these blades will never rust

Mutable Instruments Blades (along with a magnet that’s the front half of a wooden deer, very cute) arrived on Saturday.

Using words to describe the subtleties of sound is kind of a hopeless prospect, and people certainly have their own preferences in filter characteristics just like they prefer different seasonings. There are certain filters whose resonance I really don’t like in anything other than a very small amount, for instance, Korg MS-20 style filters or typical squeaky TB-303 stuff. Some people really hate Steiner-Parker filters, especially Arturia’s “Brute” versions (and those people are wrong.)

To me, when using a single one of Blades’ filters, the words that come to mind are clean, tidy, stable, pleasant. But it’s not boring, partially because of the continuous sweep available on filter modes, so you can tailor the shape to the material. It doesn’t have the “ripping” sound of Ripples under fast modulation, it doesn’t sound like it always has some resonance like Three Sisters, it’s not as sweet and organic as VCFQ. Just considering the sound of a single filter, without the drive — it’s pretty solid, maybe 8.5 out of 10 overall? I sure wouldn’t complain about a synth that had it as its only filter.

But it DOES have that pre-drive/wavefolding stage and it’s got two filters. When you use them together, in parallel or serial or some hybrid, and/or with one modulating the other, it really opens up possibilities. You can get a kind of “shiny” sound with an extra peak, or you can drive it hard serially and get really mean and nasty. This, I believe, is why it’s described as a dual filter rather than a stereo one (though of course it can be used in stereo quite easily).

It pings better than some filters, but not quite as well as VCFQ, or a Hordijk Twin Peak. On the other hand, it resonates very easily too… and it makes for a fantastic complex oscillator.

It has accurate 1V/OCT tracking, and a “shift” button that lets the second filter follow the first with an offset. And crucially, it can do phase modulation, as the three filter modes (lowpass, bandpass, highpass) are shifted 90 degrees relative to each other. Crossfading smoothly between them results in a smooth phase shift (and a minor variation in amplitude). So one can do audio-rate, dynamic phase modulation, with a strikingly different character than Yamaha DX synths. It is also capable of exponential FM too, of course.

There are some downsides to using it this way. None of them are insurmountable, and some present opportities:

  • There are no fine tuning knobs. The range of possible offsets for the second filter makes it tricky to tune to the first exactly. (Workaround: use a DC offset into the second frequency input for finer control.)
  • The relative tuning is not necessarily perfectly stable, and it doesn’t have sync or an automatic ratio lock like some digital complex oscillators. (But you can blend in some of the first filter’s output into the second filter, and it sort of “entrains” into place… not something a more conventional complex oscillator can do!)
  • Since the drive stages come before the filters, you can’t simultaneously use the second filter to modulate the first and then wavefold the result all within Blades. But that’s what other modules are for… and you can do some waveshaping via feedback in ways a conventional oscillator can’t (though some of them will affect the tuning).
  • You do need an external VCA to control the modulation depth. Not a problem.
  • The output is loud, phase modulation increases that level, and it’s enough to clip my ES-6. But I have several ways of dealing with that.

So overall, this is now my favorite filter module!

stick a fork in it

Last night I “buried” the Expert Sleepers ES-6 inside my case, but it’s connected through the Mazzatron Mult+Passthru — so now all of the inputs to my audio interface are on one module, I renumbered them to match, and it gained me 4 more HP.

And then this morning I was decisive for once, and bought a Doepfer A-110-4 Quadrature Thru-Zero VCO, and a York Modular rHPF to go with it (since the FM input is DC-coupled). That fills up the remaining space in my case.

And I’m declaring it “done.” My plan is this:

  • Sell/trade no music gear until at least May 1.
  • Sell/trade a maximum of 3 Eurorack modules throughout 2021.
  • Buy only what can fit; no more/larger cases or putting stuff in storage to make room.
  • Don’t buy any non-Eurorack hardware synths or effects.
  • I’m allowed to sell (but not replace with other gear) the DAFM or Purple Rain if I feel like I’m just not using them at all (this seems unlikely.)
  • Exceptions: beta testing, equipment failure/replacement, unambiguous version upgrade. (Also unlikely.)
  • Buying software is okay but I should really consider whether I need it (and I probably don’t)

Overall, I want to move away from thinking about what I should get next, what I can sell to make space for it, and so on. I’ve gone through a lot of hardware since 2016, and… yeah it was fun exploring all of that stuff, but it’s time to break that habit.

It didn’t get in the way of my music-making, but it is kind of a drag on my confidence — almost a kind of constant second-guessing, and a lot of personal energy expenditure. That quote about “commodity fetishism” and “agential inversion of musician and instrument” really struck deep.

I have explored pretty much everything in the modular domain that really interests me. To practice some of it I need to use software rather than hardware, but I’m okay with that. I really like where my setup is now, the music I’m making with it and the inspiration and possibilities it offers, and I don’t need to keep shuffling my deck just because there are other cards out there in the world.

Perhaps once the incoming stuff settles, and more likely after the final Mutable Instruments module (which, yes, I’ve been beta testing) is revealed, I’ll go over all the bits and how I’m using them.

portal and blades

There are some module brands which can instantly create a holiday atmosphere among Eurorack geeks by announcing a new module. Mutable Instruments is one of the prime ones.

Mutable Instruments Blades, dual multimode filter

I did not see this coming at all. I had misinterpreted a previous hint and expected another successor to an existing module. But it’s a pleasant surprise!

Yes, I already have three Eurorack filters, which seems odd for someone who claims to not use subtractive synthesis all that much, and yes, I ordered this one too.

The cool things about this one are the continuous blend between lowpass, bandpass and highpass configurations — which, when oscillating, allows phase modulation. And the routing between the two filters, from single to parallel to serial, is also smoothly controllable and can be used as an input mixer. And the drive sections are smoothly adjustable from overdrive to wavefolding. And a button switches filter #2 to follow #1’s frequency but with its own offset, making variable-width bandpass or notch as well as harmonically tuned resonant peaks/oscillation easy.

In a sense, this is not just a dual filter but an analog complex oscillator, and those are magic words to grab my attention.

I think my protest about subtractive synthesis is a little misplaced. There have been several times where I used both Angle Grinder and VCFQ in stereo, mid-side, or serial HP/LP configurations. Or Angle Grinder as an oscillator, and VCFQ and Shelves in stereo… and so on.

My plan at the moment is to keep all these filters around, unless there is something specific that really calls to me more later. (More on that when I write up my goals for 2021.) VCFQ has a lovely sound to it and its pings are very nice. Angle Grinder of course is a great oscillator and weirdness maker. Shelves… is not quite what I expected but can be patched in some surprisingly cool ways, and it’s very possible it will make sense to pair it up with Blades for even more serial/parallel goodness.

The other bit of modular fun is Mystic Circuits Portal, which arrived yesterday. It claims to be “harmonic distortion” but what it is is a glitchy weirdifier, yet more useful than I first thought. The idea is it’s like a wavefolder but wraps instead of folding — but the “track” parameter causes it to crawl along and add motion in its own unstable way, enough so that with no input it can still burble and tick and hiss and sputter. And it also seems to pick up and amplify noise and exaggerate small motions in the DC range.

The second output is a sample+hold of the input triggered whenever the main part folds, and that includes the crawly motion so it’s this cool animated sample rate reduction effect.

The third output sends quick little triggers whenever the main part folds, and those can happen frequently enough to make a buzzy oscillation of their own, or with the feedback setting, act as a crazy little burst generator. I’m looking forward to trying a few experiments with this.

It’s a weird module to be sure, not something to use in every patch — but I feel like I have slack since all my actual needs for the music I make are well covered. So why not have something odd, unpredictable and sometimes inspiring in there?

da funk

My (replacement) DAFM Synth arrived, and it works just fine. Apparently, the one I returned also works fine in the hands of the seller, which is weird because it definitely overheated its USB power cable within a few seconds and wouldn’t turn on for me at all… but whatever, I definitely have a working one now.

The interface, while far from knob-per-function, is pretty clever. Rather than one mid-sized display it has four tiny OLED screens; in most modes each shows the parameters for its associated FM operator. The preset loading screen is different, and a bit weird and hard to figure out at first with the sparse documentation.

The navigation can be a bit awkward. FM synths have this challenging aspect where sometimes you want to divide up the parameter space functionally — setting all the ratios on one page, the envelopes on another, etc. as this does — and sometimes you want to to divide it by operator, so the ratio, level, envelopes etc. for a single operator are all together. I think if I were working with this physical design, I would have had the left encoder always “move” (selecting parameters, or press-and-turn to change pages) while the right encoder always edits whatever the cursor is pointing to. But this is still a million times better than trying to edit on an old-school DX synth.

There’s a tiny 11-note keyboard at the bottom, which is best reserved for emergency “no MIDI controller” purposes. The chip of choice — in my case the noisier YM2612 — is on display behind a transparent window, while the rest of the top is dark tinted acrylic.

That chip has a weird design flaw called the “ladder effect” that gives it its characteristic sound. There seems to be a ton of nerdy analysis of this and maybe not that much agreement on the details, but it comes down to: some Yamaha engineer cut one or two corners too many. The upshot is a sort of a characteristic digital fizziness that is not simple low bit resolution or low sample rate, and sounds pretty nice with some kinds of ambient pads and bass sounds. You can also set very long decay times that sound a bit like stuck notes, and it just kind of flows nicely with the noise and a touch of reverb or delay.

Possibly the truest and most universal trope from cyberpunk is “the street finds its own uses for things.” It can be an important principle in design in general, and we definitely see it all the time in electronic music. I’ve got my favored way to work with Bitwig, which absolutely baffles some other Bitwig users. I’ve got specific roles I like to throw at the Microfreak, which it might not have been designed for but it wasn’t designed against. And here’s this budget chip from an 80s game console, built into a mini synth with a cheap MCU from 2007, (mis)using USB as a power supply, and I’m using the synth in specific limited ways to serve my music.

I’ve entangled myself in deeper uncertainty about how to divvy up the remaining space in my modular case. As a result, I took the Euphoria off my wishlist (but hey, if you’re a family member reading this and you bought it for me already, worry not, it will not go to waste.)

Noise Engineering is doing cool stuff. Desmodus Versio has gone from a cool reverb to a whole platform, it seems, and the temptation is rising. (Although I think they misstepped when they didn’t put the USB port on the front to make it easier to flash; perhaps they will offer an expander that helps with that.) Some things I’ve read and watched about the Serge SSG or its cousin the Sport Modulator make me ponder that. The idea I originally had, to put in a Doepfer 256-stage BBD, is still there, but the much smaller Erica option would allow some other choices… and of course I still don’t know what the mystery release from Mutable Instruments will be.

So, I’ll just wait, and play with what I have, until a path is clear. I have a fine set of delays (and reverbs) already and so some of these, despite having a different vibe, might not really be the best choice but just FOMO.


I really wish that in US elections, there were NO exit polls reported and NO news about counts that have not yet finished. But then, there are a lot of things that are broken about our electoral processes.


I may have just made a last-minute day change to track order, but the new album is ready to be released tomorrow (or possibly tonight). This is my fifth for the year, 16th as Starthief, and — this is kind of weird to realize — 32nd album overall. And I may already have the seeds of an idea for the next one.

I started reading Neuromancer last night, and within the first few pages, encountered a few phrases that would make good song titles. Many, of course, are already taken — it is now a classic piece of science fiction, a vision of a possible future from 36 years ago. The joke now of course is that we’re living in the wrong kind of cyberpunk dystopia.

A cyberpunk-themed album in my style might be interesting. It was done so frequently with EBM and industrial music that the music was even called “cyberpunk” for a while, and there was (is? I don’t know) a whole cybergoth club scene. Billy Idol had an album called Cyberpunk, which was pretty bad cyberpunk but pretty good rock. And of course, the themes are pretty big with synthwave/vaporwave.

I need to think about how I could approach this. No movie dialog samples. Anything involving drum machines would be a departure for Starthief, since “no drums” was one of the biggest revelations/self-imposed rules from my 2016-2017 experiments… but I am not necessarily ruling it out. I don’t particularly want it to sound like EBM, or synthwave. FM synthesis seems obvious though, since I already love it. In fact, if I wanted a fresh challenge I might someday try an album with no FM synthesis 😉

Speaking of FM: Kasser Synths wrote to say that the DAFM Synth I was returning for repairs still hadn’t arrived — not surprising, given that it took most of a month to get here from Spain in the first place — and they’re going ahead and sending me a replacement to help speed things along.

Dreadbox announced another couple of entries in its Chromatic line of small, cheap and colorful modules. The Antidote is a Karplus-Strong BBD delay, which I first thought might be a good replacement for the Doepfer BBD I had on my wishlist. But in demos so far I’m not convinced it would serve me better than Mimeophon.

On the other hand, the Euphoria — with the unfortunate choice of white labeling on a bright yellow panel, almost guaranteeing third party replacement panels to come soon — is a BBD-based 8-stage phaser that sounds gorgeous and weird. E520 and FX Aid both have phaser, flanger, frequency shifter etc. modes but I don’t think any of them can quite touch it. I’m impressed enough to replace the Doepfer on my wishlist with Euphoria.

And speaking of regrettable panels and colors, Thonk now has Tall Trimmer Toppers to add a little size and better grip and color to mini-pots… which would have been great for the AI008 when I was trying to color-code that. Ah well. My current system has 68 (!) of those tiny little knobs, but most of them aren’t a problem. A few, though, have no contrasting color for their pointers, which is annoying — so I will get some for that. That gives me an excuse to pick up a few other knobs that it wasn’t worth paying for shipping on.

anything less would be unCVilized

I’m basically completely used to the new headphones now, and appreciating the extra detail I’m hearing with them.

Voxengo just released a plugin called TEOTE, an acronym for “That’s Easier On the Ears.” It adjusts the spectral balance of the input to bring it closer to a theoretical ideal — with minimal adjustment it just magically makes stuff sound better. This one uses multiband dynamics, which is a bit fancier than Soundtheory Gullfoss, and to my ears it seems to sound better on most material.

Tools like this are great for me. My mixing process isn’t the meticulous, surgical adjustment and perfect fitting together several individually recorded parts — rather, it happens partially as I build up my parts in preparation to record, and partially as a big part of the recorded performance itself. A tedious manual search for places in the spectrum that could use a tiny boost here and a narrow cut there would take me out of the creative flow, but slapping an automatic plugin onto the channel to see if it sounds better does not. (If there’s a drastic improvement, that means there was a lot to correct in the first place, and it’s probably worth a little of my time to investigate.)

Two things arrived on my doorstep today. First the bad news: after nearly a full month of shipping, the DAFM synth arrived from Spain. Its wonderfully crisp OLED display showed something for about 6 seconds and then died, the USB power cable unusually warm. Switching cables and chargers didn’t help.

Since I have had second thoughts about even needing another synthesizer, I’ve written to request a refund rather than a replacement. We’ll see how this goes.

The other thing is much happier: u-he CVilization. I spent about 90 minutes playing with the matrix mixer mode before even looking at the others, and… it’s a game changer honestly. It handles audio quite well, and is as easy and intuitive to dial in as I had imagined and hoped. But it also encourages taking control voltages to new places, and that seems to be its major strength.

It is a very good friend to a sequencer, especially something with multiple channels and not necessarily its own quantizer, like the 0-Ctrl.

Mode 1 can mix audio of course, but also CV, with handy muting, inversion, quantization and sample and hold. I had a patch going where it:

  • served as a feedback mixer for Mimeophon-as-resonator (with mutes for the original input, the feedback, or the final output, and the option to invert the feedback for a different character)
  • selected between or combined (using mutes) two pitch CVs from 0-Ctrl, with sample+hold and quantization. And also, allowed for mixing in some audio from another channel — which served to slightly randomize the pitch while staying within the scale and maintaining the overall melodic contour. It was gated by 0-Ctrl’s dynamic gate output, so I had control over the rhythmic pattern as well as swing/timing.
  • routed both pitch and audio to Mimeophon’s frequency control, so it simultaneously tracked pitch and added FM… again with a mute switch.

That’s a heck of a lot more than an analog mixer can do. And also, since it’s 4×4 rather than the AI008’s 4×3, it’s easy to set up stereo feedback matrices with ping-pong and so forth.

Mode 2 is the sequencer and sequential switch, and though it took me more time to grasp it, it’s also a very powerful friend to 0-Ctrl. Rearranging incoming control signals and interposing other values (fixed or random) into the sequence, driven either by a clock division or using a different sequence length, can really extend and bring variations into what would otherwise be a short and very repetitive sequence. I didn’t even mess with self-patching, which could potentially be really useful with the sample+hold feature. (It can also route audio, switching different sources and destinations around or silencing it, and that is probably going to have some use as well.)

Mode 3 is the “Mucorder”, which is purely for control voltages. It’s less like Marbles than I first thought — but again, a really good companion for 0-Ctrl. Record up to 16 steps, and let it mutate either by overwriting with values from its own input, another channel, a random shift up or down, or harmonization with the first channel. Each channel can have a different recording length, which allows a lot of polyrhythmic interplay. It’s another winner.

I haven’t tried mode 4 yet, but rather than manipulating CV quite as much, it pans/routes its four inputs smoothly across four destinations. Planar can either pan one signal to four outputs, or four inputs to one output… but I suspect it will be a good controller to rotate multiple things around the world with CVilization, and likely a powerful tool for drones.

So, wow. I was expecting a mixer and a quantizer, but I got quite a lot more than that.

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 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.