I’ve been thinking more and more about dance music recently. It’s something that I’ve had a fleeting interest in previously but not what I’d chosen to pursue. Having been trapped at home for many more months than I can recall, I thought it would be interesting to push my production in a way that I haven’t previously – as practice and development more than anything.
I got to work with my old broken synths and drums machines, trying to stay clear of cliche and and played out rhythms. I tried to keep the sound of my studio in tact too – given that it was designed with more of an ambient/avant-garde bent it isn’t particularly well suited to this style of things.
All things considered, I think this came out pretty well. There are six (admittedly quite similar) tracks which all sound original enough and interesting enough to share.
I’m happy that the sound of these records is clearly still that of my studio, and the character of that has managed to stay in tact, and that there were relatively few compromises during the whole process.
I’ve probably used most of the gear in my studio, but I think the key elements to the sounds were made using the following: Korg Polysix, Akai MPC 4000 (vocal samples), TC Electronics Fireworks, Toft ATC-2, Vermona DRM1 mkIII, DigiTech RDS 1900, Waldorf MicroWave XT, Novation DrumStation, Yamaha TX81Z, and an eclectic mix of guitar pedals. Oh, and the ART Pro VLA II on the master. Also while not usually being one for VSTs, I did try a demo of some Lexicon reverbs which I found to be wonderful – even if they stressed out the old Mac.
These are still very much demos in my eyes, but I’ve reached a point where I’ve satisfied my need to continue production with them. My plan now is really to strip them back to their individual components, rework them with simpler drum patterns and try some sort of live setup with the MPC.
Analog Bass Drum Module. Does what it says on the tin.
I like the sound from a few of the Jomox units, they are quite ‘in your face’ as they say. I use this module for almost all of my kick drums. It’s impressively tuneable for something as basic as kick drum module.
Very well built (most of the Jomox units use the same chassis and buttons), and is super easy to program and understand. Even features a play button, so can be triggered real time. I’ve used this consistently for around 5 years now, no issues to report. Not expensive and an absolute must have for certain projects. If you can’t satisfy your kick drums with this then you’re writing wrong.
I should add that it features midi tracking meaning that you can tune it and use it as a kind of mono synthesiser. I don’t do that shit.
There’s no real story behind this synth – I was bored one evening and bought the cheapest synth I could find. At he time I didn’t know much about Kawai or the K4r. I subscribe to the school of thought that there are no bad synths, and since it was less than £100 I took the gamble.
The Kawai K4r is the rack mount version of the K4, a small hobby style keyboards by a little Japanese (wait, American?) company. I can’t find much information about them, to the extent where i’m not sure if they are still in business or not. They seemingly never made anything iconic or noteworthy as I never hear them mentioned in the same context as ‘the usual suspects’. Sure, there are a few pages on Vintage Synth Explorer and GearSlutz but no real authority has emerged, and the topics posted are all inquiries as to ” Does anyone in the world still use Kawai?”
The K4r is not a very glamorous looking thing, resembling a bargain basement VCR from the early ’90s. Cheap plastic fascia with tiny, awful feelings and buttons. It has a volume slider on the front and a ‘value’ slider that allows you to quickly select number rather than type them in. Unfortunately the resolution of the slider is so high, and it’s throw so short that actually finding a number takes a bit of finesse and a lot of luck. These are controls that I don’t suggest adjusting on the fly. Oddly other functions (such as resonance) have the opposite issue as the range is only from 0-7, so there is an audible ‘jump’ when changing some parameters. Combine that with a tiny 16 x 2 line LCD, and it can feel quite challenging to program. The rack mount version features and addition six individual outputs, giving it a little more versatility in the studio than the full size keyboard version.
That’s not a major issue as there isn’t a huge amount of programming that can be done. You see, the K4r is a sample based synthesizer – it’s really an evolution of the old original ROMplers from the 80’s (70’s?). It has two ‘oscillators’ or sample engines that can be combined in various ways to create the sound. It has rudimentary control over each sample – things like pitch, filter, envelope. You’ll find yourself sweeping through combinations of samples rather than heavily modifying much of the parameters.
There is also the option of changing some of these parameters through Sysex messages. This seems to work quite well and has eased the burden of trying to get interesting sounds out of it (I built myself a little custom controller to do this). There’s is nothing that cannot be adjusted using the from panel, but it’s so un ergonomic that I found the custom controller essential to enjoying and using this machine.
The K4r does have memory expansion for additional samples and ‘presets’ some of which I have found quite interesting and unique. I like to pickup the expansion cards when I see them for cheap on eBay. There’s a nice novelty about having a basic synth, fully loaded with all the expansion and since it’s not had a lot of exposure, it doesn’t ever really sound over used or cliche at any point. Also a lot of the sounds it produces sit very well in a mix, and have a quite unnatural ‘plastic’ sound to them. The filter is really nice – it fixed at -12dB per octave, but can do really sharp, squelchy resonance style things.
On occasion I’ve used for keys, but where it really found it’s place was with drums. It comes pre loaded with 128 different little percussion samples that can be manipulated and twisted, as well as combined. This can make for some interesting and unique little drums sounds. They don’t mimic any of the well known machines, and they also don’t try to give the illusion of being acoustic. I tend to pitch them down quite a bit in order to get that grungy, hard Nyquist sound. Most of the drums in the vinyl we released recently came from the K4r. Not the kick drum, granted, but everything else was straight from this little unit. I think they sounded great.
The output from the unit is very strong, free from noise or other artifacts. Even using all six of the sub outs results in perfect silence. I upgraded the internal OS to 1.4 (the last version developed), £10 and 15 minutes of time. Build quality is not great from a materials stand point, but it’s so basic that it should last forever. Owned this for about 4 years and experienced no issues what so ever.
For the money, I don’t think it can be faulted. It’s not an essential addition to any studio, but I’ve certainly found it to be useful on occasion, and frequently dig through it for drums. The good thing about buying a cheap synth is you never feel guilty about it sitting there not doing anything. With some of the more expensive gear I really do feel it need to earn it’s keep, by having an impact on most recordings. Buying one of these for peanuts really frees you from that. Best yet, you can get a real synthesizer for less money than some people pay for VSTi emulations.
I’ve sat on this tune for a few weeks now. I started writing it because I had just bought a brand new EQ. You can tell because the equalisation of the drums is a bit enthusiastic pronounced than I would like.
Of course, this is popping techno shit with some of the coolest drum patterns I’ve ever written. Everything was sequenced on the MPC4000, so it’s got that classic stiff shuffle feel.
The PERfourMER is the most modern synth in the studio, and also one of the newest additions. Bought new from Vermona a year or so ago now, it received infrequent use at first.
You see, the PERfourMER is unlike anything else I own. That was the main reason for purchasing the unit (as well as supporting a small synth manufacturer). The work flow of modern synths has become very much standardised – if you can use one, you can use them all. That’s not so much the case for the PERfourMer.
The PERfourMER, as the name subtly suggests, is a four oscillator analog synth. Now that isn’t terribly unique in its self, but there is one major difference. You can address each oscillator discreetly, and each has its own filter, envelope and volume/pan controls.
The routing options for oscillators are very diverse. As well as discrete operation, two or more can be synched together to create a PWM style thing, they can be played as a 4 polyphony synth, or most interestingly, you can automatically cycle between them on mono mode. You can of course, if you’re mad, play in unison mode and have all 4 oscillators screaming at once – again all with individual volume controls and filters.
Where the PERfourMER found its place in my studio is for basslines. I set it to cycle through each oscillator, and use different envelope settings for each – this give the bassline a real feeling of articulation and nuance that’s difficult to achieve otherwise. It excels at doing rubbery, complex sounding bass (and leads, I guess). One of the tricks I use it to ensure that it plays and odd number of notes per bar, thus ensuring that we cycle through different oscillator patterns per loop. It makes for a very interesting sound.
There are some other features that I have embarrassingly not yet used. Namely the internal sequencer (I tend to always program from the DAW) and the trigger/filter inputs. The filter interests me the most because having access to 4 individual filters could open some possibilities. If I ever get the time or inclination I’ll update this post with my thoughts and some samples. I may pair it up with my Vermona DRM mkIII and see what I can do…
The PERfourMER is a very heavy sounding thing. Big, thick, analog oscillators with lovely smooth sounding filters and envelopes. It’s also the least noisy analog synth I’ve ever used, it’s totally silent when not playing. It has a very strong output signal, it’s possible to clip my balanced inputs with it. I’ve found that, in order to get it to sit in the box properly it requires a bit of EQ – generally a slight reduction in bass.
Build quality, as with all Vermona products I’ve used, is excellent. I would have no worries about gigging with this thing (ensuring I had a suitable case) and repair and maintenance is straight forward (not that it’s been required yet). Vermona really seem to know what they’re doing at the moment. I have previously opened a Vermona DRM mkIII (it blew a fuse) and was shocked and how logically laid out all the PCBs were, and the quality of the internal complements was of a very high standard.
Unfortunately there is a steep learning curve to this unit. Whenever I have clients or friends in the studio, it’s the first thing they want to play with. All the controls on display are irresistible. Sadly, tweaking around without fully understanding it’s unique work flow tends to result in loud unpleasant sounds screaming uncontrollably. It’s a machine that takes practice and patience to master. Also, each oscillator has an individual tune control, as well as a global master tune, so setup of the unit takes a couple of minutes. However, since the oscillator tune controls are muddled in among the front panel, inevitably they are accidentally changed, or bumped when using another control – meaning another few minutes are spent tuning. There is a built in 440Hz tone you can use for tuning, but I tend to do it through another external tool, I find it’s more accurate that way.
Personally, I find it very difficult to program in polyphonic mode – the oscillators are always too big and too rough for keys. You can get over this of course by throwing some effects over it, or by actually learning how to program it properly. But I have too many other options for polyphony to have spend much time or effort in this mode yet.
I do really like the PERfourMER – it’s nice to have something in the studio with this amount of depth. Something I need to think about before using. Something that I can’t just tweak randomly or cycle through presets. It’s a synth that makes you work for your money.
I had wanted a Korg Polysix for the longest time – around 10 years, I think. I mistakenly thought that some of the Luomo basslines were created on it (they had not been) and it had become a bit of a halo item for me. Luckily my mistake lead me down a path to discover this lovely old instrument.
The PolySix has a real electric sound to it. A thick and wonderful, grungy sound, full of character and colour. This makes it quite easy to spot in the mix, it’s not a subtle instrument by any means (especially when used in unison mode).
The sound is very musical, and personally I use it only really for chords and basslines. It’s never used for effects or non-tonal applications. If you’re reading this, you know well all the features (6 note polyphony, arpeggiator etc.), I see no need to detail the functions of the standard instrument. However, if that’s what you’re looking for go here.
What I will tell you though, is that it’s a noisy bugger. There’s lots of hiss and high pitched noise, likely due to aging capacitors. For my applications (horrible noisy techno stuff), it really makes no difference. However, if you’re looking to use a PolySix in a more standard recording, you may need to look into gating and heavy EQ in order to resolve some of this.
The front panel is excellent, everything has an individual control, and the layout is extremely intuitive. It’s an instrument, it’s designed to be played. Build quality, inside and out, is also of the highest standard. Mine is a 1981 model (37 fucking years old!) and is holding up very well. Presets are super easy to save and load. It’s a joy to create sounds on, and can be done on the fly, without digging through endless menus or messing with delicate controls. Certainly in my mind, this is what a synthesizer should be.
As for the Tubbutec midi mods, yeah they seem to work as expected. The add midi in and out, as well as a few other basic features. I don’t really have any issues with it at all, although it is something you’ll need to read the manual for before installing and using. It adds a few milliseconds of delay between receiving the midi message and spitting out noise, but this is consistent so is easily compensated for in your chosen DAW. Otherwise, I’d consider this an essential mod for the old Poly for anyone looking to integrate it to a modern studio.
I tend not to use the built in apeggiator as it feels like it’s not correctly synced to the midi clock, there’s a delay there that I find very distracting. I can simulate a apeggiator from the DAW, but to be honest apeggiators are not really my thing so it’s a feature I don’t use much.
I also added audio in/out for the effect unit inside the PolySix. This allows me to run mono audio through the on-board phaser/chorus/ensemble effects. Again, this is very noisy, but wonderfully thick and interesting sound that can only come from analogue effects.
Being a vintage synth, there is a reasonable amount of maintenance required. I have pretty tight control of humidity and temperature in the studio, but even then it requires tuning before each session. It has never drifted off tune during use, but it’s always best to key in before starting. I cleaned all the pots and audio connection with the wonderful (but painfully expensive) Deoxit. I really can’t recommend this stuff enough – it’s fully repaired things that I thought were beyond saving. Anyway, after cleaning the pots, I’ve had exactly zero issues in two years of use.
There’s also the issue of the leaking internal battery damaging control boards internally. This type of thing is well documented and there are plenty of solutions available – as well as re-manufactured control boards if the one in the synth is beyond saving. What I would say however, is that if you are not comfortable opening and repairing something like this (even if you’re just following a guide on the internet), a vintage synth may not be for you. They all require some maintenance and if you ship it to a third party, the bills will become unmanageable pretty quickly (synth repair around these parts cost ~£75 per hour).
PolySixes are becoming very expensive now, I think you’re looking upwards of £1000 for a good one. However, they have a very unique sound, are well built and easy to maintain. Prices for this sort of thing are only going one way unfortunately, so if you’re interested in one please be quick.
That being said, I think it’s worth every penny. There’s very few instruments that do not depreciate over the course of almost four decades. Nothing else sounds like a PolySix, and it’s unlikely anything every will. There are of course various VSTi emulations of the Polysix but the don’t even come close to capturing the character of the machine, never mind the work flow.
Below you will find some audio files recorded directly from the PolySix. There is no additional processing or external effects used. I am sick of hearing demos of synth with the filter complete removed – to me most oscillators sound the same. I modify the filters and envelopes during play. One file is a monophonic bassline, the other is a chord progression, both looped ad nauseam. I’m hoping to use the same patterns to show the rest of the gear too, so we have a 1:1 comparison.