Saturday, March 5, 2016

Electronic Music Equipment Gear Review

This year I have picked up lots of different gear for making electronic music.  Far more than is required to make interesting sounds, but maybe enough for an interesting comparative review.

My output so far is on Soundcloud, as erollins with the frog.

This write-up is from the context of "what is the minimum needed to get started?"  And that, in turn, depends on how you want to make the music.  Just on the computer?  Just with external instruments fed to the computer as a recording device?  Or some mixture?  Also, live performance? Or pure studio composition?  And even in the studio, "live" recording versus note-at-a-time entry?

All the above options start with DAW, Digital Audio Workstation, software.  This software both drives and records external hardware and internal software (VST plugins) instruments.  It provides a MIDI piano-roll interface for composition, and often comes with its own libraries of recorded sounds and MIDI software instruments.  There are two basic styles of DAWs, Ableton-style versus the rest.  DAWs were originally created for studio recording and composition, but Ableton Live pioneered a DAW design that could be used in live performance.  Rather than just pressing PLAY on a single track (instrument) or all the tracks in the "Arrangement View", Ableton Live allows the creation of short "Clips" that can be independently triggered (on the correct downbeat!) within the "Session View".  This way a live musician using the DAW for accompaniment can choose when to move to different sections of a song (chorus vs verse, etc.) rather than being locked to a prerecorded linear sequence.  Numerous hardware devices have been created to control this triggering (such as the upper buttons on the AKAI APC Key 25) to avoid the use of the computer mouse during performance.  The downside of having two different modes and interfaces (Session versus Arrangement view) is the additional complexity of the interface when only doing studio work.  OTOH even in the studio live clip launch sequences can be recorded -- this is how I created "Polyplexed" in Bitwig Studio.

Bitwig Studio is a much more recent DAW, created by ex-Ableton employees, that also follow's Ableton's clip launching design.  It has some support for third-party clip launching hardware (AKAI APC Key 25), and also supports using the Microsoft Surface Book touchscreen as a launcher.   Bitwig also does the best job of sandboxing VSTs -- the Twist synthesizer insists on shrinking its display because it doesn't understand high-(retina/4K)-resolution, and only Bitwig prevents it from messing up the entire DAW.  It may also provide better CPU isolation between VSTs, though it may itself be more of a CPU hog.  Haven't diagnosed the periodic mysterious live audio pops I get, though they are not making it into the recordings.

PreSonus Studio One is a more traditional DAW which does not do clip launching. It provides more facilities useful for recording and mastering rock-band music.

All 3 DAWs come in intro/demo versus full versions.  The intro "Ableton Live Lite" is free with many hardware devices such as the AKAI APC Key 25.  The full versions of all three come with reasonable integrated MIDI software synthesizers and sampled sound sets (drums, pianos, etc).  The full Ableton Live Suite comes with the most sounds and instruments (though some are legacy redundant) and is the most expensive ($749 full, $649 with upgrade from Lite).  The other two full version DAWs are about half as expensive.

When making electronic music everything besides the DAW is optional.  Some artists such as deadmau5 appear to compose whole songs purely using the computer keyboard or mouse for note-by-note entry into the piano roll and plunking the on-screen virtual piano keys. Alternately any MIDI keyboard (today MIDI over USB) can be attached to the computer for note entry.

A real analog synthesizer such as the Moog Sub 37 will only have analog outputs.  Recording this output on a computer will require analog-to-digital conversion using an audio interface.  I chose the Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 because besides analog inputs and outputs it provides digital output, and my audio amplifier only accepts digital inputs.   The Roland System-1m is a digital emulation of an analog synthesizer, and provides USB digital audio output.  Ableton could handle USB digital audio input, but Bitwig studio requires all external inputs pass through an audio interface so I had to use the analog output of the Roland.  Also once an audio interface is being used for audio input, it must also be used for audio output.

Originally analog hardware synthesizers were "modular":  each function (oscillator, filter, etc.) was a separate physical module, and these were externally wired together using physical patch cords.  Any keyboard was also a separate add-on, and pre-MIDI used CV (Control Voltage) plus Gate for control signals.  Later analog synthesizers integrated all the modules plus the keyboard into a single physical unit, with most of the connections internal and hard-wired but with a digital subsystem that supported saving configuration information.  These saved configurations were called "patches", and included both factory settings and user saved settings.  Many songs are created simply using factory patch (preset) sounds, while others involve creating entirely new sounds or varying existing sounds by twisting the knobs while playing. This live knob twisting is how I created "All The Knobs" on the Moog Sub 37.

Analog modular synthesizers are making a comeback in a new smaller rack format -- the Eurorack standard.  The Roland System-1m, while an all-digital unit that supports patches and downloaded emulation of classic Roland analog synths such as the SH-2, does provide analog input and output of various patch points so it could be integrated into a Eurorack system.

Native Instruments Reaktor is a software synthesizer construction kit that runs as a VST plugin inside a DAW.  It has been used to create many different interesting (sold separately) synthesizers, such as the Polyplex drum sampler I used in "Polyplexed".  Originally creating your own synthesizer using Reaktor was quite complex, involving a visual programming environment plus scripting language much like National Instruments LabView for scientists and EEs.  Recently the new Blocks layer was added, resembling a set of Eurorack modules.  This makes creating new synthesizers much simpler, and looks like a fun way to both learn visual programming and create music.  The examples are also playable out of the box, and the online user community is creating more Blocks.  Reaktor instruments (such as Polyplex) can consume a ridiculous amount of CPU, even shutting themselves down when run on the Surface Book laptop instead of a high-end desktop, but this can be improved by reducing the sample rate.  One other caveat -- I wouldn't try to figure out "what is a synthesizer" starting with Reaktor or most Reaktor-based synths.

The Moog Sub 37 does traditional analog "subtractive" synthesis, and the Roland System-1m emulates the same. Other types of synthesis include additive, FM, and wavetable.  I have been trying other interesting software synthesizers with these techniques, including Native Instruments (Reaktor) Rounds, Future Audio Workshop Circle2, Xfer Records Serum, and Ableton Live Studio's Operator.  Also Sonic Charge Microtonic for drums. 

My first purchase was the Roland System-1m, and I learned some by twisting its knobs, but I learned a lot more from the Moog Sub 37 because it comes with a real manual.  Both have a traditional left-to-right subtractive synthesis architecture with 1 or 2 LFOs, 2 oscillators, mixer, filter, amplifier and filter ADSR envelopes, and amplifier.  In a software synthesizer it is probably easiest to learn one that mimics this architecture.  Ableton Live's Operator has a different layout and is FM, but Ableton has the best tutorial of the three DAWs including an Operator tutorial (Operator comes as part of $749 Live Studio, or is available as a $99 add-on to Live Lite).  The Mai Tai synth in Studio One looks the most conventional (i.e. resembling the knobs and layout of a hardware synth), while Polysynth and FM-4 in Bitwig are closer to Operator in appearance (and  probably too basic). Another conventional-appearing synth is AIR Hybrid 3 (came free with AKAI APC Key 25).  Others "close enough" may be Circle2 and Serum.  Lots of other companies sell conventional-appearing software subtractive synthesis VSTs, but I haven't tried them since I already have the hardware.  I was actually more interested in "unconventional" software UI presentations such as Circle2 and Rounds, which aren't bound to emulate a physical faceplate.

All the DAWs provide digital audio effects such as compressors, delay, and reverb that can be added to each track.  This is great for recording, but in live performance requires feeding the audio into a computer with the DAW.  For a pure-analog performance (fed directly to a powered speaker like a QSC K-10) analog guitar effects pedals can actually be used.  I used a Moog MF Delay pedal on "All The Knobs".  With an attached expression pedal the last note can be "trapped" to resonate indefinitely inside the MF Delay.

USB MIDI input devices include keyboards and drum pads.  Keyboards with traditional MIDI outputs can also be attached to keyboardless synthesizers like the Roland System-1m, and keyboards with CV/Gate outputs can be attached to old-school Eurorack modules (though I wasn't able to get the CV/Gate output of the AKAI MAX 49 to work with the CV/Gate input of the Roland System-1m).  The AKAI APC Key 25 provides 2 shiftable octaves of keyboard (too small for live performance, but fine for composing) plus 8 tracks * 5 scenes of Ableton clip launching, plus 8 mappable knobs (I used a mapped knob to vary the BPM in "Polyplexed").  The  AKAI MPD 226 provides a 4x4 drum pad grid plus mappable knobs.  It has pre-programmed and user-programmable mappings of the pads to entries in the different DAW drum racks, which is very useful because every DAW maps the drums to different MIDI notes (sometimes even differing between drum kits in the same DAW).

In summary:

1) Decide on live performance versus studio-only.
2) Choose input device (hardware synth keyboard, USB MIDI keyboard, or only computer keyboard plus mouse).
3) Pick a DAW.
4) Did (2) or (3) come with a simple synth?  If not, pick a VST synth.
5) Make some music.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Bumpass Hell

(Sulphur Works)

Bumpass Hell is a part of Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California. It is named for the unfortunate guide Mr. Bumpass, who lost his leg after he broke through the crust on a boiling mud pot. Today this area is being used as a natural laboratory to investigate conditions for the original origin of life on Earth. David Deamer, author of First Life: Discovering the Connections between Stars, Cells, and How Life Began is one such researcher.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Backpacking Gear Test 2012

Earlier this year I purchased a day pack and lightweight hiking boots for a trip to Europe, so for this year's gear test I decided to see if they would be suitable for an overnight backpack. For last year's Backpacking Gear Test I had a base weight (without fuel, water, fuel) of 14 lbs and a total pack weight of 19 lbs. This year I had a base weight of 12 lbs and a total pack weight of 17 lbs: a reduction of 9%.

Gear Weights

I took the 2012 gear on an overnight hike from Bottchers Gap to Jackson Camp in the Ventana Wilderness, 5 miles each way.

Mountain Hardware Hueco 34

The Hueco is a climbing pack. At 34 liters is is much smaller than my previous packs, and because of this it is almost a pound lighter than my previous lightest pack even though it is not an "ultralight" pack. With a new down sleeping bag (below) I was just barely able to squeeze in all my overnight gear. While the pack is hydration reservoir compatible it would not fit with my other stuff, so I am back to carrying two cycling water bottles externally. Unlike the Granite Gear Escape the external bottle pockets are not reachable while the pack is worn.

The Hueco does not have a proper hip belt; instead it simply has a 1.5 inch web belt (probably to keep the pack in place while climbing). I was curious to try a pack without a hip belt, as I have found that with each lighter pack in my progression I have gotten less "lift" from the hip belt, and have noticed that many leading-edge ultralight pack vendors (such as Gossamer Gear) also often omit hip belts. A hip belt would not work with a pack as short as the Hueco, and I found that with a load of 17 lbs I was ok without one. Of course on a longer or multi-day hike I might feel differently.

REI Igneo Sleeping Bag

This is an 800-fill down bag, rated to 19 degrees, long length. It has a waterproof+ breathable coating on the shell, which got me past my previous concerns about a wet down bag. Note the seams are not taped, so a waterproof bivy is still required. And they recommend stuffing the bag inside out (probably to avoid damaging the waterproof coating while stuffing), so a hydration reservoir leak in the pack could still be a serious problem. At 2.2 lbs it is only 9% lighter than my synthetic North Face Orion (20 degrees, regular length) bag, but as a down bag it compresses much smaller.

With one night's use in a bivy I found the Igneo much more comfortable than the Orion. The long length was more amiable to side sleeping, and the down felt more "fluffy" than the Orion which always seemed sparse. I felt warm all night, though it may not have been as cold as my previous trips. In the morning the only water I found in the bivy was underneath the sleeping pad, and the bag was dry, so I guess the waterproof+breathable coating worked.

Durham Cloud Hiking Boot

Durham is also made by New Balance, and comes in narrow widths. They have apparently stopped making my previous Rainier Hiking Boots; if so I should have stocked up. The Cloud is comfortable, and a pair is almost a pound lighter than the Rainier. They worked fine for carrying my light 17 lb load, but I would want my Rainiers for carrying 40+ lbs for a week in the Sierras.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Authority and Politics

“Politics makes strange bedfellows” is the non-explanation for peculiar alliances often found in politics. A current example worth considering is between business elites and creationists. At first glance this doesn’t make much sense. Wouldn’t business leaders want a scientifically literate workforce for competitive reasons? A standard explanation is a short-sighted pandering for votes. But why this particular combination? A different understanding can be reached via a longer historical view. Historically the same combinations appear over and over, in diverse places such as the factions in the Spanish Civil War, back to the origins of what we today call “conservatism” and “liberalism”.

The common attractor combining many otherwise disparate interests is the argument from authority plus essentialism. As discussed earlier essentialist arguments about “noble blood” were originally used to defend the authority and property of kings and aristocrats. The church, which supported the “divine right of kings”, justified both its power and theology through argument from authority and an essentialist worldview. American conservatism, while of course not supporting monarchy, has often served to defend the privilege of old and new aristocracy. This then is the commonality between aristocratic business elite and creationists: both see their interests advanced by the more general acceptance of essentialism and argument from authority. In general the “conservative” wing of politics will accumulate all those groups dependent on essentialism and argument from authority. Also note a "strict father" often argues from authority, matching Lakoff's metaphorical model of the family in politics and religion.

The historical tie between conservatism and argument from authority is natural. In the past almost all argument was done via appeal to authority, so an ideology that is trying to preserve systems from the past will naturally be more bound to use this type of argument. In practice this often becomes circular: old authorities are cited to “prove” that old sources and methods are best or authoritative. This type of argument only began to be discarded during the enlightenment, and amusingly some of their progress came from ignoring sources in the recent past and instead going back to older Greek sources. One can also imagine a dark post-apocalyptic future where the scientific method [or constitutional representative democracy?] is nearly forgotten, and the golden past that is surreptitiously cited and preserved is our scientific present. In that scenario I would call myself a “conservative”. For now we use the expression “reality has a liberal bias”, because science has shown that essentialism has no scientific basis and appeal to authority does not prove anything.

David Brin often discusses this in terms of time orientation. Conservatives seek absolute truths in the past, in old books and cultural norms. Liberals seek provisional truths in the future, in new scientific experiments yet to be performed. Evolution as scientific method is a mixture of old and new, preserving what works while trying new experiments.

Appeal to authority is of course not limited to the conservative side. Marxism, while starting from flawed economic/scientific premises, quickly solidified into doctrinaire arguments from authority of a few documents and leaders. On the libertarian side, Ayn Rand’s objectivism also started from flawed essentialist assumptions, and quickly became driven by argument from authority.

Breaking out from the control of the argument from authority is difficult. As discussed, many institutions depend on it, and others question whether most people are capable of functioning civilly without it. And almost by definition this cannot be taught. Every individual must figure it out for themselves. Like the immortal dialog from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”:
Brian: Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't need to follow me. You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves! You're all individuals! 
Crowd: [in unison] Yes! We're all individuals! 
Brian: You're all different! 
Crowd: [in unison] Yes, we are all different! 
Man in crowd: I'm not... 
Crowd: Shhh!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Evolution as Scientific Method, and Vice Versa

Evolution can be viewed as an implementation of the scientific method by nature. In each generation mutation and genetic recombination produce varied hypothesis (individuals), and these hypothesis are tested in the environment [sample hypothesis: a small-beaked Darwin's Finch is better suited to the food available on this island]. Those hypothesis which best survive this natural selection will produce new generations of hypothesis to be tested (differential reproduction). Hypothesis which are unsuccessful in the natural environment will die out.

Alternately the scientific method can be viewed as an implementation of evolution by man. Scientists generate variations of existing hypothesis, and subject these individual hypothesis to testing in the laboratory environment. The hypothesis which survive this testing will be used to generate new hypothesis. Hypothesis which are unsuccessful in the laboratory environment will die out.

This duality is most clearly seen in the use of techniques such as genetic algorithms in computer programming. Here analogues to mutation and genetic recombination are used to automatically generate new hypothesis from previous generations, and the "environment" consists of a fitness function that represents whatever problem is being optimized.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ayn Rand, Authoritarian

"If the Rand line was totalitarian, encompassing all of one’s life, then, even when all the general premises were agreed upon and Randians checked with headquarters to see who was In or Out, there was still need to have some "judicial" mechanism to resolve concrete issues and to make sure that every member toed the line on that question. No one was ever allowed to be neutral on any issue. The judicial mechanism to resolve such concrete disputes was, as usual in cults, the rank one enjoyed in the Randian hierarchy. By definition, so to speak, the higher-ranking Randian was right, the lower one wrong, and everyone accepted this Argument from Authority that might have seemed not exactly consonant with the explicit Randian devotion to Reason."

Murray N. Rothbard, The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult