Roland GO:KEYS – First impressions

I’m happy to write what may be the first end-user review of the Roland GO:KEYS.

The GO:KEYS is one of two new entry-level keyboards from Roland. The GO:KEYS has a street price (MAP) of $299 USD and is intended to inspire new keyboard players without a big out-of-pocket outlay.

The hook is the five zone, Loop Mix mode. The 61 keys are separated into 5 one octave zones: Drum, Bass, Part A, Part B and Part X. Each key in a zone triggers a two measure musical loop that repeats until the zone-specific STOP key is struck. The Drum and Bass zone lay down the basic groove while Part A and Part B add the harmonic bread and butter, like electric piano comping or a string pad. Part X adds variation with up to four phrase subgroups. Only one phrase can play in a zone at a time.

The preceding paragraph takes more time to read than it takes to set up a backing track. When you have the band grooving, you can switch to regular keyboard mode and solo to your heart’s content. Whenever you feel like it, you can switch back to Loop Mix mode and move the band to a different place.

There are twelve different Loop Mix Sets. Each set is a scale-compatible collection of Loop Mix phrases. The twelve style names suggest the musical genres and the target audience for GO:KEYS. No polkas. The Sets are modern sounding, however, I can’t speak to the authenticity of the EDM styles. The FUNK set sounds more like funky smooth jazz — no JB, no George Clinton, here.

However, don’t let that stop you. Please watch the GO:KEYS videos that Roland has posted on Youtube. (Search “Roland GO:KEYS”.) You’ll quickly decide if the GO:KEYS is for you or not. I certainly have had a lot of fun jamming away.

Many aspects of the GO:KEYS are well-thought out. It’s clear that the developers tried to play their own creation and added a number of convenience features like using the touch strip to step through the Function menu. The GO:KEYS can remember previous settings across power-off and it remembers the last patch selected in each of the eight categories (piano, organ, strings, brass, drum, bass, synth and FX/guitar).

Recording and playback are fairly rudimentary. Don’t expect a workstation at this price point! You can record an improvised backing and save it to a song file. Thanks to USB, the song file, etc. can be saved to a PC or Mac through the back-up function. The PC or Mac treat the GO:KEYS like a flash drive. You copy the back-up folder to the PC/Mac and you’re done. The directions in the user manual are simple and accurate, so I won’t go into those details here.

Windows 7 recognized the GO:KEYS when I plugged it in. Windows installed the Microsoft generic USB audio driver. Windows didn’t try to install the flash driver until I attempted the first back-up. The driver installation at first appeared to fail. When I unplugged and replugged the GO:KEYS, everything was fine and the GO:KEYS drive appeared in Windows Explorer.

My GO:KEYS arrived with version 1.04 of its software installed. There is a version 1.05 update on the Roland support site. Roland’s on-line directions are simple and accurate. The update to 1.05 went smooth.

The GO:KEYS sound set is a real bright spot. The standard “panel” voices are taken from the successful JUNO-DS series. In fact, I auditioned these voices by trying them out on a JUNO-DS88 before ordering the GO:KEYS. The GO:KEYS voices sound very similar, especially when you send the GO:KEYS through decent monitors. The built-in speakers are OK, but again, don’t expect super high quality in an inexpensive keyboard. The GO:KEYS is perfectly respectable through the Mackie MR5 mk3 monitors on my desktop.

Here are the sonic highlights:

  • The electric pianos are really strong. Many voices have tasty, appropriate effects (e.g., phaser) applied. If you need acoustic piano, try GO:PIANO instead.
  • There are a slew of synth leads and basses. I’m in love with Spooky Lead which is a classic fusion, R&B tone.
  • Organs are typically Roland — OK, but not tachycardia-inducing.
  • The strings are also typically Roland — darned good.
  • Acoustic sounds — few as they are — are decent. I like Soft Tb and Ambi Tp. Other acoustic sounds may be found in the GM2 sound set. (Don’t forget to enable them in the settings!) The woodwinds are surprisingly good for GM2.

I haven’t dug too deeply into the rest, but the voices triggered by the phrases sound good and are well-chosen. Clearly, the JUNO-DS is the original source.

At this price level, the GO:KEYS is a preset-only machine — no voice editing. The most you get is the ability to set the reverb level. Even the reverb type is fixed (a nice hall). There are decent multi-effects under the hood as heard in the electric piano and clavinet voices. Alas, everything is preset and fixed. Roland would still like to sell you a JUNO-DS.

The GO:KEYS includes a full General MIDI 2 (GM2) sound set. It sounds like an improved set over the much older RD-300GX for which I have produced many GM2 Standard MIDI Files (SMF). I have not tested GM2 compatibility. Roland are very careful about this and have not advertised full compatibility. This is not much of an issue for me as I have plenty of sequencing resources on hand already.

The GO:KEYS does not have conventional pitch bend or modulation wheels. The touch panel has two strips that apply pitch bend or filter/roll effects. The adjacent FUNC button selects the mode. The filter and roll are applied to everything, so you get a DJ-like effect that rolls the rhythm or squishes frequencies. Pitch bend mode also seems to include modulation. I hear the rotary speaker change speed on some organ voices. Unfortunately, attempts to change rotary speed also bend the pitch.

Hey, Roland! I regard this behavior as a bug. The documentation is really loose about what these touch strips do. In the next update, please make one strip pitch bend only and make the other strip modulation only. Punters everywhere will thank you!

The GO:KEYS is very light weight coming in under nine pounds. Power is supplied by either the included adapter (5.9V, 2A) or six AA batteries. The voltage rating is a little odd, 5.9V. I wonder if it’s OK to use a more common 6V adapter provided that the current rating is sufficient?

The GO:KEYS has two slots to accomodate a music rest, but doesn’t come with a music rest. The GO:PIANO bundle includes a music rest, not the GOKEYS. I want to use the GO:KEYS at rehearsals and will call Roland to see if I can buy a music rest. Of course, the Yamaha music rests that I have on hand do not fit the slots and cannot be easily adapted. (Arg. Put the Dremel tool away.)

As you might think, the keybed is not super stellar at $299 street. The keys are piano size and shape with a nice texturing (not plastic-y smooth). The keys don’t feel too bad although it’s more difficult to palm swipe piano-shaped keys with an edge.

Key response is OK, but not as good as a more expensive instrument. (Full disclosure, I played a $3,000 Yamaha Montage last night.) One key is a little dead and its response is quirky. I’ve encountered the same problem with a single key on the otherwise superb Arturia Keystep, too. It’s hard to make a keyboard at this price point that provides high quality and reliability. Even though the GO:KEYS’ case feels sturdy, I wouldn’t gig this machine too hard. You get what you pay for.

Overall, I’m pleased with the GO:KEYS. It’s a good starter keyboard and it looks (and sounds) to be a decent portable rehearsal instrument. The GO:KEYS is an attractive alternative to Yamaha and Casio products in the same price bracket. Definitely worth a look and a listen.

Update: After writing this review, I sequenced a GO:KEYS demo track in Ableton Live. The defective key became worse and I returned the GO:KEYS. Please read about my experience and listen to the demo track.

Copyright © 2017 Paul J. Drongowski

Ableton Live: 2 books, head2head

I’m ramping up my Ableton Live skills. Being somewhat old fashioned, I like to have a good print manual or guide by my side. Recently, I had a chance to compare two books, both worthy of recommendation:

  • Ableton Live 9 Power! The Comprehensive Guide by Jon Margulies (publisher: Cengage Learning, 2014)
  • Ableton Live 9: Create, Produce, Perform by Keith Robinson (publisher: Focal Press, 2014)

Each book is quite comprehensive and a little bit behind the latest version 9 features. (The hazards of print.) I don’t think you can go wrong with either book, but here are a few comments that might guide your choice.

Both volumes go through the Session and Arrangement views, tracks, scenes, clips, automation and warping in great detail. These topics are bread and butter. Here, I favor the book by Keith Robinson. Keith better describes how Live fits into the composition or production process. This context provides a bit of “Why” not just “How.” One on-line reviewer didn’t like this approach, but I appreciate it. For example, I didn’t how or why I would want to translate my tracks from the linear Arrangement view back to the Session view. Now I get the to-and-fro of Live as a tool.

Both books give you the complete rundown (circa 2014) on Live’s instruments, chaining and audio effects. For these topics, I give the book by Jon Margulies the edge. Jon does a better job describing the individual controls. His treatment of MIDI effects, in particular, is more thorough.

Both books cover MIDI control. Neither book has anything to say about using a Novation Launchpad. Push (version 1) barely wins much more than a mention. Both volumes need to be updated for the Ableton Push 2.

Jon Margulies’ book has a short chapter on using Live for live performance. Much of this chapter is devoted to track preparation and warping, material which is better covered by Keith Robinson’s book. Just having a chapter on performance isn’t reason enough to shy away from Keith Robinson’s book even if you intend to use Live mainly for performance, however.

Keith’s book uses color screenshots throughout. It’s easier to understand certain kinds of figures when they are presented in color. Please consider scans of an Arrangement view taken from each book.

The difference is striking and doesn’t need further comment!

In the end, I decided to buy Ableton Live 9: Create, Produce, Perform by Keith Robinson. I definitely prefered the use of color illustrations and his exposition placing Live within the writing process.

Music Expo Boston 2017

Saturday was a glorious warm day in Boston — perfect for a trip to Cambridge and Music Expo Boston. Music Expo is a series of mini-conferences produced in association with Sound On Sound magazine. Boston is fortunate to have Music Expo this year along with Miami and San Francisco. Loic Maestracci is the main organizer and he did he bang up job. The iZotope development labs and studios were the local host and venue.

Music Expo has an informal workshop feel to it. Even the more “formal” presentations had a friendly, laidback vibe with people freely getting into Q&A. Several companies had exhibits which were hands-on. (More about this later.) For example, Ableton had three Push 2 systems on hand where you could sit and try one out with the guidance of the booth staff.

Two session tracks and the exhibits ran in parallel, so one needed to pick and choose carefully. If I leave anyone out from this review, apologies — there was just too much going on at once.

My day got started with a fine performance by Elyssa Nicole Fontes and Megazoid. Elyssa is a composer and vocalist who uses backing tracks to perform. The staff had made a decision to move Elyssa and Megazoid to a more accomodating studio, so Elyssa had to fill dead air while the techs brought up her gear and tracks. This goes to show that artists always need to be prepared to handle tech issues in front of a live audience. Elyssa handled the situation with poise and aplomb. It also gave the attendees a chance to ask many questions about her technique, gear, mix, etc.

I then dropped by the Arturia booth to say “Hello.” The Arturia team certainly showed how to travel light with various ‘steps, a laptop and a MiniBrute. That MiniBrute is too cool for school and tiny! I’m glad that I visited the booth early because they seemed quite busy throughout the day.

Next stop was the Yamaha booth. “Booth” is not quite the right word as Yamaha were ensconced in a recording studio. They were demonstrating their latest — the MX88, Montage and Reface — with the MX88 and Montage routed through Yamaha HS8s and a sub. And joy of joy, the demonstrator was Phil Clendeninn! Like most studios, this one had a comfy couch in the back, so I kicked back while Phil ran through 30+ minutes of the best of Montage. Among other sounds, he desconstructed the Seattle Strings performance. The violins are far more realistic and expressive than the MOX patch which I am now using for exposed lines. Oh, I am so ready for this.

Highlight of the day number one: I finally had a chance to meet and chat with Phil. Phil is better known as “Bad Mister” (yes, the dude can play) who has written many useful, informative Motif and Montage guides and has answered zillions of questions on the Yamaha synth site and on the langouring Motifator site.

We covered a lot of ground. When I mentioned Yamaha arrangers, his response was “Oh, ho, you just wait!!” BTW, having done booth duty at SIGGRAPH and elsewhere, I’m amazed at the amount of energy and enthusiasm that Phil brings, and brings, and brings. It’s very hard to maintain that kind of level.

While we were conversing, I finally had a chance to try a Yamaha Reface YC. Of all the Reface, the YC could still win my heart thanks to Vox and Farfisa nostalgia. I always wanted a Continental as a kid, but had to settle for a Mini Deluxe Compact. (More well-kept vintage gear which I wish that I still had.)

I mentioned to Phil that I hadn’t been able to play a YC since launch despite efforts to find one in Boston, Seattle, and Lord knows where else. He acknowledged that this is a problem in this day and age of Internet sales. He ran through a list of concerns that a physical retailer would have: physical security to keep demo units from developing legs, knowledgable staff, etc. He thought that the lack of knowledgable staff also hurts mid- to high-end arranger sales in North America. Sometimes musicians need to be shown what an instrument can do in order to make a sale. The array of buttons on a modern arranger or synth can be intimidating and you don’t often know where to dive in.

From my point of view, there is only one nationwide brick and mortar music store in the U.S., Guitar Center, and unfortunately, knowledgeable keyboard staff are few and far between. I had a flashback to AMD days and the brick and mortar dominance of Best Buy in the computer, laptop, tablet space. It’s difficult to sell and support technogically complicated products to end users. (Please keep this thought.)

With a crush of people coming in, I bade Phil farewell and stopped at the Q Up Arts booth. Q Up Arts were demonstrating the California Keys (for N.I. Kontakt) — a sampled Fazioli 10ft grand. California Keys is cleverly packaged and I won’t spoil the surprise.

Highlight of the day number two: My wide-ranging conversation with Douglas Morton of Q Up Arts. To those in the know, Douglas is a talented, veteran sound developer and artist. I used a number of Q Up Arts products back in the day when samples were provided on audio CDs. (And dinosaurs roamed the Earth.) We began discussing the good old days of audio editing, vintage computer gear, Douglas’s work for the Salt Lake City Aquarium, ending with cross-country skiing in Utah. Douglas lives in two gorgeous locations: Dana Point, CA and Park City, UT. (Been to both and once lived in SLC myself.)

One of the subjects that we touched on was how to bring up the next generation of players on new software and gear. (Familiar theme now, huh?) Youtube videos only go so far; it’s got to be hands on. I quickly thought back to my experience in the morning at the Ableton booth. Push 2 is a spiffy product. That display, c’est magnifique! The Push 2 user interface, however, is not as immediately intuitive as the Novation Launchpad, for example. Thank goodness there was an Ableton staff member on hand to guide me. (Shades of gramps with a smart phone. 🙂 )

Douglas thought that an educational tour of high school and college music labs might be part of the solution. I thought of Living Computers Museum+Labs in Seattle. Education is where Living Computers could ace the synth exhibits at the Museum of Pop Culture, also in Seattle. (MoPOP was formerly known as the “EMP Musuem” and is another Paul Allen venture.) The MoPOP synth exhibits, at least when I visited a few years ago, didn’t offer much in the way of guidance and weren’t inspirational. Living Computers, however, have enthusiastic staff, labs and an educational outreach mission.

Lunchtime and I was able to hear Decap deconstruct his track See You Out There. Decap is a West Coast hip hop music producer (Talib Kweli, Snoop Dogg, Ne-Yo, and Tim Kile). I enjoyed his presentation very much while unwinding and eating lunch in the iZotope cafeteria. Coffee was provided, gratefully, as I had left the house early to drive to the MBTA subway stop. Decent coffee at that.

One big take-away from Decap is the need for playfulness and persistence. His tracks grow from ten minutes of sheer inspiration through four or more days of perspiration as he experiments and shapes it. His experience fits with my current personal philosophy. Put the phone (or tablet) down, start playing and stick with it. Stop pining after the next new tool. You probably have everything that you need already. Just get on with it! Be spontaneous, playful, and take advantage of happy accidents.

Cakewalk demonstrated a prototype virtual reality (VR) system for clip-based composition. You navigate a 3D space where you are surrounded by instruments and virtual pads that select and control clips. Reflecting on the experience today, I think they have a solid technology demonstrator. I give them my computer science respect for getting their system up and running. Cakewalk still need to find the killer hook that makes you want to pull out your credit card though. Surround sound development? It’s early days yet and I wish them the best.

Next session was a panel discussion about “D.I.Y. in the Recording Studio: Building and Maintaining your Analog Gear.” The panel consisted of six folks who are hands on engineers and producers. Great advice from all although I have a small quibble with making one’s own cables. I make terrible cables! I’d rather build a kit to gain electronics experience than fighting crappy home-built cables while performing or making a track. That’s just me.

The panelists spoke about how they got started. It struck me that all of the panelists got started by playing with electronics even if early experiments didn’t work out so well. Just do it! The notion of playful, enthusiastic, self-directed learning is totally at odds with today’s mania for educational accountability and teaching to the test. What is happening to the creative dimension of engineering and the arts in this country? Engineers and artists are bright, intelligent people and we seem to be actively stifling early enthusiasm. Arg!

At that point in the day, I had to call it quits and head home. It takes a while to get home from Cambridge and I didn’t want to get too strung out. What a glorious day walking in Cambridge. Kendall Square looks like “Science City” in a futuristic sci-fi movie with all of its computer and bio labs. The trains were a little crowded with very colorful people heading to and from Boston Pride. A great day all around.

My conversations and experiences convinced me of the value of Music Expo. Youtube videos, e-mail, texts, etc. are not enough. You need to rub shoulders with other kindred souls, converse, handle gear, ask questions, hear other people’s questions, get answers, be guided. NAMM is not the right venue. Music Expo Boston had it right: friendly, personal and interactive.

Copyright © 2017 Paul J. Drongowski

Out with the old…

I apologize for the dearth of new blog posts. Springtime brought the usual crush of yard work and the double whammy of spring cleaning. We hope to move to Seattle sometime in the next few years and we need to scrape off decades of old stuff.

I’ve gotten to the point where it’s a no-brainer to recycle or toss items that I will never use again. I’m beyond emotional attachment or sentimentality. However, I recently did disposed of two kinds of things that are near and dear to my heart. I couldn’t bear to see either go into the town incinerator or landfill, and it took a fair bit of time, thought and effort to find them a new home.

First, I cleared out my old vinyl records. I’m not one of those guys with thousands of records, mind you, but I did have some decent albums. I used to be obsessive about record care, so I knew that someone, somewhere would enjoy them just as much as I did. This job took a while to complete thanks to my aching back!

I want to give a shout out to two local vinyl shops: Vinyl Vault in Littleton, MA and Vinyl Destination in Lowell, MA. The best part of this job was meeting the proprietors of both stores and having a wonderful time talking vinyl and music. If you’re in the Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts, please visit them and give them your business. You might even come across one of my old favorites!

Next to go were two old Macintosh computers: a Performa 6400 Video Editing Edition (VEE) and a Mac SE. Both machines are still up and running although there are a few creaky parts. The same can be said for my aging body. 🙂

This is where my visit to the Living Computers Museum in Seattle paid off. (Please see my trip report about the museum.) I’m happy to say that the machines are on their way to the Museum in Seattle. It took a while to catalog all of the pieces and parts, including a fairly extensive collection of vintage Mac software. The Museum staff are friendly, easy to work with, and very helpful.

A big part of prepping these old machines was scrubbing personal data. Neither Mac OS 6 and OS 9 (!) provide native facilities for securely deleting files. Fortunately, I found an old version of Norton Utilities on the Web and used its “file wipe” feature.

I know that the Museum will put the machines to good use. As C3PO once said, “You must repair him! Sir, if any of my circuits or gears will help, I’ll gladly donate them.” Please visit Living Computers + Labs in Seattle and maybe you’ll have a chance to use two of my old favorites.

Public service announcement: Good grief, people, let’s keep computers out of landfills. There are many folks who need machines. I want to mention one other organization: Computer Technology Assistance Corps (CTAC) in Manchester, NH. CTAC not only provides computers, they run training programs to teach computer-based employment skills. They’re a great outfit! Please support them.

First glimpse: Yamaha MX88BK

Thanks to Michael at the PSR Tutorial forum, we have the first glimpse of the newest member of Yamaha’s MX synthesizer family — the MX88 in black (MX88BK). The MX88BK is an 88-key version of the popular MX49 and MX61 keyboards. The MX88BK has a GHS graded hammer action. It has the same 128 voice polyphony as its brother and sister, and has the same software update for class-compliant USB audio/MIDI.

The MX88BK is 6.6 x 52 x 16 inches and weighs 30.6 pounds. The MX88BK will have a street price around $1,000 USD.

The MX88BK is the replacement for the MM8. The Yamaha USA site still shows the MM8 as a current product and it’s still possible to order the MM8 from on-line retailers. The MM8 has a GHS keyboard and has a street price around $900 USD. Yamaha is offering a $200 rebate on the MM8. The offer is valid from April 1, 2017 through June 30, 2017.

The MM8’s price hits the sweet spot of a GHS piano/synthesizer keyboard around $1,000 (new). The MX88BK will hit the same spot. This is Yamaha’s strategy of offering products across a spectrum of prices and buyers — something for everybody.

Less talk, more action

Your Youtube product demo can either help you or kill you. And a lot rides on style.

Some folks stumbled onto the DEXIBELL COMBO J2 lounge demo and immediately trashed the COMBO J2 as “cheese,” writing it off. Yeah, but click a little further and Ralf Schink positively shreds the DEXIBELL COMBO J7. This dude absolutely kills it and makes the DEXIBELL COMBO J2 a serious contender for rock and jazz players.

Another pet peeve are demos that are mostly talk without any music. Look, we all get the concepts of layering, splitting, knob control, etc. You don’t need explain the front panel. Just play the $^%$# thing. The Korg Kronos and Kronos LS demo is flirting with the line between listening and clicking off to some other destination.

Talk is truly painful when the demonstrator doesn’t convey energy and enthusiasm. (Tip: Don’t record a demo for the Web after a long day on the show floor.) Everybody’s gold standard for chops and enthusiasm is Katsunori UJIIE (musictrackjp). Even though his videos usually have English captions, I will listen to UJIIE in Japanese for hours thanks to his infectious energy and playing skills.

The Waldorf Quantum looks like an interesting new synth with a beautifully clean front panel. But, demo-wise, Waldorf needs to up their game. I wanted to post a link to a demo, but I also don’t want to poison the well.

An interesting bit of plumbing, that

Frankfurt Musikmesse 2017 is off and running!

Yamaha Europe have a web page for their new product launches at Musikmesse 2017. You can find links to all of the new products on that page, so I won’t reproduce them here.

In addition to new CLP pianos, Yamaha have announced five portable musical instruments:

  • PSR-E263
  • YPT-260
  • PSR-E363
  • PSR-EW300
  • DD-75

The PSR-E363 and PSR-EW300 continue Yamaha’s pattern of offering a 76-key version (the EW model) of a sister, 61-key portable arranger keyboard. Yamaha want a big piece of the low cost digital piano market in China and 76-key models give them a way in.

Yamaha also claim “improved sampling,” which is good. I dinged the PSR-E443 for sounding exactly like the PSR-273 from 2003. Yamaha’s competition has gotten stiffer in the entry-level space especially with the new Roland GO:KEYS and GO:PIANO. The few Roland demos on the Web sound pretty darned good. Retailers expect the GO:KEYS in May 2017.

The (unexpected) instrument that brought an instant smile to my face is the Yamaha Venova. The YVS-100 Venova looks like a plumber’s playful take on a recorder. However, the Venova features a real mouthpiece and reed, producing a “sax-like” tone. It might be a little harder for Jon Batiste to pick up one of these and rock it!

Depending upon the cost, I may have to buy one. Aside from being positioned as a fun, “casual” instrument, the Venova looks like the gateway to clarinet or sax. Of course, This may boost traditional, acoustic instrument sales for Yamaha, too, as people want to move on to the harder stuff. The first taste is (almost) free.

I hope Yamaha release the backstory on the Venova. With the odd bends and squiggles in the pipe, it looks like some engineer brought a virtual acoustic (mathematically modeled) VL-70 instrument to life. Cool! Might inspired a STEM career or two along with musical jams.

Round and round they go

Here’s a couple of new products to be announced at NAMM 2017.

The first product is a rotary speaker system that doesn’t use any rotating elements. It’s the Moon Amplification Skamp®.

moon_amp_skamp

The Skamp® has nine transducers in total: six speakers and four horns. There are two speakers and one horn per side. The DSP models a the physical movement of sound around a room by shooting the audio out each side in a round-robin fashion.

moon_amp_sound_paths

This design is a real head-slapper. Why didn’t someone think of it before? Kudos. I haven’t seen a retail price as yet.

If you want more info, you can check out the U.S. Patent:

Apparatus and Method for a Celeste in an Electronically-Orbited Speaker
US patent number: 9,286,863
Publication date: March 15, 2016
Inventor: Nancy Diane Moon

BTW, if you live in the USA, patent law does not allow “personal use.” So, forget about building this one in your backyard!

In the Something Red category, check out the Rock’N’Rolla junior briefcase turntable. You can get these guys in black, white, and teal, too. All set to spin your 33s, 45s and 78s.

rock_n_rolla_red

The Rock’N’Rolla drew out a moment of nostalgia — the first time I ever heard Jimi Hendrix’ Purple Haze. In 1967, I was playing in a Motown, Soul, Top 40s garage band. The guy who was our erstwhile manager came rushing in and, breathing hard, said, “You’ve got to hear this!”

Being dirt poor teens, nobody had a working record player. The only player that could spin a record had a busted amplifier. So, we put the 45 on the player, turned it on, put our ears next to the tone arm, and listened to the needle scratch out “Purple Haze” unamplified.

I didn’t get a chance to cover “Purple Haze” until I moved on to the psychedelic band — which still covered a few Motown tunes lest we got our butts kicked. Cleveland, 1967.

Won’t be long, yeah!

Winter NAMM 2017 starts in two weeks (January 19). As usual, we gear freaks can’t wait to get our annual new product fix!

Roland jumped the field and announced a few new products at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES). They appear to be rolling out a new consumer-oriented product line, “GO:”, for amateur musicians and music makers.

Roland announced two new keyboards for beginning players: the GO:KEYS (G-61K and G-61KL) and the GO:PIANO. Both products target the entry-level market currently dominated by Yamaha and Casio. This is a smart business move as the entry-level segment moves a lot of units and offerings in this segment have been getting stale. Here are estimated USA sales statistics for 2014 in the “portable keyboard” segments:

    Category                       Units            Retail value
    -----------------------------  ---------------  -------------
    Portable keyboards under $199    656,000 units  $ 64,000,000
    Portable keyboards over $199     350,000 units  $123,000,000
    Total portable keyboards       1,006,000 units  $187,000,000

    (Source: NAMM)

Unit volume is high, but price and margins are razor thin. Keyboards in the “under $199” category are sold mainly in big box stores, not musical instrument retailers. So, it will be interesting to see where the new Roland keyboards are sold.

The GO:KEYS is most similar to an entry-level arranger keyboard. Estimated street price is $299. Roland is selling two models: a model with Bluetooth support and a model without. Probably depends on their ability to get RF type acceptance in a country or region. The GO:KEYS claims General MIDI 2 (GM2) support among 500 “pro-quality” sounds. The GM2 tone set consists of 256 melodic instruments and nine drum kits. I produced quite a few decent backing tracks using the Roland GM2 sound set on its RD-300GX stage piano. If Roland adopted this set, then the GO:KEYS should sound pretty decent (at least through external monitors rather than its internal speakers). No manual yet so it’s hard to say specifically what other sounds are included. Even if they recycled some chestnuts from the old JV/XP/XV, there is hope.

roland-go_keys

The Roland GO:PIANO is, ta-da, a portable piano. This product has the Yamaha Piaggero line in its cross-hairs. The estimated street price is $329. Again, no manual, so it’s hard to assess the feature set. Pricing on both products places them at the higher end of the entry-level market. The inclusion of Bluetooth support at this price point is a significant differentiator.

roland_go_piano

Both the GO:KEYS and GO:PIANO are battery powered (six AA batteries) in addition to an AC adapter. Both products use one-off fixed field LCD text and graphics like the lower cost Yamaha and Casio models. The key beds look decent, but we will have to play them in order to assess feel and quality. At least the keys are full size — not mini-keys, thank you.

If the Roland sounds are indeed up to snuff, Roland may be able to take sales away from Yamaha and Casio. Yamaha has been coasting with its entry-level sound set for over a decade and the recent PSR-E453 refresh did little to rejuvenate the entry-level segment. It will be interesting to see if Roland can win sales and spur innovation at the low end.

The GO:MIXER is positioned as an audio mixer for your mobile phone. It is USB powered, however, with no battery option. The GO:MIXER has guitar, microphone, instrument and media player inputs with associated mixing level control. There is a stereo monitor output as well as a “center cancel” feature. The estimated street price is $99USD.

roland_gomixer

Although Roland promote it for video production, I could see musicians using the GO:MIXER for a quick mix in the field. It certainly has enough inputs that a small group of pals could plug in and jam away.

FreePlay style deconstructed

Yamaha FreePlay styles for PSR and Tyros are terrific for music without rhythm instruments and strong rubato (variation in tempo to achieve a musical or emotional effect).

I’m customizing a few FreePlay styles with the intention of using them for liturgical music. In the first pass, I’m changing the OTS voice settings and I’m making a registration that calls up my go-to voices for traditional and contemporary church music.

Of course, my curiosity took over and I had to take a look inside of a FreePlay style or two using a DAW and Michael B’s StyleDump program. I have attached a text file with my working notes. The notes may be too much detail for most readers, so here is a quick summary of what I found. I’ve looked at only two styles so far: EtherealHymn (taken from the CVP-609) and OrganPlay1 (taken from the Church Organ expansion pack).

First off, how does it sound and feel to play a FreePlay style? The accompaniment is triggered and guided by the left hand as usual. (I haven’t tried FreePlay with AI fingering, etc. yet.) The accompaniment plays a gentle pad-like chord and a simple bass. The simplicity provides a blank canvas on which you can embellish to your heart’s content.

You might guess that the MAIN and FILL IN sections are quite simple and you would be right. The MAIN sections in the OrganPlay1 and EtherealHymn styles hold notes for 8 and 32 measures, respectively. The chord source in each case is CMaj7. The BASS track holds a single note (e.g., C2) through the entire section. The chord or pad tracks hold the rest of the notes that make up the CMaj7 chord: E, G and B. Harmony-wise, that’s it!

The FILL IN sections are similar and hold notes for just one measure because FILL IN sections are only one MIDI bar long.

Without a rhythm track, those looooooooong notes have a timeless quality. A musician would rarily — if ever — hold a chord that long. Thus, MAIN sections typically do not re-trigger.

Yamaha’s genuine contribution lies in the INTRO/ENDING sections and the fun MIDI stuff that happens during the MAIN sections. The INTRO and ENDING sections have more “orchestration” and consist of style appropriate introductory and ending phrases. For my own purposes, I will probably stick to the simple INTRO A and ENDING A sections as it’s generally hard to match up more complicated musical phrases with the main theme itself.

The “MIDI stuff” must have been fun to program. The EtherealHymn style has string and choir tracks. The string track has MIDI expression data (Control Change 11 or “CC11”) that repeatedly ramps up for two measures and down for two measures. The ramp pattern creates alternating string swells up and swells down. Other control change patterns are rather unusual and I’ll leave that for you to explore with a DAW! (All you need to do is to change the “.STY” or “.FPS” extension to “.MID” and import the renamed file into a DAW.)

One could create a basic FreePlay style from scratch. The MIDI notes in the MAIN and FILL IN sections are dirt simple. The fun part would be selecting instrument voices and effects with dynamic elements that give life to the accompaniment. Then there is the creative aspect of driving the voices and effects with MIDI controller data. For INTRO and ENDING sections, a little Bach or Mozart would do.

Hmmm, sounds like a fun wintertime project!