A Minimoog, a Prophet and an Odyssey enter a bar… and it’s only 200 Euros. — I know, if you don’t understand German, there is not much the last post can offer you but that is where I collected the first batch of info on the DinoPark VA PCB synth. In the meantime, controller panels have been programmed with the TB Midi Stuff app for iPad, and it works.
A Novation SL MKII controller keyboard connected via a USB printer cable to the DinoPark board; the Dino is the USB master, and the power supply for the keyboard.
The DinoPark’s USB Slave connector – the Micro USB socket – is used to connect an iPad via the Camera Connection Kit. It runs TB MIDI Stuff; the panels enable me to change the settings, and show me the parameter settings for the actual sound.
It would be possible to use the Novation controller only; this just about works for the Minimoog emulation as a Minimoog has not got that many dials to turn; for the Prophet clone, the 24 dials and faders of the SL are simple not enough; you would need two templates and would have to jump between them. Moreover, the Novation controller does not evaluate the board’s CC messages and is thus unable to show the actual values for a parameter. Nothing new for VA synths.
Rediscovering an old love of mine, for a simple reason: The R3 is an ideal piece of gear to take on a holiday – compact yet with a full-sized 3-octave keyboard, extremely versatile, powerful sound – and really good fun.
The setup: The R3, vocoder mic inserted, my Volca Beats drum machine synched to the R3 via a sparkling blue MIDI cable, and inserted with another audio cable into the R3’s two audio inputs, and optionally, the ModStep sequencer app on my iPad as a phrase recorder, connected via the new Camera Connection Kit and an USB cable. Apart from my headphones, there is even a small autonomous Bluetooth speaker that can be wired to the R3’s output, via another audio cable. As the R3 is a full-blown synth rather a sound toy (also known as “Tischhupe”), and everything mentioned fits effortlessly into a small gig bag, and thus in my overstuffed car, I conclude that the R3 is ideal travel gear, and suitable even for camping holidays.
Yet the R3 is so much more.
Bass and melody tracks in Modstep, you can even override the Volca Beat‘s patterns and control the sounds directly from a Modstep grid
Came as a substitute, stayed as a champion
Many, many years ago, I was looking for a small beginners’ synth to get back into music. I had been looking for a MicroKorg but without the MK’s obvious limitations – four-voice, monotimbral, small keys simply not suited for my clumsy fingers. I realized that there was a MK XL, and then I realized that there was a slightly larger version of the same engine packaged with full-size keys, more FX, the capability to produce two different sounds at once, and a slightly better user interface, called R3. Which was to be had cheap. So I bought a second-hand one on eBay.
It was a good choice for getting back into music. The same qualities that make it a good holiday companion made it a good choice for jamming: It’s portable, it’s playable, and it’s capable. And gradually I started falling in love with the R3. Let me tell you why.
Genesis fans from the Prog-Rock as well as the „Mama“ factions hate it. Well, „Duke“ it‘s not, but it contains some truly unique pieces of music.
For one, I do love underdogs. And the R3 is an underdog synth. You see, the R3 is a bit like Genesis’ “abacab” album. Prog-Rock Fans hate this record for, well, Phil Collins, you know. Pop fans hate it for its handful of admittedly truly horrible songs. Just like Microkorg enthusiasts hate the R3 for sounding cleaner than a first-gen MK or an MS-2000; VA enthusiasts hate it for not sounding like an analog. I love “abacab” for its unique, electronic, Prophet-5-heavy sound, and for showing off what a terrific musician Phil Collins actually is, whatever you think of his songwriting.
Well, the analogy stops here – as I have mentioned the magic word “Prophet-5”, let’s be honest: The R3 is not a good VA to replicate vintage P5 sounds. In case you should be desperate to replicate the sound from Genesis’ “Lonely Man At the Corner”, better known as the sound from PC’s “In The Air Tonight”: There are much, much better VAs for that – please do look at Creamware’s Pro-12. So let me break down what I like – and dislike – about the R3.
The depth of the Radias engine
The R3’s basic layout is a traditional substractive synthesis setup, with two oscillators, two multimode filters, 3 EGs, 2 LFOs. The first oscillator features classical as well as sampled wave forms. The filters are not too bad for digital filters. A small mod matrix complements a couple of hard-wired modulations such as velocity/EG and LFO2/pitch. Some extensions and variations on the classic theme, under Korg’s “MMT” label from the Oasis line.
Some of that stuff is weird – Format wave forms, anybody? – some is really good. I love switching OSC1 to VPM – this is Korg’s variant of Casio’s Phase Distortion synthesis from the 80s, which was Casio’s variant of DX7-like FM synthesis for normal humans without a second brain or PhDs in acoustic physics. A wave shaper, technically a lookup table but very versatile. Filter2 working as a comb filter, i.e. a resonator for Karplus-Strong type string plucking sounds. And up to three independent effects per sound, including another bit crusher as well as a ring modulator.
The best thing of the R3’s mod matrix may be the feature that is not part of it: a sixteen-step modulation sequencer. Apart from sequencing, well, pitch, it can animate parameters like OSC1’s harmonics in VPM mode, which you cannot reach from the mod matrix. It can even modulate the mod matrix’s modulation depths. I would wish that the mod matrix could reach all the targets the mod sequencer can reach, but it is unfortunately much more limited. They fixed that in the Radias – a Radias is two R3s packaged with an Electribe and many, many knobs – but the software update enabling the additional targets never was back-ported to the R3. Underdog indeed.
I do own a Radias, by the way. It understands R3 sounds, and they are among the best for this synth.
Let’s face it: in terms of digital technology, the R3 is old. 8 voices – 4 per split – are not enough. (Still, its even more limited Microkorg brethren are sold to this day.) There are fresher VA alternatives that are just as cheap, like Novation’s Mininova. And there are some things to hate about this small machine.
The plastic housing is cheap. The full-size keybed is playable but nasty. (Take my word for it: the keys don’t feature the usual metal springs but are attached by flexible plastic working as a spring load – ewww!) They tend do turn yellow over the years as well. Really, really nasty. They could also do with an aftertouch, but even if the R3 HAD aftertouch, the limitations of the mod matrix would mean that you could not program it to control vibrato independently of the mod wheel.
In summary: Rational causes for a a love affair
Full-sized, 37-key keyboard
Light and compact
Deep VA engine capable of some unique sounds
While not knobby, it is still easy to program without an editor
This is just a wet dream so far – a knobby controller integrated into the Blofeld. The layout being- ah, let’s call it inspired – by the Hartmann 20 that is, essentially, a Sledge in an expensive coat. (The Sledge is, essentially, a Blofeld with knobs.)
Incidentally, Jenny had to vanish in her new flightcase due to a broken keyboard frame – I had patched this several times before, but until I can manufacture a new part to fix this once and for all, she will have to stay put.
One day, my trusty Blofeld started drifting out of tune – pretty unusual behaviour for a digital synth. Even if it was in tune first, the drifting started as soon as I touched the pitchbend wheel, so I suspected that this was the culprit.
Opening the Blofeld (all 18 screws on the bottom – remember?), removing the wheelbox, and measuring the pitchbend pot confirmed that the potentiometer was indeed damaged – while an end-to-end-measurement showed 9k, the end-to-mid-resistance could be virtually anywhere, screaming “Mechanical Damage!” to me.
The potentiometer is 10k lin with a knurled 6.3mm shaft and an M10x0.75 mount. Waldorf seems to have used a Piher T-21Y type (datasheet). As I did not find something fitting in my parts boxes, I took it apart, cleaned it, adjusted the pickup spring, applied a bit of contact grease, refitted the pot and closed the Blofeld
And now for the good part…
Although I measured that the wheel now zeroed around the pot’s 5kOhm mark, it had most definitely shifted slightly, so I started looking for the calibration routine. There has to be a calibration routine, right?
But the good Blofeld seems to calibrate on power-up and on the first usage of the wheel – no calibration routine for the wheels needed. Phew!
Important note: Be careful to ensure that the Molex connector for the wheelbox sits correctly – when I pulled the plug, the plastic holder for the pins got pulled towards the edge of the PCB so when I reattached the plug, it did not sit correctly. Rule of thumb: If the plastic of the connector is visible from the top, you might want to push it back under the PCB.
I figured out that I have reached the point where the unpleasantness of having to buy, install and maintain a proper web shop has dropped below the unpleasantness of having to do everything by hand. (I am sure there is an XKCD cartoon for this.)
And there is also the fact that the many buyers of Bob’s firmware deserve professional handling of their inquiry. A machine is much, much better at this than me.
So this little blog is running WPShopGermany now – although I am not at all happy with their multiple documentation, things look reasonably well so far.
A German shop – for English speakers?
The WPShopGermany is fantastically well adapted to German laws and regulations, but not quite as well to speakers of other languages. To offer foreign language support, the makers recommend using the commercial WPML plugin – for which a license comes in at impressive 79 dollars, much more than I paid for the shop plugin. Which is all the more infuriating as the language files for US-English are all there (wp-content/plugins/wpshopgermany-free/lang/). And no, I am not using the free version.
Luckily, I discovered that there is a newly developed free alternative to WPML, WP Multilang. Installing and activating the plugin made the shop run fine, with German and English texts – but I have not come round to translating every important title and page into two languages, so you might still have to employ GTranslate at some point or another.
To err is human. To blunder spectacularly is untergeeky.
I tell myself that this is the downside (backside?) of serendipity, but I tend to overlook things and produce errors. If you should serendipously stumble upon one of those – a missing translation, a missing order form, something running wild – drop me a line, will you? Cheers!
This is the first post in a series of small projects for retrofitting my JEN SX-1000 monosynth with a simple and cheap MIDI interface controller. Read about the basic idea here. Today, I am designing and building the micro-controller brain of the Jenny retrofit – if you are capable of basic soldering, it should not take you more than two hours and a couple of very common electronic parts.
…as I am installing proper shop software after all. Safer and faster for you, easier for me.
Might take a couple of days though until the webshop plugin is running and properly translated.
If you are about to lose patience, or would like to contact me about any issue or question, please use the contact form. (Yes, I DO know that it stubbornly mistakes some people for spammers but please stick with me; there is also a mail address on that site.)
I have been using Jenny as a bass synth recently, and I am quite impressed by the quantities of life and fun this old machine is adding to the mix. She doesn’t do that much in terms of tonal range, but what she does, she does well.
Drilling holes in Jenny’s front
I rediscovered an old trick when drilling metal: use a bit of alcohol, not on the person drilling, but on the surface you want to drill. And don’t go too fast.