Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Juke Yard: Lexicon MPX-G2 Service and Repair

First of all, if you own a Lexicon MPX-G2, you need to join the STEC Records MPX-G2 Forum. The site administrator there, Bob Sellon, is a former Lexicon employee who helped design the MPX-G2, and that is where I met Keith of The Juke Yard, which is where Bob sends his G2's for service.

If you have a Lexicon MPX-G2, you ought to know that it uses a backup battery to keep the user programs in memory. When that battery fails, "poof," all of your programs are gone. Since I have played through nothing but MPX-G2's for over ten years now - it is the best combination preamp and effects unit ever made for guitarists still, after being discontinued for several years - I'm very paranoid about the backup batteries, because I have literally hundreds of man hours worth of programming stored in them. I say them, because I have five MPX-G2's now. One reason for so many is my paranoia about losing all of that programming work... the other is that I'm a gearoholic who, "needs" five different rigs for every conceivable type of venue and recording situation.

Well, that memory backup battery isn't just a regular watch type battery that you can easily replace, it's a special type that needs to be un-soldered to remove, and re-soldered to replace. I'm terrible with that stuff, so I had Keith do two of my units last week (I'll send two others to him after Thanksgiving). Turnaround was super-fast, the work was excellent, and he also checked out every function to make sure they were 100%. IMO, there's no substitute for the peace of mind I get from having a pro do this kind of work, so by New Years, My G2's will be set for another decade of gigging and recording.

Keith also works on other Lexicon gear - and juke boxes, of course - so if you have a dead Jam Man, send him an email and bring that puppy back on line.

But wait, there's more. STEC Records also has a dump tool for Windows users that allows for all of the MPX-G2 user programs to be dumped to a PC for safekeeping! I'm going to put Windows on one of my Intel Macs so I can use that and also the Windows-only FSeqEdit program for my Yamaha FS1R's.

So, I'm happy to welcome The Juke Yard to the, "Hucbald Endorses" section of my sidebar.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Learning to Play MIDI Guitar

I've been controlling synthesizers with guitars since before MIDI was even invented. I saw this ad for the Synclavier guitar system in Guitar Player magazine and had to have one. The smallest 8-voice monophonic guitar system was $19.500.00... yeah, I had to scrape, scrounge, and sell a lot of stuff to even get in the door. That system eventually grew into a 32-voice stereo system with 8 MIDI outs, SMPTE, the Velocity/Pressure keyboard and a Terminal Support Option. It was ridiculously expensive, but getting it was the single best decision I ever made in my life. No way I'd be anywhere near the musician I am today if I hadn't.

Speaking of today, now it's easier than ever to set up a MIDI guitar system. Back in my Synclavier guitar days, we were working with the original Roland GR series guitars, and setting them up just right so that they tracked properly could be a nightmare. I went through at least three Roland GR guitars before I found the Steinberger GL2T-GR that ended up being, 1] an awesome playing ax and, 2] something that had the required Roland pickup.

Here's a knot-head with a GL2T-GR who has no earthly idea what he has or how to use it:

Hey buddy, I'll take that off your hands and pay you well. Sheesh, I'd be rescuing that poor ax. lol.

Anyway, that was back when you could only control a synthesizer with a steel string guitar, because all of the available hexaphonic pickups were magnetic. Now, with piezoelectric saddle designs like the RMC Polydrive II's that are installed in my Blackbird Rider Nylon/RMC guitars, we classical-based players can get into the act too (Not that any of the uptight, painfully self-conscious traditional classical guitarists would ever go out on such a limb).

That brings me to Point 1: The most important decision you'll make when you decide to play MIDI guitar is which guitar to use and most importantly, which pickup system to put in it. Even if you play steel string guitars, you'll be better off with a hexaphonic piezoelectric design in which the strings make physical contact with the transducers: There's nothing better - or more reliable - than a physical connection between the string and the pickup elements. No electromagnetic hex pickup will ever be as good.

One of the main reasons why this is the case is that the RMC systems isolate the transducers from the body of the guitars: If you are using them as just regular guitar pickups, you can hit the body of the guitar and no sound will come out of the amp at all. Flamenco guys hate that, of course, but without all of those sympathetic resonances coming from the body of the guitar, the interface has an easier time picking up the fundamental, and less chance of getting confused and mis-tracking.

So, settle for nothing less than an RMC Polydrive.

Now for Point 2: Which guitar-to-MIDI interface should you get? Before getting back into MIDI guitar, I researched every guitar-to-MIDI system that had been made since 1990. There are several usable units out there, but almost none of the older ones are optimized for piezoelectric transducers. The Blue Chip Axon AX 100 - which later became the Terratec Producer AX 100 Mk II - and the Terratec Axon AX 50 USB are really the only choices now.

I said now, but unfortunately Terratec has discontinued the Axon lines, and so they are an eBay-only item now. This has caused a huge spike in their prices - I saw an AX 50 USB go for $1,009.00 a week or so ago - so if you're smart, you'll try to land an older Blue Chip model. That's what I did: I got a Blue Chip Axon AX 100 SB (With the then-optional GM sound card) for half of what that AX 50 USB went for. Terratec Axon AX 100 Mk II's are going for around $1,500.00 right now: I paid less than that for NIB unit a year ago! So yes, I have two Axon AX 100's: A used Blue Chip and a new Terratec (One of the very last ones sold new, evidently).

So, you've chosen your guitar, gotten your RMC Polydrive installed, and snagged an Axon: Now what? If you got an AX 100 SB or an AX 100 Mk II, stop right there! Since they have onboard sounds - even if they are cheesy GM samples - you can keep your first rig dead solid simple and learn to play it. That's what I did. I just learned my way around the Axon for a year before I decided to add a more interesting sounding MIDI synthesizer sound module.

If you've read this far, I can give you the bad news now: Statistically speaking, I have almost no chance of being wrong when I tell you that, you will fail. It'll be too difficult to learn the Axon (You'll have to spend a lot of time reading the manual), you'll be unwilling to improve your technique so the synth tracks (You have to play very clean and deliberately), and you'll give up. Think about it: How many guitarists do you see out gigging with a MIDI guitar rig? My admittedly anecdotal experience is exactly none. Back in my Synclavier days, there was John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, Al Dimeola, Frank Zappa... and me. And out of all of us, I was the only guy who played the Synclavier live on every song in the set.

The point is, you have to have a powerful need to succeed, you have to be willing to invest a lot of time learning, and most of all, you have to be resolved to radically altering your technique to make it all work. Almost no guitarists are ambitious and disciplined enough to do it, and that's just the way it is.

Now back to you Axon AX 50 USB guys. I really want one of those for the USB connection to my computer, but I'm not willing to spend over $1K on one. If you do have an AX 50 USB, though, there is no sound card in it, so you'll need something to play with it. In the keeping it as simple as possible department, any GM sound module like a Roland SC-88 would work, or you could use the USB connection to play the sounds inside your computer. Every Mac, for example, has a GM sound set in it.

My personal philosophy is that samples suck, and pure synthesized sounds are much more interesting. Ten plus years of Synclavier programming will do that to you. So, just as soon as I was comfortable with the Axon, I added a Yamaha FS1R FM/Formant Sequence synthesizer sound module to my rig - it's going to take a couple of years to become a virtuoso programmer of this thing - which is the best synth ever, if you like digital.

Check this out:

The formants allow you to program this synth to talk! Like I say, screw samples.

If you're into the old fat analog sound, there are just a gazillion older Roland analog synth sound modules you could get into, but remember to keep is as simple as possible at first and master one task at a time. No matter how good you are with this stuff, you can overwhelm yourself with a complex MIDI guitar system if you don't take it a step at a time. I've been playing synth guitar for twenty-five years, and when I got the Axon, I started over from scratch: Playing scales cleanly so the unit could track them.

If you end up one of the few winners in this game, you'll end up with a rig that looks ominously cool on a darkened stage before the lights come up (Hey, these considerations are important)...

... you'll be playing some very high tech guitars...

... and you'll be the hero who tamed the digital beast.

Good luck... you're gonna need it. lol.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Rack Building: The Mobile Yamaha FS1R Guitar Rack

Sorry for the lack of posting recently, but since getting to the critical mass point in understanding and programming the Yamaha FS1R, I have been hit with an urgency to get a rig together so I can gig with it. This has involved a lot of buying and selling on eBay, which is a slow process. For one thing, obscure discontinued gear like the Yamaha FS1R and EDIROL UM-880 don't appear every day, and for another buying and selling in auctions just takes time. The savings are worth it, however.

The third FS1R still hasn't appeared, and neither has a UM-880, but I did find a UM-550 which will work for the home recording rig, and I had enough gear to get the gig rig to a working configuration. Here it is!

Top to Bottom:

1] 17" 7200 RPM High Res MacBook Pro
2] Bryston 2B-LP Power Amp
3] Behringer BTR2000 Racktuner
4] Lexicon MPX-G2 Guitar Effects Processor
5] Axon AX-100 Mk II Guitar to MIDI Interface
6] Blank Vent Panel
7] Lexicon I-ONIX FW810s Mixer/Recording Interface
8] Yamaha FS1R FM/Formant Sequence Digital Synthesizer
9] Furman AR-1215 Line Voltage Regulator

Dragging a 17" 7200 RPM High Res MacBook Pro to a gig might seem like a lot of trouble, but the Lexicon FW810s requires one just to mix - it unfortunately defaults to mono without a computer - and I've hated every other 1U mixer I've ever tried: The preamps are just horrible in the cheaper gear. Also, of course, I can record live using the MacBook Pro, which is a big part of the mission of this rig.

I detest every solid state power amp made except for Brystons, for reasons that ought to be obvious to the cognoscenti.

The Behringer Racktuner is still the only rack mount tuner that can calibrate to the A= 432 Hz that I tune to.

Even Roland can't touch the Axon AX-100 Mk II, but I understand that TerraTech may have discontinued it. Oh well. They wouldn't be the first company, by far, that has failed to make a guitar-to-synth interface financially viable: ARP was killed by the Avatar as far back as the 80's.

Eventually I'd like to have an EDIROL UM-880 MIDI interface/merger/patch bay in place of the blank vent panel so I can program this rack's FS1R too - and have this rig as an alternate recording environment - but right now it's a pure performance setup with MIDI thru from the MPX-G2 going to the AX-100 Mk II for program changes, MIDI out from the AX-100 Mk II going to the FS1R to drive it, and MIDI thru from the FS1R going to the FW810s for recording MIDI tracks.

I love the Lexicon FW810s. It has better preamps and a crisper, cleaner sound than any of the various Digidesign recording interfaces I've tried, and it's 1U: Digi can't seem to put a recording interface into anything less than 2U, and their preamps sound like crap, IMO. Overly bright and very harsh sounding.

The mighty Yamaha FS1R. The greatest digital synthesizer ever made. It can do a lot of things even my old Synclavier couldn't do, and it has higher bit resolution and a suite of onboard effects. There is no other synth that I think is worth my time to learn.

No cheap power conditioners for me. The Furman AR-1215 is an actual line voltage regulator with an isolation transformer. The kind of clean and steady voltage it delivers is even more important if you use analog synths or tube amps (Two of my other rigs use MESA/Boogie power amps).

The Lexicon transformer plugged into the face of the Furman powers a Lexicon MPX-R1 MIDI foot controller, which is not pictured. It allows me to control the rig remotely.

So there it is.

I'm currently working on the dedicated stay-at-home programming and recording rig, which will have two FS1R's in it. No telling when another pristine FS1R will appear on eBay, much less an EDIROL UM-880: Nobody who has a UM-880 seems willing to part with it.

Couldn't decide if I wanted to post a redhead or a brunette.