How I start beginners on Ableton Live with Apple Loops

Around Christmas 2013 I was starting to worry about GarageBand.  Since 2006 I had started my beginners on the software, which arguably ignited the entire movement of “older beginner” music composition courses.  2013’s GarageBand 10, however, made me question the direction the software was taking.  I would have to rework many of my lessons to work in the new version.  Since I was already using Ableton Live in my advanced course, I decided it might make more sense to have my beginners use that software instead.

The Experimental Group

Spring semester 2014 I decided to hedge my bets on this topic.  My course registrations for the second-year class are very healthy, and I did not want to jeopardize that by introducing an unpopular change in the beginner level.  I took one section of the beginner course, and pretended GarageBand did not exist, and we started on Ableton Live instead, doing the same exact projects as the five other sections using GarageBand.  Here’s what I learned:

  • Kids do not think either program is “harder” if they don’t know anything different
  • Exporting files is a tiny bit easier in GarageBand
  • GarageBand has a “global key” while Live does not – more on this later
  • Projects from both courses sounded about the same in quality

Really there were no big negatives with the switch, other than a slight intangible fun factor that was not present in the first few weeks.  Once we were off into my projects like the Radio Ad and sampling drum sounds from around the school they class felt exactly right, but there was a bit of magic missing from the first weeks.  After another semester, I determined it was due to the weak loop selection in Live compared to GarageBand.  Ableton loops are not for the faint of heart – many of the “Clips” are exclusive to a specific device or sample pack and do not gracefully drag anywhere as audio files do.  In addition, filenames are inconsistently named, so the search feature is not that helpful for the built-in loops, and there is no fancy metadata based filter system like there is in Logic or GarageBand.  There had to be a way to use those gigs and gigs of Apple Loops sitting on my hard drive already to solve this problem.

Using Apple Loops in Live

So how do we make the loop library friendly in Live?  First off, I just use the GarageBand loop library.  I mean – it’s already there on the computer, right?  Those new loops are especially great.  There are a few hurdles though:

  • New GarageBand loops are in the .caf format – basically a different wrapper for aiff audio that isn’t compatible with basically everything
  • Using Quicktime to convert .caf’s to .wav or .aiff results in a slight silent gap after the audio, making Live interpret the loops incorrectly (losing their ability to loop – it’s hard to say this wasn’t intentional)
  • Metadata in the Apple Loops for Key (and the other stuff – dark/happy/processed, etc.) is basically inaccessible to programs other than Logic and GarageBand

Here’s my step-by-step process to get Apple Loops usable in Live.

  1. Using Audacity’s chains, open a folder .caf files and trim 56 milliseconds from the end, and save as .wav.  I’m not sure if this is the exact amount of silence, but it resulted in a pretty usable loop.
  2. Take any loops containing words like “beat”, “drums”, or “topper” out of the folder – make sure they’re all tagged with an easy to remember word like “Beat” (I used Yosemite’s batch renaming feature to do this)
  3. Using Keyfinder or similar software, load remaining loops from the “cleaned” folder.  Have the software analyze and then write the key into the filenames.
  4. If you’re super picky, use the Apple Loops utility to verify that the keys from Keyfinder are correct.  I had to correct a bunch of them, and I also manually tagged ones with black key names to include both names (i.e. Sweet-Guitar-Loop.A#m.Gbm.wav).  Keyfinder had a lot of trouble with the newer “Layers” loops especially – lots of unclear pitches and 7th chords in there).
  5. Importantly, group any subfolders of loops into one big “Loops” folder.  Add this folder to Ableton Live’s Places in the Browser – I observed that Live’s performance drops significantly if the subfolders are added separately to the browser.
Notice the key tags at the end of the filenames.  I had to do that semi-manually.
Notice the key tags at the end of the filenames. I had to do that semi-manually.
Put all your loops in one big folder for optimal performance.  If you add all the subfolders to places, Live will spend a lot of time searching the disk instead of making sick beats.
Put all your loops in one big folder for optimal performance. If you add all the subfolders to places, Live will spend a lot of time searching the disk instead of making sick beats.

Now students have the entire GarageBand loop library (including the amazing Chillwave category), usably tagged and categorized, accessible in a much more loop friendly program.

Final Step: The Akai APC Key 25

Since the beginning my music lab has had 25-key MIDI keyboards at each station.  We started with the Korg K25’s and shortly after upgraded to the M-Audio Axiom 25’s we’ve had since 2008.  I’ve toyed around with the idea of adding an unconventional controller to my lab for years, but not a single device fit my needs entirely.  In fact, I’ve purchased several of these as single units intending to use them for the lab, but never felt confident enough to deploy them.

  • The original APC40 – too large, no note input
  • The Novation Launchpad – limited utility, hacky-feeling
  • Launchpad Mini – great size, no control labels – still hacky feeling
  • Ableton Push – gigantic, difficult to use (sorry)

With Akai’s latest crop of hybrid APC devices, I found the perfect tool for my lab.  The APC Key 25 is small (we have limited desk space), includes 100% pre-programmed controls for clip launching and volume adjustment with zero setup, and includes 25 “good enough” keys.  Since we don’t do piano technique as much as we just need a basic note input device, this board is the perfect complement to our Ableton-only curriculum.  It even comes with Live Like Akai edition, which is not far off from Live Intro feature-wise.

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Our first week this semester felt magical again.  It was like the old days when GarageBand was novel and people still thought the Secret Agent Guitar loop still sounded cool.  Kids were able to create key-matched tracks and scenes with relative ease in a non-linear way using cutting edge tools and great sounds.  Everyone used the keyboards, and it made life easier instead of harder!  It was easy, fun and ultimately successful.  Just because the tools don’t come perfect out of the box doesn’t mean you can’t bend them to your will.  Setting up a great music tech class is about engineering the environment on the student workstations for optimal success, and that means sweating the details when it comes to things like searching the library or choosing which controller to buy.  Good luck trying this on your own!

(LEAKED) Apple Event “It’s Been Way Too Long” timeline (WATCHBand)

10:00am:

Tim Cook takes the stage at Apple Town Hall, carrying a guitar.  After going over company news, profits, iOS8 adoption rates, etc. he proceeds to smash said guitar on the stage, “The Who”-style.

“This is what you all felt like last year when we released GarageBand 10, didn’t you?”  He exits the stage.  Lights go black.

10:15am:

A low bass rumble.  Video starts playing – first a globe.  The globe zooms out into a watch face.  It is the Apple Watch.  A guitar icon shows on the watch.  GarageBand 11 for Apple Watch.  WatchBand.

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 11.34.06 AM

10:20am:

Craig Federighi on stage: “We felt that we really screwed up with GarageBand 10.  To make up for this, everyone who downloaded GarageBand 10 gets a free Apple Watch, preloaded with WatchBand.

WatchBand demo: no controls, no timelines, no UI.  Just press the icon and start air-guitarring, Bill & Ted-style.  A song will appear in your iCloud, pre-quantized and mixed.

“We took GarageBand to the next level.  We heard you.  You wanted an easier program.  You wanted less control.  You basically don’t want to write music at all.  Now you don’t have to!”

WatchBand demo over.

10:45am:

Tim Cook back on stage.  “We’re replacing all versions of GarageBand with WatchBand.  Now to make music on your Mac or iPad, just shake the Mac around and a song will magically appear in your iTunes library.  No timelines.  No confusing tracks or effects.  No play button.  It’s magical.  So.  Magical.”

11:00am:

Brief Q&A session.  No questions.  None of the musicians and educators who built their curriculum on GarageBand 9 and earlier are present to ask questions.  The tech press who has no idea what’s going on thinks these are all great ideas.

11:15am:

Apple proceeds to release a ton of cool hardware, all running the new WATCHBand app.  The new Mac Pro can “shake out” 12000 songs per second, all while avoiding confusing things like Track Effects and things like low latency recording.

11:30am:

One More Thing…(hopefully)

Tim Cook: “We’re just kidding.  Here’s GarageBand 11.  It’s like a fixed version of GarageBand 10 with all of the features of GarageBand 9.  Extensively tested by musicians and educators alike.  This product was designed from the ground up to be a great starting point for music production, and comes for free on every Mac.”

End of year-long nightmare keynote.

Apple legitimizes Audiobus, throws Jack under the bus

One day after Jack was announced, Audiobus was officially canonized with its inclusion in GarageBand.  No coincidence that Jack was to be released on iOS and Android, possibly leveling the playing field.  I’d wager this will persuade the team behind Jack to focus less on iOS than Android – a third party (especially a niche like Audiobus) supported in GarageBand is a strong statement of preference by Apple.

It seems that Apple is then going to use Audiobus as the Rewire for iOS.  Smart move, and a big leap from where things were a year ago.  Once it’s in GarageBand, you can be assured it will be supported for some time (Apple similarly adopted Audiocopy last year along this same logic).

The simple interface exponentially increases the iPad’s value as a music creation tool by letting you do all the recording and sequencing on a single device without complex file imports, as well as enabling apps to talk to each other. For example, you could now record a synth track in Korg’s iMS-20, filter it through the Amplitude amp modeler, and record the results as a track in GarageBand.

Via The Verge

 

▶ Get back OS X Mountain Lion’s Displays Menu

As a teacher, I heavily rely on the ability to switch back and forth between mirrored and spanning mode for my Mac. I seriously hate messing with Displays preferences during class and fiddling with resolutions and such. Until this summer, Macs were pretty good at quickly switching between these modes, but with the arrival of Mac 10.8 Mountain Lion, the displays menu was replaced with the much more specific Airplay menu, which does not include the old Mirroring toggle. In fact, the key shortcut to enable/disable mirroring (⌘-1) forces a rescan of the displays, often resulting in a resolution change. Terrible!

Luckily, we can re-enable this feature easily with a free app from the Mac App Store called Display Menu by Thorsten Karrer. This app does exactly what you think it should, and it also enables the quick resolution switching that OS X had way back in the day. Everyone chained to a desktop with mirroring mode for their day job needs to get this app, posthaste. Check out more info on the Display Menu website.

 

Sibelius Users: A Pressure Group

Interesting activity going on here at sibeliususers.org.  From their description:

Please join us in convincing Avid that it is in everyone’s best interests for them to sell Sibelius.  This will still ease its cash crisis, but will ensure Sibelius lives on in safe hands.

A few salient points for further discussion:

  • Sibelius likely is not making enough money to support the larger staff that it has enjoyed since being acquired by Avid.  Doing a little back-of-the-napkin math based on the acquisition press release from 2006, Sibelius had 180,000 users back then.  Let’s divide that number by 5 years, (36,000 users per year) times the average price of a copy of Sibelius (let’s say around $100 since there are a lot of upgrades and Ed discounts in there).  This gives you about $360,000,000.
  • BUT WAIT – Sibelius was acquired by Avid in 2006 for only $22M.  So obviously the user base number was either a) inflated; b) a guess; or c) accounted for everyone who pirated the software as well as paying users.
  • By 2012, I would assume the paying user :: pirate ratio has probably gotten worse.
  • However, I doubt that’s the only problem.  In the time between the acquisition and the sell-off, I can anecdotally say that Sibelius is being used less by creators of content than arrangers, and other scribes and copyists types in the music world.  DAW-style apps have become the de-facto creative standard, while notation has become a necessity for those who need it (hint: composers no longer “need” it).  I admit this is a blatant opinion, and not something I’ve researched.

A few more points regarding Avid’s earnings:

  • Right before the sell off, Avid reported revenue of $152.1 million, with a net loss of $15.6 million.  They originally paid $22M for Sibelius, and not only can they not make this money back, but they are losing nearly the same amount just based on operating.
  • Avid is one of the only publicly traded media software/hardware-only companies.  The only other one I can think of is Adobe.  Everyone else is either a giant (e.g. Apple, Sony, etc.) or a private single-focus company (e.g. Ableton, Propellerhead, Aja).  This puts an inordinate amount of pressure on the company to remain profitable for its shareholders’ interest.
  • The main focus of their sell-off seems to be to strategically shed businesses they aren’t totally sure about.  For instance – the Education market (one of the original targets that made Avid want to acquire Sibelius in the first place) is changing very rapidly.  No longer is it mandatory to buy something like Sibelius to teach music in a lab.  In fact, some would argue that notation software is unnecessary altogether in a K-12 educational environment.

These lead me to a conjecture: If Sibelius was spun off back into an independent company, it could no longer stand on its own.  A company cannot simply retreat to pre-crisis levels and maintain modernity.  Since 2006, Sibelius (while apparently not generating much profit) had grown into a multitude of educational products, and integrated into somewhat an appendage of Pro Tools.  These projects require more programmers, more QA, more salespeople, etc.  The group (save Sibelius) seems fixated on saving the main UK office, but ignores the reality that Sibelius has changed quite a bit since growing out of that office.

Between this, and the possible hostile takeover possibility happening with MakeMusic, the notational software market could soon be in trouble.  But remember people, this is what drove you to Sibelius in the first place – you didn’t like Finale.  Now close your eyes and imagine an app that integrates notation smartly into the modern music making workflow.  Who will make it?  Does it already exist as a small niche product or is it yet to exist?  Will Finale or Sibelius figure out how to survive this decade?  I don’t know.  All I can say is that I stopped using both programs a long time ago.

John Siracusa on Mountain Lion Dual Monitor issues

Some fair points regarding the still-in-progress evolution of full screen apps and their use on dual monitor Macs in Mountain Lion:

“No one said this stuff is easy”

Indeed, but maybe a Settings preference for this would be welcome, rather than just assuming everyone is on a single-screen laptop.  I’d love to be able to show quicktime full screen on one monitor, while grading projects on the other screen – it’s possible with Quick Look so why not make that the universal behavior?

 

Reason 6.5 released today

Remember, the big news is the Rack Extensions.  It’s the only way forward on future platforms like iOS.  Even with cross-app audio APIs, providing curated plugins (rather than manually added ones) seems to be the ideal way to provide add-ons for your audio software in the new sandboxed era of computing.

Who else is ready?

Ableton: Max for Live could conceivably become their version of an “internal” add-on store.

FL Studio: Synthmaker patches could serve this purpose as well.

Logic: Apple can use the architecture from GarageBand lessons to provide add-ons within the app (you could say the “jam packs” are a precedent as well).

Pro Tools: *cricket, cricket*

Skate to where the puck is headed, audio companies.  With Microsoft sandboxing Metro, and Apple becoming the GateKeeper, there’s no question that external add-ons are on the way out.