that’s a wrap… almost

I am so bad at gift wrapping.  I think I inherited that from my dad, who is not above using cardboard tubes, newspapers and duct tape to get the job done.  I failed this evening at wrapping a perfectly rectangular package and had to throw the paper out and start over.

I’m doing a better job with the album mastering…. except, it turns out, I’ve been doing it wrong.  

MusicTech magazine’s current issue has a feature about mastering.  I read it, and most of the advice is on the order of “use this $4000 worth software and these $3000 monitors” and uh, no thanks.  But I did learn that editing the beginning and end of a track is “topping and tailing”, and that electronic music technology magazines in 2018 are pretty much overpriced garbage.

I got more specific, up-to-date advice from the first website that popped up on a Google search.  It turns out that in general, you should meter in LUFS (“Loudness Units relative to Full Scale”) for loudness and dBTP (decibels True Peak) for peaks.  Nobody thinks you should compress heavily to make your music as loud as possible, because many streaming services normalize everything to the same volume level anyway.  And while I was being relatively gentle with my own work compared to the previous album, I was still going beyond recommended levels.

I’d been ignoring metering plugins because there’s nothing more boring than that, and I assumed dbFS peak and RMS as shown in Sound Forge were good enough anyway.  But the free version of Youlean Loudness Meter shows the relevant info and how I’m breaking the rules.  (-23 LUFS is a European broadcast standard; -14 seems to be a common goal for streaming audio but the important thing there is more “don’t over-compress”).  And -1 dBTP is a recommended peak maximum so that MP3 converters don’t accidentally cause clipping.

Of course it would have been smart to do this research before “nearly finishing” all 11 songs.  In a lot of cases I think I can just turn it down and be fine, but I’ll double-check I didn’t compress too much.

Sound Forge Pro 10 has been crashing on a semi-regular basis, and it’s a few years old now.  I’m happy to see that it’s not abandonware and there is a new version — though Sony (having bought it from Sonic Foundry) sold it to Magix.  Unfortunately, the demo crashes immediately on startup.  I can use it okay after that as long as I never close the bug reporting window, but it doesn’t say a lot about the potential stability, so I’m not sure I want to pay for an upgrade.  Maybe I will look for another tool in the future, though I do like Sound Forge’s dynamics tool and the ease of crossfading every edit.

witness to the weirdness

On the way home, I saw the following:

  • A fancy hearse pulling off the road into a self-storage facility.  Please tell me that doesn’t mean what I think it means?
  • A church with the name “Anchor of Hope.”  Because when I think of a nice uplifting symbol of hope, I think of chaining myself to a heavy piece of steel half-buried in the bottom of the sea.
  • An oversized pickup truck with not just a TR*MP bumper sticker, but a McCain/Palin bumper sticker with the McCain half removed.  This, mi amigos, is how you locate the most petulant member of the Orange Face Cult for miles around.

master blaster

I’ve mentioned I’m in the process of mastering my fifth album of the year.  But what is that, really? Or what is it to me?

What it used to mean was the preparation of a “master” copy of the final mix, to be duplicated — almost like a mold for casting.  For CDs and DVDs, there’s a digital file of course — but for large-scale duplication, a physical glass master is prepared in a cleanroom with a laser burner and a nickel deposition process, and then a “mother” is created as a sort of negative of that, to stamp pits into the actual CDs.

Mastering requires making some adjustments to suit the limitations of the medium.  For instance, if the difference in bass content between the left and right channels on a stereo LP is too great, it will throw the needle right out of the groove.  Digital media have their own limitations, and some master for specific sound systems in clubs.  “Mastering for MP3” or “for iTunes” might be a little snake-oily, but certainly earbuds or headphones are a different sort of target than a big speaker system.  (Generally, I use headphones throughout the whole process, including as my mastering target.)

Historically, recording engineers found this was the best time to make adjustments to the final mix as a whole, so it sounds as consistent and appealing as possible.  That generally means having a nice balance in different frequency bands, but mostly it means means loud.

Quiet recordings are more susceptible to noise, from random particles and errors in the medium to cosmic rays and other interference getting amplified along with the music.  Also, louder music generally sounds “better” than quiet from a psychoacoustic standpoint.  Some stereos have a “loudness” button which fakes a louder sound by changing the curve.  But too much loudness causes distortion.

Certain kind of distortion sound great.  The sound of the electric guitar is dependent on it.  Different kinds of distortion are involved in synthesis.  Saturation involves nice smooth curvy distortion that sounds “full” and “warm” if it’s kept subtle enough; you can get that by recording to tape a little bit louder than it was designed for.

But distortion can definitely be undesirable, too.  There’s a reason why chords on electric guitars tend to be very simple, such as the open fifth “power chord.”  Distortion creates more harmonics in the signal, and if the harmonic relationships are already complex going in, what comes out will be mushy and gross (technical term).  And a too-loud digital recording is subject to “clipping”, where the peaks of waves are sheared off in a flat, sudden way that is very inharmonic and does not sound natural or organic at all.

Dynamics are important — the balance and change of quiet and loud over time.  Dynamics in playing style creates drama, and is an important element in groove.  Many instruments, such as drums, are highly dynamic in themselves.  But excessive dynamics in a recording can be annoying (when you constantly have to adjust the volume to hear clearly) and cause technical challenges (too quiet overall, subtle details are easily missed, or the recording gets too loud at times).  Often to make a recording louder and more balanced overall, the engineer has to reduce the dynamics through compression and/or limiting — usually in a way that doesn’t noticeably sound like the dynamics have been changed or anything has been lost — as well as “riding the gain” more gradually.

The actual dynamics in a file can include all kinds of weirdness we don’t perceive — lots of little spikes of volume that our ears and brains just smooth right over.  That’s why these tricks can work. Both compression and limiting basically just turn down the volume as the signal gets louder, and back up as it calms down — but the devil is in the details.  At what level this attenuation takes place, how smoothly or suddenly it applies on a volume scale, how quickly it applies on a time scale, and so on.  It’s part science and part art.

(Don’t confuse dynamic compression with the kind of compression that makes an MP3, WMA or OGG file smaller than a WAV file.  Lossless audio compression uses algorithms to represent the same data in less space, and is guaranteed to sound exactly the same as no compression.  Lossy compression removes data that contributes little or nothing to what we can actually perceive, and is generally a compromise between size and perfection.  Blind tests on thousands of listeners have shown that on average there’s a barely discernible difference between a 192kbps VBR MP3 and a CD it was ripped from, and nobody can distinguish 320kbps from the real thing.)

If you lower the relative volume of the spiky bits, you have more room to turn it up overall.  There was something of an arms race or “Loudness War” which reached its peak (so to speak) in the mid 2000s, with Metallica’s Death Magnetic frequently cited as one of the most egregious examples.  Things have calmed a bit since then.

There’s also equalization (EQ) — this is the raising or (more usually) lowering the volume of particular frequency ranges to get a nice, balanced, full sound.  This can be combined with dynamics processing in tools such as dynamic equalizers and multiband compressors.

Of course both EQ and dynamics can be used for “creative” effects as well; it’s common to compress drums more than is strictly natural-sounding, or to “squash” a singer’s voice into a narrow, telephone-like or old-timey-radio range, or to really bring out the breathiness in a voice or squeaks on a guitar fingerboard, and so on.  Usually that’s done as part of the mix rather than mastering, though.

There are a lot of tools out there to help with mastering.  Some plugins or services promise to do it all automatically with a single button or knob, and usually that’s better than nothing.  I have a whole process and a set of tools I use.


I try to get levels reasonably okay in the original recordings, with the compressor/limiter ToneBoosters Barricade.  I don’t push it very hard at this point because I won’t be able to undo it.  The idea here is mostly to keep any unexpected spikes from clipping, and having a good monitoring tool to make sure I’m not recording too quietly with my headphones turned way up or vice versa.

My first pass at editing in Sound Forge Pro does only a little dynamics work to get levels generally okay — it’s mostly about overall sound, good first and last notes, and so on.  I save the more strenuous mastering work for a separate step.

 Sound Forge has a few built-in dynamics tools.  There’s “normalize” which can raise everything to within a certain threshold, either by peaks (safest) or RMS (useful for general “perceived” loudness but risks pushing the peaks too far) and is good at reporting maximum peak and average RMS levels to compare the different songs on an album.  There’s a fantastic graphic dynamics tool that lets you draw the response on a graph, and you can compare to levels shown in a recording.  There’s a “clip detection and repair” tool that’s a kind of gentle compressor that lowers peaks to safer levels.  And sometimes I highlight a section and crossfade into and out of a general “volume” tool to raise or lower the volume in a specific area.

I use other plugins with Sound Forge as well.  u-he Presswerk is a full-featured compressor that goes a bit beyond my pay grade, but I have some standard favorites among its presets.  I’ll almost always try “A Touch of Glue” and/or “AF Master Transparent” to see if either of them brings out subtle details and reigns in peaks a bit, but sometimes neither of them really helps.  Undo is just a click away.  The aforementioned Barricade is also good to try for a big boost; it can produce what looks like clipped-off peaks but in practice are carefully set to sound clean while maximizing overall volume.

I don’t do a whole lot of fiddling with EQ in mastering.  Sometimes I’ll decide that if I cut out some sub-bass I’ll have more room for everything else, or that a particular note or frequency band is a little too intense.  Sound Forge has a good graphic EQ (for more general changes) as well as a parametric EQ (for surgical edits to specific bands).  Sometimes I want to reduce the strongest frequencies a little bit all across the file, whatever they may be, to enhance the timbre and make it “howl” a bit less — for this I use Melda MSpectralDelay‘s level transformation tool, being careful to disable the delay, spectral panning, and frequency shifting first.

EQ changes the dynamics, and often it’s best to cycle between different tools, make small and gradual changes, and keep getting feedback from one’s ears and the various measuring tools in the software.

Write drunk; edit sober.

— not Hemmingway, who wrote in the mornings, avoided alcohol until the afternoon, and was to avoid hangovers.  It was Peter de Vries, and was not meant literally but to encourage both “spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”

Between the ultra-close attention this process demands, and the changes to dynamics bringing out more detail, it can expose flaws that were previously unnoticed.  I suspect that sometimes the Firewire connection between my audio interface and computer gets a little overwhelmed, and there are any number of other things that can find their way into a recording.  Usually it’s just subtle quirks of the modules and effects I’m using, or sometimes I pushed something a little hard for effect and got more than I bargained for. I accept a certain amount of this as a part of the process and the charm of working this way, and I’m sure Tony Rolando would agree.  Sometimes I even bring these “flaws” out intentionally, such as enhancing background noise through manipulating dynamics and EQ — or creating the noises intentionally via modular or plugins.

But other times I want to repair things.  Smoothing them out is rarely as easy as using Sound Forge’s “Clicks and Crackles” automatic tool, which has a penchant for making things worse.  Sometimes I just need to zoom way in and literally draw a smooth curve over where there was a sudden jump, an edit affecting the tiniest fraction of a second.  Or it might require some careful copying and pasting from another part of the file, being especially careful to keep the transition smooth, or just cutting out a tiny bit and stitching the edges together.  Reverb can smooth things over so long as it doesn’t cause a sudden shift in timbre, or it’s done in an intentional-sounding way and fits in with the busy things that are already present.  Sometimes mixing in something else will help mask it.  There really are no hard-and-fast rules, and this bit can be time-consuming, but persistence usually pays off.

One of the goals of mastering is consistency in volume levels across an album, and generally in line with other music of a relatively similar nature.  My goal is to get them where Sound Forge’s Normalize tool reads about -0.3dB peak and -10.5dB RMS. 
I wouldn’t read too much into those specific numbers though, because other tools are likely to report differently.  (0db is the maximum possible level in a digital recording; “bigger” negative numbers are quieter.)  That allows a little bit of room for the playback device to hopefully not clip, and seems to match the volume levels of other modern albums.  I’m not too worried about a little deviation here, as long as it doesn’t sound so different from one song to the next that you want to reach for a volume control too frequently.

This sort of work can be tiring to the ears and mind, so I break it up a bit, get the headphones off and reset myself.  Mastering Materials has seemed particularly grueling so far, but of course I hope the result is worthwhile.

three moves ahead

Is this chess or Tetris?

I don’t know how many people are reading this now and how many might start following it later, but I find writing for other people helps me get my own thoughts in order.  So, thanks for being my rubber duck.

I started writing out a much longer and more boring post but then killed it off as things congealed.  In a condensed form, here are my hopes for “version 1.5” of my setup in the next few months:

  • A Sound Of Thunder goes.   The space is reserved against other uses.
  • Field Kit FX and its reverb tanks go — replaced functionally by Chase Bliss Dark World (shipping at the new year) and u‑he Twangström (currently in beta and f**king brilliant).
  • The fate of EarthQuaker Afterneath depends on how I feel with Dark World on the board and if I think something else would be more useful/fun.  
  • Reclaimed pedalboard space goes partly to a 16n Fader Bank, which is an open-source controller that works with MIDI, CV and i2c (used by Teletype).  This should be amazing for sequencing in Teletype and controlling everything else.  There’s no current ETA on a production run for it.
  • The rest of the space could go to a 4ms Pod or lunchbox case, giving me 32-60 more HP for Eurorack modules.  This is contigent on other module vacancies/replacements — if I don’t do it I’m likely approximately cost-neutral with all these changes.  Strong contenders for space include the successor to Mutable Instruments Clouds or a Qu-Bit Nebulae V2.
  • Of course another pedal or two could make it to the pedalboard, depending on space.  But there are no really strong candidates at the moment given what Dark World is likely to do for me.
  • Mimetic Digitalis and/or Maze get replaced.  (Maze is about to receive an update adding a feature I asked for which may be a game changer.)  But I’m expecting great things out of u-he CVilization, which is the size of MD and is a 4×4 matrix mixer with several sequencer-friendly features, plus three other modes that may make it indispensible.  It’s possible I’ll replace my A-138m with one also.
  • If CVilization or the 16n don’t come to fruition or I find them lacking, there are several other options.  For sequencing:  Befaco Muxlicer or Pittsburgh Micro Sequence.  For control, Noise Engineering Lapsus Os or Michigan Synth Works Plancks II.  For matrix mixing, the 4ms VCA Matrix or Rebel Tech Mix 04.
  • If Cvil and 16n and “Clouds 2” are all utterly brilliant, I see myself with about 19HP of free space with no claim on it, without adding a small case.  That’s my hope.
  • Since I don’t love the 2hp Trim for pedal conversion, it’d be nice to put in something better suited; it wouldn’t take much more space anyhow.
  • I have no plans to add more VCOs even if space becomes available.  If I want to change anything there, something’s got to go.  Double Helix or Hertz Donut perhaps, but I like both of those so it’s not highly likely.

a few bits

  • I’ve just submitted two songs to the Ambient Online “Fire” themed compilation, which should be released late this month or in early 2019.
  • I have one called “Electrostatic Dust Fountain” in the previous compilation, The Moon.
  • Cover art for Materials is done.  I need to jump into mastering it, but with my process that doesn’t take too long.  (If I sold enough to justify it, I would definitely look into professional mastering, probably checking with Obsidian Sound first.  But I think I do pretty okay at it.)
  • I expect the next project will be an unthemed album, and there is no ETA at this time.
  • Having written up my modular system as it currently stands, I’m thinking about shaking things up a bit for a version 1.2, or 1.5 perhaps.  More on that in another post, probably, once I’ve worked out some plan versions.

One GIF to represent two shows!
  • I’m not that much into TV, but sometimes get caught up in whatever my spouse is watching.  The latest thing is The Great British Baking Show.  All too often it makes us want desserts, and I’ve had a couple of dreams about it.
  • Bee and Puppycat is a mostly excellent, weird, cute, occasionally creepy show.  The whole first season (if it can be called that) is a little over an hour.  Marina Sirtis and Ellen McLain have minor roles in it.   Here’s the pilot and here’s the rest.  There will be more in 2019. 
  • Steven Universe, my favorite show, is finally going to end its 4-month hiatus on December 17.  It’s a Christmas miracle!  It feels like it could be the end of the whole show, except that we’ve been told it’s not.
  • I was kind of into The Expanse and need to remind myself to look for season 3.

show & tell, part 4

All but one in this final row are by Mutable Instruments, and all but three are 2018 releases.   Three songs on the upcoming album were done on this row alone.

Starting at left, Mutable Instruments Marbles is a humdinger.  The left half generates three trigger streams, from a steady clock to a jittery one to drum patterns and random variations; it can use its own timing or follow an incoming clock or learn rhythmic patterns.  The right half generates random CVs synchronized to the left half or an external clock; it uses a clever quantizer that filters notes by probability, which you can train by playing pitch CVs into it.  It can also sample CVs from an input and distribute them according to its clock timing and shift register logic.  For each side, you can engage “Deja Vu” which plays the rhythms and/or CVs in a loop, with an adjustable probability of altering that loop each time it plays through.  There’s also another random CV generator just for kicks.  It may sound like a lot of complex stuff, but it’s mostly easy to use and the results are fantastic — it made me change my mind about modules that generate random signals.  To me it’s a great partner for Teletype.  5/5.

A shift register passes a value along a chain each time it is triggered, in “Row, Row, Row, Your Boat” fashion.  Some variations on shift registers feed back into themselves in order to generate repeating or chaotic patterns; linear-feedback shift registers (LFSR) were used in the 80s to generate noise for arcade games.

Sporting six sliders, Stages is a very versatile modulation source.  Each segment can be set to ramp, hold, or step behavior, and segments can be grouped together by patching in gate signals.  In an intuitive way you can patch simple or complex envelopes, LFOs, sequencers, sequential switches, delays, sample-and-holds, slews, manual sliders, and combinations of those.  You can run audio through it to make it a little grungy and/or filter it, or generate chiptune-like audio.  You can chain multiple Stages together, or to itself for the “Ouroboros” easter egg mode, a harmonic oscillator (I haven’t tried that yet).  Extremely cool and very well designed, especially good for smaller systems but useful everywhere.  5/5.

Plaits is the successor to Braids, the company’s first big hit in the Eurorack world.  A digital oscillator with 16 different synthesis models, each with three parameters, and many having cool variants on the secondary output.  It also has a built-in decay envelope and LPG, so it’s possible to use it with a minimum of other help.  As I’ve said previously, it’s a very good partner for Rings.  A very solid module.  4.5/5.

Fourth and fifth from left I have a pair of Rings, the module that got me into all this.  I’ve mentioned it before.  I would not have it as the only sound source in my system (that would be Plaits for a tiny setup, or E370 for less small) but I do like it a lot.  At least for Materials, it was kind of awesome having two —  time will tell if I keep them both.  5/5.

With one red knob installed, Shades is a three-channel atteunverter and mixer.  Any channel without an input patched generates an offset, and without an output patched, mixes with the next channel.  It’s nicely controllable.  4.5/5.

The penultimate module is Tides, 2018 revision.  It’s a function generator, but one where you can set the cycle time and shape separately.  This is perfect for VCO and LFO use, and unusual but functional for envelopes.  Tides also has its own filter/wavefolder combination, and a PLL mode that follows an incoming clock or VCO.  The 2018 version, aside from being more accurate and having attenuverters for every input, has four modes that can shift the level, phase or frequency (with harmonic relationships) across its four outputs, which extends it capabilities nicely.  5/5.

On the corner is Livestock Electronics Maze.  It’s sort of a combination matrix mixer (like the A-138m) and sequential switch — there are 16 “pages” of matrix settings which can be selected by buttons, stepped through with a trigger or selected by CV, and it can jump or fade smoothly between them.  It’s a thrilling concept, but in practice I don’t find myself using it as much as I thought.  I often consider whether I should replace it, but then I come up with scenarios where it was exactly what I needed, and nothing else its size would do.  4/5.

This is the current state of my pedalboard, or really, a shelf hanging over the Mantis at a 45 degree angle.  Guitar FX pedals offer some neat alternatives to software-based effects or Eurorack effects, but they run at lower voltage levels generally, thus the need for attenuation before and boosting after to work with them.

In the upper left are a pair of spring reverb tanks.  I use those with the Koma Elektronik Field Kit FX, in the lower right.  The FKFX has a Eurorack panel option, but it’s pretty wide.  Aside from the spring reverb driver, it has a PT2399-based digital delay (cheap and gets weird and crunchy at long delay times, which can be great), a frequency shifter, a 4-input VCA mixer with tone control on 3 channel and overdrive on the fourth, a little modulation source that can be a 4-step sequencer or an ADSR envelope, and four assignable CVs.  I’ve used it particularly with the Dynamo for setting up feedback loops with the reverb and frequency shifter.  Spring reverb is kind of fun to mess with, but also very touchy to work with.  3.5/5.

In the upper right is a Rochambeau Musical Apparatus Monobius, custom 6-knob variant.  This is a combination ring modulator and fuzz with bandpass filter.  It’s very noisy and odd, and was one of those trades I did on a whim rather than a plan, but it adds some neat flavor.  3.5/5.

Left of the FKFX (because on pedals, the signal flow usually goes right-to-left) is WMD Geiger Counter, in a rare distressed black colorway (they are normally screaming yellow).  It’s an 8-bit waveshaper, distortion and sample/bit reduction device.  With precise enough control over input levels, it is a nice alternative to more traditional wavefolders.  3.5/5.

Next is Red Panda Tensor, a sort of quasi-tape looper, pitch shifter, time shifter, reverser, randomizer thing.  It is cleverly set up; it listens even when “off” so you can instantly get a reversed repeat of what you were playing; it can judge when to (smoothly) reset its buffer to prevent overflows when you’re playing back repeats more slowly than they came in, and so on.  Sometimes it feels like a human playing counterpoint to me; other times it just makes a neat background wash of stuff, or a sweet chorused sound.  Its stomp switches are the non-clicky type (and can be switched between momentary and latching), which I prefer since I don’t use it with my feet.  5/5.

Then there’s EarthQuaker Devices Afterneath.  It lives somewhere between delay and reverb. with a little chain of echoes that can be diffused.  It’s very easy to get infinite feedback going with it and keep it under control.  The minimum pre-delay time is longer than I would prefer, which limits the flexibility a little.  A nice non-clicky stomp switch on it.  4/5.

And finally there’s the Zoom MultiStomp MS-70CDR.  It’s a multi-effect with several classic and modern versions of chorus, delay, reverb, and other modulation and a few utilities like EQ, noise gate and compressor.  With three push encoders and an LCD screen it’s a little friendlier for my purposes than some multi-effect pedals, but it’s still occasionally just a little bit tedious to set up.  The processing is pretty great, the sound quality can be a bit noisy at times (as guitar pedals sometimes are) but not terribly so, and the price was fantastic for something this flexible.  4/5.

I have a Chase Bliss Dark World on preorder, which should ship around the start of the year.  It provides three reverb algorithms on the “world” side, and three effects on the “dark” side to add gloom or shimmer or the infinite void.  You can run the two sides in either order or in parallel and there’s a master tone control to darken it more if need be.  The demos have been impressive, and I may see this replacing the FKFX (thanks to a spring reverb model) and maybe the Afterneath too.  Hopefully a 5/5…?

show & tell, part 3

Since writing that last post, I had a bee in my bonnet about replacing the Tyme Sefari + A Sound Of Thunder, and spent the weekend researching the alternatives.

Long story short:  I have decided to keep the Tyme Sefari.  Sure it’s lo-fi, but I had occasionally thought about getting a Doepfer BBD (analog bucket-brigade delay) precisely because it is lo-fi, in kind of a similar-ish way.  Durrr… anyway, running Tyme Sefari’s main output through a filter and turning it down a bit dark actually sounds really lovely.

And I like the logic of how Tyme Sefari works, which is unique.  Only one other module I’ve found can do everything it can — SDS Reflex Liveloop — but that one works through a bunch of different modes instead of a unified, fluid design.

I’ll probably ditch the A Sound Of Thunder expander though.  The only feature on it I really like is the slightly awkward extra channel for stereo, and I can let go of that.  Most of my hardware stuff runs in mono channels anyway, or else mid/side encoding.

Mono (monoaural) vs. stereo is probably familiar — either one audio channel, or two related channels.  Stereo typically uses “LR” encoding — left and right, predictably enough.  “MS” or mid/side stereo, instead treats one channel as the middle of the sound field, and the other as the differences that happen on the edges.

Mid/side is not very intuitive to think about, but it’s pretty simple to convert from LR.  Just add the two channels together to get the mid signal, and subtract them from each other to get the side signal.  Some attenuation might be needed to avoid distortion if the inputs are already loud.

With mid/side encoding, you can’t make distinct left/right movements —  But it’s very handy for getting a balanced yet wide and dramatic sound by processing the mid and side differently or even using different sources, and I like working with it especially in modular.

There are a couple of mid/side encoder modules available, but I usually do the conversion with a plugin.

With that wrapped up, it’s time to look at the top row of the Mantis!

At left is the second half of the Doepfer A-180-9 Multicore mentioned previously.  Plugged into the top are the stereo outputs from one of my FX pedals, sent onward to my audio interface without really being processed by any of my modular gear.

The next module, with the amber-on-black screen, is Monome Teletype.  This module lets you write short snippets of code with a computer keyboard (wireless in my case) which run whenever triggers are received or its internal metronome ticks.  It has a single CV input, and can output gates/triggers and control voltages — so you can use it to manipulate gates, play stored sequences or generate them algorithmically, record CVs as a new sequence, generate envelopes or LFOs, and so on.  It’s extremely flexible, it just requires thinking a bit like a programmer — which I am.  Mine’s mounted upside-down with a firmware-flipped display, to keep the jacks out of the way of the screen.  5/5.

Algorithmic sequencing or algorithmic composition is the practice of using some relatively simple math and logic to determine rhythms and/or pitches, rather than explicitly composing them.  Algorithms may include some stored patterns, but these are the basis of further logical or mathematical operations.

Generative patches are those where the interaction of electronic circuits drives the music.  The Krell patch is an iconic example.

Sometimes the lines between the two are blurred or erased, with digital algorithms feeding analog processors and vice versa.

Circuit Abbey G8 is on its right.  It’s a clock divider or clock distributor, which is something Teletype can do very easily.  But unlike the Teletype, it runs fast enough to send audio through it and get back squarewave audio in lower octaves.  Sometimes I keep the Teletype busy with other things anyway.  It’s useful enough to justify keeping it around.  4/5.

And then there’s Noise Engineering Mimetic Digitalis.  It’s a 4-channel sequencer laid out on a 4×4 grid, which can be navigated via triggers or CV in two dimensions or linearly or randomly, all at the same time.  I really like this one in theory; the problem is I don’t often find myself using it that much in practice.  I can imitate most of its behavior in Teletype and in another module later in this row.  I still feel like I should give it more of a chance, though. 3/5.

Next, with some cables plugged in and sent overhead, is ALM Busy Circuits S.B.G  It attenuates an audio signal from Eurorack levels down to the levels expected by guitar FX pedals, and raises a pedal-level signal back to Eurorack levels.  It offers a dry/wet knob, and a further converter from Eurorack CV to 3V or 5V “expression pedal” inputs for FX pedals.  It does the job, though I feel like the knob response/ranges are a little odd and the layout could have been friendlier (I should at least turn it upside-down).  4/5.

Dry/wet or simply “mix” is a common control on FX.  The “dry” signal is the input of any FX unit or chain, while its output is “wet.”  Blending them is a nice way to avoid overwhelming your audio with too much of a good thing, e.g. reverb.

So slim you might miss it, 2hp Trim is next.  It’s a dual passive attenuator.  Along with the S.B.G I’m using it to lower Eurorack signals to guitar FX levels, since I’ve got a few FX I want to use separately.  It’s actually not calibrated for this purpose, with the right range being somewhere in the lowest 1/10 or so of the knob.  2/5.

To its right is Circuit Abbey Gozinta.  It’s an amplifier to give a clean boost to, you guessed it, signals coming in from FX pedals.   Or any other source where the voltage might be lower than you want, or where you want to overdrive a signal to distort it.  It does its job admirably.  4.5/5.

The wide module after that is Pittsburgh Lifeforms Double Helix.  It’s got a West Coast vibe overall, with a pair of oscillators, an LFO, a wavefolder, an LPG, and a dual modulation bus that makes it easy to assign things to modulate other things.  It’s also haunted by crosstalk and weird interactions within the module, which can annoy or please in equal measure.  The oscillators are kind of “chewy” and well suited to the character of the folder and LPG (which is a simplified Dynamic Impulse Filter).  It sounds great, and whenever I consider dropping it, its unique character grabs me and changes my mind.  4/5.

Next, with the big knob backlit in blue-green, is a DIY build (by someone else) of Mutable Instruments Warps.  The general idea behind this one is it combines and mangles two audio signals in various ways — though it also has its own VCO which does rather nice phase modulation.  I sold my first one, and months later, traded for this because I missed it.  I don’t actually use it a lot, but it’s occasionally welcome.  3.5/5.

Mutable Instruments is one of the popular Eurorack module brands.  Its founder and sole proprietor, Olivier Gillet, started with open-source, DIY desktop synths and chose to continue using that model when he entered the Eurorack market.  This has its pros and cons; parts of his code live on in many other open-source projects and people have made alternate firmware to add new functions to his modules.  People have also independently  done DIY builds of the modules, or smaller redesigned versions, for themselves or others.

The black module with the blue display is uO_C, or micro Ornament & Crime.  This is part of an open-source hardware and software project, which is itself partly based on Mutable Instruments code.  I have Hemisphere Suite installed on mine, which is a set of dozens of utility apps, ranging from envelope generators to Euclidean generators to quantizers to quixotic sequencers.  There’s almost always something useful for it to do.  4.5/5.

The narrower black module to its right is Erica Synths Pico A Logic.  Given two inputs, it returns the sum, difference, maximum and minimum voltages.  Hemisphere Suite can do that too, but this is better suited to audio signals since it’s not limited by rate.  I don’t use it a lot, but it fills an awkwardly small space for which I don’t have a better use at the moment.  3.5/5.

The neighbor with the red buttons is Ladik P-075 Dual Switch.  It’s a simple, passive module where you can connect or disconnect any signal via a manual toggle switch and button combination.  The button inverts the state of the switch, which is clever.  It’s handy to run constant voltages through just to use as a gate source, or to mute parts of a patch.  4/5.

The wood panel on the right side end is a Bastl Dynamo.  It’s a busy module, where the top part combines an envelope follower, comparator and some inverters and rectifiers to create a control source for a VCA for compression — lowering the level when it gets too high.  Of course it can be patched in other ways as well.  The bottom section is an inverter and a very fast A/B switch, and I don’t fully understand the intention of including it rather than a VCA, but it can do some cool stuff once in a while.  Again, I don’t like the wood panel and was supposed to have received an aluminum one.  3.5/5.

One more row to cover, plus some FX and mentions of favorite software and maybe a couple other things!

While writing this post, I started patching up a generative piece using two LFOs ANDed and XORed together, inverted, fed to the G8… all those gates clocked Mimetic Digitalis, some envelope generation, delay syncing and so on.   By the time I finished it was quite a busy patch, the kind that uses up most of my cables.  If I still think well enough of it tomorrow, I’ll be submitting it to the Ambient Online Fire compilation.