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.

Catching the Wave…

Sep 24 2009

While sound fanatics are always on the lookout for new ways of synthesizing or processing sound, there are a number of techniques that have fallen in and out of favor over the years, yet still remain useful and interesting. Some of these have been tied to the fortunes of specific companies, as was the case with the Hartmann Neuron, while others have become synthesizer “cult classics.” A favorite technique of mine is wavesequencing. This is one of the hidden treasures in Reason’s mother-or-all subtractive synths, Thor, and one of the many techniques covered in Berkleemusic’s Sound Design for the Electronic Musician, a course I co-authored and teach.

In a digital synthesizer, any basic, geometric waveform used in an oscillator is stored as a digital representation of a single cycle. These are often referred to as a wave or a wavetable, a list of samples that is read at different rates to produce a pitched sound. As this became a popular method of generating sound in the early 1980s, a couple of pioneering instruments allowed users to cycle through a series of different waves while a note was held. The sequence of waves here is also called a wavetable. This produces some evolving timbral effects and rhythmic patterns not available any other way. The first of these instruments was the PPG Wave 2.2 released in 1982, followed by the Sequential Circuits Prophet VS in 1986 and the Waldorf Wave series in 1993. This technology is also incorporated in the Korg Wavestation series which first appeared in 1990. While the original hardware versions of these classics can be hard to come by, Korg has an excellent software version of the Wavestation, and Waldorf markets a software PPG Wave.

We can think of wavesequencing as a kind of “sound movie,” in which each individual wave is a frame. Each wave is assigned an index number, and plays in turn, reading through the list.

Wavetable

Wavetable waves.

Play the wave sequence movie linked below to see how these blend together over time. Although there are a number of ways to sequence these, this is a close approximation of how we’ll hear these in a wavesequence. This is our “sound movie.”

Sequenced wavetable.

Reason’s Thor implements this with it’s Wavetable Osc, one of the six types of classic oscillators available. While most of its parameters provide the typical control of tuning and key-tracking, the Position and X-Fade are exclusive to a wavetable.

The following steps will get you started with wavesequencing in Thor.

1. Open Reason, add an instance of Thor, and choose Initialize Patch from the Edit menu.
2. Change the Analog Osc that comes up as the default to a Wavetable.
3. The first wavetable is Basic Analog. It stores four waves, a sine, triangle, square, and sawtooth. Hold a note and turn the Position knob clockwise. This selects which wave in the table will be heard. As you move the knob, you’ll hear the sound morph between these waves.

Wavetable position.

Wavetable position.

4. The X-Fade function provides a smooth transition between the waves. Click on the X-Fade button to disable this; the red indicator will turn off. Move the position knob again and you’ll hear an abrupt switch between each wave.

Wavetable crossfade function.

Wavetable crossfade function.

5. Each of the 32 wavetables will have a different number of waves. Take a few minutes to select different wavetables and scroll through the available waves with the X-Fade function both enabled and disabled.

6. Call up the table named MixedWaves1. Hold a hold and scroll through the table, as before. There are eight different harmonically rich waves stored here. Turn off the X-Fade function and set the position to 63.

Wavesequencing, as a technique, yields two main timbral effects. With X-Fade enabled, we get a smooth timbral shift that works well for pads, while disabling the X-Fade function is useful for rhythmic effects.

7. The key to either effect is modulation, and Thor’s matrix offers many possibilities. We’ll start with a rhythmic effect This is produced using an LFO to control the wavetable position. In the first slot of the matrix, set LFO1 and the Source and Osc1Pos as the destination. Set Amount to 100.

Modulation matrix settings.

Modulation matrix settings.

8. Thor has a number of evenly stepped LFO waveshapes, where each step will select a specific wavetable position. Select the 8-step sawtooth shape shown below. Play and hold a note and you’ll hear an even progression thorough the eight positions in the wavetable.

8-step sawtooth LFO shape.

8-step sawtooth LFO shape.

Rhythmic wavesequence.

The wavetable we’ve been working with is a collection of eight distinctly different waves. Other wavetables will have a more subtle variation between a common shape.

9. Change the wavetable to PPG2 Bell. This is from one of the classic Waldorf synthesizers. Manually cycle through the table while holding a note and you’ll hear that these waves have a common timbral characteristic, while each has a distinct spectrum.

10. In the Modulation Router, choose Mod Env as the source and keep Osc1Pos as the destination. Set the amount at 100.

11. Set the Mod Env attack time to 1.49 seconds and the decay time to 6.24 seconds. Play and hold a note, you’ll hear a distinct timbral shift here.

Timbral shift wavesequence.

While these examples illustrate the basic idea behind wavesequencing, there are a number of factory patches that offer great examples of this technique. Check out: Kaleidoscope, Relay Stepper, and Scan Dance from the folder of Rhythmic patches for starters.

Surf’s up…

OK, it’s time to make good on at least one of my New Year’s resolutions, and that is to keep up with my Berkleemusic blog…

That said, I wanted to reflect a bit on some trends and developments from 2008, as a kind of year-end round up. I’ll be heading to the 2009 NAMM show next week and some of these thoughts will come into clearer focus. But, for the time being, here are some of the things that caught my eye in 2008.

New Software Instruments: Circle and Alchemy

I reviewed Circle in a bog entry last July, and I’ve been very impressed with both its sound and design. While there are lot’s of powerful instruments available, Circle has really set the bar for the next generation of intuitive softsynth interfaces.

Alchemy, from Camel Audio, came in just under the wire for 2008 with it’s official December 18 release. I’m a big fan of Camel Audio products Cameleon 5000, CamelPhat and CamelSpace. They all provide unique sound design opportunities. Alchemy combines and expands on all of these products, offering the additive synthesis capabilities that Cameleon 5000 is know for, as well as granular and spectral re-synthesis capabilities. What this means is that you can import any audio file into Alchemy, analyze it for its spectral content and manipulate the individual sine wave components, as well as apply sophisticated time stretching and pitch-shifting functions. Alchemy merits it’s own review which you can look for in a future blog post. For the time being, you can check out the excellent introduction and tutorial videos on the Camel Audio site.

 
Alchemy Overview

Buzz of the year: iPhone Apps

The next big thing in music technology is mobile computing, and that can include anything from a cell phone to a laptop. The iPhone is really the first truly mobile device to provide a reliable platform for software development and distribution. Like the original Mac, developers are coming out of the woodwork with everything from card games to wedding planners. While I looked at some iPhone drum machines in an earlier blog post, there are a number of other powerful and useful apps available for the electronic musician. While the value of some are not immediately apparent, we’ve only just begun to think about how these will effect our lives as musicians.

Last October, I was in a dressing room, getting ready for a concert when I found that the battery in my tuner was dead. I prepared to head out in search of a battery an hour before the show when when one of my band mates pointed out that there was probably an iPhone app that I could use. A few minutes later I downloaded Power Tuner for about the cost of a Duracell at 7-Eleven and I was back in business.

On My iPhone:

- Beatmaker
- Bloom
- iDrum
- IR-909
- miniSynth
- Mrmr OSC controller (iTunes Store)
- Noise.io Pro
- Power Tuner (iTunes Store)
- SonicLife
- Touch the Wave
- TouchOSC


chromedecay studio look: TouchOSC with Ableton Live and BigSeq from chromedecay on Vimeo

Top Free Stuff

Native Instruments KORE Player which I reviewed earlier is still the best deal going. While the sounds included in the original player release are more general purpose, those included in the free KORE Soundpack Compilation offer a number of the more unique and interesting sounds NI is famous for. This is an absolutely must have addition for anyone producing music on a budget.

Surprise of the Year: Korg DS-10

Where did the Korg DS-10 come from? OK, game audio is a big buzz right now, but who would think of the ubiquitous Nintendo DS game device as a cutting-edge, live electronic instrument. Apparently someone at Korg Japan came up with the bright idea of developing a software version of the company’s legendary MS-10, adding a drum machine, a powerful step sequencer, and porting the whole thing to a Nintendo DS game cartridge, complete with cheat codes, BTW. Initially, this was going to be a niche item for the Japanese market, but once word of this got out, the demand became global.



The Korg DS-10 in action.
 

New Instrument: Yamaha Tenori-On

Yamaha’s Tenori-On is the coolest most revolutionary product they’ve come out with since the DX7. While that instrument introduced a completely new way to synthesize sound, the Tenori-On explores a new way for performers to interact with electronic instruments. Regardless of the myriad of possibilities posed in the early days of electronic instruments, the traditional keyboard is still the de-facto interface for playing a synthesizer. Designer Toshio Iwai wanted to create a completely new way for musicians, at all levels, to play electronic music. The result is a very sophisticated handheld system that features a 16 by 16 grid of LED buttons. These control the on-board sample-based synthesis engine as well as a 16-part step sequencer.

 
Jordan Rudess on the Tenori-On

That’s it for now. I look forward to any comments you may have. Is there anything I missed?

OK, it’s a month later and people are still asking me about the coolest stuff I saw at the Winter NAMM 2008. So I guess I’ll have to come clean with my top 5. For those of us looking for big music technology news, trade shows are more or less sleepers. These days, fewer manufacturers time their release cycles to trade shows. Even Apple, who tries to set their trajectory in January with Steve Jobs’ MacWorld keynote, is more about getting products out the door as soon as they’re ready. So, for most music technology companies, major releases and announcements have already hit the street by January. There are some exceptions…

Although I got scooped on this one by my friend and fellow Berkleemusic blogger, Dave Franz, at the top of my list is Spectrasonics, who know a little something about drama. They skipped NAMM altogether last year while working on "something really big." The fruits of that labor saw the light of day at NAMM this year when patron saint of sound design Eric Persing rolled out Omnisphere.

Spectrasonics has been quite successful at creating powerful and evocative sampled instruments such as Atmosphere, Trilogy, and Stylus RMX. These were based on the UVI sound engine which essentially is a platform for sample playback. With the next generation of instruments, the company wanted to develop their own sound engine that would expand on sample playback and get much deeper into synthesis techniques such as granular, waveshaping, and FM. They came up with something they call the "Steam" engine. While the synthesis and modulation functions here are deep, Spectrasonics has made them immediately and easily accessible to any musician. The sound library itself is massive, comprised of the greatest hits of all their previous libraries along with a collection of new and unique samples. They showed one such sampling session for their demo where an upright piano was set on fire and carefully recorded as it went up in smoke. The sound quality was fabulous and the design was ingenious with things like a Farfisa organ graincloud sounding at once unique and familiar. The only downside of their demo was the September 15 release date. With such a build-up I didn’t meet anyone who didn’t want to leave the show with a copy tucked under their arm.

One of the biggest buzzes at the show this year was the Euphonix MC line of hardware DAW controllers. While primarily known for their high end digital consoles, Euphonix is coming out with a more modest line of products that uses their Ethernet-based EuCon DAW control protocol.

These new surfaces, the MC Mix and MC Control, are aimed at the project studio user with 999.00 and 1495.00 price tags, respectively. Currently, their main competition will be the Mackie Control units. However, a sleek, compact design, well-designed functionality, as well as the responsiveness of their high-speed control will make these units serious contenders.

Next on my list is Access. While it took a couple of years to perfect the technology behind the Access TI (totally integrated) line of Virus synthesizers, these instruments have become one the must-haves in current electronic arsenals. This year Access introduced an entry-level, stand-alone module version of the Virus TI called the Snow. To top things off, Richard Devine spent the weekend holding court at their booth, evangelizing the Virus and the newly released Atomizer companion software.

The software works alongside the Virus OS to beat slice audio input coming into the Virus, map the slices across the keyboard and provide addition processing controlled by the mod wheel and pitch bend. In the capable hands of Richard Devine this became a powerful, real-time performance tool. It looks like Access is pushing the envelope of what we can expect from a hardware synthesizer to include functions that we’d normally associate with custom laptop performance software. Atomizer will be free to all Virus TI users.

Korg had one of the coolest gadgets I saw at the show, and the closest thing to what one might call a glitch instrument. The new Kaossilator Dynamic Phrase Synthesizer takes a small Kaos pad controller and adds 100 different sounds and phrases.

An internal sequencer allows the user to assemble simple melodic/rhythmic fragments and manipulate them with the pad. The device itself is pocket sized, and while it offers little in the way of connectivity or pro features, it’s really fun to play, and downright addictive.

Somehow NAMM brings out the guitar player in everyone, and this year, Mackie’s new HotWire guitar amp was what did it for me. Legendary designer Greg Mackie reputedly spent years on this design, and the result is a remarkable combination of high and low tech in a great sounding amp. At the heart of this is analog tube circuitry. Not just one circuit, but a number of them, so that in fact, when switching between the various amp modes, the actual circuit routing changes, along with the selection of tubes used. Think of it like having a collection of tube amps at your disposal, where you can easily switch between them. In addition, the amp comes with a collection of creature comforts from a tuner and metronome, to on-board digital effects. The amp sells for 1500.00 and is expected to be available in March.

Winter NAMM 2008 Top Five Roundup.

1. Spectrasonics Atmosphere
2. Euphonix MC Controllers
3. Access Virus Snow and Atomizer software
3. Korg Kaossilator
5. Mackie HotWire Guitar amp

OK, it’s a month later and people are still asking me about the coolest stuff I saw at the Winter NAMM 2008. So I guess I’ll have to come clean with my top 5. For those of us looking for big music technology news, trade shows are more or less sleepers. These days, fewer manufacturers time their release cycles to trade shows. Even Apple, who tries to set their trajectory in January with Steve Jobs’ MacWorld keynote, is more about getting products out the door as soon as they’re ready. So, for most music technology companies, major releases and announcements have already hit the street by January. There are some exceptions…

Although I got scooped on this one by my friend and fellow Berkleemusic blogger, Dave Franz, at the top of my list is Spectrasonics, who know a little something about drama. They skipped NAMM altogether last year while working on "something really big." The fruits of that labor saw the light of day at NAMM this year when patron saint of sound design Eric Persing rolled out Omnisphere.

Spectrasonics has been quite successful at creating powerful and evocative sampled instruments such as Atmosphere, Trilogy, and Stylus RMX. These were based on the UVI sound engine which essentially is a platform for sample playback. With the next generation of instruments, the company wanted to develop their own sound engine that would expand on sample playback and get much deeper into synthesis techniques such as granular, waveshaping, and FM. They came up with something they call the "Steam" engine. While the synthesis and modulation functions here are deep, Spectrasonics has made them immediately and easily accessible to any musician. The sound library itself is massive, comprised of the greatest hits of all their previous libraries along with a collection of new and unique samples. They showed one such sampling session for their demo where an upright piano was set on fire and carefully recorded as it went up in smoke. The sound quality was fabulous and the design was ingenious with things like a Farfisa organ graincloud sounding at once unique and familiar. The only downside of their demo was the September 15 release date. With such a build-up I didn’t meet anyone who didn’t want to leave the show with a copy tucked under their arm.

One of the biggest buzzes at the show this year was the Euphonix MC line of hardware DAW controllers. While primarily known for their high end digital consoles, Euphonix is coming out with a more modest line of products that uses their Ethernet-based EuCon DAW control protocol.

These new surfaces, the MC Mix and MC Control, are aimed at the project studio user with 999.00 and 1495.00 price tags, respectively. Currently, their main competition will be the Mackie Control units. However, a sleek, compact design, well-designed functionality, as well as the responsiveness of their high-speed control will make these units serious contenders.

Next on my list is Access. While it took a couple of years to perfect the technology behind the Access TI (totally integrated) line of Virus synthesizers, these instruments have become one the must-haves in current electronic arsenals. This year Access introduced an entry-level, stand-alone module version of the Virus TI called the Snow. To top things off, Richard Devine spent the weekend holding court at their booth, evangelizing the Virus and the newly released Atomizer companion software.

The software works alongside the Virus OS to beat slice audio input coming into the Virus, map the slices across the keyboard and provide addition processing controlled by the mod wheel and pitch bend. In the capable hands of Richard Devine this became a powerful, real-time performance tool. It looks like Access is pushing the envelope of what we can expect from a hardware synthesizer to include functions that we’d normally associate with custom laptop performance software. Atomizer will be free to all Virus TI users.

Korg had one of the coolest gadgets I saw at the show, and the closest thing to what one might call a glitch instrument. The new Kaossilator Dynamic Phrase Synthesizer takes a small Kaos pad controller and adds 100 different sounds and phrases.

An internal sequencer allows the user to assemble simple melodic/rhythmic fragments and manipulate them with the pad. The device itself is pocket sized, and while it offers little in the way of connectivity or pro features, it’s really fun to play, and downright addictive.

Somehow NAMM brings out the guitar player in everyone, and this year, Mackie’s new HotWire guitar amp was what did it for me. Legendary designer Greg Mackie reputedly spent years on this design, and the result is a remarkable combination of high and low tech in a great sounding amp. At the heart of this is analog tube circuitry. Not just one circuit, but a number of them, so that in fact, when switching between the various amp modes, the actual circuit routing changes, along with the selection of tubes used. Think of it like having a collection of tube amps at your disposal, where you can easily switch between them. In addition, the amp comes with a collection of creature comforts from a tuner and metronome, to on-board digital effects. The amp sells for 1500.00 and is expected to be available in March.

Winter NAMM 2008 Top Five Roundup.

1. Spectrasonics Atmosphere
2. Euphonix MC Controllers
3. Access Virus Snow and Atomizer software
3. Korg Kaossilator
5. Mackie HotWire Guitar amp