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/

The post Your smartphone needs a pocket mixer: Roland Go:Mixer Pro review appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

Exploring a journey from Bengali heritage to electronic invention

Can electronic music tell a story about who we are? Debashis Sinha talks about his LP for Establishment, The White Dog, and how everything from Toronto noodle bowls to Bengali field recordings got involved.

The Canadian artist has a unique knack for melding live percussion techniques and electro-acoustic sound with digital manipulation, and in The White Dog, he dives deep into his own Bengali heritage. Just don’t think of “world music.” What emerges is deeply his and composed in a way that’s entirely electro-acoustic in course, not a pastiche of someone else’s musical tradition glued onto some beats. And that’s what drew me to it – this is really the sound of the culture of Debashis, the individual.

And that seems connected to what electronic music production can be – where its relative ease and accessibility can allow us to focus on our own performance technique and a deeper sense of expression. So it’s a great chance not just to explore this album, but what that trip in this work might say to the rest of us.

CDM’s label side project Establishment put out the new release. I spoke to Debashis just after he finished a trip to Germany and a live performance of the album at our event in Berlin. He writes us from his home Toronto.

First, the album:

I want to start with this journey you took across India. What was that experience like? How did you manage to gather research while in that process?

I’ve been to India many times to travel on my own since I turned 18 – usually I spend time with family in and near Kolkata, West Bengal and then travel around, backpacking style. Since the days of Walkman cassette recorders, I’ve always carried something with me to record sound. I didn’t have a real agenda in mind when I started doing it – it was the time of cassettes, really, so in my mind there wasn’t much I could do with these recordings – but it seemed like an important process to undertake. I never really knew what I was going to do with them. I had no knowledge of what sound art was, or radio art, or electroacoustic music. I switched on the recorder when I felt I had to – I just knew I had to collect these sounds, somehow, for me.

As the years went on and I understood the possibilities for using sound captured in the wild on both a conceptual and technical level, and with the advent of tools to use them easily, I found that to my surprise that the act of recording (when in India, at least) didn’t really change. I still felt I was documenting something that was personal and vital to my identity or heart, and the urge to turn on the recorder still came from a very deep place. It could easily have been that I gathered field sound in response to or in order to complete some kind of musical idea, but every time I tried to turn on the recorder in order to gather “assets” for my music, I found myself resisting. So in the end I just let it be, safe in the knowledge that whatever I gathered had a function for me, and may (or may not) in future have a function for my music or sound work. It didn’t feel authentic to gather sound otherwise.

Even though this is your own heritage, I suppose it’s simultaneously something foreign. How did you relate to that, both before and after the trip?

My father moved to Winnipeg, in the center of Canada, almost 60 years ago, and at the time there were next to no Indian (i.e. people from India) there. I grew up knowing all the brown people in the city. It was a different time, and the community was so small, and from all over India and the subcontinent. Passing on art, stories, myth and music was important, but not so much language, and it was easy to feel overwhelmed – I think that passing on of culture operated very differently from family to family, with no overall cultural support at large to bolster that identity for us.

My mom – who used to dance with Uday Shankar’s troupe would corral all the community children to choreograph “dance-dramas” based on Hindu myths. The first wave of Indian people in Winnipeg finally built the first Hindu temple in my childhood – until then we would congregate in people’s basement altars, or in apartment building common rooms.

There was definitely a relationship with India, but it was one that left me what I call “in/between” cultures. I had to find my own way to incorporate my cultural heritage with my life in Canada. For a long time, I had two parallel lives — which seemed to work fine, but when I started getting serious about music it became something I really had to wrestle with. On the one hand, there was this deep and rich musical heritage that I had tenuous connections to. On the other hand, I was also interested in the 2-Tone music of the UK, American hardcore, and experimental music. I took tabla lessons in my youth, as I was interested in and playing drums, but I knew enough to know I would never be a classical player, and had no interest in pursuing that path, understanding even then that my practice would be eclectic.

I did have a desire to contribute to my Indian heritage from where I sat – to express somehow that “in/between”-ness. And the various trips I undertook on my own to India since I was a young person were in part an effort to explore what that expression might take, whether I knew it or not. The collections of field recordings (audio and later video) became a parcel of sound that somehow was a thread to my practice in Canada on the “world music” stage and later in the realms of sound art and composition.

One of the projects I do is a durational improvised concert called “The (X) Music Conference”, which is modeled after the all-night classical music concerts that take place across India. They start in the evening and the headliner usually goes on around 4am and plays for 3 or more hours. Listening to music for that long, and all night, does something to your brain. I wanted to give that experience to audience members, but I’m only one person, so my concert starts at midnight and goes to 7am. There is tea and other snacks, and people can sit or lie down. I wanted to actualize this idea of form (the classical music concert) suffused with my own content (sound improvisations) – it was a way to connect the music culture of India to my own practice. Using field recordings in my solo work is another, or re-presenting/-imagining Hindu myths another.

I think with the development of the various facets of my sound practice, I’ve found a way to incorporate this “form and content” approach, allowing the way that my cultural heritage functions in my psyche to express itself through the tools I use in various ways. It wasn’t an easy process to come to this balance, but along the way I played music with a lot of amazing people that encouraged me in my explorations.

In terms of integrating what you learned, what was the process of applying that material to your work? How did your work change from its usual idioms?

I went through a long process of compartmentalizing when I discovered (and consumer technology supported) producing electroacoustic work easily. When I was concentrating on playing live music with others on the stage, I spent a lot of time studying various drumming traditions under masters all over – Cairo, Athens, NYC, LA, Toronto – and that was really what kept me curious and driven, knowing I was only glimpsing something that was almost unknowable completely.

As the “world music” industry developed, though, I found the “story” of playing music based on these traditions less and less engaging, and the straight folk festival concert format more and more trivial – fun, but trivial – in some ways. I was driven to tell stories with sound in ways that were more satisfying to me, that ran deeper. These field recordings were a way in, and I made my first record with this in mind – Quell. I simply sat down and gathered my ideas and field recordings, and started to work. It was the first time I really sustained an artistic intention all the way through a major project on my own. As I gained facility with my tools, and as I became more educated on what was out there in the world of this kind of sound practice, I found myself seeking these kinds of sound contexts more and more.

However, what I also started to do was eschew my percussion experience. I’m not sure why, but it was a long time before I gave myself permission to introduce more musical and percussion elements into the sound art type of work I was producing. I think in retrospect I was making up rules that I thought applied, in an effort to navigate this new world of sound production – maybe that was what was happening. I think now I’m finding a balance between music, sound, and story that feels good to me. It took a while though.

I’m curious about how you constructed this. You’ve talked a bit about assembling materials over a longer span of time (which is interesting, too, as I know Robert is working the same way). As we come along on this journey of the album, what are we hearing; how did it come together? I know some of it is live… how did you then organize it?

This balance between the various facets of my sound practice is a delicate one, but it’s also driven by instinct, because really, instinct is all I have to depend on. Whereas before I would give myself very strict parameters about how or what I would produce for a given project, now I’m more comfortable drawing from many kinds of sound production practice.

Many of the pieces on “The White Dog” started as small ideas – procedural or mixing explorations. The “Harmonium” pieces were from a remix of the soundtrack to a video art piece I made at the Banff Centre in Canada (White Dog video link here???), where I wanted to make that video piece a kind of club project. “entr’acte” is from a live concert I did with prepared guitar and laptop accompanying the works of Canadian visual artist Clive Holden. Tracks on other records were part of scores for contemporary dance choreographer Peggy Baker (who has been a huge influence on how I make music, speaking of being open). What brought all these pieces together was in a large part instinct, but also a kind of story that I felt was being told. This cross pollination of an implied dramatic thread is important to me.

And there’s some really beautiful range of percussion and the like. What are the sources for the record? How did you layer them?

I’ve quite a collection, and luckily I’ve built that collection through real relationships with the instruments, both technical and emotional/spiritual. They aren’t just cool sounds (although they’re that, too) — but each has a kind of voice that I’ve explored and understood in how I play it. In that regard, it’s pretty clear to me what instrument needs to be played or added as I build a track.

Something new happens when you add a live person playing a real thing inside an electronic environment. It’s something I feel is a deep part of my voice. It’s not the only way to hear a person inside a piece of music, but it;s the way I put myself in my works. I love metallic sounds, and sounds with a lot of sustain, or power. I’m intrigued by how percussion can be a texture as well as a rhythm, so that is something I explore. I’m a huge fan of French percussionist Le Quan Ninh, so the bass-drum-as-tabletop is a big part of my live setup and also my studio setup.

This programmatic element is part of what makes this so compelling to me as a full LP. How has your experience in the theater imprinted on your musical narratives?

My theater work encompasses a wide range of theater practice – from very experimental and small to quite large stages. Usually I do both the sound design and the music, meaning pretty much anything coming out of a speaker from sound effects to music.

My inspiration starts from many non-musical places. That’s mostly, the text/story, but not always — anything could spark a cue, from the set design to the director’s ideas to even how an actor moves. Being open to these elements has made me a better composer, as I often end up reacting to something that someone says or does, and follow a path that ends up in music that I never would have made on my own. It has also made me understand better how to tell stories, or rather maybe how not to – the importance of inviting the audience into the construction of the story and the emotion of it in real time. Making the listener lean forward instead of lean back, if you get me.

This practice of collaborative storytelling of course has impact on my solo work (and vice versa) – it’s made me find a voice that is more rooted in story, in comparison to when I was spending all my time in bands. I think it’s made my work deeper and simpler in many ways — distilled it, maybe — so that the story becomes the main focus. Of course when I say “story” I mean not necessarily an explicit narrative, but something that draws the listener from end to end. This is really what drives the collecting and composition of a group of tracks for me (as well as the tracks themselves) and even my improvisations.

Oh, and on the narrative side – what’s going on with Buddha here, actually, as narrated by the ever Buddha-like Robert Lippok [composer/artist on Raster Media]?

I asked Robert Lippok to record some text for me many years ago, a kind of reimagining the mind of Gautama Buddha under the bodhi tree in the days leading to his enlightenment. I had this idea that maybe what was going through his mind might not have been what we may imagine when we think of the myth itself. I’m not sure where this idea came from – although I’m sure that hearing many different versions of the same myths from various sources while growing up had its effect – but it was something I thought was interesting. I do this often with my works (see above link to Kailash) and again, it’s a way I feel I can contribute to the understanding of my own cultural heritage in a way that is rooted in both my ancestor’s history as well as my own.

And of course, when one thinks of what the Buddha might have sounded like, I defy you to find someone who sounds more perfect than Robert Lippok.

Techno is some kind of undercurrent for this label, maybe not in the strict definition of the genre… I wonder actually if you could talk a bit about pattern and structure. There are these rhythms throughout that are really hypnotic, that regularity seems really important. How do you go about thinking about those musical structures?

The rhythms I seem drawn to run the gamut of time signatures and tempos. Of course, this comes from my studies of various music traditions and repertoire (Arabic, Greek, Turkish, West Asian, south Indian…). As a hand percussionist for many years playing and studying music from various cultures, I found a lot of parallels and cross talk particularly in the rhythms of the material I encountered. I delighted in finding the groove in various tempos and time signatures. There is a certain lilt to any rhythm; if you put your mind and hands to it, the muscles will reveal this lilt. At the same time, the sound material of electronic music I find very satisfying and clear. I’m at best a middling recording engineer, so capturing audio is not my forte – working in the box I find way easier. As I developed skills in programming and sound design, I seemed to be drawn to trying to express the rhythms I’ve encountered in my life with new tools and sounds.

Regularity and grid is important in rhythm – even breaking the grid, or stretching it to its breaking point has a place. (You can hear this very well in south Indian music, among others.) This grid undercurrent is the basis of electronic music and the tools used to make it. The juxtaposition of the human element with various degrees of quantization of electronic sound is something I think I’ll never stop exploring. Even working strongly with a grid has a kind of energy and urgency to it if you’re playing acoustic instruments. There’s a lot to dive into, and I’m planning to work with that idea a lot more for the next release(s).

And where does Alvin Lucier fit in, amidst this Bengali context?

The real interest for me in creating art lies in actualizing ideas, and Lucier is perhaps one of the masters of this – taking an idea of sound and making it real and spellbinding. “Ng Ta (Lucier Mix)” was a piece I started to make with a number of noodle bowls I found in Toronto’s Chinatown – the white ones with blue fishes on them. The (over)tones and rhythms of the piece as it came together reminded me of a piece I’m really interested in performing, “Silver Streetcar for The Orchestra”, a piece for amplified triangle by Lucier. Essentially the musician plays an amplified triangle, muting and playing it in various places for the duration of the piece. It’s an incredible meditation, and to me Ng Ta on The White Dog is a meditation as well – it certainly came together in that way. And so the title.

I wrestle with the degree with which I invoke my cultural heritage in my work. Sometimes it’s very close to the surface, and the work is derived very directly from Hindu myth say, or field recordings from Kolkata. Sometimes it simmers in other ways, and with varying strength. I struggle with allowing it to be expressed instinctually or more directly and with more intent. Ultimately, the music I make is from me, and all those ideas apply whether or not I think of them consciously.

One of the problems I have with the term “world music” is it’s a marketing term to allow the lumping together of basically “music not made by white people”, which is ludicrous (as well as other harsher words that could apply). To that end, the urge to classify my music as “Indian” in some way, while true, can also be a misnomer or an “out” for lazy listening. There are a billion people in India, I believe, and more on the subcontinent and abroad. Why wouldn’t a track like “entr’acte” be “Indian”? On the other hand, why would it? I’m also a product of the west. How can I manage those worlds and expectations and still be authentic? It’s something I work on and think about all the time – but not when I’m actually making music, thank goodness.

I’m curious about your live set, how you were working with the Novation controllers, and how you were looping, etc.

My live sets are always, always constructed differently – I’m horrible that way. I design new effects chains and different ways of using my outboard MIDI gear depending on the context. I might use contact mics on a kalimba and a prepared guitar for one show, and then a bunch of external percussion that I loop and chop live for another, and for another just my voice, and for yet another only field recordings from India. I’ve used Ableton Live to drive a lot of sound installations as well, using follow actions on clips (“any” comes in handy a lot), and I’ve even made some installations that do the same thing with live input (making sure I have a 5 second delay on that input has….been occasionally useful, shall we say).

The concert I put together for The White Dog project is one that I try and keep live as much as possible. It’s important to me to make sure there is room in the set for me to react to the room or the moment of performance – this is generally true for my live shows, but since I’m re-presenting songs that have a life on a record, finding a meaningful space for improv was trickier.

Essentially, I try and have as many physical knobs and faders as possible – either a Novation Launch Control XL or a Behringer BCR2000 [rotary controller], which is a fantastic piece of gear (I know – Behringer?!). I use a Launchpad Mini to launch clips and deal with grid-based effects, and I also have a little Launch Control mapped to the effects parameters and track views or effects I need to see and interact with quickly. Since I’m usually using both hands to play/mix, I always have a Logidy UMI3 to control live looping from a microphone. It’s a 3 button pedal which is luckily built like a tank, considering how many times I’ve dropped it. I program it in various ways depending on the project – for The White Dog concerts with MIDI learn in the Ableton looper to record/overdub, undo and clear button, but the Logidy software allows you to go a lot deeper. I have the option to feed up to 3 effects chains, which I sometimes switch on the fly with dummy clips.

The Max For Live community has been amazing and I often keep some kind of chopper on one of the effect chains, and use the User mode on the Launchpad Mini to punch in and out or alter the length of the loop or whatnot. Sometimes I keep controls for another looper on that grid.

Basically, if you want an overview – I’m triggering clips, and have a live mic that I use for percussion and voice for the looper. I try and keep the mixer in a 1:1 relationship with what’s being played/played back/routed to effects because I’m old school – I find it tricky to do much jumping around when I’m playing live instruments. It’s not the most complicated setup but it gets the job done, and I feel like I’ve struck a balance between electronics and live percussion, at least for this project.

What else are you listening to? Do you find that your musical diet is part of keeping you creative, or is it somehow partly separate?

I jump back and forth – sometimes I listen to tons of music with an ear to try and expand my mind, sometimes just to enjoy myself. Sometimes I stop listening to music just because I’m making a lot on my own. One thing I try to always take care of is my mind. I try to keep it open and curious, and try to always find new ideas to ponder. I am inspired by a lot of different things – paintings, visual art, music, sound art, books – and in general I’m really curious about how people make an idea manifest – science, art, economics, architecture, fashion, it doesn’t matter. Looking into or trying to derive that jump from the mind idea to the actual real life expression of it I find endlessly fascinating and inspiring, even when I’m not totally sure how it might have happened. It’s the guessing that fuels me.

That being said, at the moment I’m listening to lots of things that I feel are percolating some ideas in me for future projects, and most of it coming from digging around the amazing Bandcamp site. Frank Bretschneider turned me on to goat(jp), which is an incredible quartet from Japan with incredible rhythmic and textural muscle. I’ve rediscovered the fun of listening to lots of Stereolab, who always seem to release the same record but still make it sound fresh. Our pal Robert Lippok just released a new record and I am so down with it – he always makes music that straddles the emotional and the electronic, which is something I’m so interested in doing.

I continue to make my way through the catalog of French percussionist Le Quan Ninh, who is an absolute warrior in his solo percussion improvisations. Tanya Tagaq is an incredible singer from Canada – I’m sure many of the people reading this know of her – and her live band, drummer Jean Martin, violinist Jesse Zubot, and choirmaster Christine Duncan, an incredible improv vocalist in her own right are unstoppable. We have a great free music scene in Toronto, and I love so many of the musicians who are active in it, many of them internationally known – Nick Fraser (drummer/composer), Lina Allemano (trumpet), Andrew Downing (cello/composer), Brodie West (sax) – not to mention folks like Sandro Perri and Ryan Driver. They’ve really lit a fire under me to be fierce and in the moment – listening to them is a recurring lesson in what it means to be really punk rock.

Buy and download the album now on Bandcamp.

https://debsinha.bandcamp.com/album/the-white-dog

The post Exploring a journey from Bengali heritage to electronic invention appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

Mode Machines launches SEQ12 matrix-style sequencer

Mode Machines SEQ12Mode Machines has announced availability of its SEQ12 multi-channel analog and MIDI step sequencer. SEQ12 is a tabletop (rack-mountable) console-type unit that lends itself to creating and arranging pattern-based music as a live performance-capable standalone sequencing tool or working alongside a DAW to enhance production possibilities. SEQ12 is a MIDI Matrix Sequencer (in a console […]

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

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

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

Okay, so what’s the good news?

New MacBook Pro 13" and 15"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MacBook Pro 15"

15″ MacBook Pro

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

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

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

13″ MacBook Pro

Touch Bar and Touch ID
2.3GHz Processor
512GB Storage

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

But that’s US$1,999.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos courtesy Apple.

Previously:

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

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

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Eurorack’s prices are dropping, as Herr Schneider laments

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:

Jetzt auch XAOC bei Thomann ..

And in an English translation (with more commentary by Schneiderladen in English):

HerrSchneiders statement on current developments in the Eurorack market [stromkult]

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.

Other thoughts? Let us know.

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Kenton Thru-12 boosts your MIDI by the power of 12

Kenton Thru-12Kenton Electronics has announced the immediate availability of Thru-12, a MIDI Thru unit that acts as an excellent central hub and data spreader for people with large MIDI studio set-ups or modular/Eurorack synth collections. Kenton’s new Thru-12 is the ideal unit if you need to spread your MIDI word far and wide to multiple modules. […]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out the online presence of each:

http://www.verboselectronics.com/

https://www.schneidersladen.de/

Photo: Verbos Electronics.

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Modal intros Skulpt synthesizer, Kickstarter to launch July 13th

Modal Skulpt featModal Electronics has announced the Skulpt Synthesizer, featuring a four voice 32-oscillator virtual analog synthesizer with monophonic, duophonic and polyphonic modes. Packing a huge range of synthesis power in a highly portable package, Modal SKULPT is ready to help you take your creativity to the next level wherever and whenever you want. Skulpt features 4 […]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full specs:

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

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

Sounds:

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

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

The Kickstarter launches next week.

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

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Erica Synths announces new Drum Series modules

Erica Synths Drum SystemErica Synths has announced that its first drum modules are now available for ordering, including Bass Drum, Snare Drum, Toms, Clap, Mixer & Mixer Lite. The company’s Techno System will be a set of 15 modules put together, as one of the most advanced techno/industrial music performance instruments ever created. The Techno System contains a […]