Fidelity? High-quality sound? No – degradation! And if you don’t have a ragged VHS deck or cassette Walkman handy, these free effects racks in Ableton Live will sort you out.
Downgrade is the work of Tom Cosm, long-time Ableton guru. There are five effects:
— plus if you give him literally US$1 or more (you cheapskate), you get an additional Stutter rack.
Basically, you get loads of controls for manipulating downsampling, tape effects, saturation, distortion, modulation of various kinds, echo, vocoder, and more. It’s a sort of retro Vaporwave starter kit if you’d like to think of it that way – or an easy, dial-up greatest hits of everything Ableton Live can now do to make your sound worse. And by worse, I mean better, naturally.
Ableton have been gradually adding all these digital downsampling features (early on) and simulated analog tape and saturation effects and nonlinear modulation (more recently). Tom has neatly packed them into one very useful set of Racks.
Notice I say “Racks,” not Max for Live devices. That means these will mostly run on different editions of Live, and they’re a bit easier to pick apart and adjust/modify – without requiring Max knowledge.
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.
What’s to say a music idea can’t be both a tool and a tape, an instrument someone could play or an album they can get lost in? Puremagnetik are launching their new experimental label with two free tools that let you keep the drones and grains and ambient soundscapes flowing.
There’s a bunch of hype this week because Warner Music signed an algorithm. And in turn with everyone abusing the term “AI,” you might well think that a computer has automated a composer’s job. Except that’s not what happened – in the long tradition of algorithmic music, a group of composers applied their ideas to the development of software. One of the first apps launched for the iPhone, in fact, was the Brian Eno – Peter Chilvers “Bloom.” Endel has more in common with Bloom, I’d argue, than it does some dystopia where unseen, disembodied AI come to rob you of your lucrative ambient music recording contract. (At least, we’re not there yet. Endel is here in Berlin; I hope to talk to them soon – what they’ve done sounds very interesting, and maybe not quite what the press have reported.) Bloom in turn was a follow-up to Eno’s software-based generative music releases. Ableton co-founders Gerhard and Robert released software in the 90s, too.
So let’s talk about the role of musician as blurred with the role of instrument builder. Soundware and software shop Puremagnetik is made by musicians; founder Micah Frank was moonlighting in sound design for others as he worked on his own music. While this may come as shocking news to some, it turns out for many people, selling music tools is often a better day job than selling music or music performances. (I hope you were sitting down for that bombshell. Don’t tell my/your/anyone’s parents.)
But there are many ways to express something musically. Many of us who love tools as we do love playing live and recording and listening do so because all of these things embody sound and feeling.
It’s fitting, then, that Puremagnetik are launching their own record label to house some of the recorded experiments – Puremagnetik Tapes, which already has some beautiful music on cassette and as digital downloads.
And the perfect companion to those albums is these two free plug-ins. Like the label, they promise a trip for the mind.
The two first tapes (also available as digital)… gorgeous sound worlds to lose yourself in on loop.
The label announces it will focus on “experimental, ambient and acousmatic music.” That already yields two enchanting ambient forays. “Into a Bright Land” is in turns crystalline and delicate, warm and lush as a thick blanket. It’s Micah Frank himself, releasing under his Larum moniker. The musical craft is a digital-analog hybrid, part synths and tape machines – the kind the company has been known for sampling in its sound work – and partly Micah’s intricate custom coding work in the free environment Csound.
To accompany Into a Bright Land, there’s the plug-in “Expanse,” a “texture generator,” with a combination of “texture tone” filter, spectral blurring, adjustable pitch shift, and a healthy supply of noise generation and space.
Its drones and sonic landscapes draw from that same world.
Tyler Gilmore aka BlankFor.ms has crafted “Works for Tape and Piano,” pushing each instrument to its most vulnerable place, the tape itself becoming instrument, sounding almost as if at the point of a beautiful breakdown.
Since you can’t just borrow Tyler’s tape machines and such, Driftmaker is a digital equivalent – a “delay disintegration” device. Add your own audio, and the plug-in will model analog deterioration. The artist himself supplies the presets. Again, you have plenty of control – “parse” which sets the record buffer, “chop” which determines how much to recall, and then controls for delay, modulation, filtering, and wet/dry.
Both plug-ins are free with an email address or Gumroad login.
…and the plug-ins, each created to aesthetically accompany the albums.
There’s a pattern here, though. Far from a world where artists remove themselves from craft or automate the hard work, here, artists relish in getting close to everything that makes sound. They make music the hard way because each element of DIY is fun. And then they share that same fun. It might well be the opposite of the narrative we’re given about AI and automation (and I suspect that may also mean artists don’t approach machine learning for music in the way some people currently predict).
Or, well, even if you don’t believe that, I think you’ll easily lose whole evenings with these albums and plug-ins alike.
DreamPipe is a new, free, online synth for Chrome from the creator of Dreampipe Electronium and Space Bumps.
“It’s an online micro-studio consisting of four monophonic synths and one drum machine. Loosely based around Sequential Circuits SixTrak. Users can record and share loops and (when it’s been developed) export loops to midi and mp3.”
Day in, day out, a lot of producers spend a lot of time editing in Ableton Live. Here’s a free tool that automates some common tasks so you can work more quickly – easing some FL Studio envy in the process.
This one comes to us from Madeleine Bloom’s terrific Sonic Bloom, the best destination for resources on learning and using Ableton Live. Live Enhancement Suite is Windows-only for the moment, but a Mac version is coming soon.
The basic idea is, LES adds shortcuts for producers, and some custom features (like sane drawing) you might expect from other tools:
Add devices (like your favorite plug-ins) using a customizable pop-up menu of your favorites (with a double right-click)
Draw notes easily with the ~ key in Piano Roll.
Pop up a shortcut menu with scales in Piano Roll
Add locators (right shift + L) at the cursor
Pan with your mouse, not just the keyboard (via the middle mouse button, so you’ll need a three-button mouse for this one)
Save multiple versions (a feature FL Studio users know well)
Ctrl-shift-Z to redo
Alt-E to view envelope mode in piano roll
And there’s more customizations and multi-monitor support, too.
Ableton are gradually addressing long-running user requests to make editing easier; Live 10.1 builds on the work of Live 10. Case in point: 10.1 finally lets you solo a selected track (mentioned in the video as previously requiring one of these shortcuts). But it’s likewise nice to see users add in what’s missing.
Oh, and… you’re totally allowed to call it “Ableton.” People regularly refer to cars by the make rather than the model. We know what you mean.
Here’s a video walking through these tools and the creator Dylan Tallchief’s approach:
In the original modular synth era, your only way to capture ideas was to record to tape. But that same approach can be liberating even in the digital age – and it’s a perfect match for the open VCV Rack software modular platform.
Competing modular environments like Reaktor, Softube Modular, and Cherry Audio Voltage Modular all run well as plug-ins. That functionality is coming soon to a VCV Rack update, too – see my recent write-up on that. In the meanwhile, VCV Rack is already capable of routing audio into a DAW or multitrack recorder – via the existing (though soon-to-be-deprecated) VST Bridge, or via inter-app routing schemes on each OS, including JACK.
Those are all good solutions, so why would you bother with a module inside the rack?
Well, for one, there’s workflow. There’s something nice about being able to just keep this record module handy and grab a weird sound or nice groove at will, without having to shift to another tool.
Two, the big ongoing disadvantage of software modular is that it’s still pretty CPU intensive – sometimes unpredictably so. Running Rack standalone means you don’t have to worry about overhead from the host, or its audio driver settings, or anything like that.
Big thanks to chaircrusher for this tip and some other ones that informed this article – do go check his music.
Type “recorder” into the search box for modules, and you’ll see different options options from NYSTHI – current at least as of this writing.
2 Channel MasterRecorder is a simple stereo recorder.
2 Channel MasterReocorder 2 adds various features: monitoring outs, autosave, a compressor, and “stereo massaging.”
Multitrack Recorder is an multitrack recorder with 4- or 8-channel modes.
The multitrack is the one I use the most. It allows you to create stems you can then mix in another host, or turn into samples (or, say, load onto a drum machine or the like), making this a great sound design tool and sound starter.
This is creatively liberating for the same reason it’s actually fun to have a multitrack tape recorder in the same studio as a modular, speaking of vintage gear. You can muck about with knobs, find something magical, and record it – and then not worry about going on to do something else later.
The AS mixer, routed into NYSTHI’s multitrack recorder.
Set up your mix. The free included Fundamental modules in Rack will cover the basics, but I would also go download Alfredo Santamaria’s excellent selection , the AS modules, also in the Plugin Manager, and also free. Alfredo has created friendly, easy-to-use 2-, 4-, and 8-channel mixers that pair perfectly with the NYSTHI recorders.
Add the mixer, route your various parts, set level (maybe with some temporary panning), and route the output of the mixer to the Audio device for monitoring. Then use the ‘O’ row to get a post-fader output with the level.
(Alternatively, if you need extra features like sends, there’s the mscHack mixer, though it’s more complex and less attractive.)
Prep that signal. You might also consider a DC Offset and Compressor between your raw sources and the recording. (Thanks to Jim Aikin for that tip.)
Configure the recorder. Right-click on the recorder for an option to set 24-bit audio if you want more headroom, or to pre-select a destination. Set 4- or 8-track mode with the switch. Set CHOOSE FILE if you want to manually select where to record.
There are trigger ins and outs, too, so apart from just pressing the START and STOP buttons, you can either trigger a sequencer or clock directly from the recorder, or visa versa.
Record away! And go to town… when you’re done, you’ll get a stereo WAV file, or a 4- or 8-track WAV file. Yes, that’s one file with all the tracks. So about that…
Splitting up the multitrack file
This module produces a single, multichannel WAV file. Some software will know what to do with that. Reaper, for instance, has excellent multichannel support throughout, so you can just drag and drop into it. Adobe’s Audition CS also opens these files, but it can’t quickly export all the stems.
Software like Ableton Live, meanwhile, will just throw up an error if you try to open the file. (Bad Ableton! No!)
It’s useful to have individual stems anyway. ffmpeg is an insanely powerful cross-platform tool capable of doing all kinds of things with media. It’s completely free and open source, it runs on every platform, and it’s fast and deep. (It converts! It streams! It records!)
Installing is easier than it used to be, thanks to a cleaned-up site and pre-built binaries for Mac and Windows (plus of course the usual easy Linux installs):
That’s worth keeping around, too, since it can also mix and monitor your output. (No Linux version, though.)
Bonus tutorial here – the other thing apart from recording you’ll obviously want with VCV Rack is some hands-on control. Here’s a nice tutorial this week on working with BeatStep Pro from Arturia (also a favorite in the hardware modular world):
I really like this way of working, in that it lets you focus on the modular environment instead of juggling tools. I actually hope we’ll see a Fundamental module for the task in the future. Rack’s modular ecosystem changes fast, so if you find other useful recorders, let us know.
It’s the season of the wavetable – again. With Ableton Live 10.1 on the horizon and its free Wavetable device, we’ve got yet another free Max for Live device for making sound materials – and this time, you can make your wavetables from images.
Let’s catch you up first.
Ableton Live 10.1 will bring Wavetable as a new instrument to Standard and Suite editions – arguably one of the bigger native synth editions to Live in its history, ranking with the likes of Operator. And sure, as when Operator came out, you already have plug-ins that do the same; Ableton’s pitch is as always their unique approach to UI (love it or hate it), and integration with the host, and … having it right in the box:
Earlier this week, we saw one free device that makes wavetables for you, built as a Max for Live device. (Odds are anyone able to run this will have a copy of Live with Wavetable in it, since it targets 10.1, but it also exports to other tools). Wave Weld focuses on dialing in the sounds you need and spitting out precise, algorithmic results:
One thing Wave Weld cannot do, however, is make a wavetable out of a picture of a cat.
For that, you want Image2Wavetable. The name says it all: it generates wavetable samples from image data.
This means if you’re handy with graphics software, or graphics code like Processing, you can also make visual patterns that generate interesting wavetables. It reminds me of my happy hours and hours spent using U+I Software’s ground-breaking MetaSynth, which employs some similar concepts to build an entire sound laboratory around graphic tools. (It’s still worth a spin today if you’ve got a Mac; among other things, it is evidently responsible for those sweeping digital sounds in the original Matrix film, I’m told.)
Image2Wavetable is new, the creation of Dillon Bastan and Carlo Cattano – and there are some rough edges, so be patient and it sounds like they’re ready to hear some feedback on how it works.
But the workflow is really simple: drag and drop image, drag and drop resulting wavetable into the Wavetable instrument.
Okay, I suspect I know what I’m doing for the rest of the night.
Wavetables are capable of a vast array of sounds. But just dumping arbitrary audio content into a wavetable is unlikely to get the results you want. And that’s why Wave Weld looks invaluable: it makes it easy to generate useful wavetables, in an add-on that’s free for Max for Live.
Ableton Live users are going to want their own wavetable maker very soon. Live 10.1 will add Wavetable, a new synth based on the technique. See our previous preview:
Live 10.1 is in public beta now, and will be free to all Live 10 users soon.
So long as you have Max for Live to run it, Wave Weld will be useful to other synths, as well – including the developer’s own Wave Junction.
Because wavetables are periodic by their very nature, it’s more likely helpful to generate content algorithmically than just dump sample content of your own. (Nothing against the latter – it’s definitely fun – but you may soon find yourself limited by the results.)
Wave Wend handles generating those materials for you, as well as exporting them in the format you need.
1. Make the wavetable: use waveshaping controls to dial in the sound materials you want.
2. Build up a library: adapt existing content or collect your own custom creations.
3. Export in the format you need: adjusting the size les you support Live 10.1’s own device or other hardware and plug-ins.
The waveshaping features are really the cool part:
Unique waveshaping controls to generate custom wavetables
Sine waveshape phase shift and curve shape controls
Additive style synthesis via choice of twenty four sine waveshape harmonics for both positive and negative phase angles
Saw waveshape curve sharpen and partial controls
Pulse waveshape width, phase shift, curve smooth and curve sharpen controls
Triangle waveshape phase shift, curve smooth and curve sharpen controls
Random waveshape quantization, curve smooth and thinning controls
Wave Weld isn’t really intended as a synth, but one advantage of it being an M4L device is, you can easily preview sounds as you work.
The download is free with a sign-up for their mailing list.
They’ve got a bunch of walkthrough videos to get you started, too:
Major kudos to Phelan Kane of Meta Function for this release. (Phelan is an Ableton Certified Trainer as well as a specialist in Reaktor and Maschine on the Native Instruments side, as well as London chairman for AES.)
I’m also interested in other ways to go about this – SuperCollider code, anyone?
Call it the people’s iOS synth: Synth One is free – without ads or registration or anything like that – and loved. And now it’s reached 1.0, with iPad and iPhone support and some expert-designed sounds.
First off – if you’ve been wondering what happened to Ashley Elsdon, aka Palm Sounds and editor of our Apps section, he’s been on a sabbatical since September. We’ll be thinking soon about how best to feature his work on this site and how to integrate app coverage in the current landscape. But you can read his take on why AudioKit matters, and if Ashley says something is awesome, that counts.
But with lots of software synths out there, why does Synth One matter in 2019? Easy:
It’s really free. Okay, sure, it’s easy for Apple to “give away” software when they make more on their dongles and adapters than most app developers charge. But here’s an independent app that’s totally free, without needing you to join a mailing list or look at ads or log into some cloud service.
It’s a full-featured, balanced synth. Under the hood, Synth One is a polysynth with hybrid virtual analog / FM, with five oscillators, step sequencer, poly arpeggiator, loads of filtering and modulation, a rich reverb, multi-tap delay, and loads of etras.
There’s standards support up the wazoo. Are you visually impaired? There’s Voice Over accessibility. Want Ableton Link support? MIDI learn on everything? Compatibility with Audiobus 3 and Inter App Audio so you can run this in your favorite iOS DAW? You’re set.
It’s got some hot presets. Sound designer Francis Preve has been on fire lately, making presets for everyone from KORG to the popular Serum plug-in. And version 1.0 launches with Fran’s sound designs – just what you need to get going right away. (Fran’s sound designs are also usually great for learning how a synth works.)
It’s the flagship of an essential framework. Okay the above matters to users – this matters to developers (who make stuff users care about, naturally). Synth One is the synthesizer from the people who make AudioKit. That’s good for making sure the framework is solid, plus —
More is coming… MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) and AUv3 are coming soon, say the developers.
And now the big addition —
It runs on iPhone, too. I have to say, I’ve been waiting for a synth that’s pocket sized for extreme portability, but few really are compelling. Now you can run this on any iPhone 6 or better – and if you’ve got a higher-end iPhone (iPhone X/XS/XR / iPhone XS Max / 6/7/8 Plus size), you’ll get a specially optimized UI with even more space.
Novation packed new sounds – and 43 new wavetables – into an update for their flagship Peak synthesizer. Sound designer Patricia Wolf writes to share how she approached making some of those new sounds.
Peak, in case you missed it, has been one of the more compelling new synths in recent years. Novation designed a unique-sounding 8-voice polysynth, melding digital wavetable oscillators with analog processing, per-voice filtering and all-important distortion all over the place.
As with other Novation products, they’ve also been adding features in frequent firmware updates, listening to users in the process.
The big deal in Peak 1.2, released this month, is 43 additional wavetables (which evidently some of you were asking for). But you also get:
16 tuning tables
Two more LFOs you can assign to anything (not just per-voice)
Pitch bend wheel modulation (if you like)
A quicker interface for the Mod Matrix
A new four-slot FX Matrix – so you can route four LFOs to effects parameters
A hold stage for the envelopes (on top of the existing ADSRs)
An option to initalize with current knob/fader positions (instead of defaults)
New soundpacks from GForce and Patricia Wolf
Now, as it happens, Patricia Wolf wrote us on her own to share what she has done with her 50 sounds. Patricia is leading what sounds like a great career working in sound design, and her approach to these sounds is really musical – including sharing these etudes of sorts fo illustrate them, inspired by the likes of BBC Radiophonic Workshop pioneering composer Delia Derbyshire. Listen:
Here’s what Patricia has to say:
Hello CDM:) I am a sound designer and electronic musician based in Portland, Oregon. I am one of the official sound designers for the Novation Peak synthesizer and just made a sound pack of 50 patches for their firmware update launch. My soundpack is available for free through Novation’s Components App.
I created a recording demonstrating my patches in a musical/artistic way.
Patricia playing live in Seattle for Further Records. Photo Valerie Ann/DJ Explorateur, framed by video art live by Leo Mayberry.
This recording is a demonstration of the sound design work I did for the Novation Peak. I created 50 patches demonstrating some of the new features that the v1.2 firmware update has to offer. My sound pack is available for free with the update through Novation’s Components App. Select the Novation tab on that app to access them as well as GForce Software’s free patches.
The patches are performed with a mixture of Octatrack sequencing (using sequences from songs I have written) and live performance with a MIDI controller. I was inspired by artists like Delia Derbyshire and wanted to record little vignettes and sonatas using the Peak without other sound sources.
I made this recording so that friends can hear the sounds I made and so that other Peak users can get a closer glimpse into how I envision sound design.
The Novation Peak was recorded directly into a Steinberg UR44 interface. No external effects. Subtle mastering from Tokyo Dawn Labs software to balance recordings of different patches.
More on Patricia:
Patricia Wolf is an electronic musician, sound designer, and gallery curator based in Portland, Oregon. After years of working in the synth pop duo Soft Metals, Wolf became interested in exploring non-linear songwriting and new forms of synthesis. Alongside working with Novation, Wolf co-founded the gallery Variform which focuses on sound design and modern composition. Patricia Wolf is a recipient of the Precipice Fund, a grant funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, to explore synthesis in the contemporary art world.