What’s an ‘app’?

For years, it was an uphill battle just getting people to recognize the ability of computers to generate sounds. When Native Instruments was founded in Berlin in 1996, their name was a clue to where they imagined the future going. Propellerhead’s release of ReBirth in 1997 began a concerted effort by the Stockholm-based company to campaign for in-the-box emulations of gear – and their partner Steinberg would shortly thereafter push ReWire and its own VST.

Now, it’s not so much the app as the map – the physical control given to software. Whatever analog versus digital debates may rage on forums, the reality in the marketplace is now an ample combination of both technologies. That means a lot of standalone hardware can be thought of as just another computer. Drum machines and synths have computers inside. Roland sells its SYSTEM-1 instruments in both computer plug-in and hardware form. Eurorack modules, in the very bastion of analog love, now include computation (and even now monome and SoundHack modules). And on the software side, a growing number of tools from Native Instruments, Ableton, Arturia, and so on combine hardware with software.

Even on mobile, we’re seeing crossover. In some cases, tablet and phone touchscreens augment physical gear. In others, you’re connecting additional physical controls to your iPad instead of your laptop.

Seen this week, the SFC-Mini is just a prototype, made in quantity two. But it’s been interesting to watch this spread online, even in these summer music gear doldrums. The clever thing about the SFC-Mini is that it doesn’t have to be a generic controller: there are now so many Minimoog emulations that having hardware simply copy the classic Moog control layout is a no-brainer. It’s mapped already to the Arturia Mini-V and my go-to favorite monosynth of the moment, the NI Monark. But it could be used with any synth with a similar architecture.

sfc-101

Dutch custom builder Sound Force has more of these. For SH-101 fans, there’s the SFC-101. What’s interesting about this is that you get something more closely tailored to the SH-101 than ever Roland offers – because the AIRA SYSTEM-1 has a more generic layout. And you get arguably better sound, because while the TAL-BassLine-101 is a CPU-hungry computer plug-in, it does sound great.

There’s also the SFC-60, a dedicated controller for the TAL U-NO-LX. The best feature here: an integrated step sequencer. Watch:

Designers I believe are going to have some choices to make ahead. Do you lean on the powerful computational abilities of laptops people already own? Do you turn to increasingly versatile DSP platforms? What about faster, cheaper, more power stingy embedded computation platforms? Or, for that matter, when is analog circuitry actually still a better solution?

Those choices may ultimately be relatively invisible to the user. But one choice that can’t go ignored is how to make hardware control work. Humans have indeed developed opposable thumbs, and faders and knobs have endured long past their analog necessity partly because they seem to work really well with our hands.

So that could mean designing your own hardware, or at least make mapping to faders and knobs people already own easier.

But it’s impossible not to recall this quote from visionary computer scientist Alan Kay – one of the key people who defined how we think about the graphical user interface, object oriented programming, and how to teach computing:

“People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”

More and more music tool makers seem to be taking that idea to heart.

That quote is indeed so often quoted in tech circles that I suspect a lot of people have no clue where it came from. Apple Macintosh pioneer Andy Hertzfeld tells the story:

Creative Think, July 1982 [folklore.org]

Not coincidentally, one of Kay’s favorite metaphors for defining how computers should relate to the human, and one apparently brought up at that speach: the computer as musical instrument.

This is I expect also relevant to electronic musical instrument makers: “it’s all software, it just depends on when you crystallize it.”

It’s a shame we don’t have the original talk, but it seems it influenced the development of the Mac – and thus the GUI as we use it today.

Anyway, while I ponder more philosophical ideas, you can browse the lovely custom stuff at Sound Force – and buy it, if you like. The SFC-Mini isn’t here yet, but I might have to get one. In the meantime, the SFC-60 is just 249€, which I find impressive for something made in this way.

http://sound-force.nl/

Congrats to one-man operation Nicolas Toussaint.

  • Freeks

    SFC-Mini is great! I will buy it when it’s released for Monark. Does SFC-101 work with Roland SH-101 plugin?

    • Nicolas Toussaint SoundForce

      I haven’t the chance to try (I don’t own Aira stuff). But if it works with any other MIDI controller it will work with the SFC-101. cheers!

  • Freeks

    SFC-Mini is great! I will buy it when it’s released for Monark. Does SFC-101 work with Roland SH-101 plugin?

    • Nicolas Toussaint SoundForce

      I haven’t the chance to try (I don’t own Aira stuff). But if it works with any other MIDI controller it will work with the SFC-101. cheers!

  • Freeks

    SFC-Mini is great! I will buy it when it’s released for Monark. Does SFC-101 work with Roland SH-101 plugin?

    • Nicolas Toussaint SoundForce

      I haven’t the chance to try (I don’t own Aira stuff). But if it works with any other MIDI controller it will work with the SFC-101. cheers!

  • geoff

    What happens when you change a preset and hardware doesn’t reflect the plugin gui ?

    • Probably the same as with any hardware synthesizer: The pots, knobs and faders do not reflect the actual values of the new preset. Then, you’ve got several options for how the controls should work: They might jump to any values directly, when you change the controls, they might only pick up the new preset’s value, when the control hits that value’s area or they just pick it up anywhere (probably only possible with endless rotary controls.)

      I would not be able to imagine how else it should work?

      • Will

        Yep, common problem. One thing that some synths with presets can do (like the Juno-106) is a sort of ‘as you see it mode’ where the current controls on the hardware are sent to the software for instant analog(ous) mode. Would be cool if these controllers support that.

  • geoff

    What happens when you change a preset and hardware doesn’t reflect the plugin gui ?

    • Probably the same as with any hardware synthesizer: The pots, knobs and faders do not reflect the actual values of the new preset. Then, you’ve got several options for how the controls should work: They might jump to any values directly, when you change the controls, they might only pick up the new preset’s value, when the control hits that value’s area or they just pick it up anywhere (probably only possible with endless rotary controls.)

      I would not be able to imagine how else it should work?

      • Will

        Yep, common problem. One thing that some synths with presets can do (like the Juno-106) is a sort of ‘as you see it mode’ where the current controls on the hardware are sent to the software for instant analog(ous) mode. Would be cool if these controllers support that.

  • geoff

    What happens when you change a preset and hardware doesn’t reflect the plugin gui ?

    • Probably the same as with any hardware synthesizer: The pots, knobs and faders do not reflect the actual values of the new preset. Then, you’ve got several options for how the controls should work: They might jump to any values directly, when you change the controls, they might only pick up the new preset’s value, when the control hits that value’s area or they just pick it up anywhere (probably only possible with endless rotary controls.)

      I would not be able to imagine how else it should work?

      • Will

        Yep, common problem. One thing that some synths with presets can do (like the Juno-106) is a sort of ‘as you see it mode’ where the current controls on the hardware are sent to the software for instant analog(ous) mode. Would be cool if these controllers support that.

  • Rafael Marfil

    Love those controllers! And specially the idea, it would be awesome to have a keyboard with attached swappable controllers to control different software instruments. Maybe even attach multiple controllers to this imaginary keyboard and have one special module that controls the DAW. All of this with a nice pro design. Anyway, great article!

  • Rafael Marfil

    Love those controllers! And specially the idea, it would be awesome to have a keyboard with attached swappable controllers to control different software instruments. Maybe even attach multiple controllers to this imaginary keyboard and have one special module that controls the DAW. All of this with a nice pro design. Anyway, great article!

  • Love those controllers! And specially the idea, it would be awesome to have a keyboard with attached swappable controllers to control different software instruments. Maybe even attach multiple controllers to this imaginary keyboard and have one special module that controls the DAW. All of this with a nice pro design. Anyway, great article!

  • heinrichz

    Brilliant idea, i would like to get that controller for Monark

  • heinrichz

    Brilliant idea, i would like to get that controller for Monark

  • heinrichz

    Brilliant idea, i would like to get that controller for Monark

  • Jeff

    These get my futuristic music studio fantasy going…

    “Empty” physical elements that will be 100% dedicated to a tactile experience with all sound generation handled by software. Combined with augmented reality like the Microsoft HoloLens promos… I can picture a music workspace with DAW elements that are augmented around these physical devices. Oscilloscopes, pitch information, sequencing information, ect.

    I’ve just got this fantasy studio in my head in which all this usefull information is being projected around these vintage modelled and custom 3D printed devices.

    Then of course you call up Logic’s Drummer and a 3D drummer along with their drum kit appears in the corner of your room and responds to voice instructions… In App purchases include inviting Daft Punk to… play at your house…

    I could go on.

  • Jeff

    These get my futuristic music studio fantasy going…

    “Empty” physical elements that will be 100% dedicated to a tactile experience with all sound generation handled by software. Combined with augmented reality like the Microsoft HoloLens promos… I can picture a music workspace with DAW elements that are augmented around these physical devices. Oscilloscopes, pitch information, sequencing information, ect.

    I’ve just got this fantasy studio in my head in which all this usefull information is being projected around these vintage modelled and custom 3D printed devices.

    Then of course you call up Logic’s Drummer and a 3D drummer along with their drum kit appears in the corner of your room and responds to voice instructions… In App purchases include inviting Daft Punk to… play at your house…

    I could go on.

  • Jeff

    These get my futuristic music studio fantasy going…

    “Empty” physical elements that will be 100% dedicated to a tactile experience with all sound generation handled by software. Combined with augmented reality like the Microsoft HoloLens promos… I can picture a music workspace with DAW elements that are augmented around these physical devices. Oscilloscopes, pitch information, sequencing information, ect.

    I’ve just got this fantasy studio in my head in which all this usefull information is being projected around these vintage modelled and custom 3D printed devices.

    Then of course you call up Logic’s Drummer and a 3D drummer along with their drum kit appears in the corner of your room and responds to voice instructions… In App purchases include inviting Daft Punk to… play at your house…

    I could go on.

  • mercury

    Similar to this site which has a ton of VST controllers:

    http://www.synth-project.de/controller_overview.html

  • mercury

    Similar to this site which has a ton of VST controllers:

    http://www.synth-project.de/controller_overview.html

  • mercury

    Similar to this site which has a ton of VST controllers:

    http://www.synth-project.de/controller_overview.html

  • Nicolas Toussaint SoundForce

    Thank you so much for this article. It’s nice to read that you can relate to the hardware and what it can do.

  • Nicolas Toussaint SoundForce

    Thank you so much for this article. It’s nice to read that you can relate to the hardware and what it can do.

  • Nicolas Toussaint SoundForce

    Thank you so much for this article. It’s nice to read that you can relate to the hardware and what it can do.

  • feastoftones

    I wonder if the SFC-Mini will work with iMini for iPad?

  • feastoftones

    I wonder if the SFC-Mini will work with iMini for iPad?

  • feastoftones

    I wonder if the SFC-Mini will work with iMini for iPad?

  • I would love to get my hands on a synth1 controller.

  • I would love to get my hands on a synth1 controller.

  • I would love to get my hands on a synth1 controller.

  • Nicolas Toussaint

    I am funding this controller right now on Kickstarter!
    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/soundforce/soundforce-sfc-mini-controller

    So if you want to get one or support the project, it’s now or never 🙂

  • Nicolas Toussaint

    I am funding this controller right now on Kickstarter!
    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/soundforce/soundforce-sfc-mini-controller

    So if you want to get one or support the project, it’s now or never 🙂

  • Nicolas Toussaint

    I am funding this controller right now on Kickstarter!
    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/soundforce/soundforce-sfc-mini-controller

    So if you want to get one or support the project, it’s now or never 🙂