A Minor Technical Victory

Adding a mic to the Dirtywave M8

Cable Guy: Connecting my phone and my synthesizer

This weekend I surprised myself by sorting out a solution to a technical problem I’ve been bothered by. There’s a small piece of music equipment called the M8, which is the sole product made by a small company called Dirtywave (dirtywave.com), based in Los Angeles. The M8 is a “tracker,” a term for a manner of sequencing music. Working in a tracker looks sort of like composing in a spreadsheet, which may sound unappealing, but if you’ve gotten good at working in a spreadsheet then you know how just how powerful muscle memory can be, much as is the case with “traditional” instruments. (I put the word “traditional” in quotes because trackers have been around since the late 1980s, over 30 years. I’m not sure when something becomes “traditional,” but trackers are by no means new.) I used to play with a tracker on my various Palm Pilots back in the day, but hadn’t used one in a long time, even as they’ve recently experienced something of a resurgence in popularity.

What appealed to me about the M8 (versus the Tracker from Polyend, or the software Renoise that could run on my laptop) was its portability. As shown in the photo, it’s not much larger than a phone. In addition, the keyboard has been reduced to a literal handful. The software, which Dirtywave has updated regularly, is quite powerful. And as has become essentially required of new music equipment, there is a great online forum where users discuss the M8, and share tips and examples of their work.

Two things, however, have bugged me about the M8: one hardware, one software. The software matter is that, far as I can tell, it can’t process live sound. I can record music into the M8 and process it, but I can’t process music live. Perhaps that will change with future upgrades. (It also may not solely be a software issue.)

The hardware issue involves recording: for all its inputs and outputs, the M8 doesn’t have a built-in microphone. And for it to use an external microphone, the mic has to be powered (that is, at “line level,” rather than “mic level”). So, not only do I have to use an external microphone to record audio as samples, that mic must be powered. I wanted a portable mic, and I couldn’t find a powered, line-level mic that would fit in the M8’s case. Part of the beauty of the M8 is its portability. A large mic reduces portability.

And now I’ve sorted out a good solution to the “easily portable microphone for the M8” matter: By using a simple mic app and a Lightning-to-audio dongle, I can turn my phone into a mic and plug it directly into the M8. When I first tried to do this, the feedback was alarming. The key thing is to turn the speaker in the microphone app to zero. That nixes the feedback. I can also just record to the phone and play back into the M8 this way. It works really well (I have an iPhone, but it would work with Android, too). And yeah, I’ll likely use feedback on purpose down the road. (The reason the cable in the photo is so long is that I briefly experimented, earlier in this process, with putting my phone really far from the M8 to avoid feedback, before I realized I could fix things by turning off the app’s speaker function.)

Technically, I haven’t found a microphone that fits in the M8 case, my original goal, but since I’ve always got my phone with me anyhow, this is a totally acceptable solution — and better yet, I didn’t need to make any additional purchases, aside from the microphone app, which cost just a couple bucks.

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