New CD and Lounsberry endorsement

I’m excited to announce that the new album from my jazz trio organissimo entitled “B3tles – A Soulful Tribute to the Fab Four” is now available for pre-order via PledgeMusic. This is our homage to one of the greatest bands ever, The Beatles, and the timeless tunes they wrote. I hope that you’ll consider helping us bring this project to fruition by participating in our PledgeMusic campign. You can do so by clicking here.

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(I think that button is big enough.) Just $10 will get you the AccessPass which includes a download of the album in mp3 or uncompressed FLAC format and exclusive access to updates, bonus material, etc. We also have physical CDs, live bonus material, t-shirts, lessons, hangs, an exclusive invite-only release party, and more.

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You can watch my goofy invitation to participate below.

In other news, I’m very proud to announce that I am now endorsed by Lounsberry Pedals. Lounsberry Pedals make effects pedals especially for keyboardists including the WurlyGrinder to warm up those digital electric piano emulations and the OrganGrinder to smooth out those clonewheel tones. In fact, I’m offering signed editions of both pedals as part of the PledgeMusic campaign for organissimo’s B3tles album. But supplies are very limited. Check out my review of the WurlyGrinder HERE and the OrganGrinder HERE.

Thank you for your continued support and I’ll see you on the road!

Amphion One18 Review

The fundamental purpose of any speaker is to convert electricity into acoustic energy. As with any piece of technology, how well a speaker performs this function varies widely between in implementation. Good speakers provide a pleasing, full-range sound, a stable soundstage, and no noticeable bumps in the frequency response. Great speakers simply disappear.

Long-time readers of my blog might remember my glowing review of the JBL LSR305 active monitor speakers. I’ve been using those speakers now for two years. Actually, I upgraded my mains to the bigger LSR308 speakers last summer. I’ve mixed a lot of music on them and still enjoy them. They are great speakers for the money. But what about some other, more expensive options? A more expensive monitoring system should be an order of magnitude better, right? Do you still get what you pay for?

amphion_one18_2-way_loudspeaker_system

The Amphion One18 speakers

 

BACKSTORY

At the 2016 Summer NAMM I was fortunate to receive a personal demo of the Amphion monitor speaker range from my friend and human Jack Russell terrier Dave Bryce. It’s always difficult to determine how speakers sound on a convention floor, but I had my first encounter with the JBLs in a similar circumstance at the AES show in 2013 and came away impressed. Likewise, I kept returning to the Amphion booth, multiple times a day, to experience the Amphion speakers again. Dave was as excited to show them to me the fifth, sixth, and seventh time as he was the first time. He even played a cut off my THEO album. That’s what I call a personal touch!

THEO - The Game Of Ouroboros

THEO – The Game Of Ouroboros

Last week I received an email from Dave offering to route a pair of demo Amphion One18 speakers to my home studio. I gladly accepted. They arrived in a cool wooden mini-crate along with the matching Amphion Amp100 amplifier and cables in another box. I set them up next to my JBLs and did some quick comparison listening.

First impression: What have I gotten myself into?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

SPECIFICATIONS

Amphion is a Finnish company formed in 1998. The company offers a full line of home speakers and studio monitors as well as amplifiers, hand-built in Finland. Yes, their studio monitors are passive, which is kind of a rarity these days. They have five models. This review will focus on the middle of the range, the One18.

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The model One18 use a custom designed 6.5” woofer and a fast-response titanium tweeter set in what the company calls a “high-density Corian waveguide”. The look is spartan yet beautiful, with the white waveguide making a memorable impression. Two speaker terminals join the passive radiator on the back. The cabinets are sealed; no ports. 

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Amphion One18

The Amp100 is similarly clean and simple. The front panel is adorned only by the Amphion name and a chrome power button that has a soft blue LED ring around it when powered on. The back has the left and right speaker outputs, the IEC power connector, and the left and right XLR inputs. That’s it. The included speaker wires terminate in banana plugs and are a high-quality twisted pair in black. I only wish they were a bit longer.

The frequency response of the speakers is 45Hz to 20,000kHz +/- 3db. The frequency plot on the Amphion website shows a little bump at 100Hz, another at 600Hz, a dip at 800Hz, another bump at 1.2kHz, and quite a bump above 20kHz. The suggested amplifier power to drive the 8 ohm speakers  is 30 to 150 watts.

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The specs on the amp are not on the website but as the name implies it delivers 100 watts into 8 ohms.

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Backside of the Amphion One18 and Amp100

The set-up is very straight forward. Connect your stereo outputs to the XLR inputs on the amp and the speaker outputs on the amp to the speakers themselves. Easy.

PUTTING IT TO THE TEST

I began my listening comparisons with some pre-recorded music from my collection, specifically Dr. Lonnie Smith’s 2009 release Rise Up! and a 2015 release from the Polish progressive rock band Riverside entitled Love, Fear, and the Time Machine.

I started with the JBLs. They sounded great; clear and clean. I’ve been using them for two years, so I know what to expect. Then I switched to the Amphions.

I’ll refrain from using hyperbolic adjectives, even though I’d really like to do so. Objectively, here’s what I wrote down as my first impressions:

  • The mid-range is tight and focused and much more ‘real’. It’s like you can peer right into it.
  • The high-end is airy and not harsh. I could listen to these speakers for hours without fatigue.
  • The imaging is sharp and defined with pinpoint accuracy and depth.
  • The music seems to just float in space.

In other words, the speakers disappeared. Switching back to the JBLs, I experienced what I can only describe as an exaggeration. It’s almost like when you switch the ‘loudness’ button on your old receiver. By that I mean that it isn’t ‘bad’, but it’s not ‘real’ either. It’s affected. For example, the mid-range on the JBLs sounds ‘better’ at first because it is more forward, more ‘in your face’. Switching to the Amphions, the mid-range seems initially a bit more ‘hollow’ but then you realize it’s actually more natural. The saxophone on Dr. Lonnie’s Rise Up sounded like it was in the room with me. Dr. Lonnie’s organ was purring right there, too, so close I could almost see the Leslie spinning. And the vocals on the Riverside album were right in front of me; it was like he was singing directly to me.

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Next I decided to load up the new organissimo album I am mixing. I’ve been having some problems getting the organ tone where I want it. What sounds good to me in the studio doesn’t necessarily translate to the car or other systems.

Listening on the Amphions, I immediately heard the problem area; a honk-ish resonance in the low mid-range, easily fixed by a gentle EQ dip on the upper Leslie rotor microphones. But I could never hear it so directly on the JBLs. I also instantly heard some imaging issues with the drums, solved quickly by adjusting the panning of the toms. I also heard that I needed some more air in the cymbals. And finally, due to the Amphion’s stunning mid-range reproduction, I could hear that I needed to bring the level of the guitar up overall. These are things that were somehow being masked on the JBLs.

What impressed me the most is the imaging; the JBLs are far better in terms of their imaging than the speakers they replaced (the lowly Mackie HR824) but the high-end is still a bit nebulous. Not so on the Amphions; the stereo image is precise all throughout the frequency range.

The JBL LSR308 definitely have a deeper bass than the Amphion One18. I augmented this by connecting the JBL LSR310S subwoofer to the Amphions. Switching back and forth between the two pairs of speakers was now much more balanced, which made for a better comparison. The JBL LSR310S actually matches with the Amphions very well and rounds out the bottom.

CONCLUSION

So do you get what you pay for? Well, the JBLs are still the best value in a monitor speaker for under $1000 a pair (way under, actually). A pair of JBL LSR308 speakers is only $500. The smaller JBL LSR305 speakers are even less at $300 a pair. The Amphion system I am reviewing retails for $4300 ($3000 for the speakers and $1300 for the amp). That’s almost ten times the cost of the LSR308. Is the quality ten times better? That of course is very subjective, but for me the answer is a resounding yes. The high-end clarity, the mid-range focus and precision, and the imaging are definitely worth the money. It’s a shame there isn’t a bit more low-end response; a good sub is needed, further adding to the cost if you don’t already own one. But even so, the verdict is unanimous: Yes, you do get what you pay for.

Now if only I can figure out a way to pay for these Amphions!

Lounsberry Wurly Grinder – Review and Demo

As a child growing up in the 80s, I was unfamiliar with the sound of the Wurlitzer electric piano until my late teens. Radio at the time was inundated with the now maligned DX7 electric piano sound. I knew how a Rhodes sounded because my dad had one of the space-age looking green student models for awhile. But I really didn’t know what a Wurlitzer electric piano was nor did I know what it sounded like until I dug into the early Ray Charles catalog as a 17 year old. It just so happened that the Wurlitzer began making a bit of a comeback about that same time thanks to Beck’s song Loser and Sheryl Crow’s All I Wanna Do topping the charts. Over the next few years, the Wurlitzer started popping up everywhere. Now it’s fairly common in all kinds of music.

My converted 206a, painted red.

My (now sold) converted 206a, painted red.

I was gifted my first Wurlitzer, a student model 206A, from a friend who lifted it from his college. Colleges across the country used Wurlitzer student models as teaching tools in music labs. Up to 48 pianos could be linked together, each student able to hear him/herself via headphones. The teacher had the ability to listen to each student via a master console. Bill Fuller, a former Wurlitzer employee, was quoted as saying that up to 75% of American universities had Wurlitzer piano labs in the late 60s and early 70s. And in the mid 1990s, those universities started getting rid of them.

"And today class, we'll learn how to play What I'd Say parts 1 AND 2!"

“And today class, we’ll learn how to play What I’d Say parts 1 AND 2!”

My friend’s college was no exception.  After asking his piano professor to buy one of the many recently decommissioned 206A’s just cluttering up an alcove at the performance chapel on campus, one night he and his roommates decided to snag one and hauled it back to their dorm across campus.  Just a week later, the rest were hauled away in a dump truck.

He gifted the Wurli to me. I removed the base, painted it red, and gigged with it for years. I used it on numerous recordings and even added tremolo to it. I very recently sold it because I have another student model in original condition. It served me very well.

More red Wurlies, please.

More red Wurlies, please.

The modern ubiquity of the Wurlitzer electric piano sound means that a lot of digital keyboards and synthesizers include their own take on it. But what many of them lack is that preamp grunge of the real thing. When I toured with Janiva Magness, I used a Yamaha Motif ES rack for my Wurlitzer sound for many years. I tried a lot of different pedals for it, trying to add some funk and grunge, but nothing really satisfied me. I couldn’t find anything specifically for keyboards.

That’s where the Wurly Grinder from Lounsberry Pedals comes in. It is designed for the full frequency  range of keyboards and can be used to fatten up a real Wurlitzer or Rhodes. But it really shines adding life and character to electric piano emulations, like those found in so many modern keyboards.

Lounsberry Wurly Grinder

Lounsberry Wurly Grinder

Based on the same topography as the Organ Grinder (see my review here), the Wurly Grinder is has more gain, which allows you to use it with passive instruments like Rhodes stage pianos, and according to Greg Lounsberry the low end response is slightly modified to augment the specific frequency range and tonal characteristics of electric pianos.

Like the Organ Grinder, the Wurly Grinder is a standard sized pedal with ¼” input and output jacks on the back (a sure sign this was designed with keyboardists in mind) and a 9volt DC adapter connector on the left side. It is housed in a beautiful powder-coated royal blue sparkle chassis with two Gold Speed knobs, one for LEVEL and the other DRIVE. The front panel graphics are designed by steampunk artist Mark Hershberger and look really cool. A blue LED between the knobs lets you know when the pedal is active and like all Lounsberry pedals it features true bypass. The pedal is nice to look at, well-crafted, and really solid.

Wurli 140B tube model.

Wurli 140B tube model.

The Wurly Grinder was designed to impart a tube-like quality to any Wurlitzer emulation as well as make a solid state 200 series Wurli sound like an old 100 series tube Wurli. Want your clean Suitcase Rhodes to sound like a barky Stage model? It can do that, too. Hand matched FET transistors and germanium diodes do the work and the circuit inside is smartly organized and very cleanly wired.

The sound is very much like the Organ Grinder but with a more defined edge. You can play intervals other than fifths and still get good definition. The low-end seems a bit tighter to me, more focused, which is good for electric piano as they can be a bit muddy down there. It can go from a gentle fuzz to full on distortion but the range is controlled and very useable.

Hammond SK1

Hammond SK1

It helps the most on the Wurlitzer sounds in my Hammond SK1, adding life and color to the stock patch and smoothing out the inherent harshness in the samples. It sounds really great on my custom Wurli Cruzr patch on the Privia PX5s as well. Tweaking the amp simulations within the PX5s get me close, but I feel like the Wurly Grinder adds that next level of realism to the sound. I think any sampled or modeled emulation of a Wurlitzer or Rhodes would benefit from a bit of Wurly Grinder.

If you have the Organ Grinder already, do you need the Wurly Grinder? Well, if you’re going to use a passive instrument like a Rhodes Stage, then definitely. If you want a bit more definition from your EP samples, then certainly. Or if you’re like me you just like pedals and the cool things they can do, then why not? I’ve read that a lot of people also like the Wurly Grinder on guitar. Try one today and see if it adds that extra something to your electric piano sounds. Or try it on a virtual analog synth to add some girth and fat to the tone. It’s a very versatile pedal. I’m certainly keeping mine.

Thanks for reading and you can hear the Wurly Grinder in action by watching the video below.

 

Lounsberry Organ Grinder Pedal Review & Demo

As primarily a jazz organist, I mostly prefer a clean organ tone with plenty of headroom. Only when I really push the expression pedal do I want to hear the Leslie break up a bit, adding just a pinch of grungey spice to the Hammond stew.

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Recording ‘Jim Alfredson’s Dirty Fingers – A Tribute to Big John Patton’ at GBP Studios in E. Lansing, MI. That’s a 1957 Hammond C3 with a 1958 Leslie 21H connected (not shown). My ideal sound for classic organ jazz.

But I also grew up listening to the progressive rock keyboard gods of the late 1960s and early 1970s. One thing they all had in common was the Hammond organ and the most iconic among them liked a lot of dirt in their sound; Jon Lord (Deep Purple), Dave Stewart (Egg, Hatfield & The North, National Health), Tony Kaye (Yes), and of course Keith Emerson (The Nice, Emerson Lake & Palmer). A few years back, when I began recording my debut progressive rock album THEO – The Game of Ouroboros, I embarked on a quest to get that gnarly tone for my Hammond tracks as well.

From top L to R - Jon Lord, Dave Stewart, Keith Emerson, and Tony Kaye

From top L to R – Jon Lord, Dave Stewart, Keith Emerson, and Tony Kaye

In the age of digital Hammond organ emulators (known in keyboard parlance as ‘clonewheels’), the quality of the overdrive varies widely. My first clonewheel, the Roland VK-7, had a dedicated overdrive knob on the front panel, but it wasn’t all that convincing or useful. I tended not to use it and relied on a real Leslie 122 for the grunge instead. My next board, the Hammond XK3, had two real vacuum tubes in the outputs stage to accompany it’s Tube Overdrive knob, but again I never found the effect all that useful to be honest. And my current organ, the Hammond SK2, also has a dedicated knob for overdrive with four digital models of distortion available, my favorite being the EP Amp setting. But despite all these options, I still cranked my old Leslie 122, boosted the output on my 1954 Hammond C2, and recorded that combination for THEO. It just sounded the way I wanted it to sound.

Tracking my Hammond C2 through a Leslie 122 for THEO - The Game of Ouroboros in 2014.

Tracking my Hammond C2 through a Leslie 122 for THEO – The Game of Ouroboros in 2014.

Currently my favorite overdrive for organ comes from the Neo Instruments Ventilator pedals. It accurately emulates the sound of a tube Leslie driven pretty hard. But what if you want something even more? What if you want that overdrive to sound like the Leslie is about to blow up? What if you want some nasty, Jon Lord fuzz?

Enter the Organ Grinder from Lounsberry Pedals. The Organ Grinder is a stand-alone pedal in the standard guitar pedal format, but made specifically for keyboardists. Greg Lounsberry builds each pedal by hand at his shop in Smithsburg, MD. According to his website, the Organ Grinder was designed and built by request of Roger Powell, another of the 1970s progressive rock gods, best known for his work with Todd Rundgren’s Utopia. Roger was evidently dissatisfied with the overdrive in his clonewheel and asked Greg to make a pedal with the kind of pleasingly ‘flabby’ overdrive a real Leslie imparts.

Roger Powell performing with Utopia in 1978.

Roger Powell performing with Utopia in 1978.

The Organ Grinder is beautifully made, with a candy-apple red powder-coated chassis, two Gold Speed knobs, and fantastic front panel graphics by steampunk inspired artist Mark Hershberger. It’s not only gorgeous but extremely simple to use. It has a true analog bypass ON/OFF switch as well as the two knobs, one for LEVEL and the other for DRIVE. The input and output jacks are on the back instead of the sides (a thoughtful touch for keyboardists) and it has a 9v DC input jack on the left side. It can also be powered by an internal 9v battery. The front panel is finished by a blue LED between the two knobs to signal the effect is on.

The Organ Grinder Pedal

The Organ Grinder Pedal

It’s a solid state analog pedal utilizing FET transistors and germanium diodes. The hand-wiring is pristine and well executed. I would have no qualms about using this pedal on stage in terms of reliability. All the parts are high quality and the workmanship is top shelf.

So how does it sound? Let me put it this way: I’m currently working on a follow-up to THEO. I compose the songs in Cubase first, creating demo parts for each instrument in order to solidify the arrangement before replacing those parts with both real instruments and real players. For one of the songs, I used GSi’s VB3 software to demo the organ part. My original plan was to replace the track with the 1954 Hammond C2 and Leslie 122 combination mentioned above. But I decided to pull out the trusty Hammond XK3 instead, mainly because I wanted to use some effects on the organ itself. The XK3 makes this easy with it’s effects loop and standard outputs. So I connected my Mini-Vent rotary pedal, an Eventide TimeFactor, and an Eventide SPACE to the XK3. I set the overdrive on the Mini-Vent as high as it would go and it sounded nice, but I wanted more grunge for this particular song.

So I connected the Organ Grinder pedal before the Mini-Vent, turned off the Mini-Vent’s overdrive, and engaged the Organ Grinder.

I’d be lying if I said the sky opened and the angels sang… not only because it didn’t happen but my studio is in the basement, so I wouldn’t see it anyway. BUT… I did get a very big smile on my face as I found the perfect drawbar registration to compliment the absolutely devastating overdriven tone I was getting out of that old XK3. Whoa! I’ve never heard the XK3 sound that nasty. And it fit the track perfectly. The overdrive was even through the frequency range, never crispy or harsh, and with the rotary simulation of the Mini-Vent, really did sound like a poor Leslie tube amp about to blow it’s 6550 power tubes through the top of the cabinet!

Next I tried it on my 1968 Wurlitzer 206 electric piano on that same song. Again, I was smiling as it added just the right amount of grunge to the instrument, far better than any other overdrive pedal I’ve tried on EPs before (and I’ve tried dozens). The Organ Grinder is musical and natural; just like a tube circuit. From the first note you know it’s made for keyboards, with none of that midrange bump so prevalent in guitar pedals. Yes, you can play left-hand bass through this and it sounds great.

The Hammond XK3 with Mini-Vent and Eventide pedals.

The Hammond XK3 with Mini-Vent and Eventide pedals.

Are there any cons to the Organ Grinder? The only one I can think of is that it is a mono pedal. If you want to use your clonewheel’s rotary speaker emulation in stereo, and it doesn’t have an effects loop like the Hammond XK3 or XK3c, then you’re out of luck. Perhaps if the Organ Grinder is successful or there are enough requests, Lounsberry might make a stereo version. I would definitely welcome it!

Needless to say, I’m keeping the tracks. And I’m keeping the Organ Grinder. Kudos to Greg Lounsberry for making a pedal that fulfills a real need in the modern keyboardists’ arsenal. Go get one!

Thanks for reading and you can hear the Organ Grinder in action by watching the video below.

Price: $189 plus shipping direct from www.lounsberrypedals.com

organissimo takes 2016

We’re almost ready to begin post-production and mixing on the new organissimo album which is a tribute to the Beatles. Here’s a full-length song from the upcoming CD.

For this recording in my humble home studio, I’m using my beloved 1954 Hammond C2 through a 1956 Leslie 21H. The Leslie is miked with a pair of heavily modified TNC ACM-6082 tube condensers in a Blumlein pair on top and an Electro-Voice RE20 on the bottom.

One thing yet to finish is a version of Within You Without You. In preparing for this CD, I asked my elder sister (who is responsible for a lot of my musical tastes) for her favorite Beatles song and she answered with that psychedelic, classical Indian inspired cut from the seminal Sgt Pepper’s album. I’ve decided to do something a little different with it, however, instead of a straight organ trio live studio performance.

synthesizers.com modular

synthesizers.com modular

First I had drummer Randy Marsh play the iconic drum groove from Tomorrow Never Knows off the Beatles’ Revolver album. I absolutely adored this album as a kid and listened to it over and over again. Next I looped an 8 bar snippet from Randy’s performance to create a hypnotic almost electronic drum track. Next I will craft a tambura-esque patch on the mighty synthesizers.com modular as the drone. Then I will play the melody on organ, but with a surprise twist (to be revealed later). And finally I’ll bring Larry in to add some guitar pyrotechnics over the top. So like the Beatles, we will be constructing this piece in the studio, using the studio as another instrument.

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If you’re intrigued, head over to organissimo.org and sign up for the email list to receive notifications of the album’s release and other newsworthy items. I should mention we’re also working on a live CD and video and another entire CD of original material. Here’s an example of that.

In the meantime, I’m also finishing up mixing for Big Apple Blues’ new album, writing and recording new material for the upcoming follow-up to my progressive rock debut THEO, and I’ll be playing shows this spring and summer in Belgium, Hong Kong, Chicago, and of course all over my home state of Michigan!

See you on the road!

organissimo in the studio

Golly gee, it’s been awhile since I updated this site. The last year has been a whirlwind and here it is almost a month into 2016 already. Whew! Well, let me catch my breath and catch you up on my life for the past 9 months.

At the end of 2014 I officially left the Janiva Magness band. I toured and recorded with that wonderful group for four and a half years and thoroughly enjoyed my tenure with them, but it was time for a change. It might seem like a political cliché but I really did want to spend more time with my family, including my three young daughters, and less time on the road. And I missed my wife.

jimandjaniva

So I said my goodbyes and began 2015 with a bit of uncertainty but a whole lot of pride as I released my first progressive rock album, THEO – The Game Of Ouroboros, to widespread acclaim. This was followed by Greg Nagy’s third album Stranded in March, which I produced, engineered, mixed, mastered, wrote songs for, performed on, and put a lot of sweat equity into. Both THEO and Stranded were included in Best of 2015 lists late last year. Stranded was named one of the best releases of 2015 by none other than Downbeat magazine. Both are currently up for WYCE Jammie Awards, which don’t really mean anything outside of Michigan but isn’t it nice to be recognized by your peers in your hometown?

theo_cover

Since then I’ve been working on a follow-up to THEO and revitalizing my jazz trio organissimo. Our current guitarist Larry Barris has helped to breathe new life into the group and we’ve been writing new songs, playing fun gigs, and even doing some light touring on the East Coast.

We’re also working on two new albums worth of material. The first is our interpretation of classic songs by The Beatles. The second is all original material. We made a quick teaser video for the project which you can watch below.

We’re also working on collating several multi-track and video recordings of various gigs we did over the last few months for a live high-def video/audio package.

In between that, I’ve been tuning and repairing pianos, doing my best to carry on my father’s legacy as a dependable and affordable piano tech in the Lansing area, playing with many other bands and musicians, mixing albums and EPs for other people (including trombonist Michael Dease and guitarist Randy Napoleon, both Professors of Jazz at Michigan State University), and touring and recording with Big Apple Blues.

I’ve also contributed reviews to Keyboard Magazine and I’ve recently perfected the art of making omelets. Life is good!

Thank you for your continued support via this page and my YouTube channel, the organissimo site including our extremely popular jazz discussion forum, hanging with me over on FB and The Keyboard Corner, and asking me about all things Hammond via all those channels and email. I’ll be more diligent in updating this site in 2016, I promise!

Jim Alfredson’s Dirty Fingers LIVE on WKAR-TV

In August of 2014 I had the distinct pleasure of headlining the Old Town Lansing Jazz Festival (now called the Lansing Jazz Festival) with my band Dirty Fingers. I assembled an all-star cast including Oakland University’s Sean Dobbins on drums, guitarists Larry Barris and Ralph Tope, saxophonist Mark Kieme, and vibraphonist Jim Cooper. During the second part of the set some special guests joined the band onstage including New York organist Brian Charette, the inimitable Fareed Haque on guitar, and Michigan State University Jazz Professor Michael Dease on trombone for a fun jam session.

dirty finger WKAR_2

You can watch both sets via the WKAR page.

Part I – http://video.wkar.org/video/2365430304/

Part II – http://video.wkar.org/video/2365430317/

dirty finger WKAR

 

The Keyboards of THEO pt. 2

THEO ‘The Game Of Ouroboros’ is my progressive rock release. I worked on the album for almost four years in between touring with the Janiva Magness band, playing numerous local gigs, tuning and repairing pianos, and releasing two other albums (organissimo’s Dedicated and Jim Alfredson’s Dirty Fingers – A Tribute To Big John Patton). 

I wanted to not only bring the keyboards back to the forefront in rock music but also strike a balance between classic vintage sounds and more modern textures. In this multi-part series, I will describe the different keyboards and synthesizers, both hardware and software, that I used on the album. You can read Part 1 here.

MOOG MINIMOOG VOYAGER (Signature Edition)

It goes without saying that the original Minimoog is an iconic instrument and its legacy is well deserved. I always wanted a Minimoog but decided on the Voyager, Moog’s modern re-creation, due to the performance features including presets. As cool as the idea is in theory, I did not want to haul around two or more original Minimoogs just to have two different sounds available while playing live.

I purchased my Signature Edition Voyager in the early spring of 2008. I bought it used from a fellow synthesizer enthusiast in St. Claire Shores, MI. When I walked into his modest brick home that sunny yet chilly March day, I entered a living room filled with amazing analog synthesizers including an original Minimoog, two ARP 2600s, Korg PS series synths, a couple EMS VC3 synths, a Memorymoog, and more that I cannot even recall. To my surprise he had kids and a wife as well! He recorded everything onto 1″ tape and his music, which he graciously played for me, is best described as Berlin-style ambient electronica (Tangerine Dream).

My rig for the making of the album "In Memorandom" circa 2009. Moog Voyager on top of a Yamaha SY77 and SY99.

My rig for the making of the album “In Memorandom” circa 2009. Moog Voyager on top of a Yamaha SY77 and SY99.

The Voyager was my first analog synthesizer. I had grown up with digital synths including the venerable Yamaha DX7. I also briefly had an Ensoniq ESQ-1, a Casio CZ-1000 borrowed from a friend, and later my Yamaha SY77 which I still own and use. But I wanted a real analog for some time and the Voyager was my ideal.

I was also in the process of recording organissimo’s third album, Groovadelphia, in my home studio. One particular track, If Not Now When?, needed something. I kept hearing a simple sinusoidal lead line, like Stevie Wonder would’ve played on the TONTO synthesizer, weaving in and out. I made a sound on my Motif ES rack and it worked fine enough but when I finally got the Voyager home and created the patch it sounded so much richer and fit in the mix so easily. I was hooked. I made up my mind that I would get a true analog polysynth (see The Keyboards of THEO Part I – The Alesis Andromeda).

I used the Voyager extensively on THEO – The Game of Ouroboros. Most of the lead synth lines are the Voyager, sometimes layered with Steinberg’s Retrologue just to add to the thickness of the sound. The ethereal chords at the beginning of The Blood That Floats My Throne are also the Voyager. I also used it for almost all the basslines during the writing and demo stage but those were replaced by Gary Davenport on Chapman stick or fretless bass.

Funny enough, I also used the Voyager as my main MIDI controller as I was writing the songs on THEO, playing parts into Cubase. A lot of these parts would eventually be replaced by real instruments but a good portion of them stayed including the tracks of Camel Audio’s Alchemy VST.

One of my favorite solos on the THEO album is from These Are The Simple Days, which is played on the Moog Voyager. It was also the first through-composed solo I wrote on the album, which was a real challenge for me. Improvising a solo is no problem with my jazz background, but actually writing a solo that will always be the same (like Tony Banks did with Genesis) was much more difficult. After weeks of failures, I finally set upon the idea of improvising several takes and then combining the best elements into a cohesive statement. I think it turned out well.

The above is from the original demo recording with fake drums and no guitar yet added. You can hear the entire song from the complete CD in this video.

The Moog Voyager is truly a beautiful synthesizer both aesthetically and musically. I have tried several times to replace it with other synths, mostly for live purposes (it is quite heavy and large to haul around) but nothing I’ve used so far sounds as good. It’s a joy to play and the variety of sounds is astonishing given the relative simplicity of it’s subtractive synthesis.

Next week in Pt III – The mighty synthesizers.com modular

The Keyboards of THEO pt. 1

THEO ‘The Game Of Ouroboros’ is my progressive rock release. I worked on the album for almost four years in between touring with the Janiva Magness band, playing numerous local gigs, tuning and repairing pianos, and releasing two other albums (organissimo’s Dedicated and Jim Alfredson’s Dirty Fingers – A Tribute To Big John Patton). 

I wanted to not only bring the keyboards back to the forefront in rock music but also strike a balance between classic vintage sounds and more modern textures. In this multi-part series, I will describe the different keyboards and synthesizers, both hardware and software, that I used on the album.

ALESIS ANDROMEDA A6

Let’s just get this out of the way: The Alesis Andromeda is a monster synthesizer. Released in 2000 and discontinued in 2010, the Andromeda is arguably the most powerful analog polysynth ever made.

The specs are impressive: 16 voices, 2 oscillators per voice, 5 waveforms, 2 multi-mode filters, a powerful pattern sequencer, an arppegiator, a really cool ribbon controller, and knobs knobs knobs a-plenty.

2841_Alesis_AndromedaA6

Alesis Andromeda A6

 

Yes, there are some weaknesses including the lack of promised poly-aftertouch and some bugs in the OS. It is also built with proprietary chips and parts are getting scarce. But the sound is incredible. It is capable of emulating a wide range of classic sounds including Minimoog style leads and basses, Oberheim pads and brass, Prophet-5 type sync leads, and even sounds reminiscent of the mighty CS80.

The Andromeda enters fairly early on THEO. That thick, swirling string sound at the intro of the very first song (the title track) is the Andromeda through an Eventide SPACE reverb pedal and then filtered in Cubase.

The Andromeda returns on the third track, Creatures of Our Comfort, in the form of the panning synth string pad and the more mellow pad. It also covers the deep synth bass at the very end.

The string sound from the first song re-appears in the instrumental section of These Are The Simple Days and it’s the last sound you hear as the instrumental section transitions into the lyrical reprieve that ends the song.

The Andromeda is all over the next track, Idle Worship, including the panning arppegiating lines and that fantastic brass swell that sounds like UK’s classic song Alaska.

One of the coolest features of the Andromeda is the inclusion of 16 dedicated outputs, one for each voice, via eight 1/4″ TRS jacks on the back. On Idle Worship, I recorded the arppegiated lines by connecting all 16 mono outputs to a mixer, and then randomly assigning each of those 16 outputs to eight sub busses. I then recorded those eight sub busses into Cubase and panned them randomly around the 5.1 surround field so that each note of the arppegiated pattern appears at a different spot in space. The effect is pretty amazing, with notes in quick succession appearing in completely different places around your head. Even in stereo it sounds cool! Here is a test I did before the actual recording to hear how it sounds.

On the final song, Exile, the Andromeda is generating that phased string sound that reminds me of the old ARP Solina string ensemble during the quiet middle section. Originally I had used a patch from u-he’s Zebra but decided to program the sound on the Andromeda instead and I’m glad I did. It fits into the mix so much better. I believe I ran the outputs of the Andromeda into a MoogerFooger Phase pedal. The Andromeda is also doing the arppegiated line during the epic end solo section.

In the studio at Glenn Brown Productions for an Intergalactic Spiral session. Photo by Corrina Van Hamlin.

In the studio at Glenn Brown Productions for an Intergalactic Spiral session. Photo by Corrina Van Hamlin.

The Andromeda is a desert island synth for me. I hope mine never succumbs to the issues that some users have experienced, issues that can render it useless. After Alesis folded and emerged from bankruptcy under new ownership, the Andromeda was never the same and some of the later models exhibit problems including failing proprietary components. Mine appears to be functioning at 100% so far and I hope it continues to do so for years to come. It is truly the King Of Analog Polysynths and rewards patience in programming with stunning sound.

UPDATE (July 11, 2015):

Before I purchased the Andromeda, I seriously considered buying an Oberheim Matrix 12 instead. At the time, both synths were about the same price on the used market. Since that time, the Matrix 12 has almost doubled in price and Andromeda prices have stagnated. I always wondered if I made the right decision.

A few months ago I finally got my hands on a Matrix 12 via a friend who amassed quite the vintage synth collection and while the sound was great, it didn’t blow me away. Then again, we were playing it through an mono tube amp with a small speaker. I came home confident that I made the right decision to buy the Andromeda.

Just a few days ago as of this post, that friend brought the Matrix 12 over so that I could make a demo for him. He’s selling it and since he’s not a keyboardist, he asked me to perform. Connecting the Matrix 12 to my studio monitoring system and hearing it in stereo was incredible. Here’s a video of the proceedings:

What an amazingly rich and lush sound. In the past few days, I’ve experienced doubt yet again whether I made the right choice. So I’ve spent some time really sitting down with the Andromeda and getting to know it better. And I’ve discovered some more strengths and weaknesses.

Firstly, the UNISON X mode is incredible. By default, the Andromeda triggers two oscillators per note, each with five waveforms available simultaneously. By pressing the UNISON X button, you can make the Andromeda trigger four oscillators per note, or six, or eight, all the way up to all thirty-two (sixteen voices times two oscillators per voice). And you can detune them with one knob turn as well. This can make a thin and dull patch sound absolutely enormous instantly.

Secondly, I learned that it’s really easy to overdrive the filters both pre and post, which can lead to wave shaping (ie, distortion). Turning down the feed of the oscillators into the filters creates a much smoother, more pure analog sound.

But I also learned that the panning leaves a lot to be desired. One of the coolest features of the Oberheim is the ability to pan each voice anywhere in the stereo field, or do so randomly. This ability further increases the sense of largeness of the Oberheim.  Although there are a vast number of modulation sources for the panning, none of them that I found achieves that random voice panning effect and they all seem to affect the entire output, not individual oscillators or voices (two oscillators each). The only way to really do this is to use the individual voice outputs connected to a 16 channel mixer and set the pans on the mixer wherever you’d like. This seems like a rather confusing oversight on the part of the OS design team.

Despite this and with the help of the Andromeda Tips & Tricks article, I’m programming some really nice, deep, rich sounds from the Andromeda. My lust for the Matrix 12 is not gone yet, but it is abated somewhat.

Next week in Pt II – The Moog Voyager.

Earning money from music online

This will not be a post about how hard it is to be a musician in the digital age. We all know it isn’t a cakewalk. That said, I would rather be doing what I’m doing than work for someone else in a cubical somewhere making shareholders rich. I may not be a millionaire (or even a hundred-thousandaire… or even half that… I’ll stop now before I get depressed) but I am happy with my work.

But it bears repeating as often as possible that when it comes to online streaming, which unfortunately appears to be the new form of distribution replacing physical sales, musicians are getting completely screwed.

Just how screwed? Back in 2010 the site Information Is Beautiful created a stunning infographic displaying how many streams an artist would need per month to generate enough income to be on par with a minimum wage job. And the results were horrifying.

spotify

Yes, dear struggling independent musician operating in either a niche genre with less worldwide fans than your average hockey stadium capacity (ie, jazz) or (worse) in a popular field with millions of other competitors (ie rap, rock, pop): You are screwed. You need over 4 million streams per month to make a measly $1,160 which is probably not even enough to pay your rent and car insurance.

Now Information is Beautiful has updated the stats for 2015 and the good news is that the rates have increased due to public and political pressure. It now takes about 1 million plays on Spotify to reach minimum wage. So that’s an improvement, right? Sure, but let’s be honest here: If you’re getting 1 million plays a month on Spotify you’re probably already a big name in the business.

This begs the question: What artists are getting around 1 million streams per month? Thankfully this is answered very easily via Spotify’s own charts. As of this post, here are the artists that are getting about 1 million streams per month. Please note that many of these artists also appear higher in the chart for different songs.

spotify_chart

 

What’s the point of all this? Well, nothing you haven’t heard before. Streaming services are not direct income generators for most artists. This goes for Pandora, LastFM, Youtube, etc. But they are good means of distributing your product as a relative unknown. I have reached a lot of people via my YouTube channel and I make a few hundred bucks a month from it, which is nothing to sneeze at. And I’ve certainly gained new fans from Pandora and other services. I’m confident that some of those fans actually do buy physical product or at the least some downloads from iTunes and the like. But as streaming becomes even more pervasive and convenience continues to trump all else, I’m sure those sales will drop as well.

So what’s the solution? I don’t really have one except to keep making music and perhaps put the focus on formats that are not yet streamable, like 5.1 surround. I’ve discovered a vital community of surround enthusiasts since releasing THEO. And they are hungry for more content which is why my next two releases (organissimo and another electronica / ambient project) will also have 5.1 versions. Vinyl is another viable option to spur actual physical sales.

One day maybe I’ll be well-known enough that I can pull my catalog from Spotify ala Taylor Swift. But until that day, it’s best to focus on the strengths of the format rather than the pitiful payments.