Yamaha SY99 Demo

The Yamaha SY99 synthesizer was released in 1991 as the flagship of Yamaha’s line. Around that same time (maybe 1990?) my father and I drove to Detroit from the Lansing area with $2000 in cash to purchase a floor model of the SY99’s little brother, the SY77. Having sold his Yamaha DX7, Yamaha RX7 drum machine, an Ensoniq ESQ-1, a Fostex four-track cassette recorder, and some other goodies to fund the purchase, my dad and I were very excited to get the SY77. I loved that synth and used it every day for years and years. But I have to admit I always lusted after the SY99 because you could load your samples into it’s massive 512kb internal memory! Watch out!

Yamaha SY99

Yamaha SY99. Ironically, this jpeg is larger than the internal user sample memory available in the SY99.

I still have the SY77 as briefly discussed in a previous post and since everything is cyclical, the digital synth behemoths of yesteryear are not worth all that much these days, with a few exceptions. Everybody has gone analog crazy! So a few years ago I found and purchased an SY99 for a ridiculously low price. I used it sparingly on In Memorandom and I’ve been slowly programming a bank of analog emulations using only the FM engine. Otherwise, it hasn’t seen much use.

Yamaha SY99 with the SYN WAVE 2 voice and data cards.

Yamaha SY99 with the SYN WAVE 2 voice and data cards.

Lately I’ve been looking for some waveform cards. These are cards that Yamaha released to expand the available waveforms for the SY77 and they are compatible with the SY99 as well. I also recently discovered that someone is working on creating new waveform cards that can be loaded with your own samples!  Amazing. That same person reverse engineered the RAM expansion cards, which are impossible to find, and offers the recreations for sale on his Sector 101 page. He also offers FLASH RAM for the Yamaha EX series, again reverse engineered. I like this guy!

Sector 101 SYEMB05 RAM expansion module for the SY99.

Sector 101 SYEMB05 RAM expansion module for the SY99.

But back to the waveform cards: I’ve been searching for a particular set for a few years and finally found them for a decent price on eBay. The SYN WAVE 2 card contains sampled waveforms from the venerable Yamaha CS80 and has a companion card with patches created from these waves. So I decided to make a little demo of it!

For the video, I connected my SY99 to the Eventide TimeFactor and SPACE pedals. The onboard effects in the SY99 are not the best, though they were quite good for the time. Some of the patches use a combination of onboard effects and the outboard pedals but most have the internal effects bypassed. All sounds are from the SY99 SYN WAVE 2 card set with the exception of the drums, which are from the Roland JD-Xi that I just finished reviewing for Keyboard Magazine (more on that neat little synth in a later post).

The SY77 and SY99 are capable of some amazing sounds. The AFM (Advanced Frequency Modulation) engine is very powerful and flexible and they are the only synthesizers I know, software or hardware, that can use sample waveforms as operators in the FM synthesis engine. Plus they are built like tanks. My poor SY77 has survived six foot drops onto concrete and hundreds of gigs in its 25 years of service. So far I’ve only had to replace the floppy drive belt, LCD screen (which dim over time), and the small battery that powers the internal memory when turned off. I did the same to the SY99 when I received it. Up next is replacement of some of the push buttons on the SY77, which are beginning to fail after years and years of repeated use.

I would love to see Yamaha release another FM synthesizer coupled with the modern Motif AWM2 engine. But that will probably never happen in this age of inexpensive software synths. However, if the recent acquisition of Camel Audio by Apple proves anything, it’s that software is only as reliable as the support it receives from the company. I adore Camel Audio’s Alchemy and use it constantly. It’s on every track on THEO – The Game Of Ouroboros, usually multiple instances of it. And now the company is under Apple’s banner and most likely will not support PC users like myself anymore. So be it. But hardware survives even the death of the manufacturer. And with third party folks like the aforementioned Sector 101 guy supporting them as well, it looks like the SY series will be around a long time.

Long live hardware! And long live the SY99!

Early 90s digital synth sexiness!

Early 90s digital synth sexiness!

 

 

THEO Press Release

theo_cover

For Immediate Release

Prog Ensemble THEO Featuring Renowned Keyboardist Jim Alfredson Release Debut CD ‘The Game Of Ouroboros’

“… Jim Alfredson … is a remarkable organist who seamlessly synthesizes several generations of keyboard influences” – Downbeat

Lansing, MI – Jim Alfredson is best known for his work with acclaimed jazz trio organissimo and is considered among the best Hammond organists working today. His newest project is a solo album known under the name THEO that originated as a rediscovery of Alfredson’s affection towards the classic era of progressive rock. Inspired by classic bands like Yes, ELP, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and Genesis, THEO brings epic songwriting and sweeping narratives back to the forefront with contemporary sensibilities and production. The album is scheduled for release on January 27, 2015 via Big O Records (USA) and Generation Prog Records (Europe). It is available as a download, as an audio CD, and as a limited edition CD / Blu-Ray set with 5. 1 surround mixes.

Says Jim, “The over-arching theme of the album explores how we react to power. Some people react by protesting and demanding change. Some subscribe to the ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ mantra. Some ignore it all together. And some of those who do expose it are scapegoated and exiled. In the midst of all this, we’re all just trying to live our lives and do the best we can. It seems that the era of the protest song is long gone. The political and social activity in the music of the 60s seems to have petered out and been replaced by faux rebellion, pre-packaged and test marketed. The message is essentially one of questioning power and authority and dissatisfaction with the status quo. From a musical perspective, my goal with this album was to return progressive music back to its melodic roots and the keyboards back to the forefront. I wanted to be reverent of the past classic groups but with my own spin and get away from the really heavy, guitar-driven prog that is very prevalent now.”

Along with Jim on keyboards, THEO’s ‘The Game Of Ouroboros’ features Gary Davenport on bass, Kevin DePree on drums, and Jake Reichbart on guitar. The album, which is scheduled for release on January 27, 2015, took close to 3 years to complete due to Jim’s previous commitments and heavy touring schedule.

Jim explains, “I began writing it in 2010. That’s the same year I joined the touring and recording band for the blues artist Janiva Magness who is based in Los Angeles. Between 2010 and 2014, I toured extensively with her and appeared on her last two albums. We toured all over the US and several times in Europe and Canada. It was a great experience but also left little time for family and for writing my own music. Somehow I managed to release two organissimo albums in that time and a solo jazz project called Jim Alfredson’s Dirty Fingers. Also during that time I recorded a lot of snippets of ideas on my iPhone while on the road during sound checks, in hotel rooms, and endlessly barreling down the highway to the next gig. When the touring season ended each year, usually at the end of October, I would collate these ideas and work on the best ones. We would start touringagain the following February, so I had only a few months to really work on things.

“… Jim Alfredson is one of the faces of the new millennium’s Jazz renaissance.” – Hammondbeat

Although primarily known for his skill on the Hammond organ, Jim utilizes a wide range of textures on THEO. The rough and raw sound of analog synthesizers firmly connects the album to the halcyon era of progressive music while careful use of modern computer-based synths extends the music into the present. Acoustic piano underpins much of the album contrasted by swirling rhythmic elements easily at home in modern electronica. Gary Davenport’s deft work on the fretless bass significantly contributes to the album’s sonic appeal as does his mastery of the Chapman Stick on the first three tracks. Another noteworthy highlight is the real pipe organ on the track ‘The Blood That Floats My Throne’, skillfully recorded to capture the awe-inspiring majesty of the instrument.

For 10 years, Jim served as organist and musical director of the highly successful, award-winning rhythm & blues band Root Doctor (1999 – 2009) producing three CDs for the band. Jim formed the jazz trio organissimo in 2000. organissimo has released five critically acclaimed CDs and a DVD in the intervening years. In 2009 Jim released a very limited edition solo CD dedicated to the memory of his father called ‘In Memorandom’. Also in 2009, Jim engineered and produced Greg Nagy’s debut solo record ‘Walk That Fine Thin Line’ followed by Nagy’s ‘Fell Towards None’ and ‘Stranded’. From 2010 to 2014, Jim served as the keyboardist and primary background vocalist in the touring band for blues singer Janiva Magness. He toured nationally and internationally with the band and is featured on Ms. Magness’ Alligator Records release ‘Stronger For It’ as well as her self-released album ‘Original’. In October 2013, Jim released another solo project entitled ‘Jim Alfredson’s Dirty Fingers’, a tribute to jazz organ great Big John Patton.

“Alfredson… draws an audience’s attention with the vivid character of [his] compositions and the unerring precision of [his] ensemble playing…” – Chicago Tribune

To purchase THEO ‘ The Game Of Ouroboros’ CD:
www.big-o-records.comwww.generation-prog.com

For more information: www.jimalfredson.com, www.theoHQ.com
Press inquiries: Glass Onyon PR, PH: 828-350-8158, glassonyonpr@gmail.com

Modern music production and the fear of dynamics

“The Loudness Wars” is a phrase coined in the 1990s to describe the growing demand by labels for increasingly louder mastering. As the Compact Disc format gained prominence, engineers began pushing the limits of it’s upper dynamic range, squeezing every last bit out of it before hitting digital zero (and thus distorting). A loud master translated to a louder sounding song on the radio compared to the competition. And since our ears perceive louder as better (in general), the louder sounding your song was, the more people would buy it, right?

The problem with this concept is that as soon as one label did it, all the labels began doing it, trying to outdo each other and things quickly got out of hand. Wikipedia has a wonderful article on The Loudness Wars complete with the following graphic example:

Different releases of Michael Jackson’s song “Black or White” show increasing loudness over time: 1991–1995–2008.

Thankfully after the 2008 fiasco involving Metallica’s Death Magnetic album, where the mastering was so loud as to actually digitally clip in most CD players, mastering engineers began fighting back. But considering the massive amounts of dynamic range available in modern digital systems, engineers still seem afraid of allowing music to breathe. Recording at 24bit yields a theoretical dynamic range of 144db, more than enough for any real-world application. An orchestra has a dynamic range of 70db, which is an incredible swing. I’m not advocating that kind of variation in other forms of music, but I’d wager that most pop right now has less than 3db of range across the entire album.

I bet this sounds great! A screen capture from an album by a band named Hypocrisy, courtesy of tvtropes.com

Overall, it seems the most extreme examples of the Loudness War are in the past. That said, there are still records being released that seem afraid of the possibility that a listener out there might have to actually adjust his/her volume now and again. Why is this?

Why is modern music production so scared of dynamics? I was listening to a new release on k-scope via progstreaming.com and while the music was very interesting, blending electronica and progressive music in a novel way, the lack of dynamics ruined the experience for me. Progressive music should have a lot of dynamics! That’s one of the things that makes such music interesting beyond the odd time signatures and long song forms.

The beginning of one song was especially egregious; it was obviously intended as a quieter part in the music, consisting of a lovely high falsetto lead vocal, piano, some atmospherics, and a bit of processed electronic drums. That all sounded great. Then the full band came in, acoustic drums channeling Bonzo, on a section that is (again obviously) supposed to be very powerful and the overall volume didn’t change at all! It stayed the same volume, sounding weak and neutered.

We have more clean dynamic range than ever before. Even the best analog master tape only had a 14bit depth (in digital terms) and at best 80db of useable dynamic range and yet those old Yes, Genesis, and ELP albums have far more contrast between the soft and loud passages than their modern counterparts.

Courtesy of zeitgestmastering.com

Let’s not be afraid of dynamics. There’s nothing more powerful and simple than a rousing crescendo or a gentle decrescendo.  Music without dynamics is like painting without texture. Or food that is decadently over sweetened. Sure, it tastes good for a little while but you quickly become fatigued and long for something with substance.

THEO featured on Progstravaganza compilation

I’m very proud that a track from my new THEO album is on the latest Progstravaganza compilation from Prog Sphere. The compilation is entitled “The New Generation Of Prog 2014” and features some heavyweights of the new breed including HAKEN and Cea Serin.

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Progstravaganza Compilation 2014

Click the image above to check it out. The track is called Idle Worship. Then go to my PledgeMusic campaign to pre-order the new album. We’ve got about three weeks left are we’re just over 50% to the goal. There are still some great items available including three Hammond Leslie pedals and more.

Pre-order the album here: http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/theo

THEO launches

I’m really excited to announce the launch of my PledgeMusic campaign for THEO. THEO is my progressive rock project, a musical endeavor I’ve been working on for the last four years. It’s quite different from the type of music I’m known for (ie jazz and blues) but in many ways is a return to my roots.

I’ve teamed with PledgeMusic to bring THEO to fruition. And there’s a bunch of cool stuff you can pre-order including a hi-res digital download of the album, CDs, 5.1 surround mixes, t-shirts, keychains, Leslie pedals, and even a Privia PX5s!

Check it out and snag your copy today. And when you do, share the page with your friends.

http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/theo

Cover art of the new THEO album.

Cover art of the new THEO album.

FabFilter Pro-Q 2

I don’t recall how I stumbled upon FabFilter. Most likely I was searching for alternatives to the much pricier Sonnox plug-ins, specifically the Oxford EQ. Somewhere in the mire of forums and blogs I ran across the Pro-Q and decided to try the demo. I remember I bought it almost instantly. The single most important factor in that decision was the beautiful GUI. The idea of combining a spectrum analyzer and an incredibly simple user interface was novel to me.

That was in 2012. In the two years since, I’ve also purchased many of FabFilter’s other plug-ins, including the Pro-L, Pro-MB, Pro-C, Pro-DS, Pro-G, Saturn, and Twin 2. I have used them on every project I’ve done since, including organissimo’s Dedicated, Jim Alfredson’s Dirty Fingers, my upcoming progressive rock project THEO, Greg Nagy’s upcoming third album, and various other mixes and songs for other artists. The Pro-C is the first compressor I load for drum parallel compression and bass guitar. The Pro-DS is an amazing de-esser that I use on all vocal tracks. The Pro-G is an amazingly flexible gate that can sound completely natural. I love it on toms. And the Saturn is a great saturation plug-in that I like to use on VST synthesizers, especially analog emulators, to give them more depth, character, and girth.

Out of all of them, the plug-in I use the most is the Pro-Q. And I’ve been immensely happy with it. I didn’t think it could be improved but FabFilter managed to do just that in version 2. Dan Worrell’s fantastic video tutorial gives a solid overview of the new features.

The new features include:

  • Different interface sizes and additional Full Screen mode
  • Operates in zero latency mode, linear phase mode with adjustable latency or the unique Natural Phase mode
  • Spectrum Grab: just grab and adjust a peak in the real-time spectrum analyzer right away!
  • Filter shapes: Bell, Notch, High/Low Shelf, High/Low Cut, Band Pass, Tilt Shelf
  • Universal filter slope support for all filter types, up to 96 dB/oct
  • EQ Match feature to automatically match the spectrum of another track via the side-chain input
  • Phase Invert option to change polarity
  • Highly improved CPU optimization: Pro-Q 2 uses less memory and is more than twice as efficient as its predecessor!
  • Optional Gain-Q interaction
  • Auto Gain and Gain Scale
  • Built-in spectrum analyzer with Pre-EQ, Post-EQ and SC modes, adjustable range, speed, resolution, tilt and freeze
  • GPU-powered graphics acceleration
  • Optional piano roll display to quantize EQ frequencies to musical notes
  • Large output level meter with peak level readout

This is a significant update and well worth the very reasonable upgrade cost. I’ve already upgraded and integrated the new version into my work flow. The new Natural Phase mode is really amazing for adding air to individual tracks or the overall mix. Spectrum Grab is incredibly useful for quick fixes and taming resonances. And the piano roll frequency display saves a lot of time.

FabFilter still has the best GUI in the business and the easiest user interface. With the added features, it just became more useful and quick. If you’re looking for something better than your DAW’s native EQ, check out the Pro-Q 2.

FabFilter Pro-Q 2

FabFilter Pro-Q 2

 Postscript: I read an interesting article about the differences between digital (aka plug-in) EQs. Essentially once you strip away the analog emulations, there really is no difference. Some plug-in EQs also attempt to emulate the non-linear behavior of analog circuitry including harmonic distortion, noise, etc. And those emulations do vary from plug-in to plug-in. But once removed, the basic sound is the same and even those characteristics can be successfully duplicated with a standard PEQ with a bit of tweaking and good ears and maybe a saturation plug-in inserted before or after. So with that said, why spend money on something like Pro-Q 2? Well, the Natural Phase mode is an analog emulation that does what it is supposed to do very well. But first and foremost, it’s about ease of use. The GUI is so good and the interface so easy to work with that the price is more than reasonable. For most purposes, I can achieve the same results with the built-in track EQ in Cubase but it is nowhere near as intuitive or easy to use, despite the recent addition of a per-track real-time spectrum analyzer.

Press release for THEO

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Big O Records (Lansing, MI) is excited to present the debut album by the new progressive rock band THEO. Formed by world reknown keyboardist Jim Alfredson (organissimo, Dirty Fingers, Janiva Magness, Greg Nagy Band, Root DoctorTHEO harkens back to the keyboard-centric superbands of the 1970s like YesGenesis, and Emerson Lake and Palmer, but with a distinctly modern and bold approach.

Alfredson is joined by bassist Gary Davenport (805 Band, Janiva Magness), drummer Kevin Depree (Sound Is Red, Greg Nagy Band) and guitarist Jake Reichbart. The eponymous debut album features six tracks including an epic 30 minute opening suite.

Jim Alfredson is best known for his work with acclaimed jazz trio organissimo and is considered among the best Hammond organists working today. As Downbeat magazine wrote, “Alfredson is a remarkable organist who seamlessly synthesizes several generations of keyboard influences…” Keyboard magazine, in reviewing organissimo‘s album Alive & Kickin’, wrote that Alfredson successfully walk[s] the line between complex and accessible…

With THEOAlfredson brings his considerable musicianship to bear on his first love, progressive rock. As Alfredson explains: “I grew up listening to Peter GabrielGenesisYesJethro Tull,King CrimsonGentle Giant… all the classic prog bands. I even made my own prog ‘album’ when I was 16 that I passed out to friends and family. But then I was bitten by the jazz bug and dedicated the next 17 years of my life to figuring out that music. Surprisingly, that education paved the road back to progressive music, back to my love of synthesizers and exploring different musical forms. I feel like my musical journey has brought me full circle.


THEO also represents a return to the concept of the keyboardist as a vital and irreplaceable part of the group, rather than a mere sideman. “Most prog these days is metal-based,” says Alfredson, “and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I feel like it’s past time keyboardists get our due again. My primary influence is Tony Banks; his melodicism, his understatedness, his lyricism, and his use of timbre. There’s a time and a place for flashiness and there’s a time and place for subtlety. THEO is a manifestation of that belief. It should be about the song first, putting that song within a certain atmosphere, and then exploring.

THEO‘s intrepid and dynamic music is paired with auspicious lyrical themes of corporatization, consumerism, loss of innocence, exile, and the obsession with celebrity. Lead vocals are handled by Alfredson himself. Usually relegated to background duties, Alfredson‘s surprisingly flexible baritone voice shifts from soaring muscularity to intimate falsetto and everything between. “I think that may be the most notable aspect of this project for my long time fans,” says Alfredson. “Those that know me only as an instrumentalist and background singer will hopefully be pleasantly surprised.

THEO is scheduled for a November 17th, 2014 release on Big O Records.

www.theoHQ.com?

https://www.facebook.com/pages/THEO/656605707769844

THEO – Game of Ouroborus (excerpt)

Here is an excerpt from the first song on the album of my new progressive rock project, THEO.

Featuring myself on keys and vocals, Gary Davenport on Chapman stick, Kevin Depree on drums and background vocals, and Jake Reichbart on rhythm guitar. Special guest Zach Zunis plays lead guitar on this cut. This is about half of the song; it fades out at the beginning of the middle section, before the reprise.

THEO is a project I’ve been wanting to do for a long time and is, in many ways, a return to my roots. I grew up listening to Genesis, Pink Floyd, Yes, ELP, The Beatles, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and many more progressive bands, as I discussed in this previous article. And I still love that music and the textures and emotions it encapsulates.

Please consider becoming a fan on FB via this link:

THEO Facebook Fan Page

Also sign-up to the newsletter on the official THEO website.

THEO Official Website

I will be launching a crowd-funding campaign soon for the release of this project. Thank you for your continued support!

John Patton’s Birthday

In honor of Big John Patton’s birthday (b. July 12th, 1935), here is the entire 90 minute DVD I included as a bonus to some of my Kickstarter backers for the Dirty Fingers – A Tribute To Big John Patton project.

Big John Patton was a big inspiration on my playing and I’m very proud of this record. It is the only tribute album for him of which I’m aware. Enjoy and please subscribe to my YouTube channel.

Genesis – Watcher of the Skies intro

Back in October of 2013 I posted a video in which I played along with a MIDI version of the Genesis classic “In The Cage”. The original post is here. I wrote about my love of the band and some personal history, so I won’t clutter this post with a rehash.

Tonight I was playing around with Cubase 7.5 and started diving into the new HALiotron engine in the HALion Sonic 2 VST virtual instrument. The presets leave a lot to be desired, which is often the case, but editing is very straightforward and the plug includes fairly standard Mellotron sounds including flutes, brass, bass clarinet, clarinet, strings, 8 voice choir, and bassoon. I hope they release an expansion pack with more sounds like the bass accordion, cello, violin, and viola samples. But the included samples are a good and popular starting point.

I began with a blank program and loaded the string and brass samples into slots A and B respectively in the Tape Track selector switch. Like the original Mellotron Mk II you can position the switch in between selections and combine the sounds. This is how Tony Banks achieved the iconic timbre of his intro to “Watcher Of The Skies” with Genesis. He also used the bass accordion sound on the other keyboard (the Mellotron Mk II had two keyboards side by side).

Mellotron Mk II

Mellotron Mk II

I added just a hint of reverb and then played the sound from my Minimoog Voyager acting as a MIDI controller. It makes a rather nice controller for such purposes due to the limited number of keys. The Mk II had two 35 note manuals. The Voyager has 44 keys.

I was lazy and just recorded the sound coming from my speakers so what you’re hearing is from the iPhone’s internal microphone. But it still sounds pretty good. The HALiotron has some nice tonal shaping options including attack, decay, velocity as well as control over the filter. You can choose to loop the samples or play with the same 8 second limitation as the real thing. Overall, it’s a nice addition to the HALion VST and I’ve used it a few times already on my upcoming progressive rock album.

Enjoy and please subscribe to my Youtube channel.