Moving countries again

And another 6 months go by … like that … with a snap of your fingers! In my last post, I was rejoicing about a great audio setup in my new Sydney home, and I was ready to crack on with some Midi and Wav fun. But life is a back of tricks, innit? And it pulled a nice one for me, a rare card that says “go back home and do not get 20 grands”.

My dad nearly died in January and I flew all the way from Australia to see him one last time. But in extremis, he made it into his 91st year! And now I have vowed to stay close to him, resettling in those magnificent Alps I was born in. A new house in Haute Savoie, a new job in Switzerland, a new car, a new Macbook, and eventually a whole new set-up. I managed to bring with me just my Maschine 3 and a Komplete M32 keyboard, leaving being the more cumbersome Komplete S88 in storage behind. Anyways …

New home, new setup

Today the interest has slightly shifted towards mixing and DJing, still in my favourite space of house music and dance EM. A Trakor S2 from Native Instrument has joined the family and I am now getting acquainted with Traktor Pro. Why DJing? Well, I have always been fascinated by the creativity unleashed from some DJs, just to cite a few of my favourites, as well as great podcasts:

Plus DJing and music producing are not mutually exclusive, rather the contrary. So off I am training up.

With Quest Love first, this great Masterclass.

Then with Dave at ADSR Sounds.

The hardware and the soft wires

Great playlists and mixes require high-quality tracks and a flawless audio system, and it took me some time to find the right combination of tools.

To match Native Instrument Traktor S2 hardware, there’s clearly nothing better than Traktor Pro 3 to mix, it’s plug and play.

I have bought active speakers for the Mac, in order to get good feedback in my office. They are Edifier R1280DB, and I am quite impressed by the sound definition I am getting for such a low budget. I have tried multiple options to plug them: Directly on the Mac audio out for headphones, using Apple’s embedded sound card. Then I switched to my wonderful FIIO K3, to get an even better lossless experience. But when I brought the Traktor S2 in, and I needed separate channels for the main output and the monitoring one for headsets, everything was thrown out. That’s when I realised that I could actually take direct advantage of the built-in soundcard, and that’s now my default audio output.

Traktor S2 allows to mix 2 primary tracks, it’s a device for beginners as opposed to its big brother Traktor S4. However, Traktor Pro 3 still allows having up to 4 decks to mix from, A / B / C / D. Obviously you can use an extra one for stems and the other one for remixes. But since I still want to be a music producer, and I have 2 other Native Instruments controllers (Maschine and Komplete), I thought I could set the 2 extra decks as live inputs for each of the controllers. And that’s where things started to become a little bit hectic with cabling and audio software configuration.

Native Instrument Traktor S2 from top

The plan was as follows:

  • Use Maschine natively as a beatbox and FX controller: In theory, I could just use RCA cables here, OUT from Maschine to Traktor’s IN.
  • Use Komplete as a live keyboard playing synth instruments and plugins within Ableton Live: In that case, I don’t have physical cabling options, routing has to be software-driven.

Reading through web blogs, I heard of Soundflower, which unfortunately is not actively maintained anymore, and of Jackaudio, an open-source routing solution. To make things easier, I have one of these new M1 Macbook Air, which raises compatibility challenges. So I found 2 other software to play with:

  • Blackhole is an open-source virtual audio driver that makes audio routing between apps easier.
  • Loopback is commercial software from Rogue Amoeba, which allows cable-free audio routing.

Then suddenly everything became much easier! I installed the 16 channel version of Blackhole, and routed everything through it. Maschine and Live can now spit out audio through dedicated channels easily consumable and mappable by Traktor. In Loopback, I created a loop for Traktor Pro 3 to send back its master output to Traktor S2 Audio, and I created a dedicated route for the Phones Out monitor channel, towards the FIIO K3 feeding into my Seinheiser HD300 headset.

As a result, I end up having in Traktor Pro 3:

  • Decks A and B available to mix and scratch regular audio tracks
  • Deck C can be home to Ableton Live as a synth channel or for remixes
  • Deck D can be home to Maschine as a drum machine, or for stems.
4 deck layout in Tracktor Pro

Beauty! What? wait … how do you put all that in synch with one single tempo? Very good question. That’s where the magic of Ableton LINK protocol comes into play. There are a few easy tutorials on the web telling you how to declare Traktor Pro 3 as the MASTER, and link it with 2 slaves, Live and Maschine, who will automatically follow the same beat and clock. Hallelujah.

How to Qurate?

One of the things Quad Damage has been continuously doing together the past 6 years, first in visual arts and now in music producing, is to curate great content … or should I say Qurate?

Following the wise advice from Quest Love, I get to know my music and treat it with love and respect. Traktor Pro offers great functionalities to manage your virtual crates of vinyls, and I undertake to visit all these amazing mixes from Alice in the “Les sessions du Bastidon” podcast, to tap into her crates. She does not always publish her tracklists, therefore Shazam is my best friend. I look for each track in Souncloud and Youtube, and then I download it using the nifty 4K Downloader app, which does a good job at pulling metadata and cover arts. However, sometimes it needs fixing, and I use MP3Tag to iron them out.

And then I could straight away drop these files in a well-organised folder structure ready to consume by Traktor Pro. However, I can come to realize that not all MP3 files are equal, and that’s a problem: Volume gain needs to be normalised, sounds clipping removed, and that’s the perfect job for a fantastic software called Perfect Note: Just drag and drop your files and observe the magic happen.

Traktor performs a thorough analysis of the files it finds in its library folders: It detects the tempo, creates a colour-coded wave shape, and applies a beat grid over each track. But there’s a bit more prep work we can do with a software called Mixed In Key, which will also precisely detect the main key of each song, and also generate automatic cue points to split it into its main phrases. That’s priceless, as a starting point for mixing, even though you’ll probably have to fine-tune your own loops.

In summary, here is my workflow, the 10 steps to audio heaven, illustrated with this great song by Dana Divine:

My 10 step workflow for normalised curation

Let the music play

So that’s a pretty good setup, right? Now let’s see what we can do with it, using the Dana Divine song as a base, and that we will put on deck A. The first thing we can do is find a matching song for a battle, and that’s something Traktor helps do, by matching tempos and keys.

To the effect, I use the preparation board in Traktor Pro and I look for songs that are in similar keys and tempos. The shortlist goes like this:

Note that Mixed in Key also adds an interesting indicator called “Energy Level”, which is also a relevant way to match songs together, and ramp up and down the energy during a session. I go risky by adding a 6m/1A song to the mix of others in the 10m/5A key, but I really like this Rainbow Song by Art of Tones.

Then I review the cues and loops in each song, making sure to flag the best compatible moments. Here is for instance the job done for Mirabelle, by Ante Perry:

I prefer to use loops over cue points, honestly, it’s a time saver in my eyes.
I finish with the main song. Now comes the time to find great bits to blend with the other songs.

In Maschine, I load a random project to scrap out of it a set of drum kits. My intent is not to play a full song but just to add FX at the right moments. I’ll use the NOTE REPEAT function liberally and record overlay patterns I can trigger based on my inspiration.

Finally, In Ableton Live, I load a synth from Komplete Kontrol. The preset is called 5th bass, and it is part of a synth called Razor, by Errosmith. My idea is to play a bass line matching the loops, for a few melodic variations and an element of originality.

Now that technology is out of the way, time to be creative, or try to be!

Anyways, it’s Sunday, so let’s praise the Lord, here is my psalm for you.

  • Song S1: Gospel Slide by Dana Divine
  • Song S2: Mirabelle by Ante Perry
  • Song S3: October by Icarus
  • Song S4: Dust by Agoria
  • Song S5: The rainbow song by Art of Tones
Deck ADeck BDeck CDeck D
S2-2Razor Loop 1
S1-1S2-4Razor Loop 1
S2-5Maschine loops
S2-6Maschine FX
S1-1S2-3Maschine loops
S1-1S2-4Maschine FXRazor Loop 1
S2-7Maschine loops
S4-1Maschine Loops
S1-1S4-1Maschine Loops
S1-1S4-2Maschine Loops
S4-5Maschine Loops
S5-1->Maschine Loops
S5-2->Maschine FX
S5-3Maschine Loops
S5-4Maschine Loops
And ad libitum!

The featured image has been generated from an OpenProcessing experiment by Takawo:

I have applied to it a series of colourful filters in FX Photo Studio Pro (Why deprecated ?!?!?). Joy!

Oh … and for those of you who still don’t know what a strange attractor is…

Vision of a scary yet gorgeous chaos.