Want some evidence that the future of expressive digital instruments and MPE is bright? Look to Haken’s ContinuuMini, which emerged over last year, bringing greater portability and a US$899 price to the out-there controller.
Forget anything else, and listen to this gorgeous video (using a clever setup with an Onde acoustic resonator*:
Why does the ContinuuMini matter?
Expression really is a combination of sound and physical control. Say what you will about piano keyboards (and some electronic musicians who hate them certainly do) – the reason an acoustic piano is still expressive has to do with the sound of a piano.
So when we talk about MPE, a scheme for allowing polyphonic expression through MIDI, we’re really talking about allow greater depth in the connection of physical gestures and sound.
If this is going to catch on, it’ll require more than one vendor. I think it’s wrong to assume MPE’s future, then, is tied solely to ROLI as a vendor. From the start, MPE was an initiative of a range of people, from major software developers (Apple, Steinberg) to hardware inventors (ROLI, but also Roger Linn and Randy Jones of Madrona Labs, for instance).
And Haken Audio has been a boutique maker pushing new ways of playing for years – including with MPE on their Continuum. The Continuum may look arcane in photos, but feeling it is a unique experience. The ribbon feels luxurious – it’s actually soft fabric. And the degree of control is something special. But it’s also enormous and expensive – and that means a lot of people can’t buy it, or can’t tour with it since it won’t fit in an overhead.
I believe that what makes an instrument is really finding that handful of people to do stuff even the creators didn’t expect, so if you can lower those barriers for even a run of a few hundred units, you could have a small revolution on your hand.
That’s what Haken have done with ContinuuMini, which closed crowd sourcing late last year and has started shipping of the first hardware.
Here’s what sets it apart:
It’s a Continuum. Well, first, nothing else feels like a Continuum. That feeling may not be for everyone, but it’s still significant as a choice.
It’s continuous. Because you aren’t limited by frets or keys, there’s a continuous range of sound. This is a controller you’ll want to practice, finding intonation with muscle memory and your ear. And there are artists who will want that subtlety.
It has internal sound. Like its larger sibling the ContinuuMini has an internal sound engine. That means that it’s not just a controller. Haken have conceived control and sound in a single, unified design. You can play it without connecting other stuff. And the builders have worked on both the physical and aural experience of what they’ve made. I think that’s significant to anyone making an investment, particularly in an age in which abstract controller hardware tends to stack in our closets.
It’s 8-voice polyphonic, as well. The ContinuuMini isn’t just a controller: it’s a complete, gorgeous polysynth and a controller, for this one price.
It connects to other gear, without software. Bidirectional digital control – MIDI, with MPE, MPE+ – and bidirectional control voltage analog (with converter) are possible. That means you can play the ContinuuMini with gear and software (like recording MIDI and MPE in your DAW for playback), and likewise the ContinuuMini can control your software and gear. There are also two pedal inputs so your feet can get in on the action.
It’s only a quarter kilogram. 9 oz. You can tote the bigger ones with a case but – the ContinuuMini is incredibly portable.
* Synthtopia has a great, in-depth interview on the Onde and Pyramid, acoustic resonators that make an electronic instrument feel more like an instrument and less like “something disconnected that produces sound through speakers” as with conventional monitors:
“Expressive control” has largely translated to “wiggly keyboards” and “squishy grids,” with one notable exception – the unique, paddle-like Touché from Expressive E. And while keeping essentially the same design, they’ve gotten the price down to just US$/EUR229, making this potentially a no-brainer.
The result: add this little device to your rig, and play gesturally with a whole bunch of instruments, either using provided examples or creating your own.
Expressive E’s approach has set itself apart in two key ways. First, they’ve gone with a design that’s completely different than anyone else working in expressive control. It’s not a ribbon, not a grid, not an X/Y pad, and not a keyboard, in other words.
The Touché is best described as a paddle, a standalone object that you sit next to your computer or instrument. There’s a patented mechanism in there that responds to mechanical movements, so with the slightest pressure or tap, you can activate it, or push harder for multi-axis control.
And that, in turn, opens this up to lots of different control applications. Expressive E market this mainly for controlling instruments, like synthesizers, but any music or visual performance input could be relevant.
The second clever element in Expressive E’s approach is to bundle a whole bunch of presets. The first Touché had loads of support even for hardware synths. The new one is focused more on software. But together, this means that while you can map your own ideas, you’ve got a load of places to start.
The original Touché is US$/EUR 399.
Touché SE is just $/EUR 229.
Here’s the cool thing about that price break: the only real sacrifice here is the standalone operation with hardware. (The SE works with bus-powered USB only.)
Other than that, it’s the same hardware as before, though with a polycarbonate touch plate.
In fact, otherwise you get more:
Lié hosting software, with VST hosting so you can use your own plug-ins
UVI-powered internal sound engine with leads and mallets and loads of other things
200 ready-to-play internal sounds, which you can call up using dedicated buttons on the device
200+ presets for popular plug-ins (like Native Instruments’ Massive and Prism, Serum, Arturia software, etc.)
So connect this USB bus-powered device (they put a huge four-foot cable in the box), and you get multi-dimensional gestural control.
Standalone, VST, AU, Mac, Windows. (Would love to see a Linux/Raspi version!)
I’ve been playing one for a bit and – it’s hugely powerful, likely of appeal both to plug-in and synth lovers and DIYers alike.
For all the great sounds they can make, software synths eventually fit a repetitive mold: lots of knobs onscreen, simplistic keyboard controls when you actually play. ROLI’s Cypher2 could change that. Lead developer Angus chats with us about why.
Angus Hewlett has been in the plug-in synth game a while, having founded his own FXpansion, maker of various wonderful software instruments and drums. That London company is now part of another London company, fast-paced ROLI, and thus has a unique charge to make instruments that can exploit the additional control potential of ROLI’s controllers. The old MIDI model – note on, note off, and wheels and aftertouch that impact all notes at once – gives way to something that maps more of the synth’s sounds to the gestures you make with your hands.
So let’s nerd out with Angus a bit about what they’ve done with Cypher2, the new instrument. Background:
Peter: Okay, Cypher2 is sounding terrific! Who made the demos and so on?
Angus: Demos – Rafael Szaban, Heen-Wah Wai, Rory Dow. Sound Design – Rory Dow, Mayur Maha, Lawrence King & Rafael Szaban
Can you tell us a little bit about what architecture lies under the hood here?
Sure – think of it as a multi-oscillator subtractive synth. Three oscillators with audio-rate intermodulation (FM, S&H, waveshape modulation and ring mod), each switchable between Saw and Sin cores. Then you’ve got two waveshapers (each with a selection of analogue circuit models and tone controls, and a couple of digital wavefolders), and two filters, each with a choice of five different analogue filter circuit models – two variations on the diode ladder type, OTA ladder, state variable, Sallen-Key – and a digital comb filter. Finally, you’ve got a polyphonic, twin stereo output amp stage which gives you a lot of control over how the signal hits the effects chain – for example, you can send just the attack of every note to the “A” chain and the sustain/release phase to the “B” chain, all manner of possibilities there.
Controlling all of that, you’ve got our most powerful TransMod yet. 16 assignable modulation slots, each with over a hundred possible sources to choose from, everything from basics like Velocity and LFO through to function processors, step sequencers, paraphonic mod sources and other exotics. Then there’s eight fixed-function mod slots to support the five dimensions of MPE control and the three performance macros. So 24 TransMods in total, three times as many as v1.
Okay, so Cypher2 is built around MPE, or MIDI Polyphonic Expression. For those readers just joining us, this is a development of the existing MIDI specification that standardizes additional control around polyphonic inputs – that is, instead of adding expression to the whole sound all at once, you can get control under each finger, which makes way more sense and is more fun to play. What does it mean to build a synth around MPE control? How did you think about that in designing it?
It’s all about giving the sound designers maximum possibility to create expressive sound, and to manage how their sound behaves across the instrument’s range. When you’re patching for a conventional synth, you really only need to think about pitch and velocity: does the sound play nicely across the keyboard. With 5D MPE sounds, sound designers start having to think more like a software engineer or a game world designer – there’s so many possibilities for how the player might interact with the sound, and they’ve got to have the tools to make it sound musical and believable across the whole range.
What this translates to in the specific case of Cypher2 is adapting our TransMod system (which is, at its heart, a sophisticated modulation matrix) to make it easy for sound designers to map the various MPE control inputs, via dynamically controllable transfer function curves, on to any and every parameter on the synth.
How does this relate to your past line of instruments?
Clearly, Cypher2 is a successor to the original Cypher which was one of the DCAM Synth Squad synths; it inherits many of the same functional upgrades that Strobe 2 gained over its predecessor a couple of years ago – the extended TransMod system, the effects engine, the Retina-friendly, scalable, skinnable GUI – but goes further, and builds on a lot of user and sound-designer feedback we had from Strobe2. So the modulation system is friendlier, the effects engine is more powerful, and it’s got a brand new and much more powerful step-sequencer and arpeggiator. In terms of its relationship to the original Cypher – the overall layout is similar, but the oscillator section has been upgraded with the sine cores and additional FM paths; the shaper section gains wavefolders and tone controls; the filters have six circuits to chose from, up from two in the original, so there’s a much wider range of tones available there; the envelopes give you more choice of curve responses; the LFOs each have a sub oscillator and quadrature outputs; and obviously there’s MPE as described above.
Of course, ROLI hope that folks will use this with their hardware, naturally. But since part of the beauty is that this is open on MPE, any interesting applications working with some other MPE hardware; have you tried it out on non-ROLI stuff (or with testers, etc.)?
Yes, we’ve tried it (with Linnstrument, mainly), and yes, it very much works – although with one caveat. Namely, MPE, as with MIDI, is a protocol which specifies how devices should talk to one another – but it doesn’t specify, at a higher level, what the interaction between the musician and their sound should feel like.
That’s a problem that I actually first encountered during the development of BFD2 in the mid-2000s: “MIDI Velocity 0-127” is adequate to specify the interaction between a basic keyboard and a sound module, and some of the more sophisticated stage controller boards (Kurzweil, etc.) have had velocity curves at least since the 90s. But as you increase the realism and resolution of the sounds – and BFD2 was the first time we really did so in software to the extent that it became a problem – it becomes apparent that MIDI doesn’t specify how velocity should map on to dB, or foot-pounds-per-second force equivalent, or any real-world units.
That’s tolerable for a keyboard, where a discerning user can set one range for the whole instrument, but when you’re dealing with a V-Drums kit with, potentially, ten or twelve pads, of different types, to set up, and little in the way of a standard curve to aim for, the process becomes cumbersome and off-putting for the end-user. What does “Velocity 72” actually mean from Manufacturer A’s snare drum controller, at a sensitivity setting B, via drum brain C triggering sample D?
Essentially, you run into something of an Uncanny Valley effect (a term from the world of movies / games where, as computer generated graphics moved from obviously artificial 8-bit pixel art to today’s motion-captured, super-sampled cinematic epics, paradoxically audiences would in some cases be less satisfied with the result). So it’s certainly a necessary step to get expressive hardware and software talking to one another – and MPE accomplishes that very nicely indeed – but it’s not sufficient to guarantee that a patch will result in a satisfactory, believable playing experience OOTB.
Some sound-synth-controller-player combinations will be fine, others may not quite live up to expectations, but right now I think it’s natural to expect that it may be a bit hit-and-miss. Feedback on this is something I’d like to actively encourage, we have a great dialogue with the other hardware vendors and are keen for to achieve a high standard of interoperation, but it’s a learning process for all involved.
Thanks, Angus! I’ll be playing with Cypher2 and seeing what I can do with it – but fascinating to hear this take on synths and control mapping. More food for thought.
We’ve seen lots of new controllers that are designed to be more responsive to gestures. But can they actually make new sounds, to match? ROLI and FXpansion have a new soft synth that’s designed for that.
It’s called Cypher2, and it builds on the past (award-winning, no less) software instruments from FXpansion, but now built from scratch so that you can access all those deep sound parameters just by moving your hands – not only by messing around with on-screen parameters.
And it sounds lovely:
ROLI have joined smaller makers like Madrona Labs, Roger Linn Instruments, and others in making new controllers that respond to more than just plucking keys or hitting drum pads. But the London-based company sets itself apart with something else – funding. So they’ve got Pharell Williams as a creative office, partnerships with the likes of Apple retail, and they bought up some of the unique, weird talent that makes music technology – including plug-in developer FXpansion, who also call London home. (That buyout took place in 2016.)
Now, when Apple go buy a plug-in maker, you can bet you’ll watch its products become exclusives for Logic and GarageBand. But when ROLI buy someone, you instead get interoperable software that takes advantage of ROLI’s forward-thinking instruments.
Translation: now when you prod and slide about the squishy keys of a ROLI Seaboard RISE or Seaboard Block, you can make fabulous sounds. Dig into your computer screen, and you can shape those sounds yourself.
And now that expressive control is part of MIDI (in the form of a protocol called MPE), this software sees both host support (Bitwig Studio, Cubase) and hardware support beyond just what ROLI make (like the Linnstrument, if you like).
ROLI and FXpansion call these sounds “5D,” but that is to say, many aspects of the sound are there underneath your hands. And that’s of course the way of things with acoustic instruments – even the acoustic piano responds with nuanced sound to the ways you press and release keys, even if this has been grossly simplified in the piano as represented in digital form.
This isn’t the first ROLI synth, but if you weren’t won over by Strobe2 and Equator, Cypher2 offers a bunch of new sound horizons and what ROLI say are the largest-ever bank of MPE-specific sounds. And you get a rich set of physically modeled and analog modeled sounds, producing lots of organic sounding instruments that are both familiar and futuristic.
I mean, it just sounds great. It’s been a while since I was this interested in a soft synth – and to me it’s the first new soft synth to really get excited about using MPE.
And if you want a cheaper / more portable solution, yes it works with the Blocks line, too:
Specs: VST, AAX, AU, Mac, Windows, 64-bit.
Cost: “$199 (£159, €179) on fxpansion.com. Existing owners of DCAM Synth Squad, Strobe2, a ROLI Seaboard or BLOCKS can purchase Cypher2 at a discounted price of $79 on fxpansion.com until 7th September 2018, or for $99 thereafter.”
What’s inside? Modeled analog circuitry and FM, deep modular-style synthesis capabilities, and loads and loads of modulation – again, normally stuff you’d find only on big modular rigs, but here with all the conveniences and powers of digital.
It’s kind of an in-the-box producer’s dream, only now made more accessible to actually playing that depth with controllers.
Modulate the master sequencer with 3 mod sequencers and an expanded control matrix
Improved interface with real-time animated modulation, full signal flow visuals and preset descriptions
Default MIDI CC mappings for both 2D and 5D controller types
6 circuit-modelled filter types, each with a varied set of responses, including a comb filter model with 8 comb types
Scalable interface for 4K/retina screens with a variety of themes
LFOs are expanded with clock-divided sub-LFOs for synchronisation or free-running modulation
Updated envelope shapes for precise control
Feed your creativity with preset morphing and randomisation
Support for microtonal Scala .TUN files
Full hands-on coming soon, as well as a chat with FXpansion guru Angus Hewlett.
You may have met ROLI’s Seaboard and Lightpad Blocks – the squishy performance controllers for computers and mobile. But all these promises about futuristic instruments aside, can you really wail on them? Computer says yes.
Finger drummer virtuoso DiViNCi is an absolute monster on these things. It reminds me of a couple of hyperactive drummer friends I grew up with, rapping on tables, only this actually works as a live performance. And whatever genre you’re into, this proves that if your ideas happen to be, you know – fast ideas – you can make them happen. Watch:
There’s actually a lot going on there, so even more useful than drooling over this performance demo is watching step-by-step as he pulls apart his live setup. He came to the jam without a plan, but … then that means some planning in setup, to make this function well as an all-in-one, one-man-band rig. This involves setting up some keys in advance, and configuring sounds, so that the setup is out of the way and he can lose himself and jam – even literally with his eyes closed.
ROLI’s hardware – for the moment, at least – doesn’t make any sound on its own, so it’s necessary to dig into the ROLI Dashboard to connect the hardware with software. That software in turn got some updates, recently, if you haven’t checked in on it lately.
It’s important to DiViNCi’s set that he combines the talkbox and the Blocks-controlled software instrument. Let’s check in, too, with Laura Escude aka Alluxe, and her “future classical” setup. Laura is someone special, in that she’s not only built a career as a solo musician and electronic instrumentalist, but also as a high-powered teacher and consultant, setting up live shows on the biggest imaginable scale for the likes of Kanye West and others. (She was also just added to the lineup at the next Ableton Loop in her home city LA in the fall, so see you all in California, hopefully!)
That said, it’s really Laura’s own performances that are the most personal. Instead of the ultra-compact Blocks, here she uses the Seaboard RISE keyboard controller – still my personal favorite. (Just squishy enough, more room to play on, but not so big that you can’t tote it around… and unlike the very first Seaboard, not too squishy. Squishy – technical term, hope you’re keeping up.)
She works with Ableton Live to set up sounds so the instrument can work through her setlist and stay expressive as she focuses on other stuff – like singing, for example.
That’s an interesting way of doing it, by the way – so it’s program changes in Live, triggered inside clips, triggered by follow actions. (I’ve been procrastinating doing a story just on how to manage different sounds in Live sets … it’s time.)