Good thing I didn’t jump immediately for the Quadrantid Swarm, because I have another thought.
The Polyend + Dreadbox Medusa is another one of those synths I didn’t pay that much attention to upon first release, because of its price and my assumption that I didn’t want a grid-based sequencer.
The price of a new Medusa now is almost down to half what it was and the “special edition” panel shown here also looks better than the original. And as it turns out, that grid-based sequencer is also a touch controller, and it is mighty.
In “note mode”, you can select a musical scale as well as the interval between rows — so you can set it up for handy chord fingering patterns or octaves or whatever makes sense to you. Each of the 64 pads also sends X, Y and pressure modulation signals which can be assigned to synth parameters.
In sequencer mode, each pad not only stores a note value but parameters. If you want, you can have each pad play a completely different sound, set up like a drum machine. Or you can use a row or column to sweep across parameters. Or assign the notes you want to use in your composition to a few pads, and simultaneously play those and parameter pads. You can copy/paste to arrange assignments into a sequence, or just step sequence more normally. I’m not sure whether you can sequence the sequencer’s own clock rate from there, and the sequencer’s motion seems to be strictly linear, but it’s still a pretty great concept.
The synth itself is more conventional in some ways, with 3 analog oscillators (with sync and expo FM) and 3 basic digital oscillators (with non-morphing wavetables). But you can assign them to play in unison, 3-voice mode (each voice is 1 analog + 1 digital) or 6-voice mode — note rotation as you play can lead to some interesting variations. The synth has a single multimode filter, making it paraphonic like the Microfreak. There are no built-in effects, which is a difference from other Dreadbox synths.
There are, unfortunately, some really bland-sounding demos out there which have turned a lot of people away from the synth. But there are also some stunning counterexamples — this is not a boring synth, but rather one that requires and rewards some sound design effort, and at least a touch of reverb or delay. Among actual users, opinions seem to be split — some absolutely love it, some just never quite get along with it.
Many of those best demos are using it exactly as I would, for drones and ambient stuff, and I kind of suspect I’m more likely to be in the “love it” group.
Quadrantid Swarm is a synth made to give instant gratification with weird, angry, dark and/or metallic sounds. It does have semi-modularity and that sweet spring reverb going for it. But overall it is much less expressive and flexible, and I think in the long term, the Medusa would likely serve better.
So as soon as either the Lyra or Reface sells or I encounter an extra-good deal, I expect I will go for a Medusa.
I don’t write that much about the games I play, partly because there’s just not a lot of change there. I tend to grab onto a game, or at least a genre, and stick with it for a good long while if I don’t burn out and get bored quickly.
What I’ve been playing for the past several months is Dirt Rally 2.0, Noita, Bejeweled 3, and (in the past month-ish) Guild Wars 2.
Dirt Rally 2.0 is currently doing its second World Series event, in both rally (on trails) and rallycross (on a mixed-surface gravel/asphalt track) categories. The finalists will compete for a $20,000 prize pool, and the rallycross winner also gets to test-drive a real-world electric car that’ll be used in the new eRX2 rally category. But everyone who participates will unlock a car in the game, so that’s nice.
I’m not a serious racing simmer, I’m a filthy casual who plays with an XBox controller, “bonnet view” (outside the windshield in the center of the car), and usually with automatic transmission enabled. I had low expectations going into this. But I’m very happy with coming in just below the top 10% overall, so I guess this post is a brag of sorts.
That still puts me a few light-years away from any sort of prize, as each qualifying round will take only 6 drivers in the final and send two of them to the semi-final. But hey, I don’t completely suck at this game after putting in (according to Steam) 261 hours in it 🙂
I did much less well in the Rallycross qualifying, squeaking into the top third. But then I don’t find rallycross as much fun to drive as roads and trails that go somewhere, which is a bit reminiscent of the off-roading I used to do with my dad in the 80s, with (at various times) a rail buggy, go-kart and motorcycles. Just a lot faster than we ever used to go 🙂
However, in the details it does say that Scotland could range from 7%-43%. Most of the rest are within a few percent one way or the other.
DNA and statistics both being what they are, adding more data to the pile and re-evaluating everyone doesn’t necessarily make for a more accurate assessment for any specific individual. Mostly this is just a bit of fun.
3/4 gaffer tape covers the ugly graphic strip on the Microfreak just fine. The downside is, it looks like there’s a piece of tape on the synth. It’d be nice if there was something a little more professional looking. But really this is just splitting hairs.
I’ve decided to let go of the Lyra-8. I like the way it plays, but it is fairly rigid about the way it sounds, and I’m just not into it anymore.
The most likely replacement is the eowave Quadrantid Swarm. Like the Lyra, it has 8 touchplates for oscillators that can be individually tuned. But instead of the organ oscillators, it has digital oscillators with different shapes and a unison mode, two analog filters in series, a spring reverb and a sequencer. It’s semi-modular and can also accept MIDI input as well as its touchplates. From the few demos I’ve seen on YouTube, it has a really nice wide range of sound character and should fit right in.
I’ve put some thought into other options, such as the Moog Subharmonicon or Dreadbox Nyx, but I think I’ve convinced myself that the QS is what I want to run with. I do want to sell some gear before moving it in, though.
The Microfreak showed up this afternoon and I’ve spent enough time with it to get solid first and second impressions.
While many of the oscillator modes are directly taken from the open-source code for Mutable Instruments Plaits, for the most part it doesn’t sound like “Plaits in a keyboard.” It’s its own weird little thing.
A lot of people think it’s kind of ugly, but some have said to reserve judgement until you see it in person. I think the only real sin is the graphic strip with the Arturia logo, which is a needlessly busy pattern right next to the already necessarily busy-looking textured touch keyboard. I’m just going to cover that with some gaffer tape.
The touch keyboard itself felt a bit awkward at first but I got used to it relatively quickly. It’s very sensitive, in a good and expressive way once you get to know it. There is a useful Hold button which works for drones as well as the arpeggiator, and the arp can be saved into the sequencer for further editing and manipulation. The “spice and dice” buttons can trigger either permanent or temporary random variations to the sequence which always seem to be musically compatible, if not necessarily brilliant.
There’s a modulation matrix that is cleverly implemented, and modulation amounts can be modulated by other modulators. As in, the touch pressure can increase the amount of vibrato, or an LFO can affect how much the cycling envelope affects the timbre. Circular and self-modulation patches are also possible and quite spiffy.
It’s paraphonic, in that there can be multiple oscillator voices playing simultaneously (with their digital envelope and VCAs) but there is a single analog filter, and a single cycling envelope. Many of the oscillator models are pretty complete without the filter anyway. One particular strength of this setup is that drones or arpeggios going through a single resonant filter can use it to glue the sound together and to emphasize particular harmonics. In fact, the moment I discovered this is when the last doubt about keeping this synth evaporated — I expect this to be one of the major ways in which this synth will fit into my music. I’ve been enjoying drones for hours today already 🙂
Like its predecessor, I have it running through the Elektron Analog Drive. It can add a nice bit of warmth and solidity, or dirty it up beautifully.
Mutable Instruments Shelves arrived over the weekend to fill out the biggest remaining gap in the modular. It’s a shelving and peaking EQ, where each band has a full frequency range available and its frequency, gain and Q can be voltage controlled. The two peak EQ bands are implemented using filters, and have lowpass, bandpass and highpass outputs as well. So it’s quite a versatile piece of gear. Some of the things it’s good for:
Basic EQ tasks. However, the available boost and cut isn’t as strong as I might want for some purposes, and it would make more sense to just use CraveEQ or Toneboosters EQ4 for that.
Feedback loops. A little Q and positive gain, and it will resonate nicely inside of a feedback loop. It’s particularly great with delays, and with MSLR to maintain the tone while keeping it from getting out of hand.
CV-controlled EQ can be awfully fun. Taking a notch filter (or two) with a gentle slope and sweeping its frequency around with an LFO is a nice bit of (possibly) subtle modulation. With a bit more Q it’ll do filter sweep-like sounds without actually cutting anything completely; to me the character is more interesting than most filter sweeps tend to be.
Anything a normal filter can do. It sounds pretty respectable to just use one of the LP, BP, or HP outputs with it.
Parallel filter trickery. It does only have one input, but with two independent filters, each of which has three outputs, plus the main EQ output, I can turn a mono signal into mid-side stereo, process different bands with different effects and mix them afterward, or split bands to go into Planar.
I don’t see much reason to hang onto FXDf, or even Ripples now. Once I figure out what I will replace them with, I’ll pull them out. I have a few candidates in mind but none are really pulling on the strings strong enough yet to jump on it. Loquelic Iteritas or Telharmonic would certainly be interesting but do I need another oscillator? Intellijel Bifold seems like a quite good wavefolder, but between the folder on Shapeshifter, FM Aid’s folding abilities. the folder built into ENOSC and rather capable wavefolding available in both Disting and Bitwig, I’m not convinced I need it.
The other toy I’ve taken delivery of is… well, it is kind of a toy, but it’s also got some surprising instrument-like features, and the combination is a bit frustrating. The Artiphon Orba, which I Kickstarted back last December, is a little handheld musical gizmo. It has 8 pads that respond to velocity as well as movement on two axes (for pitch bend or dynamics), and an accelerometer to detect tilting, shaking, and slapping the side. It has four “modes” — drums, bass, chord and lead — and a record mode that records sequences on each channel, with overdubbing. It can also act as a MIDI controller (with MPE!) over USB or Bluetooth. It’s got a pretty decent built-in speaker with ports both on the bottom and sides so it’s not muffled no matter how you position it.
On the down side: onboard, it has only one sound per mode; you can select from about 7 different sounds using an app that updates the device over its connection. Many of the sounds are just not great, but it’s got a few relative winners. Sometimes there are unpleasant pops at the start of notes, and switching modes while trying to record parts can pause and silence the whole thing for a second or two. The recorder doesn’t seem to record tilt gestures. Octave switching is a pain, and often results in accidentally switching modes instead; you can forget doing it smoothly while playing to extend the usable range. The built-in speaker is plenty loud (a little too much with some of the lead sounds in their higher octave) but the output jack is so woefully low level that I boosted it with both Gozinta and MSCL. The PC app is as buggy as Florida in July, and the Android version is nonexistent (typical of every Kickstarter device I’ve seen that promised both Android and iOS support).
So, as an instrument in its own right, it’s mostly a fun toy — for a beginner, generally easier to jam on and get something that sounds moderately okay than a Casio keyboard or the like. But how about as a MIDI controller for more serious efforts? Let’s start with Bluetooth MIDI being unsupported in Windows, which they could have fixed with the app or a driver but didn’t, so it’s tethered with a USB cable. You can’t change the scales assigned to each mode — so the bass is always major, the lead is always pentatonic major, and the chords are fixed (depending on which sound you’ve loaded). As far as I can tell so far, it sends velocity, mod wheel on tilt, and it probably sends MPE on the two axes per pad. There is apparently a third-party semi-unofficial app for MIDI configuration, which I hope can unlock the thing’s potential a bit more. But it won’t surprise me if it remains mostly a toy, which I might sample occasionally with Phonogene or freeze in Clouds or Mimeophon, after a copious gain boost that is.
But hey, it lets me have the fun of doing some idle finger drumming, which I haven’t done since switching from Maschine to Bitwig, or playing some honestly kind of nifty growly drones with the “Ohm” bass sound.
The next bit of gear should arrive Friday: I picked up an Arturia Microfreak in a Labor Day sale. I disdained it when it was released, and wasn’t sure I liked the touch keyboard when I very briefly stabbed at it at Knobcon last year — but I have heard so many good things about it, and good things people have done with it, that I’m willing to give it a solid try. If it works out, it will replace my Reface CS, which has been seeing less and less action.
The CS is fun to jam with but it can be a little difficult to make it relevant to what I want to do. The wee Freak though is mostly a polyphonic version of Plaits, plus an SEM filter and a touchplate pressure keyboard — and I know from the 0-Ctrl that I do like a touchplate pressure keyboard when it works well — and a neat little arpeggiator/sequencer that can dynamically randomize its content in a way that tickles my generative sequencing funny bone, and also record parameter automation. So that could potentially be quite nifty. Given that used prices are hovering very close to new prices, it is practically zero risk if I don’t like the thing after all.
Something else I have been thinking about is the Elektron Model:Cycles. I ignored it when it was announced, because it’s an Elektron groovebox, kind of a glorified drum machine, and I don’t do the sort of music that uses drum machines. Except… it’s really an inexpensive little FM synth, and there’s apparently a small community that swears it was secretly made for ambient music. Its FM is definitely more on the pure and simple side, being modern and clean and 2-operator based — but you layer that a bit and it really can sound gorgeous. I’ll have room for it in my setup if the Freak takes over from the CS, but it would eat into my available inputs. Also I can’t help but think it won’t really do anything I can’t do with Bitwig’s FM-4 instrument, aside from maybe inspire me to use it more often. (The Microfreak itself also has an FM mode…) So I’m gonna have to think on that more. I might be better off with something that has some crust on it, like an old FB-01 (cheap, but requires software to edit it without going crazy) or a MegaFM (less cheap, would probably have to take over from the Lyra-8) or a Volca FM (cheap, can also control and sequence itself, and can play 6-op DX7 sounds yet has a few hands-on controls to tweak it). Or just not make any of those moves at all.
I had a thought about what I could do for the next album, but it’s a little out of my comfort zone: record patch-from-scratch sessions and see if I can make it an actual performance. It will probably require a lot of trying and there will probably be many times where I’ve got a boring and ugly first minute, then some really sweet sounding awesomeness, and then it kind of falls apart or gets ruined with a sudden blast of noise as I try to add another voice. I really admire the people who can do this as a show, but I’m sure there is some preparation and practice involved. Still, it could be fun and rewarding to try it…
At this point, the next album has 11 tracks (not yet mastered), the track order, a title, a couple of ideas for the cover, most of a patch notes writeup, and a hopeful release date of next Friday, which is another #bandcampfriday.
The synth has a new panel and knobs for the Phonogene…
…a Happy Nerding FX Aid XL…
…and a digdugDIY Purple Rain.
Starting from that: it’s a little 8-bit compressor, sample rate reducer, sample looper and (if you crank the gain up enough with Eurorack level signals) distortion. When I use it I expect I’ll mostly be using filters and careful EQ notches to tame its extreme lo-fi-ness a bit. It’s a neat thing though. digdugDIY tends to build a few things, put them up on Etsy and they sell out quickly, so I was pleased to finally catch one.
The FX Aid is a clever little module based on the Spin FV-1 effects chip commonly used in guitar pedal FX. There’s a companion app that lets you choose 32 FX plugins from a set of 105 built-in choices — delays, reverbs, flangers and so on — and you can also load Spin .ASM programs found online or write them yourself. It’ll compile them into a WAV file to update the module’s firmware, as well as a PDF file FX list for your reference — very handy.
This is the “XL” version — 6 HP instead of 4, with separate CV inputs for each parameter. Despite the larger size, the knobs are still very close together and not that friendly to turn. I’m told that Befaco-style micro knob caps work with it, so I’ve got some on the way for a little more finger room.
The reason I picked it up is a recommendation to use it as a resonator — and indeed it’s well suited for that, as well as really lush modulated reverbs. It’s not going to replace either the Mimeophon or E520, but it’s going to get a lot of use in the future.
Carefully Introducing Problems was released in early June. I recorded nothing new in June, and two tracks in mid-July. Things have broken loose though; in the last couple of weeks I’ve finished 6 tracks. Perhaps it’s the big refresh that my modular synth went through, or perhaps I’m just coming out of a funk.
I mean, it’s still the Corona year, America feels more like a failed state than ever, and I’m still tired and tense all the time, and I feel like everyone’s just trying to hang on and survive. I was thinking today about a former coworker who said (many years ago now) that she admired me because I was always trying to improve myself, and I kind of wonder when I stopped doing that. But still, I feel like making music.
Phonogene arrived Saturday. An old one, with the ugly knobs Make Noise originally used (but with the wrong colors) and a panel that looks as if it was dirtied and cleaned a few times in its life. But it’s got the firmware update from 2013 at least. I’ve got some replacement knobs on the way, and might pick up the Grayscale replacement panel if I feel it’s warranted in a couple of weeks or so.
Phonogene was discontinued in early 2018 and was succeeded by Morphagene — which has higher sound quality, more memory, stereo, multiple layers for true granular synthesis, SD card saving and loading, etc. But there are those who prefer the Phonogene’s charm and simplicity, and I believed I’d be among them. For smooth granular I’ve got Clouds; for blurry spectral time manipulation there’s the E520. Phonogene is more for raw 90s “clicks and cuts” style manipulation, combined with synchronization of other modules. As I’ve found, it suits my music quite well.
I don’t have much thought about what could go in the remaining space. (18HP, plus a possible 8 more from the MG-1 and a possible 4 more if I “hide” the ES-6 inside and access it through the PassThru.) I don’t need another oscillator, that’s for sure, nor more effects, and I think I’m fine on modulation sources. I figure, I should hold off to see if something else brilliant comes along, or my musical needs evolve. So I’m declaring this “version 4.0.”
“0.0” (Exploration) was learning Eurorack and exploring.
“1.0” (Suitability) was when I thought I had a fairly stable system I could live with, which would only mutate slowly. The focus was on complex oscillators, wavetables and resonators.
“2.0” (Consolidation) replaced a lot of stuff with an ER-301 Sound Computer, and moved it all into a single case with a lot of empty space.
“2.1” (Effects Dive) had me trying out a Rainmaker, Erbe-Verb, Doepfer BBD and more pedal effects.
“3.0” (Focus) was realizing that Version 2 was kind of wrong for how I want to make music (even though I learned a lot), and reverting to what I liked best about 1.0.
“3.1” (Integration) switched me from Maschine to Bitwig and the ES-3/ES-6.
“3.14” (Harmony) saw me adding the Lyra-8 and think more about the performance aspect of my process.
“3.2” (FM Overkill) was sort of a refinement phase, a further refocusing and embracing of what I liked. That began in late 2019.
“4.0” (New Waves) includes selling off my effects pedals, adding the 0-Ctrl and Planar and the Pod 60 case, and switching from the beloved Hertz Donut and E352 to Shapeshifter and EnOsc.
I’m still feeling that time is crawling and flying simultaneously. Maybe that’s just the new normal. It’s probably always been true, but maybe the pandemic made me notice it more.
The partially formed concept I had for the album I’m working on is related to time — entropy, the “arrow of time” and how it relates to life; the opposing but complementary forces of Preservation and Ruin, from which Harmony arises, from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series.
Except that the tracks I’ve recorded really aren’t that much in line with that. I’ll just keep recording stuff, and see what happens I suppose 🙂
I wound up with the 4ms Ensemble Oscillator (ENOSC) and am hugely impressed with it.
Trying to keep the technical description part of this short — ENOSC begins with the basic concept of additive synthesis, but instead of fixed harmonic frequency ratios between the partials, it lets you choose from preset or custom-defined chords, scales, or non-octave repeating interval sets, within or outside standard Western 12TET tuning. The idea is to explore the whole spectrum between additive synthesis and music theory. You can also detune them for lush chorusing effects.
On top of that, the partials can FM each other, using the root or highest partial s the modulator, or each modulating the next higher. Combining that with different frequency intervals can give extremely rich results!
And on top of that there’s a phase shaper and a wavefolder, each with three modes.
The sets of partials have three different output assignment modes, but unfortunately each of them can suffer from phase cancellation issues. Thankfully I’ve built up a pretty good roster of ways to deal with those, it’s just something I’ll have to keep an eye and an ear on.
Overall, the sounds this thing can produce are diverse and… kind of alarming to be honest. Pipe organs are easy, and as others have said, using it for drones feels like cheating. I’ve accidentally created really brassy horns with a sort of grace note attack, with no envelopes at all, just as a consequence of the crossfading as the Root input changes along with cross-FM. It’s done vocal formant “yai yoi oay” type stuff, 808 style hi-hats, a combined bassline/chord stabs, wild FM percussion, and some almost Karplus-Strong like power chords. The thing is full of sweet spots and it’s very easy to get something good out of it, but I feel like it’s going to take a while to familiarize myself with it so I can more or less predict what will happens when I change one aspect of its current state.
ENOSC is 16HP, and feels like it’s deceptively small — like it’s trying to fool people into thinking it’s humbler and simpler than it really is. It also tends to eat attenuators for breakfast — any CVing you do needs to be really cut down to size to work well. So it probably should have been 26HP, like the 4ms SMR and SWN as well as E352 and Shapeshifter. It deserves the larger stature 🙂
I’ve gone ahead and put the Faderbank, HD mk2 and E352 up for sale. The kinds of sounds I’m getting from my current rig without them are perfectly suited to what I want to do, while giving me a whole lot of mad ̶s̶c̶i̶e̶n̶c̶e̶ engineering exploration.
I also bought a used Phonogene, for semi-lo-fi varispeed tape loop stuff — something I have missed since trying W/. The looper and Spectral Time Machine in E520 are their own things, good but not the same as that; Clouds is granular and also different; Mimeophon is not quite there with its hold feature. Bitwig doesn’t really do it live or in such a hands-on way, though I’ve made decent use of its sampler in the Grid.
I’m going to pass on Casper/Bastl Waver, after watching a video demo where the sounds are just not very appealing, there was some nasty clipping and some thresholds where the level suddenly jumps.
My past few tracks have used a LOT of moderately slow LFOs, which made me think a bit about maybe Zadar or a DivKid 0chd — but I do have plenty of available CV outputs and can assign them to LFOs in Bitwig, so I won’t go there.
I feel I’m at or near a “version 4.0” of my modular synth, and maybe I will write up a summary of it, like I did with what I had near the start of this blog.
Saturday morning I went ahead and rearranged my modular setup, discovering my plan for the Pod 60 wasn’t going to work. Pod cases are pretty shallow, and some modules just won’t fit in them. When people report the depths of modules on ModularGrid, they don’t always take into account connectors and cables on the back, so that 28mm module isn’t necessarily going to fit into a 34mm deep case. Also, there was really no way I was going to fit a flying bus cable in there to sneak in an extra power header. So I revised the plan on the fly, and I think it’ll work out. Monday when the custom snake cable arrives, I’ll rewire my studio rack box and see how everything goes.
Shapeshifter arrived yesterday afternoon, and it’s a delight. If considered solely on its strengths as a wavetable oscillator, it’d be a disappointment. If considered solely as a TZFM complex oscillator (using only sines), it’d be… okay, but not spectacular.
It’s all about synergy, though. Things that I thought were extra “bells and whistles” turn out to be part of an unusual orchestra, each one multiplying the awesomeness rather than simply adding to it. The patch I have playing right now while I write this has:
Osc1: “Harmo2” wavetable with the position being slightly modulated by an LFO. It’s playing a minor chord inversion. Osc2: “Flute1” wavetable. Main output: Osc1 and Osc2, ring modulated. Osc2 FMs Osc1 mildly, while Output 1 phase-modulates Osc2 very shallowly. There’s a touch of comb filtering delay driven by Osc2’s frequency.
Change any single piece of that — the depths of modulation, the ratio of the two oscillators, either wavetable or position within it, disable chord mode, use Tilt, remove the ring modulation or change to some other algorithm, enable oscillator sync… and it could be a radically different sound, but probably still awesome.
Just having FM and PM working circularly leads to magic. Sometimes the oscillators will spontaneously synchronize, in a fragile sort of way, and bring something completely new. Go too far and it’ll just spit and hiss and bubble like a rabid reptilian cat-thing; hit it just right and it’s cellos from heaven. Sometimes when it’s running too wild all you have to do is change the combination mode and it’ll fall into line, or it will start to sound like 1500 Game Boys all playing the same chord in a cathedral. Possibly underwater.
So it’s a little unpredictable — the module is well named — but as much I like spelunking in sonic caverns of possibility, we’re going to get along just fine.
I think what I’m going to do in a few days is put Hertz Donut mk2 and E352 into boxes and see if I miss either of them. That seems to make more sense than trying to directly compare them. In terms of playability I do think it’s a match for the Donut. In terms of features and sound, it’s kind of completely different from E352, but seems poised to play a similar role in how I use it in my music.
Akemie’s Castle is safe. I feel like it’s the FM master, and also better at big dense chords than anything else.
I’m thinking that Loquelic Iteritas, Orgone Accumulator, and others that largely do their thing by having two oscillators modulate each other in various ways, are less likely now. VCOs more along the lines of Ensemble Oscillator or Odessa would be more likely to offer something complimentary but different.