Your questions answered: Sonarworks Reference calibration tools

If getting your headphones and studio monitors calibrated sounds like a good New Years’ Resolution, we’ve got you covered. Some good questions came up in our last story on Sonarworks Reference, the automated calibration tool, so we’ve gotten answers for you.

First, if you’re just joining us, Sonarworks Reference is a tool for automatically calibrating your studio listening environment and headphones so that the sound you hear is as uncolored as possible – more consistent with the source material. Here’s our previous write-up, produced in cooperation with Sonarworks:

What it’s like calibrating headphones and monitors with Sonarworks tools

CDM is partnering with Sonarworks to help users better understand how to use the tool to their benefit. And so that means in part answering some questions with Sonarworks engineers. If you’re interested in the product, there’s also a special bundle discount on now: you get the True-Fi mobile app for calibration on your mobile device, free with a Sonarworks Studio Edition purchase (usually US$79):

Readers have been sending in questions, so I’ll answer as many as I can as accurately as possible.

Does it work?

Oh yeah, this one is easy. I found it instantly easier to mix both on headphones and sitting in the studio, in that you hear far more consistency from one listening environment / device to another, and in that you get a clearer sense of the mix. It feels a little bit like how I feel when I clean my eyeglasses. You’re removing stuff that’s in the way. That’s my own personal experience, anyway; I linked some full reviews and comparisons with other products in the original story. But my sense in general is that automated calibration has become a fact of life for production and live situations. It doesn’t eliminate the role of human experts, not by a long shot – but then color calibration in graphics didn’t get rid of the need for designers and people who know how to operate the printing press, either. It’s just a tool.

Does it work when outside of the sweet spot in the studio?

This is a harder question, actually, but anecdotally, yeah, I still left it on. You’re calibrating for the sweet spot in your studio, so from a calibration perspective, yeah, you do want to sit in that location when monitoring – just as you always would. But a lot of what Sonarworks Reference is doing is about frequency response as much as space, I found it was still useful to leave the calibration on even when wandering around my studio space. It’s not as though the calibration suddenly stops working when you move around. You only notice the calibration stops working if you have the wrong calibration profile selected or you make the mistake of bouncing audio with it left on (oops). But that’s of course exactly what you’d expect to happen.

What about Linux support?

Linux is officially unsupported, but you can easily calibrate on Windows (or Mac) and then use the calibration profile on Linux. It’s a 64-bit Linux-native VST, in beta form.

If you run the plug-in the handy plug-in host Carla, you can calibrate any source you like (via JACK). So this is really great – it means you can have calibrated results while working with SuperCollider or Bitwig Studio on Linux, for example.

This is beta only so I’m really keen to hear results. Do let us know, as I suspect if a bunch of CDM readers start trying the Linux build, there will be added incentive for Sonarworks to expand Linux support. And we have seen some commercial vendors from the Mac/Windows side (Pianoteq, Bitwig, Renoise, etc.) start to toy with support of this OS.

If you want to try this out, go check the Facebook group:

(Direct compiled VST download link is available here, though that may change later.)

What’s up with latency?

You get a choice of either more accuracy and higher latency, or lower accuracy and lower latency. So if you need real-time responsiveness, you can prioritize low latency performance – and in that mode, you basically won’t notice the plug-in is on at all in my experience. Or if you aren’t working live / tracking live, and don’t mind adding latency, you can prioritize accuracy.

Sonarworks clarifies for us:

Reference 4 line-up has two different *filter* modes – zero latency and linear phase. Zero latency filter adds, like the name states, zero latency, whereas linear phase mode really depends on sample-rate but typically adds about 20ms of latency. These numbers hold true in plugin form. Systemwide, however, has the variable of driver introduced latency which is set on top of the filter latency (zero for Zero latency and approx 20ms for linear phase mode) so the numbers for actual Systemwide latency can vary depending on CPU load, hardware specs etc. Sometimes on MacOS, latency can get up to very high numbers which we are investigating at the moment.

What about loudness? Will this work in post production, for instance?

Some of you are obviously concerned about loudness as you work on projects where that’s important. Here’s an explanation from Sonarworks:

So what we do in terms of loudness as a dynamic range character is – nothing. What we do apply is overall volume reduction to account for the highest peak in correction to avoid potential clipping of output signal. This being said, you can turn the feature off and have full 0dBFS volume coming out of our software, controlled by either physical or virtual volume control.

Which headphones are supported?

There’s a big range of headphones with calibration profiles included with Sonarworks Reference. Right now, I’ve got that folder open, and here’s what you get at the moment:


AKG K72, K77, K121, K141 MKII, K240, K240 MKII, K271 MKII, K550 MKII, K553 Pro, K612 Pro, K701, K702, K712 Pro, K812, Q701

Apple AirPods

Audeze KCD-2, LCD-X

Audio-Technica ATH-M20x, M30x, M40x, M50x, M70x, MSR7, R70x

Beats EP, Mixr, Pro, Solo2, Solo3 wireless, Studio (2nd generation), X Average

Beyerdynamic Custom One Pro, DT 150, DT 250 80 Ohm, DT 770 Pro (80 Ohm, 32 Ohm PPRO, 80 Ohm Pro, 250 Ohm Pro), DT 990 Pro 250 Ohm, DT 1770 Pro, DT 1990 Pro (analytical + balanced), T 1

Blue Lola, Mo-Fi (o/On+)

Bose QuietComfort 25, 35, 35 II, SoundLink II

Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless

Extreme Isolation EX-25, EX-29

Focal Clear Professional, Clear, Listen Professional, Spirit Professional

Fostex TH900 mk2, TX-X00

Grado SR60e, SR80e

HiFiMan HE400i

HyperX Cloud II

JBL Everest Elite 700

Koss Porta Pro Classic

KRK KNS 6400, 8400

Marshall Major II, Monitor

Master & Dynamic MH40

Meze 99, 99 NEO

Oppo PM-3

Philips Fidelio X2HR, SHP9500

Phonen SMB-02

Pioneer HDJ-500

Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2

PreSonus HD 7

Samson SR850

Sennheiser HD, HD 25 (&0 Ohm, Light), HD-25-C II, HD 201, HD 202, HD 205, HD 206, HD 215-II, HD 280 Pro (incl. new facelift version), HD 380 Pro, HD 518, HD 598, HD 598 C, HD 600, HD 650, HD 660 , HD 700, HD 800, HD 800 S, Moometum On-Ear Wireless, PX 100-II

Shure SE215, SRH440, SRH840, SRH940, SRH1440, SRH1540, SRH1840

Skullcandy Crusher (with and without battery), Hesh 2.0

Sony MDR-1A, MDR-1000X, MDR-7506, MDR-7520, MDR-CD900ST, MDR-V150, MDR-XB450, MDR-XB450AP, MDR-XB650BT, MDR-XB950AP, BDR-XB950BT, MDR-Z7, MDR-XZ110, MDR-ZX110AP, MDR-ZX310, MR-XZ310AP, MDR-ZX770BN, WH-1000MX2

Status Audio CB-1

Superlux HD 668B, HD-330, HD681

Ultrasone Pro 580i, 780i, Signature Studio

V-Moda Crossfade II, M-100

Yamaha HPH-MT5, HPH-MT7, HPH-MT8, HPH-MT220

So there you have it – lots of favorites, and lots of … well, actually, some truly horrible consumer headphones in the mix, too. But I not lots of serious mixers like testing a mix on consumer cans. The advantage of doing that with calibration is presumably that you get to hear the limitations of different headphones, but at the same time, you still hear the reference version of the mix – not the one exaggerated by those particular headphones. That way, you get greater benefit from those additional tests. And you can make better use of random headphones you have around, clearly, even if they’re … well, fairly awful, they can be now still usable.

Even after that long list, I’m sure there’s some stuff you want that’s missing. Sonarworks doesn’t yet support in-ear headphones for its calibration tools, so you can rule that out. For everything else, you can either request support or if you want to get really serious, opt for individual mail-in calibration in Latvia.


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Bitwig Studio 2.5 beta arrives with features inspired by the community

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

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

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

Also in this release:

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

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

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

Other improvements:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What it’s like calibrating headphones and monitors with Sonarworks tools

No studio monitors or headphones are entirely flat. Sonarworks Reference calibrate any studio monitors or headphones with any source. Here’s an explanation of how that works and what the results are like – even if you’re not someone who’s considered calibration before.

CDM is partnering with Sonarworks to bring some content on listening with artist features this month, and I wanted to explore specifically what calibration might mean for the independent producer working at home, in studios, and on the go.

That means this isn’t a review and isn’t independent, but I would prefer to leave that to someone with more engineering background anyway. Sam Inglis wrote one at the start of this year for Sound on Sound of the latest version; Adam Kagan reviewed version 3 for Tape Op. (Pro Tools Expert also compared IK Multimedia’s ARC and chose Sonarworks for its UI and systemwide monitoring tools.)

With that out of the way, let’s actually explain what this is for people who might not be familiar with calibration software.

In a way, it’s funny that calibration isn’t part of most music and sound discussions. People working with photos and video and print all expect to calibrate color. Without calibration, no listening environment is really truly neutral and flat. You can adjust a studio to reduce how much it impacts the sound, and you can choose reasonably neutral headphones and studio monitors. But those elements nonetheless color the sound.

I came across Sonarworks Reference partly because a bunch of the engineers and producers I know were already using it – even my mastering engineer.

But as I introduced it to first-time calibration product users, I found they had a lot of questions.

How does calibration work?

First, let’s understand what calibration is. Even studio headphones will color sound – emphasizing certain frequencies, de-emphasizing others. That’s with the sound source right next to your head. Put studio headphones in a room – even a relatively well-treated studio – and you combine the coloration of the speakers themselves as well as reflections and character of the environment around them.

The idea of calibration is to process the sound to cancel out those modifications. Headphones can use existing calibration data. For studio speakers, you take some measurements. You play a known test signal and record it inside the listening environment, then compare the recording to the original and compensate.

Hold up this mic, measure some whooping sounds, and you’re done calibration. No expertise needed.

What can I calibrate?

One of the things that sets Sonarworks Reference apart is that it’s flexible enough to deal with both headphones and studio monitors, and works both as a plug-in and a convenient universal driver.

The Systemwide driver works on Mac and Windows with the final output. That means you can listen everywhere – I’ve listened to SoundCloud audio through Systemwide, for instance, which has been useful for checking how the streaming versions of my mixes sound. This driver works seamlessly with Mac and Windows, supporting Core Audio on the Mac and the latest WASAPI Windows support, which is these days perfectly useful and reliable on my Windows 10 machine. (There’s unfortunately no Linux support, though maybe some enterprising user could get that Windows VST working.)

On the Mac, you select the calibrated output via a pop-up on the menu bar. On Windows, you switch to it just like you would any other audio interface. Once selected, everything you listen to in iTunes, Rekordbox, your Web browser, and anywhere else will be calibrated.

That works for everyday listening, but in production you often want your DAW to control the audio output. (Choosing the plug-in is essential on Windows for use with ASIO; Systemwide doesn’t yet support ASIO though Sonarworks says that’s coming.) In this case, you just add a plug-in to the master bus and the output will be calibrated. You just have to remember to switch it off when you bounce or export audio, since that output is calibrated for your setup, not anyone else’s.

Three pieces of software and a microphone. Sonarworks is a measurement tool, a plug-in and systemwide tool for outputting calibrated sound from any source, and a microphone for measuring.

Do I need a special microphone?

If you’re just calibrating your headphones, you don’t need to do any measurement. But for any other monitoring environment, you’ll need to take a few minutes to record a profile. And so you need a microphone for the job.

Calibrating your headphones is as simple as choosing the make and model number for most popular models.

Part of the convenience of the Sonarworks package is that it includes a ready-to-use measurement mic, and the software is already pre-configured to work with the calibration. These mics are omnidirectional – since the whole point is to pick up a complete image of the sound. And they’re meant to be especially neutral.

Sonarworks’ software is pre-calibrated for use with their included microphone.

Any microphone whose vendor provides a calibration profile – available in standard text form – can also use the software in a fully calibrated mode. If you have some cheap musician-friendly omni mic, though, those makers usually don’t do anything of the sort in the way a calibration mic maker would.

I think it’s easier to just use these mics, but I don’t have a big mic cabinet. Production Expert did a test of generic omni mics – mics that aren’t specifically for calibration – and got results that approximate the results of the test mic. In short, they’re good enough if you want to try this out, though Production Expert were being pretty specific with which omni mics they tested, and then you don’t get the same level of integration with the calibration software.

Once you’ve got the mics, you can test different environments – so your untreated home studio and a treated studio, for instance. And you wind up with what might be a useful mic in other situations – I’ve been playing with mine to sample reverb environments, like playing and re-recording sound in a tile bathroom, for instance.

What’s the calibration process like?

Let’s actually walk through what happens.

With headphones, this job is easy. You select your pair of headphones – all the major models are covered – and then you’re done. So when I switch from my Sony to my Beyerdynamic, for instance, I can smooth out some of the irregularities of each of those. That’s made it easier to mix on the road.

For monitors, you run the Reference 4 Measure tool. Beginners I showed the software got slightly discouraged when they saw the measurement would take 20 minutes but – relax. It’s weirdly kind of fun and actually once you’ve done it once, it’ll probably take you half that to do it again.

The whole thing feels a bit like a Nintendo Wii game. You start by making a longer measurement at the point where your head would normally be sitting. Then you move around to different targets as the software makes whooping sounds through the speakers. Once you’ve covered the full area, you will have dotted a screen with measurements. Then you’ve got a customized measurement for your studio.

Here’s what it looks like in pictures:

Simulate your head! The Measure tool walks you through exactly how to do this with friendly illustrations. It’s easier than putting together IKEA furniture.

You’ll also measure the speakers themselves.

Eventually, you measure the main listening spot in your studio. (And you can see why this might be helpful in studio setup, too.)

Next, you move the mic to each measurement location. There’s interactive visual feedback showing you as you get it in the right position.

Hold the mic steady, and listen as a whooping sound comes out of your speakers and each measurement is completed.

You’ll make your way through a series of these measurements until you’ve dotted the whole screen – a bit like the fingerprint calibration on smartphones.

Oh yeah, so my studio monitors aren’t so flat. When you’re done, you’ll see a curve that shows you the irregularities introduced by both your monitors and your room.

Now you’re ready to listen to a cleaner, clearer, more neutral sound – switch your new calibration on, and if all goes to plan, you’ll get much more neutral sound for listening!

There are other useful features packed into the software, like the ability to apply the curve used by the motion picture industry. (I loved this one – it was like, oh, yeah, that sound!)

It’s also worth noting that Sonarworks have created different calibration types made for real-time usage (great for tracking and improv) and accuracy (great for mixing).

Is all of this useful?

Okay, disclosure statement is at the top, but … my reaction was genuinely holy s***. I thought there would be some subtle impact on the sound. This was more like the feeling – well, as an eyeglass wearer, when my glasses are filthy and I clean them and I can actually see again. Suddenly details of the mix were audible again, and moving between different headphones and listening environments was no longer jarring – like that.

Double blind A/B tests are really important when evaluating the accuracy of these things, but I can at least say, this was a big impact, not a small one. (That is, you’d want to do double blind tests when tasting wine, but this was still more like the difference between wine and beer.)

How you might actually use this: once they adapt to the calibrated results, most people leave the calibrated version on and work from a more neutral environment. Cheap monitors and headphones work a little more like expensive ones; expensive ones work more as intended.

There are other uses cases, too, however. Previously I didn’t feel comfortable taking mixes and working on them on the road, because the headphone results were just too different from the studio ones. With calibration, it’s far easier to move back and forth. (And you can always double-check with the calibration switched off, of course.)

The other advantage of Sonarworks’ software is that it does give you so much feedback as you measure from different locations, and that it produces detailed reports. This means if you’re making some changes to a studio setup and moving things around, it’s valuable not just in adapting to the results but giving you some measurements as you work. (It’s not a measurement suite per se, but you can make it double as one.)

Calibrated listening is very likely the future even for consumers. As computation has gotten cheaper, and as software analysis has gotten smarter, it makes sense that these sort of calibration routines will be applied to giving consumers more reliable sound and in adapting to immersive and 3D listening. For now, they’re great for us as creative people, and it’s nice for us to have them in our working process and not only in the hands of other engineers.

If you’ve got any questions about how this process works as an end user, or other questions for the developers, let us know.

And if you’ve found uses for calibration, we’d love to hear from you.

Sonarworks Reference is available with a free trial:

And some more resources:

Erica Synths our friends on this tool:

Plus you can MIDI map the whole thing to make this easier:

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Reason 10.2: “Yes, finally” to some stuff users want

Reason 10.2 is out now as a free update to Reason 10. It’s a “workflow” update – but those additions will likely be welcomed by current users.

I’ll spare you the GIFs, but the enhancements are detailed in a blog post from earlier this month:

Reason 10.2 is coming – see what’s new [Propellerhead Blog]

Basically, you get multi-lane editing (so you can finally edit multiple MIDI tracks at once, just as recently added in Ableton Live 10, also a bit overdue).

And you can adjust multiple faders at once in the mixer.

And you can snap to an adaptive grid (the grid changes with zoom level, though existing fixed grids remain).

There’s also an “Add Device” button.

The update you may be waiting for is still forthcoming. Later this year, Propellerhead promises improvements to VST integration. (It seems after years of being a holdout against plug-ins, Propellerhead did demonstrate some of what they’d previously argued – that plug-ins are tough to support and can add performance wrinkles.)

But it’s good to hear they’re working on it. Here’s what they write:

Meanwhile, work on VST performance is ongoing. The result of this work will be released as a separate free update later this year. The reason it’s a separate release is because the performance work is an extensive rewrite of the inner workings of the program and requires an expert task force.

Update news:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modular racks let you create custom signal processing chains.

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

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

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

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

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

LFO Modifiers now work with plug-ins.

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

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

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

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Bitwig Studio 2.4: crazy powerful sampler, easier control

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

But there’s more:

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

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

Sequence modulation

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

ParSeq-8 is a step sequencer for modulation.

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

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

Note Counter.

Note FX Layer.

More powerful with controllers

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

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

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

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

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

And more stuff

Also in this release:

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

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

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From Japan, an ambient musician on solitude and views of the sea

As haunting, oceanic wells of sound sing achingly in the background, Tokyo-based ambient musician Chihei Hatakeyama talks in a new documentary about what inspires him.

The creative series toco toco follows the musician to the places and views that inspired the images of his music – including gazing into the sea. Of that view, he says:

“There wasn’t any gap in space, it was translating directly into music.”

Filmmaker Anne Ferrero writes to share her work, as she follows the artist “to the roots of his universe, in the Kamakura and Enoshima areas, where he grew up.”

And he speaks of the beauty in ambient music, and its connection to nature. And while solitude in computer music is often seen as something of a liability, here he talks about its importance – as he uses that laptop as a box for editing improvisations.

Being able to create music alone made it more personal. The music that I wanted to make could now express my mind – what I felt inside.

The film is subtitled in English, with Japanese audio. (Don’t forget to turn CC on.)

It’s a deeply personal film all over, and even talks about the journey from electronic sounds on dancefloors to the quieter, more contemplative world of ambient music. And he finds that moment of liberating himself from the beat – not by trying to copy what people would call ambient music on a superficial level, but by fumbling his way to this solution after eliminating obstacles to expression.

Hey, I love both modes of music, myself, so I can appreciate that balance. It’s just rained here in Berlin, and I’m reminded of that feeling of relief when it rains after long periods of sun … and visa versa. Maybe music is the same way.

Have a watch, and I’m sure you’ll want to pick up a guitar or laptop, or go to a beach, or take a personal field trip to the museum and stare at paintings.

Painting with colors in sound … filling the world with oceans of your own expression. What could be more lovely?

Now, an insane amount of beautiful music:

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Pretend you can play and produce drums with this free plug-in

Spitfire’s latest LABS plug-in release is out, with the theme “DRUMS.” Here’s how to get started with it – and why it may make you feel like you magically know how to actually play and properly record an acoustic drum kit.

Okay, apologies – I’m projecting a little. Some of you I know can do both those things. Me, that counts as “not at all,” and “yes, but only in theory, please hire an actual producer.”

But DRUMS packs an enormous amount of nuance into a deceptively simple, two-octave mapping. Ever had a chocolate sundae and said, you know, I’m really kind of about the cherry and this bit of peanuts covered in chocolate most? You get the feeling that that’s what’s in this pack.

Here’s a sample. This is literally just me mucking around on the keys. (I ran the sound through the Arturia TridA-Pre, from Arturia’s 3 Preamps You’ll Actually Use set, just to add some dynamics.)

Ready to get started? Here’s where to begin.

Get going with LABS – don’t fear the app!

If you missed our first story on LABS, we covered its launch, which came with a lovely soft piano and chamber string ensemble through vintage mic:

LABS is a free series of sound tools for everyone, and you’ll want it now

Your first step is to head to the LABS site, and choose the free sound you want. If you created a login before at Spitfire, that will work for “DRUMS” – just click ‘get’ and login. If you haven’t got a login yet, you can register with an email address and password.

I find two things scare people about free software, and I understand your frustration, so to allay those fears:

They’re not signing you up for a newsletter, unless you want one!

Some useful assistance, not annoying intrusion. The app is only there to aid in downloading. It doesn’t launch at startup or anything like that. Basically, it’s there because it’s better than your Web browser – it will actually put the files in the right place and let you choose where those hundreds of megs go, and it will finish a download if interrupted. (That’s especially useful on a slow connection.)

Specifically on Windows, you can make sure it finds your correct VST folder so you don’t load up your DAW and wonder where the heck it went.

Grabbing the app helps make sure you complete the download, and that it goes into the right place. The app downloads and installs the content in one step. It doesn’t load on startup or do anything else weird.

Another key feature of the Spitfire app – you can select where the sample content goes, so you can use an external drive if you’re short on space on your internal drive.

Give it a play!

Once LABS is installed, you have your drum kit, which Spitfire says is the creation of drummer Oliver Waton and engineer Stanley Gabriel.

That minimal interface shouldn’t worry you – have a fiddle with the controls and dial in whatever variation you like. Most of the nuance to the LABS kits is really in actually playing them, so the best idea here is to connect your favorite velocity-sensitive instrument and play, whether that’s a drum pad controller or keyboard or whatever else you have handy.

In my case, I wirelessly paired a ROLI Seaboard Block. It’s conveniently also two octaves, so you just need to set the octave range to match the DRUMS.

As opposed to sprawling sample libraries, LABS are simple and compact, so don’t worry – just go ahead and play.

Beginning some ideas with a familiar sound can also be the basis of doing something a bit radical, because a well-recorded acoustic source will give you a rich sonic range – and dares you to make it sound like something else. So, using another bit of free add-on we’ve covered lately, I loaded up the Creative Extensions Pack from Ableton, which works in Live Suite 10 or any copy of Live 10 with a Max for Live license.

To bend this into experimental/IDM territory, I stacked on various effects, including reversing and gating the sound and adding spectral ambience … generally mucking about. The idea was to keep the character of the drum source, but make it sound like spacetime had gone a bit amiss.

Pairing conventional sounds with out-there effects is one way to go. Ableton Live 10 users can grab another freebie (for Suite or Max for Live). Choose Creative Extensions from the browser and download.

And here is a not terribly-well-thought-out effects chain using those Creative Extensions. Could your cat do better? Possibly. I like cats, though. Give those felines some production opportunities, too.

This time I finished off the sound using Native Instruments’ VC 76 compressor and Enhanced EQ.

But I was just having a bit of fun. So I’d love to hear what you come up with using these sorts of sounds. One of the common complaints about production today is that everyone has easy access to sounds and very often the same tools. But let’s use that – let’s see what you all come up with.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to better record drums, I’m happy to ask Spitfire about how they recorded this set, too. Playing with it actually does make me want to grab some mics and a kit, too.

Feel free to post thoughts, questions, and sound links in comments.

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Deadbeat’s secret sauce Reaktor picks for “weirdo” production

It’s time for another trip into the strange and wonderful world of artist-created Reaktor ensembles. This time, our guide is dub techno maestro Deadbeat.

The Canadian-born, Berlin-based Scott Monteith is an artist whose chops are at peak maturity, from timbre to rhythm, recording to mix. And Scott’s latest, Wax Poetic For This Our Great Resolve, is both more personal — pulling from inspirational texts from friends — and more sonically intimate. The entire album sounds open and airy and organic, thanks to using acoustic re-recording of electronic elements. Every percussion hit, every synth line was either recorded in real space in the studio or recorded out of the box and into that open space and then miked.

Scott and I got to spend a pleasurably leisurely interview talking about the record, which I wrote up for Native Instruments’ blog:
Deadbeat on a return to hope, sound in real space

With all this focus on acoustic recoridng and re-recording, you’d think there wouldn’t be much to say about software – but you’d be wrong. There’s yet more shade and color around these sounds that’s produced by synthetic processing, a whole lot of it in Reaktor.

“There’s tons and tons of extra stuff that you would normally delete in vocal takes or guitar takes or whatever that ended up as sauce for feeding vocoders or feeding [Reaktor ensemble] grainstates,” says Scott, “or even some of the real classic [ensembles].” You’re hearing some of that in the hyperreal, clear color of the arrangements and mix.

“I think it’s nice to treat that stuff completely independently,” Scott says, “and then you end up with this bank of stuff that you know is going to be in key. And it’s somehow relatable, whether it be melodically or aesthetically – because you’ve fed it this stuff from a particular track. And then you go back to arrangement mode, because then I can take off my sound designer’s hat and put on my arrangers’ hat.”

Scott is confident enough in his skills to give that secret sauce away, so here’s a tour. Some of these are some long-lost gems of the library, too, so don’t expect to find them just by sorting for the latest or most popular ensembles. Some of these were used on this particular record, others represent a related techniques but have been used on other productions.

Gabriel Mulzer
Spectral vocoder/delay/reverb

“I’m using that just to add color to things. I love vocoders, period.

It’s like taking the vocals of Gudrun talking or Fatima talking, and using that as the modulator and the carrier signal being the chords in the track. Or it could also be the extra recording of the high hats in the room, and vocoding the vocals with that. So, then you have something rhythmic that’s the same, and in the same air, but then can be free as its own track. Or taking the guitar or the bass…”

GRIP Grain Cloud Synth
Uwe G. Hoenig
Polyphonic granular synth

“This is a playable one – this is one you can play with the keyboard. And you can load the oscillator is whatever you load into it.”

Denis Gökdag / zynaptiq, Native Instruments
Modular multi-effects
KOMPLETE effect; available à la carte or in KOMPLETE ULTIMATE

“It’s fantastic. It’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful combination of super, super simple granular synth process combined with lovely lush reverb. And it’s just amazing.”

The Swarm
Eduard Telik
Random sound generator

“There goes a few hours of time,” says Scott. “This whole frequency modulation and detune and weird shit that’s going on in these guys is amazing.”

Ultimate Reverb
Guenther Fleischmann

“There’s this preset – ‘Coming Up From Hell.’ I use that a lot – I’ve been using that for years. If you’re rolling along, and you want to create density, it’s like, okay, flip this into the Ultimate Reverb, and all of a sudden you’ve got this underlying loud of ffffoooooosssssh. You’ve made things thick without adding another element.

And that with some sort of distortion, and some sort of sidechain compression to make sure that it doesn’t get in the way of anything — all of a sudden, you’ve created raging hell.”

Martin Brinkmann
Granular effect processor

Don’t forget the granular Reaktor ensemble that started the craze. Martin’s landmark granular processor has had an influence even outside the Reaktor community on imagining how grain processing effects can be used as instruments.

Hacking together custom ensembles

The biggest advantage of using Reaktor as a modular environment is, you can hack together what you need if a particular tool doesn’t do exactly what you want. Scott long ago made his name as a Reaktor patcher, but don’t feel obligated to achieve mastery — even he doesn’t necessarily go that route now. “The last one that I did … this thing [Deadbeats] 13 years ago.”

The aforementioned Grain Cloud synth, for instance, he used to substitute oscillators inside a drum machine. Or with granular processors, he’s swapped a sample player with a live input, as on The Swarm. These aren’t complicated hacks – you barely need to know how to operate Reaktor to pull them off. But they then open worlds of new performance and sound design possibilities.

In another instance, Scott had a happy accident hacking mmmd1, the “morphing minimal drum machine” by grainstates creator Martin Brinkmann. That ensemble includes a series of assignable X/Y controllers which can modulate the filter, bitcrush, and so on, with step-based sequencing.

Scott tried applying a child ensemble with a crossfader for interpolating between presets – and that’s when he was surprised. “Because this is step-based, morphing between presets on this thing, as you would go across, it would go thththththththththt …. and you would get these totally twisted, glitchy crossfade things.”

Thanks, Scott! Got more favorite Reaktor ensembles, other granular tools, or the like? Let us know in comments.

Deadbeat on a return to hope, sound in real space [NI Blog]

Deadbeat Wax Poetic For This Our Great Resolve [Review: XLR8R]

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Maschine adds loop recording, controls Apple Logic, more

Native Instruments quietly stuffed a bunch of little improvements into its Maschine groove production tool today – including the ability to control Apple Logic and at last, to record loops.

It’s only called 2.7.3, but it shows NI are continuing to smooth out workflow and integration in their software.

The big one: loop recording. So, Maschine already had a Sampler device, for recording workflows, and recently added the much-requested ability to play audio via the Audio plug-in. What you couldn’t do – which obviously you want to do – was record into that loop mode. Now, at last, there’s a LOOP recording mode in the Record tab.

It also works the way you need to for live use (or spontaneous use in the studio). Recording is quantized to the start of the pattern, and once you finish recording, the loop automatically starts playing back from the Audio device.

So you can record loops with this thing. It’s about time. The whole point of Maschine from the start was to incorporate the ease of working with hardware. And what do people do with hardware? They sample, and record loops.

Of course, since it’s also a plug-in host, you can grab those loops from plug-ins, Reaktor Blocks patches, whatever – in addition to mic and external inputs.

NI overcame another important limitation of the way they had first implemented their new Audio plug-in. You can now enable and disable playback of the Audio device per Pattern, and enable/disable via the STEP page on hardware. This also means you can put full tracks in your set (if you set the loop length long enough).

That’s a big deal, too: now you can take full tracks and stems and mix them in with a set, essential for hybrid use – without combining Maschine with other software.

I’d like to see more control over how the Audio plug-in works; it’s still sometimes mind-bogglingly primitive. But this is a start.

Maschine MK3 updates

As you might expect, NI are also bringing some additional enhancements to their new MK3 hardware. It now has an Ideas View (a lot like Ableton Live’s Session View, but rooted in the Maschine paradigm). And its 4-wheel encoder can now do some clever event editing – select, nudge, pitch-shift, and change length of notes. That’s another reason not to look at your computer – try hiding it under the stage.

You can also record events directly, and MK3 gets velocity curves, too.

Apple Logic Pro integration

You can access the Logic mixer via the MK3 hardware, too, with a new template, as well as adjust pan, mute, and solo. You can also trigger Logic’s Play / Stop / Record, Quantize, Undo / Redo, Automation Toggle, Tap Tempo, and Loop Toggle General.

This sort of functionality is already on NI’s keyboard line, and it’s hugely useful when you want to track ideas quickly. Plus, with Apple adding some great effects, sequencers, and the like, the one thing they’re lacking is a really good drum machine. So the Maschine – Logic combo I think could be terrific; I’ll be using it to start some new ideas. (Sorry, Ultrabeat and Drummer but … you’re just not really my thing.)

Sculpture techno? Yes.

Having used NI’s Maschine Jam template, I hope we also see enhanced Ableton Live support in the future.

More scales

NI keeps adding more scales to Komplete Kontrol; now those come to Maschine, too.

Other fixes and tweaks abound. This was a lot in just a small update, so I’m curious what’s next.

Note: as with a lot of vendors, NI will drop 32-bit plug-in and standalone support. So if you’re on an old machine, you may want to maintain the last version. 64-bit is the way to go, though: more use of memory, and fewer crashes when you run out of it. It’s time. (You can read what I wrote about Ableton’s move to 64-bit only for an explanation of why it makes sense. The same holds here.)

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