Your First Three Guitar Scales

We could have called this post "Your First Three Blues Scales" or "Your First Three Metal Scales" or "Your First Three Classic Rock Blues Metal Scales." These are the three scales you need to learn first and for some people, this may be enough. Heck, Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour built a whole career around the Pentatonic scale, so maybe one scale is plenty.  

The first thing to make clear here, is that you don't need to worry about Phrygian Dominant scale, tapping the Lydian mode and the Hungarian Minor scale until later and maybe never! Both theoretically and practically, these exotic, filthy sounding beasts are always described in terms of, and related back to, the more standard major and minor scales. For one thing, you need to nail the basics first, and for another, don’t overlook the wealth of serious rock sounds you can generate with the 3 basic scales below. 

The Minor Pentatonic Scale

It’s extremely likely that this is the very first scale you learned or will learn. It’s the quintessential scale of guitar - rock, blues, pop, folk -- whatever. And not least, metal. The Minor Pentatonic scale is made up of 5 notes, (hence the ‘Pent’ part of the word - think pentagon) and is usually played across 2 octaves. Here are the intervals that make up a minor pentatonic scale:

1 b3 4 5 7

The "b3" means the flattened third note of the scale. So the notes are the first, the flattened third, the fourth, fifth and seventh. So, in the key of G, the minor pentatonic notes are:

G Bb C D F

If this is starting to freak you out, don't worry. You don't actually have to understand how the formula for the scale works or even know the names of the notes. But it is important that you understand where the pattern starts (on the "root" note, which is G) and that you memorize the visual pattern of the notes.

On the guitar fret board, you can play the G minor pentatonic from the third fret of the E string as shown below. This is known as the first position of the scale. This pattern is one you want to memorize. If you move up the fretboard to the 5th fret, you can play it in A. Move down two more to the 7th fret and you can play it in B. The pattern across the strings stays the exact same.

Screen Shot 2021-10-25 at 7.52.35 PM

The formula, of 1, b3, 4, 5, 7 is always the same. Any minor pentatonic scale is formed by jumping those intervals. It is just the specific notes that change, depending on where you’re starting from.

Which leads to the next important point. There are 5 patterns for the minor pentatonic scale on guitar. The patterns connect to each other and can be used to move further up or down the fretboard. It will take some time to practice and memorize these patterns. But it is time well spent. Once you are able to play the scale patterns with confidence you can explore creating riffs that go up and down the fretboard, moving between portions of the scale. 

Here are diagrams of the additional patterns in G.

G-minor pentatonic

You might notice that the right hand side (lower) part of each pattern connects to the left (upper) part of the next scale. For example Position 1 connects to Position 2 which connects to Position 3 and so on.  

This next diagram shows how the five patterns are connected. 

When you're first learning, focus on learning each pattern in turn rather than trying to connect all five patterns at once. But after you've got them memorized, you can start to see how you can easily go from from one pattern to the next creating tasty riffs. 

G-minorpentatonicfretboard

Once you know the minor pentatonic scale in G, you can solo alongside almost any rock, blues or metal song that is in the key of G ("Evil Ways" by Santana or "Charlie" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and the notes will sound good. You can even stick primarily to one or two of the patterns and you'll do ok.  Similarly, once you know the pattern in A (from the 5th fret) you can jam along to classics like Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" or "Black Dog" or "Angie" by the Rolling Stones.

Be sure to practice the scale in a few different ways:

  • With a totally clean sound, nice and slow, to highlight your accuracy levels and develop clean smooth picking and articulation, while learning the scale pattern of course
  • With an authentic, distorted heavy metal sound, varying your levels of palm-muting and speed to develop a bit of rock inspiration, sound and authenticity.
  • In both its lower octave (beginning somewhere on frets 0-12) for heavy, chugging riffs, and in its higher octave for soaring, sweeping solos!  
  • Once you've mastered the pattern in G, try moving up two frets to play the pattern in A. Or down two frets to play it in F.  

The Blues Scale

I know not everyone digs the blues. In fact, you might consider it antithetical to prog rock or modern metal. But there’s a bit of a hidden secret in the way that a blues scale can be effectively used in any guitar playing. So, first thing’s first: what is the blues scale?

The blues scale is the minor pentatonic scale, plus one additional note - Which is the b5 (flat 5, or flattened 5th). This is where playing style and articulation need to take hold. If you pass through this interval in a bluesy lick, on a crunch sound, then yes, it’s going to sound like blues. But if you stick it in a heavy palm-muted riff on a high gain sound, then it’s going to create some glorious metallic filth!

So here are the intervals that make up a blues scale:

1 b3 4 b5 5 7

So, in the key of G, that would be:

 G Bb C Db D F

Screen Shot 2021-10-25 at 8.21.08 PM

Again, this formula, of 1, b3, 4, 5, 7 is always the same. Any minor pentatonic scale is formed by jumping those intervals. It is just the specific notes that change, depending on where you’re starting from. As an exercise now, test yourself by trying to write out what the blues scale or minor pentatonic scale would be in another key, maybe the other guitar friendly keys of E or D if you’re new to this. If you’re a bit more advanced, you could try the keys of G# or Db as a bit of a test. Then you can look up those scales afterwards to check your answers.

Here are diagrams of the full blues scale in each of the 5 positions for G.  Note that 5 of the notes are the same as in the minor Pentatonic scale. The root note (in black) is also the same. The only thing that's new is the "blue note" which gives the scale its blues tone. That note is marked, as you might have guessed, in blue. So think of the blues scale as the same as the pentatonic with an extra bonus note. 

G-bluesscalepositions

Again, practice playing this blues scale in different ways:

  • Clean and slow for accuracy, learning and picking
  • Distorted and heavier, using palm-muting as you work on timing
  • Low down the neck and higher up, working towards both riffs and solos.

If you want to stop here with just the Minor Pentatonic Scale and the Blues Scale that's fine. Plenty of guitar solos can be covered with just those two scales. But for the more adventurous, here's the third scale we'll cover. It's a bit more advanced and has even more notes! 

The Natural Minor Scale

This is the ‘full’ or ‘complete’ minor scale (made up of 7 notes) from which the minor pentatonic and blues scales are extracted. The minor pentatonic is a kind of all-purpose, inoffensive, reduced form of the full minor scale for heavier, less melodic playing. For more melodic playing you’re likely to need the full version - The natural minor scale. This will give your riffs a more melodic appeal and additional possibilities and give your solos more melody and longer runs.

Here are the intervals that make up the Natural Minor scale:

1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

This time let's try it in A. This would mean the following notes:

A B C D E F G

Aminorscale-3nps

Once again, this formula remains the same - every natural minor scale in existence is created using this formula. If you start this formula from B, it will yield the B natural minor scale, if you start it from D# it will yield the D# natural minor scale. Can you see the pattern here? Every scale in guitar playing is just a formula - It’s where and what the root note, or tonic, is that’s what is important, what gives the scale its name.

As always, remember that like everything else, practicing in a variety of ways from a variety of different angles is needed to really cement your technique, knowledge and ability.

  • Clean and slow for accuracy as you build your confidence
  • Add some distortion or palm-muting as you work on timing
  • Extend your range low down on the neck and higher up, for flexibility in building riffs

Have fun getting to know these scales, and make sure you also take a bit of time to notice how these scales all fit inside each other. They’re all versions and variations of the same thing. The Natural Minor is the full, melodic version, the Minor Pentatonic is the simplistic, heavy version, and the Blues Scale is the Pentatonic plus that extra note -- originally blues-intended, but perfect for re-appropriation in heavier rock and metal!

Go forth and shred!

Alex Bruce is a writer for Guitar Tricks


Breakthrough Songwriting with Orb Producer Suite

 

Orb melody
I've been using Logic Pro for a few years now (and GarageBand before that) and have always marveled at how good the Drummer function is. You can choose one of several styles (Rock, R&B, Songwriter...) then pick a drummer (Duncan, Logan, Kyle...) and you get a great drum track that sounds like a human. You can have the drummer track follow another track (typically the bass track) and there are controls to adjust the volume / complexity, fills, etc. I used the Drummer feature extensively on my rock opera and it sounds like a real drummer, even to my drummer friends. (Added bonus: at least one person is playing in time!)

I've wondered why there aren't additional features like this for automatic accompaniment, like Band-in-a-Box but with a user interface from the 21st century. (Yes, Band-in-a-Box pioneered this approach, but they seem to delight in cramming more and more features and musical styles over several decades making the product somewhat byzantine.)

To my delight, I recently discovered Hexachords Orb Producer Suite 2.0. It's a series of four inter-connected plug-ins: Orb Chords, Orb Bass, Orb Arpeggio and Orb Melody all for 99 EUR. The suite operates as VST plug-ins and work with any major DAW. I took it out for a spin this weekend and found it to be a great experience. 

Orb chordsWhat the Orb Producer Suite does is automatically generate musical patterns. You can pick from categories of Chord Progressions (minor, major, epic, dark, uplifting...), set the key, tempo, how many bars and then Orb does the rest. If you don't like what it comes up with, you can adjust several parameters (density, complexity, polyphony, spread...) or just re-generate again until you get something you like. I went for a pretty straightforward I-V-IV-II main chord sequence in the key of D, that is D A G E. Once you've set the chord sequence, whenever you generate a bass, arpeggios or melody it will lock-in with the chords and scale you've set.

Orb synth presetsThe Orb Producer Suite includes a pretty decent wavetable synth with dozens of worthwhile presets. I opted not to use the synth except to evaluate the parts, and once I got something I liked, I dragged and dropped it into Logic Pro and used its built-in synths and MIDI instruments. 

Of course, some of what Orb Producer Suite generates sounds awful, but with a bit of adjustment you can get something that sounds quite good. In fact, about 95% of this song was generated by Orb Producer Suite. I made a few adjustments to the MIDI tracks to vary the solo with a few staccato notes and to make the horn stabs sound more, ah, horn-like. But the bass track, the arpeggios are all 100% as generated. 

The end result may or may not be your cup of meat, but I can honestly say, it's unlikely I could have come up with the melody on my own. My contribution (other than the slight changes to the MIDI) was in deciding which of the dozens of generated parts sounded good and then picking the appropriate arrangement in Logic Pro including the instruments, effects, mix, adding a bridge, adding horns and strings (also generated by Orb Producer Suite), adding a Drummer track, and so on.

Orb parametersOrb Producer Suite claims to be AI-powered, which might be true, or it might be marketing speak for some basic if-then-else logic about what chords or notes go well together.

Some of the melodies or bass parts generated by Orb Producer seemed more random than musical to me, but clicking again or adjusting the parameters helped me narrow in to the kind of pattern that I wanted. I look forward to working more with Orb Producer to help me break out the usual I-IV-V  / pentatonic rut that I often find myself in.  

While Orb Producer Suite works great, Hexachords has a bit of a mixed reputation. They had previously shipped a comprehensive AI-powered DAW called Orb Composer which, while very powerful, also was apparently rather buggy. I think they are turning around their reputation with the Orb Producer Suite. I found no major problems while using it in Logic Pro. (It stuttered a few times on playback, repeating the first bar, and I had to restart Logic pro once.)  

Sadly, it looks like Orb Composer is currently no longer supported by the company. I'm hoping they create a new more full-featured version of Orb Composer that builds on what they've shipped with Orb Producer Suite 2.0.

What do you think? Can AI help humans compose music? Have you tried any other generative music programs? Let me know in the comments below.

(Update: I added a few more tracks on Soundcloud in different styles.)


Jean-Michell Jarre's EON app

Jarre eon

I must admit, I've fallen down the rabbit hole into synth nerdvana lately. I'm not sure, maybe it was with Daft Punk's demise, and a Sound Opinions podcast that mentioned French synth pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre. I was vaguely familiar with Jarre's breakthrough 1976 instrumental album Oxygène. I was mostly listening to classic rock back then, before the 1977 new wave / punk tidal wave from the UK. Somehow, Jarre's work never really surfaced again for me, despite my recent interest in the Krautrock Motorik synth sound of Krafwerk, Neu! and similar proggy instrumental artists like Mike Oldfield and Tangerine Dream.  

A bit of research revealed that Jean-Michel Jarre (or JMJ as he's known), despite turning 72, has remained prolific for 50 years with Guinness record-breaking concerts in Paris, Houston, China and Moscow. More interesting, he'd continued to delve into new technologies including including Virtual Reality and releasing a generative music application called EōN.

EōN is basically an infinite album. It's based on seven hours of Jarre's work, presumably thousands of samples, that get combined into unique, unrepeated songs.  The app is $9 on iOS and twice that (!) on Mac OS. An Android version is in the works. The app runs offline without internet connection and requires little battery power to run in the background. 

I cannot recommend this app enough. For anyone interested in generative music, or synth music in general, this is an amazing application. It generates unique and interesting instrumental music. Of course, whether you like the app will depend on whether you like Jean-Michel Jarre. Personally, I find it fascinating and I've been listening to it non-stop. The music ranges from ambient background synth pads to light industrial / techno EDM.

I have listened to EōN for more than 100 hours at this point and I can't say I've heard anything repeat. I will occasionally recognize an ambient sound (variations of water flowing) or a particular clacking drum sound, but that's it. The app also generates some interesting trippy graphic patterns, though mostly I'm using this with the display off.

I find EōN is great for background music while working, writing, reading, running, driving, you name it. Tracks mostly blend together seamlessly, but once in a while (maybe 2-3 times so far) I've found a song doesn't work for me, in which case you just hit the "next" button and move on to something else.

You can find some samples on Youtube and there's also a limited edition Snapshots of EON album. (Though it costs way more than the application, so I'm not sure why you would want that.)

I find EŌN to be much more interesting and compelling music than other generative music applications I've seen. It's got a mix of styles, textures, beats, instruments and effects that keeps me engaged. Brian Eno has certainly done some pioneering work in this area and his apps are more interactive, but the music is, frankly, boring. (Of course, that's a matter of taste. Some people like Music for Airports.)

The EŌN app was developed in conjunction with iOS synth developers BLEASS systems who built the audio engine and audio algorithms. The graphics were developed with Sony Computer Science Laboratories in Tokyo. 

My only wish is that the application had just a hint of interactivity. For example, I would find it interesting to know how many hours or songs I've played. Presumably songs could be recreated with a unique seed and it would be cool if you could share your favorites with other users of the app or recall them later, perhaps generating interesting random names. As it stands you can record 30 second fragments in realtime, but once a song has played, it's gone. And if you were connected, it would be fantastic to see a map of other EON listeners and somehow share your favorites or vote on tracks.

What's clear is that despite the lack of interactivity (or perhaps because of it) you are listening to music that has been designed by JMJ himself. I'm fascinated to understand what kind of rules are behind the generation. Does he build songs up from the bass line and/or rhythm? Are sound samples modified at runtime? How is the instrumentation determined? How does one song evolve into another?

I would love there to be a more general-purpose generative application from BLEASS that exposed more of the rules, perhaps with other artists samples. One can easily imagine a Kraftwerk or Neu! flavored application that generated Motorik music. Or heck, why not an app where you could load your own samples into a massive library, control the instruments and create your own rules. Zappa created a technique called Xenochrony where he re-purposed guitar solos into different songs to interesting effect. Why not do that for any instrument or sample? Just imagine what you could generate with samples from Erik Norlander on the Uno Synth Pro.

EŌN opens up a fascinating new era of generative music and is a new milestone in the creative arts.


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.

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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.