No, I’m not talking about snake oil audio jitter that can be improved by buying $1500 cables hand-plated with gold between the thighs of virgins. I’m talking about the real thing — the kind that has been pissing me off since roughly 1991 and the demise of computers that were capable of decent timing accuracy.
Way back in the late ’80s, I had a commercial studio. We had a lot of synths and various outboard, most of which being set up so that it could be sequenced via honest-to-goodness 5-pin DIN MIDI. Our master sequencer was none other than an Atart ST. Spectacularly basic by modern standards, but, funny story: this thing was bang-on, dead nuts accurate with regard to timing, both running of its internal clock and synchronized with our 2″ 24-track tape recorder via an SMPTE timecode box.
Back then, if you hit record on the sequencer and played something, when you played it back it came back as pretty much identical to what you played in the first place. A common technique (that I still use to this day) when writing was doing everything real-time with MIDI, then when the time came to track things ‘for-real’, running the sequence one track at a time to get the best possible results. Timing was accurate enough that if I accidentally ended up playing back from tape at the same time as having the ST locked to SMPTE, you’d hear the audio flanging.
Fast forward to the mid ’90s, when I started trying to put a home studio together following the demise of my original studio, a master’s degree and an aborted attempt at a PhD. This time around, I had much better computer hardware, running Windows. Everything you’d read, all the glossy mags, all thought that this was the bee’s knees, but when I tried to record anything I started wondering if I’d lost my ability to play anything in time. I’d complain about it, and people would tell me I was stupid, being too picky or that I just had bad hardware. Trust me, I spent a LOT on getting my hardware right, but my timing still sucked donkey’s balls. Though I really wanted to be able to use sequencers for composition, I think everything I recorded was played real time pretty much up to about 3 or 4 years ago. Same problem — I’d play something and it would come back wrong. Sure, I could quantize it, which would reduce (but not eliminate) the suck, but I couldn’t really understand why nobody else was bothered by this. Many years ago I had an email conversation with the head of the MIDI standards committee (or whatever it called itself at the time). His response was basically, yes, we know, but we’re not going to do anything about it because nobody cares, and our members are all from hardware companies who don’t give a rat’s ass about professional musicians and only want to sell cheap sound cards. At the time I was trying to persuade him to lobby for the introduction of timestamped record and playback of MIDI preserved through record and playback driver chains on Windows and Macs, but it fell on deaf ears. From reading I’ve done more recently, this has indeed been introduced, but many drivers and hardware devices just ignore the timestamps, as does some sequencing software.
Fast forward a bit more, up to about 3 years ago when I started recording the couple of albums I have out right now. They were both recorded mostly using Ableton and softsynths. Yes, timing still sucked on the record side, horribly so in terms of latency and pretty badly in terms of jitter, but since I was sequencing within Ableton and the softsynths’ timing was essentially sample-accurate, I could quantize things back into some resemblance of not sucking so badly that I wanted to chainsaw my investment in equipment, but it still wasn’t right. I still couldn’t do things that I took for granted in 1988. Sound quality was greatly superior, but what use is that when I can’t play in time any more? Seriously?
Not too long ago I pulled one of my old hardware synths, an Ensoniq SQ-80, out of storage with a view to getting it working. I hooked it up via MIDI to my M-Audio (now Avid) Fasttrack Pro interface, using Ableton as a sequencer. I looped the MIDI back into the SQ-80, which has a neat feature that lets you internally disconnect the keyboard from its sound generation for exactly this purpose. I set up Ableton to loop what I was playing back into the SQ-80. I will not be polite here: the results were beyond awful. We’re not talking about me being an oldtimer primadonna with golden ears whining about minutiae — the latency was so bad that it was unplayable, but worse (even) than that, I couldn’t play more than a few notes without notes getting stuck on. Playing slowly, this would happen every minute or two, but play a fast run and you could pretty much guarantee an immediate failure. It wasn’t even close to working, let alone usable.
Before anyone has a go at me for having a broken SQ-80, no, it’s not. I hooked a MIDI cable from the Out back to the In, and it played fine, no noticeable latency, just as if I was running it conventionally. Hooking up the MIDI out from Ableton to a Vermona MIDI-to-CV interface in my modular synth also gave the same stuck notes from hell and horrific latency and jitter. I tried sending MIDI clock — it was all over the place, terrible, unusable.
OK, so what is jitter and latency and why does it suck so much?
Latency is easy to explain — it’s just delay. Notes go in, they get delayed, and the come out again. You hit a note and it sounds slightly late. This is unpleasant for musicians to deal with because it makes the instrument feel dead. English doesn’t have good ways of describing it, but ‘spongy’ or even ‘rubbery’ come to mind. I end up hitting the notes harder subconsciously to compensate. If you practice long enough, your brain starts to compensate for the delay, but it’s not an ideal situation.
Jitter is much, much worse. It’s like latency in principle, except that the timing of the delay varies randomly. This can’t be compensated for or learned around because it’s not predictable. If there’s a lot of it, it can make a seasoned pro sound like a 3-year old’s first glockenspiel session.
Most people probably can’t consciously hear the difference. I have to assume this because the purveyors of modern music gear would have torch-wielding-peasants camped outside their design centres as we speak. However, if you learn pretty much any musical instrument of the old-fashioned kind, you have to train your ears to be sensitive to timing in order to learn how to actually play in time accurately. Some instruments favour this more than others — bass guitar, drums and percussion being probably the most prominent. I’m unfortunate enough to play two of the three, so my ears scream, “NOOOOOOOOO!” at things that most people might just find a little sloppy or just unimpressive.
Innerclock Systems have recently published the results of a very detailed study into the timing behaviour of music gear, both vintage and new. These numbers make fascinating reading if you’re just the right kind of obsessively nerdy.
So these fancy computer based sequencers have been around for a long time now, but it’s interesting that the most significant beat-driven music genres of the last couple of decades haven’t really been based on them. Rather, house music was TR808 and TB303, techno was more 909, electro and hip-hop were heavily driven by the Akai MPC series. What do all of these systems have?
Better than 1ms latency and jitter, often <i>much</i> better.
What does Ableton have? Maybe 30 milliseconds of latency on a relatively fast, well set up system. The best I’ve been able to manage with solid reliability is 57.2ms, though I’ve been able to unreliably manage about 15ms of output latency. This is just the audio drivers — the VST and AU instruments add their own latency and jitter, as does USB if that is the route by which note information is finding its way inside. I’ve not tested it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I often see worse than 100ms of latency when I’m playing a relatively complicated setup. At 120 beats per minute, this is 20% of the length of a quarter note, or nearly a whole 16th!
The reason why this happens is because of the nature of Windows and MacOS. They are multitasking, multithreaded operating systems that are tweaked to give a good user experience first, but aren’t really tweaked for accurate timing at the sub-millisecond level. Since lots of tasks are always competing for processor time, there is no guarantee that the code necessary to deal with incoming or outgoing audio data or MIDI information will actually get executed when it really needs to be. Consequently, it’s necessary to use buffering in both directions to take up the slack — you basically need enough buffering to cope with the uncertainty in the response time. Buffering adds a delay, queuing up data so that when the interrupt routine actually executes that it won’t run out of information causing a dropout in the audio. This is where the latency comes from. Some software, like Ableton, lets you tweak the buffer size so that it is just big enough to prevent dropout. Faster computers with more CPUs can often manage with smaller buffers, but this isn’t guaranteed. Audio is relatively easy to buffer because it’s a simple stream of numbers at a continuous rate. MIDI data is basically just note on and note off switching information, much much lower data rate, but no less timing sensitive than audio. Ideally, incoming and outgoing notes should be timestamped, so you get consistent delays rather than jitter, but it seems that this is even now still usually not bothered with. I actually suspect that Ableton, as used in my test case mentioned above, wasn’t even sending out MIDI data in the order that it arrived, so note offs were going out before their corresponding note ons, resulting in stuck notes.
The use case that I really would love Ableton for would be playing it via an external MIDI controller, maybe a keyboard, maybe an Eigenharp, then have it do clever things with that MIDI data and send it out to other instruments, including my modular synth. Nope. It kinda sorta works a bit, but it’s not really acceptable for serious use.
I think that the music equipment business has been doing the, “Nothing to see here, move along now!” trick for a long time. There are workarounds for some of this. If you’re recording external audio, so long as you’re not trying to monitor what you’re playing through the system, you can get away with a lot of latency because you can simply delay the audio after the fact so that everything lines up. Ableton does this, as does Logic, ProTools, etc. If you’re playing a softsynth, you only get the outgoing half of the latency, which tends to be relatively consistent rather than jittery, so it’s not too horrible unless you’re playing something very fast or percussive. I once tried playing percussion real-time via USB MIDI and a softsynth (Battery). Um… no. It was not a pleasant experience. I suppose that some people manage to practice enough that they adjust. Try this: look at some videos of people playing softsynths or triggering samples via something like an Ableton Push or one of the many USB MIDI based MPC clones — look really closely, and you’ll always see them hitting the pads noticeably before you hear the sound. Then look at videos of people playing actual drums. Yep, it’s enough to be visible if you know what you’re looking for.
I think the industry’s main Hail Mary these days is the fact that relatively few people actually learn keyboards traditionally, so they depend on step sequencing and quantization. That’s how I got through my last two albums, at least for the parts I didn’t just play real-time. If you’re inside the sequencer’s world and have advance knowledge of when to trigger a note, you can send it out via a softsynth essentially dead-on accurately.
So how do you fix this?
There are a couple of companies out there who are making a business out of this. There’s Innerclock Systems, mentioned previously, and Expert Sleepers, both of whom essentially send out sync data over audio and convert this to MIDI in hardware. Expert Sleepers additionally can also output CV/Gate or MIDI note information as well as just clocks. This helps and might even be a complete solution if I wasn’t really a keyboard player, since they solve the accurate MIDI timing problem for Ableton on the outgoing side, but they can’t help with latency so they are not a complete solution.
The Akai MPC Renaissance is an interesting beast. It looks like an older MPC, but it actually uses software running on a Mac or PC. It does have its own audio and MIDI I/O and seemingly supports MIDI time code and MIDI clocks. I’d like to believe that it might solve the problem, but I have my doubts.
Other than building a studio from all-pre-1990 gear, not something that’s really all that feasible due to the demise of tape, here’s what I’m probably attempting:
- Using Ableton and a Mac as a last resort. It still wins for mixing and mastering, that’s unlikely to change, but I’m unlikely to use it for tracking or live use any more.
- Moving to for-real, 5-pin DIN MIDI and not using USB MIDI at all. Old fashioned MIDI might be crusty and slow, but it has essentially zero latency or jitter unless it’s overloaded.
- Which has the corollary: don’t overload MIDI interfaces, so I need a bunch of them.
- Find a way to do sequencing that isn’t Ableton and is probably hardware based. Favourite is probably an older Akai MPC from the hip hop era, or maybe something like a Cirklon, though they are relatively spendy (this is a Sarahism for not available cheap on eBay), though the Cirklon doesn’t have the kind of interface I really want. I like modular-style sequencers (I have 3 of them in Euro format!), but they are a ‘thing’ in their own right and not something I’d want to use to put together a whole track.
- Find a way to synchronize that sequencer to a digital recorder (which probably won’t be Ableton either — I’m experimenting with using a Tascam DP32SD instead).
This would potentially make for a very fun and fast workflow — mess around with the MPC and the modular to make something interesting and then basically just hit record on the Tascam. Rinse, repeat. Then, later, dump the audio from the Tascam into Ableton for editing and mixing, which is something that Ableton does supremely well.
By way of an experiment, I was playing around with my Korg Electribe yesterday. I was clocking it directly from the clock output on my Eurorack Trigger Riot module, with some hard snappy bass sequenced with an 8 step analog sequencer, audio coming from a couple of analog sawtooth oscillators into a clone Moog System 55 low pass filter. All I can say is, I think I’d forgotten what that kind of really tightly synchronized thwack-you-in-the-bum beat was all about.
I’m not in love with the Electribe. I don’t hate it, but it has a soggy feel, which I’m putting down to latency between hitting the pads and the audio. It’s not terrible, I can play it. Sequenced it’s fine, but I like to finger drum, so timing is important to me. I’m starting to think that my best bet might be to find an old Akai MPC, a couple of which had built-in SMPTE timecode reader-generators. The way this would work is you ‘stripe’ a spare track on the multitrack (the DP32 has thirty two of them, so that’s no big deal), then hook it up to a spare output (probably an FX send) so that when you hit play this streams back into the MPC causing it to jump to the right part of the song and start playing. I could then sync up my modular and/or other hardware synths and have the timing dead nuts. Finding a good condition MPC 2000XL or an MPC 4000 looks like it might do the trick, these being the only MPCs that (to my knowledge) included built-in SMPTE LTC. They actually do a decent job of sequencing MIDI from external keyboards, though they are better known for drums and sampling, obviously. I’ll miss the softsynths, but they could still be used to add some overdubs once the mix ends up back in Ableton, so that’s not so much of a big deal. That said, the possibilities of the Eurorack modular are nothing short of astonishing, so it wouldn’t hurt to be able to concentrate on that.
I have some eBay cheapassing in my future, I think…
Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at http://www.mageofmachines.com/main/
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