November – big month for releases – must be the threat of winter making people want to feel better by covering our tired lives in new gear. This month: Gibson pull the plug on Cakewalk – Steinberg release a stunningly full feature half point update while Ableton drip out details of a few things they think are fitting for a full version update. Annoyingly named 000 release the mixing module I’ve always wanted – MIDI Quest bring 1990’s librarian editing to the iPad – sequencers abound with the Varigate 4+, Toolbox, Hermod Brain and C Quencer DLX – cool software weirdness with MusineKit 2 and Gleetchlab 4 – and the next generation of MIDI gets talked about.
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Cakewalk is dead
Probably the biggest news story is the death of Cakewalk. Gibson, who bought Cakewalk in 2013, have ceased all development on all of their products – which essentially means Sonar. The industry standard Windows only DAW has gone kaput. It’s both sad, frustrating and mind boggling. I mean behind Pro Tools it is THE american DAW. Perfectly suited to bands, to singer songwriters, to hill billys making hill billy or country and western music. It was the first PC based sequencer I ever used back in 1996. Gibson say that it doesn’t align with their the company’s acquisition strategy, focused on growth in the global consumer electronics audio business. What the heck does that mean? Gibson did this 20 years ago when they bought music tech company Opcode in 1998 and then killed it off in 1999 including the well-regarded Vision sequencer. Does anyone at Gibson know what they’re doing any more? Cakewalk has assured us that everything will still work and online assets will continue to be downloadable – but for how long? I mentioned Momentum last month – their cool recording app – just the other day they decided to remove the restriction to projects on the free version – great idea! Maybe Momentum was a little too groovy for old man Gibson – or maybe it’ll survive?
If you are a Sonar user then here’s what i recommend. If you are mostly into audio then check out Studio One – it’s streamlined and much less busy than Cakewalk and is awesome on the audio side while being competent on the MIDI side – and it’s American! If you are more into the MIDI side of Sonar then check out FL Studio – it’s Italian but it’s as weird and crazy as you are and gives you amazing MIDI tools, sounds and stuff. Obviously there are plenty of DAWs to try but try these two first.
What I don’t understand is why someone doesn’t buy it. Magix, Behringer or even Microsoft would make good partners. Or maybe Sonar has failed to innovate for too long and suffers from this subscription update model – other DAW makers take note – it might not work as well as you hope. All the best to all the Cakewalk employees.
Steinberg Cubase Pro 9.5
On the other side of the pond Sonar’s biggest rival – Cubase takes itself up to Pro version 9.5 in what looks like an uncommonly impressive upgrade. The move to version 9 brought a change in thinking for Steinberg – it adopted a number of things people liked about other DAWs and had a new look and feel and some cool stuff like the sampler. Steinberg seem to have listened to the response and got stuck in to tweaking and making improvements to the new environment – going out of their way to please people – which is really all we want in the end. Cubase now has a 64bit audio engine. It has some cool metering in the side bay and a proper, no nonsense file browser – because you know where your files are and shouldnt have to be adding folders to search lists and media bays – i hate that! They’ve added curves to the automation. They’ve doubled the inserts to 16 and you can choose to have the post or pre fader. You can now add plug-ins to individual clips in the arrange window and chose whether to apply them offline or not. They’ve also messed with the metronome – no one saw that coming – the Cubase click is iconic but now you can customise the sound and the patterns. They’ve updated a load plug-ins including the included Halion Sonic with a Wavetable synth. It has a new video engine and loads of other bits and pieces including dragging any audio or midi file from anywhere into the sampler – the midi files render, just like that. It’s an awesome update – but not a free one. Although the upgrade from version 9 is only 50 quid. In a climate of subscriptions, expensive upgrades, underwhelming updates and disgruntled users Steinberg is doing everything right.
Ableton Live 10
The other big news of the month was the announcement of the long anticipated Ableton Live 10. It’s been nearly 5 years since version 9 came out and although it’s had regular updates it’s been looking rather tired and uninspired lately. But that’s ok because here’s version 10 and everything is awesome again. So what does it have? Firstly, there’s a new synth – yay! It’s a Wavetable polyphonic synthesizer and it actually looks and sounds really cool. They’ve add a distortion pedal but in their very traditionally dull looking devices GUI – even Bitwig managed to tart theirs up a bit. There’s a new Echo plug-in which is fabulous because i found their delay plug-ins to be really annoying – this looks more like it. There’s some drum bus effects. You can reorganise and nest groups. You can now edit more than one MIDI clip at the same time – oooo. You can do a lot more with audio clips in the arrange window rather than having to open the edit window. They’ve improved the browser thank god. Max 4 live is now built in – which it sort of always was…. But who understands that anyway, it’s just a way of getting cool devices into Live that do way more interesting things than the included ones.
The best stand-out feature is the background recording – it’s always recording so if you play something while messing about you can grab it as a clip without ever having to have pressed record. Exactly how far this goes back they don’t say.
The look has been polished and they’ve made it easily to add themes and change the colour scheme. So… A new synth, couple of plug-ins and a bit of catch up to other DAW features with MIDI and audio editing. Oh and a load of improvements for the Push hardware if you have one of those. Ableton Live is one of the coolest live performance tools out there and they seem to be lacking any real innovation with version 10. All good stuff, just more of the same. And the upgrade for the Suite version is over 200 quid. Still, we haven’t had to buy a upgrade for a while.
Touch Innovations have finally rethought their ill-informed decision to go to a subscription model with their Emulator software. Who am i talking about? This is the SmithsonMartin touch controller software that I used to be a huge advocate for. I did a massive video exploration of it back in 2013 when i first got a touch screen. I wrote about it Sound On Sound. But sadly development was painfully slow and it had some issues. SmithsonMartin were always too interested in their huge DJ rigs and going to superstar DJ parties to care about the potential of their touch screen MIDI controller. Anyway, about 18 months ago version 2 of Emulator finally emerged with many of the features that i’d been asking for. I went to download it – i had a lifetime upgrades license – and found that I would have to subscribe. My lifetime upgrades license was only valid for version 1 – version 2 was a different matter. In this time SmithsonMartin had turned into Touch Innovations and they were convinced that people would pay $20 a month forever to use this software. Personally i saw it as something cool that you would use for the odd project from time to time – no one was going to pay $20 a month – certainly not me. It turns out I was right – why don’t these people listen to me? Anyway, they are giving it another go at a reasonable $59 for a license. So why should we care? Well because the software has huge potential for laptop hybrids and Surface’s – it just needs someone to spend the time producing templates for Ableton and other DAWs and bits of software. So maybe I will. Although I’ve just spent 20 minutes trying to get it to do anything – and I can’t. It badly needs a manual or some tutorials…. Sigh… It’s a flippin’ disaster with so much potential. Come on Touch Innovations – now that I’ve got that all off my chest what can I do to help? Get in touch!
OK Let’s get into some modular
Annoyingly named 000 produce some quite edgy modules but they also run workshops to teach you to build them. They did some over the We Are Robots festival in London and inspired me to finally build my Turing machine. Anyway they have a new mixer module out called the 8ct8 which has 8 channels, 8 fabulous LED sliders and is exactly what I’ve been looking for. You tend to end up using VCAs as mixers which is not always convenient so i’ve been looking for ways to mix a number of sound sources more effectively, in compact module. Big mixer modules are super – but they’re big. External mixers are super but they’re external. With the 8ct8 i can mix all of my oscillators plus the odd external source right in my rack – with mute buttons – that’s very cool. No idea on the price yet but it will probably be available as a kit which makes it even better.
http://0x0x0.porn (terrible web address!)
Malekko Varigate 4+
We have a gaggle of sequencers to talk about this month.
Firstly the Varigate is one of those modules that looks both powerful and complicated. I’ve watched DivKid videos on it and it seems capable of all sorts of interesting and creative things in terms of probability, direction, randomness. But it was a gate sequencer – it was all about the drums – a 4 trigger drum machine – whereas I’m more into melody. With the bigger Varigate 8+ Malekko included a couple of CV outputs for notes – they’ve now brought that idea back to the Varigate 4 giving us the Varigate 4+. It can still be a gate sequencer but it can also be a 4 channel CV sequencer or a 2 channel CV/Gate sequencer. Hooray! I’ve ordered one. I think it’s an exciting little box and now that i can do notes and drums it could make things really interesting.
1010Music have turned their digital multifunctional Eurorack module into a rather nice looking sequencer. It’s the same box with touch screen but this time the software gives it 4 gate sequencers, 4 polyphonic note sequencers and 4 function generators. So it’s a drum machine, a melodic sequencer and has some modulation built in. The touch screen really comes into its own here, with a piano roll editor, ability to trigger patterns and it’s a great way to display what’s going on. Could be the best use for the box yet but i understand this is a series 2 box so it’s possible that the older versions will not be able to run this software – which is a shame because the firmware switching into an effects box, a synth box or a sampler box is really what makes this cool.
Hermod Modular Brain
Weird’y utility looking box that seems to have a fabulous 8 track sequencer in there somewhere. But it’s not just note sequencing – Hermod can do all sorts of things. Each track can be 8 voice polyphonic, they can be modulation tracks, aftertouch tracks, clocks, velocity. It can be a CV looper, MIDI to USB to CV converter, LFO genertor. Each track can be of different lengths and different timing – you can store/recall 8 sequences for each track in one project and select on the fly. There’s also quantize, swing, arpeggiation, glide, harmonising, delay, chance and scale. And you can control it all with MIDI if you want. So it kind of has everything and will do everything – is that what we want?
C Quencer DLX
Fresh out of the Tokyo Festival of modular is the cleverly named C Quencer DLX module. It’s kind of like an advanced arpeggiator and pattern generator rather than a sequencer. It has this cool radial interface going on with lots of lovely lights and touch pads but it’s key feature is that it contains a two oscillator wavetable synthesizer. There are 16 preset patterns which you can modulate and quantize in terms of scale, pitch range and timing in order to produce the sort of pattern you’re after. The radial editor gives you access to the waveforms and things going on with the pattern. But the coolest thing is that you can hit record and everything you do with the knobs and controls gets recorded onto the pattern – it’s like automation in a module. It seems pretty cool and fun to play with – not available yet but one to watch out for.
Another thing out of Tokyo was the poorly named Mi.1e Bluetooth MIDI-to-CV module. It’s a little module with 8 CV outputs that you can connect a bluetooth MIDI controller to. They were using it with an iPad and their own app which contained a note sequencer, gate sequencer drum machine and LFO which you could route to any or all of the 8 CV outputs. It’s a really lovely, simple and effective thing. A great way to employ your iPad into your modular with something that’s helpful. Instruo have something similar but more complex with the Aither module that I saw at the Leeds Modular Meet. It uses wifi and OSC to drive CV in both directions and had a very interesting iPad app to go with it. Hopefully more detail next month.
Shout out to the old school now with the original MIDI editor librarian MIDI Quest. It’s packed full of graphical editors for nearly every MIDI synth that ever was. Phenomenally useful if you have hardware MIDI synths but it’s been largely unchanged in look and feel for 20 years. Now it’s thrown itself onto the iPad, which seems like a good idea, but without too much thought for the finger based user interface. So it’s all looking a bit small and fiddly. MIDI Quest is a fabulous resource and honestly i think it’s better served being within your DAW and projects, rather than stuck out on an iPad. I think they should have made awesome looking, touch friendly editors and sold them as apps individually, whereas with this you get the whole lot, with tiny controls, in one go.
Couple of weird bits of software for you Gleethlab 4 and MusineKit 4.
MusineKit 2 is like an adventure playground of sound and musical discovery. Vreate by SensoMusic – the people behind Usine Hollyhock along with La Muse En Circuit – some French musical thing. It lets you explore sounds, synthesis and noise making. It’s a bit like a musical game. It covers additive synthesis, polyrhtyms, sequencing, sampling, looping and it’s completely free. http://www.lamuseencircuit.ovh/en
Gleetchlab 4 is more of a mad house of audio manipulation. Created by Giorgio Sancristoforo it’s designed as a sort of mirror to his music – it’s the environment in which he made his latest album and offers it up as a place for everyone to play. There’s no timeline, it’s a collection of modules and processors that can work in any direction you like. It’s mostly concerned with loops, the main window having 6 loop players which form the core of the sound generation – but then you can start messsing them up with granulators, delay lines, stretching, spectral shifts, crushing, sequencing, filtering and such like. Looks like fun – only available on Apple and will set you back 15 euros.
This caught my eye – it’s a virtual audio mixer come VST plug-in host. Plug in a load of inputs from your audio interface and mix them with plug-ins. It’s designed for conferences, podcasts, mixing live bands etc, but i though it might be really cool for mixing and applying plug-ins to synths and modular. We have (probably) all these plug-ins knocking around – why not employ them creatively into our hardware. Dig out your laptop – or in my case a Surface – and start adding some effects to your modular streams. You could of course do something similar with a DAW, but that requires loading up the DAW, possible dongles and messing about setting up a session – this is simple, streamlined and works on the first click. I hope to do a video on it quite soon.
And finally at the Audio Developers Conference they talked about the future of MIDI and it’s sounding pretty cool. You may remember I had a bit of a rant about MIDI a little while ago. For all its greatness and what it’s allowed us to do it is still full of frustratingly dumb things. But that may all be about to change. Ben Supper, electronic instrument designer who currently works for ROLI gave a fabulous talk on something called MIDI Capability Inquiry. This is an achievable step forward in MIDI that will revolutionise the way our musical machines talk to each other without killing what already works and that we’re familiar with. The basic idea is to pull together three things that will make MIDI intelligent and give a richer experience . Protocol Negotiation will allow devices to switch from MIDI 1.0 to a richer experience mode – if it doesnt work it switches back removing all the angst over things not working. Profiles – is about categorising instruments in a more useful way. Currently we have General MIDI which many things support – but we could have an organ profile that all organs support or a subtractive synth profile that all synths support, strings, electric pianos – they all share features and controls and with a profile they could all share the same communication. So if you swapped one synth for another or the automation and control would still work because they follow the same profile. And finally Property Exchange – this makes MIDI a two way dialogue, pulling out settings and numbers, controller values and allowing that to be put into another device – provided the profiles match and the protocol has been negotiated. This is all completely awesome. Controllers that are already mapped to a profile than all your gear supports, that updates itself and can be used on any device – that would be amazing.
Is that enough for now?
This month I’ve done videos on the touch control available in Bitwig Studio and I did a video of my first DIY modular build of a Turing Machine – so do go and check those out. Over the next couple of weeks i hope to show Cubase and Pro Tools running on the Surface Pro. I have some modules turning up from Erica Synths to review which should hopefully kick me off into reviewing and talking about individual modules. I have Waveform and Reason 10 to review and lots of music to make. And please, if you like what I do then it would be awesome if you could support me financially on my Patreon page. 19 awesome people have already signed up – they are amazing and we’re over half way to my first goal of $100 a month. This isn’t about making me rich, it’s about freeing up time so i can make more of the videos you want to see. It’s a fabulous thing.