The Missing Link – Bringing Ableton Link to Hardware Devices
Knobcon 2018 just happened recently in Chicago, Illinois where people gathered to share their latest and greatest in the world of hardware synthesis and experimental music-making tools. Ed Guild of Happy Circuit shared his incredible creation – The Missing Link which is a box that lets you connect your analog gear to other Ableton Link compatible devices. What’s especially useful about this device is that it operates over Wi-Fi so you no longer have to worry about all those cables clunking up your workflow. We were fortunate enough to get some questions answered by Ed, our interview is below!
1. Your website notes that you’ve DJ’d, VJ’d and been involved with bands since 2001, has any of that time been dedicated to working in Ableton Live?
I started out VJing in a live electronic dance music band called Psylab. There was a drummer, bassist, and one or two keyboardists through the years. Our thing was to sound like a DJ, but do it all live in real-time, no backing tracks or looping. I VJ’d with a piece of software called Arkaos VJ. I noticed that when I played video clips that had a soundtrack, the audio was coming out of my speakers. So I routed the audio internally using Soundflower to Ableton Live, which a friend had recommended I check out. I started at Live version 5. I used Live as a virtual stompbox processing the audio coming from my video clips. Eventually, I started triggering one-shot audio samples from Live. And after a few years, I phased out projecting video at our shows and was triggering samples of vocals, samples from movies, sound effects, whatever would fill in the gap of not having a lead vocalist. It was only in the last couple years of that band that I actually used Live for looping MIDI clips to play soft synths. For the most part, it was a one-shot soundboard in that band. Other side projects I used it more for its intended purpose of triggering loops.
2. Where along the line did you come up with the idea for the Missing Link? Was the idea inspired by Ableton Link or did you have the concept of a wireless sync box prior to Link’s release?
When Ableton Link was released for Linux a friend and I thought it would be a fun to do a project to try to build something with Link. After we built a prototype on a Raspberry Pi 3 and showed it to a few friends we realized we had to build this thing for real.
Here’s a quick video I took when my friend Campbell stopped by the lab:
I took time off from work to be a stay-at-home dad. So when my son was napping I’d tinker away, designing the interface, case, circuit board, and the web-based administration panel. My friend Nick Donaldson is a talented coder and music producer. He wrote the codebase for integrating Link with the Raspberry Pi. So everything from how to read a button press or an encoder turn, to displaying information on the LED display. Without him, The Missing Link would never have gotten off the ground.
A problem I had witnessed at many a synth meet, was people trying to jam together. There’s always an ordeal deciding who will be the master clock, and how to distribute the clock to everyone else. There’s always someone who has to compromise their setup and usually someone gets left out of the chain because we can stretch a patch cable far enough to reach them. This problem was deep in the back of my mind, but when we started building the prototype, it came back to the forefront as a way to solve this problem. In an ideal Circuit Happy world, everyone has a Missing Link as their master clock and you can just show up in a room together and sync up over the local WiFi network. Even if everyone doesn’t own a Missing Link, a few placed around the room can be mult’d out to everyone pretty easily.
3. Do you still perform often? What’s your rig look like?
I haven’t performed in any bands since Psylab ended a few years ago. I was DJing (using Traktor and some NI controllers) regularly at a local pub, River Gods, until that place sadly closed. Developing The Missing Link has kept me involved in the music world, which is cool. I really enjoy making something for others to aid in the creation of their music and art.
This was my rig in Psylab:
Laptop with Ableton Live for sample dropping, a Novation SL Zero controller for controlling the effects my samples were processed through in Live. Another laptop running a Max/MSP drum sampler I made for our drummer to play through (he had a Roland eDrum kit). The Behringer BCR2000 controlled various parameters in the sampler so I could change the pitch of a kit, filter the sound, send to a reverb and delay. I also had a Kaoss Pad 3 for drum FX. And most important of all, the labcoat. Because science!
I am in the process of mixing my first EP of music that a friend and I wrote over the past six months. We are using Ableton Live to write and now mix the songs. It’s been fun to create some new music again. We might try to perform these live. Not sure what that rig would look like.
4. Any other products on the horizon for Circuit Happy?
At the moment I’m focused on making more Missing Link boxes. A lot of people are excited to have one and I really underestimated the demand! I had about twenty ready to go when I announced at Knobcon. They sold out fast. I’m waiting on more parts right now so I can build more. We have a few ideas kicking around, but nothing concrete yet…
_A list of the features found with The Missing Link are below.
- Ableton Link integration for wireless sync with compatible devices
- 5V clock output with user-setable PPQN (pulses per quarter note)
- 5V pulse output at the start of loop
- Push encoder for editing user settings (tempo, PPQN, Loop size)
- Tap tempo for quickly setting tempo
- Built on a Raspberry Pi Zero W platform with custom circuits for the interface and analog outputs
- Built-in web interface for easily connecting to your WiFi network
- Can be powered by any 5V USB power source including USB batteries!
- Open source software and hardware designs
You can use the Missing Link to connect your devices to each other whether it is a hardware synthesizer, drum machine, iOS device, etc.! Any compatible device can be linked! It looks like it can transmit MIDI clock info via 5pin so that opens the door wide for connection possibilities! For those of you unfamiliar with Ableton Link, we wrote two posts on the technology already here and here. In a nutshell, Link is a much more stable form of maintaining and communicating Tempo and loop phrase information between musical devices than MIDI clock or anything else previously used.
Circuit Happy’s big move here is based on the strength of Ableton Link, and it is wicked strong. “The Missing Link runs open source software built around Ableton’s Link technology. This means you share tempo and loop information amongst all the Link-enabled devices. So when you hit play, it waits to start the clock on the downbeat, in time and on time.” In the video below Ed demonstrates The Missing Link seamlessly linking devices, making tempo adjustments when there partners do and self-correcting any timing issues. Watch below!
The Missing Link is made on order and available for purchase for $200, request yours at the Circuit Happy website.