Friday, March 29, 2013

Flying by Wire

My father-in-law is a pilot and some years ago told me about the transition on airplanes from traditional "mechanical" style of flying to the newer "fly by wire". Basically, the old electric, servo-motor, pneumatic type controls were replaced by embedded computers (I'm oversimplifying). What this meant was that instead of sending electric impulses that directly controlled motors, flaps, etc, binary messages were sent to embedded controllers that would in turn, control the motors, flaps etc.

This would allow for "manipulation" of the pilot's action where the embedded device had a "better idea" (he was not a fan!). So a violent movement on the controls might be changed to a less violent movement that would prevent the plane from stalling - or at least that is the general idea. So instead of relying on Sam the mechanic who has a nice greasy shirt, cool pin-up calendars and a beard, you are relying on Simon the programmer who plays fantasy games and always smells a little like cheese. Quite a transition!

The reason I bring that up is I do quite a bit of music making with traditional sounding tracks (saxophone, trumpet, bass, guitar) and yet I don't even have a microphone in my studio. Instead of passing analog waveforms electronically into my music, I tend to send binary messages that the computer then takes up and uses to create noise. Seems to be a very good analogy.

In the case of MIDI keyboards, this is pretty common. Whatever you are doing on the keyboard is being encoded into numeric messages that are passed via MIDI cables, or USB cables into a computer that then passes the events into software that is creating sounds, applying effects and ultimately making noise.

A good friend of mine, Marty, uses a much more complicated method of soundmaking. He starts with a manual exciter which creates oscillating vibrations, these go through an echo chamber made of shaped wood which modulates the waveforms projecting them out of a round hole into an irregularly shaped rectangular space filled with other shapes that affect the waveforms. Some of the randomly bouncing waveforms are "captured" by a membrane that vibrates in time with the excitations in the room, produces an electronic signal that is ultimately transformed from analog to digital format and stored in a file. Because I find this entire process mind-boggling, I tend to stick to the simple MIDI method myself.

In the case of trumpets or saxes, I like to use a wind controller which is "played" like a traditional instrument with keys to finger, a mouthpiece to blow into and, of course, a USB cable coming out the other end. The fingerings change internal note numbers, the breath controls a pressure monitor that also sends numeric impulses continually via MIDI. A few other sensors allow me to send modulations as well such as a thumb control to "bend" the note or create a "growl" sound (these are configurable). All in all, this is much simpler to me than analog!

Like the airplane, the receiving computer can "manipulate" the raw data I send it. It can use any program it has to create the sound. So, with the same inputs, it can produce saxophone sounds, trumpet sounds or entirely electronic or digital synth sounds. The possibilities are endless using just one input device. As time continues and software develops, even "analog" sounds can be modeled effectively to where even if not perfect, they are hard to distinguish from physical instruments.

I suppose I'm just rambling, but technology always fascinates me and usually delights me! Maybe I should grab a beer with Simon the cheesy computer guy.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Beatmaker 2 and Bus news


I mentioned in my last post that I was using both Music Studio and BeatMaker 2 as Audiobus targets. Here is the piece I put together in BeatMaker 2. Of the two targets, I reported that I prefer BeatMaker 2 overall for its functionality despite its non-intuitive interface. 

For the piece above, I started by building up a groove using Loopseque - a really unique beat making app that recently added Audiobus support. At the time I started this piece, the Audiobus support was not there yet and I created the beat first using Audiocopy/paste to put it into BeatMaker 2. For drum beats I often prefer to use Audiocopy/paste rather than Audiobus since it is easier to get an exact size for the drum loops this way.

This is where Beatmaker's semi-intuitive interface first twarted me. The size of the sample exceeded the 32 MB default that beatmaker allocates for in-memory samples. BeatMaker 2 can either use samples "in memory" or can stream them right off the storage. For the life of me, I could not find out how to convert the "in memory" sample of Loopseque to a streaming version so I needed to expand the memory buffer for BeatMaker 2. Is there an option in the app? No, actually. You have to go into the Settings app on the iPad, select BeatMaker 2 and there set its buffer size. I'm sure there is SOME WAY to change from memory to streaming, but I didn't find it in my cursory forum mining on Intua's site. The good new is that the samples you bring in via Audiobus will by default be set to streaming. 

After getting the basic groove track in, I started to use Audiobus for the remaining tracks. I brought in a nice ambient sound from Animoog and recorded that directly into the app. I then added a DX7 sounding lead from Propellerhead's Figure which I "played" directly from the app into BeatMaker 2 via Audiobus. 

Having this basic melody established, I filled in the gaps with a few native MIDI tracks using BeatMaker 2's string samples and one of their synth pads. I put an LFO on the strings with a square wave to give a stuttering electronic feel to the track.

Finally I decided to give the some some background ambience with Mixtikl which was recorded via audiobus into the final track.

Overall, once you get used to Beatmaker's bizarre interface, it works very well. I applied some light compression to the overall mix to bring everything together.

As I was completing this, Garageband surprised me by suddenly supporting Audiobus as a target. This is very exciting and gives me yet another good option to use my many synths on the iPad into Garageband, add some parts from its powerful instruments and if I really want to go crazy on the mixing, I can upload it to my iMac and complete the effort in Logic 9 or Garageband on the iMac. This will be fun! 

In typical Apple fashion however, they are sticking to their "Roach Motel" standard - you can use Garageband as a target in Audiobus but not as a source. Music gets in, it doesn't get out (easily)! 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Bussing with Xewton music studio

I've had yet another few weeks with Audiobus and have been working a bit with Xewton Music Studio and Beatmaker 2.

In my last posts, I discussed the pros and cons of some of the other DAWs as Audiobus targets so here are 2 more. Auria and Multitrack DAW are both good targets but work only with audio files. The appeal of Beatmaker 2 and Music Studio are that in addition to acting as targets for Audiobus, they also provide MIDI tracks natively. This lets me combine their native sounds with other Audiobus inputs.

Both tools provide this but both also are imperfect and have their quirks. The quirks are more shortcomings in what they provide natively and not so much Audiobus. Beatmaker 2 is the more feature-rich of the two but suffers from its often counter-intuitive interface. It started its life as a low power iPhone app and that history shows. Many folks have used Beatmaker for years and for them, the issue is moot. For me, learning it is frustrating in many places. Most functionality is there and if you mine their forums you can figure things out.

Music Studio on the other hand has a beautiful interface and is fairly simple to use but has some glaring functional omissions. Fading out a song is almost impossible if you mix audio and MIDI tracks. The effects chain is also somewhat bizarre but if you are patient enough, you can get good results. For fading, you might do better to mix down and then copy into another app for posting.

My verdict for these two tools is to give Beatmaker 2 the nod. I need to get used to its weird interface, but functionality wise, it provides good audiobus support with decent MIDI capabilities. It's native samples are meh, but you can add your own.

Overall, MultiTrack DAW remains my favorite when I don't need MIDI. Auria is just too crash prone with audiobus (I'm on an iPad 3 with nothing else running but it is flakey with Auria).

Here is a track I put together primarily with Audiobus on Xewton Music Studio:

The beats and bass were created in the Korg iPolySix and it was easier to just mixdown and audiocopy/paste those into Music Studio - so no Audiobus there, though Korg does support it. The next few tracks were Audiobus from the Moog Animoog synth. I added a couple of native Music studio tracks for muted guitar, muted trumpet and flute. Then I added some ambient bells/drones via Audiobus from Mixtikl.

So, Xewton does work with Audiobus fairly well if you really want to use it. I think I may stick mainly to MultiTrack DAW with perhaps a little BeatMaker if I can ever wrap my head around its interface.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

More choices, less focus!

Well after a long time gawking, I picked up a copy of Komplete 8 for my iMac and now have an even larger plethora of choices for my music making. I did this with some trepidation since this is actually stressing out my disk storage - the collection is around 110 GB!

But I know have several additional synthesizers including Massive (Skrillex - look out!), FM8, Reaktor and most importantly, the sampler - Kontakt.

I've lately been combining some of the synth sounds with my Samplemodeling and Wivi EWI instruments and have a few songs to show for it:

These songs both feature a few Kontakt samples along with FM8 (the DX-7 clone) and a few other assorted sounds. I'll probably be using the new sounds extensively in future compositons. Komplete is a  large bundling of all of the Native Instrument synths and sample libraries.

Its always good advice to focus on the tools you have and to master them, but I've never been one for good advices! Rock on....