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 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. 

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 parametersOrb 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.)


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 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

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.)

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 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 

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. 


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. 


Fiverr and the Quest for Perfect Tab Files

GuitarPro - Redbone

If you don't understand the headline, this post is not for you. But for guitar and bass players who might not be able to figure out a song by ear, a tab file is a musical notation that makes learning songs easy. Tablature is a very old music system which shows where your fingers should be positioned to play a fretted instrument. Though not perfect, tab notation is much easier than reading traditional musical notation with clef bars, treble bars and all those squiggly lines.

In the 1980s, tablature became popular in guitar magazines and music books which published licensed transcriptions of guitar solos in a form that the average guitar player could read. With the rise of the internet 1990s, amateur musicians began posting thousands of their own text-based tablatures. In the early 2000's, Guitar Pro, a brilliant software application from the French company Arobas Music, took things to a whole other level by creating a tool that could not only create tablature files, but it could play the music it represented. You could create and playback all of the different instruments (guitar, bass, drums, piano...), and you could isolate, slow down and loop parts, making it easy to practice new parts.

I've beee using Guitar Pro almost daily for more than 10 years. If you're a musician, you should just click on over to the Guitar Pro site and get a free trial download. It works best on a computer (Windows or Mac) though it is also available for tablet and smartphones. 

While you can find most popular music in Guitar Pro file formats (e.g. .gp, .gpx, .gp5 etc) every now and then there will be a song I can't find or whose tab file is terribly wrong. So recently, I used the online task marketplace Fiverr to commission the creation of a couple of new Guitar Pro files. I was blown away by the quality of the work. 

These are excellent Guitar Pro (.gp) transcriptions of some admittedly obscure songs:

Come and Get Your Love is a campy early 1970s song that had a well-deserved resurgence in popularity after inclusion in the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack. It's impossible to play this song and not have a smile on your face. The guitar chords are straightforward: Em, A, D, Bm repeated in the verse and the chorus.  The bass part is a pretty busy sequence of staccato 8th notes. It's quite a fun funky sound, replete with '70s fashion, wah-wah, cowbell, strings and even a sitar. There's a great story in the Wall Street Journal from earlier this year where Redbone bass player Pat Vega describes the history of the song and how he and his brother Lolly wrote it. 

Shama Lama Ding Dong is even more obscure. It was a hit by the fictional band Otis Day & The Knights as portrayed in the 1978 film Animal House. It's an homage to early R&B and rock songs of that era. Little known fact: Robert Cray plays bass in the film.

In addition to the Guitar Pro app, Arobas offers MySongBook, an online store where you can buy songs or a subscription. There are also many free Guitar Pro files available online at GproTab.net, GuitarProTabs.org, GuitarProTabs.net, UltimateGuitar etc. Or just google any song you're looking for.

Kudos to RaymondMusic on Fiverr who completed these perfect transcriptions. 

And here are a couple of great videos of these songs:


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 its 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! It's monophonic, so you can't create chords and pad sounds are hard to come by. But it's great for bass, leads and arpeggios. Note also there's no pitch or mod wheel. You can add some scoop and dive to notes, but in practice it's pretty limited. The tremolo and vibrato buttons work ok, but you're not going to shape the sound beyond a limited range with those.

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. (Though to connect to a Mac or PC you'll need an audio interface also.) 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 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.