Zoom H1n – Singing in the car

When there is an opportunity to practice singing I take it and is there a better place to sing than in the car? Probably not. Technically its the wrong position for your body to sing, but somehow singing along in the car just sounds better. It is probably the closed area and the close in mix with the sound system that makes it work. The question is then, because practicing and recording go hand in hand: can I also record in the car?

To that end I’ve tried the voice recorder of my phone and to say it bluntly: that doesn’t work. Only car sounds, no music. Fortunately I found something that does work. The Zoom H1n recorder. Now I can practice singing and at the end of the journey hear if I am on the right track and which songs need more work. Also, its a great way to experiment with new ideas along an otherwise boring trip from A to B.

The Digital Signal Processing (DSP) of modern voice recorders is not tuned to music recording. Probably anything that works as a voice recorder simply does not work for singing in a car. You need to have a broader frequency range otherwise the car sounds will just take over. On top of that you need something that can be operated while driving, so it has to be a one button start/stop operation and the recording device must really be mounted securely.

Enter the Zoom H1n. It has a camera mount, so any camera stand that can be used in the car will hold it. Then its one button to start and one button to stop. You can even feel your way through the operations so there is no need to take your eyes of the road. All the other editions of the Zoom portable recorder range will probably also do the job, but not at the price point of the H1n. Did you know you can also use it as an ASIO device? Other brands might also offer the same experience, but you should check the mounts and the capabilities for recording music.

Controlling Ableton with the Komplete Kontrol A49

I was looking out for a MIDI controller and control surface for Ableton Live. The Komplete Kontrol S series and comparable Novation controllers were strong contenders, but then came the news of the new Komplete Kontrol A series. This caught my eye, because the pricing of these was well below that of the S series. Previously I switched out my old faithful but battered Korg Triton workstation for a Nord Electro 6D. The Nord is absolutely the right keyboard for my purposes, but I already knew I would miss the pitch bend and modulation controllers. The Push is perfect control surface, but there is some flow missing when you really want to play on the keyboard and interact with the sounds.

Enter the Komplete Kontrol A49. I first tried the controller at the Amsterdam Dance Event and there I noticed that some things were not working right. The person that demonstrated the device there said that it needed some firmware updates. This was some weeks before the official release. After the official release I ordered it and started working with it. Immediately it showed the same limitations in controlling even the Komplete Kontrol application that comes with it. Selecting a sound works fine. You can browse instruments in the Komplete Kontrol application with a ‘prelisten’ sample for every sample by just clicking, turning and nudging the Browse button as a joystick. All other buttons and knobs remained dead.

Komplete Kontrol A49 Browser
Komplete Kontrol A49 Browser

An update!

Then after a week an update to Komplete Kontrol rolled out and a firmware update for the A49 controller. Only after that the knobs came to life as macro controllers within the Komplete Kontrol application. Then the next step came where I installed the keyboard on my desk to work as the main controller for writing songs within Ableton.

Ableton can use ready made scripted or compiled templates to allow MIDI controllers to work as control surfaces. Sure enough when you dig into the documentation of the A series MIDI controllers, you will find reference to copying the right scripts into the Ableton system folders. Essentially you need to copy over scripts from a Host Integration/Ableton folder to Ableton program data control surface script directories. This allows the control surface scripts to appear in the Preferences popup of Ableton under the Link MIDI tab. Once the script is selected, the A49 should not only be able to control instruments and play them, but it should also be able to control Ableton itself. Also the transport controls, like Play/Record etc.

Do not follow the instructions!

However, that’s where it all breaks down. When following the instructions you will end up with just the MIDI template on the controller. The transport controls remain dead. Fortunately when browsing several forums, I found that the instructions are wrong. Probably copied and pasted from the S series. The essence is that you have to ignore the part where it says that you don’t need to specify templates for the Input and Output settings of the control surface scripts. Setting these to the Komplete Control A DAW options magically enables the transport controls. From then on you have to manually switch back to the MIDI controller template by using SHIFT – Plug In/Midi. Don’t forget to also enable the Remote settings for the Komplete Kontrol MIDI ports and you will have it all.

Select Komplete Kontrol DAW input output

The instructions from Native Instruments will also give you a Kontakt instrument rack that maps controller inputs to Kontakt instrument macro’s and now you are completely in control (or Kontrol hahaha). By all means it is not that easy to get to all the good stuff, but at least its there. This is now my workflow:

  • Want to browse Kontakt instruments? Start the Komplete Kontrol application and use the Browse option to quickly browse instruments. Also the sounds from others then Native Instruments can be browsed I noticed. I am using Spitfire eDNA Earth and Epica for instance.
  • Want to start recording in Ableton? Use the Track/Instance transport controls. Even including the loop , metronome and tempo tap options. The controller knobs control the mixer levels of the Session channels.
  • Want to play and control instruments? Press SHIFT Plug-In/MIDI and make sure you have MIDI mapping to the controls. Make sure you have the knob controls mapped to macros in your instrument. You may need the Kontact instrument rack for that.

The verdict? Its not very intuitive and it takes some getting used to, but all in all you get a very playable semi weighted MIDI controller and a controller surface that really can give you the basic controls that replace the keyboard and the mouse. A nice touch is the touch sensitivity of the knobs. The tiny display informs you of the current function of a knob if you only touch it.

 

Trying out the Spitfire eDNA Earth instrument

I will try to write about my impressions with the Earth instrument. However, I will not completely review it. For in-depth reviews please check MusicRadar or TheAudioSpotlight or others. For me, ever since Camel Audio was bought by Apple and its Alchemy synthesizer disappeared as a standalone virtual instrument, I felt lost. Alchemy had a granular synthesis engine and a unique way to parameterize its sounds. The unique sound of this instrument disappeared and there was nothing to replace it. Omnisphere apparently is capable of recreating some sounds, but that is mainly because it can synthesize anything and its priced accordingly. The moment I heard a demo for Earth, I heard back some of that Alchemy sound again.

Technically its a completely different beast, compared to Alchemy. The Earth sounds are based on an orchestral sample library, but are then processed by the Kontakt engine to sound, cinematic, outer worldly and sometimes electronic. Yes its a Kontakt instrument, so you need at least the Kontakt player. Inside Kontakt you will find the eDNA interface of this instrument. As an owner of a Komplete Kontrol A series keyboard, this is very convenient. It means I can use the Komplete Kontrol browser to quickly browse through the sounds and immediately tweak parameters of the sounds once loaded.

The Kontakt engine and the eDNA interface of Earth takes some getting used to. To make sure you fully understand its workings its a good idea to go through the walk through on the Spitfire Audio site. In short, every sound consists of two samples from the library. Which are mangled, then mixed, then chopped up and lastly processed by a set of effects. Very important is to see that you have sounds, but also full versions of the same sound. The full version contains the full range of orchestral samples. This allows you not only to start with a fixed set of samples, but eventually switch out one of the samples for another.

The result is that you get a sound that is usually cinematic. Sometimes a wash or a drone in the background and sometimes a sharp stab in the foreground. Because of the mangling and the chopping, sounds can really get that grainy Alchemy sound, or a dirty sound. None of the patches is really clean. I can only say: I love it. All sounds immediately inspire to let you build a soundscape. Even better, with a Komplete Kontrol Keyboard you can also immediately start changing the sound, bringing it even more to life.

If are looking for cinematic sounds, drones, or dirty stabs and you want an affordable synth then I invite you to take a look at this Kontakt library. In most reviews you will find some comments on eDNA interface of this instrument and I have to agree that it can be kind of hard to find your way in elements that are not inviting you to click or drag. After some getting used to it is not that bad. All in all: recommended!

Soundbrenner Pulse wearable metronome, the verdict

After diving into the basics and getting it to work it was time to really start using it. First off, the concept really works. I have songs without drums. Practicing these can be tough, so I tried working with a click track in the monitoring. That helps if you get in the flow. But after using the Pulse a few times it was completely natural and my mind “felt the beat” and leaned into it. It was important for me to tone the default “hard buzz” of the Pulse down to a more subtle vibration level. Now it really works for me. The battery life of the device is excellent for me, I have been practicing for hours now on end and its not even half empty. Charging it is a bit fiddly though.

There are however several problems with the product. If you look over the appearance, because it looks and feels very plastic and rough at the edges, what are the real problems? At this point and time, for me the Ableton Link feature does not work reliably. If in an Ableton Live session the tempo changes for a new song, I do not know when of if the metronome app will pick this up. This should be a simple bug to fix, or I have a unique setup in my WiFi network, Android version (latest version of Android Pie – 9), or something else is wrong. I am willing to try an iPad in the near future to see if it works better.

Then there is of course the problem that its three devices. Your laptop, a phone or tablet with the Metronome app and the Pulse all have to be fully charged and setup to make this work in a live situation. On several occasions I had to reconnect the phone to the Pulse to make or keep it working. Even if sync between laptop and the Metronome app does get fixed all devices need to be on a perfect working WiFi network on stage and how realistic is that? I think you can see that this device is probably at its best while practicing or in the rehearsal room. Only if you have a dedicated professional crew on stage to keep it working it might just work.

In short, I cannot do without anymore when practicing. I would never try to get this to work in a live situation. Maybe it all gets fixed in the next version, the Core. Lets wait and see.

Metapop! Check it out!

Metapop started apparently out as a site for mixers and remixers a few years ago, but got acquired by Native Instruments. Now its starting to become a home for all musicians, mixers and remixers. There is a continuous set of running competitions and a place to post your latest creations. You can either compete with a song or remix or run your own competition. The concept itself is not that new, but the execution is good. The Native Instruments sauce is quite heavy. Every competition has some kind of Native Instrument prize attached, so you’d better be using or be in the game for this stuff.

Where it gets interesting is the commenting on each other’s tracks. If you comment on someone’s track you are allowed to upload a track where you can ask for comments. Its a bit broken, because you don’t build up commenting karma. This means you have to plan your commenting carefully to the uploading of a track where you ask for comments. Strange.  There is also a set of Groups that focus on Mixing, or Mastering and such. This misses a bit of structuring inside the discussions I think, but it works for now.

As always this stands or falls with the community aboard and for now it looks like a good place to roam around. A little bit too friendly at times. A lot of comments go along the line of “This is great, I like it”. Which is not always that helpful I think. It breeds a nice atmosphere though where there’s not a lot of burning down. Criticism is appreciated I noticed, so there is also helpful commenting. There is also a few “mentors” roaming around that try to give very detailed comments on tracks.

I participated in a competition and a few discussions about tracks. All in all not bad at all. If you, like me are looking for a friendly community where you can post your music and maybe even collaborate on songs, I suggest you check it out. Maybe it can grow to another alternative to the now commercialized SoundCloud community.

SoundBrenner Pulse wearable metronome, first impressions

What people say

This product appears everywhere in timelines on social media when you’re interested in making music. I must say it immediately got my attention when I saw it. For me the appeal is that would solve the problems playing along with the computer when practicing or playing live. I don’t always have live musicians to play along with and the computer is unforgiving. Any metronome is welcome there and the SoundBrenner Metronome app is then already of great help.

But now the Pulse is there and it adds to this a haptic vibrating metronome you can feel. Now you don’t have to look at blinking lights while playing. Also, I use Ableton Live, also live, and there is even the possibility to use Ableton Link with Metronome app. If this all works together as one integrated haptic Metronome that allows me to feel the tempo while playing along with Ableton? Perfection! The ultimate gadget heaven!

Before buying I always look around for reviews and more info. One big complaint is that it is not an actual watch kind of thing. A lot of people hoped that it would also display the tempo. It doesn’t. You have to look at the screen of your phone (or tablet) to see settings and tempo. This also means that you have to keep the phone screen on. At the same time the Pulse is connected via Bluetooth. The phone is the brains, so you must at all times keep it charged and connected. A challenge, specially live.

Then there is some word going around on it not being accurate, but I think that is already fixed now through firmware updates. Another complaint is that it takes time to get used to ‘feeling’ the tempo. I guess that a lot of people send it back immediately, but I am more patient. Most new skills take time to get used to and I am quite convinced that this Pulse is a good idea. But now for first impressions.

What I say now

When you first start using the Pulse you will find that it is a bit fiddly to operate. You have to tap the watch face to start using it, but its not really touch sensitive. You have to really press it to pick up the taps. Then, straight out of the box it is set to really buzz the rhythm very strongly. And audibly also. Fortunately you can immediately go back to the app to set it to a more friendly and short vibration. In the lightest mode it really feels okay, but I play keyboards, When playing a more physical instrument, like drums, I can imagine you need the stronger buzz.

Charging it is also fiddly. It is a small kind of dock that has to properly connect to the device. After popping the Pulse in the band it gets even harder to let it connect to the charging dock, because the band pushes it from the dock and the dock can easily slip away, because its so light. People complain about the time that the device can be used on a full charge, but I don’t have enough experience now to say if it is really a problem for me.

Then its time to start practicing and linking it up with Ableton Link. That’s where all starts to get a little bit flakey for now. Ableton Link somehow goes in and out of the connection with the app. Which is ok for practicing in my case, but I don’t think this is ready for playing live. Also my phone sometimes loses connection with the Pulse after several minutes of playing. My phone is an Android phone, running Oreo and I know it can be very aggressive in killing background processes, specifically if they draw power. Probably that is not helping here, so I want to try it with another iOS device also.

One other thing to mention: its quite a big device. Maybe better suited for male wrists. There is another bigger strap in the box for your leg or your upper arm, but this device will have a hard time looking elegant on fragile ladies arms.

First conclusions now:

  • Big. Don’t expect this device to be light to operate, you really have to tap hard
  • Dive in to the settings to tune it to your preferences
  • Great for practicing, but for playing live this is a really complex setup to get and keep running

I hope this helps you appreciating the device for what it is now. I will keep using it and I’ll keep you up to date. Please note that there is also a new Soundbrenner device on Kickstarter that is actually more like watch, the Core.

Editing a music video for IGTV

From lying down to upright

Instagram took everyone by surprise by introducing the new upright video format IGTV video channel for all users. Shooting a video was obviously a horizontally oriented wide screen experience, matching the orientation of TVs and cinema. Instagram stories however were always vertically oriented to match the way you naturally hold your phone. IGTV nicely cultivates that. Some people always record vertically and that footage is then hard to show on TV, YouTube and such. Now you have a new outlet for that, enter IGTV.

If you have your material for your music video already recorded in upright position then you are so ready to edit it for IGTV! What I can see however is that not many existing recordings were ready for IGTV, so many decided to just clip off some footage from the left and right to keep the middle bit. The worst ones cut off parts of the titling so you can clearly see that its not the right IGTV stuff. As a viewer you feel cheated, because obviously you’re missing parts of the video.

But what if you have already recorded a video clip to be shown on YouTube and its in the landscape format? How to reuse that recording to make something that looks right on IGTV? What are the technicalities of the new IGTV video format?

Tunnel vision

The first step for me with the landscape clip for the Just a Game video, was to render it without the titling. All titling that does not fit the vertical format. The format to go for is HD, but then with reversed horizontal and vertical resolutions. So 1080×1920. With lengthy music video clips, you will find that upright portrait HD results in files that are too big in size. There is a size limit for regular video uploads, a maximum 10 minutes length and 650MB. The error messages from IGTV are not at all revealing unfortunately. A clip of 4 minutes length or more however, can easily go over 650MB. Then you will have to consider HDReady 720×1280.

IGTV Pan and Zoom
IGTV Pan and Zoom

If you removed the titling because of the landscape format, now is the time to redo the titling for the vertical format to show the viewer that you have intended this clip to be in IGTV format. After that, all you will have to do is to use pan and zoom to cut out the upright sections of the clip that really show the user all the action in the clip. This way you don’t have to give away that the clip recording was not intended for IGTV. As always I am using Corel VideoStudio for the simple work and its capable of rendering the required output for IGTV. Now its time to upload! Tell me about your experiences!

Experimenting with alternatives for the piano keyboard

Eek a mouse!

Inputting music with a mouse and a computer keyboard, even though its possible in most DAWs, is (as I see it) very limited. Firstly in its expression, it misses touch sensitivity so by default every note typed has the same velocity. Not good. Secondly because when you start adding expression, for instance by drawing it with the mouse, you are focusing on the details not on the song.

Keyboard input
Keyboard input

What better way than a MIDI piano keyboard that allows you to input music in an expressive way in one go? Well, it might be that the piano keyboard is not your thing, but a guitar or flute is. Then you might want to use that to input notes. But other than recording the sound from the instrument is that any use when you want to record different sounds? Probably not. The most flexible way to record music is through MIDI notes and expression. The recorded notes can be connected with different synthesized or sampled sounds and voila. Lots of room for experimentation.

Enter the pads

As a keyboard player I am used to find my way on a piano keyboard, but why would I then be interested in alternatives? In short, I personally am not. Until now I have tried finding my way on new pad based alternatives:

The last one is the latest addition and the inspiration to start writing about it. The Push and the Launchpad were in a way less inspiring to use than the Lightpad M or so it seems. Also, the Lightpad M is nice and soft.

When trying to find my way on the Push, I found that its main inspiring purpose for me is controlling the Ableton Live Session View. For the Launchpad this also seems to be the main purpose. This is the view that you would use when playing live, or when jamming and piecing together a new song. The jamming and piecing together a new song has some clever tricks to allow you to enter musical notes and make sure you’re never out of key.

Push chord key
Push chord key

But then you have to set the right key to play in. And what if your song modulates through several keys? Not very intuitive there when I tried it. Most dance mixes keep it simple, so fair enough. And of course since its first inception these products have evolved and I might not have caught up. It is probably better than ever, but probably most for people that do not enjoy playing on a regular piano keyboard.

Triggered!

Maybe you noticed that I said musical notes, because its different for drums. When the pad changes to a drum pad it is actually better than hitting the piano keys. The mapping on screen is already a square 4×4 pad in Ableton and when you have the same mapping on the pads of Push or the Lightpad M it all starts to make sense.

Ableton Drum Kit
Ableton Drum Kit
Lightpad M Drum Kit
Lightpad M Drum Kit

I found that the Lightpad M takes some practice (for me), but in the end really results in inspiring drum tracks. Until now I used Xfer Nerve as a drum machine and then layered real drum loops and recording over it. Starting with the Lightpad M I see an alternative. Expressive in the Roli way and intuitive.

Also this year I saw a lot of pads appearing on stage supplementing regular keyboards, mostly not synths but controllers by the way. I imagine that these pads mostly trigger a few notes and samples

Dua Lipa live keys and pad
Dua Lipa live keys and pad

The labeling on these is so tiny that you can’t see it from the audience, but I’m guessing its mostly the Launchpad. The Lightpad M is, like others of its kind can also be charged and used wirelessly, MIDI over Bluetooth. I would personally not bet my live performance on a wireless Bluetooth connection, but that’s just me.

So in short. I am sold on the concept of using pads for triggering sounds and drums, being a piano keyboard player. If I look around on the live stages, its here to stay. When you are not a piano keyboard player it might just be your new way to play notes.

Connecting the Logitech Craft knob to Ableton Live

Just in, the gadget of the month: the Logitech Craft. I was looking out for some more control over the mixing process and of course there are many controllers. When you already have an Ableton Push what more do you need? Well actually there is a thing about me and Push. I cannot use it blindly, so I always have to look at either the screen, or the controls, or the display. When mixing in the Ableton Live arrangement view it gets worse. Mouse, keyboard, screen, Push… It is at its best in Session View.

There were two things I was looking for. A high quality ‘chicklet’ keyboard like on my new Lenovo and it has an extra: A Knob. A dial that is touch sensitive and clickable to perform specific actions in any part of any program that has focus on your desktop. I am quite sure that your regular keyboard and a Microsoft Dial controller wil also make up good combo, but I chose the Craft to replace my old and clunky keyboard with media controls.

Unpacking and installing was the easy part. The previous keyboard was also a Logitech and it used the same Unified remote. Switch on and off and the keyboard was connected. Then a disappointment! No profile for Ableton Live. With a profile the keyboard recognizes the program its in and it immediately adds some shortcuts to the knob to control. For instance in a browser you can select a tab with the knob. In Photoshop you can zoom. In Lightroom you can change the exposure, or so I’m told. Standard functionality in other applications is controlling the volume of the PC and clicking it will pause/play music.

So there I was staring at Ableton, without being able to use the knob. I started diving into the settings, and there i found the Development Mode. Click it and you will need to also enable sending stats to Logitech. Tough but there is no escape.

From there you can select more programs to control with the knob and yes, Ableton Live is there!

And lo and behold, assigning up and down buttons allows you to control Ableton Live mixing with the knob. A new world opens up, where you can look at the screen. Listen to the mix and control a setting in Ableton Live with the knob. This was what I was looking for, more control and a better keyboard for the daily typing chores. Yay!

How to remain creative

I know its quite pretentious to state that I would know how you can remain creative, but this is for me just a space to remind myself how I get things done. I hope this can help you in some way and inspire you to be creative. Please comment if you have your own tricks to remain creative. Maybe these will also help me.

So this is how I work:

#1 Keep a notebook at hand
I always have my phone on me and even if i am on the train or on holiday, I always have my online notebook at hand on my phone: OneNote. It can be something I hear. It can be something I think of or feel. I know I have to write it down immediately. As part of a general notes page, or as title of a new song or as a part of new lyrics for a new song. Even though I am quite sure that I would remember it again in the evening or even five minutes later, this usually turns out not to be true. So I Write It Down!

I let OneNote sync to the cloud and use the same notebook in the studio. Notes that change while on the road sync to the studio and vice versa. Eventually lyrics take their ‘final’ shape and then they are updated and saved as such. New versions get added and my OneNote pages always contain all lyrics from all songs and all lyrics and remarks that I collected while on the road.

#2 Work out of the box
Nothing is more inspiring than a real instrument. Even though it is entirely possible to write a song with a mouse and keyboard, its not my thing. Usually after practicing just playing away can easily result in new ideas. I try to record ideas immediately and with any fitting name its a joy to browse through all loose ideas and stumble upon a new song.

#3 Do not repeat
The thing that will surely kill creativity is putting some section of a new song on repeat. Even when perfecting a part of a song or a new idea I avoid putting it on repeat. After three times its time to look at another part of the song or start working on something new. All kinds of controllers, like the Ableton Push might try to make me work in a repeat loop, but I stay as far away from it as possible.

#4 Work fast, keep focus
Know your gear, don’t get stuck in finding stuff out while you need to be recording. Eventually when working on one song for a long time the dreaded hearing fatigue will kick in. Time to stop and do something different. Preferably not related to making music. Start listening again the next day at the earliest. Preferably in a different setting. Al too famous is listening in a car of course. If it sounds right there, you’re getting somewhere.