Remember when some pundits thought we were all going to dump our laptops and switch to tablets and iPads? So – not so much. But mobile platforms are having a big impact on music software – and KORG Gadget, now making the leap from iOS to Mac, may be most emblematic of that.
Who is KORG Gadget for? Well, sort of for everyone. Beginning users can find it a nice way to play around – and might well try this before desktop software. More advanced users are likely to find it an appealing set of tools, but would want to use it to extend other hardware and software – on the go, or integrated with those tools when they’re at home or in the studio ready to work.
If you haven’t tried it and you’ve got an iPad (or iPhone, even), Gadget is great – fun to play, lots of tools, and lots of great sounds. KORG also have nailed the smart approach of adding modules in a way that’s fun, so that adding additional instruments feels a bit like getting a new cartridge for your Game Boy or adding a stomp box to your pedalboard.
Gadget started on these Apple things.
Now, adding Mac support fills in some gaps – especially because of how KORG has gone about it. This looks like a template for what software development in 2017 should be:
Social.Allihoopa is just emerging as a way of sharing music with other producers, but KORG are embracing it. (The sharing site began its life with Propellerhead before being spun off. So naturally Reason, Figure, and Take all have integration – and KORG Gadget, too.) That seems essential, given the signal-to-noise problems sharing music online.
Synced. Ableton Link support, also quickly becoming a must, means you can sync with Ableton Live, Reason, Maschine, and other apps on desktop, plus loads of apps on iOS – so, easy local sync on your computer between software tools, easy sync between computers, easy sync with mobile, whether you’re playing alone or jamming with other people.
Wireless. There’s Bluetooth MIDI support, too. For new users, this means the possibility of using hardware without thinking about wires and MIDI adapters.
It makes sense on your computer screen. Full-screen apps are a bit silly on the more generous screen real estate on your desktop, so KORG have opted for a four-app split-screen approach that makes loads of sense.
Complete plug-in support, when you want it. AU (for Logic and GarageBand), AAX (for Pro Tools), and VST (for everything else) are all supported. There’s even NKS support, which lets you integrate with Native Instruments hardware and software easily. (For instance, you’ll get physical controls on NI’s Maschine hardware and keyboards.) The upshot of this: all those clever independent instruments and effects from the iPad are now just as modular on the desktop, dropped into whatever your software of choice is.
On the go and back again. The whole point of this, of course, is the ability to complete workflows between desktop and mobile seamlessly. And that’s where a lot of conventional software from Native Instruments, Ableton, Propellerhead, and others are a little uneven (partly because they began their life on desktop). Here, you have essentially the same tools in both places.
Gadget on the Mac also brings some new devices – a 16-pad drum machine, and two new audio recording tools.
But there are two paths here – the beginner and the more advanced user. Beginners may find this a way to start to take steps from mobile to desktop tools (and hardware). Advanced users may come from the opposite direction – trying Gadget with or without an iPad, and integrating on-the-go or casual use with sitting down seriously at a computer and finishing a track.
This gets us out of a cul-de-sac in music making software that we’ve been stuck in for a few years. Desktop software has always tended to be more complex and larger, with fairly monolithic tools that try to appeal to everyone, but then tend to turn off newcomers. Mobile software may seem like a way out of that, except that the low price points users demand on the app stores make it hard to justify development costs. Innovation on both tends to be stymied by those same problems.
So, imagine instead that you combine the benefits of both.
KORG Gadget is then just one small step. And it’s also limited to Apple platforms – just as Windows gets a bunch of interesting hardware. But it could be a nice sign of things to come.
We’ll be watching closely to see how KORG prices Gadget on the Mac versus mobile, what the experience is like on desktop (since we’re judging only by iOS), and who embraces it.
But it’s very nice to see an option like this that looks friendly to beginners, without forcing advanced users to give up their way of working. We’ll be eager to test it.
Also, lest it seem like I’m waxing poetic about Gadget for no reason — I’m very much indebted to other people who have spent loads of time working out how to get the most out of it and making great music. Our friend Jakob Haq has done some nineteen videos so far for Gadget alone, and it’s chock full of tips and musical inspiration.
Have a look – as these videos might be relevant to you for the first time if you’re on the Mac but don’t have an iPad:
The consumer electronic drive to high definition and virtual reality is having a curious, parallel impact on sound. And so it is that Sennheiser now want to market binaural recording to your average smartphone owner – really.
Now, of course, the normal human perception of reality includes both visual depth perception and the ability to localize sound in a 360-degree sphere around the head. That is, provided only one’s eyes and ears are fully functional and each pair is intact, the human brain adapts to these perceptions.
But “3D” visuals and “3D” sounds aren’t themselves directly connected in terms of technology. Firstly, until we begin connecting directly to the human brain, any of the tech billed as 3D is illusory, aimed only at creating sensations that remind us of our normal perception. (And, remarkably, for years even two-dimensional images and monophonic sound sources do a pretty reasonable job!)
From a marketing standpoint, though, the connection is more real than ever.
And what I think may be exciting to music and audio enthusiasts is that this means specialist technology we’ve loved for years is suddenly becoming mainstream.
Sennheiser’s AMBEO isn’t itself revolutionary, apart from the fact that it’s marketed to the masses. It’s a binaural microphone recording system that adds mics to conventional in-ear headphones. The personal nature of audio here offers an advantage: because you recorded with your own skull wearing the headphones, you’ll be able to play back the same recording with what I imagine is a sensation of “being there” again. That is, the mics were in your own head, so the sound will seem to you to be natural.
There’s also an accompanying VR microphone with a capsule pictured here, though Sennheiser haven’t provided any other details of that. I’ll try to get hands-on with this hardware soon.
Sennheiser haven’t said much about this mic. Technologically, it’s unrelated – basically, it seems to be a 3-capsule condenser for more precise spatialization. But it also demonstrates that more products are coming under the 3D sound rubric.
Sennheiser makes a really weird claim in the press release – they say that they contributed to the first wave of binaural audio by introducing the first open-ear headphones. Uh – no. But that said, I think Sennheiser are the ideal brand to introduce this tech to the listening public, especially with their combined prowess in mics and headphones and their ability to produce both leading pro and leading consumer solutions.
There is an element missing here. So, these binaural recordings will sound really three-dimensional – to you. But give them to someone else, and because they’re essentially listening to a recording made with your skull, the results won’t be as effective. What’s cool about the AMBEO line, though, is it’s the first step. The next step, I think, will be self-calibration routines in software.
And we’re practically there already. Remember that 3D scanning app Microsoft showed lately? If you can take produce a three-dimensional model with your phone, you can adjust sound playback for each listener’s heads.
It’s going to look a little weird doing the calibration routine, in that you’ll be waving your phone around your head, magician style. But you would only do that once for each listener – and there’s no special hardware to wear, either. (Take that, VR helmets.)
This is also the latest evidence in why the move to digital headphones and away from headphone jacks isn’t necessarily such a bad thing.
That said, the connector is an issue. Whereas Android vendors are using a standard USB-C port, Apple continue to insist on Lightning. To add insult to injury, they’ve missed the opportunity to add their own proprietary port to their own line of laptops – I think there’s absolutely no rational explanation for why the new MacBook Pro standardizes on USB-C but lacks Lightning, unless Apple are planning to themselves dump Lightning for USB-C.
But let’s not get too hung up on that. The long view is still a positive one.
And it involves not one but two transformations. Not only do you start recording and playing back sound in a way that’s more naturally spatialized than stereo, but you open new possibilities by adding dedicated microphones to headphones.
We’re entering an age that could really change how people listen and record sound. There are applications for deep listening, field recordings, sound walks, for acoustic ecology and sound sensing, for fitness applications that are mindful of exposure to sound and potential hearing damage. Oh, yeah, and … I for one welcome all the mad amounts of bootlegging that will invariably occur. But maybe that’s because I always flake and don’t record my sets.
Mark my words: even if this specific Sennheiser product flops, this stuff is the future. And it’s been a long time coming.
Here’s an unexpected twist in the plot: Final Cut Pro, the product that perhaps more than any other earned ire from users for not being “pro,” might be the thing that sells you on the Mac.
Why? Final Cut Pro is really, really fast.
After all, paper specs don’t matter. It’s really world performance in the software you use that counts. And there, Final Cut Pro is a bit of a champ.
Indie tech reporter / filmmaker Jonathan Morrison has a snappy review that gets to the point.
Now, first, you’ll read a lot of reviews complaining the MacBook Pro isn’t really “Pro.” They mean that literally. Apple inexplicably made a clearly differentiated line, with a 13″ with only two USB-C ports and no Touch Bar, and then 13″ models with USB-C ports, a Touch Bar, and faster graphics. But they didn’t give the low-end model a different name, like MacBook, which means there’s no point to having anything called “Pro” anyway.
More on the models in a moment.
But the important thing in Jonathan’s review is the speed of Final Cut Pro versus Premiere, the other popular choice. His benchmark is just an H.264 render, but that’s exactly the kind of thing you’d notice when you’re up against a deadline – and even with a slower CPU inside, the Mac smokes the PC.
Johnathan isn’t the only one pointing this out. In fact, I’d say Final Cut is generally fast enough that you actually feel the different subjectively. You can toss loads of high-res footage at the software and you’re almost never waiting for a render. For sheer performance, Final Cut and Compressor are a beautiful combination.
That writer is an editor with Trim Editing in London. As he puts it:
First off, It’s really fast. I’ve been using the MacBook Pro with the new version of FCP X and cutting 5k ProRes material all week, it’s buttery smooth. No matter what you think the specs say, the fact is the software and hardware are so well integrated it tears strips off “superior spec’d” Windows counterparts in the real world. This has always been true of Macs.
He also praises Touch Bar support in Final Cut, which is to me definitely a place where it makes lots of sense, since video editing necessarily includes a lot of contextually specific parameters and commands. I can also imagine it’s handy when editing on the go (at least until Apple unveils an external Touch Bar keyboard, which they really ought to do).
This still may not necessarily be a reason to buy the new Macs – but it might be a reason to look at, say, a spec’ed out previous-generation model on sale. And it’s definitely something to consider when comparing Mac and Windows laptops.
Also, what was largely missed in the midst of the hullabaloo over the laptop was a significant update to Final Cut Pro X software.
Final Cut Pro X 10.3 is simply the first update in the X series to actually be excited about.
Most noticeably, there’s an all-new look. It’s amazing to me how much of a difference this makes, even if it’s partly psychological. The UI is cleaner, even though structurally it’s the same fundamental UI from the previous Final Cut Pro X. That means more room to work and less of a feeling that the UI is distracting.
Just as importantly as the fact that the UI’s new aesthetics mean more room, you can finally make custom window layouts or hide the Timeline or stick the Timeline on another display. You can also use Thunderbolt to drive an external display.
So, it’s fast, and the UI is nice. That’s little comfort if you just don’t like the way you edit in FCP X (especially if you were an FCP 7 devotee or switched over to Premiere).
But Apple has worked on the Magnetic Timeline, too. First off, I think audio handling in Final Cut is now more enjoyable than any program since Vegas, and that one came from an audio developer. You can use audio “roles” to fluidly view, manage, and edit complex project audio. Roles and color coding are generally expanded.
There’s also Wide Color support, which works in conjunction with those new Mac displays.
Deeper down, there are lots of minor improvements that add up to the program feeling more intuitive, including enhancements to the already-terrific multicam support in FCP X.
Parts of the program still feel like iMovie Pro rather than Final Cut, but then Premiere can sometimes go there, too.
I don’t think this will necessarily win you over if you’re more productive editing in Premiere. But I do think that Apple has done a lot to finally address the stuff that annoyed users about Final Cut, and to hammer a lot of quality issues. If you haven’t used Final Cut Pro lately, you really won’t be aware of this stuff.
I still don’t understand why things like video export in QuickTime are hobbled (requiring a trip to Compressor), but I can say there’s at least some reason to use this program.
Also, I’d love to see that dark UI in Logic. Given the new direction of Final Cut, I’m really curious to see where Logic Pro goes next.
It’s not just the product; it’s also how you tell the story of the product. And I think there’s no question that Apple told the story of the new MacBook Pro poorly – at least from the pro perspective. Consumers may well have warmed to product.
Mostly what that says to me is that people shopping don’t really worry about reviews here. For one, I think a lot of people still just want a Mac. All they needed to know here was that new models had arrived, at last. Also, the complaint from me and other pro users was not that the MacBook Pro was generally deficient, only that it didn’t match our own expectations and needs.
What I will say about the new Mac line – it’s really expensive, even with Apple discounting its adapters.
The basic 13″ model, without the Touch Bar, starts at US$1499 with an anemic 256MB of storage and 8GB of RAM, plus slightly slower graphics, and only a 2GHz dual-core Intel i5. Now, you could certainly dispense with the Touch Bar and just load that model up with RAM and storage, but then you’re stuck with only two Thunderbolt ports. Since one of those is used for power, that’s probably not going to make you very happy.
So, more likely you start with the US$1999 model, which finally gets you 512MB internal storage. Upgrade it to 1TB internal storage and 16GB of RAM and you’re at $2599 for a 13″ dual-core notebook with no dedicated GPU. That’s… pretty crazy.
For quad-core CPU and dedicated GPU, you really want the 15″ model. Even the basic model, with only a 2GB GPU, is going to run you $2999 for 16GB RAM / 1TB HD. Upgrade the CPU and GPU one step and you’re at $3499.
So, why would you do it? Well, there are certainly some advantages in Apple’s court.
All reviews of the display have been terrific, and it does give you full color.
Those hard drives are best-of-breed fast, faster than what you get in competing models – which partly explains Apple’s higher price. (But that means you do really want to upgrade them to more storage space when you purchase, since otherwise you can’t take much advantage of it working with media.)
The Touch Bar, while a gimmick, does appear to offer some useful customizable shortcuts, though I wish it included haptic feedback when you touch it.
I’ll be honest, though. On a budget, I’d be inclined to get a high-end model of the last generation MacBook Pro – especially if I were using a desktop monitor and not so worried about the improvements to brightness and color gamut.
Also, anyone considering the new models would do well to wait a few months while the accessory situation for USB-C and Thunderbolt becomes clearer. I haven’t heard audio manufacturers certifying these machines yet, and anyone spending this much on a notebook computer will want to avoid any potential compatibility issues.
Early compatibility tests are not encouraging. I think it’s better to wait and get some data on what works reliably – and maybe see if there are driver or OS updates, too.
Look, Apple’s products are exceptionally reliable, exceptionally cool and quiet (which matters a lot in audio), and exceptionally high end.
The reason some of us are looking elsewhere is, this is enough of a price/performance difference to shop around. Windows has done a lot of improvement in the audio side. And on the live visual side, having a GPU is a real advantage. My friend Tarik Bari, for instance, was an early adopter of the apparently now-defunct Mac Pro. It meant the ability to drive high-res visuals. And Tarik is a huge macOS fan. Now, I know even Tarik was frustrated with the latest Mac offerings, as is everyone I talk to who does live visuals. This is probably a niche so small we number in the dozens, but – that’s the nature of the general-purpose PC as a product. It serves lots of tiny niches.
For sheer GPU power, laptops like the Razer Blade give you desktop GPUs in a form factor and price that’s similar to Mac laptops that lack even dedicated GPUs.
I’m eager to try one to see if fan noise is distracting.
Meanwhile, the Dell XPS line is a good tradeoff – modern specs, not quite the latest gaming GPU as the Razer, but well balanced. One of my colleagues has this in the office, and it’s a really fine machine. It’s quiet, it’s fast, the display and build are great, and … oh yeah, it’s dramatically cheaper than the Apple.
Should Adobe just go and make Premiere faster? Yes, please. Imagine what it could do on this fast hardware if given the chance. But meanwhile, with a diverse range of apps, these specs actually should transfer into real-world performance.
Check the spec sheets on any of these – every Mac user I know who has was floored. You get all the new ports (like Thunderbolt 3) without having to give up basic amenities – proof that this isn’t just Apple “looking forward.” And the price is certainly competitive. You can also (cough) go the Hackintosh route with these machines. (Not that I’m supposed to say that, of course.)
So that’s the equation. Apple’s still the high-end option, and still appealing if money is no object. But their offerings are limited to mid-range GPU hardware (charitably), not the latest gear, and the price difference is pretty huge.
“Pro.” “Creative.” They’re words that are repeated so often in computing it’s easy for some people to forget what they mean.
By definition, though, if a “professional” is getting paid for their work, investing in more power to get their work done has a return on investment. And being “creative” on a machine means pushing it to the limits of expression. This may be the post-PC era after all, but that ought to mean we get computers that focus ever more on those use cases.
Remember Jobs’ infamous quote about trucks? Embedded in his thinking was an answer to what the traditional computer would look like in the era of ever-smarter mobile devices. It would get more specialized – more focused on niches who had more demanding needs. And given Jobs’ own history (including some of his failures, as at NeXT and with Pixar’s abortive hardware entry), he was intensely interested in how to serve those kinds of people.
Last week’s coinciding Apple and Microsoft events made a study in contrast.
Apple wasn’t remarkable so much as it was business as usual. Apple delivers a new generation of its machines. It’s faster, it’s lighter, it’s thinner. It isn’t cheaper. If all you wanted was a new MacBook Pro and for it to be faster, lighter, and thinner, then you probably wound up happy.
The difference last week, though, was that Microsoft was talking about real creative and professional applications. And – surprise! – for once, it had more to say about that than Apple.
Microsoft did have its usual sprawling event. And as is often the case at Microsoft events, some of the interesting things they showed aren’t out yet. (Apple under Cook, as under Jobs, focuses strictly on the products they’re making available.)
But the reason I think Microsoft made a compelling case was that they offered some products that represent new ideas. And they gave pro users some things those customers really want.
There are two trends happening. Microsoft is on them, I think they’re meaningful to our market segment, and Apple is clearly choosing not to pursue them.
And that’s making devices that are more touchable and tangible, and more three-dimensional and immersive.
Desktop touch is finally a thing
One focus is clearly on input.
Surface Studio is a pretty niche product, but it certainly seams to speak to visual artists. I’m also intrigued by how it might work as a studio music machine. As on the Surface Book, Microsoft opts for a 3:2 aspect ratio. But it’s a product you might well expect to come from Apple – a new form factor for desktop computers, and perhaps a new class of computer. It’s expensive as hell – US$2999 is the base model. On the other hand, I think it makes a compelling case for its existence in a way the Mac Pro didn’t. You spend more cash, you get this enormous display with touch and pen input.
Surface Dial is a physical knob, somewhat reminiscent of the Griffin PowerMate if anyone remembers that. It’s a haptic input device, with clever added functions if you touch it to the Surface models. (Surface Studio only initially, though it seems they’re possibly bringing to other models later.) And it’s already got app support.
Surface Studio may be more important than it initially appears, too. By giving you such an enormous display, Microsoft also lends justification to adding touch to Windows. It’s tough for a 10″ tablet running Windows 10 to face off against iOS, with interface paradigms built from the ground up for touch. But on a larger display, touch in almost any app becomes more appealing.
And Surface Studio you can think of as literally a canvas for developers. I don’t doubt for a second developers are going to be excitedly buying this thing – I know a few who are. That includes in our music segment. This is why Microsoft’s new hardware strategy ultimately benefits OEMs. It solves the chicken and egg problem of needing new hardware to get new apps to get new hardware.
Google may have an awkward relationship with its OEM phone and tablet makers. But we’re talking Microsoft here – this is the company that invented this ecosystem model. They’ve been building up relationships with hardware makers since the Reagan Administration.
Surface Studio on its own I think really isn’t competitive with the iPad Pro and Pencil. Those are terrific products, Apple Pencil performs beautifully, and because these are mobile devices, some people will get them subsidized by their mobile provider.
But there’s still a story here. Apple’s iOS updates aren’t necessarily in sync with what music developers want. And there’s strong incentive for music developers who sell products for $300, $400, and $500 to stay on desktop operating systems. (Why would Ableton start selling Ableton Live for $19.95?)
What the desktop ecosystem lacked was a flagship. Surface Studio is that flagship. And it’s a prime target for developer expense accounts to start looking at the platform.
It’s still going to be an uphill slog. Windows’ UI is still stuck in the desktop era, and the apps aren’t there yet. But if you want to create a new category seemingly out of thin air, you need an exciting device, which is what Microsoft pulled off. Just ask Apple how important that is.
Take a look at this video, though. While Apple had you tapping emoticons on a function row touchscreen and adjusting sliders and attempting to DJ with the top of the keyboard, Microsoft had a compelling demo with an enormous screen and serious third-party applications. And, oh yeah – actual users and use cases, not just marketing executives showing canned demos.
Entering the third dimension
Knob, touch, and (finally) usable stylus input all represent the expressive, tactile input side of the equation.
The other side of this is the full embrace for three-dimensional graphics paradigms, virtual reality, and augmented reality.
I’m wary of the hype around some of these issues. Consumer electronics makers usually try to create demand for things that allow them to sell more hardware. So they see VR as a cash cow: you’ve got a buy a new computer, with a new more powerful graphics card, with some headsets. VR seems all too easy as the sky-high pricey salvation of the sagging PC industry.
Taking the long view historically, though, there’s something there. For decades, almost all computing has been done in two dimensions, outside of games. And it took a long time for even that paradigm to take hold: early graphics in the 60s, XEROX PARC in the 70s, the Mac in the 80s, Windows only going mainstream in the 90s.
Our brains can think in three dimensions, and computing has been about nothing if not feeding our brain with familiar stimuli. Art technique has worked with tricks of virtual perspective for centuries. It seems the computer is due to catch up.
So this isn’t just about donning silly-looking goggles. Microsoft I thought had a really compelling view of 3D end to end. It’s capture of 3D data on phones. It’s their innovative new paint program. It’s full support for 3D information integrated in the Windows update coming early next year. (The sand castle was an elegant example.)
Watching this video brought back memories from me of using the Mac for the first time, and first seeing two-dimensional graphics in Apple’s ground-breaking HyperCard and paint apps (thanks, Bill Atkinson). Of course, now I think Bill’s legacy is alive at Microsoft. (Bill is a personal hero of mine; I was fortunate to meet him once at Macworld, where he was touting his exploration of advanced photography of cross sections of rocks – seriously.)
Now – I’m sure Paint 3D isn’t right for every task. But it also makes a compelling case for touch and pen input on Windows, something available on iOS but absent on the Mac. And I’m sure that’s the point.
The capture capability – being able to form 3D models just by pointing your phone at an object – is simply insane.
Really hoping these apps use standard 3D file formats.
Virtual reality is what we often think of, the solitary experience of a virtual world blocking out the real world around you. But people in fields from architecture to industrial design have long contended with 3D. I think Microsoft’s aim to bring this stuff to the masses is admirable. That can be about augmented reality (as with their HoloLens) and 3D information in general.
While Apple was investing in smart watches and TV, Microsoft was making “holographic” technology an entire platform pillar. I hate the misuse of the word “holographic,” but the platform is cool – and while HoloLens is a hugely pricey research project for now, consumer products around both augmented and virtual reality are imminent.
Microsoft’s other competition is clearly mobile-focused vendors entering this arena. Their 3D capture app was running on a Windows phone, but the implication was that it’d come to iOS.
No matter. Desktop computers are the ones with advanced 3D graphics. And even with mobile catching on, a platform with good 3D support could well become the authoring platform. Just as Apple’s iOS App Store drove purchases of Macs for development, so too could this tech stimulate the PC as a 3D creation tool for people who hadn’t even thought of themselves being in the 3D creation business until now.
And the rest of the PC ecosystem
I don’t think you have to be donning a VR helmet or drawing a web comic on a Surface Studio. Last week was a week to reconsider Windows regardless. The Microsoft announcements, whether they were relevant or not, just added to great theatrics.
And what music and and creators were discovering was that some of the things we’ve been putting up with on the Mac aren’t so with Windows. So while Microsoft’s Surface line is very premium, in line with Apple’s price points, there are other options.
The Surface Book and Surface Studio themselves offer added expressive features missing on the comparable MacBook Pro and iMac, respectively. But after that, it gets more interesting. Pay the same, but get a desktop class graphics card and loads of ports – no adapters needed. Pay less and get faster graphics and more ports. Get machines with extra power – even at the cost of battery life and heat, but if you so choose to fit your needs. Get matte displays and other options.
Some of this equation really is new. After years of a race to the bottom, PC vendors finally looked at Apple’s offering and their own collapsing profits and reevaluated the industrial design of PC laptops. The post-PC era has had an unexpected side effect: it’s pushed PC makers to make more advanced, high-end laptops, including for the creative segment.
In other words, instead of laptops going away or merging with mobile devices, some have become more like Apple. Only unlike Apple, these devices typically add new buses and connectors (like Thunderbolt and USB-C), rather than take away the old ones (HDMI, legacy USB, SD card, and so on).
Now, don’t get too excited too fast.
I fight for the users
Some of the tradeoffs Apple makes that so frustrate pros also give us stuff we like. So, sure, you get slower GPUs – but you also don’t get fan noise. And you pay more – but you get a machine that’s uncommonly easy to service in a hurry (because of Apple’s network of repair shops). And one with really good design and build.
There are things to like about the new MacBook Pro – yes, the one I was complaining about. The big trackpad holds some potential. The Touch Bar should let you load handy shortcuts in some apps. And if you prefer macOS, this means the older machine is cheaper, and the newer machine is marginally faster.
Still, it’s sad to see the Apple desktop left out of native pen and touch input. It’s frustrating to watch the PC platform embrace the capabilities of 3D when the Mac doesn’t do the same.
To get more detailed, it’s also disappointing that Mac users can’t play along with powerful new capabilities of NVIDIA graphics chips (even the AMD chip costs $2399 to start, and there’s no NVIDIA option). It’s been frustrating that graphics and audio subsystems have sometimes been unpredictable in recent OS updates.
The ideas from Microsoft aren’t perfect. We still have a lot of testing to do. But at least there are new ideas. These are really efforts to explore how you interact with a computer – not a clever (or even useful) gimmick, but some thought into fundamentally how we use the machines.
I went back and skimmed some moments from computer unveilings past. Even in the end of Jobs’ tenure, Apple’s pitch for the Mac was slowly evolving from something that centered around users and what they did with the machines to what sounds almost like a description of supply chain and engineering instead.
I don’t want to make a Mac versus PC argument – that’s not what this is about. In music and visuals, I recall pretty vividly when we were arguing the AMIGA and Atari, too. Platform competition is good. Things change.
But I do hope that whoever is playing, the future of the computer is focused on what people can do. And I believe the way to excite that world is to push the capabilities of those computers as far as possible.
The audiovisual performance is very much alive as a medium. I’m just coming off two festivals full of inspiring, stunning live visuals (alongside installations and virtual reality artworks). (One was MUTEK Mexico, the other the AV-centric Lunch Meat in Prague.) Live visuals are the definition of an edge case, to be sure – artists appropriating technology developed primarily for gaming – but life is beautiful on the edge.
The big demarcation point in computers for visual work is really the absence or presence of a dedicated GPU. Intel’s integrated tech has gotten better on paper, but it’s still in my experience fairly useless for even simple video performance in practice. Shared memory and shader incompatibilities often cause massively unpredictable performance. They also tax the CPU which you’d rather dedicate to audio if you’re running A/V shows solo.
Now, that being said, it may not be so important which GPU you have – that’s dependent on whether visual artists are pushing performance into gaming territory. VR applications are still more involved.
Keeping up with the complicated permutations of graphics chips is a specialization in itself. Fortunately, we have others doing that work for us.
Microsoft’s original Surface Book broke ground by offering the option of a dedicated NVIDIA GPU. Those have been in a multitude of notebook computers under a grand, but they’re still fairly novel in tablets. The dedicated GPU lives in the “dock” component of the machine – the bit with the keyboard – so you lose its functionality if you detach the tablet. But since you can operate the tablet flat in docked mode, that’s just fine.
The original GPU was a bit anemic – roughly equivalent to a 940M and with only 1GB of memory. That’ll be fine for some users, meaning the now steeply-discounted original model is worth a look if you’re just doing some light VJing (and it still I think bests the new 13″ MacBook Pro, which has no GPU at all).
But for more power, Microsoft has updated the GPU in the new Surface Book, which is probably the machine to consider first. As with the original, you’ll pay more for the dGPU model, but I think it’s well worth it.
Microsoft has added a Maxwell NVIDIA 965M. That’s a perfectly good, middle-of-the-road gaming GPU. It’ll cost you, to be sure. Microsoft’s price points here look a lot like Apple’s, in fact, running about $2800 with decent internal storage. But for that price, you get a full tablet touchscreen and pen input in comparison to Apple’s tiny touch strip. (Yes, yes – I know that the Touch Bar isn’t intended to replace multi-touch. But the value comparison remains if you’re doing visual work.)
Plus on Windows, you get an OS that is, frankly, more interesting, with support for Kinect 2 and apps like vvvv and TouchDesigner. If you just want bang-for-your-buck in the GPU category, or a faster GPU, there are substantially better options from MSI, Asus, Dell, Alienware, and the like – this would really be about the Surface Book’s hybrid tablet capabilities. (But that counts for something.)
It’s also interesting that Microsoft is naming the GPU in the specs this time. Perhaps a bit embarrassed by the weak chip in the first-generation model, technical data didn’t even call out the chip by name. And the 965M isn’t a custom chip, either; it’s an off-the-shelf NVIDIA GPU you see in other notebooks, so comparison is pretty easy.
In Apple’s corner, meanwhile, Apple gives you GPUs from AMD.
Apple’s choices, while pricey, are more configurable than Microsoft’s. (That seems fitting, since Microsoft can point to the entire PC ecosystem if you want a different GPU – Apple is the only game in town.)
And this time you get not one but three choices on the MacBook Pro range:
Radeon Pro 450
Radeon Pro 455
Radeon Pro 460
These are a current generation chipset, too, whereas Microsoft has opted for the previous generation of their NVIDIA.
The Radeon Pro 950 is a newer architecture, but it’s roughly in the same ballpark as the NVIDIA 965M – strictly talking pipeline and bus width and so on. Actually, it’s new enough that it’s possible this graphics chipset, and not the development of the Touch Bar, was what determined the release date of this Mac generation.
If you’re willing to pay more, the Radeon Pro 460 starts to give you more serious 3D performance. But Apple simply doesn’t offer current desktop-generation performance. NVIDIA has started to cram that kind of power into laptop-ready chips.
I think it’s worth being critical of Apple for this – and this is why I have been repeatedly saying that Apple is ceding a big chunk of the pro market to Windows. At the very least, at least Apple used to offer desktop-class graphics performance in their desktop range. But with the iMac languishing and the Mac Pro literally never having seen any update of any kind, your only shot at a new GPU is actually this Radeon Pro 460, spending something like three grand to get it baked into a notebook computer.
There’s another problem, too. By exclusively choosing AMD as the vendor and not NVIDIA, you miss out on the interesting computational stuff being done via NVIDIA’s GPU-native processing (CUDA). That includes things like the crazy algorithmic work with machine learning.
It makes sense here to compare the Surface Book and MacBook Pro, in that they’re the flagship design showpieces of the two principal rivals in the market. Even making the comparison that narrow, though, I think there’s not much contest. The Surface Book is the more creative machine. Its GPU isn’t terribly impressive, but the choice of NVIDIA still opens up a lot of interesting experimentation. And you get touch and pen input right away. (The fact that the iMac Pro is an option doesn’t really encourage me, either – that says then maybe you just buy a cheap PC laptop running Windows and an iMac Pro, in place of the Surface Book!)
Don’t get me wrong: the AMD choice makes sense for doing what Apple clearly set out to do. Drive the main graphics apps, push lots of pixels to an external display, cost as little power and heat as possible.
The problem is, that middle-of-the-road choice knocks out a lot of more creative possibilities. And it’s expensive.
From there, you have a multitude of PC choices if you don’t crave the convertible form factor of the Microsoft offering. Oh yeah – and you get ports and physical function keys, too.
If it seems like I’m being hard on Apple, I’ll say this to conclude: it’s a very, very strange thing when suddenly artists and developers who have been loyal to macOS since the start are all telling you they’re shopping for a PC. I’m not being hyperbolic.
If you can get a significantly more powerful machine and pocket as much as $1000, well, that’s fairly compelling.
Apple’s new MacBook Pro series – regardless of screen size – ships with four connectors, all of them USB-C. That may lead to some confusion, because these aren’t the USB ports most people know from their current laptop.
Let’s take a quick inventory of the gear I typically use, which I think it fairly typical:
USB sticks (with Rekordbox, for playing on CDJs)
A Lightning cable for my iPhone
External hard disk, Thunderbolt
External hard disk, USB3
Universal Audio Apollo audio interface, Thunderbolt
Lots of USB controllers, audio interfaces, etc.
Occasionally need Ethernet for the odd connection
SD cards from my camera and mobile audio recorders
Connections to projectors via VGA and HDMI
External monitor with HDMI
Headphones, connected via the headphone jack
On my previous-generation MacBook Pro, that means I typically travel without any adapter at all apart from my power adapter and a VGA connector. Everything else is built in. I’ve once or twice borrowed an Ethernet adapter. (I do keep an external CD drive, speaking of legacy.)
And I’m not an edge case; most people use USB stuff and the SD slot and a video output with some Thunderbolt things thrown in among audio users.
Obviously, this also often requires a USB hub.
Now, swapping out the machine I own now for a hypothetical MacBook Pro with USB-C connectors and Thunderbolt 3 is not without advantages in the future. Both faster USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt 3 devices are supported. As I’ve reported before, Thunderbolt can offer more consistent performance at low latencies.
Here’s the problem: adding more bandwidth won’t help you unless you can exploit it. Speaking for essentially all music and audio work currently, and most creative visual work, there’s nothing specifically that can take advantage of all this added bandwidth.
So practically speaking, for musicians certainly and also most visually-minded people writing this site, you get a handful of advantages from USB-C and Thunderbolt 3. You can connect 4K+ monitors. You can provide more power via the bus. And you can charge your laptop via any one of the four ports.
And a convenience: you don’t have to worry about inserting the connector upside down. You do have to worry about this smallish connection coming unplugged, though – which might also explain why Apple isn’t so concerned about having eliminated the MagSafe power connector (designed to pop out rather than let you trip and drag your Mac to the floor).
Apart from the monitor, though, I don’t suspect anyone is actually going to notice any of that. And again, my existing laptop already has USB3 and Thunderbolt (2).
What you will notice is, you need an adapter or new cable for every single one of the pieces of hardware listed above with the exception of the headphones. (Thankfully, thwarting expectations, Apple didn’t eliminate that as they did on the iPhone 7. The bad news for iPhone 7 users is, they didn’t do the obvious and add a Lightning port natively on the Mac, so now you have the reverse problem.)
Let me do some math here for my use case – being conservative and buying the minimum amount of stuff I need:
I actually don’t want that last adapter – it’s wide and blocks one of the ports, and it has an extra USB and power passthrough I may not need. But there’s not yet a direct HDMI adapter.
I’m going to skip adding a US$34.95 Ethernet adapter or a special $25-35 Lightning to USB-C cable – let’s presume I’ll survive without the former and just use a USB adapter for the latter.
But stressing that this is all for existing hardware – meaning I get literally zero advantage out of this – the grand total is a whopping US$275.90. And being a bit less conservative and buying an extra charger, I could easily double that.
Also, for y’all fellow Americans back home, I pretended for a moment I don’t live in Germany, where this would be yet worse (well, though with some money going to fund our trams and U-Bahn and so on).
You’d need to figure this into the cost of a new MacBook Pro, as with the previous “new” MacBook.
That said, frankly, I don’t think anyone will use Apple adapters exclusively. Instead, they’ll use something like this rather svelte dock for under 70 bucks, as reviewed recently in Macworld:
Likewise, you’ll presumably be able to buy non-Apple power adapters, since that USB-C port is standard.
And notice you do get one advantage here: because of the added power delivered over the connector, you don’t need a separate power source. That’s a pretty big edge over USB for musicians.
That said, there’s an underlying message here.
Thunderbolt 3 looks great, if overkill for most users.
USB-C will at least add some convenience in the long haul (not just on macOS, either)
But there’s a fairly hefty “Apple tax” for doing what you’re effectively already doing. And it raises two big problems.
One, Apple is forcing you to use adapters, but the adapters they’re designing are clumsy, unoriginal, expensive, and take up space. There’s not even an attempt at a workable solution for people connecting more than one piece of hardware at a time. Obviously, they’re leaving that to third parties, but at the moment they don’t offer a complete range of connectors to match their previous generation themselves and don’t stock any third parties.
Come on, Apple. All that innovation and you can’t make the dock this thing obviously needs?
Two, I think the added cost would be easier to swallow if Apple’s machines were price competitive. But you’ll have to widen a margin that’s already significant.
That could encourage Apple customers to either stick with what they’ve got or look to the Windows-based competition. And I do think many PC makers will simply offer a mix of legacy and new ports by comparison.
Those sticking to Apple should find hardware is compatible. (We’ll have to wait on testing to know if there are any unexpected issues.) And I imagine they’ll be investing more heavily in third party accessories than Apple’s.
Not much need be said about Apple’s elimination of the headphone jack. Yes, wired headphones remain a superior solution for some applications. But because Apple is shipping a Lightning-to-audio adapter in the box with the iPhone, this is a non-issue. After all, you’ve already kept track of 1/4″ to 1/8″ minijack adapters for all your studio headphones for years. (Okay, to be fair, by “keep track of” in my case I generally mean “lose,” but, uh… wait, what were we talking about again?)
There are certainly reasons for Apple to do this. The innards of an iPhone are crammed enough that something as seemingly innocuous as a minijack port take up a lot of space. They also have implications for Apple’s work on reliability and resistance to water and dust; it’s a point of failure. So you can see why they’ve done this (even if in my experience I’ve had more Lightning port issues and no headphone jack issues).
The more relevant issue is whether this impacts the way the device is used for audio – which for some of us is a big reason to buy the iPhone. I did a quick survey of the Lightning audio accessories I use around the CDM office, and all tend to include their own headphone jack for monitoring. That means that blocking the Lightning port with the headphone adapter isn’t an issue, because you won’t.
Indeed, the bigger problem with mobile gadgets is still the fact that very few accessories work with external audio. Once the Lightning port is blocked, you can’t simultaneously charge the device. Now, that does mean that you can’t listen to music, for example, while charging the iPhone, which I have done occasionally and might find annoying.
But that shouldn’t be cause to overstate the significance of the issue. In fact, there are more significant issues regarding Apple and the Lightning port about which even journalists like myself can’t really get information. Apple-certified accessories are subject to an arcane process of review by the company. Unlike something like USB-C, that process is also completely non-transparent. While they can’t go on the record, I have heard from accessory makers that they sometimes haven’t been able to do things they know we as serious audio producers might like, because Apple wanted something else. These conversations are protected by legal non-disclosure agreements, though, meaning we can’t even talk about them.
But I still say — move on, nothing to see here. If you think Apple’s headphones are poor for listening and overpriced (and you’re right, I think), you don’t have to buy them. There are some surprisingly good wireless headphones for times when you want to move around, or you can plug in better headphones as before to listen to that new track on the train.
Eliminating headphone jacks is something phones may generally start to do because of radical miniaturization and waterproofing. It doesn’t say much, really, about headphones in general – consumer and studio headphones are already very different categories.
No, what really matters, actually, on any operating system – Windows, Android, iOS, Mac – is generally what you can’t see, in the form of subtle changes to the parts of the OS that keep audio glitch-free. Or not.
Okay, enough teasing already. Behringer has a 12-voice polyphonic synth called the DeepMind. And now let’s talk about exactly what to expect, in one place.
The Behringer DeepMind 12 teaser campaign has gotten maddening – a trickle of videos and blog posts has introduced individual details one at a time. Yes, that even means getting as specific as just revealing the filter or going into some detail about why the name was chosen. Uli Behringer took over synth news in July online a bit like Donald Trump has dominated political news in the US – another day, another lead story.
But here’s the thing: the DeepMind 12 is impressive.
Pricing and availability
It’s a 12-voice analog synthesizer with a friendly looking front panel. And now, at last, we know the key detail – price. Behringer is projecting a price of US$999.99 retail, and shipping by the end of the year, but also projects heavy backorders.
There’s actually something I find a bit peculiar about that post. Uli Behringer says that pricing of their products is set only by a “slim” margin above component cost, and implies competitors are doing something else. Since he doesn’t talk about volume (but only “demand”), the implication is both that competitors are gouging customers on margin and/or making stuff they don’t want. I think that’s disingenuous, unless I’m missing something. What I would say about Behringer is that they do seem to have mastered higher volumes, and own a lot of their own manufacturing and supply chain. Those things will keep costs down, absolutely.
We’ve also gotten a lot of details here. Apparently the DM12 began as with the Juno-106 as inspiration, but experienced some significant feature creep.
And it’s got a lot of partners, too – including engineers from UK console maker MIDAS. Inside:
12 voices (the big feature, with various modes)
Four effects engines, powered by TC ELECTRONIC & KLARK TEKNIK.
A selectable 2- or 4-pole low-pass filter per voice, plus a shared high-pass filter, and modulation / envelope depth / key tracking
Gearnews.com has a nice write-up, too. I think it’s spot on that there may be a companion iPad app – and they note as well that you might want to be in Leeds to check it out in person on 20 August.
Some folks have already gotten up close and personal with the DM12. Starting with our friends and German neighbors at Amazona:
SonicState also get an exclusive in, visiting Studio Stekker:
I don’t remember the last time a synth keyboard has proven as divisive as the DM12 has this summer. One reason is the sheer amount of coverage it’s gotten. This has been a slow summer news-wise even by electronic musical instrument standards. So the Behringer has been this summer’s one big story. Other makers may be readying fall releases, but they’re refraining from teasing anything.
And into that vacuum has been a teaser campaign unlike any I’ve seen — multiple videos, coordinated leaks, flooding forums with posts, and working with multiple press outlets on exclusives. It’s easy to be dismissive of that, but any negative backlash there I think is outweighed by the extent to which this has built buzz. Expect at least one rival to copy some of the technique.
But then there’s the fact that this is Behringer. That has divided people on its own. Some are quick to defend low cost as a merit. Some have had positive experiences with Behringer products. Some really like the look of the DM12. And indeed, I wouldn’t dismiss the DM12 out of hand, not on quality of design or reliability. The synthesizer has behind it a very experienced and talented team. We’ll simply have to wait for the synth to become available to give it a fair review.
On the other hand, Behringer the brand has managed to accrue some bad karma. Let’s leave aside any question of quality; that can be hard to measure unless you’ve done extensive testing. (Retailers are better than this than press. Ask your local retailer what they see returned and what they don’t.) I’ve seen some people taking to social media to say they’ll never touch the DeepMind simply because of Behringer’s involvement in past questions of originality, with cases involving Mackie, Roland (BOSS), and Line 6. The DeepMind, by contrast, is clearly original, so this is really down to whether you think they are still answerable to past sins. Behringer has also left behind some disgruntled former employees, which you can review via glassdoor.de.
My sense is the real test is still the instrument. That’s the product of a company and its management, and originality and quality will show through – or not – depending on how well it’s executed.
And I’ll say this – the DeepMind 12 has already made 2016 more interesting. So, as summer comes to a close, here’s looking forward to finding out how the Behringer polysynth stands up once it’s available – and to whatever else we see in the increasingly busy synth landscape for the rest of the year.
Somewhere – tonight, even – some unknown producer is going to make some brilliant new track using software. (Seriously, this is the world we live in.) And when they do, odds are they might well turn to a popular synth like breakout-hit Serum. The problem is this: someone getting started in producing is probably unwilling or unable to shell out US$189 for a single software instrument. So that individual is likely to pirate the software.
We’ve known this for some time; what we haven’t had is much of a solution. And just how prevalent is piracy in our industry? Well, I’ve talked to plenty of people off-the-record in the software development industry who say they’ve done it (like the people whose bills are paid by software fees). Cakewalk founder and original developer Greg Hendershott has talked on the record about trading floppies.
And then there’s Serum. Plenty of high-profile producers have been caught using pirated plugs. But this probably takes the cake – someone found Kanye West with a browser tab opened to Serum on a torrent site, prompting swift condemnation by deadmau5 himself (plus an hilarious offer to set up a Kickstarter campaign to help him buy a license): Kanye West caught visiting Pirate Bay—possibly to download music software [Ars Electronica]
Big suites of software have already moved to a monthly paid subscription model – think Microsoft’s Office 365 or Adobe’s Creative Cloud. (That was easier, of course, in that those markets each have one dominant vendor.)
In music, so far Gobbler has offered subscription plans, with names like Eventide and Slate. This also offers a single unified back end with support for PACE copy protection. (Before that sends chills down your spine, “PACE” no longer necessarily has anything to do with physical dongles – more often these days you’ll just store your authenticated license online.)
Online music platform Splice offers something a bit different: pay-to-own. This way, instead of paying a subscription forever, you will eventually pay off the cost of the plug-in.
In fact, this is even better than a normal payment plan, in that you can switch off your subscription on months you don’t need it. So if you’re only going to get around to using Serum in September and October, but not November and December, you can opt not to pay for those months – then switch on the subscription again in January.
You can start out with a 3-day free trial, too, to see if you like the software. Either way, whenever the subscription is active, you have full access to the software. And after the equivalent number of months, you will have successfully bought the software.
Splice are launching this service now with Steve Duda’s Serum plug-in, and say it’s the first time this has ever been offered in music software. (I think that’s largely accurate, at least in this form.)
Serum is actually a significant choice of launch instrument.
There are a lot of software instruments out there, and many of them really terrific, but not so many hits. Serum is something special. Its production lineage is significant – creator Steve Duda is a rare electronic music genius and EDM production guru, collaborator with deadmau5 and developer through Xfer Records of a number of terrific plug-ins to boot.
Serum accordingly feels like a truly modern take on the software wavetable instrument, complete with loads of wavetable morphing and modulation features and built-in effects. And while the other instrument looming large in EDM production, Native Instruments’ Massive, hasn’t seen much in the way of updates since its introduction, Serum has a fresher take on how visual feedback and workflow could look in the interface. (That’s not a dig at Massive, necessarily — on the contrary, given Massive’s impact on EDM in particular, it’s remarkable that Serum has been one major instrument to successfully rival it.)
And as testament to the instrument’s online following, you’ll find loads of YouTube content on it. Here is some to get you going:
Probably the best is this series of tutorials with Steve himself (with nice insights into production whether or not you use Serum):
So, maybe Serum for ten bucks enough has you sold on the idea, and you don’t need much else.
But for pay-to-own to work as a model with Splice as provider, that online platform will have to do some legwork both to attract developers and to make users see the advantage of tying software payments to their service in particular. Otherwise, we could see still more fragmentation – with every developer offering their own plans separately, rather than showing up in a unified, App Store-style market.
Splice does have a case here. The service’s features effectively cover all bases. Their service backs up your projects. And it’s version control for yourself. And it’s a means to collaborating with others (with a Web interface that shows you what collaborators are up to).
Splice is also a community, with people not only collaborating with one another, but sharing stems and songs. And it’s a platform for finding loops, samples, and sound content. And it’s a store for plug-ins.
Now, that’s a lot of different stories to explain to people. On the other hand, Splice’s angle on putting all this together is summed up in one word: data. With people uploading actual project data, they can see plug-ins that are being used, which in turn lets them potentially offer a storefront full of plug-ins – and maybe rent-to-own plans – based on what people actually like.
For now, though, I think this may be the simplest next step: offer one really good, really popular plug-in, from an independent developer (who can’t necessarily roll their own plans with the same ease). And then see how it goes.
2016 is yet another year seeing big changes in the music streaming landscape. But whatever your feelings about them, there are reasons to closely watch – and even root for – SoundCloud. Of the major players, SoundCloud is the only service that lets you directly upload your own music primarily for the purpose of streaming, with playlists and other features.
Well, lately, SoundCloud has continued to change – the service taketh, the service giveth away.
New revenue could come to you
Let deal with licensing only in brief. Suffice to say, there’s a lot of action there. I’m surprised in some ways that producers view these changes as universally negative or as some kind of plot by SoundCloud to make more money. The point is, in our current legal regimen, copyright owners get to make the rules – that could well be your own label and/or publisher. (Indeed, some of the outrage I’ve seen from producers about an inability to upload their own music suggests that they haven’t read their own contracts.)
Country by country, SoundCloud is adding subscription services and advertising. Now, while anti-capitalist sorts may immediately assume this is bad, there are two reasons it might not be. For one, it pays to keep the lights on at a service you presumably like. (If you don’t care about it at all, feel free to ignore all of this, frankly! But if you like it, I would think you wouldn’t want it to run out of cash.) Second, I’ve talked to royalty collecting organizations, and in each country SoundCloud has rolled out the new revenue generating services, it has also given some of that share to copyright owners – that’s you, very possibly, provided you have membership in an organization like ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, PRI, GEMA, or the likes.
That’s not to let SoundCloud off the hook – they need to make sure these payments are fair, that they cover minors as well as majors, and that people understand how they work. And in some cases, SoundCloud is simply broken – if it falsely identifies music or if SoundCloud support isn’t responsive to customers, that’s on SoundCloud.
But let’s focus purely on functionality for the purposes of this article.
The SoundCloud angle
Here’s the challenge: SoundCloud has to compete with one electronics giant (Apple) and two ubiquitous services everyone is already using (YouTube, Spotify). There’s a lot of overlap in catalogs, too. SoundCloud has to be something different.
(Bandcamp is great, too, but I don’t view them as comparable – Bandcamp is the store over which you have the most control; SoundCloud is the streaming library. Bandcamp doesn’t have the playlist or discovery features SoundCloud does, period.)
What we’ve seen from SoundCloud is that they have a few ideas of how to do this. And the basic idea has been the same now for I think at least a couple of years – as I’ve understood it from them, and in terms of what I’ve seen them do.
1. Be better (or at least more personal) when it comes to discovery and suggestion, to make finding music you like easier.
2. Make use of music and sound content uploaded regularly from users – not just the big album releases, but sound content in general.
3. Build a larger audience of listeners, and use that to entice creators.
4. Integrate with mobile apps, both for creation and listening.
There have been some casualties in that evolution, particularly related to item #3. Here’s the thing: there are things SoundCloud does for you as a creator, and things SoundCloud does for listeners in general. Now, ideally, listener benefits will benefit you, creators – because you want your music to be heard by as many people as possible (by anyone, for that matter).
But that may still make you (and me) understandably unhappy if functionality you want disappears. For example, SoundCloud lagged especially when it came to mobile app tools for creators, and while that situation has gotten better over the course of this year, there’s still more to do. Also, I think creators rightfully can feel the functionality of the service is shrinking rather than growing for them, as SoundCloud streamlines the platform.
Let’s look at some recent functionality changes. First, the “taketh away” bit:
SoundCloud is taking away groups.
On paper, groups sound terrific. They let arbitrary numbers of users join a collective, share tracks from their own uploads, and gather together tracks from others. There are moderation features, and discussion features.
I heard from several group moderators who got the following news late last month:
We’re constantly looking for ways to make it easier for creators to share their work and connect with new fans. As well as adding new features and updates, we review existing features to see if they’re still beneficial to the community.
As we dug into the best ways for curators to connect with artists and fans, we found that Groups aren’t working as well as reposts, and curated playlists.
With that in mind, we’ve decided to phase out Groups on Monday, August 22nd to make room for future updates. Until then, you can collect, like or repost the content you would like to save, and connect with your fellow Group members.
As a Group moderator, we understand the following you’ve built by moderating submissions to your Groups — we suggest to keep that following going by creating a profile to curate. You can use Reposts and Playlists to share suitable tracks, and accept submissions via Messages.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can continue to improve your experience on SoundCloud. Send your ideas and feedback by replying directly to this email.
The letter from SoundCloud already contains an acknowledgment that something is being lost here. The simple fact of the matter is, Groups are the only way on SoundCloud to allow people to freely add to a playlist. They’re also the only means of hosting a discussion on the site.
On the other hand, that also suggests why you might want to kill groups. Any playlist with open submissions is an invitation to spam. And while native discussion is a nice feature, it’s not so well integrated with other functionality on the site – and duplicates many, many other communication platforms elsewhere. (Hell, you could use an IRC channel if you really wanted to, kids.)
One of the best uses of Groups I’ve seen is moving through the transition without issue, and that’s the amazing collaborative Junto music- and sound-making group hosted by Disquiet and Marc Weidenbaum. Marc had already cleverly moved discussion to a well-organized group on chat platform Slack, and says he’ll simply adjust the workflow to playlists to account for the change. If this matters to you, it’s well worth reading his whole post:
Marc also shared this on my Facebook page (in a public discussion):
The Disquiet Junto (238 weeks straight, 5700 extant tracks, 650 active accounts, 2000+ members, 1000+ email-list subscribers, 100+ members of the Slack, really nice write-up recently in The Wire) was founded in January 2012 on the Groups interface. I was disappointed when the Discussions tab closed down, but then again there was a major upgrade when Playlists were able to collate tracks outside your own account, and in many ways Playlists are more central now to the Junto than the Groups functionality is. (Also, Reposts were a nice addition, though sometimes I’d like the option to mute them.) I wrote a bit about my thoughts this morning at the URL below. Short version: I think this is gonna especially hit hard those Groups that are focused on particular hardware or software. The Junto, I think less so. With the Junto, as long as folks can let me know they’ve uploaded a track, I can make a playlist of the project. I’ll learn as we proceed up to and after the August 22 transition.
Dylan Davis, meanwhile, moderator of a group dedicated to acid patterns (which can be reproduced on 303 hardware or emulations), had a less optimistic take. He describes groups as a “shared space” lost with the change to the service.
Still, while this may seem an anti-creator decision, prolonged discussion with people using groups found that by and large they were able to migrate to other solutions, including on SoundCloud.
Which brings us to the “giveth” territory.
You can add albums now
Making an “album” on SoundCloud is dead simple. You just take a playlist, then tick a box saying it’s an album (and enter release date and any other relevant metadata).
It’s small, but hugely useful. I know a lot of people have been confused by my own SoundCloud site, because they couldn’t quickly separate random sound content from actual album releases – meaning they couldn’t get a feel for who I was as a musician. (And I think I’m not alone.)
Also, it’s worth comparing just how easy this is relative to releasing music on Spotify or Apple Music. Only YouTube really compares, and that’s itself a bit absurd – it’s a video site, and not suited to the job. (Again, Bandcamp is great, but Bandcamp lacks playlists, or the ability to release audio that isn’t an album.)
Here’s how it works:
This also makes a difference when listening on mobile, because it’s easier to find album releases. And that’s a necessary prerequisite if people start to use SoundCloud in place of services like Spotify and Apple Music, to listen to actual releases and not just random mixes and whatnot.
That’s obviously partly there for majors, but you can use this, too. There’s no reason you can’t make your own releases and share this way. And there’s still the option to make a ‘buy’ link for downloads, and send people to Bandcamp or Beatport or the like.
Okay, to be fair – sometimes, recommendations are predictably awful. But give SoundCloud the right input in the form of a track or mix or album with particularly good keywords, and it can send you down a rabbit hole of discovering great new music. While I love the ability to follow labels and artists on Beatport and Bandcamp, and the ability to see what friends are buying (or getting via free download codes) on Bandcamp’s feed, I haven’t found anything quite as nice as SoundCloud’s recommendation engine. For one thing, not only is it sometimes uncannily good at making interesting connections between artists. And it’ll find really obscure stuff, because of the nature of content on the service.
Plus once you’re there, you can actually favorite tracks and send feedback, rather than just disappear into some metric.
The key to this working the way it does is also the way SoundCloud handles input. Spotify (using I believe a fair amount of data from The Echo Nest) is fairly clever about understanding how music itself is related. But what SoundCloud does is to analyze your plays and (most importantly) likes, to try to produce connections you’ll actually enjoy. And the company says the more you use the service, the better this machine learning gets.
SoundCloud has been putting this recommendation engine forward on both mobile and desktop. Here are some examples.
There’s now a Discover tab on the browser app, and a Suggested Tracks section alongside playbacks, plus equivalent sections on the iOS and Android mobile apps accessed via a magnifying glass. The nomenclature is confusing (Discover and Suggested Tracks give you the same choices via a different interface), but the feature is nice.
The supplements something you’ve already no doubt discovered, which is unexpected tracks playing after you finish playing a track you’ve chosen.
In July, we saw new recommendation functionality rolled into Stations (as seen on various services, most famously on Pandora back in the day). While earlier in 2016 Stations could be launched from a track, now they can be launched from an artist profile – though only in the mobile app, not the browser.
This appears to be a superset of what Suggested Tracks offers. As SoundCloud explains the difference between the two, “Stations serve a longer queue of songs that are a mixture of similar, new, and popular tracks related to the track or artist you started the Station from, for an experience closer to listening to the radio.”
This is licensing-related, too, in that a paid SoundCloud Go subscription expands the number of tracks available.
And you can combine that with the Collections feature already available.
I’ll be honest – I’m rooting for SoundCloud. I’m biased. And I don’t mean I’m biased toward SoundCloud the company, or like the color orange. The thing is, at the moment, there’s nothing with this size catalog, this size audience, this ability for a bedroom producer uploading their first ever track to live shoulder-to-shoulder to a Warner Music artist, this particular set of features – any of it. I’ve seen other tools, and while some of them are compelling, none does quite the same thing. That means if SoundCloud were to meet some demise or find itself under new ownership or leadership, we could really lose something.
That said, you’d do well to keep aware of other options, because there’s no guarantee any private service is going to last forever in precisely the way you’d like.
For now, though, I’ll say this: looking at my SoundCloud collection and the work I’ve been able to discover via the service, I’ve had a uniquely personal experience with the site that has let me get to know lots of artists around the world.