Bitwig Studio is about to deliver on a fully modular core in a DAW

Bitwig Studio may have started in the shadow of Ableton, but one of its initial promises was building a DAW that was modular from the ground up. Bitwig Studio 3 is poised to finally deliver on that promise, with “The Grid.”

Having a truly modular system inside a DAW offers some tantalizing possibilities. It means, in theory at least, you can construct whatever you want from basic building blocks. And in the very opposite of today’s age of presets, that could make your music tool feel more your own.

Oh yeah, and if there is such an engine inside your DAW, you can also count on other people building a bunch of stuff you can reuse.

Why modulaity? It doesn’t have to just be about tinkering (though that can be fun for a lot of people).

A modular setup is the very opposite of a preset mentality for music production. Experienced users of these environments (software especially, since it’s open-ended) do often find that patching exactly what they need can be more creative and inspirational. It can even save time versus the effort spent trying to whittle away at a big, monolithic tool just go get to the bit you actually want. But the traditional environments for modular development are fairly unfriendly to new users – that’s why very often people’s first encounters with Max/MSP, SuperCollider, Pd, Reaktor, and the like is in a college course. (And not everyone has access to those.) Here, you get a toolset that could prove more manageable. And then once you have a patch you like, you can still interconnect premade devices – and you can work with clips and linear arrangement to actually finish songs. With the other tools, that often means coding out the structure of your song or trying to link up to a different piece of software.

We’ve seen other DAWs go modular in different ways. There’s Apple Logic’s now mostly rarely-used Environment. There’s Reason with its rich, patchable rack and devices. There’s Sensomusic Usine, which is a fully modular DAW / audio environment, and DMX lighting and video tool – perhaps the most modular of these (even relative to Bitwig Studio and The Grid). And of course there’s Ableton Live with Max for Live, though that’s really a different animal – it’s a full patching development environment that runs inside Live via a runtime, and API and interface hooks that allow you to access its devices. The upside: Max for Live can do just about everything. The downside: it’s mostly foreign to Ableton Live (as it’s a different piece of software with its own history), and it could be too deep for someone just wanting to build an effect or instrument.

So, enter The Grid. This is really the first time a relatively conventional DAW has gotten its own, native modular environment that can build instruments and effects. And it looks like it could be accomplished in a way that feels comfortable to existing users. You get a toolset for patching your own stuff inside the DAW, and you can even mix and match signal to outboard hardware modular if that’s your thing.

And it really focuses on sound applications, too, with three devices. One is dedicated to monophonic synths, one to polyphonic synths, and one to effects.

From there, you get a fully modular setup with a modern-looking UI and 120+ modules to choose from.

They’ve done a whole lot to ease the learning curve normally associated with these environments – smoothing out some of the wrinkles that usually baffle beginners:

You can patch anything to anything, in to out. All signals are interchangeable – connect any out to any in. Most other software environments don’t work that way, which can mean a steeper learning curve. (We’ll have to see how this works in practice inside The Grid).

Any in can go to any out – reducing some of the complexity of other patching environments (software and hardware alike).

Everything’s stereo. Here’s another way of reducing complexity. Normally, you have to duplicate signals to get stereo, which can be confusing for beginners. Here, every audio cable and every control cable routes stereo.

Everything’s also in living stereo, reducing cable count and cognitive effort.

There are default patchings. Funny enough, this idea has actually been seen on hardware – there are default routings so modules automatically wire themselves if you want, via what Bitwig calls “pre-cords.” That means if you’re new to the environment, you can always plug stuff in.

They’ve also promised to make phase easier to understand, which should open up creative use of time and modulation to those who may have been intimidated by these concepts before.

“Pre-cords” mean you can easily add default patchings to get stuff working straight away.

What fun is a modular tool if you can’t explore phase? Bitwig say they’ve made this concept more accessible to modulation and easier to learn.

There’s also a big advantage to this being native to the environment – again, something you could only really say about Sensomusic Usine before now (at least as far as things that could double as DAWs).

This unlocks:

  • Nesting and layering devices alongside other Bitwig devices
  • Full support from the Open Controller API. (Wow, this is a pain the moment you put something like Reaktor into another host, too.)
  • Route modulation out of your stuff from The Grid into other Bitwig devices.
  • Complete hardware modular integration – yeah, you can mix your software with hardware as if they’re one environment. Bitwig says they’ve included “dedicated grid modules for sending any control, trigger, or pitch signal as CV Out and receiving any CV In.”

I’ve been waiting for this basically since the beginning. This is an unprecedented level of integration, where every device you see in Bitwig Studio is already based on this modular environment. Bitwig had even touted that early on, but I think they were far overzealous with letting people know about their plans. It unsurprisingly took a while to make that interface user friendly, which is why it’ll be a pleasure to try this now and see how they’ve done. But Bitwig tells us this is in fact the same engine – and that the interface “melds our twin focus on modularity and swift workflows.”

There’s also a significant dedication to signal fidelity. There’s 4X oversampling throughout. That should generally sound better, but it also has implications for control and modularity. And it’ll make modulation more powerful in synthesis, Bitwig tells CDM:

With phase, sync, and pitch inputs on most every oscillator, there are many opportunities here for complex setups. Providing this additional bandwidth keeps most any patch or experiment from audible aliasing. As an open system, this type of optimization works for the most cases without overtaxing processors.

It’s stereo only, which puts it behind some of the multichannel capabilities of Reaktor, Max, SuperCollider, and others – Max/MSP especially given its recent developments. But that could see some growth in a later release, Bitwig hints. For now, I think stereo will keep us plenty busy.

They’ve also been busy optimizing, Bitwig tells us:

This is something we worked a lot on in early development, particularly optimizing performance on the oversampled, stereo paths to align with the vector units of desktop processors. In addition, the modules are compiled at runtime for the best performance on the particular CPU in use.

That’s a big deal. I’m also excited about using this on Linux – where, by the way, you can really easily use JACK to integrate other environments like SuperCollider or live coding tools.

If you’re at NAMM, Bitwig will show The Grid as part of Bitwig Studio 3. They have a release coming in the second quarter, but we’ll sit down with them here in Berlin for a detailed closer look (minus NAMM noise in the background or jetlag)!

Oh yeah, and if you’ve got the Upgrade Plan, it’s free.

This is really about making a fully modular DAW – as opposed to the fixed multitrack tape/mixer models of the past. Bitwig have even written up an article about how they see modularity and how it’s evolved over various release versions:


More on Bitwig Studio 3:


Oh yeah, also Tron: Legacy seems like a better movie with French subtitles…

That last line fits: “And the world was more beautiful than I ever dreamed – and also more dangerous … hop in bed now, come on.”

Yeah, personal life / sleep … in trouble.

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Build your own scratch DJ controller

If DJing originated in the creative miuse and appropriation of hardware, perhaps the next wave will come from DIYers inventing new approaches. No need to wait, anyway – you can try building this scratch controller yourself.

DJWORX has done some great ongoing coverage of Andy Tait aka Rasteri. You can read a complete overview of Andy’s SC1000, a Raspberry Pi-based project with metal touch platter:

Step aside portablism — the tiny SC1000 is here

In turn, there’s also that project’s cousin, the 7″ Portable Scratcher aka 7PS.

If you’re wondering what portablism is, that’s DJs carrying portable record players around. But maybe more to the point, if you can invent new gear that fits in a DJ booth, you can experiment with DJing in new ways. (Think how much current technique is really circumscribed by the feature set of CDJs, turntables, and fairly identical DJ software.)

Or to look at it another way, you can really treat the DJ device as a musical instrument – one you can still carry around easily.

The SC1000 in Rasteri’s capable hands is exciting just to behold:

Everything you need to build this yourself – or to discover the basis for other ideas – is up on GitHub:

This is not a beginner project. But it’s not overwhelmingly complicated, either. Basically…

Custom PCB
System-on-module (the brains of the operation)
SD card
Jog wheel with metal capacitive touch surface and magnet
Mini fader

Free software powers the actual DJing. (It’s based on xwax, open source Linux digital vinyl emulation, which we’ve seen as the basis of other DIY projects.)


You need to assemble the main PCB – there’s your soldering iron action.

And you’ll flash the firmware (which requires a PIC programmer), plus transfer the OS to SD card.

Assembly of the jog wheel and enclosure requires a little drilling and gluing

Other than that it’s a matter of testing and connection.

Build tutorial:

Full open source under a GPLv2 license. (Andy sort of left out the hardware license – this really sort of illustrates that GNU need a license that blankets both hardware and software, though that’s complex legally. There’s no copyright information on the hardware; to be fully open it needs something like a Creative Commons license on those elements of the designs. But that’s not a big deal.)

It looks really fantastic. I definitely want to try building one of these in Berlin – will team up and let you know how it goes.

This clearly isn’t for everyone. But the reason I mention going to custom hardware is, this means both that you can adapt your own technique to a particular instrument and you can modify the way the digital DJ tool responds if you so choose. It may take some time before we see that bear fruit, but it definitely holds some potential.

Rasteri’s SC1000 scratch controller — build your own today [thanks to Mark Settle over at DJWORX!]

Project page:

Thanks, Dubby Labby!

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Bitwig Studio 2.5 beta arrives with features inspired by the community

We’re coasting to the end of 2019, but Bitwig has managed to squeeze in Studio 2.5, with feature the company says were inspired by or directly requested by users.

The most interesting of these adds some interactive arrangement features to the linear side of the DAW. Traditional DAWs like Cubase have offered interactive features, but they generally take place on the timeline. Or you can loop individual regions in most DAWs, but that’s it.

Bitwig are adding interactive actions to the clips themselves, right in the arrangement. “Clip Blocks” apply Next Action features to individual clips.

Also in this release:

“Audio Slide” lets you slide audio inside clips without leaving the arranger. That’s possible in many other DAWs, but it’s definitely a welcome addition in Bitwig Studio – especially because an audio clip can contain multiple audio events, which isn’t necessarily possible elsewhere.

Note FX Selector lets you sweep through multiple layers of MIDI effects. We’ve seen something like this before, too, but this implementation is really nice.

There’s also a new set of 60 Sampler presets with hundreds of full-frequency waveforms – looks great for building up instruments. (This makes me ready to boot into Linux with Bitwig, too, where I don’t necessarily have my full plug-in library at my disposal.)

Other improvements:

  • Browser results by relevance
  • Faster plug-in scanning
  • 50 more functions accessible as user-definable key commands

To me, the thing that makes this newsworthy, and the one to test, is really this notion of an interactive arrangement view.

Ableton pioneered Follow Actions in their Session View years back in Ableton Live, but they’ve failed to apply that concept even inside Session View to scenes. (Some Max for Live hacks fill in the gap, but that only proves that people are looking for this feature.)

Making the arrangement itself interactive at the clip level – that’s really something new.

Now, that said, let’s play with Clip Blocks in Bitwig 2.5 and see if this is helpful or just confusing or superfluous in arrangements. (Presumably you can toy with different arrangement possibilities and then bounce out whatever you’ve chosen? I have to test this myself.) And there’s also the question of whether this much interactivity actually just has you messing around instead of making decisions, but that’s another story.

Go check out the release, and if you’re a Bitwig user, you can immediately try out the beta. Let us know what you think and how those Clip Blocks impact your creative process. (Or share what you make!)

Just please – no EDM tabla. (I think that moment sent a chill of terror down my spine in the demo video.)

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Bitwig Studio 2.4 Now Available

Bitwig has announced the availability of Bitwig Studio 2.4, a free update for the multi-platform DAW (Linux, Mac & Windows). … Read More Bitwig Studio 2.4 Now Available

Tracktion 7: powerful, free audio production tool (Mac, Windows, Linux)

So you want to start recording, mixing, arranging, and your budget is … you don’t have one. Tracktion runs on every OS, and the latest update adds still more powerful features.

Free production tools are invaluable – not only are they a refuge for the cash-strapped, but they can be a useful common denominator when you want to exchange projects, or if you need to get up and running quickly on something other than your main machine. Tracktion isn’t the only option out there. Notably GarageBand is available to macOS and iOS users. The excellent Cakewalk (formerly called Cakewalk SONAR) is an optimal choice on Windows, now available free from BandLab. For cross-platform tools, there’s the completely free and open source Ardour, though it can be a bit hacky to install and use. And while it’s not free, Reaper has an unlimited demo, meaning you can use the full version for free and send the developer some money after you sell that first TV score.

Where Tracktion stands out: it’s a modern, friendly, single-window DAW that runs on any OS (Mac, Windows, Linux). And of all of these, it may be the friendliest option – with some power features not available from other options.

T7, released this week, sweetens the pot with some unique new additions – including a couple that might even sway you from the DAW you’ve already paid for.

The UI has been refreshed, with a new scheme called “Blue Steel.” (Okay, enough Zoolander references already. Or at least they missed the opportunity to say the new color scheme will help you “Relax.”)

Browsing is also easier, with a visual browser for plug-ins (the likes of which we’ve seen in Reason, but more rarely elsewhere), plus a multi-browser for auditioning and placing multiple audio files.

The real magic, though, is in the ability to get some power over automation and routing:

Modular racks let you create custom signal processing chains.

Clip Layer Effects let you stack on effects and plug-in processing on specific clips, not just on tracks. That makes for a different workflow – no more making a new track every time you want to change audio routing. Tracktion says they’re applying for a patent here.

Clip Layer Effects: no more duplicating tracks just because one section needs a different effects routing than another bit.

Automation patterns are modulation and envelopes that you can apply to any parameter repeatedly. And there’s optional tempo sync support for them. That sounds especially handy for keeping favorite gestures at the ready, and for remixes and dance music (or to go the opposite direction, hyperactive microediting). Speaking of which, you also get….

Automation patterns can now be stored an applied anywhere – including with tempo sync.

LFO Modifiers can be applied to any parameter in the channel strip or in any third-party plug-in. We’ve seen powerful modifiers in Bitwig Studio – and in Ableton Live, though limited to somewhat simple Max for Live add-ons – but here, combined with those Clip Layers and Automation Patterns, they make Tracktion into a powerful DAW for editing.

LFO Modifiers now work with plug-ins.

Okay, so since this is free, how do the developers make any money? They hope you’ll upgrade to Waveform, their next-generation DAW. It’s got all these features, but adds more extensive instrument support, a multi-sampler, Melodyne pitch correction, a fully modular mix environment, more detailed MIDI editing and pattern generation, and other additions.

Also significant: master mix DSP, chord track, track loops, track presets, quick render, Rack ‘stack’ editor,’ plug-in faceplates, plug-in macros, and free online support. And only Waveform has ready-to-play Raspberry Pi support.

That still means Tracktion is a good way to give this approach a try.

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Percussa SSP Wavetable Oszillator kann auch Plug-ins laufen lassen – Updates


Der Percussa  SSP ist schon einige Male durch die News gefallen, zunächst als Kickstarter-Projekt und später mit dem fertigen Euro-Modul. Er ist eigentlich ein Wavetable-Oszillator.

Eigentlich hatte das SSP einen klaren Job, dennoch ist es, wie viele heutige Module, ein Computer und in dem Falle mit einem wirklich riesigen Display. Das kann man deshalb auch für VST-Plug-ins verwenden. Das Modul kann bisher auch schon filtern, hat einen Sequencer, Effekte und ist ein CV-Erzeuger und Sampler.

Percussa SSP Modul

Das Modul hat einen 4-Kern-ARM Prozessor (Cortex A17) und deshalb läuft auf ihm Linux. Um zu beweisen, dass das bereits funktioniert, gibt es den QVCA inzwischen mitgeliefert, der ein vierfacher VCA ist, der verschiedene Routings erlaubt und daher universelle Aufgaben erledigen kann. U-He, Tracktion und einige andere haben solche Plug-ins bereit. 60 HP Breite ist sicher eine Hausnummer, weshalb es gut ist, dass die vielen CV-Anschlüsse sinnvoll und vielfältig genutzt werden können. Theoretisch kann man auch eine kleinere Version bauen, dennoch ist die Computer-Nutzung in der Eurorack-Welt absolut üblich und mit Modulen wie diesem einfacher geworden.

Die VST-Funktion ist durch ein aktuelles Update möglich, zu dem auch ein Bitcrusher gehört. Außerdem wurden die Bedienung und Navigation verbessert.

Percussa ist sehr aktiv auf Facebook und es gibt immer mal einige Bilder oder Texte, weshalb sich ein Blick dorthin auch lohnt.

Mehr Information zum SSP


Bitwig Studio 2.4: crazy powerful sampler, easier control

The folks at Bitwig have been picking up speed. And version 2.4, beta testing now, brings some promising sampler and controller features.

The big deal here is that Bitwig is going with a full-functioning sampler. And as Ableton Live and Native Instruments’ Maschine pursue somewhat complex and fragmented approaches, maybe Bitwig will step in and deliver a sampler that just does all the stuff you expect in one place. (I’m ready to put these different devices head to head. I like to switch workflows to keep fresh, anyway, so no complaints. Bitwig just wins by default on Linux since Ableton and NI don’t show up for the competition. Ahem.)

Meet the new Sampler: manipulate pitch, time, and the two in combination, either together in a traditional fashion or independently as a digital wavetable or granular instrument. Those modes on their own aren’t new, but this is a nice way of combining everything into a single interface.


The re-built Sampler introduces a powerful wavetable/granular instrument. At its heart are multiple modes that combine effectively different instruments and ways of working with sound into a single interface:

“Repitch” / Speed + pitch together: The traditional sampler mode, with negative speeds, too (allowing it to behave the way a record player / record-scratch / tape transport does).

“Cycles” / Speed only: Speed changes, pitches stay the same. There’s also a Formant control, and the ability to switch on and off keyboard tracking. (In other words, you can scale from realistic-sounding speed changes to extreme metallic variations.)

“Textures” / Granular resampling / independent pitch and speed: Granular resynthesis divides up the sound into tiny bits allowing independent pitch and time manipulation (in combination), and textural effects. Independent speed, grain size, and grain motion (randomization) are all available as parameters.

Freeze: Each mode lets you directly manipulate the sample playhead live, using a controller or the Bitwig modulators. That emulates the position of a needle on a record or playhead on a tape, or the position in a granular playback device, depending on mode – and this is in every single mode.

Oh. Okay. Yeah, so those last two are to me the way Ableton Live should have worked from the beginning – and the way a lot of Max, Reaktor, Pd, and SuperCollider patches/code might work – but it’s fantastic to see them in a DAW. This opens up a lot of live performance and production options. If they’ve nailed it, it could be a reason to switch to Bitwig.

But there’s more:

Updated Multisampler Editor: Bitwig’s Sampler already had multisampler capabilities – letting you combine different samples into a single patch, as you might do for a complex instrument, for instance. Now, you can make groups, choose more easily what you see when editing (revealing samples as you play, for instance), and set modulation per zone. There’s also ping-pong looping and automatic zero-crossing edits (so you can slice up sounds without getting pops and clicks).

Multi-sample mode lets you work with zones in new ways, for more complex sampling patches.

Sequence modulation

There’s a new device that lets you step sequence modulation. Here’s how they describe that:

ParSeq-8 is a step sequencer for modulation.

ParSeq-8 is a unique parameter modulation sequencer, where each step is its own modulation source. It can use the project’s clock, advance on note input, or just run freely in either direction. As it advances, each step’s targets are modulated and then reset. It’s a great way to make projects more dynamic, whether in the studio or on the stage. (Along the way, our Steps modulator got some improvements such as ping-pong looping so check it out too.)

Also in the modulation category, there’s a Note Counter — count up each incoming note and create cycles of modulation as a result.

Note Counter.

Note FX Layer.

More powerful with controllers

Bitwig has been moving forward in making it easy to map hardware controls to software, even as rival tools (cough, Ableton) haven’t advanced since early versions. That’s useful if you have a particular custom hardware controller you want to use to manipulate the instruments, effects, and mixing onscreen.

Now there’s a new visualization to give you clear onscreen feedback of what you’re doing, making that hardware/software connection much easier to see.

Visualize controllers as you use them – so the knob you turn on your hardware makes something visible onscreen.

There’s also MIDI channel support. MIDI has had channels since the protocol was unveiled in the 80s – a way of dividing up multiple streams of information. Now you can put them to use: incoming MIDI can be mapped and filtered by channel. That’s … not exciting, okay, but there are dedicated devices for making those channels useful in chains and so on. And that is fairly exciting.

MIDI channel support – essential for working with MIDI, but implemented here in a way that’s powerful for manipulating streams of control and information.

And more stuff

Also in this release:

Bit-8 audio degrader gets new quantization and parameters for glitching or lightly distorting sound
Note FX layer creates parallel note effects
There’s more feedback in the footer of the screen when you hover over parameters/values
Resize track widths, scene widths
Color-code scenes

Looks like a great upgrade. Beta testing starts soon, to be followed by a release as a free upgrade for Upgrade Plan users this summer.

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Pioneer’s $250 DDJ-400 will appeal to DIYers, iOS users, too

We’re flooded with cheap DJ controllers. But the new Pioneer is interesting for two reasons: one, it’s a home accessory for CDJ users, and two, its driverless functionality means you can plug into anything.

Okay, first, the obvious: the DDJ-400 is a US$249 (279 €) controller with audio interface. And the massive “Rekordbox” logo applied to the side of it means it works with Pioneer’s preferred DJ software. For beginners, the idea is, you plug this thing in and the controller and software teach you basic DJ chops – playing techniques and how the technology works – via an included on-screen tutorial.

Gradually, Pioneer have done what was obvious to most of us for them to do – they’ve made that controller work as much like their expensive club DJ players do as they can. A CDJ-2000NEXUS2 will set you back US$2199 each, so out of range of even most moderately successful DJs. This duplicates the rough layout of the wheels, the play/pause and cue buttons, Beat FX, and looping controls of the full-sized CDJ.

Now, why I need to get this in to test is, the key variable is the feel of the wheels. What a lot of DJs presumably would be practicing, at least in part, is beat-matching – the security to turn off that dreaded sync button. I don’t want to get too far into that, other than to say, whatever the musical utility of your ability to do that or whether it makes you a “real” DJ, it does have the potential to make DJing “really” less boring for the human operator.

My hope is that Pioneer has taken the improved low latency performance of the latest revision of their high-end controllers and brought it to this model, too – but we’ll see. Low latency and low jitter will make this more fun to play.

But either way, as a prep tool, this looks like a good investment. The latest Rekordbox is included free, which already amounts to half the purchase price here. (That license is 139 €). If you’re organizing your catalog in Rekordbox to drop on a USB stick, you might as well have a play and mix a bit, too.

But that’s not why I think the DDJ-400 is interesting.

Driverless and hacker/DIYer friendly

No, this is the interesting part. Pioneer says the DDJ-400 is driverless and class-compliant. That means you have an audio interface, with cuing, and a MIDI control surface, that work with any device.

So… let’s say you’re a fan of the iOS app Soda. That’s the app that I claimed in December might make you take DJing seriously again. Soda didn’t catch on, but … it also didn’t have a good controller and audio interface to go with it.

The DDJ-400 plus Soda are actually more flexible as musical tools than what you get with a $5000 DJ hardware setup… but the total purchase price here, with some recent iPad revisions, is more like $500. And it’s more portable.

Or, let’s say you’re sick of controllers and laptops in the DJ booth – as you should be. Now you can add a Linux DJ tool, throw it on a small computer (like a Raspberry Pi), and DIY fashion your own case.

That should be priceless for the reaction of people in a DJ booth alone.

“Aw, look, another n00b with a laptop and controller because he can… hey … the… where’s the computer?”

I wish Roland had done this with their recent DJ controller line, but … now Pioneer have, so we’re sorted.

I’m not endorsing it yet, as I haven’t tried the hardware yet or seen how MIDI mapping works, but suffice to say – I’m interested.

And even if the above is really the use case, this one is … fun.

By the way, if you’re wondering why makers like Native Instruments and Serato haven’t come up with their own integrated hardware, instead of making us plug in unwieldy laptops in the middle of a party like we thought we were looking for an Internet cafe instead of a booth, well…

I wonder that, too. Constantly.

In the meantime, if anyone will turn a controller into some wild all-in-one DIY solution, and even come up with novel, out-of-the-mainstream ways of DJing in the process, it’s readers here.


And for everyone else, yeah, the ubiquity of Rekordbox and CDJs means this is probably the $250 controller to beat. (Rival makers, you knew already this was the challenge.)

24-bit sound card
2-channel control surface
Pad FX
High/low pass filter (software)
Sampler (software), 16 slot / 4 bank
8 hot cues
Manual looping
Beat jump
Fader start / adjustable crossfader
USB port
1 mic input (1/4″ TS)
RCA master out
Dedicated headphone monitor (minijack) (note that you can also use this for cueing even as your computer speakers or other connected speakers handle output)

Pioneer DDJ-400

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This free tool could change how you think about sequencers

Context, built in Pure Data, is a free and open source modular sequencer that opens up new ways of thinking about melody, rhythm, and pattern.

Sequencers: we’ve seen, well, a lot of them. There are easy-to-use step sequencers, but they tend to be limited to pretty simple patterns. More sophisticated options go to the other extreme, making you build up patterns from scratch or program your own tools.

The challenge is, how do you employ the simplicity of a step sequencer, but make a wider range of patterns just as accessible?

Context is one clever way of doing that. Building on modular patching of patterns – the very essence of what made Max and Pd useful in the first place – Context lets you combine bits and pieces together to create sequencers around your own ideas. And a whole lot of ideas are possible here, from making very powerful sequencers quick to build, LEGO-style, to allowing open-ended variations to satisfy the whims of more advanced musicians and patchers.

Where this gets interesting in Pd specifically is, you can built little feedback networks, creating simple loopers up to fancy generative or interactive music machines.

It’s all just about sequencing, so if you’re a Pd nut, you can combine this with existing patches, and if not, you can use it to sequence other hardware or software instruments.

At first I thought this would be a simple set of Pd patches or something like that, but it’s really deep. There’s a copious manual, which even holds new users by the hand (including with some first-time issues like the Pd font being the wrong size).

You combine patches graphically, working with structures for timing and pattern. But you can control them not only via the GUI, but also via a text-based command language, or – in the latest release – using hardware. (They’ve got an example set up that works directly with the Novation Launchpad.)

So live coder, live musician, finger drummer, whatever – you’re covered.

There are tons of examples and tutorials, plus videos in addition to the PDF manual. (Even though I personally like reading, that gives you some extra performance examples to check out for musical inspiration!)

Once you build up a structure – as a network of modules with feedback – you can adapt Context to a lot of different work. It could drive the timing of a sample player. It could be a generative music tool. You could use it in live performance, shaping sound as you play. You might even take its timing database and timeline and apply it to something altogether different, like visuals.

But impressively, while you can get to the core of that power if you know Pd, all of this functionality is encapsulated in menus, modules, and commands that mean you can get going right away as a novice.

In fact… I really don’t want to write any more, because I want to go play with this.

Here’s an example of a performance all built up:

And you can go grab this software now, free (GPL v3) — ready to run on your Mac, Windows PC, Linux machine, or Raspberry Pi, etc.:

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