Making Tracks: Wild Sync

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This excellent Project Bar-B-Q jam featured two laptops, an iPod, an Open Labs Miko, a Korg Kaossilator—and no sync.

One of the most common questions on electronic-music forums regards how to sync the tempos of multiple laptops, grooveboxes or synths. Although tight timing is a worthy goal, being close in tempo rather than locked to the beat is much easier to achieve. Surprisingly, this wild sync is often more expressive, as well. In this column, I'll explain some sync recipes and how to deviate from them creatively.

Hard(ware) Sync

One of the simplest ways to tempo-sync two electronic instruments is through a MIDI cable. You set one instrument (the master) to transmit MIDI Clock and the other to slave to it; usually, this slave setting is labeled external sync. Then you connect the master's MIDI Out to the slave's MIDI In (see Step 1). Press Play on the master and the slave should start, as well. The slave may even sync parameters such as LFO rate and delay time to the beat. You can sync a third device by connecting its MIDI In to the slave's MIDI Thru.

Wired MIDI sync also works with computers. You set the program on one computer to be the master, connect the computer to a MIDI interface, and then connect the interface's MIDI Out to the MIDI In on an electronic instrument or a second computer. The tricky part is assigning the MIDI In and Out ports in software and enabling MIDI Clock. That may require several menu trips (see Step 2).

For a more geeky adventure, you can try MIDI-over-Ethernet. Macs now have MIDI networking built in. Launch Audio MIDI Setup, click the MIDI Devices tab, click the Network tile and enter the IP addresses for other Macs on your network; the Help file walks you through it (see Step 3).

A program called ipMIDI ($79, is far simpler and also works with Windows and Linux. After installing it, you simply select Ethernet MIDI as an input or output port in your music software. I loaded ipMIDI on my Mac and PC, set the PC to transmit sync and the Mac to receive it, and ran two Ableton Live sessions over Wi-Fi (See Step 4). Other Ethernet MIDI systems include Open Sound Control (free) and EthernetMIDI (free). Both require more configuration.

Even with hardware, getting access to sync settings can be difficult. (One groovebox I recently reviewed requires you to boot up while pressing certain buttons.) Another hassle is that some devices do not respond consistently to MIDI Clock. I found the Korg KP3 KaossPad, for example, was far more accurate as a master than as a slave. Sussing out sync issues has derailed numerous jam sessions, and that unmusical task starts over whenever a new musician plugs in.

Dare to Drift

Last year at the Project Bar-B-Q computer music conference, we had four nights of seriously fun electronic jams, and part of the reason they were fun was the way we handled sync. One musician always owned the beats while everyone else improvised on top. Sometimes the beatmaster was just a guy calling out changes on his iPod, and it worked great. (Talking to your bandmates is so much more sociable than untangling wires.) I used the Tap-Tempo button on my Korg Kaossilator to keep its rhythmic echoes lined up, and the slight variation humanized the sound.

When I interviewed Ableton founders Gerhard Behles and Robert Henke for my book, they described a laptop duo that concluded its performances were much better without sync because today's computers have suitably stable timing. Henke noted, “The tempo is in sync anyway, so what they can play with is the phase. If Machine A is at 130 bpm and Machine B is at 130 bpm and you, for a moment, go up to 131 or down to 129, it just changes the phase ratio between the two computers. So you can go from flanging to offbeat things by slightly changing the tempo for a moment. And that, somehow, is way more exciting than having sample-accurate sync.”

In fact, Live has two Tempo Nudge buttons that do just that (see Step 5). As Henke concludes, “It's the same as using an analog delay line, dub style, and adjusting it not per calculator and sample accuracy, but just until it grooves. It's a more musical way of thinking” (see Step 6).

You can also experiment with wild sync on the same computer. If you're using ReWire-capable programs, such as Live and Propellerhead Reason, launch the slave program (Reason) first to prevent ReWire sync. Then start a sound or sequence in one program and play with nudging the tempo on the other. On some systems, you may need to use a routing program such as Soundflower (free) to hear both programs at once.

David Battino co-wrote The Art of Digital Music (Backbeat Books, 2005). For the Ableton “wild sync” interview and more tips on quantization



Step 1: To tempo-sync two devices that transmit and respond to MIDI Clock, connect the MIDI Out of the master to the MIDI In of the slave and set the slave to External Sync mode.

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Step 2: Here, the master computer is running Ableton Live and transmitting MIDI Clock, and the slave is running Propellerhead Reason and is set to receive sync. A single MIDI cable connects them.

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Step 3: Macs have a network MIDI driver built in; find it from the Audio MIDI Setup program and you can sync multiple computers over Ethernet.

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Step 4: The compact ipMIDI driver adds Ethernet ports to your music programs. Here, I''m controlling Live on my Mac from my PC. The tempo varied slightly, but I was using Wi-Fi.

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Step 5: Live''s Tempo Nudge buttons temporarily lower or raise the tempo so you can get back in sync with other players.

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Step 6: Inspired by dub-style echoes, SoundToys EchoBoy plug-in includes a knob called Rushin Draggin that slides echoes around the beat.

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