Arrangers need respect!

Sometimes I like to kick back and jam to a simple chord progression and a groove. It’s a lot more fun to play to a groove than it is to practice to a boring old metronome.

The Yamaha MOX workstation is full of delicious factory performances where you can play a progression with the left hand and let the right hand roam where it wants to. I’m always impressed by the creativity and talent of professional sound designers and programmers, especially those cats that have a deep understanding of the keyboard architecture and its “content” like samples and musical phrases. It was initially hard to imagine, as a new user, getting my mind around 6,720 phrases (arpeggios) in the MOX let alone making them work for me!

The MOX needs to appeal to a wide range of musical tastes in order to be a successful product. Thus, it has a wide range of factory performances for demo purposes and for getting people started with the ax. I really dig the rock, funk, soul and jazz performances, but I just don’t work in rap, hip-hop or EDM. (Although, chill is interesting…) So, I set out to program my own performances and to overwrite some of the factory performances that didn’t work for me.

I browsed through the list of arpeggios in the data list PDF just trying to find a place to start with 6,720 phrases! Even a casual reader would notice certain names like “Unplugged,” “Pop Shuffle,” or “Slow Blues” showing up again and again. Well, I quickly realized that there is a full back line (drum, bass, guitar) for “Unplugged” or whatever, and that several main, fill and break phrases are available for each instrument. The construction kit idea was born and I programmed 90+ new performances where each performance is based on a construction kit. I wrote about my experience here.

Hmmm, main, fill and break arpeggios look and sound like phrases that were lifted from an arranger like the old Yamaha QY-70. However, unlike the old QY from 1997, the MOX arpeggios sound good. Some of the improvement comes from the MOX samples and sound engine, but the phrases themselves had much better musical groove and style.

So, I took a little time to investigate and audition Yamaha’s current generation of arranger keyboards from the inexpensive PSR-E433 ($249 street) up to the Tyros 4 (now about $4,000 street). Yamaha has recently released the new top-of-the-line Tyros 5, but I haven’t had a chance to try one yet. Sure enough, many of the MOX arpeggios were lifted from Yamaha arranger keyboards circa 2006.

Are the arpeggios better than the old QY-70? You betcha! Even the PSR-E433 outshines the QY and for less than half of what I originally paid for the QY. I wouldn’t hesitate to use some of the sounds and styles in the PSR-E433 at a gig. The Tyros Super Articulation 2 (SA2) voices are amazingly playable. The Tyros tracks your playing in real time and drops in the little nuances which enhance a solo performance. You don’t need to consciously think about switching articulations — just play. The Tyros styles are very realistic and maybe sound too much like a studio recording, if one regards that as a criticism.

Best of all, playing these keyboards is terrific fun! BTW, Korg, Roland, and Ketron make pretty darned good arranger keyboards, too.

So, why did I feel guilty — almost dirty — auditioning arrangers in public, especially at the infamous store which shall not be mentioned? I think arranger keyboards still suffer from the stigma of the dreaded “home organ” with a cheesy rhythm box. These organs were designed for (gasp!) the home musician including the one finger wonder (usually dad) in the family.

First off, we run into the musical class system of professional vs. amateur. I respect the talent, training, practice and skill of the pros. However, since when should amateurs be reduced to the play button on an iPod in order to experience music? Bosh! An amateur is a person who pursues music for pleasure and is most likely to support the arts and artists.

Next, I think arrangers are misperceived as instruments for the home (or the nursing home) even when they have essentially the same sound set and effects as “professional” workstations. Tyros SA2 voices are still way ahead of professional workstations in out-of-the-box playability.

Finally, there is the lingering aftertaste of cheese from a 1960s fallout shelter. The QY and its home organ predecessors really did sound cheesy. This is where contemporary arranger keyboards unfairly take the bad rap. Get thee to a music store! Try one! Don’t forget to feel love, again, and have fun.

Way back in ’97…

Way back in the 1990s, Yamaha developed and sold the QY series of ultra-portable MIDI sequencers. The penultimate model in the QY series is my pal the QY-70 (purchased in 1997). I still occasionally use the QY today and this post is my mini-shrine.

The QY-70 combines a MIDI sequencer, a tone module, a Chiclet keyboard, and arranger-like chord recognition, styles and controls. The QY is about the size of a chunky video game controller and that’s a lot of functionality for a small box of that size! The tone module is a complete XG-compatible sound generator which still interoperates with XG-compatible software and hardware (like the Yamaha Mobile Music Sequencer iPad app). The QY can be attached to a standard MIDI keyboard (or computer) through 5-pin DIN plugs. This makes it easier to enter notes and controller data. You can also split the keyboard and play the QY like an arranger with chord recognition in the left hand.

The QY-70 has a lot of content: 128 styles based upon an internal library of 4,167 phrases. A musician can create new phrases from MIDI data and can create new styles from the built-in phrases and user phrases. The QY-70 can import and export Standard MIDI Files (SMF) through the PC-/Mac-based QY Filer program.

Of course, in many ways, the QY-70 shows its age. The XG sounds suffer from short loops and the effects are not up to the quality of modern day algorithms. Chord recognition is a little bit rocky although one can split the keyboard into three zones such that “On Bass” (slash chords) can be played. The QY lacks a true auto-fill, auto-start and auto-stop which are essential for live performance. The QY styles also sound dated. Certain styles (rock and pop) were pretty lame back in 1997 and probably did a lot to give arranger keyboards a bad name.

However, the QY does a great job integrating the sequencer, tone module, arranger functions and content. Workflow is smooth. If necessary, the musician can drill down and edit MIDI event and controller data in scrollable “event list” format. In fact, the QY’s editing support was comparable to computer-based sequencing programs of its day such as Opcode Musicshop or MOTU Freestyle. The editing facilities exceed those of some contemporary, high-end arranger keyboards such as the Yamaha Tyros.

I still use the QY-70 from time to time because its workflow is compatible with my musical process. I don’t really write original tunes, but quite often, I have the lead sheet for a new song that I need to learn. This is where the QY’s pattern and chord tracks come into play. I first annotate the lead sheet with measure numbers, main sections (A or B) and fills. Then I enter the chords, choice of style and style sections (main A, fill-AB, etc.) into the QY. The editor is simple and easy to use although it forces one to scroll linearly through the song. In literally ten minutes, I have a basic accompaniment and then can play (and possibly record) the melody against the backing track.

This is the kind of process that I wish I could use on the Yamaha MOX. The MOX is not an arranger keyboard and does not have the same notion of pattern and chord tracks. The QY’s pattern and chord tracks are independent such that I can easily change the choice of style or style section. This capability is great for trying out a tune with a whole different style/attitude. The style and chords are cooked into a MOX pattern section when the section is recorded and experimenting with style means re-recording entire sections.

You can see QY-like technology at work in modern arranger keyboards and the Yamaha Mobile Music Sequencer. The Motif, MOX, PSRs, and Tyros all have a built-in library of musical phrases although they use these phrases quite differently. The Motif/MOX expose the phrases as playable arpeggios while the PSR/Tyros keyboards embed the phrases into styles. It’s fun to MIDI the QY to the MOX and play the QY styles through the MOX sound engine. It’s amazing how much better some of those old styles sound when played through a decent sound engine! Unfortunately, you lose the power of an integrated tone module and sequencer.

The Yamaha Mobile Music Sequencer (MMS) strips away the concept of a style and is 100% phrase-oriented. Songs are broken into sections where each section is a group of phrases that play concurrently. MMS follows the chord progression that is programmed into a song section and harmonizes the phrases in the section. The musician arranges the sections into a full song arrangement. Sounds are produced through software virtual instruments that are better than the QY, but not as good as the MOX.

MMS comes with a library of rock and pop phrases. Yamaha sells the QYPACK that, holy smokes, is a subset of the old QY-70 phrases! Thus, a small part of the QY-70 lives on. The QY phrases get a sonic bump from the virtual instruments. The MOX phrases (arpeggios) are vastly superior since they are derived from later, better-played arranger styles (circa 2007) and the superb MOX sound engine.

All in all, the QY-70 is still a fun, useful tool for song writing and arranging. If there’s a computer science lesson in all of this, it’s the power of good standards like 5-pin MIDI, XG and General MIDI. 5-pin MIDI lets musicians mix and match hardware and software — something which is lost with MIDI-over-USB.

I’ll have more to say about MMS and arranger keyboards in future posts.

RPi MIDI bridge

[Update: See Send MIDI from USB-B to 5-pin.]

Here’s a vexing problem that many electronic musicians face.

Let’s say that you own a lot of gear, some of which uses the old school 5-pin DIN MIDI interface. For example, there are a ton of classic (and not so classic) tone modules and keyboards that have 5-pin MIDI IN and MIDI OUT ports.

Then, you buy a new mobile MIDI controller which only does MIDI over USB through a USB B device port. The M-Audio Keystation Mini 32 is an example. This design covers the most common case — hooking the controller to a computer having a USB A host port — but you can’t connect the controller directly to the 5-pin MIDI IN port on one of your old tone modules or keyboards. USB ain’t RS-232 and class-compliant MIDI over USB has its own protocols, too. So, you can’t just whip up a simple cross-over cable or signal converter.

There are two commercial solutions to this problem: the Kenton USB MIDI host and the iConnectivity iConnectMIDI4+. Neither of these solutions is cheap and they cost more than a lot of MIDI controllers themselves!

Some people on the web have suggested an Arduino-based solution. However, here’s an easy riddle. What super low cost single-board computer has two USB host ports? Answer: The Raspberry Pi Model B.

The RPi Model B seems like a natural for this problem. It’s inexpensive, it has the necessary ports, and there are plenty of rugged cases available. Musicians will want to use this solution at the gig, so a good case is essential. There are two issues. First, the RPi can source only a limited amount of power to a USB device. Some MIDI controllers may draw too much current. Second, musicians don’t like to haul extra gear to a gig, so they won’t want to take a display and keyboard to a gig just to boot the RPi and run the software needed to bridge the two USB A ports. The solution must be stand-alone, plug-and-play, and consist only of the RPi itself, a power source, and a few cables.

Here’s what I have in mind for the hardware. The MIDI controller is connected to the RPi using a standard USB A to USB B cable. The MIDI controller draws power from the RPi. Some MIDI controllers have a dedicated power supply jack and in that case, a separate power adapter for the MIDI controller seems prudent. The other USB host port on the RPi is connected to an inexpensive commercial USB to 5-pin MIDI interface — the kind used to connect 5-pin equipment to computers. The commercial interface should be MIDI class-compliant and should not require special drivers. Knowing the state of the world such as it is, you may not easily find proprietary Linux drivers for the interface. The commercial MIDI interface provides the connection to the 5-pin DIN MIDI ports on your old piece of gear.

Musicians usually have an old USB MIDI interface like the Edirol/Roland UM-2EX in the studio. These interfaces are readily available at very low cost on the web for not much more dosh than a cable. This approach doesn’t require custom hardware or shields like an Arduino-based solution.

Here’s what I have in mind for the software. Folks already bridge PC MIDI ports using MIDI-OX. Linux has the ALSA MIDI software. The amidi -l command displays the physical and virtual MIDI ports. The aconnect command connects MIDI ports. The trick will be discovering and connecting MIDI ports after boot without manual intervention, i.e., the RPi boots and builds the bridge without a keyboard, display, a log in, etc.

So, there it is! My hardware lab is currently in disarray so I can’t easily do a proof of concept implementation. However, if you have the RPi and the pieces/parts, please give this a try.

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And now for something completely different

Been a while since the last post, eh?

After the intensive push to publish courseware, I took a little “dreadlock holiday” and spent the last few months devoted to music. (Ahhh, the privileges of retirement!) In particular, I decided to deep dive into the Yamaha MOX workstation which is now my main gigging instrument. I learned to create songs using the rather wonderful library of musical phrases that are built into the MOX. I bought an iPad to use some of the many apps developed by Yamaha, including the Yamaha Mobile Music Sequencer.

As always, in the spirit of sharing what I have learned, I have published a page about getting started with the Yamaha MOX synthesizer. It describes my own journey and it is meant to complement the MOX owner’s manual. I hope that it helps you out.

Finally, I also learned a lot more about “arranger” keyboards. These keyboards ain’t your father’s Wurlitzer any more and surely have a place in professional studios as well as the home recreation room. I’ll have more to say about arranger keyboards in a future post.

On the nerd front, I took a side trip into the basics of quantum mechanics and quantum computing.

Needless to say, this all took a bit of time.