0110.be logo

~ USB MIDI interface for the NeXTCube - ISPW board

I have recently restored a NeXTCube with an ISPW Ariel soundcard with the aim to put it in the hands of artists and researchers in the context of a living electronic music instrument heritage project. To make the cube talk to keyboards, synths or other audio workstations I have built a MIDI interface for the NeXTcube.

Fig: the NeXTCube with the Ariel ProPort and MIDI input/output interface.

Recently, I was able to restore a NeXTCube and install an early version of MAX – a graphical music programming environment. However, a crucial part of the system was missing: there was no way to do MIDI input/output. MIDI is used to connect controllers, keyboards, synthesizers or other musical instruments to the audio workstation. The NeXTCube itself has a serial port which allows users to connect MIDI devices. Next to the serial port on the mainboard, the NeXTCube I am working with also has a RS-422 serial port on the ISPW ‘soundcard’. The serial port uses RS-422 and mini DIN 8 connectors which provide MIDI input and output. While the MIDI data bytes are transmitted according to spec, the connector and the electrical signals are not compatible with standard MIDI.

Fig: the IRCAM/Ariel ISPW soundcard with mini DIN-8 RS-433 serial port on the right.

For MIDI I/O we need a device which allows to connect the RS-422 MIDI to both legacy MIDI devices and to computers via USB MIDI. If a MIDI event arrives from the NeXTCube’s RS-422 it needs to be passed through to the USB and legacy MIDI ports and the other way around. The Teensy platform is ideal: it supports hardware serial and USB MIDI. In this retro-computing project, it seems wasteful to use the 600MHz Teensy 4.0 only for message passing: the Teensy has much more computing power than NeXTcube but it is cheap, easy to program, available and practical.

The RS-422 serial port uses -6V to 6V logic which needs to be transformed to the 0V to 3.3V logic for the Teensy microcontroller. A PCB provides this capability and is connected to a hardware serial port of the Teensy. The pinout of the RS-422 port was measured via a scope and matched the documentation. The Teensy has an usbMIDI mode and can present itself as a standard MIDI device to a PC. Two opto-isolated legacy MIDI DIN-5 ports were connected to another hardware serial port. The software on the Teensy conducts the three-way MIDI message passing.

Vid: Max/FTS FM synth reacting to USB MIDI input.

The electronics were fixed into a reused metal enclosure. The front panel of the enclosure was replaced by a custom 3D printed panel. The front contains the RS-422 port, two MIDI DIN 5 ports and a micro usb port either for power alone or MIDI messages and power. Feel free to check out the OpenSCAD design with a level MINI DIN8 hole.

With a working MIDI interface for the NeXTcube allows interfacing with MIDI keyboards and controllers. It can also be used to measure roundtrip latency. MIDI to sound latency determines how long it takes between pressing a MIDI key and hearing sound. MIDI to MIDI roundtrip latency determines how long it takes to process, parse and return a MIDI message. For a responsive, reliable system both types of latencies should be constant and preferably in the range of 10ms or below.

Fig: Measured MIDI roundtrip latency on the ISPW board for the NeXTCube.

Measuring the MIDI roundtrip latency shows that the system is able to respond in 3.6+-0.4 ms (N=300). A combination of a MAX patch and Teensy firmware was used to measure this automatically. The MIDI-to-audio latency was measured a few times manually and always was around 13ms. These figures show that the system is ideal for low-latency real-time music making in its default configuration. In MAX the audio buffer sizes could be reduced to achieve an even lower latency but with the risk of running into buffer underruns and audio glitches.

Small discussion the USB MIDI interface for the NeXTCube on Hackaday

~ Electronic Music and the NeXTcube - Running MAX on the IRCAM Musical Workstation

The NeXTcube is an influential machine in computing history. The NeXTcube, with an additional soundcard, was also one of the first off-the-shelf devices for high-quality, real-time music applications. I have restored a NeXTcube to run an early version of MAX, an environment for interactive music applications.

The NeXTcube context and the IRCAM Musical Workstation

In 1990 NeXT started selling the NeXTcube, a high-end workstation. It introduced or brought together many concepts (objective-c, the Mach kernel, postscript, an app store) which are still in use today. The NeXTcube’s influence is especially felt in the Apple ecosystem with Mac OS X, iPhones and iPads being direct decedents of NeXT’s line of computers.

Due to its high price, the NeXTcube was not a commercial success. It mainly ended up at companies or in the hands of researchers. Two of those researchers, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau created the first http server and web browser at CERN on a NeXTcube. Coincidently, the http software was publicly released exactly 30 years ago today. Famously, the cube was also used to develop games like the original Doom and Quake. So yes, the NeXTcube runs Doom.

Fig: the NeXTcube’s design stood out compared to the contemporary beige box PCs.

Less well known is the fact that the NeXTcube is also one of the first computing devices capable enough for real-time, high-quality interactive music applications. In the mid 1980s this was still a dream at IRCAM, a French research institute with the aim to ‘contribute to the renewal of musical expression through science and technology’. The bespoke hardware and software systems for music applications from the mid 80s were further developed and commercialised in the early 90s. Together these developments resulted in a commercially available version of the “IRCAM Musical Workstation (IMW)”, an early, if not the first, off-the-shelf computer for interactive music applications.

The IRCAM Musical Workstation (IMW), sometimes called the IRCAM Signal Processing Workstation (ISPW), consisted of several hard and software modules working together to enable interactive music applications. An important component was a ‘soundcard’ which had two beefy 40MHz i860 intel CPUs for DSP. When installed in the NeXTcube, the soundcard had more computing power than the rest of the computer. This is similar to modern computers where some graphics cards have more raw computing power than the main CPU. The soundcard was developed at IRCAM and commercialized by Ariel inc. under the name “Ariel ProPort”.

The IRCAM Ariel DSP coprocessor, soundcard.

A few software environments were developed at IRCAM which made use of the new hardware. One was Animal, another, was the much more influential MAX. MAX provides a graphical programming environment specific for music applications. Descendants of MAX are still used today, see Ableton Max for Live and Pure Data. I consider the introduction of MAX as a pivotal point in electronic music history. Up until the introduction of MAX, creating a new electronic music instrument meant bespoke hardware development. With MAX, this is done purely in software. This made electronic sound or instrument design not only faster but also accessible to a much wider audience of composers, artists and thinkerers.

The NeXTcube at IPEM

IPEM was an early electronic music production studio embedded at Ghent University, Belgium. Now it is active as a internationally acclaimed research center for interdisciplinary music research. In the early 90s IPEM acquired a NeXTcube Turbo with an internal diskette drive, SCSI hard disk, NextDimension color graphics card and an Ariel ProPort DSP/ISPW module. The cube was preserved well and came with many of the original software, books and manuals. I have been trying to get this machine working and configure it as an “IRCAM Musical Workstation”.

IPEM’s NeXTcube with IRCAM Ariel ProPort.

There were a few practical issues: the mouse was broken, the hard drive unreliable and the main system fan loud and full of dust. The mouse had a broken cable which was fixed, the hard drive was replaced by a SCSI2SD setup and the fan was replaced with a new one. On the software side of things, the Internet Archive hosts NeXTStep 3.3 which, after many attempts, was installed on the cube. Unfortunately there seemed to be a compatibility issue. The Ariel ProPort kernel module did not work. I started over installed NeXTStep 3.1, with the same result. Finally, I installed NeXTStep 3.0 which was compatible with the kernel module and MAX/FTS!

Vid: Max/FTS with a commercial Ariel soundcard running on a NeXTcube Turbo.

The restoration of the IRCAM Signal Processing Workstation instruments fits in a university project on living heritage The idea is to get key historic electronic music instruments into the hands of researchers and artists to pull the fading knowledge on these devices back into a living culture of interaction. This idea already resulted in an album: DEEWEE Sessions vol. 01. Currently the collection includes a 1960s reverb plate, an EMS Synti 100 analog synthesizer from the 70s, a Yamaha DX7 (80s) and finally the NeXTCube/ISPW represents the early 90s and the departure of physical instruments to immaterial software based systems.

Acknowledgements & Further reading

This project was made possible with the support of the Belgian Music Instrument Museum and IPEM, Ghent University. I was fortunate to get assistance by Ivan Schepers and Marc Leman at IPEM but also by the main developers of MAX: Miller Puckette. I would also like to thank Anthony Agnello formerly at Ariel Corp for additional image material and info. I also found the WinWorld and NeXTComputers communities and resources extremely helpful. Thanks a lot!

See also the discussion on this article at Hacker News
Lindemann, E., Dechelle, F., Smith, B., & Starkier, M. (1991). The Architecture of the IRCAM Musical Workstation – Computer Music Journal, 15(3), 41–49.
Puckette, M. (1991). FTS: A Real-Time Monitor for Multiprocessor Music Synthesis. Computer Music Journal, 15(3), 58–67.
Puckette, M. 1988. The Patcher, Proceedings, ICMC. San Francisco: International Computer Music Association, pp. 420-429.
Puckette, M. 1991. Combining Event and Signal Processing in the MAX Graphical Programming Environment. Computer Music Journal 15(3): 68-77.

~ An Arduino Trigger Box

Vid: the trigger box set in recording mode via a button or a MIDI key press.

A while back I have build a trigger box. Such device can be used for various synchronisation tasks. It can be used to synchronise camera’s, capture devices and sensors. All compatible devices have a 5V TTL input, often a BNC connector. For a camera, TTL input could control the shutter time. For a sensor a TTL clock could determine the sample time or simply be registered along side an other data stream. The trigger box allows to either pass-through (or block) an incoming TTL clock. It also outputs a recording level.

There are two ways to use the trigger box. The first is by operating a manual switch to start (and later stop) a recording. When recording, the recording level output is set to 5V and the clock at the CLOCK IN is passed through to the CLOCK OUT port. The second way to set the recording state is by MIDI over USB. While a MIDI key is pressed, the recording state is high, when the key is released the state is low. The MIDI key input makes it compatible and controllable from any DAW. Both ways are shown in the video.

For practical reasons there are two microcontrollers in the device, a Teensy 3.2 and an Arduino. The Arduino is there for its 5V capabilities and is essentially a rather beefy level-shifter. The Teensy is there for the USB MIDI compatibility and controls everything.

For aesthetic reasons the trigger box has been build into a 1950s ‘Sieger portable explosive gas detector’. I did not feel too bad about gutting the original electronics since a battery leak had destroyed most of it. Also, the late WII era knobs are still unmatched for durability and tactile satisfaction.

The code running on the microcontrollers and some documentation can be found on the Trigger Box github repository.

~ Gabber - Visualizing constant-Q transform in the browser

Today I have released Gabber a bit of code to transform audio from the time domain to a constant-Q frequency domain in the browser. To be more precise it does a constant-Q non-stationary Gabor transform. The heavy-lifting is done by ‘the gaborator’, a C++ library by Andreas Gustafsson.

I have compiled the Gaborator library to WebAssembly, added some glue code to bridge the Javascript and WASM worlds, implemented a Web Audio AudioWorkletProcessor to transform audio in the background and and finally visualized the results via WebGL2.

There is a Gabber live demo below. If you press start and grant microphone access, incoming audio is transformed and plotted onto a canvas. Thanks to WebAssembly and WebGL2 this should run relatively smoothly even on less powerful devices. Please do play around with the perspective slider.

While Gabber is currently a proof of concept, with some attention the library could be used as a front end for browser based music information retrieval applications. My main goal with Gabber is to use it in educational settings to explain the properties of sound, and more concretely pitch, via spectrograms and interactive demos. Also I plan to use it in a browser based tool to extract pitch patterns from music.

The name Gabber, refers to both Dennis Gabor and an infamous, mainly Dutch style of music which was popular when I was young. More information can be found in the GitHub repository: Gabber-High resolution spectral transforms for the web.

~ Pitch content on historic field recordings

Wednesday the 15th of February I presented a collaboration with Olmo Cornelis titled Pitch content on historic field recordings: Analyzing 400 wax cylinder recordings at ULB, Brussels. The session was organized by the Belgian branch of ICTM

The presentation is linked below and is interactive: it contains music analysis software being discussed within the presentation itself.

Thanks to ICTM Belgium for the invitation and the platform! The Ghent University BOF funded project PaPiOM allows me work on these topics.

~ DiscStitch at Deezer HQ

I have presented DiscStitch at the MIR get together at the Deezer headquarters in Paris.

DiscStitch is a solution to identify, align and mix digitized audio originating from (overlapping) laquer discs. The main contribution lays in the novel audio to audio alignment algorithm which is robust against some speed differences and variabilities.

Below a presentation can be found introducing DiscStitch. You can also try out the browser based DiscStitch audio-to-audio alignment page.

~ Updates for Olaf - The Overly Lightweight Acoustic Fingerprinting system

Fig: Olaf fingerprinter.

I have updated Olaf – the Overly Lightweight Acoustic Fingerprinting system. Olaf is a piece of technology that uses digital signal processing to identify audio files by analyzing unique, robust, and compact audio characteristics – or “fingerprints”. The fingerprints are stored in a database for efficient comparison and matching. The database index allows for fast and accurate audio recognition, even in the presence of distortions, noise, and other variations.

Olaf is unique because it works on traditional computing devices, embedded microprocessors and in the browser. To this end tried to use ANSI C. C is a relatively small programming language but has very little safeguards and is full of exiting footguns. I enjoy the limitations of C: limitations foster creativity. I also made ample use of the many footguns C has to offer: buffer overflows, memory leaks, … However, with the current update I think most serious bugs have been found. Some of the changes to Olaf include:

Anyhow, what originally started as a rather quick and dirty hack has been improved quite a bit. The takeaway message: in the world of software it does seem possible to polish a turd.

~ mot - MIDI and OSC Tools - Sending UDP messages from the browser

As a way to get to know the Rust programming language I have developed a couple of practical tools for OSC and MIDI debugging. OSC and MIDI are protocols which are almost always used for applications dealing with music. In these applications latency should be kept in check. Languages with garbage collection (Java, Go) and scripting languages (Ruby, Python, …) are hard to tune for low-latency applications and do not really have real-time guarantees. Rust, as a modern alternative for C/C++, is a better fit for cross platform CLI low-latency applications.

The MIDI and OSC Tools are bundled in a single CLI application. The application includes:

This opens a couple of possibilities which are discussed below.

Sending UDP messages from the browser

One of the ways to send OSC messages from a browser to a local network is by using the MIDI out capability of browsers and – using mot – translating MIDI to OSC an example can be seen below.

Fig: sending an UDP message to a network from a Browser using a the mot MIDI to OSC bridge, click the image for a better readable version.

Measuring UDP message latency

Both MIDI and OSC can be seen as rather general data encapsulation protocols with wide support in terms of libraries and cross platform support. Their value goes beyond mere musical applications. The same holds for mot. In this example we are using mot to measure UDP message latency between two hosts.

On the first host we send MIDI messages from MIDI device 0 over OSC to another host with e.g. mot midi_to_osc /m 0. At the other host we receive the OSC messages and send them to a virtual device: mot osc_to_midi /m 6666.

At the second host we return messages from the virtual device to the first host: mot midi_to_osc /m 1. Perhaps you first need to do mot midi_to_osc -l to find the index of the virtual device. As a final step the messages can be received at the first host and returned to the original midi device. On the first host: mot osc_to_midi /m 0.

If the original MIDI device is a Teensy running the “roundtrip patch” then finally the roundtrip time is accurately measured and shown in the serial console. I am sure the previous text is cromulent, totally not contrived and not confusing. Anyway, to make it more confusing: this is what happens when you use a single host to do midi to osc to midi to osc to midi and use the loopback networking device:

Fig: MIDI to OSC to MIDI to OSC to MIDI roundtrip latency.

Visualizing sensor data in the browser

Fig: Sensor data as MIDI.

When capturing sensor data on microcontrollers, data can be encoded into MIDI. This makes almost any sensor practically useful in Ableton Live or similar environments. It also makes it compatible with all other MIDI supporting devices. With mot it becomes trivial to send MIDI encoded sensor data over OSC e.g. to a central place to log that data.

Another use case is to visualize the incoming data in real-time. A single web page which reads and visualizes incoming MIDI-sensor data becomes much more useful if streams from other devices can be visualized as well with the mot midi_to_osc and mot osc_to_midi commands.

Cross-platform support

With the Rust compiler it is relatively easy to cross-compile for different targets. There is however an important limitation in mot. Windows has no support for virtual MIDI ports which limits the usefulness of mot on that platform.

Check the mot – MIDI and OSC Tools GitHub repository for the software. Perhaps also of interest for MIDI debugging are VMPK, MIDI Monitor and the web MIDI tools.

~ Attempting humor in academic writing

Screenshot of a browser based pitch organization extraction tool
Fig: Advances in Speech and Music Technology book cover.

I have recently published an chapter in an academic book published by Springer. The topic of the book is of interest to me but can be perceived as rather dry: Advances in Speech and Music Technology.

The chapter I co-authored presented two case studies on detecting duplicates in music archives. The fist case study deals with segmentation reuse in an archive of early electronic music. The second with meta-data reuse in an archive of a public broadcaster containing digitized commercial shellac disc recordings with many duplicates.

Duplicate detection being the main topic, I decided to title the article Duplicate Detection for for Digital Audio Archive Management. It is easy to miss, and not much is lost if you do, but there is a duplicate ‘for’ in the title. If you did detect the duplicate you have detected the duplicate in the duplicate detection article. Since I have fathered two kids I see it as an hard earned right to make dad-jokes like that. Even in academic writing.

It was surprisingly difficult to get the title published as-is. At every step of the academic publishing process (review, editorial, typesetting, lay-outing) I was asked about it and had to send an email like the one below. Every email and every explanation made my second-guess my sense of humor but I do stand by it.

From: Joren
To: Editors ASMT

Dear Editors,

I have updated my submission on easychair in…

I would like to keep the title however as is an attempt at word-play. These things tend to have less impact when explained but the article is about duplicate detection and is titled ‘Duplicate detection for for digital audio archive management’. The reviewer, attentively, detected the duplicate ‘for’ but unfortunately failed to see my attempt at humor. To me, it is a rather harmless witticism.



Anyway, I do think that humor can serve as a gateway to direct attention to rather dry, academic material. Also the message and the form of the message should not be confused. John Oliver, for example, made his whole career on delivering serious sometimes dry messages with heaps of humor: which does not make the topics less serious. I think there are a couple of things to be learned there. Anyway, now that I have your attention, please do read the author version of Duplicate Detection for for Digital Audio Archive Management: Two Case Studies.

~ Updates for TarsosDSP

TarsosDSP is a Java library for audio processing I have started working on more than 10 years ago. The aim of TarsosDSP is to provide an easy-to-use interface to practical music processing algorithms. Obviously, I have been using it myself over the years as my go-to library for audio-processing in Java. However, a number of gradual changes in the java ecosystem made TarsosDSP more and more difficult to use.

Since I have apparently not been the only one using it, there was a need to give it some attention. During the last couple of weeks I have found the time to give it this much needed attention. This resulted in a number of updates, some of the changes include:

Examples of TarsosDSP
Fig: The updated TarsosDSP release contains many CLI and GUI example applications.

Notably the code of TarsosDSP has not changed much apart from some cosmetic changes. This backwards compatibility is one of the strong points of Java. With this update I am quite confident that TarsosDSP will also be usable during the next decade as well.

Please check out the updated TarsosDSP repository on GitHub.