Amidst the August Bank Holiday madness I bring you a sand baked and heat stroked Molten Music Monthly.
It turns out that playing with your balls can actually be a musical instrument – Tracktion release version 7 for free and secretly make some cool software instruments – Percussa SSP takes on VSTs – Folktek grow more modules in their garden – Aeolin Meditation chill into complex additives – CYPHER 2 and CRUSHER X embrace MPE – Apogee add their voice to tax concerns – Strange Science Instruments try to tell us why – ModulAIR is a slightly dodgy but fun virtual modular and we find something useful to do with the Surface Dial.
But first the Surface Go has just been released in the UK and so I’ll be able to answer all those questions about its suitability as a music making device. This is the new entry level successor to the Surface 3 (not the Pro). Obviously it’s massively underpowered, inappropriately sized, with no disk space and a touch interface that few things support – but I’m going to give it a go. People are funny when it comes to computer specs and seem to forget that we were running the same software as we do now on computer 20 years ago and managing to make music. I did the same tests on the Surface 3 a few years ago and actually it did pretty well – you could run a few synths and record stuff – great. Expect to see videos on that in the coming weeks.
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Oddball have been bothering me about the release of this thing for months. It’s a rubber ball, you bounce it and it makes beats. That’s it really – bounce – duff, bounce – clap – that sort of thing. Is it genius or is it just another doomed wacko midi controller? It of course has the potential to bring some gravity based accidental beat interaction that could possibly produce unintential and randomised beats. Or just bounce – duff, bounce – clap. Who knows – it’s down to the user and manipulator I guess. I only mention these things because I find them interesting so that must mean something.
I did a massive review of Tracktion 7 when it came out 2 years ago and I really enjoyed it. It’s different, creative with a lot of depth and detail for people who like parameters. They keep asking me to review their newer versions and I keep promising to do it every time a new version appears. But reviewing DAWs is such a major undertaking it’s really hard to fit it in. I will tackle Waveform 9 i promise! Anyway, Tracktion have just released version 7 for free! It’s awesome – it supports VSTs and unlimited tracks and all the stuff missing on most freeware DAWs.
Secondly they released Retromod without really telling anyone. It’s a pretty cool collection of classic sampled synths. It’s got all the Moogs in there, then the Junos and finally the Nord Lead which is completely unexpected. They are wrapped up in easy going GUIs and come with a bunch of effects. It’s an unusually thorough collection taking on the more recent Moogs like the Phatty and Voyager and all those Nords we’ve all forgotten about. Very cool stuff and they have trial versions so you can try them out.
This is that uber swish super sonic processing wavetable module thing with the massive screen and posh knobs. It floated on kickstarter a while back and is now out in the wild although i’ve never seen one in action. It started off as a wavetable oscillator but has since developed into being a multi-functional modular computer. The latest addition they’ve added is support for VST plug-ins. Now before we get too excited it only supports Linux VST plug-ins – but actually there’s plenty of those including Tracktion ones – although I dont think sample based ones are going to work in the unit. I dont really understand how it all works but there’s no doubt that this is one clever and gorgeous device that continues to evolve – but i also think it’s fair to say that this sort of OS heavy digital box it’s not everyone’s cup of Eurorack tea.
Folktek have consistently amazed and delighted me with their weirdly organic and often experimental modules and synthesizers. They are beautiful to behold, like a forest glade of signal generation and modulation. They appear to be moving from a place of purely artistic noise experimentation into something perhaps more accessible and coherent. A rash of recent releases seems to indicate that they are building up to something. Modules such as Matter II, Gait, Quiet, Root and Synestesia could easily find their way into any rack. Alter 1 and 2 bring in some interesting modulation and effects while instruments such as the Resonant Garden can still offer a synthesizer experience like no other. The sound is often surprising, tending towards movements in noise rather than beautiful tones that you might imagine would match the aesthetic. But if you’ve never come across them before then go and check them out and key an eye out for more developments.
Now this looked pretty interesting. A sort of additive synthesizer play ground based around the concept of ancient Greek drone and melodic instruments although it doesnt seem very evident in the sound, which is very synthy. It uses 12 harmonic overtones and 4 noise colours to create complex and evolving sounds. A beefy modulation engine keeps everything in motion. It will happily be a melodic monosynth but i think it’s in the drones that Aeolina Meditation really starts to shine. It costs like 35 quid for Mac or Windows from Ocean Swift and is well worth a look.
Well 808 Day, the 8th August was all a bit crap this year. Roland sort of adopted the 8th August as 808 day along with the 9th September as 909 day a couple of years ago and has used them to make some pretty big announcements such as the TR-09, the TR-08 and the SH-01A. So 808 day comes along with a certain amount of expectation. And what did we get? Two pairs of trainers. That’s right, the synthesizer giant managed to squeeze out 2 takes on the 808 inspired trainers from Puma. It was rumoured that Behringer might steal the day with some fabulous announcement about their own 808 drum machine but all they managed was a video demo on the same prototype we saw at Superbooth. Roland did release an update to the System-8 synthesizer which included the JX-3P plugout emulation which is cool but we’ve come to expect a little bit more – which i’m sure is our own fault. I wonder if 909 day will bring anything fabulous.
MPE – Cypher 2 and Crusher X
Since the adoption of the MPE (MIDI Polyphony Expression) by the MIDI manufacturers association there hasn’t exactly been a big load of MPE related releases. But this month saw two software synthesizers make the leap into the multi-dimensional world of 5D expressive control.
First up is Cypher 2 from the ROLI owned Fxpansion. It’s an analog modelled sonic sound design adventure play park with huge sounds and a complicated front end. So complicated that they havent put a full screen shot on the webpage in case they scare people away. It has 3 oscillators with a bunch of waveforms, twin filters, 30 effects and a 5 dimensional modulation, sequencing and arpeggiating engine. All the controls are animated and with the TransMod ability to modulate everything with everything the interface looks like it’s crawling with movement. Fxpansion and ROLI have developed this thing together to, they hope, produce something breathtaking for the owners of an MPE controller. It will of course play with regular MIDI too.
Second we have a similarly complex Crusher X. This is a granular instrument from Accsone which has already been a complex and fascinating sound generation tool. Now it goes 5 ways. You can pull in grain density with finger movements, slide into distortion and pull off some sonic acrobatics. It’s a weird and unique instrument that I want to get inside of but haven’t been able to tackle as yet. But if granular weirdness is your thing then this could be immensely interesting.
Strange Science Instruments
A pair of very serious looking modules from Strange Science Instruments. Firstly a very sober stereo mixer and then a stereo filter. They’ve also released videos talking about why and how they produced these modules which is very interesting from the perspective of understanding the process of developing hardware. What I find quite odd is how they sort of believe they’ve invented the concept of stereo. They looked at the mono nature of Eurorack and set out to solve it as a problem – we have two ears after all (really?). I don’t get it. All instruments are mono until you mix them into a stereo field – at the end of the chain. All stereo does in a Eurorack situation is double up on everything making it all even more expensive – like the Strange Science modules. I can do all my panning and stereo effects at the end – i really don’t need it in my rack. Of course the Stereo Mixer would go at the end, but it’s only 4 channels and so is probably not a final mixer, it’s more of an interim one which just doesn’t work for me. The filter on the other hand can be 2 independent filters so that works in any situation. These are really nice looking modules modules – they look like they are top class bits of gear – i just object to the premise, that mono is somehow madness in Eurorack. Weirdos! Do check out those videos though.
This is a very cool and fruity virtual modular instrument that’s both fun and free. It’s just a one window affair with 18 slots for modules of which you’ll find all the usual suspects. It can be polyphonic or monophonic and you can patch everything into everything else. They’ve avoided the whole animated virtual patch cable thing by using a right-click and select from menu system which isn’t very intuitive but it gets the job done. Full Bucket Music say that this is a beta version and it may crash, fall apart, lock up or explode without warning. But you should definitely check it out – some great sounds in there.
The other new virtual modular on the block Voltage Modular has reached the public beta stage and you can now sign up for access. I was on the early access beta and i’ve been playing with it for a month or so. I even persuaded them to add some CV-to-MIDI output modules to let you sequence your hardware modular from within Voltage Modular – that’s pretty cool – i made a video about it. There’s not a whole lot of chatter out there about it as far as i can tell. Certainly VCV Rack is getting all the attention. But i’d be really interested in other people’s opinion on it. It seems very capable, has a lot of modules in there but there’s not a lot of examples of people making patches. So go get a copy and show me your patches. And i’ll try to spend some time with it as well.
This was announced at NAMM and demonstrated at Superbooth and I completely ignored it. I thought that they has simply mapped a few controls to hardware synths – big deal. But actually, after looking at it in a bit more detail I’ve suddenly realised that this is flipping awesome! What they’ve done is essentially map a few controls to hardware synths…. But they’ve evolved Omnisphere to mould themselves to that specific hardware. So everything that’s on the hardware is controlling similar things in Omnisphere. So the OB-6 has a variable state filter, so now Omnisphere has one to match. The sound engine has been upgraded, more layers added, more modulation possibilities and all tailored for the connected hardware synth. So if you have a Prophet 6 your experience will be different to using a Moog Voyager, or a Roland SE-2 or even something like the Bass Station II. It sort of takes the flavour of your hardware synth and give you something completely new – but using all the controls your are familiar with. It’s sort of the reverse that everyone else is doing with NKS or VIP where they are mapping a single keyboard to multiple instruments. It’s really interesting. It will however completely mess with your hardware patches.
Erica Synths Techno System
Erica Synths has been slowly releasing the individual modules from their Techno system announced at Superbooth. Well now we have a release date and a price for the whole thing. It will be available on the 21st September for just shy of €4000 – that’s 16 modules and a fully powered travel case. What i like about this system is how intentional it is. With other prebuilt systems like the Make Noise shared system they tend to be completely open concepts where anything is possible but perhaps could be a bit hard to fathom especially if you bought it as your first entry into Eurorack. With the Techno System it has everything you need to make techno. You’ve got an awesome drum machine, a bunch of drum modules that you can mix, a bass synth voice, a sample player, a bunch of effects and filters. You can’t help but start banging out tunes with this beast. Of course it doesn’t have to be techno – it can be whatever you like – but it’s coherent, intuitive, accessible which can be rare terms in Eurorack. All the individual modules look great as well. They’ve also released the bass synth voice as a DIY kit – might have to put that on my list. And they’ve unexpectedly produced some white front panels which goes against everything we know about Erica Synths – very very cool move.
Surface Dial Elephant
And finally, back to the Surface for a moment. I got talking recently to Pablo Martin. He was the half of SmithsonMartin that did all the actual programming on the Emulator touch controller software that got taken over and largely destroyed by Touch Innovations – i’ve never got v2 to work. Pablo got out and has been developing his own touch software which i am very much looking forward to. Anyway, we got talking about the Surface Dial – Pablo had written the software for the Kontrol Master arcade knob thingy and i asked if he could do something similar for the Surface Dial. He said that he’d tried and it was coded in such a weird and impenetrable way that you couldn’t hook into it. After our conversation he went off and had another go – the next day he said he’d cracked it and within a week i had a beta version of Elephant to play with (weird name). What it does is transforms your useless Surface Dial into a knob controller for your virtual synths and MIDI software. In one mode you click and hold on any control and the Dial lets you dial-in whatever you want. This is great for fast and versatile changes, or drawing in automation, scrolling, zooming – that kind of thing. The second mode is MIDI where you can map to 6 different parameters and control them from the dial. It’s simple, effective, you can change the sensitivity to match the software and you suddenly have a workable knob controller. It’s awesome! Of course there are proper hardware knob controllers out there that will do a better job, but if you have a Surface Dial – and you can use it with any computer – they this is a great way of giving it extra functionality. I dearly hope Microsoft take note and support Pablo in his endeavours. It’s free to try and costs just a few dollars to keep.
So that’ll do for now. Coming up I have Modular DIY videos a plenty. I decided on the Befaco Even VCO as my first oscillator project and they very kindly sent me a couple of other kits to have a go of as well. The Sampleslicer 2 has also arrived – but i’ve got half dozen kits to get into now. The Surface Go is also primed for some videos, I’ll start with looking at what you can run from the Windows 10 store on Windows 10s and whether you can install audio interfaces etc and then look at the conversion to regular Windows 10 before getting into DAW testing and all that jazz.
I have another Livestream panned for Sunday 2nd september – that’s this Sunday and a little bit short notice because everything is running a little bit late this month. But please join me on Sunday, 8pm BST for some chat, some modules, some music technology and whatever’s on your mind.
Also synthfest is in Sheffield on the 6th October which i very much plan to go to – it’s a great little day of synthesizers, modular and seminars. Feel free to come and say hello and we can hang out awkwardly for a bit.