z Gear Stories episode 15

Gear Stories 15, the Hardest Instrument, and the Coolest Instrument



Hey there friends,


It’s time for Gear stories again!  And this time, it will be  kind of a special triple header, because the last two products go together like peanut butter and jelly!  (Or chocolate, if  you’re eating a Reeses!)


Of course, if you are getting this and you don’t want to, just let me know and I’ll stop sending them, but you might like the stories, so check it out first!


One quick, unrelated side note is that there is a video on YouTube that I did the recording for.  It was a lot of fun for me to make and if you like Peter Gabriel at all, you should check it out!  Make sure you watch the end, so you get the whole story.



Now, on to the stories!  This month, we celebrate Moog!


The Etherwave Theremin, by Moog, the hardest instrument to play, ever!


I play several instruments, and most of them are pretty standard…  Keyboards, guitar, bass, lot’s and lots of different had percussion, trombone, Didgeridoo…  but the hardest instrument I have ever played, is also in a lot of ways, the easiest!  I am talking about the Etherwave Theremin, by Moog!


The theremin was invented by Leon Theremin in 1928, so it is truly one of the few actually new instruments that were invented in the last 100 years… not like the electric guitar, which was an upgrade on the acoustic guitar which has been around for centuries… but it’s truly a unique instrument concept… a bit of history about it can bee seen on Wikepedia here…   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theremin


The most interesting thing is that it’s the only instrument you play without touching it, so if you’re a germophobe, this is the axe for you!


The concept is that the electro magnetic fields emanated from your body can regulate voltage picked up by antennas, so Leon made an oscillator with an antenna that controls the volume, and another one that controls the pitch.  So you stand in front of this freaky little box with an antenna out the top and another out the side and you wave your arms and make sounds like the soundtrack of a fifties B horror movie!


The thing that makes them so popular is that ANYBODY can make cool noises with them … he thing that makes them so hard is that almost NOBODY can actually play melodies on them… at least with any accuracy. I used to practice like crazy, but it was hit and miss with me.


If you still can’t imagine it, here’s a video called “Theremin killed the radio star”  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-3lU3bgOgE


One thing that they don’t tell you is that if you play theremin, it can be very difficult to play in bands in small, crowded clubs.  Case in point… I was playing with a band called “Einstein Savage” and among all the other instruments I played in the band, the was the theremin…  I was approaching my big, dramatic solo in a song called “Science Fiction World”   and the club was small, and packed to the gills, and the stage was barely a foot above the main floor.  There were waitresses milling through the crowd, trying to get drinks and plates of nachos to the throng any way they could.


As I reached up to launch into the highlight of the song, a waitress sneaking across the front of the crowd was pushed toward the stage by enthusiastic fans, and found herself with no place to go.  So she backed up to the stage as far as she could.  The back of her head pushed up onto the volume antenna of my theremin, and boom, there I was waving my arms like a mime, and making no sound whatsoever… not wanting to be rude, I didn’t push her head, like i wanted to.   As the song lumbered on, but she did not move… so I shouted “excuse me…” at her, but it was loud and the crowd was  unrelenting, and she just wouldn’t move until the song was done.  I moved over and tried to play the solo on the keyboard, but I had never done that before, and well… let’s just say that it was a bit anticlimactic.


Moog, is of course, an iconic innovator… really the inventor of the modern synthesizer as we know it.  And Bob Moog had a lifelong obsession with Theremins.  There are a few companies out there that make them, but Moogs are the best by far, in sound as well as the functionality, including MIDI!  So to celebrate just how cool Moog is, I am offering the Etherwave theremins at a 10% discount for the next month…


Here’s the link.   http://www.sweetwater.com/store/search.php?s=etherwave


The Moog Voyager, the Coolest instrument to play, ever!


Moog originally made the huge modular synthesizers made famous by Walter/Wendy Carlos in the ‘Switched On Bach’ series of albums that came out in the 60’s… These influenced generations of Synth player… and I know that when I was listening as a kid (over and over and over) it made both Classical music AND synthesizers cool for me… I think honestly, if it wasn’t for those records, I would have followed my other passion and tried to become an archeologist…  (I was a weird kid… this was BEFORE Indiana Jones)


So that means that the fact that you know me at all, you can credit to Bob Moog!


The big modular synths were too bulky and expensive to lug around unless you were Emmerson, Lake & Palmer, so eventually, Bob released his STILL POPULAR Mini Moog synth!  It was a monophonic keyboard that could fit on an average ironing board (Talking heads!) and was affordable enough that it seemed in the seventies EVERY keyboard player had one.


The beauty of these is that they sounded PHAT!  (with a capitol PH!)  The difficulty with them is that there were no presets or memory that you could save your patches… if you wanted to get a cool sound, you had to dial it up on the knobs on the front, so you really had to understand how synthesis worked those days.  Also, there was no MIDI, so recording a sequence of notes and then quantizing it to make the performance perfect was virtually impossible.


Fast forward thirty some years and here we are in the digital age!  We have accepted that electronic music is played by machines more than humans and that the sound of it is generally cold and somewhat thin… technology has been developed and refined to make out recording as clean as possible … sometimes clinically so, and now the pendulum is swinging, so we develop plug ins to introduce the “warmth” (and by warmth, I mean noise and distortion) of vinyl record albums… we introduce tube distortion emulation to pristinely recorded digital audio… there are all kinds of processors that mangle and trash up the sound… and samples of vintage gear, complete with noise somehow tries to bring back the glory days, when recordings sounded more like they were made by human beings!


It all seems kind of silly when you look at it that way.


Perhaps we could look to Moog for at least part of the answer.  There is a new generation of the Mini Moog.  It is called the Voyager. (Along with it’s little brother, the Little Phatty!)


All the benefits of modern technology, like programmable memory and presets… with the benefits of the past, too!  The finest of analog circuitry created incredibly PHAT analog sound… NOT full of dirt, grit and noise, like some noisy old refurbed gear… this stuff is NEW and modern, but WARM and wonderful sounding!   It even sounds PHATTER than the original Mini Moogs!  the arpeggiation particularly has incredible textural complexity available to you!


Don’t get me wrong… I have and LOVE my digital synths and virtual instruments, but as I’m building my tracks, I ALWAYS add some good old analog synth to give depth and warmth to the track…  It wouldn’t sound good to me without it!


So, when someone is used to the ease and convenience of virtual instruments, sequenced in Pro Tools, how does one integrate something as old school as an analog mono synth without completely altering  your work flow?




Volta is a new plug in from Mark Of The Unicorn that allows you to use the automation function in your DAW software like Digital Performer, Logic, Cubase, Sonar and such… to control your performance on your VOLTAGE CONTROLLED SYNTH.


Sure, the Voyager has MIDI, and you can use that to control it, however there are MANY other parameters on the voyager that can be controlled through a voltage control input in the back of the unit… (This was common since the beginning of analog synths, but disappeared when synths went digital.)


For instance, let’s say you’re playing a nice lead melody line, but in the mix, it kind of falls flat… but if you change the resonance as you’re playing, it makes it a lot more interesting… or the filter amount, or the cutoff frequency… or any of a number of knobs that can be turned on the front of the synth that have voltage control jacks in the back.  These are elements of your performance that were not available through MIDI, or any other sequencer really…


There have been times when I was laying down tracks using my old KORG Mono/Poly (circa 1979!) and I have had to call in friends and put their hands on certain knobs and tell them when to turn them…  This doesn’t do a lot for cementing friendships, but for crying out loud, I only have two hands!


Now, with VOLTA, even though my Mono/Poly came out before MIDI, I can record my performance on my computer and then send that performance out to my old synth, as well as automate perfectly what I want all those knobs to do!


I have seen this done with the Moog Voyager, and was absolutely blown away!  Not only does it control all the aspects of the performance that were never available to me before, but it also does it without the step gradations that limit MIDI.  So instead of the knobs jerking from one MIDI event number to the next, the transitions are as smooth as Analog silk!


VOLTA has just begun to ship from MOTU, and I am making a bundle deal!  Buy Volta along with any Moog Voyager OR little Phatty, and get 15% off the advertised price!





(You must remember that you must have an interface on your computer that has multiple balanced analog outs to route the control voltage though.  In fact, MOTU is only guaranteeing that it will work with a MOTU interface… here are the ones that will work for sure… http://www.sweetwater.com/store/search.php?s=motu+interface )


If you don’t record with a computer, and don’t want volta, I’ll still give you ten percent off of the Voyager or the little Phatty through the next GEAR STORIES episode!


Call me and we’ll get you sounding PHAT!