KORG’s nutekt NTS-1 is a fun, little kit – and open to ‘logue developers

KORG has already shown that opening up oscillators and effects to developers can expand their minilogue and prologue keyboards. But now they’re doing the same for the nutekt NTS-1 – a cute little volca-ish kit for synths and effects. Build it, make wild sounds, and … run future stuff on it, too.

Okay, first – even before you get to any of that, the NTS-1 is stupidly cool. It’s a little DIY kit you can snap together without any soldering. And it’s got a fun analog/digital architecture with oscillators, filter, envelope, arpeggiator, and effects.

Basically, if you imagine having a palm-sized, battery-powered synthesis studio, this is that.

Japan has already had access to the Nutekt brand from KORG, a DIY kit line. (Yeah, the rest of the world gets to be jealous of Japan again.) This is the first – and hopefully not the last – time KORG has opened up that brand name to the international scene.

And the NTS-1 is one we’re all going to want to get our hands on, I’ll bet. It’s full of features:

– 4 fixed oscillators (saw, triangle and square, loosely modeled around their analog counterpart in minilogue/prologue, and VPM, a simplified version of the multi-engine VPM oscillator)
– Multimode analog modeled filter with 2/4 pole modes (LP, BP, HP)
– Analog modeled amp. EG with ADSR (fixed DS), AHR, AR and looping AR
– modulation, delay and reverb effects on par with minilogue xd/prologue (subset of)
– arpeggiator with various modes: up, down, up-down, down-up, converge, diverge, conv-div, div-conv, random, stochastic (volca modular style). Chord selection: octaves, major triad, suspended triad, augmented triad, minor triad, diminished triad (since sensor only allows one note at a time). Pattern length: 1-24
– Also: pitch/Shape LFO, Cutoff sweeps, tremollo
– MIDI IN via 2.5mm adapter, USB-MIDI, SYNC in/out
– Audio input with multiple routing options and trim
– Internal speaker and headphone out

That would be fun enough, and we could stop here. But the NTS-1 is also built on the same developer board for the KORG minilogue and prologue keyboards. That SDK opens up developers’ powers to make their own oscillators, effects, and other ideas for KORG hardware. And it’s a big deal the cute little NTS-1 is now part of that picture, not just the (very nice) larger keyboards. I’d see it this way:

NTS-1 buyers can get access to the same custom effects and synths as if they bought the minilogue or prologue.

minilogue and prologue owners get another toy they can use – all three of them supporting new stuff.

Developers can use this inexpensive kit to start developing, and don’t have to buy a prologue or minilogue. (Hey, we’ve got to earn some cash first so we can go buy the other keyboard! Oh yeah I guess I have also rent and food and things to think about, too.)

And maybe most of all –

Developers have an even bigger market for the stuff they create.

This is still a prototype, so we’ll have to wait, and no definite details on pricing and availability.

Waiting.

Yep, still waiting.

Wow, I really want this thing, actually. Hope this wait isn’t long.

I’m in touch with KORG and the analog team’s extraordinary Etienne about the project, so stay tuned. For an understanding of the dev board itself (back when it was much less fun – just a board and no case or fun features):

KORG are about to unveil their DIY Prologue boards for synth hacking

Videos:

Sounds and stuff –

Interviews and demos –

And if you wondered what the Japanese kits are like – here you go:

Oh, and I’ll also say – the dev platform is working. Sinevibes‘ Artemiy Pavlov was on-hand to show off the amazing stuff he’s doing with oscillators for the KORG ‘logues. They sound the business, covering a rich range of wavetable and modeling goodness – and quickly made me want a ‘logue, which of course is the whole point. But he seems happy with this as a business, which demonstrates that we really are entering new eras of collaboration and creativity in hardware instruments. And that’s great. Artemiy, since I had almost zero time this month, I better come just hang out in Ukraine for extended nerd time minus distractions.

Artemiy is happily making sounds as colorful as that jacket. Check sinevibes.com.

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Azure Kinect promises new motion, tracking for art

Gamers’ interest may come and go, but artists are always exploring the potential of computer vision for expression. Microsoft this month has resurrected the Kinect, albeit in pricey, limited form. Let’s fit it to the family tree.

Time flies: musicians and electronic artists have now had access to readily available computer vision since the turn of this century. That initially looked like webcams, paired with libraries like the free OpenCV (still a viable option), and later repurposed gaming devices from Sony and Microsoft platforms.

And then came Kinect. Kinect was a darling of live visual projects and art installations, because of its relatively sophisticated skeletal tracking and various artist-friendly developer tools.

History time

A full ten years ago, I was writing about the Microsoft project and interactions, in its first iteration as the pre-release Project Natal. Xbox 360 support followed in 2010, Windows support in 2012 – while digital artists quickly hacked in Mac (and rudimentary Linux) support. An artists in music an digital media quickly followed.

For those of you just joining us, Kinect shines infrared light at a scene, and takes an infrared image (so it can work irrespective of other lighting) which it converts into a 3D depth map of the scene. From that depth image, Microsoft’s software can also track the skeleton image of one or two people, which lets you respond to the movement of bodies. Microsoft and partner PrimeSense weren’t the only to try this scheme, but they were the ones to ship the most units and attract the most developers.

We’re now on the third major revision of the camera hardware.

2010: Original Kinect for Xbox 360. The original. Proprietary connector with breakout to USB and power. These devices are far more common, as they were cheaper and shipped more widely. Despite the name, they do work with both open drivers for respective desktop systems.

2012: Kinect for Windows. Looks and works almost identically to Kinect for 360, with some minor differences (near mode).

Raw use of depth maps and the like for the above yielded countless music videos, and the skeletal tracking even more numerous and typically awkward “wave your hands around to play the music” examples.

Here’s me with a quick demo for the TED organization, preceded by some discussion of why I think gesture matter. It’s… slightly embarrassing, only in that it was produced on an extremely tight schedule, and I think the creative exploration of what I was saying about gesture just wasn’t ready yet. (Not only had I not quite caught up, but camera tech like what Microsoft is shipping this year is far better suited to the task than the original Kinect camera was.) But the points I’m making here have some fresh meaning for me now.

2013: Kinect for Xbox One. Here’s where things got more interesting – because of a major hardware upgrade, these cameras are far more effective at tracking and yield greater performance.

  • Active IR tracking in the dark
  • Wider field of vision
  • 6 skeletons (people) instead of two
  • More tracking features, with additional joints and creepier features like heart rate and facial expression
  • 1080p color camera
  • Faster performance/throughput (which was key to more expressive results)

Kinect One, the second camera (confusing!), definitely allowed more expressive applications. One high point for me was the simple but utterly effective work of Chris Milk and team, “The Treachery of Sanctuary.”

And then it ended. Microsoft unbundled the camera from Xbox One, meaning developers couldn’t count on gamers owning the hardware, and quietly discontinued the last camera at the end of October 2017.

Everything old is new again

I have mixed feelings – as I’m sure you do – about these cameras, even with the later results on Kinect One. For gaming, the devices were abandoned – by gamers, by developers, and by Microsoft as the company ditched the Xbox strategy. (Parallel work at Sony didn’t fare much better.)

It’s hard to keep up with consumer expectations. By implying “computer vision,” any such technology has to compete with your own brain – and your own brain is really, really, really good. “Sensors” and “computation” are all merged in organic harmony, allowing you to rapidly detect the tiniest nuance. You can read a poker player’s tell in an instant, while Kinect will lose the ability to recognize that your leg is attached to your body. Microsoft launched Project Natal talking about seeing a ball and kicking a ball, but… you can do that with a real ball, and you really can’t do that with a camera, so they quite literally got off on the wrong foot.

It’s not just gaming, either. On the art side, the very potential of these cameras to make the same demos over and over again – yet another magic mirror – might well be their downfall.

So why am I even bothering to write this?

Simple: the existing, state-of-the-art Kinect One camera is now available on the used market for well under a hundred bucks – for less than the cost of a mid-range computer mouse. Microsoft’s gaming business whims are your budget buy. The computers to process that data are faster and cheaper. And the software is more mature.

So while digital art has long been driven by novelty … who cares? Actual music and art making requires practice and maturity of both tools and artist. It takes time. So oddly while creative specialists were ahead of the curve on these sorts of devices, the same communities might well innovate in the lagging cycle of the same technology.

And oh yeah – the next generation looks very powerful.

Kinect: The Next Generation

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: the new Kinect is both more expensive ($400) and less available (launching only in the US and China… in June). Ugh. And that continues Microsoft’s trend here of starting with general purpose hardware for mass audiences and working up to … wait, working up to increasingly expensive hardware for smaller and smaller groups of developers.

That is definitely backwards from how this is normally meant to work.

But the good news here is unexpected. Kinect was lost, and now is found.

The safe bet was that Microsoft would just abandon Kinect after the gaming failure. But to the company’s credit, they’ve pressed on, with some clear interest in letting developers, researchers, and artists decide what this thing is really for. Smart move: those folks often come up with inspiration that doesn’t fit the demands of the gaming industry.

So now Kinect is back, dubbed Azure Kinect – Microsoft is also hell-bent on turning Azure “cloud services” into a catch-all solution for all things, everywhere.

And the hardware looks … well, kind of amazing. It might be described as a first post-smartphone device. Say what? Well, now that smartphones have largely finalized their sensing capabilities, they’ve oddly left the arena open to other tech defining new areas.

For a really good write-up, you’ll want to read this great run-down:


All you need to know on Azure Kinect
[The Ghost Howls, a VR/tech blog, see also a detailed run-down of HoloLens 2 which also just came out]

Here are the highlights, though. Azure Kinect is the child of Kinect and HoloLens. It’s a VR-era sensor, but standalone – which is perfect for performance and art.

Fundamentally, the formula is the same – depth camera, conventional RGB camera, some microphones, additional sensors. But now you get more sensing capabilities and substantially beefed-up image processing.

1MP depth camera (not 640×480) – straight off of HoloLens 2, Microsoft’s augmented reality plaform
Two modes: wide and narrow field of view
4K RGB camera (with standard USB camera operation)
7 microphone array
Gyroscope + accelerometer

And it connects both by USB-C (which can also be used for power) or as a standalone camera with “cloud connection.” (You know, I’m pretty sure that means it has a wifi radio, but oddly all the tech reporters who talked to Microsoft bought the “cloud” buzzword and no one says outright. I’ll double-check.)

Also, now Microsoft supports both Windows and Linux. (Ubuntu 18.04 + OpenGL v 4.4).

Downers: 30 fps operation, limited range.

Somehing something, hospitals or assembly lines Azure services, something that looks like an IBM / Cisco ad:

That in itself is interesting. Artists using the same thing as gamers sort of … didn’t work well. But artists using the same tool as an assembly line is something new.

And here’s the best part for live performance and interaction design – you can freely combine as many cameras as you want, and sync them without any weird tricks.

All in all, this looks like it might be the best networked camera, full stop, let alone best for tracking, depth sensing, and other applications. And Microsoft are planning special SDKs for the sensor, body tracking, vision, and speech.

Also, the fact that it doesn’t plug into an Xbox is a feature, not a bug to me – it means Microsoft are finally focusing on the more innovative, experimental uses of these cameras.

So don’t write off Kinect now. In fact, with Kinect One so cheap, it might be worth picking one up and trying Microsoft’s own SDK just for practice.

Azure Kinect DK preorder / product page

aka.ms/kinectdocs

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VCV Rack nears 1.0, new features, as software modular matures

VCV Rack, the open source platform for software modular, keeps blossoming. If what you were waiting for was more maturity and stability and integration, the current pipeline looks promising. Here’s a breakdown.

Even with other software modulars on the scene, Rack stands out. Its model is unique – build a free, open source platform, and then build the business on adding commercial modules, supporting both the platform maker (VCV) and third parties (the module makers). That has opened up some new possibilities: a mixed module ecosystem of free and paid stuff, support for ports of open source hardware to software (Music Thing Modular, Mutable Instruments), robust Linux support (which other Eurorack-emulation tools currently lack), and a particular community ethos.

Of course, the trade-off with Rack 0.xx is that the software has been fairly experimental. Versions 1.0 and 2.0 are now in the pipeline, though, and they promise a more refined interface, greater performance, a more stable roadmap, and more integration with conventional DAWs.

New for end users

VCV founder and lead developer Andrew Belt has been teasing out what’s coming in 1.0 (and 2.0) online.

Here’s an overview:

  • Polyphony, polyphonic cables, polyphonic MIDI support and MPE
  • Multithreading and hardware acceleration
  • Tooltips, manual data entry, and right-click menus to more information on modules
  • Virtual CV to MIDI and direct MIDI mapping
  • 2.0 version coming with fully-integrated DAW plug-in

More on that:

Polyphony and polyphonic cables. The big one – you can now use polyphonic modules and even polyphonic patching. Here’s an explanation:

https://community.vcvrack.com/t/how-polyphonic-cables-will-work-in-rack-v1/

New modules will help you manage this.

Polyphonic MIDI and MPE. Yep, native MPE support. We’ve seen this in some competing platforms, so great to see here.

Multithreading. Rack will now use multiple cores on your CPU more efficiently. There’s also a new DSP framework that adds CPU acceleration (which helps efficiency for polyphony, for example). (See the developer section below.)

Oversampling for better audio quality. Users can set higher settings in the engine to reduce aliasing.

Tooltips and manual value entry. Get more feedback from the UI and precise control. You can also right-click to open other stuff – links to developer’s website, manual (yes!), source code (for those that have it readily available), or factory presets.

Core CV-MIDI. Send virtual CV to outboard gear as MIDI CC, gate, note data. This also integrates with the new polyphonic features. But even better –

Map MIDI directly. The MIDI map module lets you map parameters without having to patch through another module. A lot of software has been pretty literal with the modular metaphor, so this is a welcome change.

And that’s just what’s been announced. 1.0 is imminent, in the coming months, but 2.0 is coming, as well…

Rack 2.0 and VCV for DAWs. After 1.0, 2.0 isn’t far behind. “Shortly after” 2.0 is released, a DAW plug-in will be launched as a paid add-on, with support for “multiple instances, DAW automation with parameter labels, offline rendering, MIDI input, DAW transport, and multi-channel audio.”

These plans aren’t totally set yet, but a price around a hundred bucks and multiple ins and outs are also planned. (Multiple I/O also means some interesting integrations will be possible with Eurorack or other analog systems, for software/hardware hybrids.)

VCV Bridge is already deprecated, and will be removed from Rack 2.0. Bridge was effectively a stopgap for allowing crude audio and MIDI integration with DAWs. The planned plug-in sounds more like what users want.

Rack 2.0 itself will still be free and open source software, under the same license. The good thing about the plug-in is, it’s another way to support VCV’s work and pay the bills for the developer.

New for developers

Rack v1 is under a BSD license – proper free and open source software. There’s even a mission statement that deals with this.

Rack v1 will bring a new, stabilized API – meaning you will need to do some work to port your modules. It’s not a difficult process, though – and I think part of Rack’s appeal is the friendly API and SDK from VCV.

https://vcvrack.com/manual/Migrate1.html

You’ll also be able to take advantage of an SSE wrapper (simd.hpp) to take advantage of accelerated code on desktop CPUs, without hard coding manual calls to hardware that could break your plug-ins in the future. This also theoretically opens up future support for other platforms – like NEON or AVX acceleration. (It does seem like ARM platforms are the future, after all.)

Plus check this port for adding polyphony to your stuff.

And in other Rack news…

Also worth mentioning:

While the Facebook group is still active and a place where a lot of people share work, there’s a new dedicated forum. That does things Facebook doesn’t allow, like efficient search, structured sections in chronological order so it’s easy to find answers, and generally not being part of a giant, evil, destructive platform.

https://community.vcvrack.com/

It’s powered by open source forum software Discourse.

For a bunch of newly free add-ons, check out the wonder XFX stuff (I paid for at least one of these, and would do again if they add more commercial stuff):

http://blamsoft.com/vcv-rack/

Vult is a favorite of mine, and there’s a great review this week, with 79 demo patches too:

There’s also a new version of Mutable Instruments Tides, Tidal Modular 2, available in the Audible Instruments Preview add-on – and 80% of your money goes to charity.

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

And oh yeah, remember that in the fall Rack already added support for hosting VST plugins, with VST Host. It will even work inside the forthcoming plugin, so you can host plugins inside a plugin.

https://vcvrack.com/Host.html

Here it is with the awesome d16 stuff, another of my addictions:

Great stuff. I’m looking forward to some quality patching time.

http://vcvrack.com/

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Cherry Audio Voltage Modular: a full synth platform, open to developers

Hey, hardware modular – the computer is back. Cherry Audio’s Voltage Modular is another software modular platform. Its angle: be better for users — and now, easier and more open to developers, with a new free tool.

Voltage Modular was shown at the beginning of the year, but its official release came in September – and now is when it’s really hitting its stride. Cherry Audio’s take certainly isn’t alone; see also, in particular, Softube Modular, the open source VCV Rack, and Reason’s Rack Extensions. Each of these supports live patching of audio and control signal, hardware-style interfaces, and has rich third-party support for modules with a store for add-ons. But they’re all also finding their own particular take on the category. That means now is suddenly a really nice time for people interested in modular on computers, whether for the computer’s flexibility, as a supplement to hardware modular, or even just because physical modular is bulky and/or out of budget.

So, what’s special about Voltage Modular?

Easy patching. Audio and control signals can be freely mixed, and there’s even a six-way pop-up multi on every jack, so each jack has tons of routing options. (This is a computer, after all.)

Each jack can pop up to reveal a multi.

It’s polyphonic. This one’s huge – you get true polyphony via patch cables and poly-equipped modules. Again, you know, like a computer.

It’s open to development. There’s now a free Module Designer app (commercial licenses available), and it’s impressively easy to code for. You write DSP in Java, and Cherry Audio say they’ve made it easy to port existing code. The app also looks like it reduces a lot of friction in this regard.

There’s an online store for modules – and already some strong early contenders. You can buy modules, bundles, and presets right inside the app. The mighty PSP Audioware, as well as Vult (who make some of my favorite VCV stuff) are already available in the store.

There’s an online store for free and paid add-ons – modules and presets. But right now, a hundred bucks gets you started with a bunch of stuff right out of the gate.

Voltage Modular is a VST/AU/AAX plug-in and runs standalone. And it supports 64-bit double-precision math with zero-latency module processes – but, impressively in our tests, isn’t so hard on your CPU as some of its rivals.

Right now, Voltage Modular Core + Electro Drums are on sale for just US$99.

Real knobs and patch cords are fun, but … let’s be honest, this is a hell of a lot of fun, too.

For developers

So what about that development side, if that interests you? Well, Apple-style, there’s a 70/30 split in developers’ favor. And it looks really easy to develop on their platform:

Java may be something of a bad word to developers these days, but I talked to Cherry Audio about why they chose it, and it definitely makes some sense here. Apart from being a reasonably friendly language, and having unparalleled support (particularly on the Internet connectivity side), Java solves some of the pitfalls that might make a modular environment full of third-party code unstable. You don’t have to worry about memory management, for one. I can also imagine some wackier, creative applications using Java libraries. (Want to code a MetaSynth-style image-to-sound module, and even pull those images from online APIs? Java makes it easy.)

Just don’t think of “Java” as in legacy Java applications. Here, DSP code runs on a Hotspot virtual machine, so your DSP is actually running as machine language by the time it’s in an end user patch. It seems Cherry have also thought through GUI: the UI is coded natively in C++, while you can create custom graphics like oscilloscopes (again, using just Java on your side). This is similar to the models chosen by VCV and Propellerhead for their own environments, and it suggests a direction for plug-ins that involves far less extra work and greater portability. It’s no stretch to imagine experienced developers porting for multiple modular platforms reasonably easily. Vult of course is already in that category … and their stuff is so good I might almost buy it twice.

Or to put that in fewer words: the VM can match or even best native environments, while saving developers time and trouble.

Cherry also tell us that iOS, Linux, and Android could theoretically be supported in the future using their architecture.

Of course, the big question here is installed user base and whether it’ll justify effort by developers, but at least by reducing friction and work and getting things rolling fairly aggressively, Cherry Audio have a shot at bypassing the chicken-and-egg dangers of trying to launch your own module store. Plus, while this may sound counterintuitive, I actually think that having multiple players in the market may call more attention to the idea of computers as modular tools. And since porting between platforms isn’t so hard (in comparison to VST and AU plug-in architectures), some interested developers may jump on board.

Well, that and there’s the simple matter than in music, us synth nerds love to toy around with this stuff both as end users and as developers. It’s fun and stuff. On that note:

Modulars gone soft

Stay tuned; I’ve got this for testing and will let you know how it goes.

https://cherryaudio.com/voltage-modular

https://cherryaudio.com/voltage-module-designer

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The guts of Tracktion are now open source for devs to make new stuff

Game developers have Unreal Engine and Unity Engine. Well, now it’s audio’s turn. Tracktion Engine is an open source engine based on the guts of a major DAW, but created as a building block developers can use for all sorts of new music and audio tools.

You can new music apps not only for Windows, Mac, and Linux (including embedded platforms like Raspberry Pi), but iOS and Android, too. And while developers might go create their own DAW, they might also build other creative tools for performance and production.

The tutorials section already includes examples for simple playback, independent manipulation of pitch and time (meaning you could conceivably turn this into your own DJ deck), and a step sequencer.

We’ve had an open source DAW for years – Ardour. But this is something different – it’s clear the developers have created this with the intention of producing a reusable engine for other things, rather than just dumping the whole codebase for an entire DAW.

Okay, my Unreal and Unity examples are a little optimistic – those are friendly to hobbyists and first-time game designers. Tracktion Engine definitely needs you to be a competent C++ programmer.

But the entire engine is delivered as a JUCE module, meaning you can drop it into an existing project. JUCE has rapidly become the go-to for reasonably painless C++ development of audio tools across plug-ins and operating systems and mobile devices. It’s huge that this is available in JUCE.

Even if you’re not a developer, you should still care about this news. It could be a sign that we’ll see more rapid development that allows music loving developers to try out new ideas, both in software and in hardware with JUCE-powered software under the hood. And I think with this idea out there, if it doesn’t deliver, it may spur someone else to try the same notion.

I’ll be really interested to hear if developers find this is practical in use, but here’s what they’re promising developers will be able to use from their engine:

A wide range of supported platforms (Windows, macOS, Linux, Raspberry Pi, iOS and Android)
Tempo, key and time-signature curves
Fast audio file playback via memory mapping
Audio editing including time-stretching and pitch shifting
MIDI with quantisation, groove, MPE and pattern generation
Built-in and external plugin support for all the major formats
Parameter adjustments with automation curves or algorithmic modifiers
Modular plugin patching Racks
Recording with punch, overdub and loop modes along with comp editing
External control surface support
Fully customizable rendering of arrangements

The licensing is also stunningly generous. The code is under a GPLv3 license – meaning if you’re making a GPLv3 project (including artists doing that), you can freely use the open source license.

But even commercial licensing is wide open. Educational projects get forum support and have no revenue limit whatsoever. (I hope that’s a cue to academic institutions to open up some of their licensing, too.)

Personal projects are free, too, with revenue up to US$50k. (Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but many small developers are below that threshold.)

For $35/mo, with a minimum 12 month commitment, “indie” developers can make up to $200k. Enterprise licensing requires getting in touch, and then offers premium support and the ability to remove branding. They promise paid licenses by next month.

Check out their code and the Tracktion Engine page:

https://www.tracktion.com/develop/tracktion-engine

https://github.com/Tracktion/tracktion_engine/

I think a lot of people will be excited about this, enough so that … well, it’s been a long time. Let’s Ballmer this.

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Inside Cypher2, and what could be a more expressive future for synths

For all the great sounds they can make, software synths eventually fit a repetitive mold: lots of knobs onscreen, simplistic keyboard controls when you actually play. ROLI’s Cypher2 could change that. Lead developer Angus chats with us about why.

Angus Hewlett has been in the plug-in synth game a while, having founded his own FXpansion, maker of various wonderful software instruments and drums. That London company is now part of another London company, fast-paced ROLI, and thus has a unique charge to make instruments that can exploit the additional control potential of ROLI’s controllers. The old MIDI model – note on, note off, and wheels and aftertouch that impact all notes at once – gives way to something that maps more of the synth’s sounds to the gestures you make with your hands.

So let’s nerd out with Angus a bit about what they’ve done with Cypher2, the new instrument. Background:

A soft synth that’s made to be played with futuristic, expressive control

Peter: Okay, Cypher2 is sounding terrific! Who made the demos and so on?

Angus: Demos – Rafael Szaban, Heen-Wah Wai, Rory Dow. Sound Design – Rory Dow, Mayur Maha, Lawrence King & Rafael Szaban

Can you tell us a little bit about what architecture lies under the hood here?

Sure – think of it as a multi-oscillator subtractive synth. Three oscillators with audio-rate intermodulation (FM, S&H, waveshape modulation and ring mod), each switchable between Saw and Sin cores. Then you’ve got two waveshapers (each with a selection of analogue circuit models and tone controls, and a couple of digital wavefolders), and two filters, each with a choice of five different analogue filter circuit models – two variations on the diode ladder type, OTA ladder, state variable, Sallen-Key – and a digital comb filter. Finally, you’ve got a polyphonic, twin stereo output amp stage which gives you a lot of control over how the signal hits the effects chain – for example, you can send just the attack of every note to the “A” chain and the sustain/release phase to the “B” chain, all manner of possibilities there.

Controlling all of that, you’ve got our most powerful TransMod yet. 16 assignable modulation slots, each with over a hundred possible sources to choose from, everything from basics like Velocity and LFO through to function processors, step sequencers, paraphonic mod sources and other exotics. Then there’s eight fixed-function mod slots to support the five dimensions of MPE control and the three performance macros. So 24 TransMods in total, three times as many as v1.

Okay, so Cypher2 is built around MPE, or MIDI Polyphonic Expression. For those readers just joining us, this is a development of the existing MIDI specification that standardizes additional control around polyphonic inputs – that is, instead of adding expression to the whole sound all at once, you can get control under each finger, which makes way more sense and is more fun to play. What does it mean to build a synth around MPE control? How did you think about that in designing it?

It’s all about giving the sound designers maximum possibility to create expressive sound, and to manage how their sound behaves across the instrument’s range. When you’re patching for a conventional synth, you really only need to think about pitch and velocity: does the sound play nicely across the keyboard. With 5D MPE sounds, sound designers start having to think more like a software engineer or a game world designer – there’s so many possibilities for how the player might interact with the sound, and they’ve got to have the tools to make it sound musical and believable across the whole range.

What this translates to in the specific case of Cypher2 is adapting our TransMod system (which is, at its heart, a sophisticated modulation matrix) to make it easy for sound designers to map the various MPE control inputs, via dynamically controllable transfer function curves, on to any and every parameter on the synth.

How does this relate to your past line of instruments?

Clearly, Cypher2 is a successor to the original Cypher which was one of the DCAM Synth Squad synths; it inherits many of the same functional upgrades that Strobe 2 gained over its predecessor a couple of years ago – the extended TransMod system, the effects engine, the Retina-friendly, scalable, skinnable GUI – but goes further, and builds on a lot of user and sound-designer feedback we had from Strobe2. So the modulation system is friendlier, the effects engine is more powerful, and it’s got a brand new and much more powerful step-sequencer and arpeggiator. In terms of its relationship to the original Cypher – the overall layout is similar, but the oscillator section has been upgraded with the sine cores and additional FM paths; the shaper section gains wavefolders and tone controls; the filters have six circuits to chose from, up from two in the original, so there’s a much wider range of tones available there; the envelopes give you more choice of curve responses; the LFOs each have a sub oscillator and quadrature outputs; and obviously there’s MPE as described above.

Of course, ROLI hope that folks will use this with their hardware, naturally. But since part of the beauty is that this is open on MPE, any interesting applications working with some other MPE hardware; have you tried it out on non-ROLI stuff (or with testers, etc.)?

Yes, we’ve tried it (with Linnstrument, mainly), and yes, it very much works – although with one caveat. Namely, MPE, as with MIDI, is a protocol which specifies how devices should talk to one another – but it doesn’t specify, at a higher level, what the interaction between the musician and their sound should feel like.

That’s a problem that I actually first encountered during the development of BFD2 in the mid-2000s: “MIDI Velocity 0-127” is adequate to specify the interaction between a basic keyboard and a sound module, and some of the more sophisticated stage controller boards (Kurzweil, etc.) have had velocity curves at least since the 90s. But as you increase the realism and resolution of the sounds – and BFD2 was the first time we really did so in software to the extent that it became a problem – it becomes apparent that MIDI doesn’t specify how velocity should map on to dB, or foot-pounds-per-second force equivalent, or any real-world units.

That’s tolerable for a keyboard, where a discerning user can set one range for the whole instrument, but when you’re dealing with a V-Drums kit with, potentially, ten or twelve pads, of different types, to set up, and little in the way of a standard curve to aim for, the process becomes cumbersome and off-putting for the end-user. What does “Velocity 72” actually mean from Manufacturer A’s snare drum controller, at a sensitivity setting B, via drum brain C triggering sample D?

Essentially, you run into something of an Uncanny Valley effect (a term from the world of movies / games where, as computer generated graphics moved from obviously artificial 8-bit pixel art to today’s motion-captured, super-sampled cinematic epics, paradoxically audiences would in some cases be less satisfied with the result). So it’s certainly a necessary step to get expressive hardware and software talking to one another – and MPE accomplishes that very nicely indeed – but it’s not sufficient to guarantee that a patch will result in a satisfactory, believable playing experience OOTB.

Some sound-synth-controller-player combinations will be fine, others may not quite live up to expectations, but right now I think it’s natural to expect that it may be a bit hit-and-miss. Feedback on this is something I’d like to actively encourage, we have a great dialogue with the other hardware vendors and are keen for to achieve a high standard of interoperation, but it’s a learning process for all involved.

Thanks, Angus! I’ll be playing with Cypher2 and seeing what I can do with it – but fascinating to hear this take on synths and control mapping. More food for thought.

https://fxpansion.com/products/cypher2/

http://roli.com/

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Free VCV Rack modular platform adds plug-in DAW integration, more

VCV Rack is still in a pre-release, beta cycle – but it’s already up and running with a vision of what an open platform for software modular could look like. With 0.6.0, the software integrates with your DAW and manages third-party modules more easily.

If you’re just joining us, VCV Rack is an open source platform that runs a modular synth on your computer. It’s closely modeled on Eurorack modular, down to the way signal flows and modules bolt into the virtual rack. It’s even got simulations of a lot of popular real Eurorack modules, along with new modules that only run in this software environment. You can even use it to try out those real modules before you buy them, and you can integrate the software modules with outboard physical modular gear, if you choose.

Rack isn’t alone – Reaktor Blocks does something like this (though without the front panel patching), and Softube Modular also emulates a Eurorack and includes simulations of existing hardware. But Rack is unique in its open model. Rack itself is open source software, and you can make free third-party open source modules. But without locking users and modular developers into a proprietary platform, it’s also possible to sell modules. That means that you can both support free and open software, and make sure developers have a chance to pay their bills and get compensated for their work.

And that’s why this release is important.

Right now, hardware modular is a great ecosystem. But if you want to make software modules, your choices are limited. Conventional plug-in architectures like VST, AU, and AAX aren’t suited to these sorts of modular interactions. Modular environments available for development need to be proprietary, or don’t have any clear way for developers to make back money to support their time, or even both those things. (Reason Rack Extensions are one extension, but that covers just one host and workflow.) So this offers a new way forward.

First off, a disclaimer: this is a developer release. Installing and using Rack is still a bit hack-y. If you like building software, if you’ve got some experience testing software or providing beta experience, you may well enjoy that. But if not, think of this more as a preview of stuff to come. (And you may still want to dip your toes in with our guides below.)

Plug-in DAW integration

Rack is a standalone application, and that comes with a lot of benefits. But VCV Bridge offers another way to integrate Rack with your DAW. It’s a VST/AU plug-in with support for macOS and 32/64-bit Windows. For now, you set it up as a send/return, much as you would with a modular in a real studio environment and a mixing desk. Then you can route audio. Coming soon: MIDI, DAW clock transport, and instrument plug-ins.

This is mainly a convenience; as we wrote previously, you can already use inter-app MIDI and audio options (or something terrific like JACK) to connect Rack and other tools. But since users are accustomed to plug-ins and they offer some added benefits with saving and recalling project files in your DAW, it makes sense.

More on this and where it’s going:

https://vcvrack.com/manual/Core.html#Bridge

https://github.com/VCVRack/Bridge

Expanded, easier management of modules

The whole beauty of Rack as a platform is its support for a third-party module ecosystem. And 0.6.0 shows where the developer is headed with this, both for open source and paid plug-ins. The Plugin Manager was already providing a way to manage installing extra modules; now it does a lot more.

  • Plugin Manager now works with open source plugins, too (as well as paid)
  • Browse in a new Module Browser
  • Star your favorites (yes!)

  • Add modules quickly from the keyboard

A new SDK, other enhancements

Now that the Rack API is stable, developers will want to check this out: there’s a new Rack SDK, which lets you compile plugins without having to compile the whole Rack from source. There are a lot of other relevant notes here:

https://github.com/VCVRack/Rack/issues/258#issuecomment-376293898

Also new in this build are a bunch of UI improvements and enhanced Core modules for MIDI and audio support.

0.6.0 changelog [GitHub]

Learn more

Our friends at Synthtopia have been on top of some of the recent module additions. For instance:

VCV Router Sequential Switch Matrix

Here’s an example of how to build a hybrid system, combining a computer running VCV with hardware modular:

And amazingly, VCV Rack is a one-person development shop. Darwin Grosse interviewed creator Andrew Belt for his podcast series, also on Synthtopia:

Open Source Synthesis: Behind The Scenes With VCV Rack Creator Andrew Belt

And lastly, check our our ongoing guide to the software – see the links at the bottom of this story. We’ll keep working on that, and welcome your feedback if you find anything confusing or want to know more, in the interest of having a complete guide ready roughly as VCV Rack hits 1.0. Thanks to Ted Pallas for his work on this series.

A guide to VCV Rack, a software Eurorack modular you can use for free

Step one: How to start using VCV Rack, the free modular software

How to make the free VCV Rack modular work with Ableton Link

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Ableton have now made it easy for any developer to work with Push 2

You know Ableton Push 2 will work when it’s plugged into a computer and you’re running Ableton Live. You get bi-directional feedback on the lit pads and on the screen. But Ableton have also quietly made it possible for any developer to make Push 2 work – without even requiring drivers – on any software, on virtually any platform. And a new library is the final piece in making that easy.

Even if you’re not a developer, that’s big news – because it means that you’ll likely see solutions for using Push 2 with more than just Ableton Live. That not only improves Push as an investment, but ensures that it doesn’t collect dust or turn into a paperweight when you’re using other software – now or down the road.

And it could also mean you don’t always need a computer handy. Push 2 uses standards supported on every operating system, so this could mean operation with an iPad or a Raspberry Pi. That’s really what this post-PC thing is all about. The laptop still might be the best bang-for-your-buck equation in the studio, but maybe live you want something in the form of a stompbox, or something that goes on a music stand while you sing or play.

If you are a developer, there are two basic pieces.

First, there’s the Push Interface Description. This bit tells you how to take control of the hardware’s various interactions.

https://github.com/Ableton/push-interface

Now, it was already possible to write to the display, but it was a bit of work. Out this week is a simple C++ code library you can bootstrap, with example code to get you up and running. It’s built in JUCE, the tool of choice for a whole lot of developers, mobile and desktop alike. (Thanks, ROLI!)

https://github.com/Ableton/push2-display-with-juce

Marc Resibois created this example, but credit to Ableton for making this public.

Here’s an example of what you can do, with Marc demonstrating on the Raspberry Pi:

This kind of openness is still very much unusual in the hardware/software industry. (Novation’s open source Launchpad Pro firmware API is another example; it takes a different angle, in that you’re actually rewriting the interactions on the device. I’ll cover that soon.)

But I think this is very much needed. Having hardware/software integration is great. Now it’s time to take the next step and make that interaction more accessible to users. Open ecosystems in music are unique in that they tend to encourage, rather than discourage sales. They increase the value of the gear we buy, and deepen the relationships makers have with users (manufacturers and independent makers alike). And these sorts of APIs also, ironically, force hardware developers to make their own iteration and revision easier.

It’s also a great step in a series of steps forward on openness and interoperability from Ableton. Whereas the company started with relatively closed hardware APIs built around proprietary manufacturer relationships, Ableton Link and the Push API and other initiatives are making it easier for Live and Push users to make these tools their own.

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Steinberg brings VST to Linux, and does other good things

The days of Linux being a barren plug-in desert may at last be over. And if you’re a developer, there are some other nice things happening to VST development on all platforms.

Steinberg has quietly rolled out the 3.6.7 version of their plug-in SDK for Windows, Mac, iOS, and now Linux. Actually, your plug-ins may be using their SDK even if you’re unaware – because many plug-ins that appear as “AU” use a wrapper from VST to Apple’s Audio Unit. (One is included in the SDK.)

For end users, the important things to know are, you may be getting more VST3 plug-ins (with some fancy new features), and you may at last see more native plug-ins available for Linux. That Linux support comes at just the right time, as Bitwig Studio is maturing as a DAW choice on the platform, and new hardware options like the Raspberry Pi are making embedded solutions start to appeal. (I kind of hesitate to utter these words, as I know that desktop Linux is still very, very niche, but – this doesn’t have to mean people installing Ubuntu on laptops. We’ll see where it goes.)

For developers, there’s a bunch of nice stuff here. My favorites:

cmake support

VST3 SDK on GitHub: https://github.com/steinbergmedia/vst3sdk

GPL v3 license is now alongside the proprietary license (necessary for some open projects)

How ’bout them apples? I didn’t expect to be following Steinberg on GitHub.

The open license and Linux support to me suggest that, for instance, finally seeing Pure Data work with plug-ins again could be a possibility. And we’ll see where this goes.

This is one of those that I know is worth putting on CDM, because the handful of people who care about such things and can do something with them are reading along. So let us know.

More:

http://sdk.steinberg.net

Thanks, Spencer Russell!

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Now you can sync up live visuals with Ableton Link

Ableton Link has already proven itself as a way of syncing up Ableton Live, mobile apps (iOS), and various desktop apps (Reason, Traktor, Maschine, and more), in various combinations. Now, we’re seeing support for live visuals and VJing, too. Two major Mac apps have added native Ableton Link support for jamming in recent days: CoGe and VDMX. Each of those is somewhat modular in fashion, too.

Oh, and since the whole point of Ableton Link is adding synchronization over wireless networks or wired networking connections with any number of people jamming, you might use both apps together.

CoGe

Here’s a look at CoGe’s Ableton Link support, which shows both how easy configuration is, and how this can be used musically. In this case, the video clip is stretching to the bar — making CoGe’s video clips roughly analogous to Ableton Live’s audio clips and patterns:

CoGe is 126.48€, covering two computers – so you could sync up two instances of CoGe to separate projectors, for instance, using Link. (And as per usual, you might not necessarily even use Ableton Live at all – it might be multiple visual machines, or Reason, or an app, or whatever.)

http://imimot.com/cogevj/

VDMX

VDMX is perhaps an even bigger deal, just in terms of its significant market share in the VJ world, at least in my experience. This means this whole thing is about to hit prime time in visuals the way it has in music.

VDMX has loads of stuff that is relevant to clock, including LFOs and sequencers. See this screen shot for some of that:

vidvox_ableton

Here are the developer’s thoughts from late last week:

VDMX and Ableton Link integration [Vidvox Blog]

Also, they reflect on the value of open source in this project (the desktop SDK is available on GitHub). They’ve got a complete statement on how open source contributions have helped them make better software:

Open Source At VIDVOX

That could easily be a subject of a separate story on CDM, but open source in visuals have helped make live performance-ready video (Vidvox’s own open Hap), made inter-app visuals a reality (Syphon), and has built a shader format that allows high-performance GPU code to be shared between software.

Now go jam

So that’s two great Mac tools. There’s nothing I can share publicly yet, but I’ve heard other visual software developers tell me they plan to implement Ableton Link, too. That adds to the tool’s momentum as a de facto standard.

Now, getting together visuals and music is easier, as is having jam sessions with multiple visual artists. You can easily tightly clock video clips or generative visuals in these tools to song position in supported music software, too.

I remember attending various music and visual jams in New York years ago; those could easily have benefited from this. It’ll be interesting to see what people do.

Watch CDM for the latest news on other visual software; I expect we’ll have more to share fairly soon.

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