save the queen, ditch the rest

Today I put some detailed thought into the 2.0 version of my synth setup. Given the minimal number of voices I typically use in each of my recordings, I really have too many VCOs right now.

The “trouble” started with the SynthTech E370 beta test. It was too large and too overkill-ish for my needs, where I formerly had the smaller E352 — but given the opportunity to test one and keep it gratis, I was not going to say no! So that was when I expanded to a second case and kept a bevy of other oscillators alongside it cover the areas where it wasn’t as strong.

Long story short, I worked it out today and found if I keep the E370, I can let go of most of my other VCOs — to be replaced by the ER-301, the tiny new Volca Modular, and a couple of my favorite software plugins. I’d keep Tides for modulation duties (the ER-301’s outputs are audio only) and provisionally keep Plaits to see if it thrives in a less choked pond. But with other consolidation, I am looking at reducing my Eurorack space from the current 460HP down to about 360HP.

There are a few ways this could go…

  1. Keep current Mantis and rack, just leave empty space in the rack. (Boring, but easy and cheap — and where I will start unless a surprise opportunity comes up.)
  2. Sell my Mantis, and buy a bigger case to unify things. (Big cases tend to be more expensive, but well within what I recover from selling the modules. It may not be as satisfying as other options though.)
  3. Sell my Mantis, and DIY a bigger rack or case with a second or bigger power supply. (Cheaper than 2, but once I work out issues with power, power distribution, rails etc. it’s probably not as cheap as I first thought. And it’s probably a bad idea in general.)
  4. Get a second Mantis. Bracket them together for a taller, unified setup. (These cases are a great value and easy to find used.)
  5. Keep the Mantis, but replace the rack with a Rackbrute 6U. That’s a row shorter than my rack, and optioanlly mounts onto a Minibrute 2 or 2S, which could replace my Microbrute. All of that for about the same cost of getting one big case, and it’s professional and portable. But in retrospect, I don’t actually feel like I want to upgrade the Microbrute that much…

Anyway, one step at a time: get ER-301. Learn it. Build up replacements via custom units and sampling. Sell unneeded stuff. Then figure out the case thing. Make music the whole time I’m doing it.

chill out already

I have finally finished reading The Ambient Century. The final section was about House, Techno, Trance and their ambient variations, many of which could probably accurately be called ambient. Or at least ambient-ish, ambient-inspired, and ambient-inspiring.

I’m not sure I can really tell the difference between most of the various dance genres in electronic music when push comes to shove. I could probably tell Minimal Techno from Progressive House. I have no idea what the difference between Goa Trance, Uplifting Trance, Psytrance, or 180 Faceplant Backslide Cool Ranch Istanbul Ultra Cyber Trancecore is. I’m not even sure that last one isn’t an actual genre.

The book isn’t new enough to cover things like UK Garage, Future Bass, Dubstep, Techstep, Darkstep, Chiptune, Fakebit, Electro Swing, Witch House, Synthwave, Vaporwave, Dark Techno, Deconstructed Club, and the dreaded stadium/festival EDM stuff, and the subgenres (or microgenres) brought on by the new resurgence of modular synths, and whatever else I am forgetting that is less than 20 years old. (Yeah, the 90s are almost 20 years old. That’s still weird to me. The 80s seem like a long time ago, but the 90s do not. I think it’s the divide between “I was in high school” and “the internet and cell phones were a thing.”)

Anyway: the major premise here is that Ecstasy was what brought it all together in the 90s. The author writes in a way that leaves little doubt he’s got personal experience, but the point is, there was a need for music for people to chill out to happily while coming back to Earth and still being generally sociable, and that’s where all the more ambient-but-clubby forms of music came in. Chill-out rooms, chill-out tents, chill-out music. It’s plausible I guess. My experience of 90s music was solitary: through headphones, via CDs bought in used record stores, then mail order, then the internet, and then (yes, totally legit) MP3s by indie musicians.

The music relied on a lot of sampling and merging of stuff into a cohesive but still dreamy whole, so the musicians went back to
Satie and Derbyshire and Stockhausen and Cage and Reich, the Beatles and Pink Floyd and Tomita and Tangerine Dream and King Tubby, and whatever else from each of the three previous sections of the book. So it does kind of neatly tie all that history together I suppose.

I’m not sure Future Sound of London or The Orb or the Chemical Brothers really had much influence on my music, but I did enjoy them a lot in the 90s and mostly still do.

Anyway. I’m done with the book, and while it was kind of a workout to get through, glad for some different perspective and the excuse to revisit some of the music I liked in the past. (Waaaay back in the 90s. Sigh.)

Next I’ll be reading some graphic novels and SF and fantasy for a bit.

you had to make final decisions as you went

While this interview goes a little more into recording engineer geekery
(*) than I can appreciate, there’s something to it at the end.

Part of why my process works for me so well is not treating music as something to be assembled jigsaw-like from many little recorded bits. I may not play live in front of audiences, but the recording process is still performance of a sort. I hit record, I do things with my hands that shape the course of the music. It’s usually improvisational to some degree, and it’s usually done in one take. Even when it’s not, there is no separation between what I hear and what I record. All the mixing and effects and stuff are done. Recording is commitment. In some ways it’s more primitive than all the psychedelic rock groups The Ambient Century was praising.

…of course sometimes I will edit my recording, and do things to it that extend and enhance it. But it’s still not cut-and-paste.

(*) Recording engineers are the people who know which microphone to use and exactly where to put it, how to set up the acoustic space, how loud to record on tape (or whatever), how to mix mic signals in ways that sound better instead of causing phase cancellations and such, and all of that. It’s a whole area of expertise that is only tangent to what I do. To me, the voltages in the wires, the data in the computer, and the vibrations in my eardrums are all extremely similar, and the few variables that confound that are constant and familiar. But microphones just don’t “hear” the way our ears do, nor is human attention a factor. If you’ve ever tried to record a neat birdsong, only to have the recording make you aware of traffic noises and an air conditioner and barking dogs in the background that you didn’t notice before and the movement of your hands and rustle of your clothes, that’s just a small part of the challenge. And if you’ve ever tried to record extremely loud drums in a concrete warehouse without it sounding like it’s in a concrete warehouse, while still capturing the subtleties of the sound of the stick hitting the head, that’s another five or six technical problems to solve.

this is not archaeology

The Ambient Century drags on, too long and too dry but occasionally interesting despite itself. I feel like the author took the widest possible definition of “ambient” and then stretched it some more just to include more artists in the book — to make it seem like ambient music had a continuous evolution throughout the 20th century, an unbroken lineage.

While it didn’t cover the entire history of rock & roll in a comprehensive way, it certainly went over a lot more of it than seemed relevant. If I had to distill it into something more coherent, I would say that:

  • Brian Eno, who invented the term “ambient music”, was of course involved in rock too as a musician and producer.
  • A lot of 60s rockers came from more of an art perspective than, say, the blues-Gospel-jazz melange that became 50s rock, rockabilly and doo-wop. More than I ever realized, a lot of them were into Cage, Stockhausen, etc. and wanted to shake things up…
  • …which meant electronic instruments like the Mellotron and early Moogs and ARPs, multitrack studio techniques and tape manipulation, guitar FX, experiments in song structure, borrowing from Near Eastern cultures.

But doing all of the acid, playing a sitar solo, recording 17 tracks of overdubbed strings backwards, slapping a Binson Echorec on every guitar part and saying “cranberry sauce” doesn’t make your music ambient.

I’ll admit though — my parents’ Beach Boys and even Captain and Tenille albums did feed my own interest in synths as a kid. It’s just that there was also an unbroken line of electronic and experimental musicians outside of rock, and I grew up with those too.

(Side note: “Good Vibrations” didn’t feature a theremin as is widely claimed, even in this book. It was the “Electro-Theremin” (later called the Tannerin when a second one was finally built in 1999), invented and performed by trombonist Paul Tanner, which was played with a slider. It’s an important distinction because it works completely differently.)

The book progressed on to progressive rock, with the important note that it was often called “space rock” or even “techno rock” at the time and that not all of it was terrible and self-indulgent. And I’ll agree that Pink Floyd, sort of a bridge between psychedelic and progressive music but also sort of its own thing at times, did manage to approach closer to ambient music at times than most of the other examples given. (Pink Floyd was indeed another frequent childhood listen, as was the Alan Parsons Project.)

And then the book reaches Krautrock, which certainly is closer to the mark, and finally Tangerine Dream and Jean-Michel Jarre and the like, and I breathed a sigh of relief because maybe now when the book says “ambient” it will actually mean ambient or something like it.

rhymes with sewage

Remember New Age music? It occurs to me some readers might not, either because you’re too young (sigh) or because most of it was very forgettable.

It had a reputation for being deeply uncool, instantly forgettable, vapid. Whitebread or sometimes vaguely Asian-ish or smooth jazz that had all the jazz smoothed out. Relaxation music marketed to yuppies to listen to in hot tubs. Soft piano or acoustic guitar music with any potential for excitement removed; synth music that brought nothing new and didn’t challenge. The music had no friction.

And of course it was associated with the New Age movement, a sort of commercialized and partly whitewashed feel-good mysticism and spiritualism. That probably didn’t help its reputation any.

That movement — aside from being a way to cash in, of course — was supposed to help counter the stressful effects of an accelerating culture and hyper-competitive business world. One might expect to see it rise again, although we do have “mindfulness” and a resurgence of interest in yoga and such now so perhaps that’s it.

Anyway, the musical genre was also something of a catch-all category under which some music of more substance and style and innovation got thrown. For a while in the 80s if you wanted to hear any electronic music, anything that would now be “genre-defying,” anything ambient, you looked under the New Age category at your local chain record store in the mall. That was kind of important, because those were the days when your other option was mail-order catalogs, which you found out about from zines if you were lucky. (That was where I went for darkwave and Celtic and Finnish folk music after New Age fizzled, but before the internet made music discovery easy.) It might actually be fair to say that as a category, New Age had no worse a ratio of good to bad music as most other popular genres.

the cover design is solidly 20th century…

I’m thinking about this now because I’ve been reading The Ambient Century, sort of a history of ambient music from its early predecessors up to the near-present. It is a series of mini-biographies of composer after composer, with occasional inventor: Mahler, Satie, Debussy, Theremin, Martenot, Schoenberg, Varese, Stockhausen, the Pierres (Henry and Schaefer and Boulez), Cage, Miles Davis, Daphne Oram, Xenakis, Subotnick. Then the minimalists: Young, Riley, Glass, Eno, Reich. New Age music and Windham Hill specifically were just covered; then we head into “Ambient in the Rock Era” and “House, Techno and 21st Century Ambience.”

It is mostly very dry, with just the occasional snark or fascinating detail, occasional weird assertions where [citation needed] and some technically inaccurate bits. As with many books about music history, a lot of music of purported or definite historical note doesn’t really hold up as an enjoyable listen today. The book does say that John Cage was more of an idea generator, challenger of the old order(s), and inspirer of artists than he was someone whose work you’d actually want to listen to.

But anyway, New Age music. Vollenweider was pretty neat, I thought — unique in some ways as a composer and sound designer, and honestly the field is wide open for more electric harp music, whether in the more relaxed zone or more aggressive. Enya had authenticity and unique production techniques. Nobody would call Jean-Michel Jarre “New Age” today but that’s where I found his early work, along with Tangerine Dream. I seem to remember even finding Kraftwerk under the category once. Isao Tomita’s work in the “New Age” era probably does (sadly) deserve the label, but his 70s and early 80s renditions of classical music were absolutely brilliant and nobody has yet cracked the code for the sound he achieved with analog synths.

I don’t know if anybody misses New Age as a genre (I don’t) and I’m not sure the music world needs something like it today to gather disparate music under its wing. But that’s what we had at the time.

I do not ap-provel

I’ve been working in this place for nearly 6 years now, and take walks around the plaza on most workdays (weather permitting) and I was surprised to discover today that there’s an Imo’s Pizza location here.

I mean, in retrospect, I have noticed it before, and then dismissed it from mind and memory. If you asked me to list all the outdoor plaza businesses on this property, or all the places one could get food, I would not have recalled its existence. That’s how much esteem I have for St. Louis style pizza and Imo’s in particular.

On a recent visit, my brother’s wife was excited to try our local pizza because she’d heard about how terrible it was and wanted to experience that for herself. We ordered Imo’s, which I hadn’t touched in years because it’s terrible. And yes — it was still terrible. You literally could turn it upside down and lose track of which side was the top, because the “cheese” looked identical to the crust. It does technically count as food because there are carbohydrates and fat in it. But the nicest thing you could call that pizza is “non-toxic.”

I’m firmly in the Pi Pizzeria camp when they say:

Provel is our local alleged “cheese.” It’s a processed blend of provolone, mozzarella, and cheddar. Somehow, it tastes like nothing and has a very non-cheese texture. I don’t know why it’s popular here, but according to Wikipedia and personal experience, it is a rarity outside of St. Louis. Couple this with a cracker-thin crust and overcook the whole thing, and you’ve got Imo’s. Add a layer of lubricating grease to it and you’ve got Cecil Whitaker’s. If you’re ever in St. Louis, I recommend the pizza at Pi, Dewey’s or Crushed Red instead.

It’s almost unfortunate that I wrote this post though, because now whenever the landfill stink drifts this way, I will remember that there’s an Imo’s here.

the road to 2.0

Things are moving. My Dark World arrived last Friday, orders for the ER-301 and 16n have been placed and both have estimated ship dates in 6 weeks. [Edit: 16n now looks more like 4 weeks.] I’ve rearranged modules to make room and put a couple more up for sale.

You know what I finished by Valentine’s Day at the start of last year? Nereus. I have four songs ready for the next one, so making that deadline should be a relative breeze. Due to the no-theme theme, I was thinking of calling the album “Wiggly Air,” but somehow that doesn’t quite fit the Starthief image.

So let’s just say it’s Untitled Album for now. Anyway, getting it done before getting potentially sidelined by learning a significant new piece of gear seems like a good idea.

Dark World is pretty great. I could wish it were stereo, had its own feedback knob (because some of its settings are glorious inside of a tight feedback loop) and had its jacks on the back instead of the sides so it could sit hip-to-hip with other pedals instead of sticking its elbows out. But the sound can’t be argued with, and it’s easy to work with.

Some of the changes for Starthief Studio 2.0 are going to be pedalboard related:

  • Geiger Counter can probably be entirely replaced by one of the units in ER-301.
  • Right now I have Tensor, Afterneath and MS-70CDR as end-of-chain FX. This is kind of unnecessary since plugins do EOC reverb and delay better. But Tensor loves to be in feedback loops with reverb/delay, EQ and a limiter — so I might keep the three patched together, set up the CDR for the EQ/limiter, and just rethink the context they get used for. Or I might sell the CDR and Afterneath and just loop Tensor through software plugins or the ER-301.
  • I might consider a cheap (or even DIY) feedback looper pedal for Dark World, rather than patching through a mixer in the modular every time, as a convenience thing.
  • Monobius, like Geiger Counter, loves to be patched into the middle of a modular patch so it needs to be separate from other pedals.
  • I’m not entirely happy with the S.B.G/Trim/Gozinta combo for interfacing pedals with modular. Either right-angle patch cables or some different pedal interface modules will be happening once I figure out available space in the next wave of module selling.

this album is fire

Ambient Online Themed Compilation #2, Fire, is now available. I have two tracks on it (one also appears on Materials).

Based on what I’m hearing so far of the album, I might be pushing the boundaries of what’s commonly considered “ambient” — but I’m not the only one, which makes me happy.

Brian Eno’s concept of ambient music was “as ignorable as it is interesting,” meant to work on many different levels of attention. I never actually try to achieve that, and I think most other musicians in the genre don’t either. The genre has evolved. It’s not quite a meaningless word, but it’s not quite right.

It would be great to find a more like-minded… er, like-sounding (?) community of musicians to run with. Start our own label, build up a reputation, come up with a genre name that really fits, etc. Nathan Moody uses the word “angrient,” which is kind of clever but little of his music (or mine) actually comes off as angry. I have similar mixed feelings about my own “uneasy listening” tag.

A lot of genre names are terrible, though. I guess the real problem is that words aren’t music, and to know what the music sounds like you have to actually listen to it.

Anyway. I was waiting for this compilation’s release — and to give Materials a little while as a Bandcamp exclusive — before submitting it to streaming services. Those will be ready soon though; meanwhile here is a link to pre-save it on Spotify.

*not* incoming so much

How to Crush Your Habits in the New Year With the Help of Science

I particularly like that idea of having a “theme” for the year. An online acquaintance does this in almost a literary sense — determining the books he reads, the directions his imagination goes and so on, even giving years names. For that article’s purposes though, I think “improve my blood sugar” works as a theme, because there are multiple angles I can approach that from.

On my last doctor’s visit, he upped my Trulicity dose. There’s an effect it has where, when eating, after bite N you feel fine but after bite N+1 your guts say “okay, stop now.” It’s a somewhat different feeling from what I think of as fullness — less nausea-like than what Byetta did for me at first, but still quite effective.

I’ve also been taking Gymnema (“sugar destroyer”) for a while, too. If you taste it, it’s sort of the opposite of “miracle berry” — it ruins the taste of sweet things for a short while. It may or may not also have some appetite suppressant effects but that seems doubtful. It also may help lower blood sugar a little through a separate effect.

But beyond that I feel like my appetite has decreased, and that is very welcome. Yesterday was my first day back at work after an 11-day break; I picked up the same food I often do for breakfast on the way in and it was too much, and I wasn’t super hungry at lunchtime either. A couple of days ago, I got up at about 6 AM, didn’t eat anything until 2 PM, and still wasn’t too cranky. I’ve been wanting snacks and desserts a lot less. When I do feel like snacking on something, I ask myself if I’m actually hungry, and can usually answer no. For the times when it’s yes, I’m trying to keep interesting varieties of small tomatoes around, and raw almonds and that sort of thing.

I’m not declaring victory here yet by any means, but I’m at least hopeful that it will keep working. I haven’t measured my actual blood sugar and I don’t know how long these effects will last, or if the broken dials in my body will misadjust themselves again and I’ll start getting hangry. But I hope to cement this stuff as a habit first. Not a diet, but a new normal.

I have mixed feelings about checking my blood sugar. It’s often more painful and more of a hassle than giving myself injections. When the numbers are bad, it can be super frustrating and worsen my emotional state, to the point where I give up on it. But it also does help show what’s going on and what changes in diet might be effective. But my new endocrinologist doesn’t insist that I test it regularly and only has his diabetes patients visit every 6 months for A1C testing instead of every 3, so perhaps the emphasis on that was a bit much. Hmm.

incoming

Someone started a forum thread about what new gear announcements we’re looking forward to in 2019. I half-seriously hoped for no new cool things, because I don’t want to be tempted. I’ll have enough going on!

The Chase Bliss Dark World I pre-ordered (from apparently the world’s last music shop to get it, but the discount was nice) is finally shipping. So I’ll have that to try out very soon. It’s a dual effect pedal with three “world” modes (spring, hall and plate reverb) and three “dark” modes (otherworldly freezes either based on dynamics or time, or lo-fi tape and grit) and filtering and modulation, and I think it will fit my music nicely.

The 16n Faderbank open-source build documents were just officially released, and builders are pricing parts and should be accepting orders soon. The ER-301 is 4 days away from orders opening up again. The TXb is rumored to be available soon too. So it looks like my phase 1 gear plans are going to be completed quite early in the year. (Phase 2 is figuring out what phase 1 replaces, selling those, and evaluating what’s next if anything.)

I made a couple of discoveries this week. One of them was a much better way to export wavetables from the Serum plugin into WaveEdit format for the E370 — so I’ve got some new content for that, and potentially more if I start looking at free Serum downloads again, or using it to build wavetables. Serum’s editor and WaveEdit complement each other nicely, I think.

The other discovery is that Teletype’s “Grid Ops” work without actually owning a Monome Grid, using a display mode I’d previously not noticed. The actual Grid hardware is expensive (if cool) and integration with Teletype seems awkward, but the software side of it gives me a few more options for visual feedback, gate sequencing, etc.