Sometimes the underground is a surreal place to be.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

4 80s J-pop albums

These are some rips I've had sitting around for a while. A few years back, every time I would go to Academy Records there would be a couple of old japanese LPs, either enka, J-pop, or anime-related. I expect they were parting out some estate sale they'd picked up. I'd pick up a couple of them on the cheap whenever I saw them, and that was the source of the synthesizer fantasy records I've posted previously. I've got about twenty records from that estate, I figure, but the only ones I've posted have been the truly strange ones. These four LPs are some of the more average ones, but they're also some of my favorites (not hard, I think there's four or five Yamato soundtrack/drama LPs in the mix). There's a great blog here if you're interested in finding more or finding these in better quality:

Akina Nakamori - Third
Kyoko Koizumi - My Fantasy
Marina - Evergreen
Creamy Mami - Last Curtain

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Gear Change: SYSEX Bonanza!

This time around, I've got a special treat for you guys. I've finally gotten around to dumping some custom patches from a few instruments I've had around, essentially the only ones that have bulk-dumping (or any kind of MIDI dumps at all, damned late-model Siel synths). Most of these aren't actually ones that I've made, I've sold off most of the synths that I used to tweak. On offer here is a sysex dump of an E-mu Proteus/1 (mostly factory patches but I've done some nice solid basses, might be worth a look), a Roland Alpha Juno 2 which was passed around the south Brooklyn Rave scene throughout the 90's and went through the hands of several big names, supposedly including Beltram, and the 3 Hoovers definitely lend some credence to that. There's some other absolutely great patches for the Juno 2, very soundtrack and dance oriented, with some evolving pads and moody drones. Finally, there's the custom patches from the Matrix-6R that I got for free when I picked up another keyboard last year (he thought it didn't work, turns out it was just that one output was dead). Some big custom leads, the usual strings, and some odd experiments, but the big sell on this set of patches is the tweaked upright bass preset, which he turned into one of the biggest, most gut shaking bass tones I've ever heard from any analog synth. You can drop these into a Matrix-1000 too, should work fine, and they blow away any of the presets on that box.

I did two dumps of the Alpha Juno 2 since it didn't belong to me and I couldn't confirm that they were correct. If anyone uses it and can confirm in the comments, that would be a big help! Thanks.

A Few Bits and Peices for E-mu Proteus/1
South Brooklyn Rave SYX for Roland Alpha Juno 2
Toolkit 6R SYX for Oberheim Matrix-6 or Matrix-1000

Should work in any SYSEX dumper just like normal, they were dumped to a Peavey Data Streamer and then copied onto an old laptop from the floppy disk though, so any confirmation would be welcome.

As always, remember to dump up your patches to a SYSEX file before loading any of these, because they will overwrite any custom patches you already have on your synth!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Gear Change: Korg DDD-1

The DDD-1 is the second to last piece of gear from my old studio, and likely the last one I'm going to wind up letting go of. The reasons would be lack of space and necessity, since I've just started to move into computer-sequenced sampler-based production (Roland S-550 + the CTS-2000 of the first review, an FB01, an E-mu Proteus 1 and a Matrix-6R controlled by an old pc laptop running cakewalk pro 3 in win95: Still got that 92 hardcore cred to build). I picked up the DDD-1 when I bought an Ensoniq Mirage from a keyboardist who was cleaning out his basement of leftover gear from his touring days back in the 80s. He gave it to me for free, since he thought that some of the outputs/sounds were dead. Don't make this mistake yourself! Make sure that all of the sounds are routed to the main stereo outputs instead of the individual outs when testing if you are selling one, since I don't believe they show up even on the headphones when routed to individual outputs. If you're buying, then take any claim that the machine has broken sounds with a grain of salt. It's nearly impossible to kill these 12-bit machines barring noticeable physical damage.

The interface of the DDD-1 is extremely intuitive, based on the same grid-matrix idea from Korg's SQD-1 sequencer (a favorite of Juan Atkins up to the early 90's). The menus are laid out in a grid printed on the front of the machine, with buttons for each row and column. One simply selects the column and row of the desired function or setting and uses the number pad or +/- keys to change the settings. It's a very shallow learning curve and provides for a fairly fluid editing process for an 80's drum machine, although I wish they would have included an alpha-dial type knob instead of relying on +/- buttons. There's always something to be said for the physicality of programming sounds via movement, even on a 128-step (or less) digital interface.

The internal sounds of the DDD-1 are passable 12-bit samples which have a surprisingly good tune-ability range, as one would hope from Korg. They're a bit flat, with a usability range that stretches from fairly good (shaker, bass, tambourine) to utterly hilarious (the claps, which must rank among the top ten worst samples ever put to ROM). Thankfully, Korg provided several options for adding sounds, including 4 ROM card slots, a Sampling option which allowed for (I believe) 4 0.8 second 12-bit samples within a total 3.2 seconds of memory and a RAM card slot to save your samples and sequences (sequences are stored internally as well, of course, and while I think the sampling board has battery-backed RAM, I don't own one and therefore can't be sure). The Korg ROM cards were actually fairly good, with several latin percussion cards, the usual fusion/pop/rock drums, and various others including some basses and other sound effects. There are also some 3rd-party cards which feature samples from other drum machines, most notably the extremely rare Linn Drum card. The built-in sequencer, with memory for 100 patterns and 10 songs, is extremely flexible for the time. It allows you to program changes in pitch, decay, pan, velocity, roll & flam, and the usual tempo change-ups and swing variations. It also provides 12 pressure-sensitive pads for real time or step-time input. The flexibility of the sequencer, along with the 6 individual outputs (in addition to the dual-mono stereo outputs) and the ability to alter the pitch, decay, and other settings of the internal samples make the DDD-1 a very respectable alternative to similar drum machines of the time such as the TR-505 and TR-707, especially given the very reasonable second-hand prices, which range from $50 to $100 dollars and often undercut a TR-505 of similar condition.

The MIDI implementation is solid, the timing is bang-on and I believe the DDD-1 accepts sysex changes for all of the functions the sequencer offers. When paired with a cheap 8-input mixer (I recommend the Yamaha KM802, which usually goes for $50-$75 secondhand and has three independent stereo effects loops for reverb/compression/eq/etc), the DDD-1 becomes a very powerful old school drum machine for house, industrial, and minimal synth-style music. The DDD-1 also features a metronome/click out and a programmable trigger output which should work with any pre-MIDI sequencer/arpeggiator/gate gear you should care to throw at it.

The real beauty of this machine, and what makes it a total steal right now, is the availability of new ROM cards which feature samples that were, if not impossible, at least extremely hard to find for the DDD-1 in the past. This Brit techie has begun releasing homemade ROM cards with socketed sound-chips for prices which at least match (if not undercut) the prices of the rarest DDD-1 cards. The 3rd-party Linn Drum card for the DDD goes for between $75-100, while his £42 deals on two chips plus the socketed card, at present currency conversion rates, go for $70. I have the 909/808 set, and the samples are impressively clear and highly usable, although the pitch and delay configurability is somewhat less than one might wish. It's a homebrew project though, reverse-engineered and built from scratch, so the sound quality he's achieved is honestly leagues beyond my expectations. The sounds from a ROM card inserted into a DDD-1 are assigned to a given pad/note by the user, and the DDD-1 allows for up to 15 different drum sets to be created, which allows for a wonderful amount of flexibility when you're working with more than one card. This means that if you buy a set of ROMs from korgdddmods plus an extra socketed card, you can mix 808 and 909 sounds (or the CR-78 etc sounds of their Analog Percussion chip, the SDS-5 chip, or the Mattel Drum Box chip) with the internal DDD-1 sounds to create your own kits, making the DDD-1 not only an extremely flexible yet inexpensive studio machine, but also allowing it to act as a highly reliable alternative for more delicate and expensive analog gear. Were it not for the limited production runs of korgdddmods' chips/cards, I would recommend the DDD-1 as the most desirable live performance drum machine for anyone making or performing synth-based music with old school hardware given the extraordinary price/feature ratio shown above.

In terms of house, my recommended buys for the DDD-1 ROM cards would be a Latin percussion card, whichever of the korgdddmods 2chip+card deals you prefer (and if possible, definitely buy a second socketed card), and whichever of the other available cards you like (for me, ideally the Linn Drum card, although the synth basses are nice and second latin perc card couldn't hurt). An external dedicated mixer is definitely a smart buy if you lack the mixer inputs otherwise.

Some other sound examples and programming tips can be found here and individual sounds as well as a manual can be found here. VSE page here.

Pirate Radio: DJ Tat on SCR (Sheffield) 15-3-93

This one of those pirate radio tapes that I've had on rotation for the last year and half, which is quite a long period for me to keep revisiting a 128k rip of a tape with a ground loop issue throughout. Sound quality is alright aside from that though, but the real reason I keep coming back to this tape is the tracks. The best thing about pirate radio tapes from 86-94 is that they provide a window into the real sound of the time. You can get best-of's like the Soul Jazz comps or some of the older hardcore CDs, or bootlegs like the 'Where are those ... Crazy Times' series, but for the most part, you'll never hear the real limited release stuff, which is usually the most interesting (white labels, dubplates, side releases from major groups that never got officially dropped). If you're just getting into pirate radio tapes, 808 State has a phenomenal archive up of nearly every show they did from 1988 onwards here. I recommend starting around 1989-90, where they were playing a lot of their own unreleased tracks and were popular enough to be getting a terrific amount of white labels & etc. They were also quite good at radio, which is rare among pirate DJs since they were primarily live DJs just trying to get their name out there rather than maintain a public image or something like that.

Anyway, this tape is actually part of a countdown of DJ Tat's favorite tracks from 1991. It features a mix of some amazing classics and some truly mental bits of hardcore from way way back. Still trying to figure out what some of them are, if anyone can provide a tracklist in the comments I'd be terrifically grateful.

Find it here.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Gear Change: XoXBox

If you're at all into synths and house music (and, really, why else would you still be reading this blog?) you'll have heard of the XoXBox. I pronounce it "zox-box", please inform in comments if you've heard another way of saying it. It's always interesting to hear people's takes on something that exists, essentially, as a wholly internet-based phenomenon.

The XoX is the apotheosis in a long line of TB-303 emulators, starting with the rackmount bass monosynths of the 90's like the Novation BassStation and the FreeBass FB33 (the latter the more explicit 303 emulator, the former more generic and closer to an SH-101). A friend of mine recently bought an old Roland Alpha Juno 2 from an old skool Brooklyn techno producer (greets to 8-bit, need to get a round and hear more stories one of these days). The Juno 2 has enough proper hoover stabs in memory to back up the claim that it is the original Alpha Juno which Beltram sampled for Mentasm, and the pics he pulled up when I mentioned that I had a XoX (on 8-bit's site, sadly down for maintenance this week) were very interesting. Apparently, there was an earlier attempt at a XoX-style 303 emulator in the early 90s, which was hand-built and almost entirely transistor-based synthesis (think Jupiter 4). The builder passed one over to a brooklyn producer friend who didn't quite know what to make of it, and it languished in his collection for a few years until someone realized what it was. The story ends there, since I, like a fool, never followed up, and dude's site is down. EDIT: hold on a minute, Check This Out.

The XoX itself, however, is effectively the be-all, end-all TB-303 emulator. The design requires the original chips from a 303 or NOS of the same[1], and the sequencer is designed to act similarly to the original 303 sequencer, though slightly better in the basic version. The arduino(?)-based OS/sequencer can be upgraded via a USB connection built into the basic design of the XoX, which also includes MIDI I/O/T as well as independent DINSYNC, switchable in/out, and CV + Gate outputs. This utterly outclasses the Acidlab Bassline 1 I owned a few years ago, which had severe difficulty syncing via MIDI to my TR-707 and would only work when synced via DIN, and I won't even mention the hilariously terrible programming method (hint: it involved two knobs and an INPUT button). The XoX drops in beautifuly with a MIDI setup, and performs like a dream. Compared with the TB-303, it's a bit like getting an East German BMW from the 60s vs getting a newly produced BMW today. The old one looks nicer, but the new one performs just as you'd like it to.

The configurability of the XoX with new firmware is fairly impressive, although hampered by the original design of it. There are OS upgrades which allow arpeggiation and various other sequencer-oriented re-purposing mods, check this thread on SOKKos (the oldest and most advanced) for more info. There are also several hardware mods which mirror the basic modifications which were often added by 303 users in the 90s, such as the overdrive knob and the filter expanders. However, in a 303 emulator, the most important issue is the accuracy of the sound.

XoXBoxes are known for their variation in sound, just as the original 303s were (though, if you bought a 303, you usually wouldn't question the variation quite so much as with those who buy a XoX). Some of the XoXen have a sound which is very mild even compared to other unmodified XoXes, so you should keep that in mind when shopping for one. There's no way of knowing what the XoX you buy will sound like, no matter who builds it. My XoX was built by a Taiwanese hobbyist who no longer sells them, but it sounded the closest to a vanilla 303 of any XoX I've ever heard. The pop in the filter-envelope reaction to the accents was the most beautiful I've ever heard from anything approximating a 303. The knobs on my XoX were, unfortunately, a bit too slow for my taste. Ideally, they should be like the original 303 knobs, and fast spins shouldn't feel any resistance. Luckily, the standard design of the XoX requires that the circuit boards be fitted well, so the varying button or knob resistance doesn't mean an increased level of wear to the top interface circuit board, and barring truly homebuilt versions, should stand up to a reasonable amount of live performance wear-and-tear as well as whatever you may throw at it in the studio.

One interesting issue I ran into with my XoX lies within my recording setup, which is MIDI-based and relies on a Roland MC-50 hardware sequencer and a Yamaha MJC-8 MIDI router: On two different tracks where I attempted to record the MIDI output of the X0X to the MC-50, there was a strange sense of lag, possibly introduced through lag from the MJC-8 (though I doubt this). The X0X syncs perfectly to a MIDI clock input for it's internal sequencer, which is more than capable of providing for 303-type sync usage. That is, when syncing the internal sequencer in tandem with a MIDI setup, it is bang on to the timing of the track. However, when I recorded the XoX sequence into my MC-50 and set the XoX to MIDI Play, it would drop notes in a strange (but highly usable) way. I think this might have more to do with the firmware than with the ability of the XoX to comprehend MIDI messages when played with an external keyboard. Mine was never upgraded after I got it two years ago, nor did I upload any second party OS to it, so your mileage may vary. Like I said, though, this strange issue of slightly mistimed sequencer messages can be very usable in certain situations, especially when the recorded XoX sequence is sent to another synth with a 303-ish patch.

Though I've sold my XoX recently (for reasons which have nothing to do with the sound/hardware), I'm hopeful of future projects with the same mindset as the XoXBox team had, such as the MB-808. It's a phenomenal approximation of the 303, and no other emulations have come so close to not simply reproducing the sound of the 303, but the interface as well. Drums are another story though, and I think that the next review I'll write up will be on the Korg DDD-1 plus some thoughts on the add-on cards available to it, both the old ones and the newer models which should place it heads and shoulders above the other similarly 12-bit generic drum machines.

[1] I have a theory that at least one plant in China has devoted a few lines to stamping out limited new chips, backed up by the fact that several of the original chips were literally the faulty versions of chips intended for more professional Roland synthesizers (18db filters? really? I've read several sources over the years claiming that either they are all faulty 24db filters or were based on the faulty versions, but given the short production life of the 303 that seems unnecessary) and thus can't possibly be that hard or expensive for an aging through-hole chip factory to replicate on the side.

Further note: The demonstration tracks I've included are my own music, and I'd be happy to describe the synths accompanying the XoXBox for any of them for those who are curious or confused.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Gear Change: Roland DJ-70mkII

This is one of my current keyboards, alongside the CTS-2000. The Roland DJ-70mkII is the final product of the Roland S-series line of samplers, aimed at the strange 90s DJ-consumer market. It consists of the last of the proper S sampler line, the S-760, placed in a high-quality 3-octave keyboard with an enlarged version of the S-760 interface, as well as 8 buttons which can be assigned to samples, a fairly useless phrase sequencer, the usual Roland pitchbender/lfo combination, and a somewhat novel "DJ wheel" which allows you to do a sort of rudimentary scratching on the samples. In reality, the result is a strange combination of the S-760, minus the extra outputs and the video interface, with an Akai S-20, along with the 3-octave keyboard and the DJ wheel.

The keyboard is wonderful, though either as a matter of reaction to the total package or simply due to psychosomatic reaction it feels a little cheap. The interface is, from what I know of the S-760, essentially the same minus the output options (caveat: I've never used an S-760, but I've read a bit). It's extremely easy to create a basic sample, but somewhat odd for a former low-level Akai user such as myself to deal with the structure of patch creation. You can read up on it more on the various sites that explain the S-760, since it seems to be the same to me, and I just haven't had the inclination to explore it properly yet. For a Roland user, this keyboard would undoubtedly be a dream (if it had the outputs and the video interface).

The buttons up top seem superfluous given the keyboard, and the ability to assign any sample to a given key or span of keys, but I guess for the working DJ he may not want to have to worry about hitting the right key (even with gaffer tape?) at the right velocity in the heat of the moment, and would want to simply press a button to play a loop.

The DJ wheel seems to have been based on the ribbon controller on the Yamaha SU10 from a year or two prior to the release of the DJ-70mk1. The SU10 was one of the line of Yamaha MIDI music machines which included the MU5 and the well-received QY10 (and the rest of the QY series), with which it shared a form factor. It boasted a 47 second sampler (much less at higher bitrates/in stereo) in a piece of gear which was about the size of a VHS cassette and included a 4-track phrase sequencer as well as twelve non-velocity pads. It also featured the easiest sampling interface I have ever used, from Akai to Ensoniq to Roland or anyone else, though that may have been made easier by the limited memory space. The relevant side feature, though, was the ability to 'scratch' samples with the built-in ribbon sensor (only one I know of which transmits MIDI, I have to recc this thing again), which essentially chopped up the given sample into audibly small increments and allowed the user to 'scratch' them similar to how one would scratch a record, but in a horrid digital way.

This is what the DJ-70 DJ Wheel aimed to reproduce. The wheel is weighted, though not so much that it feels like the Technics deck which I imagine they were trying to emulate, and this doesn't affect the sound at all apparently, so the effect of weight feels cumbersome given the intent/implementation. Where in the Yamaha SU10 the scratch function was a novelty, the DJ70's wheel is a strangely cumbersome and useless feature which is only novel if one wishes to throw a sample out and listen to it spin down from high velocity. Even a non-weighted but better-implemented algorithm wheel function would have made this a desirable synthesizer. Which brings me to the reason why there are Mark I DJ-70s and Mark II Dj-70s.

When the DJ-70 was originally released in '96 or so, it was aimed at the DJ market with the hope that it would serve as a convenient replacement for the samplers which famously helped house & techno DJs as early as Park & Pickering at the Hacienda and would be priced well enough for current small-time DJs to afford it. The keyboard had 2MB RAM and no SCSI interface, so there was no way for buyers to expand the amount of time they had available in memory for samples beyond a few minutes, and no way of loading in samples aside from a floppy disk drive. It had the editing facilities of the superb S-760, but none of the expandability. Essentially, it was a completely useless product of a company which, I presume, was struggling with a leftover internal bureaucracy in order to find a way to approach the new music which their products had created. Akai had several similar products (the S01, as well as the S-20), as did Yamaha (SU10 among many others) and several other companies. Korg, rejuvenated by their failure in the mid-80s and the continuing success of their alterations to their M01 line, wound up creating the Electribe line with brilliant prescience. I'm digressing.

Roland realized that the DJ-70mkI was completely outdated even by their W30 from 1989, so they updated it as the DJ-70mkII. The mark II included all the features of the mark I, plus a SCSI interface, standard, as well as standard SIMM expansion slots for up to 32MB RAM (it turns off the internal RAM when there is a full 32MB installed). At the time, this still wasn't worth the $1800 pricetag for the DJ-70mkII alone, not to mention the $300 or so it would have cost to max out the RAM and another $250 on top of that for a Zip drive or some Magneto-Optical alternative. Especially not when the S-760 cost about $2200 with the video/digital IO expansion, full RAM, and the standard SCSI & extra four individual outputs. The cost of a cheap second-hand 5-octave MIDI keyboard and a SCSI device unquestionably made the S-760 the better deal as an all-in-one home studio sampler at the time.

At the time, that is. Now, a fully expanded S-760 will usually fetch prices above $250, and the added cost of a MIDI controller plus a mixer and all the stuff you'd normally have had to buy with it in the 90s will set you back at least another $300 in order to use it with a modern PC-based Logic studio. The DJ-70mkII goes for around $125, and the cost of a Zip drive + disks and 2 sticks of 16MB SIMM RAM (if it's even necessary) will bring that up to around $160. Add in a cheap stereo USB Audio interface for another $35 and a USB/MIDI cable for $15, and you've got a hardware sampler plus a MIDI controller which easily outclasses most of the similarly priced 3-octave USB MIDI controller keyboards. Use Logic for sequencing and mixing and the DJ-70mkII becomes a very attractive option for anyone looking to add a bit of hardware to their studio, or add an inexpensive yet extremely powerful sampler to their existent studio.

I've taken to using mine as the sole piece of audio equipment (plus a hardware sequencer) at live performances, since it can handle dozens of samples in memory, and the process of switching between songs becomes as easy as hitting the +1 button on the performance edit menu and hitting play on the sequencer. Anyone who has had to deal with the nightmare of setting up several MIDI keyboards in between bands (or god forbid, CV/gate), the prospect of a single keyboard which will do everything you need and takes about five or ten minutes to set up and go becomes very attractive.

Another point in favor of the DJ-70 series in general is that it has the same spectacular filters sported by the Roland S-series from the S-50 onwards. They're a sort of digital emulation of traditional analog filtering (IE not hard to grasp for anyone who knows Subtractive synths), but they rip. They're nearly capable of self-oscillating resonance, but the sweeps are really where they shine. Literally, they tend to be very bright, but at the same time Roland's samplers have always been known for their unparalleled bass reproduction. The filters are HPF/BPF/LPF switchable, so you can use the HPF with high resonance to give bass hits some real boom, or do the big LPF breakbeat sweeps to do builds and breakdowns, and it can all be automated and controlled via MIDI.

The feature which struck me as most interesting, and the only one I've yet to figure out, is the ability to beatmatch samples to MIDI clock. In theory, this should allow you to sample in a looped beat, and then match it with the internal timestretch to MIDI clock in real time, which was essentially the only major feature of the DJ-70 series that actually made it seem like a fairly good product for a DJ to buy in retrospect. You wouldn't have to worry about matching your sample loops with the track you're spinning, you'd just match the click track off a MIDI sequencer or tap tempo input, and you could create live remixes from your own sample library while mixing in and out of other records/CDs. I haven't quite gotten a handle on it yet, but given the 600+ second maximum sample time of a fully expanded mkII, plus a SCSI sample library and a basic hardware sequencer with half a dozen pre-recorded multi-timbral sequences, you could theoretically run an entire DJ set off of this sampler alone.

The DJ-70mkII is certainly worth a look, but it's best suited to someone with a laptop-based sequencing setup due to the incredible automation possibilities and the output limitations as compared to the S-760. Give the mkI a pass, but if you spot a mkII in good shape for under $150 and you'd like a small keyboard version of the S-50 with a much better interface, it's certainly worth a buy.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Gear Change: Siel DK-70

Before I move on from Siel products, I've got to talk about a synth I truly adore, and am sadly parting with. The Siel DK-70 is an 8-voice DCO analog polysynth in the vein of the Korg Poly-800. It has a built-in two track polyphonic sequencer (real time key-presses only, though it does apparently output MIDI) and a wonderful, though strangely implemented, chord memory function. It runs on 6 D-cell batteries (or C? It's been too long since I used batteries), and has guitar-strap pegs on each end. These are the only part of the construction which are actually made from metal, the case itself being manufactured plastic of a quality similar to a Roland SH-101.

The programming interface on the DK-70 is, again, similar to the Korg Poly-800. The parameters are listed on the upper right of the synth (same as the later CTS-2000, except without the membrane button/menu system), and one selects the parameters to edit via the same membrane push-button phone-style pad that one uses to select a patch. The membrane buttons of the pad, I should mention, are surprisingly high quality given the obvious budget mindset of the design, and have been in good shape on both of the DK-70's I've owned. I compare this to the two Sequential Sixtraks and the Sequential Split-Eight I've had, where the membrane buttons were in absolutely abysmal condition despite the fact that the hardware appeared to have been well cared-for. Age is probably not an issue with the DK-70's interface, although this brings us to the memory issue.

The internal memory of the DK-70 was obviously designed as a consumer keyboard, with the lions share of patch save memory reliant upon a cartridge which was offered with the keyboard, which apparently nobody bought, or at least kept. The internal patch memory consists of 40 preset patches, which are very same-y, though usable if the Siel sound is something you're looking for (i.e. if you bought the thing), and 10 user patches, which are not battery backed-up internally and require that one keep the D-cell batteries in the synth, similar to the Casio CZ-101. Keeping it plugged in via the power supply does not ensure that your patches will be saved. When the 10 user patches are reset, the internal rom refills them with the remaining 10 of the 50 preset patches.

That's not so bad, since the final ten patches of the 50 are quite good with a little editing, and editing is extremely easy for anyone familiar with analog synthesizers. The built-in patches are best described as 'standard analog fare' for 1985, though they do exemplify why Siel and other Italian manufacturers were relegated to a sort of ghetto compared to their Japanese and American competitors. The quality of the piano patches on the DK-70 is horrid even in comparison with the standard synth piano patches of the Korg Polysix from four years prior to the release of the DK-70. Strings, perhaps unsurprisingly given Siel's background with the SCI Prelude, strings are where the DK-70 shines. The oscillators have a warm quality which is immediately comparable to the Korg Poly-61, but the Curtis filters paired with the unique design Siel employed give it a clarity and subdued warmth which totally destroys any possibility of comparison with the Poly-800 in terms of sound. Pair this synth with a cheap 80's reverb unit, and you can create the warmest, most enveloping wall of strings, or the most proper techno bleep bass you've ever heard (especially with the Moog Killer modification on the filter which expands the resonance and gives you knob control for that and the Cutoff).

I've owned two of these, and just sold the last one due to money issues, so let me describe some of the issues I've run into.

First, the power supply is a terrifically oversized 12v ungrounded brick, similar to the bricks which came with the Atari ST 520. It can be very noisy, but since I'm not too familiar with electronics I couldn't explain the factors which contribute to this. My building has a truly terrible electrical system, but behind a surge protector power-strip which shared power with my mixer and most of my other equipment, there was very little noise (caveat: my mixer is a first-gen Makie CR1604, which may have a noise floor above that of the DK-70, or there may be some kind of electrical equivalent of audio frequency cancellation, the correct term escapes me but it's the sort of thing that you deal with when miking a drum kit in the studio). However, when I brought the Siel into the audio studio at my university to allow my friend to use it as backing for a track we were working on, it had a terrific amount of hum. Here again, the caveat would be that I don't know how well that studio is wired and we were using it for something which they apparently never anticipated it would be used for.

Second, the keys tend to degrade over time in a fairly common but strangely unpredictable way. In most of the analog synths that I've owned, keys degrade and fail because the mechanism of the key contacts degrade a very slow rate between the contact and the conductive rubber plunger which the key presses down upon them. It can happen through frequent playing, where the rubber plunger wears down simply through overuse, or, more often, because dust accumulates on the conductive plunger and prevents full contact. However, the DK-70's keyboard is, and I state this having only used two of them, very, very cheap. There seems to be about a millimeter of space between the keys. I've only seen something similar with a quite well-worn Korg Polysix, and on that a simple cleaning of the contacts worked perfectly. With the DK-70, it seems to have been a point of the inexpensive design, possibly reusing a keyboard structure from another more expensive synth. The keys are slightly more mushy than other keyboards, probably due to the cheap feel of the keys themselves, which allows dust to act in different ways on them. A key pressed a certain way will not connect, but if massaged enough or if pressed in a different way will connect perfectly. Further caveat would be that I never bothered to try to clean the contacts, as the DK-70 responds very well to MIDI and I have been using another synth as a controller keyboard the whole time I've owned them. I don't think this problem poses any real issue, and if it does there are several cheap fixes in the case that a simple disassembly and cleaning with a q-tip doesn't work. If you have this problem with this synth or any other, look around for some Wire Glue or Conductive Paint (the former is cheaper and just as effective in my experience).

I would highly, highly recommend the DK-70 for someone in the market for a new analog synth to add to their established MIDI rig. On it's own, it provides wonderful sounds, but sampled it can provide an entire palette of analog-style patches to warp and alter which will sound like nothing which has come before.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Gear Change: Keytek CTS-2000

At the recommendation of more than a few friends (and since I'm not able to upload music from any new rips I might make) I'm switching gears and will post my thoughts/reviews of music hardware that I own or have owned in the past. I've spent the last seven or eight years buying and selling synthesizers on eBay, keeping those that I liked and selling those that I either disliked, couldn't afford to hang on to, or simply needed the money to buy the next synth that caught my fancy. The first of what I hope will be many posts is dedicated to the rarest synth I've ever owned, which also happens to be my current favorite as well as the keyboard which easily wins the award for 'the synthesizer with the least information available,' the Keytek CTS-2000 (second place goes to the Elka EK-22, which has a superb write-up by legowelt and a Vintage Synth Explorer page all it's own).

Keytek was the final moniker of italian synth manufacturer Siel, who produced some of my favorite synthesizers (primarily the DK-70, a beautiful example of the sonic qualities of italian synths as well as of the poor quality which ghettoized them compared to the japanese and american offerings, but to give them their due I'll also mention the Opera 6 and the Mono). Siel was facing bankruptcy in the mid 80s, and their budget synth lines in the later DK double digit series couldn't buoy them up above the ravages of the post DX-7 synth market. Luckily for them, Gibson were looking to expand beyond the guitar markets into keyboards, so along with Oberheim the italians were purchased with an eye towards remaking their brand and exploiting their unreleased synthesizers. In much the same way as Yamaha invested in Korg in order to enable their survival prior to the release of the Wavestation and the M1, Gibson hoped that the engineering division that produced the superb DK-700 polysynth as well as several other extremely successful synths just a few years before (to this day rumors abound that Dave Smith or Bob Moog himself designed one or the other of the Siel line) would pay off.

Unfortunately, Siel's unreleased line didn't quite live up to that hope. Where Yamaha could simply license Korg their FM technology until Korg could exploit the knowledge of the engineers they hired away from Sequential Circuits after their collapse, Gibson had no familiarity with the synth market and Siel apparently had a completely fucking terrible bunch of engineers designing the interfaces for their gear. I mean, just godawful for the time. Not so terrible for us today, in certain ways, kind of.

Siel was rebranded as Keytek under Gibson, and they released a series of horrifically outdated products, with a single exception. They produced the Keytek MDP-40, which I owned for a while as the Siel MDP-40, which was a preset drum machine with poorly sampled 8-bit drum sounds and ultra-generic preset patterns, saved only for it's ability to sync with MIDI clock and ability to play each sample by the non-velocity sensitive pads as well as through MIDI notes (I should mention that I never tested this). Also in the product line was the CTS series, which consisted of the CTS-1000 preset keyboard, the CTS-2000 "Cross-Table Sampled" synth, and the CTS-5000 rackmount piano preset unit. The 1000 is reportedly a Casiotone level preset keyboard with no editability and unknown features (there's zero information about it out there), and the 5000 is a fairly respectable for 1987 electric piano unit aimed at the Roland MKS-20 market. The CTS-2000, however, is a true gem in sound and a prime example of bad design.

The architecture of the CTS-2000 is rather impressive to an analog synth aficionado: two sampled waveform oscillators (OSCs from here on), with two envelope generators (EGs) for tuning and frequency, a deliciously warm 24db Curtis Digitally Controlled (analog) Filter, with two Digitally Controlled Amplifiers and three more independent EGs for the two DCAs as well as the DCF. It also includes internal stereo mixing with level controls and eight placements across the stereo field and is capable of five part multi-timbrality along with it's eight voices. This is both a tremendous point in favor of the 2000, and an hilarious point against.

Before I get to that, I should also mention that the CTS-2000 features 6 faders (not including the volume fader) which are the primary controls of the synth settings, although there is the by-this-point standard up/down increment buttons. The programming works through a menu system on a 2X16 backlit LED, where each setting on a given menu is spelled out above the button on the right side of the keyboard, which matches to one of the 6 sliders on the right side, and to select a given function one must move the slider. Annoying, but slightly more hands on than on a Roland Alpha Juno or JX-3P, especially since everything changes in real time (that includes filter cutoff and resonance) and once you've selected the appropriate menu and placed the sliders to the setting you want, they'll match the existing setting. With the immediacy of the LED readout, it would work quite well for the analog freaks out there.

The bit of hilarity comes in here, once you've figured out how to actually do a little bit of fiddling with the internal presets. The CTS-2000 was designed with the future of MIDI in mind, and multi-timbrality was essential for any new synth in the marketplace of 1986/7. Unfortunately, the engineers of Siel/Keytek either didn't quite grasp how to make this a consumer proposition, were constrained by Sequential Circuits patents on multi-timbral analog equipment, figured that a market which bought 100,000 DX-7s wouldn't have a problem with a ridiculous interface, or were just pressed for time to put out a synth after the Gibson buyout: Either way, the CTS-2000 has one of the most ridiculously idiotic implementations of multi-timbral synthesis ever conceived.

The keyboard is five octaves. Each of the five octaves must be programmed individually. That is, each octave of the CTS-2000 acts as an individual synth which can play a different patch from the other four octaves, with the 8 shared voices able to change for each octave/note demand. It's kind of impressive for the time, if it weren't so incredibly stupid given that each octave must be programmed individually. Thankfully, there's a kind of copy-paste available, although it doesn't work quite right (it's a bit like loading a Roland sample bank on an Akai sampler or vice-versa, there's bits left out that you have to reprogram to get right). The end result, and apparent intent, was that the CTS-2000 acts as five different polysynths, each limited to a single octave and sharing eight voices among them, kind of like some digital version of the Oberheim 4-voice or Korg Mono-Poly , except you can assign each octave of the 2000 to any given octave, and each octave to any given MIDI channel. This brings me to the MIDI implementation.

In his commentary on the Elka EK-22, Legowelt mentions the MIDI implementation in particular. That is, he mentions that the thing drops MIDI notes when stressed too much. Like when you send two messages to it at once. The biggest weakness of the CTS-2000 lies here. The keyboard itself is absolutely wonderful, the action is easily the best I've ever played (and I'm comparing this to every model of the Korg Poly series, all of the Roland Junos, Kawai's K series, Sequential's Sixtrak, Split-Eight, and Prophet-600, even Akai's AX-60 and X7000), it just feels wonderful to play and the velocity response is nice and on point. I imagine this is the same thing people talk about when they say the Elka EK-22 plays like butter. I want to use this as my master keyboard, but that's where I run into problems.

When I set the CTS-2000 up as my master keyboard, I run into issues with the internal capability to keep up with MIDI messages. For example, the preset patch "JAKO-FIFTH" is absolutely going to be the foundation of a future track. The keyboard is divided so that the bottom two octaves are the JAKO solid bass patch and the upper three are a beautiful evolving analog-style fifths pad. When I try to play both patches at once, transmitting MIDI to my sequencer on two MIDI channels, the keyboard misses notes. That is, it literally misses notes that I play in real time, failing to produce sounds when keys are pressed. This explains why there is a MIDI On/Off button, as well as a MIDI Local/Remote button (I have yet to discern the difference between the two, since the MIDI Off setting should do the same thing as the MIDI Local setting does, but I'm not much of a hacker). This is a 'feature' that the CTS-2000 shares with the EK-22: the internal processor is fully capable of handling the various settings the keyboard itself was designed to allow, but nothing beyond that.

Having said all that, I'd like to move into the actual capabilities of the thing. The CTS-2000 has (according to the promo lit) 333 possible waveforms, these provide the basic sound which is processed through the analog filters and is shaped by the various envelope generators. The waveforms are divided into a series of three different sounds which are shared between the two 'oscillators'. The 'oscillators' provide a basic functionality for linking the three transitional waveforms together, a sort of attack/release for the transition between each sound. The resulting sound is comparable only with the implementation of multi-timbrality I described above. It's brilliant in it's own way, but terrible in comparison with similar synthesizers of the same period (namely the PPG and most other wavetable synths). It provides a good level of control over the transition speed between the waveforms, and what I suppose you would call the 'mixing' of the wave transitions is even and allows for very interesting pad sounds which would be impossible to reproduce on any other synthesizer. Add this in to the filtering capabilities and you've got an absolutely amazing source for pad sounds which couldn't be created any other way, even if sampled. I don't know how good the sysex implementation is, but I'd wager it's good-but-strange. If the sysex allows for external control of the waveform transitions as well as the other features (stereo placement control could be amazing), the CTS-2000 would be a monster easily surpassing the similar synths of the time.

The sampled waveforms are about what one would expect for the period, comparable to those found in the Korg DW series or the Kawai K3. Low bitrate, but when processed through the analog filters, very warm and a happy fit for mixing. The bass sounds in particular are phenomenal: the preset bass sounds are extremely usable, though they mostly suffer from being the bottom two octaves of a split with the higher three being some generic-sounding bit obviously aiming the patch towards one-man-band pub type situations (the JAKO-FIFTHS patch being the exception). However, that criticism was leveled at the 303/606 combo in it's time, so take it with a grain of salt. The bass presets are head-and-shoulders above the FM Solid Bass preset of the sought-after Detroit classic DX-100 or the Lately Bass preset of the TX-81z, and would easily hold their own against the M1 basses. The other samples tend towards same-ness, just as the Korg DW waveforms do, but the transitional nature of the design provides for a level of creative interaction which neither of the Korgs nor the Kawai K3 allow. The 'attack' of the sample transitions on the CTS can be set very fast or extremely slow, giving you the ability to provide a weird punchy bass blip or a long evolving lead.

My own taste in synth programming tends towards the moving pad chord style, and I really enjoy programming synths, so I'll advise against the CTS-2000 as a first keyboard. But for the heads? Get one of these if you can find it. I bought mine for $100, and I feel overpaid tremendously given the nonexistent market (I don't price synths based on what I feel they're 'worth', as anyone who has ever bought a synth from me will affirm, I value them based on the market price and essentially only worry about whether something is over-priced. That is, the less I pay, the better the deal, as opposed to "the less I pay, the worse the item.") The week after I bought my CTS from a seller in California, I saw a seller from Queens offering one for $200, which, I might add, sold for that price. I wouldn't pay more than $100 for one, but as I make more posts about synths in the future you will probably notice (especially in light of the above guiding rule) that I lowball prices.

Up next: Siel DK-70, Akai X7000, and possibly XoXBox.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


There's no telling when I'll start this blog back up. Given the recent crackdowns on file hosts it seems inevitable that anything I might post will either be deleted by dint of either failure to achieve a certain number of downloads over time or some ridiculous copyright claim.

IF you find that one post or another is down, please comment on it saying as much and I will do what I can to make it available.

ALSO the following services are not worth your money (based on either personal experience or recommendation of trusted friends): Hotfile, Megavideo(Megaupload, etc seems alright but don't bother paying for the video). FileServe and FileSonic seem to work, but given the recent shift of Hotfile they may be replaced with Usershare and Uploaded: that is, they may become worthless even before you buy in. Depends on the market.