AIRA, the lineup that now includes a bassline/sequencer, drum machine, synth, and vocal processor, has in just a few months changed the way a lot of people think about Roland. At Musikmesse in Frankfurt, it was clear that it represents a new direction for Roland, too. The AIRA lineup was displayed separately from the usual Roland booth on the main floor of hall 5 (devoted to pianos), upstairs in hall 5.1 alongside electronic and DJ products (“remix”). And there, crowds gathered to watch pounding dance performances.
Those first four AIRA units are just the beginning. Roland has created an entirely new team called the Roland Product Group (RPG), and it’s these folks who have built AIRA. They’re not just thinking outside the usual Roland box; they’re physically in a different place. The rest of Roland is located in Hamamatsu, Japan; RPG has their own, hip office near Tokyo’s legendary Akihabara electronics district.
But if Roland is thinking of the future, they also seem to think re-connecting to the past is part of that future – literally. In the neighboring booth for ALEX4, the Berlin-based distributor run by Andreas Schneider (of Schneidersladen fame), Roland execs could be seen squeezing in to catch the latest analog gear.
And Roland was making little secret of showing a new sync box to as many people as they could. The hardware, with various labels blacked out, spent some time synchronizing gear in the AIRA demos, and also made the rounds to interested parties. (In fact, I almost couldn’t talk to anyone at Messe without them telling me Roland had been showing it to them – probably in part because I was hanging around analog builders.)
It’s too soon to know whether the Sync Box will ever see the light of day. It’s an early prototype, sporting some trademark AIRA green paint on the panel, but otherwise far from a finished product. But in another break from Roland tradition, here Roland seemed eager to collect feedback, and see what was necessary to make this box compatible with other gear.
The idea is this: the Sync Box has connections for USB, DIN, control voltage (gate), and MIDI. The controls are then dead-simple: a control on the front panel selects which sync source you want, and then you either slave the rest of your gear to that source, or sync everything to a tap tempo / tempo control with display on the unit. (There are some additional controls to sort out different compatibility issues with various analog gear.)
The upshot: you could combine any gear you like (AIRA or otherwise) with vintage 808s, or a new analog drum machine, or a modular, or your computer, or a combination. And Roland seemed interested in new and old gear as part of the equation; such a device would mean that a Roland-branded product could literally connect their newest and oldest products.
We’ll see where this leads. But there are two revelations here. One is, the RPG inside Roland is able to do things that Roland hadn’t been able to do before. Even if the company wanted to make something like the Sync Box, it might not be as easy to green-light (ahem) the project, let alone show it publicly long before it was done. Two, whatever Roland decides to do, the biggest industry players are taking analog equipment very seriously, following a path trailblazed by independent makers that weren’t on anyone’s radar even a couple of years ago.
(I should add – I’m not revealing any privileged information here. The Sync Box, the RPG, and the shift in industry direction were the talk of the entire show, inside and outside the Roland displays.)
In the meantime, you don’t have to wait for an AIRA to do this kind of sync. Koma Elektronik’s RH301 does DIN and CV and MIDI sync already (missing only USB, though that’s easy to resolve with a USB-MIDI interface). And the RH301 does more than just sync those devices: you can also use various divisions of time, and drive envelopes and LFOs. It solves the “how do I sync everything” question, but also gives you some opportunities to get creative with time. I’m hearing some AIRA owners are already snapping these up.
Build too many stores too fast full of this, and you could wind up in debt. Guitar Center could face a new owner and restructuring. Photo (CC-BY) Judi Stevenson / Flickr: chascar.
While the biggest US name in pro audio made headlines last week with uncertain financial news, so, too, did the biggest US name in music retail.
Yes, we were so caught up watching Avid, makers of Pro Tools, Sibelius, and Media Composer, as they were dropped from NASDAQ and delayed earnings reports once again, we missed the latest on Guitar Center. The big box music giant may not be able to keep up with its debt. The Wall Street Journal [paywall] reports that the retailer’s largest creditor is in “advanced talks” with owner Bain Capital to take over the company. (That’s the same Bain Capital made famous by former Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, yes.)
One element in common: both companies saw aggressive growth plans curtailed at least partly by the economic crisis. Guitar Center ran into trouble shortly after acquisition by Bain in 2007, growing head-first into a slowing US retail economy. Eric Garland, a writer, consultant, and “future trend analyst,” has some harsh words for the music store on his blog on the “transformational economy”:
I said that the debt-laden big box model was not built for the long term. I stand by my assessment. The events are playing out to make my point for me … In the mean time, you should think about the future of local retail – the kind that doesn’t end up billions in debt. It may have quite a future.
That seems a fairly black-and-white view. The question is whether the chain’s debt problems owe to the big box model fundamentally, or to a growth plan unhinged from reality.
Here’s the situation. Guitar Center has amassed some US$1.6 billion in debt, “much of it stemming from Bain’s $2.1 billion leveraged buyout of the company in 2007,” according to the Wall Street Journal. The talks would convert that debt into ownership by the creditor.
Note the numbers there. A large portion of the debt in Guitar Center came from the original, highly-leveraged buyout. In other words, you may be able to draw more conclusions about Bain from what’s happened than you would about the music instruments industry or big box retail in general.
There could be serious implications for music manufacturers, anyway, particularly the titular guitar makers. The big box format means accumulating lots of inventory, and that inventory means revenue for makers. Guitar Center is such a market force that it could pass its own financial woes onto those makers, exacting leaner margins. Then again, it was presumably doing that already.
What worries me in terms of the industry is that smaller players have already been marginalized, and online sellers can’t offer the hands-on experience musical instruments in particular might demand.
Consultant and music producer Bobby Owsinski, writing in response to the above story on his own blog, makes some dire predictions:
Ares wants their money, so watch as they squeeze GC by making it leaner and meaner than ever, all at the expense of the customer. If you think doing business with them now is hard, just wait until this comes down. Fewer sales people that turn over even more frequently, less stock on hand, only the latest products and no deep inventory – that’s what you can expect. It’ll be the way it is now, only worse, if you can imagine.
And expect to see some of your favorite small manufactures either struggle or go out of business, as GC cuts its inventory and SKU’s even more. For all those companies depending upon GC for a good chunk of their business, times are about to get a lot tougher.
Owsinski echoes the same concerns we heard about Avid last week (including from at least some financial circles):
Once again, this is a small industry filled with creative people. It’s too small for a company to go public, roll up smaller companies, or grow to big box levels without the customer suffering.
He also predicts, however, that the bright spot may be the return of mom-and-pop stores. Whether that happens remains to be seen.
In fact, the irony of all of this is that Guitar Center kept adding retail even when their sales growth wasn’t keeping pace. (If that isn’t a recipe for debt, I don’t know what is.) Note the contradictions in a story for National Public Radio’s Marketplace back in 2012:
That story sounds some positive notes: demand for instruments is up alongside lessons. But it also observes that Guitar Center continued its march to expansion even as online retailers gobbled up a lot of the actual sales growth, and that other big box retailers had run into similar problems with debt.
If you want to look to who would be threatened by troubles at Guitar Center, a New York Times story from the same year posits one answer: Fender.
Analysts say Guitar Center is crucial to Fender, accounting for roughly a sixth of Fender’s sales — and the ties between the two run deep.
But if under Bain ownership Guitar Center has mostly managed to acquire junk debt, we’ll see if the creditor is able to restructure the business back to health. Bain absorbed Guitar Center in 2007, so the stock GTRC is now defunct, in case someone was trying to go on NASDAQ to trade in either GTRC or AVID.
As for how this impacts people making and consuming musical instruments, I think the scale of the implication really comes down to whether they’ve found other alternatives. Those whose fates are intertwined with Guitar Center may face tough times. But those who don’t may see this as non-news. If you’re a manufacturer, we’d be curious to know how much you rely on the big box chain – or its rivals.
Avid, makers of Pro Tools, Media Composer, Sibelius, and other products was on Tuesday suspended from being traded on the NASDAQ stock exchange because of a failure to issue timely financial statements. And the company by the admission of its own chief executive faces a changing industry.
However, our earlier report included inaccurate information from financial analysis site The Street. Their report included outdated financial data. Our reporting was not correct; we have since spoken to Avid.
The Street reporting (and thus ours, in building a report on it) was inaccurate and misleading in that financial data for Avid actually isn’t available. That’s the sole reason for the NASDAQ delisting. The company went into further detail on Wednesday in a pre-recorded webcast for investors, which you can watch on the site.
The main point is this: we don’t have any 2013 numbers for AVID. Avid has filed no earnings reports, including the 2013 Form 10-K American public companies must submit to the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission, the US financial regulatory body). In addition, Avid says the numbers that from 2012 are part of the restatement process. (There never was even a Q4 2012 statement.) It’s also worth noting that our bias is heavily on the audio/music side, not the video production market to which Avid caters. That is only one portion of Avid’s business, and we can’t adequately cover the rest.
The main point of the story, though, was people in music or keenly interested in the future of the company. We received an unprecedented amount of feedback from users, across the spectrum of music and audio makers. The message: those of you who do use Pro Tools care about it passionately, and many of you consider it an irreplaceable tool. Those of you who don’t use Pro Tools are passionate, too, about what is happening at Avid and what it means for the industry. We got the facts wrong, and it’s important we get them right, and that we follow this story as it develops. (The Street has since removed those statements from their story, and even went as far as removing their “SELL” rating for the stock. However, it is not our business to report inaccurate information, whatever the source, and I apologize.)
Here is our understanding, and the latest information.
Avid does have cash. This is the most important revelation. An Avid spokeperson tells CDM Avid at the end of 2013 had $48 million in cash and no debt. The company has reassured us they’re committed to music products like Pro Tools and Sibelius. The cash figure is important, as it means they can support that commitment with real investment.
Avid is recalculating their financials largely around the issue of upgrades. Avid is performing a “restatement” – a re-issuing of financial data – based on the way they account for software updates. Long-time Mac users will recall Apple talking about charging for software updates for accounting reasons. The logic is this: free software updates are considered liabilities, or “post-contract support.” This is not uncommon accounting practice, and certainly is in no way specific to Avid. In plain terms, if you give away a free update to your customers, it isn’t really free to you – it has material value, and it’s distinct from something like a warranty in that it adds new functionality. (If Whirlpool fixes your kitchen fridge, they don’t suddenly add an automatic ice crusher and Internet connection it never had.) Avid’s CFO also said in the statement Wednesday that the company may have over-accrued some restructuring costs.
When the work is done, Avid’s revenue will be the same, but the timing of that revenue will not; the recalculation involves “deferred revenue.”
The financials have been delayed again, until summer. Avid announced at the beginning of January that the restatement was taking longer than originally expected, and they publicly anticipated being delisted by NASDAQ. (NASDAQ had previously given them an extension in filing, which they missed.) As of this week, they are estimating summer. If they make that target, we’ll see updated financial numbers for past years and new quarterly reports, and Avid says they want to again be traded on NASDAQ.
Avid’s new strategy centers on media management. The investor video today isn’t necessarily recommended viewing; think long, slow, and corporate. But Avid’s CEO Louis Herndandez, Jr. did provide a peek into the new Avid strategy, “Avid Everywhere.” In the video, Hernandez says that the “value chain” has shifted beyond just creation, to monetizing and sharing content. The solution appears to be a combination of cloud solutions and new media management tools built into software like Pro Tools and Media Composer.
Based on the description and presentation slides, these would even give you the ability to finish a track in Pro Tools at home, then have a TV studio looking for music for a sports feature license it from you, all within an Avid-run marketplace. There are also new tools ranging from metadata, tagging, and search to cloud-based collaboration and exchange.
It’s far too early to judge this strategy, as it’s difficult to understand from a set of strategic slides. By April, we should be more able to do so. Avid tells CDM they won’t be able to comment on specifics until the first components of Avid Everywhere appear around the broadcasting trade show NAB. We’ll have an update then.
The S3L hardware – Avid’s latest play for a hit in the pro audio world. Product images courtesy Avid.
Avid’s official statement to CDM:
· Avid’s de-listing from NASDAQ and its subsequent listing on OTC is the result of delays in the reporting of financial information — it was not related to operating performance in any way; As we have previously reported, as a result of the restatement, previously issued financial statements are not accurate and should not be relied upon.
· We are continuing to work very hard to correct the accounting, which is related to nearly 5 million transaction lines spanning eight-and-a half years. We announced that we are targeting completion of the restatement by mid-2014.
· We continue to invest in product innovation. Since the beginning of the restatement process, we released Pro Tools 11, Media Composer 7, Sibelius 7.5, two new online shared storage offerings, a brand new mixing console – the S6, as well as a new live sound system – Avid S3L. During this process we remain squarely focused on the execution of our product innovation and growth strategies. Having ended 2013 with $48 million in cash and no debt, we believe we are well positioned to support these efforts.
· With a compelling Avid Everywhere vision established, the launch of the ACA, a significant number of new product innovation announcements planned for 2014, we believe we remain well positioned to support our customers’ ongoing success
Although I can’t comment about specifics, I’d like to reassure you that behind the scenes, we’re carrying on as usual developing Sibelius, Pro Tools, Media Composer and our other software and hardware solutions. We’re investing heavily in new technologies and expanding our development teams to transform our solutions. Over the next few months to a year, you’ll see big advances in our products and solutions.
For Sibelius, we’ll soon be releasing Sibelius 7.5, which marks a huge milestone for the team. After that, we’ll be looking into improvements to both Sibelius and the Scorch platform that are in line with the Avid Everywhere platform.
The Sibelius news is doubly relevant, as many engineers formerly working on that product were fired; some are now working for Steinberg on something new.
Version 7.5 will include new Timeline navigation, updated playback expression and notation interpretation, added collaboration and sharing, and integration with the iPad Scorch.
While it’s encouraging to hear product developments, it’s disappointing for the confidence in Avid that accounting delays still haven’t been resolved. These delays, irrespective of the validity of their cause, have some real repercussions. And Avid faces some serious challenges that are not directly due to the state of the industry, but to the state of the company’s own financial health.
They outline some of these problems in their own words, in the disclaimer statement that accompanies this week’s press release.
Those “risks and uncertainties” include:
…the effect on the Company’s sales, operations and financial performance resulting from: delays in Avid’s completion of its financial statements and the filing of its periodic reports; the delisting of its stock from the NASDAQ stock market and the Company’s ability to have its shares relisted on the NASDAQ stock market; the previously disclosed ongoing SEC and Department of Justice inquiries; pending litigation and possibility of further legal proceedings adverse to the Company resulting from the restatement or related matter; the costs associated with the restatement and the SEC and DOJ inquiries; the identified material weakness in Avid’s internal controls; recent changes in Avid’s management; recent changes in Avid’s external accountants; Avid’s ability to execute its strategic plan and meet customer needs…
This is usual legalese associated with any financial releases, but some of the details – such as the SEC and DOJ inquiries and litigation – are specific areas of concern. Avid needs to demonstrate both the organization of the business and their strategy for customers.
April and summer appear to be the timeframe when we’ll see if they can deliver.
Forbes’ Bobby Owsinski has a fairly black-and-white take. (Side note: he also notices something I noticed just reading things on Avid’s investor site – the stock, now over the counter, is seeing heavy trading and actually lifting in value.)
The Avid saga is just another example of a technology company in a small market that’s based around creative professionals. A company like this has no business being public in the first place as it’s growth will be capped by the market size sooner or later. A public company is more beholden to its stockholders than its customers, especially when things go bad, which is a bad recipe when it comes to the entertainment industry.
That may be, though it seems the time to make that judgment will be after we see how the next few months play out in Avid specifically. The headline is a bit over the top:
In fact, the NASDAQ delisting has absolutely zero immediate impact on the music and movie business. Long-term Avid health will certainly impact Avid customers, but so, too, will the direction the company takes and how the products – and competitive products – evolve.
Avid Investor Relations (including the video, which from reading the forums, eager readers have been watching in its entirety):
Pictured below is what happens when you try to use Pacemaker’s Spotify functionality on the iPad without an Internet connection. Tracks simply don’t play at all. Even though Spotify Premium users have offline access to their tracks when listening one at a time, you won’t be able to DJ that way any time soon.
Above, you’ll see that you can’t record mixes even with an Internet connection if you try to use a Spotify song.
But given how many small, boutique labels and independent artists rely on enthusiast DJs to care enough to download their records, it’s hard to see this as bad news. That enthusiast market has been a ray of hope for people who want music to have value – not even necessarily in a terribly-profitable monetary sense, but as a way of distinguishing the relationship you have to music you really care about.
And Pacemaker had to specifically license Spotify. Other DJ apps don’t yet support the functionality, and it’s unclear whether Spotify will open up to them, too if they do seek such a license.
Of course, for wedding and other party DJs wanting to quickly play requests, Pacemaker will still be a huge boon in venues that do have an Internet connection. And those are probably not tracks you really care about.
Oh, yeah – and as mobile Internet becomes more readily available, this app may still send chills down the spines of anyone working on recording music.
Pacemaker, with or without Spotify support, remains an elegant and beautifully-designed DJ app, and proof that there’s more than one way to provide DJ functionality. Just don’t expect this to be the last word in what happens to the download economy for DJs – more like the beginning of an even more vigorous debate. For more on the app itself, see our first hands-on:
It is a machine you’ll only be able to get in the future. And it may be further off before we really see music applications that reach its full potential.
But it does paint a picture of a music machine that’s futuristic, and it isn’t so far off any more.
Apple today made its Mac Pro tower available – sort of. It seems the massively-custom machine is taking some time to ramp up production, as delivery dates quickly slid to February for all but the first to preorder.
But, while the Mac Pro has a hefty price to match its hefty performance, this machine really does look like a monster. For all of the griping from the community, the whole point of the Mac Pro is a move from internal storage and cards to high performance external devices. The core of the Mac Pro is massively powerful, and then you can add accessories via high-performance buses like Thunderbolt 2.
In audio, the main advantage should be mixing performance with mobility. A Mac Pro you can toss in a backpack, but with some of the greatest performance potential anywhere. Internal flash storage delivers lightening-quick load, read, and write times for audio projects of any size, and the six (!) Thunderbolt 2 ports mean potential in low-latency multi-channel audio we haven’t even imagined yet.
The US$2999 “entry-level” model is already a hefty machine, with 3.7GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon E5 processor and 12GB of 1866MHz DDR3 ECC memory. (Now, admittedly, you’re likely to be happier with the pricing if you’re buying the US-assembled machine in North America; Europe, for instance, does appear to pay an additional premium beyond just VAT at 2.999€.)
If you have a bunch of PCI cards you’re happy with that you want to migrate, then the Mac Pro is a non-starter, it’s true. But if you were building a new studio machine and outboard rig, it’s clear that this is the machine to drool over.
Anyway, I don’t think that the lack of slots is really the issue with the Pro. I think the Mac Pro’s competition will remain other Macs. The problem is, for 90% of the audio projects out there, something like a Mac mini will do just fine. There are even some nice external flash drives for storage that, while falling short of internal drives, still deliver reasonable performance. And even the Mac mini now includes a Thunderbolt port that can work nicely with something like a Universal Audio Apollo multichannel interface, one of a handful of audio devices that now use the throughput for DSP and sound. (That interface performs fairly well even via FW800.)
Of course, once you start doing things like video or intensive graphics, the game changes, so I will take a closer look at the Mac Pro in part on Create Digital Motion.
But I would still expect the Mac Pro to be a powerful choice for the other 10% of users, people who are considering pushing the envelope and investing in a machine that will exceed their performance needs for some time. That’s the feedback we did get from readers, even among others angrily protesting the lack of PCI slots. And while we’ll have to wait a little longer, I think the Mac Pro may make some people very happy, indeed. Expect more criticism, but for the handful of people who do genuinely want a Mac Pro, 2014 is looking like an interesting year.
New MacBook Pros are more desirable than ever. Just make sure to budget for enough RAM when you purchase – and get ready to embrace SSD internal storage and external drives for everything else. Image courtesy Apple. Also… wait… I suddenly have a desire to either go camping or eat sushi. This image is telling me something.
To the rest of the world, Apple’s event today was about new iPads.
To most people reading this site, it’s probably more along the lines of, “can I finally stop putting off buying the new MacBook I need?”
Answer: yes. But let’s quickly review what was announced that’s relative to music makers and live visualists:
A new GarageBand, in line with Logic Pro X, for iOS and OS X
MacBook Pro line that now has updated Intel graphics and chips, better performance and battery life (good) but completes the march to non-upgradeable memory, glossy displays, and SSD-only storage (bad, for some)
The US$2999 Mac Pro – for those looking for a studio workstation for video or audio, now you know the price.
New iPads, of course, and continued advances in mobile performance that will expand what they can do.
I’ve enjoyed Twitter and Facebook banter about the significance here perhaps more than usual – it was great to talk to people who use this stuff seriously in their work about what it means. (So, no, this isn’t about being a fanboy.) PC users, yes, you can still choose big machines at lower prices that have matte displays. (Though, if you want slim, light, and long battery life, you’re beginning to look at machines that resemble Apple’s in pricing, design, and functionality.)
For the Apple side, though, here are some reflections:
The Software Picture
1. Apple remains committed to their creative apps. On the Pro side, Aperture, Final Cut, and Logic got nods as the apps that couple with the Mac Pro hardware. Aperture and Final Cut were specifically described as recoded for the Mac Pro. Logic Pro X was not explicitly described as such, but Apple told CDM way back in summer that we could expect an update of Logic to take advantage of the new hardware. And GarageBand got a big center-stage demo from Xander Soren for the first time since 2011′s Back to the Mac event.
2. GarageBand being free is a big deal. GarageBand is now standard on iOS as well as the Mac. And it includes a lot of the same design cues and functionality (the automatic Drummer) that Logic does. That means for Apple-centric users, it will likely be the lingua franca in music making.
3. We’ll want to watch Mavericks compatibility. Music developers, fail to test Mavericks, the new OS X, at your own risk. Free upgrades mean that a whole lot of Mac users will be upgrading on day one. On the other hand, I think that agile developers could benefit from this in the long haul, as it will mean less need to support old OSes. And in particular, Apple is not only making upgrades free but offering them to lots of old OS versions. The bottom line: just as on iOS, Mac users are likely to largely be running the latest-and-greatest, and anyone not wanting support headaches will want to keep that in mind.
The Hardware Picture
4. The Mac Pro at US$2999 is an impressive workstation. Look, the Mac Pro isn’t for everyone. But for someone wanting a serious workstation or doing video editing, the Thunderbolt workflow and its mess of ports may actually appeal. It will continue to annoy those who prefer internal storage or who have an investment in internal expansion cards. But I think those who do have three grand burning a whole in their pocket may well take a hard look at this very high-end machine.
Of course, for the majority, the real focus will be on MacBook Pro…
5. For music, the MacBook Pro 13″ is a clear sweet spot. The good news is, Apple now includes the latest Intel chipsets across the whole line. Combined with OS X Mavericks, that means improvements to battery life and use of integrated graphics (for visual work and OpenCL computing) that come from both the OS and the hardware. And the prices seem not unreasonable for high-end features, a design lots of people really love, and an OS that for many is worth a premium.
6. But get the specs you need right away – and forget about conventional storage. The bad news is largely to do with upgradeability. Expect to splurge on the US$1499 model, for 256 GB internal SSDs and the full 8 GB of RAM. (If you can live with a small SSD, you can upgrade the entry level to 8 GB for a total of US$1399.)
The SSDs are a whole lot faster and more reliable than conventional drives. But it means you will need to tote around a USB drive for extra storage for things like sample libraries.
7. High-end visuals will cost you, too. The 15″ MacBook Pro starts at US$1999, but for dedicated NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M graphics and 16 GB of RAM, you’ll need the US$2599 model. At that price, I imagine even some deep-pocketed users would consider spending their money on the Mac Pro instead, with much greater performance and connectivity.
8. It’s glossy Retinas or nothin’. Matte display options are, perhaps as expected, evidently a thing of the past – even on the high-end MacBook Pro. 15″ non-Retina is gone, too.
9. iPad will continue to dominate. I’ll leave it to someone else to cover tablets, but while there’s a lot of promise on the Windows side, iPad is for now still where the action is. It’s desirable, and it’s what consumers actually use. So not only does it have the back catalog of creative apps, but it will continue to get them.
And one more reflection on GarageBand…
10. Logic isn’t looking more like GarageBand. GarageBand is looking more like Logic.
SONAR, Cakewalk’s flagship Windows DAW, receives a significant update this month as SONAR X3. There are a number of improvements, but what may be the most significant is a deep integration of Celemony’s toolset for manipulating pitch and time.
DAW tastes will be forever personal, so you can be forgiven if you simply don’t like or have never used SONAR. But it’s worth noting that some things the software has accomplished have led the way for other tools. Cakewalk was the first, for instance, to embrace 64-bit audio processing and computation, and continues to (fairly) boast of its 64-bit “double precision” (that’s the same thing) mix engine. This includes advantages in certain audio tasks and in maximizing the computational performance of the latest hardware.
The rich Celemony integration could be an even more significant accomplishment. Since audio first appeared alongside MIDI in digital editing, musicians have wanted to have the same fluidity of editing that other digital materials have. But our ears are sensitive instruments – even the untrained ear can transform the spectral soup of sound energies into polyphony, can recognize subtle timbres, and can immediately detect if something has been manipulated.
There’s no other way to say this: Celemony’s Melodyne line of products is just better than any other offering out there. The sonic results are more transparent, and the feature set – particularly if you’re willing to shell out some cash for high-end editions – is unmatched. Most competing tools can’t handle anything other than monophonic (single-part) musical lines, and they lack tools for fine-tuning pitch results. There’s a reason they call their technology “Direct Note Access”: it makes editing audio feel like editing MIDI (or, really, even more expressive). When I reviewed Logic Pro X over the summer, that’s why I described Apple’s integrated offerings as more basic. And this isn’t just about pitch correction with a lousy singer – the ability to treat sound as changeable opens up various creative options.
The problem is that the Melodyne products run as plug-ins. So, many workflows involve copying audio into the plug-in and back out again – workable, but not ideal.
To make Melodyne feel more like part of your DAW and less like a separate tool, Celemony introduced an SDK that re-conceives how a plug-in works. And, as usual, they have a name and an acronym for it: ARA (Audio Random Access). The “random” bit is to make editing in the plug-in non-linear in the way that it is in the DAW.
Cakewalk has done more with the SDK for ARA than any other host so far. (This replaces Roland’s V-Vocal, a decent tool, but not really something that would hold up to Celemony comparisons.)
With the integration, as seen in the video, you can edit audio, even in real-time, in the plug-in as though the plug-in were part of the DAW. And you can also pass parameters and region information bi-directionally. Under the hood, the tech is an extension of Steinberg’s VST3, though, well, I’ll let Cakewalk’s CTO Noel Borthwick explain:
… very little is done at the VST level besides streaming the plugin audio output back into the host engine signal flow graph. The bulk of the work is handled by the custom ARA interfaces. This is because unlike normal VST plugins, ARA requires random access lookahead to audio on the timeline, in response to the user re-sequencing, time stretch or otherwise mangling the audio data in the editor user interface. In a sense each ARA plugin works like a dedicated sequencer for its audio region!
And in SONAR, you get various other options: you can batch-process clips and regions via Region FX, for instance.
If you invest in Melodyne Editor, you can detect pitch in polyphonic materials – not just a single vocal line, but harmonies and piano lines. You can copy, paste, move, record, and re-sequence. You can make MIDI out of audio – something available in tools like Ableton Live, but here (cough) working much more accurately.
In other words, this isn’t pitch correction. It’s a massive, multi-dimensional set of remix tools that now exist inside the DAW. And until someone directly licenses Celemony tech or finds a way to come close to their algorithms and feature sets, whoever has the best Celemony integration wins.
In SONAR, you can do things like set loop points, or drag and drop audio into MIDI tracks. (Again, that’s like what Ableton Live does. But in Live 9, part of the charm of the feature is, to be diplomatic, the results are unpredictable. I actually have fun with that, but here you can have fun with results that are more likely to approach what you hear.)
SONAR X3, while a nice upgrade, otherwise suffers as nearly all DAW upgrades do – it’s nearly impossible to craft an upgrade that will convince loyal musicians to switch. (That’s why we love the music market, really; it’s a relief not to have a single vendor doing everything, as Adobe dominates the graphic market.)
But I would say that the level of integration of Celemony’s software is a reason to pay attention.
Also new in X3:
A new comping engine (see the video – and, yes, comping is a feature missing in Ableton Live, and implemented differently here than in some other hosts)
Rich VST3 support – interesting to see in a DAW not made by Steinberg
Cloud features, including YouTube and Gobbler. Gobbler is the most interesting, in that it makes backups and sharing uncommonly easy.
More analog, in a tape emulation and Blue Tube mixing effects, adding to a broad suite of other mastering and virtual analog features.
Tone2 filtering, in a multi-model filter unit.
Addictive Drums drum instrument, combining various kits and models. There are actually more kits here than in Ableton, though via a very different interface and with more conventional MIDI patterns (rather than the new adaptive model in Logic).
Bundled Lounge Lizard Session and guitar-strum instrument from AAS (whose products are also bundled in Ableton, though in a different form).
There are a number of other important improvements. And the included set of tools in SONAR X3 is getting almost absurdly-packed; even with big bundles in rivals, SONAR is an unusual amount of software bang-for-your-buck. I’ll let them do the laundry list, though.
Pricing runs from US$199 – 499, with upgrades $49 – $149.
Melodyne integration is available in the $199 (street) Studio edition, the mid-range edition – nice move there, and I could say for Windows users, you might consider spending a couple hundred bucks here if you’re investing in one of the higher-end Celemony packages, just to get that integration.
If you make use of this feature, of course, we’d love to hear from you – especially if you get more creative than just fixing your singer’s vocal chops. (Come to think of it, I haven’t been singing in a while. I’m glad I’m not going into the studio, Celemony or no! Creative remixing, it is!)
Let’s not mince words: Serato’s DJ offerings had gotten confusing, and updates and compatibility lagged. This week, the company has changed the tune: there’s one Serato to support everything, and it’s coming soon.
For controller users, that means being ready to go in October, thanks to vastly-expanded hardware compatibility. For digital vinyl users, things are still going somewhat slowly, but a beta will be available later this year with stability afterwards and broader support for hardware early next year. That means controller users are likely to switch this fall, with Scratch Live users given a preview and (it seems) more likely to switch next year.
And upgrades will generally be free for those of you who have made an investment in Rane hardware or ITCH controllers, apart from entry-level Serato DJ Intro users. (Serato Video will also work without incident inside the new Serato DJ.)
From Three Products to One, Finally
Fairly recently, there were two versions of Serato from which to choose:
1. Serato Scratch Live: the digital vinyl solution, the one that uses records on a turntable to control software.
2. Serato ITCH: a solution for integrating controller hardware with the computer.
Then, Serato DJ came along to replace them, leaving… ah. Three products, at least in the minds of consumers — ITCH, Scratch, and DJ. Serato continued to support Serato DJ and Scratch Live. And hardware compatibility has been out of sync.
Until now. With Serato DJ 1.5.0, Serato Scratch Live is out of the picture. The software will be supported through 2015, but there will be no further updates (apart from bug fixes) to Scratch Live or SSL.
The good news is, this clears the way for a properly-supported Serato DJ. Now, one product will support both digital vinyl and controller users – and there’s only one product, one codebase, one flavor.
In fact, as far as out-of-the-box support, Serato DJ starts to look like one of the most versatile options out there, thanks to finally catching up with all the ITCH controllers. That includes popular options like the Vestax VCI-300 and 400, the Pioneer DDJ series, the Numark NS, and of course Novation’s own TWITCH. In December, you’ll get the last stragglers: the Numark Mixdeck Quad and V7, and the VCI-100 MK II.
These days, controllers are the focus for a growing number of digital DJs; it seems you see less digital control vinyl in the clubs than you once did. So having this much controller support is already critical.
On the vinyl side, Serato works with the new Rane Sixty-Four and Pioneer DJM-900SRT, plus the Rane Sixty-Eight, Sixty-Two, and Sixty-One mixers, with the SL2, SL3, and SL4 interfaces early in 2014.
So, that does mean vinyl users will see a gradual transition, much as ITCH users have.
Vinyl users will also see support for the Scratch Live Accessories CDJ-2000nexus, CDJ-2000, Novation Dicers and Denon DN-HC1000S.
In technology, I think there’s a direct line between how happy developers are and how happy users are. And sure enough, Serato are re-committing themselves to stability as their main priority, and promising a number of features in Serato DJ that really have to do with allowing their developers to do the things they want to do to deliver for users. Serato promises:
Single code base
The proof, of course, is in the product – and that simply remains to be seen.
The new Serato DJ Controller Accessory
The new mixers
From Rane, a four-channel club mixer with dual USB ports. Yeah, okay, that’s pretty tasty.
Yes, but what does it really mean? Martin Backes is our guest with a bass music mix, prior to a show with me tomorrow – but, true to this back-to-school season, we’ve got reading and reflection, too. Pencils down. Photo (CC-BY) Rodd Senna.
Against the sweeping tide of a term as meaningless as “EDM” – perhaps describing a commercial phenomenon more than a genre – or the historically-ambiguous “techno” or “electro,” there is “bass music.”
There’s no “treble music,” but there is “bass music,” and even a “bass music culture” to go along with it.
If the term is clumsy and foggy, though, the ideas behind it are potent, the latest blossoms in a deeply-rooted musical tree. And in its latest iteration, the music appeals to people well outside a demographic or commercial context or even continent.
It appeals to people like my friend Martin Backes, a German-born and Berlin-based media artist, composer and sound designer, and veteran DJ. Martin and I will DJ tomorrow at Platoon Kunsthalle Berlin, an imposing venue fashioned from disused shipping containers. (For another angle on dance and music, see my post on my LP of experimental music for modern dance and reflections on rhythm and movement. I’ll be remixing bits of that record tomorrow.)
We’ll move together from ambient and experimental sounds early on to things you can dance to, a reminder that nowadays, it’s the norm that electronic music academics are clubbers, too – and, for that matter, people far from ivory towers are often hacking together new inventions. Labs and academies and clubs need no physical distinctions.
Martin, while known these days for art installations and beatless sound environments and bleeding-edge sound designs (he’s co-founder of sound/media lab Aconica), has in fact been DJing since 1994. That trek has taken him from the roots of turntablism in Cage, Schaeffer, and musique concrete to scratch DJing, and later digital and controllerism. He’s made a mix just to demonstrate his dancefloor-friendly side. He describes it as featuring “current bass music culture with a touch of Afrofuturism.”
But his passion for bass music is important precisely because it’s so commonplace – it has spread across any boundaries. And Martin was an early adopter, hosting eclectic freestyle nights that included the first drum and bass parties in his hometown — even if Germany is typically not associated with the movement.
And now, we get this music back, through a new frame.
I asked Martin as a guest on CDM to look at just what this phenomenon is today – and to give us some reading to provoke some more reflection on what the term might mean, whether it’s useful, and why it gets our musical hearts beating faster.
Consider this a starting place from someone outside the scene producing the music, providing a window to look in.
“Bass music” began as an umbrella term describing various styles of electronic dance music out of the UK — namely jungle, drum and bass, bassline, dubstep, and UK garage, among others. But that was just the beginning, and doesn’t give us a clear a idea of what bass music really is now. Bass music has become a worldwide movement, which is really hard to define when it comes to labels, genre, or tempo. And this is what it makes it really exciting and inspirational to me personally. I’d suggest some reading that examines the question of what bass music is, where it comes from, and where it could go.
Martin selects some articles on the topic worth considering. It starts with Computer Music in the UK, considering pragmatically why we stick with genres – even if they’re crude – and what to make of the trajectory of bass music.
“Forget about this Skrillex guy on the top — the end of the article explains it pretty well from my point of view.”
And this is where we find ourselves in 2013. In the space of three very short years, bass music has spread way beyond its dubstep roots, incorporating countless sounds, tempos, attitudes and artists. But are we any closer to answering the question, ‘What is bass music?’
And to address Afrofuturism, I would suggest the book More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction by Kodwo Eshun. Eshun takes on various musics of the black diaspora, from American hip-hop and funk to British jungle, from Detroit techno to German proto-electronics, and provides a useful guide for those wishing to connect the dots between their Roots and Phutures.
And Martin points to Kode9`s idea of “collective rhythm cultures” – as Kore9 puts it, “I’m just fascinated by rhythmic collectivity, whether it’s pleasurable or not – just people moving together, differently, in time.”: Kode9: Unedited Transcript [The Wire]
Augmenting keyboards with additional expression is a tradition that goes back nearly a century. Inventors have tried keys that bend and wiggle, add-ons from pulleys to ribbons, wheels and pressure sensors, and more – anything to extend the piano and organ beyond their on/off playing methods.
But now, the Web has accelerated the ability to communicate and develop these ideas. Crowd-funded invention is becoming widespread. And that means we’ve actually seen several polyphonic touch expression schemes this year. Rather than just presenting papers at conferences, instrumental experimenters are going to musicians and trying to fund real products.
American-born, London-based composer, educator, and inventor Andrew McPherson has the latest idea. We’re a bit late to this story, but part of what strikes me about it is that readers keep sending it in — it’s not something where the novelty wore off; the idea really seems to stick.
Well, stick – so to speak. Whereas lots of recent keyboard creations have required that you buy a whole new keyboard, TouchKeys adds a multi-touch, expressive surface to any keyboard you already own. You self-install overlays, and get X and Y sensing across the whole surface.
TouchKeys does two things other systems can’t. First, it accepts multiple touches on the key surface. Second, it works with any keyboard you have – meaning a classic synth can be retrofitted, for instance. Photo courtesy the developer.
The system isn’t terribly cheap. You can back the project for as little as 1 Pound Sterling, but it costs GBP650 to get four octaves of keys. (Early bird specials are available.) So, the ability to add these to your existing keyboard is really more about flexibility than it is about economizing. (You can also buy a custom-built keyboard if you prefer.)
That’s a non-trivial advantage for some, because it means that you can retrofit anything – even a classic Yamaha CS-80, as seen in a video McPherson has produced. (Via Synthtopia)
What you get in exchange, though, apart from the ability to keep your favorite keyboard, is very sophisticated sensing. The sensors not only track touch across X and Y axis, but can sense up to three points at once. They even map to pinch and slide gestures. That affords a broad range of additional expression across the key surface that other instruments generally don’t offer.
To pair with the physical touch surface, the TouchKeys will work with open source software that analyzes the sensor data on Mac, Windows, and Linux, connected via USB. (Or, it will be open source – nothing is available yet.)
vibrato by shaking the hand side-to-side
pitch bends up and down the key, with an optional feature to snap the bend into the nearest note so you always stay in tune
MIDI control changes, used for changing volume and timbre, based on absolute or relative finger position or finger contact area
multi-touch pinch and slide mappings
triggering extra sounds by tapping with two or more fingers
Andrew points us to this video, which shows more of what this means in playing technique:
The inventor, in his studio: Andrew McPherson.
For his part, Andrew McPherson has a rich background in researching and composing for alternative instrument designs. He’s now, Lecturer in Digital Media at the Centre for Digital Music, Queen Mary, University of London. We actually saw some of his research two years ago when he first began developing it; you can check out his research at http://andrewmcpherson.org/
McPherson is a veteran of terrific programs at Drexel (where he was a post-doc with Youngmoo E. Kim), University of Pennsylvania (where he did his PhD), and MIT (a student of the likes of Peter Child and John Harbison in composition, and Barry Vercoe’s prominent program in tech).
And speaking of Classically-influenced applications, Andrew notes to CDM that you can use a piano – here we have, exclusive to CDM, images of the system on a Yamaha acoustic grand. I’d love to see this in combination with a Disklavier. (Even if that instrument needs a new name.)
He explains to CDM:
I worked on a project this summer in Lugano, Switzerland (a collaboration with Jennifer MacRitchie at Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana) where we recorded 4 professional pianists playing a variety of classical and jazz repertoire. We used the TouchKeys alongside video motion tracking to research physical gestures at the piano, studying how pianists orient and move their hands on the keyboard in performance. It’s a different application from the controller aspects that are the Kickstarter focus, but might be an interesting side note. I’m also hoping that the data I get from the research project will lead to new and better mappings in the future.
All of this leaves two major rivals at the moment for the TouchKeys.
NDVR’s developers tried touch on the surface, too, in their Endeavour keyboards. But for this outing, they chose instead to use physical swing for sensing.
The NDVR has a number of features to recommend it over the TouchKeys, potentially. First, it has a fraction of the cost: assuming the creators can reach their funding goal, 49 keys can be yours for a paltry US$349. That’d get you just one octave of the TouchKeys overlay – and you still have to install them on your keyboard.
Second, having tried touch-on-a-keyboard schemes before, I’m intrigued by NDVR’s physical “swing” movement. It means added tactile feedback, and for some, could integrate more easily with existing playing methods – all while causing fewer accidental expressive moves that you might get with a touch system. I have also been impressed with the built quality of this maker before. All bets are off until you try these in person, though; at least with the NDVR, that should happen soon.
But we do have to see whether NDVR makes it to its funding goal and happens at all, and that same “swing” mechanism that appeals to some may be less attractive to others. TouchKeys easily represents the maximum of what you can do right now with the surface of the keyboard, and the ability to use multiple fingers and gestures is unparalleled.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out the QuNexus again. It uses a much simpler touch scheme, but unlike the rest of these, you can buy one now – and it’s very inexpensive indeed.
That said, I’d buy the QuNexus mainly for its mobility, with added expression a bonus.
Still, there’s nothing quite like TouchKeys out there. And it’s extraordinary to see these ideas start to turn into widely-available products for the first time, with the aid of crowd funding. (That allowed the QuNexus to get off the ground, too; we’ll have to see if these other ideas are successful.)
To see if you’re ready to take the risk, there are extensive details of how the system works, what different funding levels get you, and how installation and playing pans out in practice, on the Kickstarter site:
And with just over two weeks to go, they’re about halfway to the funding goal. We’ll see what the CDM bump does on this one.
The TouchKeys are a new musical instrument that transforms the piano-style keyboard into an expressive multi-touch control surface. The TouchKeys are touch sensors that can be added to the surface of any keyboard, measuring the location of the musician’s fingers on the keys during performance.
Traditionally on the keyboard, it has been difficult for the player to shape the sound of a note after it is played. On the TouchKeys, techniques like vibrato, pitch bends, timbre and volume changes are as simple as shaking the wrist back and forth or moving the finger up and down on the key. The TouchKeys work with any synthesizer and are especially well-suited to playing wind and string sounds, which have long been a challenge to emulate from the keyboard.
A unique aspect of the TouchKeys project is that the sensors install on any existing keyboard, from the smallest portable keyboards to full grand piano sizes. This means that the TouchKeys retain the familiar feel of the keyboard while adding many new expressive techniques. Do-it-yourself kits will be available for musicians to hack their own keyboards, as well as a limited number of prebuilt instruments. The project is launching on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, with the goal of raising £30k to fund the production of TouchKeys sets and get them into the hands of musicians.
Andrew McPherson, creator of the TouchKeys, is a composer and engineer and a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in the Centre for Digital Music at Queen Mary, University of London. He was previously a postdoc in the Music Entertainment Technology Laboratory (MET-lab) at Drexel University. His previous project, the magnetic resonator piano (electronically-augmented acoustic piano), has been used in dozens of performances worldwide over the past 4 years, most recently by the London Chamber Orchestra and the band These New Puritans.