Musikmesse 2011

21 04 2011

Two weekends ago the MT-Base crew were all in Frankfurt for our annual festival of gear and Weiss Bier.  Now I can’t possibly review every bit of the Messe as it’s just too huge, but I’m going to mention here some things that caught my eye and some overall trends.

Generally this year seemed more about hardware, a number of large plug in manufacturers that usually have a stand were missing, namely Sonnox and Celemony and companies that do both like SSL and SPL seemed to have scaled down on the computers too.

And speaking of SPL, they seem as good a place as any to start talking about specific items.  I absolutly loved their passive mastering EQ Passeq. They had it set on a stand working MS next to the plug-in version that held up really well against it’s real life brother.  The Passeq was very clear and unaffected, the cuts never felt forced and the unwanted frequencies just slipped away. I don’t think I’m wording it very well, but you know how some EQs seem harsh, like they wrestle the sound into a new shape? Well, that’s not the case with the Passeq. It also looks very attractive and elegant in it’s 4U case.

Avid had a stand and were showing their Eleven Rack (Max Woodhams is much better placed to tell you about this than me),the  C|24 (we all know what that does) and the Venom synthesizer.  I went to the Venom first and I found it to be very awkward to use. The variable controllers and selectors on the left made enough sense, but the rest of it was a bit confusing to work out without a manual.  I see now that it has software to make customization easier (there was no computer with it at the Messe), but that, for me, defies the point.  It made a good enough sound, ranging from meaty analogue basses to jingly FM style pads. But nothing too interesting.  I think it’s trying to do too much with too few controls.

Now to a synth I really did love: The Elektrokosmos Kosmonaut. Boy, what a beauty!  The Kosmonaut was presented with a transparent sheet layed over the controls that provided labels and divided the rows of knobs into sections.  I played for a couple minutes slowly deciding what mods to feed into where and crafting my sound very carefully.  However, once the sheet was removed and I was presented with 60 perfectly identical dials in rows of 10 and, even though i had just seen it with the dials, I had no idea what did what.  This is like some amazing release of creative freedom! I immediately forgot about crafting my sound and pre-planning it to just manically twisting dials. The sounds I created were much more dynamic and interesting than my earlier attempts. The thing also looks great unlabelled and if you master it you will officially look like a genius! The Kosmonaut is pure analogue circuitry and it sounds great! No price has been announced yet, but you can expect thousands, and it’d be very very worth it.

And to round off the synthesis talk I’ll mention the Korg Monotribe. It’s a slightly up-scaled version of the Monotron, which was great for it’s tiny stylophone like shape and playability.  The Monotribe is slightly larger and has basically added a couple of features to the monotron, like a step sequencer and some drums sounds. With these features I believed that Korg were trying to push this device from the fun toy and sound maker (Monotron) to a more mature and usable instrument. However it still lacks MIDI in, a feature that should be easy to package in it’s small frame (look at the Nanozwerge for inspiration) and just seems not there to push Korgs higher end products.  So disappointing from Korg… I’d definitely buy the Nanozwerge if you want an analogue synth under £200.  It’s got all the features you’d expect, makes a big analogue sound, is very small and tough and is controllable via MIDI.

Non-synth stuff now; I didn’t see much in the way of new microphones this year, however they’re very hard to test in such a noisy environment. It was better when DJs were downstairs with pianos, but now, alas, they’ve been put in the same hall as the music tech gear. The same goes for monitors, however the new Neumann near-field monitors, the KH120, managed to cut through the Prosound hall noise with remarkable clarity. Neumann had set them up for 5.1 monitoring, but the sofa in the middle was chock-a-block, so I had to deal with ambient stereo.  However, the fact that they appeared crystal clear in the highs and tight in the lows in such an environment can only be considered a testament to them.  But then again, what else would we expect from Neumann?!

Some of my favorates were back again:

I love Toft Audio desks, they’re attractive and different with perfect fader weight and usability. They are also very compact, no wasted space on them at all.  The 24 and 32 channel models really are the type of desk I’d love in my studio. Quality and feature heavy, but small enough to fit in!

I always enjoy listening to the Unitiy Audio’s The Rock monitors., we heard them first as a prototype 3 years ago. Since then they’ve had a slight facelift and been released at the £1800 mark for two. Very good top-end nearfields.  They have ribbon tweeters and an enclosed design.

Elysia are still pushing their mental compressors with negative ratios. They’re so much fun! I’m not quite sure when I’d want that feature during the recording process though. It’s possible to almost remove the close-mics from a stereo drum stem, which is a fascinating trick and maybe one that you might want to use as an effect.  Every year Elysia are growing the plug-in side of their company.  The M-pressor plug-ins give the same negative ratio trick as the hardware models, but somehow it’s just less fun.

Lastly, I’ll mention the Reaktable, that has always drawn a large crowd to it’s corner of the hall. The table itself hasn’t changed, and as amazing as it it, it’s still not useful in a studio and it’s just priced far to high for most places they say it’ll be good for (schools, colleges, audio therapy units, etc).  However the iPad/iPhone app is great.  As it can import any wav and save the table so that you can recall patches you’ve made.  I would love to see them produce a standard plug-in version for computers and DAWs. I think they might be surprised what it can do as a serious instrument if they did that.

Anyway, I’m typed out.  There’s things I’ve not mentioned, hundreds of compressors I used and thought “yup, very nice…” to.  I hope I’ve given you a taster of what was about in this years Musikmesse.

By Graeme Rawson

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Losing our innocence

22 03 2011

Electronic music is a mere pup when lined up against other forms of western popular music.

For decades it seemed electronic music just wasn’t considered kosher by the general public, often being likened to the sound of a vacuum clearer set to blow.  To many people it still brings on this knee jerk reaction.  Soundtracks for films such as Blade Runner, Forbidden Planet, The Day The Earth Stood Still, and A Clockwork Orange would often slip past them unnoticed however.

Back in the 70s acts like Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schultz, Vangelis, and Tomita were trailblazing the great movement of progressive electronic albums becoming a standard addition to Mr. and Mr. Joe Taxpayer’s front room stereo cabinet.  This movement perhaps represented the greatest period for electronic music as an art form which millions of people accepted and invested in, providing that all important inspiration for those young innocent ears who would become the new age, synth pop performers and producers of the 1980s.  You ask anyone between the ages of 30 and 40 who currently makes electronic music where they got their inspiration, they will respond with something along the lines of, “I used to listen to Man Machine on my dad’s stereo with my headphones on every night.  I knew from the first time I heard it I wanted to make music which sounded like that”.

Electronic music from the mid 80s onwards fragmented beyond the New Romanticism of Ultravox and the Synth Pop of Depeche Mode, into the veritable smorgasbord of derivative genres that became the world of dance music.  The so called death of dance music in the 90s following the cosure of so many clubs, super clubs and even the removal of the best dance act award from the Brit Awards, showed that over commercialization and dumbing down had taken its toll.  The spontaneity and unrestrained nature of electronic music had been lost in the mainstream, replaced by the 4-to-the-floor mindless pumping of a drum machine and Esoniq synths.  A few acts and labels continued to fly the flag such as Orbital, Warp Records and Wall of Sound, however sales of Orbital’s InSides or Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children failed to shift in sufficient numbers to make their respective artists  household names.

Back in those heady days when Krafterk were being robots and Jean Michel Jarre was flicking his dark Gallic hair, electronic music was approached with the ears of a child.  No preconceptions, no cultural baggage, no conventions on instrumentation or arrangement.  The sound made during this period had an inventive and original approach to the creation of electronic music which, oddly enough perhaps, resulted in albums the public were more than happy to accept, buy and enjoy.  Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra and Vangelis’ China enjoyed commercial success, not only because they presented electronic music in contemporary pop or rock song context, but because they offered something different and exciting.  People often forget that in the 1970s the future was still bright and offered a route out of post war austerity and economic stagnation.  Today we worry more about just how we are going to survive in the future, let alone when we’ll be flying around in glass cars or having robot servants.  This optimism encapsulated by this new form of music has now all but gone.  Our innocence has been lost.

The never ending derivatives from what started out in the late 60s with a few teenagers messing with synthesizers has almost returned with electronic music seemingly returning to an underground form of music.  Synthetic sound has obviously permeated RnB and pop a huge degree and I am not in dispute with this, but stylistically and musically they cannot be classed as forms of electronic music.  They are RnB and pop which use electronic sounds.  Artists like Apparat, Ulrich Schnauss and SBTRKT would have seen far greater commercial success had they been releasing records in the 70s.  The great democratization of music creation with a single laptop with a smattering of cheap or free software tools being all you need has led to so much more electronic music being made by more people, but any significant commercial success in the medium has long since faded.

By Nino Auricchio