Man Cave : The MCP Live when used by people who don’t play bongos

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In 1985 I was lucky enough to be interviewed by a music technology magazine when an AKAI S612 sampler was sent in for review. I was able to record my first, very public, sample – an orchestral pomp. It’s a primitive machine, allowing one 2 second sound to be played across a MIDI keyboard at a time – but came at a price within reach of the average music maker. Fairlights and PPGs were expensive, the Emulator rather pricey and thus the popular history of sampling really starts here, at ground level.

I used an S612 on The Big Bigot but ended up buying an Ensoniq Mirage instead, progressing through the EPS16 to finally own an ASR10 in 1994 – at the time a pinnacle of music sampling technology. There are still things only an ASR can do, crazy things. AKAI and EMu had their own adherents, but we all ended up in the same collision – the laptop computer wiped hardware samplers from the market.

Now with laptops becoming increasingly bloated with cloud crap and cruft there’s a growing market for hardware samplers. I spent a lot of time looking around, often disappointed and decided on my second ever AKAI – the MPC Live. Here’s why.

MIDI Production Centres.

MPC’s have been around since the MPC-60 in 1988. That was designed by Roger Linn, who’d gone bust on the Linn9000 drum machine and joined AKAI. He didn’t like reading manuals, so he made it easy to use. It probably was easy to use so long as you created music by playing the bongos. Good for hip hop but utterly useless for me.

Cash register or instrument?

Cash register or instrument?

So why is the MPC Live now part of our live shows? Layer upon layer of revisions, additions, re-imaginings etc. have stacked on top of Linn’s ‘no brainer’ operation. Oddly the machine continues to be marketed as a ‘hit the pads’ box before any of the new processes on offer. If you skip over the whole pad thing (just ignore the first few chapters of the manual) and go straight for the more advanced operations, you’ll find this particular box quite good for chromatic music design – much like the old keyboard samplers.

How it looks.

It’s a chunky black brick with 16 pads, a touch screen and 5 knobs down the side – 4 quick knobs and one old-school AKAI endless data entry. No angles or curves or any of that stuff – you may need to prop up the back to see the screen better on a desk. About the size of a laptop, much the same guts – but with a 2-in 6-out sound card joined to the back of it. 2 MIDI in, 2 MIDI out and 3 USB slots. Not terribly heavy but such that you will resent sitting it on your lap. The power brick is separate. Runs on battery for hours, very good.

The glow effect is optional

The glow effect is optional

It’s still a computer but no bullshit, dedicated to one task, quick to start and free from daily updates, Facebook and cruft. No stupid Apple dongles. It’s one box you turn on and plug in the audio cables. This is what I need onstage. I wish it did video clips but maybe next year.

Most of the internal storage is already filled up with a not unreasonable collection of basic instruments. I bought it a 128Gb SD storage card, but the SD slot is a primitive thing with no cover and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t last a whole tour. I decided to install a 256Gb SSD instead, which was dead easy.

How it thinks.

Each composition is a Project, which makes a folder on the hard drive that contains (not just references) all the required elements. Within that are Sequences which are MIDI arrangements pointed at Tracks – unlike the usual situation of tracks that hold clips. MIDI tracks feed into one of several Programs, which are the instrumentation. Drum pads are only one kind of program – the keygroup program is far more useful for my style of music.

Audio tracks are long sections of recorded audio – vocals, guitars etc. I’m not going to cover them here, but you could use this as digital 8 track recorder, so long as you can keep all the bits in 2Gb RAM. Nor am I talking about sequences at this point as I’m playing it myself on a keyboard. But sequences seem pretty easy to create, by live playing or step sequencing. Many people use the box just for this.

I need to set up multi-sampled instruments to play live. Each song we’re performing is a project. When I start a new project, it will contain one sequence, with one track, fed into one drum program. I delete the drum program and add a keygroup program, so to range samples across an attached USB keyboard. This program can actually have up to 128 individual keygroups, each with their own settings including key range, volume, pitch, panning, filters, envelopes, effect chains etc. So, I can have a voice sample on one note next to a range holding a piano, each with their own effects chain. (The effects are the same AIR effects that you may know from Pro Tools. They’re quite decent.) Each keygroup is also 4 layers deep, for switching between samples based on velocity, after touch etc. So, 512 samples in a program all up.

You can also use the layers to combine de-tuned samples and to offset their start points such that they can can be out of phase. Unfortunately this offset is not large and doesn’t appear to be open to modulation.

There’s also Plugin programs (OS 2.4). Without connecting to a computer, you get a choice of three AIR plugins – a Bassline, a Vacuum Polysynth and an Electric Piano, all of which are pretty good. (Connecting to a computer gives you AIR Hybrid and any VSTs you have installed which can be resampled to the box.) If you want to perform on a plugin as well as keygroup, you’ll not be able to restrict the plugin key range and will have to think about how the MPC arranges things. The first time I tried this, I made two tracks in my sequence so I could switch to one or the other (I could also give each a different MIDI channel, but my stage keys are too primitive). But I soon realised that two sequences, each with one required track, was much easier to switch on the fly as that’s what the MPC is about – switching between sequences. Just turn main knob, done.

There’s also Clip programs which are for switching phrases on the pads a la Ableton Live. And then MIDI programs send data out the two MIDI interfaces.

Sample editing.

Samples can be stored many formats but will always end up as full 32bit resolution in memory. There is no streaming from disc. You will need to rediscover the neat and tidy habits of hardware samplers – converting stereo to mono and trimming off the unwanted bits. Lots of useful tools here – normalising, time stretching, resampling and so on. The quick knobs can help you get your loops just so, although I’ve not been too good at it so far. The touch screen is good for zooming into zero crossings, but after a few days I’m still getting some clunks and clicks (but some excellent HP filters help). There’s a cross fade on the forward loop – again, not working well for me just yet. Loops can also alternate.

Nothing too fancy available mind you – only one loop and no it’s not an ASR10, you can’t modulate the position. No transwaves.

Knob twiddling.

One small disappointment is that the four ‘quick’ knobs can only talk to what is happening on the screen being shown, or to a limited number of destinations across a project. For example, yes, you can assign knobs to adjust the mixing settings anywhere, but some cool stuff is restricted to individual drum pads in a drum program, not keygroup programs, and not for per-sample effect settings or plugins. So if you want to change the sounds on the AIR Polysynth on the fly, you must be seeing it on screen, having dug through the menus. This also seems true of MIDI mapping. Such a shame for live shows.

If you are mad keen on that level of sample mangling then you really should look at the Elektron Octatrack which can do all the crazy things the MPC neglects, while lacking polyphony – something which amazes me. What is it about pads and drum machines? Would it seriously kill Elektron to play a few notes at once? Meh.

Pad thumping.

Perhaps I’ll start to thump a pad or two. At this moment I’d happily saw half the box off and lose the pads, but you never know there’s some cool thing that punching a plastic rectangle might do. If I could punch a pad to change the synthesis of a note I’m playing on the keys…

… but laying down phat beats, never.

MPC’s in the 21st century.

It’s been a long time since the S6000 back in 1999. I think we’ve regained that lineage, maybe by accident but still, we’re back to a box that goes with a keyboard. It weighs less, it holds more, it still has a knob that goes around and round. I hope that more people encourage AKAI to start thinking outside the drum machine. Having a physical sampler inspires my learning to use it like a main musical instrument, digging away at all the nuances that Kontakt doesn’t quite inspire.

I could do most things on stage with my iPad… but the day I showed up at a gig and the iPad wouldn’t start because the battery was flat – because I hadn’t used an Apple approved power pack – I decided that life is too short for apps, dongles and squidgy screen-presses.

I could use a laptop… but the day I got a loud beep onstage as a mail notification came on screen, I remembered that being a jack of all trades makes it master of a dull boy or something like that.

WINS: one box runs on batteries, does 80% of what you want, good quality, no cruft – it just does one thing.

LOSES: crappy SD slot, odd operating system takes a while to fathom, some things not quite finished in the knob department, the 20% it doesn’t do makes me sad at night, a bit pad-centric.

Man Cave : Ring a ring a rosie

Somewhere in Japan, in an office high above the confusion of the streets, a man dressed in an impeccable business suit sits at a neatly arranged desk. This is a sunny corner office, with an excellent view to both the north and the east. Anywhere else in the world this would be a sign of success and honour. But here in Japan it has the opposite meaning – this is the untouchable that came up with the Zoom ARQ-96.

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Now there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the ARQ that is not wrong with every MPC style ‘drum machine trying to be a grown-up compositional tool’. All of them are inscrutable, arcane and involve the kind of jargon that usually is associated with Scientology. Whenever you see anything with pads in a grid you can be pretty sure it’s for making sonic LEGO. The difference is while most MPC tools gaze at you with cool disdain, the ARQ holds the gaze of Bozo the Clown. You will not look like you’re DJing on stage, you will look like you are folding balloons at a child’s birthday.

I’m grateful to DJ2mn for pointing out ARQ-96s being dumped online for less than cost. I was compelled to add it to my musical sin bin. We have matching balloon animals!

It’s justified that musical phrases travel around in a ring – obvious even. But the colours on the ring are many and varied – they can represent instruments or notes or audio channels or set off light shows. The interface is unstable – a map where the continents are sometimes oceans. You must refer to the central LCD display for help and be reminded that this is a Zoom product – by God that LCD gets a workout. Have you ever used a Zoom recorder? Kissing Cousins.

I cleared out a ‘pattern’, and then cleared out the associated ‘kit’ of cheesy techno blips. I then found an instrument that wasn’t too bad and mapped it over the whole ring. Push the select knob and the ring becomes a round piano, which is somewhat surreal. I played notes while adjusting the instrument’s filter sweep and resonance to get a nicer sound. Each instrument can combine samples and oscillators, the enveloped filter is pretty good, there’s individual effects and it best of all it can be POLYPHONIC – which beats Elektron’s vastly more expensive boxes for example. I hit record and play and attempted to tap a melody line into the loop using the ring. That wasn’t so great. Actually, it was shit – this is NOT a great way to enter a melody.

I tried to use a MIDI keyboard with wireless (I have a MicroKorg AIR). The ARQ will see it but pays absolutely no attention. Bugger. There’s a USB port but it goes to a host computer, not to another USB instrument. (If you have a computer onstage then why use this?) Playing the ARQ as a sound module is not a plan.

Once I had achieved a reasonable melodic loop, I twisted the filter knob up and down, tapped in a few moments of delays and flanges and ended up with a quite decent wibbly phrase. I guess. I mean, it wasn’t the Blue Danube. You can also pick the ring up off the base unit and wave it in the air to control the effects, which impresses cats, but who the hell knows what it is doing what where and how.

I hit the sample button and the whole phrase was sampled on to the SD card to become a single audio file wrapped around the ring. That’s pretty easy.

It’s not a bad toy for wibble making and I can imagine coming up with a live performance using the ARQ as the central conceit. Maybe two performances. But it’s not really solving any of the issues in phrase-LEGO music making. That is, stitching together tiny little blocks of sound to make flowing music is not any easier on the ARQ than on an AKAI MPC, in fact the ring interface makes it harder to find your place in bars and beats by wrapping them on a clock face. It looks cool but it’s not going to sound better for being made on a ring than a grid.

For the original asking price that’s just not good enough. At ¼ the original price you get a hell of a LED light show under MIDI control and that’s cool. Even cooler would be connecting a real MIDI keyboard without a computer, which would then make the ARQ a pretty fine sound module.

A discussion that eventually becomes helpful:

https://www.gearslutz.com/board/electronic-music-instruments-and-electronic-music-production/1058700-zoom-arq-5.html

In defence of Luna, and the Dark Park.

In which I demand the reinstatement of all Luna Parks in Theme Park Theory and Design.

I‘m very grateful again to my missus for digging up an essential research source, being the program for an exhibition Luna Park and the Art of Mass Delirium. Held at The Museum of Modern Art at Heide in 1998, it catalogues responses to Luna Park St Kilda by mid 20th century painters Sidney Nolan, Joy Hester et al. alongside current visual artists. The art itself is not that appealing to me, but the included essays show how ignorant I am of the entire history – as are the people that claim to teach theme park design.

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Jennifer Phipps, a curator at the NGV, takes up the history of the Melbourne artists and park and makes many points, a few of which I can summarise here. In the wartime 1940’s, St Kilda housed American soldiers, about which the general consensus was they were ‘over paid, over sexed, and over here’. The park, ‘browned out’ as a war precaution, was filled with soldiers attended by young girls looking for a thrill, perhaps getting more thrill than the one they expected. Like all of Coney Island in New York, Luna Park was at the time considered a seedy place – both in Melbourne and Sydney. (When I asked my old dad about Sydney Luna, he would just say it was filled with ‘yanks and whores’).

Given the facts of the ‘Brown Out Murders’, it was a valid point of view, if unfortunate.

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The painters had a mixture of admiration and horror for the park, which they saw in the context of the war. Nolan, generally in favour of the vitality of the park, conflated the lines of the roller coaster with the tracer lines of ack-ack guns and produced designs for the ballet Icarus where the boy falling from the sky equaled the coaster in descent. But Hester painted a darker image of woman prone on the ground, the victim of a leering Luna face.

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In my own vocabulary, these painters were working with the light/dark modern/mannerist Orphic principle of the parks – the ‘mass delirium’ identified by the exhibition. There’s more context for why Disney, an artist, held such a revulsion to American parks as they were in the 1940’s and attempted Jekyll and Hyde surgery for his own land.

Ian McDougall, adjunct professor of architecture at RMIT, provides a masterful history of theme park architecture which should be mandatory reading for any study of park design. He describes what is very likely the prototype of the theme park in the circa 1550 Gardens at Bomarzo. Here are dragons and monsters, and the inscription that it’s sol per sfogare il Core … a bit like Just For Fun. He describes the 1968 study Learning From Las Vegas by Brown & Venturi, a significant work in which the pop art of the Strip was documented and became valid and worthy of inclusion in academic built environment design.

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I was most taken with his account of the 1978 book Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas that sets out the history of Coney Island, the 1939 World’s Fair, and NYC itself as an ongoing battle between light and dark. At one point the struggle is written as directly waged between Salvador Dali and Le Corbusier – both armed with Dali’s Paranoid Critical Technique. It’s not hard to find a naughty copy of the book online, and you have to read it before you can really understand the history and mentality of Luna Parks wherever they came to be.

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For me the message is good – there is a body of theoretical work, unfortunately unknown or denied by the practice where ‘imagineering’ has been set up as the whole reason. There is no justification for editing history to start in 1955 – that simply marks a reaction to what was there before. The reaction requires explanation, and that can be found as far back as 1550.

It all needs to be given some long trousers, and perhaps it’s something that I can do.

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An Orphic view of the fun fair.

In which Disney’s desire to expunge Mr. Hyde from Dr. Jekyll’s fun fair is argued to be flimflam.

I’m grateful to my missus for David Younger’s Theme Park Design book, which turns out to be a long and deadly serious text. Seeing as you can have physics textbooks with colour pictures and multiple fonts, it feels as if theme parks are being presented here as no laughing matter.

From it I find that my ideas on narrative have been embarrassingly naïve. Just pretend I didn’t write any of it thank you. The discussion of theme park storytelling is long and embattled, with the Europeans somewhat skeptical and the Americans doubling down. It also depends on the era you’re talking about.

Younger has a nomenclature for design eras, very Disney-centric like everything in the book. But to my way of thinking, it starts too late in the history

‘Traditional’ is the design category for the original Disneyland, immersive and thematic. As Disney became more involved in edutainment the real world became more important, and a ‘presentational’ style downplayed theming in favour of clean and simple lines that kept out of the way. In this scheme Fantasyland is traditional, while EPCOT is presentational. When the luster of big science wore off in the 70’s, the ‘postmodern’ style began to tease and mock the earnestness of these formats – as in the early Disney California Adventure.

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Trylon and Perisphere, with the helicline walkway. 1939.

But I think both presentational Tomorrowland and traditional Fantasyland have lived side by side from the very beginning. The two styles also represent something much older – the ‘ying and yang’ of the world fairs which had a light (inspirational, educational) side matched with a dark (exotic, disturbing) side. It seems fair to say the Trylon and Perisphere of the 1939 New York fair are ‘presentational’, as is the Eiffel Tower. Disney would never had allowed Salvador Dali’s Dream of Venus on site (although they did collaborate on a film) but the dark rides of Fantasyland are informed by those of the Amusement Zone.

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How much was Disney inspired by Elektro the Moto-man to create an improved robot of President Lincoln for the 1965 fair? Did he take notes at Frank Buck’s Jungleland? To what extent did the 1939 model ‘city of tomorrow’ presume the model ‘community of tomorrow’ 30 years later? Did the idea for a main street leading to a central hub already exist?

But was Disney involved at the ’39 fair at all?

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Mickey cartoon for the Nabisco Pavilion 1939 World Fair

Yes, deeply at many levels. And when Disneyland was in financial trouble he first wrote to the companies who had been at the fair for the same kind of sponsorship. They turned him down, but responded when a financial man made serious deals – and Monsanto et al. were on-site, plugging their wares.

Disneyland is in many aspects a small copy of a world fair, mixed with copies of European pleasure parks. It did not spring solely from his imagination.

You can argue that Theme Parks have to start somewhere if you’re trying to keep a document under a page count, or that world fairs are not strictly theme parks. But I can’t base my understanding of the design without tracing the ancestry.

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What was Disney’s point of difference?

The main change he brought about was his desire that the dark, unpleasant aspects of the traditional fun fair be expunged so that children could be safe at his park from dirt of all kinds. Pinocchio illustrates his feelings on the matter.

Pleasure Island YANG

Pleasure Island, where unbridled libido is rampant.

The fun fair was a place for adults, where children would be corrupted – turned into jackasses. They were indeed messy and corrupting places filled with more adults than children. That’s the point. Parks are an opportunity for Bacchanalia – the ecstatic, the liberating, drunken and drugged outburst of enthusiasm required by society to keep strong urges in a contained context.

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Still from “Speedy” c.1929 There children mixed in with the adults, but not as expected.

But in 1958 The Saturday Evening Post still counted four adults to one child in Disneyland. The ‘Orphic’ view (as in, that traditionally ascribed the legendary poet Orpheus) is that civilization requires balance with madness, Apollo and Bacchus – and the world fairs had this not by intent, but by demand of their audience. Disney was one man trying to impose his tidyness on the nature of things.

Cutting the dark side of the fun park from the light side wasn’t ever really possible, and lead only to an undeserved historical distaste for the earlier Bacchanalian ‘Luna’ parks. If you can’t climb up, then push down. A ride such as Snow White’s Scary Adventures is just a ghost train with IP attached.

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I argue all of this because I can’t see a logical reason my own city’s park to be cut out of design knowledge. More on that later.

Sevcom 2018 Annual Report, and New Year Resolutions.

2017 being such a frantic year with shows here and in North America, it was inevitable that 2018 would be anticlimactic. It was that – but at times the climate fell into bleakness.

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I’m sure VR will take off soon!

In 2017 we happily sailed the mainstream, the safety zone – live shows of elderly music. Like setting up at a trade show, you’re showing off your existing wares while delaying the development of new ones. It’s instantly rewarding with lots of praise and feedback for what you do – or to be very honest what you once did.

But we can’t continue to work for an audience that’s gone from the most forward looking to the one most adverse to new experience. Right now, they have the money and will pay for the excitement they once felt – the nostalgic T Shirt, the cassette. But that’s not what we wanted – back then or now. We’re supposed to keep pushing.

Thus 2018 was set aside for experimentation – real experiments that could fail. And they did fail – slipping slowly, fingernails scraping, off a cliff.

Clearing the decks

First there were some releases of projects that had been underway since 2017 or before. In April we released Aversion 2, being an album constructed of small splinters of classic rock music. A limited edition of 200 small plastic cases, each with a wire lab rat and USB card. The concept was loosely based around lab rats and experimentation.

Then Publicist, my follow up album to 2015’s Rhine. In June 2018 came Barbara UFOr, which completed the Barbara Island series that began in 2006. These three albums fill up the time in which things other than music albums must be the focus.

An album of ambisonic music was delayed until the concept became clearer.

Seeing the Future

So, what do most people call an experience in 2018? I think it’s useful to put aside your limitations for a moment and ask, ‘if I had unlimited resources…’. Back at the end of 2017 it seemed that surround audio/vision was a focus, and I upgraded our capabilities. We organised travel to the USA to see some of the state of the art in the entertainment industry. There is a movement for game engines to become the stage for motion pictures and experiences in general. I dedicated myself to mastering the Unity engine, at least to the point where I hoped to direct a team.

Puppet show at Halloween Horror Nights. Yeah, puppets.

Puppet show at Halloween Horror Nights. Yeah, puppets, low tech and it works.

Problems became apparent over the months.

VR is only part of a failed concept which I might label ‘constrained experience’. Quickest way to sum it up – once your brain gets used to augmented presentation – 3D, binaural, motorised seating etc. it disappears, as it no longer contributes to the story experience after a few minutes. Wearing a helmet doesn’t seem worth the effort. A standard 2D movie holds 99% of the story. A movie =/= a ride.

I’d rendered VR versions of two videos back in 2016, with little interest. I set about some new ones but found the whole VR realm to be dropping away, even for the largest players. When Google announced VR180, the game was up. Time wasted. I do see the worth in expanding the viewing space ­– with satellite (non-focussed) imagery on side screens. Projection mapping is also a successful area.

I believe that an engine such as Unity is the ‘studio’ for our future production. But even if you are given an entire film studio for free, you need sufficient staff to run it. I found it impossible to hold all the disparate elements in my head – humanoid animation, lighting, material design, coding … once I’d mastered one aspect, another would fall out of my head. I also fell into an endless loop between intentions and capabilities. I would intend something, it would come out differently, which suggested a different intention. This can be great in music, but in a complex world building exercise it’s a nightmare. Time wasted.

I was able to clock a ‘world’ with a sequencer. I have so far not been able to perform the ‘world’ with standard musical instruments, partly because live MIDI is alien to game design and partly because I haven’t yet made one worth the effort. That would have come before performing the ‘world’ over a network connection, a goal that was supposed to be finished by now.

At least I get job offers for Unity now. Yay team. Shrug.

Our trip to see theme parks in California was instructive – I saw that some of the failures I’ve realised were ones they’ve suffered as well. I saw that big teams are not just small ones grown up – I’ve been taught the difference between ‘fine art’ and the team work of experience design. Given that few music artists are serious about current forms, and that I identify as an artist, I have to pick those battles I can win unaided.

Picking up the fragments

Ambisonic sound is still worthwhile, as earphones and smart phones are already clothing. If a visual analogue appears, well and good. Wait for that. Making music in surround is itself not easy to do well.

Let’s just convert one or two video clips into game worlds. That keeps the intention/design steady and gives an idea if the conversion provides any real benefit. Once built it’s easier to make modifications to provide MIDI controls, networking etc. I can then demonstrate this to try get support.

Satellite screens for existing videos are achievable. I’m creating some multi-channel work and showing in Adelaide in March 2019.

Continue to study experience design, perhaps enrolling in coursework.

In general, smaller bites, less chewing.

2019 is already happening as we try book gigs. Europe is on but it’s being very difficult to set up. I think we were a novelty in 2016, maybe you have to die and be reborn each time. Like Jesus.

Have a nice Christmas break!

Man Cave Review: Roland Clown

I have to admit some bias – that I have already paid for some of these ‘plug outs’ – both hard and software, and am seriously annoyed to have to rent (‘rent’ is such an ugly word when ‘subscribe’ sounds so charming) them again to be able to have the others. I acknowledge that Roland have some vague offer in mind for people that have helped them in this way, but it’s been long coming ‘soon’.

Like Adobe, Roland have found that holding their customers by the balls is rather warm and comfy – not for the customer mind you. And like Adobe, Roland’s cloud has some great stuff mixed with wiffy leftovers, and you can’t pick and choose. It obviously can’t compare to Arturia’s collection, which ranges across a wide swath of manufacturers, and even KORG’s small collection has more sonic variety, because KORG. I don’t know how hard things are for Roland at the moment, surely accordion sales are evergreen – but let it pass, we should talk about the software.

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Start with the good – By far the best deal in the box is the D50. It’s such a odd machine when you try program it yourself, but the people that made the original patches included here did an excellent job. The sounds are varied and useful, they complement the analogue sounds so popular at the moment. Yes, it’s ‘legendary’ but it’s also useful and you will use it. It comes with a reproduction of the original programmer which is a pity, that was a confused monster which was later improved upon by third parties. I would buy this.

Great disappointment that the JV1080 is CPU crazy, and unusable. From the moment you load it, the CPU meter surges up to 100 and bangs against it like a bird trapped in a house. It’s a ROMpler – why on earth does it need more CPU than the virtual analogues? Was the wiring in the JV that crucial? Same goes for the derivative SRX plugins – they aren’t optimised yet. I own a XV5080 and it’s a wonderful machine once you understand the way it thinks – just go the whole hog and give us an Integra-7. That’d be instantly worth the rent.

You’d think that the JUPITER-8 would be the one with the CPU problems, but it’s fine. I guess Roland has had to make it work in their little boutique boxes. I set it up next to Arturia’s JUP-8. Only this has original factory sounds so there’s much fluffing required to compare them – I found that the JUPITER was generally louder and more modulated/lively than the JUP, but with adjustment they were close. Other virtual analogues like the SH101 are much the same – where I know them, they’re spot-on, where I don’t, they seem spot-on.

I don’t really get some of the choices here – a software PRO-MARS doesn’t offer that much over other mono-synths and the SH2 is as dull as ditch water. The JUNO-106 is fair enough I guess, but the JX-3P was originally designed for people who didn’t care much for synthesisers, and it has maintained that distinction since. A collection should be based on sonic versatility, that each component has a virtue not covered by the others. The Roland ‘sound’ is here, repeatedly, and you’ll end up using only a few of these instruments for actual music.

I almost forgot to mention the TR808 and TR909. They’re fine. They sound like the old drum boxes, as do a thousand other replicas out there.

Back to me – and I did admit bias up front – the legendary thing is not working, because the SYSTEM-8 does all that stuff quite well thank you – as does alternatives like U-He DIVA. The D-50 is sonically different, as are the JV series. But how many things Roland actually sound different? They’re trying to sell breadth, where breadth isn’t their strong point. If I was running things, ASAP get the damn CPU under control, but try to get some un-legendary things like the V-Synth and Integra-7 in the mix so that everything in the box isn’t a different coloured spork.

Further lessons from magical kingdoms

In which we draw some technical conclusions.

Sanity Clause.

Before going deeper it’s worth a sanity check, in that the finances of our test subjects are beyond our reckoning. The rides described here cost around $100 million to create – and a whole land such as Universal’s Harry Potter is estimated at half a billion. What can we small makers learn from their construction?

Your short film is not going to be Star Wars – but the expensive failure of the latest Star Wars film Solo is lesson that resonates with any level of storytelling*. The successes and failures of giants still provide lessons for the rest of us.

3D video isn’t viable.

There’s a period from around 2010 to 2016 where Universal used 3D technology on rides such Transformers and the Simpsons – around the same time that cinema took on the format. The obvious Great Disappointment comes in 2016 when the Harry Potter ride was upgraded to remove 3D projection. Notably the more recent DreamWorks Theatre uses no 3D.

Meh

Meh… too dark

The reasons are familiar to any 3D cinema goer – I found the 3D glasses to be clumsy, dirty and to cut out light, making for a dark and distant experience. Instead Potter and DreamWorks use HD screens that wrap around your field of view, and frankly you don’t notice the missing depth.

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Taken from http://www.leparcorama.com here is the Harry Potter ride, giant screens at the left and giant robot arm at right. Look at the curvature on that telly.

Seeing as we’re working on a smaller scale this brings up the question, which I think has moved from “is VR failing?” to “in what way is VR failing?” The parks are finding that glasses are not as effective as real world set building, and VR helmets are even less appealing. Notably Google is moving into something called “VR180” on the basis that almost no one actually looks behind them. It can be experienced on a helmet but will probably end up being a domestic ‘very wide screen’ projection system. This would represent an enormous retreat from the all-seeing 360 eye of VR.

And so they mix video and physical sets.

The latest rides use flat or curved video framed in built sets. No one believes that the video is actually part of the set, but so long as the two are designed to collaborate on story, the effect is accepted. Projection mapping is definitely a key skill as is set design.

Wall panels with video screens placed at the top. You can see at the top left a screen pretending to be one of the panels below.

But motion beats just about anything.

When you are being thrown around by large forces you’re immersed. In fact, some of the rides – Guardians of the Galaxy, The Mummy, and to a certain extent Space Mountain, rely on absence of visual cues. Motion simulators and motorised theatre seating is a proven and effective way to grab people, and no wonder some cinemas, even in Australia, are installing 4DX technology for feature films.

This is terrible news for the small designer, who’s unlikely to have access to this kind of effect. No matter how effective a VR headset may be, it can’t compete with motors. I can imagine some technology that would talk directly to your vestibular system, but not this year or the next.

Cheer Up: That we enjoy so many films without physical effects just comes back to the fundamentals – make us care and we’ll watch.

Except sound. Sound everywhere.

Sound is never neglected by the big players. The usual rig involves multiple speakers positioned on a ride car to provide a surround image for the riders. The sound stage for King Kong 3d uses a 22-channel mix, delivered on 16-speaker ‘clusters’ spaced along the stage. Disney places multiple speakers, as much as one per sound, so that they remain invisible to the audience.

Speaker arrays are beyond the reach of most small practitioners, but ambisonics has reached mainstream DAWs in 2018, and every sound designer now has the ability to produce a 3rd order image that can be subsequently mapped to speaker arrays if and when a specific project becomes available.

Haunted Houses.

Most of our vacation was spent being chased by scare actors in Halloween Horror Nights. Definitely something for a select audience, but something that could be expanded into a wider entertainment format.

Not so spooky in the daytime, but you can see the set building.

Not so spooky in the daytime, but you can better see the set building.

HHN includes a set of physical mazes, each about the same size as a small house, ground floor only. A queue of people goes in the front, weaving their way around in near darkness. Some parts of the house open up into wider rooms with set pieces – for example some sequential scenes from the old Poltergeist movie. The corridors are filled with hidden openings out of which pop scare actors, people in costume that pretend to stab or grab you as you go by. The noise level is intense – the Stranger Things house sounded like a plane taking off.

But a couple of things stop these from being scary. Most of all you’re one of hundreds of people flowing through these mazes at fast pace. The constant flow of people means you’re never in a state of apprehension, as tension is rarely allowed to build. If there’s a girl that screams in front of you, every scare actor will go for them and hide again by the time you get there. Lack of room means that the actors can only make repeated motions, although some of the better mazes had enough space for variation (the Universal Monsters maze was best for this).

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There are also scare zones in which the attacks are more free form and creative. They work better because the actors have creative freedom, but are harder to define and market. I think these are models for something new where a ‘swarm’ of characters gather you up into events, the way that massive online gaming works. And yes, I have no idea how you would do this. Yet.

* Don’t extend your population of characters so far that you need an encyclopedia. There’s only so much care to share.

Man Cave: Sampler Battles – HALion meets Kontakt

I recently wrote about sampling, and the joys of not losing hardware in a seething pit of wires. That leads to a discussion about whether hardware is really worth it, but that’ll come when my flame-proof pants arrive from eBay. For now, let’s question an assumption I made – about Kontakt.

Good Olde Kontakt

Kontakt is the default software sampler. If you buy samples it’ll come as Kontakt for sure, occasionally with a dog bone for the Reason and Logic people. In a way it’s good that there’s some kind of standard, but it’s not an open or versatile one. I hoped SFZ would be the one, but Alchemy went Apple-Embrace-Expand-Extinguish. Kontakt is a good sampler, but that’s about it. No great innovation has taken place in a while and others are trying ideas that NI seems to have abandoned

Due to secret men’s business I have the opportunity to review some Steinberg products. Today I want to look at the strangely capitalized HALion 6. We will see it’s not just a sampler, but more akin to a workstation such as the Yamaha Motif.

Bear with me

Rather than provide various ‘zooms’ of interface (such as Alchemy) there are three different versions of the software:

  • Daddy Bear – the full HALion, which makes new programs. If you’re a big tough electronic dude like me, you get this one.
  • Mummy Bear – HALion Sonic which can play back programs from a rather large library of Yamaha sounds and synthesisers.
  • Baby Bear – HALion SE which is free, comes with no libraries at all, but can still play programs, some of which you can get for free.

Straight away I must try to explain the terminology. A program is a virtual instrument based on the HALion engine, which may have a macro GUI, and up to 4 layers in which multiple zones can be placed. Try as I might I still get layers and zones muddled. The easy way to think about it is a layer is a split on the keyboard – bass down the bottom, piano up top. Or different articulations of a single instrument. A zone is like a single sample spread across pitches, but each can be an entirely different synthesis type. Middle C could be a virtual synthesiser, A# a wavetable.

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A simple program might have a layer with sampled piano. A complex program might have a GUI resembling a Blofeld, driving two layers of wavetable synthesis combined with a layer of virtual analogue synthesis, all passed through effects. You may have 32 programs running through the mixer in stereo or 5.1. There is a complex system for natural musical phrases and arpeggios, but a host sequencer is still needed.

A HALion owner can sell their work to HALion SE owners without royalties to Steinberg. A program provides all aspects of the HALion engine to any version – loading samples, wavetables, virtual analogue etc. It’s a bit like Reaktor or SynthEdit but based around the paradigm of sampling.

The price of great flexibility is great complexity. You have to move back and forward between multiple windows which show the program at different magnifications – a sample waveform here, a stack of layers there. It’s rarely skeuomorphic, sometimes tending to the look of a database. Never quite as confounding as Reaktor but not for the casual user.

Layers and zones

Most of the time you’ll just drag and drop a sample onto a layer, creating a sample zone, and get to work. Unusually, you can also sample sounds directly into HALion. Otherwise you can create new empty zones – a 3 oscillator virtual analogue, or drawbar organ, wavetable, granular, or sample. You can convert a sample over to a wavetable or granular sample. I didn’t find the wavetable conversion to work especially well for anything but simple waveforms. Being spoiled by Alchemy, I would really like to see an additive synthesis mode someday. The granular mode works fine, but not at the default settings – you will always need to fiddle to get a good result. The VA does a pretty good MOOG thingy. I’m not that interested in organs.

An Achilles file format

One thing I like about Kontakt is that it can be made to save monolith files – all the samples, compressed with all the settings bundled into one. That’s a killer advantage when you have multiple drives, 1000’s of samples and only hell knows where that one disappeared. But a monolith file takes your sounds behind a proprietary wall, locked away from any other software.

Here’s the problem – I have difficulty in explaining the way HALion saves files. Like most samplers, by default it saves a pointer to existing audio files unless told otherwise. It can also be asked to collect samples into a new folder structure. But the equivalent to a monolith is a complex business – a VST sound container is something that bundles everything from the macro GUI to the samples, that must be registered with the MediaBay and located in a library which can only be moved about by a library manager – it’s daunting to the new user. You could argue that it’s good shared studio practice, especially so that users of the smaller Halion Sonic can load up sounds. But it’s not an inviting part of music composition. Given the problem of accessing sounds from multiple hosts most people will just keep the samples where they are and pray that none go missing.

The Verdict

Unless you are a dedicated sound designer, you probably should stick with Kontakt, which does what it does and no more. Then, if you admire the extensive Yamaha library or the Motif, you can go for HALion Sonic. But if you have dreams of being a sound designer, and given that HALion SE is free to all, you could master the full HALion and come up with some impressive synthesisers that others may buy.

I’m really torn between having a Fantom style instrument and my existing neat and tidy Kontakt monoliths. Sadly I think the moment I start actually making music the latter will win.

White Board

There’s a white board on my wall on which multiple projects are set out. A few are finishing up – the 200 Aversion2 rat boxes are sent out, with a few still in doubt and replacements in progress. Some are items already promised – the last of the Barbara Island albums Barbara rUFO is here under the heading of LEGACY, along with a note that I spoke with Stephen R Jones about fresh copies of the old videos for YouTube. Some are new constructions, such as ‘Server360’ which I hope to evidence soon. But others are blue-sky-bullshit ideas – still just diagrams in notebooks. It’s these that have me hiding the white board from you, but as silence can seem like death, I want to give some kind of limited update.

(Plus, right now the house is under repair and there’s wood, bricks and rubble everywhere -– any work at all is a trial. At least the chance of sudden building collapse is being addressed).

Let me give a general outline of some of the projects.

One is called ‘Offog’ for reasons that once were obscure, but not now that Google is your friend owner. We’ve made quite a few small and inexpensive musical objects – starting with Blubberknife in 1982 and most recently with Aversion2. Following your feedback, we will attempt something more exuberant, exquisite, and expensive for a very few discerning customers. Something with bragging rights, made more valuable over time through the extra quality. A signal that we care enough about our work to take risks.

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This is not it.

We have some cool ideas competing for ‘Offog’. One is a more portable version of the Home Clavilux made by Paul Greedy and myself in 2013. That’s worth thousands of dollars – but what can be made for $50-$100? The touch surface computer alone was over a grand, but computers have become very small and very cheap.

‘Pretzel’ and ‘Las Vegas’ are entwined. I must stay vague – but I can point you at my previous game landscape albums – ‘HH’ and ‘Snowglobe’ (now combined as ‘Super Snowglobe’ as part of the experimentation). These are not so much games as virtual walking narratives, in which the participant is a sonic protagonist. I now move from making ‘built environments’ to ‘stages’ – which is more honest (does not claim an entire world), a smaller canvas, more strictly designed and controlled. Stages are not narrative landscapes with sounds here and there – they are strong visual frames for particular musical works.

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‘Pretzel’ will engage one person at a time, whereas ‘Las Vegas’ is a more ambitious system to entertain a large audience in many places at once. Their architectures should cross over, I hope, to keep the labour under control. Later this year we’re off to the USA to experience/document some of the leading theme parks – where I believe the state-of-the-art in staging, media production and presentation will be found. I think there is more to learn from Disney Labs than any traditional academic source.

‘Server360’ is not a complex idea. It follows up the Sevcom Music Server series of 1998 – 2004 but adds 360˚ sound reproduction. Although I’ve released experiments with ambisonic versions of our pop tunes, this kind of slow moving ‘textural’ music lends itself better to positional design. In an age where most people wear headphones, and quite often the same type of Apple bud headphones, there’s some certainty that you can deliver consistent ambisonic sound to a wide audience, and I feel this will eventually be a common feature. Both ‘Las Vegas’ and ‘Pretzel’ will feature 360˚ sound, and so this is a side mission to improve my craftsmanship for these larger projects.

You’ll notice that none of these things are standard albums. Like I’ve said in the past – I am not some sort of hyper-chicken laying out endless albums like eggs. Three albums – Aversion, Publicist and Barbara rUFO are supposed to tide us over for the long term. You could always listen to them twice! I also recommend the last Severed Heads albums – Beautiful Arabic Surface and Donut. There’s no use by date!

Cowardice

This last year I’ve done the things I was never going to do. I’ve abandoned Independence, I’ve abandoned quality, I’ve joined the cold grey mush that passes for online society. I’ve rolled over, four legs in the air and said fine, you win. Have a sniff.

Because when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter a rat’s. It’s not even as if I’ll get abused for it – no one cares that much.

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You can find my last two albums up on YouTube, put there by me. Which is kind of like taking your painting and leaning it against a dumpster. Partly because I kept finding it there anyway, and partly because a lot of people seem to eat out of dumpsters these days. It’s the banquet room of culture for the people who get their McDonalds delivered by Uber Eats.

There’s two ways you could run this thing. You could be completely uncompromising, willing to hang on to the final drop of blood. People like that get remembered long after they’re dead in somebody’s PhD thesis that no-one reads. I was raised on that stuff – the lone artist, the visionary blah blah – truly inspiring to 20th century me, but not that relevant in the 21st century. Horse and buggy heroics.

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And who am I to claim any special virtue? I make some pop music and some cute videos. This is the same disposable media that filled dumpsters since the beginning of sound recording. Am I trying to enthrone my bubble gum?

The other way is to say, OK, you can’t prejudge progress. Progress may be something you don’t expect, can’t anticipate. If you are progressive, then you ride with the changes, no matter where they might wander. Maybe shitty low quality audio on a video server is akin to the shitty low quality audio of a 7″ vinyl record. You go there, bravery rather than cowardice.

I have no idea which one. Which is why Aversion is a limited edition object, while Publicist is a throw-it-at-the-wall download.

I think this conversation is being held by an ever dwindling number of people, who think that the wider audience give a toss. They are under the illusion that e.g. vinyl sales mean a resurgence of interest in albums. I think it means a surge of interest in antique toys. It will give way to hula hoops. Music will not go back in the sleeve, it will wander wherever it finds a listener.

Meanwhile, abyss and staring.