Buttons, knobs, faders – yes, they’re decent. But you can’t jump on them, not without serious consequences. What you need is a trampoline.
What does it take to make snares hot again? This free Live rack, that’s what. Dial F aka David Abravanel has been cooking up new music and more sounds – and stick around for exhaustive kicks. It all started with Tom Hall, and a terrific snare synth built in Max/MSP – so yeah, if you’re […]
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A surprising number of Ableton Live users haven’t discovered the power of Max for Live inside. Here’s how to get started – but, oh, you’ve seen it all before? Okay, smarty-pants, learn how to make your own devices, too.
Beginners and those needing some fresh ideas…
Anxious times can be a big barrier to inspiration. And that’s why this guide is useful now. Max for Live add-ons can be particularly useful not just for solving problems, but pushing you in a different direction or getting you back in a state of play. That’s been useful even for me – I was feeling stuck, and wound up finding some new tools that got me going again, just while writing this.
As long as you’ve got a copy of Ableton Live Suite, Max for Live is waiting for you. If not, it’s also a pretty major reason to upgrade.
I’m thrilled to again partner with Riemann Kollection to make a complete guide:
It starts at the beginning; no previous knowledge – what Max for Live is, how to use it, and how to get started with a lot of useful devices in a host of different categories.
Max for Live has an impassioned following, but I suspect a lot of users of Live are afraid to go there. Here’s the thing: you really don’t need to know how to use Max. The fact that Ableton baked in one the most mature and most powerful toolkits for making music production and live visual inventions means you can use the tools everybody else is making.
As it happens, ELPHNT also produced a two-part list of their favorite devices on maxforlive.com. I purposely ignored this list, and still imagined we would overlap. Speaking to the depth of the M4L world, not one device is on both lists. (I even plugged ELPHNT on my list, but it’s not in the Ableton.com story!) Read: [ Part 1 | Part 2 ]
… and those ready to make your own stuff
Okay, maybe you are curious to dig into Max and Max for Live and try customizing devices or creating your own from scratch? And, uh, maybe for some reason you find you have a bit of time on your hands? Well, you’re in luck.
Ableton has an official page with resources. Pay particular note to this line – “Access the Max for Live built-in lessons by clicking on the Help menu–>Help View.” That’s really where you most likely want to begin.
But for a single video intro, try this:
or this –
or this –
More recently, Cycling ’74 also shared best practices in making devices, which would be useful if, uh, you want to share with others. (I mean, for yourself, be as horrible as you like!)
Multichannel audio is what is really useful in the most recent major upgrade:
Finally, because of the current crisis, you can shadow a college course in Max here. I once taught this course for CUNY. I would not be able to do it now – Max has changed radically since I did it, and I have forgotten a bunch – so I’ll be checking it out! There are some sharp tips in there. (and if you know Max a bit, crank up the speed and pretend you’re Data from Star Trek as you go rapid-fire through the parts you know.)
Well, this is about play. So as I said, it’s totally valid to just grab a fun device or two and … try something.
So I still recommend my guide – as a break from dev work, or if you realize your brain is more tired than you thought and you got over-ambitious (never happens to me – I’m lying):
See the complete Riemann techno producer knowledge hub for lots of advice.
Images courtesy Ableton.
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A funny thing happened on the way to the VCV Rack forum. In a paradigm many still stubbornly imagine as chin scratching noise, software modular makers are producing beautiful, liquid electronic sounds.
The latest fruits of these labors can be heard in volume 3 of the Switched On Rack series. Actually forget that this has anything to do with software at all – what you get is really a perfectly gorgeous compilation of experimental sounds, lush textures, expansive ambient music, intelligent rhythms.
It’s hypnotic, warm, entrancing stuff:
What strikes me is actually how coherent the result can be. Despite coming from an open submission online, the results hold together both than … well,
But maybe that isn’t incidental at all. There’s always this question of what makes a scene. Having access to the same set of instruments and tools is always significant to music-making – VCV Rack itself is free, and even paid add-ons are relatively affordable and one click away. And not only that, but VCV Rack users also have various ways to share tips about modules, whether they prefer reading forum posts or sending messages to friends or watching detailed YouTube tutorials.
Or they can even simply post videos of their patches to share and inspire – and even if you prefer not to try to squint to see what they’ve done, it might still prompt you to try an idea or find a previously unknown module.
For developers, this also demonstrates that you don’t necessarily need a comprehensive online strategy to make users do this. If you make inspiring tools, they may well do it on their own. (In CDM parts, we’ve seen this story repeat, from Eurorack hardware to the open monome community to live coding and even larger phenomena like Ableton Live use.)
For still more music, one person I’ve been following closely is Iowa IDM maestro Kent Williams aka Chaircrusher. Not This Time, his newest, is crisp, brain-tickling stuff. It isn’t 100% VCV Rack here, but the mind dancing textural precision is very much influenced by his Rack workflows, which are, quite frankly, where I’ve gotten a lot of my own tips. Kent does what I tend to do, which is to start ideas in Rack, then record them multitrack (using the NYSTHI modules for the purpose), finishing tracks in a DAW (Ableton Live). I personally expect to continue to do this even when there is a plug-in of Rack available, as it makes a nice compositional process.
And I love the artwork. It also comes with this poetic, provocative accompanying text to puzzle over:
Somehow the main point of the story got lost in the telling. The digressions were full of details too specific to be true.
Over the course of a long life, the past disappears. New memories arise of alternate timelines, things that were never to be.
The ax laying rusted in the tall grass might cut again.
I have forgotten her face and her name, but the memory of my feeling for her is so vivid.
People are outlived by the smell of
the cigarettesmoke on their possessions.
What I want is to hear the music that no one makes, and to which no one will listen.
Everything is deadly if you wait long enough.
So this really is somehow the point – some of the people close to their tools will be the ones working together to push a shared musical language forward, together.
For more on VCV Rack and the community – which now runs on an excellent independent forum as well as on The FaceBook:
VCV Rack: vcvrack.com
Community Forum: community.vcvrack.com
Facebook User Group: www.facebook.com/groups/vcvrack
Sign-up sheet: docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1FUi3cekjhm_WmEocb7KXg_qdnIYosZIyQyr1i_Q6EK4/edit#gid=0
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It’s the Latvian Synthi that never was – an all-new instrument, not a clone, built around the signature analog matrix.
England’s EMS Synthi AKS is simply one of the greatest-ever standalone designs for experimentation. The 1972 instrument inspired Jean Michel Jarre and Pink Floyd. But it’s not
Now, for all the recreations and clones, it’s important to note that Erica Synths aren’t cloning anything. They even advertise the fact that the SYNTRX has absolutely no part of its schematics cloned from the original – there’s a twist, in a day when supposed “authenticity” usually trumps originality. (And yes, that could be read as a shot across the bow of clone-happy Behringer.)
But there’s some precedent for this. After all, think of how many instruments have a piano/organ-style keyboard manual, and how differently those instruments can sound and behave.
So think instead of the
256 patch memory points
Automatic patch switching in performance mode, or via MIDI triggers
Noise generator with color
Resonant analog filter
Looping envelope generator
Of course a joystick – you need that
Input amp with adjustable gain so you can connect a mic to line levels (oddly enough, I spent yesterday afternoon singing the praises of using mics in modular settings for a workshop here in Ljubljana, Slovenia)
3 (!) voltage controlled amplifiers
Analog CV/audio signal level indicator plus output signal filter
Sample & hold circuit with individual clock
VCO 1 has an octave switch; VCO2 has sync
Attack/Decay mode on the envelope generator
MIDI input of CV, gate, modulation, (and for the matrix) program change
Aluminum enclosure, ash tree side panels
Those envelope and extra oscillator features, plus of course MIDI control and extra performance functionality,
That said, is this an excuse to re-run the “every picnic…” and “every nun needs a
Now please stop coming out with all this cool stuff I feel obligated to write about, Erica; it’s starting to make me seem biased.
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Now, even your browser can produce elaborate, production-grade eye candy using just some Ableton Live MIDI clock. The question of how to generate visuals to go with music starts to get more and more interesting answers.
And really, why not? In that moment of inspiration, how many of us see elaborate fantastic imagery as we listen to (or dream about) music. It’s just been that past generative solutions were based on limited rules, producing overly predictable results. (That’s the infamous “screensaver” complaint.) But quietly, even non-gaming machines have been adding powerful 3D visualization – and browsers now have access to hardware acceleration for a uniform interface.
cables.gl remains in invite-only beta, though if you go request one (assuming this article doesn’t overwhelm one), you can find your way in. And for now, it’s also totally free, making this a great way to play around. (Get famous, get paid, buy licenses for this stuff – done.)
MIDI clock can run straight into the browser, so you can sync visuals easily with Ableton Live. (Ableton Link is overkill for that application, given that visuals run at framerate.) That will work with other software, hardware, modular, whatever you have, too.
For a MIDI/DJ example, here’s a tutorial for TRAKTOR PRO. Obviously this can be adapted to other tools, as well. (Maybe some day Pioneer will even decide to put MIDI clock on the CDJ. One can dream.)
They’ve been doing some beautiful work in tutorials, too, including WeaveArray and ColorArray, since I last checked in.
Check out the full project and request an invite:
By the way, note those cool visuals at the top. That’s not video – that’s cables.gl actually running in your browser right now.
Previously, our introduction:
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Hey, modulars are great. But you can’t call up presets at will, like on a computer. And you can’t head for a day of patching to the shore of your local lake. Or – can you? The folks at Polish maker Polyend are breaking the rules.
I think these are devilishly clever ideas – and there’s certainly some devilishly clever marketing.
Presets on a modular
First up: Polyend Preset. Okay, it’s not quite preset storage for your modular – you can’t sample the voltage level of other patch cords, so you’re going to have to remember some of how you patched together a sound. But Polyend have made a matrix of knobs and pads that gives you full nine different outputs. The encoders have variable RGB lighting for UI feedback and for checking values, and that’s paired with Polyend’s signature pads. It all looks ideal for live performance.
Here’s the workflow: you consolidate the parameters you want to control, save, and recall on Polyend’s own module. That gives you a centralized command station for tweaking all the rest of your modular rig. You have 9 CV outs – one of which is also an LFO. And you can restore and recall values. You could use that to save particular sounds as you’re working, or to set up a setlist of patches to play live. Or you could also ‘play’ those different values from the pads, or even sequence them (internally, or driven by external CV).
You choose continuous CV, scaled musical pitches, gate, or on the ninth encoder, LFO. Specs:
9 CV outs
1V/Oct, 0-10V, or gate output
32 onboard musical scales
Phrase automation – record and send out voltage changes – each output has up to 30 seconds recording
Instant preset recall (so you can play the grid, too)
Sequence from external gate / 0-10V
Hey readers – does anyone remember an April Fools joke about a year ago that featured ‘preset storing’ patch cables? It was a funny idea, even if it was obviously a joke. Looked for the video and couldn’t find it. And this is… kinda sorta that.
Into the woods
Polyed Anywhere is also great stuff – it’s a simple power supply module with a USB input, to which you can connect a 20,000 mAh battery for modular busking, open air synthing, seaside noodling, whatever. (They were using this at the show.)
Future shot some video of these two together:
And a new Poly
Poly 2 is the latest version of their MIDI to CV converter. Trigger 8 voices, use Gate, V/Oct or Hz/V for pitch that works with anything, velocity, CC, and clock – and now it’s also got Smart Thru for daisy chaining, more onboard musical scales, and crucially, MPE compatibility. This isn’t the only game in town – we need some comparison to offerings from Expert Sleepers and Bastl – but it’s certainly one of the more capable.
I’m still most excited about Polyend’s desktop polysynth, though, not modular – stay tuned for that review this week, as Medusa holds up nicely even against the latest polysynths revealed this week.
No updates on the Polyend site as I write this, but check them out:
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It may have been in the temple of wires and racks, but Berlin’s Bitwig chose this weekend’s Superbooth to launch a public beta of their all-modular DAW, Bitwig Studio 3. It lets you wire together with hardware, or just inside software, or as a combination.
It’s called The Grid – and it’s all about patching inside your music workflow, so you can construct stuff you want instead of dialing up big monolithic tools and presets. And that sounds great to builders, I’m sure.
Going modular was really the promise of Bitwig Studio from the start – something to rocket the software from “oh, hey, I can run something kinda like Ableton on Linux” to … “wow, this is something really special.”
The idea is, get a music making tool that not only behaves like a set of tracks and channels, or a bank of patterns and samples, and more like a toybox that lets you built whatever you want from various blocks. And before anyone tries to launch another of those “hardware versus software” debates (yawn), a friendly reminder that computers used a modular generator model for digital audio in the late 1950s – years before any recognizable hardware modular was even a thing. (Okay, granted, you needed a stack of punch cards and access to an IBM mainframe or two and the user base was something like ‘people who happen to know Max Mathews,’ but still…)
Bitwig Studio 3 is in beta now, so you can toy around with it and see what you think. (Bitwig are very clear about not putting important projects in there.)
I wrote about this at the start of this year.
But now there’s a friendly video to walk you through how it all works:
Basically, think friendly musical blocks for pattern and timbre, pre-cords so things are patched easily, and powerful features with phase.
With Beta 1, we also see some specifics – you can produce your own stereo synths and effects with the two Grid devices:
Poly Grid: “for creating synthesizers, sequenced patches (like a beatbox), droning sounds, etc.”
FX Grid for effects
Signal/modulation I/O – including pressure, CV (like from hardware)
Visualization (labels, VU, readouts)
Phase – loads of stuff here, as promised: Phasor, Ø Bend, Ø Reset, Ø Scaler, Ø Reverse, Ø Wrap, Ø Counter, Ø Formant, Ø Lag, Ø Mirror, Ø Shift, Ø Sinemod, Ø Skew, Ø Sync
Oscillators (including Swarm, Sampler)
Envelope / follower
Shaper (ooh, Chebyshev, Distortion, Quantizer, Rectifier, Wavefolder)
Filter (Low-pass LD, Low-pass SK, SVF, High-pass, Low-pass, Comb)
Delay types – need to dig into these; they look promising
Mix – Blend, Mixer, LR Mix, Select, Toggle, Merge, Split, Stereo Merge, Stereo Split, Stereo Width
Level – Level, Value, Attenuate, Bias, Drive, Gain, AM/RM, Average, Bend, Clip, Hold, Lag, Sample / Hold, Level Scaler, Bi→Uni, Uni→Bi
Pitch scalers and tools
— all in all, it’s a really nice selection of tools, and a balance of low-level signal tools/operators and easy convenience tools that are higher level. And it’s also not an overwhelming number – which is good; it’s clear this should be its own tool and not try to replicate the likes of Max, SuperCollider, and Reaktor.
Also in this build:
Reworked audio backends for every OS (good)
Ableton Link 3 support with transport start/stop sync
And – a little thing, but you can view the timeline with actual time (minutes, ms) …
Beta users will find a really nice, complete tutorial so – you can start practicing building. Have fun!
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It’s all about voltage these days. Ableton’s new CV Tools are designed for integrating with modular and semi-modular/desktop gear with CV. And they’re built in Max – meaning builders can learn from these tools and build their own.
The basic idea of CV Tools, like any software-CV integration, is to use your computer as an additional source of modulation and control. You route analog signal directly to your audio interface – you’ll need an interface that has DC coupled outputs (more about that separately). But once you do that, you can make your software and hardware rigs work together, and use your computer’s visual interface and open-ended possibilities to do still more stuff with analog gear.
This is coming on the eve of Superbooth, and certainly a lot of the audience will be people with modular racks. But nowadays, hardware with CV I/O is hardly limited to Eurorack – gear from the likes of Moog, Arturia, KORG, and others also makes sense with CV.
CV Tools aren’t the first Max for Live tools for Ableton Live – not by far. Spektro Audio makes the free CV Toolkit Mini, for instance. Its main advantage is a single, integrated interface – and a clever patch bay. There’s a more extensive version available for US$19.99.
Rival DAW Bitwig Studio, for its part, has taken an entirely different approach – you’ll get a software modular engine capable of interlinking with hardware CV wherever you like.
Ableton’s own CV Tools is news, though, in that these modules are powerful, flexible, and polished, and have a very Ableton-esque UI. They also come from a collaboration with Skinnerbox, the live performance-oriented gearheads here in Berlin, so I have no doubt they’ll be useful. (Yep, that’s them in the video.) I think there’s no reason not to grab this and Spektro and go to town.
And since these are built in Max, Max patchers may want to take a look inside – to mod or use as the basis of your own.
What you get:
CV Instrument, with complements existing Ableton devices for integrating outboard MIDI instruments and effects with your projects in Live
CV Triggers for sequencing drum modules
CV Utility for adding automation curves, add/shift/multiple signals, and other processing tools
CV Clock In and CV Clock Out for clocking Live from outboard analog gear and visa versa
CV In which connects outboard analog signal directly to modulation of parameters inside Live
CV Shaper, CV Envelope Follower, and CV LFO which gives you graphical tools for designing modulation inside Live and using it for CV control of your analog hardware
And there’s more: the Rotating Rhythm Generator, which lets you dial up polyrhythms. This one works with both MIDI and CV, so you can work with either kind of external hardware.
I got to chat with Skinnerbox, and there’s even more here than may be immediately obvious.
For one thing, you get what they tell us is “extremely accurate broad-range” auto calibration of oscillators, filters, and so on. That’s often an issue with analog equipment, especially once you start getting complex or adding polyphony (or creating polyphony by mixing your software instruments with your hardware). Here’s a quick demo:
Clocking they say is “jitter free” and “super high resolution.”
So this means you can make a monster hybrid combining your computer running Ableton Live (and all your software) with hardware, without having to have the clock be all over the place or everything out of tune. (Well, unless that’s what you’re going for!)
If you’re in Berlin, Skinnerbox will play live with the rig this Friday at Superbooth.
They sent us this quick demo of working with the calibration tools, resulting in an accurate ten-octave range (here with oscillator from Endorphin.es).
To interface with their gear, they’re using the Expert Sleepers ES8 interface in the modular. You could also use a DC-coupled audio interface, though – MOTU audio interfaces are a popular choice, since they’ve got a huge range of interfaces with DC coupling across various interface configurations.
CV Tools is listed as “coming soon,” but a beta version is available now.
What do you need to use this?
For full CV control of analog gear, you’ll want a DC-coupled audio interface. Most audio interfaces lack that feature – I’m writing an explanation of this in a separate story – but if you do have one with compatible outputs, you’ll be able to take full advantage of the features here, including tuned pitch control. MOTU have probably made more interfaces that work than anyone else. You can also look to a dedicated interface like the Expert Sleepers one Skinnerbox used in the video above.
See MOTU and Expert Sleepers, both of which Skinnerbox have tested:
MOTU also have a more technical article on testing audio interfaces if you’re handy with a voltmeter, plus specs on range on all their interfaces.
Universal Audio have already written to say they’ll be demoing DC coupling on their audio interfaces at Superbooth with Ableton’s CV Tools, so their stuff works, too. (Double-checking which models they’re using.)
But wait – just because you lack the hardware doesn’t mean you can’t use some of the functionality here with other audio interfaces. Skinnerbox remind us that any audio interface inputs will work with CV In in Pitch mode. Clock in and out will work with any device, too.
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Moog has taken the elements of their semi-modular line and given it a flagship – a patchable, calico-colored keyboard with sequencer, 4-voice paraphonic synth, and effects in one keyboard.
The pitch: even before you plug in cables to the copious patch points here, you can quickly get evolving strings of dreamy chords (or rich melodies), complete with delay and modulation. Those extra (analog, they want you to remember) specs aren’t just about more features. They’re about dialing in imaginative sounds. And so the Matriarch is an all-in-one keyboard that draws from Moog’s modular legacy, but in an integrated design you can use both with and without patching.
We’re definitely living in a weird timestream. When I started writing about music tech and joined Keyboard in the early 2000s, “workstation” keyboards were digital affairs, with functionality hidden deep in menus and screens. The key was to put as many instruments as possible – analog synthesis being seen as something retro and niche. Moog for their part had the Voyager, which took the Minimooog line in the direction of new analog exploration. But even Moog’s offering was primarily connected with MIDI cables, and had a touch panel right on the front.
Now, CV and gate – analog interconnects – are standard equipment alongside MIDI. People are happy to twist knobs rather than just dial up presets. (We, uh, could have told manufacturers that all along. Here’s a hint: if it’s fun, we’ll like it. Hence the term “play” music.)
And even if Moog are still (happily) outside the mainstream, there’s nothing saying their Matriarch has anything but broad appeal.
So here’s a keyboard proudly with wires popping out the top. And while Moog prominently tout “all-analog signal path” and “retro” design, we’re really seeing ourselves back in the parallel universe where analog synthesis never went away. On one hand, we’ve come full circle to some of the features first introduced in analog synthesis, but now it’s clearer what they’re for and how to make them more accessible. So for all its 1970s-derived features (Moog name included), the Matriarch is inventive in a way that makes sense in 2019.
Moog are pulling from the modular world, too, more aggressively than ever. Not only is this patchable, but the design does imagine a series of modules. So you get Minimoog oscillators, a mixer, classic Moog filters, envelopes and sound shapers. They’ve also built in a sequencer/arpeggiator.
The voice configuration allows mono, duo, and paraphonic playing modes, plus you have four notes per step in the sequencer.
My sense is what will make this interesting is the multiple modes on the filters combined with a Moogerfooger-like analog delay and tons of modulation. So you have dual ADSR envelopes and dual analog amplifiers, and two filters you can use in parallel or stereo or series. The delay is stereo (and ping/pong if you want) up to 700 ms – still waiting on Moog to tell me how short that delay can go.
Oh yeah, and ring mod possibilities also sound interesting. Plus they’ve got mults in there for making patching deeper onboard.
Mono, duo, and 4-note paraphonic playability
Stereo analog delay with up to 700ms of stereo or ping/pong style repeats
256-step sequencer with up to four notes per step and 12 stored patterns
Arpeggiator with selectable modes (Order, Forward/Backward, Random)
Semi-modular analog synthesizer—no patching required
90 modular patch points for endless exploration
Expressive 49-note Fatar keyboard with patchable velocity and aftertouch
Four analog oscillators with selectable waveshape and hard sync per-oscillator
Full-range analog LFO with six selectable waveshapes
Dual analog filters with parallel (HP/LP), stereo (LP/LP), and series (HP/LP) modes available
Dual analog ADSR envelopes
Dual analog VCAs
Three bipolar voltage controlled attenuators with ring mod capability
2×4 parallel wired unbuffered mults
Additional simple analog LFO useful for adding modulation to delay, filters and VCAs
1/4″ external audio input for processing guitars, drum machines, and more through Matriarch’s analog circuits
Stereo 1/4″ and 3.5mm Eurorack level audio outputs
This is a Moog and a “flagship,” so it doesn’t come cheap – US$1999. That’s not to complain about the price, but it does mean if you’re in that budget, you have a lot of options. (Sitting next to me as I write this is Polyend’s Medusa along with Dreadbox, which has 6 voices instead of four, and some digital oscillators and modulation options that take it in a radically different direction from the Matriarch. Oddly, people complained about its price, and it costs half as much.)
I would personally be pretty tempted by Moog’s own Grandmother, the Matriarch’s baby sibling – with a street price around $800. It’s a monosynth, and the whole architecture is scaled accordingly. (It also has a spring reverb tank in place of the Matriarch’s delay). But you could use the saved money for a little Eurorack skiff.
That said, the Matriarch is a thoughtful, colorful, appealing new top-of-the-line for this family of Moogs. And it gets a Moogfest limited edition at the festival happening now – plus a lot of artists gathered who I’m sure will really want one.
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