a small gesture

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.

already

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.

Thingamagoop 3000, aka “the anglerfish” (its LED on a stalk bent to point toward its own eye)

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.

it me

I Am Not the Next Big Thing: on Creativity and Aging

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 😉

it came to other people in a dream

A few days ago my spouse mentioned a dream with Michelle Obama in it. Apparently dreams featuring the Obamas dispensing wisdom are not an uncommon thing:

had a dream obama and the guy who plays air guitar at the mall were about to fight and obama said “ violence for violence is the rule of beasts “ and i woke up because that was the rawest shit i ever heard

http://kumagawa.tumblr.com/post/149460046939/had-a-dream-obama-and-the-guy-who-plays-air-guitar

There are t-shirts and podcast episode titles and a database of Obama dreams. So, why not an album of electronic music? Yep, I’m tentatively calling the next album and the last track on it The Rule of Beasts.

The last track stands out from the others in style (but is probably not “the rawest shit you eve heard”). I was trying out the Sputnik Five-Step Voltage Source I’d just received, driven rhythmically by Teletype and modulating Plaits’ various parameters. I recorded it but figured it was destined to be dumped on SoundCloud as too different from my ambient drone style. But a couple of ideas struck me right before publishing it, and it went back into SoundForge for a few more rounds of editing. The result works, I think, but I’ll wait to confirm that in a different listening environment first.

I’ve got 70 minutes of material now, but a couple of songs need final decisions about inclusion. For comparison, January 2018’s Nereus was a couple of minutes shorter and I’d rejected about 20 minutes of other recorded material.

I’d previously thought about calling this one Super Blood Wolf Moon, but that already feels like a dated and irrelevant reference already. It’s the title of one of the other songs though, if I don’t change it. The album art also was originally one of my dad’s photos of that event, but because the resolution was too low for DistroKid’s requirements, I started processing it… and now it’s a metallic tunnel/vortex thing. My approach to photo editing software sometimes resembles my approach to music making.

Science!

That Sputnik module is a bit quirky. The pulses coming from the top row when a step changes are ridiculously short and don’t reliably trigger every module. It works fine with Tides and Teletype though, and if the ER-301 is fine with it I won’t sweat it. Otherwise I’ve been able to massage the signal a little bit with tanh[3] to keep it over common trigger thresholds long enough to work.

I made a couple of wrong assumptions about controls in the Stage Select section, so it’s slightly less like the Buchla Music Easel sequencer than I thought — but cool in a different way. The Address input is exactly as expected and is easy to control via Teletype. Overall it’s a fun, hands-on multi-channel sequencer. Between it and the faderbank for the Teletype and the SQ-1, and good old MIDI, I believe that should settle the sequencing question.

I’ve got a tentative layout worked out for the new case. I took those guiding principles I came up with in the previous post, used the bubbl.us mind mapping tool to associate modules into groups, considered the impossible ideal of having all my modulation sources equidistant from any given destination, thought about geometry and pre-modern naval tactics and put together a compromise.

There’s a logic to each module’s placement, even if the logic was something a bit weak like “it was the right size to fit in an awkward gap” or “this keeps all the black-panel modules together.” Actual usage will tell me whether I want to shift things around, but I think this is a setup I can live with; I know the modulators are generally on the right edge, VCAs/LPGs clustered together, sequencing all at the bottom and so on.

remod(ular)eling

I decided on the MDLRCASE 12U at 456 total HP. In the 370HP range I was aiming for, cases tend to be shorter but too wide, or I’d need two cases and would have an awkward time integrating everything else — and it would have been pricier, required some awkward DIY at almost the same price, or perhaps a custom job from one of the makers that don’t answer their email… anyway, this one should suit me well. And my spouse has offered to do some pyrography on it, which seems a lot cooler than slapping synth brand stickers all over it.

When I started to experiment with modular sequencing, what I really wanted was a Sputnik Five-Step Voltage Source — but the company had shuttered and they were only available used. I tried to make do with other modules, such as Pressure Points and Mimetic Digitalis, but they weren’t quite what I wanted. I found someone selling their 5-Step plus the Selector companion module for half what I expected, so I went for it — it’s not small but I’ll have the space.

Aside from a couple of minor VCA and pedal interface substitutions I’ll do in trades if possible, and some re-knobbing and possible necessary cables — I plan to spend no more money until my “2019 Gear Spending Tracker” balance is back into the black through selling old gear.

Not that it matters much next to tomorrow afternoon’s pharmacy copay for 30 days of meds — I guess it’s important that I maintain my serfdom to America’s insurance billionaires. I hope we get our Medicare For All next year, so I can dance on the graves of Anthem and Express Scripts before they dance on mine.

Anyway, now it’s time to figure out how I’m going to arrange modules in the new case. Even this is something of an art, much discussed on modular forums, with several schools of thought behind it. (Surprise, nerds make everything nerdier!) You can group aesthetically, ergonomically, by signal flow, by function, at random, etc. There are some practical constraints, such as cases where some sections don’t accommodate deeper modules, or narrow modules with tiny knobs that need a little finger room on their sides — or simply finding places to fit modules of different widths.

Even if you pick something like signal flow as your priority, there are different methods. East Coast subtractive synthesis typically proceeds left to right from VCO to VCF to VCA — often with an envelope generator standing in for “VCA” on the panels of fixed-architecture synths, and any LFOs and secondary envelopes in a row below that. Buchla designs — more modular, but with a sharp distinction between control signals and audio signals — proceed from control to sound source to output, which reflects something of an acoustic mindset. But Eurorack modular synths require a little arbitrary shoehorning if you’re going to do this; many of even the simplest modules can fit in multiple categories.

The guiding principles for my layout are:

  • I have 20cm jumpers for my i2c connections since they’re supposed to be kept short — so Teletype, TXb, and ER-301 will be neighbors. According to some, I might have some leeway in placing the 16n Faderbank, though.
  • Modules with “permanent” exterior connections — I/O patchbay(s), pedal interfaces, TXb — should be kept to corners or edges so their cables can be routed out of the way.
  • Try to discourage proximity-based “cliques” among modules — a reason I wanted to merge back to one case in the first place. Since I don’t want to frequently randomize, I think this implies a functional grouping. The impossible ideal is that all modulators are equidistant from any given destination.
  • Try not to have scattered gaps throughout the case (which can complicate rearranging and require more small blank panels).
  • Try to keep like panel colors and brands together, but that’s secondary to all other concerns.

well-oiled machine

For the last few days I have been trying CBD oil. Someone on a forum recommended it about a year ago when I was talking about anxiety, but at the time I thought “whatever, hippie.” There’s this mental connection between hemp and pot that is not very scientific or fair but was trained into us 80s kids, and the common semiotics don’t really help.

Over time, more articles about it came up, and I read a couple of them and thought maybe it actually might be helpful for anxiety… but I was still unsure about how legit and legal it is. But then in the past couple of weeks, two or three billboards have popped up locally advertising CBD in shops. After a few hours of researching it some more I thought… okay, why not. I have various pain and would like to lay off the ibuprofen, and anxiety is still a thing even if it’s not so oppressive as it was last January. So it’s worth a shot.

Following advice and reviews from several sources, I went with a CBDPure tincture oil (300), taken sublingually, half a dropper full twice per day. Let me tell you, the stuff tastes just plain gross. I don’t get too much of that while letting it rest under my tongue, but if I’m not lucky I do when I swallow the rest. Burping is the worst though, ewwww.

It absolutely does make me feel more at ease and unburdened. It doesn’t seem to be doing much for pain, but I have been skipping the ibuprofen since I started. (Maybe because, with a better mood I am less bothered by the pain.) It might be worth trying a stronger concentration or more quantity after a few weeks.

Once this bottle is done, if not before, I may look into capsules or gummies to avoid the nasty, nasty taste. Since I’m not having panic attacks I’m not too concerned about whether it takes effect in 10 minutes or an hour.

I’ve picked up a whole bunch of music-related reading — a couple of individual ebooks, and then a Humble Bundle on computer music. My first read among them was A Bang, A Whimper & A Beat: Industrial Music and Dystopia.

It’s a scholarly study of the genre, its meanings and inspirations and how it is viewed by fans and non-fans. There’s a whole section analyzing a selection of five songs in terms of content (with a heroic but doomed effort to transcribe them) and listeners’ impressions, which I largely skimmed. Otherwise it was pretty interesting stuff, and made me realize some things that I just sort of accepted subconsciously or didn’t especially take note of.

Industrial had its beginnings in anti-capitalist, “anti-art” art groups. Early industrial was sonically more acoustic, involved building ad-hoc instruments out of junk and making clanging, percussive noise to go along with busted guitars and such. As the cyberpunk fiction genre (which is pretty explicitly anti-capitalist) emerged, the music and fiction swerved toward each other and became entangled, and it became more of an electronic music genre.

The theme of dystopia is strong: the earth and its people exploited past the breaking point. Dehumanization for profit, oppression for profit, war for profit, religion for profit. “Rationalization” taken to irrational extremes and the downfall of society. The machine as a symbol of oppressive power, systemic lack of human empathy — and also as victim, the loss of individuality, individual worth and freedom of expression. (“We are the robots”, the Kraftwerk song says; “we are programmed just to do anything you ask us to.” The word “robot” comes from the Czech robota, meaning forced labor.)

The sound palette in industrial music fits: drums for the march of progress or the march of troops or unceasing pounding machines. Heavy bass and drones for foreboding. Distorted and processed vocals — tormented and scream-like, cold and machinelike, or calling for revolution through a megaphone. No guitar solos (and few synth “solos” as such) because virtuosity is individuality.

Like punk, an important aspect of the genre is a rejection of conformity to the mainstream (disseminated via capitalist media for the convenience of the corporate overlords) — but it does it with a martial, regimented, uniform beat. It uses the imagery of fascism and control against those things, and sometimes confuses non-fans in the process. For a while after the Columbine shooting, industrial music was scapegoated alongside video games, trenchcoats, and all sorts of irrelevant things that aren’t guns and the alienation that leads people to use them on each other.

There is a constellation of genres that are culturally associated with Industrial music — due to similar messaging and aesthetics but more because some of the musicians and many of the fans crossed over. Goth is a particularly strong association. Another is Industrial Ambient, which is now more commonly called Dark Ambient.

The musical imagery of Dark Ambient is the desolation left in the aftermath. Abandoned factories and cities, rusting vehicles, collapse and decay; salt flats and dust bowls; tolling bells and whispering ghosts. Lots of reverb! Icy tundra, outer space, tombs — a closely related subgenre some have called “Isolationism.” Disquiet in a quiet place, pensiveness, mysteries and secrets, the spirit world, the interiors of ancient or alien ruins — I have no idea what this branch is called but it’s more what I associate my own music with.

And then there’s Dark Techno (closely associated with Drone Techno), which borrows heavily from Dark Ambient as well as Industrial. It tends to be slow and heavy compared to most Techno and Industrial, with vocals a rarity; it’s more like ambient with a beat. Some of my music kind of tacks toward this subgenre without quite getting into its lane, I feel.

NAMM jam

The National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) has a big yearly trade show this time of year. Not every player in the synthesizer end of the instrument business attends — the thing has a reputation of being dominated by guitars, with a smattering of other traditional Western instruments, and it’s huge and loud and expensive, maybe not the best venue to show off more complex instruments or communicate their subtleties. There are more synth-friendly events throughout the year that are closer-knit and make more sense.

But for those who don’t go — like Moog Music or Make Noise — it’s still pretty common to announce and/or release new products at around this time. So the blogs and forums are a flurry of activity and it’s hard even for fans to keep up with all the videos, writeups, and discussion.

The one “YES I MUST HAVE THAT” item for me is Make Noise QPAS, Quad Peak Animation System — a fancy filter that I’ve decided will replace my Twinpeak and also, why not, my Cinnamon because I basically never use two filters in a recording and I’m going to have the ER-301 to do virtual filters anyway. There were intriguing teasers on social media that we speculated on, and then a short video demo, and then a livestreamed demonstration and talk by the designer Tony Rolando (who, through a combination of astute interviews and cool gear inventions, has sort of become one of my synth heroes*). So that’s pre-ordered.

Another likely one was announced a little early: the Korg Volca Modular, a miniscule but genuinely semi-modular, West Coast style synth that is either going to confuse a lot of people or win a lot of converts to the Way of Buchla (possibly both). Its existence makes me confident I can let go of my Double Helix with little pain.

A few other bits of gear have sparked brief passing interest and mild curiosity. A couple of them, I’m skeptical of and need audio and video demos to prove themselves to me. A couple of them seem very nice but not something I particularly need (the Moog Sirin “analog messenger of joy” for instance).

And then there’s the Arturia MicroFreak. Nearly everything about it makes me sad and screams “out of touch marketing” louder than any sound the instrument can make. The name is bad, the ad copy is bad, the video is painful; the graphic design is bad, the sound is… either kind of bland or the demos are extremely bland. What makes it notable, other than its weird looks and (kind of cool) touchplate keyboard, is the claim that they “collaborated” with Mutable Instruments.

According to Émilie (who is Mutable Instruments): they used some of her (open-source) code from the Plaits module, with both implicit and explicit permission. They invited her to one awkward “focus group”-like meeting after the instrument design was already finished, but she never had the chance to even playtest it, nor even see a photo of it until a week ago. But they slapped her logo and company name on the website and claimed it was a collaboration, and now people think the thing has her endorsement and participation.

UPDATE: Arturia apologized and changed their website. Instead of claiming collaboration it’s now “we’ve also integrated the open-source Plaits oscillator developed by Eurorack legends Mutable Instruments.” Much less misleading.

Also, as more demos come in, the sound might have more promise than it initially seemed. I may keep an eye on it because the keyboard controller frankly intrigues me.

Until Émilie posted a call outlining it in more detail and asking people not to be an angry mob, there was a bit of fan backlash. During that interval I contemplated alternatives to my Microbrute. Something very compact that offers MIDI control, immediate playability and tweakability and good sound — there aren’t too many options within the physical dimensions available really.

There’s a particular range of technique and sound I really love about the Microbrute — the interaction of its triangle oscillator output and its saturation and filter feedback — but if I can replicate that with other gear I have or which is easily available, I could let it go. Now that things are calmer, I’m thinking about that in terms of opportunity rather than boycott. If I can make those sounds with some combination of my modular and software, I could have more control over the subtleties. If I could use a more compact and/or alternative controller, that’s a plus too. But I don’t have to choose that just because of some bonehead marketing committee at Arturia.

Anyway: with the first day of the show over, so is most of the internet excitement. Now the focus is on waiting for clarification and demos of specific interesting gear, and mostly just getting on with our lives.

As I’d planned, I’ve been keeping track of money spent and recovered from gear sales — and also projecting ahead on planned purchases and sales. I’m currently a little in the red thanks to that pre-order, but overall, this plan has me unspending money. I am getting to be on a first name basis with Kevin at the local post office, who now knows I trade “studio equipment.” I may run out of boxes to ship things in, but I’ll get back to the idea of a relatively lean-and-mean but powerful synth setup like I’d planned in 2017, but which ran ahead of me for a bit.

(*) I could rant about “heroes” but I’ll keep it brief: I don’t really have “heroes” but people I admire for particular specific qualities while fervently hoping they’re not an animal abuser, bigot, rapist, supporter of vile causes, or a willing or unwitting pawn in a Russian intelligence operation. You know what a “real hero” is? A meta-concept from fiction and mythology. But in terms of people I have that cautious admiration for: a handful each of instrument designers, musicians, writers, artists and activists.

save the queen, ditch the rest

Today I put some detailed thought into the 2.0 version of my synth setup. Given the minimal number of voices I typically use in each of my recordings, I really have too many VCOs right now.

The “trouble” started with the SynthTech E370 beta test. It was too large and too overkill-ish for my needs, where I formerly had the smaller E352 — but given the opportunity to test one and keep it gratis, I was not going to say no! So that was when I expanded to a second case and kept a bevy of other oscillators alongside it cover the areas where it wasn’t as strong.

Long story short, I worked it out today and found if I keep the E370, I can let go of most of my other VCOs — to be replaced by the ER-301, the tiny new Volca Modular, and a couple of my favorite software plugins. I’d keep Tides for modulation duties (the ER-301’s outputs are audio only) and provisionally keep Plaits to see if it thrives in a less choked pond. But with other consolidation, I am looking at reducing my Eurorack space from the current 460HP down to about 360HP.

There are a few ways this could go…

  1. Keep current Mantis and rack, just leave empty space in the rack. (Boring, but easy and cheap — and where I will start unless a surprise opportunity comes up.)
  2. Sell my Mantis, and buy a bigger case to unify things. (Big cases tend to be more expensive, but well within what I recover from selling the modules. It may not be as satisfying as other options though.)
  3. Sell my Mantis, and DIY a bigger rack or case with a second or bigger power supply. (Cheaper than 2, but once I work out issues with power, power distribution, rails etc. it’s probably not as cheap as I first thought. And it’s probably a bad idea in general.)
  4. Get a second Mantis. Bracket them together for a taller, unified setup. (These cases are a great value and easy to find used.)
  5. Keep the Mantis, but replace the rack with a Rackbrute 6U. That’s a row shorter than my rack, and optioanlly mounts onto a Minibrute 2 or 2S, which could replace my Microbrute. All of that for about the same cost of getting one big case, and it’s professional and portable. But in retrospect, I don’t actually feel like I want to upgrade the Microbrute that much…

Anyway, one step at a time: get ER-301. Learn it. Build up replacements via custom units and sampling. Sell unneeded stuff. Then figure out the case thing. Make music the whole time I’m doing it.

chill out already

I have finally finished reading The Ambient Century. The final section was about House, Techno, Trance and their ambient variations, many of which could probably accurately be called ambient. Or at least ambient-ish, ambient-inspired, and ambient-inspiring.

I’m not sure I can really tell the difference between most of the various dance genres in electronic music when push comes to shove. I could probably tell Minimal Techno from Progressive House. I have no idea what the difference between Goa Trance, Uplifting Trance, Psytrance, or 180 Faceplant Backslide Cool Ranch Istanbul Ultra Cyber Trancecore is. I’m not even sure that last one isn’t an actual genre.

The book isn’t new enough to cover things like UK Garage, Future Bass, Dubstep, Techstep, Darkstep, Chiptune, Fakebit, Electro Swing, Witch House, Synthwave, Vaporwave, Dark Techno, Deconstructed Club, and the dreaded stadium/festival EDM stuff, and the subgenres (or microgenres) brought on by the new resurgence of modular synths, and whatever else I am forgetting that is less than 20 years old. (Yeah, the 90s are almost 20 years old. That’s still weird to me. The 80s seem like a long time ago, but the 90s do not. I think it’s the divide between “I was in high school” and “the internet and cell phones were a thing.”)

Anyway: the major premise here is that Ecstasy was what brought it all together in the 90s. The author writes in a way that leaves little doubt he’s got personal experience, but the point is, there was a need for music for people to chill out to happily while coming back to Earth and still being generally sociable, and that’s where all the more ambient-but-clubby forms of music came in. Chill-out rooms, chill-out tents, chill-out music. It’s plausible I guess. My experience of 90s music was solitary: through headphones, via CDs bought in used record stores, then mail order, then the internet, and then (yes, totally legit) MP3s by indie musicians.

The music relied on a lot of sampling and merging of stuff into a cohesive but still dreamy whole, so the musicians went back to
Satie and Derbyshire and Stockhausen and Cage and Reich, the Beatles and Pink Floyd and Tomita and Tangerine Dream and King Tubby, and whatever else from each of the three previous sections of the book. So it does kind of neatly tie all that history together I suppose.

I’m not sure Future Sound of London or The Orb or the Chemical Brothers really had much influence on my music, but I did enjoy them a lot in the 90s and mostly still do.

Anyway. I’m done with the book, and while it was kind of a workout to get through, glad for some different perspective and the excuse to revisit some of the music I liked in the past. (Waaaay back in the 90s. Sigh.)

Next I’ll be reading some graphic novels and SF and fantasy for a bit.