The dark enigma of USB hubs and Ableton Live 9

So I bought a new synth (Waldorf Blofeld, which Im very pleased with, see later blog review) but of course, now run out of USB ports to drive it. On top of that the old port is not powered and having the Waldorf Steichfett (which is bus powered, although AC usb adapter is supplied) on one of those plugged into the laptop was beginning to worry me about current drain, in fact the laptop was getting noticeably warmer, so time for a decent powered USB.

Bear in mind Im a self confessed tech man, theres always the chance in the not so far future of buying another thing that needs USB so I went and purchased a 10 slot USB2 hub for future expansion. Got it home plugged it all in, computer recognised everything and off we go.

The problems started when I came to use Ableton Live 9

Abelton recognised all the connected devices immediately, so I set about testing this out.

Now at this point I admit I have a complex connection set up

Heres my USB connections

1. Goes to MOTU MIDI Hub- This is a 5 in, 5 out 5 pin DIN MIDI hub for the 5 synths on my 19″ rack (actually 7 as I use MIDI though on a couple of channels)

2. Goes to Waldorf Streichfett

3. Goes to Waldorf Blofeld

4. Goes to Arturia Microbrute

5. Korg nanoKontrol II (useful little control surface)

6. Novation Launchpad

7. Arturia Beatstep

8. USB 2 connection to 8 in/ 8 out audio interface (has its own port on laptop)

9. Goes to Controller Keyboard

In addition I have another MIDI controller keyboard which connects via 5 pin DIN MIDI (see connection 1) – I like having a 2 manual keyboard set up with different synths on each

Obviously not all of this was used at the same time- but most connected via a non powered 4 USB hub and two other USB ports on the computer.

The issue with Ableton was that although it recognised all connections, two things happened. The controller keyboard and the beatstep would conflict- which meant if one channel opened first, it would take MIDI from that and not the other- so if I opened both channels for record, if I touched the keyboard, the channel with the beatstep on it wouldnt record any MIDI data- and vice versa. The other thing is the nanoKontrol would crash and hang up.

So I spent the whole of yesterday (Saturday afternoon) mucking around changing ports, channels on devices etc to no avail. I set up a complex channel/port thing yesterday evening, which seemed to cure all the problems. When I booted up this morning, back to square 1, GRRRRRRR!

I was now get a bit annoyed as these devices had worked together on the previous USB hub. And there in lay the solution. I dug out the old USB hub, plugged one end into the new powered hub, and the the devices I had issues with, into the old hub. So now I have daisychained the old 4 way USB hub into one of the slots on the new hub, with the conflicting inputs in the old hub. And……..it bloody well works! Ive done several reboots and restarts of the complete system and all is stable and working fine!!

The only logical (ish) conclusion I can come two is this: The old hub is USB1, the new hub is USB2. I read in a technical forum somewhere that many devices that use USB to send receive MIDI data are still using USB1 protocols (dont know why, if true) and somehow between this and Ableton a conflict arises. But by plugging the conflicting devices into the old hub and connecting that to the new USB2 hub seems to cure the problem. This is just my observation and guesswork, I really cant explain why this cure works; in all other cases Ive found USB2 to be reverse compatible.

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Drum machine music research

As part of my drive to explore modern instruments in a new music context I’ve become interested in using drum machines outside of their orthodox pop/techno/EDM roles. The appeal of drum machines for both myself and practitioners in EDM is the fact they failed miserably in their original intentions of emulating a live drummer- both the sounds and the playing was nothing like the real thing- and its this aspect that people actually like. Over the years with sampling technology they’ve got much closer to the real thing, but in many ways become less useful, partly because being neither one thing or the other presents problems with usage, and as such ‘realistic’ ones tend to be confined to rehearsal rooms for rock bands or on song demos.

However the original ticky-tacky sounds of early machines like the TR 808 or 909 have found their own usage, and as such, the sounds are much sampled and of late, reissued in updated hardware formats.

Its these sounds Im largely interested in because to me, they are another form of synthesizer, but with a different role. The early drum machines had this very simplistic nature of rhythm- they didnt swing, didnt do triplets very well (dividing was too precise) and couldnt really do humanistic ‘groove’. Its these very metronomic sound that interests me. So I put a question on both twitter and facebook to find modern composers who are using them. The response has generated some interesting stuff, of which I knew little, if anything of, before.

Heres what social media came up with

http://blackcirclerecords.bandcamp.com/album/artists-for-laetitia-schteinberg

http://createdigitalmusic.com/2015/03/watch-mechanical-drum-machine-uses-wheels-magnets-video/

http://freemusicarchive.org/music/MonosovSwirnoff_1871/Collected_Works_Of_Ilya_Monosov/MonosovSwirnoffCompositionForTapeOr

All of which are very interesting to me-

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First Electromatronic concert 30th May 2015

For a while Ive wanted to promote & explore live electronic art music, which I feel is still underexplored, at least in the UK. Having collaborated successfully several times with Automatronic, which was set up by a collective of organists to explore the pipe organ with electronics in a contemporary context, so myself and Chrissie Caulfield set up Electromatronic to explore live electronics without the pipe organ. We intend a series of concerts, across the UK, with collaborations with local sound artists/ electronic art music practitioners as well as people we collaborate with.

On the first concert we had two fixed media pieces from Huw Morgan and Michael Bonaventure (both Automatronic organists/composers) which did not feature the organ. We had three live acts which comprised of

Charles Celeste Hutchins- improvisation with Analogue modular Synth

Panelak- Exciting performance artist using an array of small portable devices with effects, neatly housed on a tea trolley

CSMA- (myself and Chrissie Caulfield) with our synth collection, performing  two pieces:

1. Synth and deck improvisation- in this piece I play my synthesizers which are live sampled by Chrissies software application (which she developed herself for a previous project) and manipulated by deck controllers-

2. The sleepless fox- This was a piece composed specifically for this concert, from texts about a far east pirate, there is a video diary about composing this piece here

We had a good audience, and an informal review from Tony Matthews:

Went to a concert of new electronic music. It was interesting. I knew I wasn’t going to hear anything I was used to, and I was correct in this assumption. It was a varied experience, at worst it was boring. In a attempt to be new and “wow” the basic concept of what makes a piece of music work had gone out of the window and as a result I was not engaged in its sound world. However, that was only two of the six works on show. There was a performance artist who after initial misgivings, I found myself warming to. The best work was the finale. Yes it was full of electronic trickery with weird and wonderful sounds and harmonies but it was skilfully controlled and, most important of all, it had a structure. There were ideas that returned, passages that were fleetingly tonal. These concepts meant this work was an evolution of music, building on what has worked for centuries to provide a satisfying music experience. So Stuart Russell and Chris. well done. You have inspired me to try out some of these techniques. Meanwhile, it’s back to the school musical, B-flat and 4/4 time.

We would like to thank Huw Morgan and the Vicar of St Laurence Church, Catford for hosting and the staff of the Clarendon Hotel for helping to carry all the gear up 4 flights of stairs!

Call out for locations and dates: we have collaborators for the next Electromatronic concert, but we would be interested to hear from anyone who would like to host this project or collaborate in a particular location on a tour in 2016

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Inveniam Viam

This years RPM challenge is the first one where Ive used solely hardware synthesizers since tape days in the 1980s. The album is about North Pole exploration (theres a PDF inside which explains all of the tracks, the title, background etc, so Im not going to repeat this here) and it was very tempting to use all manner or archive field recordings and extract with granular sampling etc. But that is exactly what I didn’t want to do- for starters Ive not been there, so I really don’t have any context for the samples other than whats been published about them, and more importantly, this is now too common an approach, so I thought this was an opportunity for a re-think.

What I decided to do is quite old hat in a way; to give an impression with artificial, synthetic means. This was a mainstream synthesizer approach back in the 1970s, and as such certain key “Krautrock” albums acted as a starting point, namely the early Klaus Schulze albums, and the 1970s Tangerine Dream albums. In the case of Tangerine Dream, their skill at (often cheesily) creating sonic impressions landed them some lucrative Hollywood soundtrack commissions in the 1980s, This genre/ approach now has a name “Berlin School of Electronics” which typically consists of sequencer/ arpeggiator patterns, in counterpoint, which nods at American Minimalism in its patterning, but is often layered against the beat with synth solos, pads etc.

What interested me, however, was the use of pads, which I think can be further explored with modern effects (together with the more usual sequencer parts). I used 4 hardware synths on this album;  The Korg MS20 Mini, the Arturia Microbrute, The Waldorf Streichfett and the EMU virtuoso. In particular the EMU virtuoso is capable of being much more than a hardware sound library, which I blogged about here, and the Streichfett I reviewed here There are no softsynths or max patches in use on this album.

As a result of this being without field recordings, this is a much more ‘notey’ album with the textures being made of complex harmonies as well as synth sounds- and I’m quite pleased how these two domains came together on this album.

The main thing I noticed about working this way is how little post production I had to do; all I had was a teeny bit of compression, and effect chains for the two monosynths (which traditionally would be things like a Roland space echo and or a few guitar delay pedals) so much of it was tracked very quickly and cleanly straight into Ableton Live 9.

The album is reviewed on the Scattlerfilter blog here

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Unsung electronic composers: John Baker of the Radiophonic Workshop

John Baker was one of the first pioneers at the BBC radiophonic workshop, he was very different from the others in that he came from a strictly musical background rather than a technical one, but he could and did apply himself to get some very good results from the primitive technology available at the time. Born in Leigh on sea, Essex, and obvious prodigal musical talent emerged when in his early teens, he took the then conventional route to serious music, studying piano and composition and the Royal Academy of Music, became GRSM (graduate of Royal School of music) and that working as a Jazz pianist, as Desmond Briscoe put it “Very elegant pianist at both the light end and the serious end”¹ Johns love was Jazz, and he had various live gigs in Southend on Sea. Then in 1960 he joined the BBC at Bush House as a studio manager from there he moved to the Radiophonic Workshop in 1963.

Early Days

Johns initial approach was very different from the others: he shared his time at the workshop with the other legendary pioneer Delia Derbyshire, and musically the two were like chalk and cheese, and I can easily imagine how John would therefore be a huge asset to the department because he could easily cover the ground the others weren’t interested in doing- catchy tunes, jazzy grooves, cheery signature melodies. Significantly he mastered the primitive technology and the very painstaking task of editing tape into tiny sections and looping them, speeding up and slowing down to change the note. In days before samplers became affordable (the early 80s) this practice was still used, and I have done it myself, and its a messy business if you get it wrong! Accuracy of measurement at the key to being able to do anything useful and John grasped it and became very effective with it, being able to cut up the most minuscule slices of tape and then splice them into a loop²

Heres an example of a soundtrack he created for a tv series “Vendetta”

This opens with some great hard bass drones (most likely a string of some form plucked and pitched down) and immediately cuts into a tight swinging number, with various concrete sounds used to make the rhythm section, as well as chunks of live percussion. I’m tempted to think there’s a Jews Harp being used in there somewhere, almost certainly there is a plucked ruler, but also there’s also some great live Saxophone, which has clearly been recorded over the top of it. This is one area John was rather keen on, the mixing of live instruments and tape, commonplace nowadays, but in the 1960s this was very new territory outside of Paris or Cologne. Another notable piece for this approach is this was commissioned for the COI technology corp for a trade fair in Brussels.

 

This is a much longer piece at 10 mins, and a much more serious composition and freed from the short jingle format imposed by BBC, John is able to have developments of ideas, and more than one subject. This is a serious complex piece which demands much more attention. Here also is an example of tape music being used alongside live instruments. There is a clip used in the BBC documentary on the radiophonic workshop “Alchemists of Sound”  which features acrobats on stilts acting to this piece, but Ive no idea as to if this was actual footage at trade fair or something else, more intriguing still, I dont know if the piece was diffused as fixed media over speakers or performed with a live jazz band.  I assume this to be a commission outside of the BBC- as its far longer than anything normally within the range of the RW output.

Cut and Splice

John got his swing into tape rhythms by measuring the tape for a length of the note then cutting the note short to anticipate the beat or the same measure long by same amount to swing the emphasis the other way; this way he could get complex syncopations and you can imagine how time consuming this was to realise! This made him a very unique member as the others at this time were cutting strictly on the beat, if there was a beat at all. John explains his technique below in a short interview

 

Success

Sometime in the mid sixties John had hit a level of acceptance that saw him working for both BBC and the new ITV; Johnnie Johnson had spotted his jingle ability and realising the importance of advertising on the new independent channel, was keen to use his abilities. According to the excellent short biography written by his brother, which can be found here  (scroll down the page) he was now earning 3 times more from outside sources than he was at the BBC, how he made this music outside of the RW, I’ve no idea, I dont know if he had a private studio somewhere, or if he used facilities at ITV, but studio equipment like this was not commonplace then, so if he had a private studio, it would have meant a sizeable investment then. Intriguingly a VCS3 synthesizer came on ebay a few years ago which was apparently sold from his estate, so he may have had his own facilities somewhere.

Also in this period he did some of his most accomplished artistic work, this one in particular

“Structures” was accompaniment to a tv documentary on the architect Ove Arup– and this to my mind is the pinnacle of his compositions. There is a liner note from a compilation album which states the music was generated entirely with oscillators, something Im not entirely convinced about since several of the pad sounds are far too complex for the equipment of the time, and I suspect are treated recorded sounds, nonetheless this is a complex piece which swings from gorgeous, complex arpeggios to lush pads. This is also a landmark piece in that there is no jazz rhythms at all on this, nor catchy,slightly cheesy melodies. What is also interesting here is 45-50 years later this is quite hard to work out precisely how he put this together- there are the obvious delay and reverb effects, but the convoluted arpeggios, which are beautifully smooth sounding, are much more difficult to analyse- the echo has a lovely flattering effect, but there is no evidence of edits that immediately spring to the ear nor what the sound source actually was in the first place (if indeed it was purely electronic as claimed), and those arpeggios are different each time, so they had to be put together individually. This is a short piece of 3 mins which to my ears, promised much better things in terms of both composition and execution, and really should have paved the way into more serious music, as opposed to jingle material (by the way Im not implying jazz is not serious!!!)

Burnout.

The early seventies were not kind to John, he had developed a serious drink problem which had him cycle between alcoholism, depression, nursing home, and back again. According to his brothers short biography he changed from loving the job to openly weeping on a Sunday evening before starting a new week at the workshop. On top of this his Mother died suddenly in 1971, adding more upset to his already shattered nerves; he start working nights only at the workshop (it is suggested that this was to enable him to drink all night, but I suspect there were other reasons, notably not getting on with Desmond Briscoe), and finally the BBC sacked him in 1974, after which he produced no more music. Delia Derbyshire also left the workshop a couple of years earlier and she too, refused to write anything more until her final years when Peter Kember (Sonic Boom) got in contact with her.

I would suspect that underneath all this was the fact he had worked too hard for too long and had simply burned out; he output in 11 years must have been considerable, if he was not only working for the BBC but also engaging in private commissions too and this would be working very painstakingly slowly and patiently, which needs huge amounts of energy and concentration. I also suspect success outside of the radiophonic workshop would have annoyed certain people in BBC management at the time which would not have made life easy there.

Although his brother says in his short biography that the BBC radiophonic workshop was the sole employer for his skill, he could clearly have started out independently if he wanted to; after all he had worked successfully outside of the BBC before, and he still had his piano skills, but I would guess he had just simply done too much. Fortunately the success of the previous decade had made him financially stable enough not to have to work again so he could survive happily, but next years saw him struggle with alcoholism, culminating with cirrocis of the liver, after which, he claims he never drank again. In his final years he lived quietly in Freshwater, Isle of Wight, where he died of Liver Cancer in 1997.

 

 

¹ Desmond Briscoe interviewed in BBC Documentary “Alchemists of Sound”
² David Cain interviewed in BBC Documentary “Alchemists of Sound”

 

 

 

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New sounds from forgotten boxes- EMU virtuoso 2000

In the dim and distant past, in an era of Sibelus V1-V2 and computers were not very powerful there was a 19 inch rack unit called the Virtuoso 2000, This was essentially a sample based synthesizer with two orchestral sample ROMs inside- with both massed orchestral sounds, single instrument samples at various dynamics, all instruments of the symphony orchestra, incl Harp, complete percussion ensemble, all the strings, woodwinds incl Alto flute, Bass Clarinet, contra- bassoon, English horn, full set of brass and some interesting orchestral effects. For those wanting pop solutions or to audition new sounds there were also a list of 186 riffs. All of this crammed into about 64Mb! There were other models two, with different roms installed, and sometimes different abilities enabled.

This unit was made roughly between 1999 and 2002, was quite expensive when it came out (£800-£1000 in 2000!) and people who wanted more realistic sounding instruments compared to computer sound card midi impressions bought them. Then when computers suddenly got a lot more powerful and Sibelius brought out version 3 which came with a sample sound library this and hardware units like it, were forgotten.

I bought mine when I had a large scale commission for a piece of fixed media music and I needed some orchestral sounds to play with, and the piece I was working on, with multiple softsynths was already caning my modest laptop CPU so this was a quick, immediate and cheap answer (got it for £200), and zero CPU pull..

Sounds were often brilliant, some less so (but this is true of even some very expensive sample libraries, I’ve found) and the percussion, woodwind instruments particularly good.

However on exploring the manual there is much more to this than meets the eye, it will also work as a fully functioning synthesiser with LFOs, the EMU z-plane filter, a two stage ADSR (as A1,A2,D1,D2,S, R1, R2) but didn’t really take this on board…

..until this month! As part of this years RPM Challenge, a thing I do every year in which the challenge is to make at least 35mins of music in the days of February, I wanted some particular sounds, and I rediscovered this unit and its amazing possibilities!

The first thing is this unit uses EMUs 4 layer architecture, so most sounds comprise of four overlaid samples, the idea being the machine can be set to select a particular layer depending on how hard the keyboard (or MIDI note) is hit, so if very gently a sample of the instrument being played at p might be played and if hit hard the instrument sampled played at ff might be used etc.

But the great thing is all four layers can be set to used together! And each layer has its own volume ADSR its own Z-filter shape, its own, LFOs (two of them) and its own effects! This allows for some serious sound design to take place- and if that wasn’t enough it even has a hardware effects send&return! Bargain!

One of the sound design possibilities is to spectralise an instrument by giving each layer a very different filter/ADSR setting so the instrument can be simutaneously divided up into 4 filtered layers which overlap but are phased- so the instrument sound evovles over time, playing different partials taken from the sample by filtering- I did this with the bass clarinet sound here:

Another is to affect the whole four layers together, which is also possible.

One of the issues is the manual is not very user friendly, and the two line screen display, even with a jog wheel, is time consuming, so there is a great open source cross-platform application called Prodatum which is downloadable here which controls all of the parameters from your laptop, and stores them on the machine in the user rom. Be aware this uses the MIDI sysex so both MIDI in and MIDI out cables need to be connected, but other than that, works fine and allows ADSR envelopes to be edited by seeing the graph rather than just turning the knob, also it allows all the internal patching to be done from computer- important as there are complex possibilities here which are easier to see in this way.

Im still experimenting with the possibilities of this under-rated machine, the others in the EMU rom family often have other features such as arpeggiators and different built in effects, and the concept of this machine gave way to a mixture of large sample libraries and modelling systems but this transitional technology, when used a synthesiser to make new sounds based on instrument samples still has some life in it yet, I think.

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Spreadable Fat! (Waldorf Streichfett review)

I borrowed a string machine years ago that was very primitive, cant remember the make (this was 1986), it was old then, you had little control over the levels of the voices, but it had that 70s cheesy string sound which I quite like, and taken out of context, mixes well with other sounds. Ultimately I gave it back when I had finished that project and pretty much forgot about it to be honest.

That is until I saw Waldorf had released the Streichfett, apparently the name translates into “Spreadable fat” – this is a digital machine, which at first thought would be comparable to various softsyths, but actually, in reality sounds vastly better overall (I dont quite know precisely why), at least at these sounds. Their website overview also points out ” is essential for recreating how adult movies sounded thirty years ago” OO-err! Followed by “The Ensemble Effect handles lubrication of the String Section” Fnarr! Fnarr!

However onto the unit:

The box is well made, solid. Theres no play on the knobs, and the switches are solid enough. Outputs are two standard stereo jack line outs, a mini jack for headphones, USB and both MIDI in and out.

The great thing is this will work on USB power from the laptop (Mains USB adaptor is supplied) which means one less plug socket to search for when gigging- The USB is used for sending MIDI signals and wont take audio, you still have to connect the audio L and R channels to your soundcard (or whatever else)

The instrument divides itself into two sections; on the left is the ‘ensemble’ section, which has a large knob which morphs seamlessly from violin, viola, cello, brass, organ and choir- dont be fooled, these are not realistic sounds, but impressions made by synths, then as you turn the knob through to the right these begin to mix, in various combinations, making some great morphing effects if you hold down a key. On the right side is the ‘Solo’ side, named Bass, E.piano, Clavi, Synth and Pluto!! Advise not to take these names at all seriously, in the same way one wouldnt with a 70s string synth, but the sounds are great and very usable.

The two sections are controlled by central ‘balance’ knob, the ensemble side is fully polyphonic, the solo side is 8 voice. Theres a three way switch with allows you to split the keyboard between these two channels or have them layered, both occupying the keyboard at same time

There are some very usable effects on board- the solo side has a reasonable tremolo- the left can be animated with the ‘ensemble’ button plus theres a three way selector switch which covers Animate (a sort of LFO), Phaser and Reverb, with a depth knob besides it. Basic, and easy to use, The only thing I would add here is a delay effect would be nice.

One thing worth noting is the modulation wheel on the keyboard is automatically enabled to control the vibrato of the strings, and if you select the ‘pluto’ sound in the solo section it controls that as well- making some quite interesting sounds

In use:

The sounds are plush, straight out of the box, at the bottom of this blog I’ve recorded a demo track using some of the possible voices, there are 12 memories on board, which you can overwrite by holding down a button, when the button flashes, press it again and your sound is stored. I did find one nagging thing in that I had a conflict in Ableton with the Nano Kontrol 2 (stopped working suddenly) but this was resolved by not having the Streichfett on the USB control hub with the NanoKontrol-

This unit is easily capable of good usable sounds and can be very seventies but there are also some very nice 80s sounds in here, esp around the “choir” register, which make it much more flexible that one might imagine, especially as the registration knob allows for some interesting morphing, together with the ensemble button.

Use in music thats not intended to be retrospective:

These types of sounds are really great or adding polyphonic pads and washes- the fact they sound little as to their intention adds to their usefulness because the end result sits very easily with other synthesized sounds. Their use in the 1970s was largely down to having something electronic that could play chords in an era of monophonic sounds which didn’t involve humping a mellotron around, but also the fact they sound really good in any mix when used a background instruments, whereas a good hammond organ can easily dominate a mix, a string synth would  be used to smoothly blend in. We can now of course add the sound of real strings with a sampler, but they too, have their limitations of usefulness in any setting. These type of sounds fill some gaps particularly well, and in that context, can be used in all sorts of genres and musical situations that require polyphony. In modern “art” music, this unit is good at high clusters due to smoothness of sound, and extended chords in the middle range.

The manual is online, and quite straightforward. http://www.waldorf-music.info/streichfett-overview

The following demo was recorded dry, into Ableton Live 9, no effects had been added

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