AO Themed Compilation 11: Mars

The 11th Ambient Online (I keep wanting to call it Anarchy Online) Themed Compilation has been released:

I have two songs on it: “Red Dust” and “Syrtis Major.”

Either I’m in just the right mood for it this morning, or this compilation seems like the best one so far. Maybe it was the extra time allotted for submissions, maybe just people were really feeling the theme for whatever reason — a lot of people had been talking about being inspired by classic sci-fi.

On a not very exciting side note, I also updated my starthief.net home page so the albums are all just image links instead of Bandcamp embeds. Embeds are neat, but they were breaking, maybe because I had too many visible. Also, the compilation albums were picking one random artist name to show per album,, which is pretty dumb when you’ve got 40+ musicians on the thing.

auction action

Luftrum’s 10th annual music industry charity auction is now underway. This time the proceeds go to MusiCares COVID-19 relief.

This one’s just getting started, and it typically takes a couple of weeks to really get rocking. But last year’s auction raised $31,075 for the World Wildlife Fund to help protect rainforests in the Amazon and Indonesia. Dozens of plugin and sample library developers and some notable hardware manufacturers contributed a lot of cool stuff to the effort. If you happen to be a maker and seller of music gear, please follow the link and click on “Contact Organizer” to join in.

4 years ago, this auction is what started me in modular synthesis with Mutable Instruments Rings (and a quick purchase of Tides and Peaks to go with it). So it’s like passing a personal milestone when it comes up each year. In subsequent years I’ve seen a couple of others buying their first modules and growing into modular synth buffs.

And if some tempting modular goodies make an appearance, I’ve got 24HP of free space now with no specific plans. As it turns out, what I’ve actually used my Disting EX for in recordings has mainly been crossfading and ring modulation. Mutable Instruments Blinds, which I was already considering as a replacement/consolidation for the AI008 Matrix Mixer and one of my two Shades, can do those things. The Disting sold very quickly, since demand is still higher than production and shipping speeds can handle, and I ordered the Blinds.

I’m holding onto AI008 for now because I’m still waiting on that pinstripe tape to try color-coding it. Could be the available space will expand to 32HP though.

I also decided I don’t need two Rings anymore — the combination of Mimeophon, FX Aid, E520, Shelves, and a mixer are quite potent for resonator purposes. But I’ll always keep one Rings to rule them all. 😀 The spare one also happened to go quickly, traded for a Mystic Circuits Ana, which handles some of the other things I used Disting for occasionally plus a few other fun tricks.


And now, it’s book review time! Only in my usual style of “I read this and I liked it” because being critical is a lot of work and I read for fun.

I had this pair on my wishlist for a while, but borrowed electronically from my local library. A fun, mostly lighthearted fantasy thing that borrows more than a little from D&D monster manuals and surprisingly a lot from rock & roll. There is a wizard named Moog. In the first book, old crusty mercs “get the band back together” to save one of their daughters (and in the process, a city, and the world); the second was said daughter wrapping up her own adventuring career.

I’ve just finished the first of these, and it was brilliant. It’s kind of equal parts fantasy and horror but in a science fiction setting; the writing style and characters are hilariously snarky while the subject matter is as grim and creepy and moody as you’d expect from a story about space necromancers.

The setting is creatively different, mysterious and, well, cryptic — I kind of get a Gene Wolfe vibe from it without the pretentiousness. The characters are the best though. Some of the language is very much present-day slang (e.g. “I couldn’t have noped harder”) but it completely works to convey the kind of attitude the main characters have. These are books that I might want my own copy of, depending on whether I feel like the second one is as strong as the first.

bad hair day, good synth day

The Medusa arrived yesterday — a bit late, box damaged, but synth intact.

It’s the sort of synth where, if I tried it for five minutes at Knobcon or something using its factory presets, I’d almost certainly have walked away and not looked back. Probably in under five minutes. The presets are, for the most part, awful.

But once I figured out what I was doing with both the synth section and the grid, and started exploring a little… this is one extremely cool piece of gear.

I understand why so many of the demos and several presets are bland: the analog oscillators only do the classic simple shapes, the digital ones are raw and basic but not in a particularly gnarly or exciting way, and the filter doesn’t have much character of its own. It’s a clean slate and you have to do your own color mixing, to mangle some metaphors. With judicious tuning, use of the oscillator sync, FM, copious modulation sources and all sorts of clever tricks available with the grid sequencer/performance controller, if it sounds boring it’s the musician’s fault. Synthesis means the assembly of smaller parts into a whole, and that’s what has to happen here. It can certainly do beautiful, brutal, quirky or scary, and it’s not even difficult to get there. It can’t do everything, but that’s why I have more than one synth… 🙂

As with most synths it really benefits from some reverb or delay. Every other Dreadbox synth has one of those built in; this doesn’t. This is not a problem for me at all, but it does contribute to some of those lackluster demos since people seem to think it’s “cheating” to add external FX.

The grid is brilliant. Note mode lets you select (or create) a scale, and also set the layout to the interval of your choice (or a “guitar” mode); it’s a combination that is really great for jamming, thinking differently about intervals and chords, or playing runs that would be (almost?) impossible on a piano-style keyboard. The velocity setting doesn’t work very well with the onboard synth and honestly is best turned off, but pressure and X/Y movement can be assigned to various parameters. Grid mode is a sequencer that’s mostly intuitive (with a couple of odd quirks) and lets you assign not just notes and chords to any individual step, but ties, steps that randomize on each playthrough, and parameter settings. Between that and the paraphonic modes — and the way those modes interact when you’re using FM or sync — it’s definitely got some unique capabilities.

The Lyra-8 was inspiring and influential, leading me toward the 0-Ctrl and certain techniques. But I do think the Medusa is the better choice for me now and for the future.

still not an exact science

My Ancestry.com ethnicity estimate has been updated again, as it was in mid-November last year. Here’s what it said before:

And here’s the new version:

However, in the details it does say that Scotland could range from 7%-43%. Most of the rest are within a few percent one way or the other.

DNA and statistics both being what they are, adding more data to the pile and re-evaluating everyone doesn’t necessarily make for a more accurate assessment for any specific individual. Mostly this is just a bit of fun.


3/4 gaffer tape covers the ugly graphic strip on the Microfreak just fine. The downside is, it looks like there’s a piece of tape on the synth. It’d be nice if there was something a little more professional looking. But really this is just splitting hairs.


I’ve decided to let go of the Lyra-8. I like the way it plays, but it is fairly rigid about the way it sounds, and I’m just not into it anymore.

The most likely replacement is the eowave Quadrantid Swarm. Like the Lyra, it has 8 touchplates for oscillators that can be individually tuned. But instead of the organ oscillators, it has digital oscillators with different shapes and a unison mode, two analog filters in series, a spring reverb and a sequencer. It’s semi-modular and can also accept MIDI input as well as its touchplates. From the few demos I’ve seen on YouTube, it has a really nice wide range of sound character and should fit right in.

I’ve put some thought into other options, such as the Moog Subharmonicon or Dreadbox Nyx, but I think I’ve convinced myself that the QS is what I want to run with. I do want to sell some gear before moving it in, though.

lil’ oddball

The Microfreak showed up this afternoon and I’ve spent enough time with it to get solid first and second impressions.

While many of the oscillator modes are directly taken from the open-source code for Mutable Instruments Plaits, for the most part it doesn’t sound like “Plaits in a keyboard.” It’s its own weird little thing.

A lot of people think it’s kind of ugly, but some have said to reserve judgement until you see it in person. I think the only real sin is the graphic strip with the Arturia logo, which is a needlessly busy pattern right next to the already necessarily busy-looking textured touch keyboard. I’m just going to cover that with some gaffer tape.

The touch keyboard itself felt a bit awkward at first but I got used to it relatively quickly. It’s very sensitive, in a good and expressive way once you get to know it. There is a useful Hold button which works for drones as well as the arpeggiator, and the arp can be saved into the sequencer for further editing and manipulation. The “spice and dice” buttons can trigger either permanent or temporary random variations to the sequence which always seem to be musically compatible, if not necessarily brilliant.

There’s a modulation matrix that is cleverly implemented, and modulation amounts can be modulated by other modulators. As in, the touch pressure can increase the amount of vibrato, or an LFO can affect how much the cycling envelope affects the timbre. Circular and self-modulation patches are also possible and quite spiffy.

It’s paraphonic, in that there can be multiple oscillator voices playing simultaneously (with their digital envelope and VCAs) but there is a single analog filter, and a single cycling envelope. Many of the oscillator models are pretty complete without the filter anyway. One particular strength of this setup is that drones or arpeggios going through a single resonant filter can use it to glue the sound together and to emphasize particular harmonics. In fact, the moment I discovered this is when the last doubt about keeping this synth evaporated — I expect this to be one of the major ways in which this synth will fit into my music. I’ve been enjoying drones for hours today already 🙂

Like its predecessor, I have it running through the Elektron Analog Drive. It can add a nice bit of warmth and solidity, or dirty it up beautifully.

flying onto the shelves

Mutable Instruments Shelves arrived over the weekend to fill out the biggest remaining gap in the modular. It’s a shelving and peaking EQ, where each band has a full frequency range available and its frequency, gain and Q can be voltage controlled. The two peak EQ bands are implemented using filters, and have lowpass, bandpass and highpass outputs as well. So it’s quite a versatile piece of gear. Some of the things it’s good for:

  • Basic EQ tasks. However, the available boost and cut isn’t as strong as I might want for some purposes, and it would make more sense to just use CraveEQ or Toneboosters EQ4 for that.
  • Feedback loops. A little Q and positive gain, and it will resonate nicely inside of a feedback loop. It’s particularly great with delays, and with MSLR to maintain the tone while keeping it from getting out of hand.
  • CV-controlled EQ can be awfully fun. Taking a notch filter (or two) with a gentle slope and sweeping its frequency around with an LFO is a nice bit of (possibly) subtle modulation. With a bit more Q it’ll do filter sweep-like sounds without actually cutting anything completely; to me the character is more interesting than most filter sweeps tend to be.
  • Anything a normal filter can do. It sounds pretty respectable to just use one of the LP, BP, or HP outputs with it.
  • Parallel filter trickery. It does only have one input, but with two independent filters, each of which has three outputs, plus the main EQ output, I can turn a mono signal into mid-side stereo, process different bands with different effects and mix them afterward, or split bands to go into Planar.

I don’t see much reason to hang onto FXDf, or even Ripples now. Once I figure out what I will replace them with, I’ll pull them out. I have a few candidates in mind but none are really pulling on the strings strong enough yet to jump on it. Loquelic Iteritas or Telharmonic would certainly be interesting but do I need another oscillator? Intellijel Bifold seems like a quite good wavefolder, but between the folder on Shapeshifter, FM Aid’s folding abilities. the folder built into ENOSC and rather capable wavefolding available in both Disting and Bitwig, I’m not convinced I need it.

The other toy I’ve taken delivery of is… well, it is kind of a toy, but it’s also got some surprising instrument-like features, and the combination is a bit frustrating. The Artiphon Orba, which I Kickstarted back last December, is a little handheld musical gizmo. It has 8 pads that respond to velocity as well as movement on two axes (for pitch bend or dynamics), and an accelerometer to detect tilting, shaking, and slapping the side. It has four “modes” — drums, bass, chord and lead — and a record mode that records sequences on each channel, with overdubbing. It can also act as a MIDI controller (with MPE!) over USB or Bluetooth. It’s got a pretty decent built-in speaker with ports both on the bottom and sides so it’s not muffled no matter how you position it.

On the down side: onboard, it has only one sound per mode; you can select from about 7 different sounds using an app that updates the device over its connection. Many of the sounds are just not great, but it’s got a few relative winners. Sometimes there are unpleasant pops at the start of notes, and switching modes while trying to record parts can pause and silence the whole thing for a second or two. The recorder doesn’t seem to record tilt gestures. Octave switching is a pain, and often results in accidentally switching modes instead; you can forget doing it smoothly while playing to extend the usable range. The built-in speaker is plenty loud (a little too much with some of the lead sounds in their higher octave) but the output jack is so woefully low level that I boosted it with both Gozinta and MSCL. The PC app is as buggy as Florida in July, and the Android version is nonexistent (typical of every Kickstarter device I’ve seen that promised both Android and iOS support).

So, as an instrument in its own right, it’s mostly a fun toy — for a beginner, generally easier to jam on and get something that sounds moderately okay than a Casio keyboard or the like. But how about as a MIDI controller for more serious efforts? Let’s start with Bluetooth MIDI being unsupported in Windows, which they could have fixed with the app or a driver but didn’t, so it’s tethered with a USB cable. You can’t change the scales assigned to each mode — so the bass is always major, the lead is always pentatonic major, and the chords are fixed (depending on which sound you’ve loaded). As far as I can tell so far, it sends velocity, mod wheel on tilt, and it probably sends MPE on the two axes per pad. There is apparently a third-party semi-unofficial app for MIDI configuration, which I hope can unlock the thing’s potential a bit more. But it won’t surprise me if it remains mostly a toy, which I might sample occasionally with Phonogene or freeze in Clouds or Mimeophon, after a copious gain boost that is.

But hey, it lets me have the fun of doing some idle finger drumming, which I haven’t done since switching from Maschine to Bitwig, or playing some honestly kind of nifty growly drones with the “Ohm” bass sound.

The next bit of gear should arrive Friday: I picked up an Arturia Microfreak in a Labor Day sale. I disdained it when it was released, and wasn’t sure I liked the touch keyboard when I very briefly stabbed at it at Knobcon last year — but I have heard so many good things about it, and good things people have done with it, that I’m willing to give it a solid try. If it works out, it will replace my Reface CS, which has been seeing less and less action.

The CS is fun to jam with but it can be a little difficult to make it relevant to what I want to do. The wee Freak though is mostly a polyphonic version of Plaits, plus an SEM filter and a touchplate pressure keyboard — and I know from the 0-Ctrl that I do like a touchplate pressure keyboard when it works well — and a neat little arpeggiator/sequencer that can dynamically randomize its content in a way that tickles my generative sequencing funny bone, and also record parameter automation. So that could potentially be quite nifty. Given that used prices are hovering very close to new prices, it is practically zero risk if I don’t like the thing after all.

Something else I have been thinking about is the Elektron Model:Cycles. I ignored it when it was announced, because it’s an Elektron groovebox, kind of a glorified drum machine, and I don’t do the sort of music that uses drum machines. Except… it’s really an inexpensive little FM synth, and there’s apparently a small community that swears it was secretly made for ambient music. Its FM is definitely more on the pure and simple side, being modern and clean and 2-operator based — but you layer that a bit and it really can sound gorgeous. I’ll have room for it in my setup if the Freak takes over from the CS, but it would eat into my available inputs. Also I can’t help but think it won’t really do anything I can’t do with Bitwig’s FM-4 instrument, aside from maybe inspire me to use it more often. (The Microfreak itself also has an FM mode…) So I’m gonna have to think on that more. I might be better off with something that has some crust on it, like an old FB-01 (cheap, but requires software to edit it without going crazy) or a MegaFM (less cheap, would probably have to take over from the Lyra-8) or a Volca FM (cheap, can also control and sequence itself, and can play 6-op DX7 sounds yet has a few hands-on controls to tweak it). Or just not make any of those moves at all.


I had a thought about what I could do for the next album, but it’s a little out of my comfort zone: record patch-from-scratch sessions and see if I can make it an actual performance. It will probably require a lot of trying and there will probably be many times where I’ve got a boring and ugly first minute, then some really sweet sounding awesomeness, and then it kind of falls apart or gets ruined with a sudden blast of noise as I try to add another voice. I really admire the people who can do this as a show, but I’m sure there is some preparation and practice involved. Still, it could be fun and rewarding to try it…

getting there

At this point, the next album has 11 tracks (not yet mastered), the track order, a title, a couple of ideas for the cover, most of a patch notes writeup, and a hopeful release date of next Friday, which is another #bandcampfriday.

The synth has a new panel and knobs for the Phonogene…

…a Happy Nerding FX Aid XL…

…and a digdugDIY Purple Rain.

Starting from that: it’s a little 8-bit compressor, sample rate reducer, sample looper and (if you crank the gain up enough with Eurorack level signals) distortion. When I use it I expect I’ll mostly be using filters and careful EQ notches to tame its extreme lo-fi-ness a bit. It’s a neat thing though. digdugDIY tends to build a few things, put them up on Etsy and they sell out quickly, so I was pleased to finally catch one.

The FX Aid is a clever little module based on the Spin FV-1 effects chip commonly used in guitar pedal FX. There’s a companion app that lets you choose 32 FX plugins from a set of 105 built-in choices — delays, reverbs, flangers and so on — and you can also load Spin .ASM programs found online or write them yourself. It’ll compile them into a WAV file to update the module’s firmware, as well as a PDF file FX list for your reference — very handy.

This is the “XL” version — 6 HP instead of 4, with separate CV inputs for each parameter. Despite the larger size, the knobs are still very close together and not that friendly to turn. I’m told that Befaco-style micro knob caps work with it, so I’ve got some on the way for a little more finger room.

The reason I picked it up is a recommendation to use it as a resonator — and indeed it’s well suited for that, as well as really lush modulated reverbs. It’s not going to replace either the Mimeophon or E520, but it’s going to get a lot of use in the future.

repeater

Carefully Introducing Problems was released in early June. I recorded nothing new in June, and two tracks in mid-July. Things have broken loose though; in the last couple of weeks I’ve finished 6 tracks. Perhaps it’s the big refresh that my modular synth went through, or perhaps I’m just coming out of a funk.

I mean, it’s still the Corona year, America feels more like a failed state than ever, and I’m still tired and tense all the time, and I feel like everyone’s just trying to hang on and survive. I was thinking today about a former coworker who said (many years ago now) that she admired me because I was always trying to improve myself, and I kind of wonder when I stopped doing that. But still, I feel like making music.

Phonogene arrived Saturday. An old one, with the ugly knobs Make Noise originally used (but with the wrong colors) and a panel that looks as if it was dirtied and cleaned a few times in its life. But it’s got the firmware update from 2013 at least. I’ve got some replacement knobs on the way, and might pick up the Grayscale replacement panel if I feel it’s warranted in a couple of weeks or so.

The old version as it’s supposed to look, vs Grayscale’s staid but unambiguous version.

Phonogene was discontinued in early 2018 and was succeeded by Morphagene — which has higher sound quality, more memory, stereo, multiple layers for true granular synthesis, SD card saving and loading, etc. But there are those who prefer the Phonogene’s charm and simplicity, and I believed I’d be among them. For smooth granular I’ve got Clouds; for blurry spectral time manipulation there’s the E520. Phonogene is more for raw 90s “clicks and cuts” style manipulation, combined with synchronization of other modules. As I’ve found, it suits my music quite well.

I don’t have much thought about what could go in the remaining space. (18HP, plus a possible 8 more from the MG-1 and a possible 4 more if I “hide” the ES-6 inside and access it through the PassThru.) I don’t need another oscillator, that’s for sure, nor more effects, and I think I’m fine on modulation sources. I figure, I should hold off to see if something else brilliant comes along, or my musical needs evolve. So I’m declaring this “version 4.0.”

Quick summary:

  • “0.0” (Exploration) was learning Eurorack and exploring.
  • “1.0” (Suitability) was when I thought I had a fairly stable system I could live with, which would only mutate slowly. The focus was on complex oscillators, wavetables and resonators.
  • “2.0” (Consolidation) replaced a lot of stuff with an ER-301 Sound Computer, and moved it all into a single case with a lot of empty space.
  • “2.1” (Effects Dive) had me trying out a Rainmaker, Erbe-Verb, Doepfer BBD and more pedal effects.
  • “3.0” (Focus) was realizing that Version 2 was kind of wrong for how I want to make music (even though I learned a lot), and reverting to what I liked best about 1.0.
  • “3.1” (Integration) switched me from Maschine to Bitwig and the ES-3/ES-6.
  • “3.14” (Harmony) saw me adding the Lyra-8 and think more about the performance aspect of my process.
  • “3.2” (FM Overkill) was sort of a refinement phase, a further refocusing and embracing of what I liked. That began in late 2019.
  • “4.0” (New Waves) includes selling off my effects pedals, adding the 0-Ctrl and Planar and the Pod 60 case, and switching from the beloved Hertz Donut and E352 to Shapeshifter and EnOsc.

time is weird. frequency is time. timbre is frequency.

I’m still feeling that time is crawling and flying simultaneously. Maybe that’s just the new normal. It’s probably always been true, but maybe the pandemic made me notice it more.

The partially formed concept I had for the album I’m working on is related to time — entropy, the “arrow of time” and how it relates to life; the opposing but complementary forces of Preservation and Ruin, from which Harmony arises, from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series.

Except that the tracks I’ve recorded really aren’t that much in line with that. I’ll just keep recording stuff, and see what happens I suppose 🙂


I wound up with the 4ms Ensemble Oscillator (ENOSC) and am hugely impressed with it.

Trying to keep the technical description part of this short — ENOSC begins with the basic concept of additive synthesis, but instead of fixed harmonic frequency ratios between the partials, it lets you choose from preset or custom-defined chords, scales, or non-octave repeating interval sets, within or outside standard Western 12TET tuning. The idea is to explore the whole spectrum between additive synthesis and music theory. You can also detune them for lush chorusing effects.

On top of that, the partials can FM each other, using the root or highest partial s the modulator, or each modulating the next higher. Combining that with different frequency intervals can give extremely rich results!

And on top of that there’s a phase shaper and a wavefolder, each with three modes.

The sets of partials have three different output assignment modes, but unfortunately each of them can suffer from phase cancellation issues. Thankfully I’ve built up a pretty good roster of ways to deal with those, it’s just something I’ll have to keep an eye and an ear on.

Overall, the sounds this thing can produce are diverse and… kind of alarming to be honest. Pipe organs are easy, and as others have said, using it for drones feels like cheating. I’ve accidentally created really brassy horns with a sort of grace note attack, with no envelopes at all, just as a consequence of the crossfading as the Root input changes along with cross-FM. It’s done vocal formant “yai yoi oay” type stuff, 808 style hi-hats, a combined bassline/chord stabs, wild FM percussion, and some almost Karplus-Strong like power chords. The thing is full of sweet spots and it’s very easy to get something good out of it, but I feel like it’s going to take a while to familiarize myself with it so I can more or less predict what will happens when I change one aspect of its current state.

ENOSC is 16HP, and feels like it’s deceptively small — like it’s trying to fool people into thinking it’s humbler and simpler than it really is. It also tends to eat attenuators for breakfast — any CVing you do needs to be really cut down to size to work well. So it probably should have been 26HP, like the 4ms SMR and SWN as well as E352 and Shapeshifter. It deserves the larger stature 🙂

I’ve gone ahead and put the Faderbank, HD mk2 and E352 up for sale. The kinds of sounds I’m getting from my current rig without them are perfectly suited to what I want to do, while giving me a whole lot of mad ̶s̶c̶i̶e̶n̶c̶e̶ engineering exploration.

I also bought a used Phonogene, for semi-lo-fi varispeed tape loop stuff — something I have missed since trying W/. The looper and Spectral Time Machine in E520 are their own things, good but not the same as that; Clouds is granular and also different; Mimeophon is not quite there with its hold feature. Bitwig doesn’t really do it live or in such a hands-on way, though I’ve made decent use of its sampler in the Grid.

I’m going to pass on Casper/Bastl Waver, after watching a video demo where the sounds are just not very appealing, there was some nasty clipping and some thresholds where the level suddenly jumps.

My past few tracks have used a LOT of moderately slow LFOs, which made me think a bit about maybe Zadar or a DivKid 0chd — but I do have plenty of available CV outputs and can assign them to LFOs in Bitwig, so I won’t go there.

I feel I’m at or near a “version 4.0” of my modular synth, and maybe I will write up a summary of it, like I did with what I had near the start of this blog.