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studio gear

Entering the Matrix

I got a reasonably priced Oberheim Matrix-1000, originally released 1987. It’s a polyphonic synth with six voices, two DCOs per voice, fully analog signal path and extensive modulation routing options – and its sound is beautiful.

But yeah, it’s a rack module and without editing options via the front panel, and it has a thousand presets and only 200 of them are editable remotely via MIDI.

The trouble with this particular item was that the fifth voice chip was broken (which I found out after buying). Moreover, the firmware running the synth was slow and contained bugs.

Fortunately someone on the internet has updated the code and they have made it available on a EPROM chip, so I ordered that. I also found a replacement voice chip and got that as well. Installing the new firmware and voice chip into the old machine was easy enough – the chips are just sitting in sockets. The voice chips counts from right to left (one to six) and are marked U101-U601.

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Minimal Bedroom Studio

As a consequence of scaling down my home studio, I sold two audio interfaces, Apogee Duet for iPad & Mac and Propellerhead Balance, to acquire an Apogee Quartet instead. (Yes I was checking out the newer Element 46 and even if the Element series audio quality and mic pre technology are a step above, the Quartet’s specifications are good enough for me, and more importantly I wanted/needed 8 outputs and a convenient front panel control.)

I decided for a 4-channel audio interface because I didn’t need 20+ hardware synths and drum machines up and running all the time. All that stuff took up too much space and I didn’t really use them. They were connected to a mixer – functioning more or less as a patchbay – and now that mixer is redundant. Remember, limitations drive creativity and all.

With the current setup, I’m able to insert outboard gear, not only to use Minitaur and Mopho as analog instruments, but also as signal processors/external filters. That is, with a little bit of routing in Ableton Live, I can send hardware and softsynths to the Moog ladder and Curtis low-pass filters.

Right now I got three analog monosynths (Minitaur, Mopho and SH-101) connected, and Analog Keys operating as an analog polysynth, master keyboard, sequencer and MIDI to CV converter. I can record all synths mentioned on separate tracks at once.

The plan is to switch gear depending on the project. It’s a clean, minimal setup which seems to suit me.

Recently, most time has been spent tweaking the setup, experiment with the gear, and programming and sound designing on the synths. I haven’t made any real compositions for a while though.

Next up could be a cassette tape recorder (to be able to make some lo-fi tape compression/saturation). And I think I’ll get the Strymon Deco pedal and put it in an effect signal chain.

Downscale for Creativity

At one point I had all gear connected, like this. That’s over 20 hardware synths and drum machines, integrated in a working and sort of intuitive ecosystem. The idea was to be ready and not having to unpack and reconnect shit, which could be time-consuming and kill inspiration in the meanwhile.

But, I tried this setup for a month, and for me it didn’t work that well. Every time I saw the pile of stuff I suffered a little from some kind of performance anxiety, I froze. It was like all this premium gear was looking at me and saying, “we’re just perfect and you got all possibilities in the world man, why can’t you produce better music? You’re not worthy.”

In spite of its purpose, the setup with all gear mounted and routed had become counterproductive. Truth is, I always worked best with constraints, regarding concept or gear, and to some extent, even budget. For me limitations do drive creativity.

Therefore I disassemble the gigantic keyboard stand and everything on it. (Also, I live in a relative small flat and a home studio like this takes more space that I can afford.) I haven’t yet worked out a storage system for all gear, but I think I put (hide) them in some drawers.

The new idea is to only have a master keyboard/MIDI controller, an audio interface, a mixer, a pair of studio monitors connected to a DAW, and then temporarily plug in the hardware I want to use for a certain project. Right now I’m working on three tracks and there are only four synths on my desk: Elektron Analog Keys, Moog Minitaur, Roland SH-101 and Casio CZ-101.

New keyboard stand, four tiers, compact living. Early December 2016.

Here’s my setup as of today. A bit crowded.

Find Old Synths in Tokyo

So I went to Japan for holiday. I stayed in Tokyo the whole time, which was pretty enough of experience for a first time visit.

The trip wasn’t really about electronic musical instruments, but Japan is the promised land of synthesizers (and electronics in general) and home of Roland, Korg, Yamaha, Akai, Casio, Kawai et cetera, so I just had to check up on some old vintage stuff.

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I hoped to make a bargain on an authentic TR-808 but the prices where quite the same as in Sweden (around 3100 USD). Although the supply seems to be much greater, e.g. at Five G on Takeshita Street in Harajuku, they had five Prophet-5s in good condition, a couple of TB-303s and serveral MS-20s. I didn’t have room to get a full-size keyboard, otherwise I’d have bought a cheap Prophet-600.

I also went to Echigoya Music in the building on the ninth floor across from Tower Records  at Shibuya, and that’s where they had the TR-808 (and a TR-909 for what it’s worth).

So I did’t buy any old analog gear, but I got a used MS2000R for around 150 USD at Creator’s Land (a part of Sofmap, on the top floor in the building where its MacColleciton is, in Akihabara). This shop didn’t offer so many analog synth from the 80s but newer stuff like Alesis Micron, Arturia MiniBrute, and they had Technics SL-1200/1210s really, really cheap.

Hard Off has a used music equipment section in one of its stores on a smaller street in Akihabara (sorry for not being more specific). I wasn’t lucky this time though, but I think that you can get good deals there.

On top of all this, Tokyo was a great city, and I can truly recommend you to visit.

In lack of a real article here’s the corner of the bedroom. Not much have actually changed sinced the last man cave shoot. (I’ve bought and sold some gear, such as another SH-101, another Juno-106 and a Kick Lancet.) The latest addition to the setup is the mighty Analog Four. I’ve also made a couple of tracks in this corner of the world. The item on the far left of the desk is a sewing machine – not mine though.

Analog Sound Designed

Here’s a breakdown of a song that you maybe can learn something from. It’s not that profound, but should give you some hints of the sound design.

But first, listen to https://soundcloud.com/johaneckerstrom/read-me, so you can follow the article.

The song itself is fairly minimal and only consists of a few channel tracks, and therefore easy to analyze.

Drums

For the drums I used an old Roland TR-606 drum machine sequenced to the tempo of 110 BPM. I also added Boss DR-110’s hand clap and a slightly downpitched snare drum for the drum roll.

I put rhythm first in most of my songs, even if this particular pattern isn’t that complex.

Bass

The pounding bass is created on the Korg volca bass.

There are two VCOs grouped, an octave apart, playing the main ostinato, and the third VCO is introduced later in the song as a live pitch. In this case the effect of the VCOs sharing a common envelope and stuff renders a nice effect, where the gate length sounds chopped while the rhythm is intact.

The filter cutoff is slowly modulated by the LFO to make some movement in the sound.

During the crescendo, the filter is manually opened up to two-thirds – and what a liquid filter it is.

A quite high resonance is applied to make the bass scream a bit.

The bass channel is side-chained (triggered by the kick drum) and duplicated to a parallel channel, with bass rolled off (using a high pass filter) and fed through a phaser effect to enhance the stereo image and add further movement.

Motif

The motif is a minimal, almost atonal, figure made on the Korg volca keys. The synth is best used for plucky shit, and set to poly ring voicing (square waves through a ring modulator). The noisy internal delay is bypassed, in favor of an external digital reverb with a plate algorithm.

Arpeggio

This is sequenced internally on the Roland SH-101. Mixed waveforms are used and noise modulation of the VCF for that gritty sound. Cutoff sweeps are manually made and pretty randomly so. Also with high resonance level to add an acid touch. There’s not much use of the sub oscillator here, because the arpeggiator shouldn’t collide with the bassline.

Accent

Only two notes where played twice on the Yamaha CS01, and they are almost unmotivated. Nevertheless, they sound good – yeah, it’s that notorious PWM sound.

Coda

This is the small but big Moog Music Minitaur producing a 8-bit colored sound. The synth is run by a software monophonic arpeggiator which makes these octave jumps when programmed with more notes that it can handle.

A Modern Day Home Studio

I had the same setup, more or less, for years. This year though, has been some kind of paradigm shift for my little home studio. I’ve bought, tried and sold stuff. I’ve also changed room in the flat.

For a long time, I mostly used software, but now I’m leaning towards hardware. The two main reasons for that are: I got space (even if it’s not much) and I find it inspirational to work with new and tactile gear.

Also, I had an ambition of switching from Reason to Live, but since I’ve acquired so much gear, I haven’t had time to dig into Live properly.

Some changes

I upgraded my studio monitors from the Yamaha HS 10W (with subwoofer HS 50M) to the Genelec 8030A. I got rid of a good MIDI controller, the M-Audio Axiom Pro 61, with semi-weighted keys and all, to make room for a full-size, real synth, in this case, the Roland Alpha Juno-2.

Since March I’ve picked up and sold a microKORG and a volca sample. They had a few qualities, but didn’t quite fit my rig – neither sonically nor workflow-wise. I also got a BCR2000 MIDI controller this summer, for the microKORG and the Alpha Juno-2, but sold it because I didn’t needed it and it was too big and clumsy for my limited desk.

I understand this whole post isn’t that interesting. It’s merely some navel-gazing shit, totally nerdy. And to top this, here’s my hardware inventory of the home studio as of today.

Synths and drum machines:

  • Arturia MiniBrute
  • Boss Doctor Rhythm DR-110 Graphic
  • Gakken SX-150 Mark II
  • Korg volca bass
  • Korg volca keys
  • Moog Music Minitaur
  • Roland Alpha Juno-2
  • Roland Juno-106
  • Roland SH-101
  • Roland TR-606 Drumatix
  • Yamaha CS 01

Other stuff:

  • Fender Squier Bullet Strat with Tremolo HSS (Electric Guitar)
  • Genelec 8030A (Studio Monitors)
  • Mackie 1202VLZ4 (Analog Mixer)
  • Midiman Oxygen 8 (MIDI Controller)
  • Sennheiser HD 25-1 II (Headphones)
  • Shure BETA 58A (Microphone)

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