Its 2017 and we still have USB conflicts in music technology!

Bloody soundcards what are they like? Or rather USB conflicts…

I’m setting up my rig for upcoming performance with a borrowed soundcard, a MOTU ultralite MK3 hybrid. I’ve used this device before and it has worked well with my synths, and been stable- even functioning on a USB3 hub!

However this time I connected my synths that I’m using live via USB for MIDI and clock syncing purposes – this were Novation Ultranova,  Roland System 1, Roland TB3, Roland Boutique JX-03. (also a Volca Beats but that not on USB so wasn’t a problem) and a firmware-updated Arturia Beatstep pro.

I’ve had all these items a while, but at home I’ve been running them on 5-pin din MIDI with no problems.


However when I connected this lot up by USB it spectacularly crashed both Ableton and the MOTU driver – meaning even force-quitting ableton was a problem as it kept trying to reload the MOTU driver.

The problem

After many restarts and complete reboots involving taking out the laptop battery and going though each unit one by one I diagnosed the problem: Each of these units has its own soundcard which can be used to stream audio as well as MIDI over USB. Ableton can only handle one soundcard being connected, and what appears to happen is a conflict arises when all these devices are turned on and presented at once to the PC and even though Ableton has a convenient pull down menu that allows one to select the appropriate soundcard, obviously under the hood there’s is some scanning and recognition going on. Ableton recognises all the devices as soundcards but then won’t load the MOTU one correctly!

The solution

After an afternoon trying different things I found the workround:

  1. Load Ableton
  2. Turn on MOTU soundcard first
  3. turn all the other devices on after

After much testing this seems to work time after time.

Where’s the fault?

I’ve had some of these units in my studio at home on USB without conflict with an M-audio soundcard – the MOTU drivers are the latest and both Ableton and Windows are up to date.

The obvious thing to say that this lies somewhere between Ableton and MOTU but a major issue must be manufacturers not making class compliant devices can’t be helping – 17 years ago this was a common problem, but 17 years later should we still having these issues?


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Using your sampler as a synth

In this blog Im going to show how a sampler can easily be used a synthesizer with some interesting effects using granular sampling techniques. This can be done with any sampler software or hardware, in fact many hardware samplers used to come with standard analogue waveforms of Triangle, Saw and Square for this purpose. However one advantage to using a sampler as a synth is the complex asymmetrical waveforms that a conventional oscillator wouldn’t generate (at least without some serious modulation) that can be found in nature.

In these examples Im going to use Ableton Lives Simpler, but as Ive said above, this will work on most samplers.

Single Cycle

Load in a sample, any that sounds interesting to you, and zoom in as far as possible,  until you can find one cycle that goes between the centre line, the peak, the trough and finally back to the centre line, as in this example

Simpler 1

Immediately we can see over this one cycle that the waveform is quite interesting. Important point is to set the beginning and end pointers to the points where the wave crosses the centreline- if not one can get some annoying clicks as the wave will suddenly go from a value to 0, which generates the click. As you can see here, I have a <snap> option enabled which does this for me-

Tune it

Once you’ve found an interesting sound you need to tune it if you’re going to use it harmonically with other instruments- most samplers will allow you to tune in cents, and if required, transpose, therefore you can tune it to C on the keyboard, or in fact any other note. Sometimes its best to tune to the note its closest to and use that as a root, so if its closeset to Bb for example, tune your sample to Bb, then the sampler will transpose every note to the left and right of Bb. One thing to note is if you widen the window of the sample that your playing, you often have to re-tune it.

Play it

You are now ready to set filters and amp/ filter ADSRs as you would on any synth. Try chords to check if you need to fine tune either the sample loop selection or the tuning.

Multiple cycles- Widening the loop window

Of course one doesn’t have to be restricted to single cycles; you can widen the window more and more until you’re playing the full sample, however on the way some interesting effects will appear, and they will be unique to where the sample loop is played on the keyboard

Simpler 2

In this example, the selection is more complex and the effect can be less predictable, but as a rule as the selection gets wider rhythms/ beats can appear, and these will change in speed/ depth depending on what notes drive the sampler- these can make some really interesting pad sounds, given the right effects or even used as rhythm tracks. Thong to do is experiment and see what takes your fancy, then develop it.

Note: If you keep transposing up a rhythm it ultimately becomes a timbre (sound), if you keep transposing a sound (timbre) downwards it becomes a rhythm and thus here something rasping, buzzing in the upper end of keyboard, will be much slower down to the left of the keyboard, and can become a rhythm of some sort.

Other things you might like to try:

A granular sampler will have the feature of being able to move the loop window though the entire sample as you hold a note down, which means you can get a constantly evolving sound- and there are often features to run more than one at a time, enabling “clouds” of sounds to be generated

Granulator II by Monolake is a free granular sample for Max4Live/ Ableton which has some really cool features

Theres a fair few around in VST format- (though as I use granulator Ive not checked them out, but a quick google search will get some results)

Run it through an analogue synth if you have one.  If you have an analogue synth with an input, send the output from sampler into the analogue synths input and use the real analogue filters, if the synth has an envelope follower set it to incoming signal level then you can use ADSR on the synth instead of sampler- see which works best for you.





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Roland Boutique JX-03 and process piece


The Roland Boutiques have been out a while now- and I fancied one since my partner Chrissie bought one – the JU-06 on a whim when they first became available and supposedly limited edition. One year on they’re still making them and have since expanded the range, and finally I had the opportunity to own one- I opted for the JX-03, for started it imitates a synth from the 1980s that I really liked back then- only this time with knobs on!

I found it a really effective tool, and what was great, its footprint was tiny, it was light (could get it easily in an overnight bag, will run on batteries and micro USB), much better built than I imagined, knobs are sturdy and top is nice and solid.. Also has 5 pin din MIDI in (very useful if you have driver/USB issues on computer) and % pin din MIDI out- this can be used to connect to another model (of the same type) to double the voices from 4 to 8 note polyphony, and it needn’t end there- people on youtube have demos of connecting 3 or 4 units up in this way.

Having already a Roland System-1 in my studio and live rig, I was quite happy with the ACB VA that Roland have implemented in these models- it can give really nice results, and its interaction is good enough for on-the-spot live tweaking (via a manual button which immediately sets the sounds to what the knobs are set to)- each of these models (the JU, JX and JP) also have a sequencer inside- though its use can be a bit clunky- if you want to change pattern lengths whilst running (this is part of my live practice), however its there and its useful none the less. Theres more here on the Roland Boutiques

Onto the piece. I had a formscheme for a while for a minimalist, evolving piece along the lines of Howard Skemptons Tendrils since last years muspro conference, with a voicing of notes G,D,A,A#,B,F and C, and for 3 parts- which easily fit into the 4 voice polyphony of the Jx-03. The one downside was I wanted to use different timbres on the 3 voices so I had to multitrack it as the JX-03 is not multitimbral- but thats no way an issue. The sounds you hear pretty much out of the box of the JX, they’re not presets, but the only thing Ive added is some Reverb and delay. The silent spaces in the piece are absolute key to the structure.

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Electromatronic 4 at Sonophilia, Lincoln 2nd October 2016

We were delighted to be asked by Amie Slavin to host an Electromatronic evening as part of Sonophilia, Lincolns festival of Sound and Music at St Nicholas Church, Lincoln. For this event we curated…

Source: Electromatronic 4 at Sonophilia, Lincoln 2nd October 2016

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Electromatronic 3 at Margate

We started out Autumn series mini-tour at the wonderful Tom Thumb Theatre in Margate. This lovely intimate space made for a different atmosphere than the usual large open spaces we’ve played …

Source: Electromatronic 3 at Margate

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Music Fail- God that sounds shit

There was an article posted in the Guardian website recently entitled Audio Fail  that has got a lot of people in a lather; sound artists foamed at the mouth and spat blood on Facebook whilst more traditional composers behaved rather smugly (which I found far more annoying) and appeared to gloat about it being a lesser art and such. I’m not going to dwell on that here for reason of my blood pressure and I’ll likely start shouting but you can read the original article here.

On to my music fail. I was cordially invited to submit a work for headphones, which turned out to be a short deadline with a brief/ theme which was a rather bad pun. This is quite common and normally turn me right off to the point that I then normally avoid sending anything in- the last one I encountered which was for a call for a large multi channel concert and the brief was a single line/word/pun “Techno-logical” Although this was of course an electroacoustic concert, that pun left me totally cold; it gave nothing, no reaction, not a start. So I didn’t bother and got on with other projects. I have heard far better ideas from sixth form students, that really did offer creative possibilities, so no work submitted from me:fair enough.

So when I checked up on this project I was quite angry to be confronted with something similar. Angry enough to want to write a quite reactionary piece, based on a great modernist painting from 1916, that’s often interpreted as an anti-war statement (the artist was far more reluctant to say as such in his papers), the painting was significant in view of the anniversary of the battle of the Somme, seemed like a sound footing, I thought about it Wednesday, on Thursday I had the overall structure, yesterday I had the essential elements scored in notation, I started tracking last night, and finished today, I was going to allow tomorrow (Sunday) to mix it, in time for deadline on Monday.

I listened to it back today, many times, had breaks from listening and came to the same conclusion each time: This is cheesy rubbish and not worth continuing with.

Why this piece is crap

There is a bad tradition that mostly applies to singer/songwriters and pop songs in particular that suggests they can allude more to their subjects by putting in sound effects that relate directly to the subject matter, its sledgehammer wit at its worst. I might add this is not a practice purely confined to songs, it has appeared in “serious” music as well and the effect is much the same

Another bad idea was take a well known theme and transpose/ mutate it. This works well for quotations inserted for dramatic effect, but anything larger structurally sounds mostly  very weak; because nothing is being added from the composer, there’s not a commentary line from the composer, its only a mutation of an existing work, which whilst many would recognise, without anything more it sounds lazy and pointless.

Temptation : I love my step sequencer tools; they allow precise playback of very complex structures that I can intervene, manipulate, perform etc in real time, The downside is of course its very easy to get carried away with and not think about end effect- which is what happened with the percussion, See sledgehammer wit above.

Moral: Reactionary music needs more than the obvious for it to have real artistic value, its never as easy as it appears at the point of anger, much like getting into a heated argument/ shouting match with someone, serious content can get pushed aside in favour of something louder, harder, more aggressive which on listen back or read back, often amounts to bluster but little else. Its not easy to make good* art and that is irrespective of genre

* I use that term widely





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Review: Tristram Cary Exhibition and concert 9th April 2016

There is a popular but hugely inaccurate thought that anything experimental, cutting edge, avant garde or in anyway progressive happens in big cosmopolitan cities. Although there is lots of historical evidence of this, its by no means the whole picture, which is why on a wet Saturday afternoon and despite some very annoying set backs during the day, I headed up the A12, past Ipswich and on the bleak A140 to Diss (pop 40,000); a small town in the centre of East Anglia, surrounded mostly by large,flat agricultural fields, small villages, a few industrial estates and not much else. I’m here  to see and exhibition and evening concert of the music of Tristram Cary (Im going write a future blog as part of my unsung composer series), a pioneer of British electronic music and co-inventor of the EMS VCS3, who worked in a house with a modest tin hut for a studio about the size of a garage  just outside Fressingfield (pop 900), about 15 miles east of Diss.

The event consisted of a case of memorabilia in the local museum, with many items being provided by his son John Cary, including the prototype VCS3, with handwritten parameters on the control knobs, often crossed out and overwritten in red ink, a 78rpm disc cutting lathe, which was his first recording device before he could get a tape recorder, lots of references to commercial films and TV programmes that he provided electronic music for and other memorabilia. My one comment is that it needed more than a single display cabinet as there ws too much crammed into one space, with result that smaller items such as some handwritten cards couldn’t be ready properly.

There was also a TV showing a rare interview recorded by ABC in Australia from a later period in his life, with some fascinating anecdotes, and next to the display cabinet an ipad running a VCS3 softsynth was on hand for people to play with, which proved quite popular.

Update: Exhibition extended to 7th May 2016

Evening concert:

The concert was very well attended to the extent that extra chairs had to be put out, I was beginning to wish I had taken up Tristrans offer of emailing to reserve a seat as they were all rapidly taken up. The concert started with a quick introduction from John Cary, Tristrams son after which the first item on the concert programme was a showing of the 2006 documentary by ABC Australia “What the future sounded like”, a half hour potted history of Tristrams involvement in the early post war British electronic music scene and how he, Peter Zinovieff and David Cockerill came to found EMS, develop the VCS3 and its wider influence on music in the late 60s, early 70s.

First of the concert pieces was “Trios” written in 1971, and first performed at the Cheltenham Festival of that year- this “chance” piece was written for a pre-recorded tape of VCS3 parts and two performers with turntables and dice sets; 16 parts are pre-recorded on the tape and a further 16 parts each on two discs (in this case CDs) the players roll a dice set each which gives them the index number of the track to play- thus each performance is unique an cant be repeated. The pre-recorded tape was played back on a vintage reel-to-reel and the performers Ian Helliwell and Tristan Burfield had a CD deck each, with parts on CD. The end result was an interesting combination of textures and melodic elements. The sound quality was excellent, I wondered if I was hearing the original tape (Cary was an excellent producer) or weather the tape part had been re-recorded in recent years. The abstract quality of the music seems to have survived well over the years, and this is mostly due to the composed parts and the overall composition being thought out well.

There is a version on youtube here

The second and final piece “Narcissus” is possibly his best known live work, written in 1970, for flute and prepared tape (in this case Max/MSP patch) where the flute is recorded, then played back and the flute then plays over it- the performers Simon Desorgher (flute) and Lawrence Casserley (laptop) were both students of Cary at the RCM and know this piece well, the prepared tape part being expertly turned into Max/MSP patch and carefully re-creating the prepared parts of the tape; on the tape sections were cut out and replaced with tape leader so the incoming signal was only partly recorded before being played back, often making sounds from tremoloed  stutterings to soft fragmented melodies. This piece feels quite contemporary with subtle transformations as opposed to big changes and effects, especially filteration and delay normally associated with the late 60s/ early 70s live tape pieces.

The concert was very well received, and its time Tristram Carys work was heard more regularly, in my opinion.



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