Akai Force: hands-on preview of the post-PC live-in-a-box music tool

The leak was real. Akai have a standalone box that can free you from a laptop, when you want that freedom. It works with your computer and gear, but it also does all the arranging and performance (and some monster sounds and sequencing) on its own. It’s what a lot of folks were waiting for – and we’ve just gotten our hands on it.

Akai have already had a bit of a hit with the latest MPCs, which work as a controller/software combo if you want, but also stand on their own.

The Akai Force (it’s not an MPC or APC in the end) is more than that. It’s a single musical device with computer-like power under the hood, but standalone stability. It’s a powerful enough sequencer (for MIDI and CV) that you some people might just buy it on those merits.

But it also performs all the Ableton Live-style workflows you know. So there’s an APC/Push style interface, clip launching and editing, grids for playing drums and instruments, and sampling capability. There’s also a huge selection of synths and effects (courtesy AIR Music Technology), so while it can’t run third-party VST plug-ins, you should feel comfortable using it on its own. And it integrates with your computer when you’re in your studio – in both directions, though more on that in a bit.

And it’s US$1499 – so it’s reasonable affordable, at least in that it’s possibly cheaper than upgrading your laptop, or buying a new controller and a full DAW license.

First – the specs:

• Standalone – no computer required
• 8×8 clip launch matrix with RGB LEDs
• 7″ color capacitive multitouch display
• Mic/Instrument/Line Inputs, 4 outputs
• MIDI In/Out/Thru via 1/8″ TRS inputs (5-pin DIN adapters included)
• (4) configurable CV/Gate Outputs to integrate your modular setup
• (8) touch-sensitive knobs with graphical OLED displays
• Time stretch/pitch shift in real time
• Comprehensive set of AIR effects and Hype, TubeSynth, Bassline and Electric synth engines
• Ability to record 8 stereo tracks
• 16GB of on-board storage (over 10 gigs of sound content included)
• 2 GB of RAM
• Full-Size SD card Slot
• User-expandable 2.5″ SATA drive connector (SATA or HDD)
• (2) USB 3.0 slots for thumb drives or MIDI controllers

Clarification: about those eight tracks. You can have eight stereo tracks of audio, but up to 128 tracks total.

And there’s a powerful and clever scheme here that lets the Force adapt to different combinations of onboard synths and effects. Akai tells us the synths use a “weighted voice management” scheme so you can maximize simultaneous voices. Effects are unlimited, until you run out of CPU power. Since this is integrated hardware and software, though, you don’t fail catastrophically when you run out of juice, as you do on a conventional computer. (Ahem.)

All that I/O – USB connectivity, USB host (for other USB gear), CV (for analog gear), MIDI (via standard minijacks), plus audio input / mic and separate out and cue outs.

US$1499 (confirming European pricing), shipping on 5 February to the USA and later in the month to other markets.

I’ve had a hands-on with AKAI Professional’s product managers. The software was still pre-release – this was literally built last night – but it was very close to final form, and we should have a detailed review once we get hardware next month.

The specs don’t really tell the whole story, so let’s go through what this thing is about.

In person, the arrangement turns out to be logical and tidy.

Form factor

The images leaked via an FCC filing of a prototype did make this thing look a bit homely. In person with the final hardware, it seems totally logical.

On the bottom of the unit is a grid with shortcut triggers, looking very much like a Push 2. On the top is a touch display and more shortcut keys that resemble the MPC Live. You also get a row of endless encoders, which now Akai call just “knobs.”

The “hump” that contains the touch display enables a ton of I/O crammed onto the back – even with minijacks for MIDI, the space is needed. And it means the displays for the knobs are tilted at an angle, so they’re easier to read as you play, from either sitting or standing position.

There are also some touches that tell you this is Akai hardware. Everything is labeled. Triggers most often do just one thing, rather than changing modes as on Ableton Push. And there are features like obvious, dedicated navigation, and a crossfader.

In short, you can tell this is from the folks who built the APC40. Whereas sometimes functions on Ableton Push can be maddeningly opaque, the Akai hardware makes things obvious. I’ll talk more about that in the review, of course, but it’s obvious even when looking at the unit what everything does and how to navigate.

Oh and – while this unit is big, it still looks like it’d fit snugly onto a table at a venue or DJ booth. Plus you don’t need a computer. And yeah, the lads from Akai brought it to Berlin on Ryanair. You can absolutely fit it in a backpack.

Workflows

What impresses me about this effort from Akai is that it takes into account a whole range of use cases. Rather than describe what it does, maybe I should jump straight into what I think it means for those use cases, based on what I’ve seen.

It runs live sets. Well, here this is clearly a winner. You get clip launching just like you do with Ableton Live, without a laptop. And so even if you still stick to Live for production (or Maschine, or Reason, or FL Studio, or whatever DAW), you can easily load up stems and clips on this and free yourself from the laptop later.

You get consistent color coding and near-constant feedback on the grid and heads-up display / touch display about where you are, what’s muted, what’s record-enabled, and what’s playing. My impression is that it’s far clearer than on other devices, thanks to the software being built around the hardware. (Maschine got further than some of its rivals, but it lacks this many controls, lights, and display.)

That feedback seemed like it’s also not overwhelming, either, because it’s spread out over this larger footprint. There’s also a handy overview of your whole clip layout on the touch display, so you can page through more clip slots easily.

Logical, dedicated triggers and loads of feedback so you don’t get lost.

Full-featured clip launching and mixing.

It’s a playable instrument – finger-drummer friendly. Of course, now that you can do all that stuff with clips, as with Push, you can also play instruments. There are onboard synths from AIR – Electric, Bassline, TubeSynth, and the new multifunctional FM + additive + wavetable hybid Hype. And there are a huge number of effects from lo-fi stuff to reverbs to delays, meaning you can get away without packing effects pedals. It’s literally the full range of AIR stuff – so like having a full Pro Tools plug-in folder on dedicated hardware.

That may or may not be enough for everyone, but you can also use MIDI and CV and USB to control external gear (or a computer).

The grid setup features are also easy to get into and powerful. There are a range of pitch-to-grid mappings, from guitar fret-style arrangements to a Tonnetz layout (5th on one axis, 3rd on another) to piano and chromatic layouts. There are of course scale and chord options – though no microtuning onboard, yet. (Wait until Aphex Twin gets his, I think.)

And there are drum layouts, too, or step sequencers if you want them.

Two major, major deviations from Push, though. You know how easy it is to accidentally change parts on Push when you’re trying to navigate clips and wind up playing the wrong instrument? Or how easy it is to get lost when recording clips? Or how suddenly a step sequencer turns up when you just want to finger drum a pad? Or…

Yeah, okay well – you have none of those problems here. Force makes it easy to select parts, easy to select tracks, easy to mute tracks, and lets you choose the layout you want when you want it without all that confusion.

Again, more on this in the review, but I’m thoroughly relieved that Akai seems to understand the need for dedicated triggers and less cognitive overhead when you play live.

Tons of playing options.

It can replace a computer for production, if you want. There’s deep clip editing and sampling and arrangement and mixing functionality here. Clips even borrow one of the best features from Bitwig Studio – you can edit and move and duplicate audio inside a clip, which you can’t do in Live without bringing that audio out into the Arrangement. So you could use this to start and even finish tracks.

The Force doesn’t have the same horsepower as a laptop, of course. So you’re limited to eight stereo tracks. Then again, back in the days of tape that bouncing process was also creatively useful – and the sampling capabilities here make it easy to resample work.

Powerful clip editing combines with sampling – and you can use both the touchscreen and dedicated hardware controls.

Or you can use it as a companion to a computer. You can also use Force as a sketchpad – much like some iPad tools now, but of course with physical controls. There’s even an export to ALS feature coming, so you could start tracks on Force and finish them in Ableton Live – with your full range of mixing an mastering tools and plug-ins. (I believe that doesn’t ship at launch, but is due soon.)

Also coming in the first part of this year, Akai are working on a controller mode so you can use Force as an Ableton Live controller when you are at your computer.

There’s wired connectivity. You can set up MIDI tracks, you can set up CV tracks. There’s also USB host mode. Like the grid, but wish you had some MPC-style velocity-sensitive pads? Or want some faders? Plug in inexpensive controllers via USB, just as you would on your computer. You only get two audio ins, but that’s of course still enough to do sampling – and you get the sorts of sampling and live time stretching capabilities you’d expect of the company that makes the MPC.

For audio output, there’s a dedicated cue out as well as the stereo audio output.

On the front – SD card loading (there’s also USB support and internal drive upgradeability), plus a dedicated cue output for your headphones.

The full range of AIR effects is onboard.

Powerful audio effects should help you grow with this one.

And there’s wireless connectivity, too. You can sync sample content via Splice.com – which includes your own samples, by the way. (Wow, do I wish Roland did this with Roland Cloud and the TR-8S – yeah, being able to have all my own kits and sample sets and sync them with a WiFi connection is huge to me, even just for the sounds I created myself.)

There’s Ableton Link support, so you can wirelessly sync up to your computer, iPad, and other tools – clocking the Force without wires.

There’s even wireless support for control and sound, meaning that Force is going to be useful even before you plug in cables.

Yeah, it’s a standalone instrument, but it’s also a monster sequencer / hub.

Bottom line. It replaces Ableton Live. It works with Ableton Live. It replaces your computer. It works with your computer. It’s a monster standalone instrument. It’s a monster sequencer for your other instruments. It does a bunch of stuff. It doesn’t try to do too much (manageable controls, clear menus).

Basically, this already looks like the post-PC device a lot of us were waiting for. Can’t wait to get one for review.

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Hands-on: Complex-1 puts West Coast-inspired modular in Reason

Propellerhead has unveiled a modular instrument add-on for Reason, Complex-1. It puts a patchable, West Coast-inspired synth inside the already patchable Reason environment – and it sounds fabulous.

Complex-1 is a monophonic modular synth delivered as a Rack Extension, available now. What you get is a selection of modules, with a combination of Buchla- and Moog-inspired synths, and some twists from Propellerhead. You can patch these right on the front panel – not the back panel as you normally would in Reason – and combine the results with your existing Reason rack. The ensemble is very West Coast-ish, as in Buchla-inspired, but also with some unique character of its own and modern twists and amenities you would expect now.

Propellerhead have also a lot of design decisions that allow you to easily patch anything to anything, which is great for happy mistakes and unusual sounds – for beginners or advanced users alike. The three oscillators each have ranges large enough to act as modulation sources, and to tune paraphonic setups if you so wish.

Prepare to get lost in this: the recent Quad Note Generator is a perfect pairing with Complex-1.

What’s inside:
Complex Osc This is the most directly Buchla-like module – subsonic to ultrasonic range, FM & AM, and lots of choices for shaping its dual oscillators.

Noise source, OSC 3 Noise sources including red, plus an additional oscillator (OSC 3) with a range large enough to double as a modulation source.

Comb delay If the Complex Osc didn’t get you, the comb delay should – you can use this for string models by tuning the delay with feedback, as well as all the usual comb delay business.

Filter Here’s the East Coast ingredient – a Moog-style ladder filter with drive, plus both high pass and low pass outputs you can use simultaneously.

Low Pass Gates Two LPGs (envelope + filter you can trigger) give you more West Coast-style options, including envelope follower functions.

Shaper Distortion, wavefolding, and whatnot.

More modules: LFO, ADSR envelope, output mixer, plus a really handy Mix unit, Lag, Scale & amp, Clock & LFO + Clock 2. There’s also a useful oscilloscope.

Sequencer plus Quant: You can easily use step sequencers from around Reason, but there’s also a step sequencer in Complex-1 itself, useful for storing integrated patches. Quant also lets you tune to a range of scales.

Function: A lot of the hidden power of Complex-1 is here – there’s a function module with various algorithms.

Yes, you can make complex patches with Complex-1.

The dual advantages of Complex-1: one, it’s an integrated instrument all its own, but two, it can live inside the existing Reason environment.

I’ve had my hands on Complex-1 since I visited Propellerhead HQ last week and walked through a late build last week. Full disclosure: I was not immediately convinced this was something I needed personally. The thing is, we’re spoiled for choice, and software lovers are budget-minded. So while a hundred bucks barely buys you one module in the hardware world, in software, it buys a heck of a lot. That’s the entry price for Softube Modular, for VCV Rack and a couple of nice add-ons, and for Cherry Audio’s Voltage Modular (at least at its current sale price, with a big bundle of extras).

Not to mention, Reason itself is a modular environment.

But there are a few things that make Complex-1 really special.

It’s a complete, integrated modular rig. This is important – VCV Rack, Softube Modular, Voltage Modular, and Reason itself are all fun because you can mix and match modules.

But it’s creatively inspiring to work with Complex-1 for the opposite reason. You have a fixed selection of modules, with some basic workflows already in mind. It immediately takes me back to the first vintage Buchla system I worked on for that reason. You still have expansive possibilities, but within something that feels like an instrument – modular patching, but not the added step of choosing which modules. The team at Propellerhead talked about their admiration for the Buchla Music Easel. This isn’t an emulation of that – Arturia have a nice Music Easel in software if that’s what you want – but rather takes that same feeling of focusing on a toolkit and provides a modern, Propellerhead-style take on the concept.

It sounds fantastic. This one’s hard to overstate, so it’s better to just go give the trial a spin. In terms of specs, Propellerhead points to their own DSP and 4X oversampling everywhere. In practice, it means even just a stupidly-simple patch with raw oscillators sounds gorgeous and lush. I love digital sounds and aliasing and so on, but… it’s nice to have this end of the spectrum, too. You get a weird, uncanny feeling of lying in bed with a laptop and some studio headphones and hearing your own music as if it’s a long-lost 1970s electronic classic. It’s almost too easy to sound good. Tell your friends you’ll see them in the spring because for now you want to spend some time along pretending you’re Laurie Spiegel.

It lives inside Reason. The other reality is, it’s really fun having this inside Reason, where you can combine your patches into Combinators and work with all the other pattern sequencers and effects and whatnot. You can also make elaborate polysynths by stacking instances of Complex-1.

There’s basic CV and audio interconnectivity with your rack. This may look meager at first, but I found this in addition to the Combinator opens a lot of possibilities, especially for playing live/improvising.

You get loads of presets, of course, which will appeal to those not wanting to get lost in patching. But I also welcome that Propellerhead included a set of basic templates as starting points for those who do want to explore.

Patching is also really easy, though I miss being able to re-patch from both sides of a cable as in a lot of software modulars. Better is the hide/unhide cables functionality, so you can make the patch cables disappear for easier control of the front panel. (Why don’t all software modulars have this feature, actually?)

You don’t get unlimited patchability between Complex-1 and the rest of Reason. For simplicity, you’re limited to note/MIDI input (from other devices as well as externally), basic CV input and output, and input to the sequencer. There’s also a very useful audio input. That may disappoint some people who wanted more options, though it still provides a lot of power.

Mostly I want to buy a really big touch display for Windows and use that. And with this kind of software out there, I may not be looking at hardware so much. I even expect to use this live.

Some sounds for you (while I work on sharing some of my own):

Complex-1 Rack Extension

Complex-1 in the shop

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Hands-on: Roland’s #808day upgrade for the TR-8S is a blast to play

It’s a little thing, but it adds a lot when you’re playing live: STEP LOOP lets you repeat steps in a sequence as they play, without losing time. Here’s how it works, along with other updates to Roland’s TR-8S drum machine.

Roland’s version 1.10 firmware is out today, and the big new feature is called STEP LOOP. The basic idea:

Hold down a step to make it repeat.

Hold down multiple steps, and they repeat in order.

Release that step or steps, and the sequence continues in time. (LED feedback shows you that the sequence position advances even as you have steps triggered.)

STEP LOOP impacts the whole sequence, not just one part. To activate it, hold down SHIFT and INST PLAY. To exit the mode, just trigger any other sequence mode. Here is in action. Notice the visual feedback as I enter the mode, and what happens when I trigger one or more steps.

It’s hugely useful, because it lets you make fills and variations out of the existing material of a sequence – and you don’t ever drop out of time. It’s not the first drum machine to do this (the ElecTribe ES2 from KORG springs to mind, among others), but it’s hugely useful in this context. The TR-8S is already a great live performance feature, thanks to its flexible routing and I/O, ample controls, faders for volume, and the ability to load custom samples. STEP LOOP is then a perfect addition for live jamming, because it’s intuitive and rhythmic.

The TR-8S has been getting a steady stream of updates – the other huge one in 1.10 is the ability to preview samples. Here’s a reverse-chronological timeline of some of the highlights.

1.10, August 2018
STEP LOOP
Preview sound samples when you import

1.03 April 2018
Improved performance

1.02 March 2018
Batch import kits
Import and export patterns and kits
Write direct to an SD card from the computer (“Storage Mode”)

All of this fits nicely together. It’s now really quick to chop up some samples and load them onto an SD card, then import them into custom kits. That makes the TR-8S’ own onboard hardware a useful way to build your own custom kits – even preferable in some way to working with software. And the combination of STEP LOOP with other features for making custom rhythms adds tons of variety. (Use LAST to make different length parts, add sub-step rhythms for more complex patterns, and use “auto fill” to mix things up even if your hands aren’t free.)

Oh, and you can sidechain external inputs. So I’ve used the TR-8S with my laptop and Native Instruments Maschine. I use MIDI out from Maschine to keep things in sync, and route audio from the computer into the TR-8S so I can sidechain that audio with the drum machine. I’ve also played with Roland’s own AIRA VT-3 vocal transformer, which also lends itself to sidechaining. But it’s an ideal live performance box.

For more resources on the TR-8S, check out Francis Preve’s blog – he’s done a great Master Class on the instrument for Electronic Musician, plus a custom kit for you to download:

Master Class: Roland TR-8S

Previously:

Roland TR-8S hands-on: a more playable, powerful drum machine

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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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A new, powerful synth finds its soul in a cheap plastic FM past

Imagine starting with a painstaking emulation of the lofi sound of instruments like Yamaha’s SHS-10 keytar – but then modulating those quirks in powerful ways. Now you’re getting the mission of the new plug-in from Plogue – PortaFM.

If you lived through the mid-80s – or inherited (or coveted) one of the instruments of the time – you may already know the peculiar sound of Yamaha’s FM PortaSound keyboards. Of course, what was once considered perhaps low quality might seem to our ears now as something else: a unique, complex timbre with interesting, edgy nonlinearities.

And as musical tastes have gradually accommodated a wider range of timbres, recreating such things isn’t necessarily about nostalgia. In a sea of music, people are looking for sounds with edge.

So, with that in mind, meet the OPLL – aka the YM2413 chip core. Tasked with recreating Yamaha’s patented Frequency Modulation (FM) synthesis, the technique first pioneered by John Chowning in the 60s, that chip produced a sound that was different than the best-known Yamaha, the DX7. So while the instruments looked cheesy – and provided the user with little control over sounds apart from calling up presets – they had at their heart a chip capable of creating sounds that may be weirdly more relevant today than when these tools were on the market.

This 1983 ad will give you a sense of where Yamaha positioned its PortaSound line:

But here, we’re talking models like the more advanced Yamaha SHS-10 “Sholky” keytar [1987], plus keyboards like the PSS-140 and PSS-270 [1986].

Mid 80s chic. But don’t call it a keytar – for Japanese accuracy, call it “Sholky.”

Montreal-based developer Plogue, for their part, have decided not to hide that power from the user. Apart from spending loads of time accurately modeling the chip, they’ve exposed all the parameters of the synthesis engine and drum sounds. (There are still some cues from the originals – note the polygons representing the drum pads, borrowed from the original PSR keyboards, but looking way more futuristic here.)

The work they’ve done on modeling pays off, too. Even just dialing through the presets, you’ll find loads of patches that sound simply alive. It’s not just about being lo-fi; the peculiarities of this particular FM chip give a weirdly acoustic – if alien – quality to some of the sounds. Instead of trying to smooth the edges of FM synthesis, you get more of that unpredictability in ways that can become surprisingly musical.

Transposed from the cheesy toy shells of Yamaha’s original products, you might easily confuse this for some new instrument. But to get there, Plogue were in fact obsessive about reproducing what had been consigned to yard sales and thrift stores. In a video premiering exclusively on CDM, Plogue’s David Viens compares the recreation to the original and explains the emulation.

Yes, kids, now you get to explore the joys of the time-division multiplexed 9-bit DAC on your powerful PC or Mac. Because 9-bit is the future?

The one and only Cuckoo also has visited this new Plogue creation:

I’ve only had the plug-in to play with for a short while, but there’s plenty to enjoy here. Deep under the hood, you can obsess about tiny variations in modeling, but just as fun is playing those lo-fi drum pads or messing about with playing different sounds.

Directly from the main screen, you can get hands on with the FM synthesis approach and percussion.

Mid 80s chic. But don’t call it a keytar – for Japanese accuracy, call it “Sholky.”

Programmers will find plenty of sophisticated options – for instance, you can automate sequences of parameters of your choice. But anyone will find the depth interesting. For instance, layering the percussion atop the FM sounds, under the ‘play’ tab, works exceptionally well.

Stacking percussion on top of your sounds is like adding a delicious, buttery layer of icing. Seriously, I about licked my screen.

You’ll find a range of effects, too:

Plogue are planning more instruments in the chipsynth series, as their models continue to improve and as they collect more data.

But you could argue this is a new direction – even relative to reboots like Roland’s new TR machines taking on the TR-808 and 909. Here, obsessive modeling of digital instruments is meant to create something both historically accurate and simultaneously new. To get topical, it’s the synth equivalent of Donald Glover’s Lando.

Okay, I’m not going to stretch that any further. i will say – PortaFM, you look absolutely beautiful. You truly belong here with us among the clouds.

More:

https://plogue.com/products/chipsynth-portafm.html

https://plogue.com/

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Valkyrie is a 1200-oscillator synth you’ll want to play with your forearm

With some 128 voices, the Valkyrie packs dense sound and effects that never let up. The all new UK-built synth was available to try in prototype form at Musikmesse – and it’s seriously impressive.

When I say “play with your forearm,” I’m not kidding. I got my hands on the prototype. Glancing around, I noticed people were cautiously plucking a note or two there and noodling some melodic lines.

No.

With that much polyphony, I wanted to hear a cloud – a doomsday-sized swarm – of oscillations. And this literally involved cranking up various parameters, dialing up portamento, and then playing the keys with… my fist… my arm… I decided sticking a leg up there might upset someone, but we’re talking a serious amount of sound.

The heart of this machine is an FPGA. You don’t need to care about that if you’re not an engineer, but suffice to say the idea of the thing is hardware that can be “re-wired” on the fly. So you get the power of dedicated hardware, without the enormous investment of time and money to create something so inflexible. That means the Valkyrie has horsepower DSP chips – or your high-end laptop – can’t reliably deliver.

And it’s not just about having a bunch of voices, though that’s already formidable. The Valkyrie drives 10 oscillators for each voice

It probably really is the synth Richard Wagner would have bought, were he alive today, so… nice brand name. Now, ride:

Multiple synthesis methods: FM, dual wavetable, hard sync
4096 different waveshapes, ring mod, hypersaw
Dual 2- and 4-pole ladder filters
128 voices
10 oscillators per voice (double to 20 by combining voices)
8-part polytimbral
Dedicated outs: four balanced outputs, 32-bit/96kHz each, or separate parts streamed over USB2 at 24/96
32x oversampling
9-unit dedicated effects, with shelving EQ on each part

The interface for all of this is a lovely high-res OLED. There are quick, slick animations to help you navigate. With that many parts/voices, of course, some menu dialing is a necessity – otherwise, the thing would take up a city block. But that navigation is quick and effortless, so you feel like you can dial up hands-on control easily. The menus were pretty logical, too, once you understand the structure of parts navigation. And everything is kept reasonably flat, which is stunning for an instrument of this complexity.

And the key is that you turn on this firehouse of sound and it never skips or steps – including with all the effects running. It’s a bit like having a Vangelis/Hans Zimmer-sized electronic studio, in a compact unit. It sounds utterly epic.

Pricing: expected under two grand (Exodus said that was their main purpose at Messe, to talk to dealers and figure that out)
Availability: Expected at volume early Q3 2018

And do have a listen:

I have to say, if you’re going to spend nearly two-grand on some hardware and want it to sound futuristic, this could be the one. It seems to be just the right kind of crazy for the job. Hope we get to try one more.

No Website yet …

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Roland TR-8S hands-on: a more playable, powerful drum machine

Roland today unveils the TR-8S, an updated take on the AIRA TR-8 drum machine. We’ve been testing it – and it looks like exactly the sequel we all wanted.

Basically, if you threw out the limitations of the original TR-8, put it in a more attractive case, and expanded the sound and performance powers of the box, of course you’d make us happy.

So the TR-8S loads your own samples, atop a wider, updated range of built-in models of classic Roland gear and preloaded sonds. It’s more playable and immediate, thanks to expanded controls and functions. It has effects sends for each part, plus a bunch of new effects to choose from. It lets you record automation, so you can make the sound shift along with your drum patterns. It integrates more easily with other gear, thanks to separate audio outs, and with your computer, thanks to a multichannel USB connection that also lets you use the onboard effects.

To put it even more simply: the TR-8S makes more sounds, and it’s more fun to play. Oh yeah, and it looks pretty instead of fugly.

It’s still not a sampler – you only get sample playback. And it’s not a new drum synth – while it models the original Roland machines, there are only emulations of old circuitry, not any new models.

But instead of just feeling like an 808/909 rehash, the new TR-8S really feels like a new hub for sequencing and drum parts, one that is equally at home with gear or a computer.

At a glance

Price – US$699 (EUR699 with VAT), available this month.

Overview of what I found essential in the update as far as workflow – basically, a totally killer live machine:

  • Analog Circuit Behavior models of the 808, 909, 707, 727, and 606 (with some variants), plus sampled sounds
  • Load your own stereo + mono samples from SD card
  • Stereo + six assignable audio outputs – or configure up to those six as trigger outputs
  • Dedicated trigger output and trigger track
  • Stereo audio input (with routing through effects from input or round-trip from computer via USB)
  • Master effects, plus configurable per-part send effects, and new effects options
  • 128 patterns storing 8 variations + 3 fills
  • Program sub-steps, change the length of each part (for polyrhythms), chain patterns together
  • Auto-Fill for automating rhythmic variations
  • Lock parameters to steps (yep, p-locks!), or record automation
  • Works as multichannel audio + MIDI interface when connected via USB to a computer
  • Tune, decay, and assignable control for each part
  • Record accent, flam, and velocity via dedicated pad
  • Save tempo, kit, and knob positions and effect assignments in patterns – and back up your whole set to SD

And in place of the reverb and delay on the first model, Roland quietly made the “S” into an effects beast, with 43 effects in total (want to complain again about how this should have been analog?). That includes some sidechaining powers, and the ability to add these effects to external gear or your computer via USB. From Roland:

INST FX – 1 per instrument
Compressor, Drive, Isolator, Transient, Bit crusher, Comp + Drive, Crusher, HPF, LPF, LPF/HPF, L/H Boost, L Boost, H Boost

REVERB
Ambience, Room, Hall1, Hall2, Plate, Mod

DELAY
Delay, Pan, Tape Echo

MASTER FX
Compressor, Drive, Over Drive, Distortion, Fuzz, Crusher, Phaser, Flanger, Env.Amp, Env.Filter, LPF, HPF, LPF/HPF, L Boost, H Boost, L/H Boost, SBF, Noise, Isolator, Transient, Transient2,

Others
SIDE CHAIN (for EXT IN)
SCATTER (as one of Fill-In function)
Sample reverse
LFO – 1 LFO per kit with instrument settings of parameter and depth

Breaking down the new features

After some time with the machine, there’s a whole lot of different dimensions here that add up to a box you really want to use live.

Let’s not forget the reasons the TR-8 became a hit, shortcomings or no. It pretty well nailed widely-used 808 and 909 sounds and behaviors. But that alone wouldn’t be enough – to become a live gigging favorite, the TR-8 had to also add hands-on controls. And that seems to be why so many people adopted it. The faders alone make it instantly more appealing than a whole host of competing drum machines. It means you can actually play the thing, as if it’s an instrument. So any number of fancy, expensive drum machines are useless as live instruments if you’re navigating those features by diving through menus rather than playing them.

The problem with the original was, the box wasn’t much more than a nice interface to those sound models. Even adding 727 sounds was a paid add-on. And the available effects were limited. Plus there was the weird “scatter” function, which scrambled patterns rhythmic variations and effects in a way that seemed to cater to EDM fans, but afforded very little control. And let’s not get started on the toy-like green case and blinding lights.

The “S” revision does more than just address some shortcomings. It manages to present a much more capable device, all round.

More sounds. The TR-8S has a host of sounds included right out of the box: 808, 606, 909, 707, and (Latin!) 727. (Let’s assume they’re saving the Roland CR-78 for a small Boutique Series remake?) Roland also says these now incorporate new modeling tech running on a new processor, though I haven’t yet been able to evaluate how that compares to their other recent gear.

Note again that this means they’ve modeled the analog circuitry of their original analog drum machines, not simply included samples of the sounds those make. That’s the Analog Circuit Behavior (ACB) technology they like to tout.

The unique ploy here is being able to mix up that engine with other sample-based sounds, including your own.

Sample loading. That “S” in the name is obviously for sample playback. There are a bunch of new built-in samples, plus an SD card slot round the back of the unit. Load your own samples there, and adjust basic parameters (speed, start point, direction).

You can’t load big one-shots, so this is about custom kits, not playing stems or backing tracks. There’s no live sampling capability, either.

But you do get to build kits up from your own sounds or mix and match with the TR’s circuit models.

Smarter, more fluid rhythms and expression. The step sequencer is of course part of the draw of the TR line. But now you can break up some of the potential monotony of that interface. Sub-steps and fills let you program in more complex rhythms. (The original TR-8 let you do basic fills and variations, but now you can hit one button and program in exact sub-steps.)

You can also automate fills and variations. You can add 8 variations and chain up to 128 steps. (The previous model lacked chaining and additional variations.)

In addition to step-programming accent, you can also use a single, velocity-sensitive pad for adding more levels of velocity live. This isn’t an MPC by any means, but it fits the workflow of the Roland, while allowing more nuanced performances. You can add flam, too, via the step sequencer. And all of this is just as easy as toggling steps normally is – so complex rhythms become easily accessible.

This unassuming green pad lets you add velocity and not just push-button steps and accents.

The other reason all of this matters: think of the TR-8S as a powerful rhythm programmer. Because it has trigger outs, you can use this power with synths and other drum machines, not just the internal TR sound engine.

More patterns and automatic chaining mean the TR-8S lets you make more complicated rhythms – but while retaining the simplicity of the original. The same is true of adding subdivisions to a rhythm. Tap “sub” and you can add more complex rhythms on an individual step.

For automating variations, you can now use sophisticated fill controls.

Powerful effects. The first TR-8 had some basic effects, but the TR-8S has effects that work both on individual parts and on the master, with more complete control over each. There are independent stereo reverb and delay sends for each instrument.

You simply dial in the effect you want, and then it’s always there for use from the CTRL knob on each part.

Above those signature faders, a new third “control” knob is assignable and lets you tweak parameters and effects sends for each part.

Everything is tweakable. Each sound gets its own tune and decay parameter, plus an assignable controller (the additional knob) which you can use to gain access to more parameters or to the effects sends. This means you can take those TR sounds and warp them, or work with your own samples in new ways. And those three knobs let you shape sounds as you play.

You can also record motion automation and add it to patterns. That was definitely an oversight on the original TR-8, but now that it’s here, it pairs nicely with the new rhythmic features and assignable controllers.

Multichannel connections with gear and computers. Separate outputs – at last!

For use with gear, you get eight separate outputs, plus a stereo external audio input. This means you could trigger external gear, use external effects, add internal effects to external gear, and use external mixing and recording. (You don’t get melodic sequencing – you’ll have to do that externally – but the interface of the TR-8 isn’t really built around that anyway.)

Connect via USB, and you get not only MIDI I/O, but multichannel I/O with all those audio ports. You can use just a USB cable to connect to the Roland MX-1 mixer, too, via what they call AIRA Link. You can also even route round-trip to the TR-8S’ effects from a computer. (Why would you do that? Simple – still more controls, all in the same interface.)

Loads of I/O – input plus separate outputs/triggers. Connect to a computer, and all of this is also an audio/MIDI interface.

Flexible lighting. It’s not just the green trim that’s gone. The LEDs now seem designed for users and not just to look flashy in music retailers. So in addition to dimming the lights, you can set color and glow options to keep track of what you’re using.

What it’s like to use

The important thing to me about the TR-8S isn’t really its power on paper, but the fact that you get all of this as something you can play and improvise with.

There’s some light menu navigation required to get things working the way you want – deciding what the CTRL knob for each part does, adjusting a particular parameter, selecting your kit.

But then once that’s done, everything is accessible without menus or complexity of any kind, in a spacious, obvious control layout. That frees you up to focus on rhythm and sound, directly through physical interaction – not through a bunch of programming and editing.

I spent an afternoon with Nick de Friez from Roland here in Berlin, combining the TR-8S with a MakeNoise 0-Coast semi-modular synth and an original Roland SH-101. (A newer SH-01A would be an obvious substitute.)

We actually had two TR-8S units on hand, so … we used both of them.

And here’s some extended audio of the four instruments together. Some of those crazy sounds are the new effects on the TR-8S:

What I learned here was: this is a heck of a lot of pure, unadulterated fun. And it’s fun that’s uniquely easy to share with others, because the front panel is roomy and easy to understand.

I’ve also uploaded audio – not so much to try to document the sound of the box, so much as the expanded range of rhythms and sounds that come from its new functionality, and how freeing that might be in a real-world live improv.

Bottom Line?

Roland’s own moniker for the first TR-8 was “rhythm performer.” What’s cool about the TR-8S is that it actually delivers on that idea.

It was easy to see the first round of AIRA as just an inexpensive reboot of stuff from the past. But I think it’d be unfair to characterize the TR-8S that way. It now presents a really complete sequencing workflow, and a set of use cases for outboard gear (both analog and digital), and for combination with a computer.

Do you still need to be an 808/909/vintage Roland fan to apply? Yeah, probably. But that no longer has to be the end of the story.

What already promises to set the TR-8S apart is, it has an unparalleled amount of sequencing power right on the front power, coupled with those sounds.

Consider the main competitors in this price bracket. MFB’s boxes are cool, but they’re mainly about sound. Elektron’s Digitakt is cute and compact and powerful, but that power isn’t nearly as accessible under your fingertips – and it lacks separate outs for instruments and triggers. Arturia’s DrumBrute has full analog synthesis for each part coupled with dedicated controls specific to them, and 12 separate outputs. It’s arguably more focused as an instrument, to be sure – but it’s more limited in sound (synth only, no samples) and sequencing (roll your finger along a touch strip for live rolls, but none of the sub-step and more powerful variation and fill features of the TR-8S).

Here’s the funny thing: each of these boxes becomes a nice pairing with the TR-8S.

The first AIRA was middle-of-the-road thanks to a friendly interface and known sounds. But this one does that and then also can literally sit at the center of the other gear you might like to use. It removes the kind of limitations that might make you make boring sounds or boring music, but keeps the simplicity so that people can feel free to jam.

Really, if there’s anything bad to say about the TR-8S, it’s that Roland aren’t using their circuit modeling techniques to open up this box to new sounds. We have software with great drum synths (including recent releases of Ableton Live and Maschine), and new hardware with new synthesized drum (Moog DFAM, Arturia DrumBrute), and modular, and so on. And we have a ton of music that already uses those sounds. The absence of solo and undo – plus MIDI transmit options – cry out for a firmware update already, too.

But apart from those criticisms, everything about this box – the balance of the design, its capabilities – represents the best of what we’d hope for from Roland. And I think the combined utility of this box will make it wildly popular onstage.

Expect this to be one of the devices that helps lead the charge toward spreading more live sets.

There’s more to say about the specifics of how MIDI and performance options work (and some room for improvement in some of these details for future firmware updates). So expect more on this topic soon, plus some videos Roland is producing on how the gear is used.

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Arturia AudioFuse Review: the tiny square that packs nearly everything

There are some exceptional audio interfaces out there. But Arturia stands out by cramming an unusual amount of connectivity in an ultra-mobile package.

Look, when it comes to audio interfaces, compromise is the name of the game. The interface either never has every single port you want, or … it does, but it’s big. And computer operating systems remain an obstacle – especially once you’re beyond what theoretically should work, and into the realm of now something is popping and I better turn up the buffer size. Some of this is in the hands of manufacturers; some is decidedly not. (Computer and OS makers, I’m looking at you. Yes, you. Music – it’s kind of important to human civilization. Check it out some time.)

What’s impressive about Arturia’s AudioFuse is that they seem to have taken to heart a lot of the wishes of the mobile musician – and actually delivered.

I’ve had my hands on the AudioFuse for some time now, long enough to torture test it with both my Mac and PC in a variety of live and studio conditions. And I can share what I’ve been sharing with friends about it – this is easily on my short list of easy-to-recommend audio interfaces. (More on the others at the end.)

What the AudioFuse manages to pull off, and this isn’t easy, is maximizing flexibility in a variety of situations while still fitting into an enclosure small enough that you may always keep it in your backpack.

Plug-and-play, reliable performance

First, one feature that makes the AudioFuse essential to keep around is, it’s USB 2.0 class-compliant, driver free. With this amount of I/O, USB 2.0 makes this box far more flexible and compatible. Officially, that means Mac and Windows support that’s plug-and-play. But unofficially, that means Linux, Raspberry Pi, iOS, and Android, too.

You will need Mac or Windows to run the AudioFuse Control Center for additional configuration options. But I’ve happily dual-booted to Linux on my PC and gotten great results from the box. And there’s enough onboard control that I didn’t feel stranded without the software control panel, even though it’s useful in some situations. Meanwhile, the AudioFuse remembers all of its settings after you disconnect from the control panel.

You mileage may vary, but I got extremely reliable results with a 64 sample buffer size, which means well under 10 ms latency, on Mac, Windows, and Linux with a variety of tools. Remember that with latency the point isn’t just paper specs or whether the audio interface can run with a small buffer size; it’s whether you consistently remain without pops at that small buffer size. For me, the Arturia out-performed a number of USB devices laying around my studio.

If you have a single OS environment, and you don’t mind installing drivers, you may well best the AudioFuse’s performance. And I would consider Thunderbolt/USB3 if you want to use more I/O than the AudioFuse has onboard. But I find there’s some comfort in knowing I’m traveling with an interface I can plug into a different computer without worrying about driver installation, and I like owning at least one box like the AudioFuse that can work outside just Mac and Windows.

Connect nearly everything

Wow, did someone hear or intuit what I wanted in I/O (with one caveat below):

4 inputs: 2 XLR mic ins, 2 phono/line ins
2 RIAA phono preamps (seriously)
4 analog outputs
2 analog inserts
ADAT in/out
S/PDIF in/out
Word clock in/out
3-port USB hub
2(!) independent headphone jacks
MIDI in/out (via minijack adapters)

This.

Including MIDI, the USB hub, and separate headphone jacks alone makes this a huge boon to the mobile musician. And everything works as advertised – plus it all runs via bus power if you like (adjusting automatically to allow it to do so). A bit on the power modes:

USB is via micro USB. That may sound fidgety, but structurally I’ve found these to be sound. The included cable has a second USB connection, but if you lose your cable, you can swap a phone cable – also critical, because it means again the interface will still function when you’re on the road and misplaced a cable or someone lifted it from you. Uh… not that those things ever happen.

Arturia advertises their own, built-from-scratch mic pres. They certainly sounded transparent to me, and I appreciate that they get their own signal path. And you’ve got onboard 48V phantom power plus a multi-level pad and auto-impedance matching. Basically, you can more or less plug anything into this and forget about it. 24-bit 192kHz may sound like overkill, but then – quite literally, friends and I have lately got interested in recording ultrasonic birdsong and bat noises, so there’s that.

There are also unique monitoring settings, like handy summing to mono. (Having once had my trusty mastering engineer yell at me when I accidentally sent something that had phase cancellation problems, thanks for this!)

The one thing I’m missing here is more than four outputs. With some serious multichannel output situations becoming more commonplace, that means the AudioFuse isn’t quite the last interface I’d ever need to own. (Someone somewhere is saying the same about the inputs.) But let’s not consider the fact that the whole thing is a tiny square. Speaking of which:

That form factor / UX

Arturia really nailed it here. This is the one audio interface with a decent selection of I/O I can comfortably drop in a backpack or suitcase without worry, thanks to its small size, low weight, and a cute and indispensable cover. That’s not just for looks – a lot of audio interfaces have some dangerously exposed controls. (It does look nice, too, of course.)

I’m also a fan of the top panel. There’s a big knob, certainly reminiscent of interfaces from Universal Audio and others, plus dedicated meters for input and output and gain and phone knobs, plus shortcut keys and a cleverly-positioned dial for adjusting whether you monitor from the computer source or direct through the interface.

Arturia were clearly inspired by Universal Audio both in those dials and the displays. (Not to be outdone, UA also have a slick new box called the Arrow. Upside: Thunderbolt, DSP processing. Downside: far less connectivity.)

Here, I’ll link directly to Sound on Sound and say everything Sam says about monitoring is absolutely true. (Sam, I’m not cribbing your review notes – I just definitely can say I can directly count myself with the opposite use case!)

I can be even less diplomatic than Sam and say, if you want an audio interface that doubles as a (sub)mixer, or if you want particular control over what goes to the monitor mix, forget the AudioFuse and go with something else.

But —

If you just want to quickly plug in some inputs and then reach one dial that’s either the computer or whatever input you’ve got, the AudioFuse makes sense. That is, if you literally aren’t thinking about what’s plugged in – and quite often in the heat of the moment onstage or on the road recording, you really aren’t – it’s great. Monitoring, like connectivity, are about instant plug and play. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer to that; I’d say what this box does is suit this particular use case.

Conclusions

As a versatile all-around mobile interface, I love the AudioFuse. I’d still choose the Universal Audio Apollo Twin for audio quality, and the ability to add processing via UA’s effects without adding round-trip latency through the computer. I’d consider MOTU and RME for adding more I/O, too (especially if you don’t need or want the UAD effects), and certainly MOTU for its unique AV applications and mixer operation. Thunderbolt really does look like the future for more advanced applications.

MOTU is worth an additional mention for being universally compatible with their 828es, which has both Thunderbolt and USB. And that’s the box you want if you find the AudioFuse appealing but want more I/O and real standalone mixing operation, plus better performance.

But that also slightly misses the point. You wouldn’t throw an 828es into a backpack and take it with you everywhere. The AudioFuse, you would. And all musicians don’t always travel with road cases.

And that’s why one size doesn’t really fit all. But for under $/EUR600, in a small size that does fit everywhere, the AudioFuse is worth a look. Now, note to Arturia – if this is a big hit, a micro edition might make sense. Or an expanded box that’s a rectangle rather than a square for a little more I/O. In the meantime, I’ve got to go pack my backpack and get a move on.

https://www.arturia.com/audiofuse/

Got another audio interface you’re using? One you prefer? Let us know in comments.

The post Arturia AudioFuse Review: the tiny square that packs nearly everything appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

Long-term hands-on: Razer Blade 14” as creative laptop

Not just for gamers any more: Razer’s high-spec Blade laptop holds promise for music making, too. I’ve taken one for an extended test to see how it holds up.

Do you know what you want in a production laptop? Well, odds are, yes, you absolutely do. But as computing has pushed harder into mobility, we’ve often had to sacrifice power, specifications, and expandability we want. That is, we’ve been told what we want, rather than being heard.

The thing is, what a laptop consumer wants isn’t necessarily what we want for music, video, and the like. If you’re like me, you want a powerful machine to tote between home, studio, office, and tour spots. But it might be okay to plug that machine into power most of the time – and a little extra thickness isn’t such a big deal.

The Razer Blade is a feeling of relief – getting what you actually want for music and visuals. And that may say something about where the creative PC lies at the moment – if it was overlapping with mainstream issues for a while, it’s again a niche.

On the surface and in the marketing, this is a gaming machine. But the same specs gamers want – yes, even including the GPU (more on that in a bit) – can be just as useful to music and visual production. Razer are also the first from the PC gaming industry to figure that out, as they’ve touted the machine with their Razer Music program and even bundled a full license for FL Studio (commonly known as “Fruity Loops”).

I’ve been testing my Blade since earlier this year. It’s a machine that’s both faster and cheaper than a MacBook Pro flagship – no dongles required. (I had a MacBook Pro on loan for a portion of the same time period – and, while it was also an exceptional high-end machine, sorry, Apple, I kept coming back to the speedy Razer with its more conventional keyboard action and additional ports.) Having it over that time has let me see what it’s like in the studio and on the road for extended periods. Gamers can vouch for its quality in that territory. So let’s see if it holds up to creative use.

Black, understated, this looks kind of like you’d imagine a pro machine to look – and has elicited surprise from everyone who’s seen me with it.

Form factor, display

The nicest thing about the Razer’s design is, you’re not going to notice it much. It’s just an all matte-black design that nicely slips into the background as you work. There’s one Razer touch – the neon-green “snake” logo on the back. That logo will earn tons of compliments from gamers (turns out more of my musician friends game than I thought) – and everyone else will think it looks like an energy drink logo or that you’re going to start making trance. But there’s nothing anywhere to distract you from working.

I’m not going to pull any punches: if you miss the old pro Apple designs, you’re going to crack a smile the moment you pick up the Razer Blade. The scaling and feel seem like a MacBook Pro from a couple of generations ago. (There are even faint ribs on the top cover reminiscent of the PowerBook G3 Series, for added nostalgia.)

The keyboard features a comfortable travel and holds up to my thousands upon thousands of daily words typed. And it has interactive lighting features, all fully user-configurable.

To me, the best feature of the form factor is the keyboard. It’s crisp and has a full-sized action. In fact, when this machine was next to Apple’s offering, it was the keyboard that constantly had me switching back to the Razer above all. The trackpad is also really solid – I have mine set just for scrolling gestures and nothing else, but that’s fine.

Razer likes to advertise the Chroma support on this keyboard, which changes color based on context. There’s a C++-based SDK, and if I ever have any spare time, I’d love to write a little MIDI plugin for that or do some animations to sound for live sets.
More likely, you’ll use Chroma one of two ways. There’s dedicated support in Image-Line’s FL Studio for Razer Chroma, which provides a bunch of nifty features, depending on mode:

  • You get visual feedback on audio material playing in FL, either by frequency spectrum or peak level – effectively turning your keyboard into a reactive meter.
  • There’s a metronome, with both pulse feedback (on supported devices) and per-beat lighting on the keyboard.
  • For using the keyboard as a melodic input, lighting will illuminate to show you where piano keys are located.

Chroma support is available as a plug-in for visual feedback, or activates for piano input when you use FL’s Typing to piano keyboard.

There’s an update coming for other Chroma peripherals, too.

This is all an interesting gimmick, but of more universal appeal, you’ll find settings in the included Razer Synapse utility that let you tone down the color or choose when and how to light keys. I like the “reactive” mode onstage – keys light when you need to see them, but otherwise disappear into blackness. And blackness is good.

Slim-ish, but not so slim as to sacrifice a complete complement of ports or comfy keyboard. And that matte display avoids glare – plus check those viewing angles.

Oh yeah – everything is black, everything is matte. That’s really what I want, as I’m either focusing on the display or trying to make my laptop disappear into the background as part of a live rig.

That includes a full HD (1080) matte IPS display, which I find is easier to use in almost every situation than a glossy display. It’s great for mobile use and terrific onstage, thanks to the matte surface reducing glare and particularly broad viewing angle. There’s literally no . It’s crisp and clear, though you may find some laptops with greater color depth and accuracy and more brightness; basically, I prefer an external monitor for intensive work when I need color precision for graphics and more real estate and brightness. On the road, this display did the trick.

I didn’t get to test the higher-density Razer, which is 4K (with touch). If you’re thinking of that one, note that Windows’ scaling at high densities isn’t as consistent across applications as on macOS, either (a Windows gripe, not a Razer gripe), though that’s gradually changing. Ableton Live 10 beta for instance just unveiled features for managing higher densities.

So the display is fine, but doesn’t feel like a key feature here. For extended use, I’d connect an external display, anyway. I could imagine the touch model could be useful live, too, though I just use an iPad Pro connected to the Razer so I can move the touchscreen over by my other gear.

I/O

No adapters needed. (Onboard audio is also plenty loud.)

Now to the good bits. You get a pretty ample set of connectivity on the Razer Blade. You get three full USB 3.0 ports, and one USB-C port that doubles as Thunderbolt 3. So you have Thunderbolt for high-end audio interfaces like the Universal Audio Apollo line, and three USB ports you can use without adapters. That’s about perfect. There’s also dedicated HDMI output which can drive 4K. (This is the killer machine for live visuals – more on that below.)

Bluetooth and WiFi are also up to the latest specs.

CPU, storage, and audio

Blazingly fast CPU, memory, and storage – before even getting to the GPU.

When you think gaming machine, you probably think fast GPU – but the Razer is worth eying even just for the CPU. This model comes with an Intel i7-7700HQ quad chip, so 3.8GHz in turbo mode. My most intensive soft synths were no match for that horsepower. This becomes especially nice when getting lavish with Reaktor Blocks modular setups and huge live rigs; I was finally able to create the virtual modular of my dreams without making the CPU sputter here and there.

You’re also decked out on RAM, with 16 GB of DDR4 memory.

Storage is configurable, with up to 1TB SSD storage – yeah, that’s a terabyte of SSD, not a choice between getting an SSD and having enough space.

Sure, I use external storage, but it sure is nice not to have to depend on it for big DJ track collections alongside massive audio and video projects.

The sweet spot for me is, you can max out this machine for US$2,499.99 with the full 1 TB drive, or go for the nicer display for US$2,799.99. (Prices start at US$1899, or you may also consider the lower-priced Stealth – see bottom of article. There’s also a sale on this month, and refurbs do become available now and then.)

That’s a premium price, but the trick is, you don’t get astronomical by maxing out the specs the way you do with flagship offerings like the MacBook Pro or Microsoft Surface Book. You get a balanced machine that has all the storage, memory, and CPU you could want right now, and without sacrificing the I/O you need, too.

GPU, video, and creative applications

The 1060 delivers exceptional DirectX and (here, in Isadora) OpenGL performance, and it’s compatible with VR (and AI tools, if you’re interested). Using the GPU is when you’ll hear the fan kick in, though – but since you’re probably not mixing pushing the graphics envelope with vocal recording, that’s okay.

Of course, what puts this over the top is going to be the GPU.

That’s where this category has really transformed recently, because you now get what is essentially a high-end desktop GPU in a laptop. It’s the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 VR with 6 GB RAM. That’s not available on the Apple side, and there’s reason to want it. This is a GPU that can do all this fancy experimental machine learning stuff. It can do high-end virtual reality. And it’s got way more power than you could ever use right now for live visuals.

I’ve been playing with Unreal Game Engine as a custom visual development environment for live performance. I tested more conventional tools like Isadora and Resolume Arena, and they were able to run tons of advanced shaders easily.

This matters for music, too, because you can off-load visuals (even 3D ones) to the GPU and run your music setup alongside. Even if internal graphics pull off what you need, shared memory on internal graphics means you’re limited by available memory resources.

Since it comes from NVIDIA, shader compatibility for the 1060 is excellent, and you get support for the CUDA instruction set (think acceleration for everything from graphics to machine learning). For one, this hardware is an excellent pairing for Adobe Creative Suite. Running on the graphics card, I was able to quickly render and transcode big video projects in a matter of minutes. Now, Apple can tout their acceleration for Final Cut Pro X, but … the dedicated GPU here easily keeps up in real-world applications, and the number of editors I know even on the Mac who prefer Premiere and After Effects to Final Cut Pro and Motion these days is considerable.

Using the GPU is the one time this machine is loud. Put the graphics under load, and that fan kicks in. Then again, I don’t think you’re going to be doing a sensitive studio recording while also using the GPU, so mostly this isn’t noticeable; the machine is quiet all the rest of the time. I don’t mind hearing the fan while my Premiere project renders.

But I think the GPU is worth watching. This is what future-proofs the machine. Artists want to work with advanced visuals, creative shaders, sophisticated video processing, live visual performance, 3D, VR, and AI. Heck, just one commission or workshop working with machine learning might pay off the investment. And the 1060 is a good baseline.

Even if you don’t game or do 3D output, the GPU comes in handy in applications like exporting video from Premiere.

This is the area of Razer’s lineup naturally most likely to change in upcoming models, especially as NVIDIA are also focused on new lower-power, lower-heat versions of their desktop lineup. But I still think this generation makes a worthy investment, even if you can’t yet run the GPU and get long battery life for now. (You can switch off the GPU to conserve power on battery.)

It’s also worth saying, musicians may want to invest in gaming laptops – for various reasons, not just on-paper specs.

Apart from various creative applications, music and sound design for games is becoming a big area. And that means you’ve got a good justification to go for a gaming laptop. (Yeah, it’s a tax writeoff.) There are plenty of reviews of this laptop as a gaming laptop, and I’m no expert there. But I can at least say, gaming breaks on this thing are as fun as long hours in the studio. It’s a shame we have to do other work!

By the way – while Microsoft’s Surface laptops look interesting, it seems they suffer from insufficient power to the GPU. (See The Verge’s recent coverage.) That’s a deal-killer for me – and the price from Microsoft is steep, plus they lack Thunderbolt. The Razer I think wins handily.

Life with Windows 10

If anything is holding most users back from the PC side, it’s probably poor past experience with Windows.

Windows 10 still doesn’t exactly win any contests for UI refinement. There’s some confusing mingling of tablet features and new UIs with the desktop bits of Windows you know well. And there’s the usual digging through settings panels.

But let’s talk about what matters. Compatibility with Mac volumes is no longer a problem. (I use Paragon’s products.) I think there’s a lot to like about the Windows file Explorer, but if you don’t like it, you can easily replace it with whatever you want.

Microsoft have also fixed the biggest problem with Windows for audio. You can now rely on the stock drivers for music work without worrying about latency and glitching, thanks to years of investment in that subsystem. So skip things like ASIO4ALL and use your internal audio card in WASAPI mode, and everything’s fine. You can also easily install drivers for routing audio and MIDI between apps and different machines.

Remember when this used to be scary in Windows? Now it’s perfectly okay to use the standard driver (not just ASIO) on the internal sound card. That’s useful when you just want to plug in headphones and do some arrangement in FL or Live or Reason on a train.

Some gripes remain. Driver installation and management for USB audio and MIDI drivers can still be a bit stickier than on other OSes. As I mentioned earlier, scaling the UI is also not entirely consistent yet. But on balance, I find Windows to be easy enough to work with. (It’s also great that you can now install an Ubuntu command line, if you care about that, which I do.)

Windows also has some excellent platform exclusives, like FL Studio, or vvvv and Touch Designer for visuals (Touch Designer’s recent Mac arrival still isn’t as complete). So much of the rest of our software is now cross-platform, you’ll barely notice. I found switching from Final Cut back to Premiere why so many other people have done that, and all my daily music apps are cross-platform.
Don’t listen to people who say you need to do a bunch of hacking to make Windows work for audio; you don’t. Just choose audio interfaces with stable drivers, and you’ll be fine.

Just one gripe, Microsoft – please let us delay automatic updates without hacking the Registry. (At least Microsoft quality control has been better than Apple’s, but this is more about timing updates when they’re convenient, which is essential on a machine you use onstage. Anyway, in the meantime – do something like this.)

What’s next

I’ve used this machine for a lot. It’s been a studio machine, working with Ableton Live, Maschine, Reaktor, Pure Data, Bitwig Studio, and dabbling again in FL Studio. It’s been a live machine, both running live music (with Live and Reaktor/Reaktor Blocks and Pd), and simultaneous audiovisuals (adding visuals in Resolume and Isadora). It’s been a video machine, working in Premiere and Creative Suite. I’ve DJed with it, done productions on the road. It’s handled onstage situations and smoke machines and dirt. And it doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

I feel I haven’t even scratched the surface yet, either. (Um, apart from some literal scratches I tried to put in it – did I mention I play really underground spaces? It’s resisted that, too. Nice to have a rugged machine.)

That CPU/GPU combination plus Windows is now proving handy as I experiment with creative coding and use with machine learning / deep learning tools and Unreal Game Engine and Kinect 2. (I’m developing some new courses and a new live AV show.)

I’m really happy with the Razer Blade. I hope Razer continue to refine hardware here. It’s not hard to imagine what a next generation would look like: longer battery life, a new generation of NVIDIA graphics (which will be required to deliver on battery), and refined display would be welcome. USB-C charging would be nice.

For now, though, there’s not much reason to hold off if you’re looking to upgrade. With so many specs being this solid, I think Razer are going to be at the top of the list for anyone looking for a production machine – full stop. And talking to others in the community about recent purchases, plenty of people agree.

This is a gimmick-free, compromise-free, high-end choice. And after some years away from the PC, this is as happy as I’ve ever been on a Windows machine.

Disclosure notice: I contribute to the Razer Music program, but without any monetary compensation. I had this Razer Blade provided by Razer Europe on extended loan.

For more information:

music.razerzone.com is Razer’s music-focused site, which has tutorials and such (of interest to PC users in general, not just Razer customers)

Razer has US$400 off on select models through December 23. Products are available direct (with localized service and pricing):
razerzone.com

My model, as tested:

Razler Blade 14” – i7-6700HQ CPU @ 2.6G, 16GB RAM, 1TB SSD, NVIDIA GTX 1060 VR GPU with 6GB VRAM, 16GB (DDR4) RAM. Graphics and RAM are actually standard that way; storage is available from 256G-1TB SSD on the HD model or 512G-1TB on the 4k model. And all of this is just 4 lbs / 1.86 kg – not ultrabook light, but perfectly portable.

I think the 14” model is the most balanced choice, but you can also upgrade to a roomier 17” Razer Blade Pro (with slightly higher-end specs, too), or opt for the more compact 13” Razer Blade Stealth. (To save space, the Stealth can use an external GPU, so you have graphics power when you need it.) Details:

Razer Blade Pro 17” – Full HD model (same CPU/GPU as 14”) with 16GB RAM and 256GB SSD + 2TB HDD. RAM can be upgraded to 32GB, SSD to 2TB, HDD to 4TB by user. Also have the 4K model, with GTX 1080 GPU, overclocked i7-7820HK, 32GB RAM, RAID 0 SSD up to 2TB, and mechanical keyboard.

Razer Blade Stealth 13” – New 8th gen quad-core CPU available, 16GB RAM, QHD+ touch screen, up to 1TB, and with Gunmetal color option (no glowing green logo or green USB ports, but also no Chroma keyboard). Can be paired with Razer Core for more graphics power and connectivity.

Let me know what machines you’re using these days. And, yeah, maybe we can add each other on Steam.

The post Long-term hands-on: Razer Blade 14” as creative laptop appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.