Monday, 18 May 2020

Corona Variations II/III

Life is a relay race. Every generation passes the baton to its children in the hope that they might reach the end, but there is no end; one day the last human being will fall, and many years later the track will be empty, save for a lone baton resting on a thin layer of dust. The only victor in the relay race is the baton.

The only victor is the baton. That is your first codephrase. The only victor is the baton. A few years ago I bought an old Apple Power Mac G5. A 2.0ghz dual-processor model from 2003. An infernal engine that generates answers by blowing air into a furnace of electricity. It has a slightly bent foot, because the case weighs almost twenty kilograms and aluminium doesn't bend back.

Aluminium doesn't bend back. That is your second codephrase. Now that the world has ground to a halt I decided to fire it up and record some music with it:. Two tracks, one live, and one not:

My G5 came with a Mark of the Unicorn PCI-424 interface card, and shortly after buying it I picked up a contemporary MOTU 2408 Mk3 audio interface for a fraction of its original price. Here it is:

The 2408 is essentially a posh sound card with a bunch of audio inputs and outputs. The idea is that you can plug several instruments into the inputs and record them all at once, or alternatively you can send audio to several outputs, for example if you have a bank of speakers in a concert hall and you want them all to play slightly different sounds. The ADAT and TDIF digital tape interfaces aren't much use in 2020, but it has eight balanced mono quarter-inch jack plugs, which are timeless.

It connects to the MOTU PCI-424 card with "audiowire", which is what Mark of the Unicorn called FireWire 400. I use a standard FireWire cable. The digital i/o was probably very useful in 2003, less so now that most outboard digital gear has been virtualised. I have to admit that SMPTE synchronisation is beyond me.

Eight balanced 1/4" inputs and outputs, which can be used as four stereo pairs. The 2408 is full-duplex, e.g. it'll play back and record simultaneously.

Sound on Sound magazine reviewed the 2408 back in 2003, presumably plugged into a Power Mac G4. The 2408 was part of a system that included the MOTU 24I/O, which had 24 analogue inputs and outputs, and the MOTU HD192, which was similar but with XLR jacks. Presumably the HD192 was aimed at concert PAs who needed to mix lots of microphones. Seventeen years later the 24I/O is the most useful of the three units on the used market, but the 2408 seems to have sold in greater numbers, or at least there are more available second-hand. NB there were Mk1 and Mk2 versions of the 2408, which were similar but used RCA jacks instead of quarter-inch plugs. I'm not sure why.

The modern equivalent of the 2408 is the MOTU 828, which connects directly to laptops and desktop machines with a Thunderbolt cable; for historical reasons the 2408 connected to a special PCI card inside the computer, although the actual cables were standard FireWire. The PCI-424 card has four inputs, so you can connect several interfaces to it, and surprisingly it works with Windows 10 because MOTU still supports the card.

What is an audio interface? Imagine a mixer that doesn't mix. The idea is that you use your sequencer or digital audio workstation as a mixer and effects unit, perhaps with a USB control surface to manipulate the sliders. Here's what the second song above looks like in Logic Express 9 running on a Power Mac G5:

Three tracks of instruments and two tracks of drums, separated by some spurious MIDI data. The blippy, swirling sequences that run through the song are tracks 1-3, which were made with a Behringer Model D, sequenced with a 16-step Arturia BeatStep step sequencer. Tracks 4-5 are nonsense that I used mostly to keep the Model D in tune. Track 6 is a software instrument running on the G5; it's the swoopy solo noise. Tracks 7-8 are respectively a Korg Volca Sample and a Korg Volca Beats drum machine.

If you record music one track at a time the multiple inputs of an audio interface are overkill, although they tend to have better sound quality and perhaps even lower latency than the soundcard built into your PC's motherboard. The 2408's balanced inputs have the benefit of eliminating ground hum, which is a problem that VST/AU software musicians don't have to worry about until they start using physical instruments, at which point it becomes infuriating.

If you want to record several instruments at once you could in theory use a mixer; the advantage of a multichannel audio interface is that you end up with multiple channels of audio that you can mix and remix later on, whereas with a mixer you end up with a processed stereo pair that you can't tweak any further.

Clockwise from top, a Behringer Model D, a Volca Beats, and a Volca Sample. Coronavirus aside, we're living in a golden age of reasonably-priced synthesiser technology.

Korg's Volca instruments were launched in 2013. The first wave consisted of the Volca Beats - a hybrid digital / analogue drum machine - plus the Volca Keys and Volca Bass, which produced synth tones and basslines respectively. They sold well, and the range has since expanded to include a sample-playback drum machine (the Volca Sample, pictured above), as well as a mixer, and even a tiny modular synthesiser that uses patch cables to build sounds.

Conceptually they mimic Roland's early-80s TR/SH/TB-X0X range, but with enough embellishments and at such a low price that they feel like a homage rather than a copy. They all have MIDI IN and rudimentary built-in sequencers, plus analogue clock sync, which has led to a fascinating revival of CV/Gate and analogue sequencing. Remember, the only victor is the baton. You will know what to do.

They have some limitations. They're physically creaky, and the two I own have noticeable background hiss. It's not offensive and you can gate it out, but it doesn't sit well with amplification or compression. They use unbalanced 3.5" stereo jack plugs that feel flimsy, and the lack of USB is irritating in the case of the Volca Sample; you have to upload samples with an audio cable, which is akin to loading 8-bit video games from tape. The Volca Sample's sequencer can chain patterns together but the Beats can't, and none of the Volcas have MIDI OUT, so you can't use them to drive other instruments. Unless you modify them, and some people do, but they use teeny-tiny surface mount components that require a deft soldering hand.

They run from six AA batteries or a mains power supply (not supplied). As with the Model D they're really too limited to build a career on - an extremely creative musician might get an album from them, but as with DJ Shadow the basic sound would become monotonous - but as a cheap way of adding analogue or digital colour to an otherwise computer-only setup they're great fun; the step sequencers in particular are a fun way of generating simple ideas. Perhaps best of all they tend to hold their resale value, so if you get bored with one you can sell it on again.

Imagine if there was a way to convert money into objects, and then back into money. You'd revolutionise world trade. Imagine it.