Elektron’s machines are so beloved, they’re almost an electronic instrumental category all their own. But much of that love is focused on the hardware workflow. The challenge lately has been how to make the latest generation of Elektron hardware fit better with other gear – and specifically, the computer.
Some of those improvements are coming from Elektron. But some, too, come from third-party developers. And that’s the case with a useful Mac app.
This one will be really easy to write up, because the app is – as it should be – stupidly simple.
Take a sound. Drag it to a pad. It loads on the pad.
That’s it. The app handles all the file conversion and loading and configuration for you. An upcoming version, provided in advance to CDM, also does batch transfers.
Meanwhile, in Sweden … Elektron owners are seeing some additional improvements to Overbridge computer integration and the Analog series itself. Elektron reps I saw at NAMM last month were quick to emphasize that they’re focused on bettering this software side. There’s a video showing the new stuff from our friends over at Sonic State:
The banner feature is, Overbridge is no longer limited to Ableton Live. That was certainly the most popular DAW pick, but Elektron users use a lot of other DAWs, too. There’s also sidechaining and multiple outputs in AUs, plus improved performance and a better UI. In fact, this is more like 1.5 than 1.1.
Meanwhile, Analog owners get free-running LFO modes, because you don’t always want to sync, and some cool sequencing features.
To see just how passionate the Elektron user base are, just follow this sprawling forum thread in response to the Sonic State vid:
The piano has been living with a beautiful legacy, but that legacy can double as tyranny. The Steinway Model D, favorite instrument of mine that it is, has also frozen the technological development of the keyboard instrument.
And that’s why the Una Corda is different. Built custom by David Klavins, and associated with that builder’s collaboration with pianist Nils Frahm, this lightweight piano is unlike any you’ve seen or heard before. And now, you can get a taste of playing the real thing with a software instrument.
For full background on the instrument, here’s our 2014 story, including an interview with Mr. Klavins. I have to say, as a piano nerd who came to music in general through that instrument, it’s one of the favorite things I’ve ever run on CDM. And piano tech itself to me is reasonable fodder for this site:
In the meantime, though, there’s a Native Instruments software instrument. This isn’t the first or the most unique NI recreation of a Klavins instrument. That honor would fall to The Giant. Whereas you actually might seriously consider getting an Una Corda, this other instrument – not so much. The Klavins Piano Model 370i original is actually built into a wall, stands 9 meters tall (that’s 30 feet), and requires stairs to get to the keys.
But just because the Una Corda is more practical as an instrument doesn’t mean it’s less desirable for its sound. The central innovation is to transform the soundboard, with a light, delicate surface that resembles a guitar more than a big, bulky grand. That changes the strings, too.
I really like the fewer-key version, but for NI, Klavins built an 88-key instrument. That gives you fragile, gorgeous sounds across a big range.
I suspect many electronic music aficianados have the soundtrack for the film The Revenant on repeat who haven’t even seen the film. Any new Alva Noto/Ryuichi Sakamoto collaboration will get the attention of lovers of minimal electronic achievement, with good reason.
And The Revenant might just be the perfect landscape for that collaboration. Its marathon portrait of bleakness and intense, lonely revenge make the film a platform for a perfect Alva Noto/Sakamoto score.
Carsten Nicolai’s long-running collaboration (as Alva Noto) with Ryuichi Sakamoto has been a benchmark in what electronic/acoustic synthesis can be. But even as a fan of their creative intersections, this soundtrack is special. It is an essay in texture, one in which eventually the boundary between acoustic and electronic disappear.
This interplay can’t be called new any more. Electronic sounds shares a timespan with the history of cinema. From the Theremin to the ANS Synthesizer (see Tarkovsky) to Louis and Bebe Barron’s homemade electronics to Wendy Carlos to Vangelis, film has often been the medium through which the world has come to know electronic sound’s most adventurous sounds for the first time. The big screen led the home stereo.
But, it’s a shame that after those leading-edge moments of cinema, we haven’t seen synths as the norm so much as the exception. Moreover, the fusion of synthesis and acoustic sound in film still seems a rare feat – even though it ought to be the perfect place to execute that synthesis, even for general audiences.
That means pairing the right people, though, not pairing the right technology. And this seems as good an example as any. I’m surprised when Nicolai and Sakamoto are called “unlikely.” Perhaps in pre-unification Germany, peering into the future, the artistic couple would have been historically or geographically improbable. (It’s not that the DDR was universally disconnected from the globe – electronic composers in the right positions had unique access, though perhaps not the band of East German brothers who started Raster Noton.) And that happy fall of the Wall here is hugely welcome.
But aesthetically, the combination seems rather inevitable. These are two minds who exemplify minimalism at its most essential and versatile, each comfortable across media.
Sakamoto is at the apex of his economy in the music for The Revenant. The thematic gestures in the string writing are as suspended as a breath caught in frozen air, as aching as a sigh. (Listen to “Hell Ensemble” or “The Revenant Theme.”) The constantly downward-descending modal minor writing is endlessly unresolved, balancing on edge. It is unmistakably Japanese, but also recalls baroque laments, an unending spiral descent of incalculable despair. Oh, and – somehow this sparing handful of notes is oddly hummable. That melodious romanticism, if stripped down, gets clawed to the bone as the plot progresses.
But even before getting to the electronic contributions, the recording production and orchestral writing are themselves purely timbral in a way familiar to synthesists. In more incidental moments, glassy string textures seem themselves to be almost electronic – pure surface, almost unmoving, executed expertly by Berlin’s Stargaze orchestra. Stargaze themselves are ideally tailored for the project, in contrast to the epic Hollywood contributions last year of the LSO to wars in the stars. Like the composers, stargaze are comfortable with music classical and new, electroacoustic avant garde and pop as well as the usual “sustain this string harmonic without us hearing any bowing for as long as the director damn well pleases” acrobatics.
Multi-instrumentalist Bryce Dessner (known to hipsters more for The National) fits nicely into this ensemble as a co-composer and member of the band. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine Sakamoto/Alva Noto/Dessner in future.
But aprospos to this site, let’s talk about electronics.
Raster Noton, the label Nicolai co-founded, celebrate a big landmark anniversary this year. And they come from roots in a Communist-era scene that meant scrounging electronics wherever they could be found, rather than the conspicuous consumption of pricey gadgets, displayed in lavish studio walls like hunting trophies. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but you get my point.)
What’s beautiful about Nicolai’s understated contributions to this record, as with past Raster Noton efforts, is that electronics can be naturalistic.
So, when we talk about The Revenant being shot in natural light, with no CGI, an epic wilderness expedition in itself, we can also be encouraged that electronic textures don’t feel out of place.
Here, electronics don’t represent alien flying saucers or futuristic cities or the insides of computers or pounding nightlife. They add colors and textures that blur easily with those in the orchestral score. They reveal the weight of moments of emotional desperation, of passion, and do so as economically as the string textures.
The coexistence of electronics with scored material is very much by design. As Nicolai told WXQR:
Specifically for this movie, because I knew it’s was going to be a classical score, I tried to record electronic music in a way that sounds very organic, that sounds kind of acoustic rather than electronic. So, I really tried to change the electronic sound in such a way that it could easily work together with the classically-recorded score.
The “Dream” sequences the two make together, with glacier-sized reverbs full of icy noise and urgent rhythmic pulses, are exquisite. As always, Nicolai lets the aesthetic of the medium be part of the timbral message.
But it’s interesting to learn that in this case, vintage DDR hardware or some elaborate software concoction aren’t the tool of choice, but iPads. The focus directly on sound itself seems to fit the score. Again, talking to WQXR:
For this, because I needed to be very flexible, I was basically arriving with many software-based synths and I did everything with basically one laptop. I composed everything inside that laptop, or sometimes I recorded weird sounds from natural things or iPads; I used a lot of iPads as well. Sometimes, I wanted to use just a simple recording of a stone or something, so I needed something of that quality of sound, so I just recorded it and used it and processed it so you can’t really hear that original sound inside it. I would know that for a specific moment that I would need something like that quality of sound.
But I think it’s worth climbing up on the mountaintops (ahem) and talking about the significance of this sort of work. We need to begin to appreciate electronics as an essential element in orchestral writing, in scoring. It’s lazy to call the synthesizer synthetic, to call the computer artificial. We need a reckoning for how they fit into our culture.
And while the film is about loneliness, this kind of attention for the medium shouldn’t be quite so lonely. So I’m glad to have this work as added inspiration. It does so much with so little, it makes a lot of us want to do more.
For more on this collaboration in general, Red Bull Music Academy have an extensive interview with both artists:
The funny thing about Ableton Link is that it doesn’t require Ableton Live. It isn’t even an app. It’s a sync technology, one that allows software to jam together, wirelessly, without any one clock having to be the source or “master.”
But as of today, if you do use Ableton Live, that wireless magic is built-in – and requires almost no configuration.
Live users can jam with other Live users. Live users can jam with apps. If you were on the beta, you’ve been doing this already, but with Live 9.6, the functionality is out of beta.
Link comes to Ableton Live
In case you weren’t already using the Link beta for Ableton Live 9.5, Live 9.6 quietly adds a “Link” section to preferences (in a tab now renamed “Link/MIDI”). And when connected to a WiFi network with Link devices on it (either iOS or other laptops running Ableton Live), you’ll see sync abilities.
To make this play nice with other sync tech, Link and The Bridge (if any of you still use that) are mutually exclusive, and each is disabled if running as a ReWire slave (if any of you do that).
Meanwhile, iOS developers have been busy. They’ve been making not only demos, but real-world jam sessions.
First up, a bit of an exclusive – one of my long-time favorite apps, SoundPrism from Audanika, is now updated with Link support. It’s not live on the store until tomorrow Thursday, but it brings some cool sync functionality to a lovely graphical touch instrument.
And more jams from other iOS devs, showing just how many apps support this.
To me, the big remaining question about Link is if and when we’ll see a desktop SDK. I’d love to see a Traktor user switch off with a live set in Ableton in a DJ booth without dropping sync, for instance, or see Live users jamming with FL Studio and Reason users… and the list goes on. I expect it’s coming, and I expect you’re as enthusiastic about that as I am.
Also, new in 9.6
Live 9.6 isn’t just about Link. A whole slew of stability improvements and fixes are in there, too. (I was much happier using the beta of this release after a couple of hiccups in 9.5).
You can check the release notes for fixes, but I’m most interested in what they’re doing with control surfaces and Simpler.
Arturia fans, there’s now control surface support for KeyLab, BeatStep, and MiniLab.
Hackers, Live’s Python interface finally supports Python 2.7. (There’s also something very cool coming to Ableton Live called the Connection Kit, which brings new options to people using technology like OSC and Arduino. They’re demoing that here in Berlin during CTM, so I’ll report more on that once I’ve had a look.)
Meanwhile, in Simpler, you see Warp mode parameters (grain size, flux) in real-time rather than per-note, improved visualizations, and other tweaks.
Oh, yeah, and if you hate Live 9.6’s clip coloring, you can bring back random clip coloring again.
The path from past to future has become delightfully twisted in our modern age.
Some of the best new technologies mix old techniques with new. They treat the computer and electronics not as a separate entity, but for its potential hybridization. And one great example of that is gamut inc, a project that explores instrumental-electronic interactions. Founders Marion Wörle and Maciej Sledziecki came to visit us at the MusicMakers Hacklab we’re hosting at CTM Festival in Berlin. And they brought the most extraordinary inventions along.
Gamut’s works are far-reaching, and their investigation of the future often starts deep in the past. The Avant Avant Garde festival turned to models from as far back as the Renaissance and Pythagoras, predecessors to modern experimental techniques in instrumental invention and computation that came long before even electricity. That international gathering led to performances from Poland to Berghain.
Part of our challenge this week in the Hacklab is to see what can be learned from melding electronics and acoustics, digital and human. Gamut are delighting our CTM audience with their wild inventions – electro-acoustic-robotic oddities that seem to have fallen through a wormhole from an alternative universe.
There’s the Physharmonica, which looks like a vacuum cleaner and a switch box had a love child that could sing. Or the Bowjo – a robotic rethinking of the banjo. The sounds can be delicate, as on their “retro-futuristic” carillon. And there’s a reminder of what’s happening – these instruments, as a class of similar inventions from around the world, are perfectly content being sequenced by Ableton Live. Part of the beauty of computation and digital representation is, there’s not necessarily a direct line between an object and a score. The output can be anything.
We’re also telling our Hacklab participants not just to invent instruments, but invest care in how they should be played. And sure enough, Gamut make some beautiful music with their creations.
Gamut are also serving as a hub for other musicians developing robotic, machine-instrument techniques, not just to focus on the novelty of those creations but the music that they can produce. It’s a beautiful age for new automata. I’m excited to go hear a proper performance with the group tomorrow at CTM.
With galaxies of new sounds out there, we return to certain hubs to point us in stimulating new directions. And Daniele has done it again. We’ve heard some of the upcoming noises from Holotone, a label whose name (no kidding) draws from particle physics, and we have reason to be excited. CDM’s Zuzana Friday goes all in for an in-depth interview with plenty of music to go with the words.
Apart from his work as a half of Dadub and his mastering output with Artefacts Mastering studio, Daniele Antezza produces personal and spiritual musical experiments under his Inner8 moniker. Recently, the producer has founded his own imprint called Holotone, which refers to nothing less than the holographic principle from string theory.
Antezza isn’t just pulling in some already established artists or limiting himself narrowly to genre. Instead, with Holotone, he has created a space for musical ideas outside current club trends, embracing experimentation, innovation, and outstanding sound design skills. For a closer look at Holotone’s musical direction, you can have a listen to Inner8’s new EP Tetramorph, the first record of Holotone, which will be released on March 21st and which features a collaboration with Japanese-born, Thailand-based artist Koichi Shimizu.
If you’re in Berlin on January 30th, you can attend the Holotone showcase at Kantine am Berghain. Apart from Inner8 himself, the event will present live sets of GRÜN and Ina Ynoki from Dromoscope, Sofus Forsberg and Alexander Stone, and DJ sets by Linus Gabrielsson and S13 alias Secret Thirteen’s founder Justinas Mikulskis. In our interview, Antezza is delving into the metaphysics of theoretical astrophysics, explains why art should bypass the cognitive traps of our hyper-mediated era, and describes the label’s foundation and possible future directions.
Exclusive to CDM, we’ve convinced Alexander Stone to produce a new Holotone mix for us. Queue this up if you need some inspirational listening whilst you read.
CDM: Where exactly does come Holotone from?
Holotone is the association of 2 words: “holo”, which comes from my fascination with the Holographic Universe Principle (which briefly assumes that we can conceive our universe, at macroscopic level, as a 4D video display made of subatomic pixels of information), and the English word “tone”. The Holographic Universe Principle was announced about 40 years ago. Recently, a team of researchers at Fermilab (America’s particle physics and accelerator laboratory), is studying the holographic theory using a machine called “Holometer”, which is:
“…a new kind of instrument designed to study the quantum character of space itself. It measures the quantum coherence of location with unprecedented precision. Laser light passing through an arrangement of mirrors will show whether space stands still, or whether it always jitters by a tiny amount, carrying all matter with it, due to quantum-geometrical fluctuations. We call this new property of space time ‘holographic noise’.” (https://holometer.fnal.gov)
The primary aim of the experiment is that if holographic noise will be proven, we’ll be in front of an element that should help the accuracy of the holographic conception of our universe. It is exactly the “holographic noise theory” that gave me the intuition to name my label “Holotone.” From my point of view, the sound can be metaphorically compared to something which can show to our consciousness that reality is often not what it seems to be, exactly as the holographic noise could hypothetically reveal the holographic nature of our universe.
When I looked at the name “Holotone” for the first time, I thought it meant “holistic tone.” Is a holistic approach, that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts,” something you adopted?
This is a really interesting point of view, I must say. I like to refer to the holistic approach as something that interprets the whole as “other” than the sum of its parts, rather than “more.” So, according to this specification – yes, the holistic approach has played an important conceptual role in leading my imagination to conceive Holotone, especially from an aesthetic point of view.
Holotone Showcase Teaser:
You have a new EP, released on your new label with new vision. Did you have in mind what you want the EP to be about and how the four tracks should relate to each other before you started working on it?
Even if the concept behind Tetramorph EP is something I was thinking about for at least one year, while the four tracks have just recently produced — I haven’t worked on the sound composition following any conceptual frame. When I produce my music, I usually let my instinct be free to explore the realm of creativity. So, when I feel that I created something that I consider artistically meaningful, I look for a conceptual framework to boost and enrich the narrative I want to express.
I feel that the sound of Tetramorph EP is very different from my solo debut album, where I basically collected sketches conceived during past few years. This time, I rather wanted to achieve more homogeneous, fresh and mature level in my sound design, so I used a hardware setup controlled by Ableton Live and I worked following a “live rec” approach. I guess it’s because of this reason that I haven’t linked any specific theoretical concept to the creation of my recent sound experiments.
In ‘Self Determination’, the first track from Tetramorph, you use a field recording of a marketplace from the Middle East. It reminded me of your first LP, where you also use field recordings from East, particularly India. Where do the samples in ‘Self Determination’ come from and why do you like using the authentic Eastern influence in your music?
The direct link with my debut album is absolutely true, because “Self Determination” is the first track I produced after that. It represents my first attempt to experiment with new production techniques, trying to keep my aesthetic coherent with what I have done so far.
The sample is taken from field recordings made in Africa during the 70’s by the musicologist David Fanshawe, and the one I used is supposed to be recorded in Egypt. Regarding my Eastern music influences, I really do not know where they come from, because it’s an element that comes out naturally when I compose my sounds. I just know that when I’ve listened to that music for the first time, I felt such a deep emotion. I was literally enchanted and blown away by the percussion grooves and by the hypnotic power of it.
The fourth track of the EP called ‘Aufhebung’ is made in collaboration with Japanese sound artist and producer Koichi Shimizu. How did you two meet and how was working together? Will he be releasing some music of his own on Holotone as well?
I got in touch with Koichi Shimizu a few months ago because of a mutual friendship. He sent me his album “Otolary” released for his own label Revirth, which I found really beautiful because of its ability to express a complex sound design using a meaningful and elegant artistic language in an impeccable way. In that period of time, I was working on the Holotone launch and on my Tetramorph EP, so I proposed Koichi to make a track together: he accepted and we were sharing our sounds via Internet until Aufhebung took form, fusing our aesthetics.
It has been a fruitful collaboration, because I really like his approach. He will be the author of the second Holotone EP and we’ll share the stage in Bangkok and Tokyo for the Holotone Asia Showcase in February. I hope to jam live with him when I’ll be in Thailand.
Koichi Shimizu Youtube:
What about Undogmatisch? It’s your former label and a platform through which you organized event in Berlin. Is it still alive, or did you make “Aufhebung” with it to create new space for a new project?
I decided to leave the project Undogmatisch a few months ago, because at one point it became incompatible with my job organization and I really don’t know how and if the project is evolving at the moment. Holotone is not an evolution or transformation of Undogmatisch, because I wanted to create something totally new and easier to manage, so I did not make any kind of “Aufhebung”.
What I want to do now, apart from my usual work for Artefacts Mastering, Dadub and Inner8, is to stay focused on my activity as a label manager. After the Tetramorph EP, I will release Koichi Shimizu and other artists, and I’m honestly really looking forward to it. Holotone is basically a record label, and I will sometimes organize label showcases in Berlin and hopefully all around the world.
According to you, Holotone’s mission is to communicate “using an unmediated language (art) to express the complexity of our hyper-mediated world”. Would you elaborate on this? And are there some specific patterns or ways you use in your music production for expressing such a complicated topic, such as self-generating sounds or repeating beat structures?
I think that art has an intrinsic power to bypass our usual cognitive frameworks, due to its timeless dimension, an aspect that risks to disappear if we conceive art as a form of business or to celebrate the artists’ ego. If you think about music, for example, it just “recently” in the human history became a matter of mere entertainment, because earlier, it used to be used as something close to rather mystic-cathartic dimension than related to coolness, hype and career.
Even though the conception and the creation of a piece of art often implies a certain degree of complexity; the magic of art lies, in my opinion, in its ability to communicate something to a human being using a non-mediated language, triggering feelings, emotions, thoughts and actions useful for what I call an existential liberation path.
We’re all living in the era of media and globalization, so the information, the knowledge and also our view of the world is mediated in each aspect, for many reasons actually. In my opinion, the main one is related to the dynamics of power and domination of our society. To translate all this into an aesthetic domain, I have quite the same vision as you do, because when the use of certain techniques like generative sounds and algorithmic composition is able to create a meaningful piece of art, it means that we might be able to talk a direct language, bypassing all the cognitive traps of our era.
In the “>interview from the last year, you mentioned you’d like to get rid of Ableton in your production as Inner8. Have you managed to do that, and has your setup for recording and playing live changed since 2015?
After that interview, I continued to work on giving my production techniques a new dimension, and I can now correct my sentence saying that for my live performances, I’d like to get rid of the laptop in general, not just Ableton Live. My recent set up is much more hardware-oriented, even though I will never abandon certain techniques achievable only by the use of computers, like spectral synthesis for example. Ableton still plays a fundamental role in terms of control source, e.g. what you can get with a few clicks. A good Max4Live patch and a MIDI controller is simply priceless in terms of creativity.
At the moment, the main difference from my 2015 set up is that instead of devolving just effects management over to hardware machines, this year I also included beats and synth, so Ableton triggers just few loops and manages all the MIDI routing and the real time MIDI controls. My approach does not follow the vexata quaestio about digital/analog, because my aim is to create music using the best characteristics of both domains, often hybridizing them. The reason why I like to perform Inner8 live sets avoiding a prominent role of the computer is because it helps me to carefully choose the alternatives I need. The theoretical infinity of possibilities of a computer has too often risked to block my creative flow, at least from a psychological point of view.
On your Holotone showcase and label launch night in Berlin, you will play next to with Sofus Forsberg from Mindwaves Music, Grün and Ina Ynoki from Dromoscope, S13 and few fresh names who have Holotone as their label in brackets: Alexander Stone from Italy and Linus Gabrielsson from Sweden. It seems like you were choosing the artists for Holotone very carefully. What were the most important things about each artist that made you decide whether they’re suitable for Holotone?
Yes it’s true, I’ve carefully chosen the artists I invited to play for the 1st Holotone Showcase in Berlin, and I’m actually very excited to share the stage with all of them, because of the high quality level of their acts and because of the friendship and respect we have for each other. They all have represented specific and precise meanings in my artistic path during the last years in Berlin: I’ve always admired Sofus for his ability to express deep and true emotions with his complex systems of music production, Grün and Ina Ynoki for their revolutionary approach to sound and live performance, and S13 because of his impeccable and unique taste and for his integrity as an artist and a curator.
Alexander Stone and Linus Gabrielsson, even though they’re unknown names, have both a deep background in music production, audio engineering and sound design. I’ve shared so many ideas and visions about music, world, universe and existence with them, plus endless talks about sound design. So when I got the idea to organize this Holotone Showcase, I thought about involving them immediately. I’d like also to mention Cubert (Martina Scala), a very talented visual artist who’s supporting Holotone with all her skills, and sYn (Federico Nitti) who’s working in Australia at the moment, but he’ll join the project as he’ll be back to Berlin.
The first thing which I really look for when selecting artists for Holotone is the ability to use an artistic language free from any trends and hype, because I want authentic visions. Another element I admire is the ability to express the beauty of art through an intelligent sound design. In general, I like anarchist approach.
Linus Gabrielsson Soundcloud:
And last but not least – what are your plans with Holotone and the artists mentioned above?
My plans are to release quality music and to organize showcases to share the visions behind Holotone with people. Regarding the artists I invited to the label launch event, I really hope to release their music in the near future.
Zuzana Friday is editorial assistant to CDM and always has her ear out for adventurous new sounds.
The phrase “music technology” may not naturally go with hand percussion or “plywood” for you. But there are plenty of people wanting to jam and play on the streets. So, what’s the big news for them?
I think it’s this, frankly. It’s the Roland EC-10 EL Cajon. It weighs just 6 kilograms (under 9 lb). It runs on just six AA batteries. And it could sell you on hand percussion – or be the one hand percussion box you covet this year.
Lest you think Roland put me up to this, EL Cajon was literally introduced to me as “something you’re probably not interested in.” And it was my favorite thing in their booth. Also, Roland, I’m refusing to pronounce it “E-L Cajon,” when it’s obviously, in Spanish, “El Cajon.”
But first, let’s back up. The cajon is a Peruvian percussion instrument, originating in the slave trade there and spreading to various forms of Latin music. But Roland isn’t looking to expand heavily in the Peruvian market. The point is that this kind of hand percussion has itself started to grow. Even as more conventional rock instruments have begun to wane, jamming, busking, and mobility in general are growing. The cajon is easier to move around than a drum kit. It’s easier to busk with. It’s easy to pick up – musically as well as physically.
What Roland has done is make a good cajon, then make it do more than a cajon normally would.
In the same size and weight as a conventional cajon, Roland additionally adds a sound module for more sounds. You can layer electronic renditions of acoustic and electronic percussion sounds atop the acoustic sound of the instrument. You can even layer sampled sounds of the cajon on the cajon. (Cue Xzibit: “yo dawg, I hear you liked cajons…”)
EL Cajon has its own amp, too, so those sounds work with the acoustic sounds.
The effect is weirdly natural. It’s a cajon for the one-person band. You get the normal sound of the instrument, but then can rotate through 30 built-in kits, with different sounds based on where you hit (two independent sounds are triggered from the head and edge of the surface).
You can 30 built-in kits, and various controls for playing.
But it’s the battery power that glues this together – with power consumption something Roland has been honing for years. (They claim you can get up to 12 hours of playing time with this.)
The other smart thing Roland has done is to partner with Heidi Joubert. She’s just fantastic on the cajon to begin with – the new face of the instrument, with her own line of boxes. So in place of what could have been just another forgettable, embarrassing video, she shows off why the thing is fun and musical.
Priced at $59, inspired by vintage Nintendo Game & Watch, and looking like calculators, the Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator line was a runaway hit. So, just adding three more of them seems a no-brainer.
Then again, with drum machines, bass synth, and lead synth covered, the next three might easily have been an anticlimax. Good news for Teenage Engineering fans: they aren’t. The Stockholm designers have managed three retro-tinted follow-ups that might easily make as big a splash the originals.
The trick here was, the character of the new models – PO-20, PO-24, and PO-28 – manages to go a different direction than the original PO-12, PO-14, and PO-16. The funny thing about the original trio was that the little toys made a really big, surprisingly clean sound. This year’s line are big but tilt vintage.
All of the Pocket Operators feature a lot of mobile power. There are parameter locks for advanced sequencing, LCD displays with animations, a built in clock and alarm clock (because Nintendo), absurd long battery life on a couple of AAAs, built-in speakers so you can hear what’s happening without headphones handy, and the ability to chain the units together for sync.
The big 2016 feature is a new step multiplier, which saves some tedium in programming patterns.
The standout for me in brief usage was the PO-20 arcade. While Roland tied itself in knots trying to describe its new Roland A-01 8-bit virtual analog synth, Teenage Engineering cut right to the chase. This is an “arcade” model meant for chip music. And it’s instantly insanely fun. The key here is, the compact step sequencing and parameter lock features from the original Pocket Operators apply easily to the tightly-sequenced sonic acrobatics of vintage game music. I couldn’t turn this thing on without smiling. (And that’s nothing against the A-01, which is very cool and which I’ll cover soon – but you have to hand it to Teenage for making their sales pitch so much simpler, for a tiny gadget that costs about as much as a carry bag for the A-01.)
The other models are appealing, too. The “Office” is initially a little confusing – with cutesy pics of office equipment, it first recalls those online videos of sequenced office gear making rhythm. But the sound sources here are in fact a combination of samples and virtual synthesis. They’re noisy as heck, in a delicious and intentional way, so if you found the previous drum machine offering too vanilla, this is rougher and more original.
sampled vintage hardware and real synthesizer engines
128 pattern chaining
16 punch-in effects
The “Robot” is perhaps the most versatile (even if the “Arcade” is the most fun). It’s both an 8-bit virtual analog synth and a micro drum, and you can chain up to 128 patterns. That combined with the step multiplier makes this a powerful single instrument for live use, even without any other Pocket Operators to go along with it.
real 8-bit synthesizer engines for making live and sequenced melodies and leads
15 sounds + micro drum
live play + sequencer combo
128 pattern chaining
Of course, my favorite way of exploring these by far is with the incomparable Cuckoo. Watch his video:
All in all, you get the same “I want to collect the all” feeling the originals gave. It’s insanely genius stuff. I just hope those carry cases stay in stock this time, as it makes a lot more sense than carrying around bare boards (even if that has some charm).
There’s lots more to explore. These things have so many hidden features, we could practically do a series on them. And it’s definitely time to pay Stockholm a visit again.
We live in a world dominated by the mythos of the solo artist. And people can easily get down when they discover they can’t compete. But here’s one solution: cooperate, instead. That’s the story of LA’s TeamSupreme, documented in an extensive short put out over the weekend. And it might be better news than any new gear, especially if you yourself has been frustrated by the scene.
We can talk in circles about what may be working or broken in electronic music
making. But imagine whatever you might like to change – and then imagine that you worked on that with other people, rather than alone.
Now, labels and collectives of various sorts can offer this sort of promise. But TeamSupreme goes beyond what those have typically offered. For one thing, it isn’t necessary to conform to a particular sound. On the contrary, TeamSupreme actually create elaborate scenarios and rules called “cypers” that force them into new territory – a regular, reality show-style production battle that has earned still more attention.
You can join in on the latest cypher – details on Facebook. (Hmm, maybe CDM should join in on one, if I can think of what it should be!)
And the relentless focus on making others better can prove transformative. Instead of keeping production secrets to themselves, they aggressively ask questions and push each other further so everyone gets better. Instead of attempting to exclusively self-promote (which can eventually repel the spotlight even when attempting to hog it), they get attention for one another. My friend Steve Nalepa has a great success story there, where the collective gets BBC Radio 1 play with Mary Ann Hobbes – something that would have been all but impossible if they’d gone it alone.
In fact, what if it’s really the emphasis on selfishness in music that’s holding the whole scene back? What if we stopped telling that story, and started telling stories like this more often?
I was a witness to the power of TeamSupreme just this weekend. This crew comes out and supports one another. The Los Angeles area itself is not a bad geographic mirror of the Internet itself. It’s massively populated and diverse, and rich with talent, but it’s also spread out and decentralized. There are occasional portals that are better known, but they’re too small for the general population, and they don’t always have the best stuff.
But everywhere I went, TeamSupreme members were there – behind the DJ booth, in the audience. They excitedly talked about the premiere of this very film.
And pretty soon, you realize that these people are good to know both for their ever-expanding individual talent and the networks they’ve built around them. I’ve gotten to watch this flourish from a time years ago when I went to lecture at Steve Nalepa’s class at Chapman. (As it happens, I knew Steve, too, for the same reason, thanks to an artist gathering called a “mind meld” held on the Atlantic coast.)
That starts to suggest how a city like LA could reach its potential. If LA is the Internet, adding something like TeamSupreme is like discovering Google for the first time.
TeamSupreme loomed large at Ableton’s Loop conference, too – Dot was a radiant member of a panel I was on, and there, as in LA this weekend, you could almost spot the TeamSupreme members just by the aura of bubbly enthusiasm and positive energy that floated around them.
Working together was even a theme I heard at NAMM, too, by the way, among technologists. It was clear the center of gravity at the tech show was cooperation, not least being the friendly hub of modular gear on the floor.
Anyway, I’m rambling in a California-to-Russia-induced jetlag haze, but I expect I’m preaching to the converted. And if you’re not yet converted, that’s even more reason to dedicate yourself to watching the portraits of the artists and collective and taking notes.
And there’s no reason to feel left out. Because whatever you’re doing, and whoever you know, you can begin to construct just this kind of positive force in your own music. We’ve got more than enough of the Dark Side of the Force in music. Maybe it’s just time for some more Jedis.
Here are those individuals. I have to say, I’m also a sucker for the fact that these people combine instrumental and vocal skills and training, too. Music tech is sometimes so closed in on itself that it is weirdly inarticulate when talking to musicians.
We’d love to hear from you. Got a collective of your own? Other ideas for how to work together? Let’s discuss.
(We can also celebrate by uploading our fixed code that shows comment counts again, so you know how much we want to hear from you!)
“Surprise!” might well be Teenage Engineering’s best tagline.
The latest unexpected invention from Sweden is the OP-Z – pronounced “oh pee zed.” It’s an all-in-one instrument/groovebox like its predecessor the OP-1, packed into a tiny, game-like form factor. And even from the early prototype shown at NAMM, it’s fantastic.
That is a ‘z ‘ in the name, not a number 2, but the new OP is a sort of sequel to the OP-1. It doesn’t replace the original so much as provide an alternative take on the idea.
The hardware combines multiple step sequencers with a synth, drum kit, and tape sample mode. And it also has the unlikely addition of visual sequencing, for adding projected animations to your performances.
The most striking feature initially is the form factor itself. Gone is the OP-1’s signature display, and those keys have been shrunk even further to game console-like trigger buttons. But that makes the OP-Z downright tiny – not pocket-sized, but small enough to sleep with it under your pillow. (Okay. Maybe that was just me fantasizing about that.)
In place of the display, the OP-Z syncs to visuals on computer software. The hardware itself doesn’t output any video – that’s a USB-C port, not HDMI, so you use the OP-Z just as a controller. But once you do add another device, you can follow beautiful animated screens that give you feedback on what you’re doing and how the OP-Z’s structure works.
It’s a clever idea. It means you get big visuals whilst learning your way around the OP-Z, but can then practice until muscle memory take over for live use. And the Teenage Engineers have gone a little crazy with the idea. In addition to menus, you can load animations and visuals, and sequence VJ sets directly from the OP-1. The TE booth actually used the same software to show slides of their NAMM stuff. It suggests a compelling picture for how OP-Z performances could go – just the synth hardware onstage, with VJing to accompany, all from one solo artist.
No word yet on what platforms that software will support, though to me, Mac, Windows, and iOS ought to be no-brainers.
The real fun of the OP-Z, though, is as an all-in-one step sequencer and performance box. The multiple sequencers mean it’s easy to get a synth line, some beats, and samples going at once. Tape mode is just as much fun as on the OP-1 – the Z uses the same sound engine – and adds peculiar performance styles. In drum mode, the OP-Z reminds me of my favorite features of the volca sample, down to gritty re-pitching and stretching of samples.
To this, add macro controls for parameters. Those four circles on the side are encoders, equipped with the LEGO-compatible widget for adding hardware atop the knobs, as seen in the OP-1 accessory line. (LEGO’s patents have expired, meaning this opens up third party and 3D-printed gadgets that company may not have envisioned.)
Unlike the OP-1, the full keys of the OP-Z keyboard double as triggers for other parameters. That means you can quickly tap out sudden effects when playing live.
And all of this comes together in an insanely fun package. Even without knowing what the controls did, in just moments I found myself jamming away.
I have just one concern about the hardware. That handsome dark gray could be tough to see in the dark onstage, if you do want a visual clue to functions. But this isn’t final hardware yet.
I am sure online, people will knock the OP-Z as a toy. But that misses the whole point. It is indeed a grown-up toy, cramming pleasure into a tiny, polished form factor that makes improvisation irresistible. And it should be spectacular for live performance – while eschewing the complexity of (cough) other, spendier drum machines and the like. I’m keen to try it because I think it might challenge the conventional wisdom of some of that complexity.
Teenage Engineering were as surprised as we were that they were showing this prototype at the show – they didn’t originally plan to reveal this very early hardware, and there were some bugs here and there, of course. But none of that made the demo any less impressive, and the OP-Z for some even stole the show.
As the hardware isn’t done, pricing isn’t set, either, though TE say they do plan a price below that of the OP-1. Picking up the hardware, I can’t imagine it’ll be hugely cheaper – though maybe they can open enough daylight in price to make it appealing to those who passed on the flagship synth.