Teenage Engineering OP-1 synth is back in stock, here to stay

It put the boutique Swedish maker on the music map, and helped usher in new interest in mobile devices and slick design. Now the OP-1 from Teenage Engineering is back in stock, and its makers say it’s here to stay.

That should be good news for OP-1 fans. Sure, the OP-Z has some fancy new features, but it loses the all-in-one functionality and inviting display on the OP-1. And Pocket Operators – both in their original mini-calculator form and now in a line of inexpensive kit modular – well, that’s for another audience. The OP-1, love it or hate it, is really unlike anything else out there. And someone must want it, because it’s been in demand a full decade after its first appearance.

Teenage Engineering shared today they were resurrecting the OP-1 ( under a headline “love never dies,” for Valentine’s Day). Here’s that announcement:

after being out of stock for more than a year with rumours of its demise, we are very happy to let you know that finally, the OP-1 is back and here to stay!

so what happened?

during our nine years of production, we have been very lucky in having a steady supply of the components needed for the OP-1. but last year we suddenly found ourselves without the amoled screen needed and nowhere to find new ones in the same high quality. but after a long time sourcing the perfect replacement, we have finally found it, and we will now be able to fulfil the demand that’s been growing for the past year.

Hmm, maybe the Teenagers want to start a side business reselling that display part? I’m interested.

Anyway, you can buy an OP-1 new now if you couldn’t find it on the used market – or watch for used prices to come down accordingly. Let’s celebrate with a little OP-1 reminiscence, as I know for some of you, Teenage Engineerings’ other stuff just doesn’t compare.

Also – shoes!

TĀLĀ is right – Teenage Engineering OP-1 is a great desert island synth

Teenage Engineering: Opbox Sensors and Shoes, OP-1 Drums and MIDI Sync

Teenage Engineering’s OP-1 Instrument: Hands-on, Videos, Why it’s Different

Someday I hope Elijah Wood says nice things about me:

https://teenageengineering.com/products/op-1

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Two twisted desktop grooveboxes: hapiNES L, Acid8 MKIII

Now the Nintendo NES inspires a new groovebox, with the desktop hapiNES. And not to be outdone, Twisted Electrons’ acid line is back with a MKIII model, too.

Twisted Electrons have been making acid- and chip music-flavored groovemakers of various sorts. That started with enclosed desktop boxes like the Acid8. But lately, we’d gotten some tiny models on exposed circuit boards, inspired by the Pocket Operator line from Teenage Engineering (and combining well with those Swedish devices, too).

Well, if you liked that Nintendo-flavored chip music sound but longer for a finished case and finger-friendly proper knobs and buttons, you’re in luck. The hapiNES L is here in preorder now, and shipping next month. It’s a groovebox with a 303-style sequencer and tons of parameter controls, but with a sound engine inspired by the RP2A07 chip.

“RP2A07” is not something that likely brings you back to your childhood (uh, unless you spent your childhood on a Famicom assembly line in Japan for some reason – very cool). Think to the Nintendo Entertainment System and that unique, strident sound from the video games of the era – here with controls you can sequence and tweak rather than having to hard-code.

You get a huge range of features here:

Hardware MIDI input (sync, notes and parameter modulation)
Analog trigger sync in and out
USB-MIDI input (sync, notes and parameter modulation)
Dedicated VST/AU plugin for full DAW integration
4 tracks for real-time composing
Authentic triangle bass
2 squares with variable pulsewidth
59 synthesized preset drum sounds + 1 self-evolving drum sound
16 arpeggiator modes with variable speed
Vibrato with variable depth and speed
18 Buttons
32 Leds
6 high quality potentiometers
16 pattern memory
3 levels of LED brightness (Beach, Studio, Club)
Live recording, key change and pattern chaining (up to 16 patterns/ 256 steps)
Pattern copy/pasting
Ratcheting (up to 4 hits per step)
Reset on any step (1-16 step patterns)

If you want to revisit the bare board version, here you go:

255EUR before VAT.

https://twisted-electrons.com/product/hapines-l/

Okay, so that’s all well and good. But if you want an original 8-bit synth, the Acid8 is still worth a look. It’s got plenty of sound features all its own, and the MKIII release loads in a ton of new digital goodies – very possibly enough to break the Nintendo spell and woo you away from the NES device.

In the MKIII, there’s a new digital filter, new real-time effects (transposition automation, filter wobble, stutter, vinyl spin-down, and more), and dual oscillators.

Dual oscillators alone are interesting, and the digital filter gives this some of the edge you presumably crave if drawn to this device.

And if you are upgrading from the baby uAcid8 board, you add hardware MIDI, analog sync in and out, and of course proper controls and a metal case.

Specs:

USB-MIDI input (sync, notes and parameter modulation)
Hardware MIDI input (sync, notes and parameter modulation)
Analog sync trigger input and output
Dedicated VST/AU plugin for full DAW integration
18 Buttons
32 Leds
6 high quality potentiometers
Arp Fx with variable depth and decay time
Filter Wobble with variable speed and depth
Crush Fx with variable depth
Pattern Copy/Pasting
Variable VCA decay (note length)
Tap tempo, variable Swing
Patterns can reset at any step (1-16 step pattern lengths)
Variable pulse-width (for square waveforms)
12 sounds: Square, Saw and Triangle each in 4 flavors (Normal, Distorted, Fat/Detuned, Harmonized/Techno).
3 levels of LED brightness (Beach, Studio, Club)
Live recording, key change and pattern chaining

Again, we have just the video of the board, but it gives you idea. Quite clever, really, putting out these devices first as the inexpensive bare boards and then offering the full desktop releases.

More; also shipping next month with preorders now:

https://twisted-electrons.com/product/acid8-mkiii/

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NI now has killer, budget audio interfaces and compact keys

The answer to questions like “I just need a simple audio interface,” and “I want a compact keyboard that doesn’t suck,” and “oh, yeah, wait, does this connect to my Eurorack?” along with “did I mention I’ve got almost no money?” – just got some new answers.

Native Instruments launched the new audio interfaces and the latest addition to their keyboard line as part of some grand, abstract PR idea called “for the music in you,” and said a bunch of things about starting points and ecosystems.

To cut to the chase – these are inexpensive, very mobile devices with a ton of bundled software extras that make sense for anyone on a budget, beginner or otherwise. And whereas most inexpensive stuff looks really cheap, they look pretty nice. (That holds up in person – I got a hands-on in Berlin just before NAMM.)

KOMPLETE AUDIO 1, AUDIO 2

There are two audio interfaces – KOMPLETE AUDIO 1 and KOMPLETE AUDIO 2. These take one of the best features of NI’s past audio interfaces – they put a big volume knob right on top so you can quickly adjust your level, and they’ve got meters so you can see what that level is. But crucially, they promise better audio quality.

There are two models here, but let me break it down for you: you don’t want the AUDIO 1, you want the AUDIO 2. Why?

The AUDIO 1 was clearly made with the idea that singers just want one mic input (so there’s only a single XLR in), and for some reason also with RCA jacks on the back (because consumers, I suppose).

But if you spend just a little more on the AUDIO 2, you get a lot more usefulness.

First, two inputs – both XLR/jack combo, for mics and instruments, with mic preamps and phantom power so you can use any microphone. My guess is at some point everyone wants to record two inputs rather than one. (Think line inputs, stereo instruments, a mic and an instrument… you get the point.)

And you get jack outputs instead of RCA.

And while this won’t matter to everyone, the AUDIO 2 I’m told also has DC coupling, so you can use your computer and your Eurorack or other modular gear. That means you can pull off tricks like combining modular software and hardware, with tools like Ableton Live, Softube Modular, VCV Rack, Bitwig Studio, and oh yeah, Reaktor.

So, quietly, NI just created the most affordable way of connecting a computer and a modular.

If you are a beginner, you get a bunch of software to play around with. Ableton Live 10 Lite is actually a reasonable version of Live to try – only 8 tracks, but all of the core functionality of the software and many instruments and effects. There’s also MASCHINE Essentials, MONARK, REPLIKA, PHASIS, SOLID BUS COMP, and KOMPLETE START, which represents plenty of music making time.

The price is really the big point: US$109 / 99 EUR and $139 / 129 EUR. Coming in March.

https://www.native-instruments.com/en/products/komplete/audio-interfaces/komplete-audio-1-audio-2/

A micro keyboard

If you want some sort of mobile input, there are now some wild multi-touch expressive controllers out there, like ROLI’s Seaboard Block and the Sensel Morph.

But what if you don’t want some new-fangled touch insanity? What if you just want a piano keyboard?

And you want it to be inexpensive, and fit in a backpack so you can take it with you or fit it on cramped desks?

Good news: you’ve got loads of options.

Bad news: they’re all kind of horrible. They’re ugly, and they feel cheap. And they have extras you may not need (like drum pads, mapped to the same channel as the keyboard, begging the question why you wouldn’t just play the keys).

So I welcome the introduction of Native Instruments’ KOMPLETE KONTROL M32. This is one that I figured I needed myself the moment I saw it. (Normally, my reaction on keyboard product launches is more on the lines of – “God, please don’t make me write about another generic keyboard controller.”)

The feel is solid – a bit like some of the mini-key keyboards from Roland/Edirol a few years back. They don’t have the travel of full-sized keys, allowing this low profile, but seemed reasonably velocity sensitive.

Plus there are transport buttons and encoders, and two very usable touch strips. In software like Ableton Live and Apple Logic, these map to the usual transport features, and the encoders are assignable. In Native Instruments’ software, of course, you get the usual deep integration with parameters, browsing, and production.

The M32 will be a particularly strong companion to Maschine on the go, finally with a small footprint – something simply not possible with a 4×4 pad layout, much as I love it.

Speaking of Maschine – this is the full Maschine software. There’s a smaller sound bank, but even that is still 1.5GB. So when they say “Maschine Essentials,” they’re practically giving Maschine away. The other extras I mentioned above are slick, too – Reaktor Prism alone you could lose weeks or months in. Monark is a gorgeous Minimoog emulation with realistic filters and some sound design twists not on the original.

And it’s just US$129 (119 EUR). So it looks twice as expensive, but is actually cheaper than a lot of other options out there.

NI are trying to tell a lot of stories at once – something about Sounds.com, something about DJs, something about producers… and they’re following us all over social media and Google with constant ads.

But here’s the bottom line: this is only compact keyboard at any price that feels good or looks good, it’s still only just over a hundred bucks, and the “beginners” bundle is likely to please advanced users for months.

Coming in March.

https://www.native-instruments.com/en/products/komplete/keyboards/komplete-kontrol-m32/

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Roland has registered the 303, 808 designs as trademarks

Roland has quietly filed for trademark protection (Unionsmarkenanmeldung) in Germany for the designs of the TB-303 and TR-808.

The filings were uncovered by a poster on the sequencer.de forum. The discussion is in German:

Roland versucht aktuell sich die 808-Farben und das 303-Design als Marke schützen zu lassen [sequencer.de]

https://register.dpma.de/DPMAregister/marke/registerHABM?AKZ=018016159&CURSOR=34

https://register.dpma.de/DPMAregister/marke/registerHABM?AKZ=018016158&CURSOR=33

The “trademark” here is trade dress, the design of the actual appearance of the 303 and 808 – the signature layout of the keyboard and knobs of the 303, and the sequence of colored buttons on the 808. “Iconic” is a word that’s wildly overused, but here we can take it to be almost literally true: you can draw out these layouts and even a lot of lay people with a passing interest in electronic music will immediately recognize this bassline synth and drum machine.

Forum posters conclude that this is about Behringer, who announced last month at the NAMM show that they would ship their “RD-808” drum machine – matching the original TR-808 color scheme and button layout – in March. But the registration in Germany could be a sign Roland are generally planning to more aggressively protect their intellectual property, in respect to Behringer or others. And as the RD-808 could, for instance, wind up being subject to litigation outside Germany – that is, anywhere the drum machine ships.

That said, Behringer without fanfare reversed the order of the colors on their RD-808, from a production prototype (orange / light orange / yellow / white, as on the original Roland) to what was shown at NAMM.

The one thing I can say for sure is – the artwork Roland filed from Japan is gorgeous. So, Roland, please don’t sue us for sharing. (And yeah, I’d buy this if you want to turn it into merch.)

No idea how long processing will take, or really how the law works; if I can find out, I’ll share. At least Germany should appreciate the aesthetics of combining gold, bright red, and black – check the flag.

Meanwhile, in America… Roland last year filed applications for trademark protection in the USA for the TR-808 and TR-909 (also right after the NAMM show, January 25, 2018). You can find these (pending) applications at the United States Patent and Trademark Office, under 87769864 and 87769891.

It’s routine practice to file for things you might want to protect, not necessarily manufacture, but that doesn’t make it any less privately amusing to read this list of apparel that would be covered under that application:

“Jackets; sweaters; sport shirts; polo shirts; shirts; overcoats; raincoats; underwear; pajamas; undershirts; Tee-shirts; wind-resistant jackets; swimming costumes; sleep masks; neckties; aprons; socks and stockings; bandanas; headwear; caps as a headwear; hats”

I totally want a Roland swimming costume. But yeah, if you’re thinking of making one yourself, you should read this:

https://www.roland.com/global/company/intellectual_property/

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Behringer Crave synth: vintage bits, all the extras, $199

Behringer left its big gear salvo for the year for last – Crave is a compact, patchable synth with arp and sequencer for US$199.

Behringer’s gear announcements this year stuck mostly to safe bets – clones of a whole lot of Roland gear (SH-101, TR-808, vocoder, modular) and the ARP Odyssey – and most of those the company had revealed in some form long before the NAMM show. More on that separately. But that meant the company hadn’t done what they did with semi-modular Neutron, which was make something distinctive.

All of that might have continued to cement the association of Behringer with clones – but then we get this.

Behringer Crave is a new semi-modular synth. It takes some of those components that made the retro remakes possible, but puts them in a new form – and with the price really, really low. So the Crave has the oscillator from the Sequential Prophet 5 (and Neutron), a Moog ladder filter, a big patch bay making it semi-modular, and a full-featured step sequencer / arpeggiator. Each of these has been seen in some form on other products, which demonstrates Behringer is ready to aggressively combine those bits into new products to suit the market.

And then there’s the price – Crave is US$199 (149 EUR).

Features:
3340 analog oscillator
Ladder filter (hi pass / low pass)
Step sequencer – also on the Odyssey and (SH-101) MS-101 (external MIDI transposition, 32 steps x 8 sequences)
Per-step glide time, gate length, accent, ratchet
Semi-modular patch bay
USB with MIDI
MIDI DIN I/O

Behringer has a product walkthrough, though their rep is strangely excited about MIDI transpose for some reason? (I mean, it’s definitely useful!)

Of course, you can compare this to the KORG volca modular offering at the same price – and maybe wish that KORG had finally abandoned their existing form factor, which would have allowed them (for instance) to use larger cables instead of tiny header pin-sized cables. KORG’s offering is definitely more left-field, with Buchla/West Coast-inspired synthesis. And it runs out battery power. But you have to want that more esoteric sound approach.

Or for a little more money, you can get the new Arturia MicroFreak, which also has semi-modular routings (delivered as a matrix instead of with cables), and a step sequencer, but a playable keyboard in addition – and some unique sound features. We’re hearing street price of US$299, so a hundred bucks more than the Behringer.

In other words, this year has already been really good for anyone wanting an advanced synth that costs under $300.

No product website or ship date yet.

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Arturia’s new experimental synth – and Mutable Instruments’ role

It was only a matter of time before some of the craziness of the modular world came to desktop synths, too. Arturia’s new MicroFreak is a budget keyboard with a weird streak.

It’s also been the source of some confusion, because it in fact makes use of oscillators from open source hardware maker Mutable Instruments, but hang tight for an explanation there. (It’s not exactly the focus of this synth, but it is significant – and an interesting illustration of overlapping capabilities in the age of open source.)

$349 (299 EUR) – coming this spring.

Experimental features are making their way into the mainstream. Let’s count – and yeah, that product name MicroFreak fits:

A flat-panel metal touch keyboard (Buchla style), with poly aftertouch. (Doesn’t look like there’s MPE support, though, just poly aftertouch support?)

A matrix for modulation (something associated with synths like the ARP 2500).

Randomization features in the step sequencer – various functions along the top “spice” and “dice” and otherwise rearrange your patterns.

Oscillator features from Mutable Instruments’ open source Plaits engine – and modes like Karplus Strong (physical modeled strings/plucks), harmonic oscillators, and more exotic wavetables.

It’s still an Arturia design, no doubt – the digital oscillators get fed through an analog filter (this time the Oberheim SEM), and the preset storage and control knobs all look Arturia-like and more conventional. But it’s a blend between that and more leftfield hardware, in one very low-cost unit – $349 (299 EUR) this spring.

The resulting design looks a little like it was pieced together from different bits – an ornate keyboard versus a more staid gray body, plus four glaring traffic cone orange knob caps. But that price is terrific, especially considering a lot of modular cases start at that price – let alone what you’d need to even begin to approach these possibilities here.

And – the thinness is fantastic. It seems 2019 is a year of touch keyboards. Don Buchla would’ve been proud of us.

So let’s get back to the Mutable Instruments oscillators, which are one of the more interesting features here. We’ve confirmed that Mutable Instruments and founder/designer Emilie were not directly involved in the design, though she did sign off on the mention of the company name.

Mutable Instruments’ Plaits module code is available open source under an MIT license, so any manufacturer can pick it up and use it – even without asking, actually. That’s by design; Emilie tells us she intended widespread use. (An alternative for open source developers is to use “copyleft” licensing, which requires anyone reusing your stuff to release their source, as well. That would’ve been interesting – theoretically it would have meant Arturia would need to open source their additional oscillators and firmware. The GPLv3 license we’ve used on MeeBlip has this function, for example.)

Some of Arturia’s original copy was perhaps a bit overzealous and caused some confusion about whether Mutable Instruments was a partner on the design. They’ve since clarified that. For further clarification, read the statement on the Mutable forums:

So while it’s not a collaboration, it does show off the power of open source. As Émilie writes:

You can find Mutable Instruments’ DSP code in the Korg Prologue, the Axoloti, the Organelle, VCV Rack, and plenty of other bits of software or hardware. This is not stealing. Plaits’ code is a summary of everything I’ve learnt about making rich and balanced sound sources controlled by a few parameters, it’s for everyone to enjoy.

The important thing here is to differentiate between the open source Plaits modules, some new additions from Arturia, and then the Plaits sounds you get from Mutable’s updated modules. Let’s break it down:

Plaits oscillator modes:

  • VA, classic virtual analog
  • Waveshaper, triangle wave with waveshaping / wavefolding
  • FM (2-operator FM oscillator)
  • Grain, granular synthesis
  • Chords, fixed paraphonic harmonies (hello, trance music, then)
  • Speech synthesis
  • Modal (inharmonic physical model)

Those of us who have been playing with this on hardware or in the authorized versions inside VCV Rack will definitely appreciate seeing these elsewhere. (Really – can’t get enough.)

Arturia did add some pretty significant modes to those:

  • “Superwave” – detuned saw, square, sine, triangle waves, somewhat Roland-ish sound
  • “Harmo” – 32 sine waves for additive synthesis
  • Karplus Strong – physical string modeling
  • Wavetable – scan through wavetable modes

To me, those Arturia additions really anchor this offering, with some pretty fundamental ideas on offer. Put them together, and you should have something really versatile.

But okay, since Mutable Instruments doesn’t get any of your money when you buy the Arturia MicroFreak, did Mutable just give away the store by using an open source license? Well, no, not really – Plaits gives you a full 16 modes, an internal low pass gate, and does all its 32-bit floating point math in hardware that you can bolt into a modular case and interconnect via control voltage. Plus, you can get Plaits in software if you like – see the Audible Instruments Preview for VCV Rack, regularly updated.

Heck, that could compel us Mutable superfans into happily buying these same features multiple times, in Arturia’s hardware, in the pack for VCV Rack (which Mutable has elected to support charity), and in Mutable’s own hardware. Hmmm… a MicroBrute, a little skiff with some Mutable modules, a nice connection to the laptop, maybe again a Raspberry Pi. Okay, I’ll stop. Guess I’ll have to buy the White Album again…)

See:
https://mutable-instruments.net/modules/plaits/

And as for MicroFreak:

https://www.arturia.com/products/hardware-synths/microfreak/overview

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Moog’s Sarin is a limited Taurus-based synth that sings high, too

They’re calling it the “analog messenger of joy.” Moog Music’s latest synth is an extremely limited run – and it turns the Taurus bass engine into an instrument you can play in any range. Meet Sarin:

There will only be 2500 of these, so the Sarin is a rarity and a luxury item. And it’s cheery and colorful, as was the recent Grandmother synth.

But the idea is interesting. Sarin starts with two Taurus bass oscillators – arguably one of the better Moog instruments, Taurus – and then modified those oscillators so you can play both the characteristic bass and higher-pitched sounds. Insert various mythical flying discussion here, Moog ad copy writers. But we’re talking about a new range of E0 – D8.

And that to me is the big question here — say what? I’m not sure what they modified or what this means, though the basic notion is interesting. (On a digital synth, we’d assume something with anti-aliasing, but these are analog oscillators!)

They also ship it directly with an editor – which is a cue other manufacturers really might consider taking up. (Of course, Roland has it easy, since at least one third party keeps doing it for them!)

Specs:
Steel chassis
2 “modified” Moog Taurus analog oscillators with hard sync (saw/square waves)
A Taurus ladder filter
Two ADSRs
Multi-wave LFO with MIDI sync
Glide with selectable type
Modulation sources: Triangle, Square, Saw, Ramp, Sample & Hold, and Filter EG
Modulation destinations: Oscillator Pitch, Oscillator 2 Pitch only, and Filter Cutoff

Now more of an expectation – synths should have editors for integration with your projects on your computer and easier access to sounds.

CV / gate inputs: filter CV, pitch, volume, gate, and yes, CV to MIDI conversion of course

The price is steep, as you might expect from “Moog” and “limited edition” – US$599. That means you might check the Moog used market, and … it’s still tempting to get a DFAM or a Mother-32 instead; Moog have to compete with Moog here a bit.

But it’s a unique idea, and this is for someone wanting a special splurge anyway. It’ll be part of the pop-up Moog House of Electronicus Pop-up (not a typo, there’s a whole back story about “an experimental gathering that took place on the barrier island of Tierre Verde during the 1970s”). That’s in LA this week during NAMM.

You can pick it up there, or they’ll ship to you, as well. There’s quite a nice demo from Nick Sanborn. (He’s evidently in bands called Sylvan Esso and Made Of Oak but I ruined my life by moving to Berlin and getting sucked into techno, so I don’t know those bands. Mea culpa. Nice sounds, though!)

https://www.moogmusic.com/products/sirin

https://www.mooghouseofelectronicus.com/pages/sirin

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Roland just made syncing Serato and TR drum machines automatic

The hybrid DJ set keeps getting fresh nudges. Now, Roland and Serato have added easy, automatic sync over USB for the TR-8, TR-8S, and the Boutique Series TR-08 and TR-09 drum machines.

And… oh, actually, this is such a no-brainer, I could almost just finish the story with that. (And that’s actually kind of cool.) But let’s offer a little more detail.

How does it work? Plus in a compatible drum machine via USB, and your drum machine follows Serato’s BPM.

How is that different from existing solutions? Well, it saves you the added step of configuring MIDI clock, at the very least. We’ll be able to test this shortly to check it in action, but it also presumably irons out other performance issues that can crop up with MIDI.

Oh, plus, if you didn’t understand any word I just said – this update is totally for you. You plug it in and it works. And rankly, that’s how it ought to be.

How do you get the update? Looks like all Serato DJ Pro owners with Roland hardware will be squared away. This is officially called the “Serato x Roland TR-SYNC update” but it appears you basically get plug and play support in the latest version of Serato DJ Pro.

Why would you want to do this? Well, even short of doing a full-on hybrid set, it can be fun to layer sum drum parts or (on the TR-8S) samples and so on. You could also then go on to sync still more gear from the TR. Oh, and the Boutique TR-08 and TR-09 are advantageously tiny. Even the most cramped DJ booth could easily fit one.

Bottom line – it’s nice to see some challenge to Pioneer’s own link protocol with their CDJ. Why shouldn’t you plug in drum machines and have them groove along? That’s why they’re drum machines.

I think it’ll make perfect sense, but for some reason, Roland marketing have gone a little crazy and decided to explain this not to non-technical DJs, but to actual space aliens. And for some reason all the sync in the product photography is 120 bpm, which bothers me. So here we go:

https://www.roland.com/global/promos/tr-serato-sync/

I’ll translate back to human:

What is a drum machine? It is … a machine … with drums in it.

What’s so special about Roland drum machines? No idea. I swear I can stop using them any time I want. I don’t really even like music. Watch, I’m about to do something more productive with my life right this second. The official Roland explanation, though:

The legendary TR-808 and 909 are the most influential drum machines of all time and have become part of the DNA of everything. They’ve literally just reprogrammed our genetic code and destroyed our minds and now all music genres and all carbon-based life on Earth have been assimilated, leading up presumably to some kind of invasion – once everyone has become a DJ.

Isn’t making your own beats complicated? No, it’s not, but that won’t stop you from becoming newly obsessed with how the beat is never right and the longer you listen to it, the more your grasp of all reality will melt away leaving you only with this loop. See DNA issue, above.

How do I include my own beats in my DJ set? This is a question that has truly no accurate answer, but if you call yourself a DJ, you’re already part of a global phenomenon started by a surprisingly small handful of people of color (very poorly attributed, as per usual) who just decided to show off and also not to have gaps between tracks and then got really deep into using phonographs incorrectly, so… uh, experiment, if you like, until you find something you like?

I’ve done it again. Long article. Also, not only is this not sponsored product, I now probably have to buy some apology rounds of drinks for whoever did write the original ad copy. Sorry.

There, instead of configuring MIDI, you now have more time to read my blathering.

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Buchla’s pioneering Thunder touch controller is back, on Sensel Morph

Software and hardware are finally becoming more responsive to expression from more than one finger at a time, via MPE. But how do you get those sounds under your hands? Sensel Morph is one answer. And now it has an appealing layout from one of the people who shaped synthesis – Don Buchla.

Human hands are pretty incredibly sensitive, capable ways of interacting with the world. And your brain – even untrained – has enormous capacity to imagine sound. So why is it that we’re still limited to simple grids of buttons and organ keyboards? (Nothing against those things, of course, they’re fine – but is that all there is?)

The answer to this has always boiled down to some chicken and egg arguments. You don’t have the hardware to control sounds. You don’t have software capable of making sounds for which you’d want more control. There isn’t a standard way of connecting the two. Even if there were, there wouldn’t be enough adoption.

And so the argument continued, in circles. And it was actally true – for a while. But now, software instruments from Sculpture in Apple’s Logic to the Moog and PPG apps on iPad to Softube and Cherry Audio software modulars have MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) support, which allows for more control information between your controller and your sounds. Hardware like Black Corporation Deckard’s Dream and various Eurorack modules do, too, so you can really get your Vangelis fantasies on. And sounds like physical modeling or granular synthesis or even just rich polyphonic patches suddenly make sense when you can intuitively connect all that finger sensitivity to electronic instruments.

That just leaves the missing link – finding a hardware interface you like. ROLI are big advocates, yes, as are some smaller boutique makers. But what if you don’t like those options? (Musicians certainly don’t agree about … anything.)

Sensel’s Morph is a compelling new option now for several reasons. It’s an affordable computer accessory. And while the sensor is a flat rectangle – looking a lot like a mousepad – you can swap overlays to give it different functions. (Joué have taken essentially the same approach.) Sensel in particular have unparalleled support for different third party use cases. There are overlays for various apps – from music production to video editing – so you don’t have to buy this just for the novelty of doing weird things with synths. (Yeah, the fact that you just change overlays and get some edits done in Premiere makes this a lot easier to justify as a purchase and as another thing taking up space on your desk.)

Okay, that handles a lot of rational reasons to consider this device. But to really feel passionate about something as an instrument, you actually need one layout that you stick with, and it has to resonate emotionally.

So here’s the interesting development. Sensel have partnered with Buchla U.S.A. to recreate a classic instrumental interface that might have just been a bit ahead of its time.

Don Buchla conceived the Thunder in 1989. The layout makes loads of sense — diagonal strips give you continuous control, but with guides that match a resting hand position and put controls where your hands would go. It’s a layout that looks like something out of Star Trek – and, well, it also proved to be mostly speculative, because few were made and there wasn’t at the time as much for it to control.

Now times have changed – both hardware and software are far more powerful, meaning they’re capable of generating the sort of real-time nuance that demands this sort of control. And apart from that, whereas for years Buchla’s designs languished because they seemed foreign, now more and more people seem to be ready to make weird and complex sounds.

It seems like the Thunder is poised for a comeback, that is. The Thunder overlay, combined with the Morph sensor, gives you 27 different continuously-sensitive note areas. That’s already useful for conventional MIDI, but with MPE you get independent values for velocity (how hard you initially hit it), how hard you’re pressing down at any given moment, and how quickly you release. You can bend notes by subtly shifting your fingers sideways, or map timbral parameters to position.

Buchla’s 1989 hardware. There have also been touch version for modular.

A pre–production prototype of the new overlay – final production run looks better, Sensel tells us. Courtesy the manufacturer, for CDM.

It’s also encouraging that Sensel involved Buchla designer/engineer Joel Davel. Joel has unparalleled bona fides on both the engineering and artistic side, having made circuits for Don from 1995 onward, and working as a composer and instrumentalist with ongoing collaborations with Amy X Neuburg and Paul Dresher. The recent history of electronic music is defined by nothing if not the spread of once-esoteric ideas from limited elite contexts to wider groups of curious minds. So even though this may be a piece of rubber you slap on a rectangle on your desk, it also represents the potential of some of those ideas getting in the hands of new people.

And you can do all of this for US$269 – preorders now, shipping in April. (If you’ve already got Sensel, the overlay alone will cost you US$59 – so that overlay scheme is definitely less costly than buying new hardware every time you want to do something a little different.)

Anything that has a USB port will work with this – so computer software is the natural companion, though if you have a USB host device that outputs control voltage, you can also hook it up to a modular. If you want to see it in action and you’re in Anaheim, Sensel are demoing the hardware and overlay at NAMM this year.

So sure, this won’t be for everyone. And yeah, it still looks like you’ve invested in a Klingon gamepad. But for the cost of a plug-in, you can now use this – and add some productivity on the side as you mix or edit in other applications.

I should have one to test. I’ve worked with the Morph – the sensing and physical experience are great – so now I’m just waiting to see what it’s like using this as an instrument. And I look forward to doing some practicing.

Announcing the Buchla Thunder Overlay [Sensel Blog]

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Elektron’s Model:Samples is a hands-on, $449 sound box

What if you could take the deep powers of an Elektron groove box, but bring them to the surface? And what if that box were small and cheap? That’s the first impression of the Model:Samples – and it could add up to a big hit.

Elektron has always been about giving us powerful, inventive music machines as standalone hardware. They still reign supreme in live dance music sets – certainly in Europe, if you see “live” on the bill at a club, you can expect the appearance of an Elektron machine or two as the most likely interpretation. But the price of those machines is learning your way around menus and shortcuts. Some people take to it right away, and some just don’t. And then there’s the monetary price – well into four digit sticker shock, which can be intimidating to new users.

That changed with the Digitakt and Digitone – compact boxes with more focused feature sets and more of a focus on hands-on control. And the Model:Samples goes further: one-to-one physical controls for most features, and an even lower price.

So make no mistake: the Model:Samples is probably aimed first at newcomers to the Elektron brand. (Though I can bet we’ll see Elektron lovers augment their rig with these for extra hands-on control.) Online commenters are comparing this to the used price of other Elektron machines, but that ignores the angle here: simplicity and hands-on control.

Model:Samples looks like a powerful groove-based tool with tons of immediacy. It’s also a real shot across the bow of KORG – entering the price range of the electribe sampler, but with some Swedish sequencing workflows. Spännande!

Take that, East Coast / West Coast – Elektron even reference their “ragged Swedish shoreline.” So let’s dive in like we’re taking a brisk swim in the Kattegatt!

It’s six tracks, sample playback based. (You can load your own sounds, but there’s no live sampling capability.)

Blah blah, 300 samples from Splice, yadda yadda, yes there’s a kick and snare drum and “never-before-heard alternatives.” (Uh, okay. “I’ve heard things you people wouldn’t believe. Castanets sampled from attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. A cowbell glittering in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.” Sorry, lost my train of thought.)

But everything else is about tons of control – and that’s where this gets interesting, once you start manipulating those tracks:

Control All to manipulate multiple sounds at once, with Reload to get back where you started
Chromatic mode for melodic control
Parameter Locks – per-step automation, and even per-step sounds (depending on how much mayhem you want to make)
Six samples at once – which they’ve cleverly limited to the number of things you have in a kit
Swap multiple samples, a kit at a time
Chance parameter (which you can combine with Control All)
Per-track step length
Per-track tempo multiplier
Per-track swing
Record with or without quantization – both parameters and notes

There are other drum machines and grooveboxes out there, but this looks like a real winner in the price range, at least when it comes to rhythmic flexibility and hands-on parameter control.

There’s also a flexible architecture. You get 6 audio tracks – each of which can also be MIDI tracks, making this an effective sequencing box for gear, too. 96 projects, with 96 patterns per project.

Each of the six tracks gets its own sample engine, resonant multimode filter, and assignable LFO.
Then you can route via sends to delay and reverb.

There’s 64MB of sample memory, but you can store up to 1GB of samples, which you load over USB. Everything connects via class-compliant USB audio 2.0, and you get a dedicated headphone out and 2x balanced main outputs. MIDI is delivered via in and out/thru minijacks – now manufacturers are fast adopting that minijack standard for MIDI.

They also promise a battery pack at a later date so you can use this on the go.

Dimensions:
W270 × D180 × H40 mm (10.63 × 7.09 × 1.58″) (including knobs and rubber feet)
Weight: approximately 0.814 kg

Price here in Europe is 460EUR, $449 USD list. I think that means we could see a US street under $400 – which is a big winner, I think. Heck, this with the Digitone as a synth could be a complete studio. And having just praised the potential of the Akai Force, that could also mean people stick to à la carte gear for playing and go back to the more flexible computer for production. It’ll be fun to shake out these different combinations, though.

But that’s beside the point. Cheap, compact, lets you mangle samples with one-to-one knobs and has flexible rhythmic options that let you make polyrhythms and get off the grid – that’s a compelling combo. Add this to the must-watch list for the year.

https://www.elektron.se/products/modelsamples/

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