the comfort food of synths

Back at KnobCon 2017, among all the gear I tried, aside from Natural Gate the thing that stuck with me the most was how pleasant the Yamaha Reface CS was. It uses the AN1X virtual analog engine, and relatively simple controls and no patch memory in the style of a classic synth. My impression at the time was that it just can’t go wrong, can’t be made to sound bad; it was pure fun to play and tweak. That’s what its owners and reviewers say too — you play with it a bit and it just takes you somewhere that you want to curl up inside and play with it for hours. A feel-good instrument.

It had a few things going against it in the market:

  • It looks kind of like a toy. Mini keys, built in speakers and simple controls don’t really say THIS IS A SERIOUS PIECE OF HARDWARE. It’s got to be black, and optionally have wood side panels or ravey bright lights. (Even Moog can barely get away with colorful panels.) And some people just hate mini keys. People look at it, think “another Yamaha toy” and move on without trying it.
  • The feature list isn’t exciting. It’s a “virtual analog” synth (“digital subtractive would be a better term) released in a time when real analog had surged in popularity. If I hadn’t had the chance to try it myself and experience what it’s like to play it, I wouldn’t have believed it was anything special.
  • It was one of a line of four keyboards with a similar format, also including the electric piano Reface CP, the organ Reface YC and the FM synth Reface DX. The latter stole most of the attention, because the DX-7 was one of the most popular synths ever made.
  • When people think of a Yamaha CS synth, they jump right to the CS-80 — the 200 pound monster that Vangelis used for the lush and expressive Blade Runner soundtrack — and this is not that at all. (It’s inspired a bit more by the CS-01, which was a little grey synth that was Yam’s answer to the Roland SH-101. Again: simple, easy to dial in something good, and just satisfying to play.)
  • The retail price was too high at the start, and prices have been bizarre since then. Occasionally deeply discounted, but often higher than the original price. They’re hard to find used because of few owners ever want to let them go. So you just have to sort of watch for deals.

I found it at that discount price though, and it fits within my “I’ve still spent negative dollars” budget. So there’s one on the way.

Whether I’ll attempt to keep both it and the Microbrute with a 2-tier stand, or make them compete for my favor, remains to be seen. Microbrute went from being used in 1/3 of my recordings for quite a long time to much more rarely used recently, but I still have a pretty high opinion of it.

slow going, but going

The current album project has been ticking along a bit more slowly than I often go. Much of the blame goes to illness; I “got over” my cold a couple of weeks ago but a lingering cough and chest congestion has put a damper on everything.

I’ve been occasionally reading up on bits of subject matter related to the theme, and writing a thing that I keep trimming back. A whole lot can be said about conformity, individualism, authenticity, their less healthy aspects in our society, how it relates to music and what the actual relevance is when you’re trying to use it as an album theme. But my goal here is to write an album, not a book.

I’ve been playing a fair bit of Guild Wars 2, instead. It’s been a couple of years or more, so I deleted all my old characters and started over, finally settling on a condition Mesmer. I also noticed I had 97% of the Steam achievements in Bejeweled 3, and maybe that’ll be the first (possibly only) game I ever hit 100% with. Heh. I don’t want to get too much in the habit of gaming instead of making music, though.

My spouse did the interlibrary loan thing and snagged me a copy of Curtis Roads’ The Computer Music Tutorial for a month or so. I knew there was a lot in it, but didn’t realize it was a five-pound, 1200+ page tome. While some of what it covers I’m already familiar with, there are a lot of methods I’d heard of but didn’t really understand, or things that have been tried but for various reasons never became popular methods. It doesn’t get into deep details of implementation, nor explosions of impenetrable calculus — it stays on a level to inspire patches, experimentation and insight. (Oh, that’s why exponential FM works that way…). I’m taking a few photos and notes as I go. It remains to be seen whether I decide I’ll need to own my own copy.

That new audio interface is working out just fine. I even found I can use the Mutable Instruments style Rogan knobs on it, so now the main volume stands out clearly from the row of smaller knobs.

I had to replace my headphones at work — cheap QY Bluetooth earbuds, which got all intermittent in the left channel. I made the mistake of going for closed-back headphones, and I’m not sure I like them. It’s a bit like holding seashells up to your ears, or perhaps buckets. The semi-open ones I have at home are fantastic, with clear highs and solid bass and just the right amount of isolation where I can still hear some of what’s going on outside them. I’ll keep using these to see if I get used to the differences, and because I don’t want to immediately buy another pair of headphones. They’re pretty comfortable, at least.

My current musing on gear is, I’ll probably stick to my 2.2 plan with the DPO. It strikes me as being an instrument, with a particular character that I like, and that feel of a classic complex oscillator. Also it conveniently needs a bit less current on the -12V rail than my other options. Generate 3 would be awesome I’m sure, but I really feel like I couldn’t go wrong with DPO.

it’s always sunny in Berlin

Okay, that seems dubious. Philadelphia is about the same latitude as Madrid, Sardinia, and Ankara, while Berlin is about the same latitude as Saskatoon, or halfway between Minsk and Kiev. In the States we kind of forget how far north European cities are compared to our own.

But it’s definitely not sunny at the national park where we were going to camp this weekend with my parents. (Which has a latitude near Málaga, Tehran, Nagano, and San Jose.) The forecast calls for tornadoes and major flooding. So that’s called off. Boo 🙁

But about Berlin: its Superbooth is by far the biggest synth þing of the year at any latitude. The announcements, press releases, Instagram teasers, and hype trains of shiny new objects with knobs on them — both from exhibitors and others strategically timing their releases — began earlier this week. So those of us not in Berlin are now down to waiting on video demos.

There are a lot of clever designs and a fair amount of filling in waiting niches. For the most part I am just nodding and moving on, but a few items have caught my attention.

  • I made a tidy plan for Synth Farm 2.2, but the Joranalogue Generate 3 may shake it up. Leave technical bits aside, this is an analog oscillator with incredible modulation and shaping potential. It may be perfect as the primary VCO of a complex oscillator pairing, as well as pushing past other frontiers — but I have to hear some demos.
  • Endorphin.es has several new small modules. One of them, the Godspeed+, is the Strong Zero Core and wavefolder from the Furthrrr Generator — so it would also be a fine contender for complex oscillator use. Another is the Airstreamer, the function generator from their Grand Terminal which can also act as an oscillator.
  • One of the most creative new things is the Gamechanger Audio Motor Synth. It’s a polyphonic synth that uses 4 pairs of electric motors as oscillators — both magnetically and optically — in a clever little box. Whether or not there’s one in my future, I definitely want to hear more about it. The thing is apparently going to be 1200 euros. Dear me no.
  • Last year we learned of the u-he CVilization, and this year there will be more demos. It’s maybe not super-thrilling, but it could replace my matrix mixer in less space and more functionality. The developer makes some VST plugins I like quite a lot, so it’s worth watching. [Just saw a video on this; it seems a bit confusing and do-everything-y; maybe easy to learn but I’ll want to see tutorial videos or a really good manual before I really think about getting one.]
  • I had been curious about the Pittsburgh Modular Voltage Research Laboratory synth. With the details revealed, I can tell it’s going to make some people very happy but it’s not something I need at the price.
  • I’ve just heard there’s an Industrial Music Electronics Kermit mk3. There are no photos, videos, sound demos, etc. I can find yet. Apparently it’s gone from dual to quad, but no word on whether its gorgeous “dusty” digital character has been sanitized for mk3 as IME’s other modules have, nor on size, nor other changes. My guess is it’s probably a couple of years away from release anyway.

Current plans:

  • Replace my audio interface. I like a lot of things about my Focusrite Saffire Pro 40, but I don’t particularly like (A) that it uses Firewire 400 when I’m thinking about getting a new computer, and (B) that the main monitor output’s “Dim” switch (lowering the volume a lot but not muting it) keeps switching itself at random, and (C) some of the playback/dropout problems I’m having might be related to Firewire or the drivers.

    But it happens that the Behringer U-Phoria UMC1820 has a slightly better feature set, uses USB and is one of the cheaper replacement options. And I found a used one on Reverb — so that should be arriving in a couple of days.
  • The ETA for Panharmonium shipping is “late spring” / June.
  • Rumor has AMD’s third-gen Ryzen chips releasing in early July — at that point I upgrade my computer.
  • KnobCon is in September. Use it to try a few things and see if that shakes up my plans any. Specifically I want more hands-on time with a DPO, I’d like to try a Cš-L if there’s one there, and consider alternatives to the MicroBrute.

My tentative Synth Farm 2.2 plan before any of the new stuff was announced, was simply to trade Plaits for a DPO, and rearrange the case a bit for better ergonomics and flow. There’d be 4HP of space left and wiggle room for other possible substitutions. With the options of Generate 3 and/or Godspeed+ instead, there’d of course be more free space.

Not much else going on now other than

  • Thinking about music and how to make it. And how the personal freedom/authenticity thing relates to it, and writing some about that.
  • I’ve been contending with chest congestion and the cough that too often lingers for weeks after other symptoms are gone. I had a few planned vacation days but used them to do not much.
  • I reinstalled Guild Wars 2 and am running yet another Necromancer — my spouse wondered if it was meant to be one of her fictional characters, but really I just thought a particular hair option was neat and designed the rest of the look around that (and the limited and somewhat gratuitous wardrobe choices of a new character).
  • I read the rest of the Laundry Files novels I had, then immediately got online and ordered the newest which I was missing. Very bad things, tension, and the good guys’ deeply scary sorcery all keep escalating beyond where I ever thought it would go… and yet it holds on to its humor.

aftershocks

I didn’t play a lot of Quake. Just a little of the first game, and I picked up Quake 3 Arena on sale at some point. I was never any good at it, and was a little more into Unreal and a lot more into the Rainbow Six games (up through Athena Sword, before the series became a very Hollywood thing) and Half-Life.

But it’s still a thing, and there’s still a community making maps for it — and they need music for their trailers. I answered a call for “a rhythmic dark ambient track”; I’m told about 20 others did too and mine was the favorite.

For the current project, I’ve been thinking I would make more music in this vein. It keeps coming out differently. That’s okay though; my process is to follow the music where it leads and I don’t consider it any kind of failure if it takes an unexpected turn.

slightly delayed

Next weekend is Superbooth — modular synthesis’ biggest trade show / gathering / bunch of performances, in Berlin. There will be announcements of new stuff. I’ll be out in the woods, camping and not following the hype (or if there’s a good connection, checking websites a couple times a day maybe).

But right now when I look at my system, I think “geez there’s a lot of stuff here to explore” — partially because of the wide and deep ocean that is the Rainmaker. I don’t want to add to that for a bit, I just want to grab a spoon and start digging. So the gear is going to sit as-is for a while, at version 2.05 or whatever it is, and not commit the last 20HP. I have a few thoughts on it, but I’ll reserve most of those for my personal “what if” notes.

One thought I’ve been having is that I kind of miss having nice hands-on complex oscillators. ER-301 is capable, and is a fantastic blank slate. But neither the unit that I wrote for it, nor the Volca Modular, are quite filling that ecological niche. I have some thoughts about a different way to solve this in the ER-301 — separating the oscillators onto different channels and routing via a combination of patch cables and “prewired” internal connections. If that doesn’t get me there, I see a Synth Farm 2.2 plan (not one that replaces the ER-301, but other things).

Between the recent release of the long-awaited Valhalla Delay and especially my first explorations of the Rainmaker, I’ve gained some new insights into the relationship between delays (especially multitap) and comb filtering, and what can be done with them. And I’ve taken that insight back into exploring the older Valhalla UberMod, which is a multitap delay with a quite different paradigm. The result is something a little like the big knowledge download I recently got with wavefolding/FM/PM, but more on the intuitive side and much less geometric.

I haff come to inspect ze tapestries

Sonic Tapestries #23 is now available in the MixCloud archive. This is an episode of a radio show on London’s Resonance Extra which, this month, featured modular synth artists.

Roughly 11 and a half minutes in, they introduce my piece “and then gone” from Passing Through. Here’s what the guest, Simon Morgan, had to say:

This is someone I came across online, an American artist named Starthief who I think is really excellent, and embodies what I would consider the modern spirit of modular, which has got its roots in the early days, the Gong track you just played. And along with all the other artists and contributors and builders and designers in the scene is giving modular this rebirth. This is someone that I think makes really, really lovely sounds.

Thanks Simon! And the discussion afterward:

Mat Hart: That was really nice! It kind of progressed from sort of more ambient stylings to sort of more… sawtooth?

SM: It’s kind of got that edge to it in pieces, which I really like.

MH: One of the things that I listen more and more now to modular synth music is trying to discern what elements are analog and what elements are digital. And I feel personally quite lost in that minefield. I know you’ve got quite an impressive knowledge of both worlds, can you listen to that and sort of go ‘ah, that is that synth?’

SM: To some extent I think one can — and one can always slip on the banana skin of your own preconceptions as well when you’re doing that. Starthief is someone I’ve come across on one of the modular forums, so I happen to know a little bit about how he makes his music — I stress a little bit — and I know that he has some digital elements to what he does, and I think knowing that I can probably identify those where they show up in that track. And I think the analog/digital debate, which has many facets, is in some ways overstated. Given modern technology, personally I’m much more about results than tools. If something gives me the results I want, I’m not that bothered whether it’s analog or digital technology. I use both those worlds in my own music and am happy to do so. I believe Starthief — probably, not knowing him but knowing a little bit about how he works — probably would not be very far from that position. There’s some digital in there, yeah.


To address that last bit: a lot of agreement here. In the last three decades we’ve been through a few cycles where digital was king and analog was demonized, and vice-versa. In retrospect it all seems silly and kind of embarrassing. Analog and digital each have their strengths, and there’s no reason not to use them together.

I would characterize my system as mostly digital now, with a few key analog pieces — and of course the analog control paths and signal paths that define Eurorack. This particular piece is no exception — the sound source is the ER-301 Sound Computer, which is partially modeling an analog circuit. FM is from Kermit, a proudly lo-fi digital oscillator, but slower modulation is from Maths, a proudly analog modulation and signal-mixing tool.

Somewhat in this vein, here’s something recently posted on Lines in a thread debating “inscrutable” musical tools, which resonated with me:

My favorite colors happen to include both analog and digital. (And of course the bit about artist as critic very much hits home with me, as that’s what I finally realized in 2017.)


Anyway, Simon’s own piece in this show is lovely and as ghostly as its title suggests, and there are some other very highly regarded musicians featured as well. Suzanne Ciani, Richard Devine, Tangerine Dream… I’m kind of dizzy to have my music included among theirs, really. So maybe go have a listen. 🙂

early reflections

Last night I put a couple more items up on Reverb that had previously only been listed on a couple of forums — since MW’s creaky forum software is having another one of its biannual total failures of the search feature.

Four hours later, in the wee hours, I found I’d made three sales and gotten an offer on a fourth. And now the next morning, I’ve sold the two pedals as well. I like it when these things happen together; it saves trips to the post office, and makes numbers go up in a satisfying way.

I’ve decided to march onward with the Synth Farm 2.1 plan, because I’m pretty confident in it. If there’s some must-have at KnobCon (assuming KnobCon still happens…) then I will find a way to shuffle things and make it work, at least if it’s small enough.

So I’ve put in an offer for a Sampling Modulator and bought a discounted Rainmaker. I’ll be keeping an occasional eye out for a used Zadar or Loquelic Iteritas if the opportunity comes up — but Zadar’s got a fresh round of Hot New Thing status since its firmware update and is kind of unobtanium right now.

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.