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What Happens at Knobcon…

  • Music

As you may or may not know, I’ve been to Knobcon, the annual electronic music convention held each September in Schaumburg, Illinois. It’s probably America’s biggest synth festival, and attracts manufacturers and electronic musicians and synth-tubers from all over the country and even some from around the world. To say I had a blast would be the understatement of the year!

While there’s a whole lotta gear stuff to see at Knobcon, that was not my primary reason for going. The big reason was to be able to meet, in person, a few of the folks I’ve been hanging out with on line for the past two or three years. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a group picture of the crowd from the Free Beat Patreon/Discord group. In fact, I really didn’t get much in the way of people pictures, and the gear shots are sparse too, by virtue of the fact that both my phone and my camera decided to eat some of the more interesting ones.

That being said, I did go with the idea to look at some very specific items as well. A few were music-synthy things, and I also wanted to look at some video synthesis gear. In any case, there were only a few things that I came away thinking that I’ve got to have, and a couple I came away thinking I really don’t want! So, let’s have a look at some stuff, starting with things I really liked.

Osmose by Expressive E

I am an absolute sucker for a good keyboard controller, especially if it goes beyond the basics of a good feel. I absolutely love after touch, and especially polyphonic after touch. Osmose goes even a few steps beyond that. The Osmose is a full-on MPE MIDI controller, and features an extended range polyphonic after touch that is really comfortable and responsive. The extra deep key travel with what I think is just the right weighting and pressure feels marvelous. But, the key bed has another trick up its sleeve: individual note bending, which is accomplished by wiggling the keys from side-to-side. Like the after touch, this is polyphonic.

Now, for those who don’t know, polyphonic after touch allows you to play a chord, and by pressing further on one key, a selected modulation affects only the note that’s being pressed further. The other notes in the chord are unaffected. With the Osmose, the same goes for the individual note bending.

I was told that the response of the keyboard is difficult to get used to, and that it’s not for everyone. Well, it only took me about a half a minute to be comfortable playing on the Osmose.

But wait, there’s more. In addition to being a wonderful controller keyboard, the Osmose includes a top notch synthesizer engine that’s uniquely optimized for use with the Osmose MPE controller.

To say that the synth sounded good would be selling it short. The engine is called EaganMatrix. The EaganMatrix is a modular digital synthesizer invented by Edmund Eagan, utilizing a purpose-designed DSP engine by Lippold Haken. Simply put, it encompasses a variety of synthesis engines — FM, virtual analog, physical modeling, etc., but it’s capabilities are much greater than the sum of its part. As such, there’s not much in the way of a sound it can’t produce, either “real” or imaginary. To get an idea of what Osmose sounds like, I’ve linked in a preset demo video from the Expressive E YouTube channel below. In time I’ll start to build a playlist of Osmose videos over on my YouTube channel.

Of course, nothing like this comes without a price. In this case, the dollar cost isn’t all that bad. In fact, Expressive E are keeping it almost artificially low because they want it to be relatively easy to get this technology into peoples’ hands. The cost I’m talking about is the MIDI overhead involved — MPE requires MIDI date be sent on multiple channels for the same instrument or controller. This makes for a good bit higher processing “cost” as compared to more standard MIDI controls.

Peak by Novation Music

The “big name” synth manufacturers were represented by Roland (showing their Aira synths alongside some of their groove boxes), Sequential/Oberheim, and Novation Music, and I visited all three.

The Roland entry most interesting to me was the Aira Compact S-1 Tweak, which is a cute sub $200 analog modeling synth that’s remarkably capable and sounds really quite nice. But I have plenty of real analog and virtual analog gear at this point, so I don’t really need it. It is battery-operated, so nice an portable. Maybe someday….

I also stopped into Sequential/Oberheim. They’d brought along a Take 5 which I already own and love, a big Oberheim which sounds just like an Oberheim should, and the Trigon-6. As much of a Sequential fan-boy as I am, the Trigon didn’t really “do it” for me. Sure, it sounded like a Sequential. But so can my Take 5. And so does the Behringer Pro-800 that I already own. Yes, the Trigon is very classy-looking. But … it didn’t sweep me off my feet. And besides that, I just don’t really need another analog at this point, unless it’s something really special. Like maybe a Moog Sonic Six.

What really did float my boat was the Novation Peak desktop synth. When I bought the Arturia Polybrute, a big analog beast was not really at the top of my list — in fact, it wasn’t on my list at all. I’d wanted a good hybrid or very special all-digital synth. The next thing on the shopping list was actually an ASM Hydrasynth. And also very high up on the list was the Novation Summit, which is essentially two Peaks with a keyboard attached.

On the surface, the Peak looks like just another 3-oscillator polysynth with a filter and some envelopes and LFOs and effects and stuff. Pretty run-of-the-mill. However, the oscillators in the 8-voice Peak (and 16-voice Summit) are a unique FPGA-design that allows a wide gamut of sounds from very warm analogesque to pure digital, and everything in between. There are other synths that have similar behaviors, like the Hydrasynth. But the combination of the three highly versatile oscillators into lovely-sounding analog filters, amps, and 3-stage distortion per voice, followed by an excellent digital effects section produces quite the sound. The clincher for me is the nearly-knob-per-function panel layout that puts every control quickly and easily under my fingers. That is very much unlike the Hydrasynth. Which is not to say the Hydrasynth isn’t a worthy beast — it certainly is. But it doesn’t sing to me quite like the Peak [and Summit] do.

NDLR by Conductive Labs

The final musical item that was inviting me to write bad checks is the NDLR (v2) (pronounced “noodler”), “A MIDI Four-track, Sequenced Arpeggiator, Chord and Drone Player” by Conductive Labs.

Describing all the sequence things that the NDLR can do would take at least one post all by itself, so it’s probably best to just visit the web link above. What it doesn’t do is make any sounds on it’s own — it’s all about controlling a collection of synths, and it has the potential for some really interesting real-time/generative/performance applications. For an idea of the possibilities, check out this video playlist:

Moving Pictures….

As mentioned, I wanted to look into the world of video synthesis as well as music on this trip, and there were a number of devices/systems present, because when the time comes to perform, I want to be able to combine visuals with the music, and I’d like for them to be synchronized, at least somewhat. And, while I can do that now with apps and software I already have, what I can’t do now is combine a live video camera source with the visuals in real time.

One thing I found interesting is that most of the visual synth systems currently on the market are based on analog composite standard definition signals — decidedly low-res, low-tech, lofi, and cheap to build. And that’s fine, I suppose, except that like most modular music setups, there’s an overwhelming array of various modules that are combined to attain rather glitchy and twitchy results. There’s not a thing wrong with that, but it’s another expensive and time-consuming rabbit hole I’m not really interested in climbing into at this point. Ideally, I’d like to simply send audio and live camera video into a box, and let it do magic tricks.

Hypno by Sleepy Circuits

Fortunately, there are ways to do what I want that are simple, reliable, and relatively affordable in the form of a couple of products from Sleepy Circuits.

The first device is the Hypno, a simple Raspberry Pi-based, standard definition digital video device. It has the ability to generate any number of visual patterns, synchronize them with music via either MIDI or CV or both, and combine and mangle those patterns together with either pre-recorded video or live video (live video must come into the Hypno as a USB webcam). For me, it lacks only the ability to input audio, but that’s something that I believe I could work around. Hypno comes as either a standalone box or Eurorack module, and the standalone can be easily converted to Eurorack. If you’re like me and have a spare Raspberry Pi 4B laying around, you can save a few bucks and buy it as a kit.

Unfortunately, this is where my phone and camera both fell down and ate the photos and video I made playing with the Sleepy Circuits devices, so I’ve had to rely on snagging visual content from the web.

Hypno, through an add-in, can be controlled from Ableton Live, which is mighty convenient, if you ask me…

Also coming soon from Sleepy Circuits is a really neat little hockey puck sized wireless MIDI and visual system that ties in with a custom iPad app, or should work with other apps like VS or Vythm, and it could also be used as a Bluetooth MIDI controller for pretty much anything. Unfortunately, we’re back to the lost pictures, so I guess it didn’t happen! There is a video from Superbooth, though…

Other Items of Interest

Of course there was a lot of other gear to see at Knobcon — for instance, Hammond had the new XK-4 on hand to try out (and I did), and though it was not of great interest to me at this point, I have to say that if you’re an organ player and are looking to upgrade from something like the Roland VR-730, it’s well worth a look, even over the Nord. It sounds great and is a joy to play.

One thing I was interested in see where alternate controllers or at least unique keyboard controllers. I already mentioned auditioning the Osmose, and I was hoping I might see controllers like those from Keith McMillan. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of options that didn’t require a Eurorack rig, and I wasn’t going there.

I did find a couple of interesting items from Muse Electronic Instruments. They have two non-traditional controller/instruments, both of which are generally affordable and genuinely interesting.

Zen Composer is a nine-note capacitive “keyboard” device, based on circle-of-fifths intervals. It’s fun to play on and easy to make good melodies with. Producing no sound of its own, it comes with example software modules for chording keys, standard piano type keys, a three level looper, and a three instrument Euclidean sequence generator. The underlying code is freely available as are circuit diagrams and laser cut files to build or hack your own (if you do want to go DIY, I’d encourage finding a way to compensate the creator — it’s the right thing to do).

Also from Muse is the Zen Flute, which really isn’t a flute at all. It is, however a unique and insteresting controller. According to the maker, if you can whistle, you can play the Zen Flute. Unlike the Zen Composer, it can produce sounds internally. The Zen Flute mouth Theremin combines “one-button” ease of play with a protean flute synthesizer to minimize the distance between you and your music. Provides USB and analog outputs of the on-board procedural flute synthesizer and USB MIDI for general instrument control.

Modular Galore!

Knobcon is, at its core, about modular gear really. And there was a lot of it. I’ve never seen more 1/8″ minijacks in one place at one time! Heck, I don’t believe I’ve even seen that many minijacks in my whole life! There were a couple of 5U modular manufacturers represented, and I couldn’t even get near that stuff because there were so many people crowded around.

I’m still not all that interested in Eurorack modular. It’s too deep a rabbit hole, and the price is just too steep. There is one modular system, though, that still bears interest to me, and that’s the AE Modular system from Tangible Waves. AE Modular is small and inexpensive, with a completely usable starter system (US dealer link) available for around $425 as of this writing. When I first looked at AE Modular a couple years ago, there was little support for it beyond Tangible Waves. Since then, a handful of other manufacturers have popped up and a small but growing dealer network has emerged. From what I can see, the way that they lower much of the cost is by eliminating 1/8″ minijacks, opting instead to use pin wires like those used by BASTL or on the Korg Volca Modular and for breadboard projects. In a pinch, any appropriately-sized solid-core wire would work by simply cutting it to length and stripping back the insulation a bit at each end.

Tangible Waves now have over 100 modules of their own, as well as several sizes of cases and an array of accessories, and I saw a couple of really interesting modules from Kyaa Modular available as well.

Some Things I Didn’t Like

I’ve talked in the past about a couple of semi-modular synths that I had though would be interesting: Cre8audio‘s West Pest and East Beast, and Pittsburgh Modular‘s Taiga. After having a couple of good hands-on sessions with each of them, I decided that they are just not for me. I was simply unable to get a sound out of them that I liked. Experiences like this underscore the importance of being able to put hands on a product prior to purchase. In this case, I saved laying out about $1,300 for three synths that sounded really good on paper but wouldn’t work out for me in practice. Of course, if someone wants to change my mind about these three by sending them to me to play with, I’d certainly be willing to give them another go in a more controlled environment….

Sights Around The Show Floor

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