Balance Shootout at Robotspeak

December 6th, 2011
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By now most avid followers of Propellerhead Reason are probably familiar with the new hardware audio interface, Balance. Balance is an elegant, 2-channel desktop unit that connects to a Mac or PC via USB and features all of the general connections one would expect from a quality device. There are also Reason specific functions, including Clip Safe control and a button to call up an input monitor/tuner display. Once you’ve moved past the looks and features of the unit, the one question that remains is “how does Balance sound?” Well.. to answer this question, a group of us got together in San Francisco at Robotspeak to compare Balance with a few other popular devices in an audio interface shootout.

Interfaces and Set Up

We looked to devices comparable in features and price, and managed to borrow a Digidesign (Avid) Mbox 2, an Apogee Duet, and a MOTU Ultralite. The interfaces were simultaneously connected to an iMac, making it possible to switch between them by driver selection. Audio was routed to a Mackie Mixer which feeds the Robotspeak house system, a pair of large QSC powered speakers.

To minimize noise and to ensure reproduction levels were exactly the same, the output levels were calibrated with a test tone and a multimeter. This is important because the slightest level difference could alter the results. The Duet and Ultralight were the most difficult to match because the monitor level controls are stepped, but once these were matched, it was easy to use the analog controls of Balance and the MBox 2 to calibrate the tone level to a 10th of a millivolt.

Test Conditions

Those familiar with Robotspeak know that it’s not an ideal space for conducting critical listening tests. The ceiling is low, there’s street traffic, and music from the neighbors can be heard through the walls. However, most Reason users work in less than ideal conditions and the level of environmental noise feels more realistic, especially with the roaming intoxicated indigents (or roosters) who add a certain charm to the neighborhood.

The audio examples were extracted from compact discs and imported into a Reason 6 song file. The content ranged from Classic Rock, Dance, Dubstep, Electronic, Experimental, Hip-Hop, IDM, Indy, Rock, RnB, Orchestral, Opera, Pop, Progressive, Punk, and a few other genres. For playback of the listening test, all device drivers were set for 44.1 kHz sample rate with 24 bit resolution.

Each round of testing placed Balance against one of the other devices, however the listeners could only identify the interface as either A or B. A 30 second clip was played through A, and then through B, and then again through both; so the listeners could compare their first impressions and finally confirm their preference after the second pass.

Listening Test Results

Going into the listening test, I hypothesized that people would not be able to tell the difference between Balance and other unit, and the results would average a 50% favorability for Balance and 50% for other interfaces. After tabulating the data, my hypothesis was proven somewhat wrong. The final results indicate that listeners favored Balance by 68.8% compared to the other interfaces. In one test of a female pop vocal piece, every listener preferred the track when heard through Balance (100% favorability). The lowest margin of favorability was 50% where the listeners were split. To my surprise, there were no results where Balance performed with a lower favorability rating than 50%.

When tested against the MBox 2, Balance was favored on average 66.7%; against the MOTU Ultralite, Balance was preferred at 58.3% – closer to my original hypothesis. Compared to the Apogee Duet, Balance was preferred at 78.1%. The image below describes each test in detail.

The results might be slightly in error since we did not match other interfaces against each other (i.e. Mbox 2 vs Duet), nor did we perform blinds controls like Balance vs. Balance. Also, bear in mind that many of the interfaces are older and considered obsolete, so Balance may have the competitive edge through newer technology and freshly mounted components. Still, we are happy to confirm that Balance performs quite well against legacy devices from very reputable companies.

While overall the group preferred Balance, we cannot overlook some of the details in the results where certain characteristics of the other interfaces were subjectively preferred. The high end detail of some examples was favored through the Duet and Ultralight, but at the same time, others felt the high end detail was too harsh and brittle. The listener notes seem fairly consistent about this aspect where people preferred hearing more treble. Some preferred the tone of electric guitars through the MBox 2, stating that the tone was more natural. Low mid and bass heavy examples fared better through Balance where the listeners noticed more definition, but at the same time, others felt that there was too much bass from Balance. Louder examples (primarily electronic/dance music) with smaller dynamic ranges were favored through Balance, which indicates that it’s complementary to typical Reason productions. Examples with considerable dynamic range (jazz/orchestral) were evenly mixed between Balance and the other interfaces. These are important issues to consider because the feedback suggests that listeners have a subjective bias, and that Balance may not be the most suitable interface for the type of music being produced.

Recording Tests

SF Musician/Songwriter, Michael Shockey, lent his guitar and vocal talents for the recording tests. I brought along a Wunder CM-7 (large condenser valve mic) to track vocals, and guitar was tracked via D.I. inputs. We were not able to track to all four interfaces simultaneously, but Mike is a consistent and did a great job at repeating his performance as we tracked through each of the four interfaces into Reason.

Despite the inability to conduct blind listening test of recorded material, Mike’s tracks provided a solid template to analyze the differences in tonal quality between the units. I found that the MOTU Ultralight and Apogee Duet distinctly have a bit more sharpness that you find with digital recordings, but Balance captured the coloration of the tube mic better than the other units. While we were only dealing with D.I. on guitar, I preferred the Apogee and Balance more than the MOTU and MBox2.

One person commented that while the sound of Balance is more pleasing, the clinical quality of the apogee might be more useful for mixing. Despite the fact that these results are subjectively biased, we were satisfied in knowing that recording through Balance sounds as good (if not better) than the devices used in this test.

Final Thoughts

We will probably continue with this experiment, and hopefully test Balance with contemporary devices. In the future, I would focus on the recording aspect and prepare blind listening tests of material recorded through different interfaces. With current units, I expect the results to be much more evenly spread. Even though we cannot conclusively say how Balance will stand up to contemporary devices, anyone looking to upgrade from one of these older firewire interfaces should be confident that going to USB based Balance is not a step down in performance or audio quality.

animoog inspired Reason 6 combi

October 31st, 2011
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My latest obsession has been the new animoog iPad app from moog music, inc. It’s a brilliant example of the tablet platform and touch control surface as a creative and expressive musical instrument. If you haven’t tried animoog, I highly highly highly recommend getting it.

Animoog’s sound generation system is akin to a vector synthesizer, however the main XY pad merges an eight way source selector against a wavetable grain selector. The modulation of the XY pad can be automated allowing you to explore complex variations between wavetables and granular systems. I’ve found that bypassing the modulation “orbits” and “path” parameters and simply controlling these parameters in real-time offers and incredible performance experience. This has inspired me to try to share the experience with Reason 6 users who may not have access to an iPad.

Reason users have had a similar technology available for quite some time in the Malstrom graintable synthesizer where you have two graintable oscillators. The main difference in the experience is the control over the graintables. Animoog allows you to “crossfade” between each of the sources while Malstrom’s architecture is somewhat fixed and allows you to layer the two sources or fade with envelopes, rather than a real time control.

Using a combinator configured with several Malstroms and a multi source fader, I’ve devised a patch that simulates the experience of the animoog sound source. Due to the limitations of using multiple synth devices, the configuration is limited to a monophonic instrument. Despite being mono, it’s fun nonetheless!

Download

The combinator is contained in the example Reason 6 session file and patch archive available here:

peff-animoog_inspired_combi.zip

Combinator Controls

Below is a description of the combinator controls and the functions they perform. To simulate the animoog style of table/index control try mapping the modwheel and Index control to an XY pad. This particular patch is designed to create aggressive dubstepish tones, however you can modify graintable selections and other Malstrom parameters to customize the behavior.

Mod Wheel: Multi Source fader control fades between the 8 graintables

Rotary 1 - Index: simultaneously controls all graintable index positions.

Rotary 2 - Shift: simultaneously controls all 8 graintable shift amounts.

Rotary 3 - BitCrush: increasing this knobs applies more bit crushing

Rotary 4 - LFO Rate: controls the wobble rate

Button 1 - Index Mod: applies ramp modulation to the index of all 8 graintables.

Button 2 - Table Sweep: applies LFO to the multi source fader

Button 3 - Crush On: Enables/Disables the Scream 4 bitcrush effect

Button 4 - LFO Enabled: Enables/Disables the modulation of the filter and amp sections

Multi Source Fader control

The eight way source selector relies on an old technique (think power tools for Reason 2.5 era) of using the BV512 Vocoder as an audio to CV converter. When the combi receives a note on message, a Thor polysonic synth is triggered to generate a sine wave. The sine wave acts as a modulator signal on the vocoder and opens specific bands on the vocoder. The CV signals generated by the individual bands control the fader levels of remix mixer. When the pitch of the sine wave is adjusted (by way of the mod wheel), a different range of bands opens, subsequently opening different mixer channels. This is an important aspect of the patch because that recreates the experience of using animoog.

Migrating Record Locations & Favorites to Reason 6

October 3rd, 2011

A Reason+Record Duo User who attended the Producers Conference in Las Vegas asked a rather important question about losing all of his patch browser “Favorites” and “Locations” settings when upgrading from the RR5 Duo package to Reason 6. We discovered that it is possible to migrate these settings provided you are working on the same computer system and the locations of refills and other patch data has not changed in the upgrade process. If your refills are somewhere in a user document location and have not been moved, this process should work fairly smoothly. If your refills and patches were in the Reason Application folder or have been moved, this may not work. While this may not be relevant for every user, those who have put an extensive amount of time in organizing refills and patch lists in Record will probably want to migrate these lists into Reason 6.

Before proceeding with this process, quit Record and/or Reason 6, and make sure your account has administrator privileges. Otherwise, find the administrator and have them perform this process.

The Reason/Record Browser stores the patch location information in “.favo” files. On a Mac OS system, the files can be found in the following directory:

Drive (MacHD) \ Users \ username \ Library \ Application Support \ Propellerhead Software \

and on a Windows system:

C: \ Documents and Settings \ username \ Application Data \ Propellerhead Software \

You will see folders for “Reason” and “Record”, and each contain similar files, including “Locations.favo” and any other favorites lists. To transfer your Record locations settings to Reason 6, simply replace the “Locations.favo” in the Reason folder with the one from the Record folder. When you Launch Reason 6, the locations list will appear as it did in the Reason+Record Duo browser.

Instead of deleting the Reason 6 list, I renamed it to “Locations2.favo”, and then copied the Record “Locations.favo” into the Reason folder. “Locations2″ appears as a favorites list, and my old Record settings now populate the browser Locations lists.

As a reminder, you no longer need Propellerhead Record, and should now only launch Reason 6. I recommend that you transition through the upgrade process slowly and try to keep your old files around. If you have uninstalled Record from your system, you may have lost previous locations lists. Rename the old application folder to “Reason 5″ and keep both v5 and v6 installed. Once you’re confident that everything is working properly in Reason 6, then uninstall Reason 5 and Record 1.5.

mØxr update (5.1.9)

September 19th, 2011
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mØxr is a maxmsp based application that converts audio signals to MIDI note events. The application is calibrated to receive Reason CV messages as audio signals, and in turn generate a monophonic stream of MIDI notes that can trigger hardware synthesizers.

A new build of mØxr has been compiled with the recent update of MaxMSP 5.1.9. This update is recommended for anyone running the latest version of Snow Leopard, Mac OS 10.6.8 and soundflower 1.5.2.

More information regarding this Reason CV Audio to MIDI converter patch on the mØxr page

Lion Compatibility

MaxMSP 5.1.9 seems to address issues of running mØxr on Mac OS 10.7.1 Lion. I personally have not updated to Lion and recommend to anyone using mØxr to stay with Snow Leopard. Until Max, soundflower, and all audio drivers are fully compatible in Lion, it is uncertain whether this patcher will function properly.

Reason 6

Because soundflower is a Mac OS Core Audio extension, mØxr should be fully compatible with the upcoming release of Propellerhead Reason 6. Implementation of the aggregate audio devices and MIDI drivers is still configured in Audio MIDI preferences, outside of the Reason environment, and so there should not be any issue for those who upgrade. The process of converting Reason CV to Audio relies on a Thor Polysonic Synthesizer, so mØxr will not operate with Reason Essentials.

Download mØxr

Anyone with a mØxr+ patcher can use the same link previously distributed via email. The public version of the patcher is available from the link below:

Download mØxr.dmg

other people’s projects

August 28th, 2011

I’ve been busy working on a variety of different projects the past few months which have been mainly other people’s projects. Working on someone else’s music is a challenge for me, so i rely a lot on reference tracks, and having concrete examples smooths along the process of communicating specific issues with a mix. Most recently, my friend, Darin came by and we mixed some recordings of his jazz trio.

You can hear Darin’s tracks along with a few other projects that I’ve been working on. Some of these are mixed in Propellerhead Reason 5 + Record 1.5 Duo:


production and engineering projects by peff

For those of you on Facebook, I’ve posted my personal mastering combinator patch which you can hear being used on some of these tracks. you can get it from the following link:

peff.com/mmm

In memory of Nicole Bernard

July 15th, 2011

While there has been a lot of buzz surrounding other Propellerhead news this week, a tragedy has befallen the family of our friend, James Bernard, PH Artists Relations and Reason Specialist. On July 13, 2011, James’ wife, Nicole, passed away. Nicole was 36 years old and was the mother of their four children, Ava, Chloe, Mia and Asher. People in the user community are leaving their expressions of sympathy on on the Propellerhead User Forum in this thread

I’ve also been receiving phone calls and emails from people asking what they could do to show their support. A trust account for James and Nicole’s four children has been established, and people can make a tangible gesture by contributing to this fund. The button below takes you to the paypal portal for the Bernard Childcare Trust:


mØxr - CV Audio to MIDI Converter

June 15th, 2011
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mØxr is a MaxMSP based application that converts Control Voltages as audio signal to monophonic MIDI note messages. The application must receive two CV signals through audio connections, a Gate CV and a Note CV. While any audio signal can trigger a MIDI note message, mØxr is calibrated specifically for the Note CV values generated by a Thor Polysonic Synthesizer in Propellerhead Reason.

Discussions on the propellerhead user forum inspired me to pursue this idea, which began with the MOTU Volta concept of controlling analog hardware synthesizers with software based CV sources routed to a MOTU hardware interface. Experiments in controlling analog hardware from Reason were very successful, so this was the next logical move. I only have a basic understanding of Max, so this is all experimental and will probably sit as one of those never ending works in progress.

How this works

The connection between Reason+Record and mØxr requires an inter application audio routing extension, such as Cycling74 Soundflower, aggregated with your primary audio interface. CV/Gate data is transmitted from Reason+Record to mØxr through Soundflower, while audio signals to and from the hardware interface pass normally. This allows you to trigger a MIDI hardware synthesizer using Reason CV/Gate signals and track the audio back into Record.

As an alternative to soundflower and setting up an aggregate driver, you can also use a purely digital loopback configuration. If your hardware has unused ADAT Lightpipe connections, a digital audio loop from the output to the input can be configured with a short TOSLink cable. (The shorter the better to reduce latency of light). CV/Gate audio data can be routed from Reason+Record to the ADAT lightpipe outputs, and mØxr can receive them from the ADAT lightpipe inputs.

Things you can do

While some work is involved in getting mØxr operational, there are some surprisingly gratifying results. In addition to triggering MIDI synths from a sequence in Reason+Record, Control Voltage pattern devices like the Matrix Pattern Sequencer and RPG-8 Monophonic Arpeggiator can also be used to drive hardware.

RTFM

Support for mØxr is minimal because there’s no efficient way to tech a system remotely. The documentation is rough, but I’ve attempted to cover the key issues regarding installation and operation. The CV to MIDI conversion process relies on so many different parts working together, so it’s rather difficult for me to provide support without being there in person.

It must be reiterated that mØxr generates a monophonic MIDI stream, so results from polyphonic MIDI sequences are unpredictable. Also, latency varies depending on your driver settings, buffer size, and MIDI configuration. Troubleshooting issues are (somewhat) covered in the documentation.

Download the latest mØxr Documentation

Download mØxr

mØxr is a stand-alone application for MacOS 10.6, and operates side-by-side with Reason+Record duo. Attempts to get it working on Windows have been unsuccessful, but anyone interested in exploring this concept on the windows platform can find the original patches in the MIDIRunner topic in the Propellerhead User Forum

Download mØxr.dmg

- updated 9/18/11 Max 5.1.9
- not tested with Mac OS 10.7 Lion