Koss introduced these headphones over 40 years ago, and they remain affordable favorites to this day.

Vintage Synthesizer Reissues Invade NAMM 2015

Moog System 55

Perhaps it has something to do with Baby Boomer demographics, or maybe people are just looking for something different, but classic analog synthesizers are all the rage at this year's NAMM music industry show in Anaheim, California. 

Moog Music takes the crown with some absolutely breathtaking recreations of Bob Moog's groundbreaking modular synthesizer from the 1970s. They range from the suitcase-sized Moog System 15 (150 units at $10,000), the mid-range System 35 (35 units at $22,000) all the way up to the System 55, a massive $35,000 machine featuring 36 handcrafted analog modules in two walnut cases. There are no microprocessors in these monoliths. 

Only 55 copies of the System 55 will be built, based on original documentation and design files. Each module is hand soldered and mounted behind photo-etched aluminum panels, just the same way it would have been done when first unveiled in 1973. 

The new ARP Odyssey is available in three different versions.

If Moog's high-end recreations are a bit much for your pocket book, KORG has created a scaled-down $1000 (street price) version of the ARP Odyssey. This compact instrument went head-to-head with the Minimoog in the 1970s. The new 86% size dual oscillator machine includes modern niceties such as MIDI and USB, along with the classic dual oscillator analog voice that made the Odyssey a mainstay of many bands from 1972 until the company's demise in the early 1980s. There were three different filter designs used by ARP throughout the instrument's production run, and they're all included in this new version. Even the case is a slightly miniaturized version of the final revision (the previous two designs are available as special editions, too).

The brand new Sequential Circuits Prophet-6 analog polysynth.

ARP wasn't the only brand resurrected for the 2015 NAMM Show. After decades of ownership by Yamaha, Sequential Circuits -- one of the creators of the MIDI music interface protocol -- is back in the hands of veteran synthesizer designer Dave Smith. His response to the news is the $2799 Prophet-6, a modernized version of the first massively successful Sequential Circuits polyphonic synthesizer that has appeared on thousands of records and soundtracks since its introduction in 1978.

The show floor is packed with noticeably more synthesizer manufacturers than in years past. Many are tiny operations that make boutique modules for the immensely popular Eurorack modular synthesizer format, while others like newcomer Modal Electronics have created stunningly sophisticated digital/analog hybrid instruments that sell for thousands of dollars. 

Perhaps there's more to the resurgence of hardware synthesis than just nostalgia. While it's true that computers are now capable of running software-based instruments that rival even high-end hardware, there's something ephemeral about a virtual instrument. Without the physical controls and physical permanence of hardware, something is missing from the musical experience. 

Whether or not the hardware trend continues, it looks like the music industry is in for some very interesting times in years to come. 

Akai Timbre Wolf Might Be The Worst Analog Synth Ever

Bark at the moon.

The massive 2015 NAMM Show is underway in Anaheim, California this week and analog synthesis is all the rage. While Moog and Korg are busy reintroducing classics from the 1960s and 1970s, Akai decided to step outside the box by introducing an all-new $499 4-voice analog synthesizer keyboard. Sadly, it's absolutely awful.  

Let me rewind a bit. Last year, Akai introduced the $199 Rhythm Wolf analog drum machine. It received underwhelming press coverage, with weak drum sounds and an even weaker bass synthesizer voice that couldn't actually stay in tune across a couple of octaves. On the upside, it had a nice hands-on user interface and a quirky silkscreen logo of a wolf baying at the moon. 

And now -- for reasons I can't quite grasp -- Akai has "unleashed" the Timbre Wolf keyboard. It combines four Rhythm Wolf analog synth voices in a single box. At this point, words fail me. Here's an incredibly uncomfortable-looking Akai product rep demoing what makes it so "special" on the NAMM floor:

I would be surprised if this machine actually makes it into production. Remember kids, just because something is analog doesn't mean that it's desirable or non-cringeworthy. 

We'll be back shortly with coverage of the analog stuff at NAMM 2015 that caught our attention for all the right reasons.

Moore's Law and Affordable Computing

The Intel 4004. Two and a half thousand transistors of fun.

You've probably heard of Moore's Law. It's the notion that the number of transistors in dense integrated circuits will double every two years. When Intel co-founder Gordon Moore threw out the idea in 1965, he had no inkling that his observation would hold true for the next 50 years. In 1971, the Intel 4004 microprocessor contained about 2,300 transistors. In 1990, the Intel 80486 processor offered a staggering 1,000,000 transistors, and a modern 6-core Intel i7 processor crams several billion transistors onto a single die. 

A late model Commodore PET.

Analysts have highlighted the amazing rise in desktop computing power for decades, but many have missed the point -- it's not neccessarily about creating faster, more powerful machines. When I first started playing with computers in the early 1980s, they were cumbersome and expensive. My father gravely pointed out that we couldn't afford a $1000 home computer (the equivalent of $2,600 in 2014 dollars), but he was willing to rent me an old Commodore PET from the local microcomputer emporium for a month. In 1981, computer ownership was out of the question for all but the most die-hard fanatics. 

A surprisingly decent $150 computer.

Fast-forward 34 years and it's possible to purchase a name brand Windows 8 notebook computer for only $150. While it won't set any performance records, it's an ideal lightweight travel companion (which is why I recently bought one) or a decent starter machine for someone on a Mac & Cheese budget. In 1981 dollars, that computer would have cost a mere $58 -- about the same price as a couple of Atari 2600 video game cartridges. 

While bleeding-edge computing power still costs thousands, the industry has progressed to the point where a $150 notebook (or even a $59 smartphone) can fulfill the computing needs of many. And things are only going to get cheaper; the $100 laptop that was once the holy grail in third world educational circles will soon be something that anyone can pick up from a local big box retailer.

The recent availability of decent "good enough" computers is important for the millions of people here in the developed world who still don't own a computer or have access to the Internet. It's a good thing for parents who want their kids to have phones but don't want to spend hundreds of dollars on a gleaming new iPhone. It's a good thing for seniors who rely on the Internet to stay in touch with family and friends.

Information is power, and access to information has never been easier or cheaper.

Boutique Swiss Made Calculators

DM-16 calculator

I'm a huge fan of classic H-P calculators, especially the HP-16C -- their first and only programmer's calculator. It has become a much sought-after collector's item, which ensures that good examples sell for insane amounts on eBay. That's not so great for those of us who actually want a real, honest-to-goodness programmer's calculator on our desks. 

Every calculator should have a leather coat...

Enter DM Swiss Made Calculators. These clever little Swiss devices are miniature emulations of vintage Hewlett-Packard calculators, including the HP-11C (Advanced Scientific Programmable), HP-12C (Business Calculator), HP-15C (Scientific with Matrix & Complex Math) and HP-16C ("Computer Scientist" model). Each model costs 89 Swiss Francs (about $95) and is available in untreated, brown and blue titanium. They run on a single CR2032 battery which should last for years in normal use, and it's possible to update the firmware using a serial connection. 

Apart from that... they're calculators. They're really small. They fit in cool leather pouches, too. 

Visit DM Swiss Made Calculators for more info

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