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

AES New York

Nov 01 2009

The Audio Engineering Society held it’s annual convention in New York City the weekend of October 9. The event has a number of components from work group meetings that discuss proposals for various audio standards, to technical papers and workshops, as well as the mother of all professional audio trade shows. This year’s show was noticeably smaller, as the economy forced many to cut back from their usual presence. Nowhere was this more evident than the eerie absence of Digidesign. While Pro Tools 8 captured this year’s TEC award for DAW Technology, the company spent the year downsizing, losing many key engineering and management positions. Prior to the show, Digi announced Eleven, a new product for guitarists, leaving many in the pro audio community wondering if the company was shifting its attention to the potentially more lucrative mass market. While Pro Tools remains a kind of industrial standard, one wonders what might happen if an industry standard goes out of business…

While the industry as a whole is having a hard time, there’s a common thread that runs through all the players who are weathering the storm and made it to AES, they all have a real love for high quality audio, and regardless of shifting trends and economic conditions, they’re in it for the long haul. Nowhere was this more evident then at API, who manufacture high end analog mixing consoles and modules. This year theuy celebrated they’re 40th year in business with a party and concert featuring guitarist Sonny Landreth with guest Bob Weir of Grateful Dead fame. Their slogan, "celebrating 40 years of ups and downs" says it all. With the rise of DAW systems and "mixing in the box" many thought the end was near for many of these manufacturers. API was quick to realize that the analog technologies they developed for high end consoles could be repurposed for the digital age. Their "lunchbox" series of preamps, EQs and compressors provides a flexible and cost effective way to assemble a high quality, analog signal path for a variety of recording and mixing scenarios.

Sonny Landreth and Bob Weir of Grateful Dead

Although AES is primarily a pro audio show, a number of musical instrument manufacturers make an appearance. Korg has a stake in both camps with their revolutionary MR series of digital recorders, a decidedly pro audio product on one hand, and their line of keyboards a dominant player in the instrument arena. This year they rolled out the SV-1, a new modeled stage keyboard that’s designed from the ground up to be a players instrument. To emphasize this, they’re promoting it with video presentations from respected players such as Neil Evans from the group Soul Live. Korg also rolled out a new version of the fabled Korg Wavedrum. The original was an innovative product that was really ahead of it’s time, and while it was a kind of secret weapon for innovative percussionists, it never really took off in the mass market. The drum itself is not a pad, but uses a drum head to provide the feel of an acoustic instrument. The drumhead serves to provide input to a physical modeling engine capable of sounds that range from organic to electronic. Korg updated the design and dropped the price, and with a renewed interest in electronic performance, this will be an important addition to just about any performer’s arsenal.

Moldover in Brooklyn

One of the real highlights of the weekend was a trip to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg district for a late Saturday night performance by Moldover, who I featured in one of my early blog posts. He’s now a resident of San Francisco, but he was on an East Coast tour supporting a new CD release Circuit Board Instrument. While Ableton Live was the engine for the show, his laptop was off to the side, out of the spot light. As a key proponent of "controllerism," Moldover believes that electronic music performance should be an entertaining visual experience for the audience, and this show was a tour de force of that aesthetic. After years hacking and customizing existing controllers, he’s now using a custom-built unit. It faces the audience and his nimble manipulation of the controls provides a clear visual connection to the sound that’s being produced. Combine this with good writing, guitar playing, and clever use of effects processing, and you get a thoroughly engaging performance.

The Beat Goes On…

Apr 20 2009

One of the things I like about the NAMM show is that no matter how connected you are to a given part of the industry, there are always things that surprise you. In 2009, it was the return of the Beatbox… as software. MOTU, Native Instruments, and Sonivox all announced products that, in some way or another, are modeled after pattern-based sequencing devices, like the MPC 2000, and to a lesser extent classic the drum machines from Roland. I hinted at my latent infatuation with drum machines in a post last year when I talked about software beatboxes for the iPhone, so now, some months later, comes a wave of products slated for the studio.

While drum machines certainly had their charm, I don’t miss chaining together strings of pattern numbers using a munchkin LCD to put together a demo or track. Once I started using software sequencers, specifically Opcode’s Vision back in the Stone Age, I never really looked back at the Korg and Roland machines I had grown accustomed to. I found it much easier to put together complex rhythm patterns, with variations and changing meters, using a sequencer’s graphic editor. OK, so why the current wave of interest in beatboxes in their various incarnations? While I thoroughly enjoy my iPhone beatboxes, I never thought of going back to the box for my project work. What was I missing here?

As often happens, it takes a student to enlighten the teacher, and in this case it was Ronnie Pelham, a former student of mine who makes his home in Miami doing music and audio for multimedia productions. Last January, Ronnie was working for Native Instruments demonstrating Maschine, their newly announced hardware/software beatbox product. I brought up the sequencer/drum machine issue with him and his reply made total sense. Beatboxes, at their heart and soul are performance devices, and as such, they inspire spontaneity and the kind of creativity that comes with performing. Sit down with a drum machine and start playing. It’s literally impossible to not come up with something new. While the sequencer is a powerful tool for recording and editing, it’s not very interactive. With a beatbox, you can always just try something and if it doesn’t quite work, you can change it on the fly. If you start playing with no preconceived ideas, new rhythmic ideas will present themselves –play something, listen to it, add something new.

Ronnie Pelham Talks About Maschine

The big advance that comes in 2009 with Maschine is that it brings together the physical interface of a traditional beatbox with the sequencing and editing capabilities of software. With this system, it’s easy to edit individual patterns and then use them to build longer musical forms that make up a song or composition. Add to that a library of kits that spans eras and genres, and you’ve got a tool the provides fertile ground for any overdeveloped musical imagination.

I guess it’s back to the box… more to follow.

Native Instruments Maschine Explained

 

For Pro Tools users, check out Dave Franz’ blog post on Digidesign’s Boom. Boom

The Beat Goes On…

Apr 20 2009

One of the things I like about the NAMM show is that no matter how connected you are to a given part of the industry, there are always things that surprise you. In 2009, it was the return of the Beatbox… as software. MOTU, Native Instruments, and Sonivox all announced products that, in some way or another, are modeled after pattern-based sequencing devices, like the MPC 2000, and to a lesser extent classic the drum machines from Roland. I hinted at my latent infatuation with drum machines in a post last year when I talked about software beatboxes for the iPhone, so now, some months later, comes a wave of products slated for the studio.

While drum machines certainly had their charm, I don’t miss chaining together strings of pattern numbers using a munchkin LCD to put together a demo or track. Once I started using software sequencers, specifically Opcode’s Vision back in the Stone Age, I never really looked back at the Korg and Roland machines I had grown accustomed to. I found it much easier to put together complex rhythm patterns, with variations and changing meters, using a sequencer’s graphic editor. OK, so why the current wave of interest in beatboxes in their various incarnations? While I thoroughly enjoy my iPhone beatboxes, I never thought of going back to the box for my project work. What was I missing here?

As often happens, it takes a student to enlighten the teacher, and in this case it was Ronnie Pelham, a former student of mine who makes his home in Miami doing music and audio for multimedia productions. Last January, Ronnie was working for Native Instruments demonstrating Maschine, their newly announced hardware/software beatbox product. I brought up the sequencer/drum machine issue with him and his reply made total sense. Beatboxes, at their heart and soul are performance devices, and as such, they inspire spontaneity and the kind of creativity that comes with performing. Sit down with a drum machine and start playing. It’s literally impossible to not come up with something new. While the sequencer is a powerful tool for recording and editing, it’s not very interactive. With a beatbox, you can always just try something and if it doesn’t quite work, you can change it on the fly. If you start playing with no preconceived ideas, new rhythmic ideas will present themselves –play something, listen to it, add something new.

Ronnie Pelham Talks About Maschine

The big advance that comes in 2009 with Maschine is that it brings together the physical interface of a traditional beatbox with the sequencing and editing capabilities of software. With this system, it’s easy to edit individual patterns and then use them to build longer musical forms that make up a song or composition. Add to that a library of kits that spans eras and genres, and you’ve got a tool the provides fertile ground for any overdeveloped musical imagination.

I guess it’s back to the box… more to follow.

Native Instruments Maschine Explained

 

For Pro Tools users, check out Dave Franz’ blog post on Digidesign’s Boom. Boom

ICMC

Sep 21 2008

My summer didn’t quite wind down this year. During the last week in August, I had the opportunity to travel to Belfast, Northern Ireland to attend the International Computer Music Conference. Sound cool? While many of you might envision workshops on Ableton Live and other musical applications, I’ll report that the commercial applications we all know and love were nowhere in sight. ICMC is largely an academic conference that focuses on cutting edge research and applications. For me, it really was a great opportunity to connect with a wider community of musicians, composers, and scholars who were asking interesting questions and pushing the boundaries of art and science. I’ll be looking at some more specific topics in my next few blog entries, but for now, I’ll start with a brief introduction.

As with most academic conferences, the five days of ICMC were filled with paper and poster sessions, where researchers presented their findings, panel discussions, and of course, lots of music. In all, about 250 works were performed that spanned a broad range of styles and compositional strategies. Most of these fell into one of two categories: electro-acoustic or acousmatic.

Electro-acoustic performances are an extension of traditional concert settings, where acoustic instruments are either accompanied by or interact with multi-channel sound sources. At ICMC, these types of performances took place in a concert hall setting. For those of you new to modern concert music, there is a long, proud tradition of forward looking composers, anxious to integrate electronic sound with traditional acoustic instruments, hence the term “electro-acoustic” music. This dates back to the ground breaking work of Karlheinz Stockhausen in the 1950s.

Acousmatic performances are really listening experiences that use electronic sound exclusively. While this is essentially what goes on in a dance club, acousmatic music typically incorporates sound from both acoustic and electronic sources, set in a more abstract musical form that explores the nature of the sound rather than use more conventional musical elements of melody, and harmony. The exciting part of this really comes from the multi-channel playback of these pieces, commonly referred to as diffusion. While this can be done in the mix of a piece, a composer will often control the distribution of sound through speakers as part of the performance. The inspiration for this genre comes, once again, from the early days of electronic music and the work of Pierre Schaffer and Edgard Varese, who were among the first to create pieces from recorded sound sources.

SARC

The conference host, Queens University, Belfast, is home to the Sonic Arts Research Center, SARC. The performance space at SARC is a remarkable environment designed for 3D sound diffusion. Yes, I said 3D… While most of us are familiar with 5.1 surround sound at this point, SARC offers 48 channel playback from four levels. There are eight speakers at standing ear level, eight speakers suspended above, eight on the ceiling, and eight positioned below. Below? OK, the floor of SARC is a metal grid, with speakers pointing up from the “basement” below. Subwoofers are suspended above and positioned below. The best pieces we heard in this space were nothing short of amazing, providing a truly immersive experience that challenged all expectations of how we listen to sound. The research being done in this field is closely tied to psychoacoustics, and the result is an aesthetically satisfying merger of art, science, and technology.

While jet lag is usually a challenging part of returning from Europe, the hardest part of getting back home from this trip was listening. Listening in stereo. Call it SARC lag…

Olympic Sampling

Aug 14 2008

I’m not big on television. As a matter of fact, about the only screen time I get is when I’m captive in a hotel room on family trips. As I’m now headed home after twelve days in Scotland, there one TV image that keeps coming back… a Samsung cellphone commercial where a DJ captures the sound of different sporting events, loads them in a beat box and loops them, making a very cool groove with these “found” sounds. See below:

At the beginning of the twentieth century a composer named Luigi Russolo authored a manifesto called The Art of Noises, where he called for a new pallet of sounds for music that would reflect a more modern time. The early 20th century way of pulling this off was to bring bells, sirens, and motorized gadgets on stage with an orchestra –check out George Antheil’s Ballet Mecanique. While this served as the inspiration for a minor musical movement in the 1920′s, the whole idea soon faded away. That is until samplers came along in the 1980′s. Once the sample genie was let out of the bottle, everyone from rappers to synth poppers made music out of any sound you could imagine.

So what makes this Samsung commercial so compelling to me? It’s really remarkable that an idea that was so radical in the last century can now be put front and center before a prime-time, mass market audience on mainstream TV. The idea that you can grab just about any sound, loop it and make music may be familiar to electronic musicians, but putting in front of the summer’s biggest ad market is pretty darn cool.

Has anyone else seen this?

What’s in a Circle?

Jul 08 2008

We often think about technology in terms of new features, capabilities, or techniques. In electronic music that translates into the quest for products that offer new synthesis techniques or unique implementations of existing ones. It’s something I like to call the “secret weapon syndrome.” (More on this in a later entry…) In all this, we often forget the user interface –how we work with a particular tool. This is probably the least sexy topic one could raise when considering a product, yet when you come right down to it, it’s probably one of the most important. It’s really what determines if you’re going to open something occasionally, or if you’re going to use it every day.

I always look forward to checking out new synths, and my interest in Circle from Future Audio Workshop started when it was first announced at Musikmesse this past spring. One of the big selling points for this synth was it’s user interface… so, what’s up with that? The basic premise here is that sound design is really an easy process and that the instruments you use should be easy to understand and use. FAW is a collective of programmers from across Europe led by Gavin Burke with headquarters in Ireland. While Circle uses a standard subtractive architecture, the instrument was designed from the ground up to clarify the workflow of using the instrument. There’s a great interview with Gavin on the Create Digital Music (CDM) website that provides some insight into the instrument’s design and the thinking behind it.

I use synthesizers to design sounds as well as to teach and learn about the techniques involved. Circle excels at both. One of the most confusing aspects of sound design can be modulation routings. In modular systems, this is done using patch cables. While these systems make a clear visual connection between a source and destination, things can get confusing when there are many routings, and the patch starts to look like a spaghetti dinner. Anyone who’s worked with the Nord Modular or done any patching on the back of the Reason rack can attest to this. There are five possible internal modulation sources in Circle, and any of these can be configured as an envelope, LFO, or a step sequencer. Each source is color coded, and to make a connection you simply drag a colored circle to the desired destination. In a fully formed patch, it’s very easy to see exactly what is controlling any destination.

A big part of interface design is consistency. Synthesizer controls generally fall under one of two categories, amounts and levels or durations. In Circle, you click and drag up to increase a level, drag down to decrease. Simple, yes? We most often see time values in setting the duration of an envelope segment. Here, it’s done by simply dragging to the right to make the duration longer, left makes it shorter. You can contrast this with the vertical sliders used for envelope controls in many hardware and software instruments such as Reason’s Subtractor. This is consistent throughout Circle except for the rate control in the built-in arpeggiator which is controlled with a horizontal slider.

While sound is an aural experience, we can learn a lot about what we’re hearing through visual displays. In Circle, the motion of LFO waveforms is clearly displayed. While there is a healthy selection of sixteen LFO waveshapes, each LFO section allows two separate shapes to be combined into a single composite again, clearly displayed. In the envelopes, a ball traces the progress through the timed segments. In the step sequencer, progress through the steps is outlined as each colored step turns white as it plays. While these may seem like obvious features, they are things that you aren’t typically seeing in other software instruments, making Circle very easy to use.

Behind the user interface, there’s a very robust subtractive architecture with some twists. There’s quite a variety of timbral possibilities in Circle, beyond the geometric basics, using the oscillators in wavetable mode. In each of these, two waves can be combined, similar to what we see in the LFOs. While the envelopes in Circle are standard ADSR shapes, step sequenced control and the variety of waveforms available for periodic LFO control makes it possible to create the kind of rhythmic patterns one gets from the multisegment envelopes in synths from Native Instruments.

So what’s on the frontier for electronic instruments? It very well could come from the kind of thinking behind this first offering from Future Audio Workshop. I can only imagine what may come from future products that use more complex synthesis architectures. FM made simple anyone?

What’s in a Circle?

Jul 08 2008

We often think about technology in terms of new features, capabilities, or techniques. In electronic music that translates into the quest for products that offer new synthesis techniques or unique implementations of existing ones. It’s something I like to call the “secret weapon syndrome.” (More on this in a later entry…) In all this, we often forget the user interface –how we work with a particular tool. This is probably the least sexy topic one could raise when considering a product, yet when you come right down to it, it’s probably one of the most important. It’s really what determines if you’re going to open something occasionally, or if you’re going to use it every day.

I always look forward to checking out new synths, and my interest in Circle from Future Audio Workshop started when it was first announced at Musikmesse this past spring. One of the big selling points for this synth was it’s user interface… so, what’s up with that? The basic premise here is that sound design is really an easy process and that the instruments you use should be easy to understand and use. FAW is a collective of programmers from across Europe led by Gavin Burke with headquarters in Ireland. While Circle uses a standard subtractive architecture, the instrument was designed from the ground up to clarify the workflow of using the instrument. There’s a great interview with Gavin on the Create Digital Music (CDM) website that provides some insight into the instrument’s design and the thinking behind it.

I use synthesizers to design sounds as well as to teach and learn about the techniques involved. Circle excels at both. One of the most confusing aspects of sound design can be modulation routings. In modular systems, this is done using patch cables. While these systems make a clear visual connection between a source and destination, things can get confusing when there are many routings, and the patch starts to look like a spaghetti dinner. Anyone who’s worked with the Nord Modular or done any patching on the back of the Reason rack can attest to this. There are five possible internal modulation sources in Circle, and any of these can be configured as an envelope, LFO, or a step sequencer. Each source is color coded, and to make a connection you simply drag a colored circle to the desired destination. In a fully formed patch, it’s very easy to see exactly what is controlling any destination.

A big part of interface design is consistency. Synthesizer controls generally fall under one of two categories, amounts and levels or durations. In Circle, you click and drag up to increase a level, drag down to decrease. Simple, yes? We most often see time values in setting the duration of an envelope segment. Here, it’s done by simply dragging to the right to make the duration longer, left makes it shorter. You can contrast this with the vertical sliders used for envelope controls in many hardware and software instruments such as Reason’s Subtractor. This is consistent throughout Circle except for the rate control in the built-in arpeggiator which is controlled with a horizontal slider.

While sound is an aural experience, we can learn a lot about what we’re hearing through visual displays. In Circle, the motion of LFO waveforms is clearly displayed. While there is a healthy selection of sixteen LFO waveshapes, each LFO section allows two separate shapes to be combined into a single composite again, clearly displayed. In the envelopes, a ball traces the progress through the timed segments. In the step sequencer, progress through the steps is outlined as each colored step turns white as it plays. While these may seem like obvious features, they are things that you aren’t typically seeing in other software instruments, making Circle very easy to use.

Behind the user interface, there’s a very robust subtractive architecture with some twists. There’s quite a variety of timbral possibilities in Circle, beyond the geometric basics, using the oscillators in wavetable mode. In each of these, two waves can be combined, similar to what we see in the LFOs. While the envelopes in Circle are standard ADSR shapes, step sequenced control and the variety of waveforms available for periodic LFO control makes it possible to create the kind of rhythmic patterns one gets from the multisegment envelopes in synths from Native Instruments.

So what’s on the frontier for electronic instruments? It very well could come from the kind of thinking behind this first offering from Future Audio Workshop. I can only imagine what may come from future products that use more complex synthesis architectures. FM made simple anyone?

Organic Sound

May 16 2008

All to often we segregate synthesis into two broad categories: subtractive synthesis, where the source of sound is some sort of geometric waveshape, like the typical square wave or sawtooth, or sampling which starts with digital audio file. However, things always get interesting in a boarder town, and some really creative and interesting sound design comes from the crossbreeding of these two types of synthesis. Unfortunately when it comes to sampling, the main focus of commercial sound libraries is usually in emulating existing instruments, often either drums or orchestral families. The goal of these is to provide the most realistic recreation, and indeed many current libraries, in skilled hands, yield stunning results.

So far this year, two products have emerged that take a very creative approach to working with sampled sound and serve not only useful instruments, but as inspiration for further exploration– Plectrum from Vital Arts, distributed by Ilio, and Anatomy from SONiVOX. I’ll start with Plectrum and cover Anatomy in my next blog entry.

Plectrum is the brainchild of sound designer extraordinaire Geoff Gee, who cut his teeth creating many of the factory sounds for the Kurzweil K2xxx series of instruments. I first met Geoff when he did a presentation on creative sound design with the K2000 at Berklee. For this, he started by recording the sound of a match strike into the synth, then proceeded to mangle the source into a series of strange and wonderful sounds. Geoff has a remarkable ability to listen to a sound and imagine a world of possibilities, as well as the technical chops to come up with useful results. This is one of he hallmarks of a great sound designer.

Several years ago Geoff and his family left the Boston area for a farm in upstate New York, home to Vital Arts, the umbrella organization for the creative work he and his wife pursue. An old farm is a rich source for all sorts of natural found sounds, from plucked stings, glass objects and breaking twigs. Undoubtedly, Geoff had a field day (no pun intended) sampling his new surroundings. Some time later he came up with the remarkable collection of instruments that became Plectrum, using the powerful synthesis capabilities in GVI, the GigaStudio Virtual Instrument sound engine. One of the real strengths of this collection is that it’s designed to be very playable. On top of his sound design prowess, Geoff is a virtuoso pianist and everything he programs reflects his passion for expressive performance.

Geoff Gee talking about Plectrum at the 2007 AES Convention in NYC.

I got my first preview of Plectrum at the 2008 Winter NAMM last January. The floor of a trade show is not the best place for listening, and wasn’t till Geoff paid a visit to Berklee last month that I really got a chance to listen carefully and really hear what this collection was about. Geoff put Plectrum though it’s paces in a good listening environment and talked about the process of collecting and designing the sounds. Altogether there are 185 different instruments organized by category. While this is not your General MIDI sound set, Plectrum covers a wide range of musical functions, from exotic bass patches to pads, and yes, plucked instruments. The real standouts here are the namesake plucked sounds. Here, he’s done a remarkable job of creating sounds that are completely new and fresh, while at the same time, sound familiar.

Vital Arts MP3s Plectrum Demos

As of this writing Plectrum is only on the PC, but since Tascam has recently released a Mac version of GVI, it’ should be fully cross-platform very soon.