Modal Electronics have done ultra high-end boutique, and they’ve done cute, cheap craft synths. But now they’re gunning for a sub-$300 instrument that looks consumer-friendly – and packs some 32 oscillators and more.
If it’s successful, it looks like the first portable power polysynth that has an entry-level price tag – no exposed circuit boards, no cutesy features, no stripped-down sound sources. And it also has some parallels to IK Multimedia’s UNO, introduced at Superbooth Berlin in May. It even has a membrane keyboard like the IK piece. But whereas IK chose to go analog – and thus have just two VCOs – Modal have beefed up the architecture with by opting instead for virtual analog guts.
What you get, then, is a monosynth, paraphonic, or polyphonic instrument. You can route modulation into elaborate combinations. You get FM, PWM, tuning, and ring mod. And it has a built-in sequencer plus arpeggiator, which seems to be fast becoming a standard feature these days – but a lot of extras for each that definitely are anything but standard.
And with all that complexity, of course you’ll also be glad for the included patch storage and recall.
But it’s the pricing – projected under US$300 – that make this so aggressive. You can buy an iPad and load it with a powerful polysynth for that price, but there’s not anything I can think of that does this.
4 voice – 32 oscillator virtual analogue synthesiser
8 oscillators per voice with 2 selectable morphable waveforms
Mixer stage for osc levels along with FM, PWM, tuning and Ring Modulation options
Monophonic, Duophonic and Polyphonic modes available
Multi option Unison / spread to detune the 32 oscillators for a huge sound
8 slot modulation matrix with 8 sources and 37 destinations
3 x envelope generators for Filter, Amplitude and Modulation
2 x audio rate LFOs, one global and one polyphonic
Realtime sequencer that will record up to 128 notes and up to 4 parameters.
Fully featured arpeggiator with division, direction, octave, swing and sustain controls.
Resonant filter that can be morphed from low pass, through band pass, to high pass
Delay and distortion (wavehsaping overdrive, not bitcrushing) effects
Optional MIDI clock sync for LFOs and Delay
128 patch and 64 sequence storage locations
16 key touch MIDI keyboard
MIDI DIN In and Out – Analogue clock sync In and Out connections
Class compliant MIDI provided over USB connection to host computer or tablet
Headphone and line output
Power by USB or 6 x AA batteries
Optional software editor available for MacOS, Windows, IOS and Android
Portable and compact design
The design looks contemporary and stylish, too, if perhaps recalling 80s Frogdesign for Apple. And you might expect some compromises on I/O or something like that, but … there aren’t.
I’ll be curious to see how it’s received – while slick looking, the membrane keyboard and that diagonally oriented control panel may not be for everyone. But it’s hard to argue with the price and all that power underneath.
It certainly means Modal Electronics are game for any market segment. I can’t think of another maker that’s gone quite this quickly from “sell your compact car to buy our high-end synth” to “actually, maybe just fold it together yourself” to “let’s crowd-fund a slick, inexpensive design object.” (Okay, maybe Moog Music counts – but it took them some years to span from theremin kits to rockstar-priced modular reissues.)
Koma today revealed a sequel to their crowd-funded smash hit Field Kit. And it’s a whole bunch of patchable effects, for €249 (€219 for funders).
Inside that box, there’s a load of different effects to play with:
Sample Rate Reducer / Bitcrusher
Analog Spring Reverb
Yeah, you read that last one right – there’s actually a physical spring in there for reverb. Behold:
Looping of course means that you could make the FX a hub of performance. And in addition to the other digital effects, that frequency shifter opens up some really interesting possibilities.
So, whereas the first Field Kit depended on you attaching contact mics and working with the mixing functions, the Field Kit FX actually has a lot more sonic possibilities included right out of the box. There’s still a companion book to go with it, and of course this is already intended as a clever
But, for a kind of “weirdo modular effects toolkit” in a case, you also get a bunch of tools for applying these effects, by mixing and sequencing them:
4 Channel VCA Mixer
4 Step Mini Sequencer
All over the place, you’ve got various patch points. That’s a chance to connect to other analog I/O – which certainly includes Eurorack modulars, but these days a lot of other gear, as well, even desktop units from Novation, Roland, Arturia, KORG, and the like.
And there’s a new 4-Channel CV Interface for bringing it all together, meaning you can come up with pretty elaborate modular connections.
4-channel CV interface for communications with other gear – now not just modular, but a lot of new desktop stuff, too.
In fact, for under three hundred bucks, the whole thing looks a bit like either a shrunken Eurorack modular or a tabletop of analog and digital effects merged together for patching.
Now, this is still definitely geared for advanced users. There’s no MIDI. And the CV routing, while powerful, might be overwhelming to newcomers – for instance, there’s not a single, simple trigger in to clock that sequencer. (That’s not necessarily a criticism – the various CV options mean loads of creative flexibility. But it does probably mean this box is more for people who want to get deep into patching.)
Bored with vintage-style synth hardware? How about an instrument that does the sort of audio mangling – as standalone hardware, not an iPad app?
That’s the promise of the GR-1 Granular Synthesizer, teased by Tasty Chips Electronics via Facebook and launching soon as a Kickstarter project.
In renders, at least, it looks – well, tasty. The simulated hardware as pictured by artist Marco Galtarossa looks like what would happen if the display of an iPad app or plug-in met up with conventional faders and knobs. (I always wondered if I should build some hardware around some of my Pd patches … some of them actually were arranged in this very fashion, so I can imagine this would work quite well!)
Here’s what it sounds like:
And here are some details we’ve gleaned from the Facebook chatter…
Hardware, polyphonic synthesizer with high quality (32 bit, 44.1kHz) audio
Internal and external memory (USB)
The GR-1 can be controlled via MIDI (USB/DIN) or be used standalone.
Update firmware, load samples or save (and load) patches/performances to your USB disk or internal memory.
CV and gate options to connect easily with your (eurorack) modular setup.
4 banks of 8 overwritable preset buttons, within a performance. This means you can save 32 presets, each with different samples, in a single performance. You can save as many performances as your USB disk can store.
Quick push-button access to presets is especially nice, as is MIDI and CV support.
In comments, we find out the price is anticipated for backers at EUR800. That’s likely a deal-killer for some. It’s not bad on the surface of it – but then, as this is a Kickstarter project, you won’t actually get the hardware right away. And you could whip up some embedded DIY project for a fraction of that (well, if you value your own time at around zero, but then, that project might also be fun)
That said, the builder explains why the price: “the quality of the components is high : a lot of CPU processing power, a big screen, metal pots, metal sliders, hifi dac, and hence costs us..”
Early bird pricing may be lower, too – let’s watch.
Also, this is a granular playback device more than a sampler.
Someone asked about real-time sampling, playback, and sync. They didn’t answer the sync question directly, either (which makes me think it isn’t there):
It is not in the planning. Samples can be load/imported from USB disk, there is no realtime recording on the GR-1, it does realtime sound generation and processing.
I’ll still wait and see – this could be lovely. And the response suggests just how badly people want granular features. I think this is win/win – you might happily end up with this hardware or (uh, well for me) you might be motivated to finish that DIY project you were dreaming of, the one that does exactly what you want.
So much of the idea of signal and the definition of an audio “mixer” is fixed, we’ve begun to take these concepts for granted. Microphones plus line level, into some faders — that’s what a mixer is. But why does it have to be that way? By creating a new instrument around connecting to contact mics and electromagnetic pickups, and even making output to DC motors and solenoids, KOMA Elektronik leapt out of the mainstream – and turned the concept into a runaway hit.
Here’s a beautiful video showing how one artist is making use of the instrument:
The artist, Hainbach, explains:
First full piece of music I made using the Koma Electronics Fieldkit. The kit mixes everything, controls the speed of the walkmen tape loop, plays radio, and uses the envelope from the radio as a rhythmic element.
Just the Field Kit’s crowd funding success is itself some kind of news. I’m writing this footsteps from the Musikmesse trade fair, where so much of what manufacturers assume musicians want is rooted deeply in the past. And not that there’s anything wrong that – there’s something wonderful about wandering halls of pianos or accordions. And sure enough, technology followed suit – assuming musicians want to record those instruments via gear that works the way gear that does that always work.
But it’s the flipside of this line of thinking – that anything outside that box, anything experimental and weird, would be therefore undesirable – that seems like something worth escaping. And escape KOMA’s Field Kit did. Largely by word of mouth, without any fancy PR effort, this idiosyncratic box for wiring in odd sounds and experimenting with them turned into €299,777 of its original €20,000 goal. That may not shake up the larger music gear industry, but it represents the votes of confidence of a community of people wanting to experiment with music.
Now, those people are getting their kits. And if you weren’t in the camp that sent money in advance, you can now line up to buy one of the units that start shipping in May.
But let’s back up — what is this thing, anyway?
The Field Kit is described by KOMA as an “electro-acoustic workstation.” Think of it as a signal processor instrument, a very specific sort of mixer that adds special features for bringing in amplified and electromagnetic sounds from the outside world, mucking about with them (including adding an LFO and envelope follower), then outputting them – or driving motors and solenoids for some mechanical action along with your performance.
There’s even a little AM/FM/SW radio tuner, which you can tune manually or tune via outboard analog CV signal.
It also integrates with Eurorack/modular setups: it’s patchable with CV, and an option for mounting directly in Eurorack is available.
As such, it’s really a desktop, integrated instrument that does a lot of the sorts of tasks that normally required some DIY electronics, for experimental performance and sound art and installation.
If I’m describing this concept badly, someone definitely got it. 350 rewards have already shipped out, with another 750 of them on their way. There are going to be a lot of these in the world, and that itself is lovely.
If you want one for yourself, it will run you €179.00 (assemble it yourself) or €229.00 (pre-assembled). Then you probably want the accessory kits, which get you up and running with some fun noise discovery tasks straight away.
I think actually the “Expansion Pack” is terribly clever. It comes with a speaker, contact mics, an electro-magnetic pickup, a little solenoid (for hitting stuff), a DC motor, a speaker, and patch cables. Plus, while half the fun is discovering objects to play, you’ll find springs, clamps, and the like in the bag.
The Kickstarter project is still the place to find the most detailed explanation of what the whole kit is and how it works:
There was a time when using controllers to play music was still novel. Building them was a technically complicated task, limited to a handful of individuals – most of whom had to keep solving the same basic problem of how to get started over and over again. Now, we know, that’s no longer the case. There are controllers everywhere. You can buy a finished one off the shelf. If you want to customize and modify that, it’s easier than ever before. If you want to make your own, that’s easier than before, too. And the result is that musicians separate themselves by making their music special – by practicing and creating something uniquely theirs.
Now, it seems that a friendly little niche of electronic music making is poised to open up for robotic instruments. (As my friend Donald Bell so nicely put it, quoted on the Kickstarter here, “tinkertechno.”)
I’ve been watching the evolution of Johannes Lohbihler’s dadamachines project as it’s evolved over a period of years. And yes, the first thing to know is — you can bang stuff with it!
Now, that might alone be enough – banging things is fun for just about all humans. But there’s more here than that. If you think of a hardware controller as a way of turning physical input into digital music, this really is a glimpse of what happens when you make digital music into physical output.
And the cleverest thing Johannes has done is to nicely productize the core of the system. The automat controller box, the brains of the operation, lets you quickly plug in anything 12 volt. That’s nice, in that there hasn’t been any plug-and-play solution for that. So whether it’s a solenoid (those things plunking stuff) or a motor or anything else that runs on 12 volt, connections are easy.
There’s a USB connection for a computer/tablet, but you can also unplug the computer and just use MIDI in and out. And it comes in a nice case – which, sorry, actually makes a really big difference for real-world use!
The whole box reminds me of the first analog and MIDI connections for studio equipment. It has that same musician-friendly look – and feels like something that could really open up the way you work.
Now, from there, dadamachines bundle various larger kits of stuff. So if you aren’t quite ready to hack together your own solutions, you can start playing right away — just like buying a percussion instrument.
These are also really nicely thought out, adding power adapters, the robotic solenoids, and other percussive elements (as seen in the video). Don’t be put off by the pricing of the bigger kits – a basic “(M)”edium-sized kit runs €399. (and believe me, otherwise add up the amount you could spend on DIY mistakes…)
The different variations (explained on Kickstarter) allow you to do real-world percussion with objects of different sizes, shapes, and orientations. Some produce sound by bouncing materials off a speaker; some sit atop objects and hit them. One is a mallet; a LEGO adapter makes prototyping really easy.
I’m picking up an evaluation kit today, so stay tuned to CDM and we’ll try to do an interesting review for you.
Keep in mind that while that may seem to give away the novelty here, what you do with these instruments is up to you. You’ve now left the digital domain and are in the acoustic world — so the creativity really comes from what real-world materials you use and the musical patterns you devise. (Think of how much variety people have squeezed out of the TR-808 over the years – the limits here are much broader.)
But for people who do go deeper, this is open source hardware. Everything is Arduino-based and looks easy to hack. The GitHub site isn’t live until after the campaign (I’ll let you discuss the relative merits of whether or not projects like this should do this), but from what I’ve seen, this looks really promising. And it’s still a lot easier than trying to do this yourself with Arduino – even just solving the case is a big boon.
I imagine that could lead to other parallel projects. In fact, I think this whole area will do better if there are more things like this — looking to the models of controllers, MIDI, Eurorack, and even recent developments like Ableton Link as great examples.
I’ll be at the launch party tonight checking this out.
– USB Midi
– DIN Midi-In & Thru (Out option)
– 12 DC Outputs (12-24V max. 1.3A)
– External power supply 12-24V
– Arduino shields & extension port
It’s about time to solve this power problem on music gear once and for all.
Here’s the thing: USB has quietly simplified powering everything else. Look at your phone. Now, a USB cable not only means you can charge from your laptop, but also various travel adapters – and, crucially, from battery power. With mobile batteries getting steadily better, that’s huge. You can just pack a battery and not worry about finding a wall socket, for hours or (with high capacities) even days. And those batteries are getting better as products, too – you can buy some nice looking, nicely functioning mobile batteries for not a whole lot of money.
Yet, back to music gear, it’s a whole other story. Let’s review:
1. A lot of synths do provide battery power, but eat through AA batteries – like the KORG volca series, for instance. That’s expensive, and then you’re out of luck if you don’t have batteries handy and they die.
2. A lot of other gear you might want to use on batteries don’t provide battery compartments.
3. You can easily wind up with mismatched power supplies for equipment – and then you’re in big trouble on the road. In fact, that’s increasingly true I find of even USB accessory gear. I’ll have the power supply I need, but not the right tip adapter.
The Ripcord, finishing up a project now on Kickstarter, is a nice solution. It’s a line of cables especially designed There are a number of features here that are appealing:
It’s got various tips and voltages for different products. (Yep, it works with our MeeBlip line, for instance – meaning you can power the MeeBlip from a long-life USB battery pack.
It has voltage variations (5-18V) plus 1000mA amperage for compatibility with quite a lot of stuff.
The industrial design is rather clever: various features to improve durability (I’ve certainly destroyed USB cables so that’s nice), plus braided cable design and a pull strap to avoid tangling.
For addicts of the KORG volca series like me, it’s a godsend. With a special cable you can connect up to five volcas with just one USB connection (or, say, my mix of volcas and MeeBlip).
Here’s that splitter cable in action:
But it will also work with gear like the Push 2 or Traktor accessories.
Another key added bonus – because you can plug into your laptop or battery, you can avoid ground loop problems. That’s obviously a big deal.
There’s also an adapter that lets you charge from your phone, which is a bit mental!
The Kickstarter project has the bright idea of pairing the cables with complete solutions with batteries and so on – so while those funding levels look pricey initially, they’re actually a decent buy.
As I write this, they’re just shy of their goal, so I do hope we can put them over the top, as this looks great. My colleague got one and we’ve been testing this – and it’s just brilliant. Works perfectly.
Irish maker myvolts have a whole line of this stuff for various gear – just in case you can’t wait until end of summer for the mass production of the Kickstarter project to ship.
For all the changes in visual appearance, all the extra features and connections, what hasn’t changed much in headphones is how headphones work. That makes Nura, a product launching this week on Kickstarter, all the more interesting. Not only does it introduce a unique design for how the headphones physically deliver sound to your ears, but it’s also a pair of headphones that listens to your ears — even before you start listening to music.
One of the most fundamental things to know about human hearing is that all ears are different. You can give yourself some sense of this by playing with the flappy bits of your ears right now. (Don’t worry – I’m sure people around you won’t find it at all odd.) Move around your ears and you’ll notice sound changes – both your sense of the color and spatial location of what you hear will seem to change. That’s because your physical ear, from exterior to deep in the inner ear, produces a series of attenuations in frequency that impact what you hear.
In the world of analog sound, that meant that sound listening devices had to be made as generically as possible. From the sound produced itself to the physical form of devices like headphones, then, “personal” listening is really just a rough, lowest-common denominator approximation.
But we’re no longer in the world of exclusively analog sound. Thanks to computational technology, it’s possible to make “smarter” listening devices – headphones that automatically calibrate to your particular ears.
Headphones that listen
The Nura headphones do just that. Using an app on the smartphone to do the analysis, they automatically calibrate frequency range to your particular hearing. The headphones measure your hearing – on their own in conjunction with the app, with no intervention from you – in about half a minute.
This is possible because your inner ear, in addition to “listening” to sound, also actually emits very low-intensity sounds (explained in this medical article), both on its own and (essential here) in response to particular sounds as stimuli. What the Nura headphones are able to do is measure those emissions as a way of detecting the way your particular ear hears. They produce That’s been used in medical applications before, but this is the first time the same technique was used to produce better headphones as a consumer product.
So, you plug these in, hear some sweeping tones for 30 seconds, and then your headphones “know” how to make your music sound better – really.
Once the half-miute sensing process is complete, your personal profile is then stored with the headphones for the most accurate sound reproduction in your listening. It’s even specific, as it must be, to each ear. If you share your pair of Nura headphones with someone else and don’t re-calibrate, in other words, you should realize something akin to trading prescription eyeglasses with someone else – you’ll recognize that they don’t hear/see the way you do.
There are some unique applications for this. First off, by default, Nura headphones should sound better than other headphones do. (That explains at least in part why pros do monitor on both cans and studio monitors, or why no one entirely agrees on their favorite headphones.)
I was curious how professional engineers responded, too. That will require a more extensive test and review, but so far the makers of Nura say musicians and engineers have responded positively, and that they’ll continue to collaborate with them as they refine the design – which can include both the software/analysis side as well as the cans themselves.
This also means data collection on hearing directly from your listening device. That could eventually I imagine have implications for hearing health, adjusting to changes in hearing over time, and other applications.
Oh, one weird and interesting possibility: you could actually download a profile for the person who engineered a record, and hear through their ears.
The unique physical design combines in-ear and over-ear designs into a single form factor.
The self-calibration routine isn’t the only innovation of the Nura headphones. Physical design is also new. For the first time, the makers say (and the first time I’ve ever seen), the headphones use a dual driver design.
Basically, imagine that this is a combination of earbuds and over-ear headphones. There’s a driver that sticks into your ear for high and mid frequencies and the over-ear for lows. And that solves some familiar problems. In-ear and over-ear designs normally each have unique benefits, both in terms of the outside sounds they block and the sounds that you hear most clearly. Hear, you get both at once.
Since that also means more passive noise cancellation (like covering and plugging your ears at the same time), you should hear less outside noise, which means you can listen at lower volumes, which means less hearing damage from headphone listening.
There are some nice physical features, too, including gel-filled tips that the makers say conform to your ears. And they look fairly nice.
Connections are entirely digital – Lightning (for iOS) and USB (for Android and computers). There’s no analog connector; those digital connectors also provide the power necessary for the headphones to operate. I think a lot of us in the pro market would like an analog option (with some other power solution); I’ve asked about that.
I haven’t gotten to test these yet; that’ll happen here in Berlin next week when the team arrive with prototypes at Music Tech Fest – itself a compelling place to find out about new gear. I’m looking forward to that, though. Let us know if you’ve got questions for the makers or something you want me to evaluate in the process.
I do think this is the future. Nura covers frequency attenuation; it’s still for stereo signal. But you can bet that other sensing capabilities in headphones will also become a major selling feature, from health (sensors that work with the ear, like temperature or pulse) to spatialization (self-calibration becomes even more essential if you want to deliver realistic 360-degree sound to the ears).
Nura is the first to bring that kind of functionality to market in a music device. And that’s big news. So stay tuned for more.
The Kickstarter reached its $100,000 goal on the first day and continues to plow forward as users buy up early-bird specials on the headphones.
Want to go from four on the floor to, sort of four thousand all over the place? Yotaro Shuto is a Japanese electronic musician who performs in DUB-Russell, and he’s decided to turn his monster Max performance patch beat machine into a product. That’s meant taking it to Kickstarter.
Daisuke Tanabe may be doing a whole lot to sell this, thanks to a slick performance in the demo video. The Kickstarter model makes this awfully pricey – right now with early-bird stuff sold out, we’re talking about $100 or more just to get an app that’s only going to be in beta by May. By comparison, for $200 you could get a brand-new copy of Reaktor 6, which does a whole lot more than this (and is fully-, rather than partially-modular). And it’s Mac-only, though spending a bit more gets you Max objects and Max for Live devices, so you can work in that environment.
Whether you buy into the crowd funding project or not, though, this is an amazing exercise in maximalism. A Retina-display laptop is recommended just to see the screen, which shows, improbably, absolutely everything at once.
And it does a lot. There’s a sample slicer, grid sequencers, 12 one-shot samplers each with dedicated controls visible all at once (and their own bit crushers and ring mods and filters and so on), FM synths, a pitch transposer, send effects, and mixing, plus something called a “Higurashi Generator.”
Probably the most interesting bit of this is the effect patcher, which is the semi-modular bit. There, you can route nine effects together. I think if you paid for this thing, this would be the part that would convince you that this is something unique.
Some have already bought in, so we don’t need to convince you one way or another. What I will say is, the performance evidence is impressive – I am inspired by this as musical practice as well as software. Watch:
Being simple and mobile has its advantages. I bet at least once, you’ve recorded some audio sample on your phone. But simplicity often comes at the expense of audio quality – the phone being a perfect example.
An upstart hardware project wants to change that, with a crowd funding campaign that’s winding up its final days now. The Mikme is a small rectangular box, with a single button for recording. It’s wireless, with the ability to connect to mobile apps for tweaking and sharing.
Now, your first impression, then, might be that this is a consumer product – convenient, but delivering sub-par audio. It’s still a bit too soon to judge as the hardware is in prototype phase, but Mikme want to build something that stands up to the demands of pros and musicians. They’ve drawn on talent from professional audio engineering, with a 1″ true condenser capsule – one they say bests the little capsules in current mobile recording solutions from the likes of Zoom. Those rely on smaller electret condensers.
I got to meet founder Philipp Sonnleitner from Vienna when he presented the project at Tech Open Air in Berlin, and even tried the prototype hands-on. Here are more details.
The physical unit. Mikme itself is a small box – part of the reason they’re able to use such a big capsule is that the capsule is practically the size of the whole unit. Rather than a lot of controls, you get one button to start recording on the top – nice in those moments when you want to get recording quickly.
What you don’t need is any wires. There’s an internal battery with a promised 7 hours of recording time. You don’t get removable memory – no SD slots here – but 16 GB of memory is built in. (That was upgraded from the original 8 GB after crowd funders helped the hardware reach its “stretch” goal; now there’s both a 16 GB model or 8 GB if you don’t need all the space and want to save some cash.)
There’s a gold-plated, 1-inch (25 mm) condenser capsule with a cardioid pattern, which compares to 1/2″ (13 mm) electret capsules in USB mics and mobile recorders from Zoom, Tascam, Sony, Blue, Apogee, and so on. You can record at 24-bit and 44.1, 48, or 96 kHz. It’s in a shock mount, and remarkably, I didn’t notice any handling noise.
The unit really is simplicity itself. Tap once to capture, twice to play back the last capture. Tap and hold for a “sound check” feature. The same button lights red if input is clipping.
Along the front, there are simple green LEDs with power/battery and Bluetooth indication, USB for charging or using the unit as a USB mic, headphone out minijack, and volume up/down controls.
Unfortunately, they didn’t add a minijack input, which is too bad. The one thing that would allow me to replace my Zoom H4n with this would be if it could do 4-channel line + mic mixes – and it’d be great to record through the apparently high-quality converters. (Mikme 2 feature request?)
On the bottom, you’ll find a mounting hole, and they’ve thoughtfully included 3/8″ and 1/4″ threads for mic stands and DSLR tripods, respectively. So you can easily stick this on a stand or attach it to a camera. The whole package weighs just 200 grams (less than half a pound), and it’s 70x70x35 mm – you can stick it in your pocket.
Recording modes. The mic can operate in one of three modes:
1. Standalone. Record on the unit, then offload later over Bluetooth or USB.
2. USB mic. Connect it to your device/computer and record over USB.
3. Bluetooth mic. Don’t have a wire/adapter handy? Use Bluetooth instead. Now, this may make you cringe, but that’s because you’re used to mics that transmit an inferior 8 kHz signal; the Mikme uses a full-bandwidth 48 kHz. Philipp showed off the audio quality, and it’s actually hard to tell the Bluetooth stream from the wired stream.
The unit records either in MP4 (if you need more recording time) or lossless raw WAV (that’s still 32 hours at 16 GB). Also, you can record both MP4 and WAV simultaneously, so you have a compact file ready to go without conversion.
Engineering pedigree. Founder Philipp comes from 8 years at AKG, but so, too, does the team’s mechanical construction engineer. Josef Schneider has a 25-year history including work on the C214, C414, C12, K271, K812, and K701. Richard Pribyl, who did acoustic tuning and engineering for Mikme, worked over 40 years in acoustic research and development at AKG and holds over 70 patents.
Of course, that’s just resumes. The explanation Philipp gave me for why you should consider the Mikme is a combination of the capsule and all-in-one design. The capsule he says is what you would normally find in 350€+ XLR mics. Analog and digital input stage and storage are all in a single housing, so that gain staging (which is also transmitted to the app) is performed in a single place.
Now, I didn’t get to properly evaluate the gain controls, again, because I had a prototype. Hardware gain was working, but not software gain controls. The finished model promises 0-30 dB gain settings in increments of 1 dB. Using the Soundcheck feature on the hardware, you can also measure 7 seconds of input and let the hardware adjust gain automatically.
This is interesting, too, for anyone who has cursed the horrible automatic compression on some mobile recorders. The gain is fixed. You can optionally switch on 3 dB-stepped decreases at an overload, but even that will leave the rest of your recording untouched – good news for anyone who has ruined recordings in the past. (Cough. Uh, I mean, no, I never did that.)
Use cases / hands on. On the software side, an app gives you additional controls – useful since there’s no display and limited feedback on the unit. (It’s ready for iOS now, with Android coming by the end of the year.) So you get recording, gain controls, and more.
Part of the vision of the app is also rapid sharing. There’s a clever UI that organizes by pictures – though I sort of hate the use of parallax visual effects. And you also get “Instagram”-style “filter” settings for reverb and the like, which I’m surprised haven’t shown up on apps before.
I have to say, I think this is a mic I’d use a lot more than other mics. There are plenty of times where I just haven’t bothered with cables and the like. The Zoom is relatively terrific, but this is more compact and might in fact sound better. Plus, Bluetooth pairing makes it more of a natural for use with the iPhone (and video), and it’s easier to fit atop a camera.
Case in point: while at Tech Open Air, I dragged one of the people doing demos into a room of the conference and recorded a quick vocal sample that I wound up spinning into a finished track, dumping the recording into Ableton Live and making a fast drum rack. (That track isn’t out yet, but as you can hear from the samples here, the mic’s output is terrific.)
Now, get ready for the investor pitch – Philipp stressed that “mikme is not a microphone manufacturer.” Instead, he says, “we want to enable creatives to capture, produce and publish content such as music, video, podcasts, and interviews within minutes instead hours and in better quality and with less effort.”
I suppose a company like AKG could see their mission in a similar way – it’s really down to how you view an object like a mic. But it’s an interesting mission. Still, I’m most impressed with the mic itself, especially since you can count on various solutions for sharing.
Crowd funding campaign Mikme has raised already a quarter million dollars as I write this, or ten times its funding goal. That means you can preorder a unit starting at US$189 (while supplies last).
First deliveries are set for October, with the public launch in January 2016.
Making a futuristic new music instrument requires more than just the spark of a clever idea. It needs resources, funding, input from musicians, and other ingredients, in perfect balance. Those dimensions can offer cold, hard reality, but met properly, they can also offer opportunity. And that’s part of what made Barcelona’s SONAR+D such a compelling place to be last week. Tucked into the packed SONAR festival was a convergence of the engineering, musical inspiration, and business knowhow required to make musical inventions.
A hang drum or hand pan, reconceived as a digital instrument, it could prove a breakthrough in new instrument controller design as product. Meeting its creators in Barcelona, I got to try the first prototype and see how the version that will eventually ship to backers will be even better. And I have to say, I’m impressed.
First, let’s compare Oval, a digital controller, to the acoustic hang drum that inspired it. The makers have made a video that makes that clear:
Now, that doesn’t mean Oval is a replacement for a hang. It’s better to understand it as a new, digital creation whose form and interface are inspired by a traditional instrument. The genetics of one is derived from the other, each a unique beast, neither more or less meaningful than the other. Just as the MIDI keyboard opens up new possibilities made more accessible by its piano-like shape, we now appreciate having both an acoustic grand and a synthesizer with a manual.
What the Oval can do is play sounds and adapt to scales that the hang can’t. And that isn’t just a way to make music “easier” – it means a new hybrid that opens up flexible ways of playing melodic lines and timbres that other controllers might not so easily enable.
The Oval prototype sits comfortably in the lap. The sensors are basic in the first-generation model, but it’s already expressive and great fun to play. This is something you could take with you – heavy enough to keep from shifting around when you play it, and big enough to allow for sweeping gestures of the arms, but still light and compact enough to carry. I was concerned at SONAR+D about fitting it into a carry-on, but for mobile users, there’s good news below.
I’m also impressed that the wireless MIDI connection – now using the latest-generation Bluetooth – left me with no sense of latency or lag whatsoever. You play the controller, and magically, wirelessly, sounds come out of an iPad to a speaker. (Any compatible Bluetooth source will work.)
The case itself is a feat of ergonomics – inviting curves everywhere, and a smooth, organic-feeling, lightweight but rugged case forged of Corian. That’s right – the stuff you know from countertops is here made into a laptop flying saucer that feels both somehow traditional and space-age.
Here’s the Oval folks with a short film showing that prototype in action at SONAR+D:
It’s some of the new stuff that’s most interesting, however.
The biggest development the team showed me is the new sensing on the pads. While the prototype used one sensor, the new pads use multiple sensors for X/Y sensing – slight differences in where you hit the pads will result in different control messages. You can see the circuits embedded here. The design is inspired by the acoustic hang, which via overtones produces different sounds if struck in different locations.
There’s also an update to the iPad app, seen here – it’s already looking more polished, and the Kickstarter campaign hasn’t even concluded yet.
Also, thanks to resounding support from the community, Oval will go after its stretch goal and make a “shell” for the instrument that protects it and let you carry it, turtle style, on your back. It looks fantastic:
Early birds have already snapped up the 350€ models, meaning the cost of entry is now 499€ – a lot to invest for many of us for a non-shipping product. But you have a couple of weeks if you are ready to get onboard. And I’ll be sure to keep tabs as this progresses.