KORG’s nutekt NTS-1 is a fun, little kit – and open to ‘logue developers

KORG has already shown that opening up oscillators and effects to developers can expand their minilogue and prologue keyboards. But now they’re doing the same for the nutekt NTS-1 – a cute little volca-ish kit for synths and effects. Build it, make wild sounds, and … run future stuff on it, too.

Okay, first – even before you get to any of that, the NTS-1 is stupidly cool. It’s a little DIY kit you can snap together without any soldering. And it’s got a fun analog/digital architecture with oscillators, filter, envelope, arpeggiator, and effects.

Basically, if you imagine having a palm-sized, battery-powered synthesis studio, this is that.

Japan has already had access to the Nutekt brand from KORG, a DIY kit line. (Yeah, the rest of the world gets to be jealous of Japan again.) This is the first – and hopefully not the last – time KORG has opened up that brand name to the international scene.

And the NTS-1 is one we’re all going to want to get our hands on, I’ll bet. It’s full of features:

– 4 fixed oscillators (saw, triangle and square, loosely modeled around their analog counterpart in minilogue/prologue, and VPM, a simplified version of the multi-engine VPM oscillator)
– Multimode analog modeled filter with 2/4 pole modes (LP, BP, HP)
– Analog modeled amp. EG with ADSR (fixed DS), AHR, AR and looping AR
– modulation, delay and reverb effects on par with minilogue xd/prologue (subset of)
– arpeggiator with various modes: up, down, up-down, down-up, converge, diverge, conv-div, div-conv, random, stochastic (volca modular style). Chord selection: octaves, major triad, suspended triad, augmented triad, minor triad, diminished triad (since sensor only allows one note at a time). Pattern length: 1-24
– Also: pitch/Shape LFO, Cutoff sweeps, tremollo
– MIDI IN via 2.5mm adapter, USB-MIDI, SYNC in/out
– Audio input with multiple routing options and trim
– Internal speaker and headphone out

That would be fun enough, and we could stop here. But the NTS-1 is also built on the same developer board for the KORG minilogue and prologue keyboards. That SDK opens up developers’ powers to make their own oscillators, effects, and other ideas for KORG hardware. And it’s a big deal the cute little NTS-1 is now part of that picture, not just the (very nice) larger keyboards. I’d see it this way:

NTS-1 buyers can get access to the same custom effects and synths as if they bought the minilogue or prologue.

minilogue and prologue owners get another toy they can use – all three of them supporting new stuff.

Developers can use this inexpensive kit to start developing, and don’t have to buy a prologue or minilogue. (Hey, we’ve got to earn some cash first so we can go buy the other keyboard! Oh yeah I guess I have also rent and food and things to think about, too.)

And maybe most of all –

Developers have an even bigger market for the stuff they create.

This is still a prototype, so we’ll have to wait, and no definite details on pricing and availability.

Waiting.

Yep, still waiting.

Wow, I really want this thing, actually. Hope this wait isn’t long.

I’m in touch with KORG and the analog team’s extraordinary Etienne about the project, so stay tuned. For an understanding of the dev board itself (back when it was much less fun – just a board and no case or fun features):

KORG are about to unveil their DIY Prologue boards for synth hacking

Videos:

Sounds and stuff –

Interviews and demos –

And if you wondered what the Japanese kits are like – here you go:

Oh, and I’ll also say – the dev platform is working. Sinevibes‘ Artemiy Pavlov was on-hand to show off the amazing stuff he’s doing with oscillators for the KORG ‘logues. They sound the business, covering a rich range of wavetable and modeling goodness – and quickly made me want a ‘logue, which of course is the whole point. But he seems happy with this as a business, which demonstrates that we really are entering new eras of collaboration and creativity in hardware instruments. And that’s great. Artemiy, since I had almost zero time this month, I better come just hang out in Ukraine for extended nerd time minus distractions.

Artemiy is happily making sounds as colorful as that jacket. Check sinevibes.com.

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The ultra-rare Sequential Prophet T8, reborn as a flagship add-on

It was the stuff of legends – a richly capable polysynth from the mind of Dave Smith, with only 800 units making it into the world. But now as makers chase the same clones on repeat, the T8 finds its way onto another innovative and overlooked flagship, today’s Sequential Prophet X and XL.

I wouldn’t normally write about sample packs, let alone add-ons for particular hardware. But Sequential’s Prophet X and XL are already uniquely sophisticated instruments – monster polysynths combining dozens of gigs of “deep sampling” sample content with analog synthesis, in a hybrid giant. The sample shop that assembled the sounds for that Prophet, 8dio, have gone back to painstakingly recreate the T8 as an add-on to the new Prophets.

The resulting combo could be the best modern Prophet available at the moment. The T8 had the soul of a Prophet-5 architecture, but was decades head of its time by unveiling polyphonic aftertouch keys (take that, MPE). Those T8 sounds, sampled here in detail, are a natural pairing with the Prophet X’s stereo analog filters, deep modulation, dual digital effects, and polyphonic step sequencer, plus its own superb keyboard.

8dio worked with Dave’s own, immaculately maintained T8 for the samples.

8dio has also made add-ons featuring the ARP 2600 and OBX.

The pack is just US$48, so while picking up a Prophet X or XL is hardly cheap, what you do get here for your investment is a serious alternative to assembling a bunch of software plug-ins for this sort of sound design depth.

Sequential Prophet X/XL Add-On 5 T8

The bad news here is really about a limitation of the new Prophets – Sequential doesn’t do polyphonic aftertouch or MPE on their new keyboards (though there is polyphonic glide). I’m rather hopeful that the reemergence of the T8 prods Dave and team to consider doing that, following Bay Area leaders like Roger Linn who helped drive the adoption of polyphonic expression in MIDI. These sounds deserve some control from more than one of your fingers at a time. (You get just mono aftertouch on the Prophet X/XL.)

But whether you’re a Sequential owner or not, it’s worth spending some time revisiting the T8 in all its 1983 glory – this is an early 80s synth that seems more like something you’d get now.

You absolutely should check out this copious review / history from greatsynthesizers.com for everything you could hope to want to know about this axe:

https://greatsynthesizers.com/en/review/sequential-prophet-t8-pure-analog-luxury/

There’s a lot of stuff in that keyboard – optical sensing, release velocity as well as polyphonic aftertouch.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAN-hnr4HCg

Photo at top – greatsynthesizers; seriously, do go check them out!

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Elektron turns Digitone into a polysynth keyboard

Elektron have taken one of their more inspiring recent products and added a keyboard. The result – an 8-voice polyphonic keyboard for 1320EUR, and a bunch of new playing features.

So yes, Elektron continues the move away from the company that makes powerful but mysterious boxes to something more hands-on. We’re going from menu diving to actually playing.

And indeed, it’s now the age of the polysynth. 8 voices for just over a grand ain’t so bad.

The Digitone was already sonically one of the most compelling instruments to come out of Gothenburg yet – a unique, powerful FM synth, so capable of all kinds of ringing, special timbres. Elektron haven’t been terribly creative with how they took the Digitone interface and made it a keyboard. A first glance shows something that looks like a fake image someone mocked up on Reddit.

But take a second look, and what you see is – lots of additional playing controls, a shallow design that keeps everything within reach (rather than putting all those buttons above the keys), and some new ways to play and connect Digitone.

In short, what’s new:

Multimap – basically think regions/splits on the keyboard, but which work for patterns as well as timbres

Eight assignable knobs (not on the original)

New portamento/arpeggio features

Per-track, separate outputs – making this ideal for people who like to use hardware effects

But the sum total of this is special – all the pattern and parameter lock features of an Elektron box, plus a bunch of keyboardist-friendly features. The Analog Keys was a first stab at this, but the Digitone Keys doubles the polyphony and looks friendlier.

Product image reveals where this product was possibly found – is that the cave Thor goes to? The bottom of … a magic Norse grotto? Don’t know?

Full specs – yep, now I copy/paste. Stay tuned, as I’m heading over to see Elektron’s new studio in Berlin – further cementing our dear home as the electronic music capital of the world. (Though, please y’all, I love Sweden, too! Don’t take away an excuse to go there!)

https://www.elektron.se/products/digitone-keys/

Synth voice features
8 voice polyphony (4-part multitimbral)
Multiple FM algorithms
Multiple operator harmonics
1 × multimode filter per voice
1 × base-width filter per voice
1 × overdrive per voice
2 × assignable LFO per voice
Unison
Portamento
2048 patch storage capacity on the +Drive

Sequencer
4 × synth tracks
4 × MIDI tracks
Arpeggiator per synth track
Polyphonic sequencing
Individual track lengths
Parameter locks
Micro timing
Trig conditions
Sound per step change
128 × projects on the +Drive
8 × Banks 16 × patterns per project
Send & master effects
Panoramic Chorus send effect
Saturator Delay send effect
Supervoid Reverb send effect
Overdrive master effect

Hardware
37-key semi-weighted, velocity sensitive keyboard with aftertouch
Assignable pitch and modulation wheels
8 × user assignable rotary encoders
2 × 1/4” impedance balanced main out jacks
8 × 1/4” impedance balanced track out jacks
1 × 1/4” stereo headphone jack
2 × 1/4” audio in jacks
2 × 1/4” CV/Expression/Sustain jacks
128 × 64 pixel OLED screen
48 kHz, 24-bit D/A and A/D converters
Hi-Speed USB 2.0 port
MIDI In/Out/Thru with DIN Sync out
Physical specifications
Sturdy steel casing
Dimensions: W868 × D185 × H90 mm (including knobs, feet, and jacks)
Weight: approximately 6 kg

Miscellaneous
Dedicated MIDI controller mode
Overbridge enabled
3 year Elektron warranty

Included in the box
Power Supply PSU-3b
Elektron USB cable

Look forward to checking this out in person; I hear they will have it for us today in Berlin.

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Novation’s super synth for Superbooth leaks: 16-voice Summit

What if Novation put everything great about their recent analog and digital synths into one keyboard? That appears to be exactly what Summit is – and it looks like a show stealer.

The information is leaking via German media through a couple of print and online outlets (Beat and delemar.de so far, with the Facebook post of the latter picked up by Gearnews. Oh, and, uh… there’s an image sitting around on Novation’s site.

And it’s too good to sit on this time.

16 voices digital/analog hybrid, bi-timbral modes, 60 wavetables, multimode filters, and then tons and tons of onboard controls – four dedicated LFOs right on the front panel.

3 oscillators per voice
FM synthesis
An arpeggiator with pattern and chord modes
A 61-key keyboard with conventional pitch and mod wheels
Stereo outputs (or 4x mono)

Okay, so why all those keys? Think performance – layers and splits and dual mode and that powerful chord/arp/pattern business, all at your fingertips.

Times like this I miss writing for Keyboard in print. But I’ll let you figure the rest from photos. And be sure we’ll head to that booth – I’m glad I’m bringing a couple of friends, as maybe then we can do four- or six-hand performance on this for you, provided Novation are bringing a working unit.

2200 EUR appears to be the price – and while that’s nothing to sneeze at, it’s tough to get this much bang and hands-on control for your buck any other way.

Oh yeah, and this does mean a shot across the bow of a certain rival manufacturer who has been posting “what-if” scenarios and random images. It appears Novation has done the actual engineering to finish a product here. But Novation’s coup here may be packing all the sound and modulation controls of a polysynth up front without having an overwhelming layout. No vintage instrument pulled that off – so instead of repeating the past, they’ve come up with a new design.

More when we talk to Novation Thursday.

(Bass Station 2.5 is also in this leaked image, but that we’ve seen already. It’s still cool.)

Of course, this is a leak so – all bets are off until we get official information.

And now your German word of the day is stimmig.

Novation Peak was a megahit at Superbooth, and it seems the gang from the UK have done it again.

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Yamaha may revisit its legendary 1970s CS-80 polysynth

Yamaha is the one giant name that has mostly shied away from revisiting its past synth glory – but all that could soon be set to change.

For better or for worse, we live in an age of remakes and reboots. Oberheim and Buchla are back; Sequential Circuits is a name again (even if the instruments are new). Moog have reissued their Minimoog and their modular – even Keith Emerson’s entire rig. And two out of the three Japanese giants have reissued work-alike recreations – KORG the MS-20 and ARP Odyssey, Roland whole sets of their modular series along with TB-303, TR-808, and TR-909. (Sure, the Roland has digital modeling substituted for analog gear, but the fact is you could use their TB-03 by reading the manual from the original, even with its original sequencer mode.) These manufacturers are all going back through their own catalogs and original creators; then, of course, you also have Behringer additionally going after their work.

In all of this, Yamaha has mostly been the notable exception. The closest we’ve gotten to Yamaha even acknowledging its back catalog was the reface series, a set of mini keyboards with some hands-on control covering its FM synths, CS analog line, and electric pianos.

Of those three, I always thought the reface CS was the most compelling. Its faders do a decent job of distilling the hands-on feeling of the CS line into an ultra-compact form factor.

But that’s a far cry from the legion of hands-on controls the mighty CS-80 offers, or even the excellent duophonic CS-40M. (Actually, to me, the CS-40M would be ideal for an all-analog remake, much like the ARP Odyssey and MS-20 were – just shedding some of the physical bulk of the original.)

It seems Yamaha are digging into that. A thread on yamahamusicians.com suggests they want to take on their CS-80. Yamaha’s back catalog is immense and influential, but there’s nothing quite like the CS-80. To say it was a giant is to say it is both the instrument associated with Blade Runner and literally a 200-pound behemoth.

And now Yamaha wants to know a “basic conceptual direction if we were to make a new CS-80.”

Yamaha Idea Scale CS80 Questionnaire [thread on yamahamusicians.com]

As noted on musicradar

There’s some interesting discussion in that thread. Sure enough, people are open to digital recreations. Basically, don’t believe everything you read online; whereas loud-mouthed Internet trolls will scream and howl about digital modeling, these devices do well in the market. Roland’s recreations, for instance, have satisfied plenty of people with sound, and the digital modeling allows these devices to be not only inexpensive, but to run on battery power and to provide direct-digital (zero circuit noise) recording via computer.

I think the most intriguing comparison in that thread is to the Alesis A6 Andromeda. That instrument, still sought after online, heralded the return not just of analog but of one-to-one, hands-on controls – at a time when manufacturers forgot that musicians love turning knobs and moving faders.

I also think it’s worth noting that an avalanche of Behringer remakes have not appeared to dampen the desire of people to see remakes from the original manufacturers.

Yamaha make great, high-quality instruments, but it’s been a while since they were grabbing equivalent buzz – maybe not since the likes of the Tenori-On.

In the meanwhile, if you want an authentic CS-80 recreation, sell your car and get a Deckard’s Dream.

https://www.deckardsdream.com/

My guess is that Yamaha will not choose to go this route for cost, and that this ultra-luxury boutique instrument will remain your all-analog CS choice. It is absolutely the polysynth I would buy if I ever had, you know, money.

But could Yamaha pull off a digital remake in a smaller shell? Why not? They’ve already got deep workstation keyboards unlike anyone else’s; it’s about time they go Andromeda on those engines and give people more hands-on controls. They certainly have the manufacturing prowess to pull it off.

Photo: Pete Brown [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons“]

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Moog Matriarch puts all your analog sound shaping in one keyboard

Moog has taken the elements of their semi-modular line and given it a flagship – a patchable, calico-colored keyboard with sequencer, 4-voice paraphonic synth, and effects in one keyboard.

The pitch: even before you plug in cables to the copious patch points here, you can quickly get evolving strings of dreamy chords (or rich melodies), complete with delay and modulation. Those extra (analog, they want you to remember) specs aren’t just about more features. They’re about dialing in imaginative sounds. And so the Matriarch is an all-in-one keyboard that draws from Moog’s modular legacy, but in an integrated design you can use both with and without patching.

We’re definitely living in a weird timestream. When I started writing about music tech and joined Keyboard in the early 2000s, “workstation” keyboards were digital affairs, with functionality hidden deep in menus and screens. The key was to put as many instruments as possible – analog synthesis being seen as something retro and niche. Moog for their part had the Voyager, which took the Minimooog line in the direction of new analog exploration. But even Moog’s offering was primarily connected with MIDI cables, and had a touch panel right on the front.

Now, CV and gate – analog interconnects – are standard equipment alongside MIDI. People are happy to twist knobs rather than just dial up presets. (We, uh, could have told manufacturers that all along. Here’s a hint: if it’s fun, we’ll like it. Hence the term “play” music.)

And even if Moog are still (happily) outside the mainstream, there’s nothing saying their Matriarch has anything but broad appeal.

So here’s a keyboard proudly with wires popping out the top. And while Moog prominently tout “all-analog signal path” and “retro” design, we’re really seeing ourselves back in the parallel universe where analog synthesis never went away. On one hand, we’ve come full circle to some of the features first introduced in analog synthesis, but now it’s clearer what they’re for and how to make them more accessible. So for all its 1970s-derived features (Moog name included), the Matriarch is inventive in a way that makes sense in 2019.

Moog are pulling from the modular world, too, more aggressively than ever. Not only is this patchable, but the design does imagine a series of modules. So you get Minimoog oscillators, a mixer, classic Moog filters, envelopes and sound shapers. They’ve also built in a sequencer/arpeggiator.

The voice configuration allows mono, duo, and paraphonic playing modes, plus you have four notes per step in the sequencer.

My sense is what will make this interesting is the multiple modes on the filters combined with a Moogerfooger-like analog delay and tons of modulation. So you have dual ADSR envelopes and dual analog amplifiers, and two filters you can use in parallel or stereo or series. The delay is stereo (and ping/pong if you want) up to 700 ms – still waiting on Moog to tell me how short that delay can go.

Oh yeah, and ring mod possibilities also sound interesting. Plus they’ve got mults in there for making patching deeper onboard.

Specs:

Mono, duo, and 4-note paraphonic playability
Stereo analog delay with up to 700ms of stereo or ping/pong style repeats
256-step sequencer with up to four notes per step and 12 stored patterns
Arpeggiator with selectable modes (Order, Forward/Backward, Random)
Semi-modular analog synthesizer—no patching required
90 modular patch points for endless exploration
Expressive 49-note Fatar keyboard with patchable velocity and aftertouch
Four analog oscillators with selectable waveshape and hard sync per-oscillator
Full-range analog LFO with six selectable waveshapes
Dual analog filters with parallel (HP/LP), stereo (LP/LP), and series (HP/LP) modes available
Dual analog ADSR envelopes
Dual analog VCAs
Three bipolar voltage controlled attenuators with ring mod capability
2×4 parallel wired unbuffered mults
Additional simple analog LFO useful for adding modulation to delay, filters and VCAs
1/4″ external audio input for processing guitars, drum machines, and more through Matriarch’s analog circuits
Stereo 1/4″ and 3.5mm Eurorack level audio outputs

This is a Moog and a “flagship,” so it doesn’t come cheap – US$1999. That’s not to complain about the price, but it does mean if you’re in that budget, you have a lot of options. (Sitting next to me as I write this is Polyend’s Medusa along with Dreadbox, which has 6 voices instead of four, and some digital oscillators and modulation options that take it in a radically different direction from the Matriarch. Oddly, people complained about its price, and it costs half as much.)

I would personally be pretty tempted by Moog’s own Grandmother, the Matriarch’s baby sibling – with a street price around $800. It’s a monosynth, and the whole architecture is scaled accordingly. (It also has a spring reverb tank in place of the Matriarch’s delay). But you could use the saved money for a little Eurorack skiff.

That said, the Matriarch is a thoughtful, colorful, appealing new top-of-the-line for this family of Moogs. And it gets a Moogfest limited edition at the festival happening now – plus a lot of artists gathered who I’m sure will really want one.

https://www.moogmusic.com/news/introducing-matriarch

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AKAI’s cute little MPK mini keyboard now has internal sounds

AKAI’s MPK mini was already something of a sleeper hit – a simple MIDI controller keyboard that was small enough to be irresistible. But the latest revision makes it useful even all by its lonesome.

MPK mini play is what AKAI are calling the latest edition. It’s actually the second major revision of this unassuming little keyboard. The gamepad-style pitch/mod joystick had already packed in a bit more control features, in addition to the handy pads, banks, and a built-in arpeggiator.

But all of that was just for use with a computer, connected via USB. The “play” version will now work standalone. There are 128 built-in instrument sounds and 10 drum kits in the internal sound module, plus a crisp OLED display so you can find the sound you want. AA battery power means this is all at your ready without even power nearby. There’s even a built-in speaker so you can hear what you’re doing.

You can also make Favorites, which compile a Keys patch, a Drums patch, and settings for the knobs.

Heck, it’s even got a sustain pedal input and a headphone jack.

I’ll be totally honest – I tried to look up what sounds are in there, and couldn’t. I know the screenshot already has an 808 kit – sold yet?

It almost doesn’t seem to matter. I can’t think of another keyboard that could work as an iPad or computer accessory on USB power, then also a standalone jamming keyboard. Studio ready, picnic ready, too. Seems a good move in time for summer (Northern Hemisphere, anyway).

I gush only because the MPK mini is one of those things that you buy sort of as a throwaway, then wind up using more than everything else, just because it’s so small and convenient. It also has the advantage of taking up so little space that even when other gear in the studio competes for space, it has a way of staying by your computer keyboard instead of going on the shelf.

(Judge me by my size, do you?)

https://www.akaipro.com/mpk-mini-play-mpkminiplay

Midifan in China have a hands-on with more pictures / unboxing (worth looking even before you reach for Google Translate to try to work out what they’re saying, if you don’t speak Chinese).

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Novation’s Bass Station II just got an Aphex Twin mode, crazy features

The Aphex Twin-ification of synths continues – and who’s complaining? Novation’s Bass Station II gets some mind-warping mental sound features, including key-by-key madness from Richard James.

Bass Station II is the powerful analog monosynth from Novation, with sub oscillator, extra acid filter, ring mod, loads of hands-on controls, an arp and keyboard, and all the extras. And like Novation’s full range, it’s also been getting double-stuffed after the fact with extras via firmware updates.

In this case, the headline feature just happens to come from a concept by sonic experimental legend Aphex Twin aka Richard James.

It’s not his first time – as he’s done with some other makers, he encouraged sound design features on the Bass Station II before, in the form of micro-tuning. (Thanks, Richard, for advocating for this feature! Let’s join the revolution.)

So behind unassuming version 4.14, you get an “AFX mode” to get more Aphex Twin-y, and other features:

  • AFX Mode: key-by-key parameters on every note morph your sound (whoa)
  • Fixed duration envelopes (decay slider sets only the duration of the sustain stage instead of when envelopes release)
  • Detunable sub oscillator (so both macro and fine tuning controls can be applied to the sub – that’s the low oscillator beneath)
  • Envelope retrigger count (useful for drum synthesis)
  • Oscillator glide diverge – lets you set the glide time of oscillator 2 relative to oscillator 1 for… uh, diverging glides (think thick, gooey sounds and portamento special effects)

These are actually all potentially useful and deep, but AFX mode is both the most compelling – and the weirdest to explain. Here’s a demo video from Novation’s CALC:

So the basic idea here is, you assign synthesis parameters to each note. It’s a little like having sliced up samples and spread them around the keyboard, only here you’ve done it with different sound parameters. And this goes in different directions – different sounds that you play as an ensemble like a drum kit, what Novation describe as “seed” variations of a single patch, or more nuanced shifts up and down.

Really, it’s an extension of what all keyboard assignments do – only they normally do it only with pitch and crude tracking of pitch to one or two other parameters. Here, you can go further.

Really, it’s a slight misnomer to only make Aphex Twin references here, as you could get quite subtle and practical. But it’s also exciting to imagine going off the deep end with a single, mad preset.

I know people tell me the millennials like video better than reading or something or other like this, so I’ve captured a video of a prominent YouTube influencer trying AFX Mode for the first time and showing his reactions:

And yeah, CALC is … a busy, busy man.

Hella fun to play with. I wonder if something similar might be applied to the Circuit Mono Station. Let’s watch.

https://novationmusic.com/synths/bass-station-ii

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NI now has killer, budget audio interfaces and compact keys

The answer to questions like “I just need a simple audio interface,” and “I want a compact keyboard that doesn’t suck,” and “oh, yeah, wait, does this connect to my Eurorack?” along with “did I mention I’ve got almost no money?” – just got some new answers.

Native Instruments launched the new audio interfaces and the latest addition to their keyboard line as part of some grand, abstract PR idea called “for the music in you,” and said a bunch of things about starting points and ecosystems.

To cut to the chase – these are inexpensive, very mobile devices with a ton of bundled software extras that make sense for anyone on a budget, beginner or otherwise. And whereas most inexpensive stuff looks really cheap, they look pretty nice. (That holds up in person – I got a hands-on in Berlin just before NAMM.)

KOMPLETE AUDIO 1, AUDIO 2

There are two audio interfaces – KOMPLETE AUDIO 1 and KOMPLETE AUDIO 2. These take one of the best features of NI’s past audio interfaces – they put a big volume knob right on top so you can quickly adjust your level, and they’ve got meters so you can see what that level is. But crucially, they promise better audio quality.

There are two models here, but let me break it down for you: you don’t want the AUDIO 1, you want the AUDIO 2. Why?

The AUDIO 1 was clearly made with the idea that singers just want one mic input (so there’s only a single XLR in), and for some reason also with RCA jacks on the back (because consumers, I suppose).

But if you spend just a little more on the AUDIO 2, you get a lot more usefulness.

First, two inputs – both XLR/jack combo, for mics and instruments, with mic preamps and phantom power so you can use any microphone. My guess is at some point everyone wants to record two inputs rather than one. (Think line inputs, stereo instruments, a mic and an instrument… you get the point.)

And you get jack outputs instead of RCA.

And while this won’t matter to everyone, the AUDIO 2 I’m told also has DC coupling, so you can use your computer and your Eurorack or other modular gear. That means you can pull off tricks like combining modular software and hardware, with tools like Ableton Live, Softube Modular, VCV Rack, Bitwig Studio, and oh yeah, Reaktor.

So, quietly, NI just created the most affordable way of connecting a computer and a modular.

If you are a beginner, you get a bunch of software to play around with. Ableton Live 10 Lite is actually a reasonable version of Live to try – only 8 tracks, but all of the core functionality of the software and many instruments and effects. There’s also MASCHINE Essentials, MONARK, REPLIKA, PHASIS, SOLID BUS COMP, and KOMPLETE START, which represents plenty of music making time.

The price is really the big point: US$109 / 99 EUR and $139 / 129 EUR. Coming in March.

https://www.native-instruments.com/en/products/komplete/audio-interfaces/komplete-audio-1-audio-2/

A micro keyboard

If you want some sort of mobile input, there are now some wild multi-touch expressive controllers out there, like ROLI’s Seaboard Block and the Sensel Morph.

But what if you don’t want some new-fangled touch insanity? What if you just want a piano keyboard?

And you want it to be inexpensive, and fit in a backpack so you can take it with you or fit it on cramped desks?

Good news: you’ve got loads of options.

Bad news: they’re all kind of horrible. They’re ugly, and they feel cheap. And they have extras you may not need (like drum pads, mapped to the same channel as the keyboard, begging the question why you wouldn’t just play the keys).

So I welcome the introduction of Native Instruments’ KOMPLETE KONTROL M32. This is one that I figured I needed myself the moment I saw it. (Normally, my reaction on keyboard product launches is more on the lines of – “God, please don’t make me write about another generic keyboard controller.”)

The feel is solid – a bit like some of the mini-key keyboards from Roland/Edirol a few years back. They don’t have the travel of full-sized keys, allowing this low profile, but seemed reasonably velocity sensitive.

Plus there are transport buttons and encoders, and two very usable touch strips. In software like Ableton Live and Apple Logic, these map to the usual transport features, and the encoders are assignable. In Native Instruments’ software, of course, you get the usual deep integration with parameters, browsing, and production.

The M32 will be a particularly strong companion to Maschine on the go, finally with a small footprint – something simply not possible with a 4×4 pad layout, much as I love it.

Speaking of Maschine – this is the full Maschine software. There’s a smaller sound bank, but even that is still 1.5GB. So when they say “Maschine Essentials,” they’re practically giving Maschine away. The other extras I mentioned above are slick, too – Reaktor Prism alone you could lose weeks or months in. Monark is a gorgeous Minimoog emulation with realistic filters and some sound design twists not on the original.

And it’s just US$129 (119 EUR). So it looks twice as expensive, but is actually cheaper than a lot of other options out there.

NI are trying to tell a lot of stories at once – something about Sounds.com, something about DJs, something about producers… and they’re following us all over social media and Google with constant ads.

But here’s the bottom line: this is only compact keyboard at any price that feels good or looks good, it’s still only just over a hundred bucks, and the “beginners” bundle is likely to please advanced users for months.

Coming in March.

https://www.native-instruments.com/en/products/komplete/keyboards/komplete-kontrol-m32/

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Arturia’s new experimental synth – and Mutable Instruments’ role

It was only a matter of time before some of the craziness of the modular world came to desktop synths, too. Arturia’s new MicroFreak is a budget keyboard with a weird streak.

It’s also been the source of some confusion, because it in fact makes use of oscillators from open source hardware maker Mutable Instruments, but hang tight for an explanation there. (It’s not exactly the focus of this synth, but it is significant – and an interesting illustration of overlapping capabilities in the age of open source.)

$349 (299 EUR) – coming this spring.

Experimental features are making their way into the mainstream. Let’s count – and yeah, that product name MicroFreak fits:

A flat-panel metal touch keyboard (Buchla style), with poly aftertouch. (Doesn’t look like there’s MPE support, though, just poly aftertouch support?)

A matrix for modulation (something associated with synths like the ARP 2500).

Randomization features in the step sequencer – various functions along the top “spice” and “dice” and otherwise rearrange your patterns.

Oscillator features from Mutable Instruments’ open source Plaits engine – and modes like Karplus Strong (physical modeled strings/plucks), harmonic oscillators, and more exotic wavetables.

It’s still an Arturia design, no doubt – the digital oscillators get fed through an analog filter (this time the Oberheim SEM), and the preset storage and control knobs all look Arturia-like and more conventional. But it’s a blend between that and more leftfield hardware, in one very low-cost unit – $349 (299 EUR) this spring.

The resulting design looks a little like it was pieced together from different bits – an ornate keyboard versus a more staid gray body, plus four glaring traffic cone orange knob caps. But that price is terrific, especially considering a lot of modular cases start at that price – let alone what you’d need to even begin to approach these possibilities here.

And – the thinness is fantastic. It seems 2019 is a year of touch keyboards. Don Buchla would’ve been proud of us.

So let’s get back to the Mutable Instruments oscillators, which are one of the more interesting features here. We’ve confirmed that Mutable Instruments and founder/designer Emilie were not directly involved in the design, though she did sign off on the mention of the company name.

Mutable Instruments’ Plaits module code is available open source under an MIT license, so any manufacturer can pick it up and use it – even without asking, actually. That’s by design; Emilie tells us she intended widespread use. (An alternative for open source developers is to use “copyleft” licensing, which requires anyone reusing your stuff to release their source, as well. That would’ve been interesting – theoretically it would have meant Arturia would need to open source their additional oscillators and firmware. The GPLv3 license we’ve used on MeeBlip has this function, for example.)

Some of Arturia’s original copy was perhaps a bit overzealous and caused some confusion about whether Mutable Instruments was a partner on the design. They’ve since clarified that. For further clarification, read the statement on the Mutable forums:

So while it’s not a collaboration, it does show off the power of open source. As Émilie writes:

You can find Mutable Instruments’ DSP code in the Korg Prologue, the Axoloti, the Organelle, VCV Rack, and plenty of other bits of software or hardware. This is not stealing. Plaits’ code is a summary of everything I’ve learnt about making rich and balanced sound sources controlled by a few parameters, it’s for everyone to enjoy.

The important thing here is to differentiate between the open source Plaits modules, some new additions from Arturia, and then the Plaits sounds you get from Mutable’s updated modules. Let’s break it down:

Plaits oscillator modes:

  • VA, classic virtual analog
  • Waveshaper, triangle wave with waveshaping / wavefolding
  • FM (2-operator FM oscillator)
  • Grain, granular synthesis
  • Chords, fixed paraphonic harmonies (hello, trance music, then)
  • Speech synthesis
  • Modal (inharmonic physical model)

Those of us who have been playing with this on hardware or in the authorized versions inside VCV Rack will definitely appreciate seeing these elsewhere. (Really – can’t get enough.)

Arturia did add some pretty significant modes to those:

  • “Superwave” – detuned saw, square, sine, triangle waves, somewhat Roland-ish sound
  • “Harmo” – 32 sine waves for additive synthesis
  • Karplus Strong – physical string modeling
  • Wavetable – scan through wavetable modes

To me, those Arturia additions really anchor this offering, with some pretty fundamental ideas on offer. Put them together, and you should have something really versatile.

But okay, since Mutable Instruments doesn’t get any of your money when you buy the Arturia MicroFreak, did Mutable just give away the store by using an open source license? Well, no, not really – Plaits gives you a full 16 modes, an internal low pass gate, and does all its 32-bit floating point math in hardware that you can bolt into a modular case and interconnect via control voltage. Plus, you can get Plaits in software if you like – see the Audible Instruments Preview for VCV Rack, regularly updated.

Heck, that could compel us Mutable superfans into happily buying these same features multiple times, in Arturia’s hardware, in the pack for VCV Rack (which Mutable has elected to support charity), and in Mutable’s own hardware. Hmmm… a MicroBrute, a little skiff with some Mutable modules, a nice connection to the laptop, maybe again a Raspberry Pi. Okay, I’ll stop. Guess I’ll have to buy the White Album again…)

See:
https://mutable-instruments.net/modules/plaits/

And as for MicroFreak:

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

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