Nils Frahm Live Rig Tour

In which Tony meets Nils Frahm and his Junos and RE-501s, and Nils meets a Soundgas Binson, and The Magic Typewriter…

UPDATE: since this was published we also met Nils in Manchester. Scroll to the bottom for a couple of new videos from that trip. Next stop: Funkhaus Berlin….

Barely a day goes by when I don’t consider how lucky we are to live and work in the hills of Derbyshire; beautiful countryside, peaceful villages, miles away from the noise and pollution of urban life. But being a hundred-plus miles from London does have its disadvantages: we miss most of the one-off gigs and special events that tend to only happen in the metropolis. Not so this month: a week ago last Friday I got to hang out with Mike D, Adrock and Mixmaster Mike at the brilliant and funny Beastie Boys Book event, courtesy of our good friend and customer, Phillipe Zdar of Cassius/La Funk Mob (who produced their album ‘Hot Sauce Committee Part Two’ and had just been recording Hot Chip at his Motorbass Studio in Paris). And last Wednesday we were back in London at the Eventim Apollo to meet Nils Frahm before his second London show. So much for the quiet life…

Having kids, spending less time in the city (and on the dancefloor) has led to a growing appreciation of less frenetic music than a decade or two ago, and a label we love here at Soundgas is Robert Raths’ Erased Tapes. We all love the label’s RE-501 and Juno 60-meister himself, Nils Frahm, and his music is on regular rotation on our office and home listening. So his purchase of a finely-restored Roland SH-5 from Soundgas was met with great excitement, even more so when he got in touch to say he wanted to talk Binsons and suggested we meet before his show at the Apollo last week ‘for a chat and personal gear tour.’

As Soundgas has grown from one-man-in-a-studio to a team of twelve across two buildings, I’ve ended up spending more time in the office at a computer, rather than getting out making personal deliveries and meeting our customers, so I jumped at the chance offered by Nils’ warm invitation. Jo and I duly set out with a boot full of gear early last Wednesday, bound for the Hammersmith Apollo (as it used to be known).

On arrival we were warmly welcomed by Nils and his team and soon found ourselves treading the hallowed stage for a close look at Nils’ incredible live set up. Nils bought his first Roland Juno 60 aged 14 (for 100DM – about £50) and they are much-loved for their distinctive arpeggiator and sound (though ‘not the Chorus II setting’!) and I knew there’d be one on the stage, but wasn’t prepared to see three – ‘the best-sounding out of the nine I’ve owned’. One of them has a distinctive custom finish in white; this courtesy of the Royal Albert Hall where a mishap resulted in one of his 60s requiring replacement with this one.

I was of course aware of Nils’ preference for the Roland RE-501, but was amazed to count no less than five of the venerable Chorus Echoes (he owns eleven!) carefully-positioned around the stage. He explained that he relies heavily on his tech, Sebastian, and on Shane Fritsch’s Echo Fix tapes and parts to ensure his 501s run smoothly.

Nils Frahm live set up

The piano tuner, Carsten, was nearly done tuning the Yamaha grand piano (fitted with a Helpinstill piano pickup as well as being mic’d up) and Nils asked if we’d like a demo? I couldn’t say yes quickly enough. Within moments, I was being given a run-through of how everything links together and we were getting a personal performance. Definitely one of the best ‘I love my job’ moments I’ve had.

Below the white Juno 60 was a mystery keyboard that Nils explained was a midi controller used to trigger the samples of a wind organ that his team had built for live use but was unsuited to life on the road – ‘and the samples sound pretty much as good’. This has been carefully programmed with a recreation of his beloved Juno arpeggiator, and the Junos have also been modified so he can quickly switch between internal and external control of the arpeggiator to great effect. Below these is his ‘Mellowtron’ M400 which has various modifications to the motor, not only to improve tuning stability whatever the temperature, but also to select between one octave up or one/two down (which sounds stunning), as well as having an onboard LFO for modulation.

Nils’ live sound is, as with his recordings, all about attention to detail – I suggested ‘perfection’, but he answered ‘perfection from imperfect things?!’ I am so often sonically disappointed seeing live shows – so many artists go to great lengths to create stunning-sounding records, only to opt for the convenience of software or digital emulations rather than the real thing and the results are almost invariably a sonic ‘meh’. With Nils, every single detail is a joy to hear and the whole is very much greater than the sum of its parts. I’d expected it to sound good, but was completely blown away by just how powerful the massed ranks of acoustic and analogue gear sounded in full and glorious flight. To witness, at close quarters, Nils dancing and diving about his equipment – clearly a master of his instruments – was mesmerising: his hands and fingers a blur of movement as he twisted and tweaked settings and played accompanying riffs on the Fender Rhodes.

I was struck by how superb the reverb sounded and asked what he was using; he pointed to a rack underneath the Rhodes – an EMT 245 with a Dynacord VRS-23 above it! No wonder it sounds so staggeringly good! In my position as champion for the Good Old Stuff, my bias is undeniable, but ears don’t lie and this was a reverb sound to die for. I understand more than most why many artists don’t risk using esoteric vintage equipment live, but when they do the results can be outstanding. We saw Arctic Monkeys recently – their set up was almost exclusively vintage gear that most would only countenance for studio use (including Alex’s trio of amps supplied by us, and three RE-201s that we ended up servicing before they headed out to the US). And they sounded great.

Nils Frahm, Tony Miln, Binson Echorec

It soon became apparent that Nils and I we were kindred spirits with a shared love of and appreciation for the sounds and feel of real instruments and effects that predate the modern era of gear built to a price point by machines. The combined sound of a stage full of individual pieces with soul and personality is unforgettable, and all too rare today. I’d been curious as to the source of Nils’ drum sounds and spied the bank of twin Vermona DRM1s alongside his mixing desk. The warm 808-esque kick, triggered by foot switch, came from a diminutive (in stature rather than sound) MFB analogue drum machine. Next to the foot switch are his Moog Taurus pedals. Above this, and between the two Juno 60s, is a Roland SH-2 synced to the other synths, receiving plenty of tweaking attention to great effect.

Nils Frahm - Binson Echorec

All too soon, the whirlwind display was over, and we set to showing Nils a couple of Soundgas Binsons which he demoed using one of the onstage Juno 60s. Unfortunately, the only super-slow varispeed Echorec 2 that we had available hadn’t yet reached a satisfactory conclusion: it had undergone a good deal of work, but it transpired that nothing short of a total rebuild was going to yield the performance we expected. So Nils had another varispeed Echorec 2 to try out and immediately commented that it sounded way better than his own. A quick listen to our studio Super Slow Baby Binson was enough to demo the principle and we resolved to find the right Echorec 2 in future.

 

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Great to meet @nils_frahm and his crew at the @eventimapollo this afternoon; fascinating to see his set up. Here he gets acquainted with a Soundgas Binson Echorec 2… #nilsfrahm

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Then it was time for the ‘Magic Typewriter’, our Dynacord Echocord Studio, modified by Dr Huw with Super Slow Varispeed. I explained to Nils and Sebastian that we are still working on further mods, on a second machine, that incorporates being able to lift the erase and record heads from the disc, thereby allowing both Sound On Sound effects as well as looping. We also hope to be able to reverse the motor for backwards looping effects. This was something of a revelation – nobody had seen an Echocord Studio before and it’s fair to say that this machine was of great interest.

 

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Nils meets The Magic Typewriter… 

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Nils Frahm live set up

All too soon it was time for the soundcheck and for us to leave the crew to continue preparations for the gig. That night we witnessed a staggering live performance, full of drama (thanks to the Vermonas which wiped their Midi CC memory and had to be restored in the middle of an impromptu piano piece), wit and energy, and we reconvened for a lively after show celebration until it was time for everyone to get back on the tour bus. An unforgettable night, with many new friends made and plans to meet again in February when the tour hits Manchester: perhaps with the SH-5 installed as part of the live show…

Our thanks to Nils, the crew and also to Robert Raths and all at Erased Tapes for their warmth and hospitality.

Nils Frahm live

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Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.

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UPDATE! UPDATE! UPDATE!

On the 17th of February this year we met up with Nils again, this time before the show at Manchester’s Albert Hall. We took more Binsons and other gear for him to try, he totally fell for our ’73 Minimoog, and we got some pretty special footage of part of the soundcheck. We’ll add some more photos and video when we do a part 2 to this blog, but that needs to wait until we’ve been and seen his studio in Funkhaus Berlin (soon…). For now here are a couple of the videos from the Manchester trip:

 

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Big piano. Tiny piano. Junos, 501s, a Mellotron & an EMT 244… Last one from Sunday’s Manchester mission. At some point we’ll do a blog about some of what we found as we got to poke around in this monster set up, as well as what we discussed with Nils and his engineer including his studio, Moog vs Roland, and modifying Roland Junos and tape echoes. Huge thanks go out to him and his tight-knit tour family for making us feel so welcome. . #nilsfrahm #vfgear #synthstagram #vintagesynth #juno60 #soundgas #supersonicgear

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’73 Minimoog. Game over. . . #moog #minimoog #vintagesynth #synthstagram

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Down To Earth: Korg Stage Echo SE-300 & SE-500

Soundgas head honcho, Tony Miln, digs into some of the history and features of superb Korg’s tape echoes, and also some useful information if you are asking yourself “Should I get a Korg Stage Echo or a Roland Space Echo?”.

Comments are on! Let us know which echo you use and how/why. Interesting tales and useful tips may be used (with credit) in future articles.

Korg Stage Echo SE-300 SE-500 Roland RE-301 RE-201 Space Echo

Roland’s black, green and silver (and later black and orange) Space/Chorus Echo units are familiar to nearly everyone who’s been involved in music-making over the past four decades – they are iconic and ubiquitous. Korg’s echoes are more down to earth – in livery as well as name. Swapping Space for Stage and jazzy colours for the muted – almost gothic – dark grey/black contemporary to their synths, Korg Stage Echoes are much less common than their cosmic cousins and, as a result, there are many yet to encounter them.

Korg started out as beatbox pioneers Keio, later developing their first MiniKorg synth at the same time as Roland were working on the SH-1000 (the latter securing its place in history as Japan’s first synth in 1973 – Roland had the drop on Korg’s 700 only by a matter of weeks). The MiniKorg’s success spawned a long line of unusual and groundbreaking synths under the Korg banner, many of which are rightly regarded as classics, while some remain comparatively well-kept secrets.

Given Korg’s deserved reputation for innovation, it may come as a surprise to many that the Korg Stage Echo SE-500 was only launched in 1977 – a full four years after Roland’s first Space Echo, the RE-100. Korg was certainly playing catch up when they entered the echo market; the mighty RE-201 had been in production for three years and was proving a very successful and profitable product for Roland.

One advantage of following in Ikutaro Kakehashi’s footsteps was that Korg were able to marry many successful elements of the Space Echo with features that would please both their synthesizer customers as well as guitarists and studio users.

Korg Stage Echo SE-500

For the synth and studio heads, there was CV control of the delay time – this allows users of Korg’s flexible semi-modular MS series synths (and others with CV out) to get creative with their repeats with suitably freaky results. Guitarists and keyboard players could have fun layering their instrument using the Sound On Sound feature (Brian May anyone?). Mike Battle’s Echoplex EP-2 was the first tape echo to feature Sound On Sound back in 1970; coincidentally, Roland only added SOS to their tape echo range in the same year as the SE-500’s debut with the RE-301 Chorus Echo.

In addition, the SE-500 had a long delay feature with repeats up to a whopping 1500ms – impressive for a tape echo at the time (remaining so to this day). The long delay and three other playback heads could be switched in and out independently or in combination for a range of patterns. The Stage Echo’s compander-based noise reduction system made for a cleaner-sounding tape echo – certainly more HiFi than those that had gone before. The addition of balanced inputs/outputs on XLR sockets reinforced the SE-500’s position as a serious studio machine for the professional user.

Korg Stage Echo SE-300

The SE-300 launched a year later, in 1978, offering spring reverb and very flexible mixing and routing options between dry/delayed signal and the reverb tank. This was also the year that saw Roland launch their first BBD chip-based analogue echoes (the DC-30 and DC-50), whose maintenance-free reliability and portability were the beginning of the end for tape echoes. Given the fateful timing of their release, it’s hardly surprising that Korg’s Stage Echoes are harder to track down than their celestial Roland cousins, having been produced in much smaller quantities.

However, scarcity is far from the only reason to seek out one of Korg’s Stage Echoes; their alternative approach to Roland’s staple fare offers the discerning echo enthusiast additional menu options to whet the appetite.

They are highly-regarded by those looking for a cleaner, more hifi echo sound than the earlier Space Echoes (while remaining distinct from Roland’s own cleaner-sounding RE-501/SRE-555). Personally, I love the flexible mixing options between on the SE-300: three uncomplicated balance knobs make this machine unique. The controls are:

They offer immediate and complete control over the balance of the dry/echo/reverb signals enabling you to position the signal in the soundfield; as gratifying in use as it is simple in concept. If you want to push the repeats further into the distance, add some reverb to the echo signal only; or add reverb to dry/wet signals and adjust the balance to taste. Clumsy to describe in writing, simplicity itself in practice!

So why would I choose a Stage Echo over a Space Echo, and what are the main differences between the Korg and Roland machines? Below I list a few questions that point towards which machine might be most suitable for you.

Korg Stage Echo SE-500 Roland RE-301

Do you want a classic delay/reverb that’s been heard on countless recordings from the early seventies onwards?

If yes, you most likely want a Roland RE-201 Space Echo (or if your budget is tighter and you can live without the spring reverb, the RE-101). The RE-150 has no spring reverb and only two replay heads (as opposed to the 201/101’s three), but they have a great sound and are a good option to get the Roland Space Echo sound on a tighter budget.

If you want a classic delay/reverb, but also yearn for Roland Chorus and the sound on sound (but are not looking for classic dub delay patterns), then the Roland RE-301 could be for you. The head spacings are different on the 301 (compared to to the 201), so while dub aficionados may find it less-gratifying, guitarists and keyboard players love the less-common 301. I bought my 301 from Dave Formula of Magazine: it was used on several of their albums (and on the Visage albums) – you can see it behind Dave on the cover of Magazine’s live album, ‘Play’.

Are you looking for a cleaner, more high fidelity sound to your repeats? If you are, then the choice is between the Korg Stage Echoes or a Roland RE-501 Chorus Echo (or SRE-555 which is simply a 501 in rack format). The later Rolands incorporated a noise reduction system (as well as chorus, sound on sound and of course spring reverb) which made them sound a good deal cleaner. I’ve always thought of them as being the Roland Echo to buy if you like the sound of the late seventies or early eighties (a strat through an RE-501 gets you pretty close to the sound of Andy Summers of The Police or David Gilmour on Pink Floyd’s The Wall). I used two very clean 501s in my studio for many years as my main go-to guitar/synth echoes, partially because they worked faultlessly, but also because they seemed to just sound ‘right’ whenever we used them. I’ve latterly grown more fond of RE-201s (and eventually sold my last 501 when I bought Dave’s 301); this is down to just how good they sound when they’re less-worn and well-serviced. The Roland RE-501/SRE-555 and the Korg SE-500 also feature balanced inputs/outputs for studio use.

If you are after a cleaner sound (and chorus/spring reverb aren’t essential), and you also want longer delay times, and the ability to control the delay time via control voltage (CV) from your synth, modular system, or a control pedal, then the Korg SE-500 is your machine. Or for a cleaner sound with spring reverb (but no sound on sound), then you want to try the SE-300 (which is my personal favourite of the two due to the flexible mixing options discussed earlier).

While researching information for writing this piece, I was struck by just how little information there is about Korg’s two fine echo machines. Like some of their contemporary synths, they seem to be for the cognoscenti only. I hope this article helps set the record straight to some extent, and we would welcome any additional information or comment from Stage Echo users.

See our current stock of Korg Stage Echoes now – if we don’t have what you need on that page please get in touch as we try to have machines coming through as often as possible.

Comments are on! Let us know which echo you use and how/why. Interesting tales and useful tips may be used (with credit) in future articles.

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Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.

Are Roland Tape Echoes Reliable? (Spoiler: yes, ours are…)

A quick run through some of the reasons that we are happy to call out the idea that Roland Space and Chorus Echoes are not reliable. We’re confident that this is a myth brought into being by too many people spending time with neglected and abused machines. However, like many things, it’s about arming yourself with knowledge, and realising you get what you pay for…

Note that this blog has now been repurposed in our Roland resources section.

Oh, and yes – the same applies to Korg Stage Echoes – they can and should sound superb and run reliably.

But before we get into that here’s a time-lapse video showing our tech Doctor Huw servicing one of our RE-201 Space Echoes:

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Are you experienced?

So we sell a lot of Space Echoes. So what? An immediate advantage to you when buying from a business selling as many as us is we are constantly refining our processes and systems. We never stop learning from and about the machines, and from our customers’ experiences with them. And we guarantee everything we sell, so it costs us a great deal if something goes wrong with one of our echoes after worldwide shipping – that really focuses us on making them perfect and rock solid and our return rate due to faults is very low indeed.

We only buy in machines which appear to have had below average use and are in good cosmetic condition: this is an immediate advantage from both sonic and reliability perspectives. Low hours means less head/motor wear; good cosmetics suggests easy lives not spent in sweaty studios heavy with smoke or being kicked around on tour. Tape echoes that have had 40 years of hard use are increasingly difficult to restore to a high standard. Many people (myself included) wrote RE-201s off for so long – the experience was only of abused machines that rarely performed well (if at all) and languished in studio corners looking iconic, but sounding pretty bad (I swapped my first one for a pristine 501 that ran beautifully and didn’t hum).

Over the years, we’ve seen just about every possible issue arise and have improved our service schedule to iron out preventable faults before they leave our hands. Huw’s experience keeping echoes performing at their best on the road and our extensive knowledge of the pitfalls of sourcing and sending gear all over the world – combined with our shared studio experience – means our machines not only work well on arrival with our customers, but that they should continue doing so for many years to come. We also guarantee that our Roland echoes sound as good as can be achieved with 40+ year-old machines – as close to factory spec as possible.

Roland Space Echo RE-100 RE-101 RE-150 RE-201

The Doctor will see you now

Doctor Huw, our main in-house echo tech, is a living legend who’s repaired and cared for these machines for nearly 25 years (often upside down, in the dark and with a torch in his mouth onstage in the middle of a gig). Initially BBC-trained, Huw’s skills and knowledge have been tested and honed out on the battlefield as a live tech with many years on the road with the likes of Portishead, Massive Attack and Robert Plant. His wide experience and knowledge of repairing and improving old gear has seen our Roland tape echoes go from strength to strength in recent years, culminating in us supplying Roland themselves with machines for their recent Cause And Effects show in London.

Finally, we have info on the site about other related matters including care of your Roland echo, and more about our journeys into which tape is best

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Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.