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Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later, wasn’t it …

I’ve been desperately avoiding modular synths for a long time now even though I’ve found myself drawn to them as have many of my friends been. But when I was in Berlin at Ableton’s Loop festival in November I bumped into an old friend, Tom Whitwell. You might remember Tom from Music Thing, and now Music Thing Modular. Tom had this device with him.

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Not the bela being presented, but the tiny little lunchbox modular on the table. Here’s a close up.

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This little device totally captivated me. I thought it was awesome, and it’s battery powered too. Tom very kindly put me in touch with the maker of the lunchbox modular. You can find his site here. It’s well worth a look.

Very kindly, the maker of the lunchbox modular has sent me one, and now I’m on the start of what I’m told will be a very long journey.

The lunchbox modular is a beautiful little device and I’m looking forward to adding my first modules to it soon.

I’ll be sharing my journey as I go. Wish me luck!

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POLYTIK modular synths arrive on Kickstarter

I’ve been waiting for this for a while now. It looks really great and it is from some of the people behind the Mute Synth (I and II), both of which are excellent (although I probably prefer II).

Polytik describes itself as a collection of beautifully designed hand-held synth modules exploring the border between play and sound. Which sounds right up my street.

Here’s what the Kickstarter page says …

Born out of a DIY ethos and the maker community, Polytik has been crafted into something very different – a series of beautifully designed objects in their own right.

Polytik is open-source hardware and encourages users to make new modules and hacks.

The brainchild of John Richards and Jack Featherstone in collaboration with Artists & Engineers, these hybrid analogue/digital devices can produce a palette of sounds ranging from angular rhythmic sequences to abstract noise, pads and drones. The synths are designed to be tactile, to be held and touched when playing.

Polytik comprises four separate, colour-coded, battery powered modules. Every Polytik system needs a Core module and at least one sound module. The sound modules connect to the core with ribbon cables, these carry audio and control data to connect the system together giving you a single audio output for all modules. You can have up to three sound modules connected at one time.

The Starter Pack comprises a Core module and a Combi module, which we think is a really good way to start using Polytik.

POLYTIK MODULES:

Core (Blue) – A sequencer, programmer and mixer. YOU NEED TO HAVE THIS MODULE TO START, you can then add any or all of the other modules to expand your experience.

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Combi (Black) Voltage-controlled feedback, voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO) and filtering

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VCO (Red) Voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO) and voltage-controlled filter (VCF)

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Noise (Yellow) Noise generator, patchable feedback networks and voltage-controlled filter (VCF)

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For more information take a look at the Kickstarter page.

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KDJ-One is still a thing (apparently)

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It has to be said that the KDJ-One hasn’t been a real success since its Kickstarter campaign. It’s overdue, although that’s a bit on an understatement. However, it looks like it’s still coming along, and in the latest update there’s a new design and apparently this is what’s going forward.

Of course the end is not in site, there’s still a long way to go I think and it’s still not sure that the device will ever get delivered to backers. We live in hope of course.

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Stylophone GEN X-1 coming in May

Whatever you think of the Stylophone you can’t deny its place in mobile music history and that is a very significant place. Dubreq also brought us the Stylophone S2, and now the the Stylophone GEN X-1 is the latest portable analogue synthesizer by Dubreq. Estimated retail launch date is May 2017 with an anticipated RRP of (no more than) £59.99, which is pretty good I think.

If you watch the video above I think you’ll agree that this is a pretty nice noise maker. I’ll certainly be getting one in May. If you take a look at their page about the Gen X-1 you can register and get 20% off when it launches.

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Some first impressions of the Artiphon Instrument 1

I promised that I would write about the Artiphon Instrument 1. I thought I’d start with some photos of what it used to look like as a prototype. Of course, it’s quite different now and doesn’t have a bay for an iPhone, which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. However, it is essentially the same instrument.

The version that shipped from Artiphon’s Kickstarter campaign is a nice evolution of the original, and, on first impressions, is pretty easy to use.

What’s shipped may not look as beautiful as the original, but the shipped version is still rather lovely anyway. But more than that it works and works really well.

When I unpacked it and got it out of its box the first thing I noted is that it is really well presented. The packaging is protective and works and you’ll probably want to keep hold of the box just in case.

The instrument itself feels the right weight. It’s smaller than I’d had in my mind. It’s around the size of a ukulele or maybe slightly bigger. I’ve got the black one. The surface of the device is smooth and it feels nice to handle. Of course the most important thing is how it works and handles as an instrument and I’ll be coming on to that in just a moment.

What struck me first off was that it does actually feel like an instrument and not like a piece of digital technology that you’re going to have to learn how to use and isn’t immediately obvious. That might sound like a subtle distinction, but in my view it is an important one. It means that you feel, or at least I felt, like I could pick this instrument up straight away and get going with it, and that is exactly what I did.

So let’s move on to hooking it up to a device and getting going.

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The app that Artiphon have created to go along with their device is great for getting started, but if you’re a seasoned iOS music pro you’re going to get bored of these sounds very soon.

The app is very good for setting up how the instrument works though.

It gives you all the options for setting the tuning and layout of the instrument. Which is very useful in getting the thing to work how you want to.

Inside the app you can play with some basic instrument settings, although the sounds aren’t going set the world on fire, but the main thing is that you can set up MIDI here, and that’s where, for me, this instrument is going to be really useful. MIDI is very easy in the Artiphon app so you won’t have any issues I wouldn’t think.

After getting some sounds out of the thing I spent most of my time experimenting with playing with it and that’s what I’ll be sharing next.

What the ArtiPhon Instrument 1 is like to use:

I have to say, that even after just a brief time of playing with this instrument I can say that it’s a joy to use. It really is an instrument. I’m not much of a guitarist, but it does work well when you play it in guitar mode. In piano or keys mode it’s even more interesting and useful. I found that I could play and experiment with how the device worked with a variety of apps and sounds for ages as it was such a novel way of interfacing with apps.

I think that I’ve only scratched the surface with this instrument and it’s going to take a lot more interaction to get to a point where I can talk about where I think it really excels. However, I think it’ll be a lot of fun getting there.

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A first impression … ROTOR’s tangible controllers

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Reactable have a long history in creating innovative musical instruments, starting out with their original Reactable, moving to Reactable Mobile, and now with ROTOR and their accompanying controllers.

Of course tangible controllers for an iPad aren’t actually a new thing. In fact, two years ago Tuna DJ brought out their control knobs (you can see them here in this post). Enough of those for the moment.

When Reactable brought out their first mobile app it was a very different beast to the other modular apps around at the time. When they recently followed up with their new ROTOR app it was another big step, but not just a software step, one that they aimed to  provide users with an experience that is somewhere in between using the full hardware version of the reactable and an iPad app.

So the real question is, have they succeeded?

I’d say yes. In many ways. However, I’d also say that this is not a perfect solution, and if that’s what you’re seeking then you’re almost certainly looking in the wrong place. Before deciding whether the ROTOR tangible controllers are for you or not it’s worth understanding what to compare them against. A brand new Reactable will currently cost you 5900€ (that’s with an 800€ discount). A set of ROTOR controllers will set you back 39.90€, which is about 0.7% of the cost of a full Reactable. In my mind that’s a pretty good deal.

Personally, whilst I’d love to spend some time playing with a full Reactable, I’m more than satisfied with the new ROTOR controllers. I think that they represent excellent value for money.

Let’s move on to how they work and what you can do with them

I’ll start by saying that I think that the presentation of these is lovely. They come in a nice little round tin and are cushioned in foam. In my view presentation is important, and even though you’ve only paid less than 1% of the cost of a Reactable I still think that the whole experience is important.

When you get the controllers out they’re simple things, which initially made me wonder if they’d work at all. However, placing them on the ROTOR app, they work immediately. They will control any on screen ROTOR object.

One thing that quickly became apparent was that to use these controllers you absolutely need a flat surface to work from. Whilst I’ve not tried using these in a mobile environment (and by that I mean on a bus or a train), I’m fairly sure that they’re not going to perform at their best. Having said that, for indoor, flat surface use, they work better than you might expect.

But they are not perfect. And I think that it would be wrong to think that these little devices could be. They will slip and can change from controlling an object on screen to moving it around. In my view I think that with practice I could limit a lot of that slippage on the screen and end up being quite deft with these, but that would take a little time, and would be time well spent.

A quick try with the old Tuna DJ knobs

As I had mentioned them earlier I thought I’d give these older knobs a try out on the ROTOR app. Sadly they didn’t work at all which reminded me that I’d had trouble getting them to work originally. I can’t remember how much they cost so I can’t compare them to the ROTOR controllers.

My verdict …

If you’re looking for an inexpensive way to get an experience a little more like the full scale Reactable then the ROTOR controllers are worth it in my view as they cost less than 1% of the full device, and with a little time and practice I think they’ll be really useful.

If you think you’re going to get that full experience for 39€ then that’s a bit unrealistic and you probably shouldn’t bother.

Reactable’s controllers are on sale here, as is the ROTOR app itself:

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A first look at BLOCKS from Roli

Last week I spent a very pleasant couple of hours at Roli HQ in East London. You might remember Roli  as the maker of the expressive keyboard, the Seaboard, and more recently the Seaboard Rise. The technology behind these products is very interesting in its own right, but for the purposes of this piece I’m only really going to explore it from the perspective of their most recent product BLOCKS.

However, before we get into the detail of BLOCKS I think it’s worth understanding how Roli got here and the pieces that they’ve put together to make this happen. So I’m going to spend a little time in exploring some of the work that Roli have been involved in to get to BLOCKS. I hope you’ll find it useful.

Understanding the jigsaw, seeing the picture

Over the last few years Roli have made a series of acquisitions which, up until very recently, hadn’t made any sense to me at all. However, with the release of BLOCKS things start to come into focus a lot more. For example, Roli acquired JUCE back in late 2014. JUCE is a cross-platform C++ library used in a lot of music apps. This gave Roli a real advantage in building the iOS apps that they have on the store now. But JUCE isn’t something that they’re keeping to themselves. Roli have an annual JUCE event, The Audio Developers Conference. The last of these was held at the beginning of November and had around 250 delegates attending.

Just under a year later Roli acquired Blend.io, a collaborative music network which allows artists to share work and involve other artists in tracks. This of course gives Roli its own platform for sharing and collaboration.

Finally, and most recently Roli acquired FXpansion, makers of very high quality VST instruments and FX. Given the above and also Roli’s direction with BLOCKS this makes perfect sense.

When you connect all of these pieces together with their existing technology that powers the Seaboard it all starts to fit together, and when you get to use BLOCKS you can see exactly where this is heading.

From Seaboard to Noise

Just over a year ago Roli brought out their first app, NOISE 5D which enabled a user to take advantage of the brand new 3D Touch features in the iPhone 6S and 6S+. Releasing this as a free app gave Roli a great platform to show just what could be done with this kind of expressive technology.

The app also had the whole Seaboard sound engine (Equator) inside it. The app could pair with the Seaboard Rise using BLE and worked like a dream.

As an aside I’m still somewhat confused as to why more apps don’t make use of the 3D Touch functionality inside the 6S and up. It’s confused me for about a year now and as far as I know there are only a tiny handful of apps that have incorporated it, and two of those are from Roli themselves.

Let’s talk about BLOCKS itself

If you’ve seen photos or video of BLOCKS then you’ll already know that it’s a modular music studio that uses the same hardware technology that is in Roli’s Seabaord but in a smaller, more accessible, and affordable format. The basic hardware unit is the Lightpad which retails for £170. You can do a lot with just this unit, but of course you can scale up too, add more units and expand your set up. That’s the idea of course, and I think that when artists start to get to grips with the hardware they may well just do that. Whatever you buy you’re going to use their iOS app NOISE as that is what powers this stuff.

The Lightpad does just about everything that you can do in the app but with a much deeper layer of expression available to it by virtue of its pressure sensitive surface. The interaction with the app is seamless. When you press down on the Lightpad you can see what happens in the NOISE app. You can see what I mean in this short clip which shows the ‘learn’ function.

Every instrument in NOISE has a learn mode which shows you what the instrument does and how it works. When you’re running NOISE with a Lightpad this works even better, and as you can see from this short clip you can quite clearly see what you’re doing on the Lightpad from your iOS screen, and this includes pressure data too.

The Lightpad is paired directly with the iOS device, and pairs quickly and without issues, which is more than I can say for other BLE devices I’ve used. However, when you have two Lightpad units together you don’t need to form a second pairing (although you can and I’ll explain that later).

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Above you can see two Lightpads working together with the iOS device. When you magnetically clip one lightpad to another the connect over what Roli call DNA connectors. You can see these connectors around the sides of the device, and clipping them together means that are instantly sharing data and useable as a part of your set up. The connection to the iOS device is made via a single BLE pairing.

If you wanted to use multiple Lightpads over different pairings that is possible too, but the point I’m making is that you don’t need to worry about that if you’re working on something on your own. This makes for very flexible hardware configurations.

Some thoughts …

I have to say that the time I’ve spent playing with BLOCKS has been really enjoyable, and I think that the main reason for that is the level of expression that you can achieve with the surface. For many, myself included, having this degree of expressivity from a mobile device / set up will be quite a new experience, and I think that this is something that will distinguish BLOCKS for users.

It’s important to remember that Roli has only just released BLOCKS. It is perhaps a month old now, and in many ways is only at the start of its journey. Roli have made a very good start with the hardware, with the app, and, most importantly, with how the two work together. Which is critical in my opinion.

What’s next

When I was with Roli last week we did talk about the future. Of course they were cautious about talking future plans. That’s understandable. But we also talked about the community and how they’re responding to users. I think that the fact that they brought the original NOISE functionality back in a new app (see this post) can only be taken as a clear signal that they are listening, and that’s very positive.

They also have an API for BLOCKS, which I haven’t investigated so far, but could be a massive hook to increase adoption of the platform. More about that another time I think. For now I’m impressed with what Roli have brought out. It really is an accessible and affordable music platform. I think that Roli have made an excellent start. Where they go next with BLOCKS and with NOISE will be critical to making it a big success.