BLEASS's Incredibly Fun Monolit Synth

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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.

Zappa Plays Zappa (sort of)

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Dweezil Zappa, eldest son of musical iconoclast Frank Zappa, has been keeping his father's work alive by touring as "Zappa Plays Zappa." Or at least, he has been until a family fallout has made it impossible for him to use that name. Dweezil has embarked on a fairly public skirmish with younger siblings Diva and Ahmet who control 60% of the Zappa Family Trust.  Dweezil and his older sister Moon, each own 20%. Presumably matriarch Gail Zappa knew exactly what kind of situation she was creating when she wrote her will dividing things up this way and leaving youngest son Ahmet in charge. While every family is dysfunctional in their own way, lets just say the Zappa family seems to have some special dynamics.

Mostly I wouldn't care less about some children-of-stars squabble except at the point where it starts to impact the actual shows that are being performed.  There's no likeness of Frank Zappa anywhere on stage or in any of the merchandise or promotional materials. In fact the tour has been renamed the "Dweezil Zappa plays whatever the f@%k he wants." Except, that's not exactly true either. But I'll come back to that point momentarily. 

The show began on a strong note with several songs from the first "Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention" album "Freak Out!" which was released 50 years ago this year. Songs ranged from the phrenetic "Help, I'm A Rock!" to the soulful "Doreen" to more musically adventurous songs like "The Illinois Enema Bandit" and "Eat That Question."  Indeed, it was the vast instrumental breaks with Dweezil's soaring guitar parts that got the fans up on their feet cheering. Of course, there were also some songs of questionable taste "Shove It Right In" and the jaunty "Catholic Girls" but taste is in the ear of the beholder. 

A lot of Zappa songs are laden with key and tempo changes that go way beyond rock and lean more heavily towards avant-garde jazz and that was certainly true with songs like "Five Five Five."

Presumably to show that Dweezil Zappa's tour was not just capitalizing on the music or fame of his father, the second part of the show included a medley of '80s songs.  Sure that's kind of cool. And these songs were played with great musicianship despite the fast chord, tempo and key changes. After going through snippets of a dozen songs in under 4 minutes ("Tom Sawyer", "Spirit of Radio", " Another One Bites The Dust", "Under Pressure", "Billie Jean", "Like a Virgin", "Jack & Diane", " I want Candy", "Walking on Sunshine", "Stray Cat Strut", the novelty wore off.

Yet the '80s snippets continued on with short bursts from: "Lady", "I Just Called To Say I Love You", "9 to 5", "Get Physical", "Xanadu", "Don't You Want Me Baby..."

And on... "I Don't Want to Hurt You", "Mr Roboto", "Blinded By Science", "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)"...

And on... "I Melt With You", "Shout", "Our House", "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun"...

And on... "C'mon Eileen", "Money For Nothing", "I Want A New Drug"...

And on... "Hey Micky", "Footloose", "Chariots of Fire"...

And on... "C'mon Feel The Noise", "Higher Love"...

And on... "Relax", "Born to Run"...

I counted over 75 songs. All brilliantly played. But other than the musical showmanship of being able to play these short signature licks without ever losing the beat, it became mind-numbing tedium.

So where was I?

Oh yes, the audience was there to hear the music of Frank Zappa. Not an '80s K-Tel commercial.  

After a brief pause, the band came back and played "You Are What You Is" and "Keep it Greasy". 

Again, I have to commend the band for an incredible performance of extremely complex music. They are superb musicians and Dweezil is an exceptionally talented guitarist and band leader.  It was an excellent show even for casual fans.

And I appreciate that Dweezil is in the difficult position of being unable to use his own family name without a license from the Zappa Family Trust (of which he is a beneficiary.)  While everyone in the family is saying they want to preserve Frank Zappa's legacy, Dweezil is out there keeping it alive while the Zappa Family Trust are singing a different tune.   

The Stranglers Tour North America


I was super excited to learn that The Stranglers, a band I've been listening to since their first album in 1977, will be touring North America this summer.  I'll be seeing them play their tour opener in Detroit on May 30 and then the next night in Toronto.  Additionally, they'll be playing Montreal, New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.  Shame they are not playing San Francisco, but still...  This is the first time the band has toured North America in 15 years.  I've waited many, many years for this, as have many fans.  So I'm sure it's going to be awesome.  And it's also a heckuva lot cheaper than seeing the Stones.

While some diehard fans will complain that the band is not as good as it once was, it's still kind of a miracle that The Stranglers exists at all today given all the ups and downs of the music business.  Yes, original lead singer and guitarist Hugh Cornwell will be missed, but he's been gone for ages and Baz has his own style.  The recent material from the band is quite good and I expect that the set list will include a lot of songs from the first few albums.  Here's a nice live version of "No More Heroes" from earlier this year at The Roundhouse, London.  Nice to see that Dave Greenfield can still do his solo one-handed while downing a pint. 

I'm also looking forward to seeing Mike Marlin, who will be opening for The Stranglers on this tour.  More on that later on.

If you are near any of these cities and are a fan from ages back, you better get your tickets soon.  Many of the shows are already sold out.

Update: Unfortunately now the Detroit gig has been "postponed" and now Mike Marlin is no longer playing the gigs in Toronto and Montreal.  What the hell?

Hugh Cornwell, Glen Matlock Tour US & Canada

Not that I'm completely obsessed with Hugh Cornwell, but it is worth noting that the famous ex-Strangler will be touring with his band to promote the release of his new album Totem & Taboo.  Even better, the gig will include a set by ex-Pistol Glen Matlock.  This will be two separate sets, but each with the same backing band (Clem Burke on drums, Steven Fishman on bass, James Stevenson on guitar).

The tour runs from late February through mid-March in the midwest and west of US and Canada.  

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And just to whet your interest, here's a sample of Cornwell playing an acoustic version of his new song "Totem & Taboo".

RIP Blues Legend Hubert Sumlin


Blues legend Hubert Sumlin passed away a few weeks back at the age of 80.  He played with Howlin' Wolf in Chicago for 20 years and is considered one of the most influential blues guitarists.  Sumlin was listed as #43 in the Rolling Stone list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of all time.  Sumlin was also an influence on a generation of guitar players including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan and others.  He went on to record and play for another 35 years releasing has award-winning album "About Them Shoes " in 2004.

I saw Sumlin play a couple of years ago at the National Guitar Workshop in Austin, Texas alongside Muddy Waters' guitarist "steady rollin'" Bob Margolin.  In a somewhat ramblin story, Sumlin described getting fired by Howlin' Wolf for his reliance on using a pick.  This motivated Sumlin to learn to play in the finger picking style that would make him famous and rejoin Howlin' Wolf a short time later.

Sumlin was also featured in Kenny Wayne's Shepherd's "10 Days Out" video/CD along side other blues greats Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Jerry "Boogie" McCain, David "Honeboy" Edwards, Willie "Big eyes" Smith, Pinetop Perkins, Etta Baker and BB King.  

Crazy Preston Reed West Coast Tour

Preston Reed is  a crazy bad-assed guitar player who lives in Scotland.  He's currently touring in England and at the end of September will be heading to the US for a west coast tour hitting Portland, Eugene, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Redwood City, Oakland and just about every major guitar-friendly venue in between. 

Check out the crazy video below.

Checkout the links for more information.

Blues Legend Gary Moore Dead at 58


Irish rock guitarist Gary Moore died this weekend at 58, in Spain.  Belfast-born Moore first picked up a guitar at the age of eight and began his career in Dublin at the age of 16.  Moore met Phil Lynot in Dublin and had an on-and-off part in Lynot's band Thin Lizzy, playing with them for 4 years including his appearance on their most famous album "Black Rose."  Moore released more than 20 solo albums during his 42 year career, playing with such legends as Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, George Harrison, Bob Dylan and others.  Moore was noted for his powerful yet soulful style of blues, picking up where players such as Jimi Hendrix and Peter Green left off.

His Best of the Blues is one of his most memorable albums, featuring collaborations with Albert King,  B.B. King  and others.   Here's a link to a live version of Moore playing with BB King on "The Thrill is Gone" on YouTube below.  

Gary Moore was one of the legends of the electric guitar.  His impact on rock and blues cannot be underestimated.  I'm sorry that I never got to see him play live. 

Six Pack Interview with Jeremy Korn of Groovezoo


Here's an almost six-question interview with the CEO and founder of Groovezoo a new music site for musicians.  Jeremy founded GrooveZoo in 2010 with the mission to increase the ease of creativity for musicians and producers by helping them connect and leverage each other’s strengths. Korn worked in Silicon Valley for companies such as Dolby Laboratories, Apple Computer, and Altera. He owned and operated Akorn Studios in Santa Cruz California for 5 years where he produced over 20 albums and recorded over 100 demos. 

Q. Why did you create GrooveZoo and how is it different from other music sites?
There’s a lot of focus over the past five years on the fact that musicians have been empowered to record their own music with the lowered barrier to entry for Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs). Sure everyone can afford a DAW, but that moment comes when they sit in front of it ready to create and realize that they don’t have all the knowledge or abilities to actually create something worthwhile. All successful ventures, whether it is a restaurant, legal firm, or musical project requires a team of specialist to make it great. Until now they have limited ways to bring it all together. Sure other sites are trying to do this, but put simply, they’ve missed the mark both from usability and catering to what songwriters, musicians and producers really care-about. At GrooveZoo, we’ve made it easy for them to connect and protect their interests. 

Q. How does GrooveZoo help musicians?
As noted, we help them connect in the fastest and easiest way possible. But there are two other key elements that help musicians. First, we match them to other musicians that are comfortably better than they are. With this in place they can pull each other up. Over time the whole community gets better at what they do. Second, we protect their rights with real contracts. It’s amazing to me that the industry in moving towards Creative Commons when contracts are difficult to put in place. We’ve made it an integral part of joining sessions on our site. After one read through, the musicians know the contract and can sign it over in just a few seconds each. Then when the music is sold through GrooveZoo the money is split and automatically put in each musician’s account. 

Q. Who are some of your favorite local bay area bands?
Wow! There are so many great ones out there it’s hard to choose. I love all kinds of music and my heart is really in the blues, so of course Tommy Castro. Green Day is absolutely amazing and Third Eye Blind is great. Going back a ways there’s Neil Young, The Tubes, Boz Scaggs, Tom Waits, and so many more. There is such a rich history of real down-to-earth music in the Bay Area, it feels just right starting GrooveZoo here. 

Q. Does GrooveZoo integrate with other sites like Twitter and Facebook
This is absolutely on our near-term roadmap. In late January, we will announce some very cool, cutting-edge ways to enable new marketing tools for the artists. Stay tuned. 

Q. How was GrooveZoo built?
Oh man you’ve hit one of my favorite topics! I’m a semi-pro musician and long-time programmer. I’ve been doing both for over 30 years, so I approach both with the same level of hands-on practice and intensity. First of all, we strictly use the LAMP stack with Linux, PHP etc. I’m adamantly against tying our development to a large company’s roadmap and developer model. With the power and maturity of open source technologies, there’s just no reason to put the company at risk by chaining ourselves to someone’s wagon and being taken for a ride in a direction that could, and very likely would, hurt us in the long term.  Also we can create new modules in a matter of weeks in order to meet the market demands and engage in unique ways with partners. Furthermore, we have a cluster of nine servers on the backend segmented to create the fasted queries possible and darn near instant scalability.

Thanks Jeremy.  This sounds like an exciting new venture.  If you haven't been to be sure to check it out!

Beatles vs Stones

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My favorite public radio podcasters, Jim Derogatis and Greg Kot from WBEZ's Sound Opinions, have teamed up to write a book to settle once and for all the epic debate: which is better The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?  Sound Opinions has dissected and analyzed the careers and music of both bands to weigh in on their strengths, weaknesses and shortcomings.  The book is written in an informal conversational style, much like the Sound Opinions show itself.  You may not change your opinion on this highly personal debate, but you'll at least gather more evidence to support your cause and you may also develop an insight into what has made both of these bands such legends in the industry.  The book also has a ton of rare photos that illustrate both bands at the heights of their careers, touring and in the studio.

As for me, I'm of two different minds.  I think The Beatles helped transform the pop music industry into something much more meaningful and lasting.  But I still love the all-out raunch & roll guitar focus of mid '70s Stones albums. 

For music fans, The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones is a great book and no doubt will be a great gift this holiday season.   (Even more cool, the  book cover changes images from red to blue depending on the angle at which you view it!)

Groovezoo's Vegas Go Wild Contest


There's a new stealth mode startup called GrooveZoo that's going to launch a site for musicians, songwriters and producers to share and cross-pollinate their ideas and projects.  While there's not much info available until they launch, they are kicking off a pretty cool contest that will give a band the opportunity to open up for a major headline act on New Year's eve in Vegas.  Hey, just going to Vegas for New Year's is cool enough, but to play live, that's even better.  The grand prize winner gets full travel and accommodation expenses plus $1500 spending money.  There are also additional music gear prizes for second and third place runners up.  

All you have to do is submit your song or video to the site and invite people to vote for it. Full details are available on their web site and their face book page.  This sounds like an excellent way for an up-and-coming band to make it's mark and have a great time doing it.

I'll post more information about GrooveZoo as they launch the site.

Roland Cube: A Million Strong

I recently picked up a small battery-powered Roland Micro Cube amp to take with me to some guitar lessons.  I wanted something light, portable and battery powered.  Despite my skepticism about such a small amp, I've come away impressed with the Micro Cube.  

Apparently, I'm not alone: Roland has sold more than a million Cube amps since it's introduction.  There are whole range of Cubes from the lightest Mobile Cube (which oddly enough is not cube shaped) to the big honking Cube 80X, an 80 watt beast with a powerful 12" speaker.  All of them share a common heritage and built-in modeling derived from Roland's COSM technology that provide a range of sonic choices: acoustic simulator, JC (Jazz Chorus) Clean, Black Panel, Brit combo, Classic Stack, high-gain R-fier etc.  Higher-end units have more features and more models such as Tweed, Metal and so on.  And there are also built in effects including Reverb, Delay, Chorus, Flanger, Phaser and Tremolo.

The Micro Cube is at the low end, but it's surprisingly powerful for it's size.  To be clear, this is not an amp you can use for a live gig competing against a drum kit. It's a 2 watt practice amp with a 5" speaker, so the emphasis is on portability. Think of it as a Pignose amp updated for the 21st century.  It's small enough that you can take it places where you wouldn't have AC power: a day at the beach, a cabin by the lake, front porch, etc.  You can also use it for mic'd recording. The Micro Cube runs for about 20 hours on 6 AA batteries and also includes a 9 volt AC adapter.  Unlike the original Pignose amp, the Micro Cube has a variety of amp models and effects that give you a pretty wide range of tones from clean to classic blues crunch to full-on Marshall stack.  Despite it's small size, it can crank quite surprisingly loud when the gain is turned up. With a street price of around $130, the Micro Cube is a good value.  You can also find them used for well under $100.  Heck, you can spend more than that on a single effects pedal.  

I tested out the Micro Cube alongside my Fender G-DEC, which is a 15 watt modeling amp.  The Micro Cube held its own in terms of volume with the acoustic simulator clocking in at around 75 db and maxing out at just under 100 db with full gain on the Stack amp model.  Volume alone doesn't tell the full story, but the tones on the Cube are as good or better than the G-DEC, though less varied.  Of course, the G-DEC also has other features like MIDI backing tracks and a built-in tuner, but in terms of sonic quality, the Micro Cube measures up nicely.  

Rx Roland has also introduced an upgraded model, Micro Cube RX, which adds a range of drum tracks (rock, blues shuffle, country, funk, etc) an on-board electronic tuner, additional amp models and two sets of stereo speakers and 5 watts total power.  While still portable, the Micro Cube RX is slightly larger and several pounds heavier.  So if budget or portability are the primary concerns, you might prefer the original Micro Cube.  Otherwise, the Micro Cube RX is a significant upgrade and worth the extra $100.  There's also a Street Cube model with dual amps and speakers that's ideal for the guitar player trying to make some extra money busking.

Any of these Cube models make a great first amp or an additional amp for times when you need portability.

Guitar Center's King of the Blues Contest


Guitar Center's annual King of the Blues contest is back this summer with even more backing tracks from producer Pete Anderson.

Guitar Center has made available MP3 files of all of the backing tracks.  There are 30 tracks of various blues styles --Chicago blues, Texas blues, Slow Blues, Swing, Shuffle, T-Bone Walker style, you name it.  Although the key is not always indicated, they are mostly in A, D, E or are otherwise easy to figure out.  For the new songs there are charts that give all the chords.

Check out the new backing tracks featured in the video for some great blues inspiration!