Category Archives: midi

RECORDING: Hardware samplers vs. laptops!

So, I’m always on the hunt for gear that makes my job as a musician/music producer and songwriter a lot easier/cheaper. Laptops are essential, these days. And/or hardware samplers… but, which is better?

For live use… a lot of people recommend using hardware samplers… because there’s basically like zero chance of a crash. Yes, but…

If you take care of your laptop, how often do you actually find it crashing or slowed down? Zero percent of the time? That’s kind of me, in a nutshell. If you know what you’re doing… it’s about as reliable (if not more than) a hardware sampler. I don’t have pop-up ads on my shit, and the audio playback is precise… because I tweak it, and I monitor my internet activity… and/or I don’t go on the web at all, on a music-making laptop.

Let’s say you’re in a duo (basically all bands I’m in are duos)… and, say you need backing tracks to fill out your sound. There’s only two people… playing two instruments and singing… so… you might need something to play a beat, or layered background/countermelody vocals, and/or keyboard parts, or basslines…. that’s where a laptop or hardware sampler come in. Most duos are often either two guitars/singing… or a guitar and a piano, and singing. Or, a mix of all (such as duos like Shovels & Rope). But most often, it’s either two guitars and singing, or guitar/singer, and pianist/singer.

Duo Examples:
First Aid Kit (guitar/vocals, and keyboards/vocals)
Angus and Julia Stone (guitar vocals, and guitar/vocals)
Wye Oak (bass/guitar/vocals, and drums/keys/computer)
Lemolo (keys/guitar/vocals, and drummer/backing track player)
Beach House (keys/vocals/drum machine, guitar/vocals)
Goodbye Heart (keys/vocals, guitar/drum machine/vocals)

Ok… so, here are your current choices for a hardware sampler:

Korg Electribe Sampler ($400 street)
Roland SPD-SX ($800 street)
Roland SP-404SX ($500 street)
used Akai MPC1000 ($varies)
used Akai MPC500 (often less than $300 used)
Akai MPX8 or MPX16 ($100 or $200)
Pioneer/Dave Smith Toreiz SP-16 ($1500 street)

Now, here’s the problem with hardware samplers: STORAGE (or lack thereof!)

Electribe? 270 seconds, in mono (that’s about 5 minutes.. and only 5 minutes of samples…. without having to load anything. Sure, you can use a 32GB SD card… but that’s only for loading samples into RAM… which, you only have 5 minutes of storage. Only 5 minutes.

Roland SPD-SX – Price is ridiculous. But, you get 4GB of storage. That’s 720 minutes, of mono samples. Yes, you read that right. 12 hours. Now we’re talking… but… this device is useless, unless you’re a drummer. What if you’re a vocalist who just wants to lightly push a button, on a small device on a stand (I’ve seen a lot of vocalists do this.. in professional bands)? Not everyone wants to hold a drumstick the entire set…

Roland SP-404SX – A little pricey…. 2GB of storage. 360 minutes, in mono. Six hours. Possibly more, with an SD card, but I think the RAM (the internal memory) is 2GB. Not bad… not bad at all. Haven’t messed with this, so I don’t know the full capability… but, it seems like a good value… I’ve seen pro bands use this live, such as the all-woman Brooklyn indie band Teen.

Akai MPCs-– not a lot of storage (the MPC1000 was the last unit sold new until 2009… until recently when Akai has announced new (and VERY pricey) hardware samplers……. . Upgrading the ram on one of these older units to 128MB (the maximum) allows about 24 and a half minutes of mono samples. Not bad. If it’s a stereo WAV file that’s 5 minutes long (about 50MB), you can store about 4 of them in an MPC with its RAM maxed out. But that’s only 4 songs. Your set is probably 8-10 songs. Sure, you can put together a sequence with smaller samples… but that’s a lot of work. But, the MPC is tried and true… and many people use them live… still. I find the workflow to be ridiculously slow and counter-intuitive (always have, with MPCs).

Akai MPX8 and MPX16. SLOW LOADING TIMES. Bug-ridden. Crappy menus. 60MB of total storage (yeah, that’s decent– enough to fit one 5-minute stereo WAV file as a backing track, but sadly… I think each pad on each of these units can only store like a 4MB sample, per pad)…. The MPX16 is decent… but, I read it’s bug-ridden.

Pioneer/Dave Smith Toraiz SP16. Find the need and fill it? Yeah. They have. But at what cost? 8GB of flash memory, and 256MB for audio sample memory… wait.. what? I’m a little confused about that. Also, each sample can only be 32 seconds or less, long… so, forget about stereo WAV backing tracks…. A beautiful device, for sure… but… $1500? Whoa.

 

Now….. LAPTOPS.

I can get an 8GB Dell Precision laptop (quad-core i7) for only $250 used on ebay (full HD display at 1920×1080 resolution)… swap out the HD for a solid-state hard drive (525GB Crucial SSD is only $150 new)… now we’re at $400. Upgrading the RAM to 16GB from 8 is a $50 investment. $450 total, now. Pick up a used Novation Launchpad or Behringer TC64 (just like a Launchpad) for about $50. Total cost: $550. Or, if you want to trigger the samples with your feet… a Behringer FCB1010 ($150 new) or a used Line6 FBV Shortboard MKII ($125 used).

A Launchpad comes with Ableton Live Lite 9, which is powerful as hell, and free. And you can trigger ANY samples you want… size is only limited by your hard drive. Ableton will work fine on a 4GB laptop, but even better on a 16GB one.

Or, you can go the route I’m figuring out— Reaper 5, with “Playtime” (a virtual instrument designed by a hardcore Reaper fanatic, which works exactly like Ableton’s “Session View”) OR…. Reaper 5 and “Regions” (each region triggered by MIDI notes or CCs). Backing tracks are a breeze, using Reaper 5 and creating Regions from whatever audio clip is on your timeline… plus, you can infinitely loop Regions, and move onto another… and it won’t play the one you clicked to or triggered, until the current one has stopped playing.

Why the fuck would anyone buy or use a hardware sampler for live use, when a laptop is commonplace live, these days… and… a laptop with a MIDI controller is just so much more cost-effective (and the storage and options are basically unlimited)…? I would feel completely comfortable using a laptop live, especially with a solid-state hard drive in it…. why the hell not? That’s fast as hell, and rock-solid stable.

I know I’m babbling about this (it’s 2:11am and I had a huge coffee about two hours ago)… I really need to make a YouTube video talking about the pros and cons, and showing how effortlessly a laptop and MIDI controller can be used to great effect, for live…

Since I make all of my music on a computer… creating backing tracks is simply a matter of simplifying an arrangement, and muting lead vocal tracks, and/or mixing things down to a simple 5-track setup, per song (bass, drums, keys, extra guitars, backing vocals)…. I don’t have to manually re-arrange something in a hardware sequencer… and sample, re-sample… load/chop/tweak… why? It just doesn’t make any sense.

Any duos out there? Any electronic musicians who perform live? What do you use? What do you hate? Pro-laptop? Anti-laptop? Talk to me. I have 60+ readers on this blog… talk to me. Let me know you’re out there. Let’s create some kind of community, here… I want to know what you think and what you’re using.

Thanks!

 

 

 

 

 

RECORDING: RapidComposer 3

I played a big part in developing and popularizing this cool MIDI-based software, that allows you to quickly do a lot of cool MIDI stuff. I last talked about it a few years ago, as there was a big update to version 2.5. Now, RC has been updated to version 3.1, with a new user interface, and many more features. I invite all of you (especially those of you who love MIDI composition) to check out the demo. It’s worth your time.

http://musicdevelopments.com

A little history:

RapidComposer was created by Attila Mezei, a Hungarian software developer. When RapidComposer began, it had a very rough start, because it crashed so much. But I discovered it, and saw its potential, so I emailed Attila, and offered to help him work a lot of the bugs out, and do a tutorial series on it, as well as help him develop phrases and new soundfonts which I created from scratch. I did all of this for version 2.5, and in exchange, Attila gave me a license for the full version of the software. RC 3.0 was released in spring 2016, and offered a lot more than 2.5.

Six years after RC debuted, its fanbase grew exponentially, and I am really happy for Mr. Mezei. He truly has created something amazing that no other software developer has done yet, and with so many features.

Check out some of the videos created by a very helpful member named “Yellukhan”:

 

 

Now, this guy uses RapidComposer, but with realistic virtual instruments from Kontakt and such… the built-in sounds when you download RapidComposer are soundfonts (created by Attila, and myself). They may not be very realistic, as you get the best sounds when RapidComposer is controlling virtual instruments such as Omnisphere, EZKeys, or any realistic Kontakt library (found in Native Instruments’ “KOMPLETE” series). But it’s pretty impressive, what RapidComposer can do… if you take the time with it. So again, check it out and let me know what you think! Comment below… especially if you’re a MIDI geek!

 

RECORDING: Technology, Sound Quality, and bad marketing

I suppose you could call this another rant….

Lately I’ve been researching a lot online (well, when don’t I… I’m a music teacher by day, so I gotta know my shit 24/7)….. and I’ve found out some truly disappointing things.

Let’s talk about 88-key digital pianos, for instance. For decades, the sound was improving, as was the feature set. Something that manufacturers NEVER cared about until recently though was having actual, usable sounds. What do I mean by usable?

Fender Rhodes
Wurlitzer 200
Grand piano
Upright piano

Good emulations of all of these instruments can be included in all of these digital pianos, even the ones for $600 (Yamahas). Yamaha recently made a tiny little toy called the Reface CP, which has great-sounding Rhodes, Wurly, CP80, Clavinet…. and some GREAT built-in, USEFUL effects, for $500. The catch? The things are tiny, with 37 mini-keys. But… the sounds are there, and quite convincing.


Now, the major gripe I have with the major digital piano manufacturers (Yamaha, specifically) is that as of a couple years ago, they removed their standard MIDI in/out ports for their pianos less than $700. Standard MIDI in-out ports are common for a reason. MIDI lets you connect one device to another. For instance, you can get a nice 88 weighted-key digital piano with standard MIDI in/out, and have it control the Reface CP, so you have superb-sounding Rhodes, Wurly, and Clavinet sounds at your disposal (without having to use the mini-keys). A blessing, live (you ever try to pick up a Rhodes piano by yourself?)

So again, Yamaha removed their standard MIDI in/out ports on all digital pianos (under $700) since 2013. Casio did, too, on their Privia line (PX-130, etc, etc). Now all they both have is “USB to HOST”, which means, they can connect to other keyboards, but only if there’s a laptop, in between.

What if you want to avoid the laptop use, especially in a live setting?

Yamaha’s P-45 is less than $400, new. Great key feel, great piano sound. No MIDI I/O. Just USB to HOST port (side note– USB is often flaky and sometimes unreliable, and never securely attaches to anything on the device-side.)

Why not put the USB to HOST port on their unmovable pianos? Happily connect your ipad to it, or your laptop, as you’ll never move those gigantic beasts, anyway (the ones with the built-in stands, like the Clavinova series). Standard MIDI I/O should definitely be on the more portable pianos and keyboards.

It always baffles me that no one has tried to make a true all-in-one product, that actually sounds damn good. The only people who have done this ar Clavia, with their Nord Stage and Electro series (specially the weighted-key versions), and then Korg, with their much-loved SV-1.

Why hasn’t Yamaha or Casio done this yet? The Casio Privia PX-5S is definitely a NICE board for the money, and the sounds are tremendous, but it’s a bit ugly, and too much button-pushing through menus.

If Yamaha merged their P45 digital piano with their Reface CP…. and put a price tag of $800-1000 on it, I’m sure thousands of (non-rich) performing musicians would pick it up.. A Nord Electro with weighted keys is nearly $3000. That’s just insane. I know the pros swear by them, but they have the money to do so. What about the rest of us?

 

In short, find the need and fill it. Ya know?

 

 

SONGWRITING/RECORDING: RapidComposer (huge update)

Hi guys, I wanted to talk about a program I’ve helped improve over the last six months– RapidComposer by http://www.MusicDevelopments.com (a Hungarian company).  I discovered it about a year and a half ago.

RCscreenshot

I work closely with the developer, in working out bugs, suggesting features and functionality improvements, and music theory consultation (the developer has no music experience, but wanted to create a program that helps users compose MIDI music insanely fast). I also re-wrote the 22-page manual from scratch (with new screenshots, etc). It’s now close to 70 pages.

We (and I use this term respectfully, as I feel like I’ve become a member of MusicDevelopments, because of how closely I’ve worked with the guy who conceived the program) are coming out with a major update to the program, on November 18th. 99% of the bugs/potential crashes have been worked out of the program, and many, many useful, fun features have been added.

I also do video tutorials for the program, and as of this writing (November 6th, 2013), I finished 11 videos. You can check them all out at my YouTube channel. Here’s a direct link to the Tutorial playlist:

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLt9aB3JimWsgmyBi8w_1ydxiMlp9P6Wu1

There are a few more tutorial videos coming out (more about the Idea Tool, Phrase/Track Variations, RC as a plugin inside your DAW, and Drag-N-Drop functionality).

The developer and I feel that this program is insanely powerful, innovative, groundbreaking, etc. No other program out there works with midi phrases/motifs that conform to chords and harmony, in such a fast way. One program works similarly: “Synfire Pro” by Cognitone (which many have said is incredibly overpriced for what it does). I was one of the first paying customers of Cognitone software (I bought Harmony Navigator 1.0 back in 2007), and I never really found that program as useful or as fun/fast to use as RapidComposer. (And on a personal note, Cognitone has never really been that friendly, regarding questions about or problems with the program.)

So I am proud to be a part of MusicDevelopments and help the tiny company get out there, more. This software deserves to be a a go-to tool for electronic music producers, songwriters, and studio nerds. Additionally, you could use RC without having any keyboard-playing experience at all… in fact, we feel that it can be easily utilized by people who may be physically-restricted due to hand/wrist injuries, aging, or partial paralysis, who may love the very essence of music, composing, MIDI, etc… but never were able to put anything together, until now. In my tutorial videos, I throw together cool music ideas with just one hand- using my mouse, and hitting keystrokes to insert Phrases, never touching a MIDI keyboard at all. So again, not only is this program extremely powerful, but it is unique and can be used by all types of people, regardless of musical experience.

So do me a favor, and check out the major update on November 18th… you can download the demo for free (though the demo does not include the Idea Tool, or the new, awesome Melody Generator).

Thanks for following my blog, and especially, thanks for checking out RapidComposer!