This wouldn’t normally be news, but for whatever reason, the Roland AIRAs went flying off the shelves – missing any MIDI documentation. Ahem.
We covered a number of these details before, including a Max for Live patch for the convenience of those of you integrating with Ableton. The good news: the hackers were right, and got more or less the entire implementation via trial and error. So, this is still a good resource:
The TR-8, then, holds no surprises. I’m just hopeful we see extra functionality via a firmware update. Fingers crossed. TR-8 MIDI Implementation Chard
The TB-3 is more interesting, particularly as I (keep) advocating it as a sequencer. As far as notes, it’s pretty limited – only 24-60 are transmitted, so you’ll have to do some transposition on your synth if you want something other than bass. But the Control Changes are all sent over MIDI:
11 PAD Y
12(ENV MOD) PAD X
13 (ENV MOD) PAD Y
Clock is sent and received, too. So, for a bit of extra control and notes – with pitch bend – for monophonic lines, this thing should be rather nice. Also, the TB-3 you can use on its own, battery-powered, so you can jam away, then take the same line and plug it into another synth later. I saw one of the AIRA engineers working on his basslines while in a corner of the visitor space in a corner of Musikmesse.
Thanks to Miami’s @3REV on Twitter for the tips, among other folks who sent this in. And 3REV earns extra cool points for founding a roller derby. That should be fun with some acid techno.
Even if Arturia’s BeatStep did nothing other than act as a dumb controller, it might get your attention.
The compact control surface / sequencer hardware runs about $100 street. As a controller, it has both 16 pads and 16 endless encoders (with notches, so you can feel where you are), plus transport triggers and a larger encoder. With driverless USB operation, some of you will already be happy and can proceed.
But the BeatStep is more ambitious than that. It has sophisticated software customization via a companion program, and a built-in step sequencer. It operates standalone, with MIDI gadgets or analog hardware (with gate and pitch Control Voltage outputs). It could therefore be a compact part of a mobile music-making rig, and it’s at this point that our review gets much more involved. The BeatStep has an impressive lineage – veteran designers Glen Darcey, Axel Hartmann, and Morgan Perrier collaborated on its creation. So there’s a reason to set expectations high.
I’ve been testing the Arturia BeatStep with just those functions in mind. And we’ve collected some of your tips and questions, with information that might help you out whether you’re trying to decide whether to buy or curious just how deep this goes.
The BeatStep already makes a nice controller with pads and encoders. But how much more can it be? Let’s find out.
Physical Form Factor, Control
Let’s start with the controller bit. The BeatStep is narrower than a 15″ MacBook Pro, as you can see in the photo, and roughly laptop thickness. It is, though, surprisingly weighty – in a good way. A metal base holds it firmly in place even if your finger drumming gets more intense.
The pads feel reasonably good; they’re smallish but feel firm and velocity response (and continuous pressure) are consistent. The encoders are likewise satisfying, with basic soft-touch caps. I’ve already taken mine on the road and it appears to hold up well; my only gripe is some sharper edges round the base, but that’s minor. All in all, this is already no contest: this feels better than any comparable controller at this price.
That said, even as a controller, you’ll immediately notice the absence of an LED. While it keeps the unit small and inexpensive, this means you have no idea where you are on those endless encoders; there’s simply no visual feedback to speak of.
MIDI mapping is extensive. There’s just a whole lot you can control:
Custom CC mappings. Of course. Nicely, they’ve also included standard MIDI descriptions.
Absolute and relative modes for the knobs – either sending a range from 0-127 (or less, if you designate), or increment/decrement in ways compatible with various software. (Ableton Live is specifically supported, which is good, because Ableton’s MIDI implementation in that regard is … um … requires specific compatibility considerations. There. And this works.)
Knob acceleration. Fast, medium, or off (“slow”).
Pad velocity curves. Linear, Logarithmic, Exponential, or “Full”.
Scales. You can control a variety of scales/modes from the front panel of the unit, live, or set them separately in software. One scale is set to a user scale for your own collection of pitches. (Once you go octatonic…)
Templates. There’s preset save/recall, too, for all your templates, with up to 16 slots.
You can even set custom MIDI messages to the Play and Stop buttons, for various kinds of transport control or using them simply as MIDI Control Change triggers.
There’s very little you can’t do from software. The exceptions: LED function (red, blue, or mixed for purple) is fixed on the unit. And the six control buttons on the left are necessarily non-assignable. Everything else, though, is up for grabs, in a seriously sophisticated piece of controller software the BeatStep shares with the rest of the Arturia family.
And it has to be the nicest piece of controller software I’ve seen. Heck, there’s even a detailed MIDI message console.
In controller mode, thanks to the scale controls, the BeatStep is also a reasonable melodic input device in a pinch – though, of course, 2×8 pads is not the optimal configuration for that job with devices like Ableton Push on the market. (And, you know, keyboards.) It’s nice having the option, though, and more on those scales in a moment.
Step Sequencer Operation
Now, on to the fun part — yes, the BeatStep can work as a step sequencer.
The good news: it’s simple and enjoyable, and it works standalone. The bad news: you may wind up doing some prep work in advance, because live modes are at the moment somewhat limited on the hardware itself. Let me explain. Here’s how it works:
Modes. The BeatStep has independent modes for its two features. In CNTRL mode, it’s a controller. In SEQ mode, it’s a step sequencer. That allows you to use these two modes as independent layers of functionality, and there’s helpful feedback to let you know where you are. In controller mode, everything lights blue; in SEQ mode, pads are red when you tap them and the active step is blue. Those lights are bright, so you may feel a little bit like you’re playing from the hood of a State Trooper’s car (shame there’s no brightness adjustment), but you can at least stay oriented.
Pitch. By default, each encoder is set to adjust pitch chromatically. The large Transpose encoder changes the pitch of the entire sequence overall. Now, because you can also set modes like major, minor, Blues, and User, you can more easily dial in the notes you want – nice.
Clock. You can receive clock messages from a computer over USB. That’s unfortunately the only clock source (analog or digital), so most likely you’ll want your BeatStep as your master if you’re using it standalone. There’s no CV input, and no MIDI input apart from USB. (One alternative would be using a box like the iConnectMIDI that acts as a USB bridge. That’s not too bad a tradeoff, given how small the Arturia piece is, and since you might want a thru box anyway.)
Pattern direction. Nothing too fancy here, but you can play patterns forward, backward, randomize the steps, or “alternate” (forward, then backward – basically ping-pong).
On-the-fly pattern storage and recall. Does what it says on the tin: save up to 16 presets, recall up to 16 presets. Where this gets interesting is again in the software. The editor displays musical notation for each pattern. That means you can get really fussy programming your patterns before a gig, and have them ready to go.
Pattern length, step length, and a really, really huge caveat. You can also change the step length (thus speeding up the pattern), by 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, or by holding down SHIFT, change the pattern length to less than 16 steps for some syncopation.
The caveat is, with the current firmware, a pattern immediately retriggers the moment you touch any of these controls, when you touch them. So, while the pattern still clocks to the tempo of an external source, you’re now very much not in sync on a downbeat. Arturia acknowledged this issue to CDM, and suggests it should be addressed in a firmware update. For now, I’d say this is a deal-killer for certain applications. Using it was exciting – enough so that I’m saving this firmware dump in case Arturia does ever fix it. You can play elaborate syncopations live. It’s just a little too exciting: there’s a reason step sequencers of this kind normally have at least a mode that syncs either to the downbeat or at least the active step size. The BeatStep right now does neither of those, clocking patterns free and potentially causing rhythmic train wrecks.
The one fix, oddly, is recalling a pattern; that starts the pattern on the beat again.
I’ll be watching for that firmware update.
Bottom Line: Hugely Powerful Controller and Software, Great Value, Limited Sequencer
The BeatStep is a whole lot of fun. As a controller, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. You simply can’t get better editing functions or controller feel at this price. And honestly, having been attracted to the BeatStep for its control layout and standalone sequencer functions, I’m forced to take a second look at Arturia’s whole control range; it’s that good.
Getting a sequencer, standalone operation, MIDI, and CV in the deal means it is going to be a must-buy for a lot of people.
The problem is, that sequencer experience is still incomplete. You get 16 steps: no more, no chaining, no “B” sequence. Arturia even pitches this as a companion to the iPad, but the iPad has easily half a dozen step sequencers that best this one. And the issue with being unable to change step or pattern length easily is a big minus.
I expect some of this to be improved in a firmware update. But the other issue is, simply, Arturia has created a very compact controller and there just isn’t room for more functionality. An LED would make programming easier; more controls would let you perform other functions or chain together more than 16 steps.
For now, I’m willing to make those tradeoffs on the BeatStep because it is so inexpensive and light. And it’s not that I wouldn’t use this as a step sequencer – I continue to do that. The powerful editor and notation view mean that you can load up 16 sequences and carry them with you, and the combination of encoders with scale modes is great.
But Arturia, a BeatStep Pro seems a logical next step. And in the meantime, I’m keeping my eyes out for a standalone device that operates together with a computer. While it has an ugly, shiny-silver faceplate, the M-Audio Trigger Finger Pro has all the layers, extra steps, visual feedback, and spacious pad and control layout that the BeatStep lacks – and it will operate standalone, too. The BeatStep has made me oddly more hungry for this kind of hybrid device, so I look forward to InMusic shipping that.
As for the BeatStep: I can’t say no to this one. Even with its drawbacks, it’s easily become an essential piece of gear. So – on to the tips.
More Tips, Tutorials, and Background
Hack: SpeedDialer. Now, I like slowly turning through values, but apparently not everyone does. From maxforlive.com, a Max patch that addresses that. Also, I expect more M4L goodness once this device gets in more hands.
The Arturia Beatstep is a great device, but with its current firmware the encoders are much too slow. It takes 5 turnes to get thru all 128 values.
I made this speeddialer to make fast movements possible. Just give a speedfactor (arround 5 is good for me).
You see two dials – the small one shows the real value, the second, bigger one shows the multiplied value which can be mapped to any function within Ableton Live.
The values are interpolated with a ramp, so you should not hear any glitches.
Source Distribution has a great interview with Glen about the hardware’s creation, as well as a nice Jupiter demo with a plug-in.
AudioCentral Magazine shows how this can look with a full MIDI hardware setup:
And Arturia has a series of tutorial videos/demos of their own, shot inside the load program for The Matrix:
Addendum: CV Operation
There’s not a lot to say about analog operation – this is straightforward output of gate and pitch – but here’s the basic picture.
Control Voltage (that’s the pitch output): 1 Volt/octave, from 0V to 7V
Gate output: 8 Volts
Now, if that isn’t what your gear is expecting, there are ways of converting.
What’s cool is, you can send almost anything over that CV out:
1. Pitch, as played from the pads.
2. Sequencer information, as recalled from the step sequencer.
3. Any output from your computer – meaning, like the also-very-useful QuNexus, the BeatStep is a quick-and-dirty MIDI-to-CV converter for your computer.
Also of note, you can set the CV output to go with one of your 16 presets or to “global.” That way, you can always send CV (regardless of which MIDI channel is selected), or only when you specify.
But Does it Blend?
I love the BeatStep on the road. I threw one in my suitcase and connected it to my MeeBlip anode, clocking from Ableton Live (which also clocked a KORG volca beats drum machine and Native Instruments Maschine). So, all the melodic synth patterns you hear here (and some less-melodic patterns) are the BeatStep driving the MeeBlip, from a set I did recently in an underground club in Belgrade.
Music software is at its best when it goes beyond cookie-cutter regularity, and spawns something creative. And sometimes, the path there involves retooling how that music is made.
That’s why I’m pleased to get to share this interview with WaveDNA. Liquid Rhythm is something unlike just about anything else in music software. It looks like a music theory class collided with a mandala. In colored patterns, arrayed in bars and wheels, you can produce all kinds of new rhythms, then integrate deeply with your host software. If you use Ableton Live, the integration goes further still. Whether you’re using Drum Racks or notes, you can automatically see what pattern goes with what, working in real-time with everything visible as you go. There’s a whole suite of tools with more than enough of what you could explore in any host. (Then, in Live, it just gets crazier.)
You can randomize and remix and shift, for quick ideas. (They had me at ‘randomize.’) Or, if you’re brave enough to enter the worlds of beat and pattern control, you can use the tools for fine-grained production of unusual musical ideas.
The suite: Plug-ins, patches. VST, AU, RTAS for any host. Or Max for Live for Ableton Live, now with full integration with Ableton Push hardware.
Palettes of rhythms. Paint with patterns, or make patterns in pitch and rhythm from clusters, in BeatBuilder.
Dial up rhythms. BeatSeeker displays various genetic possibilities of patterns in a huge wheel.
Accents, grooves. Design grooves and velocity by color in an accent editor, or re-groove existing materials with something they call GrooveMover.
MIDI without a piano roll. Yes, this common interface has become tyranny. It’s tough to describe, but they have a different view, one that provides manual control in a unique interface that goes its own direction – more like a genetic cell than a piano roll. (See the video, as it’s easier to see than write about.)
Integrate with Ableton Live clips.
“We’re a music software company that makes no sound,” say the creators in the interview here. Instead, they let you put rhythms where they don’t normally go. Sounds good to me.
Here’s a look at how their in-line editing works, and how the musical concept functions:
And a bit on how the beat generation process works:
And for Ableton users, here’s a look at that integration in Live 9 Suite:
We’ve been hearing from readers that many of you are tired of standard step sequencing interfaces. (I still like them sometimes, so watch this week for my review of the 2×8 grid of the BeatStep from Arturia, but I hear you.) So, this seems the perfect time to bring up WaveDNA – it isn’t four-on-the-floor. It’s… everything, on the floors, walls, ceilings, whatever.
I had hoped to write about WaveDNA for some time, but it was so vast, I never quite got the window. Fortunately, recently CDM’s own Marsha Vdovin, veteran journalist and music tech industry insider (among other roles), wrote an interview with the creators for Cycling ’74. (While it works as a plug-in in other hosts, the toolset is also a fine showcase of Max when integrated with Ableton Live 9 Suite, so it’s a natural to talking about Max.) Full disclosure: Cycling commissioned Marsha to write this story, and provided CDM with permission.
And I obviously need to get deeper into Liquid Rhythm. It makes me … almost a little afraid. Like I might disappear for some time and not be seen. But I could use some studio time. So if this story brings up questions, let us know. (And since some of you use Max and other patching environments, I’m sure the developers would be happy to talk to you about that. Now I have to make my stupid-simple generative rhythm patch work in Max for Live next…)
Here’s Marsha. -PK
Wave DNA is a Toronto-based company that has achieved great success with their Liquid Rhythm software. This innovative beat generator, which enables users to access the building blocks of ten quadrillion rhythmic patterns, integrates seamlessly with Ableton’s Live and is now updated to version 1.3.4 which introduces Ableton Push hardware integration. We sat down with the creators to discuss their use of Max in the inspiration, development and prototyping of Liquid Rhythm. Continue reading
Like an attention-starved Tamagotchi – or a two-and-a-half year-old toddler – this is an app that wants to shake around and gets easily bored.
Yes, we’ve seen endless predictions that apps might replace albums. (I said it on a panel once, so I’m guilty.) But… how, exactly? In a novel and entertainingly-juvenile concept, the app R.A.N.D.Y. is a handheld dancing character who wants to be shaken around in order to keep the music playing.
Worth it? Well, with the funky sounds of Belgian electronic/punk act Nid & Sancy, yes. And in exchange for shaking your phone around, you get the album for free.
Apparently getting this into the App Store was more challenging, however. Apple hit the developers with multiple rejections for being “useless.” (Oh, sure, and sliding squares around until you get fired from your job, that’s useful?)
Somehow, that makes us like it … more.
Reader Kris Meeusen worked on this, and made use of free software libraries (creative coding platform Cinder), with a heavy dose of OpenGL and GLSL to keep all the animations happening interactively, in real-time.
The label Erased Tapes lies perfectly at the crossroads of craft today, from instrument building and modification (electronic and acoustic) to performance and composition (again, electronic and acoustic). And a new collaboration weaves together all those threads. We couldn’t be more pleased to get to share the first exclusive track from that project, as well as announce an event we’ll co-present here in Berlin in June.
Peter Broderick and Greg Haines are each multi-instrumentalist composers, at home singing and playing instruments both new and old. Their relationship spans several years, but this year brings the debut of a finished record from that collaboration. Greg Gives Peter Space is a unique hybrid of cosy folk and spacey dub, producing a sound a bit unlike either one. And in a live context, the matrix of synths and effects they use in improvisatory constellations should produce a more far-out space journey than the living room-close sound you get here. Either way, it’s gorgeous stuff, the product of the care these two artists bring to the work of sound design and songwriting and performance.
On the evening of June 9, the duo will join us in an event we present with Berghain Kantine and Erased Tapes. (Details below, if you’re in or near Berlin.) The record is out on digital and vinyl June 16.
In the meantime, we can enjoy this cut:
Let’s not stop there, though. Here’s Peter Broderick playing with another collaborator, Martyn Heyne, in 2012 for his album that year, These Walls Of Mine, revealing that same improvisatory acumen. (This one take, no edits, complete with instruments and synths and such – and the floorboards becoming part of the instrument.)
Then there’s Greg Haines, whose edits and re-edits and re-recordings and reworkings of instruments and synths alike produces a thick stew of echoing, fuzzy sound – a slow-cooked electronic stew, having smoked for countless hours. His own opus from last year, “Where We Were,” is a rich epic, on Denovali – and defies logical SoundCloud tags as well as genres.
At the same time, he’s just at home massing sound and texture with contemporary ensembles. This is, to me, post-minimalist classical writing at its essence: harmonies and rhythms often hew to the simple, but color and timbre rise to the fore, in just the sort of language the course of 20th Century writing seemed to predict.
The live event I think will be special; Kantine (where we hosted our own event during CTM Festival 2013) is small enough to get close to the artists, yet still has the kind of atmosphere where people can dance around. If you’d like to join us in Berlin:
Event titll: Peter Broderick and Greg Haines
Venue: Berghain Kantine, Berlin
Date: June 9, 2014
Tickets – Koma36
Description: Greg Gives Peter Space – after years of playing fairly quiet music for an often seated audience Peter and Greg can’t wait to get on stage and bounce around to some groovy rhythms, heavy bass and spacey synthesizers. Prepare for take off!
And here’s what the artists and label have to say about this release and how it came to be, wherever you happen to catch it in the world:
Greg Gives Peter Space – the long overdue first collaborative work by Greg Haines and Peter Broderick
“Greg and I became good friends while both living in Berlin, around 2009 to 2013. We spent countless late nights playing records for each other, dreaming the dream of good music. We talked a lot about collaborating and even put in quite a few hours at each other’s studios . . . but for some strange reason we never seemed to finish anything. Maybe we were just busy enough with our other projects and didn’t feel in any rush. But we certainly had it in mind that we’d like to finish something one day. And we are very proud to say that day is finally here!
Primarily inspired by mine and Greg’s recent obsession with dub music, Greg Gives Peter Space is a mini album comprised of six tracks filled with – you guessed it – spacey sounds, created with the help of Greg’s ever-growing collection of synthesizers, tape delays and reel-to-reel machines. In the true spirit of dub music, many of the mixes were made live, both of us hovering over the mixing board, dancing around and following our intuitions, processing the sounds with live effects while the music bounced down to tape., We are extremely excited to release this record in the summer time and to celebrate with a few select shows around Europe. We’ve enlisted our dear friend Martyn Heyne to help us perform the music live, and we plan on bringing as much of the original gear from the recordings as possible. After years of playing fairly quiet music for an often seated audience, we can’t wait to get on stage and bounce around to some groovy rhythms, heavy bass and spacey synthesizers. Prepare for take-off! “ – Peter Broderick, April 2014
Peter Broderick (1987) is an American born multi-instrumentalist and singer. In his later teenage years he became entwined in the Portland (Oregon) indie folk scene, recording for the likes of M. Ward, Laura Gibson and Dolorean. 2007 saw him moving across the ocean to Denmark, where he began a long collaboration with the band Efterklang, touring the world with them for the next five years. Meanwhile he recorded several albums of solo material, ranging from sparse classical compositions (Float) to homemade folk music (Home), constantly experimenting with different musical genres, and also being commissioned to write music for several films and contemporary dance works. He then lived in Berlin for several years where he met and collaborated with Nils Frahm, Dustin O’Halloran and several others. He now lives back in America, near where he grew up, and continues to travel the world performing solo concerts and collaborating with a vast array of different musicians and artists.
Over the course of seven years, British born and Berlin based composer Greg Haines has carved out an intensely beautiful corner in the vast and ever-growing musical world. He has surprised music lovers around the globe with his unique and overtly personal approach to creating and performing a very patient and contemplative music, and with his numerous projects with other musicians and choreographers, including his collaborations with choreographer David Dawson for the Dutch National Ballet and the Royal Opera House, and his on-going work with The Alvaret Ensemble and The Group.
Greg Gives Peter Space will be released on Vinyl and Download via Erased Tapes on June 16, 2014.
Finally, I want to close with this video that Peter Broderick shares. It’s a brief documentary about luthier G.D. Armstrong. Hailing from nearby Oregon countryside to where Peter himself grew up, the instrument maker constructed the violin that follows Peter on tour. This is the sort of love of the making of instruments that I imagine unites caring artists in the 21st Century, whether it’s the construction of a monome controller, a Max patch, the slicing of a sample, the making of a score, or an acoustic instrument with centuries of history.
And it’s an honor to get to celebrate those things with these artists and labels, together in a room and here online.
MIDI: it’s not just a protocol. It’s a state of mind. It’s the interconnectedness of all things musical.
Or, at least, it is at MIDI HACK next month in Stockholm. A 24-hour hackathon will delve deep into musical creation. It’s not just mucking about with code, either: there will be performances and talks, artists and makers, all to feed your ideas.
And whereas past hack days have often focused on Web programmers and music consumption (music what?), this is different. If you’re a singer, or you want to rip a MIDI controller into shreds, or wire up a banana, this is the event for you. It appears equally friendly to someone who writes VST plug-ins as someone who wants to try a new way of performing. And that sounds refreshing.
Also, while it’s called a “MIDI Hack” day, control voltage and OSC are also welcome. Fear not, then, brave advocates of analog and OSC.
But you need to get on this: applications close at the end of the weekend. It’s quick to sign up, and it’s free, and they’ll feed you while you’re there.
The venue is nice, too: the swanky headquarters of Spotify, amidst the already-posh environs of Stockholm. Luxury while you’re awake all night.
I’m doubly excited as I’m evidently the keynote speaker. And if I get enough herring and some mysterious Swedish energy drink (or just their excellent coffee), I hope to get into the hacking, too. So see you there.
Thanks to Rikard Jönsson and Sebastian Höglund for making this happen. And, by the way, Sebastian makes wonderful music as Jämmerdosa – with an ethereal, beautiful video to match – extra performance inspiration for what sounds like it’ll be an intensive weekend of creative hacking:
It’s time to reinvent the graphical score. With musical practice more international, more broad and varied than ever, and electronics in the mix, conventional notational idioms just aren’t enough.
For curator and prolific electronic producer Hanno Leichtmann, the starting point was a collection of vintage Letraset and Letratone type, as pictured above. Leichtmann, a graphic designer himself (and maker of beautiful record covers), is passionate about digital and ink-based design processes alike; even the posters for the event are exquisitely (and expensively) hand-produced. He then invited a who’s who of illustrators and graphic designers from Germany, Austria, France, Great Britain, and Argentina, Dennis Busch, Angela Lorenz, Philip Marshall, Caro Mikalef, Till Sperrle and Damien Tran.
Next step: “marry” them to collaborators, turning to boundary-pushing musical artists Thomas Ankersmit, Cavern Of Anti-Matter, Jan Jelinek & Masayoshi Fujita, Andrea Neumann, Martin Brandlmayr, and The Pitch. (Robert Lippok also DJs.)
With acoustic and electronic ensembles alike, the resulting graphic scores will be creatively reinterpreted by the musicians, for a whopping six world premieres over just two evenings. Audience members are invited to catch drinks and look through the “action scores” in a lounge.
If you’re in Berlin, the event is tonight and tomorrow night – and very affordable – at RadialSystem, and I hear tickets are still available at the door. (Day one and day two are each on Facebook; read more info from host Digital in Berlin or (auf Deutsch) bln.fm. If you’re – more likely – in the rest of the world, though, I think it’s still worth checking out the music, before and after the event.
Artists will share the scores alongside the live event.
What’s striking about the re-imagination of musical scores is the range of possibility, a sort of second renaissance emerging of graphical possibilities in the post-digital era. The event credits early pioneers in post-War graphic notation Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, John Cage, and Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. But Berlin today is a kind of melting pot of visual and musical possibility, home to the likes of label Raster Noton where visual art and music are commonly intermingled and blurred. If those earlier artists expanded the spectrum of possibility with a radical reinvention of the strict, engraved score, today digital technology and printmaking alike exploit that full spectrum.
In fact, perhaps we are finally recovering from a drastic step backward brought by the computer, which tended to favor convenience over choice. There’s no polite way to say this: the most popular notation products are simply dreadful at handling non-conventional notation, requiring elaborate gymnastics for even some more common contemporary notational techniques.
But the beautifully-named Letra / Tone doesn’t simply drop artists into graphic scores. It celebrates, too, the scores as art objects and the craft and design history that made them. No mere abstractions, the very technique of print making and connection to physical process are restored to greatness, perhaps an attempt to undo the injustice done by computers to hand-made scores and engraving tradition.
The name itself is a reference to the history of handmade design, one many young artists are rediscovering:
Letraset was a company and brand name that manufactured sheets of dry transferable typefaces before the proliferation of computers. Up until the 1980s, these were widely used by graphic designers as well as by engineers, for whom Letraset was a convenient way of applying type to surfaces.
In addition to letters in various fonts and sizes, sheets with graphic elements (Letratone) were available. The latter is the namesake of the festival and contains both the graphical (LETRA) and the musical (TONE) in its name.
Teaser for the event:
Via SoundCloud, the event has compiled a must-hear playlist of the artists, gorgeous and delicate explorations of sound and form:
Hanno’s own music is I think a nice touch point for the event, displaying his keenly-focused aesthetic sense, but also his fascination with pattern and design. The music itself, in his most recently-released “minimal studies,” sounds like the patterns on the Letraset sheets, a hypnotic tapestry of lines and space.
Thomas Ankersmit makes sounds that seem otherworldly, from perhaps a distant past or a distant future, like the mystical ceremony of sound he conducted in an abandoned seaplane hangar in Tallinn, Estonia. For all the potential of electronics, the saxophone itself is transformed into an alien instrument in the composer’s own hands. With lapping waves, it sounds like the mournful music we would make after the worlds end and the seas rise.
Jan Jelinek is capable of eerily-beautiful textures, too; a 2010 collaboration with Masayoshi Fujita sways in meditational stasis:
I hope, quite frankly, it’s an idea people steal ruthlessly and reinvent. Certainly, programming graphical music together – whether scores are made with paint or pixels – is an opportunity to provide a window into graphic object and musical result, both.
And apart from the live, meat-space events, I imagine I’ll be devoted to listening to these artists on repeat for the next days.
It’s probably the greeting I’ve heard most in the past couple of months, apart from “Hello.”
Sometimes even before “Hello.”
Everywhere I go, people are asking me what I think of the Roland AIRAs – particularly the TR-8 drum machine.
There are now reviews everywhere of the AIRA TB-3 and TR-8 (and some of the VT-3, as well). For CDM, we’re planning some additional detail, but we’re still awaiting our review hardware. Fortunately, I got to spend an action-packed day with the trio of AIRAs with Benjamin Weiss.
So, I can do what I’d do in a bar: I can tell you all the really important details and skip straight to what I think of these (at least while we wait to do more exhaustive, detailed coverage).
Benjamin and I even finished an all-AIRA track for our NERKKIRN project. Well, nearly all-AIRA – the sound sources are exclusively AIRA TB-3, TR-8, and VT-3 with my voice. Here’s what sounds came out (teaser):
Having a day to mess with these is actually rather a great way to test the gear. You’re left with a fairly immediate impression.
The TR-8 is a killer live machine, and all about hands-on control. Does it sound like a 909 or 808? Absolutely. It’s not a perfect replica of a vintage machine, in part because individual vintage gear will differ and age. But it’s certainly darned close, and a terrific value for money. There’s a reason people are talking about getting rid of their original and replacing it with this. I doubt anyone would fault the sound; mostly what you lose is the appearance of the originals (and the accompanying street cred).
I’m not convinced that getting into the discussion of realism is really the point, though. In fact, more likely the reason not to buy a TR-8 is that you may be bored with the sound of an 808 and 909. Assuming you do want those sounds, though, this is an ideal way to get it, precisely because it’s hands-on. Sure, you could use a sample library and there are even nice drum controllers out there. But those options likely won’t give you perfect one-to-one parameter control – or faders.
And that’s why I say, I think the TR-8 is a live machine. It’s reasonably mobile, about the size of a laptop. And since it can double as an audio interface and MIDI interface, you can drop one piece of gear from your bag.
That’s not to say it isn’t also a nice studio machine (see the video below, via Synthtopia). But I think in the studio, it’s “nice to have” – in live use, for those who rely heavily on 808/909 sounds, it becomes a must-have. You just might want to think about adding an external effects box, and see the workaround for the absence of some internal recording features.
Unboxing and details on integrating with a DAW (as we finished a track in an afternoon, yes, they do work as studio boxes):
And for sound samples, we turn again to Benjamin and De:bug. First, the raw sound of the TR-8. I’m surprised some people were unimpressed with these sounds, but I think that’s for two reasons: one, it isn’t a blind test if you have a listen, and two, it is uncommonly dry. Remember, most people wouldn’t use an 808 or 909 entirely dry, either.
The effects section I think is not the strongest part of the TR-8, but the reverb and delay definitely get the job done. Here’s the reverb, delay, Scatter, and otherwise a raw recording:
The TB-3 is like getting a sequencer – with a free bassline, built in. If the TR-8 is great because it has lots of physical controls for its parameters, the TB-3 is sort of the opposite. It’s basically a preset machine. Dial in sounds, and see what you get. Of course, you can still access most of the sounds you’d produce anyway, but normally I advocate synth hardware precisely for its hands-on controls. Even the effects on the TB-3 are preset-specific: sometimes Scatter is a glitch, sometimes a delay, sometimes a reverb.
But then you add the touchscreen. The TB-3 is a bit like the KAOSS Pad sequencer KORG never made. Sequencing is wildly intuitive and loads of fun. Then, you can switch the X/Y pad to performance mode and use it to modulate effects. Best of all, this all works with external gear. SLIDE/TIE doesn’t transmit MIDI, unfortunately, and can’t be recorded live, only in step mode. But this is still a flexible touch sequencer at a price where there just isn’t much competition. It’s a bit like getting the synth for free.
I have to admit, with my own money, I’d buy a TB-3 first. And oh, yeah, this combo is really a lot of fun.
The VT-3 is sort of the odd man out. The artist Mijk van Dijk, who was a heavy user of all the original Roland gear, tells me he really likes this box, and he bought it with the other two. For him, it seems to bring fond memories of the VT-1. I just found the box limiting: you have fixed presets, and I can’t say I was a fan of them. Basic formant and auto-pitch work well enough, and you might use the synth parts, but why not add useful effects? Why are the controls so limited? Why are all but a few of the presets unusable novelties and throwaways?
I’d wait on this one and hope the AIRA adds an effect more worthy of the other two units. (A Space Designer was seen on the test bench in early AIRA promo videos, for instance, so Roland could have – and hopefully yet will – go another direction.) Or, frankly, right now, I’d buy a BOSS – you know, from Roland.
Bottom line: They’re really nice boxes. Talking about authenticity is a waste of time; they sound great. It’s really more whether you want 808/909 sounds (or whatever might be added via firmware) for the TR-8. On the TB-3, the sequencer plus some nice 303 sounds make for a wonderful buy, and I’m surprised that hasn’t gotten more attention. The VT-3 will probably work for someone, but to me it doesn’t live up to the Roland and BOSS names, so I’m hoping we see another effect in the lineup soon.
It’s been fun to watch people use these live over the past weeks, too; from Roland demos to artists getting them in-hand. Hardware endures because it’s really fun to play things with these kinds of controls.
We’ll revisit this in greater detail once we see the hardware; I hope we can use the extra time we’ve had to go into more specifics of functionality than some of the earlier reviews may have been able to do. And Roland has promised us a review unit of the System-1 synth. It’s still not entirely complete, which means any “reviews” you’ve seen were based on unfinished hardware. Having had a play at Musikmesse, I can at least say the existing synth model on there is something new. It’s beautifully compact, though the omission of velocity sensitivity from the keyboard is puzzling (if historically accurate). It’s really the details of the “Plug-Out” SH-101 model that may be most interesting, and that we haven’t heard yet. Stay tuned.
Don’t call it a comeback. Hardware step sequencing is becoming the must-have accessory for even computer users.
And the boutique Digital Warrior controller, which neatly combines knobs with colored pads, is a great solution. I’ve been messing about with the Arturia BeatStep, as well – review coming – but the Digital Warrior has some tricks of its own. It integrates nicely with Traktor, like the still-forthcoming MIDI Fighter Twist from DJ TechTools. But the reason I wouldn’t buy or recommend the DJTT piece is – no MIDI DIN connector. And that spoils the fun.
Here, the Digital Warrior is comfortable not only integrating with your computer but with MIDI gear, as well. Note the cable making its way into the volca beats. And the volca beats I think has become most popular of the volcas with good reason: the touch strip at the bottom is ideal for quick sequencing. Some of the sounds I think are better than others, but it does have a grungy and unique sound, aided by the PCM and grain controls. And, crucially, the bass drum is deep. (I remain interested to hear what Akai’s rival Rhythm Wolf will sound like, though the tiny size of the volca is perfect when you’re cramming a live rig into cramped quarters, which always seems to happen onstage – hey, half a meter square is enough for you, right?)
You can output MIDI clock (as with volca beats), or use the MIDI port as MIDI thru, turning the box into a proper MIDI interface.
Bottom line: whether working in something like Ableton or Traktor, you can layer hardware step sequences over top so that you actually have something to play (rather than waving your arms around while some scenes or tracks play automatically – bah).
Digital Warrior a compact open source Traktor Remix deck sequencer and MIDI Controller. Sequencing Korg Volca Beats through the on-board MIDI out connector.
Before triggering clips and samples on the computer, Pantha du Prince and The Bell Laboratory “trigger” the musicians.
Yes, before there were machine clips, there were human patterns, and in performing Terry Riley’s legendary classical new music composition “In C,” the ensemble has to do just that. In a beautiful chorus of chiming tones, that orchestra is augmented with digital embellishment.
The result makes for a live performance that expands the role of the computer into a large-scale instrumental ensemble, venturing into territory perhaps not as often associated with Ableton Live as genres like dance music are. But Ableton has lavished attention on electronic composer Pantha Du Prince and his ensemble in a series of videos that amount to a complete documentary on the work and how it was produced.
Pantha du Prince’s music has always shimmered with beautiful sounds, but here, percussion form an otherworldly realm of glittering rhythmic waves.
Ableton’s film begins with the artist side, and in fact less discussion of the gear. (I’ve heard people chattering about that lately, and pleasantly surprised that this isn’t an in-your-face promo video.)
But let’s do a bit of gear spotting anyway, just to parse how the setup works. In the “cockpit” of Hendrik’s computer rig arrive feeds from all the instruments for sampling, looping, and effects, plus a couple of contact mics for adding close-miked sounds of hand percussion. These are routed through hardware effects (delay, reverb), and then sampled and looped in Ableton, which is in turn controlled by an APC and MPD hardware controller. The full rig:
Akai MPD32 pad controller
KORG Kaoss Pad Pro 3
Eventide Space Reverb VERMONA PERfourMER mk II analog synth – maybe the most interesting piece of gear in that lineup, actually
But the real stars here are the acoustic instruments. Microphones bring you closer to the delicate sounds, but this is otherwise timbral design in the world of physical sound. I actually had the pleasure of wandering the Drum hall for a few minutes at Musikmesse with Dave Hill, Jr. of iZotope, himself a talented drummer (and Ableton veteran) – thanks for that, Dave. We spent some moments handling cymbals and talking about their design. Coming from the realms of code and electronics, there’s something comforting about discussing the hammering of metal (and at least I’m not entirely inexperienced there, having played in a gamelan ensemble for some years).
It’s actually my favorite video of the set – create acoustic music:
Here’s the music video for “Spectral Split” with The Bell Laboratory: