The Best Computer Music Bits from NAMM 2016

Article Molten Music Monthly

While the East coast of America is smothered by a two foot blanket of snow everyone who is anyone in music technology was sunning themselves in Anaheim California for the annual NAMM music trade show. The show is sort of 83% guitars but I thought it would be good to pull out the bits and bobs that are relevant to computer music that I thought were cool or worth talking about. The industries love affair with the iPad seems to be over and it was back to business with proper software, proper DAWs and instruments and stuff which is really good to see. Pickings were fairly slim it has to be said in terms of computer music and it’s really interesting to look back on the video I made last year to see what a difference a year can make. But, as I predicted in a little piece I wrote for Computer Music magazine it was all about expression. I should point out that, like last year, I wasn’t actually there – I haven’t picked up or poked any of this stuff and I’m talking about it without any actual experience of the gear itself – but it’s what I do best. Let’s have a look.

Here’s the video version, the text carries on underneath.

The most dazzling stuff in music tech was of course the masses of bings and bongs, clicks and zwings from modular synthesis – everyone was having a go and you could happily furnish your studio under the stairs with luscious bleeping lights, patch cables and the warm treacly sound of analogue noises. For the synth head it’s a wonderful time to be alive. Roland and their System 100 – Waldorf and their Eurorack thingy, Moog and everything and dozens of little independent wizards doing lovely things with bits of circuitry. But, sadly, I don’t want to talk about this as it’s not very computer musicy – although it’s never been easier to make it part of your setup.

So what was interesting was the range of expressive, intriguing and very featured and connected controllers.



Roland A-01

First up is the little controller from the Roland Boutique, the same place as those cool little Jupiter, JX and Juno synths they released last year. This is the same form factor and takes the same little optional keyboard – so, the keyboard is not really the thing. The thing with this box is that out the back it can connect you to absolutely everything – it has USB for your computer, but it also has Bluetooth MIDI for the iPad or similar, regular MIDI for regular MIDI gear and CV/GATE Out making it a bridge between your computer world and the world of analogue synths. But that’s not all – it’s got a bleedin’ synth inside and a 16 step sequencer, can run on batteries and has a little speaker. So you could, for instance, run it with a laptop or Surface, Bluetoothing to an iPad running out to a Korg Volca and you’d be making some awesome noises. This sort of thing would have really complex to achieve and this makes it easy. The optional keyboard, to be honest, doesn’t seem very optional to me – but priced at £384 with the keyboard it’s as much as many of the other analogue synths around – the new Korg Minilogue is only 50 quid more – so it seems pricey but it is very fully featured.

Arturia KeyStep

Over at Arturia all eyes were on the MatrixBrute behemoth of a synth wet dream, however, they also released a very interesting little controller keyboard called KeyStep. Now it looks completely rubbish – honestly what were they thinking – but underneath it’s a mightily interesting controller. Like the Roland it has USB, regular MIDI and CV/GATE but this also has analogue Sync in/out meaning that it could take it’s timing from the Korg Volca or similar. It too has a sequencer but this one is polyphonic of up to 8 notes with 64 steps or it can be an arpeggiator. It lacks the synth of the Roland but has a more fully formed sequencer and sync options. It’s starting get a little bit awesome.
The Roland definitely looks the cooler of the two but in either case the features are phenomenal in a little mini controller and it’s the sort of thing that starts tempting me out of the box, out of the PC and the possibility of incorporating more external stuff…. Which ultimately means I’ve never going to have any money.

ROLI Seaboard RISE 49

In other controllers Multidimensional Polyphony Expression or MPE is starting to gather some momentum. Last year ROLI released the Seaboard Grand range of very expensive MPE controllers and then the Seaboard RISE 25, a more affordable 2 octave version. Now they’ve released the sort of sweet spot 49 key version which was all over the place at NAMM. So, in a nut shell what the RISE 49 and MPE enable you to do is create controller data in 5 dimensions. Normally you’d strike a note and send note and velocity and maybe some aftertouch. With this striking the key is just the beginning – you can then push forward and back to affect velocity, slide left and right to alter pitch, push into the RISE 49’s squishy material to affect another parameter and then you can affect something else with the speed of your release or lift. And this is all per note, polyphonic, individually. When you push the pitch or mod wheels on a keyboard it affects all the notes being played – here the modulation and pitch is completely per note. It’s more like playing a stringed instrument, a guitar or cello where you bend and vibrato on separate strings – that’s the sort of experience they’re after.
Software support is thin on the ground. The RISE 49 comes with their own software synth called Equator which gives full access to all the control and expression but at the moment it’s only Bitwig Studio which supports it as a DAW. Check out my review of Bitwig for more information.

It’s very exciting, I love seeing something that breaks us out of the MIDI keyboard paradigm. Although, like when we first discovered pitch bend in the 80’s and it was everywhere – I imagine we’re going to be hearing a lot of sliding about.




Keith McMillen K-Board Pro 4

ROLI weren’t the only ones showing an MPE controller. Keith McMillen revealed their new K-Board which has none of the style of the Seaboard but all of the functionality. All their stuff is weird looking so this comes as no surprise but their feeling was that they wanted it to look as much like a regular keyboard as possible to make it easier for musicians to make the leap – fair enough. Their smart fabric is ideally suited to something like this. It plays in the same way as the Seaboard’s giving full MPE potential – they don’t have their own synth though and were demonstrating it with ROLI’s Equator. Should be available in a couple of months and will need to undercut the ROLI equivalent to make an impact I would think. Still waiting on their K-Mix which was my favourite thing from last years show!

VIP – CTRL49 etc

One more controller thing – it’s called VIP and has reached version 2. As far as I can work out it’s a great software utility that catalogues all your VSTi’s and now VST effects and lets you select, edit and combine them from your MIDI keyboard. You can set up massive 8 layer multis using any synth and a bunch of effects and have each one mapped to the controls on your keyboard. The thing that they talk about this software as if it’s generally available for everyone but as far as I can make out it’s only compatible with particular enabled keyboards, namely the M-Audio CTRL 49, the Alesis VX49 and the Akai Advance range all of which have little full colour screens which can display parameters from VIP. So, great idea, but probably stuck with these three keyboards, but they’re all very colourful.

DAW’s – Tracktion

In the world of DAW’s there was bugger all going on, no major updates anywhere to be seen except for Tracktion Corporation. They reinvented themselves over Christmas giving themselves the opportunity to expand their product range and we’re showing the yet to be released new version of Tracktion called T7. Apparently it’s had a complete redesign and could be really interesting. However, they’ve also released what they’re calling an Organic software synth by the name of Biotek. It looks really interesting and has had a lot of cool people developing it and designing sounds with it. But not only that they also revealed a premium audio interface with two lovely warm valves sticking out the top. Strangely named the Copper Reference it’s reportedly a high end stereo USB interface with lots of unexpected character.

M-Track

M-Audio had quite a few new things on show, probably the first products they’ve developed since breaking free from Avid a couple of years ago. Along with the CTRL 49 keyboard, they’ve updated the MIDISport MIDI interfaces, they’ve released a piano but what interests me is the new range of M-Track USB audio interfaces. They are all in the desktop form factor with the big knob in the middle that I really like and go from stereo in/out up to 12 in and out. They look great and the 8×4 is particularly interesting although not really offering anything different to my Steinberg UR28M. They say that they plug into USB-C which could be great for performance but we won’t know about latency potential until we’ve seen it.

iConnect

I’ve seen these around the internet but never in the flesh but they do seem to be more of a reality now. Their special power is the ability to connect computers and iPads together via a single audio interface. So two Macs, a Mac and PC, a PC and iPad – whatever combination suits you – you connect both to the interface and then you can route audio and MIDI from one to the other. It’s genius really. This year they released the Audio 2+ with 2 in and 6 outputs. Personally I want something more ambitious in the in/out side of things.

Presonus 192 Mobile

Presonus are awesome in their ability to get right up my nose with their ultra-high, uber-quality, worlds first type marketing speak. They’ve just released the Studio 192 Mobile audio interface/Studio Command Center – which is the slightly smaller sister of the Studio 192 rack. It’s a high quality USB 3.0 interface supporting up to 22 ins and 26 outs although most of those are on ADAT optical. It looks pretty decent but please give the hype a rest. All interfaces come with some kind of monitor mixing software but no yours is a Studio Command Center. Anyway it has some cool effects on a cool DSP which when working with Studio One can swap between host and DSP – or something I don’t’ really understand.




Anyway, none of those are particularly interesting or ground-breaking. I’m still looking for the ideal audio interface and still not released K-Mix from last year is the closest I’ve seen. Let me try to explain what I mean. The computer music studio is changing – whereas we’ve been able to do everything inside the box for quite some time I am seeing this sort of retro evolution of hardware which is offering an immediacy and creativity that’s difficult to replicate in software. So we have the whole analogue modular synth and Eurorack effects scene growing up around us and computer musicians quite rightly want a bit of that action. The problem is that as soon as you go outside the box you’re into the question of how to mix your sources together. Traditionally a mixer is the answer – but I don’t want that, it’s too big, it dominates your desk when all it really needs to do is feed stuff into your computer for mixing. So you can get a rack interface like the Studio 192 and plug everything into there – yes maybe but then all the control is software – whereas what I want is a mixture of the two. I want some faders and knobs externally because I don’t want to have to boot the computer to make noises – but I don’t want that whole channel strip thing a regular mixer gives me. Something like the K-Mix seems to do that – desktop form factor, some faders, some knobs, compact and versatile. If they were really clever it would have patching for effects, MIDI and CV/GATE, SYNC so it could sit as the centre of your combined computer and analogue studio – that would do it for me.

That’s about it and honestly it was just the controllers and Tracktion that were actually interesting. Not too much crazy stuff this year – maybe the Zoom digital tambourine is worth a shake. Good to see Aerodrums still at it, even after turning down Dragons Den investment – this time with bolt on virtual reality so you can see the drum kit which is absolute genius – and, I think, one for the HoloLens team. Also British sample instrument Spitfire Audio did some huge release with top producer BT – some new software instrument – but have neglected to release any information on it anywhere, so we all shrug out shoulders and mumble about what a silly name BT is. Anyway I’m sure things will become clear.

The Microsoft Surface wasn’t particularly evident so next year, Microsoft, you’ve got to rent a stand, fly me over and let me demo all the fabulous things a Surface can do for music production. SonicState did a great video with a very hungover Claes from Bitwig demonstrating Bitwig touch profile on the Surface – where Mike from SonicState sort of began to understand that the Surface was actually freaking awesome. Link in the description. But I’ll leave you with two fit guys in tight tops demoing the very interesting Touché controller – and until next go make more tunes!