LANDR, the platform that first appeared to do automated online mastering, is now distribution, too. And they’ve added online giant Beatport as a partner.
That news came quietly earlier this week, but it demonstrates LANDR are serious about making a turnkey solution for distribution as well as mastering. The deal is, if you aren’t a label big enough to work with Bandcamp directly, and/or if you don’t have your own distributor, you can’t just send music to online stores.
LANDR offers to entirely streamline the process. If you trust their algorithmic approach to mastering, all you have to do is upload and hit release. Your music is mastered (with some minor, simplified ability to tweak the results), and off to Beatport – plus Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Google Music, and some others.
The pricing is certainly aggressive. Distribution is bundled in with the mastering fees at no additional cost. And in an unprecedented move, LANDR give you 100% of royalties and charge you nothing. The whole system is based on explosive growth. To master WAV files, you have to pony up for the 25EUR/month fee (for unlimited tracks, if you’re a heavy user). But it appears even the lowly 4EUR/mo track does WAV distribution.
There is a catch, of course. First, I’m not entirely convinced by LANDR’s algorithmic mastering. Mastering with a human actually isn’t all that expensive, depending on who you use – and tests I did with LANDR’s system were compelling, but only on the level of what you might get with a preset in a good mastering plug-in. I know – I’m going to get in some trouble with the LANDR folks for this. But my thought is this: some of what mastering engineers do is based on taste, not just on something that could be derived from a large sample set. I rely on a mastering engineer to catch little mistakes and ask questions. Now, maybe people don’t want to pay extra for that, but – then I’d ask if they really want to do a proper digital release, or if they might as well just stick stuff up on SoundCloud and not overthink it.
There’s a second factor to be aware of here: just dumping music on distribution often isn’t effective. Having a human to pitch music makes a difference.
That said, even given my reluctance there, this distribution offer seems terrifically competitive. If you’ve finished an EP, and you just want to make sure people find it whether they type something into Spotify or follow your artist name on Bandcamp, this looks cost-effective and easy. There are other entry-level distribution services that don’t require contracts, but they tend to either charge big fees or else they lack stores like Beatport.
Call it a second post-Communist Romanian revolution: artists are reshaping the scene just as quickly as they can keep the clubs open. Meet Admina and Corp.
We were inspired by Admina’s performance on the Moogfest stream, and her musical reputation precedes her, as a kind of hero to similar counter-cultural scenes tucked here and there worldwide. Simona Mantarlian, a DJ/critic, Bucharest insider, and native Romanian herself, talks to Admina about the scene and how it connects to musical life . There, finding a space is a matter of personal, creative, real survival – but it’s also working, and that means there’s a lot for us to learn from Bucharest’s fringe frontiers. -Ed.
Bucharest is a fast-paced stellar ride, defying entropy, as its underground dance clubs open — and reach insolvency — and find another way to surface and go on. We’re talking about epic places like Ponton [see here and here for an impression], then Kran, and also the abrupt curve Control Club has followed after its rebranding, where underground bookings came back on the roster after a posh-makeover-phase — we’ll pass.
The constant that drives the process lays in the strong crews of selectors, who never compromise in the quality, levity, and obscurity of their finds. A new crew called Corp. caught our attention through its podcasts and intense activity around the scene. The female and queer collective, founded by [European supported] SHAPE platform resident Chlorys and DJ/ producer Admina, pushed a new generation of musicians whose voices challenge the male-dominated status quo. We spoke with Admina about the context of Corp.’s philosophy, and took a virtual trip to Bucharest’s queer parties, transporting us to a new post-Internet realm, and beyond.
Admina’s video: Destroy Patriarchy.
Simona: First, what is Corp., and what are you up to with it?
Admina: Corp. is a Bucharest-based project and platform. It aims to represent and showcase female-identified musicians and DJs in electronic music, while also being dedicated to acquiring and exposing obscure sounds, spanning from experimental and traditional forms to contemporary ones. Its activity is dedicated to broadening the focus on female-identified artists within the context of Bucharest’s local scene, as well as beyond the borders of the country.
The main urgent drive behind Corp.’s initiative is to open and sustain a studio where women will have the space and time to further develop their skills and communicate.
Corp. members: Admina, Beatrice Sommer, Chlorys, Cosima von Bülove.
A few weeks ago, you were part of the all-female-identified stream that launched Moogfest. What did it mean for you to be involved in this Moogfest stream, and in the lineup? Is it significant to you that they did choose to feature women and non-binary artists in this context of the stream and announcement?
Being part of [Moogfest] is a good opportunity for me and also for Corp. It’s great exposure; I’m really glad and excited that I’m part of the show.
Can you tell us a little bit about your live performance there?
I thought of myself being most of the time a nostalgic and melancholic person. Music was also a guide for me. It’s hard to show those feelings while you are playing a set for people to dance, but I always try to get that feeling on the stage. So maybe I will use this opportunity embrace this through dark and experimental sounds — a little bit of sadness and nostalgia.
So, “destroy patriarchy.” Is patriarchy at home in Romania? What is the society like?
Every society is to a certain extent patriarchal; each society “encourages” differences between men and women, in the way they are educated, treated, taught, etc. Romania remains a patriarchal society, where women are perceived mainly as wives and mothers and are denied access to more powerful positions in the business world.
How does Corp. as collective relate to that?
Gender inequalities are a reality in our country. Corp. is proposing an incipient ambition to construct a new language for sexual (gender) politics in the Romanian electronic scene and clubbing.
We want to establish identity as power, a collective visibility. Identity as a declaration of the self, identity as claiming and naming common qualities.
There weren’t many women DJing in Bucharest, say, two years ago, and we can rightfully say things have changed. What was the reaction of the guys in the scene? Were they helpful with putting up Corp. gigs at the clubs they were booking?
Parallel to Corp.’s foundation in Romania, in Western Europe and America, voices of women in electronic music began to be heard. And their gender equality statistics were worrying already for many festivals and clubs around the world.
So, when we started Corp platform, let’s say that the idea was well received, the promoters and organizers have begun to pay more attention to gender equality in lineups.
Watching “Destroy Patriarchy”, the video for your first single, I recognized a lot of new DJs from Bucharest who are getting popular right now, beyond the limits of Bucharest-universe (Beatrice Sommer, Paula Dunker, boivoid, Ana Secheres). Some of them learned their skills via Corp. crew. What made you decide to do the opposite of what everybody does – share knowledge instead of putting extra effort to make it even more inaccessible?
The project also aspires to go beyond the performing artists and to include studio musicians, producers, sound engineers, technicians, cover artists, distributors, promoters, and festival organizers. We want to share everything we know with others. It’s not a big deal to play music. It’s simple, you just have to enjoy music and have the pleasure to share it with others. Why not be accessible to everyone — especially women and queer people who did not have access to technology, or trust to do it? We want to build that trust together. Let’s remember that music is there to bring people together and to create a community.
Back to “Destroy Patriarchy”, where did you record and mix the music and what’s the gear you used?
“Destroy Patriarchy” is a reaction to an oppressive system, aiming to send out a clear and empowering message. The video was recorded at Kiseleff Park in the specially-designed space for outdoor fitness. The music I made it in Ableton using an Akai MPK Mini MIDI controller.
Your nickname has an early internet / message board-era ring to it. How did it find you? What is your connection to the Internet?
Everything started with the word admin, and that was my first idea of DJ nickname. At that time I managed Facebook pages to make money, and it was just funny to call myself like that. And because in English the word didn’t have a feminine pronoun, I only heard about administratrix, which sounds totally hot, but it was too long and I didn’t want that much to assume a gender since I identify myself as a non-binary. With all of that, my friends have found a way to feminize it. Putting an “a” to the end, made it sound more feminine in Romanian. After that I found out, that Admina is actually a name, a Hebrew name, and it means “Of the red earth.” “People with this name have a deep inner desire to inspire others in a higher cause, and to share their own strongly held views on spiritual matters.” I said it was perfect for me.
What is the earliest memory that you track your obsession with music to?
When I was very young, I wanted to play the violin, but I went to fine art school eventually, because my mother had no money to buy me a violin and it was impossible to go to the music school without it. Now I am very glad I didn’t. I consider my visual experience very useful and closely related to how I understood music now.
What is the starting place you’d recommend to someone who never got into electronic music before?
To trust themselves … I don’t know what point is best for someone. Just begin with what they have already, and they will learn on the way what they need. It’s good to have a limited number of tools; it makes you more creative.
Tell us about a fun club experience we missed in Bucharest.
It’s good to know that we have Queer Night. It’s the only fun club experience I really enjoy ever ytime, because we all can be ourselves. Also we intend to organize our own parties in Bucharest so — be prepared!
Roland’s 1.10 DJ controller update adds a bunch of features – and plays to the machines’ strengths, drawn from the TR drum machine line, as live machines.
First, a recap:
The DJ-202/505/808 line may look like bog-standard Serato controllers with Roland logos on. But they promise to be something else: DJ controllers made for people who also produce.
We already know that the “DJ” market involves a lot of producers dabbling in DJing and a lot of DJs dabbling in production. And anyone doing one or the other invariably finds they want to play a little, or do a remix, or finish a podcast, or practice mixing, or any of a number of things that might be served by DJ hardware.
So then the question is, what do you get? Two CDJs and a dedicated DJ mixer are expensive. Two turntables work, too, but that can be overkill if you want to play around with some digital files. So, then you’re back to a number of inexpensive DJ controllers, but they tend not to be much fun to play with, and they don’t have much utility in production.
That’s where the Roland/Serato line gets really appealing. The platters have extremely high precision and low latency drivers – meaning they work really well for beat-matching (including if you’re a producer learning to do that), and even some scratching. The 505 and 808 work well with turntables, too, meaning you can use a pair of decks with Serato for digital vinyl if you want. And, crucially, the 505 and 808 still function as mixers with the computer turned off.
I’d love to see other DJ gear that meets the above, but because of those jog wheels, there isn’t much.
What’s new in 1.10
It could have ended there, but it appears Roland is investing into making the DJ line better at the task. What Roland is calling their “1.10” firmware update is actually pretty hefty, particularly for the more full-featured 505 and 808.
Remember, the 505 and 808 really are AIRA drum machines as well as controllers. And even with a TR-909 sitting on my desk, they’re rather useful ones. So without plugging in a single cable, you’ve got these drum machines ready to play at a gig. They even work with the computer unplugged in standalone mode, so you don’t have a paperweight when your PC is off (like when a Windows 10 update is installing… grrrrr).
More sounds. [202, 505, 808] The DJ-808 adds low toms, rim shots, rides, and 606 crash and 808 cowbell to its 606/707/808/909 sounds. The DJ-202/505 add kits for 606 and 707 to their existing 808 and 909 – a total of twelve kits, up from eight. All round, you’ve got a lot of new kits and individual sounds – and you can swap those out live as you play for added variety.
These aren’t just samples, either – they feature the same component modeling approach you’ve heard in other Roland drum machines (and specifically the TR-8 AIRA), so they’re based on realistic digital models of the analog circuits. That’s why there are no “sound kits” to download or something like that.
TR-S master effects. [505, 808] The TR-S master effects include drive/distortion, a pretty punchy compressor, and new transient follower. All three let you drive your drum jams over a track.
Channel effects.  The DJ-808 also includes a new delay, phaser, a new noise effect, and bitcrusher. Since the DJ-808 also acts as a mixer/hub for gear, that’s… a lot of fun. The mic input also gets its own reverb, delay, and delay-reverb combo.
TR-S editing. [505, 808] The TR-S isn’t as full-featured as a dedicated sequencer/drum machine, but it already hides a lot of power. To that, you now have the ability to copy kits (DJ-505) and nudge and tap tempo (808).
TR-S step loop.  Also cool – now you can loop through just some steps instead of the whole loop on the TR-S sequencer, so handy both for Serato sequences and the drum machine.
Tweak settings. [202, 505, 808] My only slight frustration with the DJ-202/505 is that the jog wheel/platters are so sensitive, at first I was bumping the top surface of the platter while using the effects. (I’ve… learned not to do that.) There’s now a sensitivity adjustment buried in settings, which if decreased, seemed to me to have a negligible impact on accuracy but made it slightly harder to bump. It’s a “release” setting, so impacts when you let go of that jog. Your mileage may vary. All three models now also have a Backspin Length setting, which lets the wheel jog through more of the track than a single rotation normally would. I found that turning up this length let me jog through more of the track quickly.
And the DJ-808 is now a live hub
Look, if you’re going to splurge on DJ gear, most controllers leave you with big, unwieldy coffins that turn into paperweights when the computer is off and take up space when you want to remix or jam or produce.
So here’s what’s cool: the DJ-808 isn’t thatand it’s a vocal processor, and it’s a TR-8-style drum machine with 606/707/808/909 sounds onboard and effects. That gives you up to 11 stereo channels and one mic. And while this sounds a little – let’s say psycho – now we can compare space.
One table, plus two CDJs and a mixer and … uh, sorry, you’re pretty much out of space, and you’ve only got two decks.
One table, plus DJ-808, laptop, and some toys. Now you’ve got four decks, the mixer, a drum machine, and all your toys, and you can still plug in a mic and go to town.
Plus, bonus: all these inputs record to the recorder in Serato DJ. So, you don’t have the old problem of remembering a portable recorder / cables / flash memory card / the level was set wrong / the inputs weren’t all there / etc. etc.
Of course, the same is true if we’re talking at home.
Now, if you’re cringing because this might be a musical trainwreck with some DJs, hey, I didn’t say the thing would practice for you. But for people who are good at improvising on all this stuff, it’s a godsend.
The only bad news: the DJ-505 is crippled, in that the switches on the front let you choose either the external input or your laptop, but not both. I get that Roland may want to differentiate products here, but since the 808 does so much already, I hope the next firmware update lets us use its inputs all at once the way the DJ-808 did. The 505 is a lot more affordable and more portable than the 808, and it still packs the essentials.
You hear that, Japan? There’s my 1.20 firmware wishlist.
Anyway, 1.10 downloads are available for all the hardware. And the TR-S is so much fun on the DJ-505 that I’m finishing now a separate guide to using it as a performance tool, plus guides to mapping the whole range to VJ applications. Stay tuned.
After weeks of watching Ableton’s trainers and testers have the fun, Live 10 is now the current version. Here’s what that means for you.
Live 10 is now the official release version of Ableton Live. If you didn’t jump on the discounted upgrade or preorder pricing, that’s done. Live reverts to its original pricing and retains the same editions Live 9 had (Suite, Standard, Intro).
What you get with Live 10: lots of new Devices including the Wavetable synth and Echo multi-engine delay, automatic Capture of your ideas before you hit record, improved editing of MIDI and audio especially in the Arrange view, lots of additional sounds, more Push integration, and a faster, more integrated Max for Live. It’s also much easier on the eyes, certainly on Retina displays, but across the board.
Now, in those intervening weeks, a lot of people have gotten their hands on the software. I’ve been using Live 10 betas since early fall. Here’s what I’ve found, comparing my own personal experience with other Live users, both advanced and novice.
Live 10’s highlights
Arrangement view finally feels fleshed out. Editing multiple MIDI clips in Arrange, being able to directly manipulate audio, and navigating Arrange more quickly is really essential. I really hope Ableton continue to develop this area – and that some day we even see the sort of hardware integration with Arrange that we do with Push and Session view.
You’re going to use Drum Buss a whole lot. Drum Buss sounds like a specific drum compressor. That’s even how Ableton markets it. In practice, its combination of dynamics processing and “crunch” turn out to be pretty useful all over the place, especially since its simplified controls can be used in a variety of ways to dial in very different results.
Echo and Wavetable are really beautiful. Do you need another delay and another synth? Well, maybe not. Do these add character to the release? Absolutely. Look, lots of DAWs use pack-in instruments and effects to try to earn your loyalty and upgrades. Ableton is arguably a little different in that some of these designs are so specific to the software maker as to make little sense elsewhere – think Operator or Simpler. For me, though – and your experience may be different – the new devices were an easy test. I had Live 9 on my MacBook and Live 10 on my Razer for quite a while. I was comfortable enough switching back to 9 to work on lots of projects. But it was the devices that often made me migrate over to 10 again.
Push is more useful for editing. The addition of the melodic step sequencing layout (which combines real-time entry and sequencing), the ability to work on MIDI patterns on Push, and new device support continue to make Push feel essential.
Groups inside Groups. There are a lot of usability improvements, but I think you could say this is the most important one. I can’t tell you why exactly subgroups make the whole use of groups more useful, but they do. I find myself using groups a lot more – and I know of all the usability improvements people asked for that appeared in Live 10, this was the most significant.
There are a lot of other improvement here that may require adapting a bit. Capture is something found in DAWs like Cubase, but oddly it’s easy to forget that you don’t have to hit record to grab ideas. The Arrange view’s new features require some investment of time learning shortcuts and the like – and that pays off. And you should invest some time in organizing your Library to exploit that nice new browser, for sure.
We’ve been talking to Ableton now for years about their ideas for better integrating the ideas of Cycling ’74, who make Max/MSP, and Ableton themselves, even before Ableton bought Cycling.
The big thing you’ll notice right away is that Max for Live is integrated with Live – that is, you won’t see a separate load screen. It’s “built in.”
But there’s more to it than just that, which CDM has confirmed with Ableton:
Max is better, faster, stronger, etc. Max itself has been optimized, improving device load time and CPU load, plus a lot of bug fixes.
Versions are in lockstep. Since Live and Max are integrated, you can’t accidentally run the “wrong” version of Max. This also means that a sound pack that supports a particular version of Live won’t run into a compatibility problem with an out-of-sync version of Max.
The future is surround. One easy-to-miss improvement is really an important one: Max for Live support for multichannel audio mixing opens up new possibilities for multichannel setups.
Max 8 is coming! When Max 8 ships, it’ll include the internal improvements found now in Max for Live, plus new Max 8 features for people making their own patches.
So, that’s the good news. Now, the bad news: while we’ve been promised more integration of Max and Live, they remain separate products. Standalone Max licenses may have features that don’t become available in Max for Live. And while eventually Max 8 features will come to Live 10, it sounds like there will be a lag while Ableton tests those features.
Ableton describe this as “lockstep” versions of Max and Live, but – if the versions come out at different times with different features and there’s a lag as they test integration, that’s obviously not lockstep in regards to Max. At least you have one installer and one version as far as Live and Max for Live.
We’ll keep talking to Ableton and Cycling as the Max 8 release gets closer to fully grasp how this is working, and how the closer partnership of the two companies would shape this over time. The reality here still seems to lag what we’ve been promised in terms of Max and Live being integrated and the two developers acting as one.
What might hold you back?
Live 10 doesn’t make any advances in allowing you to integrate custom hardware. As other software has added support for OSC and other protocols, or integrated native scripting, Ableton mostly keeps that kind of integration accessible to hardware vendors. (Hopefully with official support for polyphonic MIDI expression announced, Ableton will follow soon. That may be an edge case, but it’s an edge case that tends to use Live!)
That said, some quiet improvements to Max for Live regarding System Exclusive data support and custom control surface creation now became a lot more useful. MIDI-CI, a new technique for automatically configuring hardware, could combine with Max for Live in interesting ways. (My only concern there: native support would be better.)
Live is also at the pricier end of DAWs available today, for both new and existing users. Users are of course also weighing the price of this as they budget, and I know that’s been a disincentive for some of you for whom money is tight. I can’t personally say what software should cost, as unlike hardware, you can’t calculate what it costs to make. But if you don’t have the money for this, I feel your pain – been there.
By the way, if you preordered Live, you aren’t automatically charged. So you can still back out if you’re not in the financial state you thought you might be – check refund/return pricing and contact support if you need.
But I do think that Live 10 is among a handful of Live upgrades over the years that seem to make everyone happy once they take the plunge. If Live is what you use most of the time, if you’re productive in the Live workflow more than other DAWs, should you get the Live 10 upgrade? Yes. That’s an easy answer.
We’ll look a bit more at some of the devices in future and can discuss that – plus the state of other software. Stay tuned.
Granulators, drones, mixing, synths, effects, control, and on and on – TX Modular is an insanely huge set of tools, and the cost is zero.
SuperCollider, the free and open source sound creation environment for Mac, Windows, and Linux, is vast and powerful. The problem is, actually getting into it is … a little arcane. Talk to many frequent SuperCollider users, and what you’ll find is that they’ve assembled personal libraries of code snippets to work with it. So it can feel a bit like trying to talk your way into a secret society, if you’ve come from another sound creation environment.
Paul Miller writes to share his TX Modular System, which gives you the keys to a huge treasure trove of modules, and some easier ways of combining them.
All of this also means you don’t have to touch SuperCollider code if you don’t want to – though you can add that, too, if you like. (And you can run some code without having to build everything else you need from scratch.)
And it’s all just kind of mind boggling. Just to give a small overview, you get – among other things:
Synths and drones. In addition to the more conventional stuff you’d expect, there are a range of unique morphing synths, wave terrain instruments, drone and noise makers – rare, creative stuff. And there are polyphonic synths with a special emphasis on physical modeling and filter-based sound.
Samples and granulators. Grains are part of the appeal of SuperCollider – these instruments have lots of variations to experiment with sound, plus more conventional players, loopers, and sample-based synths.
Effects. There’s an insane amount here: delays, amp simulation and distortion, waveshapers, bitcrushers, extensive dynamic processing, EQ and flter, resonators, reverbs, and then extra stuff like spectral delays, harmonizers, and vocoders. From studio-style processing to weirder realms, it’s the full gamut, and within a modular paradigm.
Mixing and processing. Need a Mid-Side encoder? Faders? It’s there, too.
Control. Arguably, the rise of Eurorack modular has renewed the interest in actually getting creative and musical with patching itself. So, here you get clock dividers and a rich variety of envelopes and the like, in addition to basic LFOs and such. And at the same time, you get modulation that’s only possible in the digital realm, like random walks and Perlin Noise (a particular digital algorithm with nice, organic results), plus physics models of balls and springs.
Hardware input. Here, too, you get some of the advantages of the computer: work with OpenSoundControl natively, add Wiimotes, plenty of MIDI processors, and more.
Sequencers. Most modular environments break down when it comes to the sort of sequencing in DAWs – but not here. There are scale, chord, note processing, and piano roll sequencers, not just some limited step sequencers. You can even work with multiple tracks or use sequencers for modulation and actions.
UI. For building interfaces, you get various widgets for knobs and sliders.
And of course, you still have SuperCollider for extending all of this, with convenient modules for adding your code to the modular environment.
A mature release is out now as of last month, with a powerful new multitrack sequencer and note processing, FM granulator, a new reverb, and module improvements. (In case you were already up and running with TX, you’ll find what’s new in this release, entitled 087, included in the release notes.)
It’s almost ridiculous that Paul has created this for free. But it’s a beautiful, completely open source solution:
It’s been a long time coming, but MIDI now officially has added MPE and “capability inquiry,” opening up new expression and automatic configuration.
MIDI, of course, is the lingua franca of music gear. AKA “Musical Instrument Digital Interface,” the protocol first developed in the early 80s and has been a common feature on computers and gear and quite a few oddball applications ever since. And it’s a bit of a myth that MIDI itself hasn’t changed since its 80s iteration. Part of that impression is because MIDI has remained backwards compatible, meaning changes haven’t been disruptive. But admittedly, the other reason musicians think about MIDI in this way is that the stuff they most use indeed has remained fairly unchanged.
Engineers and musicians alike have clamored for expanded resolution and functionality ever since MIDI’s adoption. The announcements made by the MIDI Manufacturers Association aren’t what has commonly been called “HD MIDI” – that is, you don’t get any big changes to the way data is transmitted. But the announcements are significant nonetheless, because they make official stuff you can use in real musical applications, and they demonstrate the MMA can ratify official changes (with big hardware maker partners onboard). Oh, and they’re really cool.
Standardizing on new expressive ways of playing
First, there’s MIDI Polyphonic Expression, aka MPE. The name says it all: it allows you to add additional expression to more than one note at a time. So, you’ve always been able to layer expression on a single note – via aftertouch, for instance – but now instead of just one note and one finger, an instrument can respond to multiple notes and multiple fingers independently. That means every fingertip on an instrument like the ROLI Seaboard can squish and bend, and a connected sound instrument can respond or a DAW can record the results.
Hardware has found ways of hacking in this support, and plug-ins that require complex per-note information (think orchestral sound libraries and the like) have had their own mechanisms. But now there’s a single standard, and it’s part of MIDI.
MPE is exciting because it’s really playable, and it’s already got some forward momentum. Major DAWs like Logic and Cubase support it, as do synths like Native Instruments’ Reaktor and Moog’s Animoog. Hardware like the ROLI gear and Roger Linn’s Linnstrument send MPE, but there’s now even hardware receiving it, too, and translating to sound – even without a computer. (That’s not just weird keyboards, either – Madrona Labs’ Soundplane showed this could work with new instrument interfaces, too.)
Making MPE official should improve implementations already out there, and standardize inter-operability. And it means no more excuses for software that hasn’t picked it up – yeah, I’m looking at you, Ableton. Those developers could (reasonably) say they didn’t want to move forward until everyone agreed on a standard, to avoid implementing the thing twice. Well, now, it’s time.
More demos and product compatibility information is in the news, though of course this also means soon we should do a fresh check-in on what MPE is and how to use it, especially with a lot of ROLI hardware out there these days.
Making instruments self-configure and work together
MPE you might have heard of, but there’s a good chance you haven’t heard about the second announcement, “Capability Inquiry” or MIDI-CI. In some ways, though, MIDI-CI is the really important news here – both in that it’s the first time the MIDI protocol would work in a new way, and because it involves the Japanese manufacturers.
MIDI-CI does three things. Here’s their official name, plus what each bit means:
1. Profile configuration – “Hey, here’s what I am!”. Profiles define in advance what a particular instrument does. Early demos included an “Analog Synth” and a “Drawbar Organ” draft. You already know channel 10 will give you drum sounds, and General MIDI drum maps will put a kick and a snare in a particular place, but you haven’t been able to easily control particular parameters without going through your rig and setting it up yourself.
2. Property exchange – save and recall. If configuration tells you what a device is and what it does, the “exchange” bit lets you store and recall settings. Last week, manufacturers showed gear from Yamaha, Roland, and Korg having their instrument settings saved and recalled from a DAW.
MMA say the manufacturers demonstrated “total recall.” Awesome.
3. Protocol negotiation – the future is coming. Actually, this is probably the most important. Profile configuration and property exchange, we’ll need to see in action before we can judge in terms of utility. But protocol negotiation is the bit that will allow gear now to build in the ability to negotiate next-generation protocols coming soon. That’s what has been commonly called “HD MIDI,” and what hopefully will bring greater data resolution and, ideally, time stamps. Those are features that some have found in alternative protocols like Open Sound Control or in proprietary implementations, but which aren’t available in standard MIDI 1.0.
And this “negotiation” part is really important. A future protocol won’t break MIDI 1.0 compatibility. Gear built now with protocol negotiation in mind may be able to support the future protocol when it arrives.
As musicians, as hackers, as developers, we’re always focused on the here and now. But the protocol negotiation addition to MIDI 1.0 is an essential step between what we have now and what’s coming.
No gear left behind
For all the convervatism of musical instruments, it’s worth noting how different this is from the rest of electronics. Backwards compatibility is important for musical instruments, because a musical instrument never really becomes outmoded. (Hey, I spent long, happy evenings singing with some violas da gamba. Trust me on this.)
The MIDI-CI adoption process here, while it’s not the most exciting thing ever, also indicates more buy-in to the future of MIDI by the big Japanese manufacturers. And that finally means the AMEI is backing the MMA.
While even many music nerds know only the MIDI Manufacturers Association, significant changes to MIDI require another organization called the Association of Musical Electronics Industries – AMEI. The latter is the trade group for Japan, and … well, those Japanese manufacturers make gear on a scale that a lot of the rest of the industry can’t even imagine. Keep in mind, while music nerds drool over the Eurorack modular explosion, a whole lot of the world is buying home pianos and metronomes and has no idea about the rest. Plus, you have to calculate not only a different scale and a more corporate culture, but the fact that a Japanese organization involves Japanese culture and language. Yes, there will be a gap between their interests and someone making clever Max/MSP patches back in the States and dreaming of MIDI working differently.
So MIDI-CI is exciting both because it suggests that music hardware will communicate better and inter-operate more effectively, but also in that it promises music humans to do the same.
But here again is where the craft of music technology is really different from industries like digital graphics and video, or consumer electronics, or automobiles, or many other technologies. Decisions are made by a handful of people, very slowly, which then result in mass usage in a myriad of diverse cultural use cases around the world.
The good news is, it seems those decision makers are listening – and the language that underlies digital music is evolving in a way that could impact that daily musical usage.
And it’ll do so without breaking the MIDI we’ve been using since the early 80s.
Erica may be known for their tube-powered, retro-Polyvoks post-Soviet chic – but now they’re taking on the TR-909, in modules and a powerful drum computer.
This isn’t just another 909 remake, though. Take Roland’s legendary drum machine not just as a selection of well-known sounds, but as a way of thinking about synthesizing and sequencing percussion. Then, make those eminently patchable, so you can wire them into other gear and create some new, original ideas. Erica founder Girts Ozolins told me early on in starting the company that he thought the real appeal of modular was in customization – that it was something that allowed musicians to make something their own. And that seems to be the essence of the idea here. It’s a deconstructed, rather than reconstructed, 909.
On the sound side, then, you’ve got two friendly-looking, handsome, patchable modules. You can bolt these in and grab the knobs and it looks like you’ll be pretty happy. But there’s also plenty of CV when you want to get more modular.
On the sequencing side – and I’ll be the first to say this is what has me excited – comes a 909-style sequencer with accents, multiple tracks and banks, and extras like probability, track length (for polyrhythms), live and step modes, and more. You can sync it with MIDI, but there’s also an absurd amount of patchability.
And there’s modulation, too (here’s where we get way out of 909 territory) – two LFOs for modulating drums.
Just as promising, the whole thing comes from a collaboration with French DIY drum machine maker e-licktronic, who have made a name for themselves as a kind of cult-following underground drum machine maker for DIYers. The problem with e-licktronic was their projects required way too much assembly for all but the most dedicated soldering iron gurus. This brings some of their expertise to a wider market – niche, to be sure, but at least allowing you some time to, like, finish tracks and not just finish hardware assembly.
12x Accent outputs
1x CV/GATE track
2xLFO with independent or synced to the BPM frequency
Time signature per track
Pattern length per track
Shuffle per track
Probability per step
Retrigger per step
Instant pattern switching
Step/Tap record modes
16 Banks of 16 Patterns
Instant pattern switching
Midi sync in with start/stop
Firmware upgrade via MIDI SySex
It also seems this is just the beginning – Erica have a whole drum module system in store: “Toms, Clap, Rimshot, HiHats, Cymbals, sample-based drum module and, to pull all system together – dedicated a drum Mixer with extended headroom and a limiter of unique design”
But you don’t have to wait long to get started. The kick and snare modules ship early March, alongside that sequencer.
Hey, Santa Claus! Yeah, I…. oh, wait, $#(*&, it’s March.
You want the flexibility of PC software, but the performance of standalone gear? A new music OS is the latest effort to promise the best of both worlds.
Sure, analog gear is enjoying a happy renaissance – and that’s great. But a lot of the experimentation with sound production occurs with software (iOS or Windows or Mac) simply because it’s easier (and cheaper) to try things out on an Intel or ARM chip. (ARM is the architecture found in your iPhone or iPad or Android phone, among others; Intel you know.) Some manufacturers are already making the move to standalone hardware based on these architectures – at AES last year, I saw Eventide’s massive coming flagship, which is totally ARM-based. But they’re typically rolling their own operating system, which provides some serious expertise.
MIND Music Labs this month unveiled what they called ELK – a Linux-based operating system they say is optimized for musical applications and high performance.
That means they’re boldly going where… a lot of players have tried to go before. But this time, it’s different – really. First, there’s more demand on the developer side, as more makers have grown intrigued by off-the-shelf CPUs. And developer tools for these options are better than they’ve been. And hardware is cheaper, lower-power, and more accessible than ever, particularly as mobile devices have driven massive scale. (The whole world, sadly, may not really feel it needs an effects processor or guitar pedal, but a whole lot of the world now has smartphones.)
ELK promises insanely low latencies, so that you can add digital effects without delaying the returning signal (which for anything other than a huge reverb is an important factor). And there are other benefits, too, that make music gadgets made with the OS more connected to the world. According to the developers, you get:
Ultra-low latency (1ms round-trip)
Linux-based, using single Intel & ARM CPUs
Support for JUCE and VsT 2.x and 3.x plugins
Natively connected (USB, WiFi, BT, 4G)
That connectivity opens up possibilities like sharing music, grabbing updates and new sounds, and connecting to wireless instruments like the ROLI line. There’s full MIDI support, too, though – and, well, lots of other things you can do with Linux.
(JUCE is a popular framework for developing cross platforms, meaning you could make one really awesome granular synth and then run it on desktop, mobile, and this platform easily.)
Now, having done this for a while, I’ve seen a lot of claims like this come and go. But at least ELK last week was demonstrated with some actual gear as partners – DVMark, MarkBass, and Overloud (TH-U).
1ms latency claims don’t just involve the OS. Here, ELK delivers a complete hardware platform, so that’s the actual performance including their (high-quality, they say) audio converters and chip. That’s what stops you from just grabbing something like a Raspberry Pi and turning it into a great guitar pedal – you’re constrained by the audio fidelity and real-time performance of the chipset, whether the USB connection or onboard audio. Here, that promises to be solved for you out of the box.
DVMark’s “Smart Multiamp” was the first real product to show off the platform. Plugin Alliance and Brainworx have signed on, too, so don’t be surprised if you’re soon looking at a dedicated box that can replace your laptop – but also run all your plug-ins.
And that’s the larger vision here – eventually ELK has its own plug-in format, and you should be able to move your favorite plug-ins around to connected devices, and access those gadgets from Android and iOS, But unlike using a computer or iPad on its own, you don’t have to sweat software upgrades or poor audio performance or try to imagine a laptop or tablet is a good music interface live.
This leaves of course lots of questions about how they’ll realize this vision and more questions if you’re an interested developer or manufacturer. I’m hopeful that they take the Eurorack market as a model – or even look at independent plug-in and app developers – and embrace a model that supports imaginative one-person developers, too. (A whole lot of the best music software and module ideas alike have come from one- and two-person shops.)
I at least like their vision – and I’m sure they won’t be alone. Best line: “Whether your idea of music is to be shut in a studio that looks like the bridge of a Klingon cruiser or you are a minimalist that wants everything to sound exactly like in 1958, we think you will be surprised at just how much smartness is going to affect us as musicians.”
I’ll throw this out here for now and let you ask away, and then we can do a follow-up soon. Loads more info at their site:
Elektron have applied their cute-and-friendly formula from the Digitakt drum machine to a new synth called Digitone – and it’s FM.
Now, the phrase Elektron uses is “accessible” – the press release writes “powerful yet user-friendly take on FM synthesis.” But this isn’t just marketing speak; it seems they really have made an effort to make frequency modulation more playable.
Good electronic music instruments give users lots of stuff to touch, and the feeling that the full range of each knob, for instance, sounds good or at least plausible. That’s where the wonders of FM sort of break down when they hit making hardware. Frequency Modulation synthesis is based on a simple principle: modulating a waveform with another waveform in the same audio range. And the whole joy of this is suddenly breaking open surprising tones – covering ranges edgy, metallic, unstable, futuristic.
Or – with a tiny change in parameter – something totally unrelated. Or awful. Or silent. So, to avoid unpleasant surprises, hardware builders have tended to hide away that complexity. So, the mighty Yamaha DX7 has basically no controls – and as it popularized FM, also gave people the (mistaken) impression that it always had to sound like Yamaha’s presets.
Plus, while those sounds are great, sometimes they need softening. (Think of the difference between hearing a reed instrument, and hearing just the reed.)
For fans of FM synthesis, just as exciting as the Elektron news this week is the extensive interview with John Chowning (who’s a natural teacher, always a pleasure to listen to):
Don’t miss his bit about how he explains FM synthesis to a child – it’s really elegant. And Dr. Chowning picks up on the two things Elektron has done:
1. Set some limits so you get hands-on control over sound without getting lost – exploring space, but not throwing yourself out an airlock.
2. Putting the FM synthesis engine inside a more conventional subtractive synthesis architecture. (Basically – adding filters!)
As John describes those:
I noticed, in your instrument, that you put some boundaries on the possibilities so that one doesn’t end up in a daze without understanding how you got there, or end up in silence.
And regarding the architecture:
[Digitone] lets the user intuitively explore this re-formable, shapeable ball of stuff, then put that through the normal processes of synthesis.
So the thing to watch with the Digitone will be how well its presets and sound design work in practice. You’ve got a four-operator FM synth. That’s the architecture used by Robert Henke for Ableton’s Operator, precisely because it’s more manageable (and covers most of the sounds you want to create); adding operators adds a lot of complexity.
Then each voice (there’s 8-voice polyphony) adds filters: one multimode, one “base-width.” (Think they mean bandpass? I’ll ask.) And each voice comes with two assignable LFOs and overdrive to make things dirtier.
They’ve also added quite a lot in the effects section – sends for chorus, reverb, and delay, plus a master overdrive.
This being an Elektron box, integration of instrument and sequencer are key. And like the Digitakt, even this smaller box can be used to drive external gear. There are four synth tracks and four MIDI tracks, both, so the Digitakt is a bit like a mini Octatrack – it can be a hub for a live performance or synth rig.
With trig conditions (interactive events that can occur on each step) and track lengths and micro timings, you can make some fairly complex patterns. And whereas the DX7 and its ilk let you punch in a preset and then play it as-is forever until everyone got annoyed of the sound, Elektron bring parameter locks to make per-step transformations of your creations. So imagine all that sonic possibility of FM synthesis, changing as the sequence runs. We saw a peek of how much fun that is with KORG’s humble volca fm – now you get it on a deeper FM synth.
Worth investigating in a review – how much work is it to modify or program your own presets, how it works having parameters change with different presets, and how playable the whole thing is. But even though FM synthesis is a creation of the 1960s, having a playable, sequenced FM synth definitely stands out from the crowd of noisemakers at the moment. The new Elektron is available now, though currently listed as sold out. (Someone obviously likes the idea.)
128 × 64 pixel OLED screen
2 × 1/4” impedance balanced audio out jacks
2 × 1/4” audio in jacks
1 × 1/4” stereo headphone jack
48 kHz, 24-bit D/A and A/D converters
Hi-Speed USB 2.0 port
MIDI In/Out/Thru with DIN Sync out
Sturdy steel casing
Dimensions: W 215 × D 176 × H 63 mm (8.5” × 6.9” × 2.5”) (including knobs and feet)
Weight: approximately 1.49 kg (3.3 lbs)
100 × 100 mm VESA mounting holes. Use M4 screws with a max length of 7 mm.
And of course, yes, Overbridge (Elektron’s tech for helping integrate their external hardware with your software rig).
Miami-born Uchi is a fresh face as LA collective BL_K NOISE meet up with Berlin’s Raster – and that’s a perfect time to catch up with her and reflect.
Dive in, commit. It’s that moment when the mixer fader is up and you start your live set, the let’s-screw-up-our-lives risk-taking bigger moments we make sometimes for musical passion. It’s the willingness to screw up live and screw up life, maybe.
That sums up why a lot of us are here as well as anything. And so that makes Uchi’s approach refreshing. Just as your email promo inbox is full of drab, sound-alike techno and washes of disinterested distorted ambience, Uchi kind of doesn’t follow any rules. Her DJ sets are diverse and daring, her live sets going deep and abstract and back again. And she talks to us a bit here about that abandon.
It’s also paying off. Uchi has gone from being known in Miami to becoming a regular at Berlin’s most sought-after slots – including Berghain’s upstairs Panorama Bar and its darker, weirder new ground floor Säule. But the best part is, I think we don’t know quite what she’ll do next. There’s a couple of EPs, a full-length album, and various podcasts coming and … well, the hell with predictability. The artists you want to watch are the ones that will surprise you.
January is definitely when we celebrate new music gear, thanks to Anaheim, California’s massive NAMM convention show. But then why not celebrate new noises, too? BLK_NOISE has assembled for Saturday a party made up of artists willing to push their electronic instruments until they hurt. From team USA, you’ve got Richard Devine, Surachai. From Germany, label Raster – the imprint formerly known as Raster Noton – Grischa Lichtenberger, and label co-founder Byetone. (Carsten Nicolai aka Raster Noton is going solo again, reverting his label to Noton.) And then there’s secretive BLK_NOISE anchor Belief Defect, who have feet in both Berlin and LA.
PK: What’s the set you’re preparing for LA? I loved this noise set that just streamed from Halcyon [in New York].
Uchi: I don’t know what happened there! It’s so weird! I have the recording of it myself; I gotta hear it and see!
I think for this show I’m going to use somewhat similar setup I’ve been using for most noise shows these days, a narrow selection of stuff, and complete improvisation — or zero preliminary sequencing. It’s the first time I’ll try an AV setup, which is exciting!
It seems like you’ve had some pretty significant shifts in your life, your musical direction … especially as some of the folks who will be hearing you in LA as well as our readers may not know you yet, what’s the trajectory been from Miami to Berlin? How did you get where you are currently?
Yeah, I guess there’s been a lot of changes the last couple of years. I lived in Miami since age 10, up until college. After I finished a degree in Computer Science, I took DJing (obtained from radio hosting at University) more seriously, as well as actually working on something I used to do for fun — (Ableton fiddling) making music.
The Boiler Room set came about from Juan Del Valle, now a friend. His influence was to convince me to make a live set. That being said, it was my first live set ever, and it was on Boiler Room – lol! BUT it was a great way to learn how to use hardware! Then Berlin came after the release on Plangent Records, which made the first gig in Panorama Bar happen. That made me decide not to get a flight home, basically.
The interesting thing is that just before I left Miami, everything had already started changing. I was pretty active in the noise scene, which was a whole different level of exploration in music, the exact opposite of composition and programming or what I used to make the Boiler Room set. Noise changed also the way I record, too. It seems I find single takes, and master out mixes more interesting than spending hours on a single detail or mixing down. I guess trying to finish ideas in one day if the case has a lot of details, otherwise just simple pressing record (mistakes included) and room recordings.
I made the album and the last couple EPs basically playing them. Since moving to Europe, which changed literally everything about what I knew, and also playing for promoters in different cities, I’ve had the chance to do something different. Nowadays, I’m combining all influences together — noise improvisation, changing patterns, speed, writing melodies or lack thereof, depending on so many different things. For instance where, when, and for whom each show is prepared for, relative to time, and where things are for me at the moment — it’s never the same. I’m still figuring it out, but if there is something to expect, it should be to expect something new.
These Saüle appearances have been great … in this age and (city!) people can cling to a somewhat narrow and clasutrophobic view of genre, so that’s a relief. Can you talk a little bit about you’ve been playing lately?
Well, I guess Säule was a bit of the turning point. It made me realize its not far-fetched to combine everything into one presentation. Funny you say claustrophobic view of genre! That puts it a bit better in perspective actually. I think the first time was probably one of the most liberating DJ sets of my life, the first time I felt like myself. The struggle of genre has been real for a really long time, but thanks to that lately, I reeeally don’t care for dance floor “rules” too much, and follow just, whatever feels right at the time. I’m curious to what you would describe those gigs as.
Mmm, eclectic? This is why I wouldn’t really call myself a music journalist, just a musician. So to that — what are you using to play for this live set? Not just to sort of get gear-focused, but instead — what does this mean as far as instrumentation, as composition?
For sure, it will be a Moog Mother [Mother-32 synthesizer] running, pitching it sporadically, plus vocal whale sounds … maybe some screaming. Also some Koma Elektronik noises generated from the Field Kit [“electro-acoustic workstation”] and BD101 [analog gate-delay pedal] as main effects, messing with any signal sent to the aux [input] of the Field Kit.
I guess as “composition,” I suppose breaking it down by frequency – the vocal stuff is a lot of mid-range melodic, of course, with a ton of reverb and delay, the Moog for low-end and the Koma stuff for texture, high-pitch screeching, and pulsating static. These have been my favorite pieces of gear to use for noise shows. I made the last album using the Moog heavily, so it’s kind of been my main instrument for almost two years, along with Koma stuff which is heaven for noise freaks — the Moog sounds on another level! And some classic reverb and distortion pedals, Boss DS-1 [distortion pedal, since 1978] and Eventide Space.
What do those instruments mean to you; how do they impact how you play spontaneously?
They are my children!!! I supposed their user interface totally affects how they are played. For example, the large knobs of the Mother and the semi-modular part for patching and combining it with it with the BD10 light sensor (which kind of acts like a theremin), and putting that in the Field Kit mixer, which has got a life of its own. The signals kind of bounce with each other. Feed-backing is waaay fun. Also, the continuity of LFO’s makes it easy to do multiple things at once. Whatever instruments I’m using at the moment play a really large role in every live set, if not the biggest role. I hope to be switching to full-on modular this year! Wish me luck.
If you’re in LA, check out the event! I wrote about Belief Defect’s live rig here and for Native Instruments; now it’s America’s turn to get that live. Co-hosted with Decibel Festival: