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Gear Spotlight: Korg Monotron

I have to hand it to Korg for making the most fun synth products recently, they’ve been on a roll with the Microkorg and Kaossilator synths, and now they’ve released a $60 analog synthesizer called the Monotron, which will soon be joined by another iteration of the same setup, the Monotribe, a Monotron with extra waveforms and a discrete rhythm section.

I have a feeling that Korg designed this with modification in mind, as opening up the machine reveals some interesting labeling on the PCB. This thing is also really easy to modify, and the Monotron community has produced a number of MIDI interfaces, sequencers, and extra filters that really expand the functionality of this little box.

Korg Monotron

By itself, it’s pretty much a fancy Stylophone, a ribbon controller and pitch knob attached to an arpeggiator and a filter. The filter is worth noting, its circuit design was directly ripped from Korg’s classic MS-20 synth, and has the added bonus of a Line In, meaning that you can also use the filter on other audio sources.

I still need to add MIDI to mine as there are some really great sounds you can get out of this thing if you have it tuned correctly with a real input method. The MIDI kit also adds portamento as well, so I would imagine you could get some great leads and 303-style bass grooves out of it. For $60 you can’t really go wrong, it’s almost worth it just for the filter.…

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Gear Spotlight: General Electric Tap-A-Tune

Ah yes. This thing. This was released in 1971 by General Electric and is one of the first (if not the first) transistor-based toy keyboards ever made. It’s supposed to have 4 different waveforms and vibrato, but I can’t tell if the waveform switch actually does anything, so I may need to open this thing up and repair a few things. It could also use some returning, as some of the notes don’t seem to be in tune with the rest.

This is a loud unit, I’m going to have to add a line out to get it to be really useful, as I have a feeling that adding some filters (like the one on my Korg Monotron) and effects will really get this thing sounding great. It does have that warm analog sound, it just needs a little help to take away some of the honk (running it through better speakers will probably help as well). It has potential and was a steal at under $15.…

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Gear Spotlight: Mitchell MU-70 Ukulele

The ukulele has undergone a renaissance as of late, even Eddie Vedder is hopping on the bandwagon and releasing a whole album centered around this tiny Hawaiian instrument. I didn’t even know how to play one when I bought mine, but it’s easy to learn, and a lot of fun.

My main gripe with ukuleles, in general, is that the majority of them sound like those plastic-stringed toy guitars you used to find at department stores. They don’t stay in tune very well, and sound “plinky” even with quality strings. The Mitchel MU70, on the other hand, doesn’t have any of these problems. It has actual sustain and beautiful tone and sounds like a real instrument rather than a toy…which is slightly ironic, considering the majority of the instruments I own actually are toys. My other gripe is all the hipsters on YouTube recording bad ukulele covers, but that has more to do with its current popularity than anything else.

Mitchell MU-70 Ukulele

Source : Top Music Gears

Somehow I managed to pick this thing up for under $100, even though Guitar Center’s website is listing them for $199 at the time of this writing, so I must have found a good sale on whatever day I walked in there. It stays in tune fairly well and has good fret action, which makes a simple instrument even easier to play.

It’s completely acoustic so micing is necessary for recording, but beautiful results are had with both my Bluebird as well as my Korg MR-1. The MR-1’s stereo condensers actually make it sound like a bigger instrument, sounding a bit like a mountain dulcimer or a lap harp.

Ukuleles are naturally tuned to C, and its limited fret count makes it a bit difficult to play in other keys without going into higher registers. The sweet spot for the MU70 is near the nut, it starts to lose its sustain as you get closer to the bridge, so playing in a key that mostly uses the upper frets brings out the usual plinkiness.

I did play every ukulele in the store when I purchased this one, and this one was the best sounding one in my price range. There was really only one ukulele that I liked better than this one, but it was nearly $500, and I didn’t feel like paying that much for an instrument I didn’t even know how to play.…

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Gear Spotlight: A Trinity of Casio

I’ve got a nice little collection of three 80s-era Casio keyboards, they’re great for adding 8-bit chipsounds without having to resort to modifying old video game systems or messing about with VSTs. Once you start adding effects, whole new sonic avenues start to open up, and the simple waveforms start to become more and more useful in my productions.

Casio PT-1

Casio PT-1

Out of the three, I use the PT-1 the most. Essentially a variant of the 1980 VL-Tone, this mini synth has four sounds and a handful of rhythm patterns including ‘Rock 1’, most famously used in Trio’s “Da Da Da”. The sound of this thing is “generic NES game”, so I use it a lot when I need some 8-bit flair. It pairs well with effects and filtering, and is a lot more versatile than it initially seems. Its simplicity and small size also light it a lot of fun to play, when I bring this with me to shows, it usually leads to impromptu freestyle and jam sessions.

Casio SK-1

Casio SK-1

I got this thing to circuit bend, but then I broke a couple keys on it when it got stuck in a drawer, so now I’m planning on rack mounting this after I add a MIDI port to it. This keyboard has practically become synonymous with circuit bending, and because of that the average price has risen from around $5 – 10 a few years ago to around $80 currently. By itself, it’s not that exciting of a keyboard. The sampling feature is fun for a bit and can be used to make some pretty neat sounds, but the stock sounds are kind of boring. It does have some rudimentary sound editing capabilities and some fun rhythm patterns that make it a bit more useful, but where this thing really shines is the bending potential this thing possesses. There has been some really impressive hacks, check out GetLoFi or Burnkit 2600 for an introduction into what’s been going on, benders have found everything from noise generation to video output.

I’ll definitely be adding some features to this thing, and you’ll be hearing it very soon.

Casio MT-36

Casio MT-36

The MT-36 is another beginner’s keyboard, it has only six instruments and four rhythm patterns, but does squeeze in a one-finger accompaniment mode and unique percussion sounds. The instrument sounds are all generated from multiple square waves, so again, filtering is necessary to bring out the best in this instrument. I need to open this keyboard up as well, as there’s some issues with the tempo and volume sliders that makes trying to dial in anything an exercise in randomness.

Since I mainly got this for the auto-accompaniment mode (my next project visits quite a few of these forgotten gems), I may add a few light bends to this. Nothing in the way of apocalyptic noise generation, as that always disappoints me when I see these videos of circuit bent instruments and hear nothing but the first few seconds of a demo song, then nothing but crushing static. I know it’s supposed to be the fun of experimentation, but I’m a musician first and I like things like melody and tone. Call me old-fashioned if you want.…

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Gear Spotlight: Boss Dr. Rhythm DR-550

This drum machine actually came as a bonus with a Roland PAD-80 (Octapad II) I bought, so I really never set out to own one of these, but I’m glad I do: the DR-550 has all the 90s-era Roland drums I could want. See, my first workstation keyboard was a Roland XP-80, so there’s a nostalgic place in my heart for those drum sounds.

By the 90s most synth and drum machine manufacturers had moved to digital sampling, and the DR-550 is no exception. While there are some samples of the classic TR-series, this thing is geared towards realistic drum sounds. You’re probably not going to mistake the results for real drums, but that Roland sound is there, anyone who’s used a Roland product from the same period knows exactly what I’m talking about.

Boss Dr. Rhythm DR-550

My personal unit has an issue with the LCD screen, so I normally use this as a sound module and program sequences in Ableton Live. Even if the screen wasn’t broken, I’d still do things this way, as I never quite got the hang of this style of the drum machine, I always preferred the push-button step sequencing style of machines like the TR-808/909. As a sound module, this thing is great, it’s probably the best collection of drum samples Roland had at the time, think of it as a “best of” collection from the Roland R8 and its series of expansion cards. My one gripe is that MIDI control isn’t set up in a typical fashion, you can only trigger samples that have first been assigned to the pads, so you have to set up your drum kit before you start programming. Still, this thing is cheap like most of my gear, and it’s effective.

I had thought about circuit bending this thing, but most of the bends create more static than tone, so I decided to forego that for now, I may pick up a 505 later if I get in the mood to bend something. I also need to see if I can track down the bug that causes it to crash when connected to MIDI, as that can get annoying in the middle of a session. I can’t complain too loudly about it though, as it was free, and does a great job when it actually works.…

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