It all started in 2006 when I bought a Monome 40h (Tape Op
#62) and plugged it into my computer's USB port. (After a lot of configuring) I held in my hands a box of blinking buttons -each light controlled by music software, each button a unique input. I used the 40h to play with (and learn) a variety of music-creation software, and the crazy sounds coming from my speakers could not be denied. The Monome controller inspired a new musical direction for me.
Suddenly, it seemed everyone wanted a 40h, and the little company called Monome became famous overnight. Monome's success story, and the beauty and utility of their simple controller, ignited an industry that is now filled with DIY controller kits, small-production hand-built controllers, and big-industry all-plastic copycats. This natural market progression is a good thing, providing a range of price points to get in on the fun.
One small-production shop to emerge from the fray is Livid, an eight-man operation out of Austin, Texas, that actually predated Monome. The founders of Livid have been building controllers and software for video and music production since 2000, but their first big hit was the Ohm 64 controller, and most recently they've released a stripped-down work-alike called Block. I had the opportunity to demo the Ohm 64.
The Ohm 64 has the look and feel of a sturdy, useful, DJ-oriented control surface. It's a rectangular wood block (17' x 11.5' x 2'), and its top-mounted metal panel (silver like a Mac) holds an abundance of knobs, faders, and buttons. The controls are solid and feel like they will hold up over long use. The central control-grid's 64 back-lit buttons have short travel and a distinct "snap" on both press and release (though they wiggle sideways more than the Monome's buttons). In contrast to the nearly precious quality of the Monome devices, the Ohm 64 seems utilitarian and solid.
Plugging it in for the first time, the Ohm 64 lit up with an eerie purple glow and shortly thereafter appeared in my Mac's MIDI configuration. I immediately assigned the unit to control my default software synthesizer, SimpleSynth, and begin playing notes. Since the Ohm 64 is native MIDI, it requires no driver to be installed.
Ohm64Editor software displays a graphic representation of the controller on-screen, with a step-by-step tutorial mode enabled by default. Hints appear when mousing over each screen element. Press a button on the Ohm 64 controller, and an edit dialog pops up at the corresponding virtual button, where you can change the button's MIDI or CC setting. A Quick Edit feature provides batch configuration via a comma-delimited string of MIDI values, which instantly reconfigures the entire controller and can be saved as a preset. Or you can select from a list of preset scales and chord maps. Other dialogs allow you to program the lights and MIDI port assignments. Once configured, you can save your configuration to the Ohm 64's on-board memory so it is ready to go next time you fire it up. Ohm64Editor is written in Max/MSP, and the Max/MSP code is available for download. As a budding Max/MSP programmer, it's always great to have new patches to peruse for my own learning.
OhmSound is a straightforward frequency-modulation synthesizer. Basically you play chords on the pad with one hand and tweak all the synth's parameters with the other. To me, this is what it's all about, shaping the music with your hands -literally sound sculpting. To get at all the soft-synth parameters, you use the bottom row of buttons on the controller to "point" the controller at a group of on-screen controls. This provides fine-grained adjustment of a wide range of sound-shaping
parameters. This app is fun, although I think it could be improved by laying out the on-screen controls in the actual shape of the controller.
MonomeBridge is a standalone app that sits in the background and acts as an OSC/MIDI message router between the Ohm 64 and software written for the Monome. It was a simple matter to launch MonomeBridge and then a Monome application, making sure the prefixes matched ("mlr" for mlr), and I was running my favorite Monome software on the Ohm 64. Nice!
There are also M4L patches for integration with Max for Live (Tape Op #76). The video demo makes this look quite seamless; I ran out of time before my press deadline, but I think it's my next big adventure.
As an experimental musician who likes to fool around with gadgets, to me a "music controller" is much more than just a physical interface to a DAW or sequencing software (not that there's anything wrong with that). Computer-generated music takes on an entirely new quality (for both the player and the listener) when you physically control the sounds. Today's music controllers are configurable by design, allowing you to map their controls into a variety of commercial music-production applications. (Ableton Live is the obvious example, but there are many more such as Reaktor, Bidule, Max/MSP, and Max for Live.)
I must mention a couple of drawbacks to the current Ohm 64 design (from my admittedly-skewed perspective). First, I found that the Ohm can only transmit on a single, user-assigned MIDI channel at a time. In my case, I wanted to control an external Quasimidi 309 beatbox with the MIDI output from the Livid controller. The 309 has seven voices, each accessed on a unique channel, so I was out of luck (or down a complicated path of Mac MIDI routing). It also would be nice to address multiple MIDI devices on separate channels from the single controller. Perhaps in a future version this will change. Second, the Ohm 64 is exclusively bus-powered, meaning it must always be plugged into a computer (a second limitation of their development platform). An external power option would allow the user to configure the controller, save the settings, then plug the Ohm's MIDI output port directly into a standalone MIDI device -no computer required. But these are minor quibbles and won't affect most users. The Ohm 64 is fun right out of the box, and though I'm still working my way through the basic applications, I'm already making music.
It's clear that Livid has put thought and energy into this project. They have an active forum and have done a lot of work building demos, documentation, and tutorial videos. The website is extremely well organized and contains all the downloads you'll need.
Livid has just released their new MIDI DIY board, the circuit-board "brain" inside the Ohm 64 and the Block. Along with it they're offering a variety of kit components including button pads, knobs, and faders. Those so inclined can solder-together their own controller in any configuration they can imagine -a real treat for controller DIY'ers looking for bang-for-the-buck projects.
The whole reason I am drawn to this type of device is that it gives me a new way to approach music composition and performance. Beyond its solid build-quality and ease-of-use, the Ohm 64 really shines with Livid's well-thought-out integration of software, hardware, and documentation. Obviously they are paying attention to their users. ($599 direct; www.lividinstruments.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.