How to Stand Out: Music Software
By Ali Jamieson
Following on from our look at guitar pedals to set you apart from the masses, we continue our series and examine some of the software options available that can help you generate new ideas and sounds.
Most of us use one of the main sequencers, weather it be Cubase, Logic, Pro Tools, Live or Reason, we tend to fall into these broad categories. Whilst each has its clear advantages, we’re faced with the same bundled synths and effects. This can greatly influence our methodology and means we can fall into production traps.
There’s a plethora of software out there that either by its interface, DSP algorithms or functionality can aid us stretching the sonic mileage of our music that much further, sometimes without much effort. Let’s have a look at what’s available to the more experimentally minded among you.
Reaktor is a semi-modular digital environment, meaning there’s near-limitless scope for creation. Part of Native Instruments’ Komplete library, it might be familiar to those who have the bundle but not quite as household a name as its siblings FM8, Massive and Absynth.
On a superficial level, Reaktor is a bit like a bundle within a bundle. Containing drum machines, synths and effects as well as live performance tools, sequencers and more. Lots of users just dabble in the factory packaged content and twiddle away happily.
These sound great as they are, but what’s even better is that they’re completely customizable; allowing you to get under the hood and change the architecture to suite your purpose.
Your favourite synth doesn’t have enough LFOs? Just add another one in! Reaktor allows total control over everything that’s included in the download but you can Frankenstein your own devices from scratch too.
At best, Reaktor requires a thirst for exploration and a bit of beginner's luck, at worst it can require a cursory understanding of maths, physics and computer science but that shouldn’t dissuade you from downloading. NI also offers a cut-down free version, Reaktor Player. Users can also upload their own creations for free download in the user library.
Here’s Reaktor guru Tim Exile showing us a little of what the software has to offer:
Reaktor retails for around $530 as a standalone or get Komplete for $1140.
Trackers are an archaic way of sequencing, and their layout has long been usurped by modern DAWs like Live, Logic, Pro Tools etc. Buzz is a free download that offers a digital modular environment to compose in, combined with a tracker sequencer, and a core community of developers that create new plug-ins for the platform.
There are some drawbacks with Buzz, it can be unstable and is sadly PC only, but if you can get past these and some of the other less conventional features, you have a really powerful sequencer on your hands.
Buzz is modular, not only in how the synthesis engines work, but also how automation and sequencing works; delays can be plugged into LFOs that control pan positions and pitch bends can open up distortions on other sounds. In short, anything can be plugged into anything.
Border Community’s James Holden is a proponent of Buzz. Here’s his Future Music interview, largely based around Buzz:
The brainchild of Tom Erbe (an American experimentalist and computer scientist) SoundHack is project predominantly focused on Audio Unit and VST plug-ins including their freesound package, the delay bundle and spectral shapers.
Erbe has recently been working with west-coast Eurorackers MAKE NOISE on their Echophon and aptly named Erbe-Verb. The plug-ins themselves are certainly not what you’d get bundled with your DAW, from bit crushers to mid-side encoders, spectral filters to pitch shifting delays.
Max for Live
There is a huge disconnect between programming and music making, which is perhaps for the best. DAWs are an abstraction of a much more complex process going on behind the scenes, which is necessary to keep us making music and not thinking about computing.
In 2009, creators of programming environment Max/MSP Cycling ‘74 teamed up with Ableton Live to create Max for Live, allowing users to implement and utilize some of the more esoteric devices created for Max within the realms of normal music sequencing.
Some of the more eye-catching inventions include OSCiLLOT, Polytek, the Schwarzonator, Time & Timbre, IRCAMAX 1, the Granulator, Geisterwelt, and the Chaos and Spectrum effects bundles. Max for Live is free with Ableton 9 Suite.
Everything in Max is customizable, and although there is scope for pushing things further than the likes of Reaktor or Buzz, the learning curve is a bit steeper.
Have you ever wanted your plug-ins to behave… not as you’d expect them to? If the answer is yes, perhaps Sonic Charge’s Synplant is what you’ve been searching for. A strange looking interface greets you, with many of the actual parameters hidden under the hood. Synplant boasts a ‘genetic approach to sound creation’.
What this means in practice is that you can alter the sound without knowing exactly what you’re doing, relying on macro controls named ‘atonality’, ‘tuning’, ‘effect’ and ‘release’. This can be quite appealing to those who reach for the same ole’ presets and dance music cliches in their sound design.
Frustratingly, many of the parameters (on the right panel) can’t be automated, so you need to take that into consideration if you want to open a filter or similar. Synplant retails at a bargain price of just $99, and can be trailed in demo format for a generous three weeks!
The explosion of iOS music apps during the later half of 2009 was something that honestly didn’t excite me. Of course, there was huge potential, but beyond making hugely scaled down, feature-light novelties, none of the app developers were really giving me a reason to take my iPhone/iPad live.
Fast forward and there are numerous very useable and top quality sounding apps for iOS and Android. More recently the likes of Propellerheads, Moog, Korg, Crystal and Akai have jumped onboard, contributing apps that really exploit that smartphone market in a way that complements modern sequencers.
Special nods go to Steinberg for their Cubasis; which is a streamlined version of the desktop DAW for iPad, a really handy addition to the studio or great for long train journeys.
Following on from iOS, TouchOSC is a necessity for anyone who wants to step outside the confines of MIDI. OSC (or Open Sound Control) is protocol for sending instructions of a network. Practically this means you can use your iPad or other iOS device/smartphone to control Live, Logic and the like.
OSC is much more resolute than MIDI, and the interface is completely customizable (like the JazzMutant Lemur). It requires very little understanding of programming too, so once it’s setup you’re ready to go.
TouchOSC is only $0.99 to download, and all the software needed for your desktop is free. Here’s a handy guide to setting up OSC with Ableton Live.
Cycling ‘74 Pluggo
Another entry from Cycling ‘74, Pluggo is a now discontinued bundle of over 100 effects, synths, modulation sources, meters and more for VST, Audio Unit, or RTAS. Released in 2005 for around $180, it can still be downloaded from Cycling ‘74’s site.
In the same vein as Max/MSP and Max for Live, Pluggo is not for the faint hearted. These sound manglers are not the easiest of devices to get your head around, without some background in understanding DSP processes but sometimes the blissful ignorance of simple knob-tweaking can be just what the Doctor ordered.
Stepping outside the nice warm comfort zone of synths, plug-ins and sequencers can be daunting granted, but with the abundance of homogeneous software and sample packs, standing out can be difficult.
Some of the aforementioned software requires some learning and understanding about what it is you’re plugging in or tweaking, but others allow for unbridled sonic experimentation, which can produce exciting new results.