Wow, so that was 2017, they seem to go faster and faster. A whole year ago I didn’t know anything about modular synthesis. I was still trying to make the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book work well for audio and I was wondering whether making videos was a good use of my time. And here we are knocking on the door of 2018 and so much has happened.
So let’s have a bit of a recap and I’ll take you through my highlights of 2017.
(Text continues below the video)
But first December’s news:
Can’t make up my mind is this is a cool idea or a silly idea. Trueno is an analogue synth stuffed inside a USB dongle. This synth-on-a-stick has 3 oscillators, both regular analogue and also wavetable, a filter, modulation – all the usual synthesizer stuff. The controls are all accessed by software and you can wire it all together by dragging and dropping with the mouse. Apparently this is “way better than patch cables” – i’m sorry, but that’s bollocks. Modular and hardware synths are on the rise precisely because patch cables are awesome – in the same way an actual guitar is better than a guitar sample pack. We all know that software is convenient but its lack of hands-on control is its biggest flaw and they are off their heads if they see it as a feature. But anyway, soft-synths are fine and Trueno is a soft-synth with a hardware core, which is a neat idea. People are saying it sounds great – awesome. The only problem is that it doesn’t really have the advantage of software in that you can’t load multiple instances or have it installed and running on different machines. And it doesnt have the advantages of hardware in being physical and hands-on. So it has neither of the advantage of either world. But, if it runs with minimal CPU and sounds fabulous then what’s not to like?
They release weirdly named things. I though they were a bit up themselves with this unintelligible nonsense and impenetrable modules but actually a recent video with the two person team of Stephen McCaul and Kris Kaiser made me realise that I had them all wrong. They are just funny, quirky nerdy people who love weird names and are passionate about what they do. They’ve just released the Manis Iteritas which is a noisy and nasty industrial sounding synth voice. It’s got weird parameters like Smash and Profundity which i can now treat with a bit more grace and comedy. Anyway – I’m going to pay them a bit more attention.
Arturia V Collection
Arturia have just updated their V Collection bundle of instruments to version 6 with a handful of very cool things. Is 4 a handful? Dunno. Anyway these consist of a Yamaha DX7, a flipping Fairlight and a Buchla Music Easel. Oh and some Clavinet that noone’s interested in. This sort of brings together the instruments that interested me as a kid with the stuff I’m into now. My first synth was my dad’s DX100 – and I loved the whole Fairlight thing, actively seeking out records with orch hits on them and 12″ remixes of tracks that were full of the stuff. I got the Commodore 64 sampler one christmas and spent hours filling that 1.4 seconds of sample time with grabs off cassette.
Anyway these are welcome additions to the collection and I plan to spend some time on the Buchla in particular.
Synth Tech E370 Quad Morphing VCO
Synth Tech have just released their E370 Quad morphing VCO and it looks flippin amazing. They are slowly fulfilling the kickstarter orders and are taking pre-orders for the next batch due in March. It mixes the E340 cloud generator with the E350 morphing terrarium and gives you 4 oscillators of wavetable loveliness. In Cloud mode it can swarm up to 8 virtual VCO’s per oscillator, or become a 2 operator FM synth, or a programmable noise generator, or a low pass filter. And it has a fabulous screen to tell you what’s going on.
So what about 2017’s product highlights?
With version 9.5 Propellerheads finally let VST plug-ins to Reason. For some unknown reason they released this just a month or two before announcing and releasing version 10. In version 10 there’s a couple of new things like a pair of very cool synths, one granular and one wavetable – there’s a handful of new sample based instruments, an LFO and 3GB of new sounds. All very groovy if not exactly mind blowing but it’s the VST support that really opens Reason up to being everything it could be. Or does it just make it the same as everything else….. Good question.
I have one of these in a box waiting for me to have the time to look at it. It’s an awesome thing and exactly what ROLI need to be doing. It’s a sensibly priced mini version of their Seaboard expressive MPE controllers. You can use it to pump multi-dimensional controller information into a compatible synth. This means individual, per note pitch bend and parameter manipulation by wobbling and pushing into the weird keyboard material. It’s the future and offers a lot of musical possibilities in an affordable box.
Talking of affordable boxes – this isn’t one of those. This is a synth inspired by some of the coolest things on the planet – Blade Runner, Vangelis, the Yamaha CS-80 and that soundtrack. It’s just starting to ship for about $3500 or you can buy the PCB boards as a kit for about a thousand and source the actual components yourself. That would be quite a project. Anyway, it looks great and should sound amazing – it’s pitched perfectly to hit all the warmth we have for the sound of that movie. It has 8 voices of polyphony and 2 VCO’s per voice. There’s polyphonic aftertouch and MPE support. There’s waveshaping and filter topology designed to give the slight crappiness of the original – or you can have it pristine. It would be very interesting to play.
Roland have rather outdone themselves with the Boutique releases this year. Up until now it’s been all classic reissues like the Jupiter and Juno which inevitably don’t capture the physicality of the originals and the 808/909 drum machines. And of course people argue over the authenticity of the ACB modelling technology. This time we saw a collaboration with Studio Electronics and they gave us a genuinely new analogue synthesizer crammed into the surprisingly small Boutique forma factor. The SE-02 is a superb little analogue monosynth with inbuilt sequencer. I just wish it wasn’t so small. But Roland were not done. They also released the SH-01a which was as near as dammit a perfect reissue of the SH-101 – but this has 4 voices of polyphony making it a bit more fabulous and it’s small enough not to be ridiculous in the Boutique form factor. Then they sneaked out the D-05 based on the classic 80’s D-50 linear synthesizer. That’s all digital so it doesn’t suffer from those sort of issues of analogue modelling and never had any controls to speak of – perfect for the Boutique and just as hard to program as the original. But sounds just perfect. So a bumper crop from Roland – I wonder what 2018 will bring.
There were loads of superb and useful modules released this year – the one that took my money was the Jove filter from System 80 – it sounds exactly how i want a filter to sound, musical, wet and flabby. There was a lot of stuff that appeared at NAMM and Superbooth but not all of it made it to market. Highlights for me were the Intellijel Plonk made with Applied Acoustics for some Eurorack acoustic modelling. Erica Synths released a load of stuff and continue to do so, but the Octosource was a stand out unit, as was the still not quite finished Drum Sequencer Computer. Make Noise’ Morphagene sort of sampler thing has almost everyone in a flutter with it’s ability to totally mess with audio. A much simpler sampler was the TipTop audio ONE. The Radikal Technologies Swarm was pretty awesome as was the weird looking FLXS1 4 channel sequencer from Zetaohm. The sequencer that ruled though was the Eloquencer from Winter Garden – you see those all over the place and is a beautiful looking sequencer full of probabilities. The Qu-Bit Pulsar Burst looks pretty interesting as does the Eventide Euro DDL delay. Loving the Scion from Instruo that can suck CV from plants. But probably the most interesting was the reinvention of the Throbbing Gristle Gristleizer effects box into Eurorack. Made by Future Sound Systems working with Chris Carter and original designer Roy Gwinn it pulls apart the stomp box and scatters it across 4 modules – all very gritty.
The development of VCV Rack has been nothing short of remarkable. It popped up in September as a virtual Eurorack soft-synth whose main feature was that they’d stolen the open source code from all the Mutable Instruments modules. So you could play with genuine versions of Clouds and Braids right on your desktop. Since then there are something like 50 developers producing over 300 modules for the platform. It’s just been amazing and at the moment it’s still free. It’s become almost like a plug-in format of its own – and maybe it should be. The way you can wire stuff together in a modular environment gives you an extraordinary amount of creative power and possibility and the big name developers out there would do well to give VCV Rack some of their attention. It’s designed to look and feel just like Eurorack – there’s no hand holding, you have to get in there and patch stuff together. Now as much as this is amazing and i’m going to be looking deeper into it once it reaches an official release – i find it much harder work than actual Eurorack. There’s something about playing with real cables and hardware that can’t be replicated in software. The sound is great, the theory and what you can do is the same, but there’s somehow something less intuitive about software. But who knows – it’s definitely the most exciting software development of the year.
Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol MK2
Native sent me one of these to review and I loved it. It’s a great keyboard with a great system that ties the hardware to the Komplete software. It pulled me back into enjoying software again, helped me rediscover interesting sounds and get far more use out of all the synths inside Komplete. It has its flaws but they’ve got a lot of things right. A recent update includes DAW support for Cubase and Nuendo which is cool. Check out my full review video for all the details.
Surface Pro 2017 and Surface Book 2
Microsoft kept on pursuing the dream and released both an updated Surface Pro and Surface Book 2. On the upside the Surface Pro 2017 (as we have to call it) seemed to work out of the gate. Combined with the creators updates it’s now a pretty decent mobile music making device with touch, pen and now the dial – the dial hasn’t exactly set things alight – it’s one of those things that’s dripping with potential that seems hard to harness. I hope to do a bit more of an investigation into that. On the downside Microsoft still seem determined to ignore the potential of Thunderbolt and ignore us music makers generally in favour of artists who draw with the pen – oh they love those guys. Anyway I have tested the Surface Pro 2017 extensively and put that all in a video and I have plans for demonstrating a lot more software on it in 2018. I no longer have any contacts at Microsoft UK so i don’t know who to ask to get hold of a Surface Book 2 for testing. If anyone has any ideas then let me know because it would be awesome to go over it with all my usual DAW software testing.
Bitwig Studio 2
For some weird reason I missed this out of the video version. But in 2017 Bitwig released their most complete version yet and introduced an awesome modulation system that sets it apart from pretty much any other DAW. You have the ability to wire together all sorts of cool and weird modulators that can play havoc with any plug-in parameters. From regular LFO’s to logic and maths processors, sequencers and random stuff. All of which can also be routed out to external modular synths with the right audio connections. It’s not brilliant at everything, there are still some holes to fill and the touch system (which is excellent) has had no further development, but it’s the most creatively interesting DAW out there. Check out my full review here:
We lost a lot of stuff this year. Clouds and Braids from Mutable got discontinued, so did the Hades and Erebus from Dreadbox. Moog said no more to the Model D and the Voyager XL. But probably the biggest loss was the entirety of Cakewalk. Owners Gibson decided that 30 years of software development and millions of Sonar users didn’t really fit with their plans to make consumer devices. So they pulled the rug. It’s amazing that such a long standing Windows recording environment can simply disappear – just like that. I think we’ve all probably used a version of Cakewalk at some point. It was my first Windows sequencer. Sonar was very capable although I wasn’t a huge fan of the layout or the look. It always seemed really busy – but it had a lot of good stuff going on. Maybe it was the subscription style approach that did them in – the constant release of little updates rather than big releases that they could make a fuss about. Don’t know, maybe. Whatever it was Gibson are certainly struggling these days.
And finally – those Adidas TR-808 trainers.
These caused quite a stir back in the summer when images of a pair of trainers with an 808 drum machine built in emerged. The internet and all the glossy coffee table lifestyle magazine went bonkers. As ever the voice of reason I was the only commentated to point out that these were vapourware – they did not exist, they were a concept and nothing more. Well Margo Neely from Neely and Daughters who were behind the concept got in touch to say that they were definitely real and awesome and it’s going to be amazing. Anyway, I was doing an article for Gearnews of “whatever happened to in 2017” and of course nothing had happened with those trainers. So i dropped her an email just to check and she came back with a huge truck load of enthusiasm and fabulousness. The trainers were still a goer – everyone thinks so – they had 6 billion views – they are still developing and haven’t decided whether to go with Adidas or not yet. And they are fielding requests from every manufacturer to do something similar. In the mean time Margo has, she says, come up with something so completely fabulous that it’s going to revolutionise the wearables industry – it’s a game-changer. So that’s cool. I can only imagine it’s a pair of 909 flip flops or a hat that’s also a Moog – who knows. Her enthusiasm and self-belief are absolutely fabulous and if they could harness that into some sort of product that I’m sure that would be amazing. As for a drum machine in my trainers…..
So what about personal highlights – how has 2017 been for the world of Molten?
This year I have produced 54 videos. That includes 15 modular videos plus a few noodles, 15 Surface videos and 10 Molten monthlys. I’ve had over half a million views, gained nearly 6000 subscribers and been watched for 3.3 million minutes. That’s amazing. Not “i’m amazing” but rather it’s amazing that people are watching and I seem to be, mostly, doing a half decent job of it. I really appreciate it. I appreciate the overwhelmingly positive comments and interactions I have with people online and increasingly in real life. I love it – i love making these videos it’s the best thing ever and the fact that you are watching is completely awesome. So, thank you.
Well first is this whole modular Eurorack business. I year I was looking for an interesting project to write and make videos about and after visiting the SynthFest 2016 I had my mind completely blown by Eurorack. I confess that I was bored by software – i was losing my appreciation of the awesome virtual tools I had at my disposal. I had tried to supplement with things like the Novation Circuit and then a Moog Mother-32 but it wasn’t enough. I needed to go full-on modular and it’s been the most amazing and rewarding journey. I have simultaneously felt inspired, stupid, achingly cool, out-of-my-depth and more musically and technologically creative than I can ever remember. It’s cost some money, I’ve had to sell a load of gear, but it’s been worth it. I’ve learned an awful lot and I’m still learning.
Surface Pro Audio
I did a stack of testing on it over the summer and was able to report that it was working well for audio production. I confess that since then I have neglected the Surface side of things a little bit as the Modular side has grown, but I aim to address that in 2018 with lots more Surface videos planned. Get in touch as to what you’d like to see – or even better sign up on Patreon as a Surface supporter because currently the Modular supporters are winning by quite a margin.
People seem to like the reviews I do of gear. I guess I tend to take a bit more time over them than most reviews you see. I love doing that but it’s also very time consuming.
This year I’ve been able to review the Surface Book, Bitwig Studio 2, Komplete Kontrol S49 Mk2, the Make Noise STO and a pair of Master and Dynamic MH-30 foldable headphones.
My shortlist at the moment is to review Reason 10 and Tracktion Waveform. Erica Synths have sent me a Black VCO and Expander to review and ROLI have sent me a Seaboard Block – I also have a Malejjo Varigate 4+ sequencer arriving in the post shortly. So lots to get my teeth into. And I hope to hit both 20,000 subscribers and 2 million views in 2018. And if you’re a manufacturer out there of something in Modular, Music tech or software and you’d like me to review it – then send it in. I’d recommend checking out some of my reviews first just so you know what you are letting yourself in for.
So yeah, this time last year I wasn’t sure where I was going with the videos but now I have a firm direction to move in with more reviews, more modular, more Surface and plenty of Molten Monthlys. And in 2018 I want to bring a focus onto making music – so that’s going to be fun. If you want to keep up-to-date on daily music tech news then check out Gearnews.com – I’m the synth correspondent so you can get a daily dose of me giving my opinion on all the new stuff – and this is not just reprinting press releases, at Gearnews it’s all opinion led – which is me all over. We cover all of music tech and guitars so check it out.
Coming next will be some Surface Pro action, followed by the Erica Black VCO and the Varigate 4+ – That’ll do! My next Molten Monthly will be after NAMM – a NAMM special at the end of January and I hope to be sticking up a load of reviews over the new year.