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

New Yamaha patents

Raining like crazy today, so it’s a good chance to look for new patents and patent applications.

First, here are a few new technical patents assigned to Yamaha. US Patent 9,536,508 titled “Accompaniment data generating apparatus,” awarded on January 3, 2017, describes accompaniment generation using a combination of MIDI and audio waveforms. The accompaniment generator follows chord changes, etc. just like today’s arrangers except that it also plays back melodic (pitched) audio phrases as well as MIDI. This is very likely the nexus of the next generation of Yamaha arrangers (flagship “GENOS“).

US Patent 9,514,728 titled “Musical performance apparatus that emits musical performance tones and control tones for controlling an apparatus,” awarded December 6, 2016, describes a system for near ultrasonic communication between a tablet and a keyboard. Software on the tablet controls tone generation on the keyboard, allowing an app to play back a musical performance (e.g., MIDI over near ultra sonic sound). I suspect that some future Yamaha patent will use this technology for wireless tablet to keyboard communication in place of Bluetooth or WiFi.

The third patent, number 9,489,938 is titled “Sound synthesis method and sound synthesis apparatus” and was awarded on November 8, 2016. The patent abstract says it best:

A sound synthesis apparatus connected to a display device, includes a processor configured to: display a lyric on a screen of the display device; input a pitch based on an operation of a user, after the lyric has been displayed on the screen; and output a piece of waveform data representing a singing sound of the displayed lyric based on the inputted pitch.

Yamaha have a stellar technology base in VOCALOID. I believe they are working toward a real-time system to sing lyrics. This would be a real breakthrough especially for pitch-challenged vocalists like me!

Finally, Yamaha was awarded several design patents covering the external industrial design of synth and arranger keyboards:

    D772,974   PSR-S670   November 29, 2016
    D776,189   Montage    January 10, 2017
    D778,347   YPT-255    February 7, 2017
    D778,346   Reface YC  February 7, 2017
    D778,345   Reface CP  February 7, 2017
    D778,344   Reface DX  February 7, 2017
    D778,343   Reface CS  February 7, 2017
    D778,342   ????       February 7, 2017

The final design patent, D778,342, is perplexing. I haven’t been able to associate it with a product in the North American market. A future product perhaps? It shows a 26-key keyboard with a four way, cursor-like pad. The keyboard design is E-to-F! I/O is on the left side panel.

Reface CP: Yes, I played one!

Finally got a chance to try a Yamaha Reface CP and a Reface DX. Given the genres of music that I play, I’m the most interested in the Reface CP and YC models. The CP and DX were on the floor at Guitar Center, so I decided to try the DX, too. I’ll catch the YC another day when it’s in stock.

As we all know, Guitar Center on Saturday afternoon is not the ideal environment for a trial. I demo’d through headphones mainly to cut out the din from the rug-rats randomly pounding on keyboards and the sonic self-stimulation from the guitar department.

Even under these degraded conditions, the CP sounds excellent. The sound is the stuff, if you know what I mean. (This is a family web site.) Quick impressions of the main sounds:

  • Rhodes I: Nice, mellow, laid back, smooth.
  • Rhodes II: Bright, snarky, barks like a dog (in the good way).
  • Wurli: Solid performer, not too polite, more Ray than Supertramp.
  • Clav: Solid performer, good body.
  • CP: Bright knife, brings make the old days without the back ache.

The effects are excellent. Dial in the drive and/or the appropriate effect and you’re good to cover:

  • Smooth Operator
  • Do It Again
  • What’d I Say
  • Higher Ground

and a whole lot more! Max out the drive and it doesn’t get that annoying digital fizziness. The wah needs to be tuned into the appropriate frequency range, but that’s SOP. The wah can be made so bright that it cuts glass and pokes holes in the eardrums. (Not a recommended practice.)

One part of Yamaha’s marketing pitch truly rings right. The CP is a “live panel” instrument. Be ready to dial everything in with no presets. Very old school and a nice change from menu diving. This kind of interactivity bodes well for the YC organ, when I finally find one.

Mini keys. Sigh. If you’re a player, then expect to MIDI the CP to a real keyboard. That said, Yamaha are right to be proud of these mini-keys. They are very responsive. I didn’t have too much trouble laying down block chords or noodling a solo line. However, three octaves is at least one octave too short for stretching out or laying down full right hand jazz chords while holding down any kind of bass. My chief adjustment problem with the mini-keys is playing left hand stride or arpeggios. You probably saw this coming, too.

Build quality is reasonably good for a small, light-weight instrument. The knobs have a solid feel. I’m somewhat less enamored of the volume slider and octave switch. They feel a little bit cheap. The toggle switches are retro in a Home Depot kind of way. Yamaha had better mind their Chinese suppliers because this board could easily degrade to trash if someone sneaks cut-rate components into it.

The built-in speakers are just OK. You’re probably going to connect the CP to a decent amp and speakers anyway.

Bottom line, the CP sound is nicely crafted. I hope to hear these sounds with this kind of interactivity in a new full-size ax soon.

I had to give the DX a try especially since I had a DX-21 back in the day. Turn on the DX and soon you’re back in 4 OP FM yesteryear. Folks in electronic genres (EDM, etc.) dig FM, but for the kind of music that I play today, I’m not ready to return to FM. If you are into FM, then you really should give the DX a try. It, too, is the real stuff.

Extra credit

It is a long drive to GC, so I tried a few other instruments, too.

I had a discussion with one of the salepeople about the CP, mentioning electric piano, jazz chords, etc. This guy was so desperate to make a sale that he insisted on trying the Roland JD-Xi. Only a Carpathian would recommend a JD-Xi to a retro-jazzer. Well, it turns out, the guys was a Carpathian — a guitar player trying to make sales in the keyboard department. Cheesh.

I did try the JD-Xi. Definitely not my cup of tea. Plus, the Yamaha HQ mini-keys really are much better than the JD-Xi.

The keyboard department had a used Tyros for sale. Yes, the original Mark I. I tried it just for grins and to see how much Tyros and mid-range PSRs have progressed over the years. Needless to say, the PSR-S950 — and definitely the newer S970/S770 — are light-years beyond the Tyros Mark I.

Finally, I gave the DigiTech Trio a try. The Trio is a stomp box accompanist. You put it in learn mode, play a rhythm pattern on guitar, and the Trio identifies the tempo and key. Then, in play mode, the Trio adds a bass and drum backing track selected from one of several genres. The Trio is based on musIQ® technology licensed from 3dB Research Ltd. Some of the backing tracks are provided by PG Music, developers of Band-In-A-Box (BIAB). (There’s quite a music technology mafia in Victoria, BC.) Harman, who own DigiTech, liked MusIQ so much that they bought 3dB Research, too.

I couldn’t teach the Trio a thing. I am a lousy guitarist, I was hungry and I definitely was tired of the sonic assault in the guitar department. The backing tracks that I heard were OK although I think BIAB itself sounds better. If you intend to try one in a store, be sure to read the manual ahead of time…

Yamaha Reface (No, I haven’t played it)

It’s Internet de rigueur to comment on the new Yamaha Reface keyboards — whether you’ve played them or not! So, here goes…

I’m in fat city with an original AN-200 (Prophet-5 plus beat machine in a box), a P-50m (pianos in a box), a CS-01 (monophonic analog synthesizer) and a Nord Electro 2. Although a few of these pieces are gathering dust, they pretty much cover the sonic territory of Reface. DX-wise, I had more than enough FM in the 80’s, thank you, and could always get my old CE-20 repaired, if the urge to frequency modulate should ever overcome me again. Overall, I’m unlikely to take the plunge and buy a Reface keyboard just out of necessity.

First off, I genuinely wish Yamaha all the success in the world with these products. This is the first time that Yamaha have strayed from the AWM2 mainstream in some years. I would hate to see this innovative product line tank and make Yamaha risk-averse. The Reface product line started out as an after-hours skunk works engineering project. The fact that Yamaha committed to manufacturing and marketing Reface is significant and shows real effort to shift their corporate culture. Further, if Reface makes scads of money for Yamaha, then its profits will lift other boats within Yamaha.

Sonically, Reface sounds pretty darned good. The CP and YC are my favorites because they fit with the musical genres that I work in. I hope that some of this technology will migrate into future synthesizer and arranger workstation products. Spectral Component Modeling (which includes Virtual Circuit Modeling) grew from VL technology. The VCM effects in the MOX/Motif are quite good, so please give me more of that! I am pleased to see Yamaha work on organ emulation and would like to see the drawbar control, vibrato/chorus and rotary speaker effects in a new workstation. Both the Motif/MOX and higher-end arrangers are missing the Hammond “vibrato scanner” effect — a significant omission.

So, why am I not buying? Apparently, “mini” keyboard sales are making money for Novation and others, and Yamaha wants a piece of this market. The decision to use mini-keys strongly bifurcates the marketplace — you either like (accept, tolerate) mini-keys or you don’t. I’m a “don’t.” I have tried mini-keys in the past and, well, no thanks. This is not an “anti-Yamaha” position — I lost all interest in the Korg Odyssey, for example, when I learned that it had mini-keys.

The Reface is touted as a portable, take-it-anywhere keyboard. If you’ve been reading this blog, then you know that I’ve put together a portable rig based on the Korg Triton Taktile (TT.) The TT has 49 full-size keys and is not much bigger or heavier than a Reface. The TT key bed is excellent and four octaves is enough room to roam. Although the TT is missing the up-to-date tone generation and effects technology in Reface, it’s a very playable alternative to Reface.

Finally, there is the issue of the $500 street price. I suspect that Yamaha is looking to make a few extra bucks from the early adopters. Korg may have pursued the same strategy with the TT. They brought the TT out at a higher street price and then eventually reduced the price to the current $350 USD. The TT comes with a superb bundle of software plug-ins and offers, making it a terrific bargain. Unfortunately, for Yamaha, this is the competition facing Reface (pun intended) and a $500 street price looks mighty steep for an ax with mini-keys and no free software incentives.

Internet reaction from Reface detractors has been vehement — far over the top, in my opinion. It seems like some people have taken Reface as a personal affront! Please, settle down. Yamaha is a big company and they will surely roll out new products for the rest of us. The Motif refresh is overdue, for example, and must be in the works. It’s good to see Yamaha releasing new products that are out of its mainstream offerings. All the best!