music-tech

A giant 1906 machine, and the Eurorack synth module it inspired

The 200-ton, building-sized Telharmonium original produced some of the first electronic music. But now it’s a compact modern synth module, too.

The Make Noise/Tom Erbe Telharmonic is emblematic perhaps of how synthesizer history now folds in on itself. The module combines analog and digital control and synthesis, and pairs a well-known modular creator with one of recent years’ best known engineers and teachers of digital synthesis. Put those elements together, and you recreate… a giant electro-mechanical instrument patented in 1897, but in a form that has never existed before. That old progression from past to present to future seems so boring now. Instead, we have a wormhole of simultaneous possibilities. You know, in a good way.

But if turn-of-the-last-century pioneering instruments are being made into compact modules, we also need a different kind of history.

Kyiv, Ukraine-based composer/artist Oleg Shpudeiko – aka Heinali – recently wove together a history of the original Telharmonium and the new Telharmonic module. It’s such a lovely read that I felt it shouldn’t live only on The FaceBook. So here it is, preserved for posterity (and, if you like, further comments and thoughts).

Thanks to Oleg for this. -Ed.

Make Noise Telharmonic and electronic music history.

OLEG SHPUDEIKO

I’ve been considering writing about Make Noise/Tom Erbe Telharmonic for some time now. There’s an abundance of videos covering this module, of course. But regrettably, I couldn’t find any that go beyond technical demonstrations, in order to cover the module’s historical and ideological contexts (except for the original Make Noise demo videos, to a certain extent). In my opinion, those are the very things (apart from the hardware’s great sound) that make it a truly exceptional work of tech art. My text is by no means comprehensive, but I hope to accentuate some of my points of interest.

Telharmonic is an Eurorack synthesizer module, a product of collaboration between Make Noise and Tom Erbe. Make Noise is the modular synth company from the US founded by self-taught electronic musical instrument designer Tony Rolando. Tom Erbe is a University of California Santa Davis (UCSD) computer music professor, and author of the famous Soundhack sound processing software for Mac and PC.

The module is described as a ‘Multi-Voice, Multi-Algorithm synthesizer module named for the music hall considered by some to be the location of the first electronic music concerts.’ So lets start with the name, because it’s by no means neither accidental, nor just a simple homage.

Tadeus Cahill’s Telharmonium, also known as Dynamophone, could be described as the first synthesizer, or at least the first electronic music instrument of big significance. Patented in 1897, the instrument was established in Telharmonic Hall in New York in 1906. The hall was a special concert space with an auditorium on the first floor and a basement fully occupied by instrument’s machinery. (The Mark I weighed 7 tons; Mark II and III weighed 200 tons).

Two of the tone rotors of the MkII Telharmonium in the basement of Telhamronic Hall circa 1906. Image from McCLure’s Magazine, 1906.

Performances took place in the hall, with a performer sitting behind an organ-like keyboard manual. Music emenated from loudspeakers and was simultaneously transmitted via telephone wires to subscribers in the city.

Telharmonic Hall, New York City, circa 1906.

As its core, the Telharmonium employs additive synthesis, by the means of dynamo-powered tone wheels — rotors with variably shaped alternators spun in a magnetic field, producing a set of sine waves. (The mechanism later became the basis of Hammond electric organs.)

One of the massive rotors that produced tones via electromagnetic field.

The bottom rotor would produce a fundamental frequency and each other rotor above it would produce a partial.

The MakeNoise reinterpertation of this design subtly alludes to the tonewheel, as could be seen in Cahill’s original patents.

The Telharmonium’s original additive synthesis, with sine wave fundamental and partials, is implemented is the MakeNoise module’s H-voice. As in Cahill’s tonewheels, it’s possible to shape the tone by choosing sine wave partials. However, unlike Telharmonium’s original 8 alternators, the digital H-voice features 24 partials for each of its three voices. Each partial can be brought forward by moving the Centroid knob and then locked in place (so it will continue to sound louder) by pressing the H-lock button.

In the original Telharmoninium, partials were controlled by organ-like stops near the performer’s keyboard.

The Telharmonium’s organ-style keyboard manual and stops.

Three H-voices can be arranged in a major, minor, or diminished chords, with inversions, a fifth, unison, or octave, and microtonal combinations in between. Another parameter that develops the idea further is the Flux knob. In its fully clockwise position, it focuses on a particular partial chosen by the Centroid knob. Moving counterclockwise, it brings forward more of the neighboring partials, until all of them are present in the fully counterclockwise position.

Unfortunately, there are no recordings of the original performances, and I wonder how similar or different they may have sounded from the modern module. The Telharmonium’s tones were described as ‘clear and pure.’ One of the visitors noted the instrument’s ability to synthesize different timbres of musical instruments:

The first impression the music makes upon the listener is its singular difference from any music ever heard before: in the fullness, roundness, completeness, of its tones. And truly it is different and more perfect: but strangely enough, while it possesses ranges of tones all its own, it can be made to imitate closely other musical instruments: the flute, oboe, bugle, French horn and ‘cello best of all, the piano and violin not as yet so perfectly. Ask the players for fife music and they play Dixie for you with the squealing of the pipes deceptively perfect. Indeed, the performer upon this marvelous machine, as I shall explain later, can “build up” any sort of tone he wishes : he can produce the perfect note of the flute or the imperfect note of the piano — though the present machine is not adapted to the production of all sorts of music, as future and more extensive machines may be.

Let’s now move 55 years in the future. It’s 1961, and a young composer named James Tenney produced his first computer music piece ‘Analog #1 (Noise Study)’ inside Bell Labs, using Max Matthew’s Music III sound synthesis software.

The composition was recorded on tape, but the sounds for it were produced on the computer. Noise Study is considered the first recorded ‘serious’ computer music, written by a classically trained composer. In a way, the composition shows John Cage’s influence, in its meditation on listening. Here’s what Tenney wrote about the experience:

My first composition using computer-generated sounds was the piece called Analog #1: Noise Study, completed in December, 1961. The idea for the Noise Study developed in the following way: For several months I had been driving to New York City in the evening, returning to the Labs the next morning by way of the heavily traveled Route 22 and the Holland Tunnel. This circuit was made as often as three times every week, and the drive was always an exhausting, nerve-wracking experience, fast, furious, and “noisy.” The sounds of the traffic — especially in the tunnel — were usually so loud and continuous that, for example, it was impossible to maintain a conversation with a companion. It is an experience that is familiar to many people, of course. But then something else happened, which is perhaps not so familiar to others.

One day I found myself listening to these sounds, instead of trying to ignore them as usual. The activity of listening, attentively, to “non-musical,” environmental sounds was not new to me — my esthetic attitude for several years had been that these were potential musical material — but in this particular context I had not yet done this. When I did, finally, begin to listen, the sounds of the traffic became so interesting that the trip was no longer a thing to be dreaded and gotten through as quickly as possible. From then on, I actually looked forward to it as a source of new perceptual insights.

Gradually, I learned to hear these sounds more acutely, to follow the evolution of single elements within the total sonorous “mass,” to feel, kinesthetically, the characteristic rhythmic articulations of the various elements in combination, etc. Then I began to try to analyze the sounds, aurally, to estimate what their physical properties might be — drawing 5 upon what I already knew of acoustics and the correlation of the physical and the subjective attributes of sound. From this image, then, of traffic noises — and especially those heard in the tunnel, where the overall sonority is richer, denser, and the changes are mostly very gradual — I began to conceive a musical composition that not only used sound elements similar to these, but manifested similarly gradual changes in sonority. I thought also of the sound of the ocean surf — in many ways like tunnel traffic sounds — and some of the qualities of this did ultimately manifest themselves in the Noise Study. I did not want the quasi-periodic nature of the sea sounds in the piece however, and this was carefully avoided in the composition process. Instead, I wanted the aperiodic, “asymmetrical” kind of rhythmic flow that was characteristic of the traffic sounds.

The instrument he designed for the realisation of his composition could produce noise bands with a certain degree of control over their parameters, like, for example, increasing and decreasing their bandwidth. (If you’re interested in the process, you can read about it in detail.)

The Telharmonic N-voice works in a very similar way, employing two band-limited noise sidebands around the central frequency by Tonic and Degree knobs, with a Flux knob controlling the width of the sidebands, resulting in a fluttering, almost sine-like sound in the full clockwise position, and pure white noise in the counterclockwise position.

Let’s now skip 23 years further, to the first commercially available phase modulation digital synthesizers. Basically, phase distortion technique appeared as Casio’s way to circumvent Yamaha’s patented FM (frequency modulation) synthesis. Ed.: Think the Casio CZ series. Good stuff. FM, developed by John Chowning, was capable of extraordinary timbres, but phase distortion was controllable in a unique way by contrast, and produced its own signature sounds. For added confusion, you can technically consider FM ‘phase modulation.’ -PK

To simplify, phase distortion is very similar to FM, though instead of frequency, the phase of the signal is modulated.

The Telharmonic P-voice features 3 phase-locked sine-wave oscillators –two of them are modulators, one is a carrier. By moving the Centroid knob, the frequency ratio is changed. The Flux knob controls the depth of the modulation.

All three Telharmonic voices — H, P and N — can be used simultaneously in any combination, with Centroid and Flux controls affecting the spectral content of the voices, while Degree and Tonic controls affect the voice’s intervals and pitch.

Apart from the main mode of operation described above, Telharmonic has two hidden modes, switched by holding the H-lock button for several seconds.

The first one is the ASR emulation. ASR stands for analogue shift register, which is basically a more complex sample and hold circuit, or, in classical musical terms, a canon generator.

For example, a three-voice ASR would have two inputs and three outputs. The first input takes the signal which is sampled and ‘memorized’ every time it receives a pulse in its second input (clock). The first time it receives the pulse, it outputs the memorized signal from the first output; the second time, it outputs the voltage from the second output and memorizes the next voltage and outputs it from the first output. The third time, the first voltage is sent to the third output, the second outputs from the second, and the new (third) voltage is being sampled, stored, and sent through the first output, and so on. In this way, the process generates a simple canon, like, for example, Row your boat.

A simple canon, in score form.

While the exact origins of the first ASR are debatable, the first mass-produced, commercially available ASR module was designed by Serge Tcherepnin, creator of Serge synthesizers in the 70s. Here’s the description of ASR module from Serge’s catalog:

The ANALOG SHIFT REGISTER is a sequential sample and hold module for producing arabesque-like forms in musical space. Whenever pulsed, the previously held voltage is sent down the line to three consecutive outputs to produce the electrical equivalent of a canonic musical structure.

The Telharmonic digital ASR module features three channels, with P, H and N voices available simultaneously, as well as six quantization modes, selectable by Interval knob: suspended chord, major triad, minor triad, octaves and fifths, chromatic, octaves only.

The second Telharmonic hidden mode is the Spiratone, a Shepard tone generator. The Shepard tone, named after Roger Shepard, a cognitive scientist, is an auditory illusion of a tone that continually ascends or descends in pitch, yet never moves away or resolves. It was inspired by two particular compositions, Jean-Claude Risset’s “Computer Suite from Little Boy: Fall” of 1968 and aforementioned James Tenney’s “For Ann (rising)” of 1969.

Pretty much every experience with Telharmonic could become an interaction with some of the most interesting moments and ideas of electronic music history. Cahill’s Telharmonium and additive synthesis, half-forgotten phase modulation synthesis of the 80s, Tenney’s first computer music, Serge’s ASR, Shepard’s tones … all of these are interconnected, all housed in a small, 14hp, 30mm module.

If you have any corrections or additions for this piece, please feel free to contact me.
-Oleg

Ed., indeed, we just delved into rich territory both for this module and sound design generally. We’ll of course revise here and do more on any of these topics, if desired. (I counted at least half a dozen new stories we could write just based on some of the subplots here!) -PK

For more reading on the Telharmonium:

http://120years.net/the-telharmonium-thaddeus-cahill-usa-1897/

http://synthmuseum.com/magazine/0102jw.html

http://www.openculture.com/2016/01/meet-the-telharmonium-the-first-synthesizer.html

More on James Tenney’s computer music:

http://www.plainsound.org/pdfs/ComputerMusic.pdf

More on Shepard tones:

https://mynoise.net/NoiseMachines/shepardAudioIllusionToneGenerator.php

(See our story on Risset, too – plus this plug-in.)

More on Phase Modulation/Phase Distortion Synthesis:

http://www.electricdruid.net/index.php?page=info.pdsynthesis

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Jazzari lets you sketch musical ideas in your browser, with JavaScript

Open up a browser tab, use code sketch musical loops and grooves (using trigonometry, even), and play / export – all in this free tool.

Jazzari has been making the rounds among passionate music tech nerds, as a lovely free code toy. There are a bunch of easy-to-modify tutorial examples, so you don’t necessarily have to know any JavaScript or code. But there’s no graphical control at all – that visualization and the cute cartoon characters are just to give you feedback on what the code does.

So — why?

Developer Jack Schaedler is quick to caution that this is neither intended for teaching code nor teaching music, that better tools exist for each. (Sonic Pi is a particularly accessible entry for learning how to express musical ideas as code, used even by kids!)

Then again, you don’t have to believe him. That same spirit that made him decide to do this for fun seems to be infectious. And this might be an entry into making this stuff.

For coders, it’s yet another chance to discover some code and libraries and perhaps bits and pieces and inspiration for your own next project. For everyone else, well, it’s a terrific distraction.

And you can export MIDI, so this could start a new musical project.

https://jackschaedler.github.io/jazzari/

https://jackschaedler.github.io/jazzari/about.html

By the way, someone want to join me in building this actual inspiration for Jazzari? It could be killer by next summer, at least.

The name is a riff on the 12th century scholar and inventor Ismail al-Jazari. al-Jazari is thought to have invented one of the first programmable musical machines, a “musical automaton, which was a boat with four automatic musicians that floated on a lake to entertain guests at royal drinking parties.”

Bonus, for my Arabic, Kurdish, and Persian friends in electronic music – no one knows which of those accurately can claim this guy. We clearly need to get something going.

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Koma just unveiled a whole patchable analog effects toolkit

Koma today revealed a sequel to their crowd-funded smash hit Field Kit. And it’s a whole bunch of patchable effects, for €249 (€219 for funders).

Inside that box, there’s a load of different effects to play with:

  • Looper
  • Frequency Shifter
  • Sample Rate Reducer / Bitcrusher
  • Digital Delay
  • Analog Spring Reverb

Yeah, you read that last one right – there’s actually a physical spring in there for reverb. Behold:

Looping of course means that you could make the FX a hub of performance. And in addition to the other digital effects, that frequency shifter opens up some really interesting possibilities.

So, whereas the first Field Kit depended on you attaching contact mics and working with the mixing functions, the Field Kit FX actually has a lot more sonic possibilities included right out of the box. There’s still a companion book to go with it, and of course this is already intended as a clever

But, for a kind of “weirdo modular effects toolkit” in a case, you also get a bunch of tools for applying these effects, by mixing and sequencing them:

  • 4 Channel VCA Mixer
  • 4 Step Mini Sequencer
  • Envelope Generator

All over the place, you’ve got various patch points. That’s a chance to connect to other analog I/O – which certainly includes Eurorack modulars, but these days a lot of other gear, as well, even desktop units from Novation, Roland, Arturia, KORG, and the like.

And there’s a new 4-Channel CV Interface for bringing it all together, meaning you can come up with pretty elaborate modular connections.

4-channel CV interface for communications with other gear – now not just modular, but a lot of new desktop stuff, too.

In fact, for under three hundred bucks, the whole thing looks a bit like either a shrunken Eurorack modular or a tabletop of analog and digital effects merged together for patching.

Now, this is still definitely geared for advanced users. There’s no MIDI. And the CV routing, while powerful, might be overwhelming to newcomers – for instance, there’s not a single, simple trigger in to clock that sequencer. (That’s not necessarily a criticism – the various CV options mean loads of creative flexibility. But it does probably mean this box is more for people who want to get deep into patching.)

Watch the overview video, natch:

FIELD KIT FX – CV Controlled Multi Effects Processor

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Watch Suzanne Ciani, thinkers on open music and future machines

Electronic pioneer Suzanne Ciani got interviewed by KORG guru Tatsuya Takahashi. Thinkers from MIT and the Open Music Initiative pondered the future. It’s all in the video lineup from this year’s SONAR+D. Here are a few of the best:

Keynotes

Red Bull Music Academy presents Suzanne Ciani:

A synth pioneer and adventurous electronic composer since the early ‘80s, Suzanne Ciani has defied assumptions about genre, sound design and technical knowledge ever since. Ciani’s ongoing romance with the synthesizer started with a Buchla, and her skills to create synthetic sounds made her one of the first sound designers, when the concept of sound design didn’t even exist. She is the creator of the sonic blueprint of brands like Atari, ABC and General Electric and she is proof that technology is not exclusively masculine.

Suzanne Ciani spoke at Sónar+D 2017 with Tatsuya Takahashi, one of the world’s foremost experts when it comes to analog electronics. After working as a chief engineer at Korg, developing series such as Monotron and Volca and the Minilogue, recently, synth pioneer Takahashi has taken on a new role hosting Red Bull Music Academy lectures.

From littleBits and the open source hardware movement, SONAR+D also invited Ayah Bdeir to talk open hardware, coding, and creativity:

Ayah Bdeir is an engineer, interaction artist, free hardware advocate and, most of all, a distinguished creative entrepreneur. Ever since Bdeir founded her company littleBits, her name has been making the top lists for most creative people in the world. Bdeir received her Master’s degree in Computing Culture from the MIT after graduating from the American University of Beirut with her BA in Computer Engineering and Sociology.

littleBits is a kit of open source electronic modules (engines, oscillators, batteries, even IoT modules) snapped together with magnets –forget your welder!– to easily create complex systems. littleBits is a platform focused on education used by hundreds of schools to teach electronics, and it is also one of the favourite tools of designers, makers and inventors. A must-have for prototyping.

And on other topics…

New models for learning, replicating machines

This one’s interesting – a peek inside fabrication in general, and the question of self replication:

Nadya Peek: Making Machines that Make

Nadya Peek from the MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms talks about the future of digital fabrication and the challenge to make the machines that make the machines that make the machines…

Amidst sometimes apocalyptic visions of machine learning and AI, here’s a product designer with a more optimistic view (though for our upcoming move into the subject at CTM Festival this year, we welcome futures dark and bright alike):

Carla Diana: How Our Robots Will Charm Us (and Why We Want Them to)

Something exciting has been happening to our everyday objects. Things that were once silent and static can now sing, glow, buzz and be tracked online. Some are constantly listening for sounds, sights and touches to translate them into meaningful inputs. Others have the ability to learn, refining their behaviours over time. They can be connected to one another as well as the Internet and will behave as robotic entities that accompany us through all aspects of everyday life.

In this talk, product designer and design futurist Carla Diana will explore the emergence of smart objects in the home, highlighting designers’ opportunities to pioneer new territory in rich interaction, while emphasizing the importance of creating products that are meaningful and responsible. Diana will share case studies from the front lines of design and creative technology, showcasing how art, science, and business are merging to enable new product experiences.

New economic models, openness

Here’s what happens when De La Soul meet Kickstarter:

Connecting Technology and Community: The new story of De La Soul

Brandon Hixon (artist manager, De La Soul) interviewed by Molly Neuman (head of music at Kickstarter). In this conversation, Kickstarter’s Head of Music Molly Neuman interviews Brandon about their approach and philosophy and how they continue to pursue innovation in their career.

When legendary hip-hop group launched their Kickstarter project to fund their first album in 11 years, it was a surprise for some. But not those who had been following the group and seen their celebration of their 25th anniversary in 2014 by making their entire back catalog available for free via BitTorrent. The group, along with their manager Brandon Hixon, have embraced new technologies and platforms with savvy and creativity.

A lot of the rest of the program this year covered new economic models for music distribution, centering on the Blockchain. That included a meetup of the Open Music Initiative, which is looking to put together those technologies and new currencies to change music distribution, and the likes of Resonate.

How to blockchain for artists, labels and fans

Peter Harris from Resonate streaming platform, copyrights specialist Cliff Fluet, visual artist and musician Blanca Rego and music strategist Bas Grasmayer talk about blockchain.

Open Music Initiative Meetup Panel

Open Music Initiative members and artist and technologist Richie Hawtin discuss the ideas and challenges that are changing the music industry’s landscape.

SONAR+D 2017 talks

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Dreadbox Hades analog monosynth is yours to assemble, or not

Dreadbox, purveyors of gnarly electronic synths and effects, have come back with a modular-friendly analog synth, which you can assemble – if you dare.

The core synth itself is simple – just a single-oscillator synthesizer, to which you can add two suboctaves for lots of low end bass punch, and three waves (pulse with width, double saw with width, saw). In the tradition of Dreadbox and their love for edgy distortion, you can add some angry sounds with the drive circuit and 3-pole resonating filter.

And, mostly, you’re likely to appreciate this thing for its modulation and patchability. There are some 13 patch points, which you can use with Eurorack or other analog circuits, external audio input, a triangle and square wave LFO, and two separate envelope generators.

You can stick this on your desk and patch into stuff. Or you can bolt it into a Eurorack.

Now, here’s the somewhat bonkers bit. If you’re sensible, I think you’ll just buy this thing pre-assembled, and think hard about finding space in a Eurorack. It’s a nice 250€ buy.

Or, if you’re a bit bored, you’ll DIY the kit version. It’s all through-hole parts, so it’s not a difficult build. It’s just a lot of them. Expect to … free up some time to put this together.

Also cute but not totally practical, they’ve decided that the box is a case. And it is kind of a nice cardboard box. I mean, sure, why not, but … it’s not so much a selling point as it is a cute way around the fact that it doesn’t have a case. It doesn’t have a power supply, either, so figure that into the purchase price.

Don’t get me wrong, though – I think this thing is terribly clever as a synth. And Dreadbox are making some utterly genius distortion, based on the couple I’ve played with.

If you’re looking for a cheap buy that’s fun to patch into other stuff – really desktop or Euro – this isn’t a bad buy at all. And maybe save yourself the time on the busywork of assembling the kit version, and put that time into making a nice wooden case for the assembled version.

Though, while we’re at it, technically every product I’ve ever owned has come with a free enclosure / kid’s playhouse / pencil case / advanced part storage / tiny spaceship for paper people … uh, you know, box.

Also, you can turn a lot of the manuals into really ace paper airplanes.

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Ableton Live is going 64-bit only – so what does that mean?

Later this year, Ableton Live will only be available in a 64-bit version. But what does that mean for you?

This is a development that has some implications for Ableton Live’s compatibility, stability, the pace of features and improvements, and that question of “wait, which version am I supposed to choose on the Ableton download page?” Ableton invited CDM to their offices to discuss the change and give us a chance to understand the thinking behind the decision and to help figure out what users might want to know.

But first, it’s actually worth understanding what 64-bit music software actually does.

What are 64-bit and 32-bit, anyway?

First, you know, 64-bit is twice as much as 32-bit, which means it’s twice as … well, 32 more … double the …

Okay, let’s be honest, even lots of fairly tech-savvy don’t really know what these terms mean, let alone what impact they have in real-world use.

Software runs on numbers. So when we refer to “64-bit” or “32-bit” software, we’re talking about the word length, or precision, of the numbers the software uses to reference memory. If you have a higher word length, you have more precision, and the software can address more memory.

Think of phone numbers for comparison. Leave out the area code and country code, and you eventually run out of available phone numbers. But add some additional digits, and you have more available numbers – and you can call a greater number of individual people.

With 32-bit software, Ableton Live and all of its plug-ins can use only up to 4 GB of available RAM (or even less on some versions of Windows). But 64-bit software can address all of your RAM, on any computer sold today. (The theoretical limit is so high, you can’t even buy a computer that comes close to hitting the ceiling, at least for the foreseeable future.)

What does more memory mean when you’re making music?

If you have a computer with 8GB or 16GB or more of RAM, there’s some reason to want to use all of that memory. As you load big sample libraries, and add plug-ins or ReWire clients, and as your Live set grows, all of that uses up memory.

Oh, yeah, and one other thing – running out of RAM can cause a DAW to crash. You might not even know that was the cause of a crash: Live crashes, you curse, and you might not realize that the choice you made on that dropdown when you downloaded could be a factor.

32-bit and backwards compatibility

Live added 64-bit support way back at Live 8.4 – that’s the summer of 2012. So if 64-bit is better than 32-bit, why did Ableton keep making new 32-bit versions of its software for over five years?

Running a 64-bit DAW requires a 64-bit operating system – for Live, that’s a 64-bit version of Windows Vista or later, or Mac OS X 10.5 or later. (Microsoft has their own FAQ to help you figure out if you’ve got the right OS for 64-bit.)

64-bit DAWs also need 64-bit versions of plug-ins. Most plug-in developers have already updated their plug-ins for 64-bit, but some haven’t. (There are wrappers you can use, and these were more popular when DAWs first started to go 64-bit, but let’s not go there – especially since part of the idea here is to improve stability!)

Okay, so you need a 64-bit OS, you need to update your plug-ins, and you need to have more than 4GB of RAM for this to be useful. Back in 2012, a non-trivial population of Live users fit that description.

Years later, the picture looks different. Nearly everyone has more than 4GB of RAM, meaning they’re going to benefit from the 64-bit version of the software. And not everyone seems to be aware of that. Ableton tells us that 85% of current Live users who are running the 32-bit version of the software have more than 4GB of RAM. That means 85% of those 32-bit users are actually unable to take advantage of hardware they already own.

That tips the scales. Now Ableton Live’s user base may be better off without new 32-bit versions coming out than with them.

Why are these developers smiling? Going 64-bit only will make the development process faster – and the Live experience more crash-free. Also, Club Mate.

Why go 64-bit only?

First off, nothing is changing for versions of Live up through and including Live 9.7.4. You can still download and run those older versions in their 32-bit versions. And remember that you can install more than one version of Live on the same computer, side by side. So if you’ve got a Live set that uses some old 32-bit plug-in, you can keep a 32-bit version of Live on your machine to open it.

What’s changing is, that dropdown on the download page is going away for every version starting later this year. Ableton will only develop a 64-bit version of Live and Max for Live going forward.

The downside of this is pretty simple: you won’t be able to use some old 32-bit plug-in and the latest version of Live at the same time. (Though you can still use the older Live with the older plug-in.) You’ll also need a 64-bit operating system (though on the Mac side, Apple tends to drag you along to new OSes and new hardware, anyway).

But the upsides to forcing Live users to go 64-bit when they update may be bigger than you’d expect.

Fewer crashes. The 32-bit version of Live crashes more than the 64-bit version – a lot more. Ableton collect the number of crashes. The 32-bit version of Live crashes 44% more often than the 64-bit version.

Most of these crashes are as simple as Live running out of memory – not a bug, not a misbehaved plug-in, but just hitting that 3.5-4GB memory ceiling imposed by running a 32-bit version of the software. (Some may be the result of dubious old 32-bit plug-ins, too, but that’s also a reason to dump plug-ins that haven’t been updated to 64-bit.)

Fewer Live crashes overall means fewer people having to talk to support about these crashes, which is better for everybody.

Faster updates. I also spoke with Ableton’s engineering side about why they’d want to drop 32-bit development.

Supporting both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Live adds overhead to the entire development process. More overhead can translate to us getting fewer new features, or getting them less quickly.

That overhead impacts the time spent coding and debugging Ableton Live, not only for the humans, but also for the machines those humans rely on to do their work. When engineers make a change in Live’s code, they have to wait while servers build, test, and output the results. Even with a room full of racks of pricey, powerful computer hardware making that happen, the process takes hours, especially at peak times.

Take away the 32-bit side of things, and developers get their results faster. In practical terms, that could mean they get their change back today, instead of having to wait until coming into the office tomorrow morning. Since engineers typically like to stay focused and in the zone, that’s important.

Add everything together – supporting more use cases, more old plug-ins, dealing with more crashes, added development time to support two versions, added time to test and build two versions of the software – and you get a lot of added drag to Live’s development.

This isn’t just about making Ableton happy. Removing that drag from the process means those engineers can work on Live more efficiently. The upshot for us is, we get more the stuff we want – fixes and new features.

What you need to do

It may actually have taken more time to read this article than it will to make the leap to 64-bit Ableton Live use. But hopefully it gives you some notion of what’s going on in the world of the people making the software we use.

For your part, assuming you aren’t already running the 64-bit Ableton Live, here’s what to consider:

On Windows, you might want to double-check you have the 64-bit version of the OS installed. (Click your Start button, right-click Computer, click Properties. Under System, you’ll see which version of Windows you’re running.)

As far as checking your plug-ins, Ableton have some resources on the topic:

Recommendations for using VST plug-ins on Windows

Recommendations for using AU and VST plug-ins on Mac

Since 32-bit plug-ins don’t show up in the 64-bit version, the easiest way to check compatibility is to launch the 64-bit version and see if the plug-in disappears. (Don’t laugh – this really is the easiest method.) If it’s invisible, odds are you need to go to the developer and download a 64-bit version, if available. And as mentioned earlier, you can still keep the 32-bit Live on your hard drive if you find a plug-in that requires it.

Relevant to versions from 8.4 [64-bit introduction] through now [prior to going 64-bit only], here’s Ableton’s existing FAQ:

64-bit vs 32-bit – FAQ

I hope this gives you some insight into how Live works, and ideally makes your Live use more productive and crash-free. If you have any more questions, let us know.

Thanks to various engineers and product managers at Ableton who contributed to this story, particularly Alex Wiedemann (former Ableton software engineer and now head of Technical Support Berlin).

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There’s a synth symphony for 100 cars coming, based on tuning

100 cars, 100 sound systems, 100 different versions of the pitch A: Ryoji Ikeda has one heck of a polyphonic automobile synthesizer coming.

The project is also the first new hardware from Tatsuya Takahashi after the engineer/designer stepped down from his role heading up the analog gear division at KORG. And so from the man who saw the release of products like the KORG volca series and Minilogue during his tenure, we get something really rather different: a bunch of oscillators connected to cars to produce sound art.

Tats teams up for this project with Maximilian Rest, the man behind boutique maker E-RM, who has proven his obsessive-compulsive engineering chops on their Multiclock.

And wow, that industrial design. From big factories to small run (100 units), Tats has come a long way – and this is the most beautiful design I’ve seen yet from Max and E-RM. It’s a drool-worthy design fetish object recalling Dieter Rams and Braun.

I spoke briefly to Tatsuya to get some background on the project, though the details will be revealed in the performance in Los Angeles and by Red Bull Music Academy.

The original hardware is simple. In almost a throwback to the earliest days of electronic music, the boxes themselves are just tone generators. Those controls you see on the panel determine octave and volume. Before the performance, details on the execution are a bit guarded, but this sounds like just the sort of simple box that would perfectly match Max’s insanely perfectionist approach.

What makes this tone generator special is, there are a hundred of them, each hooked up to one of one hundred cars.

Yeah, you heard right: we’re talking massively polyphonic, art-y ghetto blasting. The organizers say the cars were selected for their unique audio systems. (Now, that’s my way of being a car fan.) Car owners even contributed special cars to the symphony, making this an auto show cum sound happening, evidently both in an installation and performance.

One hundred cars tuned to the same frequency would sound like … well, phase cancellation. So each oscillator is tuned to a different frequency, in a kind of museum of what the note “A” has been over the years. The reality is, we’re probably hearing a whole lot of classical music in the “wrong” key, because the tuning of A was only in standardized in the past century. (Even today, A=440Hz and A=442Hz compete in symphonies, with A=440Hz is the most common in general use, and near-universal in electronic music.)

That huge range is part of why any discussions of the “mathematically pure” or “healing” 432 Hz is, well, nonsense. (I can deal with that some time if you really want, but let’s for now file it under “weird things you can read on the Internet,” alongside the flat Earth.)

Once you get away from the modern blandness of everything being 440 Hz, or the pseudo-science weirdness of the 432 Hz cult, you can discover all sorts of interesting variety. For instance, one of the oscillators in the performance is tuned to this:

A = 376.3Hz
*1700 : Pitch taken by Delezenne from an old dilapidated organ of l’Hospice Comtesse, Lille, France

Hey, who’s to say that particular organ isn’t the one “tuned to the natural frequency of the universe”?

You’ll get all those frequencies in some huge, wondrous cacophony if you’re lucky enough to be in LA for the performance.

It’s presented as part of the Red Bull Music Academy Music Festival, October 15. (I have no idea how you’d evaluate the claim that this is the largest-ever symphony orchestra, though with one hundred cars, it’s probably the heaviest! If anyone has historical ideas on that, I’m all ears.)

And of course, it’s in the perfect place for a piece about cars: Los Angeles. Wish I were there; let us know how it is!

https://la.redbullmusicacademy.com/event/ryoji-ikeda-a-for-100-cars

Photo credit: Carys Huws for RBMA.

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Reason 10 is a return to form: all about the instruments

Remember when the main draw of Reason was adding a whole bunch of toys to your computer and playing until you couldn’t play any more? Those days are back.

The last few years have seen lots of workflow refinements and maturity in music production software. And that’s all fine and well. We’ve even seen new DAWs entirely, new combinations of hardware controllers and software (Maschine, Push), standalone production tools that work without a computer (the new MPC). And we’ve seen a whole lot of music production software evolution, gradually working through the elaborate wish lists we foist on the developers – and with good reason. Heck, maybe you begin to think that adding new sounds is about buying fancy modular rigs, and the computer will quietly disappear into the background.

But since the beginning, Reason was always about something different. Reason users didn’t just get a whole bunch of effects and synths as a bonus, icing to sweeten the deal. Reason was those effects and synths. And you’d be forgiven if you assumed that era had come to a close. After all, most Reason upgrades focused on adding in the openness and multifunctional capabilities of rivals – audio recording, Rack Extensions and a store to buy add-ons, even VST plug-in compatibility. Once you have VST support in Reason, maybe Reason isn’t really about the stuff Propellerheads put in the box.

Think again, because – Reason 10.

Now, there’s some chatter at Propellerhead about this being the “biggest content upgrade” ever, but let’s talk specifically about which instruments are getting added. And it’s a big ‘ol Swedish smörgåsbord of the kind of synths that made us notice Reason in the first place.

So, to answer Thor, there’s Europa – a wavetable synth.

To those granular goodies in Reaktor and Max for Live, there’s The Grain.

And in the tradition of Reason, they look, well, Reason-y. Functions are encapsulated, simplified, hardware-like, but without sacrificing deep modulation. The Grain, for its part, looks like the native granular synth Ableton never quite got (outside Max add-ons). Europa has its own biggie-sized instrumental quality.

For more acoustic timbres, you get new sampled instruments: Klang for tuned percussion, Pangea for a potpourri of “world” instruments, Humana for choir and vocal sounds. (Even if Humana makes those of us in Germany think of retro DDR fashion…)

Happily, these aren’t just ROMplers or sets of presets – you still get the control panels that mimic vintage hardware, and CV routing for patching monster hybrids and strange sound designs.

Propellerhead took a similar approach with their aptly-named Radical Piano, which allows the construction of hybrid, physically-modeled piano instruments, and it’s nice to see that instrument now included in the box.

And there’s one really killer effect, too: Synchronous, which brings modulated signal processing, with sidechaining and LFOs, even with the ability to draw your own curves to route into filter, delay, reverb, distortion. That alone could fill albums of material, and with a lot of different takes recently on how to do this, the Props’ take looks genuinely unique.

There are a lot of samples, too – Drum Supply and Loop Supply get a refresh. Now, that would normally bore me, except — oh yeah, that granular thing. Interested again.

In beta now, out 25 October.

I think it’s going to be a good winter.

They’ve worked hard; let’s embed their video. They earned it.

https://www.propellerheads.se/en/reason/new

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A giant-sized music box, made with digital tech and antique furniture

An oversized music box takes to the streets, packed in vintage furniture and cranked by passersby, in this Portuguese sound art piece.

It’s the latest work of friend-of-the-site Nuno Santos, who has gone viral in social media with this enchanting demo video. For more information, though, you can watch a detailed making-of series he’s produced. (Portuguese, but with original English subtitles – the behind-the-scenes bits follow just after the demo.)

There’s a lot of clever engineering work in this award-winning project. It’s an achievement in packing a sound system into a mobile form factor using vintage furniture. It’s a great physical computing project, complete with that huge crank. And it’s a great example of what you can do with pisound and Raspberry Pi – adding high-fidelity audio functionality to the ubiquitous, dirt-cheap tiny PC.

https://blokas.io/

Highlights —

Adding that pisound bit:

And, of course, for mechanical engineering and some 3d printing, the crank!

Nuno shares a gallery of how this all comes together.

Imaginando are creating all sorts of good stuff, including my favorite Traktor iPad controller and one of my favorite Ableton controllers – plus a nice way to connect your Teenage Engineering OP-1 to Ableton Live.

https://www.imaginando.pt/

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macOS High Sierra upgrade requires some caution

macOS High Sierra (10.13) is out today. And that means it’s time to check in on compatibility with all your gear.

High Sierra is mostly about under-the-hood changes, and what Apple promises will be some forward-looking architectural improvements. There’s a new high-performance 64-bit Apple File System, intended for those internal flash drives. There are major changes to graphics support, dealing with the GPU and Apple’s own Metal API – though no indication that has any particular implications for music and media just yet so much as in the future. Virtual Reality support, long possible on Windows, is coming to the Mac – well, sort of, in that you’ll need an iMac Pro or a pricey external GPU. But what most users will see right now is the usual bundle of minor refinements and usability features.

No, usually what this means – especially for the complex ecosystem of tools in music – is checking to see if anything breaks. And for once, this appears to be a relatively trouble-free update if you’re on the latest version of software.

Changes to the file system, though, mean some caution is warranted.

Here are some early reports. If you’ve got more to add, either as a developer or user, get in touch (comments on this post or Twitter are probably easiest).

One piece of advice: update your drivers before updating, as the only real wrinkle appears to be driver installation related.

Driver vendors need to catch up on validating their drivers, as reported by Serato.

Serato users are advised to hold off; Serato have a blog entry explaining. The culprit is a driver installation issue.

The latest AIR Music Tech plug-ins all work; see knowledge base story

New versions of Propellerhead Software work; old versions, though, don’t. (Think file damage with that new file system – danger, Will Robinson.) Reason 9.5.2, Reason 10, Reason Essentials 9.5.2, Reason Essentials 10 are all good, so just watch older versions. Here’s their statement:

Due to Apple’s introduction of a completely new file system (APFS) in High Sierra, many older versions are not compatible. This means that Propellerhead products before Reason 9.5.2 will not work correctly after updating to the latest version of macOS. Using High Sierra may in some cases even damage your documents, rendering them unusable.

We strongly recommend you NOT to upgrade to High Sierra if you intend to use earlier versions of Propellerhead products on your computer.

Most Akai Professional products are supported; there’s a blog post covering both macOS High Sierra and iOS 11.

Traktor Pro has an update now in beta; 2.11.1 is now in release candidate so I’d wait for that to appear as an update before upgrading the OS. There’s a public beta available.

We’ll add to this story as we get more reports.

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