Windy City Day
American software engineer Chris Meyer submits a personal, highly subjective and utterly biased report on Chicago's summer music extravaganza. Well, he was only there for a day.
In which an American software engineer and self-confessed 'techie' tries to see everything there is to see at the Chicago NAMM show, in just one day.
ONE DAY TO SEE the NAMM show. That's all I had. Well, OK - one day, and an hour-and-a-half in the Roland booth. Plus, I spent the morning hours of that one day recovering from a crushing hangover, courtesy of a company-who-shall-remain-nameless' boat party the night before. So, I didn't see all that I wanted to see. What I did do was spend that one day (plus the ten hours of MIDI manufacturers' meetings the day before), eyeing what the technology being shown was all about.
The first instrument I saw at the show was the Casio CZ1. At last, velocity and pressure hooked up to a powerful and easy-to-program PD (Phase Distortion) voice. Unfortunately, the combination of the CZl's multi-level panel and the various pastel-coloured switches and legending reacted so violently with my aforementioned hangover, I literally couldn't get close enough to it to play the thing (maybe if I kept my eyes closed).
The point is, though, that Casio are finally listening to their product specialists and producing more professional equipment. The next obvious step for PD is a rack-mount unit, and perhaps even more modulation routing capabilities to further fatten up the sound (I'm spoiled by the recent Oberheims and Prophet VS in this department). The combination of Casio's low prices plus some aggressive, intelligent product specification should be enough to send chills up the spine of end users and manufacturers alike.
Next, I moved on to the Wersi MK1 Stage Performer, and was glad to see it was hooked up to a pair of headphones (not only could I listen to the sound more closely, I didn't have to inflict my terrible keyboard-playing on others). I struck a note, and immediately ripped off the headphones in horror as I suddenly heard this enormous room sound. Poking behind a few black drapings around the instrument revealed an Alesis MIDIverb hooked up to each unit. And thus, a controversy — it's true that almost all keyboards are processed these days, but shouldn't I have the right to know what is doing the processing? And what the keyboard sounds like dry?
Anyway, back to the Wersi. As Simon Trask revealed in these pages a couple of months back, the MK1 is a 20-voice multi-timbral device sensitive to velocity and aftertouch. Up to four voices may be layered at a time, and zones split up and sent out (and received) over MIDI. It seems to be basically a wavetable beast (á la Kawai, Korg, Sequential, and so on) with onboard additive synthesis provided by way of drawbars — Wersi's organ heritage shows through.
The brochure also claims FM and AM synthesis, but I didn't go far enough into the machine to verify these (the 'sampling technology' quoted in the brochure actually refers to the creation of some of the wavetables).
What did it sound like? Big and fat — like a wavetable synth stacked with an analogue one. I even heard a variation on the PPG/Fairlight/VS vocal sound I've never heard before (being an acredited junkie of such sounds). The wealth of parameters and the availability of a rack-mount version means that I'll probably get one eventually. Let's just hope the MK1 is marketed properly — both in the States and in the UK.
Then there was the Bullet 2000. What we have here is a brilliant idea — an IBM PC-XT compatible computer in a sturdy rack-mount case (ah, MIDI jacks, power switch, floppy disk drives, clock in/out, metronome out, and computer keyboard jacks all on the front panel), protected by two macho front handles. All this thing needs now is to be bundled with a Roland MPU401 interface, a sequencer, and perhaps a good patch librarian or MIDI zones program.
A rack-mounted high-capacity sequencer with visual editing is just the ticket to take compositions out of the rehearsal room and into the studio or out on the road. I mean, how many of you are really willing to take a personal computer, complete with cables, external drives and what-have-you up on stage every night? Or even into the studio? What we need next is a rackmounted Atari/Amiga/Mac clone version.
This brings us to the question: which computer should I buy? I don't know. I wrestle with the topic weekly myself. I'll probably buy a Macintosh, since I'm a Digidesign fanatic, and the Mac is the only machine they put their resources into (forget the rumours — buying a piece of Digidesign software means owning a Macintosh, at least for the next year or so). And don't forget that in the States, the Mac is more competitively priced.
Still, the Atari ST is the price winner, and Hybrid Arts are doing some nice stuff for it (ie. DX Droid, ADAP Soundrack), while some of Dr T's positively funky software is being ported over to it too. I have a soft spot in my heart for the Amiga, mainly because of its advanced sound and graphics (I'm into pretty pictures). And then there's the IBM PC, which has the most non-music hardware and software available (particularly at the business end — which all struggling musicians need). And now it's rack-mounted, thanks to the Bullet 2000. That thing about non-music software may be the biggest factor for some, even though IBMs aren't exactly cheap in the UK; you could very well buy only one sequencer and one patch librarian for your computer (if that), so what else are you going to do with your investment?
In a world where everybody owns at least two DX7s (with a DX100 lurking in the background for good measure), I confess that I do not own one. I will not buy a non-programmable synth, and given the difficulty of using FM and my own personal lack of time, an FM synth just isn't worth it. I could almost be placated with a rack-mount version, but there isn't one available (forget the TX816 — I don't need eight), and the combination of a TX7 and Beetle front panel (over $600 in the US, just for the latter) just doesn't make any sense for the price and hassle.
But now I may be changing my colours. My mind has been turned around by the appearance of the Hybrid Arts DX-Droid patch program and the Generation 2 E! Board by Grey Matter Response, both shown at NAMM. DX-Droid has already been reviewed by E&MM, and is a patch program for the DX7 that can also interpolate between two existing patches, and 'roughen up' a given patch by controllable random programs.
The E! board installs inside a DX7, and contains, along with additional memory (try 576 voices — 256 in ROM, 320 in RAM), a complete rewrite of the DX7s operating system, just to make sure there are no copyright problems. Generation 2 allows patch mapping (this internal patch number equals that external patch number), better velocity resolution (stock DX7s are actually rather compressed), an auxiliary MIDI channel for fooling around with effects devices, several keyboard modes (splits, high/low note track, and so on) for master keyboard effects (the DX7 still likes to play only one patch internally), Mode 4/Mono Mode reception for guitar controllers, and — most important of all — new voicing parameters, including a 'Timbre' (brightness) control.
Imagine creating a random program on DX-Droid, transmitting it over to one of 320 RAM voice locations, and then further tweaking the brightness/timbre with just one control — my mouth waters.
What is really important here is what I refer to as 'macro controls'. Digital synths and samplers are getting more complicated to program. Even those with the patience to program old analogue synths find they don't have the time or patience to program the new equipment. And the only thing uneducated musicians know is that they want it 'brighter', 'more stringlike', or 'exactly between those two'. Presenting these short-cutters with controls labelled 'brightness' and preset envelopes labelled 'strings' instead of algorithms and operators should encourage even the most lethargic among us to program something other than the factory patches.
That way, a painter can just paint. A photographer can just take photographs. And those who are more interested in what lenses, filters, and f-stops they are using — well, I hope manufacturers leave those options in, too.
ONE QUESTION I'D like answered is: Why do people come up to me at shows like NAMM and tell me that Brand X's sampler is great on piano but bad on horns, while Brand Y's sampler just couldn't cut it on percussion?
This is sheer lunacy. Twelve-bit linear sampling is deadly accurate. There is still a problem with quantisation noise on lower frequencies and sound levels, so it's never going to fool all of the people all of the time. But identically-specified 12-bit samplers should theoretically sound very similar, and to have people come up to me and tell me about the different 'qualities' of competing 12-bit machines drives me crazy.
I don't question people's ears — the differences are there. But more than likely, it's bad factory samples — not anything about the machine's intrinsic design — that are to blame. And in many cases at trade shows, less than adequate speakers can take equal credit as villains.
At this level of sound quality, nothing less than studio monitors should be employed. At NAMM, Roland's desire to show nothing but Roland and Boss gear in their booth ultimately hurt them — in a noisy room with less-than-adequate speakers, the S50 didn't sound much better than a sampler half the price. This is a shame, since the S50 looks like it could be the highest-quality and most feature-laden sampler of the lot.
Or maybe some manufacturers are just blowing it seriously in the analogue electronics. The only way to really compare sampling quality is to use the exact same source and playback system in a controlled environment — ie. not at an exhibition like NAMM.
The Korg DSS1 promises to be the next 'affordable' sampler to make the leap from show prototype to readily available product. Reviewing its features gives you the impression that Korg are trying to cover the continuous spectrum between a wavetable synth (essentially a sampler with a one waveform loop) and a sampler. The DSS 1 's features include sync, onboard additive synthesis and waveform drawing, multi-part envelopes, twin DDLs and the like.
For the person who likes to experiment and who doesn't like hard set definitions, this sounds like a great machine. For those who want lots of memory — well, sorry: the DSS1 seems to be hardware limited to 256K.
"Imagine creating a random program on DX-Droid, transmitting it to one of 320 RAM locations, and then tweaking the brightness with just one control."
I'm memory-hungry, and expect the 1 Meg barrier to fall soon, with the 2 and 4 Meg barriers not far behind (by late 1987, perhaps?). We're talking over a minute of sampling at a nominal 30-32kHz sample rate with 2 Meg, and I believe that's going to be an important psychological barrier. The next question is: how long are musicians going to be willing to wait to load that much memory? Current samplers are already pushing what can be saved on a single floppy disk, and this already takes over 30 seconds to load. Either some major advances are going to be made in removable storage media, or we're all going to have to marry a hard disk.
The new kid on the sampling block is the Emax, as previewed by Paul Wiffen in last month's E&MM. Truth to tell, there's already a controversy over how good it will sound. E-mu make a point of stressing 'superior sound quality' in their brochures and demos. However, the fact of the matter is that Emax uses an eight-bit encoding system similar to that in the Emulator II (and the fact of the matter is also that the EII is the best sounding eight-bit system available — and damn close to 12-bit). So, from this point of view, an EII for under £2000 looks an incredible bargain.
But I want to hear a production unit before I'm convinced that it sounds as good as an EII (friends at E-mu assure me it will; the prototype I listened to at NAMM definitely did not). And despite how much you like how Emax looks and how logically it's laid out, it's going to take me a while to get used to operating a 10-key pad that's skewed from left to right. Don't get me wrong — Emax will definitely be a hit; it's just that I have questions in my mind.
All sound quality questions should be answered when everybody has 16-bit machines. Unfortunately, this sampling nirvana has a high cost — the cheapest 16-bit sampling keyboard currently available is the Fairlight Series III, starting at £60,000. Some may argue that you only need 16-bit systems for studio applications, and that most studio applications comprise dropping in individual sounds or stereo sections of music — hence the popularity of two-channel 16-bit devices such as the AMS and Window, which do such tasks well.
The new PPG HDU (Hard Disk Unit) looks promising, with 3 minutes x 4 channels of 16-bit sound at just over $10,000, but I must slap PPG on the wrist for making their wares so hard to see at NAMM — they were sequestered away inside a locked room in the middle of the hall, and you needed an appointment (and much persistence) even to see the gear.
So where are the 16-bit systems for the masses? Where hardware companies leave a gap, software companies seem to be stepping in. In this case, Hybrid Arts were showing the ADAP SoundRack — a rack-mount 16-bit sampler that has an intimate relationship with an Atari ST to bring the user-friendliness up and the cost down. We're talking up to 20 seconds of 16-bit sound at a 44.1 kHz sample rate, stereo capability, and graphic editing here — at just $1995 (in the US) plus the cost of an ST. Oh yes, and it supports the MIDI Sample Dump Standard. And Hybrid Arts don't seem content to stop there, as there's talk of $5000, $10,000 and $15,000 versions in the future. Now, my only questions are: Is it true 16-bit quality (if it is, it'll be amazing value)? And how many studios are willing to put an Atari next to their expensive tape decks and mixing consoles? That's a big psychological barrier for some, and it may give the small studios a chance to catch up.
Back up there when I was talking about the Emax, I meant to move sideways into a neat new electronic device that's finding its way into musical instruments. It's called the EEPROM, which stands for Electronically Erasable Programmable Read Only Memory. The operating system for almost all synthesisers is electrically burned into a PROM or ROM (just use fewer of the initials to find out what these mean). Once there, it doesn't go away unless uncovered and exposed to an intense ultraviolet light for a period of time.
Now there's a version that can be both erased and programmed electrically — the EEPROM. What this means is that the onboard computer can rewrite part of the software, the programmed presets, the setup information and the rest. The data's a lot less likely to go away than it is on a disk or in RAM, and each EEPROM is backed up with a battery (how many times have we heard about battery backed-up machines spontaneously dumping memory?). Some 'RAM' cartridges now use these EEPROMs, and the new Emax and 360 Systems MIDI Patcher use them to store presets and calibration information. Bottom line — increased reliability.
Meanwhile, additive synthesis finally seems to be making an impact on musical instruments. Additive systems are expensive to implement in real time (they need a separate oscillator or equivalent per harmonic per voice) and difficult to use — ask anyone who's used a Synergy or a Crumar GDS. Sampling technology allows the difficult stuff to be done offline, and saved as a waveshape or entire sample to play back later — witness such instruments as the Fairlight, PPG plus Waveterm, and (the only inexpensive one of the lot) the OSCar.
And finally, some inexpensive and readily available instruments are using additive synthesis. Wavetable synths such as the Kawai K3, Prophet VS, and Wersi MK1 allow waves to be built using additive techniques. Some samplers (such as the Korg DSS1 and Roland S50) promise to have some form of additive synthesis onboard (though this, too, may be limited to just single waveforms). And let's not forget one of the most unexpected hits of this year's summer NAMM — Digidesign's SoftSynth, reviewed elsewhere this issue.
For additive synthesis to be accepted, it either has to be made ear-tunable in real time (like the Wersi's drawbars, the Prophet VS' joystick, and so on) or have an excellent visual editing system and representation. SoftSynth fulfils the latter function.
LET'S MOVE ON to electronic drums and guitars. There's no doubt that a BIG drum sound has become the trademark of most popular music produced in the last couple of years. However, most new drum machines do not offer anything spectacular in the way of sonic advances (Latin sounds being considered really radical).
To fill this gap, some companies have concentrated on creating alternative sounds for existing drum machines. And with the advent of affordable sampling, one logical step was to allow users to start creating their own alternate sounds. At least three EPROM burners were being shown at NAMM for achieving this purpose — the Simmons sampler/burner, the Oberheim Prommer (sampling sounds directly, or via the MIDI Sample Dump Standard), and the Digidesign Burner (using Sound Designer files, and burning PROMs for the widest variety of machines of the three — but you need a Mac to use it).
This shouldn't affect the people who supply alternative sound chips too much — there'll always be those who would rather buy other people's sounds than brew their own.
And then there are sampling drum machines — most notably from E-mu, Casio, and now Korg with their DDD1. Frankly (here come the rocks through the Meyer lounge window again), I'm still waiting for these things to grow up. One or two seconds of memory is simply not enough. Even the five-second Turbo version of the E-mu SP12 is just barely enough — and with a (painfully slow) disk drive, it costs more than a sampling keyboard with twice the spec hooked up to a cheap drum machine to drive it.
Maybe by Winter NAMM 1987, we'll start to see some more serious efforts in this arena by manufacturers who've already spent this year rushing to get their sampling keyboards and rack units to market.
After the blitz of new guitar-to-MIDI converters announced at Winter NAMM '86, this side of the industry seems to be settling down once again. The two main complaints on guitar controllers — poor tracking and inflexible MIDI implementations — are starting to be addressed in earnest.
The most expensive and flexible unit of the lot, the SynthAxe, has had its tracking overhauled to the point where the demonstrators were allowing anybody to come up and have a wang on the machine at the show (I've played an earlier version, and it was nowhere near that polite). Ibanez and Roland seem to like using special guitars to ensure good tracking, and I've heard good things about the Ibanez on this point. Photon want you to use the same gauge string across the instrument for the best results. Roland have also resorted to using a separate processor per string on their bass controller (bass is harder to track than a guitar — notice the lack of bass controllers on the market). And Charvel and Takamine (differently badged versions of the Shadow MIDI system) sell their own custom bridge with the pickup built in.
But the system that captures my fancy comprises the new Roland GK1 and GM70. As we said in last month's Newsdesk, the GK1 is a pickup and small electronic piece that supposedly mounts on any (read: your) guitar or bass, and connects to the GM70 rack-mount unit that allows such MIDI gymnastics as Mode 4/Mono Mode with up to four MIDI channels transmitted per string — all programmable. As I've said, I play a lousy keyboard, but I play a passable bass and I love the feel of a stick of wood and pieces of metal vibrating in my hands and against my body (now quieten down, you perverts out there). I also happen to like my basses and synthesisers, thank you — not what somebody else decides I should play. The Roland system gives me that, and the price is not unreasonable. I'll have to play one before I buy it, but it almost makes me wonder if I need a keyboard any more. Roland are also threatening the drum-kit with their Octapad — perhaps horns are next.
YOU MAY HAVE GUESSED by now that I'm a hardcore techie. Being inside the industry and knowing the available potential of technology at any one time, I'm often frustrated by how slowly it can take developments to come to market. However, I came away from the summer NAMM show feeling that the industry was about two years ahead of where I thought it would be.
Most of this is attributable to monstrous advances in software. How have they happened? Well, my only guess is when the newspapers were telling everyone to get engineering degrees or else, a lot of frustrated musicians listened (I know that's how I got here).
Users can either be thrilled or frightened — sometimes both. For those without endless bank accounts to buy the latest everything, everything under the sun — including inexpensive multi-FX processors, MIDI suits, and air drum sticks — seems to be available now (or at least available in the next six months). Pick a system out, buy it and — most important of all — learn it before you buy anything else. Trust me.
MIDI, computers, and quarter-inch output jacks will still be around a year or two from now.
Show Report by Chris Meyer
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