Mics that record in “3D” ambisonics are the next big thing

Call it the virtual reality microphone … or just think of it as an evolution of microphones that capture sounds more as you hear them. But mics purporting to give you 3D recording are arriving in waves – and they could change both immersive sound and how we record music.

Let’s back up from the hype a little bit here. Once we’re talking virtual reality or you’re imagining people in goggles, Lawnmower Man style, we’re skipping ahead to the application of these mic solutions, beyond the mics themselves.

The microphone technology itself may wind up being the future of recording with or without consumers embracing VR tech.

Back in the glorious days of mono audio, a single microphone that captured an entire scene was … well, any single microphone. And in fact, to this day there are plenty of one-mic recording rigs – think voice overs, for instance.

The reason this didn’t satisfy anyone is more about human perception than it is technology. Your ears and brain are able to perceive extremely accurate spatial positioning in more or less a 360-degree sphere through a wide range of frequencies. Plus, the very things that screw up that precise spatial perception – like reflections – contribute to the impact of sound and music in other ways.

And so we have stereo. And with stereo sound delivery, a bunch of two-microphone arrangements become useful ways of capturing spatial information. Eventually, microphone makers work out ways of building integrated capsules with two microphone diaphragms instead of just one, and you get the advantages of two mics in a single housing. Those in turn are especially useful in mobile devices.

So all these buzzwords you’re seeing in mics all of a sudden – “virtual reality,” “three-dimensional” sound, “surround mics,” and “ambisonic mics” are really about extending this idea. They’re single microphones that capture spatial sound, just like those stereo mics, but in a way that gives them more than just two-channel left/right (or mid/center) information. To do that, these solutions have two components:

1. A mic capsule with multiple diaphragms for capturing full-spectrum sound from all directions
2. Software processing so you can decode that directional audio, and (generally speaking) encode it into various surround delivery formats or ambisonic sound

(“Surround” here generally means the multichannel formats beyond just stereo; ambisonics are a standard way of encoding full 360-degree sound information, so not just positioning on the same plane as your ears, but above and below, too.)

The B360 ambisonics encoder from plug-in maker WAVES.

The software encoding is part of what’s interesting here. Once you have a mic that captures 360-degree sound, you can use it in a number of ways. These sorts of mic capsules are useful in modeling different microphones, since you can adjust the capture pattern in software after the fact. So these spherical mics could model different classic mics, in different arrangements, making it seem as though you recorded with multiple mics when you only used one. Just like your computer can become a virtual studio full of gear, that single mic can – in theory, anyway – act like more than one microphone. That may prove useful for production applications other than just “stuff for VR.”

There are a bunch of these microphones showing up all at once. I’m guessing that’s for two reasons – one, a marketing push around VR recording, but two, likely some system-on-a-chip developments that make this possible. (All those Chinese-made components could get hit with hefty US tariffs soon, so we’ll see how that plays out. But I digress.)

Here is a non-comprehensive selection of examples of new or notable 360-degree mics.

8ball

Maker: HEAR360, a startup focused on this area

Cost: US$2500

The pitch: Here’s a heavy-duty, serious solution – camera-mountable, “omni-binaural” mic that gives you 8 channels of sound that comes closest to how we hear, complete with head tracking-capable recordings. PS, if you’re wondering which DAW to use – they support Pro Tools and, surprise, Reaper.

Who it’s for: High-end video productions focused on capturing spatial audio with the mic.

https://hear360.io/shop/8ball

NT-SF1

Maker: RØDE, collaborating with 40-year veteran of these sorts of mics, Soundfield (acquired by RØDE’s parent in 2016)

Cost: US$999

The pitch: Make full-360, head-trackable recordings in a single mic (records in A-format, converts to B-format) for ambisonic audio you can use across formats. Works with Dolby Atmos, works with loads of DAWs (Reaper and Pro Tools, Cubase and Nuendo, and Logic Pro). 4-channel to the 8-ball’s titular eight, but much cheaper and with more versatile software.

Who it’s for: Studios and producers wanting a moderately-priced, flexible solution right now. Plus it’s a solid mic that lets you change mic patterns at will.

Software matters as does the mic in these applications; RØDE supports DAWs like Cubase/Nuendo, Pro Tools, Reaper, and Logic.

https://en.rode.com/nt-sf1

H3-VR

Maker: ZOOM

Cost: US$350

The pitch: ZOOM is making this dead simple – like the GoPro camera of VR mics. 4-capsule ambisonic mic plus 6-axis motion sensor with automatic positioning and level detection promise to make this the set-it-and-forget-it solution. And to make this more mobile, the encoding and recording is included on the device itself. Record ambisonics, stereo inaural, or just use it like a normal stereo mic, all controlled onboard with buttons or using an iOS device as a remote. Your recording is saved on SD cards, even with slate tone and metadata. And you can monitor the 3D sound, sort of, using stereo binaural output of the ambisonic signal (not perfect, but you’ll get the idea).

Who it’s for: YouTube stars wanting to go 3D, obviously, plus one-stop live streaming and music streaming and recording. The big question mark here to me is what’s sacrificed in quality for the low price, but maybe that’s a feature, not a bug, given this area is so new and people want to play around.

https://www.zoom-na.com/products/field-video-recording/field-recording/zoom-h3-vr-handy-recorder

ZYLIA

Maker: ZYLIA, a Polish startup that IndieGogo-funded its first run last year. But the electronics inside come from Infineon, the German semiconductor giant that spun off of Siemens.

Cost: US$1199 list (Pro) / $699 for the basic model

The pitch: This futuristic football contains some 19 mic capsules to the 4-8 above. But the idea isn’t necessarily VR – instead, Zylia claims they use this technology to automatically separate sound sources from this single device. In other words, put the soccer ball in your studio, and the software separates out your drums, keys, and vocalist. Or get the Pro model and capture 3rd-order ambisonics – with more spatial precision than the other offerings here, if it works as advertised.

Who it’s for: Musicians wanting a new-fangled solution for multichannel recording from just one mic (on the basic model), useful for live recording and education, or people doing 3D recordings wanting the same plug-and-play simplicity and more spatial information.

Oh yeah, also – 69dB signal-to-noise ratio is nothing to sneeze at.

Pro Tools Expert did a review late last year, though I think we soon need a more complete review for the 3D applications.

http://www.zylia.co/

What did we miss? With this area growing fast, plenty, I suspect, so sound off. This is one big area in mics to watch, for sure – and the latest example that software processing and intelligence will continue to transform music and audio hardware, even if the fundamental hardware components remain the same.

And, uh, I guess we’ll all soon wind up like this guy?

(Photo source, without explanation, is the very useful archives of the ambisonics symposium.

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Free Ableton Live add-ons will f*** up your mixes and insult you

That headline isn’t a mistake. If you’ve ever wanted a plug-in to f*** up your mixes, sabotage you, insult you, or “get passive aggressive,” this free collection of Max for Live Devices is for you.

Not to completely spoil the results here, but as I write this, my screen is covered with virtual bees. I cannot make the bees go away. I thought the “bees” instrument was going to make some sounds, but instead it has brought bees onto my screen, both inside and outside Ableton Live.

That’s the sort of results you can expect from Really Useful Plugins.

ru.bomb will take your mix and completely f*** it up, as my headline promises.

ru.no is basically an onscreen version of the nagging doubts inside your head.

Sad.

That is way too much f***ing reverb.

And that’s just the beginning.

Simon Kitmine and David Synth bring you 12 instruments, audio effects and midi effects for Ableton Live, featuring:

Insults!
Games!
Bombs!
Self importance!
Sabotage!
Ways to magically sound like everyone else!
The Chuckle Brothers!
Annoying insects!
Exploration!
Passive aggression!

Really Useful Plugins Set #1 now available!

How much would you pay for such a collection? $99? $299? $999 for a multi-seat license? Well, it’s … free, for some reason. (Can’t imagine why. Free as in bees. Erm, beer.)

Max for Live is required, so Live Suite or Live with the M4L add-on. I’ve said before that’s worth it. Now, there’s no doubt.

You know, it really is too much reverb.

Sigh.

PS, if you appreciate this kind of insight, definitely check out #gothscreenshots:

https://www.instagram.com/goth_screenshots/

It’s the curated collection of digital artist Sougwen, who has also participated at Ableton Loop, bringing this all full circle.

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Watch The Black Madonna DJ live from … inside a video game

Algorithmic selection, soulless streaming music, DJ players that tell you what to play next and then do it for you… let’s give you an alternative, and much more fun and futuristic future. Let’s watch The Black Madonna DJ from inside a video game.

This is some reality-bending action here. The Black Madonna, an actual human, played an actual DJ set in an actual club, as that entire club set was transformed into a virtual rendition. That in turn was then streamed as a promotion via Resident Advisor. Eat your heart out, Boiler Room. Just pointing cameras at people? So last decade.

From Panorama Bar to afterhours in the uncanny valley:

This is less to do with CDM, but… I enjoy watching the trailer about the virtual club, just because I seriously never get tired of watching Marea punching a cop. (Create Digital Suckerpunches?)

Um… apologies to members of law enforcement for that. Just a game.

So, back to why this is significant.

First, I think actually The Black Madonna doesn’t get nearly the credit she deserves for how she’s been able to make her personality translate across the cutthroat-competitive electronic music industry of the moment. There’s something to learn from her approach – to the fact that she’s relatable, as she plays and in her outspoken public persona.

And somehow, seeing The Black Madonna go all Andy Serkis here puts that into relief. (See video at bottom.) I mean, what better metaphor is there for life in the 21st century? You have to put on a weird, uncomfortable, hot suit, then translate all the depth of your humanness into a virtual realm that tends to strip you of dimensions, all in front of a crowd of strangers online you can’t see. You have to be uncannily empathic inside the uncanny valley. A lot of people see the apparent narcissism on social media and assume they’re witnessing a solution to the formula, when in fact it may be simply signs of desperation.

Marea isn’t the only DJ to play Grand Theft Auto’s series, but she’s the one who seems to actually manage to establish herself as a character in the game.

To put it bluntly: whatever you think of The Black Madonna, take this as a license to ignore the people who try to stop you from being who you are. It’s not going to get you success, but it is going to allow you to be human in a dehumanizing world.

And then there’s the game itself, now a platform for music. Rockstar Games have long been incurable music nerds – yeah, our people. That’s why you hear well curated music playlists all over the place, as well as elaborate interactive audio and music systems for industry-leading immersion. They’re nerds enough that they’ve even made some side trips like trying to make a beat production tool for the Sony PSP with Timbaland. (Full disclosure: I consulted on an educational program around that.)

This is unquestionably a commercial, mass market platform, but it’s nonetheless a pretty experimental concept.

Yes, yes – lots of flashbacks to the days of Second Life and its fledgling attempts to work as a music venue.

The convergence of virtual reality tech, motion capture, and virtual venues on one hand with music, the music industry, and unique electronic personalities on the other I think is significant – even if only as a sign of what could be possible.

I’m talking now to Rockstar to find out more about how they pulled this off. Tune in next time as we hopefully get some behind-the-scenes look at what this meant for the developers and artists.

While we wait on that, let’s nerd out with Andy Serkis about motion capture performance technique:

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Apple killing app affiliates is about more than just the affiliate program

Apple is terminating its affiliate program for iOS and Mac apps, effective October 1. That move is seeing a backlash from developers – and could discourage press outlets from covering apps.

Full disclosure: CDM added affiliate links for apps in our Apps section, which is helmed by Ashley Elsdon. In fact, this is at the moment how CDM supports Ashley’s contributions to CDM; we simply migrated his affiliate program from his former site Palm Sounds to CDM, and had planned to further develop this in the future.

But it’s not just media who are concerned about the change. I’ve heard from several developers who have emphasized that the move will cost them, too. Those developers often include affiliate links on their own sites, thus taking a portion of Apple’s own royalties. The logic is simple: if you go get an app through the developer’s site itself, it’s really their site, not the Apple App Store, that is helping you find that app. By eliminating the affiliate program, the argument goes, Apple is essentially claiming marketing services as part of their 30% royalty share without doing anything.

Some examples from public comments on Twitter:

(Intermorphic is the ground-breaking developer of interactive music tools that has worked with the likes of Brian Eno; David Lublin is a Mac developer and founder of Vidvox, creators of VDMX.)

This saga began effectively in 2017; Apple pledged to drop the commission rate from 7% to 2.5%, then, following a backlash, limited that change to In-App Purchases only.

The announcement from Apple is itself revealing:

With the launch of the new App Store on both iOS and macOS and their increased methods of app discovery, we will be removing apps from the affiliate program. … All other content types (music, movies, books, and TV) remain in the affiliate program.

[emphasis mine]

Forget 7% or 2.5% or 0%. The real story here is not just about affiliates, but about Apple’s intended avenue of discovery. That is, they want you to discover, learn about, and consume apps entirely on their platform. They’ve made moves to hire their own editorial staff. Effectively, they’re keeping resources inside Apple.

And that itself should be chilling. The Internet has transformed quickly in the face of dominance of a handful of corporations. And those corporations are all tightening their grip. In the phone market, two companies – Apple and Google – have an effective duopoly. In search, one company – Google. (One exception is the search recommendations provided by … Apple.) Online advertising is dominated by Google. Retail is dominated by Amazon. Social media is effectively now just Facebook (via Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp).

Long-time independent Apple publisher TidBITS has some tough words on the situation, from industry veteran Adam Engst. And you should listen to him, as Adam is very much in that “last man standing” category as we’ve watched independent technology media collapse.

Apple’s Termination of App Store Affiliate Payments Is Unnecessary, Mean-Spirited, and Harmful

I was going to say, it isn’t necessarily Apple’s obligation to keep us alive except … well, it absolutely is. Independent media contributed to the growth of Apple’s platforms, and now with iPhone device sales flattening, the massively wealthy corporation may actually be making a strategic error even as far as its own self interest.

But that aside, I think Adam says something here that’s bigger than app affiliate revenue or even Apple, rather reflecting on the state of the Internet:

Any media-savvy organization, whether it’s a multinational corporation or full-fledged government, can increasingly control public perception not just by manipulating social media but also by bringing content creation and dissemination in-house. It’s all about control in a media world that no longer has gatekeepers. Apple pulled out of Macworld Expo years ago because it could just as easily hold its own product release events, and now we’re seeing Apple do the same to industry publications by competing with them via App Store editorial.

And that’s really the issue. Whether Apple’s affiliate program makes sense either for Apple or for publishers, the message killing the program spells it out: Apple wants to be the editorial. And the companies I’ve mentioned (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) in various ways want to be the Internet. Those of us not working for those companies are free to criticize. And we may have to face the reality that this changes the practicality of our businesses. That may or may not be an existential crisis, but it isn’t something to ignore and wish away.

Developers will have to consider this in their business plans, particularly as Apple charges them for advertising on top of the share of revenue they take as a royalty. (This is one reason, among others, pro audio developers have almost universally rejected the desktop App Store.)

And publishers face a choice about whether we can compete with Apple, or whether we should exit the business entirely.

That said, even if this sounds bleak for us on the independent side, consider: Apple can only be Apple. They can only be in the business of selling their devices and apps. But we can easily switch business in a way that ceases to contribute to their business. In the long run, that may be more Apple’s problem than our own.

I hope that Apple will still reconsider the decision in the face of feedback from developers and press. I certainly don’t consider this to be typical of the treatment of media relations, who in my experience do still value the media (ahem) as part of their job role. And whatever Apple decides, my personal bias remains: businesses work better together than they do apart.

Addendum: the competition

I realize I focused entirely in this story on Apple, which isn’t entirely fair.

It’s worth noting that Google has not ever had an affiliate program.

Who does? Microsoft does, with a 7% commission rate. That is available with generous rewards for apps, in-app purchases, and – crucially, given that they’re much bigger ticket items – Microsoft hardware.

Using the Microsoft Affiliate Program to earn additional 7% on Windows Store sales [2016 Microsoft developer post, but still relevant and a good overview of how this works]

Now, does that make the Microsoft platform better for the user or developer? That’s arguable, clearly. But what I think it may demonstrate is a difference in philosophy and strategic positioning. Google, for all their claims of “openness,” are first and foremost an advertising – and by extension, content – platform. Microsoft built value around an ecosystem and interoperability of businesses inside that ecosystem. What’s interesting about the Apple affiliate decision is, since there wasn’t any particular urgency to making the change, it suggests Apple is shifting their strategy to take more control over content around their platform and not just what gets delivered through the store.

When the affiliate decision is long since forgotten, that strategic shift may prove to have been meaningful.

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What do you play? Berklee adds electronic digital instrument program

Musicians have majored in trumpets and voice, conducting and reeds. Now, they can choose the “electronic digital instrument” at Berklee College of Music, as music education works to redefine itself in the post-digital age.

The underlying idea here itself isn’t new – turntables and computers have been singled out before as instrumental or educational categories – but making a complete program in this way is novel. And maybe the most interesting thing about Berklee’s approach is bringing a range of different subcategories into one theme, the “electronic digital instrument,” or EDI. (Uh… okay, the search for a great name here continues. Maybe we can give away an Ableton Push as a naming contest?)

In Berklee’s formulation, this is computing device + software + controller.

I wonder if the “controller” formulation will stand the test of time, as computation and sound modeling is brought increasingly into the same box as whatever has controls on it. (You don’t think of the knobs on a synthesizer as a distinct “controller,” even though the functional relationship is the same.)

But most encouraging is the cast of characters and the program Berklee is assembling here. I’m very interested to hear more about their curriculum and how it’s taught – plus apparently know quite a few people involved – so let’s definitely follow up soon with an interview. Here’s their launch video:

The curricular objectives:

Upon completion of the performance core program with an electronic digital instrument, you will be able to:

design and configure a versatile, responsive, and musically expressive electronic performance system;
synthesize and integrate knowledge of musical styles to develop effective electronic performance strategies;
play in a variety of electronic performance modes using a variety of controllers;
use common types of synthesizers;
produce audio assets from a variety of sources, and use them in a live performance;
demonstrate proficiency in effect processing in a live performance; and
perform in solo and ensemble settings, taking on melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and textural roles as well as arranging, mixing, remixing, and real-time compositional musical roles using all parts of one’s performance system.

And the required coursework is interesting, as well. The program includes improvisation, and a bunch of ensemble work – with turntables, techno/rave and “DJ sampling,” hip-hop, and synth technique for live ensembles. That builds in turn on the development of laptop ensembles and more experimental improvisational work in programs in some other schools. Berklee students in the program will work with turntables (which some schools have offered in the past, if sporadically), but also studies in “performance” and “grid” controllers. (Dear Brian Crabtree, Toshio Iwai, and Roger Linn – did you imagine you would all help turn “grids” into an instrumental study?)

This is all over a four semester study.

The program announcement:

Principal Instruments: Electronic Digital Instrument

https://www.berklee.edu/

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Eurorack’s prices are dropping, as Herr Schneider laments

With the proliferation of modules, the phrase “Eurorack bubble” has been floating around for a while. But now it appears to be translating into falling prices.

The basic problem is this: more demand means more interest, which translates into more manufacturers, and more production. So far, so good. Then, more distributors pick up the goods – not just boutique operators like Schneider, but also bigger chains.

Where’s the problem? With too many modules out there in the marketplace, and more big retailers, it’s easier for the big retailers to start to squeeze manufacturers on price. Plus, the more modules out in the world, the greater the supply of used modules.

Andreas Schneider has chosen to weigh in on the issue personally. You can read his statement in German:

Jetzt auch XAOC bei Thomann ..

And in an English translation (with more commentary by Schneiderladen in English):

HerrSchneiders statement on current developments in the Eurorack market [stromkult]

There’s actually a lot there – though the banner revelation is seeing the cost of new modules suddenly plummet by 30%:

You asked for it: Due to the increased demand for Eurorack modules in Europe, even the large retailers for musical instruments are now filling the last corners of their warehouses and buying complete production runs from manufacturers and everything else they can get. Some manufacturers might be happy about this, but the flooding of the market already leads to a significant drop in prices here and there, some modules are already available with a 30% discount on the original calculated price and yet were still quite hot the other day!

As SchneidersLaden we have decided to go along with this development and of course offer corresponding products for the same price to our customers, although most of them have already bought them when the goods were still fresh and crisp! We’re almost a little sorry about that, but hopefully the hits are already produced and the music career is up and running? Nevertheless, sorry – but the decision for this way lies with the manufacturer and was not our recommendation!

By the way… we don’t advertise with moneyback-warranty… we’ve always practiced it. But please: get advice first, then buy – like in the good old days. Because it’s better to talk to your specialist retailer – we know what we are selling. And by the way: We do free shipping throughout Europe and there are Thursdays on that we are in the shop until nine o’clock in the evening …and real CHAOS serves creativity.

That had to be said – end of commercial break.

Okay, so some different messages. To manufacturers, with whom Schneider seems to place a lot of the blame, the message is to avoid glutting the market by selling so many units that then they lose their price margin. (That seems good advice.) There’s also a “dance with the one that brung you” attitude here, but that’s probably fair, as well.

To buyers, work with specialists, and please research what you buy so you don’t shoulder retailers and manufacturers with lots of returns. That seems good advice, too.

(Hope I’ve paraphrased that fairly.)

It does seem there’s a looming problem beyond just what’s here, though. For the community to continue to expand, it will have to find more new markets. It does seem some saturation point is inevitable, and that could mean a shakeout of some manufacturers – though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The used market should also be a worry, though on the other hand, some people do always seem to buy new.

I’d echo what the two posts here say, which is the synth maker world will likely be healthy if manufacturers and consumers do some research and support one another.

Before anyone predicts the sky is falling, I’ve had a number of conversations with modular makers. Those with some experience seem to be doing just fine, even if some have expressed concern about the larger market and smaller and newer makers. That is, those with some marketing experience and unique products still see growth – but that growth may not translate to greener manufacturers who are trying to cram into what is becoming a crowded field.

Other thoughts? Let us know.

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Trump’s tariffs could be costly for made-in-the-USA music gear

Industries like automative (and motorcycles) may be getting the attention, but music gear and even Eurorack could feel the impact of trade restrictions in the United States.

This is CDM, not the Economist, so let’s back up and review the issue but stick to the impact on makers of synthesizers, guitar pedals, and the like.

First, it’s important to note that for now, this is all talk – a threat by the Trump Administration meant to provoke rival China. Specifically, we’re talking about a the Trump Administration threat last week to impose stiff import tariffs on $200 billion in goods produced in China. But even the talk is relevant, as tensions between the superpowers can turn a threat into reality – especially if they cause the negotiations to fail.

Here’s what’s happened. Early last week, the Trump Administration threatened new tariffs on Chinese goods:
U.S., China Rattle Trade-War Sabers in Vowing Harsh Tariffs [Bloomberg]

Bloomberg immediately speculated that electronics could be hit hard. The result could be higher prices for consumers of those goods in the USA – presumably including some Chinese-made electronic music gear. CDM readers from South America, for instance, can attest to this reality – ask someone from Brazil, for instance, how expensive it is to get a popular music controller or mixer. Those tariffs hit the bottom-line cost of goods, so the penalty is passed on to the consumer, not necessarily the manufacturer (though more on that in a moment).

Then things got more specific – and interesting. The US Trade Representative (USTR) – essentially the office that both develops the President’s trade policy and represents the US on behalf of the Administration – published a list of just which Chinese goods it had in mind.

There’s a lot in that document, if you feel like reading it:
https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/files/Press/Releases/301FRN.pdf

According to the USTR, this exhaustive list of products is selected based on goods that “benefit from Chinese industrial policies, including Made in China 2025.” (That in itself is a pretty striking statement – even in a western country like the USA, it’s hard to imagine that industries don’t benefit from government policies.) Then, from that list, the USTR claim they’ve removed products that would disrupt the US economy.

And then the whole lot of these products gets a proposed 25% increase in tariffs – on top of what’s already there.

The whole process of identifying this list is based on public hearings and comment. So if you’re a US citizen, you can actually participate in a public comment process if these tariffs would impact you.

And then you get into the list. The way the global trading system works is, you have a set of codes that describe specific categories of goods, to an absurd level of detail. Here, you have pages of particular kinds of steel and aluminum and machinery.

But one thing the list has a whole lot of us is electronics components: motors, batteries, but also LEDs, capacitors, diodes, transistors and the like. There are also a whole lot of machines and components used in the manufacture of electronics, from injection molding to electronics assembly.

There are also weird things, like electrical particle accelerators and nuclear power reactors, but we can forget about those.

The bottom line is, a lot of the ingredients of electronics are included under the tariffs, but then a lot of the assembled goods – including, as near as I can tell from this list, musical instruments and music and sound electronics – are excluded. Assembled TVs and (perversely) tape VCRs are taxed. But most other finished goods aren’t.

So if you thought your made-in-China pocket recorder or keyboard would be slapped with a tariff, that’s not what’s happening – not in the proposed list. In fact, it’s the made-in-the-USA gear that winds up getting more expensive, because American makers use components purchased from China.

The tech press has responded accordingly:

Gadget makers are bracing for Trump’s trade war: Trump’s tariffs could spell doom for small hardware startups [The Verge]

But maybe even more interestingly, DIY-focused site Hack-A-Day weighs in:
MAKING ELECTRONICS JUST GOT 25% MORE EXPENSIVE IN THE US

For example:

This will hurt all electronics manufacturers in the United States. For a quick example, I’m working on a project using half a million LEDs. I bought these LEDs (120 reels) two months ago for a few thousand dollars. This was a fantastic buy; half a million of the cheapest LEDs I could find on Mouser would cost seventeen thousand dollars. Sourcing from China saved thousands, and if I were to do this again, I may be hit with a 25% tariff.

(Emphasis mine.)

Potentiometers are included. PCB components.

A 25% increase in parts costs is fairly significant. It’s eating directly into profits. And what’s strange to me is, an easy way to avoid the tariffs would be to assemble the product outside the United States, since for most product categories – as ours are in music – the components are impacted but assembled products are not.

Sourcing from China saved thousands, and if I were to do this again, I may be hit with a 25% tariff.

For now, all of this is hypothetical. And I don’t want to overstate the case here. Trade and economic instability would likely threaten boutique music gear makers far more than these kinds of tariffs. That is, those boutique synth makers might be able to work out a way around the increased tariffs, and/or adjust prices. But if a massive trade war between the US and China erupts and crashes the economy, lost demand for synths would hurt more.

I do think this illustrates two important points, however.

One, even as electronic music offers some respite from politics and headlines, the news will inevitably reach electronic music and gear. You can’t escape the news in the end.

Two, it’s more clear than ever that the world is an interconnected place. DIY music and independent boutique music gear makers have exploded thanks to both the Internet and global trade. That’s included cheap access to prototyping, cheap components and machinery – even for those makers producing in the USA. For other engineers, cheap and expanding Chinese manufacture has allowed people to become manufacturers who otherwise never would have done so.

That’s not to get into the deeper questions of how positive these trends have been, or what impacts they may have had along the way – societal, environmental, human.

But the world of 2018 sees musicians and inventors tied together across borders and distance in ways they never were before. And with that world order shifting fast, those connections are likely to change along with them, in unpredictable ways.

Okay, you’re now free to go apply some unpredictable modulation to an oscillator if all of this made your head hurt.

All comments welcome. (I’ve reached out for comment to some manufacturers; I expect an ongoing conversation here around these issues, especially as we get more news.)

Feature photo (CC-BY Paul Downey.

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Minds, machines, and centralization: AI and music

Far from the liberated playground the Internet once promised, online connectivity now threatens to give us mainly pre-programmed culture. As we continue reflections on AI from CTM Festival in Berlin, here’s an essay from this year’s program.

If you attended Berlin’s festival this year, you got this essay I wrote – along with a lot of compelling writing from other thinkers – in a printed book in the catalog. I asked for permission from CTM Festival to reprint it here for those who didn’t get to join us earlier this year. I’m going to actually resist the temptation to edit it (apart from bringing it back to CDM-style American English spellings), even though a lot has happened in this field even since I wrote it at the end of December. But I’m curious to get your thoughts.

I also was lucky enough to get to program a series of talks for CTM Festival, which we made available in video form with commentary earlier this week, also with CTM’s help:
A look at AI’s strange and dystopian future for art, music, and society

The complete set of talks from CTM 2018 are now available on SoundCloud. It’s a pleasure to get to work with a festival that not only has a rich and challenging program of music and art, but serves as a platform for ideas, debate, and discourse, too. (Speaking of which, greetings from another European festival that commits to that – SONAR, in Barcelona.)

The image used for this article is an artwork by Memo Akten, used with permission, as suggested by curator and CTM 2018 guest speaker Estela Oliva. It’s called “Inception,” and I think is a perfect example of how artists can make these technologies expressive and transcendent, amplifying their flaws into something uniquely human.

Minds, Machines, and Centralisation: Why Musicians Need to Hack AI Now

IN THIS ARTICLE, CTM HACKLAB DIRECTOR PETER KIRN PROVIDES A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CO-OPTING OF MUSIC AND LISTENING BY CENTRALIZED INDUSTRY AND CORPORATIONS, IDENTIFYING MUZAK AS A PRECURSOR TO THE USE OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE FOR “PRE-PROGRAMMED CULTURE.” HE GOES ON TO DISCUSS PRODUCTIVE WAYS FOR THOSE WHO VALUE “CHOICE AND SURPRISE” TO REACT TO AND INTERACT WITH TECHNOLOGIES LIKE THESE THAT GROW MORE INESCAPABLE BY THE DAY.

It’s now a defunct entity, but “Muzak,” the company that provided background music, was once everywhere. Its management saw to it that their sonic product was ubiquitous, intrusive, and even engineered to impact behavior — and so the word Muzak became synonymous with all that was hated and insipid in manufactured culture.

Anachronistic as it may seem now, Muzak was a sign of how tele-communications technology would shape cultural consumption. Muzak may be known for its sound, but its delivery method is telling. Nearly a hundred years before Spotify, founder Major General George Owen Squier originated the idea of sending music over wires — phone wires, to be fair, but still not far off from where we’re at today. The patent he got for electrical signalling doesn’t mention music, or indeed even sound content. But the Major General was the first successful business founder to prove in practice that electronic distribution of music was the future, one that would take power out of the hands of radio broadcasters and give the delivery company additional power over content. (He also came up with the now-loathed Muzak brand name.)

What we now know as the conventional music industry has its roots in pianola rolls, then in jukeboxes, and finally in radio stations and physical media. Muzak was something different, as it sidestepped the whole structure: playlists were selected by an unseen, centralized corporation, then piped everywhere. You’d hear Muzak in your elevator ride in a department store (hence the phrase, elevator music). There were speakers tucked into potted plants. The White House and NASA at some points subscribed. Anywhere there was silence, it might be replaced with pre-programmed music.

Muzak added to its notoriety by marketing the notion of using its product to boost worker productivity, through a pseudo-scientific regimen it called the “stimulus progression.” And in that, we see a notion that presages today’s app behavior loops and motivators, meant to drive consumption and engagement, ad clicks and app swipes.

Muzak for its part didn’t last forever, with stimulus progression long since debunked, customers preferring licensed music to this mix of original sounds, and newer competitors getting further ahead in the marketplace.

But what about the idea of homogenized, pre-programmed culture delivered by wire, designed for behavior modification? That basic concept seems to be making a comeback.

Automation and Power

“AI” or machine intelligence has been tilted in the present moment to focus on one specific area: the use of self-training algorithms to process large amounts of data. This is a necessity of our times, and it has special value to some of the big technical players who just happen to have competencies in the areas machine learning prefers — lots of servers, top mathematical analysts, and big data sets.

That shift in scale is more or less inescapable, though, in its impact. Radio implies limited channels; limited channels implies human selectors — meet the DJ. The nature of the internet as wide-open for any kind of culture means wide open scale. And it will necessarily involve machines doing some of the sifting, because it’s simply too large to operate otherwise.

There’s danger inherent in this shift. One, users may be lazy, willing to let their preferences be tipped for them rather than face the tyranny of choice alone. Two, the entities that select for them may have agendas of their own. Taken as an aggregate, the upshot could be greater normalization and homogenization, plus the marginalization of anyone whose expression is different, unviable commercially, or out of sync with the classes of people with money and influence. If the dream of the internet as global music community seems in practice to lack real diversity, here’s a clue as to why.

At the same time, this should all sound familiar — the advent of recording and broadcast media brought with it some of the same forces, and that led to the worst bubblegum pop and the most egregious cultural appropriation. Now, we have algorithms and corporate channel editors instead of charts and label execs — and the worries about payola and the eradication of anything radical or different are just as well-placed.

What’s new is that there’s now also a real-time feedback loop between user actions and automated cultural selection (or perhaps even soon, production). Squier’s stimulus progression couldn’t monitor metrics representing the listener. Today’s online tools can. That could blow apart past biases, or it could reinforce them — or it could do a combination of the two.

In any case, it definitely has power. At last year’s CTM hacklab, Cambridge University’s Jason Rentfrow looked at how music tastes could be predictive of personality and even political thought. The connection was timely, as the talk came the same week as Trump assumed the U.S. presidency, his campaign having employed social media analytics to determine how to target and influence voters.

We can no longer separate musical consumption — or other consumption of information and culture — from the data it generates, or from the way that data can be used. We need to be wary of centralized monopolies on that data and its application, and we need to be aware of how these sorts of algorithms reshape choice and remake media. And we might well look for chances to regain our own personal control.

Even if passive consumption may seem to be valuable to corporate players, those players may discover that passivity suffers diminishing returns. Activities like shopping on Amazon, finding dates on Tinder, watching television on Netflix, and, increasingly, music listening, are all experiences that push algorithmic recommendations. But if users begin to follow only those automated recommendations, the suggestions fold back in on themselves, and those tools lose their value. We’re left with a colorless growing detritus of our own histories and the larger world’s. (Just ask someone who gave up on those Tinder dates or went to friends because they couldn’t work out the next TV show to binge-watch.)

There’s also clearly a social value to human recommendations — expert and friend alike. But there’s a third way: use machines to augment humans, rather than diminish them, and open the tools to creative use, not only automation.

Music is already reaping benefits of data training’s power in new contexts. By applying machine learning to identifying human gestures, Rebecca Fiebrink has found a new way to make gestural interfaces for music smarter and more accessible. Audio software companies are now using machine learning as a new approach to manipulating sound material in cases where traditional DSP tools are limited. What’s significant about this work is that it makes these tools meaningful in active creation rather than passive consumption.

AI, back in user hands

Machine learning techniques will continue to expand as tools by which the companies mining big data make sense of their resources — from ore into product. It’s in turn how they’ll see us, and how we’ll see ourselves.

We can’t simply opt out, because those tools will shape the world around us with or without our personal participation, and because the breadth of available data demands their use. What we can do is to better understand how they work and reassert our own agency.

When people are literate in what these technologies are and how they work, they can make more informed decisions in their own lives and in the larger society. They can also use and abuse these tools themselves, without relying on magical corporate products to do it for them.

Abuse itself has special value. Music and art are fields in which these machine techniques can and do bring new discoveries. There’s a reason Google has invested in these areas — because artists very often can speculate on possibilities and find creative potential. Artists lead.

The public seems to respond to rough edges and flaws, too. In the 60s, when researcher Joseph Weizenbaum attempted to parody a psychotherapist with crude language pattern matching in his program, ELIZA, he was surprised when users started to tell the program their darkest secrets and imagine understanding that wasn’t there. The crudeness of Markov chains as predictive text tool — they were developed for analyzing Pushkin statistics and not generating language, after all — has given rise to breeds of poetry based on their very weirdness. When Google’s style transfer technique was applied using a database of dog images, the bizarre, unnatural images that warped photos into dogs went viral online. Since then, Google has made vastly more sophisticated techniques that apply realistic painterly effects and… well, it seems that’s attracted only a fraction of the interest that the dog images did.

Maybe there’s something even more fundamental at work. Corporate culture dictates predictability and centralized value. The artist does just the opposite, capitalizing on surprise. It’s in the interest of artists if these technologies can be broken. Muzak represents what happens to aesthetics when centralized control and corporate values win out — but it’s as much the widespread public hatred that’s the major cautionary tale. The values of surprise and choice win out, not just as abstract concepts but also as real personal preferences.

We once feared that robotics would eliminate jobs; the very word is derived (by Czech writer Karel Čapek’s brother Joseph) from the word for slave. Yet in the end, robotic technology has extended human capability. It has brought us as far as space and taken us through Logo and its Turtle, even taught generations of kids math, geometry, logic, and creative thinking through code.

We seem to be at a similar fork in the road with machine learning. These tools can serve the interests of corporate control and passive consumption, optimised only for lazy consumption that extracts value from its human users. Or, we can abuse and misuse the tools, take them apart and put them back together again, apply them not in the sense that “everything looks like a nail” when all you have is a hammer, but as a precise set of techniques to solve specific problems. Muzak, in its final days, was nothing more than a pipe dream. What people wanted was music — and choice. Those choices won’t come automatically. We may well have to hack them.

PETER KIRN is an audiovisual artist, composer/musician, technologist, and journalist. He is the editor of CDM and co-creator of the open source MeeBlip hardware synthesizer (meeblip.com). For six consecutive years, he has directed the MusicMaker’s Hacklab at CTM Festival, most recently together with new media artist Ioann Maria.

http://ctm-festival.de/

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Patchstorage is a friendly site packed with free visual and music patches

Patching music and visuals is fun, but it helps to learn from other people. With everything from apps (Audulus) to modulars (Softube, VCV Rack) to code and free software (Pd, SuperCollider, Bela), patchstorage is like a free social network for actually making stuff.

It’s funny that we needed international scandal, political catastrophe, numerous academic studies of depression, and everyone’s data getting given away before figuring it out – Facebook isn’t really solving all our problems. But that opens up a chance for new places to find community, learn from each other, and focus on the things we love, like making live music and visuals.

Enter Patchstorage. Choose a platform you’re using – or maybe discover one you aren’t. (Cabbage, for instance, is a free platform for making music software based on Csound.

Then, browse through the tools. There’s an entire VJ engine for Pd extended, a Gregorian guitar synth for the Audulus app, some crazy stuff for the monome aleph hardware, and an entire emulation of a Yamaha DX-7 for SuperCollider, the free code-based environment.

If you’re a newcomer, you can attempt to just load this up and make sound. And a lot of these patches are made for free environments, meaning you don’t have to spend money to check them out. If you’re a more advanced user, of course, poking through someone else’s work can help you get outside your own process. And there are those moments of – “oh, I didn’t know this did that,” or “huh, that’s how that works.”

Pure Data and Critter & Guitari’s Pd-based Organelle hardware are nicely represented.

There are also, naturally, a ton of creations for VCV Rack, the free and open source Eurorack modular emulation we’ve been going on about so much lately.

Oh, yeah, and — another thing. This doesn’t use Facebook as its social network. Instead, chats are powered by gamer-friendly, Slack-like chat client Discord. That means a new tool to contend with when you want to talk about patches, but it does mean you get a focused environment for doing so. So you won’t be juggling your ex, your boss, some spammers, and propaganda bots in the middle of an environment that’s constantly sucking up data about you.

More (project in beta):

https://patchstorage.com/

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ROLI funded by Sony, Onkyo; is it time for the Walkman of music making?

ROLI, makers of the Seaboard and Blocks, keep adding to their funding. But new investments by Sony and Onkyo say a lot about betting on a future of music that’s centered on creation, not just consumption.

We entered this century with people thinking mostly about music as a more or less passive thing. But as a business, consumption is just not as bright as it once was. There’s no new recording format – so, sorry Men in Black, no more jokes about buying The White Album again. The iPod eventually was absorbed into commodity smartphones, and high-end smartphone sales are themselves flattening out, as users hold on to their existing phones. (That shift seems even to be reaching Apple.) Spotify and Apple Music and their ilk haven’t delivered big profits, either, obviously. And in sectors like electronic dance music, we’ve watched the vision of brand synergy and an EDM empire at SFX Entertainment meet the reality of flat festival sales. What cured things at Beatport, meanwhile, in the wake of SFX mismanagement? Refocusing on serious DJs and the core business.

What does seem to be a vast horizon, then, is actually making music. You know – the thing the whole world’s population was already doing before the music industry convinced them to listen to round discs of other people doing it for them, or tune in electromagnetic frequencies that could be translated to other people playing.

All this makes the ongoing investment in ROLI really interesting.

The London-based manufacturer of alternative instruments and mobile music making gadgets is now up past US$50 million in investment. That includes a $27m Series B in 2016, and investments from venture capital but also Universal Music Group.

ROLI’s lineup of products has grown from more expensive flagship controller instruments to a modular line of mobile products that matches with software and services.

There are no public numbers shared for Onkyo or Sony, but it’s really the fact of those makers entering the fray that matters. They’re both Japanese giants known for their role in consumer products for listening to music. Onkyo today remains a major audio brand; they’re also the owner of the home entertainment side of Pioneer. (The bits of Pioneer catering to DJs and car owners lie elsewhere, but the home entertainment brand is still significant.) The Onkyo investment has also recently closed, says ROLI.

And then there’s the Sony Innovation Fund (SIF). Focused on the northern world – USA, EU, Israel, and Japan – Sony’s fund was created in 2016 to invest on companies from seed to middle stage development. That ranges everything from biometrics to VR to drones, so it’s not just about music and media by any means.

In addition to funding, SIF says they work with the companies they fund on strategy, that they build relationships with Sony and its partners, and therefore grant access to some of Sony’s global reach and expertise. There are parallels here to the investment we saw recently in Berlin’s Native Instruments. Sony is betting on music creation and could help connect ROLI to a global consumer market. German EMH Partners who funded NI are betting on music creation and could help connect to a global market for services. Get it? (They have to deliver on that promise, of course.)

We’re also getting into bigger financial figures than music creation investment has seen before; NI got a whopping 50 million Euros, in an industry where we still think it’s pretty cool to go to check out something one person has literally made in their bedroom that you solder together and bolt into a rack with a screwdriver.

Okay, so that’s money and strategy – but what’s the actual business here?

Well, ROLI do have a compelling software/hardware play. The Blocks line give users of computers and mobile devices a convenient, expressive, wireless interface to music creation. There’s software to match – ROLI make a mobile app, a desktop synth, and perhaps most significantly the JUCE framework on which a lot of modern music making software is built. ROLI are also pushing ideas like the Songmaker Kit, hoping musicians will take their line of wireless controllers on the go.

The Blocks line – like the Songmaker Kit here – encourages musicians to take their music creation on the go.

But lots of makers have interesting music products. If we’re really imagining a wider population of music consumers buying this gear, it’s going to require both inventing clever new things, and then moving those things through the channel into musicians’ hands. Your smartphone manufacturer or consumer headphones do that already, but musical instruments move through much more antiquated, fragmented retail outlets. (Uh… that’s a fancy way of saying the unfriendly guys hanging in the corner of your local music store picking at a guitar may not necessarily be able to sell new users on the instrument of the future.)

ROLI already made a bold move into getting in front of new customers with a massive Apple Store retail partnership, followed by other channels (including consumer-oriented stores and shops like Guitar Center). Now it’s a question of whether they can keep moving.

ROLI released some statements to CDM on the idea of the investment, and confirm that global sales reach is a big part of the story. “We’re now selling our hardware and software in over 30 countries,” says founder and CEO Roland Lamb. Now they want to go further, he says. “We want to reach a whole world of music makers and provide them the tools they need to be creative, and we’re getting much closer through our investments​ from SIF, [Chief Creative Officer] Pharrell [Williams], and Onkyo,” he says.

And Lamb compares his products to the iconic Sony Walkman:

I’ve always admired Sony. A Sony Walkman was one of the first music products I ever owned. I took it on my first trip to Japan as a teenager. It was a magical way to bring my musical world with me everywhere that I went. What ROLI is doing with BLOCKS is very similar to what Sony did with the Walkman, but in our case we’ve made a music creation device that you can take with you anywhere. It’s pioneering a new, liberating way of making music, just like Sony pioneered the modern revolution of music listening which hundreds of millions of people benefit from today.

Yes there’s money, but as I described the SIF operation, there’s additional support, Lamb says:

They really engage with startups. They provide an entrée to the Sony world and its networks and expertise. We hope to collaborate with Sony as much as possible in ways that build unique value for our customers. Without going into the details of the deal, this is certainly a significant investment and relationship for us.

But maybe most interesting, the funds themselves may support new products. While I admire the Blocks, and the Seaboard interface is certainly innovative, I think it’s still important to note that these are just controllers. The Walkman was a standalone product; Blocks is useless without a laptop or smartphone or tablet. And that’s assuming you believe this is really the shape of what music making will look like, amidst a lot of competing ideas and untapped possibility.

“We’re developing new music-making tools across hardware and software,” says Lamb. He says the funding will accelerate development and “positions us to continue focusing on innovative research and development as we scale.”

In other words, this gives them room to focus on inventing new stuff even as they try to get their products to a broader audience.

Also interesting: you might doubt the Songmaker Kit, at 600 bucks, would sell well versus just buying one or two of the individual modules to save money. But you’d be wrong. ROLI tells CDM it’s the best-selling product they make.

The Songwriter’s Kit has become ROLI’s best-selling product, the company says.

So there’s a certain business genius to dividing products into modules, then selling the consumers those modules as … a predefined set. Wait, maybe I shouldn’t tell you that, but should find some really complicated name for it, and then sell my services as a highly-paid consultant. (I dub it the “Modular Acquisition Product Consumer Chain.” Call me.)

But whether you personally like the ROLI line or not, consider this: ROLI are both proving the power of the future of electronic musical instruments on a larger scale, and creating a platform for the rest of the electronic music ecosystem in the process. Blocks can easily be a gateway into other mobile apps, desktop software, and other hardware. ROLI also show that some ideas that would have seem like crazy, far-fetched one-off inventions just recently can appeal to everyday consumers if they’re given adequate market support and channel distribution. People seem to like crazy and futuristic things. (Heck, it may be that average consumers like those things more than some of the more conservative folks you’ll see trolling forums and adding wooden endcaps to their synths.)

And investors are taking notice. There are some real, big bets emerging that say the future of music creation will be bright. For those trained on the recent Silicon Valley model, where some venture capital looks for quick, easy returns or fast exits, it’s also safe to say that some of this may be looking further into the future, not just into what’s selling this month.

But if you believe that creation is the essence of music making, if you think everyone should have access to self expression through music, and you see creation as the future, I think there’s real reason to be encouraged by investment in ROLI.

What we’ll need to watch, meanwhile, is whether larger funds and expertise at ROLI and Native Instruments translate into products and services that work for musicians. That’ll take time. But, hey, I was trained as a musicologist, which deals with this on a timeframe of centuries. I’ll wait. Back to making music to fill the time.

Previously:

Native Instruments got a huge chunk of investment to grow

And in other news:

Roli brings classic Indian instruments to their Noise app through a joint project with A. R. Rahman

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