Racks and knob-encrusted modules and wires tangling together to make sound – this is a perfectly lovely thing. But the computer sitting in front of you, the one you probably turn to when it comes time to record and produce, is also capable of vast sonic powers. Why force a choice between the two, when that machine can let you explore the frontiers of sound, too?
The recent announcement of OSCiLLOT brought open-ended patching to Ableton Live users. But it’s only getting started. Today, we get to see it evolve, learn to use it to make the sounds we imagine, find out about the development process, and better understand why it matters.
And now is the perfect time, because OSCiLLOT’s creators have been busy beefing up the system they just unveiled. For starters, there’s a new tutorial video to teach you how to use it (top). And, you get two new modules: a comb filter, plus a terrific feedback module that lets you route sound back into your modular rig. (I’m especially pleased about that, as I was getting muddled coming from Pure Data/Pd, in which feedback loop routing works differently. Well, and because generally feedback is great fun.)
OSCiLLOT versus Max 7. First off, let’s clear up some confusion. Cycling ’74’s Max/MSP recently brought its own modular environment to the table, by bundling Max 7 with stretta’s modular patch library BEAP – the feature I called one of the best reasons to upgrade to Max 7. And so some readers assumed that this means OSCiLLOT is redundant. It’s not. If you’re using Max directly for patching, BEAP is still a great environment – one that can help you learn modular synthesis techniques, make some great sonic creations, and connect to outboard gear.
But OSCiLLOT isn’t BEAP. BEAP is a great learning tool, but it’s not so great when it comes to using Max inside Ableton Live. BEAP is monophonic, for one thing; OSCiLLOT gives you polyphony, which makes more sense on a computer. And – here’s the deal-killer – you can’t patch BEAP live when you’re working with Ableton Live. (You have to enter edit mode – and at that point, you’ve lost a true modular feel.)
OSCiLLOT, its creators tell CDM, is really built to be a modular instrument running inside Ableton Live. Not only does it support six-voice polyphony, but you can even re-patch your creations as you play inside Live. That makes this much closer to the software equivalent of having physical modules and patch cords, and it transforms OSCiLLOT into a spiritual successor of beloved musicians’ instruments like the now-defunct Nord Modular. (The Nord was specifically an inspiration for the creation of OSCiLLOT, for any of you missing that hardware.)
Co-creator Nico Starke notes that the philosophy of OSCiLLOT is a bit different, as well, architecturally speaking.
I think Oscillot is indeed more tailored to making music. One aspect that is maybe not so obvious at first glance is that many BEAP modules are very large, which makes it a bit tricky to navigate around in a larger patch. Oscillot modules are a bit more optimized in that regard.
By the way, in the end, Nico notes it’d be nice to use BEAP and OSCiLLOT together. If you’re listening, [BEAP creator] Stretta, we’d love to see interoperability here! (Stretta’s talents in the Max and monome communities are incredible, by the way – search for his name and you’ll see what I mean. A Stretta – Nico – Christian team-up is basically a dream team. Anything we can do…)
How it was built. Making OSCiLLOT work this way inside Ableton was a big engineering challenge. “After we had the rough framework working,” co-creator Christian Kleine tells CDM, “the big challenges were the undo system and GUI performance.” That’s right – you get undo. You can learn more about how the product was engineered in an extensive interview Max for Cats’ Nico and Christian did with Madeleine Bloom, published on Madeleine’s site Sonic Bloom:
(While you’re at it, Madeleine also posted a complete module list, which gives you a clearer overview of what OSCiLLOT actually includes. Madeleine has been a collaborator with Max for Cats and contributed to some discussions around OSCiLLOT’s user interface and architecture.)
Nico adds that the other biggest obstacles were — “getting patch cables to work in a locked patcher / or respectively in Live … saving module data like positions, connections, parameters with a Live set / preset — unfortunately we didn’t get that for free as in traditional Max devices.” And he reiterates that adding undo and redo actions was non-trivial. “[Undo/redo] works automatically in traditional Max devices,” Nico says, “but not in scripted patchers as we use in Oscillot.” And polyphony required some effort, too. “Eventually this was easier than expected,” he concedes, “but it took a while to figure it out.”
All of this, Nico says, added up to four to five years of work. “I took very long breaks in between, but it all started quite some time ago,” he says.
How to use it with hardware. No need to incite a software-versus-hardware modular debate here: OSCiLLOT is something you can combine with a physical setup. Max for Cats promise a tutorial film on that, but in the meantime, users like Fernando Carvalho are already off to the races:
To integrate OSCiLLOT with your modular rig, as with any software/modular integration, you need a DC-coupled audio interface so you can wire your audio interface to your gear.
Not all audio interfaces have that functionality. You’ll find a detailed compatibility list via Expert Sleepers (who make their own fine software for the task):
Silent Way: Device Compatibility
More discussion available on a MuffWiggler thread. (Site down as I write this.)
Basically, just about anything MOTU will work, plus the superb RME FireFace and Apogee Symphony. But so, too, will various cheaper options, including Alesis, so if you weren’t planning on investing in a higher-end option at the moment, you still have choices.
“I’d second Christian’s recommendation for Expert Sleepers interfaces,” says Nico. “These are just fantastic. Other than that, MOTU interfaces will usually work fine, too.”
And the OSCiLLOT team wants to make hardware interfacing still easier. “We’re just finishing up some new helper devices for working with external synths,” Nico tells us, “like a CV calibration tool (for proper 1V/Oct scaling) and a multi-channel CV routing tool. These aren’t necessarily required to control external synths, but will make it a bit more convenient when working with Oscillot.”
But where should you learn more about synthesis? Christian from Max for Cats has some tips for us on that, too. For learning this tool specifically, he tells us, “Reading the Quickstart lesson, trying to understand the examplesm and watching the tutorials seems to me a good start.” But brushing up on the basics is never a bad idea for any of us.
Gordon Reid has done a wonderful series on synthesis that Christian endorses:
That’s half a decade of articles you can read there, a free, in-depth course in mastering synthesis. (Ignore the 1999-2004 dates – the stories are just as relevant now. Hey, some skills stand the test of time.)
And Nico says, well, get your hands dirty. “I’d really recommend to just plug stuff together and see what happens,” he says. “The big fun with modular synths is making happy accidents. Maybe start with a simple synth or a simple audio effect to understand how the system works (our first tutorial video should cover the basics), then add more modulators, sequencers, etc.”
Check it out:
Other virtual modulars:
A commenter rightfully punishes us for not mentioning environments beyond Max for Live. In fact, KarmaFX, AAS Tassman 4, and Reaktor are all cross-platform, cost about the same as OSCiLLOT, and give you real-time patching. Each of these can perform some tricks OSCiLLOT can’t – Reaktor, in particular, is a deep environment in which you can do low-level DSP and build your own instruments and effects from the ground up. (That comment curiously omits Reaktor as the most obvious choice, but all three are worth considering.)
OSCiLLOT is without comparison in the Max for Live world – nothing else can do six-voice polyphony, proper undo, and real-time patching in one modular tool. But there are comparisons worth making in the realm of plug-ins. My guess is, if you’re comfortable with Max, you’ll gravitate toward OSCiLLOT; if not, it’s more likely you’d choose one of these other tools.