We have inherited from the last century a whole language built from the archaic details of office machines.
And we use all of these for music. We patch together telephone cords between modules, via the tactile interface once used to connect calls. We type on keyboards and point with devices like mice. We have grids of pixels, constructions that once plotted the trajectory of missiles before they were repurposed for simply games about missiles (and email, and Facebook, and everything else). We use code, and language, and turn dials, and press light-up buttons.
What’s beautiful about the work of Brain Crabtree (tehn) on monome is the way in which all of this is reduced to its barest elements, like poetry.
In “Teletype Studies,” you learn how to use code, typing ultra-simple commands in order to make music that evolves algorithmically. But you also see the elegance of some of the important musical objects of our time. A small shelf of Eurorack modules connected by a lattice of cables produces sound. A monome grid acts as the world’s most minimalistic display/touch UI, its low-resolution grid blinking in time. A Roland Space Echo does a cameo with its rich delays. And the Teletype module and display sit mostly untouched, a few simple codes causing whole musical worlds to unfold. The cassette tapes, I assume, can be safely assumed to be nostalgic decoration, or perhaps a technological momento mori, reminder of the impending obsolescence of storage media and musical expressions themselves.
It’s all old, but new, but somehow both.
This is now how futuristic music looks today, precisely because it’s so mindful of the past. In some generations, you imagine someone will make this music in the way people pick up a baroque violin today. (Hopefully not in some post-apocalyptic bunker as one of the last surviving humans, but you get my point.) They’ll do so because typing some code and turning a knob and pressing a button are as second-nature as bowing a string.
It’s fun to read the tutorials and understand the structure even if you’ve no intention to buy the hardware. And it is oddly entertaining. In a line or two of code, you produce lists, or do some math, or create edges and shapes. All of it then turns into musical patterns – some frantic and nervous, some slow and, well, noodle-y.
And from the digital numbers and code, you’ll also be messing about with volts – there’s your analog bit. Turn knobs, produces voltage to run through wires, and the skeleton of the number and logic structure made in digital form turns into the analog synth-y stuff.
If you love the smell of solder as much as you love patching sounds together, this may be for you.*
Bastl Instruments, the boutique Czech electronic instrument maker, tell us they’ve finished the much-requested kit versions of their modular lineup. They’re not any different from the other modules, apart from you solder them together yourself. Now, of course, that means you can make them not work. But the Bastl crew, innovative as always, have a solution there – a 25€ paid service with the cheeky name “Come to Daddy” lets you pay to have them work it out for you if you break things. Just don’t let the unfinished kit collect dust: the service works for only 30 days after purchase.
These have too many connections to really qualify as a beginner kit, from the looks of it, but if you’ve assembled some kits before, they shouldn’t pose a problem.
You’ll need your own tools. The kit itself comes with the oak wood panel (unpolished, so you can finish/paint it however you like), a printed manual, tin for soldering, screws for mounting, and a sticker.
Prices (not including VAT for Europe):
Tea Kick – more than just a drum – DIY Kit: 70 €
Noise Square – noise and square source – DIY Kit: 70 €
grandPa – granular sampler – DIY Kit: 143 €
Skis – dual decay + vca – DIY Kit: 70 €
ABC – 6 channel mixer – DIY Kit: 62 €
Come to daddy – repair service for kits – 25 €
The folks at British maker Kenton have a way of churning out little boxes that do things people need. MIDI Thru, check. Connecting those USB gizmos that lack MIDI, check. Plugging MIDI to your modular, roger.
So, to that, add a single box that translates MIDI to DIN Sync (sync24) – and back again.
DIN Sync, as developed by Roland, is suddenly news again because of a rekindled interest in vintage gear. If you want to synchronize a TR-808 or a TB-303, DIN Sync is what you need.
The Kenton D-SYNC isn’t the first converter box, but I suspect that like some of the other Kenton boxes I mentioned, it’ll win points for its simplicity. If all you want to do is hook your 303 or 808 up to your rig, and get it clocking off MIDI signals – or, in the other direction, sync some MIDI device to DIN – this focuses on that task.
And as always, it’s in an aluminum box and isn’t enormously expensive. £58.20 GBP direct price from Kenton before tax and shipping – just about $90 in the US or 80€.
Also interesting: they’re evidently already beta-testing support for devices that use another sync format, 48 parts-per-quarter note (PPQN), such as Korg.
Well, here we are at yet another weekend. And hopefully we can give you some video watching pleasure yet again, in those moments when you aren’t, well, hopefully, making music.
Leading the pack is a 1986 story from Chicago TV news back when house music was in its early days, as spotted by Dancing Astronauts. And it’s an astounding document, featuring Danny “Sweet-D” Wilson, Farley “Jackmaster” Funk, Steve “Silk” Hurley, and Keith Nunnally. Two big takeaways. One, it’s interesting to note that London was already catching onto house even when these artists were relatively obscure in sweet home Chicago. Europe and the UK, always ahead of American audiences when it comes to American music – note the British announced proudly wearing an enormous American flag shirt.
Two, it’s fantastic to see this stuff being made live. Why that shouldn’t be more commonplace in 2015, I have no idea. Steve Hurly and Jackmaster Funk constructing a track is inspiring and fresh nearly two decades later.
But there’s more, of course. With no particular theme, here’s a bunch of documentary stuff to queue up.
If you’d rather go to pioneering electronic composition in place of 80s dance music, here are two documentaries on the incomparable Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, via OpenCulture (which just happened to pop into my inbox today):
Better Living Through Circuitry is a 1999 documentary, available for full-length viewing (and spotted in comments).
Generation of Sound also covers the 90s dance scene:
And it seems every genre has its own YouTube documentary:
As does Berlin club Tresor:
And Richie Hawtin:
Returning to pioneering electronic music, it’s fascinating to get the 1983 perspective on electronic process (and perhaps it’s a sign of the maturity of the field now that a lot of this is today readily accessible):
And this seminal UK electronic doc:
And here’s a playlist with some of those, plus many more.
The music industry is fantastic at hindsight. We’ve obsessed over the spread of online piracy, the death of the CD, then the impact of streams. But every measure of the business model is somehow framed around acquiring records. And it’s about passive consumption.
We have to remember, though, that passive consumption is itself really the outlier. Until the dawn of recording, music only existed when you played it. Our current copyright and licensing system was first structured around sheet music. And that world never went away. Precise recordings can give you the experience of listening, but no technology can give you the feeling of singing.
Wurrly is an app for recording covers of popular songs. It starts with a song store (and links to the originals on iTunes), but instead of tapping to download, you tap to sing. Choose a pre-made accompaniment (full band, piano, or guitar), set the key and tempo, and record. The cleverest part of the app is probably the interface for adding finishing touches: you get a simple fader for mixing and Instagram-style effects. (I’m sure we’ll keep hearing about an “Instagram for music” or “Instagram for sound” until someone really nails it.)
Of course, this is all paired with social sharing features and featured songs. I’m impressed, some of the recordings are pretty good – there are some talented singers, not just karaoke fare. I find the arrangements themselves to be a little dry; I think the app would benefit from original stems coming from the artists.
And yes, theoretically, this sort of thing could be a revenue stream – though again rates set for statutory licensing are key. A spokesperson for the developer tells CDM:
We have deals with all of the majors and we have blanket licenses on their content. As you know, songs these days can have multiple co-publishers, so we go directly to the stakeholders to get permission. We pay them royalties based on the seconds of usage in the app, quarterly. We also have encryption within the app so that users cannot manipulate it.
Think of this as the pop song / singer analog to Native Instruments’ Stems, and you begin to see where the landscape might shift.
It’s tough to tell what will be a hit and what won’t, in apps as in music itself. But looking beyond just acquiring music directly is wise. The beauty of the shift from devices like the iPod or Walkman to those like the iPhone or tablet is that it’s far easier to engage the user in a creative, active experience. And just as the phone made people feel better about taking more photos by making them look better, there’s no question that making people happy with the way they sound is a key motivation for encouraging musicianship.
Of course, in the past I made this prediction about music games, and that trend lost some steam. But I think we’re still in early days. Watch this space.
There is a powerful world of sound exploration in your hands. But sometimes the hardest part is just starting.
So the quiet launch of a site called Maxology is very good news. It’s evidently a place to go for tutorials and projects and more.
And right now, you can grab a bunch of free and open source objects for physical modeling, built for Max 7 and Max for Live. That opens a window into a world of realistic and impossible sounds, built on algorithms that mimic the way instruments work physically and acoustically.
The Percolate Objects Starter Kit is a reissue of one of the classic libraries for this form of synthesis, updated and refreshed and newly documented, even with tutorials for beginners. Percolate is something special – it’s built from the Synthesis Toolkit by legendary synth scientist Perry R. Cook with Gary Scavone, adapted by the also-legendary Dan Trueman (pioneer of the laptop orchestra, by many accounts) and R. Luke Dubois (pioneer of lots of other things). And it covers a range of techniques – physical modeling, modal, and PhISM, for those of you who are aficionados of these things, are all there.
Together, you can built realistic-sounding instruments, wild new instruments and experimental sounds, and effects.
What does it sound like? Well, kind of like whatever you want – but here’s one example, by axxonn:
Produced using only the following; Two instances of Gen Random Synth, 909 Samples in Gen Wave Synth, Scrub Face Delay and Reverb.
These devices are all made by Tom Hall using objects from the PeRColate collection, recently updated and made available by Maxology (including the MFL devices) for Max7.
There’s a bunch of stuff there for free. (Max 7 isn’t free, but recently-adjusted pricing and subscriptions – plus the inclusion of Max for Live – mean that price of entry isn’t so prohibitive, given the amount of value that’s there. And see my note about Pd below; I’m researching.)
For Max 7:
1. PerCOlate objects
2. Starter patches
3. Full help documentation
5. A pitchtracker, so you can try playing along with real instruments, too
For Max for Live:
1. A wavetable synth with built-in randomness
2. A wavetable generator
3. A granulator, for transposition and special effects
4. A scrubbing delay-line effect
And because it’s all built in Max, you can combine objects modular-style to build your own special instruments. In fact, while I love modular hardware, a lot of what you do with a physical modular is really inter-connecting boxes that are already built for you. Working with Max in this way allows you to go much deeper, if you so choose, and really get deep into the logic and construction of what you’re doing.
I don’t think one approach is better than another; they’re just different. But I think maybe the reason people haven’t played so much with this sort of digital depth is that it does require a little more learning – and this sort of complete documentation can at last make it friendly for those of you ready to embark on that adventure.
Also, since the objects themselves are open source, I’d love to see them ported to Pd. Max is a very friendly desktop environment and has this unique Ableton Live integration, but then also having Pd opens up things like developing physical instruments on mobile devices.
The standard MIDI DIN cable – that’s the big honkin’ connector you use on most of your MIDI gear – has become the bane of music hardware makers. The problem is, as gear has gotten smaller, the standard DIN connector hasn’t. And that’s a big problem, literally. To add a MIDI port to a device, you need to not only have enough clearance for the connector itself, but the whole around the port and the physical assembly that contains it. Speaking as a hardware maker, that takes up space you can’t even see from the outside.
As a result, a lot of hardware that should have had MIDI in and out doesn’t, to save room. Or it’s forced to be thicker than it needs to be. Or it squeezes out other useful ports.
It doesn’t have to be this way. S-Video could have become a replacement in the 90s, back when we used such things. (It has the same 5-pin arrangement, but smaller.)
Now, you may have noticed a lot of gear includes minijacks onboard. A stereo minijack (3.5mm “miniklinken”) connector has three pins – and MIDI also has three pins. (Okay, it has five, but two are unused.) Look at the breakouts included in the box, and what you’ll see is a standard 3-pin stereo minijack on one end, and then a horse-drawn buggy taped to a telegraph machine DIN connector on the other.
But here’s where things get interesting. Imagine you have two pieces of gear, each with these minijack-to-DIN breakouts. And you want to connect them together. What would happen if you skipped the little DIN dongles and ran an ordinary stereo minijack cable between them?
Well, whether it worked or not would depend on how that minijack connector itself was wired. So, I asked a few manufacturers, off the record and unofficially, what they were doing. It wasn’t hard to convince people to talk about it; anyone who has ever dealt with this problem dreams of ditching DIN.
It turns out most of them are using the same wiring – seen above.
Pin 1 – Tip
Pin 2 – Sleeve
Pin 3 – Ring
So long as you have two pieces of gear wired this way, you can connect them with a standard stereo minijack audio cable (that’s a single stereo minijack at both ends). It’s exactly the same as using a MIDI cable.
In this category:
IK Multimedia (iRIG MIDI – that’s the diagram at top)
Novation (such as Launchpad Pro)
Arturia (such as BeatStep Pro)
Unfortunately, one other key maker is an outlier. Korg, which uses minijacks on its SQ1 sequencer and new ElecTribes, swaps sleeve and ring, unless I’ve got the wrong information. As long as you’re comfortable soldering your own cables, you could solve that, but it means there isn’t an immediate de facto standard.
On the other hand, it’s already pretty terrific that a lot of the stuff you’d immediately want to use hit at the same wiring at random. (No one, to my knowledge, has ever published something like this.)
So, rather than wait any longer, I think it makes sense to go public. Rather than wait for a standard, all you really need is for manufacturers to start using this same wiring. And by all means, don’t eliminate MIDI from a product just because DIN won’t fit. The “post PC” age is turning out to be more reliant on MIDI than the one before it, from iPads to all-hardware live rigs.
If nothing else, if you make DIY hardware, you can start doing this now. And you can plug your custom synth or whatever directly into a Launchpad Pro or BeatStep Pro (just to name two) and start playing it.
That’s a pretty cool accidental standard. So maybe we should make it less accidental.
Comments welcome. And if you have hardware with minijacks, I didn’t cover all of them. I’d love to hear what you’re doing.
We used to talk about the home studio. Then the bedroom producer. Then laptop music. Now it’s more like the everywhere studio – and the computer may be nowhere to be seen.
Tools like Launchpad for iOS tend to exist in some sort of alternate dimension from the world of music tech writing, even when it comes to this site. But quietly, a lot of people are making music with them. (It doesn’t hurt that there are a lot of iPads and iPhones out there, or that the apps are often given away for free.)
But just because this is a category that’s friendly to newcomers doesn’t mean the music is any less serious.
This week, Novation is promoting its Launchpad with some heavy artist collaborations. Kicking off a new soundpack set are Machinedrum (Ninja Tune) and Lapalux (on Brainfeeder, the label most associated with Flying Lotus). I find these to be really nice choices. Vapor City is really one of my favorite electronic releases of recent years – and I will be the first to admit I’m completely biased by the fact that Travis Stewart (Machinedrum) is a lovely gentleman.
Let’s have a listen to the music:
The Ninja connection is interesting, too. As we noted last week, Ninja Tune – and co-founder Matt Black – are committed to this notion of remixes and sound packs as a different way for artists to reach fans, seen in their own iOS and Android remix app. Brainfeeder have likewise been innovative in looking at different ways of reaching fans, with attention to the ways the technology around music changes.
Now, it may sound like I’m “shilling” for Novation. (I saw that delightful term of endearment applied to me a few times this week in comments.) But you can only shill if you don’t disclose. Full disclosure: Novation brought me to their London office last week to work on a hackday on their Launchpad Pro. I had a lovely time and some pints with the Novation folks and the men and women working on their hardware, and am indeed left with warm, fuzzy feelings about them. One of the things in their London office is the team responsible for mobile apps. And to be perfectly frank, I was really curious – like, who is actually using these things? They seem cool, but a lot of us remain entirely in the Ableton Live / Novation hardware controller scheme and don’t pay them much mind.
So, who’s using the apps, and how?
Launchpad came to iPad just over two years ago, and iPhone last year in May. Now, Novation tells CDM, they’ve got roughly equal usage of iPad and iPhone users. There are 3.5 million users, they say – meaning this is one of the leading music-making mobile apps, full stop.
It’s nice to have these sounds, but you can bring in your own sounds, too. You can now use Audio Import to take sessions from laptops and work on them on the go – a good way to get away from your computer, finish stuff on the go (or reclining in bed, or whatever), or even adapt a session to live use.
More recently, performance effects open up other possibilities:
– or doing iPad ‘cover’ versions, like this one of Madeon’s ‘Pop Culture’:
In short, there’s an obscene amount of activity. You can, if you so choose, make the Launchpad app the center of your workflow – and augment it with MIDI hardware (from Novation, or not from Novation). There’s a terrific Tumblr blog full of this stuff, with tutorials and videos and so on. It’s eye opening – I’m meant to be an expert, and I might now dig in to an app I’d otherwise ignored, now that I see this stuff. That’s sort of the way the Internet and YouTube feel these days – you’re kicking the a** of us ‘experts’ sometimes. And thank you for that, seriously!
Logic Pro has a new flagship synth instrument. And that synth is no basic pack-in – it’s one of the deepest software instruments on the market.
It’s also no stranger. As expected following Cupertino’s acquisition, Alchemy, a deep “sample manipulation” synth, has made its way into Apple’s product line. It’s now everywhere on the Mac desktop. Even in GarageBand, you can access Alchemy-based presets. In Logic Pro X, and even MainStage, you can access the full instrument. (That means the $49 MainStage is now also a heck of a steal if you just want the synth.)
(I do say desktop – there’s no sign of Alchemy on iOS at this time. On the other hand, if those “iPad Pro” rumors are true… well, I’ll let you fantasize about that; Apple of course won’t tell me anything.)
If you’re just looking for a sound quickly, you can mess about with transform controls and pull up a wide range of presets. If you want to go deeper, you have an instrument that does additive, spectral, formant, granular, sampling, and virtual analog synthesis. In fact, I can’t think of another single instrument that does quite as much all via one interface.
Logic Pro X 10.2, available as a free App Store upgrade or for instant purchase, includes a raft of other improvements. And Alchemy itself hasn’t just been shoved into Logic’s interface – there are some significant additions there, as well. Let’s have a look:
A new Alchemy
It’s not just Alchemy inside Logic Pro X 10.2. This is officially Alchemy 2.0, a major update. For those of you familiar with the instrument, here’s some of what’s new:
Better morphing. Advanced cross-synthesis now improves audio morphing, incorporating all the details of the sound (additive, spectral, formant, pitch, envelope). You also get more options in the interface.
More precise additive resynthesis, spectral resynthesis. These are really a big part of what sets Alchemy apart, and they’re vastly expanded. There are more additive effects (Pulse/Saw, Harmonic, Beating, Stretch, Shift, Magnet, Spread, Auto Pan). And you get more precise control of both additive and spectral resynthesis – the algorithms themselves have been sonically improved, we’re told. And there’s a new partial tracker, you have more editing options, and you can see everything you’re doing via real-time spectrogram. Spectral resynthesis also works in stereo now, as well, and supports masking.
Powerful formant and granular modes. Loads of depth here, too, including elaborate controls for formant resynthesis (with multiple filter shapes), and multi-tap granular controls you can space out across a stereo field.
Added pitch correction. Correct pitch to unison, octave, fifth, a combination of fifth/octave, or chromatically, with adjustments for amount and speed.
Use the sampler with EXS24. You can now import Logic’s EXS24 sampler instruments directly into the Alchemy sampler, meaning access to Logic’s own library and lots of third-party content. The Sampler module itself is also more powerful, with a reverse mode, automatic keymapping, and new keymap editor and group editor.
Bring the noise. The virtual analog side of things is expanded, too – sync, anti-aliased PWM, waveform shape display, and a noise section with 13 noise types (not just white and pink).
New filters. These are all-new, with both enhanced comb filters, and redesigned analog filter emulations, plus added “Bee,” FM, Compressor, LP10 and HP10 modes.
Modulation and arpeggiators that are kind of insane. Alchemy adds per-source arpeggiators and reorganized editors for source controls and the arpeggiator. And you can modulate all kinds of things. You can switch patterns with modulation (yipes, one-note presets, anyone?), modulate the rate knob, modulate keyswitches, and see visual feedback in real-time.
Envelopes with more power. You get graphical AHDSR with tempo sync. And there are envelope followers at eight points in the signal chain.
More samples and easier browsing. Alchemy now has 3100 presets plus 300 Logic patches, and a 14 GB sample library. (Fortunately, that sample library is an optional download from the store, just like other extended Logic content.) To navigate all of the included content or manage your own sounds, there’s a redesigned browser with expanded drag-and-drop support.
Dial-in controls if you want to improvise / don’t want to get too deep. Alchemy’s X/Y pads and transforms already resembled Apple’s own work on making Smart Controls. The idea: give people a few knobs to dial up variations on much deeper sound engines. So, little surprise here: Alchemy will be fully integrated in the Logic interface, which means access from those Smart Controls and the accompanying iPad app remote.
But it’s more efficient. Apple says they’ve reduced CPU usage.
All in all, this is pretty huge – the biggest synth news to come to Logic in years. And while Apple could have just dropped Alchemy in Logic and called it a day, it’s nice to see a vastly expanded release.
And yes, this means one more big update from Apple that can cater to the explosive market for young EDM producers, particularly in the USA but worldwide, as well.
Nice how a musical genre suddenly created a demand for massively-complex synthesizer modulation.
A more connected Logic
The other news is, Logic Pro X does more than before when connected to the internet.
From Apple, there’s expected Apple Music Connect support, which lets you publish directly to Apple Music from inside the app. (Previously, this was available only in GarageBand.)
But more interestingly, there’s also built-in support for Gobbler. Once you sign up for a free subscription with Gobbler, you can back up, share, and collaborate directly from within Logic. That’s a big deal for both Apple and Gobbler – there’s never been cloud integration like this in a major DAW.
Our friends at Gobbler have a video of that, above.
And lots of other pro improvements…
10.2, as is typical of Apple’s recent pro music update cycle, adds a lot of functionality and fixes, too.
There’s Force Touch trackpad support for the latest Apple laptops – a reminder that Apple is the one DAW maker that’s also in the computer business.
There’s expanded MIDI functionality, including expanded clock options.
You can non-destructively reverse audio regions. (Ah, I love this, as a reverse-addicted person.)
You can globally nudge by key command to note values. (I like that, too.)
And there are lots of editing improvements, including finally showing fades correctly on regions that have been ‘flexed,’ better editing options for different Cycle settings, and some nice features for locators and markers.
There are many more tiny details, fixing minuscule quality issues and making editing easier. This is the sort of attention to detail that we desperately need in our aging stable of big DAWs, and we don’t always get it. So I’m eager to try it out and see how it’s feeling in practice.
I’ll say this: Logic may not be your favorite DAW. Heck, you might even actively dislike it. But what I can’t get from using it is any sense that the pro music team at Apple is uninterested in serious users. If you transported someone from fifteen years ago and sat them in front of what you told them was Emagic Logic Pro X alongside some of its competition, they’d be none the wiser. (They might wonder where their Windows version was, but apart from that.)
Of course, as always, many of these enhancements also carry over to GarageBand and MainStage.
Microsoft celebrated the 20th anniversary of the release of Windows 95. But the best part of all of this may be this oddly eerie, beautiful set of ambient tunes, slowing down the best-known Windows branding by 4000%.
This is what Brian Eno sounds like when you Brian Eno-ify Brian Eno.
While we’re at it, it’s worth revisiting some of the startup sounds over the years.
Brian Eno is best known for his contribution to Windows 95. To my mind, it’s the best of the startup sounds. Eno described the brief as “inspiring, universal, blah- blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental [and] emotional” — and gave Microsoft twice the length they asked for, true to form. Not 4000%, only 200%.
Tom Ozanich and Bill Brown composed Windows XP and the associated sounds (with Emmy winner Ozanich working on orchestral samples. Brown is the composer behind CSI:NY and Any Given Sunday with a long game resume including Wolfenstein.
The legendary Robert Fripp famously contributed to the infamous Windows Vista for a cheery tune for that OS that has stuck with subsequent releases, working alongside Tucker Martine and Steve Ball of Microsoft.
Other sounds were developed in-house. My experience of the audio team at Microsoft over the years with my brief contacts with them has been that they’re musicians like us – and often know their way around a Mac, too. (Apple machines do show up in Microsoft’s offices now and then.)
I certainly want to wish a very happy birthday to Windows, or, erm, to Windows95. (Hey, I used Windows 3.x, too – and made some music on it!)
I never get tired of computers. For all the bitching and moaning – what wondrous machines we have on our desks, that allow us to make sounds we’ve never before imagined, and meet people who love what we love from the other side of the world. (Where’s Louis C.K. when you need him?)
Here’s a wonderful compilation of still more Windows sounds… Ah, the magic of time. All those years of things breaking just fade nicely into nostalgia.