Novation Circuit 1.7 adds song mode and more, in yet another update

Every time you think, okay, that’s the last update for Novation’s Circuit – there’s another one. What started as a simply entry-level groove box continues to evolve.

Version 1.7 is out now. As with past updates, you can get it by connecting your Circuit and heading to Novation’s Web hub for content, updates, and managing your own creations, Novation Components.

Find it here:
https://components.novationmusic.com/circuit/new-pack

New in this build:

Chain patterns, make songs. It’s called “Pattern Chain Sequence,: and it lets you chain together up to 32 patterns into a chain… or even chain chains into more chains, for 16 chains of patterns, then select any order you want. You can also use this live as you play by appending patterns.

Tied/drone notes. Each step can be tied to another, all the way into long drones.

Nudge off the grid: Each step gets 1-5 ticks delay, or use Synth Micro-Nudge “create new, more complex rhythms like triplets across the beat.”

Novation Circuit updates … they just keep going … and going … and going …

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Arturia DrumBrute Impact: smaller size, bigger sound, $349

Talk about less is more. The Arturia DrumBrute impact is sure to be a hit at US$349 for a packed analog drum machine – but its newfound focus and re-built sounds also make it more fun to play.

Fitting a drum machine into a smaller size and cutting the price this low does mean taking some things out. But it’s what’s left in that may make people find the DrumBrute Impact appealing.

Arturia has been trying their hand at drum machines for a while. It began on the software side, with the Spark series, but the workflow and functionality of that line never seemed to grab users quite like with Native Instruments’ Maschine or Ableton Live combined with Push, to say nothing of people who want to get away from the computer and use some hardware. The DrumBrute was promising, packing some novel analog sound circuitry together with workflow features from Spark and BeatStep Pro, but its sound felt like a work in progress. (Case in point: my studio neighbor has one and loves it, but he mutes the kick and replaces it with something else. Making drum machines is hard.)

So, that’s the surprise of DrumBrute Impact. The “impact” which I thought was just smart marketing for it being small and cheap actually is a clue to the fact that the Impact has all new circuitry inside. It’s the Arturia brain here, but the soul has been upgraded.

Finally, Arturia have made something that doesn’t just feel like another Roland TR drum machine. And that’s good, because much as I love the TR, having only that color is a bit like having a Wurlitzer but no Rhodes. But simultaneously, it also sounds like a new set of sounds you want to use, without requiring you to invest a huge amount of money in those sounds.

The result: this thing hits really hard. That matters. We’re humans. We like things that go thud. We can feel it. This isn’t theory; it’s visceral.

The sound engine:

You get a full complement of parts, each analog and with controllable parts. “Analog” remains something of a marketing hook, but the important thing about these parts is you get a set of sounds you can manipulate directly. That means:

KICK: pitch and decay
SNARE 1: snap and decay.
SNARE 2: tone and decay.
TOM: pitch, switch between high/low.
CYMBAL: decay.
COWBELL
CLOSED HAT: tone
OPEN HAT: decay (mute linked to the open hat)
FM DRUM: carrier pitch, decay, FM amount, and mod pitch.

I’ll work on some videos and music in the coming days. Drum machines are all about taste, so you may differ, but I liked each one of these sounds – which is really hard to get on a new machine. (The TR has a huge advantage based on familiarity, too. None of us can really say what we’d think of it if someone brainwiped us and we hadn’t heard any the music made with Rolands over the years.)

More importantly, you get a huge range as you twist the encoders on these, with a sense of power across that range rather than that usual feeling of … okay, this is the sweet spot and the rest is shite.

Snare 2, for instance, can sound like a rimshot or a clap, even, depending on where you adjust it, and lots of things in between. Tom Low easily doubles as a kick with a darker color. The cowbell is an exception, but it’s a nice grown-up homage to Roland.

It’s really the FM voice that’s the big winner, though. And it’s clear you could not only cook up some unexpected percussion with it, but also hack it into a usable, potentially weird if you want, FM bass synth.

Features:

If you want lots of I/O, well… come on, this thing is $349. But you still do manage a mono mix out, four separate outs for parts, and dedicated clock in/out, MIDI in/out, and USB.

Arturia could have made this a fairly dumb box that’s just a sound engine, but they crammed a whole lot of powerful features for playing into it, as you might expect from some of their past outings. So you get:

Step sequencing with 64 patterns (64 steps each)
Song mode for chaining patterns
Polyrhythms (set each track to its own length)
Swing, either global or per-instrument
Random pattern variations
Pattern looper, beat repeat
Real-time rolls (with that touch strip again)
Multiple sync options: Internal / MIDI / Clock, including 1PPS, 2PPQ, DIN24, and DIN48
Per-drum accents

There’s even a metronome that automatically overrides itself on the main out when you plug in headphones.

You don’t have easy MPC-style note repeat, which I personally prefer to those touch rolls, and the drum pads are basic (though you get one for each part, unlike the more expensive Roland TR-8S). Other than that, it’s hard to complain.

One surprise is the distortion circuit. It’s nice, and adds some dirt, but I almost expected something raunchier. Anyway, it’s useful to have, and you can always run those outs through some distortion pedals and really go nuts. I did run it through some light effects and delays, and it sounds unreal.

I mean, what’s to say? This thing is going to sell like crazy. $349 / 299 €. Preorder now, full availability in August.

It’s turning out to be quite a summer for hardware drum machines, with the ongoing success of the Elektrons (and some updates), the breakout hit Roland TR-8S, the coming boutique MFB TanzBar II, and now this as your cost-effective choice. If you’re still failing to play drum machines live or writing dull drum parts, you have no excuse.

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

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Your smartphone needs a pocket mixer: Roland Go:Mixer Pro review

The Roland Go:Mixer Pro packs a complete mixer into a handheld device, and it interfaces with your iPhone, Android phone – or anything else. We got one of the first units to test.

Compact enough to make the compact TR-09 behind it look huge. From left: inputs for guitar/bass (high impedance), plug-in mic (like a lapel mic), phantom power switch (needed for some microphones to function), and a full XLR-1/4″ combo jack for a mic – that last one is why it’s got the big bulge.

Your phone is missing a mixer

Smartphones at least ought to mean that we don’t carry around dedicated recorders (and their batteries and SD cards) as often. Your iPhone or Android phone or other mobile device also boasts apps for editing and managing recordings, even before you get into more creative production and live effects tools. And most importantly, they’re connected for live streaming or uploading the results.

Various products will let you connect and record instruments, or serve as more practical sound recording solutions for video shoots.

But what about the scenarios where you have a send of sound toys, synths and drum machines, instruments and microphone, or even different gadgets (like a jam session with a couple of iPads or a couple of fun phone apps)?

That’s where the Go:Mixer Pro comes in. It’s a stereo in/stereo out interface to phones and smartphones and computers, but it’s also a mixer. (It’s a standalone mixer, too, and you might even wind up using it just as much as that.)

You can connect and mix multiple inputs (9 channels in, 2 channels out):

  • Two 1/8″ stereo line inputs (for other mobile gadgets, a drum machine, a synth, whatever)
  • Two 1/4″ instrument inputs (two mono or one stereo pair)
  • Guitar/bass instrument 1/4″ jack input
  • Minijack plug-in mic (for a lapel mic, etc.)
  • One XLR/jack combo mic connection with phantom power

That’s the domain normally of ultra-small Behringer mixers and … not much else beyond that. Depending on the gear you’re using and whether you want mono and stereo connections, that’s somewhere between four and six independent sources.

There’s no line-level output – just a monitor output, though I did connect it to my studio mixer.

But there’s also a USB connection round the back. So the Go:Mixer Pro is also a 48K/16-bit stereo audio interface – you get two channels of input and two channels of output.

Front jacks – those are actually two separate inputs (each stereo) on the right.

USB means out-of-the-box support for computers and Android (OTG) phones and so on, a well as Raspberry Pi and other goodies. For iOS, Roland also supports “Made for iPhone” and includes a Lightning cable, so you get seamless operation with iPhones and iPads.

This isn’t a multichannel audio interface, only stereo, but that still fits many use cases – like recording gigs and jam sessions.

While it’s billed as a phone accessory, the mixer also works standalone – so you can just use that USB jack for power, via the dongle you already have for your phone or other gadget.

Three cables are included, for each possible device.

Form factor

Roland has packed this mixer/interface into a tiny form factor. The footprint is only about as deep as the iPhone 6 is tall. And it’s fairly slim, apart from a big bulge at the back to house the XLR combo jack and a battery compartment.

The batteries come in handy – you’ll need them to use the mixer standalone without USB power plugged in, if you want to avoid drawing power from your phone, or if you want to use a mic with phantom power with your iPhone. (Android phones will let you draw battery from the phone for phantom power; Apple are … more protective.)

Roland has included all the necessary cables in the box – USB-C, Micro USB, and Apple Lightning connections. That covers just about any computer or external power or Android or Apple phone.

But that cute little tabletop format is awfully useful. Yes, it’s marketed for smartphones, but you could also connect a Roland TR-8S, TB-03, and SH-01A to this little gadget for some on-the-go acid techno.

One constructive criticism to Roland on out-of-box experience: since this is geared for beginners, it’s a shame the box comes with no batteries and only a sheet pointing to a website in place of a copy of the (very friendly) short manual. Also a bit puzzling as they try to reach newbies: there are graphical icons on the top panel (a keyboard! a guitar!), but text labels on the connections (“instrument?”).

How it works

Operation is really plug-and-play. There’s not much feedback on level apart from a tiny “PEAK” light, but that’s okay — there are big, easy-to-see knobs.

Routing is rudimentary, but there’s a useful LOOP BACK switch – this records video while looping audio from your phone back into the device. Roland suggests doing this when you want to “play back music” while shooting video, but obviously it’s useful for production applications, as well.

And in case you forgot Roland is a Japanese company, there’s a karaoke mode. A center cancel feature is designed to remove vocals so you can host your own karaoke night.

Roland also makes Android and iOS devices intended for shooting video, though any audio device-aware application will also make good use of the hardware.

Here’s what’s really important: the thing sounds good. The mic pre and mix circuitry is transparent – I tried it with a couple of higher-end condenser mics and had no qualms inserting the mixer in my studio signal chain.

And that’s what sets this and some other recent mobile gear apart. It’s consumer-friendly, yes — but there’s no reason you can’t use this as a serious studio tool, as well. And that’s how it should be.

Key specs:
Runs on USB or 4xAAA batteries or your phone
170 mA power draw
Size: 104 x 155 x 41 mm, 220 g (that’s 8 oz)

Street price: USD$169.99 – okay, that’ll turn some people off, but frankly I’m glad to have a quality, quiet mixer

Battery case, and the two instrument jacks – you can use those as two mono inputs, or a stereo pair.

The competition

Anyone who’s been to a Berlin flea market in the past half decade will no doubt be reminded of the locally made POKKETMIXER. But that device, while a cute and cool proof of concept, is entirely unpowered, so it only mixes headphone outputs. It’s useful for crossfading between two smartphones, and that’s about it.

IK have so many devices that it’s possible one of theirs is more what you need than the Go:Mixer Pro. If it’s mainly an interface you want, for a guitar, for a mic, or for line recordings, IK Multimedia has an array of options. Apart from specialized guitar, stompbox/pedalboard, and AV options, the iRIG Pro DUO is most capable with dual preamps and balanced outputs. That interface also, crucially, has MIDI. (IK also makes standalone MIDI interfaces.)

And then there are devices that are just mixers, though for the moment few are challenging Behringer’s offerings in the subcompact mixer space. Some of those additionally have USB audio interface capability ,but that’s not the same as native iOS support, and they tend to be bulkier than this.

So to me, the Go:Mixer Pro just solved a major need for quick recordings and jam sessions. The fact that it’s a mixer as well as an interface makes it doubly convenient, and easy access to those input levels is also a big plus.

I just wish the interface with the Roland brand on it had MIDI, too – this is just shy of being an ideal ultra-compact mixer for, say, the Boutique Series. But I plan to make this a permanent part of my carry-on, and I bet I’m not alone.

https://www.roland.com/global/products/gomixer_pro/

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Apple MacBook Pro revision boosts CPU, display – so should you buy?

If you’ve been waiting for a revision of Apple’s MacBook Pro, it’s here. And Apple gives its users some significantly improved CPU performance, among other features. That’s not making Mac buying decisions much easier, though.

The MacBook Pro retains the same radical redesign, love it or hate it, that we saw in the previous revision. That includes some choices that upset some users. The keys still lack travel, which can be less satisfying for regular typists. There’s still a TouchBar and no dedicated “Escape” key, apart from one entry-level model (and that entry-level doesn’t get any upgrades). You’re still going to need dongles to cope with the USB-C port. And these models are expensive, especially once you figure in their high-end internal storage and RAM configurations. The 13″ model, the one that’s more affordable, is paired with only internal graphics. The 15″ gets dedicated graphics, but from AMD – and Adobe software is largely optimized for NVIDIA.

Okay, so what’s the good news?

New MacBook Pro 13" and 15"

Well, don’t be too glum. Apple have given these machines insanely powerful CPUs. The 15″ MacBook Pro offers 6-core Intel Core i7 or Core i9 processors. Even the base model there gives you a pretty stupid amount of CPU power – and that’s great for audio, or running expensive soft synths. The 13″ MacBook Pro gives you Quad-core Intel Core i5 or i7 processors.

The other features are more consumer-oriented, perhaps – there’s a True Tone display that adjusts its color temperature automatically, as found on the iPad, and a quiet keyboard.

But if you’re looking for a silver lining, it’s those CPUs. Powerful CPUs + macOS as the platform + the ability to service Apple laptops around the world easily + fast connectivity via those USB-C ports for audio and storage = a MacBook Pro that will make a lot of pro musicians happy. The previous MacBook Pro was no slouch, too, so the other good news is, obviously, bargain hunters can (and should) consider shopping around for used or refurbished or open box models at discount prices.

The trick is configuration. You want to save some money by getting the model without TouchBar, but I wouldn’t recommend that – you get only two USB ports and slower processors. It’s better to shop around for refurb or used and just live with the TouchBar, frankly.

I had a MacBook Pro to test last year. The keyboard I found a bit uncomfortable, but I didn’t have the reliability issues some users have reported. And talking to a lot of musicians with these machines, they’ve all been really happy – if they did express some frustration at being poorer, or having to make spec compromises they didn’t want to make, or both. But they did like the machines. As always, Apple’s industrial quality feels great – the machines are slim, the displays are gorgeous, and the keyboard is … okay, well everything but that keyboard. The TouchBar also seems to grow on people over time, and there are some options for creating custom shortcuts – nothing I’d write home about, and not really a reason to buy the machine, but something that could make you happy enough once you already own the laptop.

No, the problem is, Apple are still damned pricey. You probably want 512MB of internal storage so you aren’t constantly swapping around files just to connect a drive.

That means the “sweet spot” is really this 15″ model:

MacBook Pro 15"

15″ MacBook Pro

2.6GHz 6-core 8th-generation Intel Core i7 processor
Turbo Boost up to 4.3GHz
Radeon Pro 560X with 4GB of GDDR5 memory
16GB 2400MHz DDR4 memory
512GB SSD storage
Retina display with True Tone
Touch Bar and Touch ID
Four Thunderbolt 3 ports

High-end specs, to be sure – but at a high-end price of US$2799.

If you don’t need the GPU and the bigger screen, the 512M 13″ is the other good price point:

13″ MacBook Pro

Touch Bar and Touch ID
2.3GHz Processor
512GB Storage

2.3GHz quad-core 8th-generation Intel Core i5 processor
Turbo Boost up to 3.8GHz
Intel Iris Plus Graphics 655
8GB 2133MHz LPDDR3 memory
512GB SSD storage
Retina display with True Tone
Touch Bar and Touch ID
Four Thunderbolt 3 ports

But that’s US$1,999.

The price premium for Apple is hefty. And Windows is a perfectly serviceable operating system for audio production, if you’re willing to make some adaptations. Just be careful in the PC market. You can get some high-end GPUs, which appeal not only to gamers but for video production and creative live visuals (and running Adobe software), but it’s also clear why Apple didn’t opt for NVIDIA – those machines, even though they now increasingly conserve battery life, can run hot. And other PCs, while they have cheap sticker price, show that part of how they got there was cutting corners on industrial design. Check out The Verge’s guide to gaming laptops for a sense of what that picture looks like.

The issue with Apple, though, is that if you do go for a mid-range GPU – the same class that Apple includes in their machines – you can get PC laptops with similar industrial design and much better specs at a lower price. And that’s not the best news for Apple.

Oh, with just one caveat – you know how Apple is showing DaVinci Resolve and not Adobe software in their screenshots? I totally agree. Screw Premiere. Screw Final Cut, for that matter. Resolve is freakin’ awesome – and I have no idea why Adobe are as wedded as they are to NVIDIA GPUs. (Yes, a lot of machine learning stuff is also optimized for NVIDIA, but there are plenty of libraries running now on other architectures.)

It’s kind of a weird time to buy a new laptop – well, as usual. (Compromise! Always…) I’d love to see Apple improve their industrial design here, by coming up with a better keyboard and answering concerns about the GPU, or simply making a more competitive entry level option. But while the PC is stronger than ever, it does feel like we’re just one generation early when it comes to NVIDIA finally getting GPUs with desktop performance but low power generation and heat generation (and they are close).

But that’s just if you care about GPU. For audio production, it’s the CPU that really matters – and hot damn, no complaints there. Both Apple and the PC offer blazing-fast CPUs that still have absurdly long battery life. They now also both have high-speed buses – which on the PC had for a while been a stumbling block.

If you really want a Mac, I’d bargain shop to get a previous generation model with fairly high specs. If you want a PC, don’t fear Windows (and for that matter, Linux) too much.

At least now the landscape is fairly clear as we come into the end of the year. If you’ve been putting off a purchase and suffering with an old machine, the rich array of software that will run on these faster CPUs I think will mean a purchase now will make you pretty happy musically. There’s great hardware out there, but it’s also an exceptionally wonderful time for making music in the box, too. And it’s hard to complain about that.

https://www.apple.com/macbook-pro/

Photos courtesy Apple.

Previously:

Turn that MacBook Pro Touch Bar into a MIDI controller, free

The new MacBook Pro will work with your gear – if you add adapters

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Go inside Berlin’s synth heaven – and one of its top modular makers

Electronic music is understood by the general public mostly through artists – tech is just something in the background with knobs. But there’s more to the story than that.

And while it’s certainly well known in synth loving circles, Berlin has accordingly been techno capital and club capital, but is finally getting recognition as a mecca for technology.

These two films take you inside one retailer and one manufacturer that have each championed the return to boutique sonic electronics, to patch cables and modular synthesis, and that have resisted anything like mass market mentalities or commodification.

They could have easily been mistaken as throwbacks, but there’s some futurism to the visions of both Mark Verbos and Andreas Schneider. Schneider’s name is associated with Berlin, having established his shop as the hangout, wallet emptier, and community pillar of the synth scene. Verbos, who was himself once a Berlin resident, has only recently brought the modular business he established in New York City across the Atlantic. And even though their wares are unmistakably fetish objects, I’d say both brands make their value proposition through a commitment to adventurous sound. So yes, you get vintage-looking knobs and slightly anachronistic telephone switchboard interfaces. But the investment, their message says, is in exploring strange new worlds and undiscovered sounds.

Schneidersladen, toured by Synth Anatomy, is a clinic and community hub as well as a place to surrender to gear acquisition syndrome. And it retains the same personality and idiosyncracies that mark the larger synth loving scene.

Mapping the Schneider empire is getting tricky these days, but the short version: Schneidersladen in Kreuzberg is the new retail iteration of what was once Schneidersbüro (at Alexanderplatz, the old location)). ALEX4 is a distribution company. Superbooth, while once just an actual booth at the Musikmesse, is now an event series with its own production company.

At Verbos Electronics, Mark – who cut his teeth as a Buchla expert and repairperson – walks through the passion that drives his business in high-end modules. Side note: Mark is also a consummate live techno musician on his own instruments, having fired up these boxes in the likes of Berghain (and, back in the day, the old Ostgut and Tresor). Hearing him play should leave little doubt that these machines are for dancing, not just chin scratching. (You can, of course, attempt doing both at once. Full support.)

Check out the online presence of each:

http://www.verboselectronics.com/

https://www.schneidersladen.de/

Photo: Verbos Electronics.

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Modal goes from craft and boutique to sub-$300 SKULPT power synth

Modal Electronics have done ultra high-end boutique, and they’ve done cute, cheap craft synths. But now they’re gunning for a sub-$300 instrument that looks consumer-friendly – and packs some 32 oscillators and more.

If it’s successful, it looks like the first portable power polysynth that has an entry-level price tag – no exposed circuit boards, no cutesy features, no stripped-down sound sources. And it also has some parallels to IK Multimedia’s UNO, introduced at Superbooth Berlin in May. It even has a membrane keyboard like the IK piece. But whereas IK chose to go analog – and thus have just two VCOs – Modal have beefed up the architecture with by opting instead for virtual analog guts.

What you get, then, is a monosynth, paraphonic, or polyphonic instrument. You can route modulation into elaborate combinations. You get FM, PWM, tuning, and ring mod. And it has a built-in sequencer plus arpeggiator, which seems to be fast becoming a standard feature these days – but a lot of extras for each that definitely are anything but standard.

And with all that complexity, of course you’ll also be glad for the included patch storage and recall.

But it’s the pricing – projected under US$300 – that make this so aggressive. You can buy an iPad and load it with a powerful polysynth for that price, but there’s not anything I can think of that does this.

Full specs:

4 voice – 32 oscillator virtual analogue synthesiser
8 oscillators per voice with 2 selectable morphable waveforms
Mixer stage for osc levels along with FM, PWM, tuning and Ring Modulation options
Monophonic, Duophonic and Polyphonic modes available
Multi option Unison / spread to detune the 32 oscillators for a huge sound
8 slot modulation matrix with 8 sources and 37 destinations
3 x envelope generators for Filter, Amplitude and Modulation
2 x audio rate LFOs, one global and one polyphonic
Realtime sequencer that will record up to 128 notes and up to 4 parameters.
Fully featured arpeggiator with division, direction, octave, swing and sustain controls.
Resonant filter that can be morphed from low pass, through band pass, to high pass
Delay and distortion (wavehsaping overdrive, not bitcrushing) effects
Optional MIDI clock sync for LFOs and Delay
128 patch and 64 sequence storage locations
16 key touch MIDI keyboard
MIDI DIN In and Out – Analogue clock sync In and Out connections
Class compliant MIDI provided over USB connection to host computer or tablet
Headphone and line output
Power by USB or 6 x AA batteries
Optional software editor available for MacOS, Windows, IOS and Android
Portable and compact design

The design looks contemporary and stylish, too, if perhaps recalling 80s Frogdesign for Apple. And you might expect some compromises on I/O or something like that, but … there aren’t.

Sounds:

I’ll be curious to see how it’s received – while slick looking, the membrane keyboard and that diagonally oriented control panel may not be for everyone. But it’s hard to argue with the price and all that power underneath.

It certainly means Modal Electronics are game for any market segment. I can’t think of another maker that’s gone quite this quickly from “sell your compact car to buy our high-end synth” to “actually, maybe just fold it together yourself” to “let’s crowd-fund a slick, inexpensive design object.” (Okay, maybe Moog Music counts – but it took them some years to span from theremin kits to rockstar-priced modular reissues.)

The Kickstarter launches next week.

http://www.modalelectronics.com/skulpt/

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Synths may be spared worst of US trade war – for now

Following Moog Music’s alarmed email regarding US trade policy, some in the synth industry have responded that the immediate impact on manufacturers will be minimal.

Okay, so what’s going on?

The matter of discussion is still a document by the US Trade Representative regarding proposed tariffs or import taxes. These are 25% additional tariffs imposed by the USA on Chinese goods as they’re imported into the United States.

This document has changed over the past months. But the USTR does provide a public comment period for any changes – meaning, while these tariffs are set to go into effect this Friday the 6th of July, theoretically there shouldn’t be any additional changes.

And that’s where there’s a legitimate problem with the way Moog Music – and my own writing here on CDM – presented the problem.

Paul Schreiber, an engineer who has worked with multiple companies in the industry, posted a heated rebuttal to the Moog letter. That was not necessarily to defend Trump administration policy, but rather to suggest that Moog and others may have overreacted or mischaracterized the immediate realities of the policy.

See, previously:
Moog urges US citizens to take action to stop Trump import tax

Long story short: the idea is, the tariffs apply only to small components, like LEDs and potentiometers, but not to more significant expenses like the “circuit boards” Moog mentioned in their email.

And in fact, the cost of those really shouldn’t significantly impact the cost of US-made products, including Moog’s – even on an instrument that’s covered in LEDs and stuffed with circuits, those particular parts make up a relatively small portion of the cost. They’re not meaningless – shaving dollars and even cents off individual components is a pretty major part of the design process. But they’re not the sort of thing that would disrupt jobs or hurt the economy.

The area of confusion may be around circuit boards, as Schreiber observes – and I’m forced to admit, I agree with his assessment. He writes in a follow-up post:

If you search the tariff PDF for ‘printed circuit assemblies’, you get many hits (ATM machines, radiation detectors, etc) and here in Section 90, this one listing.
The ‘issue’ is that the listing of the tariff codes are an ABBREVIATED DESCRIPTION, not ‘as formally written’ in the ACTUAL codes.
The 9030 section of Chapter 90 is SPECIFICALLY talking about oscilloscopes. And this 9030.90.68 is referring to a non-US company, importing a ‘kit of parts’ into the USA, including a stuffed pc board, and then building a scope in the USA.

That’s not necessarily a definitive list, and it is open to interpretation but … I do tend to agree with this interpretation, unless someone can present a compelling alternative reading.

There are still reasons for the electronic musical instrument building community to be concerned. An escalating trade war between the USA and its trading partners could pose unexpected problems in the near future. And if these trading difficulties hurt the US economy, that impact could be felt, too. But it’s important to separate that from the immediate impact on making synths, which for the moment may indeed be negligible.

Other industries have greater cause to worry. The US automakers in particular are seriously concerned about costs for raw materials and retaliatory penalties abroad – but they’re impacted differently than US synthmakers are. Agriculture are concerned, too, as punitive measures cut off markets they need for exports. (And, okay, yes, synthesizers make up a much smaller part of the US economy than cars or agriculture, obviously. I guess we still have work to do? Or we have to figure out how you can ride synthesizers to different places, or … eat them.)

The DIY community I shared in my original post are harder hit, too, as a lot of their products are just these components – see Boing Boing’s story on maker products.

And there’s the fact that the US President is saying threatening things about the EU in general.

But in a heated political climate, it’s important to separate long-term risks from immediate problems, and to keep concerns in scale. For now, it’s reasonable for makers like Moog to protest isolationist or protectionist US trade policy, or heated up trade rhetoric and potential trade wars. But the rules going into effect this week, when viewed just inside the context of our industry, likely aren’t catastrophic – not yet.

I’m awaiting further comment from Moog on their activism and will update this story when that’s available.

Feature photo (CC-BY Paul Downey.

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Moog urges US citizens to take action to stop Trump import tax

As steep tariffs on electronics loom at the end of next week, Moog are warning that US synth makers could lose their jobs.

The US Trade Representative and the Trump Administration are proposing a steep 25% additional tariff increase on electronic components from China (among other goods), as covered here on CDM last week:

Trump’s tariffs could be costly for made-in-the-USA music gear

Now, those tariffs are expected to take effect on Friday, July 6.

Moog has gone as far as to implore their own customers to take action, in an email sent a week in advance of the rules change. That’s as far as I know reasonably unprecedented. Whatever the politics in Asheville, North Carolina, many US music customers are Trump voters.

But in this case, Moog’s business – and the American manufacturing they’ve consistently made a selling point – are threatened. The mailing, which includes a heart-wrenching photo of Moog employees in North Carolina, reads:

A U.S. tariff (import tax) on Chinese circuit boards and associated components is expected to take effect on July 6, 2018.

These tariffs will immediately and drastically increase the cost of building our instruments, and have the very real potential of forcing us to lay off workers and could (in a worst case scenario) require us to move some, if not all, of our manufacturing overseas.

In the article, they break down why this is such a big deal for Moog – and illustrate how the Trump trade policy could devastate American manufacturing and the US economy.

“Made in the USA” depends on Chinese parts. Roughly half of Moog’s circuit boards and related components come from China. Those parts are the fuel that allow them to support good manufacturing jobs in the USA, for assembly, testing, and shipping.

They pay more for US parts – and those will get more expensive, too. Electronics sourced inside the USA are already more expensive – priced up to 30% higher than other components. But because these parts also source Chinese components, those prices could go higher still.

People are going to lose jobs. Because these changes have an immediate impact, costs go up immediately. That will likely mean layoffs, soon, say Moog in the mailing. In the long run, it could mean having to move manufacturing out of the USA.

Moog have offered CDM to provide additional comment, so I hope to follow up this story.

In case you aren’t depressed enough, I think the mailing covers only a part of the problem. The immediate impact will be driving up the costs of US synth manufacturers. But stiff import tariffs could cause immediate and widespread job loss across a number of sectors. Motorcycle maker Harley Davison announced plans to move some manufacturing abroad – and saw stiff market losses as it came under direct fire by the President. General Motors warned the move could shrink the company, cut US operations, and kill jobs.

US job losses and a weakened economy would hit the biggest market for music electronics and musical instruments, meaning a second blow would be delivered to our whole industry.

And there’s more: Harley Davison’s move came after retaliatory tariffs imposed by the European Union, not the USA. This is what a global trade war looks like. If the EU expands those tariffs, then a manufacturer like Moog or MakeNoise or Eventide assembly products in the USA could face 50% taxes imposed on customers when its goods reach Europe.

But don’t get depressed – do something, if you’re a US citizen. Moog suggests writing Representatives and Senators. They’ve added contacts for North Carolina, but this is relevant of course to people living across the USA.

The Moog mailing is the best place to start if you live in North Carolina – and it has some talking points if you want something to look at when writing or calling your officials elsewhere:

25% Tariff On Chinese Goods Threatens Our Jobs

For everyone else – including Americans living abroad, like myself – you can find White House, Senate, and House contacts easily from the official US government website:

https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials

Don’t know who your Represntative is? See here: https://www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative

And find your Senators by choosing your state from the dropdown upper left here: https://www.senate.gov/senators/index.htm

The US Trade Representative is an office of the President, so I’d suggest also contacting the White House, even if this Administration is unlikely to change its policy.

https://www.whitehouse.gov/get-involved/

For the rest of the world outside the USA, uh, yeah, I have no idea what to tell you. But certainly, I think it would be optimistic to assume this will only impact US manufacturers; the ripples are likely to be felt throughout electronic music tools as through other industries. We’ll keep you posted as this develops.

And to all you folks at Moog – thanks for speaking out. And I hope we can help you keep your jobs.

https://www.moogmusic.com

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Arturia’s KeyLab MKII: a more metal, more connected keyboard controller

Oh, look, a new MIDI controller keyboard ranks there with “wow, a new moderately-priced mid-sized sedan.” But… Arturia may have a hit on their hands with the MKII KeyLab. Here’s why.

While everyone else guns for the elusive entry level “everyone,” Arturia has won over specific bands of enthusiasts. The BeatStep Pro is a prime example: by connecting to both MIDI and control voltage, these compact pad-sequencer units have become utterly ubiquitous in modular rigs. They’re the devices that prevent modular performances from turning into aimless noodling. (Well, or at least they give your aimless noodling a set of predictable patterns and rhythm.)

Now, is the modular market big enough to sell the majority of BeatSteps Pro? Probably not. But the agnostic design approach here makes this a multitasker tool in every kitchen, and so word of mouth spreads.

So, keyboards. Native Instruments, love them or hate them, have had a pretty big hit with the Komplete Kontrol line, partly because they do less. They’re elegant looking, they’re not overcrowded, and their encoders let you access not only NI’s software, but lots of other plug-ins via the NKS format.

But the KeyLab MKII looks like it could fit a different niche, by connecting easily to hardware and DAWs.

Backlit pads. 4×4 pads (with velocity and continuous pressure – good), which can also be assigned to chords in case finger drumming isn’t what you had in mind.

DAW control. A lot of people record/edit while playing in parts on the keyboard. So here’s your DAW control layout with some handy shortcut buttons.

Faders/mixing. You get 9 faders with 9 rotaries – so that can be 8 channels plus a master fader. There are assignable buttons underneath those.

Pitch and mod wheels. Dear Arturia: thank you for not being innovative here, as wheels are what many people prefer.

And a big navigator. This bit lets you pull up existing presets.

Okay, none of that is all that exciting – we’ve literally seen exactly this set of features before. But Arturia have pulled it together in some nice ways, like adding a dedicated switch to move into chord mode, letting you change MIDI channel with a button on the front panel (hello, hardware owners), and even thoughtfully including not only those shortcut keys for DAWs, but a magnetic overlay to access them.

Still, keyboards from Nektar and M-Audio, to name just two, cover similar ground. So where Arturia set themselves apart is connectivity.

Class-compliant USB MIDI operation. No drivers mean you can pair this with anything, including iOS and Android and Linux (including Raspberry Pi).

Control Voltage. 4 CV/Gate outputs, controlling pitch, gate, and modulation. Yes, four. Also one CV input.

MIDI in and out.

Pedals. Expression, sustain, and 3 assignable auxiliary pedal inputs.

Software integration. This is obviously a winner if you’re into Arturia’s Analog Collection library, which has gone from varied and pretty okay to really, really great as it’s matured. And since there are so many instruments, having this hardware to navigate them is a godsend. There’s also the obligatory software bundle to sweeten the pot, but I suspect the real draw here is out-of-box compatibility with the DAW of your choice – including Pro Tools, Logic Pro X, FL Studio, Bitwig, Cubase, Ableton Live, Digital Performer, and Studio One.

Made of metal. Okay, not the keys. (That’d be awesome, if… wrong.) But the chassis is aluminum, and the wheels are event metal.

There’s a pretty nice piano and a bunch of analog presets built in here, making this a good deal.

I think if your workflow isn’t tied to Native Instruments software and plug-ins, the connectivity and standalone operation here could make the Arturia the one to beat. The thing to check, obviously, is hardware and build quality, though note that Arturia say the keybed at least is what’s found on the Brute line.

There are 49- and 61- key variations, and they come in either black or white, so you can, you know, coordinate with your studio and tastes.

Video, of course:

Arturia KeyLab MKII

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Trump’s tariffs could be costly for made-in-the-USA music gear

Industries like automative (and motorcycles) may be getting the attention, but music gear and even Eurorack could feel the impact of trade restrictions in the United States.

This is CDM, not the Economist, so let’s back up and review the issue but stick to the impact on makers of synthesizers, guitar pedals, and the like.

First, it’s important to note that for now, this is all talk – a threat by the Trump Administration meant to provoke rival China. Specifically, we’re talking about a the Trump Administration threat last week to impose stiff import tariffs on $200 billion in goods produced in China. But even the talk is relevant, as tensions between the superpowers can turn a threat into reality – especially if they cause the negotiations to fail.

Here’s what’s happened. Early last week, the Trump Administration threatened new tariffs on Chinese goods:
U.S., China Rattle Trade-War Sabers in Vowing Harsh Tariffs [Bloomberg]

Bloomberg immediately speculated that electronics could be hit hard. The result could be higher prices for consumers of those goods in the USA – presumably including some Chinese-made electronic music gear. CDM readers from South America, for instance, can attest to this reality – ask someone from Brazil, for instance, how expensive it is to get a popular music controller or mixer. Those tariffs hit the bottom-line cost of goods, so the penalty is passed on to the consumer, not necessarily the manufacturer (though more on that in a moment).

Then things got more specific – and interesting. The US Trade Representative (USTR) – essentially the office that both develops the President’s trade policy and represents the US on behalf of the Administration – published a list of just which Chinese goods it had in mind.

There’s a lot in that document, if you feel like reading it:
https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/files/Press/Releases/301FRN.pdf

According to the USTR, this exhaustive list of products is selected based on goods that “benefit from Chinese industrial policies, including Made in China 2025.” (That in itself is a pretty striking statement – even in a western country like the USA, it’s hard to imagine that industries don’t benefit from government policies.) Then, from that list, the USTR claim they’ve removed products that would disrupt the US economy.

And then the whole lot of these products gets a proposed 25% increase in tariffs – on top of what’s already there.

The whole process of identifying this list is based on public hearings and comment. So if you’re a US citizen, you can actually participate in a public comment process if these tariffs would impact you.

And then you get into the list. The way the global trading system works is, you have a set of codes that describe specific categories of goods, to an absurd level of detail. Here, you have pages of particular kinds of steel and aluminum and machinery.

But one thing the list has a whole lot of us is electronics components: motors, batteries, but also LEDs, capacitors, diodes, transistors and the like. There are also a whole lot of machines and components used in the manufacture of electronics, from injection molding to electronics assembly.

There are also weird things, like electrical particle accelerators and nuclear power reactors, but we can forget about those.

The bottom line is, a lot of the ingredients of electronics are included under the tariffs, but then a lot of the assembled goods – including, as near as I can tell from this list, musical instruments and music and sound electronics – are excluded. Assembled TVs and (perversely) tape VCRs are taxed. But most other finished goods aren’t.

So if you thought your made-in-China pocket recorder or keyboard would be slapped with a tariff, that’s not what’s happening – not in the proposed list. In fact, it’s the made-in-the-USA gear that winds up getting more expensive, because American makers use components purchased from China.

The tech press has responded accordingly:

Gadget makers are bracing for Trump’s trade war: Trump’s tariffs could spell doom for small hardware startups [The Verge]

But maybe even more interestingly, DIY-focused site Hack-A-Day weighs in:
MAKING ELECTRONICS JUST GOT 25% MORE EXPENSIVE IN THE US

For example:

This will hurt all electronics manufacturers in the United States. For a quick example, I’m working on a project using half a million LEDs. I bought these LEDs (120 reels) two months ago for a few thousand dollars. This was a fantastic buy; half a million of the cheapest LEDs I could find on Mouser would cost seventeen thousand dollars. Sourcing from China saved thousands, and if I were to do this again, I may be hit with a 25% tariff.

(Emphasis mine.)

Potentiometers are included. PCB components.

A 25% increase in parts costs is fairly significant. It’s eating directly into profits. And what’s strange to me is, an easy way to avoid the tariffs would be to assemble the product outside the United States, since for most product categories – as ours are in music – the components are impacted but assembled products are not.

Sourcing from China saved thousands, and if I were to do this again, I may be hit with a 25% tariff.

For now, all of this is hypothetical. And I don’t want to overstate the case here. Trade and economic instability would likely threaten boutique music gear makers far more than these kinds of tariffs. That is, those boutique synth makers might be able to work out a way around the increased tariffs, and/or adjust prices. But if a massive trade war between the US and China erupts and crashes the economy, lost demand for synths would hurt more.

I do think this illustrates two important points, however.

One, even as electronic music offers some respite from politics and headlines, the news will inevitably reach electronic music and gear. You can’t escape the news in the end.

Two, it’s more clear than ever that the world is an interconnected place. DIY music and independent boutique music gear makers have exploded thanks to both the Internet and global trade. That’s included cheap access to prototyping, cheap components and machinery – even for those makers producing in the USA. For other engineers, cheap and expanding Chinese manufacture has allowed people to become manufacturers who otherwise never would have done so.

That’s not to get into the deeper questions of how positive these trends have been, or what impacts they may have had along the way – societal, environmental, human.

But the world of 2018 sees musicians and inventors tied together across borders and distance in ways they never were before. And with that world order shifting fast, those connections are likely to change along with them, in unpredictable ways.

Okay, you’re now free to go apply some unpredictable modulation to an oscillator if all of this made your head hurt.

All comments welcome. (I’ve reached out for comment to some manufacturers; I expect an ongoing conversation here around these issues, especially as we get more news.)

Feature photo (CC-BY Paul Downey.

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