A first attempt at an automatic VJ mix on stage

For some time now I am looking for a way to add video to my Ableton Live performance. In this article I am experimenting with VideoRemix Pro from MixVibes. There are many people with a similar quest so it seems and equally as many solutions. Most solutions (Resolume, Modul8) revolve around the Apple MacOS. Since I am not in the Apple ecosystem, these are not available to me. Some quite elaborate solutions use many components that all are glued together. Sometimes with MIDI, sometimes with plugins.

As a first attempt am looking for a simple single piece of software that can run inside Ableton Live for a PC. Enter VideoRemix Pro. You need to have the Pro version to run it inside Ableton Live as a plugin. When you look at the instruction video, you can see that it runs in Session mode. Which is how I use Ableton Live live. Looking at this it seems simple enough, but there is a learning curve.

This learning curve is not helped by obvious glitches and problems when using the software. I had quite a battle installing it and getting it to run as a plugin inside Live. The first problem was Live crashing when dropping the plugin on a MIDI track. Which is how you are supposed to use it. My first reaction was to ask for a refund, but after a reboot and some experimenting I got it to work. The secret for me was to make sure that VideoRemix does not use the Windows Default audio. Once I switched to the ASIO audio option that Live also uses, the plugin stopped crashing.

VideoRemix Pro runs in desktop mode as well as plugin mode, but not at the same time. The desktop mode seems solid enough, but even there I have run into glitches. This had to do mostly with customizing the Novation LaunchPad Mini that I wanted to use to control the video. The LaunchPad Mini had been just lying around as a backup for the Ableton Push that I mainly use. It is however not supported by default. The makers of the software prefer you using the full Launchpad Mk2, which has more control options of course.

This means that in order to use it, you have to define a custom control mapping for the software. This seems easy enough, since you have a MIDI learn mode in the software. It took some learning for me to use it. In short, hover over the element in VideoRemix you want to control. Then click or turn the midi knob to link it. Press it again to see if the mapping worked. After this you will see a custom mapping in the list of midi devices in the preferences, which you could then rename.

A new custom MIDI mapping in the VideoRemix Midi Preferences
A new custom MIDI mapping in the VideoRemix Midi Preferences

Then moving over to Ableton Live and running it as a plugin (remember: not at the same time), you will find this same list. Confusing enough there is a VST MIDI device there, but in my case that did not respond to any attempt to control the video. If you switch over to your custom mapping that you created in the desktop mode, things start moving. Now you can record your video sequence.

Creating or recording a video sequence is based on the 6×6 grid of buttons in VideoRemix. This means that you are limited to 36 clips that you can launch. One clip can run for 100 seconds. Hit a clip to start it. Hit it again to stop it. By default running clips is column oriented. You cannot start more clips running on the same column. One clip on the same column will stop a clip on another row. You can start an entire row with a single command. You can start an entire column, but only if you enable all clips playing in a grid of course.

If you want a more complex mix of clips with more than a few clips per song and more then a dozen of songs, you’re probably out of luck with 36 slots. It seems you have to simplify your VJ mix if you are using this software standalone. For now it will have to do for me.

The VideoRemix Clip Grid
The VideoRemix Clip Grid

The effects (FX) section is quite elaborate. You can control it as well as all the faders, through MIDI. The moment you hit full screen on the top right you will see your VJ mix full screen. Hopefully on the right video output, but I will have to look into that yet. The default set of clips also loops sound and this sound can be mixed, so you can also have sound effects playing as part of your performance.

This is my first attempt at working with video as part of a Live based performance. After quite a battle to get it working, it is now seems actually possible to have a video running as part of a Session mode sequence, like there is a real VJ at work. I am still quite worried about the overall stability of the setup and I need to get to grips with the quirks of the software.

If you have experience with this or other software setups, please comment below!

How about putting this card in your laptop?

After carrying around big and powerful laptops for years and tablets that were simply not powerful enough. I wanted to try a laptop in the ultrabook category. At that time the choice was light and powerful, but with compromises in working with graphics: the Lenovo Thinkpad T480s. These days you can buy ultrathin notebooks with additional graphics power, but that was then and this is now. Unfortunately similarly spec-ed Macbooks are out of my league.

One thing that I really checked when selecting this laptop was the support for Thunderbolt 3. This connection supports external graphics cards. Even though the onboard graphics on paper should be good enough for minimal VR support. However, I already had guessed that this would not run smoothly. Now after one year of use I finally got round to trying out the Akitio Node external housing with Thunderbolt support. Lo and behold, equipped with a ASUS GeForce GTX 1060 OC3 my laptop has now become a graphics powerhouse that easily runs VR, games and any other task smoothly as butter!

If you check the compatibility lists of Akitio, you will not find this graphics card. This list is very limited and only contains higher end cards. There is a small notice that it should work with any card, but there’s no guarantee. My idea was to try the slightly lower end, because maxing out anything like this in the end is bound to cause problems somewhere in the chain. The laptop is also a year old, so I reckoned that careful drivers go a long way. By the way, Macbooks also support Thunderbolt and external graphics cards. They don’t support the specific card I chose, because I believe you should use Radeon AMD graphics cards.

There was a struggle to get this working. When you go the Nvidia way with you graphics card, the driver installation can moan about the hardware not qualifying for installation. I got round this by checking forums and these explained that you should manually install the driver. Unpacking the software and finding and installing the driver files by hand, right clicking on .inf files did the trick.

The Akitio Node is large and slightly noisy, but you can switch it off for music work of course. Then when you want to do graphics intensive work, switch the Node on and voilĂ . Magic in a box! One other down side is that it does not support any other function then connecting the graphics card. There are other options with storage and other connections, like USB or network. There also is no daisy chaining of devices. The Node is a dead end.

If you too are looking for this upgrade I wanted to put this story out, because this is a working combination. There are a lot of horror stories around of combinations refusing to work. I hope this upgrade trick will work for you too!

Make your own affordable dust covers

I am a big fan of custom made covers for all studio equipment. Dust kills the quality of connectors, sliders and switches. If possible I try to use the dust covers from the instrument or equipment manufacturer. Otherwise I try to look for a Decksaver, because actually these are very clever desk space savers as well. And they fit like a glove. All too often however I find that there is no custom cover that exactly fits.

I tried to find custom covers for the Yamaha 01v and the MicroKorg, but couldn’t find any. My current solution for this is to buy flexible transparent foil and have it cut to a little more than the surface area of the device. It can attract dust, but at least the dust does not get in the equipment. It also looks quite professional and is easy to pull over the surface and slip away again.

For me this beats ill fitting cloth covers and other half baked solutions, like putting it in a box. The best alternative could be to buy thick sheets of perspex and glue a custom cover. There are shops that support you in building your own perspex cover. It will however never be as sophisticated as Decksaver covers, with extra space for knobs and bends in the device. If you’re on a budget, at least put a sheet of transparent foil over your equipment and make it last longer.

Why you should start using a 360 camera

Already four years ago I started using a 360 camera. At that time I wanted to create those videoclips where you are really in the set and I wanted viewers to experience the video. The video quality was then an issue and for me it still is, unless you have a solid budget to spend. At the 3.000 euro price point video quality is no longer a big issue. At the lower end however, things have improved slightly. I have now invested in an Insta360 ONE X at a fraction of that price, 400 euro. What has persuaded me to invest in this camera if the quality is only slightly better?

First off, it comes with software that allows you to take your full 360 degree recording and cut out a flat rectangle that looks like you recorded it with a normal camera. Where is the advantage in that? It is actually intended to allow you use it as an action camera and then in the video editing cut out, pan and zoom into any action around you. You can see samples of this in the product page. What use is that to me as a musician, you might ask. Well, how about filming a whole gig from several points and cutting, panning and zooming into all the action on stage and in the crowd? Also the software has some really captivating special effects like speeding up, turning the 360 view into a ball, fish eye etc.

Secondly, it has rock-solid stabilization, because it uses gyroscopes to record all movements. This also ensures that the recording is perfectly horizontal, even when recording at an angle. You will find that if there is too much movement in your recording, most viewers will become sea sick really fast. A smooth recording and stable recording makes the difference. I can now confidently record while walking. Also freaky is that if you use a selfie stick to hold the camera, the software will remove the stick. It will appear as if the camera is hovering above you.

Schemerstad
Schemerstad

Thirdly, it actually matters that the quality of the recordings is at least slightly better than that of the first generation of 360 cameras. The performance in low light is dramatically better and the 25% increase in pixels of camera’s in the same price range does make a difference. Am I completely happy? No of course not. I can really and wholeheartedly recommend the ONE X at the lower price tier. It has made some impossible recordings possible and I will keep using 360 as part of my video recording to capture the action and experiences.

So this is why you too (as a musician) should start using a 360 camera. Not because you want people to experience VR, but to capture everything and decide how to use the recording later. On stage and everywhere the action happens.

Perfect for small venues?

For a while now I have been starting up my live show. After five years of building a repertoire, I feel the next step is playing it live. I have been lucky to have had my “real pop star moment” with my previous band. A CD recording contract and live touring abroad. Now I am back to step one with my own music project.

Starting up, the most important for me is to record all practice sessions and to record all tryouts. For this purpose I have invested in multitrack recording stuff. It might just be that there is a gem in these recordings that needs exploring and investing in. This is what I learned in the previous band. Recoding, recording, recording… Learning, exploring, improving….

Multitrack live recording is easier than ever. It used to be only Tascam with analog 4 track tape recording, but now its digital 8, 12 or 16 track recording with computers, or Zoom or more exotic brands. CD quality or studio quality even. For now I focused on Zoom, because they make really affordable devices. I am not scared of using computers, but for me now it needs to be one single reliable device. Not another chain of devices with a computer at the end.

Zoom R16
Zoom R16

So I tried the Zoom R16 first. This is a true 16 track recorder. It has the shape of a mixer, but it is actually only a multitrack recorder. It can record 8 channels at once, but has a limitation for the SD card at 32GB. My problem with it was the sound quality as a mixer, that makes it difficult to make sure that the recordings are Ok. Also it tempts you to use it as a live mixer, but it does not have adequate send/return/monitoring chain at all.

Enter the Zoom LiveTrak L-12. The sound quality of the mixer is immediately a lot better. It can record 12 channels at once. It also accepts larger SD cards and record at higher bit rates then CD quality. Unfortunately, the send/return and single effect chain is still a bit meagre. You do have a compressor per channel, but when you use it, its recorded compressed as well. This might not be what you want. The monitoring chain is a different story. Its amazing. Four, or even if you really need it a fifth monitoring channel if you separate it from the master mix.

All in all, this cannot be your live mixer for all purposes. Just because of the limitations of the send/return and single effect and the compression with the penalty of also recording it. However it is probably exactly the mixer that you’ll find in any commercial practice room. So just replace it with this one and you could have a multitrack recording of all your practice sessions. Awesome! Now if you hit a gem, you can mix it down to a demo later.

Can it be your mixer for live venues? Absolutely! Connect some active speakers and you’re live. Unless you need more send/returns and effects live of course, then you need to bring a real live mixer. The challenge will then be to connect separate tracks of that mixer to the multitrack recorder. Hopefully, that live mixer has at least enough monitor channels or busses. Otherwise you’re stuck with a recording that does not give you enough options to remix the live recording.

Now in practice, how does it work when using the LiveTrak as a multitrack recording mixer? First of, as a mixer it will remember all your mix and recording settings as part of something that Zoom calls a Project. It will save it all on the SD card when you switch off and on. You will need to make sure that you do switch off and on again on the device, not just pull the power plug. When you switch projects then you can save different mix and recording settings per project.

Like an advanced digital mixer all fader settings are saved. But because it does not have motorized faders, a led shows the stored fader settings and such. When you hit that point of the fader again, you can change the value and save that again. This applies to all mixer settings in general. To extend on this you can save 10 different scenes per Project.

Zoom Export to USB
Zoom Export to USB

This is nice, but you cannot from the menu simply clone a project. There is a trick however, if you switch to USB host mode you can save and restore projects on a USB stick. The trick here is to save and restore an existing Project to a new name. This way you can start recording to a new Project with settings from an existing Project.

So there you have it. This is how I use this now and I know what it can do for me. I think it is great as a practice room mixer and for small venues. Please check the Zoom site or review sites to read more about all other modes and features of the LiveTrak. I don’t use any of the other modes, so I have no experience with any of the other features. It might work for your specific purposes as well.

Silently hiding under the mixing desk: Roland A-880

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.

Komplete Kontrol A49, you’re not using it right

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.

Do you need a digital mixer in your home studio?

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.

Versioning Ableton Live projects with large files

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.

Collaborative repository on GitHub
Collaborative repository on GitHub

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):

b2fab@STUDIO MINGW64 /d/Documents/Ableton/Goodbye Project (master)
$ git lfs install
Updated git hooks.
Git LFS initialized.

b2fab@STUDIO MINGW64 /d/Documents/Ableton/Goodbye Project (master)
$ git lfs track *.wav
Tracking "B2FAB - Goodbye ft Hanny (Mastered).wav"
Tracking "Goodbye (instrumental).wav"
Tracking "Goodbye ft Hanny (unmastered).wav"
Tracking "Goodbye ft Hanny.wav"
Tracking "Goodbye Hanny (FY).wav"
Tracking "Goodbye.concept.wav"

b2fab@STUDIO MINGW64 /d/Documents/Ableton/Goodbye Project (master)
$ git lfs track *.als
Tracking "Goodbye Hanny (Exp).als"
Tracking "Goodbye Hanny (FY).als"
Tracking "Goodbye Hanny (FYCD).als"
Tracking "Goodbye Hanny Beat.als"
Tracking "Goodbye.concept.als"
Tracking "Goodbye.Hanny.als"
Tracking "Goodbye.instrumental.als"
b2fab@STUDIO MINGW64 /d/Documents/Ableton/Goodbye Project (master)
$

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.

Commit Git LFS in SourceTree
Commit Git LFS in SourceTree

Why I chose the Nord Electro 6D

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 touchĂ© also.

Live Mode
Live Mode

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.

Organ register sliders
Organ register sliders

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.

Guide light splits
Guide light splits