The Linnstrument: Not a Great Instrument?

The electronic music interwebs are starting to rev their engines for Roger Linn’s new Linnstrument. And as much as I love the sound of a LinnDrum snare (and believe me, I love the sound of a LinnDrum snare), I just can’t get myself excited about this particular instrument. With its overlays and one-size-fits-all approach, Roger’s new instrument tries to be a grid, a piano, a drum pad, a guitar, and hexagonal controller all in one. And because of that, it fails on all counts. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say I don’t think anyone has yet invented a truly playable and expressive controller instrument (though the Haken Continuum comes close). I think I’ve figured out why, and it has nothing to do with the limitations of synthesizers or computers: Physical specialization. Or, more specifically, the total lack thereof.

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Back Up Here, Back Up There, Back Up Your Data Everywhere

Unlike most of the computing public—whose crucial data consists of email, Word documents, and maybe an iPhoto or iTunes library—musicians and other digital artists can quickly accumulate multiple terabytes of MOVs and RAWs and WAVs. And with all that data comes great responsibility. Namely: What are you gonna do when your hard drives die? (And yes, they will die.) Luckily, surprisingly affordable solutions exist today that can turn “I’m hosed” into “no big deal”: All you have to do is pop in a new drive, restore over a lunch break, and resume where you left off.

A wise man once said, “Data doesn’t exist unless it’s on three drives, in two different locations.” Meaning, a single hard drive or a lone iCloud backup isn’t going to cut it for anything that’s valuable (or should I say invaluable?). I’ve tried many solutions over the years, always valuing simple, comprehensive, and frictionless solutions that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Here’s what’s worked for me.

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The New Mac Pro Looks Impressive, but Who’s Going to Buy It? or: Is This Thing Any Good for Musicians?

Peter Kirn susses out the new Mac Pro:

The US$2999 “entry-level” model is already a hefty machine, with 3.7GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon E5 processor and 12GB of 1866MHz DDR3 ECC memory. (Now, admittedly, you’re likely to be happier with the pricing if you’re buying the US-assembled machine in North America; Europe, for instance, does appear to pay an additional premium beyond just VAT at 2.999€.)

If you have a bunch of PCI cards you’re happy with that you want to migrate, then the Mac Pro is a non-starter, it’s true. But if you were building a new studio machine and outboard rig, it’s clear that this is the machine to drool over.

I agree. If your entire workflow is based around a PCI based system, don’t buy one. But I personally don’t see the lack of slots as a deal breaker. Given the crazy amount of real-time processing this thing can perform on 4K video, I think the concept of offloading audio processing to dedicated processing chips (on PCI cards or otherwise), or needing to use PCI for multi-channel audio I/O, will seem awfully anachronistic a few years down the road. Things have been heading in the direction of native systems for years.

A big question remains: Will it be possible for audio applications to take advantage of the extra processing chips this new Mac Pro offers, namely the two very powerful GPUs included in every machine? And if it is possible, will the software makers decide to support it?

Avid’s S6 Looks Impressive, but Who’s Going to Buy It?

That giant hole I mentioned a while back in the control surface market? Still there.

Avid’s S6 is state of the art. Modular. Beautiful. And brutally expensive. A big row of quality faders is 95% of what I want in a control surface, and the least expensive S6 costs $2,750 per fader. That’s crazy. Any way you dress it up, the S6 still just a big mouse. A sleek, black, shiny mouse plastered with OLED displays—but a mouse nonetheless.

Yes, Hollywood movies will be mixed on these. And big fancy studios will buy one to impress their clients. For my own needs, however, I will restate my former wish list: Don’t give me mic preamps, extraneous I/O, or digital mixers. Same goes for touchscreens, a rainbow of scrolling waveforms, or a separate button for every last Pro Tools keyboard shortcut. (Just because we can have these things, doesn’t mean we should.) Give me 24+ faders, a handful of knobs for panning and sending, and a simple master section, and I’m happy. Sell it for an affordable price, and I’m sold.

MacWorld Benchmarks a Hackintosh

MacWorld confirms what a lot of Mac folks have known for a long time now:

Our custom-built OS X computer was faster than the $2499 Mac Pro in all 15 of the individual tests that make up Speedmark 8: Overall, it was 23 percent faster than the Mac Pro. A few of the tests were close; exporting an iMovie project was only 4 percent faster on the Bride of Frankenmac than on the Mac Pro. Unzipping a large file archive was 9 percent faster, and running our Photoshop action script was 10 percent faster.

They do offer some caveats regarding compatibility of parts and the lack of an “umbrella warranty”. Regarding the video card: A quick Google search before the build would have negated that issue. Regarding the warranty: The fact that I can easily, quickly, and inexpensively replace just about any part in my computer (which I’ve not yet had to do, knock on wood) is a powerful counterargument to a machine made exclusively with proprietary, pricey, and hard-to-get parts.

Avid Teases a New Control Surface

There’s been a giant hole in the control surface market for the last 10 years, exemplified by Avid’s own product line: It offers 8-channel control surfaces that, while handy at times, aren’t a comprehensive solution by any means; 24-channel surfaces with a bunch of preamps that no one wants to pay for; and overpriced, $100,000 monsters with two billion knobs and cutting edge features such as six-character scribble strips.

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Relative Fidelity

Justin Colletti at the always excellent Trust Me I’m a Scientist on appreciating the sonic golden age we’re living in:

While it’s true that low res MP3s, YouTube clips, and earbuds can sound worse than some of the best gear of years past, there are actually many cases in which they sound better.

Whaaaaa? Yes. You read that right. If you’re confused, you are not alone. Read on.

More Reason to Go Hackintosh?

Marco Arment takes a close look at Intel chip prices and concludes:

I’d be very surprised to see the new Mac Pro’s entry price below $3,500, and for a CPU that makes the Mac Pro barrier worth crossing, I think we’re talking $5,000 and up.

Unless the major DAWs commit to harnessing the processing power of the new Mac Pro’s dual GPUs (which is likely highly dependent on how easy Apple makes it for developers to do so), it’s going to be very hard to convince many musicians and studio owners to shell out $5K for modest performance gains. Curious to see how this all shakes out.

Pro Audio on a Hackintosh

It was 2009 and I desperately needed a new Mac. My G5 tower was showing its age and woefully underpowered, not to mention being officially phased out by Apple. After crunching the numbers, I concluded that if I were to buy a Mac Pro (sadly, audio and video pros are the last two holdouts who still need the extra horsepower and drive bays of a desktop tower), I was essentially buying a $1,250 computer in a $1,250 case. When my G5’s power supply failed, and I found out that replacing it would have cost almost exactly what the entire computer was worth, my mind was made up: Hac Pro or bust.

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Thank You, Kush Audio, For The Best EULA Ever


Native Instruments Dialog Fail MkII

Cool! Thanks for the advice, Battery! I will do that!


Native Instruments Dialog Fail

Don’t know what I like better: The hedging of bets, or the lack of punctuation. Feels like a disgruntled text message.


This Picture Will Make Your Mixes Sound Better


To experience the magic for yourself, first set up this image to be your computer’s screen saver1, with either a hot corner or keyboard shortcut to trigger it. Then, whenever you need to get a fresh perspective on a mix, fire up the darkness.2

I’ll give you five bucks if your mix doesn’t instantly reveal itself (for better or for worse). Just as we “eat with our eyes,” this little trick makes it quite obvious that we hear with them as well. There’s something almost magical that happens when the pixelated waveforms disappear, as if the sound suddenly starts coming not from your DAW, but from directly from the speakers. The best part: Years after I’ve started using this brain hack, it still works.

  1. Of course, this assumes you’re mixing in front of a computer—an increasingly safe bet these days.
  2. Yes, you could just turn off your monitor, but I, like many, prefer to work fast and from the gut when I’m mixing—so the four second lag it takes to power on my Dell display to tweak that guitar EQ is a first world bummer I can do without. Also: iMacs and laptops would otherwise be outta luck.

Sibelius Outcasts Up The Ante

Didn’t see this twist coming:

Our mission is simple: to create a next-generation application that meets the needs of today’s composers, arrangers, engravers, copyists, publishers, teachers and students. We know we have a big mountain to climb: we’re starting work on a new professional-level application for Windows and Mac (and hopefully mobile devices later on) and looking to bring it into a crowded market that already has two very capable and mature competitors, not to mention an explosion of new products that exploit mobile devices and the web.

(Via Peter Kirn.)

ABX Whiskey Testing

Marvel Bar’s Pip Hanson is obsessed and skeptical, and that’s a wonderful thing if you’re fond of whiskey:

Since then they’ve been quietly growing their whiskey collection, which now exceeds 150. As they’ve done with all of their spirits, they’ve only added a whiskey to their list based on its performance in blind tastings. “As it turns out, some of the stuff we like is very obscure and some of it is very mainstream,” says Hanson.

The list is currently heavy on bourbon and scotch, with a dozen ryes and a few Japanese single malts in the mix. The trick for Hanson became how to present them all with the same thoughtful and detailed manner they use for mixed drinks. So he undertook an excruciating quest to catalog all of his whiskeys’ manufacturing details.

It has resulted in one of the most data-rich spirit lists we’ve seen anywhere in town. Marvel now chronicles each whiskey along with details including how long it was aged, the grains in the mashbill, the toast level on its barrels, its proof, and who distills it. They’re attempting to strike at the heart of connoisseurship: to give people enough information to help them figure out what they like and what they don’t.

“It’s hard to understand whiskey if you don’t know how it’s made,” says Hanson. “We wanted to cut through the marketing stories where they aren’t relevant, instead focusing on what goes in to them and how that affects them… mashbill information, sherry finishes or peat levels, or if it’s chill-filtered. That’s the info that helps us wrap our heads around these whiskeys, not a label note that says it tastes like honeysuckle.”

Neil Young, Meet Harry Nyquist

Christopher “Monty” Montgomery on why 192 kHz is the opposite of a good idea:

Why push back against 24/192? Because it’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, a business model based on willful ignorance and scamming people. The more that pseudoscience goes unchecked in the world at large, the harder it is for truth to overcome truthiness…even if this is a small and relatively insignificant example.

Analog vs. Digital? You’re Missing the Point

A thoughtful and novel take from PBS on the never-ending audio format debate. (In fact, this whole series looks pretty promising.)

Keep the performance in play

John Hampton (not to be confused with Scott Hampton) in Tape Op, on the extra-sonic benefits of analog recording:

Going back to analog is making me a happy guy…. For performers with analog it’s, “Guess what dude, you have to sing it.” I’m not going to cut and paste your vocal. You have to sing it.

Scott Solter in Trust Me I’m a Scientist:

Solter, who has worked extensively with analog tape, praises the inherent restrictions of that medium. “You have to start making confident, and in some cases, final decisions in the moment as you’re working; Things like submixing, to free up new tracks, really cause people to live very clearly in the moment with the work that they’re doing.”

“Sometimes the computer, because you can keep documenting without any consequence, pushes a lot of crucial decision-making back in the process. Then, all of a sudden, you get to mixing, and you’ve got, like, 80 tracks…There’s something cool about really committing to stuff…It makes people pay attention—it really does. It’s kind of sad that it’s taken on a negative quality – [when I] think it’s actually a positive quality.”

He remembers an anecdote about composer Morton Feldman, who, late in his career, did all his composing in pen. “It made him think longer and harder about the decisions he was making.”

Like I said: The biggest advantage of recording to tape comes from the commitment to performance (and decision making) that it demands. But how can those of us without a Studer sitting in the corner get some of those benefits? One idea: Throw playlists/take management out the window, turn off your big screen, and control everything with something like this. Or even simpler: Remove your inserts and sends from your mix window view, throw your edit window on a second screen, then turn that screen off.

It’s The Little Things In Life

I spend most of my days in Pro Tools, but more and more often I’ve been firing up Ableton Live when a project calls for the kind of compositional workflow that it inspires.

Ableton Live External Audio EffectI recently fired up the External Audio Effect device for the first time in a long time, and was kindly reminded why I love Ableton: Even though they often throw in the kitchen sink features-wise, it rarely feels that way. Compared to a plain jane, zero-options hardware insert in Pro Tools, Ableton’s implementation literally has infinitely more features, yet because of the logical and minimalist UI, it never feels bloated or overkill.

Separate ins and outs, built-in peak values, phase invert, hardware latency compensation, dry/wet control, pre- and post-insert gain—all in one small, simple package. Avid: I don’t know much about AAX development, but this seems like the kind of thing you could whip up in a day (after all, it’s basically a mash-up of Trim and Time Adjuster, plus a dry/wet knob), and I guarantee your users would love it.

Practice Makes Better

Larry Crane in Tape Op:

Do people assume that the studio can “do more” for them these days? I think so. Even an artist who might scoff at highly polished, edited, Auto-Tuned “pop star” vocals might keep the concept that we can “fix everything in a computer” in his or her thoughts. Thus, in many people’s minds, the professional recording studio has become a place where magic really does happen, or at least the potential for magic could happen. But I find that most people I record really do want to hone their craft, give performances, and create compelling art. Sure, in most cases we could “get it done” with the (Pro) tools at hand, but what kind of document is that? A series of ragged performances stitched together with creative edits and pitch alteration? Why not start with a compelling performance? I can guarantee that listeners will know the difference and positively respond to the latter.

Beyond the artistic concerns Larry cites, fixing things with a computer mouse is also simply a waste of time and money (not to mention incredibly boring). Whenever I’m working with a new band or artist, I try to impress upon them that every hour they spend preparing (whether at home, in front of an audience, or even—gasp!—in private lessons) will save them at least the same amount of time in the studio. And just because it’s possible to fix things after the fact when recording in a DAW, do whatever it takes to trick yourself into thinking otherwise. I’ve always believed that the biggest sonic benefit of recording to tape comes from the commitment to performance that it demands.

All Buttons In

Chris Randall on the limits of skuemorphism:

My opinion on the matter is that when you are first presented with a piece of software, if that software’s user interface follows some real-world gear, you concentrate on the things it can’t do, or the reasons it doesn’t sound like the “real thing.” If, on the other hand, it is unique to the software, you spend your time figuring out what it can do, while you learn how to use it.

‘Lergic to Logic

Today I needed to do a couple very basic session-prep tasks in Logic Pro: consolidate a few tracks of edited audio, and convert a stereo audio file to mono. Turns out, both of those functions are impossible to do (at least in a simple, straightforward way) in Logic. I swear it took me a half hour to get through what would have taken me literally one minute to do in Pro Tools or Ableton Live. Even now that I know how to do perform those tasks, it’d still take me five times as long. In one of many Google searches I performed in my struggles, I found this gem:

i swear, put the logic developers in a room with people who actually cut records for a living for a day with a notepad and a whole lot of coffee and logic would be without a doubt the coolest goddamn thing ever invented in audio. its so close to perfection, but they always seem to aim too high on new features and wind up neglecting the basic functionality/fixing bugs.

Sounds about right.

Native Instruments Installation Fail MkII

Hey Native Instruments: Is this really the best way to handle software upgrades? I’m gonna say no. Bye-bye, afternoon.

Salvage Custom Pedalboards

Nothing to go on but pictures, but holy crap these are beautiful pedalboards. Handily beats my homemade spray-painted-plywood-and-door-stop creation I’ve been lugging around for a few years. I’d love to see pictures or video from his workshop.

Native Instruments Installation Fail: Exhibit A

Just purchased Komplete 8 Ultimate (see previous post) and found this gem (as well as several others) in the obligatory installation readme.txt:

In case you don’t see a Komplete 8 Ultimate entry in the Service Center’s Activate tab, re-start the Service Center, but not from any of the Native Instrument applications: find the Service Center executable in the Finder (on Mac OS X) or the Explorer (on Windows) and start it directly via double-click.

Don’t know about you, but if I was a software developer, this kind of caveat would keep me up at night. They might as well have simply written, “Hey users! We know you haven’t actually used our software yet, but just a heads up that it’s half baked. You know, bugs and workarounds and stuff. But have fun.”

That said—and forgetting the fact the name “Komplete Ultimate” sounds like the spendiest option at a full service car wash—once you get it all rolling, my experience with NI products has been pretty smooth sailing and great sounding. And it’s still a helluva bargain.

Dashboard: More Than Just an Orange Calculator

While there are a number of music related Dashboard widgets that range from somewhat useful (and apparently now MIA) to not at all, I’ve recently taken to making a few of my own “web clip” widgets for tasks that I found myself repeatedly opening the black hole commonly known as a web browser to accomplish in the past. (Seriously, show me the front page of Wikipedia and you might not see me for a week—not the greatest for productivity.) Best of all, they can be whatever you want, take two seconds to make, and you never need to be updated. Some favorites:

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The Case for ABX Testing

Rob Schlette, writing for The Pro Audio Files:

The topic of audio perception has been pretty hot lately. From the popular news media coverage of Mastered for iTunes to the pages of TapeOp magazine, it’s not uncommon for people to be asking the question, “Can you really hear the difference?” This is very good news for music and music lovers.That might not seem like an extraordinary question for people to be asking, but the elastic reach of hardware and software marketing nonsense has devalued sensory feedback. We are routinely exposed to the most outrageous qualitative claims that have never been proven (or even suggested) with a marginally systematic listening test.

He’s right. The question, “Can we hear a difference?” shouldn’t be extraordinary or controversial in any way. He goes on to write:

I’ll bounce the same audio source twice—once with each codec product set to identical digital audio precisions. Absolutely nothing else about the two bounces can be  different, or the test is pointless. If I’m really being honest, I get someone else to load up the examples into the tester app so I don’t know which is which.

I’ll go further and say that the only way to do a proper ABX test is to have someone else load the examples into the tester app (or better yet, create a tester app that randomly assigns the examples. Are you listening, Takashi?). Or better yet, have one person load the examples, then present the test to another person who doesn’t even know what they’re supposed to be listening for.

Ethan Winer on Perception

Ethan Winer in Tape Op, on how the limits and fallibility of human perception cloud our judgments about sound (or should I say sound judgment?):

Hearing fallibility has implications beyond doubting our own mixing decisions. It’s the main reason audiophiles believe the sound of their hi-fi improved after replacing one perfectly competent AC power cord with another, or after raising their speaker wires off the floor on special “anti-resonance” cable lifters. Understand that I’m not talking about real differences, such as the sound of modern digital recording versus analog tape or vinyl records. Those differences are real, and are easily measured using the standard metrics of frequency response and distortion. Skilled listeners can easily identify which is which every time in a blind test. Rather, what I’m addressing are differences that are perceived but not real—the placebo effect if you will, or perhaps wishful thinking.

Bob Clearmountain chimes in the next issue’s letters section:

Hats off to Ethan Winer! His article, “Perception—The Final Prontier” echoes my sentiments exactly. It’s great to see that someone in this business has the balls to apply intelligence and reason to the science of audio…You can make a great record from pretty much any recording and mixing device, if you have four things: 1) a great song, 2) a great performance, 3) great production and 4) a great mix—in that order. And the last two aren’t even necessary if the first two are incredible. When it comes to the gear it’s more important that the recordist, mixer, producer and artist are comfortable with it and that it doesn’t get in the way of getting a great performance.

In other words: Get your hands on some decent tools, learn how to use them quickly and effectively, then promptly and completely forget about them, so you can focus on, ya know, the music.

Is Native Instruments the Adobe of Music Software?

I just spent over three hours installing and re-installing various components of Native Instrument’s Komplete, simply to get inexplicably missing factory presets to show up in Massive and FM8. (I’m all for building sounds from scratch, but with a tool as, well, massive as Massive, you gotta start somewhere.)

Which begs the question: Is Komplete becoming the music industry’s version of Adobe Creative Suite? A bloated, sprawling mess of overlapping applications; overly complicated, unnecessarily proprietary, and complete (or should I say “komplete”) with an installation process from hell?

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Pretend That It’s January (But Be Thankful That It’s Not)

Ten wonderfully snide yet astute New Year’s resolutions from Mike Monteiro. Don’t let the fact that he’s a web developer stop you from taking these to (your cold, jaded, studio-tanned musician) heart. Examples: “Stop stealing crap.” “Get comfortable arguing.” “Stop trying to save bad work.” The one about your mom is less pertinent, but the accompanying photo is priceless.

Zen and the Art of Analog Summing

Zen and the Art of Mixing is a great read. Mixerman (AKA Eric Sarafin) has a knack for writing about a subject that normally defies the written word. However, there was one part of the book that really got my goat when I read it, and here I am, six months later, my goat still got. It can all be boiled down to this quote:

I can’t tell you why. I can’t tell you how. I can’t even prove what I’m about to tell you, and I can assure you that the DAW manufacturers, particularly Digidesign, will not only reject this claim but will actively try to persuade you otherwise through flawed white papers that most of you can’t understand and bogus comparisons that most of you wouldn’t know are bogus.

All DAWs bog down at the 2-bus.

For a book that proclaims, through its back cover blurb from Ken Scott, to teach “the Art [sic] of great mixing, not the pseudoscience,” that’s an awfully pseudoscientific claim.

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Get Your Addictive Drums Fix for Less

Sweden’s XLN Audio has dropped the price of Addictive Drums, which is great news, because Addictive Drums is, in this writer’s humble opinion, the best fake real drums plugin out there. And I’ve pretty much used ’em all.

Of course, no plugin will ever be able to recreate the energy of a guy (or a gal), in a room, banging on stuff, but when you gotta bite the bullet, this is the bullet to bite. Intuitive, responsive, polished, stable, and it sounds fantastic. As soon as they add a drum replacement feature (and really, why wouldn’t they?), it’s game over. (Via ProToolerBlog.)

Logic Pro, Why Must You Be So Illogical?

As much as I want to love it unconditionally, there are things about Logic Pro 9 that drive me nuts. Every time I fire up a session, I find another little corner of the software that makes a tiny burst of steam escape from my ears. Let me make a brief(ish) list:

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Beware the Skeuomorphic Rabbit Hole

I recently watched a video touting the new Studer® A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder plugin from Universal Audio. It features a surprisingly mediocre soundtrack, enough marketing hype to make Don Draper blush, and a bunch of talented audio engineers waxing poetic about a digital recreation of a 34-year-old electromechanical device. And as I watched it, something struck me: Those spinning tape reels are ridiculous.

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