Recently I had to revise some cabling and routing under the mixing desk, when I found a rack device. A MIDI patch bay, the A880. It was happily blinking and had silently done its useful job there for at least 10 years. After looking it up, it turned out to be an actually more than 30 years old product from Roland! You can also see the dust on the cables in my setup.
Then the question is: do you need a MIDI patch bay? The answer is twofold. MIDI itself is an ancient protocol. If you have MIDI devices and a computer hooked up via MIDI, I will say that you cannot do without a MIDI patch bay. However, MIDI is showing its age and probably some of you are using USB instead. Also, new MIDI standards are now seriously being discussed. Possibly resulting in something altogether new that may not be supported by the A-880.
The current standard MIDI protocol is ancient. And when you look at it technically it is also slow and limited. Of course it is fast enough to connect a keyboard to an instrument or a computer. Most devices allow daisy-chaining to connect any chain of computer and keyboard and MIDI instruments you have. However, that is when you will find that MIDI has its limitations. If you daisy-chain more than three devices you will likely hit one of its limitations: bandwidth. When too much information passes through a single chain, then you will get traffic jams and you might start hearing hick ups.
This is where a MIDI patch bay kicks in. Instead of daisy-chaining you can now connect devices in parallel. The A-880 connects 8 inputs to 8 outputs. Each of the individual connections to a midi device from the patch bay can now pass the maximum amount of data without traffic jams. Also with some simple button presses you can determine which input gets sent to which output. Allowing you to have more keyboards and route inputs from there to more devices. The forever friendly blinking lights show you which inputs go to which outputs.
Inputs 1 and 2 are special. The A-880 can merge the inputs and send it to multiple outputs. I use the patch bay in its most simple and useful form. The inputs from my main master keyboard are mixed with the input from the computer and then sent out through all remaining outputs at once. This is the blinking pattern that been the core of my setup for more than a decade. Only occasionally I push the Signal button. Then the blinking lights show which devices actually send data.
It may be that the future of MIDI does not include the A-880. This will be the moment when I will switch off this blinking, silently working work horse. And I will remove it from its hidden place under the mixing desk.
After a month of working on singing and performing. Everything but working in the studio, I wanted to get up and running again with making music. As always, I started with updating the studio software. When updating the Native Instruments (NI) suite I am using, the A49 was part of the updates. When playing around in Ableton Live after that it soon became obvious that things did not work quite right. So it was time to reserve some hours diving into this.
The NI Native Access manager was updated and the first step is then of course to check all the software installations inside it. It soon turned out that the VST installation path of Komplete Kontrol was not correct anymore. NI likes to think that it is the only source for plugins on your computer, so I needed tot tell it that VSTs are located elsewhere on the computer. The Komplete Kontrol installation was then fixed by reinstalling. Nice.
After checking if both the version of Komplete Kontrol inside Live and Komplete Kontrol as a standalone application were matching. Things started working again. A plugin rescan was needed to pick up all NI instruments in both versions, so a lot of instrument settings were not matching up apparently. Also a quick scan of the MIDI integration settings revealed that the integration was still correct.
I use the Komplete Kontrol Rack VST in Ableton Live, but when you update your NI software this is not automatically updated in Ableton Host Integration. Time to copy vst files (vst) all over again from C:\Program Files\Common Files\Native Instruments\Host Integration\Ableton Live to D:\Documents\Ableton\Library\Presets\Instruments\Instrument Rack. Or some equivalent on a Mac.
This Komplete Kontrol instrument rack can host any plug in instrument and map the A49 knobs to macros to controls in the instrument. Please note: Only use this for all instruments other than NI instruments! You must manually map any control to any control inside the instrument. Not very pretty, but once you’ve set it up it works.
And what if you do want to use a NI instrument? I also found out that instead of adding Kontakt to a track to start working with a NI instrument, as I always did, its better to use the Komplete Kontrol plugin. This immediately gives you full control with the A49 and allows you to quickly switch instruments on the fly. Oh well. Never too old to learn.
This is something that has puzzled me for some time. Do I actually need a digital mixing desk in my home studio? Well, technically no. Modern audio interfaces have a mixer on-board. So if you need 8 inputs, you could just make sure that you have an audio interface with 8 inputs. Starting at around 200 euros. Going up all the way to 3000 euro’s if you can or want to spend it for top quality. Now there are several reasons for me opting for a digital mixing desk and it all comes down to flexibility.
What you don’t want is a chain of devices that add noise on every recording. So an analog desk connected to your digital audio interface is probably a bad idea. Unless it is a very high quality analog desk with a unique sound. Something that would set you back the price of a new car. So lets try to stay in the digital domain for a better price/quality ratio.
One of the reasons to eye the higher priced segment of audio interfaces is the option of a direct cue mix. A singer, or solo musician is usually best recorded dry if you don’t have the luxury of working in a room with a nice sound or at least a quiet room. On the other hand lots of singers like to have monitoring with a bit of ‘room’ on it. A bit of reverb or even echo. When you can at least make a cue mix with just a touch of some effects on it, it can make the difference.
Now lets have the best of both worlds and flexibility. I chose the Focusrite Scarlett 18/8 2nd gen. It has 16 inputs, 8 analog and 8 digital and 6 analog outputs. Additionally it has stereo S/PDIF digital in/out. hence the total of 18 in and 8 outputs. Now connect the digital mixing desk to the ADAT 8 digital inputs of the Scarlett audio interface and there you have it: 16 inputs and enough cue mix options to accommodate recording of a complete band.
Ok, I was lucky to get my hands on a classic Yamaha 01V with ADAT interface, but I think it is still possible to get your hands on it or something equivalent for around 500 euros. Add to that about 300 euro’s for the Focusrite and there you have it: an affordable and also flexible setup that can accommodate any home studio recording session.
This is a follow-up of one of the first posts here keep-track-of-versions-of-your-song-with-Ableton. At first this was a bit tricky, because you could choose leave out large files, like .wav recordings and samples and even the .als project files. Or you could defy a warning from Git stating that it doesn’t handle large files well, performance-wise. This will hit you when you push and checkout your repository remotely. Now you can start using the new Large File Storage (LFS) feature, that handles versions of the large files as markers in the Git repository, improving the speed at which Git can handle these large files when getting the latest version remotely. Please note that these versioning tools might work for your DAW too.
But why Git versioning?
Lets go back to the beginning. Why should you consider using Git for versioning of your Ableton Live projects? Version 10 of Ableton Live keeps backups of your project files. If something goes wrong, you can go back 20 or more versions. The problem is, what version on which time and date contains which changes? There is no way to tell. With Git versioning you can attach a message to each set of changes (commit) and you can decide which part of which commit you want to keep. The thing that holds most people back from using Git is its complexity.
Git is even more powerful in combination with a shared remote repository like GitHub or Bitbucket. This will allow you to work together remotely on a shared project with more musicians, while at the same time giving you the liberty to work stand alone. Contact me if you want to hear more about this. Please note that some remote repositories are not free if you want to store private content and collaborate. Otherwise everything you put on it is public. GitHub now allows free private repositories.
With its power comes a set of command line instructions that scares the shit out of any musician. For daily use I turn to SourceTree for a more graphical and pleasant Git experience. SourceTree is free and hides most complex command line instructions behind a more useable interface. There will be a time however when you really will have to dive in to the nitty gritty and this post will also dive deep. Fortunately the latest version of SourceTree also understands the new LFS features.
Large File Storage
The first step will be to install Git LFS on top of Git. By the way SourceTree has embedded versions of Git and Git LFS that you can install alongside. I have no idea how powerful these embedded versions are compared to the stand alone versions. Then here the steps you need to take to activate the Large File Storage feature. Open a command line in the project folder where you created your Git repository and type (as marked in bold):
As you can see the install statement just prepares the repository. The track statements marks large file types to be treated as LFS files. From that point you need to commit this change and its .gitattributes and you are good to go. If you want I can go live on Instagram or help you out.
This is a about choosing my main instrument. The main inspirational instrument in the studio as well as the centerpiece on the live stage. After working for almost 20 years with the Korg Triton Pro it was time for something new. The old monster weighed a ton and it was a traditional workstation with sequencer, sampler, MOSS synth and ROM synth. I actually used only half of its functionality. Storage was on either a floppy disk (!) or a noisy SCSI disk (40MB!). Why did I go to the Clavia Nord Electro 6D? Of course, the Electro 6D is a well known and excellent instrument and there are plenty of reviews, but why did I chose it?
The main appeal was a single feature that I once had on an old Roland (D10?). It kept playing the sound as you switched programs. It sounded a bit garbled, but at least it wouldn’t cut off the sound while switching. A major irritation when I switched to the Korg. The Nord 6D series and other Nord instruments of the same generation bring this back, but this time in its full glory. The notes you last played keep playing, when you switch programs. Every key you hit after the switch plays with the new sound. This is perfection for playing live!
The other thing is: I noticed that almost all my music centers around piano, strings and organ sounds. This is where the Electro 6D excels. All sounds that don’t need pitch bend and you might have noticed that the Electro 6D doesn’t have it. The occasional whoosh and bleep and bloop can come from other instruments. Because it doesn’t have all the controls and in general isn’t made to be a master midi controller I use the Komplete Kontrol A49 in the studio for that. It has a very similar touché also.
Another highlight of the Electro 6D is the Live Mode program selection in the center controls section of the keyboard. This switches the four program selectors into a set of pages with your favorite preset sounds. Including all mix and effect settings. This what I desperately need live. I used to move around sounds to have them as the first programs in the list, but with the separate Live Mode list I can put them right there and leave the program list as it is. Just to be sure I made a backup of my Live Mode favorites to have them back as I want, even when something gets twisted and accidentally saved as part of the Live Mode preset.
Then some small niceties. I chose the Electro 6D and not the Electro 6HP for the real organ sliders and its lower weight (9 kg instead of 11 kg). I have always played springy keys. In that sense I am not a true weighted keys piano player. I don’t use split keyboard sounds currently, but in the past I have used splits live also and the Electro 6D has the guidelight splits for that. In short, it has all the things that I dearly need and not a lot more or less.
I guess most musicians use Ableton Live live like I use it. Its kind of the standard way of building a live set. This article describes the details in the implementation as I use it.
So there is Session View with the track channels laid out with different instruments and the scene rows with the different songs. Within each song several scenes with the intro, verses, choruses, break and outro. Ableton will follow the bpm mentioned in the description and you can set the Launch Follow Action to let Ableton run the flow of each song. This way Ableton will back your song live with the right scenes with the push of a button. With effects automated or manual as you want it and in the correct tempo. Additionally I use MIDI Program Change commands to instruct the Nord and the Korg to switch to the right instruments for any scene of any song.
In my case I play solo, or with aid of other musicians. I can choose which track to leave out, the backing vocals, the bass or at least one or more keys. On the whole Ableton Live runs the show in my case, so I should be careful not to bore the audience with too much music out of the box. I should keep working on performance, video tracks and light effects all the time. I try to use only Ableton Push, avoiding the use of the laptop to start and stop.
What’s on the monitor?
Lets start cheating a little. Because not every track has drums, I rely on a click that gets routed to the monitor. In the above picture you can see the click track on the left. It just plays and plays and gets send to the Cue out Return Track C. Return Track C works pre-fader so it is in no way linked to the master mix. The cue out goes to a separate output on the audio interface and thus can be mixed to all monitors. For now this suffices.
All live instruments, vocals output and everything from Ableton Live gets mixed in by the audio interface. The audience hears the Master Out mixed and on stage you hear the Cue Out mixed with the click.
Prepare for the worst
My live set contains an instrument rack that is setup to be a playable, plug in based copy of the most important instruments I use live. Should an instrument break down, I will then have the option to use any MIDI keyboard to replace it. The plug in sounds are not as nice as the Nord and Korg sounds, but I will have something to play instead of nothing.
To make sure that I will always have a way to recover in case of emergency the entire live set is stored in the Cloud. This way I can fine tune the Ableton Live live set from home and push it to the Cloud. The moment I open the laptop for a show and there is Internet it will sync up. I use OneDrive but any Cloud product is fine. Should the laptop break down, from any other laptop I should be able to recover the Ableton Live install, a few plugins and packs and any interface and sync the live set again. At the last moment a backup laptop should be ready to swap in on the spot if needed. Lets pray it will never come to this, but if it can happen it will.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.