20 May 2009

Vintage Synth ads from 1981
Here's a collection of vintage synth ads from 1981 that I recently scanned. They're all in high resolution. Click on the picture for the high resolution version.

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14 May 2009

MOTU Volta - First impressions

Update 29.05.09 - The guys over at MOTU are continually improving Volta. Which means that the bugs reported below will all be history once you read this review. I suggest you head on over to the MuffWiggler forum where you'll find the most recent news and discussions about Volta.

Volta - finally it's here
About a week ago I received Volta V1.0 and I'd like to share my experiences with it that I had the past week.

Just to put this report in perspective: besides my synth & sampler passion I have a daytime job as an Apple system administrator and I was a game debugger in a previous life. All those qualities came together while using and testing Volta.

Power to the analogue users

Volta truly is a great new concept and a new way of working with your analogue gear. If you're not familiar with Volta then check this out first. In short it's a plug-in (Mac only) that let's you use your audio interface as a CV/Gate/Trigger output to control your analogue gear.

The first setup I prepared for use with Volta was a PowerBook G4 1.67Ghz with a MOTU Ultralite (first version) and Ableton Live 7.0.16. All the outputs from the Ultralite were dedicated to Volta. So I didn't use any real audio outputs on the interface. I was planning on using this setup in combination with my MacBook + Ultralite mk III that's dedicated to all the audio stuff. Both setups would be synced by MIDI. However this won't be an ideal setup for the time being considering the bugs that are present.

Installing and configuring Volta

Before receiving Volta I wanted to be prepared as a good as possible so that I would be up and running in no time.
- Minimum system requirements: Mac OS 10.4.9 : Check
- A free USB port for the iLok USB key: Check
- The proper cable type for your interface: Jack - Jack would be OK. No? It was only after reading the manual that I understood what this meant for me. Before getting started I had to make 10 converter cables in order to use the 10 outputs at the back of my Ultralite. I needed to create a converter where the TRS jack connectors would have their Ring disconnected.

So I bough all this stuff:

And after one evening of soldering I had these:

Now I was ready to install and use Volta. Or was I?

This was nowhere mentioned on the website. Anyway, ignoring this warning I pressed continue and I was able to complete the installation without any problems and started to use the plug-in in Ableton Live.

The included CD-ROM has 4 very useful video tutorials to get you started in Live, Digital Performer or Logic, and with the calibration procedure.

Using Volta

It really is a joy to use all my analogue gear in Ableton Live. Most of my testing was done with a Korg Mono/Poly and an MS-10. I also have a MOTM/Encore Electronics modular and some Moogerfooger pedals. But I'll be including them in my setup once I have a stable solution.

Depending on which output you use on the Ultralite you'll get different output voltages. This is all clearly explained in the manual. The manual states that the outputs on the back of the Ultralite have a maximum output voltage of 3.5V. I measured -4.15V - +4.15V on mine. So that's better than expected. The headphones output has the highest output voltage so it's best to use those 2 outputs (left and right) for oscillator tracking. The higher voltages will give you a greater tracking range.

Just make sure that when you start using Volta all the mixer output channels in CueMix are set to 0. This is especially important if you want to use the main outputs as dedicated outputs in Volta. Otherwise you'll get the summing output of all the other channels and the audio from the input channels on the main outputs.

I was able to calibrate my Mono/Poly and MS-10 without any problems. Once the calibration was done the tracking was uncanny accurate. At one point I was playing the MS-10 and the Mono/Poly in unison and it took me a while before it occurred to me that they were both playing together at once. It is that accurate. When I added the Nord Lead 3 in the mix everything still sounded in perfect unison.

If you have multiple oscillators in your system you can even configure Volta as a polyphonic controller for all your voices. Meaning, the first key you press triggers and tunes voice 1, the second key the second voice and so on.

The website mentions that 'the Korg MS-10/20/50 will not pass calibration without a additional bias voltage'. I can confirm that this is not the case for the MS-10 (I don't have the other MS-models to confirm). Volta is able to use both V/oct and Hz/V. I was indeed not able to calibrate the MS-10 using its VCO CV IN in Hz/V mode. But I had no problem calibrating it using the FREQ input, which is an oct/V input in oct/V mode. I just had to turn the FREQ EG/EXT knob to the max and that was that. Brilliant!

Instead of using the MS-10's TRIGGER IN input, I used a Volta envelope module and connected it to the MS-10 INITIAL GAIN input to control the MS-10's VCA. The envelope generated by Volta was much snappier than the one from the MS-10. Giving the MS-10 a nice clickey percussive sound.

The LFO's and MIDI data control signals are as smooth as butter. No zipping noise whatsoever which is to be expected from 24 bit D/A's.

It is a bliss to use tempo synced LFO's. The Mono/Poly is well endowed with CV inputs so I was able to modulate the VCO FM IN, and VCF FcM in with tempo synced LFO's.

I haven't used all the modules extensively yet. So I'll be posting more of my experiences with Volta in the near future.

Bugs and problems

My initial test setup consisted of a PowerBook G4 1.67Ghz, 1.5GB RAM, Mac OS X 10.5.6 and later on 10.5.7, Ableton Live 7.0.16, one MOTU Ultralite mk I with all the outputs used for Volta and a Korg Mono/Poly and MS-10.

With this initial setup I was confronted with the following problems and bugs:
• When I opened the plug-in all the values were set to 0 or -1 (key tracking) or some arbitrary value. This was very confusing at first. Since for each module that I added in the plug-in I had to re-set all the initial values for them to be useful. Update 01: This is fixed in version 1.01
• Even worse, when I saved a project with all the Volta settings and calibration in place, all the settings would be set back to 0 or some other useless value after I reopened that project. None of the values would be saved. Very frustrating... Update 01: This bug is still present in version 1.01
• There are some minor interface bugs. For example, when you choose a calibration input in the calibration window the window would still display the manual calibration settings. It's only changed when you choose another module and than go back to the Voice module that the screen is displaying the correct information. Update 01: This is fixed in version 1.01
• I haven't figured out the Ramp modules yet. But I'm sure I'll 'get it' at one point. Unless they're not working and generating no signals. Update 01: I've figured out the Ramp automation. It's working like a charm.

Just to be sure that my bugs weren't system related I completely reinstalled my PowerBook G4 (OS X, Live, ...). But that didn't solve any of the above mentioned bugs. I also tried to reset permissions on the Volta key component files but again without any luck.

Different setup, different bugs

The next setup I tried consisted of a White MacBook 2.4Ghz, 4GB RAM, Mac OS X 10.5.6, Ableton Live 7.0.15, Logic Pro 8 and one MOTU Ultralite mk I and one Ultralite mk III. Again in combination with the Mono/Poly and the MS-10.

I made an aggregated audio device in OS X so that both Ultralites would be available as one audio interface in Live or Logic.

And that's when the real trouble started. I was unable to use Volta at all with this aggregated audio device.
Update 02 I tried my setup again with the aggregated audio device and it worked after performing the following steps:

1. created the aggregated audio device
2. restarted MacBook (this is important)
3. Opened Ableton Live 7.0.16 and assigned the aggregated device to the inputs and outputs
4. created my channel setup + Volta plug-ins

Some of the bugs that I had with the PPC version weren't there in the Intel version. It was a blessing to reopen a project and have all the Volta settings back again in their saved state.

I did found some minor bugs with this third setup: The bend down value indicated -12 while in fact is was -2. Changing the value would give the correct result. Assigning Volta to a MIDI track in Ableton Live without configuring any output audio tracks and sending Midi notes to Volta would completely crash Live

Feature requests

• When using LFO's I really miss the possibility to attenuate the outgoing signal within the LFO module itself. It is possible to attenuate the signal with the channel faders in Live or Logic. But, since Volta's output channels work in stereo pairs you'll always be attenuating 2 channels at once. So, please add an extra value in the LFO window to attenuate the outgoing voltages.

• The MIDI module lets you choose among lots of MIDI CC's to control a Volta output channel. But I was frequently missing a key tracking option: MIDI Note Number to Volta output. That way it would be possible to use keyboard tracking on a filter. It is possible to use a Voice module to do this. But the problem with a Voice module is that it always comes with an Envelope, trigger or gate module. And when you delete this extra module the voice module will also be deleted.

• It would be great if the plug-in has the ability to save and load presets. When you open a Volta plug-in, you'll always have to start from scratch.

• If you delete one module of a voice, you delete the whole voice. Eg. if your voice consists of a tuning module, a trigger and a velocity module, deleting the velocity module deletes all the other modules from that voice.

• It'd be nice to have an option that let's you decide when Volta starts sending out its voltages. All the time, like it does now, or only when you're playing your song in your DAW.

Even with all the bugs present in the PPC version I continue to use this stand alone setup dedicated to Volta and all my analogue gear. It actually is my only solution to be able to use my audio workstation (MacBook + Live) and Volta (PowerBook + Live) at once. And using Volta, when it is properly setup, opens up a new world of possibilities and integration.

I really hope that the PPC bugs will be dealt with in a future update so that all the settings will be restored when you reopen a saved project. Update 01: This bug is still present in version 1.01

When using the aggregated audio device in Mac OS X, everything I did in Ableton Live or Logic Pro became very sluggish and unresponsive. Even when I didn't use the Volta plug-in. For example, adding an audio track in Live normally only takes a second. But when I was using the aggregated device it would take about 20 seconds before an extra audio track was created. The CPU's would start working at full capacity and the spinning beach ball would occur. I didn't get any error messages in the Console log. So, my only guess is that OS X isn't handling the aggregated device correctly. And hence Live and Logic have trouble using it.

I hope to hear from other Volta users and see how you're all integrating Volta in your setup. And I'm curious if you're having the same bugs that I'm experiencing.

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3 May 2009

Fairlight live on stage
I recently read an interview with Jean-Michel Jarre in the german magazine Keyboards where they published the gear that he'll be using on stage on his new tour in 2009. Among the list of vintage stuff was a Fairlight. I'm glad to see that someone is still brave enough to take this beauty on stage. I'll certainly be looking forward to see him play later this month in Brussels.

Here are some clips of a Fairlight Series II live on stage. This performance from 1984 is by Mecano.

Backstage with Nacho Cano from Mecano:

More Mecano:

And a John Lawry Solo on the Fairlight: