nerdery

Keyboard Controller + Studio One

On a recent trip to visit Caitlin's family outside of Fort Wayne, we stopped by Sweetwater to have a look around. I had never been there before (though I've purchased from them online) and I was excited to check out the store. It didn't disappoint, and in fact reminded me of the old Woodwind & Brasswind store¹ in its glory days.

I only made it into the section of the store devoted to keyboards, pianos, synthesizers and the like, but even that provided a wonderful experience where I got to try out a bunch of cool stuff (including a DSI Prophet 12, which was just awesome, and a Yamaha NU1 hybrid piano, which was also super impressive). My real purpose in going to Sweetwater, though,² was to check out a few keyboard controllers and feel them under my fingers before purchasing one to use with my computer.

I finally settled on a Nektar Impact iX61, a fairly basic controller that consists of 61 keys³ along with pitch bend and modulation wheels, one volume slider, and a set of transport controls that double as transpose/octave shift controls. There's a jack for a sustain pedal, a USB port which provides both power and computer connectivity, and a power switch on the back. The key action is squishy like most cheaper keyboards (i.e. not hammer-action or weighted) but has a decent feel to it. I liked the keybed feel on the Roland A-800 pro just a bit better, but that controller is significantly more expensive and does not come with PreSonus' Studio One software.

Perhaps my favorite feature of the iX61 is the software that came bundled with it - PreSonus Studio One Artist v2.6 (and later, a free upgrade to Studio One Artist v3). Studio One is a digital audio workstation (DAW) software, designed for recording, arranging, and producing music. I had played with the professional editions of both v2 and v3 in the past as 30-day trials and was very impressed with both versions. I've played with other DAWs in the past and always found them to be intimidating and difficult to pick up at first but Studio One was much more intuitive, and I knew from that experience that I would want to purchase it someday.

Even though I bought the iX61 back in August I only recently got it out and installed Studio One - I had so many other projects going on that I couldn't let myself dive into this until I wrapped some others up, so it made for some good motivation to get everything else completed! Recently, however, I finally did install Studio One and jumped in to give it a try.

Because it had been a while since I used Studio One I got back into it slowly, and my first project was made without the keyboard controller or any of my external equipment - I programmed the parts on the "piano roll" arranger and used mostly-stock sounds on the included virtual instruments. Here's what I came up with as my first sketch:

I'd like to develop the idea further and add more to it, but for right now I feel like I'm more engaged and learning faster by cranking out several small projects or sketches because it reinforces the basic concepts while allowing me to go deeper in a variety of styles. And yes that does mean more are on the way :)


¹RIP WWBW :'(
²well, other than just to gawk at everything
³five octaves starting and ending at C, can be shifted in either direction

Electronics

When I was a kid, we had three electronics project kits that always sat on the shelf in my brother Sam's bedroom closet. I'm not sure where they came from (other than Radio Shack, originally) but they were one of those toys that I often got out to fiddle with. We had this one, which I used more when I was younger:

I stole this picture from the internet. Shhh...

I stole this picture from the internet. Shhh...

And this one, which I remember using maybe around the time I was 10 or 12?

I stole this picture from the internet too (!)

I stole this picture from the internet too (!)

Then there was this one, which for some reason I never really used. I think there weren't any wires in the box and I couldn't bring myself to use some OTHER kit's wires because what if they got all mixed up. Can't have that.

Guess where I stole  this  picture from? (hint: it was the internet)

Guess where I stole this picture from? (hint: it was the internet)

Anyway, if you can't tell from the pictures, these were all kits that let you build circuits by connecting different components together. These components were mounted on the surface of the project kit and the leads were connected to the springs on the box. To connect two components together, you simply bend their respective springs to the side, insert the stripped end of a wire, and release the spring. It's a clever system that actually worked quite well.

These kits came with books showing both the schematic diagram for each project circuit as well as a visual representation that depicted the face of the project kit with lines drawn to connect the components correctly. You could build the project by following the numbers listed in the instructions - for example it would say "2-17" meaning you should connect a wire from terminal 2 to terminal 17, and so on for the rest of the circuit.

I always thought these project kits were pretty neat and I loved following the instructions to build a circuit and then (usually) see it function. I remember the 200-in-1 kit had a "wheel of fortune" project that, as far as I can recall, acted basically like a random number generator with the output going to the 7-segment LED panel - I spent hours carefully following the manual and hooking up wires to complete the circuit. I have no idea if it actually worked or not but I sure do have fond memories of the build process.

Despite all the warm fuzzies conjured up by my reminiscence, I never learned a ton about electronics from these things. I understood how a circuit worked (generally speaking), and I could tell you approximately what each component did, but I never picked up on how to take those pieces and build something of my own. I never understood how the systems actually functioned and as a result couldn't do much to modify the given circuits or come up with an independent design.

I was pretty much okay with that... UNTIL NOW.

Spurred on by a tutorial I found online, I've finally decided it's time to stop being so ignorant about how circuits work. I have a bigger project planned (the one in the aforementioned-but-unnamed tutorial), but for now I'm getting started by learning about Arduino basics. I also picked up a breadboard, some resistors, and a pack of LEDs and made this:

IMG_9942.jpg

It's about as simple as you can get, but I was proud of having put it together. The circuit consists of a 9V battery, a few resistors to cut down the voltage, and then a green LED. This was partly to practice using a resistor calculator, partly to practice how breadboards work, and partly because the simple goal of getting an LED to illuminate was one that had confounded me as a child (looking back, I probably blew out an LED or two in those kits by shoving too much voltage through them).

Having completed this task, I got the Arduino into the mix and made this stoplight:

The green light comes on for three seconds, then it goes off and the yellow light comes on for one second, then it goes off and the red light is on for three seconds. I decided on the stoplight theme because Elias loves stoplights so much (he definitely thinks Mr. Rogers is cool for having one right in his house). It was easy to put together and the programming for it was also very simple, but it gave me a chance to build something myself without following a tutorial or other instructions. If I can figure out how to replicate the circuit's function inexpensively (e.g. with timer chips or something like that rather than a whole Arduino board) then I'd like to build a little toy stoplight with a switch for Elias and Amelia to play with for their toy cars. We'll see how that goes, I have a lot of projects happening (or wanting to happen) right now.

I hope to post more regularly¹ so hopefully I'll be able to keep you up to date with how these projects are going. I'm excited about them and I hope you are too! I've got the electronics thing, some music stuff, computer things are happening, my office is sort-of-rearranged... good stuff.

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¹said every blogger ever

MORE Audiotool

This time around I decided to try my hand at producing a rap-oriented track. I've had this little hook rolling around in my head for months, and now that I've gotten a handle on the basics of Audiotool it proved to be a good way to put some bones on the idea and see how it moved.

That was a weird metaphor.

Anyway, here it is - I'd love to hear any feedback you might have!


Audiotool, too

Yesterday I talked about Audiotool (a ridiculously cool website for making music) and shared my first Auditool creation, imaginatively titled "Experiment #1". Today I'd like to share my second Audiotool creation, given the increasingly clever moniker "Experiment #2".

In this track, I played a lot more with automation, where I program the instruments to take certain actions at specific times (filter sweeps, turning effects on or off, etc.)

I'd love to hear your feedback on these first two tracks, whether it's here on the blog, on Facebook, or on SoundCloud! I'm having a lot of fun playing with this website and I'm excited to keep learning with it.

Audiotool

Recently, my brother Matt introduced me to a website called Audiotool.com - it's a web app that facilitates music creation and it includes several virtual instruments, a mixer, a multitrack sequencer/editor, and the ability to import your own sounds or samples.

Here's the layout of instruments for my completed song, if you can call it that.

I played with it for a few minutes the night he showed it to me, and then yesterday I played with it for a few hours. I didn't get super deep into the features available with Audiotool, but it's pretty intuitive and I was able to play with several of the included modules. None of the modules are directly named what they've been designed after, because of course the names are copyrighted. That said, I used a TR-808 and TR-909 (both Roland drum machines), a TB-303 (bass sequencer), and a 3-oscillator synth that seems a lot like a Minimoog. I also used a couple of reverb pedals, a distortion pedal, and two somethings. In Audiotool it's called a Tonematrix but I'm not sure the real-life thing it's modeled on, though it looks more or less like a Novation Launchpad, but with 16x16 buttons. The virtual instrument acts as a sequencer though it can also output its own notes as well which sound a bit like a marimba.

Anyway, here's what I came up with. I hope you enjoy it!

Music Workstation

Yesterday I shared about a dream that finally came true, and about how fear had needlessly held me back from reaching my goals. Today I'd like to talk a little more about that project, this time from a nerdier, less reflective standpoint.

Getting everything hooked up was a simple enough affair - I simply opened up the Roland USB/MIDI interface, installed the driver from the included CD, and then plugged the MIDI ends into the PSR-6300 keyboard and the USB end into my computer. When I opened Finale NotePad, it recognized the UM-ONE and set it as the default MIDI IN device.

That's it.

I opened a blank document in Finale NotePad and when I pressed a key the note appeared before my eyes. It was a momentous (if undramatic) experience.

To my disappointment but not to my surprise, Finale NotePad (free software) is pretty limited in how it accepts and interprets MIDI data. It does not analyze note duration, song tempo (either through MIDI clock or inferred from your playing style), or other data such as pitch bend. It simply takes the pitch (MIDI note number) and inserts it on the selected staff at the specified duration. So, if you have the eighth note selected everything you play comes in as an eighth note, and so on.

Thankfully, Caitlin had a brilliant idea which eased the pain of Finale NotePad's limitation significantly: she suggested I use my ShuttlePRO v2 to facilitate note entry. The ShuttlePRO is a hardware controller that features a shuttle wheel, jog dial, and 15 programmable buttons. It's immensely useful to me when I edit photos and especially when I edit video, so when Caitlin made the suggestion I knew right away what a great idea it was (she's pretty awesome like that, coming up with good ideas all the time).

ShuttlePRO v2 from Contour Design

I programmed the five buttons above the dial to select whole, half, quarter, eighth, or sixteenth notes, the wheel to move forward or back one note at a time, the right side button to convert a note to a rest, the left side button to add a dot to the selected note, and one of the top row buttons to undo the previous action. I'm sure that I'll find useful shortcuts or macros to fill in the rest of the buttons, but just making that handful of shortcuts so easy to access without looking down or moving my left hand immediately made note entry much simpler. It's a far cry from real-time transcription as I play, but it's also way better than entering notes by using the mouse.

I quickly programmed the desired buttons using the Shuttle config panel.

Finally, to make everything easier to control at once, I removed the upper keyboard from my stand and laid my whiteboard on the top tier to act as a platform (it was the first strong-ish thing I could find that was the right size). The monitor, ShuttlePRO, keyboard, and mouse went on top of that. It worked really well and I plan to cut a piece of plywood to fit on that upper level for when I want to use a monitor/etc. or smaller gear such as my drum machine or Korg MS-20 mini.

REPOST!

So there you have them: all the nerdy details. I'd be happy to answer any relevant questions you might have in the comments!