poke, poke back

It’s nice to finally get some autumn-like weather again. We waited until last night, marshmallows and cheddar turkey sausages at the ready, for the opportunity to “camp” on our back patio and enjoy it. The later dawn, earlier sunset, fall colors, and more human-friendly temperature and humidity generally brings a lift to my mood and general energy level.

The Lyra-8 has been working out well for me. I’ve started a collection of some decent recordings of improvisations with it, and submitted two of them to Ambient Online’s next compilation. A couple of times I’ve worked from “what’s the most utterly horrendous noise possible?” to something really gorgeous.

I know its self-modulation will never really be tamed — there are singularities along the range of the “Mod” knobs that defy all explanation. But so long as I avoid those, I’m developing a better sense of the combinations, modulation, effects, techniques, performance etc. that give me results I like. Natural Gate is a yes for sure, as it adds more definite articulation and really enjoys chewing on those full, harmonically rich and noise-infused sounds. Stereo delay as well as Haaze can give it width and depth, and delay and reverb can help turn the instrument’s generally loose sense of pitch into a fuller “ensemble” feel. Low shelf EQ, notch filtering and dynamic EQ can tame some of the overwhelming pressure the instrument puts in some bands, while a high shelf or noise reduction algorithms can reduce or shape some of the noisiness of the built-in PT delay. CV modulation requires some offset and attenuation to work well, as the first couple of volts often seem to have almost no effect. With that knowledge I want to revisit external FM sources and see how they differ from the internal modulation routing. I haven’t tried pitch sequences with the SQ-1 or Stages yet, but that’s coming.

The Lyra is certainly responsive to touch and expressive to play, but it invites a bit more.

  • I’d like some subtle performance control over vibrato and pitch bending. It can be achieved somewhat through modulation between voices, but you’ve got to play multiple voices for that, and that’s more like “influence” rather than control. Trying to use the tuning knobs for micro pitch fluctuations is a bit awkward and risky, and the vibrato toggle switch is very organ-like and heavy-handed.
  • Likewise, dynamics control with the touchplates can be a bit tricky. Some of it is down to technique, combining different touches/brushes of the plates with the envelope switch and Hold knob settings — and is a pretty delightful aspect of the feel of the instrument at times — but more control is welcome.
  • Expressive control over other aspects of the sound — like the mix level of an effect, or a manually controlled phaser or something — seems like it would be extremely welcome with this instrument.
  • When I’m playing non-Lyra synths now, I feel like I’m missing a dimension.

I’m considering the Expressive E Touché SE. It’s a highly adjustable touch controller inspired by the touché d’intensité control (aka the “lozenge”) on the Ondes Martenot, but with 4 degrees of freedom rather than one. You can press, tap, rock, and shift it, and assign different directional controls as needed — most typically, downward pressure to affect volume and brightness, and sideways movement for vibrato and bending. You can adjust its sensitivity and its feel, through a combination of electronic settings, software settings, a mechanical balancing slider, and physically changing out an internal cylinder if you want to get that deep. I tried its more expensive sibling at Knobcon a couple of years ago, and it felt very good. The “Software Edition” is USB-only and gives up direct MIDI and CV connections, but I can get around that easily with the Bitwig/Expert Sleepers integration. The full version could be a smarter choice if intended to play live without a computer, which… right now I assume I don’t.

But: desk space. I’ll have to figure out if it will fit and if the ergonomics will be right.

There are other possibilities, with… mostly fewer benefits other than fitting in the modular rack. Intellijel Tetrapad, Meng Qi Hand, Adventure Audio Skin, FSRs (force sensing resistors)… I have a lot of questions about some of them, doubts about others. A couple of them are cheap enough I might add them on for giggles even if I go for the Touché, if I make other small changes to the modular.


My Lyra-8 arrived yesterday, and it’s certainly a beast. The designer’s intent was:

  • Taking inspiration from neurology, build an electronic instrument where everything is interconnected rather than defined by a limited set of one-way linear flows. Simple parts with a network of many connections between them allow for rich and complex behavior.
  • Taking inspiration from both the violin and Theremin, make the instrument tactile and direct, with minimum automation or quantization.
  • Taking inspiration from Indian ragas, where “the art of mastering your mental and emotional state is essential.” I’ll mostly take the designer’s word on that, but I agree that it does seem to ask for a certain mindset.
  • An intro video for the smaller Lyra-4 claims it’s an instrument for communicating with the subconscious of whales via household plumbing, using recovered Soviet military technology from the 60s. Ummm.

My very first impression of the instrument was, it weighs a LOT. My second impression was several minutes of confusion and disbelief. Understanding parts of the instrument arrived within the first couple of hours. Mastery over the whole thing does not seem possible in a human lifetime, but intuitive partnership with the cetacean subconscious seems to be imminent 🙂

The cross-modulation stuff is basically FM, but I’ve read that it’s neither linear nor exponential FM since the oscillators have a nonlinear voltage-to-frequency relationship. Notes often, but not always, drift in pitch as volume changes or slide from one to another. There are probably all kinds of DC offsets, crosstalk, and unspecified feedback going on as well. It’s not that uncommon for sets of voices to go up when you expect down, lock themselves into perfect sync, or drop into silence (perhaps because they’re not thru-zero capable? or is it ghosts?). And it’s all based on gestures, and sometimes the tiniest movements of knobs, and humidity and temperature.

You can turn all those modulation switches off and it’s much more predictable, but still on the weird side. As Loopop said in his video, “forget East Coast or West Coast, this synth is from outer space.”

The sound, and the feeling you get when playing it (after the initial overwhelming confusion) is an amazing combination of alien and humanistic, delicate and forceful.

I recorded two jams with it last night, as well as playing with running drums through it (which was amazing, but pretty far from what I’m doing as Starthief). I expect the next album after… whatever the scenes-but-no-places-one is called …will be Lyra-heavy. I’ll just record a whole lot of stuff and publish the best.

For a taste, here’s the first thing:

I can imagine playing this instrument live, which isn’t something I’ve felt very inclined to do with the Eurorack gear or plugins. It’d be very edge-of-the-pants… er, seat-of-the-seat? Fly by night? Creatively risky and adventurous, though I don’t know if the audience would know just how much so. Just the Lyra and maybe a couple of guitar pedals; if I wanted to change directions, a drum machine too.

I kind of want to take it upstairs to our crafts/jamming room and plug it into the little amp I’ve got up there, and then maybe record that with my portable recorder (if I can find the thing! It’s so small I lost it somewhere in the house). But I don’t want to crawl under/behind my desk to reroute the power every time, so perhaps I’ll look for a second power adapter.

I also intend to try it together with the modular, of course. It is a natural drone monster, for one thing. The effects (a fantastically dirty PT delay and surprisingly controllable distortion) can be used with an external input, and if also using the voice section, the combined output can modulate the voices in a feedback loop. It has a few CV inputs, though from what I’ve read it’s less “control voltage” and more “humble suggestion voltage…”

nowhere fast

I had a couple of vacation days making this a double-long weekend; there was a family camping trip planned, but that got cancelled. Given the 90 degree weather in almost-October I don’t suppose that would have been a lot of fun anyway.

I figure the arrival of the Lyra-8 tomorrow might be disruptive to my flow — I might take a break to learn the techniques of a weird new instrument, it might make me rethink the modular again, or have an effect on my musical style. So I made a big push to finish the album first, without seriously worrying about whether I’d get there.

I did.

I recorded that first track while finishing the mastering and artwork phases for Grounded. Then I learned Bitwig, migrated to a new computer, and went to Knobcon. And then I was on fire. 9 tracks in about 2 weeks, and four of those in four days.

I didn’t learn massive amounts from Knobcon, nor feel super inspired by it — but it must have triggered some kind of mental and spiritual refresh. I did acquire a bit of new gear and a new vision for how everything fits together, and it all falls in nicely with the focus that came together during the recording of Grounded.

Bitwig integration is working really nicely for me. The Mimeophon is all over this album, and contributed to a sort of retro / hauntology vibe which I think works really well with the album concept. I also employed a couple of tape/vinyl simulation plugins, but a big part of it really is Mimeophon with the Color knob cranked down, Repeats cranked up and enough Halo to overdrive it a bit. Then post-processing to try to take the edge off the distortion while also adding more flavor.

The album still has to survive the review process — I haven’t even listened to half of it at work yet, which is a key step for getting perspective — and mastering and art and… I haven’t chosen a name yet. That might take as long as the whole recording phase did. 🙂

from Russia with drones

That didn’t take long…

In my deliberations of instruments that could work well in my musical context I kept circling back around the Soma Lyra-8, as I have for a few years now. The earliest Russian-built units had a waiting list and commanded high prices, so I figured it was something to daydream about at best. The maker contracted a Polish manufacturer to help meet demand, and prices steadily creeped down. (EDIT: it seems price weirdness was more due to exchange rate pains and VAT/shipping/customs issues more than rarity.) But US retailers still have a big markup, and a lot of owners who resell are still pricing them like their cases are made of gold instead of steel.

I found someone reselling a more recent Russian “Black Beast” at a much more reasonable price, did the math and went for it.

8 independent oscillators, tuned at will, played via very expressive touch plates. They can FM each other for more growly and intense sounds. There’s an interesting “hyper LFO” modulation source, and a delay and distortion so good that Soma has had success selling them as a separate FX-only Eurorack module. I’ve heard the Lyra-8 cross the spectrum from gentle angelic ambient through harsh industrial noise, often within a single performance. My musical neighborhood is right along that same path, and I’ve often thought this could be the perfect instrument for me. I hesitated mostly because of past prices, but also because it might threaten my use of other gear.

I’ve heard it’s got something of a mind of its own, and some people just don’t get along with its quirks and style — it’s a love-it-or-hate-it instrument. In the designer’s words, it’s more about improvisational performance and emotional connection than predictable, reproducible results, and I’m certainly fine with that. I expect I’ll love it, but if not it should be an easy resell.

I’ll close with a link to one of my favorite videos featuring the Lyra-8:

testing in production

I’ve put my Machine mk2 aside and set up my Microbrute again in the middle space on my desk. Re-acquainting myself with it, I’m not sure this is going to last. It’s a great synth for basses and analog leads, but not generally suited to the music I’m making now. It does have some “edge case” sounds in it that can work well, and it loves audio rate modulation from Eurorack oscillators. But it’s basically holding that desk space until I think of something that would be better suited.

There are several low-cost, small format synths which would be fun — but probably redundant. Some others probably are outside the sonic/workflow ranges I’d want to work with. There are some I’m curious about but are priced outside casual curiosity, and others that are just prohibitive.

My best bet might be a Behringer Neutron, compared to the Microbrute — but I fear it would just feel like an unnecessary expansion of my modular. So I’m holding off any decisions here until something more clearly presents itself.

The album is coming along. I wound up rejecting one of my recordings because I didn’t like the way the melody line worked, after some effort trying to rescue it via selective pitch-shifting, altering rhythms to make it a little less plain, etc. I couldn’t get it to a place where I was proud of it, unlike the rest so far.

I’m mostly sticking to the “places that aren’t places” theme, and recalling the settings of some recurring dreams. I had a variation on one of those dreams last night, where a mad wizard whose tower was built into a bridge support wound up blowing up said bridge. I was tasked by the city to collect fines from him and put up signs condemning his actions. Broken bridges, or bridges that rise far too high and then dip alarmingly underwater, are a recurring feature of my dream scenery. Maybe that’s due to growing up on Florida’s gulf coast, where the two 1980 Sunshine Skyway Bridge accidents were prominent events in my childhood. (Also, both the old bridge and its 1987 replacement were notorious for suicides. My dad once had plans to write a novel about it.)

After chastizing the mad wizard, I woke to see a deer crossing the end of our driveway. We live in the sort of metro suburb where you really don’t expect that, and it’s only the second or third time I’ve seen deer here, so it’s always a bit weird and portentous.

Last Saturday there was a “How-To Festival” at a semi-local library. I got to learn a bit about local snakes and do some guided meditation, but the most significant bits to me were a presentation on solutions to global warming and a quick beginner lesson on the ukulele.

The presentation mostly introduced Project Drawdown, who have a website with a ranked list of climate solutions in terms of how much CO2 equivalent reduction they would result in. The list is not what most people would expect — it’s heavily weighted toward structural and policy changes, and most of our personal responsibility is political. Electric cars are #26 and household recycling is way down at #55, but educating girls and providing clean cookstoves in developing countries, and protecting tropical forests and Ireland’s peatlands are much higher priorities. Proper disposal of air conditioner refrigerants, large scale wind power, and reducing food waste (mostly on the supply side) are the biggest things.

That said, “Plant-Rich Diet” is #4 on the list. Beef has a much heavier carbon footprint than everything else (except lamb, which isn’t nearly as popular), due to deforestation and the methane that cattle produce. Reducing consumption to levels where no new pasture is cleared for grazing, and changing over to regenerative grazing methods for the rest, would be a huge help. I’m personally going to cut back on beef, and commit to only having it once in a while in a particularly good form.

As for the ukulele: it was kinda fun. A lot easier to pick up in terms of technique than mandolin. I felt a little more natural strumming the mandolin than the uke, and the strings aren’t consistent intervals — picking out melodies or working out theory is more of a challenge. But people have been known to restring and retune in mandolin GDAE, so that’s an option. I found the soprano uke a bit tight for my big hands but the concert size was reasonable. One of the instructors said the Waterman plastic ukes are actually pretty decent, so I might give it a try. I don’t expect it’s something I’ll make use of for my Starthief project, but you never know, maybe I’ll kick off a new dark uke ambient subgenre 😉

no place ̶l̶i̶k̶e̶ ̶h̶o̶m̶e̶

A couple of weeks ago I recorded a piece I called “the between.” It was between album projects, and between setups. There was interaction between elements of the patch. And I know it’s sort of a cliche, but I was thinking of liminality: a not-place, not-time between other places and times.

My first recording on the new rig was titled “No Place” — thinking of a specific not-place I visited in spiritual/imaginary travels. A sort of stopover on the way elsewhere. I can’t tell its story in words, but I can paint a picture in music. I’m sure what other people see when they hear this song is different, and I like that idea. It’s communion rather than communication.

Oh hey. Album theme. Scenes that aren’t places. Okay.

The third song refers to a story I wrote for a school assignment ages ago. I remember nothing about it other than the setting, described tersely in the first sentence. Even in the context of the story, it was arguably not a real place with a fixed location.

The Expert Sleepers ES-3/ES-6 pair is as enabling as I’d hoped. Stereo feedback loops that run through plugins and back into hardware? Check. EQ and compression anywhere in the chain I want it? Check. Using Bitwig’s phase objects for unusual clocks, and switching between quantization scales with a fader? Check and check. So good.


Last night I recorded my first “real” song with the new setup, and it went mostly smoothly. In fact… my goals during the mastering stage are -1db true peak and -14dB integrated LUFS, and look at where this one landed:

I think this is mostly coincidence, but it’s a good sign. Usually I add several stages of compression with manually drawn curves, followed by maybe Presswerk and a few rounds of adjustment. This time it was just Bitwig’s peak limiter when recording, and a very light touch of it again when rendering.

I could streamline away the extra step of recording and then rendering, but it’s an opportunity to do some of my processing and automation right there in Bitwig before moving to Sound Forge.

Sound Forge Pro 13 only lets you scan 3 locations for plugins — and that’s supposed to cover VST3, VST2 64- and 32-bit, I guess? But VST installation is not well standardized and there are a few important bits not in line, like NI Transient Master. I’m going to have to shuffle some stuff.

This was also my first recording with Mimeophon and Via Scanner. Mimeophon is an excellent delay, but as a sound source in its own right it’s amazing too. The “flip” input, which toggles the direction of delay playback, can be modulated at audio rates for some incredible textures.

Scanner is complex and unconventional, but once you grasp a couple of important things, it’s not hard to use as an audio waveshaper. (Its affect on CV signals is going to take me some time to work out with a scope.) It can sound like a traditional wavefolder, Plaits’ waveshaping model, or more like a wavetable oscillator. It can also get glitchy and weird when you start self-patching its logic outputs.

The thing about wavefolders is that their tone depends on the gain of the input — the stronger the signal, the more it folds over on itself and gains extra harmonics. So they tend to have a big gain boost at the input, controlled by a VCA. Scanner has two output VCAs (bipolar, in parallel and mixed) to allow for some other tricks, but no voltage control over the input… so it calls for a separate VCA. But I don’t need Origami anymore, and Cold Mac fits into that space… it can be my input VCA or a crossfader or compressor or a lot of other things.

And with that, I have my “final” setup for Synth Farm 3.1.


Back home from Knobcon, and back into the real world where I have to work and stuff.

On Sunday morning I dipped back into the exhibition hall and bought the Starling Via Scanner. There’s a lot of potential for reshaping both sound and modulation signals and I look forward to discovering what it can do. Then I mostly waited for Dr. John Chowning’s talk.

Dr. Chowning is 85, and his speaking voice sounds remarkably like Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” cover. Between the keynote speech at the banquet and Sunday’s talk, he described the discovery (not invention, he convinced us) of FM synthesis.

Today it seems as if “discovering” FM would simply be a matter of plugging an oscillator into another oscillator’s pitch input. But at the time, voltage controlled analog synthesizers were new and rare, and Dr. Chowning was working in the digital domain. Not in real time, but with punch cards, no buffers to speak of because memory was shockingly expensive, no digital filters, and even a DAC was an exotic piece of custom equipment.

He was a drummer who read a paper by Max Matthews about the potential of computers to make music, and decided right then that he wanted to make music “from the inside out.” He learned to code, and picked up the engineering and math mostly by osmosis and asking a lot of questions.

He was investigating the perception of sound in space — how we know the difference between a quiet close sound and a loud distant sound, how we identify individual instruments and voices in a group — and started experimenting with vibrato. He found that extreme vibrato rates shifted from a perception of pitch variation to a timbral change instead, and explored how changing only the intensity and relative frequency led to very different spectral results. FM was already in use for radios, at megahertz carrier frequencies rather than audible ones, and he found that some of the mathematical laws applied just the same, with very different implications.

In his talk he frequently showed spectral graphs of the effects of FM. FM creates sidebands around the original frequency, with particular spacing and phase characteristics, which can cancel or enhance each other when they reflect around 0Hz or the Nyquist frequency. (Band limiting in FM is just a matter of reducing the FM index as frequencies increase — something that Yamaha loved about it, because digital filters were really poor at the time.) FM can also be used in formant synthesis, which isn’t a common technique for some reason, and which definitely involves thinking in the frequency domain rather than about waveforms or vague “shaping”. It occurred to me that I almost never use spectral analysis unless working with EQ or a filter, and it’s a tool that could tell me a lot about waveshaping and FM. That was my personal moment of insight from the talk.

The concerns of FM in the purely digital domain are very different from modular. It is, by default, linear TZFM — or perhaps phase modulation as Yamaha implemented it in the famous DX7. Dr. Chowning pointed out that he didn’t work on the DX7 at all, but it was the effort of Yamaha engineers overcoming the technical challenges of the day and pushing the frontiers of digital audio.

Since I couldn’t get them at Knobcon, this morning I’ve ordered a replacement for my missing power cable as well as an Expert Sleepers ES-3/ES-6 pair. From there I’ll figure out if any other utilities would help or if they can be handed off to Bitwig.

There’s a phase of experimentation and learning to go through with this new setup, but I am thinking about the next album. Running through my head are some of the ideas presented in Music Beyond Airports: Appraising Ambient Music and the realization that my music is often about scenes. Places real, imagined, dreamed or remembered, their weather and activity at that particular moment, and the feelings associated with it. Sometimes the music creates the scenes, but sometimes I draw them from experiences. I have a few such experiences I’ve never made music for, and others that I could reinterpret. As an album theme goes, this is a little bit loose — it’s just doing what I do anyway — but the conscious awareness and intent might be enough of a guiding factor.

report from Knobtoberfest

I’m taking some time to chill out from Knobcon and let my brain catch up and feet rest (I should have worn the walking boots which are much better for standing around for long periods than my Chucks).

I’ve written this up partially on my Instagram and partially on MW, but in a nutshell:

The goody bag was middling. Stickers and postcards and flyers; a hefty Sweetwater catalog which I dumped because it’s heavy and pointless; a bag of middle-tier candy; an issue of Sound On Sound; a purple frisbee; a 2hp blank panel; a Velcro cable tie.

This year’s theme is Knobtoberfest, which was reflected in the performances at the reception being German themed “kosmiche musik” which was not only highly influential to both popular and esoteric forms of electronic music, but to pop as well. A tribute to NEU! (which I sometimes enjoyed and sometimes felt I was too sober to get it), a tribute to Kraftwerk (which was highly enjoyable), and a Berlin School duo.

A couple of years ago when I was newer, I felt like I absorbed a lot about playing modular synths by watching the performances. This year not so much, but I mostly learned that rough spots — technical issues, missed notes and cues and changes, brain farts — don’t really matter too much if you handle them well. The audience — at least an audience of musicians — accepts them as an inevitable part of being human, and gets on with enjoying the good parts.

But I also learned a little extra preparation in terms of physical setup is important. You need a big enough table, solid places so your gear doesn’t threaten to fall off and cables aren’t in your way, and if you need written notes they need to have their own space to live in instead of getting tucked under and resting on top of your instruments.

Also, sudden transitions rarely work, especially if you’re going to switch tempo. It’s like trying to change gears on a stick shift car without the clutch. An audience that’s grooving along will suddenly be thrown off.

Also, sample players are really good things to have for live playing, for many reasons.

Also if you’re a hotel sound guy, make sure the PA actually works before you tell the performers they can start whenever. You had one job…

Today was gear stuff. Workshops too, but I didn’t go to any — maybe tomorrow. The exhibition hall isn’t arena-sized but it’s still pretty large, and includes bigger companies like Hammond, Yamaha, Korg, Roland, Moog etc.; lots and lots of Eurorack manufacturers (but missing a few key ones), a few software companies, a couple of local synth-oriented music stores, and some miscellaneous weird shit. I actually did buy some Real Fake Knobs. Unfortunately our small dog guest is not ferrous, so the volume knob won’t work on him.

I won’t go through the full list of all the gear I tried. Nothing really grabbed me the way Natural Gate did a couple of years ago, but I did play some very fun things in the “I don’t need this but I kind of love it” category. The Hydrasynth has the most beautifully designed interface of any electronic instrument I have tried, in both look and feel. The Moog Grandmother was a joy to play and sounded full and gorgeous, but its price and size make it unlikely for me. I had a blast (and also created a powerful sonic blast) with the Curious Sound Objects Bitty toys.

Synth Tech’s prototype of their new effects module is 10-day-old hardware running code that was rushed in a week, so it’s got some rough edges (!) but I think it holds promise. Once the biggest bugs are worked out and the algorithms have had a couple of rounds of polish I think it will be a winner. I hope to be a beta tester for it as I was on the E352 and E370.

Make Noise Mimeophon was mimeo-fun, despite a less than stellar demo setup (note to exhibitors: we want headphones, especially to demo stereo gear!) and I went ahead and bought one instead of ordering online.

The JAMMspace room was a bust this year. Two years ago, it was a quiet, uncrowded space where every piece of gear or small modular setup had headphones, so you could really concentrate on trying the gear. This year it was set up late, most things ran through a big mixer into a loud chaotic mess through a loud PA system, and they left the outside doors open where people were taking smoke breaks (of course the smoke went directly into the room).

The Cruise-In wasn’t too successful either. Apparently nobody bought any of the gear on display. I recognized a lot of it as stuff that’s been for sale on MW. I didn’t bother to haul my 3 modules down there to try, because there’s not really a good way for potential buyers to demo them anyway. It was a nice idea, though.

The banquet and keynote speech are coming up in roughly an hour. The keynote will, I think, help me decide whether to go to Dr. Chowning’s workshop tomorrow afternoon or head home early. There are also more live performances after dinner, and I don’t know yet how much energy I’ll have for those.

I think I will likely skip Knobcon next year. Overall, I feel like the second time wasn’t as valuable a learning experience as the first. Like I thought last time, if I were more of a social creature I’d probably get more out of it. So for me it’s mostly a matter of indulging curiosity and doing something a little out of the ordinary — a mini vacation for electronic music nerds.