Crack The Sky - The Greatest Band You've Never Heard Of

 

Crack the sky band
Every couple of years I run into some breathtakingly fantastic band that no one has ever heard of. Often, by the time I find them, they have delved so deep into obscurity that they soon break up. (I'm looking at you BrainPool. And Thunder. And The Hellacopters.) I hope this doesn't happen to my latest discovery, Crack The Sky. This is a band that has been ahead of its time for so long that you sort of give up and think they'll never be famous. But in fact, they are big stars. Well, at least in Baltimore. 

Crack The Sky was formed in the early 1970s. They managed to put together some demos and then got picked up by the third-tier label Lifesong. Their self-titled album received rave reviews. Rolling Stone called it the debut album of the year for 1975:

"Like the first albums of Steely Dan, 10cc, and the Tubes, Crack the Sky's debut introduces a group whose vision of mid-'70s ennui is original, humorous and polished..."

The band toured with Supertramp, Foreigner, Yes, Boston, Kansas, Styx, Rush and even Frank Zappa, but never broke into the mainstream. Their songs were too complex for radio and they never had a hit single. Sometimes they got thrown off tours for blowing the headliner off the stage. The band's manager Derek Sutton was the inspiration for the character Ian Faith in the film Spinal Tap. And yes, they really did get lost trying to find their way onto the stage. 

So despite a comedy of errors, they managed to build a following and get on the radio in Baltimore. CTS, as they are known among fans, has had its ups and downs over the years, but they've mostly continued recording and touring in the Northeast. 

CTS is not to everyone's taste. It's proggy and sometimes overly-complicated. But if you look at the breadth and depth of their music, it is astonishing. Add to that they have been regularly touring and recording new material during most of this time, they are a criminally underrated band. If you like hook-laden classic rock, you owe it to yourself to check out their first album, the self-titled "Crack The Sky," "White Music" or their 2010 concept album "Machine." There are also several very good live albums and DVDs

I'd argue that all of their albums are good and many are superb. I’ve become obsessed with CTS in recent months. They have the harmonies and hooks of the Beatles, the explosive guitar of Cheap Trick, the heaviness of Pink Floyd, the musical sophistication of Steely Dan, the prog cred of King Crimson with none of the associated prog pretension.

Despite their thematic songwriting, Crack the Sky has never written a rock opera. They had an early attempt to write one to honor the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (I am not making this up), but it didn't get beyond the first song. They've come pretty close with concept albums "Machine"  and "The Sale." So I'm hoping they'll give it another shot. (JP, Rick, I can show you how it's done. I'm Canadian and I'm ready to help.) I'd never heard of the band when I wrote my rock opera Underground Radio, but in some strange time-warp fashion they were a huge inspiration. 

I'm not holding out for a live gig in Michigan or California. But if there's one band I would considering getting on a plane to see, it's Crack The Sky. Check out the videos below for great live performances of From The Greenhouse and Hold On / Surf City. There's also a jazzy acoustic version of Surf City filled with Beatle breaks. Unbelievable! 

 


More Rock Opera Reviews

Rock operas
Over the last couple of months, I've posted several new rock opera reviews over at www.rock-opera.com. These include:

  • Crack The Sky - Machine (2010)
    The best rock band you've never heard of with one of their best albums ever. CTS combines the best elements of the Beatles, Pink Floyd and Cheap Trick. And they're still recording and touring after 40 years.
  • Green Day - American Idiot (2004)
    One of the rare rock operas that actually accelerated a band's career. It's a great album from one of the best three-chord rock bands to come out of the Bay Area's punk scene.
  • Styx - Kilroy Was Here (1983)
    Coming in after 4 platinum selling albums in the late '70s / early '80s, lead singer and songwriter Dennis DeYoung had multimedia ambitions that resulted in a lumbering story about a surveillance government where rock music is illegal and two guys try to.... Well whatever. There are a couple of great songs, but if you want to why the band split up, this is the answer. 
  • KISS - Music From the Elder (1981)
    Possibly the worst rock opera ever and certainly a finalist for worst album ever, this was Gene and Paul's attempt to win critics over. Unfortunately, the album is turgid, overloaded with Bob Ezrin's coke-fueled production, strings, and a storyline that makes Styx look like Shakespeare. A few fans really like this album, but even Gene and Paul consider it a stinker. 
  • Lou Reed - Berlin (1973)
    Possibly the most alienating but moving rock opera out there. It was a commercial disaster for Reed, who had his biggest hit ever with "Walk on the Wild Side." Lou Reed and Bob Ezrin produced a masterpiece that you might not be able to listen to more than once. 
  • David Bowie - The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
    It's an album so good, you might not even realize it's a rock opera! It's short, just 38 minutes, but all eleven songs are good and half of them are among Bowie's best.

Check out www.rock-opera.com for the full reviews, remastering news and more.


Let It Be Revisited

Let it be
It's hard to believe that the Beatles final album, Let It Be, was released 50 years ago. The album came out on May 8 and the documentary of the same name was released a week later in theaters in the US and two weeks later in the UK. 

Get backThe story of the album is well known: Paul McCartney, at this point the de facto band leader, wanted to create a "back to basics" album, originally known as Get Back. Instead of the psychedelic studio production wizardry of Sergeant Pepper's, or the tension-filled solo recordings of The White Album, this was to be the four of them, playing new songs in a live television concert special.  

In early 1969, the band started rehearsing at Twickenham studios. Film director Michael Lindsay-Hogg was invited as a fly-on-the-wall, to film all of it. He shot over fifty hours of footage, which resulted in the cinéma vérité documentary.

The film tells no story, has no plot and other than when the Beatles are playing live, is not very good. It shows the lads rehearsing, playing cover songs, arguing, goofing around, etc. There's a strange scene where McCartney talks non-stop for several minutes to Lennon who doesn't say a word. It's hard to determine who is more bored: Lennon or the audience.

The film has an undeserved reputation as capturing the band's break up. There are a couple of moments where you see the tension, but there are far more scenes, especially when they're playing, where you get to witness the magic of four people connecting, playing live with some of their most famous songs. 

The original film has been out of circulation for decades. I managed to see it in college in about 1980 and then more recently downloaded an, ah, archival copy. For Beatles fans it is still remarkable to see them play songs such as "Two Of Us," "Let It Be," "Dig a Pony" and others. You also get to witness the famous rooftop concert featuring "I've Got A Feeling," "Get Back," and "One After 909" I had forgotten a very funny scene where Lennon flubs the lyrics in the otherwise heartfelt "Don't Let Me Down" in a most creative fashion

The album is good, if a bit of mixed bag. Following the rooftop concert, several mixes were made by Glyn Johns and rejected by the Beatles. The band lost interest and then proceeded to begin work on the much stronger album Abbey Road. The Get Back project sat on the shelves for months. Phil Spector was called in to rescue the album and added orchestral strings and choir overdubs to four songs. The album came out more than a year after it was recorded under the new name Let It Be.

Although McCartney disliked Spector's final mix, Lennon defended Spector's work a 1971 interview saying:

"...he was given the shittiest load of badly recorded shit, with a lousy feeling toward it, ever. And he made something out of it. He did a great job."

Not one to leave well enough alone, in 2003 McCartney remixed the album as Let It Be... Naked, excising Spector's embellishments and substituting two tracks. It's different, but you'd be hard pressed to say it's better.

As of yet, there has been no 50th anniversary remixing of Let It Be, as we have had for Sergeant Pepper's, The White Album and Abbey Road. There is a new documentary film The Beatles: Get Back, being created by director Peter Jackson, Although originally expected in September 2020, the film has now been delayed by almost a year. The film uses Lindsay Hogg's original footage as well as over 140 hours of audio to create a new documentary. My hope is that there will be a new Deluxe album to go with it.

I just wish it wasn't going to take so long.


Underground Radio Remastered

Underground Radio - Vinyl 3

Given the shelter-at-home quarantine we've all been faced with, I finally got around to remastering my rock opera Underground Radio. Mastering is distinct from mixing and is a separate phase of production during which a talented audio engineer listens to your album and makes adjustments to the overall sound, as opposed to the individual instruments or vocal tracks.

It turns out that at least some of the mastering process can be automated through the use of artificial intelligence. So I used a nifty automatic service called LANDR. I think the songs came out punchier and louder. I also fixed two niggling things that bothered me in the title track and adjusted the album artwork to better show the "ring wear" of an old vinyl album. You can listen to the remastered songs at rock-opera.com, SoundCloud or download them free from Box.

Here's a comparison of the original version:

And the remastered version:

Now you can definitely hear all three chords!

All of this was done in preparation for the music to be distributed digitally on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, DeezerTidal, etc. I've used CD Baby and BandCamp for distribution. The Bandcamp album features embedded mp3 lyrics, a 45 page Digital Libretto and 5 bonus instrumentals all for $5.

Here's the Spotify version but choose whatever service you prefer.


Fiverr and the Quest for Perfect Tab Files

GuitarPro - Redbone

If you don't understand the headline, this post is not for you. But for guitar and bass players who might not be able to figure out a song by ear, a tab file is a musical notation that makes learning songs easy. Tablature is a very old music system which shows where your fingers should be positioned to play a fretted instrument. Though not perfect, tab notation is much easier than reading traditional musical notation with clef bars, treble bars and all those squiggly lines.

In the 1980s, tablature became popular in guitar magazines and music books which published licensed transcriptions of guitar solos in a form that the average guitar player could read. With the rise of the internet 1990s, amateur musicians began posting thousands of their own text-based tablatures. In the early 2000's, Guitar Pro, a brilliant software application from the French company Arobas Music, took things to a whole other level by creating a tool that could not only create tablature files, but it could play the music it represented. You could create and playback all of the different instruments (guitar, bass, drums, piano...), and you could isolate, slow down and loop parts, making it easy to practice new parts.

I've beee using Guitar Pro almost daily for more than 10 years. If you're a musician, you should just click on over to the Guitar Pro site and get a free trial download. It works best on a computer (Windows or Mac) though it is also available for tablet and smartphones. 

While you can find most popular music in Guitar Pro file formats (e.g. .gp, .gpx, .gp5 etc) every now and then there will be a song I can't find or whose tab file is terribly wrong. So recently, I used the online task marketplace Fiverr to commission the creation of a couple of new Guitar Pro files. I was blown away by the quality of the work. 

These are excellent Guitar Pro (.gp) transcriptions of some admittedly obscure songs:

Come and Get Your Love is a campy early 1970s song that had a well-deserved resurgence in popularity after inclusion in the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack. It's impossible to play this song and not have a smile on your face. The guitar chords are straightforward: Em, A, D, Bm repeated in the verse and the chorus.  The bass part is a pretty busy sequence of staccato 8th notes. It's quite a fun funky sound, replete with '70s fashion, wah-wah, cowbell, strings and even a sitar. There's a great story in the Wall Street Journal from earlier this year where Redbone bass player Pat Vega describes the history of the song and how he and his brother Lolly wrote it. 

Shama Lama Ding Dong is even more obscure. It was a hit by the fictional band Otis Day & The Knights as portrayed in the 1978 film Animal House. It's an homage to early R&B and rock songs of that era. Little known fact: Robert Cray plays bass in the film.

In addition to the Guitar Pro app, Arobas offers MySongBook, an online store where you can buy songs or a subscription. There are also many free Guitar Pro files available online at GproTab.net, GuitarProTabs.org, GuitarProTabs.net, UltimateGuitar etc. Or just google any song you're looking for.

Kudos to RaymondMusic on Fiverr who completed these perfect transcriptions. 

And here are a couple of great videos of these songs:


Wishbone Ash - 50 Years & Still Rocking

Wishbone Ash is one of those epic '70s bands that burned brightly for a few years, releasing top 10 albums, playing stadiums worldwide and then seemingly vanished. If you weren't listening to prog rock in '72 or maybe '74 you might never have heard of them. They never had a charting single in the US, no "Behind the Music" VH1 special, nothing. That makes it all the more surprising that 50 years later they are still recording and touring in the US and Europe.

Although Argus, their most famous and best-selling album, is not a rock opera, it comes pretty close. It's a concept album with a solid unifying theme (something to do with England and uh, fighting for king and country). It's an amazing album that ranges from prog rock to folk-rock harmonies, classic English blues and straight ahead rock and roll. It still sounds fresh and inspired almost 50 years later. To my mind Argus is one of the most important rock albums ever made. Argus is up there with the pantheons of British rock: The Shadows, Abbey Road, Exile on Main Street, Dark Side of the Moon, Led Zeppelin I, Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders from Mars and Never Mind the Bollocks. I don't think you can really understand the evolution and scope of rock and roll until you've heard this album. It's the Rosetta Stone that ties together everything from CSNY to Iron Maiden. 

Wishbone Ash pretty much invented the twin lead guitar sound which went on to influence bands like Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest, Steely Dan and even the Eagles. As mentioned, the band still records and tours, led by original lead guitar player Andy Powell. While they never surpassed the impact of Argus, they've had a productive career with 20 studio albums, a dozen live albums and many compilations. If you want to get a taste of the band, I recommend Argus, the compilation Time Was, and the live album Live Dates. There are some solid later albums including New England, Bona Fide, Elegant Stealth, No Smoke Without Fire. Blue Horizon, their most recent album, comes closest to capturing the magic of Argus. And next year should see the release of a new album Coat of Arms and another worldwide tour.

I've seen them live on several occasions at Callahan's, a now defunct club in Michigan, and they did not disappoint. These were among the best live shows I've seen. Check out some live clips on YouTube with vintage '70s pointy guitars, hairstyles and wardrobe. 


So Then I Wrote a Rock Opera

Ur banner

This article was originally published at Linkedin

In early 2014, I moved to Michigan where my wife's family is from. I started working for an Ann Arbor based software company, Duo Security, which has been a lot of fun. But I really missed playing music with my tech buddy Rob, who remained in California.

So the original idea was for us to each write ten songs, then pick the best and record them. But somehow it spun out of control. Why not a concept album? Why not... A ROCK OPERA?

The oddest part about all of this is that neither Rob nor I have ever written songs or recorded before. Our only qualification is a combined 50 years of listening to classic rock. And if we might not hit the heights of The Who's "Tommy" or Greenday's "American Idiot" perhaps we could do better than KISS’s "Music from the Elder."

I mean, how hard could it be? It was, of course, an absurd idea. How could two rookies possibly scale the heights of rockdom? I don’t even think Rob had ever listened to a rock opera before. (I mean who has in recent years, amiright?) But much like a software startup that aims to make the world a better place, the audacity of our goal inspired us.

Next thing you know I’m recording some creepy bass riffs in GarageBand and overlaying drums and guitars. Our first song, “The Creeper,” was the embodiment of an evil surveillance government. And it sparked the whole story: 50 years of winter, a dystopian future, rock music is illegal, yada yada yada. This is pretty much the plot of every rock opera. But it's a darn good one.

Since Rob and I were in different cities, we did most of the collaboration over the interweb using Skype, iMessage, and Box for sharing files. (Box is the official cloud content management system of leading rock operas everywhere, don’t ya know?) Every few months I'd get back to California, goad Rob into singing or recording some guitar parts, and then continue editing in GarageBand.

As positive as I’d try to be during these recording sessions (“That was great, Rob. But let’s do one more take…”) the next day I’d listen to what we’d recorded and I’d be overwhelmed by a feeling of hopelessness. I had this vision in my head of an epic rock opera but all I had was a handful of recordings of two guys failing. This feeling of hopelessness occurred at least as often as the feeling of elation throughout the entire course of the project.

They say every startup is a rollercoaster ride of extreme highs and lows. That matches my feeling on writing a rock opera. Whether it was writing melodies, drafting lyrics, recording solos, mixing, or working on videos, there were countless times where I thought the most expedient solution was to delete all the files and give up. There’s no blueprint (or at least none I could find) on “The 7 Steps to Writing a Rock Opera.”

Every time I faced this situation, I simply moved on to another part of the project. If one song proved to be a dead-end, there’s no reason I couldn’t make progress elsewhere. When I put something aside for a few days or weeks and came back to it, I had a kind of unwarranted optimism: maybe I can improve this. A leap of faith was required at every milestone. I wasn’t aiming for perfection, but a more basic "Can I make this suck less?"

I won’t say that the work was easy. It takes many more hours to edit a song than it takes to record it. But I found that by gradually chipping away at something I could improve it. Often the results were surprising: a song I’d given up on now sounded pretty cool. Better than I hoped for. In my book, brute force perseverance is an under-rated skill.

Ur selfmade lyricsRob and I brought a startup attitude to the project: just keep working at it and let's see how far we can get. Lyrics got written, story lines developed, solos recorded and re-recorded. Occasionally we’d share songs with our beta testers. Their feedback was often the only motivation we needed to keep on going. And we did all this while holding down full-time jobs and managing family obligations.

Other songs were written weekends, evenings, on airplanes. If Rob had recorded his solos in a more timely fashion I might have stopped writing new songs. But eventually we got to 20 songs and I wondered: what the hell happened here? We’ve actually written a rock opera!

But there was one thing missing. All the songs were pretty basic: me and Rob with bass, guitar, drums and a few keyboard parts and a couple of friends adding vocals. It wasn’t quite grand enough. Then I came across an interesting item on Kickstarter: the $99 orchestra. Wait —what? Yep, for $99 per minute, we could get a 30 piece symphony orchestra to record one of our songs. For another $100 they’d create the score. I sure as hell didn’t have a score for them. I’m just a 3 chord rock guy.

We had one song where I’d weaved together multiple guitar parts that Rob and I had recorded separately. It epitomized our collaboration on the project. It was just some overdriven guitar parts, but in my mind it always sounded like a symphony: I heard strings, horns, piccolos. I don’t know what instruments are in an actual 30 piece orchestra, but it must be something like that, right?

Ur orchestraLong story short, we got the Western European Symphony Orchestra to record it. And we got to watch a live video stream of the recording. It felt pretty amazing to hear someone else’s interpretation of our music.

So we finally put the album up on Kickstarter after Thanksgiving, partly to defray the final mixing costs and partly to develop an audience. It was fully funded fairly quickly (never underestimate the power of email to VCs, especially if you helped them make a lot of money.) Kickstarter prohibits raising money for charity, so since we’ve hit our goal we’ll either mix some bonus instrumental tracks or get some videos made. Either that or we’ll spend the money on hookers and blow.

I hope you'll go to the skills section of my Linkedin profile and click on Rock Opera to show your endorsement. 

Update: The project overachieved on its funding target by 150% and was completed on time. All of the music, the bonus tracks and the Libretto are available for free download at www.rock-opera.com. You can also listen for free at SoundCloud. The music is published under an open source Creative Commons attribution license and can be used, copied, shared and re-mixed freely.

Zack Urlocker is a software executive living his rock and roll fantasy in Traverse City, Michigan.


Tom Petty Biog

Petty-title

I'm not a huge Tom Petty fan. Sure, I'm familiar with his top 40 radio hits. You couldn't avoid Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers in the '80s and '90s. But I never saw them live and never followed them that closely. But "Petty: The Biography" by Warren Zanes is something special. First of all Warren Zanes knows his music. His band, the Del Fuegos, opened for Tom Petty in the '80s. And he's an unapologetic fan. But he's also an extremely gifted and objective writer who brings a serious study to a field that is littered with "I was there" stories that don't tell you anything you don't already know. 

Zanes explores the ups and downs of Petty's career with remarkable insight. He's also great at putting a broader societal context on the evolution of the music business. You get the feeling of what was going down in Gainesville in the 70s and what gave Petty, Benmont Trench, Mike Cooper and others the drive to sustain themselves when so many bands fell by the wayside. What emerges is the complex story of a band that managed to (more or less) evolve and stay together for 40 years under the leadership and songwriting of Tom Petty. You get to experience the band politics, friendships and loss. There are also some very funny scenes whether it's about the manager who needed a manager or touring with Bob Dylan. This is a great book, told by someone who understands the music world. If you're a fan of Tom Petty, you will love it even more.

Best of all, Zanes narrates the audiobook himself.  Here's a video of the original line up of the Heartbreakers covering that '60s classic "Louie, Louie."


Guy Pratt - My Bass & Other Animals

Pratt book

Although I was not familiar with Guy Pratt, I certainly knew many of the bands he played with: Roxy Music, Robert Palmer, David Bowie, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Robbie Robertson and Pink Floyd to name a few. His book "My Bass and Other Animals" though poorly titled, is a terrific account of what it's like to play sideman to the legends of the music industry. It's like sitting down at a pub with an old friend from high school thirty years later  and discovering he toured with one of the biggest bands in history and he lets you in on all the crazy shenanigans.

This book’s genesis is from a series of life/stand up performances that Pratt did telling his stories of life as a rock and roll Road dog. That said, as a conventional autobiography it starts a bit slow as you learn about Pratt’s upbringing, first bass, first band etc. As Pratt's career takes off, the store is become quite funny. There were times when I was in stitches due to the materials as well as Pratt’s wonderfully dry English delivery. The stories about Pink Floyd are hilarious. If you listen to the audio version you also get Pratt's very entertaining American regional English accents. Here's a video of Guy Pratt talking about smashing his bass on stage at the end of  his tour with Pink Floyd. 

For bass heads or other musicians, the last chapter includes a full rundown of just about every bass, guitar, amp, and effects pedal that Pratt has owned. This is a great book and an awful lot of fun. But if you are bothered by stories of drug taking or drink, probably best to skip it.

And just for posterity's sake, here's a twenty-six year-old fresh-faced Guy Pratt playing bass on "Money" from the 1988 Delicate Sound of Thunder tour, live album and DVD. However, brace yourself for those dreaded late-eighties fashions.


Daisy Jones & The Six

Daisy

I admit, I have a weakness for rock and roll biogs: The Doors, The Kinks, The Ramones, The Clash, KISS; I've read them all. Hell, I've read and enjoyed biogs by bands like Kraftwerk and I don't even particularly like their music! But it's pretty rare to find a novel that does rock and roll justice. Daisy Jones & The Six comes pretty close to being the perfect rock and roll novel.

The book is told entirely as an oral history charting the rise and fall of a fictional 1970s band Daisy Jones & The Six.  This is quite different from a traditional novel and the story reads like an extended Rolling Stone or MTV interview with a real band. The device works extremely well and pulls you into each of the characters, their foibles, their egos in a way that brings the band to life. The story is being told many years after the fact, and the sometimes conflicting accounts are used to great effect in the story. You can still feel the raw emotions of how peoples lives are brought together including all of the joys, pains, hurt feelings and bruised egos. The characters are not always likable and the structure gives the book a bit of a meandering style, but it all comes together in a way that I can only describe as heartwrenching. Jenkins Reid has layered so much drama and emotion into the story that the climax is nothing short of magnificent. She captures the feeling of performance, songwriting, fame and addiction in a way that is truly memorable.

The book had been on my list for a while, but when I heard an interview with the author Jenkins Reid on the highly-addictive Bestseller Experiment podcast, I bought the book immediately on Audible. The book works especially well in audio because each of the different characters is voiced by a different actor. It's a fantastic book which I highly recommend.  The only other novel I know that captures rock and roll is "Evening's Empire" by Former MTV exec Bill Flanagan. Flanagan's book is in some ways both funnier and deeper, but Jenkins-Reid's will may you cry.


Uno Synth and Drum - Affordable Innovation

Uno-synth

IK Multimedia is an Italian music tech company that has long had a reputation for creating "cheap and cheerful" interfaces (iRig 2, AXE I/O), MIDI controllers (iRig Keys) as well as a boatload of software for recording and effects like Amplitube, Syntronik and SampleTank. Last year at SuperBooth, IK Multimedia stepped into the ring with its first hardware synth, the Uno. This year, they've followed up with their first drum machine, the Uno Drum, coming in June.

With a street price of $200, the Uno Synth is a remarkable device. It's cheap enough to almost be an impulse purchase as a first hardware synth but unique enough to provide something new to experienced musos. Of course, selling a synth for $200 requires cutting some corners and those design decisions may be deal-breakers for some buyers. Luckily, the company pulled in synth designer and musical genius Erik Norlander to guide them on the development of the Uno Synth. Despite its compact size, it's easy to use and has a beefy sound. 

I watched a lot of videos and read a lot of reviews of the Uno Synth as well as other low-cost synths, and this one best fit my newbie priorities: easy-to-use and low price.  It's also worth noting that IK Multimedia occasionally runs promotions with bundled software, so that's another way to get more value. 

For me the key advantages are: it's easy to get started (just plug in headphones and batteries or USB power), it has 100 built-in preset sounds, it's got nobs that make it easy to adjust the wave type (square, triangle, sawtooth etc.), filter, cutoff, tempo and volume, it's got a cool built-in arpeggiator and sequencer, and a built-in 2-octave (sort-of) keyboard. And the sound is awesome! It's monophonic, so you can't create chords and pad sounds are hard to come by. But it's great for bass, leads and arpeggios. Note also there's no pitch or mod wheel. You can add some scoop and dive to notes, but in practice it's pretty limited. The tremolo and vibrato buttons work ok, but you're not going to shape the sound beyond a limited range with those.

Zx81The Uno is quite small in size, like a tall hardcover book and weighs less than a pound. You can throw it in a laptop bag and take it with you without feeling loaded down. Personally I love the design. It reminds me of a modern adaptation of the classic Sinclair ZX81 computer from the '80s. The keyboard is going to be love/hate for some people (it's like typing on a tablet) but it actually works. Of course, you can also control it from a MIDI controller, whether from IK Multimedia or a third party, though it's obviously not as portable when you do that.

The Uno Synth comes with the necessary USB, Midi and Lightning (iOS) cables so it's easy to connect with other equipment. (Though to connect to a Mac or PC you'll need an audio interface also.) There's also a recently updated and totally free synth editor app for Mac/Windows/iOS which gives you a few more controls and makes it easy to load or save libraries of preset sounds and sequences. One thing I would love if there were more tutorials on using the Uno Synth with GarageBand or Logic Pro and how to create interesting sounds and sequences. I suspect a lot of buyers of the Uno Synth are going to be new to this type of music creation. If you're on the fence, give it a shot, there's plenty of fun to be had and the sound is great.

Uno drum

The Uno Drum

The newly announced Uno Drum has the identical dimensions and similar layout as the Uno Synth, though it's all white compared to the all-black synth. In some ways it's an even more stylish looking device, contrasting with the recent trend in black and grey portable synths. Of course, the layout is different since it has a dozen velocity-sensitive pads for drums (hi-hat, kick, toms, snare, rim, cymbal,  ride, cowbell, etc.) as well as a few different buttons and settings. But between the Uno Synth and Drum, if you know one, you can probably figure out the other without even cracking the manual. You can daisy-chain the Uno synth and Uno Drum together which is kind of cool.

I don't know much about drum machines, but the Uno Drum includes analog sampled drums (from SampleTank) as well as synthesized PCM drum sounds. There are 100 built-in drum kits, 100 patterns and a 64 step (!) sequencer, which is much better than the Uno Synth's 16 steps.  Not to mention that you can chain sequences together into songs, a feature that is missing on the Uno Synth, though you can sort of simulate it by overwriting presets. There are also built-in controls for adding swing, dynamics, stutter and randomization to give a more human feel. As with the Uno, it's both USB and battery-powered, with headphone audio, midi in/out, cables etc. No news yet on a software editor, though it seems likely. 

The Uno Drum is available for pre-order for $250 with free shipping.

Future Synth Designs 

It'll be interesting to see where IK Multimedia takes the Uno line in the coming years. Personally, I'm hoping for a Duo polyphonic synth / groovebox that lets you lay down multiple tracks, maybe something like Tomm Buzzetta's proposed synth designs for his "Rhythm Section" groovebox and "Grab on the go" workstation. There are a lot of synths out there, but no one is optimizing for ease-of-use and fun like IK Multimedia.

Here's a good overview video of the Uno synth from the used gear marketplace Reverb.


Television - Live from El Club, Detroit

Television el club

I managed to see one of my all-time favorite bands last night, Television, live at El Club in Detroit. It's not a venue I've been to before and despite a few ominous comments on Yelp, it's a fine club in a fine neighborhood. I had no problem finding street parking, partly because I was ridiculously early. At any rate, the staff are nice and there's an outdoor patio as well as the bar indoors. El Club doesn't have much in the way of seating, just two booths way at the back, but since I didn't want to be standing on my feet wedged up at the front of the stage for three hours, that's what I opted for. 

You can get a beer at El Club for $5, a very thin slice of pizza for $3 and shots for not a lot more. Although the beer selection isn't massive, it's better than a lot of clubs, and they had a fair number of Michigan craft beers. The opening act was some guy with shades, a beard, a Strat and some weird-ass sound effects. I don't know if he was putting it through a synth or running a synth on the side but it was less than exciting. I don't mind experimental electronic music, but I had to leave the room after a while. It was just painful. Television didn't come on until 9:30, after an hour of melodic bells. Detroit audiences being what they are started shouting "No more bells!" 

I've seen Television twice before in 2014 and 2016 and they don't vary the setlist too much. The band opened with a somewhat spacey intro and then dove into "1880 Or So." When I saw Television in 2014, I was right up at the front of the stage and I was blown away, noting especially how strong Tom Verlaine's vocals were. Alas, in the five years since, they're not quite as smooth. The vocals are way down in the mix which may or may not be a good thing. 

They played quite a few songs from their landmark 1977 album "Marquee Moon" ("Venus," "Friction," "Elevation...") , as well as the somewhat obscure and in my mind overrated single "Little Johnny Jewel."  I would have rather heard "Call Mr. Lee" which someone had shouted. But Television concerts are so rare, I'm not gonna complain. I'd listen to them play the phonebook. The largely instrumental jam song Persia was a highlight as was the title track "Marquee Moon."

Television is one of those bands that still gives me goosebumps 40 years later. If you ever get the chance, go see them. There are a few more gigs next week in Toronto, Cleveland and Chicago.