The following is a description of the musical instruments I have used in my many years of music working. This is not an objective set of reviews. If you’re looking for that, I would recommend Vintage Synth Explorer which is where I copped most of the images for this excursion. There are some links to some of the things I recommend.
This section details the keyboards and synthesizers I used before 1987. In 1987 I bought a pile of gear and things changed. A lot. Most of the gear in this section is stuff I did not own. Mostly the gear from keyboard players in my band, or machinery at University I had access to.
Eminee Chord Organ
Commentary: This is the first musical instrument I ever played. My parents bought it in the early 1970s. I liked the buttons on the left – they had a weird wheezy sound – nearly choir like, if the choir had tuberculosis. When it was switched on the air pump would crank up and make a mechanical wooshing sound. Over time it got louder and worse. Eventually the motor died. I considered using the keyboard to build a home grown loop-mellotron, unfortunately, I never got around to that, and the keyboard was lost to some landfill.
When I was a boy I went through the song book it came with – Mary Had A Little Lamb, America The Beautiful, Oh Dem Golden Slippers, I’ve been working on the railroad, etc. I would play that thing for hours. I tried to play along with my tiny transistor radio, but the organ was never in proper pitch. After a while I would sit for a good long time making these long droning chords. After a while they would get hypnotic and eerie. Years later I would discover Charlemagne Palestine and Hermann Nitsch who were making similar music on similar instruments.
Several years ago Alan Sondheim gave me another one of these, only newer and marginally more in tune. I’ve put it through microphones and processors, especially Guitar Rig, because everything sounds better run through a virtual stack of Marshalls turned up to 11. So far the results of been pretty good, and I look forward to using it in future compositions. In terms of actual and immediate composition, I haven’t been able to think of what to do with it, but it’s definitely on my list of imaginative and angled turns to investigate.
Ease of use: Dead Simple.
What it does well: Make wheezy sounds somewhere between a harmonica and a harmonium.
How it sucks: No expression, dead key bed, never in tune.
Sound Quality: Dreadful in a sweet way. It sounded like a vacuum cleaner when you turn it on. The reed tones are louder, but not by much.
Overall: A terrible instrument in general, but good for kids and random psychotic experiments. The sound is unique and amusing.
Commentary: It’s a tape deck, but it is still important to me as a musical instrument. Back in High School I was in a Prog Rock Cover Band. Which meant countless hours in practice and rehearsal for a very meagre number of performances. Over time we had a varied sequence of keyboard players, with Mark Doroba on Guitar and Craig Hobschaidt on drums and myself on bass and vocals. We were called “Cinders”. We were… pretty bad. What we lacked in polish, we compensated up with youth and a terminal infection of the modernist vision of progressive rock. After Mark left the band, Craig and I got James Curran on guitar and vocals and a sequence of keyboard players and called ourselves “Solaris”. We eventually acquired a singer and flautist, Elaine Ciba, and Jim Waterman on keyboards a few years later.
I was very into very weird music in High School, having discovered Edgard Varese, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Tangerine Dream, Pierre Henry, Fripp and Eno, Terry Riley, and many others in the avant garde. In terms of instruments, I didn’t have access to mellotrons and synthesizers at the time, nor did I have a proper recording system. In 1975, Craig acquired a Sony reel to reel tape deck, as pictured above. Our band’s mixer was a noisy piece of crap – a Tapco 8 channel. Dreadful device. Since there was precious little we could do about that, the deck was seen more as a playback device than a recording destination.
In 1976, I was set to graduate High School, and as an Art Major and president of the Art Club, I felt I should do something amazing. I put together a completely insane guerilla performance project. It was REALLY loud. We smashed a TV set. We painted ourselves. And we had a sound track to the crazed flashing lights. The soundtrack was the tape deck playing something Craig and I put together. I spent weeks charting out which part of which recording went where and for how long. There were hundreds of hard razor born edits. It was pure crazy – a sample fest before samplers existed, musique concrete.
The results were impressive. About 7 minutes into it. a student came into the theatre and told me that the principal’s office said that if we don’t get quiet FAST, they would cheerfully notify the local constabulary to shut us down. I got to be all tough and say “Whatever” because I knew that in about another minute it would indeed get very quiet, which it did, as it transitioned to a set of quiet largo string tones. The teachers liked it. Many of the students liked it. Some were “WTF?!?!” and not that impressed. The Q/A afterwards was difficult. That was my first electronic music performance, in early June, 1976.
Later, I was no longer playing bass for the band – Dave Piszko was holding that down very well. I was more involved with the slide projections, lights, sound effects, and mixing. Around this time, I put together another music performance at the East Brunswick Library. It was not as loud. In fact, among other works, we performed John Cage’s 4’33”, only arranged for bass, drums, guitar, and tape deck. The very same Sony tape deck. Song starts, press play on a blank tape. Results? A quiet hiss added to the environment… It was a fantastic show. We even played “calculator music” by attaching alligator clips to wires in pocket calculators and then feeding them into guitar pedals and echo boxen. “Computer music”. When the calculator hit something causing an overflow, it would flash “EEEEEEEEEEEE” over and over, and that made a distinctive rhythmic buzzy pulse, BRRAAAANT BRRAAAANT BRRAAAANT BRRAAAANT! It was fun.
Everyone went their own way. I left the band to focus on art school. The band continued for several years, eventually petering out after university ended for its members and people went in different directions. James later formed Confession with his wife, Susan Guiles. Their excellent music is available for download from the Kether Records bandcamp and Amazon. Jim and Craig still record music together of a more ambient / fusion / jazz flavour. Dave plays bass and guitar in a blues and rock band near where he lives in Eastern Pennsylvania. I have no idea where that old Sony deck is.
Ease of use: Simple.
What it does well: Playback 7 inch reels of tape. Recorded sounds fed to it with accuracy.
How it sucks: Its signal to noise ratio, wow and flutter, and similar issues of such a device could be better. Its heads could be more sensitive. It’s a consumer machine, not a professional mastering deck. But overall it doesn’t really suck. It’s just not a Revox.
Sound Quality: for its time, it was very good. Not great (like with a Revox) but very good.
Expense: for the time, moderately expensive. Today, absurdly expensive, given how cheap and precise digital recording is. People use these for the effect now – the hiss, the tape saturation and distortion – it all comes at a price. I saw one of these sell recently for $300. Which is how much it cost back then. Of course inflation: $300 today is $60 back then.
Overall: I have no use for such a device today – for its time it was a fine machine.
Commentary: One of the early keyboard players in Solaris had one of these. He was a spoiled rich kid from Milltown. He would periodically leave it at the practice space (Craig’s basement). If I got there early, I would mess around with it. I found it very disappointing. It was thin and cheezy sounding. I took an instant dislike to it. A lot. We were playing prog and the dominant instruments were Moog, Arp, and VCS3. This wasn’t even close. Later on, I discovered it could be used in some amazing ways – just not as a synth, per se. If you put it through a pile of guitar pedals, it could really scream. I remember the kid who owned this was really into Vangelis and Jarre. This was OK for that style of playing – not great – but more adequate than trying to compete with Emerson or Wakeman. I remember we told the kid to take his stuff and go home. He wasn’t very good for what we were trying to do. He could play Vangelis pretty well, though.
The thing that cheezed me the most, but was also oddly cool about it and ahead of its time, were those switches for presets. Back then patch memory was a dream of the future, and in a way, these switches were just that – patch memories. They could be modded with the control panel, so it was nice to be able to switch from one sound and then tweak it slightly for one part of a song, and then switch to another patch and tweak slightly for another part. It was a lot faster than doing everything from raw. The problem was it only had one oscillator. No matter what it did it sounded thin and flat.
Ease of use: VERY easy to use. Turn it on, flip a switch – bingo – sound.
What it does well: rapidly change from one sound to another. Also, if you mess with it enough, you can make it squeal like a pig.
How it sucks: In almost every way imaginable.
Sound Quality: Not Good.
Expense: At the time? Too Much. Today? Analogue fetishists will pay a pretty penny for these clunky old tanks.
Overall: Meh. If you put it through some guitar multiFX, then sure – it could make hell noises. On its own? Nope. Piece of crap. Not recommended.
Commentary: This is the synth Jim Waterman brought to the band. It’s a real synth. When Jim wasn’t around I’d dork around on it a bit. I rather liked it. It’s basically a poor man’s Arp Odyssey. It has two oscillators and two sub oscillators, so you could get some window shattering bass if you set it right. While it lacked the fatness of a Minimoog (which had 3 Oscillators) and the refinement of the Arp, you could get it to do some very cool sounds. It was a very capable synth for its time. It was especially useful doing Genesis and Pink Floyd covers. Jim also brought a Yamaha organ, a RMI electric piano, a Helpinstill Roadmaster 88 piano and a Freeman String Symphoniser to the band.
The Yamaha was terrible. It wasn’t cheesy enough to be a Farcheeeza and it wasn’t gutsy enough to be a Hammond or even a Wurlitzer. It was a step above a roller rink organ. It just kind of sucked. The RMI was very cool, if limited in what it did, and what it did I wasn’t interested in.
The Helpinstill was fucking evil. It weighed 350lbs. No Shit. That’s more than the boat anchor on my wife’s CS30 sailboat. It’s more than a Ford 351 cleveland V8 engine. It sounded great – it sounded like a piano because it was – it was a miniature upright with each string mic’d. It sounded great but was hell to move. I remember once we played a gig and the stage was upstairs… Terrifying and exhausting. Truly. EVIL.
So, most of Jim’s keyboards I didn’t care about. But the Octave Cat and the String Symphoniser? Yup – Very Cool Stuff. Also, it’s a CAT. And I wuv my puddy cats.
Ease of use: Like BUTTAH!
What it does well: Make buzzy synth sounds.
How it sucks: short keyboard, thin sounds, so so filters.
Sound Quality: Thin, noisy, and GLORIOUS.
Expense: Average for the time. Stupid expensive due to fetishist collectors today.
Overall: I like the Octave Cat. I now have VST plug-ins that eat its breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but for what it was, back then, it was pretty damn good.
Cordovox Freeman String Symphonizer
Commentary: this was another one of Jim’s synthesizers. The Freeman String Symphonizer was crazy. It weighed a lot – about 80 lbs. It made a few sounds – a couple of string sounds that could be adjusted slightly. For a string synth (which are always super cheezy) it had a smoothness and depth and richness you couldn’t get in an Arp or a Solina. If you’ve heard Elton John’s “Funeral For a Friend” he gives the Freeman a serious work out there. It is also very present on Peter Sinfield’s “Still” album. It was made by a guy – Freeman – who couldn’t afford a Mellotron, so he decided to build his own string synth. The tech in it is pretty clever.
It had 25 Oscillators. Yes, 25. One was used to control a ‘top octave synthesizer’ chip. It was a digital chip that generates a ‘top octave’ of notes from one high audio frequency input signal. This afforded a stable pitch. The other 24 oscillators, with this system, had a total of 3 pitches for each note. So, unlike other synths at the time that could only play one note at a time, this had massive polyphony. The problem was it only had one waveform, primitive filtering, and no amplifier envelope. So all you get is the String Sound. And lots of it.
My favourite thing to do was to run the Octave Cat into echo and the Freeman with its built in reverb set to stun, and make dreamy bliss synth music. I suddenly saw how logical and obvious and beautiful Tangerine Dream music could be, especially Edgar Froese’s solo material. Jim was (and still is) a great keyboard player, and he really made the Freeman earn its keep. We couldn’t afford a Mellotron, so this was what we could do, and while it wasn’t as photographic as the Mellotron, it had a good strong character all its own. Frankly, I think this thing kicked the Arp string ensemble’s ass. Hard.
Ease of use: Simple. Turn it on. Play. Making it sound good took some application – you had to dork around with the EQ and “ensemble” effect to get certain things to work right.
What it does well: Make slinky string sounds. You want strings? Yeah, we got ya strings right here!
How it sucks: it weighs 80 lbs and all it does is make slinky string sounds.
Sound Quality: very good.
Expense: Then – expensive but not extortionate. Today, fairly cheap.
Overall: Excellent for what it did. And what it did was something I liked. Now-a-days there are much better string synths, obviously, but if you magically appeared in the early 70s and couldn’t afford a Mellotron or Arp String Ensemble, you could do well with a Freeman String Symphoniser.
Moog Taurus Bass Pedals
Commentary: When I stopped playing bass in the band, I went into lights, slides, and sounds for the show. I would still monkey around with the gear, and one interesting piece of gear was the Moog Taurus Bass Pedals. They were thunderous. They would crack housing foundations. They would set off seismographs. They would jiggle your guts, make you crap your pants, and your eyes bleed. Yes, they were AWESOME. They now live in James’s basement in Lambertville NJ.
Ease of use: very easy
What it does well: shakes the house and makes glasses and plates fall off their shelves.
How it sucks: It doesn’t.
Sound Quality: Fine. There’s not a lot there over 250Hz, but everything below is a gut busting flood of awesome.
Expense: expensive then, expensive now.
Overall: OMFG mind shattering bass. Highly Recommended for bass players or keyboard players who need accents in music.
Commentary: I went to School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) in Boston in September 1976. I lasted until mid-February when I ran out of money. I found myself shoplifting cheese because I was hungry. At that point I figured: it’s time to retreat. I went back home to New Jersey. I learned a great deal in Boston. One of my favourite classes was in Electronic Music. The professor was Larry S Johnson. I really liked him. He was a great guy. He turned me on to an amazing assortment of music. A big chunk of class consisted of us sitting around and listening to music and then talking about it. The gear there was sparse but good. We had two synthesizers – EMS VCS3’s and a Muse Box. We had two tape decks – A Dokodor 4 track and a Teac 3340S.
The VCS3 was a revelation. It was a synthesizer that didn’t even really need its own keyboard. It was programmed using a set of pens and a matrix of holes. Inserting the pens in the holes would create a circuit and path for the signal to travel. It had three oscillators, and they were all wonderful. The VCS3 was a magnificent synthesizer, capable of making all kinds of squiggly weird sounds.
Ease of use: steep learning curve, but predictable as any analog sense
What it does well: weird squiggly sounds
How it sucks: no patch memory, monophonic
Sound Quality: excellent
Expense: extreme, bordering on extortionate
Overall: Awesome and peculiar monosynth – wish I had one to this very day.
The emulator from XILS is very good. it costs about CDN$70.
TRIADEX MUSE BOX
Commentary: this was another box we had at the electronic music studio at SMFA. It was basically a step sequencer with its own built-in and very primitive one oscillator synthesizer. It was extremely good at making bloopy bleepy sounds that constantly repeated. You could change the settings on the fly and thus make very peculiar sequences.
Ease of use: extremely easy
What it does well: make bloopy bleepy sounds that endlessly repeat
How it sucks: getting it to do anything remotely useful
Sound Quality: terrible
Expense: at the time they were about $300. Nowadays they go for around $1800. Too much.
Overall: meh. It’s a curiosity, and not that interesting today.
TEAC 3340S tape deck
Commentary: this was one of the tape decks at SMFA. The other was a Dokoder. Later, my friend James bought a TEAC 3340 so he could record the band, and hopefully work on original material. We had a lot of fun with the TEAC in class. I remember one time we hooked up the inputs and outputs between the TEAC and the Dokoder forming what Terry Riley called a time lag accumulator, or what Robert Fripp called frippertronics. We put the TEAC on a cart, and then change the speed of the tape. However, we did not change the speed on the Dokoder. So we were constantly moving the cart with the TEAC back and forth across the room. As the sound was accumulated on the tape, it would play back at a different pitch, depending on the speed of its recording. We would also touch the tape flanges which would of course make a flanging effect. Over the course of half an hour where we were inputting vocals and the VCS3 onto separate tracks, and then rerouting them to different tracks by way of the Dokoder, we created a delightful cacophony. That was fun. Working with the TEAC I learned a great deal about multitrack recording, and the intricacies of tape-based electronic music.
Ease of use: fairly simple if you understand tape decks
What it does well: record sound
How it sucks: back then it was hard to beat, but today GarageBand kicks its ass. Its biggest problem was tape speed and bandwidth. The tape tracks were not very wide and so not a lot of information could be deposited. Also the tape didn’t go exceptionally fast so the signal to noise ratio was not as good as found on a professional 30ips machine.
Sound Quality: back then it was very good, today not so much.
Expense: expensive than, and not cheap today.
Overall: For its time it was an important machine. If you fell into a wormhole and came out in 1975, sure – pick one up. Buying one today would be a waste of money.
Commentary: After I ran out of money in Boston, I moved back to New Jersey. There I enrolled in Rutgers University, as an art student. The music department in Livingston campus had some really nice gear. The centrepiece was the Arp 2500. It was an extremely complicated synthesizer and very difficult to program. It had a couple dozen sets of sliders that would click into place. The configuration of these sliders would determine the pathway of the signal in the synthesizer. It was capable of truly remarkable sound however. It just took a long time to figure out how to use it. I only used it a few times, but I was deeply impressed.
Ease of use: nearly impossible. The learning curve is a vertical wall.
What it does well: make truly crazy sounds.
How it sucks: programming it is difficult. Also, I found the filters to be rather thin. Moog filters were beefy, Arp always sounded thin, lively, yet unenthusiastic.
Sound Quality: very good.
Expense: astronomical then, and extortionate today.
Overall: Eliane Ratigue used one to great success, and I admire her work deeply. She clearly had far more patience than I do. It’s a very cool box, but I would never want to own one. Recommended only for masochists and purists with very deep pockets.
Commentary: in 1985 and 1986 I lived at Kashin Zendo Genzo Ji. I spent most of my day meditating, or at work at Phil’s Photolettering. It was a remarkable place to live, and it was a pivotal time of my life. In the early winter of 1986, a friend of mine, Bob Boilen, lent me a synthesizer that he was using – the Arp Odyssey. He had borrowed it from another friend, the artist, Robin Rose. I had a lot of fun with this machine and was able to get some very fun sounds out of it. Like other art’s I found its filter to be rather thin, but it was easy to program and a fun expressive machine. Bob went on to greater fame working at NPR, and he is important to me, as he reminds me of these remarkable times.
Ease of use: very easy.
What it does well: makes buzzy synth sounds.
How it sucks: the filter is kind of thin, there is no memory for presets, and its signal routing is very East Coast.
Sound Quality: very good.
Expense: back then fairly expensive, today it is absurdly expensive thanks to fetishists.
Overall: It was a nice keyboard. I’ve heard the Korg remake is also very good. However, I have a VST plug-in for Ableton Live that does everything the Arp Odyssey does, and has memory for presets. So I have no real need for an Arp Odyssey. For analogue mono synth yumminess I would recommend the Arp Odyssey, however, the emulator for it is quite good, and vastly cheaper, and Korg’s repro is very good.
Commentary: I got to play a DX7 in the winter of 1986. A friend of Bob Boilen’s, Ardai Baharmest, had one of these and a four track recorder. In February 1986 I went to visit him, and we did some recording. The results of that recording session finally saw the light of day on my album “something old and something new.” I had messed around with a DX7 in different music shops, so I was familiar with how it worked. It’s a pretty amazing synthesizer, capable of making a wide variety of sounds very easily. It has its shortcomings, but the benefits it provides far outweigh the shortcomings.
Ease of use: it is very difficult to use. Programming a DX7 makes no sense at all. It is extremely counter-intuitive.
What it does well: it does a number of things well: it’s very good at bell and metallic tones, it is also very good at electric piano sounds, very sharp bright ice pick in your ear type of sounds, and it easily makes a very particular kind of rubbery bass tone.
How it sucks: it’s hard to describe, but often sounds that are of the low mid variety are often kind of plastic or metallic sounding, and the string sounds it provides are wholly unconvincing. And, as noted, programming it is an exercise in futility and frustration.
Sound Quality: somewhere in between okay and pretty good.
Expense: back then it was very expensive, close to $2000 at times. Today, because of the fetishist factor, it is overpriced, but not extortionate.
Overall: I have a piece of software, FM8, that replicates the DX7 and is wildly easier to program. While I would never want to own a DX7, and the FM8 emulator is amazing, I can recommend the DX7 for thems what wants hardware – it’s THE classic FM synth.
1987 was a pivotal year for me. That Christmas I bought a shitload of gear.
Commentary: this isn’t a synthesizer. This is my first computer. I had taken out a loan from the bank for $5000, because my girlfriend at the time wanted me to have a credit rating. I already owned a car, an awesome tank – a 1972 Chevy Nova. So I use the money to build my electronic music studio in 1987. The Atari was the centre of the studio. I bought the Atari because it was a colour computer with 1 MB of RAM that cost less than $1000. A Macintosh with similar capabilities cost over $2000. And then you still couldn’t hook up to a synthesizer because you would have to buy a MIDI interface that would connect to the Macintosh. The Atari did not have this problem as MIDI was built directly into the computer. I saved even more money by using a black and white monitor, and was able to get my Atari for only $750. This left more room in my budget for software. I liked the Atari very much. It was solid and well built, and the operating system was hardwired into the computer, so it booted up instantly. That was another key advantage. The routing of the MIDI went from the Atari to a Yamaha MIDI router/merger/splitter that would allow me to control other synthesizers from the Atari itself and the Korg DSS 1. It was a good little computer, and I only finally got rid of it in 2007. The only time it ever really give me any problem was once when it gave me serious heart ache, but it wasn’t its fault. I was running low on floppy drive space so I wanted to consolidate my MIDI files which were scattered over a number of discs onto one disc. So what I did was I would stick the floppy disk into the Atari, create copies of the files in a RAM disc, then format the floppy disk. I had recently written and electronic music mass called “missa post-industralis”, and all of its files were scattered across these discs. I had the entire mass in the RAM disc, when there was a sudden power failure, and the machine crashed. I lost all my work, except for the one file on the last disc which I had yet to format. That track would become the song “IndusTrial” on my album Breathless. I was quite demoralized after losing the mass, and I learned my lesson about how to backup files properly.
Ease of use: for a computer at that time it was very easy to use, comparable to a Macintosh. By today’s standards it would seem arcane and kind of stupid.
What it does well: sling MIDI. It did that very well.
How it sucks: it didn’t have a hard drive, so my floppy drives were my hard drive.
Sound Quality: not relevant
Overall: awesome for it’s time – my phone is more powerful today, but for the late 1980s, the 1040ste rocked it, and rocked it hard. So, if you fall into a time machine wormhole and pop out in 1987, I would recommend the 1040ste. Otherwise – a cheap Android phone eats it for breakfast…
Commentary: this was one of the most important synthesizers in my entire career. This was one of the synthesizers that I bought in 1987 that got my musical ball rolling. DSS stands for digital sampling synthesizer. You can pretty much forget about the sampling. It was a 12 bit sampler with only a megabyte of RAM. If you wanted more than a couple seconds of sampling you had to reduce the sample rate, and the highest sampling rate was only 32 K. However, it had a number of other extremely fine features. For one thing it had an excellent 24 DB four pole filter with resonance. It also had additive synthesis. It also had a waveform drawing ability. It also had six stage envelopes for both the amplifier and the filter. And it had a unison mode that was devastating. You could get the fattest, heaviest, detuned sounds out of this thing.
It worked off of samples that were on a floppy disk. The operating system was built into the synthesizer, but nothing really happened without a floppy disk that had the information that would permit the operating system to do anything useful. Its structure was a bit arcane, but not terribly complicated. You had samples that were assigned regions of the keyboard, and these sample sets were saved as “multi-sounds”. The machine had two oscillators, and different multi-sounds could be assigned to each oscillator. Each Oscillator could be mixed against the other. You could also switch between the oscillators by using velocity. And on top of it all, it had two digital delays! This was an amazing keyboard, and much of the work that I did between 1987 and into the mid-90s was centred around the DSS 1. It came with a couple dozen floppy disks filled with multi-sounds and presets. I augmented this collection over time. There was one big downside of the synthesizer, other than the fact that its sampling ability sucked, and that is the time it took for the keyboard to boot up off of the floppy, and for the amount of time it took to switch floppy disks. It literally took 80 seconds to boot the DSS 1. Switching discs was not much faster. Eventually I became so frustrated, that I bought another one, so I could have one keyboard boot up or change sounds while I was playing the other one. Still even with these deficiencies it was a remarkable keyboard and I highly recommend it.
Ease of use: once you got your head around all it could do, it was pretty easy. The manual wasn’t terrible.
What it does well: it could make truly hellish wonderful scary mechanical noises. Drawing waveforms was fun, and it resulted in harsh digital waveforms – wonderful stuff. Its unison mode was divine. It was a pleasure to play – the key bed was very high-quality.
How it sucks: the boot time was ridiculous. Switching discs took forever. The sampling quality was miserable. It weighed 20 kilos. Also if your floppy drive dies you don’t have a synthesizer. And floppy drives for this machine are becoming increasingly expensive and hard to find.
Sound Quality: quality ranged. If the samples on the discs were very good, it sounded very good. Also waveforms that were drawn inside the synthesizer using either the waveform drawing ability or the additive synthesis were precise and high quality sounds. If the samples were badly recorded, then it didn’t sound very good. The classic garbage in garbage out rule. That said, usually it sounded great. Did I mention the unison mode? It rocked.
Expense: when they were new, they cost about $1700. These days you can pick them up for about $300.
Overall: This is an amazing synthesizer. Crappy sampler, but an amazing synthesizer. Basically, when used in conjunction with an Atari 1040, it became a very poor man’s Fairlight CMI. The worst part about it is the boot time – at least 90 seconds to get sound out of it. But if you can stand that, I do recommend the DSS-1 – it is one of the best synthesizers of its time and capable of amazing sounds, and there is no emulator of it.
Commentary: I bought this on the same day that I bought my first DSS-1. The TX81z was an FM synthesizer not radically dissimilar from the DX7. The DX7 had eight operators, which are kind of like oscillators. The TX81z only had four. Also the output stages of the TX81z were not as well-crafted as the DX7. As a consequence the TX81z was a much noisier synthesizer. Like the DX7 it was a monster to program. Even though it had fewer parameters than the DX7, it had an interface that would best be described as Spartan. As a consequence programming it was a total pain in the ass. At least it was a pain in the ass until I discovered a program for my Atari called Dr. T’s 4op deluxe. This software made programming the TX81z a breeze. My favourite feature was the randomization feature. Each parameter of the TX81z was represented in the UI of Dr. T. Next to each parameter was a checkbox, and if checked that checkbox would submit that parameter to randomization. So I could check any number of its parameters, including the configuration of the operators, and have them randomized. There was one problem with Dr. T software and using the randomization function: if you kept hitting randomize, eventually one of the parameters would go to zero and since the randomization was a function of multiplication or division of the parameter’s value if the parameter’s value was zero that would be the end of the randomization for that particular parameter, as one cannot divide or multiply zero and get a value other than zero. That aside, Dr. T’s software made the TX81z a truly fabulous synthesizer. I liked the TX81z so much that I later procured the keyboard version, the DX 11.
Ease of use: miserable on its own, but a total breeze using Dr. T’s 4op deluxe.
What it does well: make buzzy clinky weird FM synth sounds
How it sucks: its signal to noise ratio is not good. Without a software editor it’s a miserable beast to program.
Sound Quality: kind of noisy. I would often bury it in reverb which would help drown out the hiss.
Expense: it was cheap then and it’s cheaper now.
Overall: despite its shortcomings, it’s a good little box – but only if you can edit it in software. There is no real emulator of it, so if you want to design 4op sounds in it, you need to buy one. No big deal – they’re cheap. I recommend the TX81z.
YAMAHA KM802 MIXER
Commentary: this was my first mixer. I bought it on the same day as my DSS-1 and my TX81z. It was not a great mixer. Nor was it terrible. Once I discovered the Mackie, I sold this.
Ease of use: very easy
What it does well: functions as a keyboard mixer
How it sucks: it’s not the quietest mixer. It’s EQ is pretty harsh. It’s cheap feeling and all plastic.
Sound Quality: mediocre
Expense: cheap then and impossible to find today, which is no big deal because it was not a very good mixer.
Overall: Don’t miss it. I do not recommend the KM802.
SEQUENTIAL CIRCUITS PROPHET 2002
Commentary: this was another synthesizer I procured with the DSS-1 and TX81z in 1987. Frankly, I thought it sucked. The DSS-1 was a much better synthesizer, and an equal sampler. The prophet 2002 only had 256K of sampling RAM. Like the DSS-1 it was also only 12 bit. It had filters that were pretty good, but not great. It didn’t have any of the features that the DSS-1 had like waveform drawing, additive synthesis, dual digital delays, and a super fat unison mode. I quickly tired of it after a few weeks, and sold it to Bob Boilen.
Ease of use: terrible. I didn’t have any software to help, and programming it was a pain in the neck. Although, the UI was fairly simple – everything was “right there”, I’ll give it that.
What it does well: it was a mediocre sampler. So if you’re into that grainy 12 bit sound this was your puppy. Also it was built like a truck – it weighed a ton and is made out of serious metal. The library that came with it had a number of very good disks.
How it sucks: in just about every possible way it sucked. It didn’t sound that great, it was hard to program, and the company that built it was in serious straits so support was mediocre.
Sound Quality: meh
Expense: way more expensive than the DSS-1, and hard to find today which is fine; they sucked.
Overall: meh. I got rid of it, and I don’t miss it. The DSS-1 kicked it up and down the stairs – no comparison. I do not recommend the Prophet 2002.
MACKIE 1202VLZ mixer
Commentary: awesome little mixer. I bought this in the early 1990s, and I only sold it in 2016. It was built like a truck, and I dropped it down the stairs more than a few times. Even after all that abuse, it kept working. I sold it to a fellow who needed a mixer for his bands rehearsal space in his garage. As far as I know it’s still there, working day in day out. All of my records starting with Snow in 1991 up to my album “Live” from 2004 were all mixed on the Mackie. After a while the mixing potentiometers got kind of scratchy. I fixed that a few times and then got fed up with it and realized I wasn’t really using it anymore as everything was being mixed in software. If I had to get another keyboard mixer, I would probably get another Mackie or an Allen and Heath.
Ease of use: very simple
What it does well: it mixes sound
How it sucks: it doesn’t
Sound Quality: pretty good. Not superb, but pretty good. Decent preamps. It’s not a Neve or a Studer, but it only cost me $150 used.
Expense: cheap. But good.
Overall: I loved it, and if I get another keyboard mixer it would likely be a Mackie.
Commentary: this is the keyboard version of the TX81z. It’s a little bit easier to program than the TX81z, but that’s not saying much. Luckily Dr. T was able to reprogram this thing easily. It had all of the good things and all of the bad things that the TX81z had. However it also had the keyboard, and it was a really good keyboard – very smooth and responsive to the touch. I had it for some time, and then as I got more into software and sequencing I sold it and bought other gear.
Ease of use: miserable on its own, but a total breeze using Dr. T’s 4-op deluxe.
What it does well: make buzzy clinky weird FM synth sounds
How it sucks: its signal to noise ratio is not good. Without a software editor it’s a miserable beast to program.
Sound Quality: kind of noisy. I would often bury it in reverb which would help drown out the hiss.
Expense: it was cheap then and it’s kind of hard to find today. When you do find it it’s not that expensive, usually around $350, which is about half what it cost new back then, only then $350 was worth a lot more.
Overall: despite its shortcomings, it’s a good little keyboard – but only if you can edit it in software. I recommend the DX11.
Commentary: in 1999 I was tired of the DX 11 / 4op scene and wanted to get a different synthesizer. Having had good luck with the DX 11 and the TX81z, I figured I would go look at Yamaha. The Internet was a relatively new thing and I was excited to be able to find things online that may not be available locally or simply at a lower price. So I went about to different music stores to look at different keyboards and do some sound research. I liked the E-mu Proteus keyboard, but it seemed just a tad bit expensive. In my travels I also saw the CS2X, and I thought it was pretty good. I also thought it wasn’t much better than the Proteus keyboard.
So the next day I got online and I went to zzounds.com. Their price for the Proteus were cheaper than the store that I looked at, but not stunningly cheaper. Then I saw their price for the CS2X. My jaw dropped. They were selling the CS1X, which was the previous version, for almost $900. They were selling the CS2X for only $525. I checked other online musical instrument suppliers and saw that the CS2X usually sold for somewhere between $875 and $1000, and the CS1X was being blown out the door by everyone for prices between $500 and $600. So obviously someone at zzounds.com had messed up in their data entry. I immediately went back to zzounds.com and bought the CS2X for $525. They even paid for shipping.
Next to my Korg DSS-1 the CS2X has proven to be my most useful keyboard. It is very easy to program, it has a wide range of internal sounds, a nice collection of effects, and a very good key bed. I use this keyboard extensively on my records Keraunograph, K2, live, and on parts of Array. One of the things that I like about it the most is the set of knobs at the upper left of the keyboard itself. You can control the filter resonance and cut off frequency from these knobs, as well as the ADSR of the VCA. It’s all very immediate and a lot of fun. As a keyboard controller, it was okay but not great. That led me to acquiring dedicated MIDI controlling keyboards. Still, I own this keyboard to this very day, and recently gifted it to my daughter who is having fun with it. Good keyboard.
Ease of use: it has a learning curve, but it’s not that steep.
What it does well: it makes buzzy raver sounds really well. It has an adequate set of pianos and organ sounds. A decent arpeggiator, some very good effects, and a fair complement of other synthesizer sounds.
How it sucks: you can’t change the waveforms in it and its USB implementation is very weak.
Sound Quality: it ranges from good to very good
Expense: I got it super cheap. You can usually pick them up nowadays for about $300.
Overall: Basically a really good synth. I highly recommend the CS2x.
EMU PROTEUS 2000
Commentary: I bought this a few years after the CS2X. I was wholly unimpressed. I got rid of it quickly.
Ease of use: very difficult to program. It has a jillion filters, which is nice, but there is no way from the front panel to easily adjust the parameters.
What it does well: make buzzy raver sounds.
How it sucks: it makes buzzy raver sounds.
Sound Quality: very good – I was impressed with the quality of the sound that came out of it.
Expense: it was kind of expensive at the time, not terrible, but more than it was worth. Nowadays you can pick it up for a few hundred dollars. I don’t think it’s worth that even.
Overall: Meh, I don’t particularly recommend this, but I don’t hate it, either. I don’t miss it.
Commentary: I bought the oxygen8 to control the Proteus 2000, independent of the CS2x. The plan was also that it would control any other boxes I would acquire, so as not to tie up whatever my main keyboard is doing. It worked in that capacity. However I found the Proteus 2000 inferior, and the CS2x to be a perfectly serviceable keyboard for triggering note events in soft synths and whatever DAW I was using, specifically Ableton Live. As a consequence, the oxygen8 languished. When I got rid of the Yamaha Motif I thought I might be able to use the oxygen8, but this was comically wrong. By the time I sold the Yamaha Motif, the oxygen8 was woefully antiquated and obsolete. In fact, Ableton live 9 wouldn’t even recognize it. So, I just gave it away to someone who was running vintage software on a vintage computer.
Ease of use: it was very easy to use.
What it does well: plays notes, triggers MIDI, it’s pretty good for what it was.
How it sucks: drivers for it no longer exist for modern systems, so it is little more than a doorstop.
Sound Quality: it makes no sound.
Expense: it was cheap then and it’s infinitely cheaper now.
Overall: Meh. It was okay – I never really used it to its best and fullest extent until it was too late, and then it was obsolete. The funny thing is: I should not have gotten rid of it, as I could have used it to trigger my rack mount synths orthogonally to the computer system. Sigh.
Commentary: I collected this after moving to Toronto. It is the rackmount version of the Korg M1. It has all the glories and foibles and problems and wonders of the M1. I’m not a big fan of the M1, but it does have its uses. Many of the sounds in it are from the DSS-1.
Ease of use: programming it from the front panel is a pain in the ass. It is best to use a software interface to program it.
What it does well: make all those boxy string sounds the M1 was famous for – the same boxy strings they pulled off the DSS-1. It also has the famous M1 piano sound which was used extensively in house music. So if I need that mid rangy Klinky piano sound I know exactly where to go. Also it makes the classic 80s bottle blow sound.
How it sucks: programming it is misery. All of its presets sound unbearably dated.
Sound Quality: good to very good
Expense: it was expensive back in the day, but nowadays you can pick one up for a few hundred dollars.
Overall: I’m still thinking of ways on how to use this thing. It’s kind of like having my DSS-1 all-in-one box, only without the awesome filters, or the additive synthesis, or the way form drawing, or the awesome key bed. However, it starts up in a few seconds, and I don’t have to worry about changing discs. I recommend the M1R, but not highly. Korg has a virtual instrument group called the Legacy Edition, where you get the MS-20, Polysix, Mono/Poly, M1, Wavestation, and the MDE-X for $199. If you are looking for those sounds, I see the Legacy Edition as a wise investment, one I will likely make myself.
Commentary: similar to the M1, this is the rackmount version of the keyboard, the U-20. The U-20 was a piece of junk, and the U-220 is no better. I’m still trying to figure out what to do with it.
Ease of use: impossible to program unless you have a software editor, and over all, it’s a pretty “tame” sounding synth.
What it does well: makes generic 80s synth sounds.
How it sucks: it makes generic 80s synth sounds.
Sound Quality: pretty good – not great, but not bad.
Expense: it was average to kinda cheap back then, nowadays you can usually find them for about $150.
Overall: it’s not very good – a yawn.
ROLAND MSE-1 STRING ENSEMBLE
Commentary: I got this with the U220. It is a very cheesy sounding string ensemble. It does that very well.
Ease of use: very easy
What it does well: it makes cheesy string ensemble sounds
How it sucks: it makes cheesy string ensemble sounds
Sound Quality: average to okay
Expense: back in the day it was overpriced for what it gave you. Nowadays they’re not that common to find, or you do find them they are not terribly expensive, usually about $250-$300.
Overall: meh. Don’t bother.
YAMAHA MOTIF XS6
Commentary: having had great success with the TX81z, the DX 11, and the CS2X, I figured I would stay on the Yamaha train. What I moved to Toronto in 2007, it was time to procure a new synthesizer. I went to the local musical instrument emporium, and spoke with the local salespeople there. I wanted a synthesizer that was powerful and sounded amazing. I narrowed it down to three synthesizers: the Korg M3, the Roland Phantom, and the Yamaha motif XS6. They all have their individual strengths and weaknesses. Of the three, the Korg M3 had the lowest quality audio output, and the mushiest key bed. I tested all three using the same set of headphones, and the Korg was noticeably lower in audio quality. It just had this plasticky fake sound to it. So that ported down to a choice between the Roland and the Yamaha. I rather liked the Roland – it was very easy to program and the sound quality was nearly as good as the Yamaha. In retrospect I probably should’ve procured the Roland because its ease of use was an order of magnitude better than the Yamaha.
I chose the Yamaha because of its arpeggiator, the quality of its key bed – it’s a pleasure to play, and the quality of the sound that came out of it. The Yamaha had the most articulate and highest quality audio output of the three, although the Roland came close. As a workstation qua workstation the Yamaha is a brilliant keyboard. It has everything. It has about 5000 patches. It had a built-in vocoder. It had a built-in sequencer. It had an arpeggiator with thousands of different arpeggios built into it. It had sliders and knobs that allowed for real time modification of a variety of parameters including resonance and cut off and amplifier envelope. It had extensive effects. It had all the bells and whistles.
However, getting anything done with it was a royal pain in the ass. For example; let’s say I want to take the sound of the piano and put it into the amplifier and filter envelopes and settings of a legato string instrument. In the DSS-1, this was a trivial operation. One would simply go to the oscillator and change its waveform from strings to piano. It was very similar on the CS2x – one simply drilled down to the oscillator level and change the waveform. It wasn’t that hard. On the Motif, one first had to drill down on the piano sound and find out the names of the piano samples which were written in a non-human readable form – something like 12A63BXY.WAV. Then you had to write down all of these sample names on a piece of paper and make sure that you do it in the right order. Then you had to go to the string patch that you want to modify, click edit, click start job, name the job, save the job, and then drill down to the oscillator level where the string samples were stored. They were also named in a nonhuman readable fashion. You then had to go and enter the piano wave forms where the string waveforms were, using the giant dial and the enter button to bludgeon through this process. Once you had replaced all of the samples and these samples were in the correct places in terms of their keyboard placement, you then had to save job, execute job, then save the patch, save it to a user definable patch space, click yes I want to save this, and then bingo: you are done. What took me seconds on the CS2x or at most a minute on the DSS-1 took at least 10 minutes on the Yamaha Motif. Editing the arpeggio patterns was equally tedious. The Yamaha Motif was a synthesizer designed by engineers, for engineers. Its learning curve was steep and pointless. It was also a pain in terms of going to a band rehearsal as it weighed 40 pounds. Dragging it around hurt my back.
Ease of use: it had no ease-of-use.
What it does well: it makes very realistic imitations of acoustic instruments. It can strum guitars it can squeal saxophones it can do a lot of things. It can make instant pop music that sounds like any TV commercial you’ve ever heard. What it does well, it does really really well.
How it sucks: it was extremely difficult to use, and even more difficult to edit.
Sound Quality: the sound quality is magnificent.
Expense: it was way too expensive new. I spent just over $2000 on it new. I sold it for $850 in 2016. I could’ve sold it for a little more, but I just wanted to get rid of it.
Overall: After the debacle of the Motif, I went all in on soft synths. I should mention that I have several other instruments that I use or have used for music creation. Those will come last in an Appendix, as they are not Keyboards, but are interesting. The Yamaha Motif XS6 was an awful, awful, synthesizer. I’m glad it’s gone. The worst synthesizer purchase decision I ever made. Flee the Motif.
My present day set up:
I will discuss each device in turn. At the left is a rack unit, housing the M1R, the U220, and the MSE-1. These are controlled using a Yamaha MIDI router I procured back when I bought the DSS-1 and TX81z and Prophet 2002 and DX11, etc. They are triggered by the M-Audio Oxygen25 (keyboard middle). The sound comes from the EVENT PS8 monitors. These are controlled by the JBL MSC1 (thing with a big knob on the top left). The audio emanates from the Apple laptop (MacBook Air i7 – 16GB – 256GB SSD) and is managed by the MOTU Ultralite MkIII. I use a lot of samples and looped samples in Ableton Live. These are triggered using the AKAI APC40, the Novation Launchpad, and a recent addition, the Akai APCmini, which is not in the photo. The master keyboard, which does a bit of what the AKAI gear does and plays like a keyboard is a Novation Impulse 61. We’ll start there. After we talk hardware, we will talk software.
Novation Impulse 61
Commentary: this is now my main keyboard. It’s got lots of knobs sliders and buttons. The key bed itself is not as crisp and responsive as the Yamaha was. However it’s not a terrible key bed. It’s just responsive enough to be acceptable.
Ease of use: plug it into the USB of the computer: done.
What it does well: everything that it is built to do it does well: you can play melodies and chords on the keyboard, you can tap out drum rhythms on the drum pads, you can control Ableton Live’s mixer sliders with its set of sliders, and you can control parameters in Live with its array of knobs. It’s fine.
How it sucks: it doesn’t. I’m not a big fan of the keybed’s “feel” – I probably should have gone for a “synth action” keybed, but the keybed is good enough for my hamfisted playing.
Sound Quality: it doesn’t make any sound.
Expense: it is reasonably priced.
Overall: I like this very much. It has become my main keyboard and I recommend it.
Commentary: I got this so I might trigger the M1 and the U220. It is also very useful as a travelling keyboard for small performances. It has eight drum pads, and eight knobs that control parameters in Ableton live, and start stop and record buttons for Ableton. It does all this perfectly well. My expectations of it are low, and it met them all admirably. The problem is, practically, it powers off USB, and so using it to trigger synths AND work in Ableton is cumbersome. I will likely demote this to a performance instrument and preplace it with something like the Ultranova.
Ease of use: very easy to use
What it does well: it plays MIDI notes. It triggers drum pad sounds in drum software. It does very little really, but it does it fine.
How it sucks: it doesn’t.
Sound Quality: it makes no sound
Expense: it’s very cheap
Overall: it does what I needed to do, which isn’t much, so I’m not complaining. It’s fine, but nothing special.
Commentary: this, in conjunction with the Novation Impulse keyboard, is one of my main composition and performance tools. This is my main interface for using Ableton live. It works great. It’s got sliders knobs and buttons and they all work and they work really well. My only complaint so far has been with the power supply whose cable isn’t long enough, so I had its cable lengthened. It’s a really fine piece of gear.
Ease of use: it has a learning curve, but not so intense as to be seriously intimidating. If you just dick around with it for a couple of weeks, and follow some tutorial videos on YouTube, you will quickly master the device.
What it does well: it triggers everything that I needed to trigger in Ableton Live.
How it sucks: it doesn’t really suck it all. There are a few things that I wish it could do better, but overall it’s really pretty good. I wish the power supply cable was longer. Also I wish that it had more vertical rows of the buttons. It goes eight across in columns, I wish it did that in rows as well. But that’s okay.
Sound Quality: it makes no sound.
Expense: it’s not cheap, but it’s not heinously expensive either. You can pick them up used for very reasonable price.
Overall: I like it, I use it all the time. I highly recommend the APC40.
Commentary: this is what I usually use on the road or in performance. I can fit this, the oxygen 25, my MacBook Air, and the MOTU audio interface with power supplies and cables all in one large computer bag. There’s even enough room left over for a change of underwear, so I can go perform anywhere that’s only a day or two away. Which is basically almost everywhere in the world: I can perform my music almost anywhere. The APC mini does most of what the APC 40 does, at least in terms of what I need it for – which is controlling Ableton Live. It’s a fine little box.
Ease of use: very easy to use.
What it does well: it controls Ableton Live very well. It doesn’t do as much as the APC 40, but that’s fine. It does what I need it to do.
How it sucks: it basically doesn’t. Yes it is limited, but that goes without saying – it’s an APC mini, not the full blown machine.
Sound Quality: it makes no sound
Expense: very reasonable, cheaper used.
Overall: I like it, I use it all the time. I highly recommend the APCmini, especially for live shows.
Commentary: this is what I used before I got the APC 40. It’s pretty good, and it does trigger a lot more samples than the APC 40 does. If this had sliders to control the mixing sliders, and a good set of knobs to control parameters, I wouldn’t need the APC 40, and in fact if it had those things it would be better than the APC 40. But it doesn’t so it isn’t.
Ease of use: very easy to use
What it does well: triggers samples in Ableton live
How it sucks: it doesn’t. It is very limited, but that’s expected given its limitations.
Sound Quality: it makes no sound
Expense: I bought it used for $75, and that’s a fair price.
Overall: I like it but I don’t think I’m going to hold onto it, especially now that I have the APC mini. I recommend the Launchpad, especially for beginners.
MOTU Ultralite MkIII audio interface
Commentary: this is my main audio interface. If I do any sampling or recording it goes through this. All of the audio coming out of my computer goes into this, and from there it goes to my JBL monitor controller, and from there to my event monitors. I like the sound of this unit. The mic preamps are exceptional – rich smooth and pleasant. It’s got plenty of gain on the front end, although not enough for certain microphones such as the Shure SM7b. If I were to use such microphones I would use them in conjunction with a cloudlifter signal amp. It came with some mixing software that I found clunky and terrible, and I immediately deleted it. MOTU is a notoriously wonky piece of gear, and it can be cranky at times. Most of the time it performs flawlessly and it sounds great. For its price it is very very hard to beat.
Ease of use: it has its weirdnesses, however, none of it is truly problematic. I have never used this to do massive multi tracking, nor do I intend to. So I don’t really know how well it performs in that context. For what I use it for, one or two input tracks at most, and as an output digital audio converter, its abilities are perfectly acceptable.
What it does well: it digitises a sound and doesn’t sound harsh. It plays sound and it is not fatiguing.
How it sucks: the interface is a little wonky. Pressing buttons turning dials – it can be a bit of a pain in the ass. Periodically it gets confused and I have to reset it. Other than that it’s fine.
Sound Quality: excellent – the preamps are a delight to the ears.
Expense: I paid $525 for this box and it was $525 well spent.
Overall: I like it. If I had to go out and buy a new audio interface, I would look long and hard at other devices. This part of the industry is changing rapidly and the quality is exploding, so the MOTU is now a bit outdated. I had to go get a new one, I would probably buy an RME Fireface or something like that. I recommend the MOTU, but not highly. If you can swing for an RME or a UE Apollo, do that.
JBL MSC1 monitor controller
Commentary: this is my monitor controller. I bought it used for $125. It works fine. It’s basically just a big volume knob.
Ease of use: using the room EQ microphone is a little tricky, but it does work.
What it does well: it controls my monitors.
How it sucks: it doesn’t.
Sound Quality: excellent.
Expense: I got it for cheap. A similar box made by Mackie called the Big Knob is about $300 so I think I got a good deal.
Overall: it’s fine. I have no reason to get rid of it, and I will probably have it for a very long time. I recommend the MSC1. It works, and works well.
EVENT PS8 Monitors
Commentary: the most important part of the sound system are the speakers. They are exactly what you are listening to. I bought these in 1999. They are not as loud as the BAS 20/20s, but I don’t really need that level of volume for the kind of music that I make. They are starting to get a little bit tired, which makes sense given that they’re almost 20 years old. I’ve been thinking of replacing them but I don’t know what with. I like the speakers made by Focal and Adam, but Event also makes a set called the Opal. They also sound exquisite. So until I can figure out what happens next the Event PS8s will do just fine.
Ease of use: very easy to use
What it does well: makes sound
How it sucks: they don’t
Sound Quality: excellent
Expense: at the time they were average, replacing them will be expensive and difficult.
Overall: These are great monitors. I like them very very much, and I do recommend them.
MacBook Air i7
Commentary: this is the main computer that I use for music production. It has an i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, and a 256 GB SSD. It starts up in seconds, and shuts down in seconds. I have yet to really push the processor very hard matter how many things I throw at it. Overall I am very very happy with its performance. It is lightweight and small – I take it with me to my performances along with much of my other gear. Luckily, I did not have to pay for this. Couple years ago my university said that everybody needed new computers, given that no one had gotten anything new in almost 10 years. So they said, “tell us what kind of computer you want.” I asked what can I get? They said, “anything you want.” I said anything? They said “well…” I said, okay – what’s the budget? They said, “$2000”. I said cool I’ll get back with you. So I went to the Apple website and found with their crappy educational discount I can get the above noted computer, and I did, with about $40 left over.
Ease of use: it’s an apple – it’s easy to use.
What it does well: just about everything you throw at it
How it sucks: it doesn’t. There are far fewer VSTs made for it, but the ones you can get are very good, usually.
Sound Quality: the sound out of the headphone jack is pretty good. Of course, the sound out of the MOTU is much better, still, it’s nice to have that.
Expense: stupidly expensive. If I had to pay for this myself I would’ve bought a PC running Windows 10.
Overall: it’s a very good computer, albeit absurdly expensive. I recommend the Macbook Air i7.
Is in two categories, what I use consistently and what I am playing around with.
What I use, frequently:
Commentary: this is my main DAW. I like it because you can use it as a recording studio, and as a performance instrument, and you can do both at the same time. It has a fairly steep learning curve, to learn it well. However, it’s simple enough that a novice user can be up and running and making some tunes fairly easily. I’ve been using Ableton live since version 0.85 – a friend got me into the tail end of the beta program. I have owned a copy ever since. I tend to skip releases, though. I bought v1, then waited for v3. After 3, I waited for 5 and had that for a long time. A few years ago I upgraded to v9. There is a 9.5 running around, however, I will wait for 10. I still haven’t used all of its abilities.
Expense: it’s rather pricey as far as software goes, but you get a lot for your money.
Ease of use: to do simple things it’s very easy, however, it can become extremely complicated the more you delve into it.
What it does well: it’s brilliant at being a live electronic music instrument.
What it sucks at: it’s not very good at being a giant tape deck. Nor should it be really. That’s ProTools job.
Overall: love it, use it all the time. Ableton Live is a Required: Must Own item.
Commentary: I use audacity all the time, especially on my radio show. It’s very rudimentary – a basic destructive editor. It’s nothing special, and does its job. Which is fine.
Expense: It’s free, as in beer.
Ease of use: It’s very easy to use.
What it does well: Chops up audio.
What it sucks at: Anything more advanced than chopping up audio.
Overall: It does its job. I highly recommend Audacity.
VST PLUG INS FOR ABLETON
I use a lot of different plug ins and they come and go with great rapidity. I can’t honestly remember all or even most of them. Some of them I dearly miss, as they are lost in the ever changing tides of operating systems and incompatibilities. These are the ones that are my present go-to synth plug ins.
Commentary: This is a glorious thing. I have always wanted a mellotron. I believe the mellotron is actually a more important instrument than the synthesizer. The synth was a heroic device that heald the voice of the modern within it – it is the voice of Frankenstein’s monster. So, as modern and anomalous, indeed, monstrous, as the synth is, the mellotron occupies a very different kind of a place – it is vampiric. The Mellotron has no voice of its own – it is completely dependent on the tapes you feed into it. Its sound quality was mediocre at best – the tapes were narrow tracks and not very fast. It was consistently off pitch – if you played more than one key at a time, it would create drag on the capstan and the tapes would slow down, thus dropping in pitch. Mellotrons were always a bit flat for that reason, or, the pitch could be set faster for single key playback, assuming that one would be playing harmonies or chords. Robert Fripp famously said, “Tuning a Mellotron, doesn’t.”
The Mellotron is important because of its inherent vampirism and its appeal to the emotions. The synth is the heroic voice of modernity, the Mellotron is the maudlin voice of post-modernity. The Mellotron is much more transgressive of an instrument – twentieth century classical composers wrote for the early synthesizers – theremins, Ondes Martenots. The largest selling classical album of all time is Switched on Bach by Wendy Carlos. At the same time that Switched On Bach was being hailed as this great creation and artists like Morton Subotnick on his buchla were developing new vocabularies of music and getting pressed on classical labels like Columbia Masterworks, Moody Blues concerts were being picketed by the Musicians Union for their use of the Mellotron.
The Mellotron is a much more problematic instrument than the synth. It doesn’t sit well in anything. It is always “wrong” even when it is perfect. It sounds “dead” yet keening with an unrequited lust for life.
The M-tron plug in is a faithful reproduction from actual Mellotrons (and the Mellotron’s predecessor, the Chamberlain) and even the base version comes with plenty of sounds. I have been using M-tron a lot over the past several years. It is an important part of my sonic cupboard.
Expense: It’s about CDN$190. It’s not cheap. However, you get a good deal for your money. And it’s A TRON for pete’s sake. Worth every dime.
Ease of Use: Very Easy.
Bottom Line: Required: Must Own. It sounds great, and it’s sounds just like a freakin’ Mellotron people!
Commentary: This isn’t a synth – it’s a processor, but I use it a lot. Basically, like the name implies, it’s for guitars. However, you can feed most anything into it. It’s basically every imaginable guitar stompbox in a virtual rack, including a host of amp simulators. So, when I record my bass, Rickensticker, guitar or voice, I can run it through this and come up with some truly amazing textures.
Expense: USD$200. I’ve saved THOUSANDS using this. While $200 is a bit steep for virtual stuff, esp. an amp simulator/effects box, this is worth it.
Ease of Use: It’s fairly easy to use, especially if you have experience with guitar effects and VST instruments.
Bottom Line: This is a very fine VST effects program. I have saved stupid money using it as I don’t have to rent or buy expensive mics, boutique stomp boxen, or crazy huge amplifiers and rehearsal space to mic and record in. Analogue fetishists tend to pooh-pooh this way of working. I accept it simply from a cost and time saving perspective. I highly recommend Guitar Rig.
Commentary: I love Crystal. For one very important reason and many other very good reasons. The big important reason is IT’S FREE. As in beer. It’s also a very powerful synth engine. I like that it has a kind of “randomize” function. This saves TONS of time doing sound design. I can punch through sounds very quickly until I get something that’s roughly what I am looking for and then tweak it from there. The only downside is that it’s not very good at Big Beefy Speaker Eating sounds. I’ve not done the waveform analysis on it, my guess is that its floating point sinks and gets noisy at the corners, preventing a solid waveform. I could be wrong, but that’s just my guess by what my ears tell me. That said, crazy evolving pads and truly eccentric sounds are easily generated by Crystal, oh, and IT’S FREE.
Expense: IT’S FREE. (But you should throw them some money. It’s worth it.)
Ease of Use: This is easy to use but a bear to program. Pretty quickly you can get it to generate new sounds. Modding the sounds into something useful can be a bit tricky, but not terrible.
Bottom Line: Everyone should have a copy of Crystal. And toss the developer a few bucks. YES, IT’S FREE – although I’m sure the developer could use a few extra bucks, so please, donate something. I highly recommend Crystal.
Commentary: This is basically a software version of 8 operator FM synthesis, very similar to the DX7. Programming it is easier than the DX7, but no less brutal, as FM synthesis is rather counter intuitive compared to subtractive synthesis. It comes with almost 1000 presents, so, like the DX7, it is usually easier to modify presets into something useful. My only complaint about FM8 is it’s curiously “dead” sounding. This is easily remedied with some reverb and processing, but it’s a very dry sounding synth on its own. It also has all the pitfalls of FM synthesis – rubbery bass sounds, a lack of warmth. But nothing can make “ice-pick in the ear” sounds like an FM synth.
Expense: It’s about USD$150. Personally, I think that’s a bit steep, esp. given that I can buy a TX81z for $90 or a real DX7 for about $300. So, it’s not a great deal. However, my studio space is small, and I don’t have room for a pile of synths, so it’s worth the expense to me. YMMV.
Ease of Use: It’s easier than a DX7, but that ain’t sayin’ much. It’s FM. FM sucks for programming. Be fore-warned.
Bottom Line: If your sound requires a lot of FM synthesis, like mine does, then you can’t go wrong with FM8. While I recommend FM8, if you don’t need FM sounds, or already have an FM synth, keep your money.
Commentary: FREE synth that is really very very good. It makes buzzy synth sounds, and is very good at the kind of buzzy synth sounds that Crystal is weak at. Thus, Tyrell is a great compliment to Crystal. To me, this sounds a lot like Roland or Korg synths of the 1980s. And it’s free. It comes with a good selection of preset tones, and has a built in chorus to thicken it up a bit. Tyrell is great.
Expense: It’s FREE.
Ease of Use: VERY easy to use.
Bottom Line: It’s free, it sounds fine, and with the randomising function, it’s easy to use. A welcome part of my sonic toolkit. I highly recommend U-HE Tyrell.
Commentary: Also FREE, this is basically a virtualised Roland SH101. If you need a thick buzzy bass tone, this one’s got it. If you need cutting analogue leads, again – here ya go. I will sometimes use this in conjunction with Tyrell for a super thick buzz.
Expense: It’s FREE.
Ease of Use: VERY easy to use.
Bottom Line: Another fine addition to my sonic palette. I highly recommend TAL Bassline. And throw some money at them – it’s worth it.
NI ABSYNTH 5
Commentary: Absynth is one hell of a synth. It is extremely powerful and you can spend stupid amounts of time tweaking stuff. In fact, it can get pretty deep like that, and I haven’t got all freakin’ day to make new sounds from scratch. Absynth understands this, and has a randomize function, which makes new sound discovery and development a lot easier. Also, tweaking presets is very doable, as it has 1800 freakin’ presets. I don’t use Absynth as much as I would like. I got it because it’s powerful and has randomize. I imagine I will be getting more into it in the future.
Expense: It costs about USD$150. Kinda steep for a softsynth, especially considering Crystal and Tyrell are free…
Ease of Use: It is not a simple synth. The randomize function helps a lot. But this is not for the faint-hearted.
Bottom Line: An amazing synthesizer – extremely powerful and capable of truly unique textures and tones, ranging from buzzy synth leads to evolving complex pads. Not easy to use, but easy enough to want to use it more. I may not keep Absynth, or, I may get more into it. Right now, I’m very much on the fence with this one.
iZotope Iris 2
Commentary: This is a great system for sound design. This doesn’t do buzzy synth leads. This is especially great at complex atmospheric sounds and editing samples into new sounds. It’s a very complex tool. I used it version one and wasn’t super impressed. I want to get version two (per the picture above) but haven’t gotten around to it. This is another VST that I am very much on the fence with. The new one comes with 11GB of sounds to mess with. I only have a 256GB SSD, so I dunno… Maybe version 3…
Ease of Use: Not easy. Not terribly difficult, either. It has a learning curve. It can do many powerful things easily, and simple things can be difficult.
Bottom Line: Meh. Still figuring out if it is worth it.
VSTs I like to mess with but haven’t made part of my arsenal (yet)
TAL U-NO 62
Sonic Charge Synplant
Assorted other Instruments and processors I have used (that aren’t synthesizers)
First, my guitars.
I play guitar left handed, so for many of these I had to take images of right handed guitars and flip them for the image.
Teisco May Queen (1969)
My first guitar. It was a piece of crap. I flipped it over to play left hand. Then I put bass strings on it and snapped it in half. Never liked this guitar, and I do not recommend it.
(Epiphone?) EB3 (1974)
My second guitar. I loved this thing. Then I put rotosounds on it and it snapped in half and died. In hindsight, I didn’t properly care for this bass. It had a big tone and was fun to play. I would recommend it, but not highly.
1979 Rickenbacker 4001
I totally adored this instrument. Then in the 1990s I stopped playing bass and sold it. Because I was STUPID. UGH. Years later I thought I should take up the bass again and figured “OK – I’ll just get a new lefty Rickenbacker.” Bzzzzzt! Wrong answer. Rickenbacker had stopped making left handed instruments. Fuck those people. Rickenbacker is well known for being a douchie corporation. They treat music stores that handle their stuff terribly – and there’s always a wait-list of many months just to get one. Heck – they SUE people who make guitars that are merely shaped like theirs. You don’t see Fender getting all busted up over the jillions of pseudo-strats, Tellies, P-basses and Jazz basses. I don’t see Fender suing Sadowsky. I don’t see Gibson suing ESP. But Rickenbacker will sue people for having instruments that look like their designs. Assholes.
AND on top of it, as noted, for quite some time they stopped making left handed instruments, never mind that Paul McCartney and the Beatles basically put Rickenbacker on the map. I never should have sold my Rickenbacker. Sigh. And because they suck, I will never own another one, just on principle. I would own an Ibanez copy of one from the late 70s, though, just so I could mod it into something crazy…
I would recommend it, but not highly, and the company sucks. A lot. I think it is greatly over-rated. But it DOES have THAT RICKY TONE….
1997 Fender Jazz Bass Guitar.
A few years after I sold the Ric, Beth bought me the Fender as a birthday gift. It’s a fine bass, but it’s not a Ricky… Fine sounding bass, especially with DR cylindrical core strings, but I need to shield the electronics – very buzzy from the single coil pick ups. In hindsight, I should have gotten a P/J bass – so I could “clank” with the J bridge pickup and get that classic “woody” tone from the P neck pick up and not be so prone to ground loop and RF problems. Still, my Jazz plays fine, and the DR’s are excellent strings, so it plays beautifully. I like it well enough. I would recommend it, highly, but not A+ high. More like A- high.
A custom built guitar built by an inferior crappy company. Basically, a Rickebacker style guitar built into a chapman stick. Completely pissed me off. It was great for a while and then one of the truss rods blew so now it’s not fixable. Sigh. A waste of money.
1995 Ibanez EX1000
Fun cheap guitar. Bought it used at a pawn shop for $100. Right now it needs a lot of work, though. Strings, set up, fret dress, etc. A project when I get around to it… Overall, it’s a cheap fun guitar. I would recommend it with caveats, but not highly.
This was a big experiment for me. I took a few lessons on how to work with it, and get proper tone out of it. Then I came down with a massive lung infection and never properly got my wind back. This thing has a truly magical tone! Just think “Middle Eastern Flutey-stringy-sound” and you’re probably thinking of the duduk. However, it is extremely difficult to play. I highly recommend playing the duduk. The world needs more of this sound in it.
1986 Alesis MIDIverb
Very cool reverb. The reverse reverb was gnarly and awesome to die for. Some of the super long ones were also a lot of fun because the 12 bit grit would show in the tailings. It’s “average” reverb was nothing special so I bought the SPX90 whose average reverb was set to stun. I used the Alesis A LOT on my first few records. I would recommend it, but not highly.
1987 YAMAHA SPX90
****Brilliant box.*** To this day I don’t know why I sold it. It was way better than the DSP128 I replaced it with. I used it with the Midiverb on Breathless in 1989, which is why Breathless has such an amazing atmosphere. Sigh… I highly recommend the SPX90.
1990? Digitech DSP128
Very good box – a lot of fun. Very noisy though. This processor is very prominent on my record, SNOW, from 1991. It’s not very good and I sold it. I would not recommend the DSP128, but I don’t condemn. I give it a C.
So, that’s about it, for now. If you have any corrections to factual statements I’ve made, feel free to contact me at misterwarwick at yahoo dot com.