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REVIEW: Music Computing StudioBLADE Keyboard Production Station

REVIEW: While the concept of a music keyboard with a computer inside isn’t entirely new, the folks at Austin, Texas start-up Music Computing think they might have invented the new sweet spot in bridging the gap between the notebook and controller crowd and the people who won’t use anything other than a Yamaha Motif or Roland Fantom-style workstation keyboard.

Company founder and CEO Victor Wong is no stranger to computers and music having been the former CEO of Open Labs, as well as having had numerous stints at tech companies including an authorized Macintosh clone company, and value added resellers (VARs). For the new company, his team has addressed a number of shortcomings with other PC-based music products out there, a couple of which include price and portability.

Having owned quite a few PC powered systems myself, including a Muse Receptor, two Open Labs NeKo models (TSE and XXL), a Korg Oasys, and even a Hartman Neuron, I seem to fit into the target audience for this kind of thing, and sure enough, I was one of the first folks to order one of Music Computing’s new keyboards (customer #8).

So what is it?
The new StudioBLADE line of “keyboard production stations” follows somewhat in the footsteps of what competitor Open Labs has been doing for a while now with their NeKo and MiKo systems, but ironically tries to be more “open” in their approach to design and physical construction. They are smaller, more compact, and weigh less than either a NeKo, or even a Yamaha Motif XF6, thanks to lightweight aluminum, and not over-complicating the internals.

Powered by Microsoft Windows 7 64-bit, the StudioBLADE comes pre-installed with the Presonus Studio One DAW application (full version, with mastering support), as well as a couple of proprietary VST instruments. First, SonicSource emulates the sound library you might find in a modern ROMpler, but with 8GB of sounds (more than 8x the sample data what comes with a Motif, by the way) as well as TriggerGrid, which is a drag-and-drop drum and sampler sound environment that works with the built-in grid control surface.

Out of the box, the StudioBLADE 61 is a shiny and surprisingly compact keyboard roughly 36-inches long, 18-inches deep and about 4-inches thick when the 10-inch USB-powered touch panel is not deployed. The unit is compact enough to fit on a classic Ultimate Support Apex stand (using the longer support bars for depth).

In addition to the 61-key synth action keyboard (made by M-Audio), the top area contains one of the most diverse control surface set-ups this side of a couple of Novation controllers having intimate relations. Specifically, there are nine vertical rows, each with a long-throw fader, two light-up push buttons, and four rotary knobs (see photos). An 88-key version is also available with the same action (not a graded, hammer-action full piano keybed).

The rotary knobs light up as you turn them, and work almost identically to the Livid Instruments OHM and CODE controllers. I would go so far as to speculate (due to the shared locale of Austin, and identical feel) that Livid might be providing parts to Music Computing for their controllers, but the company would not confirm this. In any case the controllers all feel solid and well built, and feel the same as my buddy’s OHM64, which is to say they feel really good.

To the right of this is an 8×8 grid of lighted pads, which can either be used for triggering samples like an MPC or loops in Ableton Live fashion. There is also a set of bank buttons (more on that in a minute), transport buttons, and a rotary push selector knob. All this is well organized to be easily at hand for live control, and breaks with the “screen in middle” ergonomics of most other workstations. Having the control sections side by side, versus on either end, does seem to make sense when you actually use them.

I particularly like the bank buttons, which will be familiar with anyone who ever used an Akai MPC with banks for sounds (A, B, C, D). Same idea. Except what’s wicked cool here is that you could have bank A be your DAW control to setup a mix in a live setup, such as levels for mics or a guitar direct input, then while performing jump between bank B for your Ableton control, while perhaps jump to Bank C where the faders become drawbars for your virtual Hammond B3, and maybe jump to bank D for controlling external lighting. Lots of possibilities there and first time I’ve seen that on any controller keyboard.

In my case I put a 23-inch Acer touch panel display behind the StudioBLADE and this proves an ideal setup with Windows 7 where I don’t need to use the mouse for many things. The built-in touch panel setup in Windows 7 took literally one minute and didn’t interfere with the 10-inch display (see photos).

In Studio One, the on-screen faders snap to the location of the non-motorized faders on the control surface, and while motorized faders might be nice, keep in mind the Euphonix control surface I have for my Mac cost $2500, or about the same price as the base model StudioBLADE.

Additionally there is a quite snazzy machined aluminum master volume control knob along with keyboard octave up/down buttons and the typical pitch bend and modulation wheels. These wheels snap back a little slower than the Fatar-type wheels, but still work well. A wireless RF keyboard and mouse is also included.

Pricing starts at $2599 “well equipped” for a Core2 Duo base configuration and $2799 for a Core i5 base configuration with 4GB of RAM and one hard drive. Upgrades include more audio ins/outs (not needed for many folks working inside the box only), and a larger or second hard drive. You can upgrade the HD yourself later if you wish by simply unscrewing some machine screws for an access panel on the bottom which is a mounting plate for up to two hard drives.

Sound sculpting with the ‘blade
One mis-informed forum troll posted something the other day about how the Music Computing units only had open source sound tools and you’d need to buy stuff to actually use it. Well, I’m here to say that is nonsense from somebody who cannot read or research what he was talking about before opening his big yap. In fact, the version of the Presonus Studio One which is pre-installed and configured is not a cheap open source or “bundled” app found everywhere, but a $400 commercial “pro” level application. It even supports the latest VST 3.1 format, can take ReWire connections, and comes with a host of proprietary virtual instruments, FX plug-ins, and pro level mastering tools. It supports delay compensation, time stretching, and all the things that the “big boys” promote as must-have features.

Studio One includes: Impact, a sample trigger/drum instrument; Mojito, an analog-modeling subtractive synth; Presence, a sample player; and SampleOne, a full-featured sampler to create your own instruments with. A really gigantic overview of Studio One can be found on the Presonus website, here: .

Worth noting is the fact that you can launch the DAW as either a 32-bit or 64-bit host, for compatibility with older plug-ins that won’t load in a fully 64-bit DAW host. One touch buttons on the touch screen lead to either version, depending on your needs.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that Music Computing’s in-house sound instrument, SonicSource, is apparently based on the mature and highly regarded Wusik platform, and specifically the EVE variant. The EVE (ne SonicSource) plug-in is a true VST so will work with any DAW or plug-in host you choose to use on the StudioBLADE. Wusikstation and its engine is a great choice as it is well supported, and many sound companies use the platform to develop their own commercial instruments by custom “skinning” the core product, and adding their own sample libraries. Basically, this means you’re not getting a “beta” product from Music Computing, cooked up in a month or two, but something which has many years of popular support and proven usability.

SonicSource is nice because it immediately through the GUI supports layering up to three sounds from the fairly large initial library (8GB), and according to the company, they also include the raw samples (sample waveforms) to create your own patches. This is not very common, with the possible exception of my Korg Triton Extreme, which also offers this capability. Most instrument makers create patches from the raw sounds, which you can manipulate using the sculpting tools (ADSR, filter cutoff, etc.), and then you can create layers/splits as multis or combis. Few give you access to the raw samples to go back and create your own base “patches” from (this may be an inherent capability of all Wusik based instruments that don’t copy-protect the waves, but I didn’t look into that for this review). Put another way, this means you could create a much larger personal sound library if you wanted to spend the time to build the patches from scratch yourself, resulting in an almost unlimited number of sound variations.

Bundled apps with my unit include NI Guitar Rig LE, and Toontrack EZDrummer Lite, for some additional noise making capabilities. As always, check the Music Computing site prior to purchase for what is included with the system today.

In the box
I was quite happy to see a full printed manual in the box which has setup information, the full manual for the Presonus hardware and Studio One software, as well as the first how-to guides for the Music Computing applications like TriggerGrid, SonicSource and GeoMIDI.

A restore DVD is provided and the Windows license sticker is on the bottom of the case. Also in the shipping box are the external power supply, order receipt, a quick start sheet, license and serial number info for the installed software, box with wireless keyboard and mouse, and mine had a QC checklist for the system assembly.

Under the Hood
As far as audio I/O and CPU power, I opted for the Intel Core i5 650 processor with 8GB of DDR3 RAM, and two 1TB Western Digital hard drives, plus the Presonus Firestudio Mobile interface with 24/96 support. This provides 2 XLR (or 1/4-inch) TRS combo inputs with switchable phantom power and gain control, plus 6 balanced 1/4-inch outputs, S/PDIF I/O, MIDI I/O, plus one direct keyboard MIDI out. On the right side is an internal DVD/CD burner.

Inside the case, the layout of the CPU module, audio modules, I/O, hard drives and cabling is very clean and neat, and the efficient design shows clever use of the off the shelf hardware with some custom I/O. Contrast this with the inside of a NeKo or MiKo which have numerous proprietary circuit boards which would become problematic if Open Labs disappeared one day. The nice thing about looking at the inside of the StudioBLADE is that it’s much like an older car, you can actually figure out what’s going on, and if for some reason Music Computing went into the great long night, it’s actually plausible this gear would live on including replacing the entire CPU module with later and greater computer power. That’s all aces in my book.

I’ve been using Windows 7 64-bit for a while now for my personal workstation in my office, and can honestly say it’s the best operating system Microsoft has ever made. If you ever lamented why your PC couldn’t work as well as your Mac, Windows 7 really is that good. With a modern multi-core processor, and the fast operating system and modern RAM, these things really scream.

I haven’t used the DAW software (Studio One) included with the StudioBLADE much, but so far it seems robust and I quite like the selection of plug-ins. It’s really a surprising system, and feels very much like a good alternative to Logic or Pro Tools, and there are some quite good tutorial and demo videos on YouTube to show off what it can do. This is a pro application, which becomes apparent when you see all it can do. The Music Computing site doesn’t really do Studio One justice in showcasing the software beyond the bullet points, but the Presonus website has more in-depth feature information to review in advance of making a purchase.

The control surfaces are already pre-set to work with Studio One, but the built-in GeoMIDI controller mapping software would allow you to fairly easily map faders and controllers to any other DAW.

I loaded Cakewalk Sonar on the StudioBLADE, and it worked very well which would be expected since Sonar Producer Edition has been 64-bit capable for quite some time. Presumably the new version of Pro Tools 9 should work just as well, since Avid branded hardware is no longer a requirement (an iLok dongle still is, however).

I tested a few of my favorite Windows apps including Brainspawn Forte, EMU’s Emulator X3, and Sonic Projects’ superb Oberheim virtual instrument clone, OP-X. A couple of hiccups with Forte wanting to run as administrator, and X3 trying to find its own sample library, but these are typical of any virtual instrument. In fact, you will always have a few things in Windows 7 to address with some apps that may require changing the way they launch, or how they write to hard drives other than the boot drive, but it’s a do it once, never again type of thing.

Music Computing’s SonicSource VST loaded right into Forte and once I selected the correct audio routing (outs 3 and 4 go to headphones, and 1 and 2 to the speakers), was playing in moments with no hiccups. SonicSource has a fairly respectable selection of bass, keyboard, and real instruments (horns, etc.), and does provide a great starting point to make music without buying anything else.

If you have a lot of older Windows XP era 32-bit VSTs you want to keep using, you should look into possibly using Cakewalk Sonar, as they have one of the most robust “bit bridge” systems to run 32-bit plug-ins inside a 64-bit DAW.

I had no trouble running a number of Windows 7 updates, although it did choke on a .NET update, which I had the same issue with on another machine (it won’t update the NET 3.5 framework, and actually it’s up to version 4 now). Check with support, but often one needs to fully uninstall the NET elements, then simply install version 4. And then let Windows install any of the older versions if actually needed. (Again: check with MC tech support if this happens to you for proper fix.)

There will always be those who say it’s cheaper to buy a MIDI controller keyboard, and a notebook, and hook those together, but that has a lot of trade-offs in data storage, video connectivity, and audio quality. The StudioBLADE is a compelling argument for having it all in one box that you can actually pick up and carry (less than 25 lbs.). Even with a good Gator ATA case, you’d still be under 30 lbs.

This can also become a dream system for somebody who has in the back of their mind “I wish I had a keyboard to control just Omnisphere.”

Around the back
I’ve always liked the Presonus FireWire modules, and they have the best headphone monitoring I’ve ever had on an audio interface. The only downside here is that the headphone volume control is on the back panel, and the top master volume doesn’t manage that, only the speaker outs; but this can be good in situations where you want or need different control of those elements. You can get the full specs on the Presonus site, and naturally this works very well with the Studio One DAW software.

I like the one master MIDI out which is useful if you need to control something like a Dave Smith Tetra or send data to a MPC without attaching the little I/O dongle for the additional MIDI I/O.

There are plenty of USB ports (7 USB 2.0), and my unit adds the two FireWire ports. Both a DVI and HDMI output provide a lot of flexibility for connecting up to two additional displays. One network Ethernet connection is included. I was very happy to see that an eSATA port is included as this is the simple way to connect a mirrored RAID array, or even a removable drive system for saving projects on external drives versus the internal disks. eSATA lets you use external drives which are just as fast as if they were internal units, since it’s the same connection speed (much faster than USB or FireWire).

As noted previously, an access panel on bottom allows you to update your hard drive, pull for back-up, etc. New units now shipping also include a second access panel to swap out the entire CPU “module” if needed.

Also worth noting is the stylish back-lit Music Computing cut-out logo that glows with the same bluish light as the control surface.

Impressions and use
After playing with the StudioBLADE a couple of weeks, I have to say I’m fairly impressed. It’s quiet when running aside from occasional hard drive clicks/clacks (normal). The touch panel seemed too small when I got it, but found that it’s the right size to get started, and with the larger 23-inch touch panel (see photos) in use at same time, the small display is ideal for a virtual instrument, or even quick launch buttons for your most used apps.

It looks very much at home next to my aluminum Macs in the studio, and somehow seems “right sized” for what it is designed to do. Initially I wasn’t sure of the keyboard action, as the majority of my keyboards have a Fatar action and this uses the latest semi-weighted synth-action waterfall keys from M-Audio. It gives the unit a more premium look with the full-front keys and it’s very playable.

I think this type of keyboard “production station” is clearly the wave of the future, as it no longer makes sense to have fixed-in-place ROM based systems that can’t grow as you do. The ability to use the DAW that fits your needs, and not a limited built-in sequencer/recorder, not being limited by storage or memory, or the sounds that fit in the user patch space, is transformational.

With some virtual analogs, using SHARC processors, and software like Access Music does with the Virus Ti, allows the product to evolve and add features, but that is a more focused product. With a workstation, you need to be able to make it work with your, well, work. If you’re doing scoring for film or games, you might need to use Adobe Premiere or Sony Vegas, and try loading those into your Roland Fantom (hint: you can’t!).

I’ve had a few minor quibbles like the external power supply brick “hanging” in space when plugged into the keyboard on a stand, and my personal sense that the power jack could too easily be knocked out which could be bad during a Windows update. I added a little self-adhesive hook to help hold one end of the cable before it gets to the power input jack, that way if tripped over that hook would catch the stress, and then added a shelf below the keyboard on the Apex stand to put both the power brick and QWERTY keyboard on. I’d also likely consider spraying the anodized aluminum back with a clear coat if I were touring, otherwise scratches will likely ensue.

The keyboard action is a matter of taste, as with all keyboards, but I did find the keys on the StudioBLADE (apparently from the M-Audio Keystation “es” series) not as well “sculpted” as those on some of my other synths. Particularly the edges of the key-ends are not as well “rounded” as on, oh, say my Kurzweil, or my Waldorf Q. I “pinched” myself a couple of times playing chords, and while it’s something I could get used to, I prefer the Fatar keybed used on many of the top synth brands and also Novation controllers to the M-Audio “es” series. If you tend to be more of a “poker” than a “player” you will not notice this. It’s a very minor and perceptual thing, so you likely won’t notice it. On the other hand, the benefit of using this key setup is that OS drivers are maintained by Avid and are not dependent on custom code or a circuit board, and easy to fix/replace.

On my Apex stand, the audio out jacks are right in the middle where the stand is, so I had to get two “L” adapters for balanced cables to route the cables sideways ($10 total cost). I’m also using an Azio USB Wi-Fi adapter to access my secure wireless network ($15). The only glitch of any kind I had with an interface was the USB port connected to the flip-up touch panel. I have a super high speed OCZ 16GB USB media key, and that caused a power error when I left it attached for an hour. Plugging into any of the back panel ports had no such issue. This is actually a common issue (I have same issue with my Mac wired keyboard I use with my Windows workstation … the hub on the keyboard doesn’t provide enough power). Upshot is that a small 1GB USB memory stick shouldn’t be an issue, the big ones with built-in LEDs and super high speed like my OCZ Rally unit should plug into the back.

Being in the first group of customers there were some minor production issues like a screw too long, or the FireWire cable rubbing against back of pitch wheel (easily fixed), and my unit doesn’t have the snazzy second access port on the bottom panel to easily swap memory or replace the entire CPU “module” on the road, but these are works in progress and all the units shipping today incorporate a number of production and finishing touches that the first dozen didn’t have. There was a driver issue with the pitch wheel sometimes sending a CC volume value, and the day after I reported it as a “possible” issue, they sent me a new driver file to install and that fixed it.

Tech support has been great in very fast follow up. I’ve gotten follow up phone calls, and e-mails to ensure everything was working well, and the issue was resolved. This is phenomenal support, and bodes well for the company’s rapport with future customers. I’ve also been given the option to send the unit back if I want to get the back panel retrofitted, and they provided some bonus stuff for me due to the initial glitches that more than made up for any headaches.

And finally
So far, I’m really happy with the StudioBLADE, as it provides me with an easy to use, yet powerful solution for keeping my Windows-based instruments (OP-X doesn’t run on Mac, so can’t use it in Logic Pro, for example, nor does Emulator X3), and is something I would feel comfortable taking to a friend’s house to jam, without having to deal with tangle of wires, interfaces, notebook, and the like (which I also have, and did that once, then never again!). I’ve barely scratched the surface (no pun intended) of what I can do with this, but I look forward to making my ultimate Omnisphere workstation, among other things.

To learn more about the Music Computing StudioBLADE and related products, visit: .

Article is Copr. © 2011 by Christopher Laird Simmons – all rights reserved. Article originally appeared on

Music and Recording Reviews

Review: Open Labs NeKo XXL Gen5 DAW Keyboard Workstation

REVIEW: I’m a big fan of Open Labs’ music workstation instruments, so I was pretty excited when they announced the rebirth of their XXL model this spring, which was not available last October 2008 when I bought the NeKo TSE (previously reviewed for Music Industry Newswire). The XXL is not technically their flagship, if you ask anybody at Open Labs (OL) about that; it’s a special-purpose version of their NeKo designed for those with more professional needs. This means, specifically, it has all their control surface options (except the DJ panel), and most importantly it has faster multi-core Intel processors, more audio I/O, and hardware word clock I/O. Since the audio hardware is based on the M-Audio Delta 1010 series, it is “ready to rock” with Pro Tools 8 MA Edition, out of the box. It also comes outfitted with four 1TB hard drives (think system drive, audio drive, sample drive, back-up drive), and all the rest of their fifth generation software package.

Open Labs XXLThe first thing I found when taking it out of the box is that they still pack the unit very well with the spongy type of foam, not the brittle stuff that breaks into dust when you try to take the item out of the box; this means it absorbs shock better, and can be re-used in the future. So, it’s very well packed to arrive safe and sound, and to protect the LCD touch panel.

OL is still a bit stingy on the documentation, but I will address that in my minor quibbles a bit later on.

Ins and Outs
The short run-down of the hardware specs of the XXL are:

AUDIO: (1) High performance audio I/O card with low latency including 24-bit/96kHz professional 10-in/10-out: (2) mic/instrument preamp inputs (with phantom power 48V), (8) analog line inputs, (10) analog line outputs, S/PDIF digital I/O (coaxial), (1) Word Clock I/O, (1) headphone jack with volume control. MIDI in and out. Sustain and expression pedal inputs.

SYSTEM: Windows XP SP3. 2.8 GHz Core2 Quad Intel processor. 4GB RAM. One dual-layer DVD-RW (SATA) drive. Four 1TB Western Digital SE16 SATA (3GB/sec) drives. DVI video port. 15-inch touch screen. Four USB 2.0 ports (2 internal, 2 external). One FireWire 400 port. One Gigabit Ethernet port.

NeKo XXL Back Panel

Control This
What sets the XXL apart from the other Gen5 (fifth generation) OL keyboards, is the extra panels, which means it has the new Bump MP drum panel, the mixer panel with display, a QWERTY keyboard (useful for shortcuts in most recording applications), and the new Alpha II Panel which has a wide LCD display (scribble strip, if you prefer) with assignable buttons and encoders. Missing from the XXL, but found on other Gen5 models is the DJ panel, which appears to be missing here due to lack of internal space because of extra cards and cooling.

(Note: on their Web site, they refer to the Bump MP as “Bump MP,” then “BumpMP,” then “Bump-MP,” so I’m not entirely sure which is definitive.)

It’s all a bit to take in and get a grasp on (pun intended). The one thing which threw me at first, is that the dedicated keyboard transpose buttons found on the Gen4 NeKo instruments is no longer found on the XXL (thanks to different, better panels). On the non-XXL models, the DJ panel (fader, knobs, and buttons, below the touch panel) can take over this chore. With the XXL I discovered the only way to do this is to use the Alpha II Panel (top-right panel), and use the menu key to switch to the Reaper DAW preset, and then the up/down and reset transpose buttons work from that pre-set.

Apha II Panel and Bump-MPHowever, there is no standard pre-set on the Alpha II Panel for virtual instruments, which there should be. Of course, there are presets for bundled Reaper DAW, the bundled Ableton Live 7 DAW, and Riff. (To clarify: the default transpose buttons on the Alpha II Panel work while in Riff, which is the default environment for the XXL. It’s only when you leave the Riff environment, go to Windows, and launch a stand-alone application outside of Riff, where they do not.)

Since Ableton Live is a whole subject in itself, I’m not going to cover that product at all here, but suffice it to say that the XXL’s many controls are very well mapped to the Live environment so you can do some pretty amazing things with it.

Similarly Reaper is a wonderful DAW, which has some notable features for working with everything from one screen. It’s got a little bit of a different mindset than Cakewalk or Pro Tools, but if you want to do a lot of audio recording, it’s dead easy to learn, and OL have many great tutorials and – again – all of the Gen4 and Gen5 keyboards are pre-set to control Reaper elements.

The mixer panel (top-left of XXL), has 9 faders, with four banks; and 16 knobs, as well as an LCD display where 8 of the knobs have scribble strips that change based on the presets (meaning, you can create a pre-set for Sonar, or Pro Tools, if you wish). The system is pre-set to work with both Live and Repear, and Riff. The sliders have LEDs at top and bottom which get brighter depending on the position of the fader. The faders were designed to work with the MiKo layout, apparently, as the blue LEDs are to the left of the faders, so while seated at the XXL, they are not clearly visible when the faders are either close to bottom or top.

The Big Wow
Probably the most exciting thing to me about the XXL, personally, is that it is the first true (no B.S.) “all in one” recording product ever built, by anybody, period. Full stop. Right now, I can boot up the unit in under 100 seconds, and be running either Pro Tools LE (M-Audio edition), Cakewalk Sonar Producer Edition, any virtual instrument in stand-alone mode and – finally – Gigastudio. One of my (perhaps silly) dreams for many years was “Oh, I wish Tascam would build a keyboard instrument to run Gigastudio in standalone mode… just like my Triton Pro Extreme or Kurzweil. Sigh.” Well, folks, now I can. And, may I say, big freakin’ wow, baby. The OL XXL has GSIF2 drivers, so I can load up a whole passel of Giga sounds, and the updated GS4 interface actually works on the 15-inch touch panel.

(Ahem: of course, Gigastudio is now a defunct product, but those of us long-time users still like it. And, although I have also become a convert to Native Instruments’ Kontakt 3.5, it would take a year or more of my little free time to convert my vast legal sound libraries, and I’d lose many of my key-switching capabilities.)

With the touch panel, I really love virtual instruments with stand-alone modes, like the Arturia CS-80, where the on-screen ribbon controller responds to the touch panel! Some virtual keyboards, like Native Instruments’ Akoustic Piano, is made for a touch panel, since you can just tap the piano you want to load, and then the environment to play in. Very cool. Manipulating samples and elements in NI’s KORE 2 system is equally elegant by touch.

Rock and Riff
When launched, the XXL opens into the Riff environment, which is OL’s own custom live workspace environment. This is very cool, and shows that OL has really matured from repurposing other folks’ applications (like Karsyn, based on Forte) to building their own solutions. At first glance, it seems to be a fairly simple grid setup to create custom song-sets, each of which can contain instruments, FX, and routings. At second glance, it’s clear a lot of thought has gone into Riff in making it a very deep system for playing live, and for creating your own custom “instrument” for when you boot up the XXL.

For example, you can create custom buttons, dials, sliders and other controls to manage individual instruments, or groups, which can vary per song. Riff is perhaps the most powerful thing about all of the fifth generation OL instruments (Gen4 gear can be upgraded to the Gen5 software), and might be easily dismissed when jumping right to an installed DAW. It’s a little confusing in some ways relative to the prior starting point of Karsyn, as found on Gen4 OL products, but once you play with it a bit (or use the live training support option included), it really starts to get under your skin of how cool it really is.

Open Labs Riff 1.2

As one example, you could create a song grid, with all your songs by name and color code on the touch panel, and you could group different buttons around a core song. So, in the context of a single performance you could easily jump between groups of instruments, splits, effects chains, patches, mixes and so forth with one button. Further, you can create custom controls for each set-up, like on screen toggles, sliders, dials and whatnot, so if you want to just control the filter on your bass line, you can do it by adding just the single element you want to see/control on your screen. I didn’t see a couple of things on first or second glance, but I’m hoping they add a joystick type x-y controller and side-to-side virtual ribbon controller type element, as these are superb control surface options for virtual instruments.

Initially I found the default set-ups a little disappointing relative to Karsyn on the TSE, because very few of the bundled instruments showed up in the drop-down menus for Riff; for example, Truepianos is included, but didn’t show up in the menu for “keyboards.” So, there are no default Riff set-ups with Truepianos. After I had installed Native Instruments Komplete 5, I went into the “add” menu, and found I could drag any of the installed instruments into the categories, or make new categories. Now my “keyboards” drop-down menu has Truepianos, and the Native Instrument keyboards and B4. Now if I want to make a new song setup, they are right there.

Because this is still fairly new (version 1.2 of Riff literally came out days before my unit shipped, and the tutorial videos on YouTube still show the earlier version), OL hasn’t yet had time to build out the amazing instrument set-ups that came with the TSE workstations. So, most of the set-ups are built around just a very few of the bundled on-board instruments and sounds, and you can no longer launch them from the OL GUI, where previously the GUI would launch special set-ups of Karsyn and E-MU’s Proteus X2.

Luckily Karsyn is still included (for now), which is still kind of easier to use for just launching a newly installed VST, since it has a nice menu of “newly installed instruments.” So, you don’t need to make a song, or edit one, you just click load, and it’s playable. OL will be discontinuing Karsyn at some point in favor of Riff, but for the transition, it’s nice to have. In speaking to one of the OL support folk, it sounds like there are some really wicked things planned for Riff, and for a nascent application it has some truly inventive ideas.

Open Labs NeKo Front

Sounds on Board
On the subject of sounds on board, I was more than a little surprised to no longer find any version of E-MU Proteus X2, even the free Proteus VX. I’m not sure if OL had a falling out with E-MU, or perhaps E-MU chose to discontinue licensing the X2 software now that X3 has come out. Luckily, I already owned a legal copy of Emulator X2, and upgraded to X3 which doesn’t require a dongle anymore, so with X3 loaded and all the libraries I had purchased for X2 (classic keyboards), I now have the same sound sets from the TSE, minus the Ensoniq ASR-10 sets. For anybody migrating as I am from the TSE to the XXL, you will want to go buy the Proteus or Emulator X3 from EMU, or at least download the free Proteus VX, so you won’t be going “hey, what happened to….”

OL does include several E-MU sound sets from Digital Sound Factory that work with the included Cakewalk Dimension LE, which are sounds from the venerable E-MU Proteus 2000, MoPhat and Virtuoso modules. However, these are fairly old school in quality (small number of samples per patch) versus today’s modern ROMplers or the some of E-MU’s extensively sampled vintage keyboard libraries.

Basically, Cakewalk’s Dimension LE is the new “standard” library playback engine on the OL Gen5 instruments, replacing E-MU’s Proteus X2. This, actually, is not a bad choice, since Dimension uses the same sfz format as Wusikstation (also included with OL products, as before), and the OL MimiK key cloning application. However, you will want to upgrade to the “Pro” version ($99-$149, depending on Cakewalk’s variable pricing on their instruments) for any key cloning efforts (cloning hardware or virtual synths), since Dimension LE doesn’t have all of the ADSR and editing tools needed to properly replicate many of the instruments you may wish to clone. Of course, if you are using Cakewalk Sonar, you may already have the Pro version.

Other bundled sounds/instruments include Lennar Digital Sylenth, which is one of the better analog sounding virtual instruments, and is ideal for those who want a wide range of arpeggiated patches (hint: try stopping the arpeggiator on the more interesting patches to just play them normally). Purity and Autogun are included along with the aforementioned 4Front Truepianos.

Boom Shaka Boom Boom
One of the very cool things in the sound department is the custom collaboration between OL and FXpansion, for a customized version of Guru, the drum machine slash drum sequencer. With the combination of the new OL “Bump MP” control surface and Guru, you have a very usable setup for those who may have grown up with a venerable Akai MPC. But, wait, there’s more!

One of the truly cool things about the Bump MP set-up, is that OL have added one unique thing to the otherwise standard 4×4 (16) drum pad layout, which is a “last played” button (a 17th pad). This lets you instantly play something like a hi-hat using two buttons, as the extra pad does whatever your last pad did. As someone who was first on the block with a Linn9000 back in the day (my band-mate at the time, wrote the manual for the Linn9000), and have owned several MPCs (I have a MPC3000 and MPC4000 now), this is really useful and works.

Guru is a great choice as it works either in a MPC style of recording, or closer to an Ableton Live (more about that in a minute) mode. If you haven’t used Guru before, it’s a bit like how you have multiple pad banks on the MPC, but think multiple virtual MPCs which in turn have their own multiple banks. It’s a little confusing at first, but like most things, once you get it, you go “ooooh!”

To quote OL’s promotional materials: key features of the Bump MP include: (16 plus 1) fully assignable pads, note repeat, fixed level fader, transport controls, chromatic mode, hold, pad tune, multiple groove preset and eight engines with 24 patterns per engine. This also allows up to 512 step sequences per pattern.

Minor Quibbles
Open Labs are still a little stingy on printed documentation supplied with their products, which amounts to an 11×17 getting started color sheet, a support sheet, a contact sheet, and an upgrade card for the bundled Live software. A couple of the numbers and arrows for the back panel are wrong on the getting started sheet, for the MIDI jacks and the expression pedal, but those are self evident when looking at the back of the unit. If we’re going to be forced to print out our own manual, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to perhaps include a 3-ring binder with the Open Labs logo printed on it, and then put the videos onto a proper DVD disc, and quick start sheets for ALL the bundled Open Labs applications like Riff and MimiK. I’m sure I’m not the only one that thinks it’s ridiculous to assume we’re going to keep flipping between a PDF and the Riff environment on a 15-inch LCD to learn to use the thing.

Of course, to mitigate this (in my opinion) lacking, the NeKo XXL comes with Open Labs’ “Platinum” support, which includes hands-on training of Riff and MimiK, in lieu of the documentation, so this really can be considered a premium replacement for old-fashioned how-to printed materials. I do like to point out that even Roland has returned to providing printed docs, which they tried to get away from, as with the launch of the V-Synth GT, which had limited printed docs, and a getting started sheet that looked like something from a 1980s VCR set-up guide. With the Fantom G series they brought back a proper manual, quick start guide, and jump start sheet, to which I said hip-hip hooray when I took the Fantom G6 out of its box. I’ll keep mentioning this in every review I do for products with no manuals, as it doesn’t save trees for me to have to print out the sheets from the manual, when they should come with any music gear that costs over $2,000.

But again, OL do provide arguably the best live support option in the industry where they will schedule a time to walk you through the set-up, customization, and use of the apps that come on the XXL; for their core customer base, this is a better option than printed materials, except for us dinosaur music types who still like to read docs for stuff while watching TV to separate the brain activities. But I digress. The live support is exceptional, and is worth about $600 if taken alone. And in the first couple of months, you can upgrade to extend that support.

I found once I put the XXL on the Standastic stand, where my NeKo TSE had been (see photos), was that the piano black finish actually works pretty well with the black rubber surrounds with the different panels, making them look more integrated than the white finish of the TSE models. On the other hand, I was a bit surprised to see what looked like minor resin snail trails below the clear coat finish, in the area right below the pitch/mod wheels. You can’t see this unless it’s hit with a ray of sunlight, or with a flashlight, but it does, unfortunately, still reveal the fact this is a bespoke product and not a mass produced workstation from the “big boys” in Japan or Europe. So, a little surprised that a $6,800 instrument has a paint finish a little closer to Earl Scheib than Chip Foose; but only a detail nut like me will likely even notice it. Not a deal breaker, and the free 28-inch LCD display they included as part of their summer promotion, sure didn’t hurt.

While OL does not provide install disks or recovery disks for any of the bundled system OS or applications, a very usable copy of Acronis OEM edition is included, which lets you create full working back-ups of your set-up, and put those back-ups on your hard drive (or external media). It’s a good idea to do this before you start to install anything. Then when you have the first batch of things installed do separate back-up of that. And then, when you have everything installed, do a separate back-up there. Do, a second back-up of everything, and then you can do “incremental” back-ups to that “working” back up image. Thankfully, that fourth 1TB drive is ideal for this practice.

Finally, the smallest of quibbles: I’ve noticed a bit of lack of attention to detail in various Open Labs materials this year, which was not the case last year, such as the mis-labeled items on the welcome sheet with the XXL. Throughout the OL Web site, they refer to the Acronis back-up software as Acronus, sequencer is mis-spelled often, the Bump MP panel can be called Bump MP, Bump-MP, and BumpMP (um, which is it?); MIDI is often called Midi, etc. When I went to register the DBeat hardware product, there was no option for that product on their registration page. Finally, when I got the XXL, the included upgrade postcard had a link to the Ableton site which did not exist; I had to point this out to support, and then the Ableton site was updated a couple of days later (didn’t anybody check that – the card had to be printed before being sent to customers?).

So, somebody in marketing or management hasn’t been keeping track of the team as best they could, which has not (thankfully) affected the products, but it does show some cracks in the plaster from their growing pains, which I hope will be better addressed moving forward.

Real People Real Support
One of the best aspects of any OL instrument purchase, perhaps, is the support. You can actually work with a live person to show you what to do, explain how to solve a problem specific to your work-flow, and train you on the features built-in to the OL products. Saturday appointments are available, too. In some parts of the country, you can even have a guru come to you on-site. This is rare in the music industry outside of the professional studio services trade (e.g., the folks who install your $100,000 mixing console).

All OL products are pre-set with optional dial-in support, meaning if you have an Internet connection, you can have a tech access your machine remotely to tweak something.

Wrap Up
Overall, this is one of the coolest pieces of electronic music gear I have purchased brand new since that day I walked out of Guitar Center with my Sequential Circuits Pro One oh so many years ago. The more I use it, the more I discover I can do, and beyond the geek-factor, I do find myself being inspired again to actually make music rather than admire the technical facility or possibilities of “what it’s possible to do,” which is the bane of many virtual instrument collectors.

With the mix panel, you can tab between banks of faders, with the Bump MP panel you can play drums more elegantly than keyboard, and I don’t have to stand-up to wham on my MPC. The built-in DAWs give you choices “out of the box” as to how to record music, and since it’s a Windows XP computer under the hood, you can literally run any application that runs on a standard PC.

FIVE STARSCertainly, it’s not inexpensive, but it’s far more than a keyboard, a PC, some drivers, and a touch panel bolted into a custom case, which is the mis-conception of the “laptops or die” crowd. If you look inside there are numerous custom circuit boards, intelligent engineering in the layout for cooling, it’s quieter than you expect, even with the fans at full speed (I chose to use the NeKo on a 100-degree day in mid August, with 70 percent humidity, and only one fan on in the corner in my home studio, and the XXL got warm, but I was fading from the heat before it was).

If you want to replace a wall of hardware with something more elegant, and if you want to retire all the wires between your notebook, audio interface, keyboard controller, etc. with one “all in one box,” look no further than an Open Labs MiKo or NeKo. With the XXL, you have one system that can run all the best Windows-based DAWS with no additional hardware, and the Riff and Bump MP solutions are true value-adds that are remarkable on their own.

To loosely quote Ferris Bueller, “If you have the means, I highly recommend it.”

Music Industry Newswire rating: FIVE STARS.

Open Labs NeKo XXL: SRP(US) $6,899. Dimensions: 46″ (W) X 20″ (D) X 7″ (H), Weight (base configuration) 46 lbs.

More information:

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PROS: Exceptional do-it-all platform with flexible audio I/O based on mature M-Audio Delta hardware. Compatible with all Windows-based applications, including Pro Tools LE (M-Audio Edition) without any other hardware. Great bundle of applications and sound tools to get started. Superb tech support (Platinum level) included which comprises training on the hardware and software. Forever upgradeable as new hardware and software is released (as long as company is in business, of course). Many Gen3 product owners upgraded to Gen4 software. Even my Gen4 TSE can be upgraded to add the Bump MP module for about $700, with all the software (check the sales dept. for “today’s price”).

CONS: Missing some of the wonderful sound sets of prior editions, including the extra Wusikstation expansion packs and E-MU premium sample libraries of the TSE series. No printed manual or user guide other than quick start sheet. (PDF manuals and tutorials are on hard drive, Web site, YouTube, etc.)

Article and images Copr. © 2009 by Christopher Simmons, all rights reserved. Article originally appeared on

Music and Recording Reviews

Review: Open Labs NeKo TSE Keyboard Workstation

REVIEW: The concept of the so-called workstation keyboard is certainly not new; with a wide range of current such products on the market from big guns like Korg, Roland and Yamaha, stretching back in time to the Korg M-1. These products seek to fill the needs of the “one keyboard does all” set-up, for composing, comping, or touring, and may include ROMpler sound sets, virtual analog, drum sounds, on board sampling, multi-track MIDI sequencing, built-in FX; and more often these days, some level of audio recording capability.

The Timbaland Special Edition NeKo from Open Labs is a truly unique instrument, part keyboard, part PC DAW, part virtual instrument player, part DJ performance control station. It is perhaps, the ultimate expression of the workstation concept, because it finally brings together all the elements needed to play, compose, record and produce modern music; and with the advent of more affordable and more powerful computer parts, the NeKo TSE is one of the most powerful keyboards of any kind ever built.

Open Labs NeKo TSEI’ve been using MIDI gear since it was invented, and this is perhaps the coolest thing since sliced bread, or perhaps since electronic music instruments began talking to each other and learning to do more than make noises all alone. But is it right for you? What other options are out there? Does it work as advertised? Well, as a recent new owner of one of these bad boys, let me tell you the tale of a fateful trip into the land of buying and using such beasts as these.

The Back Story
Into this arena of “workstation” products, a few years back, came a bunch of folks out of Austin Texas who had the idea to take this multi-purpose keyboard idea a step further, or perhaps reinvent the category, and combine the idea of a workstation keyboard with a PC; then put it all together as a value-add product. These folks, headed by founder Victor Wong, called themselves Open Labs, and their initial products were pricey and yet innovative. Some “got it” right away, and Open Labs has developed a core following over the past few years, in much the same way products like the Muse Receptor have their adherents and detractors.

The initial products included the Open Labs MiKo and NeKo; with the MiKo being a 37-key iteration, and the NeKo being a 61-key (or larger) iteration. These workstations included a quality key action (from Fatar, using the same wonderfully playable actions found in the Kurzweil line), control surface for mixing or controlling ADSR in plug-ins, PC keyboard for data entry, a touch-sensitive 15-inch LCD screen (touch panel), and custom plug-in navigation controls. The “open” part of the equation came in when they chose to use open source and “affordable” applications that run under Windows XP, for sequencing, recording, and virtual instruments.

They cleverly took Windows, put a custom “shell” GUI (graphical user interface) on top of that, and made easy to use “kiosk style” on-screen buttons to get to the most used functions a finger touch away. So, inside the “keyboard” was not the typical circuit board with custom chips and I/O from a music instrument manufacturer, but your everyday hand built AMD or Intel PC motherboard, memory, hard drive, video, and a high quality off-the-shelf audio and MIDI interface with multiple I/O and headphone support.

The whole really was much more than the sum of its parts. Arguably the one downside was the high cost of computer parts at the time. Today, 4GB of high quality RAM is the same cost as 1GB of second-tier memory three years ago, and a multi-core Intel CPU is the same price as what a single core processor once cost; more CPU power means you can run that big reverb along side your dozen virtual instruments all while recording live vocals, and not having it crash. This also includes cost of motherboard, hard drive storage, and the rest. Because of the cost of using high quality parts, and building everything by hand, an Open Labs product could easily run in the $8K range, which put it up there with products like Korg’s OASYS workstation and, well, there really wasn’t anything else like the NeKo or MiKo.

Thanks to the fact they were on to something, a lot of musicians doing good (read: successful) could afford to buy something like this; because they saw the value in the final product and that it did, indeed, fit a need that many recording artists, particularly keyboard players, could “grok.” Artists like Keith Emerson, Sheila E, Dave Cohen, Lil Jon, Jesse Carmichael (of Maroon 5), Karl “Charlie” Steinberg (father of Cubase software), and producer Timbaland (among many others, see: all use Open Labs products.

I always thought the product was a good idea, but had been turned off by the high price and the hands-on understanding of the downside to having an overheating Pentium or AMD PC inside a keyboard; I don’t have air conditioning and actually melted a DAW workstation due to the “run hot” properties of the then state of the art Intel Pentium IV. Ironically, I ended up buying a Korg OASYS 88, which I actually hated and sold less than 6 months later.

Enter the NeKo Timbaland Edition
When Open Labs announced the new version of their product, developed with producer Timbaland, I had just kicked the OASYS out of my studio (I was so disappointed with the OASYS, I could write a treatise on it, but will spare you), and so was sensitized to this new version. I put in an order for the 61-key NeKo after sending off some techie questions to Open Labs (who responded quickly and coherently), and had to wait about 10 days as there was already a waiting list.

Christopher Simmons NEOTROPE Records Studio Fall 2008Whether you know who Timbaland ( is or not, it’s useful to know that what he brought to the table in working with Open Labs was the desire for a more streamlined keyboard case decked out in shiny all-white livery, a DJ fader and quick access knobs below the screen, and a special software package that includes the full complement of sounds from the popular Ensoniq (E-MU) ASR-10 keyboard and ASRx beat box/sampler, the EPS (son of the Mirage) and ZR/MR keyboards. Any fan of the defunct Ensoniq products will really enjoy this sound library (more on software, below). This new design makes it more attractive on-stage, but also a little less cluttered from the perspective of a keyboard player. You do lose some of the knobs and sliders, which might not suit a recording studio set-up as well, but considering it’s now about $3,000 less and about twice as powerful, I think it’s a very smart trade-off for most people.

The specs on the new workstation, often called the “TSE” edition, include 2.4GHz Intel Core2Quad (runs cooler than prior generation Core2 or Pentium processors), 4GB RAM, Dual Layer DVD burner, 15-inch touch panel, second video out, 1TB of storage (500MB system, 500MB audio SATA II drives), audio and MIDI I/O via PreSonus FireBox with front and back panel I/O and 24/96 support, sustain and expression pedal inputs, 2 USB ports, 1 FireWire 400 port, and a Gigabit Ethernet port. The whole shebang comes in at about 46 lbs.

Custom Workstation Software
Much like the Muse Receptor, the NeKo TSE has a lot of open-source (or “free”) software on board, but more importantly it has a lot of licensed and rebranded/tweaked software brought together for a seamless “sit down and play” experience. You really could live with nothing more than this one system and the vast bundle of usable sounds and virtual instruments for the majority of gigging, song writing, and recording tasks. Really.

Perhaps most notable is a rebranded version of Brainspawn’s Forte VST synth rack ($129 from publisher), called Open Labs Karsyn in this implementation. Not just a product with a new logo and skin, this version has a wealth of pre-sets based on the shipped software bundle to let you quickly jump to a category from the touch panel, like “acoustic piano” or “horns.” A lot of work has gone into these set-ups, and it really makes this a keyboard you can sit down and play as easily as a Korg Triton. Turn it on, press a button, make music.

For sequencing and recording, Open Labs has similarly outfitted the TSE with a customized version of the popular Cockos Reaper ($225 from publisher) multitrack audio and MIDI recording application. This suite has a 64-bit audio engine, built-in effects, no track limit, support for both VST and DX plug-ins, and can even support network FX processing to use unused processor cycles on a spare PC you may have on your network. This is no cut-rate freebie recording system, and puts anything found on normal keyboard workstations to shame; and gives more expensive DAW software a run for their money. Of course, you can run any Windows application on the NeKo, whether you prefer Pro Tools, Cubase, Sonar, or whatever. Again, Open Labs didn’t stop at just putting the application in the menu, they went in and set-up some really useful templates, including a quick-start template for hook-up to an Akai MPC.

For those who need to capture their vintage gear and bring that one sound from their Prophet 5, or Matrix 12 on tour, the Open Labs Mimik application provides an easy to use sample and go option. While they don’t say so, it looks to be the same application included with the E-MU EmulatorX2 software sampler, where it’s called SynthSwipe EX2 Automated Sampling. Since the TSE includes the E-MU Proteus X2 instrument, this would make sense. I’ve not used Mimik yet, but have used the E-MU version previously, and it really is easy to use and does work as advertised.

Additionally, the TSE has an application called Open Labs mFusion which is a master controller set-up and management control panel. This is where you can change the DJ slider to send breath controller MIDI data, or assign the faders and buttons as needed.

Sounds and More Sounds
While you may think that Open Labs has simply taken a bunch of free VST instruments off the web, dumped them into a synth rack application, and then called it a day, you would be so far wrong I would need to scold you for your misassumptions.

In addition to the fairly large library of classic Ensoniq sounds, which you can’t get anywhere else on a new keyboard instrument, the TSE includes E-MU’s Proteus X2 instrument, which is basically the Emulator X2 without the sampling capability. However, with Mimik, you can auto-sample hardware and virtual instruments, and this is what the majority of folks actually use sampling for these days outside of professional sound design. Good choices on both counts. Not content with the bundled sounds of the stock Proteus X2 instrument, Open Labs has licensed the majority of the huge archival E-MU library, which alone is worth hundreds of dollars (ahem, I know: I bought them previously to use with Emulator X2).

So, this means you’re getting the E-MU Vintage X bundle of classic synths and keyboards: samples of vintage gear like ARP, Moog, Roland Jupiter 8 and JX8P, Sequential Circuit Prophet 10 and 600, Mellotron, Oberheim OB, B-3 organ, Rhodes and Clavinet, and way more than I plan to list here. And they all sound really good. But, wait, there’s more! For fans of the classic ROMpler rack mount boxes, the TSE comes with the Proteus 2000 (all 1,024 presets of the rack mount box) and Mo Phatt module sounds.

Bundled virtual instruments include 4Front Truepianos (Diamond and Emerald), WusikStation V4 with added libraries (hybrid vector and wavesequencer, sampler instrument), Lennar Digital Sylenth (quite nice virtual analog synth), and Luxonix Purity (I’d likely call this akin to a Korg Triton in software).

Other useful things include Disco DSP Discovery OL edition, Vertigo, Crystal, UltraSonique, Cubix; and more than 40 other goodies to go sonic exploring with. It’s really easy to stack some of the one trick ponies in Karsyn to make entirely new instruments, too.

So, all told it really would cost you a bundle (at least $1,000) to go out and buy all the bundled software included in the box.

Out of Box Experience
I had a little bit of hesitation in choosing to buy the NeKo TSE, since on paper it looked really really good, but dropping nearly $5K on anything these days can be a real deal breaker when there are so many options for music making gear. Luckily my business has been doing really well this year, despite the economy, and I had recently sold my Korg OASYS 88 on eBay, so I started the research phase. This included a bunch of emails off to the Open Labs support team regarding various things, and they had good answers to my questions. Prompt and coherent, as I like to say.

NeKo TSE packingAfter watching the videos on their website ( and on YouTube, reading forum questions and answers, older reviews in the major magazines, etc., I ended up ordering one from the folks here in California (also always nice to work with). I do buy a lot from the folks at Sweetwater (shout out to Delvin Wolf), but they didn’t carry the NeKo. Apparently others made the jump on this new model the same time I did, so there was a waiting list (the 37-key version shipped first, which is perhaps more popular with the hip-hop/DJ crowd thanks to smaller size).

Getting the box from UPS after about 10 days was a delight as the box was professionally silk screened with Open Labs logos (unexpected quality there), and the packing was very competent for a product of this kind (see photo). Had very much a Christmas morning feel, which is always a good sign. It was not quite as obsessive as some of the Yamaha gear I’ve bought where they must have a custom cardboard factory someplace for all the engineering they put into packing, but far better than a Roland V-Synth keyboard I got where the packing practically had to be broken to get the gear out.

I was a little surprised there were no CD/DVDs, a printed manual, or anything inside the accessory box aside from a hex wrench, a getting started sheet (11×17, color), and power cable. Of course, I then realized that with two 500GB hard drives, the help files, video tutorials and whatnot would be on the TSE, which they were. I still would have liked a small printed manual, but perhaps my dinosaur bones are starting to show on that – in this era of reducing paper waste, and the fact that just about any tech manual is obsolete months after it’s been printed, it’s a good environmental and cost-saving choice.

Once out of the box and on a stand (I’m using the Standtastic 103KSB, seen in the photo) it was a quick shot to plug-in speakers, a second monitor, and start making noise. Thanks to its use of Windows versus a custom version of Linux (ala Muse Receptor), installing virtual synths like IK’s SampleMoog (see photo) or Arturia’s CS80 emulation was as simple as putting the disc in, exiting the GUI, installing the applications under Windows, connected to net for authorization, and done. It took the better part of a day to install various things I wanted to play with like the Korg Legacy collection, some East West instruments, and the now defunct Gigastudio VST instrument.

I really like the front panel (below the pitch/mod wheels) audio controls on the FireBox, for setting headphone and monitor out levels. Having two mic or instrument inputs “right there” at hand is nice, too, without having to remember which input is which on the back or pulling it off the rack to plug something in. The snazzy metal audio knobs have detents so you can actually set a headphone level “just right” and go back to it later. I have been a long time fan of Echo Audio products, and was new to the PreSonus line, but am really liking what they do. Aside from ergonomics, it appears this was a very good choice for “quality” and not just size. Open Labs has pre-set everything installed to run with the drivers (via ASIO), so you don’t have to worry about manually setting anything; and switching from 44 to 48Khz was simple using the ASIO panel.

The Player in the House
One of the things which make this product really fun as a keyboard player is finally being able to treat a virtual instrument as a keyboard. Sure, you may think using a notebook and a MIDI keyboard controller is just as nice, but not as far as I’m concerned. Being able to load up the Korg Legacy Collection Wavestation instrument on the NeKo TSE, and play it “right there” as if the keyboard had morphed into a real Wavestation (I’ve missed mine for years). You can even use your fingertip to move the virtual joystick on screen. Not as fluid as a real joystick, but much better than using the mouse in my opinion. Basically, any virtual instrument which has a standalone mode seems entirely new again when played on the TSE. I had a blast playing IK Multimedia’s SampleMoog on the TSE while writing a review of the software (see photo).

Playing IK SampleMoog on the NeKo TSEAnd, for others without a standalone mode, you’re a few taps away from loading something into Karsyn. I was impressed that Karsyn even has a drop-down menu of “recently added” instruments and “recently used” plug-ins, so when you first install something like Spectrasonics Omnisphere, you don’t have to go hunting through dozens of instrument menus to load it up.

There were some minor problems which came up, which was the pitch bend didn’t “center” properly every time, which I hadn’t run into as a problem since the days of my Oberheim XK keyboard controller with levers in lieu of wheels. Also, I found the final D# and F# keys made a “clacking” sound on release. I determined that the metal case top was a hair lower than it could be, and simply taking off the right end panel and holding the case top and re-tightening the right hand side screws solved that. For the pitch bend problem, tech support confirmed this was an issue that they could reproduce, and a week later they had a firmware update which they installed remotely for me over the Internet. No trouble since.

I requested they consider adding an option in mFusion to route the aftertouch to the mod wheel for those applications which don’t support MIDI aftertouch (many don’t), as it can be strange in this day and age to apply pressure and nothing happen. This is not a problem with the NeKo, as some non-owner forum trolls will assert, but lack of aftertouch support in the virtual instrument being played.

The fit and finish of the case is very nice with the exception of a little area under the left side of the keyboard which looked like it should have been sanded prior to painting, as it has a bit of a coin edge versus being smooth which seems out of place with all the rest of the edges on the case.

The controllers work well, although the notebook PC style touch pad for mousing takes a bit getting used to, and is a bit twitchy on some screens, just like a real notebook. I sometimes felt the touch pad was too sensitive and the select buttons required too much pressure. Generally, I found myself using the LCD panel whenever I could. I may end up adding a Logitech cordless USB trackball, maybe not.

The overall presentation feels good; not quite the industrial grade manufacture of some big name workstations, but way way beyond the built-in-garage hot rod approach. This is a mature, commercial product line and it shows.

Inside the NeKo TSE

Inside the Box
When looking inside the case to add some options (see photo), I was really impressed by the Zalman case fan, high quality power supply, high quality memory, very efficient wire routing and tie down, as well as epoxy glue on some of the connectors to keep them from coming loose in transport (essential for gigging). The glue was a nice touch, as I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to open my DSI Poly Evolver rack mount synth to push the little connector for the front screen that hair’s width needed to make it work again.

For the trolls in some of the forums who complain that the NeKo is nothing more than a PC and a keyboard controller bolted together, it’s worth mentioning the plethora of custom circuit boards inside the case (not shown) which handily disproves that assertion. There is way more engineering in place for this than even I (being a techie guy from way back) was expecting. That’s why it works so well: it’s engineered, not cobbled together.

NeKo TSE upgradesI’ve also customized my NeKo TSE by adding an internal FireWire card (mandatory if you want to use another audio I/O box while the FireBox is installed on the main FireWire bus), adding a mini USB hub inside to mount my iLok and Syncrosoft keys, and I’ve added another 500GB hard drive to use for sample libraries. This was done under the auspices of normal upgrades which won’t void my warranty, but you must be careful here if you don’t know what you’re doing (see added note regarding warranty, below -editor).

My only complaint was the cost of the brackets to mount the third hard drive, which was about $100 for two brackets and some screws from Open Labs. Sure, it’s custom cut premium aluminum, with grommets for vibration, but considering you can buy an entire Antec PC case for that, it was tempting to simply use the leftover parts I had laying about and tape down an Antec bracket I had (actually I did just that while waiting for the parts to arrive in the mail). Still, the OEM part is nice, but it cost as much as the 500GB hard drive, which seemed wrong somehow. Not evil mind you, just pricey.

Editorial note: after this story had been published, Open Labs requested I add the following note regarding the warranty: “This warranty does not apply: … b) to damage caused by service (including upgrades and expansions) performed by anyone who is not an Open Labs Authorized Service Provider; c) to a product or a part that has been modified without the written permission of Open Labs.” — which basically means if you don’t know how to install a hard drive into a PC already, don’t mess with your NeKo! As I’ve mentioned in my postings to the Open Labs tech support forum, you should always consult the tech gurus at OL prior to doing anything inside your keyboard, unless you truly know what you’re doing. More info: .

Other Choices
There isn’t a lot of competition for this product on the market. The Korg OASYS is a closed system, and suffers from a “let’s make everything new” mentality, which walks away from the huge library of sounds of the Triton era, and while it can sort of morph into a few vintage instruments like the MS-20, it can’t become a Wavestation, or stack instruments in place within “combis” to make hybrids of the various technologies included, and the OASYS recording environment is inferior to most software tools, such as Reaper included with the TSE.

The Muse Receptor ( is a versatile instrument for touring and studio use, and works very well, but it’s not a keyboard instrument in the same way a workstation like the TSE is. You “hook up” to the Receptor, you don’t “play it.” The Receptor is also currently hampered by the fact it’s running a version of Linux and can’t easily load many Windows plug-ins without special installers. If you need a dedicated box to run Native Instruments or IK Multimedia’s libraries, it’s a good choice for that, but it still requires a DAW and MIDI controller. I found the built-in synth rack to be versatile, but cumbersome, and it is really setup for those who want to program live sets versus just loading something and playing it.

Similarly, the SM Pro Audio V-Machine ( is a standalone VST player in a box, but adds support for Magix Samplitude 9 SE, as well as a nice selection of virtual instruments. The initial product is more geared for musicians using a notebook, and the box has only a 1GHz CPU, so you won’t likely be recording full on game soundtracks with it, but it’s insanely affordable for what it is.

And, yes, you can simply go out and buy a keyboard controller, a notebook, and a USB sound box for portable composing. In fact, I considered buying a top of the line CME or Novation controller with all the knobs and sliders, along with a PreSonus FireStudio, and a new HP TouchSmart 20″ LCD PC and “rolling my own” type of product along these lines. What I found, however, is that the “value add” provided by Open Labs with the NeKo TSE made it exactly what I wanted. The integration of the pieces (the control surface is pre-set to work with the E-MU sound library for instance), and the huge amount of work which has gone in to the pre-sets and a “clean” install of everything on board. It works for me, and I have no regrets about “should have done blah instead.”

Bottom Line
In practice I’ve had zero crashes, downtime, glitches or problems beyond a personal adventure in replacing the FireBox with a couple of PreSonus FireStudio models as the main audio I/O (another story). I now have both working and can choose which to use, depending on what I’m doing. I’ve also added the PreSonus FaderPort and the monitor controller for the FireStudio, which sit perfectly above the PC keyboard on the top left side of the TSE. For those who need additional controllers like drum pads, the new Korg Nano line is perfect as an add-on to the NeKo.

FIVE STARSAs far as running other DAW applications, Cakewalk Sonar 8 works great, and the only glitch of any kind I’ve had has been the streaming option turned on within Omnisphere, and the screen redraw in most recent update of East West Play engine. However, I don’t consider these to be issues related to the NeKo TSE.

For any keyboard player who wants a real workstation, complete with a vast sound palette, truly usable recording system, and those who also want a great live performance instrument, the NeKo is an excellent and unique choice. Some may find it pricey, but in my opinion it is well worth every penny once you discover everything you’re actually getting.

Music Industry Newswire rating: FIVE STARS.

Open Labs NeKo Timbaland Special Edition (TSE)

61-key workstation based on Intel Core2Quad processor, 4GB RAM, two 500GB Hard Drives, dual-layer DVD burner, PreSonus FireBox audio and MIDI I/O. Exclusive sound libraries with 35GB of premium sounds; custom licensed versions of instruments and DAW recording applications. List price: $4999.

Good value when all the pieces are priced alone; great integration between instruments and bundled software. Good ergonomics. Great technical support; including remote fixes/updates, prompt email and phone call-back support. They even monitor the tech support forum on their site daily. Extremely playable. It is compatible with all Windows XP applications. PreSonus audio hardware an excellent choice; ASIO drivers seem to work with everything. Upgradeable as technology changes (new motherboard/processors) via upgrade path policy.

No printed documentation beyond hook-up sheet; lacking documentation of any kind for certain things like video card settings to enable second display. Bracket for third HD is a bit pricey. A PC build sheet outlining motherboard model, video card capability (resolutions and timings supported), CD/DVD burner specs (in case of firmware update needed); used/open SATA, USB and FireWire ports, and similar data would have been nice to have in the unlikely event the company disappeared.

More information and tech specs on the NeKo TSE: .

Article is Copr. © 2008 by Christopher Simmons. All photographs are the exclusive property of, and are Copr. © 2008 by Christopher Simmons, all rights reserved. Article originally appeared on

Music and Recording Reviews

Review: IK Multimedia SampleMoog

REVIEW: I’ve been a fan of the late (and sadly missed) Bob Moog’s various sound creation inventions since the mid 1970s. I first saw one of his theremins at a Southern California museum and while the rest of my family perused the other modern art; I spent most of the day at the theremin making other-worldly tones with a wave of my hands. This led to a very short batch of piano lessons, from a family friend, but those lasted only a couple of weeks since he moved his family to a commune in Oregon. During this time I learned about other keyboards, and the nascent synthesizers being built at that time by Mr. Moog (pronounced like rogue, NOT like a cow mooing).

I was intrigued by Isao Tomita’s album “Snowflakes are Dancing,” played with Moog gear, which my mother had bought (my parent’s musical tastes were a bit eclectic), and the soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith for the film Logan’s Run which I saw in super-surround at the Los Angeles Cinerama dome on its premiere.

IK Multimedia SampleMoogIn 1975 (at age 13), I got to play with a Minitmoog for a week, and even though I was asking my parental units for photography gear to pursue my interests in the creative arts, they gave me a choice of the Moog (owned by a business associate who wanted to sell the small keyboard), or a 35mm SLR. I chose the Fujica ST701 camera, bought at a Long Beach pawn shop.

It was years later before I got back into synthesizers, but played a family two-tier organ for many years. The first synth I ever purchased brand new was a Sequential Circuits Pro One the week they were released. Dozens of keyboards later, stints in bands, some pro soundtrack work, and the usual, I finally got a cheap Concertmate Moog from Radio Shack, and a couple of years ago finally got a Moog Voyager. I’ve owned four Moogs personally, and played many others.

So, I was pretty interested to see the new virtual synth from IK Multimedia, which takes on the Moog and creates something of a “living museum” of arguably the best sounds from the history of instruments to bear Bob’s name (even he didn’t design some of them), would play. And, the theremin of my youth (ahem, 30+ years ago) is even one of the instruments to be included. IK wisely chose to sample the instruments, and then put these samples into what looks to be a re-skinned version of their SampleTank LE product.

Inside the box there’s two install discs, a nice-sized manual (kudos for including something us dinosaurs can read while watching 60 Minutes and not have to suffer through some illiterate web pages, YouTube videos or endless PDF tutorials to get started!) and registration card. The install is simple, and I actually appreciated having a separate installer on each disc for those sample folders, versus one giant multi-disc install. I’ve had a few problems with those 5-disc installs, where something goes wrong (are you listening Native Instruments?) on one of the discs, or something is missing, and it takes a second try, or skipping the missing data to get to the launch screen.

The layout is similar to other IK instruments, as you would expect, except there are vintage looking knobs across the bottom which give you a “feel” of a classic analog, without attempting to fully recreate any specific synth interface (see the included screen shot image). For example, rather than having all the knobs visible, you toggle to different groups for things like ENV1 (envelope 1, a nice AHDSR setup), or ENV2, filter controls, LFO1 and 2, velocity, key range, and sample engine options (normal sample engine, or STRETCH engine which allows some resynthesis options to mess with the sound a bit more than possible using typical sample playback and filtering).

It’s a nice mix of “simple” with some added features to go deep if you want to. So, while it’s not a virtual “emulation” of any one instrument, it does provide some features to modify, mix, and make your own patches from the included sample elements.

An included multi-effects unit provides 32 effects, with four effects slots. I was very happy to see a classic spring reverb, as my first mixer from Peavey had that, as well as my keyboard amp which had a “Marlboro sound blender” with spring reverb and delay. Vintage all the way. Typical DSP FX include reverb, ambience, delay, filters, wah, chorus, phaser, flanger, panning, tremolo, distortion, phonograph, crusher, and even some guitar cabinet and amp modeling. While these may seem like a bit out there for a keyboard sample player, or some garden variety DSP FX module re-purposed from another plug-in, the reality is that back in the ’70s and ’80s, the Moog was actually run through guitar amps, vocal boxes, stomp boxes, and other gear to make the electronic instrument sound weirder, bigger, wider, or just plain distorted since electronic keyboards did not contain any built-in effects in those days before DSP chips.

Ironically, when I first launched the SampleMoog, I was a little disappointed that the standard Minimoog patches all seemed to be “stereoized” when the original instrument was mono (not stereo). Since I own a Voyager and run the output in mono, the patches didn’t sound right, until my brain caught up and remembered that almost everybody runs the thing through either a stereo chorus, and/or delay pedal. Ahem, including me. So, when you listen to many of those old records with a Moog lead, it’s usually running through a chorus with comb filter to fatten it up to stereo, and a delay to create the echo-tail and thickening. So, after I started to go through the sounds, I got it.

IK and their sister company, Sonic Reality, have done a good job of creating “playable” sounds, and then very interesting multis/combis to give you a “produced” instrument sound — which is more like what you’d hear from a famous Moog artist, than what you would hear noodling with the actual keyboard at your local music store. However, you do have access to the original samples as patch elements, and you can easily switch from stereo, to mono, to spot-on legato modes of any main patch.

So, what instruments does SampleMoog cover? It contains a wide variety of the known and lesser known instruments, including three Modular Moog set-ups, a classic Minimoog Model D, Polymoog (best known perhaps from songs by Gary Numan), Taurus 1, Prodigy, Multimoog, Vocoder, Concertmate MG-1, Source, Rogue, Memorymoog, Etherwave theremin, Minimoog Voyager, and the more recent Little Phatty.

The manual includes a paragraph on each for historical purposes, but when using the virtual instrument your only feedback to which instrument you’re using is a tiny red outline icon mid right on-screen (similar to what is found in other virtual instruments like Arturia’s Analog Factory). I would have preferred something larger, perhaps in color for the nostalgic sense of using sounds from the vintage instrument, but since this instrument appears based on the SampleTank layout, there isn’t a lot of room for customization of the layout. In fact, this is my only real complaint with either the standalone or plug-in versions, is the lack of ability to change the interface; specifically the colors. Much like SampleTank, this instrument uses the “company colors” of LED-like red-on-black, which looks cool, but is generally difficult to read on a 15-inch LCD and for anybody having some aging eyes, color/contrast vision problems, and the like. Being able to switch the background color to white-on-black, or the snazzy black-on-blue of their SonikSynth instrument, or the yellow-on-black of the SampleTron, would seem to be a much-needed feature for all of IK’s standalone products.

In fact, I found out earlier this year when I was originally going to review this product that I had cataracts (congenital, which kicked in when I hit 40), I was unable to read the screen very well at all, and the screens in the manual were big black/grey blobs. Even after surgery and having my eyes back to 20/20, the elements are not as easy to read as they could be. Adding a color toggle to the right of the MIDI control button at top left would be a much welcome feature.

Regardless of that minor issue (unless you’re going blind), this collection is like a mini-museum of sounds that capture the flavor of Bob’s legacy at a fraction of the cost of buying even one of the actual instruments. For most musicians, there is no need to have the “actual” keyboards to put that famous Moog sound into the mix, thanks to SampleMoog. With over 1,700 sounds, and some really nice options to make the sounds your own beyond simple attack-decay filters, this is a pretty neat package. And, while I love some of the emulation instruments on the market, the benefit of “sampled” instruments is that you’re hearing the real Moog filter, not a recreation, and that unique combination of electricity running through wires and Bob’s circuit design is what makes the Moog instruments stand out, remain viable and highly desirable today.

Adding to its street cred, the product was developed in cooperation with Moog Music, and so it’s not a typical sample library with suggestive names like “mog lead” or “classic 70s.”

FIVE STARSI can highly recommend this product to anybody who loves the sound, even if they already own a Moog or two (as I do), because the choices made in instruments and sounds to include is spot-on. The FX and filter controls give you tweaking power over the core elements of the products’ sound, without having to worry about the reliability (or lack thereof) of vintage hardware. SampleMoog is also perhaps a better choice for those who want a wider palette of Moog juicy goodness than some of the emulations of Moog instruments on the market, since the difference in sound between the various models is sometimes very notable (take the Memorymoog, the Taurus pedal, and the Little Phatty, for example). Since the Memorymoog sounded more like an Oberheim than some other Moogs, when you layer that with the Taurus you get some really really cool things happening in your ears. If you want a Moog and can’t afford the current hardware keyboards available from Moog Music, then this is a no-brainer. All in all, a first class product and a nice combination of features to appeal to the widest range of musicians.

Available most everywhere that sells music software, for $269-$329, depending on cross grade, or street pricing. (See the IK website for cross-grade information.)

More information: .

Music Industry Newswire rating: FIVE STARS.

Specifications (the laundry list):
Software features
Works as a standalone application, as well as a plug-in
Fully compatible with Mac OS X (Universal Binary), and Windows (XP / Vista)
Supported plug-in formats: VST, RTAS, and AU
Over 600 multi-sampled sounds, over 1,000 preset patches, and more than 4 GB of samples included
16 part multitimbral
256 notes polyphony
16 individual stereo outputs
Mix view and full mix parameters control
32 DSP-based multi-effects (see Effects List)
Range Control allows for creating complex splits and layers
Total sound editing with full access to 50 Synth-Sampler engine controls
Instrument browsing
BPM syncable LFOs
Portamento Time control
Zone feature for single sample accurate editing
Part Volume / Pan controls
Expanded easy to use full MIDI control
Part and Combi preset save features
Convenient back-up function
Search function
Sounds can be read by SampleTank 2

2 Synth Engines
Newly enhanced STRETCH(tm)
Traditional Resampling

Effects list
Reverb, Spring Reverb, Reverb Delay, Ambience, Delay
Filter, Envelope Filter, Multi Filter, Wah-Wah
Chorus, Multi Chorus, Phaser, Flanger, Envelope Flanger
AM Modulation, FM Modulation
Auto Pan, Tremolo, Rotary Speaker
Lo-Fi, Distortion, Phonograph, Crusher, Overdrive
Pre Amp, Tone Control, Cabinet
Parametric EQ, Channel Strip, Compressor, Limiter, Slicer

3 Performance Modes
Legato 1-2

Article is Copr. © 2008 by Christopher Simmons – all rights reserved. Story originally appeared on Disclosure: a free NFR review copy of the software was provided to the author of this article.

Articles Music and Recording

Christopher’s Savvy Guide to Podcasting – Part Three: Outline of Producing a Show

ARTICLE: CHAPTER TWO: Outline of Producing a Show — Choosing to create your own Podcast can be approached in several ways, which will vary depending on your goals. For the kinds of Podcasts we’re going to cover in this article series (originally intended for a book) and this chapter, it’s generally assumed you have a personal computer with an Internet connection, which would be the primary necessity for the typical form of Podcasting.

Podcast Station 2005Although it’s technically feasible to record a Podcast from any telephone by setting-up an account with a Podcast Hosting provider, and use an Internet Cafe to check the show, this would be the least likely method used by the average person reading this article series. On the other hand, this method might be ideal for a “world traveler” who is doing a show about a journey or simply on the road a lot.

In this chapter:

  • Getting Organized
  • Overview of What’s Involved in Producing a Show
  • Scripting a Show and Creating Guest Questions

Getting Organized
Starting the journey of producing a show might involve evaluating the best process for recording and hosting a program.

Things to consider in getting organized:

  • Pick a topic or focus for your program
  • Evaluate and determine if you will use an online Podcast posting service, or host your show on your own Website
  • Choose how to record (on your PC, or online, with free or commercial software)
  • Acquire tools needed such as microphone, audio interface, phone interface (for recording phone interviews), software, determine how to generate RSS Feed File, either through software or by hand
  • Sign up for online Podcasting account, or Web hosting account and domain name (if you don’t already have one)
  • Prepare possible list of program “episodes” and guests
  • Record Program(s)
  • Optimize for Web including META data
  • Get content online and into iTunes
  • Advertise and promote show
  • Measure and track audience
  • Live happily ever after

Overview of What’s Involved in Producing a Show
In the following flowchart (Figure 2-1), you will see an overview of a possible procedure for first evaluating how to produce the show, then upon choosing the appropriate method, moving forward with production, implementation, testing, and marketing.

As you can see from the flowchart, the first step is to decide what your show is going to be about. Actually, if you’re a prolific person with lots of interests, or a business owner with many diverse offerings, there is no reason you can’t create multiple shows for different audiences.

Chapter 2, Figure 2-1
Figure 2-1: Flowchart of program development tracks. (CLICK for larger version.)

This process can include evaluating existing programming using a Podcatcher (see Chapter One, Part Two of this series) to see if you can do something better. For a business you might check out what the competition is doing. For a personal show, you might decide to do something different if there is already a glut of the topic you were thinking of doing. Of course, just because there are other shows out there on your chosen topic, there’s nothing to stop you from bringing your own “flavor” to the idea. Think of ice cream, there are more outfits offering ice cream each year, and it’s still pretty much the same thing, but each new offering brings its own customer base.

So, looking at Figure 2-1, the left “track” involves evaluating program topic(s) and recording methods, while the right “track” involves evaluating the best way to put your show online.

In this chapter we’ll take a look at choosing the best way to produce a show for your needs, and in the next chapter we’ll get into the actual steps in recording a show. By evaluating these two chapters you should have a very good sense of which approach to use. Chapter Seven also has additional information on the hard costs, and hidden costs, to all methods of hosting a Podcast, as well as some how-to information on managing content that must be uploaded to a Web server via FTP (File Transfer Protocol, which is a special way of sending files to the server’s hard drive from your PC).

The Three Likely Production Methods
In the following comparison chart, you’ll see a quick look at the three most likely methods of producing a show which are also noted in Figure 2-1.

Basic Overview Chart

Scenario One
The first choice would be to add a program to an existing business or personal Website (as in but with your own site name). Under this scenario, you would either be adding the show to a site you already have that describes your services, or is a personal blog or company entertainment site; or, you would be creating a new site specifically for the Podcast(s), where you could build supporting content and information about your show and each episode.

The benefits to this approach are enormous from a marketing perspective because the content lives in one place online over which you have total control, belongs to you, is portable from one hosting provider to another, and allows for building support pages for each show and tracking the audience of all your materials in one system. The downside is that this takes some planning, some ongoing maintenance of your account, and content management completely separate from your Podcast .

Some of the other benefits include peace of mind. For example, if the free Podcast hosting provider or your Website hosting provider goes out of business, you have all your content, you own your domain name, and you can easily simply point the domain at another hosting provider and your downtime would be as little as 48 hours. For advertising and marketing purposes, it makes way more sense to invest your time and money into promoting your own domain name over something like

If you want to earn immediate revenue from your Podcast site, you definitely need your own Website, because you can add Google’s AdSense program to your pages, and when people come to your site, relational advertising is shown and you earn a commission on each click. For example, if your Podcast site is about animal rescue and pet nutrition, and you have a page for each program episode that describes information about the guest or the references that inspired your episode, the AdSense program would automatically put pet nutrition related advertisements on your site pages. By having a unique page for each episode, the page can more likely be found in search engines which drives people to discover your show, and for your audience members who found the show through a Podcast directory, it leads them to your site to learn more about the program.

Scenario OneWhat would you put on an episode page? Well, you could have a page that includes photos of what you’re covering in an audio program, such as an interview; for a music guest, you could have a bio and CD covers, and you can include bibliographic information that might be tedious to listen to or write down for a listener to your show.

For another example, let’s say you have a Podcast program about digital photography. For one episode, you might have a program about how to find the best deal on Nikon digital SLR cameras, and your experience as a new owner. On your episode page, you might include sample photos taken with the camera, list all the accessories and options for the camera model (e.g., flash, lenses, cases), manufacturer image of the camera, and sample pricing from different vendors. This can be a huge benefit to an audio-only Podcast because it invites your audience to visit your site and interact with you, perhaps even leave comments about the episode, or click advertiser links to “support” your program. Then, in your Podcast, you end each episode with “for more information about this episode, visit our Website at ….”

Yet another benefit to managing your own site is that you can solicit donations for your efforts, by setting up a PayPal account (an eBay company,, and putting a “donate” button on your pages. Over the past several years this has proven to be a viable way to earn some money for your efforts, and tens of thousands of people take this approach to letting their audience contribute to the continuation of the show versus charging some kind of subscription fee. It’s much like the “shareware” approach to software, where programmers offer their applications for free, and people are encouraged to pay for it if they find it truly useful. It won’t pay your rent (most of the time), but if people want to support your pet rescuing or digital camera testing efforts, it sure doesn’t hurt!

Finally, another superior benefit to this first approach to creating and managing your program is that you have access to what are called the “raw log files” on the Web server. If a hosting provider doesn’t offer this, go elsewhere immediately. Although many hosting providers offer some basic “site stats” monitoring (often a popular program called Webalizer, see Chapter Ten), the raw log files are the big daddy of information about what is going on every time somebody visits your site, reads a page, downloads a Podcast file, or tries to hack into your site maliciously (yes, this will always be going on no matter what kind of Web presence you have — it’s primarily a nuisance and not a fire alarm to worry over).

Being able to obtain, download and generate reports from your log files is critical to measuring your audience from any Website. The log files do exactly as the name implies, it “logs” every visitor to your site and tracks all kinds of information such as where the visitors are coming from (such as a search engine, other Website link, advertisement, and country), which page or other file is viewed the most, and obscure things like kind of Web browser used, operating system, and even the keywords used to find a specific page from major search engines. And there’s more! The log file even gets down to the level of how long each visitor stays on your site, the average number of pages they view, and what day and time of day has the most visitor “traffic.”

Your log file — well, log files actually — are explored using a software program called a Log Analyzer, and this subject is covered in more detail in Chapter Ten. The Log Analyzer slices and dices all the data so you can look at specific months, generate reports to court advertisers, and determine if an online advertising or search engine marketing strategy is effective or not. A log file is not a hit counter, which can count page visits and some other data, instead it’s the in-depth logging of everything going on with your site every hour of every day.

The reason I’ve dwelt on this for a bit, is that with any free or inexpensive Podcast hosting service you may not receive any tracking, or the cost of adding tracking options might put the cost at about the same as having your own Website to begin with. On the other hand, some sites like do provide an option for pretty good basic tracking reports when you switch from a free account to a $10 per month account.

Again, this may be adequate for a personal or start-up show, but not a commercial site, or for those wanting to do some serious online marketing through search engines.

Scenario Two
If you’re doing a fun “home brew” program about a topic that interests you, or for which you are an expert or experienced person with opinions to express, you might not be overly concerned with initially want to sell advertising or getting a sponsor. In this scenario, you may or may not want to set-up a special Website for your program as I’ve outlined in the previous section, above.

The benefit of having your program hosted through a Podcast-specific hosting service, or with something like Apple’s .Mac service, is that you don’t have to worry about things like domain names, creating pages in HTML programs, or learning to FTP files to servers. With some Podcast hosting services, you can even record your show by phone, and you don’t even need to deal with software, microphones, or the like.

Scenario TwoOne of the downsides to creating a program that lives on any kind of “free” or “hosted” Website that is not your own, is that when promoting your show, you are actually promoting the site where your show lives as much as your own program. When you have your own site, all of your promotion efforts will always be towards getting folks to visit your site, and if you launch new shows, retire old shows, or “remix” content, it’s all under your control, which is not the case with a “hosted” solution.

Still, it’s ridiculously easy to set-up a Podcast within half an hour with a site like,, or (to name a few). In an upcoming chapter I walk you through setting up and recording a show with Podomatic. If you’re a musician, Gcast is a good choice because it’s tied into which, as the name implies, is a wonderful portal for independent and unsigned musicians. Podomatic and Gcast are free, while Hipcast has a base fee of $5 per month to get started (free trial period) but has some neat tricks for those wanting to do video ‘casts or tie in a personal blog on the same site. If you have a new Mac, it’s wise to look into the options included with a .Mac account.

If you don’t want to have your own domain name, don’t want to learn to build Web pages supporting your show(s), or deal with optimizing files, uploading files, or the like, then this second scenario of doing it all online may be the perfect choice. And, you can always change tracks later if you wish.

One real downside is that if the free Podcast site goes out of business (so many “free” Web ventures of the past decade have disappeared that it’s a genuine concern) you might lose all your content, your subscribers, and all the hard work you put into it. Thus, it’s critical to make sure you subscribe to your own show, and download all the files you create online to your PC, and then back-up the files to CDR or DVDR for posterity and security.

Scenario ThreeScenario Three
In this scenario you combine the best of both worlds. For instance, if you have an existing site where you may have hired a designer or Web firm to build it for you, it might be time consuming to learn to record audio and implement a Podcast and add a new content section on your site.

However, it’s relatively easy to record a show on a free Podcast site, then simply have your Webmaster or site manager link to that on your existing homepage.

This approach can allow you to “test the waters” with minimal or no investment, and then decide if you have the time and inclination to pursue creating regular content, and if your customers or audience find it valuable.

Scripting a Show and Creating Guest Questions
One element often overlooked by new ‘casters, is the idea of scripting your show. This can include writing the intro/outro for each show which stays the same, so that you don’t have to re-record it each time (such as “Welcome to the Sten and Rimpy Show, where cartoon animals tell you what to watch on TV”) and the copyright info and plug for website which might end each show to fade out.

A program lineup can be a rundown of possible show topics, placeholder titles, and possible guests, and even target publication dates (“air date”).

These elements can be tracked in various ways, such as in Microsoft Excel (or similar spreadsheet program), or using index cards on a bulletin board, with one card per program episode.

Guest questions can be far more effective if you make yourself a short list of ten topics to cover, with possible follow up questions. This keeps you from flailing about with things like “how’s the weather down there,” which you’d likely need to edit out later.

By having some actual questions in mind, you can also help steer the path of the interview so that it doesn’t meander all over. In coming up with your questions, it’s a good idea to do some background on your guest and locate possible past interviews so that you’re not asking the exact same questions he or she has already spoken about over and over. By having more “involved” questions from you, it’s more likely you will elicit a far more human response from your guest, which will be more interesting to your audience.

While it’s certainly a learning adventure to produce a personal podcast without any pre-planning and just “run with it,” you may find that in order to produce a regular consistent show, you need to consider some of these processes in order to maximize your own time spent.

For a business program, or marketing effort, it’s also essential to treat the program as a project with deadlines, structure and consistency in order to sell advertising or generate revenue through a subscription model.

Organization and planning can help make your program more consistent so that your audience has a comfort level that they can come back for more, and that there will actually be more. If you do programs at oddball times, skipping weeks, or months between, you run the risk of being dropped from subscription lists in Podcatchers. If you plan to do a regular weekly or monthly show, some of the topics found in this and upcoming chapters may help you in keeping on track.

Coming in Chapter Three (Part Four in Series)
CHAPTER THREE — Recording Options for a Program
* Tools You May Already Have
* Two Track or Multi-Track Audio
* Choosing and Set-up a Microphone
* Make Your Own Podcast Kit

Article is Copr. © 2005-2007 Christopher Laird Simmons – all rights reserved. This article series, including text and images, charts, and glossary, is protected under U.S. and international copyright law – unauthorized reproduction or republication, online or offline, in whole or part without express written permission of the author is strictly prohibited. Originally intended for a book, “The Savvy Guide to Podcasting,” this content also appeared on

Articles Music and Recording

Christopher’s Savvy Guide to Podcasting – Part Two: The Basics

ARTICLE: CHAPTER ONE: The Basics — If you’ve read the introduction to this series of articles, you may have an idea of what a Podcast is all about, but now we’re going to start getting into the details; the specifics of what, where and how to listen to or build a Podcast program.

In other words, this chapter will give you some of the basics about what is going on when a Podcast is being created and listened to.

In this Chapter:

  • What is Podcasting
  • Podcatching 101
  • The Difference Between Internet Radio and Podcasts
  • Where Did Podcasting Come From?

What is Podcasting
The simplest explanation is that a “Podcast” (iPod + broadcast = Podcast) is an audio or video program which can be viewed online or offline, and which can be “subscribed to” using special software on any personal computer and selected media players like Apple’s iPod. Through a subscription mechanism called RSS (Really Simple Syndication, or Rich Site Summary), Podcasting provides a simple way for interested parties to find, subscribe to, retrieve, and listen to (or watch) Podcast “shows.”

A Podcast can be a talk show where guests are interviewed, political commentary about government issues, a movie review program, lifestyle tips for new parents, tutorials on how to fix a car, or just about anything you can imagine. It can be a slick, Entertainment Tonight style program with background music and high production values, or a personal journal of places to stop on Route 66 recorded on a pocket audio recorder. Pretty much anything than can be recorded in audio or video format can be made into a Podcast by converting the content into a Web-ready format, and creating a RSS “feed file” that tells people how, where and when they can get your show.

Web directories, like the Apple iTunes Music Store, can sort and categorize Podcast programs based on “tags” found in the RSS feed file that describe program episodes and other data about the overall program such as who created it and where to find it on the Internet.

You do not need an iPod, or any portable entertainment device, to listen to or subscribe to a Podcast, but many devices, including Sony’s PSP and Motorola iTunes-capable phones (or any MP3 capable phone), can play Podcasts. A Podcast is “subscribed to” using a “Podcatcher” (or news aggregator), which is a computer program designed to regularly “check in” with a particular Podcast’s RSS feed file for updates, and “catch” the latest “episode” for a subscriber to listen to.

Figure 1-1 (c) Simmons
Figure 1-1: Relationship between PC with Podcatcher, connecting to a Web server and RSS feed file that points at the actual program episodes.

To be clear, almost any media device which can play a MP3 format audio file can “play” a Podcast, since it’s essentially no different from a song file “ripped” from a music CD. What makes Podcasting different is the ability to get updates automatically via RSS using a “feed file.” So, your Motorola RAZR phone with Web browsing can be used to download and listen to a Podcast episode “on demand,” but does not have the ability to (yet) run a Podcatcher application to go out and grab new episodes automatically. Some folks are calling this kind of ‘cast a “Mobcast” or “Mobicast” (mobile + Podcast/broadcast = Mobcast).

The Podcatcher is used to subscribe to a “feed” which is a small file using XML “tags” that tells the application when your Podcast has been updated, and where to obtain the latest file, which is typically a MP3 audio file, but can really be any type of audio or video file format including RealMedia, Apple’s AAC, QuickTime or even Windows Media. Note that using certain formats will limit the audience, as some formats won’t work with every device or software.

It’s important to be aware that a “Podcast” is simply a term for a movement which began on the Internet long before Apple’s iPod music player existed or the term was coined. It’s about the sharing of rich media (audio or video) information in such a way that anybody can easily find and subscribe to such content without having to manually return to a specific Web page over and over to see if there’s something new.

Some folks who are disparaging of the term “Podcast” prefer to call them audio blogs (Web + log = blog), or video blogs (or “vlogs”). However, we’re going to stick with the term “Podcasting” for the remainder of this series. Chances are that people will be far more likely to know what you’re talking about if you say “I launched my own Podcast” versus “I started my own audio blog” unless you’re in the inner circle of mega-geeks who eschew anything which smacks of populist branding or consumerism. Ironically, many of the original pundits who became semi-famous for their blogs have left the blogosphere now that blogs are considered mainstream.

It is advisable that before considering creating your own Podcasts, that you first explore a little bit what is already out there, and how others are doing it, to get a better sense of not only what is possible, but also perhaps how you might do something better (see Chapter 2, part three of this series, for Podcast Business Plan tips).

If you’re new to the world of Podcasts, the next section will show you how to locate and listen to Podcasts on your PC.

Podcatching 101
While “Podcatcher” sounds like somebody from a crack team of government agents trying to track down pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in actuality Podcatching refers to a software application which is capable of subscribing to and playing a Podcast.

For instance, Apple’s iTunes software, when running on a PC, is a Podcatcher because you can subscribe to programs, and listen to them on your computer (see Figure 1-2). What makes iTunes so “insanely great” (to quote Apple’s founders) is that it is also a superb directory of programming, both free and fee-based, especially if you’re an iPod owner. And, unlike the majority of other Podcatchers it handily plays video “inline” without needing to launch external video players.

If you’re not already using iTunes, it’s easy to get, and if you don’t want to use iTunes there are a huge number of Podcast directories you can explore simply by pointing your Web browser at a URL (see Appendix in the final episodes of this series for a listing of such directories).

To get the free iTunes software, simply go to and follow the directions found there for your particular operating system. Of course, if you own an iPod, you’re certain to already be using iTunes.

To find Podcasts in the iTunes Music Store, simply click the Music Store link found in the left menu in iTunes. Then, in the “Inside the Music Store” menu, find the text link that says “Podcasts.” (The layout in the store does change from time to time, so you might need to look at the menus on the left or right side of the store to find it.)

Once you’re in the Podcast directory (Figure 1-2), you can use the various navigation elements to browse by topic, new and notable, Today’s Top Podcasts (right side of screen), or other options like fan favorites (again, this section of the iTunes Music Store changes frequently and may differ today from this screen shot). There is also a search box on the left side where you can do searches for topics you’re interested in. For example, try doing a search for “music” with the choice “Search Podcast Titles.” This will bring you to a search result page for Podcasts with the word music in their title.

Figure 1-2 © Simmons
Figure 1-2: Apple’s iTunes Music Store is an example of a Podcatcher, as well as a Podcast directory.

You’ll find this can be a lot of fun, real quick. For example, I’m a big fan of musician Joe Satriani, and while writing this article series (originally a book project) I ran across his Podcast on iTunes promoting his new album “Super Colossal.” Instead of just doing a weekly or periodic rant about rebuilding his garage or the new car he was thinking of buying (you will find celebrity Podcasts of this nature, sadly), he created a program where each episode he talked about the inspiration and production of each song on his new album. This allowed fans (like me) to get a taste of the thinking behind the new album and where his head was at while making each song, with a taste of each track. I was able to watch the clips and listen to the music while working out on the elliptical machine at the gym thanks to the video capabilities of my iPod.

Juicy Podcatching
It would be rude not to mention the grandpa of Podcatchers, iPodder (which is now called “Juice Receiver”), created by the folks who brought the term Podcast into the public sphere. Developed by former MTV “veejay” Adam Curry and his pals, iPodder was what brought the concept to many of us who got our feet wet before the media knew what we were doing.

Today, Juice Receiver (see Figure 1-3) is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux and the lead programmers are Erik de Jonge, Andrew Grumet, and Garth T. Kidd; with the interface design by Martijn Venrooy. Since the program is free, you are encouraged to use the “donate” option on the Juice site if you end up making the program your primary source of enjoying and catching Podcasts.

This application contains the pedigree of iPodder, but has been updated to be more user-friendly for the average person, and now spotlights the numerous popular directories of program content. Once installed on your computer, Juice allows you to subscribe to programs found online or from within its built-in search features, and then download them to your computer and/or portable media device.

Figure 1-3 (c) Simmons
Figure 1-3: Juice Receiver is the latest iteration of the “original” Podcatcher.

Juice has a very simple interface, where there are tabs across the top, then windows below. On the “Subscriptions” page (see Figure 1-3), there are two boxes (or “panes” of the window), where the top box has a list of Podcasts you have subscribed to with the Location URL (URL = “Uniform Resource Locater” or Web address) of the feed file.

The bottom box shows the episodes of the program selected in the top box. Thanks to the uncluttered design, you can easily see the size of the program files, its episode title, and the URL where the audio/video file lives (which can be entirely different from the URL of the Podcast’s RSS “feed file”). I find the URL feature useful, since it helps to know that I’m not subscribing to a Podcast by singer Jason Mraz that then says it’s coming from someplace in Russia or Korea, which might be an indication it’s potentially some kind of “spyware.”

TIP: It’s wise to keep an eye on the URLs of Podcasts you subscribe to, to ensure you know where the content is coming from, since the content is going to be downloaded to your computer. Having a robust anti-virus program on your PC is a must. I’ve found Avast ( to be the best choice overall for Windows XP, since it scans downloaded content, also has protection when visiting actual Websites, and does a full boot-scan of the system without launching Windows. If you’re ultra-paranoid, you might consider using iTunes for Podcatching, since the iTunes Music Directory system automatically checks submitted program feeds to ensure they actually work, which is not the case with many of the Podcast “directories” out there.

One of the technically impressive aspects to the program is that you can have it run in the background “listening” for new programs and downloading them to your PC while you work on other things and can be set to launch automatically when your computer starts up, where it can spring into action for you while you’re checking e-mail, newspaper sites, or your stock reports (see the TIP on this page for a caveat).

Another feature that makes Juice a step above some of the free Podcatchers out there is that it integrates a wide variety of Podcast directories within the program (see Figure 1-3) where you can search for content, automatically find categories of content, and even see specific show lists in a simple browsing mode. In some ways, this is actually easier to use than iTunes, albeit without all the fancy graphics and listener ratings and feedback.

Juice is also a great choice if you have a media player that is not compatible with Apple’s iTunes, such as a Windows Media Player device, or Sony music players (Sony added support for the iPod music format in Spring 2006, but the iTunes software only directly supports iPods). Or anything that uses memory cards (SD, Memory Stick, etc.). Juice allows you to get audio and video Podcasts and download them to your portable media device in the same way iTunes works with iPods. It cannot “purchase” programs through the iTunes store, but if you’re looking to listen to the bazillions (which is more than a hundred, but less than a trillion) of Podcasts out there that are free, or sponsored in some way, Juice is a terrific choice. If you have a Sony PSP, then you might look at the special software that Sony offers for about $20, specifically for getting both audio and video Podcasts into your PSP as simply as possible (it may even be free with a new PSP by the time you’re reading this).

To obtain the program you need to start at the open source home for the application, which is: (if this link does not work, start at then click link on right side to “Download iPodder”). Downloading the application is a little confusing, but is almost identical to downloading and installing Audacity (see Figure 3-7 in Chapter 3) and so won’t be illustrated here. If you are inexperienced at downloaded or installing software on your PC you should look at iTunes first.

Possibly one of the coolest things about Juice Receiver, from a marketing standpoint, is that for about $100, you can create a custom version of Juice ( to post on your Website, which is pre-loaded with your Podcast feed(s) and includes your own logo (graphic of your company name) and main Website URL. This is a wonderful way to keep your brand in front of your audience, and can make it simple for those who want to hear your show but don’t want to spend a day getting an education on how to listen to your show. This is very highly recommended if you are launching a business or money-making Podcast hosted on your own Website, and particularly if you have multiple programs on different topics, with different hosts, or which you classify by “channels,” since the custom version of Juice would give your listeners just one download to be able to stay up to date with everything you do.

Like everything else that is Internet-related, these offerings may change over time, or be discontinued or seriously altered by the time you read this.

Podcatching in your Web Browser
If you happen to use the Firefox Web browser ( instead of Internet Explorer to surf the Internet on a Windows XP machine, you can get a very nice extension called “Wizz RSS News Reader” by Mike Kroger that allows you to subscribe to and enjoy Podcasts. If you look at Figure 1-4, you’ll see the three windows at left, where programs are listed in top box, episodes of a selected show in the middle, and information about a selected episode in bottom box. In this image you can see my site, where I have just subscribed to the program using Firefox, simply by dragging the orange XML logo onto the top left box. The plug-in is free, but the plug-in may direct you to the author’s site in the Web window from time to time. You can find this and other News Reader extensions at the Mozilla Website; you can install an extension, try it, and if you don’t like it simply disable it using the Tools function (see Help topics in Firefox).

Figure 1-4 (c) Simmons
Figure 1-4: The Wizz RSS News Reader extension running in the Firefox Web browser.

Microsoft is including “instant RSS feed” support in version 7 of Internet Explorer, which is being developed side-by-side with the new Windows Vista operating system for 2007. Although with Microsoft’s competitive stance toward Apple and vice versa, you might not actually find the term “Podcast” anywhere in the new versions of either Internet Explorer (also used by AOL) or Windows Vista.

If you own a “modern” OSX-based Apple Mac computer, your included software from Apple for Web browsing may support subscription to RSS feeds. In fact, Apple includes a wealth of tools like the Safari browser, iLife, iTunes, and .Mac, many of which can be used to subscribe to and even create and host a Podcast.

Getting it On-Demand
Most Podcasts are also available to listen to “on demand” when the Podcast is located on a dedicated Website. For example, for my own entertainment Podcast, I allow people to view a menu of my shows, with photos and background information on guests, and visitors can choose to click links to listen to the shows in MP3, or RealAudio that “streams” from the server. The RealAudio version is 1/3 the size of the MP3 and is right on the edge of sounding poor, but is still very listenable if somebody has a really slow modem connection. This allows interested people to listen to a specific show without having to subscribe to the show, or use a Podcatcher in any way.

Ideally one should consider making a program available in multiple formats, such as MP3, RealAudio, and Windows Media. In some cases, the Windows Media version can end up being no better sounding at the same size as a well-produced MP3 file, which can be redundant (as on my own Website). On the other hand, future versions of Windows may inherently have some kind of preference for the Windows Media format, so if you have the space and bandwidth, it does not hurt to make the programs available in all possible formats.

See Chapter 4 for specifics on file formats, data compression and the “gotchas” related to program downloads.

TIP: If you are building (or have built) your own Website around your Podcast, it’s a good idea to consider building a portable Web (e.g., “WAP”) compatible version of your site, with simple navigation, that allows people using increasingly popular mobile Web applications on their cell-phone or PDA/Treo/Blackberry to easily view and click links for your programs by episode with different levels of compression (more compression means smaller file size, but poorer sound quality). A common way of doing this is by creating a sub-domain, such as, and then identifying that URL to your prospective audience if they want to surf your program on their phone.

Finding Podcasts and Podcatchers
In addition to the software programs noted above, there are many other Podcatcher applications out there, including some which run on a Website for tracking programs and use a small player application you download, and others which don’t require you to download or install anything on your computer.

There are so many out there now, that you could spend an entire weekend sorting through all the options and possibilities. If you’d rather just get on with your life, then the programs mentioned above will get you going with the least possible suffering.

* For a list of Podcatcher applications and Podcast directories, see Appendix, which will be part of the final chapters of this series.

The Difference Between Internet Radio and Podcasts
What makes a Podcast different from Internet radio, or regular downloadable “on demand” audio files, is the wide acceptance of the RSS (Really Simple Syndication) file format. RSS is an offshoot of XML, which has transformed the way people can share and acquire information. RSS is similar to an HTML file used to create Web pages but with different “tags” that describe information and links to rich media files.

RSS adds the “subscription” component, enabling PC software and music devices to find new content by simply reloading the RSS file at specific times. So, if your software is “subscribed” to a specific RSS file (or “feed”) then each time that file is updated, your software sees that and acquires the latest content described and linked to in the RSS file (see Chapter 5 for example RSS files used for Podcasting). This software is often called a “Podcatcher” because it is catching the new content (Podcatchers are described in detail at the beginning of this chapter).

Because a Podcast is not live (being broadcast in real-time), but on-demand, it works the same way the Cable TV providers offer movies on-demand, where the movie is downloaded to the cable box then played back when asked for.

Podcasts are also different from Internet Radio in that Web-based radio is a point-to-point streaming method, that requires a software “port” (or “seat”) for the listener to “plug in” to (see Figure 1-5). Internet radio stations have a finite number of such ports and so if there are 1,000 ports, then the person attempting to plug-in (or connect) after 1,000 people are already connected, would not be able to do so. Or, another way to look at Web radio is that there are 1,000 “fixed” copies of the audio file that can be accessed at any one time. By having this “port” method, it allows for a single user or “seat” to view the file exclusively without interruption since nobody else is asking for that same copy. During playback the radio server is talking (or “hand-shaking”) with the PC that is connected to a port, to balance the playback based on the speed of the Internet connection so that you don’t hear gaps or interruptions (depending on what else you might be doing at the same time on your PC).

Figure 1-5 (c) Simmons
Figure 1-5: Illustration showing difference between Internet radio (left), which requires one port/seat per listener, and Podcasting (right), where any number of listeners can “subscribe” to a feed file that points at episodes of a program.

On-demand files are basically limitless, because each person who asks for it (or “demands” a copy) is just downloading the file data on the Web server to their own PC and because the server can “cache” the data in memory. Playback is handled on the PC of the person downloading it (or on an iPod) and is not “talking” to the server in real-time while the file plays back.

Of course, “limitless” really means up to the limit of what the Web server can handle and is sometimes directly limited by “throttling” which is the method Web hosting providers use to limit the amount of system resources used by any one domain on a shared server.

For very popular video content, like the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, a file network is used and provided by companies who are set-up for this, like Akamai ( File networks use multiple servers to “scale” the number of streaming seats to the actual demand, so when 5,000 people want the file, there are resources to handle that, and if 50,000 people want the file at once, the system “scales up” to meet that demand. This is, of course, not inexpensive.

Normal “on-demand” files require you to ask for the file, hence the term. With Podcasting, you are subscribing to a single “feed file,” which then asks for any new content for that show without you having to ask for each new episode manually.

So, the upshot is that on the listener (or “client”) side, Podcasting is like an automated on-demand system; each time a new show is made, your Podcatcher will go get it for you. For the show producer, Podcasting on the “server” side is much more affordable to set-up, and requires no special “streaming” capability since it is not live content. See Chapter 6 for more information on issues related to Podcast Web hosting, and “gotchas” for managing Podcast content online.

Where Did Podcasting Come From?
The “invention” of Podcasting as a phenomenon is generally attributed in the media to former MTV “veejay” Adam Curry in 2004. However, many of us were doing regular online audio programs on our Websites (I had one in 1999, and was interviewed on another in Aug. 2000) which are identical to today’s “Podcasts” except without the subscription model facilitated by RSS.

In actuality, Curry created a software application called iPodder, to work with RSS “feeds” created by Dave Winer for some interviews that had been posted online in MP3 format, and building on work by Userland Software (Radio Userland). Some historical Websites on this topic claim that Danny Gregory coined the term “Podcast” itself. But there was a lot of pre-existing work done by others related to Internet Radio and RSS, and so the exact date of creation is not so simple.

The early history of Podcasting and the mechanics involved in its evolution would require an entire book of its own and is better left to Web historians. This article series is focused on those of us more concerned with making a Podcast and getting it out to the ears and eyeballs of our potential audience.

In fact, even as this (originally a book, now an article series) is being written, Podcasting continues to evolve. Other terms such as Screencasting, Mobcasting, Mobicasting, Nanocasting, Businesscasting (allegedly coined by the author of this series), Microcasting, and iPodcasting have been used and even trademarked. After all, applying a subscription distribution model to audio or video content does not have to be related to an iPod in any way.

Since you don’t technically need an iPod to create or listen to (or watch) a Podcast, it’s not unreasonable to assume the terminology may change over time and a future version of this series may not even contain the word “Podcast” as it is used today. On the other hand, Podcasting might become the default term for any audio or video subscription content in the some way that trademarked brands like Xerox and Kleenex have become generic terms for similar products produced by others.

However, for our purposes we’ll assume you are interested in learning more about Podcasting, and so let’s get started.

Continued in Chapter Two (Part Three in Series)
CHAPTER TWO: Outline of Producing a Show
* Getting Organized
* Overview of What’s Involved in Producing a Show
* Scripting a Show and Creating Guest Questions.

Copr. © 2005-2007 Christopher Laird Simmons – all rights reserved. This article series, including text and images, charts, and glossary, is protected under U.S. and international copyright law – unauthorized reproduction or republication, online or offline, in whole or part without express written permission of the author is strictly prohibited. Content originally intended for book, “The Savvy Guide to Podcasting,” but also appeared on

Articles Music and Recording

Christopher’s Savvy Guide to Podcasting – Part One: Introduction

ARTICLE: INTRODUCTION — Podcasting is only the latest social and economic trend to be born on the Internet, which over the past decade has brought online shopping, auctions, dating, movie rentals, and blogs to individuals and businesses who need nothing more than a PC (personal computer) and a phone line to get access to this more-and-more interconnected global village.

Want to create a Podcast? This series of articles will walk you through the process. What do you need? In reality, all you will need to create your own show is a PC, an Internet connection, a microphone, and this article series or comparable book (and, naturally, something to say).

This series is written for both the savvy business person who wants to explore ways to add Podcasting to a marketing or customer support program, and for anybody who is interested in understanding not only what a Podcast is, but how to create, enable, and even market one to an audience. For musicians, this guide will help showcase some interesting “quick start” options available online today through social networks and music posting sites, that can help side-step the learning curve of yet another software application — using instead a simple web browser and file upload and click-point procedures.

blue snowballIf you’re a Gen-Y, or Gen-Z, you can even print this out and give it to your parents so they have a clue what you’re up to in your bedroom, spending so much time online while wearing a headset mic and brandishing a “Quiet – I’m recording” sign on your bedroom door (an eBook will be available will all the series parts, for easy reading/printing).

What is Podcasting?
What is Podcasting? In the simplest possible terms it is a way to put audio or video content onto the Web, and through a subscription mechanism called RSS (Really Simple Syndication), provide a way for interested parties to find, subscribe to, retrieve, and listen to or view such content on a PC or portable media device (like Apple’s iPod, Sony’s PSP, and multimedia telephones than can play MP3 files).

But, in a very real sense, Podcasting is actually a misnomer. While the advent of what we call Podcasting, a combination of the words iPod and broadcasting, was inspired by folks who wanted to generate and listen to audio programming on Apple’s iPod media player, you don’t actually need an iPod, or even any portable device to enjoy a Podcast program — all you need is a PC and some software, sometimes called a “Podcatcher,” which allow you to subscribe to a particular program and listen to or view it.

A Podcast can really be any type of programming. A talk show, audio blog (Web + personal log = Blog), newscast, a music performance, or any combination of these things. A Podcast is not “live” as with AM/FM radio, or the nightly TV news, and is really more akin to “on demand” programming you might find with your modern Cable TV company.

podcatcher devices
Modern portable media devices that can play Podcasts include Apple’s iPod, Sony’s PSP, and Web-enabled mobile phones (L-R). Image is courtesy and © Christopher Simmons.

Podcasts can be almost any audio or video file format. For audio, content will most often be MP3 (technically MPEG-2 Layer3) audio file. For video: either H.264 video or MPEG-4 format video, which are compatible with video-capable iPods and Sony’s PSP (the helpful glossary provided as part three of this series can help you sort out some of this tech jargon, but I’ll provide short explanations where appropriate to keep your mouse button finger from getting chaffed zipping back and forth).

If you are a TiVo user, you’ll understand the concept of subscribing to a Podcast immediately, since it’s almost identical to a “season pass” for a TV series, except you’re using PC software to set-up your “subscription” to the Podcast. Since TiVo has announced support for moving video content to iPods, it’s likely by the time you read this that you will be able to subscribe to Podcasts with the TiVo ToGo service if your TiVo has a Cable Broadband connection.

If you already have an iPod, and/or have Apple’s iTunes software on your PC, then you have a Podcatcher, and may already have explored Podcast programs by clicking the Music Store link in your library menu, then the Podcasts link from the “Inside the Music Store” menu. If not, the next edition of this article series will explain what “Podcatching” is and how to get started in exploring the world of Podcasts.

What makes this series different from others is the overall view of creating a program, and helping to get you past the tricky bits, including the pitfalls of actually hosting your Podcast on the Web, and “getting the word out” about your show. I call it a “savvy” guide to Podcasting, because once you finish reading it you will be “more savvy than the average bear” (with a nod to Yogi Bear) on everything related to Podcasting!

A Blip or a Movement?
While I was writing this series during a period that starting in late 2005, and much of 2006, a number of Wall Street and venture capital types began to weigh in on Podcasting as a blip in the business and entertainment culture, versus a true movement of change. I, and many others who have been at the forefront of past technology shifts, strongly disagree with this view. I remember being on the launch team of an e-commerce Web site in 1995 and then going to business seminars in 1996 where various business and financial opinion leaders were stating emphatically that online shopping would not take off, and cited the example that women preferred to lay on the couch and dog-ear pages in fashion catalogs — which could not be done online. Ten years later, I think that notion has clearly been disproved. (Many online sellers did add “wish lists” to their stores which is a definite response to the dog-eared page crowd.)

Podcasting is not simply a label for yet another marketing buzz concept, but the first step in a different kind of social movement for creating and sharing ideas and content, and making it easier for people to find the content without relying on branded search portals like Yahoo! or Google, or an entertainment empire like Time-Warner or Disney, to control who sees what and how.

Certainly some are using Podcasting as a way to troll for money to start new ventures, which may or may not be viable business models, but entrepreneurs looking to spend other people’s money on a business gamble is nothing new, and this is not the core of the Podcasting movement.

Because the RSS mechanism that makes Podcasting work can be used in so many different ways, virtually anybody can set-up their own directory, and even create “re-casts” of content from favorite sources. This is so far outside the established mechanisms of TV, Cable, or print subscription models, that it’s too soon to even speculate on how far this will go, except to say that there are now millions of folks who are expressing themselves and getting their message in front of the exact same audience that normally would only see something from a major corporate conglomerate — this is both freedom and power for “the little guy” (and girl).

Because video is now cheap and easy to make, even with some cell phones, the video blogger is spreading “vlogs” of their ideas, music, and extemporary thoughts, onto social networking sites like and, and mini-celebrities are being made every day. The distinction between a video blog (or “vlog”) and a video Podcast is subtle, but technically both use RSS feeds to help people to subscribe to recurring content from the same place. Video which doesn’t include an RSS feed would simply be a video, and neither a vlog nor a video Podcast.

Podcasts are really “food” for portable devices like the iPod, just like a DVD is food for a DVD player.

As I write this introduction, Apple has sold well over 60 million iPods worldwide and will likely surpass 100 million in early 2007 (the U.S. has about 300 million citizens). That’s no “blip” by any sane measurement.

To further illustrate the popularity of the iPod, one need only look at online auction sites like, where in any given week, the iPod was in the top ten most searched for terms; in fact, during the week surrounding Mother’s Day 2006, the #1 most searched for item on eBay was for used iPods.

There is no age range or social class that defines the Podcasting culture, either on the producer or listener side, and that is what makes it such a compelling social change.

Who is Creating Podcasts?
As you might expect, those folks with an expertise in some area are doing Podcasts about what they know; whether it’s tending to a sick pet, or how to custom build a “Gamer” PC. Others are creating interview programs with industry experts and celebrities, much like a radio talk show. Museums are adding Podcasts for walking tours, and at some museums you can even buy the iPod on your way out of the building.

Still others are creating audio diaries for world travel tours or other adventures using phone-in free hosting services like And, as you might expect, commercial interests like traditional radio and TV broadcasters have joined in with their own original and repackaged content.

On my own Podcast, I interview unusual people doing interesting things, whether it’s writing a book about pop culture, or being a counter-culture champion (see:, which is being rebuilt as I write this, so depending on when you read this it may be a dull page or a flashy one – relaunch ETA is Spring 2007. You can find one version of the show in the site where you’re reading this article, here: ).

To give you an idea of how widespread this movement has become, in the first 60 days of Apple adding Podcast support to the iTunes Music Store in August 2005, over 15,000 programs had been added to their Podcast Directory. A year later, the numbers had tripled. For example: 2,600 Business Podcasts, 3,300 Comedy Podcasts, 7,700 Entertainment Podcasts, 7,200 Music Podcasts, 3,000 News Podcasts, 3,900 Talk Radio Podcasts — and this is just a tiny sampling of the programming available.

During the past year and a half some “home brewed” Podcasts have even broken into the mainstream, and have acquired advertiser support from corporate America. Others have become so popular that they have moved from being “free” (as most Podcasts are), to being offered to paid subscribers only. Other entrepreneurs are creating subscription fee-based video Podcasts for education and teaching purposes, and replacing the old-school (pun intended) CD-ROM delivery model for on-the-go e-learning.

Some quick examples of notable Podcasts:

    * “Five Minutes with Wichita” — hosted by amateur bluegrass musician Wichita Rutherford, features interviews with Nashville performers (created with a Mac notebook, two microphones, and an online Podcast hosting account). Between March and November of 2005, his audience grew to 200,000 regular listeners (

    * “MommyCast” — features two mothers from Virginia, Gretchen Vogelzang and Paige Heninger, talking about child rearing topics for 20 minutes per episode. This program gained some notoriety in late 2005 for acquiring a corporate sponsor, the Dixie Company (makers of Dixie cups) — one of the first privately produced Podcasts to acquire major sponsorship. The MommyCast site had 200,000 downloads per month at the end of 2005. In 2006, they added a MommyCast Music Show (

    * “This Week in Tech (TWiT)” — is a Podcast from the former hosts of TechTV’s “The Screen Savers,” Leo Laporte and Patrick Norton, along with Kevin Rose. The Screen Savers, which was arguably the best ever program on cable TV for people who wanted to know things like how to “overclock” a PC, or change the system registry of Microsoft Windows, was sorely missed by many when G4 took over TechTV and retired the show. TWiT brings back all the good things about their show, and is one of the most popular “techie” Podcasts out there (

    * “The Ricky Gervais Show” — is one of the most popular celebrity-fronted Podcasts, hosted by actor Ricky Gervais (of “The Office”). This show became so popular in February of 2006 (the #4 most downloaded Podcast on iTunes), that it moved from the free space of most Podcasts, and became a “paid subscription only” program powered by the Audible network. The second season of the show was offered at $1.95 per episode, or $6.95 for the entire season.

    * National Public Radio — Daily and weekly Podcasts from NPR and member stations ( I particularly enjoy “World Cafe” from WXPN in Philadelphia, hosted by David Dye, that combines new music with interviews and often features guests as diverse as David Bowie and Yo Yo Ma.

These examples illustrate that the fundamental “success” of a Podcast is the same as with any entertainment medium: content that comes from the heart, as well as developing and sustaining an audience. For an instant look at many diverse kinds of Podcasts being created by people around the world, visit

Using this Series
This series is organized, and may be approached, in several ways. If your interest is in learning how to create a Podcast, then you can explore the series chapters on creating content, and getting a program onto the Web (chapters will be posted every other week starting March 2007). If you already have a program and want to get an audience for your Podcast, then this series will help you there, too, with how-to help on advertising and promotion. If you’re a marketing VP or work for an agency in the advertising or entertainment fields, this article series may help enlighten you on the whole process to better explain to clients or to prepare an internal company proposal for launching a Podcast.

The “chapters” have been organized based on the path one might take in first formulating and developing an idea for a Podcast, to choosing how to create a program, to optimizing and encoding for the Web, creating the feed file, and publishing on the Internet (note that “Web” and “Internet” are used interchangeably in this series), to promoting a program, to measuring who your audience is.

Also, throughout this series we will consider PC to mean “personal computer” and not a Microsoft Windows-based computer.

Coming up next:
* What is Podcasting
* Podcatching 101
* The Difference Between Internet Radio and Podcasts
* Where Did Podcasting Come From?

Continued in the next part:
CHAPTER ONE: The Basics (click to continue)

Copr. © 2005-2007 Christopher Laird Simmons – all rights reserved. This article series, including text and images, charts, and glossary, is protected under U.S. and international copyright law – unauthorized reproduction or republication, online or offline, in whole or part without express written permission of the author is strictly prohibited. Blue Microphones graciously provided a review unit of their wonderful Snowball USB microphone (“mic”) which has been used during the creation of this article series.

Articles Interviews Music and Recording

Interview: Peter Frampton Talks About ‘Fingerprints’

INTERVIEW: In September 2006, Peter Frampton released his first all-instrumental album, called “Fingerprints.” For the project he was able to bring together not only many of his contemporaries and peers, but also a couple of his long time “heroes” and inspirations, Hank Marvin and Brian Bennett of The Shadows. The album showcases many influences, including the rock beats Frampton is known for along with “quieter” instrumentals with a jazz sensibility, and even blues.

The following is a transcription of a phone interview which took place on Nov. 17, 2006 between rocker Peter Frampton and author/musician Christopher Simmons.

Chris: Well, first off, let me say real quick, that I’m a fan, love the new album (“Fingerprints”), (and) thanks for taking the time today to talk about it.

Pete: You’re welcome. Thank you very much.

Chris: And, thanks for all the music.

Pete: You’re welcome.

Chris: My first question is: You have talked a lot in other interviews about your influences in learning to play the guitar like The Shadows ( For this album, “Fingerprints” (, did you have any “I’ve arrived” moment in a musical way while you were in the studio with Marvin and Bennet — or maybe an odd feeling to be working with your heroes. Could you talk a little about that?

Peter Frampton Pete: Well, it was a surreal day in many ways. I’d just flown in from New Zealand the night before. Because Hank had just finished the tour with the Shadows with Brian and Mark, the bass player, and two nights before Hank wanted to… needed to go home and he lives in Australia. So, we should have met somewhere in the middle.

Chris: Right.

Pete: The thing was that, obviously, in London, Mark Knopfler ( lent me his studio which was very nice of him.

Chris: Yeah. Cool.

Pete: And, Hugh Pageant (engineer) came along as well, which was an added bonus. So, it was too perfect not to do it there. So, the whole day was pretty surreal. I think when Hank said “What do you want me to play here?”

Chris: Right. Play whatever you want!

Peter: I said “How about some Hank Marvin?” You know I can’t tell Hank Marvin what to play. He said, “Yes, you can.” He said “I need some input here.” It was wonderful. It couldn’t have been any better. I think not playing well I did end up playing in it. Hank had found out from his tech Lionel, that I’d been talking with Lionel the day before setting up and he knew – he let me touch the guitar – you know, Hank’s guitar. So, Hank said “What’s your favorite number?” Well it has to be “Wonderful Land” which is a ballad with strings, just for its melody and sound. When we finished recording, I noticed that Hank and Brian were – something was happening – and Brian went back out to the drums and Mark went back to the bass and then I said “What are you doing. Did I not get the message or memo? “Oh no,” Hank said, “We’re doing our recording now.” So, he was joking and they were waiting for the machines to roll and then they played “Wonderful Land” for me. And then like half way through the first verse he said “I need a rhythm guitar player.” That was the moment I realized I had come full circle and I connected the dots all the way.

Chris: Great.

Pete: And here I was after hours and hours of learning to play the guitar and play Shadows numbers and here I was playing it with them! You know the only one who wasn’t there was Bruce. It was a pretty spectacular day.

Chris: Do you think there is a chance you will do another project with them or an album?

Pete: Hank has mentioned when he does his next project that he is thinking of doing something along the line of a “jangoesque” gypsy jazz thing himself – an acoustic thing – and he and I have a common interest. So he said “Would you be interested in playing on my record, and I said yes.” Who knows? It took me ten years to get this one together. So, I don’t know how long it’ll take Hank. But it better not take that long because I’m getting on there.

Pete with Shadows
Shadows – Hank Marvin, Brian Bennett, Mark Griffiths. Photo – Denis O’Regan.

Chris: Yeah, I think we all are! Yeah, when you start getting to that age you start looking around and saying, “Let’s see, what haven’t I done yet?”

Pete: Right.

Chris: What do I still want to do that I better get started on?

Pete: Exactly.

Chris: That actually leads me to my next question. What haven’t you done yet that you still want to do creatively?

Pete: Career wise, musically?

Chris: Creatively, whether its painting, or movie sound tracks.

Pete: Yeah.

Chris: Or building a bridge somewhere.

Pete: Yeah, like anything. Well, I think that I would love to do a …. I’ve always wanted to do a film score. But I don’t know if I could work as fast as that. I guess you’re put in a position you do it. It’s a very, very tedious situation, even for the big guys. You know a piece will get rejected by the producer or the director and you got to scramble and get it redone in two hours and, you know, uplink it to this and whatever. And, I don’t know if I could work that way. So, I guess I’m talking myself out of a job.

Chris: (Laughs.)

Pete: But, I’d love to do it because I use to hang with Jan Hammer. We both used to live around the corner from each other in New York while he was working on that Miami Vice thing. So I’d see him do that and work on it. He was phenomenal with that.

Chris: Yeah. He was kind of one of my influences in doing music in the eighties. I had the same Linn9000 drum machine that he had.

Pete: Don’t we all!

Chris: I ended up doing that style of music. That was really popular back then. That’s how I got my first little sound track gig doing a TV cable series in California.

Pete: That’s great!

Chris: I couldn’t make the transition doing film because, of course, like you said, there is a lot of that. It’s almost an art in itself.

Pete: Yeah.

Chris: Quick turnaround and trying to second guess what the directors or producers are seeing in their heads and sometimes that’s very different from what you are seeing in your head.

Pete: I’m not sure that would work well for me. Because it’s like I have vision of something and that’s why I think it would have to be the absolute perfect marriage of director and myself to work on a piece. When you consider I just saw “Flags of Our Fathers” – I don’t know if you have seen that?

Chris: Yes, I have.

Pete: It just blew me away that he did this incredible job again and the music is him “plinking” around on his piano and his sons tape it. I don’t mean… it’s very good, that’s what I’m saying. It turns out that it is very simplistic, but it has passion and it invokes the feeling he wants at that particular time in the movie and it’s almost like you don’t notice it, but you notice it. It really works. It’s very clever.

Chris: Right. He brings out the emotion without overpowering it like a (Jerry) Bruckheimer movie where the music is 50 percent of the experience.

Pete: The way he does it just taps into it a little further, into the emotion of what you are seeing visually, and I think it’s brilliant.

Chris: A lot of people I know forget of course that “Play Misty for Me” – he did that. People forget he did the music.

Pete: Yeah.

Chris: It’s not something he just decided to dabble in.

Pete: No. He has been doing it for a long time. Didn’t he do a blues and jazz documentary or something where he was talking to piano players? (Editor’s Note: this was “Eastwood After Hours,” a jazz documentary of a 1996 concert held at historic Carnegie Hall.) He is really involved in music and has been all is life. So, anyway, that would be a dream situation to work with somebody that you are simpatico with.

Chris. Right, that you’re on the same wavelength with.

Pete: Or, some project that took awhile, but I had some time to build it that way. That would be great. I would love to do that.

Chris: This is kind of an ad industry question because I also run an online advertising magazine. One of the questions we have been bandying around… You definitely have locked into it with this album and a little bit with the last one – with all this alternative marketing. Has this been an interesting process? You are doing a lot of this sort of thing – like hand delivering albums from and doing podcasts.

Pete: Right.

Chris: Kind of like what we’re doing right now.

Pete: Right.

Chris: Who the heck is this guy you’re talking to- you know? How has this process been for you? Anything weird about it, or anything different (from the traditional process of album promotion)?

Pete: Everything is changing in the record industry. It used to be that touring would sell records. It is now the other way around. The few that buy the record, then decide that they will go see the show. Things have changed drastically because people are stealing the music which is the record company’s fault because they didn’t embrace the technology right away. They treated it like the enemy. If they had their head screwed on, we would be in a completely different situation right now. But they didn’t and so it hit them like a ton of bricks. Unfortunately, the by-product of that is that songwriters — they are the ones that get hit the hardest – the ones that don’t perform. People that write songs, hopefully, sell records. The percentage that it’s down in the last 10 years is like incredible. I don’t know what it is, but in the last nine months it went down another 15 percent in record sales.

Pete and Stones
Peter, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts. Photo: Denis O’Regan.

Chris: You don’t have the kind of radio air play that there was say 10 years ago, especially, or 20 or 30 years ago where something would get played and played in rotation and the songwriter would be saying “there’s another ten cents and another 10 cents.” You know? You played it three or four times an hour on a high-powered FM station — that sometimes would pay for the house.

Pete: Right. Exactly.

Chris: And now, you know a lot of people don’t even do the radio. They’re doing the subscription stuff.

Pete: Right.

Chris: And you got the online stuff of course, like, the legal version of Napster where you got people paying 10 bucks a month. How much can songwriters be making off of that?

Pete: Unfortunately, it’s diabolical what is happening for people who make a living out of writing music and recording music. But, you know, the cat’s out of the bag and you don’t want to cry over spilled milk — how many more can I use here?

Chris: (Laugh.) Has there been anything that you have run across doing this sort of alternative — the whole buzz marketing thing? Is there anything you have run across that is kind of fun or surprising that you did not expect from this non-traditional stuff. And, I am not talking about your appearance on “Duets.”

Pete: Right. Right.

Chris: Which we are all trying to forget.

Peter: I was worried he was going to body slam me!

Chris: You thought that you were signing up for “Duets,” but it was actually “Celebrity Death Match”.

Pete: That’s right. Yeah. At least they don’t have me on “Come Dancing” or whatever it’s called. I would probably have been so bad that I would have outlived Jerry. So, anyway, I can’t really think about anything fun about marketing.

Chris: You know I do it for a living and so I try to find those little nuggets where you can try to have a little bit of passion somewhere, but there is still that kind of … you are telling your own story over and over again. Well then, as along as it doesn’t hurt too much, I guess that’s a good thing.

Pete: No. You try and do as much as you can. You do have to do more than you did before, but first of all, you are not getting the air play like we talked about. You have to rely on more visible things – like we were on Fox News in the Morning- we got a lot of hits from that. And then, the other night I was on Jimmy Kimmel Live and sat in with the band. That was good. But, he said that the record was called “Fingertips.”

Chris: (Laughs.)

Fingerprints CD - Peter FramptonPete: That wasn’t great, but then he said “Fingerprints” a couple more times afterwards, so that was good. This instrumental record, you know, before you even turn any form of recording equipment on, that you’re potential of sales was diminished in a diminishing business. I didn’t do this expecting to make a lot of money. I did it because I have a passion for the guitar and I haven’t done an instrumental record and I better put my money where my mouth is — finally — and at least make a start. So, I knew that’s what it would be — it is amazing that TV is just not interested — if you know what I’m saying.

Chris: Yeah. I was thinking about that the other day. Since I’d seen Beck on Saturday Night Live, which has kind of revitalized itself this year from being a kind of a crap fest for a couple of years now and I was kind of going “Why isn’t Peter Frampton on here?”

Pete: Right.

Chris: You’re right. There isn’t. VH1 is showing wacky TV shows and you have to go off — way off center to find anything like — oddly enough, I think you have been doing a pretty good job with this sort of alternative (stuff) — because of the Web – you know the Internet has become almost like a portal for entertainment now like TV was in the 70s.

Pete on SoundstagePete: We did (PBS) Sound Stage ( ) — now that was one of the first gigs that we did of the tour with the new five piece band. That is coming out in February, I think, or late January. (Editor’s note: part one aired Jan. 18, and part two airs Jan. 25, 2007.)

Chris: Fantastic.

Pete: It’s already on some HD thing — I don’t know how you get it. I think it is on Direct TV or something or one of those DISH networks. You can catch it if you have that certain dish.

Chris: You have to have the right satellite hookup.

Pete: You have to be with the right company. It definitely is on PBS in HD in late January, early February.

Chris: Well, fantastic. Since you have a limited amount of time, let me ask you one more question. What do you consider to be success today? What puts you in a happy place creatively? Is it live concerts, getting feedback from your peers on your new album? Is it the fans’ reaction?

Pete: I think there are two levels. There’s a personal level and a creative level. For my professional level; they are linked creatively. It’s been this record — making it and putting it out there, and playing some of it live and seeing the reason has been liberating for me. I feel that if anyone had doubts about where my passion lies, that should go out the window. If they care to look and find this record. I think this, hopefully, is almost it — the happiest of times — but we know that doesn’t happen all the time. But right now, I am happy because this has done wonders… this record for me as a player, has definitely really pushed me to work hard on this and the playing and everything so — it has been very satisfying to know that the end results were well received as well.

Chris: I think that there is a lot of interest in what you’re doing today even if you’re not in the same consciousness level with Britney Spears and all that kind of malarkey.

Pete: Yeah. Yeah.

Chris: I don’t know if you read the review I had written on one of our web sites. It’s amazing – just that review on our web site has been read something like 160,000 times.

Pete: Wow! Which review did you do?

Chris: I did the one that was on ( ) and also the site we’re re-launching,

Pete: When did that one go up?

Chris: I think around the 20th or 21st of September (on eNewsChannels).

Pete: OK. I’ve got it. I know I’ve got it.

Chris: One of the things I mentioned is the passion of what you do comes out in this and I think that, not just the fans, but other musicians can pick up on that.

Pete: Oh good.

Chris: I think you’ve pulled it off.

Pete: Well, good. The main thing was I had the most fun making this record mainly because I didn’t have to write any lyrics.

Chris: (Laugh.)

Pete: But no, no, no, it was just great to, well, okay, there’s no vocals here, so how do I make the second verse as interesting as the first verse? You know what I mean?

Chris: Yeah.

Pete: I enjoyed the creative path that it’s put me on. You know it was really, really a lot of fun.

Chris: Do you think that you’ll do another instrumental album or go back to the conventional wisdom or mature vocal type album?

Pete: There will vocals on the next one. But it will be as different as this album was for me. As different as I can make it from any other. I just don’t even want — I got the bug of doing something new or really pushing myself to the limit of expressing some other part of me. Do you know what I mean?

Chris: Right.

Pete: It worked out to actually put me on a limb, where I should always be. I’m not saying that I’ve been lazy before, but I’ve enjoyed going where no Peter has gone before.

Chris: That’s how you learn. It’s the adversity thing. Nobody learns how to change a tire on their car until they have to.

Pete: Exactly. It definitely was an eye opener all around and definitely great for me as an artist. Knowing the feeling I was getting it as I was doing it. I will never forget that feeling. I know I’ve got a benchmark feeling for knowing that I think I’m right here. I think that is really good. I know that feeling can equate with other people as well. Not that I think of other people while I’m doing it, but it’s nice to know that what I like about what I do or can do- other people are picking up on too. You can’t ever feel like “well today I’m going to write a hit song.” It’ll probably be the worst song in history.

Chris: (Laughs.)

Pete: And, it probably won’t be a hit. So, you can’t plan a hit record, you know? I guess there are some people who can, but those are the sort of songs I don’t listen to.

Chris: Exactly.

Peter Frampton 2006Pete: It’s all about passion. At least, that’s what I feel. Some days I got it, some days, I don’t. It’s great. I love that part too. Some days I don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere and the reward is two days later, you do something that you dreamed about that you could never do. And, that downtime is always a learning time. It’s always preparation time and I realize if I can’t write or can’t get it right, it’s because I am practicing. The practicing I do will make it sound good tomorrow, but not today. I leaned a lot making this record.

Chris: Well, great. Is there anything else you would want someone to know about the project that maybe no one has asked you about? Anything you had in the back of your mind? Like, boy, I really wanted people to know this about the album, but I didn’t have the chance to say it.

Pete: Gosh, not really. I think we’ve covered just about everything. I’m giving it a good try but can’t think of anything.

Chris: Well, I know sometimes I’ve interviewed people about stuff and they say “well, no one asked me, but…blah, blah, and blah.” People get in the rut of asking the same sort of questions like “how did you get the idea of using a talk box?”

Pete: Right. Right…

Chris: Or, what’s your favorite song on the album? What kind of clothes do you like?

Pete: Yeah, I know. This has been different.

Chris: Well, I was trying.

Pete: Yeah, it’s been great.

Chris: Trying to come up with something different from the perspective of someone who is into what you do versus the contractual obligation interview you have to do.

Pete: Right. Exactly.

Chris: Well great. I know you have got to get on to doing some other stuff this morning so I really appreciate your taking the time and I will let your team know when we’ve got this up on our website so you can check it out.

Pete: Fantastic, Chris.

Chris: Great talking with you and like I said, I have been a fan since the 70s, obviously. This album was right on. I’m your target audience. I’m into the guitar instrumental albums, so when this album came across my desk, I was like “hey,” how cool is that?”

Chris: Best thing I can possibly say is thanks for all the music, buddy!

Pete: Oh well, thank you.

Chris: It’s been great and can’t wait for the next one.

Pete: Alright, thanks a lot.

More information on Peter Frampton’s music, history, upcoming concerts and appearances, and much more can be found on his website, at:

Article is Copr. © 2006-2007 by Christopher Simmons – all rights reserved. Story originally appeared on, and was originally intended for my podcast. Note: images for this interview were sourced from the website, and are the exclusive property of the copyright holder. Image from PBS/Soundstage is the property of PBS. All rights reserved.

Articles Music and Recording Reviews

Music Review: Peter Frampton ‘Fingerprints’ (2006)

REVIEW: I was pretty excited to hear about the new disc “Fingerprints” (A&M/New Door/UMe) from Peter Frampton, a seminal guitar god from the ’70s who became enormously famous for his “Frampton Comes Alive” album and for his formant-tube guitar “talk box” sound on that record 30 years ago. I hadn’t really thought about him much lately except when my iTunes jukebox cycled around to his tunes. So, getting the new disc was like hearing from an old friend again.

Peter Frampton 2006What makes the album intriguing is that it’s an instrumental album, where Frampton teams with many musicians he is friends with, or who he’s always wanted to work with. The press materials have a great paragraph about the disc which I could reword to make my own, but I think it speaks well of the line-up of talent found on the album:

“Fingerprints features Frampton having exhilarating musical conversations with a who’s who of the pop world, including Rolling Stones Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman, Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready and Matt Cameron, original Shadows Hank Marvin and Brian Bennett, Allman Brothers/Gov’t Mule slide slinger Warren Haynes, Nashville pedal steel virtuoso Paul Franklin and gypsy guitar maestro John Jorgenson. In addition, Frampton band mate, Gordon Kennedy, who co-wrote many of the originals as well as co-produces the album, is prominently featured as a guitar companion.”

When I mentioned to a couple of friends I was reviewing the new Frampton album, inevitably one smart remark came up which was “Frampton is still alive?” which, although a jest at the expense of Pete based on the title of his mega successful “Alive” underscores how many of the truly talented musicians of the 60s, 70s and 80s who don’t subscribe to the “hit factory” school of music can fall from the public’s consciousness. The last I’d really heard from Frampton was in 2000, when he earned a “Best Rock Instrumental Performance” Grammy nomination for “Live in Detroit” and I bought the 2003 “Now” which earned this review from an Associated Press writer: “When it comes to fiery, guitar-drenched rock, Frampton delivers.”

Unlike many of his rock contemporaries, Frampton has traditionally not done collaborations to raise awareness of his albums, or to stay current with the so-called gen-x and gen-y crowd. Carlos Santana has always been an instrumentalist who brings in guest vocal talent and lyricists for the current decade, and this has helped him sell CDs to new generations who would not otherwise have known who he was.

With solo artists like Frampton, who does both the playing and is the front man on vocals, it’s actually harder to stay fresh in a world filled with boy bands and overly sexed teen pop princesses. Without directly catering to “boomers,” it’s difficult to compete with “My milkshake brings more boys to the yard” or the latest Beyonce video, or the crop of pop-rock bands who provide the soundtrack for just about every youth oriented TV show and movie currently made. Ironic since he was one a pop idol, movie star and as recognizable as any music celebrity. But, he’s always a little overshadowed by that one big album that is still considered the best selling live record of all time (with 16 million copies sold, it’s also one of the best selling records of any decade in any genre).

Personally I think it’s a really ballsy, and possibly brilliant, idea to do an instrumental album and concentrate on both the playing and the vibe that comes from good rock, blues and even the pop-jazz music of sax players like Dave Koz. I am likely the target audience for this disc, since I buy every album that Joe Satriani puts out, since I dig his guitar playing, and the rock and melodic hooks over which he can then noodle or riff without worrying about whether the vocal performance or lyrics mean anything or not.

For Frampton, I think the instrumental CD was also a brilliant idea since it’s a little later in his career to be singing of first loves, riding that pony to the rodeo, or any of the other pop music clichés that are recycled for each new set of tweens and teens. Even rock and metal have their clichés, and it’s often easy to fall into that. Even Paul McCartney suffered from some pretty unremarkable work during the long decline of his wife Linda, and the subsequent album when she had passed was filled with the emotion of that, and then his work when he found new love was a major rekindling of his gifts lyrically and musically. But major life events like these are not always fodder for good music, and few can bring emotion to their craft in quite that way. The point is: the “voice” you bring to an album is most notable when it’s from the inner workings of your soul, your psyche, or your experiences. With this disc, Frampton gets to play guitar, which is his core happy thought when it comes to music. And he’s a great player.

Fingerprints CD - Peter FramptonSo, how’s the album? A little bit mixed on first listen, then I really got into it. I really like most of the songs, particularly, “Cornerstone” with Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts from the Rolling Stones, and “Shewango Way” which is co-written by and features Frampton band mate, Gordon Kennedy.

The Soundgarden hit “Black Hole Sun” with Pearl Jam guitarist McCready and drummer Matt Cameron became the ear-worm of the disc for me, stuck in my head while doing other things like laundry or washing the car. It’s also one of the two tracks to feature some moderate and very subtle signature talk box work by Frampton. On “Sun” it almost sounds like a vocoder sample and actually helps the tune since I found my brain filling in the words on the chorus anyway.

Frampton said in the press materials, “I’ve known Bill Wyman for a while and played with him before. He was one of the first people I asked to play on the album. He said yes, and then I asked if Charlie would come in too. We all jumped in and came up with this song (Cornerstone) that started off with me playing a riff.”

The one song that didn’t really grab me is the first one “Boot it Up” with a guest sax player, Courtney Pine, who was recommended to Frampton by his pal David Bowie. I think another guitar would have been better than the sax, but it does give the record label a song to target toward the smooth jazz radio stations, although “Double Nickels” fits into that milieu just fine and features licks by pedal steel king Paul Franklin.

The songs I liked more each time I listened to the disc, was “Grab A Chicken” (with Kennedy), which has a little bit of the talk box as well as sampled instructions from Internet cooking programs about how to cook a chicken; and “Blowin’ Smoke” (with McCready and Cameron). The latter has likely become my favorite song and the one I’d happily pay for if I were forced to “buy only one” from a music download service.

I liked the little homage riff to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” at the start of “Double Nickels” which also has a bit of a country music feel to it and some great Q&A playing between Frampton and Franklin.

The interesting thing about the album for me was that I kept thinking I’d love to hear an entire album with just Frampton, McCready, Cameron and Kennedy. The material from the four Kennedy collaborations and the two songs with McCready and Cameron were the real stand-outs for me.

Unlike some guitarists who have one signature sound, perhaps like the afore mentioned Carlos Santana, Frampton gets a wide variety of tones and sounds from his collection of guitars and amps and so each song stands on its own. He plays a Tacoma Acoustic C2 Chief, Gibson Les Paul Classic (1960), Les Paul Peter Frampton Model (*ahem* – signature sound, of course), G&L ASAT, and Les Paul JR (1958). With the guests playing their own guitars the mix of duets between players is quite lovely to hear.

I saw one comment from a buyer on that it might have been better to have the separate players panned left/right to make it more clear who was playing what, and this has been done on other duet-style instrumental gigs; but I think in this case it would have detracted from the overall mixes which are very nice on both the home stereo, the iPod and in the car.

It’s interesting that Frampton recently guested on the premiere episode of the FOX TV series “Celebrity Duets,” which was a bold experiment for the 56 year old rocker. Sadly he was paired with Chris Jericho of the WWE, which must have been the bad luck of the draw there. It’s unfortunate that VH1 no longer has the series “Storytellers” which is right where I would like to see Frampton showcased for an album like this one.

For Frampton, the sweet spot for the project had to be his getting to work with two of his long time heroes from the Shadows, drummer Brian Bennett and guitar slinger Hank Marvin.

According to Frampton, the bluesy “My Cup of Tea,” came together via intercontinental swapping of ideas by mp3. Once the group convened in a London studio, his dream was fulfilled. “I was beaming ear to ear,” Frampton says. “Hank is the reason why I play the guitar. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Frampton traces the genesis of Fingerprints to two experiences: catching the fever of British instrumental rock music at its birth in 1960, when the Shadows scored a pop hit with the tune “Apache,” and then 35 years later when Shadows’ lead guitarist Marvin came backstage at a Frampton concert and affirmed that indeed one day he’d love to cut a track with him. “We spent an hour asking each other questions and talking about guitars,” says Frampton. “My idol even asked me what kind of strings I used.”

According to Frampton, at the beginning of his career, he had one thing on his mind: playing the guitar like the Shadows’ Hank Marvin and Elvis Presley’s Scotty Moore. “I didn’t want to sing,” he says. “I wanted to be the guy behind the singer playing solos. I’d listen to Elvis songs but my focus was on Scotty. People like Hank and Scotty set the template for me.”

Frampton brings a poignant epilogue to the project with the second to final track on the album, “Oh, When” written for his late father, Owen (hence “Oh When”). Frampton played the song at the funeral, recorded it on a small recorder when he was in England, then returned home and tracked it. Frampton says that Fingerprints is a testament to his father’s encouragement in playing the guitar. “The whole album is dedicated to him,” he says.

Overall, a worthy addition to Frampton’s career and if you’re at all into instrumental guitar, melodic rock, and even something to listen to while you’re working in the background, this disc fits into all those spaces rather well.

“Fingerprints” is released on the A&M / New Door Records label, a division of Universal Music Enterprises (UMe). New Door Records is primarily dedicated to producing new music from historically significant UMG recording artists. Artists from all genres such as Styx, Smokey Robinson, Todd Snider, Joe Cocker, Nanci Griffith, Tears for Fears, The Temptations, Billy Ray Cyrus, Alien Ant Farm, and a brand new signing, Joseph Israel, have made New Door Records their home for their new recordings.

Fingerprints is available everywhere you can purchase music and was released Sept. 12, 2006.

Rating for “Fingerprints”:

    From 1 to 10: 8.5
    Musicianship: 9
    Replayability: 7
    Desert Island Keeper: 4
    Number of EarWorm Factor Songs: 2

More information:

    Peter Frampton’s Website:

    Universal Music Entertainment:

Article is Copr. © 2006 by Christopher Simmons – all rights reserved. Originally appeared on

Music and Recording

Phishing Scams Target Musicians Bidding on eBay for Used Gear

ARTICLE: Just when you think it’s safe to go shopping on eBay for used gear, like a vintage tube mic, or analog keyboard, the phishing artists have to ruin my day. Phishing, is the practice of trying to fool you into going to a website pretending to be a legitimate site, like a bank or eBay, or to contact somebody about a product or service through “real looking” email communications.

I had this happen perhaps twice in six years and over 300 transactions on eBay, many for buying or selling old gear, but three times in the past 10 days — targeting me with phony “second chance offers” to buy music gear — definitely shows a concerted effort. In asking around, I found this was not an isolated case, and every musician I asked had received such an offer in their email. So, musicians need to be a little more watchful in email they get from eBay right now (well, really all the time, sadly).

Here’s how the scam works: you bid on an item, like a used Dave Smith Poly Evolver keyboard, or an Oberheim OB-12, and you lose the auction to another bidder who outbid you. You are the second highest bidder. The next day you get an email that “looks” like it came from eBay, with all the correct text, faked reply-to, legal notices, auction item number, but addressed to you. I got one second chance offer apiece after losing out on both of these items this month, so these are actual examples from real auctions.

The email offers to sell you the item and uses the actual text you would have gotten from eBay in a legitimate second chance offer:

    Good news! The following eBay item on which you placed a bid for US $825.78 on Sep-03-06 09:42:25 PDT is now available for purchase:
    Your Price: US $825.78
    Offer end date: 5 business days

    Second Chance Offer
    The seller is making this Second Chance Offer because the high bidder was either unable to complete the transaction or the seller has a duplicate item for sale.

Now I have received legitimate second chance offers before, but I’ve learned that you MUST go to your “My eBay” account, by going directly to, and not any link in any email, and once logged in, ANY legitimate message (meaning not phony) will show up in your My eBay panel under “messages” (usually at top of your My eBay panel once properly logged-in). If you do NOT see an email from the seller there for the second chance offer, it’s a scam.

The scam works in one or both of the following ways:

    1) an email account found in the phony message will use a free account like hotmail, gmail, yahoo, or similar and offer to sell you the item by “sending money” to PayPal — if you send money to this person’s account, you will never get it back, and never get the item!

    2) the email will have a phony website address link for you to follow and then log-in to your real eBay account and give away your username and password.

Eeven though it’s exciting to perhaps get a second chance at buying something you wanted, you need to be careful in ANY email that offers to sell you anything online.

A quick way to determine if the email is a phishing scam, is to look at the email “headers” in your mail software (e.g., Eudora, Outlook, etc.), which is a good skill to learn to use, where you would see something like this: (from the scam emails I got)

    Delivered-To: [my personal email address was here]
    Received: (qmail 21400 invoked from network); 8 Sep 2006 00:53:30 -0700
    Received: from (

As you can see from looking at the headers, it reveals where the email actually came from by both a mail server and I.P. address. By looking at this it’s pretty darn obvious that a message from a U.K. mail server isn’t really from eBay in the U.S.

However, what makes it look legit, is what you normally see in your mail software without looking at the headers:

    Subject: eBay Second Chance Offer for Item 110026433335

Now, contrast this with the headers from a “real” email from eBay, in response to my forwarding the fake email to (which is the address you should forward ALL suspect eBay email to):

    Received: (qmail 26862 invoked from network); 8 Sep 2006 07:47:10 -0700
    Received: from (HELO (

Identifying Fake eBay Emails and Websites
eBay provides the following information regarding this issue, which is worth a read to become savvy at spotting this kind of scam:

The best defense against fake emails and Web sites is learning how to spot them. You can learn more about fake emails and Web sites through our Spoof Tutorial at the following Web page:

Tracking Down I.P. Addresses
If you feel particulary pissed off about getting this kind of email trickery, you can complain to the hosting company where the email originated. You do this by looking at the headers, and finding the I.P. (Internet Protocol) number, and then enterting that into the ARIN Whois system, found at:

Example, if we use the I.P. in the phishing email, which was Put that into the ARIN search, and we get back the owner of that I.P., which happens to be Everyones Internet in Texas. In most cases there will be an abuse contact, where you can forward the entire scam email (including the long headers), as in this case:

    OrgAbuseHandle: ABUSE477-ARIN
    OrgAbuseName: Abuse
    OrgAbusePhone: +1-713-579-2850

One caution is that, in some cases, smart spammers and phishing farms, will “spoof” the I.P. as well which might look something like domain (hello and then later a real I.P. — point is, when you see more than one I.P., it’s usually the second one that is real and the first one faked. Complaining to the owner of the first number won’t do any good. Or, you can just forward the email(s) to eBay and let them deal with the hosting provider directly. Which they will do.

Well, there you go. Hopefully this will help keep your online eyes and ears open, and not get ripped off while trying to buy that cool piece of gear on eBay.

Article is Copr. © 2006 by Christopher Simmons – all rights reserved. Originally appeared on