Winter NAMM 2018: Melo Audio MIDI Commander

OK, OK, I know about the Arturia MiniBrute 2 and Moog Drummer From Another Mother — and so do you. 🙂

You may not have heard about the Melo Audio MIDI Commander, which was teased last year. Melo Audio’s teaser targets guitar players, but this ten button foot controller might appeal to keyboard players who need to make fast patch changes and so forth.

In addition to ten foot switches, the MIDI Commander has two expression pedal inputs. “Fusion mode” combines program change (PC) and control change (CC) MIDI messages. (We’ll have to wait for the documentation to find out what’s really going on here.) The MIDI Commander is compact (286mm x 110mm x 60mm, 11.3″ x 4.3″ x 2.4″), can run on two AAA batteries and has an OLED display.

The “Coming soon” page for the MIDI Commander shows a preproduction mock-up. I’d love to know if good ole 5-pin MIDI is included. Could be an alternative to the Yamaha MFC-10.

Speaking of teasers, Hammond are teasing a new model in the SK series of clones, the SKX.

Also, Dexibell are teasing a new organ: tone wheel (including pedal), Farfisa, Vox and pipe organ (upper, lower, pedal). An extension to the COMBO J line?

Copyright © 2018 Paul J. Drongowski

Right on the heels of Genos

Yamaha are announcing two new models in the arranger workstation line: The PSR-S975 and the PSR-S775

The PSR-S975 is an update to the current PSR-S970. New features include:

  • Half bar fill-in
  • Mono legato operation
  • Store and recall of Live Control settings in registration memory
  • More preset styles (523, up from 450)
  • More Super Articulation voices (140, up from 131)
  • More Live voices (99, up from 89)
  • Larger expansion memory (768MB, up from 512MB)
  • Expansion audio styles (128MB maximum)

Expansion packs like Euro Dance and Salsa are pre-installed. [Click image below to enlarge.]

Quoting the Yamaha Web site:

  • 1625 Voices, including Super Articulation Voices, Organ Flutes! Voices. 55 Drum/SFX kits, and 480 XG voices
  • 523 Styles, including 40 Audio Styles, 34 Session Styles, 15 DJ Styles and 3 Free Play
  • Half bar fill-in and Mono legato function
  • 768 MB on-board memory for expansion data
  • Mic/Guitar input for use when singing or collaborating with other performers
  • Vocal Harmony 2 and Synth Vocoder functions
  • Real Distortion and Real Reverb, with an intuitive effects interface
  • USB audio playback with time stretch, pitch shift, vocal cancel and MP3 lyrics display functions
  • External display capability

The PSR-S775 also received a modest refresh versus the PSR-S770.

Observations

I honestly didn’t expect to see a mid-range refresh this January (2018). Genos™ is barely launched in North America with Winter NAMM 2018 just two weeks away. Yamaha normally announces new arranger workstation products in the Fall. From the marketing point of view, it would have been shear madness to refresh the mid-range while launching Genos during Fall 2017.

I suspect that the refresh is in response to the new Korg Pa700 and Pa1000 mid-range arranger keyboards. Korg and Yamaha are really duking it out in these lucrative segments. The S975 and Pa1000 attract “pro-sumer” musicians and the very affordable S775 and Pa700 are near the magic $1000 USD sweet spot.

Fans expecting a “mini-Genos” will just have to wait. Genos is way too hot to spoil by releasing a mid-range model with Genos-like features. Having played and experienced Genos for nearly one month, the enormous difference in street price between S975 and Genos is (and must be!) justified by a wide gap in functionality and sound quality. Value proposition, folks, value proposition.

One must wonder if a similar product strategy will play out in Yamaha’s synthesizer product line. The MOXF is due for at least a refresh. Does Yamaha have a compelling reason to issue a “Half Monty” two years after the Montage launch? A MOXF refresh might be enough to keep customers interested and sales up given the workstation features (sequencing, sampling, …) left out of the Montage. Some change is due simply because Yamaha’s inventory of the old tone generator IC (SWP51L) must be getting low.

The S975 is probably a simple re-spin of the S970 hardware. Yamaha can ride the ONFI NAND flash memory curve for years to come without breaking a sweat. The switch to ONFI compatible memory makes it easy to drop a larger capacity device into the existing printed circuit board footprint.

I’m still trying to discern where Yamaha are going with audio styles. They do have their patent portfolio covering full audio styles. The S975 allocates 128MBytes for Audio Style Expansion. (The S775 does not.) The Genos has a comparable Audio Style Expansion capability which draws from its Internal Memory. My intuition says that something is afoot, but it’s easy to extend one’s expectations beyond the current hardware/software platform.

There are rumors of another Genos update in the works. As with all things Yamaha, we must wait and see. Fortunately, we have excellent instruments to keep us busy and entertained!

Copyright © 2018 Paul J. Drongowski

Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion

As a few industry news sites have noted, the SPECTRE patch developed and pushed by Microsoft causes some older AMD processors to hang during boot up (or worse).

I live in what could charitably be called a “computer museum.” Yes, one of my machines — a 1.6GHz AMD Athlon 64 processor 2600+ — was bitten by the patch. Boot-up freezes at the “Starting Windows” splash screen. Fortunately, I was able to roll back to a restore point and I promptly hid KB4056894, KB4056897, and its ilk. From there, I returned to normal operation. Other users have not been as fortunate (e.g., no restore point).

Today, I received a response from Microsoft containing a link to a page, “Windows operating system security update block for some AMD based devices”, stating, “To prevent AMD customers from getting into an unbootable state, Microsoft has temporarily paused sending the following Windows operating system updates to devices that have impacted AMD processors …”

The lawyers who wrote this page try to push blame onto “documentation previously provided to Microsoft to develop the Windows operating system mitigations to protect against the chipset vulnerabilities known as Spectre and Meltdown.”

Excuse me? You don’t test your patches? Get real. I smell a class action lawsuit on the way.

Update: 10 January 2018. Tom’s Hardware has taken note of the Microsoft patch issue on older AMD processors, including Microsoft’s cheap shot at AMD.

CES 2018

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) always trickles out a few products of interest to musicians. (Not just stereo systems!)

Roland R-07

The Roland R-07 handheld recorder might knock my trusty Micro BR from its perch. The R-07 supports mono and stereo WAV recording at rates up to 24-bit / 96 kHz and MP3 recording at rates up to 320 kbps. The Micro BR tops out at 192 kbps when recording MP3 — way behind the times.

The R-07 also offers Bluetooth control and Bluetooth streaming. Its display is a 128 x 64 graphic LCD. Like the Micro BR, the R-07 runs on two AA batteries. This thing is tiny: 61mm x 103mm x 26mm, 150g. A serving of Cheetos is 28g.

Expect a street price of $229.99 USD. More than six bags of Cheetos.

Advanced Micro Devices

I’ve got to give a shout out to my pals at AMD. The Ryzen™ Threadripper™ 1950X processor is the CES 2018 Best of Innovation Award winner in the Computer Hardware and Components category. The AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X processor supports 16 Zen cores and 32 threads. Awaiting your VSTi’s now.

Two other products that raise my eyebrows are the Ryzen 5 2400G and the Ryzen 3 2200G. These are APUs that combine CPU and GPU compute in a single package. Intel are also getting wise and have integrated AMD’s Radeon RX Vega M GH graphics with Core i7 processors. Look for smaller, more powerful “2-in-1” platforms later in 2018. I love small and fast. Apple, Mac Mini?

Stay tuned for Zen+, Zen 2, and Zen 3. BTW, I admire how Dr. Lisa Su has gotten AMD back on track. The business press needs to start singing her praises. Kudos!

Kingston Nucleum

Laptop and desktop computer manufacturers have been getting stingy with interface ports. (That’s you, Apple.) The Kingston Nucleum is an inexpensive add-on hub for your USB-C computer ($80 USD street). The ports include:

  • USB-C (power input)
  • USB-C (data)
  • HDMI
  • USB-A (x2)
  • SD
  • microSD

This 7-in-1 Type C USB hub might be the ticket for producers on-the-go. I’d love to see an expanded version with stereo audio IN/OUT.

Izotope Spire Studio

Izotope have gotten into the hardware biz and are showing their new Spire Studio all-in-one recording device. It looks like one of the ubiquitous voice-directed assistants. Wonder how many people will ask it for the weather or a sports update?

It has two XLR/TS combo inputs with +48V phantom power. Sample rate and depth are 48kHz and 24-bits, respectively. The Spire Studio has built-in 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi and runs on a rechargable lithium battery. Price is $349 USD.

Izotope is a Boston start-up to watch. Izotope hosted last year’s Music Expo Boston 2017 and I had a chance to visit their office. Good coffee as well as good products.

100 percent Genos

Now that I’ve gotten past the busy Christmas season, it’s time for a quick Genos demo. And I do mean quick!

I was anxious to try the new Yamaha Genos™ FunkAltoSax and FunkBaritoneSax voices as well as the JazzFlute. All three are Super Articulation 2 voices designed for solo lines.

For alto sax, what could be a better test than Junior Walker’s “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)” although Junior knocked this one out on tenor. It’s a fun tune to play although I still have difficulty with them triplets. That’s why he’s Junior Walker and I’m me.

So, about the backing track. It started life as a MIDI file purchased from Yamaha Musicsoft. Previously, working in SONAR, I selected new voices, etc. for the PSR-S950 and produced a mix without the (usually) awful melody part. The melody part is for me. Music minus one, great for practice.

Now, instead of SONAR, I copied the S950 MIDI file to the Genos and revoiced/remixed it on the Genos alone. Overall, mixing on the Genos went well. The only two hang ups were:

  1. Figuring out where the S950 “Song Creator” went, and
  2. Getting the Genos to apply and save the new voices, effects, levels, etc.

Song Creator is subsumed into MIDI Multi Recording (Reference Manual, Chapter 5). Even if you have the MIDI song in the Genos Song Player, you must explicitly import the MIDI song into MIDI Multi Recording. Maybe I did something wrong, but MIDI Multi Recording clears the song data when you first enter MIDI Multi Recording, as Genos assumes you’re creating a new song.

The other usage snafu is remembering to tap the multi recording Setup icon and to “execute” the set-up (Chapter 5, page 73). If you don’t execute, Genos does not change the existing Mixer settings (including new voices) when you save. I totally forgot about this aspect of the Yamaha UI because I usually prepare MIDI files in SONAR and do not mix on the arranger itself.

Yamaha, why-oh-why did you keep this skunky workflow? So many people get frustrated by this unnecessary execute step. Just commit the set-up as it is when you tap Save.

I found it very easy to fly around the Mixer making changes. Here is a table summarizing the S950 setup and the Genos setup:

    S950 voice/effect    Genos voice/effect
    -------------------  --------------------
    Strings              SeattleWarm
    Brass p              PopHornsSwell JS
    FretlessBass         ActiveFingerBass
    RockPiano            C7 WarmGrand
    AcousticKit          VintageOpenKit (Revo)
    Room reverb          Real Room (REAL REVERB)

I tried not to over-think the remix, choosing voices fast without a lot of A/B comparison. PopHornsSwell is OK; maybe I could have done better. The active finger bass, C7 and vintage open drum kit are all new to Genos.

The VintageOpenKit is a Revo drum kit with wave cycling. I didn’t need to remap any of the low MIDI notes due to a sound compatibility issue. (See Genos hi-hat happiness for more info about differences and potential issues.) This demo shows what Revo can do for a plain vanilla MIDI drum track. Like the rest of the mix, I didn’t do any tweaking and tweezing with the drum kit.

The Real Room reverb sounds better than the legacy Room reverb algorithm. I A/B tested the mix with the compressor ON and OFF. I left the master compressor ON (Natural preset) since it gave the mix more body. Overall, the track sounds more finished (studio-like) with the master compressor ON. The master EQ is flat. Maybe the mix would sound better with a mid-range scoop and a slight high/low boost?

Recording-wise, I jumped into Audio Quick Record, enabled recording, set a level, and tapped the play button. After a few false starts, I played the tune through — for better or for worse.

Here’s the finished Genos demo: “What Does It Take” (MP4/AAC). Enjoy!

Production talk aside, what’s it like to play? I can’t express the absolute joy it is to play the FunkAltoSax voice. Frankly, I don’t really care whether I sound like Junior (doubtful) or not, so much as engaging with the music and having fun within the moment. I’ve only had a few practice sessions with the ART1, ART2 and ART3 buttons; it helps to know a priori the instrument-specific articulation associated with each button. But, nothing — nothing — replaces the visceral thrill of scooping those sax wails and blasting the growl.

Man, it’s a good time. 🙂

Copyright © 2017 Paul J. Drongowski