inventory

The reinstallation of plugins is complete. While I’ve cut down on the number of plugins considerably, they’re all set up on my categorized quick lists. I will probably weed the lists eventually — leaving access to the less commonly used plugins in the capable hands of Bitwig’s browser/search — but I wanted to put everything there for now so I can:

  • get to know all the Bitwig native plugins well.
  • revisit old 32-bit stuff that I haven’t been able to run in Maschine for a while, including my own experimental plugins
  • be aware of what is and what isn’t installed on my hard drive.

Also, deeper integration between modular and DAW, and Bitwig’s routing and containers, are going to affect my plugin usage.

A lot of stuff didn’t get reinstalled. My Native Instruments installer shows 71 items not installed, and a mere 5 installed. My software archive folder has 41 items, but my “no reinstall” archive has 147. Some of those were sample libraries, non-music utilities or other things, but some “items” are actually multiple plugins so an accurate count is going to take some doing.

Some of that material is free or not-for-resale, but a chunk of it is not. A major post-Knobcon project is going to be identifying what I can resell, the license transfer fee if any, and market prices.


Speaking of… tomorrow morning I head to Chicagoland. Not much going on the first day of Knobcon, but I do want to beat rush hour traffic. There’s registration and the reception — a live show featuring a half-dozen or so synth performers, which goes on for more hours than my endurance allowed last time. This time I will eat dinner first. Neither rum nor beer count as “dinner.”

Saturday is mostly going to be about the exhibit halls for me; there aren’t any workshops I’m invested in. In the evening there’s the banquet and keynote speech, followed by a choice of Big Room or Chillout Room for live music until whenever. It’s also highly likely I will ditch the crowd and find some quiet time at a few points.

Sunday the exhibit halls reopen, and Dr. John Chowning has a talk on FM at 1:30 I might attend (I can’t tell how “beginner” it might be or if it’ll be fairly comprehensive and give useful insights). But I want to get back home at a reasonable time, so I wouldn’t stay beyond that.

oof

It looks like I may have chosen the right time to step away from Maschine. Credible-ish rumors and Glassdoor posts are saying that Native Instruments has been gradually letting people go for a few months and just a couple of days ago, laid off 100 people (about 50%) from its Berlin office, including the “product owners” of Maschine and Traktor and “almost all hardware teams.” Former employees wrote about management incompetence and lack of direction. Behringer has apparently offered to hire some people.

There’s also a claim that a new standalone Maschine unit was killed off one day before it was scheduled to go into production. That sounds a bit less credible to me, but who knows?

From the outside looking in, it’s felt like NI lost some of their previous vitality, in recent years. To some extent I thought that was just my perspective changing, but there’s more to it than that. Massive X was released in a not-quite-finished state and was a letdown to many people, Maschine Mikro mk3 has some weird omissions in features, and overall their focus has seemed… just not on.

There’s no official confirmation or denial of anything, but it does sound like there’s still a team working on Maschine. For all anyone outside of NI knows it’s a skeleton crew at this point though? And it’s not as if the pace of updates was rapid or the direction was in things that people were asking for.

Update: here’s some official word.

Their emphasis on “consuming and accessing creative goods and services” makes me think their primary goal is going to be selling loops and samples, and the means to “consume” them (Traktor, Maschine, Kontakt etc.). A lot of people think it could be a subscription service. Whatever. It signals to me they don’t want to be instrument builders anymore. My method of making music isn’t to “consume and access” other peoples’ sounds.

wiggling the wiggy bits

I went through a highly recommended video course for Bitwig beginners, by Thavius Beck. It walks you through creating a… frankly pretty awful tune, but it’s a good demonstration of navigating around the software and using many of its features, and by the time it wrapped up and I slapped together another couple of quick, bad songs it felt pretty comfortable to use.

I really like Bitwig’s flexibility. For audio/effects routing, there are usually multiple ways to achieve any particular goal, and you can pick the one that makes the most sense at the time. For recording and sequencing, there’s a linear arranger as well as a clip-based, loop-oriented one, and you can transfer material between them or record from one to the other. The interface itself has multiple different layout options and it’s easy to switch them as you switch tasks. Several different hardware devices can be used for controlling it (though sadly not the Maschine mk2). And I appreciate that it can run brand new VST3 plugins right alongside 32-bit VST plugins from 2003 with no fuss whatsoever.

I’m confident this will work better for me than Maschine, though I’m holding onto the hardware for a while to make sure. I’m not as confident it can also replace Sound Forge entirely, but I’ll probably do at least some of the post-processing work in Bitwig.

This weekend I briefly poked around the Grid device — modular building blocks to create instruments or effects. Rather easily, I put together exactly the kind of additive oscillator, controlled by the 16n Faderbank, that I had used on the ER-301 on Passing Through. And then I phase modulated it with the Hertz Donut for some fantastic growling tones. That was about 90% of my motive for wanting the SMR, SWN or Just Friends.

Grid also has a whole set of phase-related modules, including a sine lookup module… so I could implement a lot of the stuff I wrote about in “Sine Shaping and You” as well as phase distortion, etc. And they all apply to audio signals too; like Eurorack, Bitwig Grid doesn’t actually care whether any given signal was supposed to be audio, a pitch CV, a gate or whatever.

So the new way of things for me is going to be to keep a core of awesome modules in Eurorack, and throw open the borders between hardware and software. One of Expert Sleepers’ ADAT interfaces will be perfect for this, giving me plenty of inputs and outputs for CV and audio at Eurorack levels with minimal latency.

That gives me a new focus for checking things out at KnobCon, because a lot of situational or utility modules could be handled by Bitwig instead.

Synthesis Technology has “pre-announced” the E520 Hyperion Stereo Effects Processor, about which Paul Schreiber says “we are focusing on FFT/spectral/frequency domain transforms that have not been done 600 times in the past.” Frequency domain effects are nearly nonexistent in Eurorack and other hardware, and rare enough in VST plugins. Panharmonium was a bit of a bust for me, but this emphasis on effects processing rather than resynthesis is very promising.

“The Grid. A digital frontier.”

No, this isn’t a follow-up about TRON Legacy or its soundtrack (which was decent, but not as fascinatingly weird as 1982 TRON… the visuals were way better though). But rather, Bitwig Studio 3.

I know they look similar, but don’t be confused!

I’ve been using Maschine as my DAW ever since 2.0 was shiny and new. It began as a drum sampler/groovebox similar to Akai’s MPC, but it gained full MIDI sequencing and VST plugin support, and gradually expanded into something more full-fledged. It was an easy switch from FL Studio back in the day — cleaner and more structured, where FLS had 13 years of features bolted on and very little consistency to its UI. But its “beat making” nature is a really strange fit for the kind of music that I make now.

MCP, MPC, whatever. You know, that villain looked better in the video game than the movie, and I’m glad they didn’t bring it back for TRON Legacy. End of line.

I’ve stuck with Maschine only because I was used to it, and learning a new DAW with a completely different paradigm takes some effort. I’ve given Ableton Live and Reaper demo versions very brief attempts, as well as a newer version of FL Studio, but each time I just felt more frustrated and returned to the path of least resistance.

But I’m between albums and have a new computer on the way (*), so this is a good time. Plugins are starting to be released in VST3 format only — which Maschine doesn’t support yet — and I’ve heard a lot of praise for Bitwig’s modernity and modular orientation.

So I’ve been looking into it. I have to say the experience of learning it could have been made a lot smoother with a single official, officially endorsed, or built-in tutorial — rather than the bewildering array of unorganized, free and paid tutorial series that both the official site and a web search throw at you. It’s a bit intimidating. But I’ve found a couple of recommendations, and after a few hours I feel like I can record with it, start to finish, without getting too lost.

For what it’s worth, Thomas Foster’s “Bitwig Studio 3 Tutorial for Beginners” and Brian Bollman’s “Migrating to Bitwig Studio” series have been helpful so far.

There are deeper things to learn, such as the aforementioned Grid (a modular effect/synth builder) and various shortcuts and customizations, as well as optional hardware controller integration.

There’s also the possibility that I could use Bitwig for post-processing and mastering, without the need for Sound Forge or something else. We’ll see.

(*) I was notified yesterday that the computer was in production. I don’t expect it takes more than a couple of days for experienced builders to assemble, install Windows and drivers, and do a burn-in test, even with a customized parts list.

nerd music

This time I’m here to write about other nerds’ nerd music rather than my own.

My general opinion of cover songs is: don’t.

Unless by covering the music, you’re creating something new and uniquely worth listening to — a version that can stand alone or can hold its own beside the original. Too many covers are just an uninspired rehashing, lacking both in energy and in understanding of what made the original good.

Stemage’s PRIORITY ONE: The Music of TRON definitely is justified.

Wendy Carlos’ score for the 1982 TRON was a unique composition, with lots of unusual intervals and time signatures, performed by the London Philharmonic as well as Carlos on Minmoog and the Crumar GDS digital synthesizer. The orchestra was actually an imposition by Disney because they were afraid production would take too long without it — but Carlos wasn’t happy with their performance in places and replaced them with her own recordings. The score was mostly mixed at very low levels in the actual movie, so the album is by far the best way to experience it.

And then along came Stemage, guitarist and electronic musician who’s covered and composed video game music and contributed to Steven Universe. On Priority One he turns the score into a prog rock extravaganza, with a much more expressive and dramatic performance than the original score. His version is frankly much better at feeling like storytelling, even if you don’t know the story. It’s been one of my favorite albums for a couple of years now and I swear it gets better with every listen.

Chiptune duo 8 Bit Weapon has also covered two parts of the TRON score in an EP, using a Commodore 64, NES, GameBoy, Apple II and Atari 2600. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their version is a bit more reminiscent of the 1982 arcade game — but even their retro hardware is far beyond the dual AY-3-8910 sound chips the game used. Those AYs produced only pure squarewaves with rather poor pitch quantization, or digital noise, with 3-bit amplitude control. But TRON was the first video game with stereo sound — simply by dedicated one sound chip per channel — and so it sounded pretty lush, though it only played snippets of the score. I liked it better than 8BW’s tribute though, and to me both TRON and Marble Madness — which introduced FM synthesis to arcade game music, with some fantastic composition — are memorable for their sound as much as their gameplay.

out of phase

I have a title and some maybe-final artwork for the new album. It’s a secret for now though. Mastering is done, and was a little bit of a chore in places this time around but my efforts paid off, at least in a creative sense. I just have the notes page to write up and it’ll be ready to upload.

Before work on the next album gets seriously underway, there’s Knobcon, a few more gear changes and that new computer coming. I’ve figured out which plugins and sample collections I’ll want to install on the new machine, but that’s going to take a few days to set up. There are also newer Sound Forge versions to try. This will give me some time to ponder themes for a bit.


Make Noise’s imminent Mimeophon matches, almost line by line, a list I wrote back in February of the features of the delay module of my dreams. But it’s reinterpreted through in their own style, which is mostly a bonus. It was going to be a prime candidate to try out at Knobcon, but a couple of recent demo videos have convinced me it’s better than ideal. It’s so good as a resonating micro-delay I could even end up selling one of my Rings. Waiting for Knobcon is really just a formality with this one.

But what does require some deliberation and demoing is the question of the 4ms SMR vs. 4ms SWN vs. Mannequins Just Friends vs. just using Stages’ Ouroboros mode.

My SMR did indeed have something wrong with it, which excited the tech, was one of the first ones 4ms built and thus had an old, incompatible bootloader, but should be ready to ship back to me today or tomorrow. I want to give it a proper chance.

SWN (Spherical Wavetable Navigator) is a newer module that evolved from the SMR, but does exactly what I was looking for. Six oscillators with their own VCAs, which can be tuned relative to each other or independently, mixed to a stereo output. It uses a 3D wavetable setup that doesn’t beat SynthTech but does go well beyond the SMR’s sines. It’s more expensive than the other options, but well within my “sell more stuff than I buy” budget. It can’t be used to process audio as SMR can (if I decide I like that), but alongside the VCOs it also has a set of 6 LFOs that can be related or independent and can act as its own sort of algorithmic rhythm generator.

I also worked out how Just Friends, with the help of a Teletype script and the 16n Faderbank, can go without a separate VCA mixer. It’s a little bit of a hack, but smaller, cheaper, and will do FM. When not acting as a VCO it can do envelopes and LFOs, extending Teletype’s modulation capability without a tangle of patch cables.

Aside from that, I think I’ve probably settled on Mannequins Cold Mac as a crossfader/VCA/utility thing. But I want to look into the MSCL stereo compressor especially if I keep the SMR, and also potentially for Clouds and Mimeophon. Otherwise it takes Dynamo, 2/3 of Shades, both channels of Tallin and a lot of tweaking to compress/limit a stereo feedback path.

shine on

After 11 years with a Core i7 960 on which I upgraded/replaced literally everything except the case, cooler and motherboard, I have bought a fresh new computer.

CyberPowerPC
InWin 101 Mid Tower
+ 600W 80+ Gold PSU
+ 3x InWin Sirius Loop RGB case fans
+ professional wiring
ASUS TUF X570-Plus Gaming motherboard
+ 16 GB DDR4-3200 RAM
AMD Ryzen 5 3600 CPU
+ MasterLiquid Lite ARGB cooler
+ Cooler Master thermal paste
GeForce GTX 1650 4GB video card
1TB Intel 660P M.2 NVMe SSD
+ Windows 10 Home

It’s a compromise of latest new stuff and budget/efficiency — the 3600 is within a few percent of other Ryzen chips that cost a lot more. That particular SSD is a little slow for its class, but that’s like saying the Indian Ocean is a little small for an ocean, and it was half price (the SSD, not the ocean). There are faster video cards in that price range, but they run hotter and use more wattage. (If I were buying components individually and assembling it myself, I’d have used my old video card… and the total would have cost about the same as this computer anyway.)

Like my old computer, I chose a white case, but this one isn’t the size of a SmartCar. I didn’t pay extra for case lights, but all the fans glow with adjustable colors. This plus the large window have the benefit of making it easily to tell when it’s time to open it up and blow out the accumulated dog hair. 😉


Supercell arrived yesterday — the maximal version of Mutable Instruments Clouds, which I chose to replace Panharmonium. It has a dedicated knob, CV input and attenuverter for every parameter and a few other improvements to the interface, making it 34HP (compared to the original’s 18HP, and alternate versions that run between 8 and 14HP with varying interface compromises). I believe it’s worth the extra space.

The original mode allows for all kinds of possibilities beyond the stereotypical smearing-and-reverb, and the “Superparasites” firmware makes 7 other modes relatively easy to access. (If it had mode names printed on the panel that would have been nice.) There’s no unified documentation for it, so I found myself summarizing FIVE manuals into one brief text file. For the most part there’s a relative consistency in usage, and I have just tested my memory of the mode order (Granular, Pitch Shifter/Timestretch, Looping Delay, Spectral Madness, Reverb, Resonator, Beat Repeat, Spectral Clouds) and was right. So maybe I won’t have to refer back to that very much.

The delay has some nice character but won’t 100% replace other delays. Mimeophon remains the most likely other candidate and I don’t expect to keep Prism or T-Rackonizer. Some of the other modes make me downgrade SMR’s chances a little bit too. As far as how well Clouds “replaces” Panharmonium: the sound character is not even a little similar, but the freeze-and-harmonize action is somewhat so. I find it more generally useful. It fits within the whole “focus” thing without being too much of a one-trick pony that will get old quickly.

Untitled IX

The ninth Starthief album still needs a name, but its actual content is nearly ready.

It didn’t follow the “asymmetry” or “nonlinear waveshaping” theme at all, which is probably for the best. It didn’t strictly follow the “incubation” theme from In the Dark Places of Wisdom either, as some of the songs have a more atmospheric, storms and wind and air sort of theme.

I seem to have this recurring theme of caverns in my work, despite only having visited caves a few times as a casual tourist. Underlands from 2012 is my favorite among my pre-Starthief albums, probably because it was a bit more ambient and themed than most, and it was all about underground spaces (and the ruins of a lost underground kingdom). That word “spaces” betrays some of the significance I think, as does the song title “Stone and Air.” The contrast between open space and the solidity that defines its shape is also in the theme of Passing Through. Reverb with a long tail is often described as “cavernous,” caverns are naturally dark places which fit the trope of dark ambient music, and there are the mystical, underworld associations.

Though this album feels like it took a while, it’s only been a couple of months. It straddles a divide between subterranean and aerial themes as well as a major change to my synth setup, but it doesn’t feel discontinuous. The track order I’m going to use is the order in which they were recorded.

I’ve got about 55 minutes of music to master, and one track that needs some more repair work. It had issues with tiny bits of lost time during recording — leaning a little too heavily on the CPU, I believe — which caused some audible clicks. Izotope RX6 DeClick fixed most of them, and a bit of manual effort fixed one of the more difficult ones. This morning’s listen tells me I missed one, though. There’s also a little bit of crackle in a couple of places that I would prefer to clean up.

That sort of technical trouble is making me reconsider upgrading my computer sooner rather than later. After all, this phase of changes has me selling more synth gear than I’m replacing.

accidental mimicry

People who don’t know much about electronic music, or people who are very good and very patient at sound design, might assume that most of the sounds I come up with are intentional.

It’s more like, I experiment with sounds, hear something that becomes the inspiration for the song, and everything else follows. The more parts I add after that, the more I find a need for specific sounds: a sub drone, a whooshy noise, a melodic counterpoint made from simple beeps, or even occasionally a sample. But there’s often still usually some seat-of-the-pants element to the assembly.

If I’m in that later stage and need a Rings-like sound, I usually reach for Rings. The path of least resistance, you know?

Yet this keeps happening: I put together a voice, and it occurs to me afterward that it sounds like Rings, even though it isn’t — and in the same song, I have used Rings for something else that doesn’t sound like Rings.

On “Rat Facts,” which I just recorded today, there’s a lovely Rings-esque “guitar” sound which is Hertz Donut mk3 through Natural Gate and Prism. There’s also a big deep sub bass, which is Rings.

On “Soliton,” also from the new album, there’s a drum-like voice, more djembe than “bongo” (*), which sounds a lot like drums I’ve made with Rings. But it’s raw pulses from Teletype through Rainmaker. A different voice, sort of filtered crackly noise that blends in with other things, is Kermit through Rings FMd by DPO.

From Internal Reflections, “Who is This?” had non-Rings “guitar strumming”, which was E370 through Natural Gate into Rainmaker. But I used Rings for a “broken reverb” effect on an E370/QPAS voice.

(*) a common sound/trope in modular synthesis is “Buchla Bongos.” It involves pinging a lowpass gate with a trigger while some inharmonic FM stuff goes through it. It’s kind of part of the trend of calling every hand drum (and some that aren’t) a “bongo.”

Djembe are not bongos.
Congas are not bongos.
Tablas are not bongos.
Doumbeks are not bongos.
Taiko are definitely not bongos.

Don’t do that. Pet peeve.

(Finding Star Wars gifs for this entry was also not something I originally designed. I just happened to want a “that’s not how this works” and when I saw what came up, I knew exactly what the rest of the entry needed. And that is how the Force works.)