Well, as followers of my blog no doubt know, I’ve long been a huge fan of “grooveboxes” for making music.  I’ve owned most of them over the years, and always found their self-contained nature inspiring and downright fun to play.  So I was pretty interested a couple of years ago when Native Instruments announced Maschine, which was touted as a more modern take on the traditional groovebox concept.

But, for a lot different reasons at the time, I just was never able to get one.  Partly because I wasn’t sure I really want to revisit the MPC-style workflow it offered, and partly because funds were allocated to music gear elsewhere.  However as more and more people I knew started using it, and talking about how it completely changed the way they wrote music, I once again started to get interested.

A few weeks ago I was finally in a position to get some time with one, so I’ve been spending quite a bit of time learning it inside and out, and seeing how it fit into my studio (and perhaps live sets).  I’m not going to go into the details of what it does and doesn’t do, or how it works necessarily, there’s plenty of reviews and YouTube videos out there that cover that.  Instead I’ll just cover the things I really liked about it for my uses, and the things that I didn’t like so much, with a brief summary at the end explaining my overall thoughts in more detail.


– The hardware is solid. Lightweight as it’s mostly plastic, but feels like it would take some abuse.  The drum pads are the best I’ve ever used, and setting up the sensitivity to be exactly what I wanted was a cinch. The knobs are the same as on the S4, S2, and Kontrol X1, which is to say solid and smooth feeling.  I think NI has some of the best feeling knobs on their MIDI controllers (tied with Akai), so it was nice to see the same ones here.  The LCD’s are dim-able, easy to read, and do a lot to make you forget this is just a MIDI controller.

– MIDI Map mode on the Maschine is well done. The editor is easy to use and works inline with the MIDI in and out, so you can edit your mappings while controlling whatever host software you’re setting it up for.  You only have limited control over what names are shown on the LCD displays, primarily for the main drum pads only.  Still, it was dead easy to make my own custom mapping for Traktor Pro 2, complete with visual button and pad feedback (they light when pressed or controls are latched for instance).

– The sounds.  NI has always had really good drum sounds in their gear, I was impressed with what came with Battery 3 back when I owned it.  The quality of sounds in the Maschine are equally as good.  Doesn’t come with a ton of non-drum instruments, but for the most part they are good as well.  What makes this a really nice deal now is that Maschine also comes with the new version of Komplete Elements, which is full mapped to the Maschine hardware.  So there’s a lot of sounds you can access with Maschine, and this is before you start adding your own plug-ins ala the 1.5 OS update.

I did also get to take advantage of two of the three available Maschine add-on packs, Transistor and Vintage Heat.  In general I didn’t think these sounds were as good as what came with Maschine by default, but partly that was just my preferred style of music.  A lot of the content in those two packs were more geared toward hip hop and RnB styles, though certainly people could use them in whatever styles they wanted I’m sure.  Not bad sounds, just not great either IMVHO.

– Flexible pad assignments.  In Maschine speak, each pad can be assigned a sound, and these sounds can be individual samples, an effect (internal or plug in), or even multi-sampled sounds that you can play chromatically.  So for instance, in a kit with 16 pads, you could have each pad be a different grand piano if you wanted, they don’t just have to be individual samples.  This makes having only 16 sounds per kit, MUCH more flexible.

– Effects, lots of them.  Not just the number that come with Maschine, but how you can apply them.  You can apply up to 3 effects per drum pad, then three more to all 16 pads that make up a kit (or Group), and then up to 3 more effects on the master channel.  If that’s not enough, you can also create pads that are dedicated to just holding 3 effects on their own and treat those like send effects, complete with comprehensive routing options.  I’m probably missing some more, but needless to say there’s a lot of places in the signal path that you can apply effects in Maschine.  They’re not my favorite sounding effects (very clean usually), but there’s definitely enough on offer to do just about anything you need.

– Stable.  At least in my testing, I never ran into any crashes or other issues, everything worked exactly as it should once all my software was up to date (see below for more on this).



– NI Service Center.  This is the software NI uses to keep all of their software and drivers up to date on your computer.  It’s supposed to make things easier by putting all your updates in one place, but a lot of times it makes things more difficult.  My complaints aren’t Maschine specific, but it still drove me nuts.  For example, often times I would launch Service Center to check for an update, only to be told that the Centre itself needed to update.  Ok, fine, it would download itself, install and relaunch.  Then I’d have a list of updates I was told I needed, many of which were drivers for hardware I didn’t own (say S4, or Audio Kontrol 1) or manuals in other languages.  There’s no way to exclude these from the list of updates you’re told you need.

Now, maybe I just got Maschine at a time when a lot of updates were coming out, but I swear I felt like I spent half my time using Maschine trying to keep everything up today and restarting my computer.  New version of the Maschine drivers?  Restart.  New version of Guitar Rig Player for Komplete Elements?  Restart.  New version of all the drivers I didn’t really need but had to install so Service Center wouldn’t flag them as out of date? Restart.  Oh look, another 0.1 version update got released today, repeat the whole process over.

Granted I also have Traktor Pro and a Traktor Audio 6 soundcard on my system, but even with just the Maschine options I felt like this was a frustrating process.  It was easier to just download them manually from the Native Instruments website.

– You really can’t ignore the computer.  At least not all of the time.  I had so many people tell me how they were able to use Maschine like a hardware groovebox, and that you could just totally ignore the computer software.  Well, not really.  For basic beat creation and coming up with simple patterns, sure.  But there’s a lot of things that can only be done in the software, like saving a new version of your project, saving presets or custom kits, loading new (blank) projects, assigning Macro controls, etc.  Also, while there is some sequencer editing functionality with just the hardware, in general it’s MUCH, MUCH faster to just use the piano roll editor in the software.

I don’t want to over-state this, as there’s definitely a LOT you can do with just the hardware.  But at the same time I didn’t think that it is at the point where I could just sit with it on my lap and ignore the computer side of things either when making a complete song.

– Browsing sounds.  One of the downsides of the large library, is that it cam take awhile to browse for just the right sounds you need.  NI has done a good job of tagging all the samples and sounds like with most of their plug ins, but there’s still something like 700 kicks alone to go through.  It’s not bad to have a lot of choices, don’t get me wrong, but it did seem like I was spending a lot of time searching for the sounds I needed.  When it came to the multi-sampled instruments, the process was even worse, as some of these would take a few seconds to load each time.  Really not sure how this could be improved, but just be aware of it.

– Not a lot of performance-based options.  You can’t record song-length automation, you can’t build up a song structure by selecting patterns on the fly (though you can scenes, which is still kind of limited), etc.  I like grooveboxes primarily because they let me perform my grooves in realtime, and I just didn’t get the feeling that Maschine was designed with that in mind.

– Plug-in hosting is still a bit hit or miss.  For simple plug ins and the ones that come with Komplete Elements, most of the controls you want to access are already assigned to the first 8 macro knobs.  Otherwise, you might be scrolling through pages and pages of parameters on the hardware trying to find what you are looking to edit.  Again, probably not totally NI’s fault, but it does mean that once again you’re back at the computer with the mouse.


So really, not a huge list of complaints compared to the things I liked about it then.  So then why am I ultimately getting rid of it?  To be honest, I think it has less to do with Maschine, and more about the way I like to work.  I was hugely impressed with Maschine early on, I think NI did a great job of creating a new way of writing music that leverages some of the best ways of working with hardware and software.  But for me, it was almost a case of being too middle-ground for me to really get inspired by it.

It was similar enough to hardware grooveboxes that I really wanted to like it more, but the fact I had to keep reverting to the computer to do some tasks started to make me wonder why I didn’t just use the computer in the first place.  The hardware does a pretty good job at letting you focus on banging out simple patterns and ideas, but once you want to do any sort of detailed editing or arranging, it was back to mousing in a piano roll editor.  Call me weird, but I really kept wishing for a MIDI list editor I could access right on the hardware.  It would have made fixing the odd bum note(s) that much more focused on the hardware.

I think the other thing is that I’ve never really been hugely attracted to working in the typical MPC sort of workflow.  Using a 4×4 grid to play melodies just feels weird to me, and simply chaining together patterns to create a song structure just isn’t my thing.  I like lots of fills and transitional elements that lead to different sections of my song, and I found creating these on the hardware pretty tedious.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a great bit of gear actually, and I can see why so many people like it.  At the end of the day though, I think I just have a pretty specific way of creating my music that the Maschine just doesn’t fit into easily.  I’m sure I could find ways of using it, but it’s never going to be the center-piece of my studio like it’s intended to be.  So for now I’ll wish it a fond farewell, and move on to something else.

If anyone is interested in buying it (like new, all original items, even the stickers), I’ll sell it for $499 via PayPal and cover the shipping to the lower 48.  If you’re overseas, you’ll have to cover shipping costs.  Drop me an email if you’re interested.

Sound Quality: Live versus Logic

As a lot of people know, I tend to frequent a lot of various music-related forums throughout the day.  Every now and then (approximately every 18 minutes) I end up running into a thread discussing which DAW sounds better.  Or as some people like to say, which DAW has the best sounding “Summing Engine”.  Now, I’ve looked into this in the past and posted my results about it, but there’s new people getting into music production every day, so it’s time to revisit the topic I think.

Originally I had planned to do a huge, comprehensive test among all of the latest DAWs I could get my hands on.  But, I’m super busy with the mastering business lately, and realistically I don’t have the time to learn the intricacies of each DAW to make sure that I’m doing the test as fairly as possible.  And besides, the test is easy enough for anyone to run on their own.  So I’m only going to focus on the two DAWs I know and use the most (which also happen have to most heated debates on inherent sound quality), Ableton Live and Apple Logic Pro.

So for this comparison I’m going to be using Apple Logic Pro v9.1.5 in 32bit mode, and Ableton Live v8.2.6.  The basic premise of the test is pretty simple, I’ll use the same set of audio stems in each application, and then compare the rendered results.  For those of you who’d like to use these same stems in your own DAW of choice, you can download all the 24bit stems here:

Because I don’t have time at the moment to write new material for a test like this, I just used some stems from one of my recent songs.  I kept the stems at 17 bars to keep the file sizes smaller, with a short click at the very beginning to assist in lining up the files for comparison later on.  I did run the test on song-length stems as well, and got the same results as with these shorter files, for those that are curious.

Step one was to import all the stems into Logic, and lower each track fader to be exactly -3dB. (Command+Click on each image below to view it larger in a new Tab)

Next I made sure to change Logic’s pan law to “-3dB (Compensated)” in the project settings.  This way Logic is using the same pan law that Ableton Live uses (Live does not allow you to change the pan law).

After that I bounced all of the stems into a single stereo 24bit wav file.

Now to do the same in Ableton Live.  First step is to drag all of the stems into Live, MAKE SURE WARPING IS OFF, and then lower all of Live’s volume faders to -3dB.  It’s important in Live to actually type the exact value you want for the value faders.  Many people don’t realize this, but Live’s faders only show a resolution of one decimal place, but can actually be slightly different if you drag them with the mouse or use a MIDI controller.  For instance, if you drag them with the mouse they might really be set to -3.045dB, even though they show -3dB.  For day to day use this is no issue at all, but I want to make sure the volumes are identical to what I set in Logic.

Then I Exported the stems from Live into a single stereo 24bit wav file just like before.

Now the fun part.  The first thing I wanted to do is just listen to these two files and see if I could hear an obvious difference.  I dragged them both into Live (again making sure warping was off) and assigned a MIDI controller to mute one track while soloing the other.  This way I could instantly toggle between them with one button press.

Normally I’d get my wife to help me by toggling these while I wasn’t looking, so that the observations are done blind.  However she was watching Amazing Race on TV, so I had to just turn off the computer screen and do it manually a bunch of times without keeping count of how often I pressed the button. Not the most scientific, but regardless I could hear no difference between the two files anyway.  This was done at multiple volume levels with my monitors as well.

You can listen to the files yourself here:

Right click and choose “Save As” to download these to your computer if you want, and remember the little click you hear at the start of both files was intentional.

After that, I opened both files up Audiofile Engineering’s Wave Editor, and ran an audio analysis on them both.  You can see those results here:

As you can see, the results are identical.  Note that even though the “Selection Only” option is checked in the Analysis Window, the entire audio file was selected in both cases when I ran the analysis.

The final test was the infamous phase-cancellation test I’m sure many of you have seen mentioned before.  To perform this, I dragged both rendered files into Logic, used a Logic Gain plug-in on one of them to invert it’s phase, and then compared the combined output when both were played at the same time.  I used Logic metering, as well as Sonalksis’s Free-G plug in meter for greater resolution (and it’s free so other’s can use it for their own testing).  As you can see, when the phase of one of the files was inverted, the files COMPLETELY cancelled each other out.  I also repeated this test in Live using a Utility plug-in to invert the phase of one track, and got the same results.

This means they are bit for bit identical.

So, the results of this test show that Ableton Live and Apple Logic Pro produce exactly the same thing when you export a mixdown.

Everything else being equal.

That is the key point that people need to take away from this test, everything else being equal.  This test only shows that at their core, these two applications combine multiple tracks into a stereo wav file in exactly the same way, nothing else.  There are dozens of other aspects of each program that can affect the final audio quality of your mixdowns, and since there is no way to do a fair comparison of those, I’m not even going to bother trying.

For instance, both programs offer different time-stretching algorithms (Warping versus Flex-Time).  They both come with plug-ins (and presets) that designed and sound vastly different from each other.  They both handle things like automation data differently.  Just a few examples of places other than the supposed “summing engine” where what you do, and how you use each program, can impact the final sound of your productions.

I’m sure what I’ve done here won’t end the debate over which DAW sounds the best, but I do hope that in some small way it shifts the discussion to the aspects that truly make a measureable difference.  As I’ve shown here, if there is a difference in sound quality, it’s not in the way they combine multiple tracks into the final end result.


If anyone finds a flaw in my testing, or just wants to continue the debate, please feel free to discuss this in the comments section below.  Please don’t ask me to test other DAWs , I’ve provided the exact files I’ve used if you’re really that curious about it.  By all means feel free to post the results of any testing you do though, as I’m sure other people are curious as well.


UPDATE 12-06-2011

Well, it took awhile but the flood gates have opened about my Live versus Logic sound quality test that I just posted.  Some people have raised some good points about ways I could have modified the test to include other parameters, so I’ve gone back and done a few things differently as sort of a round two.   I also wanted to clarify a few questions that seem to keep popping up on different forums again and again.

First and foremost though, I wish people would have not just skimmed the article and actually read my conclusions.  I am NOT saying that Live and Logic ALWAYS sound the same.  The point of this test was to isolate one specific area for comparison, and show how at the core, the way these two programs combine multiple audio tracks into a stereo wav file is the same.  That’s it.

Like I stated in the original post, there’s a LOT of other areas where there will likely be difference in sound quality.  Instead of getting mad at me for not doing all the work for you, it would be great if people instead tested some of this on their own and said “hey look, here’s one area where I can reliable show a difference in signals”.


Anyway, here’s some other things I looked at over the last day, and some clarifications on the test itself:

– A few people mentioned that they hear the differences most notably with recorded instruments.  The guitar in this test was recorded live, it’s a Parker Dragonfly using a combination of the piezo and mag pickups, through a Pod HD500 and then into an RME Fireface400.

– Some people have questioned whether the soundcard I use (see above) could have any impact on the signals in the test.  Short answer is no, the soundcard doesn’t factor in at all until after the DAW has done it’s thing and that signal is trying to get out of your computer.  Or if your song sucks, maybe the signal is ashamed and is trying to stay in your computer, I don’t know.

– Other people wanted to know if perhaps the test would turn out differently if I use more than 9 audio tracks.  So I duplicated the tracks in each DAW many times, and added some other random loops from my collection as well (to rule out it just being these audio files that this was happening with).  In total, I used 80 stereo tracks, exported, and still got total cancellation when comparing the two.

– This last test was one of the most interesting.  Someone had suggested using the same 3rd party plug ins in both DAWs, and seeing if that had any impact on whether or not they cancel (or sound).  So I used a combination of Fabfilter Pro-L, DMG eQuality, Voxengo MSED and Polysquasher, and PSP Xenon, placed randomly across the different tracks (yet the same tracks in both DAWs).  Some were placed one after the other in series on the same track, others were solo by themselves on a single track.

Interestingly, when I compared these two results, they did NOT cancel, barely at all in fact.  As I dug into this some more, it seems that the Voxengo and PSP plugs were the primary cause, as once I removed these the signals almost cancelled.  Summed they were inaudible, but I was still seeing some very small signal around -96dB on the Free-G meter.  This gave me an AHA! moment though, when I realized this looked a lot like a dither signal.  Sure enough, I had forgotten that I had dithering enabled by default in Pro-L.  Once this was turned off, the two signals cancelled completely.

So, I’m really not sure what kind of conclusions one can draw at this point about this, other than some of the differences in this part of the test seemed to be down to the plug ins themselves.  Perhaps they report their latency differently, or have some sort of random processing happening as part of the way they work internally, I really don’t know.


Anyway, the long and short of all this is that all this testing was never meant to be a definitive statement about which DAW ultimately sounds better, or which people should prefer.  I’ve gotten a lot of surprisingly hateful emails from people calling me an “Ableton Fan Boy” (is that an insult?) among many other not so nice things.  At the end of the day yes, I do like Ableton Live for many things, but it’s only one of many tools at my disposal.

For instance, when clients send me mixdowns to work on, I don’t use Live unless they ask me to, I always reach for Logic first.  It’s faster for this type of work, has better automation functions, and quite frankly I like the way it’s plug ins sound better and how quickly I can add an EQ to a channel if I need to. (far from perfect though, Logic has been buggy as shit since OSX Lion came out).

As always I’m sure people will draw their own conclusions no matter what I say, but I do ask that instead of sending me nasty emails or message, maybe try instead to offer something more constructive to the conversation than “You must have tomatos in your ears!”.


UPDATE 12-13-2011

Well, it turns out a flaw has been found that invalidates my test.  In attempt to use measurement tools that others could also obtain for free, it’s been pointed out to me that the low-level resolution of the Free-G metering plug in was not sufficient to capture all of the audio signal.  An Ableton Forum user has brought to my attention that the last 3 bits of the null-test signal (the signal below -126dBFS) are in fact not bit for bit identical.

How much affect this has on the audible difference between the two signals is debatable (and I’m sure people will), but I have to withdraw my conclusion that Live and Logic produce bit for bit identical audio files given the conditions above.  My apologies for not being more thorough in my testing, you can now go back to arguing about which DAW sounds better 🙂

…and tigers and bears.

Well, despite all the warnings not to, last night I updated my OS to OSX Lion.  Just thought I’d share some of my thoughts on it so far for those still on the fence, or wisely waiting a little bit longer.  The main thing that made me decide to give it a try was seeing that the latest beta of Live (8.2.5b1) is now listed as Lion compatible. I figure I have a current Time Machine backup of my Snow Leopard (SL) install if things just aren’t working, and I’m going to need to upgrade to Lion eventually anyway in the future.  The fact that you can redownload if needed means I can always reinstall Lion at a later date.

I’m running it on a 2010 i7 2.66 MacBook Pro, for those that are curious.

The download and install process was pretty simple, took only 45 minutes to download, and roughly 20 minutes to install.  No fancy launch screens after the install is complete this time, your computer just boots back to the desktop and looks just like SL did before the install.  There’s some new icons in the Dock, mainly for Mission Control and the App Store, and the current user name is now displayed in the Task Bar (easy enough to CMD drag it off though).

Once you start using the computer more, the changes are more obvious.  The main thing I read about was people hating on the new reversed scrolling behaviour.  It was a little weird at first, but honestly within a couple minutes I was used to it and I think it makes more sense.  The one thing I didn’t realize is that the scroll wheel on my mouse is also reversed now, and that I I’m having a harder time getting used to.  The scrolling preferences are global across all devices, so you can’t have different settings for the trackpad and a mouse for instance.

The fact that the scroll bars now auto hide ala iOS is super nice too, saves a lot of space on the screen.  The full-screen mode that most OSX apps have now is also REALLY nice in my opinion, I always loved the fact that Ableton Live could do this as it really makes you focus on the app you’re using.  Super glad to have this natively in Logic now, without having to resort to preference hacks like in the past.  It’s also really useful in Safari and Preview too.

When apps are in full-screen mode, you can 3 finger swipe on the track pad left or right to switch between apps, or get back to your desktop.  Works well and makes sense, looks nice too.  Slightly confusing for me was fact that you now 2 finger swipe left or right in Safari to go forward or backward in your history, and the animation looks really similar to the one that is used to switch between apps.  Takes me a second to remember that I’m in the history, and not switching to a different app, just because the actions are so similar visually.

The new saved state in apps is ok, but I’m not sure how I feel about it yet.  It’s weird not seeing the little x in the red close button reminding you to save, though your document title does have an “Edited” text next to it until you do.  I’m not sure I really like how opening a closed app recalls the last document I worked on though.  For instance, if I close Text Edit after jotting down some notes, when I relaunch it later it pulls up the notes I was working on instead of a new blank document.  Ditto for things like Safari, it no longer opens with my homepage, it opens with the last website I was on when I closed it.  Not a huge deal as it’s only a key command away from what I want anyway, but it’s kind of weird to get used to.

Mission Control and Launchpad are honestly really not my thing, both seem way to cluttered to be of any time savings.  Mission Control is just a cluster fuck of information on the screen at once if you have a lot of apps open, and I really don’t think it’s organized that intuitively.  I don’t use Spaces at all though, so perhaps those kinds of users will find it easier to navigate in.  Likewise Launchpad is supposed to mimic a the home screen of an iOS device, but instead you get a ton of icons present across multiple pages.  Worse, they’re in all sorts of random order too, so it’s not that easy to find what you need.  You can rearrange them and create folders, but honest for me it’s easier to just spotlight search for an app if I need it and it’s not in my Dock.

On the music app side, so far things appear to be working ok.  I had one hiccup where Omnisphere was not recalling the correct patch in a saved Live project.  After closing and reopening the project though, it is now as it should be.  Logic and my mastering set up (Wave Editor) appear to be working fine too, but I still haven’t run them for a really long time to be absolutely sure.  I don’t have a ton of plug ins and instruments, but after trying them all last night everything seems to be working ok.

A real concern for me was reading that my version of Quickbooks (2009, which I use for my business accounting) was not going to be supported in Lion, and that I would need to pay $170 to upgrade to Quickbooks 2011.  As anyone with their own business will tell you, the accounting software is the backbone of the business, so when it’s working fine you’re really loath to mess with updates.  A little more digging and it looked like most of the issues with the 2009 version had to do with printing, which I never do, so I decided to chance it under Lion.  So far it appears to be running fine, so hopefully I can hold out a little longer to update Quickbooks.

Overall it’s been a pretty painless update for me, and for now at least, I think I’m going to stick with Lion.  Some aspects like full-screen mode I really enjoy, while things like Launchpad and Mission Control seem more like gimmicks to me.  The one thing that really strikes me though, is that since so much of this is centered around new gestures for navigation and taking advantage of new functions, that if you’re still using a mouse, you’ll miss out on a lot of the new features.  I know it’s definitely made me seriously think about using a Magic Trackpad instead of a mouse, even though I generally find the mouse more accurate.  We’ll see I guess!

Anyway, that’s my thoughts for now, I’ll post updates in the comments if something changes or if I decide to revert back to SL.  Feel free to ask any questions or post comments about your upgrade experiences too.


I also wanted to take a second to thank everyone for their kind words about the new Inner Portal Studio website and my services.  I appreciate all the nice sentiments people sent my way about that.

Touching Matters

So, like millions of other people, I now own an iPad.  I like Apple products, I admit it, but even I was a bit skeptical if I really needed one when they were first announced.  I have a current MacBook Pro, and an iPhone4 that I use all the time, and it was tough to see a use where the iPad was really going to make much of a difference between those two.

So, I waited to see how well it would be accepted, and what a new revision might bring.  I admit, I love the retina display on the iPhone4 and really hoped that was coming to the second version of the iPad.  The first iPad also felt a touch sluggish to me compared to the iPhone, no doubt due to having less memory for one thing.  I also wanted to see how the music community adopted it, since at the time the Lemur was really the only viable touch screen device for music apps.

Well, by Winter NAMM 2011 it was pretty apparent that the music manufacturers were starting to pay attention and embrace it completely.  Akai and others were coming out with new hardware to interface with it, more apps than ever were being written specifically for it, and most importantly for me, Spectrasonics was releasing the Omni TR app for it.  Since Omnisphere is my main synth these days, this alone was incentive for me to take the plunge.  It got rid of the pain in the ass need to manually map a generic controller to a software synth, and really embraced a method of controlling a synth ideally suited to a touchscreen (the Orb).

And of course shortly after this, Apple announced the iPad2.  While lacking the retina display, it was faster, lighter, and thinner, which are the usual adjectives one expects relating to Apple updates.  So, a couple of weeks after it was launched, I managed to finally get my hands on one.  I went with the base model 16GB, Wi-Fi model, as I’m still not convinced it’s something I’ll use enough to warrant the 3G connection or larger storage yet.  I’m not going to review the iPad2 itself, as there’s countless other places you can get that info, and my thoughts largely echo what you’ll read there.  Instead I wanted to share my thoughts on where it fits into my music making work-flow, and how it fits that niche between the iPhone4, and a laptop.

If you’ve used any iOS device in the past, then using the iPad is as simple as can be. Well, at least I thought it would be.  First thing I did was sync all my favorite apps, plus a couple new ones I bought specifically for the iPad, and then set about organizing them all like I had on my iPhone.   Right away you notice just how bad iPhone apps look on the iPad when in 2x mode, and suddenly all the complaints I had read from people wanting iPad native versions made sense.  I mean, they’re definitely useable, but they just look really poor scaled up that big.  So, it was a trip back to the App Store to see which ones had iPad specific versions, and to download all of those instead.

In most cases, this was well worth the time spent, as not only do the iPad native apps look better, in most cases they provide much better functionality.  The only one I found to be worse on the iPad was Yelp!, but that’s just me and not worth going into details about.  Weather apps, news apps, the normal day to day stuff you might use are by and large a much better experience on the iPad.  Not a huge surprise, but I was shocked at how much better they were laid out and how user-friendly they were with the larger screen.  News360, WeatherBug, NPR, Twitter, and Zite all stand out on this front, the iPad versions will change the way you think about getting information in the future, whatever that information smay be.

The other interesting thing for me, was how my previous method of organizing things on the iPhone translated so poorly to the iPad.  In the past I had folders set up for different groups of apps and shortcuts.  One for music apps, one for video apps, one for news websites, one for the forums I frequent, etc.  On the iPad version of Safari however, you retain the Bookmarks bar of the desktop version.  So you can access all of your normal web bookmarks without having to leave Safari.  On the iPhone, this is not the case, so home screen icons are the fastest way to navigate to these pages.  This way of working is counter-productive on the iPad though, it just doesn’t make sense to leave Safari and go back to your home screen each time you want to access a new website.  Add to that the fact that you can fit more icons on the larger iPad home screen, and I find that I end up using a lot less folders and icons in general for Safari related items.  It seemed counter-intuitive at the time, but treating it more like my laptop, and less like a larger iPhone was definitely the better way to work.

In general I think that I use it more like my laptop and less like my phone surprised me.  It’s easier to  hold and work with in landscape mode.  Typing is DEFINITELY easier in this orientation, and not as hard as one would think.  I’m still faster on my laptop keys by a long shot (and no, this post was not written on my iPad, how cliche), but I can type out decent length posts on the iPad really without much thought.  The only thing that is mildly distracting is iOS auto-correcting technical words I did spell right, into something totally unrelated.  But with use it’s learning and getting better at this. 🙂

Other than not being able to download and upload stored files, I can honestly see this replacing a laptop for most people.  One of the first things I do each day is sit in my living room with my laptop, checking email and various forums while I drink my morning coffee and plan out the rest of my day.  The iPad fits this role perfectly, and I have to admit it’s nice not having to disconnect the laptop from my studio rig of soundcards, hard drives, monitors, headphones, etc each morning (not that it was really THAT hard anyway, but still).  Anything requiring a longer reply or more detailed work, I just email myself a link to it and check it later in the studio.  Works great, for every day use I can see why so many people like the iPad.  Takes a little bit to get used to, but once you do, you don’t miss the laptop or larger screen that much at all.

Which brings me to what most people reading this probably care about: music apps.  I’ll try and squash some disappointment right away and state that I don’t have a ton of music apps yet, and if people know me by now, they know I’m not one to horde apps or plug ins anyway.  Still, I have managed to try quite a few over different categories, so I’ll share my thoughts on those.

For the most part, most of the mini-DAW type apps like Beat Maker, NanoStudio, and now Garageband work great.  The larger displays make working with them easy as can be, and I see no reason why someone couldn’t get some really great sounding demos or scratch ideas down anywhere they want.  Keys on their keyboards are easy to play, and moving around the apps is pretty simple.  This is one of my main goals for my iPad, using it to capture melodies and other ideas to expand on later in the studio.  Primarily using NanoStudio, though now I REALLY want an iPad specific version of that.

The new Garageband app is really well done I have to admit.  You can’t edit midi data you record, and you’re limited to the preset sounds they give you, but both of these are hardly show stoppers IMO.  Being able to open the work you do in Garageband on the Mac works flawlessly, and you can even open the files in Logic 9 directly too (though most of the instruments won’t work, the MIDI data all shows up fine).  I could care less about the new Smart Instruments they tout, but for quickly getting ideas down, even somewhat complex ones, Apple did a great job with this app, and other developers have some catching up to do IMHO.  Sound quality is excellent as well, and the velocity sensing you might have read about works better than you would think.

In terms of iOS controller apps, I haven’t tried TouchAble or Griid yet, but I do have TouchOSC from some stuff I was doing on my iPhone, and that works great as well.  Really no different from the iPhone version, just more screen space to fill with your own creations.  The Logic template that you get with TouchOSC works perfect too, if being a little bit busy for my tastes.  I eventually will redo my DJing template for TouchOSC for the iPad, but I’m still not sold on the idea of using a touch pad for all my DJing needs.  I can see it would be possible, but the touch screen is still not precise enough for me, and you always need to look at it to see exactly what you’re touching.  A good back up or for when I want to add some type of visual element, but I’m old-school I guess and prefer dedicated hardware mixers at this point still.  Maybe after some more use or with a better app I’ll change my mind.

There’s quite a few synth options on the iPad as well, and so far the one that I’ve enjoyed the most is Synthtronica.  The GUI is hit or miss at times, but it uses some cool formant shaping and filtering techniques that work well on the iPad.  Definitely worth the price if you’re looking for something unique and playable.  And of course apps like Bloom and Trope work just well on the iPad as on the smaller iPhone.  Ambient goodness, just larger.  🙂

On a side note, while its likely over-priced, the new Smart Cover works great for propping the iPad at a really nice angle when typing or working on music apps.  Ditto for watching movies.  Not trying to sound like an ad or anything, but if you’re on the fence about getting one, my vote is to go for one of the cheaper plastic ones.  It’s been more useful than I expected, even if most of them are in garishly bright colors.

So, some final thoughts.  My main intention when getting the iPad was for casual use at home, and for mobile music making. For casual use it’s been all I expected and then some, once I got over some small organizational issues I carried over from my iPhone experiences.  Web surfing is fast and fluid, movies look great, and it’s not as hard to type on as one would think.  For the average person, I could definitely see something like this replacing a laptop or a netbook, it’s almost a no brainer if you don’t need much file access.

For music making, well…. I’m split still.  For sitting out on my deck, or just in different rooms of the house, there’s no question I’ll use it a lot to sketch out song ideas when I just don’t feel like being in the studio.  I imagine I’ll bring it with me quite a bit to local parks like I used to with my iPhone for this reason too, though since it’s larger that will mean having to lug it about in a backpack instead of just my pocket.  It’s thin, small, and light, but still not as portable as a phone obviously.  Capable enough to handle creating complete songs on even, though I think I would still prefer doing this in the studio (as it should be)

As a DJ or general purpose live controller, there’s no doubt that it can be quite good at what it does.  I’m just not yet convinced that I want to work like that.  I certainly plan on working with it some more like this though, just to give it a fair chance at winning me over.  The flexibility and customization is there, I’m just not sure about sliding my fingers on glass to control parameters precisely yet.  Maybe the right app will win me over in time.

Dedicated control apps like Omni TR are a different matter though, and on that front I’m completely happy.  It completely changes the way I look at and interact with Omnisphere, and for me, that was worth the cost of the iPad alone.  It’s like having a brand new synth in fact. And on that note, there’s no denying how cool it is that for only $5-20 you can easily get some pretty cool sounding and powerful music tools via the App Store.  For those on a budget, $500 for an iPad plus $100 for apps will get you some really nice music making tools.  All of which can be run on battery power for up to 10 hours.

So while i might not be totally sold on the idea of a touch screen for making music all the time, there’s no denying that it’s something a lot of people and companies are going to be exploring in the near future.  I’m glad to at least have the hardware on hand to try out anything new that comes out, and if ultimately the touchscreen thing fizzles, well at least it was a lot cheaper than most hardware synths!

I’ll update my thoughts on all this as time goes on.  If anyone has any specific questions they want me to answer, just post them in the comments and I’ll get right on it.  Thanks for reading, and until next time, peace and beats.



A New Friend

Recently I decided to get a new guitar to replace the Ibanez S540FMTT I’ve been using for almost twenty years.  Honestly, the S540 is my baby, it’s been through thick and thin with me, but I was just feeling the urge to get something new.  Been taking a break from strictly electronic-based music, and I really wanted to focus on the guitar again for awhile.  Figured now was the perfect time for a new guitar then.  I’ve always been drawn to Parker guitars, but they’ve also been way out of my price range too.  So I had more or less decided to trade up the S540 to a newer Ibanez S5470 Prestige.  Same thing just newer electronics and bridge.

On a whim however (and partly out of boredom one day), I decided to visit the Parker forums to see kind of guitars they were putting out these days.  Out of pure luck I ran into an ad for someone selling a 4 month old, one of a kind Dragonfly DF724 (they don’t make them in blue flamed maple usually).  And it was in my price range, though just barely.  Taking a chance I bought it from the seller (who was a super nice guy and pleasure to do business with), and roughly a week later I had my new dream guitar.


And then things got interesting.

When the guitar arrived, I was ecstatic.  It was beautiful, light, and everything I could have wished for in terms of fit and feel.  I like thin and light guitars, and this was perfect, it just felt right.  The neck is just about as thin as the Wizard neck on the Ibanez, and the stainless steel frets (as opposed to the usual nickel ones companies use) feel amazing.  A little thinner than the jumbo frets I’m used to, but so easy to bend on.  The action was a touch higher than I was used to, but that was simple enough to adjust, and is now lower than my S540’s with no buzzing at all.  In short, this is the best guitar I’ve ever played, it truly feels like a high end hand-crafted instrument.  All of my expectations were met or exceeded.

I rushed to the studio, and plugged it into my Line6 Pod X3 to check out how it sounded.  I’ve never used a guitar with Seymour Duncan pickups, always been a DiMarzio fan.  My other concern had been the pick up layout on the Parker, which was a Single Single Humbucker configuration, where as the neck Humbucker on my Ibanez (H S H configuration) was the pick up I used the most.  Luckily the pickups sounded really good.

At least, they did for about 90 seconds.

About that time, the Pod X3 emitted a tiny pop sound, released a thin puff of smoke, and proceeded to reboot itself.  When it came back on, the display was blank (but lit), and it was not making any sound.  If there was any doubt that this was not going to end well, the faint aroma of burnt silicon quickly squashed that.  Sigh….

So there I was, less that two minutes into the first session with my brand new dream guitar, and I have no way to hear it.  Sure, I messed with the amps and pedals in Garageband for a bit, but it’s not the same.  They’re ok, pretty good, but not as good as the Pod X3 was.  Thus began the fun process of trying to determine if it was going to even be worth it to fix the Pod X3, or just get a new one.  After some research and calls to the local Line 6 service center, it turns out that I was only going to save about $40 getting it fixed, versus buying a new one (with the full warranty since it was new).   Some might think I’m crazy going back to a company after something like this, but I’ve owned all the Pods over the years, and this is the first issue I’ve ever had with one.

So, I started looking at what Line 6 was offering and quickly realized that the HD500 was probably more up my alley than another Pod X3 (combined with my MKI Shortboard).  Went to Guitar Center to pick one up, and I’m back in business again and couldn’t be happier.  I’ve posted about my recent guitar exploits on a few forums, and a lot of people have asked for a review of the HD500, so I figured why not.  Read on for the review….

Line6 HD500 Review

A lot of people who asked for this review are current Line 6 owners, who are debating upgrading what they have to the newer Line 6 HD line up.  So to some extent I’ll tailor my review to those with experience with Line 6 Pod products.  As I mentioned, I’ve owned all the Pods over the years, and always been happy with how they sounded for my needs.  I’ve also owned Digitech and Korg all in one offerings, as well as real tube amps from Marshall (a JCM), Fender (silver face Bassman was my first amp), and Vox (AC30).

I’ll be upfront in stating that I could care less how “realistic” a digital emulator sounds compared to a real tube amp, I’m not a purist by any means.  All I care about is does it sound good, and how flexible and easy to use is it.  In my experience, once you record the guitar and put it in the context of a song, the differences between real tube amps and todays higher end emulations are all but gone.  How they “feel” and play is a different matter of course, so I can certainly understand why some people care about this.

For me, each new revision of the Pods has meant a noticeable increase in sound quality, especially when I went from the Pod XT to the Pod X3.  The reverbs sounded smoother, it was more responsive to volume controls, and overall it was just a very noticeable increase in the sense of space and depth the unit provided. Unfortunately, it was a slightly more complicated unit to use, not as dead simple as the XT was.  Line 6 stuff has always been pretty easy to figure out, and the X3 was no exception, it just wasn’t as simple as the XT was.  Also, I didn’t really find the dual channel processing it offered all that useful either.  It gave you a lot of flexibility, but you had to be really careful things didn’t get too busy and muddy sounding too.  Using just one channel though, it offered a ton of ways to shape your sound.

Enter the HD500.  The biggest difference according to Line 6 is that they scaled back the amps they modeled, and focused on making them more accurate.  At wide open volumes (i.e., via the volume pot on your guitar), the amps aren’t hugely different to my ears.  Start to roll back the volume though, and they definitely are a lot more playable over a greater range than the previous Pods.  It’s a lot simpler to tone down a distorted amp with your volume pot now, and not feel like it’s just sort of turning down the distortion in the process.  Much more playable, and as a result makes the way you interact with the amps that much better.  But again, to me the sound difference when the volume is wide open is not huge.  Noticeable over the X3 sure, but not a gigantic improvement.  Since I thought the X3 amps sounded great already, this is fine by me.

Some people might lament the fact that the HD500 has less amps than the X3 did over all, but I think Line 6 did a great job of picking the right amps to include.  Creating a new guitar tone from scratch is much faster now, so in many ways I actually like the limited options.

And while they limited the amp models, there’s still over 100 different effects you can choose from, and these all sound fantastic.  The two biggest differences with the HD effects compared to the Pod X3, is that on the HD you have up to 8 different effects slots to insert whatever effects you want, and that the effects can be in any order that you want (as well as serial and parallel routing). Some of the reverbs and pitch shifters use a lot of computing power, so there are some rare times you might only be able to use 5-6 effects before you get a warning message about lack of processing available.  Also, keep in mind that things like the volume and wah pedals, EQs, and noise gates use up 1 of your 8 slots as well.  Hasn’t been an issue for me personally, it’s still way more flexible than the X3 was.  Effects now only have 5 editable parameters, but I don’t find this a limitation at all so far.  On the plus side, you can also assign more than one effect parameter to a toggle switch now, so one button press can do multiple things.  Handy.

In terms of hardware, the IO options on the HD500 are very plentiful, more so than the X3 was.  Rather than list the connections available, I’ll just say check out the list at  The pedal board itself is very sturdy, pretty heavy too, definitely built for use live.  I really like the new toggle switches on the HD compared to my Shortboard MKI, much easier to toggle effects and select presets now.  The volume/wah pedal feels solid, as do the basic tone controls, though I did feel these were spaced rather close together.

The HD500 also has a dedicated looper now, with up to 48 seconds sampling time.  The looper is simple to use, the display changes to show you what each toggle does when you enter this mode, so I didn’t even need to open the manual to figure out the operation of this. In fact, the overall operation of the whole unit has been greatly improved compared to the X3 and earlier Pods.  Instead of scrolling through a long list of all your effects modules in a patch (some with pages of parameters each),  you use a visual grid of the effects to select which to edit, and the 4 soft knobs below the display to select and tweak each one.  It makes perfect sense once you’re in front of the unit, and I think it’s biggest change to how you edit patches on Line 6 gear since the Pod was introduced.  Very hard to explain in words, so I’ll just say once you ‘get it’, it’s far easier and faster than the previous Pods were.

If you don’t want to edit from the front panel (and who could blame you since it’s a floor-based unit), the HD series comes with some free editing software for your computer.  While not quite as simple as Line6’s Gearbox software, I was able to figure it out in a couple of minutes without the manual.  The software lets you view all the effect parameters at once, as well as functioning as a librarian program as well.  Great for moving patches around in set lists.

Ah set lists, I almost forgot about them.  New to the HD range is a concept known as set lists, which are basically a collection of 128 patches each.  You have room for 8 set lists onboard, 4 are factory patches you can over-write if you want, and 4 are blank User locations ready for you to store your favorites too.  Like previous Line 6 gear, patches (Tones) are stored in 16 banks with 4 patches each.  So a set list is collection of these 16 banks.  These are easy to switch between, you just press the selection encoder on the hardware to open the set list selection screen, and you just turn the encoder to select the set list you want.

A quick bit of math and you’ll realize this means there are 512 locations for patches built into the HD series, 4 times the amount available on the X3 and earlier ranges.  In a somewhat misleading way, Line 6 states that the HD500 comes with 256 patches preprogrammed onboard.  In use though, a lot of the patches are duplicated among the different set lists, so you don’t get that many unique Tones.  I read a lot of complaints about the factory sounds when researching the HD500, but to be honest, I like them a lot.  They definitely tend towards the weird and wild many times versus being straight up simple amp emulations, but they’re very well done IMO.  Some of them turn your guitar into otherworldly sounds that you’d be hard pressed to identify as coming from a guitar, so this is great for a musician like myself.  Most make great use of the expression pedal, though because many of the effect parameters can be assigned to the same toggle switches, sometimes turning these on and off leads to unexpected results.  Hard to know what you’re turning on and off if you didn’t create the patch.  The display will show you which effects are assigned to each toggle, but only for the first effect assigned.  Minor complaint though.

Ok, this is getting stupid long now, so I’ll try and wrap it up and summarize my overall thoughts.  Line 6 state that the main goal with the HD series was to make the amps more playable, and on that front I think they did as intended.  Especially if you use the volume and tone controls on your guitar to help shape the tone you’re after.  In terms of pure sound quality, I don’t think the HD500 is a huge step up from the X3, though there is a small but noticeable difference.

I really like the new effects models the HD500 has over the X3, especially the pitch-shifting effects and the pattern tremolo, which lets you create some complex gating patterns.  The looper is a real blast to use as well, and it’s simple to operate.  Navigating and creating patches is so different from previous Pod’s, that at first it was slightly confusing.  Once you get it though, it’s definitely an improvement over earlier models, and I really like the way Line 6 did it.  Even if most effects have less parameters to control as a result.  The hardware itself is very robust in most cases, and has enough IO options to please just about anyone. The global menu has also been revamped, and now has a lot more options to control and tailor the HD500 to perform exactly as you want.

Other than losing some of the bass and vocal processing functions of the X3 (which I never really used anyway), I can’t think of any other area where the HD500 is step back from the earlier Pods.  At least for my uses.  It sounds great and is easy to use, and those have always been my primary criteria.  If you have any questions or need a clarification on something, please post it in the comments.  Likewise, if there’s anything you’d like to know about the Parker guitar, let me know and I’ll be happy to answer it if I can.  Hope you found this useful!

Traktor S4 – Long term use

Well, I’m not totally sure I’m going to sell it yet, but it’s definitely something I’m considering.  I have a feeling we’ll see an update around Winter NAMM, so I’m waiting to see how responsive NI is to user requests before I make up my mind.  If I do sell, likely somewhere around $799.
As for it being a love affair, well, sort of.  I’ve always said that my main reason for going to Traktor was just to see what the competition was up to, and not because I was leaving Live for DJing per se (just used it two nights ago in fact).  Yes the S4 is pretty, and it’s new, and there’s a lot of hype around it, but it has some flaws too.  After quite a bit more time with it, here’s my updated thoughts on the S4 as a DJ package:
The Good:
– Track browsing and crate organization is excellent, lots of options and ways to customize your playlists, and the way NI implemented the push encoder for previewing is one of the nicest things I’ve seen in awhile.
– Overall build quality is very good, especially the knobs and the jog wheels.
– Easy set up.  One usb cable, one power cable, done.  Does not draw a lot of power either, I often use it with my laptop running on battery power when I’m too lazy to move the laptop powercord from my studio to dj set up, lasts for hours like this.
– The loop recorder is really nice, grabbing recordings of audio as you tweak it via the filters, EQ, and effects is really convenient, and you can even move recordings from the loop recorder to a sample slot fairly easily with the hardware.
– Some really useful DJ features for when things go bad.  IE, the main volume knob is seperate from the software volume knob, so you can always kill the sound instantly if you need to.  The fact that you can hook up an MP3 player to the hardware and that it’s hardwired to the main outs is useful too if you need to reboot.  The USB socket deserves a mention too, it’s SUPER snug so there’s no worries about the USB Cable coming unplugged.
– I like the layout of the Traktor software, they do a really nice job of letting you configure what you want to see.  Having a dedicated button to switch the browser to full screen is nice too.  Dual waveform view is nice too, though the waveforms are a little small IMO.
– No denying the usefulness of being able to manually beatmatch tracks if you need to, or if you don’t want to prep (grid) your tracks.
– Overall sound quality is good, as long as you really pay attention to your gain structure (see below for caveats).
– On the fly looping is implemented really well, though I wish loops could be longer than 8 bars when set on the fly with the loop encoders.
The Bad:
– The EQs are really not that good IMO.  Not even counting the lack of the Traktor Pro 4-band EQ, the current three options are just not that good sounding IMO. Very phasey sounding, not that transparent.  This is probably my biggest complaint with the S4.  They’re still useable of course, but hard to be subtle with them.  I’ve had more than a few people point out that it was pretty audible when I was EQing tracks, and I barely cut that much when using EQ for DJing.
– The metering on the hardware is next to useless.  I don’t find that the signal is really represented well, does not seem to be accurate at all.  Personally I think it’s reacting too fast and possibly the tiny bit of latency could be throwing things off.  Basically it’s hard to accurately know your levels looking at the meters on the S4, I tend to look at the software meters instead, which is the opposite of how it should be.
– The faders and gain knobs are so so feeling.  Not the worst I’ve used, but not up to the same quality as the knobs and jog wheels.  The gain knobs have a potentially useful feature in that if you push them, they reset to 0dB.  Unfortunately in order to keep the soundcard in the S4 from clipping, I often need to keep the channel gains closer to -6 or -7dB.  This means accidentally pressing the gain encoder causes the volume to jump drastically and distort. Bad when this happens mid-mix.  Also the gain knobs are detented, which can sometimes make narrowing in on an exact value impossible.
– Auto-levelling and the output limiter in the software are not that good.  For some reason Traktor always BOOSTS the signal of tracks to level them, which means you need to crank the channel gains down a lot to keep from clipping.  It also means it’s next to impossible to keep from hitting the limiter as well, which sounds not that good IMO (granted I’m really picky about this doing mastering for a living).  I disable both of these functions and manage gain myself.
– The Sample Decks are not key-locked or timestretched, which means if you assign a sample to them from a track that’s not playing exactly at it’s original tempo, it will be out of sync or out of tune with the audio currently playing.  As a result, I almost never use these unless I grab a loop with the loop recorder first, and then assign it to a sample deck.
– Effects are so so.  They make it very easy to assign the effects you want to the effects knobs, but honestly I find most of them to be pretty bland.  Also things like the delay do not show the delay time in musical values (i.e. 1/8th, 1/4, etc), unlike how it is done in Traktor Pro.  All values are 1-127.  Effects are prefader too, which is not how I prefer them.
– Very hard to see the hardware controls in low light.  Too much black, and too small of text in most cases.  Also the glossy area around the EQs and volume faders is super prone to collecting fingerprints, which makes your shiny new toy look very messy in no time.
– Not very easy to remap controls with the default S4 configuration.  For instance, if you wanted to reassign the loop length knob to global tempo, there’s really no simple way to do this currently.  So you either use the S4 hardware as NI intended, or switch to MIDI mode and lose a lot of funtionality that can’t be accessed via midi mapping.
It might seem like I have a lot of complaints about the S4 system, but in all honesty most of these are just minor annoyances.  I think the main thing I’ve learned is that the S4 system has enough flaws that it’s not an obvious winner over my previous Live set up for DJing.  It does a lot of things very well, but in some ways it feels like it’s not yet done or was rushed to market on the software side of things.  Stability has not been a concern, which is the main thing, but I think NI still has a ways to go with making things a little more customizeable for power users.  Most of my wishes are things that can be addressed by a software update, as well as being things that many other users have been asking for as well.  That’s one reason I’m waiting until NI releases the next update, to see what (if anything) they address.  Better sounding EQs, more accurate metering, and key-locking of the sample decks would definitely win me over.