Cute little €99 NES, acid music toys: coming soon, totally connected

Twisted Electrons’ small, fun-looking boards with acid and Nintendo chip sounds are one of the sound toys we’re most eagerly anticipating this year. And now they’re adding some connectivity: clock, USB MIDI, and an editor.

Here’s the story so far: Twisted Electrons have already been making some pretty powerful desktop synths and sequencers. But then they were inspired by Teenage Engineering’s dirt-cheap, impulse-buy tiny boards, the Pocket Operators. (It’s okay to say that; they’re open about the inspiration and it sounds like those crazy kids up in Sweden are more than happy about it.) So, they took the 8-bit acid bass wavetable sounds and step sequencer out of their acid8 synth, and added a new synth inspired by the chip from the classic Nintendo Entertainment System console.

We saw these boards first at Superbooth in Berlin. They look like fun little gadgets, especially if you’re after some chip sounds.

And oh wow does the NES board sound great. Plus, I like that this takes a hands-on approach to sound and step sequencing – nothing against trackers and the program-the-sound approach, but it’s nice to have the same sound set with a different approach:

The “acid” uacid8 instrument is sexy, too – love child of a TB-303’s squelch and the grittier sounds of chip music:

If you were already waiting for them, there was a manufacturing delay as they moved manufacturing into Europe. But now we get extra features:

1. MIDI clock compatibility

2. USB MIDI support

3. VST editor for desktop

Ah-ha! So now, instead of having some fun toys you play around with for an evening that then collect dust, you can be sure you’ll be able to wire these into your existing setup, sync them up, and be productive actually adding them to projects and make some finished songs.

DAW integration looks like so:

The soundtrack for that video game you dreamed of as a kid can now be a reality. Get making and become the chip composer legend you never were.

Or, at least, get ready to do that around October when these ship. We’ll be waiting. That’s €99 for the world that isn’t in the Eurozone, plus a little more with VAT if you’re on the inside of the Fortress Europe walls.

Preorder product pages:

https://twisted-electrons.com/product/hapines-pre-order/

https://twisted-electrons.com/product/uacid8-pre-order/

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Forget vinyl: here’s a DJ rig with two Amiga 1200 PCs

Computers will never die. Now they’re even old enough to be retro. So watch a DJ rig that combines two Commodore Amigas for MOD DJing, thanks to recent software.

“The kids are coming up from behind. I’m losing my edge. I hear that you and your band have sold your turntables and bought Amigas.”

The beauty of this approach is, those Amigas play MOD files – tracker-based music sequences with elaborate, hyperactive sounds from the golden age of video game composition and chip music. And just as you really want to hear certain things on tape or digital or vinyl, some music really lends itself to that format.

And yes, there really is (fairly) new software for this – new Amiga software, no joke. It’s called PT-1210, and it transforms vintage Amigas (or Atari ST) into a kind of CDJ for MOD files. It debuted – where else, at a demoscene/hacker conference – at Revision 2014 in Saarbrücken, Germany. Here’s how the developers describe it:

PT-1210 Mk1 is a Protracker Digital Turntable, that is, a computer program that will let you play your Amiga Protracker module files (.MOD) as if you were playing with CDJ turntables, inspired by gwEm’s STJ. Think of it as Traktor for the Protracker generation.

Hilarious banner:

That software is the work of Akira (concept/UI), h0ffman (concept/code), and tecon (testing). It’s even written in Assembler code for maximum performance on vintage hardware. Grab it here:

http://pt1210.abime.net/

Atari ST fans, this Amiga creation was in turn inspired by Atari ST software with the same aim, by gwEM, cleverly dubbed STJ:

http://www.preromanbritain.com/stj/

The rig in the video at top:

Small monitors (for analog video output)
Mono-to-stereo adapters (since the Amigas have mono output)
DJ mixer
SD cards (in place of floppy disks, which means massive supplies of MOD files)

They found their MOD files at ModLand

Oh yeah, there are even instant doubles – you can load up the same track on both machines.)

Beat matching is still a thing here, so you get human sync by your ear rather than something electronically locked in. (That’s also beautiful, frankly!)

To show off all this goodness, the RetroManCave YouTube channel goes to these folks:

Retro Ravi – https://www.youtube.com/user/the4mula
8bitmixshow – http://8bitmix.com/

Okay, so that’s the tech stuff. But now the important bit – can you make a compelling DJ set with this rig? Here’s one answer, from Ravi:

Thanks to Noncompliant for the link! Can I request my favorite MOD at Berghain this Saturday, Lisa?

https://www.noncompliantmusic.com/#!

Don’t just want to DJ, but produce, too? Check this out:

The 90s are alive, with a free, modern clone of FastTracker II

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Forget vinyl: here’s a DJ rig with two Amiga 1200 PCs

Computers will never die. Now they’re even old enough to be retro. So watch a DJ rig that combines two Commodore Amigas for MOD DJing, thanks to recent software.

“The kids are coming up from behind. I’m losing my edge. I hear that you and your band have sold your turntables and bought Amigas.”

The beauty of this approach is, those Amigas play MOD files – tracker-based music sequences with elaborate, hyperactive sounds from the golden age of video game composition and chip music. And just as you really want to hear certain things on tape or digital or vinyl, some music really lends itself to that format.

And yes, there really is (fairly) new software for this – new Amiga software, no joke. It’s called PT-1210, and it transforms vintage Amigas (or Atari ST) into a kind of CDJ for MOD files. It debuted – where else, at a demoscene/hacker conference – at Revision 2014 in Saarbrücken, Germany. Here’s how the developers describe it:

PT-1210 Mk1 is a Protracker Digital Turntable, that is, a computer program that will let you play your Amiga Protracker module files (.MOD) as if you were playing with CDJ turntables, inspired by gwEm’s STJ. Think of it as Traktor for the Protracker generation.

Hilarious banner:

That software is the work of Akira (concept/UI), h0ffman (concept/code), and tecon (testing). It’s even written in Assembler code for maximum performance on vintage hardware. Grab it here:

http://pt1210.abime.net/

Atari ST fans, this Amiga creation was in turn inspired by Atari ST software with the same aim, by gwEM, cleverly dubbed STJ:

http://www.preromanbritain.com/stj/

The rig in the video at top:

Small monitors (for analog video output)
Mono-to-stereo adapters (since the Amigas have mono output)
DJ mixer
SD cards (in place of floppy disks, which means massive supplies of MOD files)

They found their MOD files at ModLand

Oh yeah, there are even instant doubles – you can load up the same track on both machines.)

Beat matching is still a thing here, so you get human sync by your ear rather than something electronically locked in. (That’s also beautiful, frankly!)

To show off all this goodness, the RetroManCave YouTube channel goes to these folks:

Retro Ravi – https://www.youtube.com/user/the4mula
8bitmixshow – http://8bitmix.com/

Okay, so that’s the tech stuff. But now the important bit – can you make a compelling DJ set with this rig? Here’s one answer, from Ravi:

Thanks to Noncompliant for the link! Can I request my favorite MOD at Berghain this Saturday, Lisa?

https://www.noncompliantmusic.com/#!

Don’t just want to DJ, but produce, too? Check this out:

The 90s are alive, with a free, modern clone of FastTracker II

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A new, powerful synth finds its soul in a cheap plastic FM past

Imagine starting with a painstaking emulation of the lofi sound of instruments like Yamaha’s SHS-10 keytar – but then modulating those quirks in powerful ways. Now you’re getting the mission of the new plug-in from Plogue – PortaFM.

If you lived through the mid-80s – or inherited (or coveted) one of the instruments of the time – you may already know the peculiar sound of Yamaha’s FM PortaSound keyboards. Of course, what was once considered perhaps low quality might seem to our ears now as something else: a unique, complex timbre with interesting, edgy nonlinearities.

And as musical tastes have gradually accommodated a wider range of timbres, recreating such things isn’t necessarily about nostalgia. In a sea of music, people are looking for sounds with edge.

So, with that in mind, meet the OPLL – aka the YM2413 chip core. Tasked with recreating Yamaha’s patented Frequency Modulation (FM) synthesis, the technique first pioneered by John Chowning in the 60s, that chip produced a sound that was different than the best-known Yamaha, the DX7. So while the instruments looked cheesy – and provided the user with little control over sounds apart from calling up presets – they had at their heart a chip capable of creating sounds that may be weirdly more relevant today than when these tools were on the market.

This 1983 ad will give you a sense of where Yamaha positioned its PortaSound line:

But here, we’re talking models like the more advanced Yamaha SHS-10 “Sholky” keytar [1987], plus keyboards like the PSS-140 and PSS-270 [1986].

Mid 80s chic. But don’t call it a keytar – for Japanese accuracy, call it “Sholky.”

Montreal-based developer Plogue, for their part, have decided not to hide that power from the user. Apart from spending loads of time accurately modeling the chip, they’ve exposed all the parameters of the synthesis engine and drum sounds. (There are still some cues from the originals – note the polygons representing the drum pads, borrowed from the original PSR keyboards, but looking way more futuristic here.)

The work they’ve done on modeling pays off, too. Even just dialing through the presets, you’ll find loads of patches that sound simply alive. It’s not just about being lo-fi; the peculiarities of this particular FM chip give a weirdly acoustic – if alien – quality to some of the sounds. Instead of trying to smooth the edges of FM synthesis, you get more of that unpredictability in ways that can become surprisingly musical.

Transposed from the cheesy toy shells of Yamaha’s original products, you might easily confuse this for some new instrument. But to get there, Plogue were in fact obsessive about reproducing what had been consigned to yard sales and thrift stores. In a video premiering exclusively on CDM, Plogue’s David Viens compares the recreation to the original and explains the emulation.

Yes, kids, now you get to explore the joys of the time-division multiplexed 9-bit DAC on your powerful PC or Mac. Because 9-bit is the future?

The one and only Cuckoo also has visited this new Plogue creation:

I’ve only had the plug-in to play with for a short while, but there’s plenty to enjoy here. Deep under the hood, you can obsess about tiny variations in modeling, but just as fun is playing those lo-fi drum pads or messing about with playing different sounds.

Directly from the main screen, you can get hands on with the FM synthesis approach and percussion.

Mid 80s chic. But don’t call it a keytar – for Japanese accuracy, call it “Sholky.”

Programmers will find plenty of sophisticated options – for instance, you can automate sequences of parameters of your choice. But anyone will find the depth interesting. For instance, layering the percussion atop the FM sounds, under the ‘play’ tab, works exceptionally well.

Stacking percussion on top of your sounds is like adding a delicious, buttery layer of icing. Seriously, I about licked my screen.

You’ll find a range of effects, too:

Plogue are planning more instruments in the chipsynth series, as their models continue to improve and as they collect more data.

But you could argue this is a new direction – even relative to reboots like Roland’s new TR machines taking on the TR-808 and 909. Here, obsessive modeling of digital instruments is meant to create something both historically accurate and simultaneously new. To get topical, it’s the synth equivalent of Donald Glover’s Lando.

Okay, I’m not going to stretch that any further. i will say – PortaFM, you look absolutely beautiful. You truly belong here with us among the clouds.

More:

https://plogue.com/products/chipsynth-portafm.html

https://plogue.com/

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Cram Commodore 64 speech synthesis into your rack with this firmware

The open hardware Braids macro oscillator gets an alternative firmware that brings new features – including a speech engine known from the Commodore 64 days. Speech synth means modular synthesis:

Mutable Instruments’ open, digital modules have been one of the best things about the modern modular revolution. And this alternative firmware is a great example of that. Without removing any of the existing Braids 1.9 features, you get new oscillator powers.

The banner feature here is the robotic text-to-speech engine SAM (Software Automated Mouth), known from the Commodore 64. Here’s that engine in action – glitchy and distinctive:

Naturally, that opens up some wild possibilities once you patch into it in a modular environment. Listen to this firmware demo for an idea:

It’s also very fun how this works:

There are three SAM entries in the oscillator model list, named SAM1 to SAM3. Each of these SAM models contain 16 different words.

SAM is configured to work similarly to a granular sampler. By changing Timbre, you “scrub” through the word selected by Color. With Timbre at 0 position, SAM is playing the first grain of the current word. With Timbre fully clockwise, SAM is playing the last grain of the current word. The speed of an envelope can control how fast SAM says the word, independent of the pitch.

If you send SAM a trigger it will automatically play the word, starting from the current grain, at the “natural” speed of the word. In this situation, the pitch input controls both the speed and pitch of the output.

It’s not all that’s on offer, though. You also get six oscillators, evenly spaced:

6xsaw, 6xsquare, 6xtriangle, 6xsine. 6 oscillators starting at the 1v/oct input, spaced evenly across the currently selected quantize scale. Color controls the number of scale steps between oscillators, and Timbre scans through various amplitude settings for the 6 oscillators. When the Braids quantizer is turned off, the oscillators are evenly spaced by semitones (controlled by Color)

There’s already a model of this on VCV Rack, so even if you don’t have the discontinued Braids hardware, it should be possible to use in software. I’ll see about forking it and report back. The Macro Oscillator under Audible Instruments would be the obvious starting place. (Any other Braids fans, other stuff you’d want to see in an ideal fork of the module? Maybe we can make a wishlist. Macro Macro?)

Via Richard Devine.

Here’s the firmware:

https://burns.ca/eurorack.html

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8BitMixtapeNEO is a glitchy hackable synth the size of a cassette tape

It’s the size of a cassette tape, has buttons and pots so you can play it as a handheld instrument, it’s open and hackable – and it sounds like 8-bit mayhem.

8BitMixtapeNEO is very, very lo-fi synth built around the Arduino-compatible ATTINY85 chip. But what’s interesting about it is that all that hackable, programmable mayhem is accessible to anyone curious, not just coders.

It sounds mental:

And it’s got some weird and clever features:

Pocket mods: Just like the KORG volca sample, an audio protocol works for upload. So you can send firmware code just by playing a sound file from an audio playback device. Flash with your phone on the fly. (They also suggest a SONY Cassette WALKMAN, of course.)

Lite-Brite: Eight RGB LEDs work as a sort of 8-pixel screen / feedback / Knight Rider display.

Upcycle: Since the PCB is the shape and size of a cassette tape, a re-purposed cassette shape shell works as a case.

Arduino-compatible chip.

Visual programming. There’s a visual, drag-and-drop programming interface you can use as an alternative to uploading code. Have a look:

User mixtapes. They’ve built their own custom community for user-generated tools, including visual effects, sequencers, sounds, and other hacks. It’s here – http://neo.8bitmixtape.cc/mixtape – and since audio playback upload is easy, you can just flash from any computer or phone or tablet with speakers!

Pricing stars at 65EUR (with that beautiful, artsy PCB). There are various ways to buy, including getting it in person in Berlin – and workshops from Hong Kong to Zagreb to Taoyuan. Check it out:

http://wiki.8bitmixtape.cc/#/XXX-Shop

http://neo.8bitmixtape.cc/

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The 90s are alive, with a free, modern clone of FastTracker II

It ran natively in MS-DOS, then died by the end of the 90s. But now it’s back: one of the greatest chip music trackers of all time has been cloned to run on modern machines.

FastTracker II will now run on Windows and Mac (and should run on Linux). The clone project started last year, but it seems to have picked up pace – a new set of binaries are out this week, and MIDI input support was added this month.

FastTracker II is a singular piece of software that helped define trackers, demoscene, and the music produced with it. If you’ve used it, I don’t really have to say more. If you haven’t, but you’ve used other trackers – even up to modern takes on the genre like Renoise – you’ve used software influenced by its design.

Like all trackers, the fundamental use of the tool is as a sequencer. But unlike other sequencer concepts – piano rolls which represent time visually like pianolas and music boxes do, multitrack recorders and DAWs modeled on mixers and tape, or notation views – the tracker is a natively computer-oriented tool. Its paradigm is simply about a vertical grid, with shortcuts for entry (represented as numerals) via the computer interface.

That makes trackers uncommonly quick via the computer interface. In the case of FastTracker II, you program every note and timbral change via mouse or keyboard shortcut, and it’s represented compactly in characters onscreen. FT2’s doubling up of mouse and keyboard shortcuts also makes it quick to learn and still quicker to use once you’ve mastered it.

In fact, firing up this build (in 64-bit on Windows 10, no less), I’m struck by how friendly and immediate it is. It’s not a bad introduction to the genre.

MIDI in is great, too, though MIDI out will “never” happen (in a message from the 13th of April).

But it’s kind of amazing this thing even exists. The clone is built in SDL, a cross-platform media library, the work of one Olav “8bitbubsy” Sørensen, who apparently got permission to do this. And it was never supposed to even happen. Heck, the thing was even buried with this note:

“FT2 has been put on hold indefinitely. […] If this was an ideal world, where there was infinite time and no need to make a living, there would definitely be a multiplatform Fasttracker3. Unfortunately this world is nothing like that.”

So, we may not live in an ideal world. But we live in a world where FT2 again runs on our machines. (Amiga fans, there’s also a ProTracker clone.)

Download it:

https://16-bits.org/ft2.php

Thanks to Nicolas Bougaïeff for this one, fresh off his Berghain debut. I want some new chip music from you, man.

And it’s … like the 90s are alive.

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Oi, Kant! is a raunchy, glitchy, out-of-control patchable groove machine

Artist Ewa Justka has built a drum/bass machine that’s as chaotic as our times – a dirty, feature-packed, mayhem generator. And you can buy or build one for yourself, too.

Ewa’s project is open source – warts and little mistakes and weird bits and all. And it makes one hell of a sequenced racket – the hardware embodiment of Ewa’s mind-scrambling live shows as well as her workshops. (Ewa’s frequently played Berlin, London, and around Europe, and at Unsound Festival – and co-hosted a MusicMakers Hacklab with me, too, at CTM Festival, where she spread just this sort of mischief and sonic ingenuity to a whole group of people.)

So what is it, exactly? Ewa calls it “a sort of drum machine” or “drum-ish machine.” Basic features:

3 voices: drum, bass line, cymbal
Sounds all based on CMOS chips (hence their glitch-y, aggressively digital timbres)
Multiple independent sequencers, synced to a master clock
External clock input (for pulse from other gear) – patchable to each of the four voices
Independent audio outputs for each voice (though no master out – BYO mixing)
Power via 9V battery or external source (sold separately)
Knobs and buttons and bright lights and photosensors (because D-BEAM!)

So patch it together, and what you get is four screaming voices, clipping along either to the internal clock or external sources. Make separate sequences, clock everything together – as you like.

Watch the madness:

All those separate ins and outs and independent triggers mean you can put this together with other analog, DIY, or modular gear, for effects processing or more complex rhythms. Or just plug those four outs into a mixer and use as-is.

But you can get pretty experimental or pretty groovy or pretty groovy-experimental sounds out of this thing. Excellent.

And, of course, apart from a product name featuring Kant, you get all of this in a unique, art-y looking package. There are also awesome parameter names, like “cantaloupe,” “Canterbury,” and “canteen,” and some … less family-friendly ones.

It’s a boutique creation, designed and built by Ewa herself, and sells to you for £205.00 plus shipping (from the UK), available on her Etsy shop.

Optotronics: Oi, Kant! [Etsy.co.uk]

That page also has links to the documentation and circuit files (on Dropbox). If you get one, do share the noises you make.

Note, there’s no specific open source hardware license on this at the moment, but that was evidently the intention — talking to Ewa about an explicit license.

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Virtuoso Commodore 64 composer Martin Walker is back

News for nerds: one of the musicians who was most adept at coaxing intricate music from chips is set to make a return. And that means it’s time for some chip music.

Nowadays, the MOS Technology SID chip might as well claim its place as an instrument, not just a chip with a particular game legacy, but among beloved classic synthesizers. And if instruments from the Minimoog to the Roland D-50 are seeing a return, it’s because there are particular techniques you can apply to those synthesizers. (For instance, our friend Francis Preve has delved into remaking the D-50’s synthesis approach, with or without Roland hardware – while we’re talking about the 80s.)

And this isn’t just nostalgia, partly because this stuff takes practice.

Talk about practice: Martin Walker makes the SID sing.

The radar engineer-turned programmer-turned composer, Mr. Walker is something of a legend in chip music circles. His productions are just dense. It wasn’t just chip music, either – he’s gone on to other projects, including circuit bending, composition on other instruments (like he likes the Chromaphone plug-in as much as I do), and has seen bylines in Sound on Sound.

Commodore Format reported yesterday that he’ll make a return to C64 music for the first time in almost 30 years.

Here’s the thing: far from nostalgic, those 80s creations sound positively forward. Here are a few:

Dragon Breed

Altered Beast

Indiana Jones: Fate of Atlantis

(this is a funny one for me, as this game was oddly a favorite of my composition teacher in college…)

Speedball 2 [love this]

And a whole collection of “Walker’s Warblers”:

Full list of his creations:

http://www.vgmpf.com/Wiki/index.php?title=Martin_Walker

And his own site/label/project:

http://www.yewtreemagic.co.uk/about.php

We’ll be watching Commodore Format for the news this Friday, because… the future ain’t what it used to be?

http://www.commodoreformatarchive.com/

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Grab 150 vintage and rare drum machines for free

You know the person – collecting weird old music gear, from highly valuable to the near-worthless used prices, as an obsessive hoarder. You open their closet and immediately want to grab a mic and start sampling. Well, that’s the feeling of this totally free library of drum machine sounds.

You get a 200MB library, with 150 drum machines. They’re eminently playable, too, with General MIDI mappings so you don’t have to hunt around for the sounds. They’re also grouped (kick, snare, hat, cymbal, tom). And there’s a lot of work here – custom graphics for each kit and custom controls for tuning, panning, and volume.

screenshot_680

The mappings and extra features all require the full version of Kontakt, but if you’re looking for some raw samples to build your own kits in another tool (like Elastic Drums or Maschine, for instance), the sample folder is there, too.

And, wow, this collection. 808s and typical x0x are in there, of course. But there’s more: Acetone, Alesis, Casio, Electro Harmonix, Ensoniq, Kawai, Korg, Linn, Sequential, Vermona. And some really weird stuff.

There’s a Video Tech Rhythmic, really old Wurlitzer and the like, the beatbox on a Stylpohone, a Game Boy and Mattel, and things that aren’t quite household names, like Cheetah, Estradin, Dr. Bohm, EKO, Drumfire, Keio, Lel, MSC, MCP, MTI, MXR, Nasta Hit Stix, Quasimidi, and more.

Check it out:

You’ll need to register for an account at autodafe and confirm via email – though I think it’s reasonable to support a labor of love like this. (The developer also asks for a small donation.)

Mega Drum Machines Collection for Kontakt

Hat tip KVR (who have some discussion of how this is working).

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