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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.)

circuit hands on 1

circuit hands on 9

circuit hands on 3

circuit hands on 5

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

circuit hands on 7

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


What it means that the MeeBlip synth is open source hardware

Friday, September 18th, 2015


The MeeBlip synthesizer project is about to reach five years old. I feel this collaboration with engineer James Grahame has been one of the most important to me and to CDM. We haven’t talked so much about its open source side, though — and it’s time.

In five years, we’ve sold thousands of synths — most of them ready-to-play. The MeeBlip isn’t a board and some bag of parts, and it isn’t a kit. You don’t need a soldering iron; after our very first batch, you don’t even need a screwdriver. The MeeBlip is an instrument you can use right away, just like a lot of other instruments on the market.

But unlike those other instruments, the MeeBlip is open source hardware. Not just the firmware code, but the electronics design that makes it work are all available online and freely-licensed. We became, to my knowledge, the first ready-to-play musical hardware to be available in that form in any significant numbers.

That’s not to brag — we should actually consider whether we’re innovative, or whether we’re just plain crazy. Being end user open source hardware isn’t just unusual in music. It’s still a tough sell in hardware in general.

When we embraced the idea in 2010, we frankly didn’t know whether it would work. Now, I think we can have some new confidence — not just for us, but for anyone interested in the concept. So let’s talk about how open hardware works, why we think it will continue to work for the MeeBlip, and how people interested in making hardware can make it work for them.

There is a definition for open source hardware

The 2010 launch year for MeeBlip also saw the release of the Open Source Hardware Definition and the first big annual summit on the topic. I was lucky to get to know the two women who spear-headed making these things happen — Ayah Bdeir (founder of littleBits) and Alicia Gibb. You can read our interview with them from the time, which covers a lot of history.

The final definition is here:

And in fact, the Open Source Hardware Association has its annual summit tomorrow in Philadelphia. James is heads-down in Calgary, and me in Berlin, so we can’t make it — hope we can see a European satellite event soon:

There were a lot of significant folks contributing to that definition. Creative Commons, littleBits, MakerBot, SparkFun, Wired, Make, Arduino, Adafruit, the MIT Media Lab, NYU ITP, and Parallax are all onboard — and I see a lot of old NYC friends, the kinds of people (some of them now more famous, like Bre Pettis and Limor Fried). Like a lot of ideas, it helps to be in a scene; it made a big difference to me to get to know these people and talk to them about it.

What they did in the end was to closely follow a software definition, the Open Source Definition for Open Source Software built by Bruce Perens and the Debian.


MeeBlip has to do some work to be open source hardware

It’s been great to see the for-sale music technology field get more open. We’ve seen makers publishing schematics, releasing open source firmware, and more. But to be really open hardware, the standards are tougher.

Manufacturers who want to call themselves open source hardware have some work to do. The OSHW definition is a really tough definition, but we have done our best to understand and follow it. You should definitely read the whole definition if you’re interested, but here are the big points:
1. The design is public.
2. The source and documentation are public, and in a way that lets you modify it, using an all open source toolchain.
3. You can learn from that design, modify it, make the hardware yourself, and make and sell your own derivatives.
4. A license guarantees your rights to use the tool, without discriminating against how you use it or what you use it with. (That doesn’t come without obligations to the user, though; see below.)

We meet all those manufacturer obligations with the open source components of the MeeBlip, including the front panel. Enclosures are a separate problem, because you design an enclosure specific to the equipment used to manufacture it — yes, even a 3D printer doesn’t really solve that. (Think of it this way: you can’t make a recipe for cake without specifying what kind of cake.) So our enclosure is proprietary, as it’s specific to our manufacturer, but I’d actually love to see people make and share custom, fully open enclosure designs in the future.

There are two aspects to this. The one you probably know best is the license — for the MeeBlip, that includes the GPL v3 (for code) and Creative Commons BY-SA (for hardware designs and look). But the job of the manufacturer is to provide both the design/documentation and the license.

Think of it like building a public park: you need the actual park first, and then maybe a sign that explains to people how they are allowed to use it. As with that sign, just posting rules isn’t enough to make them magically happen. And as with a park, odds are other park-goers, not the police, will be the ones who are most effective at keeping each other to the rules.


Sharing is generous — but it has obligations, too

“Open source” is not a free-for-all, not an invitation to give away your work — not with software, and not with hardware. It’s a system that works when all the participants understand and act on their obligations.

For most people, this isn’t an issue. The whole point for us is to make the MeeBlip as accessible as possible. We hope you’ll poke around the code, even if you’re not a programmer. We hope you’ll look around the circuits and learn them.

Where your obligations come in are if you want to share something you’ve made.

The first and most important requirement is attribution. If you make something based on the MeeBlip, you have to tell people you’ve done so. And that should be a standard for anything we make, even before we get into licenses or legal obligations — this is what’s ethical. Folk singers will often introduce a song by saying who wrote it, or who taught it to them. In synthesis, we’re very often proud to be connected to those who came before.

The second obligation is to contribute to the open source process. This means that if you share something you’ve made with others, you need to make sure the license goes along with it. That way, derivative products give people the same freedoms the original does.

The licenses actually require you to do this, too. We use “copyleft” licenses for our code and our designs. This means that any derivative works have to have the same license. It doesn’t mean you can’t combine the MeeBlip with proprietary tools — the open source hardware definition actually says you’re free to use whatever you like! But if you make a new synth based on the MeeBlip, you need to share what you’ve changed. An easy way to do this is to simply “fork” the GitHub repository, as that also lets people see your changes versus the original, and makes it easy to link between versions.

We know a lot of this can be complicated. So, the easiest thing to do if you’re thinking of making something is simply to get in touch. We’d really enjoy the chance to talk to you about it, and we can probably help you through what might otherwise be a tricky process.

We will certainly enforce these rules. That doesn’t mean stopping anyone from making hardware — on the contrary, we want to help people make any derivatives correctly.

We recently encountered a synth builder who had made a copy of the MeeBlip anode hardware; the internal electronics had only minor modifications and the firmware and use were identical. In this case, we did point out that James’ engineering work wasn’t attributed, and we made ourselves available to help that builder follow the rules and follow these licensing requirements. That builder seems to have decided not to pursue that project, but we’re still available to them and anyone else who wants to do this. We are literally volunteering our time to help you do it, so it’s the very opposite of trying to stop anyone from modifying or producing derivatives of the MeeBlip.


How are we doin’?

I’m proud of the first five years of MeeBlip, but we’re only getting started exploring its open aspect. What we have seen is some immediate advantages to open source synthesizer hardware.

People are learning from the project. We’ve had many MeeBlip customers poke around in the code and schematics. We’ve been able to use those to answer questions, for the more technically minded. And people have used this exhaustive documentation to make some of their own projects.

People do fabricate their own synths. There are markets where we simply can’t afford to sell the MeeBlip. In those corners of the world, it can be cheaper and more efficient for people to make their own. Because the MeeBlip uses all standard parts and nothing unusual or proprietary, they’re free to do that, and a handful have. And meanwhile, in the rest of the world, we can usually provide a better value proposition than the DIY method — so this freedom doesn’t put us out of business.

Open source is peace of mind. In an age when so much is relegated to sales cycles and doomed to wind up in landfills, having open source hardware means you know a product becomes obsolete far less easily.

Openness can lead to modifications. We’ve even seen some firmware suggestions from users. We’ve people build their own, very often amazing, enclosures. Just having schematics available makes this easier.

But look beyond the box. Now, there’s a whole lot more to do. Giving musicians the freedom to modify their instruments is more than just providing documentation and licensing. They have to have the know-how to do this.

This has probably been our biggest failing, but also our greatest opportunity. The next stage is really applying that openness as a way of helping people learn more about electronics, code, and synthesis. Now that we’re smarter about the product side, I hope our next five years are more about the experience side — from the end user just learning to make sounds for the first time to those delving deeper into engineering and invention.

And don’t be afraid. Fear has I think been the greatest obstacle to open source hardware. It’s clearly not the right paradigm for every project. On the other hand, I think fears about clones and theft may overestimate the dangers — at least when it comes to music.

Ultimately, what allows an open project to be effective is a respect for sharing and originality. And that’s where I think the music community has something special. Provided we keep our brand clear, I’ve been struck by how willing musicians are to invest in buying direct from the maker, and recognizing designs that are original.

The reality is, no one is stopping clones with or without special licenses. Even many mid-sized manufacturers can’t afford intellectual property litigation; most can’t afford patent registration in the first place, which these days is often a vanity project.

But what we can do is build a community of people who care about music, about musical instrument design, and about sharing what they do. Those are the people who will value originality. They’re the ones who challenge us makers to be better.

The history of electronic musical instruments is rooted in sharing. Theremin’s designs inspired Bob Moog. How-to-build-your-own-Theremin articles inspired future synth builders — and engineers in many other fields, not just music. Learning from a filter design or a sound routing architecture became a 20th century analog to details of woodworking and drum heads in acoustic instruments from years before. Sharing how we make musical instruments is part of what makes culture.

You can get an anode right now. The limited edition white MeeBlip anode is still available — but there are only about 50 left.

Get yours from us direct:
Get MeeBlip anode Limited Edition

For a limited time, shipping is free (US/Canada) or reduced (US$ 9.95 worldwide with tracking info — customs may apply).

The post What it means that the MeeBlip synth is open source hardware appeared first on Create Digital Music.


Serato DJ’s updated hardware support, features explained

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015


Serato has been busy lately. While other DJ tool makers keep talking big headlines (turntables! Stems!), the New Zealand-based DJ software developer has been steadily churning out a whole bunch of updates. And these are largely about adding support for different hardware.

Serato is in that sense a bit of a different beast. While Pioneer pushes its standalone hardware in booths, and Native Instruments focuses these days on its integrated hardware/software solutions, Serato is all about providing plug-and-play support for a variety of other tools, and responding to user requests.

So, that means little “point” updates from Serato are often actually a big deal. And the story tends to extend beyond just Serato to their partners.

1.7.7, for instance, offers changes as subtle as providing a stutter play for a particular piece of Numark kit and re-calibrating phono inputs for popular Allen & Heath, Pioneer, Rane, and Denon mixers. See the release notes.

Digging through these may feel like someone dumped alphabet soup on your lap. (What, the DDJ … III … D… MC … ABC … the what?) Let’s translate.

In addition to that lovely new Pioneer mixer we saw this week (with software support coming from Serato soon), Serato is now adding:


There’s an more compact two-deck USB controller + audio interface from Pioneer. This could actually be a big hit. It’s just over 2 kg, and it isn’t huge, so Pioneer is (rightfully) calling it “portable.” It also has the very controller that NI has recently abandoned — wheels. (NI would prefer you use touch strips for beat matching, freeing up space for more additional controls.)

So it’s small, it has a conventional design (for people who prefer that), it’s light, and it’s inexpensive — and it’s bus-powered over USB. Pioneer calls it “entry level,” but as it shares the same layout as the other DDJ controllers, maybe it’s better to just say — it’s smaller.

The hardware is called the DDJ-SB2, also out this week.

That’s pronounced “Did didja sbiddtoo,” which is also the name of that new rotating ball robot you’ve seen in the trailer for the upcoming Star Wars movie. I’m lying.

There’s Rane rotary mixer support. That MP2015 rotary mixer from Rane, at top, has turned out as I predicted in January to be one of the lust objects of the DJ world this year. And now there’s native Rane support.


And more controller support. Denon’s 2015 two-deck controller, the MC4000 is supported. And there’s Numark’s NS7III (and NS7II) is supported, too. The Numark is enormous — 4 channels, 3 color screens, and motorized faders make it either The Homer of DJ gear or the Space Shuttle of DJ gear. It is absolutely the DJ gear I would use to pimp your ride if I were Xzibit, or if I wanted to smuggle a litter of kittens inside a DJ controller into a club.

And that’s rather the approach of the Serato approach at the moment. If it’s new, it’s going to work with their software. Which you want to use is up to you.

But you might have to pay. Here’s the one catch — Serato is charging for a lot of this upgrade support. (Official accessories work out of the box; others require an inexpensive one-off upgrade. Or buy a DVS upgrade and support everything. There’s also a “club kit” bundle that lets a club’s laptop support everything a DJ might bring.)

But 1.7.7, despite the weird version name, I think is a significant release. It wasn’t so long ago that we were looking at a patchwork of different Serato software versions and incompatible hardware. Now, there’s one coherent picture, which is consistent across two versions — Serato Intro and Serato DJ.

And there’s stuff Serato does that is really special:

It’s VJ friendly. There’s built-in video support for audiovisual DJing. No other major DJ tool does that as fluidly as Serato.

It’s actually fun to map MIDI for performance. I’ll just make a direct comparison: this is demonstrably better in every way than Traktor. Serato’s MIDI mapping works the way you’d expect, and even provides more interactive feedback than other tools (Ableton, I’m looking at you, too). And it does some DJ tricks nothing else does — like LED feedback. Check the video:

Beat Jump around tracks. You know Traktor and Ableton users are jealous of this, because I’ve seen various attempts to emulate it on those tools. But jumping around by beat — on any controller — is built right into Serato.

Other nifty tricks:

Serato has their own remote app for iOS for iPad / iPhone controls.

There’s a powerful pitch and time bending mode.

There’s a karaoke mode in the video tool.

You can lock to stickers on vinyl.

Waveforms transform in color as you adjust EQ. (I have no earthly clue why you’d want to do that, but it looks cool.)

Plus you have more effects than ever, with more control over them than ever, thanks to iZotope. That means effects lovers don’t necessarily have to turn to Traktor by default. (I’d say both platforms now give you plenty of built-in effects.)

All of this means Serato DJ is looking like the platform it first promised to me.

I think it stacks up favorably against Traktor — heck, there’s a lot it does that Traktor doesn’t even attempt to do. But more significant may be how it compares to older versions of Serato. DJs are often slow to upgrade, particularly on this platform. Here, I think they’ve got good reason.

1.7.7 release notes

Serato DJ features

Serato’s video features

Serato DJ tutorials

Are you using Serato? What do you think of the recent updates? What hardware are you using — and is there hardware they’ve left behind? Sound off in comments.

The post Serato DJ’s updated hardware support, features explained appeared first on Create Digital Music.


Minimoog controller reminds us hardware, software go hand in hand

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

What’s an ‘app’?

For years, it was an uphill battle just getting people to recognize the ability of computers to generate sounds. When Native Instruments was founded in Berlin in 1996, their name was a clue to where they imagined the future going. Propellerhead’s release of ReBirth in 1997 began a concerted effort by the Stockholm-based company to campaign for in-the-box emulations of gear — and their partner Steinberg would shortly thereafter push ReWire and its own VST.

Now, it’s not so much the app as the map — the physical control given to software. Whatever analog versus digital debates may rage on forums, the reality in the marketplace is now an ample combination of both technologies. That means a lot of standalone hardware can be thought of as just another computer. Drum machines and synths have computers inside. Roland sells its SYSTEM-1 instruments in both computer plug-in and hardware form. Eurorack modules, in the very bastion of analog love, now include computation (and even now monome and SoundHack modules). And on the software side, a growing number of tools from Native Instruments, Ableton, Arturia, and so on combine hardware with software.

Even on mobile, we’re seeing crossover. In some cases, tablet and phone touchscreens augment physical gear. In others, you’re connecting additional physical controls to your iPad instead of your laptop.

Seen this week, the SFC-Mini is just a prototype, made in quantity two. But it’s been interesting to watch this spread online, even in these summer music gear doldrums. The clever thing about the SFC-Mini is that it doesn’t have to be a generic controller: there are now so many Minimoog emulations that having hardware simply copy the classic Moog control layout is a no-brainer. It’s mapped already to the Arturia Mini-V and my go-to favorite monosynth of the moment, the NI Monark. But it could be used with any synth with a similar architecture.


Dutch custom builder Sound Force has more of these. For SH-101 fans, there’s the SFC-101. What’s interesting about this is that you get something more closely tailored to the SH-101 than ever Roland offers — because the AIRA SYSTEM-1 has a more generic layout. And you get arguably better sound, because while the TAL-BassLine-101 is a CPU-hungry computer plug-in, it does sound great.

There’s also the SFC-60, a dedicated controller for the TAL U-NO-LX. The best feature here: an integrated step sequencer. Watch:

Designers I believe are going to have some choices to make ahead. Do you lean on the powerful computational abilities of laptops people already own? Do you turn to increasingly versatile DSP platforms? What about faster, cheaper, more power stingy embedded computation platforms? Or, for that matter, when is analog circuitry actually still a better solution?

Those choices may ultimately be relatively invisible to the user. But one choice that can’t go ignored is how to make hardware control work. Humans have indeed developed opposable thumbs, and faders and knobs have endured long past their analog necessity partly because they seem to work really well with our hands.

So that could mean designing your own hardware, or at least make mapping to faders and knobs people already own easier.

But it’s impossible not to recall this quote from visionary computer scientist Alan Kay — one of the key people who defined how we think about the graphical user interface, object oriented programming, and how to teach computing:

“People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”

More and more music tool makers seem to be taking that idea to heart.

That quote is indeed so often quoted in tech circles that I suspect a lot of people have no clue where it came from. Apple Macintosh pioneer Andy Hertzfeld tells the story:

Creative Think, July 1982 [folklore.org]

Not coincidentally, one of Kay’s favorite metaphors for defining how computers should relate to the human, and one apparently brought up at that speach: the computer as musical instrument.

This is I expect also relevant to electronic musical instrument makers: “it’s all software, it just depends on when you crystallize it.”

It’s a shame we don’t have the original talk, but it seems it influenced the development of the Mac — and thus the GUI as we use it today.

Anyway, while I ponder more philosophical ideas, you can browse the lovely custom stuff at Sound Force — and buy it, if you like. The SFC-Mini isn’t here yet, but I might have to get one. In the meantime, the SFC-60 is just 249€, which I find impressive for something made in this way.


Congrats to one-man operation Nicolas Toussaint.

The post Minimoog controller reminds us hardware, software go hand in hand appeared first on Create Digital Music.


Arturia announces availability of “BeatStep Pro” Hardware Sequencer

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015

Arturia has released the BeatStep Pro hardware sequencer. BeatStep Pro is an assignable MIDI controller, two analogue-style step sequencers, a drum programmer, and live performance tool packaged [Read More]

Cool Things Chrome Can Do Now, Thanks to Hardware MIDI

Friday, May 22nd, 2015


Plugging a keyboard or drum pads into your Web browser is now a thing.

One month ago, we first saw hardware MIDI support in Chrome. That was a beta; this week, Google pushed it out to all Chrome users.

So, what can you actually do with this stuff? Well, you can open a Web tab and play a synth on actual hardware, which is pretty nifty.

Support is still a little dicey, but the available examples are growing fast. Here are some of the coolest, in addition to the MIDI example and demo code we saw last month.

The examples are certainly promising, but you may want to temper expectations. Users of browser-based solutions built on Flash will find some of this old news. Audiotool, for one, has already had a really sophisticated (semi-modular, even) production tool running for some years. (It’s relevant here that Audiotool is coming to the HTML5/MIDI support, but it isn’t here yet.) And while open standards are supposed to mean more compatibility, in practice, they are presently meaning far less. Even though Safari and Chrome are pretty close to one another in rendering pages, I couldn’t get any of these examples working properly in any browser other than Chrome. And while I could get pretty low-latency functionality, none of this is anywhere near as solid in terms of sound performance as any standalone music software.

So, that leaves two challenges. One, the implementation is going to have to improve if non-developers are going to start to use this. And two, if this stuff is going to see the light of day beyond music hackathons, it’ll need some applications. That said, I could imagine educational applications, demos of apps, collaborative possibilities, and more — and those expand if the tech improves. And, of course, this also gets really interesting on inexpensive Chromebooks — which it seems are selling in some numbers these days.

But that’s the future. Here are some of the things you can do right now:


Audiotool is coming to HTML5, and Heisenberg is here now. Heisenberg is I think the coolest option yet — more than just a tech demo, you can plug in a MIDI keyboard and it’s a really fun, free browser synth. Given the amount of pleasure we’ve gotten out of the odd Web time-waster, this is serious business.

But that’s just the appetizer. The team behind Audiotool are working on porting it to HTML5. That should be an excellent test of just how mature this technology is. Audiotool is great and — Flash or not — it’s worth having a play with if you are the kind of person who gets some inspiration from new software toys. (And if you’re reading this far, I suspect you are.)


http://www.audiotool.com/app [Flash for now, including screenshot above]


Revisit Roland. Steven Goldberg’s 106.js reimagines the classic Roland Juno-106 in JavaScript. And it’s just added MIDI support. Plus you can check the code out, free.




Play a 60s Yamaha combo organ. The oddest of this bunch is also my favorite sonically, just because it’s so quirky. The Foo YC20 is an emulation of Yamaha’s 1969 organ, the YC-20 combo — “features and flaws” all included. And now it feels more like an organ, since you can connect a MIDI keyboard.

Users should like it: if you’re not fond of running it in your browser, you can also run it as a VST plug-in for Mac or Windows or standalone or as an LV2 plug-in on Linux.

Developers will like it, too: apart from some surprisingly authentic open source recreations, it’s all coded in the Faust programming language, a functional language for DSP.



Run a full modular DAW. No need to wait on Audiotool: app.hya.io is already a full-featured semi-modular DAW built in HTML5 with MIDI support (and audio input). It’s got a full assortment of instruments and effects, too — and some interesting ones, so it complements Audiotool.



Run a bunch of microtonal synths. Mitch Wells’ Web Synths is a deep microtonal instrument, capable of some unique sound designs, and perhaps the richest actual synth of this bunch. Patch sharing shows one powerful feature of putting browsers on the Web — the ability to share with others.



Live-code your own synth. Maybe this is the application that makes the most sense. While it’s tough for the other proof-of-concept toys to compete with your desktop instruments, it’s kind of tough to beat the ability to live-code with Web tech in a browser.

And by “code,” you hardly have to be a hard-core coder. The coding is radically simplified here, spitting out JavaScript from basic commands — fun for even the most entry-level hacker to play around with.

Vult by Leonardo Laguna Ruiz was built at MIDIHACK, the hackathon I was part of here in Berlin this month.



Play a synth — with colored lights and more. Synthy.io is a three-oscillator synth with some interesting extras. There’s a tracker-sequencer built in, and you can play a “live” mode with color output.

The nerdy stuff behind the scenes demonstrates some potential for other projects. Apart from the new MIDI mode, the server mode offers up other possibilities. (socket.io, Node.js, live server, NeDB database holding patterns, if you’re curious.)

What does that mean in practice? Developer Filip Hnízdo writes in comments:

“One of the features I’m most proud of is the live websocket server so any pattern that gets pushed to it is played live to a page where anyone can hear what anyone else has created in realtime. Especially fun with MIDI routed into soft synths or hardware. If enough people pushed patterns in you could just leave it on in your bedroom and constantly hear new music as it arrives. The patterns are all encoded as URLS too so easy to share.”

Having just read a history of the first networked, first first-person shooter in the 70s, it’s worth saying: this stuff can lead to unexpected places. And Filip is looking for collaborators.


Got more for us? Let us know in comments.

And if you have any tips on audio performance or how this is developing (since I complained about that), or likely applications (since I mused about that), we’d love to hear that, too.

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Universal Audio’s Latest Audio Hardware, Software Comes of Age Nicely

Monday, May 11th, 2015


For me, Apollo is what changed the value equation and appeal of Universal Audio.

Suddenly, we weren’t talking about buying hardware just to run some nice effects — which, good as those effects were, limited the audience for the UAD. With Apollo, the hardware splurge made sense. It was simply one of the better audio interfaces you could buy for production work, even before instantiating a single plug-in.

And then you could add the UAD plug-ins. For anyone who said that they weren’t interested in running effects on dedicated DSP hardware, the Apollo is an answer. Fine. Here’s a reason to run on DSP: add those effects in real time, as you play or track.

Last month, UA refreshed that whole audio interface line. And they continue the steady stream of plug-ins, many recreating historical instruments.

The new Apollo, clad in black, isn’t a revolutionary update, though one reason that’s fair to say is that the existing Apollo is pretty darned good.

The latest announcements should bust up one myth, as well. UA isn’t only catering to Mac fans with the latest machines, by way of Thunderbolt. The existing FireWire-based devices continue to run just fine, thank you, and the latest generation even gets a new FireWire update. That’s good news for anyone using Windows, or even an older, pre-Thunderbolt Mac.

First, let’s have a look at what’s new on Apollo.


Conversion. Updated A/D and D/A, for those who care, continue to put UA on a very short list of the best audio interfaces out there. I think what they had was already really good from a sound standpoint, so this is not so relevant to existing owners, but does mean you get a bit of a bonus if you’re buying new now.

Real-time processing. UAD-2 DSP lets you record through a whole lot of the catalog — including Lexicon and Ampex — at near-zero latencies. And this, frankly, is fantastic. It even means using a UAD live is a very valid possibility.

Chaining. Here’s one reason to consider using Thunderbolt: cascading. You can get 4 Apollos or 6 UADs together over Thunderbolt. That’s primarily of use in the studio — or if you have a UA-owning friend — but welcome, at least.

Your options are spendy as always, but delivering a fairly robust investment — now with more convenient monitoring (alt speakers, etc.) on the front panel:

Apollo 8 with four mic pres; US$ 1999 DUO or $ 2499 with QUAD processing.
Apollo 8p with eight mic pres/Hi-Z. US$ 2999 with QUAD.
Apollo 16 (now this sounds like a moon mission) with 16 x 16 connectivity.

Apollo FireWire: $ 1999 with QUAD makes this actually a great buy for Windows users. And it gives you basically all the Thunderbolt models do, minus chaining. If you have a Mac with Thunderbolt, skip this, but if you don’t, it means you aren’t by any means left out.

You get a half-decent selection of what UA makes with the interface — as you’d hope, at that price — with 610-B Tube Preamp & EQ, Softube Amp Room, legacy LA-2A, 1176, and Fairchild compressors, and the all-important Pultec EQs.

But of course, if you’re only looking for an audio interface, you probably won’t get an Apollo — this is all about investing in a particular software platform.



That’s where there’s continued development. UA is still mainly focused on recreating historical models. As I wrote last month, we’re seeing the first-ever official Marshall amp simulation.

Now, with the latest software update, we get two more additions to their growing library. There’s an officially-endorsed Tube-Tech compressor, the CL-1B. And there’s a model of the Neve 88 Series, which brings you large console mixing.

The funny thing about all of this is, I think it’s increasingly appealing to producers — especially for Mac users with the portability of the Apollo Twin. (The Twin is the first UA box I would ever have considered taking with me on the road; it’s now my main live audio interface.)

That thought is obviously occurring to Universal Audio. Armin van Buuren turned up at Musikmesse and in a recent interview (penned by none other than a writer I met through Keyboard, Michael Gallant). Not my taste, musically, but I agree with everything he says in the review. Also interesting to note that he’s moving channel strips between machines using that functionality in Logic Pro X.

Have a look at the new stuff:

It’s not cheap, of course, but at least the Apollo Twin (I’d recommend the DUO) lowers the bar to entry — you can get a pretty terrific Mac laptop and this for less than the price of a good single studio machine a few years back, budget for a few pieces of software, and have a very reasonable and complete studio without breaking the bank.

We’ll get to look a little more at what they’re doing with software soon.

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NI Teases New Traktor Hardware; We Have Details

Friday, March 27th, 2015


Stop it! Get your eyes off that screen!

We all know the problem: DJing with computers isn’t terribly practical without looking at the computer — a lot. Native Instruments’ Traktor S8, like Maschine before it, promised to liberate laptop users from that vacant computer stare. But it, and rival offerings, have a big problem: they’re back-breaking, checked luggage-triggering, tech rider-rewriting huge.

Well, you probably already worked out the S8 “flagship” wasn’t going to be the only hardware from NI to play with this concept. The question was, what would a “half-S8″ / “S8 mikro” / “S8 deck” look like.

If you happen to be a big fan of the artist Uner, and were staring at your screen to watch the NI live stream, you just got a glimpse of exactly what it’ll look like. Native Instruments handed over the new hardware to some of their artists with the cameras rolling live to the Web.

NI has also provided us, and a “handful” of outlets (TMZ, maybe?), with some details. What we know:

  • Portable, advanced touch-and-see control over TRAKTOR decks
  • Bright, full-color display reveals pop-up displays, views, and panels for track browsing, effect monitoring, live tweaking without reaching for the laptop
  • 4 touch-sensitive Remix Deck faders and knobs for full, 4-channel control over a Remix Deck
  • 8 color-coded pads to trigger samples, cue points, loops, or beat jumps
  • 14 touch-sensitive knobs and faders provide instant visual feedback on deck displays while browsing tracks, controlling effects, loops, and Remix Decks
  • Multi-purpose, LED-guided touch strip provides precision control over track position, pitch bend and more
  • Quick access to track BPM and Key as well as FX, Filter, and Remix Deck parameters
  • Customizable FX unit with over 30 studio quality effects plus Macro FX
  • 4 foldable rubber-padded feet elevate the unit to standard DJ hardware height
  • Integrated USB ports allow controller chaining and free up computer ports
  • Chain units with included NI Power Supply splitter cable and integrated USB ports
  • Portable, road-worthy construction ideal for long touring

The Kontrol S8, introduced in fall. Now, once again - but smaller. Photo courtesy Native Instruments.

The Kontrol S8, introduced in fall. Now, once again — but smaller. Photo courtesy Native Instruments.

I’ve been playing with the S8, and while I was skeptical about some aspects of it, using it has really impressed me. You can absolutely play without ever seeing the computer, certainly — and it is spectacularly good when it comes to things like playing with loops and sampling, even if you don’t get deep into Remix Decks. Now, having been looking at it and pondering what would come next, it’s also clear that you can’t just lop off a part of it and make usable hardware. NI also tells me that whatever they’re working on here is more sophisticated than just taking a hacksaw to an S8 prototype — and that’s a good thing.

So they’ve built something at least slightly different. Let’s read between the lines to work out what it might be. Some key takeaways here:

Mainly, you do get a display — so the key advantage of the S8, without an S8.

You also get all of the mixing, effects, cueing, looping, sampling, and Remix Deck controls. This also eliminates the need for the F1/Z1 combo I talked about earlier this week. That’s great. What will require careful observation of the spy photography is determining how they combined the deck controls of the S8 with the mixing controls while fitting a more compact space.

Also, note “decks,” plural. That makes sense: once you have a display, there’s no need for dedicated controls for each deck — meaning the S8′s big size is redundant for most of us, and this works just as well.

However, no mention of an audio interface. That’s okay, although I will say it’s one of the best unexpected features of the S8.

And it does sound like it’ll require an external power supply, although no complaints about that given you have a nice, bright display.

So, we know we’re getting a more portable unit. I’m surprised with how much I love the S8 — I’ll talk next week a bit about why it’s great if you’re in the studio or playing back to back.

But this is, of course, what a lot of us were waiting for: basically, a portable, control-everything device with a screen that frees us from the computer’s eerie glowing rectangle.

We’ll watch for pricing and availability, of course, and report back once we have one to test.

Now, the remaining questions are what updated Traktor software might go along with the hardware release, and if we’ll see things like tighter Traktor/Maschine integration — which would be a huge boon to hybrid live/DJ sets. Below, you can see the polite and measured way that NI customers typically ask for such things.

The post NI Teases New Traktor Hardware; We Have Details appeared first on Create Digital Music.


Crush Drums & Percussion M4 Hardware Pack

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

Read more about Crush Drums & Percussion M4 Hardware Pack at MusicRadar.com

Crush Drums and Percussion has a strong affinity with the US military and has named both its hardware ranges after American tanks. While its flagship M1 series is currently restricted to bass drum pedals and a hi-hat stand, the M4 series on review is more comprehensive.

The five-piece hardware pack contains two boom arm cymbal stands, a snare stand, hi-hat stand and single bass drum pedal.


Crush describes these US-designed, Taiwanese-built M4 stands and pedals as medium weight; in reality they are sturdy enough to cope with all but the most brutal of players.

“Judging by the weight of the hardware case it is clear that this is a set of heavy duty stands”

The stands sit on double-braced tripods and the legs splay generously, guaranteeing stability. Hefty 1.1″ diameter tubing is used on the bottom section of each stand and two- part memory locks are found at each subsequent junction.

Both of the cymbal stands have three sections of tubing and disappearing booms; Crush doesn’t manufacture an equivalent straight cymbal stand but a top section with boom for clamping onto rack systems is available.

The pedal section of the hi-hat stand can be swivelled within the tripod legs to accommodate a double pedal and the spring tension is easily adjustable via a large knurled knob. The bass drum pedal shares the black coated footplate with the hi-hat stands and also features a double chain, adjustable stroke and two-sided beater.

Hands On

Judging by the weight of the hardware case it is clear that this is a set of heavy duty stands. Once planted, the cymbal stands feel as though they have taken root in the stage – nothing we do persuades them to budge.

With the three sections extended and the boom left vertical the stands are tall enough to reach the ceiling. Precise adjustment of the angle of the cymbal is possible thanks to the toothless tilter (tightened by the equally user-friendly large ABS handle).

The snare stand is similarly solid, cradling the snare gently while remaining impervious to stage creep. Both the hi-hat stand and bass drum pedal function smoothly and can be quickly adjusted to preferred feel.

Any absent bells and whistles – such as interchangeable cams or beater weights – are compensated for by good design fundamentals and quality build.

Read more about Crush Drums & Percussion M4 Hardware Pack at MusicRadar.com


Here’s What’s New in Universal Audio’s DSP Software and Hardware System

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015


The line between pain and ecstasy on a computer for music making can often boil down to some key elements. One commonly on that short list is getting the sound you might from a studio. Another is making all your inputs and outputs work in your interface.

Universal Audio is one of a handful of vendors that aims to bridge both of those gaps in a single product, with devices that are audio interfaces as well as DSP platforms for hosting high-quality effects. And UA are starting out 2015 with a fairly big benchmark for the company in that software/hardware integration.

That’s the good news. The bad news is, you need a Mac, and the latest-generation hardware, to come along for the ride with some of the new goodies. So, let’s take a look both at what’s new and what’s required to get the latest-and-greatest stuff — as well as where that leaves people with older hardware.


A new generation of Universal Audio software

UA has been a name in hardware DSP for quite some time. Recently, though, they’ve pushed further into a wider range of instrument choices, more hardware that makes sense for a solo producer and instrumentalist, and more fluid hardware/computer integration.

First shown at the NAMM trade show in January, this week Universal Audio is shipping its latest software. This software generation is actually made up of several different pillars:

1. Apollo Expanded. For owners of UA’s Apollo audio interface hardware, you can now use all that extra Thunderbolt bandwidth to mix and match gear. Use one interface in the studio, and another in the road. Use a smaller Twin for your monitors and extra DSP muscle, and a bigger interface for everything else. Or add ins and outs and DSP with up to six devices.

2. Flex Driver. Part of the Apollo Expanded idea, but I think worth a separate mention, is a new Apple Core Audio driver that lets you name, save, and share presets when you swap DAWs or hardware setups. This obviously makes the previous scenarios still more practical.

3. New Console software 2.0. Not specific to Apollo (but rolling across the platform gradually), updated Console software is a whole heck of a lot more modern. The Console was already a useful reason to invest in UAD hardware, giving you a virtual mixer and full control over routing and all the UAD’s signal processing. Now it’s 64-bit, it’s Retina-compatible and high-resolution (and generally looks better than before), and it’s more flexible. You can more easily manage plug-ins, cueing and monitoring, and so on. (More on that below.)

4. UAD 8.0. All the UA software is now fully compatible with OS X 10.10 (though to be fair, I’ve had reasonable success with the previous version since upgrading months ago). You also get new categories and other features.

5. And more plug-ins covering a wider range. Now the goodies — the fruits of collaborations with some big names. You get “Wood Works” plug-ins for acoustic guitars. Distortion (hello Electro-Harmonix, Ibanez vintage stomps). Brainworx guitar amps, modeled on the classic Friedman amps. And Auto-Tune (yes, that Auto-Tune).



With More Hardware

In addition to the Apollo line, which covers both audio interfacing and DSP, you can also buy your DSP brainpower on its own in the form of the new Satellite Thunderbolt line. The hardware was introduced late last year, but is further enabled by this month’s shipping software updates I still prefer the Apollo myself, because I think it’s a great audio interface on its own, but the Satellite will likely appeal to some studio rigs, especially if they have their own audio I/O already.


And New Plug-ins

The UA platform at first meant largely reproductions of vintage studio equipment — compressors, EQs, channel strips, plate reverbs, and so on. Now, when I first saw the soloist-oriented Apollo Twin, I immediately asked when we might see stuff for, say, guitarists. There were already some great Softube options, but it seemed the time was ripe for more.

Well, here we go, with some fairly interesting new goodies on offer.


Sound Machine Wood Works. First up, acoustic guitarists — long ignored in favor of amps and such for electrics — finally get their due. The Wood Works plug-in claims to make acoustic guitar piezos sound like they’ve been studio miked. US$ 299.


Distortion Essentials. Now, UA turns its obsessive compulsive modeling skills to stomp boxes, with the Pro Co Rat, Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi, and Ibanez Tube Screamer TS808 all getting digital reproductions. I love using this sort of stuff in production even when guitarists are nowhere in sight, and I think there’s room for better models, so yes, I’ll be testing these to see if they’re up to snuff. US$ 299.

Auto-Tune Live. Auto-Tune isn’t news. But putting it on this platform is, because of lower-latency monitoring — you can live track, or play live, with this. US$ 249.

There are also plug-ins made exclusively for UAD-2 and Apollo:

Friedman Amps by Brainworx. We knew Brainworx was working with Universal, and now we get to see the result: DS40 and BE100 amps from Friedman get their own emulation, plus a noise gate, EQ filter controls, and host-syncable lo-fi delay. Interested in this one, too, especially as it’s been surprisingly quiet on the guitar emulation front lately. (Yeah, Native Instruments, will we ever see Guitar Kontrol? Erm, Gitarre Kontrol?) US$ 249.

New Console Features

There’s so much new in the Console, it’s worth mentioning separately.

  • Channel Strip presets — so you can save and recall chains of UA plug-ins, at last
  • More monitoring: new Alternate Monitors, Control Room, headphone cue options.
  • Categorize plug-ins, show/hide.
  • Audition presets.
  • Drag and drop plug-ins.
  • Per-input switching between record/monitor.
  • Multiple level undo/redo for plug-in assignments, parameters.

I’ve used this stuff live a lot with Apollo; it’s really nice to see.

Here’s an overview:

Plus a clearer view of how this Flex Driver works with the system:

Why Thunderbolt and Apollo Matter

There’s a lot of confusion around Thunderbolt. First off, Thunderbolt itself isn’t “lower latency” than a technology like FireWire — in fact, Thunderbolt simply extends the PCIe bus of the computer. Nor do audio interfaces individually consume the greater bandwidth provided by Thunderbolt over USB3, FireWire, and USB2. When UA says they’re getting lower latency from Thunderbolt, they mean they’re able to get more stable performance from the devices that allows them to run at smaller buffer sizes without dropouts.

Instead, I think it’s safe to say Universal Audio is benefiting from two things:
1. You do have more bandwidth on the whole Thunderbolt bus, when connecting multiple audio interfaces.
2. UA has a more reliable set of test configurations in limiting to more recent OS X machines — less hardware variability, less OS variability.

This is my own opinion, but I have had conversations with different vendors about both the OS support and Thunderbolt issues. Point number 2 is important, because it means that the very thing that’s understandably upsetting some UA customers is also what’s enabling these expanded features reliably. I could be wrong; I’ll check with UA.

The upshot, though, is clear. I have gotten way more addicted to my Apollo Twin than I ever imagined, and the reason is reliable low-latency performance of UA effects on the interface.

Suddenly, those guitar amps and stompboxes and plate reverbs and compressors and so on get a lot more interesting. And that’s why the AutoTune Live news is relevant, too.

AutoTune isn’t news. AutoTune the news … isn’t news.

But now, with AutoTune running on an Apollo, you can finally do what the vocal enhancer did to the Party Posse on The Simpsons. You just switch it on and it works — in the studio or live onstage.

Join the navy.

Left Out: Older Systems, Hands

Not everyone is going to be happy at the moment.

First, Universal Audio early adopters who went FireWire rather than Thunderbolt run into some real limitations. I’ve run into this issue myself, personally, in the studio.

FireWire users will eventually get the welcome new console, but not until an estimated ship date of fall. And they’ll need to update to Thunderbolt to get Apollo Expanded.

They also miss out on software, too. UA right now ships one integrated installer with all the plug-ins and drivers. They’ve explained to CDM that the reasoning is that all the software and drivers have to be in sync. But that means a very big unified install. That’s all fine and well, until you discover that you can’t unplug a Thunderbolt Apollo and plug in a FireWire Apollo — you have to reinstall the entire software package.

That has left a lot of FireWire users griping about the need to purchase a Thunderbolt upgrade card. (We’re getting one in our studio, so I’ll let you know how the upgrade process goes; my instinct says it may be worth it — even if you gripe while doing it.)

Windows users are generally left out in the cold, too, and I’m seeing some folks upset about that.

Meanwhile, there’s reason to see Universal Audio as still in a sort of studio mindset. You don’t get any MIDI control of the Console and its plug-ins. That seems somewhat essential given the sales pitch of a lot of this stuff would be, say, playing a guitar into your Apollo Twin and tracking live. That’s not a time you want to be fumbling for a mouse: you want MIDI faders and foot pedals. UA acknowledges this issue; we’ll see if they can ship that soon.

But a strong package…

If you do have a recent Mac and the scratch to invest in the Thunderbolt hardware and a reasonable collection of UA plug-ins, though, I think it’s a uniquely robust platform. Consider, too, that a modest laptop is now perfectly capable of running even the most dense multichannel project. We’re now well past the point where the laptop is the cheapest part of the equation.

I’ll be talking about my experience in production with the Apollo and its effects soon, as well as test driving some of this new stuff. If you have questions you’d like me to investigate or to pass along to UA, let us know.

UAD 8.0

See also the walkthrough by our friends at Pro Tools Expert:

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