Thursday, April 23, 2020

Roland A-110, 220 and 880 "MIDI peripheral equipments" six page brochure, 1991


Roland "MIDI peripheral equipments" six page colour brochure featuring the MIDI separator A-220, MIDI patcher/mixer A-880 and MIDI display A-110 from 1991. 

USB MIDI sucks bum. There. I've said it. 

Give me a five-pin DIN MIDI interface any day of the week. That's how my grand daddy did MIDI. That's how my pappy did MIDI. And that is the way I'm going to go to the grave doing MIDI. 

This brochure is simply gorgeous. Lovely diagrams. Gorgeous cover photograph. Lots of info. But one thing irks me - the title - "MIDI Peripheral Equipments" With an "s" on the end of "Equipment". Odd. But other than that, this brochure hits a home run!

I've placed the scans in the order they would appear if you opened up the brochure full and scanned from left to right. Not in the order that it would be read - Cover, flip open to see the A-220 page on the left, A-880 page on the right, Flip open A-880 page and see the A-110 page and the Advanced application page, then the spec page on the back. Hope that makes sense. 

Of all the MIDI devices I've ever craved, it has to be Roland's A-110 MIDI Display. There is something so simplistic yet so hypnotizing about being able to see an 88-key MIDI display of the data moving through your MIDI cable. And they threw in five MIDI thru to boot.

The reason I've been looking at MIDI utility devices these days is because I'm currently building my new house that includes a new studio space - and every time I visit the space I think about how things will get set up. And MIDI is a huge part of that thinking. So I pulled out this brochure to get some ideas. 

Of the three devices featured in this brochure, the A-110 and A-220 MIDI Separator are cool little tools to have in the shed. But, as with any large number of MIDI keyboards and drum machines, a MIDI thru like the A-880 is a necessity. This thing is not just a MIDI patch bay to send a MIDI input to up to 8 MIDI outputs. It also has merging functionality too! 

I don't have an A-880, but I have a few of its simpler cousins including three Casio TB-1s, an Akai MP30P, a Korg KMP-68 and a few others. But they all require power. And they have a max 8 MIDI in and/or outs. Sure, there are bigger ones out there like the Kenton 25 MIDI thru box - but it only has one input.  

I'm looking for something that is like a MIDI matrix system. But simple to use. 

What I figure I want is a MIDI patch bay that works like an audio patch bay.  No power required - totally passive. You just plug all your MIDI INs and OUTs into the back. Then use short MIDI cables to connect different MIDI in's and outs together. This way, using the patch bay system together with my MIDI thru boxes,  I could have my Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari, PC computer and my desktop and modular MIDI/CV sequencers all plugged into separate gear. And I could easily re-patch using the patch bays. 

Yeah, I haven't even totally figured out what I want, but it doesn't mean I haven't started searching the web for an answer. :)

Googling around, it's clear I'm not the only one that has asking for this type of thing. And some people have come up with some creative solutions - all of which unfortunately seem complicated. One creative solution was to use a TRS patch bay, and make a bunch of short female MIDI Din to TRS cables to connect their gear to the patch bay. Interesting. Others just want to solder a bunch of MIDI Din connectors together in a box and wire them internally.  That seems like a lot of work. 

I'd like a passive patch bay like I described, or even better a powered matrix of 25x25 midi ins and outs that is just button presses like the A-88 to assign different ins and outs together, mixing midi signals as required. 

Out of all the real-world solutions I have found, this one is so far the closest to what I want - the Signex CPM22M Midi Panel with rear DINs. 

Each rack gives you 22 MIDI DIN connectors on the front and back.  I would need two of them (one for ins, and one for outs, and then connect them together from the back connectors. There is even a version that doesn't include Din connectors on the backside, just wires. So I can save some cash and solder between the two myself. Then I'd have 22 in's and out's in a two rack space. Buy four and I have 44 ins and outs. Hubba! 

Like I said - I haven't figured it all out yet. But I'm getting there. 

Any suggestions welcome. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Roland JX-8P / PG-800 "Simple to operate..." synthesizer colour brochure, 1985

Roland JX-8P synthesizer / PG-800 programmer  "Simple to operate" synthesizer colour brochure from January 1985

The JX-8P has played an interesting part in my life. I sell very few synths, but I've bought and sold a number of  JX-8Ps and its bigger brother, the Super JX. Usually it's come and gone during the peaks and valleys of my life and even my therapist brings it up as a way of highlighting certain behaviours in my life.

One of those deep valleys that involved the JX-8P was when my creativity had hit rock bottom. Life wasn't going well, there was a ton of stresses pushing down hard on me and all that gear was just sitting there not being used.

Many synth-head friends that I talked to, online and off, made the same remark:
"Too much gear reduces your creativity."
If you don't live under a rock, chances are you've seen (or even written) a similar type of post or comment in an online forum. It isn't new - I'm sure I first saw it on listservs and newsgroups back in the '90s. But more recently this phenomenon has become an almost-daily occurrence on forums like Reddit and in Facebook groups. Just two days ago, I came across FOUR of these types of posts in different Facebook groups.

In particular, more and more people seem to love blaming a pile of gear they have purchased for...
  • their lack of creativity
  • their inability to master one particular piece of gear
  • wasting their time noodling when they could be making music
Like everyone else, I too came to the false conclusion that the solution was to remove the gear from the equation. Or most of it anyways. Little did I know at the time that I was just putting a band aid on the problem. And luckily I could never bring myself to selling much gear anyways except for that dang JX-8P - but that was another issue I had to work out with myself. And I eventually bought that JX-8P back.

In the end, it would take years of  trial and error and a wack of therapy to unravel all the issues surrounding my unhealthy relationships between people, money, gear and creativity to figure out what the real problems were. But it was worth it. And although my experience is unique, the solution is not. 

Before I could get to the solution, I needed to ask myself two questions:

The first question: Why did I feel the need to purchase all that gear?

For me - at first it was because I was genuinely interested in gear. But as decades of life wore me down, it became less about the functionality of the gear and more about the thrill of the purchase - that hit of dopamine every time I bought something new. For others, maybe its to be validated or accepted within a peer group. Or Maybe they think it will help them be more creative.  I'm sure there are other reasons too, but those other ones never were a part of my problem, and I eventually figured out what to do about the bad habits I had formed.

The second question: Now that I had all this gear and I'm not using it - is it really inhibiting my creativity, or is there something else going on here?

There can obviously be many reasons why you haven't been creative lately. But, this idea that inanimate objects are somehow responsible for a reduction in creativity doesn't fly. 

This isn't an "abundance of music technology" problem. This is a psychological problem.

The Internet didn't just affect my synth purchasing habits, it also changed how I consumed media. Many, including myself, have become conditioned to living distracted lives. Even my career in digital marketing and communications enabled me to be distracted by constantly jumping back and forth between different projects.

For me, these bad habits made it harder and harder to concentrate on any activity for any significant length of time. Making music in my little studio decreased and that had a negative effect on everything else in my life. That would make me crave my hit of dopamine so I'd purchase another synth. I wouldn't use that synth either, which then affected me even further.

A viscous circle.

As I finally figured out, the real solution was to learn to concentrate again. To gain the focus-based skills and self-awareness techniques required to be able to be fully present when in the studio. And the big benefit was that these skills have come in handy in ALL ASPECTS of my life.

There are lots of tools and techniques in books and online that can help. It's not easy, especially when there is so many things going on around us. But why not start while you are self-isolating anyways?  Professional therapy helps a lot too - because its rarely about inanimate objects. And it's rarely just about getting your studio mojo back.

Now when I see one of those "too much gear" posts, I have a standard reply that revolves around two main principles:

1. Inanimate objects aren't making you less creative. Whether than means having too many inanimate objects, or not being creative because you don't have a particular inanimate object. You can learn concentration skills to be fully present in the activity of creating music, even when you are in a room full of potential distractions, and those focus-based skills and self-awareness techniques will help in all aspects of life.
Self-check: Do you have to remove gear from your sight in order to be creative with other gear? Do you think that next particular synth is "all you need" to complete your studio?

2. Its okay to buy as little or as much gear for your personal enjoyment. As long as you can afford it and its not just a dopamine hit to fill a void in your life.
Self-check: Can you still feed your children if you buy it? Do you get an anxiety attack every time the credit card bill comes in?  Are you jealous of other peoples gear? Do you get anxious about not using the gear you do have?  How easy would it be to sell the gear you have if you absolutely had to?

I'm not saying this is the only answer. But I am telling you want the answer ultimately isn't. Unless the inanimate object is literally a brick wall between you and your music gear, then there is a good chance it's the wall in your head.

Either way, get rid of the wall.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Roland Bass Plus 30 "Roland has seen the future..." organ bass pedal replacement synthesizer advertisement, Choir and Organ Magazine, 1984

Roland Bass Plus 30 "Roland has seen the future and it doesn't involve... feet" organ bass pedal replacement synthesizer advertisement from page 32 in the March 1984 issue of Choir and Organ Magazine.

Hey - hope everyone is doing well out there during these uncertain times. While practicing self-isolation, I know a lot of you are playing with your organ a lot, so I decided to dig through my archives and post something that hasn't received a lot of attention until of late.

Roland used to love to repackage gear. A great example is the Synth Plus 60 - basically a Juno 106 with integrated speakers that looked more at home in the living room or church than in the studio. The Synth Plus 10 and 80 had the innards of the Alpha Juno 1/2. All three machines are coveted by collectors and musicians almost as much as the originals.

Another example is found in this advertisement - the Bass Plus 30. It too is a re-packaged product.

Let me give you a hint... from the ad-copy:
"The remarkably stable bass synthesizer section features full voice flexibility with dual wave forms and control for Tuning, VCF-cutoff, Resonance, Envelope Modulation and Decay."
Sound familiar? How about this:
"The programmable Accent and Slide functions bring true bass technique capabilities to the Bass Plus 30."
Whaaat? Ooooh yeah - a stripped down 303! Not to replace your band's bass player, but to replace your organ's bass pedals.

Roland wrapped the Bass Plus 30 in the same lovely wood/wood-print material you'd find covering your favourite Roland's Piano Plus-series keyboards such as the Piano Plus 30, 60 and 70 - or most any other organs for that matter. And why not? Even if you didn't have an organ with pedals, the Bass Plus would match nicely while sitting on top of your living room's electric piano.

Advertising for the Bass Plus didn't make a lot of appearances in the wild - this ad only appeared in the top nine organ-based magazines and weeklies within a relatively short four-month period in 1984. But it's not surprising that it also joined it's TB and TR brethren in the well-loved Roland "Rhythm Machines" brochure where it shared space on the back page with the Piano Plus series as well as some of Roland's ultra-greats like the Jupiter 8, Juno-60 and SH-101.

The Bass Plus didn't sell well due to the mostly-false rumors that it didn't sound like real organ bass pedals. Some geographic exceptions included the Southern United States, Belgium and the Canadian city of Regina. In all, only around 300 units were produced.

According to Organ Weekly Digest, the Bass Plus was discontinued only six months after production began, and many soon after ended up in pawn shops. But unlike it's sibling the TB-303, most Bass Plus 30's continued to sit unused on shelves and in closets until 2018 as word finally began to slowly spread of its abilities. What was once one of the most unknown pieces of Roland gear, it turns out, had been in use by well-known electronic musicians for decades.

A great March 2019 thread started on the Organ Heaven listserv by member OrganLover4Ever lists famous users, which include Jean-Michel Jarre's brother, Billy-Bob Jarre, who owned five until they were sold as a package for over three figures in an exclusive 2019 Christie's auction.  Since that time, he went on record in World of Organs magazine that he had used them mostly for his live performances. Their small size, durability and wide range of sound were great replacements for his five much heavier Jupiter 8s.

Other notable users include Borgore, who used a Robin Whittle-modified Bass Plus on his banger, "Bass Plus Bass", as well as Hardwell's "Plus Bassing" and DJ Guv's "Thirty Plus Bass". During an extended VJ session on the popular OTV (Organ Television), Richie Hawtin announced that his Plus 8 record label was named after the fact he owned eight Bass Plus 30's while living for six months in Regina, Saskatchewan.

Edna Boil, editor
Organ Emporium Magazine
Digging through my archives, I found a great review by Editor Edna Boil in the "New and Blessed" section of the June 1984 issue of Organ Emporium Magazine. Along with the other specs of the machine, she highlighted its key change feature.
"The unit contains sufficient memory to hold many patterns and also has a key-change feature that can raise the key of a programmed pattern. This feature is useful to add variation during long consecrations at mass or during those extended snake-worshiping dance sessions."
 Edna Boil knows here organs. Make sure you take the time to play with yours.