MUTEK 2010

Aug 27 2010

Earlier this summer, I was in Montreal for the 11th annual MUTEK Festival of Electronic Music and Art, June 2 through June 6. The festival organizers have worked hard over the years to make this a premier electronic music event, and attending for the first time this year, I saw why. The range of electronic music presented by over 150 artists covers the entire gamut of electronic music, from experimental noise and sound art to classic house music and just about everything in between. The schedule itself was daunting, but much to the organizers credit, they released a very useful iPhone app that organized the schedule and gave a brief overview to each artist, including links to their MySpace pages and other Web resources. The app is free and you should still be able to download it and use it as a way to perhaps find out about the artist who appeared at MUTEK.

Minilogue at MUTEK 2010

To make sense of the range of artists, the festival was organized in several different series, each in it’s own venue. Experience and Ectoplasmes events were held in a black block theater that worked well for presenting audio-visual work as well as more experimental and emerging artists. The A/Visions series events were held in the Monument National concert hall. As the name suggests, many of the concerts here were multimedia presentations, with a massive display as the backdrop for the performers onstage. Nocturnes were club events held in three different venues not more than a block away from each other. SAT had more of an underground vibe, and while still in the dance genre, hosted edgier performers and DJs. Club Soda reminded me more of a classic dance club. Friday was the big club night and MUTEK attendees were in a constant flow between the two venues, checking out House and Techno at Soda and Dubstep at SAT. Metropolis was more of a concert club that also hosted small acts simultaneously in separate lounge. So, on just about any given night of the festival there were two different scenes going on. And, if that wasn’t enough, there were outdoor events as well, culminating with a free concert on Montreal’s main outdoor stage.

Montreal is a wonderful city for the arts and they really know how to present festivals. While I was there I saw no less than eight outdoor stages in various states of construction for what appeared to a very busy season that includes the well-established Montreal Jazz Festival. While MUTEK was an international festival there was an emphasis on Canadian artists. The Canadian government and a range of private sponsors support the festival with the caveat that it provides a venue for home-grown talent. Canada has a vibrant music scene with talented artists in all genres who are largely unknown outside of their county, and this was a good opportunity to check some of them out.

 

Señor Coconut at MUTEK 2010

For me, one of the big issues in electronic music is live performance, and the connection between studio production and how a work is performed. MUTEK provided a great opportunity to see a wide variety of performance styles, from DJs to computer-aided acoustic performances. What follows is an overview of some of the artists that impressed me at MUTEK and how they approached performing.

Matmos was one of the acts high on my list to check out at MUTEK. Partners since 1997, Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt are perhaps best known for their playful way of working with sampled sound, and have collaborated with a number of artists from Bjork PLOrk. Onstage, each has a distinct role, with Daniel on laptops and controllers and Schmidt on realtime keyboard and assorted noisemakers. In the Matmos brain, one half is digital, the other analog, and they have no problem navigating the aesthetic corpus callosum, and this distinction is one of the things that makes their music compelling. In an interview session the next day, they were very articulate in discussing their work and adopted home of Baltimore. Their work is highly conceptual with each of their albums centered around a core concept. While electronic music seems to offer infinite creative possibilities, they feel that limiting choices and creating from a core concept is essential. Although the idea of an "album" is rapidly disappearing, they feel it’s still an important part of their process. A good example of this is their 2008 release, Supreme Balloon, where the idea was to break their mold and create an album of purely synthesized sound, where no recordings of acoustic sources of any type are used. Fittingly, most of their set at MUTEK came from this work, culminating with the 24-minute piece Supreme Balloon, an electronic tour de force.

Matmos at MUTEK 2010

In contrast to the discipline of Matmos, Mouse on Mars thrive on a kind of controlled anarchy. The German duo of Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner began working together in 1993, with ten releases and numerous side projects to their credit. Their live set was a dense, rhythmic stew that seemed more stream of consciousness than composition. Each had a laptop, presumably running Ableton Live along with an assortment of controllers. There were no defined roles here and there was no clear connection between the sound and who it came from. Their production process has more to do with assembling ideas from sounds collected on their hard drives than a clear concept, where lots of sounds and idea get refined until an album is done. When is a project "done?" St Werner mentioned in an interview the day after their performance that record company deadlines and hard drive crashes are what signal the end their process. While they currently working on new material, their last studio effort came out in 2007, so perhaps the demise of record labels and more reliable hard drives are extending their creative process. They’ve actually spent a good part of the last few years performing live, often with a drummer, and they feel this experience energizes them for their work in the studio. In performance, it sounds like they’ve emptied the choices bits from their hard drives into Ableton Live and freely improvise their dance set.

 

Jon Hopkins at MUTEK 2010

One of the high points of the festival for me was Jon Hopkins‘ set. Most have probably heard of his work through his association with Coldplay, providing the opening and closing instrumental sections of their Viva La Vida CD, and opening for them on many dates during their last tour. Hopkins is a trained musician, and as a pianist and composer his work reflects a more traditional melodic and harmonic vocabulary. Given that, I didn’t know what to expect in a dance club performance. His hour-long set was absolutely brilliant, and showcased a well-rehearsed, seasoned electronic performer. Each piece was a composition, and I recognized a couple from his most recent release, Insides. My sense was that each piece provided an overall form and that he was free to extend sections and improvise variations. On stage, he mainly used two Korg Kaoss pads along with a keyboard controller, and with these, he was able to control every aspect of the performance, he’s clearly in the "controllerism" camp of live electronic performance. From the audience’s perspective, Hopkins was really "playing" his set and much of their reaction was not just to the music, but to the clear sense of virtuosity that he conveyed.

While this is just a small taste of what I experienced, there are numerous reviews and videos of MUTEK 2010 on the Web.

After what was perhaps the worst year in memory for the musical instrument industry, the 2010 Winter NAMM show rolled into Anaheim, California January 14-17. NAMM is the premier US trade show for musical instrument manufacturers, and while the fortunes of individual music technology companies ebb and flow, there continues to be interesting products on the horizon. While several major players like Apple and Native Instruments no longer attend trade shows, stalwarts like Korg, Roland, and Yamaha still continue to use NAMM as a showcase for new products. In what’s perhaps a sign of the times, many smaller music technology companies sat this show out, or opted for private, more informal meetings in lounges and coffee shops. So for me, NAMM 2010 was more about talking to people than seeing things, and in some ways, that human connection made this year’s show all the more satisfying. Over my next few blog posts I’ll report on some of the things I observed at the show this year.

Each year at NAMM there’s always one centrally located booth that serves as a reliable rendezvous point for music tech geeks to meet. While in past years this has been the Didgidesign booth, the torch passed to Ableton this year, and the booth they shared with Cycling 74 was this year’s hub for many at the show. In many ways, this was symbolic of the change the industry is experiencing. Avid, the parent company of Digidesign, is phasing out the Digi brand identity. Since they had nothing new to show, their booth was mainly a set up for private meetings, largely devoid of products, and the name Digidesign was nowhere to be found. A well-placed source confided that at the corporate feeling was that the majority of customers really identify with the name “Pro Tools” as the brand identity for that particular family of products, and the Digidesign moniker had little relevance to both new and future customers. Expect about twelve new products from Avid in the coming year, and your new M-Box will clearly be an Avid product.

While one industry goliath is clearly consolidating, Ableton is becoming more of a presence. They’ve done this not by expanding their product line, as is usually the case with any manufacturer, but rather by opening their product architecture and partnering with other companies to extend Live’s capabilities. At this year’s NAMM, Max for Live was a reality, and in the six or so weeks since it was officially released, there’s been a flurry of activity as scores of MAX gurus and aficionados adapt their signature patches for use in Live. Included in the Max for Live release are patches from the stash of Ableton co-founder and electronic music pioneer Robert Henke. While the buzz around Max for Live may be substantial, the truth is that Max programming is not for everyone who uses Live. The value of this collaboration to most users will really be the open architecture that allows forward thinking hackers to expand the capabilities of Live according to their own muse. I expect to see a cottage industry of MAX for Live developers to spring up this year, offering any user access to additional tools that will bring both utility and innovation.

The big new news for Ableton this year was their collaboration with DJ stalwarts Serato called The Bridge. While Live has always had the basic functionality needed by a digital DJ, there’s really a cultural difference between DJs and live electronic music performers that’s defined the tools for each. Some artists, like Richard Devine who’s all over Native Instrument’s Traktor for live performance, can migrate between these tools, but by and large, a DJ’s point of reference will be decks, hardware or otherwise. The collaboration between Live and Serrato respects this and provides users a bridge between their respective programs. Serrato decks show up in Live, and a DJ set done with Serato can be saved as a Live session with three stereo tracks, one for each of two decks and one for a bounced mix of the two. Included here are all effects and realtime moves, so in essence, a DJ set can be further refined or serve as the starting point for a completely new hybrid work. Over the years, Ableton has become a tool that provides a platform for both spontaneous creation and refinement of musical ideas, and this year’s developments expand the scope of users who will benefit from this.

NAMM 2010 Demo of the Bridge

Tight integration with performance controllers is now a big part of Planet Ableton. The AKAI APC40 and the Novation Launchpad, that were released last year, each have a slightly different design approach. While the APC40 provides a complete control solution for both clip launching and mixing and effects, the Launchpad is a more portable device optimized for launching clips in the heat of battle. At a fraction of the size and half the price, the Launchpad has been very successful with performers, but a big complaint has been the lack of faders. AKAI unveiled the APC20 at NAMM that addresses this with the addition of eight fades to a set of “launch pads.” All of this is good news for anyone using Ableton Live, as this is only the start of what will be a number of hardware control products that will be coming out in 2010.

NAMM 2010 Demo of the AKAI APC20

Given the state of the economy current conditions taking a hit on discretionary spending, I was somewhat apprehensive about traveling west for the NAMM show this year. While times are indeed tough, I got a sense of overall optimism from many of the manufacturers and product representatives I spoke with. While there will be consolidation and restructuring in management and sales, all agree that development and innovation will continue. Signs of this abounded at NAMM with a number of cool new products. This was an especially big year for Ableton with the announcement of a number of watershed products.

NAMM 2009

At NAMM 2008, Cycling 74 and Ableton announced a collaboration that would yield new developments for their products. While the goal here was not much of a mystery, this year’s announcement of MAX for Live took the wraps off the fruits of their work. This is indeed big news, and really ushers in a new era for the integration of music technology products. MAX is a programming environment, while Live is performance/production tool; each does what the other doesn’t. With MAX for Live, MAX patches will be able to open in Live, like any other plug-in. There will be direct MIDI and audio input and output connections between the two, and both will share sample accurate timing. While this type of inter-application communication has always been available using Propellerheads’ ReWire technology, MAX for Live will make this much easier, and will undoubtedly spawn a wave of innovative development, particularly in the area of live performance. As is typical with these types of major trade show announcements, no firm release date or price point was mentioned, but my guess is that a final release might happen this fall.

The collaborative spirit must be alive and well in Berlin, as collaboration was a big theme for Ableton this year, While the Cycling 74 partnership centered on software, a partnership with AKAI resulted in the APC40 hardware controller for Live. While Live supports a number of hardware controllers that greatly enhance the performance experience, nothing comes close to the tight integration of these two products. AKAI was once the de facto standard for hardware samplers, but the swift adoption of software samplers nearly signaled the company’s demise. While their MPC series is a must-have tool for hip hop production, the company has had a hard time establishing an identity beyond that. In 2004 AKAI was acquired by DJ supplier Numark, and has since focused on developing performance tools. While Ableton indicates that there are collaborations with other hardware manufacturers, AKAI is the first of these to see the light of day. While pricing and availability were not announced at the show, a street price of 399.00 is listed at some online retailers.

Along with their partnerships with other manufacturers, Ableton announced a new service that will be built into the upcoming Live 8. The Share Live Set feature will allow users to upload their projects to a Ableton server, where they can be accessed by any user on the Net. The technology here takes a cue from the cloud computing concept, where data is stored on a central server where it can be accessed and synced by any number of users. While a number of Web start-ups were founded on the idea of providing resources for musicians to collaborate online, this idea has yet to really take off. Live users are by and large forward-looking musicians, and with a reliable infrastructure in place, this community may take full advantage of the technology. In the area of online eduction, this is profound, and this service could become the backbone of a creative music curriculum, beyond simply learning how to use Live. Again, pricing and availability for this service has yet to be announced.

Significant updates have been an annual event for Ableton, and while the prior three NAMM announcements point to new directions for the company, the upcoming release of Live 8 certainly merits as much attention. Ableton updates are always significant, and manage to expand the program without sacrificing its ease of use. The new features in Live 8 continue this, adding requested features along with capabilities users have come to expect. Live’s new groove engine adds groove quantize functions that are commonly found in other DAWs. Their version allows for both MIDI and audio quantization as well as a groove analysis tool that extracts timing information and creates a groove template from it. Along with this is a new warping engine that allows easy manipulation of individual beats within a clip. While this function has always been a part of Live, the new algorithms used here significantly reduce the related audio artifacts –which may or may not be a good thing for those of the “glitch” persuasion. Ableton has been steadily expanding the collection of effects in Live, and the addition of a vocoder and a multi-band compressor, among others, builds on what’s already available. Finally, while some performers use Live as a kind of looping device, it’s always been more clumsy than hardware loopers on the market. The success of many performers who use looping, like New York’s Battles, has brought a renewed interest in this technique. The looper that comes with Live 8 looks like a capable solution, and further strengthens Live’s position as the premier performance software on the planet.

The hardest part of getting through a NAMM show is wearing a badge that identifies me with Berklee. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m proud to represent the institution, and while my affiliation opens many doors, there are scores of alums in all aspects of the music industry who love re-connecting with their alma mater. If you want to travel to NAMM incognito, get your badge from Harvard.

The best spokesperson for any product is an artist who uses the product, and uses it well. This year, I was pleasantly surprised to see one of my former students, New York electronic artist Matt Moldover, talking about his work and performing at the Ableton Live booth. While sharing a common school experience with fellow alum Dan Lehrich, profiled in an earlier blog entry, Matt has taken a very different path, establishing a profile as performing artist.

Moldover performing 

Matt was one of the legion of guitar players that comes to Berklee each year. While most are looking to follow in the footsteps of one fretted deity or another, Matt always wanted to forge his own path, and after getting in the Music Synthesis major, that was combining interactive electronic performance with the guitar. At Berklee he discovered MAX, and soon was on to the idea of extending what he did as a player to sound from electronic sources. Matt didn’t want to play in a band, he wanted to play with sound.

Matt also got turned on to DJ and club culture. Moving to New York after graduation, he found a scene for like-minded electronic performers, and jettisoned his first name, becoming the artist known as Moldover. Being a player and a geek, he was in the right place at the right time when Native Instruments came out with Guitar Rig. The first time I saw him at NAMM, he was the Guitar Rig guy at NI. While he gave knowledgeable and convincing demos, I got the sense a different muse was calling. At a party in LA we had a chance to talk, and I got a glimpse of some of the projects he was working on, the first of which was the Interstellar ReMix Wagon for Burning Man, 2004.

The thing I didn’t quite realize about Moldover was that he was really pretty good at building stuff. His next project was the Octamasher, a performance system fueled by Ableton Live that gave eight “mashers” a tool to communally create a club mix. Social networking and interactive performance might sound like a research project at the MIT Media Lab, but this is a guy with a laptop, hacking a bunch of cheap keyboard controllers and hitting parties…. pretty cool.

Sometime last fall came a new website and the birth of “controllerism.” According the the site, Controllerism is “the art of manipulating sounds and creating music live using computer controllers and software.” Perhaps Matt will be the first to make both YouTube and dictionary.com. But, what I saw from him at the Ableton booth this year was a virtuoso performance that combined electronic music with the spontaneity and inventiveness of a jazz soloist, swapping clips of sound for notes and scales.

Dan Lehrich and Moldover may seem at opposite ends of a very wide playing field, but what really fascinates me is the real passion they both have for creating immersive performance experiences using computers and physical interfaces. While research in the field of interactive music systems continues at the highest levels of academia, it’s really cool to see real innovation happening on the street as well.

Fall 2006 brought a cornucopia of software updates for music production. If you’re a Mac user, that includes the long awaited new operating system, Leopard. A late November release of Live 7 capped a season where we saw the arrival of Logic Studio, Reason 4, NI Komplete 5 and Pro Tools 7.4. This onslaught raises the inevitable question for users of when to upgrade –what works or when will it? Although most of us involved with technology welcome change, but we are periodically reminded of the commitment we make to troubleshooting and learning new features. This past fall, that was a big one.

Out of nowhere, Logic Studio was announced in early September. After months of rumors about what would become of Logic, 10 DVDs held the answer. By this time, there’s a number of really good reviews out of Logic 8, but suffice it to say, this is an evolution, not a revolution. However, with Logic 8 shipping as a software suite with Soundtrack, Compressor, and Mainstage –a new performance application that hosts software synths and processors– at half the price of Logic 7, the update for users is a no-brainer. The install took forever, even without adding the lifetime’s worth of GarageBand loops that are included. But when all was said and done, Logic 8 ran like a clock and played nice with just about all the plug-ins it scanned –again another wait while the AU police did its gig.

I had a beta of Reason 4 over the summer, so when I finally got the release version in October, there were no surprises. Our friends in Stockholm release no software until its time and Reason remains the most stable piece of software I have ever used….period.

By the time Leopard was announced, my attitude was two down, bring it on. The new OS went on sale at 6:00 PM, I had it in my hands by 7:00, and at 9:00 my G5 tower studio computer rebooted to reveal shades of purple. I soon found out it was the color of envy… of all those who had the good sense to leave well enough alone. Leopard brought every single piece of music software to its knees, with the exception of standalone softsynths, and of course Reason. Times like this bring out my dark side…the fearless geek. As with any other vice, indulgence turned into another lost weekend….sorting through plug-ins and general troubleshooting.

OK, I knew Pro Tools wouldn’t work, but when the new Logic 8 crashed on every launch, I got nervous. Some people read mysteries, others chase down software incompatibilities, and it was off to the races for me. As Logic started, things seemed to bog down when I got to the Waves plug-ins. With a quick trip the Waves Website, I found that their line of plug-ins was not yet compatible with Leopard. So, once my Waveshell hit the trash, things got a bit further on start-up, but still no luck.

It seems that I never met a plug-in I didn’t like, and I install just about anything I come across. The problem is, they stay there. After sorting though all the demos and betas, I finally narrowed the field to a few likely suspects. Again, off to the trash; but still, no luck. One of the most reliable ways to start sorting out problem children in the plug-ins folder is to take them all out and open the application. With an empty Components folder, Logic opened without a hitch. The next step is the tedious task of closing the application, adding a plug-in, then opening. As long as Logic opened, I was in the clear. Instead of adding individual plug-ins, I went through families at a time. I was pleasantly surprised that my favorites were not at fault. After a bit of this low-level detective work, I found that the Melodyne Rewire plug-in, one that I had never actually used, was the culprit. Once Logic opened, all the other applications that had previously crashed, ran without a problem. Any program that was an Audio Unit host stalled on that one plug-in. (As of this writing, all current Melodyne plug-ins run under Leopard.

I might add that when installing Leopard, I chose to migrate my applications, settings, and preferences, and thankfully all of installs and the associated labyrinth of copy protection schemes remained intact.

So, was it worth it? Heck yes… Leopard is a really slick OS visually, and despite the hit you might expect the processor would take from the added graphic elements, the system runs smoothly, is very stable, and there is a noticeable improvement in the performance of some applications. At first glance, there doesn’t look to be any changes to Core Audio, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some goodies somewhere under the hood.

So, should you upgrade? Well, that depends. Here are a few thoughts on when to upgrade:

Tips for upgrading:

1. Do you need to? If you use a machine for billable work, be very cautious with upgrades. (If you’re a working pro, I probably don’t need to tell you that.) If you are working on projects that have deadlines, don’t do it.

2. If you have two machines, start with one, using it as a test platform, then transition to the other. I started with my studio machine, and since I had no looming deadlines, this made some sense, hence my somewhat cavalier attitude this time out. I use my laptop to run my life and since it’s a newer Intel machine, it can work for just about any project that comes up as a back up. I’ll update it when the dust settles.

3. If you think you’re ready to make the leap to a new OS revision, check manufacturers’ Websites for compatibility. Don’t forget any drivers you may need. Although many are now class compliant and need no additional drivers, this is not always the case. MOTU hardware requires driver software, and they are thankfully pretty quick to update.

4. If you’re updating an OS or a host application such as any DAW, check with the companies that supply the plug-ins you rely on for compatibility.

5. Weed through your plug-ins before running a new OS or software version. A bit of housecleaning will usually ease a transition. I always try to set aside time when I make major upgrades or revisions to clear out software and plug-ins that I don’t use.

6. Back up before you make any changes. Getting a new OS is like getting a heart transplant (or at least a bypass). You’re making a major change to the critical part of your system and stuff can happen. You never know exactly how compatible documents will be with new versions of software that authored them.

Happy New Year and have fun with all the new stuff that’s out there.