turning the crank

(It turns out moving aside those unused Dirt Rally files was a bad idea, since the RaceNet server decided it was a “discrepancy” that meant I was probably cheating, so it wiped my current championship progress (which was good) and maybe my online standings (which were not particularly). Feh.)

After two weeks with the Lyra-8, I have more than an hour of recorded, finished material. 13 minutes of that is for Ambient Online, and 9 minutes was rejected. I’ll keep going for a while and see what else comes up, and maybe raise the bar a little more.

The Lyra-8 has a very “forward” sound that fills the frequency spectrum, and it musically covers drones, bass, melody, noises, pulses, growls… it tends to want to be dominant, and can stand alone. I was concerned I might find myself putting my music into distinct “Lyra” and “non-Lyra” boxes that have a different feel.

But the last three or so recordings I’ve made have eased my worries. I’m finding technique and style cross over between the two domains, and I’m continuing to discover the ways it all fits together.

Two of those recordings were last night. What can I say, I have been bitten by the bug!

This album is going to not have any particular theme other than “featuring the Lyra-8.” But I already have a specific intent for the next one.

waste of space

Today I read about games that demand 150GB or 175GB or more of disk space because of massive high-res textures that a lot of people with modest graphics cards and monitors will never need. I don’t have a lot of games installed on my new computer, but it got me curious.

WizTree is a nifty program that quickly scans a drive to see what’s taking up space, and gives you a graph grouped by folder and color-coded by file type, making the worst offenders easy to see at a glance. Handy!

It turns out that Dirt Rally 2.0, the only “big” game I have installed, is consuming 83.8GB of my 1TB hard drive. That is almost exactly the same size as my entire MP3 library of 11,491 songs.

And when I looked further, I found that at least 14.1GB of that is DLC content that I haven’t paid for and can’t play… a complete waste, in other words. There’s probably a couple more gigs in the Cars folder.

I will experimentally move those files to my old SSD (which is now acting as a USB backup drive), but I’m pretty sure Steam will see that they’re missing and “helpfully” redownload them for me. If not immediately, then next time it updates. And because the game is partially online, I can’t not update.

I do enjoy the game, but geez, that is stupid. You should (A) by default, not download content you don’t own, and (B) for the content you do own, choose whether to install ultra high resolution textures you’re never going to see (with the default chosen reasonably based on your graphics card/monitor resolution).

All of the other games I have installed — Noita, Slay the Spire, Nova Drift, Islands and Bejeweled — total under 2 gigabytes.

It’s not so easy to estimate the total of all my installed music production software, but my visual estimate — including all of the sample libraries I’ll mostly never use, presets I’ll mostly never use, reverb impulse responses, stray installer files, redundant versions etc. — puts it at about 50GB.

connecting dots

Two essays I’ve read in the last two days: one about one big historical factor that got us where we are today, the other about the big historical factors that will send us somewhere else tomorrow.

In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation

A compelling argument that so much of corporate America’s emphasis on productivity and metrics, the relatively weak worker solidarity, worker’s rights and general sense of egalitarianism, the “it could be worse” attitude from people who should be demanding better lives, and a number of commonplace and questionable financial instruments and manipulations, all were begun by the American cotton industry when slavery, the availability of cheap land (stolen violently from First Nations peoples, of course) and the start of the Industrial Revolution came together.

I can’t find fault with any of this. While America was hardly the only nation that grew itself through imperialism and slavery, it was the biggest and most successful (and horrific) example.

Three Big Things: The Most Important Forces Shaping the World

An argument that the biggest factors in today’s society which are likely to trigger the major events of our near future are (1) demographic shift, (2) wealth inequality reaching a breaking point, and (3) access to information (and disinformation).

This is all well and good, but I think another major factor was missed, perhaps what will be the biggest mover of 21st century history: climate change. It’s a wild card with the ability to start wars, smash economies and undo a lot of what we have often liked to think of as “progress”, or be part of the impetus that propels us — albeit painfully and reluctantly, with a lot of human suffering along the way — into a sustainable, better future.

poke, poke back

It’s nice to finally get some autumn-like weather again. We waited until last night, marshmallows and cheddar turkey sausages at the ready, for the opportunity to “camp” on our back patio and enjoy it. The later dawn, earlier sunset, fall colors, and more human-friendly temperature and humidity generally brings a lift to my mood and general energy level.

The Lyra-8 has been working out well for me. I’ve started a collection of some decent recordings of improvisations with it, and submitted two of them to Ambient Online’s next compilation. A couple of times I’ve worked from “what’s the most utterly horrendous noise possible?” to something really gorgeous.

I know its self-modulation will never really be tamed — there are singularities along the range of the “Mod” knobs that defy all explanation. But so long as I avoid those, I’m developing a better sense of the combinations, modulation, effects, techniques, performance etc. that give me results I like. Natural Gate is a yes for sure, as it adds more definite articulation and really enjoys chewing on those full, harmonically rich and noise-infused sounds. Stereo delay as well as Haaze can give it width and depth, and delay and reverb can help turn the instrument’s generally loose sense of pitch into a fuller “ensemble” feel. Low shelf EQ, notch filtering and dynamic EQ can tame some of the overwhelming pressure the instrument puts in some bands, while a high shelf or noise reduction algorithms can reduce or shape some of the noisiness of the built-in PT delay. CV modulation requires some offset and attenuation to work well, as the first couple of volts often seem to have almost no effect. With that knowledge I want to revisit external FM sources and see how they differ from the internal modulation routing. I haven’t tried pitch sequences with the SQ-1 or Stages yet, but that’s coming.

The Lyra is certainly responsive to touch and expressive to play, but it invites a bit more.

  • I’d like some subtle performance control over vibrato and pitch bending. It can be achieved somewhat through modulation between voices, but you’ve got to play multiple voices for that, and that’s more like “influence” rather than control. Trying to use the tuning knobs for micro pitch fluctuations is a bit awkward and risky, and the vibrato toggle switch is very organ-like and heavy-handed.
  • Likewise, dynamics control with the touchplates can be a bit tricky. Some of it is down to technique, combining different touches/brushes of the plates with the envelope switch and Hold knob settings — and is a pretty delightful aspect of the feel of the instrument at times — but more control is welcome.
  • Expressive control over other aspects of the sound — like the mix level of an effect, or a manually controlled phaser or something — seems like it would be extremely welcome with this instrument.
  • When I’m playing non-Lyra synths now, I feel like I’m missing a dimension.

I’m considering the Expressive E Touché SE. It’s a highly adjustable touch controller inspired by the touché d’intensité control (aka the “lozenge”) on the Ondes Martenot, but with 4 degrees of freedom rather than one. You can press, tap, rock, and shift it, and assign different directional controls as needed — most typically, downward pressure to affect volume and brightness, and sideways movement for vibrato and bending. You can adjust its sensitivity and its feel, through a combination of electronic settings, software settings, a mechanical balancing slider, and physically changing out an internal cylinder if you want to get that deep. I tried its more expensive sibling at Knobcon a couple of years ago, and it felt very good. The “Software Edition” is USB-only and gives up direct MIDI and CV connections, but I can get around that easily with the Bitwig/Expert Sleepers integration. The full version could be a smarter choice if intended to play live without a computer, which… right now I assume I don’t.

But: desk space. I’ll have to figure out if it will fit and if the ergonomics will be right.

There are other possibilities, with… mostly fewer benefits other than fitting in the modular rack. Intellijel Tetrapad, Meng Qi Hand, Adventure Audio Skin, FSRs (force sensing resistors)… I have a lot of questions about some of them, doubts about others. A couple of them are cheap enough I might add them on for giggles even if I go for the Touché, if I make other small changes to the modular.

two things.

Luftrum Sound Design has been running a charity auction every October for the past few years. Music software and hardware developers donate all kinds of great items — the 2016 auction is when I got into Eurorack because of Mutable Instruments’ contributions, and I picked up a few Bastl modules in 2017. Things are a bit calm to start, but by Halloween the bidding is intense!

This year’s charity is the World Wildlife Federation, with donations specifically directed to protect rainforests in the Amazon and Indonesia.

The auction previously was hosted at the kvraudio.com message boards, and was kind of a nightmare for the organizer and assistants to keep track of bids and update the available items. This year it’s being hosted at RallyUp.

This is the other thing: Modern Waste is an Economic Strategy

Recycling is… kind of bullshit, unfortunately. Where it works, it’s certainly better than chucking materials into a landfill and mining more aluminum or producing more plastic from petroleum. But it often doesn’t work. Either way, it’s industry’s way of pretending disposable goods and packaging aren’t waste, while still externalizing costs and pushing the responsibility for cleanup onto cities and consumers.

In other words, yes, it’s capitalism’s fault.

All this said, recycling and this kind of waste are relatively low down the priority list where it comes to climate — food waste is about 30 times more of a problem than packaging.


My Lyra-8 arrived yesterday, and it’s certainly a beast. The designer’s intent was:

  • Taking inspiration from neurology, build an electronic instrument where everything is interconnected rather than defined by a limited set of one-way linear flows. Simple parts with a network of many connections between them allow for rich and complex behavior.
  • Taking inspiration from both the violin and Theremin, make the instrument tactile and direct, with minimum automation or quantization.
  • Taking inspiration from Indian ragas, where “the art of mastering your mental and emotional state is essential.” I’ll mostly take the designer’s word on that, but I agree that it does seem to ask for a certain mindset.
  • An intro video for the smaller Lyra-4 claims it’s an instrument for communicating with the subconscious of whales via household plumbing, using recovered Soviet military technology from the 60s. Ummm.

My very first impression of the instrument was, it weighs a LOT. My second impression was several minutes of confusion and disbelief. Understanding parts of the instrument arrived within the first couple of hours. Mastery over the whole thing does not seem possible in a human lifetime, but intuitive partnership with the cetacean subconscious seems to be imminent 🙂

The cross-modulation stuff is basically FM, but I’ve read that it’s neither linear nor exponential FM since the oscillators have a nonlinear voltage-to-frequency relationship. Notes often, but not always, drift in pitch as volume changes or slide from one to another. There are probably all kinds of DC offsets, crosstalk, and unspecified feedback going on as well. It’s not that uncommon for sets of voices to go up when you expect down, lock themselves into perfect sync, or drop into silence (perhaps because they’re not thru-zero capable? or is it ghosts?). And it’s all based on gestures, and sometimes the tiniest movements of knobs, and humidity and temperature.

You can turn all those modulation switches off and it’s much more predictable, but still on the weird side. As Loopop said in his video, “forget East Coast or West Coast, this synth is from outer space.”

The sound, and the feeling you get when playing it (after the initial overwhelming confusion) is an amazing combination of alien and humanistic, delicate and forceful.

I recorded two jams with it last night, as well as playing with running drums through it (which was amazing, but pretty far from what I’m doing as Starthief). I expect the next album after… whatever the scenes-but-no-places-one is called …will be Lyra-heavy. I’ll just record a whole lot of stuff and publish the best.

For a taste, here’s the first thing:

I can imagine playing this instrument live, which isn’t something I’ve felt very inclined to do with the Eurorack gear or plugins. It’d be very edge-of-the-pants… er, seat-of-the-seat? Fly by night? Creatively risky and adventurous, though I don’t know if the audience would know just how much so. Just the Lyra and maybe a couple of guitar pedals; if I wanted to change directions, a drum machine too.

I kind of want to take it upstairs to our crafts/jamming room and plug it into the little amp I’ve got up there, and then maybe record that with my portable recorder (if I can find the thing! It’s so small I lost it somewhere in the house). But I don’t want to crawl under/behind my desk to reroute the power every time, so perhaps I’ll look for a second power adapter.

I also intend to try it together with the modular, of course. It is a natural drone monster, for one thing. The effects (a fantastically dirty PT delay and surprisingly controllable distortion) can be used with an external input, and if also using the voice section, the combined output can modulate the voices in a feedback loop. It has a few CV inputs, though from what I’ve read it’s less “control voltage” and more “humble suggestion voltage…”

nowhere fast

I had a couple of vacation days making this a double-long weekend; there was a family camping trip planned, but that got cancelled. Given the 90 degree weather in almost-October I don’t suppose that would have been a lot of fun anyway.

I figure the arrival of the Lyra-8 tomorrow might be disruptive to my flow — I might take a break to learn the techniques of a weird new instrument, it might make me rethink the modular again, or have an effect on my musical style. So I made a big push to finish the album first, without seriously worrying about whether I’d get there.

I did.

I recorded that first track while finishing the mastering and artwork phases for Grounded. Then I learned Bitwig, migrated to a new computer, and went to Knobcon. And then I was on fire. 9 tracks in about 2 weeks, and four of those in four days.

I didn’t learn massive amounts from Knobcon, nor feel super inspired by it — but it must have triggered some kind of mental and spiritual refresh. I did acquire a bit of new gear and a new vision for how everything fits together, and it all falls in nicely with the focus that came together during the recording of Grounded.

Bitwig integration is working really nicely for me. The Mimeophon is all over this album, and contributed to a sort of retro / hauntology vibe which I think works really well with the album concept. I also employed a couple of tape/vinyl simulation plugins, but a big part of it really is Mimeophon with the Color knob cranked down, Repeats cranked up and enough Halo to overdrive it a bit. Then post-processing to try to take the edge off the distortion while also adding more flavor.

The album still has to survive the review process — I haven’t even listened to half of it at work yet, which is a key step for getting perspective — and mastering and art and… I haven’t chosen a name yet. That might take as long as the whole recording phase did. 🙂

from Russia with drones

That didn’t take long…

In my deliberations of instruments that could work well in my musical context I kept circling back around the Soma Lyra-8, as I have for a few years now. The earliest Russian-built units had a waiting list and commanded high prices, so I figured it was something to daydream about at best. The maker contracted a Polish manufacturer to help meet demand, and prices steadily creeped down. (EDIT: it seems price weirdness was more due to exchange rate pains and VAT/shipping/customs issues more than rarity.) But US retailers still have a big markup, and a lot of owners who resell are still pricing them like their cases are made of gold instead of steel.

I found someone reselling a more recent Russian “Black Beast” at a much more reasonable price, did the math and went for it.

8 independent oscillators, tuned at will, played via very expressive touch plates. They can FM each other for more growly and intense sounds. There’s an interesting “hyper LFO” modulation source, and a delay and distortion so good that Soma has had success selling them as a separate FX-only Eurorack module. I’ve heard the Lyra-8 cross the spectrum from gentle angelic ambient through harsh industrial noise, often within a single performance. My musical neighborhood is right along that same path, and I’ve often thought this could be the perfect instrument for me. I hesitated mostly because of past prices, but also because it might threaten my use of other gear.

I’ve heard it’s got something of a mind of its own, and some people just don’t get along with its quirks and style — it’s a love-it-or-hate-it instrument. In the designer’s words, it’s more about improvisational performance and emotional connection than predictable, reproducible results, and I’m certainly fine with that. I expect I’ll love it, but if not it should be an easy resell.

I’ll close with a link to one of my favorite videos featuring the Lyra-8:

testing in production

I’ve put my Machine mk2 aside and set up my Microbrute again in the middle space on my desk. Re-acquainting myself with it, I’m not sure this is going to last. It’s a great synth for basses and analog leads, but not generally suited to the music I’m making now. It does have some “edge case” sounds in it that can work well, and it loves audio rate modulation from Eurorack oscillators. But it’s basically holding that desk space until I think of something that would be better suited.

There are several low-cost, small format synths which would be fun — but probably redundant. Some others probably are outside the sonic/workflow ranges I’d want to work with. There are some I’m curious about but are priced outside casual curiosity, and others that are just prohibitive.

My best bet might be a Behringer Neutron, compared to the Microbrute — but I fear it would just feel like an unnecessary expansion of my modular. So I’m holding off any decisions here until something more clearly presents itself.

The album is coming along. I wound up rejecting one of my recordings because I didn’t like the way the melody line worked, after some effort trying to rescue it via selective pitch-shifting, altering rhythms to make it a little less plain, etc. I couldn’t get it to a place where I was proud of it, unlike the rest so far.

I’m mostly sticking to the “places that aren’t places” theme, and recalling the settings of some recurring dreams. I had a variation on one of those dreams last night, where a mad wizard whose tower was built into a bridge support wound up blowing up said bridge. I was tasked by the city to collect fines from him and put up signs condemning his actions. Broken bridges, or bridges that rise far too high and then dip alarmingly underwater, are a recurring feature of my dream scenery. Maybe that’s due to growing up on Florida’s gulf coast, where the two 1980 Sunshine Skyway Bridge accidents were prominent events in my childhood. (Also, both the old bridge and its 1987 replacement were notorious for suicides. My dad once had plans to write a novel about it.)

After chastizing the mad wizard, I woke to see a deer crossing the end of our driveway. We live in the sort of metro suburb where you really don’t expect that, and it’s only the second or third time I’ve seen deer here, so it’s always a bit weird and portentous.

Last Saturday there was a “How-To Festival” at a semi-local library. I got to learn a bit about local snakes and do some guided meditation, but the most significant bits to me were a presentation on solutions to global warming and a quick beginner lesson on the ukulele.

The presentation mostly introduced Project Drawdown, who have a website with a ranked list of climate solutions in terms of how much CO2 equivalent reduction they would result in. The list is not what most people would expect — it’s heavily weighted toward structural and policy changes, and most of our personal responsibility is political. Electric cars are #26 and household recycling is way down at #55, but educating girls and providing clean cookstoves in developing countries, and protecting tropical forests and Ireland’s peatlands are much higher priorities. Proper disposal of air conditioner refrigerants, large scale wind power, and reducing food waste (mostly on the supply side) are the biggest things.

That said, “Plant-Rich Diet” is #4 on the list. Beef has a much heavier carbon footprint than everything else (except lamb, which isn’t nearly as popular), due to deforestation and the methane that cattle produce. Reducing consumption to levels where no new pasture is cleared for grazing, and changing over to regenerative grazing methods for the rest, would be a huge help. I’m personally going to cut back on beef, and commit to only having it once in a while in a particularly good form.

As for the ukulele: it was kinda fun. A lot easier to pick up in terms of technique than mandolin. I felt a little more natural strumming the mandolin than the uke, and the strings aren’t consistent intervals — picking out melodies or working out theory is more of a challenge. But people have been known to restring and retune in mandolin GDAE, so that’s an option. I found the soprano uke a bit tight for my big hands but the concert size was reasonable. One of the instructors said the Waterman plastic ukes are actually pretty decent, so I might give it a try. I don’t expect it’s something I’ll make use of for my Starthief project, but you never know, maybe I’ll kick off a new dark uke ambient subgenre 😉