MIDI guitar synth project part – the guitar

This is a new series exploring guitars and MIDI implementation guitar synths

Ive been thinking about having a MIDI guitar for ages. I new someone who’d put the Roland GK external hex pickup back in the 90s when the thing to use was the roland/ Boss V pedal, which offered tuning options if you had a GK pickup. My friend was a slide guitarist and so used the set up to get different open tunings rather than turn up at a pub gig with 4 different guitars, all individually tuned.

So I really didnt want to do this to my Gibson Les Paul, esp if I go for an internal fitted one and had been impressed with my partners PRS SE custom 24, so my thinking is 24 frets/tremolo could be interesting with MIDI. So first stage was to obtain the PRS, and I opted for the PRS SE Standard 24- reason being the finish was a lot less elaborate and more suited to being modified (and cheaper as well) but still had the same pickups and hardware

here it is

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#Synthatter- so far

Back in March 2020 lockdown, with all gigs cancelled for the forseeable future and production projects on indefinite hold, like many I divided my time between youtube, doing some work from home and jamming in the studio. I did learn some new skills, worked on new compositional approaches and listened to loads of stuff I’d been putting off for ages. I did a few online gigs which was fun, except for when in the heat of the moment a USB cable came out of its socket and Ableton crashed on me, fortunately leaving the hardware synths running, which just about saved the day. Also in this first lockdown, in the course of March through to June, I estimate I got through around 270-300 packets of crisps, but thats another story.

Around this time some interesting online events started to appear. The film and tv composer Michael Price launched his Composer coffee break, which brought together some interesting guests, and a well known railway engineer started a weekly livestream around engineering in railways which became immensely popular.

So myself and my partner decided to start synthnatter. We wanted to make it quite different from already existing live chats such as sonic state; we wanted something far more inclusive of gender, genre of music and age groups. With this we already thought of the British electronic music scene, the experimental electronic music scene based around Lincoln and Nottingham, which we know from gigging experience, analogue modulars, self build DIY, and the new emerging form of live coding.

Our first guest was Leah Kardos, who has possibly the only stylophone orchestra in the world, based at Kingston University, lately we’ve included Ian Boddy- DIN label boss and well known exponent of the British electronic music scene, Godcloud- finger drummer extrodinaire and multi instrumentalist.

Synthnatter happens on youtube on Saturdays starting at 7pm uk time, we advertise a few days beforehand on twitter. We roughly go every fortnight but we cant always keep a regular slot due to other commitments

If you are interested in either being on it or seeing the next episode subscribe to my youtube channel for future notifications

Synthnatter playlist

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KORG Kaoss Pad KP3+, and a broken arm

2nd May bank holiday 2018: Bought a Kaoss Pad KP3+ for use in upcoming gig in a week’s time, for which we were rehearsing. Took a break and went for a walk around local country park, got my left foot trapped in a bramble branch, or something…..and splat! Went flying onto tarmac path, breaking my arm. For a while I thought I’d got away with it as I could move my fingers and grip with my hand, but no, x-rays showed a large substantial crack at top of bone, inside elbow joint. So from there arm in a sling for 6 weeks and gig cancelled.

So instead I did some vids showing what the kp3+ could do with a couple of synths.  By the way arm now recovered, gig rescheduled and performed, can play again, drive and do all things I could before, though its still sore if I have it fully extended for any length of time, so have to be careful with it.






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Going live without a laptop

For the last 12+ years whenever I did a live performance I inevitably based my rig around a laptop of some form, ableton Live, some controllers , a good soundcard and that was it.

Gradually over the years as my projects have evolved I have slowly been adding more and more hardware synths and sequencers, the reason being often the sound quality is better from the hardware synths, or at least, the feel is better and what I mean by that is the playing aspect, dynamics, responses at least to me, are much better, I’ve nothing against softsynths, I still use some, and several Ive created via Reaktor and Max/MSP , but I like responsive knobs and keys.

No laptop

In CSMA we’re basing our practice around synthesis and structured improvisation and so the more live options of tweaking, keyboard playing and general knob twiddling the better, Christine Caulfield dispensed using her laptop ages ago and instead wrote her own code on a Raspberry Pi to handle MIDI clock data across her instruments and coming from me.

How it works

The drum machine TR8-S contains all the tempos and patterns for all the pieces. This is the heart of the system that everything synchs to. It connects to the MX-1 mixer using the aira usb link. Because the roland aira products can use both the USB and 5 pin din MIDI at the same time, the clock output can be split. In the drum machines case the 5 pin din takes the clock to the Kaoss pad for beat synching effects, while the clock over the usb does the same for beat effects in the MX-1 but also is sent straight out via 5 pin din to Chrissies raspberry Pi. The system-1 can also use both MIDI and usb so the 5 pin din here synch goes to the Matrixbrute, Both the system 1 and the Matrixbrute run arpeggio patterns on some tracks, both at the same time for complex layers. Ditto the sequencer in the Matrixbrute. The studiologic sledge is purely a live melodic/chordal instrument not needing a clock at the moment- but I’ve tested it, connecting via the MIDI Thru from the Matrixbrute at its arpeggio seems to work in time with the others.

Heres the live rig from last gig live rig at decimal place

And heres how it all connects up:

live set up

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Using the Roland MX-1 in the studio: recording BFX and MFX into Ableton Live



I own two pieces of Roland Aira gear (system 1 and TB3) and a Roland Boutique JX-03, all three of which I use live in CSMA together with my laptop running Ableton live. I bought the MX-1 to ease my live workflow and to act as a hub for the 3 USB based aira/roland devices, the Novation Ultranova over the digital SPDIF link, volcas in the stereo mini jack socket and two analogue synths in ports 1,2 with blofeld in 3 and 4

As a live tool this has worked out really well as I have the master from Ableton on the PC fader and with a fader spare, USB4, I can assign a separate channel from Ableton and have fader control over it, independently from the Master out.  Then, of course, I have all the effects to play with on top of all these inputs. The MX-1 is very near to being an instrument, its designed as a performance mixer, and partly this playability is another factor in me choosing it for live use. Theres plenty already on the internet about this already.

But what about use in the studio?

My studio soundcard for the past 8 years goes end-of-life this year, and although it still works, at some point an OS upgrade is likely to kill it as there will be no new drivers, so I wondered about the MX-1 in the studio workflow- the sound quality is good and it will work over a range of sampling rates (default being 96Khz) and with the effects/ playability it was something worth trying.

Modes of confusion

With the current firmware edition of 1.04 there are three modes of configuration, all of which are switched between by turning on the MX-1 whist holding down <GAIN> and turning the <VALUE> knob

MXR- is the default set up: plug in the gear and laptop and go

EXT- External mode: This allows all 18 channels to be freely assigned in Ableton live then the desktop can be mixed live/ performed with all the effects, subject to * below

SUR- Turns into a control surface for Ableton live when in <EXT> mode.

Problem is…

The problem (*) is that when recording an instrument on a channel what comes into Ableton is pre-fader of the MX-1- which means that any of the effects assigned in that channel, namely the BFX are not recorded! This has come up on a number of forums from the official Roland one to stuff on reddit, and its something everyone has asked for in a new firmware release. You can record the stereo output of the mix back into Ableton by assigning channels 17/18 to a channel and sending that to sends only (if you send it to master you will obviously get howling feedback) but if you want your tracks with individual effects on them (the mixer allows completely different settings on each channel in the same way as an insert channel) you would have to build it up track by track using 17/18 each time which is a laborious thing to do and a pain in the arse to undo.

However solution workaround…

Contrary to intuition the way round it is first to set it in its default mode of MXR, open up Ableton. Assuming you’ve configured ableton for use with the MX-1, if you select your incoming channel from the dropdown list on any audio channel, arm for record apply BFX to individual track and effects are recorded to that Ableton channel together with the instrument thats plugged into that channel on the mixer.

You can then further add the master effects by assigning outputs 17/18 from the MX-1 to another Ableton channel.

And for further mixing once you’re happy with what you’ve got in the stems you can then restart the ableton project with the MX-1 in EXT mode and do a live mix and add something different in the channel strips and again, record its master output.





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Improvising with Bastl Kastle


Bastl instruments are well known for thinking outside the box of conventional synthesis, and the Kastle doesn’t disappoint- its one of the strangest and most intriguing things I’ve come across in a while.

Its got to be one of the smallest semi-modular synths I’ve seen; approx 5.5 x6.5 x 3CM deep

It runs on 3 AA batteries

It has 7 knobs and an off-on switch plus a selection of tiny single point patch cords and 11 separate patching points

two mini jack sockets on the rear- an output and and I/O port- this is a single jack that can be patched as either an input or output or both- the L and R channels come up on the control panel which can then be plugged into anything.

The 7 knobs are: OSC pitch, OSC timbre, Waveshaper, LFO rate, Rate Mod, Timbre Mod and pitch Mod

Basic structure

The Kastle works in 3 modes- FM,  Phase distortion and track and hold modulation. The three modes are switchable from the patch point MOD

In FM mode the main Oscillator (controlled by Osc Pitch and pitch mod) is modulated by OSc timbre an timbre Mod. The waveshaper controls how much the main osc is modulated

However there are some interesting patching options

By default the LFO is a triangle shape but if you patch the square output from LFO into Rate Mod you can turn it into a sawtooth wave or a very slow ramp

the stepped output is based on a rungler circuit which will output stepped voltages of a random nature and can be used as a sequencer

You can change the mode of the synth by patching the constant outs (+ and -) into the mode patch- the (-) patched to (mode) will give you track and hold synthesis, (+) patched to (Mode) will give you phase distortion synthesis

And theres a whole lot more than this to explore!

But what does it sound like?

It is brilliant as both a lo-fi glitch synth and (with some reverb) can be very much a 50’s type Forbidden Planet sound (think of the very spacey Louis and Bebe Barron soundworld) though its really not up to making anything like a theramin type sound, for that you need something else, but theres plenty that will do those sounds- its the weird stuff this little thing is capable of, that intrigues me



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Its 2017 and we still have USB conflicts in music technology!

Bloody soundcards what are they like? Or rather USB conflicts…

I’m setting up my rig for upcoming performance with a borrowed soundcard, a MOTU ultralite MK3 hybrid. I’ve used this device before and it has worked well with my synths, and been stable- even functioning on a USB3 hub!

However this time I connected my synths that I’m using live via USB for MIDI and clock syncing purposes – this were Novation Ultranova,  Roland System 1, Roland TB3, Roland Boutique JX-03. (also a Volca Beats but that not on USB so wasn’t a problem) and a firmware-updated Arturia Beatstep pro.

I’ve had all these items a while, but at home I’ve been running them on 5-pin din MIDI with no problems.


However when I connected this lot up by USB it spectacularly crashed both Ableton and the MOTU driver – meaning even force-quitting ableton was a problem as it kept trying to reload the MOTU driver.

The problem

After many restarts and complete reboots involving taking out the laptop battery and going though each unit one by one I diagnosed the problem: Each of these units has its own soundcard which can be used to stream audio as well as MIDI over USB. Ableton can only handle one soundcard being connected, and what appears to happen is a conflict arises when all these devices are turned on and presented at once to the PC and even though Ableton has a convenient pull down menu that allows one to select the appropriate soundcard, obviously under the hood there’s is some scanning and recognition going on. Ableton recognises all the devices as soundcards but then won’t load the MOTU one correctly!

The solution

After an afternoon trying different things I found the workround:

  1. Load Ableton
  2. Turn on MOTU soundcard first
  3. turn all the other devices on after

After much testing this seems to work time after time.

Where’s the fault?

I’ve had some of these units in my studio at home on USB without conflict with an M-audio soundcard – the MOTU drivers are the latest and both Ableton and Windows are up to date.

The obvious thing to say that this lies somewhere between Ableton and MOTU but a major issue must be manufacturers not making class compliant devices can’t be helping – 17 years ago this was a common problem, but 17 years later should we still having these issues?


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Using your sampler as a synth

In this blog Im going to show how a sampler can easily be used a synthesizer with some interesting effects using granular sampling techniques. This can be done with any sampler software or hardware, in fact many hardware samplers used to come with standard analogue waveforms of Triangle, Saw and Square for this purpose. However one advantage to using a sampler as a synth is the complex asymmetrical waveforms that a conventional oscillator wouldn’t generate (at least without some serious modulation) that can be found in nature.

In these examples Im going to use Ableton Lives Simpler, but as Ive said above, this will work on most samplers.

Single Cycle

Load in a sample, any that sounds interesting to you, and zoom in as far as possible,  until you can find one cycle that goes between the centre line, the peak, the trough and finally back to the centre line, as in this example

Simpler 1

Immediately we can see over this one cycle that the waveform is quite interesting. Important point is to set the beginning and end pointers to the points where the wave crosses the centreline- if not one can get some annoying clicks as the wave will suddenly go from a value to 0, which generates the click. As you can see here, I have a <snap> option enabled which does this for me-

Tune it

Once you’ve found an interesting sound you need to tune it if you’re going to use it harmonically with other instruments- most samplers will allow you to tune in cents, and if required, transpose, therefore you can tune it to C on the keyboard, or in fact any other note. Sometimes its best to tune to the note its closest to and use that as a root, so if its closeset to Bb for example, tune your sample to Bb, then the sampler will transpose every note to the left and right of Bb. One thing to note is if you widen the window of the sample that your playing, you often have to re-tune it.

Play it

You are now ready to set filters and amp/ filter ADSRs as you would on any synth. Try chords to check if you need to fine tune either the sample loop selection or the tuning.

Multiple cycles- Widening the loop window

Of course one doesn’t have to be restricted to single cycles; you can widen the window more and more until you’re playing the full sample, however on the way some interesting effects will appear, and they will be unique to where the sample loop is played on the keyboard

Simpler 2

In this example, the selection is more complex and the effect can be less predictable, but as a rule as the selection gets wider rhythms/ beats can appear, and these will change in speed/ depth depending on what notes drive the sampler- these can make some really interesting pad sounds, given the right effects or even used as rhythm tracks. Thong to do is experiment and see what takes your fancy, then develop it.

Note: If you keep transposing up a rhythm it ultimately becomes a timbre (sound), if you keep transposing a sound (timbre) downwards it becomes a rhythm and thus here something rasping, buzzing in the upper end of keyboard, will be much slower down to the left of the keyboard, and can become a rhythm of some sort.

Other things you might like to try:

A granular sampler will have the feature of being able to move the loop window though the entire sample as you hold a note down, which means you can get a constantly evolving sound- and there are often features to run more than one at a time, enabling “clouds” of sounds to be generated

Granulator II by Monolake is a free granular sample for Max4Live/ Ableton which has some really cool features

Theres a fair few around in VST format- (though as I use granulator Ive not checked them out, but a quick google search will get some results)

Run it through an analogue synth if you have one.  If you have an analogue synth with an input, send the output from sampler into the analogue synths input and use the real analogue filters, if the synth has an envelope follower set it to incoming signal level then you can use ADSR on the synth instead of sampler- see which works best for you.





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Roland Boutique JX-03 and process piece


The Roland Boutiques have been out a while now- and I fancied one since my partner Chrissie bought one – the JU-06 on a whim when they first became available and supposedly limited edition. One year on they’re still making them and have since expanded the range, and finally I had the opportunity to own one- I opted for the JX-03, for started it imitates a synth from the 1980s that I really liked back then- only this time with knobs on!

I found it a really effective tool, and what was great, its footprint was tiny, it was light (could get it easily in an overnight bag, will run on batteries and micro USB), much better built than I imagined, knobs are sturdy and top is nice and solid.. Also has 5 pin din MIDI in (very useful if you have driver/USB issues on computer) and % pin din MIDI out- this can be used to connect to another model (of the same type) to double the voices from 4 to 8 note polyphony, and it needn’t end there- people on youtube have demos of connecting 3 or 4 units up in this way.

Having already a Roland System-1 in my studio and live rig, I was quite happy with the ACB VA that Roland have implemented in these models- it can give really nice results, and its interaction is good enough for on-the-spot live tweaking (via a manual button which immediately sets the sounds to what the knobs are set to)- each of these models (the JU, JX and JP) also have a sequencer inside- though its use can be a bit clunky- if you want to change pattern lengths whilst running (this is part of my live practice), however its there and its useful none the less. Theres more here on the Roland Boutiques

Onto the piece. I had a formscheme for a while for a minimalist, evolving piece along the lines of Howard Skemptons Tendrils since last years muspro conference, with a voicing of notes G,D,A,A#,B,F and C, and for 3 parts- which easily fit into the 4 voice polyphony of the Jx-03. The one downside was I wanted to use different timbres on the 3 voices so I had to multitrack it as the JX-03 is not multitimbral- but thats no way an issue. The sounds you hear pretty much out of the box of the JX, they’re not presets, but the only thing Ive added is some Reverb and delay. The silent spaces in the piece are absolute key to the structure.

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Electromatronic 4 at Sonophilia, Lincoln 2nd October 2016

We were delighted to be asked by Amie Slavin to host an Electromatronic evening as part of Sonophilia, Lincolns festival of Sound and Music at St Nicholas Church, Lincoln. For this event we curated…

Source: Electromatronic 4 at Sonophilia, Lincoln 2nd October 2016

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