Acces Virus, GUI, Korg, Line6, M3, Plug-ins, Protools, synth, Synthesizer

Synth/DAW Integration

One of the most powerful idea in music creation recently has been the control of hardware synthesizers within digital audio workstations (DAW) plug-ins.

Like most people, I started with a hardware synthesizer (Roland D-50). However, as I started using DAWs more and more, I got frustrated with the lack of integration between the two. MIDI messages are just not enough to reliably control all the parameters in a synth.

Soft Synths
On the other hand, soft-synth plug-ins, although quite powerful usually require a lot of CPU resources. Also, because they are easily pirated, they do not warrant the same depth of development as their hardware counterparts. Of course there are exceptions, but usually, the best sounds come from hardware units. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to get the best of both world by controlling hardware synths through plug-in “wrappers”.

Direct digital IO
Since both audio and midi can pass through USB/Firewire, this results in higher audio quality and more solid MIDI clocking.

Since plug-ins can be used as “insert” effects, they can be used to reprocess sounds from any track (including their own). The only limitation is the number of “channels” supported by the device.

Again, let me reiterate this: there is no point in developing software if no one is paying for it. I don’t care how much some feel that “software should be free”: in the end somebody needs to get paid to keep going. This is the reason ProTools will always require an audio interface: it’s a built-in dongle. You can copy the software, but no one will sit down and replicate the hardware electronic. Hardware has the advantage of having zero piracy.

One Time Cost
Another very vexing part of investing in soft synths is that you have to keep upgrading (essentially, buying back) your plug-ins every time you upgrade your system. Some vendors allow you to download new versions for free, but this is rare. Again, with hardware, you pay once and you download integration plug-ins for free.

Example 1 – Korg M3


This is why I’m so excited about the new Korg M3. In a way, Korg have been playing with this idea way before anyone else when they introduced the Oasys PCI in 1999 (not to be confused with the more recent OASYS synthesizer). The Oasys PCI was an add-on PCI card that you could install on your computer to provide a wide range of Korg FX and synth algorithms. Korg also came out with a range of Legacy plug-ins that resurrected famous synths from the past such as the M1. This provided them with the know-how required to design and maintain the M3 host plug-ins under many formats (RTAS, VST and Audio Units). I’m looking forward to plugging my electric guitar directly in the M3 for recording Adrenalinn-type sounds.

Example 2 – Access Virus TI


Access‘ TI (Total Integration) has been around for a while now. This is a natural progression for them, since they’ve been producing both hardware and software plug-ins (mostly on PowerCore) for some time. Although I love the Virus sound, I feel that it is less useful as a general synth for songwriters.

Example 3 – Line 6


With their amp modeling software technology, Line 6 has been doing total integration since at least 1999. They sell DSP-based software on a variety of hardware “interfaces”. In a way, Line6 is really a software vendor. The hardware can be made anywhere (mostly China), but all the modeling technology is “made in USA”.

Apple, development, OS-X, UI

Adventures In ObjectiveC++


I was recently asked by a fellow developer to relate my experience of writing multi-platform graphical applications with ObjectiveC++. This has become a very important topic, now that Apple has made it clear that they were not going to improve the Carbon framework and that everyone should use Cocoa/OjectiveC.

Writing ObjectiveC++ applications is straightforward, but there is no up to date documentation on the process. Generally, programmers want to use Cocoa/ObjectiveC for the UI and C++ for all “core” components. With C++, you get STL and a very large collection of well-tested code. In the end, although the object models in C++ and ObjectiveC are quite different, they can easily co-exist as they are both based on C and use common design patterns.

Main Objective C++ Documentation
This 2001 Apple release note is in serious need of an update, but it provides all the basic rules of mixing the two language.

Example XCode Project
The great time saver consist on finding a good example project. The Big Nerd Ranch provide this simple example where a C++ object is used to encapsulate the drawing code from within a Cocoa project.

Gotcha #1 – Embedding Method
The most basic decision that has to be made is how to actually represent the embedded C++ class: as a member object or as a pointer?
· CDrawing m_Drawing; // object or…
· CDrawing m_pDrawing; // pointer to object

Obviously, being able to embed an object directly would be awesome if the constructor and destructor were called automatically by the parent ObjectiveC view class.
This article as well as this one claim that this is possible using the latest GCC compiler. I’ve tried and it only works if the embedded class is very simple: no inheritance, and no member objects. This is useless for most applications, so basically, using a pointer is still best.

Gotcha #2 – Conditional C++ Includes
Every header file associated with an .MM file must start with something similar to this:

// ifdefs hide the C++ type from pure ObjC classes that import this file
#ifdef __cplusplus
#include “cpp_drawing.h”

Without this, the C++ in a header file will “contaminate” everything that #imports that header and result in a bunch of Xcode errors.

So there you have it. This is what I wish Apple would have put in a simple release note (together with *updated* example Xcode projects). Hope it helps. Let me know if you have further questions.

American Idols, contest, songwriting

American Idols: A New Era of Songwriting?


I know it’s popular to dismiss American Idol as a shallow teen popularity contest. Personally, I’ve always seen it as an equal opportunity level playing field. For singers, it has already made miracles by allowing seemingly unmarketable talent to rise above the crowd. I may very well do the same for songwriters.

Last May, one song entry beat more than 25,000 entries to win the American Idol Songwriting Contest. Regardless of how we feel about American Idol, it has created a very democratic level-playing field for finding new talents. Personally, I don’t think that people like Taylor Hicks, Fantasia or Ruben would have had a shot through the traditional channels: they simply do not fit the mold of teen idols.

We may feel that it is unfair to be voted on national television based on popularity, but that what show business is anyway. Now, I’m hoping that the same thing wills happen to songwriting. There are millions of potential songwriters and that will never have an opportunity to get heard. Having an organized process to seek out quality songs is more than welcomed.

More importantly, unlike existing songwriting contests, the winning song is sure to be heard by millions. In other words, it is the only contest that is guaranteed to produce results for the winner. We don’t need more free gear, studio time or a publishing contract; we need hits!

Predictably, with one winner and 24,999 losers, you are bound to find some comments about how this was “rigged”, how the top-20 “really suck” and 19Entertainments made out with $400,000 by charging 10$ per entry. I don’t see how this is different from buying a lottery ticket…

What’s your opinion?

arranger, keyboard, Korg, synth, Triton

Arranger or Workstation?


Keyboards synthesizers are great for songwriting. You can test out your arrangements using a reasonable approximation of most instruments. The right synth can also provide little seeds of inspiration. So, even though, most of my song end up being played on guitar, composing on a synth has definitely open things for me.

I am looking for two things when choosing a songwriting keyboard: a vast range of sounds and inspiring “combi” presets. The former is to be able to demo complete songs with reasonable imitations of band instruments (guitars, pads, strings, pianos, etc.). The later is for these times when I’m looking for inspiration and just need a place to start. A few years back, this led me to choosing the Korg Triton workstation.

However, I have heard from many songwriters that arranger keyboards make better songwriter companions than full-blown workstations. Apparently, they are quite popular in Nashville, but I must say, I would not be cut dead using one. They all have this very “Casio” look to them with integrated speakers and colored buttons. I dunno…

What about you, would you give arrangers a chance?

Apple, GarageBand, OS-X, Protools

Best DAW For Songwriters


DAWs are made for general recording. However, I feel that some of them are better suited for the songwriter who wants to record his/her own demos.

Since songwriting could take a long time to pay out (if ever…), I think it’s sensible to not go grazy on the home studio expense. Personally, I’m a ProTools fan boy. You can get an MBox under 300$. It’s the same software as the pros and it’s very easy to learn. Hitting EBay for some used ProTools gear is even cheaper…

However, after purchasing a new iMac a few months back, I got to try Apple’s GarageBand, which comes bundled with every Mac. I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to operate compared to Logic, Apple’s high-end DAW program. The only major limitation that I could see was the fact that you could not do very detailed MIDI editing (not a problem for songwriters who only want to record their guitars).

Learning Curve
I’d rather write songs than have to go through another manual. However, after using ProTools for a while, I just bit the bullet and spent some quality time with the manual. I think it’s worth it. However, as I said earlier, Logic was just too complex for me.

What about you? What’s your favorite DAW for songwriting and why?

DIY, Jonathan Coulton, Merlin Mann, Protools, songwriter

JoCo, King of DIY

In the 90’s Ani di Franco became the model for the DIY independent artist. She toured continuously, printed her own CDs and did all the marketing/promotion. To me, two things characterize DiFranco: she is on her own label (therefore “unsigned”) and she plays her songs herself.Lately, this got so fashionable that some record companies would invent totally bogus stories about how an act/artist was totally discovered on MySpace or something. From Sandi Thom to Lily Allen and Artic Monkeys. These are major label artists using an internet story to get some “creds”.

Then, there was another type of artists: working musicians who just want be able to make a living at their craft instead of working at a soul crushing boring job (you know…the one where you keep lookin’ at the clock). They have no record deal and sell directly to their fans. They may not be super-rich or famous, but they are happy.

Look at the above photo of Jonathan Coulton and tell me he is not a happy guy. For those who don’t know Jonathan Coulton (JoCo) is an indy singer-songwriter who has had quite a bit of press lately for his awesome internet-based music marketing. Two years ago, he quit his job as a programmer and never looked back. He recently got a feature in the NY Times where he basically explains how he did it. The short story: a lot of work, a lot of talent, good friends and a little luck.

The thing with JoCo is that his songs are actually good. Ya know what I mean: how many times have you listened to indy artists off the internet and found that their songs were not exactly “ready for prime time”. JoCo has a knack for crafting great melodies with layers of vocal harmonies and solid guitar work. He does it all by himself using ProTools LE on a Mac G4. One more proof that it’s not about the gear…Man, we have no excuse…

Read his very inspirational recounting of how he did it and check out the excellent interview he gave to ace podcaster Merlin Mann. There’s also an excellent interview at Cecil Vortex where he discuss creativity, vocal arrangements and Protools drum sequencing.

JoCo does it right: he is still unsigned and plays everything himself. That’s true DIY.

Apple, development, influence, OS-X, software

Software Influence

All songwriters have influences. For me it’s Sting, Seal, David Bowie, Tina Turner and Motown (yes, I know…). They all make me say: “Gee, I wish I’d written that!”. Writing software is very similar to writing songs: they both start out as totally unorganized ideas and end up on a nice little shinny disk with a sticker price. Derek Silvers, founder of CDBaby wrote a piece entitled “Programming is like Songwriting” about the parallels between these two activities.

While writing SonoGraphx, I tried to think which software products have had a major impact on the way I approach software design. I’m a visual guy, so I’ve always been more interested in graphical GUI than clever text mode utilities (i.e, no vi or emac for me thanks). Yes, I’m a sucker for good graphics. For some reason, most of my influences are on the Mac. I wonder why…

So here’s my list:NextStep

I have long been an admirer of Steve Jobs’s NextStep operating system/GUI. In the 90’s I used to have an add-on (WinDock) that would turn Windows 3.1 into a NextStep look alike (the Mac was just not powerful enough for 3D development). For awhile Next looked a dead company until apple purchased them and turned NextStep into Cocoa.

Apple OS-X

After long days working on Windows, I used to open my Mac just to admire the UI and wish I had the time to develop for it. It’s so good, we often forget it only has 5% of the market. Sure, it’s not perfect: most of the graphical aspects of OS-X (the dock, the beach ball, the candy bars) are more eye candy than useful. However, I feel that UI is like architecture: since you’re going to spend a lot of time in it, it better look good.

Delicious Monster Delicious Library

Will Shipley
got kicked out of Omni, the company he co-founded when he finished college. So he wrote a new product that became one of the biggest hit in OS-X world. The beauty of Delicious Library is that it basically does one thing: scan bar codes. Yet it does it in a way that does not require a manual: you just put a book or CD in front of your iSight and move it until it recognizes it. It reminds us that the best programsis are the one that look like magic tricks: you’re not sure how its done, but it works and it’s cool.

This combinaison of flashy interface and (very hyped) marketing now has a name: Delicious Generation.

Propellerheads Reason

This is the only music product that could figure out just by looking at it. If you’ve ever operated a Mackie mixer, an EQ and a compressor, you know how to use it. Brillant!. The whole rack interface makes so much sense, you wonder why it’s not everywhere (maybe because only audio/video professionals and use racks…). The greatest aspect of this product is to use the TAB key to “turn around” the rack to reveal the patch chords. They thereby solved one of the most complicated aspect of using a DAW: making sense of the I/O configuration.

Adobe Photoshop/Illustrator

How can you not be influenced by something you use everyday? Most of us use less than 5% of their features, yet neither application looks “bloated”. Although controversial at the time (early to mid90’s), I totally agree with Adobe’s decision to use the same UI concepts for both programs. In a way, you only need to learn one to become “adequate” at the other, which is the promise of standardized graphical user interface. I discover something new everytime I use them.

Inventive iClip

This is an excellent example of why it is worthwhile to spend a little time on the visuals. This app originally looked bland, until they hooked up with WidgetMachine and gave it this totally cool look.