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.
Centralized encoders, grids for saving and recall, sequenced presets, an LFO, gesture recording – this unit does a lot.
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.
Okay, summertime, looks like we’ll have some modular in the park. Everything is running off that little power bank you see with the USB cable popping out of it.
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:
Forget for a second that Pioneer is the CDJ and DJM company. Their latest TORAIZ goes a radical new direction – making what might be the biggest mainstream hardware sequencer since the MPC and Octatrack.
But a deep sequencer with MIDI and CV, for 599€ (awaiting US pricing details) – that sounds like a blockbuster.
The rise of gear for making sound has left a fairly significant hole in the market. You’ve got tons of drum machines, tons of synths, tons of grooveboxes, and then a whole black hole of semi-modular and fully-modular instruments.
But what about making, you know – a song? There aren’t so many choices for actually pulling together rhythms and melodies on all those toys. You’ve got a mishmash of internal sequencing features and devices capable of multiple tracks. But there are limited options beyond that – used Akai MPCs, the Elektron Octatrack, and Arturia BeatStep Pro being most common. The Arturia piece is cheap and cheery – and shows up astride an amazing number of fancy Eurorack rigs, prized for its simplicity. But having just dusted mine off, I find its sequencing really limited.
So here’s the surprise: the company that promises a really deep sequencer, one with elaborate rhythmic features that happily get you off the grid and bending time if you want, is … Pioneer.
The SQUID is certainly in a funny position. On one hand, it’s a natural for real gearheads and synth nerds. On the other, it’s a Pioneer product, so you can bet marketing and DJ press alike will try to say this is about “DJs getting into production” or … something. (No! DJs! Stop while you still can have a social life and, like, money in your bank account! You’ll become broke antisocial hermits like the rest of us!)
But – who cares who this is for? What it does appears to do … is a hell of a lot. And while it might actually have too many features (that will be I think the main element of any test), what’s surprising is that it isn’t a me-too sequencer. Despite the pads and step structure, Pioneer have made an effort to let musicians get off the grid and bend and warp time – so maybe drum machines can have soul again.
First, the predictable bit – it is a pad-based step sequencer, yes:
16 multicolored LED rubber pads with velocity sensitivity
Step record patterns
Live / real-time recording
Per-step automation recording (at least it seems that way – “parameter locks” or p-locks as known to users of other hardware)
Interpolation – this lets you set a beginning, middle, and end on steps and let the machine transition between them, a bit like creating automated envelopes
Harmonizer with up to six chords assigned to buttons
Chord mode with 18 built-in chord sets (I’m curious how customizable this is, as I’d rather the machine not make harmonies for me)
Transpose phrases on the fly
Up to five MIDI CCs on external devices
Randomizer (which covers everything, even CCs)
Pattern Set – this is interesting; it lets you lock in a combination of patterns into an arrangement, a bit like you can do with scenes in Ableton Live
And you can run sequences in different directions (bounce, reverse, whatever), as expected.
Multiple loops. Trigger probability – yeah, Pioneer are ready to take on Elektron here.
Already appealing and powerful, but it’s the real-time manipulation features that go in a new direction.
Speed modulation: look out, locked-bpm techno, because the SQUID can modulate speeds via six waveform shapes (triangle, sawtooth – please tell me there’s a random/S&H mode, too)
Groove bend: yes, there’s Swing, but there’s also “Groove Bend” which lets you use a slider to change timing. (I really hope there’s a way to optionally impact pitch, too, CDJ-style.)
Instant double-, half- speed triggers, too.
You can also shift the Scale and Arpeggiator knobs in real time, meaning… yeah, you can go super free jazz with this if you want.
There’s even an automatic mode that saves your jams even when you don’t hit record. (Ableton Live recently introduced this feature, joining a number of DAWs that have had it over the years.)
And yeah, it works with USB, MIDI, 2 sets of CV/gate, clock and DIN sync. It’s ready for your hardware from the 80s until now.
There’s even software for managing sequence patterns, projects, and MIDI clips – so you can save your work librarian style for live performances, and finish off tracks on the computer with patterns you made on the hardware.
I mean – we are sure this is a Pioneer product, right? Did someone get into our brains and make what we want?
I have a lot of questions. Step resolution seems fixed at 32nd notes, without mention of tuplets or other rhythms. I don’t see a listing for ppq resolution (the timing resolution of the sequencer). Performance reliability is something to test. Pioneer talks polyrhythms but I have some questions there.
But – wow. Yes. Let’s test this. Pioneer have so far given us some strange and mostly expensive “producer” devices lately, but this is different. This looks like it has the first shot of being the Pioneer gear every producer wants to buy – not just the Pioneer gear you use when you show up at the club. I can’t wait to get my hands on this so we can share with you what it does and how it might (or might not) fit your needs.
Obligatory promo video. Uh… someone stole Native Instruments’ typography and sci-fi light effects. But no matter – Pioneer made this device before NI did. (Okay, I’m buying the next round of beers in Kreuzberg after that comment, sorry, but it had to be said.)
The competition? It’s boutique, for sure, but the Synthstrom Deluge is the real rival:
It’s more compact than the Pioneer. And this really comes down to whether you want a 4×4 grid with a lot of dedicated triggers, or a whole bunch of pads and the Synthstrom’s nested editing capabilities. What’s really, really nice about the Deluge is, it has an internal synth engine and even sample playback. And ironically, that makes the Deluge better suited than Pioneer’s offering to taking a live project into a DJ booth – because you don’t have to reserve an entire table full of gear just to make sounds. That said, I think making a product dedicated to sequencing does free up the designers to focus on that workflow.
There should be room for both in the market; the workflow is very different, even apart from Synthstrom’s internal sound engine.
I feel bad I haven’t given the Deluge more time on CDM, so – now, no more excuses, I’ll get both these units in for a proper test.
Twisted Electrons move on from acid and chip synths to drum machines. And the deton8, for around three hundred bucks, packs a ton of personality and sound possibility in a cute, playable package.
Twisted Electrons made a name for themselves in fun little boxes and boards packed with 8-bit, chip music, and acid sounds. Those instruments all stand out for lots of sequencing features and hands-on playable options. So a drum machine is of course a natural next step.
But what a next step the deton8 is. Mixing samples and synthesis, 8-bit sounds and wavetable synth, custom kits, and a ton of control and performance, it promises to be one of the more fun packages we may see this year. There’s even a simple NES-style synth in there, so even though a compact bassline synth would be an obvious combination with this, you could even do a lot with just the voices in this hardware.
I’m terrifically eager to get my hands on this one. It’s now much clearer what deton8 is about thanks to a new video – and some tantalizing new details:
For live performance, what’s especially appealing is the sound knob, which has different characteristics for different sounds. That’s a lot more fun than menu diving to change sounds, or being limited to tweaking pitch and duration alone.
Oh yeah, even that decay knob is more fun than usual, since decay doubles as glitchy repeat “delay.”
And in keeping with Twisted’s legacy, this thing is packed with downsampling and bit reduction, which is a perfect match for drums. (Again, that’s especially live – there’s a reason those Game Boy parties got so wild. There’s something about squashing dynamic range and making things screaming and digital that can make people go nuts. I guess partying is about reducing bit depth, anyway, right?)
Stutter, reverse, retriggering, granular algorithms – there’s a bunch there to play and record. I imagine you might make this a primary instrument, or some icing on your existing drum machine … that you could use it for relatively subtle stuff, or go totally nuts.
And it’s eminently affordable. The deton8 is 255 EUR (that’s under US$300), or around 300EUR with VAT.
Here’s the full list of features. The big development was, at the last minute, Alex at Electron responded to overwhelming user requests to load your own samples. So that means in addition to multiple kits included in the box, you’ll be able to use a software editor to slice up and upload your own samples, as both loops and 1-shots – see screenshot.
(Dear Roland, please, please add this to the TR-8S, too! And … yeah, I can imagine the TR and Twisted Electrons would make a wonderfully psycho combo.)
16 patterns of 1-16 steps each
Chain up to 16 patterns in a row to make a song
8 Voices (Kick, Snare, Metal (hats), Clap, Can (tinny sounds), Tom, Nut (woody sounds), SYNTH (NES inspired triangle wavetable synthesizer, with arp that can be shaped to a square).
Two modes: Loop Mode (for breaks and melodic content, decay and tune is global) & Kit mode (individual tuning and decay per part)
Pitch and decay modulation per step on every voice
8 hands on Stutter modes: Beat repeat (with variable rate), Forward granular, Reverse granular, Pendulum granular (scratch), buzz/texture , random granular (noise generation), spin up, spin down
Forward & Reverse sample playback per track
Delay with variable delay time and pitch decay (upwards and downwards)
Ring mod effect with variable frequency
Global pitch shift
Real time pattern recording with optional metronome
Mute/Solo a track
Drive any voice into distortion
Sound variation knob for Kick (add sub), Snare (add noise/snappy), Hats (change texture) and Synth (arpeggiate)
Pump aka sidechain compression emulation (any track can “duck” the others for the pumping/breathing effect)
Pattern clean and randomize for accidental magical beats
It sounds like we should see a review unit in April. See you then.
There’s yet another firmware update for Novation’s Circuit, the inexpensive synth/drum groovebox. 1.8 adds new internal expression features like non-quantized recording, plus custom MIDI channels for use with external gear.
Firmware updates are not normally worth making front-page news, but there’s something unique about the unstoppable force of the Circuit.
It’s small. It’s cheap – still around US$350 new, and used for a lot less. It’s simple – the big surprise has been that what first appeared as a basic entry-level instrument has become a sleeper hit packing unexpected powers. And it just keeps adding firmware updates, at this point seeming more like the sort of thing we’d get from hacker users than from the manufacturer.
New in this build:
Record without quantizing. This one’s long overdue – sure, it’s nice that Circuit automatically quantizes for anyone who’s finger drumming skills suck, but it also takes the soul out of the music. Now you can choose.
Per-note velocity. This was another sort of oversight – because Circuit can have more than one note on the same step, but didn’t track the velocity for each note, you had multiple notes that were all stuck with the same velocity. Now each note has its own velocity.
Synth microsteps. Each step has up to six microsteps for still more rhythmic division.
Assignable MIDI channels. Synth 1, Synth 2, and Drums let you choose MIDI channel 1 to 15, useful if your outboard gear doesn’t let you select.
Also a new 1.8 feature (not sure when it was introduced) – CALC has grown a mustache. Erm, 1.8 video:
I think we’re now probably really mostly at the end of the life of Circuit in terms of what the hardware will even run, but it’s still worth noting this longer journey. And actually, just having these additional features might be reason to bring a unit out again, especially with outboard MIDI sequencing.
And there’s a lesson for more long-ter life for gear. MPC die-hards will likely have fond memories of JJ OS, an unofficial alternative firmware for the Akai MPC1000 and MPC2500. Now it’s time for that sort of mindset to apply to official releases.
And why not? Musicians love buying gear. If they got the sense that their hardware would get long-term support rather than being abandoned, they might actually buy more gear. And it’s clear the attention Novation lavished on Circuit has had a halo effect on the whole brand. So manufacturers, take note: musicians invest more in long-term love than they do in planned obsolescence.
So you do hope more manufacturers devote this kind of effort into updates. Novation have been a model for browser-based updates and editing, one you’d hope others follow. And it’d be great where manufacturers don’t devote resources themselves, that they find ways of leaving architectures open for users to modify and extend their gear – whether large manufacturers or small shops.
If it sounds like I may be leading up to discussions of that elsewhere, you bet I am. So other manufacturers working on updates and extensibility, or who would like to talk about those ideas generally, we’d love to hear from you.
I know a lot of the folks at Novation on a personal level well enough to say – they’re synth lovers, day job and after hours. What’s great about their latest video series is, some of that comes out.
Of course, yesterday we saw at least one user really hacking a Novation product, the Launchpad Pro, by modding the hardware using a firmware release from the company. And as one frustrated developer shouted at us in comments, that requires a bit of effort. (Not so much for you – you can download a file and use this easily – but modifying real-time firmware of hardware takes some practice!)
This isn’t quite that. These “hacks” have more to do with creatively abusing some features to push the hardware synths to the limit – Circuit, Circuit Mono Station, and Peak. The Circuit in particular has a user community that proved surprisingly advanced, squeezing everything they can out of this budget-priced hardware. But lately the more recent Mono Station and Peak are finding an equally devoted following.
Here’s the whole playlist, which covers sound design techniques (like oscillator sync – okay, that’s more a conventional technique than a ‘hack’), approaches to performance (patch change), working with clock and CV, and other features.
This raises a question, though – these are recent Novation products, so it’s pretty easy to get the manufacturer to do some hot tips.
But which instruments would you like to see covered – new or old – and in what way? What’s missing in tutorials? Let us know in comments. (I realize I just self-selected the answers to that with people who own these Novation synths, so I’ll keep asking this … but also curious what other stuff you Novation lovers own, too!)
It’s a little thing, but it adds a lot when you’re playing live: STEP LOOP lets you repeat steps in a sequence as they play, without losing time. Here’s how it works, along with other updates to Roland’s TR-8S drum machine.
Roland’s version 1.10 firmware is out today, and the big new feature is called STEP LOOP. The basic idea:
Hold down a step to make it repeat.
Hold down multiple steps, and they repeat in order.
Release that step or steps, and the sequence continues in time. (LED feedback shows you that the sequence position advances even as you have steps triggered.)
STEP LOOP impacts the whole sequence, not just one part. To activate it, hold down SHIFT and INST PLAY. To exit the mode, just trigger any other sequence mode. Here is in action. Notice the visual feedback as I enter the mode, and what happens when I trigger one or more steps.
It’s hugely useful, because it lets you make fills and variations out of the existing material of a sequence – and you don’t ever drop out of time. It’s not the first drum machine to do this (the ElecTribe ES2 from KORG springs to mind, among others), but it’s hugely useful in this context. The TR-8S is already a great live performance feature, thanks to its flexible routing and I/O, ample controls, faders for volume, and the ability to load custom samples. STEP LOOP is then a perfect addition for live jamming, because it’s intuitive and rhythmic.
The TR-8S has been getting a steady stream of updates – the other huge one in 1.10 is the ability to preview samples. Here’s a reverse-chronological timeline of some of the highlights.
1.10, August 2018
Preview sound samples when you import
1.03 April 2018
1.02 March 2018
Batch import kits
Import and export patterns and kits
Write direct to an SD card from the computer (“Storage Mode”)
All of this fits nicely together. It’s now really quick to chop up some samples and load them onto an SD card, then import them into custom kits. That makes the TR-8S’ own onboard hardware a useful way to build your own custom kits – even preferable in some way to working with software. And the combination of STEP LOOP with other features for making custom rhythms adds tons of variety. (Use LAST to make different length parts, add sub-step rhythms for more complex patterns, and use “auto fill” to mix things up even if your hands aren’t free.)
Oh, and you can sidechain external inputs. So I’ve used the TR-8S with my laptop and Native Instruments Maschine. I use MIDI out from Maschine to keep things in sync, and route audio from the computer into the TR-8S so I can sidechain that audio with the drum machine. I’ve also played with Roland’s own AIRA VT-3 vocal transformer, which also lends itself to sidechaining. But it’s an ideal live performance box.
For more resources on the TR-8S, check out Francis Preve’s blog – he’s done a great Master Class on the instrument for Electronic Musician, plus a custom kit for you to download:
Composer Alessio Santini is back with more tools for Ableton Live, both intended to help you get off the grid and generate elaborate, insane rhythms.
Developer K-Devices, Santini’s music software house, literally calls this series “Out Of Grid,” or OOG for short. They’re a set of Max for Live devices with interfaces that look like the flowcharts inside a nuclear power plant, but the idea is all about making patterns.
AutoTrig: multiple tracks of shifting structures and grooves, based on transformation and probability, primarily for beat makers. Includes Push 2, outboard modular/analog support.
TATAT: input time, note, and parameter structures, output melodic (or other) patterns. Control via MIDI keyboard, and export to clips (so you can dial up settings until you find some clips you like, then populate your session with those).
AutoTrig spits out multiple tracks of rhythms for beat mangling.
And for anyone who complains that rhythms are repetitive, dull, and dumb on computers, these tools do none of that. This is about climbing into the cockpit of an advanced alien spacecraft, mashing some buttons, and then getting warped all over hyperspace, your face melting into another dimension.
Here’s the difference: those patterns are generated by an audio engine, not a note or event engine per se. So the things you’d do to shape an audio signal – sync, phase distortion – then spit out complex and (if you like) unpredictable streams of notes or percussion, translating that fuzzy audio world into the MIDI events you use elsewhere.
TATAT is built more for melodic purposes, but the main thing here is, you can spawn patterns using time and note structures. And you can even save the results as clips.
And that’s only if you stay in the box. If you have some analog or modular gear, you can route audio to those directly, making Ableton Live a brain for spawning musical events outside via control voltage connection. (Their free MiMu6 Max for Live device handles this, making use of the new multichannel support in Max for Live added to Live 10).
Making sense of this madness are a set of features to produce some order, like snapshots and probability switches on AutoTrig, and sliders that adjust timing and probability on TATAT. TATAT also lets you use a keyboard to set pitch, so you can use this more easily live.
If you were just sent into the wilderness with these crazy machines, you might get a bit lost. But they’ve built a pack for each so you can try out sounds. AutoTrig works with a custom Push 2 template, and TATAT works well with any MIDI controller.
See, the problem with this job is, I find a bunch of stuff that would require me to quit this job to use but … I will find a way to play with Monday’s sequencing haul! I know we all feel the same pain there.
Context, built in Pure Data, is a free and open source modular sequencer that opens up new ways of thinking about melody, rhythm, and pattern.
Sequencers: we’ve seen, well, a lot of them. There are easy-to-use step sequencers, but they tend to be limited to pretty simple patterns. More sophisticated options go to the other extreme, making you build up patterns from scratch or program your own tools.
The challenge is, how do you employ the simplicity of a step sequencer, but make a wider range of patterns just as accessible?
Context is one clever way of doing that. Building on modular patching of patterns – the very essence of what made Max and Pd useful in the first place – Context lets you combine bits and pieces together to create sequencers around your own ideas. And a whole lot of ideas are possible here, from making very powerful sequencers quick to build, LEGO-style, to allowing open-ended variations to satisfy the whims of more advanced musicians and patchers.
Where this gets interesting in Pd specifically is, you can built little feedback networks, creating simple loopers up to fancy generative or interactive music machines.
It’s all just about sequencing, so if you’re a Pd nut, you can combine this with existing patches, and if not, you can use it to sequence other hardware or software instruments.
At first I thought this would be a simple set of Pd patches or something like that, but it’s really deep. There’s a copious manual, which even holds new users by the hand (including with some first-time issues like the Pd font being the wrong size).
You combine patches graphically, working with structures for timing and pattern. But you can control them not only via the GUI, but also via a text-based command language, or – in the latest release – using hardware. (They’ve got an example set up that works directly with the Novation Launchpad.)
So live coder, live musician, finger drummer, whatever – you’re covered.
There are tons of examples and tutorials, plus videos in addition to the PDF manual. (Even though I personally like reading, that gives you some extra performance examples to check out for musical inspiration!)
Once you build up a structure – as a network of modules with feedback – you can adapt Context to a lot of different work. It could drive the timing of a sample player. It could be a generative music tool. You could use it in live performance, shaping sound as you play. You might even take its timing database and timeline and apply it to something altogether different, like visuals.
But impressively, while you can get to the core of that power if you know Pd, all of this functionality is encapsulated in menus, modules, and commands that mean you can get going right away as a novice.
In fact… I really don’t want to write any more, because I want to go play with this.
Here’s an example of a performance all built up:
And you can go grab this software now, free (GPL v3) — ready to run on your Mac, Windows PC, Linux machine, or Raspberry Pi, etc.: