that’s my jam

I dreamed I was playing synths in a band that was in its first stages of formation. We didn’t really know each other, nor have any particular goals, but we were going to jam for a bit and see what came of it.

The first bit came together spontaneously (probably too easily) as kind of a funky late 70s rock groove… except for me. I did some kind of awkwardly out of place noodly cool jazz electric piano thing. Everyone knew I was the loose screw in an otherwise well-oiled machine.

I was prepared to bow out and go home with as much dignity as I could muster, but a couple of them stopped me. One of them said something to the effect of: “What you were playing wasn’t you. It wasn’t you at your best. Don’t try to fit what you think we’re doing, play your own way, . Let’s go again.”

And instead of jazz noodling, I played like Starthief. I set up the sort of drone/rhythmic pulse combo thing with Natural Gate that I started with Shelter In Place, synced to the band’s beat and with a rhythm I felt worked… and it was transformative. They were still all doing their thing, but weaving in and out of the rhythm I was providing, while I reacted to what they were doing. Instead of a solid backing rhythm and a bad secondary melody, we were meshing — we were killing it. And then I woke up in mid-jam with huge grins on all our faces.

This fits so much with my recent thoughts. I’ve pretty well finalized the theme, and even chosen a working title, for the next album — despite not actually getting around to reading Fromm yet.


I’m currently reading Iain Banks’ Matter. I’m determined to finish all the Culture novels one of these days. Even if the Culture is the Mary-Sue of utopian far-future “Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism” civilizations where everyone is deeply eccentric and many characters have godlike powers, I still want to live there, and the books are creative and funny when they’re not going entirely too far to the grim side with less enlightened civilizations. The Hydrogen Sonata features, as one might guess, a piece of music and a musician and a very weird, kind of awful instrument — and that makes it one of my (many) favorite SF novels. Anyway, while I’ve got more Laundry Files books in the queue along with a couple more Culture novels, I’ll read Fromm after this book, I promise.


I’ll bypass the thrilling saga of trying different patch cords, and move on to thoughts about Synth Farm 2.1. Yes, that’s my name for it now, despite the starry artwork that might suggest something else. It’s in contrast to my spouse’s “shrimp farm” (a few tanks of blue neocaridina shrimp).

It’s been on version 2.0 for less than a month, but I have a well-considered plan for amending it.

  • Rossum Panharmonium is already ordered and previously described. I expect it to be somewhere between oscillator and effect for me; sort of the mirror counterpart to Erbe-Verb which is somewhere between effect and sound source.
  • I’ve been convinced that the Intellijel Rainmaker would suit me very well. It’s “the last word in Eurorack delays” according to Mylar Melodies. It’s a 16-tap delay where each tap can have independent or coordinated level, pitch, filtering, and stereo pan, and there are various algorithms for stacking and timing the delay taps — aside from things like subtle detuning, Doppler shift, octave shimmer etc. you can sequence a whole polymetric call-and-response melody with echoes. Mind blown. That’s just half the module; the other half is a comb filter/resonator which is more raw than Rings but quite flexible. It’s the sort of thing where you can dig deep into sound design and theory to create unique effects. It’s big and relatively expensive, which means it’s gonna replace something and consume the budget surplus I was running, but I think it’ll be worth it.
  • I’ll hold onto my G8 clock divider. No wait, I have another idea.
  • I’ll let go of the Sputnik 5-Step and Selector. At the start of 2018 I was excited about the idea of a sequencer that let me address steps directly via triggers converted from MIDI notes. But my workflow has changed enough that this isn’t an exciting prospect anymore; I can get what I need through Teletype. The rarity with which I’ve used the module at all makes it hard to justify the space it takes up.
  • In their place, I may go for a compact manual trigger sequencer of some kind. A trigger sequencer can also act as a clock divider. Befaco Sampling Modulator, which I’ve had my eye on, is a trigger sequencer attached to a sample+hold, and can go fast enough to mutate or generate audio and do a lot of other stuff besides. Why have two modules that do things I’ll occasionally want, when I can have one module that does both those things and more?
  • I’ll move a couple of things around. Shades and O’Tool+ can go in the center of the case, where they can act as passive mults on those occasions where I want to patch from corner to corner — meaning I shouldn’t really need 36″ long patch cords. I’ll also break up the blob of modules with dark faceplates that blend in to one another.

about a dog who found two bones

Resist and be free: More than false choices and options, the highest freedom lies in being true to oneself and defying the expectations of others

Hmm.

The new album is doing pretty well by my standards: a few people so far have voluntarily paid for it (thanks!), there have been some appreciative comments, and a DJ is to play something of mine in a show called Sonic Tapestries on Resonance FM based in London.

Having a theme for each album is a strength, compared to no theme or retroactively renaming things to fit a theme when the album is 3/4 finished. So I’m brainstorming a bit about the next thing. I’ve already decided against overt political themes, though.

The selling-off of old gear seems to be progressing nicely — putting stuff up on Reverb instead of relying on forums really helps. I turned some of those proceeds around to preorder a Rossum Panharmonium, which I suspect might be even more full of surprising uses than Erbe-Verb.

I’m also doing a bit more research/homework on synthesis techniques. I think I finally have a good theoretical grasp on phase distortion as used in the Casio CZ series — which was pretty neat and relatively easy to work with. Casio’s foray into professional synths was pretty brief and a little rocky, and nobody else really picked up the PD synthesis ball probably because FM was more versatile, and samplers and virtual analog were really taking off by then. reFX PlastiCZ imitated the CZ synths nicely, u-he Bazille has PD as one of the things its weird but versatile oscillators supported, and I think there’s a CZ Eurorack oscillator or two. Some of the tools in XFer Serum are technically phase distortion too, though not with a similar style to the CZ. But it’s still mostly the black sheep of the digital synthesis family, and that makes me want to explore it some with the ER-301 and perhaps the E370.

details

Mastering’s done. I’m happy with the sound and I’m working on the image and the words. I have some patch notes and a bit of explanation to write up. That was going to happen tonight but I wound up exploring some sound experiments a little instead, and reading The Rhesus Chart.

I don’t often like to choose single favorites among wide categories. But it’s safe to say that The Laundry Files is my favorite series in the horror-comedy-spy-fantasy-software development genre. It’s up for a Hugo award this time (and it’s got good company; the Sick Puppy bloc aka “everything must be made by, for and about white manly men” must be too busy with QAnon or MAGA rallies these days to bother with merely extinguishing diversity and creativity in genre fiction).


A survey of the patch notes from Passing Through told me:

  • As expected and hoped, the ER-301 has taken a central role.
  • Surprisingly, Kermit was the second most referenced module. It’s become my go-to LFO, it makes a nice modulation VCO, and has a unique and lovely-weird sound on its own.
  • The E370 is still a good workhorse, and I discovered two new techniques with it which will get some more exercise in the future.
  • I only used the Natural Gate in one song, and the Dynamic Impulse Filter not at all. Me, the LPG junkie (according to the designer of Natural Gate and my own admission)! There are a bunch of plausible reasons and one weird one (putting all my black-panel modules together makes them visually blend in with each other). Regardless, I’m holding onto both of them for now, especially the NG.
  • Tides 2018 was underused. Even with some of its extra abilities, it’s just not pushing my buttons even when I try pushing its. So I’m putting it up for sale.
  • tanh[3] is a good module, but not an everyday module and I can do what it does in the ER-301. I’ll probably let it go too.

The newest synth trade show, Synthplex, took place in California last weekend. Less news than I expected came out of it given the amount of hype around it, but the Rossum Electro-Music Panharmonium stood out. It’s basically an FFT spectrum analyzer which then controls a cluster of analog oscillators — not quite a vocoder, but an odd and intriguing take on a spectral resynthesizer. I literally had dreams about the thing. I may find myself picking one up before Knobcon after all, once I’ve sold a little more gear to fund it 100%.

Speaking of synth trade shows, Knobcon has now also missed its postponed date for opening up ticket sales. The Facebook page still says March 1, with no updates since January. The website itself still says “Tickets On Sale in March 2019” and the “Buy Tickets” link still goes to the exhibitor registration page (which sometimes appears broken or closed). I hope things are okay with everyone involved.

writing while listening

Writing this while mastering the album. A few tracks have given me minor difficulties, and Sound Forge Pro 10 continues to be about as stable as a game of Jenga running on a Packard Bell laptop running Windows Vista on the back of a neurotic chihuahua on a ship in a storm. Or something like that. But it progresses.


Because listening to the same new songs several times in a row and making minor adjustments isn’t enough I guess, I’ve started a sequential listen through my Starthief albums. And I noticed something.

A few months before starting Nereus I had felt like I’d “found my sound” and was refining it. If you listen over the course of a few hundred songs in 2017 it does sound a bit like I’m closing in on something, and Nereus is the pinnacle as well as the end of that phase. The album is full of sequenced bass/melody lines with hard attacks and exponential decays and octave leaps; lots of snappy LPG plucks and saturated triangle waves, and backgrounds made busy with exotic modulation techniques.

And then there’s a line. Or perhaps an ellipsis…

And then there’s Shelter In Place. That was when I really got into the improvisational, drones-and-rhythm thing. As I listened to it, my thought was “I bet that was when I traded away the 0-Coast.” I just doublechecked, and yes, it was. In a sense, SIP is really the first proper Starthief album, and Nereus is the end of the transitional phase that created Starthief.

My 2019 albums felt more like they stood on opposite sides of a line: this change from “modular 1.1” to “2.0” that I kept on about. One saw me paring down my gear, the other saw the first usage of a lot of new stuff. But the gear change was carefully arranged to preserve and streamline the things I wanted to keep doing, and so these two albums really aren’t very far apart in composition, technique or sound.

My interpretation of the Passing Through theme varied per song — sometimes I carved out more breathing space (which is where I think the album sounds a little more different), and sometimes I layered things on like those interpenetrating energy fields I was talking about. In both cases, I was exploring some new technique as well as the gear. But it all still sounds like Starthief to me, and I should know 😉

the next medium-sized thing

I’m declaring Passing Through “feature-complete,” as is sometimes said in the software development business. I’ve got everything recorded and have the order worked out, I just need to do some minor editing, and then mastering and artwork and that’s that.

I thought I had a pretty neat idea for a title for the next album, but it turns out to be the same title as a Christian Rock song. I’ve already had the displeasure of seeing one of my album titles as the title of a novel on a convenience store shelf.

…You know what, I’m not even going to check if “Passing Through” is already the title of something because it’s really a common enough phrase.

inharmonic collision

Monday evening, I set up my composition idea as planned: three triangle oscillators feeding a sine shaper, with two of them under polymetric control from Teletype (3-in-8 vs 4-in-9 Euclidean rhythms) and one under manual control.

It was frankly pretty boring when I was just using octaves. So I decided to go off the rails a bit and sequence pitches with the Sputnik 5-Step Voltage Source. I clocked it with the master clock, regardless of the rhythmic pattern; the first voice used a channel directly and the second sampled a channel every 8 clock steps. So what we’d get is a complex pattern that starts something like this:

Where time runs left to right, and each color in each lane represents a knob on the 5-Step (not necessarily indicating what the pitch value is set to, nor is “red” on the top and bottom necessarily the same pitch but sometimes they are, and different colors within the same lane are in some cases tuned to the same pitch). The pattern in the top lane runs for 40 beats before repeating, and the bottom lane runs for 72 beats. Because these two are interacting thanks to the sine shaper, they can’t be thought of as individual parts and so it’s going to take 2880 beats for the pattern to repeat. At the tempo I used, the whole recording is roughly 1/10 of a full cycle. (Or… it would be, except I put the two patterns under manual control, suppressing the triggers while letting the sequencer keep clocking. Monkey wrench!)

Complex patterns from relatively simple rules. But that was kind of a tangent — the point is, the frequencies I dialed in, relative to each other, often collided in non-integer ratios. Even if they sound good as individual notes played together, when you use them in phase modulation things get a bit dissonant and skronky, with new sidebands at weird frequencies.

An unlikely scenario.

This is the 21st century — beauty is complex, artistic merit isn’t directly tied to beauty, we’re not limiting ourselves to Platonic perfection, and the idea that certain intervals and chords could accidentally invoke Satan isn’t something we lose sleep over anymore. I think the result I got is pretty neat! But it’s not really what I had originally imagined. So I’m going to keep the basics of this idea, follow a different branching path with it and see where that goes.

The third voice, I controlled with the 16n Faderbank — one slider for level, one for pitch. The latter went through the ER-301’s scale quantizer unit, so it always landed on something that fit reasonably well with the other two voices. It turns out this unit supports Scala tuning files, and TIL just how crazy those can get.

Scala is a piece of software and a file format which lets you define scales quite freely — whether you just want to limit something to standard 12TET tuning, or a subset of that (such as pentatonic minor), or just intonation, non-Western scales, xenharmonic tunings, or exactly matching that slightly-off toy piano. The main website for Scala has an archive of 4800 different tuning files and that’s just too much. This is super-specialist stuff with descriptions such as:

  • Archytas[12] (64/63) hobbit, sync beating
  • Supermagic[15] hobbit in 5-limit minimax tuning
  • Big Gulp
  • Degenerate eikosany 3)6 from 1.3.5.9.15.45 tonic 1.3.15
  • Hurdy-Gurdy variation on fractal Gazelle (Rebab tuning)
  • Left Pistol
  • McLaren Rat H1
  • Weak Fokker block tweaked from Dwarf(<14 23 36 40|)
  • Semimarvelous dwarf: 1/4 kleismic dwarf(<16 25 37|)
  • Three circles of four (56/11)^(1/4) fifths with 11/7 as wolf
  • Godzilla-meantone-keemun-flattone wakalix
  • One of the 195 other denizens of the dome of mandala, <14 23 36 40| weakly epimorphic

With all these supermagic hobbits and semimarvelous dwarves and Godzilla, and all the other denizens with their Big Gulps and pistols, where do I even start with this? The answer is, I don’t. I’ll just try making a couple of my own much simpler scales that I can actually understand. Like 5EDO — instead of dividing an octave into 12 tones, divide it into 5.

think tank

Today’s an especially slow workday and I’ve been reading a lot of interviews and articles at The Creative Independent. I haven’t had any particular epiphanies as a result, but it’s stirring the brain juices a little.

But I did have a minor revelation this morning about the connection between wavefolding and phase modulation thanks to Open Music Labs being, well, open about their designs. In particular, the Sinulator, which is similar to the Happy Nerding FM Aid — a module I owned once, let go of because I figured I had enough FM/PM capability in my system. (Frequency modulation and phase modulation are very closely related; the simple version is that a continuously advancing phase is frequency, and PM is basically indistinguishable from linear FM in terms of results.) I’ve wished a few times that I’d kept the FM Aid, but could sometimes get similar results out of Crossfold. I didn’t understand why, though.

OML’s description and blessedly simple mathematical formula (no calculus or funny Greek letters!) make me realize, this is basically the same thing described by Navs some time ago (I think in a forum post rather than the blog though). And it ties in with my recent efforts to do nice-sounding wavefolding with the ER-301.

“Sine shaping” is a commonly used shortcut to wavefolding as well as triangle-to-sine shaping. It’s literally just plugging an audio input in as x in the function sin(xg), where g is the gain.
If g is 1, and x happens to be a sawtooth or triangle wave, you’ll get a sine wave out of it. If the input is a sine, you get a sine that folds back on itself a bit… and the higher g goes above 1, the more the output will fold over on itself and get more complex and bright. (Better sounding analog wavefolders and their digital imitators don’t map to a sine exactly, but it’s a similar-looking curve. Also they use mulitple stages in series for more complex behavior. But a sine totally does work.) What I learned here is that adding another term inside that function will shift the phase of the output… tada, phase modulation exactly how Yamaha did it in the DX series (and then confusingly called it FM). A whole lot of puzzle pieces clicked together.

Anyway… in this model because one just adds the two inputs, it doesn’t really matter which is the carrier and which is the modulator. Why not use independent VCAs on both, and sequence them separately? Maybe some kind of polymetric, occasionally intersecting thing where it’s like two interacting fields, totally fitting the theme of the album I’m working on? To lend form to the piece, one of those inputs can be transposed, have its envelope or intensity changed, or a third input can be added (it’s just addition)…

I don’t normally plan my compositions quite so much when I’m away from the instrument itself, and I almost never get this… academic about it. (Is that a dirty word?) But I’m eager to try this one.

So there’s a free peek inside a process I don’t usually use.

put some clothes on, Your Majesty

Reading about the history of synths, or about the use of synths in rock, one always comes across worshipful descriptions of Keith Emerson’s “Lucky Man” solo and the Moog Modular he took on tour to perform it.

I never really bothered to check it out. I don’t think I ever heard the song, or paid attention if I did. But I took the authors at face value: that this was a blistering, awesome performance that was part of the pincer maneuver which made Moog more or less a household name and doomed Buchla to relative obscurity (Switched-On Bach being the other) and that Emerson was a master both of modular synthesis and rock performance.

My curiosity was finally prompted by the MST3K riffing on Monster A-Go Go which made references to both “Fly Like An Eagle” and “Lucky Man” during a particularly synthy part of the soundtrack.

So I watched a couple of videos, and… well. Maybe a rock fan in 1970, having seen nothing like it, would have been blown away. But the first thing I noticed is the patch is really, really simple. Five years later he could have been playing that on the one-oscillator Micromoog. At the time, he could have pulled out 95% of the patch cable spaghetti draping the thing. Sure, it had an impressively powerful bass sound which Emerson made good use of, but there was nothing very sophisticated about the patch. The synth was mostly serving as a prop. “Look at all this equipment and all those cables, this guy must be a wizard!”

(I’m not disparaging Emerson’s synthesis skills — maybe this is the exact sound he was going for. Maybe it was set up for a quick between-songs repatch to do something completely different; pull one cable here and plug one in there and it’s ready to go. But I do think a lot of it was for show.)

The second thing is, the timing was really sloppy, at least in the performances I watched. Particularly in a more recent performance, there was a slow portamento and I wonder if that’s throwing off his playing, because he’s just not playing to the tempo of the rest of the band. It didn’t feel like expressive timing but just bad timing. Otherwise, what he played was… okay, but not the most acrobatic or virtuosic or creative solo I’ve ever heard by any means.

So, yeah. I guess this is just one of those cases where the historical context was the fuel and the art was a spark; with the fuel burned out we can see that the spark was a small thing.