Music Gear Review

Over the past couple years, I have accumulated many thousands of dollars of musical equipment. I thought I would take some time to review the pros and cons of what I’ve purchased for future imitators :-). You can hear this gear in action in all the SNW recordings.

Main keyboard: Nord Stage 76

I bought this refurbished on eBay for $2,400. It’s the one I’m playing in the picture. This is my favorite piece of musical equipment ever, way better than those fancy $6,000 KORG boards. I think this keyboard’s strongest point is its aptitude for improv settings: after spending some time getting familiar with the controls, I don’t have to spend any time getting just the sound I want, even if I never thought I’d want it beforehand. All the sound tweaks are physically there in front of me, not hidden in layers of touch-screen menus that take 30 seconds to get to. It sounds inefficient, but it’s exactly what is needed for improv.

There are 4 major sections: organ, piano, synth, effects. The organ and piano sections are top-notch, with excellent reproductions of B3 (with manual drawbar controls, which work great, but turn out to matter less than I thought they would) and a few types of electric piano (and the obligatory acoustic piano, which is a very nice patch). It doesn’t matter that there are only a few types though, because they really sound perfect, and tweaks to the sound can be done via onboard effects.

The synth section sucks, I essentially never ever use it. That’s okay in my situation because both of my other keyboards cover that area very nicely, but it’s something to keep in mind.

It has 12 effects in the effects section (plus a great amp sim that I have enabled almost all the time), but there is a weird situation about what effects can be active at the same time. There are three sections, and each effect is in only one of them. So you can only have 3 effects active at the same time, and not all combinations are possible. I thought this would be limiting, but in practice it works fine, and the interface is very streamlined once you learn it.

If this keyboard broke or was stolen, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy the exact same thing again. This is the perfect keyboard for improv.

Upper keyboard: Nord Lead 3

So impressed by the Nord Stage, about six months later I bought another Clavia product, the Nord Lead 3 (now discontinued) on eBay for $1,000. It’s a pretty cool instrument, but I do not rate it anywhere near as high as the Stage.

The idea is that it emulates old analog synthesizers. The keys have nice action (unweighted), and I of course love the hands-on control (I could never use a keyboard with menus!). But it just isn’t that versatile. The patches all sound too “old-school”, too “fat” (generally a positive adjective in the synth world, but sometimes I want a really skinny sound, and that’s very hard to get). Also the glide function is linear, meaning the pitch changes at a constant rate from the source key to the destination key, which is much less flexible than Reason’s exponential glide, where the rate depends on the distance from the source to the destination (so if I want a faster glide, I “help it along” by pressing a higher key). And I use glides a lot in my synth leads, so that flexibility is very important.

What I do like about it is the hands-on envelope controls. Most of the time I pick a lead patch at random and just start playing with it. The biggest thing that makes a lead patch inappropriate is the envelope: it starts too abruptly, or it has a really long release (so there’s a sloppy sustained effect, when I want it to be tight). But the envelope controls are right there so I can quickly fix those problems instead of clumsily cycling through patches until I find one I like (messing up the music in the meantime). I also like the chord glide a lot. It’s kind of a gimick, it really only sounds like one thing, but it’s a really unique sound.

Right-hand keyboard: M-Audio Radium 61 + Reason 4

The oldest part of my rig is the keyboard on my right side, a crappy little M-Audio MIDI controller that I got for $80 on eBay, and Reason as the software synthesis behind it (bought for $300 new). The Radium 61 has okay action, but occasionally a key sticks which is pretty much unacceptable. I really should replace it. But it has some configurable controls on it, which are quite essential to what I do. But really, the important part of this keyboard is Reason.

Reason I rate almost as highly as the Nord Stage. If something happened (I don’t know what that would be, it’s software!) I would replace it immediately. It covers the Stage’s ass in the synth area, with the most amazing leads and pads I have ever had the pleasure of using. I had to spend some time configuring it for improv use, though. Here’s how:

I went through every patch and tried it out a little. If I liked it, I put it in a favorites group according to what it is (eg. “strings”, “pad”, “lead”, “choir”, …). Then I made a big rack and created one instrument for each favorites group, and selected the first one in that group. That way when I push the next and previous patch buttons it selects the next of my hand-picked patches in that group, rather than whatever is next on the list it was originally in. When play I move a lot between types, and less frequently between instruments in a type.

I also have four effects set up: reverb (with a similar patch setup), delay, distortion, and flanger. The parameters of the effects are mapped to the controls on the MIDI controller. That part came later, and was very important; once I did that I got a lot more power out of my right-hand keyboard. In retrospect I would do away with the flanger though, since I never use it. Oh, and I also have master volume mapped to one of the controls on the MIDI controller, because it’s impossible to predict the right volume ahead of time.

Right-hand keyboard accessory: Mackie C4

There is one thing Reason is missing though: hands-on controls (especially the aforementioned envelope controls). Using the mouse sucks. That’s why I bought the Mackie C4 control surface, basically just a big board with a bunch of configurable dials on it. I got it for $1,000 new. Not recommended.

The biggest problem with it is the way it’s mapped to Reason. Most of the dials available by mouse in Reason are mapped to the control surface, but they’re in different places for each virtual instrument! So if I want to change the attack on the lead I’m playing, I have to know whether the lead is “implemented” in the Subtractor, Maelstrom, or Thor. I don’t know that, I don’t want to have to think about that, I just want to change the attack! There are dynamic labels, so if my eyes were available during a jam session, which they typically are not, then I could hunt and figure it out. But essentially it completely fails at what I bought it for.

The main thing I use it for nowadays is for 6 buttons: next/prev type, next/prev patch, next/prev reverb patch. (The reverb has separate buttons since I’m often in the “scope” of another instrument when I want to tweak the reverb). A grand is a lot to pay for six buttons.

The only thing that’s keeping me from selling it is the fact that, if I were persistent, I could learn Reason’s control-mapping format and remap everything in a sane way. But the format is really complicated and undocumented, and I just haven’t had the energy to do it.

Amp: Peavey KB/A something

Got it for $150 on eBay. Does the job, could be better. It doesn’t have wheels! One of the three inputs broke, which was annoying but didn’t matter since I only use one input anyway. But I think it would be worthwhile to get a nicer amp.

Audio Interface: E-MU 1616

I bought this used on eBay for $160. This card has served me very well since my upgrade from the terrible M-Audio firewire card. I repeat, do not go near M-Audio for an audio interface! As for simple record/playback stuff the EMU has never been caused any issues whatsoever. It can be a tight fit when recording though, since I can really only get 6 inputs (the other 10 they advertise have to come from an external ADAT box, which can be pricey). I use 3 inputs for myself, so that gives me room for a single room mic on the drums, and a line in from two other musicians. That worked well for SNW because I never wanted to grow beyond 4 people, but for other situations I’d have to expand. Fortunately I could (presumably) just invest in an ADAT box and have tons of inputs without having to pick a new interface.

The SNW recordings here and here were made using the EMU, three inputs for myself, one for Evan (bass) and single room mic on drums. It’s pretty incredible how good the sound quality can be for such a simple setup, but it doesn’t quite match the earlier recordings Eric made with a much nicer interface and a whole drum mic setup.

Summary

Those are the expensive parts of my rig, hopefully someone has stumbled upon this while trying to create something similar and I’ve helped out. There are a lot of bells and whistles: four sustain pedals, an expression pedal (for the Stage), and a tap tempo pedal (for Reason). I will say something about the tap tempo pedal: it was very hard to find one at all, here’s the one I got. It works great. The rest of the details are not that important.

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