Although it seems to be working well in my recording tests, I'm not really convinced that a laptop-based solution is going to be appropriate for playing live. For one thing, I think the laptop gives the wrong impression--that I'm triggering samples, or that it's setting up my loops for me. With stompboxes and their relatively crude interface of footswitches and knobs, the theatricality of the live performance is preserved, which was a large part of the motivation for my pretentious solo project in the first place. Besides: dork with the laptop.
In any case, I'm surprised that there seem to be very few devoted audio notebook builders, other than Rain Recording's LiveBook or NUSYSTEMS in the UK. Alienware also makes a desktop chip-based "pro audio" laptop, but I'm guessing that's a bit hotter and high-power-consumption than I would want to work around. Beyond that, you're left with the usual suspects: MacBook, Lenovo Thinkpad, Sony Vaio, or other general-purpose machines.
I've been trying to think about what I would want in a live-rig laptop. I feel like there are two basic priorities: latency and durability. Screen size isn't critical for my needs, battery life would be nice (although clean power is more important), and the keyboard obviously wouldn't see much use. A huge factor for latency would be the interface--and here's where I think it's interesting that laptop audio hasn't really advanced past the Soundblaster days. Video output has become increasingly sophisticated, with upgradeable 3D cards and different ports, but it would take a miracle to find a laptop that could handle high-Z inputs (which are compatible with the load resistance of guitar pickups). Still, that's what USB interfaces are for, even if they add bulk and complexity.
I'm sure that if you have roadies and money for backups, it's worth taking a laptop into a rock situation. But I've never played that kind of crowd--I've played coffeeshops and seedy college bars. I worry about pulling it off the stand by the instrument cable, or some drunk spilling a drink all over it (the Lenovo's Thinkpad keyboard actually incorporates drains for liquid, which might help). Especially for non-DJ musicians, where audience members sometimes wander onstage and mess with the instrumentation, there are a lot of unpredictable factors to consider. No, I think I'm better off with dedicated pedals for live work. I'm tempted to reconsider when I have some money sitting around--but until someone offers an integrated pro-level audio interface in a durable shell (to make the whole package as simple as my stompboxes), the cash is better spent on analog hardware or a new bass.
This Axon demo recorded for BassPlayer.tv is incredibly cool: it's a realtime pitch-to-MIDI converter that handles chords. Plus it can apparently detect where on the guitar you're playing, right or left hand, and change patches accordingly. So the top half of the fretboard can be a different instrument from the bottom, and each pickup can be a different instrument. Towards the end, the demo presenter plays a complete MIDI jazz trio with drums, bass, and Fender Rhodes organ, all triggered from what looks like a PRS guitar. They say it'll work almost as well on a bass as on a guitar.
Of course, it also runs $1,200, and it still requires installing a special hex pickup that listens to each string individually. It costs a lot to live this free, Wayne.
Not a single effect has occupied my time as much as distortion in the three years that I've played bass. Chorus? Set it thick and shiny, then forget about it. Envelope? As long as it quacks, I'm not particular. Slap? Crank the compression and drop the mids. But getting a good fuzz bass has been like Pulling Teeth, pardon the pun.
Even for a traditional bassist, I think distortion is a challenge. Guitarists get all the best high-gain pedals, but those same effects tend to filter out the low frequencies, with the end result that the bass disappears in the mix. Dedicated bass pedals started adding a blend knob to combine dry signal with the overdrive. For some settings, this works--on others, the Blend knob doesn't really blend, and it sounds like two instruments playing simultaneously, or even worse, a horde of bees following a weak bass around.
For players who just want a little growl, the sound is easier to achieve. I hear a lot of good comments from Sansamp Bass DI users, which can create a growling tube amp sound. But I'm not a low-gain player. Even when I played more conventional bass roles, I wanted to be able to fill a huge space of sound. Nowadays, I need a distortion that can be a jack of all trades--good on single lines or chords, giving me a full-bodied low end as well as a sharp high fuzz. I could pretty much get that from the MXR M-80 live, but when recording it was hit or miss. And since I record my loop performances to a single track, I needed it to consistently sound right without a lot of extra EQ.
Moving to the VST effects rig was the perfect chance to be able to create my own distortion from a blend of the many free plugins available, and I spent three nights tweaking it until I could get a good result in the mix of several songs. I'll post a cover of something in a sketchpad as an illustration as soon as possible. Here's how I cooked up an overdrive that doesn't make me cringe.
First of all, I knew that the best bass distortions usually involve at least two different amps blended together. Tim Commerford, who may have the best single-line bass sound in rock, uses three amps with increasing amounts of dirt in each. John Entwhistle, whose bass sound was groundbreaking, split the sound by into separate high and low frequencies, then ran them through a mix of guitar and bass amplifiers. So my first goal was to achieve the same thing through two different plugins, EQ'd to fit together into one big sound. In Phrazor, you do this by using the two busses for each effects track--one receives dry signal, and the other is wired in series, with separate input volumes for each.
For the bass half, I used Audio Damage's Fuzz Plus 2. The Fuzz Plus actually doesn't do a great fuzz in my opinion--it's more of a very heavy drive. That's perfect for a growling low end that'll support but won't stick out too cleanly. I dimed the fuzz control, but cut the tone all the way down (Phrazor tells me it's set at 400Hz). On top of that sound, I ran a second signal chain through the series bus with a Tube Screamer into a Marshall JCM 900 amp emulation, both from the Simulanalog Guitar Suite. The Tube Screamer gives the amp a bit more oomph, just like its real-world counterpart, and the Marshall preamp has its lows removed and its mids severely cut. That gives me a wide high-end fuzz to sharpen and define the lower frequencies.
Balancing those two signals together gave me a full, uniform fuzz, but it was still a bit too digital-sounding. That's happened to me before, like when I tried to crank the overdrive for Sketchpad 6 ("Strange Chemistry") and ended up with harshness and clipping. To tame the harsh high frequencies without blunting the amp's sound, I added a low-pass filter after the amp simulation. A low-pass does exactly that: it lets frequencies below a certain point through, but anything higher is removed. The filter is set at around 9KHz, which is very restricted (most people can hear past 16KHz). Normally, a filter set that far down would make the amp sound muffled as all the treble was removed, but I also raised the resonance, so that frequencies near the cutoff were actually boosted. The harshness was still far enough past the cutoff to be eliminated, and the resonance accentuated particular thicker parts of the fuzz. The end result was a classically scooped high-gain distortion, but one that has lower gain at the bass end for a meatier tone. I could probably still spend weeks or years tweaking it, but it's a solid and reliable foundation for recording.
I now own a used MIDI pedal. I am the dork with the laptop. But unfortunately, Niall's Pedal Board seems to take issues with the window manager in Windows 2000--at least, that's the only reason I can think of that it would work on an XP machine, but none of my Win2K laptops at home. And since I'm skipping the upgrade cycle until Vista, that means it's not very useful.
As an alternative, I've been playing with Phrazor for a couple of days, and it seems to do the same kinds of things that Forte does, but for much cheaper. Right now, fully functional betas are free to download, and you can pre-order the final version for 29 Euro, or about $40 (much cheaper than it will probably be once released). It takes a little while to understand--signal chains are built as "tracks" and then you recall their states with MIDI Note On messages--but it seems much more intuitive than the patchbay style interfaces for Bidule or Psycle. In fact, it's very reminiscent of Live.
A documentary by Nate Harrison explains the "Amen break," which is the most famous (and overused) sampled breakbeat in modern music. I've seen this wander around the music forums, but figured other people might be interested.
You start with the small stuff: the bundled plug-ins for Krystal, or maybe trying to find a better Audacity reverb. Then you get your hands on a real recording interface, which comes with a basic commercial DAW--Ableton Live Lite, or Cubase LE. The rush goes right to your head, especially when you stumble onto KVR Audio. Thousands of VST plugins, for free! Reverbs! Distortion! Even MIDI-controlled soft-synths. They make 12-step programs for those.
Still, you tell yourself you're just doing a little recording. You can stop any time you want--you just don't want to.
But one day you realize that these plugins are running in real-time--that they don't have to be applied to pre-recorded audio. They could even be used like guitar pedals--but cheaper, and all contained in a laptop. You find yourself researching virtual pedalboard technology until two in the morning.
Trust me, I know. And I'm your enabler, kids.
Is it actually a good idea to switch from standalone pedals to VST effects for an instrument signal chain? It depends on your circumstances. Virtual Studio Technology has many of the advantages of multieffects boxes--it's extremely tweakable, flexible, and cheap. It even has a step up in modularity--unlike a Digitech RP-100 or similar box, if you don't like a VST distortion, you can just replace it. There are plenty to choose from. And there are lots of specialized VST plugins that you can't really get in a stompbox form, like bitcrushers and vinyl simulators. Imagine it as a build-your-own multi-fx kit.
On the other hand, you might not actually be saving any space or money. You need a laptop, an interface, and some kind of controller (unless you plan on pecking away at the keyboard while you play, which I don't recommend). At least one of those probably has to be on wall power. Reliability could be a concern: the OS probably won't crash, but the plugins or their host might. The tools are complex--a lot of them are designed almost like an analog synth. And of course, you get to be the dork with the laptop onstage.
If you decide to give it a shot, remember that you don't need top-of-the-line hardware to run VST effects. It's always nice to have more power, but I've run multiple plugins without noticeable latency on a 366 Celeron laptop. Having a good sound driver is much more important than your processor speed if you're just going to use four or five effects.
Obviously, the question for me is not "can it be done?" but "can it be done cheap?" The answer is a reserved maybe. The effects may be free, but you need a VST host program to run them, and you need to be able to bypass them individually. That seems to be easier said than done. I've spent some time searching, and here's what I've found:
Problem: I'm using several virtual instruments, both at home and at work, but I don't have a MIDI keyboard, and even if I did, I'm not a very good piano player. It would also be nice to have transport control inside the booth at work, and that means wireless.
Solution #1: Use a normal USB keypad (or mini keyboard), and route it to MIDI using the command line utilities. There are four rows on a keypad. There are four strings on a bass. Some muscle memory still applies.
Solution #2: Use a gamepad, remapping joystick inputs with Rejoice. Wireless gamepads are relatively cheap, especially if I hack another xBox pad. But how to lay out the notes? Perhaps something along the lines of Band Brothers for DS.
I wanted a drum machine that I could control with $20 of game hardware, so I built it in Excel. A little weird, but I think acceptably eccentric. But Drumpad has its share of problems--funky implementation, non-standard compliant, and often unacceptably laggy when actually played through a joystick. The problem is that I'm trying to build a poor man's MIDI synth.
Well, if I'd thought about it, I would have actually done it with MIDI. CDM featured command line-based utilities, including a keystroke-to-midi translator and a drum sampler, a few weeks back that would make a fine project base. You can find them here. If you were to use ControlMK to link the joystick to those utilities, it's much more responsive, and it's still free. Plus, there's a lot of other fun hackable tricks you could play. I love the command line.
For fans of Electroplankton, check out the Yamaha Tenori, developed by creator Toshio Iwai. It's a combination of synth, looper, beatbox, and music toy, all in a multi-touch interface. Looks very, very cool, and probably a lot of fun.
I'm not really a fan of the whole chiptunes genre, but this review and guide to the Wayfar NES midi cartridge is intriguing. For about a hundred bucks, it lets you run a $5 NES as if it were a synth module with five channels. That's pretty cheap, and it sounds good in a retro kind of way. In this day and age of cheap four-octave keyboards, you could probably have a portable synth setup for less than $500. Tempting.
But a few questions, really: Why isn't there an SNES version of this, with its superior FM chip? What would this be like with a wind controller? Does blowing on the cartridge count? And why can't I get an NES-on-a-chip that'll do the same thing for $25 or so?