Programmable MIDI Foot Controller for the Korg KP3+

MIDI Foot Controller

The Korg KAOSS PAD KP3+ is a powerful beast. It’s great for realtime processing and sampling, but it’s not the best choice as a loop pedal. For one, the loop record length choices only include 1, 2, 4, 8, and 16 beats. You can adjust that after recording, but not on the way in. One shot samples can be any length, but they need to be triggered manually or via a sequencer. Furthermore, it’s not a pedal. If you want to trigger or record samples with your feet you’ll need a MIDI foot controller to do that. And not just any controller. It will need to be programmable so that you can send specific note values to the KP3+ that trigger each of the sample buttons.

This is the issue I decided to resolve for my continuously evolving live setup. More often than not I use a Rhodes electric piano with the KP3+ alongside a modest family of other gear. Playing two-handed while capturing Rhodes loops without audible gaps is impossible if you have to use a “spare” hand to do it. There are a number of programmable MIDI foot controllers on the market. Unfortunately, most of them are not fully programmable and are designed for changing patches versus triggering MIDI notes. An exception to this is the Behringer FCB1010, however, it’s quite large with twelve switches and two expression pedals. I only need four switches and can’t afford the space the FCB1010 would take up.

Highly Liquid MIDI CPU

People are making all sorts of custom MIDI controllers and there’s tons of microcontrollers that can be used for this purpose. I won’t get into all the options, but a few examples include Arduino (perhaps with a SparkFun MIDI shield), Teensy, Livid Brain V2 or Brain Jr, and Highly Liquid’s MIDI CPU. It just so happened that I had a Highly Liquid MIDI CPU on hand that I was sent to me as a sample years ago. I had used it for a few experiments, but nothing on a permanent scale.

Following instructions on the Highly Liquid website I was easily able to reprogram the MIDI CPU via sysex and start testing it with the KP3+. In minutes I had a prototype working that was triggering the sample buttons properly. With that piece confirmed I ordered four momentary foot switches and a sturdy aluminum enclosure. I measured and drilled all the holes for the four switches, DC power, MIDI in, and MIDI out. I soldered it all together and started using it immediately. I’m very pleased with the results and hope to use the foot switch for years to come. To an extent it is future proof because at anytime I can reprogram it via sysex through the MIDI input. A second reason the MIDI in is useful is because I can still send the connect device MIDI from another source (MIDI clock for example). This works because the MIDI CPU can be configured to mirror the MIDI in to the MIDI out while merging messages that originate from the circuit board. Handy!

This was an inexpensive, easy, and elegant solution to a frustrating problem. Custom MIDI controllers are getting easier and cheaper to build all the time. I’d love to hear about your DIY MIDI controller projects in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

Squarp’s Pyramid Sequencer Firmware v1.0

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-11-07-05-am

Squarp’s Pyramid sequencer just got a new firmware update with the prestigious versioning of 1.0. I’ve had mine now for almost a year and have seen a slew of software updates during that time. The new features in 1.0 include a new LFO MIDI effect. These LFOs can be chained together creating all sorts of possibilities.
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Interview: Graham’s O’Brien’s Drum Controller Video Series

Drum Controller - Graham O'Brien

Graham O’Brien is an exceptional and inventive drummer, composer, and producer. It has been my privilege to play with him at dozens shows and on at least five separate projects over the last eight years. His latest solo endeavor is a series of five videos titled Drum Controller. Graham had discussed his goals for the project with me, but when I saw/heard the videos I was immediately impressed. I wanted to know more about how he was able to trigger these beautiful and complex electro-acoustic arrangements without touching anything other than his minimal kit of kick, two snares, high hats, and a ride.

Note: Graham will be performing music with his Drum Controller setup and Thomas Nordlund on guitar at Honey in Minneapolis this Sunday, June 5, 2017. Read on for the interrview and a look at his video series. Continue reading

Live MIDI Sequencing Using Pyramid from Squarp

Pyramid at Work

Last July I wrote an article titled, How Do You Do Your Live MIDI Sequencing? In the article I expressed my frustration with the ubiquity of step sequencers and lack of modern hardware sequencers that handle live recording and polyphony. In December, 2015 I became one of the lucky few to own a Pyramid sequencer by Squarp. Pyramid is an amazing instrument that does everything that has been lacking from most modern sequencers, plus an ever widening array of advanced features available as MIDI effects. It’s hard to contain my excitement about this machine! Squarp has been extremely communicative with their customers through email and their online forum. New releases have been frequent during its life cycle, and I expect many fantastic new features and advancements in the near future. Here’s a few of Pyramid’s current capabilities that I find exciting:

1. Live recording of polyphonic notes with velocity, pitch bend, channel pressure, mod wheel, and continuous controllers. Notes are recorded without quantization unless the Quantizer MIDI effect is applied to the track. What makes this exciting is that although polyphonic and un-quantized recording is common in software it’s rare in new hardware sequencers.

2. Simultaneous track lengths and time signatures are independent of each other. The track lengths are not limited to bars, but can be adjusted down to individual steps. For example, a five bar and three step phrase is possible. This feature allows for polyrhythmic sequencing which I’m very excited about.

3. Pyramid projects are saved on a standard removable SD card as a collection of MIDI files. Although there are plenty of editing features in Pyramid, if you need to for any reason, the files can be edited on a computer in your favorite DAW. You can also create or import MIDI files from elsewhere into a Pyramid project!

I’ll share some of the music I’ve been creating with this beast soon. I could (and will in future posts) go on about euclidean rhythms, step editing, sequencing tracks, chaining sequences, and CV/GATE i/o – all capabilities that Pyramid has, but for now take a look at this collection of tutorial videos that Squarp shared just yesterday:
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How Do You Do Your Live MIDI Sequencing?

Arturia BeatStep Pro

While advancements in music technology have led to amazing new instruments, some popular musical devices and applications fail to accommodate musicians with rudimentary to advanced skills in traditional techniques. Don’t get me wrong! I am all for making music technology accessible to the masses. However, with the inclusion of a few key features these devices and applications could not only be good fun for those without formal music education, but also useful for those with it. Furthermore, including those features would encourage non-traditional musicians to develop new techniques and expand their capabilities, knowledge, range, and interaction with other musicians.

SimpleStepSeq

One example of this is the step sequencer. Once again, don’t get me wrong! I love step sequencing. I even built a rudimentary step sequencer in Max back in 2009. Later on I made it into a Max for Live device that you can download here. Step sequencers are everywhere these days. At one point I remarked that it’s hard to buy a toaster without a step sequencer in it. To date that’s hyperbole, but step sequencers have become ubiquitous in MIDI controllers, iPad apps, synths, drum machines, and modular systems.

I love step sequencers because they encourage us to do things differently and embrace chance. However, for pragmatic music making anyone with some basic keyboard technique will agree that being able to record notes in real time is faster, more efficient, and more expressive than pressing them in via buttons, mouse clicks, or touch screen taps. Simply including a real time record mode in addition to the step sequencing functionality would improve the demographic range and usability of these devices and applications. Many instruments already do this. Elektron machines all have real time recording, as does the DSI Tempest (although it lacks polyphonic recording). Arturia has gone a step (pun intended) in the right direction with the BeatStep Pro allowing for real time recording, also without polyphony. Also, most DAWs handle real time MIDI recording beautifully. So if all of these solutions exist, what’s the problem?

For the last five years I have been developing ways to perform as a soloist without the use of a laptop computer. Q: Wait a minute, don’t all those machines you’re using have computers in them? A: Yes, but they are designed as musical instruments with tactile controls and feedback. They also rarely crash and don’t let you check Facebook (yes, that’s an advantage). There’s a whole series of arguments both for and against using laptops for live performance. Let it be known that I have no problem with anyone using laptops to make music! I do it in the studio all the time. I may do it again live at some point, but currently I have been enjoying developing techniques to work around the limitations that performing without a dedicated computer presents.

Cirklon courtesy of Sequentix

These performances include two to five synchronized MIDI devices with sequencing capabilities, buttons, knobs, pads, and/or a keyboard. I may start with some pre-recorded sequences or improvise the material, but usually it’s a combination of the two. As a musician, producer, and sound designer I have been collecting synthesizers for years and have no shortage of sound making machines. What I am lacking is a way to effectively and inexpensively manage sequencing my existing hardware in real time and with polyphony for live performances. Solutions that do more than I need and therefore cost more than I’d like to spend include the Sequentix Cirklon and Elektron Octatrack. There are also vintage hardware solutions like the EM-U Command Station or Yamaha RS7000. This is something I’ll investigate further, but usually they are bulky and difficult to program on the fly.

Pyramid euclidean screen

What I’d like to see more of are small, modern devices that push the capabilities of live sequencing into new realms while maintaining the practical workflow techniques trained musicians rely on. It’s happening to an extent and internally on the Teenage Engineering OP-1 with their frequent firmware updates. It’s happening on a few iPad apps, but most of the MIDI sequencing apps still lack real time recording and/or polyphonic recording. The Pyramid by Squarp is the most promising development I have seen in this department recently (more about Pyramid at a later date, but for now read this from CDM). Have you found a device or app that handles all your MIDI needs? Do you know about something on the horizon that will make all your MIDI dreams possible? What devices do you use manage your live MIDI performances?