In Praise of Low-Cost Synths

Low cost synths uno volca pocket
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

Screen Shot 2021-02-26 at 10.41.49 PMSwedish 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

Volca keysI 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 crazy 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

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 great fat 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.)

Moog Werkstatt-01

Screen Shot 2021-02-26 at 8.27.59 PMThis 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 MS-1

Behringer ms-1 keytarBehringer 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 has got to be 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 

Pluto synthThis 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. 


Once Were Brothers

Once were 2

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.  

Here's a trailer:


Hot upgrades: Jamstik Studio, Uno Synth Pro, Circuit Tracks

Uno Jamstik Circuit

Looks like 2021 is starting with a ton of new announcements from NAMM and beyond. I've picked three new products to highlight here, all of which represent significant innovation in the musical instrument market. 

Zivix JamStik Studio MIDI guitar

Jamstik studioMany readers are probably aware of Zivix original products the JamStik and JamStik+. These were innovative MIDI controllers that resembled guitars, but had only 7 frets. They were portable, lightweight and great for learning guitar, but not really suited to an experienced player. 

Last year Zivix launched their JamStik Studio Guitar. It's now a proper full-size neck (24 frets, 25.5" scale) headless electric guitar with a custom-designed built-in MIDI pickup in addition to the two humbucker pickups. It's gotten great reviews and they continue to update the companion Jamstik Creator software regularly. So now if you know your way around a guitar, you can control any MIDI synth --hardware or software. The creator software tracks chords, single notes, double stops, bends, slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, you name it. You want to have your arpeggio guitar parts translated into '90s synth bass? No problem. Horn section? Why not? Run it through your favorite synth VSTs? Sure. Because it's a full-blown electric guitar, you can also blend the original guitar sound with whatever synth craziness you want, playing or recording both the electric guitar and synth sound in real-time. Whoah! 

This is the most innovative invention for guitar players since Line 6 came on strong many years ago. I'm excited to see where Zivix takes this in the future. At $799, it's definitely not the cheapest guitar you'll buy, but it is definitely the best MIDI guitar controller ever to hit the market. 

IK Multimedia Uno Synth Pro

Uno proI've been a fan of IK Multimedia since the original iRig guitar interface. They've continued to move up-market over the years with high quality interfaces, reasonably priced MIDI keyboard controllers and a ton of software. In 2018, they announced the UNO Synth, followed by the UNO Drum. The UNO synth is an easy-to-use analog mono-synth with rich, fat sounds, 100 presets, all in a battery (or USB) powered portable package. With a price of under $200 it was a bargain and a perfect first synth for newbies. Of course, to hit the that price point, there were some compromises. Chief among these was the keyboard, which is, well, not a keyboard at all. It's a flat surface capacitive touch controller, meaning you tap on the surface like you would on a phone or tablet. 

Just as I was starting to wonder who would out-innovate the original UNO synth, IK Multimedia announced the forthcoming UNO Synth Pro and Uno Synth Pro Desktop. The desktop continues with the capacitive touch keyboard, whereas the pro offers a world-class 37 key Fatar keybed. Both models offer an improved dual-filter, three oscillator sound engine, a dozen built-in effects including reverb, delay, overdrive, more arpeggiator options, 256 presets, a longer 64 step sequencer, song mode and more. The new model is also paraphonic, so you can play 3 notes at a time. (It's not a true polysynth, but it's good enough for triad chords and pads.) The new models are more expensive clocking in at $399 for the desktop and $649 for the larger version with the Fatar keyboard.

I'm looking forward to learning more about how synth designer Erik Norlander has incorporated the latest SSI filter to open up a richer sound palette. 

Novation Circuit Tracks

Circuit tracksLast up, this week Novation announced a new version of their Circuit groovebox. The new version uses the same Nova synth engine, and adds more flexibility for controlling outboard synths, an improved sequencer, a built-in rechargeable battery and better usability. There are also more built-in effects and a mixer.

Sadly, there's still no on-board LCD display, which I think is a drawback for some users. But they seem to know their audience. If you want to compose EDM or chill beats without firing up your DAW, this is a great all-in-one tool and definitely the easiest-to-use groovebox on the market. 

The new version lists for $399, a slight increase over the prior model. 

Let me know what you think of these devices and what other cool gear you've seen come on the market. 


Elvis Costello - Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink

Unfaithful music
I've been a fan of Elvis Costello since My Aim Is True fell into my life in 1977. I was still in high school and my older brother thought I would like it because of the nerdy guy with glasses on the album cover. How right he was. Over the next few years I listened to everything he put out. However, by the time Get Happy!! came out with 20 songs in 1980, I hit my saturation point. I regrettably put EC aside for more than ten years and then came back with a vengeance picking up CD versions of Taking Liberties (B-side singles), Kojak Variety, and many of the Rykodisk reissues of the '90s, replete with bonus disks, demos, live tracks etc.  

Though I never saw Costello live in the '70s (Hey, I was still in high school!) or the '80s, I more than made up for it since then, dragging my wife to more EC concerts than any other. 

So I'm pretty familiar with Costello's career. I knew all about Stiff Records, his original backing band Clover, his awkward appearance on SNL subbing for the Sex Pistols and more. I knew he'd wandered from his band the Attractions, grown a beard and gone Country, collaborated with Burt Bacharach and had dalliances into Classical and Jazz music. All was forgiven when he cut 1994's Brutal Youth with the Attractions. Then 2002's When I Was Cruel was even better. 

I probably should have jumped on his memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink when it first came out. But, better late than never. I'm actually listening to the audio version of the book, as read by EC himself.  If you are fan of Elvis Costello, especially the early albums, it is definitely worth checking out. He's a fabulous raconteur and if you like his lyrics, you'll love his prose.

However, I have to say the book is definitely too long. And, more unforgiving, it's presented in schizophrenic order. We get the setup for the 1978 Hollywood High concert before we're ever told anything about My Aim Is True, or how the Attractions were formed. We hear about his meeting Paul McCartney before anything about This Year's Model. And then nothing more about co-writing with Macca for 20 chapters. There are lengthy dispatches not about Costello's upbringing, or his parents, but about his grandparents. Ok, these are the literary equivalent of the Brodsky Quartet, you can just skip these sections. 

Still, despite these weaknesses, it is one of the best rock biographies I've ever read. Costello gives you enough insight into his creative process without drowning in the details of drink, drugs and debauchery. Costello doesn't gloss over his prickly personality, personal failings or bad decisions. He's generous in acknowledging the influence of other musicians (Neil Young, The Band, Joni Mitchell --so many Canadians!) and heaps on well-deserved praise for the Attractions. As with the best of his songs, his prose is filled with keen observation, wry commentary and wonderful delivery. It's great to hear Costello's funny as hell encounters with Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Johny Cash and others. He remains a true fan of music and his appreciation shines through.

It makes for a compelling read. 

Here's a video from '78 of sweaty, skinny Elvis Costello & The Attractions on German TV tearing through a thirteen song set in 45 minutes. At times the band teeters towards the brink of chaos, pulling back for a couple of numbers and somehow keeping it all together. I really should have gone to see them back in '78.


Crack The Sky - The Greatest Band You've Never Heard Of

 

Crack the sky band
Every couple of years I run into some breathtakingly fantastic band that no one has ever heard of. Often, by the time I find them, they have delved so deep into obscurity that they soon break up. (I'm looking at you BrainPool. And Thunder. And The Hellacopters.) I hope this doesn't happen to my latest discovery, Crack The Sky. This is a band that has been ahead of its time for so long that you sort of give up and think they'll never be famous. But in fact, they are big stars. Well, at least in Baltimore. 

Crack The Sky was formed in the early 1970s. They managed to put together some demos and then got picked up by the third-tier label Lifesong. Their self-titled album received rave reviews. Rolling Stone called it the debut album of the year for 1975:

"Like the first albums of Steely Dan, 10cc, and the Tubes, Crack the Sky's debut introduces a group whose vision of mid-'70s ennui is original, humorous and polished..."

The band toured with Supertramp, Foreigner, Yes, Boston, Kansas, Styx, Rush and even Frank Zappa, but never broke into the mainstream. Their songs were too complex for radio and they never had a hit single. Sometimes they got thrown off tours for blowing the headliner off the stage. The band's manager Derek Sutton was the inspiration for the character Ian Faith in the film Spinal Tap. And yes, they really did get lost trying to find their way onto the stage. 

So despite a comedy of errors, they managed to build a following and get on the radio in Baltimore. CTS, as they are known among fans, has had its ups and downs over the years, but they've mostly continued recording and touring in the Northeast. 

CTS is not to everyone's taste. It's proggy and sometimes overly-complicated. But if you look at the breadth and depth of their music, it is astonishing. Add to that they have been regularly touring and recording new material during most of this time, they are a criminally underrated band. If you like hook-laden classic rock, you owe it to yourself to check out their first album, the self-titled "Crack The Sky," "White Music" or their 2010 concept album "Machine." There are also several very good live albums and DVDs

I'd argue that all of their albums are good and many are superb. I’ve become obsessed with CTS in recent months. They have the harmonies and hooks of the Beatles, the explosive guitar of Cheap Trick, the heaviness of Pink Floyd, the musical sophistication of Steely Dan, the prog cred of King Crimson with none of the associated prog pretension.

Despite their thematic songwriting, Crack the Sky has never written a rock opera. They had an early attempt to write one to honor the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (I am not making this up), but it didn't get beyond the first song. They've come pretty close with concept albums "Machine"  and "The Sale." So I'm hoping they'll give it another shot. (JP, Rick, I can show you how it's done. I'm Canadian and I'm ready to help.) I'd never heard of the band when I wrote my rock opera Underground Radio, but in some strange time-warp fashion they were a huge inspiration. 

I'm not holding out for a live gig in Michigan or California. But if there's one band I would considering getting on a plane to see, it's Crack The Sky. Check out the videos below for great live performances of From The Greenhouse and Hold On / Surf City. There's also a jazzy acoustic version of Surf City filled with Beatle breaks. Unbelievable!