Chris Randall: Musician, Writer, User Interface Designer, Inventor, Photographer, Complainer. Not necessarily in that order.
May 24, 2018
by Chris Randall
Between going to Superbooth (which, taking prep and recovering from jetlag in to account, sucks up almost 2 months of my time) and working on Quanta and our complete catalog rewrite, I haven't had a whole lot of time to work on music lately, which puts my regimen of one LP or two EPs a year at risk. I am of the firm belief that I can't really offer opinions on how things should be done if I'm not doing them myself, and music tech is no exception to that.
My general habit when I'm working on AD stuff (either Research or Development) is that if I come across something interesting that sparks my imagination, I stop whatever it is I was doing for an hour or two and try to develop it in to a framework. Then, when I have 10-15 of these half-songs stored up, I go through them and pick five that have some sort of sonic relationship to one another, and then finish and mix them all in one sitting. This particular EP departs from that, as the first track, getProcessor, I actually finished some months ago (January, I think) for a podcast, and the last track (strike_332) I recorded and mixed in one sitting yesterday. The other three fit that general description, though.
Unfortunately, this method of working precludes making process videos, for the most part, because the tracks are written and recorded over a fairly long span of time, and pop in to existence at unplanned moments. So, in lieu of a whole slew of process content, I'll just write a bit about each track, based on what I remember.
As I noted above, I finished this track a few months ago as an exclusive for the Headroom podcast. It starts with my usual noise bed (construction of which is detailed in several AI videos), and some synth burbles courtesy of a Reaktor ensemble. The drums are, in a rarity for me, based around a sampled loop, the beginning of 23 Skidoo's 1983 track "Coup". I re-architected it heavily, of course. The rest of the drums are various Reaktor ensembles (I believe the kick is a Blocks patch), working on drum samples I created through my usual methods specifically for the track. The synth "lead" is Basic; I actually played it in via the Linnstrument, then reorganized it with Replicant and Eventide H3000 factory.
This has the usual noise bed. The 3-note bass motif is from Live's Wavetable synth; the chord pad in the beginning is Phosphor, and the granular synth line is the first recorded appearance of Quanta in its early stages. (It couldn't even load samples back then; this is the grain engine working on the sidecar oscillator.) The chord line that doubles the main pad towards the end is also Quanta, in a somewhat later stage; the source sample is an RS09. The burbly glitchy synths you hear throughout are Basic, run through Automaton and Replicant. The drums are Axon for the kick and hat and a reworked field recording run through a whole raft of plugs for the other stuff.
This is a fun one; all the rhythmic elements are from a Max4Live patch that runs in real-time, all synthesized on the fly and played algorithmically. (Thus, it's essentially different every time I run it.) I made controls for density, and the ability to turn individual sources on and off, and that's it. It was quite challenging to put melodic stuff over the top of this. Since the source is all on-the-fly, I was able to tune the harmonic elements of the percussion to match the root, which really makes the melodic part boxy. The melodic elements come from two main synth hits; both of these are Quanta run through various effects (Grind, Eos, Filterstation, etc.). I played them in manually with the Linnstrument. This track is far more abstract than my usual stuff, but it was fun to make, and I'll probably do more like it in the future.
In this track, I was experimenting with controlling feel in weird ways; the song is in straight time, but I gave the bass a dotted 8 LFO, and the snare has a triplet feel done with the predelay in ADverb2 (the new version has a much bigger early reflection situation than the original, so you can time it appropriately.) This results in a track that can either feel straight, swung, or in trips depending on which rhythmic element you latch on to. The foot is just a resonating filter; I don't remember how I made the other rhythmic elements, to be honest, but it sounds like the usual group of glitch plugs (Replicant, Automaton, H3000 Factory, etc.). The pad is Quanta with a heavy sidechain compression, as is the synth hit, which is driven with follow actions in Live, randomly choosing a MIDI note.
This track I wrote and recorded in its entirety just yesterday; I installed Form, a Reaktor Player synth that is part of Komplete, and was experimenting with sending it real-time controller info from a Roli Lightpad Block. I got that interesting drone, and the rest of the track just fell in to place around it. Usual noise bed (you're hearing a ambience around a pyramid in Mexico underneath everything), and the initial drum loop is, in a super extra rarity for me, lifted straight from another song. In this case it is from Chris Carter's 1980 cassette-only release "Electrodub 2." (I had parted it out for a demo video, and I accidentally landed on the loop while sample surfing, and it laid right in there.) I believe it is a CR78 through an early digital reverb. The kick is, like most of my tonal kicks, just a filter self-resonating (two different flavors in this song, natch) and the other rhythmic elements are created much as above, with glitch plugs working on field recordings for the most part. The rolling snare that appears halfway through is a 606 snare through Unfiltered Audio's excellent Fault plug. The granular synth thing that goes throughout is Quanta on a sample of my CS5, and the pad is also Quanta, working on an MKS80 sample, which I played in real time.
April 19, 2018
by Chris Randall
Carl Mikael's Cabinet of Curiosities is one of my favorite YouTube channels; his videos often get me thinking, and this one from last week was no exception. One thing I have always found intensely irritating in my time in this business is religious zealots, who use their confirmation bias as a bludgeon. Carl-Mikael is, in a round-about way, addressing that in the above video, which is, like most of his content, worth a watch. "Pragmatism beats dogmatism every hour of the day..." as he says, a viewpoint I wholeheartedly endorse. Give his channel a sub, as well. He puts up quality content.
April 18, 2018
by Chris Randall
A month or so ago, I got turned on to the concept of Dante, which is an audio-over-Ethernet protocol used primarily by big production houses and live sound reinforcement. (I imagine it was invented by someone that had to run a 48-channel snake from the stage to the front-of-house every night, and got sick of being covered in spilled-beer-and-shoe-dirt slime.) In the simplest terms, think of a network, but instead of files and web sites, it serves digital audio. You use normal IT shit like switches and CAT 6 cable, but your goal is shunting massive channel counts of digital audio at ludicrously low latencies instead.
I had known about it for years (you can't help but see the references if you're looking at high-end AD/DA converters, since the usual suspects in that world all have Dante capability). I didn't really think about the ramifications until a friend beat me over the head with the concept. My ultimate goal in my home studio/office is simplicity. The fewer cables I have run, and the fewer conversions I have to deal with, the happier I am. It is especially attractive to me because I run multiple computers of different flavors, and having their I/O talk to each other in more-or-less real time would be excessively handy.
Once I was tipped to the potential, the full OCD Experience kicked in, and I started thinking about replacing my current rat's nest of I/O and monitor controlling. The main attraction to me is ultra-low-latency computer-to-computer connections. I've always thought it is dumb to convert to AES or SPDIF to do a digital computer-to-computer audio interaction, and so do the Dante people. Nominally, a computer-to-computer connection in Dante would be the same as any old-fashioned way, with expensive converter boxes in the way. But Audinate (the company that invented Dante and is the Keeper Of The Holy Scriptures regarding the format) got that sorted in a big way, with three pieces of software that make Dante in a home studio an attractive option.
The first is Dante Controller, which is essentially a virtual patchbay that lets you connect Dante sources and destinations. Dante gear all has a Gigabit Ethernet port, and you basically just run everything to a normal Gigabit Ethernet switch in a star fashion. Dante Controller sees everything on the network, and lets you set clock masters and routings and shit. Controller is free.
The second piece of software is the Dante Virtual Soundcard. This is an ASIO and CoreAudio/WDM driver that works like any other sound card driver; it has 64 ins and outs (which is mildly comical in something like Live. Did you know the I/O panel scrolls? Neither did I) and ludicrously low latency. Any computer running the Virtual Soundcard and connected to the Ethernet rig throws its I/O to the network, and shows up in the Dante Controller patchbay. The driver is US$29 per computer.
The third piece of software is the one that seems like magic to me, and which is useful whether or not you have a Dante system. I only assume it isn't more well-known is because Audinate's business model doesn't lend itself to marketing to hobbyists and home studio folks. It is called Dante Via, and basically lets you route _any_ audio source in your computer to any other. Think of it as Soundflower or Audio Hijack, but on pharmacutical-grade methamphetamines. You can run either this or the Virtual Soundcard. It shows up as an ASIO destination in software that supports that, or a WDM/CoreAudio destination elsewhere. Instead of 64 I/O, you get 8 channels, but otherwise, it is more or less the same, as far as how the DAW works. You just drag-and-drop your sources to your destinations, and you can mix-and-match anything as you see fit and turn any piece of software or I/O in to a sender/receiver. Dante Via is US$49 per computer (which is incredibly cheap considering what you get) or US$59 for a combo of the Virtual Soundcard and Via. There is a 15-day demo of Via on the site.
I purchased a Focusrite RedNet X2P to be my main monitor controller. It comes with a pair of Focusrite's high-end mic pres (their good stuff, not the prosumer Scarlett series). This can be powered off a POE Ethernet switch, so it's just one CAT6 cable to the switch and that's that. It is built like a god damn main battle tank, and is one of those Just Plug It In And Go Because It's Really Well Made For People That Don't Want To Dick Around kind of things. My Adam nearfields go from that, and my desk situation is sorted. I connected the Skull Canyon NUC and my main computer to the switch via their Gigabit Ethernet ports, and with the former running the Virtual Soundcard and the latter running Via (I also use the computer for games, and would like to hear YouTube videos and shit), I have VCV Rack running on the NUC, with multi-channel audio at no noticeable latency running in to Live, with Live Link providing wireless sync over my home wi-fi network. (Note that the X2P comes with a license for the Virtual Sound Card, as well as some Focusrite plugins I'll probably never use, but never say never, right?)
It is early days for Dante in a small studio right now, and many of the I/O solutions that are promised aren't quite here yet. I can easily just plug in a high-end convertor or mic pre rack to the system and it'll just show up. Audinate is releasing a 2-channel class-compliant USB dongle so you can plug in iOS or visiting laptops to the network with ease, and there are several 2-channel AES, SPDIF, and analog solutions to bring legacy gear in to the fold. ProCo and Radial also have similar small-and-cheap solutions either already released or in the works. I've only had this rig working for a day, so I can't really speak to its robustness, but it performed flawlessly with the above VCV-on-another-computer situation, as well as an hour or so with World Of Warcraft and a brief writing session in Live. I gave the mic pres on the X2P a quick check to make sure they worked, but I can't really speak for their all-around applications at this point. I'll put up another post with further thoughts after a month or so with this system.
April 6, 2018
by Chris Randall
Audio Damage will once again have a booth at Superbooth this year, and I'm leaving for Berlin on April 27. That means I have about 3 weeks to finalize everything. The product we're unveiling is in feature-freeze, and it's time to start figuring out how to demonstrate it, as well as the rest of our product line. (This isn't a last-minute thing; I've been thinking about it for some time.)
The entire process is both easier than years past, and more complicated. At the last two Superbooths we attended, we only showed Eurorack, and didn't show our software products at all. This year, it will be the other way around. We have no Eurorack; we're showing our desktop and iOS software. The iOS part is easy; a 12.9" iPad Pro with the usual dongling, job done. For the desktop software, the needs were somewhat odder. The product we'll be unveiling is MPE-capable, so we wanted to have at least one MPE controller at our booth. Since the iOS and desktop versions are identical in that regard, it seemed wise to have one MPE-capable controller for each, and of those, at least one that civilians could play. Roli very generously loaned us a Rise 25 for the booth, so that will attach to the iPad, and my Linnstrument will go as well, for the desktop stuff.
All but a couple of our products are now vector-graphics and HiDpi-capable, so I wanted a 4K monitor to show this off. My own monitor is too big, so I purchased a Dell 23" 4K for the show. Now the trouble starts. You would think it would be a fairly simple matter to sling a computer at this problem and be done with it. You'd be wrong. The software we're unveiling is nearing completion, but it is in no way finished, so it isn't as optimized as we'd like. I don't want to use my main work laptop for a trade show, for obvious reasons, so I pulled out a mid-2013 MacBook Pro, and between pushing a 4K monitor and this fairly heavy-duty plugin, it was screaming for baby Jesus. So, we decided to run Windows instead of OSX for the booth. That being the case, we needed a Windows machine capable of both fairly heavy lifting in the graphics department while shouldering the CPU burden of a DAW. Plus, we have a fairly thin budget and weight considerations. It was a surprisingly tough nut to crack.
After a whole lot of reading of computer gear blogs and fretting, I decided that I had enough time to take a small risk, and I ordered up one of the new Intel Skull Canyon NUCs. As it is a bare-bones system, containing only a CPU/GPU, I also grabbed 16GB of RAM, an NVMe drive, and a key for Windows Home 10 64-bit. All of that showed up this morning.
I'll admit that while I knew intellectually how small the Skull Canyon NUC was, I was unprepared for the reality of it. It is just about the same size as a VHS tape. The power brick is almost as big as the computer itself. Anyhoo, it comes with a pretty good selection of ports (including, improbably, a Thunderbolt 3 port, if you want to run a graphics card in a chassis, or a UAD Apollo or whatever.) It took me about 30 minutes in all to set it up, from opening the boxes to signing in to Windows, after I installed Windows off a USB drive built with Windows Media Creator on my big machine.
We'll be using Bitwig Studio 2 to demonstrate our products at Superbooth (for two reasons: a native understanding of MPE, and a good HiDpi implementation on Windows), so I popped over to the Bitwig site and slammed that on the machine, as well as a few of our plugs and some samples. I've been pressure-testing it for several hours now, and I have to say that, taking its size in to account, this computer is an amazing value. I wouldn't use it as my main workstation, but for situations like this, or for a secondary machine or media center, it is fucking amazeballs. With the caveat that I still have a lot to do before I'll call it Show Ready™, I'm of the opinion that this is a solid machine for the money. Two thumbs tentatively up.
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.