Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Presents

Following up on my last post about electronic music gifts, I thought I'd do a roundup of some nice Christmas presents that came through this year. To start things off, here's my friend Madeleine Bloom (who has some beautiful music that you should all check out), with a short Christmas greeting uploaded via SoundCloud mobile:

 Merry Christmas by Madeleine Bloom

Now, here are some fun and free gifts:

Madrona Labs Aaltoverb
Format: AU plug-in (Max OSX only)
I covered Aalto and my flowery praise for it in the last post. On Christmas Eve, we got a free gift from Madrona Labs, in the form of Aaltoverb. It's a standalone version of the Reverb that's built in to Aalto (which has a fantastic, spacey-plate sound to it), with new dry/wet and brightness controls. A nice way for Madrona Labs to say thanks for 2010, and a fantastic effect to try out.

Valhalla FreqEcho
Format: VST/AU/RTAS plug-in (Windows and Mac OSX)
Technically, this one isn't new for Christmas, but it's a good way for me to say "my bad" for failing to include the brilliant Valhalla Shimmer in my gift guide. Shimmer is a gorgeous, affordable ($50) pitch-shifting reverb, inspired primarily by the "shimmer" sounds of Brian Eno/Harold Budd productions. FreqEcho is a free pitch-shifting delay plug-in, with a similarly well-thought out sound and pristinely minimal GUI. Fun for dubby pitch freakouts and alien sounds, among other more practical pitched-delay applications.

Native Instruments Reaktor Mikro Prism
Format: Reaktor instrument (requires Reaktor of the free Reaktor Player, which can both be used as VST/AU plug-ins for Windows and Mac OSX)
NI presents a lite version of the Reaktor Prism, a unique synthesizer/effects unit that uses impulses and resonant filters to make a range of sounds. Well worth checking out for some unusual sounds - especially the plinky ones.

Ableton Holiday Live Packs
Format: Ableton Live Sets (requires a version of Live to run; free trial version can be grabbed here)
Ableton Live Packs provide users with an opportunity to see how a number of different artists use the program for their music. The two new holiday packs, from funk musician Everett Bradley and experimental hip-hop violinist Christopher Tignor, provide very different insights into ways of using the program. These packs come as an extra gift to supplement a previous series of five other Live Packs for the season.

TeaTracks Xmas Spin
Format: iOS app (iPhone / iPod Touch / iPad)
TeaTracks' Gliss app is one of those special sound toys that makes it a joy to make music on a touch screen. For Christmas, they've offered a free, interactive set of visuals and sounds inspired by the season, in the familiar advent calendar format. While you're at, think about giving Gliss a try - it's on sale for only $1, and it's good enough for Gorillaz.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

I'm back again / last-minute digital gifts

Well, it has been a while, hasn't it? Long-story short, I moved to Berlin, Germany in September to start a new job managing social media for Ableton. You can Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, check out our YouTube page, and dig around the Forum. Expect to hear more about that as I resume blogging regularly. Nice to see some upgrades to Blogger in the time I've been gone.

It being Christmas Eve-Eve and all, now's an appropriate time to address that wonderful segment of the population who, unlike my lucky Jewish ass, have to buy gifts for pretty much everyone they'll be seeing in the next week. There have already been some great gift guides published - check out some of my favorites, from CDM and Synthtopia, but I figured I'd add some last-minute deals to the pot. Everything here is under $100, does something unique, and, best of all, can be ordered digitally (as in, now). No guarantee that you'll get the license sorted out by Christmas, but at least you'll have a proof of purchase that says "I love you." You can also think of this as a guide for what to do with some of that holiday cash that may be coming your way.

Lastly, let me reiterate that nothing posted here should be seen as an opinion or endorsement of any third party - these opinions are just mine. Check it:

Madrona Labs Aalto
Format: AU plug-in (Mac OSX only)
Price: $99 (~€75)
So what do you get the electronic musician who has everything? This. Hands-down the most unique new synth I encountered this year, the Aalto is a work of art, sonically and visually. Based on classic analog modules (the oscillator in particular is based on Buchla designs), the Aalto provides a unique oscillator, unique delay, excellent sequencer, and great reverb. The architecture is technically semi-modular - you can route anything to anything, but the modules are fixed - but Aalto still feels like an audio toy box. Sound design is a joy, and with the 1.1 update, it no longer devours CPU. Probably not the best synth for someone just getting started - it helps to know a little bit about audio processing and synthesis, though the manual and presets cover this well - but it's a real diamond.

d16 Phoscyon
Format: VST/AU Plug-in (Mac OSX and Windows)
Price: €39 (~$51)
There's nothing new about emulations of the classic Roland techno boxes, but d16's dedication is impressive. There's real soul (and science) behind Phoscyon, an emulation of the classic TB-303 bass synthesizer, most famous for being the sound of acid-[genre]. The quirks of the original 303 have been preserved, including its puzzling-yet-rewarding sequencer and that 3-pole lowpass filter. There are also some enhancements, including greater envelope controls, a distortion effect, and an arpeggiator. On sale for the holidays, Phoscyon is a great deal. If you're making pretty much any kind of dance music (or even if you aren't), a 303 is just a great sound to have access to. Also, if you're into the classic Roland drum machines, you'd also do well to check out Drumazon, Nepheton, and Nithonat, the best modeling I've heard of the 909, 808, and 606, respectively.

Audio Damage (anything)
Format: VST/AU Plug-in (Mac OSX and Windows)
Price: $30-80 (~€23-61)
Audio Damage plug-ins have that perfect combination for this list - they're unique, they're cheap, and you aren't sacrificing quality for price. Are you buying for someone who's into IDM? Replicant and Automaton are excellent choices. Looking for a versatile drum synth? Tattoo packs in a surprising amount of innovation alongside classic analog-style drum sounds. Thoroughly great choices, all around.

Format: DAW/hosting application (Mac OSX and Windows); runs VST and AU plug-ins
Price: $99 / €99
Now's as good a time as any to point out again that, yes, I work for Ableton, and, no, nothing in this post is being done in my capacity as an employee. Live has been my DAW of choice for the past six years (I also enjoy Renoise and Audacity) - I've found it to be the most easy and versatile environment for sketching out ideas, playing live, tweaking tracks to the finishing point, and controlling external hardware instruments. Live Intro makes a great gift for the beginner musician, for the professional who wants to get into working with software, for the DJ who's interested in production - the list goes on. It's definitely the kind of entry point that I wish had existed when I was in high school.

Format: DAW/hosting application (Mac OSX and Windows)
Price: €58 / $76
As mentioned above, Renoise has become another application of choice for me in my own music. It's a tracker, so there's no hiding it - you'll either love this way of working, or absolutely despise it. Breakcore, Chiptune, and Glitch musicians tend to dig what's offered here. Renoise is as sexy as a tracker has ever been, and it's great fun once you get the hang of the key commands. Spend some time learning how to talk to it, and you'll be mashing out dense rhythmic explosions like a pro. It's also excellent as a tool to be rewired into another DAW. It's not the best for Live performance, but the new pattern matrix offers some innovative options for that.

Native Instruments The Mouth
Format: Reaktor instrument (requires Reaktor or Reaktor player, which can be used as VST/AU or standalone)
Price: €69 / $79
Following up on the similarly funny and wild effect scrambler The Finger, Time Exile presents The Mouth, an instrument that turns your voice into nearly anything. This one rates high in uniqueness - there are vocoders out there, and you can replicate what the Mouth does in other other programs, but no others tie it together like this. It also comes with the best introductory video of the year.

Tobor Experiment Gleetchlab 3
Format: Standalone application / can host one VST (Mac OSX only)
Price: €10.69 (~$14)
Let's get one thing out of the way - if the person you're buying for wants to be the next hot progressive house producer, Gleetchlab is not the tool. If, on the other hand, you're buying for someone with a love of sound and a curiosity to really get in there and sculpt it, you can't do much better than this. At its core, Gleetchlab is a granular sample with six sample slots, each with a dedicated filter. The modules it comes with range from the expected (reverb), to the incredible (Mephisto - a sequenced delay, feedback and bitcrushing effect). Gleetchlab has its quirks - saving is disabled by design to encourage improvisation, and it can't be used into a DAW - but it's a deceptively simple tool that I've found very conducive to creativity. It's also worth checking out Berna, another standalone app from Tobor Experiment, which replicates the setup and sounds of a 1950s-era electronic music studio.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

My name is...

Here's a fun banner tool via my friend Rod - bigassmessage. You type in your message, and it converts it to plain black and white (all caps of course), "magic" (crazy multicolored flashing), "jprdy" (Jeopardy category style) or "pepsi" (looks like a pepsi ad with the logo replacing certain circular words - great little piece of subtle sponsorship that gets the joke).

Here's a shot of the crazy blinking shiz, which you can also see here:

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Simplicity is Bliss

There's little question that mobile is the next dominant platform for music production. The success of Apple's App Store, and the burgeoning market in applications for Google's Android platform, are pointing to the future of electronic music; it'll be increasingly portable, and increasingly more powerful for such a small size. For the time being, however, mobile devices are still far less powerful and, in size of screen alone, less versatile than their PC-based cousins. The best applications for mobile music making accept these limitations, and work with them, even turning them into advantages. To start the conversation, I'll look at nanoloop, originally a cartridge for the Nintendo Game Boy (and later Game Boy advance) developed by Oliver Wittchow, and recently ported to the iPhone. Just as Wittchow pioneered the 8Bit music scene by approaching the original nanoloop as a tool custom-made for the limitations and quirks of the Game Boy, so too has he designed the synthesis and sampling capabilities of the iPhone version; in other words, this is no 8Bit emulator. It's specifically an iDevice instrument.

Lovely, those rows of numbers!

See those rows of numbers? That's the sequencer in nanoloop, and it is a beauty to behold (and to work with). It's a painstakingly simple model - each channel of up to six sounds can be sequenced linearly (or in a loop) from up to 16 four-beat loops per channel. There's no flash, no soundwave display of the loop, but this tracker-lite approach works perfectly for a mobile platform. It'd be a limitation on a PC, but on the iPhone, it's conducive to immediate creativity, which is really a make-or-break point for so many apps. Nanoloop further eschews any traditional effects, going instead with its own quirky system of envelopes, filters, and LFOs (one per synthesizer). As for the sampler, it's (unsurprisingly) simple yet very usable, and conducive to on-the-spot recording and sequencing.

nanoloop's synthesizer

When I was in college, one of my professor's instructed the class to "never drape the patch cables around your neck," a quote which he attributed to Brian Eno. I've always taken this to mean that you must never let the process override the results (unless, of course, that is one's conscious creative decision, which is another matter entirely). I can sympathize with such a neck-draped situation, as I run into it often when making electronic music. How easy is it to work on sculpting a sound or sample for hours, and end up with an overprocessed, flat mess? While I do certainly appreciate the impressive arsenal of synthesis and effect tools available in an app like Amidio's moster synth, the Pro, it can be far too easy to get lost in a black hole of endless tweaking and still end up with an ultimately unsatisfying sound. Nanoloop's limitations and basic interface encourage immediacy. There's only so much to be done with each synthesizer, which forces the musician to think outside of the box. Already, I've had a great time turning simple sequences into odd, noisy drones using the BPM control, which has a lower limit of 1 and no upper limit. Here, then is a track composed and sequenced entirely in nanoloop for iPhone (some dynamics and light multiband reverb done in Ableton Live):

Nanoloop is far from the only simple-yet-brilliant kid on the block, however. The Strange Agency produce similarly well-designed little apps - in the $1-3 range, each one is a small investment with big sonic rewards, through simple adjustments. Soundscope Space is a monophonic synth with a rich analog distortion that can easily be reduced to digital grit. The controls behind Space are simple but very unique, including a x/y volume/pitch dual LFO (dubbed the "kuzmoscilator" and responsive to the speed with which it is flicked), and the ability to draw out any wave form (with selectable starting blocks of sine, square, and sawtooth). Sample-chopper Slice and tactile granular synthesis display Curtis are two more excellent (and cheap) examples of The Strange Agency's impecable design and utility.

Soundscope Space

Inevitably, any viable platform for electronic music production needs a good sampler. Many applications have arrived feature packed for these purposes - Beatmaker, iSample, Looptastic Producer - and they're all worthwhile, with their own unique draws. But I have to specially recognize Trapcode's ProLoop for its design and simple ingenuity in playing loops together. Like the simply laid out timbral controls in nanoloop and Space, each allowing for extreme possibilities, ProLoop's modular system between loops is its secret weapon.

ProLoop's main screen

In ProLoop, a minimalist interface for playing sampled loops, allows for up to 6 simultaneous loops to be played. Each loop has its own parameters for pitch (which can be optionally locked to a "master" loop), playing forwards/backwards, volume, granular freeze (stutter, which can be locked), and modulation. Each loop can be routed to any other loop as its modular source, enabling variable levels of phase, ring, and frequency modulation. This, of course, opens up a wide range of possibilities, particularly when combined with ProLoop's granular and pitch-shift controls.

Nanoloop, The Strange Agency apps, and ProLoop all conceal awesomely powerful features behind minimalist facades. It's always easy to get something that sounds good and encourages creativity in each app - yet it always takes dedication to get something that sounds great. Surely, that's the sign of a keeper in the app world? As mobile technology advances, it may soon be feasible to have something as complicated and processor-heavy as a PC virtual instruments or DAW available on the go. In the mean time, the best mobile music apps embrace limitation rather than fight the unwinnable battle against it, and come out as stronger, more focused (and, often cheaper) alternatives.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Music Boxes Together

Last Saturday, I received a promo Gristleism in the mail. Designed by legendary industrial musicians Throbbing Gristle, along with FM3's Christian Viraant, the Gristleism is a little music box with a built-in speaker, 13 loops of TG's music, and controls for volume, loop selection, and pitch. Like FM3's Buddha Machines (though lacking a built-in 1/8" output jack), The Gristleism is an exercise in intriguing simplicity - the speaker obviously is not of the greatest quality, and the box is limited to playing the loops that it comes with. The pitch wheel on the Gristleism boasts twice the range of the Buddha Machine II (the first Buddha Machine did not have a pitch controller). Here's a little video I made, playing all three boxes together:

The loops are, in order of appearance - #1 "Persuasion" on the Gristleism (black), #2 "Li" on the Buddha Machine II (brown), and #6 "Xiao" on the Buddha Machine (white). This is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg of how much fun it is to play around with these boxes - the range of loops and pitch controls make for loads of possibilities.

I'll be reviewing the Gristleism for PopMatters - it's turning into another feature piece, kinda like what happened with the Buddha Machine II. Look forward to it!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Initial reflections: Autechre - Oversteps

A new album from Autechre is always cause for mass celebration. I'm still not sure how the lads manage to do it, but Booth and Brown manage to deliver a beautiful new statement of emotional machine music every two or so years. March 22/23 sees the release of their 10th full-length, Oversteps.

I received a promo copy yesterday, and, shock of the new aside, we've really got something special on our hands here. Autechre's trajectory had been on a stable (though still satisfying) path, from 1998's LP5, through 2005's Untilted, their immersion in generative and algorithmic music having reached its pinnacle with 2001's superb Confield. After delivering a run of albums which successfully built on twitchy beats and dark FM synths, 2008's Quaristice was rather a curveball. Sparse in stark contract to the density and long track lengths of Untilted, Quaristice was filled with sublime little sketches. These worked very well with the slew of remixes re-versions of the material, released as the bonus disc, Quaristice (Versions), as well as the digital release series,

So, what to make of Oversteps, then? Well, more than ever now, Quaristice sounds like a steaming prelude record - a cool In A Silent Way to the more aggressively beautiful Bitches Brew of Oversteps. There are tracks here with the kind of ambient techno melodies that have scarce been present on an Autechre album since 1995's Tri Repetae. Where part of the thrill of Quaristice was the unmistakable sound of the duo wrestling with where to fit all the pieces, Oversteps beams with confidence; everything is fleshed out here.

The temptation is go on much, much longer, but I'm saving the more flowery phrases for my review of the album in Big Shot. I'll also be interviewing Sean Booth for BS next Sunday; look for that all to be out in March, around the same time as Oversteps itself. Lastly, beautiful packaging for this one, natch: