Part of the appeal of modular systems is there in the name – modularity. But as the modular market grows, there’s increasing demand for modulars that are again designed as coherent systems. The ACL System 1 is ready to serve as a synth on its own, or the centerpiece of a larger modular rig.
The ACL System 1 launched this week, available here in Berlin from Schneidersladen (and shipping elsewhere). And here’s a look at how all those pieces come together:
The Audiophile Circuits League do their assembly in Berlin – joining a growing number of boutique makers, including Koma, MFB, Jomox, and Verbos, just to name a few. With a direct-order price of 3930 EUR, it’s not exactly a budget synth. But figure that even pretty recently, digital workstation polysynths were going for near this … and a whole modular rig is a lot more fun. (The price of modular synths as a category, meanwhile, have absolutely dropped – this high-end model is far less than the historical instruments that inspired it, calculating for inflation, to say nothing of prices that drop down to literally zero if you go to software).
Okay, so what’s in there?
6U 84HP Eurorack configuration in their EVZ-1 case
Two Variable Sync VCOs, linear and exponential FM
Dual State Variable VCF
Gate Mix for summing up to four sources
VC Panning Amplifier
M/S Matrix (for mid/side processing)
Three ADSR envelopes (Envelope X3)
QLFO with phase-shifted sine waves
Basically, you get a synth that’s very inspired by Roland’s System 100M. (Roland, for their part, have also been resurrecting the Japanese modular lineage – something I hope we’ll look into soon.)
So you can make freaky synth sounds, lots of effects, and (of course) precise, thumping kicks. And the whole thing feels really nice, including some really luxurious knobs (they’re “Vernier dials” for anyone interested).
But… if you don’t know what the above means, then this probably isn’t for you.
There’s also an audio interface module and nice touches like a low impedance headphone jack – all the sorts of things that sometimes get overlooked by odd DIY modules.
Also, in a nod to the fact that this is a modular, they did leave a little (tiny) space for expansion, though those 4HP aren’t going to accomplish a whole lot! Most of the people I’ve seen buy these kinds of systems, though, already own a smattering of modules and are upgrading to an integrated instrument that sits at the center of it. (Yes, for those people warning of “Eurocrack” addiction, it’d look like that.)
I’m not personally in the market for something like this, but I always find them interesting to play around with and as a demonstration of how designers approach building a modular system. Nice stuff:
Machine learning is presented variously as nightmare and panacea, gold rush and dystopia. But a group of artists hacking away at CTM Festival earlier this year did something else with it: they humanized it.
The MusicMakers Hacklab continues our collaboration with CTM Festival, and this winter I co-facilitated the week-long program in Berlin with media artist and researcher Ioann Maria (born in Poland, now in the UK). Ioann has long brought critical speculative imagination to her work (meaning, she gets weird and scary when she has to), as well as being able to wrangle large groups of artists and the chaos the creative process produces. Artists are a mess – as they need to be, sometimes – and Ioann can keep them comfortable with that and moving forward. No one could have been more ideal, in other words.
And our group delved boldly into the possibilities of machine learning. Most compellingly, I thought, these ritualistic performances captured a moment of transformation for our own sense of being human, as if folding this technological moment in against itself to reach some new witchcraft, to synthesize a new tribe. If we were suddenly transported to a cave with flickering electronic light, my feeling was that this didn’t necessarily represent a retreat from tech. It was a way of connecting some long human spirituality to the shock of the new.
This wasn’t just about speculating about what AI would do to people, though. Machine learning applications were turned into interfaces, making gestures and machines interact more clearly. The free, artist-friendly Wekinator was a popular choice. That stands in contrast to corporate-funded AI and how that’s marketed – which is largely as a weird, consumer convenience. (Get me food reservations tonight without me actually talking to anyone, and then tell me what music to listen to and who to date.)
Here, instead, artists took machine learning algorithms and made it another raw material for creating instruments. This was AI getting the machines to better enable performance traditions. And this is partly our hope in who we bring to these performance hacklabs: we want people with experience in code and electronics, but also performance media, musicology, and culture, in various combinations.
(Also spot some kinetic percussion in the first piece, courtesy dadamachines.)
Check out the short video excerpt or scan through our whole performance documentation. All documentation courtesy CTM Festival – thanks. (Photos: Stefanie Kulisch.)
Big thanks to the folks who give us support. The CTM 2018 MusicMakers Hacklab was presented with Native Instruments and SHAPE, which is co-funded by the Creative Europe program of the European Union.
Full audio (which makes for nice sort of radio play, somehow, thanks to all these beautiful sounds):
2018 participants – all amazing artists, and ones to watch:
Alex Alexopoulos (Wild Anima)
Aziz Ege Gonul
Damian T. Dziwis
Julia del Río
Moisés Horta Valenzuela AKA ℌEXOℜℭℑSMOS
Nontokozo F. Sihwa / Venus Ex Machina
Summer festivals? No, the most epic onstage moment for this summer has to be Kraftwerk jamming live with the International Space Station – and an iPad as the first electronic musical instrument in space.
Take a look (German-language text with English-language subtitles) – and spot the riff from Close Encounters:
In front of a crowd gathered in Stuttgart, Gerst announces from the international space outpost:
I am one of only six people in space, on the outpost of humanity, the International Space Station ISS, 400 kilometers above sea level. The ISS is a Man Machine – the most complex and valuable machine humankind has ever built.
Here in the European Columbus laboratory, the successor to the Spacelab, the European Space Agency ESA is researching things that will improve daily life on Earth. More than 100 different nations work together peacefully here and achieve things that a single nation could never achieve. We are developing technologies on board the ISS to grow beyond our current horizons and prepare to take further steps into space, to the Moon and Mars.
The app is Lemur, the landmark touch control app, with another soft synth behind it making the sound.
The venue is the Jazz Open Festival, with a crowd of 7500 people in Stuttgart. (Hence the cheers as a UFO flies above the TV tower in the city.)
Dr. Alexander Gerst is a geophysicist as well as astronaut. This is his third mission to the ISS, and puts him in space from 6 June to the middle of December, 2018, as commander of the space station. That makes him only the second ESA astronaut to take command, after Frank de Winne on Expedition 21. (The latter I’ve had the pleasure to have dinner with, thanks to ESA. I asked him about sound, of course. His answer: the space station is almost deafeningly loud, not perhaps the soft purr you have in mind after watching Star Trek: The Next Generation – the Russian section being loudest of all, because of particular equipment it stores. They also use sound as one diagnostic for how equipment is working, though.)
Plus if you’ve seen The Martian, the character of Alex Vogel draws some elements from the real-life Dr. Gerst.
Kraftwerk of course had their own track “Spacelab” (1978). The name comes from a research laboratory developed in the 1970s as a joint project between NASA and European Space agency predecessor ESRO. ESA tells us that the environment Commander Gerst is in now, ESA’s Columbus laboratory module, is a direct descendant of that project. It’s a massive 75 cubic meters (well, massive when you’re launching that into space), packed with research equipment handling space science, Earth observation and technology, materials science, and more.
Gerst had a special tailor-made suite of software created for him on that iPad.
And so what you get is a convergence of science and culture, all in the European sphere.
Yes, nests of patch cords and racks of modules will make noodle-y noise for chin scratching. It can also make pounding techno – and we’re going inside some of the sonic brains who’ve mastered that.
Our mission: let’s learn how people are actually using modular synthesis to express their musical ideas, and demystify some of the basic concepts in sound creation behind all those cool flashing lights and tangles of wire.
To do that, we need musicians like Florian and Leonard.
Florian Meindl and Leonard de Leonard will join us tomorrow in Berlin thanks to Roland organizing a visit in the artist center they’ve set up in Kreuzberg. These are two producers with a deep knowledge of music history and production skills as well as technical knowledge. They’re proof that musicianship is a combination of engineering and intuition. So whether you’re interests tend to beats or beatless, the main takeaway is that they can master creative sound design as an instrument.
Florian in the studio.
Florian has been a guest with CDM (and Roland) once before. He’s a real workhorse of Berlin’s techno scene, having produced music for about a decade and a half, various high-profile remixes (Hot Chip & Royksopp), and helmed a label (FLASH) that has released a who’s who of quality techno from around the world – with a stunning 130 releases, ranging from Sigha to Noncompliant, and not a dud in the bunch. I have to say from trying to juggle multiple threads like this, this stuff isn’t easy. He’s also some kind of ninja of social media.
Plus, for synth lovers, his Riemann Kollektion and Riemann Modular build businesses around boutique sounds and DJ tools and Eurorack modular, respectively.
Florian’s hybrid DJ sets effortlessly mix from club bangers to fluid modular improvisations – I saw particularly heavy, concrete-shaking sets at both Berlin’s Arena and Griessmuehle recently. I think the key was, the modular stuff never sounded like filler – it was just as dead-on.
Here’s a beautiful example of his music, which goes full-on dark and industrial without ever losing site of groove.
And because the future of DJing is also playing live, here’s his round-up of mixes and live sets:
Leonard’s stunning Sound Provider studio, otherwise known as “okay, that’s a good motivation to try to go to heaven when I die instead of Hell, maybe?”
Leonard de Leonard is a kind of sonic polyglot, a deep expert in modules and synths (well beyond my own modular knowledge – let me be totally clear about that), and with a resume across various genres, in composition, arrangement, and production. He’s also worked in sound design. You can tell a really clever producer/sound creator when it’s musically satisfying to listen to samples of their loops – like, his loop libraries sound better than a lot of producer’s tracks.
We’ll also get to look at Roland’s entry into Eurorack modular, a collaboration with Portland, Oregon boutique maker Malekko. What I appreciate about Roland’s work in modular, and why I would chose to work with them, is that they’re helping give back to the odd and wonderful underground collection of people now making modules. So apart from bringing back some of the vintage Roland System 100 designs that helped shape what modular looks like today, they’re also making a point of showing how their modules fit with other smaller makers, in a larger ecosystem.
With the proliferation of modules, the phrase “Eurorack bubble” has been floating around for a while. But now it appears to be translating into falling prices.
The basic problem is this: more demand means more interest, which translates into more manufacturers, and more production. So far, so good. Then, more distributors pick up the goods – not just boutique operators like Schneider, but also bigger chains.
Where’s the problem? With too many modules out there in the marketplace, and more big retailers, it’s easier for the big retailers to start to squeeze manufacturers on price. Plus, the more modules out in the world, the greater the supply of used modules.
Andreas Schneider has chosen to weigh in on the issue personally. You can read his statement in German:
There’s actually a lot there – though the banner revelation is seeing the cost of new modules suddenly plummet by 30%:
You asked for it: Due to the increased demand for Eurorack modules in Europe, even the large retailers for musical instruments are now filling the last corners of their warehouses and buying complete production runs from manufacturers and everything else they can get. Some manufacturers might be happy about this, but the flooding of the market already leads to a significant drop in prices here and there, some modules are already available with a 30% discount on the original calculated price and yet were still quite hot the other day!
As SchneidersLaden we have decided to go along with this development and of course offer corresponding products for the same price to our customers, although most of them have already bought them when the goods were still fresh and crisp! We’re almost a little sorry about that, but hopefully the hits are already produced and the music career is up and running? Nevertheless, sorry – but the decision for this way lies with the manufacturer and was not our recommendation!
By the way… we don’t advertise with moneyback-warranty… we’ve always practiced it. But please: get advice first, then buy – like in the good old days. Because it’s better to talk to your specialist retailer – we know what we are selling. And by the way: We do free shipping throughout Europe and there are Thursdays on that we are in the shop until nine o’clock in the evening …and real CHAOS serves creativity.
That had to be said – end of commercial break.
Okay, so some different messages. To manufacturers, with whom Schneider seems to place a lot of the blame, the message is to avoid glutting the market by selling so many units that then they lose their price margin. (That seems good advice.) There’s also a “dance with the one that brung you” attitude here, but that’s probably fair, as well.
To buyers, work with specialists, and please research what you buy so you don’t shoulder retailers and manufacturers with lots of returns. That seems good advice, too.
(Hope I’ve paraphrased that fairly.)
It does seem there’s a looming problem beyond just what’s here, though. For the community to continue to expand, it will have to find more new markets. It does seem some saturation point is inevitable, and that could mean a shakeout of some manufacturers – though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The used market should also be a worry, though on the other hand, some people do always seem to buy new.
I’d echo what the two posts here say, which is the synth maker world will likely be healthy if manufacturers and consumers do some research and support one another.
Before anyone predicts the sky is falling, I’ve had a number of conversations with modular makers. Those with some experience seem to be doing just fine, even if some have expressed concern about the larger market and smaller and newer makers. That is, those with some marketing experience and unique products still see growth – but that growth may not translate to greener manufacturers who are trying to cram into what is becoming a crowded field.
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.)
Break out of the drab and the grime and the grind: the latest from Berghain resident Barker is about colors and freedom, with a hypnotic, playful video to match. We talk to the artists.
Presumably, Berlin techno club Berghain and its label Ostgut Ton are associated with bright colors much in the way that the capital of Germany is associated with ocean beaches or country and western music.
But Sam Barker’s new EP – which we’ll go into in a separate CDM story – actually fits perfectly, if you open your mind. As usual, the DJ/producer and co-founder of the Leisure System label and party boldly dreams up new directions for techno. That is, this music is still about forging machine rhythms from the latest sonic technologies, still about techno’s duple groove, but here does so in ways that forgo four-on-the-floor kick cliches or the current trends in gloomy timbres. In their place, you’re treated to brightly vibrating pads and shimmering rhythmic textures.
Or, anyway, those are the clumsy words I can think of to describe it. But Singapore-born motion artist Reza Hasni’s video captures exactly what you’d imagine Barker’s new music should look like. Watch:
CDM checked in with Sam and Reza for more.
Barker: I love Reza’s animation and illustration work, and asked him if he’d make a video for “Filter Bubbles.” I only explained, the shape of the track is supposed to represent bubbles being created and eventually bursting. Reza then built a narrative around this abstract bubble making machinery that ultimately breaks down, opening the door to a new dimension. Hugely grateful to have his imagination on this issue.
Reza Hasni: I have been following Sam’s music and was really excited to do a video for his latest track. The video is about a story of the abstract bubble that represents us. It’s supposed to fit into a situation or organization that loops itself everyday … and eventually it gets bored and escapes into another, until the part where it breaks away from the bubble machinery and evolves to be something unique and less repetitive.
CDM: I’m curious how you approached the music — how do you hear it, or how does that hearing impact how you arrange the animation?
Reza: When Sam told me that the shape of the track is supposed to represent bubbles being created, when I hear the track it reminded me of metal pipes, a smokey industrial factory, the feeling of early morning daily routine when you get up and head to work, doing something in the middle and straight back to sleep — that sort of cycle for the bubble. The track was lighter so I created something happier – then I thought of a happy, colorful, fun industrial factory with strobing lights.
Do you tend to see these sorts of visuals when you hear music, or do you have color associations with the music?
Not all music is the same, so it changes for me. But I often see color associations with music.
CDM: How are you producing your visuals?
I sketch a lot, transferring all elements into [Adobe] After Effects and animating it from there. If you see my other works, there’s a lot of collage influence in my visuals.
It’s a technicolor explosion of colors – I try to incorporate the colors used for sand mandalas into my videos.
This whole process is sort of meditative for me.
Thanks, Reza and Sam! I had an extended conversation in Sam’s home studio yesterday about the album, how it was made, and music in general, so watch for that interview soon. In the meantime, don’t miss the new EP. It’s on repeat for me at least – in the happy bubble way, naturally.
Want something vanilla, like a MIDI controller with a classic mixer layout or a bunch of pots? Or want something crazy – like a psycho-bright light-up show controller? Faderfox has you either way.
The one-person German boutique controller company Faderfox has been making clever controllers since some of the first days of doing that for software, and they keep getting better. Mathias – he really is just one guy – wrote with the latest. He’s Mathias is now shipping the first controllers in his “MODULE” line. The idea here is, you get to mix and match some simple options to build up a virtual mixing surface, for your hardware or software.
These are pre-configured to work with Ableton Live and Elektron’s boxes, and the form factor even matches the Elektron so you can arrange or rack them together neatly.
You can use the new MODULE line with any MIDI-enabled hardware or software, but fans of Elektron will notice something about the dimensions.
On the MX12, you get twelve fader strips – 12 faders, 24 pots, and 24 buttons. Those still send whatever you want, so you can control whatever hardware or software tool you wish (via control change, program change, all the goodies), either by manually creating templates or using MIDI learn to automatically assign them.
On the PC12, you get just pots – 72 of them. You could put those two together, or use them individually, or build a monster system by chaining these together.
You might get away with the generic one and some adjustment in your software, but there are up to 30 custom setups if not.
And each comes in an aluminum case with both two MIDI in and two MIDI out, plus USB. An extension port lets you connect to other stuff.
Oh, and this is cute and useful – these come with a dry erase marker and empty overlay, so you can mark up your controller and know what everything is. There’s even a matching stand. Different colored fader caps let you add additional visual feedback.
399EUR (before VAT) for each.
Okay, so that’s the practical – now let’s get to the impractical (but fun). Mathias has done various one-off custom controller builds, but the GT1 is the craziest, biggest yet – a light-up, 144 RGB LED show controller.
So, for anyone complaining about laptop performance behind a blue glow, uh… take this.
MUSIC TRIBE and Behringer responded early today to CDM’s request for comment, following revelations that company had targeted a Chinese website and Dave Smith Instruments with threatened or real legal action over criticism of the company’s business practices.
Uli Behringer, company CEO and founder of holding company MUSIC TRIBE, shared the following, which I’ve included in its entirety. (He also shared the same message to their Facebook group.)
In the message, Behringer doubles down on the claim that comments posted by a Dave Smith Instruments employee to the Gearslutz forum, as well as by Chinese news site Midifan, are false and constitute illegal defamation. He also defends the practice of what he describes as “reverse engineering” in their product development process.
Here’s their side of the story, as represented to us:
Thank you for reaching out and giving us an opportunity to respond in detail which we appreciate.
This is actually a first in our history with CDM and we welcome the change. As usual there are always two sides to any story and in the spirit of transparency and fairness we believe both sides should be heard. Since much revolves around “Defamation,” please find a quick Wiki link.
Chinese Media Case
Allow me to first comment on the previous story related to the Chinese Media case. While you had claimed to have reached out to us for comments, there is no such record in any of our systems. You only contacted me and Michael Lapke last weekend after the news was already a week old.
Let me start by saying that we don’t have any problem with people criticizing us. In fact we appreciate constructive criticism as that’s the only way to learn. What we have a problem with is when our employees are being called highly offensive and insulting names by media outlets. Unfortunately your article did not properly reflect the full content and background of the language used, which in the Chinese culture has a highly different sensitivity and legality.
This was not only raised by our Chinese colleagues but also customers of this media site who felt compelled to contact us. Also publishing pictures of a cancer-fighting colleague in a hospital bed has caused deep concerns among our people.
We sent the owner of the publishing site a Cease-and-Desist letter, but he was never sued as wrongly reported. We have since spoken with the publisher and they have promised to remove the offensive language and refrain from posting such slur in the future. We consider this case to be resolved and he also has standing invitation to visit us.
Since our employee welfare and integrity has been severely questioned by this Chinese magazine and whose accusations have later been repeated by CDM and other publishers without fact checking, I like to post a link to a local job portal that may give you a different impression. We also invited you Peter (and everyone else) to visit us, both in Manchester and Zhongshan.
· No 1 most popular electronics company
· No 1 most popular recruiting company
· No 1 most employee caring company
I am very proud of our local leaders who go out of their way to make a difference for our employees. If you like to learn more about our MUSIC Tribe City here is a video.
Some time ago an employee of DSI had posted incorrect and slanderous statements about our company on multiple forums. We put both the employee as well as DSI on notice and received a signed Cease-and-Desist letter from the employee where he assured us that he would refrain from such future comments. I have attached a copy of the undertaking of the employee to stop making such comments. In the reply of DSI, the company stated that it has instructed all employees to stop making any false or derogatory statements against us.
It is important to understand that this is not a legal action against a mere individual but a representative of a competitor. Any such false and disparaging comments made by DSI’s employee, are damaging and inappropriate in a highly competitive market such as ours. Unfortunately and despite the signed declaration, the individual working for DSI chose to continue to make such claims and hence we were forced to take legal action. If the employee had stopped his actions as agreed, the case would have never been field. While I am not a lawyer, I can only assume that including 20 “John Does” is part of a standard legal procedure to include other potential individuals related to the company. For clarity purposes, this case has nothing to with any particular forum or individuals other than those related to DSI.
Misconception around IP
Allow me to post an article about IP (Intellectual Property) as this is an important one to us. Especially because we have been accused of not honoring the IP of other manufacturers. I have heard and read over the years many accounts of lawsuits, judgments and sanctions against our company that are frankly based in fiction and not fact.
Technology is free for anyone to use unless it is protected
This is the fundamental principle of every industry and how we as a society progress and evolve. Imagine there was only one car or guitar manufacturer. I welcome this opportunity to set the record straight not only on past cases but to also clarify our view on IP and what constitutes fair competition as well.
About 30 years ago, as a small garage operation, we became involved in a patent dispute with Aphex over a processor we were building. At that time there were several companies who produced those exciters, such Akai, SPL, D&R, etc. Our patent attorney advised us that the Aphex patent was invalid and I also applied for my own patent (DE3904425), with sponsorship from the acclaimed Fraunhofer Institute, the inventors of MP3. Despite assurances and our own beliefs, we ended up in court where the judge ruled in Aphex’s favor and we lost the case. We paid damages and moved on.
This case illustrates very clearly what I came to understand over the ensuing nearly 30 years about patents and IP. Disputes over intellectual property are commonplace in many industries and especially so in the technology industry. IP is a grey area, as it deals with patents, trade dress, copyrights, designs etc. where not much is black and white.
Just look at cases with Roland versus InMusic, Gibson versus PRS, Peavey versus QSC, Microsoft, Blackberry, Yahoo, Google, Samsung, Apple etc. Lawsuits are often used as “guerilla tactics” and especially common in the US where legal fees are sky high and each party has to pay its own fees regardless of the outcome of the case. This, along with the fact that IP litigation is often used as a tool to push a competitor out of business, are reasons why there are so many cases in this area of law.
Misconceptions around IP
One needs to be clear about the distinction between blatantly copying someone else’s product and the principle of reverse engineering. Copying a product 1:1 is clearly illegal, however reverse engineering is something that takes place every day and is accepted as part of a product development process known as benchmarking.
Often one company will establish a new market opportunity for a unique product and others will follow with their versions of that pioneering product. Think iPhone followed by Samsung Galaxy. This is the principle of competition.
The Article from Berkeley Law School gives a great read and provides valuable background information. A quick excerpt demonstrates why public opinion often differs from the law.
“Reverse engineering has a long history as an accepted practice. Lawyers and economists have endorsed reverse engineering as an appropriate way for firms to obtain information about another firm’s product, even if the intended result is to make a directly competing product that will draw away customers from the maker of the first product.”
One of the cases that endures in people’s memories is when we were sued by Mackie over alleged infringement of their IP. After a series of very costly and bitter court cases which we all won, Mackie reached out to us for a settlement which did not involve any money. It was proven in court that we had not copied their schematics or PCB layouts, nor had we infringed on any patents as there were none. Nor had there ever been any legal cases brought by BBE, dbx or Drawmer as claimed by Mackie as part of their marketing campaign against us and which was later erroneously reported by Wikipedia and even CDM.
In our first two decades, most of our products were designed to follow market leaders with similar features and appearance, at a lower cost. This value proposition upset many of our competitors while at the same time earning us a huge fan base among customers. I fully understand that many of those competitors would be frustrated by our ability to deliver equivalent or better products at significantly lower prices and that is the source of much of the anger directed at us by them.
Since the Aphex case we have been sued several times and we equally had to sue competitors over infringement of our IP. This happens in every industry and is part of a fierce and competitive landscape.
However, to be clear, we have not lost any substantial IP case since the Aphex case 30 years ago and legal cases are a matter of public record.
We are committed to never engage in any activity that willfully infringes on the intellectual property rights of any company or individual. However, we are also aware that legal wrangling will continue as we press on with our philosophy of delivering the best products at the lowest possible cost.
We welcome criticism
I am a big believer in free speech and welcome any form of constructive criticism, as this is the only way for us to learn and improve. We also don’t mind any comments made or language used by individuals as this is a matter of personal choice.
It becomes sensitive when incorrect or defamatory statements are made by competitors and the media. While there is free speech, words do have consequences and since we are all bound by the law, the rules should be applied equally to everyone.
Once again, I understand that people have their opinions and preferences and I fully respect that. I also understand that some people don’t like me or our company, and chose not to buy our products which I respect, too.
Since we started our company 30 years ago, we have always carefully listened to our customers and built what they wanted us to build. Sometimes people would request us to improve an existing product in the market, sometimes they would come up with a complete new idea. In fact many of the ideas for our most successful products have actually come from our customers and for that we are immensely grateful.
However, we are also aware that legal wrangling will continue as we press on with our philosophy of delivering the best products at the lowest possible cost.
This is the philosophy I started the company on 30 years ago, and this is the philosophy that will carry us into the future.
Far from the liberated playground the Internet once promised, online connectivity now threatens to give us mainly pre-programmed culture. As we continue reflections on AI from CTM Festival in Berlin, here’s an essay from this year’s program.
If you attended Berlin’s festival this year, you got this essay I wrote – along with a lot of compelling writing from other thinkers – in a printed book in the catalog. I asked for permission from CTM Festival to reprint it here for those who didn’t get to join us earlier this year. I’m going to actually resist the temptation to edit it (apart from bringing it back to CDM-style American English spellings), even though a lot has happened in this field even since I wrote it at the end of December. But I’m curious to get your thoughts.
The complete set of talks from CTM 2018 are now available on SoundCloud. It’s a pleasure to get to work with a festival that not only has a rich and challenging program of music and art, but serves as a platform for ideas, debate, and discourse, too. (Speaking of which, greetings from another European festival that commits to that – SONAR, in Barcelona.)
The image used for this article is an artwork by Memo Akten, used with permission, as suggested by curator and CTM 2018 guest speaker Estela Oliva. It’s called “Inception,” and I think is a perfect example of how artists can make these technologies expressive and transcendent, amplifying their flaws into something uniquely human.
Minds, Machines, and Centralisation: Why Musicians Need to Hack AI Now
IN THIS ARTICLE, CTM HACKLAB DIRECTOR PETER KIRN PROVIDES A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CO-OPTING OF MUSIC AND LISTENING BY CENTRALIZED INDUSTRY AND CORPORATIONS, IDENTIFYING MUZAK AS A PRECURSOR TO THE USE OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE FOR “PRE-PROGRAMMED CULTURE.” HE GOES ON TO DISCUSS PRODUCTIVE WAYS FOR THOSE WHO VALUE “CHOICE AND SURPRISE” TO REACT TO AND INTERACT WITH TECHNOLOGIES LIKE THESE THAT GROW MORE INESCAPABLE BY THE DAY.
It’s now a defunct entity, but “Muzak,” the company that provided background music, was once everywhere. Its management saw to it that their sonic product was ubiquitous, intrusive, and even engineered to impact behavior — and so the word Muzak became synonymous with all that was hated and insipid in manufactured culture.
Anachronistic as it may seem now, Muzak was a sign of how tele-communications technology would shape cultural consumption. Muzak may be known for its sound, but its delivery method is telling. Nearly a hundred years before Spotify, founder Major General George Owen Squier originated the idea of sending music over wires — phone wires, to be fair, but still not far off from where we’re at today. The patent he got for electrical signalling doesn’t mention music, or indeed even sound content. But the Major General was the first successful business founder to prove in practice that electronic distribution of music was the future, one that would take power out of the hands of radio broadcasters and give the delivery company additional power over content. (He also came up with the now-loathed Muzak brand name.)
What we now know as the conventional music industry has its roots in pianola rolls, then in jukeboxes, and finally in radio stations and physical media. Muzak was something different, as it sidestepped the whole structure: playlists were selected by an unseen, centralized corporation, then piped everywhere. You’d hear Muzak in your elevator ride in a department store (hence the phrase, elevator music). There were speakers tucked into potted plants. The White House and NASA at some points subscribed. Anywhere there was silence, it might be replaced with pre-programmed music.
Muzak added to its notoriety by marketing the notion of using its product to boost worker productivity, through a pseudo-scientific regimen it called the “stimulus progression.” And in that, we see a notion that presages today’s app behavior loops and motivators, meant to drive consumption and engagement, ad clicks and app swipes.
Muzak for its part didn’t last forever, with stimulus progression long since debunked, customers preferring licensed music to this mix of original sounds, and newer competitors getting further ahead in the marketplace.
But what about the idea of homogenized, pre-programmed culture delivered by wire, designed for behavior modification? That basic concept seems to be making a comeback.
Automation and Power
“AI” or machine intelligence has been tilted in the present moment to focus on one specific area: the use of self-training algorithms to process large amounts of data. This is a necessity of our times, and it has special value to some of the big technical players who just happen to have competencies in the areas machine learning prefers — lots of servers, top mathematical analysts, and big data sets.
That shift in scale is more or less inescapable, though, in its impact. Radio implies limited channels; limited channels implies human selectors — meet the DJ. The nature of the internet as wide-open for any kind of culture means wide open scale. And it will necessarily involve machines doing some of the sifting, because it’s simply too large to operate otherwise.
There’s danger inherent in this shift. One, users may be lazy, willing to let their preferences be tipped for them rather than face the tyranny of choice alone. Two, the entities that select for them may have agendas of their own. Taken as an aggregate, the upshot could be greater normalization and homogenization, plus the marginalization of anyone whose expression is different, unviable commercially, or out of sync with the classes of people with money and influence. If the dream of the internet as global music community seems in practice to lack real diversity, here’s a clue as to why.
At the same time, this should all sound familiar — the advent of recording and broadcast media brought with it some of the same forces, and that led to the worst bubblegum pop and the most egregious cultural appropriation. Now, we have algorithms and corporate channel editors instead of charts and label execs — and the worries about payola and the eradication of anything radical or different are just as well-placed.
What’s new is that there’s now also a real-time feedback loop between user actions and automated cultural selection (or perhaps even soon, production). Squier’s stimulus progression couldn’t monitor metrics representing the listener. Today’s online tools can. That could blow apart past biases, or it could reinforce them — or it could do a combination of the two.
In any case, it definitely has power. At last year’s CTM hacklab, Cambridge University’s Jason Rentfrow looked at how music tastes could be predictive of personality and even political thought. The connection was timely, as the talk came the same week as Trump assumed the U.S. presidency, his campaign having employed social media analytics to determine how to target and influence voters.
We can no longer separate musical consumption — or other consumption of information and culture — from the data it generates, or from the way that data can be used. We need to be wary of centralized monopolies on that data and its application, and we need to be aware of how these sorts of algorithms reshape choice and remake media. And we might well look for chances to regain our own personal control.
Even if passive consumption may seem to be valuable to corporate players, those players may discover that passivity suffers diminishing returns. Activities like shopping on Amazon, finding dates on Tinder, watching television on Netflix, and, increasingly, music listening, are all experiences that push algorithmic recommendations. But if users begin to follow only those automated recommendations, the suggestions fold back in on themselves, and those tools lose their value. We’re left with a colorless growing detritus of our own histories and the larger world’s. (Just ask someone who gave up on those Tinder dates or went to friends because they couldn’t work out the next TV show to binge-watch.)
There’s also clearly a social value to human recommendations — expert and friend alike. But there’s a third way: use machines to augment humans, rather than diminish them, and open the tools to creative use, not only automation.
Music is already reaping benefits of data training’s power in new contexts. By applying machine learning to identifying human gestures, Rebecca Fiebrink has found a new way to make gestural interfaces for music smarter and more accessible. Audio software companies are now using machine learning as a new approach to manipulating sound material in cases where traditional DSP tools are limited. What’s significant about this work is that it makes these tools meaningful in active creation rather than passive consumption.
AI, back in user hands
Machine learning techniques will continue to expand as tools by which the companies mining big data make sense of their resources — from ore into product. It’s in turn how they’ll see us, and how we’ll see ourselves.
We can’t simply opt out, because those tools will shape the world around us with or without our personal participation, and because the breadth of available data demands their use. What we can do is to better understand how they work and reassert our own agency.
When people are literate in what these technologies are and how they work, they can make more informed decisions in their own lives and in the larger society. They can also use and abuse these tools themselves, without relying on magical corporate products to do it for them.
Abuse itself has special value. Music and art are fields in which these machine techniques can and do bring new discoveries. There’s a reason Google has invested in these areas — because artists very often can speculate on possibilities and find creative potential. Artists lead.
The public seems to respond to rough edges and flaws, too. In the 60s, when researcher Joseph Weizenbaum attempted to parody a psychotherapist with crude language pattern matching in his program, ELIZA, he was surprised when users started to tell the program their darkest secrets and imagine understanding that wasn’t there. The crudeness of Markov chains as predictive text tool — they were developed for analyzing Pushkin statistics and not generating language, after all — has given rise to breeds of poetry based on their very weirdness. When Google’s style transfer technique was applied using a database of dog images, the bizarre, unnatural images that warped photos into dogs went viral online. Since then, Google has made vastly more sophisticated techniques that apply realistic painterly effects and… well, it seems that’s attracted only a fraction of the interest that the dog images did.
Maybe there’s something even more fundamental at work. Corporate culture dictates predictability and centralized value. The artist does just the opposite, capitalizing on surprise. It’s in the interest of artists if these technologies can be broken. Muzak represents what happens to aesthetics when centralized control and corporate values win out — but it’s as much the widespread public hatred that’s the major cautionary tale. The values of surprise and choice win out, not just as abstract concepts but also as real personal preferences.
We once feared that robotics would eliminate jobs; the very word is derived (by Czech writer Karel Čapek’s brother Joseph) from the word for slave. Yet in the end, robotic technology has extended human capability. It has brought us as far as space and taken us through Logo and its Turtle, even taught generations of kids math, geometry, logic, and creative thinking through code.
We seem to be at a similar fork in the road with machine learning. These tools can serve the interests of corporate control and passive consumption, optimised only for lazy consumption that extracts value from its human users. Or, we can abuse and misuse the tools, take them apart and put them back together again, apply them not in the sense that “everything looks like a nail” when all you have is a hammer, but as a precise set of techniques to solve specific problems. Muzak, in its final days, was nothing more than a pipe dream. What people wanted was music — and choice. Those choices won’t come automatically. We may well have to hack them.
PETER KIRN is an audiovisual artist, composer/musician, technologist, and journalist. He is the editor of CDM and co-creator of the open source MeeBlip hardware synthesizer (meeblip.com). For six consecutive years, he has directed the MusicMaker’s Hacklab at CTM Festival, most recently together with new media artist Ioann Maria.