Posts by Peter Kirn:

Ranging from Neurology to Prince, Susan Rogers’ talk is must-watch

The music world is overloaded with people who talk about music – how it works, what has happened, what is happening. Few people can really delve articulately into questions of why. Susan Rogers is one of those few.

Her talk at Ableton Loop this fall was, in all three years of attending Ableton’s bespoke event, the one that has stood out for me the most. I instantly nagged friends at Ableton to release the video, not only because I wanted people to see it, but because I wanted to watch it again just to process everything she said.

She talks about trying to understand Prince’s genius and how he worked. (She was sound engineer on Purple Rain and Sign o’ the Times.) She talks about how the brain works (she’s a neurologist) and why sometimes great music doesn’t find an audience. She talks in personal terms, and about how sometimes great people don’t find a partner. She does what I think great teachers do: she has something to say, and she gets to it directly. But there’s empathy in every insight, and each thought makes you feel a desire to go learn more – to do the homework.

I think whether we’re talking about machines or music or people, the further we go, the more we may realize understanding the mind is the key to all we want to investigate – of course.

I’ve got a lot more I’d want to talk to her about; I imagine you do, too. So – I’ll be rewatching as you rewatch, making notes.

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The amazing touch-controlled synth made in secret in 1978 China

At the tail end of China’s Cultural Revolution, one inventor secretly created a futuristic take on traditional instruments – and it easily still inspires today.

I don’t know much about this instrument, but given CDM’s readership, I expect our collective knowledge should say something (not to mention some of you speak the language). But according to the video, it’s the work of Tian Jin Qin, a ribbon-controlled analog synthesizer first prototyped in 1978 and featured here in a documentary movie entitled “Dian Zi Qin / 电子琴” (1980).

There’s some irony to the fact that a simple touch instrument was something driven underground in China just one generation ago. Now, of course, China leads the world in manufacturing touch interfaces, has been the center of a global revolution in touch-powered smartphones (based loosely on the same principle, even), and even drives a significant portion of today’s technological innovation.

But… even without getting into that, this design is freaking great. It’ll make you immediately wonder why a single ribbon design is so popular, when the ability to finger multiple ribbons, fretless style, both relates to traditional instrument designs and allows more sophisticated melodic playing and expression.

Like… you’ll watch this video and want to go build one right now.

The synth is essentially two connected designs. An main synth console features organ-like push-button timbre controls and rotaries, plus four touch plates that respond both to being depressed and to continuous control vertically along the surface. (That arrangement, in turn, closely resembles the ROLI Seaboard keys, as well as having some lineage to the Buchla modular’s touch plates. In fact, a couple elements of the design suggest that the creator may have seen something like the Buchla 112 keyboard.)

The Chinese twist, though, is really the upright, fretless touch interface. This instrument is as subtle and sophisticated as Keith Emerson’s ribbon controller for the Moog wasn’t. Zithers are among the most ancient of instruments across a range of cultures, as antecedents what we’d now consider both southeast Asian and European musics. Someone following the narration here or with background in Chinese instruments (which I largely lack) could say more, but it seems inspired by instruments like the guqin. That family of instrument can be plucked or fingered with glissandi (or played with a slide). The electronic rendition here simplifies a bit by using 4 metal strips whereas Chinese classical instruments can feature more strings.

So I will indeed put this out to CDM readers. Anyone out there who’s done research on this creator or knows about this instrument?

Anyone built something like this?

(Apologies, I’d normally do the research first and then write but … as Ted Pallas who tipped me off to this promised, I indeed wanted to share it right away.)

For all the turbulence of our modern time, one thing I believe can keep us out of a Dark Ages is the fact that we are more connected globally than ever, or at least potentially so. From the walls around China and the east to the former Iron Curtain, we’re discovering that a lot of the people kept unknown to those of us in the West were pretty ingenious. And maybe we get a second chance to learn from them and share.

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Mix Ableton and Maschine, Komplete Kontrol, in new updates

There’s a big push among software makers to deliver integrated solutions – and that’s great. But if you’re a big user of both, say, MASCHINE MK3 and Ableton Live, here’s some good news.

NI made available two software updates yesterday, for their Maschine groove workstation software and for Komplete Kontrol, their software layer for hosting instruments and effects and interfacing with their keyboards. So, the hardware proposition there is the 4×4 pad grid of the MP3, and the Komplete Kontrol keyboards.

For Maschine users, the ability to use Ableton Live and Maschine seamlessly could make a lot of producers and live performers happy. Now, unlike working with Ableton Push, the setup isn’t entirely seamless, and there’s not total integration of hardware and software. But it’s still a big step forward. For instance, I often find myself starting a project with Maschine, because I’ve got a kit I like (including my own samples), or I’m using some of its internal drum synths or bass synth, or just want to wail on four pads and use its workflow for sampling and groove creation. But then, once I’ve built up some materials, I may shift back to playing with Ableton’s workflow in Session or Arrange view to compose an idea. And I know lots of users work the same way. It makes sense, given the whole idea of Maschine is to have the feeling of a piece of hardware.

So, you’ve got this big square piece of gear plugged in. Then sometimes literally you’re unplugging the USB port and connecting Push or something else… or it just sits there, useless.

Having these templates means you switch from one tool to the other, without changing workflow. You could already do this with Maschine Jam, which has a bunch of shortcuts for different tasks and a big grid of triggers (which fits Session View). But the appeal of Maschine for a lot of us is those big, expressive pads on the MK3, so this is what we were waiting for.

On the Komplete Kontrol side, there’s a related set of use cases. Whether you’re the sort to just pull up some presets from Komplete, or at the opposite end of the spectrum, you’re using Komplete Kontrol to manipulate custom Reaktor ensembles, it’s nice to have a set of encoders and transport controls at the ready. The MK2 keyboards brought that to the party – so, for instance, now it’s really easy in Apple’s Logic Pro to play some stuff on the keys, then do another take, without, like – ugh – moving over to the table your computer is on, fumbling for the mouse or keyboard shortcut … you get the idea.

And again, a lot of us are using Ableton Live. I love Logic, but there have been times where I find myself comically missing the Session View as a way of storing ideas.

The notion here is, of course, to get you to buy into Native Instruments’ keyboards. But there is an awfully big ecosystem now of third-party instruments (like those from Output, among some of my favorites) that take advantage of compatibility via the NKS format. (NI likes to call that a “standard,” which I think is a bit of a stretch, given for now there’s no SDK for other hardware and host software makers. But it’s a useful step for now, anyway.)

So, here’s how to get going and what else is new.

Maschine 2.7.4

The big deal with 2.7.4 is new controller workflows (JAM, MK3) and Live integration (MK3). Live users, you’ll want to begin here:

How to Set Up the MASCHINE MK3 Integration for Ableton Live [Native Instruments Support]

There are actually two big improvements here workflow-wise. One is Live support, but the other is easier creation of Loop recordings. With the “Target” parameter, you can drop recordings into:

1. Takes
2. “Sounds” (the Audio plug-in, where you can layer up sounds)
3. Pattern (creates both an Audio plug-in recording and a pattern with the playback)

I think the two together could be a godsend, actually, for composing ideas in a more improvisatory flow. The Target workflow also works on MASCHINE JAM (via different controllers).

There’s also footswitch-triggered recording.

So, Native Instruments are finally listening to feedback from people for whom live sampling is at the heart of their music making process. It’s about time, given that Maschine was modeled on hardware samplers.

The Live integration includes just the basics, but important basics – and it might still be useful even with Push and Maschine side-by-side. The MK3 can access the mixer (Volume, Pan, Mute / Solo / Arm states), clip navigation and launching, recording and quantize, undo/redo, automation toggle, tap tempo, and loop tempo.

As always, you also get various other fixes.

Komplete Kontrol 2.0

Again, you’ll start with the (slightly annoying) installation process, and then you’ll get to playing. NI support has a set of instructions with that, plus some useful detailed links on how the integration works (scroll to the botto, read the whole thing!):

Setting Up Ableton Live for KOMPLETE KONTROL

The other big update here is all about supporting more plug-ins, so your NI keyboard becomes the command center for lots of other instruments and effects you own. NI now boasts hundreds of supporting plug-ins for its NKS format, which maps hardware controls to instrument parameters.

Now that includes effects, too. And that’s cool, since sometimes playing is about loading an instrument on the keys, but manipulating the parameters of an effect that processes that instrument. Those plug-ins show up in the browser, now, if they’ve added support, and they also map to the controls.

Scoff if you like, but I know these keyboards have been big sellers. If nothing else, the lesson here is that making your software sounds and effects accessible with a keyboard for tangible control is something people like.

By the way, NI also quietly pushed out a Kontakt sampler update with a whole bunch of power-user improvements to KSP, their custom language for extending/scripting sound patches. That’s of immediate interest only to Kontakt sound content developers, but you can bet some of those little things will mean more improvements to Kontakt-based content you use, if you’re on NI’s ecosystem.

All three updates are available from NI’s Service Center.

If you’ve found a useful workflow with any of this, if you’ve got any tips or hacks, as always – shout out; we’re curious to hear! (I assume you might even be making some music with all this, so that, too.)

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How to try GPU-accelerated live visuals in a few steps, for free

The growing power of gaming architectures for visuals has a side benefit: it can produce elaborate visuals without touching the CPU, which is busy on musicians’ machines dealing with sound.

But how do you go about exploring some of that power? The code language spoken natively by the GPU is a little frightening at first. Fortunately, you can actually have a play in a few minutes. It’s easy enough that I prepared this lightning tutorial:

I shared this with the #RazerMusic program as it’s in fact a good artistic application for laptops with gaming architectures – and it’s terrific having that NVIDIA GTX 1060 with 6 GB of memory. (This example can’t even begin to show that off, in fact.) These steps will work on the Mac, too, though.

I’m stealing a demo here. Isadora creator Mark Coniglio showed off his team’s GLSL support more or less like this when they unveiled the feature at the Isadora Werkstatt a couple of summers ago. But Isadora, while known among a handful of live visualists and people working with dance and theater tech, itself I think is underrated. And sure enough, this support makes the powers of GLSL friendly to non-programmers. You can grab some shader code and then modify parameters or combine with other effects, modular style, without delving into the code itself. Or if you are learning (or experienced, even) with GLSL, Isadora provides an uncommonly convenient environment to work with graphics-accelerated generative visuals and effects.

If you’re not quite ready to commit to the tool, Isadora has a full-functioning demo version so you can get this far – and look around and decide if buying a license is right for you. What I do like about it is, apart from some easy-to-use patching powers, Isadora’s scene-based architecture works well in live music, theater, dance, and other performance arts. (I still happily use it alongside stuff like Processing, Open Frameworks, and Touch Designer.)

There is a lot of possibility here. And if you dig around, you’ll see pretty radically different aesthetics are possible, too.

Here’s an experiment also using mods to the GLSL facility in Isadora, by Czech artist Gabriela Prochazka (as I jam on one of my tunes live).

Resources:

https://troikatronix.com/

https://www.shadertoy.com/

Planning to do more like this, so open to requests!

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This hidden gem adds a sub bass to anything, because you want that

Serendipitous collaboration can be magical. Combine an eccentric high-tech guitar company from Switzerland with some high-powered nerds from the USA, and you get some spectacular ways of adding sub octaves and picking apart and modulating sounds.

From Memphis to Messe: on a hot tip from one of the engineers, I found myself roaming Hall 8.0 at Musikmesse in Frankfurt Friday. Just this one hall is already cavernous; I passed a portrait of Hillary Hahn in a violin booth, stumbled across two nice women giving away CDs of unsigned Estonian concert music, and strolled past the signature-blue of the G. Henle Urtext (which my piano teacher called the “Voice of God edition.”).

But this is how music instrument design should work. It should be collaborative; it should have unexpected combinations of new and old. I love Berlin’s SuperBooth, but by no means would I ever imagine modular synths to exist at the center of the music world.

And so I found myself in the narrow booth of Paradis Products. They’re a legendary, boutique guitar maker out of a Swiss small town, producing exotic creations that look like what you’d splurge on if you’d just won a Eurovision contest. But they know their stuff, from electrical engineering to woodworking.

The woodworking side of the equation is who I got on Friday afternoon, so apologies to Heinz for I think terrorizing him. (I kept repeating the word “Eurorack” to his utter befuddlement. I unfortunately have less to say about mechanical engineering and wood. Matthias Grob is the engineer who’s more to the electrical side. )

Paradis make wonderful guitars, but they also make leading guitar technology. The Polybass is an instrument that seems enchanted – as bass notes follow every articulation. It’s analog technology which means there’s nothing stopping it from appearing outside guitars.

Side by side comparisons of the original and the new Polybass board – the latter coming soon to a Eurorack near you.

So here’s the plan: take the Polybass, and make, hopefully, a Eurorack modular by the end of the year. That’s where America’s Delta Sound Labs comes in. They explain to CDM: “Polybass by Paradis is a radical rework of the legendary Polysubbass that provides an audibly clear, sub-octave effect below performed notes.”

On the guitar, I could already hear how it sounds – that is to say, incredible. I can’t wait to hear this applied to other things.

And there’s more. The CHOPhilter is a classic attack detection and modulation VST. It’s got a UI that’s ugly as sin, but Paradis, Mathons, and Delta Sound Labs will work together to port it to 64-bit (done) and add a more aesthetically pleasing Delta skin (coming soon).

This is also a very Good Thing: apply amplitude modulation on note attacks, with amplitude and filter modulation effects and envelope controls. It also responds to MIDI input for more live performance options. (A quick play-around revealed some crazy possibilities – look past the UI at those parameters for a sense of what this can do.)

Memphis-based Delta Sound Labs, for their part, have done sound research and technology from gaming to film to music industries. And they do modules. And they’re musicians. Here’s Ricky playing around with their other project – a pitch follower that interfaces both with Ableton Live and via control voltage with other gear:

CTRL Module + Helmholtz Pitch Follower – Initial Tests

Stay tuned. We’ll be watching for these finished products.

http://www.paradis-guitars.com/

https://www.deltasoundlabs.com/

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Behringer promises $49-99 Eurorack, but gets its ideas from Roland and forums

Uli Behringer is apparently just getting started trolling the industry, promising US$49-99 Eurorack. But so far, that announcement involves renderings of Roland gear and a plea for user forums to tell them what to do.

That’s right: even as people are buzzing about Behringer, all we’ve got are some shady renders, and a forum post. The designs are straight from decades-old Roland gear. There’s not even the work to engineer them. And the rest is talk.

Heck, I could do this. CDM is proud to bring you $19 Eurorack modules. Of what? Don’t know. You tell us. When? Someday. How will they work? Oh, they might use an old design. Or you might design them. Don’t know – again, that’s up to you!

Let’s be clear: promising Eurorack modules for under a hundred bucks ought to be a popular idea. But then it’s easy to promise something. And it’s perhaps worth pointing out, if you don’t mind doing some soldering yourself – or even prefer that – you can assemble a budget modular system. Or, heck, you can run VCV Rack and even buy some top-quality modules for it for $100, all in. But that’s unlikely to stop random people on forums and news comments, who will embrace the idea that Behringer alone could do modular on a budget.

Nor are these new designs. Behringer describes them as related to the “legacy 100m” modules. Uh… that “legacy” would be Roland’s. And as with other Behringer forum posts targeting Roland, there seems to be no original idea other than copying what Roland has done. The timing is suspicious, as well. Uli took to the forums Saturday. CDM readers will know that we shared the news (along with some German press also in attendance) that Roland was reviving its 100M line with new SYSTEM-500 modules, showing them here in Berlin on Thursday. And of course, that’s an extension of a line that already existed.

New Roland SYSTEM-500 analog Eurorack modules spotted in the wild

Clones seem to be the order of the day, as Behringer promises to “bring back” more “legacy” hardware. In fact, Behringer are so hard up for ideas of what to actually do, they’re going beyond just posting quick what-if renders of Roland modules, or continuing this trend of posting teasers as a series of questions. (“What do you want to see? What should we charge? What color should this be? What do you want for lunch?”) Behringer are now posting to message forums asking for people to submit ideas:

You present is with your design (you need to have at least a working prototype) and perhaps show us a video etc. so we can understand your concept.

Provided you are OK with it, we could then post the video here and if there is enough interest, we would consider manufacturing and distributing the product for you. In return we would allow you to get a percentage of the revenue.

At the same time we would be featuring you and your designs so you get the well deserved exposure.

Here’s the thing: there’s already a community of engineers making hardware. Roland are certainly not above criticism, but to the credit of the Japanese giant, when they entered the market they partnered directly with an existing vendor. (On the modular side, they worked with Malekko Heavy Industry. The Roland Boutique Series SE-02 was made with Studio Electronics.) Buchla are working with original engineers, and many of the Buchla-inspired designs are made by people with years of experience doing Buchla repair. Moog are returning not just to original designs but original parts. I could go on …

And that’s to say nothing of vendors from MakeNoise to Mutable Instruments doing original designs. That originality translates into sound.

Behringer’s trolling is way ahead of their actual products. The Minimoog clone Behringer-D is accurate – and accurately reproduces the tuning instability of the original’s analog oscillators. The Behringer DeepMind is actually a pretty decent synth, but it’s also got competition in the same price range – some of it with fresher ideas – and Behringer’s endless forum posts about speculative products and clones ironically distract from the accomplishments on their one genuinely original synth.

I think the Eurorack manufacturing community is headed into some tougher times, especially as a glut of used products catches up faster than the market can grow. And price pressure will surely become a reality.

But what’s most stunning of all is that Behringer is disrupting the industry and attracting attention without actually making anything. This may give them additional attention, but somebody ought to same something.

Behringer Eurorack Modular [GearSlutz]

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Valkyrie is a 1200-oscillator synth you’ll want to play with your forearm

With some 128 voices, the Valkyrie packs dense sound and effects that never let up. The all new UK-built synth was available to try in prototype form at Musikmesse – and it’s seriously impressive.

When I say “play with your forearm,” I’m not kidding. I got my hands on the prototype. Glancing around, I noticed people were cautiously plucking a note or two there and noodling some melodic lines.

No.

With that much polyphony, I wanted to hear a cloud – a doomsday-sized swarm – of oscillations. And this literally involved cranking up various parameters, dialing up portamento, and then playing the keys with… my fist… my arm… I decided sticking a leg up there might upset someone, but we’re talking a serious amount of sound.

The heart of this machine is an FPGA. You don’t need to care about that if you’re not an engineer, but suffice to say the idea of the thing is hardware that can be “re-wired” on the fly. So you get the power of dedicated hardware, without the enormous investment of time and money to create something so inflexible. That means the Valkyrie has horsepower DSP chips – or your high-end laptop – can’t reliably deliver.

And it’s not just about having a bunch of voices, though that’s already formidable. The Valkyrie drives 10 oscillators for each voice

It probably really is the synth Richard Wagner would have bought, were he alive today, so… nice brand name. Now, ride:

Multiple synthesis methods: FM, dual wavetable, hard sync
4096 different waveshapes, ring mod, hypersaw
Dual 2- and 4-pole ladder filters
128 voices
10 oscillators per voice (double to 20 by combining voices)
8-part polytimbral
Dedicated outs: four balanced outputs, 32-bit/96kHz each, or separate parts streamed over USB2 at 24/96
32x oversampling
9-unit dedicated effects, with shelving EQ on each part

The interface for all of this is a lovely high-res OLED. There are quick, slick animations to help you navigate. With that many parts/voices, of course, some menu dialing is a necessity – otherwise, the thing would take up a city block. But that navigation is quick and effortless, so you feel like you can dial up hands-on control easily. The menus were pretty logical, too, once you understand the structure of parts navigation. And everything is kept reasonably flat, which is stunning for an instrument of this complexity.

And the key is that you turn on this firehouse of sound and it never skips or steps – including with all the effects running. It’s a bit like having a Vangelis/Hans Zimmer-sized electronic studio, in a compact unit. It sounds utterly epic.

Pricing: expected under two grand (Exodus said that was their main purpose at Messe, to talk to dealers and figure that out)
Availability: Expected at volume early Q3 2018

And do have a listen:

I have to say, if you’re going to spend nearly two-grand on some hardware and want it to sound futuristic, this could be the one. It seems to be just the right kind of crazy for the job. Hope we get to try one more.

No Website yet …

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New Roland SYSTEM-500 analog Eurorack modules spotted in the wild

Roland hasn’t made any announcement about new modular – but it seems a handful of SYSTEM-500 analog modules have just made an appearance in the wild, rounding out an existing range. We’ve got some “spy” shots.

Yes, it seems unannounced Eurorack products from the Japanese maker found their way into a shoe event. These modules will extend Roland’s existing range of SYSTEM-500 modules, made in collaboration with boutique Eurorack manufacturer Malekko Heavy Industry Corporation. Like the other AIRA offerings, Roland is looking to their own past: the SYSTEM-500 line is inspired by the SYSTEM-100M made in the early 80s.

But what’s significant about the SYSTEM-500 is that Roland are working with a smaller maker. And lest you confuse these with the 303, 808, 909 remakes and the like, these are analog, as was the original source material.

All of that’s interesting, even in the crowded Eurorack landscape, because it isn’t just following the mold of the Moog or Buchla modulars. So you might add SYSTEM-500 to your rack to get a distinctive Roland modular sound.

Okay, so how do we know these are new? Well, first, here’s the range of Roland SYSTEM-500 that was available previously:

512 Dual VCO
521 Dual VCF
540 Dual Envelope Generator and LFO
530 Dual VCA
572 Phase Shifter, Delay and LFO

Malekko actually have the best overview:
https://malekkoheavyindustry.com/system-500/

Now, here’s what was spotted in Berlin:

505 Dual VCF
555 LAG / S&H
531 Mix
510 Synth

That mixer looks really useful, alone – mute switches, actual faders, actual panning. Not everything there can be CV-automated, but to me that misses the point: it’s useful to have hands-on mixing when you’re playing.

And then the LAG/S&H gives you a whole bunch in one module – and the Synth looks like it could be a starting point for an entry-level modular rig.

A quick play says these can sound really nice. I expect we’ll know more at Superbooth in Berlin next month. (Roland aren’t showing this at Musikmesse.)

Some poor pictures from me to give you a taste – let us know questions and I suspect we can get answers when these launch:

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The Roland TR-808 is getting its own pair of Puma shoes

As if you hadn’t had enough of the retro 808 drum machine craze, Puma are creating a pair of runners in collaboration with Roland. And this time, you can actually buy them.

So, who needs some new kicks?

I got a chance to take a look at the new Roland TR-808-inspired Puma sneakers. They’re basically just a color scheme for Puma’s relaunch of the RS (RUNNING SYSTEM) shoe line. The RS-0 is a reboot; the 1980s original was built around a unique-for-the-time cushioning system. To capitalize on 80s nostalgia, Puma went to Polaroid, Roland, and Sega for special looks for the shoes. Sadly, you don’t get any special drum machines sneakers. (No built-in metronome or clock source; no TB-303 runners that have acid basslines printed in the soles. In other words, I didn’t design them.)

What you do get is a slick-but-subtle black color scheme, with accents taken from the drum machine and a nod on the heel to the front panel label on the original.

“Jeez, CDM,” say the readers, “first balalaikas and now some branded runners, just how desperate are you this week to avoid the subject matter of the site?” Ah-ha – but we’re not done yet, folks. First twist to the story: this isn’t the first time someone has designed 808 sneaks. Less than one year ago, design agency Neely & Daughters produced a considerably less subtle pair of hi-top sneakers.

And – gasp – they were for Puma’s arch-nemsis, Adidas. And that in turn leads us to a bitter rivalry between two brothers from small-town Germany – Herzogenaurach, to be exact! Let’s go back in time to the 1920s, when… oh, no, actually, let’s not do that, as I’m sure neither Adidas nor Puma really want to get into their legacy here. (In the words of Fawlty Towers, don’t mention the War. But it is a fascinating story.)

Anyway, here’s that 2017 remake, which you couldn’t buy, as reported by Synthtopia:

Why You Can’t Buy Those Cool Roland TR-808 Adidas Beatmaking Shoes

Twist number two: Puma can claim the RS was “innovative,” but it’s really the RC Computer Shoe that lives up to that. Chunky protruding wings on the heel of these 1986 runners contained microcomputer pedometers. Connect them by wire (16-pin) to an Apple II, IBM PC, or Commodore 64/128, load up Puma’s software, and a graphical display would tell you time, calories burned, and distance run. That’s actually fairly forward thinking, in terms of predicting today’s fitness bands and smartphone accessories. Also, even now, you have to admit there’s something more intuitive about this being embedded in your athletic shoes rather than worn on a bracelet.

More:

RS Computer Shoe [Nice Kicks]

Puma RS Computer Shoe Pedometers (mid 1980s) [DigiBarn Computer Museum]

Now, I’m sure someone out there will read this post, grab a tiny Arduino or Teensy, and figure out a way to connect the 808 to shoe sensors. Who likes a challenge?

Meanwhile, since the marketing event I went to in Berlin seemed lost on the crowd – they needed “nerdsters” rather than hipsters, as one marketing blogger once dubbed the crowd I ran with Make and Etsy in New York – here you go. You’re welcome.

Disclosure: If anyone thinks this is a paid promotion, I did … manage to mention both Adidas and the Third Reich. I’m supremely sorry, Puma.

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Balalaikas to synths, the Russians at Musikmesse cover the gamut

Some of it, you’d expect: accordions, balalaikas. Some of it, you’d crave: post-Soviet electronic sounds. And some of it would surprise you: ready to play some pineapples? Meet the Russian makers at Musikmesse.

There’s now growing bi-directional interest and involvement between Europe and the Russian Federation. For all that may be happening elsewhere in trade, geopolitics, and social media, when it comes to musicians, inventors, and makers, now feels like a renaissance in exchanges between Russia and Europe.

At least in music, the thing is, there are a range of instruments, traditional and electronic, that no one else makes quite like this – partly because of the history of the country and how that’s extending to new instrumental creations.

Superbooth in Berlin is becoming the go-to European show for synths and electronic music, but Musikmesse in Frankfurt, like NAMM in the USA, focuses across new music technology and traditional instruments. And those traditional instruments remain big business. What’s interesting looking at the Russian selections is how you get a range of instrumental possibilities.

Hosted by the Russian government’s Ministry of Industry and Trade of Russia, some eight different manufacturers will show their wares. Yes, I think we’re probably not wrong when we assume these folks deal more with heavy industry and energy than they do, uh, weird stompboxes. But for once, we get the full mix. Have a look:

For accordion lovers, there’s Tula Harmonica and Voronezh musical instrument factory AKKO:
http://www.harmonica-tula.ru/
http://www.bayanakko.ru/

(Anyone who’s ever been to Musikmesse understands that, at this show, accordions are a big deal.)

Balalaikas may be the stereotyped image people imagine when thinking of Russia, but – you’re not wrong. And some of the new instruments are simply beautiful to look at, in new designs that nonetheless withstand the demands of traditional music. Balalaiker is making both balalaika and other folks instruments. They even come in black, in case you want to work these into your techno rig.

http://www.balalaiker.ru/

In percussion, there’s both a Moscow drum shop (Tsimbals), plus a Russian xylophone and bell maker (Forte).

https://musimport.ru/
http://www.forteltd.ru/

Lutner SPb exemplifies the kinds of businesses that cropped up in the 90s, post-USSR – a business founded in 1998 in St. Petersburg that has grown to regional and then national business in selling instruments. But they’re not just importing known brands from Europe, Asia, and elsewhere – they’ve also got some local brands to show, including vargans and plucked stringed instruments.

Of course, apart from folk music, Russia has long been known as a classical powerhouse. So serving those musicians (with the likes of Valentine Uryupin, Igor Butman, and others), you get wind instrument maker Atelier Goncharov.

But let’s get to electronics, before you think this CDM became Create Russian Folk Music.

In tech, the appeal of Russia is clear: it offers the rest of us the often peculiar noises of Soviet-era electronics with new innovations and engineering.

Oktava, founded in Tula in 1927 (that’s an industrial center south of Moscow), is hoping to find a wider audience for mics and headphones. You can read about some of their history, but – imagine a Russian answer to names like AKG or Neumann. Oktava’s studio mics are legendary. (I haven’t gotten to use any; I’m rather curious.)

I … think some CDM reader should pitch them on fixing their ancient Website, but you can take my word for it that they make respected professional headphones and microphones, along with a lot of other audio products that are less related (telephony, other audio products, hearing aids).

But you do get a chance to try headphones from people with a history outfitting the Russian (and Soviet) military:

Plus vintage mics like this:

Just now, they’re making some beautiful tube, condenser, and dynamic mics for studio applications building on that history – with more modern production techniques. Good luck with their Website, but I do hear good things about the products:

http://www.oktavatula.ru/

Modular maker SSSR Labs was the darling audience choice winner of Synthposium last year, and they’ve got a range of affordable, compelling Eurorack modules and module kits.

In addition to their own creations, SSSR serve as a clearinghouse for other unique modules and kits made in Russia.

And they’ve got an interesting deal if you already own one of their modules: “If you already own Kotelnikov or Matrixarchate eurorack modules, take them with you to get a FREE upgrade to the latest firmware version with audio bootloader! Valid for all units: retail and DIY builds.” (No new modules at Musikmesse, but that firmware – and 50% Russian production – is new.)

https://www.sssrlabs.com/

Our friends from Playtronica are also in town. In addition to unique performances and installations, they’ve been hard at work developing kits that will open up these same techniques to others – think Makey Makey for music. So their inventions Playtron and Touch Me use capacitance to turn anything – any object, any human touch – into musical interface. Other sensors cover physical interactions and motion.

Sasha Pas from the group sends CDM a spy shot, and it looks like they’re … busy with pineapples.

You can also catch the wonderful Jekka live tomorrow.

http://playtronica.com/toolkit/

Yerasov is making a whole bunch of stuff, including amps and combos and tube heads and accessories. But what may most interest readers of CDM is their growing range of compact, interconnecting audio gear.

There’s some really unique stuff, like a parametric EQ for bass, an impulse response-based cabinet simulator, and this tap delay, plus a whole mess of effects. Color me interested.

You’ll find loads of goodies on their site (also in English):

http://yerasov.com/

Also in the group: cable and connector maker Shnoor (look out, Hosa and Neutrik?).

Plus there’s a company called AMT, which is also doing loads of digital-based effects and amp simulations. (At last year’s Messe, I noticed loads of this stuff — as ARM chips proliferate in mobile devices, phones, and tablets, it seems digital chips are also powering lots of cheap new guitar effects.)

AMT comes from Siberia, it seems (with the “Siberian Guitar Gear / Built to Last” presumably making us imagine sturdy-looking people in layers of fur surviving harsh winters). And they’ve got some interesting ideas, like a 4-channel WAV player for backing tracks you can control via MIDI or footswitch, called (hilariously) the EgoGig:

http://amtelectronics.com/new/amt-egogig-eg-4/

They’ve also got some useful-looking DI boxes and load boxes and re-amp stuff:

https://www.myshnoor.com/

There you go – eight Russian makers you may or may not have heard of.

I’ll be partnering again this year with Synthposium in Moscow to bring you more.

If you’re at Musikmesse, you can visit the Russian exposition at hall 8 booth F66 (acoustic instruments) and in hall 4.1 booth E61 (for the electricity-powered stuff).

And I’m certainly interested in other countries’ wares, as our world of music technology becomes ever more decentralized and international. (What I will say about Russia: I notice that a lot of conversations around me even in Berlin slip to Russian as lingua franca, even without exclusively Russian people around. There’s a renaissance of invention all over what had been the former Soviet sphere, and its history, in music and culture, spans back far earlier than the 20th century.)

Now I wish I hadn’t made this so long, so someone could translate it into Russian. Oops.

Oh yeah, and you might want to free up September to come to Moscow. If you’re a nerd. And if you’ve made it this far in the article – actually, you definitely are, and you definitely should.

http://synthposium.ru/

See you in Moscow and Berlin.

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