Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Modular Synthesizer at last!

My earliest synth memory was seeing a film featuring Wendy (then Walter) Carlos and Bob Moog operating the modular Moog synth in the 1960s (old blog post about it here). For just a few decades, any idea of owning or playing my own synth remained a pipe-dream.

Years later, I got into music making and synthesis via Computer and "virtual synthesizers" and have until recently only ever used software synthesizers. I haven't bought any self-contained synths or other hardware but have collected countless software modules on my desktop (iMac) and more recently on the iPad.

My interests in modular synthesis stayed and I purchased the excellent movie - I Dream of Wires when it came out. Modern modular equipment is a pricey proposition and requires a great deal of assembly and electronic knowledge. Eurorack systems are popular and I've always toyed with the idea of getting into them but these too are costly and laborious to configure and change. Many of my more interesting software synths emulate modular systems such as the Arturia Modular V, iVCS3 and more low-level options such as Reaktor and Adulus.

One reason I tend to prefer the software options is that it is so fast to prototype, mock-up and change any music making ideas I have without having to resort to screw drivers or soldering irons. Nonetheless, the lure of analog and tinkering has remained.

This Christmas, my wonderful wife (at the advice of my older son) bought me the littleBits Synth kit and suddenly, I have a modular system at my fingertips that I can configure/reconfigure in seconds with its brilliant magnetic connection system and self-contained modules. Korg collaborated with littleBits and produced some excellent oscillators, sequencers, keyboards, filters and envelopes in a very simple, lego-like configuration. This kit is extremely easy to use, is cheap (compared to other modular setups) and quite powerful.

All by itself, the kit provides enough to put together a two oscillator synth with basic envelope, sequencing and filtering. The keyboard isn't going to produce too much with switches for each note, but you can put int basic notes and run through the sequencer to get some synth rhythms. I bought a few extra modules (splitter, mixer, mounting boards and another oscillator) and put together a basic piece in just a few hours of tinkering. I used the filter in its self-oscillating mode to get a sine wave to mix with the simple saw or square that the Korg oscillator provides.

One thing I have to get used to is recording analog audio! Up until now with mostly MIDI synthesizers or my iConnectMIDI2, the input comes through USB cables or via the iConnectMIDI. The analog synth goes into my somewhat noisy microphone jack on my iMac. I might need to consider an audio interface at some point.

Another work in-progress for me is connecting the modular synthesizer into my music-making via MIDI. There is a module "in the works" for MIDI control but some littleBits users have already solved this by using a littleBits Arduino module to plug into the kit. I bought the littleBits arduino and am working on the MIDI integration.

There are a few projects already outlining how to do this here and here. The second link has a much richer MIDI sketch and is probably the one I will adapt. For my needs, I am more interested in a MIDI solution to integrate with external sequencers and MIDI controllers in my studio rather than for live performance. An added bonus is that I get to do some programming as well :).

I've put the arduino beta programming environment onto my iMac and have got the basics working so stay tuned and I'll update my progress as it goes.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

2014 reflections and the year ahead

I've been reading many posts on the excellent iPad Musician Facebook page and year-end wrap-ups from other sites and decided that I should sum up a bit about what I've acquired this year and where I think 2015 might take me musically.

Again, the philosophy of this blog and my perspective is one of an amateur, so much of what I do reflects the "hobby" aspect of my music making (i.e. I buy way too many apps and master way too few of them), but that is for me, part of the fun!

As technology goes, I tend to be an early adopter and with iOS8, I rolled the dice and forged ahead - no regrets here. Lots of stuff doesn't work (of course), but I love challenges and finding ways to make music work despite them. There are many passionate, and angry debates about Apple's rollout of iOS8 which are probably justified to some extent. Apple's iOS environment, though, really pushes free upgrades for life and more or less is a one-way trip. Once you do upgrade, there is little going back. So, if parts of my music arsenal break in the process, I simply move on to other tools that work and wait for the rest to catch up. Wasting time on blaming who broke what is, for me, a useless endeavor.

This year, some of that has pushed me to abandon some tools I used to rely on and to rediscover mixing my music making with the iPad and Logic X on the desktop. The best DAW I have is still on my iMac no matter what Cubasis or Auria manage to accomplish! One major purchase that I made this year and use more and more is the iConnectMIDI2. This has allowed me to merge my iPad into my music making as a MIDI device. I can pass audio and MIDI in either direction and use the best tool for each job.

For me, I don't do anything with audio. I don't sing. I don't play guitar. I don't record live sounds so MIDI is my medium. I don't own a "classic" MIDI synth. I don't have a single traditional MIDI cable. I use USB MIDI exclusively. So 2 of the ports on my iConnectMIDI2 go unused (those large ugly circa 1985 MIDI ports). My one and only iPad is connected to the USB port via the iPad 30 pin cable and an ugly 30-pin to lightning adapter. My iPad, for the record, is an iPad Air (1st gen).

So some of the major apps that I used in this setup are MIDI sequencers. I've been using Noatikl on the desktop for years and continue to use it on the iPad. On the iPad, it crashes - a lot! Might be Apple, might be iOS8, might be the developer....but I still use it because, frankly, there isn't a single app out there that comes close in functionality for generative music that still gives me control over the composing and rules. Believe me I've looked! Despite the iOS stability issues, I use this app more than anything when trying to control other sound sources. The interface is weird. The pattern language is very unfriendly to enter on an iPad keyboard but, again, there is nothing close to this in pure power - nada! No ping-pong or "game of life" randomizers are in the same league. So if you can put up with the learning curve, this app is a must-have.

For more simple MIDI needs, however, there are many very good apps I added to my iPad this year around MIDI sequencing. Xynthesizr is one such app that lets me sequence multiple MIDI channels and make a few of them random, a few less random and then build on what it creates. I've also added StepPolyArp and ChordPolyPad to help with chording and step sequencing. Both on the iPad alone and with Logic X, these sequencers have added quite a bit to my music making. Other additions this year for sequencing include Thesys, Gestrument and Arpeggionome Pro.

With my increasing investment in MIDI sequencers, I also needed to have some better sound targets for the MIDI events. This year, I expanded some of my sampled sounds by adding the CMP Grand Piano and iSymphonic modules along with the excellent Ruckers 1628 harpsichord and many SampleTank expansions (Miroslav, Moog, etc). These apps, while pricey, sound fantastic on the iPad and at times take the place of my desktop samples when creating music on the go.

In the percussion arena, I discovered DrumPerfect which really is the closest I've come to a "live feel" for my drums on the iPad. The left/right hand samples, humanize functionality and other features make this the best "real drum" sounding app I have and rivals what I can do on my desktop as well.

Other sampling I am less impressed with include the iFretless collection. I can only assume that guitar players love being able to play mediocre saxes and crappy-sounding brass with a guitar based interface. I do like their bass samples and some of the guitars, but the other sounds, well.....I go back to the desktop for those. I only ever use iFretless with MIDI sequencers or Noatikl. I absolutely HATE figuring out guitar fingerings for non-guitar instruments! There are no good saxes or brass on the iPad as of yet. I enjoy using my Akai EWI to play sax or trumpet parts on the desktop and have over $600 invested in SampleModeling instruments. On the iPad, the samples aren't that good and breath control is still a major PITA.

Like almost everyone, I did get Korg Gadget this year but unlike most, I've only used it sparingly so far. I find the environment a bit lacking in effects. The synths are great but the mixing is a bit limited. I will probably make more use of this in the coming year. I've passed so far on the Module expansion they offer - we'll see how long that lasts!

Another thing that happened this year - my 64GB iPad filled up. I had to jettison some of my non-music apps such as large games that I rarely play and more stressful for me, I had to get rid of some music making apps that I rarely use.  This will continue into the new year I think. Music Studio bit the dust for me - its large, sample based and in my opinion, not up to snuff with other sample libraries anymore. I still have NanoStudio out of sheer nostalgia but rarely use it and Beatmaker 2 is hanging in there for no good reason whatsoever. I don't use it, hate its interface (more phone based than iPad based) and will probably lose it in the new year. One huge space taker is my back issues of computer music magazine and the "special edition" version that was discontinued. Sadly, if I delete the "discontinued" issues from the special edition versions, I can't get them back. In some ways, virtual magazines still suck!

As for my iPad, I tend to follow a rule of skipping generations. I had an original iPad, skipped the 2, bought the retina, skipped the 4, bought the Air, skipped the Air 2.

This year, for the first time ever, I acquired some analog gear - specifically the littleBits Korg synthesizer kit. Already I'm buying up modules and playing with an albeit simple modular system. I look to add this into my music this year via MIDI (probably the Arduino module). Since I'm getting more and more into modular hardware, I think I'll probably start using Adulus this year along with Tera. On the desktop, I may finally put Reaktor to good use.

I have tons of other synths I acquired such as iProphet, Laplace, the excellent iVCS3 and others but I have yet to really put them through their paces. Maybe in the coming year! On the desktop, I've really slowed down and rarely buy plugins. I do continue to make use of the great Computer Magazine freebies nonetheless. I'm sure 2015 will be an interesting year.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Hybrid iPad Music

Making music on the iPad usually requires just a bit of patience with inter-app audio or audio sharing, communicating and crashing. That is just the "state of the art" at the moment with iPad music creation. I make a great deal of music on my tablet but to do so requires unique workflows, frequent saving and a bit of luck!

Recently while experimenting with the excellent MIDI instrument, Gestrument, I rapidly found my iPad misbehaving in various ways and decided a compromise was in order. Using my iConnect MIDI 2, I can send and receive either audio or MIDI to and from my iPad. I decided that I wanted to create a piece using the Gestrument instrument but with desktop samples (which are STILL head and shoulders above any sampled instruments on the iPad).

Gestrument is very expressive and with multi-touch gestures will send MIDI notes, velocities and varied pitches, etc. It can control multiple MIDI channels all at once and is capable of making some very unique sounds.

I wanted to make a jazz piece and use some Native Instruments Kontakt samples. I chose the MM Bass and the MKII electric piano for the background of the piece (both part of the Komplete bundle from Native Instruments). I wanted to use gestrument to send chords which is not something it does easily. Rather than wrestle with multiple voices on Gestrument, I sent one instrument into a "Track Stack" in Logic X and then sent the notes to the Bass on one track, a MIDI chorded piano on a second and a syncopated arpeggiated piano on the 3rd track. This set up the basic bass and piano rhythms in the piece very nicely. By playing the notes and articulations on the iPad, I recorded the resulting MIDI into the track stack which played back on the 3 sub-tracks in Logic.

For jazz drums, I find the drum tracks a bit lacking in Logic, so I resorted to some excellent Jazz looped drums.

Once this was all done, I set up a few saxophone tracks and played various rhythms in the same key (Eb minor blues) as the rhythm and then mixed, tweaked and mastered on Logic from there on out.

Say what you will about Cubasis or Auris, Logic X is still worlds easier to work with multiple MIDI channels with or without the iPad.