Saturday, 16 March 2019

MRE Menu 16: Chicken Burrito Bowl

Let's have a look at another MRE. This one is Menu 16: Chicken Burrito Bowl. It was introduced in 2017. It's essentially chicken chilli with rice, plus a couple of tortillas. It's not bad! Not bad at all. I was inspired by Steve1989, who reviewed this very MRE shortly after it was released:

MREs are designed so that the main meal is the same, but the puddings are different. Steve1989's MRE came with a red-coloured fruit punch drink, a cinnamon bun, and roasted snack nuts, but mine had an apple turnover, baked cheesy snacks, and "orange flavored no fruit juice":

Why didn't they just call it orange-flavoured drink? I don't know, and I shouldn't criticise, because if it was British it would probably be called drink, flavoured, orange, fruit (no) or something like that.

Let's scatter the contents onto a desk:

It's like Christmas, but for grown men

MREs are US field rations introduced in the early 1980s. They replaced canned ratios that were essentially spam and beans. MREs are "meals, ready to eat", although soldiers took to calling them "meals rejected by everyone" because soldiers complain a lot. Some of the older MREs have a poor reputation but modern MREs are apparently pretty good, at least for boil-in-the-bag-style packaged military meals - the problem is that eating them for weeks on end gets monotonous.

Some armed forces give soldiers 24-hour ratio packs, but MREs are single meals. They're designed to be eaten hot or cold. They come with a flameless ration heater that can heat up the main course, but soldiers have to supply their own water if they want to have coffee as well. Next paragraph.

This main course was packaged on 27 March 2017. I ate this meal on 14 March 2019. That's almost two years later. I have no idea how it was stored. It smelled and tasted perfectly fine.

In a civilian context MREs don't make a lot of rational sense. They take up more space than freeze-dried food and have a much more limited shelf life, apparently five years at ambient temperature, longer in a fridge. They're expensive, running about £12-15 a meal, partially because they're not sold to civilians and partially because I live in the UK so they have to be shipped across the Atlantic. Perhaps they're cheap if you live next to an airbase in Wyoming.

Each MRE comes with an accessory packet, which is fun the first time but a waste of space if you pack several MREs. A lot of the calories come from sugar and fat, so they're not healthy. They're basically novelties, but what's wrong with that?

Let's examine the contents.

This meal comes with two tortillas. I put them in the flameless ratio heater. Here in the UK tortillas are novelty food. We eat bread instead.

British military meals are infamous for having food made by companies that no-one has heard of, e.g. Westlers, who make those awful canned hamburgers. US MREs are no different.

That's a lot of sodium.

And the accessories. A huge packet of salt, plus artificial sugar - the last MRE I ate came with actual sugar - a moist towelette, and coffee creamer. The gum was okay. Genial-branded coffee. Sadly I have yet to try "coffee, instant, type I".

Without further ado let's cook the main meal.

The flameless ration heater has a mixture of salt and aluminium - when you add water it acts like a short-circuiting battery. It gets hot enough that you can't hold it, but not hot enough to boil water.

Let's leave this to cook. This FRH wasn't as good as the others I have used - the meal was lukewarm so I popped it into the microwave to give it an extra kick.

While the meal is cooking away let's have a look at the snack. As mentioned up the page each MRE of a certain type has the same main meal, but the other bits are picked at random from a short list. Steve1989 had a cinnamon bun. Menu 16 can also come with a slice of filled french toast or an apple turnover. They all look the same. I had the apple turnover, which came out of the pack with an oxygen absorber embedded in it.

It was sugary and dense and felt very stodgy. There was a slight, vague cinnamon taste, and on the whole the apple filling was more of a generic sugary fruit flavour than true apple. I should have dunked it into the coffee, but I forgot. In retrospect I wish I had kept the turnover for later, it's overkill with the baked snack crackers.

Here's the coffee:

It's a generic roast with a hard rather than smooth taste. I've always wondered why they only put one coffee sachet into the MRE. If I was in charge I would throw in two or three. They are the most space-efficient part of the ration.

There was a second pudding, a cheesy snack:

I'm fairly certain this MRE has more than a day's worth of sodium in it, and that's without counting the salt packet. The amount of salt probably makes more sense if you're doing hard work in a hot environment.

The baked snack crackers tasted exactly like McVities Mini Cheddars. Jacob's Mini Cheddars. Whatever they're called now. Do they have them in the United States? As you can see I ate them with a spoon, because I'm a gentleman.

My hunch is that solders in the field simply cut off one corner of the bag and pour the whole thing into their mouths. That would also save having to lick the cheesy dust off their fingers. Imagine getting cheesy dust all over your M16! It would smell of cheese.

"I Could be Happy" was Altered Images' fourth single. It got to number seven in the UK all the way back in early 1982. Listening to it nowadays I'm struck by how much it sounds like New Order. It has the same guitar sound. In terms of vocal technique Bernard Sumner and Clare Grogan are pretty much on a par, e.g. they have trouble hitting the notes, but they're expressive. None of this has anything to do with the rest of the article, but I don't care because these are my words and this is my truth and I can do whatever I want. Let's have a look at the tortillas. Even after running them through the FRH, the tortillas don't look great:

But they tasted okay. They're just "mass", really. A kind of wheaty, slightly artificial taste. Surprisingly small. There was a crease down the middle and they looked as though they would break in half, so I folded them double instead.

As mentioned my FRH wasn't working at full power, so the meal came out lukewarm. I ran it through the microwave instead. It came with a packet of cheese spread that was essentially a solid lump of cheese, which worried me for a moment - cheese goes off - but it smelled okay, so I dumped it onto the main meal.

I put some of it in the tortillas and ate the rest. It was nice! The snack crackers were okay and I wasn't keen on the apple turnover, but the main meal was pretty good. Imagine a can of Stagg chili, but it's chicken instead of beef, and then drain off most of the liquid. I could easily have eaten more of it, and if I was designing the MRE myself I would eliminate the apple turnover, add more coffee, and make the main meal 150% larger. I would swap the two small tortillas for a single, thicker, large-sized tortilla.

Oh yes. There was a sachet of hot sauce. I added it to the last bit of the meal. It didn't have a distinctive taste and it wasn't particularly hot. I wouldn't have missed it if it wasn't part of the MRE.

One thing remains. The orange-flavoured no-fruit juice. Judging by the text on the packet the drink exists solely to mask the taste of water purification tablets.

I used slightly warm water so that it would dissolve quicker. You know how Steve1989 always fast-forwards the video when he mixes drinks? It's because it takes a few minutes for the powder to fully dissolve. The orange flavoured no fruit drink wasn't as good as the lemon beverage in the last meal I ate. That had a surprisingly subtle taste; the orange drink was artificial, basically just weakly sugary water, with a slightly chalky aspect. To paraphrase Douglas Adams it had a taste that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike orange.

And that's MRE Menu 16. Despite being called chicken burrito bowl it didn't come with a bowl. Here in the UK Mexican food is one of many novelty foods that people try out occasionally, but it's nowhere near as prevalent as Indian and Chinese food; there are only about two dozen Taco Bells scattered across the country and we don't have many Mexicans. They can't come to the UK because there's a massive ocean in the way.

If you grew up with Mexican food I suspect you'd be horrified by this MRE - it's pleasant, fills a hole, but leaves no aftertaste - but I didn't grow up with Mexican food. I grew up with British food. Literally anything is a step up. Imagine sucking a cowpat through a hollowed-out legbone. That's what British food tastes like, the end.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

iPad Mini 2 in 2019: Malarkey, or Effective Way?

Let's have a look at the Apple iPad Mini 2. It's a small tablet released way back in 2013, before many of you were born. It's ancient in tablet terms, but as of March 2019 Apple still supports it. It runs iOS 12, which is the most recent version of iOS. In fact it runs iOS 12 surprisingly well, better than it ran iOS 11. A few features aren't supported, notably Apple Pay and any form of fingerprint recognition, but in my opinion Apple Pay makes more sense on something smaller.

The Mini 2 is available cheaply on the used market so I decided to try it out. I wanted a small, well-made tablet to take on holiday, preferably a tablet that wouldn't be bent out of shape by my luggage. The Mini 2 is made out of aluminium and has a glued-together unibody design that's apparently a nightmare to open, but this is more of an issue with laptops. I don't mind having a sealed tablet, it's not something I expect to upgrade.

iOS has a terrific range of virtual instruments. Shown here is iVCS3, a simulation of the EMS VCS3. Surprisingly the Mini 2's Lightning port delivers enough power to drive a small MIDI keyboard without the need for a powered USB hub. It also powers the Arturia Beatstep featured in the previous post.

Why not an Android tablet? I have nothing against Android. My first tablet was an Asus Transformer. The problem is that long-term support with used Android tablets is a minefield - manufacturers tend to shove out a single Android upgrade, then give up - and I'm bored with rooting things, and Google seems to have given up on the Nexus range, and I'm not going to pay a lot for an Android tablet, and at the same time cheap Android tablets tend to be rubbish, that's why.

I also wanted a device with masses of battery life. I get nervous when my phone's battery meter goes below 96%. My phone has given me a psychological aversion to certain numbers. The number 89 interferes with my digestion. When I see the number 78 I can no longer hold my hands steady. I have been unable to drive for several years because the speed signs cause me to involuntarily cry out and shield my eyes.

Imagine the most terrifying horror film ever made. It doesn't have alien monsters or vampires etc. Instead it consists of a battery meter slowly counting down from 58% to 1%, at which point the screen goes blank.

Do mobile phone battery meters ever hit zero? How can the phone show a battery meter if there's no power? These thoughts and many more swirl through my head in the early hours of the morning.

I smell bacon / I smell pork / run little piggy / I've got a fork

The Mini 2 remained on sale for an unusually long time. It wasn't discontinued until mid-2017. Judging by the serial number mine was made in January 2017. In theory it was replaced in 2014 by the Mini 3, but the Mini 3 was a very minor upgrade - a fingerprint sensor, plus a gold-coloured case. The Mini 3 was discontinued in 2015 so the Mini 2 actually outlived it.

Historically the first iPad Mini was launched in 2012. It was essentially an iPad 2 squeezed into a smaller case, with a 1024x768 display and half a gigabyte of memory. The Mini 2 was launched a year later with a faster processor, twice as much memory, and a high-resolution Retina display.

The Retina display was the big selling point, in fact the Mini 2 was originally sold as the iPad Mini with Retina Display. The Mini 2 has a 2048x1526 LCD panel, which would ordinarily result in teeny-tiny text too small to read, but iOS scales everything up so that it still looks like 1024x768 but much sharper.

Retina in action. At the top a 1280x800 Linx 10, admittedly not the leading edge of tablet displays even when it was new; at the bottom the 2048x1526 Retina display in a Mini 2. I found that I could read small text more easily on the Mini 2. My eyes didn't get as tired.

At 100%.

I've never used a Retina display before, at least not for any length of time. As mentioned elsewhere in this post Apple gets a lot of stick for selling overpriced products that have a few good features but are internally behind the curve, but the Retina technology works well and is worth the extra money. On the Mini 2 some websites look tiny, but I can still read the text, and even when the text is large the display is simply more attractive to look at. It took Android and Windows several years to catch up but even today Apple's implementation of high-DPI displays is slicker.

The Mini's leather smart case is like Apple in miniature. The design is neat - you can fold out a little panel to see the battery and wifi status, and when you fold it around the the back of the iPad there's a subtle bump that acts as a handhold, and you can fold it into a triangular stand, and it reliably makes the iPad go to sleep etc - but at £50 it's very expensive and the use of leather feels at odds with Apple's progressive image, comma, and furthermore it picks up scratches and bumps more than a simple plastic case.

As mentioned the Mini 3 was a very minor upgrade. The real true Mini 2 replacement was the iPad Mini 4, which came out in 2015 and is still on sale today. The Mini 4 has a more powerful processor, twice as much memory (2gb vs 1gb), and slightly more advanced wifi, but conceptually it's not all that different. If you're prepared to buy new the Mini 4 is awkward because it's surely on the verge of replacement, and yet it's a pretty good tablet that should hold its value on the used market.

This is Patterning, a drum machine, notable for its clever implementation of probability - instead of programming a separate fill pattern you can just set the probability of a snare hit to 5% or so, and you get periodic fills. The interface looks like a Designer's Republic album cover. You can make each layer revolve, which is good for random-sounding hi-hat lines, and I wonder what would happen if you threw out the drum sounds and loaded a piano or birdsong instead.

When it was new the Mini 2 was often compared with the iPad Air (2013), which was Apple's full-sized-but-thinner tablet; a common criticism of the Air was that it was more expensive than a contemporary iPad but larger and heavier than an iPad Mini and no more advanced internally, so why bother with it?

This tune uses Patterning for the drums, and the Behringer Model D from the previous post driven by an Arturia Beatstep, all kept in sync by the iPad.

The Air made it to a second generation before being discontinued. The iPad Air 2 (2014) is also a good used choice - it's more advanced the the Mini 2, and isn't much more expensive on the used market. Of course it's larger, with a 9.7" display versus 7.9".

EDIT: I spoke too soon about the Air being discontinued. On 18 March 2019 Apple relaunched the air, with the new iPad Air - just that, not Air 3, just iPad Air. They also launched a new iPad Mini, which again is just called iPad Mini. The new machines are similar to the previous generation but with more advanced processors, a wide colour gamut for the display, and Apple Pencil support.

My hunch is that iOS 13 won't support the Mini 2, if only because it only has 1gb of memory, and that by the end of 2019 the Mini 2 will be shifted to Apple's obsolete/vintage range. On the positive side all the apps I use should remain compatible with it for several years to come (Patterning, for example, still runs on iOS 8, ditto OSMAnd). I also have a hunch that iOS 13 won't support the Air 2 either, not for technical reasons but just because the Air 2 is very old.

OSMAnd running on an iPad Mini 2 (left) and a Motorola Moto G 2 (right). The bigger screen is nice, but the Mini 2 has one key flaw as a navigational tool - the wifi-only model doesn't have a GPS chipset! It relies on wifi location finding, which is naff even in a major city and useless otherwise.

I'm platform-independent. I only care about the software. The killer app. I own and still occasionally use a thoroughly obsolete Power Macintosh G5, because it runs Logic Express and works with my Mark of the Unicorn 2408 audio interface. The strings pad in the tune above was made with Logic Express running on a G5. I own an Android mobile phone because it runs OSMAnd, and a Windows tablet because it's widely compatible with lots of software.

On that level the iPad, and Apple's ecosystem, is both good and bad. If you're interested in music it's essentially the default choice, because there are far more synthesisers for iOS than Android and the general recording and sequencing infrastructure is more extensive. On a technical level I had no problem surfing the internet, sharing files with Google Drive, editing pictures with Photoshop Express, playing music, running OSMAnd etc, albeit that with only 32gb of internal storage and no card slot I can't download the entire world.

Apple Maps is a mixture of pleasure and pain. As on the desktop it looks wonderful, but it's not as extensive as Google Maps and doesn't feel as slick.

Safari is better than I remembered.

It has a tablet-optimised "Reader" view that strips out all the crap and turns web pages into miniature eBooks. Beyond that there doesn't seem to be a way of enlarging text on a standard website; you can zoom in, but then you have to swipe left and right all the time to read things.

I love The Daily Mail. It makes people angry and I love that. I admire it on a professional level. Notice how it runs stories about Meghan Markle that seem perfectly ordinary on the surface but are cleverly calculated to make the readers angry. It reminds me of The Sun during that newspaper's imperial phase in the 1980s; it is on top of the game.
It's also far more representative of contemporary Britain than any other newspaper. You might not like it, but it's true. Britain isn't intellectuals reading books in cafes.

You will discover, sooner or later, that wishful thinking is not enough, and that if you want to change the world you have to get your hands dirty, and then your arms, until eventually you think nothing of putting tyres over the heads of teenage kids and setting them on fire. There is no good or bad, only power, which in the case of the iPad Mini comes from the tablet's one and only Lightning port, which is where the bad starts. If you want to connect anything you need to use a dongle, and even then the Mini 2 only recognises USB devices that don't require drivers. In that respect my Windows tablet is much better because it supports essentially everything.

As far as Apple is concerned, if you want more storage you should use iCloud, and if that's not enough you should pay Apple for more space. The company's share price has taken a battering of late because Apple relies too much on hardware sales and not enough from services, although ironically Apple's revenues from iTunes and so forth are larger than e.g. all of Nike and General Dynamics (for example). I wonder if Carl Icahn will try to pressure Apple into spinning off iTunes as a separate company.

The Mini has a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, but the smart case is designed so that you need a long thin plug - I had to buy a short extension because my non-Apple headphones didn't click into place.

The River Po in Turin, which is where I went last week. It was February, it was 21c, all the Italians were dressed in winter gear, I went around barechested eating an ice cream because it was so hot.

Beyond that the iPad has some odd omissions. There's no built-in calculator app. The onboard photo editor lets you draw shapes, but doesn't let you resize images. I had to download Photoshop Express just to resize an image. The iPad has a files browser, but Apple greatly prefers for you to manipulate photos and music etc with iCloud, which isn't much fun if you don't have a mobile data connection.

In general desktop computers have a file-centric approach - you copy and paste files, click on files to open the application, move files with the Finder or Explorer etc - whereas Android and iOS have an app-centric approach whereby you open the app first, then open the file, then save it somewhere else etc; in this model files don't exist independently. I prefer the former approach. In Apple's defence Android is like that as well, they both try to abstract the file system into nothingness.

What else? Safari and Chrome both insist on using mobile versions of websites, even though the hardware is powerful enough for the full desktop experience. Adblock support is awkward with mobile browsers. You'd think Apple wouldn't mind, given that they make their money from direct sales to the public; I can understand Google wanting to force people to look at adverts, Apple should be better than that.

On the whole however I liked the Mini 2. The case is extremely well-made. It doesn't flex or creak. The battery life is such that while on holiday I didn't feel a compulsive need to charge it every night. It takes a while for my mind to "feel" a device's battery life, but with the Mini 2 78% still feels like plenty. I can cope with the storage limitations, or work around them, and fortunately Kindle eBooks don't take up much space.

What else? It has stereo speakers. They're surprisingly good. No bass, but there's a noticeable stereo effect. They're on the bottom of the machine, so the stereo stops working if you turn it sideways, but they're better than I expected. The screen has a 4:3 aspect ratio, which means that widescreen films have black bars at the top and bottom - just as God intended. There's a little switch on the right that mutes the iPad or locks the rotation. The switch only does two things and feels underutilised. It was eliminated from later iPads, comma, the end.

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.