Friday, June 13, 2014

Archipelago part 1: Wind Chimes (Pianoteq 5)

Please check my new song which is made with brand-new Pianoteq 5 (Upright U4 model). There's an idea of using this song with video material from our beautiful archipelago.

https://soundcloud.com/eikkanepal/archipelago-part-1-wind-chimes


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Pianoteq 5 released!


I've been a big fan of Pianoteq since 2009. For those who don't already know, Pianoteq (PTQ) is a modeled piano software/plugin from French company Modartt and developer Philippe Guillaume. I have to admit that there were few years when I didn't practically touch PTQ at all. My Nord Stage 2 with all those quite nice sampled pianos was all I needed. Quite resently, some of my new musical ideas needed another type of piano sound, something which was outside my Nord's territory, I went back to check PTQ again. Luckily enough, same time I discovered that there was a new update available: Pianoteq 5.



Pianoteq 5 - a quick review:

First and most importantly, Pianoteq 5 seems to be a great improvement over version 4! It has more brightness and natural character of acoustic piano sound. If I A/B switch rapidly from my favorite (sampled) Nord piano sound to (modeled) PTQ, I can hear that there's still a difference in 'basic tone quality' between sampling and modeling but modeling has become little closer. To me this is a clear sign of improvement. With 'basic tone quality' I mean listening to individual notes played separately. I feel that modeling has still room for improvement for making it as warm and natural as it is in real life. On the other hand piano can sound very clear and punchy too; most often heard in pop, rock or jazzy situations. This ain't the best part of PTQ. Pianoteq is better for mellower sounds, more distant sounding concert hall pianos or cinematic piano sounds. But for that kind of tasks it's brilliant!

When listening to PTQ 5 I think there's one improvement over earlier versions: sound quality is more even all across the keyboard. I remember well that I have had hard time especially with PTQ's low mids area - going down from middle C and especially when played with forte or fortissimo. Still this low mids isn't the best part of the new model but it's not that artificial sounding anymore. In fact I have long felt that secret for finaly nailing 'it' lies in catching attack. Many PTQ users have asked for more 'woodiness' or whatever to call it. I believe Modartt should still pay more attention to the attack part of the puzzle. I strongly believe that this very first moment when hammer hits strings is very important for giving piano its personal sound. Of course, all this happens in a special acoustic space (wooden cabinet etc.).

Anyway piano sound isn't only individual basic notes which live in isolation. In fact piano is a complex structure where allmost all of its parts are affecting to other parts. It's all those complex hammer/damper/string interraction features where modeling clearly beats sampling. To get a better picture, just check this page: https://www.pianoteq.com/pianoteq5#new

Quite often lack of these features make sampled pianos sound 'sterile' or 'dead'. On the other hand, if modeling has improved in basic tone quality, it's fair to say that also sampled solutions have improved in this interraction area. Best sampled pianos have pedal down samples, pedal noises and even string resonance. How does they implement the latter, is not known to me. Is it somehow sampled or modeled? Anyway there's lot of feeling of whole piano resonating when you play PTQ and not that much when you play Nord (which have pedal down samples and 'string resonance'). PTQ feels like real piano and it's easy to understand why so many classical oriented players appraise it. In my opinion PTQ is best in solo piano, when it's easier to hear all these interaction features. On the other hand, band situations favor more punchy basic piano sound and this can be little difficult for mellower or more distant sounding PTQ. Fortunately there are great tools for adjusting the sound: hammer hardness, EQ, effects (compressor, reverb etc.) just to mention few. Still I have to admit that I wouldn't probably use PTQ for jazz piano trio recording at its current state. There are clearly limitations what kind of sounds you can get out of it and what not. With too much EQ, for example, it just gets unnatural.

Pianoteq Effects panel


One thing is sure. Pianoteq is fascinating way of learning things and just for having fun. You can play and record your perfomance with one piano and then listen to it with another. Using all those mic settings etc. you can really put it to another perspective. I have to admit that in these few years Pianoteq has taught me more about those features like string resonance and half pedaling than my acoustic Kawai. PTQ has opened my ears to listen to all those different things which make piano so special instrument. If you wanna dig into real classical stuff, you can experiment with different tunings or try to play Bach or Mozart with some historical instrument:

check: https://www.pianoteq.com/kremsegg1


Pianoteq and tuning possibilities



Couple of things deserve a special mention here. First: Pianoteq's user interface. It's just amazingly beautiful and so intuitive to work with. Everything is in right place and it looks marvellous. It has tons of features and parameters, but still it looks simple and not too technical. In my opinion this is very important for satisfying user experience. Second: Pianoteq user forum. I don't know any other software which has so devoted users and so lively forum. Developers are also interested to take part in those threads and all this gives you a nice feeling of things going further.

Pianoteq main User Interface


To sum it, I am so glad that Pianoteq story continues and I will definitely see what's the next step in this  evolution!

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!





Sunrizer

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: 
http://five12.com/n2.html

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.

DrumSeq 



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: http://five12.com/n3.html 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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ReWire). 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.



SUMMA SUMMARUM


PROS

(+) 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


CONS

(-) 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! 

http://www.five12.com


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!

http://www.arturia.com/evolution/en/products/spark/intro.html



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.















http://www.whitenoiseaudio.com

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
http://www.elektron.se


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