Ever seen a cop movie where the detective who made a name for himself chasing down crooks, engaging in car chases, monkey-boying up fire escapes, and jumping fences did those things so well that he was “promoted” to being stuck behind a desk? And now, he longs to see some real action? When you came up as a writer/musican, and getting the story is in your blood, finding yourself in charge of a magazine can feel a lot like that. You’re a manager now. So, you try to create your opportunities to jump fences and have car chases when and where you can get away with it. You try to offset the degree to which being “the man” interferes with being a man.
Sometimes, fate smiles and you don’t have to try all that hard. Such was the case this past weekend, when I made my way to Los Angeles for a trip that had so many purposes, even Scrooge himself couldn’t have had a problem with the modest dents I put in my expense account. Of course, even the pre-ghostly-vistation ol’ Ebeneezer has nothing on NewBay Media, but fingers crossed…
Here are the parts of the itinerary that I can talk about. ;)
Thursday, April 22
ASCAP Expo had a higher profile and greater attendance than any previous year. For the uninitiated, ASCAP is one of three organizations (the other two are BMI and CSAC) that make sure that when a song is played in public, the songwriters and producers get their cut.
In addition to a whole lot of seminars where industry insiders gave aspiring hitmakers valuable insights on how to manage their careers, there was this mini-NAMM-show aspect to it. Many gear manufacturers chose to exhibit on the mezzanine of the Renaissance Hotel at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue. Roland had a V-Piano, Fantom-G, and new Octapad SPD-30 set up there, on which I attempted the only beat I can actually play with drumsticks, Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” This prompted the signature guitar riff from a 14-year-old a couple of booths down—who could shred your face off.
Then there’s PMC speakers. If you haven’t heard their new AML-2 compact monitors, doing so will either make you immediately buy a pair, or rue the fact that you don’t have $10,500 to do so. I was one of the first 100 ADAM buyers this side of the Atlantic, my S2A’s have been my go-to monitors for seven years, and I’ve been smug in my lack of speaker envy . . . until now.
Prism Sound was also there, showing off their Orpheus FireWire audio interface, which uses the same core converters as their high-end studio stuff. The profile of this box is rising, thanks in part to electronic music artists like Morgan Page and Deadmau5, who swear by it. At around $4,500, it's definitely a commitment, but also definitely one you can hear the results of immediately.
Yamaha had the new CP-5 on display. Utilizing the same “Spectrum Component Modeling” as the CP-1, it lacks the genuine FM synth of the CP-1, but more than makes up for this with a metric buttload of sample-based sounds that the more expensive CP-1 doesn’t have: Clavs, strings, synths—basically everything you need for the gig. I predict that the CP-5 will be the “sweet spot” sales leader of Yamaha’s new CP line. The CP-1 is a stellar instrument, but as it’s focused on quality rather than quantity of sounds, it’ll appeal to those who can afford both its price and to have other bases covered by other synths.
Also at ASCAP Expo was MasterWriter, which can only be described as a lyrics synthesizer, or perhaps “Thesaurus Rex.” Just watch this video, as it’s easier to show you than to tell you. The brainchild of legendary songwriter/composer Barry DeVorzon, MasterWriter brings true flow to the process of writing song lyrics, and if it won’t bust your writer’s block, nothing will.
Friday, April 23 (Day)
The highlight of the day was a stellar interview with DEVO for an upcoming cover story. More on that in a bit, but first, a little back-story.
You’ve probably heard that they’re releasing their first studio album of all-new material in over 20 years. Their marketing campaign, which you can experience in full force at http://clubdevo.com, both makes fun of and actually makes use of the mechanisms that corporate America uses to establish rapport with the hopefully-money-spending public: focus groups, surveys, an outreach exec (“Greg Scholl”) with a halogen smile—that kind of thing. No surprise, as these guys have been the kings of subversive irony since Kent State art students Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh got the band together in 1973, motivated in part by a justifiably cynical attitude towards government, big business, and authority in the wake of the infamous shootings of unarmed students by Ohio National Guardsmen at that university.
Central to their new campaign is a “Song Study” where you listen to snippets of 16 new songs they’ve recorded, then vote on your favorite 12 to be included on the final release of the new album Something For Everybody. The vocabulary on the site is so stereotypically and hilariously corporate that some fans have wondered whether the whole thing is a spoof. For a couple of uncomfortable days, this perception was compounded by a photo of a press “sampler” CD that I Tweeted in my enthusiasm for the band. It happened to have 12 tracks on it, but they weren’t necessarily the final selections. Still, people love dirt even when it doesn’t really exist, and some DEVO fans concluded that the existence of this CD proved the Song Study to be a fake.
Whatever else is satire on their website, the Song Study isn’t. Gerry, Mark, and the whole DEVO machine really do want fans’ input about what songs to put on the record. I logged onto their fan forum to set the record straight. Look for the post from "Stephen Fortner of Keyboard" on page 2. I also pulled the picture, though if you’re morbidly curious, you may still find it on the sites of certain bloggers who haven’t yet responded to my or DEVO’s requests to take it down.
Now that that’s cleared up, on to the fun stuff.I did the interview at Mutato Muzika, DEVO’s studio on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. The first thing you notice is that the building is so them—circular and painted radioactive green, a psychedelic version of Lady Elaine Fairchild’s "museum-go-round" from Mr. Rogers.
In fact, it is something of a museum. Mark Mothersbaugh has an incredible collection of vintage gear, though some of the rarer pieces—including a genuine Raymond Scott Electronium—were in storage to give the band room to rehearse. Plenty was on hand, though, including an original Ondioline that Pink Floyd was going to throw away, a real steam-powered calliope (now powered by a much safer ShopVac blower), a Moog Aries modular, and an array of wonderfully circuit-bent creations. What you don’t see on our Flickr photo stream will be in videos we’re now editing, as the ever-gracious Mark gave us a thorough tour. We’ll have those up soon, so watch our Twitter feed for the announcement, and look for our cover story on the band in the August issue.
Last but not least, I can't thank Mark Mothersbaugh enough for letting me play his gorgeous Hammond Novachord. Finding one of these in playable condition, let alone this nice, is almost impossible. The Prophet-5 is widely regarded as the first commercially available polyphonic synthesizer, but we'd have to add "that you could take to a gig and put on top of your Rhodes," because really, the Novachord claims the real title, and predates the Prophet by almost four decades. It was the sound of '50s sci-fi and horror movies, no less.
Friday, April 23 (Night)
That night, Jordan Rudess and I got together, as he and Richard Devine were guests at Roland’s Keyz ’n Beats Summit, which was an afternoon of hands-on synth, beatbox, and V-Drums clinics, along with Q&A sessions with Jordan and Richard, a concluding jam, and a raffle of a new SH-01 Gaia virtual analog synth signed by Jordan.
We just did some prep and brainstorming over dinner at an old-Hollywood institution, Yamashiro, where we were joined by Roland’s Scott Tibbs—a mother of a keyboard player himself.
Nestled on a hilltop behind the Magic Castle, it serves absolutely delicious Japanese food. Even better, you know the restaurant where Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu have their final showdown in the movie Kill Bill Vol. 1? The whole place looks kinda like that.
Saturday, April 24
The big day: Roland’s Keyz ’n Beats Summit was, by all measures, a smashing success. Both the Richard Devine and Jordan Rudess sessions benefitted from so many intelligent audience questions that I barely had to do any work as moderator.
The venue, Musicians’ Institute, has soared in terms of industry respect over the past few years, thanks in no small part to the efforts of keyboard program director Kevin Comstock. Tucked onto McCadden Place, not half a block from the Hollywood/Highland corner, the El Capitan theatre, and the set of Jimmy Kimmel Live (where DEVO played the Tuesday previous), the place is like Doctor Who’s TARDIS: a lot bigger on the inside than it seems on the outside.
In the Gaia Lab, Roland’s Dan Krisher gave an introductory clinic on subtractive synthesis to a room packed with 16 participants, each sitting at his or her own Gaia synthesizer. A Roland classroom monitoring system let any pair of headphones in the room hear the output of any other player.
Facing Hollywood Boulevard is a café/performance space run by the school. It’s known as “The Garage,” and here, Roland’s Scott Tibbs and renowned drummer Mike Bennett threw a funky and furious jam.
That jam was eclipsed only by the one at the end of the day, when Jordan Rudess manned a full plate of Roland gear—V-Synth GT, V-Piano, and Gaia—and Richard Devine played another Gaia as well as Ableton Live on his laptop. We’ll have much more high-definition video of this up soon, but for now, here’s a clip I grabbed with my trusty Zoom Q3 video camera.
Congratulations to Leo Lowenthal, the lucky winner of one of the only SH-01 Gaia synths out there in the world right now. All attendees got raffle tickets, and Jordan drew the winning ticket from the fishbowl, then signed the white Gaia in blue permanent marker. Ironically, Mr. Lowenthal kicked off the Q&A session by describing himself as a fan of piano music who felt alienated by the sound of synthesizers. However, his son Ari was starting at Musicians’ Institute and loves synths, so he did what any good dad would do. “This synth is for Ari,” Leo told me.
All in all, the sense of community, not to mention enthusiasm for synths and sound design, was palpable and made me feel all warm and fuzzy. This event promises only to grow, and Roland currently intends it to be twice a year (April and October, I think). Watch our Twitter feed (@keyboardmag) and/or theirs (@roland_us) for details about the next one. I’ll be there, and would love to meet you in person.
Saturday Night, April 24
A big shout-out to Sara Griggs, one of the hardest-working publicists in the music industry, for inviting me to an epic party hosted by Rami Jaffe, keyboardist for the Wallflowers and more recently the Foo Fighters, at Fonogenic Studios, his vast and very cool facility in the San Fernando Valley. It was co-sponsored by Justin Timberlake’s 901 Tequila, which flowed in abundance. Thanks also to Roland’s art director Jane Kuromi. If you see a Roland ad in our magazine or any other in the U.S., she did the design. More relevantly that evening, she came to the party, driving my no-car-havin’ butt there and back in spite of living in Long Beach and in spite of not having your own wheels being up there with leprosy in L.A. Roland's class obviously doesn’t stop at the door—you rock, Jane.
Rami’s place is full of envy-provoking vintage gear. His Hammond B-3 is covered with Casio SK series samplers, and there’s also this rare Helpinstill electric upright piano. He mixes through a vintage Trident 80B series console. When the joint is less packed with partiers, we’ll be back for more pic and vids.
Artist Joseph Arthur painted outdoors, and perfomers included actors-turned-musicians Minnie Driver and Daryl Hannah, who was way cool and snapped a pic with me. Now, it’s my job to be unfazed around celebrities, but the only thing that can turn me into a raving fanboy is anyone or anything to do with Blade Runner. Daryl and I actually wound up talking for a good while, and I told her that due to the Vangelis soundtrack as well as its general awesomeness, Blade Runner tends to be in the top 5 favorite movies of every keyboard player I know. She seemed delighted to hear this, and returned that it was, in fact, her favorite movie out of all those in which she has appeared. Fun fact: The backflipping and gymnastics of her character (the replicant Pris) were not in the original script. Being a gymnast, she brought that to the role, and Harrison Ford's neck vertebrae haven't been right since.
Sunday April 25
I scheduled my flight back to the Bay area for late afternoon—5PM—in order to squeeze in one more stop on my way to the airport: Austin-based Open Labs has opened up a showroom/service center in Los Angeles, due to so many of their clientele being in the region. It’s in this very cool, and stealthy, complex of live-work lofts literally in the shadow of the Universal Studios theme park, and right up the street from go-to area retailer West L.A. Music.
In return for manning the place, Open Labs expert technician, gifted sound designer and composer, and unbelievably lucky bastard Nick O’Toole gets to live on the top floor of the four-story place, with the service department at garage level and the middle two floors occupied by various NeKo, MiKo, and Dbeat workstations and demo areas. CEO and founder Victor Wong was in town, as was FXpansion sound designer John Emrich. I did a little playing of BFD Eco running on a SoundSlate, triggered from a Yamaha DTX electronic drum kit. Yup, I played that Aerosmith beat again.
A very nice surprise was that Bela Canhoto dropped by, who started out doing P.R. for Native Instruments and now runs her own firm. It’s great to see someone who came up at the same time as you become such a success. She also makes potent sugarless lemon drops, of which Victor and I partook—hey, it was Sunday, and cocktail hour somewhere. . . .
After Victor, Nick, Bela, John, and myself all went to brunch at the staple 101 CoffeeShop (next time, Victor, I’m gonna stick a fork in your hand if you reach for the check), we went back to the pad to meet up with some clients who needed a NeKo ASAP: father-and-son duo Tommy Pryd (pronounced “pride”) III and IV. At 14, Tom IV is already getting a lot of recognition for his prowess at classical pipe organ, and threw down a bit on a Gigastudio sample loaded into the NeKo. Tom III told me that, in spite of having a three-manual Wurlitzer at home, their preferred virtual pipe organ is Hauptwerk, with Konzerthaus from Vienna Instruments a close second.In fact, they were getting the NeKo to run these on.
Whew—what a weekend! Back to pushing the desk … for now. I’ll leave you with one final travellers’ tip: Unless your business is mainly in points south of Hollywood and west of the 405 freeway, the secret to a sane L.A. arrival is to fly into Burbank, not LAX. It’s small, the TSAs are friendly, the lines are short, and getting downtown or to Hollywood is easier than from LAX. Besides, the airport is named after Bob Hope. How can you not support that?