Posts Tagged ‘review’

I was in my local friendly music shop asking about other things and, for one reason or another, ended up playing with the Roland BOSS SY-300 Guitar Synth pedal. The guy in the shop was enthusing about how well it tracked guitars – including slides and vibrato and my  next thought was “yeah yeah, but how well would it work on a violin?” In my experience tracking a violin pitch is very very hard. I’ve seen nothing that would do it reliably in either hardware or software, and it’s something I’ve been looking for for a long time now.

To cut a long story short .. IT WORKS! it even tracks the octave violin (which is tuned an octave below a normal violin so, on a 5 string instrument, makes it go down to the bottom C string of a cello). I stayed in the shop for a couple of hours playing with my violins on the device and was simply astonished about how well it worked. It is possible to confuse it, either with bad technique or pulling too hard on the low octave C string, but those are hardly major problems for normal use. And by bad technique I don’t mean tuning – if you play out of tune, the SY-300 will simply play the pitch you hit, I mean not placing your finger cleanly on the string which makes a dull grinding note on the violin anyway. If you slide all the way down a string – the SY-300 will follow you, if you use wide or narrow vibrato – the SY-300 will follow you. If you play loud to soft to loud in a single bow stroke – the SY-300 will follow you.


The guy in the shop thought it worked even better with violin that guitar because of the expressive effect of the bow on amplitude, and the ability to play long notes easily, it turns the SY-300 into a very expressive synth. It’s interesting to note that playing a synth via a violin (or guitar for that matter) doesn’t sound like playing a synth from a keyboard, it transfers the intrinsic ‘feel’ of the instrument onto the sounds made by the synthesizer – so in no way is it a replacement for a keyboard synth, it’s something totally different.

You need good synthesis knowledge to get the most out of the pedal, a lot of the factory presets are very guitar-orientated, made for a plucked instrument and often with lots of distortions added, so to get the best from a violin you need to get in there and make your own patches. As a violinist who also plays synthesizers this is easy enough for me, but people less familiar with subtractive synthesis might find it hard work to get what they want from it. This really is an expert’s device/

The architecture is slightly odd. It has 3 oscillators (with the standard virtual-analogue waveforms) each with its own filter, LFO and sequencer. Yes, the LFOs, filters and sequencers are per-oscillator! There are also 3 global LFOs (called Waves) that can be applied to the built in effects as well as the oscillator parameters. There are 4 effects slots which can be placed almost anywhere you like on one of two synth busses or the dry channel, and are of very good quality – as you would expect from a BOSS device. There is a good range of the usual effects, delays, reverbs, phasers, flangers & distortions – all with a good range of options. And also there are combined effects (delay+reverb for example) so you can make full use of those four slots. Most of the parameters of the effects can be controlled from the Wave LFOs. Although the way you configure those is rather clunky.

There are a few downsides. While it has MIDI in & out sockets (including USB) it does not send or receive MIDI notes, only control change and program change. I would also have liked more waveforms than just the standard saw,triangle, sine, square and maybe some interaction between the waveforms (eg FM). Also the software editor doesn’t work on Mac OS/X Sierra. Even the driver (which is supposed to work) crashed my system … and WHY OH WHY do MIDI devices need drivers anyway when they should just be class-compliant?! sigh.

But generally I think it’s an amazing device and if you’re a violin player who’s also into synthesis I strongly recommend you have a look at it.

I made a video about it with more information and examples

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On the way up the the University of Leeds to see this concert, we passed a small but loud rock/pop festival in Millennium Square. It sounded like quite conventional youth music, and as the sound of the kick drum faded and we entered the University music department we thought what a contrast that was to the concert we were about to witness. It was, but not at all in the way we expected.

The pre-concert talk started off telling us about James Mooney’s project with the music of Hugh Davies, some of his life & work and a short video of one of his instruments …  the ‘Shozyg’. I have to say this did not make a good impression on me. The sounds were primitive, and not in a good way. That sort of “professional amateurism” is something I find very wearing. It’s something that infects a lot of these English Experimentalists and seems to be a political act on their part. Though unlike the punk movement of the 1970s little achievement is apparent, the music of these people still largely only exists (thankfully) in the universities and people who for some bizarre reason like it. I do sometimes think that people are attracted to this music simply because it’s ‘Alternative’ rather than actually any good.

The talk also contained some discussion of the other pieces in the programme. Two by Stockhausen (whom I like a lot), one by Christian Wolff (whom I have very little time for) and one by member of the ensemble for bowed, amplified cardboard box …  as bowing is intended to excite a resonance and cardboard is not a notably resonant material, I am sceptical but keep an open mind.

However it surprised me slightly when the cardboard-boxist (is that right?) played the box on the first Stockhausen piece and didn’t seem to have any other instruments available to him. The sound it made was as predictable as it was tedious. Just squeaking and scraping – the sort of noises that I’ve spent months training student violinists to stop making (but which can be used to good artistic effect when used sparingly and in context). The other members of the ensemble were doing a good job on the piece, especially the guy with the eurorack synth, but the box was beyond silly. A far more entertaining use would be to let cats jump in and out of the box … or just keep something in it.

The second piece was a fixed media acousmatic one by Hugh Davies himself. Mostly him making noises on a spring with magnetic pickups. This was a tedious, and very badly recorded piece with little subtlety and less discernible musical structure. A very poor offering from the headliner. Apparently Davies used to work for Stockhausen but there was not even the remotest hint of the master’s skill evident in either composition or production here.

The other Davies piece, in the second half, was performed live but wasn’t much better. There was at least, some structure involved this time, but attempting to make music from pure feedback is a losing battle – all that really happened was that is sounded like a lot of very depressed clangers. If you want to hear guitar amp feedback used musically then listen to almost any rock concert from the last 50 years. It’s not rocket science.

The cardboard box piece was as dreary, pointless and annoying as it could possibly have been. The only thing that livened it up was some particular technological incompetence that caused the ‘musician’ to stop, restart the software on the laptop, say ‘well, call that a movement’ and start again. Even when the laptop was ostensibly working the sounds it produced were awful, predictably boring and badly engineered. More “professional amateurism”.

The Christian Wolff pieces was … a Christian Wolff piece. Ridiculous and pointless noises made in the service of a pretentious score.

The final piece, another Stockhausen showed how things can be when they are done well, or would be if they didn’t have a cardboard box squeaking along for too much of the time.

All in all a very poor showing. I really don’t understand the fascination with these English experimentalists. They seemed intent on producing sub-standard music containing the sort of ridiculous noises that gives modern “classical” music a bad name.

Walking back to the bus stop we went past the rock festival again. Happy to he hearing music that, even if not to our taste, was well structured, competently performed and actually had some point and some direction. There was even some good use of guitar amplifier feedback. A lot of classical people like to look down on rock & pop music – tonight it should have been the other way round.

Not. Good. Enough.

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