maybe it’s a sign

In the course of working on this album I have tried twice to record tracks named “Small Enough to Fail.” I have rejected both of them for not meeting my standards; they just didn’t have the right atmosphere or have enough to say. Maybe I should just not try naming anything else that, because it seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

However, the second one has undergone a lot of filtering, editing, and processing and has become something worthy — a complete metamorphosis that gave it a new identity entirely.

At this point the album is more than an hour long. I’m happy with the start, I’m even happier with the end, and I like the stuff in between them… but the “it’s finished” flag in my brain hasn’t been raised yet. Once the missing piece falls into place, it’s possible that not all the candidates will make it to release. I’ll figure that out when I get there.

I’ve decided to go ahead and sell my Touché SE and my Tensor. The former is really neat for an Ondes Martenot sort of playing style that I just don’t use, so I only occasionally point it at some parameter or other in Bitwig — it’s overshadowed by the 16n and now there’s also the pressure CV on the 0-Ctrl. The Tensor is a neat thing but I don’t find myself turning to it very often and I can’t really justify keeping it.

I may also sell off the other pedals, except for Analog Drive which is basically one of the Reface’s limbs. I should first wait for the fixed filter bank, to see if it brings some magic to feedback loops that use the Adineko or spring reverb. But I kind of just want to set pedals aside; right now I don’t feel like they’re really bringing the magic, and that’d be one less format of thing to deal with, a few less controls to reach for.

touch copper

The 0-Ctrl arrived on Saturday, and I’m very pleased with it. My first impression was that it exactly met my expectations and hopes — the form factor is perfect, the touchplates work perfectly even with my dry skin, fit on my little stand in front of the modular is perfect, it feels great to use, it’s fun and inspiring and works almost exactly like I thought. Maybe a little easier to dial in tunings and grooves than I expected, and surprisingly musical when combining unsynchronized internal and external clock sources.

When only using an external clock, the gate lengths and the dynamic envelope times are still based on the internal clock, so the Speed and Time settings as well as Strength are still relevant. The dynamic gate and main clock output will result in different rhythms depending on the setting, which is a neat way to get some interrelated parts going and vary them easily. I threw together a quick jam with the E352’s two outputs:

Working with the 0-Ctrl does make me nostalgic for the 0-Coast — though more in terms of feel than sound or features. In theory, I like the idea of a more compact, simple modular. But in practice, I really like the setup that I have and what it does for my music.

Experimenting with the Disting EX, I found I could get better PLL-like results with the XOR logic gate algorithm than the pitch tracking algorithm… and than my actual A-196 PLL module. So that’s one more module to sell. There’s an EMW Fixed Filter Bank on the way, for feedback, distortion and some band-separating tricks of various kinds, and only 2 HP of free space unclaimed. (4 if I decide I don’t need the 2HP Trim that I have, which is possible.) Nothing’s really calling out to me for that space though.

On another note (that pun never gets old!), someone recommended Freakshow Industries plugins, which I’d never heard of up ’til now. I like their aesthetic and their “steal” policy, though I found Mishby (“Maybe I Shouldn’t Have Built You”) worth the full price, giving some lovely semi-tape, semi-“digital” degradation and chorusing. It sounds especially good in front of Supermassive.

gotta catch ’em all

My music collection is straightened out. I went with Plex, after a brief attempt to set up the open-source but much less polished and friendly Jellyfin. Securing the Jellyfin server was left as an exercise for the reader, with no specific instructions for any given platform or choice of security method, and the advice I found from third parties on the subject was unhelpful. Plex, on the other hand, was a breeze.

Once I had that set up, I went through and culled 2530 songs from 177 different artists (about 16GB) from my collection. Then I ripped 45 albums from my CD collection (of approx. 350) — things that I’d missed, several of which I’d had in my Google Play Music library.

Valhalla DSP announced an awesome, free new plugin today: Supermassive. It’s an experimental, flexible, wonky FDN reverb that sounds fantastic and lush, with algorithms more or less discovered accidentally while the developer was working on more conventional things. While I really like ValhallaPlate, I suspect I might find this one absolutely perfect for my needs, once I have time to learn it a little more.

Of course, cue the crowd at KvR claiming that giving it away was advertising and therefore somehow wrong and bad rather than generous, and also that if it wasn’t free nobody would want it because it’s just a normal delay (what??). Sometimes, “creative” people just make me tired.

I also wound up picking up CraveEQ. I was going to ignore it at first, because I like ToneBoosters EQ4 so much. But I discovered I like the sound of this one better in some cases, and it’s a little more flexible. And with the new Angle Grinder, plus the Disting, all this new stuff is going to show up in my music all at once.

Speaking of which, I got a shipping notification on the 0-Ctrl this afternoon, so that’s one more. The E520 is still going to be a month or more though, so I don’t expect it’ll be on this album, which is most of the way done at this point.

frickin’ laser beams

Today ends my 8th week of working from home (more productively than I ever did in the office), and about 11 weeks of COVID-19 being something to worry about in the US. St. Louis County is opening some businesses on a limited, restricted basis but so far, it looks like we’re going to keep working from home. Given news about other places having spikes in cases and having to close back down again after reopening, it could still be a while.

Given events, maybe the Stormlight Archive wasn’t the best thing to read. I’m most of the way through Oathbringer now, and it’s an apocalyptic mess of magical extreme weather, war, monsters, betrayals, and all the major characters being completely traumatized, broken and lost. It is a really entertaining set of books, with bright spots of humor and insight and triumph, ridiculously epic worldbuilding, the gamut of lovable and hateable characters, etc. but there’s no doubt that it’s a tragedy (even if, 7 books from now, some remnant of humanity is probably going to survive). “Heroism” and ethics are largely a matter of perspective. There are times when the story goes shockingly dark.

Google Play Music, which I’ve been subscribed to since 2014, is also going dark in the near future. I happened to be prepared for it though — my New Year resolution to support musicians through Bandcamp, and having a phone with plenty of storage, has meant streaming much less and listening much more to my MP3 collection. I gathered a list of albums that I want to make sure I own, and cancelled my subscription.

Unfortunately not every musician is on Bandcamp, and for some of those albums I’ve had to track down CDs on eBay. I’ve got a collection of CDs that I really should at least rip some of, and when I traded Eurorack modules with Kid606 he generously sent a couple of CDs to me. I wound up buying an external DVD drive rather than continuing to bother Alisha to rip them for me and transfer via USB stick (because Windows LAN networking still sucks in 2020). Chances are, any computers we might buy in the future won’t have optical drives built in anyway.

My MP3 collection is about 25 years old and has 840 (!!) artists in it. There are some-hundred CDs in my collection that spans roughly 1990-2005. I certainly don’t plan to rip all of them, but there’ll be a bunch. So I’m thinking: I’ll set up a personal streaming server with a rating system, or else cull the collection a little so there’s an archive and a “live” collection, and stop having to copy the whole collection to three different devices.

Two modules arrived this week. The Disting EX, previously described, is a bunch of different utilities in one module. The improved display is TINY and a challenge for my poor eyesight, and I rearranged modules a bit to bring it a little closer to my eyes and hands. But still, the module is easier to navigate than previous versions, and I think a dozen or so favorite algorithms won’t require much referring to a cheat sheet or online reference. I’ve encountered a few bugs, many of which will be fixed in the next firmware release.

I’ve got i2c commands from the Teletype working with it, although it doesn’t support slew, which is going to limit the matrix mixer morphing I thought might be particularly special.

The algorithms I like most are different from the set I originally liked, with more of the basic building blocks (like comparators and sample-and-hold) and fewer oscillators and effects. There are still some “macro” items though, like a pitch and envelope tracker and a wavetable-based waveshaper, that are pretty special.

The polyphonic multisample player is cool, if kind of mind-bending in Eurorack. Not something I’ll probably want to use frequently, but like everything else on the Disting, it’s nice to have it in reserve for when I do. The Disting can also record samples, and an auto-multisample mode is coming that makes use of the MIDI breakout panel — play several notes on a synth into it, and it will sample them and format it for the multisample player — so I might have to make room for that. It could be kind of neat sampling software synths with it and then playing them back with Eurorack sequencers…

The other module is Schlappi Engineering Angle Grinder, and it’s glorious.

The left side is the “grind” section, a set of four comparators that blast the smooth edges off and add more upper harmonics. The “spin” section on the right is a nice filter/quadrature oscillator. As a filter, it sounds like it has a little bit of a resonant peak even at minimum; it can work pretty conventionally but the highpass and notch sound particularly sweet. As an oscillator it’s quite smooth. I feel like I should put in some time exploring what a quadrature LFO/oscillator can do for me, aside from synchronized push-pull on different modulation targets.

The real fun is in the combination. The Spin outputs feed Grind’s four comparators and subtract from the input, changing the shape. The output can then feed back into Spin. The bandpass/allpass output from Spin also feeds back into Grind if not interrupted by a different input. The results vary quite a lot depending on whether Spin is oscillating or filtering, and the phase-shifted and clipped feedback results in many different waveshapes and pitch shifting, under CV control.

Overall the thing can range from a conventional filter or sine oscillator, to something with a little more edge, to a weird noise generator that can produce chirps, atmospheric noise, “toy with dying battery,” self-pinging filter and other weirdness. The feedback loops make it inherently chaotic, but the knobs control the amount of that chaos. Also, it provides several excellent ways to combine other oscillators to create complex drones.

I do kind of wish it had CV control over the “Damping” (aka reverse resonance) and “Grind->Spin” controls since both can influence feedback. To some extent I could manage that with external VCA(s) and mixer though, if the block diagram in the manual is correct.

I have absolutely no regrets about trading my Filter 8 for this one. In fact, it’s so good, I’m considering one of Schlappi Engineering’s other modules, the Interstellar Radio. It converts a signal to a high-frequency “radio transmission” and then back, but with different clocks or even external ones, to generate a variety of errors, aliasing and distortion and other oddities. If I let go of my A-196 PLL — which I believe I can do without losing any functionality, because of the Sync3 and Disting’s pitch tracker, comparator and XOR algorithms — I’ll have room for it. I won’t leap too quickly though, and give myself some time to get to know the new stuff.

I didn’t wind up going for TAL Sampler, at least not yet. I still might!

I did pick up Goodhertz Lossy though, which was an accidental discovery when checking out their Vulf Compressor plugin. Which was designed as an emulation and expansion of the “LoFi Vinyl” setting on the Roland SP303 sampler, which is highly prized among some hiphop and dance music producers and which I’ve been hearing a lot about lately, thanks to investigating lo-fi samplers. It turns out, not doing the sort of drum stuff where that particular flavor of compression works best, the compressor itself didn’t grab me.

Lossy imitates MP3 compression artifacts — the filtering, loss of detail, smearing of transients and, well, blorpy smudge that happens with low-bitrate MP3s. It has a few other models of digital artifacts and glitches as well, including packet loss and packet repeats that can happen with UDP data streams. (UDP packets are smaller and have less bandwidth overhead than TCP, but are not guaranteed to arrive in order or even at all — which is acceptable for some kinds of real-time streaming where a little lost data is better than long dropouts and pauses, an ever-increasing time delay and eventual traffic jams.) It combines these with a filter and reverb, in a way that delightfully smears sounds. It works nicely in feedback loops and to take the edge off of sounds in a mix.

This is the time of year when Superbooth would normally be happening — a synthesis convention (modular and otherwise) in Berlin, a big expo and new product announcements and performances and drinking. With the pandemic, instead there’s been “Superbooth Home Edition” as well as Hainbach’s “Special Reserve Livestream.” Far more video than I’ve had time or inclination to watch, but a bunch of product announcements and performances and interviews nonetheless.

To me the most interesting announcement has been the Expert Sleepers Super Disting EX Plus Alpha, aka “Disting EX.” This is, sort of, a module I had been wishing for; I even referred to this dream module as “Super Disting” last September.

Disting (*) has been a series of small digital Eurorack modules capable of a wide variety of useful functions — envelope generator, comparator, VCA, oscillator, delay, sample player, exponential-to-linear converter, etc. — one at a time. The mk1-mk2 versions had 16 different algorithms, with binary code on LEDs telling you what mode it was in; the mk3 had more banks of algos added. The mk4 had a much improved 8×6 LED display which could show a couple of characters of text, but with 105 algos it still required patience and/or a cheat sheet to use. I had one for a while — it was my introduction to wavetables in Eurorack and prompted me to go for the E352 — and I found it excellent overall but a bit tedious. I thought a module in about 8-10HP, with a larger OLED display, would make navigating it and editing parameters much more workable, as well as give it the ability to act as an oscilloscope.

Well, this one has a small OLED display of the kind I tend to think of as a “window” for some reason — wide but short in height. It doesn’t do categorized menus, but reading the names of algorithms at a glance instead of waiting for them to scroll by or looking them up on a cheat sheet looks like quite an improvement (and a preset and favorites system can help reduce the search further).

The big deal though is that it is the equivalent of two Disting mk4s running side-by-side independently (with the display optionally “zooming” to show more detail of the one currently being edited) but with more memory and a higher sample rate; it can also run more involved “single mode” algorithms that use more inputs and outputs and processing power. Right now these include polyphonic multisample playback, “drum sampler” style playback, a tape delay based on the old Augustus Loop software, and a matrix mixer. And it can be controlled via knobs and CV but also MIDI and i2c — making that matrix mixer a VCA matrix, which is a whole other level of hot stuff.

(*) I figure it’s either named after the ancient yearly market in Uppsala, Sweden, the Dísablót Thing — or “what is dis ting?” Perhaps both.

To make some room for dis ting, I have swapped out my trusty Doepfer A-138m matrix mixer for an AI008 4×3 matrix mixer, which is half the width. Yes, I did just say Disting EX has a matrix mixer mode — but an analog one dedicated to the task, with no DAC latency, can be good for feedback purposes and letting the Disting do other things. I’ve also gone ahead and sold off my LS1 Lightstrip (which was redundant since getting the 16n Faderbank) and Flexshaper (which was a cool concept but I never really put it to much use). That leaves 12HP open, though I have no particular plans for that space right now.

Teletype got a firmware update recently, with a few cool new features. My favorite is the NR op — a rhythm pattern generator based on bitwise multiplication of a set of patterns, as found on the Noise Engineering Numeric Repetitor. With NR you can imitate the Repetitor pretty much exactly, but you have the freedom to do many other things with it. If I made something more akin to techno and I didn’t already have Noise Engineering’s pattern generation line of stuff, I would be thrilled beyond comprehension at this gift; as it is, it’s pretty cool and will likely get as much use as Euclidean patterns do now. Slow, odd time signatures can still benefit from repeating patterns whether the listener notices them consciously or not. It almost feels like I got another new module with this update.

warts and all

Knobs has a thing to say: “all music is full of wrongs.”

This is a video about technology, but also human performance isn’t perfect. We don’t play perfectly on a temporal grid with perfect intonation and identical tone, but ebb and flow and miss a little bit, partially out of expressiveness, partially out of human limitations (the nervous system and muscles take time to process things and our sense of time is subjective), and partially just error.

I feel like a lot of processing I do in software is either partially correcting flaws, or carefully introducing them.

In order to introduce a few more, I think I’m going to pick up TAL-Sampler. It’s a plugin that somewhat imitates old-school samplers; maybe slightly less simply than I would like since I’m aiming more at the Casio SK-1 / Yamaha VSS-200 line, and it doesn’t directly sample audio but plays it back. But it sounds pretty gorgeous in that flawed way, and comes with an FX plugin that can also imitate a bad old DAC (digital-analog converter). I think picking it up might ease the desire I feel for taking a chance on an old sampler, without taking up space, in the same way that Wavesfactory Cassette and other plugins have cooled my interest in messing with actual tape, while giving me more flavors to work with.

Speaking of flaws, I’ve sent my 16n Faderbank back to the builder to have the faders replaced with linear ones. While I could muddle along by slewing the noisy outputs, I’m excited that I will like it even more with the right taper. It’s just I don’t have it at hand to work with right now, and it’s like a hull breach in the spaceship of my studio, all the precious air blown out into the vacuum. I’ve recorded one simple piece without it, but I think I would rather hold off before I attempt anything more involved. It’s a testament to how central this one controller has become to my workflow.

a release now and another soon

I have a track on the LCRP (Lines Community Remix Project) compilation Feedback February.

And though I haven’t blogged about it, I have finished The Castle, mastered it (with very little difficulty this time), did the artwork and am putting finishing touches on the writeup.

The details of the gear/plugin usage stats don’t matter, but the general gist I get from it:

  • I like Clouds and Mimeophon a whole lot!
  • My secondary goal of working on filter techniques could use more work.
  • I could also use FM Aid and Flexshaper more.
  • I could use my pedals more, especially Tensor.
  • I could probably trim back my plugin selection a little more.
  • All these “coulds” don’t matter that much if I’m making good music.

One disturbing technical problem I ran into was scratchiness/jumpy values on the 16n Faderbank. It could be only the analog CV outputs and not the MIDI values, but I need to check that. Maybe the faders need to be cleaned with some sort of goop or maybe I can fix it either with indirect routing or slewing. Or maybe I need to talk to the builder (and maybe get the sliders replaced with linear ones like it should have been built with), or even switch to a control surface from Faderfox or MIDI Fighter. One way or another, dealing with this is on my to-do list.

goes on

Well into week 2 of working from home. The passage of time is still a little weird. I was surprised this morning to realize it’s Thursday already. Most of my workdays fly by, but other times, I rock the code so hard that I’m surprised how little time passed given the amount I accomplished.

Last night after work my spouse made her spiced roasted root veg recipe, and it came out better than ever. We also had chicken apple sausages cooked over the firepit on the patio while enjoying really lovely weather. I had a bottle of peach soju, and the result was a happy, slightly silly, mellow drunk state that was probably the best I’ve felt in weeks. I don’t drink often or much, and it usually just leads to drowsiness, so that was nice.

I picked up the Humble Just Drive bundle, mostly to get Project Cars 2 at a deep discount and direct most of the money to charity. I might actually never start up the career mode, which had a number of frustrations in the first PCars game — but just enjoy tooling around in various exotic cars, especially the fun little XBow, Mono, Atom, Caterham, etc. The feel of various vehicle types is very different — a roadster with slick tires in wet grass is not your friend — and even the rally cars feel very different from Dirt Rally, with the suspension going SQUISH in a big way.

I recorded 3 more tracks for the castle album, but decided one just wasn’t up to snuff. Another expresses the fear, anxiety and frustration of this pandemic pretty well and I will probably keep it around for its honesty. There’s nearly an hour of music in there at this point, but I plan to record one more before working out the song order and deciding if it needs anything else or if something should go.

As of our last outing, no store nearby has had toilet paper in stock. I tried buying some from eBay, but it turned out the “California” seller was actually located in China and (I could kick myself) had 0 prior feedback and the account was less than a month old. The listing was cancelled by eBay but I’d already paid, and there’s an almost certainly bogus tracking number, so I have to wait a few days before filing a complaint. Meanwhile I happened to snag a case of commercial big-roll TP from Amazon, to be “gift wrapped” in a generic Amazon box to protect its identity from potential thieves. (My uncle lost an order that way.) And then nervously waited a couple of days before they announced it had shipped. So I could say our asses are covered now.

time keeps on slipping

To keep this story short:

  • Stay At Home order issued Saturday at 3PM, to take effect Monday at 12:01 AM.
  • My shift began at 7 AM Monday. I worked from home, quite productively, until:
  • At noon, there was an email from the boss declaring we are an Essential Business and everyone would continue working from the office.
  • I drove in. My supervisor said I should probably raise my concerns with the office manager (and mentioned several people were frustrated and upset and putting the pressure on to switch to WFH). I did so, specifically mentioning being at High Risk due to medical conditions, and was given permission to work remotely.
  • Tuesday the entire dev team did a “trial run” of WFH all day, with a conference call in the afternoon with the boss and IT guy to report on how it was going.
  • Shortly after that, it was announced that the entire staff would WFH until further notice, starting Wednesday.

So there’s that bit of drama settled, thanks to worker solidarity and also just the reality of the situation, I guess.

I know I’m privileged here, despite the medical risk factor. I still have a job, which I can do from home, and the business is extremely unlikely to evaporate. While my spouse can’t do her normal work from home, she’s still being paid too and has some “homework” to get through. We have a little bit in the bank, not a ton especially if we lose medical insurance, but it’s not nothing.

But of course this is all still upsetting and disorienting. Routines have been broken. Some of them probably broken forever. Others will, like a broken nose, heal up in a somewhat different shape.

We don’t know how long the crisis is going to be a crisis. I’ve read some opinions about what is necessary to fix both the medical and economic aspects of it, and they are going to require politicians to step up and take real action. I’m not very pleased with Trump being at the wheel for this, nor with either four more years of him or Biden taking over. Somebody like Elizabeth Warren or one of the Squad, sure.

On a personal level, I feel like my sense of time, the rhythm of the day, has been messed with. Our restaurant-going habit has a very different rhythm than eating at home, whether it’s cooking and doing dishes or just digging into leftovers or frozen dinners or whatever. Sitting down to the same computer I use for music production and gaming, instead of commuting to work, taking lunch and walk breaks, etc. feels very different too — although so far I find my workday feels like it passes more swiftly and I’m getting more done. I’m sure it’s weirder for my spouse, who’s on no particular schedule at all now and has a few days’ head start with the weirdness.

My Prius gets 400+ miles to a tank of gas. I just filled it last week. It could be May or even June before I buy more gas.

With all of this going on, I haven’t felt much like making music for several days. I’ve just been playing games and repeatedly checking news sites. I changed that this evening, and recorded “Valaskjálf” for the Castle album. I engaged in FM overkill: layering Hertz Donut with the E352’s linear FM, layering Akemie’s Castle with Rings’ FM mode, and exponentially FMing Kermit with the other Rings in FM mode. I didn’t even bring in FM Aid or use filter FM, but I used the VCFQ as a quadrature LFO, Filter 8 as a highpass filter to keep the E352’s FM clean, and Ripples mostly as a VCA. And I layered in a few small fragments of a previous recording that I’d decided to reject as a song in its own right. The result is a pretty noisy song that kind of expresses the fear and frustration of the past few days, now that I could get it out. But I hope that I can go back to more calming music again, because that’s what seems to be needed.