My DJ Dilemma

IMG_0041

DJing. Lately for me this has been a thorny issue, not for what it is, but because I haven’t been able to make up my mind how I want to do it for the foreseeable future. For the last 7-8 years I’ve been using Ableton Live to DJ, and it’s been working out great. I’ve gotten a lot of exposure for some of the DJ EFX Racks I made for Live (some of which will be included with Live 9 btw!), and it’s been a very stable platform for me.

But, I get bored.

Live hasn’t changed it’s look since…. well, never.  And after years of looking at it for writing and performing live as well, I just needed to stare at something new for a change 🙂

A little over a couple of years ago I decided to look at Traktor based on all the feedback I was hearing on the AbletonLive DJ.com forums. I purchased a Traktor Audio 4 DJ soundcard, which came with a free copy of Traktor Pro. I also decided to go with the Kontrol X1 as a controller, and it was something I was very impressed with. Good build quality, and nice layout and mapping scheme by default. In fact, I was pretty impressed with the soundcard and Traktor too.

Right at this time the Kontrol S4 came out, so I sold the X1 and Audio4 soundcard and bought one right away and set about getting more into using Traktor for DJing. For the most part I liked the S4 and Traktor combo, it felt more like traditional DJing to me, and it was great having a controller so well integrated with the software that you could largely ignore the laptop. It was nice not having to press into duty the APC40 like I’d used for Ableton too. It worked, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve just never preferred a generic controller to a dedicated one like the S4.

Eventually however I decided to go back to using Live for the reasons I outlined in more detail here:

http://tarekith.com/traktor-s4-thoughts-after-some-more-use/

The simplest explanation was that while I liked using Traktor, it lacked the EQ I preferred and some other functions that I felt could be better served by my hardware mixer (an A&H Xone62). Also, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m mostly what people call an “A to B DJ”. I mainly just play tracks as they were written, I don’t really want to remix them on the fly and do all sorts of crazy edits to the tracks I play. So a lot of the functions on the S4 felt like they were not getting used, and so I sold it.

For awhile I was fine using Live and the APC40 again, it was comfortable and more than capable for me, so I was once again DJing as I always had. But then Traktor started getting updates that addressed a lot of the issues I had with it. A 4-band EQ, increased headroom, resizable mapping editor, better beat mapping, etc.

I decided to try and pair the APC40 with Traktor, and had a bit of fun doing that for a few months. I was using some interesting templates I found for the APC40 online, and eventually I started getting into mapping my own custom templates. As I got more into the mapping editor in Traktor, I began to see how powerful and configurable it was. I was pretty impressed to be honest, NI did a really good job here.

But, I was still using the APC40, and while it worked, I just didn’t like it as much as the X1 I had been using before. So, once again I bought a Traktor Audio 6 soundcard with a free copy of Traktor Pro, and an X1 to control it with (still using the Xone62 for the mixing and cueing though).

Life was good. 🙂

I was happy DJing again, and Traktor was working out very well for how I like to mix. I had a nice little custom layout on my X1, the Xone62 of course sounds very good already, and the Audio 6 soundcard was working out nice too.

Actually, let me stop here because that last part isn’t totally true. For awhile the Traktor Audio 6 was having an issue with the audio quality slowly degrading over time, almost like you were applying more and more sample rate reduction on it. NI eventually told me that I had to buy a $30 power supply for it, which pissed me off since I bought it because it was supposed to be buss powered. Anyway, the power supply fixed the issue, and THEN the soundcard was working out nicely too.

So, I had a set up that worked, and things were great now, right? Well, not exactly. I’m a minimalist when it comes to gear, I like just the core fundamentals that I need to get a job done. So while the DJ set up was working, I began to miss the one to one integration that I had with the S4. That and having all your controls all right there on one panel in front of you was a nice way to work, I liked having that sort of workstation or groovebox feel the S4 had to it.

Once again I began to look at the S4, thinking about if I really wanted to put away the Xone62 in favor of it. I’m a huge fan of that mixer, but it is getting a LITTLE bit long in the tooth. And like I said, there was a lot to be said for the all in one aspect of the S4 too. Eventually I caved and bought the S4 again when I saw a really good deal thanks to a Christmas sale, and so far I’ve been really glad I did.

To my surprise, the faders on the newer S4’s feel nicer than they did on my 1st gen. one. It’s not a huge difference, but they definitely feel a lot smoother and more solid. That was a huge complaint of mine about the S4 the first go around, so I was pretty happy about that. I didn’t even have to install Traktor again or anything, I could use my current library and just install the S4 driver. Simple.

(registration and simple are two words I typically would never associate with Native Instruments!)

IMG_1828

Where the S4 has really come into it’s own is with the way I’ve been able to custom map the controls I’d normally not use. The jog wheels for instance are the filter controls now, which is useful since I use the normal filter knob as the low EQ band in Traktor’s 4 Band EQ set up. The EQ controls for decks C and D are my controls for Effects 3 and 4, both of which are Delay T3 units. This gives me direct control over separate delays for both tracks.

I like delay.

So far the whole experience with the S4 and the latest version of Traktor has been a really positive one. Mapping your own controls is easier than ever, the hardware feels better than I remembered it, and I’ve got a lot more controls at my disposal mapped the way I see fit. NI even added some new effects, which (to my surprise) modeled the way I had set up my Ableton Live DJ EFX Racks. The effect is off when you have the knob dead center, and increasingly adds more and more of the effect as you turn it left, or a different flavor of that effect if you turn it right. Sounds familiar!

I still have a couple small complaints though. Namely the metering is still pretty vague for accurately setting your levels, even a cheapo Vestax hardware mixer is way better in this regard. Also, the black knobs on the black background are impossible to see in a night club type setting. So I’ll probably end up buying some replacements from the DJ Tech Tools store eventually (late xmas present anyone?).

But other than that, I think it will be a really good set up for me over the next few years, or until I get bored again. Now if I could just kick this cold so I could record that new Tech House set I’ve been dying to get to all week….

Korg Monotron Duo & Delay

Monotribed

This year for Christmas my wife bought me the Korg Monotron Duo and Delay synths, and after a few days playing with them, I figured I would do a quick review.  I’ve had my eye on these for awhile, ever since I saw the review done on Sonicstate.com last year.  I wasn’t really expecting serious music making tools, but for roughly $40 each on sale, I figured they’d be fun to mess around with occasionally.

I ended up just running the Duo directly into the Delay, since that seemed to really open up the possibilities of what kinds of sounds I could make.  I won’t go into a blow by blow of the specs and connections, that info is easy enough to find elsewhere (and on something so simple like these, there’s not much to talk about anyway).  Instead I figured I would just list some of the thoughts I’ve had now that I’ve had a chance to explore the sonic possibilities I could achieve with these little boxes:

– They’re definitely nice and small, easily something you could stick in your pocket along with some headphones.  That said, not sure how much fun I’d have sitting in a park just playing with the Duo on it’s own.  There’s some neat timbres it can do, but even with the option to set the keyboard strip to 4 different scales, it’s really not a “playable” synth in terms of melodies and the like.

– Both units have a decent amount of background hiss on the outputs, these are not nice and pristine sounding synths.  Turn the feedback up past 11 o’clock and the Delay unit starts to create it’s own hiss feedback loop even.  🙂  Still, when you start playing with them, it’s really not too noticeable.

– The units are so small and light, that I found it hard to find something to set them on so they would stay put while I manipulated them.  Sure I could pick them up, but sometimes I wanted to tweak both at the same time and they would tend to slide around on my desk easily.

– Because there’s not any sort of fixed scales on the Delay synth, trying to play the keyboard for anything other than swoopy pitchy bends is impractical.  And since the only LFO onboard is hardwired to OSC pitch anyway, the Delay unit is largely ideal more for FX sounds and textures.  While it can’t do melodies all that well, I still found this Monotron to be the more playable (and fun) of the two.

– These are analog units, and thus succeptible to temperature fluctuations.  I noticed that patches I made on the Duo would sound different if I powered it off for awhile, and gradually sound more like I remembered after being left on for a little awhile.  That said, it was very rare I could completely recall a patch 100% after power down, it often sounded just a tiny bit different.

 

For me the Monotrons really came into their own for making these dense textures and noise-scapes, not so much for your typical synth sounds.  I’d crank the delay feedback up, and use the keyboards of both units to add new sounds and colors into these soundscapes.  The results often were noisy and harsh, they break up pretty quickly once the delay starts feedback on itself.

But it’s pretty fun none the less, and I’ve found myself spending an hour or more just playing around with these little guys and enjoying the tweaking they offered for such few controls.  If I had to recommend one over the other I’d say the Delay is the more versatile and fun to mess with it.  But combined, the two make a good combo and compliment each other nicely.

So while they might not be the first choice for something you would use for repeatable and easy to recall sounds (no patch memory at all), they are great fun for just geeking out in the studio and getting hands on with some analog sounds.  Here’s a short recording I made while doing one of these tweak sessions last night, just to give you a taste of some the overall sounds it can do.  Careful, it’s pretty loud too!

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/MonotronReview.mp3

————–

Well, the end of the year is almost here, but I’m not done with the blog yet .  Check in next time as I talk about how the Traktor S4 has once again become my main DJ tool of choice despite some of my reservations a couple years ago when it was first released.  Until then!

QuNexus – Hands On

Earlier today I had the chance to meet the local Keith McMillen representative, and get an early preview of their new QuNexus controller.  I should stress that the unit I got to play with was an early prototype, and thus may not be identical to the production units.  It certainly felt like real product though, and has the same feel and response as the QuNeo controller they already produce.

Like the QuNeo before it, McMillen is using Kickstarter to raise funds for the productions of these units, and while there are currently 7 days left until the project funding ends, they have already met their goal.  You can sign up to be part of the Kickstarter funding and get one of the very first production units (at a nice discount) here:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/kmi/qunexus-smart-sensor-keyboard-controller

As I mentioned, the unit I saw was only a production prototype, but it felt a lot like the QuNeo.  The case is nice and thin, about the same thickness as the QuNeo, and the ‘keys’ on the controller are raised roughly 1/8 of an inch or so above the casing to make them easy to play.  While the case does have the same flex to it as the  QuNeo, it doesn’t feel cheap at all.  Quite the opposite in fact, the flexing almost makes it feel like it would stand up to more abuse than if it was made out of a rigid hard plastic.  I definitely would have no worries just tossing this into my laptop bag night after night after a gig.

The keys themselves are sort of a softer rubber like we’ve come to expect on drum pad controllers like Maschine or the Trigger Finger.  They have a nice solid feel and bounce to them when you play them like drum triggers, but are sensitive enough to velocity variations that they actually are quite responsive for playing keyboard parts too. And you can tailor the velocity to your playing with the included software editor if you need to.

To the left of the keys there are function buttons that let you bank octave up and down, set the keys to transmit note, pressure, or note and pressure data as you need.  While it doesn’t have a mod or pitch wheel per se, there is a modulation button that can serve the same duty.  The longer and harder you press it down, the more pitchbend you get, and the faster it comes on.  This functionality was still being worked on with the prototype, so I can’t comment on how it really worked in practice.

There’s also a cool function where rolling or pushing your finger forward on a key after you press it can send controller data (McMillen refers to this as Tilt).  So for example, you could press a key to trigger a note, then slide your finger forward to alter the cutoff frequency.  All while still having pressure to assign to another parameter.  Very nifty, and offers the chance for some really dynamic and expressive playing depending on how and what you map this extra level of control to.

In addition to sending MIDI data, the QuNexus can also transmit and receive CV and Gate information for controlling your analog gear.  Unfortunately I couldn’t try this aspect, so I can’t comment on that functionality. But it should be very welcome considering the resurgence of analog gear we’re seeing lately.
While there’s certainly no shortage of small and cheap portable controllers on the market now, the one thing that I really enjoyed about the QuNexus is just how responsive the keyboard felt considering the keys don’t have your typical travel mechanisms.  Unlike some of the small keyboard controllers from Korg or Akai, the QuNexus actually feels like something you can use to play very expressive pieces with.  The velocity response was very predictable and even, and having the option to use the keys as further controllers via the pressure and tilt options really opens up a lot of expression possibilities.  And most importantly, it doesn’t feel cheap.

One of the things I’m most excited to use the QuNexus for is playing iPad synths, which is perfect since it can be powered by an iPad using the Camera Connection Kit.  Not only does it feel like a lot more robust of a controller than the alternatives in this size, I won’t have to worry about breaking off one of the mini-keys the other controllers use while transporting it in a backpack on my bike.  Hoping to get my hands on one of the early production units to test this out, but I’ll have to wait for now just like everyone else unfortunately.  🙁

If you’re interested already, you only have 7 DAYS LEFT to help fund the Kickstarter project via the link above.  Doing so will get you a QuNexus for only $150, which is $49 cheaper than what the eventual street price of $199 will likely be. If you’re in the Seattle area and would like a one on one demo of the QuNexus, just let me know and I’ll get you the contact info of their local rep who would be happy to help you out.

Finally, Create Digital Music has a good interview with Keith McMillen on the specifics of the QuNexus development and using Kickstarter for a projects like this, definitely worth a read if you want to find out more about what went into starting this project.

I’ll post more info on this once I get my hands on my very own to spend more time putting it through it’s paces.  Until then, ask any questions you have and I’ll do my best to get the answers for you, thanks!

—————

(psst, new Tarekith album comes out Friday too)

Changing The Korg EMX-1 Tubes

A couple years back I wanted to change the stock tubes in my Korg EMX-1 to see how more expensive tubes would sound.  I ended up recording and measuring the results for the Electribe forums over at: http://electribe-forum.com.  However, I still get a lot of questions on it, so I wanted to sort of archive it by reposting to my blog.  Here’s the article in it’s entirety:

 

I wanted to create a quick and simple test to see how much of an audible difference replacing the tubes in my new Korg EMX-1 would make. After looking into what tubes to replace the stock 12AX7 tubes with, I decided on a pair of matched triode JJ ECC83S which I bought from Eurotubes.com:

https://ssl.eurotubes.com/cart/index.ph … gory_id=12

I wanted to see how much difference there would be in level (volume) between the tube types, as well how much the distortion varied as well. The first thing I did was create a simple 1 bar pattern with a held sine wav to measure the output of the EMX using the stock tubes. The EMX-1 main outs were then routed to the inputs of my MOTU Ultralite soundcard, and I used Ableton Live 7.07 and the plug in Inspector XL from EAS to measure the levels. Inspector XL was set to use the K-14 meter scale, which is my preferred metering scale. I recorded the RMS meter readings at 5 difference positions of the Tube Gain knob on the EMX-1.

Here are the readings I obtained with the stock Korg tubes:

Knob Position 0 = -11.30dB
Knob Position 2 = -9.50dB
Knob Position Half = -0.55dB
Knob Position 8 = 3.67dB
Knob Position Full = 3.93dB

Here are the readings I obtained with the JJ ECC83S tubes after the swap:

Knob Position 0 = -17.20dB
Knob Position 2 = -15.80dB
Knob Position Half = -6.49dB
Knob Position 8 = -2.22dB
Knob Position Full = -2.00dB

As you can see, the JJ tubes are quieter by roughly 5-6dB at all knob positions. Next to the tubes in the EMX-1 are pots to adjust the output levels of each tube, but there was not enough range to successfully match the levels of the two tube types, so be aware that swapping your tubes will potentially lower the output level of your EMX-1.

My next step was to record audio examples of the two tubes in action so people could hear the differences with a more real-world example. For this test, I used an 8 bar EMX-1 pattern from my last song, “Puled” which you can read about here:

http://www.korgforums.com/forum/phpBB2/ … b9714a869b

I recorded 8 bars of audio from the EMX-1 into Ableton Live 7.07 using the same Tube Gain settings listed above. Live was set to record 24bit/44.1kHz wav files, and these were then converted to 320kbps MP3’s once I was done to save on traffic on my site. I think even the MP3’s make the differences plain to hear, so likely nothing would have been gained anyway by posting wav file formats. Here’s the audio examples:

Knob Position 0:

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/01_Stock_Tubes_0.mp3

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/02_ECC83S_Tubes_0.mp3

Knob Position 2:

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/03_Stock_Tubes_2.mp3

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/04_ECC83S_Tubes_2.mp3

Knob Position Half:

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/05_Stock_Tubes_Half.mp3

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/06_ECC83S_Tubes_Half.mp3

Knob Position 8:

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/07_Stock_Tubes_8.mp3

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/08_ECC83S_Tubes_8.mp3

Knob Position Full:

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/09_Stock_Tubes_Full.mp3

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/10_ECC83S_Tubes_Full.mp3

As you can hear, not only are the stock tubes louder, but they also distort much more at higher Tube Gain settings on the EMX-1. As to which tube type is better, I’ll leave that for you to decide, as it really depends on how you use the tubes and the sound you personally prefer.

Hope this was helpful to people. Thanks for taking the time to listen, and feel free to let me know if you have any questions on the testing I did.

Pocket Grooves

I’ve covered in past articles how much I like using portable devices to make music on the go.  From the early days of things like Bhajis Loops on a Palm TX, to more modern apps on the iPhone and iPad, I’ve found it really fun to get out of the studio and still be able work on music ideas.

Even in the short time I’ve been using apps on Apple devices though, I’ve noticed that I’ve slowly started migrating from some of the more full-fledged apps like NanoStudio and BeatMaker, to simpler affairs that are much less like a traditional DAW.  I think part of it is the fact that I’ve always sort of been attracted to more of a groovebox mentality when it comes to writing music.  I like working with short patterns of notes that are tied to the sounds they trigger in a more immediate way than you find with DAWs and more complex tools.

And some of it has to do with the fact that often when I’m out and about making music on the go, I just don’t tend to stay in any one place long enough to feel I can really flesh out ideas in the more complex apps.  I might start something in one place, but by the time I come back to it, the initial feeling or ideas that inspired it just aren’t there any more.  I was finding that I was spending too much time trying to pick up where I left off, instead of just quickly creating something more complete in the moment.

But more than that, I think a lot of it has to do with the way we interact with these new tools on touchscreen devices.  Sure you definitely CAN use an iPad or iPhone to lay out a whole song, and I’ve done so many times already:

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/Tarekith-Slip.mp3  (Created with Garageband on iPad)

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/Tarekith-Slat.mp3  (Created with NanoStudio on iPhone)

But to be honest it just ends up feeling a little too tedious and fiddly to me.  Some people say it’s like interacting with your traditional tools with a sheet of glass over them, something I’m slowly starting to agree with.  Now, for some people, this is not really a big deal, but for me it’s just ends up starting to take some of the fun away from the process.

So these days I’ve been focusing using apps that make it simple to lay down grooves that I can expand on back in the studio.  I don’t worry about making a complete song anymore when I’m working on music at a local park, I’m more interested in capturing the basic ideas, the feeling of the moment.  On the go grooveboxes if you will.

I’m especially interested in apps that stop trying to mimic tools that work well on a laptop or traditional computer, and instead focus on creating new ways of interacting via the touch interface.  A nice side benefit of this is that these tend to work equally as well on the iPad or the smaller iPhone, which makes portability even easier.

With that in mind, here are the apps that I find I’ve been turning to more and more these days.  I won’t go into a review of them as the information on how they work or video demos is easy enough to find on the manufacturers’ websites or YouTube.  Instead I’ll focus on what it is about each app that I find so appealing.

Korg iKaossilator

http://www.korg.com/ikaossilator

I have to admit, this is one app that I’ve been using more than I expected I would.  Korg’s done a great job at making it really easy to come up with some really cool sounding grooves, and there’s even some decent support for live performance if that’s your thing.  Export to Soundcloud, mixing and matching loops from different patterns via a session view like Ableton Live, and some fun ways to generate fills for your recorded patterns on the fly are all pretty unique to this app.

I do wish it had more sounds you could buy for it though (you can import your own loops if that’s your thing though).  Some of the built in sounds are kind of cheesy at first, but the X-Y pad usually has enough range of control over them that I can get something decent with most of the stock sounds.  I also wish there way a way to control the volume of each of the 5 parts, sometimes the pads can be louder than your lead for instance.

Otherwise I’m a big fan of this app though, it’s probably the one I find myself using the most these days.

 

Propellorhead Figure

http://www.propellerheads.se/products/figure/

This was one of the first apps that I felt really nailed the way to interact with a touch screen.  It’s simple to lay down some really unique grooves, and even adjust the timing of each part after the fact.  Having only 3 different parts to work with can seem a little spartan at first, but for quick and dirty sessions where I just want to get some ideas down, it fits the bill.

Like iKaossilator you don’t get a ton of sounds with the app, but there’s enough control over how they can sound that you can often take the included ones in a totally different direction than they sound at first.  The included sounds however actually pretty darn good as is, the app does use the sound engine from Reason after all.  Plus, you have separate control over up to 4 parameters of each sound after the fact, including the ability to record automation.

Very glad that a recent update let us record longer patterns, 2 bars was pretty short in the initial release.  Not to mention that now you can chose to have recording start at note on, so it’s easier to make sure your patterns start on the first beat.  In the first version, I would often have a great pattern going, but realize that it was starting on the 2nd beat for instance, which was annoying when I exported the results to an audio file.

 

Zaplin Music TriqTraq

http://www.triqtraq.com

Not many people know about this app, but it’s definitely one of the better groove-based apps I’ve found.  You get 4 parts you can sequence, but each part can be a single sound or a kit for things like drums.  You can import your own samples as well, so I’ve been using this a lot for coming up with drum loops.  Great support for recording automation of most parameters, and some cool poly-rhythmic features as well.

It’s not the most intuitive app straight away, but they have some videos on the site that will get you up and running asap.  Editing some of the automation can be a little tedious on the smaller iPhone screen, but that’s about my only real complaint.

 

Anyway, those are the tools I’ve been finding myself reaching for more and more these days.  Generally once I get a few ideas recorded on the iPad or iPhone, I’ll record them into the Octatrack when I’m back in the studio.  I’ve got about 8-10 tracks like this in basic groove form, and I’m toying with the idea of doing an entire album using iOS apps as the original source material, but doing most of the writing and song sequencing in the Octatrack.

Works out well for me though, as I get to enjoy writing music while being out in nature, and I know I can actually create a more finished product with that material once I get back in the studio.  Definitely nice to break up the monotony of being in front of a computer all the time in the studio, that’s for sure!

So, anyone else have any apps or on the go music tools they find particularly useful?  Post them in the comments!

Elektron ECC-2 Review

Not the most exciting review, but I’ve had a few people asking me about the ECC-2 bag since I got mine.  Figured I’d do a quick video so people can see what it looks like, how big it is, and what the storage is like.  I also talk about a few things I wish were different about it as well.

The iOS DJ?

Ever since the iPad was first released, I’ve been intrigued about using it for DJing. Light, portable, decent storage, and more than enough power for basic DJing. Plus, for your average DJ, more than enough screen space for controls to handle mixing two tracks. Of course you can also use one of the many iPad DJ controllers coming out now too, though to be honest I feel that if you’re going to carry one of those, you might as well just use a laptop and controller anyway.

So for awhile now I’ve been eyeing what’s out there, reading reviews, and now and then playing with a couple of the more popular apps dedicated to DJing. I’m not even going to attempt to try and cover all the options available for DJing on iOS devices, instead I’m going to focus on two of the more popular options, Meta.dj and djay. Both can cover basic mixing duties, but do so in ways different enough that there’s little overlap in how they work.
Before I start though, it’s worth talking about the one thing that I think still is a major limitation in the platform for DJing. Namely, all iOS devices can only output a single stereo channel, which means its impossible to cue your tracks while outputting a stereo feed for your audience. Currently the most popular workaround is to instead output a mono channel for the main out, and a mono channel for the cue out using a splitter cable. I’ve been using the popular one from Griffin, which works both with djay and Meta.dj (plus others too):

http://www.algoriddim.com/djay-ipad/accessories/dj-cable

It’s an ok workaround but probably not the most ideal solution. Still, you work with what you have, and on that front it does work pretty well as long as you like mono signals 🙂 A couple of other DJ apps (I.E. DJ Player) let you use something like an iPhone or iPad touch to stream your cue channel from but I haven’t had a chance to play with those yet.

So, first up is probably the most popular DJ app out right now, djay from Algoriddim. The interface will be familiar to most DJs, two virtual turntables are front and center. Buttons around these let you access your iTunes library and playlists, the EQ section, a loop screen, cue points, and in some of the recent updates 6 different effect variations. There’s also the ever present crossfader, and some small channel faders along with decent channel meters too.

The decks can be configure to show you your iTunes album artwork for songs, more or less like a regular vinyl record. Very handy for those people more visually inclined. The effects are pretty well done if a little basic, stutters, gates, delays, flanger, etc. The 3-band EQ is a little harsh to my ears, they give almost full cut when down all the way, but that makes it hard to do subtle EQing too. Loops and cue points can be stored for all your tracks too, which is really handy.

In many ways djay sort of reminds me of using Traktor, most of the basic functions for DJing are there, but it tends to rely on sort of an old school paradigm of mixing. There’s the option to sync tracks automatically, but its still up to you to start them on time. Pressing the sync button again will line up the tempos again, but it also advances the song a quarter note in case you have the tracks in sync, but the phrasing is off. There’s tempo nudging buttons to help get things in sync, but I find them to be really small for how often I use them.

Honestly, this is sort of thing is my biggest complaint with djay overall. The most important functions for a digital DJ are given some of the least screen real estate, while the pretty, but largely pointless, virtual decks always take up so much room. For instance, the loops, EQ, effects, and your cues are all accessed via different views of the same tiny pop up screen. So it’s impossible to set loop points while EQing, or add and manipulate effects while navigating your cues. You can only access one of these functions at a time, while the decks which you’ll rarely touch sit there taking up most of the screen real estate.

There’s a lot of really nice functions in the app, but too much of it is dedicated to looking nice (and old school) versus taking advantage of the screen real estate and touch interface of the iPad. By far my biggest complaint with the app.

On the other end of the spectrum we have Meta.dj from Sound Trends, which aims to reinvent DJing based on the specifics of a touch interface. If djay is like Traktor, then Meta.dj is like Ableton Live. Instead of just focusing on a traditional DJ interface, you also have access to built in drum and synth patterns (with more available as in-app purchases), a loop mangler and playback device, and all of your audio is synced to a global master clock at all times. You can up to 4 of the above devices in a project, in any combination you want.

Meta.dj automatically scans your tracks when you add them to a project, finding the tempo and beat placement fairly accurately in my experience. Like djay, you can set loops and cue points for each track too, though these are project specific. Meta.dj also has some really nice performance based effects that utilize an XY touchpad interface for tweaking. However, these are added to each song on a case by case basic, and not on a mixer channel as is typically for most DJ programs. This means that if you want to create a new projects with the same songs, you’ll need to redo all of your cues, loops, effects and beat-grids all over again.

As a result, this means that prepping your tracks for DJing can take awhile (again, like Live) and it’s not possible to share these settings across multiple projects in Meta.dj. So instead of having the app remember the settings for all your tracks and make them available any time you use them in a project, you basically need to make a one project with all the songs you plan on DJing with in one single project. All your tracks are accessible by scrolling across the bottom of the screen in a project, though the names of the songs get truncated making finding what you want difficult at times.

Mixing in Meta.dj is done via nice and simple volume sliders for each of the 4 devices, or via crossfader that works for the top or bottom two devices if you want. Sadly, there’s no metering at all, so you’re on your own to guess the correct levels while performing, with clipping from too hot signals possible if you’re not listening closely.

Meta.dj is an interesting concept overall, a real solid attempt to blend DJing and live performance into a single interface that uses a touchscreen in the best way possible. I didn’t really find the drum and synth loops to be my thing though, and since I use hardware for my live sets, I didn’t really have a need to prep my own material to use in the app that way either. Still, it’s nice you can work this way if you want.

As a strictly DJ tool, I’m really torn on how effective I found it. Lack of metering and difficulty in finding the tracks I wanted to play by scrolling the bottom bar with truncated names were real downers for me. The effects are nice and the beat detection was impressive, but without meters it was really hard to do a more traditional DJ set with this app. It’s one of those tools where prep work is everything (again, like Ableton Live). With better track library management and some real meters. I could see this being a really useful app. Luckily, it seems the developers listen to their user base and do frequent updates so perhaps we’ll see some improvement in the future.

I have to admit, that one of the biggest downsides of Meta.dj is that it’s so different that often times I found myself reaching for the manual, only to find there isn’t one. A quick start guide is linked to from their forums, but other than that you’re sort of on your own to figure out how things work. There’s enough basic functions missing that at times I wonder if perhaps I just haven’t discovered what more experienced might already know. Hard to say without a manual.

Which brings us to the end. Or the beginning. I think like a lot of iOS apps, we’re seeing two extremes of how companies approach taking traditional music making activities and apply those to a touch screen device. On one hand we have djay which aims to mimic the old school DJ set up of two decks and a mixer, and on the other we have Meta.dj which looks to incorporate a new interface scheme based on tablet interactions.

I think both apps have enough positive points in their favor that those determined to DJ on the iPad will get good results if they put in the time to learn and prep their material appropriately. However, I still feel we’ve yet to really hit the sweet spot of providing the tools most DJs use, in an app that makes the most of the touch interface.

As I said at the beginning of this review I’m only focusing on two of the more popular apps right now, I know there’s others out there that fill in some gaps in what these can do. But for now I don’t see myself leaving Live or Traktor on the laptop to go with a more simpler approach on the iPad. 

For one thing, having only a single stereo out is the biggest limitation, and I guess on that front were all waiting for Apple to step up and open up this door. But more than that, I think we’re still in the early stages of trying to figure out the best way to access functions that over time have proven to be useful, on an interface no one is used to.

In the meantime, iPad DJing is something I leave to small impromptu gatherings and other informal events. And for those that are curious, djay is the one I use for now.  What about you, anyone out there using an iPad to DJ with?  If so, what apps do you like, and how have you found the experience so far?

lpTouch iPad app

Hey everyone, just wanted to let you know about a pretty cool iOS app I have been using lately. I know I don’t normally post recommendations for apps in the blog, but this one I found especially useful.  If you have Logic and an iPad, this is a really easy to use Control Surface app that lets you control Logic Pro. Easy to use and understand, and very simple to pair with your computer as well.

There’s two skins to choose from (light and a dark), support for the new retina iPads, and 5 screen layouts:

– Main mixer screen.
– Pans and sends.
– Channel strip.
– EQ page.
– Instrument parameters.

I used this quite a lot over the weekend, and I have to say it’s one of the first iOS control surface apps that I haven’t found fiddly to use or set up.  The controls are large enough to easily grab the right one, and knob control can be set up as linear or circular dragging motions.  Worth a look for any iPad and Logic users wanting a simple but powerful control surface for the two.  Best of all it’s only $4.99.

 

Elektron Octatrack Review

Trying to review something like the Elektron Octatrack has turned out to be more challenging than I expected.  Mainly because it can be used in so many ways, it’s not easy to try and cover it from all angles.  Never the less, I’ll do my best, even if that means focusing more on the things that I personally use mine for at the moment.

HARDWARE FEATURES

At it’s most basic, the Octatrack (OT) is an 8 stereo track sampling machine, combined with a pattern and MIDI sequencer.  What makes the OT standout from the other tabletop sampling devices currently available, is how well featured it is for studio and live performance use.

The hardware itself is rugged, and like all Elektron boxes it feels like it could stand up to a lot of abuse.  The knobs are smooth turning, and come with a rubber coating to make them easier to twist when your fingers are sweaty (in a hot club for instance).  The display is bright and easy to read, and Elektron have nice graphics implemented where appropriate in the OS.  The buttons are the same hard plastic as on the Machinedrum and Monomachine, though in the case of the OT they are round or oval instead of square.  I personally wish the Enter and No buttons were larger since they get so much use, but it’s a minor nitpick. Finally, the OT comes with an Infinium Optical Crossfader, which feels extremely smooth and precise in use.

In addition to the MIDI In, Out, and Thru ports, there’s also two stereo 1/4 inch outputs on balanced connectors, and two stereo 1/4 inch inputs (unbalanced) for sampling from external sources.  The power supply is external, but it’s fairly small and works worldwide.  There’s also a slot for the Compact Flash Card used to store your data, as well as a USB 2.0 port for transferring samples and user data to and from a computer. As mentioned, the OT uses a CF card for storing all your samples and user data, so the amount of samples you have access to is determined only by how large of a card you purchase.  The OT ships with a 4GB card (containing 2GB of free samples), though most users seem to upgrade to at least an 8GB card in my experience.  There’s also 80MB of onboard storage, which I’ll discuss in more detail shortly.

 

STRUCTURE

I was a little hesitant in getting the OT initially, since it seemed that a lot of users often complained that it was a pretty complex machine to learn how to use.  While it certainly isn’t the simplest device to master, I found that it was logically laid out, and took me far less time to get up to speed on than I expected.  Granted, I’ve also owned a Machinedrum for years, and spent some time with a Monomachine last year, in addition to reading the whole manual (available online) before it arrived.

But for the most part, after about a week of use I was comfortable enough to move around quickly on the OT and rarely needed to reference the manual.  There are a few button combinations you need to remember in order to access certain functions, but the front panel labeling helps here, and these sort of combinations seem to be implemented in a way that makes sense no matter what you’re trying to do.  For instance,  Cut, Copy, and Paste are implemented the same way machine-wide, allowing you to copy patterns, tracks, samples, or effect pages consistently using the same buttons regardless of which screen you’re on.

One of the things that seems to give people the most trouble initially, is the overall file structure of the OT.  It’s similar enough to the other Elektron devices to be sort of familiar, yet different enough that it might have you scratching your head at times trying to figure out how you want to organize your work.  Here’s the simplest I can explain it:

– The highest level of the structure is a “Set”, which contains an “Audio Pool” where you store and assign all of your samples.  In the the Audio Pool you can have 128 Static samples that stream from the CF Card, and 128 Flex samples that get loaded into memory.  However, remember there is only 80MB of memory, so you have to make sure those 128 Flex samples will fit into that much memory.

Static Samples and Flex Samples can both be 16 or 24bit/44.1kHz if you want.  The main difference between Flex and Static samples is that Flex samples can have their Start time and Slice Loop times modulated by LFO’s, and Static machines cannot.  Also, some of the audio editing functions like normalize can only be done on Flex samples.  So for the most part, Static machines can be used for just about everything you need.

– Within a Set, you can have as many “Projects” as you want, though they will all access the same samples stored in the Audio Pool of the Set.

– Within a single Project, you have 16 “Banks”, and each Bank contains 16 Patterns and 4 “Parts”.  A Part is basically all of the synthesis, effect, and sample playback parameters for each of the 8 tracks in the OT.  You can think of it as a single preset you can save for all 8 tracks at once.  When you change Patterns in the OT, it will automatically recall the last Part you used with that Pattern.

I think this is where most people have trouble understanding the OT’s file structure, especially those of us who have used other Elektron gear before.  In their other machines, each pattern was automatically linked to a separate, single Kit (which is the same thing as a Part in the OT).  So you could have a different Kit for each of your Patterns.  In the OT however, the 16 Patterns in a Bank can now only access 4 different Parts (Kits).  I’m honestly not sure why Elektron did this, and it seems to be common feature request that they bring back an option to have the 1 to 1 Part and Pattern relationship.

– Finally each Part also contains up to 16 “Scenes”, which are collections of modified track and effect parameters assigned to each side of the crossfader.  This lets you control multiple parameters on each track with a single control, the crossfader, much like Macros work in software instruments..  For instance, you could have Scene A (left side of the crossfader) be your original Part, and Scene B (right side of the crossfader) could have all of the high pass filters on each track set to their maximum value.  That way, as you slide the crossfader from the left to right side, you would be effectively high-passing all of the tracks in the OT at once.

But that’s really only a simple example, because you can assign any parameter on any track to a Scene, leading to some very complex sound manipulation on the OT.  All with a silky smooth crossfader too.  It’s one of the main draws of the OT, you could literally spend months coming up with different combinations of parameters to assign to your scenes.

I’m sure all of this sounds very complex, but once you spend a little bit of time experimenting on the OT, it all makes sense and you can see how flexible it really is.  The manual has nice diagrams illustrating the structure of the OT as well, in case you need further explanation of how everything is organized and relates to each other.

 

SAMPLING & SEQUENCING

Samples can be loaded onto the OT from your computer via the USB connection on back.  Basically you enter Disk Mode on the OT, and the OT will show up as a Mass Storage Device on your computer desktop.  So it’s a simple matter to drag the samples you want into the Audio Pool of the appropriate Set on the CF Card, and you can even set up nested folders in the Pool if you like to organize your samples better.  Doing the reverse and dragging the the Set folder to your hard drive is how you back up the OT, nice and easy, and transfers are fast too.  Once you eject the card, the OT will reload the last Project and you can keep on working.

Of course the OT can also sample other sound sources (including it’s internal tracks) without needing the computer at all.  Each track on the OT has a dedicated record buffer/playback device, allowing you to sample and playback audio immediately if needed.  You can trigger the sampling manually from either input, or set up a trigger in the sequencer to start sampling at a specific point in your pattern playback.

However, there is one huge catch on this front, each record buffer can only record for a maximum of 16 seconds.  This quite honestly is my biggest complaint with the Octatrack.  For the slower tempos I typically write my songs in, this gives me only about 5-6 measures of audio that I capture each time I want to sample something.  I would love to see an option to sample directly to the card for at least a couple of minutes, so that I could record myself jamming with external synths over the patterns I have in the OT as I look for ideas.  Then I could go back and cut out the parts I wanted to keep in the song.

Oh well.

Anyway, once you have captured the sample you want, it can be played back immediately by triggering it manually or with the sequencer.  If you want to save that sample for future use (the record buffers are not saved automatically), you need to enter the sample editor and do so manually.  This is also where you specify the start and end times of the sample, change it’s tempo, normalize it, or set it to loop (among many other things).

Also within the sample editor you can slice your samples based on beat divisions, with the slices either set perfectly on beat (say 1/16th notes, 1/4 notes, etc) or shifted to land on zero crossings for click free playback.  You can also manually set the slice locations if you prefer, though I find that process a little tedious in the OT.  Doable though for those that want to.

Finally, you can then have the slices automatically mapped linearly to any triggers you’ve placed on that track, or have them randomly assigned to triggers.  This alone is a great source of coming up with new variations on any existing loops you have, especially since you can have more or less triggers than you have slices if you want.

 

Speaking of triggers, I guess it’s time to talk about the sequencer.

The OT has an 8 track sequencer that is composed of 4 bars of 16 steps each.  Each track can have it’s own separate length for doing poly-rhythms, and you can also specify in the OT’s Personalize Menu that track 8 is a master track if you want to apply effects over all of the other tracks at the same time.  The OT supports odd time signatures in addition to 4/4 through what they call a tempo divisor, and has a very nice sounding Swing setting that can be applied on a global or track by track basis as well.  You can even offset certain triggers with micro-timing, so you’re not limited to your sequences being stuck on a fixed grid.

A Trigger is a command that is placed at a particular step in the sequencer grid, and there are a few different kinds of Triggers in the OT:

– Machine Trigger: Probably the most common trigger you’ll use, basically for triggering the Static and Flex machines and thus your samples.

– Triggerless Trigs: Let you alter track parameters without restarting the sample from the beginning.

– One-shot Trigs: These will start a sample and then remain off until you turn them on again, either on track by track basis, or globally.  Great for triggering longer samples you don’t want to restart every 4 bars when the patterns loop.

– Parameter Locks (p-locks): Lets you alter track parameters (i.e. filter cut off) for a particular step only.  You hold down the trigger step you want to assign the control to, then tweak the corresponding knob of the control to the desired value.  The best thing is that you can lock multiple parameters per step, which really lets you alter your patterns in exciting ways.

– Sample-Locks: These are a great way to get around having only one sample assigned to a track at a time as is normal on the OT.  You can hold down a trigger position, and then select another sample from the Audio Pool to play when triggered at that position.  So you could have a bass drum sample triggered on step 1, then trigger a snare sample on Step 5, all within one track.

The 16 Trigger Buttons are also a way to record a performance in real-time, and the OT has different modes allowing them to function as a chromatic keyboard, triggering the individual slices in a sample, individual samples in the pool (creating sample-locks for you as you record), or even controlling the delay times of all tracks.

And there’s an 8 track MIDI sequencer that can be used to sequence external MIDI gear, running the same time as the normal 8 sample tracks.  Along with an arpeggiator.  I don’t use the MIDI-side of the OT personally, but it seems to be very similar to the sequencer in the Monomachine from what I’ve seen.  Very powerful, check out the manual for the specifics.

 

Finally, the OT has what is called an Arranger, which lets you take your patterns and assemble them into songs.  But of course, it’s much deeper than simply specifying which order the patterns will play in.  You can change the length of each pattern, set up loops and chains of patterns, change which tracks will be muted in the pattern too, as well as a whole lot more.  Maybe not as easy as working in a DAW, but very powerful none the less.

All in all, there’s a ton of things you can do here, and I’ve only barely touched on the options to try and keep this at least somewhat brief.  I can only say that the Elektron sequencers and their ability to P-lock are probably my favorite hardware sequencers of all time.  They turn the sequencer into an integral part of sound design, and the new trigger types introduced in the OT just take this to a whole new level.

 

TRACK PARAMETERS and EFFECTS.

I’ve mentioned them a few times now, but Track Parameters are where the bulk of the sound-design comes in on the OT.  It’s how you’ll alter the sound of your samples, either in real-time by tweaking the knobs or crossfader, or via p-locks with the sequencer.  Each track in the OT has 5 different pages of Track Parameters, and each of those pages has a further setup page for it’s particular parameters:

 

– Playback:  Controls the pitch, time-stretching, sample start time, and retriggering (think stutter edits).  The setup page controls the time-stretch quality, whether the sample will loop or not, and how the stretching reacts to transients.  By abusing these controls you can get some really wild and unique sounds, you don’t have to use them to keep your samples clean sounding.

– Amp: Controls the overall volume and panning on the sample, as well as the Attack, Hold, Release parameters of the Amp Envelope.  The setup page specifies how the envelope reacts (linear, logarithmic), if the envelope is tempo-synced, etc.

– LFO: The OT has three freely assignable LFOs per part, each with multiple shapes to chose from.  The LFO’s can be tempo-sync, and go from extremely slow to incredibly fast if you want.  In addition, there’s the LFO Designer, which lets you create your own LFO shapes.  Some people assign their user created LFO’s to pitch, making them function almost like a mini step-sequencer.

– Effect 1: The first effect block on a track, it usually contains the filter (this is treated as an effect in the OT).  Other options are parametric EQ, a DJ-style EQ, Phaser, Flanger, Chorus, Compression effect, and a Lo-fi suite that lets you do things like sample-rate and bit-rate reduction among other things.

– Effect 2: Has all of the same effect options as Effect 1, as well as a stereo delay and reverb.

If that’s not enough effects for you, you can also assign a track to be what’s called a Neighbor track, using it’s effects to alter the previous track.  I.E., Track 5 plays a sample, Track 6 is a neighbor track that affects the overall output of Track 5.

 

IN USE

I’ll cut right to the chase and say that I absolutely love using the Octatrack.  I’m not normally someone who really enjoys hardware samplers that much, but this thing is just FUN to use every single time I power it on.  One of the first things I did when getting mine was convert my Ableton downtempo live pa to be OT ready, and then remix all of the samples once in the OT.  I’ve been amazed at just how far I’ve been able to take the samples away from what they originally were.  Here’s a short preview of the set:

Like the Machinedrum, the OT is a box that was designed not only for the studio, but the stage as well.  There’s so many handy performance functions, that I could easily see it handling my live sets for the near (and far) future.  Being able to tweak sounds to oblivion and then instantly recall the saved state, messing with multiple tracks at once with the crossfader, and smoothly blending from one song to the next using the built in sample buffers has been an amazing experience.  I never thought I’d have this much power and flexibility in a hardware box.

And to top it off, it sounds amazing too.  The filter is nice and smooth, the modulation effects are lush, the main outs are quiet, and what you sample sounds almost exactly like the original source material. There’s even a headphone jack with separate volume control so you can cue tracks if you want.

 

Is it all good news then?

No, there are a few areas that I hope get addressed in the future.  As mentioned earlier, the fact that the OT can store and playback samples that are GB in size and yet only sample for 16 seconds seems almost cruel.  Instead of freeing me from the computer as I’d hoped, I find that I’m still prepping my samples and loops in a DAW first.

Track muting functions more like an audio mixer than a midi groovebox, in that the mutes are applied post-effect.  So if you have a nice long delay or reverb on a sound and mute the track, the delays get muted as well.  I’d love to see any option for pre-effect muting.

The fact that sampling can be a little confusing to set up given how many options are available has caused some users frustration.  As has the fact that anything you do sample is not automatically saved, leading to missing sounds if you forget to do this manually. There’s rumors of an update due any time now to address this, but I can neither confirm nor deny that as fact.  Fingers crossed!  I’ll be sure to update the review with any new features if an update does come, so check back.

Finally, if this is your first Elektron box, it’s probably going to be at least a little overwhelming.  There’s a lot of options in how you use it, it’s really up to you to set it up and perform with it the way that best fits you.  It didn’t take me nearly as long to get to grips with it as I thought it would, but the Elektron-Users.com forum is full of people who didn’t bond with it quite so quickly.  I know people hate to do it, but reading the manual front to back before you even buy it will go a LONG way towards making sure you understand how it works and is organized.  That alone will save most people a lot of initial frustration and make the first few days a lot more fun I’m sure.

 

However despite these downsides I can full recommend the Octatrack for anyone looking for a creative and unique workflow in the hardware realm.  Laptop live performers might be surprised at how little they need their laptop afterwards, and even in the studio it offers ways of working unlike anything else I can think of. Here’s a recent tune I made using just the OT:

For years I’ve said that the Machinedrum would be my desert island piece of musical equipment, the one thing that I keep after selling everything else.  Since getting the OT I’ve had many a moment where I seriously think the Octatrack would fit that role instead now.  It sounds good, it’s incredibly flexible, solid as a tank, and it’s fun to use.  Hard to beat that!

 

If you have any questions on something not addressed in the review, feel free to post them in the comments and I’ll answer as soon as I can.

Also, be sure to check out the “commercial” Elektron made for the Octatrack before it was launched, it’s pretty cool:

Octatrack Preview

Ok, so I lied about yesterday’s blog post being the last one of the year, oops.   As I mentioned then, I just received an Elektron Octatrack, and I’ve since been getting tons of people contacting me with questions about it and wanting to see some video.  So I knocked together this really quick before I start my mastering work for the day, hope it holds people over until I can get more indepth on the Octatrack and record some better live performance related videos.

Enjoy, and post any questions you might have in the comments sections.

EDIT – I should also mention that the Elektron forums are a great source of info if anyone wants to learn more about any of the Elektron products. I’m a moderator there as well, but lots of really friendly and helpful people ready to answer questions: http://elektron-users.com