Chris Randall: Musician, Writer, User Interface Designer, Inventor, Photographer, Complainer. Not necessarily in that order.
Archives: March 2018
March 29, 2018
by Chris Randall
Long-time readers will know how I generally feel about "alternative MIDI controllers" when they come down the pike. I have two metrics for a new MIDI controller:
• Is it actually better than a piano-style keyboard?
• Would you look like a giant fucking douchebag on stage playing it?
The first one isn't so hard to overcome, I don't think. It can further be divided in to sub-categories that are context-sensitive. Modern music making breeds Jacks-of-all-trades, and if the device has buttons that have notes in some semblance of order, anyone that can push buttons in a rhythmic fashion can make music with one. It's just a matter of learning where the notes are. So then the question is: are the buttons in some sort of order that makes sense to me? Speaking strictly for myself, I've played keyboards and guitar for at least an hour or two nearly every single day of my life since I was in my tweens. (Honestly, I'd think I'd be better at it, but I plateaued somewhere in the mid-80s.) I'll be 50 here in a couple months, and my hands _hurt_ when I play a keyboard for more than a minute or two. So ergonomics are a big consideration for me, whereas they might not be for a 20-year-old who has full command of his or her digits.
The second point is harder to deal with. It's called a "show" and not a "hear" for obvious reasons, and looking like a giant fucking douchebag is going to negatively impact shareholder value, as far as live performance is concerned. The number of swing-and-a-miss controllers I've seen at NAMM, where I don't even bother to get a demo because whatever the device is instantly triggers my "man, I'd look like a douche playing that" sensors... Definitely in the hundreds. Lasers and spheres and light-up rings and any number of other douchey configurations. Of course you can use any one of these things to make music, and time + dedication = virtuosity, but ultimately you want to look at least a little bit cool doing it. I'm old enough to accept that "cool" is a moving target, one I can't necessarily hit any more, but even so...
Anyhow, let's go ahead and get to the point. Starting early last year, people began writing the Audio Damage info line asking for MPE versions of our synths. Despite being deeply entrenched in music tech, I only had a vague notion of what MPE was ("something for alternative controllers or something" was my general understanding.) After I'd received several of these, I knuckled down to learn about the format, and was intrigued enough to drop Roger Linn a line and ask if I could borrow a Linnstrument for experimenting. I know Roger pretty well, having had a booth next to him at many trade shows, and he very kindly sent a Linnstrument 128 to me. The only MPE-capable synths I owned at the time were Madrona Labs Kaivo and Aalto (as well as the Animoog synth for iOS) so I booted them up, figured out how the hell to get Live to pass MPE, and sat down to experiment. For reasons lost to the dark past, I decided to film my very first play-about with the Linnstrument and Aalto.
As you can see, it clicked pretty quickly. After a few days with it, I decided to move my Kontrol 49 off the desk and see how this felt as my main controller. After a couple weeks, the Kontrol 49 went in the Closet Of Forgotten Toys, and I wrote Roger to tell him I'd be buying this one. A couple more weeks, and I'd talked Adam in to buying one too, and now, the product we're unveiling at Superbooth is fully MPE-aware. There's no zealot like a convert.
I took to the Linnstrument pretty quickly because the notes generally follow a guitar layout, so I knew where everything was, and it was only a matter of getting used to the dynamics. Having three axii of control once you've hit the note is remarkably expressive, and since, at the end of the day, MPE is just MIDI Plus, it more or less works with everything, while synths that are designed to take advantage of the format (e.g. the afore-mentioned Kaivo and Aalto) really shine in new and interesting ways. I won't bother giving a technical description of MPE; Reverb has already done a fairly good breakdown of that here, and there's no reason for me to reinvent the wheel. Long story short, picture a pad controller with aftertouch (like the Push 2), and make it so that after you whack the note, you can move your finger on the X or Y axis as well, and send MIDI CCs with that. Then give each note on the synth its own MIDI channel, so you can apply those MIDI CCs to an individual note without modding the entire patch.
There are really only four MPE controllers worth talking about right now, in my opinion. They are the Roli Seaboard series, the afore-mentioned Linnstrument, the Madrona Labs Soundplane, and the Haken Continuum. So basically your choices are "guitar-like" with the Linnstrument and Soundplane, or "keyboard-like" with the Seaboard and Continuum.
The upshot of all this, and my takeaway: I can fit five octaves of extremely expressive MIDI control in a space that is smaller than the typical PC keyboard, and I don't look like an idiot doing it, nor did I have to learn anything new, since I can already play guitar. This is a net win no matter how you math it out. As I hinted, we'll be unveiling an MPE-capable product at Superbooth, and we will have both a Linnstrument and a Seaboard Rise there to try out with it. (We'd have a Soundplane too, except that is somewhat larger, and our booth is small, and Randy will be there anyhow.)
I'd like to hear about your experiences with MPE or alternative controllers, especially playing live. I haven't played the Linnstrument on stage yet, but I'm comfortable enough with it that I would feel pretty confident doing so at this stage.
March 27, 2018
by Chris Randall
Hey, kids! Long time no talk. And there's a reason for that. As my interaction on and with Facebook went up, my interaction with the real internet went down. That "service" -- and I use the term loosely, because they, like Google, are an advertising agency whose entire reason for having their platform at all is to sell ads -- sucks all the air out of the room, to the point where my creativity can't breath, and I'm not doing the things I normally like to do because I'm busy arguing with some fucking dolt in East Nowheresville about constitutional law.
So last week, I deleted my FB account and the Audio Damage and Sister Machine Gun pages I administer. Adam and I had a brief discussion about leaving the AD page up, but the ROI for a Facebook page is not great unless that's your entire means of dealing with your customer base. Also, the hypocrisy of leaving the AD page there when I personally won't use the site for mostly moral reasons was not lost on us. As I told some friends yesterday, we may take a financial hit for losing that promotional avenue, but on the other hand, my quality-of-life immediately increased, in a noticeable fashion, and what is money for if not to improve your quality of life? So net gain all around.
I've had to quit other addictions in the past, and literally as soon as I pressed the "delete account" button (it really is that simple) I felt the hole that I'm used to. But like most people with addictive personalities, I knew it for what it was, and am able to deal with it in the same way I've dealt with others. Weirdly, there's a physical habit associated with it that was somewhat harder to break than the mental one. I would normally open a browser, and blam-blam-blam Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. To have one of those missing is very strange at first. I found myself scrolling to the spot where the bookmark lived fairly frequently for the first couple days, and experienced actual, palpable disappointment when it wasn't there. But this passed quickly under the weight of my self-righteousness (which, I think we can agree, is the most powerful drug of all).
In any event, those of you that follow me on Twitter have no doubt noticed my activity there has increased noticeably, and I believe you can safely expect this site to get back to its previous grandeur, with the caveat that I can't really bag on other companies' gear any more (I know too many people in this business now). So the focus of AI will be creativity and trends in music tech, which were the other two points of the Conjoined Tripod Of Success, at least as far as blogs of this sort go. No, I didn't delete my Instagram account. I am, apparently, something of a hypocrite. One final note: I plan to put my non-music-tech meanderings on Steemit. While that "service" (does that word apply to a blockchain-based system?) is a fucking epic Level 9000 circle jerk when it comes to matters cryptological, it's actually a fairly good analog for a blog, and its theoretical permanence is a desirable trait. So if you want to see me write about the other things that interest me (travel, making shit, gardening, etc.) that's where I'll be doing it.