uploading samples to Blofeld: Part 3

I’ve actually already made two posts about the Blofeld and sample upload, but it has been a few years since I needed to upload new samples, and I once again encountered problems, so I went through the process again. Previously, I had found success uploading samples with the PC version of Spectre, but when I tried to launch the program, it crashed before it opened. I uninstalled and reinstalled it with no luck. So I switched to the Mac to see if that would work. But before I get into the nuts and bolts of what actually worked, I should explain a couple things about sampling on the Blofeld.

Some Background

First, sample upload overwrites any samples that currently exist on the machine. So if you had uploaded some snare samples, and then later made a new program to upload hihat samples, those samples overwrite the snare samples. So if you want to build a library of samples without ruining the ones you already have, you have to append samples to the end of a single program. I add a new program onto the end so that previously uploaded samples aren’t overwritten. You also can’t delete any programs that you’ve put here because that will affect the sample number of any samples after it. (For example if you delete A12 program, the A13 program now becomes the A12 program, A14 becomes A13, and so on.) Here’s a screenshot of what my Spectre program looks like:

a screenshot of my spectre program

Second, the list of programs are only pointers to audio files, so if any of the files have moved from when you originally added them, they won’t appear. I tried to avoid issues by putting all samples into a specific folder, but it’s still hard to maintain. You can open up the xml file and see everything that Spectre has created as part of the program: low/high notes, normalize or not, location of the files, etc. But as you might have figured out, since I couldn’t get the PC version of Spectre to load, that meant that I had to find and move all samples to the Mac, and then update the xml file to point to the new locations. Eventually I updated all the links to their new locations and could begin the process of uploading the samples, but that turned out to be a whole other project.

Loading the Samples: Trial & Error

So once the samples were transferred to the Mac and the xml file was updated, I started trying to send the samples to the synth. (I’m just breezing past this part, but this took me two days of work to do.) I made sure the audio/midi settings were set properly, including setting both midi inputs and outputs. The only midi output on the desktop version I have is USB midi, although the keyboard version has DIN midi in and out. So first I tried with USB midi, but no luck. Then I tried DIN midi for the input and USB midi for the output, and that didn’t work either. So next I tried saving the file (Save Midi File) and sending that using Spectre and the “Upgrade” button, and that didn’t work either. Finally, I used the “save midi file” button and sent the midi file from Sysex Librarian, and even though it took hours to load, this worked. I know other people have gotten Spectre to send the samples, but I’ve never been successful on Mac. But saving the midi file and sending it over DIN midi worked every time. This also let me know that sending it via midi file doesn’t require a handshake procedure. The file I used originally was 29MB, and that took almost four hours to upload. I trimmed the programs of unused samples and brought it down to 20mb, which took about 2 hours to load.

conclusion

So to recap, what worked was:

    1. Save the midi file
    2. Exit Spectre and pull up a program like Sysex Librarian to send the file
    3. Set the output of Sysex Librarian to DIN midi
    4. Then press play and wait.

It seems this is the only reliable way to do it. It’s a long process but it ultimately works. Good luck out there!

 

1010Music Blackbox tips & review

1010Music BlackboxThe 1010music Blackbox is here, and with it the retiring of the sampler on my trusty MPC2500. Not that the MPC wasn’t fairly capable in the sampling department, but at some point I knew I wanted to upgrade the sequencer and also move off the MPC sampling platform as well. Previously when I made samples, I didn’t process them at all on the MPC so that I wouldn’t have to attempt to recreate the sounds later on some other device. But with the Blackbox, I feel no such compunction to limit myself because there are no plans to migrate from this sampler. As I dive into its feature set, I’m gladly taking advantage of everything that’s available, and as it begins to be used for new productions instead of just being migrated to fulfill the sampling duties from old tracks, I’ll discover what is possible. I’ve owned it now for a few weeks, and made some mistakes, but you have to walk before you fly, so here are the discoveries I made that might be helpful to you:

  1. Know what you’re trying to do. I thought that the Blackbox would easily handle taking a sample that was a single note vocal take and then pitch it up or down within the phrase, that is, using a external or internal keyboard to articulate notes in a single note vocal sample, like a vocoder. Essentially, this isn’t possible, or was perhaps a misunderstanding of the concept by me, because if you map a single phrase to multiple pads, they speed up or slow down according to pitch. You can use a multi-sample pad instead where you save individual hits that you’ve sped up/slowed down or pitch-shifted up/down, but at that point you might as well use the computer, because the process of saving root notes to samples and reloading them is rather tedious. Granular mode does allow separate manipulation of pitch and speed, but with some noticeable artifacts, and has only mono polyphony.
  2. Samples & polyphony. The Blackbox only has 16 sample pads to use (I’m used to the 64 on the MPC), so you’ll have to be creative to get a bunch of samples working, even in multi-sample mode. In this mode, you have to save each individual sound with a root note value and then reload all those single shots into one pad. This allows you to trigger multiple samples from the same midi channel by sending different notes, whereas normally a single sample should occupy a single midi channel. You can load 64 samples on a single pad, and 80 total per preset, averaging 5 per pad. As for simultaneous voices playing, according to the latest version of the manual (1.7), “Blackbox has been tested to reliably playback up to 24 simultaneous voices. The absolute maximum number of voices is 32, but you may encounter CPU issues before that depending on other demands on the processor.”
  3. RTFM. I’ve had some operating hiccups, but they basically came from not reading the manual. First, read the preset save procedure. I lost some presets because I didn’t save it the correct way. Also be careful about sending program change because this will clear any edits you haven’t saved on the preset. The second was I couldn’t get program change to work, but that was because in the Tools menu, Program Change must be set to on, and both Midi Keys and Midi Pads parameters must be set to the program change receive channel, which I had not done. This causes some weirdness if there are any tracks that send on the channel you’re using for program change, so you’ll have to watch out for that. If possible, avoid using the program change channel for sample playback. Late one evening I found some weirdness with multi-samples, but haven’t been able to repeat it, so maybe it was just a fluke.
  4. FX operate unusually. The fx operate in a different way than most I’ve seen, using percentages rather than specific delay/reverb times. If you want the effects beat-synced, the percentages lock to beat divisions, but it doesn’t tell you what they are. Even though I’m still getting used to how they operate, they sound good in my opinion, but don’t allow more than 100% wet mixed with 100% dry and have very few parameters other than percentage and feedback. Obviously any other effect that is not reverb/delay will need to be handled externally. There is a built-in compressor, but I haven’t been too fond of it because the settings can’t really be changed. It is a multi-stage compressor with these settings according to the forum: “…currently a two stage compressor with fixed settings. First there is an RMS based compressor with a ratio of 4 if I recall. It is followed by a brick wall limiter to avoid clipping.” Maybe it can be used if the initial sample levels are basically equal, but at any rate, the compressor is global so it will probably not be that useful for me.
  5. There’s no USB device functionality. Yes, it is powered by USB, but no data is sent over the USB connection, only power. You can use midi controllers with the host port, as I have with the Sensel Morph, but you can’t use it to grab files from a USB pen drive, as all samples are loaded with the microSD card. I’ve read that the card that is shipped is relatively good, but that high stresses might show inadequacies with the card provided with the sampler. Best bet is to buy a microSD card rated A1 or better.
  6. Samples playing louder from external sources. After I’d spent lots of time getting the samples I needed perfect on my computer, exporting them and then importing them on to the Blackbox, I was surprised to find that the waveforms were clipping when played externally, but sounded like they should when played from the screen. Even though it’s not documented anywhere, I think the fix is to turn down velocity on the pads screen. I still don’t know exactly why this is. When you bring the levels up of a sample, my DAW input levels go up as well, up to a certain point, and then the Blackbox appears to overdrive the sound rather than bring its levels up to 0. Still need some more investigation into this.

I’ve mostly talked about the issues I’ve had, but this Blackbox closeupmachine has a lot of pros as well. Its compact size, the touch screen, the relative quality of the effects, the different modes including granular, etc. Even though in the European market it is going for around 720$ (598€) new, I’m starting to see lots of people using it online, and I can see why. I haven’t even touched the surface of its built-in sequencer as I strictly operate it as an external sampling device for now, but as time goes on, I’ll be able to add more of its features to my live sets. Anything I add to my live setup has to be used for a long time, so I look forward to seeing what a long future with the Blackbox looks like.

 

Cirklon, TB-3, & System Exclusive

The Cirklon has arrived. And as exciting as it is to receive something you’ve waited four years for, the feeling is a bit tempered, because even though the feature was announced as “coming” in 2012,  sysex in the Cirklon is still not implemented.; it supports only pass-through of sysex and backup/restore functions for the sequencer. This is quite a bummer, as I had been controlling the TB-3 by recording the patch dump strings from TB-3 and then playing them back to reload the parameters no matter which patch it is on. That won’t be possible if and until that feature is implemented, at least directly though the Cirklon. That means I have to explore workarounds, which fall into roughly two camps: 1) hardware & 2) computer-based. At the basic level, the TB-3 will still need to receive exclusive data at the time the song is loaded, either over DIN or USB midi, and that midi will have to pass through the Cirklon.  Let’s go through the hardware options first.

Sending System Exclusive over Hardware

Some other machine will need to be able to send sysex through one of the Cirklon’s ports. I have a Knobby and a BCR2000 that can  send sysex, but they each have problems. I can send 8 of the 11 parts at once, meaning i could load the parts with just 2 or three clicks, but copying and pasting those values into the editor is a time consuming and inefficient way to do that. The BCR2000 can send 125 bytes at a time in a single button press but the TB3 needs 422 bytes to completely encode a patch’s properties. It would be a bit easier but would involve not only coding them in and remembering to call them manually every time but also hauling a not-small piece of gear along just for the purpose of changing patches.

The other option just involves saving the finished patches to slots in the user section of the TB3 and just manually changing them. This would be the easiest live solution (if the MPC was excluded) but since the Cirklon can’t record sysex,  I would still need to record the patch data some other way. In this scenario, the MPC could be used solely as a way to send sysex patches to the TB-3 in a studio setting, with one cable going into it and who merges that info with a one-time sysex call, while for live i would just number the patches according to the set, save the patches to the user bank of the TB-3, and just recall them manually.

Sending System Exclusive over Software

I don’t own any USB midi controllers that send exclusive, and the list of cross-platform DAWs that support sysex is short if non-existent. As far as I can tell, Sonar, FL Studio, Cubase , Logic, and perhaps the latest version of Ableton support sending sysex. But both platforms have a software that can send sysex, like MIDI-OX for windows and Sysex Librarian for mac, but the problem is the automating of those  calls, which would only be possible with a DAW that was playing in time with the project. This presents its own set of problems, and I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole.

Conclusion

Going through this whole thought exercise though, has allowed me to see a way forward with the Cirklon, converting all the old tracks to the Cirklon, except for the TB-3 patch data and the samples that will need to be moved to the Blackbox. and triggered from there, so a transition away from MPC is possible., if long and painful and still includes the MPC for patch recording and playback purposes. Still, it’s always nice to see a pathway forward. The conversion from MPC to Cirklon will not be easy and will take time, but a new future awaits…a Cirklon future.

Future Retro FR-512 MIDI fix

I bought this touch capacitance keyboard, a keyboard similar in style to some on the Buchla systems, in 2017, and I loved it, but immediately ran into problems, which had me frustrated and looking for answers. The main thrust was that some midi devices were not picking up the output from the midi output. It seemed as though if I plugged it directly into a synth, everything was fine, but if I plugged it into my MPC or my midi box, no messages would be picked up. This inconsistency, and the fact that Jared at Future Retro didn’t know what the solution was back in 2017, caused me to have to work around the issue, by routing everything first through my BCR2000, which picked up the signals. This was a pain in my ass for a number of reasons, with the extra cabling and delay causing annoyance and headaches.

So a few weeks ago, I had mentioned this issue to someone and they suggested I contact the manufacturer again, and when I did, there was an answer to the problem. According to Future Retro, ”

 “[T]he MIDI buffer IC in the 512 does not provide enough current drive to control all MIDI devices out there in the world.”

So it was underpowered, but worked well enough so that some things didn’t show the issue during the testing phase. Further, he writes that,

“This IC can be replaced with a different part which should resolve the issue.”

Yes! And,  the solution is that,

“You need to replace part U6 (type MC14584BDG) on the jack PCB with a part type CD74AC04M96E4.”

U6 (FR-512 jack PCB)
The U6 location IC

I ordered the part online for a few cents and then had a local tech do the replacement, as it is very tiny and this is a very expensive instrument. And what do you know, it’s being picked up by the MPC now. It’s a shame that the MPC might soon get retired, but it’s great to know that I shouldn’t have this problem in the future with any other devices. Now that this is seemingly fixed, I’ve made the setup much more compact and eliminated a lot of overhead, and now won’t hesitate at all to use many of the arp, sequence, and chord features of this controller. And it should eliminate other issues. like the delayed values being transmitted after having clock go through two devices to get to it and notes and other midi data having to go though two devices to get back to the sequencer.

changes are coming

A significant change is on the way…the Sequentix Cirklon, what in the electronic music world is essentially Unobtanium. I signed on to the mailing list in July of 2017, and now, on February 1st, 2021, the unit is being shipped. It is not even the same sequencer I signed up for back then, as they have updated it to what they’re calling a Cirklon 2, which adds USB host support and a color touch screen, but is otherwise the same instrument as the first Cirklon. It appears that this means that the MPC2500 may not have a very long future ahead of it. I already bought a new sampler to replace that part of it. The only unknown is if the Cirklon can send some basic sysex or not, as my TB-3 depends on that to load patches on the fly.

I have used an MPC since the very beginning, first the MPC2000XL and since around 2017 the MPC2500. It has four midi outputs, and since I have shrunk my setup,  it has worked great since I use only three synths and an audio interface. Now that the MPC might be displaced, that turns into two devices, but since the Cirklon has 5 separate ins and outs, it works out great. The Sensel Morph has an interface much like the pads on the MPC, and if they work as expected, every single  function of the MPC can be replaced. And with 5 inputs as well, I should be able to record the midi coming from any of my external devices that send information out on 5-pin DIN plugs, like the FR-512, BCR2000, or the outputs from the TB-3.

It will take some time to move everything over to the Cirklon, if in fact it will send basic sysex messages.  (I know it doesn’t support parameter changes via sysex or instrument-level sysex definitions, but maybe I can just record the track data into a regular CK pattern. Fingers crossed.) It does come equipped with what looks like a basic SMF (.mid file) conversion to CK pattern type.  The instruments will have to be assigned, and the songs reassembled, but it appears to be possible. If not, I can always play the tracks into the Cirklon from the sequencer and press record, presumably.

It represents a few things for me. One, it is a change from the platform I’ve always used, the MPC-style, to a new sequencing paradigm. The MPC hardware is getting old and has to be maintained with new parts regularly. The sampling capability is very old and I waited until I found a sampler that was a worthy successor. And, the case for the MPC now perfectly fits the Virus and Cirklon. That’s just a case, a handheld 2U rack, and a backpack with the RYTM, TB-3, and BlackBox, and cables. A very light load with a maximum of power and control with . I won’t even need a taxi anymore. Now ready to blast off into the future.

playing live (update)

The Way it Was

Looking back at a year and a half ago, there have been some changes to the live setup. I replaced my aging Airbase with a proper drum computer, the Elektron Analog RYTM MkII, and I’ve sampled most of the parts I needed from it, so it is retired from live work. I’ve also retired the Waldorf Blofeld from the club setup, although it is still being used for the always-evolving street act.

current live setup schematic
current live setup schematic

Additionally, I stopped using the Lexicon MX400 (which was only used for the Airbase), the MOTU Micro Express, and the Behringer BCR2000. Now I have only the PSU and audio interface in a 2U rack case, a handheld case for the MPC, and the three synths & laptop which I put into a duffle bag. Here’s what the studio looks like today. The live setup would be the same except I would leave the keyboards at home and use the pads for live and would use the laptop instead of the PC.

studio Dec 6 2020
studio Dec 6 2020

In the future I hope to replace the aging MPC with a Cirklon, further reducing my weight and footprint, although its sampling functionality will probably need to be replaced with something as the RYTM has limited sampling capability, but otherwise, there’s not much changing happening. I am stuck with these machines until I completely exhaust all their ideas or I can afford to hire someone to carry my gear around.

A solid Setup

I have used the same setup for the past six months or so now using the RME UFX as the hub and using its snapshots to instantly recall mixes. The UFX has 14 inputs (discounting ADAT), so I have routed the RYTM, TB3, and Virus basically “permanently” to 12 of its 14 inputs, sending it eight channels of  RTYM via cable snake, a stereo digital input from the Virus, and a stereo analog front panel input for the the TB-3, after discovering the possibilities of the FX section which showed the importance of routing the TB-3 in stereo. That leaves two front panel inputs which are now being used for vocal samples from the MPC and an extra output from the Virus, but which can be used for anything. And I’ll never need to change the I/O routing except for these front two inputs, so if I want to use a microphone in the future or add some different instrument, there are still 2 inputs which can be routed freely. Maximum stability and flexibility — the goals all along.

Moving Forward

This is the culmination of my attempt to achieve a simple but versatile, portable setup that offers stability and control without losing creativity. There are enough sonic options among these three synthesizers that I will never get bored or not be able to do something. All three synths have effects per voice, and by routing the most used drums separately, I can create better separation and clarity in my mixes by accessing fully separate per-channel effects and dynamics from RME’s Totalmix. Now begins the journey into sound where I continue exploring every facet of the instruments and allow my ideas to run free. Mixes are an important part of songs, and getting good consistent mixes from session to session in a live setting is hard to achieve, but now it seems possible. So whether it’s drum & bass, techno, electro, tech house, or whatever, the tracks are ready to play live. And that’s the whole point of this thing: to play live.

Unofficial TB-3 Effects Parameter Guide

In search of a more complete TB-3 effects document

I just love this little machine. Immediate, with a big sound, but on the surface, it’s a pretty simple device — a TB-303 clone. But once the full parameter implementation was revealed due to the reverse-engineering work of some enterprising sysex programmers, it became clear that this was in fact a monster sound design machine. 6 independent oscillators, VCF, VCA, LFO, ring modulator, distortion, and 4 modulation destinations amounts to a fully featured monosynth by just about any estimation. But that’s not all — it also has CV offset and cross modulation features that allow you to independently tune the oscillators as well as modulate all the VCO sources with each other. But then when you add in 21 separate mono and stereo effects, any two of which (except EQ and Pitch Shifter) can be used simultaneously, with hundreds of different parameters and options to control amongst them, it becomes hard to wrap your mind around what this machine might actually be capable of, even as a “simple” monosynth.

Enter Roland Documentation Hell

download the full guide here

But even arriving at the point where I know what the parameters are, what they do, and what they mean, was no easy task, because this synth has been woefully unsupported by Roland in terms of documentation. Only a small few bits of information exist from the manufacturer itself; most of what has been learned about the features and operation of the TB-3 has been due to exhaustive sysex testing based on other Roland synths. And what they did provide was mostly just lists of parameters and values, without any descriptions of what they did, if it wasn’t immediately obvious. Sure, the chorus effect has 1 mono mode and 2 stereo modes, for example, but what are they, and what do they do? For that matter, which effects are stereo and which are mono, aside from the explicit stereo modes? As it turns out, the flanger and reverb are full-time stereo effects even though they are not indicated as such. What about if the BPM time isn’t synced, does time parameter become a percentage of the internal TEMPO value? (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t, effect times that are not BPM synced are independent of the system clock.) And so on.

 A New Hope

But by testing and using the documentation of other similar Roland products, I constructed this TB-3 parameter effects guide which also includes the dedicated distortion section. Obviously there’s no guarantee that every single thing is spot-on in this document, and I wasn’t able to find information about all the distortion models, but it goes a long way towards gathering all the widely dispersed available information into a single source as well as including insight gained during testing if it seemed important or useful. So it’s not just dry information, but also tips that either clear up some unknowns or offer answers to questions that  are not documented anywhere and could only be learned through the testing process. I even found one parameter that appears to be unimplemented even though it is documented and should be present (EQ level, in this case). Obviously, to even access these parameters you will need to: a) be able to understand and program midi sysex, b) use one of the software editors like mugenkidou’s and/or c) use one of the hardware presets like these ones I made for the Behringer BCR2000 downloadable at the end of that blog entry. This machine can easily be integrated into your DAW as well, and with this midi information you can, say, automate any of the hardware synth parameters in Ableton.  And of course, I earlier researched and confirmed that you can save sysex dumps of all your patches for instant recall, so the puny 16 user patch locations need not be a limitation to your creativity. I never fail to get inspired by this little acid box, and I hope this helps you get excited about it too!

Unofficial TB-3 Effects Parameter Guide

 

Analog RYTM MKII has arrived

But A Soldier Has Fallen

One afternoon my trusty Jomox Airbase99, a machine I bought new, didn’t sound right. At first, I thought there was something wrong with the LFO, but that couldn’t be, as this machine has been as reliable as they come, if the inherent unpredictable “analog” character is excluded. But after numerous tests, it became clear that in fact both of the LFOs were not working. This was a major problem because there were compositional elements in many tracks that relied on the LFO. And so it forced me into an early decision to make a change, even though I also knew it would be a TON of work. But before I get into the AR, let me explain what I’d been struggling with and the other reasons I decided to upgrade.

The Flaws of the Airbase

For a long time, I have longed to improve a number of aspects of the Airbase. For one, I’ve spent countless hours trying to get the pitch of the kick drum to be consistent when tuned. Days or weeks of testing, charts, re-testing based on different time intervals, all that just to try to get the kick to be predictable. The best I could really do was play after warming up the machine for a specific amount of time before the set where I knew my settings would be close. Additionally, most of the sounds are actually sample based and at some point, sounds stop becoming interesting no matter what you do to them. And lacking effects, it required that I use another outboard fx unit so that I could change the sounds enough to still be interesting, which added weight and complexity to my live setup. The difficulty in finding proper power adapters, the high noise floor, the lack of overdrive or distortion and the inability to sync to clock were all additional factors that had made me start looking for a replacement over a year ago. I’m not really interested in being a nostalgia act, I want to be on the vanguard of what’s possible. This desire to improve my live drums led to what for me is the best drum machine/module on the market today: Elektron Analog RYTM MKII.

What To Get, What To Get

I knew I needed a few things for my live setup. First, I needed individual outputs so that I could have ultimate flexibility when routing my sounds. This allows me to keep my setup stable but still be able to route parts however I choose depending on the track, from fx, to panning, to EQ. Second, the new machine had to have some kind of overdrive or distortion effect to have ultimate sound and tone shaping ability. And the more effects available per voice, the better. The only ones available now that meet those requirements are the AR and the Tempest drum machines. The Tempest has some drawbacks though. First, if I remember correctly it only has a single effect for the entire mix. As it turns out, the RYTM also has effects that apply to the entire mix, but it also has a ton of features per voice that allow complete customization of sound before it even hits the effects. The Tempest is 6-voice versus the RYTM’s 8 voices as well. The final nail in the coffin for the Tempest though was the inability to use samples. If I was to transition to a new drum machine, I would have to sample the sounds from the old machine or otherwise I would lose all of the drum sound design I had done for previous tracks. Writing all new live sets is no small task and having these already completed tracks to lean on gives me something to play now while I continue to build up my repertoire. And so the choice was clear.

The Full Cost

I knew the time had come, so I started looking around, and my oh my, these machines are not cheap. I bought it new, not wanting to take any chances on a machine that very well may be in my setup for 20 years to come, but by the time it was all said and done, it was almost $1700. Ouch. But that is not the only cost. Now I had to take all the midi information that was currently being sent to the airbase and re-route them to the RYTM. But each sound also had to be meticulously redesigned to match as closely as possible the original sounds. Even the samples proved tricky as the airbase has many quirks that I have exploited in making my tracks that can’t be exactly duplicated just by recording and playing back a sample. This was dozens of hours of work. The first phase was just trying to match the kick drums. Then, it came time for the samples and those were even more difficult and time-consuming. And this was just to get 8 or 9 tracks ready for a live set, the rest of the older material has yet to be converted.

The Gates Have Opened

my setup for reference
my setup for reference purposes

But the change has been monumental. It immediately allowed me to eliminate two rack units from my live setup, it drastically lowered my noise floor,  and it allowed me to use the digital output of the Virus, a far better option than the analog outputs I had been using, further lowering my noise floor. For the most part this change also eliminated using the MPC as a sampler, unless there are quite a lot of samples involved, and it enabled me to use the AES/EBU digital output from the UFX to monitor, again a far cleaner (and as it turns out louder) signal to monitor with than the analog outputs. It freed up inputs on the UFX so that I can now use a separate stereo output from the Virus , as there is some sort of natural overdrive that occurs (wanted or unwanted) when a lot of loud sounds are played through a single stereo pair on the synth. As can be seen by all these improvements, the AR MKII has been a massive jolt and everything about it has been an improvement from either a technical or artistic standpoint. The future is looking bright.

 

DIY switch replacement on MPC 2500

I have had a problem for quite some time now, and I’ve finally got around to fixing it. You see those six buttons below the screen? They work TERRIBLY and have since I purchased this machine used in 2016 or so. They either don’t respond at all, or over-respond with many multiple unintended clicks. In a studio setting, it causes multiple events to be added and deleted which can range from annoying and time-wasting to disastrous. And when you go to save projects, it’s never clear until you’ve pressed multiple times that it has actually responded. More importantly in a live setting, those buttons control the timing of drum rolls, and it makes switching between 16th or 32nd notes virtually impossible, something that I used to frequently employ as a live technique. Now that I’m playing some live gigs, the handicap is too great and I have to attempt a fix.

Preparation

As it turns out, the switches below those buttons were only rated for 10 thousand clicks or so and it showed on these high-use buttons. So I did some research and found that this was a fairly common occurrence and that people were replacing them with switches rated for 1 MILLION clicks, which will surely outlast the machine itself and probably me. But, I am not good at soldering and I was not looking forward to doing the repair myself, but after finally ordering a soldering station, some new switches, and crucially, a solder pump, I was ready to go.

testing on an old board

First though, I felt like I needed to practice doing this repair, and luckily I had an old board with the exact switches that I could practice on. I had tried before to remove these but they proved more difficult than I thought because a little solder would be left on there and I couldn’t pull them off with pliers. That’s when I realized I needed a solder pump, and this helped remove the excess bits so that I could get a little screwdriver under there to carefully pry them out. I tried a few different temperatures on the soldering iron to see what was the minimum I needed to get good melt without overheating the plastic board and I also rigged this magnifying glass so that I could see up close what I was doing. After I had finished practicing adding and removing solder to the pins, careful to avoid overheating the tiny diode next to them or creating a short between them, I was ready to give it a go on the real machine. I didn’t know what awaited me when I went to access these switches, if I had to remove the screen or whatever, but now it was time to press forward.

Repair

almost ready

Once I got it opened up, I was in for a pleasant surprise…the only things connecting the board to the switches were two screws and a small connector cable. Fantastic! No need to completely disassemble the machine to get at these switches. I think for someone who has more experience with soldering, this would be an easier process than it was for me, but I didn’t rush and went about removing the switches. Once you’ve got as much solder off as you can, try to bend the pins straight and if you can,

switch graveyard

apply heat to one pin while slightly pulling on the switch to loosen that leg. Luckily I did not care about saving these old crappy switches so my main concern was just not damaging the board. I lost a leg or two removing these but for the most part I was able to free them with a small flat screwdriver more or less in one piece. Once they were free, and I

close-up of board

had made sure that the holes in the board were open,they easily slipped into their locations, and not long afterwards, were fastened in place with solder, and after making sure there were no visible electrical shorts caused by wayward solder, it was time to button everything back up and give it a whirl.

 

Reassemble and Test
reassembly

The answer came swiftly, because I didn’t need to reassemble the whole machine to see if these switches were working, so I popped on some black buttons I had laying around and everything worked! And now these buttons are silky smooth as well. No more mis-presses or no-presses and they will be set for another million presses. While I was there I cleaned up the pads as well which had gotten a bit grimey. I thought about replacing

old right-side PCB

the switches on the right side of the unit, as they will probably also need replacing and actually some of them are starting to show it, I still didn’t want to do it because these buttons are not used as much in critical situations so I’d rather not risk changing them until I have to. I bought plenty of extra switches should it become necessary in the future. The board I’m using on the right side is actually an aftermarket board I bought that replaces the MPC 2500 wheel with a much better MPC 2KXL-type wheel so it should have new switches relative to the ones on the rest of the machine. As you can see in this photo of the old board on the right, all the switches use this same kind except for the transport and tap tempo buttons.

Result
back in black

Very happy with how this turned out. I took it on myself to fix a problem and in the process saved a lot of money and will save myself lots of headaches in the future because of all the pussyfooting I had to do to avoid unintended consequences when using these switches. The soldering station was about 100zl (25$), the solder pump was 10zl (3$), and the switches themselves cost 53zl (13$) shipped for 30 of them, so for around 40$ I saved myself the hundreds or even thousands of dollars it would have cost otherwise to replace the whole machine, and is a more permanent solution than just replacing that board. I tried it out last night and it is like a completely different machine. Stoked to finally fix it, and do it myself, and I encourage anyone else out there who might want to try it to do the same!

 

Airbase99 kick drum tuning

JoMoX AiR Base 99

The Airbase99 is a drum module from electronic drum maker Jomox released sometime around the early 2000s as the successor to its first machine, the classic XBase09. It has an analog kick drum, snare, and high and low toms. For the other instruments it uses its own samples and those from the 808, 909, and CR78, which are then fed through an analog, reversible VCA for shaping. This is the oldest machine in my rig, and even though I have thought about getting another drum machine or module, this machine with its individual outputs continues to inspire me, and also, I just don’t want to spend the money on a new drum machine. But if you know my blog, you know that this entry is not about my fandom of this drum module, but about a far more esoteric quest: to nail down the tuning for the kick drum so I can play tuned kick drums like I would on a bass synth. But that has always proved to be a difficult task, as I will explain.

A History

The kick drum on this machine is great and is capable of a lot of timbres, and in conjunction with the LFO, offers a wide range of tonal and rhythmic choices, but one thing has always vexed me: at certain times when I’m using a kick with a long release, one where the harmonic content is especially relevant, I noticed that it would often be sharp or flat from what I had initially programmed it to be. I made a few charts mapping out approximate control change values that corresponded to notes. The 3 octave range goes from about B0 or 30.87Hz up to A3 or 220Hz, with 255 values to choose from. From these 255 values you can derive 35 notes, but because it’s analog, the divisions aren’t even, and as you ascend up to 255, the gap between the notes gets larger. For example, an approximate value for E2 is 069 and for F2 it is 075, which is a gap of 6. But at E3 (175) and F3 (188), the gap has already increased to 13, so the only way to figure out what value corresponds to what note is by testing with a tuner.

So I did this and came up with a chart that mapped the machine values (0-255) to note values (B0 through A3) to control change values (0-127) to control the pitch of the kick drum in real time. As you might have noticed, a greater range is available on the machine than is available with CC messages, so for E2, whose value is approximately 069, I have to go up to 070 or down to 068 since I can only send 34 or 35 as control change values. And this worked for a while, as I wasn’t doing a lot of tracks where I wanted to tune the kick during the song, but now that I’ve been making drum and bass, I have gone back to using this technique, but kept running into tuning problems. So I began some basic research.

Testing

At first I tested only two notes, A1 and F1, and I got a wide range of values based on how long the machine had been on. Within the first hour to hour and a half, the notes are very flat, but after it stabilizes it stays relatively in-tune. However, the pitch continues to rise throughout the session, and after about 2 hours it rises four values an hour. So at 2 hours for note F1, the value 17 is about -14 cents flat but by 5 hours this same value is +2 cents sharp. In long sessions nearing eight hours or more, the value actually becomes 16. So I did the best I could and averaged the times after around 2 hours to 6 hours and picked the values that were closest to a note at the time. I came up with a charts that look like this:

 

 

 

 

As you might notice, there are two: one for decay values of 240 or more and another for decay values of 150 or less. The issue is that above 240 the kick drum’s pitch rises slightly at the end of the note, about 10 cents or so. With decay values of 150 or less, the pitch is more or less stable as it doesn’t have time to rise in pitch at the end. So depending on if the track has long kicks or short kicks, I have a chart to help me determine which control change value to send.

Aftermath

This took quite an effort of a few weeks of tables and spreadsheets just to see if I could figure out exact values that corresponded to notes so that I could use the kick drum as a bass instrument, and as it turns out, I can’t fully map out the values, due to the lesser resolution of 0-127 to represent 256 values and because the circuit that generates the kick drum is analog, and as far as I can tell, continues to rise in pitch as long as the machine is powered on, i.e. the hotter it gets. Additionally, higher kick drum pitches tend to go further out of tune faster than the lower kick values, so the top notes are essentially unusable. In fact, there is a semitone setting on the kick drum which supposedly tunes notes on a semitone scale instead of a linear scale, but it doesn’t attempt anything higher than around F3 or 175Hz as it becomes too unstable to accurately map. Due to these factors, I try to work between 2 and 6 hours to have a reasonable expectation that the notes I send will not be too sharp or flat and just do the best I can with what I have. If it becomes problematic I have other synthesizers that I can use to generate or supplement the kicks on the Airbase.

One thing I’ve embraced with analog technology (and with performing live in general) is that things aren’t going to be perfect, and that’s ok, audiences may not even realize it’s live if everything is too perfect. This tuning issue was really annoying me though and I’m glad I at least did the research to find out what I know or don’t know, and the limits I’m presented with and work around them. One cool thing about really discovering an instrument is that you begin to find areas that the people who built it might not even know about, the fuzzy edges, and these are something I’m always searching for.