Friday, March 21, 2008

I went through a creative period recently, in my manic way, and came out of it with about 6 or 8 songs that I felt were worth keeping. In the process, I tried some new instruments and rekindled my interest in some of my old ones.

I went through this strong desire to visit my roots in moog synths. My Prodigy got some play and I wound up purchasing the Minimonsta VST synth after trying several demos. It gets really hard for me to pick one or the other. Arturia's Mini has a very authentic sound and I may wind up getting it at some point. What eventually sold me on the GForce Mini was the fact that I could buy it online, they don't have a dongle or other tedious copy protection, and in terms of the voices that I could get from it, I thought that although it was a pretty good emulation of the MiniMoog, I could use it for all kinds of other things - it being versatile rather than just a copy of something old. Lots of VST synths are just a dull copy of something you'd rather hold in your hand. To me, the Korg legacy stuff is like that. I have a Poly Six and the idea of recreating just that is boring to me.

I'm not really enthused by most of the Native Instruments product line. If I was more of a traditional rock guy, I'd be into the B4 organ, but I have never been that kind of organist type. Massive and Absynth are interesting for textures I believe, but I'd almost rather build my own textures from first principles than to buy a synth that I would only use for the first 10 seconds of a song now and again. Kore sounds interesting, but I'm not sure what the advantage is. Maybe it is like a patch librarian, which could be helpful, but not if it can only organize NI product's sounds. I don't know enough about Battery to know whether I would rather have that than Guru. I've got lots of drum loops on my powerbook from GarageBand and Logic 7, and have used a few of those. I have been using a freeware drum kit called Grizly that seems to be as useful as those other two, just from what I've read.

So I supported GForce and haven't regretted it. I wound up getting ImpOSCar and Oddity too, which I didn't originally intend to do but now I am in this sound auditioning mode where I go through all the preset banks and try to remember which bank has the stuff that I like. Eventually these will make their way into my songs, but it may take a while for that creative spark to come around again. In the meantime, the sounds I'm hearing lend themselves to the kind of mood I've been in, where I don't want sampled "real" instruments - I want sonic silly puddy that I can squash around and make shapes with.

ImpOSCar has really grown on me since getting it. I can hear a lot of the rich sounds from it as being useful for all kinds of things. It is really more versatile than MiniMonsta or Oddity, but all three of them make a nice little triad of virtual instruments for me to tinker with as I convalesce from hip surgery and try to think creatively during the healing process.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

MiniMonsta thoughts

Before I got MiniMonsta, the Moog on steroids softsynth, I scoured the web reading comparisons between it and Arturia's MiniMoog V. Some of the most lengthy conversations were on the forums at There were pages after pages of people with some kind of opinion about them. People with hardware minimoogs would say one or the other was a dead-on impersonation, while others said this one was too harsh, or that one was too dull. Some people were won over by some of the esoteric features added onto the emulation, whether it be Arturia's modulation matrix, or GForce's "melohmman morphing" feature.

I was just looking for something that would approximate a Moog synthesizer without costing the small fortune that I'd have to pay to get a real one, or one of the new models in the Voyager line. I like that Moog synth sound, and my Prodigy, though one of my favorite keyboards, has some limitations as to what I like to do with it. I think there are only about 3 basic sounds that I can set it for that I particularly like, and have used in several songs.

It seemed to me, from my reading that a lot of people liked the MiniMonsta. I tried both demos, side by side, and really couldn't tell that much difference between them on similar patches. The Arturia presets are very classic kind of things, whereas MiniMonsta has some really far out stuff that is made using some of their built-in modulation routes and automation along the lines of using an LFO to modulate the stereo pan, or the emphasis and cutoff frequency.

I still feel like I can make my own programs easier with MiniMonsta, and have already downloaded sound banks that other people have made on theirs, so I still feel good about that.

Some of the more complex polyphonic voices start to break up on my old powerbook that I plunk around with. However, this is easily remedied by cutting back on the number of notes polyphony, which I wish was a global setting, but it has to be done for each patch.

I've got a more powerful windows vista notebook that I do most of my recording with, but this brings me to something a little unexpected that didn't come up in any of the comparisons that I read. Gforce is a little rough around the edges in some of their programming. Arturia was probably a little more refined piece of software if I had known. One thing that Gforce does is that if I set the main mini input device, I can save it to a file, but the next time I load the program, it has forgotten and I either have to load the configuration I saved, or set it again. This is slightly annoying on the PC, but doesn't seem to happen on the mac. When I set it, I get an error message that says it can't set it. But if I do it again it works.

It really is hard to choose between both emulations though, they both sound fantastic to me, though I don't have a real MiniMoog to compare them to. Ironically, some of my favorite sounds on the MiniMonsta are from a set of Prodigy voices that somebody put together. Those 3 basic sounds are all there, in full 2-oscillator glory, which I find rather heartening since it means I don't have to power up the Prodigy and goof around with the knobs whenever I want to record those kinds of sounds. (The prodigy doesn't have a voice memory bank.)

I am still happy with my choice though. Someday, maybe I'll get Arturia, just for overkill. There are so many softsynth analog clones these days though, you could go insane trying to pick only one or two. If you use Cakewalk's latest version of Sonar, I think it comes with Pentagon and Z3ta+ which are two very nice instruments that might be all one would need to get that retro analog sound going on. Reason users can choose from samples of the Moog Prodigy, or the Korg Monopoly, Juno 60, lots of others. It also comes with some very admirable synth simulators, though I don't know much about them. I've read comparisons and opinions about so many of these things it has made me lose interest in these forums to some degree just from all the lengthy exchanges about features that a person is either going to like or not like based on their own tastes.

I take a line from Gforce's MiniMonsta documentation, where they are urging people to support the developers and not share the software. They say they respect people who make good music with only a limited number of tools more than they respect people who make mediocre music using every tool imaginable. I can see where they are coming from, as a software developer myself, and that was a motivation for me to actually go ahead an purchase a copy of MiniMonsta. I like to reward people who put an honestly good effort into making something as nice as they can, and then support the people who decide eventually to use it.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

MiniMoog VST

I've been shopping for a softsynth version of the MiniMoog, for aesthetic reasons, and because I think it is more preferable for me to have a software version of this classic synth than to ever think of purchasing a real one.

Aesthetically, the Mini has been used on so much of my favorite music from Kraftwerk, to Gary Numan, to Nine Inch Nails, you name it. I am still very much oriented towards the kinds of sounds it creates.

From a practical standpoint, it is easier for me to record these things with MIDI and Cakewalk Sonar, using multiple instances of the device at times. The original beast can cost anywhere from $1,500-upwards of $3,000. I was pricing software versions that cost around $200.

I looked at Arturia MiniMoog V, which is a very true copy of the original synth, endorsed by Robert Moog, bearing his name. And it was hard not to just fall in love with that version. The one I wound up getting is by GForce, called the MiniMonsta. There were several factors that influenced me.

A major part of my decision was based on whether I could design my own sounds with it. Arturia's interface is a bit smaller, and some of the features didn't seem to work right. I could never quite get oscillator 3 to modulate things as I thought it should. The MiniMonsta has a larger display and in stand alone mode, I was able to make new voices, save them to disk, and use their morph feature, more about that later.

Both synths have extra features. Arturia has a modulation matrix, a dedicated LFO, so you don't have to give up the third oscilator, and they put in a chorus and delay effect. GForce went an order of magnitude beyond that however. Not only do they have a dedicated LFO, they have one for nearly every single aspect of the synth! Not only that, there is an ADSR envelope that may be used for all of these features. They made nearly every control so that it could be latched onto and changed via MIDI. There is a delay. They have this really bizarre feature that I am starting to love where you make variations of your patches and then have the ability to morph between them, either selected by a pre-assigned octave of the keyboard, or automatically, or by pressing a button. From a performance standpoint, you could use the stand alone version on a notebook computer in a live performance, and have all these options at your control.

The GForce MiniMonsta delivers on sound, comes with about 6,000 preset voices, many created by Rick Wakeman, but goes way beyond what the original instrument was capable of. Granted, Arturia has a polyphonic mode, but MiniMonsta has unison mode and a polyphony that is not watered down. Playing a chord on it is like playing a fleet of MiniMoogs. It is really fantastic.

Another nice thing in my case is that when you buy it, you get the PC and the Mac Universal Binary versions. So I can put it on my Powerbook and design sounds with it, and then use my sequencer on the PC to play them back. It is quite liberating to have an instrument of this quality that I can use in so many different environments and aspects, stand alone, VST, or on the mac as an Audio Unit in Logic. I don't use Logic as much as Sonar, but when and if I do, it is there for me.

I still will continue to play my Moog Prodigy. It has a certain niche of sounds that the MiniMoog doesn't have. The MiniMonsta doesn't have an oscilator sync, which is something that really shines on the Prodigy. Also, many people gloss over the fact that the Prodigy has ADS-R envelopes, whereas the Mini only has ADS envelopes. [update: I stand corrected. The MiniMoog does have a "release" feature for the envelopes, it is the switch over at the performance controls called "decay."] This is a subtle difference, but it makes a difference in sound design and in the way you might play the instrument. There are lots of bass voices on the Mini that only use two oscillators, and many of the ones that use three are not so usable because the sound becomes too complex to just be a bass line. So now I have what I feel is the best of both at my disposal. I will still be recording with the real world Prodigy, but will also have my appetite for the MiniMoog satiated by this GForce product.

In a way, it is better to have a synth endorsed by a pro musician than one endorsed by Robert Moog. Rick Wakeman has actually used the thing, and though Moog may have helped in the design of Arturia's product, I don't think it is as playable, or as versatile as MiniMonsta seems to be. I will write more later after I've done some recording with this thing, and I'm really looking forward to that.