Chris Randall: Musician, Writer, User Interface Designer, Inventor, Photographer, Complainer. Not necessarily in that order.

Archives: 2012

October 22, 2012

Can't Touch This...

by Chris Randall

"I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." - Thomas Edison

Continuing my exploration of making a touchscreen-based recording/performing environment (that isn't on a fucking Twitter Machine... errr... I mean iPad) I decided to try a different tack this time. Since Brian Crabtree has already done a lot of the hard work on this front, I thought I'd bust out a touchscreen monome emulator, just to see how that might work.

As it happens, not so much.

While the monome is a comparatively simple device (the only things that make it special, as such, are the facts that the LEDs are decoupled from the buttons, and the extremely high construction quality and craftsmanship; otherwise, it's just a box full of buttons), as it turns out, and I think the above video proves, actually having the buttons under your fingers is somewhat important.

It was a pretty easy thing to code, just being a grid of lights, and some simple OSC messages. Rather than go through the trouble of faking the operation of the driver software, in the interests of quickly having a working prototype, I just altered mlr slightly so it could talk directly to my Cinder app and not look for a monome. I made a grid of 16 x 16 buttons (ignore the column on the left of larger buttons; those are scene triggers for Maschine, which I didn't use in the video) and it's off to the races.

While the functionality is, in and of itself, flawless, I think that the combination of mlr (and other patchers I tried) and the monome hardware is what makes the instrument. The more sensitive nature of the touchscreen sort of precludes laying in to it, and not being able to feel the buttons makes any sort of virtuosity difficult.

That said, it was a fun idea that, I think, merited exploration. But for this sort of thing, the money is better spent on a real monome, in my opinion.

Back to the drawing board.

October 17, 2012

Granular Shoot 'n' Loot...

by Chris Randall

Yay, Borderlands Granular for iPad is finally out! Despite my personal opinion that the author may need to re-address his product-naming paradigm (related: watch for my new synth app for the iPad, Fallout 2 Subtractive), this one is right in my wheelhouse, visually. Any iPad audio app that doesn't look like an oscilloscope from 1967 is A-OK in my book, and this app is most assuredly not a skeuomorphic disaster area.

Functionally, it is similar to Curtis, except you can overlay several sounds; it lacks some of the playability of Curtis, but by the same token, it lacks a lot of the questionable control mechanisms, and in my brief relationship with it, it lacks all the bugginess. (Unlike Curtis, which I can freeze in a matter of minutes, I haven't managed to crash Borderlands yet.)

I won't go and give it a one star "ZOMG U CANT LODE URSER SOUNDS FAILZZZZ111ELEVENTY!!" review in the app store, because I'm giving the developer the benefit of the doubt and assuming that he has an update planned in a most ricky-tick fashion to allow me to load my own sounds. (Edit: see below.) As of release, it has four samples, and that's that. Also, there is no way to save a state and recall it later; Borderlands lives very much in the Here, the Now, the Holy Fucking Tide in the Affairs Of Man. Etc. I assume this will be addressed as well.

Why do I assume those two things? Because visually and operationally, this developer knows his shit, and there's no way that he didn't think of those. So he'll get to them eventually, or we're gonna have a problem here.

So, maybe not ready for prime time just yet, chiefly because there is going to be a fundamental sameness to all its output given the fact that everyone is sharing the same source material. (Such is the nature of granular synthesis, after all.) But as an exploration in to a more sophisticated and visually stimulating iteration of the general ideas put forth by Curtis, it merits support, and I would like to see where it goes over time. Provisionally, five star review from me, with the noted caveats.

$3.99 in the iTunes store. I recommend an iPad 2 or 3; I don't really see how this would be any fun on an iPad 1, but you're welcome to try. Overview video on Vimeo here. (I'd embed it, but it's Vimeo, so that'd suck.) Product website here.

EDIT: Apparently, it _does_ load user samples, but not in the normal manner. You can make a playlist called Borderlands in iTunes and it will access those. It actually says this in the second paragraph of the info page, but for some reason I didn't notice it. I just looked in the File Sharing part of the Apps tab, because that's where such things normally go. So, perhaps a bit of a usability fail, but nothing too tragic. I'll try it out later today and report in the comments.

October 8, 2012

Cut Me Off A Line Of That, Please...

by Chris Randall

It looks like Jonathan Heppner, the creator of AudioGL, has finally made a beta available; $80 for a full license, and there's a save-disabled version to try out, if you want to give it a whirl. (32-bit Win only, requires a pretty robust PC with OpenGL 2.0 support.) Worked fine on my system. I took that screenshot myself, but it's worth noting that my PC is so blown-out overpowered that I'm not a terribly good test case for such things. Don't let the look of it scare you; at its base level, it is more-or-less a boxes-and-wires synthesizer that we're all familiar with, that happens to have a very sophisticated sequencer, and you can, if you so desire, look at things in a perspective mode for some visual interest. No plug-in support, as yet. Peter Kirn did a full write-up with all the deets at CDM, so I won't bore you with the technicalities.

What I really want to talk about is how this shoehorns in to my latest flight of fancy. What I like about this app is that Jonathan has, for the most part, ignored the standard conventions that the music tech industry relies on. (COMMANDMENT ONE: THALL SHALT MAKE ALL COMPRESSORS LOOK LIKE A BEAT-UP 1176! ETC.) Instead, he's just made it look cool and logical.

There are two opposing points of view to this methodology. For those against it, the general vibe seems to be that music software should look like the music hardware it clones, because the interface is familiar, and musicians are stupid and can't be bothered to figure out even the most simple departures from this method. The second, and the one I personally follow, needs some explanation.

I find it ironic that musicians are so conservative in their use of technology, when their lifestyle choices are anything but. Of the 10 most popular DAWs, 8 follow the "tape deck and mixing console" paradigm, even though the vast majority of the people that use those DAWs have never set foot in a commercial recording facility, nor have they seen an analog multi-track tape machine in real life. Ask a guitar player what his pinnacle rig is, and dollars to donuts he won't say a Parker Fly Artist and a Kemper Modeling Amp (which is a demonstrably high-quality, playable, great-sounding, versatile combination.) He'll say a '57 Strat (sigh) and a vintage Marshall Plexi (deep, shuddering sigh.) Want to see an electronic musician jump around like a monkey on coke? Put him in the same room with a MemoryMoog, ARP 2600, or Prophet 5. Recording engineers? Fairchild, Neve. Fairchild, Neve. Fairchild, Neve. EMT! kktnxbai.

Of course, those things are all popular wishes because they sound "good," for various values of good. Although I've heard plenty of shitty records recorded on Neve consoles to analog tape, that have MemoryMoogs and Strat/Plexi guitars tracked through Fairchild comps, with EMT plate reverb. There are, no doubt, tens of thousands of suck-ass records that use those very pieces of gear.

My opinion on the matter is that when you are first presented with a piece of software, if that software's user interface follows some real-world gear, you concentrate on the things it can't do, or the reasons it doesn't sound like the "real thing." If, on the other hand, it is unique to the software, you spend your time figuring out what it can do, while you learn how to use it. Sure, the learning curve is a bit steeper; the only thing you have to figure out on an 1176 plug-in clone is how the developers implemented the "all buttons in" mode. But look at it this way: one day, way back in the mists of time, some engineer opened a box and in it was a brand new 1176, a product he'd never seen before, and didn't know how to use. He put it in his rack, and some time later he just, for the fuck of it, decided to see what it sounded like when he pushed in all four ratio buttons.

Nobody has made that discovery with an 1176 plug-in.

October 2, 2012

Gear Clear...

by Chris Randall

Yesterday was a sad day; my entire "pro" audio chain left the house to greener pastures. My general reasoning here is that since I work almost entirely ITB these days, everything in my office that had enough dust on it that fingerprints would show when I turned a knob needed to leave, and I've pretty much succeeded in doing just that, leaving only what I need for my normal research.

At least the big shit. There is still a metric fuckton of little shit that's gonna go, so keep your eyes peeled for the inevitable Yard Sale posts here and on Twitter, but the majority of the expensive shit is either on the way to new homes, or already arrived, where it will be used to good effect (hah!) rather than just sitting in my office.

(Side note: I now have no credit card bills to pay. This is an interesting turn of events I hadn't anticipated.)

In any case, it's a breath of fresh air, and has allowed me to concentrate on my current projects with much more clarity. I have all the software, and most of the samples, so it's not like I have any shortage of sound generating mechanisms or anything, but it's nice not to have all this gear staring me in the face every time I sit down to do something. I heartily recommend it, but I know most of you will get a pussy-ache if you don't have all your knobs and cables, so let's just say that it might not be for everyone.

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