Overwhelmed with music toys? We can get you a bass synth that sounds like no other – plus a way to connect all your gear for $10. Happy Black Friday to you.
geode: $129 synth hardware, ships free
First, there’s our very own MeeBlip geode hardware synth. It’s just US$129, and this week only, we’ll ship it to nearly the whole world for free. There’s not another bass synth that sounds like it, in 2019 or 1979 or any other year. Plug-and-play USB connects MIDI and power with one connection – even to a smartphone (with adapter). The sound itself features biting oscillators and a crunchy analog filter.
So if you’re looking for a little sonic inspiration and a unique bass sound for yourself – or as a gift – now’s the time to grab this. Sale lasts this week only.
It wouldn’t be Black Friday deal without a ridiculous offer for a limited time, so we’ve gone one more for you. Our thru5 MIDI splitter kit is easy to assemble, and splits one MIDI input to five outputs, so you can connect all your gear.
And for this week only, it’s yours for just US$9.99 – a perfect Secret Santa gift or stocking stuffer or Hanukkah present for someone you know who’s handy with a soldering iron or wants to learn. Or it’s a way to get your studio in order for a winter cleaning.
Shipping if you’re just buying thru5 is $3.95 to USA, $5.95 international, varies in Canada. (Free with orders above $99- so, for instance, you could add in a geode!)
Behringer will remake the rare Wasp and now just announced a 4-voice paraphonic Moog clone. Having trouble keeping track? Here’s a recap.
With so many remakes now shipping or teased, the hard part may be just keeping track what Behringer are doing, what’s available already, and what’s coming. Let’s step back and just review what products are currently available or inbound. Competitors should ignore this list at their own peril.
This is what Tom Whitwell at the former Music thing (then a blog, now a modular brand) called the Behringer “photocopier.” But whereas that until recently was a disparaging remark, fans of the brand now eagerly follow these cut-rate remakes. So while I say “clone” rather than the company’s preferred “authentic reproduction,” there’s no doubt that the intention is to do these as remakes.
What’s remarkable is how many of these synths came from 1979 alone, or within a year or two.
Oh yeah, also – despite the company’s claims, while this hardware is far cheaper than most of the used equivalent originals, there are often inexpensive alternatives of new or similar instruments. So let’s get into both what Behringer is offering, and whether you might consider other options before spending your hard-earned scratch:
Based on: Roland TR-808 (1980, and not, sadly, the Soviet rocket RD-8)
List/street: $524.99 / $400
New features: What Behringer added here mostly was in the sequencer, which like the other remakes has some more advanced features. There’s also a sort of envelope follower called the Wave Designer.
The competition: Arturia’s DrumBrute Impact is actually cheaper, at around $300. It’s got fewer outs, but an advanced sequencer and a distinctive sound. Roland’s TR-8S or even a used buy on a TR-8 give you faders and additional effects (plus on the TR-8S, the ability to load your own samples), and could still be a worthy upgrade – with effective TR modeled sounds. Roland’s Boutique TR-08 on the other hand looks comparatively lean versus the Behringer, and it’d be nice to see the company that made the original 808 respond with something more competitive at the entry level. You can have my TR-8S when you pry it out of my cold, d– actually, my hot, sweaty, fader tweaking fingers.
New features: The arpeggiator is the main addition here, plus a distortion switch, but basically this is a bare-bones 303 clone – at an insanely cheap price.
The competition: There are loads of 303 remakes out there, analog and digital. Roland for their part has the Boutique with a very useful delay and semi-useful distortion (theirs with an actual knob, not just a switch). But to my knowledge, the only real competition at this price is a software plug-in. Or get a KORG volca series synth for a different sound; even the volca bass is somewhat refreshingly not a 303. Oh yeah, or think about a two-oscillator bass synth, but I’m biased. Yes, of all of these – here is the one where Behringer can be expected to totally own a category, maybe to the point of us winding up with way too many acid tracks in about a year.
New features: As with the others, this is mostly about squeezing this in the Eurorack chassis, but there’s also a new overdrive circuit. Just remember, like the original, you have to give the analog circuits time to warm up.
The competition: You can get a surprising number of capable synths these days for $300 or even less, but a Minimoog remake from Moog will certainly be a luxury item. That said, if you’re willing to spend a little more, you can get something like the Moog Sub Phatty for around $500 on a Black Friday sale – with keyboard. It’s not a Minimoog model D, but it also moves into some new sonic territory, and you get the feeling of owning an actual Moog. That’s not to sneeze at the Model D – this thing has made a big impact, and maybe its biggest competition comes from Behringer itself, with the also inexpensive (and far more patchable/open-ended) Neutron.
New features: Digital multi-effects are the main edition here, plus the arp/sequencer and onboard storage and digital I/O on the others. The Odyssey is also a keyboard synth, unlike the other Eurorack things in this list —
Competition: – but it goes up against KORG’s Arp Odyssey reissue, made in collaboration with the synth’s original creators (if at a higher cost).
New features: These are the most sensible additions of the bunch. Behringer chose to add the thing the 101 owners modded themselves; namely, FM and waveforms (plus MIDI, of course). Actually, that begs the question of why Behringer didn’t add the 303 sound mods to that remake, but – hey, maybe someone else also wants to remake the 303 now, too? I’m sure 303 remakes will never die.
The competition: Behringer on this one did what Roland didn’t do – make a remake of the 101 with full-sized keys and a standard handle option for keytar-style playing. Roland chose to go with the tiny Boutique format. On the other hand, the SH-01A is a four-voice instrument, which winds up being really useful in conjunction with its triggers and sequencer. Now if Roland would just offer that in a full-sized keytar option, it seems like they’d have a hit. I might still buy the SH-01A for something small and four voice, though. (Don’t send letters. I know I like small things and digital synths more than some of our … readers. Ahem.)
New features: Just the usual I/O additions – and they cut off an octave on the keyboard to save space.
The competition: For once, Behringer is the more expensive option, believe it or not (apart from an astronomically pricey original VP-330). The Roland Boutique VP-03 is a solid unit at a fraction of this price – it seems new hardware stock is mostly gone, but they fetch around $300 used (without the keyboard, so around $400 with). Sure, it’s digital, but the sound is good; mainly it’s down to whether you want to save some money. Roland’s JD-Xi is also a vocoder for $500 and is a far more flexible and powerful synthesizer, though the design has all the charm of something it looks like you’d find on sale in a Guitar Center on the Death Star. (Dunno, maybe Kylo Ren had this keyboard in the emo rock band he played on the side while studying the Dark Side.)
If all you want is a vocoder, even the Roland VT-4 box is an option for only a couple hundred bucks; its predecessor the VT-3 you might be able to get used, like, for free. Now, maybe an analog recreation is more serious but… well, I leave it to you to decide how serious you want to get about a vocoder/string synth unitasker. But yes, Behringer are the only ones with something really like the original.
For that reason, this is kind of the most rational of a lot of the choices here. But it’s a vocoder/string synth, so “rational” depends on whether that’s something you need.
New features: This is what happens if you take the Model D, put it in a new case with a keyboard, and make it 4-voice analog paraphonic (there’s just one filter) instead of monophonic. And it probably tips Behringer’s hand as far as what you should expect from the other models here – they’ll gradually translate the Eurorack-case monophonic models to 4-voice models with keyboards, since they’ve already plucked the low-hanging fruit of what people most recognize in vintage brands.
As with past Behringer outings, though, they’re teasing some time before they’re shipping. The risk: people might defer purchase of their products. The more likely outcome: people might defer purchase of competing products.
New features: Arp, sequencer, Eurorack chassis – you’re seeing the pattern. There’s also a “drone mode” switch.
The competition: It’s a bit painful when Behringer takes on small, independent makers like Dave Smith and Tom Oberheim. The new Sequential (formerly Dave Smith Instruments) has lots of beautiful new designs. But if you’re on a $350 budget, you can get the wonderful Evolver or Tetra, for example, unique and original Dave Smith-designed sound modules. Or save up your money for a more advanced polysynth based on the ideas behind the Prophet series. Or there’s the Pioneer AS-1, which is a single-voice version of the Prophet-6. I think these come closer to the 21st century vision Dave’s got, and they’re worth supporting for that reason. Oh yeah, and you can buy them now, rather than waiting on the PRO-1.
Behringer WASP DELUXE
Based on: Electronic Dream Plant (EDP) Wasp (1978)
Preorder price: $300
Shipping date: unknown
New features: Behringer went with a desktop sound module and didn’t reproduce the membrane keyboard edition of the first Wasp. This otherwise mostly looks like that hardware, though. It does MIDI and USB now, like the other stuff here.
The competition: There’s not really another Wasp remake that I know of, or anything that close. On the other hand, the Arturia MicroFreak is also a digital-analog hybrid, does way more in sounds, and comes with an innovative keyboard, so to me it’s a better (and more forward-thinking) use of your $300. There’s also the feature-packed Behringer Crave for $50 less than this, available now, so it’s hard to imagine preordering unless you’re really a die-hard fan of the original.
If you’re KORG, Roland, Polivoks, Black Corporation (maybe their CS-80 Deckard’s Dream, maybe Kimiji) … it seems like Behringer is coming for you, or wants to. See previously:
Also, now they want to get into VST plug-ins?
(Comments on that last one are hilarious.)
Fear of clones?
It’s clear at this point that the Music Tribe (Behringer) is leveraging both analog circuitry and some chips that allow it to inexpensively reproduce popular models. And they’ve built a bigger team to do engineering alongside their own manufacturing operation in China. I think they’ve even taken to using the word “clone” in passing on social media.
Because these are now clones of fairly ancient products, this product strategy in itself wouldn’t make the company controversial. Rather, it’s Behringer’s aggressive strategy in regards to competitors, press, PR, and intellectual property that have made it divisive in the synth business. As I noted last week, that includes the recent move of registering trademarks actively owned by competitors. Not only does KORG definitely own and actively use Mono/Poly, but we’ve confirmed even the Polivoks name is registered and used on an active product.
There’s also a deeper question here, and it’s not just about Behringer. As both analog and digital synthesis has become more affordable, will we use that inexpensive power to make new things, or recreate old ones? So far, Behringer has demonstrated that recognized products like the 303, 808, and Minimoog go more viral in social media than new synths. And so far, companies like Roland and other original brands who made this products haven’t succeeded in stopping Behringer from naming and dressing up their products to look like the vintage products. That opens the door to even other manufacturers easily undercutting historic brands and smaller boutique makers on price.
But it’s unclear, once synth fans have stocked up on well-known items like the 303, whether this cheap remake trend will be sustainable.
No new ideas in synthesizers? Not so, says independent developer Artemiy Pavlov. He was excited enough about KORG’s direction that he’s written about why he thinks it changes music tech for the better.
The Ukraine-based coder who releases under his Sinevibes brand is someone we’ve followed on CDM for some years, as a source of very elegant Mac-only plug-ins. Making those tools for one company’s piece of hardware (one that isn’t Apple) is a new direction.But that’s what he’s done with KORG’s ‘logue plug-in architecture, which now runs on the minilogue xd and prologue keyboards, as well as the $100 NTS-1 kit. As long as you’ve got the hardware, you can run oscillators, filters, and effects from third-party developers like Sinevibes – or even grab the SDK and make your own, if you’re a coder.
Now, of course Artemiy is biased – but that’s kind of the point. What’s biased his one-man dev operation is that he’s clearly had a really great experience developing for KORG’s synths, from coding and testing, to turning it into a business.
This is not a KORG advertisement, even if it sounds like one. I actually didn’t even tell them it’s coming, apart from mentioning something was inbound to KORG’s Etienne Noreau-Hebert, chief analog engineer. But because it impacts both interested musicians and developers, I thought it was worth getting Artemiy’s perspective directly.
So here’s Artemiy on that – and I think this does offer some hope to those wanting new directions for electronic musical instruments. This is labeled “Op Ed” for a reason – I don’t necessarily agree with all of it – but I think it’s a unique perspective, not only in regards to KORG hardware but the potential for the industry and musicians of this sort of embedded development, generally. -Ed.
In early 2018, for its 50th anniversary, Korg introduced the prologue. It wasn’t just a great-sounding synthesizer with shiny, polished-metal looks. It introduced a whole new technical paradigm that has brought a tectonic shift to the whole music hardware and software industry.
Korg has since taken the concept of “plug-ins in mainstream hardware synths” further to much more compact and affordable minilogue xd and Nu:Tekt NTS-1, proving that it’s more serious about this than even I myself thought.
If you thought the platform just lets you load custom wavetables and store effect presets, you have no idea how much you’ve been missing! This is also for those who have been waiting for something that really looks to the future – and for anyone wanting to scale down their rig while scaling up their sonic palette. For me, as a control freak, I can now imagine new features from the moment I touched the synth – even though it’s someone else’s product.
Here are five ways Korg’s plugin-capable synths completely change the game for all of us, described both as before and after:
Before. When you buy a synthesizer, all the features inside are what the manufacturer decided it should have. Each customer gets the exact same thing – same features, same sound.
After. With Korg’s hardware plugin architecture, the “custom” is finally back to “customer” – as you can configure the oscillator and the effect engines to your liking, and make your instrument unique. Fill it with the exact plugins you want, make it tailored to your own style. You have 48 plugin slots available, and chances are nobody else on the planet configures them the way you do.
Before. While we do have digital and analog instruments with very capable synthesis and processing engines, to really get into more unusual or experimental sonic territory, you almost certainly need extra outboard gear – often a lot of it, which means more to transport and wire up.
After. The plug-ins now allow you to expand the stock generation and processing capabilities way beyond the “traditional” stuff, and have a whole powerhouse inside a single instrument. Just by switching from preset to preset, you can have the synthesizer dramatically shift its character, much as if you were switching from one hardware setup to another. Much less gear to carry, less things to go wrong, literally zero setup time.
Here’s what I mean, just with currently-available plug-ins. How about a sound-on-sound looper, or a self-randomizing audio repeater, right inside your synth?
And how about running unorthodox digital synthesis methods, in parallel with a purely analog subtractive one?
Before. With almost all gear, you are completely at the mercy of the manufacturer regarding what’s available for your instrument (aside from sound packs which still obviously can only use the stock features).
After. Not only you decide which engines your synth has, cherry-picking sound generation and processing plugins from independent developers, but you can also grab the SDK and build whatever you want yourself. [Ed. See below for some notes on just how easy that is.]
Before. While some manufacturers might update their instruments with some major features from time to time, to be brutally honest, most won’t. Typically, just a couple years after initial release, you can consider the feature set in your synthesizer frozen… forever.
After. At any time in the future, you can erase some or even all the plug-ins on your synth and install different ones. So it can stay fresh and interesting for years or even decades, without you having to buy new hardware to get a new sound. The scale of your capabilities will actually only keep increasing as the selection of third-party plugins continues growing.
For example, say you have two different live projects. A single instrument can now represent two entirely different sets of sounds, using plugins and presets. In just a couple of minutes you can fully clean your Korg and reload it with a whole new “sonic personality” – no installers to run, no activation hassle, just transfer and go.
Before. High-end features almost always command high-end prices, or a high level of coding experience to be able to work with that open-source firmware (in the rare cases when it’s actually available).
After. The ticket price for entry into this world of user-configurable synthesizers is Korg’s tiny and super-affordable monophonic Nu:Tekt NTS-1 (around $100), and it still has 48 plug-in slots just like its bigger brothers. Speaking of the bigger brothers, at the other end of the range we have the flagship 8- or 16-voice polyphonic prologue ($1500-2000), and 4-voice minilogue xd in both keyboard and desktop versions ($600-650). There’s now a plug-in-capable synth for everyone.
Which KORG do you want?
So, which one to choose? Each of the models has its unique advantages and unique ways it can integrate into your existing setup – or create a totally new one. [Ed. I’ve confirmed previously with KORG that all three of these models is equally capable of running this plug-in architecture. There’s also the fourth developer board that Artemiy doesn’t mention, though at this point you’re likely to get the NTS-1.]
NTS-1 is probably the most quirky of the lot, but is also surprisingly versatile for its tiny size. First, it can be easily powered off any portable battery, and second, it has a stereo input that lets you run any external audio through up to three different plugin effects, silently making it “the stompbox of your dreams.”
The mid-range minilogue xd doesn’t have an external input, but does have a very compact and portable body, and a note sequencer. The sequencer can be used together with the arpeggiator for extra-long evolving melodies, but also has 4 parameter automation tracks – with all this data stored per each preset.
The key feature of range-topping prologue, aside from its incredibly pleasant-to-play keybed and sleek all-metal controls, is the fact that each of its presets can be constructed out of two completely separate, split, or layered patches – meaning that you can load two oscillator plugins at the same time.
Developers, developers, developers
How easy is it to develop your own Korg plugin?
First of all, I can tell you that running my own algorithms on a hardware synth was something I have dreamed of for years. Apart from a very unlikely collaboration with the manufacturer, or digging deep into someone’s rare open-source firmware, I figured the chances of actually doing that were zero.
Luckily, Korg has made it so much easier for me and you, that you would almost be guilty for not giving coding your own little plug-in a go. Allow me to give you a first-person example of what it took to get started.
Korg’s loque-SDK is a collection of source code files and a toolchain that runs via the command line in the terminal app. For each type of plug-in, Korg provides a sample – there’s a simple sine oscillator, there’s a delay, a filter, etc. – and the best way for you to start is modify one of them slightly.
You don’t need to do much. For example, make the sine oscillator produce a mix of two sines, one running an octave above the other. You’d simply multiply the second sin() function’s argument by 2 and add it to the first one — that’s it. That’s exactly what I did, and I was hooked instantly.
Now you build the plugin using the “make” command, and install the file onto whichever of the synthesizers in the family you have. You do that via its “sound librarian” companion app into which you simply drag and drop your plugin while the synth is connected via USB.
All this said, I hope this has changed how you look at Korg’s plugin-capable synthesizer architecture. Because, and I am really confident when I say this, Korg did go and change the whole industry with it.
The dream of a keyboard with expansive expression, not just organ-style key-plunking, now sees a new integrated instrument. And the maker of the Haken Continuum is involved.
Expressive E, who had made single three-dimensional controllers, partnered with Haken Audio in order to make this full keyboard. Each key has three-dimensional control, in a mechanical design they’re calling Augmented Keyboard Action. You can strum, you can add vibrato, more detailed legato, or add layered notes – all this good stuff, minus having to just play keys and twist knobs or turn wheels.
We’ve seen three-dimensional keys before, at least as limited-run (or one-off) inventions. And we’ve seen various touch-style keyboards (like those from ROLI), and pads with multi-axis input (like those from Roger Linn and Polyend).
What we haven’t seen, though, is a mass-produced three-dimensional mechanical keyboard (that is, with individually articulated keys). And we haven’t seen very many instruments with integrated sound engines. The Osmose is both.
Haken’s role here was to contribute their powerful EaganMatrix Sound Engine, which is already designed to be integrated with hardware and is built around three-dimensional expressive control as input. This is the same engine previously found on the Continuum Fingerboard and ContinuuMini. You get physical modeling, additive, subtractive, FM, virtual analog, granular and spectral synthesis models, for various acoustic and electronic sounds, plus loads of presets. (There was a reason I was complaining lately that Roland needs to move its sound engine forward.)
The difference is, if you didn’t much like the undifferentiated ribbon of the Continuum, now you get something with keys on it. So for keyboardists and pianists, you don’t lose the investment of learning to play your instrument – or centuries of music composition.
This custom engineering costs money – the Osmose will be US$/€1799. (Funny, it was only a few years ago when that counted as “mid-range.”) But they’ve found a novel solution to ramping up production. Early bird buyers reserving before December 31, 2019 will get a massive 40% discount, so that it only costs USD/EUR 1079. And you don’t have to put up all of that right away – they’re taking just $299 as deposit. That’s more reasonable than the usual Kickstarter deal.
Specs on this instrument:
49 full-sized keys
MIDI controller, with MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) and MPE+ support
Notably, KORG – original makers of the Mono/Poly – do make a Mono/Poly iOS app now, and presumably might remake it as they have the MS-20 and ARP Odyssey. Polivoks, the legendary Soviet brand, is now made by Russia’s Elta Music and even a remake by original Polivoks engineer Vladimir Kuzmin, also under the original name.
There’s no actual product news here yet – and the registration of these marks doesn’t necessarily mean that a trademark will ever get used. You can read the International Trademark Association’s explanation of “trademark trolls” and “trademark bullies” – but short version, trademark law does let you do this:
MUSIC TRIBE have been aggressive with trademarks in the past. The company is now locked in an evolving legal battle with the original family owners of the Auratone brand in the USA, and MUSIC TRIBE lost an EUIPO court case over that trademark to the surviving family members of the original Auratone founder.
Reaction from other synth makers, though, suggests to me that a lot of engineers are more excited about creating new instruments rather than only remaking the past. The Mono/Poly was a classic, at least, but it seems dubious that the future of electronic instruments will be decided in a trademark court.
If you do know more about the status of these trademarks or this or other relevant cases, of course I’m happy to hear from you. I will get back to making weird new things under… well, new names, I think.
Apple has a 16″ MacBook Pro that improves performance, adds a bigger, better display, and makes promising changes to the keyboard – without increasing price. Next question: should you upgrade?
Apple’s flagship laptops still command a price premium: standard configurations are US$2,399 and $2,799, which can be punishing for cash-strapped musicians (especially in other countries once accounting for currency and cash). Figure budgeting at least $2599 for 1TB storage, and then the $2799 standard price point bumps processor speed and graphics.
But as before, what you get in exchange for the luxe price is some luxe hardware. That’s always been especially true of the display. Even big fans of the price/performance ratio on PCs have got to concede that Apple ships some big, bright, color-accurate, gorgeous displays.
And the 16″ revision does three things:
It sweetens the display deal with what might be the best laptop display on the market.
It improves the performance-to-price ratio with upgraded specs for the processor, graphics, and battery. But maybe most importantly –
It fixes the damned keyboard. (Or at least first impressions suggest so.)
The keyboard had held a lot of people back. The butterfly-action keyboard on past models prompted some complaints about key travel, and worse, were subject to reliability problems. I was unable to attend the press preview for the new Apple laptop, but journalists more experienced with those issues are so far impressed – Dieter Bohn for The Verge and Roman Loyala for Macworld each have their first hands-on impressions. Apple are confident enough that they’re dubbing the new keyboard Magic Keyboard, in a nod to their well-liked Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad (all the way back to the Steve Jobs era, actually).
You still get the Touch Bar whether you want it or not. But it’s no longer at the expense of a dedicated escape button (it’s back), and the fingerprint sensor now also gets its own dedicated control. Plus even the inverted-T directional keys are back.
Having tested the old keyboard, I have to say this is the MacBook Pro I would save up for. But I think the most encouraging thing about this is it means Apple was listening to complaints from pro users.
Also encouraging – you get more ports. You’ll still need adapters for a lot of gear (or a hub), but with USB-C evolving, having four USB-C ports that also double as Thunderbolt 3 (yeah, all four of them) makes this a machine that’s easy to connect.
We’ll need a full review before we can judge the on-paper specs, but so far the indications are positive.
Ninth-generation CPUs (6- or 8-core, depending on model) from Intel – these will be great for running things like modeled synths (hello, VCV Rack), as well as CPU-native operations for visuals and so on.
100 watt-hour battery (that’s the biggest battery approved to fly in the USA), for longer battery life
AMD Radeon Pro 5000M GPU with 4GB VRAM, option for 8GB
This is new generation AMD stuff, made just for Apple, though that also means it’s tough to make a direct comparison. As in past models in this line, it’s middle of the road stuff. Just remember that Apple likes to choose balanced GPUs as far as heat and power draw; they’re not making gaming laptops with big fans.
The relevant factor there is, you still don’t get to take advantage of NVIDIA-specific instructions and acceleration. I guess we’ll see if Apple are able to push Adobe to finally optimize Creative Suite for the Apple GPUs. (Right now, CS uses NVIDIA CUDA optimizations, and suffers quite a bit when it comes to performance on AMD chips. Of course, Apple will be happy if you use Final Cut Pro, at least on the video side.)
You can load up to 64GB of memory, though that’s overkill for even some sample playback applications and as usual is a fairly expensive build-to-order.
Speaking of nice options for deep pockets, you can also add an 8TB SSD. Please don’t drop this machine when riding your helicopter.
But to me, it’s really the display and slick form factor where Apple continues to reign supreme. And, wow, that new display –
16‑inch (diagonal) LED‑backlit display with IPS technology; 3072‑by‑1920 native resolution at 226 pixels per inch with support for millions of colors
So everything is great, and you should go buy this – well, maybe.
The Catalina factor
Now that Apple has successfully responded to MacBook Pro customer feedback, let’s see how they handle complaints from developers. Developers I talk to are still venting widespread frustration with glitches under macOS Catalina – and Catalina is installed by default. These go beyond just eliminating 32-bit code and adding expected security improvements. Many developers I’ve talked to tell me that the major changes made to the OS are producing unexpected glitches and challenges.
I wish I could be more specific – Apple, for their part, infamously emailed developers to ask them to stop being so negative in their communication. But I can say this: Apple changed a lot of security features at once, and then shipped that OS on a strict timetable. That introduces a lot of variability, because it doesn’t leave a lot of time for even Apple to respond to developer and user feedback, let alone their third-party ecosystem.
16″ is the one to watch
I think the 16″ machine is likely to be a great choice in the long run – just maybe not today. As with new OSes, patience is a virtue.
If you can keep dust away from the keys, it’s even worth considering a refurb 15″ model for significant cost savings, which is what CDM contributor and friend David Abravanel just did. (Since we don’t live on the same continent, he’s safe from me showing up every day with croissants to see if I can torture test his new baby.) The 16″ model is almost certainly better, but if you get a great deal, that’s another matter. And a new Apple launch is likely to flood the market, especially since there’s no price increase here.
The 16″ model does look like the new sweet spot for the Mac. I would just wait a little bit to get some detailed reviews of the new laptop, and to wait as Apple inevitably works on any bug fixes for this new machine generation and/or macOS Catalina. Plus third party developers are working really hard on support, meaning even a couple of months from now, you can expect a smoother Catalina switch experience than now.
By then, maybe we’ll see this keyboard rolled out on the more affordable, more mobile 13″ model, too.
And Windows laptops remain an option. With more and more music software offering essentially identical experiences across OSes to end users – even in a growing number of cases, on Linux – we’re in a competitive landscape for laptops for music and live visuals.
But that’s a good thing. And it’s great to see a new laptop from Apple that promises to be genuinely inspiring again – and what users actually want.
Nanoloop, the ingeniously simple pocket music-making tool, is being reborn. Two new dedicated pocket hardware devices promise to do what once required Nintendo’s Game Boy.
Nanoloop began its life as a home-brewed cartridge for the Nintendo Game Boy. The software shipped in the same physical format as classic games like Legend of Zelda – on a cartridge. That allowed the title to take advantage of the distinctive chip synth in the mainstream gaming hardware.
And Nanoloop was an instant hit, helping drive the explosion of the chip music scene. While some musicians swore by Nanoloop’s leading rival, Little Sound DJ [LSDJ], and its 90s-style tracker interface, Nanoloop stood out for its distinctive graphical design. Minimal elements onscreen belied powerful editing features, and opened up music-making to artists drawn to that aesthetic and way of working.
If you really want to be a purist, you’ll continue to run Nanoloop exactly like that, on the vintage hardware. And of course, there are also mobile OS versions now available, though they lose the tactile feel that’s part of the whole draw.
But now there’s a third way – run Nanoloop on new, dedicated gadgets, not made by Nintendo. (Not that Nintendo needs to worry about the competition – the target market here are typically rabid enough fans that they already own and extensively use Nintendo Switch!)
Incredibly, there are two separate projects inbound that offer new ways of running Nanoloop. Nanoloop’s own developer is building hardware designed just for music makers to run his creation. And separately, a project to make new hardware that runs the original cartridges includes the Nanoloop synth, built-in.
I mean, I kind of want both. (Santa Claus, if you’re listening…) Here’s the scoop:
We have fewer details on Analogue Pocket, but imagine a sleek, black remake of the original, with a high-density display in place of the original lo-fi one. It isn’t a software emulator as such – it actually plays the original Game Boy cartridges from all the different generations (Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance). Those afternoons spent around the flea market are about to get way more interesting, then.
In place of the original specs, though, you get modern features – as though you stepped into a mirror universe. So the display is 665ppi and 1600×1440. The battery is lithium-ion with USB-C charging. There’s an SD card slot.
What’s potentially interesting to music users is that the developers have a built-in version of Nanoloop. That seems to be the newer Nanoloop 2. I don’t yet have information on the Analogue Pocket’s sound engine, though, which will be crucial detail for chip enthusiasts wanting to use this as an instrument. Even Nanoloop developer Oliver Wittchow told me he’s trying to learn more about this device.
One thing we have been able to confirm – Oliver says the creators tell him the Analogue Pocket will have correct audio pin compatibility. That means the nanoloop mono cartridge – nanoloop 1 – will be compatible with the new hardware.
Meanwhile, Oliver is designing his own hardware around his app. That’s less interesting to mainstream gadget and gaming press, but even more interesting to us. And Oliver is making progress.
I covered the nanoloop hardware project and its Kickstarter campaign earlier this year:
What makes it special is really its hardware matrix design, with gamepads – it’s a never-before-seen hybrid of light-up physical grid and gaming-style joy/directional-pads. Or to put it another way, it’s the love child of a Game Boy Advance and a monome, part modern gadget, part nerdy DIY contraption.
And goddamn, son, this thing sounds sweet. Check out the update from late October:
He’s dumped the dorky LEDs for a svelte, retro-futuristic set of dots on the main display – very nanoloop. The sound is exceptional, and it fits in your palm.
There’s also a post reflecting on form factor. The horizontal option seems to me a clear winner, and it’s stunning how much he’s fit in so small a space. It really for me outdoes even the tiny Teenage Engineering OP-Z in terms of economical user interface. I look forward to playing the two as a duo, though.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Follow the Kickstarter campaign and check out his sound demos, as Oliver has produced a unique instrument for lovers of tiny electronic musical things. If you’re feeling eager for this to arrive, I am, too, so we’ll keep you posted on how the work is coming.
Laboratorio Elettronico Popolare’s LEPLOOP is the unexpected star of this one – a unique sequencer – synth – drum machine. Surgeon does say that devices tend to come and go, but I’m glad RA caught him with the LEPLOOP in the mix – it’s really adding a lot of dynamism to his sets at the moment. (Well, and it’s nice when the lesser-known gear gets some love!)
It’s also interesting that he uses the BOUM as a kind of glue to keep things from jumping out in the mix.
“It does make you want to … jump around.” Hell, yes.
He also takes a look at the “abstract” live set. Actually, I think this is more idiosyncratic – meaning it’s harder to learn from how he works. So, sure, the inexpensive SH-01A from Roland makes loads of sense – it’s a melodic favorite of mine, and I think a more versatile instrument than the all-about-acid 303s everyone has talked about lately. (I’m sticking with its Juno sibling, myself, but the SH-01A is my other favorite Boutique.) And the LYRA-8 is simply dreamy – it’s the creation of the wonderful SOMA, who I’ve profiled.
Maybe the most telling part of this is the Electro-Harmonix looper, the 45000. Just as the techno set is all about controlled modulation, the spice of the LEPLOOP atop the foundation of the Octatrack, here the composition focuses on the looper’s structure. That allows spontaneous layering of new material, with the regular patterns from the Roland and Lyra building up a skeleton.
There’s a full feature interview on RA, and well worth a read – it’s a must if you’re a Surgeon fan, but full of sage advice even if your own music lies in another idiom.
Behringer’s analog remake of the 303 is now out in the open – a $199 set of red, blue, and silver synths called the TD-3.
On one hand, this might be the least exceptional of the low-cost Behringer synths, in that there are a lot of 303 remakes around already. There are boutique models, things called “Boutique” from Roland, the open-source hardware x0xb0x and its ilk (which even served as a template to open source music hardware generally), and plug-ins and software emulations galore.
On the other hand, the same thing makes the TD-3 newsworthy. It’s a synth everyone knows, and it’s now US$199 street. Get ready for a lot more acid — that’s for sure.
So what did Behringer actually do?
The TD-3 roughly approximates the TB-303 layout, without being slavish. And Behringer says they’ve recreated the essential analog circuits, down to the matched transistors.
It’s easier, then, to describe what’s new – apart from seeing a Behringer logo instead of a Roland one.
There’s a distortion circuit, which Behringer says is modeled on the DS-1. That presumably means a BOSS DS-1. And that’s actually the ballsy move here; Behringer has tangled with Roland before over BOSS.
The sequencer functionality borrows the 303’s interactions, but there’s more here – an arpeggiator, 250 user patterns x 7 tracks, and an intriguing ppq (parts per quarter) setting.
There’s also more I/O, bringing this more in line with a hacked/modded 303 than the original. You get USB, MIDI, and filter in / sync in / CV out / gate out, in addition to the original’s basic sync features.
Behringer are offering this in three colors, which otherwise are functionally identical – so TD-3-BU, RD, and SR are blue, red, and silver, respectively.
It’s really the price that’s the big deal, at US$199. That mainly hurts the Roland TB-03, which has a street of nearly twice that. Now, I don’t much expect anyone to dump the TB-03 – it sounds great whether it’s analog or not, it’s got a delay/reverb this lacks, and it runs on batteries. For that matter, I don’t know that people will dump any of their existing 303 emulations.
But for someone picking up the 303 who doesn’t have one, it’s going to be tough to compete with Behringer.
On the other hand, Behringer now joins a lot of low-cost, cool synths. Synthtopia compares the TD-3 with the KORG volca NuBass. I don’t know if that comparison came from Behringer, but the KORG seems like a totally different animal – different sound, different features, different workflow, and you know, a volca.
The no-compromise and entry-level audio interface – it’s something that should be impossible, but MOTU might have just cracked it.
I have literally been trying to pack suitcases for a long trip, staring at audio interfaces because I can’t find the one that does what I need. I’ve been equally stumped sometimes asking inevitable questions from friends about what they should buy.
MOTU has always made great audio interfaces. But many of them require drivers, which means your Linux-running laptop with Bitwig Studio or your iPad with those great new Eventide apps are both out of luck. Or they don’t fit a small budget.
So the M2 / M4 genuinely surprised me. They have the specs of a high-end box from MOTU or others, but they start at US$169.95 and at last they also work with every OS, all squeezed into a portable package.
Here’s what you might not expect:
2.5 ms latency with their drivers
A high-res color screen and built-in metering (unheard of at this price)
RCA outs? MIDI I/O? Sure!
But that’s not why I say they’re really no-compromise (though the high-end converters surely go there). MOTU did their own custom USB drivers for ultra low-latency performance on Mac and Windows but they also made this class-compliant – so it doesn’t need drivers on Linux or iOS or Android.
And then the pricing is stupidly nice.
So finally, one little box does everything – and if you get into the iPad or Android or Raspberry Pi, you don’t have to go buy another interface.
Yes, these are USB-C but that will also connect to your existing USB A connection.
Promising stuff – I’ll be interested to pick one to review (or pick up one to hopefully keep).
Full specs from MOTU:
• 2-in / 2-out and 4-in / 4-out USB audio interfaces with studio-quality sound • Best-in-class audio quality driven by ESS Sabre32 Ultra™ DAC Technology • Best-in-class speed (ultra-low latency) for host software processing • Best-in-class metering for all inputs/outputs with a full-color LCD • 2x mic/line/hi-Z guitar inputs on combo XLR/TRS • Individual preamp gain and 48V phantom power for each input • 2x balanced 1/4-inch line inputs (M4 only) • Hardware (direct) monitoring for each input • Monitor mix knob to balance live inputs and computer playback (M4 only) • Measured -129 dB EIN on mic inputs • Balanced, DC-coupled 1/4-inch TRS outputs (2x for M2; 4x for M4) • Measured 120 dB dynamic range on the 1/4-inch balanced TRS outputs • RCA (unbalanced) analog outs that mirror 1/4-inch outs (2x for M2; 4x for M4) • 1x headphone out (driven by ESS converters) with independent volume control • MIDI in/out • Support for 44.1 to 192 kHz sample rates • USB audio class compliant for plug-and-play operation on Mac (no driver required) • Windows driver with 2.5 ms Round Trip Latency (32 sample buffer at 96 kHz) • Mac driver (optional, for 2.5 ms RTL@32/96 kHz and loopback feature) • iOS compatible (USB audio class compliant) • Driver loopback for capturing host output, live streaming and podcasting • Bus powered USB-C (compatible with USB Type A) with power switch (USB cable included) • Rugged metal construction • Workstation software included (MOTU Performer Lite 10 and Ableton Live Lite 10) • 100+ instruments (in Performer Lite) • Over 6 GB of included free loops, samples and one-shots from industry leading libraries • Kensington security slot • Built in the USA • Two-year warranty
Now shipping, $169.95 for the 2×2 M2, or if you want 4 ins and 4 outs, $219.95 for the M4.