randy's Recent Posts
If you're a synth head, it's probably clear that Aalto is inspired by Don Buchla's work. I think that Buchla's 100 and 200 series designs are high water marks of what can be achieved by focusing on the experience of playing rather than on the technology. Design not from a feature set out, but from the knobs in...
Above you see the 259 Complex Oscillator, which is the closest cousin to Aalto's algorithm from among the Buchla modules. If you want 259 sounds, of course you need to get a 259. It is more complex than my oscillator, both in sound palette and interface. What I tried to do was capture the qualities of its sound that made my ears particularly happy, where that was technically possible in a real-time algorithm. I also took cues from how Buchla's designs do more with less, and distilled the interaction down to make a few knobs that did a lot.
For example, having only one scale control per signal input on Aalto (except for the oscillator pitch) was a conscious decision I made with simplicity in mind. It seems to cover around 90% of the sound making possibilities (designers might call them "use cases") with 50% of the UI.
Who else besides musicians needs precise and intuitive UI? Airplane pilots, that's who. These gauges were another inspiration. Note that when you look at a number, your gaze is also taking in the filled-in area of the dial, not darting back and forth to some number box across the screen. I'm assuming these designers knew what they were doing.
Another musical device that works really well is the Weiss DS1. Note all the breathing room around the knobs. Simple, uncluttered and a joy to use. That it sounds phenomenal doesn't hurt.
Check out the Tone Board for the Yamaha GX1. If you spend your year's development budget making a $60,000 synth, you can put some time into UI. See the clear layout of signal flow and how the knobs connect to it and are grouped by the panel graphics. Also, precise markings in seconds on the sliders as opposed to an arbitrary range of 1-10, or no range at all. If only those drawings of envelope shapes were able to move... you'd have something a lot like Aalto's envelopes. It's no coincidence.
In my view the best way to respect the innovators is to innovate. So instead of trying to reproduce some elusive and hyped "analog magic" I am combining all of the influences above and more into the best design I can make for today's technology. I look forward to sharing this work soon.
coding coding coding
Nope, just as an AU and VST plugin. If you just want to play it live, you can find a free host program that will host the plugin.
The beta is closed now. We'll do one for Windows in fall so stay tuned if that's your platform.
I have thought of it. I'm going to wait and see. I'm using the JUCE framework which supposedly allows compiling on Linux, though I'm not sure anyone has tried making a plugin with it on Linux.
The thing I'm most concerned about is support. When I sell a copy of the software to someone I'm making a personal commitment to help make it work for them on any system I support. I'm not sure that I could do this well enough on Linux because of the many versions out there and my lack of experience with them.
So it's not a high priority but I'm interested and appreciate your offer. If you have any ideas about the support thing let me know.
@asquare: You actually hit it right on the head. Aalto is good at making complicated sounds easy to program. It's also quite heavy on the CPU because I'm making sound quality absolutely top priority, and because it's so patchable. And finally, it's more oriented towards helping people make the next Silver Apples than the next Howard Shore soundtrack. So for all these reasons I think topping out at four voices would be fine.
Hi kickprod, thanks for the good words. This summer for OS X, hopefully fall for Windows.
Here's how I think it will work. One purchase gives you a copy for every platform we release it for when available. Your license will let you use one copy at a time.
There won't be copy protection because I think that if you buy software, you should be able to make copies of it. At runtime, however, the software may check to see that you are holding up your end of the license agreement.
Thanks so much!
Aalto will only have the one combination of modules. I wanted it to be something that you get your head around quickly and start making sounds with. I wouldn't rule out doing a configurable modular ... later.
Here's a little movie that shows off some of Aalto's sounds, UI and charming personality. Enjoy!
We are shipping for the Mac this summer, Windows to follow shortly.
Price will be comparable to other high-quality softsynths out there. It will also depend on whether this version is released as a poly synth, which I haven't decided on yet. I'm working to get the CPU usage down to the point where that is reasonable... wish me good speed!
Microtuning most definitely. There will be some kind of aftertouch but I'm not sure about the details yet.
cbm: thanks and well put. Aalto is definitely inspired by Buchla's work. The Music Easel was a model for me in how good design could give a small collection of modules a huge variety of sonic possibilities.
I also like how the Easel lends itself to programming distributions of events, not just single notes. I tried to make Aalto's sequencer flexible enough to offer a lot of possibilities here.
And then there are the woodblock and 259-like sounds that are new sonic territory for plugins. My goal is not to emulate hardware but to make new sounds that satisfy me in the ways the original ones do. In return for all the inspiration I take pains to point out that, if you want to make Buchla sounds, you gotta get a Buchla!
I'm not sure. I am planning to do a closed beta, but may invite a few more people. Rabid followers of the list for example... :-)
Aalto is a new synthesizer coming from Madrona Labs this summer. It looks like this:
Aalto can make many different kinds of sounds, including some that have been difficult or impossible to do with softsynths until now.
Here is a bouncing-ball-style patch made with FM:
Here's a clip demonstrating the timbre and waveshape knobs of the complex oscillator.
MP3s do not compress single-oscillator sounds very well---to hear the full-quality sound, use the download links on the Soundcloud players.
Aalto came about because I wanted Soundplane owners to have a rich and expressive sound making tool right out of the box. I designed a small synth that would be easy to learn, easy to use, rich in possibilities, and tightly connected to the controller. Though we still have some work to do on the controller, the synth is nearly done. So we are releasing a MIDI-controlled version of Aalto as an AU and VST plugin this summer.
There's a lot more to say about Aalto, so please stay tuned for more info including a demo movie very soon. If you have questions or suggestions, please visit our forums. I'll post some more info there to get things started.
The Soundplane remains the reason we are doing all of this, and we continue to make progress on it. Brian has recently shifted gears from hardware design to firmware programming. Please check back or subscribe via RSS for an update on the Soundplane A soon!
We are aiming for a price of under $2000 here in the USA. It is possible it will be significantly under, but it's too early to say for sure.
@walker: thanks for sharing your excitement-- we are thinking very much the same, and will have some new hardware parts to show off soon, please stay tuned.
hi David, the Soundplane A will have only a USB connection that transmits the raw sensor data. So you'll need to use a computer with it, running our translator software to make OSC and MIDI messages. We are also working on software synths that will listen directly to the Soundplane data.
This software is being written with the help of a cross-platform framework, JUCE. So while we are developing on Mac and may release there first, we want to support Mac, Windows and Linux ASAP.
good question, I added it to the FAQ, if you have any more, please ask.
Spring is here, and as we get closer to having finished prototypes to show off I am going to be posting updates more frequently. I'm working on two main tasks right now, one of which is finishing the Soundplane enclosure.
We have two prototype enclosures milled by O. B. Williams, a local company that mainly does architectural millwork. They have been around since 1890, which makes them one of Seattle's oldest companies. As you can imagine, they know a lot about wood there, about what species to use for different projects, and how to make things that will look great and last. When I visit them I always learn something new.
CNC machines like they are using have made a lot of new designs possible in wood. Look at the beautiful new bikes from Renovo for example. I think we will see lots more innovative products based on this intersection of natural materials and computer-aided manufacturing, and I'm very happy to be making one.
As you can see above, the Soundplane body is milled out of a solid block of wood. A difference from the first prototype is that pegs are left in to hold the circuit board, which means no more messing with plastic standoffs, less assembly time, and lower costs in the long run. There is a back panel (not shown, boring) with a rabbet cut into it that fits snugly into the piece shown. Then the two are screwed together to make a very solid monocoque structure.
As you can see on the front, the unmilled block is actually two blocks glued together down the middle. Why? Two main reasons. The first is mechanical: the composite is less prone to warping than a solid piece of wood. The glue joint is supposed to be stronger than the wood itself, something I look forward to verifying with destructive testing when we are done with our earlier prototype.
The second reason is sustainability: using 4" instead of 8" boards means that a much younger tree can be used. And young alder trees grow very fast. Alder itself has other benefits, including being beneficial for other trees in mixed stands. Find out more courtesy the US Forest Service. Time was, alder was considered a weed tree in our Pacific Northwest, and used for fuel. But for the above and other reasons its popularity as a craft wood is growing. I love its soft glow with a clear oil finish, as shown here, and I hope you'll agree.
Coming soon: more construction details, and our first software synthesizer.
A computer will be needed to use the Soundplane A when it is released. One of our future products may be a Soundplane->CV converter module.
Thanks for the Inkscape link! I didn't know there was something like that.
Check email for driver.
This is a post about some extreme DIY shenanigans for general interest and later reference.
We are getting close to complete prototypes now and finishing up some of the smaller details. One of the parts I'm finishing is the back panel that holds the USB jack. This panel will also serve as the nameplate.
Frontpanelexpress.com has a very inexpensive service for milling aluminum plates. One catch is that you have to make your design using their software which is clunky and Windows-only.
We are, to put it mildly, detail-oriented, and the nameplate logo has to look good, right? So we need our own typography on the plate. The only way to get a custom graphic into their software is to import an HPGL file with the engraver paths. I do my design work on the Mac in Adobe Illustrator, a program I've been using for about 20 years, and am very comfortable with.
So the problem is: get an Illustrator outline from my Mac over to an HPGL file on Windows XP. Piece of cake.
The first way I tried was exporting a PDF, then opening it in the Windows shareware ViewCompanion Premium, which can export HPGL. I tried this, and the resulting HPGL did not import into Front Panel Designer. It showed up as an empty drawing with a size of 0.0394" x 0.0394".
The next way I tried was by installing a driver for an HP pen plotter on Windows, and printing the PDF to a file using this driver and Adobe Reader. Tracking down the right driver was somewhat hard. Then more disappointment: the same empty drawing resulted.
At this point I was just about ready to give up and pay Frontpanelexpress to do the design work as a custom job. I couldn't think of another route to making the HPGL file that made any sense. As a shot in the dark I searched for "print to HPGL." That turned up a DIY page from 1997 with a reference to a Roland plotter driver working on XP. The link to the driver itself was gone, but the Wayback Machine had a link to the old Roland page with, miraculously, the XP driver. And so I installed it and it worked just like that.
Thanks for the note! We are getting ever closer to having finished prototypes. When we do, I definitely want people to get their hands on them ASAP. A bunch of meetups will be in order, starting with Seattle. Stay tuned and wish us good speed!
The question depends on context, to be sure, but in the grand scheme of things I would consider the Continuum and Soundplane to be pretty darn similar. And that's good, because people will be able to play the same pieces on them eventually.
Each device has its own set of qualities, any of which a given musician might find preferable while others prefer the alternatives. I wrote in my "Why Soundplane?" post about how I think this diversity in approaches is a helpful thing, evolving a family of instruments people can practice and figuring out what refinements make sense.
Thanks for the comments!
Despite its simplicity on the outside the Soundplane will not be at all cheap to make. But we are working hard to make it as affordable as possible.
At http://madronalabs.com/DIY I've put a demo video and a paper showing how it works. The technology is not like an Omnichord. But I hope we can count on Devo as a customer anyway. :-)
Hi there! We're still hard at work on the Soundplane A. We have been busily designing parts and putting them together, and it's starting to resemble finished hardware. Let's take a look...
I've recently taken delivery of the flex circuits that are the Soundplane's carrier antennas—basically its only moving parts. There will be four antennas on the Soundplane with 16 carriers each, for a total horizontal resolution of 64 taxels. Here's one of the antennas in closeup.
This was kind of an unusual design because the shapes of the antennas are so critical. Though everyone seems to use it for making PCBs, Eagle would not really, as far as I could tell, have been a good tool for drawing this kind of thing. Adobe Illustrator was, and I already had it. So I looked around for a way to convert Illustrator files to Gerber, which is the format the circuit board people use. I was in luck! Some guy in Seattle had already written a Perl script for this purpose called pdf2gerb. I modified it slightly to output rectangular line ends instead of circular ones, and made some Gerber RS-274X files, hooray. Another open-source tool, gerbv, lets me inspect the Gerber files before I send them off. I was able to get gerbv compiling pretty quickly using Fink on Mac OS X.
Typically, flex circuits are little guys, stuffed into your camera or cell phone. These antennas are considered really big pieces for the process and consequently a little expensive. But flex is the only way I found to reproduce them with the very close tolerances we need. Our prototypes have been made by IPC Calflex in California.
In this picture you can see all the carriers from the top. Instead of the veneer surface we are developing, I have covered the carriers with a matte finish plastic. Now that I see it, I like the look of the Soundplane this way, and I'm guessing that some people will want this as an option.
In the background you can see one of the ubiquitous blue tarps that we Cascadians use as shelter during the winter months.
Here's the flex from the side, bringing the carriers up from under the pickup board that amplifies the received signals and sends them to the DSP. It's a really compact design and there's no way we could have pulled it off without the FFC (flexible flat circuits) and ZIF connectors.
And meanwhile at Brian's, here's the first rev of the DSP board itself, hooked up to a logic analyzer for testing. Our board is based around a Texas Instruments CPU with a combination of high bandwidth and low power. Internal to the Soundplane we have 32 carrier signals and 16 pickups signals all running at around 60 kHz. That's around 50 Mb per second. And amazingly, we will be able to run off USB power if things go according to plan. We have a DC jack on the prototype, in case things don't.
For assembling these boards, we are working with Schippers and Crew here in Seattle. Friendly, fast turnaround, quality work—I've been really impressed. And, their shop is just a short bike ride from my house.
Brian has checked out all of the board's subsystems now, and is making the rev.2 design. When we get those boards back, we can start writing the firmware that will calculate the pressure grids and send them over USB.
The analyzer itself is a pretty cool product. Made by Saleae (which I have no idea how to pronounce), it looks very approachable, but is a powerful tool for the serious hardware hacker. Its software is Windows-only for now, but they claim Mac and Linux support are coming soon.
There are a ton of details, but they are all coming together. The case design is getting a minor revision, and the metal plate that reinforces the USB jack needs to be finalized after the DSP board is finalized. And I'm still working on getting the veneer surface just right, but that's probably another post in itself. Stay tuned for more, including more DIY info and previews of our first synth software, coming soon.
Let me take a step back and explain the relationship between FFTs and audio channels.
There needs to be one audio channel---one sinewave carrier---per carrier antenna. These have to be on electrically separate surfaces. By placing a single pickup antenna near a combination of these carriers, the distance from the pickup to each carrier can be calculated from the combination of the carrier signals induced. The pickup would take a single audio input---it is this signal that is decoded by the FFT.
If you want to play around with this idea I would start by making a 1 by 2 setup, with two carriers and a pickup, and see what you can do. With two carriers as long triangles and one pickup over them, you would have a nice ribbon controller. I have been meaning to write this up as a DIY project for a while. I am still meaning to...
You can set up the controller in any kind of m x n configuration where you have m rows and n columns. Less than 8 will work fine, but the square grid approach will stop working as well when the squares are big. If you have only four or fewer steps on a particular axis, it will probably make sense to reshape the electrodes to use a tapered pattern, so that the voltage varies smoothly across a larger area. I've been meaning to write up more instructions on this approach.
Imagine that you have a long thin rectangle, divided into two long skinny triangles by a diagonal through it. Now induce an AC voltage in this strip at some point along it. If your two triangles are a and b, the position can be calculated as v(a) / v(a) + v(b). More info and a drawing are in the Radio Drum section in my Masters thesis.
I have tried out the MOTU Ultralite Mk. 3 and the RME Fireface interfaces. Both had pretty much identical performance. The MOTU is a bit trickier to set up the gain structure of, but it's $500 as opposed to $1200 or something.
Well, it's not quite as simple as one sensor strip per touch. A given touch will spread both mechanically and electrically, and appear on more than two sensors. Telling two close touches apart while keeping the precision of each is a complex problem in both hardware and software design. So we have a requirement (piano-like resolution) but we don't know how far past it our available time and resources may take us.