I figured out what to do with those pesky pedals. Simply using a wire tie to strap a couple of composite shims to the back will let them sit vertically atop the modular case and prevent them from tipping over — assuming I push the back of the case up against the wall. We’ll see.
Pyrography on the case isn’t underway quite yet, but there’s a heat transfer from a laser printer on it. I kind of like the looks of it as is, but there are sections not filled in (to conserve ink) and some guide lines that came through dark and muddy. So I’m willing to wait a bit more for actual pyrography.
Those small speakers are not wonderful. They’re cheap and small and unobtrusive, but even for gaming I definitely hear the difference. Still, I’ll get used to it, and it’s not like the acoustic setup really did justice to the studio monitors I had.
I haven’t yet mentioned the Doepfer BBD I picked up, for a price I found too hard to resist. This is a “Bucket Brigade Device” — the precursor to a digital delay, which works by passing signals like a hot potato along a chain of capacitors. It’s obsolete technology. So are vacuum tubes, but that doesn’t stop a lot of guitarists from preferring their character…
The length of delay in a BBD is determined by the number of stages (which is fixed on the chip) and the clock rate. Slower clock rates result in two or three kinds of signal degradation as well as an audible whine. For that reason, most BBD delays have heavy low-pass filtering and restricted clock rates, and only give “dark” echoes. For some musicians, just throwing an LPF onto a digital delay is a close enough approximation to get that kind of sound.
But Doepfer’s BBD is special. To encourage experimentation, it eschews the filters and clock rate restrictions, and opens up the circuit to manipulate or synchronize to it. 1024 stages is ideal for flanging, and short enough to work for comb filtering and Karplus-Strong synthesis, but for actual echoes it needs a slow clock which adds a lot of dirt and whine. But there are software plugins that can surgically remove the whine while leaving the more interesting grunge, and without making the whole echo super-dark. Or I can insert a clean delay into the BBD’s feedback loop, extending the echo time while having full control over the sound character. Direct manipulation of the clock, and using the clock itself as an audio source, leads to all kinds of other places that you just can’t get outside of modular synthesis in general and this circuit design in particular.
I decided it would make some sense to do some of my studio rearranging in advance of having the case ready: the scary part where I move the power and audio interface out of the desktop rack and into their 2U studio box, and hope I don’t break or lose anything, all the cables still reach, and everything works.
…et voila. There’s no longer any “ceiling” to the desktop rack preventing stuff from falling in, and things are a little awkward for the moment. But aside from leaving the pedals disconnected for now, it’s all up and running. The Mantis is back on the desk instead of perched on the shelf, for the few more days until everything moves into the MDLRCASE.
There’s not quite enough space in front of the 2U box for the Microbrute, though if I invested in some right-angle cables for its rear it’d be close-ish. So I think in the new configuration it’ll just stay atop that new box. That way there’s a couple square feet of space in front of the 2U box to use as an actual desk, or for small controllers etc.
My hope is to put the new Eurorack case on the right side. The shelf I’ve got there now is a little too short to work with it, so that’s either getting swapped to the left — mounted on the back, jutting out toward my head — or getting repurposed elsewhere.
The pedals are still a question. I had hoped to put them atop the Euro case, but it’s about 2.75″ front-to-back up there and that’s not a lot. Perhaps I can rig up a slightly deeper shelf with rubber feet to sit atop that, for the pedals to perch on — but I worry if they’re not secure they could come crashing down on top of my modular. So maybe they’re going to the left side.
To make a little more clearance for the Euro case I’ve got a smaller pair of computer speakers on the way — I always use headphones for music production anyway, so they’re really just for games and movies. And now I just realized I forgot to get the adapter cable I’ll need for the audio interface.
I was the third of three drummers for a high school heavy metal band. Like, an official class, taught by the guy who had taught the school’s jazz ensemble in real life. And just like the jazz ensemble in real life, we were really not good.
Throwing books at Hitler, while he sat for an interview with an NPR reporter. Nice hardcover editions of The Sandman graphic novels. I’m not sure if Neil Gaiman would approve, or would suggest I find something else, but it was effective — The Kindly Ones really took a chunk out of his arm, messed up his uniform and completely disrupted the interview.
And speaking of relaxation, I have found that while the nasty-tasting CBD oil helps my anxiety and mood, the capsules I bought from a different company (at a higher concentration, even) just don’t do very much. I must be carrying a lot of tension in my back muscles just from the anxiety, because switching back to the oil for a day relieved a knot that had been bothering me for a week. And here I thought it wasn’t doing that much to help physical pain. Hopefully I can find an option that is less yucky, but still effective.
In local music news: those thoughts about an “acoustic universe” — and maybe watching season three of The Expanse — led to a general concept for the next album. The working title is Passing Through, as in both travel and permeation. I’ve got four candidate songs in place now and one rejected, all coming from experiments with QPAS, ER-301, and the Volca Modular.
The VM is a fascinating and sometimes frustrating little beast. It’s rough around the edges and has a lot of limitations, compared to Eurorack modules or software. Some of those are the “do more with less” kind which encourage creativity; some give it character; some are just annoying. But overall it’s pretty amazing for such a tiny, cheap synth.
Some people have been trying to compare it to a Buchla Music Easel (at $3000+) or a Make Noise 0-Coast (at $500+) and that doesn’t seem fair. But I think I can honestly say it’s at least as interesting as an Easel, and I honestly like its wavefolding sound and its LPGs better than the 0-Coast. (But the 0-Coast is really good at big, solid triangle basses, which the VM will never be, and it feels like a really good, well-calibrated, quality instrument and not a toy.)
My new case arrived, and I was eager to get moved into it but my spouse wisely pointed out that it’s probably better to burn it — that is, in the sense of pyrography — before loading it up with fancy electronics. Okay, that makes sense. 🙂 I spent a few hours poring over clip art and tattoo designs of stars, meteors and black holes for inspiration; she spent a day or so working up a rough draft design in a paint program. I think it’s going to be pretty spiffy and I’m eager to see the results!
I’ve occasionally thought about getting a tattoo, but decisiveness was not my strong suit and most of the symbology that meant much to me wasn’t something I’d want to wear on my skin. But it strikes me that it’d be really cool to have a tattoo with a neat design made by my spouse, which has some thematic similarity to her tattoo, and matches the design on my instrument…
I begin with a digression, because I must share this.
I mean. Once you have combined the concepts of “donut”, “prune” and “salad” into a single dish, why not serve it with mayonnaise?
What gets me here is the apparent random anarchy of the ingredient choices, paired with the strictly limited, generic, whitebread pool of possible ingredients that must have been drawn from. There are no spices or seasonings, nothing that would indicate a culture — except we all know it’s got to be “American, white, 1950-1975.” It’s almost mechanical, like it was created with a very crude randomization algorithm that lacks the finesse and charm of a neural network recipe.
I appreciate how this one (brown) leaves certain factors — not least, all of the actual preparation instructions — up to the cook’s improvisational judgement, so that each performance is unique. John Cage would approve.
Maybe the weirdest thing about the donut prune salad recipe is that it’s not unique. Coincidence or conspiracy?
The aesthetics of the first one, such as they are, seem a little better but I’d honestly rather 86 the mayo and use cream rather than cottage cheese. I’d also rather break my left arm than my right arm.
And in fact yes, I have added “Donut Salad” to my list of potential song titles, but under the category of “probably will never use.”
Anyway, what I was going to write about: I’m currently reading DJ Spooky’s Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture and it’s thrown some provoking thoughts my way. One of them is the idea that our primary mode of thinking is a visual/spatial one, with a coordinate grid, objects that take up space, and the spaces between them. The argument is that this spread in Western thought during the Renaissance with Descartes, the printing press, explorers and maps, etc. It’s probably not much of a stretch to say that movies, television and computers were heavily influenced by, but also strongly reinforced, this spatial paradigm.
It all seems very rational, scientific, and straightforward. Of course, it’s pretty wrong and/or useless at the quantum level, or when considering energy, or for a lot of metaphorical or magical uses, but it’s pervasive and sometimes we try to make things fit anyway. My career has been based on it — 3D graphics and modeling for games and then engineering.
I will speculate with some confidence that the previous mode of thought for most people for most of human history was a bit less spatial and more narrative. When we say “myth” now, unfortunately there’s usually a connotation of falsehood, disdain for the primitive etc. rather than the understanding that the idea of truth itself wasn’t necessarily so fixed and binary.
But steering a little more toward the inspiration from the book: the idea of an “acoustic” mode of thinking, where the measurement of space is more vague, and reality is inhabited by an infinity of interpenetrating fields of energy and motion, pressure and density, transmission and absorption and reflection. There are no distinct “objects,” just a whole where any divisions one makes are arbitrary slices of a spectrum that we know we could have sliced up differently. This ties back into what Curtis Roads was talking about when he claimed electronic music removes dependency on notes.
Of course, we still have a tendency to think of sound in terms of grid coordinate systems:
Grids are certainly a useful paradigm, in music and outside it. But it is also very much worth simultaneously thinking about all those overlapping, permeating, permeable fields of energy. Blobs rather than objects. Sounds, rather than notes. Salads, rather than donuts and prunes (sorry). Not just in terms of music and sound, but whatever else may apply. Personal relationships, memes, influences, cultures, societies? Economies, ecologies? Magic, mysticism? In a sense, I think this “acoustic” view of a universe is closer to the narrative one than the visual view is. (And there’s that word “view”, illustrating the bias… and oh we’re illustrating now, also visual…)
Using some of those grid-based tools above, I did some editing this evening of a recording I’d made earlier. There was a point where a feedback-based drone fell into a particular chord, which I thought made a much nicer ending than what happened later. So I took a bit of that ending, ran it through the granular player in the ER-301 to extend it for several seconds, resampled that and smoothly merged it back into the original audio — one continuous drone. No longer two things spliced, nor five thousand overlapping grains of sound; those metaphors stopped being useful, just like eggs stop being eggs when they’re part of a cake.
So the ER-301 is pretty brilliant. It arrived Thursday, ahead of the estimated arrival, and I’ve spent several hours learning to navigate it, building up a few custom units (such as a complex oscillator and a wavefolder), experimenting with its delays and loopers and feedback and so on.
It’s essentially a software modular system (where the modules are “units” which form “chains”) inside of a hardware modular system. With four audio outputs and 20 audio or CV inputs, as well as accepting up to 100 simultaneous control values and triggers from the Monome Teletype over an i2c connection behind the panel, it has plenty of ability to integrate with everything else.
It’ll happily do some things I can’t achieve otherwise. It’ll do other things more simply, or with much greater flexibility and control, than equivalent modules, or in parallel with them. There are some things it can do but with less hands-on-instrument-feel than equivalent modules — some of which will be improved by the Faderbank (likely arriving today or tomorrow), and some are probably best left to other modules.
It does have some limitations:
It’s got a learning curve — several of them, in fact — and documentation is incomplete and sketchy. There are some excellent tutorial videos, a helpful forum, and a somewhat helpful wiki, but the purpose and applications of some of units are still kind of a mystery. I would never recommend this module to anyone inexperienced in modular synthesis, nor anyone without a really solid handle on theory, or who is even a little bit uncomfortable with computers.
It’s not good at reverb. It has a Freeverb unit, which honestly sounds pretty bad for most usage. It also has an Exact Convolution unit which has a high CPU load, a practical limit of about half a second, and no controls. Theoretically I could build a reverb from the existing units, but that’s expert-level DSP, and trying to work out a feedback delay network (FDN) from trial and effort is probably not a good use for my effort when I can use excellent pedals or software plugins. (For more experimental reverb within the modular context, I plan to pick up a Make Noise Erbe-Verb later on.)
While I know I need to explore its sample slicing capabilities a bit more, it really doesn’t seem as easy as Maschine’s or as precise as Sound Forge. But it’s adequate to certain uses for the feature, and for everything else, I can transfer to the computer via SD card.
One of the most fundamental utility units, the Mixer Channel, really could use a variant that just takes an input from leftward on the chain instead of an assigned input. I should be able to build that myself if I learn just a little Lua.
Overall, it’s incredible. I went ahead and put my Hertz Donut and Chronoblob up for sale, confident in their replacement. I’ll keep the Kermit at least for now, because I’ve been unable to identify what makes its character with complete confidence, and my attempts to replicate it have been… interesting and useful but not close. Kind of like the story of Post-It Notes being invented by a chemist trying for a strong adhesive.
Last weekend I also sold the last of the previous batch of modules, and ordered the Volca Modular — the wee, mad, fierce, Nac Mac Feegle of synthesizers. I’ll wait to sell more stuff before grabbing the Erbe-Verb or anything else, keeping up with my goal of offsetting gear purchases with sales.
I’ve just finished reading Curtis Roads’ Composing Electronic Music: A New Aesthetic.
Roads has some pet techniques and technologies he is fond of (having developed some of them) as well as some pet compositional concepts, and tries to shoehorn mentions of them in everywhere. Granular synthesis is a big one. “Multiscale” anything is another (along with macroscale, mesoscale and microscale). “Dictionary-based pursuit” is one I’ve never heard of before and can’t actually find much about.
Roads comes from the more academic side of electronic music, as opposed to the more “street” end of things, or the artist-hobbyist sphere where I would say I am. But he recognizes that music is very much a human, emotional, irrational, even magical endeavor and that prescriptive theory, formalism, etc. have their limits.
The book was primarily about composition — and by the author’s own admission, his own views of composition. He gives improvisation credit for validity but says it’s outside his sphere. Still, I found some of the thinking relevant to my partially composed, partially improvised style.
At times he pushes a little too much at the idea that electronic music is radically different that everything that came before. For instance, this idea that a note is an atomic, indivisible and homogenous unit, defined only by a pitch and a volume, easily captured in all its completeness in musical notation — it completely flies in the face of pretty much any vocal performance ever, as well as many other instruments. Certainly there have been a handful of composers who believed that the written composition is the real music and it need not actually be heard or performed. But while clearly not agreeing with them, he still claims that it was electronic music that freed composers from the tyranny of the note, and introduced timbre as a compositional element (somebody please show him a pipe organ, or perhaps any orchestral score).
He has something of a point, but he takes it too far. Meanwhile a lot of electronic musicians don’t take advantage of that freedom — especially in popular genres there’s still a fixation on notes and scales and chords as distinct events — that’s why we have MIDI and why it mostly works — and a tendency to treat the timbre of a part as a mostly static thing, like choosing which instrument in the orchestra gets which lines.
And I’m also being picky — it was a thoughtful and thought-provoking book overall. I awkwardly highlighted a few passages on my Kindle, though in some cases I’m not sure why:
“There is no such thing as an avant-garde artist. This is an idea fabricated by a lazy public and by the critics that hold them on a leash. The artist is always part of his epoch, because his mission is to create this epoch. It is the public that trails behind, forming an arrière–garde.” (this is an Edgard Varèse quote.)
“Music” (well, I can’t argue with that.)
“We experience music in real time as a flux of energetic forces. The instantaneous experience of music leaves behind a wake of memories in the face of a fog of anticipation.”
“spatial patterns by subtraction. Algorithmic cavitation”
“Computer programs are nothing more than human decisions in coded form. Why should a decision that is coded in a program be more important than a decision that is not coded?”
“Most compositional decisions are loosely constrained. That is, there is no unique solution to a given problem; several outcomes are possible. For example, I have often composed several possible alternative solutions to a compositional problem and then had to choose one for the final piece. In some cases, the functional differences between the alternatives are minimal; any one would work as well as another, with only slightly different implications.
In other circumstances, however, making the inspired choice is absolutely critical. Narrative structures like beginnings, endings, and points of transition and morphosis (on multiple timescales) are especially critical junctures. These points of inflection — the articulators of form — are precisely where algorithmic methods tend to be particularly weak.”
On that last point: form, in my music, tends to be mostly in the domains of improvisation and post-production. The melody lines, rhythmic patterns and so on might be algorithmic or generative, or I might have codified them into a sequence intentionally, or in some cases they might be improvised too. On a broad level, the sounds are designed with a mix of intention and serendipity, while individual events are often a coincidence of various interactions — to which I react while improvising. I think it’s a neat system and it’s a lot of fun to work with.
The algorithmic stuff varies. Some of it’s simply “I want this particular rhythm and I can achieve that with three lines of code”, which is hardly algorithmic at all. Sometimes it’s an interaction of multiple patterns, yielding a result I didn’t “write” in order to get a sort of intentionally inhuman groove. Sometimes it includes behavioral rules that someone else wrote (as when I use Marbles) and/or which has random or chaotic elements, or interactions of analog electronics. And usually as I’m assembling these things it’s in an improvisational, iterative way. It’s certainly not a formal process where I declare a bunch of rules and then that’s the composition I will accept.
All Starthief albums on Bandcamp are now set to “pay what you want.” $0 is enough to download my albums, but people can add a tip if they like (or if the maximum free download count is exceeded and Bandcamp temporarily enforces a minimum price).
Across six albums over a year, I’ve brought in $126. It’s not nothing, but it’s not significant either; a fraction of a fraction of minimum wage, if I wanted to look at it that way. I choose instead to think of it as a collection of tokens of appreciation.
I think “pay what you want” is more consistent with my values. If I made music for the money, I’d be (A) actively trying to seek a wider audience, (B) making the sort of music I think a wider audience would like, (C) playing live, making videos etc. to grow that audience, and (D) probably failing to meet my goals and stressing over it.
Half of that income came from Materials, and I know exactly why. My audience right now is almost entirely fellow electronic musicians, to whom gear demos and technical bits are mostly more enticing than yet another one of their several hundred acquaintances releasing yet another album that takes time to listen to. Conversely, I have two albums that sold $0 (aside from people who bought my whole catalog as a bundle because they liked Materials) but got positive comments.
I actually appreciate the positive comments more. With the income from my day job, validation is rarer than dollars. When fellow musicians, or anyone else, has nice things to say about my work it confirms that my aesthetic sense isn’t completely alien to everyone else’s (or more bluntly, that I’m not terrible and wrong).
I do like it when people like my art, and I recognize that I am not great at finding those people — so I may still wind up trying to get onto a label that will help with that.
The theme for Ambient Online’s third themed compilation is Uranus. Absolutely nobody went for the obvious pun I’m lying, they totally did. I recorded my two songs for it between deciding on the final track list for The Rule of Beasts and mastering it, and I’m pretty pleased with them. That compilation will be out in a month-ish.
One of those used two software synths through Dark World, plus a contribution from the Thingamagoop 3000 that I don’t often bring out — no modular. The software part gave me more technical trouble than anything I’ve done in quite some time. Since I was mixing software with hardware it was necessary to record in real-time, but there were lots of clicks and pops and stutters in what was supposed to be a really smooth voice. One of these days I may have to replace my …7?… year-old computer so it can run some of the heavier VST plugins I’ve got. Thankfully I fixed it by killing every other process I could, bouncing one of the voices to an audio recording as an offline process and then running that through the effect and doing the rest of the mix. There was still one glitchy bit which cleaned up okay with some effort in Sound Forge.
Speaking of struggle — after the fight I had mastering Materials, the next album only took about 4 hours to get sorted. Hours which were half-spent playing “AdVenture Communist” on my phone while YouLean did its metering thing.
Chalk it up to knowing my LUFS goal ranges throughout the whole process, and perhaps doing a bit more with EQ, dynamics and cleanup in earlier stages. The actual dynamic range varies quite a bit between individual tracks — with “Steadfast Stonehead” as solid and dense as its name and some others involving a lot of percussive bits and clicks in a quieter space — but nothing was particularly hard to tame.
So now all that remains is to slap some text on the artwork that I’ve already finished, upload it and fame and fortune shall be mine in a parallel universe where I have a million fans since President Sanders mentioned Vox Inhumana was his favorite album.
For me the aging bit is more or less irrelevant to my thoughts about music, but hey, all of this:
“I recorded and released two solo albums containing some of the best music I’ve written (as it should be?) that has been heard by hundreds and purchased by dozens.”
“The post-release blues usually begin once the analytics, which were rarely a concern in the past, start rolling in and it’s apparent how many people aren’t listening.”
“Why am I doing this if it’s basically only for myself? (You’re not, see above). I guess this is a hobby now? (So what? It’s probably more fulfilling than collecting neon beer signs). Isn’t that pathetic? (No.)”
“Deep down I care more about my work than anyone else ever will, and that’ll inevitably lead to temporary disappointment when I don’t get the reaction I want, but that’s a good thing. You want to care deeply about what you create, even if it’s hard to square the response or lack thereof, regardless of what stage of your career you’re at.”
I make much weirder, more abstract music than this author, I don’t promote it, I was never in a rock band, I don’t play live and have a following — yet my stuff isn’t much less popular than this guy’s releases. Partially this is just the nature of the music… business? If that’s still the right word.
That last point though is something I’ve observed and a battle I’ve fought with myself many times, and seen painters and writers and other artists fighting with. If an artist doesn’t care more about their art than everyone else does, the art is going to suck. It’s still a slap in the face every single time, and maybe the trick for dealing with it is to keep getting slapped until it’s just another continuous background pain to be ignored?
I love making music, obviously. I like the process of releasing albums (and dinosaur that I may be, I still prefer listening to albums over singles). I like writing and talking about it. If the rest of the world can’t keep up with me, well, their loss 😉