Evaluating Music Technology

Manufacturers of all instruments have it pretty well figured out. They just need to find a musician who can do something impressive with the instrument, software or device and make a video recording of it.  From this, no end of “eager desire” can be generated.  The implied message is clear, “Buy this instrument/sample library/synth/whatever, and you will make impressive music too!”.  Generally, the tool in question delivers exactly what it says on the tin, and if approached with thought, significant amounts of creativity and physical ability, “impressive” is within reach.  In the last several years, the market has been flooded with devices and software in the $200-$500 mark, and gear flies off the shelves.  By modularizing the purchase price into small hits of $200-$500, the modular synth industry is undergoing a renaissance or sorts.  This seems to hold true from synths to sample libraries, to beat boxes, keyboards, and any number of cheap guitars, drum sets, etc.  By the time the price hits $1000, sales volume drops off rapidly.

In some ways, for many in the “first world”, the cost of new electronic and software music “widgets” has reached a point where new gear can be purchased regularly.  For software, it doesn’t even take up space in one’s home, so the clutter can become invisible.  This is very different than the world of physical instruments like trombones and pianos, where it takes thousands of dollars or tens of thousands of dollars to purchase an instrument.  Interestingly, once one has a fine concert instrument, there is often little felt need for another.  Additional instruments tend to be focused on other applications or significantly different tone colors.  With software, though, the tendency seems to be to keep adding and keep adding.

In an interview with Seth Godin, Krista Tippet uncovered a number of significant nuggets of thought from Seth that weigh on the selection of technology. At some level, the use of technology is inherent in music making.  Physical instruments are one form of technology.  Electronic instruments like guitars and basses are another.  Then we have the whole world of electronics, computers and software.  If it makes noise, humans will use it for music, it seems.  So how do we select technology for our music?

Seth offers several penetrating questions for evaluating technology:

  • Does this help me hide?
  • Does it carry artistic risk and motivate forward motion?
  • Does it make me uncomfortable as an artist?
  • Does it challenge me in making art?

Technology can easily help us hide.  It takes a lot of time to master most tools, making it far easier to purchase ever newer tools in a vain search for progress, when the progress comes from mastering what is right in front of us.  This phenomenon affects all artists who use technology from photographers, to musicians, studio owners, etc.  With the interconnectedness of the world, it can be a part-time job just keeping up on al the latest advancements in a field – all available for purchase, and all demonstrated by someone doing something amazing!

But, technology can also carry artistic risk and propel forward motion.  The Seaboard is this way for me.  I know it is very expressive, but how expressive can I make it?  Am I willing to find out?  There are no lessons for it – it is up to my own initiative. It looks at me and stares, daring me to find its limits.  I don’t know about its durability, permanence or the fate of the company.  I need to make things with it now, not later.  Being digital, it may not “keep” for 20 years.  It is a tool of the moment.

Computers have been making people uncomfortable for years, along with all the arcane software we have devised.  This is one way that technology can hinder art.  If we spend our time “geeking out”, that is usually a different space than the creative impulse.  Technology problems can definitely distract us right away from finishing things.  But, technology can also make us uncomfortable and goad us.  We may hear a new way to use something associated with dance music, heavy metal, or whatever and think – they haven’t begun to explore the goodness that I hear.  Good or bad?  I suppose it depends.

Does it challenge me in making art?  Do I wonder if I can measure up?  For some, this is exactly what turns them off about EDM – they feel that “anyone” can push buttons on a computer.  For others, the computer and a sequencer are a limitless playground offering constant chance for growth, experimentation and forward progress.

In all of this, “Musician, know thyself” seems to be the only lasting advice.  I find Seth’s framework helpful, and the questions insightful.  My office surrounds me with music technology, and I have a large investment into software and musical electronics. I spend many hours bending computers to my will for my orchestral template, my DSO project, and for composing and notating music.  And yet, I have been climbing off the acquisition treadmill. I don’t really need anymore subtractive synthesizers.  I don’t need another string library.  And I find my attention moving on from building my template to just sitting down and using it.  Ultimately we as artists must rule the technology and bend it to our will – it must not be allowed to seduce us from our mission of actually making things and striving to be more expressive and effective in our art.

Silver Polish and Elbow Grease

My trombone is an Edwards Allessi T-396.  It is a very fine instrument, and less than a year old.  I have handled it very carefully and cleaned it regularly as would befit a concert-level instrument.  In return, it always yields a beautiful tone and consistent response.  It is a joy to play.  You can imagine my concern when I noticed what seemed to be damage to the lead pipe from my holding the instrument.

The lead pipe is where the slide connects to the bell of the trombone.  It is also the primary point of contact with the left hand.  The left hand wraps around half of the lead pipe and carries most of the weight of the instrument.  Normally brass instruments are lacquered so that body oils and sweat do not tarnish the brass.  I was thinking that it was quite early in the life of the instrument to be wearing through the lacquer.

It took a couple of days, and then the penny dropped – I remembered that on this trombone, the lead pipe is silver!  It wasn’t a lacquer issue – it was just tarnish – tarnish that would come off with silver polish.  So, I set in with the polishing paste and was soon making a dent in it.  Apparently I should have caught this sooner as it was a fair bit of elbow grease, but I got it almost totally off.  You can see in the picture that there is still some that didn’t polish out, but it is MUCH better than where I started.  The small remainder will come off in a week when I clean the instrument again.  I am happy that I know what is going on, and that I can maintain the instrument properly from here out.  This wear will easily polish out with some more work.

Greatly reduced after quite a bit of scrubbing

Greatly reduced after quite a bit of scrubbing

To help reduce the maintenance I purchased a set of leather covers from Christian Greigo from his site.  I purchased the Symphonic Slide Kit.   This will keep direct hand contact off the silver lead pipe and reduce the time that I spend polishing.  Christian is the designer of the Alessi model, and one of the leading brass instrument designers in the country.  I happen to have one of his mouthpieces on my instrument as well, so it was an easy choice for $25.  I’m sure I’ll still have some occasional work to do, but now I know how to keep my horn in like new condition.  It is too large an investment not to care for it in an optimal way.

Excellence Observed: James Markey

Trombonist James Markey holds the bass trombone chair at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, after stints in Philadelphia and NYC.  He is a fine player in all respects, as you might expect for someone who has played in not one but three of our country’s leading orchestras.  In 2003, he released an album titled “Offroad”, on the tenor trombone.  It was recommended to me by my trombone teacher as an example of near perfect playing and articulation.  I have been listening to the album regularly and using it to hone my expectation for what comes out the bell of my horn.  His playing is lyrical, expressive, and highlights the best parts of trombone tone from soft and mellow to biting fortissimo.  His legato is particularly excellent, and he seems able to phrase anything to perfection.  His recordings are a clinic on beautiful and excellent trombone playing.  Highly recommended.

In 2009, he released an album specifically for the bass trombone entitled “on base”.  Both are on Spotify, or available online through the usual channels.

Here’s a recent interview where he discusses his background and history with the instrument.

 

 

Seaboard 30 day Update

Well,  I have had the Seaboard for a month now!  After the initial exploration of finding out how it worked, what its range of expression is, etc, I have now settled down to just using it.  At the moment, my focus is mostly on playing it.  I still have not begun crafting unique sounds for it.  Sound design is usually time-consuming and right now, my time is better spent on actually playing it, and getting the necessary work done in Max for the organ console functions I’m building for the DSO.

It is a very expressive keyboard.  I am getting much more even responses from it as my fingers are growing accustomed to the surface. It is now rare to get notes that stick out due to excessive velocity.  My work on the DSO is typically in 2-4 parts, and rarely a solo line.  The Seaboard offers the ability to use poly-pressure to accent voices in a chord, or swell held notes, etc.  I still have much to learn in this regard.

It is clear that the Seaboard works as a very expressive solo instrument.  Can I match Edmund Eagen’s Continuum work?  Not yet, not even close.  The continuum has three dimensions of real-time control, and Eagen is a master sound designer.  His custom Continuum sounds are quite well done.  The reality is that the Seaboard should be capable of equal expression.  The missing third dimension of control can easily be supplied by a pedal input.  As time progresses and these get into more musicians hands, I’m sure we will see increasingly expressive work come out.  For myself, the musicality of Eagen’s work is a target for what I get out of the Seaboard.

I think that the primary benefit of the Seaboard as an alternate controller is in the familiar tonal spacing and organization of the keyboard.  For pure solo expression, I suspect a Continuum is more direct, and the half-size version is more than adequate for soloing.  As tempo increases, per-note expressiveness decreases – one’s finger is just not in contact with the surface as much.  It is little wonder than many of the demonstrations of these controllers feature slower tempos where one can really “work” the notes.  Those are the kinds of pieces that show the unique capabilities of these instruments.

So, after a month, I am mostly in playing mode.  First comes the playing, then maximizing expressiveness, then application to musical context.  This will continue to be a rewarding journey.

Thoughts on Seaboard fingering

As I continue to learn how to play the Seaboard, the ability to play the black-key-notes in-between the white keys continues to provide interesting results.  I notice the possibilities especially when playing consecutive thirds.  In a key like E with plenty of black key notes, the hand hardly has to move. There is no need to move up and down off the black keys, and the simple shift of a finger or thumb can grab the next note.

So far, I have had no trouble switching back and forth between a regular piano keyboard and the Seaboard.  On the Seaboard, I am approaching it as a new instrument with its own technique, and so, I am making maximum use of the new black key location.  My goal is a leas-motion, effortless technique, and the Seaboard has new possibilities in this regard.

As I continue playing the Seaboard, I’m sure that I will continue to uncover interesting possibilities.

New VAX from Infinite Response!

Long-time readers (and occasional Google searcher for VAX77 related sites) know that I have one of the original VAX77’s from Infinite Response.  It has been a wonderful keyboard, and is the most expressive piano-action keyboard I’ve played.  With the high-resolution MIDI it is a joy to play Pianoteq and other pianos on it.  It is the standard keyboard at my desk for composing music.  When gigging out, the folding feature has been nothing short of brilliant – the whole keyboard fits in a suitcase sized rolling case and weighs less than 50lbs – a far cry from a full workstation!

 

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1200817609/vax-midi-keyboard-controller

 

 

A bit over a year ago, the folk at Infinite Response stopped updating their website and left it with a note saying  that they were shifting to researching a way to lower the cost and improve the VAX and stopped taking orders.  A few weeks ago, a banner said that there would soon be a Kickstarter, and indeed, it is here!

From the video, it does look like they’ve made a better keyboard, and have a simple, reliable sensing mechanism.  They have also hit a great price point, with 88-note versions available for as low as $700 on the Kickstarter.  They have a special “limited-edition” white that is only available during the Kickstarter window.  When I bought my VAX77, I elected for the fire-engine red model, though apparently, they sold very, very few of them and ultimately only sold black.  I figured that all keyboards (except Nords…) are black, why not get red?

Should I get one?  Probably not.  My VAX77 is in perfect working condition, and is still a joy to play.  I don’t really need another piano-style controller.  If you are in the market for one, you should check this out.  I’m sure if the key action is improved from a VAX77, it will be a very special action to play.  I like what I have much better than any weighted action I’ve played on a workstation or digital piano.

Satisfaction

Here in the States, Monday has been a holiday to celebrate the accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I was able to get a whole piece written and sketched out for a project I am working on with a vocalist.  It isn’t ready for release yet, but so satisfying to get down piano, strings, drums, etc in a way that has the complete musical idea.  Those of you that produce commercial tracks know how much work goes into the actual production, but I have that happy feeling of having been creative and finishing a project.

Lighted Pistons for the DSO in Max!

I have written previously about my decision to use an off-the-shelf box of MIDI buttons to serve as stop control.  The MIDIfighter 3D sends MIDI notes as its data output.  It also can receive MIDI notes, with different velocities indicating to the unit what color it should make the rings around each button.  When the MIDIfighter receives a note-on, this overrides whatever the normal “off” setting is for each ring, and persists until it receives a note-off message.

In this way it is possible for me to preset the MIDIfighter with my own color scheme to organize the buttons.  I can use a color for couplers, a different one for combinations, something for individual stops, etc.  Then, when I select one by pushing a button, I can use Max to generate a Note-On message with appropriate velocity to provide a visual indication of what is selected.  When I push the button again or “retire the stop”, then Max will send a Note-Off message, returning the button to its default color.  In the world of virtual organs – this is something that not all sample sets support in Hauptwerk.   With the proper Max patch, the DSO will have lighted pistons!

Lighted_Pistons

With this patch, I learned a number of new things about Max, particularly about its internal order of operations, which are quite important in the signal flow of this patch.  At the very top of the patch, I use the “notein” object to only take note data from the MIDIfighter – it can also send out CC data due to accelerometers in it on two axis, but I don’t want that data.   The “stripnote” object ensures that I only see note-on messages – it tosses note-off objects on the floor.  This is perfect, because I only need the note-ons, and will generate the note-offs myself in the rest of the patch.  I actually only need the note-number, which is why I only use the leftmost outlet of this object.  The integer box is just so I can see what is happening, and the “clear” message zero’s the array for debugging when clicked – in normal use it does nothing.

The real action depends on the next two boxes – the “table” object and the “value” object.  I knew there had to be the equivalent of a traditional array in Max, just like every other language, and sure enough, that is what the table object is.  It defaults to having 128 rows, which is perfect for receiving note values.  By default the table is all 0’s, which is perfect.  I have 64 possible note values, spread across 4 “pages” of the MIDIfighter’s buttons.  By giving the table a name, it becomes globally referenceable in the patch, which we will need to make this work.  The “value” object serves to create a global variable named notenum that I can reference later.

The actual program logic works as follows:

1. Take the note number and look it up in the buttons table.

2. If that value is “0”, then we currently “Off” and need to turn “On”

a) set the value in buttons to “1” to indicate that we are “on”

b) send the appropriate MIDI note to the MIDIfighter to change the ring color

3. If the value is “1”, then we are already “On”, and need to turn “OFF”

a) set the value in buttons to “0” to indicate that we are “off”

b) send the appropriate MIDI note-off to the MIDIfighter to change the ring color back to default

It is a very simple state machine, with the state held in an array.

The order of operations becomes very important throughout the bottom portion of the patch, and things are lined up left-to-right in a very intentionally.  Execution is from right-to-left and then depth-before breadth.  So for the “table buttons” objects, they execute when triggered by their Left inlet.  That means that I need to have the value I want to set at the right inlet BEFORE the notenumber triggers the table insert operation.  Max is an interesting language.  A lot of the function of objects is built into the order and inlets of the object.  Reading the documentation is mandatory for sorting out how to get the results you wish.  This same logic applies to the “noteout” object at the very bottom of the patch.  It receives data right to left, so that when it finally gets the notenumber input on its left-most inlet, it has everything it needs to form the note correctly and send it out to the MIDIfighter.

So this was a fun little exercise.  I had a bit of logic debugging to fully understand the order of operations as applied to the objects I was using, but in the end I learned several things:  how to use arrays, how to declare and use global variables, that the “if…then” statement could directly output a gate or “bang” as Max calls it.

Lit Stop Buttons Clearly Show State

Lit Stop Buttons Clearly Show State

The lighting part was the trickiest part.  I now have button state held in a global array, so it should be trivial to use this state to open and close ranks, send MIDI panics, etc.  We’ll be getting to those as the project progresses and the console comes to life!  These LED rings become more visible the less stage light there is, and so will be viable in all lighting conditions.

Future work will involve choosing a final color scheme and then adding logic so that the “off” and “on” colors correspond to brighter and dimmer versions of the same color across all 64 buttons.  I will leave un-used buttons completely dark so they are not confusing.  Some buttons, like the general cancel and MIDI panic buttons will not be latching, and will need to be filtered out before this logic takes place.  All of that is simple work that will easily build on top of this foundation.

Working with the MIDIFighters

The primary way of modifying the color and behavior of the MIDIfighters is through a small software utility DJ TechTools calls “mfUtiliy”.

How to work with Midifighters

How to work with Midifighters

Using this tool, I can easily set the default “on” and “off” colors for each button, on each of the 4 layers.   The “off” colors are the outside ring, the “on” colors are the button center.  The actual buttons are solid black plastic and do not light up, this is just a GUI thing.

I find the Midifighter 3D very powerful, because I am never more than one button away from any other bank, so it really is 64 buttons in an 8×8″ cube.  There is extensive integration with Traktor DJ software and Ableton, but I ignore all of that.  The mfUtility application sets up the base unit, and then my Max code can change the LED ring to the “on” color for me, and maintain it until I clear the stop or coupler manually.

mfUtility is also used to flash the firmware.  I had a problem with my Midfighter Twister the first time I used the application.  It suggested that an update was needed, so I dutifully pushed the button.  It downloaded new firmware, and erased the flash, and then failed to load the new image onto the device.  This bricked the unit, and it was completely non-responsive to all recovery efforts.  DJ TechTools RMA’d it without question and sent a FedEx envelope for the return, which was a nice touch.  They have been a pleasure to communicate with after the sale and quite helpful.  As with all things computer, if you don’t know what a firmware update is going to buy you, it may not be worth doing!

The unit has a bunch of very flashy animations that can happen when you push a button.  I suppose they would video well for the DJ booth shot videos. For my application, the button animations are simply distracting, so I turned them all off.  I will devise a color scheme to mark buttons for stops, combinations, couplers, MIDI panic, etc.

The guide for using MIDI note-on messages with the MIDIfighter 3D seems to be here, but my unit with current firmware does not match that guide at all.   Contacting DJ Tech Tools, I was told to download the guide from their Spectra.  This guide exactly matches my unit, and allows me to do what I want to do.  This chart from the manual has the correct velocities.

Correct Midifighter MIDI Assignment

Correct Midifighter MIDI Assignment

For me, the basic workflow is to use the mfUtility software to set the default “off” state of the buttons in each layer to the lighter version of a color.  Then I use Max to set the “On” color to the brightest value for that color when I push the button.  In this way, the color-coding of stops will always be apparent whether latched on or off.  This will be important for manually changing registration on the fly.

The mfUtility software is basic and has been a mixed experience for me.  On my OSX 10.9.4 laptop, it works fine with my Midifighter 3D.  On my OSX 10.9.4 Mac Pro, it insists that my Midifighter 3D has old firmware and refuses to work without flashing the device.  After my negative experience with bricking my Twister, I’m not about to let it touch what works fine on my laptop.  Once I get my devices fully setup, I doubt I will have much ongoing need, so this is teething issues, I suspect.

So, I think my summary is that I like the hardware, but the software utility is not inspiring confidence.  Several of the controls don’t seem to do what the manual says (at least until you get the right manual).  That said, they seem like a reliable controller in the physical domain, and I will be using Max to make them what I desire in the MIDI domain.  They very reliably sent and receive MIDI, and really, that is all I need them to do.  I know the firmware is mostly made for DJ’s running DJ software, so there may be subtleties there that I am just not hip to, and reasons why my experience has been what it is.  I suspect that most use these on factory defaults with DJ software.  I just want it to be a box of knobs or a box of buttons as appropriate.

Axoloti: A digital modular synth project

The Axoloti Indigogo project is extremely interesting to any synthesizer-oriented musician.  Details here:

There are software modular synths – Native Instruments Reaktor comes immediately to mind, for example, and is extremely deep and powerful.  Arguably one could do almost anything in it.  This project is interesting because once you make a patch, the patch is compiled and loaded into the onboard memory of the circuit board.  The unit is then a stand-alone hardware synth that plays that sound – no computer, no Mainstage, no VSTs or AUs.  It is about 10 voice polyphonic on a 3 oscillator patch, which is really quite good.

As an open source project, all the source code is available and so, anyone can modify, add, etc. as interested.

Some will use this as a guitar effects box, or a delay unit, etc.  I will use it as a small stand-alone synth voice that adds polyphony without burdening any of my computers or other synths.  I can build a signature sound into it, and then that sound is always available!  I suspect that some kind of patch storage is coming, but even if not, the rich data from the Seaboard should be able to drive a very expressive lead sound or something cool.

The ability to have a truly modular and flexibly patched synthesizer for a mere 60 Euro is a great deal, and I’m looking forward to getting mine.  The campaign is fully funded, so if you are interested, place an other and get one of these while they are available.

 

 

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