2014 Review Part 1 – The Gear

It’s been a long tough slog through this year following my wife’s illness and subsequent passing last year and I really haven’t kept up on things the way I was. ¬†I’m hoping to be able to change that and I’m starting up front of the New Year so it’s not just another silly resolution. ūüôā This update will concentrate on some new gear that went into steady use this year in the form of some mini reviews. The next one will focus on some of the projects I have had going this year as well as some plans for the near future.

Phil-Tone Equinox/Eclipse Hybrid

If you spend any time reading this blog you’ll see a lot of reviews of Phil’s stuff and you would think that I’m some kind of paid spokesman but the truth of the matter is I’ve just in found Phil someone who makes the kind of mouthpieces I like as well as someone who is open to sending mouthpieces out on pass around for people to try. Phil is also an awesome guy and a great craftsman.

Phil came out with an Equinox mouthpiece a couple years ago and it really sounded like something I would like but I was pretty comfortable with my Eclipse (the first piece I ever got from Phil not including his cleanup and refurb of my Otto Link Florida STM). I finally decided to pull the trigger and get one and you know what? I absolutely hated it! Well, hate is a strong word but it wasn’t what I thought I was going to get at all. I talked to Phil and he said to send it back and he would fix it for me…he had made it a little brighter than usual and that’s part of what I didn’t like. In the back and forth while he was fixing it he offered to undercut the table and open out the chamber in what he called an Equinox/Eclipse Hybrid. That sounded great so I went with that.

When I got it back I was absolutely thrilled and this has become my main piece after many years on the Eclipse. It’s a 7* (105) while my old Eclipse is an 8 (110). It’s a little easier to play because of the opening but the undercut table does require a little more air. This is something that may or may not be on Phil’s website but it’s something he can easily do and something he’s happy to provide. The lesson here is that by being open and communicating with him I was able to turn something that didn’t fit me at all into something I love.

Phil Tone Rift (alto)

I was playing on another of Phil’s alto pieces called an Aurora I think and it was good but I wanted something with a little more drive. It’s funny but on tenor I’m moving a little darker but on alto and bari I’m embracing the cut and edge. Phil had a sale on Sax on the Web Forum and one of the pieces was an unbranded Rift prototype.

The Rift is something that I think is rather unique to Phil. It has an interesting double baffle that looks a little like a clamshell. He used to make the baffle completely by hand but he recently started having blanks made to this new spec. This is one of those prototypes but I think it is very similar to the branded production models if not identical. This mouthpiece is a screamer that never loses it’s core…it’s like the best of both worlds and it’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had on alto. I’m using it with Van Doren Java 3 (green box) and they seem to be perfect for me. I’ll try to post an audio sample soon but it may be an edit after the first of the year.

Phil Barone customized Otto Link Tone Edge (bari)

Phil Barone is the other Phil I love to work with. He’s an amazing mouthpiece make and refacer. I started talking to him several years ago about doing the “Ronnie Cuber” treatment to a Tone Edge – apparently Phil did the work on Ronnie’s TE back early in his career…a sound I love. Now I know that a mouthpiece is not the ticket to sounding like someone but I also felt like it would at least have some of the characteristics I was looking for and I could handle the rest.

Phil did a reface with a new facing curve and he cleaned up the tip and rails extensively. The magic, though, is in the baffle work in my opinion. Phil takes out the rollover baffle and then adds a step baffle later in the chamber. The end result is a screamer that is both easy to play while allowing a ton of nuance and color. I don’t play nearly as much bari as I used to but this mouthpiece has replaced my Lawton which I’ve had for over 20 years. I think the mouthpiece I sent him was an 8 but I think the one I got back is more like a 7*.

I use Rico Select Jazz 3 Unfiled (at Phil’s suggestion) and they seem to match it really well. This is not something you’re going to be able to find easily and I doubt you will be able to get one from Phil. The baffle work is very labor-intensive and he told me he really didn’t want to mess with these any more. I’m just glad I was able to get one before he decided to stop. You can still get his regular pieces from him and he will do other refaces. He also sells amazing horns for great prices so he’s definitely someone to keep on your radar.

EWI 5000

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been an EWI guy for many years (probably more than 20). I’ve had pretty much every model since the 3020/3030 came out. My primary EWI for the last few years has been the 4000s but I didn’t ever use any of the internal sounds except maybe at rehearsal when I was being lazy. Instead I just used it as a driver for my virtual rack in my laptop. The 5000 was announced over a year ago I believe and I knew as soon as I saw the announcement I was going to have one. As it got closer to shipping I went ahead and pre-ordered one from Patchman Music.

The key selling points of the 5000 over previous versions are an enhanced synth engine with real samples (the 4000s was virtual analog), rechargeable internal batteries, and built-in wireless audio. I’ve had mine for ¬†couple months now and I really like it a lot. It was instantly comfortable because it feels just like my 4000s. The sounds are a mixed bag. There are definitely some much better sounds but they require a lot of tweaking (especiialy the overuse of effects) and there are WAY too many saxophone patches while there are absolutely no strings either solo or ensemble…that’s strange. I haven’t had a chance to use the wireless but I’m told it works as expected.

NOTE: Many people are confused about this but it is wireless audio only…Midi is NOT wireless in the 5000 but you can order wireless midi from Patchman. I really like the rechargeable internal batteries and I love that it hooks right up to the computer with the included USB cable. It’s like the best of the 4000s and the EWI USB all in one. All in all I’m pretty happy with this but I’m waiting for the Patchman patches that will make things even better.

Cannonball Big Bell Stone Series Tenor

I really need to post an actual review of this horn. I actually bought this horn over two years ago and it has been my main horn ever since. I love how it feels and people love how it sounds. I also love the way mine looks. So nothing actually new here but I just wanted to put that out there.

EWI Corner – The Virtual Years

So I already talked about my old hardware setup for the EWI and how it progressed over time. ¬†Those years are mostly behind me these days as I have moved completely over to virtual synths on a laptop. ¬†It’s a very flexible setup but I still have my last rack as well as some other backup stuff handy just in case although my virtual rig hasn’t failed in nearly two years.

I’m using the EWI 4000s as my main controller even though my EWI USB is very capable and MUCH lighter. ¬†The primary reason for this is the extra octaves available on the 4000s since I end up making a lot of splits (assigning different patches to different ranges for quick transitions in songs or also useful for layering multiple sounds to play on the same key) for different songs. ¬†In addition, all of the octave rollers are connected whereas the USB version uses a software trick for the highest and lowest octaves. ¬†I have both EWI set up so they feel very comfortable and I generally use the USB version when I’m practicing or learning songs at home. ¬†One more thing, it’s also great to be able to take the 4000s back to the dressing room with a pair of headphones and play the internal synth without having to have anything else.

The rest of the hardware starts with a 2010 MacBook Pro (i7 processor). ¬†I’ve never been a ¬†big fan of the whole Mac/PC feud because I feel both are very capable. ¬†In my day job I make video and computer games so I could easily say without a shadow of a doubt that gamers should have a PC but everything else is pretty much equal in my experience…except for music stuff. ¬†I spent many years doing music stuff on my PC before getting this MB Pro and I can say categorically that things are just easier with a Mac. ¬†You can definitely get a PC to do all the same things but sometimes you have to jump through some serious hoops to make it happen. ¬†For this purpose a Mac is just the better choice and that’s that for me. ¬†Your results may vary.

Finally I use an M-Audio Fast Track Ultra as an audio and MIDI interface. ¬†It has very powerful hardware routing capabilities built in as well as a virtual mixer on the computer. ¬†That allows me to submix all of my microphones for my acoustic gear (Shure Beta 98 for saxes and a Countryman ISO Max for flute) with the internal synths and give one mix to the main board rather than taking up 3 channels. ¬†It’s a great interface for a home studio as well because it has decent routing for separate headphone mixes built in. ¬†For home use and for other, less intense situations I have either an M-Audio Ozone keyboard/audio/MIDI interface and an Audio Technica AT2020 USB microphone.

For sounds I am using Reason 6.5 from Propellerheads Software, Sample Tank (as well as several other software instruments) from IK Multimedia, and Garage Band when I need a VST host. ¬†Reason is an amazingly versatile DAW (digital audio workstation) with robust audio recording/mixing/mastering tools and several world class virtual synths. ¬†It’s an incredibly complete package with sampling, granular synthesis, subtractive synthesis, FM, and a HUGE powerhouse called Thor that is nearly a fully modular synth.

There are a couple extra things that really make Reason powerful – one is something called a Combinator (a holding container for synths and effects that makes it easy to create powerful splits and layers with tons of real-time control options. ¬†The other is CV (control voltage). ¬† Before MIDI, most synths that could “talk” to each other used control voltage and the original Lyricon made excellent expressive use of it. ¬†CV in Reason allows many things to control other things without the “steppiness” of MIDI. ¬†The concept seems simple (like you could have the LFO (low frequency oscillator) of one synth change the frequency cutoff of another but once you start patching the virtual wires you see how amazingly powerful and flexible the system really is.

If there’s one thing that Reason is slightly lacking in, it’s in the area of “real” sounds – emulations of real instruments. ¬†Out of the box, Reason is great at synth stuff – it’s used for dance music a LOT – but when you’re used to having the VL-70m or the Roland XV 5050 (or even my old Kurzweil K2000r) this software feels pretty light in this department although there are packages available that add more sounds. ¬†That’s why I purchased Sample Tank…it has thousands of sounds and has WAY more “real” instruments although it has some great synth stuff as well. ¬†If you only had the money to buy one piece of software, though, I would easily recommend Reason for all of your EWI uses.

It’s pretty easy to make your own patches once you know what you’re doing but there are two guys you should definitely check out: Bernie Kenerson and Chris Vollstadt. ¬†Bernie has been playing EWI (and Lyricon before that) for many years and has achieved an extremely high level of proficiency on it. ¬†He’s also a prolific and talented creator of wind control patches. ¬†You can buy several Refills (packaged banks of sounds in Reason) on his website¬†including combinators, three sets of Thor patches and an entire bank of Sample Tank patches that you can use with the free version of Sample Tank so you are only out the cost of the patches. ¬†These run the gamut from simple to incredibly complex and you can even learn from the patches so you can make better ones yourself. ¬†His website also contains a ton of helpful tips, exercises, and sound examples. ¬†Bernie even teaches EWI lessons via Skype. ¬†I own pretty much everything Bernie makes patch-wise.

Chris Vollstadt has a website called EWI Reason Sounds¬†and not only does he have sounds for sale, he’s also very good at writing EWI and Reason tutorials. ¬†You can learn a lot from Chris and he makes even complex concepts seem easy and understandable. ¬†Chris also has several Refills available for sale and they are also quite good. ¬†First, he has a windcontroller bank (you could just as easily use a Yamaha WX controller as an EWI) called Cyclone that has 56 patches, 14 custom effects, and a user guide to explain everything. ¬†He also has two Refills of some very advanced “Rotator” patches based on things Michael Brecker used to do on the Oberheim Expander…non-static chords with a variety of sounds. ¬†One Refill is more synth sounds and the other is more sample based (orchestral or big band for example). ¬†As with Bernie, I own everything Chris makes because the price is reasonable and the value is excellent. ¬†Even without the refills, though, Chris’s site is a must as he provides those excellent tutorials and lots of free downloads. ¬†Some of the free stuff I’ve gotten from him has become part of my “go to” sounds.

All in all, I love my virtual rig and don’t see myself going back to a hardware rig any time soon. ¬†It’s lighter, more flexible, and just as easy to set up.