Somewhere, some editor has probably already written the headline “Turn On, Tune In, Plug-in, Plug-Out.”

After all, back when Roland introduced the AIRAs, the reaction was something like this:

“An 808/909 drum machine! A 303! And – some other things!”

So, it fell to the SYSTEM-1 – a neon-green, slim-line keyboard synth – to make PLUG-OUT the big draw. You know, like “plug-in,” but … uh … out. The notion is this: load software models onto your computer, then copy that same model to the SYSTEM-1 hardware. While the keyboard is physically connected to your computer, the software makes it easier to integrate with your host. Disconnect, and you can still use the keyboard standalone.

Today, we finally get to learn just what that’s like in practice. And we get to hear what Roland’s recreation of their legendary SH-101 synth sounds like. This isn’t a full review of the SYSTEM-1 – that’s coming next week. But we get a first look at this banner feature.

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Roland has updated the firmware for the first full AIRA line (TR-8 drum machine, TB-3 bassline sequencer, VT-3 vocal processor, SYSTEM-1 synthesizer) today to version 1.10. There are no new sounds – in case you wanted, say, a 727 drum kit for your TR-8. But instead, the whole range gets USB backup and restore, and functionality around working with patterns and MIDI gets a whole lot smarter.

This isn’t just a few fixes; it really does polish off the AIRA series and address a lot of the points I found a bit limiting using them some months ago. And just in time: all the AIRA kit has shown up here at CDM, meaning we get to be the last review, but also the review that goes into depth as these machines grow up a bit.

The SYSTEM-1 synth/keyboard, for its part, has just gotten its SH-101 Plug-Out model – and support for the Plug-Out scheme in this update. I’ve been playing with that in advance, and we’ll have the full review and sounds next week.

The full changelogs are below. But let’s cut to the bottom line.

You can use USB for backup/restore. This is huge, especially with patterns on the TB-3 and TR-8. You can now use your computer, as it should be used, as a way of managing your work on the hardware.

The VT-3 vocal processor just got useful – smoothed out, and with MIDI control. I’m not going to mince words: I hated the VT-3 when I first tried it. The presets were weird, and the sound quality was inconsistent because of erratic levels. It appears 1.1 fixes the sound quality issue, by gating noise and managing volume levels as you work with characters. And most importantly, it turns into something more of you might actually want to use, with external MIDI keyboard control of pitch (including on the vocoder). It happens to be fun to route the TR-8 into the VT-3, so this could be a lot of fun.

The TB-3 has a full range and more MIDI control options. With more octaves out, and local on/off, MIDI controller modes, the TB-3 is a better sequencer. With more octaves in, it’s a better synth. And Roland has ticked off my list of complaints – you can record external patterns, you can record and sequence slide and accents. You can also organise patterns. All in all, the TB-3 appears to be morphing into what I hoped it’d be: a brilliant touch sequencer.

The TR-8 is more playable. From roll tweaks to external patterns to better pattern playing, the TR-8 is easier and more fun to play. And that’s a good thing, as I’ve been finding some baffling omissions in firmware in products this year when it comes to managing grooves and patterns – Arturia Beatstep, Elektron Analog Rytm, I’m looking at you. (And we’re getting back to you soon.) Continue reading »

"Neurorack." Get it? A first look at prototypes of the rack module (left) and desktop (right).

“Neurorack.” Get it? A first look at prototypes of the rack module (left) and desktop (right).

Oh, sure, you can convert MIDI and clock and DIN and control voltage. But how about brainwaves? How about jacking your noggin straight into your synths and controlling synthesizers only with your mind?

It’s not quite like The Matrix, yet, if that’s what you’re imagining. But some crafty Italian inventors/experimental musicians have already whipped up a working prototype of hardware that interfaces brainwave-sensing headsets to synthesisers via analog signal and MIDI. And tomorrow, the 26th of July, they’re putting their heads where their money is, premiering the whole system in a live performance.

The boxes are designed to work with the Neurosky MindWaveMobile headset, a headband that reads brainwaves as electrical signals on the surface of your skin. You might have seen this before, but we were able to grab a new image.

Your brain is the input; control voltage or MIDI is the output. In the works is a desktop, standalone unit, as well as a Eurorack for modulars – but the difference is form factor only; both perform the same tasks:

  • Read brainwaves (EEG) directly, across 8 bands
  • Respond to the analyses of the MindWave headset, like “Attention” and “Meditation”
  • Graphic OLED display for configuration
  • Customization: “Smoothing of the signals, trigger threshold, additional algorithms, scaling, midi channel and cc for each output are completely configurable.”

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Dancing about architecture? How about singing about architecture – or architecture that sings?

Burnley England’s Singing Ringing Tree is an abstract sculpture that resonates with the wind. Rising above the grassy hills of Burnley, England, it seems to live at some strange intersection between future and past – a sci-fi Stonehenge. And the project, the 2006 work of British architecture firm Tonkin Liu, makes lovely otherworldly sounds.

John Keston, sound designer and the writer of audio invention recipe blog Audiocookbook, has been making a set of “duets,” coupling more conventional electronic synthesis with the wind-blown ambiences of the SRT construction. He’s surprisingly adept at interweaving these contrasting timbres into dreamy drones, armed with a Novation Bass Station II and the new, more affordable Moog Minifooger Delay pedal.

srt_day_1 Continue reading »

I always think of the Autoharp when pondering the iPad. The classic folk instrument proves that a simple, ready-to-play interface can be expressive. Many beautiful instruments are hard to learn; this is a genuine folk instrument in that it can make lovely sounds right away. And that leaves space for letting your heart out singing.

Our friend Jekka, producer and soloist (aka Jenny Nedosekina, of Moscow), was recently invited to recreate her electronically-produced music in an acoustic rendition. She answered with something of a hybrid: it’s unprocessed voice and autoharp, but with the addition of the wonderful iPad app Samplr. That portable interface becomes a perfect one-person-band accompanist, transforming the spare sound of the autoharp into a lush bed beneath her voice.

The song “Break my Heart” is fitting, as this is to me achingly, heart-breakingly beautiful – a reminder of how personal and intimate performances can be, even with a tablet alongside. Computers and tablets are rapidly becoming folk instruments of their own. Continue reading »


Art from archetypes — so much of what we make is built from the pieces of something that came before. It’s doubly true both in electronic dance music and the machines built to make it. From techno to drum machine technology, a great deal of the future depends on whether we can reimagine the past.

The legacy of the Roland TR and TB series hangs heavy over those fields. Heck, they cast their shadow over even what I’m reading this week. I’ve unboxed a set of new Roland AIRAs for review that explode each component, modeling it all over again in digital algorithms. I heard artists Cassegrain drag a 909 to Boiler Room last night, and attempt to improvise, in front of a live Internet audience, new music from it, coaxing some fresh live from this monster beast of a machine. (Just how many times – given four to a bar – have you heard the bass drum alone? The clap?) There’s new Akai hardware that wants to tickle your memory of these machines, then make you cough money from your wallet to buy their box. There are new samples, new tracks, artists scratching their head at those familiar sounds in their basement.

You can vilify these machines; you can declare you’re board of them. But they loom behind you anyway, like religious icons hanging in a church, attracting veneration and faith.

So, how can they be futuristic?

I find then this investigation in a completely different medium – the visual – all the more interesting. Dating from 2011, it gets a beautiful write-up this week on the wonderful Dataisnature. The gouache works are the output of the mysterious Flickr user known only as O’ Really? (harvey human) (ian cognito). But let’s call him… her… it… them? … Ian.

Dataisnature has plenty to say about the series, even if you did see them before. They’re Constructivist, yes, but the blog describes the portraits as more, set in an “exosphere of frozen space-time fit for suspended micro gravitational idolatry.” Continue reading »

Now we know what Akai’s drum machine plus simple bass synth sounds like. And no surprises – it’s a simple, classic-inspired analog drum machine with a basic synth. And yeah, you’re probably going to want to consider one, certainly at this price. (We’ll just be pitting it against the KORG volca beats, which we know we love.)

Akai has posted an official, if preliminary and unlisted, video to their account, and made the presence known to readers of their forum. So, this is the real thing – just not quite up to the usual marketing video material, though that’s fine by me. Akai reps I’ve talked to have been just as impatient to get a working unit as readers have. (It’s still not clear what happened at Musikmesse even to people in the booth; it seems some of the Akai folks did indeed think that the one demo unit they had was damaged by using an improper power supply. Booths at trade shows get chaotic.)

It seems that what’s happened is that someone at Akai has decided to “leak” an internal video from the company showing what the unit sounds like. It’s a bit rough, but you get a good idea of the basic character of the synth.

That leak appears intentional, as it was announced on the community forum and the YouTube video, while unlisted, has all the links to the Akai community. See the discussion with Akai’s Dan on a thread this week. Anyway, it’s out now, and it is definitely a video shot by Akai. Akai told me at least one previous “leak” of the Rhythm Wolf on SoundCloud was a fake. Continue reading »