Percussa micro super signal processor

Sync or swim, indeed. Synchronized swimming performance in Brighton, which itself had to sync with live music and cinema – check out the details, as they’re perfect metaphorically for this story. Photo: Greg Neate.

Laptop musicians are feeling out of sync — literally. But we can work together to help the situation.

Computer music making can be an isolating experience. But when users try to use their eminently-mobile tools to play together in the same room, they often find that the technology resists. MIDI, as a serial protocol, isn’t designed for networked environments. Software interfaces are designed to be visible to only one user. Sharing between users rarely figures into designs. Input points are made to be single-user only.

And most importantly, just getting a couple of computers to sync can be a Herculean task — one that seems to have gotten worse with advanced computer software rather than better. In short, for all the technology we have today, we’ve actually regressed from the state of interoperability 20 years ago.

I’ve been hearing more and more frustration over sync, as people begin to collaborate with multiple computers as they would with a small ensemble of instruments. Ableton Live is the most frequent example, but it’s only one case – and I suspect part of the fault is that people are more likely to try to sync multiple copies of Live. When I spoke to Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore in the spring for Keyboard, Martin complained that they had trouble syncing his Apple Logic sessions with other band members using Pro Tools and Ableton. This weekend in Los Angeles at the DubSpot sessions, Glitch Mob’s Justin Boreta talked about the issues that group has had with multiple copies of Live.

Synchronization is, by definition, a tough thing to do. But musical engineering is replete with challenges; it’s no longer acceptable to simply say “live with it” and walk away. It seems we need both better shared knowledge about what sync is how to make it work, and better engineering solutions on the software and protocols side to support the way users want to work. And yes, we need a new sync standard that goes beyond what’s presently available in MIDI alone.

Focusing this discussion, I just got an essay in my inbox that I think focuses the issue. I will try to speak to Ableton’s engineers about the matter, but this isn’t really about Ableton alone, so I’m posting it here first. We could use more data about how you’re working with various software and hardware, what techniques you’ve developed, and what frustrations you’ve had. We have a wide community here of users and developers (and a whole lot of you are both).

Mark Kunoff writes:

I’m writing to you today about an issue which I believe has been a sore spot for many Ableton Live users – *reliable* syncing of two or more computers – particularly for those of us who are attempting to sync for the purposes of *live performance*.

My musical partner Patrick Petro and I (together we perform as “Othership”) have been struggling with this issue for several years now. At present time, we have a decent solution using midi time code. Initially we attempted to use Midi “clock” but our friend Steve Duda (partner of Deadmau5 in BSOD) informed us, “using Midi clock is as reliable as syncing to a boat motor.” He informed us that in BSOD, he and Deamau5 have reliable sync between their 2 laptops using MTC, although the main drawback is the inability to fluctuate tempo – you must run at a consistent tempo the whole time. (You may be aware of this already, but Steve is the person responsible for ‘Molar’ the incredible step and loop sequencer for the Monome, was a programmer for Devine Machine and has worked for many renown artists in the music industry such as Trent Reznor. We are very fortunate to benefit from his consultation!)

Currently we are both using Macbooks and syncing via Ethernet with Audio File Engineering’s “Backline” app to generate MTC. This method has been about 95% reliable, but after reading an article on Ableton Tweets (http://abletontweets.com/post/126300941/why-midi-sync-over-ip-may-not-be-a-good-idea and our response – http://abletontweets.com/post/224247258/midi-sync-in-ableton-live-why-so-complicated) we are going to acquire a dedicated external device to generate MTC such as a Motu Timepiece.

I feel strongly that Ableton has not addressed these issues sufficiently and could do a better job of educating their user base as to the challenges that face performers in achieving reliable sync. I’m not expecting a walk in the park, but as of yet Ableton has not provided comprehensive documentation regarding these issues and places most of the responsibility on users to figure it out for themselves. We are (and have been) perfectly willing to educate ourselves but for the most part this issue remains elusive to the majority of Ableton Live users.

The Ableton Live forum posts regarding sync are fraught with dissension and are excruciating to read to say the least. I feel I’m empathetic to the complexities of programming audio applications, but in my estimation Ableton tech support’s explanations toward this issue have been mostly open ended. Many users report these issues only to report back that Ableton’s tech support doesn’t respond. I have experienced this as well. Certainly there are enough customers who want a better solution.

I feel it’s time to launch a concerted effort to organize users and demand that Ableton addresses this issue once and for all. Perhaps this solution wouldn’t even involve midi at all. Ideally this would be an open protocol such as OSC, but I wouldn’t be opposed to a proprietary solution – just as long as there is a reliable one.

The main purpose of this correspondence is seek your and CDM’s assistance in sponsoring an effort to encourage Ableton to address this issue once and for all. I feel CDM could be quite helpful in garnering leverage toward this effort (a simple blog post, or ideally a dedicated section) to organize users and to demand better sync ability between two (or even multiple) laptops running Live – even from unlike computer manufacturers. I’m sure you know artists with valuable expertise in this area.

Even if the issues regarding sync via midi are insurmountable, there have to be CDM readers who have developed reliable methods of two or more persons performing with Ableton Live and it would be great to have one centralized portal where discussions of working methods can be discovered.

Thank you for your time.

Laptop music making can feel a bit… isolating. Body-Hardware Interface photo (CC) its creator, Becky Stern.

Again, my personal intention is not to single out Ableton — I’ve heard similar complaints about other scenarios, and moreover, I think the “open-ended” tech support response occurs when there isn’t an easy solution. Tech support alone often can’t deal with something as multi-faceted as sync, so it’s time to engage other users in this, as well.

I’ve also spoken to Owen Vallis and other folks about how sync could be executed more effectively over network protocols, and specifically how the time stamp feature in OpenSoundControl might be used in conjunction with MIDI clock messages.

To kick things off, let’s comment here, but I’m also setting up a special Noisepages group for users to share experiences and tips:

Sync or Swim Group [noisepages]

(Incidentally, CDM contributor Matt Ganucheau is joining me Saturday at a WordPress developer intensive here in New York, so we’ll be picking up development techniques to work on the Noisepages community, too.)

Jump in, say hello, and let’s talk about how we can make sync work in real-life musical situations.

I’ll also be talking to more artists and developers about their experiences and suggestions, and will pass along your feedback, so expect a report back. In the meantime:

1. Are you routinely trying to sync multiple musicians?
2. What software (and hardware) tools do you use?
3. What have been some frustrations?
4. What techniques have worked, or what have you learned you might want to pass along to other users at various skill levels?