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. 


Thomas Dolby - Speed of Sound

Speed of sound

I've read a lot of biographies about musicians and my fair share of business bios, but Thomas Dolby's improbable "The Speed of Sound" is one of the best. Dolby creates a compelling narrative that puts you in the scene, without the usual aggrandizing. He gives you a feel for what it was like to be carving out a living as a geeky synth player in the late 70s and early 80s. Then as his music career starts to fade, Dolby gets involved in film soundtracks and eventually moves the San Francisco Bay Area to become a tech entrepreneur, creating a technology to put sound on the web and in mobile phones.  He sheds light on the questionable ways of the music industry (and Silicon Valley) that makes the story especially powerful. 

DolbyWhile I was familiar with Dolby's early musical work with such songs as "One of Our Submarines" and "She Blinded Me With Science," I wouldn't say I was a huge fan. But if were around in the '70s and '80s you'll appreciate his stories of blagging his way into an Elvis Costello gig, going to see Television and the Talking Heads, doing sound for bands like The Members and Gang of Four. Dolby had pretty wide-ranging musical credits playing synth with acts as divergent as Foreigner(!), David Bowie at Live Aid and Rogers Waters in his record-breaking performance of The Wall in Berlin.

Similarly, his description of the dot-com frenzy in the bay area, is spot on. He describes decisions, good and bad, that led to the rise and near IPO of his company, as well as the miss-steps that led to its downfall. (Interesting coincidence: Dolby's software company Beatnik Audio started at a small office on Third Street in San Mateo, where many years later, I also worked at a startup company.) 

Most of all, what emerges is the portrait of a man who found his calling as a music boffin who always remained curious.


Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace

Amazing grace title

You'll be forgiven for not having heard of the film "Amazing Grace." After all, it was shot 47 years ago and until recently never available due to a combination of technical difficulties and legal issues. However, it is now available and showing in theaters and definitely worth seeing. 

Aretha choir  The film was originally shot in 16mm by Sydney Pollack at the behest of Warner Brothers. The occasion was to be a live recording of the Queen of Soul's return to her gospel roots at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts over two evenings.  It would be a live album as well as a Hollywood theatrical release, following on the success of Woodstock. Unfortunately, Pollack had never shot live music before and failed to sync the film to the audio recording. Luckily Alan Elliott, with Pollack's blessing, took over the project in 2008 and, with the use of modern computers, was able to digitally sync everything.

My wife and I managed to see the film over Easter weekend and it was terrific. Even if you're not a huge fan of gospel, you cannot help but be moved by the spirituality of the music. Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir show the power of music in their emotional renditions of these songs. The audience swaying and clapping along and if you look closely you'll see long-haired and pale-faced Charlie Watts and Mick Jagger are there on the second night at the back.

It's no surprise that the album went on to become the best-selling gospel record of all time. But it's a shame that neither Franklin nor Pollack were able to live to see the release of this film. 

 


Jerry Leger - European Tour

Jerry Leger - Ireland 2

Jerry Leger & The Situation are one of Canada's best bands in years. I wrote a review of their album "Nonsense & Heartache" after seeing them live in Toronto a few weeks back.  Now, they're on their first ever European tour. By all reports, things are going very well. There's still a week to go and 5 more gigs to play in England including Glasgow, Durham, Manchester and London. After that it's back home to Canada with more dates planned in May in Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI. If you're a fan of indie rock with a retro vibe, check them out. 

My brother managed to catch a couple of shows in Ireland, and although the crowds were thinner than expected, the shows were excellent. Here's some video of a few of the songs from the set taken from the "Heartache" portion of the "Nonsense & Heartache" album. "Big Smoke Blues" is my favorite. If you haven't picked up the album, I highly recommend it.  

Have you seen Jerry Leger live? Listened to his album? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.


BNL Gordon - 25 Years On

Gordon

It was great to see Barenaked Ladies be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame at the Juno Awards in Vancouver recently. And even better, founding member Steven Page rejoined the band for a short performance. Although the Page and BNL have continued to release albums separately, it was a reminder of just how strong they were together. 

Here's a video of their performance at the Junos.

I saw BNL live a couple of times in the 90's and they were always full of energy. They had big hits with "One Week," "The Old Apartment," and "It's All Been Done" among others selling more than 15 million albums worldwide. But it all started with "Gordon," which was a massive in Canada upon its release in the summer of 1992.

So how does "Gordon" stand up today? Very well! It's a wonderful quirky and unique album. Clocking in at 59 minutes, its effectively a double album. BNL had a unique style stemming from the strong vocal harmonies of founders Steven Page and Ed Robertson. They also had a distinct rhythm section coming from the double bass and occasional congas, rather than a standard rock electric bass and full drum kit. And they blended elements of pop, folk and jazz... but oh, those vocal harmonies. 

The songs on "Gordon" range from the delightful "Hello, City" to the goofiness of "Grade 9" and the anguish of "Brian Wilson." There's melancholy mixed in with up-tempo crazy and lounge lizard jazz.  It's an odd mix that shouldn't work, but does because of the great musicianship and vocals. There are 15 tracks on the album and in my view 14 of them are excellent. (I would leave off "New Kid (On the Block)" though others might chose "Grade 9" or "Box Set.") Oh yeah, and it has "If I had $1000000." You can't help but listen to this album and smile.

 While everyone made a strong contribution to this album, there is no doubt that Steven Page's songwriting and vocals helped make "Gordon" a masterpiece. If Page should ever reconcile with his former bandmates to rejoin for a tour, it would be every fan's dream.   


Jerry Leger - Nonsense & Heartache

Jerry Leger

I had the good fortune of seeing Jerry Leger & The Situation live in Toronto recently. They have a strong local following for their regular gig at Castro's Lounge in the Beaches area of town. While guitarist and pedal steel player James McKie was not in attendance, the band plays well as a trio and it was  an excellent show.

The band pulled heavily from Leger's most recent double album "Nonsense & Heartache," which I highly recommend. The album was produced by Cowboy Junkies guitarist Michael Timmins. In a single album Leger manages to cram a lifetime of film noir vignettes with titles such as "Forged Check," "Coat on the Rack," "Hired Gun," "Baby's Got a Rare Gun," and "She's The Best Writer You've Never Heard Of." the album is pulling from a wide range of influences including '50s rock and roll, R&B, Blues and Rockabilly sounding like a mix of "Highway 61 Revisited," "Watching The Detectives," and "Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing."

Leger has been playing with the Situation for ten years and in an earlier era, they would have earned a gold record and sold-out shoes across America. As it stands, they will be embarking on a month-long tour of Europe starting this week with dates in Germany, Sweden, Norway, UK and Ireland. In May they'll be touring Canada. Hopefully momentum for this album will build and they'll undertake a tour of the US in the fall.  

I managed to shoot a couple of videos which you can view below. If you have the chance to see them on tour, I highly recommend it. And tell 'em Zack said hi.

And for comparison, here's the official video for "Big Smoke Blues," which was also shot at Castro's Lounge and around Toronto. 


Paul Weller - Live in Detroit

Weller 3

I'm a bit behind in my posts, so I'll keep this one short. Paul Weller did a US tour, following his fall European tour, and I managed to see him live in Detroit at St Andrew's Hall. I'd seen Weller some years earlier at the Warfield in San Francisco and that was a good show.

More than 10 years later, the Modfather is rocking harder than ever. His voice was in great shape, the band was tight and they also played a much broader range of songs including hits from The Jam, The Style Council and his early solo work. I never thought I'd get to hear "My Ever Changing Moods" live and it was incredible. Songs 

Guitar player and longtime sidekick Steve Craddock from Ocean Color Scene was in absolutely stellar form.  They also played songs from the two most recent albums "A Kind Revolution" and the awesome "Saturns Patterns." Because it was Detroit, he finished off with a nice Motown set including the old Jam standby "Heat Wave."

It was a great show and I captured a couple of songs on video.

 


Best Show of 2017: Greta Van Fleet!

Greta 1

I was able to see quite a few good shows this past year, including Paul Weller, Paul Kelly, Wishbone Ash, Jethro Tull and more. But the best gig by far was a December show by Greta Van Fleet. Although they're a Michigan band, I wasn't able to get tickets to their sold-out Detroit shows. Instead, my wife managed to get $10 tickets (!) in Kansas and we turned it into a weekend road trip. 

For those who don't know, Greta Van Fleet are classic rock's latest up-and-coming superstars. This is a young band, ranging from 18-21 years in age. Oh, and three of them are brothers. It's hard to believe, but these young kids rock as hard as Led Zep ever did. In fact the first time my wife heard their hit single "Highway Tune" last summer, she thought it was some long-lost Zeppelin song that had never been released. They've only released 8 songs so far, and the songs on their initial EP are definitely in the Page/Plant school of classic rock. It will be interesting to see how they expand their range and repertoire as they release more material.  

And while they are young musicians, they have incredible chops. The band may not always have the greatest stage presence --singer Josh Kiszka is tentative on occasion -- but they are one of the tightest bands I have ever heard. They sound like they've been playing together night after night for years on end. Which is exactly what they have been doing.  

If you get a chance to see them live, I highly recommend it. Looks like their next tour takes them through Europe in the spring.

Here's a short video from the concert as well as the official video for Highway Tune. 


Paul Kelly - Live in SF

  Paul Kelly - 1b

Paul Kelly has been one of my favorite musicians since a trip a few years back to Australia. A buddy set me up with an iPhone full of Australian music and Paul Kelly's "Songs from the South" greatest hits album ended up in heavy rotation. In the fall, I saw that he had released a new album "Life is Fine" which was shooting up the charts, and embarking on a tour of North America. Even better, my other Australian mate Rob got tickets to see him at Slim's in San Francisco. 

Although Kelly only went on stage at 10pm (a late night for an old fart like me!) it was a corker of a shoe. Slim's is a modest size club (capacity of about 500) and they were mostly full, which is pretty good for a weeknight. I'm pretty sure I was the only non-Australian there and everyone seemed to have had about 4 more beers than I did. So it was a lively and exuberant audience. With five decades of touring and recording, Paul Kelly is a national treasure in Australia; he's written songs that are uniquely Australian with world-wide appeal. 

Kelly has quite a bit of acoustic and bluegrass music in his background, but I was glad that this was more of a rock and roll show with a full band. He played the new album "Life is Fine" in its entirety and then went into a greatest hits set with two encores. The new album is good, though I was not familiar with it. I recognized just about every song after that including classics like "From St Kilda to King's Cross," "To Her Door," "Before Too Long," "How to Make Gravy," and "Darling It Hurts."  The show ran two hours and it was one of the best shows of the year.

Here's a video of a song "Firewood & Candles" from the new album.

 


Rock Opera: Klaatu - Hope

Klaatu hope

If you know one thing about the obscure prog rock band Klaatu, it's that in the late 1970s they were rumored to be the Beatles. Of course, that wasn't the case, as legions of Beatles fans later realized when they, you know, actually listened to the first Klaatu album. But they were a pretty good, if undervalued band. 

Haling from Toronto, these three studio musicians thought that "the music should speak for itself." Hence, no bios, photos or interviews with the band, not even credits indicating who played or wrote the songs. And since they were signed to Capitol Records, some bonehead reporter for the Providence Journal thought it must be the fab four reunited.

At any rate, when all these Beatles rumors surfaced, sales for their first album soared. And admittedly, there are a couple of Beatlest-esque tunes on the first album, notably "Subway Sub Rosa" and "Little Neutrino." Meanwhile the band shrugged off the rumors since they were busy in London recording their second album, the rock opera "Hope," with the London Symphony Orchestra. And The Carpenters released had a hit single with their version of Klaatu's "Calling Occupants from Interplanetary Craft."

And I've got to say, "Hope" is one helluva an album. Although it clocks in at just over 40 minutes, it is ambitious and grandiose musically and thematically. It tells the story of an ancient race or planet of space travelers and a lonely lighthouse keeper at the end of space or who the heck knows what. There is a story here, which is why I think this qualifies as a rock opera more than just a concept album, but I wouldn't be able to explain it to you. Still, I would put it up there with SF Sorrow by The Pretty Things. It's that good an album.

While the whole album is excellent, I view "Long Live Politzania" as the best cut. Ok, and some of the vocals on this album do sound a bit like George Harrison but I think it's just coincidental. The guitar work on "Madman" is also excellent. The music has a '70s extravagance that you will either love or hate. There are elements that compare with Queen, King Crimson, Supertramp, the Beach Boys, fellow Canadians Max Webster and others from that era.

Unfortunately, at some point the truth behind the rumor ("Klaatu is Klaatu!") surfaced and there was a huge backlash against the band. This was unfortunate because the band had nothing to do with these rumors. The band recorded three more albums before breaking up. 

The first three albums are excellent while I consider the last two a bit more hit-or-miss. There's also an excellent box set called "Sun Set" which includes all of Hope with all of the London Symphony Orchestra sections fully restored. The albums are available on Amazon, iTunes and from the official Klaatu website.

Since live footage of Klaatu is relatively hard to come by, here's a 1974 live performance on CBC Music Machine with a song from their first album. 

You can also find more rock opera reviews at www.rock-opera.com


Ted Leo - Live in Detroit

Ted leo band 1

Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, one of my favorite bands in the last twenty years, is on tour promoting their first new album in seven years. Although the album "The Hanged Man" was mostly composed and performed by Ted Leo as a solo project, this is a full band tour. I managed to see them at Detroit's Magic Stick club and it was a great show.

There were two local opening acts Someone Who Isn't Me (SWIM) and the delightfully energetic punk pop band Ryan Allen and his Extra Arms. Ryan and crew did a great job with 110db of high energy rock loaded with hooks. Ryan's a fan of Ted Leo from way back and the band certainly held their own with this audience. 

Ted LeoTed Leo went on stage about 9:40pm. Although there was no separate encore, it was a two hour show which was not bad for a Wednesday night. The band was incredibly tight with Leo's trademark distorted punk guitar, a powerful rhythm section with the full force of drummer Chris Wilson, Adrienne Berry on sax and backing vocals, and at times three (!) guitar players resulting in a wonderfully frenetic and soulful sound. There were only minor order changes in the setlist from shows in Toronto, Boston, DC in the last week. The tour is drawing heavily from the new album, which is quite solid.

Leo was garrulous about his descent into piano and acoustic guitar singer-songwriter form, but the songs don't need any apologies. Highlights included the upbeat R&B influenced "Can't Go Back," "Run to the City," "Lonsdale Avenue" and "Let's Stay On The Moon." There's still plenty of fast-paced songs, but Leo is painting from a wider palette than previously with a couple of more relaxed songs, rich in vocal harmonies. But when the band got to the more rocking numbers, they were full-on explosive and moving in a chaotic choreography. Despite Ted's protestations that his voice was rough, he sang beautifully.

The band also played a good assortment of songs from earlier albums including "Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?," "Parallel or Together," "The High Party," and my favorite song "Biomusicology."  I think we can all agree "Biomusicology" is one of the greatest songs ever written. Heck it could be a Lennon / McCartney / Strummer / Weller composition, for all I can tell. That song just sends a chill down my spine. And although I was hoping to hear "Timorous Me" in an encore, the rest of the material was so good and the banter so enjoyable I can't fault Leo for skipping a couple of songs.

I managed to shoot video of several of these songs. I think the audio captured and processed on my iPhone is possibly better than it sounded at the club. I always find the mix at MagicStick to suffer from too much bass and drum and not enough vocals.

The band is on it's way to Chicago and touring coast-to-coast through December. If you haven't seen Ted Leo live before, this is a tour worth catching.