Chris Randall: Musician, Writer, User Interface Designer, Inventor, Photographer, Complainer. Not necessarily in that order.
Tags: Touch It
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.
August 16, 2017
by Chris Randall
When we started porting our products to JUCE 5, one side effect (and I mean that in the literal sense, as it was in no way a deciding factor to do this) was that I could check a couple boxes in the project manager and poop out a standalone app and AudioUnit V3 for iOS. I was already familiar with the iOS app submission process due to my previous experiences (remember Phaedra?) and Audio Damage already had a paid-up developer account so we could get the Apple signing certificate we need for signing our OS X installers and AAX plugins. So we figured we'd put one up and see where it went.
As it turns out, we sort of lucked in to an empty socket, as only two of our desktop peers (VirSyn and Waldorf) had really taken the platform seriously, and the market was mostly owned, with a couple notable exceptions, by companies building specifically to iOS, who didn't have a lot of experience in making plugins for the much more robust and demanding professional music production market. This is in no way a bad thing, as the market had some very inventive tools that you don't see in the desktop world. But we just happened to stumble in (through no planning of our own) to a situation where our product line, which has heavy competition in desktop DAWs, simply didn't exist in iOS.
Speaking strictly for myself, after I gave up on Phaedra, I kind of set the iPad aside as a music-making tool, and hadn't really thought about it again until late May of this year, when I saw I could build AUv3. I then had to acquire an iPad Pro and go learn what AUv3 was, and after some trial and error, and much crossing of fingers and scratching of backstays later, we shipped Rough Rider (for free) in mid-June. Since then, we've tried to maintain something of a parity with the desktop and iOS platforms. It naturally didn't turn out as easy as I thought it would be, and usually the iOS versions require rather extensive reworking of the user interface because of the space constraints. (The notable exception is Replicant 2, where I decided to use the iOS AUv3 aspect ratio for the desktop one.)
Since we started building them, I've necessarily spent a lot of time testing and poking and prodding, and had to acquire most of the top-shelf iOS audio software. I've made a couple tracks now using only the iPad Pro, and I'm willing to say that, while there are a whole raft of weird little Apple-isms to deal with (better than taming OMS on OS 9, but not as bad as trying to use MIDI in OS 7) in general, I'm confident you can go to the store and buy an iPad Air 2 or Pro 9.7 (my recommended devices for AUv3 hosting right now, as the Pro 10.5 and 12.9 have some nasty RAM allocation bugs), spend about a hundred dollars on software, and have something equivalent to a fully-kitted MPC. Which, as we all know, is a perfectly viable platform for making full tracks.
Can it do everything a blown-out MacBook Pro or Surface Book can do? No, it can not. And Apple spends a lot of time trying to make seamless experiences that hide the machinations we need to know about to get the most out of our machines. Forget about using huge sample libraries, as these devices simply don't have the RAM or horsepower to pull that off. But for scratchpad recording and electronic music production, it's hard to describe the vibe. "Fun," I guess? Not a word I usually use with music-making, which, as a former professional musician, I take seriously and equate to work. New and exciting, definitely, and for creativity that is important.
Anyhow, to make a long story short, yesterday we released Pumphouse, which the video above talks about. Most of the iOS DAWs don't have sidechaining, and love it or hate it, that's an important facet of modern electronic music production. (I don't make EDM at all, and I use it all the time on my pads and basslines.) So we came up with a simple work-around by giving Rough Rider a 16-step sequencer, so you could trigger an envelope to side-chain compress the input in a rhythmic fashion. We had thought this would be an iOS-only release, and had no intention of releasing it for desktops, as that effect is easily attainable elsewhere. However, we wrote the plug as a VST (simply because it is much faster to develop audio software on a desktop than an iOS device) and it would be the work of a day or two to "back-port" it to all our supported platforms. So if this is something you're interested in, let me know in the comments. If you have any questions about iOS music production, I'll be happy to answer them to the best of my knowledge, or point you at the appropriate resource.
June 18, 2017
by Chris Randall
There are two major side benefits of switching to JUCE for our plugin dev. The first, you've already met: AAX versions essentially for free.
The second, you're about to meet: iOS versions for moderate effort. JUCE 5 projects on OS X have two targets in addition to the bevy of plugin formats: AUv3 and Standalone. Both of these are essentially pointless on OS X, where the AUv3 is an actual step backwards, lacking everything but the most basic ability to talk to anything but the DAW. Standalones have their purpose, but mostly as synths. A standalone effect is about as useful as... well... nothing really comes to mind. I'll have to ponder for a bit to come up with something that useless.
Switch that target from OS X to iOS, and we're on to something. AUv3 is the only audio plugin format allowed on iOS, and standalones actually have some merit. The screenshot above is Rough Rider 2 running as an AUv3 insert effect in GarageBand. These AUv3 builds will work in any host that can stomach it; right now that list is mildly limited: GarageBand, Audiobus 3, Cubasis (full version), and some others. The situation will improve quite a bit when Intua drops BeatMaker 3 on July 15, in my opinion.
Digressions aside, the only difference between Rough Rider 2 for iOS AUv3 and Rough Rider 2 AU/AAX/VST/VST3 is some mild fiddling with the UI to get it to cooperate in the context. It will run on any device that can run iOS 9.3, which is pretty much anything from iPad 3 / iPad Mini 2 / iPhone 6 on.
Rough Rider 2 is available now in the app store, and like any good drug dealer, we give you the first taste for free. If you run in to any issues at all, don't hesitate to drop us a line.
Grind is next in line, and is currently awaiting TestFlight review so the testers can get a piece of that action, but it is pretty much done. Once that's released, we're going to turn our attention back to desktops for a bit, so we can see how things shake out. I don't want to release everything for iOS, and then find out I did something terribly wrong. But once we're sure that things generally work, we'll push out Dubstation 2 and Eos 2 in short order. I don't expect any trouble building either for iOS.
If you're an iOS musician, I'd like to hear about how you feel about pricing. I'm of a mixed mind on this; obviously, these are identical to the desktop plugins internally, and require a bit extra work, so they should be priced accordingly. On the other hand, the iOS music ecosystem doesn't really have a place for a similar pricing model, and we're in a situation where people are expected to effectively double the price of their purchase to get a 12th format to go with the other 11 they already own.
I went through every AUv3 product I could find on the App Store, and I feel that, in general, plugins seem to be in the $5 to $10 neck of the woods. There are some outliers, but on the whole, that seems to be the case. I'm okay with this in general.
The other option would be to do it free, and have an In-App Purchase to unlock all the features. This isn't terribly complicated, but it does add some frustration to the proceedings, both on my part and on the consumer's part. So I'm less likely to look favorably on this, unless someone can offer a compelling argument in its defense.
July 23, 2016
by Chris Randall
This week's Tech Time is a more sophisticated version of something I touched on in the last Push 2 / Modular video, making polysynth patches from a mono analog. I show my whole workflow, from initial sample to laying it in the mix.
The channel is starting to get a little momentum; I'll do my Cranky Old Man video on Sunday.
July 10, 2016
by Chris Randall
A slightly less esoteric Tech_Talk this week. My own personal workflow for dumping Eurorack tracks to Live for further production. This is kind of quasi-basic, I think, but I do get a lot of people asking me how I do it, so I guess it's something that people find interesting.
Looking for topics for next week's Tech_Talk and Weekly. Hook a brother up!