The synth modules of winter: your Eurorack radar

The waves of synth modules never stop coming, as obsessed engineers keep making them and sound tinkerers keep buying them. So let’s catch up with what’s out there, in the wake of the NAMM show in California late last month.

Most of these are from NAMM, but there are some other sightings recently, as well.

Make Noise’s new modulation monster. Make Noise have made a name for themselves with some real weirdness that then shaped a lot of the music scene. The Quad Peak Animation System is the latest from them – a wild modulation system that can make vocalization-like sounds, with fast-responding multiple resonant filter peaks across a stereo image. In other words, this thing can sing – in an odd way – in stereo.

The best part of the story behind this is Tony Rolando of Make Noise partly got the idea calibrating Moog Voyagers … and now will apply that to making something crazy and new.

http://makenoisemusic.com/modules/qpas

Now we have multiple videos of that:

Low-cost Buchla. There’s a phrase I’ve never typed before. The Buchla USA company themselves are working to bring Buchla to the masses, with the new low-cost Red Label line of modules. This is 100 series stuff, the historical modules that really launched the West Coast sound – mixer, quad gate, dual-channel oscillator, filters, reverb, and more. There’s even a case and – of course – a touch surface for input, because keyboards are the devil’s playground. Good people are involved – Dave Small (Catalyst Audio) and Todd Barton – so this is one to watch.

https://buchla.com/

A module that’s whatever you want it to be. Nozori is a Kickstarter-backed project to make multifunctional modules – buy a module once, then switch modes via software (and of course coordinated faceplates). People must like the idea, because it’s already well funded, and you still have a week back if you want in.

http://kck.st/2TPKDdT

Lightning in a bottle. Gamechanger have a wild technology that lets you “play a lightning bolt” – basically, incorporating Tesla Coils into their hardware. They’ve done that once with Plasma Pedal, which we hope to test soon. With Erica, they’ll stick this in a module – and let you use high-voltage discharges in a xenon-filled tube. That looks cool and should sound wild; you get distortion with CV control in this module, octave up/down tracking oscillators for still more harmonics, and even an assignable pre/post- EQ. 310EUR before VAT, coming late February.

Erica Synths does the Sample Drum. This one’s sure to be a big hit, I think – not only for people wanting a drum module, per se, but presumably anyone interested in sample manipulation. Sample Drum plays and (finally!) records, with manual and automatic sample slicing, and three assignable CV inputs per channel. There are even effects onboard … which actually makes me wonder why we can’t have something like this as a desktop unit, too. You even can embed cue points in WAV. SD card storage. Looks terrific – 300EUR (not including VAT) coming late February.

One massive oscillator with zing, from Rossum. TRIDENT is a “multi-synchronic oscillator ensemble” – basically three oscillators in one, with loads of modulation and options for FM and phase and … uh, “zing.” Of course you could get a whole bunch of modules and do something similar, but the advantage here is a kind of integrated approach to making a lot of rich timbres – and while the sticker price here is US$599, that may well be less than wrangling a bunch of individual modules.

Actually, let’s let Dave himself talk about this:

http://www.rossum-electro.com/products/trident/

A module for drawing. LZX Industries’ Escher Sketch is a stylus pen controller with XY, pressure, and “directional velocity” (expression). LZX are thinking of this for video synthesis, though I’m sure it’ll get abused. US$499.

MIDI to CV, with autotuning and polyphony. Bastl Instruments’ 1983 4-channel MIDI to CV interface, complete with automatic tuning and other features, is one we’ve been following for a while. It’s now officially out as of 1 February.

Previously, including an explanation of why this is so cool:

Bastl do waveshaping, MIDI, and magically tune your modules

Don’t forget that Bastl also worked with Casper Electronics on Dark Matter, which I covered last month:

Bastl’s Dark Matter module unleashes the joys of feedback

Inexpensive Soundlazer modules. This LA company is actually known more for its directional speakers, but it looks like they’re getting into modules. Opening salvo: $99 bass drum, $69 VCA – evidence that it’s not just Behringer who may get into lower cost Eurorack. Check out their site for more.

Mix with vectors and quad. v3kt is really cool. Plug in joysticks, envelopes, LFOs, automatically calibrate them with push-button sampling, and then mix and connect all that CV to other stuff, with save states. Oh and you can use this as a quad panner, too. $199 now.

http://www.antimatteraudio.com/modules/v3kt

STG and Radiophonic 1 synthesizer. Radiophonic 1 is a terrific-sounding all-in-one, with a gorgeous oscillator at its core (also available separately). See Synthtopia’s video for explanation:

And Matt Chadra demonstrates how it sounds:

Slice and recombine waveforms in a module. Hey, you know how everyone keeps complaining there are no new ideas in synthesis? Well, Waverazor at least claims to be a new idea (with patent pending, too). Cut individual waveform cycles into slices, individually modify and modulate the slices, recombine. Okay – that sounds a lot like wavetable synthesis with a twist (albeit a compelling one), but we’ll bite. Or rather if you didn’t bite when this was a standalone plug-in, maybe you’ll like real knobs and a bunch of patch points:

https://mok.com/wr_dual.php

Control your modular with a ring. It’s funny how this idea never goes away. But here we are again – this time with crowd funding on IndieGogo, so maybe a larger group of people to actually use it. Wave is a ring you wear so you can make music by waving your hand around and … this time it plugs into a modular (the Wavefront module).

Watch this video and marvel at how you can do something you could do with an expression pedal or by using the same free hand to turn a knob, but, like, with a ring.

(Sorry, probably someone does want this, but… yes, it is truly a NAMM tradition to see someone trying it, again.)

Behringer are promising Roland System 100M modules. The German mass manufacturer was out ahead of the NAMM show with pre-production designs and prototypes based on Roland’s 100M series. Price is the lead here – US$49-99. Interestingly, what I didn’t see was people saying they’d opt for Behringer over other makers so much as that they might expand their system with these because of that low cost. Teenage Engineering also made a play for that “modular for the masses” mantle, though not in Eurorack.

Synthtopia did a good write-up of the prototype plans:
Behringer Plans 40 Eurorack Modules In The Next 2 Years, Priced at $49-99

Behringer did make this promise already back in April of last year – then, just in advance of the Superbooth show in Berlin – which I expect annoys other modular makers. But if you want Roland remakes right now, you can get them from – well, Roland, if at higher prices:

Roland’s new SYSTEM-500 modules, and why you might want them

Low cost, 2hp bells and grains and stuff.pocket operator modular system. And yes, while we might be talking about Behringer as the IKEA of modular, but for Teenage Engineering. TE have extended their pocket operator brand to a line of modular. It’s not Eurorack, but it is patchable and you can buy individual modules or a complete kit. I’m working on an in-depth interview with the teenagers, so stay tuned.

You actually do fold these things together – and prices run 399-549 EUR for a complete system.

https://teenageengineering.com/

That’s far from everything, but for me it’s the standouts. Any you’re excited about here – or anything I missed? Sound off in comments.

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Bitwig Studio is about to deliver on a fully modular core in a DAW

Bitwig Studio may have started in the shadow of Ableton, but one of its initial promises was building a DAW that was modular from the ground up. Bitwig Studio 3 is poised to finally deliver on that promise, with “The Grid.”

Having a truly modular system inside a DAW offers some tantalizing possibilities. It means, in theory at least, you can construct whatever you want from basic building blocks. And in the very opposite of today’s age of presets, that could make your music tool feel more your own.

Oh yeah, and if there is such an engine inside your DAW, you can also count on other people building a bunch of stuff you can reuse.

Why modulaity? It doesn’t have to just be about tinkering (though that can be fun for a lot of people).

A modular setup is the very opposite of a preset mentality for music production. Experienced users of these environments (software especially, since it’s open-ended) do often find that patching exactly what they need can be more creative and inspirational. It can even save time versus the effort spent trying to whittle away at a big, monolithic tool just go get to the bit you actually want. But the traditional environments for modular development are fairly unfriendly to new users – that’s why very often people’s first encounters with Max/MSP, SuperCollider, Pd, Reaktor, and the like is in a college course. (And not everyone has access to those.) Here, you get a toolset that could prove more manageable. And then once you have a patch you like, you can still interconnect premade devices – and you can work with clips and linear arrangement to actually finish songs. With the other tools, that often means coding out the structure of your song or trying to link up to a different piece of software.

We’ve seen other DAWs go modular in different ways. There’s Apple Logic’s now mostly rarely-used Environment. There’s Reason with its rich, patchable rack and devices. There’s Sensomusic Usine, which is a fully modular DAW / audio environment, and DMX lighting and video tool – perhaps the most modular of these (even relative to Bitwig Studio and The Grid). And of course there’s Ableton Live with Max for Live, though that’s really a different animal – it’s a full patching development environment that runs inside Live via a runtime, and API and interface hooks that allow you to access its devices. The upside: Max for Live can do just about everything. The downside: it’s mostly foreign to Ableton Live (as it’s a different piece of software with its own history), and it could be too deep for someone just wanting to build an effect or instrument.

So, enter The Grid. This is really the first time a relatively conventional DAW has gotten its own, native modular environment that can build instruments and effects. And it looks like it could be accomplished in a way that feels comfortable to existing users. You get a toolset for patching your own stuff inside the DAW, and you can even mix and match signal to outboard hardware modular if that’s your thing.

And it really focuses on sound applications, too, with three devices. One is dedicated to monophonic synths, one to polyphonic synths, and one to effects.

From there, you get a fully modular setup with a modern-looking UI and 120+ modules to choose from.

They’ve done a whole lot to ease the learning curve normally associated with these environments – smoothing out some of the wrinkles that usually baffle beginners:

You can patch anything to anything, in to out. All signals are interchangeable – connect any out to any in. Most other software environments don’t work that way, which can mean a steeper learning curve. (We’ll have to see how this works in practice inside The Grid).

Any in can go to any out – reducing some of the complexity of other patching environments (software and hardware alike).

Everything’s stereo. Here’s another way of reducing complexity. Normally, you have to duplicate signals to get stereo, which can be confusing for beginners. Here, every audio cable and every control cable routes stereo.

Everything’s also in living stereo, reducing cable count and cognitive effort.

There are default patchings. Funny enough, this idea has actually been seen on hardware – there are default routings so modules automatically wire themselves if you want, via what Bitwig calls “pre-cords.” That means if you’re new to the environment, you can always plug stuff in.

They’ve also promised to make phase easier to understand, which should open up creative use of time and modulation to those who may have been intimidated by these concepts before.

“Pre-cords” mean you can easily add default patchings to get stuff working straight away.

What fun is a modular tool if you can’t explore phase? Bitwig say they’ve made this concept more accessible to modulation and easier to learn.

There’s also a big advantage to this being native to the environment – again, something you could only really say about Sensomusic Usine before now (at least as far as things that could double as DAWs).

This unlocks:

  • Nesting and layering devices alongside other Bitwig devices
  • Full support from the Open Controller API. (Wow, this is a pain the moment you put something like Reaktor into another host, too.)
  • Route modulation out of your stuff from The Grid into other Bitwig devices.
  • Complete hardware modular integration – yeah, you can mix your software with hardware as if they’re one environment. Bitwig says they’ve included “dedicated grid modules for sending any control, trigger, or pitch signal as CV Out and receiving any CV In.”

I’ve been waiting for this basically since the beginning. This is an unprecedented level of integration, where every device you see in Bitwig Studio is already based on this modular environment. Bitwig had even touted that early on, but I think they were far overzealous with letting people know about their plans. It unsurprisingly took a while to make that interface user friendly, which is why it’ll be a pleasure to try this now and see how they’ve done. But Bitwig tells us this is in fact the same engine – and that the interface “melds our twin focus on modularity and swift workflows.”

There’s also a significant dedication to signal fidelity. There’s 4X oversampling throughout. That should generally sound better, but it also has implications for control and modularity. And it’ll make modulation more powerful in synthesis, Bitwig tells CDM:

With phase, sync, and pitch inputs on most every oscillator, there are many opportunities here for complex setups. Providing this additional bandwidth keeps most any patch or experiment from audible aliasing. As an open system, this type of optimization works for the most cases without overtaxing processors.

It’s stereo only, which puts it behind some of the multichannel capabilities of Reaktor, Max, SuperCollider, and others – Max/MSP especially given its recent developments. But that could see some growth in a later release, Bitwig hints. For now, I think stereo will keep us plenty busy.

They’ve also been busy optimizing, Bitwig tells us:

This is something we worked a lot on in early development, particularly optimizing performance on the oversampled, stereo paths to align with the vector units of desktop processors. In addition, the modules are compiled at runtime for the best performance on the particular CPU in use.

That’s a big deal. I’m also excited about using this on Linux – where, by the way, you can really easily use JACK to integrate other environments like SuperCollider or live coding tools.

If you’re at NAMM, Bitwig will show The Grid as part of Bitwig Studio 3. They have a release coming in the second quarter, but we’ll sit down with them here in Berlin for a detailed closer look (minus NAMM noise in the background or jetlag)!

Oh yeah, and if you’ve got the Upgrade Plan, it’s free.

This is really about making a fully modular DAW – as opposed to the fixed multitrack tape/mixer models of the past. Bitwig have even written up an article about how they see modularity and how it’s evolved over various release versions:

BEHIND THE SCENES: MODULARITY IN BITWIG STUDIO

More on Bitwig Studio 3:

https://www.bitwig.com/en/19/bitwig-studio-3

Obligatory:

Oh yeah, also Tron: Legacy seems like a better movie with French subtitles…

That last line fits: “And the world was more beautiful than I ever dreamed – and also more dangerous … hop in bed now, come on.”

Yeah, personal life / sleep … in trouble.

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The Stylophone goes totally luxe with the GEN R-8

You’ve seen the Stylophone as the mass-produced, toy-like original. And you’ve seen it as a relaunched digital emulation and as an analog instrument. Now get ready for the Stylophone as premium boutique instrument.

The Stylophone began its story back in 1967, and became one of the iconic electronic musical inventions of the 20th century – its appeal being largely to do with its simplicity and directness. The son of the original inventor, Ben Jarvis, went on to revive instrument under the original manufacturer name, Dubreq.

Now, the GEN R-8 is here with some advanced features and flowery description about British circuitry you might expect from the ad copy for a high-end mixing desk. There’s something a bit funny about associating that with the instrument so long known as a (very musical) toy, but – think of the GEN R-8 as a new desktop synth, the full-featured, grown-up monster child of the original.

Oh, and — it sounds like it’s going to be a total bass beast.

So you know in campy horror movies where someone gets hit with a growth ray or radiation or whatever, and turns into a city-smashing giant? Hopefully this is like that, in a good way.

Sound specs:

Dual analog oscillators (VCOs) and full analog signal path.
Divide-down sub-oscillators (one octave lower) and subsub oscillators (two octaves lower) – switch them all on, and you get six oscillators at once.
12 dB state variable filter – low pass, high pass, band pass, wide notch – which they say is their own proprietary design.
ADSR envelope, now with a “punchy” shorter hold stage when you crank attack and decay peaks, they say.

There’s a delay, too – based on the Princeton pt2399 chip, and “grungy” in the creators’ description – which you can modulate via time CV input.

And some classic overdrive, plus an extra booster stage – this part does actually sound a bit like classic British console gear.

And there’s a step sequencer – 8 banks, 16 steps per sequence, both for the internal synth and external gear (CV/gate and MIDI output).

Plus the whole thing is patchable:
There’s an LFO with eight waveforms and dual outputs, which you can patch to all of the CV ins or to other gear.
The patch panel has 19 minijack CV/gate and audio patch points.

The keyboard is now touch-based – so you don’t need a stylus – and has a sort of absurd set of features (MIDI controller output with local on/off, glide and modulation keys, three octaves of keys).

And it’s made of steel.

Price: £299 / $349 / €329
Availability: Late February 2019 [limited edition]

So it’s really Stylophone on steroids – fully patchable, with delay and drive and filter, MIDI and CV, ready to use as a new synth or as a controller tool with other gear (other semi-modulars, Eurorack, MIDI instruments, whatever). It does appear one of the more interesting new instruments of the year – one to watch.

Demo:

https://dubreq.com/genr8/

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Haken’s ContinuuMini is expressive, post-keyboard sound for $899

Want some evidence that the future of expressive digital instruments and MPE is bright? Look to Haken’s ContinuuMini, which emerged over last year, bringing greater portability and a US$899 price to the out-there controller.

Forget anything else, and listen to this gorgeous video (using a clever setup with an Onde acoustic resonator*:

Why does the ContinuuMini matter?

Expression really is a combination of sound and physical control. Say what you will about piano keyboards (and some electronic musicians who hate them certainly do) – the reason an acoustic piano is still expressive has to do with the sound of a piano.

So when we talk about MPE, a scheme for allowing polyphonic expression through MIDI, we’re really talking about allow greater depth in the connection of physical gestures and sound.

If this is going to catch on, it’ll require more than one vendor. I think it’s wrong to assume MPE’s future, then, is tied solely to ROLI as a vendor. From the start, MPE was an initiative of a range of people, from major software developers (Apple, Steinberg) to hardware inventors (ROLI, but also Roger Linn and Randy Jones of Madrona Labs, for instance).

And Haken Audio has been a boutique maker pushing new ways of playing for years – including with MPE on their Continuum. The Continuum may look arcane in photos, but feeling it is a unique experience. The ribbon feels luxurious – it’s actually soft fabric. And the degree of control is something special. But it’s also enormous and expensive – and that means a lot of people can’t buy it, or can’t tour with it since it won’t fit in an overhead.

I believe that what makes an instrument is really finding that handful of people to do stuff even the creators didn’t expect, so if you can lower those barriers for even a run of a few hundred units, you could have a small revolution on your hand.

That’s what Haken have done with ContinuuMini, which closed crowd sourcing late last year and has started shipping of the first hardware.

Here’s what sets it apart:

It’s a Continuum. Well, first, nothing else feels like a Continuum. That feeling may not be for everyone, but it’s still significant as a choice.

It’s continuous. Because you aren’t limited by frets or keys, there’s a continuous range of sound. This is a controller you’ll want to practice, finding intonation with muscle memory and your ear. And there are artists who will want that subtlety.

It has internal sound. Like its larger sibling the ContinuuMini has an internal sound engine. That means that it’s not just a controller. Haken have conceived control and sound in a single, unified design. You can play it without connecting other stuff. And the builders have worked on both the physical and aural experience of what they’ve made. I think that’s significant to anyone making an investment, particularly in an age in which abstract controller hardware tends to stack in our closets.

It’s 8-voice polyphonic, as well. The ContinuuMini isn’t just a controller: it’s a complete, gorgeous polysynth and a controller, for this one price.

It connects to other gear, without software. Bidirectional digital control – MIDI, with MPE, MPE+ – and bidirectional control voltage analog (with converter) are possible. That means you can play the ContinuuMini with gear and software (like recording MIDI and MPE in your DAW for playback), and likewise the ContinuuMini can control your software and gear. There are also two pedal inputs so your feet can get in on the action.

It’s only a quarter kilogram. 9 oz. You can tote the bigger ones with a case but – the ContinuuMini is incredibly portable.

It feels like an extraordinary development.

https://www.hakenaudio.com/continuumini

* Synthtopia has a great, in-depth interview on the Onde and Pyramid, acoustic resonators that make an electronic instrument feel more like an instrument and less like “something disconnected that produces sound through speakers” as with conventional monitors:

La Voix Du Luthier & The New Shape Of Electronic Sound

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Geheimnisvolles Modul von Rossum Electro aufgetaucht

Rossum Electro Modul PrototypRossum Electro Modul Prototyp

Rossum Electro ist niemand geringeres als E-Mu Gründer Dave Rossum, der bereits einige spektakuläre Module veröffentlicht hat. Darunter ein Sampler und das Z-Plane Filter Modul. Jetzt tauchte ein seltsames Modul ohne jeden Kommentar auf. 

Wer bist du?

Alles was wir wissen: Es ist von Dave. Und der ist fit in Sachen analoger und digitaler Technik. Das beweisen seine bisherigen Module: Filter mit 6-Pol Morphing, das ohne „Noises“ auf 2-Pol ummophbar ist – analog. Außerdem Z-Plane Filter und Fuinktions Generatior mit DSP Technik, also digital. Die Basis ist also da.

Frontplatten-Rätsel

Hier sind Taster verbaut, also wird es innen wohl eher digitale Technik geben oder zumindest einen Teil davon ausmachen. Dazu findet man einige Reihen von Potis, die in einer offensichtlich zusammengehörigen Weise arbeiten. Die Anordnung ist sicher kein reiner Zufall. So findet man in der oberen Reihe drei, in der nächsten nocheinmal drei und darunter sogar fünf Steuereingänge – offenbar allesamt mit Abschwächer.

Was ist es?

Die Taster, LEDs sowie die Buchsen drumherum lassen sich wirklich nur mit wildesten Spekulationen zu etwas definieren, was man kennen könnte. Die Anordnung der Potis dürfte noch der einzige Hinweis sein. Sie könnten eine total neue Synthese bedeuten, denn Oszillatoren kann es nie zu wenig geben.

Die Reihe mit 5 Knöpfen ist fast wie eine Hüllkurve angeordnet, ganz unten findet man 8 Knöpfe, die zu einem Sequencer gehören könnten. Und in der Mitte? Sagen wir doch einfach, dass dies Beeinflussungselemente von etwas sind, die vermutlich das steuern, was weiter oben auch passiert. Oder vielleicht doch ganz eigene Sachen?

Zu viel wirrwar?

Mit diesem Modul ist auf jeden Fall „viel los“ und es könnte fast alles sein vom 5-Step-Sequencer im Buchla Stil bis hin zu komplexen Filtern oder Oszillatoren oder auch einer knopfreicheren Version für einen LFO / Hüllkurven-Supergenerator, der auch ein bisschen Sequencer ist. Vermutlich ist es nichts davon, deshalb schauen wir einfach die nächste Zeit genauer hin. Wir treffen uns an dieser Stelle wieder.

Mehr Infos

Das Bild stammt von Dave Rossums Facebook Account. Die Website sagt bisher noch gar nichts. Schade.

Demzufolge wissen wir auch noch nichts über Preise und Verfügbarkeit.

Was meint ihr? Was ist das?

Escape vanilla modulation: Nikol shows you waveshaping powers

You wouldn’t make music with just simple oscillators, so why only use basic, repetitive modulation? In the latest video in Bastl’s how-to series hosted by Patchení’s Nikol, waveshaping gets applied to control signals.

A-ha! But what’s waveshaping? Well, Nikol teaches basic classes in modular synthesis to beginners, but she did skip over that. Waveshapers add more complex harmonic content to simple waveform inputs. Basic vanilla waveform in, nice wiggly complex waveform out. (See Wikipedia for that moment when you say, oh, well, why didn’t my math teacher bring in synthesizers when she taught us polynomials, then I would have stayed awake!)

Bastl unveiled the Timber waveshaping module back in May, and we all thought it was cool:

Bastl do waveshaping, MIDI, and magically tune your modules

But when most people hear waveshapers, they think of them just as a fancy oscillator – as a sound source. But in the modular world, you can also imagine it as a way of adding harmonics (read: complexity) to simple control signals, which is what Nikol demonstrates here.

That is, instead of Waveshaper -> out, you’ll route [modulation/control signal/LFO] -> Waveshaper in, and mess with that signal. WahWahWahWah can turn into WahwrrEEEEkittyglrblMrcbb… ok, okay, video:

Keep watching, because this eventually gets into adding variation to a sequenced signal.

You can try this in any software or hardware environment, but you do need your waveshaper to work with your control input. What’s relatively special about Timber in the hardware domain at least is its ability to process slow circuits.

https://www.bastl-instruments.com/modular/timber/

You can also follow Nikol on Instagram.

But more of Deina the modular dog, please!

Tragically, while Nikol’s English is getting fluent, us Americans are not doing any better with our Czech. So, Bastl, we may need an immersion language program more than synthesis.

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Novation’s SL MkIII has it all: sequencer, CV, MIDI, software control

One upon a time, there was a Novation keyboard called the ReMOTE SL. That’s as in “remote control” of software. Times have changed, and you’ve got a bunch of gear to connect – and you may want your keyboard to work standalone, too. So meet the SL MkIII.

The additional features are significant enough that Novation is dropping the “remote” from the name. Now it’s just SL, whatever those letters are meant to stand for.

The story here is, you get a full-featured, eight-track sequencer – so you no longer have to depend on a computer for that function. And Novation promise some higher-spec features like expanded dynamic range (via higher scan rate). With lots of keyboards out there, the sequencer is really the lead. Circuit just paid off for keyboardists. Novation gets to merge their experience with Launchpad, with Circuit, with Web connectivity, and with analog and digital gear.

Features:

  • The 8-track, polyphonic sequencer is both a step and live sequencer, it records automation, and you can edit right from the keyboard.
  • Arpeggiator onboard, too.
  • USB, MIDI in, MIDI out, second MIDI thru/out
  • Clock/transport controls for MIDI and analog, which also run standalone – route that to whatever you like.
  • Three pedal inputs
  • Eight faders and eight knobs, handy for mixing (there’s DAW support for all major DAWs, plus dedicated Logic and Reason integration)
  • Color LCDs
  • RGB everything: yep, over the keys, but also color-coded RGB on the pitch and mod wheel as track indicators. (I’m waiting for someone to release a monochromatic controller. You know it’s coming … back.)
  • Those RGB pads are not just velocity sensitive, but even have polyphonic aftertouch (more like higher-end dedicated pad controllers)
  • Cloud backup/restore of templates and sessions – a feature we saw unveiled on Novation’s Circuit

And of course there’s more mapping options with their InControl software and Mackie HUI support.

(Some notes from the specs: you do need separate 12V power, so you can’t use USB power. I don’t have weight notes yet, either.)

Novation must know a lot of their customer base use Ableton Live, as they’re quick to show off how their integation works and why those screens are handy.

Here it is in action:

We also see some cues from Native Instruments’ keyboards – the light guide indicators above the keys are copied directly, and while the pads and triggers are all Launchpad in character, we finally get a Novation keyboard with encoders and graphic displays. Unlike NI, this keyboard is still useful when the computer is shut off, though.

And wait – we’ve heard this before. It was called the AKAI Pro MAX25 and MAX49 – step sequencer built in (with faders and pads), plus MIDI, plus CV, plus remote control surface features. You just had to learn to like touch strips for the faders, and that garish racecar red. That AKAI is still worth a look as a used buy, though the hardware here is in a more standard layout / control complement, and a few years later, you get additional features.

The big rival to the Novation is probably Arturia’s KeyLab MKII. It also strikes a balance between studio hub and controller keyboard, and it comes from another maker who now produces analog synths, too. But the Novation has a step sequencer; Arturia makes step sequencers but left it out of their flagship controller keyboard.

Oh yeah, and if you just wanted an integrated controller keyboard for your DAW, Nektar have you covered, or of course you can opt for the Native Instruments-focused Komplete Kontrol. Each of those offerings also got revisions lately, so I’m guessing … a lot of people are buying keyboards.

But right now, Novation just jumped out to the front of the pack – this keyboard appears to tick all the boxes for hardware and software. And I’ll bet a lot of people are glad to do some sequencing without diving into the computer. (Even alongside a computer for tracking, that’s often useful.)

£539.99 49 keys; £629.99 61. (Both share the same layout.)

https://novationmusic.com/keys/sl-mkiii

What keyboard strikes your fantasy at the moment? What do you want a keyboard to do for you? Let us know in comments.

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Novation’s latest videos “hack” advanced features out of their synths

I know a lot of the folks at Novation on a personal level well enough to say – they’re synth lovers, day job and after hours. What’s great about their latest video series is, some of that comes out.

Of course, yesterday we saw at least one user really hacking a Novation product, the Launchpad Pro, by modding the hardware using a firmware release from the company. And as one frustrated developer shouted at us in comments, that requires a bit of effort. (Not so much for you – you can download a file and use this easily – but modifying real-time firmware of hardware takes some practice!)

Hack a Launchpad Pro into a 16-channel step sequencer, free

This isn’t quite that. These “hacks” have more to do with creatively abusing some features to push the hardware synths to the limit – Circuit, Circuit Mono Station, and Peak. The Circuit in particular has a user community that proved surprisingly advanced, squeezing everything they can out of this budget-priced hardware. But lately the more recent Mono Station and Peak are finding an equally devoted following.

Here’s the whole playlist, which covers sound design techniques (like oscillator sync – okay, that’s more a conventional technique than a ‘hack’), approaches to performance (patch change), working with clock and CV, and other features.

This raises a question, though – these are recent Novation products, so it’s pretty easy to get the manufacturer to do some hot tips.

But which instruments would you like to see covered – new or old – and in what way? What’s missing in tutorials? Let us know in comments. (I realize I just self-selected the answers to that with people who own these Novation synths, so I’ll keep asking this … but also curious what other stuff you Novation lovers own, too!)

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Nikol returns to teach beginners modular – next, panning and ducking

Modular isn’t just about building synth sounds; it’s also about routing signal and mixing in a new way. So we welcome the return of Czech superstar Nikol Štrobach, who continues her mission to make modular accessible to beginners.

Nikol is juggling mom duties with modular – we’ve even seen her kid Lumír. And our patching professor, after a year and a half of video production, did have to take a parenting sabbatical. But she’s returned with a new set of advanced tips and tricks, say our friends at Bastl Instruments. And she’s even added English-language narration (though we rather enjoyed the Czech).

Next up, panning (ooh, stereo!):

And ducking (using amplifiers to have one signal control another):

Bastl tells us this is just the start – two episodes are finished and scheduled for the next couple of weeks, with more in production.

Previously, a classic:

Watch a perfect explanation of modular physical modeling

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Get your Marbles: VCV adds free Mutable Instruments module

Out of a huge landscape of modules, Mutable Instruments stands alone with some of the best options. And those Mutable tools continue to make their appearance, for free, in VCV rack in software.

As we reported previously, VCV Rack are porting the open source, digital module line from hardware to software form once they’ve been shipping for a while.

The latest is another special addition: Marbles is a random voltage generator, reborn in the onscreen Rack software as Random Sampler. (That term also describes me, at a buffet.)

Random what?

Well, basically, Marbles is both a source of randomness and a sampler that can reproduce patterns. On the randomness side, you can generate clock or control signals – or modify external inputs – and add variation, from subtle to chaotic, slight fuzziness to branching patterns. That keeps things from getting too repetitive.

And then, in case you actually want some repetition or a recognizable phrase, you also have a sampler that stores and recalls patterns of voltages, cleverly dubbed “deja vu.”

That’s to me is a beautiful model of how you might want to control chance and variation, giving ears new and recognizable sounds, compositionally. Of course, this being a Mutable module, that power is consolidated in a few knobs, which can also be a delight to play with.

To try these in VCV’s Rack application, first install Rack, then look to the Audible Instruments preview plug-in:

https://vcvrack.com/AudibleInstruments.html#preview

And a lot of us are now installing multiple modulars on our computers and choosing to use a particular one when the use arises. So if the constantly-under-construction, wild and woolly developer side of VCV Rack makes you long for a more stable solution, it’s worth mentioning that Softube’s excellent Modular and all the paid add-ons are now steeply discounted. That includes an implementation of Mutable’s superb Clouds:

https://www.softube.com/index.php?id=mi_clouds

Kudos to Mutable and creator Olivier Gillet. He’s proven that software can be open source but sustainable commercially, and that it can be successful across multiple platforms at once – hardware and software. For anyone bold enough to follow, that could be a compelling direction for musical tools to take.

And after all, no one can resist marbles…

Previously:

A life cycle for open modules, as Mutable Instruments joins VCV Rack

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