It's got a good beat

18 January 2009

Take a look at the stills from these two videos. Somewhere, there's a cheese factory wondering where all its stock went. Look no further, it's all here. But, when you look at the pics or the videos, which concept do you reckon is going to win in the music biz? At the top we have an (apparently internal but unofficial) advertisement for Microsoft Songsmith which leaves me in no doubt that Poe's Law extends way beyond religion. And beneath it the ad for Beat Kangz's Beat Thang for making choonz and riddimz. Gotta use lots of Zs when working with these machines, sorry, maschinez because you can style them with stick-on Paintz and Grillz. Seriously, that's what they call the decals you stick on this machine.

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Beat Kangz (warning, more Poe's Law in action with the background music at the website) is far from alone from doing a box like this although it seems to have cornered the market on bling-style home-sampling beat machines. For about the past 20 years, the pro end of this market has been more or less owned by Japanese company Akai. Fairlight may have brought the sampler to popular attention but Akai got all the money. Originally, the Akai sampler was a box you screwed into a rack and triggered from a keyboard. Roger Linn, the designer of the got together with Akai to combine his drum-machine ideas with the then relatively new MIDI protocol for wiring synths together.

The MPC-60 MIDI Production System was born. I'd be pushed to say that the MPC changed music production as it combined several existing pieces of hardware into one. However, it arguably altered attitudes to production, in which you built entire songs out of parts from other songs. As a result, it did a lot to break down the boundaries between DJ and performer and producer. Today, a lot of people are all three. The list of Akai users in R&B and hip-hop is pretty much a Who's Who of the genres.

Some of the other sampler makers had a go at emulating Akai's success (pun intended). E-Mu had early success with the SP-1200, which pre-empted the launch of the MPC-60 and looked like a cut-down LinnDrum – and was a lot cheaper. Ensoniq had a go much later but never really made many inroads into the business and wound up being bought by E-Mu, itself acquired by Creative Technology. Yes. That Creative Technology.

Akai gradually updated its machines but the design has not changed radically for more than 20 years. Suddenly, going by the launches at the latest NAMM show in Anaheim, hardware makers have gone groovebox crazy. OK, there was a flurry of beat machines about five years ago but they were aimed more at techno, trance and other four-on-the-floor staples. The latest crop are clearly going for the R&B business.

You have Mark of the Unicorn – with a name like that, they really should be making reproduction Solina string machines for reborn prog rockers, which is why everyone calls them just MOTU – our friends Beat Kangz from above as well as German company Native Instruments. As most of the sequencer software in use comes out of Germany – Steinberg Cubase and Apple's Logic both started there – it's fitting that the Maschine is not a sampler like the old MPC-60 but a controller module that talks to software instruments running on an attached Mac or PC.

Why now? You can link the rebirth of the groovebox to another German software company: Ableton. Coming out of nowhere, this company is now challenging Cubase and Logic as the sequencer of choice. Why? It doesn't work like the other products out there. It focuses on loops, whether you have sampled them from elsewhere or played them in yourself. You can argue that Garageband does that too. But Ableton Live is all about loops with a design that makes it easier to move loops around, chop them up and stick them back together again. So, it's no big surprise that Akai has done a special version of its trademark grooveboxes for Live.

Live is far from alone, although it sits more at the pro end of the spectrum and, as its name implies, it was designed to be used for gigs more than recording. It took several version updates before it could understand MIDI. On the other hand, its ability to warp regular audio samples is uncanny. The other big products in loop-based production, such as Fruity Loops Studio, Propellerheads' Reason and Sony's ACID, as well as Garageband, rely on loops that have been preprocessed to understand how the material can be stretched or pitch-shifted.

Cubase responded at NAMM this year with its own take on the Live concept. Rumours abound of Apple doing the same – the iPod maker bought Emagic five years ago and made its Logic a Mac-only product – with a forthcoming upgrade.

On top of all these products, there is an entire foodchain of loop producers who produce the raw materials for all these packages. And some of them, such as Peace Love Productions, help drive demand by hosting and promoting a growing number of remix competitions. As well as barely known acts, bands such as the Dandy Warhols and Icelandic-Italian singer Emiliana Torrini have active competitions right now. You download some of the tracks used for recording – stems in remix argot – and then combine them with loops of your own. More often they will be downloaded from loop makers. Stick it all together and you have the beginnings of a remix.

Against an industry like this, Songsmith is an interesting diversion but suffers from one basic problem with music: getting people off the ground to the point where they feel confident about what they produce so they keep on going. Songsmith exposes in seconds the limitations of anyone who thinks they might be able to sing but come face to face with the reality. You can hit a note, maybe two. But holding them and hitting all the ones you want is the tricky bit.

Microsoft has been able to tap into an existing bunch of suppliers to get the accompaniment sorted out. PG Music – the maker of Band In A Box – does the backing track software and Garritan, supplies some of the sampled instruments. Garritan does a very good inexpensive orchestral sample-based instrument library. It's $200 or so versus the $4000 you can expect to pay for the top-end Vienna Symphonic Cube of sample DVDs.

Compare that with the home-remix industry where you can get decent if not surprising or spectacular results almost out of the box. Which do you think is going to win?

Microsoft has one thing going for it and it's reflected in the ad: parents would much rather buy this for their kids that fund a spotty brat salivating over a groovebox with delusions about the life of a producer. That is probably why most home synths, such as Yamaha's PSR series, for the moment remain resolutely focused on piano-style keys.

I'm not clear on whether Beat Kangz is focusing on the teenage market. If the company isn't, it's miscalculated badly with its promotion. But it's only a matter of time before we see the combination of cheap processors and memory from the PC world turning up in cheap, brightly coloured grooveboxes for the home. And who knows, maybe some of that singalonga-melody stuff from Songsmith will turn up inside – for people who want something they didn't buy to waft over the loops. There are places where the core technology inside Songsmith would be very handy for budding remixers.

It's arguably also a potential commercial misstep for Apple to concentrate on getting knarly rockers to teach instruments in the latest edition of Garageband rather than focus on how the world is going loop crazy.