Studio Stuff

Refreshing a Leslie 222’s Tube Amp

Though a friend, I was notified of a Hammond organ and Leslie that were free for the taking about a year ago.  It turns out that the instrument was a Hammond H-100.  This was a “home” version of the B-3.  Like the B-3, it has a full set of tonewheels.  Unlike the B-3, it adds several “orchestral voices” that are really not very emulative.  The organ from a monetary standpoint is worthless.  While it does the tonewheel thing just like the B-3, it is not really a B-3.

The Leslie is an interesting beast.  It’s a Leslie 222.  This is the “home” version of the 122, and is laid out horizontally instead of vertically.  The treble rotor is beside the bass rotor, so the whole thing is about the size of a standard high-boy Leslie turned on its side.  This one is finished in “Provincial Walnut” It has a tube amplifier that looked as new as the day it was built when I opened it up – not a speck of dust inside.

The Leslie was very noisy with static, pops, and a hum too!  After 40 years, all the capacitors were quite shot, so it was time for a rebuild.  I ordered a rebuild kit and instructions from here.  They have rebuild kits for organs and Leslie speakers of all types.  Their 122 kit had everything needed to fully refresh the amp.

So, after storing it in my studio for a year, I got tired of looking at it and decided it was time to move it along.  I followed the directions and replaced all the capacitors with fresh modern ones (that’s all the Orange Drops in the picture).  One of the power supply diodes was also fried, so I replaced all four of those as well.

Re-Capped Leslie

I had a frustrating go at first until I put a bigger tip on my soldering iron.  The old leads were kind of chunky and just needed more surface area to transfer the heat.  Once I was going, it went pretty quickly. The nice thing is that the schematic is printed on the side of the amp, and it is also available on-line.  This made verifying all the parts and their location very simple.

The amp worked correctly as soon as I turned it on.  All the magic smoke staying inside, and it is ready for another 10-15 years of service.

There is something to be said for the serviceability of a fine tube amplifier.  All the parts are readily available, often with better parts than were available at the time of construction.  The work is simple, and anyone who can solder can easily complete basic maintenance.

The organ and Leslie are on their way to my neighbor, who used to play, but hasn’t had a instrument in years.  It will be good to move this out of my space and onto its next owner.  I will certainly be glad to have the floorspace back.

For my own use, I think I’ll just stick to emulators.  There is magic in a perfectly maintained and updated tube Leslie matched with a fine and fully restored B-3.  There are also not that many of them, and they require maintenance.  B-3 maintenance is a whole different level or maintenance than a tube amp.  Not really being a Hammond player at heart, the emulations are frankly good enough for my purposes.  I’d rather spend my instrument maintenance budget on my piano.  Putting a screaming organ behind some distorted guitars seems to work fine with VB-3 or the B-3 emulation built into Apple’s Mainstage.  Both are quite serviceable.  There is a bit of magic that happens with the sound bouncing around inside the room, but not having ever played the real thing, I don’t miss what I don’t have muscle memory for.

Long Term Investment

In the last post, we discussed a framework for evaluating musical technology that centered around how well it facilitated artistic vision.  I have been thinking a lot about this because of a fluke rash of equipment issues in my studio.  Camel Audio decided not to keep the Alchemy synth software going, my box of knobs failed on a firmware update, and my Bowen synth no longer turns on.  In all cases, the manufactures have been helpful, but equipment or software that I use regularly suddenly became “unavailable”.  In no way does it stop me from making music, or being creative.  But it takes time and money to remedy or replace the lost capability.  My trombone doesn’t do this in the same way, or my classical guitar – though in fairness, both could easily be destroyed through careless handling.  The net result has been that I’ve been considering how I’ve invested into musical instruments and technology and have been thinking about how I want to position myself moving forward.

As I think about categories of investment I’ve made, I make several observations:

Software is the least permanent, whether synthesizers or DAWs, effects, etc.  Versions come and go.  Apple updates OSX every year, as Microsoft does with Windows.  Digital rot is real, and in most cases it is “upgrade or die” where file formats and software are concerned.  There is a real ongoing cost of doing this of time and money.  Yes, one can “freeze” a system at a moment in time and use it until the hardware dies, but it doesn’t change anything – that simply makes a full upgrade of all hardware and software at once inevitable.  I’d rather pay the tax gradually as tech is so disruptive when it is not working.  Software is basically worth it in terms of immediate and constant use.  Software things that are not going to see regular use just aren’t a good investment unless matched with cash flow from a project.  There is just too much drift and loss over time for this to be strategic for me.  I have mid-term investments into Cubase for my orchestral template and probably 150-200 hours of working on that.  DAWs won’t go away, but try telling a composer he or she has to move their templates….  Possible, but no fun, and a major interruption to productivity.

Computer based controllers need to be reasonably priced for this reason – they too are tied to operating systems and digital rot. It is unlikely that I will be using the same box of knobs and buttons in 15 years.  If I get 3-5 years of solid use, I’ll probably be glad, and I need to keep these things in check accordingly.  The Ableton Push is also in this bucket.  Useful if used, but it will not have a long shelf life relative to a piano or high-quality microphone.

Orchestral sample libraries are pretty stable, and do not soon go obsolete.  As time marches onward the programming and scripting improves and the state of the art moves forward.  The cost of buying a complete “virtual orchestra” at the state-of-the art is high, but promises 5-10 years of commercially viable capability.  In this world, continued availability and updates to Native Instrument’s Kontakt sampler is a critical part of the infrastructure, along with Vienna’s Ensemble Pro software that distributes load across my computers.  Those are dependencies for which no perfect alternative exists.   This whole industry is made of small players compared to the giant MI companies like Korg or Yamaha or Roland.  Again, there are maintenance costs, but beyond a certain point of having the necessary orchestral palette, having every possible flavor is not a strategic goal for me.  While some growth of my sample library is inevitable, I consider myself pretty well invested and there is a pretty high bar for me to consider adding additional things at this point.  Certainly, I am not significantly limited in what I can compose and turn out at a professional level.

Electronic instruments like my Bowen Solaris synthesizer are supposed to offer a stability and longevity that exceeds software.  By virtue of having a dedicated firmware that is stable, the idea is that this kind of gear leaves the factory in full working order and keeps working until physical failure or mechanical damage intervene.  Because there is not an operating system to upgrade or other software to conflict, hardware does tend to be much more stable and reliable.  Gear like this works just fine without ongoing updates.  It works the same every time.  That said, my Bowen is currently sick. It will be fixed – John is a great guy and very responsive.  But what about 10 years from now? It is doubtful that it will still be made new.  It is unlikely that there will be a parts depot for key parts.  Unless it is a simple power supply issue, the reality is that it will likely not be repairable.  So, I see both sides with hardware synths, and embedded systems like audio interfaces.  It is certain that USB has and will outlive whatever OS Microsoft and Apple make this year, but these are also not likely to be around in another ten years.  Even with hardware, many things that we take for granted are really just tools of the moment,and need to be justified by significant and immediate use.

I would tend to categorize the Seaboard in this category as well, except that it serves a different function for me.  It’s long term viability is unknown, though I wish Roli maximal success, as it has software dependency on OSX.  It cannot work without a computer.  That said, this is on my “R&D” list.  In order to be at the front of progress, one must be at the front of progress. There are lots of ways to be there in software and hardware.  None of us can try or own every product.  I want to be involved with this one and it fits my situation, so whether I am playing it in 10 years or not, I will have had an experience at the forefront of a new era of controllers and that is worth something to me, and it is worth being part of that dialog.  There is a fundamental shift happening in controllers, and it is important to electronic music and musicians that these develop and are adopted.

Other types of electronic hardware can be much more long lasting due to serviceable components and lack of digital components.  Microphones, monitor speakers, amplifiers, electric guitars and basses, analog recording equipment all fall into this category.  These items are rarely cheap, but are serviceable, most parts are available apart from the manufacturer, and much of this equipment can last for 20-30 years, even with very regular professional use.  Not all items in these categories have that much life in them, but the best items certainly do, and can last for the better part of a career.  My current monitor speakers are over 10 years old and still working very well. They have been a fantastic investment, and I would have to spend a lot to do better in my room.  It is definitely possible to make strategic investments in this category for tools that will see daily use.  At the same time, buying highly specialized microphones for infrequent use isn’t worth it.  Studio time is too easily rented where those pieces exist.

Acoustic instruments sit atop my chart for longevity expectation and strategic value.  Some instruments, like a grand piano, age at about the same rate as a human being and one or two instruments can last a lifetime.  Acoustic guitars and stringed instruments like violins and violas can last a very long time with proper care and repair.  Professional wind, and brass instruments are not as durable as these instruments mentioned so far due to mechanical complexity, but can certainly be expected to last 7-15 years under heavy professional use with appropriate maintenance.  Most professional players would purchase new instruments before 7 years, but this would be after many thousands of hours of demanding use, and at least in part due to changed requirements or tonal preference.  If the hours of use are reduced, many instruments can last for decades.

It turns out that in our technology driven era, choosing equipment has artistic implications and requires a variable investment profile with a mix of short and long-term investments.  Choosing one’s place on both artistic and investment dimensions is important.  Some will need to be on the cutting edge technicality, and their instruments and studios will be constantly shifting mix of software and hardware.  Archiving to WAV file will be very important for this group to avoid losing work to digital rot.  For others, playing and physicality are more important, and for them, the scale will tilt heavily towards more traditional interfaces and instruments, serviceable electronics, and longer-term investments – often at a larger cost per item.  I suspect that the absolute cost is similar.  For the $8,000 it takes to buy a fine professional oboe, one can buy and upgrade quite a lot of software, so it really is a matter of preference.  I have become more clear on my preferences by writing this.  How do you think about investing in musical instruments and equipment?

Evaluating Music Technology

Manufacturers of all instruments have it pretty well figured out. They just need to find a musician who can do something impressive with the instrument, software or device and make a video recording of it.  From this, no end of “eager desire” can be generated.  The implied message is clear, “Buy this instrument/sample library/synth/whatever, and you will make impressive music too!”.  Generally, the tool in question delivers exactly what it says on the tin, and if approached with thought, significant amounts of creativity and physical ability, “impressive” is within reach.  In the last several years, the market has been flooded with devices and software in the $200-$500 mark, and gear flies off the shelves.  By modularizing the purchase price into small hits of $200-$500, the modular synth industry is undergoing a renaissance or sorts.  This seems to hold true from synths to sample libraries, to beat boxes, keyboards, and any number of cheap guitars, drum sets, etc.  By the time the price hits $1000, sales volume drops off rapidly.

In some ways, for many in the “first world”, the cost of new electronic and software music “widgets” has reached a point where new gear can be purchased regularly.  For software, it doesn’t even take up space in one’s home, so the clutter can become invisible.  This is very different than the world of physical instruments like trombones and pianos, where it takes thousands of dollars or tens of thousands of dollars to purchase an instrument.  Interestingly, once one has a fine concert instrument, there is often little felt need for another.  Additional instruments tend to be focused on other applications or significantly different tone colors.  With software, though, the tendency seems to be to keep adding and keep adding.

In an interview with Seth Godin, Krista Tippet uncovered a number of significant nuggets of thought from Seth that weigh on the selection of technology. At some level, the use of technology is inherent in music making.  Physical instruments are one form of technology.  Electronic instruments like guitars and basses are another.  Then we have the whole world of electronics, computers and software.  If it makes noise, humans will use it for music, it seems.  So how do we select technology for our music?

Seth offers several penetrating questions for evaluating technology:

  • Does this help me hide?
  • Does it carry artistic risk and motivate forward motion?
  • Does it make me uncomfortable as an artist?
  • Does it challenge me in making art?

Technology can easily help us hide.  It takes a lot of time to master most tools, making it far easier to purchase ever newer tools in a vain search for progress, when the progress comes from mastering what is right in front of us.  This phenomenon affects all artists who use technology from photographers, to musicians, studio owners, etc.  With the interconnectedness of the world, it can be a part-time job just keeping up on al the latest advancements in a field – all available for purchase, and all demonstrated by someone doing something amazing!

But, technology can also carry artistic risk and propel forward motion.  The Seaboard is this way for me.  I know it is very expressive, but how expressive can I make it?  Am I willing to find out?  There are no lessons for it – it is up to my own initiative. It looks at me and stares, daring me to find its limits.  I don’t know about its durability, permanence or the fate of the company.  I need to make things with it now, not later.  Being digital, it may not “keep” for 20 years.  It is a tool of the moment.

Computers have been making people uncomfortable for years, along with all the arcane software we have devised.  This is one way that technology can hinder art.  If we spend our time “geeking out”, that is usually a different space than the creative impulse.  Technology problems can definitely distract us right away from finishing things.  But, technology can also make us uncomfortable and goad us.  We may hear a new way to use something associated with dance music, heavy metal, or whatever and think – they haven’t begun to explore the goodness that I hear.  Good or bad?  I suppose it depends.

Does it challenge me in making art?  Do I wonder if I can measure up?  For some, this is exactly what turns them off about EDM – they feel that “anyone” can push buttons on a computer.  For others, the computer and a sequencer are a limitless playground offering constant chance for growth, experimentation and forward progress.

In all of this, “Musician, know thyself” seems to be the only lasting advice.  I find Seth’s framework helpful, and the questions insightful.  My office surrounds me with music technology, and I have a large investment into software and musical electronics. I spend many hours bending computers to my will for my orchestral template, my DSO project, and for composing and notating music.  And yet, I have been climbing off the acquisition treadmill. I don’t really need anymore subtractive synthesizers.  I don’t need another string library.  And I find my attention moving on from building my template to just sitting down and using it.  Ultimately we as artists must rule the technology and bend it to our will – it must not be allowed to seduce us from our mission of actually making things and striving to be more expressive and effective in our art.

Preserving Synth Patches

Just this week, Camel Audio, the makers of the Alchemy software synthesizer closed shop.  This is a real loss to the synthesizer community.  Alchemy provides a very unique mix of synthesis modes: additive, granular, spectral, and subtractive with FM also possible.  That is a LOT of power.  Additionally for me, the Galbanum Architecture waves integrate beautifully.

Now, my Alchemy instances are not going to suddenly just stop working.  They are 64 bit, and running well on all my computers, which are all up-to-date.  I can likely get several more years of use.  But, that is by no means assured.  All it takes is an operating system update that makes a minor change to one library file Alchemy depends on.

The reality is that this afflicts hardware too, but to a much lesser degree.  Hardware can fail, chips or components can be unavailable – there are many possible failure modes that would render a device inoperable or non-repairable.  In the case of my Bowen Solaris, it is simply a rare device – I can’t go to Guitar Center and pick up a new one.

So, some form of sound archiving is necessary to preserve important work.  The answer lies in sampling.  The WAV format is probably the single most universal audio format we have.  Every sampler works with WAV.  There may be many issues with format, translation, etc but there are good tools like Chicken System’s Translator to help with this.  Software like Sample Robot can make quick work of auto-sampling software and hardware synthesizers.  Powerfully, it can modify multiple parameters to make sure the expressive potential of a patch is captured as designed.  In my case, for working with the Seaboard, I will need to sample velocity layers and then multiple pressure layers for each.  Happily drive space is cheap and plentiful, and organ-type of sounds will have easy loop points.

I used to wonder how producers and composers seem to end up with huge custom sample libraries.  Now I know – it is the only logical way to back up past work and all but guarantee that it will be accessible in some form in the future.

All program related data files are at also at risk – DAW files, synth presets, configuration files or score files from Sibelius.  These are all proprietary closed formats that will become obsolete within 3-5 years as products mature or cease to exist.  Finished projects should be archived as WAV files and scores should be saved as PDF or bitmap images.  When I think about how many plugins I have, and how often something is updating or changing in some way, there is no other way to ensure that the output of a project remains available.

Sustain Pedal with VAX77, Mainstage and Omnisphere

Many of the patches that I use live with Omnisphere are pads or other sounds for which the sustain pedal is not a factor.  I recently set up a sound, however that I wanted the sustain pedal to be active, but I couldn’t sort it out at first.  This post will explain what I found out through experimentation.

My VAX77 is set to talk to Mainstage on ch16.  This is the recommendation and default behavior when in “Host Mode”.  This causes no end of complications in a world that assumes MIDI ch1 is where the action is. I seem to always find new places that this assumption rears its head.

Inside Omnisphere, I set my patch to respond to ch 16, and it played back fine, but the sustain pedal would not work.  Mainstage’s MIDI monitor showed the sustain pedal coming in on Ch 16, as expected.  If I set Omnisphere to “learn” a new MIDI CC, I could get the on-screen sustain pedal to move, but it would not affect the sound.  I tried everything available, including “set all learned CC’s to Omni”, but to no avail.

It turns out that the answer is in Mainstage.  I had to highlight the channel strip with my Omnisphere instance loaded, and then change the MIDI Input Settings on the “Software Instrument Channel Strip Inspector”.  See below:

Under the “Input” area, change the Keyboard type from “VAX 77” to “Multitimbral”.  This will bring up the following dialog:

You will need to change the last row so that the VAX77 is connected to Omnisphere ch 16.  Now the sustain pedal works inside Omnisphere.  Otherwise, somehow the notes go to Omnisphere on ch 16, but the controllers don’t.  I don’t think I fully understand this, but it works when configured this way.  The mod wheel, etc. also follow this pattern.

Adding Ableton Live 8 to the Rig

When it comes to working with loops and repetitive content in a live environment, there really isn’t anything easier to use than Ableton Live, particularly with any of the hardware controllers built for it.  I just picked up the AKAI APC40.  I chose it because I found their keyboard controllers to be substantially nicer than the much cheaper M-Audio ones, and figured the build quality would carry over.  It did, and I’m pleased with the feel of the pads and knobs.

The best part is that Ableton is currently having an upgrade special.  The Akai controller comes with a bundled version of Ableton Live “Lite”.  After registering, it, I was offered the opportunity to upgrade to the Suite or full version for an extra $100 off the normal upgrade price.  The bottom line is that this is the cheapest way to get Ableton and the controller.  Buying the controller + the Suite is now only $50 more than buying the standard version + controller at regular prices.

If you are looking to jump into the world of Ableton Live, buying the controller and then upgrading directly on Ableton’s site is the best deal around until Feb. 29th.  All of the major on-line retailers are sold out of the APC40, but my local music store had it at the same price, so that was a win-win.

Like all sophisticated software, I’ve got a learning curve ahead of me on how to leverage this tool, but the basics are very easy with the control surface, and I’ve got it triggering loops, etc.  The controller looks complex, but is actually very simple.  It allows one to control 40 loops on one surface, conveniently organized into five “scenes”.  This allows me to individually change out clips, or launch 5 clips on a single button push.  This allow multiple rhythmic and harmonic elements to fire at once, creating wonderfully rich backgrounds and environments.  It is also a fully-featured live looping environment where new clips can be recorded on the fly and then manipulated with pre-planned loops.

VAX77 and Mainstage

As I mentioned in my initial review, the ability of the VAX77 to integrate with Mainstage was a significant consideration in my purchase of the controller.  I use Mainstage as the host for a variety of Logic and external AU instrument, including Omnisphere.  In this post, I’ll detail my experiences in setting up the VAX77 for use with Mainstage.  Obviously Mainstage setup itself could fill a whole blog worth of posts, so this won’t be about Mainstage per-se, but about the interaction of the VAX77 and Mainstage.

The good news is that the VAX77 does indeed work very well with Mainstage, and the functionality advertised is delivered.  I ran into a few minor setup issues to get everything working to my satisfaction.  The manual for the VAX77 is fairly terse when it comes to Mainstage.  Because they have done code integration work with Apple, the whole experience is pretty seamless from a VAX perspective.  The manual’s instructions are pretty much along the lines of, “plug it in.  it will work”.

When I plugged it into a default keyboard concert that ships with Mainstage, the included Rhodes patch played great.  I was off to the races and lost 30 minutes exploring the action, which really is quite excellent, as noted in my review.  When I tried adding Logic’s EV-B3 or Omnisphere, however, I could see the notes on the virtual keyboard move, but no sound would come out.  The MIDI monitor at the top of the Mainstage screen indicated that data was coming it on ch16.

This is where I erred.  There is a parameter mentioned in the manual that overrides the Mainstage default channel.  The manual recommends setting it to “NONE”, but I found that if I changed it to “1”, then everything would work.  If I set it to “NONE” or “16”, then only the Rhodes would work.  A quick email to Infinite Response asking what I was doing wrong provided the answer.  Incidentally this happened between Saturday evening and Sunday morning – definitely a great response time.  Here’s what they told me:

“Setting host override to 1 is not the best way to do things.

MainStage tells the VAX77 to transmit on channel 16 during the handshake. In order to have your MainStage instruments recognize channel 16 you must set the channel on the left side of the MainStage edit screen for the keyboard and all controls and sliders. Highlight each one then look for the associated channel number, click on it and change it to either 16 or 1-16.”

I had changed the channel on the VAX, but what I needed to do was make the channel changes inside Mainstage.  I reset the VAX77 override to “NONE” and  opened up Mainstage to look at the various assignments.  All of the main controls at the concert level for the hardware were correctly set to “1-16”, so they would receive on any channel.  I did have to assign the virtual sliders on the VAX to the eight knobs, but that was easy with the “Learn” button.  At this point, I had a working VAX77 on the EV-P instrument (Rhodes), but not on anything else.

As soon as I started looking through my other plugins in my main concert, the answer was right there – they were set to listen on MIDI ch. 1 as their “global” channel.  My previous controller used ch1 as default, so I never had to set anything – it all just worked.  Apparently some of the Logic AU instruments listen to anything, and others are particular and have to be set.  The EV-B3 definitely listens to ch1 by default.  As I went through each plugin and changed the MIDI channel to 16, everything fell into place.  I edited all my presets and saved the concert.

In my personal concert I needed to adjust the keyboard size to fit the VAX77 and map the sliders, as I mentioned above, but other than that it works as advertised.  For now, I have left the black key at the top as a program change “up” message.

I find that if I turn the VAX77 on first, then load Mainstage and my concert, everything works great.  The VAX senses Mainstage and changes from the “Channel Selector” view of the built-in librarian to Mainstage automatically.  My sets and patches are all listed and can be navigated via the touchscreen.

If I turn off the VAX while in Host Mode, leave Mainstage open, and then power the VAX back on, I end up in the Library mode and can’t get back to Host Mode and my concert.  But, even if the VAX is in Library Mode, if I exit Mainstage and restart Mainstage (without power cycling the VAX), then I get back into Host mode.  I presume that there is some handshake that happens when Mainstage starts that doesn’t occur if just the VAX restarts.  In my testing, if I loose power to the VAX, I will also need to restart Mainstage to get everything back to normal.  If I had to, and couldn’t afford to reload my patches in a set, I could spin the right side wheel to get to MIDI ch16, and then whatever is selected on my laptop screen in Mainstage is playable – I just loose the touchscreen.  I could make that work if I had to until I had time to restart Mainstage.  The moral of the story for me is to start Mainstage after the VAX, which is easy enough.  It would be a very rare event to loose power to the VAX, independent of some other gig-altering events, as even the power cord is not exposed to foot traffic in my setup.

Edit:  I’ve learned from Infinite Response that there is a very easy way to force the VAX and Mainstage to re-synch if there is a power event.  If you power the VAX off while connected to Mainstage and then power it back on, you will note that your concert does not load automatically.  A quick press of the blue button and it forces a resync, and everything is back to working in less than a second.  Very, very fast.  Very, very easy.

While the on-screen touch sliders are cool, they won’t be confused for the kind and quality of sliders you get on a current smartphone.  I know I could map them as organ drawbars, but  for me, they don’t really “drag” very well unless I use my little finger.  I can, however, put any finger where I want the fader to be and it will jump.  I am not primarily an organist, so I tend to have patches that are the sound I want, play them, and then do a program change to something else.  If you are primarily an organ player, any of the numerous inexpensive knob/siider controllers can easily be mapped.  The screen is not multi-touch, so if you like to grab a fistful of faders, this isn’t going to be your feature.

With a little aiming practice, I’m sure this would be usable for synth/parameter control . On the VAX’s touch faders,  I can get smooth fades, but I don’t always “get the fader” on first try right now.  My fingers are thin enough to play between the black keys, but I’m not yet comfortable that this is repeatably accurate for performance expression.  I find that my little finger works pretty well, but none of my other fingers reliably grab the fader and move it smoothly.  At the bottom of the fader’s travel I sometimes select the controller number instead of the fader itself.  Perhaps the “error” zone around a fader needs to be larger.  Many iPhone controls have a substantial “error zone” that makes it so a user can’t miss with long fingernails or such.  (Not that long fingernails are common for keyboard players)  For me this was not a purchase consideration.  Since knob/slider controllers are well under $200, I doubt this is a serious downside for anyone purchasing a VAX.

It would be significantly cool if the VAX learned the parameter names from Mainstage and put them on the scribble strip for the faders.  In fairness to Infinite Response; they only have two numbers there today, the MIDI controller numbers, so there isn’t much room.  Maybe the names could be written vertically, superimposed on the fader track.  When in fader mode, the fact that you don’t know what you are adjusting without counting controls on Mainstage renders it somewhat less useful.  I suppose that just like a physical fader box, you could program everything so that the same slider controls cutoff, resonance, etc in all your patches and AU/VST’s, and then the lack of naming wouldn’t matter.  Again, not a deal-breaker for me.

That said, the touchscreen is quite useful for selecting sounds in Mainstage and provides a great interface for setup.  It has been completely intuitive, and works flawlessly.  I don’t ever get the patch above or below what I think I’m selecting.  The screen responds fast in the heat of a gig, and is intuitive.  It is also easy to use to set up the VAX, and touching a parameter to adjust it is quite natural.  This is a much better solution that a simple alpha/numeric display with some cryptic menu that you have to use the manual to understand.

Because I use Mainstage to host everything I play with the VAX, I will not be reviewing the built-in librarian.  The VAX77 has flash memory that can store patches and MIDI setups for many external synthesizers, samplers, etc.  You can load in patch name lists via midinam files, and even map out the virtual sliders to patches.  It seems well-thought out enough, but this is not my world.  In practice, you either use “Host Control” to use with Mainstage, Receptor, or some PC host I’m not familiar with, or you use their librarian software, but not both at once.  Page 56 in the manual covers this in depth if you are in this situation and there are several options.  I’ll leave it for someone who gigs with modules or hardware synths to cover the librarian, if they use it.  It seems that MIDI is sufficiently flexible that there are any number of ways to change patches successfully in a stage rig, and it is a completely personal decision where you choose to keep your patch list.

What is strange is that I can make screens from the Librarian show up even if I am in Mainstage/Host Mode.  If in Mainstage mode I press the green button, it opens the librarian patch selector.  You can’t exit this mode without picking a patch, then deleting it and re-entering host mode.  It took me a few minutes to figure out how to get out of this menu once in it.  Given that Mainstage and Librarian are not recommended to be used together, I contacted Infinite Response and asked if this was by design, or could be changed.  I got an immediate response back  suggesting that a press of the green button send a user configurable control message.  A 2-sec press-and-hold would enter the Library for some of their users that do use both in a set.  This seems to accommodate the dedicated Mainstage user, gaining a useful button/eliminating a possible user error,  as well as someone using racks of external synths.  If Infinite Response implements this change, I’ll use the new button to start/stop a loop recorder or as a tap tempo.  Infinite Response seems to be a very responsive company.

Overall, I have to say that using Mainstage with the VAX77 is easy and satisfying.  The main thing is that the keyboard action is VERY expressive.  This is the main point of a keyboard instrument.  The patch selection via touchscreen works great, and there are (9) optional touch controls if you want to use them.  I have a Korg Nanopad that I use for triggering Ultrabeat loops so that I don’t loose any of my VAX77 keys to triggering samples.  It would be just as easy to add a knob/slider box for real-time parameter control if you were unhappy with the touch-faders.  I’m sure they will work fine for many, but it will take more experience before I trust them for critical parameters.  Physical knobs and sliders just work for some things….  I had a minor initial setup issue caused by not fully thinking through the VAX’s MIDI channel of 16, but that is nothing to hold against the controller or Infinite Response.  You will want to do your own testing on various power and USB cable disconnect scenarios between the VAX and Mainstage, but I am satisfied that I can play my sets so long as I have power.  I know how to get everything re-connected in Host Mode (push the blue button).  You will spend far more time adjusting your Mainstage concert parameters and plugins to meet your musical goals than you ever will messing with the VAX and Mainstage.  As the manual indicates, it just works.

Korg NanoPad Fixed

Probably two years ago I purchased a Korg Nanopad (black) to mess around with drum stuff in Ultrabeat.  I used it a bit, and then it was set aside for quite a while.  I remembered it recently and thought that it would be perfect for triggering Ultrabeat loops from Mainstage, so that I don’t have to loose any keys on my VAX to triggering samples.  My thought was to map one pad for tap tempo use, and the other 11 could be used to trigger samples.

This was a great plan until I plugged the Nanopad into my Mac.  Every time I pressed a pad, I would get a seemingly random MIDI note, and even note triggering was sporadic.  I tried downloading Korg Kontrol to remap the hardware.  No improvement.  I did notice that the octave designation is off by an octave between Korg Kontrol and Logic.  When the Korg is set to A-2, it shows up in Logic as A-1.  This is easy enough to get around, but if the triggers aren’t consistent and repeatable, what is the point?

I tried taking it apart to see if there was anything wrong, or maybe dusty, but that didn’t turn anything up.  I tried touching the sensors directly, without the rubber pads, and it worked a little better, but still not 100%.  Ultimately, I found this article which suggested peeling back the top sensor layer.  I did that over the length of the whole controller since only one of my pads was working correctly and repeatably out of twelve.  I made sure not to touch either the black material or the fine lines of the sensor grid.  The film is quite sticky, so I used a small screwdriver to pry it up, taking care not to damage the traces.

As soon as I reseated the top film, everything worked fine.  It makes me wonder if over time the top film adheres to the bottom film, and then it doesn’t work right any more.  At any rate, I now have all twelve pads and the X-Y controller working as they should.  Off to trigger samples!

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