Roland VT-4 adds MIDI, control for performer-friendly vocal FX

Roland’s revised VT-4 – the replacement for the first AIRA VT-3 – makes it look like someone finally gets what vocalists want in effects. More effects options, actual control over harmony, and MIDI could make all the difference.

The original VT-3 is a little too simple to recommend. A big dial locks you into some stock effects, without any parameter controls beyond pitch and formant. But at the same time, it is unusually direct and accessible, and it doubles as a USB interface, meaning for singers it’s carry-on luggage friendly. So as a cheap, fun effect, it does have potential. It’s cheap on the used market, but then so are a number of pedals.

Roland have apparently been listening, though. Just as the fun but simplistic TR-8 was replaced with the sample-loading, all-around improved TR-8S, so to the VT-3 has gotten a revamp. The Slimer-green trim is gone, but more importantly, you now can control the way it sounds, via expanded effects options and controls. And it does MIDI input.

Here’s the thing: there are lots of great sounding vocal effects out there, but none of them seems designed with singers in mind. They fit into two categories: pedals that seem to have been created by guitarists, or “studio” boxes that have way too much menu diving. (If you can think of an exception, shout in comments.) The VT-3 was already significant in that it was live friendly. Now the VT-4 fills in the gaps the VT-3 left open.

From the VT-3, and still a good idea:

  • USB audio interface functionality (so you can use this with a computer)
  • XLR mic in with phantom power, plus minijack in
  • Four faders: pitch, formant, balance (for controlling wet/dry of the effect), reverb
  • Push-button preset recall
  • Dedicated bypass switch

But new on the VT-4:

  • A friendly “key” dial at the top right
  • Direct access to “vocoder” and “harmonizer” modes
  • Multiple effects at once
  • MIDI input – so play in the notes/harmonies you want for the vocoder, harmonizer, and pitch engines
  • Variations for all the effects

It’s finally what you want to sing with, whether you’re a great singer or can barely sing at all – direct access to effects, performance-friendly controls. Singers don’t necessarily want to have to do everything with their feet or in pages of menus. This hardware’s designers seems to understand that.

It’s the effects that appear to be totally overhauled. The only variations on the VT-3 are printed directly around the dial – as in, you get two alternatives for the auto pitch, and that’s it.

On the VT-4, there’s a whole slew of effects hidden behind the variation buttons. (Those buttons still double as preset storage and recall, so what you’ll likely do is explore to find the ones you like, then lock them in at the top.)

There are still some toy-like presets as on the VT-3 – though some of those are interesting for processing drums and the like. In addition, though, you also get a bunch of new, musical effects, and enough variations that you can dial in what you need.

There’s a chorus effect (categorized inexplicably as “megaphone.”) There’s a model of the classic Roland VP in the vocoder, along with talk box, advanced, and Speak & Spell (sorry, trademark – “spell toy”) variations. The Harmony option lets you choose intervals (fifth, third, forth below, and combinations, though you can also use MIDI for more). Even robot has octave options and a new feedback variation.

Also, that fixed “reverb” is now really a multi effects unit – reverb, echo, synced tempo delay, and dub echo are now available.

I’d likely buy it for those upgrades alone, but then you can also use a MIDI keyboard as input to control pitch.

I need to research more how multiple effects work and exactly how these models relate to those available on the VT-3 and other Roland AIRA and Boutique series models. But generally these days Roland are constantly improving their modeling and sounds, thanks to architectures that are more flexible than those of the past.

More at Roland’s site:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Here it is in action:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Moog reveal their first polysynth in decades – inside the Moog One

It’s been a decades-long wait, but now Moog have revealed a flagship polyphonic keyboard instrument – a new dream synth. It’s high-end, for sure, but it also reveals where the brand that became synonymous with synthesis sees us going next. We’ve talked to Moog to find out more on today, release day.

The last time Moog made a polysynth, Ronald Reagan was President, the Space Shuttle was the epitome of futuristic, MIDI wasn’t really even a thing, and to slightly misquote Douglas Adams, people were “so amazingly primitive that they still thought digital watches were a pretty neat idea.”

And let’s be honest. While Moog have been studiously revisiting the evolution of their polyphonic instruments, Moog are known for their monosynths, not polysynths. This could change that. Sure, the Moog One is expensive – you might still choose a poly from Novation, KORG, Arturia, or fellow American brand Sequential (now renamed to its original moniker from Dave Smith Instruments).

But it’s also beautiful, and deep. It’s going to top the wanted list of rockstars again, maybe in a way we haven’t seen since the 80s – as proven by the promo video (some of which feature those same 80s synth superstars). If we still cared about print magazines graced by keyboard covers, this would have a glossy special edition devoted to it with a pull-out centerfold that let you lie in bed and stare at its front panel on your ceiling.

As for the “One” part, well, that’s more about it being the one, as in:

— well, except instead of Wayne, apparently Suzanne Ciani and Chick Corea reached that conclusion.

To celebrate, Moog have rebooted their 1976 Polymoog promo film, this time with Jeff Bhasker, Suzanne Ciani, Chick Corea, Mike Dean, Robert Glasper, Dick Hyman, Dev Hynes, Mark Mothersbaugh, Mark Ronson, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and Paris Strother. (Hey, you left out the ghost of Liberace and the Queen of England. That’s a Jerry Lewis telethon-level cast right there.)

And given the price is $6k or $8k list, you’ll probably want to know more. So Moog are doing a first-ever AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit:

Plus there’s a live stream of them building these (with another discussion to follow):

About the synth

So, what’s the big deal about this big synth?

It’s really the blockbuster follow-up to everything Moog have been doing – take the Minimoog Voyager, then make each single analog signal path more powerful, multiple that times 8- or 16-voices (depending on which model you buy), and then turn that into three independent polysynths.

That is, the “tri-timbral” part means that you could think of this as three analog polysynths in one. Each timbre can be addressed separately, with its own sequencer, its own arpeggiator, and its own set of effects.

What else?

  • Three all new dual-output analog VCOs
  • Ring modulation and FM
  • Two independent analog filters
  • Dual-source analog noise generator
  • Analog mixer with external audio input
  • Four LFOs
  • Three envelope generators
  • Effects, including Eventide reverbs (more on that below)
  • Preset recall, with 64 performance-fiendly presets loaded right from the front panel (and thousands more via the browser)
  • 200 front panel knobs and switches
  • Mod Matrix for visual modulation patching (also more on that below)
  • Easy-access “Destination” button – hit it, tweak something, and you get instant assignment

Now, all of this matters, if you think about it.

What’s the reason people are into hardware? Easy: hands-on control. And this has a lot of it.

But why are people also buying modular? Well, in part, at least, they want deeper sound design possibilities – complex modulation that allows more sound worlds. And this does deliver a lot of that via its voice architecture and modulation offerings.

Why did manufacturers start making keyboards and not only modulars – even for people who had been big modular users? That’s easy, too – modulars don’t give you instant performance recall, and they’re (by definition) not integrated instruments. This does both of those things.

But we also see the advantage of time. We’ve come full circle to lots of one-to-one performance controls. But we also can take advantage of an integrated display, without trying to use it to replace knobs and switches. We’ve become more allergic to menu diving and hidden features. And computers have made us demand more of hardware – like those instant-assign destination buttons. This is a Moog for a time when hands-on control and depth aren’t mutually exclusive.

Let’s ask Moog

I wanted to know more about how the Moog One came about and how you play it, so here are some answers to those questions – though for more, of course, you can join the AMA thread.

Making a new polysynth was unsurprisingly on the minds at Moog. “Moog has a long history of polyphonic synthesizer development, beginning with the Moog Apollo project in 1973,” Moog tells CDM. “Although the Apollo never moved beyond the prototype stage, Keith Emerson’s use of the newly designed instrument during ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery Tour provided Moog with valuable feedback for the release of the Polymoog in 1975. During this 10 year span, 6 different takes on a polyphonic instrument where created, ending with the Moog SL-8 prototype in 1983.”

Players have never stopped asking for polys, nor has the idea ever died, Moog tell us. Some resistance came from founder Bob Moog himself, however: “In his later years, Bob was not keen on the idea of a new Moog polyphonic synth, knowing firsthand the challenges of creating one, but over the years we have been able to substantially reduce costs and have increased the stability of our analog designs to the point that creating an analog poly no longer seemed out of reach.”

So when did the Moog One start to come into being. “Officially, we began the research phase in earnest in 2013,” say Moog, “talking with artists and creators about what their vision of the ultimate Moog synthesizer would be.”

“By 2016,” Moog says, “we had the first hardware prototypes for the circuitry, with the first stages of a working Moog One prototype taking form in early 2017. Now that the Moog One has been realized, we only wish that Bob Moog was here to play the first chord.

Okay, so how does it actually work, though? More details:

How modulation works:

Each of the Moog One’s 4 LFOs and 3 EGs have their own dedicated Destination Buttons for making modulation quick assignments on the front panel. Simply press the Destination on any LFO or EG, and the next knob you touch will set the modulation destination and amount.

For a modulation deep dive, the onboard Modulation Matrix provides immediate visual access to every possible combination of Moog One’s modulation sources, destinations, controllers, and transforms. The Modulation Matrix makes it easy to quickly program complex modulation paths while also giving an overview of all the modulation routings that have been set up in a given Preset.

What about the Eventide reverbs?

It sounds like two come from favorite algorithms known on the Eventide SPACE and related products:

Moog One was developed to explore what is possible in a polyphonic synthesizer, and Eventide’s breath taking reverb technology was the right fit. The Room, Hall, Plate, Blackhole, and Shimmer reverbs are all implemented using Eventide’s world-class algorithms with a few optimizations for use in Moog One.

A direct connection to service

There are some other changes coming, too. Moog are adding a chat feature so during business hours – 9-5 Monday through Friday Eastern Time – you’ll be able to ask questions of Moog staff in North Carolina, in real-time. (They’re quick to remind us those are “employee owners.”)

And there’s also that mysterious Ethernet port on the Moog One. From day one, it’s there for remote diagnostics and service. But more is coming:

Now, when a musician experiences issues that typically would require shipping an instrument back to the Moog factory, we are instead able to access their Moog One remotely and run a series of tests, calibrations, and whatever else may be necessary to best service their instrument remotely, which is a huge advancement and time saver for customer, dealer and manufacturer. While we can’t talk specifics regarding future product development, we can tell you that we have plans for the Ethernet port that will open new portals of creativity for Moog One owners.

Above, top: inside the Moog factory, as the first Moogs One are completed.


Moog One is out now, for real:

As of today, Moog One is available for order through all authorized Moog Dealers world wide. You can actually watch us building the Moog One right now through the live-stream player on the Moog website. Sweetwater will receive the first 150 units over the next few weeks, and we expect to begin shipping the Moog One to all US dealers in November, with international shipments starting shortly there after.

And what about those of us with budgets the Moog One doesn’t fit?

I had to ask Moog this, too – a lot of us are more in the market for $600 instruments than $6000. So what does this mean for us?

When we began development of the first polyphonic Moog analog synthesizer in over 35-plus years, we wanted it to be a dream-synth that pushed the limits of what is technically possible while still being an intuitive instrument for self-expression. This year we’ve released DFAM, Grandmother, and the Moog One, which are three instruments that cover a wide range of creative possibilities.

That’s fair, I think. As I’ve observed before, Moog have kept a range of products in reach of those on a budget – down to very affordable iPad/iPhone apps, but also including this other hardware. They’re releasing a fair number of products for a mid-sized manufacturer (compared to tiny boutique shops at one end, or mighty Japanese makers at the other). And since they first came up with their crazy Keith Emerson modular relaunch, while we have seen big-ticket rockstar items, those do appear to drive creation of more affordable analog gear and other devices and apps for the rest of us.

The Moog One will have a lot to live up to, because of its price, because of its obvious ambition, but mostly because of its name. But this looks tantalizing – a Moog poly that could be worth the wait.


Meanwhile, in 1976:

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Run your audio gear off of USB power banks: KOMA’s Strom Mobile

You’re on the go. And those wonderful USB power banks will charge your phone – so why not audio gear, too? KOMA Elektronik’s new Strom Mobile makes it possible.

Here’s the problem: USB power banks (mobile batteries and whatnot), while plentiful, only output 5V power for phones and USB, and they’re anything but “low noise” (meaning you’ll hear garbled interference when you plug a lot of them in).

A lot of your compact audio gear is probably running on 9V or 12V power, and it’ll make you happier if it’s low noise. (Some gear is 5V, of course, but that’s another story.)

Enter Strom Mobile, a small accessory from KOMA that adapts power banks for your gear. Specs:

  • 9V/12V DC power compatibility (clean, low noise)
  • Two power channels – plug in to one or both, and set each channel to either 9V or 12V
  • Indicators to show you which power is connected, and how much current you’re using
  • Four outputs for gear – or connect more via daisy chaining (until you run out of current, anyway)
  • Cables and manual in the box: 1x USB B, 2x DC-DC, printed guide

The USB B cable is especially designed for this application.

There’s also a Strom Mobile Cable Pack you can buy as an add on, which includes another of those special USB B cables, a 1-5to-5 daisychain DC cable, 2 more DC cables, and 1 polarity changing DC cable.

And of course, this is intended for use with the Field Kit and Field Kit FX from KOMA, but the list of 9V/12V drum machines, recorders, samplers, effects pedals, mobile synths, and the like is very long.

Pricing: 175EUR suggested retail, or 35EUR for the Cable Pack.

Check the intro video:

Artists Hainbach (known for his lovely cassette tape videos and ambient creations) and Wouter (KOMA founder, here with his ODD NARRATIVE project) play and record using the gear en plein air at Berlin’s former airport-turned-park Tempelhofer Feld.

Product page:

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New Moog One polysynth costs US$5999-7999, available now

It’s called the Moog One but think 8- or 16-voice synth. And this is the “dream” analog synth in that it’s a luxury instrument, running up to US$7999 for the 16-voice model.

US-based retailer Sweetwater appears to get the scoop on this one. The big deal here: advanced envelopes, a deep, no-compromise architecture with two filters per voice and four LFOs, and features like routable ring modulation, oscillator Frequency Modulation, and hard sync. It’s also loaded up with I/O, both audio (including inserts for effects) and control voltage/gate. There’s even a LAN port that promises future expansion.

The Moog One is also a kind of high-end successor to the Minimoog Voyager, with an emphasis on live performance features (including a feature called User Spaces for storing and recalling settings), the return of the X/Y pad, and an insane amount of hands-on control – 73 knobs and 144 buttons.

And while we’re waiting on photos, the side panels are made from ash and the front panel from aluminum, plus it does look nice in this one cropped shot.

Sweetwater have a blog post on this:

And here are those specs. So we expect the usual attention to detail and find craft from Moog, if at a premium price above even the majority of boutique makers in this sector – US$5999 for 8-voice, 7999 for 16-voice.

It’s available now in the USA from Sweetwater (they even say “in stock” as I write this, even though there hasn’t been a formal public announcement yet).

8- or 16-voice polyphony
3 VCOs per voice with waveshape mixing and OLED displays
Unison mode (up to 48 oscillators on the 16-voice instrument)
2 filters per voice with filter mixing (2 multimode State Variable filters that function as a single filter, and a classic lowpass/highpass Moog Ladder filter)
3 DAHDSR envelopes per voice with user-definable curves
3-part multitimbrality
Separate sequencer and arpeggiator per timbre
Chord memory
Dual-source noise generator with dedicated envelope
Mixer with external audio input
Ring modulation with selectable routing
Oscillator FM and hard sync with selectable routing
4 assignable LFOs
Premium 61-note Fatar TP-8S keybed with velocity and aftertouch
Assignable pressure-sensitive X/Y pad
Digital Effects (Synth and Master Bus)
Eventide reverbs
Selectable glide types
Save, categorize, and recall tens of thousands of presets
Create Performance Sets that make up to 64 presets accessible at the push of a button
2 x ¼” stereo headphone outputs
2 pairs of assignable ¼” outputs (supports TRS and TS)
4 x ¼” hardware inserts (TRS)
1 x ¼” external audio input (line-level)
1 XLR + ¼” TRS combo external audio input with trim knob
9 assignable CV/GATE I/O (5-in/4-out)
USB drive support for system and preset backup
LAN port for future expansion

Now we just need a big poster to hang over our beds, maybe – well, and to hear what it sounds like. Stay tuned.

But yeah, for the rest of us, you have other options from the likes of Dave Smith, Waldorf, and of course monosynths from Moog. So this will mainly be about curiosity as to what a polysynth can do when it’s positioned as a fully premium electronic instrument.


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FL Studio gets Akai Fire, and it’s serious about step sequencing

As the Akai APC40 was to Ableton Live, so the Akai Fire hardware controller is to FL Studio. It looks like the step sequencing grid you see when you open FL, and it was created in collaboration with Image-Line. So can it bring something new to the integrated controller world?

Okay, so the pitch here is easy: yes, you can use any number of controllers with FL Studio. But first-time users may want an integrated package, and dedicated hardware can be pre-mapped to do useful stuff.

Price: US$199.

What you get from the Fire is a big grid of buttons, four encoders, and then a whole bunch of triggers including transport and other functions. It’s clearly descended from Akai’s own APC and Novation Launchpad (the latter still features in product images for FL software). The difference: more triggers for software functions, and the grid is 16×4 instead of 8×8.

Shifting from 8×8 to 16×4, though, makes a real difference in workflow. It mirrors the iconic step sequencer that has always popped up first when you load FL Studio (back to the first Fruity Loops), and it makes programming rhythms easier, since you can see a whole bar’s worth of sixteenth notes.

And Akai are positioning this with trap and hip-hop in mind. That makes sense, as those music styles – both in terms of listeners and producers – are growing fast.

What you don’t get, though, is velocity sensitivity, as on the MPC (original and current) and rivals like Maschine. So instead of playing in those velocities, you’ll dial them in with encoders. But while Akai is the brand that popularized that way of working, it does seem that programming in rhythms fits the FL ethos.

$199 buys you a lot of power, though, not only because of the shortcut triggers but also the inclusion of the OLED display – those these little OLEDs currently showing up on entry-level hardware will require a bit of squinting.

What can you actually control, apart from obviously that step sequencer?

Load/audition sounds. Plug-ins and even project files are accessible from the browser.

Step sequencer. Since this can be combined with samples and you can, for instance, dial in pitch changes and the like (see videos), this does look fun.

Trigger patterns, performances. Hardcore FL users have hacked live rigs for a while this way; now you get hardware that can do it out of the box. Performance mode can trigger both patterns and audio. So yeah – this is absolutely an alternative to Ableton Live.

One-touch mute/solo. Okay, no volume faders (Fire alongside a Novation LaunchControl XL, for instance, would be killer), but one-touch mute/solo is also essential for live jams.

Note mode, drum mode. Yes, you can also use those buttons for pitch and drums, even mapping the first 4×4 grid MPC-style to FPC and SliceX.

Transport, record. Countdown, wait, and metronome settings are also friendly to doing takes.

Parameter control. The four encoders also map to both device parameters and channel and mixer settings.

And if you’re really crazy, Akai wants to let you know you can connect up to four Fires at once.

More detail in the videos (selected – they just dumped a bunch)):

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This granular convolver hardware is the latest creation from Tatsuya Takahashi

There’s a nice gift for Red Bull Music Academy attendees: a hardware convolver effect from the man who led the team at KORG that gave us volcas and minilogues. Here’s a sneak preview.

The Granular Convolver is a collaboration between Tatsuya, now working as an independent designer and relocated to Germany from Japan (while still in an advisory position with KORG), and Berlin’s own E-RM Erfindungsbüro, maker of obsessive-quality clock devices. (Founder Maximilian Rest is the design mind there.)

I’ve got one in-hand, and will detail its operation with some sound samples shortly, but here’s a quick teaser.

First, a Jony Ives (sorry)-style video from Tats:

The important thing: this Raspberry Pi-powered device feels amazing, like a heavyweight metal luxury item, and makes wonderful sounds.

The basic operation:

1. Record a sound snippet.
2. Play back that sound snippet via a granular engine.
3. Convolve that playback with a live input, combining the two sounds – the timbre of your original sound, the envelope of what you’re playing now.

There are also some features for storing and recalling presets, which make this performance friendly.

Why this matters: it gives you an expressive way of “playing” an effect, like an instrument.

And it’s a unique boutique hardware making project, for the particular context of an event – very different than the mass-manufactured designs of something like the volca series. The units were all hand-assembled (by Tats himself) here in Berlin, and even the boards and cases were made here, as well, so it really is a Berlin manufacturing product in a way most things aren’t.

More on this soon – and you can bet if you follow any RBMA attendees, you’ll see some of their experiments with this hardware show up in social channels!

The last time Tats worked with Red Bull:

There’s a synth symphony for 100 cars coming, based on tuning

And – while it’s important to note he was part of a team – some commentary on the Tats Era at KORG (and still very curious what that team will do next!):

Visionary Tatsuya Takahashi leaves a huge legacy as he departs KORG

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Mics that record in “3D” ambisonics are the next big thing

Call it the virtual reality microphone … or just think of it as an evolution of microphones that capture sounds more as you hear them. But mics purporting to give you 3D recording are arriving in waves – and they could change both immersive sound and how we record music.

Let’s back up from the hype a little bit here. Once we’re talking virtual reality or you’re imagining people in goggles, Lawnmower Man style, we’re skipping ahead to the application of these mic solutions, beyond the mics themselves.

The microphone technology itself may wind up being the future of recording with or without consumers embracing VR tech.

Back in the glorious days of mono audio, a single microphone that captured an entire scene was … well, any single microphone. And in fact, to this day there are plenty of one-mic recording rigs – think voice overs, for instance.

The reason this didn’t satisfy anyone is more about human perception than it is technology. Your ears and brain are able to perceive extremely accurate spatial positioning in more or less a 360-degree sphere through a wide range of frequencies. Plus, the very things that screw up that precise spatial perception – like reflections – contribute to the impact of sound and music in other ways.

And so we have stereo. And with stereo sound delivery, a bunch of two-microphone arrangements become useful ways of capturing spatial information. Eventually, microphone makers work out ways of building integrated capsules with two microphone diaphragms instead of just one, and you get the advantages of two mics in a single housing. Those in turn are especially useful in mobile devices.

So all these buzzwords you’re seeing in mics all of a sudden – “virtual reality,” “three-dimensional” sound, “surround mics,” and “ambisonic mics” are really about extending this idea. They’re single microphones that capture spatial sound, just like those stereo mics, but in a way that gives them more than just two-channel left/right (or mid/center) information. To do that, these solutions have two components:

1. A mic capsule with multiple diaphragms for capturing full-spectrum sound from all directions
2. Software processing so you can decode that directional audio, and (generally speaking) encode it into various surround delivery formats or ambisonic sound

(“Surround” here generally means the multichannel formats beyond just stereo; ambisonics are a standard way of encoding full 360-degree sound information, so not just positioning on the same plane as your ears, but above and below, too.)

The B360 ambisonics encoder from plug-in maker WAVES.

The software encoding is part of what’s interesting here. Once you have a mic that captures 360-degree sound, you can use it in a number of ways. These sorts of mic capsules are useful in modeling different microphones, since you can adjust the capture pattern in software after the fact. So these spherical mics could model different classic mics, in different arrangements, making it seem as though you recorded with multiple mics when you only used one. Just like your computer can become a virtual studio full of gear, that single mic can – in theory, anyway – act like more than one microphone. That may prove useful for production applications other than just “stuff for VR.”

There are a bunch of these microphones showing up all at once. I’m guessing that’s for two reasons – one, a marketing push around VR recording, but two, likely some system-on-a-chip developments that make this possible. (All those Chinese-made components could get hit with hefty US tariffs soon, so we’ll see how that plays out. But I digress.)

Here is a non-comprehensive selection of examples of new or notable 360-degree mics.


Maker: HEAR360, a startup focused on this area

Cost: US$2500

The pitch: Here’s a heavy-duty, serious solution – camera-mountable, “omni-binaural” mic that gives you 8 channels of sound that comes closest to how we hear, complete with head tracking-capable recordings. PS, if you’re wondering which DAW to use – they support Pro Tools and, surprise, Reaper.

Who it’s for: High-end video productions focused on capturing spatial audio with the mic.


Maker: RØDE, collaborating with 40-year veteran of these sorts of mics, Soundfield (acquired by RØDE’s parent in 2016)

Cost: US$999

The pitch: Make full-360, head-trackable recordings in a single mic (records in A-format, converts to B-format) for ambisonic audio you can use across formats. Works with Dolby Atmos, works with loads of DAWs (Reaper and Pro Tools, Cubase and Nuendo, and Logic Pro). 4-channel to the 8-ball’s titular eight, but much cheaper and with more versatile software.

Who it’s for: Studios and producers wanting a moderately-priced, flexible solution right now. Plus it’s a solid mic that lets you change mic patterns at will.

Software matters as does the mic in these applications; RØDE supports DAWs like Cubase/Nuendo, Pro Tools, Reaper, and Logic.


Maker: ZOOM

Cost: US$350

The pitch: ZOOM is making this dead simple – like the GoPro camera of VR mics. 4-capsule ambisonic mic plus 6-axis motion sensor with automatic positioning and level detection promise to make this the set-it-and-forget-it solution. And to make this more mobile, the encoding and recording is included on the device itself. Record ambisonics, stereo inaural, or just use it like a normal stereo mic, all controlled onboard with buttons or using an iOS device as a remote. Your recording is saved on SD cards, even with slate tone and metadata. And you can monitor the 3D sound, sort of, using stereo binaural output of the ambisonic signal (not perfect, but you’ll get the idea).

Who it’s for: YouTube stars wanting to go 3D, obviously, plus one-stop live streaming and music streaming and recording. The big question mark here to me is what’s sacrificed in quality for the low price, but maybe that’s a feature, not a bug, given this area is so new and people want to play around.


Maker: ZYLIA, a Polish startup that IndieGogo-funded its first run last year. But the electronics inside come from Infineon, the German semiconductor giant that spun off of Siemens.

Cost: US$1199 list (Pro) / $699 for the basic model

The pitch: This futuristic football contains some 19 mic capsules to the 4-8 above. But the idea isn’t necessarily VR – instead, Zylia claims they use this technology to automatically separate sound sources from this single device. In other words, put the soccer ball in your studio, and the software separates out your drums, keys, and vocalist. Or get the Pro model and capture 3rd-order ambisonics – with more spatial precision than the other offerings here, if it works as advertised.

Who it’s for: Musicians wanting a new-fangled solution for multichannel recording from just one mic (on the basic model), useful for live recording and education, or people doing 3D recordings wanting the same plug-and-play simplicity and more spatial information.

Oh yeah, also – 69dB signal-to-noise ratio is nothing to sneeze at.

Pro Tools Expert did a review late last year, though I think we soon need a more complete review for the 3D applications.

What did we miss? With this area growing fast, plenty, I suspect, so sound off. This is one big area in mics to watch, for sure – and the latest example that software processing and intelligence will continue to transform music and audio hardware, even if the fundamental hardware components remain the same.

And, uh, I guess we’ll all soon wind up like this guy?

(Photo source, without explanation, is the very useful archives of the ambisonics symposium.

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Teenage Engineering to ship their OP-Z, a handheld game-like synth

In a sea of synths that embrace retro vibes or big form factors, futurists and minimalist design lovers have eagerly awaited the Teenage Engineering OP-Z. And that wait is nearly over.

The new thing from Sweden now at last starts preorders now, with a ship date in mid October. The first batch are already gone, but at least we know these things are making their way into the world.

It’ll even come with a cute case bundle. (Cables and grippy knobs sold separately.)

There’s even an atypical apology from the Teenagers:

– let us start by apologizing for the long delay.* to develop new products can at times be quite hard and when you work on things that have never been done before,

it’s even harder. over the last year we have re-worked and re-thought in absurdum, but now when three long years of development have finally come to an end, we feel quite confident that you will actually thank us for that extra long wait. why? you might ask…– because the result is just pretty, pretty great.

Hands-on sessions at Moscow’s Synthposium – the surprise in-event this year for synth lovers – in fact confirmed the pretty-greatness of the OP-Z.

So instead of Stockholm, we got the really proper view of the OP-Z in the Russian capital, as documented here. The “Z” stands for “depth”:

And that’s also how Cuckoo, YouTube personality, suddenly shows up on Russian Music Mag’s channel and not only his own:

The jumbo candybar form factor of this synth recalls the Teenagers’ other flagship, the OP-1. But it’s safer to say that the OP-Z brings together a lot of what the design shop have been about over the years. There’s the lineage from the machinedrum and the early Elektron days, and its emphasis on design, rectangular corners, minimal controls, and grooves embedded into hardware. There’s the reduced calculator-style layout and key controls as we saw on the Pocket Operators. You have the unmistakable design aesthetics, introduced on the OP-1 but continually improved with collaborations with the likes of IKEA. So the OP-Z looks more stylish and design-conscious than anything else on the market.

But that’s not nearly as important I think as the way Teenage Engineering have increasingly mixed gaming metaphors, particularly from the Nintendo legacy, with music.

The OP-Z looks like a portable gaming console, and one that’s simultaneously both futuristic and kind of 1980s. (It’s a future for people who spent part of their past in the 80s.)

It plugs into a bigger display, in a throwback to old consoles and PCs.

And it suggests that an electronic musical instrument is a game and a tool at the same time.

The best way to follow how it works is to catch up with some of the best hands-on videos coming out of the YouTubers who were seeded beta units. Tutorial:

Jam session:

Do you speak German? Do you speak English but prefer the way synthesizer talk sounds in German? (Really, sounds way more … intelligent, somehow.)

The visual possibilities, meanwhile, are captured more clearly in Japan, and … those features sound better in Japanese, I think.

And here’s Cuckoo playing the thing live:

Check out the preorder:

Or in person, Teenage Engineering is showing this and their other recent stuff in King’s Cross London:

* Side note: once upon a time, I projected a graph of awesomeness vs. shippingness, specifically regarding the OP-1. Seems it’s still a curve you have to fight – but it can be defeated even with awesome stuff.

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A favorite sequencer gets more dimension: new Make Noise René

Forget about gear fetish: the delightful surprise behind the modular movement is that a whole bunch of people are interested in exploring weird new musical ideas. And one of the sequencer modules at the heart of it is getting a big refresh.

The René module wouldn’t strike anyone as something that’d turn into a big hit. This is an esoteric little device: a grid of touchplates and a bunch of knobs, which you then spaghetti-wire into other modules to make, uh, odd patterns.

But making weird patterns you can then shift around – well, that’s a lot of fun. And René liberated modular rigs from one of their major weaknesses: too often, people were stuck with rigid step sequencers that produced overly repetitive loops that would drive you insane. Basically, the “Cartesian” bit is, instead of having a line (those marching steps), you get a grid (x + Y).

So, here comes the René refresh. This is three-dimensional chess to the original model’s checkers.

The new model is three channels instead of one, three dimensional sequencing instead of two, and boasts expanded memory so you can save up to 64 states – no more long modular performances that sound great for the first three minutes and then … sort of exactly like that for the next hour, too.

This “three-axis” business is maybe a little exaggerated, but basically what you get is z-axis touch sensitivity, so added expression. Combine that with three channels of output, though, and you can in fact route a lot more control from this one module than before. And no doubt the additional memory will be useful in performance.

Here’s the full feature set:

  • 3 CV outputs for controlling pitch or timbre
  • 3 Gate outputs for generating musical events
  • Snake and Cartesian patterns available simultaneously
  • STORE all Programming in one of 64 STATEs.
  • New Z-Axis allows for modulating through any combination of 64 STOREd STATEs
  • All programming done real-time, programming of René is a key performance element
  • Visualization of pattern activity always displayed on left half with 16 illuminated Knobs
  • Visual indication of Programming always displayed on right half with 16 illuminated touch buttons
  • Communicates w/ TEMPI via Select Bus to Select, Store, Revert, Multi-Paste and MESH STATEs
  • Maximum amount of artist controlled musical variation, derived from minimum amount of analog data input
  • All new touch sensing technology tested successfully on the most commonly used euro rack power solutions

Of course, since the René first came out, it’s gotten a lot more competition. So it could be fun to see how this stacks up against other modular (and desktop, or software, even) sequencers.

René is available to preorder for US$525.

Since that’s my monthly rent, it’s worth saying Eurorack is still pricey relative to some lower-cost desktop hardware, to say nothing of computers. Clever software patching is great if you’re broke, or if you’ve a little scratch, something like Five12 Numerology.

But that said, this no doubt will go high on people’s shopping lists in the modular world – and it’s an impressive piece of work. Look forward to seeing more.

Oh yeah – there’s a GIF, too.


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