Touché now puts expressive control at hand for $229

“Expressive control” has largely translated to “wiggly keyboards” and “squishy grids,” with one notable exception – the unique, paddle-like Touché from Expressive E. And while keeping essentially the same design, they’ve gotten the price down to just US$/EUR229, making this potentially a no-brainer.

The result: add this little device to your rig, and play gesturally with a whole bunch of instruments, either using provided examples or creating your own.

Preset-packed paddle?

Expressive E’s approach has set itself apart in two key ways. First, they’ve gone with a design that’s completely different than anyone else working in expressive control. It’s not a ribbon, not a grid, not an X/Y pad, and not a keyboard, in other words.

The Touché is best described as a paddle, a standalone object that you sit next to your computer or instrument. There’s a patented mechanism in there that responds to mechanical movements, so with the slightest pressure or tap, you can activate it, or push harder for multi-axis control.

And that, in turn, opens this up to lots of different control applications. Expressive E market this mainly for controlling instruments, like synthesizers, but any music or visual performance input could be relevant.

The second clever element in Expressive E’s approach is to bundle a whole bunch of presets. The first Touché had loads of support even for hardware synths. The new one is focused more on software. But together, this means that while you can map your own ideas, you’ve got a load of places to start.

Touché SE

The original Touché is US$/EUR 399.

Touché SE is just $/EUR 229.

Here’s the cool thing about that price break: the only real sacrifice here is the standalone operation with hardware. (The SE works with bus-powered USB only.)

Other than that, it’s the same hardware as before, though with a polycarbonate touch plate.

In fact, otherwise you get more:

  • Lié hosting software, with VST hosting so you can use your own plug-ins
  • UVI-powered internal sound engine with leads and mallets and loads of other things
  • 200 ready-to-play internal sounds, which you can call up using dedicated buttons on the device
  • 200+ presets for popular plug-ins (like Native Instruments’ Massive and Prism, Serum, Arturia software, etc.)

So connect this USB bus-powered device (they put a huge four-foot cable in the box), and you get multi-dimensional gestural control.

Standalone, VST, AU, Mac, Windows. (Would love to see a Linux/Raspi version!)

I’ve been playing one for a bit and – it’s hugely powerful, likely of appeal both to plug-in and synth lovers and DIYers alike.

http://www.expressivee.com/touche-se

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Inside Cypher2, and what could be a more expressive future for synths

For all the great sounds they can make, software synths eventually fit a repetitive mold: lots of knobs onscreen, simplistic keyboard controls when you actually play. ROLI’s Cypher2 could change that. Lead developer Angus chats with us about why.

Angus Hewlett has been in the plug-in synth game a while, having founded his own FXpansion, maker of various wonderful software instruments and drums. That London company is now part of another London company, fast-paced ROLI, and thus has a unique charge to make instruments that can exploit the additional control potential of ROLI’s controllers. The old MIDI model – note on, note off, and wheels and aftertouch that impact all notes at once – gives way to something that maps more of the synth’s sounds to the gestures you make with your hands.

So let’s nerd out with Angus a bit about what they’ve done with Cypher2, the new instrument. Background:

A soft synth that’s made to be played with futuristic, expressive control

Peter: Okay, Cypher2 is sounding terrific! Who made the demos and so on?

Angus: Demos – Rafael Szaban, Heen-Wah Wai, Rory Dow. Sound Design – Rory Dow, Mayur Maha, Lawrence King & Rafael Szaban

Can you tell us a little bit about what architecture lies under the hood here?

Sure – think of it as a multi-oscillator subtractive synth. Three oscillators with audio-rate intermodulation (FM, S&H, waveshape modulation and ring mod), each switchable between Saw and Sin cores. Then you’ve got two waveshapers (each with a selection of analogue circuit models and tone controls, and a couple of digital wavefolders), and two filters, each with a choice of five different analogue filter circuit models – two variations on the diode ladder type, OTA ladder, state variable, Sallen-Key – and a digital comb filter. Finally, you’ve got a polyphonic, twin stereo output amp stage which gives you a lot of control over how the signal hits the effects chain – for example, you can send just the attack of every note to the “A” chain and the sustain/release phase to the “B” chain, all manner of possibilities there.

Controlling all of that, you’ve got our most powerful TransMod yet. 16 assignable modulation slots, each with over a hundred possible sources to choose from, everything from basics like Velocity and LFO through to function processors, step sequencers, paraphonic mod sources and other exotics. Then there’s eight fixed-function mod slots to support the five dimensions of MPE control and the three performance macros. So 24 TransMods in total, three times as many as v1.

Okay, so Cypher2 is built around MPE, or MIDI Polyphonic Expression. For those readers just joining us, this is a development of the existing MIDI specification that standardizes additional control around polyphonic inputs – that is, instead of adding expression to the whole sound all at once, you can get control under each finger, which makes way more sense and is more fun to play. What does it mean to build a synth around MPE control? How did you think about that in designing it?

It’s all about giving the sound designers maximum possibility to create expressive sound, and to manage how their sound behaves across the instrument’s range. When you’re patching for a conventional synth, you really only need to think about pitch and velocity: does the sound play nicely across the keyboard. With 5D MPE sounds, sound designers start having to think more like a software engineer or a game world designer – there’s so many possibilities for how the player might interact with the sound, and they’ve got to have the tools to make it sound musical and believable across the whole range.

What this translates to in the specific case of Cypher2 is adapting our TransMod system (which is, at its heart, a sophisticated modulation matrix) to make it easy for sound designers to map the various MPE control inputs, via dynamically controllable transfer function curves, on to any and every parameter on the synth.

How does this relate to your past line of instruments?

Clearly, Cypher2 is a successor to the original Cypher which was one of the DCAM Synth Squad synths; it inherits many of the same functional upgrades that Strobe 2 gained over its predecessor a couple of years ago – the extended TransMod system, the effects engine, the Retina-friendly, scalable, skinnable GUI – but goes further, and builds on a lot of user and sound-designer feedback we had from Strobe2. So the modulation system is friendlier, the effects engine is more powerful, and it’s got a brand new and much more powerful step-sequencer and arpeggiator. In terms of its relationship to the original Cypher – the overall layout is similar, but the oscillator section has been upgraded with the sine cores and additional FM paths; the shaper section gains wavefolders and tone controls; the filters have six circuits to chose from, up from two in the original, so there’s a much wider range of tones available there; the envelopes give you more choice of curve responses; the LFOs each have a sub oscillator and quadrature outputs; and obviously there’s MPE as described above.

Of course, ROLI hope that folks will use this with their hardware, naturally. But since part of the beauty is that this is open on MPE, any interesting applications working with some other MPE hardware; have you tried it out on non-ROLI stuff (or with testers, etc.)?

Yes, we’ve tried it (with Linnstrument, mainly), and yes, it very much works – although with one caveat. Namely, MPE, as with MIDI, is a protocol which specifies how devices should talk to one another – but it doesn’t specify, at a higher level, what the interaction between the musician and their sound should feel like.

That’s a problem that I actually first encountered during the development of BFD2 in the mid-2000s: “MIDI Velocity 0-127” is adequate to specify the interaction between a basic keyboard and a sound module, and some of the more sophisticated stage controller boards (Kurzweil, etc.) have had velocity curves at least since the 90s. But as you increase the realism and resolution of the sounds – and BFD2 was the first time we really did so in software to the extent that it became a problem – it becomes apparent that MIDI doesn’t specify how velocity should map on to dB, or foot-pounds-per-second force equivalent, or any real-world units.

That’s tolerable for a keyboard, where a discerning user can set one range for the whole instrument, but when you’re dealing with a V-Drums kit with, potentially, ten or twelve pads, of different types, to set up, and little in the way of a standard curve to aim for, the process becomes cumbersome and off-putting for the end-user. What does “Velocity 72” actually mean from Manufacturer A’s snare drum controller, at a sensitivity setting B, via drum brain C triggering sample D?

Essentially, you run into something of an Uncanny Valley effect (a term from the world of movies / games where, as computer generated graphics moved from obviously artificial 8-bit pixel art to today’s motion-captured, super-sampled cinematic epics, paradoxically audiences would in some cases be less satisfied with the result). So it’s certainly a necessary step to get expressive hardware and software talking to one another – and MPE accomplishes that very nicely indeed – but it’s not sufficient to guarantee that a patch will result in a satisfactory, believable playing experience OOTB.

Some sound-synth-controller-player combinations will be fine, others may not quite live up to expectations, but right now I think it’s natural to expect that it may be a bit hit-and-miss. Feedback on this is something I’d like to actively encourage, we have a great dialogue with the other hardware vendors and are keen for to achieve a high standard of interoperation, but it’s a learning process for all involved.

Thanks, Angus! I’ll be playing with Cypher2 and seeing what I can do with it – but fascinating to hear this take on synths and control mapping. More food for thought.

https://fxpansion.com/products/cypher2/

http://roli.com/

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A soft synth that’s made to be played with futuristic, expressive control

We’ve seen lots of new controllers that are designed to be more responsive to gestures. But can they actually make new sounds, to match? ROLI and FXpansion have a new soft synth that’s designed for that.

It’s called Cypher2, and it builds on the past (award-winning, no less) software instruments from FXpansion, but now built from scratch so that you can access all those deep sound parameters just by moving your hands – not only by messing around with on-screen parameters.

And it sounds lovely:

ROLI have joined smaller makers like Madrona Labs, Roger Linn Instruments, and others in making new controllers that respond to more than just plucking keys or hitting drum pads. But the London-based company sets itself apart with something else – funding. So they’ve got Pharell Williams as a creative office, partnerships with the likes of Apple retail, and they bought up some of the unique, weird talent that makes music technology – including plug-in developer FXpansion, who also call London home. (That buyout took place in 2016.)

Now, when Apple go buy a plug-in maker, you can bet you’ll watch its products become exclusives for Logic and GarageBand. But when ROLI buy someone, you instead get interoperable software that takes advantage of ROLI’s forward-thinking instruments.

Translation: now when you prod and slide about the squishy keys of a ROLI Seaboard RISE or Seaboard Block, you can make fabulous sounds. Dig into your computer screen, and you can shape those sounds yourself.

And now that expressive control is part of MIDI (in the form of a protocol called MPE), this software sees both host support (Bitwig Studio, Cubase) and hardware support beyond just what ROLI make (like the Linnstrument, if you like).

ROLI and FXpansion call these sounds “5D,” but that is to say, many aspects of the sound are there underneath your hands. And that’s of course the way of things with acoustic instruments – even the acoustic piano responds with nuanced sound to the ways you press and release keys, even if this has been grossly simplified in the piano as represented in digital form.

This isn’t the first ROLI synth, but if you weren’t won over by Strobe2 and Equator, Cypher2 offers a bunch of new sound horizons and what ROLI say are the largest-ever bank of MPE-specific sounds. And you get a rich set of physically modeled and analog modeled sounds, producing lots of organic sounding instruments that are both familiar and futuristic.

I mean, it just sounds great. It’s been a while since I was this interested in a soft synth – and to me it’s the first new soft synth to really get excited about using MPE.

Promo video:

And if you want a cheaper / more portable solution, yes it works with the Blocks line, too:

Sounds:

Specs: VST, AAX, AU, Mac, Windows, 64-bit.

Cost: “$199 (£159, €179) on fxpansion.com. Existing owners of DCAM Synth Squad, Strobe2, a ROLI Seaboard or BLOCKS can purchase Cypher2 at a discounted price of $79 on fxpansion.com until 7th September 2018, or for $99 thereafter.”

https://www.fxpansion.com/products/cypher2/

What’s inside? Modeled analog circuitry and FM, deep modular-style synthesis capabilities, and loads and loads of modulation – again, normally stuff you’d find only on big modular rigs, but here with all the conveniences and powers of digital.

It’s kind of an in-the-box producer’s dream, only now made more accessible to actually playing that depth with controllers.

Modulation powers: audio-rate wave-modulation, sample & hold, ring-mod, variable-depth sync and tempo-synced beat-detune. Oh, yes.

Also:

Modulate the master sequencer with 3 mod sequencers and an expanded control matrix
Improved interface with real-time animated modulation, full signal flow visuals and preset descriptions
Default MIDI CC mappings for both 2D and 5D controller types
6 circuit-modelled filter types, each with a varied set of responses, including a comb filter model with 8 comb types
Scalable interface for 4K/retina screens with a variety of themes
LFOs are expanded with clock-divided sub-LFOs for synchronisation or free-running modulation
Updated envelope shapes for precise control
Feed your creativity with preset morphing and randomisation
Support for microtonal Scala .TUN files

Full hands-on coming soon, as well as a chat with FXpansion guru Angus Hewlett.

Previously:

Yep, you can go virtuoso with ROLI – DiViNCi, Alluxe show you how

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Yep, you can go virtuoso with ROLI – DiViNCi, Alluxe show you how

You may have met ROLI’s Seaboard and Lightpad Blocks – the squishy performance controllers for computers and mobile. But all these promises about futuristic instruments aside, can you really wail on them? Computer says yes.

Finger drummer virtuoso DiViNCi is an absolute monster on these things. It reminds me of a couple of hyperactive drummer friends I grew up with, rapping on tables, only this actually works as a live performance. And whatever genre you’re into, this proves that if your ideas happen to be, you know – fast ideas – you can make them happen. Watch:

There’s actually a lot going on there, so even more useful than drooling over this performance demo is watching step-by-step as he pulls apart his live setup. He came to the jam without a plan, but … then that means some planning in setup, to make this function well as an all-in-one, one-man-band rig. This involves setting up some keys in advance, and configuring sounds, so that the setup is out of the way and he can lose himself and jam – even literally with his eyes closed.

ROLI’s hardware – for the moment, at least – doesn’t make any sound on its own, so it’s necessary to dig into the ROLI Dashboard to connect the hardware with software. That software in turn got some updates, recently, if you haven’t checked in on it lately.

It’s important to DiViNCi’s set that he combines the talkbox and the Blocks-controlled software instrument. Let’s check in, too, with Laura Escude aka Alluxe, and her “future classical” setup. Laura is someone special, in that she’s not only built a career as a solo musician and electronic instrumentalist, but also as a high-powered teacher and consultant, setting up live shows on the biggest imaginable scale for the likes of Kanye West and others. (She was also just added to the lineup at the next Ableton Loop in her home city LA in the fall, so see you all in California, hopefully!)

That said, it’s really Laura’s own performances that are the most personal. Instead of the ultra-compact Blocks, here she uses the Seaboard RISE keyboard controller – still my personal favorite. (Just squishy enough, more room to play on, but not so big that you can’t tote it around… and unlike the very first Seaboard, not too squishy. Squishy – technical term, hope you’re keeping up.)

She works with Ableton Live to set up sounds so the instrument can work through her setlist and stay expressive as she focuses on other stuff – like singing, for example.

That’s an interesting way of doing it, by the way – so it’s program changes in Live, triggered inside clips, triggered by follow actions. (I’ve been procrastinating doing a story just on how to manage different sounds in Live sets … it’s time.)

Some more resources:

Use Seaboard RISE with Kontakt

Use RISE with Apple Logic Pro and Equator

My Seaboard artist stories

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ROLI funded by Sony, Onkyo; is it time for the Walkman of music making?

ROLI, makers of the Seaboard and Blocks, keep adding to their funding. But new investments by Sony and Onkyo say a lot about betting on a future of music that’s centered on creation, not just consumption.

We entered this century with people thinking mostly about music as a more or less passive thing. But as a business, consumption is just not as bright as it once was. There’s no new recording format – so, sorry Men in Black, no more jokes about buying The White Album again. The iPod eventually was absorbed into commodity smartphones, and high-end smartphone sales are themselves flattening out, as users hold on to their existing phones. (That shift seems even to be reaching Apple.) Spotify and Apple Music and their ilk haven’t delivered big profits, either, obviously. And in sectors like electronic dance music, we’ve watched the vision of brand synergy and an EDM empire at SFX Entertainment meet the reality of flat festival sales. What cured things at Beatport, meanwhile, in the wake of SFX mismanagement? Refocusing on serious DJs and the core business.

What does seem to be a vast horizon, then, is actually making music. You know – the thing the whole world’s population was already doing before the music industry convinced them to listen to round discs of other people doing it for them, or tune in electromagnetic frequencies that could be translated to other people playing.

All this makes the ongoing investment in ROLI really interesting.

The London-based manufacturer of alternative instruments and mobile music making gadgets is now up past US$50 million in investment. That includes a $27m Series B in 2016, and investments from venture capital but also Universal Music Group.

ROLI’s lineup of products has grown from more expensive flagship controller instruments to a modular line of mobile products that matches with software and services.

There are no public numbers shared for Onkyo or Sony, but it’s really the fact of those makers entering the fray that matters. They’re both Japanese giants known for their role in consumer products for listening to music. Onkyo today remains a major audio brand; they’re also the owner of the home entertainment side of Pioneer. (The bits of Pioneer catering to DJs and car owners lie elsewhere, but the home entertainment brand is still significant.) The Onkyo investment has also recently closed, says ROLI.

And then there’s the Sony Innovation Fund (SIF). Focused on the northern world – USA, EU, Israel, and Japan – Sony’s fund was created in 2016 to invest on companies from seed to middle stage development. That ranges everything from biometrics to VR to drones, so it’s not just about music and media by any means.

In addition to funding, SIF says they work with the companies they fund on strategy, that they build relationships with Sony and its partners, and therefore grant access to some of Sony’s global reach and expertise. There are parallels here to the investment we saw recently in Berlin’s Native Instruments. Sony is betting on music creation and could help connect ROLI to a global consumer market. German EMH Partners who funded NI are betting on music creation and could help connect to a global market for services. Get it? (They have to deliver on that promise, of course.)

We’re also getting into bigger financial figures than music creation investment has seen before; NI got a whopping 50 million Euros, in an industry where we still think it’s pretty cool to go to check out something one person has literally made in their bedroom that you solder together and bolt into a rack with a screwdriver.

Okay, so that’s money and strategy – but what’s the actual business here?

Well, ROLI do have a compelling software/hardware play. The Blocks line give users of computers and mobile devices a convenient, expressive, wireless interface to music creation. There’s software to match – ROLI make a mobile app, a desktop synth, and perhaps most significantly the JUCE framework on which a lot of modern music making software is built. ROLI are also pushing ideas like the Songmaker Kit, hoping musicians will take their line of wireless controllers on the go.

The Blocks line – like the Songmaker Kit here – encourages musicians to take their music creation on the go.

But lots of makers have interesting music products. If we’re really imagining a wider population of music consumers buying this gear, it’s going to require both inventing clever new things, and then moving those things through the channel into musicians’ hands. Your smartphone manufacturer or consumer headphones do that already, but musical instruments move through much more antiquated, fragmented retail outlets. (Uh… that’s a fancy way of saying the unfriendly guys hanging in the corner of your local music store picking at a guitar may not necessarily be able to sell new users on the instrument of the future.)

ROLI already made a bold move into getting in front of new customers with a massive Apple Store retail partnership, followed by other channels (including consumer-oriented stores and shops like Guitar Center). Now it’s a question of whether they can keep moving.

ROLI released some statements to CDM on the idea of the investment, and confirm that global sales reach is a big part of the story. “We’re now selling our hardware and software in over 30 countries,” says founder and CEO Roland Lamb. Now they want to go further, he says. “We want to reach a whole world of music makers and provide them the tools they need to be creative, and we’re getting much closer through our investments​ from SIF, [Chief Creative Officer] Pharrell [Williams], and Onkyo,” he says.

And Lamb compares his products to the iconic Sony Walkman:

I’ve always admired Sony. A Sony Walkman was one of the first music products I ever owned. I took it on my first trip to Japan as a teenager. It was a magical way to bring my musical world with me everywhere that I went. What ROLI is doing with BLOCKS is very similar to what Sony did with the Walkman, but in our case we’ve made a music creation device that you can take with you anywhere. It’s pioneering a new, liberating way of making music, just like Sony pioneered the modern revolution of music listening which hundreds of millions of people benefit from today.

Yes there’s money, but as I described the SIF operation, there’s additional support, Lamb says:

They really engage with startups. They provide an entrée to the Sony world and its networks and expertise. We hope to collaborate with Sony as much as possible in ways that build unique value for our customers. Without going into the details of the deal, this is certainly a significant investment and relationship for us.

But maybe most interesting, the funds themselves may support new products. While I admire the Blocks, and the Seaboard interface is certainly innovative, I think it’s still important to note that these are just controllers. The Walkman was a standalone product; Blocks is useless without a laptop or smartphone or tablet. And that’s assuming you believe this is really the shape of what music making will look like, amidst a lot of competing ideas and untapped possibility.

“We’re developing new music-making tools across hardware and software,” says Lamb. He says the funding will accelerate development and “positions us to continue focusing on innovative research and development as we scale.”

In other words, this gives them room to focus on inventing new stuff even as they try to get their products to a broader audience.

Also interesting: you might doubt the Songmaker Kit, at 600 bucks, would sell well versus just buying one or two of the individual modules to save money. But you’d be wrong. ROLI tells CDM it’s the best-selling product they make.

The Songwriter’s Kit has become ROLI’s best-selling product, the company says.

So there’s a certain business genius to dividing products into modules, then selling the consumers those modules as … a predefined set. Wait, maybe I shouldn’t tell you that, but should find some really complicated name for it, and then sell my services as a highly-paid consultant. (I dub it the “Modular Acquisition Product Consumer Chain.” Call me.)

But whether you personally like the ROLI line or not, consider this: ROLI are both proving the power of the future of electronic musical instruments on a larger scale, and creating a platform for the rest of the electronic music ecosystem in the process. Blocks can easily be a gateway into other mobile apps, desktop software, and other hardware. ROLI also show that some ideas that would have seem like crazy, far-fetched one-off inventions just recently can appeal to everyday consumers if they’re given adequate market support and channel distribution. People seem to like crazy and futuristic things. (Heck, it may be that average consumers like those things more than some of the more conservative folks you’ll see trolling forums and adding wooden endcaps to their synths.)

And investors are taking notice. There are some real, big bets emerging that say the future of music creation will be bright. For those trained on the recent Silicon Valley model, where some venture capital looks for quick, easy returns or fast exits, it’s also safe to say that some of this may be looking further into the future, not just into what’s selling this month.

But if you believe that creation is the essence of music making, if you think everyone should have access to self expression through music, and you see creation as the future, I think there’s real reason to be encouraged by investment in ROLI.

What we’ll need to watch, meanwhile, is whether larger funds and expertise at ROLI and Native Instruments translate into products and services that work for musicians. That’ll take time. But, hey, I was trained as a musicologist, which deals with this on a timeframe of centuries. I’ll wait. Back to making music to fill the time.

Previously:

Native Instruments got a huge chunk of investment to grow

And in other news:

Roli brings classic Indian instruments to their Noise app through a joint project with A. R. Rahman

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The Touché, adding expression to synths – just in time for Moogfest

After years of somewhat similar wheels and pads and keys that wiggle, we’re finally seeing the ability to get physically expressive with sound in new ways. The Expression E Touché is one of the most compelling cases of that – but to understand, you have to watch, and listen.

So the French company and its fearless young leader Arthur Bouflet have cleverly taken Moogfest as a chance to do just that.

You’ll spot the wooden paddle-looking device beneath Arthur’s hand. It’s something that looks simultaneously vintage and historical and futuristic – a design object whose origin and time can’t quite be placed. And your first reaction, probably, is some skepticism – until you watch just how sensitive and intuitively gestural it is. You may or may not be taken with Arthur’s musical sensibilities – hey, I find it rather cheery and groovy, myself – but pay close attention to the gestures that are possible with it, and I think you’ll be impressed.

There’s more than one connection here to Moogfest, the festival-cum-technology meetup coming to North Carolina this week. There’s the custom, limited edition overlay for festival goers, yes, and the fact that Expressive E are going to the festival themselves. But the company have also made great effort to make custom presets for loads of gear, Moog’s equipment included. So that includes apps (Moog Model D for iOS), and hardware (DFAM, Subsequent 37, just to name two in the video).

It’d be hard to demo an expression or sustain pedal, but there’s no need. And it’s easy enough to map those two inputs to any synth. Open-ended, gestural expression is something else – there’s some prep work involved. Hats off, then, to Expressive E for both making an exhaustive library of presets and producing lovely-looking video demos to show why this all matters. (They’ve even mapped our MeeBlip synth.)

With USB, CV, and, MIDI connections, there are all sorts of possibilities for connecting to instruments – hardware and software, digital and analog. And all of these connect to the high-resolution sensing data from the Touché.

I’ll do a full review of this hardware soon, with some advice for DIYers and musicians. But in the meanwhile, these videos really get the point across.

In the age of MIDI Polyphonic Expression, you’ll see a lot of new controllers adding dimension to the inputs they read. And that makes it clearer than ever that part of what was holding back more expressive electronic musicianship was simply the common standard to describe a wider range of human performance.

But this particular hardware is special, in that it suddenly opens up sound where it had once been static. Uh… well, the name fits. Touché.

Let’s watch some more, featuring Dave Smith and Ableton and Mutable and Novation and more:

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ROLI now make a $299, ultra-compact expressive keyboard

ROLI are filling out their mobile line of controllers, Blocks, with a two-octave keyboard – and that could change a lot. In addition to the wireless Bluetooth, battery-powered light-up X/Y pad and touch shortcuts, now you get something that looks like an instrument. The Seaboard Block is an ultra-mobile, expressive keyboard for your iOS gadget or computer, and it’s available for $299, including in Apple Stores.

If you wanted a new-fangled “expressive” keyboard – a controller on which you can move your fingers into and around the keys for extra expression – ROLI already had one strong candidate. The Seaboard RISE is a beautiful, futuristic, slim device with a familiar key layout and a price of US$799. It’ll feel a bit weird playing a piano sound on it if you’re a keyboardist, since the soft, spongy keys will be new to you. But you’ll know where the notes are, and it’ll be responsive. Then, switch to any more unusual sound – synths, physical modeled instruments, and the like – and it becomes simply magical. Finally, you have a new physical interface for your new, unheard sounds.

For me, the RISE was already a sweet spot. But I’ll be honest, I can still imagine holding back because of the price. And it doesn’t fit in my backpack, or my easyJet-friendly rollaway.

Size and price matter. So the Seaboard Block, if it feels good, could really be the winner. And even if you passed up that X/Y pad and touch controller, you might take a second look at this one. (Plus, it makes those Blocks make way more sense.)

roli-seaboard-block-and-touch-block-04-low-res

roli-seaboard-block-and-touch-block-03-low-res

We’ll get one in to test when they ship later this month. But ROLI also promise a touch and feel similar to the RISE (if not quite as deep, since the Block is slimmer). I found the previous Blocks to be responsive, but not as expressive as the RISE – so that’s good news.

What you get is a two-octave keyboard in a small-but-playable minikey form factor, USB-C for charging and MIDI out, and connectors for snap-and-play use with other Blocks.

For those of you not familiar, the Seaboard line also include what ROLI somewhat confusingly call “5D Touch.” (“Help! I’m trapped in a tesseract and wound up in a wormhole to an evil dimension and now there’s a version of me with an agonizer telling me to pledge allegiance to the Terran Empire!”)

What this means in practical terms is, you can push your fingers into the keys and make something happen, or slide them up and down the surface of the keys and make something happen, or wiggle and bend between notes, or run your finger along a continuous touch strip below the keys and get glissandi. And that turns out to be really, really useful. Also, I can’t overstate this enough – if you have even basic keyboard skills, having a piano-style layout is enormously intuitive. (By the same token, the Linnstrument seems to make sense to people used to frets.)

Add an iPhone or iPad running iOS 9 or later, and you instantly can turn this into an instrument – no wires required. The free Noise app gives you tons of sounds to start with. That means this is probably the smallest, most satisfying jam-on-the-go instrument I can imagine – something you could fit into a purse, let alone a backpack, and use in a hotel room or on a bus without so much as a wire or power connection. (With ten hours battery life, I’m fairly certain the Seaboard Block will run out of battery later than my iPhone does).

Regular CDM readers probably will want it to do more than that for three hundred bucks. So, you do get compatibility with various other tools. Ableton Live, FXpansion Strobe2, Native Instruments Kontakt and Massive, Bitwig Studio, Apple Logic Pro (including the amazing Sculpture), Garageband, SampleModeling SWAM, and the crazy-rich Spectrasonics Omnisphere all work out of the box.

roli_seaboard-block_0228-low-res

You can also develop your own tools with a rich open SDK and API. That includes some beautiful tools for Max/MSP. Not a Max owner? There’s even a free 3-month license included. (Dedicated tools for integrating the Seaboard Block are coming soon.)

The SDK actually to me makes this worth the investment – and worth the wait to see what people come up with. I’ll have a full story on the SDK soon, as I think this summer is the perfect time for it.

The Touch block, which previously seemed a bit superfluous, also now looks useful, as it gives you additional hands-on control of how the keyboard responds. That X/Y pad makes a nice combo, too. But my guess is, for most of us, you may drop those and just use the keyboard – and of course modularity allows you to do that.

ROLI aren’t without computation (somewhat amazingly, given these devices were once limited to experimental one-offs). The forthcoming JOUE, from the creator of the JazzMutant Lemur, is an inbound Kickstarter-backed product. And I have to say, it’s truly extraordinary – the touch sensitivity and precision is unmatched on the market. But there isn’t an obvious controller template or app combo to begin with, so it’s more a specialist device. The ROLI instrument works out of the box with an app, and will be in physical Apple Stores. And the ROLI has a specific, fixed playing style the JOUE doesn’t quite match. My guess is the two will be complementary, and there’s even reason for JOUE lovers to root for ROLI – because ROLI are developing the SDK, tools, instrument integration, and user base that could help other devices to succeed. (Think JOUE, Linnstrument, Madrona Labs Soundplane, not to mention the additions to the MIDI spec.)

Anyway, this is all big news – and coming on the heels of news of Ableton’s acquisition of Max/MSP, this week may prove a historical one. What was once the fringe experimentation of the academic community is making a real concerted entry into the musical mainstream. Now the only remaining question, and it’s a major one, is whether the weirdo stuff catches on. Well, you have a hand in that, too – weirdos, assemble!

https://roli.com/products/blocks/seaboard-block

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PushPull is a crazy futuristic squeezebox instrument you can make

PushPull will blow apart your idea of what a typical controller – or an accordion – might be. It’s a bit like a squeezebox that fell from outer space, coupling bellows with colored lights, sensors, mics, and extra controls. And you can now make one yourself, thanks to copious documentation.

You may have seen the instrument in action in the last couple of years ago – gasping in the dark.

PushPull Balgerei 2014 from 3DMIN on Vimeo.

But with more complete documentation, you get greater insight into how the thing was made – and you could even follow the instructions to make your own.

Things you expect to see: a bellow, valves, keys.

Thing you might not expect: RGB LEDs lighting up the instrument, six capacitive touch sensors, six-direction inertial sensing (for motion), microphones, rotary encoders.

And many of the parts are fabricated via 3D printing. That combines with some more traditional techniques – yes, including cutting, folding, and gluing. It’s all under a permissive Creative Commons attribution license. (That’s a bit scant for open source hardware, actually, in that they might consider some other license, too. But it gets the job done.)

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It’s eminently hackable, too, with X-OSC messages sent wirelessly from its sensors, loads of moddable electronics, and recently even integration with Bela, the lovely low-latency embedded platform.

The project is the work of Amelie Hinrichsen, Till Bovermann, and Dominik Hildebrand Marques Lopes, who combine overlapping skills in art, product design, soundmaking, music, industrial engineering, and hardware and software engineering. PushPull itself is part of the innovative 3DMIN instrument design project in Berlin, a multi-organization project.

Check out the instructions for more:

http://3dmin.github.io/

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Modular wireless music BLOCKS for iOS are ROLI’s next big idea

UK music startup ROLI are on one heck of a roll. And they’re slowly becoming a laboratory for trying out genuinely new ideas for music making – finally breaking the mold of an industry that often relishes nostalgia.

Now, ROLI’s got the engineering, acquiring plug-in maker FXpansion and cross-platform development architecture JUCE. They’ve got the flagship hardware, in the form of their Seaboard and Seaboard RISE expressive controllers – futuristic gadgets that look like the piano someone would play on Star Trek: The Next Generation more than what you’d find in your local Guitar Center. And they’ve got connectivity to bring it together, like the Noise app that puts touch-sensitive control on your iPhone, and Blend, an online collaboration platform.

Instead of waiting for the future of music making, in other words, ROLI will acquire and invent it.

The latest development is BLOCKS. They’re sleek, black boxes that work together wirelessly. And they’re different than what you usually see in three important ways.

roli-blocks-loop-kit-angled-low-res

First, because they’re modular, they aren’t the usual crowded combination of knobs and pads and buttons and faders that most often are the mark of music gear. Second, they’re arguably the first music gear that seems to look comfortable sitting next to something with the industrial refinement of an iPad Pro.

And lastly, most importantly, there’s nothing about this device that suggests it’s built for a musician. A unit called the Loop Block resembles the remote for an Apple TV. The Lightpad Block looks like a small light-up toy or piece of LED jewelry.

The idea is this: consumers buy the boxes they desire, then add them wirelessly in any combination to an iOS device that makes sound. Since they connect via Bluetooth, you skip the wires.

roli-blocks-lightpad-and-ipad-low-res

On their own, these gadgets do genuinely appear too simple. But the magic appears to be breathing intelligence into them with software. The Lightpad Block, true to ROLI’s core competency in touch interfaces, is sensitive to contact and gesture, evidently opening up various interactions. The Loop Block mainly serves as transport control, but seems to hold some potential when combined with other Blocks.

roli-blocks-lightpad-block-diamond-low-res

They’re small enough that they’d even make sense along a phone, not just a tablet. As a lot of the world’s markets shift to handheld platforms and not traditional computers, that could be a real sign of things to come.

Phone friendly. Darned cute devices.

Phone friendly. Darned cute devices.

Here you can watch the first two instruments in action. It’s the creative use of gestures that really sets this apart. We’ve seen ideas like that in apps or one-off experimental products, but here it’s part of a consumer-focused product – which is newsworthy.

It’s beautiful. I have just one caution. There’s one underlying assumption of our whole community that I sometimes wonder about. We assume that creating weird, new interfaces will appeal to non-expert musicians. To be slightly more pragmatic, I think it’s actually the creative music community who so often embrace that sort of experimentalism – and sometimes the general public are the tough sell. (There’s a reason they gravitate to stuff they know, like piano keyboards and guitars and drums – remember that a non-trivial portion of the population has actually learned on those instruments.)

On the other hand, the general public has embraced the multi-touch paradigm, so this could all be ripe for disruption.

Room to grow?

For now, you get only these two units. And they’re roughly the same price of some other entry-level music controller (even if they look nicer) – that’s US$$179 and $79 for Lightpad and Loop, respectively.

So I think the real verdict will be down to how the app and controllers evolve.

I’d also be hopeful that ROLI opens up this device to developers – that seems a no-brainer, given the company’s openness to third parties on Seaboard and its investment in development technology JUCE. In other words, even if you aren’t sold on ROLI’s own app, another app might change your mind. (I’d like to use the Lightpad Block with the Elastic Drums drum machine, for instance.) Also, since they’re Bluetooth enabled, I hope we’ll be able to use them on desktop computers, too. These ideas may all be independent of the core market and simplicity, but … looking at the history of tech like multitouch, the Wiimote, and Kinect, advanced experimental applications have often informed the mainstream, too.

Disruption

But there’s another reason to look to ROLI to boldly go where no other musical instrument manufacturers have gone before.

The company’s business is different. So while they say the same things about democratizing music for everyone (blah blah anyone can make music easily blah blah), they’ve got a business to back it up. And think over $50 million from investors like Foundry Group, Balderton Capital, and Founders Fund, plus even Universal Music Group. (Hey, if selling music doesn’t pan out, we may all be into making things like this.)

And most interesting about the ROLI Blocks initiative is that the whole thing will be sold exclusively direct from the company and through Apple. That’s right – Apple Stores will have these gadgets, in retail locations and online.

I think that’s potentially a game changer. Music stores are unfriendly places for a lot of people. Heck, even some of us actual musicians avoid going to some of them like the plague, thanks to unfriendly staff and people playing Stairway to Heaven.

But seeing these alongside iPads could open up physical hardware to a whole new audience.

Having thoroughly trashed Apple for the last days for narrowing the appeal of their desktop Mac line, I have the reverse take on their mobile iOS stuff. I think they remain in just the right position to turn people on to making music on their mobile gadgets. I’m not being hypocritical somehow, either – you can contrast the absence of inspiring desktop hardware with the much more inspiring combination of, say, an iPad Pro or an iPhone 7 with something like Lightpad Blocks.

Something like it, anyway. I’m excited to try these out in person. CDM will hopefully be visiting the folks at ROLI before the end of the year to catch up on all they’ve been doing. If there’s something you’d like to see us cover, questions you’d like to ask, even something you want to criticize, let us know.

https://roli.com

You can watch the keynote via their Facebook Live event, on at publish time:

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The expressive LinnStrument grid is now $999, and a step sequencer

Whether or not drum machines have soul, you can bet the LinnStrument does. The creation of Roger Linn couples a grid layout – one that keeps pitch relations consistent for easy playing – with expressive touch sensing. Until now, you could get a US$1499 version with 200 pads. A new version drops the price to $999, and uses a 16 * 8 = 128-pad layout, so it’s both cheaper and more portable. And all the LinnStruments now get step sequencing.

But let’s back up. There are two things that make the LinnStrument unique. One is its onboard expressive touch control. It senses continuous pressure and slides/bends, and it’s able to transmit those via MPE (MIDI’s new standard Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression). That puts it in a league with the ROLI Seaboard line and the Madrona Soundplane, among a handful of others, and means out-of-the-box expression support in the likes of Apple Logic and Bitwig Studio. With supported instruments like Apple’s Sculpture, you’ll find that nuances of your finger pressure, or sliding multiple notes up and down at once, are instantly translated into sound.

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The second ingredient is the LinnStrument’s grid layout. That array of light-up squares might make the LinnStrument look like a monome or a Novation Launchpad, but there are new advantages thanks to bends and slides. As Roger points out, the advantage of a grid is that you can create a layout in which interval distance is consistent. That already has an edge for transposition, though at least a person with a piano background has learned how to sort this. For consistent slides, it becomes essential. (The piano layout isn’t intended for sliding your finger up and down.)

I’m a big fan of the ROLI’s piano-style layout. I think it’s best to think of these as two different animals – just ones that send the same flavor of MIDI messages (if desired). A piano layout is always going to be comfortable for piano players – and the tactile sensation of the ROLI, while an aquired taste, is like nothing else. The LinnStrument is closer in lineage to a fretboard than a piano, for its part, and a step sequencer only makes sense with a grid.

To me, the new 128-pad layout is really a win – not just because it gets it at a more accessible price point or because the device becomes more portable, but because it’s a logical layout for a lot of people, too. And Roger knows a little something about grids: his drum machine designs have been the ones that popularized the touch-sensing pad and 2×8 and 4×4 layouts.

Now with step sequencing

What’s nice about the new step sequencer is that it means the controller becomes a more self-contained compositional tool as well as instrument controller. It’s a fully fleshed-out concept, too:

2-track step sequencer with per-note velocity/duration/bend/y-axis values, any time signature, independent track step sizes and loop lengths, scales/drums/notes views, reverse play, live play while sequence plays, swing timing and more.

That last bit is important. Maybe better than imagining two tracks is imagining two surfaces at once. You could have two sequencers running. Or you could have one sequencer running and then play live over top.

Whichever size you opt for, the LinnStrument still supports 32 steps – 2 pages of 16 on the bigger model, or 4 x 8 on the new LS128. You can load up patterns, too. Each project holds four patterns for each of the two sequencers. And you can store up to 16 projects on the device. And you can load / backup / offload projects using your computer via the updater app.

Sync is flexible, too: the LinnStrument both sync to MIDI clock and generates a MIDI clock signal. And you can adjust tempo live as you play.

See also the tap tempo / global tempo settings: http://www.rogerlinndesign.com/ls-global-settings.html

It’s nice stuff. Details:

http://www.rogerlinndesign.com/ls-sequencer.html

A software update

There’s a whole lot in this new firmware, not just the step sequencer. For added expression, for instance, the update adds release velocity (adjusting to how you lift your finger from a pad), plus 14-bit velocity values. More (a lot more):

New Polyphonic 2-Track Step Sequencer!
Significantly better velocity response
Release velocity. Now LinnStrument is “5D” in Roli-speak. 🙂
4 new LED colors: white, orange, lime and pink.
14-bit pressure resolution using LSB/MSB Control Change pairs.
The MIDI OUT jack can now also act as a combined MIDI OUT and MIDI THRU.
Panel and Foot Switches can now be assigned to Tap Tempo.

http://www.rogerlinndesign.com/ls-updating-software.html

More performance videos, resources

To get a sense of how this all fits together in terms of expression, it’s worth watching some performance videos. (The music itself may or may not be your cup of tea, but you’ll see how the instrument is played.)

For instance, here’s Jeremy Cubert from Linn’s own channel:

Showing just how much you can play, you get instruments from Sample Modeling, Apple Logic Pro X, Impact Soundworks, Applied Acoustic Systems and Orange Tree Samples.

Here’s another, using the wonderful Pianoteq piano plug-in (and letting us step away from slagging the piano):

More background on MPE

http://www.rogerlinndesign.com/linnstrument.html

Shipping November 14.

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