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Hands-on with Novation Circuit, drum machine synth sequencer hardware all-in-one

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

circuit hands on 6

Novation has been doing things with grids and knobs for some time, but those have come in the form of gadgets you plug into a computer and use with software like Ableton Live. Circuit is different: it’s an all-in-one groove workstation with sequencer, drum machine, synth, and arrangement in control, and it doesn’t even need to be plugged into power.

We’ve got one of the first Novation Circuit units here, so in advance of our full review, here’s a quick hands-on.

First, Novation’s video shows off the idea:

I first saw Circuit on a visit to Novation’s London office in August — the place where they’re cooking up a lot of their ideas for attracting more people to music. (iOS apps were getting sketched there, too.)

And there, Circuit was immediately all about getting you going with music ideas quickly. (I suspect anyone working for a music technology company, finding their own leisure time severely restricted, appreciates personally the import of getting things started — and of course, that was the topic of the teaser campaign for this hardware.)

So, it starts with an 8×4 grid interface and encoders. Those are velocity-sensitive pads, and the feel of them and the entire build makes this clearly the sibling to the Launchpad Pro controller. The difference here is, you can untether from the computer and use this box on its own. (You can get an idea of what standalone hardware Novation likes in the teaser video, which features a Dave Smith synth, a 303, and an Elektron.)

From there, what do you get?

It’s a modeled synth. There’s a two-part analog-modeled synthesizer in there, which Novation describes as “Nova-heritage.” It certainly has that edgy, modern, somehow English Novation sound.

It’s a drum machine. You get four parts here — simple, but tweakable.

You can play chords. There’s 6-voice polyphony onboard, so you aren’t limited to mono synth lines. And there’s actually a very clever chord mode, which I’ll talk about more when we do the full review.

It’s tweakable — albeit blind. At first blush, this may seem like a preset machine and a bit of a toy. But those eight encoders are paired with a whole lot of parameters for changing the sound. You can switch oscillator types and wavetables, not just twist the filter (though that’s there, too, of course). And all of those encoder adjustments can be recorded and played back in real-time, if you choose.

circuit hands on 4

It’s a step sequencer and pattern recorder. You can play in live, or adjust one step at a time, or a combination (navigating between those modes is atypically easy, in fact). You get up to 128 steps, so you aren’t limited to the 1 bar-patterns you hear in the first demos. Also, if you’re not a fantastic musician on the pads, things do auto-quantize and can be restricted by key — handy for low-pressure live performance. You also get 32 sequence slots for playing live, making this a bit like the Poor Boy’s Octatrack.

It does effects, mixing. Delay, reverb for effects, each fully tweakable, and live mixing plus side-chain capability.

It works with your other gear. USB for the computer, MIDI for external devices. True to form, there’s still a copy of Ableton Live Lite in the box — a bit odd as the main draw here is getting away from your computer. On the other hand, Live (or something like it) is likely to be how you finish whatever you start on the Circuit.

The MIDI support for me keeps this from being overly limited or turning into a toy. You can receive and send MIDI notes and controls, and automatically sync to received MIDI clock (plus forwarding it to the Out jack). More details on that in our review.

It’s ultra-portable and works standalone. You can run on 12V DC power via an adapter, or 6x AA batteries. (I do sort of wish manufacturers would start using rechargeable batteries, though you could invest in rechargeable AA’s if you aren’t already buying AA in bulk for your music gizmos.) But with a decently loud (if tinny) built-in speaker, and a headphone jack, you can go to the park with this one. (Or, as our UK-based friends say, “to the bus” — yes, London will offer long Night Bus trips to start and finish songs.)

And incredibly, the whole package is US$ 329.99 (£249.99 UK or 349€ including VAT in Europe).

So, how does it feel?

circuit hands on 2

I was actually impressed: this doesn’t feel like a do-everything $ 300 box. The pads are nicely velocity sensitive and everything feels solid. There’s a blue anti-slip, grippy surface to the bottom. It’s an incredible dirt magnet, but it holds everything in place.

It’s terrifically portable — it’s tough to say just how easy this is to toss in a bag.

Also, it’s clear that Novation has learned a lot from the Launchpad about workflow. You get all of that ready access, minus the computer. You can quickly add patterns, clear, duplicate, nudge, and change pattern length, plus easily get at effects and synth/drum sound parameters.

The oddest part about using the Circuit is perhaps that while all of the usability controls are well-labeled, you often don’t really know what twisting an encoder will do. Only the brightness of the LED underneath tells you the level, and you just have to learn what the assignments are. On the other hand, Circuit really feels like it’s about intuition, experimentation, and happy accidents, so the absence of a display doesn’t really kill the fun.

Let us know if you have questions about this, and what you think, in advance of our full review. Here are some unboxing pics in the meantime. (And yes, it does include the MIDI minijack connections that are fast becoming an accidental standard, plus breakouts and power and USB all in the box for you.)

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By the way, this is a 13″ MacBook Pro — it really is small, the Circuit.

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The post Hands-on with Novation Circuit, drum machine synth sequencer hardware all-in-one appeared first on Create Digital Music.


Get dedicated hands-on control of your Ableton Live set with DDC

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

So, we all know we’d like to get our hands on software music making with something other than the mouse. Now — how? How do you actually make that physical knob or button do something useful on screen, and at the right moment?

There’s the brute-force method, manually applying MIDI learn. There are fancy dynamic ways of assigning controls. But the former is inflexible and requires extra work, and the latter means that you typically can’t “lock” every control where you need it. (That is, the automatic methods sometimes “outsmart” you to the point of not allowing you to do what you wish.)

DDC — “Dedicated Device Control” — is a solution for Ableton Live that finally keeps controls mapped to specific software without sacrificing flexibility.

It comes in several parts:
1. MIDI Remote Scripts (this means it doesn’t require extra software running or Max for Live)
2. An editor for making your assignments.
3. A capture tool for use with third-party plug-ins and Max for Live devices (that is, not just internal Ableton Devices and Racks).
4. A repository full of controller files to get you started.

The bundle costs US$ 17.50 and requires Live 9.1.2 or later (though it doesn’t need Max for Live or Suite), plus the (free) Java runtime.


What sets it apart?

  • Your mappings open in any set, automatically — you don’t have to do anything to existing sets.
  • It maps to the first instance of a device on any track.
  • You can have several pages of assignments.
  • You can control multiple devices.
  • Up to 32 encoders, 32 buttons (toggle/momentary) — and for each of six devices.
  • Control LEDs, too, for color feedback.

It’s the best of both worlds. It’s automatic — you instantly get control of specific devices without modifying your sets and without manually taking control. But it’s not too automatic — you still get the muscle memory-enhancing power of keeping things assigned, and the power to choose what assignments and pages you want. That would appear to make it really invaluable for live performance, in particular.

I’m giving this a try, but couldn’t wait to write it up. More like this, please.



Thanks to nerk for this one!

The post Get dedicated hands-on control of your Ableton Live set with DDC appeared first on Create Digital Music.


Inside hands-on live technique with Blush Response, KOMA, Elektron

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015


The sound world of Joey Blush (aka Blush Response) is far reaching, entering dark clouds of murky industrial, EBM, and techno, all with relentless forward-pushing grooves. But as we talk to him about how he connects his gear, we’re really looking at how he connects his thoughts.

At its best, whatever we’re doing with gear ought to be about our minds. It’s not just connecting a patch cord. It’s connecting an idea from one place to another — re-wiring neurons.

Synth legend Morton Subotnick spoke this week about that process, as he recalled first creating complex metric structures simply by patching together loops on hardware modular sequencers (there, via the Buchla). As rhythmic structures emerged, he blew his own brain open — and the landmark record Silver Apples on the Moon was born. And I thought of this:

“You’re sequencing the sequence!”

I heard a smiling Wouter Jaspers of KOMA Elektronik repeat that phrase like a Zen koan. His sequencer isn’t intended to be simple. It’s even called Komplex.

The Komplex sequencer has reached the final prototype stage, with a release in coming weeks. KOMA Elektronik visited Joey Blush in the studio to play with the Komplex and a host of modules.

And what’s significant about this is that it is a return to some of what Morton was talking about back in the 60s. This isn’t about something abstract; it’s getting hands-on, gestural control over sounds, so that there’s a direct line from your instinct to making some change in the sound by moving your body.

Literally, how is Joey making the connection? He sends over his signal flow to CDM, in terms of what you see in the KOMA video:

The oscillator is an Intellijel Shapeshifter
into a WMD synchrodyne
into a KOMA SVF-201
A Manhattan Analog VCA on the end
being modulated by MATHS. [uh, the module, though everything I do is modulated by maths!]
Everything is sequenced by the Komplex sequencer
Drums are the [Roland AIRA] TR8 through the [KOMA] FT201

Now, that was a short demo. For a proper live set, let’s have a watch and listen through the blueish smoke of a live set at Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, London, from 25 May.

Here’s the breakdown for that:

two voices being sequenced by electron octatrack — mutable yarns as midi converter, elektron analog rytm doing drums. All tweaks are done by hand here. I have the OT loaded with sequences I’ve made, more than I need for an entire set, so that I can call up different ones at will and create new ‘tracks’ by tweaking the patch parameters and coming across new things. What you are seeing is sort of a live patching experiment. I know where things have to go but how I get there is different every time.


I also had an interesting conversation with Joey about how he works with the Elektron Octatrack and Analog Rytm drum machines. He’s actually integrating them with the modulars, using them to make things morph even more. And no Eurorack snobbery here — using drum machines like the AIRA or, here, the Elektron, means he always has convenient access to sounds:

I use the octatrack as my main sequencer for the eurorack live and in the studio.

I can sequence CC changes using the midi to cv converter (currently a Vermona QMI) so I can have these evolving sequences that sound like cut up parts you would have done in a computer.

The RYTM handles all percussion duties for obvious reasons — it’s monstrous and it’s a bit easier to carry than a bigger eurorack case.

I really love Joey’s sonic imagination. It’s heavy, it’s industrial, but isn’t just arbitrarily bleak — there’s heart and, somehow, warmth in it. Take this track:

Or a full live set:

This album is well worth a listen:

The Drift by Blush Response

And now, the 12″ Future Tyrants is up on Bandcamp:



Thanks to Joey for the juicy details.

Check the official site:

All photos courtesy the artist.

The post Inside hands-on live technique with Blush Response, KOMA, Elektron appeared first on Create Digital Music.


Launchpad Pro Grid Controller: Hands-on Comprehensive Guide

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

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Novation’s Launchpad Pro is here. It shares the same compact footprint as earlier Launchpads, but adds full color, pressure-sensitive pads, and MIDI inputs and outputs, plus the ability to operate without a computer. So, with other grids to choose from, where does this one fit?

The Launchpad line of controllers has always been about simplicity. Even when the original Launchpad was introduced, it did less than its nearest rival, the AKAI APC. But it was popular partly thanks to being simple, light, small, and affordable. That fits many users’ needs, and can be nicely combined with other hardware.

The Launchpad Pro keeps to that approach, but with more features to round it out as a production tool and performance controller. And it isn’t just for Ableton Live, either — it has a respectable feature set when used with other MIDI software and hardware. I’ve got one of the first units and have been carrying around using it. Let’s have a look.

First, here’s the amazing Thavius Beck performing with the instrument live:

Meet the Family

The Launchpad, drawing on a tradition established by the monome community, is all about triggering clips, making patterns, and playing melodic and drum instruments from a grid. Ableton Live support is standard, which makes setup easy — make sure you’ve updated Live 9, plug in, and go. But integration with other music and live visual software is possible, too. That includes Novation’s own iOS apps, FL Studio, Bitwig Studio, and Renoise, to name a few.

Novation’s current Launchpad lineup includes three models. All the latest models are driverless over USB, so they work with any OS (including iOS, with the proper adapters). The new models also all feature a bright orange rubber base mat to prevent slipping. Beyond that, the models:

Launchpad mini — the portable one. The ultra-compact model offers a basic 8×8 grid with yellow/red/green lighting and trigger keys. Those triggers are labeled A-G and 1-8 on the hardware, but included stickers let you mark up whatever assignments you want for your software of choice.

Launchpad — now RGB. The current Launchpad keeps the original basic Launchpad design — USB, grid, row of triggers on top, column of triggers on the side. But it adds RGB color for more visual feedback on what you’re controlling.

The current color “Launchpad” replaces the first two Launchpads. I still have original Launchpad serial number 7, and it holds up, but it’s not driverless like the other models. The Launchpad S is more compact and has some aesthetic and functional improvements, but you might now opt for the mini instead.

Compatibility/power on the different models is as follows:
Original Launchpad: Bus powered. OS X, Windows drivers. Not USB class-compliant, so you can’t use it with iOS — but there is actually a Linux driver contributed by the community, so you can use it with a Raspberry Pi.

Launchpad S, Launchpad mini: Bus powered. Driverless.

Current, color Launchpad and Launchpad Pro: Bus powered, but iOS doesn’t provide enough power, so you’ll need a hub. Driverless.


Launchpad Pro Form Factor

Remarkably, the Launchpad Pro isn’t much bigger than the original Launchpad — and it’s much smaller than Ableton’s Push. But it still does a lot.

The most important change is the pads. Unlike the rest of the Launchpad line, the Pro is the first and only model (so far) with velocity and pressure sensitivity for more expressive performances.

For 4×4 grids with larger pads, I’m partial to what Native Instruments has done with Maschine and Akai with Renaissance. On 8×8 grids, though, the nearest rival is certainly Ableton’s Push.

What’s impressive about the Launchpad Pro is consistency — both in the velocity range of each pad, and in getting the same results across the grid. That is, there’s a very solid range from minimum pressure to maximum pressure, and each pad performs similarly to each adjacent pad. As a keyboardist, I find this really satisfying — that is, once I switch the Launchpad Pro’s sensitivity to high. In its default setting, it will require more pressure — better if you just want consistent one-shots and don’t care as much about expressive melodic parts. For those of you who want to bang the Launchpad really hard, you can turn sensitivity down to low. At each of these three settings, you’ll still get a range of different velocities. ‘High’ is certainly comfortable to keyboardists and finger drummers with a lighter touch; ‘Medium’ is a more typical finger drumming setting, and ‘Low’ is exclusively for those who like to attack their hardware. (More on that below.)

Color feedback is bright and clear; I actually prefer the colors here to Maschine and Push. And now you do have additional triggers, which means a functions previously doubled on the right-hand side now have their own, dedicated controls.

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The best part of the Launchpad Pro is its form factor. As on other recent Launchpads, the rubber mat keeps the controller in place when on a surface. You can really wail on the pads, and it won’t budge. Contrast that to Ableton’s solution on Push, which is adding a lot of weight to the device — something that’s nice when you’re in the studio, but not so nice when you put a device in your bag. The Launchpad Pro has some added weight, too, but not enough to give mobility a second thought.

Round the back, you’ll find a jack for a power adapter (for standalone operation, instead of powering via USB), USB, plus minijack breakouts for MIDI input and MIDI output to hardware.

There’s a new Setup button, depressed so you won’t accidentally hit it. It brings up a color-coded menu page for adjusting more settings:

  • Standalone layouts for MIDI operation
  • Velocity
  • Aftertouch — polyphonic or channel aftertouch, pressure sensitivity
  • Pad lighting (internal or via MIDI)
  • MIDI channel

Ableton Live

There are five ways to use the Launchpad Pro with Ableton Live, and they’re clearly marked on the top with the mode buttons.

Session: This is the clip launching mode. It now benefits a lot from RGB feedback. Not only are the clips color-coded, but the new dedicated shortcuts on the bottom are, too. Those are now more convenient to access — no Shift needed. You can still trigger scenes with triggers on the right, but on the left you get new shortcuts for Undo/Redo, Delete, Quantise/Record Quantize, Duplicate, Double, and recording and click. (You can thank Push for adding this functionality to Ableton’s software.)

Session Mode also has stepped faders as on previous models. However, Novation has added the ability to use velocity to make transitions between values gradually. Switch to Volume, for instance, and hit the bottom pad hard to make a fader drop quickly, or gently to make it smoothly transition. (Sadly, you don’t get any software control of that, yet — Lemur-style physics, anyone?)

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Note (Melodic): On melodic parts, you get a grid of notes. It’s spaced chromatically (half step) in rows, and by fourths in columns. You’ll see a C major scale marked in blue, with octaves in pink, so you could use this as a visual reference to stay in key. Now, that means there’s some overlap — to make a chromatic scale, you would actually use the 5×8 section on the right-hand side of the grid. You can’t change scale mappings as on Push — that’s the problem with lacking a display. But you can use Ableton’s MIDI Devices to do the same job (Pitch, Scale to transpose or restrict pitches).

Note (Drum): On Drum Racks, instead of the blue/pink display, the grid maps to loaded samples. As Ableton added with Push and Live 9.2, the entire 8×8 grid is usable. Unlike Push, though, there’s no step sequencing mode.

Device: Device mode maps to the active parameter controls for instruments, effects, and the like. As on the Session faders, you can use velocity to transition through values at different rates. Here, the Launchpad Pro is decidedly at a disadvantage versus Push, though: without a display, you don’t know what you’re controlling, and you’re likely to miss turning encoders. On the other hand, with the right performance setup, this could still be useful.

User: Novation introduced the idea of a ‘User’ page for easy mapping with Max for Live and the like, and it’s back here. (You will need to do your own patching to add velocity transitions between steps, but that’s possible.) I like it for another reason, too: here, notes are mapped chromatically by row in groups of four, then by major third vertically.

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So, how does it compare? The upshot of all of this is a controller that’s much more limited than Push — and more like a traditional Launchpad.

Now, I tend to shift between doing quick improvisation on a controller and fine-tuned editing on the display with the mouse, so for me, this is fine.

But, then, if the Launchpad is all about performance, I miss some performance-oriented features even more. The absence of a step sequencer for melodic and drum tracks is frustrating. And I really miss having a Note Repeat feature, as found on Akai gear (old and new), Maschine, and with dedicated controls on Push. On melodic parts, that single grid I’m sure won’t work for everyone, either.

All of this calls out desperately for some Max for Live hacks (or other custom tools in other software), which I expect we’ll see coming soon. The affordability and simplicity of the Launchpad line seem to motivate hackers even more.


Real Controllers Have Curves

One side note, relevant to using the Launchpad Pro as a controller instrument. Making a pad expressive requires a combination of hardware sensing and firmware. In my ongoing tests, I’ve been impressed both anecdotally — and when measuring MIDI values as I play — by the hardware. There’s a large velocity range, you can hit different parts of the range accurately, and sensing from pad to pad is consistent.

The other adjustment is in software. I like setting everything to HIGH, but I got some more clarification from Novation about how the curves actually work — not just for velocity, but aftertouch, as well. (And note that you do get polyphonic aftertouch out of the Launchpad Pro — you just need hardware or software capable of receiving it.)

We designed the velocity curves first by identifying the smallest amount of pressure to trigger a pad and then selecting how hard we wanted to be hitting a pad without hurting fingers to get the max value (127). By
setting the top and bottom points in this way we created the maximum playable dynamic range.

Next we figured out where the main playable area of the curve lies and flattened out the curve in this range to make the majority of playing more controllable.

Finally we created a high curve and a low curve to suit different styles of playing and lighter or heavier handed players. These two curves were created by adjusting the main playable area upwards (HIGH — output is greater for the same velocity input) and downwards (LOW — output is lower for the same velocity input) while keeping the maximum and minimum points the same to maintain the full dynamic range.

The curves are remembered per layout so you can select the MEDIUM curve for use with a chromatic instrument and the HIGH curve for playing drums, for example.

For aftertouch we have three settings described by a threshold of LOW, MEDIUM or HIGH. To get the full range of control the user can choose the LOW setting which means the aftertouch can be triggered easily and has
the maximum range. Medium and high settings raise the threshold making it easier to play the pads without triggering aftertouch with a reduced range.


Custom MIDI and Standalone Operation

Here’s where things get interesting. Connected to your computer, the Launchpad has three MIDI ports in software: “Live” (when Live is running), “standalone,” and the physical MIDI DIN. So, you can easily intercept MIDI messages.

If you aren’t running Ableton Live, the Launchpad automatically switches to one of the default layouts. That makes it convenient for use with other software.

For instance, here’s a video with Logic Pro X:

Even better, connect the Launchpad Pro to power, and you can use these modes without even attaching a computer — just connect MIDI gear via the included minijack-to-DIN breakouts for the in and out ports.

There are four modes:

Note: This is the melodic layout. You can use the arrow buttons to move around the pitch grid; the other trigger shortcuts dim (though they’re still MIDI assignable if you choose). As it is in Live, pitch is mapped chromatically along the horizontal axis and in fourths along the vertical axis.

Drum: This is a little different than what you get in Live — and actually a little cooler. Each page is grouped into four 4×4 grids and color-coded, perfect for triggering drums and one-shot samples. You can navigate multiple pages, too.

Fader: Here, you get eight faders with velocity triggering. Unfortunately, this is the one mode without pages, which is disappointing. You can actually control 16 banks of 8 faders, one for each MIDI channel, but that requires swapping the active MIDI channel in the Setup page. This seems a missed opportunity, especially with color feedback for each page.

Programmer: This is an “advanced” mode for programming your own functionality.

You can watch them in action in Novation’s video:

Even in the default modes, though, there is room for hackability. All of the trigger buttons still send MIDI messages and respond to LED color messages, so even though they’re disabled by default, you could set up some custom mapping.

Again, it’s the step sequencer I’m sorry to see missing.


Most of what you’d probably want out of the Launchpad Pro can be accomplished using only MIDI. For instance, here they are using the Launchpad’s MIDI-addressable LEDs to make a custom light show:

But for more advanced interactions in standalone mode, you need access to the firmware. And there’s some good news. In a story we broke last week, the Launchpad Pro is set to be the most hackable commercial MIDI controller to date. A custom firmware API will let you use simple C code to produce your own functionality.

Hack a Grid: Novation Makes Launchpad Pro Firmware Open Source

The current modes are already great, but the Launchpad Pro for me would become invaluable once it has a usable Note Repeat mode, a step sequencer, and perhaps an arpeggiator or chord generator. All of these are possible in the custom firmware, so now either I can build that myself the way I want or hope someone else does it.

For more on the open source initiative, you can follow Novation on Tumblr:

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The Launchpad Pro and Ableton’s flagship Push aren’t so much direct rivals as two devices that each serve a particular niche.

If you want a device that is so deeply integrated with Ableton Live that you don’t even have to look at the computer screen, Ableton Push has no match. Push is by far the most powerful studio device, and has the broadest feature set. And odds are, you’ll miss some of that on the Launchpad Pro. Push’s display, encoders, Note Repeat, touch strip, step sequencing, and flexible pitch layouts mean there’s no trouble differentiating it from the Launchpad Pro. Push is also a good choice for newcomers to Live, because unlike long-time users, they probably don’t already have a workflow with faderboxes and the like.

On the other hand, for all the same reasons, it’s possible Push is too much. It’s heavier. It’s bigger. And its street price is twice as expensive as the Launchpad Pro, with Push at $ 600 street (or a little less if you catch a sale), versus $ 300 street for the Novation. The fact that it does less also means it may fit a modular setup better — combining with your favorite fader box, for instance.

And on top of that, while the Push costs twice as much, it’s useless when disconnected from a computer. The Launchpad Pro is at home with Ableton Live, but it’s also a nice add-on to standalone synths and drum machines.

All of this gets still more interesting, potentially, as hackers get their hands on the hardware and the custom firmware API.

If you’re looking for a single piece of hardware that integrates all your workflows in Ableton Live, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Push. But if you’re mainly interested in a playable grid, in something that’s mobile, and something that works with other hardware, Launchpad Pro is easy purchase at half the price.

The only real downside is that some of the Launchpad Pro’s potential remains in the future. Filling in the gaps in sequencing, giving it more functionality with MIDI hardware, and adding deeper integration with Ableton Live and other hosts will all rely on the community of hackers giving it more to do. But for now, it’s the most mobile and playable grid on the market, and if past experience is a guide, that community will make it more valuable as it ages, not less.

Launchpad Pro [Novation Music / Global Site]

The post Launchpad Pro Grid Controller: Hands-on Comprehensive Guide appeared first on Create Digital Music.


Hands-on Video of the Yamaha Reface Series

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015

SonicState got an exclusive hands-on with the new Yamaha line. And the story is becoming clear: the word for these is convenience. You get sleek, minimal design that reduces hands-on control to the essentials, while providing real-time effects and the ability to dial in loads of sounds. The mini keys aren’t a full-sized keybed, but it seems what Yamaha hasn’t done is make something cheaply. Both the sound and apparently physical form are top-of-range, and you don’t sacrifice essentials like MIDI ports. So that bucks some industry tendencies to a race to the bottom. And even if you don’t like these Yamahas, I think it’s important that someone in the industry is doing that apart from boutique Eurorack.

Another reason I’ll defend mini keys — provided these feel good — is that piano-sized keys are just enormous. Recall that part of the reason they’re the size they are is nothing to do with ergonomics and everything to do with the size required by acoustic strings and so on.

We’re hearing US$ 799 list, but that’d mean a street closer to US$ 500.

Now, the downside is, you have to choose. Then again, it seems Yamaha is betting on each model appealing to a different audience/genre, which is rather what I’ve gotten chatting with people casually — and this focus also means, unlike the do-anything SYSTEM-1 from Roland, these keyboards are focused on a particular range of controls. That helps keeps the control complement to a minimum.

Prediction: these will be huge sellers, precisely because they aren’t huge. Devices like the iPad have finally convinced people that luxury doesn’t have to mean big, and gigging keyboardists have struggled with luggage long enough. They’re not cheap, fun ways into synthesis in the mold of the Arturia MicroBrute or the KORG microKORG, but they are a chance for people who formerly bought big keyboards just to get the sounds they want to finally downsize. And it seems they may have nailed sound, access, and design. People without the cash will be shouting loudly on the forums, but people with the cash will be quietly making money for Yamaha in the kind of segment the company had more or less ceded lately to competitors.

Kudos to the SonicState lads for shooting this in such detail.

The post Hands-on Video of the Yamaha Reface Series appeared first on Create Digital Music.


KORG Arp Odyssey: First Hands-On Video

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

Marko Ettlich of RetroSound has just posted an interesting video of the new KORG Arp Odyssey reissue.
If you’re itching to buy one, or wondering if you should, this simple video can definitely be helpful — KORG seems to have nailed the sound.

I’m not really a fan of a smaller-size reissues (the new Odyssey is 14% smaller than the original) but the sound and the extra features (multi-filter, USB, MIDI, Drive) seem to make up for this design choice.
The new KORG Arp Odyssey should be available by the end of February (limited editions one month later) for $ 999.

Enjoy and stay tuned…


Nintendo Game & Watch Inspires Tiny, $59 Synths from Teenage Engineering [CDM Hands-on]

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015


“Pocket” is a term often used loosely to mean anything small. Not so the Teenage Engineering PO-12 series of instruments. They’re each literally small enough that you could put them in your jeans comfortably and still cram in your phone.

We’ve got units from TE (and collaborator Cheap Monday) here at CDM, so let’s talk about what our wacky Stockholm friends have done this time.

Remember Nintendo’s Game & Watch series? These business card-sized pocket games used crude but charming LCD animations, characters making jerky, repetitive movements for basic games. The ultra-cheap toy titles preceded the NES, the ingenious work of game designer Gunpei Yokoi. They were brutally simple, but stunningly addictive. Oh, and they also doubled as a clock/alarm clock — battery life was so impossibly minimal, you could prop them on your bedside and count on them to wake you up in the morning.

Here’s where we enter the weird and wonderful imagination of Teenage Engineering and founder Jesper Kouthoofd — and their usual Japan fetish, down to the writing on the box. The PO cross-breeds the Game & Watch with synths and a drum machine and a step sequencer. The lab coat-wearing TE team have unveiled three models — a “Factory” melodic synth, a “Sub” bass synth, and a “Rhythm” drum machine. Each is US$ 59.

CDM was the first to see the PO-12 when the drum machine — sans display — showed up in a talk I hosted at Moogfest last year. Now, the Game & Watch connection is explicit: that blank space on the board hosts a gaming display. And yes, it’s also an alarm clock. And no, the TE guys haven’t come up with any housing: this is still a board with a hanger and a wire stand for the back. You pop in AA batteries and go. There’s not even a power switch: it powers off automatically; any key brings it (nearly) instantly to life.

So, okay. It’s a cute toy, a nerdy gimmick for design lovers. It’s available in Colette in Paris. Skinny jeans maker Cheap Monday is in on it. Fine. It’s a fun hipster throwaway. It’s certainly not a musical instrument.


Actually, completely wrong.

I had an inkling that this might turn into something that was more than a toy when I talked to Jesper last year and he started mentioning “parameter locks.” See, Jesper hasn’t just been designing cool stuff for rich cool kids in Stockholm — his background also includes working on the first legendary Elektron drum machines. It’s a bit as if Roger Linn had done the MPC, but then gone on to work at an ad agency, but then gone on to turn Atari Tempest into a modular. Jesper’s that kind of guy. And he’s filled his lab with other similarly over-qualified music tech geniuses.

So here’s the thing — in fact, the only thing you need to know.

The PO-12 devices sound $ #(*&ing amazing.



First, here’s the game-like bits: yes, you get some animations, and if you can lay your fingers on those tiny knobs and buttons, you can control things. A built-in speaker gives you the tinny reproduction you’d expect.

Inside my brain: “Hmm, cute, well, this is fun to play with … no volca or anything like that, but… yeah, let’s just plug my studio headphones in into the audio output and … gah … the $ #(&*?!”

Part of why I’m impressed is that my PO units are happily playing away on my desk, perfectly loud and clear when plugged into a line or headphone, and yet … I can’t seem to kill the batteries. We’re talking just two AA’s, not the array of batteries the volca series routinely eats through. And, sure, for your sixty bucks you get a device that has no case and no MIDI, but… well, let’s listen.

If you’re wondering about sync, there is a second minijack that allows you to chain and synchronize tempo between units. (I had encouraged Jesper to do that when I first saw these and he was already contemplating it; I have to find out if you can make the minijack work with apps or volcas or MIDI or the like.)

Each additionally has effects options, parameters to tweak, and 16 different sounds. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but they’re voiced and designed nicely enough that almost everything is satisfying — so figure sixty bucks buys you a 16-step grid of 16 sounds with layers of parameters and it always sounds good. I’m also curious if there will be ways to hack additional functionality (syncing other gear, as I said, being the place to start).

Where things really get interesting is actually in the sequencing. You have real parameter locks and lots of access to edits for effects and grooves — yes, including swing. In fact, there’s so much there, that I have to admit I got a little muddled — I’ll walk through these features by next week with some better sound samples.

Anyway, there’s really no reason not to take these things absolutely seriously and wire them into a serious rig. I’d just get a little bag to protect them.

I’ll wait on a full review and test shortly with more sounds. But… I bet you’re already sold.












The post Nintendo Game & Watch Inspires Tiny, $ 59 Synths from Teenage Engineering [CDM Hands-on] appeared first on Create Digital Music.


Exclusive Hands-on with Komplete Kontrol S25 Keyboard [Pictures]

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014


That NI is making a keyboard to provide access to its Komplete line of production tools should surprise no one. And not just because of numerous leaks — it’s the next logical step for the Berlin software developer.

After all, NI has an entire line of hardware that makes access to Traktor easier for DJing. And it developed Maschine, a software tool that from the beginning was built to facilitate hybrid hardware/software workflows. The thinking is simple: computer software offers terrific versatility, but when it comes time to actually explore sounds and play, you want knobs and faders and buttons and pads.

And keys.

As with the Maschine and Traktor Kontrol hardware, Komplete Kontrol is on one hand a standard MIDI controller. Connected to a computer, there’s no reason you can’t use it with other software via MIDI. But when combined with NI’s own software, Komplete Kontrol magically inherits other functionality and an unparalleled degree of integration with sound parameters and library browsing.

I’ve gotten a chance to talk to the folks at NI who developed Komplete Kontrol, and have an S25 keyboard here that I’ve begun testing. It’s too soon for a full review, but I can offer some first hands-on impressions — and answer some likely questions. Let’s get started.


Out of the box

First, here’s a surprise: Komplete Kontrol S25, despite the high sticker price (starting at $ /€ 499), comes only with minimal software. You get drivers, plus the Komplete Kontrol software, but the integration features require either Komplete 9 or Komplete 10. You might expect some sort of player software, as NI has done with Kontakt for other products, but — well, you don’t get that. This is a product for current or prospective Komplete owners.

Installation of the keyboard is otherwise simple. You install the Komplete Kontrol software — specialized host software that communicates with the keyboard and includes a Mac/Windows driver. As with Maschine, the keyboard works only when connected via USB; it doesn’t have any standalone MIDI functionality outside a connection to a computer host.

You also get a power adapter, because the S-Series requires external power. (12V / 1.2A, surprisingly! I’m assuming that powers the displays and lights.)




The Keyboard

I’ll say this: this is hands-down, the nicest looking, nicest feeling MIDI controller I’ve ever used. (And yes, if you’re getting too much of a Guitar Hero / Rock Band game feeling from those LEDs above the keyboard, you can turn them off, leaving it all a tasteful, 2001/Kubrick black.)

Of course, it had better be, at this price premium. But it’s tough to convey in pictures: the top panel is really beautiful and subtle and neatly laid out, the encoders feel terrific, and the Fatar keyboard doesn’t disappoint. Unlike another very nice-looking premium controller keyboard, the Nektar Panorama, NI had the sense to go with an established keybed maker rather than make their own. As a result, the S-Series is solid, firm-feeling, but not too springy.

Then again, you don’t need me to tell you this. If you’ve worked with other NI hardware, you have the basic idea. Those mock-ups of a Maschine browser put on a keyboard weren’t far off: transport and browsing functions are copied directly from Maschine.

What’s new is the silky-smooth encoders, the razor-sharp displays underneath, and the touch strips. The displays look fantastic, visible from any angle, and clearly represent a lot of the cost of the unit. The other high-quality point is the touch strips. They’re perfectly responsive, and already NI has begun making use of the LED feedback along the sides. (More on that in a bit.)

Actually, my only concern as far as the hardware itself is that the minimal design means there aren’t a whole lot of controls. You really only get the eight endless encoders for parameter control. It’d be great to have toggles or push-button functions alongside those encoders. It seems that may restrict some of the options for sound design down the road, or necessitate an additional controller.

I will say, though, the S25 form factor is great. Because I already own bigger keyboards, I wanted this very model to go on the road — and it seems it’ll be a perfect companion to Maschine and Ableton Live. (I’ll cover Maschine/S25 combined workflow in a separate story.)






The Ghost of Kore

Let’s get it over with and deal with comparisons to Kore.

With eight encoders and displays, browsing functions, and the intent to provide hardware access to Komplete, it’s obvious that Komplete Kontrol has a lineage to NI’s discontinued hardware/software product Kore. But the biggest indication that Komplete Kontrol isn’t Kore is actually the software. Komplete Kontrol, the software, has a much narrower function than Kore did, at least in its first version. And that means that while it’s missing a lot of what people hated about Kore (bugs and instability being foremost among them), it’s also missing what some of you loved about Kore. This is simply much less ambitious software.

Kore was built to work with third-party plug-ins. It had powerful functions for making splits and layers and even nesting sounds inside other sounds. It was built with effects and instruments in mind. It had insanely-deep, often confusing facilities for producing your own complex series of presets and sound tagging. It even had its own modules for recording and adding additional performance tools.

Komplete Kontrol actually does none of those things I’ve just mentioned. Perhaps, though, that’s a relief more than a disappointment. Kore proved not only overly confusing for many people to use, but untenable for NI to develop and support. The results often simply didn’t work. If Komplete Kontrol is more conservative, it also escapes Kore’s massive overreach.

NI will have to win back the trust of users burned by Kore, and Komplete Kontrol will certainly bring back some bad memories. On the other hand, NI has clearly learned a lot about hardware design and software design since — remember that the entire Maschine project has happened in the intervening time. And the conservative approach to Komplete Kontrol, while I think it’s lacking some features that hopefully appear in coming months, is part of that.

So, if Komplete Kontrol software isn’t Kore, what is it?


The Software

It’s best to think of Komplete Kontrol as a single layer between the hardware and individual instruments or sound patches in Komplete. That software provides just two things: one, access to browsing interfaces for pulling up sounds (radically simplified, I might add), and two, mappings between the sound and the keyboard’s built-in facilities for parameter control and scale/arpeggiator functions.

That’s important, because as you’ll see below, outside the software you lose some of the hardware’s advantages.

Komplete Kontrol is a dedicated tool you load either standalone or as a plug-in. (That plug-in then loads whatever instruments you need in your host.)

One loaded, you can treat everything you have installed in Komplete — every sound pack, every instrument — as if it’s a preset inside of a massive database of sounds. Let’s say you’re looking for a unique plucked sound, or a broken piano. It doesn’t matter if that was built in FM7, in the Reaktor User Library, or in Kontakt. You can dial up those different sounds (with brief pauses for loading) as if each were a preset on a massive synth. Kore promised to do that, but via a complex interface. The UI here, whether working with factory presets or your own custom sounds (or Reaktor patches, even) is dead-simple and quick.

Yes, it’s an extra layer of software. But it’s the first time the result has felt seamless. And since commenters are asking, yes, I vastly prefer this to the automap capabilities of software like Novation’s.

Actually, it’s all worth using for the Reaktor library alone. I’d heard NI folks tell me that, but I was a bit skeptical.

Just sixty seconds after starting up the Komplete Kontrol software, I’d found a Reaktor patch I’d forgotten about and was lost playing with its sounds. If you’re a Reaktor user, parameters will map just as easily.

Otherwise, here things will feel familiar to veteran Kore users. Look at the screen, and you can page through parameters. Touch an encoder, and the value appears on the screen, even before you start to turn the encoder.

That’s the good news. The bad news is, the software is fairly limited. You can’t load more than one sound at a time. You can use your plug-in host to create splits and layers, but Komplete Kontrol doesn’t do any of that — you’re limited to how each preset was set up. There’s also no way to easily create a set of patches for a performance and switch between those. (I’m guessing what you may want to do for that use case is use user banks for the job; I’ll be researching this and follow up.)

In short, Komplete Kontrol will have a ways to go before it becomes a useful performance tool, putting it behind software from years ago like Apple’s MainStage or … yes, the Ghost of Kore.

For now, instead, it’s mainly a preset browsing tool and a way to load instruments so they integrate with the hardware. I’ll be investigating just how you’d set this up for a live situation, though, as I know that matters a lot to Komplete users who want to take their sounds onstage and on the road.




The Extras

Seeing parameters alongside the encoders is nice, but it isn’t yet enough reason to get a Komplete Kontrol. NI hopes that the keyboard’s “intelligent” features will entice you.

Scale and Chord. As with the grids on Ableton’s Push, you can remap the notes on the Kontrol S-Series to different scales. Choose a root note, a mode, and optionally pre-mapped sets of chords, and the white notes (and optionally the black notes) will map to only the “right” notes in that collection.

The modes, in my firmware revision (more might get added later):
Chromatic, major, harmonic minor, major pentatonic, minor pentatonic, blues, Japanese, “Freygish” (that’s Phrygian), Gypsy, Flamenco, Altered, whole tone, half/whole diminished, and whole/half diminished.

This does get a little odd on a piano-style keyboard in a way it doesn’t on an undifferentiated grid like Maschine, the MPC, Push, or a monome. The black notes are set to either play nothing or duplicate the white notes. A chromatic mode would be nice, but they left it out here — and there’s some reason for that, because the octaves would suddenly become meaningless in most modes. I’d still like more controls, but I also acknowledge that this is in part useful to people who didn’t spend years learning to play the piano. Speaking of which —

Arpeggiator. There’s a rather powerful arpeggiator built into the S-Series, ordered up, up/down, down, in the order played (cool), or tied to the chord mode (very cool). And you get swing controls, octave range, dynamic controls, and gate, though a random mode would be nice. Actually, to me as a keyboardist, it’s the arpeggiator that really makes the chord mode worth using.

Chords: octave, 1-3, 1-5, 1-3-5, 1-4-5, 1-3-5-7, 1-4-7 — or various pre-programmed major/minor progressions.

Those colored lights. In what I expect is going to be the S-Series’ most controversial feature, yes, there are brightly-colored lights above the keys. In normal usage, their main function will be to annoy you, by lighting up as you play.

But when mapped to presets, these go from useless disco bling to very useful feedback. Inside the Komplete library, they indicate splits and switches, so that very complex percussion patches are at last understandable.

They also integrate with Reaktor patches. In Polyplex, for example, the color coding indicates different sample mappings. Intrepid Reaktor patchers could create their own custom color mappings, to produce keyboard patches along the lines of what the monome community has done with that grid.

And, the color coding gives you feedback when you use scales and chords.

Unfortunately, you can only turn the lights on and off globally, not per patch — a shame, as I’d love to see them turn on for splits and then go dark when I just want to play a piano. But this is an area that could expand as sound designers get their hands on the S-Series.

Touch Strips. Purists may be unhappy that there are touch strips in place of the pitch and mod wheels found on most keyboards. But that solves two problems. First, those wheels are often the first thing to break on a keyboard when you take it on the road, or to respond unreliably. Second, this is another area sound designers can use to provide visual feedback and parameter control. The mod wheel can be sectioned off to provide clear switches between different settings, for example.

NI has also provided physics controls, so each touch strip can bounce or respond to friction differently, as has been found in the past on the Lemur touch surface.

It’s another area that could grow in time.

All about the sound designers.

You see, those LEDs on the strips and colored lights above the keys will be accessible in Kontakt scripts and inside Reaktor. That means that the value of the hardware should grow, not shrink, with time, as hackers come up with clever applications for them. We’ll of course cover how to do that yourself, if you want to be brave — hello, Reaktor lovers.






And for MIDI Users

The Kontrol S-Series does nothing when disconnected form a computer. Like Maschine, it needs the host software to operate. But you can use it with other software, via standard MIDI communication, as a controller.

Again, like Maschine, you do this by switching between MIDI and controller modes — shift-Instance does the trick.

First, the bad news: alarmingly, some features work only with Komplete Kontrol. You can’t use the arpeggiator or scale or chord modes without using the companion software. That’s a pretty big issue, and one I hope NI fixes.

Also, you can’t use MIDI messages to switch the LEDs above the keyboard. That’s too bad, as it would have opened up monome-style patching in Max, Max for Live, Pd, and the like. Reaktor users are the only ones who get to play here.

But, that said, a lot can be mapped.

The transport section is pre-mapped to Mackie Control, so can control the transport of your DAW. It can’t be re-mapped, but that’s already useful.

The encoders send MIDI CC messages of your choice, and you can change the labels (again, already familiar to Maschine owners).

Nicest of all, you can create your own splits with color feedback, per template.

You can also assign physics features on the mod and pitch wheels via the template editor.

You can see all these features in the screenshots. Combined, I think the S-Series would therefore make a very interesting MIDI controller. It’s just too expensive to recommend without the use of Komplete for now, though if NI would make the arpeggiator and scale/chord modes work outside Komplete, I might be able to revise that.



Komplete Lovers Get a Keyboard

It should already be pretty clear what the downsides of the S-Series are, even without doing a review. They’re pricey. They’re locked into NI’s software; MIDI functionality is there but is a second-class citizen to NI software integration. The hardware doesn’t work without a computer connected, unlike many MIDI keyboards. You really need to own Komplete — or at least Reaktor, or Maschine. (I’ll cover Maschine integration separately; the Browser and parameters do work, which is very cool, though you’ll still want your Maschine hardware around for sequencing — I’m guessing you’ll make basslines on the S25 and beats on the Maschine pads.)

And the software is clearly version 1 — eventually, features like making your own splits are a must, and more attention to live performance workflows could be a huge help.

But there’s a lot here to like. The hardware design shows tremendous promise, particularly when coupled with sound design in Reaktor and Kontakt. And if you’re willing to spend a little extra on a beautifully-designed and built keyboard, with the ability to easily dial up sounds inside Komplete, you probably already hoped NI would build something just like this.

We’ll take another look as NI finishes the new software and other integration becomes clear.


Details on pricing and the full announcement:
NI Officially Reveals Komplete 10, Kontrol Keyboards [Details, Gallery]

The post Exclusive Hands-on with Komplete Kontrol S25 Keyboard [Pictures] appeared first on Create Digital Music.


Hands-on: How the SH-101 Plug-Out for AIRA SYSTEM-1 Works – And Sounds

Friday, July 25th, 2014


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.

First, update

Straight from the factory, the SYSTEM-1 has its own two-oscillator synth, one that matches perfectly with the controls on the unit. And it has a PLUG-OUT button that doesn’t do anything.

To try PLUG-OUT, and to be able to switch between the SYSTEM-1′s default personality and its new alternative personality, you’ll need to update. That means installing the 1.10 update for the keyboard’s firmware, an easy process of just takes a couple of minutes. And it means installing the plug-in software.

There’s a coupon in the box with a URL — yes, really roland.cm, not roland.com. You have to register for an account, which you can do by entering some basic personal information manually or using your Facebook login to do the same. And you download about 90M of plug-in software for your OS. Enter a product key, and the software automatically authorizes itself the first time you run.


It covers just the basics, but sounds the business - and it's free with the SYSTEM-1. The SH-101 plug-in. (Yes, plug-in - we're not to the plug-out bit yet.)

It covers just the basics, but sounds the business — and it’s free with the SYSTEM-1. The SH-101 plug-in. (Yes, plug-in — we’re not to the plug-out bit yet.)

About that plug-in: this really is a conventional plug-in, for VST (OS X/Windows) and AU (OS X) — no RTAS, Pro Tools users. It doesn’t require your SYSTEM-1 to be connected as some sort of dongle. Without your keyboard plugged in, it’s a bit like Roland’s take on KORG’s Legacy Series — a software model, running on your computer, that emulates a classic from the past.

There are 48 patches by default, though I imagine more will surface soon from the community of AIRA owners or Roland themselves. (Confusingly, clicking the name of a patch edits its title, rather than bringing up the patch loading menu.)

And you get a software interface that looks like an SH-101. You can even change the color.

Otherwise, this is a conventional plug-in, but that also means tasks like recording automation data are a breeze.

The sound

Oh, and importantly — it sounds really, really good. I’ll make some more sounds before the final review, but here’s a first play. Note that I’m adding the SYSTEM-1′s rather nice delay and reverb effects. It’s tough to tell from a sound demo, but the component modeling is such that the instrument really responds the way you’d want a vintage instrument to respond. It breathes.

Now, there are some great SH-101 plug-ins on the market, and because Roland has stuck rigorously to the functionality of the original, the SH-101 plug-in doesn’t have any extra features. So, at this point, you really wouldn’t want this plug-in just to use as a plug-in. You’d want this or this. They sound I think about as good (each with a distinct character, since we’re modeling analog gear here), they look better, and they do more.

But that’s before you’ve connected your keyboard, which is where things get interesting.


Connect your SYSTEM-1, and the plug-in is instantly controllable via the knobs, buttons, and faders on your keyboard — every single parameter. The SYSTEM-1 actually has too many controls for an SH-101, so those electric-green lights you’ve been watching now have a significant feature: they light up to show you which controls are active. And for the most part, even though the SYSTEM-1 is mapped to another, two-oscillator synth, the labels are reasonably logical, though as you first start learning I’d suggest switching the plug-in to its SYSTEM-1 layout and keeping one eye on the screen.

Having this sort of pre-mapped, hands-on control is really terrific. It makes it feel as though you’re using hardware, not software, but without having to sacrifice the conveniences of working with your host DAW.

The SYSTEM-1 layout itself has controls the original SH-101 lacked, so you might switch to this layout to orient yourself. (Shame Roland didn't re-skin the software so it looks like the AIRA, though.)

The SYSTEM-1 layout itself has controls the original SH-101 lacked, so you might switch to this layout to orient yourself. (Shame Roland didn’t re-skin the software so it looks like the AIRA, though.)

It’s also nice to set up the audio input and output to the SYSTEM-1. On a Mac, you might even set up an aggregate device with your main audio interface to keep everything at the ready.

From a workflow standpoint, it’s lovely stuff. Load the plug-in. Tweak a bit. Record a take — now you’ve got MIDI, not only for notes, but all the automation, as you see in my Ableton Live screenshots. You can modify the automation right in the DAW, play it back, record to audio — all using the internal interface. A laptop and a SYSTEM-1 in a backpack are then a really nice studio on the go.

Automation data is now saved directly from the plug-in - as you tweak the physical controls on the hardware. It's a lovely arrangement. These parameters mapped automatically in Ableton Live.

Automation data is now saved directly from the plug-in — as you tweak the physical controls on the hardware. It’s a lovely arrangement. These parameters mapped automatically in Ableton Live.

Then, when it is time for audio, you have your MIDI/automation ready to go - and can stream sound directly from the SYSTEM-1's audio in/out interface.

Then, when it is time for audio, you have your MIDI/automation ready to go — and can stream sound directly from the SYSTEM-1′s audio in/out interface.

We still haven’t entered the zone of new ideas, yet. That comes next:


Press the big “PLUG-OUT” button on the plug-in, and in about 30 seconds, the software loads the whole model onto your SYSTEM-1 keyboard. It’s not a VST running on your keyboard or something like that; I’m assuming instead it’s code that interacts with the component models in the SYSTEM-1′s onboard hardware.

But what’s nice about this arrangement is that you can disconnect your keyboard from your computer and still have the sounds. You can also switch, on the fly, between the SYSTEM-1 and SH-101. So right out of the gate, buy a SYSTEM-1 synth today and you’re really getting two synths.

I have to test the system more before I’m sure of the operation. I was unsure if the SYSTEM-1 was always retaining parameters from the software correctly, for instance; I’m investigating. (Ableton Live is not one of the tested DAWs; Logic, Cubase and others are.)

Turn On?

Up to this point, I’m really sold. I’m content to have a great SH-101 model plus the SYSTEM-1 synth (a very respectable, fun-to-play two oscillator instrument), plus the delay, reverb, arpeggiator, and scatter effects. I’ll talk more about the SYSTEM-1 as a synth next week. It has its oddities: the video-style shuttle wheel stands in for a pitch bend and mod, there’s new velocity on the thin two-octave keyboard, and… well, there’s an awful lot of green. But without spoiling the full review, it’s great fun to play and I’m happy to have it around.

The deeper question is whether PLUG-OUT becomes a platform for Roland to release reissues of classic synths. Could a Juno be far behind, for instance?

There, I’m a little dubious as to the advantage of PLUG-OUT itself. You can only load one model at a time, manually dumped from the software — rather than just loading a firmware update and having the extra sounds whenever you like.

On the other hand, there’s some significant value with just the SH-101, and seeing another vintage instrument appear would be rather nice. And to me, the main plus here is really the software integration. It means the SYSTEM-1 is a great companion to a computer (especially for recording and production), that also happens to work on its own when you want to skip the laptop entirely (for jamming or live use).

Join us next week when we’ll consider the whole package. The SYSTEM-1 has some competition — for instance, from Arturia’s lovely analog MicroBrute, which is significantly cheaper, has some nice features, and also includes the sequencer Roland forgot here. (You know — the sequencer on the original SH-101.)

But it’s well worth looking at this choice, too. See you then.

Below: Roland’s video showing the process.

The post Hands-on: How the SH-101 Plug-Out for AIRA SYSTEM-1 Works — And Sounds appeared first on Create Digital Music.


Hands-on with Akai’s new iMPC Pro for iPad: Mobile Beat Production

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014
It's an MPC you can take with you to the laundromat.

It’s an MPC you can take with you to the laundromat.

Can you squeeze an MPC onto an iPad?

Years later, the MPC still represents a comfortable way for many people to get producing music quickly, across a variety of genres. What began as the constraints of a few physical pads led to a way of working that, at least for some, can unlock creativity. So even though the iPad looks nothing like the original MPC, the tablet’s mobility and its emphasis on sampling make the MPC approach a good fit.

Akai’s iMPC Pro isn’t the first app to try to get MPC-style workflows on Apple’s tablet. But the “Pro” in the new version of iMPC does fit a lot of powerful sampling features into something you can use on the go. It sits somewhere between the nearly-a-DAW, do-everything approach of Intua’s BeatMaker 2 and the more slimmed-down Native Instruments iMaschine for iPad. And what it does exceptionally well is load a lot of sounds and combine them with MPC-style performance options — even if you only use the touchscreen.

The app launches right now, but I’ve had a chance to take it for a spin and get some first hands-on impressions. I can tell you straight away that the app doesn’t deliver everything on everyone’s wish list. But fresh design will make up for that for some.

First, a quick run-down of what iMPC Pro offers:

Sampling, iOS style: use any Inter App Audio-compatible app as a source, easily.

Sampling, iOS style: use any Inter App Audio-compatible app as a source, easily.

  • 64 tracks, organised on those familiar pads, for sampling, pattern-making, automation and mixing.
  • Sampling, slicing, effects, and audio routing, with multi-touch controls for edits and performance.
  • Inter-App Audio support so you can use iMPC Pro to capture the sounds of other iPad tools.
  • iTunes Sampling.
  • MPC Swing, Note Repeat, 16 Levels, and familiar pad-based editing from the MPC hardware.
  • A big sound library, including 1400+ samples from Richard Devine.
  • Support for MPC Element, MPC Fly hardware if you want physical pads.
  • Effects: Turbo Duck side-chain compressor, Boom Room reverb.
  • Performance options: Precision Knobs and Faders that let you use your fingers to “zoom” in on parameters, Flux Mode to automate effects with X/Y touch.
  • Share via SoundCloud, Twitter, wav export to your computer.

Now, right away, you may notice some things missing — as I know readers asked specifically about these features as AKAI and Retronyms were teasing the app.

You can’t use hardware other than the MPC Element and Fly — other MIDI controllers don’t work. (BeatMaker 2 supports any iOS-compatible USB MIDI device, and, of course, so do desktop computer-based drum machines.) There’s no Audiobus support, either — only Apple’s new Inter App Audio, which isn’t quite as well supported (yet). File exchange is limited to WAV files — you can bounce patterns, but that’s it. You don’t get MIDI export (as in BeatMaker), or file exchange with a computer app (as in Maschine and iMaschine — even if you use AKAI software). You don’t get MIDI with other apps or MIDI sync or WIST (KORG’s inter-app sync) options, as in BeatMaker. In short, BeatMaker remains the gold standard for interoperability.

Instead, think of iMPC Pro as a companion to Fly and Elements for those who want integrated hardware, and as a strong standalone option with robust sampling capabilities and an exceptional sound library.

You can load up tracks from iTunes — also a good way to import audio files from your computer — and sample and slice them quickly. And best of all, you can do the same with Inter-App Audio. iMaschine might be worth a purchase just to have an easy way to mess with samples from other iOS apps. (You’ll just want to consider BeatMaker, as well, as it supports Audiobus.)

Also, the MPC-style pad controls make many operations a whole lot faster, and they pair really nicely with touch controls — in case you don’t want to bother with something like the Fly or Element. With 16 Levels, you can control a parameter across the 16 pads. There’s also Note Variation, which allows you to control parameters with a fader. Using those two options, you can add nuance to your performances even if you don’t have access to velocity-sensitive pads.

It’s also great to have MPC-style swing and note repeat handy, and the X/Y effects are terrific.

The other strong suit here is clearly the sound selection. You might feel a bit like you’ve been dropped into Richard Devine’s studio, with a broad selection of great-sounding pads across genres. With four banks each, you aren’t overly restricted in what you can make, either. It’s pretty extraordinary just how much breadth is packed into the download.

The developers at Retronyms have also produced an app that’s pleasing to look at. The flattened iOS 7-style graphics clear a lot of visual clutter, and this is perhaps the nicest-looking iOS drum machine yet. Some of the edit options get a bit confusing: iMPC seems unsure of whether it’s trying to behave like software (as in the sampling and slicing screens) or hardware (hiding other edit features under hardware-style buttons). And that isn’t just conceptual — it’d be nice to layer more performance options in playing, but it’s not possible to use the Note Variation at the same time as one of the effects, and so on. Still, on balance, this is a very approachable app.

Let’s take a visual tour to see how it all fits together.

You're first presented with an on-screen tour. iMPC is a very discoverable app - you'll find most functions right away.

You’re first presented with an on-screen tour. iMPC is a very discoverable app — you’ll find most functions right away.

Skeuomorphism just won't die when it comes to music. Yes, you get these silly floppy disks for project management. iMPC does offer a wide range of sounds and templates to get you started, though, and you can always begin with a blank session - perfect for sampling.

Skeuomorphism just won’t die when it comes to music. Yes, you get these silly floppy disks for project management. iMPC does offer a wide range of sounds and templates to get you started, though, and you can always begin with a blank session — perfect for sampling.

Edit options are tucked away in the corner. Unfortunately, file exchange is fairly limited. There's Audiocopy support (missing in iMaschine), and you can export to audio for your computer. There's also integration with Retronym's Tabletop. But MIDI is missing, and you can't use iMPC Pro with, say, AKAI's desktop software.

Edit options are tucked away in the corner. Unfortunately, file exchange is fairly limited. There’s Audiocopy support (missing in iMaschine), and you can export to audio for your computer. There’s also integration with Retronym’s Tabletop. But MIDI is missing, and you can’t use iMPC Pro with, say, AKAI’s desktop software.

If you do want to use iMPC as a sketchpad, export to WAVE is your best bet.

If you do want to use iMPC as a sketchpad, export to WAVE is your best bet.

It's really the pad controls where iMPC is most powerful - and where it's most indebted to MPC hardware. On the bottom left, you get MPC-style pad options that help you add details to performances and patterns - even if you don't have velocity-sensitive pads connected. On the top left, you can add live effects using multi-touch gestures.

It’s really the pad controls where iMPC is most powerful — and where it’s most indebted to MPC hardware. On the bottom left, you get MPC-style pad options that help you add details to performances and patterns — even if you don’t have velocity-sensitive pads connected. On the top left, you can add live effects using multi-touch gestures.

Variation controls let you use the fader at the bottom to control details of your pad performances. It's powerful, but it also reveals iMPC Pro to be a bit conflicted in how it wants you to play. Are you using hardware-style buttons, or X/Y controls, or hardware-style faders with things at the top left that act more like buttons?

Variation controls let you use the fader at the bottom to control details of your pad performances. It’s powerful, but it also reveals iMPC Pro to be a bit conflicted in how it wants you to play. Are you using hardware-style buttons, or X/Y controls, or hardware-style faders with things at the top left that act more like buttons?

You don't get the full-blown DAW editing you find in BeatMaker 2, but iMPC Pro does have advanced pattern editing and 64 tracks - still quite a lot of power in a mobile app.

You don’t get the full-blown DAW editing you find in BeatMaker 2, but iMPC Pro does have advanced pattern editing and 64 tracks — still quite a lot of power in a mobile app.

Dive into individual program controls on the pads, and you can add beautiful-sounding effects and other fine-grained controls.

Dive into individual program controls on the pads, and you can add beautiful-sounding effects and other fine-grained controls.

Sampling is really what makes these apps fun for a lot of us, and iMPC Pro has a convenient sampling feature that puts it on par with iMaschine - then takes those samples and lets you play them via its excellent pad performance interface.

Sampling is really what makes these apps fun for a lot of us, and iMPC Pro has a convenient sampling feature that puts it on par with iMaschine — then takes those samples and lets you play them via its excellent pad performance interface.

Sampling works with your iTunes library, too.

Sampling works with your iTunes library, too.

Slice and dice and edit pads quickly, either choosing in and out points alone, or dividing a sample across your pads. Just be aware that to hear the results, you'll need to tap the controls at the bottom of the screen.

Slice and dice and edit pads quickly, either choosing in and out points alone, or dividing a sample across your pads. Just be aware that to hear the results, you’ll need to tap the controls at the bottom of the screen.

Oh, yeah — and all of this is yours for US$ 12.99 (intro, before reverting to a standard price of US$ 19.99.)

At that price, there’s no real reason to complain. iMPC Pro has a lot to offer in the way it treats sampling and pad performance, and it sounds great, and it works well with Retronyms’ own software and AKAI’s hardware as well as any app that supports Inter-App Audio — I’d buy it just for that feature alone, even if only to use to sample those apps.

Native Instruments and Intua, meanwhile, retain their niches. If you really want an all-in-one mobile workstation, BeatMaker 2 remains the app to beat. And if you want a quick mobile sampler, or you want a mobile sketchpad to use with a desktop app, iMaschine (with Maschine) is a winner.

Whichever you choose, the ability to work with samples and patterns like this on the go is a real winner — even if the serious work on arrangement and sound design means returning to your laptop.

And all for the price of dinner.

— even if I keep wishing for more sync and interoperability.

I’ll be curious to hear how you wind up using this if you give it a go.


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