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Cherry Audio Voltage Modular: a full synth platform, open to developers

Hey, hardware modular – the computer is back. Cherry Audio’s Voltage Modular is another software modular platform. Its angle: be better for users — and now, easier and more open to developers, with a new free tool.

Voltage Modular was shown at the beginning of the year, but its official release came in September – and now is when it’s really hitting its stride. Cherry Audio’s take certainly isn’t alone; see also, in particular, Softube Modular, the open source VCV Rack, and Reason’s Rack Extensions. Each of these supports live patching of audio and control signal, hardware-style interfaces, and has rich third-party support for modules with a store for add-ons. But they’re all also finding their own particular take on the category. That means now is suddenly a really nice time for people interested in modular on computers, whether for the computer’s flexibility, as a supplement to hardware modular, or even just because physical modular is bulky and/or out of budget.

So, what’s special about Voltage Modular?

Easy patching. Audio and control signals can be freely mixed, and there’s even a six-way pop-up multi on every jack, so each jack has tons of routing options. (This is a computer, after all.)

Each jack can pop up to reveal a multi.

It’s polyphonic. This one’s huge – you get true polyphony via patch cables and poly-equipped modules. Again, you know, like a computer.

It’s open to development. There’s now a free Module Designer app (commercial licenses available), and it’s impressively easy to code for. You write DSP in Java, and Cherry Audio say they’ve made it easy to port existing code. The app also looks like it reduces a lot of friction in this regard.

There’s an online store for modules – and already some strong early contenders. You can buy modules, bundles, and presets right inside the app. The mighty PSP Audioware, as well as Vult (who make some of my favorite VCV stuff) are already available in the store.

There’s an online store for free and paid add-ons – modules and presets. But right now, a hundred bucks gets you started with a bunch of stuff right out of the gate.

Voltage Modular is a VST/AU/AAX plug-in and runs standalone. And it supports 64-bit double-precision math with zero-latency module processes – but, impressively in our tests, isn’t so hard on your CPU as some of its rivals.

Right now, Voltage Modular Core + Electro Drums are on sale for just US$99.

Real knobs and patch cords are fun, but … let’s be honest, this is a hell of a lot of fun, too.

For developers

So what about that development side, if that interests you? Well, Apple-style, there’s a 70/30 split in developers’ favor. And it looks really easy to develop on their platform:

Java may be something of a bad word to developers these days, but I talked to Cherry Audio about why they chose it, and it definitely makes some sense here. Apart from being a reasonably friendly language, and having unparalleled support (particularly on the Internet connectivity side), Java solves some of the pitfalls that might make a modular environment full of third-party code unstable. You don’t have to worry about memory management, for one. I can also imagine some wackier, creative applications using Java libraries. (Want to code a MetaSynth-style image-to-sound module, and even pull those images from online APIs? Java makes it easy.)

Just don’t think of “Java” as in legacy Java applications. Here, DSP code runs on a Hotspot virtual machine, so your DSP is actually running as machine language by the time it’s in an end user patch. It seems Cherry have also thought through GUI: the UI is coded natively in C++, while you can create custom graphics like oscilloscopes (again, using just Java on your side). This is similar to the models chosen by VCV and Propellerhead for their own environments, and it suggests a direction for plug-ins that involves far less extra work and greater portability. It’s no stretch to imagine experienced developers porting for multiple modular platforms reasonably easily. Vult of course is already in that category … and their stuff is so good I might almost buy it twice.

Or to put that in fewer words: the VM can match or even best native environments, while saving developers time and trouble.

Cherry also tell us that iOS, Linux, and Android could theoretically be supported in the future using their architecture.

Of course, the big question here is installed user base and whether it’ll justify effort by developers, but at least by reducing friction and work and getting things rolling fairly aggressively, Cherry Audio have a shot at bypassing the chicken-and-egg dangers of trying to launch your own module store. Plus, while this may sound counterintuitive, I actually think that having multiple players in the market may call more attention to the idea of computers as modular tools. And since porting between platforms isn’t so hard (in comparison to VST and AU plug-in architectures), some interested developers may jump on board.

Well, that and there’s the simple matter than in music, us synth nerds love to toy around with this stuff both as end users and as developers. It’s fun and stuff. On that note:

Modulars gone soft

Stay tuned; I’ve got this for testing and will let you know how it goes.

https://cherryaudio.com/voltage-modular

https://cherryaudio.com/voltage-module-designer

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FL Studio 20.1 arrives, studio-er, loop-ier, better

The just-before-the-holiday-break software updates just keep coming. Next: the evergreen, lifetime-free-updates latest release of the DAW the developer calls FL Studio, and everyone else calls “Fruity Loops.”

FL Studio has given people reason to take it more seriously of late, too. There’s a real native Mac version, so FL is no longer a PC-vs-Mac thing. There’s integrated controller hardware from Akai (the new Fire), and that in turn exploits all those quick-access record and step sequence features that made people love FL in the first place.

AKAI Fire and the Mac version might make lapsed or new users interested anew – but hardcore users, this software release is really for you.

The snapshot view:

Does your DAW have a visualizer built on a game engine inside it? No? FL does. And you thought you were going to just have to make your next music video be a bunch of shaky iPhone footage you ran through some weird black and white filter. No!

Stepsequencer looping is back (previously seen in FL 11), but now has more per-channel controls so you can make polyrhythms – or not, lining everything up instead if you’d rather.

Plus if you’re using FIRE hardware, you get options to set channel loop length and the ability to burn to Patterns.

Audio recording is improved, making it easier to arm and record and get audio and pre/post effects where you want.

And there are 55 new minimal kick drum samples.

And now you can display the GUI FPS.

And you have a great way of making music videos by exporting from the included video game engine visualizer.

Actually, you know, I’m just going to stop -t here’s just a whole bunch of new stuff, and you get it for free. And they’ve made a YouTube video. And as you watch the tutorial, it’s evident that FL really has matured into a serious DAW to stand toe-to-toe with everything else, without losing its personality.

https://www.image-line.com/flstudio/

20.1 update

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Make winter even more chill: free tracks and underground electro by 214

There are those who run from chill, and those who dive headfirst. 214 aka J. Alvarez, real name Chris Jordan, has just the back-of-the-freezer chilled out tracks we need right now, that musical journey into Twin Peaks.

The North Bend, Washington USA-based Jordan has never failed to put out a lot of music. You know these fears today people have that it’s “too easy” to make music and there’s “too much of it”? Well… you could presumably be strategic about labels and styles. Or you could just go the other extreme and flood the world with fantastic sounds, which is what Chris has done – IDM, electro, whatever. To illustrate, I’m just going to copy-paste the labels he says he’s put out music on.

“Klakson Frustrated Funk Cultivated Electronics 20:20 Vision Houndstooth Where We Met Lunar Disko CPU Shipwrec Harbour City Sorrow OmniDisc w/ Danny Daze
La Beaute Du Negatif as J.Alvarez Hallucienda as J.Alvarez Hypercolour as J.Alvarez Fortified Audio Yellow Machines Touchin’ Bass Car Crash Set MikroluxAi records Digital Distortions”

Couple of those here and there were a big deal, couple of those he could easily have made up and I’d never know.

But it’s all quality as well as quantity. Just in the last few hours, there are repressings of two major releases available if you head to clone.nl (actually appears one may have just sold out):

Couple of represses incoming if you missed when released. First is my EP on Klakson which came out in October. This one went quick. Back at the Clone shop now, but should make way to other stores over the next few weeks. https://t.co/ldLyupjx8H

— 214 (@214isJAlvarez) December 12, 2018

Followed by a repress of my Submanouvers EP on Frustrated Funk from 2012. You may have heard one of the tracks on @PaulWoolford Fabric mix. https://t.co/JhE4S5dXXZ

— 214 (@214isJAlvarez) December 12, 2018

There’s so much music, though, that he’s dumping some wonderful coolness on us as a sort of Christmas present. I’m downloading all of these, for sure, and not deleting anyway, whatever he says.

I don’t use Spotify, but I’m sharing a grip of free tunes as a thanks for the support this year. A lot of these are chill and won’t be to everyone’s liking, but they’re free ????and I make all sorts of stuff. Feel free to share, use, or delete if shite. https://t.co/2o4ZI1bwn5

— 214 (@214isJAlvarez) December 7, 2018

You can grab these on Dropbox (and preview them there if you like).

For more like this, follow his Twitter account.

But there’s more – great electro-tinged mixes and general shadowy ruminations:

Count me in.

Photo at top (CC-BY-ND) Steve Corey. Don’t worry, those are just frozen berries, not the dismembered remains of an elf trapped in ice or something like that.

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Lanfranco Aceti
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Reference this essay: Aceti, Lanfranco. “Remainders at the End of a Summer Bliss: Or How We Capitalized on the Spectacle of Our Death at the Beach.” In End of a Summer Bliss. Cambridge, MA: LEA / MIT Press. 2017.
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Check out these amazing DIY controllers people made with OpenDeck

You’ve got plenty of off-the-shelf controllers – but what if you want something that’s unique to you? OpenDeck is an affordable, young, Arduino hardware-compatible controller platform for DIYers, and it’s starting to produce some jaw-dropping results.

There was a time when you needed to build your own stuff to add custom controls to synths and computers, sourcing joysticks and knobs and buttons and whatnot yourself. Doepfer’s Pocket Electronic platform spawned tons of weird and wonderful stuff. But then a lot of people found they were satisfied with a growing assortment of off-the-shelf generic and software-specific controllers, including those from the likes of Ableton, Native Instruments, Novation, and Akai.

But a funny thing happened at the same time. Just as economies of scale and improved microcontroller and development platforms have aided big manufacturers in the intervening years, DIY platforms are getting smarter and easier, too.

Enter OpenDeck. It’s what you’d expect from a current generation platform for gear makers. It supports class-compliant MIDI over USB, but also runs standalone. You can configure it via Web interface. You can plug in buttons and encoders and pots and other inputs and LEDs – but also add displays. You have tons of I/O – 32-64 ins, and 48 outs. It’s an all-new, from-scratch codebase built for the job with easy configuration (so you don’t have to write code yourself) – and it also runs on Arduino and Teensy boards in addition to a custom OpenDeck board.

You get an easy platform that supports all the I/O you need and isn’t hard to code – leaving you to focus on hardware. And it runs on an existing platform rather than forcing you to learn something new.

I’ll take a look at it soon. Because it’s built around MIDI, OpenDeck looks ideal for controller applications, though other solutions now address audio, too.

But platform aside, look how many cool things people are starting to build. With so many stage rigs getting standardized (yawn), it’s nice to see this sort of weird variety … and people who have serious craft. (At least the rest of us can sigh and wish we were this handy, right?)

Examples:

Bergamot is an all-custom touchscreen MIDI controller for DJing:

The very nice-looking OpenDeck custom board is US$149. But you can also load this on much cheaper Arduino boards if you want to give it a test drive or start prototyping before you spring for the full board – and you can even buy pre-configured Arduinos to save yourself some time. (Some of the other boards are also more form efficient if you’re willing to do some additional work designing a board around it.)

Sensimidia, for Croatian dub act “Homegrown Sound.”

Tannin and Ceylon, two MIDI controllers.

Morten Berthelsen built this Elektron Analog controller.

Elektron’s Octatrack gets a custom controller … and foot pedals, too. By Anthony Vogt.

OpenDeck also features open source firmware under a GPLv3 license.

GitHub project page including full feature set (lots of nice stuff)

Here’s the underlying platform:

OpenDeck’s own custom hardware – though if this is overkill, various Arduino/Teensy variants work, too.

Configuration via Web interface.

Project site:

https://shanteacontrols.com/

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Pigments is a new hybrid synth from Arturia, and you can try it free now

Arturia made their name emulating classic synths, and then made their name again in hardware synths and handy hardware accessories. But they’re back with an original synthesizer in software. It’s called Pigments, and it mixes vintage and new together. You know, like colors.

The funny thing is, wavetable synthesis as an idea is as old or older than a lot of the vintage synths that spring to mind – you can trace it back to the 1970s and Wolfgang Palm, before instruments from PPG and Waldorf.

But “new” is about sound, not history. And now it’s possible to make powerful morphing wavetable engines with loads of voice complexity and modulation that certainly only became practical recently – plus now we have computer displays for visualizing what’s going on.

Pigments brings together the full range of possible colors to work with – vintage to modern, analog to advanced digital. And it does so in a way that feels coherent and focused.

I’ve just started playing around with Pigments – expect a real hands-on shortly – and it’s impressive. You get the edgier sounds of wavetable synthesis with all the sonic language you expect from virtual analog, including all those classic and dirty and grimy sounds. (I can continue my ongoing mission to make everyone think I’m using analog hardware when I’m in the box. Fun.)

Arturia’s marketing copy here is clever – like I wish I’d thought of this phrase: “Pigments can sound like other synths, [but] no other synth can sound like Pigments.”

Okay, so what’s under the hood that makes them claim that?

Two engines: one wavetable, one virtual analog, each now the latest stuff from Arturia. The waveshaping side gives you lots of options for sculpting the oscillator and fluidly controlling the amount of aliasing, which determines so much of the sound’s harmonic character.

Advanced pitch modulation which you can quantize to scale – so you can make complex modulations melodic.

From the modeling Arturia has been doing and their V Collection, you get the full range of filters, classic and modern (surgeon and comb). There’s also a bunch of effects, like wavefolder, overdrive, parametric EQ, and delay.

There’s also extensive routing for all those toys – drag and drop effects into inserts or sends, choose series or parallel routings, and so on.

The effects section is as deep as modulation, but somehow everything is neatly organized, visual, and never overwhelming.

You can modulate anything with anything, Arturia says – which sounds about right. And for modulation, you have tons of choices in envelopes, modulation shapes, and even function generators and randomization sources. But all of this is also graphical and neatly organized, so you don’t get lost. Best of all, there are “heads-up” graphical displays that show you what’s happening under the hood of even the most complex patch.

The polyphonic sequencer alone is huge, meaning you could work entirely inside Pigments.

Color-coded and tabbed, the UI is constantly giving you subtle visual feedback of what waveforms of modulation, oscillators, and processors are doing at any given time, which is useful both in building up sounds from scratch or picking apart the extensive presets available. You can build something step by step if you like, with a sense that inside this semi-modular world, you’re free to focus on one thing at a time while doing something more multi-layered.

Then on top of all of that, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Pigments is really a synth combined with a sequencer. The polyphonic sequencer/arpeggiator is full of trigger options and settings that mean it’s totally possible to fire up Pigments in standalone mode and make a whole piece, just as you would with a full synth workstation or modular rig.

Instead of a short trial, you get a full month to enjoy this – a free release for everyone, expiring only on January the 10th. So now you know what to do with any holiday break. During that time, pricing is $149 / 149€, rising to 199 after that.

I’m having a great deal of fun with it already. And we’re clearing at a new generation of advanced soft synths. Stay tuned.

Product page:

https://www.arturia.com/products/analog-classics/pigments/media

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Bitwig Studio 2.5 beta arrives with features inspired by the community

We’re coasting to the end of 2018, but Bitwig has managed to squeeze in Studio 2.5, with feature the company says were inspired by or directly requested by users.

The most interesting of these adds some interactive arrangement features to clip launching. Clip Blocks add Next Action capability to individual clips, for interactively generating arrangements.

What’s different about Clip Blocks – versus something like Live’s Follow Actions, or the basic timeline interactions in more linear DAWs – is the ability to freely group sets of clips together as sections. You leave a free slot between a group of clips to make a section, which promises to make arrangement more improvisatory. So with this slot free, for instance:

You get a ton of different actions, which you can apply to the whole block and not just individual slots:

I’m going to have to play around with this some more. (Especially since I initially misread the press release and described this totally wrong.) That interaction also strikes me as useful not only for musical situations but performance/theater/dance/radio applications where you might want non-linearity.

Also in this release:

“Audio Slide” lets you slide audio inside clips without leaving the arranger. That’s possible in many other DAWs, but it’s definitely a welcome addition in Bitwig Studio – especially because an audio clip can contain multiple audio events, which isn’t necessarily possible elsewhere.

Note FX Selector lets you sweep through multiple layers of MIDI effects. We’ve seen something like this before, too, but this implementation is really nice.

There’s also a new set of 60 Sampler presets with hundreds of full-frequency waveforms – looks great for building up instruments. (This makes me ready to boot into Linux with Bitwig, too, where I don’t necessarily have my full plug-in library at my disposal.)

Other improvements:

  • Browser results by relevance
  • Faster plug-in scanning
  • 50 more functions accessible as user-definable key commands

Go check out the release, and if you’re a Bitwig user, you can immediately try out the beta. Let us know what you think and how those Clip Blocks impact your creative process. (Or share what you make!)

Just please – no EDM tabla. (I think that moment sent a chill of terror down my spine in the demo video.)

https://www.bitwig.com/en/18/bitwig-studio-2_5.html

Correction: I initially wrote that Clip Blocks work in linear arrangement. That’s not correct; they’re for clip launching only.

PS – you may want to check out the Sampler features from the last update, too! Here’s a tip on getting multisampling going:

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Split MIDI, without latency, for under $40: meet MeeBlip cubit

You want to play with your music toys together, and instead you wind up unplugging and repatching MIDI. That’s no fun. We wanted to solve this problem for ourselves, without having to trade high performance for low cost or simplicity. The result is MeeBlip cubit.

cubit is the first of a new generation of MeeBlip tools from us, as we make work to make synths more accessible and fun for everybody. cubit’s mission is simple: take one input, and turn it into four outputs, with minimum latency, minimum fuss, and at the lowest price possible.

MeeBlip cubit

Why cubit?

Rock-solid timing. Everything you throw at the input jack is copied to the four outputs with ultra-low latency. Result: you can use it for MIDI messages, you can use it for clock, and keep your timing tight. (Under the hood is a hardware MIDI passthrough circuit, with active processing for each individual output – but that just translates to you not having to worry.)

It fits anywhere. Ports are on the top, so you can use it in tight spaces. It’s small and lightweight, so you can always keep it with you.

You’ll always have power. The USB connection means you can get power from your laptop or a standard USB power adapter (optional).

Don’t hum along. Opto-isolated MIDI IN to reduce ground loops. Everything should have this, but not everything does.

Blink! LED light flashes so you know MIDI is coming in – ideal for troubleshooting.

One input, four outputs, no lag – easy.

We love little, inexpensive gear. But those makers often leave out MIDI out/thru just to save space. With cubit, you can put together a portable rig and keep everything jamming together – alone or with friends.

Right now, cubit is launching at just US$39.95 with a USB cable thrown in.

If you need extra adapters or cables, we’ve got those too, so you can start playing right when the box arrives. (Shipping in the US is free, with affordable shipping to Canada and worldwide.) And if you’re grabbing some stocking stuffers, don’t forget to add in a cubit so your gifts can play along and play with others.

Get one while our stocks last. And don’t look in stores – we sell direct to keep costs low.

Full specs from our engineer, James:

  • Passes all data from the MIDI IN to four MIDI OUT jacks
  • Ultra-low latency hardware MIDI pass-through
  • Runs on 5V Power from a computer USB port or optional USB power adapter
  • Opto-isolated MIDI IN to reduce ground loops
  • Individual active signal processing for each MIDI OUT
  • Bright green MIDI data indicator LED flashes when you’re receiving MIDI
  • Measures: 4.25″ x 3″ x 1″, weighs 92 g (3.25 oz)
  • Includes 3 ft (1 m) USB cable
  • Optional 5V USB power adapter available
  • Made in Canada

MeeBlip cubit product and order page

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Jlin, Holly Herndon, and ‘Spawn’ find beauty in AI’s flaws

Musicians don’t just endure technology when it breaks. They embrace the broken. So it’s fitting that Holly Herndon’s team have produced a demonic spawn of machine learning algorithms – and that the results are wonderful.

The new music video for the Holly Herndon + Jlin collaboration have been making the rounds online, so you may have seen it already:

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But let’s talk about what’s going on here. Holly is continuing a long-running collaboration with producer Jlin, here joined by technologist Mat Dryhurst and coder Jules LaPlace. (The music video itself is directed by Daniel Costa Neves with software developer Leif Ryge, employing still more machine learning technique to merge the two artists’ faces.)

Machine learning processes are being explored in different media in parallel – characters and text, images, and sound, voice, and music. But the results can be all over the place. And ultimately, there are humans as the last stage. We judge the results of the algorithms, project our own desires and fears on what they produce, and imagine anthropomorphic intents and characteristics.

Sometimes errors like over-fitting then take on a personality all their own – even as mathematically sophisticated results fail to inspire.

But that’s not to say these reactions aren’t just as real. An part of may make the video “Godmother” compelling is not just the buzzword of AI, but the fact that it genuinely sounds different.

‘Spawn,’ developed by LaPlace working with Dryhurst and Herndon, is a collection of various machine learning-powered encoding techniques. Herndon and company have anthropomorphized that code in their description, but that itself is also fair – not least because the track is composed in such a way to suggest a distinct vocalist.

I love Holly’s poetic description below, but I think it’s also important to be precise about what we’re hearing. That is, we can talk about the evocative qualities of an oboe, but we should definitely still call an oboe an oboe.

So in this case, I confirmed with Dryhurst that what I was hearing. The analysis stage employs neural network style transfers – some links on that below, though LaPlace and the artists here did make their own special code brew. And then they merged that with a unique vocoder – the high-quality WORLD vocoder. That is, they feed a bunch of sounds into the encoder, and get some really wild results.

It’s really what happens in between with ‘Spawn’ that’s significant. The machine learning algorithm is trained on Holly’s voice, but then the operating directive of that algorithm is to fit ingested audio – as if Holly’s voice is singing, in this instance, Jlin’s voice. Those heuristic results are often unpredictable, and it’s that unpredictability that gets interesting.

“The ‘beatboxing’ for example,” says Mat, “which is the feature of this track, was something the networks dreamed up, presumably learning from the stops and starts in Holly’s speech.”

“That’s kind of the reason we decided to lead with this piece, as it was a clear example of the networks making a decision that Holly never would have made,” he says. “Spawn hijacked her voice to do something ridiculous, and it sounds convincing.”

So these results make heavy use of the unique qualities of Jlin’s and Holly’s voices, the compositional decision to highlight these unexpected, arresting, fragmented sounds, Matt’s technological sensibilities, LaPlace’s code, a whole lot of time spent on parameters and training and adaptation…

Forget automation in this instance. All of this involves more human input and more combined human effort that any conventionally produced track would.

Is it worth it? Well, aesthetically, you could make comparisons to artists like Autechre, but then you could do that with anything with mangled sample content in it. And you’d miss out on part of what you’re hearing – not just the mangled-sounding sample content, but the arrangement of those sounds in time by the same algorithm. The results retain recognizable spectral components of the original samples, and they add a whole bunch of sonic artifacts which sound (correctly, really) ‘digital’ and computer-based to our ears, but the entire piece itself is also an artifact.

It’s also worth noting that what you hear is particular to this vocoder technique and especially to audio texture synthesis and neutral network-based style transfer of sound. It’s a commentary on 2018 machine learning not just conceptually, but because what you hear sounds the way it does because of the state of that tech.

And that’s always been the spirit of music. The peculiar sound and behavior of a Theremin says a lot about how radios and circuits respond to a human presence. Vocoders have ultimately proven culturally significant for their aesthetic peculiarities even if their original intention was encoding speech. We respond to broken circuits and broken code on an emotional and cultural level, just as we do acoustic instruments.

In a blog post that’s now a couple of years old – ancient history in machine learning terms, perhaps – Dmitry Ulyanov and Vadim Lebedev acknowledged that some of the techniques they used for “audio texture synthesis and style transfer” used a technique intended for something else. And they implied that the results didn’t work – that they had “stylistic” interest more than functional ones.

Dmitry even calls this a partial failure: “I see a slow but consistent interest increase in music/audio by the community, for sure amazing things are just yet to come. I bet in 2017 already we will find a way to make WaveNet practical but my attempts failed so far :)

Spoiler – that hasn’t really happened in 2017 or 2018. But “failure” to be practical isn’t necessarily a failure. The rising interest has been partly in producing strange results – again, recalling that the vocoder, Theremin, FM synthesis, and many other techniques evolved largely because musicians thought the sounds were cool.

But this also suggests that musicians may uniquely be able to cut through the hype around so-called AI techniques. And that’s important, because these techniques are assigned mystical powers, Wizard of Oz-style.

Big corporations can only hype machine learning when it seems to be magical. But musicians can hype up machine learning even when it breaks – and knowing how and when it breaks is more important than ever. Here’s Holly’s official statement on the release:

For the past two years, we have been building an ensemble in Berlin.

One member is a nascent machine intelligence we have named Spawn. She is being raised by listening to and learning from her parents, and those people close to us who come through our home or participate at our performances.

Spawn can already do quite a few wonderful things. ‘Godmother’ was generated from her listening to the artworks of her godmother Jlin, and attempting to reimagine them in her mother’s voice.

This piece of music was generated from silence with no samples, edits, or overdubs, and trained with the guidance of Spawn’s godfather Jules LaPlace.

In nurturing collaboration with the enhanced capacities of Spawn, I am able to create music with my voice that far surpass the physical limitations of my body.

Going through this process has brought about interesting questions about the future of music. The advent of sampling raised many concerns about the ethical use of material created by others, but the era of machine legible culture accelerates and abstracts that conversation. Simply through witnessing music, Spawn is already pretty good at learning to recreate signature composition styles or vocal characters, and will only get better, sufficient that anyone collaborating with her might be able to mimic the work of, or communicate through the voice of, another.

Are we to recoil from these developments, and place limitations on the ability for non-human entities like Spawn to witness things that we want to protect? Is permission-less mimicry the logical end point of a data-driven new musical ecosystem surgically tailored to give people more of what they like, with less and less emphasis on the provenance, or identity, of an idea? Or is there a more beautiful, symbiotic, path of machine/human collaboration, owing to the legacies of pioneers like George Lewis, that view these developments as an opportunity to reconsider who we are, and dream up new ways of creating and organizing accordingly.

I find something hopeful about the roughness of this piece of music. Amidst a lot of misleading AI hype, it communicates something honest about the state of this technology; it is still a baby. It is important to be cautious that we are not raising a monster.

– Holly Herndon

Some interesting code:
https://github.com/DmitryUlyanov/neural-style-audio-tf

https://github.com/JeremyCCHsu/Python-Wrapper-for-World-Vocoder

Go hear the music:

http://smarturl.it/Godmother

Previously, from the hacklab program I direct, talks and a performance lab with CTM Festival:

What culture, ritual will be like in the age of AI, as imagined by a Hacklab

A look at AI’s strange and dystopian future for art, music, and society

I also wrote about machine learning:

Minds, machines, and centralization: AI and music

The post Jlin, Holly Herndon, and ‘Spawn’ find beauty in AI’s flaws appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

Keeping Some of the Lights On: Redefining Energy Security

As a society depends more on energy sources for its daily functioning, it becomes more vulnerable if the supply of energy is interrupted. This obvious fact is ignored in current strategies to achieve energy security, making them counter-productive.

Energy-security

Image: Camilla MP

What is Energy Security?

What does it mean for a society to have “energy security”? Although there are more than forty different definitions of the concept, they all share the fundamental idea that energy supply should always meet energy demand. This also implies that energy supply needs to be constant – there can be no interruptions in the service. [1-4] For example, the International Energy Agency (IEA) defines energy security as “the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price”, the US Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) defines the concept as meaning that “the risks of interruption to energy supply are low”, and the EU defines it as a “stable and abundant supply of energy”. [5-7]

Historically, energy security was achieved by securing access to forests or peat bogs for thermal energy, and to human, animal, wind or water power sources for mechanical energy. With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, energy security came to depend on the supply of fossil fuels. As a theoretical concept, energy security is most closely related to the oil crises from the 1970s, when embargoes and price manipulations limited oil supply to Western nations. As a result, most industrialised societies still stockpile oil reserves that are equivalent to several months of consumption.

Although oil remains as vital to industrial economies as it was in the 1970s, mainly for transportation and agriculture, it’s now recognised that energy security in modern societies also depends on other infrastructures, such as those supplying gas, electricity, and even data. Furthermore, these infrastructures increasingly interconnect and depend on each other. For example, gas is an important fuel for power production, while the power grid is now required to operate gas pipelines. Power grids are needed to run data networks, and data networks are now needed to run power grids.

Power grids are needed to run data networks, and data networks are needed to operate power grids.

This article investigates the concept of energy security by focusing on the power grid, which has become just as vital to industrial societies as oil. Moreover, electrification is seen as a way to decrease dependency on fossil fuels – think electric vehicles, heat pumps, and wind turbines. The “security” or “reliability” of a power grid can be measured precisely by indicators of continuity such as the “Loss-of-Load Probability” (LOLP), and the “System Average Interruption Duration Index” (SAIDI). Using these indicators, one can only conclude that power grids in industrial societies are very secure.

For example, in Germany, power is available for 99.996% of the time, which corresponds to an interruption in service of less than half an hour per customer per year. [8] Even the worst performing countries in Europe (Latvia, Poland, Lithuania) have supply shortages of only eight hours per customer per year, which corresponds to a reliability of 99.90%. [8] The US power grid is in between these values, with supply interruptions of less than four hours per customer per year (99.96% reliability). [9]

How Secure is a Renewable Power Grid?

In the current operation of infrastructures, the paradigm is that consumers could and should have access to as much electricity, gas, oil, data or water as they want, anytime they want it, for as long as they want it. The only requirement is that they pay the bill. Looking at the power sector, this vision of energy security is quite problematic, for several reasons. First of all, most energy sources from which electricity is made are finite – and maintaining a steady supply of something that’s finite is of course impossible. In the long run, the strategy to maintain energy security is certainly doomed to fail. In the shorter term, it may disrupt the climate and provoke armed conflicts.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), which was set up following the first oil crisis in the early 1970s, encourages the use of renewable energy sources in order to diversify the energy supply and improve energy security in the long term. A renewable power system is not dependent on foreign energy imports nor vulnerable to fuel price manipulations – which are the main worries in an energy infrastructure that is largely based on fossil fuels. Of course, solar panels and wind turbines have limited lifetimes and need to be manufactured, which also requires resources that could come from abroad or which can become depleted. But, once they are installed, renewable power systems are “secure” in a way and for a period of time that fossil fuels (and atomic energy) are not.

Renewable energy sources pose fundamental challenges to the current understanding of energy security

Furthermore, solar and wind power provide more security concerning physical failure or sabotage, even more so when renewable power production is decentralised. Renewable power plants also have lower CO2-emissions, and the extreme weather events caused by climate change are a risk to energy security as well.

However, in spite of all these advantages, renewable energy sources pose fundamental challenges to the current understanding of energy security. Most importantly, the renewable energy sources with the largest potential – sun and wind – are only intermittently available, depending on the weather and the seasons. This means that solar and wind power don’t match the criterium that all definitions of energy security consider to be essential: the need for an uninterrupted, unlimited supply of power.

3750034085_e9a258e408_z

Image: Michael Lokner

The reliability of a power grid with a high share of solar and wind power would be significantly below today’s standards for continuity of service. [10-14] In such a renewable power grid, a 24/7 power supply can only be maintained at very high costs, because it requires an extensive infrastructure for energy storage, power transmission, and excess generation capacity. This additional infrastructure risks making a renewable power grid unsustainable, because above a certain threshold, the fossil fuel energy used for building, installing and maintaining this infrastructure becomes higher than the fossil fuel energy saved by the solar panels and the wind turbines.

Renewable energy sources like wind and sun have advantages that current definitions of energy security don’t capture

Intermittency is not the only disadvantage of renewable energy sources. Although many media and environmental organisations have painted a picture of solar and wind power as abundant sources of energy (“The sun delivers more energy to Earth in an hour than the world consumes in a year”), reality is more complex. The “raw” supply of solar (and wind) energy is enormous indeed. However, because of their very low power density, to convert this energy supply into a useful form solar panels and wind turbines require magnitudes of order more space and materials compared to thermal power plants – even if the mining and distribution of fuels is included. [15] Therefore, a renewable power grid cannot guarantee that consumers have access to as much electricity as they want, even if the weather conditions are optimal.

How Secure is an Off-the-Grid Power System?

Today’s energy policies related to electricity try to reconcile three aims: an uninterrupted and limitless supply of power, affordability of electricity prices, and environmental sustainability. A power grid that is mainly based on fossil fuels and atomic energy cannot achieve the aim of environmental sustainability, and it can only achieve the other goals as long as foreign suppliers do not cut off supplies or raise energy prices (or as long as national or international reserves are not depleted).

However, a renewable power grid cannot reconcile these three goals either. To achieve an unlimited 24/7 supply of power, the infrastructure needs to be oversized, which makes it expensive and unsustainable. Without that infrastructure, a renewable power grid could be affordable and sustainable, but it could never offer an unlimited 24/7 supply of power. Consequently, if we want a power infrastructure that is affordable and sustainable, we need to redefine the concept of energy security – and question the criterium of an unlimited and uninterrupted power supply.

If we look beyond the typical large-scale central infrastructures in industrial societies, it becomes clear that not all provisioning systems offer a limitless supply of resources. Off-the-grid microgeneration – the local production and storage of electricity using batteries and solar PV panels or wind turbines – is one example. In principle, off-the-grid systems can be sized in such a way that they are “always on”. This can be done by following the “worst-month method”, which oversizes generation and storage capacity so that supply can meet demand even during the shortest and darkest days of the year.

Matching supply to demand at all times makes an off-the-grid system very costly and unsustainable, especially in high seasonality climates

However, just like in an imaginary large-scale renewable power grid, matching supply to demand at all times makes an off-the-grid system very costly and unsustainable, especially in high seasonality climates. [16-18] Therefore, most off-the-grid systems are sized according to a method that aims for a compromise between reliability, economic cost and sustainability. The “loss-of-load probability sizing method” specifies a number of days per year that supply does not match demand. [19-21] In other words, the system is sized, not only according to a projected energy demand, but also according to the available budget and/or the available space.

Solar-panel-in-snow

Off-the-grid. Image: Stephen Yang / The Solutions Project.

Sizing an off-the-grid power system in this way generates significant cost reductions, even if “reliability” is reduced just a little bit. For example, a calculation for an off-the-grid house in Spain shows that decreasing the reliability from 99.75% to 99.00% produces a 60% cost reduction, with similar benefits for sustainability. Supply would be interrupted for 87.6 hours per year, compared to 22 hours in the higher reliability system. [16]

According to the current understanding of energy security, off-the-grid power systems that are sized in this way are a failure: energy supply doesn’t always meet energy demand. However, off-gridders don’t seem to complain about a lack of energy security, on the contrary. There’s a simple reason for this: they adapt their energy demand to a limited and intermittent power supply.

In their 2015 book Off-the-Grid: Re-Assembling Domestic Life, Phillip Vannini and Jonathan Taggart document their travels across Canada to interview about 100 off-the-grid households. [22] Among their most important observations is that voluntary off-gridders use less electricity overall and routinely adapt their energy demand to the weather and the seasons.

Voluntary off-gridders use less electricity overall and routinely adapt their energy demand to the weather and the seasons.

For example, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, power tools, toasters or videogame consoles are not used at all, or they are only used during periods of abundant energy, when batteries can accommodate no further charge. If the sky is overcast, off-gridders act differently to draw less power and have some more left over for the day after. Vannini and Taggart also observe that voluntary off-gridders seem to feel perfectly happy with levels of lighting or heating that are different from the standards that many in the western world have come to expect. Often, this shows itself in concentrating activities around more localised sources of heat and light. [22]

Similar observations can be made in places where people – involuntarily – depend on infrastructures that are not always on. If centralised water, electricity and data networks are present in less industrialised countries, they are often characterised by regular and irregular interruptions in the supply. [23-25] However, in spite of the very low reliability of these infrastructures – according to common indicators of continuity – life goes on. Daily household routines are shaped around disruptions of supply systems, which are viewed as normal and a largely accepted part of life. For example, if electricity, water or Internet are only available during certain times of the day, household tasks or other activities are planned accordingly. People also use less energy overall: the infrastructure simply doesn’t allow for a resource-intensive lifestyle. [23]

More Reliable, Less Secure?

The very high “reliability” of power grids in industrial societies is justified by calculating the “value of lost load” (VOLL), which compares the financial loss due to power shortages to the extra investment costs to avoid these shortages. [1][10] [26-29] However, the value of lost load is highly dependent on how society is organised. The more it depends on electricity, the higher the financial losses due to power shortages will be.

Current definitions of energy security consider supply and demand to be unrelated, and focus almost entirely on securing energy supply. However, alternative forms of power infrastructures like those described above show that people adapt and match their expectations to a power supply that is limited and not always on. In other words, energy security can be improved, not just by increasing reliability, but also by reducing dependency on energy.

Energy-storage

Natural gas storage terminal. Image: Jason Woodhead.

Demand and supply are also interlinked, and mutually influence each other, in 24/7 power systems – but with the opposite effect. Just like “unreliable” off-the-grid power infrastructures foster lifestyles that are less dependent on electricity, “reliable” infrastructures foster lifestyles that are increasingly dependent on electricity.

Industrial societies with “reliable” power grids are in fact the weakest and most fragile in the face of supply interruptions

In their 2018 book Infrastructures and Practices: the Dynamics of Demand in Networked Societies, Olivier Coutard and Elizabeth Shove argue that an unlimited and uninterrupted power supply has enabled people in industrial societies to adopt a multitude of power dependent technologies – such as washing machines, air conditioners, refrigerators, automatic doors, or 24/7 mobile internet access – which become “normal” and central to everyday life. At the same time, alternative ways of doing things – such as washing clothes by hand, storing food without electricity, keeping cool without air-conditioning, or navigating and communicating without mobile phones – have withered away, or are withering away. [30]

As a result, energy security is in fact higher in off-the-grid power systems and “unreliable” central power infrastructures, while industrial societies are the weakest and most fragile in the face of supply interruptions. What is generally assumed to be a proof of energy security – an unlimited and uninterrupted power supply – is actually making industrial societies ever more vulnerable to supply interruptions: people increasingly lack the skills and the technology to function without a continuous power supply.

Redefining Energy Security

To arrive to a more accurate definition of energy security requires the concept to be defined, not in terms of commodities like kilowatt-hours of electricity, but in terms of energy services, social practices, or basic needs. [1] People don’t need