this space intentionally left blank

April 7, 2011

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Touch vs. Turn

If Korg's DS-10 synth is a portable Reason, all dangling virtual cables and signal flow diagrams, Nanoloop (newly released on Android this week) is like a pocket-sized Ableton Live: simple geometric shapes laid out conceptually. It's an approach designed for screen interaction and readability instead of mimicking its' non-virtual counterparts. I like both Nanoloop and the DS-10. But I suspect I like real synthesizers more, even though they're bulky and inconvenient, solely because the real thing isn't trapped behind a sheet of glass.

Which is not to say that Nanoloop is not very cool. I never owned a copy of the Gameboy version, because I couldn't quite justify spending $40 on a cartridge for a 20-year-old game system, but its simplified layout (originally created for greyscale LCDs and few buttons) works well on a touchscreen. The built-in synths don't quite have the classic feel of a Nintendo sound generator chip, but there are more of them, including a built-in sampler (the Android version even allows importing custom samples from the SD card). Nanoloop's synth engine is certainly less powerful than the DS-10 (modulation routing is one of those things where the patchbay metaphor really does make sense), but it does fit the channel controls on a single screen (Korg's software has separate screens for subtractive synthesis and patching), and that really puts the emphasis on fast, efficient composition. So while I'm still terrible at tracking, this is an easy way to burn some time while waiting for the bus.

On the other hand, neither program is anywhere near as much fun as mucking around with a big analog-style synthesizer--I'll get lost in one of those for hours, and I don't even like playing keyboard. What's the difference? Big, chunky knobs, switches and buttons that I can physically handle to get a "grip" on the sounds. There's just something viscerally better about tactile synth controls. I feel the same way, incidentally, about my bass effects--no matter how many cool things I could do with virtual pedalboards, I always went back to stompboxes eventually. Nor am I alone: even in the age of touchscreens and DAW plugins, people keep inventing ways to make music software physical through devices like the arc or various control surfaces. It's like there's something people just really like about turning knobs and flipping switches.

As a generally pro-digital kind of person, I was kind of bothered to realize this about myself. I have no sentimentality about e-books, for example, and I'd rather suck lemons than record on analog tape. The more I think about it, though, the more I see the role of the tool as the distinguishing factor. Stompboxes and synthesizers are performance-oriented--they're all about process and inspiration. It's important that they be responsive in ways that are instantly intuitive, even if that requires extra bulk or lowered flexibility. Recording and editing audio, on the other hand, are (mostly) results-oriented activities: I'm not trying to discover new sounds, just rearrange existing elements, so I'm happy to deal with them at as high a level as possible.

Clearly, then, there's a thin zone between abstraction and control that makes a performance instrument satisfying. Given too much abstraction, you take away the player's expressiveness. With too little, they're overwhelmed. Virtual instruments and touchscreen interfaces aren't inherently unsatisfying, but they almost always require musicians to maintain a higher level of mindfulness to use them, the responsiveness will be less dynamic, and the feel just won't have the same richness to it. Where each player draws the line is probably up to them. Since I don't really consider myself a synth player, software synths like Nanoloop and the DS-10 will be good enough for now. On bass, though, I'll stick with my stompboxes.

December 22, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Review: Edirol R-09 Audio Recorder

A $300 handheld audio recorder is a hard sell to someone who isn't pretty crazy about sound gear. And frankly, for people who are audiophiles, it could still be a hard sell--why bother spending that kind of money on a single unit with built-in electret mikes, when it could buy a decent condenser and an SM57?

I bought the R-09 when I started at CQ, thinking that it would be useful for loaning to reporters. It's worked well for that--most journalists, when they buy a recorder, pick up one of the cheap voice/memo units, which sound awful and aren't terribly sensitive. For close-up work, that's fine, but it quickly becomes unusable in, say, a committee chamber. Reporters who borrowed the Edirol really appreciated its ability to capture quiet voices in poor acoustic spaces. One even bought his own after he found himself borrowing mine on a regular basis. It's also an easy device to use, which is important for non-technical people like the average journalist, and is sadly not true for all portable recorders these days.

Of course, the main goal for a unit like this--and the reason that you'd buy it over a set of separate microphones--is to use as a field recorder for quickly capturing sound without dragging a ton of equipment around. As such, a slight lack of fidelity is acceptable, since it's not like you'd be using a U47 to get a sample of street ambience anyway. That said, I don't have any complaints about the quality of the R-09's recordings. They seem relatively flat (EQ-wise) to me, the gain is adequate, there's not much self-noise or handling noise, and the stereo separation is surprisingly good. Recordings I did of union protesters on K Street a while back were clear and offered a great sense of space. More importantly, it's fast enough that I could capture something like a protest if I just ran into it--nothing to hook up, unless I want to plug a pair of headphones in to double-check the sound. Just pull it out of my bag, turn it on, hit record once to set the levels, then press it again to start recording.

That kind of convenience actually means that I've started using the R-09 for jobs where it probably wouldn't have been my first choice before. At CQ, unlike at the World Bank, I don't have the luxury of a studio with a selection of vocal mikes all set up and ready to go whenever I need them. While working on the debt explainer, I recorded Kerry with an ElectroVoice RE-20, which is a fantastic vocal mike, and myself with a Sony lapel mike. She sounded fine, I sounded awful, but I didn't want to drag all my recording gear down to the quiet room again to get a punch-in take. So instead, I carried the R-09 down to record a few lines, brought it back after each take, and imported the WAV files directly into Cubase. Because of the omni pattern, the resulting takes have a bit more room noise than Kerry does, but it holds up surprisingly well against the more expensive microphone, and the workflow was much more efficient and flexible.

Compared to the other prosumer field recorder I've used, the Marantz PMD-660, the Edirol unit is a lot smaller and a lot simpler. The Marantz was capable of doing rudimentary editing tasks, like tagging and file splitting, that the Edirol just doesn't do. It also boasted full-sized XLR jacks instead of the 3.5mm TRS minijack on the R-09, which was great if you wanted to use a external mike without an adapter, but if you didn't carry a mike, the internal microphones on the Marantz were genuinely terrible. So for certain applications--portable film recording, for example, or crewed radio production--the Marantz makes sense (and from its control layout, I suspect it's more aimed at those markets anyway). There's also a durability factor--the PMD-660 could probably be used to hammer nails between recording gigs. But for $300 less, the R-09 has been a really helpful tool that I'd recommend to anyone who either wants to step up from basic recorders, or needs to be able to capture sound at a moment's notice.

July 30, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»digital»daw

Waiting for WaveRT

One of the features that Vista was supposed to introduce, and which audio professionals were cautiously optimistic about, was a new kind of driver model meant to provide low-latency, sample-accurate sound. Windows has always had low-latency sound, but it's gone either through the WDM/Kernel-Streaming drivers, which are kind of a hack, or ASIO, which is a third-party driver standard created by DAW maker Steinberg. Windows has never had a built-in, professional-level audio subsystem the way that OS X has Core Audio and Linux has... well, whatever the hot new Linux audio API is this week, most likely JACK on top of ALSA. So an upgraded sound layer for Windows, one that would offer both ubiquity and performance, was welcome news.

Still would be, actually.

Now, I'm generally bullish on Vista, so don't get me wrong: I do appreciate the new sound mixer, which offers per-app mixing and better quality than the old mixer. I dig the multimedia scheduling process, so media playback is more reliable than it was previously. And driver support for the old standards has reached entirely satisfactory levels--I'm not lacking for external interface support any more. But the new driver model, WaveRT, shows no signs of being able to replace ASIO or WDM/KS on my laptop, for a couple of reasons.

The first cause for concern is that the driver model for WaveRT wasn't designed correctly in its initial incarnation. When digital audio is output from a sound card, it comes from the front of a buffer of samples on the card. Applications periodically refill the buffer by adding new samples onto the end. If they don't add samples before the buffer empties, the soundcard runs out of gas, so to speak, and the result is skipping or popping audio playback. Most driver models, like ASIO, include a mechanism for the hardware itself to notify the software when the buffer is running low, so it can be topped off.

WaveRT's original implementation, as these posts from Cakewalk tech guru Neil Borthwick explain, did not use a notification mode for some incomprehensible reason. Instead, it required the audio software to poll the audio hardware--to manually check on the status of the buffer. What sounds pro-active is actually problematic, since real-time audio works typically uses buffers as short as 128 samples, which on CD-quality audio means that the buffer empties itself more than 300 times a second. Under the polling mode, therefore, the CPU spends a large amount of time checking the status of the sample supply instead of using that time to render audio. Inevitably, samples go missing and quality suffers.

Late in Vista's development it became obvious that this polling-based model was unworkable, and Microsoft added a notification mode similar to ASIO or Core Audio. And apparently it works great--although WaveRT is unavailable for FireWire or USB devices, users report that for onboard or PCI-based solutions, they get very stable, very low latencies. Onboard sound, of course, is hardly a substitute for a pro interface, but for mixing/composing on the go, it does just fine. Cheers all around.

Unless, like me, the OEM who built your computer hasn't updated their sound drivers to include notification mode, in which case you're basically back to using WDM/KS and ASIO, if possible. Worst case scenario, and I'm looking right at you, Analog Devices SoundMAX HD, the driver doesn't even support sample rates other than the oddball 48KHz using any driver modes, and so you're basically locked out of using onboard sound for any production at all.

Unlike graphics cards, where drivers are available directly from the hardware manufacturer (with the caveat that a modified INF may be required), audio drivers are usually "firewalled" behind the company that designed the computer. I can get a generic driver from Nvidia for my Quadro 140M card (and I have, since it doubles the framerate in Stalker and Sins over Lenovo's latest version), but for audio features I'm basically stuck until Lenovo gets around to it. There is no generic SoundMAX driver to download, a symptom of both the sad state of laptop sound and the lack of a decent audio hacking community.

To their credit, when I filed a request to find out about the availability of updated drivers, Lenovo promptly called me back for clarification and told me that they'd be sending a note on to their technical hotline. It's not as helpful as actually getting my hardware to function properly, but they were at least very nice about it. Score one for the service contract, perhaps.

The blame here is threefold. It's Microsoft's fault that they didn't get WaveRT into workable shape from the start, since audio buffers are a solved problem. It's Analog Device's fault that they either haven't written a compliant driver or they refuse to release it. And it's Lenovo's fault for lagging in their own driver updates. No doubt the audience for Thinkpads is a bit thin among media professionals, making it a low priority for support staff. But the machine is exemplary by other standards: fast, stable, tough as nails. It is unfortunate--although par for the course in this industry--that its audio capabilities can't live up to what's been promised.

April 22, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»digital


For my own future reference, two free tools for making music on a Symbian smartphone:

  • BeatEd is a drum machine that supports custom kits, developed by the unfortunately-named ByteRapers.
  • Syntrax looks like the fusion of a tracker with an analog monosynth--if Reason were made back in 1983, this is what it would look like. The tutorial videos show off something that looks like a pretty capable, albeit clumsy, workstation.

April 8, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»digital


File under "Things I Write for Ars Which Are Also Very Cool on Their Own:" MySong is a Microsoft Labs/University of Washington project that creates simple accompaniment for a vocal melody. You sing into a mic while it plays a metronome to keep you on tempo, then the software figures out a basic set of chord changes to go with your song. The chord choices can be tweaked using "happy" and "jazz" sliders, which is one of the best user interfaces I've ever heard about. If only Word had sliders for "happy" and "jazz" it would make my writing much more fun.

What's interesting about this is not that it's some kind of advanced technology--it's actually very simple, and could probably run on a cell phone. But if you watch the video on their project page, it looks like the kind of thing that's just naturally enjoyable--the audio equivalent of the Photo Booth that comes with OS X. People with media production experience tend to look down on "beginner" tools like Sequel or Garageband, but we forget that there's a whole class of people for whom even those tools are both difficult to use and unnecessarily ambitious. I know a lot of people who are not necessarily musical, but would still be delighted to sing a song to their computer and have it add a backing band, no matter how simple or generic.

December 13, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Preset Button

Plugin effect and synth presets get a bad name among digital musicians, for two reasons:

  • Using the presets isn't very creative. You can't be a real musician, apparently, unless you've agonized over the knobs of a synthesizer for hours creating your own unique sounds.
  • Preset patches are generally considered unsubtle, and are often designed to sound good solo instead of fitting into a mix, much as store-display TVs often have the brightness and contrast cranked up.
I see both of these points, the latter more than the former. Certainly I've spent probably days tweaking my bass sound, and I wish I had enough time and energy to learn my synths and effects with the same level of detail.

But I love presets, because they make me far more productive. For the same reason, I'm a huge fan of general MIDI samplers--Cakewalk's TTS-1 general synth has been an unexpected perk of Sonar so far, and on Pro Tools (for lack of better options) I often found myself working with their X-Pand! offering. In fact, general MIDI synths combine the best of both worlds--they present a wide range of sounds, and limit the amount that you can typically spend tweaking them at all.

As a result, I'm able to cut through the urge to find that perfect tone, and instead I get on with the process of making music, which is where I think the creativity should actually be. Working with budget sample libraries does carry risks, but in general it simply means that I learn which sounds are limited and should only be used in certain circumstances, and which ones are simply bad and should be avoided, instead of trying to fix them up.

In fact, the more options I'm given, the fewer I tend to use. I've been looking at sample libraries lately, because I do love having orchestral sounds available, and those tend to be the most useful for work compositions. And invariably, what I'm looking for is something that will work right out of the box. Life's too short to spend all my time twiddling knobs instead of tracking music.

October 24, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Voltage Reference

Having set out to write a third AudioFile guide on A/D converters, I began doing research on the subject and rapidly realized that I might have bit off more than I could chew. Most of the texts on the topic are written for engineers, and include a great deal of math as "proof." Of course, a proof is only useful if you understand it, and I usually don't, since I was never trained as an electrical engineer, and because I never really enjoyed math past trig.

At times like this, the deficiencies of chain bookstores become increasingly irritating. They all carry the same selection of titles, and none of them were what I was trying to find. Amazon doesn't necessarily make it easy to locate something in a niche like this, but I eventually did locate a couple of helpful textbooks that aren't too expensive, and I'd like to recommend them now. My piece distills out a lot of information from these and other sources, but anyone with an interest in audio would do well to have one of these as a general reference, in my opinion.

Nika Aldrich's Digital Audio Explained: For the Audio Engineer is a truly great resource that's clearly aimed at people who work with audio and are familiar with the concepts but not the technical details. In other words, it was perfect for me. There's even a section in the back for "myths of digital audio." A short set of chapters on human hearing and the physics of sound means that complete newcomers might even be able to use this as a primer. If I have any criticisms, it's that the graphic design and layout of illustrations are often unhelpful, but the text itself is clear enough that readers can figure it out without them.

Principles of Digital Audio, by Ken Pohlmann, is twice the size of Aldrich's book, and it's a little less user-friendly. On the other hand, it may be the only digital audio text you would ever need, so a little more complexity is a small price to pay. Newcomer to the field will have a hard time with this, but Pohlmann stays as close to a layman level as he probably can. Inside the 800-odd pages, he covers A/D/A conversion of all kinds, CDs, magnetic storage, digital interconnection, DSP, DVD, MP3, and an ungodly amount of other material. I haven't had time to read the whole thing, obviously, but everything I've looked up has been--if not perfectly accessible--at least better than the Wikipedia page for the same topic, and certainly I'm far more confident in its accuracy.

October 1, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital»daw

The Whole Package

With relatively little fanfare, Cakewalk released Sonar 7 this month. It looks like it has some really nice features. I've got the Studio edition, and I'm going to review it for Ars. There's just one problem:

Where to start?

It's possible, with Pro Tools, to feel like it's a very simple program. That's mostly due to the window layout, which is incredibly friendly and simple. Pro Tools rarely (if ever) has more than 3 windows onscreen at any time--Edit, Mix, and Plugin. There are menus and subsections for those windows, but when they added right-click support in 7.3 it meant that you could basically ignore 90% of those. So even though the software is actually fantastically powerful, you don't really notice most of it.

Sonar follows a different kind of metaphor. It's more like Cubase. There are lots and lots of windows and palettes and menus. It doesn't make it hard to use, necessarily. In fact, because almost everything in Sonar can be customized, including the menus, you could probably make it look a lot like Pro Tools. But out of the box, Sonar looks like something complicated, and a little overwhelming. It doesn't let you forget just how much there is.

Because let's face it, these packages--any of them, from Live to Logic--are really unbelievably full-featured. Any tool at this level is. That's one reason why people complain about Word: it is stuffed full of functionality for working with text--so much so that you sometimes can't find the feature you need. Final Cut Pro has the same kind of in-your-face complexity. Don't ever press a button on the keyboard unless you absolutely know what it does in Final Cut. They're all mapped to something. I accidentally hit the keys with my elbow the last time I did an editing project, and it took me five minutes to put everything back.

So how do you review something that big? Where do you start? Surely, I can't review everything in the package. It would take me months. And that's assuming I even know what to do with those features--like Word, each of them is probably used, but perhaps only for certain kinds of projects.

My plan is to use Sonar like I would do my work projects--meaning that I'll do a little radio recording, a little instrument recording, and some midi composition. I'm also going to download some of the NIN multitrack files and load them in as a way to test the mix engine in 32- and 64-bit modes--I doubt any of the material I have lying around is high-fidelity enough to make a difference.

There's also some standard bullet-points that are different from the other DAWs, and I think it's important to test those. So I'll be putting AudioSnap, ACT mapping, sidechaining, and the various VST instruments under as much scrutiny as I can apply. I'm open to other suggestions, but I think those are the main points.

The bad news is that no matter what I do, I'll feel like I haven't done it justice. But the good news is that DAWs have reached the point where the basic functionality is the same from system to system, so I hope most users will be able to fill in the gaps.

September 14, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Just Add Host

For my own future reference (although, the fates willing, I shouldn't need it again soon): Create Digital Music made the world a better place when they posted The Best, 100% Free Windows Music Plugins. Every time I start installing a DAW, or whenever I feel the need to find some new sounds, I load that post. It is a fantastic resource of good-sounding plugins. My personal favorites are the Kjaerhaus Classic series (covering the entire range of studio rack units), E-Phonic's fantastic Lo-Fi distortion/bitcrusher/pitchshifter, and the Fish Fillets mastering plugins.

August 22, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital»daw

In the Garageband

How many "pro" musicians are using Garageband as a serious music production tool? Peter at CDM sorts them into a few basic categories in a post on improvements in Garageband '08, which finally includes some features that I would say a real DAW needs to have: plugin automation, multiple time signatures, and multi-take recording. It's still a toy, but it's becoming a decent entry-level recording tool, instead of just another ACID clone.

It's been said that Microsoft should think about offering a comparable production program for Windows, so PC users can also have a (sort-of) free music creation tool. But I'm not so sure that we need it. I'm not terribly conversant with the state of OS X freeware, but there's lots of free software on the PC that offers the same functionality (or more) as Garageband, and after three years of experimentation on the cheap, I think I've probably used most of it. Here's a few good options for newcomers to audio production on Windows:

  • Cubase LE - No, it's not technically free, since it only comes with OEM hardware. But look at it this way: on any computer platform, if you're doing more than just dragging loops onto a timeline (and please: we have too much of that already), you're going to need to buy an external interface anyway, because built-in sound cards are really bad input devices. There's a lot of great hardware that comes with Cubase LE, including stuff from Tascam, Lexicon, and Presonus. And this is, in my opinion, as close as you can get to pro software at this price level. It's got full automation, lots of tracks, records up to 8 inputs at a time, uses regular VST plugins, and includes a decent set of built-in effects. Honestly, there's not much missing here.
  • Krystal - Krystal is free from Kreatives, and has a lot to recommend it. It's a multitrack recording program with an attractive and straightforward interface and VST support (with four plugins included). It's roughly comparable to Garageband 2, but doesn't have the looping support. It also lacks MIDI functionality, plugin automation, and more complicated routing options, and the input routing is a little weird. But for all that, again, you can do pretty well with Krystal if your goal is simply to record and mix audio. I wouldn't hesitate to use it if I needed to track a band at the last minute, especially coupled with a few tools (freeware drum machines, for example) to supplement its functionality. There's supposed to be an updated version (K2) coming soon, but they've been saying that for a couple of years now.
  • Reaper - Like Cubase LE, Reaper isn't technically free. It's supposed to be $40 for personal use, and $200 for commercial purposes. But you can download the shareware version, which has full functionality and never expires--Justin Frankel, the head programmer, is the guy behind WinAmp and Gnutella, and he's not a real stickler about licensing. The good news is that Reaper does everything that Sonar, Cubase, and Pro Tools do, and some things that they don't. Reaper has unbelievably flexible routing options and prides itself on its ability to change almost anything while recording. It shows up as an ASIO sound card for recording from other applications, or it supports ReWire if you want. It's gotten rave reviews from music mags. The installer is only two megs. The only bad news, as far as I'm concerned, is that some parts of Reaper still look and feel a little clumsy. It's skinnable, but that doesn't necessarily make it easier to use. Still, usability has improved immeasurably since I first used it (version .62, I think), so it'll probably only get better. This is an insanely powerful tool, and there's nothing on Mac or PC that competes with it in terms of value.
  • Audacity - I include Audacity as a word of warning only. I actually don't recommend using it for recording projects, for a variety of reasons. It doesn't have much in the way of plugin support, it only records in stereo, there's no support for low-latency recording like ASIO, and it distorts at the drop of a hat (I'm guessing it actually mixes at the same bit depth as the project). Audacity is one of those things that people recommend all the time, but really shouldn't. It teaches a lot of bad habits, and there are much better options out there for free.
  • Ableton Live Lite - Ableton Live (the full version) is a real paradigm shifter for audio software. Live Lite, the OEM version that comes with just about everything M-Audio makes, lets you see all the great stuff from the full version, but locks a lot of it away from actual use. This is frustrating. The good news is that it's practically free, much like Cubase LE. Buy a MIDI keyboard, and you'll probably get Live Lite. Buy any of Line 6's computer products, and you'll get Live Lite. I've owned four or five of these CDs, at least, and had to give them away to other people--you could probably ask around and get a copy, if you have musician friends. For free, Live Lite's not a bad deal--it's basically a 23rd century four-track tape machine. Ableton just released Live LE to try to cater to the beginner/low-cost market, but it's crippled down to practically the same level. If you're curious about Live, start with Lite and upgrade, instead of LE.

There's also a whole world of standalone, budget (~$100) software "for beginners" out there, but I tend to think that it's kind of a waste, depending on the package. Midrange copies of Sonar or Pro Tools are just not that much more money than something like Sequel or Project 5, and the capabilities they offer go much farther. Even the low-end versions, like Sonar Home Studio, can be pretty good, and the upgrade path is easier on the wallet.

Future - Present - Past