TC-11 – a touch-controlled synth for ipad that really delivers…

since acquiring a tablet device some time ago, I’ve tried a lot of ipad synths, and I am not ashamed to say I have a very large collection of them, that is still growing steadily – and probably always will! 🙂

they tend to fall into three broad classes:

  • category one – those that work to emulate normal synthesizers, and therefore, their main method of producing notes and chords is a “virtual” keyboard;
  • category two – those that use an alternate method to produce notes and chords – in a serious number of radical configurations, some more successful than others;
  • category three – other less easily defined interfaces – oddball devices / devices that use truly unusual methods of triggering notes and chords;

so – in our first category (by far the most populated, from what I can tell) you have keyboard-based synths ranging from animoog to xenon, including classic emulations of moogs and korgs (such as the iMS-20 or the iPolysix), other standalones  such as addictive synthalchemy, mini-synth pro or magellan, and second and third generation devices such as the amazing thor and the equally capable nave.

the second category is a mixed bag, with some good entrants, such as the strangely satisfying sound prism pro; then you have your cantors, your mugicians, and the like…they don’t have keys, but they have a single, straightforward way of producing notes and chords.  but that is also their drawback – they only have one screen pattern, regardless how innovative.

and then finally, the somewhat unclassifiable, such as the good dr. om, noisemusick, the 76 synth, or the moog filtatron – any number of oddballs “fit”, more or less, into this third category.

in category one, some stunning advances have been made, and in the case of a keyboard-based synth like the mighty thor – well, this synth is almost a textbook case for how to build a perfect synth in ios – it’s just a dream to play, it sounds great, it looks great, and the developers deserve a huge pat on the back for what they’ve done with thor – it’s really incredible.  if I want the best in a keyboard-based ios synth, I almost always turn to thor or nave, nave or thor, or let’s not forget the redoubtable iMini.

while I might go for one of those first, depending on the requirement, for another session, on another night – I might go for animoog (which has become quite the synth now that you can get the richard devine and other nice sound libraries for it, the metallic library is also fabulous) – so that’s a synth that has improved with the addition of new libraries, although of course, you do have to pay for them – or I might choose one of the korgs, or addictive synth, or cassini, or xenon or sunrizer.  or let us not forget the mighty n log pro – a fantastic first generation synth.

I’ve been less impressed with the progress of category two and three synths, that is, until I decided to take advantage of a rare price reduction on the TC-11 synth a few days ago – and suddenly, all these attempts to use the massive screen of the ipad in a unique and unusual, yet totally functional and musical way – well, it all starts to make sense now!  the designers / developers of TC-11 has done what the sound prisms and mugicians and the cantors could not quite do – they’ve created a synth with no keyboard, that is actually playable; that challenges the very need for a standard keyboard, and I found today, in making some test recordings, that it is entirely possible to play music with the TC-11 – despite the lack of a keyboard.

so the claim on the itunes store that the TC-11 synth is “the only fully programmable multi-touch synthesizer for the iPad” – would actually seem to be true! – I’ve certainly never encountered any other ios synth with the level of “under the hood” control that the TC-11 gives you.

the key is that there is no one solution, there isn’t one static screen (as there is with sound prism pro, mugician, cantor, and so on) instead, there is a different screen for each preset!  and each patch is totally configurable, from the oscillators to the filters to sequencers to the effects to determining how the movement of your fingers affects auto-panning, total behind-the-scenes control.

I actually bought this synth thinking “OK, I am a guitarist, and I have a lot to learn about synthesis still, despite playing and working with them for more than a few decades; I will buy this, and I will sit down at some far future point, many months from now, and try to teach myself how to program it…”  I expected it to be beyond me – and am pleasantly surprised to find that really, it’s not.

within seconds, I was playing, within minutes, music was emerging, even before I really understood what is going on with this remarkable synthesis engine, which is utterly and so beautifully configurable, you have access to everything under the hood, and I do mean everything – and this synth has just about everything you could ever, ever want – you are in control!

like any good ios synth, of course, it comes stocked with a healthy dose of presets; and from examining the way those are designed, I can begin to make my own connections and alterations and create fantastic patches of my own.  I actually didn’t expect presets, I thought I would have to build all of my own, but the developer has spent some serious time and effort to give us some absolutely great sounding presets right out of the box – which also work as building blocks for sounds of our own that we will design later…did I mention that the synth comes with a fantastic set of presets?

when you play through some of the presets, you will see that not one, but several different screen configurations are used, based on various different geometrical shapes – commonly, a circular interface; fret like interfaces; and various alternate versions of several basic screens, none of them featuring a key of any size or shape! nary a white key or black note in sight – and that, in the case of the TC-11, is a good thing.

despite the lack of a keyboard, there is a somehow-obvious logic (that I can’t describe in words) and when you play each patch, well, sometimes, it just hits you how you should use your fingers, you might make a fist to create a really pure chord, or stretch two notes far apart to increase that amazing thick flanger – but the design of even these presets is incredibly complex, and you can get amazing and very musical results by variously:

  • making a swirling circle with one or two or three fingers
  • putting all five or all ten fingers down in a semicircle
  • making a fist in the centre of the screen, and spinning it slowly around
  • trailing a single finger from one corner of the screen to another corner
  • tapping out individual notes just as if you had a keyboard, but – you don’t
  • moving the entire ipad in various directions to effect the sound as you hold fingers on the screen
  • playing the screen like a typewriter
  • any combination of the above
  • using your imagination – just try it…and hear what it does to the sound !!!

…in other words, almost any gesture that you can imagine, made with finger, fingers, the fingers of two hands, the backs or sides of your hands…will produce a distinct result within the parameters of that patch, and some of the effects are extreme and wonderful – especially in the world of auto-panning, a lot of work has gone into the panner, not to mention some beautiful delays and flangers, too.

I imagine that you could put your forehead down on the screen, and something beautiful would come out of the TC-11. 🙂

so now – what I suddenly have here, is a superlative touch control interface synth that I can already play.  with some rehearsal, and some knowledge of how to get the best out of some of the best presets, and I should be able to play it live, anywhere, without issues.  so when I want to move from playing thor, and the world of the black and white, the tradition, playing those 88s in which ever mode I find them on whichever category one synth I am playing…

…to the world of total freedom, where one patch is all about circles and chords, another, about fretless dub bass with sonic qualities you will not believe, the next, an abstract plane of rectangles that fades into the top of the screen in an endless, fading curve, which defines your “playing field” for the next patch – it’s fantastic, a fantastical world of sound that is one of the most exciting I’ve heard, touched and seen, in a long time – the TC-11 is the real deal.

playing it is very, very liberating, the only experience I can compare it to, was when I first got my korg kaossilator, and I realised that after forty some years of making music with either frets, or keys – that I could make GOOD MUSIC without the benefit of keys or frets – well, it’s a similar feeling – and a wonderful, freeing one I can tell you.

I can make that comparison easily, because when I started out with the koass pad, I had no idea what would happen, and to my everlasting astonishment, with one day of practice – I could make music – without those pesky keys or frets or strings!

same thing with the TC-11 – within minutes, I could make music, even though the interface was completely alien to me, after a few minutes, I could begin to pull tunes out of it – which surprised the heck out of me, because with other category two and three synths, like sound prism – OK, you can get some nice chords and melodies out of sound prism – but you don’t get what you get with the TC-11 – beautiful, rich, synth music – with a really, truly unique playing surface, which is really, really fun to play – with a beautiful synthesis engine powering it, giving you the power to configure each patch to suit the way you want to move your fingers, to create the sounds you want to hear when you use that patch – total control, including the playing surface.

and, with the total configurability of the TC-11, even the most demanding, experienced synthesist should find the kind of control they crave for their patches – total control,  and playing without keys, finally got truly do-able.

so if you enjoy the challenge of playing the synthesizer without a keyboard, using a variety of approaches for note and chord generation, and you want a totally configurable synth with a powerful engine that you can tweak to your heart’s delight – then the TC-11 is the category two synth for you!  give it a try – I am finding it to be very, very addictive – it’s just a LOT of fun to play, and trying out different gestures to see what sound will result is a real hoot, and sometimes a new gesture will bring out an amazing sound out of a patch you thought you knew everything about – it’s full of surprises.

I took a bit of a risk in purchasing this, thinking it was far beyond me, but that risk has been rewarded a thousandfold, and what I have with the TC-11 is a fantastic tool for both live performance and recording – and a tool I know I will make a lot of use of in the years to come.  the TC-11 is a winner with me – a real winner.

you may want to give it a try – I am so, so glad that I decided to give it a go – because boy does it ever go! 🙂

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the “eternal album” – and, sequencing with the fairlight pro app

with the recent release of my first “eternal album”, “music for apps: fairlight pro” I’m now moving much more publicly into the realms of app-based music, so far, I’ve kept most of my application-based music just in the world of you tube videos, with musical activities such as the purescapes channel, which is a you tube channel dedicated to music I’ve created with “scape” – the generative ambient music application designed by brian eno and peter chilvers… I’ve also done the odd live improv involving applications on some of my other you tube channels such as “applicationHD” and “synthesizerHD” but this is my first actual full “album” of application-based music.

I should take a moment and explain the “eternal album” concept; this is an idea I’ve been working on for about one year, I’ve mapped out a series of these albums to be made using existing and future music recorded with applications – and application-based music is like science fiction to me; I still can’t really believe that it exists, and that for the last year and a half, I’ve been able to create music (and, a lot of music at that) on a tablet; using a myriad of music-making applications – to create music of  incredibly varied styles, from super ambient (scape, mixtikl, bloom) to frenetic, heavy, synth music (nanostudio, imini, animoog, addictive synth, thor, nave, n log pro, magellan, sunrizer, and so on…) to almost anything in between (launchkey, loopyHD, cantor, mugician, sound prism pro, beatwave, and so on…) – five years ago, I would not have thought this possible.  however, a practical problem has emerged, that the “eternal album” solves – how to present a large number of finished compositions (far too many to assemble into ordinary “albums”) in a way that makes sense for both artist and listener.  the “eternal album” solves this new world, application-based problem.

so, after 41 years of making “normal” albums – i.e., for release first on cassette, then on compact disc, and eventually, online (a mixture of downloads and compact discs), but this…this is a new “kind” of album, one that recognises that the album concept has become slightly outmoded.  of course,  I will still continue to make normal “albums”, where I collect songs together (such as “gone native”, my recent collection of active music, or ambient albums such as “sky full of stars” and “the haunting” – and many others, too) – this will continue, and it will revolve mostly around music made with electric guitar, or guitar synthesizer – I still feel in particular that for ambient music, the normal “album” full of songs is the best presentation method.  there are many reasons for that, the foremost of which is that by selecting a group of songs, and ordering them in a particular way, the artist can control the “mood” of the ambient album experience – so I think a defined set of tracks, carefully sequenced, is very often a good idea, and in ambient music, it’s particularly effective.

but…not so for music made with applications.  since to me, with my old-fashioned brain, this is futuristic music, science fiction music, music that I never dreamed could be made, mixed and published on a tablet device, in vast quantities (example – in just about one year of creating “scapes” using eno and chilvers remarkable application, I’ve created in excess of 1000 scapes) – and, the majority of them are of a quality I would absolutely publish – so – I feel that this music, in these quantities and at this level of quality (there is really no such thing, for example, as a “bad scape”) – this music deserves a new kind of album – the “eternal album”.

the concept is simple:

1) there is no finite number of tracks – tracks are added as they become available.  we begin with existing, completed tracks, and add new tracks as they are created and completed

2) there is no ending to the album itself – it’s end is dictated either by the disappearance of bandcamp, or by the disappearance of myself from the planet (both will happen eventually – this is inevitable)

3) customers can download any number of tracks and construct their own “versions” of the album, from a single track to hundreds of tracks if available, or anywhere in between

4) customers can either use the suggested running order or create their own, four seconds of silence has been added to the end of each track for this specific purpose

5) there is no album price, as the “album” is whatever the customers want it to be, from one track to hundreds of tracks (if available) in any order they please

6) a word about track pricing, because of the nature of the “eternal album”, we have set the track prices at a special low level to compensate for the higher track count

so what this means for me as an artist, is what I need to do to present the work for a particular application, is to create a normal bandcamp album, in this first case, the album is called “music for apps: fairlight pro” (in fact, all of these albums will have similar titles, such as “music for apps: scape” and “music for apps: nanostudio” and so on) and I then upload the existing, finished master tracks that I’ve created with that application.  that might be just a handful of tracks, it might be many, but once uploaded, I would then add to the album at any point in time over the next 30 or 40 years,  many, many more completed tracks – as they become available.

this might mean that if I have a very prolific period of composition next year, that I might add 20 or 30 new tracks during 2014, to the existing fairlight pro tracks that are already part of the album.  or, if I do not have the urge (or more likely, the time, due to other commitments) to work with the fairlight, it might be that no tracks are added until 2017, when I finally find the time to record new fairlight sequences…the input is totally flexible.  note: if customers indicate a demand for more tracks of a certain type, i.e. they ask for more fairlight sequences, or more scapes, I will do everything within my power (and my schedule) to provide same.

so any “eternal album” can have any number of tracks at any time, more tracks can be added at any time, or, they might remain static for many months or years depending on what apps I am currently recording with.  it’s the ultimate in flexibility for me, the artist, but it’s also the ultimate in flexibility for the customer for these reasons:

1) the customer can listen to all of the available tracks before making any purchase, and decide if they like none, one, a few, many, or all of the tracks

2) the customer can download only the tracks they like, ignoring those tracks that do not appeal to their “ear”

3) for completists, they can own every available track and get the full musical impact of perhaps a decade or two decades’ worth of the artist’s work in that particular format – perhaps, a hundred or more songs recorded over ten or twenty years – something that most artists do not necessarily make available to their listening public (but I wish to as much as is humanly possible)

4) having many “eternal albums” to listen to and choose between, gives the customer a very good idea indeed “which” of the applications that he or she likes the sound of, so some folk, for example, who are more used to my ambient work, will favour the scape and mixtikl “eternal albums” while others who perhaps like the louder, more active side of dave stafford, will opt for the “eternal albums” created with the fairlight, nanostudio, or other active/synth tools.  it provides a much greater range of choice, which appeals to me.

it’s really all about choice, and to me, having a range of albums, sorted by application, with a comprehensive catalogue of tracks created within each application available to listen to at no charge and no risk, gives customers the chance to listen, compare, and decide which applications they feel drawn to or that resonate with them, and, which applications do not appeal to them at all.  it might be that one customer only likes the sound of scape and mixtikl, and does not enjoy the fairlight pro or nanostudio albums.  or, the complete opposite, or any mix of styles/apps – but the beauty is, as with all albums presented in bandcamp, you can listen, compare and contrast before making any purchase decision.

since I have just been through a complete review of every single track I’ve ever produced using the fairlight pro (peter vogel cmi) sequencer, I wanted to take some time to talk about the joys and frustrations, the highs and lows of creating music with the fairlight pro app in particular, since it’s the subject of the first dave stafford “eternal album” and is our featured application today.

whether you call it by it’s current official name, “peter vogel cmi”, or if you are a bit lazy like me, and you call it “the fairlight” or “fairlight pro” – this is one of the most unique applications that appeared in the early days of the ipad tablet revolution.  despite it’s high ticket price, it was one of the very first applications I purchased, because I wanted that sample library – the one that kate bush and peter gabriel used in the early eighties, I wanted those sounds!

I had a bit of a learning curve, I am first a guitarist, second, a pianist, and lastly, a synthesist – and despite playing both guitar and keyboards, sequencing was a skill that I had really never got the hang of…until the fairlight pro application appeared in the itunes store.  it took me a few weeks to really understand and take advantage of what the app can do, but once I got the hang of it, my skill set just skyrocketed, and within a few months, I found that I was creating pieces of music that really surprised me in their complexity for one thing, but at the same time, it was the sound of the pieces…and that takes us right back to those incredible samples.

in uploading the tracks to the album, I’ve taken the unusual step of defining in full, in the attendant metadata, a detailed description of each piece, it’s duration, tempo and the instruments used in the creation of each track, so for each track that is part of the album, there is a list of the eight instruments used to create it.  the reason I’ve included this is because it’s so, so difficult, when listening to a completed, mixed, stereo sequence, to tell what the component parts are.

but even knowing what “went into” the piece is sometimes not enough, sometimes it’s more about unusual choices made with note durations, or adjusting the tempo to make a certain melody sound a certain way, a lot of the fairlight “magic” is in the combination of instruments used – and sometimes, strange things happened, and instruments that sound one way juxtaposed with three other instruments, suddenly change their sonic character when paired with say, two other different samples.

there is something about the fairlight that you can’t explain in words, and at that point, you can only listen.  the samples are just classic, and I love the quantity and diversity on offer, but even more important, the insanely strange combinations of instruments you can achieve by mixing and matching across categories, and if you think about it, each fairlight “instrument” consists of (a maximum of) eight instruments, so just how many combinations of eight can be made from the many hundreds of samples there are??

what amazes me, too, is that I can create a new instrument, and it always, always sounds completely different from any other instrument I’ve ever created!  no matter how many I create, each instrument seems to create an utterly unique sound, which you can’t replicate easily using other applications.

yes, you could physically collect those eight instruments (although it might be difficult, for example, to get ahold of “jetpasso1” – mosts musicians do not have a jet in their studio) and record with them, but it would be utterly impractical in a lot of cases, again, I don’t have a digeridoo in my studio, but with the fairlight – well, I do.

listening back to the sequences I created beginning in february 2012, and then moving up to the present moment, it’s a journey of pure discovery, a joyful, joyful journey, with a few moments of frustration, a few paths that I shouldn’t have gone down, but mostly, it’s just one of the most unique, interesting and entertaining bodies of work I’ve ever had the pleasure of creating and being the composer of.  I’ve created silly sequences, sequences composed of bird song, classical music, pop music, heavy synth music, rock music, progressive rock (quite a bit of prog in there), it’s unbelievable the variation of tracks I’ve created over the last year and a half – I even have one sequence that accidentally sounds a bit like an obscure XTC b-side…

I think that this unassuming little app, with it’s amazing set of classic 1980s samples, has a remarkable power – it allows you to play eight very diverse instruments together, in an impromptu “band” that you then arrange measure by measure…creating completely unique pieces of music with these one of a kind “instruments”.  I love spending time creating with it, and I hope that you’ll enjoy some of the fruits of this labour, it’s always an amazing feeling when you push “play” for the first time, and a remarkable and very unique piece of music plays back…which was built literally, note by note.

so – I think it’s appropriate that the music made with the fairlight pro application is the subject of  my first “eternal album”, it seems right, it’s both a classic synth from the 80s but also, one of the first high quality sequencer/samplers to be made available for the ipad and iphone, so therefore, it’s part of our past and our present and our future.  I love working with this tool, and I recommend it highly to anyone who plays keyboards, that wants to learn how to sequence – it’s how I got started 🙂   note by beautiful note !