A Bunch of Fives
In which five of E&MM's writers pick their fave things of the year. If your personal preferences aren't there, don't take it out on us.
E&MM's main contributors list 1984's most noteworthy happenings in groups of five for convenient, easy reference. If you don't find them bigoted, opinionated, and grossly unfair, you're obviously not easily shocked...
Ace Reviewer Paul 'give it to me and I'll slag it' White lists his favourite new products in chronic and logical order.
1: The SynthAxe
Unveiled to the vultures of the music press in May, this instrument obviously deserves more credit than anything else, as do its designers, who strove so hard and desperately to create an incredibly flexible and versatile instrument that could still be played and understood by the average Guitarist reader.
Reference has already been made to the instrument's unusual appearance in our Retro feature but what isn't so immediately apparent is that the SynthAxe actually contains more computing power than the entire Russian space programme (1958 to date). It does come a bit on the pricey side, but if you're in the market for a Fairlight, the SynthAxe is the ideal fretted complement and should comfortably be afforded out of the change.
2: Powertran MCS1
Tim Orr's outrageously cheap and powerful MCS1 brings high-quality digital sampling within reach of the serious semi-pro musician, and the pitch of the machine's output can be controlled via either MIDI or CV keyboards, so almost anyone can use it.
Not only does the MCS offer such sophistications as sample loop editing, pitch-bend and vibrato facilities, it also doubles as a conventional digital delay line during its time off. Involved as I was in the recording of Powertran's demo tape, I was surprised at just how many domestic utensils could be pressed into musical service using nothing more than the MCS1, a decent microphone and a deranged imagination. Even a humble milk bottle can be coaxed into producing a flute sound so convincing it would have James Galway crying into his Guinness. But does James Galway read E&MM? Probably not.
3: Roland TR707
After a veritable age of Great Expectations, Roland have finally come up with the Dickens of a good digital drum machine. Gone are the tinny electronic samples of the 707's predecessors, to be replaced by high-quality digital samples and the excellent LCD grid system first shown on the Boss Dr Rhythm Graphic: it makes pattern writing and editing simpler than ever.
At about £500, the 707 really has brought first-rate drum sounds within the reach of mere mortals, though some of us are so mere that we'll still have to do a bit of saving up.
4: The Syndrom
Despite Dr Ellis' demo cassette (bits of which sound uncannily like a deranged bat flying through the workings of an air conditioning system), E&MM's Syndrom is capable of producing sampled drum sounds of the highest calibre for, well, peanuts really.
Connect a couple of modules to the trigger outputs of an existing drum machine and you can replace, say, the bass and snare with sounds equal in quality to those of the Linn (where did you get those samples?), thus saving your trusty Drumatix or whatever from a fate worse than obsolescence.
5: Ultimate Percussion UP5
Hats off to the small Essex firm who unveiled this preset electronic drum kit at the British Music Fair in August. Combining superbly made and attractive pads with compact electronics, the UP5 can produce eight different drum sounds at the touch of a button or two, yet costs surprisingly little.
Actually, the kit's real advantage is that all those horrendous sounds we all know drummers are capable of programming using a conventional electronic set-up are placed safely out of their grasp. Just think of the torment we've all been spared.
Computer Musician Editor David Ellis looks at five products of a more computerised (well, sort of) nature.
1: Kurzweil 250
A keyboard of magnificent dimensions, performance, and price. A mite pretentious, perhaps, but it does point to a new direction for manufacturers to take their sampling wunderkind. If the 250 had lived up to all the advance publicity, it would have been incredible. As it is, a less than healthy percentage of the ROM-based sounds are fairly dreadful, which brings the 250 down to the level of being only excellent. The big question that remains is whether adding on an Apple Macintosh and the sampling hardware will succeed in turning it into the ultimate computer music system. For the answer to that, watch these pages in 1985...
2: Acorn Music 500
A quality digital synthesiser for the BBC Micro that has crept onto the scene without the benefit of Cambridge moles giving away advance details months before the event. With an MCL-type language called AMPLE, the Music 500 looks set to offer balm to the digits of BBC Micro owners who aren't so conspicuously gifted with keyboard skills. For those with a vested interest in digital flights of fantasy, the Music 500 may appear a bit too much like going back to school, but before you jump to any hasty conclusions, hang around for the music keyboard that'll be appearing next year.
3: Yamaha CX5M
A boringly standard and over-priced MSX micro blessed with Yamaha's gift at turning ivory tower research into commercial reality - namely the remarkable FM/MIDI module that slots into the base of the CX5M. If Yamaha were to licence the FM chip ensconced in this unit to other manufacturers, they'd make an awful lot of people as happy as a sandworm (that's for Dune fans...). But they won't, so we'll have to make the best of the curate's egg that the CX5M is: great synthesis hardware, unimaginative and limited (32K) micro hardware, and a right hodgepodge of software. Mind you, the FM Music Composer Package still gets my vote as one of the more musical pieces of software to have emerged in 1984.
4: Korg DDM220
At long last a really cheap digital drum machine that grabs the ear with splendidly unorthodox sounds. And whilst following the latin gravy-train to Hollywood isn't exactly my cup of tea, there's no doubt that the DDM220 is great for blowing your horn at Trevor.
5: Greengate DS3
Yet another member of the sampling fraternity, but this time based around that stalwart of the home computer brigade, the Apple II. And even though Greengate Productions have a certain reputation for being difficult characters to get on with if you ring them up and complain about the difficulties you're having with the Hampton Court-like maze of instructions in the dire sequencing software or the highly idiosyncratic manual, it sounds good, it's cheap, and it steals some of the thunder away from the (now) over-priced Fairlight.
and the five that never quite made it:
1: Jen Music System
About which the least said the better.
2: Upstream MIDI system
Which only goes to prove that being a member of Mensa doesn't automatically mean business acumen or the ability to turn advertising copy into physical reality.
3: Buchla 400
So much was promised, but nothing actually materialised. However, the latest news is that Kimball Organs have teamed up with Don Buchla in a joint effort to get the 400 on the streets.
4: Yamaha QX1 & TX816
Wonderful on paper and high in price, but when are they actually going to appear? Talk about inscrutable marketing strategies...
5: Sharp CX3
The digital tape recorder that squashes 16 tracks on ⅛" cassette tape, remember? Another non-arriver, but watch out for remarkable developments along these lines next year.
A personal Christmas message from a debt-ridden Trish McGrath.
Dear Sanity Clause,
It's been a long time since I wrote to you last, but you can rest assured I've tried (very hard to be on my best behaviour since then (December 1967). I'm dropping you a line to let you know details of the five presents I would most like to find in my stocking on Christmas morning, as I know you must be finding it difficult to keep track of all the advances in musical technology during 1984 (you maybe reading the wrong magazines - have you renewed your subscription to E&MM?).
So, in order of preference, I would like a Kurzweil 250 Digital Keyboard — love at first sight, I'm afraid. Listening to the Kurzweil's representation of a concert grand with eyes shut, you might expect the instrument to resemble the bridge of the Starship Enterprise - but don't worry, Rudolph should be able to pull it along nicely (if not, ring Securicor). Still, maybe you'd better skip the chimney lark...
If my first choice is unavailable or temporarily out-of-stock, I wouldn't say no to a Roland MSQ700 Digital Keyboard Recorder (it would also save me having to knit a bigger stocking). With an MSQ, I could record in either step- or real-time using up to eight tracks and 6500 events, and it would quite happily control my MIDI- or DCB-compatible keyboards. However, it does look a bit like a clock radio, so you will be careful when you're browsing through the Argos catalogue, won't you?
Of course, with all this high-tech gear this might be a good time to replace my domestic percussion (pots, pans, jars — you know the sort) with a MIDI drum machine. I'm not fussy, so long as it's either a Yamaha RX11 or the new Roland TR707. Both machines deliver high-quality digital drum sounds, offer versatile programming options, and will sync easily to the MSQ700 (hint, hint).
If all else fails, I guess I could settle for the budget-priced but nonetheless excellent Korg DDM220 Percussion unit. Mind you, I suppose the congos, agogos and cabasa may seem out of place in cold, wet Cambridge this winter, so if you could chuck in a plane ticket to Hawaii as well, I'd very much appreciate it.
See you on Christmas Eve. I'll be waiting with some whiskey, Christmas pudding - and open arms ...
E&MM contributor Paul Wiffen is now a reformed character after giving up selling synthesisers and becoming a freelance programmer. Here's his Top Five.
1: Emulator II
First past the post with usable sampling facilities for synthesiser programmers and keyboard players. Sensible length samples (unlike the CMI), polyphonic (unlike the Synclavier) and totally user-programmable (unlike the Kurzweil) for less than any of them. Cross-fades, sample mixing and splicing and analogue filtering are wonderful features. Only complaints are the nasty keyboard (which can be got around via the EII's excellent MIDI Implementation) the fact that you can't put more than two samples on any one key or move samples up or down by more than an octave. Definitely Product of the Year.
2: SCI Drumtraks
Twelve months after its release, the Drumtraks is still the only drum machine for those (like myself) whose music relies on Phil Collins tom-tom rolls round the whole kit for which 16 different levels of tuning are required. Programmed from the excellent (if over-priced) Prophet T8 keyboard via MIDI, Drumtraks velocity-sensitivity gives stunning control over dynamics. The original Bass Drum sound was a bit naff but the replacement sample Rod Argents kindly supplied me with makes the SCI the best of a good crop in this, the year of the digital drum machine.
3: Oberheim Xpander
In a year when so many manufacturers (Korg, Roland, Siel, PPG, Yamaha) simply chopped the keyboard off their best selling synth and called it a MIDI expander/guitar synthesiser, for me the only one that showed any real imagination was the Xpander. Not cheap, but then this is neither mutton dressed as lamb nor a jump on the MIDI bandwagon. Containing six voice channels which are probably the most complex yet available polyphonically, the Oberheim combines multi-timbrality (this year's most notable piece of Californian jargonese) with truly professional sound quality.
4: The Bit One
Despite a truly terrible name, this proved to be the only budget synth that could really deliver sound-wise. But then neither name nor sound quality were a surprise to me when I discovered the Bit One to have been designed by Mario Maggi (he of Elka Synthex fame). To provide touch-sensitivity at this price (£699) is a real achievement, and the future for the Bit One will be bright indeed if all the planned MIDI expansions come to fruition.
5: LEMI MIDI Software
One of the most disappointing aspects of MIDI has been the way in which the best software has been written for unreliable budget computers like the Commodore 64 and Spectrum, whilst more reliable models like the BBC have suffered a lack of user-friendly and versatile packages, the UMI system excepted. However, the Apple II has fared rather better thanks to the LEMI Future Shock MIDI Interface and software (reviewed in this issue). An excellent real-time multitrack sequencer, aids to DX7, Prophet 5 and Prophet 600 programming and sound libraries, plus a brilliant and unique idea, a MIDI digital delay which uses another (or indeed the same) keyboard to play the repeat signal.
And finally, Dan Goldstein takes the easy way out, supplying a chart for people who are too lazy to make music of their own and prefer listening to other people's instead.
1: Brilliant Trees (David Sylvian)
The number Seven is a common enough concept, you know, seven virtues, seven vices, seven wonders of the world, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but the seven songs on Brilliant Trees are decidedly uncommon and much the better for it.
From the organised chaos of the opening 'Pulling Punches' to the emotional high-point of the album's title-track, Sylvian's voice casts a powerful, sensitive shadow over an instrumental backing that's as competent and as varied as its participants (Sakamoto, Hassell, Czukay, Barbieri).
When the album came out it was striking enough to be the best record of the summer, but I predicted then that 1984 would not see a better LP, and Brilliant Trees has worn far better than even a confirmation of that statement would suggest. Every time you play it, more intricate details of construction, arrangement and production come bubbling to the surface. Touching, progressive, intelligent, graceful. Brilliant Trees is all these and more.
2: The Flat Earth (Thomas Dolby)
In which the mad professor of The Golden Age of Wireless mellowed into an intelligent songwriter and producer with a penchant for corrupting traditional instrumental arrangements by dubbing Fairlight samples over the top of them.
Critics said The Flat Earth was too commercial but they were missing the point. In 1984 Dolby proved computers could make a positive contribution to the way music was played yet still not be too conspicuous by their presence. True, the man's output could be a bit more on the consistent side, but if he comes up with records (not to mention videos, tours, books and the like) of this quality at the climax to each work period, who can complain?
3: The Pearl (Harold Budd & Brian Eno)
So close (in both concept and execution) to the duo's 1982 album The Plateaux of Mirror that it might have been recorded at the same time, this was nonetheless the year's finest example of modern-day 'ambient' music. Budd's simple, repetitive piano melodies are strikingly but sympathetically contrasted by Eno's synthscapes, and while a few of the album's pieces are decidedly throwaway, others ('Against the Sky', 'Foreshadowed') have real beauty and passion.
Far too many dismiss this sort of thing as mere aural wallpaper, when in reality a lot more goes into its creation than is immediately apparent; if you really listen, you'll find more within The Pearl than a hundred albums of far more complex instrumentation. Even the cover is nice.
4: It'll End in Tears (This Mortal Coil)
If there was a record that logic insisted shouldn't have been an aesthetic success, but became one nevertheless, this was it. The line-up is a peculiar pot pourri of 4AD employees under the guiding hand of the label's mentor, Ivo Watts-Russell. The music varies enormously in both style and dynamics, but the arrangements are consistently inspiring, DX7s being juxtaposed at will with such unlikely bedfellows as a gizmo and a yang t'chin.
Two female singers, Cocteau Twins' Liz Fraser and Dead Can Dance's Lisa Gerrard, steal the show with vocal performances whose dexterity outshines even that of the album's instrumentalists, and while a couple of the tracks on It'll End in Tears don't achieve anything more than giving you a pain in the head, that fact only serves to make the remainder more gracefully tranquil.
5: Journeys out of the Body (Steve Jolliffe)
Formerly an innocent accessory to the improvisational antics of Edgar Froese and Klaus Schulze in the infant Tangerine Dream, Jolliffe returned to vinyl with a vengeance in '84 with a musical reflection of some extraordinary bodily happenings he experienced while staying in Somerset some time before.
Using only the bare basics of musical technology (grand piano, SCI Pro One), he succeeded in creating an album of great depth and effervescence, though seeing as he's now equipped himself with rather more in the way of studio hardware, Jolliffe's next musical endeavour - due for release early in 1985 - is likely to be a work of a very different kind.
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