wiggle room

Naturally, the Asus Transformer Mini which I was going to use yesterday for videoconferencing in my performance review, has kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. It is an ex-computer.

I used my phone for the meeting, which worked fine (and the review went great). I’ve also ordered a ChuWi Hi10 X, budget Windows tablet that is winning a lot of reviews right now. I kind of wanted to just get a Kindle, because 90% of what I did with the Transformer was read ebooks but it’s a bit bigger and heavier. But then there’s that other 10%, and my eyes do appreciate having a larger screen, and anything that doesn’t put money directly into Jeff Bezos’ bottomless money pit is a small victory.


I’m keeping my 0-Ctrl for sure. I found I can use the clock and envelope functions in ways that enhance it as a controller rather than necessarily a step sequencer; I also find that other touch controllers tend to either lack the same immediacy and freely tunable values, or cost a lot more, or both. Both avenues of research led me to believe 0-Ctrl really is my best choice, and also to have some fun and make some noise 🙂

I went ahead and ordered the Planar 2 I’ve been pondering for a while. It’ll replace my mostly-unused second Stages, and in many ways replace the TouchĂ© SE I was planning to sell. Planar is a joystick controller and motion recorder, mixer, crossfader, panner, VCAs, and some other things besides thanks to a clever design.

In preparation, I rearranged my case to fit the controllers at the bottom, rebalance the power consumption, and make space to test the two incoming fixed filters while I decide which to keep and whether to sell off my pedals. In about 3 weeks when the E520 arrives, I’ll make some further decisions about remaining space. I’m kind of thinking about an Erica Pico BBD (if I don’t feel completely full of delay effects) and an SSF Autodyne compressor, or I could just leave some empty space for future stuff.


I kind of accidentally — thanks to a sharp-eared listener when I was testing the noise issues the Mimeophon has — discovered that the unshielded cables between my modular and my audio interface are picking up interference. It’s pretty low level, unless there’s a quiet part in the music and I’m boosting the level quite a bit in the computer. Some modules, if they’re the last in the chain, act as an antenna and pick up weird signals either from other modules, or some other source of interference.

Now of course I tend to make messy music, and usually my gain staging is such that this sort of noise would be too quiet to notice or hidden by other things. But I had always intended to replace this jerry-rigged mess of cables — mostly short right-angle patch cables plugged into adapters plugged into cables plugged into other adapters. So I did some research — important to avoid spending ridiculous sums or getting something unsuitable, especially when search engines often are really terrible at showing you the exact kind of cable you’re looking for — and ordered a custom snake of 6 cables, double-shielded, in an appropriate length and with the correct connectors. There’s of course no guarantee it will solve interference issues, but it’ll at least be tidier and less likely to fail.

out of sequence

As of Wednesday, I’ll have been working from home for four months. Later this week I have a performance review meeting, and it’s the first time they have asked for me to use a camera. My desktop doesn’t have one, but I’ve set up my tablet for it.

Work’s mostly been going smoothly, but music making less so. Ever since getting the 0-Ctrl I have found myself somehow following paths that just don’t bear fruit for me. There were more rejected songs than usual while working on the last album, and I haven’t done anything I particularly like since then. I think I might have finally figured out why — I’m starting the process with a sequence, instead of starting from sound as I usually do.

Some of my work has sequenced parts, but regardless of when those appear in the recording, that usually comes later in the process. My best work tends to happen as a result of exploring sound and finding something that wants to have a piece of music built around it. It seems that if I begin by patching the 0-Ctrl, I look for some kind of “interesting” sequence and try to build around that instead, and the result really doesn’t remain interesting.

So I’ll avoid doing that, and see if that gets me out of my rut. I might also consider reselling the 0-Ctrl and maybe the Lyra-8, in favor of assembling a controller skiff with an Intellijel Tetrapad. Maybe even replace my 16n with the Eurorack “Sweet 16” version for one integrated controller. Hmm.

These thoughts kind of went along with rereading Art & Fear last weekend, which talks a lot about the (highly personal and individualistic) process of artmaking, and how its importance to the artist is paramount but its relevance and transparency to the audience is almost none. This issue for me is definitely a process thing — start with sound and I’m good, start with notes and rhythms and I’m not. It’s a bit weird, but there it is. Just like my decision 3 years ago to


Alongside these thoughts about sequencing, I’ve also been pondering questions of quantization and generative/algorithmic composition. I could babble on about it here as I have elsewhere while getting my thoughts together, but I think it comes down to using my pals Marbles and Teletype in some fresh ways rather than needing anything new.

I think I could easily let go of my second Stages. One of them covers many handy roles within my modular and shows up in more patches than not, but the second isn’t really getting tapped very much. I don’t have a candidate in mind to replace it right now though, so I will wait a bit and see.

Last weekend I tried to cancel my order for the EMW Fixed Filter Bank, since its shipping has been delayed over a month due to coronavirus, and I ordered a Make Noise FxdF which I had thought was unavailable. It turns out, EMW just shipped it. So both of them are on the way, and I’ll compare them and keep the one I like most. This is also the last chance for my pedals; if they don’t do something special for me in a feedback loop with one of these fixed filterbanks, I’m selling them off.

deadline

The next Ambient Online compilation has the theme “Unity”, and proceeds will go to the ACLU. (I’d personally have chosen a different organization, and in fact I have done so personally… but protesters definitely need their rights protected right now.) So my second-most-recently finished track will be going onto that instead of the new album.

And my most recently finished track was a Drone Day 2020 project. In hindsight I don’t really love it, so… go hit my Soundcloud if you want to, but meh.

This Friday, Bandcamp is doing another one of its #BandcampFriday things where they waive their fee. Can I record one more track for the album, put together the artwork, do the mastering and release it so quickly? Even with a dentist appointment tomorrow evening? If so, great! If not, well… the release should still be soon. Either way, I will dedicate 100% of proceeds on the album to Reclaim the Block.

maybe it’s a sign

In the course of working on this album I have tried twice to record tracks named “Small Enough to Fail.” I have rejected both of them for not meeting my standards; they just didn’t have the right atmosphere or have enough to say. Maybe I should just not try naming anything else that, because it seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

However, the second one has undergone a lot of filtering, editing, and processing and has become something worthy — a complete metamorphosis that gave it a new identity entirely.

At this point the album is more than an hour long. I’m happy with the start, I’m even happier with the end, and I like the stuff in between them… but the “it’s finished” flag in my brain hasn’t been raised yet. Once the missing piece falls into place, it’s possible that not all the candidates will make it to release. I’ll figure that out when I get there.

I’ve decided to go ahead and sell my TouchĂ© SE and my Tensor. The former is really neat for an Ondes Martenot sort of playing style that I just don’t use, so I only occasionally point it at some parameter or other in Bitwig — it’s overshadowed by the 16n and now there’s also the pressure CV on the 0-Ctrl. The Tensor is a neat thing but I don’t find myself turning to it very often and I can’t really justify keeping it.

I may also sell off the other pedals, except for Analog Drive which is basically one of the Reface’s limbs. I should first wait for the fixed filter bank, to see if it brings some magic to feedback loops that use the Adineko or spring reverb. But I kind of just want to set pedals aside; right now I don’t feel like they’re really bringing the magic, and that’d be one less format of thing to deal with, a few less controls to reach for.

touch copper

The 0-Ctrl arrived on Saturday, and I’m very pleased with it. My first impression was that it exactly met my expectations and hopes — the form factor is perfect, the touchplates work perfectly even with my dry skin, fit on my little stand in front of the modular is perfect, it feels great to use, it’s fun and inspiring and works almost exactly like I thought. Maybe a little easier to dial in tunings and grooves than I expected, and surprisingly musical when combining unsynchronized internal and external clock sources.

When only using an external clock, the gate lengths and the dynamic envelope times are still based on the internal clock, so the Speed and Time settings as well as Strength are still relevant. The dynamic gate and main clock output will result in different rhythms depending on the setting, which is a neat way to get some interrelated parts going and vary them easily. I threw together a quick jam with the E352’s two outputs:

Working with the 0-Ctrl does make me nostalgic for the 0-Coast — though more in terms of feel than sound or features. In theory, I like the idea of a more compact, simple modular. But in practice, I really like the setup that I have and what it does for my music.


Experimenting with the Disting EX, I found I could get better PLL-like results with the XOR logic gate algorithm than the pitch tracking algorithm… and than my actual A-196 PLL module. So that’s one more module to sell. There’s an EMW Fixed Filter Bank on the way, for feedback, distortion and some band-separating tricks of various kinds, and only 2 HP of free space unclaimed. (4 if I decide I don’t need the 2HP Trim that I have, which is possible.) Nothing’s really calling out to me for that space though.


On another note (that pun never gets old!), someone recommended Freakshow Industries plugins, which I’d never heard of up ’til now. I like their aesthetic and their “steal” policy, though I found Mishby (“Maybe I Shouldn’t Have Built You”) worth the full price, giving some lovely semi-tape, semi-“digital” degradation and chorusing. It sounds especially good in front of Supermassive.

gotta catch ’em all

My music collection is straightened out. I went with Plex, after a brief attempt to set up the open-source but much less polished and friendly Jellyfin. Securing the Jellyfin server was left as an exercise for the reader, with no specific instructions for any given platform or choice of security method, and the advice I found from third parties on the subject was unhelpful. Plex, on the other hand, was a breeze.

Once I had that set up, I went through and culled 2530 songs from 177 different artists (about 16GB) from my collection. Then I ripped 45 albums from my CD collection (of approx. 350) — things that I’d missed, several of which I’d had in my Google Play Music library.


Valhalla DSP announced an awesome, free new plugin today: Supermassive. It’s an experimental, flexible, wonky FDN reverb that sounds fantastic and lush, with algorithms more or less discovered accidentally while the developer was working on more conventional things. While I really like ValhallaPlate, I suspect I might find this one absolutely perfect for my needs, once I have time to learn it a little more.

Of course, cue the crowd at KvR claiming that giving it away was advertising and therefore somehow wrong and bad rather than generous, and also that if it wasn’t free nobody would want it because it’s just a normal delay (what??). Sometimes, “creative” people just make me tired.


I also wound up picking up CraveEQ. I was going to ignore it at first, because I like ToneBoosters EQ4 so much. But I discovered I like the sound of this one better in some cases, and it’s a little more flexible. And with the new Angle Grinder, plus the Disting, all this new stuff is going to show up in my music all at once.

Speaking of which, I got a shipping notification on the 0-Ctrl this afternoon, so that’s one more. The E520 is still going to be a month or more though, so I don’t expect it’ll be on this album, which is most of the way done at this point.

frickin’ laser beams

Today ends my 8th week of working from home (more productively than I ever did in the office), and about 11 weeks of COVID-19 being something to worry about in the US. St. Louis County is opening some businesses on a limited, restricted basis but so far, it looks like we’re going to keep working from home. Given news about other places having spikes in cases and having to close back down again after reopening, it could still be a while.

Given events, maybe the Stormlight Archive wasn’t the best thing to read. I’m most of the way through Oathbringer now, and it’s an apocalyptic mess of magical extreme weather, war, monsters, betrayals, and all the major characters being completely traumatized, broken and lost. It is a really entertaining set of books, with bright spots of humor and insight and triumph, ridiculously epic worldbuilding, the gamut of lovable and hateable characters, etc. but there’s no doubt that it’s a tragedy (even if, 7 books from now, some remnant of humanity is probably going to survive). “Heroism” and ethics are largely a matter of perspective. There are times when the story goes shockingly dark.


Google Play Music, which I’ve been subscribed to since 2014, is also going dark in the near future. I happened to be prepared for it though — my New Year resolution to support musicians through Bandcamp, and having a phone with plenty of storage, has meant streaming much less and listening much more to my MP3 collection. I gathered a list of albums that I want to make sure I own, and cancelled my subscription.

Unfortunately not every musician is on Bandcamp, and for some of those albums I’ve had to track down CDs on eBay. I’ve got a collection of CDs that I really should at least rip some of, and when I traded Eurorack modules with Kid606 he generously sent a couple of CDs to me. I wound up buying an external DVD drive rather than continuing to bother Alisha to rip them for me and transfer via USB stick (because Windows LAN networking still sucks in 2020). Chances are, any computers we might buy in the future won’t have optical drives built in anyway.

My MP3 collection is about 25 years old and has 840 (!!) artists in it. There are some-hundred CDs in my collection that spans roughly 1990-2005. I certainly don’t plan to rip all of them, but there’ll be a bunch. So I’m thinking: I’ll set up a personal streaming server with a rating system, or else cull the collection a little so there’s an archive and a “live” collection, and stop having to copy the whole collection to three different devices.


Two modules arrived this week. The Disting EX, previously described, is a bunch of different utilities in one module. The improved display is TINY and a challenge for my poor eyesight, and I rearranged modules a bit to bring it a little closer to my eyes and hands. But still, the module is easier to navigate than previous versions, and I think a dozen or so favorite algorithms won’t require much referring to a cheat sheet or online reference. I’ve encountered a few bugs, many of which will be fixed in the next firmware release.

I’ve got i2c commands from the Teletype working with it, although it doesn’t support slew, which is going to limit the matrix mixer morphing I thought might be particularly special.

The algorithms I like most are different from the set I originally liked, with more of the basic building blocks (like comparators and sample-and-hold) and fewer oscillators and effects. There are still some “macro” items though, like a pitch and envelope tracker and a wavetable-based waveshaper, that are pretty special.

The polyphonic multisample player is cool, if kind of mind-bending in Eurorack. Not something I’ll probably want to use frequently, but like everything else on the Disting, it’s nice to have it in reserve for when I do. The Disting can also record samples, and an auto-multisample mode is coming that makes use of the MIDI breakout panel — play several notes on a synth into it, and it will sample them and format it for the multisample player — so I might have to make room for that. It could be kind of neat sampling software synths with it and then playing them back with Eurorack sequencers…


The other module is Schlappi Engineering Angle Grinder, and it’s glorious.

The left side is the “grind” section, a set of four comparators that blast the smooth edges off and add more upper harmonics. The “spin” section on the right is a nice filter/quadrature oscillator. As a filter, it sounds like it has a little bit of a resonant peak even at minimum; it can work pretty conventionally but the highpass and notch sound particularly sweet. As an oscillator it’s quite smooth. I feel like I should put in some time exploring what a quadrature LFO/oscillator can do for me, aside from synchronized push-pull on different modulation targets.

The real fun is in the combination. The Spin outputs feed Grind’s four comparators and subtract from the input, changing the shape. The output can then feed back into Spin. The bandpass/allpass output from Spin also feeds back into Grind if not interrupted by a different input. The results vary quite a lot depending on whether Spin is oscillating or filtering, and the phase-shifted and clipped feedback results in many different waveshapes and pitch shifting, under CV control.

Overall the thing can range from a conventional filter or sine oscillator, to something with a little more edge, to a weird noise generator that can produce chirps, atmospheric noise, “toy with dying battery,” self-pinging filter and other weirdness. The feedback loops make it inherently chaotic, but the knobs control the amount of that chaos. Also, it provides several excellent ways to combine other oscillators to create complex drones.

I do kind of wish it had CV control over the “Damping” (aka reverse resonance) and “Grind->Spin” controls since both can influence feedback. To some extent I could manage that with external VCA(s) and mixer though, if the block diagram in the manual is correct.

I have absolutely no regrets about trading my Filter 8 for this one. In fact, it’s so good, I’m considering one of Schlappi Engineering’s other modules, the Interstellar Radio. It converts a signal to a high-frequency “radio transmission” and then back, but with different clocks or even external ones, to generate a variety of errors, aliasing and distortion and other oddities. If I let go of my A-196 PLL — which I believe I can do without losing any functionality, because of the Sync3 and Disting’s pitch tracker, comparator and XOR algorithms — I’ll have room for it. I won’t leap too quickly though, and give myself some time to get to know the new stuff.

+α

I didn’t wind up going for TAL Sampler, at least not yet. I still might!

I did pick up Goodhertz Lossy though, which was an accidental discovery when checking out their Vulf Compressor plugin. Which was designed as an emulation and expansion of the “LoFi Vinyl” setting on the Roland SP303 sampler, which is highly prized among some hiphop and dance music producers and which I’ve been hearing a lot about lately, thanks to investigating lo-fi samplers. It turns out, not doing the sort of drum stuff where that particular flavor of compression works best, the compressor itself didn’t grab me.

Lossy imitates MP3 compression artifacts — the filtering, loss of detail, smearing of transients and, well, blorpy smudge that happens with low-bitrate MP3s. It has a few other models of digital artifacts and glitches as well, including packet loss and packet repeats that can happen with UDP data streams. (UDP packets are smaller and have less bandwidth overhead than TCP, but are not guaranteed to arrive in order or even at all — which is acceptable for some kinds of real-time streaming where a little lost data is better than long dropouts and pauses, an ever-increasing time delay and eventual traffic jams.) It combines these with a filter and reverb, in a way that delightfully smears sounds. It works nicely in feedback loops and to take the edge off of sounds in a mix.

This is the time of year when Superbooth would normally be happening — a synthesis convention (modular and otherwise) in Berlin, a big expo and new product announcements and performances and drinking. With the pandemic, instead there’s been “Superbooth Home Edition” as well as Hainbach’s “Special Reserve Livestream.” Far more video than I’ve had time or inclination to watch, but a bunch of product announcements and performances and interviews nonetheless.

To me the most interesting announcement has been the Expert Sleepers Super Disting EX Plus Alpha, aka “Disting EX.” This is, sort of, a module I had been wishing for; I even referred to this dream module as “Super Disting” last September.

Disting (*) has been a series of small digital Eurorack modules capable of a wide variety of useful functions — envelope generator, comparator, VCA, oscillator, delay, sample player, exponential-to-linear converter, etc. — one at a time. The mk1-mk2 versions had 16 different algorithms, with binary code on LEDs telling you what mode it was in; the mk3 had more banks of algos added. The mk4 had a much improved 8×6 LED display which could show a couple of characters of text, but with 105 algos it still required patience and/or a cheat sheet to use. I had one for a while — it was my introduction to wavetables in Eurorack and prompted me to go for the E352 — and I found it excellent overall but a bit tedious. I thought a module in about 8-10HP, with a larger OLED display, would make navigating it and editing parameters much more workable, as well as give it the ability to act as an oscilloscope.

Well, this one has a small OLED display of the kind I tend to think of as a “window” for some reason — wide but short in height. It doesn’t do categorized menus, but reading the names of algorithms at a glance instead of waiting for them to scroll by or looking them up on a cheat sheet looks like quite an improvement (and a preset and favorites system can help reduce the search further).

The big deal though is that it is the equivalent of two Disting mk4s running side-by-side independently (with the display optionally “zooming” to show more detail of the one currently being edited) but with more memory and a higher sample rate; it can also run more involved “single mode” algorithms that use more inputs and outputs and processing power. Right now these include polyphonic multisample playback, “drum sampler” style playback, a tape delay based on the old Augustus Loop software, and a matrix mixer. And it can be controlled via knobs and CV but also MIDI and i2c — making that matrix mixer a VCA matrix, which is a whole other level of hot stuff.

(*) I figure it’s either named after the ancient yearly market in Uppsala, Sweden, the DĂ­sablĂłt Thing — or “what is dis ting?” Perhaps both.

To make some room for dis ting, I have swapped out my trusty Doepfer A-138m matrix mixer for an AI008 4×3 matrix mixer, which is half the width. Yes, I did just say Disting EX has a matrix mixer mode — but an analog one dedicated to the task, with no DAC latency, can be good for feedback purposes and letting the Disting do other things. I’ve also gone ahead and sold off my LS1 Lightstrip (which was redundant since getting the 16n Faderbank) and Flexshaper (which was a cool concept but I never really put it to much use). That leaves 12HP open, though I have no particular plans for that space right now.

Teletype got a firmware update recently, with a few cool new features. My favorite is the NR op — a rhythm pattern generator based on bitwise multiplication of a set of patterns, as found on the Noise Engineering Numeric Repetitor. With NR you can imitate the Repetitor pretty much exactly, but you have the freedom to do many other things with it. If I made something more akin to techno and I didn’t already have Noise Engineering’s pattern generation line of stuff, I would be thrilled beyond comprehension at this gift; as it is, it’s pretty cool and will likely get as much use as Euclidean patterns do now. Slow, odd time signatures can still benefit from repeating patterns whether the listener notices them consciously or not. It almost feels like I got another new module with this update.

warts and all

Knobs has a thing to say: “all music is full of wrongs.”

This is a video about technology, but also human performance isn’t perfect. We don’t play perfectly on a temporal grid with perfect intonation and identical tone, but ebb and flow and miss a little bit, partially out of expressiveness, partially out of human limitations (the nervous system and muscles take time to process things and our sense of time is subjective), and partially just error.

I feel like a lot of processing I do in software is either partially correcting flaws, or carefully introducing them.

In order to introduce a few more, I think I’m going to pick up TAL-Sampler. It’s a plugin that somewhat imitates old-school samplers; maybe slightly less simply than I would like since I’m aiming more at the Casio SK-1 / Yamaha VSS-200 line, and it doesn’t directly sample audio but plays it back. But it sounds pretty gorgeous in that flawed way, and comes with an FX plugin that can also imitate a bad old DAC (digital-analog converter). I think picking it up might ease the desire I feel for taking a chance on an old sampler, without taking up space, in the same way that Wavesfactory Cassette and other plugins have cooled my interest in messing with actual tape, while giving me more flavors to work with.

Speaking of flaws, I’ve sent my 16n Faderbank back to the builder to have the faders replaced with linear ones. While I could muddle along by slewing the noisy outputs, I’m excited that I will like it even more with the right taper. It’s just I don’t have it at hand to work with right now, and it’s like a hull breach in the spaceship of my studio, all the precious air blown out into the vacuum. I’ve recorded one simple piece without it, but I think I would rather hold off before I attempt anything more involved. It’s a testament to how central this one controller has become to my workflow.