Oct 18, 2011 Gear
Since we’ve been showing our house, I’ve had to dismantle my studio and make it look like a generic computer room, and all my synthesizers are locked in the server room at work. They recently released Virus OS 4.5.2 and then updated it today with 4.5.3, so I decided to pull the Virus out and apply the updates. I can’t even use it here; I have nothing with a 1/4” tip for audio, nor is my computer and its terrible on-board sound card up to the task of handling the USB audio pass-through. Nonetheless, it’s bizarre how soothing just having it here on the desk next to me quietly doing its thing is. It really makes me want to get my studio back and spend some quality time in it.
Incidentally, if you’re an IT professional, you get a lot of weird reactions if people ask what you’re doing and you nonchalantly respond, “Updating my Virus.”
Jun 26, 2011 Gear
So, at long last, I’ve retired my 2006 MacBook Pro and replaced it with a 2011 iMac. In the process, I re-arranged my studio space a bit. Here’s a photo of the preliminary results. Note that I couldn’t get both the work desk and the modular in the same photo, so I left the modular out — you’ve all seen photos of it before. It’s off to the left of where this photo is. Also, there are still some refinements to do. For example, the cables hanging under the desk are going to be twist-tied neatly to the frame, and the stands I made for my music gear need to be sanded a bit to fit better, and have stick-on non-skid rubber added to the bottom and the part that the gear sits on — right now the whole thing slides off a lot. Also, I plan to trim the tops where it peeks over the units. But all in all, I think that the concept works.
Anyway, here’s the photo. I think you should be able to click it to make it larger.
Mar 21, 2011 Gear
After much saving, deliberating, reading of manuals, etc., I picked up an Access Virus TI2 Desktop. I actually found a really good deal on it via eBay and then lucked out in that the store apparently oversold their used stock, so upgraded me to a new unit for free. I just got it, and while I had been a little skeptical, it does appear to be totally new-in-box, never opened! I’m very, very excited. Unfortunately, as I didn’t bring a compatible pair of headphones (and I don’t really want to install the TI software on my work computer), I’ll have to wait until I get home this evening to try it out. (Then again, that’s probably good or I wouldn’t get any work done today.)
Here are a couple of photos, shot in the lunch room at work.
Jan 7, 2011 Gear
The other day, my DIY shock mount (which you can see photographed in the site header) self-destructed. The rings, which are made from small crafting circles bought at a local craft store, aren’t the world’s sturdiest things, and the forward one impressively destroyed itself. Having used it for some time now, I improved on the design a bit.
Previously, I’d taken wooden craft circles, which you can buy in the needlework section of the craft store, and removed them, discarding the outer ring, since all I’d wanted was a simple wooden circle, which the inner ring does a good job of. However, that by itself is really flimsy. This meant not only that they flex a lot over time under various pressures (especially when the elastics come loose), but that they don’t stand up to abuse very well. ”Abuse,” in this case is mostly my cat’s unforeseen obsession with rubbing his face on them. In addition, drilling the holes damaged them a fair bit, and I couldn’t make the notches for the elastics very deep without compromising their integrity.
I waffled over buying plastic rings this time, but wound up buying the same wooden rings, but just modifying my method. Instead of discarding the outer ring, I removed it and put a line of Elmer’s wood glue down the middle of the inner ring, then placed the outer ring back on, tightened it up all the way, and let that set for a day to be completely sure that they’d essentially fused. The resulting ring was extremely strong.
I then drilled the screw holes using my smallest drill bit first, and went up two bit sizes each drilling until I got to the size I actually wanted. This didn’t take long, but resulted in very clean screw holes with no loss of wood or damage to the ring’s structure around the holes.
Lastly, last time I made triangular notches for the elastics and rapidly discovered that that was the biggest design flaw of all, since the elastics snap out of those really easily, and putting them back in is a pain because they won’t stay put until you have all four elastic points set. (Bear in mind that you’re trying to do that while double twisting the elastic around a microphone — it’s not that hard but it’s not as simple as you’d think, and has resulted in a lot of frustration.) This time I just sawed straight down, making a very narrow perfectly vertical notch. I made the notched deeper — close to half way into the ring.
The resulting ring is MUCH easier to install the elastics in, and very rigid and durable. The cat’s been around to mark it and it didn’t flex or bend at all, which is a huge relief. I probably won’t bother replacing the rear ring until it actually fails, but I’m now kind of looking forward to that. You can see the newly-installed forward ring being eyed by the perpetrator in question here:
So I got an iRig for Christmas! This allows me to answer all the questions everybody had about using oScope on the iPad with the iRig to plot DotCom waves. And the answer is… it doesn’t work.
I know that I’d said that it would. A lot of other people seemed to report that it did also, and I went by that. But I’m not certain that the fault lies with the iRig.
Why? Well, because my Plantronics DSP v4 adapter + Camera Kit + headphone adapter solution doesn’t seem to work anymore either.
(On the other hand, the iRig + Amplitube seems to work. The signal from the DotCom seems pretty hot for it, so there’s a lot of distortion if I don’t turn it way down and lots of noise if I do (and then amp it back up in the iPad), but the result isn’t all bad. I wish the free version included more pedals.)
After fighting with it frustratedly for quite a while, I decided to just go chat on Skype for a while and relax, and my home-made shock mount (depicted in the site banner) self-destructed, and proved to be one of those situations where it kept *almost* being fixable and then all the elastics would leap off at once.
It was frustrating to say the least. (I’ll need to go to Michael’s for new craft loops soon.)
Looking back on 2010, the biggest and most obvious thing is that I only posted two tracks this year. So that’s going to be the big thing for the new year — to get back into the swing of actually writing, rather than just tinkering. The dotcom has been a lovely beast, but it’s also proven to not be conducive to getting music made, and I need to find a way to tame it and get it in line, or I need to figure out when it’s useful and look elsewhere for everything else.
Nov 12, 2010 Gear
If you own a modular analog system or even just a synthesizer or sequencer that communicates using control voltage, at some point you’ll resort to measurement, and once you’ve begun on that road there’s no turning back. Many modular owners have a great deal of fancy test equipment, but the basic starting point is a good digital volt meter (or multimeter).
However, if you’re like me, you’re fairly new to all of this and you don’t have a collection of different probes with various connections, etc. You may (again, like me) have just picked up your first nice meter and you just have the probes that came with it — the ones that look like you could stab someone with them. If, again, you’re like me, you’ve tried to live with them by alligator clipping leads between cables and probes, weighing probes against plugs, coming up with all many of rigged solutions. Well, there’s an easy solution. I imagine most people have something that covers this, but it only occurred to me today, and I was able to whip up this quick fix for just a few bucks (bearing in mind that I already had most of the tools) and maybe an hour or less of work. I think it’ll have saved me at least that much effort by the end of the week.
I feel like I’m making a bigger deal with this leadup than it deserves and I felt pretty silly posting super detailed instructions, so instead I’ll just show you the mod:
As you can see, it was simply a matter of cutting the probe leads in half and connecting the end closer to the meter to a 1/4″ female monophonic unbalanced (2-connector) jack, and the end closer to the probes to a 1/4″ male monophonic unbalanced (2-connector) plug.
This way, when I’m measuring the modular, I can plug patch cords directly into the multimeter, which is hugely easier than what I was doing before. (Let’s not even go there.) However, if I want to use the meter with the probes as originally designed, I can just jack them back in and away I go.
My test measurements before and after check out, and it seems to work great. THis is going to be a huge time and headache saver for me. All I had to buy (other than the various tools and such, which fortunately I already had) was the jack, the plug, and a few inches of heat-shrink tubing. I made about a billion mistakes, because I’m clutzy, but maybe an hour of total time and only two of my fingertips burned later, my dreams had come true. :)
The biggest lessons learned in this project:
- Measure reference voltages before beginning that you can use to accurately verify that it all works after. It’s a lot harder to obtain this data after you’ve sliced your probe leads in half.
- Make sure to slide all the tubing and barrels and anything the cables have to go through into place before you start connecting and soldering. (I forgot this one maybe six thousand times.)
- Metal components that have been recently soldered tend to be very, very hot. (Ow!)
(Note: If you’re very new to soldering and need detailed instructions, please contact me! Seriously, I don’t mind writing them out for you.)
Nov 9, 2010 Gear
I’m currently building a performance sequencer module in Reaktor. Once I’m done, I’ll probably release it for download and use via Native Instruments’ free Reaktor Player. (ETA: As pointed out in the comments, you can’t load user content in Reaktor Player, so this part of the plan will have to be adjusted accordingly.) My goal is also, as per my last post, to make a TouchOSC template for it so that it can be fully controlled wirelessly via the iPad. (I dunno if I’ll do iPhone templates — I guess it would depend on whether anyone wants them or not.) The initial impetus for this was oohing and ahhing over the M185 Sequencer for the Roland System 100M. It won’t be a clone of it when I’m done, mind you, but that’s what got me thinking about it. I’ve never built a sequencer in Reaktor before, and it’s taking some learning, but I’m making progress already.
So my question to the readers — are there any features you’d love in a computer-based performance MIDI sequencer? (Note that my ultimate goal is to use it with my Synthesizers.com modular and for that it’ll be interfacing via the Q104 MIDI Interface module, so I’m likely restricted to note values and velocities in terms of what parameters I’ll be sequencing.) If they seem like cool features, I’ll try to squeeze them in.
(While I’m at it, are there any other tools in general that you’d like to see me take a stab at? I’m not likely to learn any plugin programming languages anytime soon, so I’m limited to what I can do in Reaktor, but that’s still fairly broad.)
Note that this’ll all be available for free, when I’m done. (Or, any of it that winds up seeming worth releasing.)
Unlike many old-school synth people, I wasn’t really in the market when fully-implemented, fully-knobby user interfaces were the norm. When I got involved in synths, very clean, simple physical interfaces driving small displays and layer after layer of menus were popular. A big part of that was digital technology, but I think as big a part of it was that the market became strongly competetive, and these simplified physical interfaces were an easy way to keep costs way down.
Eventually, the idea of putting the user interface on a computer screen hit ,and that’s still something that’s being explored extensively, with ever-blurring lines between plug-in software and hardware instruments. The advantage of this was that it brought us back to being able to see and visualize all of the parameters and functions at once, and that was enlightening compared to having them all buried in menus and sub-menus. Also, instruments had become much more complex in the meantime, and computer interfaces supported the richness and versatility to display those architectures in an accessible and meaningful way.
However, the mouse continued to be an impediment, because while you could see all of your parameters at once, you could only really modify one at any given time.
I’m not a musical historian, so take all of this with a grain of salt, but there seemed to be two major responses to this situation. The first seemed to find its best example in the Alesis Andromeda — a return to synthesizers with all or most of their controls broken out into individual knobs, sliders, buttons, etc. on the panel, and with architectures designed to make that possible. (It also began a move toward bring back analog components and/or a nostalgic spike in popularity of classic all-analog instruments.) The Andromeda is a well-loved instrument, but it was spectacularly expensive and continues to be, even as a used item.
The other was the control surface — a box that just packed a whole pile of knobs, sliders, buttons, a keyboard, whatever you might need, which you could then map to the various functions of your software. These were much cheaper than dedicated hardware with specifically chosen knobs, sliders and buttons to match the exact functionality of your synth, carefully laid-out. However, because they were generic guesses at functionality that most people would need, they rarely provided the set of controls you really wanted, exactly, and they certainly weren’t typically organized to expose or complement the system architecture. Also, few computer musicians use just one synthesizer.
Many people are probably expecting me to say, “And then Apple came along!” And don’t get me wrong; I love my Mac. However, Apple is also the company that recently announced that coming in 2011 they’ve invented the Maximize button.
In fact, the first mass-produced commercial solution of the type I was arrowing toward in the title was from a company called JazzMutant, and was called the Lemur. It’s a multi-touch tablet specifically geared toward musicians. What it does is allow you to build a multi-touchable interface by dragging and dropping interface elements and then use that to control your software. Because you can built the interface you want and because you can save and recall different interfaces to correspond with different software, it’s a best-of-both-worlds situation. You get a single interface tool that can be coupled with any piece of software you own and customized to suit your exact needs, and you also get the immediacy of having lots of parameters displayed in such a way that you can modify more than one of them simultaneously. (And yes, that is generally something you want to do quite often.)
On the downside, the JazzMutant tablets are very, very expensive. For years this was sort of a “pick two” situation — you could get cheap and multi-touch but not customizable (control surfaces), or cheap and customizable but not multi-touch (mouse-based on-screen UIs), or multi-touch and customizable but not cheap (JazzMutant Lemur) / multi-touch and customized but not cheap (dedicated hardware).
And this is where Apple does step in, by providing a whole family of affordable multi-touch devices that many people already own. And here I’m talking about my iPad, but this is equally true of iPhones and iPod Touches. (It’s also presumably equally true of Android devices, but I’m not familiar with their marketplace.)
This has been true for quite a while now, and I’ve even had the software for quite a while, but I started toying with it last night. There are a few components. On the iPad, there’s TouchOSC, which is an app that displays customized user interfaces, accepts multi-touch interaction with them, and sends Open Sound Control messages over your WiFi connection to any device or piece of software that can accept OSC. Also on the same page linked above is the TouchOSC editor — an app that runs on a Mac OS X, Windows or Linux machine to allow you to create those user interfaces and transfer them to the iPad app.
That’s actually all you need if you want to control something that accepts OSC, such as Reaktor or Logic or Live. However, a lot of apps don’t support OSC. For those apps, you need something to act as a go-between. The most obvious option is OSCulator, an app that acts as an OSC target that runs on your Mac/Win/Lin computer and translates the OSC messages into MIDI messages that can be read by any MIDI app or device (presuming the device is connected to a MIDI interface of some kind hooked up to your computer, or connected by a USB connection that emulates same).
All of this is pretty straightforward, in theory. In practice, there is a lot of manual programming and configuration. I decided to configure a reproduction of the Easy/Morph page in Native Instruments FM8. (When I have a good implementation going on, I’ll post the templates for download.) Once I got the hang of how it all came together, and the fact that your controls completely won’t work if there’s a space in their name (that took a while to figure out), it was mostly rote creation of widgets and assigning them to parameters, then learning those parameters in FM8. However, there are really a lot of parameters even on a relatively simple page like that. And there were a few things that I never quite got working. For example, I wound up using an XY input area for playing notes — the horizontal axis for the pitch, like normal, and the vertical axis for velocity. This actually worked really well, except that I couldn’t figure out how to actually trigger a note whenever you touch the XY grid, so instead you have to push a separate button, which effectively keeps so many of your fingers / so much of your attention occupied that you can’t really do anything else, defeating the purpose.
Even so, it was a pretty compelling experience, especially using the morph square, which isn’t that intuitive feeling using a mouse but is wonderful when played with the fingers. Being untethered was also fantastic — being able to kick back on the couch with the iPad and both play and fully control the synth. And this was simply reproducing the interface exactly as it appears on-screen. The next step would be to customize it for my needs.
And while at the moment most of the press about this sort of thing focuses on getting multi-touch, including this article, that’s another aspect of this is that it allows you to generate custom interfaces to software, putting the controls you actually use on the interface (even if they appear on separate panes). That’s hard to overestimate the value of.
It’s sometimes difficult to get people really excited about things which just improve the user experience rather than providing new functionality, and in this case where the process of using these tools is still very rough around the edges and is definitely not accessible to the technically uncourageous, it’s likely an even harder sell. However, in my few hours of playing with these, I see it as making an enormous difference in the accessibility of my synths, especially the softsynths. It’s actually one of the tools that prompted me to buy the iPad originally, and I’m a little sad that it took me this long to get around to playing with it. However, I can see myself doing a lot more of that as time passes.
Sep 16, 2010 Gear
Tonight, I spent some time composing some phat beatz on the Korg iElectribe app on my iPad. I’m sure that I’ve posted about it here before. It really is an amazing tool; all the functionality of a real Electribe (well, okay, most of it, with some significant omissions) in a portable app that only cost me ten bucks. The touch screen is even a fantastic match for the task, allowing generally intuitive control of all the functions, great power scrolling for the preset browser, easy programming of automation, etc.
However, while I had fun, like I always do, I don’t think I’ll ever use anything I came up with. i might surprise myself there. However, there really is just something about the design of these little boxes that feels really… limiting. My, that sounds haughty. I don’t mean it that way, and in fact, a lot of the rhythms that I compose aren’t any more complex or less loopy than what I’d make in the iElectribe. Perhaps it’s the focus on the rhythm as a beast totally independent from the rest of the music, which is probably fine if you have the sort of structured compositional mind that can visualize the missing parts and figure out where to leave the spaces. Or maybe it really is just that it’s a focused tool for producing a certain kind of result, and I get tired of that result quickly. I’m not sure. Either way, and maybe this will pass with time, I always find myself feeling boxed in.
While I was taking a break and checking my e-mail, I saw that someone is selling a ridiculously gorgeous E-Mu modular system. I could never in a million years afford it, and I probably wouldn’t want to deal with the headaches of maintaining a truly classic synthesizer, but it really was a thing of beauty.
Some years ago, in the mid 80s let’s say, Tom Ellard of Severed Heads said in an interview that if you bought a synthesizer off the shelf and used it as is, you were in effect letting some board member decide your music — that the architecture of the machine dictated to such a high degree what sounds you would make and what music you would write that you might as well invite that guy to be in your band. Years later again, I contacted him and asked if he still felt that way and he said that no, the technology was now flexible enough that it wasn’t necessary to build your own tools or extensively hack the ones you’d bought to maintain creative control over what you wrote.
And yet, I think it’s still true to an extent and always has been, and probably always will be. Certainly the invention of the pianoforte radically altered how people composed music, and that’s probably true of every instrument that’s ever been introduced. I think this sort of interface-and-capabilities level is not what Mr. Ellard was referring to, though.
So, the architecture. And this gets to a lot of my conflict with the iElectribe perhaps. I can only have one effect, seriously? You should see my strips in Logic Pro. I use more effects than I can count. But it’s not even that. Every piece of software I’ve used heavily influenced the product that I created with it, and my like or dislike of each tool is more about how I feel about those influences an anything else. I love how getting familiar with Nodal has changed how I think about composition, and some of those changes go hand in hand with what the Audio Damage plug-ins say to me — they certainly push the “Worship the Glitch” theory that Coil made me think about more concretely but which has always been there for me, and they both helped me to trust randomness more. (Nodal more on the random branching and Audio Damage more on the just abusing things and using what you get. I used to do this on my old samplers all the time, swapping disks while loading and the like.)
But then there are the days when I just want to retreat into Reaktor and make everything from scratch, and the days when even the ways that Reaktor pushes me in certain dirctions chafes, and I daydream about sculpting sound in the air, or I try to see what I can carve out just using a raw waveform editor, although that rarely works out. And this is probably where the Arduino and that sort of DIY thing appeals so much, even though it has its influences as well (Oh, hi there square wave!).
When I bought the AKAI EWI 40000 S, which I sadly no longer have, the idea was exactly the next obvious conclusion here — to use its clear and present influences to not just inspire but channel, cut, sculpt, maybe bludgeon at times. To change radically the way I input my data so that I would start inputting different data. And that worked, to an extent, but I found that continually trying to adapt gets tiring after a while and I just didn’t want to spend the effort to become adept at another interface.
The modular has been different for that for me. Part of that is that while it certainly suggests and architecture, it’s flexible and lets you impart your own stamp on it. Part is that I like the infouences that it brings to the table, mostly. A big part of it, which is weird to admit, is that it took so long to get used to that by the time I was capable of really evaluating it, I’d become committed, had passed the point of no return. But it has its downsides, too. It encourages me to spend more time making sounds and textures and less time putting them in songs, hence the radical drop in output (although it’s not the only factor). Its ephemeral nature is both its great strength and its great weakness.
I think that this is why so many synth people become gear addicts. Every new synth, no matter how familiar, is a new brush, a new colour, and they become extensions of you and the way you think about sound. I find myself lately looking at an ad for a used Access Virus A, a synth that imposes an architecture and imparts a tone if ever there was one. Maybe I’d regret it, and I don’t have the money anyway. Or maybe it’s because these influences are a kind of dialogue, and in the end, I kind of want to invite that guy in a board room somewhere to join my band.