Sunday, 17 February 2019

Behringer Model D: It's Pronounced "Moog"

Let's have a look at the Behringer Model D, a three-oscillator monosynth released way back in 2018 by Behringer. It's called the Model D and it was released in 2018. By Behringer. In 2018. Model D.

It's a budget-priced clone of the Moog MiniMoog, housed in a miniature rackmountable desktop case. On a sonic level it's apparently the spitting image of the original, but it sells for less than three hundred English pounds, which is excellent value given that vintage MiniMoogs sell for £2,000+, or £3,000+ for one of the limited-run reissues that Moog put out a few years ago.

The Model D's build quality is nowhere near the standard of the original MiniMoog - in forty years I doubt that my Model D will look as good as a forty-year-old MiniMoog - but if you have an otherwise virtual-only music setup it makes for a cheap way of adding analogue sounds to your music.

The MiniMoog had three tuneful oscillators plus a meaty filter. The Model D adds a high-pass filter and a dedicated LFO that can modulate the filter, oscillators, or both. It retains the MiniMoog's odd ADS envelopes, with the decay stage also used as the release.

Have you ever read about mother sauces? In French cuisine there are five basic sauces from which all other sauces are derived. Mother sauces are a bit like the basic moves that Mr Miyagi teaches Daniel-Son in The Karate Kid when he's washing his car. The MiniMoog's twangy bass, wobbly lead, and soaring portamento-ed solo sounds are among the mother sauces of synthesiser music. There's nothing complicated about the MiniMoog's synthesiser engine, but it can produce a range of timeless sounds.

Here's a tune that uses both synths, with the Model D making a bouncy rhythm sound, the Odyssey making a grinding pad, and there's a bassy pad from Logic in the background as well.

In the last post I had a look at the Korg ARP Odyssey, a reissue / homage / clone of the 1970s ARP Odyssey synthesiser. The Korg ARP and the Behringer Model D are conceptually very similar. They're reasonably-priced modern analogue synths with analogue components and CV/Gate interfaces, updated with USB and MIDI as well. They don't have patch memories, which means that if you want to recreate a sound you have to memorise the front panel.

The Odyssey has the more complex synth engine. It has oscillator sync, pulse width modulation, sample and hold, ring modulation and duophony, but the Model D has an extra oscillator - three instead of two, with a separate LFO - and a smoother filter. The envelopes are noticeably faster as well. With all the envelope controls zeroed the Odyssey still makes a WUB sound whereas the Model D makes a sharp CLICK. The difference is only a few microseconds but it's noticeable.

Of all the omissions the lack of pulse width modulation is the one I miss most. The Model D has three selectable pulse waves at different duty cycles, but it's not the same. In particular you can't make the classic SH-101 bass noise with a Model D.

But again in its favour the Model D's filter is nice. Even a single-oscillator patch run through the filter sounds warm, whereas the Odyssey is relatively harsh and thin in comparison. The Model D also takes up less space than  the Odyssey. The outputs are unbalanced, but it uses standard quarter-inch and 3.5mm jacks instead of the Odyssey's XLR connector. It also has a bunch of 3.5mm jacks that let you connect external modulation sources, and I admit I haven't tried this yet.

The Model D has a DCO that generates an A440 sine wave. I find that I have to tune it, play for about five minutes, then tune it again. In this video I play the sine wave for just over three minutes, at which point I started to lose my mind.

On a historical level the MiniMoog and Odyssey were arch rivals back in the 1970s, at least on a commercial level. Some bands used both. The MiniMoog was launched first, in 1971, with the Odyssey coming out a year later. Until that point most portable synthesisers had been aimed at the avant-garde; the likes of the EMS VCS3 and Buchla 100/200 were keyboardless boxes intended for musicians who wanted to make whoosh-zap-thrummb-schwozzzssshh noises. The MiniMoog and Odyssey were capable of a wide range of unusual sounds as well but they were, at heart, built for rock keyboardists who wanted to make killer bass sounds and screaming lead noises in a live setting.

The Model D has 3.5mm headphone and audio jacks on the front panel. Around the back it has a pair of 1/4" unbalanced mono jacks plus some DIP switches that set the MIDI channel, just like the Korg ARP Odyssey. Also like the Odyssey it uses an external PSU.

If Google Books is playing nicely there should now be an article from the January 1974 issue of Popular Mechanics that talks about low-cost synthesisers. EDIT: No, it doesn't work. I learn from the article that in 1974 a MiniMoog cost $1495 versus $1295 for an ARP Odyssey. That was a lot of money at the time, which is why so many classic synthesiser records from the 1970s didn't have much synthesiser on them; Tubular Bells was all acoustic, Tangerine Dream's early records were dominated by organs and echo boxes, and even electronic giants such as Kraftwerk and Jean-Michel Jarre relied on ARP string ensembles, Mellotrons, and Mellotron-esque optical playback devices to flesh out their sound.

This is a cover I made of "Mdrmx", from Brothomstates' 2001 album Claro. The drums are samples but everything else is made with a Model D, plus effects. There are only four patches; the bass, a high strings patch, a lead, and another lead.

I learn from Popular Mechanics that "Stevie Wonder's latest two albums are exemplary for their subtle and brilliant use of synthesisers". The writer would have been talking about Innervisions and Talking Book, which were indeed exemplary for their etc. Wonder used a synthesiser called TONTO, a custom-made monster originally based on a Moog Modular, later expanded with parts from Oberheim and ARP.

Although the Odyssey and MiniMoog were both very popular in the 1970s there's a surprising dearth of good albums from the period that feature them prominently. The top early synth acts had access to modular and semi-modular synthesisers. Oxygene, Phaedra, Music for Airports, Snowflakes are Dancing, Switched-On Bach, Opéra Sauvage etc were all recorded with modular equipment, or very posh semi-modular keyboards.

The biggest exception was Kraftwerk, who used the MiniMoog and Odyssey on most of their classic 1970s records, notably all the way throughout "Autobahn". At the end of the decade the two synths became available on the used market, at which point they had a second wind in the hands of Ultravox and the Ultravox extended family, which included John Foxx solo and Visage, plus Gary Numan, who gravitated to the MiniMoog because it sounded awesome when put through a guitar effects pedal.

This is "Tar" by Visage, which starts with a distinctive ARP Odyssey sound and has Odyssey all throughout it.

For the most part however the synth pop new wave opted for more modern equipment such as the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 and Oberheim OBX, and for much of the 1980s and early 1990s the MiniMoog and Odyssey fell out of fashion. They've never been cheap but during the heyday of the DX7 and latterly samplers very few people wanted them; when rave and ambient took off in the late 1980s, early 1990s the demand was mostly for old Roland gear, which might explain why it took so long for clones of the MiniMoog and Odyssey to come out.

If you want a MiniMoog nowadays Moog Music sells an official MiniMoog recreation for iOS, for only twenty pounds. Is it any good? I have no idea. It's probably not much fun unless you have a control surface with lots of knobs. A few years ago Moog reissued the Model D, but it was very expensive and only remained in production for a year. There are no modern hardware equivalents at the low price of the Model D.

There's a lot to be said for cheap gear. Entire musical genres have been built on the availability of cheap musical instruments. It remains to be seen whether the Model D will spark off a resurgence in keyboard-heavy progressive rock, but time will tell.

The CONTROLLERS section of the panel is the biggest departure from the MiniMoog. The Mod Depth knob essentially duplicates the MiniMoog's mod wheel. The rest of the options are new to the Model D.

Anything else? It has MIDI IN and OUT, but as with the Odyssey it only responds to note on, note off, and pitch bend (plus modulation; that's one thing it has over the Odyssey). It's also a class-compliant USB device although when I connect it with USB I get a lot of USB noise; this is a general problem with USB that can apparently be ameliorated with a powered USB hub. It can be set to high, low, or last-note priority by toggling the A440 switch after switching it on. The motherboard has tuning calibration pots in case it drifts completely out of tune.

The unit can be rackmounted, but this requires disassembly; the box includes the appropriate cables, but not the rackmount ears. There is a small pop-up market of wooden cases that will house a Model D plus a small MIDI keyboard, creating a kind of ersatz MiniMoog.

I've often wondered about Miley Cyrus. A few years back she went mad and totally overhauled her image. She did an album with The Flaming Lips. Did anything come of it? Did she break through and create something incredible, or was it all for nothing? Was it a sincere attempt at artistic rebirth or just a phase? The musical development of Miley Cyrus haunts me albeit not enough to listen to any of her music.

This photo has nothing to do with the Model D, but I thought I'd share it. It's one of the mountains that surrounds Lake Como.

The knobs and switches, I'm talking about the Model D again, are mounted on the motherboard and merely poke through holes in the front panel, which probably isn't great for longevity. In particular I find that the MIDI connector wobbles, which is why in all the photographs above I've left the MIDI cable in place.

As mentioned above tuning is sometimes awkward. The master tune operates on all three oscillators at once, and oscillators two and three have their own tuning controls; you essentially have to tune oscillator one, and then the other two, but the knobs are close together, they have a lot of travel, and it's easy to accidentally nudge them when switching octaves or waveforms. It helps if you have dainty fingers. Sadly I do not, and with that thought I will leave you.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Korg ARP Odyssey: Master Will Control Both Slaves

It's Christmas! Don't forget the pancakes. Let's have a look at the Korg ARP Odyssey, an analogue synthesiser from the super-funky-fragilistic 2010s. Specifically 2015. What a year that was.

I've always wanted a proper pre-DCO analogue synthesiser, but even in the 1990s prices were very high. You had to buy a MIDI kit, and even the newest vintage synths are now forty years old and in need of attention from a dwindling pool of qualified engineers. The Korg ARP Odyssey is a modern analogue synthesiser that generates its sounds from circuits rather than digital emulation, and because it's new it works straight out of the box and doesn't smell of dust.

It's a recreation of the original ARP Odyssey, which came into the world back in 1972. The original Odyssey remained on sale until ARP Instruments went bust in 1981, and after that if you wanted one you had to pay a small fortune on the second-hand market.

What was the ARP Odyssey? It was a two-oscillator monophonic analogue synthesiser. Technically duophonic, but I'll get to that later. Made by ARP Instruments of Lexington, Massachusetts. The company was named after Alan R Pearlman, who founded it.

ARP's first product was the ARP 2500, a large semi-modular system that resembled the engineering panel in an old airliner. It was released in 1969 and cost a fortune. It was aimed at universities and other research institutions. One of them pops up at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind:

The humans use it to communicate with the aliens. Do you remember when airliners had a flight engineer? The flight engineer sat behind the pilots and monitored the engines, trimmed the fuel, deiced the wings etc. If something went wrong with the engines it was the flight engineer's job to climb onto the wing with an ice axe and a tether.

Fortunately advances in technology made the role superfluous in the 1970s and ever since then airliners have only had a pilot and co-pilot, and there are constant rumours that the co-pilot will eventually be eliminated as well. The last airliner with a flight engineer was Concorde, because things happened quickly on Concorde and the pilots needed a third pair of hands.

But enough of this banter. ARP followed the 2500 with the 2600, launched in 1971, which slimmed the 2500 down into a suitcase-sized panel that was complex enough to make weird sounds but simple enough that rock musicians could use it. It was expensive but looked the business. Nowadays it's a valuable classic. Jean-Michel Jarre used it throughout his career, and I know this because his albums list the kit he used:

At the top Equinoxe, at the bottom Equinoxe

The Odyssey was launched in 1972. It was essentially an ARP 2600 simplified even more, into a keyboard unit that could be taken on gigs. The Odyssey eliminated the 2600's patch cables, replaced the third oscillator with a dedicated LFO, and packed everything into a relatively compact but hideously ugly metal case.

During its life the Odyssey was the arch-rival of Moog Music's MiniMoog, which had one more oscillator and a simpler interface, against which the Odyssey's synthesiser engine was more flexible, with ring modulation, sample and hold, oscillator sync, pulse width modulation, independent frequency modulation for the two oscillators, I think that's it.

There were several different versions of the Odyssey; cosmetically the early ones had a white panel, mid-period Odysseys had a black panel, late-period Odysseys had a black panel with bold orange letters. The later ones look best. Early Odysseys had a pitch bend knob, later Odysseys had three pressure-sensitive pitch and modulation pads:

The pads aren't very good. You have to push them really hard. It's easier to twiddle the oscillator tuning sliders.

Baby milk pease pudding spider cobweb cowbell

The biggest internal change between different models was the filter. The original filter was terrific but infringed on Moog's patents, so ARP modified it. Unfortunately the second filter wasn't as good. It was duller and tended to lose all of the bottom end when it resonated. Later models had a third filter design which was better than the second but still not as good as the first.

In a neat touch the Korg ARP Odyssey has all three filters. I use the first one most often, the third occasionally because it sounds like acid house, the second one not at all.

The Odyssey is a class-compliant USB device, e.g. you don't have to install drivers to get it working. It accepts note on, note off, pitch bend (on the module only), but nothing else. If you want to store patches, you have to remember them in your head! The mode switch changes the MIDI channel. By default it's set to channel one.
I can't find enough images of Odyssey back panels to conclude anything from the serial number.

The main output is a balanced XLR mono jack. The audio input is unbalanced mono.

What does the Korg ARP Odyssey sound like? Here's a little demo in which I show off some of the synthesiser's features. The first thing is external audio - you can feed an external signal through the filters. If you send a signal to the Gate In port, or use the LFO to trigger the gate, you get a wub-wub-wub gated effect:

That's right. Wub-wub-wub. Mid-way through the video I demonstrate how duophony works. If you hold two keys the Odyssey assigns the lowest note to one key and the highest note to the other, and note that if you play duophonically with the ring modulator turned on the results are not pretty.

Throughout the video I've used a light reverb but no other effects. With chorus and delay the Odyssey sounds massive. The synthesiser engine is surprisingly flexible. Oscillator sync was a classic late-70s / early-80s sound that resembles FM at higher frequencies. The resonant filter will do acid house squelchy sequences, and with the right settings - especially sample and hold filter modulation - it's surprisingly easy to emulate a Roland SH-101.

Analogue synthesisers from the 1960s and 1970s tended to suffer from pitch drift, whereby the oscillators changed pitch as they warmed up. The original Odyssey was apparently more stable than the competition, and Korg's re-release is more stable again. Even so, it's difficult to get the two oscillators precisely in tune because the sliders have lots of travel. You have to carefully listen out for the beat frequencies, which is awkward if the oscillators are tuned an oscillator apart.

The Odyssey can be driven by USB, MIDI, or CV/Gate. In the following video I use an Arturia Beatstep to control the Odyssey via MIDI, generating an overdriven bassline, with percussion from a Korg Volca Beats and a Pocket Operator PO-12:

The audio is running through an ancient Mark of the Unicorn 2408 MkIII audio interface, which is plugged into a Power Macintosh G5. The G5 is generating sync tones for the drum machines and some flutes, but otherwise isn't doing a whole lot. I have the G5's fans directed at my legs so that my feet don't get cold.

The package includes a reprint of the original instruction manual.

Some people might find the casual use of "master" and "slave" offensive, in which case I suggest you rip out page 38 of the manual and burn it.
I live in the UK, where this kind of thing is probably legally defined as hate speech, so I have destroyed my copy of the manual. I'm surprised that Korg hasn't been prosecuted yet.

Korg's decision to re-release the Odyssey is slightly strange. Korg and ARP have no historical connection. The Odyssey is a classic, but it's not nearly as hip as the 2600. Functionally it overlaps with Korg's own MS-20, which was re-released a few years earlier. If you really want something that sounds like an Odyssey, GForce released a VST clone ages ago.

On a historical level it was used by a wide range of prog rock, jazz-funk, and latterly new wave acts during the 1970s, but the big synth stars of the period mostly avoided it; Jean-Michel Jarre didn't need an Odyssey because he already had an ARP 2600, Vangelis had a polyphonic Yamaha CS-80, Tangerine Dream and so forth used one only in passing. On a purely emotional level I've always associated it with cold, harsh electronic sounds and screaming lead noises. When I close my eyes I picture black and white 7" singles with photocopied cover photographs of oil refineries. I can hear the relentless dunka-dunka basslines of DAF, although apparently they used a Korg MS-20.

Perhaps its a labour of love. There are several different versions of the Korg ARP Odyssey. The original had miniature keys. A re-issue had full-sized keys. It's also available as a keyboard-less desktop module. Both keyboard and desktop models are available with cream ("Rev 1") or black/orange ("Rev 3") colour schemes, although internally the re-releases are identical.

I bought a cream Rev 1 desktop module because it was cheap and I already have a keyboard. Physically it's made of bent pieces of metal. It feels hollow, but very tough. The body is smaller than the original Odyssey, about 4/5ths the size in all dimensions. The keyboard version has metal side plates that protect the sliders from damage - they act as a roll cage if the Odyssey falls face-down on the floor. The desktop version doesn't have these side plates so you have to be a bit more careful with it. Have you ever tried Purple Drank? It's a mixture of cough syrup and sweets dissolved in Mountain Dew. I like to add gin because I have some left over from Christmas. Make sure you don't spill any! It'll fur up your keyboard and stain your shirt. Don't drink it at work.

Does it make rational sense? The Korg Odyssey. Does it make rational sense? No, but human beings aren't rational and we don't live in a rational world. Look at the world around you. It's not rational. We are animals. We live, see the sun, then we die.

If you're a professional musician who makes a living from music the Odyssey might make sense if you play in a prog rock tribute band but otherwise it's a waste of valuable space and money. For everybody else it's an impractical vanity toy, but I love it to bits. It makes no more sense than a kitten but like a kitten it's entertaining.

If you want the Odyssey sound, GForce's Oddity VST is apparently very close to the original, and it's also polyphonic, and it only costs £120 vs much more for the hardware. Former Ultravox keyboardist Billy Currie apparently now uses Oddity instead of an actual ARP Odyssey because it's a lot easier to carry a laptop to gigs than a bunch of discrete hardware. On the other hand the Korg ARP Odyssey is a thing, a physical thing of metal and circuits, that will exist and continue to work no matter how you tinker with Windows.

Another performance, with simpler hardware. Recorded with a titanium PowerBook G4, which matches the general aesthetic. Perhaps Apple could reissue the tibook, with modern internals.
In this clip I'm driving the Odyssey with the Beatstep using CV/Gate. For some reason the Beatstep transposes CV outputs up two octaves - MIDI is fine - so it's not great for basslines.

There are other analogue or analogue-esque monosynths on the market. The Arturia Microbrute and Monobrute; the Korg Minilogue and Monologue; Behringer makes a surprisingly cheap clone of the MiniMoog; all cheaper than the Odyssey, and although none of them have the exact same feature set they make up for it by having arpeggiators, sequencers, patch memories, battery power, computer-based editors etc.

Compared to them the Odyssey is a vanity object, a dated specification executed well, intended to make people look at you - it stands out - but it's also a very flexible monosynth, and the fact of it having a panel covered in sliders that work immediately and don't have to be assigned with Logic or Cubase cannot be overlooked. It doesn't make sense, but I choose not to make sense, apple blossom triangular balloon.

Saturday, 19 January 2019

RealitySoSubtle 6x6 Pinhole Camera

I'm sure you remember Barbarella. "An angel does not make love", said the blind angel Pygar, rebuffing the advances of Jane Fonda, "an angel is love".

Pygar was played by John Phillip Law, a hunk of a man who couldn't act but it didn't matter because he was ripped. He was one of a number of actors from the United States and Britain who moved to Europe during the late 1960s. Specifically Italy, because the Italian film industry was going through a boom. Italian studios wanted to sell their films in English-speaking markets, which meant that there was demand for good-looking people who could speak English - people who looked like move stars, even if they weren't.

Speak English or at least move their mouths in a way that looked as if they were speaking English, because they were going to be dubbed anyway. It must have been fantastic. As long as you looked good and could open and close your mouth on cue, and pretend to punch a stuntman, and pretend to fan a six-shooter, and I mean even I can do that. There was money to be made and who would want to stay in Britain in the post-war years? America was better off, but what if you were gay or had a thing for drugs, or wanted to hang out with European women? All of those things were easier in Europe than post-war America, and furthermore your dollars were like gold dust.

The wages weren't huge but it didn't matter because the cost of living in Italy was low in the 1960s. The trailblazer was Steve Reeves, who was born in Montana. He starred in the popular swords-and-sandal film Hercules (1958) and numerous sequels. He was quickly followed by Reg Park, British-born Mr Universe, who also played Hercules, or Maciste, or whatever, and when the market for sword and sandal films dried up there came spaghetti westerns and the likes of Frank Wolff and Thomas Hunter, and of course Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef and so forth. And also war films, because some European militaries still had M1 Garands and half-tracks and Sherman tanks etc, and lots of soldiers who could be loaned out to a film production company for some extra cash.

Even if the films didn't make much money they still turned a profit because wages were low, the studio facilities were going to be idle otherwise, the sets had already been built for more expensive films and the Italian scenery and sunshine was essentially free.

Furthermore Italy had a huge pool of attractive women who had grown up during the war years and were therefore thin and lovely, and again it didn't matter if they couldn't speak a word of English, they were going to be dubbed.

I imagine there must have been a band of Hollywood exiles in the 1960s, plying their trade in Europe - here in Britain we had Shane Rimmer and Ed Bishop as the stock Americans in Bond films and the like - soaking up the sun in San Tropez, living modest lives on the periphery of the film industry, and today we're going to look at the RealitySoSubtle 6x6 pinhole camera. It's a pinhole camera.

What is a pinhole camera? It's a camera that has a pinhole instead a lens. A camera is essentially a device that funnels photons onto a piece of film. Conventional cameras have glass lenses, which suck in light from all directions and carefully channel it through an aperture onto a piece of film; the bigger the glass and the wider the aperture the more light the camera gathers.

Pinhole cameras do things differently. They don't have lenses. Instead they have a teeny-tiny aperture, a pinhole, and photons just fall into it. If the hole was any larger the image would be a fuzzy mess, but because the hole is small only the best photons are allowed to enter. I'm not going to pretend to know the physics of pinhole photography. Here's a pinhole:

The pinhole acts like a nightclub bouncer at an exclusive nightclub. Imagine the Blitz Club in the early 1980s. Unless you dressed up like a human peacock you didn't get in. The Blitz Kids were insufferable, but they had spirit. Bravado. Derring-do. Or alternatively the pinhole in a pinhole camera acts a bit like your girlfriend's mother. It doesn't want any old photons spunking jizz all over its precious film, in fact it doesn't like the idea of anyone spunking anything over anything, so it turns away most photons except for an elite few.

The best spunk

In a way, pinhole photography is a bit like the process of human reproduction. The river has many fish, but only a few get to fertilise the mummy eggs, and only one of the ants is allowed to be queen. That's how pinhole photography works. The aperture is tiny, there's no viewfinder, you have to guess the composition, and because the aperture is tiny exposure times are measured in minutes, even in daylight. Moving objects turn into streaks and become invisible.

On the positive side pinhole cameras can be relatively small, and depending on the accuracy of the hole the central image quality isn't necessarily terrible, albeit that it's generally soft from diffraction. With sufficient light and a small tripod a pinhole camera can be used for general-purpose photography although if you want instant results a Holga is much more practical. You're supposed to make your own by sticking a needle into some tin foil, but I cheated and bought one from this chap here, nb we have no commercial relationship. He's French! Aren't we all.

The 6x6 model uses 120 film and generates a 6x6 image, although at least with my camera the negatives are slightly wider than they are tall. It has an aperture of f/137. The focal length is roughly 17mm in 35mm terms, e.g. very wide for medium format. RealitySoSubtle also sells 6x9, 6x12, and 6x17 wideangle and panoramic cameras, which are intriguing, but I can't scan larger than 6x9 so I gave them a miss. The company also has 4x5" and 8x10" models, which are handy if you're a bitter old retiree or you're married to a rich man and have nothing to do during the day.

I mentioned a paragraph or two ago that pinhole photography is awkward. For all the photos in this post I used 400-speed Kodak TMAX, but I still had to stand still for a minute shielding the camera from the breeze. I didn't bother with exposure calculations. It's difficult to blow out negative film, especially negative black and white film, and furthermore film becomes less sensitive as exposure times increase, so in practice if you just hold the shutter open for thirty seconds in bright sunshine, a minute or two overcast, you'll get usable results. Your enemy is underexposure, not overexposure.

From the back, looking forwards

RealitySoSubtle's cameras have a couple of user aids. The top plate has a pair of lines that approximate 17mm, although because of the position of the screws the lines face the wrong way. The top plate of the camera comes off to change film; the screws are knurled, so you don't necessarily have to use a screwdriver. There's a spirit level, which is indispensable because there's no viewfinder, or even an accessory shoe for a viewfinder. With every passing year my soul becomes more numb, my dreams less vivid.

Pinhole cameras have massive depth of field because they're stopped right down, which means that after a while all of your photos will either be wide landscapes or wide landscapes with something right up close to the camera. I hate wide landscapes because they're boring. RealitySoSubtle's cameras have a quarter-inch tripod mount and a flat base, which is incredibly useful given the lengthy exposure times. For the images in this post I didn't bother with a tripod mount, I just rested the camera on street furniture.

Have you ever read about London's pedways? During the 1950s and 1960s there were intermittent plans to separate pedestrians from traffic by building elevated walkways. The plans came to nothing and nowadays most of the walkways go nowhere, or are unusually large for what amounts to an elevated pedestrian crossing. If you've ever visited the Museum of London you may well have walked along a pedway, or seen out; it's just outside. That part of London, abutting the Barbican estate, is almost a monument to London's post-war recovery. The people back then had a vision of London that was slowly destroyed by poor execution and endless delays; their vision was overtaken by events but the spirit has a romantic aspect.

The idea that London could be planned by benevolent, chaste men of vision untainted by lust and greed appeals to some people. It's a fantasy. London is a wild animal, spears bounce off and it breaks free of its ropes. I mention pedways because I've always assumed that the area just outside London Bridge station is a pedway, but apparently not. It's just a bridge that connects London Bridge station to the pavement leading to London Bridge. London fools me again.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

MRE Menu 3: Chicken, Noodles and Vegetables, in Sauce

Apropos of nothing, let's have a look at an MRE. What are MREs? They're "Meals, Ready to Eat" developed for the US army. They were first fielded in the early 1980s but I didn't become aware of them until the Gulf War of 1991.

Do you remember the Gulf War? It was awesome. There was so much kit. Desert boots. Precision-guided weapons. Those new helmets that looked a bit like German helmets, but they were covered in desert camouflage. The Stealth Fighter. Humvees. 24-hour rolling news. Night vision. Tomahawks. Live reporting from the battle zone. MREs.

Chicken noodles. Neither rare nor infamous nor out-of-date. I picked something that I might enjoy eating.

The date code, 7305, indicates it was packaged in November 2017. They have a life of five years although people on the internet have eaten cold-stored MREs from the 1980s with no ill effects. I ate this packet in January 2019.

It came to pass that in August 1990 Saddam Hussein of Iraq sent his army into neighbouring Kuwait as part of a dispute about oil. This would not do, and after the necessary diplomatic formalities we bombed Iraq's army and military infrastructure into smithereens. But we didn't stop there. It wasn't like Yugoslavia or Syria where we just dropped bombs. We went all the way. When I say we I mean America, but Britain participated as well. We called it Operation Granby. It cost a few hundred million pounds and we got to show off some of our kit. At the time it seemed like the last chance we would have to participate in a proper war. And perhaps it was. The days when the other side wore a uniform and was at least aware of the Geneva conventions seem very far away.

Let's dump this out onto a table. Nice. You know Steve1989, he's fantastic. I have to discipline myself not to watch his videos late at night otherwise I get hungry.
This MRE(tm) has chicken noodles, applesauce with raspberry puree, peanut butter, apple jelly, some crackers, Skittles(r), a flameless ration heater, and an accessory packet. And a pretty good plastic spoon.
I can't help but say "accessory packet" in Steve's voice.

The ground assault was over in a couple of days. It was a walkover. Saddam's soldiers couldn't retreat fast enough to get away. Fortunately no-one was hurt, or at least I don't remember seeing reports of casualties at the time. The important thing is that Saddam Hussein was sent packing. There was something about the Kurds.

We let Saddam continue to rule Iraq because it would have been too awkward to remove him, besides which he might have mended his ways and offered to sell us oil cheaply. Perhaps we thought that it was better to have a maximum leader in charge of Iraq than nobody. A different world.

The accessory packet. Gum, hot sauce, sugar, salt, coffee, matches, a moist towelette, damp-proof matches, Lighthouse toilet paper. The meal is fairly salty as it is, but perhaps the salt makes sense if you're doing heavy work in hot sunshine, which is entirely plausible given that this is a military meal.
Sadly the Orwellian "coffee instant type I" and "coffee instant type II" have been replaced by a branded coffee, Genial coffee, whatever that is.
US military meals haven't had cigarettes since the early 1970s. Could you use the toilet paper as a tampon? I don't know.

About the MRE. They are sometimes called "meals rejected by everyone" or "mandatory rectal explosions", and a couple of menu items are infamously bad. The vegetable omelette and the frankfurter sausages in particular.

But the general consensus seems to be that MRES are, for the most part, perfectly okay in moderation; they are available in a wide range of flavours and there are even vegetarian options.

Moist towelette melts on your burning flesh - you can see your reflection in the luminescent dash

Newer MREs come with a beverage bag, which is essentially a substitute for a mug - US mess kits no longer include a canteen. The bag has a seal at the top and fits into the flameless ration heater. Unfortunately the bag doesn't have a gusset, so it doesn't stand upright. Soldiers seem to use it more often as a waterproof mobile phone bag.

General consensus also holds that Italian, French, and British rations are better than American, but that might be down to overfamiliarity. Most original content on the internet is made by Americans, and perhaps they're bored of their own meals. Compared to MREs, Italian rations have a little bottle of alcohol, British rations have more food, and French rations have gourmet options although sadly the tiny bottle of red wine is apparently mythical.

Let's try the coffee. It has a rich smell. Steve1989 often dumps his coffee into a big canteen, so I was worried that putting it in a small cup would result in overly strong, sweet coffee. As it turned out everything was fine.

Here in the UK I have easier access to European MREs - Latvian and Polish options are widely available - so perhaps in future I might try one. US MREs are not sold on the civilian market and so technically eBay sellers are breaking the law by offering them, although the US government doesn't seem to mind. I would be more than happy to shove £12 through the door of the US embassy.

The sachets of coffee, sugar, and creamer produce one pretty good cup of instant coffee. It has a hard, substantial, not smooth taste, but not a bad taste.

For the record my MRE cost £11.95. That's more than I have ever spent on a single meal in my life. Bear in mind that an MRE is a single meal, not a 24-hour ration. Soldiers in the field are expected to eat two or three a day, and only when they don't have access to a field kitchen; soldiers don't eat MREs all the time. The biggest criticism levelled at the meals is that after eighteen days of nothing but MREs they get monotonous.

Let's try out the flameless ration heater. The heating element is a kind of big teabag that contains particles of magnesium and iron. When exposed to water it heats up and gives off a distinctive metallic smell somewhat akin to fireworks. It's worth pointing out that MREs don't include water. You have to supply water yourself.

"or something"

As you get older your Christmas presents turn into socks and toiletries, because old people smell and their feet smell. I rested my MRE(tm) against a tin of Lynx shower gel and body spray.

I was taken aback by the nutrition facts box - it's exactly the same as the boxes on British food, the same font and layout and highlighting and everything.
Although the ingredients list is very long it's not particularly offensive. It could so easily have been stuffed with E-numbers but it's not.

It's tempting to turn this post into a mass of sarcasm, but my impression is that the people who design MREs really do know what they're doing, and care about making decent meals that stay edible in adverse conditions. A difficult task.

Before MREs existed US rations were mostly canned, although special forces soldiers in the 1970s had access to a prototype of the MRE called the Long Range Patrol Ration. MREs were introduced in 1981 and have been in continuous development since then. Last year they introduced a pizza MRE, with a slice of cold pizza that can be reheated in the flameless ration heater. In this video Steve1989 checks out MRE #16, introduced in 2017:

The spoon, hot sauce, moist towelette and gum are identical to my own.

While my main meal was cooking I decided to try out the crackers. You get two, scored in a way that suggests they're supposed to be broken into quarters, but when I tried it the first cracker just disintegrated.

The crackers are unsalted and not as dry as I expected. I think you're supposed to put peanut butter on one and apple jelly on the other but I'll save the butter and jelly for later.

Instead I spread some of the raspberry applesauce on the cracker. It was really good!

I think you're supposed to heat it in the FRH, but I didn't want to burn my mouth so I didn't. The pack is designed so that you can rip off the end and suck the puree straight out of the bag. The crackers are like a cross between floury biscuits and crackers with all of the flavour removed but the puree was excellent. It's slightly too watery to stick to the crackers so I ended up with my fingers covered in puree. Luckily I wasn't ambushed at that point, otherwise my rifle might have slipped through my hands.

I don't want to give the impression that I'm copying this chap, but for the first split-second after I tasted the puree I was expecting it to be a horrible sugary mess that would leave my mouth feeling furry. But it's not, it's much more subtle. It tastes like runny jam with half the sugar and lots of fruit; it was refreshing and overall I was pleasantly surprised. Imagine a kind of light fruit juice jam.

"I was also pleasantly surprised by the lemon-lime cordial" said Piglet.

"I vanted orange! It gave me lemon-lime!"

Fresh from the udder the cordial is pale yellow:

But once you add water it turns into a radioactive neon green:

Again, I was expecting this to be awful. I've read that it doesn't mix well, so I used slightly warm water. I expected it to be a chalky, gritty drink that would either be liquid sugar or alternatively far too weak. In practice after a couple of minutes it mixed thoroughly, and the taste was a bit like the raspberry applesauce - strong enough to leave an impression but subtle enough that it wasn't offensive. With cold water and/or some vodka it would have been really nice.

I was doubly surprised because I'm convinced that Americans have duff taste buds. I tried a Hershey bar once and it tasted like sick. It really did. It tasted like vomit. And root beer tastes like mouthwash. I'm not exaggerating for comic effect; both of those staples of American cuisine were awful, inedible. And yet pizza here in the UK presumably tastes the same as pizza from its original homeland of America, so perhaps only some of their tastebuds are defective.

At this point the meal was ready. The flameless heater warmed it up nicely although I wouldn't trust it to cook raw meat. You have to shake and knead it a bit, otherwise only the bottom part gets hot. I should have put the meal out onto a tray - nice! - but I don't have a tray. I used a plate instead.

Let's pretend that I've survived a plane crash in the Bolivian jungle, and I just happened to find an intact plate in the wreckage.

It looks okay. The noodles are chunky and short rather than long and stringy. The vegetables are mostly carrots and mushrooms.

The chicken was tender, not stringy, and overall it tasted no better or worse than a typical canned all-in-one brunch, less sugary-er. I didn't bother with the salt or hot sauce; without seasoning it was slightly saltier than I would like. It didn't leave an aftertaste and didn't feel greasy.

Perhaps the only problem is that it could have done with more noodles - or a small portion of rice, or some bulk. MREs contain 1,200 calories but they are mostly peanut butter calories rather than potato calories, e.g. they don't make you feel full. Only a couple of MREs include rice, apparently because it doesn't heat up well in the FRH.

After drinking the coffee, the cordial, eating two crackers plus the main meal I was ready to do fifty press-ups and climb up and down some obstacles, but just for today I decided to relax in front of the computer and play Cookie Clicker instead. What's the point of cookie chains? The rewards are paltry for the work you have to put in.

Of note the Skittles were Skittles; they should really have included a half-sized packet, because if you have two MREs a day you'll end up with more Skittles than you can eat. The salt is iodised, which means that it has a tiny amount of iodine; it's added to salt in the US, but here in the UK we get iodine from milk instead. If only I had bought the MRE before visiting Chernobyl! I could have dabbed the salt on my thyroid glands.

Closing thoughts? MREs make sense in a military context but aren't really practical otherwise. The one I tried was tasty, but £12 for a single meal is expensive. If you're just sitting at home an MRE is a novelty.

If you're hiking or camping an MRE makes a bit more sense, but the accessory packet would be a waste of space, as would the FRH if you're taking your own stove. My MRE was surprisingly large and heavy; dehydrated camping rations are much lighter albeit that you have to get hold of water. But if you're hiking, you probably do have lots of water.

Furthermore as a civilian you're free to pick whichever foods you want. You don't have to carry around things you won't eat. I reckon that with a bit of ingenuity you could make an MRE more to your taste from things you find in Lidl or Aldi. I have managed to scavenge enough food from Lidl or Aldi to survive sometimes for weeks on end, you might have better luck.