by Warren Burt
Skypad, Orbit, Eclipse (plus Lemur (on iOS or Android device) and Kontakt (on your computer)) – a complete music making ecosystem, for wild and wonderful timbres, now available.
My personal music making tastes make me prefer having everything available for a particular project on one machine, with one piece of software being used at a time. However, just as interconnectivity between programs is more and more prevalent, so interconnectivity between machines is also becoming common. Wide Blue Sound has now made Skypad, a free Lemur template that enables any iOS or Android device capable of running Lemur to control its two flagship Kontakt based sample instruments, Orbit and Eclipse. Once you take the time to get this system up and running (and that takes considerable time), it’s very powerful. The sounds produced are unique, lush, and rich; the controls available with the Skypad tablet controller enable you to do things that you can’t do with a mouse on a screen, (or even on a pad-full of rotary MIDI controllers) – in short, the combination of unique timbres and powerful controls makes this quite a unique music-making system.
But it IS a system – and right at the start, let’s list all the components that will be needed to make this system work:
- A tablet or cell-phone, either iOS or Android, that enables the Lemur app to run.
- Lemur software for your tablet.
- The free Skypad template loaded into Lemur on your tablet.
- A working wi-fi system on both your tablet and your computer.
- The Lemur Daemon, and Lemur Editor apps for your computer (both free).
- MIDI drivers for your computer that enable you to turn off MIDI feedback loop detection. This last feature is important – more on that later.
- Your personal computer with adequate sound drivers.
- Native Instruments Kontakt, either full, or Player, version 5.6.6 or higher.
- Wide Blue Sound’s Orbit or Eclipse software, preferably both.
- Some DAW-like environment in which to run Kontakt, etc.
- And of course, a sound system.
I had Lemur working on my old computer system a couple of years ago, but for this review, I thought I would install it on my newer work computer, to see what would be involved in getting this system up and running. I’m glad I did this, because the process involved was long and intricate, beset with software uninstalls, reinstalls, etc. In the folder of material in the Skypad download, Wide Blue Sound provide a .jpg file which contains a 16-item list of instructions detailing how to install the system properly. When I finally got the Lemur Daemon and Editor installed on my computer, and working properly, I then kept having problems with the whole system crashing because of MIDI feedback. It turns out that my MIDI drivers – LoopBe30 – have a switch to detect MIDI feedback, which is so sensitive it gives false positives frequently (like every time I used one of Skypad’s graphic controllers). I spent about three days trying to debug this, before I found the checkbox in the LoopBe30 control panel that enabled you to turn off Enable Shortcut Detection. Once that was done, things began to work more smoothly. In a review of software, it may seem strange to be talking about basic operating things like MIDI drivers, but since the Lemur software is entirely dependent on MIDI, any malfunction there renders the software unusable. And since LoopBe MIDI drivers are one of the most common MIDI drivers used in the PC world, I thought a word to the wise would not be out of place here.
Once you have the Lemur Daemon set up, and communication is established with Lemur on your tablet, you’ll notice that Lemur sends its information (MIDI or OSC) via the appropriate channel to the computer, as specified in the Other Settings page. That is, Lemur will send its information out as, say, MIDI. This will be sent via wi-fi to the computer. The Lemur Daemon receives this MIDI information and sends it to the appropriate MIDI driver. In your Host software (or directly in Kontakt if it’s being used in stand-alone mode), you then select that MIDI driver as one of the MIDI inputs for Kontakt. The Skypad template sends pre-programmed MIDI signals into Kontakt to control all the relevant parameters in either Orbit or Eclipse.
This setup must occur in a particular order, as well, in order for things to function properly. Here’s a list of what I had to do to get this system running properly. Your process may vary slightly from this.
1) Start both iPad and computer from scratch. In my case, make sure the external hard drive which contains the sample sets for Kontakt is plugged in. Be sure wi-fi is enabled and working on both machines. This last may seem like a fussy point. It’s not. For example, I took both my iPad and computer to work the other day. I connected both to the work wi-fi system. I could not get the iPad and the computer to talk to each other over wi-fi. My cell-phone, however, can also function as a wi-fi node. I connected both the computer and the iPad to the phone wi-fi and they connected flawlessly. Why not over the work wi-fi? I don’t know, but this shows the basic fragility of systems like this that rely on four or five different structures to work properly.
2) In the LoopBe 30 Monitor be sure that the checkbox for “Enable Shortcut Detection” is unchecked. This is shown at the bottom left of following screenshot.
3) Click on the icon for “Setup Lemur Daemon” on computer. In the Daemon, click on Add.
Select Daemon MIDI out – click on the left arrow before Daemon MIDI out, select 01 Internal MIDI, double click on that. This is shown next.
The Daemon then gives you a blank screen.
4) Load up Lemur in the iPad. Make sure, in More Settings… on the iPad, in MIDI Targets, MIDI 0, you select the To: target to be 01: Internal MIDI on the computer, as shown next.
5) In Lemur Daemon on the computer, the name of the iPad should now appear. Click on it, and click on the arrow to the left of the name. Select Lemur Out 0 from the drop down list. Click Connect at the lower right of the window.
Lemur on your iPad is now communicating with the Lemur Daemon on your computer, and the output from Lemur will show up with port 01 Internal MIDI on your computer.
6) Now, on your computer open your DAW (in my case Plogue Bidule). Make sure to patch port 01 Internal MIDI to the input of Kontakt. You might also want to plug the MIDI output of a keyboard into Kontakt as well.
7) In Kontakt, load Orbit or Eclipse.
8) In Lemur, on the iPad, load up the Skypad template. Things should now be connected and working properly.
The next screenshot shows the whole system set up and working properly. From left to right we see 1) the Korg nanoKey Studio keyboard, 2) the external disc drive with the sample software for Kontakt (and all my other sample-sets), 3) the computer, with Lemur Daemon, and Plogue Bidule on the left, and Kontakt with Orbital in it on the right, 4) the iPad Pro with the Skypad template loaded into Lemur.
After all that, we can finally get to dealing with the software itself. It IS a lot of fussy work, but if you do it, you’ll be rewarded with a very well-functioning and pleasant system. Whether you want to do that, or simply pull out your harmonica or ukulele and play, will be up to you. Since you’re not reading a magazine called “Harmonica and Ukulele Enthusiast,” I assume you’ll want to be making music with your computer music system. At least in this instance …
Getting down to business, here’s a short description of what Orbit and Eclipse do. My colleague Rob Mitchell reviewed Eclipse in May 2016 in Soundbytes. The reader is directed to his comprehensive review for information on both Eclipse, and since the architecture of the two programs is virtually identical, Orbit as well.
Orbit and Eclipse are not like normal sampler or synthesizer programs in that they a based around a particular sound making algorithm. Four longish samples are sequenced between in three different ways and at a wide variety of different speeds.
There are 101 of these source samples in Orbit, and they range from a simple looped and phased flute to very complex sounds made with synthesizers or acoustic instruments. In Eclipse, there are 68 source samples, and a number of these are noisier and more bottom end oriented, with more complex sonic evolutions in some of them. Even the Orbit sample called Pure, although basically a sine wave, features changing timbre and filtering as well. To hear any of the samples on their own, turn the Depth control in the bottom panel of the Orbits (the front) page to 0, and at the top, click on the moon phase symbols number 2, 3 and 4 to turn off those voices, then play a Middle C on your keyboard. You can then hear the source sample unmodified by any voice switching or processing. Be sure you hold your key down for a long time – like about 15 seconds or more, because most of the voices have significant evolutions over their length.
Each sample can have a lot of different settings for its playback parameters, and with external MIDI control, these parameters can change in real-time. Each of the longer samples, while usually having a clear pitch focus, features a kind of very processed dense texture which evolves over time. You can alternate between the samples with either a sharp descending ramp envelope for each, or a sharp alternation between the samples with a square wave envelope, or a sine wave can be used to smoothly change the envelope of each sample for a series of smooth cross-fades. As mentioned above, turning down the Depth control to 0, (with all the channels turned on) allows you to hear all four samples at once with no envelope alternations of the samples.
From top to bottom of each sample player, the controls are: On/off – shown by the Moon phase symbol; Sample/Timbre selection; Volume for that voice; Panning; Tune control for each voice (more on that in a moment), Filter Cut-off frequency; Filter Resonance control; and Filter type select. It’s worth exploring the different filter types. For example, in Eclipse, the sound of the BandPass and MultI BandPass modes, when swept with a 50% Resonance setting, are quite different.
At the bottom of the page are the Alternation controls. The first three buttons show a ramp, a square and a sine, called Pulse, Chop, and Flow respectively. These select which kind of envelope will be applied to the timbre alternation. Pulse is a sharp attack downward ramp envelope, Chop is a square-wave – sharp attack, sharp decay envelope. Flow is a sine-wave envelope for smooth transitions between generators. Rate of alternation, in beat portions, (the beat is derived from the host clock), depth of the envelope control, punch (for the initial amplitude of the Pulse envelope), and overall attack and decay settings for the whole sound. In Eclipse, the slowest rate of alternation is 8/1 (8 beats), in Eclipse, it’s 12/1 (12 beats). These are also externally controlled, and control of them with Skypad is an essential part of the Lemur template. The next screenshot shows how these front page controls are duplicated in the Skypad template in Lemur.
One of the controls for each sample is pitch detuning. If you just move the mouse (or the Lemur Skypad control) over this control, it will change in equal tempered semitones. But if you hold down the Shift key while moving the knob, very fine microtonal tuning can be applied to every sample, producing very finely tuned microtonal arpeggios or chords. Similarly, each sample has a panning control. You could easily spread the components of a sound across two-channel space, either alternating or spread out as a continuous chord. Once you’ve selected which samples you want to use, and the settings for them, and their speed and type of alternation (there is a huge range of exploration here) you can go onto the effects page and the sequencer pages for more sound mangling fun.
A note on tuning. In these apps, the standard Kontakt script retuning doesn’t work. Inserting a Kontakt tuning script into the User Preset slot only makes the entire keyboard play at one specific pitch. I contacted Wide Blue Sound about this, and asked if there was any way that standard Kontakt .ksp scripts could be used to do microtuning. Within hours of my sending the email (how’s that for efficient service?) I got a reply from Nathan Rightnour, the CEO. He reports, “I’ve reached out to our programmer with your question and he replied: ‘There is no way to do that unfortunately – the script heavily relies on change_tune() messages which the microtuning script is also using, so they’d be clashing.’ Sorry about that!” So the script method of retuning won’t work here (and thanks once again to Nathan at Wide Blue for his prompt and informative reply!) That said, the Sequencer page (see below) allows some degree of Global microtonal tuning (again by holding down the Shift key while moving the steps of the sequencer), and each of the four samples can be detuned microtonally. Since the main purpose of these two apps is the creation of textured and rhythmic sound-scapes, the omission of overall global microtuning is not such an issue. Besides, you can always have multiple instances of the plugin on different channels with different Master Tune settings, so it’s still possible to use the plugin microtonally. (In fact, the combination of multiple instance global detuning and detuning the four samples microtonally as well could produce some pretty lovely and elaborate pitch complexes!)
The second page of the Orbit or Eclipse control panel is dedicated to Effects. These are slightly different in each app: the LP Filter at the bottom of the Orbit effects page is replaced by a Warmth effect (variable filter type) in Eclipse, but basically, they’re the same. Skypad duplicates all these controls, as we’ll see.
The third page of the interface consists of four sequencers. These can be set to any number of steps up to 64, can run at any rate between 1/1 per step and 1/32T per step (synced to the host clock), can run in any forward, backward, alternating or random mode, have a wide variety of processes for shaping the sequences, and each has an overall amplitude control to scale the output of the sequencer. There are four sequencers, and they can be routed to a wide variety of destinations. Not all sequencers can go to all destinations, so you’ll have to hunt through all four lists if you’re interested in modulating an individual destination. The combination of the sequencers and the alternation of timbres can be quite invigorating and make very exciting sounds. And, as we’ll see later, when combined with the Multiball control in the Skypad template, can result in quite pleasingly complex (and just plain nutty) sounds.
Moving along to the Skypad template itself, the first three pages duplicate controls found in the first two pages of the Kontakt interface. One thing to note – the switch marked Orbit/Eclipse on this page will NOT alternate between the two apps in Kontakt. It simply selects which set of app-specific controls the template produces. To change from Orbit to Eclipse, or vice versa, you need to change the apps manually within Kontakt. At the top center of this page is a switch marked Play. This will hold and sustain a MIDI pitch of your choice if you don’t want to use a keyboard. Some of the controls are more prominent in the Skypad template than in the Kontakt interface, but basically, with the exception of selecting timbres, it duplicates master functions on the Orbits page of the Kontakt apps.
The next two pages are indeed duplicates of the Channels and the Effects pages. One difference – with Skypad, the Tune controls on the four timbres move only in equal tempered semitones. On Kontakt, holding down Shift while moving the mouse, allows you to tune this control in cents for very fine microtuning.
So far, Skypad just duplicates the functions of the Kontakt interface. But now the fun begins. The fourth page of Skypad is called “Generate,” and it has a grid of switches with emotional descriptions in each. If you select on two or more of these and press Mutate, Skypad will generate a set of Timbre choices and Parameter choices for you, making a new timbre that it thinks might correspond to the listed emotions. Whether or not the resulting sound makes you think of the emotions listed, this page is a very useful way to get a huge variety of patches to try out, and it provides a wonderful jumping off point for your own sonic explorations. The Generate Chaos button generates patches in a similar way to “Mutate,” but the range and choice of parameters is wider. The Play button at the bottom will play and sustain a single MIDI note, just like on the front page. This is very useful for auditioning the patches generated here.
The next page is the Multiball page. This is where things get to be a lot of fun. The four balls on the page correspond to one of the four timbres. Moving the balls with your finger starts them bouncing around the space. For each ball, their X and Y positions will generate continuous control signals to change certain parameters in the instrument. There are four presets which you can chose from, or you can select your own choice of parameters for each instrument. If you want to slow down the rate of change of the balls, just press Brake. Holding the Brake, or repeated pressings of it will stop the balls entirely. Once you’re done with the page, and you’ve turned off the Multiball (with the on/off button at the top left), you can press Revert and Push which will set Orbit or Eclipse to the state the were in before you started working with the Multiball. Each timbre/channel can apply the motion of either X or Y axis to any of the five main controls for that channel – Gain, Pan, Tune, Filter Cutoff, and Resonance with any range of control you set. The screenshot below shows the basic setup of the Multiball page, the one after that shows the editing controls to set up your own custom control.
The next page is the Spatial Mixer page. It will allow you to adjust the volumes and pans of each of the four channels with ball controls. But the most fun here is when you press the Earth Gravity button, and a single white dot appears – if you move your iPad around in space, the sound of the four voices will change based on the position of the ball, which is affected by the angle the iPad is held at – so you can mix the four channels with the physical motion of the iPad. I haven’t explored this page enough yet to give any judgement on how effective it might be, but I’m looking forward to exploring it more.
Finally, the last Skypad page is called FX XY, and gives you four X-Y pads that control four different sets of parameters, Verb and Delay, Mod Controls, Distort and Scream, and Filter and Resonance. Turning on any of these (or all of them) enables the movement of the pucks in the squares to control the relevant parameters. If you had the sequencers and the Multiball working simultaneously (and maybe an external sequencer generating a sequence of MIDI pitches and chords), and then you played on this page, the results could be quite wild and complex, or, if you’re a little more subtle with your settings, maybe possessed of a certain kind of complex beauty.
So, it’s a LOT of work to get this system all working properly, but once you do, I hope my descriptions enable you to see that the results are well worth it. Certainly, the developer’s website doesn’t lie when it says that the use of Skypad enables you to get sounds that manual control of Orbit/Eclipse can’t give you. And the dynamically changing nature of the sounds created are quite striking and generate their own kind of timbral interest. Certainly, if you own either Orbit or Eclipse, and have an iPad or Android tablet, the acquisition of Skypad is a no-brainer. You’ve just got to have this template for your Lemur setup. Whether you would want to buy either or both apps, a tablet, and Lemur to enter this world may be a more difficult decision. Be assured though, that if you do, you’ll be having a lot of fun exploring some wonderful worlds of complex sound modulation, and you’ll be making some surprisingly deep sounds that you would never have gotten any other way. I was very sceptical when I started working with this system, but now, I’m sold – it’s a wonderful system, and if you’ve got the patience to get it running, you’ll find that you’ll be getting some great sound results.
Lovely sounds, highly controllable, and a lot of fun to play with. Highly rated on my sonic-fun-o-meter.
Orbit $199, Eclipse $149, Planetary bundle $298
More at: https://www.widebluesound.com
Requires full Kontakt or Kontakt Player 5.6.6+
Skypad template for Lemur App – FREE from www.widebluesound.com
Lemur app, $24.99 US in App Store, $24.99 at Google Play Store.