Uno Synth and Drum - Affordable Innovation

Uno-synth

IK Multimedia is an Italian music tech company that has long had a reputation for creating "cheap and cheerful" interfaces (iRig 2, AXE I/O), MIDI controllers (iRig Keys) as well as a boatload of software for recording and effects like Amplitube, Syntronik and SampleTank. Last year at SuperBooth, IK Multimedia stepped into the ring with its first hardware synth, the Uno. This year, they've followed up with their first drum machine, the Uno Drum, coming in June.

With a street price of $200, the Uno Synth is a remarkable device. It's cheap enough to almost be an impulse purchase as a first hardware synth but unique enough to provide something new to experienced musos. Of course, selling a synth for $200 requires cutting some corners and those design decisions may be deal-breakers for some buyers. Luckily, the company pulled in synth designer and musical genius Erik Norlander to guide them on the development of the Uno Synth. Despite it's compact size, it's easy to use and has a beefy sound. 

I watched a lot of videos and read a lot of reviews of the Uno Synth as well as other low-cost synths, and this one best fit my newbie priorities: easy-to-use and low price.  It's also worth noting that IK Multimedia occasionally runs promotions with bundled software, so that's another way to get more value. 

For me the key advantages are: it's easy to get started (just plug in headphones and batteries or USB power), it has 100 built-in preset sounds, it's got nobs that make it easy to adjust the wave type (square, triangle, sawtooth etc.), filter, cutoff, tempo and volume, it's got a cool built-in arpeggiator and sequencer, and a built-in 2-octave (sort-of) keyboard. And the sound is awesome!

Zx81The Uno is quite small in size, like a tall hardcover book and weighs less than a pound. You can throw it in a laptop bag and take it with you without feeling loaded down. Personally I love the design. It reminds me of a modern adaptation of the classic Sinclair ZX81 computer from the '80s. The keyboard is going to be love/hate for some people (it's like typing on a tablet) but it actually works. Of course, you can also control it from a MIDI controller, whether from IK Multimedia or a third party, though it's obviously not as portable when you do that.

The Uno Synth comes with the necessary USB, Midi and Lightning (iOS) cables so it's easy to connect with other equipment. There's also a recently updated and totally free synth editor app for Mac/Windows/iOS which gives you a few more controls and makes it easy to load or save libraries of preset sounds and sequences. One thing I would love if there were more tutorials on using the Uno Synth with GarageBand or Logic Pro and how to create interesting sounds and sequences. I suspect a lot of buyers of the Uno Synth are going to be new to this type of music creation. If you're on the fence, give it a shot, there's plenty of fun to be had and the sound is great.

Uno drum

The Uno Drum

The newly announced Uno Drum has the identical dimensions and similar layout as the Uno Synth, though it's all white compared to the all-black
synth. In some ways it's an even more stylish looking device, contrasting with the recent trend in black and grey portable synths. Of course, the layout is different since it has a dozen velocity-sensitive pads for drums (hi-hat, kick, toms, snare, rim, cymbal,  ride, cowbell, etc.) as well as a few different buttons and settings. But between the Uno Synth and Drum, if you know one, you can probably figure out the other without even cracking the manual. You can also daisy-chain the Uno synth and Uno Drum together which is kind of cool.

I don't know much about drum machines, but the Uno Drum includes analog sampled drums (from SampleTank) as well as synthesized PCM drum sounds. There are 100 built-in drum kits, 100 patterns and a 64 step (!) sequencer, which is much better than the Uno Synth's 16 steps.  Not to mention that you can chain sequences together into songs, a feature that is missing on the Uno Synth, though you can sort of simulate it by overwriting presets. There are also built-in controls for adding swing, dynamics, stutter and randomization to give a more human feel. As with the Uno, it's both USB and battery-powered, with headphone audio, midi in/out, cables etc. No news yet on a software editor, though it seems likely. 

The Uno Drum is available for pre-order for $250 with free shipping.

Future Synth Designs 

It'll be interesting to see where IK Multimedia takes the Uno line in the coming years. Personally, I'm hoping for a Duo polyphonic synth / groovebox that lets you lay down multiple tracks, maybe something like Tomm Buzzetta's proposed synth designs for his "Rhythm Section" groovebox and "Grab on the go" workstation. There are a lot of synths out there, but no one is optimizing for ease-of-use and fun like IK Multimedia.

Here's a good overview video of the Uno synth from the used gear marketplace Reverb.


Sweetwater Gearfest 2016

Gearfest-logo

Next weekend musical instruments mega retailer Sweetwater is holding their annual Gearfest event.  If you've got GAS (Gear acquisition syndrome) this could be the perfect therapy for getting the latest demos and buying some new equipment at good prices. There are dozens of free workshops Friday and Saturday covering a range of topics and vendors. Jordan Rudess from Dream Theater will be demonstrating the innovative Roli Rise midi controller. There are plenty of sessions recording, guitar tone, vocal recording, mixing, mastering as well as sessions on products from Fender, Marshall, Vox, Yamaha, Roland, Korg, Pro Tools, Ableton, Reason, Line 6, TC Electronics, Boss, Kala, Taylor, Ovation, and many others.

Additionally, there are also some longer "amplified" half-day and full-day sessions on Thursday covering topics like songwriting, recording, synthesizers and more. Prices for those amplified sessions are a very reasonable $39-59. 

It's a bit of a drive to Fort Wayne for me, but I'm going to head over Thursday evening and check out some of the sessions on Friday. Hopefully I can catch some live music that evening. 

 


Novation Circuit - 21st Century Groovebox

Novation circuit

As a guitar player, it's fairly rare that I delve into the world of synthesizers, drum pads and other assorted electronic gear. But the Novation Circuit, might just be the kind of instrument that gets even the casual musician to bust out some new moves. My buddy Michael is a bass player and synth addict and he loves it.

Novation is probably most famous for its BassStation and MiniNova line of synths as well as its LaunchPad of MIDI controller grids. The Circuit combines the best of both these traditions to create an all-in-one music making machine. It's got drums, bass, synths, a simple step sequencer, runs on batteries, and has a built-in speaker. It's ready to use right out of the box. No need to fire up your laptop. No cables or MIDI to mess with. Just dive in and start making music. 

While many users will use the Circuit to crank out EDM dance beats, it's got the chops to be used for rock, metal. I'm not sure it's going have the right style for Jazz and Blues, but who knows? Here are a couple of tunes Michael published on SoundCloud.

For around $300, the circuit is not exactly an impulse buy. But it's capabilities, rugged construction and technicolor good looks put it well beyond the novelty category. No wonder it's winning awards and rave reviews.

You can export your creations, but the process for bringing separate tracks into Logic Pro or other DAWs looks to be a bit cumbersome. Novation has already released a firmware upgrade and a synth patch editor. Hopefully exports will be made easier with some further update. This looks like it could be a lot of fun both for recording and for live performance.

Here's a video Novation put together demonstrating some of its capabilities.

 


2 Cool MIDI Guitars on Kickstarter

Artiphon instrument1

We're coming into the final days on two very cool electronic instruments on Kickstarter.  They're sort of electronic guitars, but sort of something else also. While I have my reservations, based on how fast both got funded, there's clearly interest in innovative musical instruments.

Artiphon Instrument 1 is a general purpose MIDI controller that looks like a super short scale guitar and can be used as a guitar, a keyboard, a drum pad or a violin. While super innovative, I somehow wonder whether it's trying to do too much. Still, if you were traveling and wanted to have just one instrument with you to use for a bunch of recording, this would be the one. If you're interested in this one, jump on it fast as the kickstarter project is wrapping up in less than 48 hours. The Artiphon 1 starts at $349.

JamstikThe Zivix JamStik+ is a new updated release of their slightly more conventional MIDI controller guitar. The JamStik+ is a super short-scale guitar with just 5 frets. That's awfully short in my view and holding it looks a bit awkard.  Still, I've been on the search for the "perfect" travel guitar and everything has a compromise of some kind. The JamStick+ optimizes for maximum portability coming in at 16" and 2 1/2 pounds. Heck, it's smaller even than the Palm Guitar, my current fave. And for $229, it's a pretty good price. 

Since these are primarily MIDI controllers, neither of these is going to play like a regular full-scale guitar. But plugged into GarageBand, Logic Pro or other Digital Audio software, they can sound like any instrument. Still, I question whether learning guitar on one of these devices will be any easier  than  picking up a cheap made-in-Asia Strat and spending some time in the woodshed. But if you're looking for a low-cost, portable instrument for making music in GarageBand, either of these is worth looking into.


How to Chose Your First Electric Guitar

Cameron_strat

This week I've got a guest post from Paul Misko over at www.yourinstrument.com with some tips on purchasing your first electric guitar.  That's my nephew above with the first guitar I got for him, a cheapo $100 strat. At this point, he'd probably be embarassed by the photo and the guitar.

Whether you’ve decided to purchase your first electric guitar or you are making the switch from an acoustic, it can be overwhelming to choose from the many guitar brands and models out there. Here are some helpful ideas to keep in mind to make sure you select the guitar right for you and your desired playing style.

Often many people assume it's better to learn on an acoustic guitar. However, that's not the case. It is generally much easier to hold chords or bend strings on an electric guitar than an acoustic. And if you really wanna rock out, well, there's nothing better, right? 

Electric guitar prices vary widely from a few hundred dollars to thousands, and in many cases you get what you pay for. Cheap guitars can be enticing at first, but once you get a feel for playing, the difference in quality will be very obvious. You will then find yourself wanting to purchase a new guitar sooner than you expected, and you’ll end up spending more than you wanted. Choose a moderately priced guitar that is playable and easily adjustable. For $200 these days, you can get a very decent made-in-asia guitar.  But whatever you do, don't go for the $99 big-box retailer special or the $200 includes an amp, strap, capo, cable and some picks holiday package. Those guitars are nothing but frustration!

The size of the guitar is also important. Make sure it is comfortable for both your right and left hands. If you are purchasing for a child, make sure to choose one that is small enough for them to grip, or learning to play can be difficult and discouraging. Generally speaking if a full-size guitar (24" - 25" scale) is too large, then consider a 3/4 size short scale guitar, typically 20" scale.

Choose a guitar that appeals to you visually. Pick a body style, finish, and color you like. This can help keep you motivated to play and learn. A cool looking guitar is part of the fun of playing!

Make sure to have a teacher or experienced guitar player train you on the basics of properly stringing, tuning, cleaning, and maintaining the guitar. Not taking care of your instrument can lead to problems with the frets, wood, and neck, which affect the sound. The pickups, bridge, and, neck size are all factors in the overall sound of the guitar. Try out different variations and learn which pickups work the best for rock, blues, jazz, metal, etc. If you don’t understand the basic workings of the guitar, it can also discourage your from learning to play.

Keep all of these key issues in mind when purchasing your first electric guitar. Make sure to ask questions and deal with an experienced person at a quality music store. Talk to other musicians who can give helpful advice on the guitar right for your style. Make a list of brands and models you are interested in, but most importantly, keep an open mind. The guitar right for you might not be the one you had in mind, but when you find it, it will become your best friend!


Moog Theremini Now Shipping

Moog-theremini

The Moog Theremini, originally announced at Winter NAMM 2014, is now shipping.  The Theremini is an updated digital version of the traditional analog theremin.  This is more of  a "Theremin for mortals" that looks like a '90s Bose hi-fi clock radio that's been squashed.  It takes the basic concept of a hand-gesture controlled instrument and makes it a whole lot easier to work with.  You still control the Theremini by moving your hands in front of two antennae, one for volume and one for pitch.  But you can also now turn on "assistive pitch quantization" to make it easier to play notes in tune.  

For example, if you select C major scale, and turn the pitch control all the way up, you would only get notes from within that scale, similar to using GarageBand's smart piano control.  If you turn the pitch control all the way off, then it works and sounds like a traditional theremin.  (Ok, purists will argue that because it's using the Animoog synth engine to generate the sounds, it's not the same as a traditional theremin.  But I think most people won't care.)  

Here's a demonstration by theremin expert Dorit Chrysler:

 Theremins are notoriously difficult to play in pitch because, like a fretless bass or a violin, you can play any tone and it's up to you to figure out how to hold your hand to get right on the note and not be a little (or a lot) sharp or flat.  A fretless bass usually has markers to show where the frets would be, but with a theremin there's nothing to guide you but thousands of hours of practice.  With the Theremini you can select how much pitch quantization is used, thus allowing some degree of vibrato.  Like any instrument, it will still take a lot of practice and patience to learn to play the Theremini properly.

The Theremini has a bank of Animoog synthesizer sounds to choose from, giving it broader sonic palette.  There's a realtime chromatic tuner and LCD display to show the current note and accuracy.  And there are built-in delay settings to get a spacier sound.  It includes a built-in speaker suitable for solo practice, a headphone jack, separate left and right audio output and a USB / Midi port.  The Theremini looks like the perfect instrument for your next sci-fi space rock opera.

The Moog Theremini is available for a street price of around $300 at online retailers Amazon, Sweetwater, Musicians Friend etc. Here's an older video from January at NAMM.

 


SaündFraud Skill Killer Pedal

Soundfraud

The always creative team over at Chicago Music Exchange has announced a new pedal that I think will revolutionize the wannabe guitar player market.  Just by pushing one button, the SaündFraud "skill killer" pedal gives your music the style, tone and characteristics of a professional musician who was willing to put in the thousands of hours of practice time even if you can't be bothered.  Frankly, I think if you combine this with the BeatBuddy, you've got a band ready to rock.

Here's a video that shows the SaündFraud pedal in action:

Also be sure to check out their "100 Riffs" video which takes you from Chet Atkins' "Mr Sandman" all the way through "I Got Mine" by The Black Keys.

If you're looking for vintage gear Chicago Music Exchange has got you covered.  They've also got real pedals on sale today.  The Chicago Music Exchange has a sister company called Reverb, which is a marketplace for used music gear.


BeatBuddy Pedal Replaces Your Deadbeat Drummer

Beatbuddy
My guitar buddy Rob and I are always struggling to get a drummer to practice with.  So often we end playing to a backing track or more typically no drums at all.  Candidly, my rhythm is not particularly excellent, so I  prefer to play with a backing track or a drum loop.  But when you want to jam, those options often come up short.  The smart guys over at BeatBuddy have designed what looks like a perfect solution for anyone in need of a more dynamic style of drum backing: a guitar pedal that supplies a custom drum track.  

BeatBuddy looks easy enough to use.  Pick your drum style or song, lock in the tempo and then hit the pedal to start the drums.  Press the pedal again to add some fills, or hold it down to transition from verse to chorus or vice verse.  You can add a second footswitch to vary the tempo, move to next song, add cymbal crashes etc.   And unlike old-school looping pedals, BeatBuddy is smart enough to supply the transitions at even measures, even if your own rhythm is a little off.

BeatBuddy comes with 200 songs, and 10 drum styles including rock, blues, pop, and the ability to add more via USB port and SD card.  Personally, I will be happy if it has more than half a dozen good blues tracks and a dozen rock tracks.  So many of these drum loop devices just put two shuffles and a couple of standard rock tracks and then twenty pop or electronic tracks.  My guess is most of the buyers of this pedal are going to be focused on classic rock and blues. 

The project is being funded via IndieGogo.  While there's always risk of delays or a product that doesn't quite live up to expectations, this one looks to be pretty solid.  The price is $199 until Feb 4.  That's much less than the expected retail price, with delivery expected by end of April.  (Ok, I've never seen a crowdfunded project meet it's delivery date, so maybe just think "Q2 2014.")

Here's an up-to-date video on YouTube with more details:


Why I Love My Acoustic Guitar

Musician's Friend posed the question: Why do you love your acoustic guitar to some various folks in the websphere and they must have run out of interesting musicians because they asked me for my comments.

Admittedly, it's been a long time since I've picked up my acoustic guitar on a regular basis.  But I do love that guitar.  It's a slightly beat up Ovation from the 70s that I bought  used from a guy.  It was a lot of money at the time, but it seemed like a good deal.  Honestly, I thought the guitar was probably hot.  Still, I dove in and started learning open chords and then, rather painfully, barre chords etc.  It was my first guitar, so I still have a soft spot for it. 

You can read the full article over at Musician's Friend Hub.  There are also plenty of other good articles on gear as well as a great interview with Paul Stanley from KISS about his career and his line of Washburn guitars.


iReal Pro Updated for Mac, iOS, Android

IPad guitar chords

Technimo has updated their awardwinning iRealb musical accompaniment application and re-christened it as iReal Pro.  The new version is available immediately for Mac, iPhone, iPad and Android.  iRealPro remains easy to use but adds several new capabilities including:

  • Customizable click tracks
  • Built-in chord diagrams for guitar
  • Easier song creation and editing
  • More custom mixing capabilities
  • AudioBus support for iOS 

AudiBus capability makes it possible to use iReal Pro in conjunction with other music apps on your iPhone or iPad, for example, combining iReal Pro with guitar audio from GarageBand, AmpliTube or AmpKit.

iReal Pro has more than 30 different accompaniment styles to chose from (Rock, Soul, Pop, Ballad, Bossa Nova, Funk Rock, Swing, Latin, Blues, Shuffle etc.) enabling a broad repertoire.  You can customize the accompaniment by changing not only the style, but the tempo, the key and the bass and piano instrumentation.  Also worth noting is there are hundreds of songs available on the forums including the typical Jazz standards, Blues, Beatles, Grateful Dead, Pop, Rock and more.  So even if you're more comfortable playing songs than creating them, there's a ton of material to tap into.  Take a look at the video below to get a feel for iReal Pro on the iPhone.

If I have one criticism of iReal Pro it's that it is very jazz oriented.  So even the rock and blues songs  inevitably sound like a lounge lizard jazz combo who wouldn't know how to rock if they were playing AC/DC.  I'm not sure what the best solution to this is.  Maybe some of the songs are using older styles, or maybe there's a need for more styles and rock instrumentation.  Hopefully this is something that iReal Pro can continue to improve.

Overall, iReal Pro continues to get better and better with every release.  It's a versatile tool for the practicing musician.  iRealPro is just $7.99 for iPad and iPhone via iTunes and $19.99 for the Mac.  Best of all, this is a free upgrade for all existing iRealb users.


Yaba - Portable Speaker & Guitar Amp

Yaba

I recently ran across this interesting project on Kickstarter for Yaba.  Not sure of Yaba is an acronym, but it could stand for Yet Another Brilliant Amp!  Yaba is a tiny amplified speaker from PLX Devices.  It's about the size of a mouse, shaped like a miniature speaker phone that you might see in a typical office conference room.  You can place the Yaba on a table, floor or other flat surface to create what appears to be a pretty significant amount of sound from a portable MP3 player, iPhone or other music player.  More importantly, the Yaba X version can amplify a guitar. 

Of course, I wouldn't expect the Yaba X to be very loud, but if you need a way to amplify an electric guitar in lieue of a headphone amp, it might be worth looking into.  There's just under 2 weeks to get in on the Yaba action for as little as $29 er $39 make that $49 or $59.  The project is fully funded already, but this is a good way to get the Yaba or Yaba X before it hits retail at higher prices.