“Confucius once said that “when a finger points at the moon, the idiot looks at the finger,” an axiom which might be applied towards the ongoing obsession with technologically up-to-date sound “gear” and other ephemera of the modern sound stage. Though it may be harsh to assume “idiocy” on the part of audiences, the persistent problem of audiences’ displeasure with the retinally unstimulating “laptop concert” (and the desperate attempts by artists of “post-digital” live performers to offer some kind of a compromise in this area), have led to the answering of a question that – as [Francisco] López might suggest – never needed to be posed in the first place” from Microbionic by Thomas Bey William Bailey
It bugs me that people who don’t like the music I make will push the usual lame laptop critique forward despite the truth being that they only like music that involves skinny black jeans and amplifiers. Surely they shouldn’t attend “experimental music” gigs if they don’t really like the music? The reality is these same people have co-opted the live experience to such a degree that laptops have made way for DIY electronic gadgets that work much better with skinny black jeans and amplifiers. This is what it is. I’m in two minds about this occurrence and both of them are old and cranky.
The reason I’ve been wanting to move away from the computer for making music is primarily to do with screen-time. Between my work, my leisure and my creative time I would spend at least 60% of my time staring at a screen. I know for some people it is even worse. With parenthood comes time restrictions and I no longer find myself with swathes of time during the day to devote to making music. This often forces me to cut into possible sleep-time and work later into the night – something I have no problem with – except if I’ve been looking at a screen all day.
There is a point where more screen time just makes my eyes tired and I fall asleep – often in my chair. It’s ridiculous but seemingly unavoidable.
I also find the distractions of social networking also in the way of making music. Thanks to Mountain Lion I now get Facebook, Mail and iMessage updates constantly flashing to the right of my MacMini desktop which invigorates my creativity so much! 😉
And the final reason is that I have been given sage advice from more than a few people, whose opinions I respect, that I need to find a setup, stick with it, and master it. It’s a variation on the “Helsinki Bus Station” theory. Stay on the bus and you will eventually start to notice what makes your particular vision unique. Get off the bus frustrated that it is the same as everyone elses and you will have to start learning again. While this is something I understand in theory i’ve gone through so many different synths, plugins and DAEs looking for “the one” that works for me. Each have their own strengths / limitations and with the evolving architecture of computers there is a constant barrage of tempting newness that is difficult to avoid.
In the last six months, I did however establish a set of requirements that I could look for in an audio instrument or environment.
- diversity – the Mopho was too limited, it needs to cover more than just basic Subtractive Synthesis and have flexible modulation possibilities
- ease of use – not that it has to be basic but that it isn’t so hard to use that I’m going to avoid it at the end of the day because I’m too tired to be bothered setting it up. Max/MSP suffers from this in my opinion. My “performer” patch constantly required tweaking and setting up to be usable. If I want to just make some sounds, even with the awesome help system in Max6, i’m looking at a chunk of time setting up and debugging before I can actually play. It is slightly easier with stuff like Reaktor and easier still with Tassman 4 / Vaz Modular 3 / Karma FX.
- not broken – sure I love glitchy cracked sounds but nothing discourages me from making music more than setting up a patch and then having the instrument lock up or crash and lose what i’ve done. This happened enough times with both the Waldorf Blofeld and the M-Audio Venom were broken enough that I ultimately would resist using them in fear of succumbing to the usual lock-ups and problems. (Ironically I hear reports the Blofeld is finally in working order and the Venom received an editor update in February that fixed many of it’s “quirks” – just in time for me to sell it!)
- coherent architecture – the benefit of modular synthesis is you can get fairly complicated routing happening and still understand the patch – as you are building it and can track the signal flow. Pre-routed and semi-modular synths confuse me. I was never really sure with the Blofeld and Venom what was modulating what and therefore tended towards unadorned drones or atonal bubblings.
All these ultimately pointed to requiring either a software based modular system like Reaktor OR an expensive modular system that I cannot currently afford (and don’t have the space for).
It seemed there was only one path I could go along…
Path one: the headless desktop
Assuming I was not going to find a hardware synth that fit my requirements I looked at external VST hosts. The two main choices are:
An external VST host with the power of a decent laptop they can potentially run stuff like Reaktor, Tassman 4, Vaz Modular 4, Karma FX but at a price roughly equivalent to a new Macbook Pro you’d want to be a touring band making reasonable money to justify them.
Much cheaper ($200-$400) but lacking in CPU power, unable to run Reaktor and dubious how well it would run Tassman / Vaz etc. The unofficial forum recently closed and lots of disgruntled users are belly-aching on KVR and Gearslutz forums.
Then I thought – hold on a minute – i’ve heard of people using headless MacMini’s for installations – they are relatively cheap, perhaps one of those would do? This is what I came up with:
- Get the default 2.3ghz i7 Mac Mini from Apple – don’t be tempted by their extras.
- Go to somewhere like Ramcity and get 8gb of RAM (it is cheaper than from the Apple store and very easy to install) I picked 8gb instead of 16 because unless you are using lots of Kontakt / Sampler instances, Ram is barely used (based on tests with Mountain Lion I rarely went beyond 5gb)
- Go to somewhere like Umart and get an SSD and a largeish SATA.
- Get the MacMINI dual HD kit from iFixit and follow the instructions to install your new drives.
- Now you have a superfast MacMini DAE machine – what is next. Well you obviously need an audio interface and something to work as keyboard/screen/mouse. I have an HDMI ASUS monitor, Mac Keyboard and Logitech Mouse for home but for gigging, jamming, playing I don’t want horrible screen burn right – that was the point of my post wasn’t it?
- My solution is to use my iPad and an awesome program called Splashtop. With the Splashtop app installed on the iPad and the streamer program on the MacMini I can use the iPad as a touch controller to manipulate my MacMini desktop. The only hassle is it requires a wireless or Adhoc connection to the MacMini before it will work. Something less easy to arrange live without having a monitor anyway – however…
- This forum has a couple of scripts that can be modified to autoboot the MacMini and load up an Adhoc connection automatically. The only problem is you need to ensure you have Airport already turned on before switching off the MacMini. This way Airport will be running when the script creates the Adhoc, otherwise it will fail. I’ve tested this on my 2010 MacMini in Mountain Lion and it works fine.
So this was to be my solution – all up costing around $1200 – much cheaper that an equivalently speedy Macbook Pro – probably around the price of an equivalent Windows notebook with the added bonus of being able to run both OSX and Windows 7.
It probably will still be something I build in the future however something happened… A path I did not expect opened up…
Path two – Nord Modular
I wasn’t expecting it as they have been discontinued for over a decade but a Nord Micro-Modular came into my life. I was already familiar with the G2 demo software, as there are a number of really good synthesis tutorials that utilise it, and getting to grips with the first edition editor software (which works with G1 Rack / Keyboard and MicroModular versions) was a piece of cake. Having worked with several virtual modular programs I can see a clear heritage back to the G1. Reaktor in particular comes from the late 90s / early 00s and has a similar set of features although Reaktor has gone much further allowing module building and much broader synthesis options. This level of flexibility isn’t necessarily a great thing though as the smaller, better organised set of Nord modules allow for a much smoother workflow and easier learning curve without sacrificing depth and flexibility.
This patch is the rhythmic part for the track below. An extension on one of the tutorial patches we have pulses running percussive sounds based on Sample&Hold modulated by either noise or LFO signals.
When the patch is done – I store it to the MicroModular, switch off the laptop and jam away, saving my eyesight for another day.
The only problems i’ve had so far is that I had to get a Roland UM-One USB to MIDI adaptor so that the editor could communicate to the MicroModular. The G1 series use the maximum bandwidth MIDI allegedly supports which apparently isn’t supported by lots of MIDI devices (my MOTU Ultralite mk3 included).
Also the editor software does not run on modern OS’s like Mountain Lion (and possibly Windows 8). I have had success running it on Snow Leopard and Windows 7 and finding an old computer to put Windows on isn’t such a big deal.
So there is a great forum still active with users, a huge archive of patches, threads and workshops to learn from, and numerous online traces of whispered promise. I already knew that Coil and Nine Inch Nails used them but I didn’t realise some musicians I personally know used them. Kinda wish I was in on the secret earlier.
My favourite find though is this site – MonoLog – a guy doing a blog post and a Nord Modular recording each day for over a year now. I’m certainly not expecting to be so prolific but a large part of the idea is to have a musical environment I can encourages experimentation and warrants consistent engagement.
So here is a flexible audio environment I can work with – what more do I need?
I’m currently saving up for this… the G1 Rack version which is like 4xMicroModulars in one.
Can’t see why this won’t sustain me. With this I will be able to create a track like the one above in real-time with DSP power to spare. I will also be able to send outputs through external devices (like the Kaoss Pad for example) and back in for more processing.
I did consider a G2 but they tend to be too expensive for me at the moment (anywhere between $1000 and $2000)and I’ve heard foreboding stories of failing USB ports (due to bandwidth requirements and the general hassle required to connect to the G1s they changed to USB for the second edition – which ironically makes them more of a gamble.)
Anyway… Old Device, New Possibilities. New project name – Makrotulpa.
Here is a noisy little track that demonstrates the flexible cross-modulation possibilities of the Nord Modular system. I could never seem to get this much cross-modulation out of Reaktor, Tassman 4 or KarmaFX. Only Vaz Modular 3 really comes close. Enjoy.