Pioneer Squid is a monster standalone sequencer for your gear

Forget for a second that Pioneer is the CDJ and DJM company. Their latest TORAIZ goes a radical new direction – making what might be the biggest mainstream hardware sequencer since the MPC and Octatrack.

But a deep sequencer with MIDI and CV, for 599€ (awaiting US pricing details) – that sounds like a blockbuster.

The rise of gear for making sound has left a fairly significant hole in the market. You’ve got tons of drum machines, tons of synths, tons of grooveboxes, and then a whole black hole of semi-modular and fully-modular instruments.

But what about making, you know – a song? There aren’t so many choices for actually pulling together rhythms and melodies on all those toys. You’ve got a mishmash of internal sequencing features and devices capable of multiple tracks. But there are limited options beyond that – used Akai MPCs, the Elektron Octatrack, and Arturia BeatStep Pro being most common. The Arturia piece is cheap and cheery – and shows up astride an amazing number of fancy Eurorack rigs, prized for its simplicity. But having just dusted mine off, I find its sequencing really limited.

So here’s the surprise: the company that promises a really deep sequencer, one with elaborate rhythmic features that happily get you off the grid and bending time if you want, is … Pioneer.

The SQUID is certainly in a funny position. On one hand, it’s a natural for real gearheads and synth nerds. On the other, it’s a Pioneer product, so you can bet marketing and DJ press alike will try to say this is about “DJs getting into production” or … something. (No! DJs! Stop while you still can have a social life and, like, money in your bank account! You’ll become broke antisocial hermits like the rest of us!)

But – who cares who this is for? What it does appears to do … is a hell of a lot. And while it might actually have too many features (that will be I think the main element of any test), what’s surprising is that it isn’t a me-too sequencer. Despite the pads and step structure, Pioneer have made an effort to let musicians get off the grid and bend and warp time – so maybe drum machines can have soul again.

First, the predictable bit – it is a pad-based step sequencer, yes:

16 multicolored LED rubber pads with velocity sensitivity
Step record patterns
Live / real-time recording
Scale mode
Per-step automation recording (at least it seems that way – “parameter locks” or p-locks as known to users of other hardware)
Interpolation – this lets you set a beginning, middle, and end on steps and let the machine transition between them, a bit like creating automated envelopes
Harmonizer with up to six chords assigned to buttons
Chord mode with 18 built-in chord sets (I’m curious how customizable this is, as I’d rather the machine not make harmonies for me)
Transpose phrases on the fly
Up to five MIDI CCs on external devices
Randomizer (which covers everything, even CCs)
Pattern Set – this is interesting; it lets you lock in a combination of patterns into an arrangement, a bit like you can do with scenes in Ableton Live

And you can run sequences in different directions (bounce, reverse, whatever), as expected.

Multiple loops. Trigger probability – yeah, Pioneer are ready to take on Elektron here.

Already appealing and powerful, but it’s the real-time manipulation features that go in a new direction.

Speed modulation: look out, locked-bpm techno, because the SQUID can modulate speeds via six waveform shapes (triangle, sawtooth – please tell me there’s a random/S&H mode, too)

Groove bend: yes, there’s Swing, but there’s also “Groove Bend” which lets you use a slider to change timing. (I really hope there’s a way to optionally impact pitch, too, CDJ-style.)

Instant double-, half- speed triggers, too.

You can also shift the Scale and Arpeggiator knobs in real time, meaning… yeah, you can go super free jazz with this if you want.

There’s even an automatic mode that saves your jams even when you don’t hit record. (Ableton Live recently introduced this feature, joining a number of DAWs that have had it over the years.)

And yeah, it works with USB, MIDI, 2 sets of CV/gate, clock and DIN sync. It’s ready for your hardware from the 80s until now.

There’s even software for managing sequence patterns, projects, and MIDI clips – so you can save your work librarian style for live performances, and finish off tracks on the computer with patterns you made on the hardware.

Specs: 64 steps, 8 notes per step, 64 patterns, 128 projects.

I mean – we are sure this is a Pioneer product, right? Did someone get into our brains and make what we want?

I have a lot of questions. Step resolution seems fixed at 32nd notes, without mention of tuplets or other rhythms. I don’t see a listing for ppq resolution (the timing resolution of the sequencer). Performance reliability is something to test. Pioneer talks polyrhythms but I have some questions there.

But – wow. Yes. Let’s test this. Pioneer have so far given us some strange and mostly expensive “producer” devices lately, but this is different. This looks like it has the first shot of being the Pioneer gear every producer wants to buy – not just the Pioneer gear you use when you show up at the club. I can’t wait to get my hands on this so we can share with you what it does and how it might (or might not) fit your needs.

Obligatory promo video. Uh… someone stole Native Instruments’ typography and sci-fi light effects. But no matter – Pioneer made this device before NI did. (Okay, I’m buying the next round of beers in Kreuzberg after that comment, sorry, but it had to be said.)

The competition? It’s boutique, for sure, but the Synthstrom Deluge is the real rival:

It’s more compact than the Pioneer. And this really comes down to whether you want a 4×4 grid with a lot of dedicated triggers, or a whole bunch of pads and the Synthstrom’s nested editing capabilities. What’s really, really nice about the Deluge is, it has an internal synth engine and even sample playback. And ironically, that makes the Deluge better suited than Pioneer’s offering to taking a live project into a DJ booth – because you don’t have to reserve an entire table full of gear just to make sounds. That said, I think making a product dedicated to sequencing does free up the designers to focus on that workflow.

There should be room for both in the market; the workflow is very different, even apart from Synthstrom’s internal sound engine.

I feel bad I haven’t given the Deluge more time on CDM, so – now, no more excuses, I’ll get both these units in for a proper test.

All product details:

https://www.pioneerdj.com/en-us/product/production/toraiz-squid/black/overview/

I’m a child of the 80s, but every time Pioneer writes that this is “the heartbeat of your studio,” I think of old Chevrolet “heartbeat of America” ads. Is that just me? Okay, it’s just me.

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Founder of music tech forum has died; outpourings of support for Mike McGrath

One of the largest forums for music tech nerd-kind this week reports the loss of its founder: Muff Wiggler’s creator, Mike McGrath, has died. The Internet responds.

I want to first say, my heart goes out to all of you who have lost a friend, a family member, a personal connection, or even a far-off but meaningful Internet connection.

Muff Wiggler, the forum, has for more than a decade been the single most influential online community for people interested in modular synthesis, as well as a range of DIY topics – it’s a common go-to for how-to documentation on electronics, among other topics. It has also hosted widely trafficked official forums for a number of brands, including the likes of Expert Sleepers, Hexinverter, Metasonix, and Snazzy FX. It’s been the object of love, of hate – but always has played a central role in conversations about music making technology and the voltage and circuits pulsing underneath.

And it’s worth saying that the whole project really began with one person, Mike – known by many exclusively online, but host to a community of strangers who often grew close. Like a lot of the blogs and forums that support the music tech community, Muff Wiggler and its creator have even become synonymous. I know personally how demanding that can be.

It wouldn’t be any exaggeration to say that part of the explosive growth of Eurorack and modular synthesis is because of Mike’s creation of the forum – one that inspired rabid consumers at the same time as it collected knowledge of how to engineer the modules.

Photo above, at top by I Dream of Wires, who interviewed Mike in their work on the evolution of the modern modular synthesis fandom.

The Muff Wiggler platform grew into other projects – a store, live events (like a collaboration with TRASH AUDIO in Portland, Oregon), and others, which helped people meet the man behind the forum in person, some of them flying from literally the other side of the world to do so.

About that name – it comes from a handle Mike chose that combined the names of two popular Electro-Harmonix effect pedals, Big Muff and The Wiggler.

For their part, a message from Muff Wiggler’s team promises they’ll keep the site going in Mike’s absence. Kent writes on a admin post: “The moderator and admin staff are going to take the needed time to get things in order and ensure the smoothest of possible transitions. It’ll be rough for a bit.”

In the meantime, there is an outpouring of sadness and gratefulness from people who knew Mike personally and those who knew him in the virtual arena – from the community of people for whom he created a home where none had existed.

The main thread on Muff Wiggler

Synthtopia obituary

Modular giant Ken MacBeth writes: “Mike McGrath……….I hope that you find your peace now……..RIP.”

Mike himself wrote in 2017 about his passion for the project in a Facebook Group, saying it began from wanting to learn about modular synthesis, amidst options that were “intimidating” – to create instead a place where you could make friends. And he talked about the importance of music and his machines in his personal life – in good times and in dark times.

Matrixsynth has a heartfelt obituary which traces some history – even before the forum, including the first blog posts by Muff Wiggler (back when it was just Mike’s alias):

Mike created the de facto modular synth forum on the internet … and he did it in a way that put members first. He created a platform for makers and users of synths to come together and engage directly with each other.

And yeah, I think all of us who have run enterprises on the Internet for music feel this one in our gut. Again quoting the mighty Matrixsynth:

I just can’t believe he is gone. As the host of this site, I feel like I lost a fellow compatriot. Someone I had history with through the ups and downs. Running a site can be a challenge, and just knowing he was out there doing his thing helped. I am going to miss him and the lost experiences we would all have had with him around.

RIP Mike McGrath of Muff Wiggler

Finally, long-time collaborator Surachai writes, “Mike is the connective tissue that bound almost every modular user when information was scarce.”

He goes on to say:

I invited whoever was interested in welcoming the overlord of the synthesizer community to a BBQ at my place and we were met with one of the kindest and smartest people to grace our lives….

His contributions to and maintenance of information cannot be overstated. His reach and ability to connect people cannot be overstated.

Mike McGrath / Muffwiggler

You’ll also find some videos online.

http://muffwiggler.com/

https://www.muffwiggler.com/forum/index.php

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Now ‘AI’ takes on writing death metal, country music hits, more

Machine learning is synthesizing death metal. It might make your death metal radio DJ nervous – but it could also mean music software works with timbre and time in new ways. That news – plus some comical abuse of neural networks for writing genre-specific lyrics in genres like country – next.

Okay, first, whether this makes you urgently want to hear machine learning death metal or it drives you into a rage, either way you’ll want the death metal stream. And yes, it’s a totally live stream – you know, generative style. Tune in, bot out:

Okay, first it’s important to say, the whole point of this is, you need data sets to train on. That is, machines aren’t composing music, so much as creatively regurgitating existing samples based on fairly clever predictive mathematical models. In the case of the death metal example, this is SampleRNN – a recurrent neural network that uses sample material, repurposed from its original intended application working with speak. (Check the original project, though it’s been forked for the results here.)

This is a big, big point, actually – if this sounds a lot like existing music, it’s partly because it is actually sampling that content. The particular death metal example is nice in that the creators have published an academic article. But they’re open about saying they actually intend “overfitting” – that is, little bits of samples are actually playing back. Machines aren’t learning to generate this content from scratch; they’re actually piecing together those samples in interesting ways.

That’s relevant on two levels. One, because once you understand that’s what’s happening, you’ll recognize that machines aren’t magically replacing humans. (This works well for death metal partly because to non connoisseurs of the genre, the way angry guitar riffs and undecipherable shouting are plugged together already sounds quite random.)

But two, the fact that sample content is being re-stitched in time like this means this could suggest a very different kind of future sampler. Instead of playing the same 3-second audio on repeat or loop, for instance, you might pour hours or days of singing bowls into your sampler and then adjust dials that recreated those sounds in more organic ways. It might make for new instruments and production software.

Here’s what the creators say:

Thus, we want the out-put to overfit short timescale patterns (timbres, instruments, singers, percussion) and underfit long timescale patterns(rhythms, riffs, sections, transitions, compositions) so that it sounds like a recording of the original musicians playing new musical compositions in their style.

Sure enough, you can go check their code:

https://github.com/ZVK/sampleRNNICLR2017

Or read the full article:

Generating Albums with SampleRNN to Imitate Metal, Rock, and Punk Bands

The reason I’m belaboring this is simple. Big corporations like Spotify might use this sort of research to develop, well, crappy mediocre channels of background music that make vaguely coherent workout soundtracks or faux Brian Eno or something that sounded like Erik Satie got caught in an opium den and re-composed his piano repertoire in a half daze. And that would, well, sort of suck.

Alternatively, though, you could make something like a sampler or DAW more human and less conventionally predictable. You know, instead of applying a sample slice to a pad and then having the same snippet repeat every eighth note. (Guilty as charged, your honor.)

It should also be understood that, perversely, this may all be raising the value of music rather than lowering it. Given the amount of recorded music currently available, and given that it can already often be licensed or played for mere cents, the machine learning re-generation of these same genres actually requires more machine computation and more human intervention – because of the amount of human work required to even select datasets and set parameters and choose results.

DADABOTS, for their part, have made an entire channel of this stuff. The funny thing is, even when they’re training on The Beatles, what you get sounds like … well, some of the sort of experimental sound you might expect on your low-power college radio station. You know, in a good way – weird, digital drones, of exactly the sort we enjoy. I think there’s a layperson impression that these processes will magically improve. That may misunderstand the nature of the mathematics involved – on the contrary, it may be that these sorts of predictive models always produce these sorts of aesthetic results. (The same team use Markov Chains to generate track names for their Bandcamp label. Markov Chains work as well as they did a century ago; they didn’t just start working better.)

I enjoy listening to The Beatles as though an alien civilization has had to digitally reconstruct their oeuvre from some fallout-shrouded, nuclear-singed remains of the number-one hits box set post apocalypse. (“Help! I need somebody! Help! The human race is dead!” You know, like that.)

As it moves to black metal and death metal, their Bandcamp labels progresses in surreal coherence:

This album gets especially interesting, as you get weird rhythmic patterns in the samples. And there’s nothing saying this couldn’t in turn inspire new human efforts. (I once met Stewart Copeland, who talked about how surreal it was hearing human drummers learn to play the rhythms, unplugged, that he could only achieve with The Police using delay pedals.)

I’m really digging this one:

So, digital sample RNN processes mostly generate angry and angular experimental sounds – in a good way. That’s certainly true now, and could be true in the future.

What’s up in other genres?

SONGULARITY is making a pop album. They’re focusing on lyrics (and a very funny faux generated Coachella poster). In this case, though, the work is constrained to text – far easier to produce convincingly than sound. Even a Markov Chain can give you interesting or amusing results; with machine learning applied character-by-character to text, what you get is a hilarious sort of futuristic Mad Libs. (It’s also clear humans are cherry-picking the best results, so these are really humans working with the algorithms much as you might use chance operations in music or poetry.)

Whether this says anything about the future of machines, though, the dadaist results are actually funny parody.

And that gives us results like You Can’t Take My Door:

Barbed whiskey good and whiskey straight.

These projects work because lyrics are already slightly surreal and nonsensical. Machines chart directly into the uncanny valley instead of away from it, creating the element of surprise and exaggerated un-realness that is fundamental to why we laugh at a lot of humor in the first place.

This also produced this Morrissey “Bored With This Desire To Get Ripped” – thanks to the ingenious idea of training the dataset not just with Morrissey lyrics, but also Amazon customer reviews of the P90X home workout DVD system. (Like I said – human genius wins, every time.)

Or there’s Dylan mixed with negative Yelp reviews from Manhattan:

And maybe in this limited sense, the machines are telling us something about how we learn. Part of the poetic flow is about drawing on all our wetware neural connections between everything we’ve heard before – as in the half-awake state of creative vibrations. That is, we follow our own predictive logic without doing the usual censoring that keeps our language rational. Thinking this way, it’s not that we would use machine learning to replace the lyricist. Rather, just as with chance operations in the past, we can use this surreal nonsense to free ourselves from the constraints that normal behavior require.

We shouldn’t underestimate, though, human intervention in using these lyrics. The neural nets are good at stringing together short bits of words, but the normal act of composition – deciding the larger scale structure, choosing funnier bits over weaker ones, recognizing patterns – remain human.

Recurrent neural networks probably won’t be playing Coachella any time soon, but if you need a band name, they’re your go-to. More funny text mangling from the Botnik crew.

My guess is, once the hype dies down, these particular approaches will wind up joining the pantheon of drunken walks and Markov Chains and fractals and other psuedo-random or generative algorithmic techniques. I sincerely hope that we don’t wait for that to happen, but use the hype to seize the opportunity to better educate ourselves about the math underneath (or collaborate with mathematicians), and see these more hardware-intensive processes in the context of some of these older ideas.

If you want to know why there’s so much hype and popular interest, though, the human brain may itself hold the answer. We are all of us hard-wired to delight in patterns, which means arguably there’s nothing more human than being endlessly entertained by what these algorithms produce.

But you know, I’m a marathon runner in my sorry way.

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Behringer update: TC-Helicon hardware mimics IK Multimedia products

The Behringer effect: TC-Helicon, once known for its high-end gear for vocalists, is now a badge on a line of products copying the layout and design of existing IK Multimedia products.

Chinese news site Midifan has the news. (Content in Chinese language only, but the pictures tell the story reasonably well.) Midifan is careful to use the term “tribute” in describing these copies/clones or whatever you might call them, after having earned the ire of Music Group over past reporting (links below). Images here are from Midifan.

TC-Helicon and parent TC Electronic had been independent companies until acquired by MUSIC Group (aka MUSIC Tribe Global Brands, more commonly known by the name of their CEO, and their cornerstone music brand, Behringer). That news item from 2015:

MUSIC Group Acquires TC Group

The new TC-Helicon line of mobile audio / mobile guitar products uses form factors, near-identical case designs and control layouts, and in some cases even identical panel labels and symbols to products from Italian manufacturer IK Multimedia.

The products in question, and the existing products they closely resemble:
TC-Helicon GO VOCAL (IK Multimedia iRig PRE)
TC-Helicon GO TWIN (IK Multimedia iRig DUO)
TC-Helicon GO ACOUSTIC (IK Multimedia iRig Acoustic Stage)
TC-Helicon GO GUITAR PRO (IK Multimedia iRig HD 2)

See the original line of iRig products at IK Multimedia

收归 Behringer 的 TC-Helicon 也学会了致敬,IK Multimedia 哭晕在厕所 [Midifan full gallery of images, comparisons]

The products will get IK’s attention, the branding could be taken as a shot at Japan. Roland uses the GO brand for its mobile products: GO:MIXER, GO:PIANO, and GO:KEYS. This line is both intended for use with smartphones and targeted at beginners.

Indicating they intend to try to protect that trademark, Roland filed for protection for its GO line last fall. (There’s one refusal listed, but non-final.)

Do check the Midifan story for a more detailed breakdown.

Unlike some recent Behringer “tributes,” you couldn’t argue the GO Series is bringing back a decades-old analog design or making the category more affordable. Street prices on the TC line look roughly in line with pricing on the IK products that preceded them, and those prices are in turn under a hundred bucks. Major US retailers like Sweetwater, Guitar Center, and MusiciansFriend are already selling the TC products.

In terms of listed specs, the GO Series also appear to correspond exactly to the associated IK products – “clones” would be the most appropriate word. (The iRig Pre and GO Vocal, for instance, share 9V battery, jack and I/O configuration, placement, and control layout. The TC unit is slightly larger.)

This sort of precedent could harm the music products industry. Cloned products from any manufacturer could easily let competitors establish which categories are lucrative, and then save money twice over – spared the expense of designing the product itself, as well as ramping up production and determining what sells in the marketplace. In the past, what has stopped a scenario like this has been brand – a no-name clone could come along, but musicians are more likely to trust a brand they know and can easily find. But now that Music Group owns respected brands like TC-Helicon, and has distribution in the same channels, that barrier could disappear.

There are already implications for IK should this product catch on; more so, if the pattern is repeated. New product designs could be endangered, if another company can clone the design work, avoid all the risk of introducing a new product to the market, and then even slightly undercut price.

This is not to say TC doesn’t continue to represent new design – a new GO-branded mixer for audio use by streamers appears to be original (unless someone wants to dispute that). The other way this could go would be for Music Tribe to dilute the value of their own TC-Helicon brand, much as Behringer has become associated with low-cost copies in the minds of some consumers.

For now, IK’s existing market position means their products will show up first when you search, and have some customer reviews on the US sites I checked.

We’ll watch to see if there’s any legal action taken against Music Tribe over these products.

In other Behringer/Music Tribe legal news

Disputes between Music Group and other players in the industry continue to spill over into the courts.

Family-owned US maker Auratone is locked in trademark litigation with Music Tribe over the Auratone name, following the death of Auratone’s founder Jack Wilson. You can follow that case online, though there’s not yet a decision.

The Superior Court of the State of California in San Francisco County did rule that Music Group was obligated to pay over $100,000 in combined costs and legal fees to Dave Smith Instruments and DSI employee Anthony Karavidas. (California has robust anti-SLAPP protections, which are intended to stop litigation from gagging public speech.)

Previously:

On the DSI case:

Behringer sued Dave Smith Instruments, forum posters, and lost

Behringer’s tangle with leading Chinese music tech news site Midifan (which has since prompted the use of the word “tribute” in favor of copycat):

Behringer threatens legal action against a site that called it a copycat

And Behringer responded to that CDM report (and additionally questioned this site’s neutrality and reporting):

Behringer responds to reports, defends reverse engineering

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AKAI’s cute little MPK mini keyboard now has internal sounds

AKAI’s MPK mini was already something of a sleeper hit – a simple MIDI controller keyboard that was small enough to be irresistible. But the latest revision makes it useful even all by its lonesome.

MPK mini play is what AKAI are calling the latest edition. It’s actually the second major revision of this unassuming little keyboard. The gamepad-style pitch/mod joystick had already packed in a bit more control features, in addition to the handy pads, banks, and a built-in arpeggiator.

But all of that was just for use with a computer, connected via USB. The “play” version will now work standalone. There are 128 built-in instrument sounds and 10 drum kits in the internal sound module, plus a crisp OLED display so you can find the sound you want. AA battery power means this is all at your ready without even power nearby. There’s even a built-in speaker so you can hear what you’re doing.

You can also make Favorites, which compile a Keys patch, a Drums patch, and settings for the knobs.

Heck, it’s even got a sustain pedal input and a headphone jack.

I’ll be totally honest – I tried to look up what sounds are in there, and couldn’t. I know the screenshot already has an 808 kit – sold yet?

It almost doesn’t seem to matter. I can’t think of another keyboard that could work as an iPad or computer accessory on USB power, then also a standalone jamming keyboard. Studio ready, picnic ready, too. Seems a good move in time for summer (Northern Hemisphere, anyway).

I gush only because the MPK mini is one of those things that you buy sort of as a throwaway, then wind up using more than everything else, just because it’s so small and convenient. It also has the advantage of taking up so little space that even when other gear in the studio competes for space, it has a way of staying by your computer keyboard instead of going on the shelf.

(Judge me by my size, do you?)

https://www.akaipro.com/mpk-mini-play-mpkminiplay

Midifan in China have a hands-on with more pictures / unboxing (worth looking even before you reach for Google Translate to try to work out what they’re saying, if you don’t speak Chinese).

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Novation’s Bass Station II just got an Aphex Twin mode, crazy features

The Aphex Twin-ification of synths continues – and who’s complaining? Novation’s Bass Station II gets some mind-warping mental sound features, including key-by-key madness from Richard James.

Bass Station II is the powerful analog monosynth from Novation, with sub oscillator, extra acid filter, ring mod, loads of hands-on controls, an arp and keyboard, and all the extras. And like Novation’s full range, it’s also been getting double-stuffed after the fact with extras via firmware updates.

In this case, the headline feature just happens to come from a concept by sonic experimental legend Aphex Twin aka Richard James.

It’s not his first time – as he’s done with some other makers, he encouraged sound design features on the Bass Station II before, in the form of micro-tuning. (Thanks, Richard, for advocating for this feature! Let’s join the revolution.)

So behind unassuming version 4.14, you get an “AFX mode” to get more Aphex Twin-y, and other features:

  • AFX Mode: key-by-key parameters on every note morph your sound (whoa)
  • Fixed duration envelopes (decay slider sets only the duration of the sustain stage instead of when envelopes release)
  • Detunable sub oscillator (so both macro and fine tuning controls can be applied to the sub – that’s the low oscillator beneath)
  • Envelope retrigger count (useful for drum synthesis)
  • Oscillator glide diverge – lets you set the glide time of oscillator 2 relative to oscillator 1 for… uh, diverging glides (think thick, gooey sounds and portamento special effects)

These are actually all potentially useful and deep, but AFX mode is both the most compelling – and the weirdest to explain. Here’s a demo video from Novation’s CALC:

So the basic idea here is, you assign synthesis parameters to each note. It’s a little like having sliced up samples and spread them around the keyboard, only here you’ve done it with different sound parameters. And this goes in different directions – different sounds that you play as an ensemble like a drum kit, what Novation describe as “seed” variations of a single patch, or more nuanced shifts up and down.

Really, it’s an extension of what all keyboard assignments do – only they normally do it only with pitch and crude tracking of pitch to one or two other parameters. Here, you can go further.

Really, it’s a slight misnomer to only make Aphex Twin references here, as you could get quite subtle and practical. But it’s also exciting to imagine going off the deep end with a single, mad preset.

I know people tell me the millennials like video better than reading or something or other like this, so I’ve captured a video of a prominent YouTube influencer trying AFX Mode for the first time and showing his reactions:

And yeah, CALC is … a busy, busy man.

Hella fun to play with. I wonder if something similar might be applied to the Circuit Mono Station. Let’s watch.

https://novationmusic.com/synths/bass-station-ii

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Reaktor adds front-panel patching, plus a modular you can use for free

For the first time in Reaktor, you now get patching right on Eurorack-style modules – and there’s even an edition you can use entirely for free. Reaktor Blocks Base is a free edition; Blocks Prime is included with the full version of Reaktor. Here’s a first look:

There are 50 pre-built racks, but this one steals our hearts – a Buchla Easel-inspired creation. BLOCKS PRIMES – Blocks Easel.

A higher level for Reaktor

Native Instruments got its start building a modular, building-block tool for making your own synths and effects (Generator, which grew into today’s Reaktor). So patching has always been part of the company’s DNA – to the point that Reaktor is still frequently used (as far as I know) for prototyping new tools internally.

But these are really development tools. Unless you’re part of a small group of people who get really fluent in Reaktor, you probably separate the “I’m building a tool” phase of work from the “now I’m making a track” or “now I’m going to try playing.” One nice aspect of Reaktor is that the interface acknowledges this: there’s a separate view for patching together your creation (the Structure), and a different view with all the bits with knobs you turn and so on (the Panel). And that’s often a good thing, as Reaktor ensembles now can get down to the level of DSP processing, meaning the Structure can be layers deep and expsnavie. This also makes sense in the world of the computer, where you’ll never run out of patch cords or modules or knobs or physical space – only CPU power or memory.

Hardware modular is normally designed differently. Modules usually aren’t just doing a simple task like mixing two signals; they combine a number of functions into a musical whole. It’s still a tool, and still only a component of a larger instrument, but that component is more likely to be higher-level – a particular kind of filter, a sequencer, a reverb – and with a pre-selected set of parameters you might want to control.

And most importantly, patching here is on the front panel. Patching in traditional hardware and software development happens under the hood, but patching a modular can be part of playing it.

The cool thing about Reaktor Blocks was that it added just this sort of interface, plus a bunch of amazing-sounding modules using the latest NI tech in analog modeling and digital techniques. And while other tools do this, too (VCV Rack, Softube Modular, Voltage Modular, and long before that Propellerhead Reason) – you didn’t have to give up any of the power under the hood. It’s still Reaktor, through and through.

The less-cool thing about Reaktor Blocks was that it forced you to dive into the Structure to change anything. And that just feels wrong – you lose that feeling of easy patching you get with hardware.

So that’s why today’s Reaktor 6.3 update is very big news, hiding behind a very small version number change.

You can patch on the front panel.

If you own Reaktor, you get front-panel patching and a bunch of modules for free.

If you don’t own Reaktor, you can get started with a set of 28 modules and a player that runs for free. (Speaking as an educator, that means I now can choose from Reaktor, VCV Rack, and Pure Data combined with Automatonism if I want to introduce patching concepts to people without making them buy a license first.)

Your Reaktor Rack

If Blocks got you thinking of Reaktor as a rack of modules, and not just a software display for patching, you’ll like the additions in this update.

Now when you first load Reaktor, you even get a screen that indicates that Native Instruments now understands that people use Reaktor in different ways. There’s “play”: some people just want to play pre-built ensembles – using the power of Reaktor’s ability to create anything, just letting, you know, someone else build it for them. (Hey, you can always go hack together these things later!) There’s “patch” – this is the high-level, musician-friendly modular level represented by Blocks and heavily influenced by Eurorack. And there’s “Build” – basically, Reaktor as we knew it before.

Despite the splash screen, the great thing about Reaktor remains that those levels aren’t actually segregated in any way, provided you have a full license and not just Player. NI are just helping you imagine, navigate, and use those different levels more easily. Each is always one click or one keyboard shortcut away.

It’s really the “Rack” idea that’s exciting. There’s a new “Ports and Wires” view right on the toolbar, and the ability to create a new Rack. Inside, it’s the Reaktor 6 and Reaktor Blocks you already know – so everything is just as editable as before. It’s just better organized if you’re into Blocks.

Tons and tons and tons of content in there – modules, example patches, tutorials, and so on. Even the free version has plenty to play with and use for learning.

The new Blocks modules – BASE

Blocks BASE is the 24-module starter kit, plus 35 preset racks. Even in Reaktor Player, you can modify and re-patch these tools, now totally for free.

It’s not a bad collection, either, with the tools from the excellent Bento Box collection. (This is roughly akin to VCV Rack’s “Fundamental” collection, but while VCV opt for Doepfer-style bread-and-butter options, Bento Box have a lot of character all their own – both sonically and in user interface.)

That includes:
VCA
SVF Filter
Crossfade
Mix
ADSR Envelope
LFO
Oscillator
CV Processor
Sample & Hold
4 Mods Sequencer
8 Steps Sequencer

For getting started learning synthesis, Base has you covered – without spending a penny. Here’s a free example on amplitude modulation.

Sinister Sauce, one of the examples included in the free edition.

There’s already a nice tutorial, with additive and subtractive synthesis, amplitude and frequency modulation, and some more far-out techniques covered – suitable for beginners but pretty interesting even to advanced users.

In fact, I’m going to force myself to build some interesting patches with just these, even though I have the full Reaktor license. They’re organized neatly into a subfolder, and I figure it’s a chance to improve my patching chops without being overwhelmed by options.

The new Blocks modules – PRIME

PRIMES is another selection of 23 modules. (If you really want, you can just have these for 99 EUR/USD, although I recommend you just get a full Reaktor license for $199, since it now includes PRIMES from version 6.3.)

It’s also a greatest hits of NI in a way – with the gritty distorted DRIVER filter, a sequencer from MASSIVE, Minimoog-inspired oscillators and filter from MONARK, and so on.

There’s a ton of stuff there – West Coast, East Coast, coast of the river Spree, no coast: filters, a “multiwave oscillator,” clock divider and quantizer, a cool formant-based morphing filter, various sequencers, a comb filter, Rounds delay and reverb and LFO, and a dedicated West Coast selection with filter, envelope, oscillator, and sequencer (though some of the other modules could be used in a West Coast-style way, too).

Flying Carpet, another tasty-looking example. Reaktor 6 users, this stuff will just magically show up when you update in Native Access.

And it’s a platform

Blocks has already seen widespread interest as a platform for making new modules; it’s a format that can have its own UI, with the innards built in Reaktor. That also means that developers with existing Reaktor creation skills can transfer them here.

Now we’re really seeing Blocks as a platform, where you might create and sell software modules for musicians. NI says they’ve got 200 modules on schedule for release in 2019, including some with a serious hardware pedigree – so far, they’re naming TOYBOX, Genki Instruments, Holonic Systems, ACL, and Michael Hettrick.

These all run inside Reaktor 6, but also Reaktor 6 Player. That’s also a big development – in the past, making stuff for Reaktor meant your customers had to shell out a couple hundred bucks for Reaktor. That’s a pretty limited market. And competing rack propositions for developers are similar: Softube Modular, Propellerhead’s Rack Extensions, or Ableton’s Max for Live all require users to buy licenses. Reaktor Player (and VCV Rack) remain the two platforms you can target where your customers only buy your modules.

There is one catch for now, though. The new Blocks format for now is only open to partnering developers, because of technical restrictions. Native Instruments says they’re exploring how they may expand this functionality to the Reaktor community and Reaktor User Library contributors in the future, however. We’ll stay tuned for more details.

All in all, this is a refreshing update, though. It’s actually nice that you don’t have to adapt to a significantly changed Reaktor 6. Your familiar modules are all there, the Reaktor features are all there, you can still drop in your favorite ensembles from years or decades ago. You just now can patch on the front panel and get a bunch of new modules and tutorials and examples.

I think the thing to watch will be whether NI over time can build this as a successful developer platform, and harmonize the contributions of its user community – including those who are happy to make weird and non-commercial modules available for free.

I’ll be sure to share more developments there and other resources into how to learn and use this thing.

In the mean time, we have a lot to play with. I’ve been really happy with the test builds and can’t wait to dive deeper.

Reaktor 6 Blocks Base

Reaktor 6

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Arturia’s 3 Compressors get creative, producer-friendly

Arturia have followed up their hit “3 Filters…” and “3 Preamps You’ll Actually Use” with the inevitable trio of compressors – but as with the other bundles, there are some twists (and lower intro prices on now).

Before they expanded into doing their own MIDI controllers and synth hardware, Arturia rose to prominence on their modeling chops. And they have tended to spin those modeling engines and competency in recreating vintage gear into spin-off products. The trick with the “3 [things] You’ll Actually Use” series has been rising above the crowd of vintage remakes now available to music producers. So that’s been about doing two things: one, picking three blockbusters to reproduce, and two, adding some functionality extras that lets producers get creative with the results.

And that’s to me what has made the series interesting – while lots of vendors will sell you reproductions of classic studio equipment, these have been ones you might well use in the production process. It’s not only about perfecting a recording or mix, but also about integrating into your creative process as you’re developing ideas.

The compressors trio go that route, too – so in addition to using these routinely in mixing or mastering, you can also use them for some inventive sidechain or saturation.

The three compressors getting the Arturia treatment – and the circuitry inside:

UREI 1176 [FET transistor]
DBX 165A [solid-state VCA]
Gates STA-Level [tube]

The 1176 is pretty ubiquitously desired at this point – and of course among other recreations you can keep it in the family of creator Bill Putnam Sr. and try Universal Audio’s own creation. It’s something you can use for subtle tonal shifts even at lower levels, in addition to cranking up compression if you want. So why add another reproduction to the pile? Arturia has added a “link” button for automatic volume leveling if you want – giving you the 1176 sound but more modern behavior on demand.

And you can use the 1176 as a sidechain. Oh – wait, that’s really huge. And there’s a creative “Time Warp” feature with pre-delay. So thanks to the fact that Arturia aren’t being quite as precious with the historical design as some of their rivals, you can choose either an “authentic” 1176 recreation, or something that’s 1176-ish but does things that were impossible on the original analog hardware.

It’s surprising enough for the 1176 to be new again, but the other models here have some similar ideas.

Next, you’ve got the “Over Easy” 165A, an essential compressor in a lot of studios, which has both some nice dirty, gritty timbral character of its own and punchy processing plus Mid/Side processing. For this model, Arturia have introduced a whole new panel of additional controls that fold out when you want them in the UI.

Don’t be fooled by the skeumorphic knobs; the original DBX didn’t have these options. That also includes their “Time Warp” pre-delay, convenient side-chaining (here with an easy “manual mode” trigger so you can preview what it’ll sound like), and now an integrated EQ. That EQ is modeled on SSL-style channels, so it’s a bit like having a pre-configured mixer rig to use with your sidechaining.

The STA-Level is maybe the most interesting of the three as far as rarity. It also gets (optional) modernization, with an input-output link for automatic leveling, a parallel compression mode that’s integrated with the software (plus an easy “mix” knob for adjusting how much parallel compression you want to hear), and sidechaining.

All in all, it’s an intriguing approach. On one hand, you get panels that look and operate and sound more like the original than a lot of software models at the low end of the price range. (For instance, the compressors added recently to Logic Pro X, while free, are more loose impressions than authentic recreations.)

But on the other, and here’s where Arturia clearly has an edge, you get new sidechaining and auto-leveling and other features that make these more fun to use in modern contexts and easier to drop into your creative flow.

Sidechaining these kinds of compressor models alone I think is a win; the convenience of the UIs and the fact that these are native on any platform to me makes them invaluable – maybe even compared to the existing filter and preamp offerings.

I’ve been playing around with them a bit already; I’m especially curious if I can run a couple in a live context – will report back on that. But I’m already impressed on sound and functionality.

Everything is on sale, so if you own existing Arturia stuff, you could get these for as little as $/EUR 49 (or half off if you’re new to the series), or in discounted bundles. You can also buy the compressors individually, if there’s one that really catches your fancy.

Plus, there are some new tutorials to get you started:

https://www.arturia.com/products/software-effects/comps-bundle/resources#tutorials

Honestly, just one wish – this is such a useful bundle of effects in the nine Arturia has built, I’d love to see it on Linux. It might be the only bundle you really need.

3 Compressors You’ll Actually Need [Arturia]

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Immerse yourself in the full live AV concert by raster’s Belief Defect

Computer and modular machine textures collide with explosions of projected particles and glitching colored textures. Now the full concert footage of the duo Belief Defect (on Raster) is out.

It’s tough to get quality full-length live performance video – previously writing about this performance I had to refer to a short excerpt; a lot of the time you can only say “you had to be there” and point to distorted cell phone snippets. So it’s nice to be able to watch a performance end-to-end from the comfort of your chair.

Transport yourself to the dirigible-scaled hollowed-out power plant above Kraftwerk (even mighty Tresor club is just the basement), from Atonal Festival. It’s a set that’s full of angry, anxious, crunchy-distorted goodness:

(Actually even having listened to the album a lot, it’s nice to sit and retrace the full live set and see how they composed/improvised it. I would say record your live sets, fellow artists, except I know about how the usual Recording Curse works – when the Zoom’s batteries are charged up and the sound isn’t distorted and you remember to hit record is so often … the day you play your worst. They escaped this somehow.)

And Belief Defect represent some of the frontier of what’s possible in epic, festival mainstage-sized experimentalism, both analog and digital, sonic and visual. I got to write extensively about their process, with some support from Native Instruments, and more in-depth here:

BELIEF DEFECT ON THEIR MASCHINE AND REAKTOR MODULAR RIG [Native Instruments blog]

— with more details on how you might apply this to your own work:

What you can learn from Belief Defect’s modular-PC live rig

While we’re talking Raster label – the label formerly Raster-Noton before it again divided so Olaf Bender’s Raster and Carsten Nicolai’s Noton could focus on their own direction – here’s some more. Dasha Rush joined Electronic Beats for a rare portrait of her process and approach, including the live audiovisual-dance collaboration with dancer/choreographer Valentin Tszin and, on visuals, Stanislav Glazov. (Glazov is a talented musician, as well, producing and playing as Procedural aka Prcdrl, as well as a total Touch Designer whiz.)

And Dasha’s work, elegantly balanced between club and experimental contexts with every mix between, is always inspired.

Here’s that profile, though I hope to check in more shortly with how Stas and Valentin work with Kinect and dance, as well as how Stas integrates visuals with his modular sound:

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This radio station broadcasts sounds of rats – and it sounds amazing

Rat communication, adjusted for human hearing, makes for surprisingly musical listening. That’s right – you may enjoy the sweet serenade of an actual rat burrow on NYC’s Lower East Side.

The results: some fantastic ultrasonic interspecies live performance, and an indication of how much music we might imagine lies beyond traditional human hearing.

When we talk transhumanism or post-human art, we’re not kidding. Media artist Brian House has made projects out of machine learning and even acidic toxic waste from a mine. (I actually know Brian from having done a session for the New York Times R&D group.) But easily my favorite is urban intonation / rat radio.

In contrast to imagining sounds of the bleats of goats or the songs of humpback whales, your first – and very apt question – might be “wait, what do rats sound like?” Good question, because you’ve definitely never heard them. Rats do communicate vocally, but above the threshold of our human hearing (higher than 20 kHz).

So Brian has helped us out by pitch shifting ratspeak into our normal human vocal range. That involves the use of ultrasonic mics and digital manipulation; the first version used samples, but then he went to live radio. He tells us his livestream from a rat burrow underneath the Lower East Side is now back on the air and – frankly, this is definitely my new favorite radio station.

The actual Manhattan rat burrow – where all this action is happening, and ‘studio’ to rat radio.

The results are to me fascinatingly musical – sounding at various times like the riffs of a practicing opera singer warming up, or an angular avant-garde alien jazz horn solo, or a more mournful cry. (I find this especially strange, as on a weird sound art project I was practicing imagining alien or interspecies vocalizations and came up with something a bit like this, suggesting I am indeed part rat. No surprise there.)

“Everything below 20 kHz is filtered out,” Brian tells us, “and there is a significant amount of noise filtering in addition to the pitch/time manipulation.” But otherwise, this is really the sound. “Anecdotally, the city rats are way more musical than lab rats,” he says. That makes some sense – rats in the wild presumably have more to talk about, especially in the heart of it all, rat nirvana Manhattan. (Makes me a bit homesick, really.)

Bizarre as it may seem, there’s a real program here – and the kind of interspecies awareness we may need as we face down global environmental calamity. As Brian writes:

Living under the paving stones, consuming our refuse, and incubating our diseases, the city rat is a ubiquitous part of global, urban capitalism. The revulsion rats inspire actually speaks of our closeness to them—rattus norvegicus burrows through the supposed human / nature divide. And just as we continually negotiate our place in a dynamic city, so have rats developed elaborate social codes intertwined with urban architecture and geography.

So sing on, rats. If we hear something like “so long, and thanks for all the pizza,” we may want to worry.

https://brianhouse.net/works/rat_radio/

Rat photo credit: CC-BY-SA Kai Schreiber.

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