Okay, OK Go fans – now there’s synth hardware as quirky and charming as the band’s Internet-viral synth-pop.
We got our hands on a very limited edition KORG volca sample made especially for OK Go. This is the battery-powered sample unit with grungy digital sound playback and loads of knobs for manipulating sound, plus the usual touch strip step sequencer for making patterns. It’s fun to play, a unique collectors’ item even if you just want an extra sample playback instrument around. And the built-in samples can be terrific, as you can hear in our playlist.
But those are spendy options. The volca sample is more of a reasonable impulse buy. In fact, having more than one volca sample is appealing, because you can load them up with your own sounds (via desktop app or mobile transfer).
If you haven’t done that before, it’s ridiculously good fun. Trigger sounds with your fingers, sequence them together, then squash and re-pitch them, cram them into snappy-short envelopes, or leave them in the cavernous reverb.
The OK Go edition looks different. You get a nice numbered booklet with signatures by the band, and credits to designed Tatsuya Takahashi and the Tokyo-based team. There are bright colorful graphics and a cheeky “OKGO” logo on the back (nearly an anagram for KORG), all designed by Taku Sakuguchi, the Osaka-based graphic designer [Instagram].
But it also sounds different. The full sample bank is loaded up with bits of their album Hungry Ghosts. You aren’t stuck with those sounds in the promo, either, since you can off-load and restore the default sample bank.
And it sounds fantastic. This is actually a nicely-voiced set of samples that you can make sound very much unlike OK Go.
How good? Here’s CDM’s David Abravanel going to town with some patterns:
3000 of these will be made. For us small builders, that’s not such a small number, but it’s pretty limited for a company the size of KORG.
Pricing and availability information we’ll update once we have it.
We know Pioneer is dominant in the clubs. (Heck, as a brand, Pioneer is almost more of a sure thing than even Red Bull.) But as the global DJ population booms, is it something people will also take home?
Pioneer sure does seem to hope so – and as it gears itself toward DJs outside clubs, it’s starting to look more like a direct rival to Traktor and Serato and their ecosystems.
First off, there’s rekordbox DJ. rekordbox was already a ubiquitous tool for DJs to do before-the-gig set management – a kind of pre-flight tool for your USB stick before you headed into the dank nightlife underground and plugged into a USB stick. But lately, that same tool is looking, well, a whole lot like a cleaned-up Pioneer rival to Traktor. They’ve got the blue color-coded waveforms. They’ve got the same multi-pane interface. They’ve copied Traktor’s library view, down to the narrow rectangular artwork previews. Heck, Pioneer, a Japanese company, is even taking to spelling things with a ‘k’ – auf Deutsch. And, taking a page from the Serato/NI playbook, Pioneer is at last making their own “native” USB controllers designed especially for rekordbox – like the DDJ-RX.
That’s not to say rekordbox DJ is a slavish clone, either – which really ought to have NI even more worried. There’s multi-screen support, a clever way of chaining effects on pads, and simpler recording.
That said, DJs really associate Pioneer with standalone hardware. Playing on a CDJ, frankly, can be less stressful than DJing on a laptop, and feel more like working with decks in the traditional sense.
So, next up, there’s Pioneer’s play for getting you to take the whole CDJ home with you, too. (Okay, fine, “XDJ,” but let’s face it – anything with a circle on it that says Pioneer will now forever be known to DJs as “CDJ’s.”)
Enter the XDJ-7000. It’s a current-generation Pioneer deck with most of the bells and whistles – but skipping some stuff you probably don’t need in order to shave some weight, size, and cost off the unit.
That’s not to say it’s stripped down. For the price of a premium controller – heck, the price of a new NI deck that doesn’t do anything without being attached to a computer – you get a reasonable set of features:
A 7″ color touchscreen. Touch means you can both type searches into the browser (remember, no laptop), and zoom in on waves, show beat countdowns, etc.
Set up loops and cues in rekordbox, then trigger them here, plus see rekordbox metadata (this is a Pioneer box, after all).
Lots o’ quantization, in case you ain’t got rhythm: loops, cues, Beat Sync, the usual.
Load music via USB key, or USB/wifi connection to a computer (or iOS/Android via Pioneer’s rekordbox app).
What you lose: you don’t get that spinning display in the center of the wheel, and the wheel is smaller.
Upgrade to the $999 XDJ-1000, and you get that wheel, plus a dedicated reverse button and a Vinyl Speed Adjust knob, plus a minijack audio output labeled “control” (most likely for your headphones). I’m also curious to see these units in person to evaluate build and finish. Whatever the difference there, you’ll pay $300 and an extra kilogram for the privilege. (That speed adjust knob to me is the one thing you’d be most likely to miss.)
Now, if you are a laptop DJ but want to prepare in order to do an occasional CDJ (uh, XDJ) set, this might also be an option. USB-HID and MIDI support means the same hardware will double as a controller.
The XDJ isn’t exactly cheap – since we’re talking about two grand by the time you spend the cash for two XDJs and a mixer. But for those who do want to bring a CDJ home, this is one they might for the first time actually carry around. It’s 238 x 308 x 106 mm (W x D x H), and comes with a stand you can remove to reduce the height to 70mm.
Also, Pro DJ Link connects this generation of players via LAN cable. That’s useful for syncing, but could also mean DJs could pool together their XDJs for multi-deck setups.
And you should note the trends here. Pioneer is getting slimmer than ever, more affordable than ever, and more computer-friendly than ever. As DJ controller gear for laptops is simultaneously getting fancier and pricier and bigger, I think that could mean the first real stand-off between the computer and dedicated player approaches.
That said, maybe someone can explain to me why Traktor is always the butt of jokes about “stupid DJs,” when XDJs now have exactly the same features as far as synchronization and quantization – and then some. Just how many visual references do you need to keep things in sync? These things are starting to look like the instrument landing on an Airbus.
My guess is, whatever trash talking may be going on, a lot of DJs will eye on the 700 for their home setups, even sometimes in conjunction with laptops. Or they’ll pick up older CDJs as clubs and DJs unload them.
The iPad isn’t just a gadget any more. There’s now enough of an app ecosystem that investing in an iPad is investing in a creative platform that turns into lots of other things. That is, it really is like another computer.
For music, that means a lot. An iPad is a drum machine, or a vocal processor. It’s a practice aid, a simulated guitar amp. It’s an extension of your desktop music software, too, whether controlling instruments and transport in Logic or live sets in Ableton. It’s a DJ tool.
Of course, the same is true of a computer. And with computers and hardware (keyboards, stompboxes, Eurorack) competing for your wallet’s attention, the iPad has to justify itself. What it isn’t – which it is for a lot of the general public – is just a window through which you watch Orange is the New Black on Netflix. And so, if the tablet is plateauing for the general public, there is a reason to think the iPad means something different to a creative person.
Apple must think so, too, given it just unveiled a top-of-range iPad called “Pro.” But here’s the trick to it: the iPad Pro is turning out to be really an iPad Big. The introduction of fancy exclusive accessories (Pencil and a keyboard cover) disguise the fact that you can get similar accessories from third parties for less.
No, Apple has really evened out the iPad line. And that means what you’re really buying is two things: size and speed.
What the lineup has in common…
Each iPad in the current line has a Retina Display. (The iPad Pro bumps the resolution to 2732×2048, which developers will have to support, but screen density stays the same.) Each has the same Lightning port. Each has the same basic underlying 64-bit architecture. Each has the same aspect ratio (cough, Android).
There’s one generational difference. The iPad Air 2, iPad mini 4, and iPad Pro all have a new laminated, antireflective display that should look a bit better, a fingerprint reader that’s a whole lot more secure and convenient, and newer-generation processors. They also have true, side-by-side multitasking – what Apple calls Split View. Not even all developers I’ve talked to agree, but I think that’ll be a big boon to productivity in music production. (The other current models do support a Slide Over mode.)
So, which should you get?
That depends on what you want. I’ve made some handy charts.
I had to cheat a little. I think no one should buy a 16GB iPad – you won’t even have enough room for your apps, and if you’re a musician, you’re also likely to need some audio. 32GB for most applications is fine, because at some point, you’re probably tethering to a computer. Depending on model, either a 32GB or 64GB model is what’s available as what I think ought to be the entry level. (If you intend to DJ with an iPad, or record a lot of audio, then maybe a 128GB model makes sense – just be ready to pay for it).
In the first chart, you see screen size versus cost (relative speed is represented by circle size). And you see that screen size is what you really pay for. The trend line – and that’s a real power-based trend line – also clearly delineates the generational gap I mentioned earlier.
If speed is your main priority, well – you’ll get the iPad Pro. It’s an order of magnitude faster than the others, which in music could have big implications for people who want their whole workflow on the iPad. It means you can multitask and use Audiobus and not run out of steam. On the other hand, budgeting a little extra for the new generation in the smaller sizes also gives you more computing room, if you can’t stomach the Pro (or can’t wait until November):
What I think is most interesting is how much you pay for screen size. Personally, I love the mini. It has the highest screen density of any iPad, so it looks terrific. Basically, any app will run on it. It’s all down to the size of your hands – but that ultra-compact size means it’s easier to carry and easier to fit into a stage rig and easier to hold in your hand. And it unquestionably delivers the most performance for money.
In fact, to me, the sweet spot right now is the new 64GB iPad mini 4. It does multitasking, it’s really reasonably fast with an A8 processor, and it’s not so hard to afford. But… I have small hands and I like things to be small, so I expect that iPad Air (the original) will also look like a good entry point to a lot of people.
Here’s how the three stack up visually (photo courtesy Apple):
Enter the Pro
On the other hand, you also see that the iPad Pro could be a great lasting investment. And I think it’s going to wind up being a hit with musicians for an unexpected reason.
A lot of musicians still have older iPads banging around. That means they’ve been saving up. A single machine gives them everything – a vastly-faster processor that keeps up with laptops, a huge screen, true multitasking (and a screen where it makes sense), and all the latest hardware enhancements Apple has gradually worked out over the years. It’s brutally expensive for a tablet, of course, but the reality is that a lot of laptops are doing just fine, so I could see people investing in this and delaying the laptop purchase. I have no doubt this is going to cannibalize sales of Mac (and PC) laptops, not as a replacement, but because those machines are doing just fine.
And all of this means the iPad line is starting to look more appealing to app developers. Unlike other markets, musicians have been happy to spend $40 or $50 for an app if they really want it. And they’ve also been willing to use apps that do less but focus more on iOS than the feature-overloaded desktop counterparts.
Will developers immediately start investing huge amounts of resources in this? Of course not.
But two things will happen: one, developers are all going to be buying iPads Pro for themselves, and trying them out, and two, since it isn’t much work to port existing iOS apps to a new screen resolution, you’ll see some app updates. And beyond that, who knows.
And the competition…
While I’m breaking down iPad value, don’t think for a second that I think this diminishes the PC as we traditionally know it.
I wonder if Microsoft’s Surface and the PC touch ilk will see some new attention. The main problem there is a lack of touch-driven apps. But now that it’s clear Apple sees iPads as things with touch and MacBooks as things without, maybe more developers will experiment on the PC. I also think touch machines on the PC side are reaching a critical mass to support an ecosystem – though it needs a lot more support from Microsoft, and supporting developers and pros is clearly an area where Apple has an edge.
With Microsoft set to make some big announcements at the beginning of October, any Windows fans there should definitely wait. (I have to admit, I love the idea of a machine that’s a tablet that runs vvvv and FL Studio and SONAR on it, too.)
Apple did its own MacBook line a huge favor by failing to add a new port to the Pro (like the expected USB-C port). The iPad Pro simply can’t stand on its own – literally or figuratively (cough, kickstand). Even in the new big size, it’s still going to be a satellite to a laptop for most people. Laptops remain faster for the money, they still have more storage and expandability and configurability, and they’re still necessary for our most essential apps.
It just might be that you squeeze life out of your desktop PCs and laptops a little longer and see if you can budget for that iPad Pro. Though… wait, look at this synthesizer…
Data courtesy Apple; find more comparisons on their new site (just without my graphical aids):
The music industry is fantastic at hindsight. We’ve obsessed over the spread of online piracy, the death of the CD, then the impact of streams. But every measure of the business model is somehow framed around acquiring records. And it’s about passive consumption.
We have to remember, though, that passive consumption is itself really the outlier. Until the dawn of recording, music only existed when you played it. Our current copyright and licensing system was first structured around sheet music. And that world never went away. Precise recordings can give you the experience of listening, but no technology can give you the feeling of singing.
Wurrly is an app for recording covers of popular songs. It starts with a song store (and links to the originals on iTunes), but instead of tapping to download, you tap to sing. Choose a pre-made accompaniment (full band, piano, or guitar), set the key and tempo, and record. The cleverest part of the app is probably the interface for adding finishing touches: you get a simple fader for mixing and Instagram-style effects. (I’m sure we’ll keep hearing about an “Instagram for music” or “Instagram for sound” until someone really nails it.)
Of course, this is all paired with social sharing features and featured songs. I’m impressed, some of the recordings are pretty good – there are some talented singers, not just karaoke fare. I find the arrangements themselves to be a little dry; I think the app would benefit from original stems coming from the artists.
And yes, theoretically, this sort of thing could be a revenue stream – though again rates set for statutory licensing are key. A spokesperson for the developer tells CDM:
We have deals with all of the majors and we have blanket licenses on their content. As you know, songs these days can have multiple co-publishers, so we go directly to the stakeholders to get permission. We pay them royalties based on the seconds of usage in the app, quarterly. We also have encryption within the app so that users cannot manipulate it.
Think of this as the pop song / singer analog to Native Instruments’ Stems, and you begin to see where the landscape might shift.
It’s tough to tell what will be a hit and what won’t, in apps as in music itself. But looking beyond just acquiring music directly is wise. The beauty of the shift from devices like the iPod or Walkman to those like the iPhone or tablet is that it’s far easier to engage the user in a creative, active experience. And just as the phone made people feel better about taking more photos by making them look better, there’s no question that making people happy with the way they sound is a key motivation for encouraging musicianship.
Of course, in the past I made this prediction about music games, and that trend lost some steam. But I think we’re still in early days. Watch this space.
Call it a jam session that has completely fallen apart.
Having Web services go dark is certainly not news in this day and age. We’ve come to expect that Internet services won’t be there forever. (Google Reader, anyone?)
But if you pull apart some of the backstory behind the end of a service called “This Is My Jam,” you’ll come across an unnerving reality of the way music on the Web is evolving (or devolving).
This Is My Jam began life as a kind of hack – pick your one and only favorite song of the moment, then embed it as a streamable player. Now, to be honest, I was a little surprised the service lasted as long as it did. What’s happening now is, the site is turning into a read-only “time capsule.” Spotify integration will mean playlists of favorite songs will live on there, as well. It’s a shame, as I found the site a really lovely way of finding music that really mattered to people.
But the reasons it’s now untenable bear as much attention as the end of the site itself, because I’ve been noticing these trends, and they reach far beyond just one clever “favorite jam” site.
APIs are breaking or going away. Remember the hype around “remixing” the Web with open APIs? The reality is this: APIs are mostly dying, at least when it comes to music services. As the developers behind This Is My Jam put it, ominously, “The trend is accelerating with more breaking/shutting off each month, soon exceeding our capacity to fix it.”
The idea of opening up services to interoperability seems to just be going away. And it wasn’t all rosy while many of these APIs were still running, because of frequent changes and deprecations. I don’t necessarily believe this means that having open APIs is a bad idea so much as it illustrates that you need to create consistent, stable APIs for the concept to work. And now, services are running away from the idea of these kinds of sharing entirely.
Music is increasingly shut off from Web sharing. Embeddable players are often limited by licensing, and many services (hello, Apple Music) move the content into the apps. Now, this is important to music producers, who are likely to favor flexibility over, say, obscure licensing requirements that perhaps don’t make them any money anyway. And that leads to another problem:
Regional licensing is incompatible with the way people use the Web. The Web is everywhere. But antiquated licensing by country means that rules restrict your ability to put your music where you want.
The mobile Web is still the Web, but it requires a separate development effort. This is another problem: build something well for mobile, and it doesn’t work so well on desktop. Build it for the desktop browser, and it’s not going to feel native on mobile. We currently take this problem for granted in that we’re so used to it, but it’s hard not to hope for a future where this separation is mostly forgotten and tools blend seamlessly from one to the other.
Streaming deals are making things worse, not better. Is anyone else getting a sinking suspicion here? The push to streams is killing download sales, which were a semi-reliable source of revenue for a lot of producers. But the plans to monetize streams are so fragmented and incomplete that the net effect has largely been to restrict where and how music is played more than to increase revenue received by actual producers. I’m also not clear on how independent labels and artists can possibly get the same deal with, say, Apple, as majors, as negotiations swirl around exclusives and the like.
That’s my somewhat bleak case. If it were just this one app, that’d be one thing – but reading through the reasons they credit for the shutdown, too much is already too familiar.
And apart from This Is My Jam, I still have to think that independent producers and labels ultimately benefit from a more open Web. Embedding players means more data about would-be fans and listens, data that’s hugely valuable to musicians. It means the flexibility to easily get your music where you want it. And ultimately, it means easily facilitated sharing, which is vitally important in an age of abundant music from around the world.
I don’t mean to suggest that we should go back to the tools we had. But simply giving up the possibilities of sharing is a retreat, not an advancement. We ought to be able to do more with the Internet.
So, This Is My Jam, R.I.P.
But let’s hope the notion of sharing music through open interchange of data isn’t dead.
Since the spring, Native Instruments has been eager to talk about Stems every chance they got. And shops and some celebrity DJs have been quick to endorse the new initiative for releasing music in multi-track, DJ-friendly formats. But today, on the occasion of the official Stems launch, you can actually get your hands on Stems – literally.
That’s because as of today, you have both usable content and DJ tools to play with it. There’s a basic but significant catalog of Stems content available, and the Traktor 2.9 software necessary to play them in a DJ set is now ready to download. With that copy of Traktor, you can map Stems control to your favorite hardware, or use out-of-the-box support from NI’s own S8 and D2, complete with visualization on those units’ displays.
Saying Stems is a revolution or that it will fundamentally change DJ performance is I think a little exaggerated. The techniques for DJing don’t really change just because you’ve divided up mixes. But that shouldn’t turn you off from the real potential here.
Stems could the direction of the tide in some key areas. First, far too many recent releases (techno, I’m looking at you) have been reduced to making DJ “tools” – stripped-down tracks composed for mixing that are basically unlistenable on their own. Ironically, I think Stems could free up producers to make songs for listening and then let DJs work out how to break them apart into a mix. Second, Stems might finally make it easier to approach DJing from a digital perspective. The reality is, most digital DJ sets you here are fairly linear mixing affairs. And I think part of the reason DJs aren’t more adventurous is, while you have tools for looping and slicing and whatnot, you might not want to do that on an entire stereo master at the same time. If you could do it on a single part, though, everything gets a bit easier – and now you can do it on material from actual tracks, not just assembling boring piles of sample packs and generic loops.
Finally, Stems could help save the download business when it’s under fire, and make a little extra cash for producers who need it to support themselves.
Here’s what’s important to know:
The music is here. No chicken and egg problem: NI is announcing chickens and eggs aplenty. Beatport, Bleep, Juno, Traxsource, whatpeopleplay, and Wasabeat (a popular Japanese store) have all begun adding Stems content to their stores, NI reports.
I started by checking out Beatport (who weirdly call them “stempacks,” which sounds like something some mad scientist will use to clone dinosaurs). The music available looks frankly fantastic – certainly for techno fans. There’s a pretty strong and unsurprising Berlin angle – you’ll find the likes of Cosmin TRG and Benjamin Damage, great new music from Lando, stems for Paula Temple’s wonderfully-brutal “Colonized” (the last one dense as hell in the normal stereo form). Stewart Walker, whom we interviewed earlier this year and who I understand had a big hand in the development of Stems, is there. But overall, there’s already a pretty good selection across genres. Current price: US$3.49 – and it’s a safe bet that’ll be the new standard.
Bleep is promised, too, though they don’t yet have a dedicated page. (As a fan of Warp and whatnot, I’ll update you when it becomes available.)
Labels and artists have gotten most of the attention, but it’s also significant that distributors are signed up. Some of them provide additional infrastructure for mastering and promotion, too. Onboard: FUGA (NL), Label Worx (UK), Paradise and Finetunes (DE), Symphonic (USA), and Bonzai (BE).
Hands-on hardware support is here. It’s no accident that the deck layouts on NI’s new S8 and D2 have four big vertical faders and a color display. You can use that to see stacked waveforms of the four stems. Accordingly, NI has an artist video showing off the DJ techniques that affords with the lovely NGHT DRPS. Here’s that film, shot at Watergate (footsteps from NI’s Berlin HQ):
If you were thinking of buying new NI gear, now is probably a good time. Oh, right, NI probably hopes Stems will give you gear lust. But if you’ve been putting of purchases, the S8 and D2 – and the F1, which has the four fader configuration minus the display – are all on sale through the end of September. I expect these will be the lowest prices we see in 2015; after that we’re into the holiday season.
The creation tools are still missing. The promise Stem Creator Tool is still listed as “coming soon,” and I’ve been told it’s nearly done. That means for now, only select labels and artists can create content; the rest of us can’t get our hands on the tools. (My understanding is, those labels have access to a non-public tool.) CDM has asked to test this tool, and we’ll share as soon as NI lets us – Stems seem like an interesting way for producers to bring even their own content into Traktor (apart from Remix Decks).
Developer tools are coming.. NI promises complete specifications, plus sample code and documentation. Also, they’re promising a DSP library for mastering, which is an unexpected bonus from one of the planet’s most capable DSP developers. (You’ll see a link on the creator tool page.
It’s not really a new format. It’s just MP4. “Stems” might be best described as a standard practice for sharing multi-channel audio for DJing. But it isn’t a new format: all the metadata (ID3) and the multi-channel deliver mechanism (MP4) and encoding (AAC) existed already.
So, it’s more like: “hey, let’s all agree that we’re going to meet for after-work beers every Friday at 6pm, okay?” And it’s less like, “hey, I’ve invented something new and I’m calling it ‘beer.’” That’s a good thing, though, as it’s part of why Stems is so easy to adopt.
Is it open? Is it a standard? “Open” in this case means that the format is both freely-usable (no license fees, etc.), and also documented in such a way that anyone can build their own content and tools. As a standard, “de facto standard” would be most technically accurate, but MP4 does count as a standard, with governance to match.
Four is the magic number. Now, what is important about this is, Native Instruments has standardized on four stems – that’s four stereo tracks. What you choose – maybe bassline, lead, drums, high-hats, for instance – is up to you. But by making four the “standard,” you can count on consistent mappings in software and hardware for manipulating the music.
You still have a separate stereo mix. Stems are 4+1 – four stereo tracks representing each of the four parts, and one stereo mix. That means two things: one, you still get the mastered, stereo version of the track, independent from mixing the stems together yourself. And two, if you open the Stems file in a different player (like iTunes or a CDJ), you’ll here the music as intended; you just won’t hear those stems.
Lossless or more channels are theoretically possible, but this isn’t about that. Back to MP4 – that format is a container for audio, and it already supports lossless encodings like ALAC or FLAC. It also can accommodate more than four stems. So, since NI is quick to call their format “open,” there’s nothing stopping people from building on Stems to make a system for sharing high-quality sounds – for instance, as a way of sharing projects for remixes, where you might want the lossless version.
But here’s where Stems is really an “initiative” rather than a format. Everything NI is announcing today – Traktor support, hardware control, stores with music you can buy, adoption by artists and labels – is really about the DJ-centered 4-stem content. And that’s because distributing 8-channel lossless Stems, for instance, wouldn’t really be practical for DJs. And there’s a reason for that:
Stems are big – like, on your hard drive. Open your music folder. Look at the file sizes. Now multiple each of them by a factor of five. That’s roughly what you’re talking with Stems, because you need not just one stereo file, but five of them. If NI were to go to eight tracks, you could wind up with stems you can’t control on hardware. And if they were to use a more uncompromising high quality encoding or more files, your music library would balloon in size. What they’ve done is find a compromise that gives you stems that already have five times the flexibility of music as it’s now distributed, in a format that’s reasonably high quality but doesn’t require huge file sizes.
There’s now a centralized website. Go to stems-music.com for a hub on Stems use and creation, with a mailing list for signup. And yes, that is an NI site, as –
NI are mostly steering the discussion. Open, yes; collaborative, well, not really on the tools side – not yet. Stems are really a Native Instruments project, whether their name is explicitly on it or not. It’s their tech, it works with their tools, they’re doing most of the promotion, and they’re running the show – with a whole lot of backing from artists and labels. Rival DJ vendors like Serato have been understandably quiet so far, though I imagine they might ponder Stems support depending on how content fares on Beatport and whether this forces some demand from their users.
On the other hand, remember that MIDI was a de facto standard, too, the adoption of which was largely driven by Roland (even if Dave Smith and Sequential led its design).
Pioneer seems receptive. What could change this from being “that Traktor thing that’s supposed to make you buy an S8?” Well, Pioneer support, for one. I spoke to NI CEO Daniel Haver at a public panel at the conference Tech Open Air. Daniel had just returned from Japan, and he said Pioneer was interested and supportive of the format. Remember that while Pioneer and Native Instruments are competitors, they’re somewhat friendly ones. NI’s gear is often plugged into mixers made by Pioneer, Traktor supports the CDJ as an external controller, and the two have contributed together to grow the overall DJ market. I don’t expect it to happen quickly, but if Pioneer did support Stems on hardware down the road, it’d be a huge deal.
Stems could save the download business – if you’re willing to pay more. Let’s not mince words: the music downloading business seems set to implode. When even Apple, the one company that had supported “owning” rather than “renting” music is pushing dirt-cheap streaming, when even the leading DJ store Beatport has its own streaming service, you know that’s trouble. And then you have Algoriddim’s djay app happy to let you DJ from your Spotify account, without downloading tracks.
Stems could be an escape route. They cost more, which promises more revenue for stores, labels, and artists – little wonder those folks are all so quick to sign on. And they provide content that a stream doesn’t, so there’s added reason to buy a download.
Of course, what’s yet to be seen is how many people will want Stems in the first place. NI is quick to point out that turning an EQ knob is a pretty crude way of remixing content, but DJs have been happily doing that for years. And I suspect that a lot of the would-be market for Stems are people who want to mash-up vocals from famous tracks. Whether that’s a good idea or not, that content isn’t there yet.
Stay tuned. Okay, that was … long. Fortunately, you’ll soon be able to read long-winded CDM articles in “Stems” format, where you can pick just the bit you want and remix it with content from some message forum somewhere.
Up next: hands-on impressions of Stems with the D2/S8 hardware, as that design clearly had this format in mind. See you.
Yamaha’s Reface synth line are out now, with full details. You can dig through the site rather than have to do it here – but let’s look at what you might find surprising.
It has Web MIDI, not just MIDI. Yamaha promises the line will connect to Google Chrome via Web MIDI. Now, theoretically, that’s possible in the latest Chrome builds with any MIDI keyboard, not just the Yamaha. But it suggests that Yamaha are atypically embracing bleeding edge tech (previously seen only at hackdays and such) and making it a standard feature. And there’s more: “Soundmondo is a free sound sharing community that lets you discover, create and share reface Voices and Set Lists using Google Chrome any place, any time you’re online.” Okay, then.
Those mini keys don’t have a mini action. This is the best news. Yamaha says the action comes from their Motif XF flagship – and those feel great. So this may be the first mini keys that don’t make you say, at best, “meh,” and at worst, “$#(&*$.”
Each keyboard supports multiple sound models on the engine. 4-operator FM on the DX + 12 algorithms – limited to that (no 6-voice FM, sorry), but you get continuously variable feedback on every operator. The YC has five organ models – “American tonewheel,” British, Italian, and Japanese “transistor organs,” and the Yamaha YC-45D. The CS, which initially didn’t interest me so much, has selectable waves: Multi-saw, Pulse, Oscillator Sync, ring mod, and FM. And the CP (sorry for the acronym) covers everything a gigging keyboardist could want apart from the organs: Rhodes mk I, Rhodes Mk II, Whirly, Clav, CP80 electric gran=d (of course), and even a toy piano. (The tine pianos aren’t called by those names of course, but… well, you do the math.)
You get up to 128-note polyphony. Thank you, digital technology. That’s on the YC; there’s less on the other models.
They fit in a tote bag. Just watch this excellent artist video with Ingrid Michaelson. (I think it’s fine, anyway. YouTube viewers are voting it down, because YouTube commenters are mean. I’d like to put a tote bag over their head so I can’t hear them.)
They run on batteries, too. Six AA’s, so… uh, you probably want to buy rechargeable alkalines, as on the KORG volca series. Fortunately, USB power works, too. But it is great to be wireless.
You can route your iPad through them – and they’ve got speakers. There’s a minijack (3.5 mm) input. Plug in an iPad, an iPhone, or anything else, and the sound passes through the speakers and audio jacks. When it comes time to gig, though, the Reface series still have full-sized dual 1/4″ (unbalanced) mono jacks.
They list for US$799. That’s probably about twice what you expected. Two ways to read this: one, fluctuating currencies these days almost demand a higher list. But two, it could be good news: you’re finally getting a mobile product that’s premium. Who says small has to mean worse? Also – US$499 street we’re hearing, so this isn’t astronomical for a full-featured keyboard. It’s just that lately a lot of products have cut corners to hit a lower price point.
The packaging is really pretty. This may seem like a small thing. But this is some of the slickest packaging I’ve seen in our business – and that actually means something. It means Yamaha is breaking some old habits and behaving like a company that makes things that people buy, rather than a musical instruments company repeating what it has always done.
Unsurprising: it’s a relief when the industry stops listening to the same old customers again and again and again. I have no idea what’s going on in this video. But I do know what’s going on in this comment: “Give me five octaves or more of a full sized keyboard, 256 patch memories or more, and a FULL control panel, and you have my money. Polypressure keybeds while you’re at it.”
Um – no. You’ve had your turn. Also: what?! In fact, you can get effectively unlimited patch memories online – and 32 onboard, which ought to cover most gigs. Polypressure keybeds, well, buy a ROLI.
I stand by my prediction. These things are going to get a lot of hate online — and a lot of love in stores, including from people who don’t read any of our dull specialist websites, like this one. Though… please, read CDM. I’ll go skateboarding with you. And that’ll provide some comic relief.
Look, they’ve finally given us Web URLs that make sense, even.
I’m going to keep this article atypically short (as I finish up some other writing).
Is it just me, or is everyone’s studio turning into the above? I know I’m not the first to say this.
Side note: why has someone not exactly replicated the above on hardware? (Next Ableton / Native Instruments / Novation hackathon, kids, seriously – get on it. I promise you’ll be more famous on CDM than John Travolta. Is. On CDM.)
Feel free to link to this post every time this happens for the rest of 2015. And take a shot. (Of vegetable juice or something; I really don’t want to kill you when the next NAMM rolls around this week.)
As the transformation of music heats up, the discussions are heating up, too.
Case in point: yesterday’s report on Eternify certainly earned some angry responses.
I was of the opinion that Eternify was a decent gimmick – a way of showing just how small fees from streamed music are. Imagine if the music you bought only got a fraction of a cent to the artist each time you played it. I don’t think there’s practically an album in my collection I’ve listened to enough times that streaming fees would add up to purchase fees.
Now, does that mean that Spotify or Apple Music are the end of music? Not necessarily. It’s clear that the industry built around record labels hasn’t always served artists well. (Cough. Understatement.) Streaming services offer more questions. What sort of access will artists have to getting their music on these services directly – even bypassing a label? What sort of control will they have once it’s there? How can they help people find their music, and what sort of data about listeners can they collect?
In other words, we’re entering a more multi-dimensional industry. Instead of focusing on the actual purchase price of a recording, or even a per-play license fee in the conventional collections model, the game now is really about what the total value of a service is to artists.
Remember that I noted that not only was the lion’s share of streaming revenue going to labels, but it seemed those same labels were blowing most of that income on marketing. It’s not just a question of how much revenue music earns. It’s a question of how much you have to pay to get that revenue in the first place – expenses versus income being business 101.
But to anyone who said that Eternify was cheating – you’re absolutely right. (I thought it was sort of obvious that you couldn’t effectively use this to make cash, but maybe not.) I was politely informed my multiple sources that at best, it wouldn’t earn anyone any money, and at worst, it could get music or users banned. And sure enough, it was promptly shut down.
That brings us back to what Spotify actually can do.
One of the weirder applications showed up in my inbox today. Get ready for CDM – Create Dating Music.
Happn, a Paris startup that lets you anonymously message random people you see on the street (not at all creepy), now lets you send music to those people.
Now, this may or may not be the future of dating.
But if you’ve been following the lead-up to the roll-out of Apple Music, seeing this might lead you to some other questions.
First, regarding Apple music specifically:
1. Will Apple Music integrate with other apps? Apple Music lacks an API. And that means, at least from the developer / music hacker perspective, it’s a heck of a lot less interesting than other apps. Sure, Happn’s application might be a bit silly, but this is the beauty of developing stuff: you can try silly ideas, crazy ideas, and eventually might stumble on a great idea. It doesn’t necessarily lock out Apple Music integration with other apps, though – maybe Apple will allow the use of Android intents or iOS’ Share function.
2. Are people overestimating Apple’s ability to unseat Spotify? Spotify has already become synonymous with streaming music. And that means people have assembled friends, playlists, collections, and listening habits – none of which can be transferred to Apple Music. I think Apple’s effort here, and the Beats acquisition, are partly admissions that even one of the world’s biggest companies can face real competition on the level Internet playing field.
And streaming more generally…
3. Could new applications mean people listen to more music? Streaming fees are paltry, it’s true. But even if Eternify’s application was dumb and eventually shut down, it does illustrate another point. In the post-album world, you might have the same music in more places. It might be in games, it might be in dating apps. It might be that you go to a cafe and finally get to determine which music you hear, jukebox style. Generate more apps, and capture more data about what’s played, and collection fees could become more relevant to independent artists.
4. Could revenue come from places other than playback fees and purchase price? Here’s where things get really interesting – slash – mysterious. Having grown up, most of us, in the age of vinyl records and tapes and CDs, we tend to think of the musical album as the product – the thing you buy. But if music becomes a service, that may not be the case at all. As many have predicted, this might lead people to purchase of other stuff, from swag to concerts. Even that, though, takes a traditional view. Someone may find a different direction entirely, once the music itself is flowing wherever you want. (Remember that ring tones were briefly big business, so you never know what business models people may make work.)
5. How can listeners feel they’re connecting most directly with artists? I think this is the biggest question of all. Apple paid a lot of attention to this in their Apple Music announcement, but much of that had to do with artists giving away still more stuff for free. From Kickstarter to Bandcamp to Etsy to Vimeo purchases to boutique synths, the Internet has again and again demonstrated that people are often more willing to invest money in something they love if they feel that money goes directly to the person who made what they’re buying.
Well, in the meantime, I’m going to keep using Bandcamp, iTunes purchases, Beatport, and direct stores to buy downloads.
What initially seemed to be a conversation about streaming revenues for artists more or less this week became a conversation … about Taylor Swift.
But it’s the debate behind Apple Music that is somewhat puzzling. Taylor Swift wasn’t the only one focusing concerns on Apple Music’s quarterly free trial. Labels were fixated on the same worry.
The reason this is odd is that it ignores the fact that even when users pay for a subscription, rates are woefully inadequate. Music Business Worldwide reported a study from France that confirms what many had suspected. Majors get a whole lot of the cash from a subscription fee. Most of the money stays in the hands of the labels; artists see as little as 11% of that ten dollar monthly fee. (The one bright spot: they’ll get a bit more if they’re registered as the writer, too – separate fee.) These numbers seem to be typical not only of France and something like Spotify, but other countries and Apple Music, too. (One difference: Europe takes an astonishing bite in the form of tax, which is a bit frustrating in a business that already has razor-thin revenue.)
The most telling stat to me is the one that was least reported from that study. Net income is an stunningly low 5% for the labels. The MBW article is suspicious of that figure, but I could believe it isn’t far off the mark. Essentially, marketing costs are such that labels are very nearly paying to have their music played. And that seems feasible given that a lot of people play music after searching for it – without the marketing budget, that music might not get played at all.
So kudos this round not to Taylor Swift, but to Ohm & Sport, who this week built a tool called Eternify. The Web app finds 30 seconds of your favorite artist and plays it over and over again – running up play counts and revenues. Leave Eternify running, and you can at least get beer money. But the app – whose 30-second loops prove oddly hypnotic if you actually leave your speaker on – just shows the absurdity of the streaming business model.
Eternify figures revenues of half a cent per play. Spotify has estimated fees as high as $0.08, but you still get the idea. And even if Apple Music sets a higher rate, you can do the math. Streaming earns a fraction of what downloads did.
Early analysis says Apple’s payments to indies are an even worse deal. A paltry $0.002 per stream make the whole thing virtually worthless. Europe takes tax out of that, too. And for an insight in why the free trial was so controversial, estimates pegged the per-stream fee there at as little as $0.00047.
This should lead to some other questions, like:
1. If streaming is earning next to nothing, why not simply have your music streaming for free, where you can more easily promote it?
2. If you’re not getting paid by streams, isn’t it more valuable to have a lot of data about listeners? Everything from planning tours to releases can benefit from that information. Will Apple provide that to artists?
3. Why can’t Apple make it easier for apps like Bandcamp to let you purchase your music? Surely this would do more to benefit independent artists than any of the lip service paid the topic in the Apple Music launch.
4. If most of the overhead in digital music is marketing, what can be done to make discovery and sharing easier and lavish marketing budgets less necessary? And, presuming artists made sure they got a share of the expanded proceeds, wouldn’t that do more for expanding revenue than worrying about a free trial?
5. Will Apple, given their control of the store, also encourage people to buy downloads of what they’re streaming?
We’re lucky DJs currently prefer downloads, and we’re lucky for the vinyl resurgence. But this still places recording artists in enormous trouble. Maybe streaming is an inevitable progression; maybe there’s no way to coax bigger subscription rates from listeners. But that means at the very least artists will need to look for other revenue sources to make recording music worthwhile.
Try Eternify for yourself. I earned about 15 cents for myself in the time it took me to write this. http://eternify.it/
And for a very different take on digital downloads, don’t miss The Verge covering Vimeo. Sure, this is video and not music, but some of the implications are clear.