The Prodigal Sounds

Progressive Rock Artist seeks Audience

Page 2 of 38

Refurb FX Unit

I’m not a hoarder – at least, I try not to be – but there are some items of equipment I’m not using and probably don’t need to keep. They are either in storage, or mounted in a rack, taking up space but providing passive heat sinking.

One of these items is my venerable Digitech GSP21-Pro. This is a very capable guitar effect processor and I think it could go to someone who would actually use it rather than just leave it sitting around. I brought this over from New Zealand, so it required a 240V mains supply. About 50% of my gear has been running on a grunty 120-240 mains transformer, so I’ve never bothered to take a close look at the power supply on this unit. However, if I am to pass this on to someone else, it will really need to run on a 120V supply.

Given my recent success with my Korg EX-8000 , I figured I’d open it up and see what was needed to convert the power supply. It turns out that it couldn’t be simpler:

The internal transformer supports 100-240 volts via a simple fuse plug

The easily switched voltage plus the standard appliance socket means that it was trivial to switch it over to 120V. Embarrassing! I could have done this years ago and not needed to run it on the big transformer.

However, I did have a problem: The GSP21 had forgotten all of the custom programs I’d set up over the years, and when turned on, goes to patch 01 instead of the last used setting. Typically this behavior is due to the internal memory backup battery being dead. If I was to sell or gift the unit to someone else, I wanted to be confident that their own patches would be retained in memory while the unit was switched off.

The internals are easily accessed by removing a series of screws from the chassis. The backup battery is identified quickly, tucked away neatly at one side of the PCB. I expected a coin-style CR-2032 but it’s quite different:

Energizer No. 523 4.5 Volts

That battery lasted at least 20 years before giving up. Impressive.

After some research I found that it is actually very difficult to find a No.523 battery of this type. One possible replacement is A21/A133 4.5 Volt Alkaline Battery which can be found at BatteryMart.com under the item code BAT-A21PX.

Mind the gap…

It is almost a perfect drop-in replacement except for a 1mm gap. I tried bending the battery socket arms inward to eliminate the gap but it wasn’t really possible without potentially stressing the PCB. It’s not really designed to be bent – it’s quite strong spring-steel.

My solution was to use a paper clip. Really low-tech but seems to work well:

Simple but effective

It closed the circuit and the battery is firmly held in place. Turning on the unit for the first time showed “restoring factory patches….” for a second, before making patch 01 available. The second time I powered it up, the patches were available immediately, and it remembered which patch I had selected prior to turning the unit off. Success!

I cleaned the exterior of the unit, and offered it on NextDoor.com along with cables, the footpedal unit, and a ragged photocopy of the user manual (which is all I had). And now it is in someone else’s hands, hopefully to give many more years of effective use. I highly recommend the UltraVerb reverb algorithm; it’s very good.

A Refurb’d Reverb.

MIDI notes, names, and numbers

How does your synth know what note to play, when you press a key? If it has a built-in keyboard, then the glib answer is, “whatever key I’m pressing!”. If your synth is a module in a rack, or your keyboard is responding to signals sent to it over the MIDI cable from your sequencer, it gets a little more interesting.

MIDI Note Numbers

MIDI signals are digital, so everything is represented by numbers. For example, if I want an instrument to play a sound, I need to send it a specific type of message: a “Note On” message. In addition to a number identifying the message as a “Note On”, it will include two additional numbers representing:

  • which note to play
  • how strongly the note was played (known as note “velocity“)

Because the numbers are 7-bit digital, there are 128 possible values. For example, the note number will be between 0 and 127, representing the lowest and highest possible notes respectively. The velocity will also be between 0 and 127, where 0 is the lightest possible touch, and 127 represents the most force you could use.

Your synthesizer uses these numbers to decide how to respond: which note (pitch) to play, and how to set the volume or tone for the requested velocity. For your typical instrument using a standard Western 12-tone scale, note number 60 will result in a tone of 261.63 Hz, or “Middle C”. The synth module will continue to play that note until it receives a follow-up “Note Off” message for the same note number.

A message here, a message there, and pretty soon you’re playing yourself a tune. MIDI messages get complicated quickly, and there are better places to go if you are curious about the details.

Introducing Note Names

Secure in the knowledge that our instruments – both physical and virtual – will respond with middle C if we sent them a MIDI Note Number 60, we can move on to note names.

If you’re used to conventional Western musical notation, it makes sense to refer to notes using the alphabet notation of the scale, .e.g. C, D, E, F, G, etc, instead of those confusing and non-obvious numbers. With ten and a half octaves covered by our 128 possible note numbers, back in 1982 Roland documentation writers chose “C4” to represent Note 60, middle C, and to enumerate octaves from C to B (.e.g. ascending notes would be A4, B4, C5, D5, etc.)

And everything was cool… until Yamaha used “C3” to represent note 60 in their own MIDI documentation.

Since then, instrument and music software manufacturers tended to pick one of the two conventions and ignore any subsequent confusion on the part of the users.

For example, XLN’s Addictive Drums follows Yamaha’s convention, and in their documentation and note maps, they use “C3” to refer to note 60.

Voxengo SPAN, however, displays ~262 Hz as “C4”, following the Roland standard.

Three notes walk into a bar

Just to be different, Cakewalk eschews both conventions, and shows note number 60 (middle C) as “C5” in their Piano Roll View.

“There is no industry standard for numbering octaves. By default, Cakewalk calls MIDI note 0 (the lowest possible note) C0.

Cakewalk Documentation

Here’s a scale from note 60 to 72:

Personally I think I know the reason for this: One side effect of middle C as C5 is that the lowest possible MIDI note 0 is then “C0”. Cakewalk started life as a character-based DOS sequencer, and if they’d used “C4” or “C3” for note 60, they’d have needed additional real-estate space for notating the lower octaves, e.g. “C-2”.

I don’t know for sure that this was the reasoning behind it, but it seems possible. Those were the days! I personally never used the DOS version of Cakewalk, but I used to develop character-mode applications in MS-DOS, and I feel their pain.

Fortunately, we’re not limited to Cakewalk’s default notation:

In the Preferences dialog, we can control the “base octave for pitches” offset to our needs.

The Yamaha FB-01, for example, shows MIDI note 0 as C-2 (C negative 2). To match Cakewalk to that standard, set Base Octave to –2.”

Cakewalk Documentation

Because I’m an avid user of XLN’s Addictive Drums virtual drum instrument, I set my Base Octave for Pitches” to -2.

And all was good, until the other day I was developing some SFZ patch definitions and I noticed that the samples were being played back 12 notes below where I was defining them:

<region> sample=WAV\DRUMS\CIBLON_TAMBOR_MEDIO\TAK.wav  key=C5 

According to my tests playing the keyboard, that sample was assigned to C4 or note 72, and not C5 or note 85 as I expected.

All was revealed when I tried defining the sample allocation using note numbers:

<region> sample=WAV\DRUMS\CIBLON_TAMBOR_MEDIO\TONG.wav  key=60

That worked as expected, responding when I pressed “Middle C” on my keyboard (i.e. sending MIDI Note 60 to the SFZ Player instance in my Cakewalk project.).

Bottom line: I could use the note numbers in my SFZ file definitions, but if I feel the need to use Note Names, I should remember that SFZ Player uses the Roland standard of C4=60.

A review from DPRP

Theo Verstrael of The Dutch Progressive Rock Page has given us a fair review of the latest album. As usual, we are amongst good company, with all the other recent releases reviewed this week.

You can read the review here:

https://www.dprp.net/reviews/2020-067#prodigal-sounds

Alas, they don’t really like the cover, but generally it is a good review and I appreciate the thoroughness of Theo’s research and informed evaluation of our offering.

A couple of comments on the review:

I don’t get the similarity between Paradigm Shift and Painting Abstracts, but perhaps I’m too close to the music. Theo’s entitled to his opinion. They are both have 7/8 riffs and have similar tempos but apart from that… I’m proud of both pieces.

(Update: I might now understand where Theo’s coming from. The opening statement or phrase in the chorus in both songs is a rising 5th interval, and I acknowledge the similarity, but I am not embarrassed by it. If self-plagiarism were a crime, Neal Morse would be put away for 10 years.)

He’s also not a fan of the Spoken Word verses in The God Program. I respect that. I did try other things early on but kept coming back to it. It’s pretty close to how I heard it in my head, originally, and I just have to plead my lack of ability to realize it in a way that resonates for everyone. I’ve used the growly, pitch-dropped vocal technique before, in the previous album. There’s some continuity in it, but hopefully it is not a “signature”! I don’t intend to use it again.

My brother and I aren’t actively writing together because we live in different parts of the world and have done so for many years. Long-distance collaboration is not something we’ve been able to do. There wasn’t a “falling out” or anything. There’s still music that we wrote together that may see the “light of day”, but I also have more ideas of my own. Hopefully album #3 will happen.

New Old Music

Many years ago I was asked to prepare some background music for a student documentary on the WESTPAC Rescue Helicopter. One of the briefs, as I saw it, was to have music that could be chopped about and rearranged to suit the final editing. This is my excuse for choosing a theme and repeating it with variations. Unashamedly pulling equally from Ravel’s Bolero and, naturally, Emerson’s Abaddon’s Bolero on Trilogy. A lead guitar comes out for the finale, respecting Mike Oldfield circa 1978.

I was never super-happy with the draft version I turned in for the film production, which – perhaps just as well – was never completed. So as a breather after working on my second album, I decided to re-record this, using Hyperion Strings; Roland D550; XLN Addictive Drums; Roland VK8, and the Gibson L6S for authentic Oldfield.

If I’d thought of it, I would have included this track on the “Inevitable Bonus Disc”, which you can find at
theprodigalsounds.bandcamp.com

The Blank Slate

I have this fantasy that Album #3 is a blank slate, with no material left over from previous sessions or unfinished projects.

In reality, I have lyrics and musical fragments that I’ve been working off-and-on over the last few years. I usually get my ideas while out cycling, and it is no trouble to pull over, whip out the iPhone and record the fragment into the Voice Memo app. Later, back in the studio, I transcribe the lyric into my notebook. Sometimes I’ll open my Scrapbook project and add another piano track with the melody.

That’s cool. On the plus side, these new songs will hopefully start out being actually sing-able in my comfortable range, as opposed to many projects in the past where the music came first and the melody second and was almost always not pitched comfortably for my voice. So that’s a good thing.

Outside of these lyric and melody fragments – some of which have expanded into pretty complete stand-alone song ideas – I still have a comprehensive library of musical ideas that date back to those Grey Lynn flat jam sessions in the 90’s, converted to mp3 from C60 tape cassette.

I still feel that this situation qualifies as a “blank slate”, as far as Album #3 is concerned. Every track is going to start with a new empty project, and not an existing one, worked on in years past and put on the back-burner due to lack of time, interest, energy, ideas, whatever.

Even “The God Program” from our current release was conceived back in 2003 and much of it laid down in 2007. (And consequently re-recorded, but that’s par for the course.)

So, I’m looking forward to never again having to sit back and listen to a newly recorded section of music, and say “dammit it just doesn’t have the magic of that older demo”.

*Record Scratch*

…Yeah. That was nice while it lasted.

Back in 2002 I didn’t have any plans to resurrect “The Prodigal Sounds” as a music-releasing entity, and instead explored some other new music ideas with the tentative goal of putting it out under another band name. I had three longish instrumental thematically-related pieces recorded in “pretty complete demo” form, but only titles for the other three or four pieces.

I’ve related elsewhere the story of how I got back on track with Prodigal Sounds and the “Fruit of the Steel Tree”, and consequent to that, this other project was shelved.

Long story short, I think I’m going to incorporate the music from this old project into the songs of Album #3, or one of them anyway. The music seems to fit. It’s worth a try.

So, will it be a concept album?

A better question, should it be an “album” at all? CDs are not selling much these days, it’s all about streaming and playlists and bullshit like that.

Personally, I prefer the idea of a curated collection of songs, rather than emitting the occasional single on some indeterminate schedule like a chunk of U-238.

So, yes, there will be an Album #3, unless I give up or expire before it is released.

And I do have a concept for it, although it is of a subtle nature. Tangential, even.

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