da funk

My (replacement) DAFM Synth arrived, and it works just fine. Apparently, the one I returned also works fine in the hands of the seller, which is weird because it definitely overheated its USB power cable within a few seconds and wouldn’t turn on for me at all… but whatever, I definitely have a working one now.

The interface, while far from knob-per-function, is pretty clever. Rather than one mid-sized display it has four tiny OLED screens; in most modes each shows the parameters for its associated FM operator. The preset loading screen is different, and a bit weird and hard to figure out at first with the sparse documentation.

The navigation can be a bit awkward. FM synths have this challenging aspect where sometimes you want to divide up the parameter space functionally — setting all the ratios on one page, the envelopes on another, etc. as this does — and sometimes you want to to divide it by operator, so the ratio, level, envelopes etc. for a single operator are all together. I think if I were working with this physical design, I would have had the left encoder always “move” (selecting parameters, or press-and-turn to change pages) while the right encoder always edits whatever the cursor is pointing to. But this is still a million times better than trying to edit on an old-school DX synth.

There’s a tiny 11-note keyboard at the bottom, which is best reserved for emergency “no MIDI controller” purposes. The chip of choice — in my case the noisier YM2612 — is on display behind a transparent window, while the rest of the top is dark tinted acrylic.

That chip has a weird design flaw called the “ladder effect” that gives it its characteristic sound. There seems to be a ton of nerdy analysis of this and maybe not that much agreement on the details, but it comes down to: some Yamaha engineer cut one or two corners too many. The upshot is a sort of a characteristic digital fizziness that is not simple low bit resolution or low sample rate, and sounds pretty nice with some kinds of ambient pads and bass sounds. You can also set very long decay times that sound a bit like stuck notes, and it just kind of flows nicely with the noise and a touch of reverb or delay.

Possibly the truest and most universal trope from cyberpunk is “the street finds its own uses for things.” It can be an important principle in design in general, and we definitely see it all the time in electronic music. I’ve got my favored way to work with Bitwig, which absolutely baffles some other Bitwig users. I’ve got specific roles I like to throw at the Microfreak, which it might not have been designed for but it wasn’t designed against. And here’s this budget chip from an 80s game console, built into a mini synth with a cheap MCU from 2007, (mis)using USB as a power supply, and I’m using the synth in specific limited ways to serve my music.

I’ve entangled myself in deeper uncertainty about how to divvy up the remaining space in my modular case. As a result, I took the Euphoria off my wishlist (but hey, if you’re a family member reading this and you bought it for me already, worry not, it will not go to waste.)

Noise Engineering is doing cool stuff. Desmodus Versio has gone from a cool reverb to a whole platform, it seems, and the temptation is rising. (Although I think they misstepped when they didn’t put the USB port on the front to make it easier to flash; perhaps they will offer an expander that helps with that.) Some things I’ve read and watched about the Serge SSG or its cousin the Sport Modulator make me ponder that. The idea I originally had, to put in a Doepfer 256-stage BBD, is still there, but the much smaller Erica option would allow some other choices… and of course I still don’t know what the mystery release from Mutable Instruments will be.

So, I’ll just wait, and play with what I have, until a path is clear. I have a fine set of delays (and reverbs) already and so some of these, despite having a different vibe, might not really be the best choice but just FOMO.


Test results are back and my spouse is negative for COVID-19. Whew!

It was what we expected, but it’s still a relief. Aside from the threat of actual harm from the disease, to have to quarantine and wear a mask and feel possibly unsafe in one’s own home, which is supposed to be a sanctuary, is not a great feeling. Nor is separating yourself from a loved one (in my case, pretty much the only person I interact with directly at this point).

I’ve finished reading Chris Hedges’ War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning and woo boy, is that not the book to read when you’re already down. It’s in a somewhat similar vein to Smedley Butler’s War is a Racket, but if anything it’s darker and bleaker. It was not a fun read, but I do think more people should read stuff like this to immunize themselves from the mythologization of war — the nationalist propaganda, the very idea of “a just war,” the canonization of murder and martyrdom, the self-destruction of culture and memory.

Perhaps ironically, the book I am looking forward to (in just a couple of days) is Rhythm of War, the fourth in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series. But then, major themes in this series are the questioning the assumed rightness of one’s cause, and the realization that “honor” and “glory” are amoral at best.

For now I’m finishing the Sprawl trilogy with Mona Lisa Overdrive. If I do choose a cyberpunk theme for my next album, I think it’ll be specifically Neuromancer-inspired rather than just general tropes or a fiction of my own. But it won’t be particularly about Case, Molly, Wintermute, etc. or a “soundtrack to the novel” sort of thing necessarily, either; it will be a step removed from the story but more closely related to the language and feel of the thing. I’ve gathered 15 possible song titles, though I like some more than others.

I’ve also been watching High Score Girl, about gamer kids in Tokyo in the 90s. The story centers not on a girl, but a boy who is a slacker and doesn’t really have anything going for him but his skill at Street Fighter II. The main female protagonist never speaks, and in fact is completely absent from a few episodes… which is unusual given that a lot of the story seems to be parodizing and dismantling sexist tropes. Overall it’s kind of sweet and kind of dumb, but entertaining enough.

A major part of the appeal for some is the nostalgia, of course. As a nostalgia vehicle it is certainly less obnoxious and one-note than Ready Player One and its ilk. But for me, arcade nostalgia is centered in the early to mid 80s. My dad worked in an arcade and I’d often accompany him on Sunday mornings to help out a bit and then play a lot of games free. In the early 90s I was in college, and in the mid-90s I moved half a continent away and was playing PC games and PlayStation (I mainly favored racing games, thanks to Wipeout, Ridge Racer and Gran Turismo). The Golden Age of arcades had faded by the mid 90s too. So my nostalgia is more for Marble Madness, 720┬░, Tetris, Galaga ’88, Joust, TRON, Xevious, Gauntlet, Out Run. I strongly suspect that a lot of my love for FM synthesis and certain kinds of synth sounds comes from the games of that era, particularly the Atari ones.

“out of an abundance of caution”

That’s a phrase we have been hearing a lot this year, isn’t it?

Over the weekend one of my spouse’s coworkers tested positive for COVID-19, and her workplace is temporarily closing while everyone self-quarantines and the place is disinfected. Since she’s in a high-risk category, she was advised to call the county coronavirus hotline. They told her to get a “real” test since the rapid tests have too many false negatives, and because of timing, it wouldn’t show up in a test for a couple more days anyhow. She has to quarantine herself from me — spending most of her time in the guest bedroom and wearing a mask otherwise — and the test is on Thursday. Of course if she tests positive, I will get tested myself. I’ve also read now that wearing masks does offer some protection to the wearer as well as preventing outward spread, so I’ll wear mine in the house too when necessary.

Last week seemed to last forever while waiting for election results, and this week-or-so (however long it takes to get the results) looks like it’s going to feel even longer. And of course, every little headache, or the throat irritation I had briefly last night (probably allergy related) is going to make me even more paranoid than it has since March.

And now for a software update…

Plugin Alliance had super deep discounts for Halloween, and I tried several things and wound up going for Noveltech Character. The description of its technology is kind of vague, but through some analysis/feedback mechanism it does “adaptive filtering” to make stuff sound better different. It’s not something I will slap onto every track, but it does add a little extra something to some parts.

In the charity auction I won three things. The first (in no particular order) is SoundRadix SurferEQ2. It’s a flexible equalizer made especially for monophonic parts, which can track the pitch and adjust its bands to match. So no matter what note is playing, it can boost or cut particular harmonics, or filter out unwanted noise outside the desired region. It can also act as a resonator, so it’s as much of a synthesis tool as a sound engineering one. It’s frankly awesome, and gives me some ideas about ways I can use Shelves in my modular.

Another was the AtomicTransient/AtomicReverb bundle, of which I was much more interested in the transient processor. While most transient effects can reduce or enhance the impact of transients relative to sustained sound, this one can create a new envelope or apply the detected dynamics to a filter, with cool results. There’s even a polyphonic mode that sort of separates the envelopes of individual notes. (The reverb on the other hand, has a ton of parameters and doesn’t sound better to me than Valhalla & company.)

The third was a Voxengo premium membership, giving me licenses to all their products current and future. I’ve tried several of their plugins and wound up installing CRTIV Tape Bus (a saturation plugin), Elephant (a limiter, which I might use next time I master an album), OldSkoolVerb Plus (a mostly retro but also creative reverb), OVC-128 (a hard clipper with 128x oversampling), and SPAN Plus.

And recently, AudioThing released Wires, an emulation (and enhancement) of a Soviet wire recorder, which was developed in partnership with Hainbach (a musician who is into all kinds of exotic gear for making music, including old test equipment and lo-fi dictaphones, and whose YouTube channel is a delight). It imparts some nice lo-fi character as well as having a very tasty delay. Wire recorders are a neat piece of tech history. The hair-thin wires were more compact than tape and could have a longer recording time, making them great for flight recorders and spy devices (as well as a few consumer models, but they could only record in mono, the fidelity wasn’t great, and editing was problematic.


I really wish that in US elections, there were NO exit polls reported and NO news about counts that have not yet finished. But then, there are a lot of things that are broken about our electoral processes.


I may have just made a last-minute day change to track order, but the new album is ready to be released tomorrow (or possibly tonight). This is my fifth for the year, 16th as Starthief, and — this is kind of weird to realize — 32nd album overall. And I may already have the seeds of an idea for the next one.

I started reading Neuromancer last night, and within the first few pages, encountered a few phrases that would make good song titles. Many, of course, are already taken — it is now a classic piece of science fiction, a vision of a possible future from 36 years ago. The joke now of course is that we’re living in the wrong kind of cyberpunk dystopia.

A cyberpunk-themed album in my style might be interesting. It was done so frequently with EBM and industrial music that the music was even called “cyberpunk” for a while, and there was (is? I don’t know) a whole cybergoth club scene. Billy Idol had an album called Cyberpunk, which was pretty bad cyberpunk but pretty good rock. And of course, the themes are pretty big with synthwave/vaporwave.

I need to think about how I could approach this. No movie dialog samples. Anything involving drum machines would be a departure for Starthief, since “no drums” was one of the biggest revelations/self-imposed rules from my 2016-2017 experiments… but I am not necessarily ruling it out. I don’t particularly want it to sound like EBM, or synthwave. FM synthesis seems obvious though, since I already love it. In fact, if I wanted a fresh challenge I might someday try an album with no FM synthesis ­čśë

Speaking of FM: Kasser Synths wrote to say that the DAFM Synth I was returning for repairs still hadn’t arrived — not surprising, given that it took most of a month to get here from Spain in the first place — and they’re going ahead and sending me a replacement to help speed things along.

Dreadbox announced another couple of entries in its Chromatic line of small, cheap and colorful modules. The Antidote is a Karplus-Strong BBD delay, which I first thought might be a good replacement for the Doepfer BBD I had on my wishlist. But in demos so far I’m not convinced it would serve me better than Mimeophon.

On the other hand, the Euphoria — with the unfortunate choice of white labeling on a bright yellow panel, almost guaranteeing third party replacement panels to come soon — is a BBD-based 8-stage phaser that sounds gorgeous and weird. E520 and FX Aid both have phaser, flanger, frequency shifter etc. modes but I don’t think any of them can quite touch it. I’m impressed enough to replace the Doepfer on my wishlist with Euphoria.

And speaking of regrettable panels and colors, Thonk now has Tall Trimmer Toppers to add a little size and better grip and color to mini-pots… which would have been great for the AI008 when I was trying to color-code that. Ah well. My current system has 68 (!) of those tiny little knobs, but most of them aren’t a problem. A few, though, have no contrasting color for their pointers, which is annoying — so I will get some for that. That gives me an excuse to pick up a few other knobs that it wasn’t worth paying for shipping on.

that time again

It’s October 28, and definitely a good time to break out the scary music. I’ve never wanted to watch the movie a second time because it just wasn’t that amazing, but every year I break out the 30 Days of Night score. The composer invented several new instruments for it, some of which involve objects whirling dangerously at high speed…

For Halloween, I’ll be staying home, wearing a t-shirt with a skull-faced mermaid lounging by a pool, and keeping an eye on the end of the charity auction. Though the bid totals are quite good (over $22.5K so far), there are relatively few hardware offerings this year. I’m not interested in any of the sample or preset packs. There are a few software items I could go far — but in many cases they are bundled with a bunch of stuff I’m less interested in, so bidding competitively doesn’t make sense for me. Right now I am only trying to win one particular item, though I might throw a bit more money at something for the sake of the charity. And in the secondhand auction, there’s one minor plugin that I have a $5 bid on that’s on sale for $7 anyway.

Although… maybe on Halloween I may have to drive over to Lake Creve Coeur and walk around for a while, if it’s not too crowded. Hopefully the fall colors will be somewhere at peak, though it might be late for that. I’m probably too out of shape at this point to walk the full distance without overdoing it, but some semblance of “forest bathing” will probably do me some good. Unless it’s raining of course, in which case it would be a forest shower and not quite so pleasant.

With COVID cases hitting new records, we are following the advice to not risk travel this Thanksgiving. It’s a shame we will miss out, but it is not worth anyone getting life-threateningly ill.

I finished watching Neon Genesis Evangelion, and… I was not really prepared for how broken the ending is. I feel like the state of the series kind of reflected the apocalyptic┬áevents in the story and peoples’ mental states, but it also apparently was a reflection of the writer’s depression and the exhaustion of the overworked production team and pressures that were hitting the studio in general. Things just sort of fell apart, and aside from some (disturbing) hints, we lost perspective on events other than Shinji’s inner voice in the process of merging with everyone else’s…

There was a movie that presented sort of an alternate viewpoint and alternate ending, called appropriately enough End of Evangelion. Where the original series ending was, in its odd way, “the good ending”, this is the bad one in terms of Shinji’s personality and which conspirators “win” the apocalypse. There is also a remake slowly in progress called Rebuild of Evangelion, which apparently makes the main character more macho and has a lot more fanservice. I’m going to eschew those, and consider the original series and all its flaws a complete work of art. (Granted, one that doesn’t quite stand up on its own without a little support from outside explanation.)

I’ve sent the DAFM synth back to Kasser in Spain for repairs. Given that it took a month to arrive here in the first place, I will not be surprised if it doesn’t get back to me in 2020.

The album is up to 57 minutes of material. I feel like I’m on a roll and have more to say here, but an album shouldn’t be overly long or it challenges the attention span and does the music a disservice. If my next set feels like a continuation, I could always call it a Part Two.

Listening to what I have, I think it needs something to close it right, and I’m considering dropping one of the songs. But I do expect to release it on Bandcamp Friday on November 6.

I did do another recording with three parts rather than one or two, although the third is just using the other output of Akemie’s Castle which was used as the first voice, and some different processing to make it a simpler, background part.

anything less would be unCVilized

I’m basically completely used to the new headphones now, and appreciating the extra detail I’m hearing with them.

Voxengo just released a plugin called TEOTE, an acronym for “That’s Easier On the Ears.” It adjusts the spectral balance of the input to bring it closer to a theoretical ideal — with minimal adjustment it just magically makes stuff sound better. This one uses multiband dynamics, which is a bit fancier than Soundtheory Gullfoss, and to my ears it seems to sound better on most material.

Tools like this are great for me. My mixing process isn’t the meticulous, surgical adjustment and perfect fitting together several individually recorded parts — rather, it happens partially as I build up my parts in preparation to record, and partially as a big part of the recorded performance itself. A tedious manual search for places in the spectrum that could use a tiny boost here and a narrow cut there would take me out of the creative flow, but slapping an automatic plugin onto the channel to see if it sounds better does not. (If there’s a drastic improvement, that means there was a lot to correct in the first place, and it’s probably worth a little of my time to investigate.)

Two things arrived on my doorstep today. First the bad news: after nearly a full month of shipping, the DAFM synth arrived from Spain. Its wonderfully crisp OLED display showed something for about 6 seconds and then died, the USB power cable unusually warm. Switching cables and chargers didn’t help.

Since I have had second thoughts about even needing another synthesizer, I’ve written to request a refund rather than a replacement. We’ll see how this goes.

The other thing is much happier: u-he CVilization. I spent about 90 minutes playing with the matrix mixer mode before even looking at the others, and… it’s a game changer honestly. It handles audio quite well, and is as easy and intuitive to dial in as I had imagined and hoped. But it also encourages taking control voltages to new places, and that seems to be its major strength.

It is a very good friend to a sequencer, especially something with multiple channels and not necessarily its own quantizer, like the 0-Ctrl.

Mode 1 can mix audio of course, but also CV, with handy muting, inversion, quantization and sample and hold. I had a patch going where it:

  • served as a feedback mixer for Mimeophon-as-resonator (with mutes for the original input, the feedback, or the final output, and the option to invert the feedback for a different character)
  • selected between or combined (using mutes) two pitch CVs from 0-Ctrl, with sample+hold and quantization. And also, allowed for mixing in some audio from another channel — which served to slightly randomize the pitch while staying within the scale and maintaining the overall melodic contour. It was gated by 0-Ctrl’s dynamic gate output, so I had control over the rhythmic pattern as well as swing/timing.
  • routed both pitch and audio to Mimeophon’s frequency control, so it simultaneously tracked pitch and added FM… again with a mute switch.

That’s a heck of a lot more than an analog mixer can do. And also, since it’s 4×4 rather than the AI008’s 4×3, it’s easy to set up stereo feedback matrices with ping-pong and so forth.

Mode 2 is the sequencer and sequential switch, and though it took me more time to grasp it, it’s also a very powerful friend to 0-Ctrl. Rearranging incoming control signals and interposing other values (fixed or random) into the sequence, driven either by a clock division or using a different sequence length, can really extend and bring variations into what would otherwise be a short and very repetitive sequence. I didn’t even mess with self-patching, which could potentially be really useful with the sample+hold feature. (It can also route audio, switching different sources and destinations around or silencing it, and that is probably going to have some use as well.)

Mode 3 is the “Mucorder”, which is purely for control voltages. It’s less like Marbles than I first thought — but again, a really good companion for 0-Ctrl. Record up to 16 steps, and let it mutate either by overwriting with values from its own input, another channel, a random shift up or down, or harmonization with the first channel. Each channel can have a different recording length, which allows a lot of polyrhythmic interplay. It’s another winner.

I haven’t tried mode 4 yet, but rather than manipulating CV quite as much, it pans/routes its four inputs smoothly across four destinations. Planar can either pan one signal to four outputs, or four inputs to one output… but I suspect it will be a good controller to rotate multiple things around the world with CVilization, and likely a powerful tool for drones.

So, wow. I was expecting a mixer and a quantizer, but I got quite a lot more than that.

On the album front: I have 41 minutes of material recorded so far, and I’ve been sticking with the minimal voices theme. One of the tracks does have three voices rather than a max of two, but since one of those is just a sub drone than blends with the chords of another voice, I’m letting myself get away with that. I figure I will probably release before Thanksgiving.

Speaking of which, we plan to visit my spouse’s parents at their new house for Thanksgiving, if we can arrange for dog sitting. We’re both a bit worried about traveling during the pandemic, and plan to avoid public spaces as much as we possibly can on the way. It’ll be nice to go do something though, spend some time with family and see my nephew and the new place.

Recent reads:

  • Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky was mostly great fun, with a few grim bits. A witch and a mad scientist whose lives are entangled wind up on opposite sides of a conflict over two horrible plans to save the world.
  • I gave up partway through The Book of Strange New Things. A Christian missionary is recruited by a megacorporation to minister to aliens on a dreary remote planet, after the previous pastor went missing. I found most of the characters tedious and/or unlikeable, and the mysteries not very compelling either to the reader or the characters experiencing them. Despite the title, it feels like a book that had its sense of wonder surgically removed.
  • I’m currently enjoying The City in the Middle of the Night (also by Charlie Jane Anders). Misfits living on a tidally locked planet on the border between the always-day side and the always-night side, with various culture clashes paralleling that same opposition. And most importantly, compelling characters.

I’ve also started watching Neon Genesis Evangelion and I am finally, 25 years after its original release, going to watch it all the way through. It’s on Netflix, so there are some unfortunate changes including the loss of “Fly Me to the Moon.” Now that I know that the original English subtitles weren’t quite so awkward, I can deal. If they had replaced “Cruel Angel’s Thesis” too, then I’d be annoyed.

Right now I’m listening to my previous album on a new pair of headphones: German Maestro GMP 8.35 D. I picked them up because they were very highly rated by those who’ve used them, and they’re closed-back style with fairly good isolation. That’ll be helpful when I need to concentrate on work or music making and need to block out other noise. While I can still hear, for instance, the sound of my own typing on a clicky mechanical keyboard, the ticking of the desk fan behind me, and cartoons that my spouse is watching, it does block quite a bit more than the semi-open HD 668Bs I have used for years.

In general I don’t like closed-back headphones as much — they feel more “boxy” and when there’s no music (especially when you first put them on), you can hear the rush of your own blood. But I found it really didn’t take long before music started sounding right in them. Comparing between the two pairs of headphones, I think the GMPs are either revealing more detail, or it’s just not getting lost in the low hum of fans. The frequency response is a bit different, but I will probably not wind up using corrective EQ, opting instead to listen to a lot of music for reference in both sets of headphones so I have a proper feel for them.

I write music with the assumption that my listeners will use headphones, but it’s probably a good idea to check with two kinds of headphones anyway (as well as the wireless earbuds I usually check with on my phone during the mastering stage).

I did go ahead and preorder a CVilization, after the matrix mixer video dropped and a couple of beta testers commented about how friendly and flexible it is to work with. And it shipped this morning, so there wasn’t a lot of “pre” in that order. I’m not going to sell off my AI008 until I know for sure I like CVil, but… I probably will.

I’ve put the Doepfer 256-stage BBD on my birthday/Christmas wish list. The new Mutable Instruments modules are planned for a 2020 release but may or may not make it due to production schedules, so I’m holding out for that. If it’s not a must-have, I have a few options to consider.

I’m still waiting for that DAFM Genesis synth to arrive. The last update from Correos (Spanish parcel post) was “Leaving the Exchange Office” on October 2, but from a quick check online these sorts of delays and/or a failure for USPS to show any tracking data isn’t unusual. If another week goes by I will write to the seller.

AO Themed Compilation 11: Mars

The 11th Ambient Online (I keep wanting to call it Anarchy Online) Themed Compilation has been released:

I have two songs on it: “Red Dust” and “Syrtis Major.”

Either I’m in just the right mood for it this morning, or this compilation seems like the best one so far. Maybe it was the extra time allotted for submissions, maybe just people were really feeling the theme for whatever reason — a lot of people had been talking about being inspired by classic sci-fi.

On a not very exciting side note, I also updated my starthief.net home page so the albums are all just image links instead of Bandcamp embeds. Embeds are neat, but they were breaking, maybe because I had too many visible. Also, the compilation albums were picking one random artist name to show per album,, which is pretty dumb when you’ve got 40+ musicians on the thing.

“I think it would be a good idea”

An addendum to my modular planning:

u-he is a company that makes some pretty great plugins, and they announced a foray into Eurorack a couple of years back. CVilization is:

  • a 4×4 matrix mixer (with optional sample+hold & clock divider)
  • a sequencer/ sequential switch
  • a “Mucorder” (mutating CV recorder, something like a different take on the “x” side of Marbles)
  • a quad panner
  • quantization and clock divisions per channel on the first three modes.

The interface seems as clever and useable as is possible for something with so many different functions, and from reading the manual I expect the cheat sheet is mostly needed for occasional/rare config options.

In fact, the matrix mixer mode seems like it is probably more clear than my AI008. You deliberately select an input and then adjust its output routings, or you select an output and then adjust its input routings. It seems to me like this method reduces the impact of the “geometrical transform” issue the AI008 has.

So I could see replacing the AI008 with it, and then I’d also have another quantizer, which is something I was considering. And something else to complement Marbles, which is something else I was considering.

I do think I’ll wait for the other videos beyond the intro to make sure usability looks as clear as it seems from the manual, but chances are pretty good I will pick this up.