a video interlude

One of my favorite PC game genres is rally racing. I find it one of the more interesting and less pointless types of racing in the real world — it’s a test of car design and safety features as well as driver skill, and things like improved tires, anti-lock brakes, and traction control systems are a direct result of these sorts of races. As a video game, it’s got more scenery and more varied challenge than driving around in a circle. It’s not so much about going as fast as possible as it is about not getting slowed down (or completely defeated) by difficult curves and conditions; there’s a saying, “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” Different types of cars from different eras provide unique challenges — whether it’s slow small front-wheel drive cars that understeer and don’t have much acceleration to make up for minor cornering mistakes, overpowered rear-wheel drive monsters from the 80s that were eventually banned for being unsafe, heavy but powerful 90s 4WD cars or modern RWD GT muscle cars, or nimble high-tech rally cars with all the traction and stability you could want but are likely to lead to overconfidence.

I’m not fantastic at these games, and my use of a general-purpose game controller (the Steam Controller, until mine wears out) rather than a racing wheel with force feedback, marks me as a filthy casual… but when I get into a good groove it’s a lot of fun.

One of the cool things about the genre is that most games model real-world courses. Monte Carlo is one of my favorite rally locations. The lower altitude sections (in games anyway) tend to be clear of ice and snow, and can be tackled at reckless speeds alternating with slower twists. But the more elevated areas are just one curvy, frozen slide that’s a struggle no matter what you’re driving. Especially uphill! So it gives me some joy to watch professional drivers with the best technology 2020 has to offer screwing up, one after another, in pretty much the exact same ways that I do and winding up in the same predicaments.

I feel like they could just keep sending cars along this section until this particular curve is completely blocked with disabled vehicles.

The photographers and fans risking life and limb here are nothing compared to some of the daredevils/idiots I’ve seen in some rally videos. Leaping out in front of a barely-in-control speeding car to snap a photo has, in fact, gotten some people killed and is highly discouraged, but it sure seemed to be the norm in some races of earlier decades.


Next up, a video recently posted by computerloverecords on Instagram: a very 80s TV ad for the CZ-101, one of Casio’s few actually respected synthesizers.

It’s a rocket launcher, apparently. “Easy” was one of the selling points, because its main competition was Yamaha DX series synths which were equally easy to play but were unfamiliar and could be difficult and awkward to program. I owned a DX100 for a while, but never wore a helmet or leather gloves while playing:

Rewind 3 years to Korg, with one of the last budget analog synths before the digital revolution (and the computer invasion and eventual analog resurgence). They played it slightly less goofy but it’s still extremely 80s. One of the bass players in my high school jazz band had one, and the riffs I played on it were, sad to say, not far from what’s here. But once again, not being in tune with synth fashions, I wasn’t wearing yellow leg warmers.

nope.

The Strymon AA.1 arrived yesterday, after an inexplicable FedEx delay. And:

  • Yeah those cables I bought to work with it were too short and super awkward. Letting the pedal lie prone (like they normally do) atop my modular case (like they normally don’t), it barely reached.
  • It doesn’t actually attenuate hot Eurorack-level signals enough to work well with the Particle, even at Particle’s max input level tolerance setting, without another stage of attenuation. Thus, the more important half of the pedal is basically useless.
  • Stereo on the Particle is just a matter of applying the exact same effect to L and R channels individually. So all the random grain density, detuning, reverse etc. is synchronized and thus not nearly as interesting as it could be. (To be fair, Clouds is mostly like that too, except the panning of grains can be randomized or modulated.)
  • As I fought with it, I realized I don’t really love Particle all that much anyway. I switched the patch I was testing over to Clouds instead, and found I could get into a somewhat similar ballpark — and it was more fun to tweak and in some ways sounded better.

So I’m returning the AA.1 (setting a new record for shortest time any module has spent in my rack), and reselling Particle. The pedal is definitely exempt from my “don’t sell stuff yet” rule, and I think a return of something that literally does not do the thing it was made for is a fair play too.

In my rearranging of stuff I wound up pulling out Cold Mac and setting it aside. Sort of a test to see how I feel about selling it later. I can set up the crosspanning stuff and other utilities in Bitwig Grid without too much trouble. When the FM Aid arrives this evening, I expect I will do the same with the DSM03.

(* another nope: effing UPS does not follow the delivery instructions you set for them, so they did not “Leave at Front Door.” I specifically had to phone their customer service about that a few months ago to change it to that, because literally everything they delivered even if it was worth $3 was set to require a signature. But at least this time they’re not trying to charge me $5 to pick it up from one of their locations tomorrow.)

(For the record: I hate dealing with USPS, FedEx, UPS and DHL. Somebody invent that teleporter…)

interim

Between projects. I haven’t felt quite like jumping into the next album’s recordings, just doing some experimentation for the moment. Reading some depressing books while my spouse is on a weekend trip probably was a poor choice. But the books are done and she’s returning tomorrow.

I may have chosen cables for the AA.1 poorly; they’re awfully short. But since I’m not actually using the physical controls on Particle I can probably turn it on its back, so they may still reach. The AA.1 should also arrive tomorrow.

I’ve ordered a Happy Nerding FM Aid from Schneidersladen — sort of the unofficial home store of Eurorack, and the only store in the world that claimed to have them in stock. But I haven’t heard from them yet about shipping, so I hope that was actually true… anyway, their prices without VAT are often low enough that, even with international shipping, they beat some American prices anyway. I had FM Aid a couple of years ago and it was cool, but let go of it when I acquired my first Hertz Donut mk2, thinking I wouldn’t need it anymore. With increased understanding of FM, PM and waveshaping and no “real” wavefolder to work with, I want one again. Some of my experiments in Bitwig Grid with sine shaping have told me that the HD mk2, with this sine shaping method of PM, can sound remarkably like old-school Yamaha OPL FM… which is one reason I like the Akemie’s Castle.

The other reason I like the Castle is its “super doomful” chords. As it turns out, the Sync3 firmware for the Starling Via platform can do moderately doomful chords, and those can be enhanced into super doomfulness by applying phase modulation from another source or giving it more complex input to work with. Sync3 is sort of a digital hyper-PLL, latching perfectly onto a signal and generating other signals at selectable frequency ratios. And that makes it an excellent potential partner for the FM Aid.

So I see a path where I might let go of the big ol’ Castle and its thirst for -12V current, without losing much capability at all. That remains to be seen after I work with it throughout Album Thirteen though. I could potentially drop a 4ms Ensemble Oscillator in there instead — a recently announced hybrid additive/waveshaping oscillator — or something weirder like the Beast-Tek P239 Hyper Fist, or just let the space sit empty and see if anything really pulls at me later.

I’m also wondering, idly at the moment, about how the Xaoc Timiszoara will turn out. From here on out, I will simply call it Tim. It’s based on the Spin FV-1 effects chip, which is commonly used in guitar pedals and has a massive open-source library of DSP code. Unlike other Eurorack implementations of the Spin though, you can load stuff onto it via an SD card and it has a lovely interface with a small LCD screen. I’m considering it as a possible replacement for the Supercell in my post-E520-arrival rack. I’ll see what people think of it once it’s released.


I’ve been listening to some of my moderately older albums — still Starthief stuff, but from 2018 and early ’19 — and surprising myself. A lot of it really does not meet the criteria of what I think of as Starthief music, in terms of structure and flow and the sound palette, and isn’t something I would create or release today. I think getting away from MIDI sequencing on the song level, and having form flow from improvisation, is the biggest part of that.


I’m still kind of hunting a roleplaying game to get into. I briefly tried Secret World: Legends this evening, and while it’s kind of intriguing in terms of story (at least for the chaos faction and perhaps the Illuminati, but not the stodgy Templars) I found the combat to be pretty bleh and disjointed. Sort of like a sloppier and more vague Neverwinter (which I also thought briefly about getting back into).

I saw an announcement today about Torchlight 3. More action game than RPG really, but I had several hours of fun with Fate, Torchlight and Torchlight 2 before getting bored with each of them in turn, and then coming back to them a few months later. I suspect about the same from TL 3, and that’s okay.

I really would like a decent, properly funded, with enough development time and clear design goals, and fully polished and balanced, remake of Hellgate: London. I want to shoot zombies and demons with explosive darts, weird tentacle guns, psycho-cybernetic insect swarms, plasma grenade launchers, a personal squad of drones, and spooky dark spells. An enchanted katana or two would also be nice. And I want more than three different looking streets in all of London. And I don’t want quests that have me gather 7 “things” (literally labeled “thing”), or play capture-the-flag against demons for no explicable reason, or slooooowly burn out all the pus-filled gunk from a section of town with a weak-ass flamethrower, or remotely send orders to a hapless squad of weak, disobedient and poorly armed soldiers. And I don’t want monsters that it takes approximately 17 minutes worth of full-auto fire to the eyeballs to bring down but doesn’t provide any actual challenge aside from the boredom factor. And I don’t want the whole game to be bought by a third party who cares even less, rips out half the game, converts it to multiplayer and shuts it down a year later.

That game wanted to be great and never had a chance. Ah well.


Those depressing books? The first was Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, which was described as “a Soviet fairy tale” — and despite a little bit of framing that tried to link it to Russian folktales about Ivan, Vasilisa, Koschei the Deathless, the Baba Yaga and so forth – -it was using the term in the derogatory sense of wishful thinking doomed to failure. The basic premise is that some of the mathematicians of Kruschev’s day were convinced that, through the proper application of mathematical models, they could set prices and production targets that would optimize the Soviet economy and, in a short few years, grow far beyond the capitalist pigs on the other side of the world, and successfully spread peace and full Communism across the Earth. And even halfway into the book, I was under the impression this was meant to be an alternate history where something like that actually happened. NOPE. Self-interest, personal politics, dogmatic inertia, corruption, and bureaucracy got in the way. It fouled the mathematicians’ models to some degree, but even more so, ensured that they didn’t get to really apply their theories.

And the overall feeling of Soviet life in this book was kind of… squalid. Stalin’s legacy of disregard for current human life and happiness in order to secure some theoretical future, a whole lot of smoking and drinking, disregard for the environment, the criminal underworld, shabby living conditions and (often willful) ignorance just made the whole culture seem thoroughly unpleasant. Worst fairy tale ever.

It wasn’t without some good bits though. To me the most fascinating thing was the notion that Marxism was based entirely on the idea of a workers’ revolution in a fully developed, industrial, successful capitalist society that was already humming along smoothly and had some idea of what goods were worth. Instead, it happened in a poor backward agrarian feudal one. And it was decided at the highest levels that sacrifices would be made in order to jump-start industrial production to catch up with the capitalists. And that meant millions of people were starved for decades in order to ramp up heavy industry that was obsolete by the time it finally got up to speed, and actually wound up subtracting value from raw materials while polluting the environment and failing to provide for peoples’ needs. It wasn’t “socialism” that caused that suffering, it was central economic planning by iron-fisted ideologues with no heart and too little brain and a completely wrong vision of eventual success.

This book isn’t turning me against socialism, but certainly illustrated the folly of Soviet Communism. I still believe workers should share fairly in the fruits of their labor and in decisions that affect the course of their companies; that inequality matters and that rentier capitalism, inheritance and executive pay need to be severely limited; that collectively we have the means and obligation to feed, clothe, house, educate and keep healthy and safe all of our people and not sacrifice them to enrich the 1%. A market economy can partially self-organize, although it needs some regulation and assistance; one has to remember that (A) the theoretical perfect consumer knowledge and perfect competitive environment don’t exist, and (B) when it comes down to it, people are more important than money.

…the other depressing (sort of) but heartwarming (kind of) and strangely uplifting (a bit), book was Moominvalley in November. Yes, a children’s book. Theoretically. I wound up getting it because of a sort of hot take on a gaming website that floated the Moomin setting as one for some interesting and atypical games. It quoted from the “Rain” chapter of the book, in which Snufkin, an itinerant musician and a very contemplative sort, was listening to the rain and trying to recapture the five perfect bars of music that previously came to him at the wrong time but which would now be perfect. I have fond memories of a couple of the other Moomin books from childhood, so I had to read this one. It was a very wistful sort of book, where each character either longed for something or was anxious or sort of empty. One of them actually starts in on the “Swedish death cleaning” thing (which I recently heard about in an “Ask a Mortician” video my spouse was watching) after a frightening event.

I actually don’t know what a child would have thought of it compared to the other books… but now I wonder just how dark some of the other books were and how I’d interpret them differently now. Comet in Moominland was about the impending destruction of the world, after all.

Now I’m on to Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower, which probably isn’t going to be all fun and games either but I do really like her work. It’s got my attention so far — the narrator is a god who remembers the time before life crawled out of the sea and has to abide by particular rules; the story is told more or less in the second person, with the “you” being a trans man named Eolo. So that’s different…

Pandatastic

I guess I didn’t mention that I had found a discounted Red Panda Particle V2 that was used as a store demo. It arrived a couple of days ago and I put it through its paces.

I’ve heard Particle described as “standalone Clouds” but I don’t think it’s an entirely accurate comparison. Clouds strikes me as a genuinely granular processor, capturing overlapping sound snippets either as an effect or as a means to synthesize new sounds. While Clouds can be choppy and rhythmic if you choose short enough grain size and sparse grain triggering, it can also do smooth (or overdo it into blurry and drowning in its own reverb), or places in between that yield interesting textures. In its original firmware algorithm, Clouds can act as a delay but that doesn’t seem to be its forte or its primary design — although now I find I’m going to want to revisit it and see how well it can pretend to be a delay without using the alternate delay algorithm.

Particle strikes me more as a delay first, with a granular twist. You can get a fairly clean-sounding delay out of it that doesn’t have any granular modulation. From there, you can lower the grain density (by randomly dropping some grains) or reverse grains (with adjustable probability of being reversed) to chop it up a bit, repitch it, randomize the delay amount or pitch for each grain, or traverse the delay buffer with an LFO which sort of “bends” the playback in an indescribable and unintuitive but sometimes interesting way. It can also freeze the buffer, either while one of the switches is held down or when the level falls below a threshold that you set.

Not all of the features are available simultaneously from the pedal’s knobs. There are hidden settings accessible only via MIDI over USB; otherwise the Mode knob determines what the Param and Delay/Pitch knobs will do, and Chop and the Freeze threshold are combined onto one knob. I don’t much like that, to be honest, although I understand that’s all the original version of the pedal allowed. Thankfully working with it through MIDI lets you get at all of those parameters simultaneously, and I can modulate them via Bitwig — for instance, increasing the particle density along with the dynamics.

Right now, I am running Particle with mono input, with Tensor immediately afterward. Particle V2 supports stereo input and output (on TRS jacks, not typical for pedals), but right now I’ve just got the ADDAC 200PI Pedal integrator to get the modular (and computer) talking to pedals, with two mono inputs and outputs. So that I can use Particle in stereo, I’ve ordered a Strymon AA.1 pedal interface and the cables I need to hook it up. (For some reason the AA.1’s “return” input is TRS, but its “send” output is a left/right pair of TS jacks.) Honestly I’m not sure how stereo is implemented with Particle — if it simply does the exact same processing to both channels, or if randomized values affect the left and right sides differently. I’m hoping for the latter, though. Even if stereo turns out to be a little lackluster, the extra pedal interface module will be helpful if/when I decide to add a couple more goodies, like the Freqout or Dweller perhaps.

organic

Here’s a neat thing: Reverberations: an 8-bit approach to J.S. Bach

It struck me that, at least in theory, organ pipes should generate quite primitive sound waves. If so, how come a church organ doesn’t sound like a chip tune, which is also built up from simple waveforms? Well, actually it will, if you remove the church. And if you connect a Commodore¬†64 home computer to a loudspeaker in a large hall, it will sound like an organ.

Since the 80s, nearly every digital keyboard ever sold has had some kind of half-decent pipe organ preset, if not several — though maybe let down a little bit by faked reverb, which then starts to run into polyphony limitations. It turns out if you use a good convolution reverb, and a human performance rather than on-the-grid sequencing, even the SID chip in the Commodore 64 (or two of them anyway, for 6-note polyphony) can do a convincing job.

This is probably the least chiptunes-sounding music I’ve ever heard from the C64. I’ve often thought that there aren’t really any bad synthesizers, it all comes down to how you use them. (The SID chip was not bad for its time and price, particularly compared to the primitive beeps other computers and video game consoles had then, and is still prized/fetishized by some. It’s just a tall order for it to compete with modern synths, or other analog synths that aren’t crammed onto a single chip with 1981 technology. I’m not really into the sound of its filter compared to many other offerings, for instance. And it’s super buggy and quirky.)

a tiny bit of history

A little more than a week ago was my 17th anniversary as a member of the KvR forum. I’d meant to write something to reflect on it… but as I started the process I realized I didn’t have much to say. Neither the things that changed nor things things that stayed the same were much of a surprise to me.

Today, in a resurrected thread “Is FM synthesis your goto?,” I did find a surprise in something I wrote in mid-October 2016:

I don’t use FM as much as sampling or subtractive, but I do use it and like it. I tend toward experimental, ambient, noise types of stuff, so it’s not like I’m hooked on FM basses or something.

This was when I was planning to get my first Eurorack modules but had no idea how much that would impact my music-making methods and my style.

In the last couple of years I’ve rarely used samples anymore. Sometimes a quiet layer of a field recording in the background. I used one solitary note from NI Una Corda on No Place. I do kind of want to mess with sound-on-sound looping, which is technically sampling, but not sampling as the sound source as I meant in that post.

Likewise, subtractive synthesis has really fallen by the wayside for me. I was using my Microbrute in about 1/3 of my songs for a good while, but no more. Once in a while I use LuSH-101 or a subtractive patch on the Reface. For a lot of people subtractive synthesis pretty much IS synthesis, with the assumption that every synth has a filter and it’s the most important factor in its timbre.

I kind of got obsessed with FM from 2017 onward as I learned about “West Coast” synthesis methods, and the subtleties of exponential FM, linear and thru-zero linear FM, its relationship to phase modulation and wavefolding, etc.

Having recently heard some neat-sounding subtractive synthesis patches in product demos, and recalling how much I liked the Microbrute when used in specific ways, I’ve decided that I want to explore subtractive synthesis a bit again. So now my plan for album 13 is to do that alongside making a study of Akemie’s Castle. I’ve got a couple of great filters in my rack and can also make use of some nice software filters. Should be fun!

float*

At this point I believe I have recorded all the tracks for album #12. I also have album art ready — my own photo, I just need to slap the title on. I was dithering about possible punctuation that would definitely cause filename issues and probably MP3 tag issues, but decided it’s not really worth the hassle.

The overall mood of the album is… maybe not lighthearted exactly, but relaxed and not taking itself too seriously. That attitude is pretty much the theme, too. It’s not too deep (so to speak) even though I’m kind of returning to the sea with it. Not under pressure like Nereus was though. The opposite of that.

Gear usage on this one seems atypical — no E352 or Natural Gate and very little Kermit, and much less reverb than usual — but when I look over the track notes it doesn’t seem amiss. I was exploring some unusual techniques, doing some stuff with software, and the Lyra and Castle. Finding my way to make something a little different than previous albums while still staying Starthief with it.

Album 13? It might be an Akemie’s Castle study, since I want to dig deeper into the module. Or perhaps a Castle vs. HD mk2 “battle” of sorts. A siege, perhaps… with donuts.

Hertz Donut mk2 vs mk3: the details

I spent much of the weekend with the Hertz Donut mk2 and mk3 side by side. Re-familiarizing myself with the mk2 didn’t take long and I quickly felt more comfortable with it than the mk3. Applying what I’ve learned about FM in the past year, I extended my exploration of the mk2 and compared the two modules in some detail.

I also spent some time with Akemie’s Castle because this is part of my calculations. Direct comparison of that one is more difficult, but my goal is to eliminate overkill and choose what I’m going to be happiest with in the long term. Two Donuts and a Castle is definitely FM overkill, and it’s possible than one Donut and a Castle is too. I’ll say more about that at the end of this post.

Feature set, layout, usability

The HD mk2 has very typical “complex oscillator” architecture: one primary oscillator, one modulation oscillator. The modulation oscillator is just as fully featured as the primary, except it doesn’t feed through the waveshaper. Both can be switched between, sine, triangle and saw outputs and also feature a pulse.square output, and there’s a dedicated XOR output that mashes them together. There’s a single modulation bus which can be assigned to FM, waveshaping, tracking, and/or AM.

HD mk3 is more complex. It has the fully-featured carrier, and two slimmed-down modulation oscillators. The modulators (OpA and OpB) have no sync inputs and there’s one pitch input assigned to OpA, switchable for OpB. There’s one assignable output where you can select OpA, OpB, a mix, or XOR. There’s also a routing matrix where OpA, OpB, and an external input can be assigned to various destinations with different levels — this dictated the interface design to a large degree and necessitated multiple modes and a menu system. This matrix has a single master modulation amount knob and CV.

Mk2 has a waveshaper with three selectable modes. Mk3 has three waveshapers, with modes and menus determining how its single control and CV are assigned.

Mk3 has a small display and a preset saving and morphing system. I don’t personally like it, and wish the module would at least remember your favorite settings on startup outside the context of the preset system. Mk2 also does not remember modes on startup, but the modes are much simpler, accessed by button presses or very simple button combos.

Mk3 also has a Unison mode where it doubles the output with detuned, octave, fifth or fourth-shifted copies. I don’t think I’ve ever used this other than to turn it on, listen, be disappointed and turn it back off; it doesn’t have the depth of the E352/E370’s Cloud mode.

Mk2 on the other hand, has AM as one of its modulation destinations. It’s not very strong compared to using an external VCA, but for more subtle effects or in combination with other modulation destinations, it can be occasionally useful.

Despite the smaller feature set, I find more joy in the simpler setup and feel of the mk2. It just feels more open and inviting to patch. The menus and modal controls in the mk3 feel awkward to me, and the mk3 lacks some of the patch points of the mk2.

Raw sound

The mk2’s raw sine output (with no modulation and no waveshaping depth) has some noticeable aliasing. A lowpass filter at about 4500Hz will clean it up if desired. The waveshaping mode does play some role in the sound even when the depth is at mininum; the orange mode is cleanest. Stability isn’t perfect but isn’t bad. With no CV input and in “VCO” mode, the oscillator ranges from below 20Hz to 3937Hz with a knob turn; max with CV seems to be about 5380Hz (above which, the frequency starts going down as the voltage increases).

Without the waveshaper, the mk2 also offers triangle and sawtooth options from the main output, and a separate pulse output. The triangle seems fairly clean or else is good at masking aliasing, while the saw aliases at higher base frequencies. Again, both are cleaner in the orange waveshaping mode. The pulse output is narrow by default on the primary, though red and green modes act as a width control. It seems to be a square from the modulation output.

The mk3’s raw sine output is clean and free of aliasing. With the octave set to 0 in the menu, the frequency range on the knob is below 20 to only 273Hz; at +2 octaves the range is 69 to 1084Hz. I would certainly have preferred a wider range available on the coarse tuning knob, and an LFO/VCO mode selection rather than octaves. Max frequency seems to go above 20Khz.

I feel like the mk2’s triangle, saw and pulse outs give it an advantage here. I can live with (and even appreciate) some aliasing or filtering as necessary, given the kind of music I make.

Tracking modes

The mk2 has four tracking modes:

  • Off: the modulation oscillator frequency is independent of the primary
  • Red: I think this was literally called “stupid mode” on the mk1. The modulation oscillator frequency tries to follow the carrier’s base frequency (not its FMd frequency), but it does it via random-ish jumps at an adjustable speed, which eventually home in on it. This is a very distinctive and almost never useful sound.
  • Orange: the modulation oscillator is perfectly locked to the primary. This is also rarely useful, as it disables the FM bus; all I can think of to use it for is selecting different output waves.
  • Green: the modulation oscillator follows the carrier’s base frequency, with the knob and CV acting as an offset.

In green and orange modes, the tracking CV and knob act as a phase offset. But the CV is unipolar and doesn’t respond well at audio rates. It’s also a destination on the mod bus, where it reacts better — but since the modulation oscillator always modifies its own phase, the result can be weird. It can be used to disrupt the pitch a bit if used alongside FM, or add some interesting noise textures.

The mk3 has three tracking modes for its OpA and OpB, plus a related mode switch, accessed from a menu:

  • “Discrete” is the default. This is like the mk2’s green tracking mode, except that the offsets are locked to a specific set of pleasant-sounding harmonic ratios. OpA can be fine-tuned off the ratio a little to introduce some beating.
  • “Follow” is exactly like the mk2’s green mode.
  • “Free” disables the tracking.
  • “A-B Link” determines whether OpA’s V/OCT input is also used by OpB (which has no input of its own).

Two of the modes on the mk2 are almost useless, but it’s easy to switch between them. Discrete mode on the mk3 — despite my initial resistance to its being the default — is often pretty useful. I would give this to the mk3…

…except that I found I can imitate Discrete mode for the mk2 with a simple Monome Teletype scene. It sends predetermined voltages based on the knob position into the modulator’s V/OCT input, so I can still flip easily between neat-sounding ratios with a knob turn. With that in mind, I will call this one a draw.

FM

The basic FM character — at least when the mk2’s waveshaper is in orange mode — is very similar between the two modules. When the modulation bus is fed a linear envelope, the mk3 seems to behave linearly while the mk2 seems to have a logarithmic curve.

When in red or green waveshaping modes, the mk2 has more of a buzzy edge to its FM. And of course the modulator and carrier shape selection (sine/tri/saw) can have major effects on the FM.

The mk3’s second operator effectively makes it a 3-op FM synth. To my ears, when OpA and OpB are both FMing the carrier (parallel FM) or when OpB modulates OpA which modulates the carrier (serial FM) it doesn’t sound as nice as familiar Yamaha FM. However, treating OpA as a second carrier and modulating them both with OpB is extremely effective.

The mk3 has a dedicated external modulation input which can be routed through the modulation system. The mk2 has individual FM inputs for both oscillators. Serial FM on the mk2 isn’t nice, but as with the mk3, using both oscillators as carriers modulated by an external source can work very nicely.

Both the mk2 and mk3 also have exponential FM inputs. On the mk2 this is unipolar 0-5V, which is somewhat ludicrous. But on both, audio rate expo FM is not at all clean and not very usable.

Before this test, nostalgia told me the mk3 is smoother and “too clean” at FM compared to the mk2, perhaps more band-limited. In reality, the mk2’s extra bite comes from the waveshaper modes and the selectable oscillator shapes. I honestly feel like this is a bigger advantage than having a third operator for FM, since I can easily use an external oscillator for that. To me, the mk2 wins this round.

Waveshaper(s)

The mk2 has a single waveshaper (labeled “waveform discontinuity”) with three modes:

  • Orange: the cleanest of the three when the depth is at minimum, but immediately the noisiest as the depth is increased even a little bit. It introduces a complex fractal shape, beginning with higher harmonics and then filling in downward toward the fundamental, which remains strong throughout the range. Internal modulation of the amount at audio rates can introduce beating and subharmonics, but the noisy, sizzling character remains.
  • Red: this mode adds a little bit of buzz even at minimum, especially with FM. As the depth increases, it resembles mathematically precise digital wavefolding, with a sine folding over into “cat ears” with sharp edges. Not as smooth as a classic analog wavefolder, but definitely usable, especially with an LPG.
  • Green: this mode also adds some buzz at the minimum setting. As the level increases, the waveform begins to clip at the top and bottom, and then begins folding somewhat smoothly. It can give FM an edge without as much harshness as red mode. When modulated internally, it can sound quite pleasant and combines very well with FM on the mod bus.

The mk3 instead has three waveshapers which can operate simultaneously:

  • PDist: phase distortion, with varying effects on harmonics. As the level increases, it first shapes the sine into a saw-like shape, and then at about the halfway point it yields a smooth double sine/triangle with a strong 2nd harmonic. Above that, it brings in richer high harmonics. The overall impression I get is less of a Casio CZ phase distortion synth and more of a wavetable. Sweeping PDist itself isn’t that nice, but it does combine smoothly and predictably with FM, and modulating the level at audio rate gives results that are buzzy without being excessively harsh.
  • Umbrage: a fractal waveshaper, with a different harmonic profile than mk2’s orange mode. It’s strong in the second harmonic at first and then shifts toward the third, but also rich in upper harmonics. A more aggressive sound than PDist. Audio rate modulation of Umbrage can actually sound smoother than keeping the level static, and can introduce chord-like tones. It also complements FM well, though the tone is particularly buzzy and seems to be asking for an LPG to tame it.
  • Reso adds harmonics progressively, while adding a resonant peak to them. It sounds very much like a resonant lowpass filter, even though it’s being applied to a sine oscillator. This one can’t be the target of internal modulation. I don’t feel it complements FM very well, but it does combine decently with the other waveshapers.

On both models, external audio-rate modulation of the waveshaper is generally very rough. Envelopes and LFOs make better input there.

Before this comparison I would have given this to the mk3, but now I find the decision more difficult. While I think the mk2 sounds better with an analog wavefolder or sine shaper, there are some uses for its modes, particularly the green. On the mk3, I find PDist disappointing, and Reso a bit gimmicky for my tastes since I don’t really use that kind of filter sweep. Both modules have a lot of high frequency “LPG fodder” options.

I think on both modules, the waveshapers compliment the rest of their design and are strongest when used to complement the FM and be modulated at audio rates. I’m going to call this one a draw.

Overall

I won’t pretend that these categories have equal weighting, or that a slight advantage should count the same as a big advantage. But it’s pretty clear that, while my ears do appreciate some of the mk3’s unique abilities, my heart is with the mk2.

Akemie’s Castle?

Using old Yamaha OPL3 chips rather than code running on a microcontroller, it’s a different beast. Four operators with selectable algorithms, and two separate voices with independent pitch controls that work off the common operators. One of the voices has a chord voicing knob. All the operators have selectable waveforms rather than just sines. There are all kinds of quirks with this one — most notably, “leaky” internal VCAs so that some modulation always sneaks through even if the depth is supposed to be zero, and a steppy, glitchy response to changes in modulation depth.

These days I prefer 2op FM over 4 or more, but the algorithms with multiple carriers, or which divide the assignments between the A and B oscillators are useful. Ridiculously thick clusters of chords can be had when combining B’s chord mode with differently-tuned carriers and some of the more chord-like waveshapes, as well as the independent tuning on A. This makes it excellent for drones, and I recorded a piece this weekend which takes full advantage of that. It also does much more old-school sounding FM plucks and, well, cuteness, than the Hertz Donut or other Eurorack oscillators can achieve — a sound I like on its own, but which won’t necessarily always fit in with my musical style.

On the downside: it’s big, and it drinks deeply of -12V current. (And I also think its current position at the top of the case isn’t ideal for experimentation; if I keep it, it deserves to move a little closer.)

One of my options is to keep the HD mk2 and Castle. I will probably worry about the focus vs. overkill issue though. This is a lot of FM, particularly given that other modules, the Reface CS, and software all can also do FM (albeit each in their own way).

Another option is to let go of Castle and keep just the mk2. If I want those big chords I could achieve them with Bitwig Poly Grid or Plogue’s retro FM plugins, or I could layer them in other ways if so inclined. I don’t feel like the plugins are as satisfyingly hands-on or authentically glitchy as I might like, so this does put those sounds at some remove. It does open up some space that could go to a Xaoc Odessa perhaps, or just stay empty.

A third choice would be to let go of both Donuts and keep the Castle. This feels a bit radical and scary, because missing a “real” complex oscillator was the impetus for the big shakeup where I sold the ER-301 — but in many ways the Castle can perhaps step into that space. It has some appeal in terms of consolidation and focus. The features (and cleanness) that Castle lacks are still available through Rings’ FM mode and my two waveshaping modules, plus Bitwig.

I think my next move is to work extensively both with and against Castle. Can I duplicate those big chords with Bitwig in a satisfying way? Can I get close to that retro kawaii sound that way? And, can I get satisfying “complex oscillator”-like results with the Castle and without Donut?

Also: would rearranging my case help? Something’s got to be on the top row, but perhaps I need a rethink here.

star and other wars

We still haven’t seen Rise of Skywalker. First, we were out of town visiting my parents, who would rather record 87 Hallmark Christmas movies and watch 6 of them (plus reality shows about gold miners and whatever) than go to a cinema. I love my parents, but their media habits are pretty much the opposite of mine.

And then we were both sick, and have remained so. I think maybe at this point I could sit in a theater for a couple of hours, so we might go soon. So far I’ve been able to avoid spoilers, other than the general impression that a lot of people didn’t like it and some people found it really satisfying. That’s pretty much what people said about episodes 7 and 8 and Solo, so… whatever. At this point I think Star Wars is too big a cultural thing with so many personal interpretations that no possible movie could please everyone.

I’ve been playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, a now 8 year old MMO (11 years old if you count the official announcement of its development). Since I was one of the major developers on HeroEngine, the platform that runs the game, I have mixed feelings here. HeroEngine was frankly a year or two away from being ready for prime time when they insisted on licensing it, and they forked the code with their own patches and modifications to the core technology that we thought unwise. We were half afraid they’d release a broken game and give people a poor impression of the engine. (That was far from being our company’s main problem, but I’m not here to be bitter about history right now.) And here it is 2020 and I encountered a bug that I fixed myself back in about 2009…

But the game does mostly work, and is… okay? It feels like an older MMO, not as fluid as something like Guild Wars 2 which was only released 1 year later. I see a lot in it that’s how our ill-fated Hero’s Journey behaved, except that it’s an actual playable game, where HJ was 27 false starts at something that the management couldn’t decide if it was a game or a tech demo. Anyway. A lot of what you can do in the game, in terms of customization and even basic item storage, is restricted to subscribers. I kind of enjoyed the beginning of the Imperial Agent story, but then my interest kind of fizzled when I got to the second chapter. I also kind of enjoyed the beginning of the smuggler’s story, but the overall gameplay is not really very engaging to me, and I expect I’ll just uninstall it tonight.

I kind of want an MMO experience, but a better one.

I played Warframe a bit, but the story really takes a while to wind up. The gameplay is pretty much just a mildly decent shooter, but I am really not sure I want to play shooters any more. (This one is generally more science fictionish than gun culturish, but still.) Character customization is extremely limited without plunking down surprising amounts of money or playing for quite a long time to accumulate resources (though some of the robot/suit designs I see on other players are very elaborate and cool). But the worst bit is, despite apparently huge amounts of content out there, I got stuck at a point where I can’t successfully complete available missions unless, perhaps, I grind ones I’ve already done. Bleh to that.

I also tried Dragon’s Dogma very, very briefly. It’s a console port, with poor support for my screen resolution, awful unexplained controls, and NPCs that chatter repetitively at you multiple times per minute. I asked for a refund from Steam in record time.

Other ones I’ve considered are Final Fantasy XIV, and Elder Scrolls Online. Since they’re not free, I read over lots of reviews and I’m not sure I would really dig either one. So perhaps I should just drop it and do other things (like making music). When you’ve got a cold it just feels easier to play games than to do something creative, though.


Given 45’s unprovoked, inappropriate, illegal, foolhardy, shortsighted, selfish, heartless, etc. action against Iran, and their nearly inevitable, understandable but saddening reaction, and the propaganda and warmongering noises coming out of the mouths of politicians and pundits, I think my personal balance point between staying informed and staying sane is tilting more toward the side of blissful ignorance. Reading about the missile attack on US military bases, the conflicting versions of casualties coming from various completely unreliable sources, and the threats of further violence in both directions, before going to bed last night, really did not help me sleep or feel generally better about humanity.

Nothing at this point is going to change my opinion: war is stupid and cruel and primitive and we don’t need it. For the past 70 years or so, the US has been sticking its ham fists into the Middle East and every single time, our actions have come back to bite us while causing unneeded suffering. It’s long past time we just stopped. We need to transition away from fossil fuels pretty damn fast anyway.

Wars belong a long time ago, in a galaxy far away, and solely in the imagination. (For that matter, maybe we can even have some stories in that setting that don’t even involve war, but other conflicts and dramas. Just not Hutt: A Love Story please.)