Posts filed under ‘Music Technology’
It was my pleasure and privilege to hang out and stroll the show floor once again this year with long-time DJ Times editor Jim Tremayne during the Winter NAMM Show 2013, as a contributing writer for the magazine. For those who don’t know, NAMM—the National Association of Music Merchants—has produced the NAMM Show annually since 1901, and it’s one of (if not the) the largest music industry trade shows in the world. Nearly 100,000 people converge on Anaheim, California each year for four days of madness, much of which is centered around product introductions and deal making between manufacturers and retailers, and spans everything from band instruments to sheet music to guitar picks to studio mixers to DJ lighting and everything in between.
With the massive interest in DJ culture in recent years, it’s a good time to be a writer for a DJ magazine, and I love looking at the latest in DJ and studio gear, and writing about my experiences. I’ll save the intimate details for the magazine, but here are a few comments from my experiences this year.
- Numark was showing-off a new DJ controller called the Orbit. For a start, it’s completely wireless. But it’s basically a game controller for your DJ software, sporting a large knob in the middle, and array of buttons. But the real innovation here? Accelerometers. While it’s completely configurable, Numark was showing it in action tweaking an effect parameter in Traktor through tilting the controller side to side. It’s a bit mind-boggling, but I think with the right mappings and a little practice, it could easily be the centerpiece of DJ’ing-as-performance-art. Can’t wait to tinker more with it.
- For the second year now, I’ve received a demo of The One from Audio Artery. This Finnish company is still in development on a pretty innovative piece of DJ software that combines elements of DJ software, producer software, and “auto-mix” software that people often use to create their own digital mixtapes. It has matured a lot since last year, it demos well, and looks like it might just bring a little out-of-the-box thinking to the world of DJ software as the lines continue to blur between simply playing and mixing other peoples’ music, and functioning more as a performing artist. Hopefully it comes to market soon.
- I got to play around a bit with the new Prophet 12 from Dave Smith Instruments, which was introduced at the show. This is the latest synth from the legendary Dave Smith. Back in the day, I would have given a left nut to have a Prophet 5, and its more recent reincarnation, the Prophet ’08, is still something I lust after. But now I think I have a new lust target. While the ’08 was intended to be a faithful recreation of the original, the 12 goes much farther, evolving in a number of key ways, including 12 voice polyphony (hence the name). It’s a wild keyboard, great fun to play with, and if I had the room, the budget, and the keyboard chops to really leverage it, I’d figure out a way to make it mine. Incredible.
- Ableton didn’t exhibit at NAMM, but they were in Anaheim meeting one-on-one with people, and I got a live demo of their first hardware device: Push. Both Push and its companion Ableton Live upgrade—Live 9—are coming sometime this quarter. It seemed as if Ableton was more excited about Push than Live 9, but I was the opposite. At least until I saw Push. Ableton is positioning the device as a music instrument more than simply a sample triggering controller for Live’s Session View, which is how it appears at first glance. I’ll be reviewing the Push for DJ Times, so look for that in an upcoming issue. I am still excited to check out Live 9 in more detail, including its audio-to-MIDI capabilities, but I’ll get that chance given that Live 9 is a prerequisite for Push. Stay tuned.
- Native Instruments was also lurking at NAMM versus exhibiting, and I also had a chance to see what they have in the works. I’m not able to say more at this point, but as an avid Traktor user, it’s nice to see NI staying ahead of the innovation curve. Speaking of NI and Traktor, I did recently review their Z2 mixer for the magazine, along with Traktor Scratch Pro, and was suitably impressed—enough so to put away my usual mixer and use the Z2 exclusively alongside a pair of Pioneer CDJ-400′s. Look for the full review in the next month or so in the magazine.
Additional comments from the show will appear in DJ Times, both print and online, soon. Until then, it’s time to nurse the blisters on my toes, head back home, catch-up on sleep, and wrap-up a couple of pending music projects.
In recent months, Native Instruments released an exciting new update to its venerable Traktor DJ software—version 2.6. The upgrade adds a number of improvements, including support for NI’s new Z2 mixer/controller, flux mode, and some new “macro effects.”
I was late to the game on making the update, but I did it a couple of weeks ago, and immediately had some major issues with Traktor—highly unusual given its track record of being rock-solid, stable and reliable for me. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement; I immediately reverted to using 2.5.
As an aside, I have to give Native Instruments major props for its update/upgrade methodology… Previous installations are not replaced. Instead, the update/upgrade process makes a copy of everything—history, settings, collection files, etc.—and leaves the old in-place. In situations where an upgrade goes wrong, as appeared to be the case for me, this approach makes a roll-back easy: There is no rollback. Just run the old version instead.
It wasn’t until I set-up a Traktor Z2 mixer that I figured-out the problem. And I did so completely by accident… It’s the multi-core support option in preferences.
To the best of my knowledge, I’d had this option in 2.5, and I had it enabled. When the 2.6 update applied, it brought that setting forward. When the Z2 was connected—the Z2 requires 2.6, and thus I had no choice but to use it—Traktor 2.6 was back to its tricks of stuttered audio, drop-outs, and other complaints when using another application at the same time, and often just when loading a track into a deck. I shortly realized, however, that the scratch mode of Traktor was not enabled automatically—I had to enter my serial number as an upgrade in Service Center, despite being an existing Traktor user.
Once I did that, and restarted Traktor, the software now showed “Traktor Scratch Pro” up top, and the Z2′s full functionality was magically available. It also reset a lot of my preferences in the process. (Grumble grumble.) One of the things it reset was the multi-core support; it was now unchecked. I decided to leave it when I was cruising through preferences and happened to notice it.
While I was annoyed that I had to re-do a bunch of my preferences, and I had to re-add the metadata columns I like to have up in order to view my music collection, when I fired things up to play with the Z2, I realized… No drop-outs. No burps when running other applications. All was good.
I re-checked multi-core support, and tried again. It took only a few short minutes before I ran into the issues again. I turned it off immediately.
Whether this is something new from 2.5 or not, I honestly can’t say with 100% certainty. But I am glad it’s figured out, and after a few hours of playing with the new Z2, and running all manner of other applications alongside of it, I had my “old” Traktor back… Meaning, it ran flawlessly, with great stability, not a single burp or issue of any kind. In short, the Traktor I feel in love with was back. In all its new 2.6 glory.
As for multi-core support, clearly it seems like a good idea on paper, which is why I had it checked. But in practice, it’s just not necessary on my Mac to achieve what I need and want—which is an ability to be running a DJ set while checking info online, referring to a playlist in a text editor, or whatever else comes to my always-multitasking brain.
Look for a full review of the Traktor Z2 mixer in DJ Times magazine in the next couple of months or so. A quick preview? I love it. :-)
A week from now, I’ll be on a flight to Anaheim to attend NAMM, where with DJ Times magazine, I’ll be casting an eye on the latest in DJ and electronic music gear. I love writing for the magazine, but part of me wishes that this week I was attending CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Vegas. While some are saying that CES is losing its clout, there’s still a lot of product announcements there, and I certainly do still have fond memories of attending years ago and checking out the latest in consumer electronics. Always the gadget freak, I’m guessing that walking the CES show floor is still a great time.
One of the things I wish I was there to hear first-hand is Party in a Box, a new toy from SOUL Electronics:
If you looked at the picture and got the impression it’s an iPad dock, you’re on the right track. iPod/iPhone docks are a dime a dozen (yeah, yeah, some sound better than others of course). But this is the first iPad dock-like system I’ve seen. But to boot, it’s got an 8-speaker sound system that the company says is stunning and room-filling. Add-in AirPlay support, Bluetooth support, the ability to essentially “network” multiple units together world AC power, rechargeable batteries, and 12V DC power support, and this thing’s made for parties on the go. There’s even a mic jack to make the system act like a PA system.
No word yet on price point, but if looks and specs are any indication, this might well be one of the coolest iOS platform devices to hit in awhile… Not to mention being the ultimate party-on-the-go platform.
Now if I could just hitch a quick ride to Vegas, and sweet-talk my way in the door so I can hear this beast first-hand…
Of the things I do (which are many), one of my favorites is writing for DJ Times Magazine, which I’ve been doing for a few years now. (For those who don’t know, I write DJ gear reviews and occasional features as well.)
The magazine also offers coverage of production and remixing, and I was recently tasked with reviewing Native Instruments‘ new software synthesizer and effects bundle, Komplete 8, which arrived the other day.
So far, all I can say is, “Awesome!” With all of NI’s flagship platforms (Guitar Rig, Kontakt and Reaktor), as well as all the key standalone synths (Absynth, FM8, Battery, etc.), Komplete covers an incredible amount of territory, especially given that there’s 80 Gig (compressed) of presets, samples and other content to go along with the 5 Gig or so worth of software—all of which is delivered in a “book” of 12 DVD-ROMs. (more…)
Music service Spotify’s long-awaited US launch finally happened in the past week, and courtesy of Bob Lefsetz, I was afforded an invitation to use the service. After spending a few days tinkering with it, I thought I’d record my thoughts.
For those who are blissfully unaware, Spotify is a new streaming music service. They boast of having “all the world’s music” in their catalog* available for listening anytime, anywhere. Want to relive your youth to that Aldo Nova track you’ve not heard since back in the day? Search for “Aldo Nova,” and bathe in the ability to queue-up any of his releases on-demand. With a paid subscription, you gain the ability to load-up your mobile device with a bunch of music, and enjoy it on-the-go without the need for a data connection. It sounds like nirvana for most music lovers, and indeed, the service has been wildly successful in its home country of Europe. (Read more on their web site if you’re still confused.)
So what are the ups and downs? (more…)
Broadly speaking, I applaud any effort to compete with the Apple juggernaut known as iTunes. In fact, only this morning, I tweeted a link to this article in The Guardian (UK), Forget Google—it’s Apple that is turning into the evil empire. I resent Apple’s consumer lock-in in myriad ways, despite being (as the screen shot below will show) a satisfied user of Apple products. (Full disclosure, I also have an HTC phone that uses Android; and the user experience is about 10x better on the iPhone, all other issues—and there are many—aside.)
When the online digital music store Masterbeat launched a few years ago, ostensibly as an alternative to Beatport (whose owners seem to think Apple’s corporate behavior is something to be emulated), I was ecstatic. With a user experience much like that of Beatport, I was rather enamored of the “renegade alternative” that Masterbeat represented.
Unfortunately, Masterbeat launched as—and still is—a Flash-only web site. No Flash? Masterbeat basically says, “F___ you. Store’s closed, loser.”
I was never much of a fan of Flash-only web sites, long before Apple in their “wisdom” barred Flash content from their iOS devices. Flash has a place, but to build Flash content (or whole sites) with no rollback whatever is just plain stupid, and it’s getting stupider by the day. And say what you want about Apple’s Flash decisions vis-à-vis iOS—right, wrong or otherwise—the simple fact is that iOS represents millions upon millions of users, and you can lock each and every one of them out at your own peril.
Beatport is Flash-based too, but they do have a rollback (at least for mobile users) that presents a usable interface for iOS (and other) users. Masterbeat, on the other hand, displays this:
The problem is, what started all of this on this particular morning is that a fan asked me where to get a copy of my remix for You I Need‘s song, Waiting. The track is exclusive to Masterbeat at this time. Here’s how things unfolded in attempting to tell this fan where to buy the track:
- I went to Masterbeat, which will not load on the PC I’m writing from. It hangs on “Loading UI” and won’t go past it. It’s been that way for months, and I have no idea why it doesn’t work. Fail #1. (And yes, I’ve checked the Flash is current on this machine, etc.)
- I used my iOS device to browse to Masterbeat. That resulted in the screen above. Fail #2.
- I went to another PC in my office, and successfully got to Masterbeat. I found my remix. But can you just copy the URL from the address bar of the web browser? Of course not, because the site is Flash-only, the URL only gets you to the home page. Fail #3.
- At the bottom of each Masterbeat page is a rather industry-standard widget to post to social media and whatever else. I don’t want to post the track, I want to link to the track. Is there a way to do that? No. Fail #4.
- I then decided to try and use the share-by-e-mail function and just e-mail myself a freakin’ link to the remix. I entered all the information, and got instead some sort of error message that their system can’t e-mail the link. I tried it twice, and it failed both times, so what the heck? Fail #5 and #6.
In the end I gave-up. I had an artist link from an earlier attempt at this, and I just gave the fan that link, and told them how to find my track.
In any case, it shouldn’t take me half an hour to figure out how to link to a specific release on any digital music store, only to have it fail, and fail, and fail, and fail. It would have made more financial sense for me to just send the guy a free copy of the track instead of burning-up about $50 worth of my time trying to sell him one for a buck and half, and if the rights in the track were solely mine, I would have.
I’m no Apple fanboy, but no wonder iTunes has, and continues to win this battle. Every. Single. Day.
This morning, I came into my studio to find my trusty Axiom 25 keyboard/controller lying face down on the floor, the USB cable still plugged-in, and unfortunately, the USB connector on the back panel bent at a nice angle. For months now, I’ve been setting it on a music stand, because it’s a perfect fit, and I can angle the deck how I like it. I have no idea how or why, but apparently it became loose, and with my DJ headphones resting on top, it must have slowly twisted back overnight resulting in the back-flip to the floor.
After breakfast, I turned-on my studio PC to find that while the unit powered-up, it wasn’t generating MIDI anymore. Lovely. While I’d love to replace my old Axiom 25 with the newer version, or perhaps even upgrade to the Pro version with its great additional features, it just isn’t in-budget right now. So being the propellerhead that I am, I fetched a screwdriver to open the Axiom and investigate.
As expected, the USB connector is surface mounted to a circuit board inside. So I disconnected all the ribbon cables, marking each one and where it went, removed the circuit board, threw it on my workbench, and decided I couldn’t make the situation any worse by wielding a soldering iron and some desoldering braid. After removing the USB connector, I discovered that two of the four leads were severed in the “incident.” The next step was to see if I had some piece of USB hardware I could sacrifice for a repair. An old external hard disk housing rose to the occasion. I popped it open next, desoldered its USB connector. Not really surprisingly, it was a perfect fit on the Axiom circuit board. Solder x 6, and time to reassemble.
To make an already long story short, I connected it to my studio PC, fired-up a MIDI diagnostic, and voila, the Axiom was showing signs of life. A quick load of Ableton, and sure enough, I was back in business.
Now granted, using a soldering iron to replace a connector isn’t exactly a high art. Back in the day, I used to build electronic kits and do all manner of things that in this day of throwaway everything starts to feel like a lost art. So it was nice to revisit the old days for just a bit, and savoring a little victory celebration at the end was a bonus.
Now, back to work. I’m behind on my music task list this weekend as it is.
Note to Fans: This blog posting is of interest only to DJs.
Over a year ago (October 2008), Ableton, the makers of my favorite production software (and perhaps one of the most amazing pieces of software ever developed, right up there with Adobe Photoshop) announced a strategic partnership with DJ software company Serato that promised to extend Ableton Live farther into the realm of DJ’ing.
It’s already possible to DJ with Ableton, and those who do can leverage Ableton’s primary focus (production) and blend it with live DJ’ing performances, elevating mere “DJ’ing” to a higher artform. In fact, it’s precisely what I’d like to migrate to myself in time. So the announcement was exciting to me, because I hoped it would address Ableton’s numerous shortcomings in the DJ’ing department.
Ableton’s announcement about The Bridge calls it, “…a powerful fusion of DJ and production tools, opening a world of opportunities for DJing, remixing, and live performance.” In my view, it’s anything but. According to the announcement (disclaimer: I’ve not used the software), it does primarily two things:
- It allows you to use Serato and timecoded media (or ITCH controller) to control the transport in Ableton Live.
- It allows you to record your Serato live performance into Ableton Live for editing and tweaking.
How can I put this nicely… Big f***ing deal. Essentially what’s been announced here is a sort of DJ-oriented, proprietary version of ReWire. ReWire has always been a kludge at best, and I haven’t actually met anyone yet who uses it regularly. Don’t get me wrong, the idea—getting two disparate pieces of software to work in unison—is a great one. But creating a communications backchannel between a pair of software applications completely overlooks the actual logistics:
- Which application must be started first? (Ableton and Serato have made this concern a non-issue with The Bridge.)
- What happens if one of the applications freezes or crashes?
- How do you physically and operationally interact with two different applications at the same time?
- Do you really want to constantly switch focus on a single monitor computer? (Alt-Tab, Alt-Tab, Alt-Tab, Alt-Tab, Alt-Tab…)
- What about different user interface paradigms? (Ableton is elegant, and Serato looks like something from 1992.)
I don’t personally believe that anyone truly wants, dreams and aspires to strap together multiple software applications with duct tape and string to achieve some amorphous end-result. What people really want is all the functionality in one place, and the fact they can’t have it, and the fact that they want it so badly, drives them cobble stuff together with things like ReWire… And now, with The Bridge. It’s not the desired solution; it’s accepted only because there’s no alternative offered.
Now, The Bridge is a little deeper than the two bullet points I offered above (which are the same two summarizations offered by Ableton on their web site this morning). But is this revolutionary? Useful?
- Controlling Ableton’s tempo and playback with a controller, even a virtualized one (decks + Serato) isn’t particularly revolutionary. There are already myriad ways to control Ableton’s transport. But if you really want to do it with turntables and coded vinyl, I guess now you can.
- Serato gets a sweet “Ableton View,” where a stripped down version of Ableton’s Session View is shown right in Serato’s UI. This basically allows you to trigger clips from Serato in your DJ set. But what problem are we trying to solve here, exactly, that isn’t already solved by just DJ’ing from Ableton in the same, relatively poor way you always could?
- Recording your Serato DJ set into Ableton for tweaking also looks like a solution in search of a problem. It’s referred to as “the ultimate mixtape production tool.” Recording a DJ set and manipulating it later is a bit of a yawn for me. Admittedly, The Bridge also records a (very) limited number of control movements from the Serato side, so you can fix both audio issues and certain control issues after-the-fact. But if I was really looking for “the ultimate mixtape production tool,” one already exists, and it’s called MixMeister. My point is that mistakes happen in live performance, and if you want to erase them all and make everything picture-perfect, then don’t perform live in the first place.
The fact is, Ableton in its current incarnation isn’t a great tool for DJ’ing, and rubber banding it together with Serato doesn’t change that fact, nor does it address the real shortcomings, which exist primarily around metadata—not vinyl or CDJ based virtual MIDI control, not recording and tweaking DJ sets, not triggering clips during a set.
The reason people use Serato, Virtual DJ, Traktor, etc. for DJ’ing is partially for control (which Ableton does as-is), partially for beat alignment help (which Ableton does as-is), and partially for metadata management (e.g., track naming, selection, tagging, filtering, rating, etc.)—which is what Ableton doesn’t do at all.
That is the shortcoming that Ableton should be working to address, not gluing the software to Serato with a backend kludge. It strikes me rather like putting a trailer hitch on a Bugatti Veyron, hooking-up a pop-up camper, and calling the result a tour bus. Unfortunately, given whatever agreement exists between Ableton and Serato that produced The Bridge (can you say “non-compete clause?”), we’re unlikely to see Ableton do DJ’ing any better than this non-solution, anytime soon.
Ableton, I love you guys, and I love your software. But wow… What a disappointment.