Six Pack Interview with Erik Norlander on the Uno Synth Pro

Erik Uno crop
I was fortunate to snag an interview with synth designer, prog-rock keyboard wizard and IK Multimedia Product Manager / Sound Designer Erik Norlander about his work on the new UNO Pro synthesizer. Erik is an accomplished keyboardist, composer and producer with over 40 album credits. He has toured for many years with his own band as well as with Asia featuring John Payne. He has been involved in synth design since the early 1990s and has worked extensively with the Bob Moog Foundation.

Q. I thought the original UNO synth was fantastic. Great sound, cool design, nice presets and features that make for a great first synth, which is why I picked it up. The new UNO Pro is quite a substantial upgrade. What was it you were looking to do with the new model that went beyond the original? 

I’m so happy to hear that you enjoyed the original UNO Synth. Our goal with the original product was to bring analog to the masses, an analog synth that anyone could afford and could easily understand. We gave it a simple, intuitive interface so you could take it out of the box and start playing right away without needing to read a manual or even a quick start guide. Plug it in, turn the knobs and hear what happens!

The UNO Synth Pro is exactly what the name connotes: a pro synth with pro features and pro sound quality. We kept the same basic interface with the 4 sound programming knobs and selectable rows for each section like oscillators, filters and envelopes. But we also have a deep editing system that you access through the display and push encoder where you can get to many more parameters than appear in the more simple sound programming matrix. So the interface remains simple if you want to work on that level, but it also allows more serious and experienced synthesists to dive into the depths of the instrument’s architecture for advanced voicing work.

Uno pro desktop desk crop 2
Uno Pro Desktop

The UNO Synth Pro also has a more sophisticated signal path. There are now 3 oscillators, and we include hard sync, analog FM and ring modulation. Those modulation capabilities had to be omitted from the original UNO due to cost issues and also to avoid complicating the interface. The UNO Synth Pro also has a dual filter configuration similar to what we did on the Alesis Andromeda 20 years ago. The UNO Synth Pro’s dual filters can be placed in series or parallel and in or out of phase. Between the routing options and the different modes of the two filters, there are 24 possible filter modes available when they are combined. This lets you emulate the filter sound of nearly any mass-produced analog synthesizer, from the 4-pole transistor ladder low pass filter of Bob Moog’s great synths to more radical filter modes like those of the Oberheim Matrix-12 or Elka Synthex or, of course, the Alesis Andromeda.

We also added a modulation matrix for modular-style synthesis where nearly any source can be routed to nearly any destination. I say “nearly” just to avoid hyperbole, but honestly, I can’t think of a practical routing that you are unable to do in the UNO Synth Pro. Our architecture allows for extreme modular-style flexibility. And speaking of modular synthesis, we include 2 pairs of Gate and CV I/O so that you can interface the UNO Synth Pro to Eurorack, 5U or even non-modular gear with similar connections. Plus an input to the filter and effect sections for processing external signals gives you the ability to use parts of the UNO Synth Pro to filter, shape and effect other instruments, even things like guitars and vocals. Add to that balanced audio outputs for noiseless operation and 5-pin MIDI DIN connectors, and the result is … well … pro! That’s the difference between the original UNO Synth — the simple analog synth for everyone — and the UNO Synth Pro, a professional instrument that will meet the expectations of the most fussy synthesists … like me!

Q. Since everyone in the world was quarantined and locked down for much of the last year, how did that impact working with the team in Modena, with SoundMachines, Fatar, SSI etc? Were you on Zoom calls at 6am?

I live in Northern California, so I’m 9 hours behind the Modena, Italy office and 3 hours behind the IK US office in Florida. When I started working with IK, I chose to put myself on an early schedule where I start quite early in the morning to maximize the available real-time interaction with the team in Italy. I’m really not a morning person at all, and after 20-some years of being a touring rock ’n' roll musician where you often don’t get to bed until 3 or 4 AM, it was a bit of hard transition. But I don’t regret it at all, and I’m happy to have been able to make that shift. Of course, that also means I often find myself falling asleep at 9 in the evening now … ha! My wife gives me a hard time for that.

Before Covid, I would go to Italy usually once a year, sometimes more. I think in 2019 I actually went 3 times as I spent some time there around the Superbooth convention in Berlin. Modena and Berlin are not exactly close to each other, but once you come all the way from San Francisco, it make sense to visit the main campus when it’s only a few hours away by plane.

As far as Skype and Zoom and all that, we’re all major users of video communication just because of the distances between us. While email and text messaging is great, it’s not the same being able to look at your colleagues and have a more personal interaction with them, even joke around a bit and all that. And that of course benefits the products in the end when the whole team is better in sync and pushing in the same direction.

Q. Since you’ve had a 20+ year recording career, touring with your own band as well as Asia, did you ever have to play the “rock star card” with the engineers and say “guys, I know you think that’s a cool idea, but as a musician….” and change up what they were doing?

Erik asia band
Erik with Asia

Actually it's been more than 30 years a recording and touring musician... but thanks for being generous about my age. :-)

As far as using my experience as a musician to make a point and convince others, it doesn’t really work like that at IK. It's a fairly flat organizational without a lot of hierarchy. For the most part, everyone has an equal voice, and usually the team can come to an agreement without requiring a mandate to be laid down. Although when that does happen — and sometimes it does happen — then we have a CTO and of course the owner of the company who is a great designer and a super smart guy. Experience is recognized, and appreciated. That’s just human nature. And it’s not just about age or life experience. Often I learn so much from a code writer who is 20 or 25 years younger than me, and I will defer to their knowledge and recommendation without hesitation when they're the expert. They don’t need to have spent time on a stage in front on 20,000 people to have the right answer.

Q. I love that you’ve made the step sequencer longer (64 steps) and there’s Song mode. Can you tell us how that came about and how it works? Also, the effects (vibrato, wah, tremolo, delay) were limited in the original Uno. What changes have you made in this area?

Erik uno
The OG Uno Synth

It’s all in the spirit of making a “pro” instrument. Having 16 steps in the original UNO sequencer lets you keep track of what’s going on without too much worry, and it’s an easy way to make one or two bar looping phrases without any fuss. But if you want to do more serious and in-depth sequencing, you’ll find that you usually need more than just 16 steps. So we quadrupled the size of the sequencer and also the number of parameters that you can automate per step. Now you can sequence over 80 parameters per step, so you can truly morph the preset from one sound to another on the step level. Since we are talking analog synthesis here, there is no zippering or clicking or anything you might get with a digital synth when quickly changing values. It’s smooth, baby, smooth!

As far as the performance effects like vibrato, was and tremolo, the original UNO had simple buttons for these, not unlike the modulation button in synths like the Roland Juno-60 and SH-101 or auto-bend on the Yamaha CS80 and its earlier ancestors like the SY1 and SY2. We provided these articulation buttons for simplicity and immediacy of use. Now on the UNO Synth Pro, we have traditional mod and pitch bend wheels on the keyboard version, and mod and pitch bend strips on the desktop version. So you can create your performance articulations with the wheels instead of simple buttons, and of course using the modulation matrix, you can customize what the wheels do per preset. We give you deeper access to customize the controllers.

The UNO Synth Pro has 4 effect slots. The first is an analog overdrive circuit, and then there are 3 digital effects slots for Modulation, Delay and Reverb. The digital effects are taken from the latest IK software products. The reverbs were first developed for AmpliTube 5 and MixBox, and they sound fantastic with really nice density and a great tone overall. In the Modulation slot, one of the models if the Ensemble effect that we developed for Syntronik that models the great chorus-phaser of the ARP String Ensemble and the rich chorus from the Roland Juno-60 and string machines like the RS-505. That’s a standout effect for me. A cool usage of the UNO Synth Pro — especially the desktop version — is to use the external audio input to process any kind of signal with the UNO Synth Pro as a high-end effects processor. The external signal can go through the filters, so you can pre-filter your effects with both high and low pass filtering, then go into the effects section and use the 3 digital blocks like the best multi-effects boxes. For me, the Ensemble effect alone is worth the price of admission!

Q. I love that the original UNO had 100 presets. 256 presets in the Uno Pro almost seems like it could be too much. How do you keep that organized? What additional sounds were you looking to capture? Are there certain sounds you think are a “must have” I’m thinking of classic '70s Moog sounds or those famous FM synth sounds from the '80s.

When you create a bank of presets, there are few ways to organize them. You can put similar sounds in groups of 10, like presets 1-10 are leads, 11-20 are basses, 21-30 are pads, that sort of thing. Many manufacturers also organize them where similar sounds are grouped by the last number so that you have more variety when scrolling through a bank. Meaning that presets 1, 11, 21, 31, etc. are leads, 2, 12, 22, 32 are basses, 3, 13, 23, 33 are pads, like that.

Erik Keith Emerson crop
Erik & Keith Emerson

As far as designing a bank of presets for a factory set, you really want to create a cross-section of musical styles so that there is something for everyone. Some users might be fans of Keith Emerson Moog sounds and want big, detuned leads and basses. Other users might be into EDM and not even know or care about Keith Emerson and prog rock. They want edgy, distorted and ultra-modern sounds. Or the hip hop user that wants something in between but still faithful to that genre. So you really try to include something for everybody.

The music that I personally like really has no influence on my voicing work or programming approach. I actively listen to all sorts of music when voicing a synth to make sure I’m in tune with what’s current and that I’m not missing anything. Then I combine that with the classics, things like the detuned sawtooth wave lead, the Minimoog-style ballad bass, the whistle-y portamento triangle-sine wave lead, the resonant acid bass and so on.

Q. The new UNO Pro has three oscillators and dual filters including the new SSI filter. How did that come about? Also with 24 filter modes, I’m wondering if that isn’t going to be a bit overwhelming, almost like a modular synth. How do you keep it easy while still giving hardcore synth players flexibility?

We wanted to create a professional synth that a super fussy and demanding professional can use without compromise. That means drawing from the best classic synths and make sure we have equivalent sound-generating capabilities. In my opinion, the Minimoog is the greatest synth of all time. The Memorymoog is pretty freaking cool as well. So is the EMS VCS3. All of those synths have 3 oscillators (3 per voice in the Memorymoog). So it was important, especially in a monophonic synth, to have those 3 oscillators available. And of course, you don’t have to use them all all the time. If you want to make a more simple SH-101-style lead, just turn off Oscillator 2 and 3. Or use Oscillator 2 an octave down as a square wave suboscillator.

Three oscillators also lets you have an actually useful paraphonic synth. You could do paraphony going back to the ARP Odyssey, of course. But with just 2 oscillators, that means that you only play 2-part chords. That’s pretty limited, in my view. With 3 oscillators, you can do full 3-note chords. That becomes super practical when you use the digital ensemble chorus effect — then you basically have a classic string machine like the Solina or Logan. I own an absurd number of classic stringers. And I can honestly say, how often do you really play more than 3 notes at a time on them? Not often. Usually you are playing monophonic lines, sometimes in octaves. Or if you are doing string pads, 3 notes is really enough for that kind of super dense, modulated sound. Even if you’re playing something like a major 7 chord or 11 chord, you probably will want to leave out the 3rd in your voicing as it often just sounds too “closed” with all of that close harmony interaction.

About the filters, you bring up a great point. With 24 filter modes, holy cow, how are you going to navigate those? Option anxiety x 100! Luckily it doesn’t really happen like that way in real life. That’s what the presets are for, of course. If you’re not sure of the exact sound you want, you can find a preset that you like, and then edit from there. Or if you are more of an expert synthesist, you probably know what kind of filter you want. For example, if you know you want a 4-pole bandpass filter, you just dial that in straight away. There are also some filter modes on the UNO Synth Pro that are not usually found on analog synths. For example, if you run both filters in phase and in series and set them both to low pass, you can have a 6-pole low pass filter. That creates some pretty extreme bass and some super dramatic filter sweep sounds.

Q. I’m mostly a guitar player and sometimes it feels like no one is interested in any design that occurred after 1959. In the synth world, there seems to be be an equal obsession with vintage synths. So I’m encouraged when I see new designs that break free from the past. You’ve obviously seen this evolution up close, designing some pretty important synths in your career. How do you balance homage to the past with new sounds and new tools?

It's a good question question, and it’s super relevant to the UNO Synth and UNO Synth Pro design philosophy. We want to innovate, naturally. We’re not making clones or low-cost reproductions of vintage instruments here; We want to say something new. But at the same time, you must respect the past and learn from the wisdom of the great designers that did this 30, 40, 50 years ago. Chances are, those guys have already solved the problem you are facing at the moment. You just have to know where to look. I have probably a hundred synths here at my studio, so whenever there is a design issue, I go back to the well. I look at the various classic synths and see what they did, how they solved the problem. The answers are there for the finding.

IMG_2959
Erik & Bob Moog

I was fortunate enough to have known Bob Moog, for example, and I still actively work with his daughter, Michelle, and the excellent Bob Moog Foundation. When we were designing the Alesis Andromeda at the end of the 90s, I actually tried to get Bob to be the electrical engineer for it, the hardware designer of the actual circuits for the synth. We had an amazing NAMM meeting that I remember vividly, followed by lots of drinks at the bar later that night. Bob was already working on the Voyager then, so he couldn’t take on the gig. But he remained as a mentor during the project, and he would often send me faxes (faxes … !) checking on certain aspects and giving advice constantly. I would take the fax (fax!) to the team and hold it up like Moses holding the 10 Commandments and say, “Bob Moog says THIS!” And of course everyone would listen with laser beam focus as this was coming from the one of the most legendary — okay, THE most legendary — synth designers of all time.

With the UNO Synth Pro, we also got to know the legendary Dave Rossum a bit since we are using chips from his SSI company. I actually did a cool video interview with Dave and his partner, Dan Parks, that you can find on YouTube. This is the guy that democratized sampling with the Emulator and also created the ultra-classic SP12 and SP1200 drum machines. And of course all the great Emu products that came after, and now his super cool Rossum Electro Music line of Eurorack modules. And of course, you would not have had the original Prophet-5 if it were not for Dave and the SSM chips that made it possible to build a polysynth with presets and reasonably sophisticated modulation back in the 70s. There is so much to be learned from these guys!

Erik, thanks for such detailed answers. I know people are looking forward to this new synth. I can't wait to get my hands on it for a full review; some of the samples I've heard are mind-blowing. What do you think of the UNO Synth Pro? What else is on your wish list? Let me know in the comments below.


In Praise of Low-Cost Synths

Low cost synths uno volca pocket
Sometimes I try to put a moratorium on buying new gear. It lasts for maybe 12 months and then something pops up and I'm like a weight-watcher walking into a pie shop. Lately, I've become intrigued by low-cost portable synthesizers. It all began with a Christmas gift of a Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator. This was like receiving a puppy; it's a gateway into more gear. If you're debating the merits of a Prophet 5 versus Oberheim for integrating with Eurorack, this blog post is not for you. But if you're synth-curious, read on to learn about your options.

The ideal first synth would be battery powered, include a speaker, have a built-in keyboard, full MIDI support, a modern sequencer, arpeggiator, polyphonic ability, a fat multi-oscillator sound, built-in presets, knobs and sliders, learnable in ten minutes and cost under $100. While nothing meets all those criteria perfect, some get surprisingly close. None of these are going to compete with intermediate-level synths in terms of features or build quality, but they're all great for learning, experimenting and creating happy musical accidents. Let's take a look, starting with our cheapest option and working up.

Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator

Screen Shot 2021-02-26 at 10.41.49 PMSwedish design firm Teenage Engineering launched their Pocket Operator line of barebones mini-synths back in 2015. These are calculator-sized AAA battery-powered devices ranging in price from $49-89. It's basically a printed circuit board that generates retro synth sounds with a tiny on-board speaker and a range of built-in effects (filters, distortion, stutter, delay, etc.) which vary depending on the model. There are now 10 different models (drums, bass, lead, noise, robot, sampler, arcade sounds, etc.), all with the same form factor, 16-step sequencer and a couple of control knobs. You can chain sequences together to create songs, but for most users, it's more like a fun lo-fi toy than a super expressive instrument.

You can buy a case to make it a bit more rugged and you can combine several together or with Volcas to get some interesting, if quirky, sounds. But keep in mind, they are definitely addictive. if you buy several, you may be better off putting the $$$ towards a Volca or Uno synth. 

Korg Volca Series

Volca keysI recently picked up a used Korg Volca Keys analog synth on Reverb. While it's not the most refined synth around, it is definitely a ton of fun. First introduced in 2014 (along with the Volca Bass and Volca Beats drum machine) there are now 8 models including Volca FM, Volca Sample and even the Volca Modular for that crazy west-coast science fiction sound with tiny patch cables. All the Volcas have the same compact form factor and range in price from $150-200. They are all battery powered (or optional 9V DC adapter) and they all have a simple ribbon keyboard, a primitive sequencer and plenty of knobs and dials. You can use an external MIDI keyboard (cable not included) or headphones and you can sync multiple Volcas together.

I rate the Volcas high on the fun factor, and the sounds they produce are interesting, fat and squelchy (in a positive way). That said, they are showing their age. There are no presets, so finding your way back to a sound you like is problematic or part of the fun, depending on how you think about it. There's no built-in arpeggiator. The Volca Keys is paraphonic (you can hold three notes) while the Bass is monophonic (you can only play single note at a time). 

There's a lot to like in the Volcas. They're great ways to learn the ins and outs of analog synths. And they're cheap enough that if you buy one and outgrow it, it's not a major cost. (Hello, Reverb!) You can find them used for $110-150 depending on the model. 

IK Multimedia Uno Synth

Uno synth
The Uno Synth was my first synth and I can recommend this for anyone who wants to get started in this field. List price is $200 and you can find them used for $150 or less on Reverb or eBay. The Uno is a modern take on a budget analog synth, and perfectly targets the synth newbie. It's battery powered, has a rich, buzzy John Carpenter / Stranger things sound, a hundred presets, built-in flat but effective capacitive keyboard, very good arpeggiator (up, down, reverse, multiple octaves), and an excellent modern sequencer that lets you record in real-time or in step mode, recording effects also. Some of the effects (delay, drive, tremolo, wah) are a bit underwhelming as there's no mod or pitch wheel, but they can still be used to add some expressiveness. The only thing it's missing is a built-in speaker, which will probably be appreciated by your spouse or roommates anyways. There's also an Uno Drum machine with a similar user interface and sequencer and the two can be connected together, much like Volcas. 

At NAMM 2021, IK Multimedia announced new Uno Pro and Uno Pro desktop synths that add more power, more filters, more presets, more sounds, better effects as well as pitch and mod controls. At $400 the Uno Pro Desktop is more of an intermediate level device and there's a higher-end version with a full Fatar keybed for $649. So if you like the original Uno, there's plenty of room to grow within the product line. (I'll be posting an exclusive interview with synth designer and IK Multimedia product manager Erik Norlander about the Uno Pro later this month.)

Moog Werkstatt-01

Screen Shot 2021-02-26 at 8.27.59 PMThis next one is definitely not for everyone. In 2014, at the annual MoogFest conference, Moog had a hands-on build a synth session. Later because of demand, they issued a commercial kit in limited quantity. And then in late 2020 a new version of the Werkstatt-01 kit with a CV expansion bay was released, again in limited supply. It's by no means the perfect synthesizer, but it's the best DIY synth kit you can find and good as a learning tool. You can build it in under 20 minutes with just a Philips screwdriver. You get a beefy monophonic single oscillator dual filter Moog sound with a fairly easy set of controls, and tiny 13 button keypad in a solid metal case. That said, there are no bells & whistles: no presets, no sequencer, no arpeggiator and no MIDI support. But still, it's a Moog for $200!

 Since it's a modular synth, you've got a patch bay and patch cords that can further customize the sound in all kinds of weird science fiction ways. You can also connect it to an external keyboard like the Arturia Keystep via CV patch chord. I wish it had a built-in speaker and battery power, which would make it more fun to have on your desk. Still, if the idea of building a kit is intriguing, go for it! 

Behringer MS-1

Behringer ms-1 keytarBehringer is sometimes (ok often) criticized for issuing clones of vintage synths. I have no problem with this as a business model as these older units are out of production, expensive and no longer covered by patents. That said, I think there's a lot of improvements that we've seen with more modern instruments which are mostly missing from the Behringer clones. For example, you don't always get presets, or a modern step sequencer.

Behringer has issued a lot of synths, but the one I think is most interesting for a newcomer is the MS-1 which is basically a clone of the the Roland SH-101.  It's an analog monosynth with a growly sound made famous in the 80s and '90s. It's not battery-powered, but it does have a decent keyboard and a vintage sequencer and arpeggiator. If you're a fan of the original but don't have two grand to splurge, a recent price cut from Behringer brings it's clone in at $300, which is the synth bargain of the century. And like the original, it comes with a hand-grip and guitar strap, so you can rock it like an 80's keytar, mullet and scarf optional. 

Modern Sounds Pluto 

Pluto synthThis last one is more of an intermediate level synth than budget, but in the world of modular west-coast synths (e.g. with patch cables) it's pretty unique. Technically, the Pluto synth is still in pre-production but they have done a couple of early runs and have been selling out at $450. So it's not really for beginners, but it's unique and worth considering as a second or third synth. Interest in this synth could also indicate you are likely to buy three or more synths in as many years.

The Pluto is modular, so not much happens until you plug in some patch cables, but compared to most of the modular synths I've seen it's way more musical. If the idea of creating semi-automated Brian Eno style sounds is interesting, this may be the synth you've dreamed of. It's small, cute, and has a re-chargeable battery. No presets, no speaker, only a four button keypad, but wow, that sound

What are your thoughts on the Pluto or any of the synthesizers mentioned here? Add a comment to let me know what you think. 


Once Were Brothers

Once were 2

A few months back, Robbie Robertson released "Once Were Brothers" a biography of The Band, adapted from his autobiography "Testimony." As with any good rock doc, it's a bittersweet story of the rise to stardom, fame and fortune followed by an inevitable decline. 

If you're at all interested in this story, you might know a little bit about The Band already, including backing Bob Dylan on his infamous 1966 world tour where he "went electric" to a chorus of boos every night from the die-hard folk fans. The roots of The Band go back earlier than that, though. It was formed by four Canadians from Southwest Ontario (Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel), who joined up with Arkansas drummer Levon Helm to become the backing band for rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins in the early 1960s. 

The Band had its moment in the limelight in the late 1960s through the mid 70s. Their music created the American genre of music, as ironic as that is. Their first three albums stand the test of time with such classic songs as: The Weight, Stage Fright, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, King Harvest. They influenced artists as diverse as George Harrison, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Elvis Costello, The Wallflowers, the Black Crows, Drive-by Truckers and Paul Kelly. They continue to influence contemporary artists like My Morning Jacket and Nathaniel Rateliff. 

The band was together (more or less) for 16 years when Robbie Robertson decided to call it quits with a final concert, what became "The Last Waltz," filmed by Martin Scorsese. As this film makes clear, The Band was heading for destruction due to alcohol and drug issues and Robertson hoped they could take time apart to heal and pull things together. They pulled together an all-star set of musicians including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Ron Wood, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Hawkins, Neil Diamond and more. The film also includes perhaps the greatest version of their masterpiece The Weight ever recorded with the sublime vocal harmonies of the Staple Singers.

Sadly, the original lineup never played together again, though Manuel, Danko, Helm and Hudson toured without Robertson in the 1980s. Richard Manual sadly hung himself on tour in 1986. The band continued in various configurations in the 90s, but without Robertson's songwriting, the new albums were lackluster. Rick Danko died in 1999 and Levon Helm passed away in 2012.

Robbie Robertson is the only member of the band with contemporary interviews in the film, and it's very much his story. He wasn't the singer, but he was lead guitarist, songwriter and the dominant creative force behind The Band. The film does a good job representing Helm's point of view, who bitterly resented not getting songwriting credits. But as Ronnie Hawkins notes, there's a difference between arranging a song and writing it.  

It's very much a story worth watching. It's equal parts inspiring and sobering.  

Here's a trailer:


Hot upgrades: Jamstik Studio, Uno Synth Pro, Circuit Tracks

Uno Jamstik Circuit

Looks like 2021 is starting with a ton of new announcements from NAMM and beyond. I've picked three new products to highlight here, all of which represent significant innovation in the musical instrument market. 

Zivix JamStik Studio MIDI guitar

Jamstik studioMany readers are probably aware of Zivix original products the JamStik and JamStik+. These were innovative MIDI controllers that resembled guitars, but had only 7 frets. They were portable, lightweight and great for learning guitar, but not really suited to an experienced player. 

Last year Zivix launched their JamStik Studio Guitar. It's now a proper full-size neck (24 frets, 25.5" scale) headless electric guitar with a custom-designed built-in MIDI pickup in addition to the two humbucker pickups. It's gotten great reviews and they continue to update the companion Jamstik Creator software regularly. So now if you know your way around a guitar, you can control any MIDI synth --hardware or software. The creator software tracks chords, single notes, double stops, bends, slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, you name it. You want to have your arpeggio guitar parts translated into '90s synth bass? No problem. Horn section? Why not? Run it through your favorite synth VSTs? Sure. Because it's a full-blown electric guitar, you can also blend the original guitar sound with whatever synth craziness you want, playing or recording both the electric guitar and synth sound in real-time. Whoah! 

This is the most innovative invention for guitar players since Line 6 came on strong many years ago. I'm excited to see where Zivix takes this in the future. At $799, it's definitely not the cheapest guitar you'll buy, but it is definitely the best MIDI guitar controller ever to hit the market. 

IK Multimedia Uno Synth Pro

Uno proI've been a fan of IK Multimedia since the original iRig guitar interface. They've continued to move up-market over the years with high quality interfaces, reasonably priced MIDI keyboard controllers and a ton of software. In 2018, they announced the UNO Synth, followed by the UNO Drum. The UNO synth is an easy-to-use analog mono-synth with rich, fat sounds, 100 presets, all in a battery (or USB) powered portable package. With a price of under $200 it was a bargain and a perfect first synth for newbies. Of course, to hit the that price point, there were some compromises. Chief among these was the keyboard, which is, well, not a keyboard at all. It's a flat surface capacitive touch controller, meaning you tap on the surface like you would on a phone or tablet. 

Just as I was starting to wonder who would out-innovate the original UNO synth, IK Multimedia announced the forthcoming UNO Synth Pro and Uno Synth Pro Desktop. The desktop continues with the capacitive touch keyboard, whereas the pro offers a world-class 37 key Fatar keybed. Both models offer an improved dual-filter, three oscillator sound engine, a dozen built-in effects including reverb, delay, overdrive, more arpeggiator options, 256 presets, a longer 64 step sequencer, song mode and more. The new model is also paraphonic, so you can play 3 notes at a time. (It's not a true polysynth, but it's good enough for triad chords and pads.) The new models are more expensive clocking in at $399 for the desktop and $649 for the larger version with the Fatar keyboard.

I'm looking forward to learning more about how synth designer Erik Norlander has incorporated the latest SSI filter to open up a richer sound palette. 

Novation Circuit Tracks

Circuit tracksLast up, this week Novation announced a new version of their Circuit groovebox. The new version uses the same Nova synth engine, and adds more flexibility for controlling outboard synths, an improved sequencer, a built-in rechargeable battery and better usability. There are also more built-in effects and a mixer.

Sadly, there's still no on-board LCD display, which I think is a drawback for some users. But they seem to know their audience. If you want to compose EDM or chill beats without firing up your DAW, this is a great all-in-one tool and definitely the easiest-to-use groovebox on the market. 

The new version lists for $399, a slight increase over the prior model. 

Let me know what you think of these devices and what other cool gear you've seen come on the market. 


Elvis Costello - Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink

Unfaithful music
I've been a fan of Elvis Costello since My Aim Is True fell into my life in 1977. I was still in high school and my older brother thought I would like it because of the nerdy guy with glasses on the album cover. How right he was. Over the next few years I listened to everything he put out. However, by the time Get Happy!! came out with 20 songs in 1980, I hit my saturation point. I regrettably put EC aside for more than ten years and then came back with a vengeance picking up CD versions of Taking Liberties (B-side singles), Kojak Variety, and many of the Rykodisk reissues of the '90s, replete with bonus disks, demos, live tracks etc.  

Though I never saw Costello live in the '70s (Hey, I was still in high school!) or the '80s, I more than made up for it since then, dragging my wife to more EC concerts than any other. 

So I'm pretty familiar with Costello's career. I knew all about Stiff Records, his original backing band Clover, his awkward appearance on SNL subbing for the Sex Pistols and more. I knew he'd wandered from his band the Attractions, grown a beard and gone Country, collaborated with Burt Bacharach and had dalliances into Classical and Jazz music. All was forgiven when he cut 1994's Brutal Youth with the Attractions. Then 2002's When I Was Cruel was even better. 

I probably should have jumped on his memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink when it first came out. But, better late than never. I'm actually listening to the audio version of the book, as read by EC himself.  If you are fan of Elvis Costello, especially the early albums, it is definitely worth checking out. He's a fabulous raconteur and if you like his lyrics, you'll love his prose.

However, I have to say the book is definitely too long. And, more unforgiving, it's presented in schizophrenic order. We get the setup for the 1978 Hollywood High concert before we're ever told anything about My Aim Is True, or how the Attractions were formed. We hear about his meeting Paul McCartney before anything about This Year's Model. And then nothing more about co-writing with Macca for 20 chapters. There are lengthy dispatches not about Costello's upbringing, or his parents, but about his grandparents. Ok, these are the literary equivalent of the Brodsky Quartet, you can just skip these sections. 

Still, despite these weaknesses, it is one of the best rock biographies I've ever read. Costello gives you enough insight into his creative process without drowning in the details of drink, drugs and debauchery. Costello doesn't gloss over his prickly personality, personal failings or bad decisions. He's generous in acknowledging the influence of other musicians (Neil Young, The Band, Joni Mitchell --so many Canadians!) and heaps on well-deserved praise for the Attractions. As with the best of his songs, his prose is filled with keen observation, wry commentary and wonderful delivery. It's great to hear Costello's funny as hell encounters with Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Johny Cash and others. He remains a true fan of music and his appreciation shines through.

It makes for a compelling read. 

Here's a video from '78 of sweaty, skinny Elvis Costello & The Attractions on German TV tearing through a thirteen song set in 45 minutes. At times the band teeters towards the brink of chaos, pulling back for a couple of numbers and somehow keeping it all together. I really should have gone to see them back in '78.