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.

 

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.

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.

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!

The making of a video clip

Telling stories through songs. When there is no story I have no drive. Sometimes I actively scout for interesting stories. A sequence of words. A thought. Serendipity. Usually a picture forms in my head that shapes the story and that is when I start thinking about a clip. Last year this was very strong when Sam came to work on Memories. Its actually one of the first songs that I posted on SoundCloud, but Sam shaped it, rewrote the lyrics and sang it in the attic.

The original song was inspired by a school reunion. A magic event that reshaped my past, because most of what I remembered actually was wrong or incomplete. It seemed apt to make a video clip for it that somehow would take you back to school and down memory lane. But, how shape this image?

Usually I try to cast the original singer and maybe let him or her sing at least a few lines in the clip. I got into contact with the head of my old school, not far from Leiden, in Sassenheim. He arranged the possibility to shoot a video in the school. First everything seemed fine, but then came the terrible news that Sam could no longer take part in the project. No conflict, but personal problems. Disaster. Sam recovered, but still could not take part in the project. However, she agreed that I could use a stand in. She took part in the final result from the sideline.

A clip needs a story!

The first thing I try to do is write down the story of the clip, but in this form. A form that works for me:

  • The premise: the initial state of affairs that drives the plot. In this case: Coming back to your old school to look around and remember all the fun and nice memories of your school years after a school reunion.
  • Scenes: all the images I have in my head. The locations. The video shots. How to shoot the video, moving the camera or on a tripod.
  • All necessary props and assistance needed for every scene

This way I can answer all questions that people involved usually have. How long do you need to shoot in the school? Which locations? What to wear? Earlier I would just take my camera and go, but I found that when you start filming that its nice to come prepared. Also, it really helped a lot that I already knew the school and made an extra visit to fill in some details.

Ingrid in school
Ingrid in school

In this case Ingrid saved the whole project. She agreed to be the stand in for this clip and she is such a graceful and beautiful lady. Throughout shooting she remained strong and focussed. Even when we somehow seemed to be locked up in school by the cleaning ladies.

We have stuff…

A short word on equipment. I have invested in a Panasonic system camera that is capable of shooting 4K. It has image stabilization, but when shooting a shot while moving I now insist on using a gimball. When movement is not smooth its just not right, or it has to be a special effect. For shooting while moving I use the DJI Osmo that has a 4K camera attached. Earlier I found out that insufficient lighting can ruin recordings, so I also invested in special 1000W video lights. I always try to reuse the recordings in the form of making-ofs. For this shoot I also brought the VR 360 camera and an action camera to shoot the recording setups while recording. Makes sense? I hope so.

Why 4K? I have found that when the starting material is 4K, a resulting HD movie is of higher quality than a movie shot with HD equipment. Its the pixel interpolation that somehow results in a sharper image. Also, if the end result is a 4K edited movie, it is also ready for the foreseeable future of video. And if the end result somehow has imperfections, it is possible to cut out the best bits while keeping a HD quality result. Also 4K has overall better quality. No more jaggies much less moire. The only thing that I have saved on for now is framerate. My budget unfortunately does not allow me to shoot 4K at more than 25 frames a second. For now it will have to do.

…but how to use it

What I try to do is to set up all equipment manually. This is extra hassle and extra risky, but what I try to avoid is to have all equipment think for itself. These camera’s all have auto-everything settings. These settings make smart decisions to make sure the subject(s) that you film are well lighted and in focus. However, when filming I find that a camera may suddenly shift to new settings for the best lighting and focus in the middle of a recording. This will make it more difficult in the final video production to choose the correct color tones and lighting. Shifting focus in the middle of a recording will probably make the recording useless. So everything is set to manual, focus and lighting will be fixed.

In the school setting the use of my video lights with a fixed color tone makes sure that the prevailing color tone of the recordings is also fixed. For the final video production I chose to give the whole clip a warm summer tone. Even when the clip was shot on a cold and cloudy autumn afternoon.

And there is more

For this clip I also made sure that Eline from Beauty & Visagie could be there. While recording I am already juggling all the equipment and video shooting. Eline made sure that Ingrid looked her best and remained stunningly beautiful throughout the whole afternoon. She also checked clothing and made sure that colors did not clash and that contrasts were in check. Walter also assisted, supported Ingrid, guarded stuff while we were running around and made sure we had power.

During recording I continuously play the music from the clip to make sure that the ‘rhythm’ of all movements matches. It also helps making sure that the mood is correct. Even though the final production might not be very pro. This way at least it will have the right flow and mood to match the music.

Also I always make sure that everyone in the clip is aware that it will be put on YouTube and made public. For these occasions I always carry paper release forms that people can sign to agree to ‘be in the movie’. For the people directly involved I just ask, but for strangers it might be best to let them sign a form.

As always: this is just the way I try to work and this is a reminder to self. Maybe it helps you.

If you want to support me making higher quality VR 360 video clips, please click here:





Filming VR 360 video clips

This year i started filming with the latest and greatest gadget of this year, the Samsung Gear 360. Not bigger than a cricket ball and outfitted with two 190 degree lenses it can capture full 360 VR video in one take. Its small enough to carry on your holiday and its a snap to use. Getting the captured video from the Gear 360 to your editing software to make full video clips is quite another matter. Once you get the hang of it its ok, but you’ll have to keep aware of some limitations.

Samsung Gear 360
Samsung Gear 360

Obviously you will not capture the same quality video as a ball of 6 or more GoPro Hero camera’s. The Gear 360 only has 2 camera’s. Count on UHD (2560×1280) movies and 4K (7776×3998) pictures. If you are filming in bright light on the side of one camera and at the same time shadow rich environments on the other side, often the two images cannot be stitched seamlessly. Specifically not if one camera picks up a lens flare.
Another limitation is the handle and tripod that you can attach to the camera. If you hold the camera in your hand with the handle you will find that the two sides of your hand will be stitched in a freaky way. Once i got hold of simple extension sticks for the camera mount it changed everything. With a thin stick as a handle the stitched result ‘floats’ in the air. Just like you want it.
Camera mount extenders
Camera mount extenders

Once you’ve captured photo’s or video, you will find that the camera actually captured two fish eye images side by side. This is the raw picture format and you have to convert this to an ‘equirectangular’ form first in order to be able to upload this to Facebook or YouTube. This is where it starts to get tricky here you can see a raw picture and the stitched equirectangular image:
Fish Eye Avignon Soap Shop
Fish Eye Avignon Soap Shop

Stitched Avignon Soap Shop
Stitched Avignon Soap Shop

As you can see the stitching can be hit and miss. Samsung gives you two options. Stitching by the Samsung Galaxy S7(Edge) Gear 360 app or stitching on your PC with Gear ActionDirector software. The last one gives the best image quality results in good lighting situations. The phone gives you the most reliable overall stitching of images. Even with low light images or less than optimal captures. You will only know after capturing and stitching if your capture is ok. That’s the catch. Of course the app also allows you to remotely record and view the camera image. Vitally important if you don’t want to be in the movie yourself.
The Gear 360 ActionDirector software also offers very limited editing of your video, but that is not enough by far to make video clips. No titling, no effects, just mixing. In the next upcoming article i will focus on editing more.
The sound that the camera can record is acceptable, but susceptible to wind fluttering in. Don’t expect the quality to be adequate to record live music. Make sure you have separate sound recording and mix that in later. For me its quite ok, because in a clip you usually replace the sound with the song.
For now i think this is great for capturing more than just a video clip. Just pop your phone in a VR viewer and you and your viewers can really step into the clip and start experiencing it. How great is that? Of course, the resolution is limited, UHD quality and then divided by the screen resolution size of half your phone. The effect however, can already be very convincing. Stay tuned for the next episode!
Here you can checkout Stone (feat. Evelien) in glorious VR: