Sweet-Sounding News from Musikmesse 2012

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At last month’s Musikmesse 2012, some 30,000 products from all areas of music production and performance technology were on display at the Frankfurt, Germany, fairgrounds.

Among the themes this year was that the iPad has come off age as a serious tool for digital music production. And yet, the most impressive digital audio product this year was  a plug-in for computer-based recording software. Let me tell you a bit about that plug-in, and about some seriously cool stuff for making music with, and on, your iPad.

Zynaptiq Pitchmap

Some exhibitors at Musikmesse have huge booths, so smaller companies have to be creative to compete for the show’s visitors’ attention. An excellent method to catch people’s eyes — at least in the keyboard and DAW software halls — is to prominently display a vintage synthesizer. Software maker Zynaptiq did just that, and it worked very well for them.

Quite a few people walked over to the rare Hartmann Neuron synth at Zynaptiq’s booth and only then checked out what was being demoed on the inconspicuous iMac placed right next to it. That demo, though, was nothing short of spectacular.

Zynaptiq’s main product, Pitchmap, is labeled “Real-Time Polyphonic Pitch Processor”. Luring behind this dry, techie description is one of the holy grails of audio processing.

In 1996, Antares released a software plug-in called Auto-Tune, which could correct the pitch of a monophonic audio signal. It effectively pulled individual notes to the nearest correct half-note for the selected scale, enabling even the most pitch-challenged singers to sound as sweet as a nightingale.

Other products with similar functionality have been offered since then, but what’s special about Pitchmap is that it does not merely operate on a single, monophonic audio track. It works on the entire mix-down!

 

Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” re-harmonized in Zynaptiq Pitchmap with a pre-recorded MIDI track

According to Denis Goekdag, Zynaptiq’s CEO, Pitchmap leverages artificial intelligence and neural networks to analyze the audio signal and separate it into its musical components. Drum and percussion sounds are filtered out right at the start, and added back to the output signal unmodified. The remaining components are pitch-shifted individually in real-time with a latency of just 3,000 samples.

 

Playing a MIDI keyboard to re-harmonize “Beat It” in real-time

Pitchmap is available as an Audio Unit plug-in, runs under OS X 10.5.8 or later on a Mac, and is fully 64-bit compatible. VST and AAX versions for Mac and Windows are in the works.

Zynaptiq introduced another product at ‘Messe, called Unveil. While its wow factor is not quite in the same league as Pitchmap’s, Unveil’s effect is audio voodoo, as well: It removes reverb from audio recordings, and it even works with monophonic signals.

You can find more information on both products, including audio examples, on Zynaptiq’s website.

Propellerhead Figure

There are countless apps for making music on your iPhone or iPad. Most of these require at least a basic understanding of how to play an instrument, though — unless you don’t mind that whatever’s coming out of the speakers isn’t all that much fun to listen to.

A new iOS app by Swedish music software foundry, Propellerhead, does away with that requirement. Figure presents a novel way to play loop-based music on an iPhone or iPad, even if you’ve never played an instrument before.

As Propellerhead CEO, Ernst Nathorst-Böös, put it: Say you’re waiting for the bus. Don’t check your Facebook or Twitter account yet again — make some music instead!

At its core, Figure is a three-track loop sequencer: four-instrument drums, bass, and lead/melody, and their sound engines are taken from Propellerhead’s Reason music production software. The Thor Polysonic Synthesizer powers bass and lead sounds, and the drums are based on the Kong Drum Designer, and all sounds that ship with Figure are pure pro-level acoustic delight.

Figure’s user interface is unusual, and unusually suited for touch-screen control. Instead of tiny skeuomorphic knobs and buttons, it uses simple, boldly colored shapes. In Nathorst-Böös’ words, “everything on screen is touchable.”

Figure’s truly-designed-for-touch user interface

To create a tune in Figure, you select one of the three tracks, pick an instrument for that track, play a Pattern, and finally apply Tweaks to the track’s sound.

The Bass and Lead tracks’ Patterns have three dials — for rhythm, tonal range, and number of steps for the musical scale — and an X-Y-pad for playing a melody and modifying the sound.

Recording a bass pattern in Figure

The X-axis of the X-Y-pad (that large red rectangle) maps the pitch: The farther to the right you move your finger, the higher a note is played. Based on the range and scale steps setting, Figure automatically picks notes that are correct (and sensible), and plays them in the pattern that is set via the Rhythm dial.

The Drum track has four instruments, which vary greatly based on the preset you pick. Each of the instruments has a rhythm dial and an X-Y pad which, in this case, selects variations in the sounds as well as the rhythm pattern.

Drum patterns in Figure are made up of for instruments

Under the Tweaks tab, the sounds for each track can be further mangled and wrangled.

Sound tweaks are recorded in real-time

Besides playing Figure live, you can record a two-bar loop in its simplistic sequencer: Tap the Record button, and anything you play on the X-Y pads is recorded in real time. Here’s a nifty detail: When you hold your finger down on the Pattern screen while recording, that pattern is automatically synchronized with the next start of the recording loop. If you tap and release, though, you can record the patterns out-of-sync and create some outlandishly whacky rhythms.

Figure has a great UI, is packed with top-notch sounds and effects, and comes with a simple, yet effective, pattern sequencer. What’s not to like?

Well, there is one detail about Figure that completely baffled me (and many commenters elsewhere on the ‘Net): You cannot export your creations, and you cannot even save them: Once you’re done with building your loop, and you feel like creating a new one, you’ll have to erase the current one!

Even for a leisurely music app like Figure, this is a pretty fundamental oversight that is pretty much completely out-of-line with Propellerhead’s usual attention to detail. Hopefully, a future release will fill this void.

Then again, this app is ridiculously cheap for what it already offers: Figure requires iOS 5.0 or later, and it’s a US$0.99 download from the App Store.

Yamaha iOS apps

Yamaha is one of the biggest names in the industry with a broad range of music products. Yamaha also is one of the companies that have fully embraced the iPad as a serious device for music applications. Besides using the iPad as a remote controller for their electronic keyboards and digital studio equipment, they offer a number of handy apps that do not require a Yamaha device to be useful.

Yamaha’s range of music apps for the iPad

Piano Diary presents a nifty way of tracking your music practice: The app logs practice sessions by recording your playing via a MIDI interface. The sessions can be viewed on a calendar, shared via Twitter or Facebook, and — thanks to sound module built into the app — even be played back on the iOS device, or uploaded to YouTube as an audio clip.

Piano Diary is a MIDI-based practice logger

When you start out, you can select one of four instruments sounds. Achieving certain goals like “Upload 50 songs to YouTube” or “Practice for 3 hours” unlocks additional sounds. Yamaha Piano Diary runs on iPhones and iPads under iOS 4.2 or later, and is a free download from the iTunes App Store.

NoteStar is the Yamaha’s take on selling digital sheet music aimed at keyboardists.

Songs consist of sheet music for vocals and piano, and chord symbols/guitar chords. These are displayed on the iPad’s screen, and you can page through them with the usual swiping gestures.

What makes these files special is that they also contain complete backing music and vocals. The volume settings for the backing track, for the keyboard part in that track, and for a metronome can be adjusted independently, so you can play along with the full arrangement.

Although these are not the original recordings, the arrangements are true to the originals, and especially for beginning musicians it’s nice to be able to play in a band setting, albeit a virtual one.

NoteStar songs combine sheet music with a play-along backing track

Purchasing songs is handled via a store which is integrated into the app. Available songs cover music by contemporary artists like Adele, Alicia Keys, or Lady Gaga, but also include time-less tunes by music legends like Marvin Gaye or Van Morrison. Free 30-second previews are available for each song; full songs are priced at US$2.99.

The app itself is a free download from the iTunes App Store and runs on iPhones and iPads under iOS 4.2 or later.

Metronome turns your iPhone into a versatile digital metronome. It has all the usual features like tempo setting, time signature selection, and a tap-tempo button. In addition to click sounds, the app can use the phone’s vibration alarm, and it lets you store settings as songs for easy retrieval.

Metronome turns your iPhone into a versatile, well, metronome

Metronome requires iOS 5.0 or later, and is available from the iTunes App Store for US$2.99.

Sonoma Wireworks GuitarJack

A number of companies now offer audio interfaces that are specifically designed for the 30-pin iPhone/iPad connector. One of the most compact is Sonoma Wireworks’ GuitarJack.

The GuitarJack is designed as a compact dongle and is powered off the iOS device

Despite its small size, it boasts a 1/4 in. mono instrument input with low- and hi-impedance modes, a 1/8 in. stereo mic/line input, and a 1/8 in. stereo output. Converters are 24-bit. If the app you’re using supports it, you can use both of the GuitarJack’s inputs simultaneously.

Settings like input padding and gain are adjusted via a control panel in Sonoma Wireworks’ apps. The settings themselves are stored inside the GuitarJack, though, so you can use it with any iOS music app, not just with those provided by the manufacturer.

That said, using the GuitarJack with GuitarTone, FourTrack, or StudioTrack unlocks additional amps and effects in those iOS applications. Nice bonus, that!

GuitarTone is a free amp modeler and effects package with additional amps and effects available as in-app purchases; Taylor EQ is a free input equalizer; FourTrack is a multi-track recorder priced at US$4.99; and StudioTrack is an iPad-only 8-track recording app with GuitarTone built right in, and costs US$9.99. All apps require iOS 4.3 or later.

RME Fireface UCX

An iPad-compatible audio interface that addresses more extensive needs is RME’s Fireface UCX.

RME packed 18 inputs and 18 outputs with high-end 24-bit/192 kHz converters into an enclosure that only takes up half a rack-unit. The device connects to its host via FireWire or USB.

The Fireface UCX is a pro-level studio interface that supports iPads

When connected to an iPad via USB using Apple’s Camera Connection Kit, the Fireface UCX provides two output channels, and with multi-track recording apps, all eight analog input channels can be used simultaneously.

Mackie DL1608

If you’re looking for proof that the iPad has come of age as a serious music technology device, look no further than Mackie’s DL1608 mixer.

Integrating an iPad into a mixer has been done before, but in these cases, the iPad’s role was limited to flexibly expanding the console’s control surface and to displaying gauges at large sizes and in high resolution, as in this Alto model.

 

The Alto MasterLink uses an iPad for extending its control surface

Mackie has taken this one radical step further: Except for the gain pots, the entire user interface of the DL1608 is handled by an iPad app. The controls in that app are pleasantly large, use bold colors, and are highlighted when you use them, so you easily see exactly what you’re doing.

With the exception of gain, all settings on Mackie’s DL1608 are controlled via an iPad app

Since the iPad can connect to the console via wireless LAN, you can optimize the sound remotely from anywhere in the room.

As if that weren’t enough, the mixer supports up to ten iPads simultaneously. So if your drummer is always complaining about his monitor mix, just give him an iPad, connect it to the DL1608, and let him adjust that mix himself. All the while you can completely focus on perfecting the FOH mix. When used with multiple iPads, access rights controls ensure that each user can only configure the channels that he’s explicitly allowed to.

A Toy Comes of Age

Many a pundit considered the iPad a mere toy when Apple released it. For the music industry, that “toy” has since become a versatile, customizable remote control surface. More than that, it has become a musical instrument in its own right, thanks to countless insanely great, professional-level apps and accessories.

It’s an awesome time to be a mobile musician these days!

P.S.: I’ve covered a few more finds from Musikmesse 2012 on Flickr.

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