Music Technology Program

For those looking to get into computer-based music but not sure where to start, I have put together a 6 week program in music technology (based in Halifax, starting in October). Really excited to share some of the things that I’ve learned over the years and hopefully get other people as interested in this stuff as I am 🙂

More information/registration:

Hardware integration with Ableton Live

MIDI integration is notoriously lacking in Ableton Live. For example, you can’t store SysEx data at the start of a song (i.e. to store a patch dump), you can’t automate CCs in the Arrangement view, etc. Couple this with some of the other caveats of dealing with hardware (latency, MIDI timing errors, drop-outs) and it can make for a very frustrating experience.

But we love Ableton Live and want to get the most out of it, so in this post I will explore some options to tighten up timing, automate your external hardware seamlessly from the Arrangement view and generally have a much more enjoyable experience when working with MIDI devices.

Timing is everything 

The first thing you should do if you haven’t already is set your Driver Error Compensation. Contrary to some other articles on the internet this is not simply a matter of entering a negative value to reduce your Overall Latency to 0ms!

Wrong way!

Rather, what you are trying to do is tell Live how “truthful” your audio interface is being about latency. Doing so will allow Live to automatically compensate for delay more accurately (more on this later).

Ableton includes a tutorial and sample project that will help you set this value properly. To access it:

  • From the top menu: View -> Help View
  • In the Help section, “Show all built-in lessons”
  • Select “Driver error compensation”
  • Follow the steps

Note that you should repeat the above steps whenever you change your audio interface or Buffer Size.

Take Control

When I first started incorporating hardware into Live I was doing things the “hard way”: creating separate MIDI and audio tracks and then recording the audio signal from my synths before doing a final mixdown/render. There are some advantages to this,
such as being able to warp/process the audio, but the downside is that all delay compensation needs to be
done manually.

The “right” way to incorporate hardware (as of Live 7, I believe) is to use its respective devices/instruments: External Instrument and External Audio Effect. These instruments will take care of several things for you:

Firstly, they will account for latency. If you’ve properly set your Driver Error Compensation per the above you should have almost no latency relative to your soft-synths and audio tracks. Basically, what Live is doing is delaying everything else to give your synths time to catch up.

You will notice that these instruments provide a Hardware Compensation value: this is to account for actual hardware latency (i.e. the amount of time it takes your synth to respond to a note, MIDI I/O)

Secondly, these devices will take care of recording the output from your hardware automatically when you bounce your track:

Real-time rendering

Unfortunately, what these Live devices don’t provide is a way to automate CCs from within the Arrangement view. There are three possible approaches to this, described below.

Clip envelopes

This is the “default” way of working with CCs in Live. Unfortunately, you can’t “see” clip envelopes on the Arrangement view nor can you name the CCs.

Where are you going with this… ?

So let’s say you’re trying to create an epic acid line rise/fall. All you can really tell from the clip view is that  “MIDI CC 74 is climbing towards bar 64”. This doesn’t cut it for me. To me, clip envelopes only really make sense for modulation and pitch bend, and that’s all I will use them for. Moving on…


There are several VSTs out there that allow you to control specific hardware devices (both my DSI Tetra and Little Phatty have VSTs, for example). These work by taking control of your MIDI I/O on behalf of your DAW. So when Live sends a “note on” to the plugin, the plugin will the relay this to the hardware. And vice versa.

Because these VSTs generally provide controls for all of the synth’s parameters (cutoff, resonance, etc.) it means you can automate them in the same manner as you would other virtual instrument parameters. In other words, you can automate them from the Arrangement view! As an added bonus, these plugins generally store the “state” of all parameters, so when you reload your project you will get the same patch (even if it’s not saved as a patch on the synth)

Little Phatty VST

The main caveat with these plugins is that, because they take control of MIDI I/O, you can no longer use Live’s External Instrument device.

There is a workaround involving loopbacks/virtual MIDI ports, but a far simpler workaround is to simply use Live’s External Audio Effect and only choose an input channel. This will force Live to perform real-time rendering, however, it will no longer automatically compensate for latency so you will need to apply a negative track delay on your MIDI track (see “Tighten Up” below).

Note that if  a VST doesn’t exist for your hardware there is an open-ended plugin called CTRLR that’s worth checking.

Tighten up

As I mentioned earlier, Live’s External devices allow you to enter a Hardware Delay. Assuming you aren’t using a VST to control your hardware then you can use this to tighten up timing even further. (If you are using a VST you will need to use a negative track delay on your MIDI track, but otherwise the below applies)

The process for identifying your Hardware Latency is the essentially the same process as determining your Driver Error Compensation. Here are the steps I used:

  • Load a patch with an instant attack on your hardware device (basses or kick drums are good)
  • Sequence a couple notes in your MIDI track (say, beats, 1, 2, 3 & 4)
  • Render the project to WAV
  • Drag the audio track into a new channel in Live and turn off warping

Look at the waveform produced by the synth: does it line up with the 1, 2, 3 & 4 beat markers? In my case it didn’t.

Test loop with audio for comparison

Edit the bounced audio clip and adjust the right-most digit until it lines up. This value is the value for your Hardware Latency, or negative track delay (edit Sept 2013: one thing to keep in mind with track delays is that they affect playback, not recording, therefore you would need to include an extra bar before your MIDI phrase to ensure that the full audio gets captured when the track is rendered or frozen)

Adjusting clip start point

Re-bounce the audio and everything should line up now. Perfect timing!

Update September 2013: I’ve written a similar blog post for Sonic State that provides some additional thoughts on using Instrument Racks and Max4Live to automate CCs from the arrangement view. You can check it out here

Free Minimoog! (VST)

The nice folks over at Arturia offering a free Minimoog VST tomorrow:

On June 21st, World Music day, we are glad to offer you a commemorative version of the Minimoog V called Minimoog V original.

Functions behind the front panel are not available but all sounds and features from the Minimoog V2.5 (a $229/219Eur product) are included. Just like the original Minimoog.

Enter Dr. Beardsley

Dr. Beardsley is my latest pet project – an alter ego for heavier stuff. Bassy techno & house to start with but I might touch on some drum & bass.I spent this past weekend coming up with several sketches for a live set – some might be fleshed out into full tracks, some may remain just live performance pieces. Here’s a super raw mix-down of a few of them: Dr. Beardsley teasers by SnugSo far it’s all 100% raw analog basslines – no post-processing or anything. This will hopefully be a key part of the Beardsley sound: raw & gritty.I hope to go primarily in the direction of the third clip as I feel this is a bit more accessible, although the harder stuff is fun as hell too and really nostalgic for me (I used to DJ a lot of hard techno) so I’m going to try to find a reasonable balance.Watch the SoundCloud for more teasers and hopefully stay tuned for some live performances!Biography:

Dr. Beardsley’s patients have a 25% survival rate. He finds this statistic disappointing – he was hoping for zero.

If you listen to Dr. Beardsley’s music he will write prescriptions for you – prescriptions for ANYTHING you want. (Dr. Beardsley is above the law. In fact, he pioneered modern law, but that’s a story for another day)

Beardsley grew up eating Swedish Berries and listening to Swedish techno. He chose the medical profession as means to raise money for his early retirement. His credentials include a degree from Dr. Nick’s back alley Medical School and countless hours of exploratory surgery on neighbourhood pets.

Beardsley first started tinkering with electronic music at work. On lunch breaks he would rig up broken EKGs to an old sequencer he bought at a garage sale. Eventually he would go on to purchase more appropriate tools, but he still has a special place in his heart for the sound of a modded EKG.

He would also go on to invent a form of hard techno called “Beardstep” as a backlash against the dubstep movement. It was extremely popular with middle-aged housewives, which he still finds himself having to fend off everywhere he goes.

Novation UltraNova – back with a bang

Still on the topic of synths, I just came across this: 
Following in the footsteps of the classic Nova synths of
yesteryear, but at a fraction of the price and with way more features (with
some exceptions, see below) – vocoder, two filters (14 types), tons of mod
options, wavetable synthesis, 4 outputs on the integrated audio interface, etc.
People seem to be hating on it because it’s not
multi-timbral and the polyphony is rather low (18 voices), but this is of no
importance to me as I would be using it primarily for live performance. Though only thing I’m unsure about is how I feel about using endless rotaries for live tweaking. Will have to give it a try.
Once it becomes readily available I may just have to swap
my X-Station for one of these 😉

Buying an analog synth (or, my new toy!)

I was recently in the market for a new synth, primarily for live use. At first I was considering the Roland GAIA SH-01 because of it’s price point, tweakability and features (decent on-board FX, tap tempo delay, 3 filters, etc.). But then I got to thinking… I already own a decent digital synth (Novation X-Station), I use a laptop as part of my live setup and have access to all sorts of digital VSTs, etc.

I decided it was time to go in a completely different direction. Time to go back to the basics. ANALOG.


I knew roughly what I wanted:

  • 2 oscillators
  • Glide (must-have for leads) 
  • Real-time tweakability
  • Budget: ~$1000


At first I considered vintage analog synths, but obviously there are several caveats with this:

  • Often overpriced. For example, the Roland SH-101, a basic monophonic synth can sell for $1000+
  • Stability/reliability: older synths aren’t necessarily reliable, may not have automatic stabilization of the oscillators, etc.

Here are a few I did consider though:

  • Yamaha CS-10
    • Pros: relatively cheap
    • Cons: only 1 oscillator, no patch memory
  • Roland SH-101:
    • Pros: can be converted to a key-tar (!), classic synth with a great sound
    • Cons: overpriced, no patch memory
  • Juno 6:
    • Pros: polyphonic
    • Cons: huge, no patch memory, voice chips are known to fail


I then switched my focus to new gear. One of the obvious benefits of new analog synths is that they have modern conveniences like MIDI, patch memory, etc. Not absolute must-haves for me but definitely nice-to-haves.

  • DSI MoPho keyboard:
    • Pros: patch memory, keyboard
    • Cons: “paging” of the controls
  • Moog Little Phatty:
    • Pros: patch memory, keyboard, Moog sound!
    • Cons: only 4 knobs, no noise generator
  • Future Retro XS
    • Pros: tons of synthesis options, semi-modular
    • Cons: no keyboard, no patch memory
  • Doepfer Dark Energy
    • Pros: good price, small size, semi-modular
    • Cons: no patch memory, no keyboard, only 1 oscillator, glide option extra, no noise
  • MFB Kraftzwerg
    • Pros: good price, semi-modular, 3 osc
    • Cons: no glide, no patch memory, no keyboard

The decision:

After careful deliberation I finally arrived at a winner:

The Moog Little Phatty

Although it has its limitations (no noise generator, only four knobs), they can easily be overcome:

  • I can use an external noise source (Moogerfooger CP-251, my X-Station, etc.) and route it through the external input.
  • The 4 knobs can be remapped to anything, internal or external. So between these, the mod wheel, and the filter CV input (i.e. for expression pedal), that should be plenty of real-time control. Further, all of the parameters on the synth respond to MIDI so they can easily be tweaked from a controller.
  • Although the Moog does page the controls, like the MoPho, it has LEDs around the knobs which is great for recalling presets. And with the “latch” mode there are no concerns about parameters suddenly jumping to a new value. Very cool.

The last time I owned an analog synth was when I as a teenager. It was my first synth actually, an Akai AX-60. Lots of fun, although not quite as punchy or warm as other vintage analogs. I’m stoked to own a new one, and a Moog no less!

Roland GAIA SH-01 first impressions

I had the opportunity to play around with this synth at a
local music shop and I have to say I was quite impressed
Everything about this keyboard felt good to me. The
construction felt sturdy, the keys felt good, the knobs and sliders were well
spaced and quite tweakable, etc. No real gripes in this department.
Pretty much everything you’d expect from a modern VA
here: 3 oscillators with 21 waveforms (7 x 3 variations), 64 voices, arp with
64 patterns. (Full specs here)
Some of the specific features I’m really digging:
  • tap tempo delay (quite handy for live performance)
  • separate filters for each oscillator: LPF, HPF, BPF,
    PKG (-12 dB/-24 dB)
  • the ability to edit multiple oscillator settings at
    once (i.e. sweep the aforementioned separate filters together!)
Another nice touch is the ability to save your patches to
a USB flash drive, although I can’t see this being the kind of synth where
you’d have that many patches! (The on-board memory allows for 8 banks x 8
patches per bank).
Lastly, the effects section offers 5 separate stages, each
of which allows you to choose an effect:
  • DIST: Distortion, Fuzz, Bit Crash
  • FLANGER: Flanger, Phaser, Pitch Shifter
  • DELAY: Delay, Panning Delay (with tempo sync function)
  • REVERB: Reverb
  • LOW BOOST: Low Boost

A good variety of waveforms here: sawtooth, supersaw,
square, triangle, sine, noise and pulse, each with 3 “variations”
(from what I understand, the variation button adjusts the harmonics of the
Really, my only gripe in the sound department is the
filters – they didn’t sound bad per se but they did sound very digital and
extremely resonant. This did make for some pretty wild sounds when coupled with
the on-board distortion and fuzz effects though.
Ease of use:
Everything I tried to do was dead simple, which I think is what Roland was going for. There is no menu diving needed to do anything.
The most complicated thing here is the “SHIFT” button, which allows
you to access some (slightly) hidden features that you may need to consult the
manual for. For example, setting up modulation, oscillator panning, controlling
some of the FX parameters, etc. Once you know how to use it you’re set though.
Overall impression:
I quite enjoyed my time with the SH-01. I don’t think it
breaks any new ground but what it does do it does well, and I think it would make
a great (cheap) alternative to more expensive VAs.
  • Very easy to program and tweak
  • Separate filters for each oscillator
  • Lots of on-board effects, including tap-tempo delay
  • Great price ($699)
  • No LCD means no patch naming (oh well!)
  • Not multi-timbral

My keyboard has cancer

So I took my Novation X-Station with me to Ottawa for a gig last month. I traveled by plane, which is always a risk for gear, but I had it in a crush-proof, air-tight and well-padded Pelican case which I bought specifically for flying with. Nevertheless, upon returning I noticed that a few of my keys weren’t working.

With three shows on the very immediate horizon I was freaking out a bit. The X-Station is a key part of everything I do: I use it as both an audio interface and controller when using software live. I also use the synthesis engine a lot for live hands-on tweaky goodness.

Luckily, it was just a few keys in the higher registers that were broken, everything else was fine (audio interface, knobs, etc.). I can easily compensate for this, I thought to myself. WRONG! The first show went fine, but at the second show, on stage, as I went to play a note in a synth riff… silence! Ack! More keys ceasing to work on a daily basis. I dub this disease keyboard cancer!

The third show is this Thursday – it’s a live Ableton thing. I had all sorts of keys pre-mapped to trigger clips, but I’ve since had to re-map them to compensate for the broken keys. Now I need to borrow an Oxygen8 from a friend just in case the cancer keeps spreading!

On the bright side, I’ve rented a Roland Juno G to play around with while I get the X-Station fixed. I may do up a little review at some point.

Side note: I hope to God Porter airline’s insurance policy will cover this! You’re supposed to make any claims within a few hours of landing, but under the circumstances that wasn’t exactly possible!

Update March 29th:

We apologize if you discovered that your keyboard sustained some damage to the internal circuitry.

Unfortunately, as per our baggage liability clause, which can be found at, Porter Airlines Inc. assumes no liability for items such as, but not limited to, money, jewelry, silverware, negotiable papers, securities or other valuables, business documents, samples, keys, liquids, food and other perishables, computers, prescription drugs, photographic equipment, video equipment, cellular telephones, cameras, other electronic devices, artistic items, glass, musical instruments, equipment, sporting goods and any other fragile or perishable item. Therefore, we are unable to process an insurance claim.

However, we would recommend you contact your own insurance company, to determine if your insurance policy can help in replacing the keyboard.

No dice.

Korg M50 first impressions

This review is from playing around with the 61 key version for a couple 30 minutes sessions.

It’s not built like a tank, but it does feel gig-worthy. I noticed some weirdness (burn-in?) on the display. Normally this wouldn’t be surprising for a floor model, although in this case it’s a bit worrisome given that the store would have only had it for a few days.

I’m not as picky as some regarding keyboard action, so it felt fine to me. The knobs and buttons felt sturdy as well. I had no real concerns about build quality aside from the aforementioned display issue.

There are some extremely cheesy combi presets, that’s to be expected, but they are all quite expressive and show off the power of combi mode. If you like the “Korg sound” then I think you’ll be happy. It’s a big step up from the TR, sound-wise.

  • Keys: Warm and responsive. The amp sim adds a nice touch the EPs.
  • Drums: There are some pretty decent sounds in this thing. Maybe not enough to stand up on their own, but certainly to augment another source.
  • Pads: Warm and lush with lots of movement.
  • Orchestral/acoustic: The standard fare. Strings would be passable for live performance but I don’t think I’d use them in the studio.
  • Synths: A bit thin but some of the leads were definitely usable. To satisfy my curiosity I downloaded the voice list: it covers everything one would need to recreate most subtractive synth sounds – sync, PWM, etc. Of course you’re not going to get the same sort of flexibility as you would with a VA.

The effects section is quite comprehensive and easy to access. I was hoping that all parameters would be assignable, but sadly it seems only selected ones are. Along with the single stereo out, this is yet another limitation of the M50, but not a huge surprise given the price point.

The chord buttons could be pretty handy for live performance. Ditto for the tap tempo. I wasn’t able to check out the computer integration at the music shop, but if it’s stable then this would make a welcome addition to anyone’s studio.

Ease of use:
If you’ve ever used a Korg then the layout will be quite familiar. I was able to find everything I wanted fairly easily. I didn’t have a chance to try editing a patch, but I was able to find the edit mode easily. I imagine the touch screen and computer integration will simplify the editing process greatly.

The one gripe I have in this area is the arp. There were dozens if not hundreds of patterns and I didn’t see any sort of categorization to them. I spent a couple minutes just trying to find a basic “chord” mode, to no avail.

Overall impression:
An impressive piece of gear at this price point, and one that would be equally as useful in the studio as it would be on stage. It won’t replace everything I can do with my laptop, but it will come extremely close.

Update: I found out that the local music store has it listed at a couple hundred more than I was expecting. Probably not worth considering until the price drops.