For many years now, my slogan for music technology has been, “If this stuff was any more powerful, it wouldn’t work at all.” Malfunctions are as normal and inevitable as tumbleweeds tumbling across the desert. Some of the malfunctions are trivial and easily dealt with. Some, however, are anything but trivial.
I’d like to have a stable computer system for making music. Boy, wouldn’t that be swell? But achieving that goal is about on a par with gazing upon a tantalizing mirage in the desert and then actually reaching the mirage by trekking across the sand dunes.
Once in a while I start thinking I might like to put together an electronic music set for live performance. Of course I’d need to have a stable computer system in order to do that. I have lots of options, but none of them comes close to being ideal.
Probably the most stable music performance software around is Propellerhead Reason. I like Reason a lot, and not only is it rock-solid, it’s cross-platform. I could use it on either a PC or a Mac laptop — a big plus. But there are minuses too. Reason won’t Read the rest of this entry »
I cringed when I saw the cover of the new issue of Scientific American. Trying to predict what technology will be like 50, 100, 0r 150 years in the future is a parlor game, not a serious intellectual exercise.
To understand why, you need only read a little 1950s-era science fiction. The predictions made by the authors about what the 21st century would be like were not just wrong — they were wildly, spectacularly wrong, by turns far too bold and not nearly bold enough.
My favorite example is Isaac Asimov’s early stories about robots. He built his robots’ brains using vacuum tubes, because the transistor hadn’t yet been invented, much less the IC chip. And yet, sixty or seventy years down the line, we still don’t have autonomous thinking machines of the kind Asimov envisioned. He had not the shadow of a clue about the real technological difficulties over which he was leapfrogging.
The migration of humans to colonies in space has been a staple of science fiction for close to a century, yet none of the authors who have written about it has come close to grappling with the real issues, which are probably more economic than technological, though the technological challenges are beyond imagining. And yet, here is Scientific American blathering about “starship humanity.”
Dissecting the rosy vision of space exploration in this article would be an amusing exercise, but it would take days. There’s a howler in almost every paragraph. Author Cameron Smith imagines Read the rest of this entry »
Every musical instrument has limitations, not only in terms of its range and timbre but in terms of the mechanical possibilities it provides. If you want to be able to play chords, a clarinet would be a poor choice — as would any wind instrument with the possible exception of the bagpipes or the harmonica. Conversely, if you want to hear tones that will sustain indefinitely, don’t write for piano.
If you want to be able to play more than 12 notes per octave, your options will be even more limited. A number of software-based synthesizers will make wonderful sounds while producing whatever tuning you can devise, but playing any of them from a MIDI keyboard will present some unusual challenges. Figuring out how to finger scales and chord voicings for a tuning with 31 notes per octave while playing a standard 12-note-per-octave black-and-white keyboard … well, it’s possible. I’ve done it a lot. But it’s a brain-twister.
Having done a bit of research over the years on alternative MIDI controllers, this fall I ordered a Z-Board from Starr Labs. I was aware that it wouldn’t have or be absolutely everything I could ever desire, but I was also pretty sure it was the best instrument I was going to find. It arrived yesterday.
The Z-Board has quite a lot of software smarts packed inside, but that’s not why I wanted it. The keyboard is a 12-by-24 array of velocity-sensitive buttons, and this array has the enormous advantage that it’s isomorphic. That is, a given chord or scale has exactly the same shape, no matter what key you start on. (The array of black and white key tops is arbitrary, and in fact the pattern shown in the photo is not the final arrangement that I settled on — it’s based on an earlier diagram I had sent them. Oops. We’ll get that sorted out in a couple of months. No hurry.)
Any key on the Z-Board can be programmed to send any MIDI note number you want. In fact, the features are more comprehensive than that: You can Read the rest of this entry »
Today’s software instruments can quite easily play notes in any arbitrary tuning system that you might devise. But those of us who go in for this sort of thing soon confront a serious problem: The standard pattern of white and black keys found on just about all commercially available MIDI master keyboards is utterly inadequate for playing most alternate tunings.
As long as you’re content to limit yourself to 12 notes per octave, you can get along nicely with a standard MIDI keyboard. The moment you stray beyond the boundaries of this rather narrow conception of a scale, you’re in trouble. Fingering becomes a nightmare.
One of the better resources I’ve found is Starr Labs. I’ve ordered their Z-Board keyboard, and it should arrive next week. I was tempted to buy their U-648, but it’s more expensive. The Z-Board seems an effective compromise.
Coincidentally, this morning I got an email from a fellow named Bogdan Constantinescu, who is trying to round up 20 buyers to underwrite the cost of producing 20 keyboards of a new model called the Terpstra 280. If you’re considering acquiring this type of gear, you may want to check it out. I don’t know Bogdan personally, and I can’t vouch for the stability of this business enterprise, but the design looks good.
Hexagonal key layouts are employed in the Terpstra, the U-648, and the C-Thru Axis. The Z-Board, in contrast, uses a checkerboard grid. The jury is still out on which layout is better for a universal keyboard. Hexagons may be better if you want to be able to slide a fingertip from one key to the next, as there are more directly adjacent keys. But my suspicion is that the human brain has an easier time grasping chord and scale shapes on a square grid.
The Terpstra’s keys are in elevated tiers, so you would only be able to slide a finger down, not up. Nonetheless, I feel elevated tiers are a very desirable feature, because they provide better hand positioning and tactile feedback. I’m a bit skeptical of interfaces like the Madrona Labs Soundplane, which I haven’t played, and the Haken Continuum, which I have, because they provide less tactile feedback. The nerves of the fingertips are exquisitely sensitive, and for me, tactile feedback is more important than the ability to slide freely.
I have to say, I’m impressed and heartened by the enthusiasm I’ve seen in the last few weeks from those who love Buchla 200e series instruments. I think it’s wonderful that people care passionately about their synthesizers. I hope you all will make wonderful music with your instruments, and I hope you’ll upload recordings so that others can hear and appreciate what you’re doing.
A couple of months ago I got myself in some trouble — got some people mad at me. I had initially agreed to write the manual for a Buchla synthesizer (the “affordable” $15,000 Skylab system) in exchange for getting to keep the hardware. The job became less attractive to me when I realized I already had a far more capable modular synth on my hard drive, at a cost of $0.
Not to rehash that series of events at this late date; the point is, I regret the way it went down not only because I hurt some people’s feelings (including, I’m sure, Don’s) but also because I kind of enjoy writing manuals. I had previously written a book on Csound (Csound Power, available on Amazon), which is not quite a manual — more an introduction to the software. Csound also has a swell online manual on the Floss site, plus a fat book edited by Richard Boulanger and the bundled HTML docs. There’s no shortage of information on how to use it.
This week I’m kicking around a few ideas about what I might want to do indoors during the winter months. As it turns out, Steven Yi is about to release a new version of blue, his amazing front end for Csound. blue is also a free download. Steven is updating the manual prior to the release — turning it into a Read the rest of this entry »
I may be about to buy a new laptop PC. Trouble is, there are a lot of factors to think about. Many ways to go wrong, leading to hours or days of headache and possibly large amounts of wasted money.
My first stop was the HP website. HP alone has more models than you could shake a stick at, and their charts don’t really explain the relevant differences. None of the charts even lists the number of USB ports, and I’m going to need four (two keyboards, an audio interface, and a dongle). Or maybe five, if I want a mouse. The differences between USB 2.0 and 3.0 may turn out not to be trivial: A device with a 2.0 class-compliant driver might not like being plugged into a 3.0 port.
I checked the Sweetwater site. They only want to sell you Macs, not PCs. Macs are more expensive, migrating some of my software to a Mac might prove problematical, and I’ve heard funny stuff about compatibility issues between music software and OS 10.8. Maybe those issues are ironed out by now … maybe.
The basic advice I used to give to Keyboard readers was, buy something that does what you want today. Don’t buy promises about what something will do in the future. But how do I figure out Read the rest of this entry »
Having been slightly encouraged by an offhand comment in an email from Roger Linn, I’m thinking a bit more about how one might design a modular synthesizer in software. Not that it hasn’t been done before, but I may have a slightly different take on the concept.
Reaktor may be the ultimate software modular, in some sense. Open up the patch and it’s like a box full of wires running every which way. Creating your own instrument in Reaktor is not impossible for mere mortals — I’ve done it — but like Csound, Reaktor is basically a programming environment. It has a lot in common with Pd, and bears precious little resemblance to a hardware modular.
Reason comes closer to being something an untutored musician can deal with. It even looks like hardware. But while it’s amazingly deep and versatile, Reason embodies a few odd limitations. No support for microtonal tuning, for instance, and precious little in the way of processing for control signals. Really, Reason is a music production environment, not a single integrated instrument.
I suspect there would be a place in the world for a software synthesizer that actually looked and behaved like a hardware modular. The closest thing I’ve seen are a couple of ARP 2600 clones (from Arturia and Way Out Ware). But while I have a lingering affection for the 2600, it having provided Read the rest of this entry »
Modular synthesizers seem to have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. I’m not privy to sales figures, but a number of companies are building and selling them. Forty years ago, these expensive, bulky, grotesquely inconvenient systems were state-of-the-art. Today, they’re shockingly retro. And yet they exert a strong and continuing appeal.
Though analog purists may wince, I’m going to assert that what goes on behind the front panel doesn’t matter. A well-designed digital synth is indistinguishable from its analog counterpart, sonically, and offers very significant advantages in terms of musical power. The main appeal of a modular system lies primarily in its front panel, which is studded with knobs, switches, buttons, and blinky lights.
A secondary appeal might be that you can configure your own hardware modular system to suit your musical needs (and budget). But in truth, you have total control over your instrument’s configuration with a software modular such as Csound. So really, the front panel is the whole ball of wax.
You can buy a box full of knobs with which to control a computer-based modular. Behringer makes one, and it’s quite affordable. But such a setup is far less appealing — and not just because you have to write some code in Csound, Supercollider, or Pd to intercept and interpret the MIDI messages coming from the knobs, but more significantly because Read the rest of this entry »
Here’s the hard truth about analog modular synthesizers. As much as I’m attracted to them, they’re sorely limited in all sorts of ways. Also expensive.
For the last few days, while working with the Buchla Skylab, I’ve been contemplating what we might call process music — music in which tone production is sort of ongoing. Perhaps influenced by the composer/performer while it plays, or perhaps entirely automated, but that’s a less significant criterion.
This notion inspired me to put together a little piece called “Jungle Nights” in my computer using Csound:
I won’t claim this is a terrific piece of music. I’m not even sure it’s finished — I have some more thoughts about how to improve it. But it illustrates fairly well the idea of music as process.
The thing is, you couldn’t do this piece using the Skylab, not even if you cheated and added an outboard reverb and delay. The main tone and the drumming you couldn’t even come close to. The hissing noises and the little tone bursts could be Read the rest of this entry »