Gino Robair is former editor of EM

Gino’s Big Adventure: Building a Personal Studio, Part 5


Fig. 1

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 6 | Part 7

Walls within walls

You know the routine. When life is crazy, a lyric or phrase will suddenly pop into your head. Today, it’s the voice of George Jetson shouting “Jane! Stop this crazy thing!?

I’m in the thick of the remodel.

Of course, I’m thankful that things are moving so quickly. However, my studio’s timetable is intertwined with the long to-do list for the rest of the house, so I no longer have the luxury of pondering over any decisions that need to be made. If the electrical is being done in two days, that’s for the entire project and I better get my list of needs to the contractor or there will be delays.

For example, now that all the windows are in and the plumbing and electrical is nearly finished, our thoughts have turned to the insulation and drywall. Not a problem for the rest of the new structure. “It’s just a box,? my contractor, Tom, likes to say. The studio, however, is not just a box. more…

Tape, Ephemera, Loss, and Memories


Recently, a performance of mine was released on cassette (yes, analog cassette—the preferred format of the ’80s). It was an extremely limited edition (less than 50) and it sold out immediately. That surprised me… until I listened back to it.

Yes, there’s hiss—you can’t miss it. More importantly, there is a combination of wow, flutter, and crunchiness that warmed my heart. All the worst things about the cassette format as a playback medium were the best things for this new release in terms of sound quality. Although the live performance was from ’09, it sounded as if it was recorded in the ’50s—in a good way.

I have yet to find a plug-in that does lo-fi like this.

Particularly sexy was the way this inexpensively duped tape changed the sound of my cymbals: they have a distinct warble that I love. Maybe the Dolby circuit in my player adds to the weirdness. I’m not sure if I can recreate the effect digitally, but I’m going to try. But at least I know one way to get it: use an obsolete storage medium as a filtering device. more…

Gino’s Big Adventure: Building a Personal Studio, Part 4


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

Tying the rooms together

Things are moving quickly with the renovation, as you can see in the photos at right, and our contractor has been great about keeping his crew busy. For example, when rain held up the delivery and installation of the trusses for the roof, he had them put up siding and install the plumbing. The fast pace is keeping me on my toes.

As I continue to sort out the electrical details for the studio, it’s time to address other issues, such as ordering interior windows and flooring, and coordinating the installation of each element with my contractor. Because the studio is only a portion of the overall remodel (which includes an in-law unit and garage), I have to balance my room’s needs with those of the overall project. Where it gets tricky is in coordinating each major installation, such as the insulation and sheet rock. My room has to be included with the rest of the house in order to keep the project on time and within budget. That means all of the little details that pertain to the studio have to be sorted out ahead of time. more…

Gino’s Big Adventure: Building a Personal Studio, Part 3


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7


One of the biggest issues in any studio, whether it’s for personal use or for hire, is the electrical setup. For many of us, the home studio is relegated to whatever room (or part of a room) is not being used by other inhabitants of the house. Consequently, we share the electrical panel with the household appliances and other sources of line noise. It’s not always easy (nor inexpensive) to isolate our gear from the noise pollution in the electrical system, so usually we just live with it.

Before we started our remodel, my studio was in a small in-law unit behind the garage. Besides being uninsulated, and therefore nearly uninhabitable in the middle of winter and summer, it didn’t have grounded power when we moved in. I eventually had a ground rod installed and wired into the electrical panel, but the house’s electrical system remained underpowered overall, and the results could easily be seen and heard. But that’s about to change. more…

An Open Letter to Avid from a Pro Tools User and Instructor

Digidesign is Avid

This week, all the hubris around the supposed game-changingness of a unitasking, I/O starved Apple iPad completely overshadowed “Digidesign’s Open Letter to our Users.? Or did it?

In this memo, the parent company made it official yet again: Digidesign is Avid (which is how the opening screen reads when you launch Pro Tools 8, by the way). Okay, fine: goodbye to the name Digidesign. So where’s the news, besides the fact that there will be no more as of April 12, 2010?

At Winter NAMM this year, Digidesign didn’t have any products or demos in its newly Avid-branded booth. The big news, besides an announcement of its Pro Tools Instrument Expansion Pack, was that Hal Leonard was now a major distribution partner of the Avid brands. Employees at the Avid booth handed out flyers directing interested parties to H-L’s booth, where there was a corner dedicated to the Avid brands. This tiny piece of real estate did not instill confidence in the community of Pro Tools users attending the show. Certainly, Avid’s empty booth didn’t instill confidence in a product that wants to remain the industry standard for pro recording. And although this week’s Open Letter was meant to instill confidence in the user base, it didn’t do so for me. more…

Doepfer Cookbook

Dieter Doepfer assembling his DIY Synth at SchneidersLaden, Berlin, Germany, March 18, 2010.

Dieter Doepfer assembling his DIY Synth at SchneidersLaden, Berlin, Germany, March 18, 2010.

This week, I’m finishing up a trip to Berlin, where I played in the MaerzMusik Festival, followed by a mini-tour to the Czech Republic. I decided to forego Musikmesse in Frankfurt altogether, in order to get to know the musicians in Germany’s capital a little better.

Among the highlights of the trip so far (besides the gigs, of course) were behind-the-scenes visits to Ableton and Native Instruments (including a peek at a few unannounced projects at the labyrinthine offices of the latter). NI had a banner year in 2009, and they’ve got a lot of great products coming down the pike. For example, check out the video demos of their new drum collection, Abbey Road 70s Drums. Not only does it sound amazing, but the programming under the hood makes it very flexible. I also got a quick look at the upcoming rev of Reaktor, along with a quick chat with the man who designed it, Stephan Schmitt.

But the synth-geek in me was most excited about visiting the new Schneiders Buero shop, now called SchneidersLaden, which is truly analog heaven in Europe. Schneider has a dry sense of humor that extends to the design and vibe of his store, as well as his display at Musikmesse, which he appropriately calls SuperBooth because of its vast collection of hardware goodies. more…

Pondering the Future with the Breakfast Club

Tom Oberheim, Dave Smith, Roger Linn, Gino Robair, and Don Buchla

Tom Oberheim, Dave Smith, Roger Linn, Gino Robair, and Don Buchla, at the 125th AES Convention, San Francisco, Oct. 5, 2008.
Photo by Larry the O

A musical instrument should allow us to express ourselves as easily as we dance or sing—naturally, and without having to think about it. Although the traditional keyboard has dominated music for centuries, its expressive potential hasn’t moved forward since MIDI was introduced in the mid-’80s, despite the latest hardware and software developments. However, a number of other controllers that tap the potential that electronics have to offer have been gaining a wider audience, such as the Haken Continuum Fingerboard, the Buchla Lightning, the Nintendo Wii remote, and the variety of button arrays, such as the Monome. And the current DIY craze, as reflected by the popularity of Make: and Create Digital Music, has resulted in a greater emphasis on personalized performance tools.

For its 25th anniversary this June, EM asked me to explore the issue of synths and controllers in a roundtable discussion with several pioneers in the field of instrument design, all of whom live in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I wanted to meet with Roger Linn, Dave Smith, and Tom Oberheim and follow up on our 2008 AES panel discussion, “The Evolution of Electronic Instrument Interfaces: Past, Present, Future.” Fortunately, it’s not difficult to get them together, because they form the core of the Dead Presidents Society, which meets regularly for coffee near the U.C. Berkeley campus. (The group’s name refers to the original participants, who had each been in charge of their own company.) These days, they refer to themselves as the Breakfast Club, and it was my good fortune that three additional club members—Don Buchla, Max Mathews, and David Wessel—were able to participate in the discussion that morning. more…

Show Me the Money

Loquat (Anthony Gordon, second from right)

Loquat (Anthony Gordon, second from right)

One of my favorite quotes attributed to Frank Zappa is: “Art is making something out of nothing and selling it.? Of course, I don’t completely buy the premise that if you can’t make money from your creations, you’re not an artist. (The list of artists who couldn’t sell their work during their lifetime is a long one.)

However, Zappa’s quote does make me wonder about the ways in which we can earn money with our songs, beyond overtly commercial gigs where we’re asked to write “music to order.? The question comes up as I prepare to give a lecture at Mills College about publishing, with an emphasis on starting an independent record label. At a time when music sales are plummeting, many music professionals would call your sanity into question if you decided to start a label. It’s even crazier than opening a recording studio.

Yet, the collapse of the economic model that sustained the major labels hasn’t killed the thousands of independents that cater to niche markets. Often, this level of indie label is run by the recording artists themselves, and their long-term expectations as a business are much different than that of the entertainment empire owned by a multi-national conglomerate. more…

Longterm Investing

Tom Oberheim SEM

Tom Oberheim SEM

Although it’s easy to imagine analog synths as big, expensive contraptions, they don’t have to be. I just spent several weeks comparing table-top analog modules priced under $1,000—the Tom Oberheim SEM, the Doepfer Dark Energy, and the Dave Smith Instruments Mopho—for an EM feature. Without giving away the results of my work, let me just say that I had a blast.

At an average price of $641, these instruments are not impulse buys. But they’re not meant to be. They’re well built, boutique items designed to last a lifetime. For example, I have an original Oberheim SEM (35 years old, serial number 100) that I used for an A/B comparison in the article. I certainly don’t regret the $600 I paid for it (used), as it continues to serve me well. I wish I felt that confident when I buy software.

Because in 15 years, I will still be using my hardware synths and effects, but I can guarantee that every bit of software I’m using today—along with its sessions, patches, and stored settings—will be inaccessible, either through lack of developer support, because the host computer has died, or because subsequent upgrades no longer open the files I created with today’s version. more…

Gino’s Big Adventure: Building a Personal Studio, Part 2


Lake Robair in late January, before it was drained.

Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

Today, I’m reminded of the evil scientist’s quote in the Looney Tunes episode “Water, Water, Every Hare?:

“Delays, delays, nothing but delays!?

No one is surprised that this adventure will take longer than expected. For example, our holiday gift from the county was a 100-day wait for a set of building permits—all because of an internal door. In the meantime, my son has launched a flotilla of paper boats on Lake Robair as we wait for the rains to subside. His next big scheme is to promote our impromptu reservoir as a “semi-rural spa with mud baths,? hoping to charge $5 a customer. “Lemons into lemonade? is how he puts it.

Meanwhile his father is coming to grips with the issues of creating a work environment that keeps residential sounds out while keeping musical ones in. Anyone with a personal studio knows that leaf blowers, trucks, and airplanes provide a formidable opponent in terms of sound isolation. But this studio owner also likes natural light, so I’ve been thinking long and hard about the windows. The permitting process has bought me a bit more time. more…