Audio Routing for my PC

For my own benefit as much as anyone elses, I thought I’d document my PC audio setup. I have two soundcards and two sets of speakers, one surround soundcard and speaker set for gaming and watching surround sound movies, and one audio interface linked up to my studio monitor speakers for music production. I also have a Digi 002 mixer which I use to mix in the outputs from my synthesisers to my recording interface. When I want to record, I usually record one track at a time from a synthesier to the audio input of the audio interface, via the Digi 002 mixer:

Untitled Diagram

These are the audio cables needed for this setup, some of which I will need to order in shorter sizes than the 3m ones I already have, to reduce cable clutter:

single phono to phono
2x phono to 2x phono
single phono to phono
single 3.5mm jack to phono
single 3.5mm jack to phono
2x phono to 2x phono
2x phono to 2x phono
2x phono to 2x phono
2x phono to 2x phono
2x phono to 2x phono
2x phono to 2x phono

ADAT with Digi 002 Consoles – Don’t throw them away just yet!

So I got given a Digi 002 console version, which looks like this:

Digi 002 Console

A fairly old style digital audio interface and mixer, which was all the rage back in 2002 when it first came out, but now is often found sitting in the skip. Why? Because it is a Pro-Tools inteface, and Avid stopped supporting it about 5 years ago, so it won’t actually work under Pro Tools and Windows 10 (believe me, I’ve tried!). It only works as a recording interface through Pro Tools, so you can’t just connect it via firewire to your PC and expect it to work.

It does have a stand-alone mode though, which allows you to use it as an analogue mixer, and that is pretty useful in itself if you want to drive monitors or record things from the master out. However after digging around on internet forums for a while, I figured out a way of actually using it as a recording interface! This is through use of the ADAT output, allowing you to plug it into a ADAT capable soundcard and record seperate channels over optical.

Caveats: it has to be 44.1khz sample rate, and you still have to use the Digi 002’s analogue to digital coverters in the chain, which are pretty old now!

If you’re willing to live with this, and I was considering what the console cost me, you get an extra 8 audio input channels in your soundcard! Well worth the effort I’d say.

To set it up with my Focusrite Sapphire 24 Pro, I followed the following advice from the Focusrite forum. This should work on most of the Sapphire range of soudcards.

A Basic Eurorack Technique

I thought it might be of some interest to describe how I use my Eurorack, at lot of the time, in making tracks. I have a 3 oscilator – 3 VCA – 3 filter Eurorack which I use primarily so that the oscilators initially work in unison mode with some slight detuning. I typically use a single loop, arpeggio or pattern that I repeat over the song. Then, partway through a track, I will transpose the octaves of the oscilators and vary the sustain of the envelopes, along with the filters and pulse-width modulation amount, to make a morphing yet harmonious sound texture progression.

Here is my Doepfer Eurorack, which has 2 oscilators, the third is provided by a Doepfer Dark Energy MK1 semi-modular synthesiser that is wired into the Eurorack.

eurorack

 

Here is the patch I almost always use:

 

Eurorack Patch Diagram

Here are some examples of where this same basic technique has been used:

Use Siri, Apple Earphones and Apple Music Together

This requires you to have a subscription to Apple Music and a 3G/4G/wireless data connection, but it is so useful! Using this tip, you can be walking along with your iPhone in your pocket and your Apple earphones in, and then change music just by pressing a button on the earphones remote control and saying ‘Play (your favourite band)’.

blog post image

1. Activate Siri and subscribe to Apple Music. I used to subscribe to Spotify so I switched to Apple Music when I realised the advantages of the integration on my phone, and the wider selection of music. You will also need to set Siri to stream music over your cellular network, this can be done in the ‘Music’ section of iOS settings.

2. Put the iPhone in your pocket with the standard Apple Earphones plugged in. With the standard Apple Earphones, there is a remote control on the cable with one button on it. To activate Siri, hold that button down for a couple of seconds until you hear the ‘Siri’ ‘bleep’.

3. Say ‘Play The Prodigy’ if you want to listen to The Prodigy, for example. This may require a couple of tries occasionally, but usually it just works.

4. Siri should look up The Prodigy on Apple Music, find their most popular songs, put them in a playlist, start streaming them and playing them through your earphones. To skip a song, press the remote control button twice in quick succession. To adjust the volume, press the edges of your remote control, the top edge to increase volume, the bottom edge to decrease. To pause all music playback, just press the remote control button once. To resume playback, press the remote control button once again.

A limitation of this is that you have to be in an area with good reception, enough to stream your tracks from Apple Music. You shouldn’t have a problem if you live in a city like Manchester, I usually get 4G across the whole city.

Modular Progress

Modular Synthesizer
modular layout

My Eurorack modular has been progressing. I’ve added several low-cost modules, a Doepfer A-138b audio mixer module so I can mix the audio outputs of the oscilators, the noise output, and my Doepfer Dark Energy modules. I found this so useful with the Dark Energys that I have ordered another mixer. This I can use to mix audio before sending it to the filter, for example, or mix audio before sending it to a VCA to be amplified. I also added another envelope generator, Doepfer A-140, a sturdy workhorse and also useful for triggering the filter independently of the VCA envelope. Then I added a syncable LFO.. I already have 4 LFOs from the quad-LFO module in the top right, but I wanted a LFO with a reset option that I can use for MIDI syncing. On order is also a A-148 S&H (sample and hold) module which I will use for generating interesting random tones once I have expanded the ‘generative music’ theme of my setup a bit more.

I also added a secondhand Kenton Pro Solo, a small midi-to-cv converter which has a lot of features, including clock sync output as well as CV and gate.

Next purchases may include (all Doepfer) a ring-mod, small essential module that it is. I also want a clock divider and clock sequencer, allowing me to take the midi clock output of my Kenton Pro Solo and link it up to activate timed triggers. I eventually want to get a Make Noise ‘Maths’ module as the highlight of my small modular, but the budget does not permit that right now.

microKORG Original + Novation Impulse 61

I picked up a rather ugly (but very cheap!) customised microKORG, and also the excellent Novation Impulse 61 USB/Midi keyboard controller.

mkplusnovation

The microKORG I like a lot. It was my first synth, and at first I couldn’t make any sense of it. I do agree with the Reddit /r/synthesizers view that it is not the best synth to learn on. Their view is that the best synth to learn on is one with a one-to-one mapping between controls and sound engine parameters. To put another way, the best beginners synth is one which has lots of knobs and buttons on it that you can tweak and hear actual results in the sound. It makes it more difficult if the sound engine is hidden away behind a large menu system with lots of daunting menus, like the microKORG has.

However, now I know the basics of synthesis, I’m finding it much easier to get the most out of the microKORG. You can also map a midi controller to a lot of the parameters, turning it into a poor man’s MS2000. The older MS2000 shares the same engine as the MK.

The Novation Impulse 61 is great, although it does take up a lot of desk space. The keybed is much better than any controller I’ve tried before, and even though it’s not weighted like my digital piano, it is very playable. The aftertouch and the velocity sensitivity are settings I will no doubt appreciate more in the future, for now I just turn them off. The arpegiator with the step sequencer is amazing! It turns the arpegiator into a little groovebox. It is quite similar to the arp sequencer on the microKORG, where you can hit the pads to change the notes on the fly. However the Impulse pads are a lot more sturdy, and responsive.

There is a lot about the Novation Automap functionality that I haven’t explored. I want to wire up my old Remote Zero SL unit as a controller for the microKORG, so I have more of a one-to-one mapping between knobs and the MS2000 parameter functionality exposed via MIDI on the microKORG.

Pioneer DDJ-SR Serato Controller Review

dj controller

I decided to buy the DDJ-SR controller because it was cheaper than even the cheapest pair of Pioneer CDJs. I’m no stranger to using a laptop and controller, before the DDJ-SR I used my trusty Faderfox DJ2 controller, which is a basic no-frills ‘play buttons, 3 EQs, crossfader and volume faders’ unit.

I was considering getting the Native Instruments Traktor S4 DJ controller, which is one of the most popular full-size controllers for Traktor. However, after borrowing one from a friend, I compared the build quality of the DDJ-SR versus the S4, and there was no contest! The Pioneer DDJ-SR has the same buttons and jog wheel as the Pioneer CDJ units, which are rock solid and industry standard. For anyone wanting to use CDJs in the club after using the DDJ-SR at home, you will find the feel very familiar.

I looked at the DDJ-SR’s big brother, the DDJ-SX1. The SX is much bigger in size, and not as portable as the SR. This was a major factor for me, as it’s often difficult enough to find space in the DJ booth, even for a small controller. The DDJ-SX1 (not the newest model which may be out by now) has a pretty similar feature set to the DDJ-SR. There is only one main difference that is significant to me. That being the fact that the SX is a full 4-channel mixer, which can operate without being connected to a computer. But it wasn’t enough to justify the larger footprint and the much increased cost. So I decided to opt for the more portable DDJ-SR.

I tried out the controller at my local music shop, Dawsons (Manchester) . I recommend trying out the controller and also buying locally if you can, because it’s much easier to return a controller to the shop than it is to send it back to an online store, if you are not happy with it. I also believe in supporting your local music stores.

Being used to Traktor, and having used it since 2006, I was initially a bit cautious over switching to Serato. After I played around with it, and for my typical use, there was not a lot in Traktor that I didn’t find equivalents for, in Serato. One thing that was very nice is seeing the waveforms from each deck, and how you can visually ‘sync up’ the starting track with the beats of the one that is already playing. I have been surprised about how useful this is, it really makes beatmatching so easy when you don’t want to use the sync button, which I often don’t.

Pioneer_DDJ-SR

The DDJ-SR comes with 8 pads under each jog wheel. They are very responsive, every bit as responsive as Akai drum pads used for music production. The pad FX definitely expand the creative potential of laptop DJing. The ‘slicer’ is my favourite so far, it cuts the upcoming music into 8 slices. You can choose to play a slice (or beat) out of time with the progression of the track, for example, instead of 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 you can opt for 1-2-2-4-5-6-6-8. You can play combination you like, assuming you hit the right pads in time!

The ‘slip’ feature is very nice. When toggled on, the track plays on as you trigger samples and loops. It is as if the track is kept playing in the background while you pick out sections earlier in the track and play samples over the top, and when you have finished, the track snaps back, not to where you left it, but to where it has progressed to. You can use this feature to replace whole loops with other loops in the track and keep the rhythm of the track going. It is really powerful.

There is a four knob ‘FX’ section above each jog wheel. This is used to add FX such as delay, reverb, flanger, and so on. I don’t find myself using this much for my style of DJing. I do wonder how much of the FX and pad hammering you can actually do to a track before you start to annoy your crowd. They are great to use occasionally though.

Overall, I am very happy with my purchase. I had a pair of Pioneer CDJ400s and mixer back in 2009 which had a lot less features and cost over twice the price as this unit, and yet had the same build quality. Even if you ignore the ‘which is better’ argument of digital DJing versus CDJs, if you already have a laptop, this is a great setup for the money.

New Synthesiser Additions: Microbrute, Nord Drum and Access Virus A

I bought some new synths.

Access Virus A

access virus a

This is the original 1998 Access Virus A. It, it was a staple synth for trance and electronic music in general for the early 00s. I am very happy that I managed to get this secondhand for less than a MicroKORG. It cost over £800 when it came out in 1998. Old digital synths seem to be unpopular at the moment, I’ve heard comments along the lines of ‘if it’s digital then I might as well use a plugin in my DAW’. But I think this is ignoring the tactile control surface that you get, and how it gets your head outside the computer and playing an actual physical instrument. The presets are really inspiring, several sounds that you will recognise if you were into electronic music in the 00s. VNV Nation, one of my favourite bands, produced their entire ‘Empires’ album with just the Access Virus A and a couple of samplers.

It has two oscillators which have extra functionality, as you can choose the waveform from a large selection of presampled waveforms, in addition to the usual sawtooth, sine, square. There is also a suboscilator, two filters, each with a ASDTR configurable envelope, the usual ASDTR for the amplifier, and three LFOs. You can choose to map the LFOs to almost anything, allowing a great amount of flexibility. It also has effects – delay and unison, as well as multiple timbers, meaning that you can have up to 12 different patches playing at the same time, each controlled with different MIDI channels. The whole thing is extensively controllable via MIDI also. It is my first polyphonic hardware synthesier, and so has opened up a whole range of new composition possibilities around chords.

Microbrute

microbrute

The Microbrute is fully analogue, and it can produce a good number of sounds through its one oscilator, by allowing you to blend in different quantities of sawtooth, sine and square, along with some extensive extras, such as a metalizer. It has a Steiner Parker filter, a LFO and a step sequencer. You can get more technical details about the Microbrute in Marc Doty’s great series of videos.

It has a hard aggressive character to the sound, especially when used with the ‘brute factor’. I like its sound, but sometimes wish for a little bit more warmth. However you can make all sorts of sounds with it, and I particularly like making chiptune arpeggio with the square wave, such as in my track ‘Blue Sky’.

It also has a mod matrix that I haven’t fully explored yet, but is very powerful, especially if you want to link it up to other CV capable synths.

Nord Drum

Nord-Drum 1

This is an analgoue modelling drum synthesiser. It is the first Nord Drum so it only has four channels, but the presets sound great in the mix. I haven’t even looked at the synthesis options on this yet, as I’ve been really happy with the presets, but there is a whole range of options that you can shape and edit for your own sound.

My synth ‘shelf’

I have swapped out the older synths that I don’t use anymore. Currently I’m using the three synths above. The keyboard at the top is my Alesis Q25 MIDI controller, there is a ZED 10 mixer on the middle shelf which I use as a recording device, as well as a gold EMU Orbit which I don’t have plugged in at the moment.

My Synth Shelf

Current Music Setup

I like to dabble in making and playing music. Here is the equipment and setup that I use.

Ableton Live Intro

This is the DAW I use. I have been using Ableton Live for several years now, and I know my way around it. I have tried others but they never really felt as comfortable. Live comes in three flavours, ‘Intro’ is the most basic paid-for version. I was surprised how cheap the ‘Intro’ version was, and how little I find myself needing the features of the more expensive versions. I only have one paid-for VST plugin, and that is the KORG Legacy Cell MS-20, which I use on almost all the music I’ve made.

ableton live example

KORG Electribe R-1 MK2 Analog Modelling Drum Synthesiser

This is what serves as my drum machine. I picked it up on the cheap, but I’m really happy with it. I really like the built in step sequencer, and the drum synth itself. The sounds you can make from it are quite varied, and I really like the way you can put together live compositions on the fly. I’d be interested in getting some more KORG boxes, such as the EMX Electribes or the Volcas.

korg-electribe-er1-mk2

Waldorf Rocket Monophonic Analogue Sythnesiser module

This is my analogue synthesiser, which I use mainly for leads. In practice I find it quite annoying not being able to play real chords, and the lack of a sequencer is difficult because it means I can’t put together patterns away from the PC, or even really play it without a keyboard. I do like the sound, and the filter is great. The ‘fake chords’ option is great fun I just wish you could more easily change between the chords on the fly. The arp is pretty cool also. I think this will become a lot more awesome when I get a hardware sequencer, I already have my eye on the cheap BeatStep to pick up when it is released.

WALDORF+ROCKET-1

KORG Monotribe Analogue Sythesiser and Drum Machine

I don’t really use this for anything, unfortunately. It was my first synthesiser and although I liked it at the time, nowadays I find the lack of MIDI and the ribbon keyboard a major problem. I might either sell it or get a MIDI mod and install it. I find it quite noisey when recording anyway, so maybe I’ll just try and sell it. It does has some nice acid style sounds though. A shame.

monotribe

Yamaha P35 Digital Piano

I was looking for a decent MIDI out keyboard that would allow me to put together more complex melodies and learn how to play keyboards for possibly joining a band in the future. The Yamaha NP31, which was my original choice, was out of stock and so it got me looking at others. I thought it would be interesting to learn to play the piano, as we had one growing up but I never really learned before. In the store I really liked the feel of the P35’s hammer action keys, so decided to buy it. I can play some simple tunes with it but want to get piano lessons so I can improve. This will also function as my main MIDI controller for my other hardware.

717aZc6BIwL._SL1500_

Line 6 Mobile Keys 25 USB Keyboard Controller

This is a nice little keyboard controller that I use with Ableton. Unfortunately it does not have MIDI out, only MIDI via USB, but I can run it through the MIDISport to control audio hardware. The keyboard action is very nice, much better than the M-Audio Keystation 49 which I had before and would not recommend.

controller

M-Audio MIDISport Anniversary Edition 2×2 MIDI/USB Interface

This is a fairly standard cheap MIDI to USB interface. I used to use the M-Audio Uno, but that has only one input/output and it has problems with some audio hardware.

midisport

Insights into a modern Indie Music label

I read this remarkable post on a public mailing list I subscribe to. I thought it was such a great insight into running a music label, that I just had to post it here. It discusses issues facing modern music, such as DRM, DMCA, and other ways of making (or losing) money. Fascinating.

Here it is:

I work for a (fairly small) indie label – from witnessing this model in action I feel I have to stick up for the label given that I see the model working (or sometimes not so well) on a daily basis! Where we’ve done deals with artists in the past, they’ve almost always been a 50/50 arrangement – the artist receives 50% of net royalties. Where a label fronts recording costs, these can easily become £6-10,000 for an album session. Even an EP session can be upwards of £1,500 although these figures are a little pessimistic (though not unrealistic). (We actually designed, built and owned studios for ten years until 2001 but the project haemorrhaged money.)

With regards to CD pressing, a 1,000 run will cost around £800 including full colour print in a basic jewel case. The AP1/AP2a MCPS licence costs another amount on top. When getting your CDs pressed, add in other things (Super Jewel cases, slip / O-cards, digipaks or gatefolds with high quality card / fancy posters) and you can easily top the 1k mark, not even counting the artwork design costs. Of course, discount comes with with bulk, but almost nobody except the Big Four do >1k discs in a pressing. (To put things in perspective: when SyCo have done the X Factor Finalists CDs, they press up >10,000 of EACH finalist’s recording of the song – and shred the losers’ copies when the winner is announced!)

To put stuff into distro with someone like Universal, you have your line costs simply to have the title listed on their system – monthly recurring, per title – then handling costs, despatch costs, “salesforce” costs (even though really the only people they sell into are HMV now, and from last year they’ve stopped guaranteeing racking in all but the top 6 or so stores in the UK, it’s a joke). You can’t sell your discs through at full retail, you have your wholesale (Dealer) price. We’ve sold albums through at £6.65 and I’ve later seen them in a London HMV for £12.99. Oh, and did I mention that supermarkets and stores like HMV *DEMAND* what they call a “file discount” of up to 40% just to take stock? (which is on a non-negotiable sale or return basis with up to a six month returns period.)

If you end up in a position where you don’t sell stock through into shops, it usually costs less for your distro to SHRED your discs than it does to send it back to you! Ridiculous. The costs are stacked against the labels at all points – incredibly frustrating. And that’s even before you begin to contemplate any plugging, promo, advertising, miscellaneous online, merch, booking agent / gig costs… Or even an advance for the artist! But it gets better…

So, this figure of 63% which the old techdirt article might quote as truth where valid for major labels (who might also own distribution, management, publishing and studios under the same roof), the model quickly falls apart as soon as focus on a smaller label. I used to think the whole model was bullshit and the artists got shafted, but if anything it’s level pegging – smaller labels have just as tough a time as artists as the risk to them to fund any new release is proportionally WAY larger. Also, the techdirt article works on the basis of the artist receiving a 20% royalty – this is dismal, and the artist should be smacked for agreeing to such a pitiful rate like the chumps they probably (hypothetically) are.

Take one of our real world iTunes scenarios – from a 79p purchase, iTunes immediately keeps about 32p. For UK and most worldwide sales, this also includes the royalties which the label’s obliged to pay (in the UK, to the MCPS-PRS Alliance). However, the USA requires the selling party to pay the mechanical on each sale (an arse-about-tit form which has arisen from the disconnected Collection Agencies – Harry Fox Agency being the incumbent on Mechanicals and ASCAP, BMI and SESAC on the Performance royalties – which adds yet another level of complication.

From what’s left (47p), you halve the resulting amount on a 50/50 deal. Neither the label nor the artist gets much for their work. On some artists whom we’ve purely done digital distribution for (on a rolling licence agreement), we give the artist 80% of net. As you can imagine, we get virtually nothing – and our income’s directly tied to their success, so we have an interest in seeing them do well. It’s a tough environment to be in.

For receiving US/Canadian/Mexico/European/Australasian payments, we first have to receive the currency and have the bank convert it to GBP. Of course, we can’t get the Interbank rates, nobody but the banks get those – so more money’s immediately lost in conversion. The larger labels will have sweetheart deals with their banks (or almost certainly have accounts in each relevant territory) so this isn’t so much of a big deal, but the amount of administration just scales inordinately. If you deal with managing your artists’ Publishing rights, you can quickly become LITERALLY swamped in paperwork. The amount of time sucked up by adminning the release of music is extraordinary.

So please nobody think all music labels have it easy… I have no doubt that the Big Four have royally shafted artists in the past but they can largely lumber along based on a few artists doing exceptionally well for the rest of their current roster (with their back catalogue from very famous artists helping too). The problem they’re going to have is that almost none of the artists whose catalogue’s been released in the past two decades *really* has the staying power of the classic artists – Dire Straits, Genesis, Pink Floyd, The Who or Fleetwood Mac, just to name five off the top of my head. Don’t even get me started on the epic fail that is streaming revenues from Spotify, mFlow, We7 etc.

Now even with all of this, I still regard sites like YouTube as a promotional tool. Some of our most famous catalogue I’ve held off on issuing DMCA takedowns for, because it’s a genuinely beneficial promotional tool – it’s the pragmatic response. Where do people go first if they want to quickly listen to a track? YouTube! What happens if they only ever wanted to hear it once and never again? You’ve not lost that sale because it almost certainly would never have happened. What happens if they still want to have a copy of that track? They’ll go buy it from one of the easily accessible venues, it’s not expensive to do. The label’s job is to make the catalogue ubiquitous on all of the major (and some of the trendier niche stores) where at all possible. The digital distribution costs are another thing the label has to absorb – monthly, per track, per store usually, if not on an aggregation deal where it’s a percentage on each sale but the label usually ends up worse off. It’s a tough position because the label almost always feels the need to protect their ‘content’ (shudder – hate that word) but issuing takedowns for every instance of a track is more often than not a kneejerk reaction which harms longterm sales. I’m personally torn between leaving them, taking them down or even putting up better mashup/promo mix versions on the label’s official account!

Treat your customers like adults and I think you earn their respect a bit more. This applies to all forms of digital media, including tellybox shows. (thesis: DRM = genuinely unhelpful towards nurturing that unique supportive viewer-provider relationship. Trust your customers, they’ll not disrespect you.) In music, nobody wants to buy a track if they can never audition it, and 30sec samples aren’t really a good enough.