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.
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):
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.
Various devices have tried to do what the computer does – letting you play, sequence, and clock other instruments, and arrange and recall ideas. Now, a new grid is in town, and it’s bigger, more capable, truly standalone, and open in every way.
composer pro makes its debut today at Superbooth. It comes from what may seem an unexpected source – dadamachines, the small Berlin-based maker known for making a plug-in-play toolkit for robotic percussion and, more recently, a clever developer board. But there’s serious engineering and musical experience informing the project.
What you get is an enormous, colored grid with triggers and display, and connectivity – wired and wireless – to other hardware. From this one device, you can then compose, connect, and perform. It’s a sequencer for outboard gear, but it’s also capable of playing internal sounds and effects.
It’s a MIDI router, a USB host, a sampler and standalone instrument, and a hub to clock everything else. It doesn’t need a computer – and yeah, it can definitely replace that laptop if you want, or keep it connected and synced via cable or Ableton Link.
And one more thing – while big manufacturers are starting to wake up to this sort of thing being a product category, composer pro is also open source and oriented toward communities of small makers and patchers who have been working on this problem. So out of the box, it’s set up to play Pure Data, SuperCollider, and other DIY instruments and effects, extending ideas for standalone instrument/effects developed by the likes of monome and Critter & Guitari’s Organelle. That should be significant both if you’re that sort of builder/hacker/patcher yourself, or even if you just want to benefit from their creations in your own music. And it’s in contrast to the proprietary direction most hardware has gone in recent years. It’s open to ideas and to working together on how to play – which is how grid performance got started in the first place.
Disclosure: I’m working with dadamachines as an advisor/coach. That also means I’ll be responsible for getting feedback to them – curious what you think. (And yeah, I also have some ideas and desires for where these sorts of capabilities could lead in the future. As a lot of you have, I’ve dreamt of electronic musical performance tools moving in this direction – I love computers but also hate some of the struggles they’ve brought with them.)
I hope you like buttons. Composer Pro has a 192-pad grid – that’s 16 horizontally by 12 vertically. Add in the rest of the triggers for a grad total of 261 buttons – transport and modes on the top, and the usual scene and arm triggers on the side, plus edit controls and other functions on the left.
For continuous control, there’s a touch strip. And you get a small display and encoder so you can navigate and see what you’re doing.
There’s computational power inside, too – a Raspberry Pi compute module, and additional processing power that runs the device.
You get just about every form of connectivity (apart from CV/gate, even though this is Superbooth):
Sequencing and clock:
MIDI (via standard DIN connectors, 2 in, 2 out)
DIN sync (for vintage analog gear like the Roland TR-808)
Analog sync I/O (for other analog gear and modular)
USB MIDI (via USB C, for a computer)
USB host, with a 4-port USB hub
Ableton Link (for wireless connections, including to various Mac, Windows, Linux, and iOS software)
(There’s a dongle for wifi for Link support.)
Stereo audio in
Stereo audio out
The USB host and 4-port hub is a really big deal. It means you can do the things that normally require a computer – connect other interfaces, add more audio I/O, add USB MIDI keyboards and controllers, whatever.
Sequences and songs
At its heart, composer pro focuses on sequencing – whether you want to work with custom internal instruments, external gear, or both.
You have sixteen slots, which dadamachines dubs “Machines.” Then, you can work with simple step-sequenced rhythms or mono-/polyphonic melodies, and add automation of parameters (via MIDI CC).
Pattern sequences can be up to 16 bars.
There are 12 patterns per Machine slot. (16×12 – get it?)
Patterns + Machines = larger songs. And you can have as many songs as you can fit on an SD card (which, given this is MIDI data is … a lot).
The beauty of dadamachines’ approach is, by building this around the grid, you can work in a lot of different ways:
Step-sequence melodies and rhythms in a standard grid view.
Play live – there’s even a MIDI looper – and use standard quantization tools, or not, to decide how much you want your performance to be on the grid.
Trigger patterns one at a time, or in scenes.
Use the touchstrip for additional live control, with beat repeat functions, polyrhythmic loop length, nudge, and velocity (the pads aren’t velocity sensitive, though you can also use an external controller with velocity).
Now you see the logic behind having this enormous 16×12 grid – everything is visible at once. Most hardware, and even devices like Ableton Push, require you to navigate around to individual parts; there’s no way to see the overall sequence. You can bring up dedicated grid pages if you want to focus on playing a particular part or editing a sequence. But there’s an overview page so you also get the big picture – and trigger everything, without menu diving.
dadamachines have set up four views:
Song View – think interactive set list
Scene View – all your available Patterns and Machines
Machine View – focus on one particular instrument and input
Performance View – transform an existing pattern without changing it
And remember, this can be both external gear and internal instruments – with some nice ready-to-play instruments included in the package, or the ability to make your own (in Pd and SuperCollider) if you’re more advanced.
It’s already set up to work with ORAC, the powerful instrument by technobear, featured on the Organelle from Critter & Guitari:
– showing what can happen as devices are open, collaborative, and compatible.
When can you get this?
composer pro is being shown in a fully working – very nice looking – prototype. That also means a chance to get more feedback from musicians.
dadamachines say they plan to put this on sale in late summer.
It’s an amazing accomplishment from an engineering standpoint, from the hands-on time I’ve had with it. I know velocity-sensitive pads will be a disappointment, but I think that also means you’ll be able to afford this and get hardware that’s reliable – and you can always use the touchstrip or connect other hardware for expression.
It also goes beyond what sequencers like the just-announced Pioneer Squid can do, and offers a more intuitive interface than a lot of other boutique offerings – and its openness could support a community exploring ideas. That’s what originally launched grid performance in the first place with monome, but got lost as monome quantities were limited and commercial manufacturers chose to take a proprietary approach.
dadamachines announces grid based midi performance sequencer composer pro
composer pro is the new hub for electronic musicians, a missing link for sketching ideas and playing live. It’s a standalone sampler and live instrument, and connects to everything in a studio or onstage, for clock and patterns. And it’s open source and community-powered, ensuring it’s only getting started.
Edit patterns by step, play live on the pads and touch strip, use external controllers – it’s your choice. Sequence and clock external gear, or work with onboard instruments. Clock your whole studio or stage full of gear – and sync via wires or wirelessly.
Finally, there’s a portable device that gives you the control you need, and the big picture on your ideas, while connecting the instruments you want to play. And yes, you’re free to leave the computer at home.
composer pro will be shown to the public the first time at superbooth in Berlin from 9-11th of may. Sales start is planned for late summer 2019.
Use a massive, RGB, 16×12 grid of pads
192 triggers – 261 buttons in total – but organized, clear, and easy
Step sequence or play live
Melodic and rhythmic/drum modes
Work with quantization or unquantized
Play on the pads or use external controllers
Touch strip for expression, live sequence transformations, note repeat, and more
MIDI input/output and sync (via USB-C with computer, USB host, and MIDI DIN)
Analog sync (modular, analog gear)
DIN sync support (for vintage instruments like the TR-808)
USB host – with a built-in 4-port hub
Abeton Link support (USB wifi dongle required for wireless use)
Stereo audio in
Stereo audio out
Onboard sounds and room to grow:
Internal instruments and effects
Powered by open source sound engines, with internal Raspberry Pi computer core
Includes ORAC by technobear, a powerful sequenced sampler
Arrange productions and set lists:
Full automation sequencing (via MIDI CC)
Trigger patterns, scenes, songs
16-measure sequences, 12 scenes per song
Unlimited song storage (restricted only by SD card capacity)
From Frogtown Los Angeles and the eccentric Detroit Underground label comes a new store full of “Art and Technology” and “aesthetics and identities” – which, in part, translates to these amazing, glitch-tastic video art toys! Look:
Detroit Underground have made a name for themselves not just as a label, but as a platform for video, visuals, and custom hardware – including Eurorack modular. The latest addition is a trendy turntable. But with the launch of the new FRGTWN online shop, DU are bringing us other goodies – pretty stuff to hang on your wall, yes, but also my personal favorite, a whole trove of unique custom mod-able video gear.
While everyone is up to speed on analog audio, DU label head Kero works magic with analog video. So looking into this online shop is a bit like gaining access to his unique toybox.
You’ll also find excellent synths by Ewa Justka and Mute Records – more on Ewa’s creations very soon.
And in case you have any money left after investing it in must-have analog video glitch gear, yes, there’s now a custom Detroit Underground turntable, launching alongside the store. It’s a sexy limited edition, custom designed by Neubau Berlin and optimized for high quality playback (so, not scratching/DJing, but for putting on a nice Detroit Underground record or two):
The shop is filled with other very specific nerd hipster items that basically sum up things we crave. An app is coming soon, so you’ll be in even more danger of buying this stuff in drunk and/or lonely moments.
Techno, without all those pesky human producers? Petr Serkin’s Eternal Flow is a generative radio station – and even a portable device – able to make endless techno and deep house variations automatically.
You can run a simple version of Eternal Flow right in your browser:
Recorded sessions are available on a SoundCloud account, as well:
But maybe the most interesting way to run this is in a self-contained portable device. It’s like a never-ending iPod of … well, kind of generic-sounding techno and deep house, depending on mode. Here’s a look at how it works; there’s no voiceover, but you can turn on subtitles for additional explanation:
There are real-world applications here: apart from interesting live performance scenarios, think workout dance music that follows you as you run, for example.
I talked to Moscow-based artist Petr about how this works. (And yeah, he has his own deep house-tinged record label, too.)
“I used to make deep and techno for a long period of time,” he tells us, “so I have some production patterns.” Basically, take those existing patterns, add some randomization, and instead of linear playback, you get material generated over a longer duration with additional variation.
There was more work involved, too. While the first version used one-shot snippets, “later I coded my own synth engine,” Petr tells us. That means the synthesized sounds save on sample space in the mobile version.
It’s important to note this isn’t machine learning – it’s good, old-fashioned generative music. And in fact this is something you could apply to your own work: instead of just keeping loads and loads of fixed patterns for a live set, you can use randomization and other rules to create more variation on the fly, freeing you up to play other parts live or make your recorded music less repetitive.
And this also points to a simple fact: machine learning doesn’t always generate the best results. We’ve had generative music algorithms for many years, which simply produce results based on simple rules. Laurie Spiegel’s ground-breaking Magic Mouse, considered by many to be the first-ever software synth, worked on this concept. So, too, did the Brian Eno – Peter Chilvers “Bloom,” which applied the same notion to ambient generative software and became the first major generative/never-ending iPhone music app.
By contrast, the death metal radio station I talked about last week works well partly because its results sound so raunchy and chaotic. But it doesn’t necessarily suit dance music as well. Just because neural network-based machine learning algorithms are in vogue right now doesn’t mean they will generate convincing musical results.
I suspect that generative music will freely mix these approaches, particularly as developers become more familiar with them.
But from the perspective of a human composer, this is an interesting exercise not necessarily because it puts yourself out of a job, but that it helps you to experiment with thinking about the structures and rules of your own musical ideas.
And, hey, if you’re tired of having to stay in the studio or DJ booth and not get to dance, this could solve that, too.
Machine learning is synthesizing death metal. It might make your death metal radio DJ nervous – but it could also mean music software works with timbre and time in new ways. That news – plus some comical abuse of neural networks for writing genre-specific lyrics in genres like country – next.
Okay, first, whether this makes you urgently want to hear machine learning death metal or it drives you into a rage, either way you’ll want the death metal stream. And yes, it’s a totally live stream – you know, generative style. Tune in, bot out:
Okay, first it’s important to say, the whole point of this is, you need data sets to train on. That is, machines aren’t composing music, so much as creatively regurgitating existing samples based on fairly clever predictive mathematical models. In the case of the death metal example, this is SampleRNN – a recurrent neural network that uses sample material, repurposed from its original intended application working with speak. (Check the original project, though it’s been forked for the results here.)
This is a big, big point, actually – if this sounds a lot like existing music, it’s partly because it is actually sampling that content. The particular death metal example is nice in that the creators have published an academic article. But they’re open about saying they actually intend “overfitting” – that is, little bits of samples are actually playing back. Machines aren’t learning to generate this content from scratch; they’re actually piecing together those samples in interesting ways.
That’s relevant on two levels. One, because once you understand that’s what’s happening, you’ll recognize that machines aren’t magically replacing humans. (This works well for death metal partly because to non connoisseurs of the genre, the way angry guitar riffs and undecipherable shouting are plugged together already sounds quite random.)
But two, the fact that sample content is being re-stitched in time like this means this could suggest a very different kind of future sampler. Instead of playing the same 3-second audio on repeat or loop, for instance, you might pour hours or days of singing bowls into your sampler and then adjust dials that recreated those sounds in more organic ways. It might make for new instruments and production software.
Here’s what the creators say:
Thus, we want the out-put to overfit short timescale patterns (timbres, instruments, singers, percussion) and underfit long timescale patterns(rhythms, riffs, sections, transitions, compositions) so that it sounds like a recording of the original musicians playing new musical compositions in their style.
The reason I’m belaboring this is simple. Big corporations like Spotify might use this sort of research to develop, well, crappy mediocre channels of background music that make vaguely coherent workout soundtracks or faux Brian Eno or something that sounded like Erik Satie got caught in an opium den and re-composed his piano repertoire in a half daze. And that would, well, sort of suck.
Alternatively, though, you could make something like a sampler or DAW more human and less conventionally predictable. You know, instead of applying a sample slice to a pad and then having the same snippet repeat every eighth note. (Guilty as charged, your honor.)
It should also be understood that, perversely, this may all be raising the value of music rather than lowering it. Given the amount of recorded music currently available, and given that it can already often be licensed or played for mere cents, the machine learning re-generation of these same genres actually requires more machine computation and more human intervention – because of the amount of human work required to even select datasets and set parameters and choose results.
DADABOTS, for their part, have made an entire channel of this stuff. The funny thing is, even when they’re training on The Beatles, what you get sounds like … well, some of the sort of experimental sound you might expect on your low-power college radio station. You know, in a good way – weird, digital drones, of exactly the sort we enjoy. I think there’s a layperson impression that these processes will magically improve. That may misunderstand the nature of the mathematics involved – on the contrary, it may be that these sorts of predictive models always produce these sorts of aesthetic results. (The same team use Markov Chains to generate track names for their Bandcamp label. Markov Chains work as well as they did a century ago; they didn’t just start working better.)
I enjoy listening to The Beatles as though an alien civilization has had to digitally reconstruct their oeuvre from some fallout-shrouded, nuclear-singed remains of the number-one hits box set post apocalypse. (“Help! I need somebody! Help! The human race is dead!” You know, like that.)
As it moves to black metal and death metal, their Bandcamp labels progresses in surreal coherence:
This album gets especially interesting, as you get weird rhythmic patterns in the samples. And there’s nothing saying this couldn’t in turn inspire new human efforts. (I once met Stewart Copeland, who talked about how surreal it was hearing human drummers learn to play the rhythms, unplugged, that he could only achieve with The Police using delay pedals.)
I’m really digging this one:
So, digital sample RNN processes mostly generate angry and angular experimental sounds – in a good way. That’s certainly true now, and could be true in the future.
What’s up in other genres?
SONGULARITY is making a pop album. They’re focusing on lyrics (and a very funny faux generated Coachella poster). In this case, though, the work is constrained to text – far easier to produce convincingly than sound. Even a Markov Chain can give you interesting or amusing results; with machine learning applied character-by-character to text, what you get is a hilarious sort of futuristic Mad Libs. (It’s also clear humans are cherry-picking the best results, so these are really humans working with the algorithms much as you might use chance operations in music or poetry.)
Whether this says anything about the future of machines, though, the dadaist results are actually funny parody.
And that gives us results like You Can’t Take My Door:
Barbed whiskey good and whiskey straight.
These projects work because lyrics are already slightly surreal and nonsensical. Machines chart directly into the uncanny valley instead of away from it, creating the element of surprise and exaggerated un-realness that is fundamental to why we laugh at a lot of humor in the first place.
This also produced this Morrissey “Bored With This Desire To Get Ripped” – thanks to the ingenious idea of training the dataset not just with Morrissey lyrics, but also Amazon customer reviews of the P90X home workout DVD system. (Like I said – human genius wins, every time.)
Or there’s Dylan mixed with negative Yelp reviews from Manhattan:
And maybe in this limited sense, the machines are telling us something about how we learn. Part of the poetic flow is about drawing on all our wetware neural connections between everything we’ve heard before – as in the half-awake state of creative vibrations. That is, we follow our own predictive logic without doing the usual censoring that keeps our language rational. Thinking this way, it’s not that we would use machine learning to replace the lyricist. Rather, just as with chance operations in the past, we can use this surreal nonsense to free ourselves from the constraints that normal behavior require.
We shouldn’t underestimate, though, human intervention in using these lyrics. The neural nets are good at stringing together short bits of words, but the normal act of composition – deciding the larger scale structure, choosing funnier bits over weaker ones, recognizing patterns – remain human.
Recurrent neural networks probably won’t be playing Coachella any time soon, but if you need a band name, they’re your go-to. More funny text mangling from the Botnik crew.
My guess is, once the hype dies down, these particular approaches will wind up joining the pantheon of drunken walks and Markov Chains and fractals and other psuedo-random or generative algorithmic techniques. I sincerely hope that we don’t wait for that to happen, but use the hype to seize the opportunity to better educate ourselves about the math underneath (or collaborate with mathematicians), and see these more hardware-intensive processes in the context of some of these older ideas.
If you want to know why there’s so much hype and popular interest, though, the human brain may itself hold the answer. We are all of us hard-wired to delight in patterns, which means arguably there’s nothing more human than being endlessly entertained by what these algorithms produce.
But you know, I’m a marathon runner in my sorry way.
Rat communication, adjusted for human hearing, makes for surprisingly musical listening. That’s right – you may enjoy the sweet serenade of an actual rat burrow on NYC’s Lower East Side.
The results: some fantastic ultrasonic interspecies live performance, and an indication of how much music we might imagine lies beyond traditional human hearing.
When we talk transhumanism or post-human art, we’re not kidding. Media artist Brian House has made projects out of machine learning and even acidic toxic waste from a mine. (I actually know Brian from having done a session for the New York Times R&D group.) But easily my favorite is urban intonation / rat radio.
In contrast to imagining sounds of the bleats of goats or the songs of humpback whales, your first – and very apt question – might be “wait, what do rats sound like?” Good question, because you’ve definitely never heard them. Rats do communicate vocally, but above the threshold of our human hearing (higher than 20 kHz).
So Brian has helped us out by pitch shifting ratspeak into our normal human vocal range. That involves the use of ultrasonic mics and digital manipulation; the first version used samples, but then he went to live radio. He tells us his livestream from a rat burrow underneath the Lower East Side is now back on the air and – frankly, this is definitely my new favorite radio station.
The actual Manhattan rat burrow – where all this action is happening, and ‘studio’ to rat radio.
The results are to me fascinatingly musical – sounding at various times like the riffs of a practicing opera singer warming up, or an angular avant-garde alien jazz horn solo, or a more mournful cry. (I find this especially strange, as on a weird sound art project I was practicing imagining alien or interspecies vocalizations and came up with something a bit like this, suggesting I am indeed part rat. No surprise there.)
“Everything below 20 kHz is filtered out,” Brian tells us, “and there is a significant amount of noise filtering in addition to the pitch/time manipulation.” But otherwise, this is really the sound. “Anecdotally, the city rats are way more musical than lab rats,” he says. That makes some sense – rats in the wild presumably have more to talk about, especially in the heart of it all, rat nirvana Manhattan. (Makes me a bit homesick, really.)
Bizarre as it may seem, there’s a real program here – and the kind of interspecies awareness we may need as we face down global environmental calamity. As Brian writes:
Living under the paving stones, consuming our refuse, and incubating our diseases, the city rat is a ubiquitous part of global, urban capitalism. The revulsion rats inspire actually speaks of our closeness to them—rattus norvegicus burrows through the supposed human / nature divide. And just as we continually negotiate our place in a dynamic city, so have rats developed elaborate social codes intertwined with urban architecture and geography.
So sing on, rats. If we hear something like “so long, and thanks for all the pizza,” we may want to worry.
pd knobs is a knob controller for MIDI. It’s built with Teensy with open source code – or you can get the pre-built version, with some pretty, apparently nice-feeling knobs. And here it is with the free software Pd + AUTOMATONISM – proof that you don’t need to buy Eurorack just to go modular.
And that’s relevant, actually. Laptops can be had for a few hundred bucks; this controller is reasonably inexpensive, or you could DIY it. Add Automatonism, and you have a virtually unlimited modular of your own making. I love that Eurorack is supporting builders, but I don’t think the barrier to entry for music should be a world where a single oscillator costs what a lot of people spend in a month on rent.
And, anyway, this sounds really cool. Check the demo:
From the creator, Sonoclast:
pd knobs is a 13 knob MIDI CC controller. It can control any software that recognizes MIDI CC messages, but it was obviously designed with Pure Data in mind. I created it because I wanted a knobby interface with nice feeling potentiometers that would preserve its state from session-to-session, like a hardware instrument would. MIDI output is over a USB cable.
For users of the free graphical modular Pd, there are some ready-to-use abstractions for MIDI or even audio-rate control. You can also easily remap the controllers with some simple code.
Well, congratulations – you’ve survived another April Fools’ holiday. At worst, it can be unfunny and confusing. At best, though, it raises a different question – should we actually start dreaming up and making more ridiculous ideas?
Okay, I don’t necessarily want to be the grinch of April Fools’. And maybe now is not the right time to raise this – like, someone might say that it could have something to do with the fact that I attempted a product launch on the holiday, uh, yesterday. (What? That was me? Oh, yeah – it was. MeeBlip geode is not a joke. We are really making it. And um… yeah, that did wind up hitting some confusion, even though there’s nothing particularly April Fools-y about geode.)
While it’s had some glimmers of clever parody, the collision of April Fools’ with an attention-starved Internet has led to a noisy confusion of a bunch of people deciding to write parody press releases and videos, and the ideas can get repetitive. And it can confuse everyone about real news – not just ours. This year, the date came between two of the bigger synth and electronic music events of the year – sandwiched not more than 24 hours apart from Synthplex in the USA and Musikmesse in Frankfurt, Germany. (Yes, Messe is again a thing; even with Superbooth in Berlin stealing away modular makers, there’s a lot of musical instruments business outside modular, a lot of distributors in Germany, an entire industry around lighting tech, the music education business in Germany, and a competitive Messe organization slashing rates on booths, so expect it to stick around.)
But about the fake products we wish were real products … sigh, again.
Biggest culprit: KORG.
Yeah, okay, it’s probably not terribly practical for KORG to make a cassette volca. On the other hand, it’s not just the Rickroll video that’s tonedeaf to 2019 – lots of us have repurposed our cassette decks. I have a Yamaha multitrack sitting next to me in the studio wired up. People are making tape loops with Walkmans. There are tape labels. Bastl Instruments and Teenage Engineering, among others, have made digital decks that reimagine tape loops and tape playback. And having seen weird tape players show up on Amazon, I expect it’s not impossible to make new hardware that includes mechanical tape playback in it.
So the joke’s really on KORG here. Instead of getting pranked or sharing this because it was funny, literally thousands of people jumped on the idea of a KORG volcasette. (Obviously the biggest clue in – using KORG’s volca series nomenclature, it should have been KORG cassette or KORG tape. Just sayin’.)
The proposed features of this thing already exist on multitrack tape recorders, but the mind reels with other possibilities – looping, sampling, strange custom tape echoes…
And yes, of course there was the Ableton’s ReChorder – maybe the one amusing part of the parody there was, the awful music at the end does kind of remind me of some terrible demos of unusual instruments over the years. This one we can at least leave out of the instances of products people would want.
But even silly April Fools’ products can go viral – perhaps because we live in a world where brands are doing such strange things already, it’s not clear how you could make a joke that was any more absurd.
So, a HYPERX CUP MIX-IN pair of headphones shaped like two Cup Noodles containers and a fork had some of us … wanting instant ramen … and others actually wanting to try to buy the product. (Various blogs even picked this up assuming it was real.) I have a pair of Beats by Dre headphones in white that I suddenly want to mod to actually do this.
Useful? No. Possible to DIY? Yes. Tempting? Oh, indeed. (I’m sure some sort of ramen container housing could work.)
Then there was this USB-C hub covered in legacy ports. Except… yeah, I definitely would buy something like that. (SCSI for old drives? Actual analog video? Tons of extra ports, or card readers?)
Sure, this is … not totally possible. But parts of it are and … you know you want it. Their ridiculous specs, though take any subset of these and you might be happy.
Thick, heavy, substantial styling.
Built-in 100Wh / 27000mAh airline-safe battery pack
2-in-1 speaker and space heater using the same front air vent holes (temperature depending on the number of active connections)
USB-C hub with a total of 40 ports
9 x USB-C
9 x USB-A
2 x microSD
2 x SD
1 x 3.5mm Audio Jack
1 x HDMI
2 x DisplayPort
1 x Mini DVI
1 x VGA
1 x Ethernet
1 x Modem RJ-11
1 x Optical Audio “Toslink”
1 x Firewire 400
1 x Firewire 800
2 x RCA
1 x Parallel Port
1 x Serial Port
1 x PS/2
1 x AT Port
1 x 3.5” Floppy Disk Drive
Hey, there is a lot of bandwidth on Thunderbolt 3. I think this particular device might catch fire. But it is possible to have more ports.
Part of the reason this isn’t a joke: a friend urgently needed to pull files off a SCSI drive. I wound up looking back at Apple machines from just around the turn of the century, which in fact had every port you could imagine. The bronze keyboard PowerBook G3 Series, for instance, includes both USB and SCSI – and since it runs used for $200, you can actually buy that entire laptop to transfer data from legacy drives more easily than you can buy a modern SCSI adapter. (The adapters appear to be both more expensive and more scarce than the entire computers.)
Or for a more extreme example, consider the PowerMac G3 Series. This machine was everything Steve Jobs stamped out at Apple – boxy, with a beige slightly curved-out ID design language that mostly evolved under CEO John Sculley. But it sure had ports. Photo (CC-BY-SA) Miguel Durán.
Maybe you’ll rescue the legacy devices, but I do miss analog video – badly. And the notion of professional machines where you might actually connect various hardware, that bit still seems relevant. I love compact and friendly devices, but I also love choice.
And of course the only real joke is trying to figure out how to buy a USB-C device or cable … ahem … (to say nothing of those Apple cable prices).
Maybe the bottom line here, though, is that one person’s joke is another person’s dream. Some of the best, most creative ideas start as jokes. April Fools’ as far as I’m concerned in tech just needs to go away – it’s a day that adds noise and confusion to media that don’t need more of that, ever. But here’s another approach: maybe we should be willing to dream up absurd ideas the other 364 days of the year.
See any April Fools’ jokes you wish were real – and anybody up for actually making it happen?
Time to pick up a Walkman at the next flea market and start hacking; that’s for sure.
The new doppler board promises to meld the power of FPGA brains with microcontrollers and the accessibility of environments like Arduino. And the founder is so confident that could lead to new stuff, he’s making a “label” to help share your ideas.
doppler is a small, 39EUR development board packing both an ARM microcontroller and an FPGA. It could be the basis of music controllers, effects, synths – anything you can make run on those chips.
If this appeals to you, we’ve even got a CDM-exclusive giveaway for inventors with ideas. (Now, end users, this may all go over your head but … rest assured the upshot for you should be, down the road, more cool toys to play with. Tinkerers, developers, and people with a dangerous appetite for building things – read on.)
But first – why include an FPGA on a development board for music?
The pitch for FPGA
The FPGA is a powerful but rarified circuit. The idea is irresistible: imagine a circuit that could be anything you want to be, rewired as easily as software. That’s kind of what an FPGA is – it’s a big bundle of programmable logic blocks and memory blocks. You get all of that computational power at comparatively low cost, with the flexibility to adapt to a number of tasks. The upshot of this is, you get something that performs like dedicated, custom-designed hardware, but that can be configured on the fly – and with terrific real-time performance.
This works well for music and audio applications, because FPGAs do work in “close to the metal” high performance contexts. And we’ve even seen them used in some music gear. (Teenage Engineer was an early FPGA adopter, with the OP-1.) The challenge has always been configuring this hardware for use, which could easily scare off even some hardware developers.
Now, all of what I’ve just said a little hard to envision. Wouldn’t it be great if instead of that abstract description, you could fire up the Arduino development environment, upload some cool audio code, and have it running on an FPGA?
doppler, on a breadboard connected to other stuff so it starts to get more musically useful. Future modules could also make this easier.
doppler: easier audio FPGA
doppler takes that FPGA power, and combines it with the ease of working with environments like Arduino. It’s a chewing gum-sized board with both a familiar ARM microcontroller and an FPGA. This board is bare-bones – you just get USB – but the development tools have been set up for you, and you can slap this on a breadboard and add your own additions (MIDI, audio I/O).
The project is led by Johannes Lohbihler, dadamachines founder, along with engineer and artist Sven Braun.
dadamachines also plan some other modules to make it easier to add other stuff us music folks might like. Want audio in and out? A mic preamp? MIDI connections? A display? Controls? Those could be breakout boards, and it seems Johannes and dadamachines are open to ideas for what you most want. (In the meantime, of course, you can lay out your own stuff, but these premade modules could save time when prototyping.)
Full specs of the tiny, core starter board:
120Mhz ARM Cortex M4F MCU 512KB Flash (Microchip ATSAMD51G19A) with FPU
– FPGA 5000 LUT, 1MBit RAM, 6 DSP Cores,OSC, PLL (Lattice ICE40UP5K)
– Arduino IDE compatible
– Breadboard friendly (DIL48)
– Micro USB
– Power over USB or external via pin headers
– VCC 3.5V …. 5.5V
– All GPIO Pins have 3.3V Logic Level
– 1 LED connected to SAMD51
– 4 x 4 LED Matrix (connected to FPGA)
– 2 User Buttons (connected to FPGA)
– AREF Solder Jumper
– I2C (need external pullup), SPI, QSPI Pins
– 2 DAC pins, 10 ADC pins
– Full open source toolchain
– SWD programming pin headers
– Double press reset to enter the bootloader
– UF2 Bootloader with Firmware upload via simple USB stick mode
That frees up the FPGA to do audio only. Flip it around the other way, and you can use the microcontroller for audio, while the FPGA does … something else. The Teensy audio library will work on this chip, too – meaning a bunch of adafruit instructional content will be useful here:
doppler is fully open source hardware, with open firmware and code samples, so it’s designed to be easy to integrate into a finished product – even one you might sell commercially.
The software examples for now are mainly limited to configuring and using the board, so you’ll still need to bring your own code for doing something useful. But you can add the doppler as an Arduino library and access even the FPGA from inside the Arduino environment, which expands this to a far wider range of developers.
Look, ma, Arduino!
In a few steps, you can get up and running with the development environment, on any OS. You’ll be blinking lights and even using a 4×4 matrix of lights to show characters, just as easily as you would on an Arduino board – only you’re using an FPGA.
Getting to that stage is lunch break stuff if you’ve at least worked with Arduino before:
And lest you think this is going to be something esoteric for experienced embedded hardware developers, part of the reason it’s so accessible is that Johannes is working with Sven Braun. Sven is among other things the developer of iOS apps zmors synth and modular – so you get something that’s friendly to app developers.
doppler in production…
A label for hardware, platform for working together
Johannes tells us there’s more to this than just tossing an open source board out into the world – dadamachines is also inviting collaborations. They’ve made doppler a kind of calling card for working together, as well as a starting point for building new hardware ideas, and are suggesting Berlin-based dadamachines as a “label” – a platform to develop and release those ideas as products.
Johannes and his dadamachines have already a proven hardware track record, bringing a product from Kickstarter funding to manufacturing, with the automat. It’s an affordable device that makes it easy to connect physical, “robotic” outputs (like solenoids and motors). (New hardware, a software update and more are planned for that, too, by the way.) And of course, part of what you get in doing that kind of hardware is a lot of amassed experience.
We’ve seen fertile open platforms before – Arduino and Raspberry Pi have each created their own ecosystems of both hardware and education. But this suggests working even more closely – pooling space, time, manufacturing, distribution, and knowledge together.
This might be skipping a few steps – even relatively experienced developers may want to see what they can do with this dev board first. But it’s an interesting long-range goal that Johannes has in mind.
Want your own doppler; got ideas?
We have five doppler boards to give away to interested CDM readers.
Just tell dadamachines what you want to make, or connect, or use, and email that idea to:
dadamachines will pick five winners to get a free board sent to them. (Johannes says he wants to do this by lottery, but I’ve said if there are five really especially good ideas or submissions, he should… override the randomness.)
And stay tuned here, as I hope to bring you some more stuff with this soon.
Hainbach continues to make beautiful sounds with esoteric or forgotten gear – this time, the “saddest drone machine,” a used HP 3782A Error Detector telco device.
It’s wonderful sometimes the things esoteric gear makes. In the earlier, more analog age, a lot of telecommunications worked in the audible spectrum with tones you can hear. In this case, this HP device produces a set of patterns that sounds surprisingly musical, if melancholy:
Hainbach doesn’t include the description, but surprisingly a quick search suggests people still repair and use these devices. Oh yeah, and these actually work on digital equipment, but in audible-range patterns:
The HP 3782A Error Detector used with a HP 3781A Pattern Generator forms a flexible, high-performance error measuring system for digital transmission equipment in the CEPT digital hierarchy. They provide 2, 8, and 34 Mb/s interfaces and binary ECL operation up to 50 Mb/s. Automated or remote measurement capability with HP-IB. Measurements can be made on all types of digital transmission systems including cable, digital radio, satellite, and lightwave. The pattern generator provides a wide range of test patterns including PRBS for simulating live traffic and shorter WORD patterns for checking pattern sensitivity in transmission equipment. Binary and code error injection capability is included for stress-testing line terminating equipment. A jitter modulation input is provided to add controlled amounts of jitter to the output test pattern and perform jitter tolerance tests on equipment interfaces.
Sounds like a wholesome good time for the whole family.