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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.