Making a stage powered by AI: inside GAMMA_LAB

What happens when you apply machine learning research to experimental sound – and then play live in front of a festival crowd? Recently, in St. Petersburg, RU, we got to find out.

Our team for Gamma_LAB AI gathered a diverse international team of artists, musicians, musicologists, coders, and researchers, including people who are deep in the field of data science work outside of the arts. (One of our co-hosts was juggling her work in path finding for drones – so not the usual media art approach to AI!) Organizing team (of which I was the only non-Russian member this time):

  • Natalia Fuchs, Curator
  • Julia Reushenova, Curatorial assistant
  • Helena Nikonole, Conceptual artist
  • Peter Kirn, Facilitator
  • Natalia Soboleva, Facilitator
  • Dr. Konstantin Yakovlev, Scientific advisor

… plus our partners, including tech partner Mail.ru Cloud Solutions.

Step one: come together for a 12-day laboratory, bringing us to St. Petersburg in May. That was our chance to learn from one another, take in some lectures, and get started with experiments – everything from digging through how to reconstruct baroque music to generating new sounds for techno and experimental improvisational performance. Participants came from everywhere from Kenya to just around the corner:

Ksenia Guznova (RU), Ilya Selikhov (DE), Anastasia Tolchneva (RU), Michal Mitro (SK), Mar Canet (ESP), Ilia Symphocat (RU), Thomas Disley (USA), Nikita Prudnikov (RU), Tatiana Zobnina (RU), Joseph Kamaru (KE), Egor Zvezdin (RU), Alexander Kiryanko (RU), Katarina Melik-Ovsepian (RU)

Step two – the big leap – come back to St. Petersburg in July, and in a raw industrial space, make the whole thing work for an audience of festival goers. That led to a full program:

A packed audience, ending in techno sounds and industrial installation (by Stanislav Glazov). Photo: Alexander Sharoff.
  • A live media art performance by co-host Helena Nikonole (hacking into Internet of Things devices in real-time from the stage)
  • An instrumental group of baroque musicians mixing together historical scores and freshly-generated AI libretto and melodies (led by harpsichordist Katarina Melik-Ovsepyan)
  • A mixed acoustic-electronic improv group working with machine learning-produced sounds trained on various experimental sound sources (Ilya Selikhov, Michal Mitro, Symphocat, and KMRU)
  • Live-coding duo with an original AI-powered encoder/decoder, built on the artists’ own recordings (Monekeer + Lovozero)
  • Yours truly making live techno from generative text, AI-generated loops, and style transfer

And all of this took place in a peak-time, Saturday night festival program, set in an apocalyptic looking ex brewery just before its demolition, complete with immersive, responsive lasers and light by Stanislav Glazov (Licht Pfad studio, Berlin).

Here’s the improv group, working live with their materials:

Some audio examples:

Live coded, custom AI from the duo Monekeer + Lovozero.

I spoke with curator Natalia Fuchs (ARTYPICAL), who put together the program with us. Natalia is right now presenting the project to MUTEK Festival in Montreal, and has worked not only as a curator and co-producer of GAMMA, but as an advisor to the current AI show at the Barbican Centre.

CDM: First, let’s put the lab in context – there’s Surgeon on one stage, pounding out techno, but then there’s the results of this laboratory, too. What’s the place of GAMMA_LAB inside Gamma Festival?

Natalia: Gamma_LAB is the heart of experimentation at the festival. We launched the LAB in May 2019 – that was a [big reponsibility] for us, because the LAB was self-funded, without any institutional or technological support. Only after the international open-call was announced, we started to get attention from the different partners that [have now] joined the project. By “responsibility” here I mean our relationship with the artists and the audience – we knew that experimental lab is just the first chapter, and the main message will be the conceptual AI stage at the festival.

What does it mean to have a lab inside a festival, to have a place that is making new stuff?

When programming the festival, we always feel like we want to represent local artists and quality local production. And Gamma_LAB is the cultural production unit for us. We focus the project on new artistic and curatorial solutions, on international collaborations – and that means we keep on track, stay connected, and help the community develop.

Baroque musicians – mixing historical scores with AI-constructed libretto and melodies – joined electronic artists. Photo: Alexander Sharoff.

What has been your relationship to AI as a curator – how would you relate your experience in GAMMA_LAB to your involvement with the Barbican show? CTM Festival? Other projects?

My connection to AI is coming from my general research interests: I am a media art historian and I am deeply concerned by the new media research in relation with AI nowadays. I find it extremely stimulating and exciting – this enormous philosophical quest towards finding the big “other.” So as soon as I started to work closely with Helena Nikonole, conceptual artist of Gamma_LAB, being a peer for her “deus x mchn” project at Rodchenko School in Moscow and advising this artwork to the “Open Codes” exhibition at ZKM Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, I was developing my curatorial approaches to art and AI. Then there were AI-related projects for the Barbican and CTM, but Gamma_LAB for me conceptually throwing my practice back to the Polytech.Science.Art program that I [previously was] curating at the Polytechnic Museum in Moscow. The way we build the processes here including theory, applied studies, performative aspects, it brings same strategy to the next level. In terms of the scale, Gamma_LAB with its connection to the Gamma Festival ([with its] 12000 visitors) has definitely jumped much higher.

Obviously, we know AI is buzzing. But do you feel there’s something unique about this particular set of collaborations – was there a sense that something different happened? In the process itself? In the results?

The engagement of the technical team was very different at the LAB. I think that we found the way to collaborate between disciplines in a way that is interesting for both – technology professionals and media artists. It makes the project very strong, I believe.

Live improv group. Photo: Alexander Sharoff.

There’s lots of curiosity as always about doing projects in Russia. What would you say the relationship of the Russian scene to the international scene is like? I’m certainly grateful for the unique expertise we had; maybe people aren’t so aware of how much technical skill and talent is in our Russian network?

We have had the long period of time when Russian science and technology was subject to control by the government. So internationalization of science is still happening very slowly in Russia. So I don’t think it’s a question of belief, but a question of historical memory. International interest in the technical skill and talent in the Russian network is definitely very strong , but people outside the country know that it was rather impossible to have successful collaboration due to political restrictions. So at the moment, we all have to go through these borders. And Gamma-LAB also supports open communication in the field of science, technology and arts.

The AI workshop began life with the exhibition and the workshop in Berlin – and now you’ve continued on to MUTEK. What’s the longer narrative there? And anything you can talk about as far as where this will go next, or what you hope will happen next with these projects?

The longer narrative is conducting proper artistic research on AI – but with curatorial supervision. Every international festival is interested in the development of cultural production, to expand contemporary culture strategies and be constantly engaged with audience feedback. The more serious collaborative experiences we have, the more profound cultural production is, the more meaningful art experiences can be delivered to the audience. We’re bringing this to the level of collaboration of the festival not only with artistic communities or applied technology makers, but with academic and scientific circles.

My hope is not related to any “next level,” though. I hope it will be the chance to develop a critical approach to AI and the arts. I think there’s no space where people can freely discover and form their own opinions on the AI matters [that compares with] the media art world and festival environments.

Helena, you got to approach joining our team from a different perspective, also haveing worked as a solo media artist. What was your experience?

Helena: The AI Stage… became, from my perspective, one of the most experimental and multi-genre stages at the festival. I showed my piece deus X mchn in the form of performance, which was presented before in a museum in an extremely different environment. Therefore, I thought it was interesting that showing this piece at the festival, I wasn’t planning to serve the expectations of some part of the audience, but then I realized that actually it was the feature of the stage.

Helena’s project has seen exhibition presentations before – but now it also got to share a festival stage, live in front of an audience, with uncertain and near-realtime results.

All performances, from baroque to noisy improvisation, from digital art to live coding performance could be shown in a museum, as well, and for me, the AI Stage was the best example of how a music festival can become a space for new media art and sophisticated experiments in sound and music. And yes, the audience was just awesome! Of course, some part of it were more used to going to raves than centers for contemporary art, but even these people were genuinely interested in what was happening at the stage, so finally, I was really surprised that sometimes a rave can also educate the audience.

https://gammafestival.ru/ [EN/RU]

http://artypical.com/

Photo: Nikita Grushevsky.
Photo: Nikita Grushevsky.

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The Web’s biggest guide to electronic music genre just got a huge update

Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music is back. Its third major overhaul gives it a new look, and brings its sprawling map of electronic style to 166 genres, 11,321 tracks, and exhaustive descriptions to match.

The Ishkur effort is beautiful partly because it takes on an impossible task. Can you break down every fork of UK Garage, and also work out how John Cage tape pieces and weird Dick Hyman psychedelic numbers fit in? (There is literally a category called “Moog.” It… doesn’t entirely work as a genre.)

But somehow, Ishkur does that. (To paraphrase Lewis Carroll, and Zaphod Beeblebrox, why not six impossible things before breakfast?)

What you get is a now-legendary, zoomable, playable map, laid out a bit like a trainyard switching diagram in a metro terminal in Hell. Begun in the year 2000, it will be well known to you digital diggers of the noughts. But this is an update that brings it into a new generation. And the resulting interface excels in revealing the emergence of major forks in those genres, at the critical junctures where new grooves and sounds crystallize.

Crucially, of course, the whole thing is playable. The real fun of this is flying around, God-like, decade to decade, genre to genre. You can tune in years and styles like a radio. The graph is so oversimplified as to erase all interconnections – really, the history itself is gone. But that navigation lets you quickly find and compare seminal tracks in particular genre appearances.

And I think as a producer, that’s terrifically liberating. It demystifies genres that gatekeepers refuse to explain to newcomers. And by allowing easy access to those sounds, it frees your ear and memory to go try something new.

Ishkur, for Ishkur’s part, explains it all perfectly. (Who is Ishkur? In my favorite FAQ answer, Ishkur is Ishkur. Ishkur says “punter,” so they are probably in the UK.)

Colors are meaningless; lines are inaccurate:

All music is influenced by its contemporaries far more than its own past. Illustrating those relationships, however, would render the map unreadable. Coherence is preferred over accuracy. It is simplified for the user experience.

And meet the term trendwhoring, also in the FAQ:

It’s a term I apply to artists, tracks, and sometimes whole genres that whore themselves out to whatever’s the current fad or trend in music. If fart noises were suddenly popular, each scene would trendwhore it with fartstep, fartcore, techfart, farthouse, fart trance, etc. It is especially noticeable in classic tracks that are remixed into modern genres, which some might consider sacreligious. A good example is the Dream Trance hit Robert Miles – Children, in which there is now a Hardstyle version, a Dutch House version, a McProg version, a Eurotrance version, a Goa Trance version, and even a Snap version and a shitty Brostep version. None of these genres existed when the original song came out in 1995. That’s trendwhoring.

Ishkur’s Guide is a map to everything, when so much of the online world now is a map to nothing. It’s a transparent, linked-out Whole Internet Catalog Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that makes Discogs references visual and draws in tracks at random. It’s more useful and vital than ever, really.

Enjoy.

http://music.ishkur.com/

Thanks to Andy Baio for the news on this:

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Poland’s electronic underground called for support; the world answered with this music

In Poland, as queer groups and allies face a rising threat of violence and hate, the Oramics collective chose to respond with music. The result: a sprawling compilation of 121 tracks and international outpouring of support.

I definitely want to encourage you to grab the compilation, but also want to take this opportunity to give you a tour through some of the music here – including from some lesser-known and underground and Polish artists. So alongside some known international figures, like Peder Mannerfelt, Object Blue, Borusaide, Lee Gamble, Electric Indigo, and Rrose, you’ll get an excellent sampling of artists involved in Poland’s underground and queer communities. We’re fortunate that in dark and challenging times, we have music and emotion and celebratory and powerful sound, and not just, you know, the news.

A hypnotic video for this irresistible track – Bartosz Zaskórski and Rufus (animation) for Mchy i Porosty’s “not many friends.” (One of my favorites!)

This is not an abstract battle or “culture war”: in Poland as in an alarming number of places, basic rights of expression and safety are under assault, backed even by mainstream media and religious and governmental leaders. That’s put artists who I’ve worked with personally under real pressure and danger, among many others. It’s something you feel on a visceral level not only in Poland but in the fabric of the electronic music scene outside of the country, as well.

Out now, the “Total Solidarity” compilation gives sonic, musical form to a growing chorus of solidarity and protest. That network has brought together collectives, artists, curators, press, activist organizations, and concerned friends in a network inside and outside of the country. Total Solidarity demonstrates how deep that network is, and how many people have been touched by the political struggle and by these artists.

Over 100 tracks from the Polish underground and international electronic music scene come together on the digital release, available for fifty bucks on Bandcamp (or individually, by track). Poland’s Oramics collective joins Tilburg, Netherlands’ Drvg Cvltvre, who runs the label New York Haunted. The funds raised go directly to organizations battling homophobia and supporting queer communities.

http://oramicspl.bandcamp.com/album/total-solidarity-benefit-compilation-for-grassroot-lgbtqia-organizations-in-poland

“I think it is very important to show that music scene and culture will never accept hatred,” Justyna from Oramics tells us. “This was one of the main goals of this compilation – to gather people from all over the world and show support,” she says. “This symbolic support, kind of artistic / curatorial gesture of solidarity was the main goal I guess – all this which lies beyond fame, mainstream, underground and genre borders. This is the biggest success.”

Here are some highlights, and places to find more.

Justyna also shared some picks. “It was one of the goals to combine artists from literally everywhere,” she says. “Of course, it is important that we have so many amazing internationally acclaimed artists, because they are giving us all the incredible press — but how amazing it is to give some more visibility to those less known, but also super-talented.” Hell, yeah.

Here are a few of those picks – and I have to second these nominations.

Astma:

Duy Gebord:

Calum Gunn:

Kaltstam:

Mchy i Porosty:

Ostrowski:

Satin de Compostela:

Warrego Valles:

Wojciech Kurek:

I have listened to the whole compilation and love the whole thing, but to highlight even some more people, particularly those close to this scene, whose tracks really moved me:

Doc Sleep’s work I wrote about recently:

ISNT has this dirty, noisy beauty:

3-3-3 is a punk-ish banger from Dyktanto of Brutaz:

FOQL’s aptly named “Colony Collapse” is some delicious oddball mayhem from Justyna herself:

There’s some genius, futuristic apocalypse going on in the music of Oramics’ Mala Herba:

RSS BOYS and Eltron will be familiar to anyone following the Polish scene, but if not – know them!

Electric Indigo added a smartly constructed electronic opus that CDM readers shouldn’t miss – Susanne being both a legend in the scene as an artist and founder of female pressure, which has been a template for many female/femme/activist groups since:

Isabella’s chimey, crystalline creation sounds a bit like that cover art looks:

Dr. Rey mastered over a hundred tracks to make this compilation happen, and their contribution is eerie and beautiful:

Oh yeah, and I’m in there, too.

https://oramicspl.bandcamp.com/

Do go buy it whether by individual track or the whole compilation if you can. It reaches people in need:

All proceeds from the digital sales will support Polish queer organizations: Kampania Przeciw Homofobii and Miłość Nie Wyklucza, who monitor homophobia, provide all kind of support for queer people and have agreed to help us redistribute the proceeds throughout LGBTQIA+ organizations in smaller cities and towns of Poland, who need them the most.

We will be in touch with Oramics to hear how these organizing efforts are going, and what else the electronic music community can do there – and worldwide – to support people’s safety. It’s expressive freedom that has brought us to music and music technology, so if that’s not what we’re in the business of supporting, I’m not sure what we are doing.

For those near Berlin – Polish-born Rey for their part will also be leading their project The Womb, with a summer symposium for female-identified, non-binary and queer creatives and entrepreneurs, on 31 August. Kudos to Rey for this epic mastering job; see Uferlos Studios for more.

For more Oramics action, here’s the latest Behind The Stage podcast, with Szkoda:

More reading:

I got to write about Oramics a couple of times before:

And see also my chat with Dyktando, who also contributed to this compilation, from when I got to play with him last summer:

https://oramicspl.bandcamp.com/

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Rachael is the flexible ring mod companion to Deckard’s Voice

Black Corporation turned a lot of heads when they launched the Deckard’s Voice Eurorack module, following their Yamaha CS-inspired Deckard’s Dream flagship. Now they’ve got one more clever idea going.

And since there are indeed a lot of integrated single voice modules around, Rachael is perhaps even more worth your attention.

It seems you feel our work is not a benefit to the public.

Rachael (yeah, I guess Roy and Pris are on their way if this is successful) is a flexible module built around ring modulation. It can be a companion to Deckard’s Voice, but since this is the modular world, it doesn’t have to be.

The trick here is, this isn’t just an input-output ring modulation effect. There’s an onboard ADSR envelope, a reference oscillator with VCO / LFO switch, and plenty of controls and patch points.

So, you can use this different ways. You can take an external audio input and add ring modulation – either with the internal oscillator, or with a second external signal. You can use Rachael as a modulation generator for other modules. You can use it as an envelope generator, with the envelope output. And all of those scenarios are possible at once. Combined with CV input of each of the envelope stages, 1V/oct input, and CV control of the depth control, you could put Rachael at the heart of a very complex patch.

Black Corporation’s Roman Filippov says that Deckard’s Voice and Rachael will launch at the same time. Right now, though, there’s only the preorder live for Deckard’s Voice, and no pricing for Rachael.

Deckard’s Voice preorder pricing is split – you pay $199 now, then $500 when the product is ready to ship, for a total of US$699 direct before taxes/import.

That makes Deckard’s Voice, like its larger sibling, nothing if not a premium product. (You’ll see plenty of people asking about kits, since the kit version of Deckard’s Dream offers some significant savings.)

I’m a little wary of putting down a ton of money on a synth voice like that, as it does beg the question if what you really want is a desktop semi-modular with a lot of patch points.

But that means I think Rachael, by contrast, could occupy an interesting space. It gives you essentially the most out-there bit of a CS in a rack, if you want a little Deckard’s magic. And it does look like one of the more compelling ideas around a ring mod. (Maybe something like the Cwejman RM-2S is worth a look, for something focused on dialing in stereo ring modulation. There are a bunch of 1- or 2HP modules that are mostly pretty simple, beyond that.)

Rachael brings real, focused, Yamaha-style modulation and envelopes to a market that mostly seems to think of ring mod as an exotic afterthought. Now we just need someone to do a software knockoff of this for VCV Rack and call it Electric Sheep. (Wait, no, forget I said that, Roman!)

Deckard’s Dream

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MeeBlip cubit go: USB MIDI anywhere, with ultra-tight timing

Today, we’re announcing MeeBlip cubit go – a unique USB MIDI interface with incredibly tight timing.

cubit go has the ports you most often need when mobile – one input, so you can perform, and four outputs, for sending notes and/or clock.

Here’s the twist: we’ve integrated hardware MIDI thru circuitry on the four outputs. Anything you send to the interface’s output goes to all four jacks simultaneously. There’s no software delay – you get rock-solid, ultra-tight timing.

That makes cubit go the perfect follow-up to our cubit splitter, introduced earlier this year. You still get four outs with identical timing – but now in a USB MIDI interface you can connect to your computer or mobile device.

Cubit go is driverless and USB powered, so it works with any desktop OS, but also on phones and tablets (with the appropriate cables, sold separately). And the jacks are top-mounted for convenience.

Just plug it in and use it – there’s nothing to install, no separate power supply needed, and nothing to worry about. cubit go is palm-sized, lightweight, rugged, performs perfectly, and is easy to use. 

Features:

  • 1×1 USB MIDI interface with integrated hardware MIDI Thru
  • Class-compliant USB MIDI – no drivers needed
  • One input jack
  • Four hardware-mirrored output jacks – no software lag
  • High performance 32-bit ARM Cortex processor
  • Bright green MIDI light flashes when sending or receiving data for easy troubleshooting
  • Size: 108 x 76 x 25 mm (4.25 x 3 x 1 inches), weighs 110 g (3.9 oz)
  • Includes 1 m (3 ft) USB cable
  • USB powered
  • Works with macOS, Windows, Linux, iOS and Android*
  • Made in Canada, available only direct

cubit go is available now for US$59.95, with free worldwide shipping for a limited time, along with our geode synthesizer.

Buy it now

The mission of MeeBlip is to get musicians – and CDM readers – playing instruments easily, whether they’re a beginner or expert. So if we help make sure stuff is plugged in and playing, the cubit tools are doing their job. Let us know what you think and if there’s more stuff you’d want to see.

As with our past products, we made something we want to use, too. I’m definitely using my cubits all the time, so I’m excited now we get some in your hands, too.

https://meeblip.com/products/meeblip-cubit-go

Previously:

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Inside the immersive kinetic laser sound world of Christopher Bauder, Robert Henke

Light and sound, space and music – Christopher Bauder and Robert Henke continue to explore immersive integrated AV form. Here’s a look into how they create, following a new edition of their piece Deep Web.

Here’s an extensive interview with the two artists by EventElevator, including some gorgeous footage from Deep Web.

Deep Web premiered in 2016 at CTM Festival, but it returned this summer to the space for which it was created, Berlin’s Kraftwerk (a former power plant). And because both artists are such obsessive perfectionists – in technology, in formal refinement – it’s worth this second trip.

Christopher (founder of kinetic lighting firm WHITEvoid) and Robert (also known as Monolake and co-creator of Ableton Live) have worked together for a long time. A decade ago, I got to see (and document) ATOM at MUTEK in Montreal, which in some sense would prove a kind of study for a work like Deep Web. ATOM tightly fused sound and light, as mechanically-controlled balloons formed different arrangements in space. The array of balloons became almost like a kind of visualized three-dimensional sequencer.

Deep Web is on a grander scale, but many of the basic elements remain – winches moving objects, lights illuminating objects, spatial arrangements, synchronized sound and light, a free-ranging and percussive musical score with an organic, material approach to samples reduced to their barest elements and then rearranged. The dramaturgy is entirely abstract – a kind of narrative about an array and its volumetric transformations.

In Deep Web, color and sound create the progression of moods. At the live show I saw last weekend, Robert, jazzed on performance endorphins, was glad to chat at length with some gathered fans about his process. The “Deep Web” element is there, as a kind of collage of samples of information age collapsed geography. The sounds are disguised, but there are bits of cell phones, telecommunications ephemera, airport announcements, made into a kind of encoded symphony.

Photo: Ralph Larmann.
Photo: Ralph Larmann.

Whether you buy into this seems down to whether the artists’ particular take tickles your synesthesia and strikes some emotional resonance. But there is something balletic about this precise fusion of laser lines and globes, able to move freely through the architecture. Kraftwerk will again play host later this month to Atonal Festival, and that meeting of music and architecture is by contrast essentially about the void. One somber vertical projection rises like a banner behind the stage, and the vacated power plant is mostly empty vibrating air. Deep Web by contrast occupies electrifies that unused volume.

I spoke to Christopher to find out more about how the work has evolved and is executed.

Christopher and Robert at the helm of the show’s live AV controls. Photo: Christopher Bauder.
Lasers and equipment, from the side. Photo: Peter Kirn.

Robert’s music is surprisingly improvisational in the live performance versions of the piece. You could feel that the night I was there – even as Robert’s style is as always reserved, there’s a sense of flowing expression.

To create these delicate arrangements of lit globes and laser lines, Christopher and his team at WHITEvoid plan extensively in Rhino and Vektorworks – the architectural scoring that comes before the performance. The visual side is controlled with WHITEvoid’s own kinetic control software, KLC, which is based on the industry leading visual development / dataflow environment TouchDesigner.

Robert’s rig is Ableton Live, controlled by fader and knob boxes. There is a master timeline in Live – that’s the timeline bit to which Robert refers, and it is different from his usual performance paradigm as I understand it. That timeline in turn has “loads of automation parameters” that connect from Live’s music arrangement to TouchDesigner’s visual control. But Robert can also change and manipulate these elements as he plays, with the visuals responding in time.

The machines that make the magic happen. Photo: Christopher Bauder.
Photo: Christopher Bauder.

Different visual scenes load as presets. Each preset then has different controllable parameters – most have ten with realtime operation, Christopher tells CDM.

“[Visual parameters] can be speeds, colors, selection of lasers, individual parameters like seed number, range, position, etc.,” Christopher says. “In one scene, we are linking acceleration of a continuously running directional laser pattern to a re-trigger of a beat. So options are virtually endless. It’s almost never just on/off for anything – very dynamic.”

This question of light and space as instrument I think merits deeper and broader explanation. WHITEvoid are one of a handful of firms and artists developing that medium, both artistically and technically, in a fairly tight knit community of people around the world. Stay tuned; I hope to pay them another visit and talk to some of the other artists working in this direction.

You can check their work (and their tech) at their site:

https://www.whitevoid.com/

Christopher also provided some unique behind-the-scenes shots for us here, along with some images that reveal some of the attention to pattern and form.

The Red Balloon. Photo: Ralph Larmann.
Ralph Larmann.
Ralph Larmann.
Ralph Larmann.
Ralph Larmann.
Christopher Bauder.
Peter Kirn.

Previously:

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Arturia’s KeyStep just got way more useful

Arturia’s KeyStep was already appealing – a mobile MIDI keyboard with sequencer and arpeggiator. But the 1.1 update improves some details and adds major new musicality.

Let’s look at this in detail – though the sequence length and arp octaves alone already have me sold.

A ton of power is now available on the fly, as you play.

Three new features are now available from the KeyStep’s physical controls, as you play:

Sequence length. Hold Record, and press one of the MIDI Channel keys, and you set length of the sequence on the fly. This actually works from 1 – 64 steps, just by pressing a few keys in sequence.

Quantized tempo adjustment: Now you can hold shift and turn the tempo knob to move by increments of 1 bpm. That lets you round off bpms from the tap tempo or quickly dial in a bpm without winding up with something weird. (127.62, anyone?)

Arp Octaves: With the arpeggiator running, you can now shift notes you’re playing up or down the octave. (The Arturia site is a little unclear on this – it sounds like they mean just shifting the arpeggiator up and down by octave. It’s actually cooler than this.) So hold Shift+Octave + or -, and whichever notes you’re playing will be arpeggiated up or down by octave. Hit the +/- key multiple times for multiple octaves. I can’t think of anything that works quite like this; it’s really cool and performative, because it’s all on the fly.

You’ll need the editor to access some new features.

Three modes are available in the updated MIDI Control Center software editor (so not onboard, but something you set in advance):

“Armed” clock. This gives you the option of using external sync, and passing it along, but controlling the KeyStep’s sequencer with the play button. There’s now a new parameter for switching on or off Arm to Start, which determines how the KeyStep responds to external clock.

Off is the original mode – the KeyStep Pro will just run or pause or stop with your external clock signal. But switch this to on, and the KeyStep lets you start and stop the sequencer as you see fit. You still pass the sync on to other gear. So for example, you could keep your drum machine running with the master clock, but turn on and off the sequencer on the keyboard, stop and jam for a second live, or whatever.

Pattern and Brownian Randomness. You can set randomness to Brownian Motion (“drunken walk) or “Pattern,” which creates randomized but repeating patterns. Pattern Mode is borrowed from Arturia’s MicroFreak synth.

Change LED brightness. Finally. No more blindness.

I still would love to see a KeyStep Pro, akin to the way the BeatStep Pro built on the original BeatStep. It’d be terrific to have a keyboard with some knobs for parameter controls. Having to use tiny DIP switches to set sync modes is a pain. And obviously there will be limits to how much Arturia can do with key combos (which already mean a little time spent cracking the manual), or software editor options. It’s not hard to imagine something that expanded this with extra features.

But for now, the KeyStep stays nice and compact – and you could always add a little box with some faders or knobs, since it is so small. Plus, even with some of its rivals, Arturia has a serious edge:

  • The keys feel great.
  • There’s MIDI DIN support for external gear.
  • There’s a standalone option (including a dedicated power plug).
  • It works with USB when you need it – no drivers required. (Hello, Linux/Raspi, etc., in addition to mobile, of course)
  • Its power consumption is low enough to work with iPad, etc., without additional power.
  • It’s stupidly affordable.

I think that with the additional performance options, this is the one to beat.

https://www.arturia.com/products/keystep/details

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Here’s how the Sensel Morph’s custom touch control works

The Sensel Morph’s specialized touch control lets you apply both multi-touch position and force (how hard you press). Some new and recent videos make it clear how to customize that for your different tools.

The Morph isn’t alone in the force + multi-touch position game. The growth of MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) depends on multiple controllers. But the Morph tool is uniquely adaptable, thanks to specialized overlays that let it adopt different layouts. So, as I’ve written before, you can swap between a musical control setup for a live show (say, with the Buchla Thunder overlay), and a different overlay for video editing (and fire up Premiere or Final Cut), and so on.

Peter Nyboer from Sensel is a perfect person to explain all this. Now we get to see his full presentation from Perfect Circuit in LA, right in the comfort of our own home. (The magic of the Internet – behold! It’s like we can be everywhere at once, instantly! Or something.)

Here’s his full talk on the overlays and how the customization software works – that last one being a big point, I know:

If you’re looking for a standalone control device, this isn’t it – it’s really more about being lightweight. But I do find the nice thing about the Morph is that it’s small enough you can put it in your backpack and forget about it – even more so than the iPad, and with greater accuracy and force sensing that the iPad lacks.

Sensel have also been busy with additional tutorials on how to work with the Morph. Bitwig Studio gets interesting because of its native MPE support – and there are custom control surface scripts there. (Bitwig seems well-suited to just this sort of tinkerer application.)

You don’t even need to buy a Bitwig Studio license to get started – there’s an included Studio 8-Track license included with the Morph.

It’s really the Buchla overlay that puts things over the top for me. Buchla himself had it right – this diagonal layout just ideally fits under the hand, especially for something performative.

And yeah, here’s the Buchla looking right at home with a modular setup – just as this controller was intended:

Here’s more on how the Morph works with MPE:

Find more at the Sensel Morph product page:

https://sensel.com/pages/the-sensel-morph

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One little MeeBlip meets one giant Hainbach wall of sound

Mobile synth, meet wall of synths with knobs bigger than your hand. I got to take our new MeeBlip geode for a friendly visit with the legendary Hainbach and his lair of huge vintage analog gear. Here’s what happened.

MeeBlip geode

Hainbach is my kind of YouTuber – his channel is a nonstop flow of creative use and misuse of vintage gear, from cassettes to test equipment, paired with thoughtful ambient and experimental music. And it’s clear his passion for that equipment is driven by an obsession with producing his unique musical sound.

I asked Hainbach if maybe we could show our MeeBlip synth and have a jam, and he invited me round his house – and this is the result. (That’s how the Internet should always work, I think!)

There’s not a whole lot of MIDI in his studio, so we made use of the inexpensive KORG SQ-1 step sequencer, which is also pint-sized like our MeeBlip. Most of the MeeBlip sounds you hear are dry, but there’s also some reverb and delay from the cult favorite Alesis Wedge.

For his part, Hainbach starts out with the lovely Roland SH-09 monosynth for that lush opening tone, then adds a cassette loop. But much of the sound is from the “wall of sound” full of test equipment. This oversized, gorgeous gear was – well, until we all popularized it online – pretty cheap to come by until recently. It’s now antiquated and past retirement age in industries like telecommunications for which it was originally intended – but as a synth, it can last forever. Hainbach has explained what it’s all about, and I’ve also previously described an open laboratory in Rotterdam specializing in the setup.

Bigger than a MeeBlip.

The fun part is really getting to put the two together. Hainbach is a focused listener and improviser, so he’s terrific to play with – and this is really one take, since he had to run to pick up his kid right after the shoot.

“There’s so much to play in there… impressively playable.” Thanks, sir. So we actually can compete with enormous vintage test boxes, I guess.

We are shipping now at meeblip.com:

MeeBlip geode

And you’ll find more on Hainbach’s Patreon subscription. Plus do check his music; it’s terrific, and also really enjoyed the couple of times I’ve seen him live.

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Climate crisis, shown directly on power plant, in guerrilla projection

In the Czech Republic, one artistic intervention made the invisible visible, by laser “tagging” a coal-fired power plant with the damage it does to our planet’s fragile climate.

Live visuals are in many ways the perfect protest – visible, large scale, and able to intervene from a distance without harm. That opens radical and political possibilities for their message, even as media art tools are often the domain of corporate gigs.

The scene here takes us to the industrial central Czech Republic, and the Chvaletice power plant, where North Bohemia’s brown coal is burned for power production. Coal, of course, is dirty stuff. That makes this power plant a major carbon emitter and climate change contributor, as well as a devastating threat to health, belching mercury and other toxins into the air. And while Europe may seem a haven for environmental policy, Czech is set to fail its Paris Climate Agreement obligations, if it can’t kick the coal habit.

There’s reason to single out this plant. The Chvaletice plant was given an exemption that lets is continue to operate even with a coming 2021 cap on carbon dioxide and mercury. Those caps in turn are necessary to incentive alternative energy sources for meeting Czech electricity consumption. So this isn’t just a random target – it’s on the front lines of breathable air and climate change policy in a material way.

Media artist Gabriela Prochazka and Lunchmeat Studio (who also produce Prague’s Lunchmeat Festival) made statements by running lasers on top of the cooling towers and its exhaust. That included messages like “STOP COAL”, “#NOFILTER”, “NOT COOL”, and, in a reference to rising planetary air temps, “+2°C.” (If those cooling towers remind you of nuclear plants, not coal, well, that’s because both methods basically run on steam – but I digress, you can go to Wikipedia for that.)

http://gabrielaprochazka.com/
http://www.lunchmeat.cz/

Sponsors:
Limity Jsme My (We Are The Limits)
Greenpeace CZ

Photos:
Petr Zewkak Vrabec, Martin Janousek

Something like a power plant can easily fade into the background of the world around us. This seems an effective way to use our tools to transform that perception.

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