Producing EDM with Vintage Equipment: The Roland D-50 A Waste of Time?

Roland D-50 Synthesizer Eddie.Fm

If you produce electronic dance music, does the incorporation of vintage gear actually make a difference?  This article explores the vintage Roland D-50 and whether its worth using to produce House Music nowadays.

The D-50 was first produced in 1987 by Roland of Japan.  For starters if you have any Roland equipment you can visit BossArea.com’s Serial Number Lookup.  Just type in your serial number to determine exactly when your Roland instruments were made.  My D-50 was probably one of the first productions, made in August of 1987.  The D-50 was manufactured until 1989.  It was was known for being a moderately priced yet widely popular synthesizer used in numerous hit records of the time.  I think this is still one of the most musical instruments I have ever used.  The weight of the keys, the velocity response, the pitch bend, and modulation on it feel just right.  This is especially a good synthesizer to control your software synths.  The D-550 is Roland’s rack mount version of the D-50.

For an instrument from the 80’s, the D-50 stills dominates 90% of the new synthesizers sold at  Guitar Center.  However, there are several drawbacks.  You need serious patience if you want to program original sounds, the memory cards do not hold a lot of patches, and it is not an analog synthesizer.  On the plus side, you can overcome any programming difficulties and the limited storage space by attaching the D-50 to your Mac or PC with midi cables.  Most importantly you should be able to purchase a D-50 in excellent condition for less than $400 USD on E-Bay or Craigslist.  From time to time you can find one for $150 USD.

PROGRAMMING THE D-50

Good luck using the LED display and parameters buttons to create unique sounds.  If you choose that route you are a masochist or a sincere enthusiast.  Hopefully you are the latter because this synthesizer is still impressive.  And if you were alive and making beats in the 80’s this will certainly bring you right back to the infancy of electronic music.  The LED screen is comparable to just about any digital synthesizer from the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s.

Roland obviously knew the user interface for the D-50 was complicated so they created the PG-1000, an external controller that makes programming the D-50 simple.  In 2014 the PG-1000 can be found for less than $300 USD.  The PG-1000 has faders that control every parameter so you can tweak out each variable without having to tap buttons and shift through the D-50’s menus.

Roland PG 1000 eddie fm Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 9.00.12 PM

Even better than purchasing a PG-1000, you can simply use a program such as Midiquest 11 if you use Mac OSX.  If you are a PC owner, I feel bad for you.  Not really though because you are in luck.  There are lots of shareware programs available for PCs that can emulate the PG-1000 for free.  You just need to hook your computer up via midi in/out and run any of this software and you are ready to create original patches with your D-50.

MEMORY AND PATCHES

The D-50 has a slot allowing you to insert an old school Roland Memory card.  In the 80’s and 90’s various producers made patches that you could purchase on a memory card.  These older cards can be purchased for approximately $30 USD in 2014.

Roland D-50 Memory Card

Purchasing memory cards is not an efficient way to find great patches.  Most cards can only hold 64 patches.  The best thing about this instrument is you do not need to purchase cards whatsoever.  You can download almost all of them on the Internet for free (discussed later in this article).  Nowadays the only purpose of having a memory card is if you are a collector or need to save your important patches if you are gigging out in a Phil Collins Cover Band with the D-50.

The internal memory holds 64 patches (8 patches in 8 separate banks).  Despite the difficult to use LED menus, calling up patches stored in memory only requires that you press two buttons: select bank button 1-8 then click patch button 1-8.

When the D-50 is turned off, the memory is saved by an internal battery.  If you purchase a D-50 and it will not operate, the first thing you should look into is replacing the battery.  Replacing the internal battery is not difficult and should only take you about 10 minutes.  Internal batteries for the D-50 are readily available at most electronic stores for under $3 USD.  Remember, the D-50 will be inoperable without a internal battery that has some juice left in it.

WHERE TO GET PATCHES FOR ROLAND D-50

If you just purchased a D-50 and its loaded with bad patches, I recommend that you download any and every patch ever made for the D-50 on the Internet.  Start searching for Torrents.  There is no need to pay $30 USD for a Roland Memory Card that holds a limited number of patches.  You should be able to find plenty of free patches on Roland’s website.  If you have a problem locating a good collection, just e-mail me and I will dropbox you hundreds of them.

LOADING PATCHES FROM YOUR MAC OR PC TO THE ROLAND D-50

Simply connect your D-50 to your Mac or PC via midi in/out.  Then use a shareware program such as SysEX Librarian to store all the patches you downloaded from the Internet.  Then you can transmit patches back and forth from the D-50 to your Mac or PC.

Transmitting patches back and forth can be tricky at first.  You need to turn the internal memory bank’s write protection off.  Then you need to hit the Data Transfer button to enter the Data Transfer menu.  Once you are within this menu on the LED screen, you need to press the Data Transfer button again while you are simultaneously pressing the B.Load button (the button directly under the B.Load option in the LED display).  Then start the transmission from your computer using SysEx Librarian.  For this method, make sure that your computer and D-50 are connected with two a MIDI cables (in and out should both be connected).  There are various methods to transmit data to and from the D-50 but I find this one to be the quickest and most reliable.  Other methods may require you to reduce the transmission speed on your SysEx Librarian. This method seems to work at the fastest possible transmission speed settings in SysEx while running Mac OSX Maverick on a MacBook Pro.

IS IT WORTH IT?

The Roland D-50 is still an amazing instrument.  In reality its not efficient to create new cutting edge sounds with the D-50.  Its effects processor and filters are stellar compared to most new budget synthesizers.  But keep in mind the D-50 is still a digital synthesizer and its sounds can easily be replicated with software based synthesizers.  Not to mention its too much of a hassle to program, find patches, and record the D-50 through a digital interface into ProTools, Ableton Live, Logic, or etc.  Unless of course, you like a challenge.

The D-50 made music exciting in the late 80s.  Its not innovative for 2014.  Theres no need to spend your money recreating sounds made by Enya, Gary Numan, and Nick Rhodes unless you are a hipster.  Ultimately the D-50 is not a bad investment if you want an excellent MIDI controller with superior key and velocity action to run your software synths.  Its an inspiring instrument to have on hand.  Who knows though, maybe you can create an amazing patch on the D-50 that revolutionizes music.  That’s unrealistic, but if you are going to do it, you will need the assistance of MidiQuest or the Roland PG-1000.

If you are new to the world of creating electronic music I would not recommend you spend too much time looking for your sound through vintage instruments.   In general they are overpriced, frustrating to use, need multiple repairs, and cannot compete with modern synthesizers.

Aspiring producers should stick with newer software synthesizers and master them.  Good luck on your quest to find the perfect sound.  But do not let me discourage you from attempting to incorporate the D-50 in your tracks.  Despite the difficulties of using a digital synthesizer from the 80s, there is still plenty of life left in the D-50.  Especially if you are making House Music, Electro, and Techno. and techno.  But if your goal is to create a popular EDM track with the D-50 in the year 2014, its more than likely that you are a Trance artist because the D-50 is best known for its synth pads.

Although there are decent bass patches for the D-50,  I still prefer my Roland TB-303, a Fender Bass Guitar, Ableton Live’s Operator, or Native Instrument’s Massive.  Regardless, the D-50 is still a serious instrument with infinite possibilities.

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TIPs for New Deejays – DJ Gigs You Should Avoid

If you are a new deejay and you spin electronic music, there are certain gigs that you must avoid:

THE CRAIGSLIST GIG
Nearly any work opportunity on craigslist, especially under the “Gigs” section will suck.  There’s two types of people that try to find deejays on Craigslist.  The first type is someone who is so socially inept that they have absolutely no connections whatsoever.  This means that they do  not know any DJs.  Today, like the mid 1990’s, everyone is a DJ.  Imagine how bad someone’s event is going to be if they do not know any djs in their personal network.  The other type of person that looks for DJs on craigslist is someone that has a social network and knows DJs.  He tries to reach out to his personal network but all the DJs he knows respond with a resounding, “Hell Fuck No!”  So what does that leave him with?  Craigslist.  So he posts some ads on craigslist and tries to scoop up someone willing to DJ for no pay or low pay.

THE FRIEND’S PARTY
If your friend is having a party and she knows you are a DJ, she might ask you to perform.  Since she is your friend, you will probably do it for free.  This almost always leads to a bad result.  Realize that you understand a lot more about electronic music than she probably does.  You are an expert at recognizing what’s hot and play the latest tracks and underground music.  You practice a lot in your bedroom and you are hungry for a gig.  She is hot and so are her friends.  She says she loves EDM, House, and Techno.  Tiesto is her favorite.  Unfortunately when you start performing, her definition of electronic music is not the same as yours.  Then everyone at the party starts getting drunk.  You better have a hard disk full of David Guetta’s remixes of Rihanna, Avicii, Macklemore, 2 Chainz, and plenty of hipster rock.  If you are not prepared for this, be prepared to destroy her party.  If you are performing in front of a crowd that does not recognize the good stuff, do not destroy their mood and kill the party by showing them the good stuff.  Keep it underground.  And if you cannot stomach playing mainstream music, do not get into this situation again.  The lesson learned here is that you have to be smarter than the person booking you.  You have to assess their needs.  Even if they tell you they heard your demo, love your style, and that’s what they want you to play, always assume they never actually listened to your demo and have no idea what you play and what real dj’ing is even about.  Obviously some of your friends get it.  Some of your friends understand the House Music scene, but that’s usually not the case with most of your friends.

THE UNPAID GIG
If you are new to DJ’ing this is one of the hardest things to avoid.  DJ’ing for free.  A dude approaches you and asks you to DJ at their event for free.  “It’s good exposure” he says.  “We can cross-promote” he says.  And look, let’s be honest, you have no name recognition whatsoever and could use the practice, right?  Sounds pretty good, you might even get free drinks.  You might even get your name on a flyer, that helps you, right? Wrong. Totally wrong.  First off, if you are a bedroom dj, you probably have at least $2,000.00 worth of equipment.  You probably will need to rent speakers, that will set you back at least $100 for a small event.  You will have to work 12 hours picking up the speakers, moving your equipment, striking your equipment, returning speakers, and then you still have to DJ for at least 4-8 hours.  You also have to pay gas money to handle all the logistics.  Also, you should have at least a friend there that can help you out here and there and watch your equipment so it isn’t stolen.

Once you start performing at your free gig, the person that booked you with no pay might not realize what kind of music you play whatsoever.  Now they are going to start making requests.  And you are going to start resenting them.  Here you are, working your ass off for free and person that booked you has just turned you into a jukebox.  You might ask yourself, “why did this dude book me if he knows I only play dubstep?”  The truth is, he only booked you because you are the only sucker that he could find that would dj for free.  So it never really mattered to him, at least he found a dj.  Now, here’s your dilemma.  You can either keep playing the dubstep tracks that you love and destroy the event, you can change it up and play mainstream, or you can walk.  Because after all, you are not getting paid.  No matter what you do at any gig, people will always hate on you.  There’s nothing worse than people hating on you and making unreasonable demands, then driving home exhausted, unpacking your equipment, and realizing you have nothing whatsoever to say for it.   It might take you a couple of free gigs until you follow my advice.  That’s ok.  It’s a rite of passage.

PAY 2 PLAY GIG
From time to time people have approached me saying they can align me with a famous dj for $5,000.  No thanks.  If you have to pay money to play somewhere, it’s worse than not getting paid. And it’s a scam.  Imagine how damaging it would be to your reputation if someone found out that you paid to open up for a famous DJ.

BRING 25 PEOPLE
This is the most common thing you run across when talking to a club or bar owner.  They always will ask you, “How many heads can you bring in?”  If you can bring in a certain amount of people, they will let you DJ there.  In return, they will give you $100.

Say no thanks.  Here’s why.  Hypothetically, pretend you can pull in 25 people.  Do the math.  25 heads multiplied by a modest cover of $10 gets the place $250.  Now, assume at least half of those people buy three drinks that average $5.  That’s almost another $200.  Suddenly you’ve brought in almost $500 of business for the bar.  How does that benefit you when you’re getting paid $100?  It takes a huge effort to get 25 people to come out and see you DJ.  Especially when you are getting started.  The amount of promoting, flyers, telephone calls, Facebook invites, etc., to get 25 people in the door is not easy.  That could take at least 40 hours of work.  Not to mention you have to prepare your set, show up, and DJ.  Then you have to network with those 25 people.  Is all of that worth $100?  Of course not.  In the end, all you just did was help brand and promote the bar’s name.

If a bar needs you to bring in 25 people for them, they’re not making money and simply trying to make money by hoping you bring your friends in to spend money.  This strategy works occasionally for the unsuccessful bar owner/manager but not for you.  They just cycle in tons of DJs and acts.  DJs and acts that usually have no business performing in front of anyone but their friends.

MOBILE DJ GIG
These are definitely the worst types of gigs possible.  The person hiring you expects you to bring all of the equipment and wants to pay you nothing.  If you are not in the mobile DJ business, do not waste your time.  You really need to be a professional mobile DJ to handle these gigs.  If you get asked to play at a wedding, sweet 16, high school prom, or similar type of gig, you should probably just say “no”.   You should question why they are not hiring a professional mobile DJ.  Why would they want to hire you, a brand new DJ that’s never DJ’ed at an event like that before?  The reason: they want to pay you $500.  The money sounds pretty decent for someone starting out.  But here’s the deal.  There’s a reason why a good mobile DJ gets paid $3,000-15,000 to do a wedding.  It’s hard work, there’s liability issues, and you need a lot of experience to know how to please a crowd like that.  You also need all of the right equipment.  You need the correct type of lighting, speakers, and plenty of knowledge about what works best in the venue.  You should also have insurance on all of your equipment and some type of liability insurance to protect yourself incase someone gets injured from your equipment.

Regardless, if you take the gig, be prepared to be hated on by nearly everyone.  This type of gig is a service oriented one.  You are the servant of the host.  It’s not the time and place to crack out your unique dubstep style.  If you need to take a mobile DJ gig to pay your rent or buy some new gear, here’s a few pointers:

  • Consult with the host well in advance;
  • Get a playlist from the host;
  • Find out whether explicit lyrics are acceptable;
  • If the host is a control freak, they normally will give you a couple hundred of their favorite songs.  99% of the time, their choice of songs will not work at their function.  You need to at least bullshit that you are confident at what you are doing on this gig.  You should advise them that they may absolutely love Jethro Tull’s Greatest Hits but playing 5 songs from that album will not please their guests.  Tell them that you know what works and your goal is to help them have a successful party where their guests leave happy.  Explain to them that you do not like hip hop music either, but it is nearly essential that you play some hip hop.  Mobile DJs know that hip hop is pretty much universal amongst any crowd.  Playing NOTORIOUS B.I.G. Hypnotize works on nearly any crowd.  Even amongst 50 year old white people.
  • Find a good Mobile DJ forum and read through playlists posted by Professional Mobile DJ’s.  These DJs have been in the business for decades.  They know what works and what does not.  This is not the type of gig to invent a new style.  Get a few good playlists, find out all the tracks like Hypnotize that consistently work.  Incorporate several genres from Country Music to LMFAO.  Make sure to keep up with Billboard’s Hot 100;
  • Do not play depressing songs;
  • Make sure you have a backup system;
  • Contact the venue ahead of time, find out the size of the space, where electricity is, what time you can load in and load out.  Nothing is worse than being locked in or locked out;
  • Understand electricity, make sure you have the adequate power supply to handle your PA and mixing equipment (this might sound ridiculous but it causes significant issues 50% of the time). Always have lots of gaff tape and duct tape on hand.  For example, if you are DJing at a hotel convention space, engineers will constantly monitor what you are doing.  They usually will not allow you to have cords that are not taped down;
  • Have a microphone and be prepared to make a lot of announcements;
  • Make sure that your fog machine will not set off the smoke detectors.  There are several different types of smoke detectors.  Some smoke detectors are tripped by fog, some aren’t.  Do your research and know which kind the venue has.  Nothing is worse than getting a party going, filling it with fog, then an hour later the fire department shows up.  30 days later you will be in court, defending a lawsuit from the wedding party that wants $20,000 from you for destroying the reception.  Then tack on punitive damages.
  • Have an assistant with you and make sure to pay them.  Do not be a douchebag that uses people for free.  Consider that when you have people helping you, you should also have insurance for them.  If they drop a speaker on their foot, it’s workers comp time.  Are you prepared for it Boss?
  • Understand that this type of DJing is a Service Industry type of job.  You are in the business of customer service.  This means that you, the caterers, the photographers, and anyone else the host paid to provide services for the event will be a scapegoat;
  • I could give you a hundred more tips but the point is, if you take one of the gigs for $500, you are screwing yourself over.  It’s not worth it.  Also, you are undercutting professional DJ’s and fucking them out of the market.  That’s never good.  How are you ever going to earn $6,000 off of these events when the next person the next kid that got Traktor for Christmas will do it for $500?

% OF THE BAR GIG
This is never a good situation unless you know the bar is rocking. If you are only getting a percentage of the bar sales, it better be a hot spot that consistently brings in big dollars on the night you have to DJ.  Some places might want to see $3,000 in alcohol sales before they give you a %. You should always negotiate a flat rate before that target is reached.  For example, $500 + a % of alcohol sales above $3,000.

BOTTOM LINE
The whole point is, never work for free and certainly never DJ for free.  Sure you can be starry eyed and have dreams to travel the world as a famous DJ.  That’s rad!  But you have to realize that people hiring you know that you have dreams and goals.  When they realize how passionate you are about DJ’ing, they can quickly manipulate you and pay you less.

Ultimately if you DJ for free you are effectively stating that your skills are worthless.  And you are undercutting the market.   In the long run this reduces the amount that experienced DJs get paid.  Why should you care if an experienced DJ loses a gig to someone that charges 1/8th the price? Because one day, when you have more experience and do not want other DJs to get the gig because they charge a fraction of a fair price.

 

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Korg Volca Beats – Analog Drum Machine Review

Picture of Korg Volca Beats

OVERVIEW
I was excited to pick up the Korg Volca Beats and test it.  In this review I analyze the 6 analog drum parts and 4 digital (PCM) drum parts.  If you are inexperienced with drum machines, halfway through this article, I created easy instructions for programming a simple House Music beat on the Volca.  The Volca Beats’ Kick, Closed Hat, and Open Hat are my favorite sounds on the Volca.  The PCM parts are marketed as “lo-fi” and unremarkable.  The sequencer is good but lacks important features.  Programming it is easy if you are familiar with a Roland 808, 909, or Korg’s Electribe.  Beginners will likely need to watch a tutorial on programming this drum machine.  Ultimately this drum machine does not live up to standards that most professionals require.  With the Volca Beats priced around $150, you get what you pay for.   And here, you do not get much — making this a terrific drum machine for beginners.

KICK PART (ANALOG)
Part of the reason I wanted to use this machine is to get a nice analog kick on a track that I have been frustrated with.  When I create new tracks I prefer to keep it organic.  I stray from using sampled drums or prefabricated loops.  If you are new to making electronic music keep in mind that you could avoid purchasing this gear by getting a sample pack loaded with percussion instruments and loops.  You will probably get a better result that way too.  Regardless, I love making beats from scratch.  Achieving a good track from scratch is no simple feat.  It takes a lifetime of audio engineering experience.  

Right now I am plugged into the Volca Beats with a pair of headphones.  For testing I am using Beyerdynamic 770 DT Pros (80 Ohms).  Occasionally I used the Volca Beat’s internal speaker but its worse than plastic speakers from the 99 Cent Store.  The internal speaker does not cover low end frequencies.   If you listen to the kick drum through the internal speaker, you will not hear it much unless you turn up the Snappy Knob to increase the attack of the kick.

Vocla Beats keeps it simple.  There are only four major variables to change the kick.  The variables include Click, Pitch, Decay, and Part Level.  These are easily controlled by potentiometers.  The pots are small and made with cheap plastic.  The pots are close to each other so that could be a problem if you have large fingers and intend to use this during a live performance or DJ set.  Programming patterns may also be problematic for the same reason.  The Click pot adds a stronger attack to the kick when its dialed to the right.  Turning the Click pot to the left removes the attack creating a rounder and muffled kick sound.  The Pitch pot manipulates the pitch of the drum head.   Adding some Delay makes the kick sound rich and deep by increasing the length of the drum head sound.

SNARE (ANALOG)
The Snare Part has four major variable controls including Snappy, Pitch, Decay, and Part Level.  I am not a huge fan of the Snare sound.  With the Snappy, Pitch, and Decay pots turned completely to the left you get a clean analog percussion sound.  The Snappy knob adjusts the volume of the sound that Korg describes as “the snare wires.”   Turning the pots completely to the right leaves you with a messy, unusable, over modulated sound.

LOW TOM (ANALOG)
The Low Tom sounds pretty decent on this.  I like it.  However the Low Tom only has three major variable controls including Lo Pitch, Decay, and Part Level.  With the Decay pot turned completely to the left, the Low Tom sounds similar to a kick drum with a low volume.  As you increase the Decay the Low Tom starts to get some decent action.

HI TOM (ANALOG)
The HI Tom has the same variable controls as the Low Tom.  Again you can adjust the Hi Pitch, Decay, and Part Level.  The Hi Tom is not noteworthy.  Its sound is passable.

CLOSED HAT & OPEN HAT PARTS (ANALOG)
The Closed Hat  sounds great.  Unfortunately it only has three variable controls.  You can adjust the Decay, Grain, and Part Level.  I also liked the Open Hat.  You could get a pretty decent groove out of the way these two parts cut through your sequence.  The Grain control is mediocre but it does add a different approach to the sound.  Adding to the unique possibilities one might achieve when creating beats on the Volca.

PCM PARTS: CLAP, CLAVES, AGOGO, CRASH (DIGITAL)
Pulse-Code Modulation or PCM is a common technology that has been widely used in drum machines and samplers since the 1980s.   The Korg Volca has four parts that are digital samples.  The digital samples include a clap, clave, agogo, and a crash.  Probably to appeal to consumers, the manual describes these as lo-fi parts.  They are definitely lo-fi.  Although the Korg Volca does not have an ability to record  samples, it comes with for sampled parts including a Clap, Claves, Agogo, and Crash.  If you are new to producing music, keep in mind that these are not analog parts.  They are digital.  The Korg Volca Beats only has 6 analog parts.  These parts are nothing special.  Its disappointing that Korg could not squeeze in some extra analog parts in here.   Even less desirable is that there are only two major variable controls for each of these parts!  You can adjust the PCM Speed and Part Level.  However, one redeeming factor for the PCM parts is your ability to adjust the PCM Speed pot thereby changing the speed that each sample plays back.  The Clap, Agogo, and Crash make some unique sounds when their PCM Speed is minimized.  This could result in some pretty unique textures in your drum programming.   However, if you already have Ableton Live or any basic digital sampler on your Mac or PC, you can do the same.

PROGRAMMING THE SEQUENCER
Now that I am familiar with each of the possible parts.  Let’s take a look at the sequencer and how it holds up.  Without looking at the instructions you can tell that the sequencer programs in  units of 1/16th notes just by looking at the keypad.  The keypad is pretty sweet.  There are 16 step pads.  One of the best features of this drum machine is that you can record the motion of the adjusts you make on the knobs.  For example if you tweak the volume up and down on the Closed High Hat a little bit throughout your sequence, the Volca will save the motion.  Most professionals will argue that drums sound a lot better and groove more when the volume is slightly different for each hit of the drum.  Changing the volume a bit on each hit purportedly gets your drums to sounding more human.

INSTRUCTIONS FOR PROGRAMMING THE KORG VOLCA BEATS
For this review created a simple 4 on the floor House Music beat without using my headphones:

  1. Clear whatever pattern is already programmed by holding the “FUNC” button and the “ALL” button down on the Keypad at the same time.  If you are afraid of deleting a pattern, you can restore the factory presets
  2. Press the “Play” button and you should see the amber colored LED moving across the bottom of the touchpad
  3. Use the “< Part ” button to select the kick, the amber colored LED will remain solid on the instrument part that is selected.  Scroll to the left with the “<Part” button until the light under the kick remains solid.  If you are in play mode, you will still see the amber light scrolling across the 16 parts.  That light you see that scrolls across the bottom of the keypad shows you where which step the sequencer is on.
  4. Press the “Step Mode” button until it is illuminated
  5. Press buttons 1, 5, 9, and 13 making sure that each of those steps on the kick has a solid amber color lit up (note that half of the keypads are not labeled with a number)
  6. On the kick I have set the Click knob all the way to the right so that you can hear its attack.  Otherwise you cannot really heard the kick well on the external speaker.  Adjust the kick’s part level, pitch, click, and decay to your preference
  7. Now, click the ” Part > ” button and the amber color under the snare should remain solid
  8. Tap the keypad on numbers 9 and 13
  9. Adjust the snare’s Snappy, Pitch, Decay, and Part Level knob to your preference
  10. Click the “Part >” button until you see the amber light under CL Hat Keypad button turn solid
  11. Press Keypad buttons 3, 7, 11, and 15 so that they are lighted with a solid amber color
  12. Adjust the CL Hat’s parameters including Closed Decay, Grain, and Part Level to your preference.  Note that lowering the CL Hat’s Part Level to a lower more subtle volume can get your drum tracks grooving pretty quickly.  Playing around with the Grain knob got a good sound out of the Closed Hi Hat
  13. Now press “Part >” until the Clap button has a solid amber LED illuminated under it
  14. Press 5 and 13 on the Keypad so those lights are solid
  15. Remember the Clap is a lo-fi digital sample, not analog.  You can adjust the clap’s playback speed by adjusting the PCM Speed knob.  You can also adjust it’s volume by turning the Part Level knob.  At this point you have a basic four on the floor beat programmed in the sequencer
  16. Adjust the Time Knob and you will hear that your beats start sounding like a drum roll or stutter is occurring.  This knob is best controlled by recording its movement over time.  For now I’m gonna keep it all the way to the left or at zero.  Note that the Depth Knob sets the decay volume for each hit

MIDI
The surface of the unit has a standard MIDI IN jack.  This allows you to control the sound generator of the Volca.  I would rather the unit have an XLR or 1/4 inch output than a MIDI IN.  It seems strange that someone would go to the extent of plugging in an external midi controller to operate these sounds that are outputted through the mini-stereo plug.  

SYNC IN/OUT
You can connect the unit to other Korg equipment such as the Korg Monotribe.   When a step is triggered, the Sync out sends a 5v pulse out for 15ms.

MEMORY
There are 8 memory banks on the Volca Beats.

OUTPUT JACKS
The output jacks on the Korg Volca Beats are a big failure.  There 3.5mm mini-stereo plug for your headphones.  That’s it!  Unless you want to use the internal speaker to play your percussion sounds and rig them up to a live microphone pointed at the internal speaker.  Obviously that would not work very well if you are playing the instrument live.  The lack of professional audio output on the machine indicates that this is an amateur’s instrument.  The device generates some terrific analog parts but you cannot send the signal through an XLR or at least a 1/4 inch cable.  So what’s the point?  An amateur producer probably won’t notice much of a difference between a mini stereo output and using an XLR when recording.  Do not feel bad if you fall into this category though.  Most engineers will not notice much of a loss in quality either.  However, its somewhat like having a Ferrari and not being able to tear it up legally on a Freeway in California.  The Volca Beats leave me thinking, what’s the point?  If I one is going to shell out money to use an analog instrument and the audio quality is bottlenecked by a less than desirable mini stereo output plug when you attempt to record the analog sounds into ProTools, Logic, or Ableton, you lose a lot.

POWER
Volca Beats runs on  6 AA Alkaline Batteries or a 9V DC adapter.  New in the box, It comes with batteries.  However, the Volca Beats does not come with a power adapter.  The unit powers off after four hours of inactivity.  This auto power off function can be disabled.  Having batteries makes the instrument easier to take around with you.   Just remember if you actually plan on using this in a live gig that you should put new batteries in before you perform.  Having to explain that sounds like a no-brainer.  But I’ve seen plenty of tech audio engineers that forget to put new batteries in a wide range of performance equipment such as lavaliere mics only to see the microphone go out during the performance.  If you quickly become tired of using your Volca, do not forget to take the batteries out.  If you leave this instrument in your junk box for a couple of years and come back to it, a leaky battery will more than likely destroy it.

INSTRUCTIONS
The manual for the Korg Volca Beats, like most technical manuals for electronic instruments, is limited.  This machine is designed for someone that is learning how to create electronic music.  One would think that the manual should explain things in greater detail.  I have programmed a lot of drum machines before so I did not have too much of a problem getting this machine to work well right out of the box.  However, If you are new to using a drum machine, you should probably check out some YouTube videos on how to program the sequencer of the Volca.  Since the sequencer has similar features to many other drum machines, anything knowledge you acquire programming the sequencer on the Volca will carrier over to more robust drum machines.

OVERALL REVIEW OF THE KORG VOLCA BEATS
The Korg Volca Beats does not live up to a professional’s needs.  Its a good instrument for beginners looking to create their own beats or to use alongside their dj sets.  I personally would not incorporate the Korg Volca in my DJ sets.  Its too difficult to control if you have larger hands.

There are only 6 analog drum sounds with it.  Only a couple of the sounds are good.  The lack of professional audio outputs is a big failure.  If you go to great lengths to use an analog instrument but it only has a mini-stereo output, you might want to ask yourself why you need an analog instrument in the first place.  Despite its lack of quality and simplistic features, I am  going somehow try to use it on a track that I am finishing up.  In the meantime I do not recommend this instrument for serious producers.  The Korg Volca targets the second major wave of the enthusiasts’ interest in DJ’ing and making beats.

Korg Volca Beats User Manual

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The Lost Art of Beatmatching and Why it Counts

If you are new to mixing, you may have heard other deejays talk about “beatmatching” or “beat mixing.”  So what exactly is it?  Beat matching grew out of the 1960’s.  The purpose: to keep the dance floor moving while the deejay is changing songs.  The basic principle is simple.  For instance, on one turntable you have record that is playing at a tempo of 125 beats per minute (“Record A”) and everyone is moving to the beat on the floor.  Instead of breaking it up, you want to keep it going.  On your other turntable you load up your next record.  However, the next song you want to play is 123 beats per minute (“Record B”).  If you begin to blend both records together, you will notice that most of the elements of both songs are not playing at the same tempo.  Typically the kick drums and snares will begin to sound like a train wreck.  To avoid this disaster, you need to beatmatch–synchronizing records to the same tempo.

Illustration of two records playing at the same time at different tempos or BPMs.  Causing the infamous "train wreck" sound.  Record A is playing at 125 BPM while Record B is playing at 123 BPM.  The arrows point at the 4th beat of the second bar for each record.  If the tracks were beatmatched, these would line up.  In order for these to match, the Variable Pitch Control on Turntable B should be increased.

Illustration of two records playing at the same time at different tempos or BPMs. Causing the infamous “train wreck” sound. Record A is playing at 125 BPM while Record B is playing at 123 BPM. The arrows point at the 4th beat of the second bar for each record. If the tracks were beatmatched, these would line up. In order for these to match, the Variable Pitch Control on Turntable B should be increased.

Learning to beatmatch will improve your sets in several ways.  Not only will you gain more respect as a deejay but your mixes will feature greater dynamics during your transitions and you can fluctuate the tempo of your set throughout the night.  For example, I mix house music and if the club is not packed and no one is dancing, I start out at a slower tempo, usually no lower than 118 BPM.  Then I gradually work my sets up to 128 BPM.  Once the floor is packed and people are dancing, eventually they will get exhausted.  Sometimes I will peak them out at about 135 BPM.  After this, I might reset the floor and bring the mix immediately back down to 118 BPM.  This gives the dancers a chance to take a break, rotates the floor, and helps the bar sell more alcohol.  Obviously if you are headlining at an event you would not use this same formula.  My goal when headlining is to dominate the floor, keeping the tempo usually high, while creating smaller variations in the peaks and valleys of my set.  Even if you mix other genres of music that plays at a slower BPM such as hip hop, you should absolutely apply these principles.

In the early 1970’s, Technics released the SL-1200 turntable which soon became the industry standard for deejays across the world.  One of the SL-1200’s popular features is the accuracy of its Variable Pitch Control and direct drive motor.  A direct drive turntable uses a motor that directly rotates the platter.  Cheaper turntables use a motor, connected to a belt, that is attached to the spindle.  Belts are commonly used in older electronic devices, your car, and vacuum cleaners.  Obviously they expand, contract, become brittle, wear out, then snap.  Therefore, a direct drive mechanism alleviates that.  A turntable with a band inside can also complicate your ability to nudge the platter faster or slower.  And if you like to use turntables to scratch, band driven turntables are not favorable.   The accuracy of the 1200’s Variable Pitch Control allows you to adjust increase the record’s speed by +8% and decrease it by -8%.  The Variable Pitch Control is the most important feature required to beatmatch.  Yet I notice most newer deejays never touch the pitch control on their equipment.  Pioneer ‘s CDJs and most of the higher end consumer deejay controllers such as the Traktor Kontrol S4 include variable pitch controls.  Newer deejays skip learning this critical feature and mask their inability to actually mix by using Traktor’s or the CDJ Nexus system’s auto sync buttons.  This results in a boring mix where some deejays play for 2 hours straight leaving their tempo fixed at 128 BPMs.

The technique I use to beatmatch two vinyl records is simple to explain but do not be fooled, it takes a lot of practice and dedication to perfect the skill.  If you actually want to master this, it could take you several years.  I will cue up Record B to the first beat of the verse that I want it to start playing on.  Then, I release Record B, while listening to it Record B and Record A in my headphones only.  While Record B is playing, I make adjustments to the Variable Pitch Control–speeding up and slowing down Record B quickly until it falls into sync with Record A.  Then I let Record B play a bit to make sure that it’s tempo is playing precisely at 125 BPM.   One way to hear whether both records are playing at the same tempo is to pay particular attention to the snares.  Once I am certain of this, I will rewind or cue up Record B to the first kick drum of the verse I want to bring in on top of Record A.  Then I will wait for the right moment while Record A is playing, to release my hand from Record B (usually the beginning of a new verse, break, or outro).  At the moment I release Record B to play, I use my other hand to bring up the volume on the mixer (or crossfader) so that the dance floor can hear Record B and Record A playing simultaneously.  Then I listen carefully to make sure Record B is still playing at the same tempo as Record A.  If I hear that Record B is slightly out of sync, I like to nudge the turntable platter with my left pointer finger and use my right hand to make small adjustments to the Variable Pitch Control.  There are various methods used to make tempo corrections nearly unnoticeable while the record is live and remains in sync with Record A.  Some deejays will never touch the turntable platter and only make adjustments using the pitch control.  While other deejays will squeeze the turntable’s silver spindle shaft to slow the record down slightly.  Growing up and learning to mix in Chicago, the leading deejays would mix records as quickly as possible, a style known as hotmixing.  In order to quickly change records, I find it more time consuming to rely solely on the Variable Pitch Control.  This slows down your ability to mix more records.  Working the platter and spindle with a lot of hands on action is also common in mixing hip-hop.  In other genres of music, such as Trance, deejays relied less on changing records so quickly.  Trance deejays in the 90’s would typically let records play for more than 5 minutes.  Mixing Trance affords the deejay plenty of time  to adjust the Variable Pitch Control up and down until the records are synchronized without the need of nudging the platter.  Several Trance deejays I have encountered never even beatmatch.  They simply blend two records together during extended verses that have no kicks or snares in them.

I use my pointer finger to carefully nudge the turntable platter (indicated by the left arrow). This allows me to quickly sync one record with another.  Meanwhile I use my right hand to adjust the Variable Pitch Control (indicated by the right arrow).  In this instance, notice the pitch control is increased by approximately 2% faster than the standard 33RPM.

I use my pointer finger to carefully nudge the turntable platter (indicated by the left arrow). This allows me to quickly sync one record with another. Meanwhile I use my right hand to adjust the Variable Pitch Control (indicated by the right arrow). In this instance, notice the pitch control is increased by approximately 2% faster than the standard 33RPM.

Once you have two records playing together in nearly perfect sync, the final step is to sneak Record A out completely while Record B is playing.  Generally I will do this on the first beat of a new verse, The first verse or hook of Record B is a good point to cut out Record A.  Quickly kill the volume on Record A.  It makes the transition seamless because the audience’s attention is shifted towards the new song at that point.   After that, remove Record A from the platter, load up a new record, and repeat the process.    Keep in mind that this is a basic explanation.  If you want to make your transitions perfect, there are several other techniques and skills to apply while beatmatching. For example, using the correct amount of volume and working the EQ correctly (commonly overlooked by most deejays).  If you are starting out and believe that EQ and volume control is simple to work, let me be your red flag.  I would go into more detail but those subjects are involved enough to merit their own article.

Now that you understand what beatmatching is, why is it relevant anymore when a computer, Traktor, Serato, Ableton, Pioneer CDJ 2000’s, and/or any consumer grade deejay controller can automatically do it for you?  Using the traditional approach of beatmatching two records for several verses can and will color your mix with greater dynamics and progressions.  I notice that other deejays that rely solely on looping or other beat sync features lose a lot of details that make mixing incredible.  Also, deejays that loop their tracks typically are not familiar with basic song structure.  Keep in mind that most Western music for the past century is constructed in a particular format.  Generally most songs will have a significant change in percussion, vocals, and/or melody every 8 or 16 bars.  Most newer deejays simply use the computer to place Record B in a 4 or 8 bar loop.  Then they crossfade it into Record A.  Once they decide they are done with Record A, they sneak Record A out while releasing Record B from its loop, and allow the song to play out.  The mix might sound flawless but the subtleties of a song’s progression within a verse are completely lost.  And the beginner deejay’s transitions are typically not executed on the standard 8, 16, or 32 bars increments that music is structured around.

For an example of beatmatching in structured increments, take a listen to my recent mix Underground City – Los Angeles, Volume 1.   If you listen carefully and count the beats out, you will  recognize that I normally will make transitions in 8 or 16 bar increments.  By counting the beats, listen to the changes that occur every 32 beats.  The only time I will usually break from this structure is if I really love a new track but the producer did not apply a standard structure.  Usually the producer does this because he/she lacks experience.  It forces me to loop their patterns unnaturally and creates additional work.  I normally will not spin music that is not structured correctly because it is usually a sign that the artist lacks basic production skills.  If the structure is not correct, how can you trust that there is any quality behind the mastering.  Moreover, does an inexperienced producer check the kick and bassline for phasing issues?  Issues like that have killed some of my mixes in the 90’s, so I listen carefully to the track before spinning it, if the producer reveals any major mistakes, I normally will never spin it.

If you are not interested in beatmatching without auto-sync, you should at least be aware of how long you are allowing a loop to run on before you change it.  Audiences are subconsciously expecting a song to change within 8 or 16 bars increments.  This natural progression/regression is embedded in our music culture.  If you are looping your mix, consider that playing a song section for an abnormal amount of time (e.g. 5, 7, 9, or 11 bars) may have an unintended or undesirable effect on your audience.  For the past twenty years that I have discussed this with newer deejays, they commonly respond, “I’m more about what ‘feels’ right at the moment.”  Unless you are like Robness, one of my deejay partners, who also happens to be one of the best guitarists in Los Angeles, you are probably not in the position to say you just “feel it”.   This is where humility comes into play.  99% of people that are excellent musicians got that way through hard work and discipline.  If you want to be good, you must learn the basics of mixing and master those techniques.  Then break the rules, intentionally.

When you are performing, you can get away with breaking the song structure because most people are drunk, rolling, trying to get laid, or fending off creepy dudes.  Most of the audience’s attention is not deeply focused on your technical abilities.  However, there’s always going to be those certain few people–on any given night–that produce music, play instruments, or deejay better than you.  And they often times will pay close attention to your abilities.  These people are typically social influencers and their opinion about your abilities matters.  It’s important to use the turntables as an instrument and learn how to play them.  It will help you in the long run by keeping your mixes balanced and help you earn respect from more experienced deejays.  Beat sync features should not be discounted though.

They are useful because they save you time. You can shift your attention towards live remixing, applying effects, filters, and playing four or more songs simultaneously without getting lost.  Keep in mind if you do not know how to beatmatch and a venue you are playing at does not have auto sync features on the decks, your set is going to bomb.  In that situation, you should probably have a pre-recorded mix on a CD.  Secretly hand the CD to the mix engineer at the club.  They will usually have an extra CDJ under their console and can play it for you while you fake it on the decks.  This practice is all too common amongst mainstream celebrity deejays that achieved their fame solely because of a major record label’s talented marketing department.  The managers of these deejays realize that their client cannot mix and would never let them actually perform a live set.  They would destroy the show.  We have seen these deejays quickly rise to fame and fall twice as fast.  An excellent deejay has mastery over all the techniques, is able to read the audience, and shape the vibe instantly.  Something a pre-recorded mix cannot do.  Once you master beatmatching and you sync two records you might even feel euphoric.  That’s because you are creating harmony between several sounds and have mastered one technique on your instrument.  This rush of excitement will also enhance your stage presence and permeate onto the floor.  Do not be afraid if you make some errors while you are performing.  I have seen all of the very best deejays fall out of sync from time to time.  And when I hear it happen, I become more excited because I know for certain I am listening to a real artist.  If a deejay’s set is flawless that’s an indication that either he/she is cheating the techniques, using a pre-recorded mix, or that you do not have enough experience yet to detect where the deejay is making errors.  Let knowledge, practice, and experience help you improve.  And do not be discouraged when you fail.

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