Balfa sucks us into dystopian reveries, as we premiere a new video – and see some of the home-built instruments making such wonderfully acerbic sounds.
First, let’s set the mood with the video, which pairs music artist Balfa with artist/animator Maria Mendes of Portugal. Whatever is rendering in that skin, that’s more or less how my body feels if I give it over to these sounds.
It’s for the track, from this month’s debut LP Perfecta Analogía De LaDecadencia. (I bet you got the translation of that one. Full track-by-track album description with extended commentary is on his site.)
Balfa is a Spanish artist who has crafted his debut LP, he says, as an autobiographical journey through Berlin over his four year stay here. (It’s true – those screams of agony you hear, that’s exactly the sound my soul makes when I’m stuck just before closing on a Saturday night in the produce section of the Wrangelstrasse Lidl. But I digress.)
What you get is the raw, exposed crackle and growl of electronics, giving way to abstract broken beats and fragmented landscapes. And then, unexpectedly, he’ll break into a furious, hyperactive groove, in between caves of ambient sound. Those occasional repetitions now qualify things to be called “techno,” but frankly – I’m totally okay with the ongoing dissolution of the term, if it means more experimentation.
The album has the unedited directness of late-night studio psychosis, but it’s always engaging and inventive. The full stream is on HATE; there’s a vinyl LP that then spills over on digital with a couple extra tracks, out earlier this month. Delilirium Candidum of Mexico made the artwork, in a sort of naive-folk cyberpunk style:
And the sounds are unpredictable and show this love for electricity in part because of Balfa’s extensive DIY work. Balfa has been building his own instruments, with a decidedly punk approach (as we like around these here parts at CDM).
Most interesting is this “Yafurula Generator, Revelwaver & Clock”:
There are three separate modules here. The main is the Yafurula Generator:
With 16 connections and 8 cables to patch them in many ways, it creates sequences of different length. It’s not an 8-step sequencer: the pattern length depends on the number of cables connected to each other.
The CLOCK is just that – with a single knob. And there’s a wave generator.
Actually burning out the oscillators is part of the appeal. He explains:
Best part of this one is the sound produced when it gets a pattern from the sequencer. There’s a special knob position that controls the first oscillator’s frequency and produces glitches when the resistor is hitting up too much. The noise produced is fucking great, but doesn’t last long. Each time this happens, the resistor starts to get hot faster and the noise is every time shorter and shorter, until the resistor gets burned and damaged and it needs to be exchanged for a new one.
If you ever share a studio with Balfa, and wonder why your resistors suddenly start disappearing… well…
There’s also this synth built into the shell of a PlayStation controller:
His live performance – as recently at Eufonic festival – is all about handmade devices and improvisation. On the album, it’s nice hearing those untethered textures mixed with song structures and sounds – a compelling split.
Reaktor lovers no longer have to be jealous of live coders – now they get a performance-ready, free, low-level tool of their own. Sonic mayhem awaits you.
Okay, first – “live coding” doesn’t necessarily have to mean typing. Text is just one way to represent software logic, that is – and tools like Reaktor (and Pd, and Max, and TouchDesigner) simply use a “dataflow” visual representation for that same logic.
Reaktor Blocks now gives you a high-level, Eurorack hardware-style way to patch. But there hasn’t been anything that can exploit the low-level, high power DSP capabilities of Reaktor in real-time.
Enter LiveCore. The goal: “inreasing liveness” when you work with Reaktor, so you can actually patch live. It’s the work of co-creators David Alexander (@freeeco) and Jack Armitage (@jarmitage), and it’s all free and open source on GitHub (provided you have a Reaktor license, of course). And it’s capable of some seriously awesome musical madness:
You actually don’t need to know that much about Core, Reaktor’s low-level DSP objects, to use LiveCore. It effectively makes Core more powerful for existing users, and gives an entry point to people who may have avoided it.
LiveCore gives you a set of modules, each insanely optimized (just a few bytes compiled, and efficient on your machine’s processor). In the first release you’ll find the following – and the developers say more are on the way:
Sequencer (quantizes phase Driver Output to make patterns)
Limiter (not like a traditional audio studio limiter – it’s actually more like a simple two-stage envelope)
Reader (intended for sample playback, from a table)
And, like, holy s*** this idea is cool. Everything is built around the Phase Driver – you make one-shot triggers or ramps with that, and then do all your signal mangling and such with the other modules to create interesting patterns for sounds.
It’s also refreshing to have a modular environment that isn’t tied up in a whole bunch of idiosyncratic hardware modules. If you look at the display, it’s very nerdy in appearance, sure. But the actual use of this is so simple that it seems open to exploration, even for people who don’t normally think about patterns in terms of signal flow.
And this looks like a really unique way to approach patterns. That Waveshaper, for instance, can be used to create irregularities and interest in patterns. (There’s also nothing stopping you from routing this to a patch built in Reaktor Blocks, if you really want to.)
This project is brand new, so please don’t immediately bug the developers with too many questions. Documentation is mostly still forthcoming, so you’re pretty much on your own. It seems like they’re progressing quickly, though, and I think you’ll agree – this was too cool not to immediately share.
Mobile keyboards continue to be fruitful and multiply. But Novation’s latest includes standalone mode, so it isn’t just a computer accessory – so let’s see how this category looks now.
Novation is the company that brought you the workhorse Launchpad grid, so anyone wanting a keyboard with colored grids on it would do well to take notice. But the MK3 adds some features its predecessors lacked – starting with the ability to work with gear minus the computer. New on the MK3:
Standalone mode and MIDI. There’s just a 3.5mm MIDI out jack, but combined with functionality that works without a host, you can now use this little keyboard with gear and not just a computer.
Fixed chord mode. Even for those of us with keyboard chops, this is useful on a small keyboard or in dance music contexts. New on the MK3.
Arpeggiator. New on the MK3, and puts the Novation in contention with offerings labeled Akai and Arturia.
Pitch/mod wheel. MK3 adds these as touch strips; the Launchkey 25/49/61 have pitch and mod, but it’s new on the Mini line.
RGB backlight. Yes, yes, more disco lights – but this also shows more information, matching colors to clips you’re launching and indicating status. Also new on MK3.
There’s also a Capture MIDI button, which lets you grab ideas even if you haven’t hit record. That’s now in Ableton Live, too, but it’s great that with the keyboard, this works everywhere.
And existing standard features from the Launchkey mini are here too:
Scene/clip launch (for Ableton and Novation software – this is a Launchpad).
Velocity sensitive keys and pads. Also standard on the Launchkey line. Velocity is actually missing on the Launchpad mini, meaning if you want triggering and velocity, this is a better bet.
There’s additionally now a bunch of bundled stuff from AAS, Softube, Spitfire Audio, XLN Audio and Klevgrand, and Novation now does a free membership. No, that isn’t some elaborate “cloud/subscription” feature – they just send you stuff from partners “every couple of months,” which may be more what you want, anyway.
This does make the Novation offering competitive, no doubt – not least because of Novation’s uniquely close relationship to Ableton Live, but likely just as useful with other DAWs (via Mackie HUI, which works with just about anything).
Here’s a hands-on review by loopop:
This also to me gives it a major edge over, say, Native Instruments’ keyboards, which work only when connected to a computer. That makes their Komplete Kontrol line desirable if you’re mainly interested in plug-in integration, but fairly useless if you want it to do double-duty with gear and not have to boot your laptop.
And that’s true of many other keyboards, too. Akai’s APC and MPK mini keyboards have some nice features and low prices, but they only work with a computer. (The MPK mini now has standalone sounds, but no MIDI out apart from USB.) And now Novation has added one of the features I like best on the MPK – the arpeggiator.
So this is really down to Arturia and Novation if you want something you can use on its own with your gear, as well as with a computer.
Arturia’s Keystep has a step sequencer and more dedicated arpeggiator functionality and controls. It lacks the pads and their accompanying trigger/DAW features.
So Novation gives you a still-usable arpeggiator but additional pad and trigger features.
We can talk a lot about engineering. But at some point, you pack vacuum tubes and DSP and chips together, and you get a delay that’s extreme enough to have Ninja Tune and Coldcut printed on it.
Yes, meet the Zen Delay, a new unique stereo delay from Erica Synths, but carrying the Ninja Tune label on it. So, yeah, the record industry is now so bad, we’re making analog delays. Wait – that’s kind of awesome. Stereo delays are more fun to some of us than records, anyway.
Now, I’ve known about this thing for quite a while, so if it seems like I’m raving, I’m not getting that from the press release. Dr. Walker, the underground acid master from Germany, first clued me in to this project with Matt Black, Ninja and Coldcut co-founder. Ninja’s logo is on it, but it’s really both the baby of Ingmar and Matt – part Air Liquide, part Coldcut – with all the sound elements from Riga’s Erica.
The idea is pretty simple: make a stereo delay that you can dial from gentle stereo warmth and space all the way up to extreme dub and screaming overdrive.
Erica sent me a late-stage prototype to test, and I spent a lot of time with it. The trick here is really the combination of analog and digital ingredients:
Stereo delay. You get a precise, full-ranging stereo dub delay, with as little as 1ms all the way up to 5 seconds, and it’s syncable.
And thanks to being digital, you can choose what that delay is – tape, tape pingpong, “digital” (sounding more or less like your basic digital delay), or a special fifth mode. (On mine, that fifth mode was something called “crossover,” which wasn’t terribly useful. Now, it’s a vintage delay with some nice lo-fi touches, I’m told, but I haven’t yet gotten to test it, as it’s actively in development.
Multi-mode filter. There’s a 24dB filter with resonance, which you can use in lowpass, highpass, or bandpass modes.
Valves! Valve saturation and overdrive are what really complete the package – you’ll spot that lovely tube popping out of the top.
Tempo controls. There’s CV in, plus MIDI in, plus tap tempo, so you can use external time, free time in milliseonds, or tap in a tempo.
There’s also clock division, in “beat” mode (which wasn’t available yet on the firmware I first tested). Push and hold the TAP button, and the delay time knob becomes clock divider/multiplier – down to an eighth of the beat, and up to 8 times the beat. (This will actually increase the potential length of the delay up to 50 seconds, so I guess fast bathroom breaks are now possible onstage!)
High-quality digital engine. High-spec ADC and DAC combine with a 24-bit, 48k digital engine.
So in other words, you get the precision and precise timing of the digital delay, plus the ability to choose different delay models in a single unit. But the overall impact is very, very dirty, when you want it to be – thanks to that analog overdrive. So when you want warmth or grime or total insanity, you can dial that in.
“Complete package” and “dialing” are also essential, because Erica have really leaned in to the heavy, vintage, metal feeling of the box. It’s 870 grams of metal here (almost two pounds), with one-knob-per control, and each knob is a big, smooth-feeling dial.
This is a box for your hands, not your feet – something that you do want to reach out and grab and adjust. That makes it ideal for studio and live production. I can absolutely see wanting this live.
Erica have been in this territory before, with their screaming Acidbox (based on the Polivoks filter, and sounding just as angry and Soviet), and the Fusionbox. The Acidbox is terrific, but it’s like having a giant bottle of hot sauce at the ready – it’s just this mental USSR-style filter. The Fusionbox is the nearer comparison, and it might still be the one you want, since it has flanger and ensemble stereo in addition to delay.
But make no mistake – as a dubby delay, the Zen Delay is just about perfect. Easy access to the Drive setting, the useful dubby delay modes, and that magical distortion make it something truly special. And it’s only something Erica could do – it combines their custom DSP, their lovely Latvian-made chips, and this analog into one box.
To anyone who says no one is “innovating,” maybe it’s just a misunderstanding of what musical innovation is. Erica’s creation here is a kind of new vintage. The starting point is some traditions, but constructed into something that you haven’t had before – which is basically what instrument design has always been about.
Pricing: pre-order at €499 + VAT, with the first 300 units with a limited edition Zen Delay t-shirt at a discounted €454 + VAT, from the Ninja Tune and Erica Synth websites.
Now, you may or may not have half a grand to spend on a delay that you won’t get until Christmas. But, if you do, this is clearly a nice way to go about it.
I’m editing some sounds and will post at the end of the day. But this short video with The Bug sums it up beautifully:
The press release claims this is the first effects unit to be produced by an electronic label, though I’m not entirely certain that’s correct. (Some CDM reader probably has a tiny label that ran off a few pedals, I’m guessing, before I jump out on a limb and go along with the claim!)
Tools and technology are often described as obstacles. But sometimes focusing on a tool can refine musical process and composition – as main(void) reveals.
And yes, the goal here is, as always, to cure writers’ block and finish something that you feel really happy with. Let’s first hear the finished item, as it’s got the kind of deliciously calculated, precise electronics that first drew me to Europe. It feels chilly, but still sensual – foreplay for cyborgs, you know, putting the tech in techno:
Working musicians all have to balance different gigs. An emerging role for us is working out how to take day jobs in designing tools and sound design, and use that experience to help us make our creative musical experience better.
In the case of main(void), aka Jan Ola Korte, it meant parlaying his work in 2018 designing sounds for Native Instruments’ TRK-01 into honing his music making process. He writes:
When I was working on the sound design for Native Instruments TRK-01 in 2018, I saved a few presets to use in my own music. These sounds and patterns ended up becoming the foundation of Stoicism, my first solo EP that was released Aug 21 on Spatial Cues. I had a little bit of a writer’s block situation, so I tried to resolve it by working within very restrictive parameters. All five original tracks on Stoicism use TRK-01 as the only sound source, processed through a number of effect plug-ins. Limiting myself in this way created a nicely coherent sound palette. Since I only used TRK-01’s internal sequencers, I arranged the tracks via automation in Ableton Live, which switched up my routine in an inspiring way. In the end, this workflow not only resolved the writer’s block but led to my most comprehensive release so far.
The basic idea of TRK-01 is to do just that – it puts some focused modules dedicated to dance production in a single place. There’s a kick module, bass, sequencer, and effects – but it’s not preset territory, as each module has a number of different engines. That is, the clever twist here is removing cognitive overhead (by simplifying and integrating the interface), without limiting your creative choices (since there is still a full spectrum of very different sounds you can get out of each module).
Even with that being said, you still might not be certain how to turn this into a completed track. Now, each person will find a different pathway there, but seeing how Jan works – a bit like working with a studio mate – can often give you that “ah ha, I could actually learn from this” feeling.
Jan asked if he should do a full narrated look at his working method. Answer: aber ja.
By the way, of course this also means that by keeping this focused, adapting the release to a live gig is far easier. You’ll be able to catch main(void) live at Griessmuhle, alongside some very special DJ friends like DJ Pete, Alinka, and Qzen, plus some great names, in late October in Berlin.
Hainbach may be known to most as the YouTuber with a bespectacled gaze, talking to you about weird old sound gear. But his ambient music is absolutely beguiling.
“Gestures,” his new LP this month, is a gauzy, sensitive reverie, as ghosts of piano loops slip between washes of delicate oscillator tones. Nothing is overthought or precious; there’s a gentle openness to each sound.
From the description:
Gestures is an album of disappearing and acceptance. The sense of loss is lifted by interweaving piano phrases, harmonized by fragile oscillators. Gentle movements above radio antennas guided the recording process, adding an incorporeal, dreamlike feel.
Cassettes are sold out, but vinyl is still available.
Digital is through today only name what you want, because the artist says he just wants it to be widely heard.
But maybe there’s the resonance between Hainbach’s art and his YouTube channel – he’s someone who is simply glad to welcome you into his home and share what he’s doing. So that transparency is there in his labor-of-love discussions of his tools, but also there in the easy intimacy of his mixes and compositions, too.
Here’s a new music jam from him, as well:
In art it is possible to create a sense of clarity that is difficult to attain in everyday life. That is a huge attraction to me. Here I am playing the Bellinger eKalimba and OP1 into the Ciat-Lonbarde Plumbutter, with Thyme generating lovely rhythms.
And in case you missed it, our last stop by Hainbach with our new MeeBlip geode:
Known for his collaborations with Dasha Rush, Lars Hemmerling shows off on her Fullpanda label his full spectrum of synthesis and production chops. We spoke to him about how he works.
In turns as murky as a depressive overcast German day, as cosmic as a starfield, as brutal as some smelting action, Lars’ latest is all about electronic range and attention to detail. This isn’t any quick fix production – each track is obsessively focused and exquisitely unique. These synths sounds brood and groove, enveloped in wet, fuzzy reverbs, like so much electronic ooze.
You don some waders and head into a swamp of sound in Lars’ work, in a pleasant way. But that to me also comes from his approach to his machines, in finding their organic, particular character. So I wanted to speak with him a bit about how he has found that direction.
Lars is a Berlin native and has been active since the early 90s raves of Rüdersdorf, but you may know him from LADA, his live duo with Dasha Rush. Dasha helms Fullpanda as a trove of underground techno-related (or at least techno-adjacent) fantasies. But Lars has also been active on DOCK records, a good home for ambient-to-leftfield-techno offerings he co-manages. And speaking of things only the in-the-know know, his under-the-radar duo with twin brother Gunnar has also cranked out unique productions. Gunnar takes on a fascination with vintage digital to match Lars’ digital analog proclivities, as Gunnar collects old chip machines like the Commodore and its SID. (Listening at bottom.)
PK: Can you tell us aboutyour approach to instrumentation, and how you assemble these track?
LH: Well, I used different sequencers and synths, but only hardware and no software instruments. I only used some software plug-ins from Eventide, Sonible and Waves in my DAW for the pre-master mix. Usually I record multitrack sessions with some additional overdub recordings. I also reroute synth lines out of the DAW to do a separate FX mix.
The first recorded FX tracks are mostly a blueprint of the sound character of the piece I am working on. This gives me the ability to work more subtle with EFX.
Gear, track by track
Kick: Elektron Analog Rytm
Synths: Yamaha TX802 (which I feed with my self-programmed sound bank from my DX7)
Sequencing: Elektron Octatrack
Pad sounds I played live
A2. “Releasing Strains”:
Drums: Analog Rytm
Synth: Behringer Model D (yes, and I am not afraid to say it)
The Rest is just FX modulation. There was another synth line of my Arp Odyssey, but I took it off.
B1. “Lars Wars”:
Drums: Analog Rytm
Synths (yes) Behringer Model D again and my Arp Odyssey
Sequencing: both Model D and Odyssey sequenced by the Eloquencer.
Here I did not use any sequencer (no MIDI or trigger gate), but instead VCA-Level on the Model D and Arp Odyssey FM, and LFO modulation, with pad sounds on the DX7 live. Surprisingly, the recording went so well that I didn’t need any EQ-ing in my DAW or any pre-master ambitions.
“Running away from myself” (Digital Bonus Track):
Analog Rytm and two Dave Smith Instruments Evolvers. [DSI is now again Sequential]
PK: I know this just because I’ve watched over my shoulder as you mixed my album, and because I know you resist going to plug-in crazy with anything else. You’re still making a lot of use of the Eventide stuff in finishing the album, yes?
LH: Yes. I truly love Eventide! I use the hardware like the Space Reverb and the Time Faktor Delay a lot, and as well the software plug-ins. Mostly I use the Blackhole, H3000 (Band Delays and Factory), and the Omnipressor on the stems of a recording. Eventide just works for me, and it will not change probably to the end of my days. They’re workflow-friendly and creative tools, from my perception. If you work with Eventide, you can feel and see that the engineers and developers are crazy, sound-dedicated freaks like you are. Or even more freaky.
[Ed.-That was not a paid placement in any way. I can vouch for this because every time I ask if Lars has seen a new processing plug-in, he reminds me that he’s perfectly satisfied with the Eventide stuff and tells me the importance of really learning to use one set of tools. -PK]
Can you talk about what inspired this release?
During the production process, I was going through a very difficult time, and I was in a very unstable situation from an emotional perspective. And some tracks were produced under very weird circumstances, as well. I am not getting into details here, because it would be too private.
Many people say that I’, a very kind soul. And at this time, it felt like that my soul was bleeding.
So, the entire EP is truly an imprint of my soul at those times. A valve of emotions. That’s why I called it “Bloody&Soul”. And of course, I liked the word game.
Thanks, Lars. I certainly hear that need to have this valve for our hurting souls – and have a listen, readers, as the results are beautiful and may heal your bleeding spirit, too.
One more wonderful cut from an upcoming VA:
Check this terrific DOCK compilation, including Lars’ work (as “out there”), or also ambient rounds Vol.0:
Lars’ first EP outing with Fullpanda is also essential, with a Space Bolero for you cosmonauts to dance to at your space station’s cantina social:
macOS Catalina, the next Mac release, dramatically tightens security and removes 32-bit compatibility. That will cause incompatibilities with music software, requiring updates. Here’s what you need to know.
Catalina compatibility checklist
macOS Catalina (10.15) is expected to ship in October, replacing Mojave (10.14).
DAWs and other software using plug-ins: Requires updates to work.
Drivers: Installation and operation requires update to work.
32-bit software, software that accesses 32-bit libraries: Incompatible. Cannot be used past macOS Mojave.
Software using legacy video libraries: Incompatible. Cannot be used past macOS Mojave.
Plug-ins: May require update for full compatibility – but may run inside updated DAWs, and will install if the user overrides OS’ installer requirements.
Hardware: If a driver is required for operation, you’ll need an updated driver and installer. Driverless (class-compliant) audio and MIDI gear is unaffected.
Tightened Mac security
It’s worth acknowledging that security concerns are justified, even for consumer operating systems. Malware tools targeting users may be designed to exploit your computer’s resources, steal data, and impersonate you or even steal your money. At best, they can at least make your system unstable.
It’s also not just “a Windows thing”; recent attacks have singled out the Mac, too. For instance, security researchers uncovered an insidious piece of code found in downloads from a piracy website called VST Crack, embedded in pirated versions of software including Ableton Live. The software would embed itself on your system and start mining cryptocurrency. These threats do not impact the legitimate copies of the same software, so yes, this is an added risk when you pirate software.
All OS vendors regularly patch security holes; the approach in macOS Catalina (10.15) is more proactive. Apple are making some changes to the way the OS itself notifies you of activity by software and asks for your approval, a bit more like you had seen previously in iOS or Android. They’re also implementing tougher defaults for installers. And since malware works by running additional code on top of other code or memory, Apple are adding protections against running that code.
The issue here is not that these changes are unwarranted or even entirely unexpected, but that they bring a lot of change at once that will require you to update software – especially music software – in order for it to work properly, or at all.
Let’s look at those two changes separately: one is the change for installers (called “notarization”), and the second is a new set of requirements for how software is granted access to vital information (the “hardened runtime”).
The two requirements are related, because Apple won’t approve installers unless they also comply with the hardened runtime standards. So let’s take a look at the hardened runtime and entitlement permissions first.
Entitlements and the hardened runtime
Let’s recall here how malware works: it runs additional code that you didn’t intend to run, then gives that code access to something vital on your system (like your data, or microphone). So obviously, what Apple is doing is attempting to prevent those two things.
The first thing you’ll notice on macOS Catalina is that the Mac starts asking you for permission a lot more often. So now, the first time you print a score from notation software or try to open a file dialog to browse the desktop, you’ll get a pop-up asking if you really want to do that. That’s a bit annoying, but it’ll only happen once, and then will remember your permissions. And the reason it’s there is, of course, malware might otherwise perform the same task without your consent. You’re already familiar with this behavior from phone apps on Android and iOS; this is effectively the same idea, now on your desktop computer.
With a common, monolithic app, providing these permissions (called “entitlements”) is fairly easy. But music software isn’t monolithic. Your DAW is running all sorts of libraries and plug-ins and so on. Unfortunately, the exploits Apple is targeting in malware – “code injection, dynamically linked library (DLL) hijacking, and process memory space tampering” – also look a lot like the behaviors your DAW performs normally. And your DAW also needs to handle entitlements for plug-ins. In addition to the DAW needing your permission to access certain folders, for example, it also needs to ask your permission if a sample instrument like KONTAKT wants to access files, as well.
Here’s the bit you’ll really need to care about – if you’re upgrade to macOS Catalina, you will need to be prepared to upgrade your DAW, too. Providing this compatibility is complicated, so it’s likely that most developers will be able to support only their latest release – meaning you may require a paid update to that first.
The good news is, theoretically this burden falls on the DAW, not individual plug-ins. (Plug-ins may still require an update, because of the removal of 32-bit code and other portions of the OS required for compatibility, and because of new installer requirements.) But you will need to update any software working with plug-ins, or you may find software won’t run properly or will fail to run altogether.
It’s also likely that even with updates, some software will not work properly immediately after Catalina’s launch. Developers are still learning how to use this new feature of the operating system, and Apple’s frequent OS updates mean they have little time to do so. Also, an additional side effect of the new security requirements is to break the ability of plug-in developers to debug their plug-ins in DAWs, meaning testing is – for now – more difficult. That may slow compatibility and testing.
If you plan to use an older version of a DAW, you’ll want to avoid updating past macOS Mojave (10.14). If you do intend to update – or to buy a new Apple machine once Catalina is pre-installed and required by default – you should plan to use the very latest version of your DAW, and double-check that Catalina is supported. And even with listed Catalina support, expect there could still be some wrinkles immediately after the OS ships.
Once those pieces are in place, though, you will be able to use DAWs and plug-ins as you always have – just with some more pop-ups the first time you do something like access the file system or connect audio hardware.
(One illustration of how entitlements requirements might surprise you – someone on Reddit noticed the Live “computer keyboard” setting, which passes QWERTY keys to MIDI notes, suddenly broke in the Catalina beta. That makes sense; it would require the entitlements provided by the coming Live 10 update. And obviously, malware would love to be able to take your computer keyboard input and route it somewhere else without asking.)
Installer requirements and drivers
The other change in macOS Catalina is to require installers to be “notarized” by default (whereas previously it was a non-mandatory option). This means developers will submit installers to Apple for verification, and that they fulfill certain requirements for how those installers are built. (These requirements largely have to do with how they link against the Mac SDK and following new guidelines like the hardened runtime.)
This is not the same as the App Store approval requirements on iOS (or similar stores from Google and Microsoft). Apple aren’t looking at the software itself, only verifying the installer is built according to their standards. The process takes something like an hour currently, not days or weeks as the stores can. And most importantly, Apple will allow users to override the installer requirement. As with Gatekeeper in current versions of macOS, you’ll get a dialog telling the installer or app was blocked, but you’ll still be able to choose to run something anyway. (Right-click, choose open, and you’ll be given option.)
Unverified plug-ins may also continue to work inside DAWs – depending on the DAW you’re using. This means in theory, you’ll be able to install and attempt to use plug-ins, even if they haven’t been updated for Catalina. You would need to override plug-in notarization requirements for the installation from dmg (Disk Image) files, but once a file was installed, a DAW may be able to support it, theoretically. Your mileage may vary when it comes to actual use, however; the advantage of the installer requirement may be that it gives a clue that a developer has tested on Catalina.
PreSonus has just announced for their Studio One DAW that not only will you need to update Studio One itself, but many plug-ins will also need an update. In their case, plug-ins built before June 1, 2019 will still need to be signed (the earlier method of verification for Apple developers). Plug-ins built after that date will need to fulfill Catalina’s tougher requirements – notarization and the hardened runtime.
Drivers for hardware will hit a hard wall. Unverified drivers will not function on the new OS. This means if you have older hardware that doesn’t have updated drivers and installer, you won’t be able to use it. There’s no ability to override this requirement.
End of the road for 32-bit and legacy libraries
Just as significant as the security changes, Apple is ending support for 32-bit code starting with Catalina. This is a hard barrier – you won’t be able to use “bridge” tools for 32-bit plug-in compatibility, for instance. Any 32-bit app, library, or plug-in will simply refuse to run.
It may not be immediately obvious that software makes use of 32-bit code, either. A 64-bit application may still make use of a 32-bit library. For instance, Ableton tell CDM that they found their previous versions of Live would attempt to call a 32-bit library on startup. These apps may not fail gracefully; they may simply crash. This means even if you’re using a 64-bit and 64-bit plug-ins, you will want to verify compatibility with the vendor before upgrading.
If you have 32-bit plug-ins or older software you rely on, you will likely want to stay on macOS Mojave. Once you upgrade, this software will cease to work. This may also mean you want to retain an older Mac running Mojave or earlier, for backwards compatibility.
Apple has also ended long-deprecated libraries, including the older video library (called QTKit).
Case study: Ableton Live
Ableton provided CDM with access to their compatibility process. An update to Live 10 will support Catalina’s new requirements at launch. This involved a series of changes, which may be typical for DAW developers. In Ableton’s case, it meant the following updates:
· Rebuilding the installer with notarization support and its requirements
· Removing all 32-bit code and libraries (including one 32-bit library that will cause previous versions of Live to crash on launch)
· Providing full compatibility with Max
· Transitioning video code to the latest AVFoundation (from a now-unsupported version of QuickTime)
The move to AVFoundation is good news for anyone working with video – even if you use an older macOS version like Mojave. There’s improved video export performance and new codec options.
Ableton also say you should expect that these updates mean you can use Live with existing plug-ins under Catalina. Based on what plug-in developers tell me, though, you should still anticipate there may still be some issues to resolve with individual plug-ins if you upgarde, and DAW developers like Ableton may not be aware of all of these situations on internal testing alone.
Because of the number of changes to be made, Live 9 will not support Catalina. Conversely, as Apple deprecates older OSes, Live 10 won’t support some of the older versions of macOS. Here’s what will be compatible:
Apple has not necessarily had full support for a new OS even for its own pro software; I’ve contacted Apple to ask if Logic Pro will support Catalina at launch but have not yet gotten a response. (There is a precedent of Apple’s own pro apps sometimes lagging their OS, before you make the assumption that they two will be in sync.)
How should you upgrade, and when?
Here’s a simple piece of advice: don’t update to Catalina immediately. As with any major OS change, music installers, drivers, and DAWs will benefit from more time and testing. Since musicians have complex and diverse setups, odds are you rely on something that won’t be immediately compatible, or that interactions between tools could create unexpected results.
If you do update, you should absolutely make a full backup so you can easily roll back. Time Machine backups can also provide some ability to remove OS updates.
You can also create an external installation of the OS on any drive that is formatted to macOS extended Journaled. It’s probably worth buying an inexpensive drive to test first, especially with an update this significant.
Macworld has two helpful articles (also linked by Ableton):
Erica Synths have made a strength out of building a full catalog of modules – and their systems show off how complete that is, at a price that compares favorably.
The Black System is probably the most practical of these rigs, with a versatile selection that can cover a range of experimental or dance genres. (The Techno System I reviewed earlier tends more to the industrial techno sounds, indeed, focused on drums and biting synth sounds; the Dada Noise System for Liquid Sky was more to acquired tastes.)
The Black System II really is a reasonable buy, at least by Eurorack standards – that 2900EUR is nothing to sneeze at for musicians, but it could well save versus a bespoke modular system. And it’s also notable that it’s still less than some flagship keyboard instruments, with arguably a much deeper potential for exploration. (Well, depending on what you want – I mean, if I did have a magic fairy to make something appear, I would probably wish for this over some of those keyboards.)
But even if you never buy one of these Erica systems, I think it’s still a significant exercise for the company. Recall that the likes of Buchla, EMS, Roland, and Moog – not to mention later lower-cost options like PAiA and eventually Doepfer – all built complete systems.
Now, it’s marvelous that we have a marketplace in Eurorack of weird one-off modules or idiosyncratic grab bags of gear from small makers. But even if you plan to mix and match, it’s useful to have a module that came from a bigger picture. It adds to the value of assembling your own custom rig, that is, if you can add some modules that still had a pre-conceived idea of how they’d fit into a complete instrument, even if you then change what that complete instrument is.
And this particular lineup really is rather nice, from the joystick controller (also on the Dada Noise), to the Soviet-inspired Polivoks filter, to a stereo delay:
There’s really all the basics you need for integrating MIDI and working with CV, shaping sounds, and mixing and output. Plus unique to this particular range, you can choose different flavors in different patches – both wavetable and simple analog VCO, both multimode and Polivoks filter, and so on.
Just remember, if this is too rich for your blood, you can also get the Polivoks System for 1400EUR or the adorable tiny Pico System II for 1120EUR. The latter you can even carry along with you on Ryanair for the truly cash-starved modular artist.
If there was any doubt that KORG wants to be the Nintendo of music brands, here’s yet another partnership with the iconic game maker – but it’s sadly only skin deep.
Yes, it’s true, you get insanely cute Pokémon metronomes and clip-on pitch tuners. But there’s a missed opportunity here – whereas Teenage Engineering recently made full-on Rick & Morty Pocket Operators, KORG are only changing the paint job on their hardware.
The mind reels at the possibilities. You could have a Tamagotchi-style creature on your metronome. Or you could use Pokémon Go-style real-world capture to find synths for KORG Gadget. (Hang around Kottbusser Tor, Berlin to snag a rare Eurorackosaur; get a Prophetee 5 in Berkeley, California.)
Okay, I guess this may not help you with violin practice. (Maybe some gamification element to music learning?)
The point is, KORG continue to play on their relationship with gaming. So even if it’s just a cute tuner or metronome for kids, I think they’ve been very clever continuing to associate fun with their music tech. And fun is supposed to be part of the point, right?