if FM overkill is wrong, I don’t want to be right

In the last few weeks I’d been thinking seriously about selling off Akemie’s Castle, having convinced myself that I have more than enough FM capability and can use Sync3 among other things for the big chords. So I was trying to decide between the Odessa or the Ensemble Oscillator as a replacement, but honestly I wasn’t totally fired up about either of those choices. They can both do cool things but I’m not fully convinced either of them is truly what I want.

Last night I was feeling pretty bleh and unmotivated, but after making a pretty crappy recording I decided to mess with Akemie’s Castle… and it brought immediate joy. The chords are huge, the FM is glorious and not quite like all my other FM synths, and it sort of does the additive thing from a different angle. I have a bond with this module, and it would make no sense at all to swap it out for something else.

With that settled, I decided there’s really no point in waiting for the E520 to sell stuff: the DSM-03 Feedback, tanh[3] and Cold Mac have been sitting in a drawer and I’ve left HD mk3 unused, and I don’t think I will miss any of those. Also the Supercell, which I’ll replace with Typhoon (unless I happen into a great trade deal for Monsoon or Microcell).

What makes much more sense is to not buy anything else, including pedals, for a while. I don’t have any particular gaps I can think of. E520 of course is going to cover a lot of effect territory. I don’t see a good argument for another oscillator, and I feel pretty happy with my set of modulation sources. Bitwig Grid and Teletype cover most things that aren’t directly present. I’m sure eventually there will be something I will want to try out, so I’ll just leave the empty space for that future eventuality.


I’ve been reading Greg Egan’s Diaspora. It starts off in a wild and weird post-human future, and only gets wilder and weirder from there. My only gripe is that while the physics might have more dimensions than we can imagine, the characters mostly tend to have one or two. It seems like the more interesting a character becomes, the more likely they will be ignored, fall into the background, or be killed off in the background in the next chapter. I’m still enjoying the scale and uniqueness of the ideas though, and the rate at which they are introduced.

thanks I hate it

What the hecking heck is this?

It’s the Roland TAIKO-1 and it is about 10% brilliant and 90% bullshit.

I was a taiko performer for a couple of years, so let me first mention the things I like about this before I tear it to shreds:

  • It looks kinda cool (if you’re unconcerned with tradition)
  • It’s light-ish and it disassembles for transport.
  • You can use it for practice with headphones, IF you want to practice katsugi okedo.
  • Built-in ji is better than a metronome… if you want to be backed up by a robot playing a horse beat, you can.
  • The shime-daiko sample set sounds okayish.
  • Could be neat for one or two performers during an interlude, or for parades or Eisa performances I guess, or for a single novelty piece by a taiko group. IF the volume and battery situation is up to the task.

And now the hatey bits:

  • This is a katsugi okedo in style. It is useless if you want to practice or perform chu-daiko, shime-daiko, or oodaiko parts or technique.
  • Each type of drum, type of stand, and style of playing requires different physical technique. Each taiko piece has its own choreography which is a vital part of the art form (some even say it’s more important than rhythm and sound). This is one drum played in one style, which happens to sound sort of like other drums. The way this is designed, I’m not even sure it can be placed on any kind of stand.
  • Would you like to watch a symphony orchestra where everyone is playing electric violins, except some of them sound more or less like cellos or oboes or French horns or timpani?
  • Would you rather go to a Japanese festival and watch a bunch of people in traditional costume playing a variety of beautiful, full-sized polished wooden drums, hand-built in the traditional manner, with fancy metal kan (the medallion handles) and proper horsehide heads tacked on in that distinctive pattern, where one of the drums is a 250-800 pound monstrosity that looms over its performer… or a bunch of electronic instruments with lightweight metal frames and fabric heads?
  • The chu-daiko sound in the video sounds synthetic to me. The shime-daiko is okay. The chappa samples are a disgrace, and there is no way all the varied techniques of chappa playing can be done with a drum.
  • Real taiko is like thunder. It’s extremely physical. You feel it throughout your body, especially in your chest cavity. In person or in a really good recording, you hear the crack of the hinoki (cypress, awesomely fragrant) bachi on the drum head as well as the deep boom. When in group rehearsals you’re supposed to wear hearing protection. I’m going to guess the sound of these is a relative disappointment in terms of physical presence.
  • Likewise, the feel can’t possibly be right for anything that’s not a katsugi part. There is a very physical feel to the movement and the way the bachi rebounds from the skin, which is different for different styles of drums and bachi, and it deeply affects the player’s expressive playing as well as dynamics and timing. It may even feel wrong compared to a real katsugi as far as that goes.

Now, I’m more of an electronic music nerd than I am a former taiko player, so I still think it’s kind of got neat aspects. And if someone gave me one, I would play it. But I don’t want to see a taiko group performing with just these things, ugh ugh ugh gah no.

an individual note

Lately there have been some threads on various forums that have tried to ascribe a little more to the design of particular modules, and the intent and motivation of people in the community, than is actually there.

As in: [these modules] are for beginners. [These modules] sound like plugins.* [These modules] are overhyped by uninformed fanboys. [These modules] are for generative ambient noodling, while [these other modules] are for techno. The real nature of modular synthesis is [such and such] and [these modules] aren’t good for that.

Or more generally, disappointment in some perceived lack in the tools: too little innovation in the technology, too little creativity in the products, no future ahead for novel synthesis methods. As if it’s the instruments, not the musicians, which are expected to be creative…

Well. I’ve been reading Daphne Oram’s¬†An Individual Note: of Music, Sound and Electronics. She floats some esoteric ideas and metaphors extrapolated from the science behind electronic music… some of it is frankly a little crazy, but some of that is illuminating in a poetic sort of way.

What really struck me though, particularly in the context of those other discussions, was this section:

It seems as relevant to the tools of music-making as it is to a performance or recording. Perhaps even more so; music is the product (in a vague mathematical sense) of the instrument AND the musician.

And yeah, I’m saying if a module sounds bad, maybe it’s the person using it who is not good with it, either through incompatible style or lack of understanding or practice. And if it seems like it’s “for beginners,” maybe the person trying it lacks the experience to get more out of it.

(*) This of course implies that plugins have a characteristic “sound” which is deficient in some way, which is also a pretty questionable assumption in 2020.

nope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pandatastic

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

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

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

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

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

organic

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

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

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

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

a tiny bit of history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

float*

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

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

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

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

Hertz Donut mk2 vs mk3: the details

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

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

Feature set, layout, usability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raw sound

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

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

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

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

Tracking modes

The mk2 has four tracking modes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

FM

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waveshaper(s)

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

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

The mk3 instead has three waveshapers which can operate simultaneously:

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

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

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

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

Overall

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

Akemie’s Castle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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