gradually

Overall this album has felt like pretty slow going so far. I’ve been gaming, reading, napping, and occasionally firing up the music rig. A little slower is okay; there’s still momentum. Especially when I consider that I did record two more pieces for Ambient Online during this period. Honestly, I think it feels like more time has passed than actually has.

If the momentum does stop, or I feel unhappy with the quality of my work, I’ll pull the alarm and go back to a song-a-week-or-more format until I reboot myself. Hopefully that won’t be necessary.

Anyway, a month ago I thought I had a theme for this — waveshaping and nonlinearity — but I things haven’t really solidified that way. Instead, they have picked up the less technical, more emotional and esoteric themes of incubation and hesychia from the Kingsley book. It’s a more appealing choice, but it’s honestly not too far off from where my music tends to go anyway, so it feels a bit like no theme at all.


Speaking of books, what I’m into right now is K. J. Parker’s Sharps. In a setting similar to Renaissance Europe, a small, poor kingdom decides the path to maintaining a fragile peace with a neighbor is sending a national fencing team for Olympics-style diplomacy. Everything goes wrong due to some coincidence of bureaucratic incompetence, basic human laziness, corruption, and colliding conspiracies, and it’s often hard to tell which is which. Much like the news in 2019, only a lot more fun.

The book makes me want to learn some things about fencing. What the heck is a demi-volte? What just happened in that big action scene? Why was the thing that somebody just said significant? I’m missing some of the story here I think.


I’m still on Guild Wars 2. I’ve gotten to level 80 with 4 characters:

  • A sylvari Mesmer, who went through the Path of Fire story and converted to the Mirage spec, which I’m not really certain is either more effective or more fun. (It’s not like converting back is hard now though.)
  • A human Necromancer, who I kept at the core spec because Death Shroud — which looks and feels a lot like the wraith world of the Nazgul in the LOTR movies — just seems a lot cooler than summoning sand shades. This is probably my most capable character in a solo situation.
  • A sylvari Engineer, who converted to the lightsaber-ish Holosmith spec, and who looks extremely cool. But I had serious trouble in Southsun Cove (due to “quiet” Confusion applied by some of the monsters there which causes you to injure yourself) and found the intro to the Path of Fire area much more difficult than with the Mesmer.
  • A Norn Ranger, who went for the Soulbeast spec. It’s kind of cool to take on some of the aspects of various animals, but the special effects are lackluster and the actual effectiveness is questionable.

I also started a couple of thieves and an elementalist who got a little ways in and I just found they weren’t as fun or effective to play — though that could just mean I need to adopt to a different spec and playstyle. I’m now on a sylvari Guardian, who feels fun and flashy, intending to go for the Firebrand spec.

I haven’t visited all the level 80 zones, though I think between all my characters combined, I’ve covered all the below-80 zones. I figure once I max out this Guardian, I’ll pick a character and try to get 100% map completion. After that I might chase after achievement titles, unlocking more cosmetic gear, and maybe even try WvW, which I’ve never done before, or solo Fractal Dungeons. There’s a ton of content in this game and as much of it as I’ve seen, there’s a lot more — not like when I had 70+ characters in Champions Online and had done basically everything except the premium mission content.


There’s also Stranger Things. We just watched Season 3, and then rewatched Season 1 (which I’d only sort of half-watched and missed a few key things). It’s far from a perfect show, and some of its appeal is in intentional 80s cheese (turned up to 11, so to speak, for the third season). But it’s a pretty fertile setting for more stories — who knows what else might come from the Upside-Down, whether there are other otherworlds, what else went on in that lab or elsewhere in US and Russian psychic research, whether there are any other psychics besides Eleven and Eight (maybe Will’s developing something?)

Of course in my circles, a big part of Stranger Things is the synth soundtrack. It’s kind of become the Stairway to Heaven of synth players, and Season 3 brought with it a whole new wave of covers. I like the music, but please, people, create something new. Or do a creative rather than an imitative cover of anything else. Or go ahead and do your imitation, for your own amusement and learning purposes, and then don’t post it anywhere. Ask yourself whether the world will be a better place because there is one more cover of the Stranger Things theme.

(I had thought Season 3 was a lot heavier on the licensed 80s music than previous, but Season 1 did have quite a few — including sneaking in Tangerine Dream’s “Kiew Mission”, itself an 80s all-synth track that slides right in alongside the score.)

As I have recently posted elsewhere, I like it when artists take iconic 80s style synth sounds — or at least, the “synthwave” sounds we identify as 80s sounds now, though they’re not entirely representative — and then do something fresh and new with them rather than going pure retro. I feel like SURVIVE, Makeup & Vanity Set, and some others do that pretty well.

what happened to the past’s future?

This was going to be a much longer post, where I wrote a little about the futurist books Future Shock, Megatrends and particularly The Singularity is Near and where either they or reality went wrong.

I was also going to dive into a comparison of technological progress by decade with specific examples. I’ll cut that down to a short version: the 70s were a time of background breakthroughs in electronics, whose impact wasn’t really felt until the 80s — when computers and media technology started getting personal. That all went online in the 90s. In the 2000s that jumped into the palms of our hands, and social media began demanding our attention.

But a time traveler to 2019 from 2009 — if they didn’t watch any political news(*) — might not even notice anything different. Popular fashion, music, the kinds of movies we’re watching are the same. YouTube, Twitter, Skype, Wikipedia, Netflix, Uber, AirBnB, KickStarter etc. are a decade old. None of the “next big things” of the 2000s have really arrived yet.

(*) I don’t want to write about politics now, it’s tiring and upsetting.

The interesting bit to me isn’t “futurists were wrong” but the question of why 2019 looks so much like 2009 in so many ways.

Miniaturization of electronics is unlikely to go much further than it already has — power requirements and heat are limits on computing power in a small size. So there’s not nearly as much opportunity for entirely new classes of consumer electronics the way there was in the 80s, 90s and 2000s. One could predict things like better batteries and faster networking speeds opening up a few opportunities, but not making major changes in how we do things.

We know there’s a lot of development going on in the background in various areas. Biotech, for instance. Self-driving cars and commercial drones are in not-quite-ready-for-market-but-maybe-soon phases. We’ve been getting more warnings about automation replacing more jobs, though it’s hard to tell how serious that threat is. Cellular agriculture is just starting to show up at fast-food restaurants and might make the big time soon. It’s possible that, overall, we’ve been in sort of in a 70s phase and a lot of the impact of this stuff will arrive in the 2020s.

Vanity Fair did a survey where 18-26 year olds agreed with other adults that 2010s pop music is the worst. The best music of previous decades is more accessible than ever and people tend to prefer it.

Movies and TV have arguably been mining the recent past too, at least some extent.

As for popular fashion and other trends: I wonder if social media has a sort of stabilizing and homogenizing influence. At the same time, we could be differentiating ourselves more through online persona and interactions than offline. People may also be more invested in their individual identities, meaningful affiliations and overall human solidarity than in a sort of fashion-based tribalism, though that kind of sounds like wishful thinking.

collapse

I’ve just read John Varley’s Slow Apocalypse… while deciding not to keep reading the “Climate Collapse” thread on the Lines forum because it’s usually too depressing.

I don’t like disaster movies, or even trailers for disaster movies. It turns out the same is generally pretty true of novels by otherwise excellent sci-fi authors. Though I keep confusing Varley with Vernor Vinge for some reason and crediting them with each other’s’ work, I did enjoy the Thunder and Lightning series.

To summarize the book: a scientist develops bacteria that render crude oil unusable (presumably as revenge against Saudi Arabia for 9/11). It goes out of control, spreads around the world, destroying oil wells and stockpiles. Transportation, power (dependent on diesel trains and trucks for supplies), communication, emergency services, medicine, food, etc. and the rule of law all become scarce.

Okay… maybe an interesting premise. I could see the book being a lesson of some kind, or a story mostly about ingenuity and the triumph of the human spirit, or some such. NOPE. Somehow, it is barely even a story about the climate crisis, much less presenting an acceptable way forward.

Instead, it does the disaster movie thing of dumping one horror after another on the protagonists, and feels a bit like Final Destination. (Ugh.) LA is struck with a 9.8 earthquake, mudslides and fires and lawless violence. The main character — not the “ordinary guy” the back cover blurb says, but medium-rich in Hollywood — faces all kinds of horrors and tragedies he can’t do anything about, as well as repeated internal conflicts over whether to help strangers or defend his family’s hoard.

In a way, the book is about wealth and privilege. The protagonist’s main fear (except when facing immediate threats to self and his family) is losing his wealth. At the start of the book, he’s looking for another lucrative script that will let him maintain the lifestyle he’s accustomed to. Later on, he’s worried about his wealth (in the form of stored food, water, fuel, guns, and other supplies) being redistributed — he’s afraid both of thieves and of his neighborhood going socialist. Life in refugee camps and on the crowded aircraft carriers the Navy is using to move people out of LA, is the poverty he fears. But it’s a muddled message; that “wealth” actually has a practical value to him, in reducing his own family’s suffering. This is unlike reality where a few people sit uselessly on billions while others starve.

It wasn’t a bad book, other than the ending feeling a bit weak and a few quibbles. I just really dislike this kind of… torture story, really. There’s very little justice or hope or satisfaction in it, just a grind, just shock and grimness and deprivation. If I wanted that, I could have turned on the news.

drive

I ran out of CBD oil caplets a few days ago, and decided not to restock just to see if I noticed a difference.

Today anxiety definitely made itself felt — I was very tempted to go home early from work. I’ve also felt more worn-out and slow to start in the last few mornings. But on the other hand, the trouble I’d been having with constipation also disappeared.

So I think I’ll get back on it but at a lower dosage, and see how that works.


I picked up an Elektron Analog Drive in a blowout sale. I was expecting a fairly normal-sized stompbox, but it’s a big metal box as tall and deep as the Microbrute, more than half as wide and twice as heavy.

It sounds pretty great with the Reface CS, lending its sound a lot more authority and/or face-melting screaminess, depending. If I wanted to do rock leads or organs that would be a pretty great setup. I don’t, but I’ve already put it to pretty good use turning chords into a variety of textures via intermodulation distortion.

One issue with the Reface though is a high noise floor. I’ve dealt with it on other recordings, but high gain settings on the Analog Drive really makes that noise stand out. I had a couple of ideas as to the cause, but someone suggested it might be picking up noise over the USB connection; if so there are isolators to fix that. I’ll give it a try.


Last weekend we got an estimate on removing our alarmingly wobbly deck and replacing it with concrete steps and a bit of fence, and the number was… much. It wasn’t itemized, which raises a red flag for me, and we’re going to get estimates from other contractors. But I suspect I’m going to put that computer replacement plan on hold for a bit. I don’t have to jump right into it as soon as the 3rd generation Ryzen chips hit the market. It could be smarter to wait for Black Friday/Cyber Monday/Consumption Season deals anyway.

Something else I am looking at from a bit of a distance is the Chase Bliss MOOD pedal. Like the Dark World, it’s a collaboration between other pedal designers, with two sides that “talk” to each other in various ways. Hainbach — who does nifty atmospheric stuff with small synths, old cassette recorders, MiniDisc players and retro test equipment — called his video on it “The Most Ambient Guitar Pedal.” But nobody is launching this one with a discounted price, so I’m going to hang on a bit and look for it used or discounted, or decide I don’t really need it.

Another one is Soma Labs Ether. It’s a small sensor/amplifier that picks up electromagnetic fields from various electrical/electronic devices, made especially for exploring urban environments. It’s very cool, but:

  • It’s just an improvement on an induction coil gizmo I already have. Mine is passive and needs a lot of amplification just to catch signals leaking from nearby LCD screens, electric motors, light switches etc.
  • While there are a variety of clicks, hums, buzzes, whines, rhythmic patterns etc. it picks up, they tend to have a similar character and I feel like the “language” would be exhausted pretty quickly, in a musical sense. It’s probably not something I would want to use in a lot of releases.
  • (On the other hand, someone said their walk around a shopping mall with one was “the best ambient/drone gig I have been to in 2 years.”)
  • One of those super-cheap radios meant to tune into broadcast TV audio is pretty great at plucking weird signals out of the air. Sometimes those signals are coming from the next continent over. I believe I should still have such a radio around here somewhere. Of course, broadcast signals and natural “sferics” are different from local EM fields, and the focus is much less on exploring one’s local neighborhood with a different sense.

bits

First, a link. Someone came up with a brilliant patch for Rings, feeding it clocked random noise, which makes for a very convincing cello.

I’d generally rather hear a real cellist than a perfect imitation of one — but the ability to imitate a real instrument demonstrates the ability to create sounds that are unreal and otherworldly but have the characteristics of physical, acoustic objects. That’s where the magic is.

This is making me wonder a little about the Uncanny Valley phenomenon as it applies to sound… if it does. Slightly-off human-like voices can be a little creepy, but not nearly as much as a subtly wrong human visual appearance. Slightly-off musical instrument sounds, animal noises and sounds generally categorized as foley, usually don’t bother us at all.

That thought ties in with my current reading: R. Murray Schafer’s The Soundscape: The Tuning of the World. It’s not quite the book I expected, but I’ll stick with it. So far it’s sort of a catalog of descriptions of the sounds and soundscapes of the world, in both poetic and scientific terms — with an emphasis on things such as noise pollution, the lowered sensitivity toward sound that people have had since the Industrial Revolution, the lost sounds of extinct species and traditions and obsolete technologies, and so on.

And before that was Peter Kingsley’s In the Dark Places of Wisdom. That one was a combination of fascinating and infuriating. While I believe the author’s style and the structure of the book were intentional, it grated on me and left me frustrated at the end.

The general thrust of the book was the story of the pre-Socratic philosopher (and mystic) Parmeneides, who was Zeno’s teacher. (That’s the Zeno’s Paradox guy — if you step halfway across a room, and then halfway again, and halfway again, etc. you will never, according to math anyway, reach the other side. Although in practice you get down to atoms and then the Planck length, and statistically merging some non-zero number of the molecules of your foot with the wall, and… yeah.) Kingsley has a non-mainstream interpretation of who Parmeneides was and what his poetic writings were referring to. That interpretation is criticized by other scholars, but came off as relatively plausible to me at least — I was mostly reading this for inspiration, thanks to a tip from someone online.

Kingsley argues for a Western tradition (with bidirectional Eastern and African influences) of mysticism and holistic thought that was basically killed off by Socrates, then ignored by modern scholars because it didn’t fit the mold they expected. Except he never really concludes that argument or explains why it’s so important for modern people. He never really gets into a sort of Stoic-sounding-but-also-something-else world view that he hints at, either. He does try to sell the next book at the abrupt end-but-not-completion of the first, though. Argh. Nonfiction books shouldn’t be cliffhangers.

Anyway, it was still interesting. All we learn in grade school history about Greece is, basically, Socrates, Athens, and Homer. We don’t really find out about Apollo’s associations with the underworld (the sun goes into a cave at night, just like in Egyptian myth), the tradition of incubation (lying still in a small enclosed space as a means of contemplation / mystical journeying), Greek hero worship (almost literal), how Pythagoras used scientific/mathematical knowledge as a lure to attract people to his mystery cult (basically), or how Athens was kind of a colonialist bully to the rest of Greece.

There was a fair bit about silence, darkness, stillness, and the mystical that mostly didn’t come off as terrible woo and resonated with my own experiences. This might have me reconsidering the theme for the next album — it’s a much richer and more evocative theme than “nonlinearity.” But perhaps I will work both a technical theme and an emotional theme simultaneously, and I might yet find inspiration that merges the two.

not sorry

I am posting this here to stop myself from replying again in a thread that has gone pretty far off the rails:

I don’t like Radiohead.

It’s the vocals — the sound for sure, and possibly the lyrics if I could get past the sound, which I can’t. That’s it. Same reason I don’t like VNV Nation, even though some of my friends thought I would.

Some have called them “whiny”, but honestly, I liked the Smashing Pumpkins and it’s a real challenge to out-whine Billy Corrigan. So that’s not it.

Before today, I couldn’t have told you what they sounded like or named any of their songs. I did know a couple of album names, but wasn’t 100% sure they weren’t Coldplay albums instead. I figured I’d give them a chance, since several people were saying the band inspired them into electronic music. But: no.

I do understand why they inspired the right people at the right time and place, but the hype is just too much. I do not believe that a single Radiohead performance on Saturday Night Live was the driving force behind the 21st century resurgence of modular synths.

I don’t believe they were as influential as Kraftwerk or King Tubby or Trent Reznor.

I especially don’t believe they are “the Beatles of Generation X.” As someone else put it, there is no Beatles of another generation and the comparison is silly. (Not to mention, they were a few years too late to have deeply imprinted on Gen X.)

in the pipeline

I may have already stumbled into the beginnings of a theme for album #9: something in the general region of wavefolding, shaping, nonlinearity, geometric transformation, asymmetry. In fact I already had “asymmetry?” in a section of notes where I was brainstorming album concepts and general inspiration several months ago.

Part of the charm of the DPO I just acquired is its fantastic waveshaping section, which doesn’t just fold beautifully in a “West Coast” manner but creates a wide range of shapes that a digital wavetable VCO would be proud of. All of these varied shapes come from transformations of a simple triangle wave — not done here with mathematical calculations but with analog circuits. Derive a few shapes from this one, and then blend them to create even more.

The DPO can only do this to its own VCO B, but other modules — such as the Bubblesound cvWS which I just found deeply discounted and which fits into the remaining space left in my rack — can act on any signal. It will “correctly” convert a triangle wave and an in-phase square wave to a saw, or a triangle to a sine, given the right adjustments. But the fun comes from putting those adjustments under voltage control, and from feeding it “wrong” signals. I wrote that whole article about things that can be done with sine shapers, and have been experimenting with both the ER-301 and E370 in that respect. With both a tri-to-saw and a tri-to-sine shaper in a single module, the cvWS should be able to implement a kind of phase distortion similar to the Casio CZ synthesizers of the mid-80s, but in analog and with extra twists.

With other tools in the cabinet for nonlinear waveshaping — such as the tanh[3] and the Filter 8 — there’s a lot to work with. So this might well end up being both a synthesis study (as Materials was for Mutable Instruments Rings) and an abstractly themed concept album.

hmm.

Reactions to Internal Reflections haven’t been as strong as the previous album Passing Through, but a little better than The Rule of Beasts before that, which wasn’t up there compared to Materials. It makes me wonder if there’s some kind of boom-and-bust cycle at work, or something in how I present the releases (something about phrasing? day of the week maybe?) because I don’t feel there’s a big wobble in quality going on.

Could just be luck. Even Quincy Jones, producer of (among a lot of other things) Thriller, said it just comes down to divine intervention.

A couple of favorite quotes so far:

Calmly foreboding! (Is that possible?)

Hmm, I guess it is.

A little boring and kind of depressing.

This response actually kind of fascinates me. This comes from a general synth new blog, not specific to modular or to ambient and not really a “community” in the active sense that most forums are. It’s not known to get many comments… yet this person did. I think most people, when they follow a link to music and then don’t like what they hear, aren’t going to spend much time with it and aren’t going to comment. In fact, most people probably don’t comment when they do like the music.

That last bit means I really appreciate getting feedback, of course. But I don’t really take it into consideration when I make music. I don’t tend to get any kind of constructive criticism that I can and would act on.

Many years ago I actively sought peer critique, but not much of it was useful. I think it’d be less so now unless I found exactly the right person with the right insights; otherwise it is just a matter of personal aesthetic differences. I have to stand on my own confidence with these things. Any sort of self-confidence has been a long journey for me.

easy

With about 5 hours of minimal effort last night, Internal Reflections is mastered. Once again, I didn’t really leave myself anything difficult to work with, just a few spikes to manually tame, a couple of generally-too-loud tracks and a couple that benefited from a pass with a compressor/limiter.

I’m sure if I hired a professional who’s used to this genre, like Nathan Moody, to master my work it’d come out a bit better. But I don’t think I can justify the expense as it is. That’s almost a reason to wish I had a bigger audience right there though 🙂

I’m certainly happier with my own mastering work than with super-cheap or free services I’ve heard that seem to either pass everything through a single algorithmic process, or… completely neglect to address major differences in loudness between tracks on the same album so you wonder whether they did anything at all.


I have put together some high-contrast art this time — not the original idea I was going to work with, but I think it’s better — and I’m trying to decide how to work the text in. I might even forgo text, but I have some graphic design ideas for it that I’d like to work in somehow. I also have the concept blurb finally hashed out, and making the patch notes more readable isn’t that much work… so the release will be quite soon!

The Panharmonium got held back for a month for some new software features their testers asked for, which as I see it, just gives me more time to get familiar with the DPO before learning something new. I’ve had a few insights with it — figuring out why the FM felt so wild at first, delineating where the “sweet spots” for less noisy sounds are, and coming up with a set of experiments I want to try.