Sunday, 31 October 2021

Vintage Synth meets 21st Century Multi-Effects (and a live gig!)

Back in the 1970s, analogue monophonic synthesizers didn't often have on-board effects. In the 1980s, DCO-based polyphonic synths added chorus to try and make up for the single oscillator. When the DX7 ushered in digital synthesisers in 1983, that didn't have any effects either. It wasn't really until the late 1980s that effects started to appear, particularly on workstation keyboards like the M1. 

Aside: Mawhrin Skel et al

As I've mentioned before, I have a couple of vintage synths, and enough outboard gear to do quite a lot of transformative processing on their sounds. But going to a live 'showcase' gig at the Smokehouse in Ipswich, kind of gave me a different perspective on current live performance. When you have seven performers in 4 hours, you need to be pretty slick with changeovers, and the solution they used was to have tables for the early acts (I spotted a 404 Mk1 (maybe II), a Crave, a Model:Cycles (or Samples), an (original?) MS-20 and more), with the penultimate act, Girl in a Gale, having a Nord Stage Piano, looper and various other bits of gear set up at the back of the stage, and the headliner, Mawhrin Skel, using a custom multi-tier stand with laptop on top, Push 2 for control, and various other bits of gear.  

Compact, minimalistic, and easily transportable were definitely high on the priorities for the rigs that were being used, and it was a refreshing alternative to the H9000s, H9 Max, Big Sky, Empress Zoia and CXM1978s that you find in all of those flashy 'home' studio pictures on Instagram. Which got me thinking about the opposite of Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS), which is something like Making The Most Of Budget Gear (MTMOBG - the acronym definitely isn't going to catch on!)... 

In fact, I was deep in thought about this when Girl in a Gale leaned over to me and revealed that ear plugs were available at the Bar. As it happens, I had actually bought my own ear defences: almost invisible and scarily hi-tech German ones that were totally essential at that amazingly loud Ableton Loop Concert in Berlin... But the sound at the Smokehouse was more constrained and controlled - I saw the sound engineer using a spectrum analyser on his phone, as well as an SPL meter. So, the usual low frequency 'physical' wobbles to remind you that music is visceral, and one of the early acts was intent on producing standing waves at about 70 Hz, but the PreSonus desk was coping very nicely, thank you.

An excellent gig, by the way... Mawhrin Skel was suitably sci-fi and enthusiastic, Girl in a Gale was a powerhouse of skilled invention, giving glimpses or sketches of music that left you wanting more, and overall, a varied 'selection box' of electronica. Venue and Music: Recommended.

The Opposite of Expensive...

But anyway, back to the opposite of expensive out-board gear... Some time ago, I started to look at something to process my Yamaha TX7 (the one where I replaced the LCD with a back-lit version ...), and started with thinking about something 'Multi', like an Eventide H9 or a MOD Devices MOD Duo, rather than a Sytrmon Big Sky, and then I realised that I was approaching this from totally the wrong direction. I was going to use a multi-effects pedal that was several times the original cost (and current value) of the synth - which seemed silly. So I happened across multi-effects designed for guitarists, and after realising that the top-end (the Line 6 Helix, Boss GT-1000, Headrush et al) was a money magnet, I deliberately looked at the opposite end - Amazon. (Well,, to help charity a bit). 

I've got a couple of pedal boards. The 'cheap and nasty' one has those 20 to 30 quid Behringer 'Boss' clone pedals on it, and is fine for live use and abuse. But I have learned that pedals boards, even with the considerable investment of crazily expensive switching/routing units, suffer from problems with recalling specific sounds. You can put the effects pedals in the right order, but what were the settings of all those knobs and switches? High-end pedals can use MIDI to store and recall presets, but that seems dangerously like a full-time job. 

It turns out that there is an alternative to the 'Pro' guitar multi-effects - for about 130 quid (150 Euros or dollars) you can get tiny little boxes that have built-in Expression/Volume pedals, colour LCD screens, and a couple of foot switches, and which do a very good job at providing quite a lot of the functionality of the 'around a grand, mate' 'Pro' multi-effects boxes. So, after a bit of research on YouTube (I hate the adverts!) I bought a Valeton GP-100 and connected the TX7 to it...

Okay, so there's a definite set of design decisions about the 99 Factory presets - and this is a 'Guitar' multi-effects (Actually, because of the 'Will be Mis-Used by Guitarists' design requirement, it is all-metal construction, and feels like it might survive live use quite well!). So there's a lot of fuzz, overdrive, saturation and just plain distortion, exactly as you would expect. But those 99 User presets and a computer editor (or the front panel controls) and you can concentrate on the Modulation, Delay and Reverb effects, plus a few extras that you might not be expecting: like a Ring Modulator, or a 4 Step Filter Sequencer. also, it turns out that having IR-modelled Amps and Cabs can give subtle tone variations, and you can load in your own .wavs for the Cabinet modelling, which opens up all sorts of experimentation. Oh, and you can arrange the effects in any order you like - so the Reverb does not need to be last in the chain... There's a looper built-in as well, and a Tuner. That's a lot for your money...

A couple of hours programming, and I had about fifty 'synth-oriented' presets that turned the TX7 into a host of alter-egos. One particularly nice sequence (the Arturia KeyStep is your friend) ended up as the sting/jingle for a corporate video I was working on... (I forgot to mention that it is also a class-compliant USB Stereo Audio Interface... which made recording it into my DAW a doddle...) Because every setting (and order of effects) is stored by the preset, then it just becomes a quick 'Paint By Numbers' 'Choose-a-Preset' procedure to turn a bland TX7 sound into something that sounds like it came from... well, from something else entirely. No need for trying to remember which pedals to switch in, and what the knob/switch settings were - you just select the preset. Simple - the sort of thing that even I could get right live!

Hiding the Truth...

I am considering putting the TX7 and the Valeton GP-100 inside a box (with suitable ventilation, of course) so that it isn't immediately obvious what is making that killer bass sound, or those ambient jangles. But regardless of pimping it up, it has been the bargain of the century. My only problem is that I have a feeling that at some stage, GAS is going to kick in and I'm going to end up upgrading... But they do say that:

Limitations are the Spur to Creativity...

So perhaps I should leave well alone, and leave my TX7V as my 'live' minimalistic secret weapon.


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  1. Cheers for the mentions! I'm glad you enjoyed the evening.

  2. You did indeed spot a Crave and Model:Cycles - those were part of my rig! I have a bunch of other gear but decided on that particular rig for portability and versatility - you can get so much sonic range from the cycles. The crave was for a "performable" drone and I topped it off with a Microgranny sampler and a multi-fx pedal. I do livestream jams with a bigger, less portable rig on twitch - just look up Fantastic Rectangles on there if you're interested!

    Thanks for coming along to the gig, hope you enjoyed it as much as we all did!

  3. Thanks for the Twitch reference - I will take a look...