The last couple of years of NAMM have been a bit sort of “meh”. There’s always been a few cool new things to talk about but it’s often underwhelming. This year it’s all gone off in completely different directions. On the computer music side it’s even more “Meh” than usual – I’m really struggling to find anything interesting to talk about. I mean both Roland and PreSonus released new USB audio interfaces that look like everybody else’s. And Steven Slate thinks he’s invented the virtual studio. Then what? Well, just a couple of things I’ll get to in a minute. On the other hand, in that other world of hardware synthesis and modular it was a flippin’ jamborie. There was tons of stuff – new synths, new modules, new zaniness in the Eurorack department.
Now with my new Molten Modular project I have a renewed interest in hardware synthesis and so I’m going to incorporate a bit of that here. So first I’ll talk about computer music technology and then, via Bitwig Studio’s new CV devices, I’ll pull out my favourite bits of modular – so feel free to skip to the bits that interest you.
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Tracktion – Waveform
Right first up is Tracktion Corporations evolution. They have a new version of their Tracktion or “T” DAW coming out and they are changing the name to the rather unfortunately generic Waveform – they’ll never get found on google. The biggest new feature is that it has a flippin’ mixer console – yay! They’ve really gone to town on it with all sorts of different views and ways of looking at it. But the one thing they were making a fuss about is that it can run on a Raspberry Pi 3 – oh yes, the coding is so efficient that you can use a Pi as a 16 track studio. Is that awesome? I’m not entirely sure but let’s go with it. It looks great – Tracktion is a very under-rated DAW in my opinion. I did a review of T7 not so long ago so check that out.
Media Overkill was formed by a bunch of people who worked on the Alesis Andromeda synth. Their first product is Waverazor – it’s an aggressive little beastie of a synth. It looks fabulous in a tron kind of way and apparently has support for labelling in Klingon – yes they are that nerdy. It’s a virtual synth that slices up waveforms and dumps them into a completely new for of synthesis. Looks and sounds flippin’ cool.
UAD Apollo Twim Mk2
UAD were showing off a new version of their Apollo Twin – the aptly named MkII. It’s darker in colour – some say black but I’m not very convinced on that. There’s not a whole lot new about it but it does now have Unison technology on the inputs which gives very low latency monitoring through a bunch of classic Neve, API and Manley pre-amp emulations. There’s networking features for linking up to other Apollo’s and there’s a new version of the Console Software.
Softube Console 1 Mk2
Speaking of which Softubes Console 1 also gets an upgrade which includes support for UAD plug-ins. Console 1 is like a channel strip for a channel in your DAW all laid out with knobs for everything, so you can really get your hands into the EQ and stuff. It’s a great box and the UAD plugs are a great addition. It’s also had a massive price drop – which is awesome and the MKII is now under $500.
Probably the biggest update of the show was to Steinberg’s HALion. It’s always called itself a sampler and yet you were never able to sample into it or build instruments – until now. Finally it is able to actually be a real flippin’ sampler. Probably inspired by the basic sampler that’s now in Cubase 9, you can now record into or drag and drop samples into HALion and start layering and building instruments as complex as you like. This includes a full scripting language for getting it to do stuff. It also has a new Wavetable engine built in to give it some real synthesis possibilities. It’s like HALion has suddenly managed to become awesome. This also brings an update to HALion Sonic which is like the read-only version of HALion as well as Gigs of new library. They’ve also updated the Absolute collection of Steinberg instruments to version 3 to include the new HALion. Good stuff.
This didn’t make a whole lot of sense initially and I think a lot of people and news sites missed it because it sounds really dull. Roland Cloud is Rolands new subscription service (shock! I know, we all hate it). But what they are offering is access to a load of exclusive Roland software instruments. Initially it was all about the Tera-Piano which is a piano sound made from 8TB of samples – you play locally a 1GB version and then it renders the track in the cloud with this massive, amazing sounding piano. There’s plenty of virtual piano’s that actually sound all right so I’m convinced of the need for such a thing. They are also working on a Tera-Drums and presumably more will be along. Ok – not exciting yet? But along with these they also have all the Plug-Out synths from the System-1 and System-8. That’s right, a genuinely authentic Roland ACB versions of SH-101, SH-2, Promars, System-100 and the System-1 itself – these were only available as hardware, loaded into the System-1 Aira synth. Now I have them on my desktop, in my DAW and VST instruments. They sound flippin’ awesome. I did a video on them – go check it out. Also there’s the first in a line of Anthology instruments – these are sample based and the first is called 1987 and it’s all about the D-50. It’s perfect, it sounds amazing, it’s a D-50, right there. There’s not much in terms of editing but it was too difficult to edit the D-50 anyway. It has all these sounds that I know so well being a teenager of the 80’s. So – it’s a subscription – it’s $30 a month. It’s a lot. For the big Tera stuff I can understand studios and producers getting into it, but I’m not so sure about the ACB synths – they seem to be directed at different people. I’d have no problem buying them is they were 100 quid for the lot or even 50 quid each, but $30 forever. I don’t know – I guess we’ll see what the take up is like. But you can join the beta now for a reduced rate of $20.
Bitwig Studio 2 and Bastl Instruments
But in order to segway nicely into modular synthesis Bitwig were demonstrating the brand new version 2 of Bitwig Studio along with modular and synth makers Bastl. The reason being that Bitwig have included a bunch of new CV/Gate devices for controlling and interfacing with modular gear. Bastl has built a little box which helps that all work in sync with each other. I’ll be doing a full review of Bitwig Studio 2 as soon as I get my hands on it but the skinny is that they’ve built in a whole new modulation engine. You can drop modulators into anything from anywhere – it looks really cool. Of course there’s a bunch of other new and improved things but the modulators along with the CV stuff is what it’s all about.
So you can now use Bitwig to send fabulously interesting modulation control voltages to modular synths – right? Sort of. The tricky thing about computers CV and modular is that the majority of sound cards and audio interfaces cannot handle CV signals – they are not designed to. CV are DC voltages – they can remain constant, whereas audio is a vibration, alternating current, a constantly varying signal. Audio interfaces deal with AC signals. So in order to send CV via an audio interface it has to have DC Coupled outputs. You don’t have to know how it all works, you just have to know that you can’t send CV out unless the outputs are DC Coupled. Most interface aren’t. The ones that are tend to be expensive RME or MOTU interfaces. So at this point the Bitwig to Modular module sort of falls down. However, you can still use MIDI – you can still route through a MIDI-to-CV interface – it’s just not quite the same thing. This is something that really interests me so stay tuned for my explorations in trying to solve the whole DC Coupling thing without having to buy a really expensive audio interface.
Bastl on the other hand had a little box called KLIK whos job was to take an audio pulse from Bitwig (via any interface output) and send sync messages to the modular – giving you perfect, old school, audio sync – nice.
So there was too much modular to talk about – dozens of manufacturers, hundreds of modules. Here’s a handful of my favourites and checkout Gearnews.com for my complete round-up.
Oh they make good kit. They had this Morphagene thing which was sort of a sampler but really was a messed up portal to a different dimension. They call it a microsound and tape music module. It captures, regenerates and processes sound from inside and outside your modular. It uses the concept of reels – like a I guess reels of tapes and then slices and splices as ways of cutting and pasting stuff together. I don’t know how it works but the module looks awesome and makes crazy sounds – so that’s a win in my book.
Erica Synths had two things going in in of course the deepest sort of black you could imagine. The first was the Octosource that’s a mighty morphing 8 waveform, 8 output LFO for messing with stuff. The other was a desktop version of their Fusion Delay/Flanger/Vintage Ensemble module. It’s really interesting how they have no problem spilling out of the Eurorack into a desktop unit to make it more useful to more people – I love the openess of that. It’s a valve driven delay with thick feedback and long and short delay times. It has a footswitch and guitar input and it’s a load of fun to play with.
Intellijel and AAS
Intellijel got together with AAS to create a module based on acoustic modelling of percussive sounds. Basically it’s AAS Chromaphone stuff into a Eurorack module. It gives you all sorts of resonator, drum head, beams and marimba sounds. And it’s brilliantly called PLONK.
There were so many more from the dull, utility but useful through to the creative and zany. There was nothing new in synthesis from the big players – Korg, Roland, Yamaha (where is Yamaha these days) Moog, all resting on their laurels. But there were news synths from Dreadbox, from Dave Smith, Tom Oberheim, and the weird Synthor System 8 from Percussa. So much hardware is going to be really hard on my pocket and the space in my shed. Good fun though.
So that’s enough I think – and actually that’s plenty. Maybe it was because my focus was more towards hardware this year that it felt really quite exciting.
In other news I will be rounding up my review of the Surface Book this week as I have to give it back to Microsoft. I’ve been doing a ton of performance testing on it so if that interests you you’ll find a load of videos in this channel. Then I’ll be carrying on my exploration of the Surface with my Surface Pro 4. Molten Modular is about it get interesting as I’m about to get stuck into filming the next few in the series – starting with Semi-modular, then Softube Modular and then getting my first case. In the world of The Audio PC we have the new 7th Generation Intel processors ready to go in both desktop and our Peformer Pro killer laptop.
That’ll do – in the meantime, go and make some tunes!