Beautiful 1974 circuitry makes eerie sounds that inspire today.
Oh, sure, the future of the music industry might be U2 showing up in your iTunes or streams of chart-topping hits.
Or, just maybe, the future just for now will be instead weird, humming soundscapes that drone on in a browser tab, generatively faded from decades of performances of a legendary experimental piece.
Option number two may be wildly unrealistic and wholly unviable commercially but – hey, it’s your browser, and you can make that choice happen right now, for free.
Sonic legend Nicolas Collins, sound professor, editor of Leonardo Music Journal, and electronic music inventor, has unveiled his latest creation in Pea Soup to Go. (Mmmm, pea soup. Sorry, it’s wintry, and lunchtime. Getting distracted.)
It takes performances of Collins’ work and pops them into a browser tab. The results are strangely calming, the vibrating frequencies resembling nothing if not singing Tibetan bowls, as horns (and the odd ambient performance noise) dance around like dead leaves in the wind. Lose yourself in sounds eerie and meditative.
The sonic invention here is itself noting, the mournful waves of feedback emanating from a Countryman Model 968 Phase Shifter, 1974 analog circuitry singing at the center of all these performances.
The work turns 40 years of age this year, but seems somehow timeless – good news, that. What was once radical turns out to be familiar, not tired, but enduring.
And modest as this implementation may be, it reveals that these sounds can find new audiences through the Interwebs. That’s reassuring.
Dr. Collins explains:
I am pleased to announce the release of Pea Soup To Go, an open access version of my venerable feedback composition, Pea Soup. Pea Soup To Go is a free streaming audio web application that generates an ever-changing domestic sound art installation on any computer.
Premiered in 1974, Pea Soup creates a self-stabilizing feedback network of microphones and speakers that tunes itself to the architectural acoustics of the space and responds to events—instrumental performances, ambient sounds, human movement, even air currents—with swooping flights of sound. Pea Soup To Go mines decades of performances, including contributions by numerous guest musicians, from around the globe to produce a similarly dreamy soundscape that slowly shifts from key to key as the app shuffles and cross-fades from one recorded space to another.
Pea Soup To Go is being launched on October 24, 2014 — the 40th anniversary of the first performance of Pea Soup.
Point your browser to http://www.nicolascollins.com/peasouptogo/. Auto-shuffle plays endless variations unattended, or click the arrows to jump to the next track. Click “Info” for performance details.
Mixes, like DJs, are everywhere. But the question of how to stand above the crowd has a simple answer: be better. Be consistent, be intelligent, paint a scene. Give humans a reason to listen to you; make algorithms, like unskilled DJs, weep.
And, yes, have a soul.
Ryan Elliott’s mix on Ostgut Ton is simply one of the best such mixes I’ve downloaded this year, and earns a place on some hard drive round here, stored permanently in all its lossless WAV glory, an hour and a half and gig and a half. Strip away the Panorama Bar label, and it still communicates one of those moments in that venue. You can learn something and feel something all at once. It’s an encouraging sign that quality can still endure, that DJs can do things with what producers make that shines light on them and gives them meaning.
I’ve just returned from Amsterdam Dance Event, which is perhaps a microcosm of where dance music is at these days – a very, very huge microcosm. The event is strange in some ways; it’s not that it’s commercial, as it’s got a surprisingly wide range of music and unique venues like the audiovisual-themed events just across the water at Beamlab and EYE. (More on the excellent Paula Temple / Jem the Misfit AV show soon, as well as the results of our 4DSOUND spatial audio collaboration.) But it’s still skewed overall to industry and business, and for all the quality there, the biggest money gets the attention. (Dutch friends were quick to chide me for so much as uttering the name, produced as it is by Buma, a royalty collections agency that has alienated many artists and somehow managed to become more-hated than Germany’s GEMA.)
So all of this brings us back to Berghain/Panorama Bar, which on the weekend of ADE and the weekend following manages to produce similar lineups not because it’s a festival but just that it’s a regular weekend. Commerce and names are subdued, even as the machinery of the club ticks away. Hype is only a problem if it clouds judgment, or it’s undeserved.
Sure, this venue has been talked to death in a way that might ruin most places. The New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, forever a fount of profundity and my all-time hero, famously quoted “No one goes there any more; it’s too crowded.” But, much as New York baseball fans need the Yankees, Europe’s music scene needs Berghain. It’s a place where you can wind up having hours-long conversations with producer friends over ice creams (yes, they serve them, even in winter), then wind up hurting your feet from dancing too much. Artists rub shoulders with DSP engineers making music software. No one should ever pay too much attention to any one place, lest they become myopic, but the feeling those connections produce is important. We need venues that draw us in; we’ve plenty that push us away.
Ryan Elliott nicely sums up Panorama Bar on a day when everything is clicking. There isn’t anything terribly virtuosic here – no special edits or anything like that. And you miss out on the delightful weirdness Panorama sometimes achieves – odd tracks, wonderfully undanceable mixes, and I won’t say anything about the crowd because that’s meant for those inside, not for words.
But what I would say is, this is a good mix precisely because you don’t have to visit Berlin. You can create your own personal club, as you like, with a pair of headphones. (You can also smell fresh and clean and have as much space as you like to dance, which beats any club in the world on some evenings.) It’s not a typical 3-hour set at Panorama. But it says something about Ryan Elliott, about his tastes – deep, dark, soulful, yet precise, calibrated.
And that’s what Ostgut needs to do as a label behind Berghain/Panorama – this steps up Ostgut’s output at a very important time. The club is brilliant; the label as far as international attention has to emerge from that club’s shadow (and shadows). This free gift helps Ostgut to say what it’s about in a way that can stand on its own.
And I think in that sense, it can be a strong template for people making mixes with different things to say, too – even if you’re planning a dark ambient mix or avant-garde noise radio show. I would make the measure this sense of encapsulation, of beginning, middle, and end, of the mix as both a teaser (90 minutes makes you wonder what Elliott does with a full set, what the party is like), and standalone object (you might be happy to devote a gig and a half of precious drive space to it).
Ryan Elliott is a great ambassador, and it’s fantastic to see Ostgut back with long-absent mixes. Elliott has been a regular since 2007; the mix download here suggests a post-CD life for Ostgut.
So, give yourself a nice weekend – anywhere in the world, no entry fee, with your favorite headphones. Enjoy.
Noah Pred didn’t just run his own label. He has run a label that has traced a lot of the finest music of the past years, making its way from Toronto to Berlin. And he did it while juggling his own career as a techno producers’ producer, a DJ’s DJ. At 100 releases, he’s got plenty to say about what that musical journey has meant – and not just the easy bits. I pressed Noah to reflect on what he really thinks of the flow of the music industry’s power and resources to the top, and the conflicts that can happen in trying to keep a label like this going.
And, like any meeting with Noah, there’s plenty of great music to discover along the way – stuff you know, stuff you don’t. Certainly, I’d never be afraid of not being able to name-drop every release; Noah has a way of discovering superb music you wish you had known earlier. So let’s go along for that trip.
If you missed the last seven years, don’t worry. We have not only a chat with Noah, but some music to hear.
There’s a 50-track mix to mark the latest mixes, free to hear. (Track listing below, at bottom.)
And 130+ podcasts to hear, on Mixcloud, which I suppose should cover your next seven years.
“Ah,” you say. “But, I can also read.” Good! Let’s! The music to hear, the life of a label, the effect of global capitalism on our souls – I’d say we’ve got our bases covered.
CDM: 100 releases – there’s a lot here. Walk us through it; where should people start if they’re new the catalog?
It’s difficult to single out specific records when we’ve done this many. I’d like to think there’s a lot of entry points to the catalog. People into more classic techno sounds might discover the label by way of artists like Rennie Foster, Shane Berry or Arthur Oskan, whereas people on more of a deep house vibe might get there through Murr, Canson, or Derek Marin. Fans of rougher upfront sounds could find a path through Deepchild, Alland Byallo or Tonepushers, while those into dubbier stuff could get there through material by Meesha, Evan Marc or Stare5 (a.k.a. Bryan Zentz). Each release is a thread in the label’s fabric.
In particular, I really appreciate some of the artist finds over the years – thinking of cats like Dave Aju and, well, you. Who are some of the artists you’d like people to get to know?
We’ve had the opportunity to work with some amazing talent, but I would probably steer people toward some of the lesser-known acts. Auk is a new duo from western Canada with loads of potential. Toronto’s Brian Johnson has a quite unique sound worth checking out. A guy who went by the name Platypus did a couple really special records for us, and two of my favorite releases from the catalog are from a short-lived Canadian duo who went by the name Co-Op.
It’s amazing, too, looking down the artist list, at the network of people who are here and their life beyond Thoughtless. Brendon Moeller, Hrdvsion, Johanna Knutsson, Kate Simko, Lando, Maceo Plex, Mike Shannon, Rick Bull, Qzen, Stewart Walker, Tim Xavier, XI, just pulling down the list. I’m not name dropping; these trigger memories, musical and social, people I keep bumping into… what is the role of community in that way? Does it mean something different to you that you have had them involved in the label?
I’ve always thought of it as a family, and yeah, as an extended community as well I guess. With all the artists and remixers we’ve been able to work with over the years, the label has brought a lot of people together. I knew some people on the label for years before ever working on a release with them, others I met through the label and then became good friends – there’s a wide range of relationships there.
Looking back, that’s one of my favorite aspects of the label: how many good and talented people have connected through it; lots of them have even gone on to work together in other capacities. And especially with all the Thoughtless events – where there’s always a family vibe – we’ve had some great times over the years.
Label head and producer – this is a lot to juggle. It’s pretty obvious how they conflict, but how has it influenced your work?
As a DJ, there’s few moments more exciting than dropping a new track from the label before anyone else has heard it or has it – it’s a thrill I’ve always looked forward to. But as a producer, it’s been tricky. Running a label, you have to hone your critical skills and maintain your version of quality control at all times. Applying the same critical approach to my own music has maybe improved my production, but it’s also made me second guess myself out of more and more decisions. I’d like to be able to move past that a bit and get back to a more natural, less mediated relationship with my own material.
We’ve talked a lot about the struggles independent music faces these days. Part of the dance music scene really is becoming an industry the likes of which the planet has never seen before. So let’s talk the dark side: what are the obstacles independent labels face now? Are there bright spots? Are there things that need to change for imprints like yours, artists like these to thrive?
Sure, there’s bright spots – plenty of talent being exposed that may never have seen the light of day in previous incarnations of the music industry; at the same time, there’s plenty of bright talent losing inspiration from the struggle to get noticed above the ever-growing fray of mediocrity.
In my view, most of the problems in the music industry are more deeply entrenched than people tend to realize. The music industry has always been tied up in a recursive relationship with technology, most noticeably during the past couple decades, and everyone’s been more or less trying to adapt in real-time. Those with knowledge or prescience of upcoming technological advances are best equipped to take advantage of emerging market forces.
Having said all that, I don’t see any of the fundamental problems in the music industry being solved until people are ready to collectively step back and ask what the purpose of all this competing infrastructure really is: what are we ultimately trying to achieve? Who does this infrastructure really serve? What problems are we trying to solve, in terms of cultural development, music delivery, and adequate compensation? Are the models currently in place serving those aims, or do we need to retool everything from the ground up?
The system now in place seems to remain fairly slanted towards the consolidation of capital, and many of the problems within the music industry tend to spring from assumptions built into the overall economic system – as above, so below. I think it’s crucial not to view or discuss the music industry in isolation, as though it exists in some kind of vacuum. Large-scale cultural changes may be necessary before we have a system in place that truly works for artists and fans.
I know the engineers building the services we rely on read CDM. What are the best tools right now in terms of getting music out there — not just producing, but on the distribution side? Where is there a place for new tools?
Well, I probably don’t need to talk about music production tools here – you’ve already got those bases covered and then some. But if you’re asking about label management tools, I’ve seen some promising platforms in development that’ll go a long way to helping those with big workloads get a lot of the administrative details handled more efficiently so they can focus on the creative, big-picture stuff.
However – much like the democratization of studio and distribution technology – those very tools pose a classic double-edged sword scenario: while they’re designed to help overworked labels manage their catalog, they also stand to make it even easier for peddlers of mediocrity to further dilute an already crowded marketplace with subpar output.
Keep in mind this notion that simply because you wrote and recorded a song it should automatically be made available to everyone everywhere is a relatively new concept, and an arguably narcissistic one at that. On the other hand, the idea of quality control is dangerously subjective; everyone has their own version of quality.
Instead, I would urge prospective (and existing) label owners to simply ask themselves whether their music is essential for mass dissemination – and if not, would their time, energy and resources be better spent in further development, or maybe even redirected to other fields? It’s a question I’ve begun to grapple with, and try to ask myself every day.
Track listing for that mix at top:
Seven years deep, Thoughtless marks our milestone 100th release with the second installation in our ERA mix-CD series. Featuring 49 tracks each handpicked from our previous 49 releases, one track per release – along with an exclusive new track, We Bug, from label boss Noah Pred to make fifty tracks total – the compilation is mixed by Pred himself. Weaving an expansive array of output through a dynamic narrative that highlights a number of the label’s recent accomplishments, ERA TWO serves to both expose and reinforce the label’s wide-ranging yet coherent aesthetic…
01 Ruoho Ruotsi – Waiting For Troll [TLM053]
02 Arthur Oskan – Use No Good [TLM052]
03 Daniel Ray – Warm Black [TLM078]
04 Co-Op – To Life V1 [TLM064]
05 Ethan Borshansky – Zag [TLM062]
06 Brian Johnson – All Of The Time (Tom Clark Remix) [TLM065]
07 Tomas Jirku – Solaris 2002 (Kenneth Scott Remix) [TLM089]
08 Stone Owl – Planet X [TLM070]
09 Android Cartel – Terminal (Billy Dalessandro Remix) [TLM082]
10 Arthur Oskan – Exit Strategy (Marc Houle Remix) [TLM071]
11 Deepchild – I Woke And You Were Smiling (Falko Brocksieper Remix) [TLM075]
12 Noah Pred – Left Unsaid [TLM077]
13 Derek Marin – We’ve Been Expecting You (Hreno’s Deep Pockets Dub) [TLM066]
14 Platypus – The Streets Have A Voice (Joachim Spieth Remix) [TLM072]
15 Stone Owl – CBD [TLM094]
16 Deepchild – The Suffering Ones (Tim Xavier Remix) [TLM055]
17 Metalogic – Dark Shines [TLM056]
18 Jason Short – Zone Of Middle Dimensions [TLM073]
19 Rennie Foster – Perimeter Abstract (John Norman Main Remix) [TLM099]
20 Lock Smith – Settle Down Na (Dave Aju Remix) [TLM098]
21 Deepchild – Riyadh (Deadbeat Remix) [TLM068]
22 Deepchild – The Suffering Ones (Gingy & Bordello Remix) [TLM057]
23 Santini & Tellez – Lost Thoughts [TLM059]
24 Danielle Nicole – True Romance (Roberto Remix) [TLM090]
25 Nigel Richards – Deeeeep [TLM058]
26 Noah Pred – Circles & Circles feat. Rosina (Joel Mull Hypno Dub) [TLM085]
27 Shane Berry – Akaforme [TLM074]
28 Deepchild – Safe Passage [TLM087]
29 Rennie Foster – Legionnaire (Exercise One Remix) [TLM081]
30 Simon Beeston & Andi Numan – Freaks Back [TLM096]
31 Arthur Oskan – Back In Black [TLM092]
32 Murr – Dive Into The Deepest feat. Rosina (Maceo Plex Remix) [TLM088]
33 Derek Marin – Being Sleazy (Alexi Delano Remix) [TLM084]
34 Alland Byallo – Blunderlust [TLM079]
35 Dave Vega – In A Chord With Something [TLM051]
36 Bryan Zentz – The Sprawl [TLM060]
37 Noah Pred – Monotasking (Brendon Moeller Digital Resketch) [TLM063]
38 Daniel Ray – Night Watchman (Pheek Remix) [TLM061]
39 Deepchild – Neukölln Burning [TLM069]
40 Signal Deluxe – Zero Seven (Reverse Commuter Remix) [TLM091]
41 Phantom Ambulance – Medicine (Dactilar Remix) [TLM054]
42 Brian Johnson – Time Will Tell [TLM080]
43 Deepchild – Slave Driver (Mihai Popoviciu Remix) [TLM097]
44 Canson – Don’t Stop [TLM076]
45 Noah Pred – We Bug [TLM100]
46 Noah Pred – Your Signal feat. Marc Deon (Steven Tang Remix) [TLM093]
47 Auk – Afraid To Fly [TLM095]
48 Noah Pred – Third Culture [TLM086]
49 Platypus – Soft Spoken Trees [TLM067]
50 Murr – Sacred Ground feat. Rosina [TLM083]
Lurking in the bargain bins of game shops is a surprisingly well-built keyboard. The Rock Band “keytar” controller may have been made for games, but the keybed is solid, the thing is light, and it can run on batteries. So why not turn it into a standalone instrument?
That’s what Jamie Robertson has done with his, and he shows you how.
The magic here is something he calls the WAV Trigger. Without naming any names, while there are a lot of cool Arduino shields and the like out there, a lot of them are pretty functionally limited. They’re cool to play with, you can build some fun projects, and they can teach you a lot — but the WAV Trigger is something different.
It’s built to play 14 tracks of uncompressed audio at once, with enough control that it becomes a viable, 14-voice, polyphonic sample playback instrument. MIDI is built in, and trigger latency is low (around 8 msec).
And SoundCloud is now a place you can find sounds from the US government space agency, NASA. In addition to the requisite vocal clips (“Houston, we’ve had a problem” and “The Eagle has landed”), you get a lot more. There are rocket sounds, the chirps of satellites and equipment, lightning on Jupiter, interstellar plasma and radio emissions. And in one nod to humanity, and not just American humanity, there’s the Soviet satellite Sputnik (among many projects that are international in nature).
Many of these sounds were available before; I’ve actually used a number of them in my own music. But putting them on SoundCloud makes them much easier to browse and find, and there are download links. Have a listen below.
Another thing: you’re free to use all of these sounds as you wish, because NASA’s own audio isn’t copyrighted. It’s meant to be a public service to the American people of their taxpayer-funded government program, but that extends to everyone. There are some restrictions – not everything NASA publishes is covered by the same license, though it appears to be on SoundCloud. And you aren’t free to use NASA’s name or logo or imply commercial endorsement. (The Eagle didn’t land on a bag of Doritos.) But that means just about any imaginable musical application is fair game. They do ask you to list NASA as source, but that’s only reasonable. Read their content guidelines for full details.
Let the space remixing begin.
European Space Agency, your move.
Thanks to everyone who sent this in. If you want more, NASA centres all have archival libraries, and the agency has routinely worked with artists and composers to interpret the work they do. See also other research centers around the world. And yes, that’s my Saturn V photo at the top, because, and I’m sure this will come as a huge shock to everyone who reads this site, I’m a big nerd.
Give unto us first a lot of knobs. We pray for a bounty of encoders, ideally built into hardware everyone kind of forgotten about.
And shine upon us with lights round those encoders.
Next, let us breaketh our warranty together, so that we may onto thine encoders map parameters.
And set my people free from the chains that bind them to their computers, so that they may roam free across the land and sequenceth hardware free from the tyranny of the folding metal fruit books and boxy Compy.
Yes, your prayers have been answered – maybe prayers you didn’t know you had. Like, wouldn’t it be great if someone came along and turned the inexpensive Behringer BCR2000 encoder box into a badass step sequencer.
It’s amazing sometimes what comes from individual developers and doesn’t come from big makers. Of course, the developer here – Christian Stöcklmeier – had the advantage of starting with finished hardware and focusing on firmware. But it’s an impressive project, nonetheless. (And it makes me want to see Christian work on firmware for new hardware, too.)
Whatever the future might hold, ZAQ Audio’s Zaquencer is available now. So, at the risk of driving BCR prices up, let’s have a look.
Sequence length (8 steps, 16 steps, 32 steps…)
Chord function (with a pool of chords from which you can choose)
4 tracks with mute function, per-track shuffle, sync with reset button
Individual drum mutes
TR-style drum programming (x0x it up!)
Modify individual steps, or hold to change everything at once
Change direction (forward, backward, ping-pong, random)
192 patterns, 12 pages stored in flash
It does all of this by entirely replacing the BCR’s usual firmware. Instead of being a controller for MIDI and computers, the hardware becomes a standalone device with an entirely new set of features. And yes, this voids the warranty – though in this case that almost makes it seem more awesome. Void away.
Here’s a brilliant jam on the system by Jacob Korn:
I remain excited by the Digital Warrior, too, which has recently been adding features (and is in fact original hardware). There’s lots happening in this space. It’s an exciting time to be a lover of hardware sequencing. The more, the better.
Not satisfied with producing hundreds of records and working with a litany of famous names, sound artist / composer / musician Håkan Lidbo several times a year embarks on some novel experiment in sound and interactivity. In the latest, he’s worked with smart lightbulbs from Philips to transform an entire building in Stockholm into your very own personal game board.
They’re calling it the world’s biggest Master Mind game, and who are we to argue?
The idea is, windows become pixels, and you play online to try to guess the color code of your opponent, in a game of wits.
You play on off-hours in Stockholm. (I assume that’s to avoid distracting residents, because by the end of November the sun sets in Stockholm at what seems like about half one in the afternoon.) But 18-06 Stockholm time is a perfect workday distraction in the USA, conveniently.
This isn’t the only go-big-or-go-home project from Håkan even so far this year. When I was in Stockholm in May, I witnessed his oversized MIDI controller cubes, sort of the least mobile MIDI controller imaginable. Here they are at Sweden’s wonderful Volt Festival:
3 inflatable cubes, each 2 x 2 x2 meters, with built in gyro that detects the positions in 3 axes. The gyro send data to a music computer that play 6 different loops for each cube. One play drums, one play bass, one play melodies. By tilting a cube 45°, 2 or 3 loops can be crossfaded and at the same time a high pass filter makes the mixing more musical. The visual interface is projected on the wall so that the performers know which side is up (not so easy to see if you’re less tall than 2 meters).
The design of Big Cubes comes from the Yellofier app where the colors represent different sounds and the patterns different effects. The editing in the app is similar; moving and twisting the graphic elements controls the music. Big cubes takes these small graphic elements and blow them up into gigantic proportions. If you’re used to work with the Yellofier app, playing with Big Cubes makes you feel like you’re 0,5 cm tall, playing inside the phone.
The tidy toolbar at the bottom shows Audiobus connectivity.
Here’s a case where the iPad version of a DJ app has surpassed what even the desktop version does.
On Windows and Mac, Traktor is a powerful app for DJs, to be sure. But there isn’t an obvious way of routing DJ mixes through external effects or connecting it to other production tools. On iOS, now there is. Native Instruments quietly added Audiobus support to its popular iOS DJ app, which opens up the ability to route sound from the DJ tool to other apps.
Why would you want such a feature? Recording mixes probably isn’t strictly necessary, because Traktor DJ already has an internal facility for doing that. More likely, there are two use cases:
1. You want to expand the effects available to Traktor. (Add, for instance, a convolution reverb.)
2. Use Traktor as a production tool and instrument, with other tools in your chain.
Connecting apps via Audiobus – here, a free guitar effect from IK Multimedia.
Option #2 is rather intriguing, because Traktor DJ has some nice tools for messing about with audio loops and effects of its own. You could use Traktor not so much as a DJ tool as a remix tool and a sample-based instrument, manipulating waveforms you’ve recorded in the Traktor interface and adding its internal effects to produce loops for other programs.
Unfortunately, Native Instruments implemented Traktor only as an Audiobus source – not a filter. That means you can’t use Traktor DJ’s nice effects on other apps. But there’s still a lot to be done with Traktor as a source.
Someone must want to do to this, because users were already excited about NI’s rival, Algoriddim djay. djay added Audiobus support over a year ago, and djay users have been quick to point out NI was missing the same feature in Traktor DJ. As with Traktor DJ, djay fully supports recording mixes, so it seems mobile DJs are more excited about creative applications.
But yes, now an iPad DJ can add spectral and granular effects to their DJ set. Take that, desktop DJs.
Quick review: to work with Audiobus, you need two things. First, you have to purchase the Audiobus app itself, which costs you US$4.99. Next, you’ll need compatible apps, though you can look for those inside the Audiobus app and find some gems. They’re organized by how they behave – as sources or “filters” processing external signal. (Some work as both.)
And as further proof djay got there last year, here’s a tutorial video someone produced with the earlier app. (The same process works with other Audiobus apps.)
Just because there’s a nice marketing angle doesn’t mean that it has to be the story for you. And that’s been true of NI’s big, splashy product launches. Sure, there’s the epic-looking Traktor Kontrol S8 hardware launched this week – but you tell us you might be just as pleased with a compact controller or an update to the iPad app. And Maschine Studio does wonderful things with its big screens – but the MK2 still has great pads, costs less, and fits in a backpack.
And then there’s Komplete 10. Yes, NI is keen to talk about its light-up series of keyboards, which integrate with the software. But whether you want them or not, what you shouldn’t miss is the superb new Reaktor instruments that come with the bundle.
Rounds is one of the best synths I’ve used recently, full stop. It takes the new analog modeling techniques NI honed elsewhere and launches into new digital domains of effects, modulation, and FM sound generation. No surprise: it comes from Stephan Schmitt, the NI founder who also gave us Reaktor itself. Polyplex is simple but good fun as a drum machine (even if it makes me long even more for a better sample loading facility in Reaktor). And Contour is yet another deep synth.
Matt Cellitti walks through the trio of new Reaktor instruments in a series of tutorial videos, so it’s a great way to get started. Let’s watch.
The Kontrol S8 is now standards bearer for Native Instruments’ DJ line. It’s such big news, you might hear about it outside the world of DJ tech followers. You’ve likely seen it already – this may be the most-leaked, most-teased DJ product in history. But now that it’s fully revealed, the S8 is almost certain to fan the flames of an ongoing debate:
Just what is digital DJing, anyway?
First, we can at least work out what the S8 is. It’s an audio mixer with control surfaces on both sides. It’s hardware made specifically to sell software (or the other way around, if you like). As NI’s Maschine Studio has done for producers, it uses big, color screens on the hardware to keep your eyes on that controller rather than on your laptop. It has a hardware layout tailored to the functionality of Traktor – deck controls, browsing, Remix Decks. And it builds in an audio interface and 4-channel hardware audio mixer for connecting external gear – CDJs, turntables, synthesizers, whatever. You wouldn’t use the mixer without the computer, but at least it acknowledges you might get audio signal to and from the outside world.
There are two design decisions likely to generate discussion. Firstly, the S8 is big – really big. It’s 58.5 cm — that’s nearly two feet. (It joins various other popular controllers, notably Pioneer’s flagship DDJs, in the same territory.) The 5kg/11lb weight isn’t so bad, but the physical hulk means you need dedicated space in a DJ booth to play it, and transportation is a challenge. (EDM = America = trucks?) Secondly, it drops jog wheels and per-deck tempo controls in favor of touch strips and a master tempo control.
To people who aren’t armchair DJ controller critics, that last bit may not sound like the stuff of forum flame wars. Those folks, who I will dub in ethnographic terms as “normal people,” just read “Well, that’s a big heavy thing with lots of lights. And now something is something or other something else I’m bored.” Or, no, actually, they’re looking at pictures of cats, so never mind.
To the computer DJ, the new controllers are blasphemy for a simple reason: they cement the idea that you might not be manually beat-matching tracks. (Oh, the humanity!) To be fair, this isn’t just an idea espoused by random people on forums; some very famous DJs have said the same thing. The idea is, the essence of DJing, as received from the legacy of playing on two turntables, is manually adjusting the position of a record platter and its playback speed to match two tracks.
In the worst case version of this world view, automatic tempo sync is simply the work of Satan, the end of music, and the beginning of the end times. In the best case, it’s an automatic transmission in a car: sucking the fun out of driving, and not entirely effective.
There are some problems with this orthodoxy, however. Reducing turntablism to beat matching is more than a little simplistic. As early as the 70s, DJ technique, flourishing in places like the Bronx, had already expanded to breaks, remixes, beat juggling. By the 80s, it added drum machines and even more-involved turntable technique – backspins, punch phrases, stuff you actually can’t do on those hulking plastic controllers. Great turntablists play vinyl like a musical instrument, not just a mechanism for mixing tracks.
Perhaps, then, beat matching is fundamental, but it didn’t take long for pioneers to move on to new things – Kool Herc, Frankie Knuckles, Grandmaster Flash. Whether it succeeds or not, the Remix Decks in Traktor and other controllerist machinations have far more to do with DJ history than using a plastic disc to manually cue does.
And about those plastic discs. A controller simply isn’t a turntable. They’ve gotten better – not so long ago, a German manufacturer called Native Instruments was telling me how they had come up with something to do with magnets that made their Traktor controller better. (Ahem.) But they still aren’t as good as turntables: they lack the physical feedback and resistance that a full-sized turntable provides. Oh, and on a turntable, apart from digital control records, you can also play music encoded on vinyl discs, which you’ll conveniently find as a major means of distributing music online and in your local record store. There’s that.
And that brings us to the fundamental disconnect between the controversy over these large, multi-deck controllers and the real world of DJing.
Let’s not pull any punches. Right now, the single most popular DJ equipment used by pro DJs when walking into a club – the flagship of the digital DJ, if you will – is a USB stick.
Somehow, in the reality I live in (but apparently not large swaths of The Internets), clubs tend to have a mixer, a couple of CDJs, and a couple of turntables. Most people use the CDJs, because relying on them means your gig doesn’t go pear-shaped and a USB stick will get you going. Some people use vinyl. Some people plug into the mixer with their laptop, and either use the records for control vinyl (with Traktor or Serato, typically), or plug in their laptop and use a controller.
That last part is important, though. If you are using a laptop, you suddenly have extremely restricted space. The displays on the S8 look terrific, in that turning your head to the side to squint at your MacBook is a mood killer. But its girth is a problem. Even some very highly-paid DJs tend to a) need to work in small spaces in some clubs or b) like to bring their own mixer. And we’re talking men and women pulling in consistent five-figure fees.
There’s some role for the touring DJ with something like the S8 – but it makes some assumptions. That is, there is surely some intersection between the people who get gigs on big tables and people who don’t already own a mixer they want to use. It’s just that that crossover seems not huge.
Despite that, lots of these huge controllers are indeed selling, from Pioneer, Numark, and others. That raises the question of where they’re all going. Frankly, music manufacturers don’t really need to worry so much about that question, until someone calls their tech support line or returns the product to the store. (Hint: you don’t want either of those things to happen.) That’s not me being cynical: speaking as a part-time manufacturer, this is really what makes your job fun. You don’t know what people will do with what you make. It can be pleasantly surprising. If you did know, there would be no challenge. Like a combination between misguided time traveler and snake oil salesman, you’re literally selling tools for people to use in the future. (Native Instruments’ marketing slogan isn’t far off.)
And into that market comes the S8.
On the size issue, even when the S8 first leaked, people were already predicting in comments a sort of Half S8 – they want the controller without the mixer in between. That seems more a smarter choice to me for NI than a jog wheel add-on predicted in comments by the editor of The Verge. (Let go! No more damned jog wheels! Jog wheels are awesome – in video editing! And… oddly, as a pitch wheel on the Roland SYSTEM-1, but that’s another story.)
If the S8 doesn’t easily fit into a club booth, it can still have some place – and not just collecting dust on the shelf of an orthodonist who had extra cash and decided he wanted to try DJing. (Though, Dr. Talbot, I will happily come give you a lesson, and I do routinely get comments on my teeth – thanks!)
This is a very, very capable single piece of hardware. Yes, it retails for US$1,299, so if you already have a mixer, you probably aren’t buying one. On the other hand, if you are playing gigs where you can request some table space, or if you’re looking for a single piece of kit to outfit a new studio or home studio, it’s certainly worth a look – and will be worth a proper review.
It also coexists nicely with other gear, if your mixer and audio interface are wanting an upgrade. It’s got Cirrus Logic converters, high-spec audio performance, connections for line outputs and a mic and turntables and four stereo channels.
And about that controller. Sorry, please, start the flame wars, but to the jog wheels, good riddance. In their place, you get extensive controls for everything Traktor does. Traktor’s problem has been that the deep power of its decks, loop and remix capabilities, and effects are often obscured by a complex desktop UI. Here, as with Maschine, you can “play” those options like an instrument. The touch-sensitive knobs give you control over everything from the browser to decks to effects. The big display shows your music collection on the hardware so you don’t have to feel like you’re looking at a spreadsheet on your computer.
And, most interestingly, you can use Freeze and live capture to sample audio from music. The pads aren’t velocity-sensitive – that’s where you know this is Traktor and not Maschine – but finally you get the kinds of easy loop/sample capabilities of Traktor on the iPad with real tactile controls.
And that’s where I think we have a hint as to what the S8 might be. It’s a remix machine. It’s, weirdly, DJ hardware that could appeal to producers who also DJ.
The optimistic side of me hopes the S8 finds some traction doing just that. For people billed playing live gigs, someone, somewhere could play an interesting set on it. (I think it’s unrealistic to expect that and turntables and CDJs, as seen in NI’s proposed use cases on their product site, but the controller aspect remains interesting.) And it could find some happy homes in studios.
I’ve had only a few minutes here and there with the hardware, but I was impressed. It looks beautiful; it feels expensive. Whether or not want to take it home, you can at least respect what it is. Now, personally, if NI could just give us this in a size closer to the Maschine mk2, or even Maschine Studio, I’d be interested … more interested, indeed, than I would ever say I’ve been in a DJ controller. It might even win over some producers who haven’t gotten very deep into Traktor as producers. In the meantime, it remains something big and luggable and pricey, and tied exclusively to Traktor software, and also powerful – a flagship, and sized to match.
But while the flame wars rage, the S8 also represents something else. The vision of DJing is finally breaking apart from faking turntables on hardware. And that, I think, can only be a good thing. The reality is, syncing two tracks may not be the most important thing DJs do any more. And maybe, looking at all DJs have been over the years, it never really was.
It’s just that anyone hoping to compete as a DJ product in clubs will have to go up against the juggernaut that is — wait for it –
By the way, I think NI really nailed the production-centric workflow of the S8 in that launch film. If you liked the music, don’t miss this Bandcamp compilation – some terrific artists here who just happened to get into the NI promo, via a great Berlin-based collective called Through My Speakers.