littleBits, the snap-together magnetic hardware module system for easy DIY hardware mash-ups, has a unique take on how to add new hardware. Previously, modules came from littleBits; the popular Synth Kit collaboration with KORG being a significant exception. littleBits has certainly offered a lot of options, including the recent Cloud Kit for adding Internet connectivity.

But now, it’s opening up hardware development to anyone with an idea. While littleBits calls itself “open source hardware” – founder Ayah Bdeir even co-founding the Open Hardware Summit — that openness has always been restricted when it comes to the magnetic connectors. Those are proprietary, and littleBits has told us previously that they’d be hard for anyone else to manufacture.

That changes with the release of the “Hardware Development Kit” (HDK) and the new Pro Module and connectors. Now you can add littleBits connectors to any project you’ve made. Built an Arduino-powered noisemaker? Now you can connect it electrically to littleBits using magnets. The US$39.95 HDK is basically a bundle of Proto Modules, magnetic snaps, and a perf board for assembling circuits. See video below.

That’s already very cool, but littleBits – fresh with venture funding – is going further. They’re letting users vote on modules they want, then manufacturing them if projects get a minimum of 1000 votes. (It’s up to makers whether to go open source or not, though the current modules are all open circuit designs, and littleBits tells us they’re encouraging the idea.) Continue reading »

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Execution is everything.

Musical tastes are personal. And it seems that force-feeding people a new album from U2, unsolicited, doesn’t go over well. Apple giving away U2′s new Songs of Innocence is in itself not a bad thing. But there are two problems. One, the album is poorly reviewed – think Paul McCartney “Wonderful Christmastime” rather than Abbey Road. Two, because the album simply appeared in purchased music – and because iTunes (cleverly enough) displays what you’ve purchased from iCloud – it showed up in people’s collections when it didn’t belong.

So, we’ve learned something. This doesn’t work. And as always, you can’t really buy marketing. That is, sure, Aphex Twin rented a blimp, but in the end, they had more successful viral marketing because they let their fans choose to spread their new release. U2 tried to force that promotion, and even though Apple and U2 are loved by many people, the combination comes across as corporate and inauthentic. Continue reading »

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It happened just as Apple was giving us one thing many of us couldn’t imagine wanting (a watch), and one thing we definitely didn’t ask for (“buying” U2′s new record for us).

Apple quietly killed the iPod Classic. That is, the iPod touch lives on as an iOS handheld minus a cellular radio, and there’s an app on iOS. But there is no standalone device, with the as-expected discontinuation of iPod Classic. Correction: there is one. The US$49, 2GB iPod shuffle is still available. But it’s a pale shadow of the iPod line.

This is a big deal. It means that the iconic object that transformed music is beginning to look more like a blip in music history – the leading edge of a change, but only part of that change. The iPod brought digital music and big collections, it’s true. But it’s being supplanted by something that, while it still involves digital files and pocket-friendly players on the go, is a different animal. It’s music you stream rather than own. It’s listening on a range of multi-functional devices, rather than syncing a single dedicated player to a computer. It’s music as an app, or rather, music as apps. Think Brian Eno-constructed generative music, RjDj and interactive sounds, NINJAMM remixing Ninja Tune, apps you use at concerts, strange sonic toys from Bj√∂rk, and more. Commercially successful or not, that doesn’t matter – you can’t re-establish boundaries once they’re gone.

Once you have an operating system, music is software, not media.

And once you have the Internet, software is service as well as app.

This shift has sent some people into an existential tailspin. Mat Honan, for instance, gets a bit dark over at a much-forwarded elegy at Wired: Continue reading »

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Apple Watch could be the first in a new wave of wearable technology for musicians.

The idea isn’t new. We’ve seen various notions involving wearing extra controls for music. In fact, the whole category of alternative interfaces is deeply indebted to Michael Waisvisz, who helmed STEIM for many years and whose interface The Hands inspired generations of musical gloves and gestural interfaces. Guitarists have had various rings to wear; IK Multimedia is currently experimenting with rings that aid in gestural control of iOS.

Apple Watch may not become the accessory the iPad and iPhone have for music, but – partly due to the success of those platforms – it’s ripe for experimentation. And since I can already prepare Traktor sets with my iPhone and plug my guitar through an iPad, music companies already target iOS as an additional platform (atop Windows and Mac).

Those developers should see Apple Watch alongside the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch developer tools soon. Apple is promising that you’ll be able to use their wrist-born iOS gadget for notifications and information, with “fully native” apps (presumably iOS apps with a different screen size and hardware capabilities) “later next year.” So, figure notifications first, full apps later. Even the former will be useful, but putting those two categories together, imagine this:

Visual notifications while you play. BPM, cues in songs, uh… lyrics, if you’re especially bad at remembering them.

Remote controls. Transport controls and the like are a logical app. Think of a simple app with wireless Mackie Control for transport information.

Touch. The iPad and even iPhone offer larger touch surfaces, but you do get something out of the Watch. There’s reportedly pressure sensitivity, and “Taptic” provides haptic feedback. Now, you wouldn’t buy an Apple Watch for these features, but you can bet some developers will try hacking creative musical applications with them anyway. The new touch sensing tech could be something we see on iOS devices later, too.

Easy-access controls. Even the “Digital Crown” looks useful. Imagine a metronome on your wrist, turning this dial to change the tempo up and down precisely.

Wireless and Bluetooth provide a connection with your computer, so as with iPhone and iPad controllers, remote control is a likely application.

But I could see a KORG tuner or metronome on the Apple Watch, too, or an Ableton transport. Continue reading »

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Let’s get one thing straight: now that Akai has made the jump from hardware to hybrid hardware/software, the hardware they make is very, very good.

The MPC Studio is slim and messenger bag-friendly, when Native Instruments’ Maschine is big and luggable. The MPC Renaissance is more of a “throw it in your station wagon” affair, but it feels fantastic – the pads are brilliant.

The downside has been software. But Akai is making headway there. I’m not convinced the changes are going to make anyone switch, but I can imagine what Akai is delivering here should make existing users very happy, indeed.

mpcsoftware Continue reading »

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File this directly under “why has no one done this properly before?”

One of the few remaining annoyances in computer music making is just getting connected. First, you need an audio interface to get proper sound and headphone cueing. Then, you’ve got all this great gear for control – but where to put it? Macs and even many new PCs have few USB ports (especially ultrathin notebooks like the MacBook Air).

Yes, it’s about time someone combined a practical audio interface with a USB hub.

Focusrite/Novation seem to be the right folks for the job. Focusrite’s audio interfaces are some of the best of the bunch – I’ve had good luck with their drivers, and they deliver good sound for the price, thanks to the company’s experience in things like mic pres. Novation, meanwhile, are one of the companies making all the stuff you want to plug in (like the ever-popular Launchpad line).

The Novation-branded Audiobus, labeled “Audiohub 2×4″ (meaning I would expect they have other configurations in mind), merges both sides. There’s a 96kHz, 24-bit Focusrite interface for the audio guts, plus a three-port, powered USB hub.

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Specs: Continue reading »

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Your next modular input might just be an iPad or iPhone headphone jack.

Control voltage inputs, once associated only with racks of modular synths, are now showing up on all kinds of synthesizers and keyboards. Arturia’s MicroBrute and MiniBrute are two very lovely, very affordable examples, priced less than most entry-level digital synths were just a few short years ago.

And since all you need is a sound signal to modulate those inputs, even a phone or tablet app will do the trick. Developer Justus Kandzi, who came to one of our music app meet ups here in Berlin, has built some brilliant, compact apps for the job. Brute LFO is the cost of a cable — just five bucks; Trigger Box is free.

Plug them in, and you can use touch to create elaborate sound sculpting shapes (Brute LFO), or spawn Euclidean sequencer rhythms (Trigger Box). These apps don’t replace anything already on hardware; they add to what’s already there, and in the case of Trigger Box, can use an interface and design paradigm that makes sense on a display but might not on physical hardware.

Here’s a great example pairing the iPhone app with Arturia’s keyboard:

Continue reading »