Forget fancy effects or sophisticated plug-ins – day-in, day-out, it’s those simple MIDI modules you wind up using again and again and again and again. It’s like having a bucket of paperclips on your desk. It doesn’t have to be exciting. It’s the simple stuff that gets used.

So, one of my favorite demos from the jam-packed sessions at MIDI Hack Day in Stockholm in May was unquestionably Midular. The idea was simple: make some basic modules that do stuff to notes and control events, then combine them in useful ways. It deserved an ovation.

And now, you can get those same modules for Max for Live, for free. They’re open source, properly under a GPL license (meaning, if you want to port them to Pure Data, you can, for instance). And they’re good enough that you’ll wonder with at least a couple of them why Ableton didn’t include these as defaults effects.

The starting lineup:

  • LiveQuantizer. Well, duh. And as the creator notes, this means you can do to notes what Live does to clips.
  • Repeater. Repeat incoming notes.
  • Buffer. A round-robin note storage-and-playback sequencer – cool. And that naturally leads to -
  • Rotator. 8-note rotating buffer plus an 8-step sequencer, based on the Roland System 100m modular sequencer. This is a no-brainer to add to that Roland SYSTEM-1 I’m dragging into the studio tonight, in fact, both in SYSTEM-1 and SH-101 modes – I’ll report back.
  • SuperPitcher Works the way you wish Pitch did in Ableton – but then also adds a step-based modulator, for other effects.

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Here, in the season so many associate with sun and sand, the gothic factories of dark techno continue to clang away.

So, yes, the results may not be cheery. But the music defining this new generation of adventurous techno is uniquely focused on timbre. It is a soundscape set against the groove, not only about tweaking just the right high hat, but forging some terrain of sonic design, taking the listener on a journey to actually find something new. It makes landfall on undiscovered countries, rather than simply assembling an expected framework for the dancefloor.

It also carries with it some of the weight of social mindfulness.

And for lovers of sound, the trend can make fans of techno who weren’t before, and lift spirits. Dark, grimy – maybe. But sonic aficionados may find themselves grinning ear to ear.

The Italian-born artist Lucy and his label Stroboscopic Artefacts are right at the heart of the present scene. Lucy, making Berlin the home based for a whole lot of globe trotting, hails from a country that has seen hearts broken by Neo-Liberal dreams. But he also talks eloquently about what music can do, and makes some of his images political – the churches, schools, and guns he saw landing in Texas. Whether you agree with the societal technique, he also has constructive ideas for what might happen on the dance floor. Continue reading »

With homemade machines in the foreground, Quintron and Pussycat warm up the audience, as the moon rises... Photo: Gary Lavourde.

With homemade machines in the foreground, Quintron and Pussycat warm up the audience, as the moon rises… Photo: Gary Lavourde.

Deep in the Ninth Word of New Orleans lies the workbench and studio of one Mr. Quintron, the inventor-organist who has applied his DIY mad-scientist sonic production to a unique flavor of insistent punk. Mr. Quintron was this week in my home neighborhood in Berlin, accompanied by his wife Miss Pussycat – maraca player (maracaist?), vocalist, and puppeteer behind Flossie and the Unicorns. There was a puppet show. It was about cake – demon cake. There was the debut of a new inflatable puppet. Shirts came off. Sounds were made. It was hot. It was loud.

Just as these puppets are voodoo-infused, more than human, so, too, are his sound machines. Like the band itself, they come from a side show, freak show, burlesque show, children’s show, punk show aesthetic.

And none more than the Drum Buddy – a spinning, optical-mechanical device with five (or maybe four, depending on which description you’ve read) oscillators. If you don’t believe in its powers, or if you don’t want to spend the US$999.99 it costs (if one can actually be bought), there’s an informercial to sway you.

Quintron is the sort of person who transforms his basement into a homemade underground club, which he calls the Spellcaster Lodge.

He’s the sort of person who builds a weather-powered synthesizer so that when it rains on his home, he can make rain music. Watch:

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You’d be forgiven for missing it in the blur of press releases and trade show hand-outs – and, let’s face it, most musicians are too focused on music to pay much mind. But slowly, steadily, audio interfaces have been getting a lot better. Talk to the people who make them, and they can tell you what’s happened even in terms of individual components.

Next, they’re about to get smarter and more networked.

And so that means it is worth paying attention today as industry heavyweight MOTU unveils a trio of new audio interfaces, compatible with Thunderbolt 1 and 2 and USB2. MOTU says all three are built on an all-new platform. What you get is three different I/O configurations, but all sharing the same headline features. In short, that includes:

  • Thunderbolt connectivity plus USB 2.0
  • 48-channel mixing and DSP built-in
  • High-dynamic range analog/digital conversion (and d/a)
  • Networking via the new AVB Ethernet standard for expansion with extremely-low latency
  • Web-based control of the mixer, via any connection (wired or wireless)

Yes, you read that right – Web browser mixer control. So that mixer can be on iOS, on Android, on a computer, anything. (And with class-compliant USB, in fact, this whole box can work without ever seeing a driver or particular OS.)

A/D and D/A are the bit that impact the sound, but that networking is some interesting new sauce. AVB boasts both the ability to wire institutions with multiple audio interfaces in different rooms with next-to-null latency. Then, Web app support means you can let your guitarist tweak her headphone mix with her iPad. More on that in a bit. Continue reading »

Oh, so that's where it's been hiding. Click Smart Controls (top) and then the Inspector (bottom); you might need to adjust a preference (below).

Oh, so that’s where it’s been hiding. Click Smart Controls (top) and then the Inspector (bottom); you might need to adjust a preference (below).

GarageBand is a pretty amazing no-cost tool. You get a solid, reliable production app built on the same framework as Logic. It has loads of built-in sounds – instruments and loops. It has easy-to use but capable editing, complete with notation view. There’s now a virtual Drummer which can be fun for sketching out song ideas and backing tracks. And it’s very guitarist/instrumentalist friendly: there’s a big tuner (cough, Ableton), amps and effects.

And did I mention it’s free?

Just one problem: you might not immediately work out how to use third-party plug-ins. GarageBand 10 got rid of some features (including useful podcasting functions, unfortunately). It still works with AU plug-ins, but it’s harder to work out how – Apple has always sort of hidden this feature; not they’ve hidden it in a new way. I had sort of forgotten this happened until I had to try to see if GarageBand worked with Roland’s 64-bit, only-on-the-latest-OS Audio Unit plug-in build of the SH-101 PLUG-OUT.

But it’s worth writing about this separately, because anyone with a Mac or who might need to advise a Mac-using friend ought to know this. Continue reading »

Roland’s PLUG-OUT introduces a new way to deliver electronic musical instruments. You get a plug-in you run on your computer, but then the same sound-making code can be loaded onto hardware – the AIRA SYSTEM-1 synth keyboard.

The good news is, the future-y stuff all works perfectly well. As we reported in our initial hands-on, when the installation works, you can use the software alone, the SYSTEM-1 alone, or a combination, which is a nice arrangement.

The bad news is, the old-fashioned “install the plug-in and it works in your DAW” part? Well, for some – not so much.

We’ve assembled as much information we can on what works, what doesn’t work, what Roland says we can expect from them by way of updates, and how to use free tools on OS X and Windows to get your SYSTEM-1 working right away. Continue reading »


What’s the sound of a computer program running?

Normally, nothing – the number crunching that takes place as software allocates memory forms patterns, but not ones that might immediately make sense of sound. “malloc” is a C function that allocates memory in which code executes. But a simple hack takes the output of a compiler, and makes sound files out of it. It’s the equivalent disconnecting the pipe from a widget-making factory, and instead of producing useful tools, making cool shapes out of sugary icing – useless and delicious. It’s a sonification of the memory allocation and reading process itself, so that patterns in that data, applied to an auditory timescale, form oscillations, blips and bleeps, and sometimes, sounds that to our ears begin to resemble synthesized basslines and percussion.

You actually don’t have to know anything about code to try this out; you just need to paste some lines into a command line. That means you could make your own sounds with the tool if you like. (Your life will be easier if you use Linux or OS X; Windows users will need to look up how to get a UNIX command line working – like Cygwin or GOW.)

The author has already posted some “musical” examples to SoundCloud. My favorite is the first one; it’s almost listenable as a glitch track. (More than almost, actually, at least if you’re a bit weird like me; I’ve been oddly soothed by letting it run for a bit in the background.)

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