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.

DNA Breakthrough

Mar 21 2008

For some time we’ve taken pitch transposition and time-stretching of audio for granted, with one caveat; only an entire audio signal gets processed. We’ve come to expect programs like Ableton Live and now Pro Tools to treat audio like butter, speeding up and slowing down loops, time correcting sloppy drumming and pitch correcting the wanna-be diva. The Waterloo of this technology has traditionally been isolating events within an audio file. If a singer hits the wrong note, it’s usually not a problem to correct, since it’s a single monophonic event that can be easily isolated and processed. What about when the piano player hits the wrong note in a chord? Well, that’s another take…. We’ve always operated under this assumption, and it was a great reason to record performances as MIDI data, since we had the freedom to freely manipulate individual notes a chord.

All this changed last week at Musikmesse, Germany’s massive musical instrument trade show, when Celemony debuted their Direct Note Access (DNA) technology. DNA can analyze an audio event, isolate individual pitched elements, and freely manipulate them in pitch and time. While I’ve said that changes in music technology products are often evolutionary, not revolutionary, this is a really big one.

Celemony started in 2001 with the initial release of Melodyne, the brainchild of German programming whiz Peter Neubäcker. The whole idea behind the technology was to allow users to edit the pitch and timing of a note graphically. Melodyne does this by analyzing the source and displaying the result as graphic data on a pitch and time grid. From here, the audio properties can be manipulated much like note and controller data in a MIDI sequencer’s graphic editing window. Opcode first introduced this concept in the late 1990′s with their StudioVision sequencer. Here, monophonic audio performances were analyzed and represented as MIDI note and pitchbend data. You simply edited the MIDI data, and rendered the result back to an audio file. Melodyne expands on this, bypassing MIDI altogether and greatly enhancing the resulting sound quality.

Melodyne is available in a variety of products from the entry level Melodyne Uno to the flagship Melodyne Studio. Starting in Fall 2008 with version 2 of the Melodyne plug-in, Direct Note Access will be incorporated into their full line and perhaps inspire some interesting new products.

Peter Neubäcker freely admits that he assumed extending the Melodyne model to individual note events in a chord was not possible. Only after challenging this basic assumption did the algorithms behind this begin to take shape. The DNA acronym works, since Direct Note Access is really about exploring the genome of the harmonic life of music. While the demo video is truly amazing, keep in mind that the types of performances here illustrate what may be the best case scenario for effectively using this technology. There are limits, and one wonders if DNA could root out a wrong note in a dense, orchestral recording. Still, what Celemony has come up with is nothing short of remarkable.

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.