[Ed. Note: Last week, I shared some of my favorite music technologies unveiled at NAMM, America's biggest musical instrument show. Veteran music tech writer Tim Tully was also covering the show for us, but with a different perspective: he's been off in digital video land for the past five-odd years, so I asked him to describe the experience of diving back in to the maelstrom of modern music production. With the rate technology is changing, many of us have been in a similar position, so I enjoyed Tim's simultaneously wide-eyed and world-weary approach. You can read more of my picks on page 4. —David Battino]
So there I was, cruising the 21st century Anaheim aisles across from Disneyland in the middle of January. The editor said my hiatus from music technology would give my report an "interesting perspective." Sort of the "Does any of this stuff actually work yet?" approach. So I started scouring the '08 Music Gadget Fest for ways an electronic musician or guitar player might use a computer to enhance the value of playing, practicing, or jamming. Interestingly, the role of drummers was still, as ever, represented principally by attempts to replace them with technological ingenuity. Case in point . . .
This was the kind of thing I'd really hoped to see when I got this gig. For all the frankly astounding advances in music recording technology since the 1970s, one element has proven elusive.
If you play guitar or keyboard, or even one of those MIDI wind controller things, you can record lots of different parts of a piece of music. You can get different sounds and do melodies and fills, rhythm parts and lead parts, string and horn sections, and innumerable odd noises. You can even add vocals.
But the one thing that's always been elusive in desktop music production has been good drum and percussion parts, and not just because some of us would rather not invite the drummers we know—and yes, Gerald, I'm talking about you—into our homes or studios. From drum machines to ruthlessly quantized parts, to boring simple-enough-for-even-me-to-do-it tracks, we tried and tried, but the results left us wanting. For a guy just getting started with a guitar, a computer, and a dream, this can be discouraging.
But it's a new world now, and drum pattern software has taken it several steps up. The one that jumped out at me at NAMM was Submersible Music's DrumCore 2.5. It includes audio and MIDI drum loops, fills, and drumkits played by world-class drummers like Matt Sorum, Sly Dunbar, and Lonnie Wilson in the styles at which they excel. The loops are recorded at a range of tempos 10 bpm apart, to capture the subtle playing differences at different tempos and avoid the audio degradation of excessive time-stretching.
The performances can inspire new ideas as well as add the right groove to songs you've already started. A intuitive loop librarian and search engine helps you find and audition grooves based on drummer, style, feel, or tempo. You can drag and drop the groove you want to Acid, DP, Live, Logic, Cubase/Nuendo, Pro Tools, Sonar, Tracktion, and other popular recording software. DrumCore uses ReWire for sending multichannel audio to these applications and for receiving MIDI and tempo information.
These are very well recorded, 48kHz/24-bit files. They actually sound like a real drummer played them, simply because they were. The loops represent a broad array of performances, from sophisticated and subtle to crude and boisterous. It's like having several of the world's best drummers always available. They play at any volume you want, and when you're done, you just close the file. (You can also use your existing WAV, AIFF, SD2, Acid, REX2, and MIDI files.)
At $249, DrumCore is not the cheapest piece of software, but can save so much time and add so much musical quality, it's worth a real hard look. For a taste of DrumCore, you can start with KitCore, a simplified version that costs just $49. [Ed. Note: Also see our interview with drummer Reek Havok, one of the minds behind DrumCore.]
A great way to connect your guitar to the computer, and pick up a lot of sound along the way, the DigiTech RP350 can take you from lonely strumming to recording and overdubbing. For openers, its 24-bit, 2-in/2-out USB port will connect your axe to a Mac or Windows computer, so you can use your software of choice to record what you play.
Audio outputs include XLR, 1/4-inch, and 1⁄8-inch headphone—all stereo. There's an 1⁄8-inch aux input and a 1/4-inch instrument input, too. But it's more than a simple audio interface, because as you play through the RP350, you get the sound-sculpting power of a very hot processor: DigiTech's Audio DNA2 DSP superchip. (The "DNA" refers to its ability to mimic, or model, other hardware.)
The RP350 provides 70 Factory and 70 User presets that let you choose from 27 amp/preamp/acoustic models and 18 cabinet models, including plenty of Fenders and Marshalls. There are 73 effect models including classic distortion stompboxes such as the Ibanez TS-9 Tube Screamer and the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi. There are reverbs from Lexicon, EMT, and others; five-second-long delays; flangers; chorus effects; vibrato and tremolo; a drum machine with 60 patterns; and a lot more.
Once your tone is dialed in, you can program the solid metal expression pedal to control just about any element of your sound. You can also download a free copy of the X-Edit editor/librarian from the website and customize presets or upload and download new tone settings.
All right, so this isn't directly related to playing your music into your computer. But I used to learn licks by playing a record over and over, and it was an awful process that wasted time and destroyed records. Today, we still need to study the professionals' work, and the way to go is computer playback. And here's how to get the tracks off vinyl and into iTunes. It's a nice, need-driven piece of software in a new rev.
Digitizing your old vinyl and cassette-tape collection always seemed like a great idea, but the time-consuming tedium of separating and naming tracks, burning to two formats (WAV for archival, MP3 for the 'Pod), setting levels, making sure you have consistent levels, and cleaning up noise is a considerable deterrent.
The new 2.1 version of Acoustica's Spin It Again offers an intelligent process to ease the process for digitizing records or cassettes and burning them to CD. It quickly and automatically separates tracks; cleans up pops, clicks, and hiss; and lets you maximize levels for a good clean file. It can even record directly to an iPod or other portable MP3 player.
Spin It Again now supports Vista, lets you monitor your recording via your USB sound devices, and type in—or look up on the Web—track and album information while you're recording. The software uses that info to help it detect the tracks. It can also record twice as much data per session as previous versions: up to 13.5 hours of 16-bit/44.1kHz audio. Also new is a nifty bunch of preset speed adjustments that let you transfer 78 rpm records at 45 rpm. A good deal for $34.95.
Originally designed for former Alice Cooper guitarist Kane Roberts, who affected a Rambo-esque onstage look, the AK87/91 is an actual, playable guitar that also really launches projectiles. It sports three flame throwers (including a Roman candle tube that shoots fireballs), two small bottle-rocket launchers, and one surface-to-air launcher to launch autographs into the crowd.
I held it. I aimed it. I flexed powerfully, channeling the force, and I actually strummed the strings (unplugged). One sad disappointment: the belt of .30 caliber machine-gun rounds does not actually feed a working firing mechanism. Apparently the cost of integrating a true .30 cal weapon into the instrument was prohibitive, not to mention the inconvenience of playing a guitar while it's mounted on a two-foot-high firing tripod. However, the pickups are Seymour Duncan Invader models, and the tailpiece is made by Taylor. All models are made in the USA, and Johnson urges fans to avoid the Chinese pirated versions.
Johnson also offers several beautifully crafted (no joke) guitars sculpted in the forms of Egyptian deities, supersonic spy planes, sacred emperor's dragons—both Chinese and Japanese—Russian MiGs, German Tornadoes, and many even more striking and unusual images. The booth was constantly surrounded by grinning, enthusiastic guys (though nary a female, oddly) voicing universal approval for the concept and execution.
Rick Johnson hand-builds, paints and signs all his guitars at his Yuma, Arizona factory.
Another big help for people just beginning with their music-computer connection is Notation Music's Progression ($149.99). With a fascinating history—it was designed by a composer who moved to India to have it coded and then to London to record orchestral samples for it—Progression could overcome several obstacles for the tyro.
What it does is record what you play on your MIDI guitar or keyboard, and then display the performance as a standard score or guitar tabs. You can edit and play back your performance using the included guitar, bass, drum, clav, and piano samples. You can also record music in step time using the computer keyboard. So it becomes a backup band; composition tool; and supplier of scores, lead sheets and tabs for the band.
Progression can also play back through built-in guitar and bass amp simulators or any VST effects you have in your computer. The guitar samples were recorded by guitarist Neil Zaza; the bass and drums samples are from Victor Wooten and Roy "Futureman" Wooten.
In the mid-'70s, the synthesizers of choice for major-league artists were the Prophet-5 and Prophet-10 from Sequential Circuits. Musicians loved the Prophets for their rich, vibrant timbres that echoed strings and brass, but with an electronic edge that seemed to announce a exciting new world of musical sound.
On the technical side, the Prophet-5 was the world's first microprocessor-based musical instrument, and the first polyphonic and programmable synth. You can still hear the Prophet sounds emulated in nearly every hardware and software synth/sampler around today. Dave Smith, the man who founded Sequential Circuits, coined the term "MIDI" and was instrumental in writing the original MIDI specification in 1981.
Smith's present company, the eponymous Dave Smith Instruments, is continuing his pioneering spirit in reverse, by flying in the face of the current trend toward software synthesizers. Instead, DSI offers new and improved versions of vintage hardware synths. Last year, the company released the Prophet '08, a 21st century version of the Prophet-5. NAMM '08 saw the premiere of the Prophet '08 Module, a desktop/rackmount version of the Prophet '08.
The Prophet '08 Module is an analog synthesizer offering all the knobs and buttons of the Prophet-5's user interface and all of the digital controls of the Prophet '08, without the keyboard. It's meant to be used as a single MIDI module or to double the polyphony of another Prophet '08.
To achieve the original Prophet sound, the 8-voice Module employs a 100% analog signal path using two analog oscillators per voice, classic Curtis 2-pole and 4-pole lowpass filters, and analog VCAs. To give the instrument the stability and flexibility demanded by contemporary players, all-digital controllers complement the analog signal path. The extensive modulation matrix is a timbre-tweaker's delight; the unit responds to MIDI velocity and aftertouch, has four LFOs per voice, three five-stage envelope generators (one looping), a gated 16x4 step sequencer, an arpeggiator, and four keyboard splits and layers, with separate stereo outputs for each layer.
The Prophet '08 Module is expected to ship in April with an MSRP of $1,649.
"Finally," the blurb says, "guitar amplifier modeling software from a company that actually builds tube amplifiers!"
Not a bad idea, especially since Peavey bought the software from a company that knows plugins.
The new ReValver lets guitarists play virtually through great-sounding models of several different tube amps, preamps, power amps, and speaker simulations, and adds lots of stompbox effects. Naturally, Peavey amps and cabinets are strongly represented, but they're complemented by emulations of other popular amps.
For those interested in the real basics of guitar sound, there's even a "Tweak Module GUI" in which you can adjust an amplifier's very tubes, or if that's not enough, replace every tube in every amplifier with any of 17 different types of tubes. No amp modeler is complete without giving the user the ability to modify the actual rectifiers, output transformers, and tone stacks of a power amp, and the new ReValver does not disappoint. It works as a standalone or a VST plugin.
Maybe a lot of you won't think this is important, but I think you're just na´ve.
I met the owner of JS Benchcovers as we both sought lunch and relative silence at the Marriott across from the NAMM Show. She had figured out that making comfortable piano bench covers that don't slide off was a good idea. When she explained that she made them by hand and that each one had three fixed corner straps and one Velcro-enabled adjustable strap, I was convinced.
It was all there: the human elements of comfort and aesthetics, the tradition and musicality of the piano, and the technology of Velcro.
A great combo and a business that's bound to grow.
More High-Tech Hits from NAMM
By David Battino