out of phase

I have a title and some maybe-final artwork for the new album. It’s a secret for now though. Mastering is done, and was a little bit of a chore in places this time around but my efforts paid off, at least in a creative sense. I just have the notes page to write up and it’ll be ready to upload.

Before work on the next album gets seriously underway, there’s Knobcon, a few more gear changes and that new computer coming. I’ve figured out which plugins and sample collections I’ll want to install on the new machine, but that’s going to take a few days to set up. There are also newer Sound Forge versions to try. This will give me some time to ponder themes for a bit.

Make Noise’s imminent Mimeophon matches, almost line by line, a list I wrote back in February of the features of the delay module of my dreams. But it’s reinterpreted through in their own style, which is mostly a bonus. It was going to be a prime candidate to try out at Knobcon, but a couple of recent demo videos have convinced me it’s better than ideal. It’s so good as a resonating micro-delay I could even end up selling one of my Rings. Waiting for Knobcon is really just a formality with this one.

But what does require some deliberation and demoing is the question of the 4ms SMR vs. 4ms SWN vs. Mannequins Just Friends vs. just using Stages’ Ouroboros mode.

My SMR did indeed have something wrong with it, which excited the tech, but should be ready to ship back to me today or tomorrow. I want to give it a proper chance.

SWN (Spherical Wavetable Navigator) is a newer module that evolved from the SMR, but does exactly what I was looking for. Six oscillators with their own VCAs, which can be tuned relative to each other or independently, mixed to a stereo output. It uses a 3D wavetable setup that doesn’t beat SynthTech but does go well beyond the SMR’s sines. It’s more expensive than the other options, but well within my “sell more stuff than I buy” budget. It can’t be used to process audio as SMR can (if I decide I like that), but alongside the VCOs it also has a set of 6 LFOs that can be related or independent and can act as its own sort of algorithmic rhythm generator.

I also worked out how Just Friends, with the help of a Teletype script and the 16n Faderbank, can go without a separate VCA mixer. It’s a little bit of a hack, but smaller, cheaper, and will do FM. When not acting as a VCO it can do envelopes and LFOs, extending Teletype’s modulation capability without a tangle of patch cables.

Aside from that, I think I’ve probably settled on Mannequins Cold Mac as a crossfader/VCA/utility thing. But I want to look into the MSCL stereo compressor especially if I keep the SMR, and also potentially for Clouds and Mimeophon. Otherwise it takes Dynamo, 2/3 of Shades, both channels of Tallin and a lot of tweaking to compress/limit a stereo feedback path.

shine on

After 11 years with a Core i7 960 on which I upgraded/replaced literally everything except the case, cooler and motherboard, I have bought a fresh new computer.

InWin 101 Mid Tower
+ 600W 80+ Gold PSU
+ 3x InWin Sirius Loop RGB case fans
+ professional wiring
ASUS TUF X570-Plus Gaming motherboard
+ 16 GB DDR4-3200 RAM
AMD Ryzen 5 3600 CPU
+ MasterLiquid Lite ARGB cooler
+ Cooler Master thermal paste
GeForce GTX 1650 4GB video card
1TB Intel 660P M.2 NVMe SSD
+ Windows 10 Home

It’s a compromise of latest new stuff and budget/efficiency — the 3600 is within a few percent of other Ryzen chips that cost a lot more. That particular SSD is a little slow for its class, but that’s like saying the Indian Ocean is a little small for an ocean, and it was half price (the SSD, not the ocean). There are faster video cards in that price range, but they run hotter and use more wattage. (If I were buying components individually and assembling it myself, I’d have used my old video card… and the total would have cost about the same as this computer anyway.)

Like my old computer, I chose a white case, but this one isn’t the size of a SmartCar. I didn’t pay extra for case lights, but all the fans glow with adjustable colors. This plus the large window have the benefit of making it easily to tell when it’s time to open it up and blow out the accumulated dog hair. 😉

Supercell arrived yesterday — the maximal version of Mutable Instruments Clouds, which I chose to replace Panharmonium. It has a dedicated knob, CV input and attenuverter for every parameter and a few other improvements to the interface, making it 34HP (compared to the original’s 18HP, and alternate versions that run between 8 and 14HP with varying interface compromises). I believe it’s worth the extra space.

The original mode allows for all kinds of possibilities beyond the stereotypical smearing-and-reverb, and the “Superparasites” firmware makes 7 other modes relatively easy to access. (If it had mode names printed on the panel that would have been nice.) There’s no unified documentation for it, so I found myself summarizing FIVE manuals into one brief text file. For the most part there’s a relative consistency in usage, and I have just tested my memory of the mode order (Granular, Pitch Shifter/Timestretch, Looping Delay, Spectral Madness, Reverb, Resonator, Beat Repeat, Spectral Clouds) and was right. So maybe I won’t have to refer back to that very much.

The delay has some nice character but won’t 100% replace other delays. Mimeophon remains the most likely other candidate and I don’t expect to keep Prism or T-Rackonizer. Some of the other modes make me downgrade SMR’s chances a little bit too. As far as how well Clouds “replaces” Panharmonium: the sound character is not even a little similar, but the freeze-and-harmonize action is somewhat so. I find it more generally useful. It fits within the whole “focus” thing without being too much of a one-trick pony that will get old quickly.

dark this, dark that

I thought I had mentioned Glen Cook’s Darkwar omnibus/trilogy here, but I guess that was elsewhere.

This was written in the mid 80s and had the requisite “what the hell was wrong with fantasy covers in the 80s” art:

And now it has much more stylish by current standards, but still a bit on the WTF side, 21st century cover art:

So, yeah. First off, these are a race of people who have fur everywhere, call their hands “paws” and their children “pups” and their social groups “packs,” and there’s growling and snarling and a definite sense of the canine. When they encounter humans, they comment on how funny-looking they are, too tall and with fur only on their heads.

Also, though the main character begins as a mere pup, for the majority of the story she is a witch — of a tyrannical, super intimidating, dramatic order who always wears black.

Also, the solar system in the setting is passing through a dust cloud that blocks solar radiation and they’re going through one heck of an ice age, with permafrost nearly reaching the equator — they bundle up in boots and furs, and even more so when flying. And the main character always goes armed.

Maybe the saddleship in that first image is, loosely, what the author had in mind. But the darkship, while described as having a cross or dagger shape, is way too small, there are no harnesses, it doesn’t seem to be the “voidfaring” type that they use in space despite the spaceship behind them, the glow of their shielding is way too subtle… and so on.

As for the more modern one, it’s not quite as bad except for gratuitous boobs and she kind of looks like a cat.

Okay, cover art aside. Its writing predates most of the Black Company novels, and some of the ideas in it would appear there later. Or earlier? The silth (witches) here have their flying wooden or titanium craft, and especially saddleships seem not unlike the rheitgeistiden (aka “flying posts”) of the Voroshk. The black outfits seem like a prototype of the almost-living robes the Voroshk wore, as well. There’s a major city called TelleRai; in the Black Company there’s a nearly lost language called TelleKure. The silth use not-quite-understood shadowy creatures called “they who dwell” for their magic, not too different from the “shadows”/skildirsha of the Glittering Plain. Given that one series has sixteen worlds linked by “shadowgates” and the other has faster-than-light magical space travel, it’s not completely out of the question that they have a connection somewhere.

Or it could just be, Glen Cook had certain ideas he liked and wanted to flesh out in different ways.

Anyway: I’ve tried to read other Glen Cook stuff that wasn’t The Black Company, and just didn’t get into it. Darkwar, I did and enjoyed most of it. The protagonist becomes a pretty horrible person, though sometimes she’s just “differently horrible” compared to the rest of her world. It never quite turns one away from sympathizing or wanting her to succeed. The story does get kind of back-and-forth and time-skippy in the third book. And one wishes for a few more terms in invented languages rather than darkwar, darkship, darkfaring, dark-sider, darkpretzel, darkpenguin etc. It’s a little too middle school heavy metal fan at times. But then, it was the 80s.

Untitled IX

The ninth Starthief album still needs a name, but its actual content is nearly ready.

It didn’t follow the “asymmetry” or “nonlinear waveshaping” theme at all, which is probably for the best. It didn’t strictly follow the “incubation” theme from In the Dark Places of Wisdom either, as some of the songs have a more atmospheric, storms and wind and air sort of theme.

I seem to have this recurring theme of caverns in my work, despite only having visited caves a few times as a casual tourist. Underlands from 2012 is my favorite among my pre-Starthief albums, probably because it was a bit more ambient and themed than most, and it was all about underground spaces (and the ruins of a lost underground kingdom). That word “spaces” betrays some of the significance I think, as does the song title “Stone and Air.” The contrast between open space and the solidity that defines its shape is also in the theme of Passing Through. Reverb with a long tail is often described as “cavernous,” caverns are naturally dark places which fit the trope of dark ambient music, and there are the mystical, underworld associations.

Though this album feels like it took a while, it’s only been a couple of months. It straddles a divide between subterranean and aerial themes as well as a major change to my synth setup, but it doesn’t feel discontinuous. The track order I’m going to use is the order in which they were recorded.

I’ve got about 55 minutes of music to master, and one track that needs some more repair work. It had issues with tiny bits of lost time during recording — leaning a little too heavily on the CPU, I believe — which caused some audible clicks. Izotope RX6 DeClick fixed most of them, and a bit of manual effort fixed one of the more difficult ones. This morning’s listen tells me I missed one, though. There’s also a little bit of crackle in a couple of places that I would prefer to clean up.

That sort of technical trouble is making me reconsider upgrading my computer sooner rather than later. After all, this phase of changes has me selling more synth gear than I’m replacing.

accidental mimicry

People who don’t know much about electronic music, or people who are very good and very patient at sound design, might assume that most of the sounds I come up with are intentional.

It’s more like, I experiment with sounds, hear something that becomes the inspiration for the song, and everything else follows. The more parts I add after that, the more I find a need for specific sounds: a sub drone, a whooshy noise, a melodic counterpoint made from simple beeps, or even occasionally a sample. But there’s often still usually some seat-of-the-pants element to the assembly.

If I’m in that later stage and need a Rings-like sound, I usually reach for Rings. The path of least resistance, you know?

Yet this keeps happening: I put together a voice, and it occurs to me afterward that it sounds like Rings, even though it isn’t — and in the same song, I have used Rings for something else that doesn’t sound like Rings.

On “Rat Facts,” which I just recorded today, there’s a lovely Rings-esque “guitar” sound which is Hertz Donut mk3 through Natural Gate and Prism. There’s also a big deep sub bass, which is Rings.

On “Soliton,” also from the new album, there’s a drum-like voice, more djembe than “bongo” (*), which sounds a lot like drums I’ve made with Rings. But it’s raw pulses from Teletype through Rainmaker. A different voice, sort of filtered crackly noise that blends in with other things, is Kermit through Rings FMd by DPO.

From Internal Reflections, “Who is This?” had non-Rings “guitar strumming”, which was E370 through Natural Gate into Rainmaker. But I used Rings for a “broken reverb” effect on an E370/QPAS voice.

(*) a common sound/trope in modular synthesis is “Buchla Bongos.” It involves pinging a lowpass gate with a trigger while some inharmonic FM stuff goes through it. It’s kind of part of the trend of calling every hand drum (and some that aren’t) a “bongo.”

Djembe are not bongos.
Congas are not bongos.
Tablas are not bongos.
Doumbeks are not bongos.
Taiko are definitely not bongos.

Don’t do that. Pet peeve.

(Finding Star Wars gifs for this entry was also not something I originally designed. I just happened to want a “that’s not how this works” and when I saw what came up, I knew exactly what the rest of the entry needed. And that is how the Force works.)

The Sea

I missed this on the day it happened, but Ambient Online Themed Compilation 05: The Sea is available on Bandcamp. It’s about 11 hours of music.

Once again I have two tracks on it, “Albatross” and “Shifting Light.”

Meanwhile, I have 7 tracks so far for the next album, for about 43 minutes. I want to get one or more two tracks on there.

One track I recorded recently didn’t make it to the album, but I posted it on SoundCloud:

last first impressions

I picked up the last three bits of traded gear from the post office yesterday. My thoughts:

Bastl Dynamo is what I remember, but the aluminum faceplate is much, much better than the wood one (which had poor visual contrast, poor fit, showed signs of wear quickly and just didn’t match anything else.) Itcan assist in keeping feedback loops infinitely but safely sustained, alter a voice based on its own dynamics, and so on.

Delta Origami is an acceptable wavefolder. It sounds fine but has an absolutely minimal feature set. Thinking about that makes me realize that I currently lack a good way to crossfade signals which doesn’t tie up both channels of Tallin.

Jomox T-Rackonizer really wants to be its own instrument. It’s not that I can’t patch it with other stuff (especially SMR), it’s just that it’s poorly behaved and needy — it violates the focus thing by trying to steal focus, make me pay special attention to it to see why it’s misbehaving. If I wanted to make it the central instrument of more of a pure drone thing, or harsh noise wall or something, it might be fine. It’s only staying in my rack until Knobcon because I decided to give everything at least that much of a chance, but I see only a little probability that it will stay after that.

Estimated survival chances of all the new gear:

HD mk3 100%
Dynamo 100%
Origami 80%
SMR 50%
Prism 30%
Racko 10%

EDIT: of course, minds change. Mine usually changes immediately after I commit to “wait until Knobcon” for something.

I was watching Mylar Melodies’ tutorial on Clouds and had a revelation: this is the stuff I am using Panharmonium to do. And from a technical standpoint, Panharmonium is choosing the most cussedly difficult method of doing it and sharing that burden with the user.

Sure there are things Panharm can do that Clouds can’t. And vice versa. But to me, the more attractive things, and those with more long-term appeal, are on the Clouds side.

Somehow I’ve always avoided Clouds. Part of it was that “Rings into Clouds” is Eurorack’s biggest cliche, and as a big fan of Rings I wanted to buck that trend. But avoiding a thing because it’s popular may be even less wise than choosing it because it’s popular.

I believe it might be best to resell Panharmonium while it’s still extremely new and there’s no competition in the used market.

And at the same time, I’m considering the possibility that Prism is worth keeping as seasoning inside of other feedback loops (even inside other delays’ loops) for its filter, decimator and comb. So its survival percentage ticks up a few points.

first imp*: Hertz Donut mk3

The Hertz Donut mk2 was one of my favorite oscillators. When the mk3 was announced, I was intrigued by some of the new features but even more skeptical of messing with perfection.

The magic of the HDmk2 was that its raw oscillators had a sort of sparkly/dusty digital character, just on the edge of lo-fi. That combined really well with a clean and very easy to use implementation of TZFM. The structure was classic “complex oscillator” with a single mod bus — simple to use despite the name.

In comparison, the mk3’s raw oscillators are sterile and bland. But its magic is giving you a whole spice rack to kick things up a notch. You can make it sound a lot like the mk2, or like Noise Engineering’s bright and sharp-edged oscillators, or some synths of the 80s or early 90s, or lots of other things besides.

I thought the waveshapers (three of them, simultaneous, independent, and good) would be the main advantage over the mk2 (one shaper with three modes, all ugly). But having a third FM operator and a flexible routing matrix/bus hybrid, is golden. Monitoring Main and Op A in stereo while Op B modulates them both is an experience.

There are things I could be picky about — like having 6 styles of knobs where three would be fine — but honestly none of it poops the party. I think I might have a new favorite oscillator.

first impressions: SMR and Prism

The 4ms SMR is a bank of 6 bandpass filters that can act as a graphic equalizer or as (approximate) sine wave oscillators. It has an unusual system for assigning frequencies: built-in or custom scales assigned to a ring of 20 notes, and LEDs that light up in the color of the channel assigned to that note. The channels can rotate around the ring or be spread out, can be “nudged” by external inputs or locked to a specific pitch. It’s a design that encourages unusual new composition practices, but at the same time, can complicate more traditional ones. It’s also a very pretty light show.

What I was hoping to use it for was:

  • Modal synthesis, similar to Rings or Rainmaker. Fewer bands, but specific control over their frequencies and levels. In this area it’s kind of a disappointment, but it’s possible that it can still be a partner in feedback loops with other gear.
  • The sort of few-oscillator additive/harmonic patch like I did a couple of times with the ER-301. This… might still be doable, but requires (A) customizing a scale to give nice harmonic multiplications, (B) multing a pitch signal into both “nudge” inputs, which might wind up requiring a buffered multiple, a utility module which I’ve dodged so far, and (C) adjusting the “nudge” input tracking so it properly tracks 1V/OCT. Which it does not, right now.

The procedure in the manual to adjust tracking didn’t work — and while the newest firmware is supposed to improve tracking, trying to upgrade to it also didn’t work. I’ve written to 4ms tech support about it.

Qu-Bit Prism is a filter, delay and bitcrusher in one smallish module. The sound of it is quite good, and the delay gets into comb filter territory (a super short delay with the right feedback configuration does phase cancellation stuff that acts as a filter instead of an echo). But the delay doesn’t react well to modulation, and a single knob controls the delay mix and feedback. You can’t have a loud single slapback, nor a pure delay without the dry signal, nor chorus or flanging, nor physical modeling uses except at a fixed pitch. (You can change the pitch but it takes a second or so to slide to the new one, so it’s not practical.)

A delay with this much limitation is mostly good as an end-of-chain effect, or possibly in feedback loops with a mixer. For end-of-chain, I might as well use a plugin. For feedback loops, I’ll have the T-Rackonizer which I expect to be way ahead of it (though minus a bitcrusher, but that’s not something I care a lot about).

Here’s my plan now:

  • Judge SMR on its own merits, rather than hopes, expectations and disappointments.
  • Don’t worry too much about the additive oscillator patch. If SMR can’t do it, Stages can (if a bit primitively) and it’s not a common enough thing to warrant buying gear specifically for it.
  • Don’t buy anything until KnobCon.
  • Don’t sell anything until KnobCon that wasn’t already on my sell list. That will give me time to settle in with this new and somewhat thorny gear, see how it all interacts and make better decisions.
  • New gear arrives today. Check that out, enjoy it, see how it interacts with the other new stuff… maybe Dynamo is just what SMR needs, maybe T-Rackonizer makes the Prism moot, maybe the HD mk3 is so awesome I want to sell two other things and get a second one.
  • But after KnobCon, be kind of merciless about the focus thing. Not necessarily with snap decisions, but resist feature creep.

just like that

Researching my various options, a couple of sales and trades, and a bout with insomnia, led to the realization that I’ve been avoiding my ER-301. I’ve only used it once in the last 9 recordings I’ve finished, and that was just as a noise source. And I’ve been planning/hunting the things I tried to replace with it: Hertz Donut, an analog wavefolder, a straightforward delay module, because I miss them.

So what else have I used it for?

  • A dynamics processor — but I could go back to a Bastl Dynamo like before, or with some effort Maths & a VCA, or try a Eurorack compressor like the MSCL. (And honestly I think Dynamo kept stuff in line a little easier due to an all-analog path and not having to be so cautious about clipping.)
  • A harmonic oscillator, or really an additive one since I wasn’t using scan/tilt functions. I traded for a 4ms SMR which should arrive Saturday, and among other things it’s likely to be able to take over this duty. If not, there are other options.
  • A couple of utility functions, for which I can just keep my uO_C around for such relatively rare occasions.

ER-301 is a powerful module to be sure, but I guess I’m just not really connecting with it on anything but a technical and rational level. So, in my pursuit of a more focused musical instrument, it makes sense to let go of it, with appreciation for what I’ve learned.

…and in the course of writing this while also waiting for slow stuff to run at work and reaching out on synth forums, I managed to trade the ER-301 for a Dynamo, Origami wavefolder, Jomox T-Rackonizer (dual delay/reverb/filters in a feedback matrix configuration, something I’ve thought several times about getting in its non-Eurorack form) and the cash difference which paid for a Hertz Donut mk3. So everything has come together quite quickly. I still have more gear to sell that will clear out 90HP of space and put a chunk of money back into the bank.

Work might have been a long, unproductive slog this week, but in the synth world things are resolving nicely and looking pretty shiny!