Akai Force: hands-on preview of the post-PC live-in-a-box music tool

The leak was real. Akai have a standalone box that can free you from a laptop, when you want that freedom. It works with your computer and gear, but it also does all the arranging and performance (and some monster sounds and sequencing) on its own. It’s what a lot of folks were waiting for – and we’ve just gotten our hands on it.

Akai have already had a bit of a hit with the latest MPCs, which work as a controller/software combo if you want, but also stand on their own.

The Akai Force (it’s not an MPC or APC in the end) is more than that. It’s a single musical device with computer-like power under the hood, but standalone stability. It’s a powerful enough sequencer (for MIDI and CV) that you some people might just buy it on those merits.

But it also performs all the Ableton Live-style workflows you know. So there’s an APC/Push style interface, clip launching and editing, grids for playing drums and instruments, and sampling capability. There’s also a huge selection of synths and effects (courtesy AIR Music Technology), so while it can’t run third-party VST plug-ins, you should feel comfortable using it on its own. And it integrates with your computer when you’re in your studio – in both directions, though more on that in a bit.

And it’s US$1499 – so it’s reasonable affordable, at least in that it’s possibly cheaper than upgrading your laptop, or buying a new controller and a full DAW license.

First – the specs:

• Standalone – no computer required
• 8×8 clip launch matrix with RGB LEDs
• 7″ color capacitive multitouch display
• Mic/Instrument/Line Inputs, 4 outputs
• MIDI In/Out/Thru via 1/8″ TRS inputs (5-pin DIN adapters included)
• (4) configurable CV/Gate Outputs to integrate your modular setup
• (8) touch-sensitive knobs with graphical OLED displays
• Time stretch/pitch shift in real time
• Comprehensive set of AIR effects and Hype, TubeSynth, Bassline and Electric synth engines
• Ability to record 8 stereo tracks
• 16GB of on-board storage (over 10 gigs of sound content included)
• 2 GB of RAM
• Full-Size SD card Slot
• User-expandable 2.5″ SATA drive connector (SATA or HDD)
• (2) USB 3.0 slots for thumb drives or MIDI controllers

Clarification: about those eight tracks. You can have eight stereo tracks of audio, but up to 128 tracks total.

And there’s a powerful and clever scheme here that lets the Force adapt to different combinations of onboard synths and effects. Akai tells us the synths use a “weighted voice management” scheme so you can maximize simultaneous voices. Effects are unlimited, until you run out of CPU power. Since this is integrated hardware and software, though, you don’t fail catastrophically when you run out of juice, as you do on a conventional computer. (Ahem.)

All that I/O – USB connectivity, USB host (for other USB gear), CV (for analog gear), MIDI (via standard minijacks), plus audio input / mic and separate out and cue outs.

US$1499 (confirming European pricing), shipping on 5 February to the USA and later in the month to other markets.

I’ve had a hands-on with AKAI Professional’s product managers. The software was still pre-release – this was literally built last night – but it was very close to final form, and we should have a detailed review once we get hardware next month.

The specs don’t really tell the whole story, so let’s go through what this thing is about.

In person, the arrangement turns out to be logical and tidy.

Form factor

The images leaked via an FCC filing of a prototype did make this thing look a bit homely. In person with the final hardware, it seems totally logical.

On the bottom of the unit is a grid with shortcut triggers, looking very much like a Push 2. On the top is a touch display and more shortcut keys that resemble the MPC Live. You also get a row of endless encoders, which now Akai call just “knobs.”

The “hump” that contains the touch display enables a ton of I/O crammed onto the back – even with minijacks for MIDI, the space is needed. And it means the displays for the knobs are tilted at an angle, so they’re easier to read as you play, from either sitting or standing position.

There are also some touches that tell you this is Akai hardware. Everything is labeled. Triggers most often do just one thing, rather than changing modes as on Ableton Push. And there are features like obvious, dedicated navigation, and a crossfader.

In short, you can tell this is from the folks who built the APC40. Whereas sometimes functions on Ableton Push can be maddeningly opaque, the Akai hardware makes things obvious. I’ll talk more about that in the review, of course, but it’s obvious even when looking at the unit what everything does and how to navigate.

Oh and – while this unit is big, it still looks like it’d fit snugly onto a table at a venue or DJ booth. Plus you don’t need a computer. And yeah, the lads from Akai brought it to Berlin on Ryanair. You can absolutely fit it in a backpack.

Workflows

What impresses me about this effort from Akai is that it takes into account a whole range of use cases. Rather than describe what it does, maybe I should jump straight into what I think it means for those use cases, based on what I’ve seen.

It runs live sets. Well, here this is clearly a winner. You get clip launching just like you do with Ableton Live, without a laptop. And so even if you still stick to Live for production (or Maschine, or Reason, or FL Studio, or whatever DAW), you can easily load up stems and clips on this and free yourself from the laptop later.

You get consistent color coding and near-constant feedback on the grid and heads-up display / touch display about where you are, what’s muted, what’s record-enabled, and what’s playing. My impression is that it’s far clearer than on other devices, thanks to the software being built around the hardware. (Maschine got further than some of its rivals, but it lacks this many controls, lights, and display.)

That feedback seemed like it’s also not overwhelming, either, because it’s spread out over this larger footprint. There’s also a handy overview of your whole clip layout on the touch display, so you can page through more clip slots easily.

Logical, dedicated triggers and loads of feedback so you don’t get lost.

Full-featured clip launching and mixing.

It’s a playable instrument – finger-drummer friendly. Of course, now that you can do all that stuff with clips, as with Push, you can also play instruments. There are onboard synths from AIR – Electric, Bassline, TubeSynth, and the new multifunctional FM + additive + wavetable hybid Hype. And there are a huge number of effects from lo-fi stuff to reverbs to delays, meaning you can get away without packing effects pedals. It’s literally the full range of AIR stuff – so like having a full Pro Tools plug-in folder on dedicated hardware.

That may or may not be enough for everyone, but you can also use MIDI and CV and USB to control external gear (or a computer).

The grid setup features are also easy to get into and powerful. There are a range of pitch-to-grid mappings, from guitar fret-style arrangements to a Tonnetz layout (5th on one axis, 3rd on another) to piano and chromatic layouts. There are of course scale and chord options – though no microtuning onboard, yet. (Wait until Aphex Twin gets his, I think.)

And there are drum layouts, too, or step sequencers if you want them.

Two major, major deviations from Push, though. You know how easy it is to accidentally change parts on Push when you’re trying to navigate clips and wind up playing the wrong instrument? Or how easy it is to get lost when recording clips? Or how suddenly a step sequencer turns up when you just want to finger drum a pad? Or…

Yeah, okay well – you have none of those problems here. Force makes it easy to select parts, easy to select tracks, easy to mute tracks, and lets you choose the layout you want when you want it without all that confusion.

Again, more on this in the review, but I’m thoroughly relieved that Akai seems to understand the need for dedicated triggers and less cognitive overhead when you play live.

Tons of playing options.

It can replace a computer for production, if you want. There’s deep clip editing and sampling and arrangement and mixing functionality here. Clips even borrow one of the best features from Bitwig Studio – you can edit and move and duplicate audio inside a clip, which you can’t do in Live without bringing that audio out into the Arrangement. So you could use this to start and even finish tracks.

The Force doesn’t have the same horsepower as a laptop, of course. So you’re limited to eight stereo tracks. Then again, back in the days of tape that bouncing process was also creatively useful – and the sampling capabilities here make it easy to resample work.

Powerful clip editing combines with sampling – and you can use both the touchscreen and dedicated hardware controls.

Or you can use it as a companion to a computer. You can also use Force as a sketchpad – much like some iPad tools now, but of course with physical controls. There’s even an export to ALS feature coming, so you could start tracks on Force and finish them in Ableton Live – with your full range of mixing an mastering tools and plug-ins. (I believe that doesn’t ship at launch, but is due soon.)

Also coming in the first part of this year, Akai are working on a controller mode so you can use Force as an Ableton Live controller when you are at your computer.

There’s wired connectivity. You can set up MIDI tracks, you can set up CV tracks. There’s also USB host mode. Like the grid, but wish you had some MPC-style velocity-sensitive pads? Or want some faders? Plug in inexpensive controllers via USB, just as you would on your computer. You only get two audio ins, but that’s of course still enough to do sampling – and you get the sorts of sampling and live time stretching capabilities you’d expect of the company that makes the MPC.

For audio output, there’s a dedicated cue out as well as the stereo audio output.

On the front – SD card loading (there’s also USB support and internal drive upgradeability), plus a dedicated cue output for your headphones.

The full range of AIR effects is onboard.

Powerful audio effects should help you grow with this one.

And there’s wireless connectivity, too. You can sync sample content via Splice.com – which includes your own samples, by the way. (Wow, do I wish Roland did this with Roland Cloud and the TR-8S – yeah, being able to have all my own kits and sample sets and sync them with a WiFi connection is huge to me, even just for the sounds I created myself.)

There’s Ableton Link support, so you can wirelessly sync up to your computer, iPad, and other tools – clocking the Force without wires.

There’s even wireless support for control and sound, meaning that Force is going to be useful even before you plug in cables.

Yeah, it’s a standalone instrument, but it’s also a monster sequencer / hub.

Bottom line. It replaces Ableton Live. It works with Ableton Live. It replaces your computer. It works with your computer. It’s a monster standalone instrument. It’s a monster sequencer for your other instruments. It does a bunch of stuff. It doesn’t try to do too much (manageable controls, clear menus).

Basically, this already looks like the post-PC device a lot of us were waiting for. Can’t wait to get one for review.

The post Akai Force: hands-on preview of the post-PC live-in-a-box music tool appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

What could make APC Live, MPC cool: Akai’s new software direction

Akai tipped their hand late last year that they were moving more toward live performance. With APC Live hardware leaked and in the wild, maybe it’s time to take another look. MPC software improvements might interest you with or without new hardware.

MPC 2.3 software dropped mid-November. We missed talking about it at the time. But now that we’re (reasonably certain, unofficially) that Akai is releasing new hardware, it puts this update in a new light. Background on that:

APC as standalone hardware? Leaked Akai APC Live

Whether or not the leaked APC Live hardware appeals to you, Akai are clearly moving their software in some new directions – which is relevant whatever hardware you choose. We don’t yet know if the MPC Live hardware will get access to the APC Live’s Matrix Mode, but it seems a reasonable bet some if not all of the APC Live features are bound for MPC Live, too.

And MPC 2.3 added major new live performance features, as well as significant internal synths, to that standalone package. Having that built in means you get it even without a computer.

New in 2.3:

Three synths:

  • A vintage-style, modeled analog polysynth
  • A bass synth
  • A tweakable, physically modeled electric piano

Tubesynth – an analog poly.

Electric’s physically-modeled keys.

Electric inside the MPC Live environment.

As with NI’s Maschine, each of those can be played from chords and scales with the pads mode. But Maschine requires a laptop, of course – MPC Live doesn’t.

A new arpeggiator, with four modes of operation, ranging from traditional vintage-style arp to more modern, advanced pattern playback

And there’s an “auto-sampler.”

That auto-sampler looks even more relevant when you see the APC Live. On MPC Live (and by extension APC Live), you can sample external synths, sample VST plug-ins, and even capture outboard CV patches.

Of course, this is a big deal for live performance. Plug-ins won’t work in standalone mode – and can be CPU hogs, anyway – so you can conveniently capture what you’re doing. Got some big, valuable vintage gear or a modular setup you don’t to take to the gig? Same deal. And then this box gives you the thing modular instruments don’t do terribly well – saving and recalling settings – since you can record and restore those via the control voltage I/O (also found on that new APC Live). The auto-sampler is an all-in-one solution for making your performances more portable.

Full details of the 2.3 update – though I expect we’ve got even more new stuff around the corner:

http://www.akaipro.com/pages/mpc-2.3-desktop-software-and-firmware-update

With or without the APC Live, you get the picture. While Ableton and Native Instruments focus on studio production and leave you dependent on the computer, Akai’s angle is creating an integrated package you can play live with – like, onstage.

Sure enough, Akai have been picking up large acts to their MPC Live solution, too – John Mayer, Metallica, and Chvrches all got named dropped. Of those, let’s check out Chvrches – 18 minutes in, the MPC Live gets showcased nicely:

It makes sense Akai would come to rely on its own software. When Akai and Novation released their first controllers for Ableton Live, Ableton had no hardware of their own, which changed with Push. But of course even the first APC invoked the legendary MPC legacy – and Akai has for years been working on bringing desktop software functionality to the MPC name. So, while some of us (me included) first suspected a standalone APC Live might mean a collaboration with Ableton, it does make more sense that it’s a fully independent Akai-made, MPC-style tool.

It also makes sense that this means, for now, more internal functionality. (The manual reference to “plugins” in the APC Live manual that leaked probably means those internal instruments and effects.) That has more predictability as far as resource consumption, and means avoiding the licensing issues necessary and the like to run plug-ins in embedded Linux. This could change, by the way – Propellerhead’s Rack Extensions format now is easily portable to ARM processors, for example – but that’s another story. As far as VST, AU, and AAX, portability to embedded hardware is still problematic.

The upshot of this, though, is that InMusic at least has a strategy for hardware that functions on its own – not just as a couple of one-off MPC pieces, but in terms of integrated hardware/software development across a full product line. Native Instruments, Ableton, and others might be working on something like that that lets you untether from the computer, but InMusic is shipping now, and they aren’t.

Now the question is whether InMusic can capitalize on its MPC legacy and the affection for the MPC and APC brands and workflows – and get people to switch from other solutions.

The post What could make APC Live, MPC cool: Akai’s new software direction appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

Build your own scratch DJ controller

If DJing originated in the creative miuse and appropriation of hardware, perhaps the next wave will come from DIYers inventing new approaches. No need to wait, anyway – you can try building this scratch controller yourself.

DJWORX has done some great ongoing coverage of Andy Tait aka Rasteri. You can read a complete overview of Andy’s SC1000, a Raspberry Pi-based project with metal touch platter:

Step aside portablism — the tiny SC1000 is here

In turn, there’s also that project’s cousin, the 7″ Portable Scratcher aka 7PS.

If you’re wondering what portablism is, that’s DJs carrying portable record players around. But maybe more to the point, if you can invent new gear that fits in a DJ booth, you can experiment with DJing in new ways. (Think how much current technique is really circumscribed by the feature set of CDJs, turntables, and fairly identical DJ software.)

Or to look at it another way, you can really treat the DJ device as a musical instrument – one you can still carry around easily.

The SC1000 in Rasteri’s capable hands is exciting just to behold:

Everything you need to build this yourself – or to discover the basis for other ideas – is up on GitHub:

https://github.com/rasteri/SC1000/

This is not a beginner project. But it’s not overwhelmingly complicated, either. Basically…

Ingredients:
Custom PCB
System-on-module (the brains of the operation)
SD card
Enclosure
Jog wheel with metal capacitive touch surface and magnet
Mini fader

Free software powers the actual DJing. (It’s based on xwax, open source Linux digital vinyl emulation, which we’ve seen as the basis of other DIY projects.)

Process:

You need to assemble the main PCB – there’s your soldering iron action.

And you’ll flash the firmware (which requires a PIC programmer), plus transfer the OS to SD card.

Assembly of the jog wheel and enclosure requires a little drilling and gluing

Other than that it’s a matter of testing and connection.

Build tutorial:

Full open source under a GPLv2 license. (Andy sort of left out the hardware license – this really sort of illustrates that GNU need a license that blankets both hardware and software, though that’s complex legally. There’s no copyright information on the hardware; to be fully open it needs something like a Creative Commons license on those elements of the designs. But that’s not a big deal.)

It looks really fantastic. I definitely want to try building one of these in Berlin – will team up and let you know how it goes.

This clearly isn’t for everyone. But the reason I mention going to custom hardware is, this means both that you can adapt your own technique to a particular instrument and you can modify the way the digital DJ tool responds if you so choose. It may take some time before we see that bear fruit, but it definitely holds some potential.

Via:
Rasteri’s SC1000 scratch controller — build your own today [thanks to Mark Settle over at DJWORX!]

Project page:
https://github.com/rasteri/SC1000/

Thanks, Dubby Labby!

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Watch this $30 kit turn into all these other synthesizers

DIY guru Mitch Altman has been busy expanding ArduTouch, the $30 kit board he designed to teach synthesis and coding. And now you can turn it into a bunch of other synths – with some new videos to who you how that works.

You’ll need to do a little bit of tinkering to get this working – though for many, of course, that’ll be part of the fun. So you solder together the kit, which includes a capacitive touch keyboard (as found on instruments like the Stylophone) and speaker. That means once the soldering is done, you can make sounds. To upload different synth code, you need a programmer cable and some additional steps.

Where this gets interesting is that the ArduTouch is really an embedded computer – and what’s wonderful about computers is, they transform based on whatever code they’re running.

ArduTouch is descended from the Arduino project, which in turn was the embedded hardware coding answer to desktop creative coding environment Processing. And from Processing, there’s the idea of a “sketch” – a bit of code that represents a single idea. “Sketching” was vital as a concept to these projects as it implies doing something simpler and more elegant.

For synthesis, ArduTouch is collecting a set of its own sketches – simple, fun digital signal processing creations that can be uploaded to the board. You get a whole collection of these, including sketches that are meant to serve mainly as examples, so that over time you can learn DSP coding. (The sketches are mostly the creation of Mitch’s friend, Bill Alessi.) Because the ArduTouch itself is cloned from the Arduino UNO, it’s also fully compatible both with UNO boards and the Arduino coding environment.

Mitch has been uploading videos and descriptions (and adding new synths over time), so let’s check them out:

Thick is a Minimoog-like, playable monosynth.

Arpology is an “Eno-influenced” arpeggiator/synth combo with patterns, speed, major/minor key, pitch, and attack/decay controls, plus a J.S. Bach-style generative auto-play mode.

Beatitude is a drum machine with multiple parts and rhythm track creation, plus a live playable bass synth.

Mantra is a weird, exotic-sounding sequenced drone synth with pre-mapped scales. The description claims “it is almost impossible to play something that doesn’t sound good.” (I initially read that backwards!)

Xoid is raucous synth with frequency modulation, ratio, and XOR controls. Actually, this very example demonstrates just why ArduTouch is different – like, you’d probably not want to ship Xoid as a product or project on its own. But as a sketch – and something strange to play with – it’s totally great.

DuoPoly is also glitchy and weird, but represents more of a complete synth workstation – and it’s a grab-bag demo of all the platform can do. So you get Tremelo, Vibrato, Pitch Bend, Distortion Effects, Low Pass Filter, High Pass Filter, Preset songs/patches, LFOs, and other goodies, all crammed onto this little board.

There, they’ve made some different oddball preset songs, too:

Platinum hit, this one:

This one, it sounds like we hit a really tough cave level in Metroid:

Open source hardware, kits available for sale:

https://cornfieldelectronics.com/cfe/projects.php#ardutouch

https://github.com/maltman23/ArduTouch

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Bela Mini gives you 1ms sound anywhere, to turn into anything, for £120

Make anything you want, with free music software of your choice, and <1ms latency. Bela is back, smaller than ever - a pocket-sized £120 computer for sound.

Embedded mobile tech has in recent years brought us pocket-sized, low-power boards that can match the performance of what not so many years ago we actually called a desktop computer. And that’s led to high-profile boards like the cheap Raspberry Pi. The problem has been, many of the cheapest of these machines were limited in computational power, and more importantly, had audio performance that ranged from middling to disastrously awful, both in audio quality and reliability/responsiveness.

But you shouldn’t settle for that. The whole point of building an embedded audio system dedicated to the task of music making – like a DIY effects pedal or synth or sound installation – ought to be that audio performance is better than on your PC. You’ve got a pocket-sized board that isn’t running weird file indexing, OS updates, buggy Facebook code open in twenty tabs, and the like. It ought to just do the number crunching you need for the granular delay you want to sing along with, and do it really well.

A few audio engineers have decided to brave the challenge. It’s not an easy thing to do: these little boards are so cheap that there’s not a whole lot of money to be made on them.

But one of the better projects has been Bela, first introduced in 2016. And today, its makers are taking advantage of a new board PocketBeagle board from beagleboard.org. It’s more powerful than that much-hyped Raspberry Pi, but runs on a battery and is absurdly small – the Bela Mini measures just 55x35x21mm. (Please do not eat your Bela Mini, or Tide Pods, or anything that isn’t food.)

It’s not just a small computer, though – there’s more.

Low latency. 1ms round-trip for audio, or a minuscule 100us round-trip via analog and digital I/Os.

Run your favorite free audio software. Support for the graphical patching environment Pure Data (Pd), the crazy-powerful code world of SuperCollider, plus C and C++, and community support for FAUST, Python, etc.

An IDE in your browser. Fire up your browser and use a built-in IDE with oscilloscope and spectral analysis and documentation and more.

Sensors! High-resolution sensor inputs onboard open up interesting interfacing with the real world, whether you’ve got a wearable technology idea, an interactive installation, or a unique custom interface.

The applications should be clear here. You could ditch your laptop and run a granular looper on a pocket-sized box. You could hook up some sensors and invent your own weird instrument. You could make a custom vocoder and bring this with a mic and croon along at “robot lounge night.” You could produce a runway show of electronically singing couture. You could devise a series of installations and turn into the next Nam June Paik and someday have a solo show at the Guggen– well, possibly at least some hipster gallery somewhere. You get the idea.

For now, that unique focus on audio makes this possibly the best game in town. There is one rival – the Pisound, a board that hops atop the Raspberry Pi, and couples with a custom case. The Pisound does have the advantage of onboard MIDI – both USB MIDI and MIDI DIN – but for computational power with audio, the Beagle looks stronger. (I could imagine doing an audio/MIDI application with Pisound and coupling it with an audio/sensor creation with Bela.)

https://blokas.io/

Bela winds up pricing out pretty nicely, too. The smart buy is a £120 all-in-one kit (£110 intro price through March 9). That gets you cables, the Bela, the PocketBeagle base board, and a pr-flashed SD-card. If you prefer to source your own parts, you can get just the Bela Mini for £60 (£55 intro).

Here’s what’s in the kit.

It’s bigger, but the original Bela has basically the same specs and ships now if what I’ve done is make you impatient to own one now, rather than wait for May.

Basically, what’s new on the Bela Mini is really the tiny size. That opens up projects where small size matters. (The Pisound above is really just about music projects, more than wearable tech and the like, by contrast – but of course by virtue of being larger affords more space for full-sized ports!) The original Bela will remain available, with “capelets” for adding additional features.

Either way, if you’re quick, you can get out of the studio and have your battery-powered box to make weird experimental music for your friends at the beach all summer long. (Or, southern hemisphere readers, let’s say keeping your friends warm with your July beatbox busking.)

And all for the price of one basic Eurorack module. Who said electronic music was just for the rich kids?

Full specs:

Based on the PocketBeagle (http://www.beagleboard.org/pocket) with a custom hardware cape and low-latency operating system
1GHz ARM Cortex-A8 processor, 512MB RAM (based on Octavo Systems OSD335x system-in-package)
Stereo audio I/O with integrated headphone amplifier (16 bit, 44.1kHz)
8x 16-bit analog inputs for sensors (DC-coupled; up to 44.1kHz for 4 inputs or 22.05kHz for 8 inputs)
16x digital I/Os (3.3V level)
USB host and device ports
Dimensions 55 x 35 x 21mm (including PocketBeagle)

Software:
Latency as low as 0.5ms (analog/digital input to audio output) or 1.0ms (audio input to audio output)
Browser-based IDE including oscilloscope, spectrum analyser, interactive pin diagram and onboard documentation
Support for C, C++, Pd and SuperCollider languages. Community-contributed support for FAUST, Python and others

Bela Mini launch + FAQ

Buy it:
https://shop.bela.io

Sample projects:
http://blog.bela.io/

Resources:
http://github.com/BelaPlatform
http://github.com/BelaPlatform/bela/wiki
http://forum.bela.io

The post Bela Mini gives you 1ms sound anywhere, to turn into anything, for £120 appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

Bela Mini gives you 1ms sound anywhere, to turn into anything, for £120

Make anything you want, with free music software of your choice, and <1ms latency. Bela is back, smaller than ever - a pocket-sized £120 computer for sound.

Embedded mobile tech has in recent years brought us pocket-sized, low-power boards that can match the performance of what not so many years ago we actually called a desktop computer. And that’s led to high-profile boards like the cheap Raspberry Pi. The problem has been, many of the cheapest of these machines were limited in computational power, and more importantly, had audio performance that ranged from middling to disastrously awful, both in audio quality and reliability/responsiveness.

But you shouldn’t settle for that. The whole point of building an embedded audio system dedicated to the task of music making – like a DIY effects pedal or synth or sound installation – ought to be that audio performance is better than on your PC. You’ve got a pocket-sized board that isn’t running weird file indexing, OS updates, buggy Facebook code open in twenty tabs, and the like. It ought to just do the number crunching you need for the granular delay you want to sing along with, and do it really well.

A few audio engineers have decided to brave the challenge. It’s not an easy thing to do: these little boards are so cheap that there’s not a whole lot of money to be made on them.

But one of the better projects has been Bela, first introduced in 2016. And today, its makers are taking advantage of a new board PocketBeagle board from beagleboard.org. It’s more powerful than that much-hyped Raspberry Pi, but runs on a battery and is absurdly small – the Bela Mini measures just 55x35x21mm. (Please do not eat your Bela Mini, or Tide Pods, or anything that isn’t food.)

It’s not just a small computer, though – there’s more.

Low latency. 1ms round-trip for audio, or a minuscule 100us round-trip via analog and digital I/Os.

Run your favorite free audio software. Support for the graphical patching environment Pure Data (Pd), the crazy-powerful code world of SuperCollider, plus C and C++, and community support for FAUST, Python, etc.

An IDE in your browser. Fire up your browser and use a built-in IDE with oscilloscope and spectral analysis and documentation and more.

Sensors! High-resolution sensor inputs onboard open up interesting interfacing with the real world, whether you’ve got a wearable technology idea, an interactive installation, or a unique custom interface.

The applications should be clear here. You could ditch your laptop and run a granular looper on a pocket-sized box. You could hook up some sensors and invent your own weird instrument. You could make a custom vocoder and bring this with a mic and croon along at “robot lounge night.” You could produce a runway show of electronically singing couture. You could devise a series of installations and turn into the next Nam June Paik and someday have a solo show at the Guggen– well, possibly at least some hipster gallery somewhere. You get the idea.

For now, that unique focus on audio makes this possibly the best game in town. There is one rival – the Pisound, a board that hops atop the Raspberry Pi, and couples with a custom case. The Pisound does have the advantage of onboard MIDI – both USB MIDI and MIDI DIN – but for computational power with audio, the Beagle looks stronger. (I could imagine doing an audio/MIDI application with Pisound and coupling it with an audio/sensor creation with Bela.)

https://blokas.io/

Bela winds up pricing out pretty nicely, too. The smart buy is a £120 all-in-one kit (£110 intro price through March 9). That gets you cables, the Bela, the PocketBeagle base board, and a pr-flashed SD-card. If you prefer to source your own parts, you can get just the Bela Mini for £60 (£55 intro).

Here’s what’s in the kit.

It’s bigger, but the original Bela has basically the same specs and ships now if what I’ve done is make you impatient to own one now, rather than wait for May.

Basically, what’s new on the Bela Mini is really the tiny size. That opens up projects where small size matters. (The Pisound above is really just about music projects, more than wearable tech and the like, by contrast – but of course by virtue of being larger affords more space for full-sized ports!) The original Bela will remain available, with “capelets” for adding additional features.

Either way, if you’re quick, you can get out of the studio and have your battery-powered box to make weird experimental music for your friends at the beach all summer long. (Or, southern hemisphere readers, let’s say keeping your friends warm with your July beatbox busking.)

And all for the price of one basic Eurorack module. Who said electronic music was just for the rich kids?

Full specs:

Based on the PocketBeagle (http://www.beagleboard.org/pocket) with a custom hardware cape and low-latency operating system
1GHz ARM Cortex-A8 processor, 512MB RAM (based on Octavo Systems OSD335x system-in-package)
Stereo audio I/O with integrated headphone amplifier (16 bit, 44.1kHz)
8x 16-bit analog inputs for sensors (DC-coupled; up to 44.1kHz for 4 inputs or 22.05kHz for 8 inputs)
16x digital I/Os (3.3V level)
USB host and device ports
Dimensions 55 x 35 x 21mm (including PocketBeagle)

Software:
Latency as low as 0.5ms (analog/digital input to audio output) or 1.0ms (audio input to audio output)
Browser-based IDE including oscilloscope, spectrum analyser, interactive pin diagram and onboard documentation
Support for C, C++, Pd and SuperCollider languages. Community-contributed support for FAUST, Python and others

Bela Mini launch + FAQ

Buy it:
https://shop.bela.io

Sample projects:
http://blog.bela.io/

Resources:
http://github.com/BelaPlatform
http://github.com/BelaPlatform/bela/wiki
http://forum.bela.io

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This low-latency OS could change how music gear is made

You want the flexibility of PC software, but the performance of standalone gear? A new music OS is the latest effort to promise the best of both worlds.

Sure, analog gear is enjoying a happy renaissance – and that’s great. But a lot of the experimentation with sound production occurs with software (iOS or Windows or Mac) simply because it’s easier (and cheaper) to try things out on an Intel or ARM chip. (ARM is the architecture found in your iPhone or iPad or Android phone, among others; Intel you know.) Some manufacturers are already making the move to standalone hardware based on these architectures – at AES last year, I saw Eventide’s massive coming flagship, which is totally ARM-based. But they’re typically rolling their own operating system, which provides some serious expertise.

MIND Music Labs this month unveiled what they called ELK – a Linux-based operating system they say is optimized for musical applications and high performance.

That means they’re boldly going where… a lot of players have tried to go before. But this time, it’s different – really. First, there’s more demand on the developer side, as more makers have grown intrigued by off-the-shelf CPUs. And developer tools for these options are better than they’ve been. And hardware is cheaper, lower-power, and more accessible than ever, particularly as mobile devices have driven massive scale. (The whole world, sadly, may not really feel it needs an effects processor or guitar pedal, but a whole lot of the world now has smartphones.)

ELK promises insanely low latencies, so that you can add digital effects without delaying the returning signal (which for anything other than a huge reverb is an important factor). And there are other benefits, too, that make music gadgets made with the OS more connected to the world. According to the developers, you get:

Ultra-low latency (1ms round-trip)
Linux-based, using single Intel & ARM CPUs
Support for JUCE and VsT 2.x and 3.x plugins
Natively connected (USB, WiFi, BT, 4G)

That connectivity opens up possibilities like sharing music, grabbing updates and new sounds, and connecting to wireless instruments like the ROLI line. There’s full MIDI support, too, though – and, well, lots of other things you can do with Linux.

(JUCE is a popular framework for developing cross platforms, meaning you could make one really awesome granular synth and then run it on desktop, mobile, and this platform easily.)

Now, having done this for a while, I’ve seen a lot of claims like this come and go. But at least ELK last week was demonstrated with some actual gear as partners – DVMark, MarkBass, and Overloud (TH-U).

1ms latency claims don’t just involve the OS. Here, ELK delivers a complete hardware platform, so that’s the actual performance including their (high-quality, they say) audio converters and chip. That’s what stops you from just grabbing something like a Raspberry Pi and turning it into a great guitar pedal – you’re constrained by the audio fidelity and real-time performance of the chipset, whether the USB connection or onboard audio. Here, that promises to be solved for you out of the box.

DVMark’s “Smart Multiamp” was the first real product to show off the platform. Plugin Alliance and Brainworx have signed on, too, so don’t be surprised if you’re soon looking at a dedicated box that can replace your laptop – but also run all your plug-ins.

And that’s the larger vision here – eventually ELK has its own plug-in format, and you should be able to move your favorite plug-ins around to connected devices, and access those gadgets from Android and iOS, But unlike using a computer or iPad on its own, you don’t have to sweat software upgrades or poor audio performance or try to imagine a laptop or tablet is a good music interface live.

This leaves of course lots of questions about how they’ll realize this vision and more questions if you’re an interested developer or manufacturer. I’m hopeful that they take the Eurorack market as a model – or even look at independent plug-in and app developers – and embrace a model that supports imaginative one-person developers, too. (A whole lot of the best music software and module ideas alike have come from one- and two-person shops.)

I at least like their vision – and I’m sure they won’t be alone. Best line: “Whether your idea of music is to be shut in a studio that looks like the bridge of a Klingon cruiser or you are a minimalist that wants everything to sound exactly like in 1958, we think you will be surprised at just how much smartness is going to affect us as musicians.”

I’ll throw this out here for now and let you ask away, and then we can do a follow-up soon. Loads more info at their site:

https://www.mindmusiclabs.com/elk/

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Those standalone MPCs do wireless Link and MIDI and it’s the future

The world now: a bunch of mismatched cables, and then complicated setup. The world of the future: wireless, easy to configure. Or so we hope.

Akai has managed to deliver MPCs that function both as standalone production boxes, untethered from your computer, and computer accessories (they’re a controller/software combo when you plug them in).

But they’re also making these things work wirelessly with some new technologies.

Via Bluetooth, you can connect keyboards (making this a kind of weird computer, or letting you touch-type your musical sets), or wireless MIDI devices (so you can use a piano-style interface instead of just pads, among other solutions).

Via Ableton’s Link technology, you get the ability to jam with other software, hardware, and mobile apps over a wifi network. In fact, that makes this about the only standalone hardware to do so – though of course it’s really just a PC beneath that skin (and that’s kind of a good thing).

I suspect the stumbling block to this happening more is simply having more of a hardware ecosystem of stuff that does this.

It makes the MPC Live and MPC X still more appealing right now, as well as being a glimpse of things to come.

Now, you still have to decide whether Akai’s workflow is what you want, or whether you want to buy another piece of gear, with competitors from the likes of Elektron and Native Instruments eager to keep you on their side. But if you do, here’s what you get to enjoy, explained in video:

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Percussa’s new Kickstarter project wants to be the brain of your modular

What if you could merge the patch-ability of modulars with powerful digital DSP – not just circuits? The Percussa SSP is the latest entry to try just that.

It was inevitable: modulars, at first resurrected precisely because they had simple circuitry and knobs in a predictable space, are starting to get computational powers. This isn’t just cramming a computer in a Eurorack. The Percussa uses embedded processing power, in the form of the increasingly ubiquitous ARM architecture – this is what makes your smartphone, your iPad, your Nintendo DS, your Raspberry Pi, and your Canon PowerShot all work.

And that’s the brainpower – lots of open-ended number crunching, sound processing capability. The quad core engine, which will support Percussa’s own stuff as well as third-party C++ code (opening this up to a community), could run loads of effects or oscillators all on a single module, all in parallel. And it’ll run audio at high bit resolution and sample rate.

Oh, yeah, also – clouds of oscillators. (This is cloud as in sound, not cloud as in Internet, unlike this recent Roland Cloud offering.)

Last week, I had a look at another take on the post-PC sound machine – and if that one looks like it was imagined by a guitarist, this one appears to have been envisioned by a lover of embedded computers and Eurorack.

Export to hardware, virtual pedals – this could be the future of effects

While there is some open-ended potential, that’s not to say that this is an empty canvas. There’s a lot of sound capabilities there already. Out of the box, you’ll get some instant capabilities – more depending on how much crowdfunding revenue comes in.

Percussa plans a 3D morphing wavetable oscillator, a sampler, an LFO for modulation, filters, a step sequencer, and building blocks for signal processing.

If that’s not enough, other virtual modules could become available in time – including third-party ones.

And the SSP is looking like a handy hub for a modular rig – and very possibly a replacement for a computer – thanks to SD card recording, loads of patchable I/O, and MIDI and USB (both a device port and a host port, so you can connect various USB gear).

Now, of course, you might still wonder why you wouldn’t just use an iPad or a computer. But there is still a lot of patching possible here, meaning of course the idea is to mix this with other modules. It’s Eurorack ready with 14 inputs.

Stretch goals feature more – there’s already MPE (expressive polyphonic control of MIDI) as one feature. I do kind of hope they get to the 3D accelerated graphics.

Percussa provided some images here. More details on their Kickstarter page.

It looks great, though I do have to wonder – do you really want something like this in Eurorack form, or do you want essentially a dedicated sound computer to take a different form factor (one that might well include some patching)? That is, does this look like the hub of a Eurorack setup, or just a sound machine on its own? (Of course, this could be either of those things to different people as-is – but as we do delve into the post-PC age, all these questions get asked anew.)

Combining this with your analog gear could look something like this:

More details. The project doesn’t come cheap – you’re looking at around 1.5 grand – but looks like over a dozen users are ready to take the plunge, even sight unseen and unheard, in advance.

Percussa Super Signal Processor Eurorack Module

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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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