NAMM 2011 quick notes pt.3

Some more stuff from NAMM 2011…

Moog Slim Phatty

The Little Phatty has already earned its stripes as a modern monosynth workhorse. I have one, it rocks, and it will probably remain part of the permanent arsenal. When I first heard about the Slim Phatty, I have to admit that I wasn’t particularly excited. Sure, it could now be integrated into rack based systems, and the lower price is nice for those who have alternate means of controlling it, but there wasn’t anything that hit me with a “Wow” factor and/or distinguished it from the Little Phatty. That all changed when I learned about 2 new elements of the Slim Phatty that caused me to linger too long at the Moog booth, much to the dismay of a colleague, whose meeting I missed because I was zoning out in the headphones with a Little Phatty+3X Slim Phatty combo.

1. Poly Chaining. You can link it up with other Phatties to create a polysynth whose voices are controlled by the main controller. The dream of a modern Moog polysynth has been realized. Reliability, tempo sync of parameters, presets, MIDI, CV control, and most of all the unmistakable sound are all there.

2. Support for Phatty Tuner, a free alternate scale editor for Mac and Windows computers. I’ve been attracted to alternate (non-equal tempered) tunings (specifically Just Intonation) ever since I first heard the early work of Terry Riley and Lamonte Young. However, my ability to explore JI has always been limited to softsynths, or coarse MIDI tuning tables which never allowed me to get precise enough to get the resonances for which I yearned. The Phatty Tuner changes that, and allows me to explore the world of non-equal tempered intervals with the richness of an analog synth. You can edit your scales in terms of Hz, Ratio, or Cents, then send them to the Phatty, which can store up to 32 different tunings. Some of the video demos online show how you can play novel sounding melodic lines in various exotic scales, but I think that they miss a really important point. To hear the unique resonances of the new intervals afforded by these tunings, you need to be able to play at least 2 notes, or have a drone against which you play the altered pitches. So, you could use polychaining with at least 2 Phatties, or pick another machine to provide a reference pitch/drone.

Moog Voyager XL

Moog certainly set the bar high with this one. It’s too bad the price tag with keep this instrument out of reach of all but the most dedicated synthesists, but man, this is the best monosynth I’ve ever played. This is the creme de la creme of expression and realtime control. In addition to the 3 axis control surface and velocity/aftertouch keyboard (now 61 notes) from the original Voyager, this one provides a bidirectional ribbon controller. If you’ve never played something with an analog ribbon controller, you might not know how cool this is, but it feels like you are absolutely connected to the sound, like a fretless bass on steroids being played in front of a huge subwoofer. The patchability of the CV i/o provides seemingly limitless interfacing with other CV gear, or just within the synth itself. There are certainly many awesome virtual analog (I’m thinking of you, Virus) or softsynths that provide extensive modulation options, but in my experience something extra can happen in the analog domain. This instrument captures that magic in spades.
$5000 for a synth that plays just 1 note at a time? Well, if you’re already planning on buying a Voyager plus both CV expansion units, take a deep breath, save some more, and see if you can swing the XL. I have a Memorymoog and I would trade its 6 voices for the 1 of the Voyager XL in a heartbeat.

Izotope Stutter Edit

If you are into this sort of thing, Stutter Edit is so much fun that it borders on addictive. It’s unfortunate that they couldn’t pick a better name for this plugin. To me it conjures an image of a one-trick pony whose sound will quickly become a clichĂ©. This is not the case. Stutter Edit is a powerful realtime FX instrument whose possibilities go so far beyond simple rhythmic gating or glitching.
Stutter Edit is (the long awaited) BT+Izotope’s contribution to the developing field of keyboard controlled performance oriented plugins like Sugar Bytes’ Artillery and Effectrix (of which I’m a fan). They blur the distinction between effect and instrument by allowing you to switch between tempo synchronized groups of step sequenced effects with the touch of a MIDI key. This is often done to provide fills or accents to existing material or a live input. However it’s not limited to frenetic freak-outs. It can also be used to add more subtle rhythmic or timbal variation to other backbone elements of a track. Some of the effects could be created by extensive automation of chains of existing effects in your DAW, but Stutter Edit gives a fluid interface that allows changes to be made in seconds rather than minutes/hours. Furthermore, changing effect chains on the fly via keyboard beats drawing in program changes and automation curves any day.

Arturia Spark

Arturia takes a cue from their Analog Experience-The Factory with a drum machine style hardware controller that integrates tightly with standalone software. It can, of course, also run as a plugin. The controller provides both pads and a step sequencer for entering beats, as well as a healthy amount of knobs and dedicated buttons for critical operations. The software combines classic vintage drum machine sounds (modeled with the same accuracy as their synths), contemporary kits that utilize multiple synthesis methods, and acoustic drum sounds created through a combination of sampling and physical modeling. All of these are accessible via a graphical browser. Sequences can include not only the patterns of notes, but also any variations of individual parameters on a per-step basis. These changes can be recorded in realtime or drawn in via the GUI.

You can certainly accomplish some similar things via Live, Logic, or Reason, their respective instrument libraries, and a pad controller, but the workflow isn’t always as smooth. Sometimes it’s nice to have a dedicated tool that does one job (or group of jobs in this case) very well, and that’s where Spark wins. The Library is diverse and powerful, and the tight integration of the hardware and software makes for fun, intuitive beat creation in which you can break free from the computer screen if you so choose. At its price point, obvious comparisons will be made to NI’s Maschine. Maschine has many capabilities beyond Spark, but for my taste Spark excels in its area of specialization.

My only criticism is that I did notice a tiny degree of latency when hitting the pads. This could have been due to the computer, or more likely to the fact that I was testing a beta version of the software. Hopefully this will be sorted out by the time it ships, as low latency is critical for any rhythm control device.

Spider Capo

This elegant device allows you to capo each string individually. It can be used for alternate tunings without actually retuning the guitar, creative performance techniques (e.g. changing the tuning during the course of a song), and more.
If you like the Spider Capo, make sure to check out Bob Kilgore’s Harmonic Capo, which, when placed above a harmonic-generating fret (such as the 5th, 7th, or 12th), causes the open strings to vibrate at said harmonic. The cool part is that, since it’s touching the string lightly from above, you can fret any string and it will behave normally. Great with open tunings.

Fuchs Verbrator tube effects loop and reverb

We live in a golden age of tube amps. New boutique manufacturers seem to pop up weekly with handmade versions or improvements of classic designs at ever-falling prices. However, one area in which they often fall short is in their effects loops. Their levels and impedances often don’t interface very well with the rack mounted (or sometimes pedal) delays and multi-effect units. This mismatch causes significant loss in tone and expression that the tube amp worked so hard to provide. Also, in a serial effects loop, the entire signal passes through the effect. If you’re using a digital effect, that means your entire signal (including the dry signal) just went through a stage of A/D and D/A conversion. Not always a good thing, especially with older boxes whose converters leave much to be desired.
The Verbrator solves these problems. Placed in an effects loop, it converts the level and impedance to something appropriate to your effect (there is a switch for line or pedal style effects). It sends and receives that signal to and from your effect, then gives the effected signal back to your amp’s return (again at the proper level and impedance). It can send your signal to your effect serially or in parallel. In parallel mode you control which portion of your signal you want yo go to the effect, just like when using an Aux Send on a mixer. Using this method you can keep your original dry signal in the analog domain, and just send a small bit to a digital device (which would be running %100 wet). Tone preserved. I’ve been using another non-tube buffered effects loop device with one of my main amps, and the Verbrator blew it out of the water. Even if you don’t need to interface with an external effect, the Verbrator has a very smooth reverb built in. I played it and I prefer it to my main rackmounted reverb currently in one of my guitar rigs.

Alternatively, it can also be used on a pedal board as a tube buffer and standalone reverb. The buffer converts your signal to a low impedance for better signal transmission over long cable runs, and the recovery stage can be used as a tube boost if desired.
If you just need a reverb or a simple buffer pedal, I’d look elsewhere, as there are good alternatives for a lot less $. However, if your amp suffers from the problems I’ve described, and you are looking to take your tone to the next level, the Fuchs Verbrator is worth a listen.

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