Saturday, March 22, 2014

World's Smallest Synth Studio?

What kind of a synth studio fits into this rucksack...?

Let's take a closer look what have we here…

First, there's a newest member of my family: Arturia Microbrute, a real analog synth with 25 mini keys. Then there's of course iPad, all those cables and powers supplies and also a small portable speaker.

To connect Microbrute to iPad you'll need a camera adapter (from Apple Camera Connection kit) and of course a USB cable.

Basically I needed a small MIDI controller for all my iPad synths and Microbrute was the best candidate because with this reasonable low price (little below 300 euros) you'll have a MIDI controller plus a real analog synth too!

Few of my favorite iOS synths at the moment:

Arturia iMini

(Minimoog Model D emulation)

Very intuitive, good quality sound and
beautiful graphics.

Arturia iSem

(Oberheim Sem emulation)

Similarly intuitive, good sound and nice GUI

This is best iOS synth for playing Van Halen's "Jump" for sure!


A modern (or digital) and very flexible synth. This one is "a little brother" of my Access Virus TI2. This is maybe the only synth which I could really use in my own productions which normally use my professional hardware (check My Gear if you like). It has personal sound…

Friday, February 21, 2014

Numerology 4 - part 2: review

Here's a little story of my own use of Five12 Numerology 4 Pro sequencer. If you wish to check only the main points (pros and cons), just go to the end and read my small review. And if you have anything to ask, correct or comment, don't hesitate to share it!

This post isn't trying to be a comprehensive review of Numerology. You can get more information on Five 12 website and on Numerology user forum too:

Starting with Numerology

I found Five12 Numerology mostly by accident. One fellow member from Nord User Forum told me about Numerology when I in fact tried his own small sequencer app for Nord Drum. It seems to me that Numerology isn't very widely known even it definitely should be. I am sure there are plenty of potential users who would like to have modern pattern sequencer with great work flow and flexibility. Numerology is obviously a "love child" from one man, developer James Coker, who is also very active on Numerology forum and quickly answering any questions privately via email. So with Numerology you can really expect things to develop and you may even have a chance to make your own contribution to this development. As said earlier, this is one major difference compared to iOS music apps, which develop painfully slow if they develop at all. When writing this (February 2014) Numerology 4 is still on public beta state and we are living interesting times to see what happens until the official 4 release.

Basically idea here is to describe my own use of Numerology which is perhaps little different from average users. In fact this is the major power of Numerology: this application is very flexible and you can make it fit into your personal needs. Just take those modules you need. It's also possible to make your own template-projects to make it easy to start with your next project. Do you want to have just one old-fashioned pattern sequencer for playing your hardware modular synth? Fine. Or perhaps you want to make a complete song with multiple tracks only using soft synths and plugin effects? That's fine too. Just remember that you cannot record all this in audio tracks or master it. Numerology isn't DAW.

Numerology 4 Pro start-up screen

Note sequencers

What I usually do with Numerology is to sequence my hardware synths via iConnect MIDI. So basically main my tools are those note sequencers, especially MonoNote, PolyNote and DrumSeq:

Note Sequencer modules

With MonoNote you can run mono patterns from any length from 1-128 steps and also send velocities, MIDI CCs etc. Step can represent anything from very small lenghts (e.g. 1/128 notes) to very long lenghts (e.g. two whole notes). There's also a chance to experiment with probabilities, "humanizing" parameters and let pattern evolve by itself based on predetermined rules. When you check all these features, you'll begin to realize how different this approach is compared to linear timeline sequencing.

MonoNote sequencer

PolyNote seq is quite similar as MonoNote, but it is "piano roll" style polyphonic seq. Main difference to Logic's Piano Roll (view) is that individual notes in a vertical line do not have individual velocities. This is something which I miss sometimes.

And finally here's DrumSeq which is configured to play my 6-channel (or 6-voice) Nord Drum 2. DrumSeq is simple but powerful tool for experimenting with groovy drum patterns. Those vertical red tabs represent different velocities from 0-127. This is very intuitive way of making beats. Then you just fine adjust tempo and Groove Amount (=swing ratio). Quite often my compositional process begins with experimenting drum beats and bass lines.


Stacks - putting modules together

Higher level structure a Numerology project is based on stacks: first stack is always a clock-stack which controls obviously clock related stuff: tempo, meter, Groove amount or special user defined groove and MIDI sync routing destinations. User can then make his/her own stacks and any stack can have practically as many modules that is needed. 

Example of stacks (pages with different colors in upper row) and Clock-stack 

You can also make (stack-) presets which save all data of the current stack (all parameter and note or CC valuers etc.). With those presets you can make multi-module patterns which are building blocks of your song or more or less improvised live performance. You can play (or trigger) presets freely or force them to follow a predetermined playlist.

Stack-presets and Playlist mode

Speaking a little about live performing there are few major improvements in Numerology 4 (still beta) over version 3: there are more options for quantizing jumping from a preset to another and also a chance to play indefinite loops. We also got "an exit loop button" which relases loop when it's pressed. To be honest there are still few issues to fix to make these new features 100% usable. Despite these issues I can already make many nice things that was impossible with N3: I can make song forms with loops from 1 to 32 bars (or more) and loop them as long as I like. Then when I want to move to a following song section I just press this exit loop button in any place of an ongoing loop. Sounds simple? Well in fact it is, but surprisingly few sequencers can do this. Probably there are few but personally I haven't met any. I must also say that after N4 came available I even sold my Elektron Monomachine. I had no use for it anymore cause with Numerology I could do all the same (well, at least almost) and much more and much more easily.

Few minor specialities

Of course, above I just scratched surface about what can be done with Numerology. I must admit that there are many modules which I don't understand at all the the moment. Probably there are also modules and features that I'll never use. But that's just great: I know there's so much to learn. Or if you wish, you can keep it very simple. Here in this final section I'll just throw out some ideas which I have come up with Numerology.

First, Numerology can serve as a simple "Program Change sender". This is can be very useful on stage with multi-synth setup. The simplest way to do this is to first make a stack with (as many as you need) Program Change modules and route them to some MIDI Bus. Then you need to make stacks which route this MIDI Bus data to predetermined Midi Outs. Now with first stack you can make presets which send all this MIDI data at once to all your synths. When you trigger song X on your playlist (or should we say "set list") you'll get your right sounds immediately. Before Numerology I used "Set List Maker" app for iOS but now it's quite useless, cause Numerology is there anyway.

Stack with three Program Change modules

Above I have mostly talked about note sequencers. It's important to point that there are so many other modules to experiment with (again, check: to read more or just download a demo and test it yourself!). I use for example ModulationSeq (one type of CV Sequencers) routed to some MIDI CC parameter like modulation wheel (CC #1) etc. With ModulationSeq you can loop your pattern while you experiment with some curve which affects some synth parameter (typically filter cutoff or resonance). All this is of course possible in Logic for example, but in Numerology everything goes so intuitively and smoothly.

In this example ModulationSeq is routed to PitchBender module:

One more thing deserves a special mention here: routing MIDI and CV (control voltage) data. Probably it's because of my lack of knowledge, but I've always had some trouble with managing MIDI routing in Logic. I suspect that I don't understand its logic completely. But when I started with Numerology I was amazed how easy it was configure my MIDI-setup. And when this is done, it was so easy to draw (yes, it's really done that way with mouse) those routings from modules (MIDI/CV in and out) anywhere I want. Here's an example how it's done:

Last topic here is about using Numerology 4 with other programs like Logic. There are in fact several options here: 
(1) you can use it as a AU plugin. I must admit here that I haven't used it this way much but (if I remember right) it's very limited compared to standalone version. (By the way, there is something interesting happening at the moment when v4 is evolving: you can use it as a MIDI FX in Logic X in OS X Maverick).
(2) You can record stacks (etc.) to MIDI clips. This is very handy if your main composition takes place in DAW. Still you can have both applications open and compose your music with both simultaneously! This way all the MIDI timing happens in one place and it's easier to keep it in sync. In N4 you'll get new MIDI clip options and you can even drag-and-drop clips straight to another application. 
(3) ReWire technology (Wiki: If I just first open Logic and then Numerology those two apps go into ReWire mode where Logic acts as a host and Numerology as a slave. Simple as that. When you press play both apps will start playback. With this approach you can play audio- or more SMF (Standard MIDI file) type of tracks from Logic and patterns from Numerology. This combination is really Best of Both Worlds! I really don't miss Ableton Live at all.



(+) Numerology is great help in whole creative process from searching for first idea to arranging it to a complete song to live stage playing.

(+) Its approach is non-linear pattern sequencer but it goes SO far beyond these old fashioned pattern sequencers. It gives you a nice alternative to linear timeline sequencers or DAWs.

(+) It's very easy to start with: MIDI configuration is easy, routing is very intuitive.

(+) It's very flexible: practically there are no limits how many modules or stacks you can combine. This makes it so much more powerful than most hardware sequencers like Elektrons. But if you wish, you can keep it very simple too.

(+) It can be your sequencer solution on stage too! I have used it on many gigs for managing my presets (sending Program Change messages to my synths), sending MIDI sync and of course playing some sequences. I am happy that I can count on this system! (Well, there have been two or three crashes, but then I just re-open the app and rock and roll. Fortunately start-up goes quite quickly…)

(+) Many possibilities to integrate it to other programs: AU Plugin, export MIDI clips, ReWire


(-) There are still some minor bugs which can puzzle me sometimes. Fortunately developer James Coker is listening and you get a feeling that things are really developing.

(-) There are few things which would make its use much more powerful: some users have asked for cut/copy/paste -approach to editing. I agree with them. Personally I wouldn't mind having more options for adjusting visual GUI, more options for Preset Playlist mode and Standard MIDI File player module. And as said above, PolynoteSeq could also have individual note velocities.

We aren't living in a perfect world so maybe it's not fair to ask for a perfect Numerology either. Especially because it's a creation of one man. All this being said we are getting closer and closer...

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Numerology 4 - Part 1: a search for a MIDI sequencer

In this small series of blog posts I will write a little about Five 12 Numerology 4 MIDI sequencer for mac. First I must say Numerology is really dream come true for me. Before going into details about Numerology I'll tell you how did I end up here where I am now: what are my basic demands for a sequencer and what did I try before finding Numerology. 

Stay tuned!

I've used Logic Pro quite many years now but I've allways felt that something is missing when I'd like compose new music or just experiment with musical ideas. When it's about starting from zero or "clear table", I kind of like more non-linear pattern seq approach than linear timeline DAW like approach. I like to start with beats and then fine tune nuances like note lenghts, rhythmic accents, swing ratio and also play with synth parameters like filter cutoff and resonance. This being said eventually my compositions will become so complex that simple old fashioned pattern sequencer cannot handle them. I am also a live stage musician and I'd really like integrate my compositional process to live stage usage.

Before I found Numerology there were few candidates for taking these challenges. There's of course Ableton Live which I downloaded as a demo couple of times. Still I did not move to Ableton for few reasons; mainly because it was quite expensive and also because there were some problems with my hardware (most likely because my lack of knowledge). Allready having Logic I wanted to search for simpler MIDI sequencer to just play my hardware. Logic still plays a major role when I move from compositional stage to more recording phase of the project. With Numerology you cannot record or edit MIDI tracks and its audio recording / editing possibilities are limited. It not a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation).

Arturia Spark MIDI controller
Arturia Spark was kind of a solution for a while but it was obvious that it could not sequence MIDI and there was no enough spark for me after all. I still have the software and it still has value to me as a drum library. But let's see, Arturia has announced that Spark 2 is coming on March 2014!

Then I had a short period with iOS: I was excited about the idea of small and portable but yet usable touch screen device for sequencing my music. After quite thorough search there was one seq app which seemed promising to fullfill my needs: Genome MIDI sequencer made by David Wallin. Genome isn't trying to be all-in-one iOS DAW, it's only MIDI sequencer. It's pattern based but also cabable of dealing with more complex song structures. So what was wrong then? To be honest, it was very promising then and it still is but sadly there's no real development happening. There were some instability (frequent app crashes), obvious bugs and too many places to improve in general. I gave few suggestions on their forum but it became obvious that you'll have to wait forever. I think the reason is that MIDI app development simply isn't good enough business to put that much personal time by those developers. Are those apps too cheap? I would happily put 50 or even 100 euros for really powerful and bugfree, liable seq app. Well, if I hadn't allready have Numerology. But if you still search for a MIDI seq for iOS, Genome might be worth checking. It's perhaps just perfect for you. I really hope future proves me wrong and Genome will realize that great potential which it obviously has.

Story goes on. Next I thought that the most liable sequencer solution would be hardware based and so I went to buy a second hand Elektron Monomachine. This became my compositional tool and live seq for couple of months. And probably it would still be that if I hadn't found Numerology. Elektrons have good reputation as a tight seq and you have lot knobs and live controllability. I won't go into details here but to my surprise there were also some strange bugs. So after all things were not allways running so smoothly and Elektron hardware seq wasn't 100% liable. Still the main reason for continuing my search was that composing melodies and harmonies was just too time consuming to be effective. For example, Monomachine cannot record patterns via MIDI so you have to type them manually. This can be little frustrating to keyboard player like me.
Elektron Monomachine

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Gotland island (Sweden)
Baltic Sea Adventure 2013: Sailing to Gotland on Youtube

Check this great sailing video which has my modern electronic music sound track!

This music was first made with amazing Numerology 4 sequencer and then finally constructed with Logic Pro. Synths I used were all my hardware: Arturia Origin, Virus TI2, Nord Drum 2 and Nord Stage.

My Korg Radias Story

Korg Radias with DIY wooden ends

My Korg Radias story

and about finding its place in my cellar

A reason for me to buy Radias on 2012 was to broaden the synth sound palette which was mainly based to my Origin. Origin is a great piece of art itself, but it has limits especially in producing modern sounds. For example, Origin has no supersaw oscillator and also its effects miss some qualities to make this kind of huge power synths which you hear in so many records nowadays. Just listen to David Guetta's songs, to see what I mean. In fact I had quite nice results when combining those two - Radias and Origin. They were nicely complementing each others weaknesses and I got quite powerful sounds when I layered those two together.

      Radias gives you many thing which you don't get from Origin. First, you can get a decent "supersaw" from it by using its unison mode(s). It has a lot of synth & drum PCM waveforms too. One of the best parts of Radias is its step sequencer and arpeggiator. With its good computer editor program it is easy to make drum beats and bass lines and those sync nicely together. In fact, I routed Radias' MIDI clock also into the Origin to make this whole system to sync together. This worked great. (iConnect MIDI did a great job here.) On the other hand, Radias is kind of a futuristic-digital-analog modelling-trance synth, which is criticized to lack some power or sounding thin. As a long time Origin user, I can confirm these claims to a certain extent. It seems to me that I cannot get same "analog" punch from Radias, which I get from Origin.

     This usage - combining Radias and Origin - changed on 2013 when I bought my Virus TI2. I must say that when it's about producing modern sounds Virus has so much more power and character. Suddenly my Radias seemed to be without use in my setup. I even started to sell it away. Now, in the beginning of 2014, I am so glad I could not find a buyer at that moment and I decided to keep it. Strangely this synth also had some special emotional value to me. On year 2013 I built my own wooden ends (check picture above) to make it look more like a desktop module. These wooden ends also made it more stable and put it to better angle for using it. At the moment it seems to me that Origin and Virus make the core of my synth sound. Is there still room for Radias? In fact there is: it has a great Vocoder! Now when I realized this I think I will never sell it away...

Check Radias Vocoder in action:

Radias vs. Microkorg XL ?

Radias and Microkorg have lot in common. In fact they basically share same synth engine; Microkorg XL is build upon Radias' architecture. Well, to be honest, compared to its big brother Microkorg can feel more like a toy. But it can be very useful too, because of its compact size. One good thing is its keyboard; it's surprisingly easy and fun to play. Soundwise it's quite similar to Radias, but it's much more limited. Here's a little comparison about main differences:

There was a time (2012) when I had them both and in fact I combined them as a special "Korg Hybrid" (Microkorg as a Radias controller):

My "KORG HYBRID" in action

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Musikmesse 2012 in Frankfurt

Thanks to support from our Turku Music School  (Turun seudun musiikkiopisto)  me and my two colleagues were able to visit Musikmesse 2012 in Frankfurt (March 22 to 24). This kind of huge happening gives you a great general idea what's happening in the music business and in the music technology at the moment. Here are some pictures from our nice trip and my personal impressions of this big music happening. As a keyboard player my point of view is naturally very much about keyboards.

Frankfurt as modern city 
Friday morning in Frankfurt - weather is perfect for a walk from our hotel to Messe area.

Agora Stage - the main arena for live gigs

Musikmesse has a constant flow of live gigs. The main "menu" was served in Agora Stage, a big tent in the middle of Messe area.

Here we are listening to JoJo Mayer, a highly acclaimed Swiss drummer.

Future of the midi controller? This keyboard looks quite normal but in fact every key has a touch sensitive surface, something like a trackpad we use in laptops. Sliding your finger(s) on this surface gives you a new way to control practically anything (pitch, filter etc.).

Another common thing to notice: where and whenever you see high music technology, there's also a mac involved. In music are we already living in a post-pc world (provocative term from Apple chief Tim Cook)? In Frankfurt there was another Apple device which seems to be there more or less permanently: iPad. There are countless new products which physically integrate to iPad: midi controllers, mixers, effect processors, multitrack recording systems etc. It seems reasonable to many companies: instead of developing completely own touch screen products, they simply put this already high tech product into their own product. For example Alesis seems to have taken this approach seriously. Check their new i-products to see what I mean:

Akai MAX49 midi controller
Speaking about touch pads or panels, this brand new Akai MAX49 has nice virtual drawbars which are made with touchpad technology. In my opinion this was the most promising new MIDI controller of all those brands I tested (Novation, M-audio, Cakewalk etc.). MAX49 feels sturdy and keyboard action is nicely semiweighted.

Of course, my very short meeting with MAX49 did not give an idea how well it integrates to computer environment or different live setups.

And only thing I don't really like is its color, it's different red than my Nords so they won't go well together...
More info here:

Hammond Sk1
Nord C2D
We can clearly see that there's an ongoing battle  who makes the best digital organ. I had a chance to play new Nord Electro 4d (with real drawbars), Hammond Sk1 and Studiologic Numa Organ. From these three Nord is a winner to me.

Clavia's flagship organ model, Nord C2d presented by swedish organist Pierre Swärd.

"Good Old Times meet the present"

One of the most memorable things at the Messe to myself was a chance to play those old vintage analog synths in Synthesizer Magazin's booth:

Old vintage synths booth

Korg Mono/Poly from 1981

Arturia Minibrute (shipping on April 2012)

As a long time Arturia user, to me this brand new fully analog synth was one of the most interesting products. But to be honest, I don't know what to think about it: sound was maybe too aggressive or brute to meet my aesthetics. Also, keyboard action was a disappointment: it was far too loose to my fingers.

Waldorf Zarenbourg in two colours
From all those new products, one deserves a special mention here: Waldorf Zarenbourg. It looks something like a real Rhodes or Wurlizer and so it's big and heavy. My first question to guy who represented it was to ask, why it's so big. Answer is that Zarenborough has a three-way speaker system with subwoofer inside the case. This system simply needs space. Of course this setup has good and not so good consequences: it has quite nice and powerful sound itself, but it's clearly not the most portable digital piano.

How about the sound and playability? This was the best part of it. Unfortunately I had not too much time with this product, but its e-piano (Rhodes & Wurly) was just amazing playing experience. I was told that those e-pianos are completely modeled, so that is a quite achievement. At home I have two modeled software e-pianos, Lounge Lizard and Pianoteq, but Waldorf plays in completely another league. I might say that this was the best digital Rhodes I've ever played including all those sampled and modeled products. I certainly hope I can sometime spend little more time with this beast. If I had to say something critical about it, maybe it did not have the best overdrive. This can be a minus for trying to make it rock. Also, I have no clear opinion its other sounds - especially sampled acoustic piano. Maybe it was quite average quality, I don't know (I was too much excited about those marvellous e-pianos).

More info about Waldorf Zarenbourg here:

HK audio Elements line array PA-system
Future seems to be world of small and portable line array PA-systems. Bose has their L1 series, but there are also HK audio's Elements -series (picture) and some other companies too. When I listened to these PA demos, two things came to my mind: First, they sound very good. Period. Second, how do these small systems perform in bigger spaces and with bigger groups? Can those systems meet bigger challenges than a duo...?

...and finally, you cannot say you were there in Frankfurt without seeing river Maine...
Johan and I having "AfterMesse" on Friday evening
(Picture by Tarmo, 3rd member of our delegation)

...and also having beer or two in a local Trink House.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

My dream of Spark drum machine

Arturia Spark hybrid drum machine

I've been messing with Arturia Spark drum machine for some months now. It's has became my daily practice partner as a keyboard player and necessary tool for producing new material and testing some new ideas. I must say I really enjoy using this product and I am very happy to have it in my cellar.

But if we go back to basics and think what is the main concept of Spark, I'd say that it is much about its hybrid approach: you should be able to use Spark (with your computer of course) like an independent drum machine. More you can do with just its dedicated controller the better. On live stage situation drummer (for example) would like control it by just using its controller: loading songs and patterns, making and controlling beats and sounds etc. It could be a very powerful beast in music performance in different styles (from experimental to dance music and everything between).

Since the very beginning with my Spark, I've been thinking about its potential as a kind of MIDI sequencer and controller of other hardware or software devices. Developing its own Standalone program would make it a kind of a general midi-performance controller on live stage. Here's my main idea how Arturia should develop Spark to make it a professional performance and composition tool on its own, without any DAW:
  • Spark has a step sequencer in which you can put together your drum patterns. It has also some synth sounds - basses and leads for example - which you can integrate into these beats. To be honest, these synth sounds are just a little extra; most of us probably have better sounds in our rig. Personally I have my Arturia Origin, my Nords and all the other soft synths too. Spark has physical MIDI outs, so in principle it has capability to send midi messages out. To use this potential, Spark step sequencer should have possibility to command some external MIDI-devices. In other words it should be able to send midi messages (note on/off, velocities and time sync) and play for example basses or leads from any hardware synth. It would be also nice if you could integrate some other Arturia V-series soft synth to this step sequencer. Other question is that how you implement these "external midi patterns or tracks". Of course it would be great to be able to record them from your midi-keyboard like you do in normal MIDI-sequencer. This means that Spark sequencer could record different note values, different velocities and also note lengths (note on/off messages) and perhaps even chords. All this means of course lot of thinking and programming for Arturia team. Anyway at the moment it would be just great to have at least simple "external midi patterns" integrated to Spark step sequencer.

Spark Step sequencer

  • To be a great tool for live usage or to be hybrid drum machine on its own, other thing to develop is Spark's virtual Mixer. This mixer should really have a chance to use all outputs of your sound card. Because it is a virtual mixer you could have as many auxes that you need and then route them how you like. For example, on live stage drummer might wanna hear some special click pattern (track) and/or special mix for a bass drum for example. From your soundcard you could then send this special aux x mix from output x. At the moment Spark mixer have just 2 auxes for effects.

Spark Mixer