completing tracks. Whenever I have done this I have found myself much more productive.

3. Practice every day
Whatever your craft is, do it daily. Commit to actually making music or practicing every single day. Not futzing around with the perfect drone synth sound, but actually working on playing, rehearsing or songwriting. I practice bass every single day and that's time well spent. (And it keeps me away from buying more stuff.)

4. Make tracks!
Make a commitment to a major creative project. Maybe you create a track a week for 3 months --surely an album's worth of material! Or resurrect old demos, finish them and post them on Soundcloud. Commit to a live gig or writing a rock opera. But whatever it is, focus on your deliverables.

5. Play with others
There's nothing that puts GAS in a box like playing with others. That forces you to work on your chops, practicing actual songs rather than messing around.

6. Keep it balanced
Once your year of no new gear is up, only buy new gear by freeing up budget / space and focus by letting go of something else. Alternatively, do a new culling of the herd every year or two and only use the proceeds to buy new gear once things sell.

Teenage EP 133 KO II  And if there is some new piece of gear that looks awesome (like the Teenage Engineering KO II sampler) remember, you don't need to be an early adopter. You can always wait a year until there are firmware updates and used models available.If you only buy used gear, you can generally get most of your money back later if you sell it. 

Though I admit I am a bit obsessed with the Teenage Enginering KO II and it's only $299 which seems like a great price. Luckily it's sold out, so I'll just have to wait until I sell some basses!

Best of luck to Noah and anyone else suffering from GAS. If you list anything on Reverb, let me know by posting a comment below! 

Bespoke - Modular Software Synth

Bespoke enoesque screenshot

Over the last year, I've been experimenting with various different software plugins and synths in Logic Pro to get a different kind of sound than my usual three chord rock / guitar - bass - drums kind of sound. The strangest thing I have come across is a weird open source modular soft synth called Bespoke. Calling it a software synth doesn't really do it justice. It's quite unlike anything else out there in that you piece together different software components (oscillators, FM synth, drum machine, effects, code) and arrange the flow of sound visually. 

I had read about how Ambient music inventor Brian Eno created "Music for Airports" from different length tape loops and wanted to do something in Bespoke that captured that experience of creating "happy accidents" between the notes. I've also been listening to french synth artists Jean-Michel Jarre, Air and Mellow, and decided to lean into a chill synth vibe. 

Bespoke is actually quite flexible and can create any kind of music, not just Ambient. That said, it's definitely a low-level approach to music construction. I hope over time there are more synths and tools added. Maybe something with some traditional presets. You can add VST plug-ins, but I really wouldn't mind a few more things built in. 

Here's the first song I created, called Enoesque.

And here's a video that shows Bespoke in action. I will admit, I had little idea what I was doing when I created this thing, and so there was a certain amount of unnecessary knob-twiddling. 

And another Ambient experiment:

Bespoke is open source, free, and available on Mac, PC and Linux platforms. I found it to be remarkably stable, and only encountered one minor bug. Folks on the Discord channel are super helpful. This is a different way of making music, but it is super interesting. There is a very helpful tutorial available on YouTube.

For those who want to take the plunge, you can download a ZIP file of my Bespoke .bsk files from Box





Jim Babjak on Smithereens Lost Album

Lost album 93

A couple of weeks ago, everyone's favorite power pop band The Smithereens released a new album from the vaults: The Lost Album. Frankly, I was surprised by this news as new material has been hard to come by in recent years. Their last album 2011 was great, but nothing new since then. And of course, with lead singer Pat DiNizio's passing in 2017, it seemed impossible.

So imagine my delight when I heard there was a lost album from '93 being released. I reached out to founding guitarist and GuitarVibe friend Jim Babjak to get the scoop.

Smithereens 93"The tracks appear as we left them in 1993. After we were signed to RCA to record “A Date with the Smithereens,” we moved on and these songs were left behind. They were mastered, but not altered since the master tapes were destroyed in a warehouse fire. All we had were the mixes on a DAT tape.

"It was very emotional listening to this now, especially since Pat is now gone. This is a wonderful time capsule of where our heads were at during this difficult time in between record deals. We’ve always been survivors, this album shows our endurance even when the chips were down."

Indeed, it's a fantastic album. This is the Smithereens at the height of their power: outsized power chords, fantastic melodies, with a high-energy raw sound. Stand out tracks include: Out of this World, Dear Abby, Monkey Man, I'm Sexy. Of course, it sounds like classic Smithereens because it is classic Smithereens! American songwriter says:

"These are finely crafted tunes that any Smithereens fan will embrace. They mesh perfectly with the act’s classic, unembellished and ageless rock and roll and are a reminder of what the world lost with the passing of DiNizio."

Salon calls it:

"An unexpected blast from the past!"

Check out the album. And note the band is on tour with Marshall Crenshaw filling in on lead vocals, which is a perfect homage to Pat. There are upcoming gigs in New Hampshire, Connecticut, Ohio, Arizona, New Jersey and beyond.  Jim confirmed they will be performing some of the Lost Album tracks on this tour. 

BLEASS's Incredibly Fun Monolit Synth

Screen Shot 2022-10-02 at 12.51.21 PM

I'm a relative newcomer to using synthesizers in my music. It always felt like too much work, too much money and too much fiddling that ultimately took time and effort away from the music itself. But in recent years, it seems to me there's been a boom in synths that make things easy

The resurgence of low-cost analog synthesizers, kicked off by the Korg Volca series and now embodied by IK Multimedia's Uno Synth Pro and the Roland Aira series among others, has turned a lot of heads and brought newcomers to electronic music. And of course, Behringer has also been turning out low-cost recreations of classic synthesizers, not to mention a marketing hype machine that issues more press releases than actual, you know, products. 

More important than just recreating the classic synths, there's a new focus on innovation, especially as it comes to ease of use and experimentation. I put BLEASS at the forefront of this trend. It's a small French company, but they are punching well above their weight in releasing a steady stream of audio plug-ins, effects and easy-to-use software synths. Best of all BLEASS's products are fun! 

BLEASS was also the technology team behind Jean-Michel Jarre's generative music application EōN. I'm a huge fan of JMJ and the EōN app, and it's nice to see the company creating technology that enables the next generation of music creators and producers. (I would love to see a programmable version of EōN that let you create new generative music with your own rules and samples!)

(Aside: I don't know if it's something in the education system, the local music scene or even the water, but boy, there are a lot of innovative French music tech companies: Arobas Music, Arturia, BLEASSOrb Plugins... to name a few.)

For world music day this year, BLEASS released a free mono synth called Monolit. It works as a plug-in (VST, AAX or AU) on Mac, Windows and iOS. For synth heads, it ticks all the boxes: dual oscillator, ADSR controls, filters, FM modulator, unison mode, built-in arpeggiator, and dozens of pre-sets. I have tested version 1.1 on a Mac with Logic Pro as well as on iOS, using on iPhone and iPad.  

Monolit Logic Pro
Monolit hosted as a Logic Pro Plugin

While the UX design can feel a bit cramped on a small screen, their use of tabs makes the best of the situation, putting related controls together in a color coded fashion: blue for oscillator 1, green for oscillator 2, yellow for ADSR envelope controls, and so on. This design is consistent across all of BLEASS's products, so once you've got the hang of it, everything becomes easy. In just minutes you can be creating interesting sounds without having to be an expert. 

As important as design is in making approachable and fun, in the end it's all about the sound. On that front, Monolit delivers. It's a great sounding synth with some very well-crafted presets for buzzy bass sounds, dynamic leads and evolving arpeggiators. You can use the presets, tweak them, roll the random dice and hear and see what sounds good. As you experiment, you'll learn more about what all the controls do and how to dial in the sound you want.

Here's a simple track I created to demonstrate a few variations on Monolit presets.

Monolit, and all of BLEASS's plugins, appear to be very resource-efficient. I experienced no lag, no glitches, and no bugs, running the latest version even on slightly outdated hardware. 

Oddly, Monolit does not include the reverb and delay effects of BLEASS's full-fledged Alpha and Omega synthesizers. On the other hand, the sounds are so good, they don't really need it. This is not some harsh sounding digital synth. Monolit has a rich, warm analog sound and the unison capability lets you thicken it up quite easily. No doubt, BLEASS is hoping that as newcomers try out Monolit, they will then spring for some of BLEASS's growing family of low-cost ($15-20) plug-ins including Phaser, Flanger, Saturator, DragonFly Tremolo, Chorus, etc. It's a good strategy.

And once you know how to use the Monolit, you may want to try your hand at BLEASS's full-blown Alpha classic polyphonic synthesizer or Omega FM synthesizer. Both are incredible sounding and a great value at just $69. The Omega may well be the easiest and cheapest way to add FM synthesis to your music without blowing your budget or frying your brain. 

Personally, I'm looking forward to BLEASS's upcoming synth Megalit. This should make for a great introduction to wavetable synthesis that until recently has required a lot of complex programming on specialized hardware like the Korg Wavestate, ASM Hydrasynth or the Waldorf Blofeld. This will be a game changer!

Head over to the BLEASS site and download Monolit. It's free, easy-to-use and fun! What more could you want? Have you used some of the BLEASS family of products? Let me know what you think by posting a comment below.

Breakthrough Songwriting with Orb Producer Suite


Orb melody
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 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. 

Orb chordsWhat 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.

Orb synth presetsThe 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 parameters

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, the company previously known as 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.

Here's another couple of tracks:

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.