aleph bees introduction from tehn on Vimeo.

It’s like having a roomful of modulars inside a mysterious magic box.

It’s like using Max/MSP with the control interface of an Etch-a-Sketch.

It’s … okay, really hard to describe. But aleph bees is certainly unlike digital hardware we’ve seen before. Using just knobs and text, and silky-smooth sound features – everything runs fast and glitch-free, even hot-swapping hardware – aleph bees is a kind of experiment in computer minimalism. It’s as open-ended as a computer, but in ruggedly-simple hardware. It lets you program custom software with a few twists of your wrist and some button presses.

It’s hard not to be oddly inspired by it, even if you decide you don’t want one. (At US$1400, it isn’t quite an impulse buy.) And iff this seems like something that would appeal to a very niche crowd, you’re right. So far, only a handful of aleph units are in the world.

But monome creator Brian Crabtree promises a new batch is shipping this month, units are still available, and more is in store, including open source hardware. He writes us:

we’ve made great advances with the software over a short time and are enthusiastic to reach a bigger audience for more participation. we have a few great audio programmers jumping in and i’m looking forward to seeing what they do with this system.

Brian admits that aleph is ambitious and hard to explain, and welcomes questions. So ask away, whether you think this is the bee’s knees or you’ve just got a bee in your bonnet.

aleph-back

For a more musical example, here’s aleph doing more than just droning. The work of tehn (Brian Crabtree), this video gives you a sense of the fusion of instrument design and composition that come together in Brian’s work, and the Wurlitzer combo recalls some seminal monome videos:

aleph wurl snow from tehn on Vimeo.

  • James Husted

    My dream is they the people doing the open source Nomad editor for the Nord Modular would shift over to the Aleph and make a cool modular out of it. The Aleph has the I/O the Nords lacked (the DC coupled variety). I have high hopes for this little box.

    • Lloyd Barrett

      Nord Modular G1 Headphone outs are DC Coupled!
      http://electro-music.com/forum/topic-60892.html
      Much as I’m a NM fanboy there is future development possibility with the Alephs that isn’t there with the Nords.

    • James Husted

      I have a Nord G1 and am in the process of adding CV inputs (vactrol control of the knobs) and have experimented with the DC outs. I think the lack of support in the Nord Modular line is a total shame. The NM was ahead of its time once. Things like the Aleph will take over just fine.

  • flop

    all that work for a hum? lol

  • poopoo

    Not finding this at all inspiring. It all looks so bland and all the scrolling around looks tedious.

    • HenryRollinsAgedTaint

      Wait, dude. Are you literally complaining about turning a knob?

    • Greg Lőrincz

      Agree. The interface doesn’t seem inspiring at all.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      I’d still like to see a graphical interface for bees. Supporting it on hardware is a great feature, but it’s clear that more elaborate patches would benefit from a visual overview.

      As for playing, note that part of the idea is that you might connect something like monome or arc (as they do with the keyboard)

  • kconnor9000

    “Using just knobs and text” says Peter’s intro. Houston, I think we have a problem here.

    Loads of potential — but any DSP in a box has that. This doesn’t trigger my spider sense as being an innovative musical instrument. DSP can be open ended, but hw with four knobs, some soft keys and a shift button, is a very limited control universe. I’d like to be wrong here, but this can either be duplicated entirely with an iPad app (with better control), or by a cheaper DSP breakout box with I/O, and you’re still stuck with a PC or iPad for control.

    • just passing

      > hw with four knobs, some soft keys and a shift button, is a very limited control universe

      It’s also available rather more cheaply. The PreenFM2 comes with an FM Synth OS as standard, but it’s really just an audio interface and 4-knob UI around a FEX Cerb40 – which might not be as powerful as the aleph’s Blackfin, but is probably more open, and certainly powerful enough to do things like making bee noises.

    • just passing

      er, FEZ Cerb40. Damn you, QWERTY…

    • Greg Lőrincz

      Agreed. For the price of this thing you may as well buy an entire live performance rig with a tablet.

    • Shannon

      You can attach a MIDI controller via the USB port when you need more hands on control.

  • Greg

    Reminds me of the equally-uninspiring programming on my Roland MC-505, back in the day.

  • http://www.wemakesound.co.uk/ wms

    hummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm..

  • tehn

    not inspired by scrolling? ha! this is an editor demo to show the basics of the architecture and hopefully spark some inspiration given the control flexibility. for sounds beyond a drone, see https://vimeo.com/87119053

    text actually works well if you’re confined to only the small device. we have a nord-modular-style graphic editor in the works that’ll run on an attached computer.

    this device is designed for a range of users. some will be patching, some will be programming their own DSP, some will be playing scenes we post to the website. so there’s a choice of how deeply to engage according to what you’re interested in doing.

    • just passing

      Yes, but any level of engagement starts with a $1400 investment. That’s pretty deep. You’re not going to pay that just for casual bee fun.

    • galapagoose

      agreed! but i don’t think the target market is those after ‘casual bee fun’, but rather a far more engaged community looking to grow with the device. it takes a lot effort to build and test every unit, so we’re hoping that each one built is in use for a long time to come!

    • Derpatron9000

      Now that I understand what the device is actually capable of the possibilities of use
      are now mind boggling in number. I’m sure the penny will drop for many others
      once they see other video demos.

      You should be very proud of what you guys have accomplished with this device. If I had the funds to spare I’d order one today.

  • Felipe

    This feels a bit like the OP-1 going modular and with a really akward interface – cable patching with endless encoders?!?

  • John H

    I think that, like the monome, this is a signal of things to come. But like monome, it’s so overpriced that it will be available only to a very select few. If there is any justice in the world, we will see a Reaktor-in-a-box from Native Instruments. That I would consider paying for, though still no way at $1400.

    Aleph will be the monome, a boutique item for those who can afford it but mainly firmly outside of mainstream usage. Expect an insular hipster following.

    Reaktor in a box will the Launchpad, ie actually available to mortals that don’t have recording contracts and/or trust funds.

    • galapagoose

      the aleph is made locally in the USA in tiny batches. to some people these are important considerations, to others they don’t matter in the slightest. it does have the effect of dramatically increasing the cost of manufacturing compared with chinese-made plastic boxes in their thousands. no one will argue that the aleph is cheap, but i would suggest to some people it holds a great deal of potential and fills an, albeit small, gap in the market.

      aleph is a niche product, and as with most things niche you pay a premium because there’s little economy of scale. imagine you have a slightly plump chest and your buying a jacket. you can pay $60 at the department store for a mass-produced one that pretty much fits but isn’t very flattering. or you can pay $500 to a tailor and have it made to fit you well. the comparison lies for the small audience that could do the same thing as aleph with an awkward array of laptop, maxmsp, ipad, launchpad, audio interface and midi-cv converter, but instead a simple brick makes more sense.

      reaktor in a box would be interesting for sure, but i’m sure it wouldn’t be cheap. reaktor costs $400 for the software, let alone hardware that could useably implement the interface & sound design.

    • John H

      The person who pays 60 for clothes generally cannot pay 500 for tailor mades. That is my point. These monome guys talk a big game about hand made products but if that was really their bag they would sell kits so that people could actually afford them. Of course then they will tell you that parts sourcing their yak hair capacitors is really tough and can’t be done in kit form.

      I’m not saying that it is not cool or innovative. But the very “well I for one care about having UUSA made gear, not like you fucks and your addiction to Chinese garbage” is so self-satisfying.
      The moral high ground is a luxury item and even if that’s not directly monome’s fault it will never feel good to be reminded that you are too poor to make the ‘right’ decision.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      To be clear – the people behind monome never said that. It’s users reaching that conclusion. I will say as a sometimes-manufacturer of kits, though, releasing as a kit doesn’t necessarily make something more affordable. Businesses are free to determine their economics; consumers are free to determine what to buy.

      I’m also not interested in snobbery if that’s where we wind up.

      Without wading into that, I’ll say this – I think it’s possible to buy and use affordable musical equipment in a way that is not immoral.

      In fact, I think the single best thing to do is whatever you use, use it well, use it until it breaks and then fix it and use it some more.

    • active

      the problem with kits at times being expensive is not sourcing components, but instead the customer relations to make sure that often times non-builders don’t assemble the kit incorrectly. monome has released kits in the past and to great success, something like the aleph in kit form would potentially lead to many more complicated problems that would take more time from the creators, which would be factored into cost. if they didn’t provide any services to help the people who bought kits reviews of the company would also be poor. many friends who have done kits of various products have echoed similar feelings of, “i thought it would be a quicker, easier way for everyone but it was the opposite.”

      even as someone who builds a lot of kits/things from schematics, i often email or call developers with the HELP! flag. i’m thankful to the many companies who have helped me and communities on line that have filled the blank for companies who got in over their head.

    • gli

      Monome is not elevating themselves above poor people by explaining why their instruments are expensive…you, along with many many other people, feel that monomes are overpriced
      They’ve merely stated why the perception of luxury for its own sake is an illusion
      They are not not forcing anyone to buy from them or forcing their ideals on us. If you disagree with the pricing (or remain unimpressed with the functions/features) dont buy an aleph, grid, or arc. Simple
      Its somewhat ironic that you bring up diy kits as a solution to the “problem” of monome exclusivity. Kits might appeal to folks who cant afford assembled units, but, wouldnt that alienate people who cant build their own?
      I say this because when i first discovered monomes there WERE kits available and it actually was cheaper to go that route. But i had neither the knowledge nor the equipment to build one of the grid kits. So, using the analogy of a jacket, I did know how to sew & weave my own. It wouldve been nice to teach myself how and just buy the materials to make one but i payed 500 for somebody else to do it for me.
      If we’re honest, its a bit silly to talk about being too poor to own something like this when we all have laptops, speakers, and other expensive music related things in our studio
      If you dont VALUE it enough to pay a certain amount…fine
      But, just admit that instead of harping about how only wealthy people can afford monomes

  • http://nutation.net/ rseymour

    I had a chance to play with Ezra and see him working on the firmware for this device in Pomona. He has had an intimate setup with viola and a Mac Mini plus supercollider (maybe pd too?) for years now. This fits into making that sort of computer aided analog performance less dependent on your laptop booting up. I’m afraid I’ve been spending too much cash on other things to buy this right now, but it is a dream machine for the echoy pitchtracking delay things he does. The fact that it’s also a very high resolution synth is awesome too. A good touchOSC or Lemur interface would fix most of the problems people see with its menu interface.

  • SPOOT

    A small company actually does something innovative and exciting and people whine about scrolling and can’t imagine the possibilities based on what’s presented to them. Elektron releases an analog drum machine and by the reactions you’d think it was the cure for cancer. Something is seriously wrong.

    • http://dinside.no Øivind Idsø

      “A small company actually does something innovative and exciting” Well, I guess that’s where people disagree, and so the rest of your argument won’t apply to those who disagree. Something isn’t wrong just because someone sees something differently. For me, this looks like an overpriced product, and, again, you are paying almost 50 per cent of a complete Kyma system, which is waaay more advanced and sophisticated and even user friendly than this. I’m glad you like the box, but, hey, if someone disagrees it’s not the end of the world.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      On the other hand, this is half the price of a Kyma. :)

      I see your point. I’d say it’s a small niche they’re occupying, but it’s still an interesting niche.

      It seems early days. They do have to demonstrate that it’s worth investing in the platform in the long run.

    • http://dinside.no Øivind Idsø

      Yup, they need to put together a LOT more interesting demos than the ones above if the product costs $1400.

  • Spillane

    We built computers and made programs to make music with them, why to put everything back in a box with limited knobs in the age of controllism? Maybe with Ipad or any other touchscreen support it might be more appealing, other than that I understand their philosophy behind their products/inventions and still think that Aleph is going to be successful.

    • galapagoose

      i think it’s more effective to think of this an extension from other hardware devices, rather than a regression from the laptop. there is a large part of the music making community that avoid using computers in their workflow. aleph provides a way for these people to keep that hardware workflow, while harnessing a great deal of the potential of an open-ended computer system.

      to a lot of people (myself included), the touchscreen is not the epitome of user-interface. greater tactility and *not* being able to check your email are actually desirable features!

    • Greg Lőrincz

      I think I’m finally starting to understand what is this instrument about. It makes sense, it’s a niche instrument of very high quality. I’m not a fan of the concept but good luck with it! Anyone who develops instruments deserves my respect.

  • Jeffrey Horton

    Very excited about Aleph! The most interesting new product in the last couple years.

  • gli

    any news on the arc-related OPs for this platform?

  • jmej

    Seems very cool, though most people I know who would use this (including me) generally already have a lot of creative capital invested in other tools. (PD, maxmsp, nord modular, beaglebone, raspberry pi, etc). As cool as bees seems – I wish the thing could just load PD patches – with some way to abstract certain control layers to the aleph UI. Being forced to learn a new environment that is less robust than existing tools makes it hard to justify the purchase.

    • galapagoose

      as an avid max user i actually found learning the bees interface pretty simple. of lot of the operators are similar to max objects, but more importantly the concept of signal flow is pretty much identical. sure it takes a few sessions to get comfortable with the scrolling patterns, but it’s been pretty quick and painless. kind of like an american trying to understand a scot. it sounds weird and is sometimes unintelligible, but it’s still the same language.

      to your point of ‘robustness’, i’m curious what makes you think the aleph isn’t? the whole device was designed as a super stable live performance tool as a response to the instability of PCs. i can’t tell you how many times i’ve had max crash at inopportune moments (i still love it though! ha)…

    • jmej

      I notice a lot of dataflow (max/pd) influence and matching metaphors in bees, but my impression is that bees doesn’t have nearly as many objects (or operators) as puredata or max, so the idea of learning a new environment that isn’t as rich (better word than robust) – is what feels less appealing. I don’t want to gain a nice live interface in exchange for loosing some of my existing toolset. It feels more beneficial for me to keep developing a nice hardware interface that uses the existing rich tools that are already so heavily in use by so many of us. That said – if you could just install a customized linux+pd stack on the aleph – I would be ALL about it. Especially with an abstraction scheme where you could interact with specified parts of your patch in the way shown in the video. I’m curious about what “problems” with pd/max/supercollider bees solves that warrants an entirely new language/environment. The hardware (aleph itself) and the UI on the other hand seem like they definitely solve problems/bring a lot of nice things to the table.

    • galapagoose

      you’re pretty spot on here i think. bees definitely has (at least for now) a small subset of the objects in max/pd. and for sure you won’t be able to build bees scenes anywhere near as complex as many max patches. the intent is that for more extensive design challenges, new applications should be built in C, and that is no small feat!

      i don’t think the aleph is the answer for everyone, and if you’re really happy with your current setup then it’s best not to buy new gear! the aleph won’t be running linux in the foreseeable future – it’s just not practical given the hardware.

      i don’t think bees comes as a ‘solution’ to the problems of those environments. rather it provides a simpler solution in a hardware format w/ most of the connectivity you could ask for. it’s almost a little strange to call bees a ‘language’ as it’s so basic and simple. it leans toward larger functional blocks where a complete performance setup is possible with dozens of highly configurable operators, rather than hundreds of max objects.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Actually, technically, because of the way Max and Pd execute code, assembling patches *is* programming in C. ;) Any performance overhead is to do with the structure of those patches and objects. I’m pretty confident that you can do some fairly significant stuff with embedded, Linux, and Pd. But at the same time, I understand it may not have been the right solution for the design goals of this project.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      …oh, and, at the same time, sometimes it’s more convenient to just write some C code than try to wrestle with Pd and externals, it’s true… no argument there.

    • zebra

      well… under that definition, using bees is also programming in c, and so is routing modulation in your new moog voyager. in both you are manipulating a graph of pointers to objects that pass data.

      if you ask me, “programming in c” just means typing c code and then probably compiling and running it, and there is no particular magic there.

      i take your point that patching is programming. of course, sort of. but usually in CS when someone talks about a “programming language” they mean a turing-complete set of operations on data. max is certainly that, bees probably is, and a typical synth UI is probably not.

    • zebra

      my 2cents: we actually wanted linux but there’s a price/performance/support equation that got kinda thrown when we examined it in detail and tried prototyping on that basis. maybe in a few years, and/or if we had a bigger team with more embedded linux expertise. but for now bare metal is sort of the only way to do something like this that meets our definitions of performance-readiness (supercollider on a beaglebone still doesn’t quite cut it.)

      anyways, bees is as you say kind of max-looking, but dumber. the operators are pure c with a rich API so the main idea is that its easily extensible with a minimim of c programming if you want to roll something really from scratch.

      recently i’ve been talking with a couple of programmer-users about aleph apps that simply run interpreters for e.g. lua and forth, with hooks to all the driver-level stuff for screen, DSP params, controller i/o, etc. that seems like a pretty fun direction for high-level programming, and it’s not very hard to implement, so we’ll see who’s interested.

    • gli

      i dont have experience with max or puredata but i think bees has a learning curve because it is, in reality, quite robust

      its deeper than i thought it would be…a bit frustrating for a novice (like myself) but will eventually be very rewarding as a result of its depth

    • Greg Lőrincz

      What the heck is ‘bees’? Couldn’t find anything about it.

  • xx

    This looks exciting and cool as hell, but I’m really just waiting for more DIY projects to take off in this kind of vein, hopefully using Raspberry Pi, hopefully doable under $50-$75. Anybody know of anybody working on anything like this?

    • http://www.sylvainpoitras.com/ Sylvain Poitras

      Have you had a look at Satellite CCRMA?

      https://ccrma.stanford.edu/~eberdahl/Satellite/

    • jmej

      I hadn’t seen that – cool! thanks!

    • jmej

      I’m working on something like this just for myself – I think the beaglebone black is an even more viable platform than the pi (for processing power reasons) – once you give it an audio interface. I’m expecting to spend under $150 factoring a case, some encoders, an lcd display, etc. For pd controlled modular synths though – a raspberry pi and a dac like the octomod are all you need.

    • Shannon

      There are plenty of DIY hardware options. Arduino, Teensy, Beaglebone, Raspberry-Pi, an ipad, If you have the skills and desire you’re probably doing it already.

  • Derpatron9000

    Fantastic, I now understand it :)

    • galapagoose

      great! that was the idea.

  • Göran Sandström

    Personally I think this is rather amazing, like a nord modular with a lot of interconnects and the ability to extend and modify it!

  • Nagasaki Nightrider

    I would never buy this, but I’m glad it exists. Interesting concept. The internal synthesis possibilities of it don’t intrigue me as much as what might be done with programming CV to control external modules. Although, it still seems like it would be more fun to buy and patch $1400 worth of Eurorack widgets than to menu dive with this thing. Yes, yes. There’s a modular programming environment on the way. The main problem there is that some of us have had our fill of buying hardware that requires having a PC attached to get the full complement of features or to augment a limited physical interface. In any case, this is a very clever and elegant design.

  • http://dinside.no Øivind Idsø

    Half the price of a complete Kyma system. Insane.

  • ted_mintes

    I believe there is a demo of it doing CV and effects simultaneously. You should be able to set up an environment where you are sending CV to source and receiving CV back to change effect parameters. This alone is awesome.

  • Tom Whitwell

    I heard you like menus, so I put menus in your menus.

  • ExasperaTron 5000

    Ugh, not again. The problem here, as with the monome, is the whole terrible, wrong-headed, insufferably pretentious concept of “minimalist” design. The very idea of minimalism applied to electronic music instrument design is itself so monumentally stupid and clueless that it could only ever possibly be espoused by someone with no real musical instrument technique whatsoever, for the simple reason that anyone who actually _plays_ electronic instruments at even a somewhat accomplished level grasps the critical importance of having the _maximum_, not minimum, amount of parameter control available to you at all times. Why? So that you can sculpt the sound you’re playing as your inspiration guides you, with no menus, multi-function buttons or any other similar nonsense. The monome sucked because it presented the musician with a blank grid of featureless, identical buttons with no pressure or velocity sensitivity and no visual indication on the buttons themselves to remind you of their functions moment-to-moment; The very antithesis of an inviting, expressive musical instrument. Result: A thoroughly useless piece of crap which forced you to expend way more cognitive effort remembering which button was assigned to which function than a well-designed instrument ever would. Here, you have a tiny, pathetic clump of blank, uninspiring, uninviting controls packaged in a bland, sterile-looking enclosure which houses a collection of software modules rendered inaccessible by the woefully-inadequate interface. This is literally the _last_ thing the world of music technology needs – The pure embodiment of “missing the point”. We need the PRECISE OPPOSITE of this: Big, extravagant, expensive, expansive, luxurious, colorful electronic instruments, populated with a rich landscape of controls for real-time tweaking and sound-sculpting and intended for actual talented players and synthesists, not another box in search of a good interface because its designer was either too cheap, lazy or clueless to engineer a worthy and comprehensive one into the product itself. Epic fail. Go watch Weather Report @ Offenbach in 1978 on YouTube if you want to see what it looks like when a brilliant musician interacts and improvises with primitive-but-highly-malleable electronic instruments in real time to create beautiful results. Then watch the video of Charles Cohen at the original Buchla Music Easel on Vimeo for another, completely contrasting side of the coin. Finally, take your sustainably-sourced materials and just STOP DOING ANYTHING. You’re part of the problem, not the solution.

    • trash80

      I believe you’re the one missing the point. It’s a programmable Audio/USB/Controller brain. If anything else this device can be a USB Host so that one can create a patch or series of patches to work directly with a certain USB MIDI controller, or build your own controller, or program it to control itself, to the end result of not needing a computer, turn on and play & perform. Just like the Monome, it’s a blank canvas where it’s application is defined by the end user- which in turn makes it reusable and have a longer usage lifespan. If you want labeled knobs and buttons for use as a intuitive performance controller, get a label maker and print your own.

    • gli

      i found your post amusing

      The only thing i can disagree with is your assumption that everyone feels as you do. (Which is a shame because i found your intial premise about minimalism hampering intuitive control of electronics intriguing.)

      “We” do not need anything. YOU need something for your music and, apparently, I need something else.

  • wednesdayayay

    monome posts always bring the discussions
    if this is too expensive to put in your soup wrangle a fish and get a shnth

    they aren’t the same thing but the shnth gets your toenails wet for the possibilities an aleph could provide. Of course the shnth in itself is a huge world of possibilities

    • gli

      but 300 is too much for a shnth :)

  • mbo

    After watching a few videos of the Aleph being played I still cannot figure out what it really does. Per Peters description, I like the idea of it, but I’m not inclined to spend $1500 bucks on an idea.

    I’m of the opinion that musical instruments shouldn’t alienate their players?

    • Shannon

      It’s a blank canvas. The Aleph will do whatever you program it to. Awesome if you have the technical chops.

  • gaytimelord

    this is the piece of gear you use when you dont want to get anything done

    and its awesome

    all the best

  • Fat Bloke

    I love the idea of this device, but my god, all I see is menu diving through cryptic readout data. And the sounds coming out of it are unremarkable. I can see the Aleph going over like the Fairlight – only a handful of people will be able to afford and/or want to use it. Still interesting though.