Random NVDT “Standards” and a Writerly Concerns Update

Standards are supposed to make life easier. Devices from different manufacturers should talk to one another. My favorite was the original “plug and play.” Not. The same may be said of “class compliant” USB, leading us to believe drivers aren’t needed. Display to multiple monitors? Well, there’s 1.1, or 1.3 or 1.4. Which HDMI? If there were standards, blades or other accessories from one blender or mixer or coffee pot would work with others. “Standards” are set in place to make sure things are “standardized.” Like #2 Pencils whose lead varies widely. Number #2 Phillips screwdrivers. Some are deeper and pointier at the tip, some are more robust. Some are magnetized. Forget all that, lets get to something important. Like synthesizers.

The little white MXR box in the photo – I’ve had that since 1975. I still have it because I know standards are baloney. Several years ago, I decided to back out of the computer and get myself some gear with knobs again. There was all this noise about “euro rack standard” for inter-connectivity. More baloney. I bought a Moog Mother 32. I was so proud. I sold some stuff I liked to buy it, and it cost too much for what it was, but I knew Dr. Bob from way back. It sounded like a Moog. Sort of. I won’t go into why I sold it, but I did. For a combination of reasons. Not so “Standard” factored large because it wasn’t. Just like it wasn’t in 1975 when I went on an adventure from couch surfing in OKC all the way to Garland Texas, home of Arnold and Morgan Music. I bought an Oberheim SEM from Charley Lowe. I called first to be sure they had one. They did, off I went. A cold front blew through while I was gone, and back in OKC I walked from downtown, in my hippie moccasins, in the slush, to where my gear was stashed. I didn’t die. It’s all down to youth, not diet or exercise or clean living.

What? I couldn’t trigger the OB with my MiniMoog? Hold on. I saw Jan Hammer do it. That’s why I…A custom cable? Cinch-Jones shorting trigger to 3.5mm mono +5. Huh? I took the schematic for the cable to the tech at the high end stereo store who always brought my Flame Linear power amp back from the dead. He laughed when I said I thought there were standards, because I’d read about them. Nope. Volt per octave pitch tracking, maybe. The rest? Hah! He built the cable for me, and later a tin project box that did it better. Fifteen bucks. And I had to listen to loud Rolling Stones and his screaming baby when I picked it up from his house.

Then came the synth mess in my gravatar. Four Moogs, an Arp, an OB module and an OB sequencer. That was my fake T-Dream video soundtrack and band synth rig. Without the MXR and a snake nest of cables with transistors inserted in them it would have been chaos. Rather, uncontrolled chaos.

The MXR was designed to take a signal and amplify it, sans coloration. The intended job being to sit on the output of a guitar, gain it up and clip the input of a guitar amp without altering (too much) the guitar’s tone. I stuck that bad boy on the output on the trigger signal of whatever was the boss, cranked it and popped the trigger inputs open on whatever needed to listen. Forty-three years ago. And I’m doing it now? How sad is that?

I worked for the guy who pushed for and developed MIDI to stop all that crap (backstory). But – Sequential and Roland, the two companies who adopted MIDI first? Is 1 zero or is zero zero? Program change 1-128 or 0-127?  Standards. MIDI does work, though. Thank God. Even if it doesn’t require a gazillion colorful cables to do the same thing.

My MXR is still there if I need it to wake up a Moog with a Korg because trigger and gate are the same thing, different names. They’re “standard.” Only they’re not. I like my knob stuff. I like patch cables and all sorts of crazy sounds. I also like program memory, and foregoing that, at least pitch range selectors tied to a tuning so I have a short path back to reality. Even if that is a moral dilemma to some modular synth purists. There’s an old joke, when looking at a big modular synth draped in patch cords and some arteest going all artsy and talking poly rhythm modulations (baloney). The joke was was to elbow the person next to you and call out, “Okay, great. Now quick, tape’s rolling, get us a French horn.”

Which is why I sold the Moog. One oscillator, no range select and bunch of 3.5mm patch points that talked to each other and some of them to the outside world. And one very important one, the gate/trig, that required the MXR to function with certain external devices. Michelin money for a trailer tire? Baloney.

I solved a lot of the “standards that aren’t” with the Arturia Beat Step Pro sequencer. It sends out three sequences on three channels, or a butt load of gate/trig with enough voltage to blow open the most stubborn modern and vintage gear. The old “if they don’t understand you, talk louder” routine. But why should I have to buy another piece of gear to make the children behave?

Next up – power supplies. The MXR was built before wall warts were even imagined. There is no jack for one on the unit I own. 9V batteries only. There were days where it was buy batteries and play, or eat. The first time I saw a Radio Shack 9v wall wart with 9v battery terminals on it I freaked. It might have been $19. Ridiculous at the time. But it beat batteries. I borrowed a rat tail file from the guitar tech at Rock World and cut a hole in the MXR for the wire to escape. And even now wall wart jacks are various sizes, various voltages. Different barrel sizes on the supply, center + or -. Jesus. In my garage I have an old, beat up drummer’s trap case on wheels with years worth of power supplies. When I’m about to get rid of them a use pops up. How crazy is that? Gear does not communicate with each other, cables of different types and specs are required, power supplies are specific, active or passive, got a battery? My kingdom for a battery! My old bass player’s last girlfriend bought him a fistful of rechargeable batteries and a charger to keep him out of homeless shelters just keeping the active pickups in his basses functioning. This is about musicians, people. No wonder any player with money has a tech and IT runs any business with more than three people.

***

Retraction. “Switching on the lights, I trudged downstairs etc…” just reads stupid to me. I have been informed that it is a participle phrase that modifies “I”, the noun, not the (in my mind) associative action verb of trudged and is perfectly “legal” based on the position of the comma and “I”. As you wish. For my .02, that sort of thing, like Garlic and Cumin, starts to own whatever it’s in and a little goes a long way. It gets worse when they are used to modify the subject of a weak verb like “is”. Elmore Leonard sits in the back of my mind repeating, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Follow the action, don’t sort it. Like Deepthroat. “Follow the money.” “Following the money, crooks you will find,” or “you will find crooks” sounds like Yoda, doesn’t it? Stilted? Regardless of my opinion, the one big takeaway is – Do not leave your participle hung out to dry or you will be arrested by the grammar Nazis for exposing your dangling modifier!

Here you go, “ing” as a noun modifier and not a weakened verb.

http://www.chompchomp.com/terms/participlephrase.htm

 

Advertisements

Mini – When a Little is a Lot

I swore I wouldn’t do the music thing on this blog. Too late now. The device in the picture above saved, and changed my life in 1973. Mine was Mini Moog Model D #1273. I can remember that, but the rest of the mid 70s? Regardless, it’s now $4.99 on the app store. From Moog Music.

Enormous debate rages among purists over whether old is better than new, if software emulations are really any good. Dr. Bob took Arturia to task when they brought him their software version, showed them what a real one looked like on a scope, told them when they had that to come back and he’d sign off on it. They did. I have their app as well. And Moog’s Model 15 Modular. But, as anyone who ever owned one will tell you, ain’t nothin’ a Mini but a Mini.

Here’s the deal on that debate. I spent an afternoon a thousand years ago with Dr. Tom Rhea, the man who wrote the original Mini Moog manual. The book I was unable to understand when I bought my Mini. Oscillators? Modifiers? Huh?Who cares, when I do this it sounds like seagulls, and, dig this, now they’re tympani! Add an echo? Gone, baby gone.

What I learned from Dr. Tom was that no two instruments are ever the same, whether they’re made out of dead wood and wire or transistors and wire. He proved that to me by the two of us playing a dozen different Moogs in three product categories. Wetter, warmer, grittier, brighter, buzzier, tighter, sloppier. No two instruments were the same, no two pitch wheels or ribbons behaved the same way. All musical instruments are like snowflakes and fingerprints that way. But without all the side by side they were very similar, and with a little tweak one could be the other. Almost. An Earth Wind and Fire funk bass or an ELP lead could be had, though, without differentiating between is it “real or is it Memorex.” Old or new. Mini is Mini.

And the other noises this thing makes? Some may be similar and/or predictable, but never the same. Unless you save the program, something we couldn’t do in ’73. I often wonder about that. A couple of days down the road even now, you reload a patch and think, “Hmmm, that’s not quite what I thought it was…” Probably because your head is in a different place, or the humidity is up, or…

After 45 years of hearing them, I find the arguments pointless. An instrument is an instrument. I plugged a USB controller into my iPhone, loaded up this $4.99 app and went down Alice’s magic rabbit hole until the battery died. Does “my” new Mini sound any different than everybody else who will download one? I don’t know. How tight are Apple’s tolerance specs? Do I care? No. Because this app behaves like the real deal, isn’t $3,500 like a “new” one, or $7,000 like a “vintage” one, or even the $1,491 in 1973 dollars I paid for my original. Or the roughly $400 for a “boutique” clone or the damn single oscillator Moog Mother 32 I own that drifts worse than a circa 1970’s model.

Why do I mention this? Because as soon as my phone is charged I’m gone down the rabbit hole. Again. If I don’t come back I’m the guy under the bridge with headphones, a solar phone charging hat and a “Wil Mak Space Noyzs 4 Fud” sign. It may not be real, but it’s all that for me. I’d say maybe if I stay under the ‘phones long enough the mid 70’s will come back to me. Nah. And I wouldn’t want them to. “I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.”

 

Throw Some Flowers

“I got a new costume this year! It’s blue and lavender, not that old green thing that just made me disappear. And there’s a girl, she’s one of my teacher’s old students, she’s a mom with me this year, she was a principle at Houston ballet until guess what? She broke her sesamoid, too, like me. Then she went to college while it healed and she works at some corporation now and has a four-year old and doesn’t have time for ballet or anything…” I see the look that is doing child age and career math equals time line to return to ballet class. “But after this and Ms. Kathy, she’ll be back. It’s like a habit you can’t quit or something, almost. You can quit for a while, but then it just runs over you again. And she was a principle, a real professional, so she can’t stop. And this guy? He was there last year, he said he was so glad to be back because this is the best time of the whole year. And he’s right. Last year I said I probably shouldn’t do it anymore, but now I’m glad I am. I don’t know why I got picked again.”

Please. Maybe because put you on stage in a costume, some $20 curls and too much red lipstick and you light up like a freaking Christmas tree. And that’s the real story of The Nutcracker.

The Nutcracker party scene is where, in regional productions anyway, lucky retired and adult ballet dancers get to put on costumes and make all of the rest of the year’s classes worthwhile. The hired dance-slingers from ABT or NYCB come to dance the dreams of a little girl named Clara alongside the best of the young dancers the area has to offer, some of their retired peers, maybe even an ex-childhood teacher. And a pretty grandmother who gets to wear a blue and lavender costume, not the old green one.

The remarkable thing about The Nutcracker is that it does with music and dance what we, as a global society, often cannot. It transcends religion and geography and tells a story full of cross cultural fantasy and spectacle and fear and joy and when it’s over everyone throws or delivers flowers to the stage where it happened. How cool is that?

Here’s the deal. The Nutcracker is supposed to be about Clara, a little girl who dreams her dreams of faraway magical lands that she shares with a brave, handsome prince. But what makes the music come to life, what makes the principle dancers from the best ballet companies in the world look so spectacular, what makes people cheer year after year is that the stage where it happens is packed with ageless little girls’ dreams, not just Clara’s. Dreams so big and real they fill up a theater with their hope and that inexplicable magic of belief in something bigger than reality.

So if it’s your neighbor’s kid or your kid or grand kid or your wife, or even if no one you know is in The Nutcracker playing in your part of the world this year, go see it. Talk to a stranger in the lobby, toast the season. Take some flowers with you and give them to a dancer who might be famous, might have been famous, might have been hurt, might even be a grandmother. This season, no matter what you believe, make yourself part of something bigger and better and more magical than what the nightly news would lead you to believe is our world.

Fanfare for an Uncommon Man

I was a twenty-year-old kid, fumbling around, knowing I no longer belonged to a life I’d thought all those twenty years was for me. Knowing my fairy tale had taken a sharp turn on a dark, rainy night, skidded off the road and gotten mired in the mud. And I sat there, spinning my wheels in 1973 from late May until November 28th. That night, at the Fairgrounds Arena in Oklahoma City, I sat on the seventh row, on the floor, just in front of Greg Lake at an ELP concert. Not long after they’d changed formats, going live with the Brain Salad Surgery album. Chapter one of the rest of my life.

I walked out of the arena and said, “That’s what I’m gonna to do.” Not that I was going to be Emerson Lake and Palmer, something I considered only briefly early on and discovered wasn’t going to happen, but it sent me down a road I’d seen the signposts for that night. I told people about it, what I was going to do. Build a pile of keyboards and rock the world. They said you have responsibilities, you can’t do that, you’re nuts. Sure I was. But I’d already punched my ticket to ride right on out of the mainstream, so why not?

The fastest way to get to be Keith Emerson, or someone like Keith Emerson, aside from piano lessons and a good left hand, was to buy a Moog synthesizer and learn how to use it. I’d already taken piano lessons, so I put my MG Midget up for collateral at the bank across the street from the deli where I was making sandwiches for my old classmates in their office tower clothes and bought the second Mini Moog to hit the state of Oklahoma. Only hours behind the first one that went to a lounge band. I laughed. Screw those guys. I was going to be a synthesist!

Like the man said. Now I are one.

emo adFor just over six years I was the North American Product and Artist Relations manager for an Italian company that built digital pianos. Innovative and unique digital pianos. They were a small company and didn’t pay anyone much for endorsements or ship tons of gear to artist’s doors. They built an instrument, that’s it. Keith Emerson was one of our first “endorsees.” He sold a lot of pianos and got a few free ones in return. And he brought a number of great keyboardists with him. All unpaid, all friendly, all brilliant and talented. Keith or his tech Will would call, “I need a piano to meet me here or there.” Fine. Keith rode motorcycles with the Italian guy who owned the company. Through the desert, the wine country. “No problem,” I’d say. “Give me an address.”

All of that leads to me sitting with Keith in a Holiday Inn restaurant one evening, drinking way over-priced Kendall Jackson grocery store quality wine and, surprisingly, being roundly ignored by passers-by. I’ d often thought of telling him before, but that evening after enough of that expensive cheap wine, I informed him that the lost years of my mid-twenties were his fault. I told him about Oklahoma City, about how my screeching MiniMoog made my neighbors on 32nd and Barnes think I was sacrificing cats. Or worse, practicing some form of Godless Voodoo after I’d figured out his steel drum sound. More importantly, that I’d wanted to be him when I grew up. He laughed, said don’t blame me, and if trying to be him ever netted me any female companionship I owed him. For getting me out in front with the guitar players who, up until Emerson, invariably got all the girls. I told him that if I had to pay him what I owed him for that business I’d be way more than broke. He laughed again, we drank more wine, told more stories. I didn’t tell him that as disrepectful kids we often joked that ELP was what happened when Paul Revere and the Raiders discovered crack. If anyone still thinks that, it’s an urban myth and nothing more.

Keith was an uncommon man whose stiff-necked, iron-spined, no-holds-barred and totally uncompromising approach to rock ‘n roll changed the way the world looked at keyboard players over the last forty years of the Twentieth Century. He had ganglion cyst surgery, piano lids crashed down on his hands, roman candles hooked to a ribbon controller blew his thumbnails off, but the show we were always welcomed to always went on. Emo was the Jimi Hendrix style showman of keyboards and, as I said, he helped an entire generation of dorky piano lesson boys get off the bench and put them in front of serious guitarist’s electricity. The Moog went from Switched on Bach and the hallowed halls of academia to switched full-on rock. We were a legion, the Emerson-ites. A legion of white pirate shirts and vests, all of us turned up to eleven. Our old piano teachers covering their ears, spinning in their graves. It wasn’t about the chops as much as it was about balls. It was about relentlessly pushing the envelope. Turning three guys into five. It was putting ten pounds of music in a five-pound bag and keeping it from exploding. If you blew it up some nights getting there, that was okay.

The show that never ended, that we were all welcome to attend, has now come to a close. Suddenly and violently, just as the finale of Karn Evil 9.

I’ll miss you, Keith. And I’ll say “Thanks” as well. For making me miserable when I was young, making me laugh as I grew older, for being the tow-rope that got me out of the mud and back on the road when I was aimless and sightless. For being the inspiration that forced me to be better than I was. For setting a standard. For setting me on the path that ultimately led me to the rest of my life and for mercilessly demanding better than mediocrity. For making mediocrity, often my own, so easy to spot.

I blew up a studio monitor the other day listening to “Knife Edge” after I found out Keith was gone. It felt great and sounded magnificent even after I lit it up. You might consider trying it, if you have a fire extinguisher handy.

 

 

Way More Than MIDI

For some reason, MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) seems to be getting more attention on its thirty-second birthday than it did on its thirtieth. I’ve read more misinformation than I thought possible until I realized I was reading things on the Internet. Did you know, according to RedShark, the Yamaha DX-7 was the first synthesizer to support MIDI? Strange. For those of us lucky enough to be standing in the Sequential booth at the Anaheim convention center to see it work for the very first time we saw a Sequential Prophet 600 and a Roland JP-6 play each other, and miscommunicate program changes by one number. That’s not what this is about, though. This is about celebrating more than MIDI. It’s about celebrating a little company on North First St. in San Jose, California that could see into the future.

On MIDI’s thirtieth birthday I sent Dave Smith a note telling him I’d just purchased a MIDI interface for my iPhone, and how cool was that? That same 5-pin DIN plug hadn’t changed. Of course, the 30-pin on my iPhone was doomed, but not MIDI. Dave reminded me that MIDI was still at rev 1 after all that time, and that hardware was more fun than software, cheers. And that is one of the legacies of Sequential. The resiliency of good design. When something works and people can use it; when it’s simple and elegant and deep enough to hang for a long time, particularly in the world of technology, it’s a good idea. Look at Dave Smith’s instruments now. They are sleeker and faster than the originals of 1977, and incredibly similar. Dave has always designed and built performance instruments, and thirty-two years ago MIDI was designed primarily so that physical musical instruments could discuss making music together. Yet MIDI is the defacto standard for hardware and human interfaces to discuss the making of music with pretty pictures of instruments captured under the glass of a computing device’s monitor. It doesn’t matter if it’s a USB cable or that thirty-two-year-old 5-pin DIN, the language spoken is MIDI.

In 1982 when I’d walk by and see Dave in that corner office with reams of green-bar paper and teletype pages covered in hex I had no idea. I don’t suspect that he did, either. Or he might not have given it away. That’s right, the MIDI protocol is free. A very Northern California concept. Hippie engineers making the world a better place for synthesizer players, free. Imagine. MIDI was conceived to foster a sense of modern musical community. That’s some pretty serious save-the-future tree hugger engineering for you right there.

Now for the other really important “seeing into the future” thing that rarely gets mentioned. Barb Fairhurst. What? A female vice president and business manager in 1977? In a couple of male dominated businesses? Not just technology and engineering, but the music business as well. Back in the old cigar smoke, big talk and “what can I do for you, little lady” times. Back when women were usually the vice presidents of the laundry room and the grocery store run, at Sequential we had a lady boss. Who gave this long haired kid from Oklahoma a shot at seeing the future, a coffee cup with my name on it, and made us sign things in a specific color of ink as a “standard.” Barb dealt with the business end of things, the banks, the vendors, the dealers. Us. She even handled the great “we’re not galley slaves” revolt in manufacturing when it was decided they should use anti-static wristbands that were attached to their workbenches. Walk from the “carpet” to the “tile” at Sequential back then and you got an earful from someone about indentured servitude until Barb calmed the waters.

Sequential was the heart of a romantic music-meets-technology ideal in a pragmatic world, and, as a result, is no longer with us in that little building on North First Street, but it is still with those who make modern music every day. I would like to suggest that instead of just wishing MIDI a happy thirty-second birthday we also celebrate the programmable polyphonic performance synthesizer, vector synthesis, multi-timbral workstations, the insight and wisdom of female executives and the spirit of a global musical community that rides for free on the three hot wires of that 5-pin DIN plug. That’s the real reason to be nostalgic and celebrate Dave, Barb and Sequential. To celebrate the little company so small and long ago that showed us the future.