Saturday, March 19, 2011

Special: shu-t + Vocaloids

Vocaloid, in case you're not aware by now, is software developed by Yamaha that allows musicians to program vocal tracks for an ever-growing selection of virtual singers. Probably the most famous of these is a vocaloid called Hatsune Miku. It was a song by Miku (produced by Nayuta) called 'Silence' that first introduced me to vocaloid music. In fact it was the Nayuta vs TECHNiA remix, and that brings me to shu-t, who records as TECHNiA, Glint Of Sound, Feel The Sonic, and under his own name.

I found shu-t's album 'Various Feelings' on iTunes and it was the first vocaloid music I purchased. It showcases a varied selection of vocaloids so it serves as a good overview. The music is also fairly varied, while remaining in the techno arena. Vocaloids have been used on everything from garage-rock to symphonic music, but to me they're best suited to techno and trance, and that's why I think shu-t is one of the best vocaloid artists out there.

His basic setup is listed on his Myspace Page as the following:

Ableton Live 7, Image-Line FL Studio 8, Propellerhead REASON 3.0.
KORG Electribe MX, Kaossilator, Kaoss Pad 3, micro KONTROL.
reFX NEXUS2, KORG Legacy Collection - Digital Edition and Analog Edition 2007, YAMAHA VOCALOID, CELEMONY Melodyne.

I'll be featuring a selection of tracks by Shu-t, most of them uploaded to Youtube by the man himself, under the username: sonicwave2007. All videos are attributed to him unless otherwise noted.

Vox is a cool duet with some disco strings & house production. Watch out for the incredibly funky synth solos!

TECHNiA - Vox (vocals: Hatsune Miku, Meiko).

Unfortunately I couldn't find the album version of this remix, which is sung by Meiko and has much better fidelity. It's the most-played song on my iPod. The chorus lifts me into the stratosphere every time I hear it. I advise turning up your volume while listening:

Feel The Sonic - Whereabouts [TECHNiA remix] (Vocals: Megurine Luka) courtesy of Tatayatatana

This is quite anthemic. The album version also features Meiko so it has a little extra depth to the vocals. Another stunning solo played on a Korg Kaossilator:

Feel The Sonic - 4 Freedom (vocals: Luka Megurine)

Another stand out, this time with English lyrics throughout:

TECHNiA - Night of the Magic (vocals: Sweet Ann).

There are male vocaloids as well. To me they sound a little creepy. But the way "Gakupo/Gackpoid" is used in this track isn't bad (his vocal samples were provided by the popular Japanese singer Gackt).

Glint Of Sound - Cradle of Destiny [MG Style] (vocals: Meiko & Gakupo) courtesy of HatsuneMikuVocaloid2.

The following songs are from shu-t's album "AIMS." I'll start with an epic instrumental. A real stand out, and you can see some of his setup in the video.

shu-t - Delete Memory.

Megurine Luka was designed to sing in Japanese, but in this case she's singing English words. Not very intelligibly, it must be said, but vocaloids are such strange beasts that you can easily regard them as another instrument in the mix.

shu-t - Dream Grows (vocals: Megurine Luka).

Here's another track sung in English. If you click through to Youtube and view the video description you'll get the lyrics, which help a lot. It's obvious that English isn't shu-t's forte, but for me the mis-translation of the lyrics only adds to the appeal.

shu-t - Flaps The Wings (Vocals: Megurine Luka with Sweet Ann & Big Al).

I couldn't find the album version of this so here's an earlier version by TECHNiA. It's more dance-oriented than the album mix and has a different vocalist:

TECHNiA - @ Your Side (vocals: Sweet Ann).

Bonus track! The song that started it all. This is actually a mash-up of the original version of Silence by Nayuta and the remix by TECHNiA. Prepare for techno of incredible proportions!

Nayuta vs. TECHNiA - Silence [MMD Edition] (vocals: Miku Hatsune, Meiko) courtesy of kanna3939

I hope you've enjoyed at least some of these. Both "Various Feelings (shu-t's works)" and "AIMS" are available on iTunes in North America. I highly recommend them both.

I'd like to close by wishing everyone in Japan, including shu-t himself, the best in the wake of the recent disasters.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Feature: The Manitou - Let's Build Mecha! (2010)

Every so often here on Synthspotter I'll be featuring noteworthy (synthworthy?) independent releases. I'm kicking things off with an e.p. by The Manitou (otherwise known as yours truly).

"Let's Build Mecha!" features seven tracks, most of which were composed for Brokensea Audio Productions' "Doctor Who: Mechalution." It is of course the very same Doctor Who made famous by the BBC, in this case produced and written by and for fans who just can't get enough of the show.

There are a couple of moody experimental pieces on this release, but the rest is techno-pop with an industrial edge. The songs are crafted using sampled circuit-bent gear (such as a modified Texas Instruments Speak & Spell), synthesized & sampled percussion, a Novation K-Station analog-modelling synth, and a Crumar Performer string synthesizer.

Doctor Who: Mechalution, in a nutshell, is about a planet where robotic lifeforms are evolving out of the entropy left by its former inhabitants. The Manitou's music has investigated similar themes in the past, so it was fun to do an entire e.p. in that vein.

Best of all, the podcast episode is available for free at the Brokensea link above, and the e.p. is also free at To further entice you, here's a video promo:

The Manitou - Let's Build Mecha (Promo), courtesy of wireslave.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

Thompson Twins - Into The Gap (1983)

Here's an album I recently rediscovered, and which was big with me when I was a kid. Into The Gap is certainly the Thompson Twins most successful album, and with good reason. The songs are catchy, well-executed, and full of diverse sounds and instrumentation. The band, at this stage in their career, consisted of:

Tom Bailey: vocals, synthesizer, piano, contrabass, harmonica, guitars, drum programming.
Joe Leeway: Prophet synthesizer, percussion, backing vocals.
Alannah Currie: backing vocals, drums, percussion, marimba, xylophone, backing vocals.

It was revealed in a 1984 issue of Keyboard magazine that 95% of the synth parts on the album are thanks to an Oberheim OB-Xa. A Prophet 5 and a Pro-One were also used, both manufactured by Sequential Circuits. (Thanks to Micke @ forum for the info). Also of note is the rare Movement MCS Percussion Computer (which combined analogue drum synthesis and 8-bit digital drum samples with computerised sequencing) and the Movement Mimic (an early monophonic sampler with keyboard control) both made in Britain by Movement Systems.

Let's start with the opening track, "Doctor! Doctor!" which features some incredible moody synth sounds and an awesome multitracked solo.

Doctor! Doctor! courtesy of BlueBoy11035.

This is the song that most people remember, even though it charted lower in the UK (#4) than other singles from the album. Nevertheless, it's a fine song for a band to be remembered by. The 12" version is especially good, by the way. You can find it on "Thompson Twins Greatest Mixes," along with three other 12" singles from this album.

Hold Me Now, courtesy of miguelm0de.

This track's a little lighter on the synths, but was always a favourite of mine. You can hear the Mimic in action, providing some mechanical sound effects.

You Take Me Up, courtesy of Tabstarkin.

Five singles were released in total from the album - quite a number considering two or three is the norm these days. Sister Of Mercy was another ballad:

Sister Of Mercy, courtesy of Tabstarkin.

"The Gap" features eastern influences, more sampler action, and a whole lot of funk.

The Gap, courtesy of fery2.

Unfortunately I couldn't find the studio version of "Day After Day." Here's a live version instead, from their 1983 Into The Gap tour. Sorry about the sound quality.

Day After Day (live), courtesy of grupozaz.

Some great synth-brass on this track.

Who Can Stop The Rain, courtesy of goobiskii.

I'll round this post out with a slow number. I managed to track down all but one track from the album on youtube (actually "No Peace For The Wicked" can be found if you search for it, but embedding has been disabled for that particular track).

Storm On The Sea, courtesy of Reborninoktober.

I hope you've enjoyed!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Dee D. Jackson - Cosmic Curves (1978)

What we have here is an oddity and an undiscovered treasure: a space-disco concept album. It works surprisingly well. Quaint spacey synth-sounds play off against funky rock-guitar and solid disco drum beats. Dee D. Jackson's voice alternates from angular, to angelic and beautiful, to strong and powerful throughout. The album was produced by Gary and Patty Unwin. Synths unknown.

Here's the opening track, Automatic Lover, which was a single and reached #1 in several countries. The only complaint I have about it is the faux-robot voice that repeats far too often. The video is suitably cheesy.

Automatic Lover, courtesy of bchfj

This blog is about synthesizer music, but ironically my favourite thing about this next track is the guitars.

Red Flight, courtesy of TheSupernaut76

Meteor Man, also a single, didn't do as well as Automatic Lover, but is another stand-out track.

Meteor Man, courtesy of Superdiscomania

Galaxy Police, courtesy of EldorAudio2

I'm so glad I could find this one on Youtube. The epic 'trial' which serves as the album's climax. Probably my favourite track.

Cosmic Curves, courtesy of valterik63

And finally, the album's closer, a poignant space-ballad.

Falling Into Space, courtesy of EldorAudio2

Cosmic Curves is released on CD this year (it may already be out), complete with bonus tracks. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Special: Japanese Techno-Pop

Let me begin with a bit of back-story. Growing up in the 80s, with synth-driven music and its strong and catchy melodies, I spent most of the 90s thinking good music had come to an end. I listened almost exclusively to music from the 70s and 80s during that period, with few exceptions. Music TV and radio were my only sources for discovering new music, and try as I might, I just couldn't enjoy anything current.

Then, in 1999, Eiffel 65's 'Blue' was played on the TV. I'd never heard anything like it. I remember thinking that dance music had suddenly risen to new heights. The odd thing is, it's a very simple song - almost too simple. But the impact it had was enormous. Thanks to the internet, which was new to me at the time, I discovered that bands like Eiffel 65 were thick on the ground overseas. The problem was they weren't played on Canadian radio, nor were they likely to be unless they had a crossover hit.

Eiffel 65 - Blue, courtesy of blisscorporation

Another band that changed my outlook was Canada's Front Line Assembly. They too were absent from the airwaves. Nevertheless, I picked up a compilation of theirs called 'Reclamation.' It proved to me that good music had not died. They'd been making music since the early nineties, but was it being heard? Certainly not by me. And they weren't the only band out there making industrial synth-music.

Front Line Assembly - Provision, courtesy of MetalKael

A world of new music opened up to me. I no longer had to wade through angst-ridden 'alternative' bands pushing swaths of distorted fuzz around and singing dirges over the top of it. Thanks to these two bands, and the internet, I discovered electro-house, EBM, trance, funk, and many genres in-between.

Now, ten years later, I feel I've discovered the next 'revolution' in my musical tastes: Japanese Techno-Pop. My love for Anime has exposed me not only to the Japanese language, but also to the quirky, happy theme tunes. I knew about 'J-Pop' but never really heard anything that caught my attention. I'd been listening to Vocaloid music, specifically Hatsune Miku, and it was via Miku Channel blog that I discovered the band Perfume.

On the surface of it, Perfume are a 'girl group' that sing happy bubblegum songs. But beneath their auto-tuned voices lies a bed of exquisitely-produced techno-pop. The man responsible for writing and producing these songs is Yasutaka Nakata. A little research revealed that Perfume is just one of many acts he writes and produces for, and that his primary project is called 'capsule.' Capsule, as of this writing, have produced 12 albums since 2001. How Nakata-san manages such an incredible output on top of writing and producing entire albums for other groups is amazing enough, but the songwriting remains consistently good as well.

For your enjoyment, here is a selection of Nakata's works, starting with the first song that caught my attention:

Perfume - Night Flight, courtesy of missvlk

Perfume - The Best Thing, courtesy of FairySweety

Perfume - One Room Disco, courtesy of millionstarleaf

Perfume - Fushizen na Girl, courtesy of cedrique30

capsule - Jumper, courtesy of shizukao

capsule - The Mutations of Life, courtesy of asquimandape

capsule - Love Or Lies, courtesy of Mrazerty1

capsule - Stay With You, courtesy of itbeganinwuhan2

MEG - Heart, courtesy of xMoonGoesDown

Ami Suzuki - Can't Stop The Disco, courtesy of ElectricHorseman003

This last track isn't by Nakata, but sounds like something he'd do and I like it a lot:

Aira Mitsuki - China Discotica, courtesy of otarutomoe13

The only problem with these bands is tracking them down. Capsule's most recent albums are available on iTunes Canada, but everything else has had to be sourced from either eBay or at great expense. They're worth every penny, though.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Adam Ant - Manners & Physique (1987)

Adam Ant isn't generally associated with synthesizers - having based his career on energetic rock/punk and a flashy look - nor would many consider this his best album. 'Kings of the Wild Frontier' (recorded as Adam and the Ants) is generally regarded as his enduring classic. Personally I give the honour to the follow-up 'Friend Or Foe,' his first solo release. All his solo records to date have been recorded with the Ants' guitarist Marco Pirroni, and for Manners & Physique they were joined by producer Andre Cymone - who was in Prince's band, and produced Jody Watley (of Shalamar) among others.

Cymone mixed Adam & Marco's strengths for percussion, guitar, and vocal melody with synthesized bass, brass, and lush chords. The result is a funky dance-pop vibe, which works very well. The vocals on Manners & Physique are some of Adam's most refined and showcase his exceptional voice. Marco's guitars chug along on the verge of being at odds with the rest of the music, but this juxtaposition adds to the appeal of the record.

Let's start with the opening track:

Room At The Top, courtesy of likefershure

This is a slightly different mix to the album version (it has some extra vocal samples & synth parts):

Rough Stuff, courtesy of luciusfunk

I particularly like the outro on this one:

You Can't Set Rules About Love, courtesy of AnythingBut1966

I wanted to share the title track, which I consider one of the best pop songs ever written, but unfortunately it wasn't to be found on Youtube at the time of this posting. Check it out if you get a chance. This album has been freshly remastered and reissued with bonus tracks. If you like what you hear, I highly recommend it.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Gary Numan - The Pleasure Principle (1979)

Where to start, on this milestone of an album? Preceded by the number one UK single "Cars" it propelled synthesizers to superstardom, along with their enigmatic but ultimately down-to-earth champion. On its heels New Wave was born, and the early 80's became an exciting time for music. This year -- indeed, this month -- marks the album's 30th anniversary, celebrated with a special edition of the album which includes all the b-sides, outtakes, and demos that could be rescued from the vaults.

My personal link with the album dates back to 1995. At the time I was living in my Uncle's house, and had access to his large collection of vinyl. Music-junkie that I am, I spent many hours immersed in old Genesis records, among others. I passed-up The Pleasure Principle several times, but finally gave in to the intriguing cover with its one-word song titles. At once I found it familiar and strange, and after several listens I realised I'd discovered the music I'd been searching for all my life. I'd been a fan of David Bowie's work -- particularly his synthier moments -- and several New Wave bands, but none of them had quite crystallized the precise mood of starkness and alienation that The Pleasure Principle conjured up. Needless to say, I played the album far more often than was healthy for those around me, and sat there in the isolation of a small Canadian town wondering if Mr. Numan had recorded anything more...

He had. Some fifteen albums at that time, not including live records, collaborations, and extraneous material. But I didn't discover that until those heady early days of the internet. In the meantime, I managed to get hold of a two-CD 'best of' compilation, which became one of the most-played albums I've ever owned, and some early LP's.

But back to the album at hand. There are no guitars on The Pleasure Principle (save for bass) and it struck me at the time as being a bold statement for a rock musician. Instead, there are layer after layer of powerful synthesizer parts set against a backdrop of Cedric Sharpley's funky drumming, the unique bass-work of the late Paul Gardiner, and some beautiful viola flourishes courtesy of Chris Payne. Ultravox keyboardist Billy Currie also lends his violin to a couple of tracks, and played keyboards in the live band during the subsequent tour. Numan's exceptionally unique voice is often double-tracked, a technique which excentuates the science-fiction feel of the music; like some Big Brother figure broadcasting over a P.A. system.

The principle synthesizer is the Moog Polymoog Keyboard, which came stock with the unique and powerful Vox Humana patch, which Numan used extensively both live and on albums during the period. There are far better sources of information on how Numan used the Polymoog, putting it through effects-boxes and so-forth, so I won't go into that here. Suffice to say that it's one of the most incredible synthesized sounds you are likely to hear. Also used on this album were the Moog Minimoog and ARP Odyssey.

As luck would have it, all ten tracks are playlisted on youtube, as well as the bonus tracks from the original reissue. This has spared me the agony of choosing highlights, when every song, to my mind, is integral to the listening experience. Without further ado:

Gary Numan - The Pleasure Principle (YouTube Playlist)

The album opens with "Airlane," an upbeat instrumental. Immediately the biting, tearing, and soaring synth tones are unleashed. Even though guitar is absent, there are synth parts played like powerchords to give the effect. "Metal" follows, with its driving rhythm and crashing percussion. Nine Inch Nails, and the hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa have both covered this song. Next is "Complex," which is almost the opposite - lilting and strangely beautiful, but at the same time as electric as standing next to a power station. The viola also makes its first appearance. This song is a personal favourite. "Films" cranks things up again. The drum beat was a favourite with rappers in the early 80's, and is still sampled from time to time. "M.E." is another personal favourite. Some of you might recognise the riff: it was borrowed by Basement Jaxx for their song "Where's Your Head At." The synthetic hand-claps on this track are created by the Simmons Clap-Trap, which can also be heard elsewhere on the album. I always think of "Tracks," "Observer," and "Conversation" as something of a trilogy. Not because of any overall theme, but because of how they fit so nicely together in order on the album. The first two are quite short, but by no means ordinary, while "Conversation" is something of an epic. Second-last, but not least, "Cars." Number one in Canada and the UK, and it even broke the charts in the U.S.A. Undoubtedly Numan's best-known song, and it's been covered and sampled by many artists, notably Fear Factory. I have to admit that I've heard it so many times that I often skip it these days, but there's no denying the outro is awfully good. Lastly, the quirky mechanical marching song "Engineers," closes the album.

I've often thought The Pleasure Principle has a lot in common with utopian/dystopian sci-fi films. Bright and happy at the beginning, until all too quickly the seething underbelly of corruption is revealed and our protagonist goes underground on a flight for his life. Until, despite his best efforts, he is thwarted by his gloating oppressors. Numan's lyrics are often highly metaphorical, and there are of course a million different ways you could interpret them; a million different images they might conjure up. Such is the brilliance of music, and the brilliance of this album. I hope you enjoy it.