Monthly Archives: December 2015

RECORDING: Technology, Sound Quality, and bad marketing

I suppose you could call this another rant….

Lately I’ve been researching a lot online (well, when don’t I… I’m a music teacher by day, so I gotta know my shit 24/7)….. and I’ve found out some truly disappointing things.

Let’s talk about 88-key digital pianos, for instance. For decades, the sound was improving, as was the feature set. Something that manufacturers NEVER cared about until recently though was having actual, usable sounds. What do I mean by usable?

Fender Rhodes
Wurlitzer 200
Grand piano
Upright piano

Good emulations of all of these instruments can be included in all of these digital pianos, even the ones for $600 (Yamahas). Yamaha recently made a tiny little toy called the Reface CP, which has great-sounding Rhodes, Wurly, CP80, Clavinet…. and some GREAT built-in, USEFUL effects, for $500. The catch? The things are tiny, with 37 mini-keys. But… the sounds are there, and quite convincing.


Now, the major gripe I have with the major digital piano manufacturers (Yamaha, specifically) is that as of a couple years ago, they removed their standard MIDI in/out ports for their pianos less than $700. Standard MIDI in-out ports are common for a reason. MIDI lets you connect one device to another. For instance, you can get a nice 88 weighted-key digital piano with standard MIDI in/out, and have it control the Reface CP, so you have superb-sounding Rhodes, Wurly, and Clavinet sounds at your disposal (without having to use the mini-keys). A blessing, live (you ever try to pick up a Rhodes piano by yourself?)

So again, Yamaha removed their standard MIDI in/out ports on all digital pianos (under $700) since 2013. Casio did, too, on their Privia line (PX-130, etc, etc). Now all they both have is “USB to HOST”, which means, they can connect to other keyboards, but only if there’s a laptop, in between.

What if you want to avoid the laptop use, especially in a live setting?

Yamaha’s P-45 is less than $400, new. Great key feel, great piano sound. No MIDI I/O. Just USB to HOST port (side note– USB is often flaky and sometimes unreliable, and never securely attaches to anything on the device-side.)

Why not put the USB to HOST port on their unmovable pianos? Happily connect your ipad to it, or your laptop, as you’ll never move those gigantic beasts, anyway (the ones with the built-in stands, like the Clavinova series). Standard MIDI I/O should definitely be on the more portable pianos and keyboards.

It always baffles me that no one has tried to make a true all-in-one product, that actually sounds damn good. The only people who have done this ar Clavia, with their Nord Stage and Electro series (specially the weighted-key versions), and then Korg, with their much-loved SV-1.

Why hasn’t Yamaha or Casio done this yet? The Casio Privia PX-5S is definitely a NICE board for the money, and the sounds are tremendous, but it’s a bit ugly, and too much button-pushing through menus.

If Yamaha merged their P45 digital piano with their Reface CP…. and put a price tag of $800-1000 on it, I’m sure thousands of (non-rich) performing musicians would pick it up.. A Nord Electro with weighted keys is nearly $3000. That’s just insane. I know the pros swear by them, but they have the money to do so. What about the rest of us?

 

In short, find the need and fill it. Ya know?

 

 

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RECORDING: Trim the fat

What do I mean by this?

Stuff everyone knows, but what no one does: stop buying shit. Stop assuming the next piece of gear will make your recordings more professional and completely make your songwriting a thousand times better.

I think back to 2002-2004. I bought SO much shit.

I got a steal on a Novation Nova IIx synthesizer in late 2002. It was $999 from Sam Ash. Retailed at the time about $2500. I have no idea why it was so cheap… maybe a closeout or something. But I bought it. I loved it. I used it for a cool pad sound in the Beauty’s Confusion song “Blue Deluge”, in the chorus. And that’s all I used it for.

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A thousand dollars for a cool patch sound, and an arpeggiator that was extremely fun to fool around with. The patches were all insanely fun. It was a great analog-modeling synth.

Luckily, I was able to sell it for about $1250 after getting bored with it, a few months later.

I also remember, a few months before picking up the Nova IIx, I bought an E-Mu Proteus 2000 rackmount for $800 from Sam Ash. I even bought a $200 “super-realistic strings” chip upgrade, that allowed the rackmount to add a bunch of sounds to it. $1000 for sounds that ultimately sounded pretty damn dated, a few years later.

proteus_2000
The rackmount soon grew to be a pain in the butt, so I sold it at a loss, and instead, bought the E-Mu Proteus Keys, which was the “keyboard” version of the Proteus 2000:

This keyboard moved with me to the Philadelphia area, in 2004. I sold it about a year later, for around $300 (with the $200 string chip).

You want to hear the best part? Several years ago, E-Mu released the Proteux VX virtual instrument for free, with all the sounds from the Proteus 2000. A mere 65MB download. And it sounds exactly like the hardware.

facepalm

In late 2002, I also bought a used Fender Rhodes Mark I Stage 73 (had to drive three hours to pick it up). It cost only $450. I sold it about a year later for exactly the same price (someone drove two hours to pick it up). I loved that thing. They now sell for $1500 used. Should have hung onto that one. But I’ve found that cheap or free virtual rhodes instrument VSTs/plugins sound as good as the real thing.

I bought a Roland Juno-60 analog synthesizer five separate times in my life, and sold it five separate times. First one I got for only $300 (broken joystick/pitch bend). Sold for $400. The others, I bought for slightly more and sold for slightly more about 6 months to a year later. Last one I bought in 2011 cost me only $650 (locally through craigslist). Turned around and sold it for $900 five months later (also through craigslist). I’ve found the TAL U-No62 virtual synth, and its big brother, TAL U-NO-LX sound EXACTLY like the real thing. The first thing is free. The big brother’s only $40 or so. Get a cool midi keyboard that has assignable knobs, buttons and sliders, and you can control every parameter of the virtual version, and hot damn, it almost feels like and plays like the real thing.

I have a habit of doing this a lot. Oftentimes it’s just to make ends meet and pay bills. Sometimes it’s all about checking out gear and messing with it, and then parting ways with it with someone more excited and/or experienced.

Since I play everything, I’m prone to buying a wider variety of gear. But…

These days, my studio is so damn stripped-down, it’s ridiculous. I own a handful of gear, but only the shit I truly, truly need.

In the early 2000s, I collected synths, almost… Juno-60, Casio CZ-1000, Roland Juno-1 and Juno-2, Proteus Keys PK-6, Kawai K4, Roland D-50…. what the hell was the point? None of that shit was helping me finish songs.

I owned one microphone (one) from early 2003 to 2009. An AKG C2000B. I still use it. Past few years, I’ve bought more and more mics. They’re always useful.

Keyboard-wise? An M-Audio Oxygen 61, to control ALL of my virtual synths (most of which are freeware/great-sounding). The other keyboard I own is a Yamaha P-60 digital piano (weighted keys). I teach on it and love the feel of it. I’ve owned the same one since 2005.

Drums? I have a Pacific CX kit I play out with (white marine pearl). Got it on trade. I record all my acoustic drum stuff with a Sonor Safari bop kit. My cymbals are cheap, but awesome-sounding Paiste 404 crashes and a ride, and New Beat hi-hats by Zildjian. I own a second Sonor Safari, that I converted into an electronic/triggered kit on the cheap.

Guitars? Not many. A couple acoustics (Martin and Yamaha). I have an Agile Les Paul clone ($300 with custom Seymor Duncan pickups), and a Gibson SG Special. I used to own a Fender strat, which I miss. I have a Fender jazz bass for all my bass needs. I have a modest pedalboard with relatively cheap pedals. I have a Vox practice amp, and a Fender Deluxe Reverb ’68 reissue, for live use.

I have your typical “must-haves” for any home studio in 2015/2016– a good USB audio interface, studio monitors, dual flat-panel widescreen  displays, mic stands, different mics, a harmonizer, cheap mic preamp, and a midi drum pad (Maschine MK2)… and that M-Audio Oxygen 61.

That’s it.

Anything else is just not necessary.

Trim the fat. Utilize negative space in your home studio. Basically everything you need to record good music can be found “in the box” (on your computer). All of my effects (reverb, delay, compression, etc)… all “in the box” (mostly the stock plugins included with Reaper 4 and Reaper 5). The less options, the better.

It took me like 15 years to realize I didn’t need most of the shit I bought. Don’t be stupid like me. Research, and buy only what you need. Even if you’re a multi-instrumentalist…. you don’t need much.