We do not intend to make the computer itself our instrument, but rather use the computer to develop instruments with. That is because we are essentially instrumentalists looking for extra possibilities. The extensions of our acoustic instruments need to have direct control, similar to a hands-on (or feet-on) control of stompbox effects. For example, we don’t want to navigate between menus with a mouse on a computer screen before anything can happen. Therefore we use different kinds of midi-controllers to justify our setup ergonomically and make it overall usable. In general we think good controllability is a result of good functionality, well-considered routing and personalized midi control.
The instrument is a puzzle
This is the part where things come together. Like a pedal board, it can never really be complete because you have to make compromises. As discussed earlier we found/developed a collection of hardware and software elements that we like, but in the end we want all of this to feel like an extension of our own acoustic instruments. For these tools to feel intuitive and playable, a good interface is required. The interface can be an Ableton Push controller or a combination of midi-controllers and pedals, as long as it creates a meaningful relationship between the player and the instrument. This makes it very dependent on what instrument you play and how you like to play it. Because of the fact that a guitarist mostly needs both hands for playing, it is likely that he wants as much control on the floor as possible. However in some cases it is just more practical to have a midi-controller with mixer lay-out on a table, compared to having a series of expression pedals on the floor.
In the section about computer processing we already discussed the criteria to evaluate our tools. It speaks for itself that controllability of a device is something that has to be auditioned extensively in live contexts.
This is an example of a test ride with a two-track prototype sampler (january 2019) to evaluate its functionality – not everything functioned as intended – and controllability: most of the sampling is done with a Roland foot controller (buttons and expression pedals) in combination with a Novation Launch Control and an iRig keyboard. These kind of sessions were inevitable to be able to fine-tune our setups.
As any instrumentalist aims to master his instrument deeply, we decided at some point to limit ourselves to our augmented setups only, leaving out our acoustic instruments. By only processing the input of three different condenser mics, we tried to interact with the surroundings (a hall with passing people). Subtle juxtapositions of new-made field recordings as well as more extreme processing (giving rise to very digital interventions) were explored during these sessions.
Choosing midi controllers
Assigning the right midi control to your preferred tools is a crucial part of our extended instrument development. On/off switches or momentary engagement switches probably need buttons (most midi controllers allow you to choose whether they act like toggle or momentary switches). Faders and knobs intrinsically do the same, but they feel different. Faders are mostly used for volume purposes, but just as well as a dry/wet switch for instance. Knobs are commonly used for tuning extra parameters and they occupy little space compared to sliders.
The app lemur was extensively tested during the first period of the project. It works via a closed network that connects the iPad to your computer. Especially their Multiball interface (xy-pad) and their gravity modes to emulate physics (which can make your controller bounce, rebound and oscillate) were found interesting. The particular feature that was missing was to display sound files, in which you can select fragments with your fingers. Miraweb is a functionality within Max/MSP that works via an internet connection. It controls Max wirelessly and you shape it the way you want, directly in the Max patch. With this one it is possible to make the samples visible and select parts by touch. There are other apps on the market, but they all share the same idea: the ability to accommodate everything you need and more. The benefits are that you have new kinds of direct control, directly in contact with a display. Although the tablet is 100% customizable, the touchscreen can lack a certain realness and physicality that we tend to like. For some reason, turning a knob or sliding a fader has more satisfactory results than to control them by swiping a touchscreen. The preferred physicality is probably a remainder of the old school analog days, where you had to turn real knobs to set a compressor. This nostalgia can be found in all kinds of software, plug-ins and midi-controllers.
Numerous new systems are emerging that are both customizable and physical, like Mine S, YAELTEX and Palette Gear Modular Control. We think that these tools will gain attention and will become more accessible and affordable over the years.
Hendrik’s signal flow
- Barcus Berry contact microphone is routed through the RME Fireface 800 audio interface straight to an output (without passing any software). This output is sent to a hardware pedalboard and then sent back to a line input of the Fireface 800, this line input is the first input channel in Ableton Live. (contact mic has XLR output and the pedalboard has jack input: the Fireface 800 is used as a DI to convert the signal from XLR to JACK)
- SM57 (used for small detail sounds inside the piano) goes into the Fireface 800 and is the second input for Ableton Live.
- Input 1 (CONTACTMIC) and input 2 (SM57) have seperate 3-band equalizers set up as the first thing in Ableton Live, these 2 3-band EQ’s are mapped to 6 knobs on the Launchcontrol XL midi controller. These two Ableton input channels are set to send their audio to ‘Sends Only’. This means that the audio only goes to the A/B/C channels on the right, and not straight to the master channel.
- Ableton’s send-channels:
A – Echoboy is a tape-delay emulation by Soundtoys, set up as wet-only, so it is really only an effect channel.
B – Little Plate is a plate-reverb emulation, also setup as wet-only.
C – MAIN BUS is where the two input channels always go to: C – MAIN BUS only functions as a ‘through’-channel to send the inputs to the 4 main effect channels:
FREEZE, STUTTER, DRY & FRAGULATOR. Because of this, the C – MAIN BUS channel is set up as ‘Sends Only’ as well, in order that the signal doesn’t go straight to the master channel, but rather straight to the 4 effects. This setup has as an advantage that the DRY-channel also functions like an effect-channel: the volume of the DRY audio can be turned on and off, but the audio going to the other effect-channels remains unchanged.
FREEZE: self-made max 4 live freeze plugin, controlled with the Behringer FCB1010 foot controller.
STUTTER: combination of different Soundtoys’ primal tap devices, assigned to different buttons on the Behringer FCB1010 foot controller.
DRY: simple dry channel with little effects: detune and ring modulator assigned to knobs on the Novation Launchcontrol XL.
FRAGULATOR: assigned to the two expression pedals of the Behringer FCB1010: left expression pedal is assigned to the buffer size, the right expression pedal to the amount of stutters (= feedback). Using the expression pedals for this effect, makes the effect a very versatile and fluid machine.
- The FREEZE, STUTTER, DRY & FRAGULATOR go straight to the master channel, but can also be sent to the A – Echoboy and B – Little Plate channels for additional delay or reverb.
- Ableton’s Master channel is assigned to outputs 1-2 of the RME Fireface 800.
- A pair of Line Audio CM3 condensers (for capturing the whole ensemble from a roomy point) go into the Fireface 800, straight to a standalone Max Msp patch: 4-track looper. (as earlier described)
- 4-track looper is programmed to automatically be mapped to a Novation SL Mk2 midi controller.
- Max MSP’s software output is assigned to exit the Fireface 800 in outputs 3-4.
- Ableton Live (output 1-2) and Max Msp 4-track looper (output 3-4) are passing through a very small Behringer mixer, so the two channels can be mixed and equalized manually. (and very important: in an intuitive, hands-on way)
- The Eventide H9 is set up as the FX-send of the Behringer mixer, so both the Ableton channels as the Max channels can be sent to the effect separately.
- Mixer’s output is the end of the signal flow.
- Novation Launchcontrol XL: has a very handy mixer-like interface that goes very well with the standard session-view of Ableton. We were looking for a good ‘neutral’ midi controller with a lot of knobs and a lot of faders and some buttons, this one turned out to be the best choice – also because when it breaks down, a new one is very easy to get.
- Behringer FCB1010 / Roland FC-300: midi foot-controllers. The main difference between the Behringer one and the Roland one is that for the Behringer you have to spend quite some time to program midi note messages in the buttons before you can use it with Ableton Live. After that the thing is very reliable and it feels as if it’s never going to break. Both of these controllers come with two expression-pedals built in.
- Novation SL25 Mk2: small midi-keyboard with a lot of faders and knobs, mapped entirely to the 4-track looper in Max MSP. Every knob is used because it was necessary to have every control 4 times (for every separate audio buffer).
Vitja’s signal flow
Vitja’s setup consists of some (changeable) effect pedals, a midi foot controller for sampling, a midi controller (with buttons, faders and knobs), an extra midi keyboard and an occasional iPad.
In the studio Vitja used an electric guitar, a pedal steel guitar, an acoustic guitar, an acoustic baritone guitar and a resonator guitar. He used two amplifiers (one for ‘electric’ signals and one for ‘acoustic’ signals). For playing live, he only uses one amplifier.
- To switch guitars easily a Lehle 3at1 SGoS switch pedal is used. Like so, the signals of the electric guitar, pedal steel guitar and acoustic guitar all pass through the same effect chain (mostly an overdrive, stutter, delay and freeze pedal) and into an RME Fireface soundcard. This signal goes to Ableton, Max MSP and via a volume pedal straight to a Fender amp.
- The Ableton tool box consists mainly of effects that are switched on/off by buttons on a Novation Launch control XL midi controller. This mixer-like controller gives control over the effect volumes and parameters that have proved to be useful. The lay-out can be described as follows: any effect (f.i. the Granulator) can send to the same bus of effects (overdrive, two different delays and a reverb). Two of these busses are used, one for Ableton and Max MSP (the sampler/looper) because they work independently. They are marked with green and blue tape. The rightmost slider controls Ableton’s master volume and the knobs above are used to control the amount of input signal that is sent straight to Ableton’s effect busses.
- An iRig midi keyboard is used to send midi notes to the Granulator, to transpose the fragulator and to play the sampler in Max MSP.
- A Roland midi footcontroller is used to play the 2-track sampler in Max MSP, enabling the player to sample himself while playing. It gives access to one-shot triggering, transposing, looping, reversing, volume control etc.
- An iPad is occasionally used for extra features like hands-on sample area selection and (automated) panning purposes. For the sake of simplicity, this was sometimes left out of the setup.
Casper’s signal flow
Casper’s setup consists of numerous objects and bells, a midi controller (having buttons, faders and knobs) and a reversed speaker.
- One Beierdynamic hypercardioid mic – fixed on a mount to the tom – goes to the input of a Focusrite Scarlett soundcard, through Ableton to a separate mixer input.
- One SM57 – not fixed on a stand to be able to point it at different toms, bells etc. – goes to the input of the Focusrite Scarlett soundcard, through Ableton to a separate mixer input.
- One KORG contact mic – mounted on the bassdrum – goes to the input of the Focusrite Scarlett soundcard, through Ableton to a separate mixer input. It is mainly used for trigger purposes.
- A Novation ZeRO MKII midi controller is used to open different send channels in Ableton, and is MIDI mapped to some controls of different effects.
- For intuitive and flexible control, a Keith McMillen BopPad is set up. The pads of the BopPad are sensitive to velocity, which makes it feel very natural.
Often when improvising with the setup, too much control over too much parameters seemed to block the intuition. Therefore, in this Ableton setup there are several LFO’s integrated which you can set to ‘random’. This means the effects will have a surprising outcome, and you can interact with them instead of controlling them. For choosing what effect to put on the drums, the BopPad is an instrument that is well integrated in the movements you are used to as a drummer; subtile finger control as well as hard stick playing is possible.