A Little Christmas Cheer

While I’ve been been out in New York, I recorded a little Christmas song with my dear friend Jacob. We just wanted to have a little fun and maybe pull something together in time for his Christmas party.

And so, here’s our little rendition of “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”

[pro-player TYPE=”MP3″  image=”http://thecompleatsynthesizer.com/media/images/midnightclear.jpg”]http://thecompleatsynthesizer.com/media/audio/It%20Came%20Upon%20A%20Midnight%20Clear.mp3[/pro-player]

It’s awfully quiet around here

When I was eight years old I became enraptured by the idea of writing and printing my own newspaper. I wasn’t sure how news was actually gathered and reported, and frankly I wasn’t very interested in that part. It was the idea of having a printing press of my very own, churning out newspapers like a little Charles Foster Kane, that was irresistible. As I was heading out the door to canvas the neighborhood for potential subscribers, my dad caught wind of the plans and had a little talk with me. He listened as I explained all my ideas, and then suggested that perhaps I should begin building up my subscriber base after I’d established a steady stream of issues. “Sound advice!” I thought, and headed back to the house to begin preparations. I don’t believe the newspaper ever made it past issue two. There were no subscribers.

One of my arguments against creating a blog (and I’m sure I’m not alone here) is that I’d start off strong and then lose interest. Well, I’m here to tell you that that is precisely what has happened. Folks, I have lost interest. I had hoped that the vigorous comment activity would feed me, drive me onward through bleak times. To date, I have received several hundred comments from a spambot in Belarus that would dearly like to feed me links to some outlet website for cheap Prada knockoffs.

No…I’m just joking (except for that spambot part). I haven’t lost interest. It’s just that I haven’t had much to talk about lately, since I’ve been away from home. I’ve been hanging out in NYC with my pal Peter. Last night we went to see the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. We considered going up to the observation deck until we discovered that is costs $25 per person. In protest, we used their restrooms and then exited the building.

I’ll be home pretty soon and then I’ll be back to my old regiment of slowly fixing up synthesizers and then taking pictures of them so that I can blog obscure odes of reverence to them. But I haven’t been totally lazy these past several weeks. In fact, I have been preparing a very special something…

Everything is finally falling into place

I am beaming like a proud father. For you see, my prodigal Matrix 12, beloved and yet wayward, has returned to me.

It’s difficult to express: I really am overjoyed that this is fully-working. I bought it this summer from a guy in Texas who claimed it was in perfect working condition. It was the culmination of years of looking for just the right synth, and it was the most money I’ve ever spent on a synth. I think it was about three times the amount I’ve paid for any other synth. I sold a TB-303 and a couple other things to scratch together the funds and then waited nervously for the day that an enormous box showed up on the porch.

The Matrix 12 is Oberheim’s last great synthesizer. The interesting thing about Oberheim is that they have a relatively small catalog of products, but almost every synth is well loved. ARP, Moog, Sequential Circuits…they all had some pretty embarrassing flops along with their successes. I feel like Oberheim didn’t really ever make a bad synth. Consider Tom Oberheim’s string of successes. He begins building the little SEM modules in the 70s. They are awesome. He packages them together into some of the first polyphonic synths: the 2-voice, 4-voice and 8-voice. These are utterly devastating synthesizers. He makes the various classic OB-X and OB-8 synthesizers, which is basically the sound of 80 arena-rock synths. Then Tom move on to the cult classic, the Xpander, which is the closest that the 80s were going to get to a modular synth in a box and predates stuff like the Nord Modular. And then finally, he goes out on a high note, releasing the Matrix 12, a strange and very beautiful analog synthesizer. Truly, the last scion of a great line. Understandably, I couldn’t contain my excitement as it traveled from the Lone Star State northward toward me.

It was, indeed, in nice shape. But I quickly found that I couldn’t get it to respond to any MIDI input. Everything else seemed to work. This is a complicated synth and I assumed that I was simply doing something wrong. I posted some pretty lame-sounding questions on the Oberheim Matrix 12/Xpander Yahoo group. No leads. I talked with the seller, who of course claimed that he never had any problems with the MIDI functionality.

As so all summer, it was a bittersweet purchase. I grew to really like the synthesizer itself – the sounds, the flexibility, the controls, the look. These are hard to find, and I felt like I got it for a reasonably decent price (despite it being the most expensive synth purchase ever). I bought mine in May. Another didn’t show up on eBay until a couple weeks ago. That’s a long time on eBay years.

But I’m so reliant on MIDI that I found myself shying away from using the Matrix 12 in songs. I recorded a few parts live, but I wanted to be able to sequence different parts and take advantage of its 12 multitimbral voices. That’s part of the Matrix 12’s draw: to be able to basically synthesize an entire song live on it.

I considered trying to repair it myself. First, it took ages to track down the schematics. This is truly one of the most different synths to find schematics for. There simply are no physical copies. I finally paid too much for some mediocre PDFs of the service manual and schematics. Hey, I was getting desperate. Once I had the schematics in hand, I gingerly opened it up and began trying to troubleshoot it. A couple hours later, frustrated and even more confused, I put it all back together and gave up. To add insult to injury, I discovered that my elite troubleshooting skills had somehow taken down the MIDI output functionality too. Great.

So I finally just called up an old coworker of mine who is a wizard with old 80s digital circuits and begged him for help. It took him all of one evening to hone in on the problem. Turns out the opto-isolator chip had gone bad. As luck would have it, I happened to have an extra sitting one from my recent MIDI to DIN-sync project (it’s the white chip in the pictures).

Of course, no repair story can be quite as simple as that. By the time I got to my friend’s house to pick up the synth, he had pushed a wrong button and accidentally corrupted the patch memory in it, or something. I don’t even know how that’s possible. So although the MIDI input certainly worked, the synth sounded like an awful atonal nightmare. I brought it home and reloaded all the factory patches on it. That helped somewhat, but there was still a mysterious and heavy vibrato on every note. I checked the routings and re-checked them, but couldn’t understand it. I reset the synth to its most basic patch, and it still had that monster vibrato on it.

Then I happened to bump the modulation lever, and the vibrato briefly cut out. I wiggled it around and found that the lever seemed to be the culprit. So I tore it apart again, sprayed the mod lever’s pot down with cleaner and wiggled it all around for a while. That did the trick.

Earlier this summer I began a mission to clear out all the non-working equipment and simplify things. I wanted to just have stuff that fully worked and that I really liked and used. I’m almost there now. I’ve got the Matrix 12 and the Minimoog at arm’s reach. I think they are a nice complementary pair, bunked one on top of the other. One is a monosynth, the other has twelve notes of polyphony. Both have great sounds, but in very different ways. Not that they don’t have some overlap, but the Mini is great for punchy, snappy parts, and I can easily adjust and evolve the sound as I play. The Matrix 12 excels at strings, pads, bizarre sound effects and slowly-morphing atmospheric patches. Truly the perfect pair!

Drop your jaws now

The Yamaha DX-1 is a beautiful synthesizer. Those dark wood sides mask the fact that this is not your typical vintage synthesizer. Rather, it was one of the first digital synthesizers, the big-big brother of the ubiquitous DX-7 (which arguably shoved most of the American synth companies out of business). And look at all those lights on it! The DX-7 has a reputation for being difficult to use. Actually, most FM synthesizers have that reputation. The synthesis model is difficult for most people to grasp (myself included) and it’s hard to know what’s going on inside the synthesizer. But with all the LEDs on the DX-1, how could you not know what it’s doing? It’s basically like sitting in the flight deck. On second thought, I would be even more confused if I were sitting if the flight deck. What do all these levers do? Which button makes the airplane go faster? When are they going to notice that I’m not the captain and make me return to my seat? Getting off track here…

When I first saw a picture of one I thought, “Ooh, I ought to keep my eye open for a cheap one and pick it up”. Ahhh…such naivety. At some point I came across one on eBay and was stunned.

$10,000?! Yep. Indeed, some go for even higher.

Let’s back up. I know there are crazy sellers online who try to list something for a ridiculously inflated price. I’m not sure what they are thinking, but that stuff never sells. But these DX-1’s occasionally sell for that much! Again, simply stunning.

Apparently Yamaha only made a couple hundred of these. So this is a nice example of supply/demand laws in action. But as much as I think it’s a very nice synthesizer, I think the people buying these are nuts:

1. There are FM synthesizers with better specs. I’ve heard folks reason that the digital converters in the DX-1 are really special. They might be, but $10,000 special? Silly. The DX-5 is a little less pretty but is basically the same vintage. And it sells for $500. Otherwise, Yamaha made a ton of other FM synths through the 80s.

2. Vintage stuff breaks down, and this is a vintage esoteric computer, not an analog circuit. I mean, I can’t really fix either, but it’s a lot easier to find someone that can fix analog circuits. Finding someone to fix a DX-1? I have no idea who would touch that. Need spare parts? Hopefully Yamaha used off-the-shelf components. Otherwise good luck conning one of the other 200 DX-1 owners in the world to part out their baby.

3. All lists are better with three points. I’ve got to get back to work.