the sound of pure mathematics

Odessa arrived yesterday and I love it. Lots of textures are bursting out of it. Simple sawtooth or square waves with tilt EQ. Very sweet or very exotic flangers/phasers. Surprisingly resonant-sounding “filter” sweeps by cutting back on the number of partials. Vocal formants. Shimmery glassy tones. Train horns. Eerie atonal chords. Deep growls. Resonant wind noises. Harmonically tuned casino slot machines. Between-radio-stations atmospheric noises. Crickets singing while a silver UFO descends in a dew-covered field. Gentle, smooth tones that fade in and out gently like the waves of a lake lapping at the shore. A ghostly confetti of arpeggios that alternate between left and right as they descend in an orderly but complex fractal pattern.

It’s also great as an FM carrier or modulator.

In two weekdays I’ve already used it in two ten-minute recordings. And, thanks to a noisy fan vibrating my desk in harmony with today’s work, a bit of transition to glue them together — so I’m well on my way into the next album project.

The one hesitation I have with this longer-form idea is that, when I choose albums to listen to, I have tended to prefer a more moderate track length and individual tracks over a continuous mix. I might be starting to come around, though. Maybe I’ll decide to keep it glued together but still use separate track markers; maybe I’ll do it both ways with the final “track” of the album being a continuous mix, as some recent releases by others have done.


As pleased as I am with Odessa, I found I still want that Manis Iteritas again. So, having sold two of the three modules I pulled out so far, I went ahead and bought one along with a Clep Diaz.

I could rearrange things and make space for up to a 4HP module, but for now I think I’m going to put changes back on hold for a bit. Akemie’s Castle will move when it needs to — to make room for a beta test module or if some other “must have” comes along (which could be Sport Modulator v2, but I’m kind of cooling on the idea at the moment).

A small part of me wishes I could say at the end of 2021 that I stuck strictly to my plan. But getting Odessa instead of Shelves and A-110-4 was definitely the right thing for me to do, and once my mind was made up it felt silly to postpone it. I’m also confident that Manis/Clep will serve me better than VCFQ, nice as VCFQ may be.

[drone intensifies]

I finished reading Monolithic Undertow. Here are my thoughts.

The first part of the book, a general intro and discussion of the drone in ancient times, was pretty fascinating. The conclusion/outro was brief, but resonated with me (so to speak).

The bulk of the book was pretty much “the begats.” This artist influenced that band, which influenced that artist, who started this movement, which this other artist combined with other influences, which influenced another artist. From Ravi Shankar’s influence on the Beatles and psychedelic rock, through free jazz, kosmische music, no wave, drone metal, ambient, chillout, drone techno etc. there’s arguably some clear lines of succession, rather than convergent evolution.

And speaking of influence, it seems most of them were under the. The book dwells a lot on drugs, which… I suppose is central to psychedelia. But I started to wonder if there were any 20th century musicians who could break down barriers of thought without chemical assistance, or if the author just really likes his acid and weed. And I guess in an area of music that on a scale of 0=Apollonian to 10=Dionysian, lives somewhere between 9.5 and 11, it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.

Anyway, through that evolution, it was good to see a not terribly strict and literal definition of “drone” — and yet, a coherent one. The drone does tend to change one’s perception of time in music, but that doesn’t mean it has to completely obliterate time. It doesn’t have to be hours long (or infinite) and purely static. It can shift. It can have texture and even articulation. It can be the harmonic basis of a song, in lieu of chord progressions. There can be melody, harmony and rhythm playing off of it. The drone can be all, or explicitly central, or implicit.

Often when I read books on music history, genres, technology, philosophies etc. I make myself a list of things to listen to. And most of the time, most of it disappoints me. Music and techniques that were groundbreaking at the time might have become commonplace afterward, or evolved into more compelling forms. Sometimes the examples are more academic and experimental than musically engaging. And sometimes I just don’t appreciate particular genre/style elements as much as the author did. For instance, I’m just really not going to get into the Velvet Underground, no matter how important a node they were in the graph, nor Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. But maybe I’ll like something on this list — I am enjoying the Blackmoon1348 album I found after the author mentioned them in an earlier section.

I found the book inspiring overall. The set I was working on was originally, more or less, going to be a short album of individual pieces. Instead, it wound up as a triptych of drone improvisations that fit together seamlessly into one half-hour work. It gets pretty intense at times, and I am generally very pleased with it. This might be the direction my future music goes.

The set, “Stridulation-Yukon-Relay,” is scheduled for May 15 on Sonic Sound Synthesis at The Neon Hospice.

here’s what went down

So the thing I’ve been a bit cagey about is, I applied for the programming position at Noise Engineering. I didn’t get it, due to the quality of competition, and congratulations to whoever did. They did invite me to be a beta tester though, which is cool.

I’m satisfied with my current job — it’s solid and stable, the pay is decent given the cost of living here, and it’s generally low pressure. Even though we are understaffed, there’s very little stress over deadlines, no abuse by the management, no screaming customers, no crunch time, no “emergency” cancelled vacations that you planned four months in advance, and no wondering if the next paycheck is going to arrive on time or who’s going to get laid off next. Instead, it’s simply “this is a difficult puzzle” which tends to yield to a satisfying “I just solved the puzzle.” While I don’t really share many interests with my coworkers and am not really friends with them, they seem like decent people and we get along fine.

But the idea of making musical instruments for a living? An end product I actually am passionate about? Working with other musician nerds? Being a part of the design process? That would have been pretty nifty, so I had to try for it.

Career move stuff is always a bit stressful. Less so, when you’re already in a decent job and are just trying for an upgrade. But more so when you’ve got anxiety and a weird misplaced sense of guilt over it. I felt bad about leaving the team more understaffed, and felt like I was sneaking around behind their backs… even though rationally, it’s just part of a normal employer-employee relationship. So I’m glad the process is done one way or the other. I did enjoy talking to the folks at NE though; we’re pretty much in the same tribe.

I’m kind of thinking about whether I want to get back to experimenting with writing plugins again. On the one hand, I don’t know if that’s what I want to do after an 8 hour shift coding for someone else. But maybe a bit of that would be nice from time to time. What I know I don’t want to do is get stuck supporting code that I only wrote out of curiosity and am not getting paid for.


Thinking about whether I was going to need to find a way to rack a bunch of Noise Engineering modules (a good problem to have!) got the wheels turning in my head. So here’s what’s going on with my gear plan now:

  • Not waiting for May 1 anymore.
  • I will still only sell three modules this year, right now (Shelves, VCFQ, A-110-4).
  • If I decide I need the space — for beta test modules or simply other things I decide I really want — I may set aside (but not sell in 2021) the Akemie’s Castle, or get another 4ms Pod or similar to shunt Castle or E520 into.
  • I will still not sell, trade or buy non-modular desktop gear in 2021.
  • I ordered an Odessa last night:

This is a pure additive synthesis oscillator that generates up to 2560 harmonics simultaneously (!) and offers ways to detune them, change their relative emphasis, distribute them in stereo, etc. There’s also both linear TZFM and exponential FM. Demos vary; this oscillator is capable of being extremely piercing and exhausting, but in motion or with the right detuning it can be gloriously liquid and crystalline and all sorts of other words that are not music so they don’t quite fit.

That leaves 16HP of free space (or 18HP if I pull out the passive DC blocking filter that I got for the A-110-4 and rearrange things a bit more). I have a few thoughts about what could go in:

  • Toppobrillo Sport Modulator v2. It’s currently being designed, in an unusually public manner. It’s been unobtanium for years, but has a strong loyal following, and I’m curious. It’s similar to Maths in many ways but not in specifics, where simple circuits, in different clever combinations, can perform a hundred different functions. The new version will have volt-per-octave tracking and a sync input, as well as other enhancements.
  • Noise Engineering Loquelic Iteritas. Noise Engineering’s dual oscillator, with phase modulation as well as summation synthesis and VOSIM, each with twists… I feel like this is potentially the same sort of case as Shapeshifter, where I should probably have tried it earlier on because how could this not be perfect?
  • Noise Engineering Manis Iteritas. Every time Blakmoth posts a snippet of music on Instagram, I ask myself why I ever sold mine. The SawX algorithm in Microfreak, though based on it and awesome in its own right (*), doesn’t have the same gravity. I used to think it was because the Microfreak doesn’t transpose low enough so that with SawMod adding harmonics, the fundamental is in deep subsonic territory — but you can force it down there, and that’s not it. Maybe the filter? Something in the output stage? Whatever, Manis is magic.

I could name other Noise Engineering stuff, but at least some of it (Desmodus!) is coming in plugin form. And there are beta tests to look forward to 🙂

(*) playing with it while writing this gave me a delicious drone that’s going into my current project, today.

light bulb goes “ping”

I tend to think of myself as having Summer SAD, since the combination of heat and humidity and bright sunlight can make me wig out. But, having just read someone saying their anxiety and depression are at their most troublesome in winter made me recall that, late winter through the earliest part of spring can be a little rough too.

Being aware of these things can help a lot.

Putting it in perspective, I think I’m doing pretty well compared to last year at this time. A few episodes of getting overly wound up, a bit of a lull in my creative drive (often overcome just by turning on the synth gear, patching and listening). But no feeling trapped, or under siege, or super-frustrated. And a few things to be pleased about, no matter the outcome.

Such as: I started working on a set for the Sonic Sound Synthesis weekly show hosted by The Neon Hospice. (It’ll probably be a couple of months before it airs.)

I started reading Monolithic Undertow by Harry Sword, a book about drone music in all its forms and cultures. It’s pretty fascinating so far, and I am finding a bit of inspiration in it. It even seems relatively balanced about its claims of the psychoactive power of drone or assumptions about ancient cultures (though I’m still keeping grains of salt on standby).

I tend to not be that deeply into more strict, static drone, but prefer some interplay between stasis and change. But then a lot of the music referenced here is also not 45 minutes with no texture or rhythm, either, and a lot of music that people describe as “drone” sounds nothing at all like a drone to me.

The term “drone” is a bit like “ambient” — it had a precise meaning but it got applied in wider umbrella fashion, for lack of a better word which can encompass a set that shares some general characteristics, but not the key characteristic that defines the term.

I would say that the set of characteristics for “drone” is even more nebulous… but then, there’s some music categorized as “dark ambient” which strike me as some kind of slow sludgy doom metal. Kind of a similar mood I guess…?


I have been thinking about gear again (of course). I’m confident now that I want to replace my Shelves and A-110-4 with a Xaoc Odessa — in fact, I’m probably not going to wait for May 1 after all.

After that, there’s more uncertainty and several possible paths — more later as it develops, as Cecil Palmer of Night Vale Community Radio would say.

long shot

We’ve been eligible and on waiting lists for vaccination against COVID for 6 weeks. But St. Louis is way behind getting the supply they need from the state, while rural areas have plenty for the current phase. (The state does not appear to view this as a problem — but then, the rural areas and the state government are Republican, while the city and most its suburbs are where the Black people and Democrats are. The governor is or was an anti-masker, and wanted to ban some of the emergency restrictions that St. Louis City and County put in place last year. So, there’s that.)

So, one of St. Louis’ new favorite sports has been finding somewhere else to go get vaccinated. (It’s better than baseball…) Last weekend she found us a couple of appointments at a drive-thru vaccination event near Fort Leonard Wood on Tuesday, which is her usual day off, so I took a sick day and we made a 5-hour road trip of it. It was in a community center’s parking lot, and was a very organized, no-fuss operation with minimal contact. We got the Moderna vaccine, so we’ll need the booster in a month — hopefully by then we can get it closer to home.


Last night I finished The Lost Books of the Odyssey, which like many books has “A NOVEL” printed on the front cover, but it kind of isn’t — more a short story collection with a theme. The premise is, the Odyssey was originally a sort of framing device for a set of mini-adventures that storytellers would embellish, add their own parts to, and so on, and it was only in translation and scholarly study that it became more of a fixed tale. So the author, claiming these were translated from many different sources, adds his own chapters. Some of them are pretty mundane, just Odysseus in reflective melancholy for example. But the better ones are cleverly twisted meta-stories that change the entire nature of the Odyssey. Some are the supposed “real version” of events, which Odysseus didn’t want getting out or which were embellished beyond recognition. Some are strange and surprising secrets about certain characters, or the personal viewpoints of Polyphemus, Circe, Athena, Achilles, Medusa, etc.

It was a short book, but overall I felt like there were maybe five really good short stories here and a fair amount of filler. Or maybe some of it required much more familiarity with the source material to really “get”, but that would be inconsistent with some of the explanatory footnotes elsewhere.

still afloat

There is a potentially cool, big, positive thing in the works for me, about which I’ll celebrate and explain if it happens.

But the process has been both exciting and stressful (sometimes it’s hard to untangle those two emotions!) There’s the ordinary social anxiety stuff, but more so, irrational worries of the sort where I know they’re irrational, but knowing is only about 20% of the battle.

Add that to the early 2021 background level of stress. And a problem where water was dripping from the first floor ceiling below the second floor bathroom, as the crazy weather started to thaw… was it a frozen pipe, leaking toilet or roof problem? (At this point it’s either a roof problem or ghosts.) And a mysteriously appearing magazine subscription buried in three layers of obscure companies with no web presence, which I think turned out not to be a scam maybe. And an Android update that broke four different things on my phone (some of which interfered with each other). All together, it’s been kind of a lot.

No full-blown panic attacks, thankfully! Those have a distinct feel to them, and I haven’t had one since about this time last year when COVID was getting really scary but I still had to physically go to the office.

To get to the point: there are certain albums that I find very soothing when things get overwhelming, and my own Float is one of them. It was intended for that purpose, and I’m happy to say that it works. Given that I’ve decided not to pursue the Beads study as an album but as a personal set of experiments, I think the next project will be a sort of sequel to Float. I think I’ll call it “Adrift,” because other connotations of the word fit how things have felt so far this year.

Calming music does not have to be boring. In fact, I find some kinds of boring music cause stress because you want it to stop! Some people listen to death metal, industrial, or HNW to relax — maybe it’s cathartic, or maybe the solid impact of it just drives away everything else, like standing under a waterfall. Other people prefer really thinky intricate jazz, or more soulful heartfelt blues, or old favorite pop from their youth, to untie the knots in their nerves. Whatever works! I’m still basically going for “dark” “ambient” here though with this.

because it’s Mardi Gras

Mutable Instruments Beads was released today, and I can finally stop being cautious about taking photos of my modular, and stop putting “[beta module]” or just “Clouds” in my patch notes. 🙂

I’m having second thoughts about my current project to explore it — I think it’s doing me some good to think about and discover other techniques and patches with it, but so far I’m not producing particularly musical results, just experimental ones. So it doesn’t really make much sense to release it as an album. Besides, as wildly popular as this is going to be, and as many demos have already appeared for it, I don’t think it needs something else that is also kind of a demo.

So I’ll probably just get back to making music the normal way (with occasional explorations interspersed, for my own benefit) and stumble into a theme accidentally, as so often happens 🙂 I do have another Ambient Online compilation piece to record, as well as that invitation from the Sonic Sound Synthesis show to consider.

good news, everyone

Our Gretta does not, it turns out, have cancer! Which came as a big surprise to the four vets who looked at her x-ray and said “that’s osteosarcoma.” And to the first oncologist who ran the biopsy and couldn’t quite believe that it came back negative, and sent it to a second oncologist.

As it turns out, they believe our doggo had a fracture sometime in her past that healed up wrong, without giving her any trouble running around normally — and then more recently, fractured again worse and was an untenable mess. The vet who did the surgery she said that if we’d chosen to do a bone biopsy first, she would still have recommended amputation, given the state it was in and Gretta’s age. So basically she got to get it all over with faster and with less stress on her body.


My parents have now had both their COVID-19 vaccines, so that’s a relief. My brother and his wife, both grocery workers, are waiting for theirs and I hope they can get them soon. My “aunt” (really a family friend, but like a sister to my mom) is apparently afraid of it because she’s had some bad reactions to flu shots in the past (and of course, the disinformation out there doesn’t help at all) but promises to ask her doctor. And as for my wife and I, well… the vaccine situation has been Extremely Not Great in the St. Louis area; last I’ve heard there have been zero doses sent by the state in the last three weeks. I’m signed up on three different pre-registration lists. I’ve also read news that Walmart is taking appointments, but I checked and they’re not doing it in our area, at least not yet.


We’ve been “enjoying” ( ಠ_ಠ ) real winter weather lately, with temperatures in single digits, snow flurries or light ice most days, and quite possibly a wind chill of -25F to look forward to this weekend. One advantage of not leaving the house very much is I’ve not once broken out the heavy coat, gloves, snow boots, and such and done very little driving in questionable road conditions.


We watched all four seasons of The Good Place over the course of 3-4 days, and it was great fun. We both agree that Janet is the best. The next time I have some excuse to hand someone a cactus I’m going to say, “I have the file.” It might be a while though.

I’ve just finished Charles Stross’s Empire Games and Dark State and am eager to jump into Invisible Sun. This is the second series in the Merchant Princes setting. Where the Laundry Files are a crossover of horror/SF/comedy/spy thriller, this setting is more fantasy/SF/alternate history/political thriller/spies. And these two books start pretty heavily into the spies and land on all fours in science fiction.

I forgot to add a title here

More demos and interviews about the Make Noise Strega have come forth, and I’m more convinced than ever I would really love one if I had it in my studio. And… at least for now I am sticking to my resolution and not buying it. If there is a golden opportunity to pick one up at a steep discount, I might not resist. But I don’t expect that for a while anyway.


MetaFilter has shared a couple of good posts lately on the subject of the attention economy and its titans:

Goodbye 2010s: techno-optimism edition

Though yes, the article does have some optimism for the future, it also points out a possible double-whammy explanation for why everything is terrible now: the combination of zero interest rate policy and algorithmic social media.

I don’t entirely follow the finance argument on its own, but combine that with the ability for someone who already has media attention to exponentially inflate their personal brand through fraud and assholery, which makes investors willing to shovel piles of cash at them because of their fame, and you get Kylie Jenner, Elon Musk and Donald Trump. It makes a certain amount of sense.

I mentioned the article to my spouse and she pointed out the writer’s strike of 2007-2008 and the spawning of reality TV. Without “The Apprentice,” I don’t think Trump would have had nearly as much of a personal brand in the public consciousness, and “creepy old rich guy with no taste thinks Obama isn’t actually an American” might have been good for two minutes of laughter followed by instantly forgetting about it. Of course, Twitter’s algorithm did go on to boost the horribleness. So the whole “running for President to build his personal brand” thing wouldn’t have happened.

Sigh.

On a more down to earth level, the attention economy was predicted in the 80s, before the internet was really even a thing to people not wearing lab coats.

As I said in my first blog entry here, I’ve quit Facebook. But I only recently had an epiphany about Instagram: trying to “train” the algorithm that suggests posts or shows a bunch of stuff on the search page, is worse than futile. Marking things “I am not interested in this” only informs the algorithm that I noticed the thing in question. While breaking my habit of checking my feed frequently might be hard, I should have an easier time just sticking strictly to the accounts that I actually follow.

And speaking of attention theft: any game that sends notifications on my phone to remind me to play it every few hours gets IMMEDIATELY deleted.

I wish I could preemptively block all requests to review products or services, too. Every single thing I buy online, every time I go to the dentist even. I get FOUR surveys each time I take my car in for warranty service.

Anyone who texts me and isn’t family or an unavoidable, legitimate business thing (like “your Grubhub driver is arriving soon”) gets blocked. Again, I wish that could be done preemptively.

Robocalls are the worst. There was a day when I received 15 phone calls from 15 different unidentified phone numbers, all of them leaving identity theft scam voicemail. I finally paid for the Hiya app so I could block a range of numbers. (So if you’re from Bangladesh and have a legitimate reason to call me, sorry.) I’m also constantly getting texts and phone calls from people offering to buy my house, which I have never indicated any interest in to anyone ever; of course may also be total scams as well. I am on the national Do Not Call registry and it doesn’t seem to help at all. I kind of want to ditch my current phone number, give it only to family members and my doctor’s office and bank, and see how that feels.

I use ad blockers in my browser without any sense of guilt whatsoever. Basing “free” websites on advertising revenue has led to surveillance capitalism and greatly worsened this attention economy. I feel like this is another thing that a universal basic income could help out with a lot actually — allowing “content creators” (*) to do their thing without begging for support.

(*) ugh. Can we say artists, entertainers, journalists and teachers here instead? Because good “content” is art, entertainment and/or knowledge, not just grist for the money mill.

Anyway, enough on this, I’m just ranting and making myself unhappy.


Music!

I’ve re-read Curtis Roads’ Microsound, which as far as I know is the absolute definitive book on granular synthesis. Roads wasn’t exactly the inventor of the concept, but much of his career has been spent in research and exploration of it, developing granular synthesis software and techniques and music. He is very much into different time scales of musical composition, from the tiniest grains of sound to “mesoscale” musical phrases and structure, and especially takes interest in the vague area where rhythm becomes tone.

Of course I read it for some inspiration and insight into the new project I’ve started. My approach is much less academic and formal, but then, I live in an era where I can pump some audio through a module or a plugin or a pedal. His research began in the days where digital synthesis meant an unfriendly programming language on a stack of punch cards, running a job overnight on the university computer to produce a spool of data tape that had to be carried across town to another university’s computer in an oceanography lab to convert the data to analog signals and record them on audio tape. (I seem to recall a story that John Chowning, the discoverer of FM synthesis, had to build his own digital-to-analog converter because Stanford didn’t own one.)

Roads developed a lot of non-sample-based techniques where grains contained generated waveforms or pulse trains. In a sense, it’s just playing thousands of very short notes very quickly until they blur together and become something else, preferably with some higher level organization on a more typical “notes” time scale. But all of that layering and amplitude modulation has consequences on timbre, and all of those rapid events are blurred together by human perception, so the result can be pretty fascinating. Although I have to say, some of them are more interesting in theory than in practice, compared to other synthesis techniques.

Musicians have generally latched much more onto granularization — sampling audio and then using that as the basis to generate grains through playing back short snippets in layers. That allows nearly total transformation of the sound in some aspects, while perhaps keeping other aspects. Stretching a sample in length without changing its pitch. Or repitching without changing the tempo. Or reversing it, or giving it a growly character, or blurring it in time into something more reverb-like, or modulating the time and pitch into something liquid and flowing, or turning it into a scintillating pointillist cloud. Or cutting it into such small pieces that it changes the spectral content entirely. Or, since the technology is basically the same, cutting it apart on a slightly larger scale and chopping up the rhythm.

My first couple of recordings for this album are pretty raw and experimental, directly revealing what this module is doing, without any other accompaniment or added effects, and with detailed patch notes. In both of them, there are varieties of textures created by changing parameters in a relatively simple patch.

I don’t know if the whole album is going to be like this, or if I’m going to intersperse these sorts of examples between more musical works that still feature granular techniques in some way (more like what I did with Rings, Lyra-8 and Akemie’s Castle on three previous albums).

witchy!

Make Noise announced their new piece of gear today, the Strega. It’s in the same form factor as the 0-Coast and 0-Ctrl, and was developed with musician Alessandro Cortini (who is associated with Nine Inch Nails but has quite an impressive catalog of his own solo instrumental work on modular synthesizers).

Mr. Cortini was interviewed by Sonic State and also played a couple of live sets on Instagram with it. It’s a lovely analog synthesizer with a noisy “karaoke delay” (probably the PT2399) on the back end. There are a lot of PT2399s out there, including in the Lyra-8, but this one also has a filter, reportedly three delay lines (assuming that’s for longer delay times but possibly other shenanigans) and seems modulation-friendly. The instrument also has some touchplates to temporarily connect modulation sources with destinations, and we haven’t gotten details yet about the waveshaping or whatever else is going on with its oscillator, but some great textures were emerging from those demos.

This honestly feels like it was aimed right at my heart (and my wallet). It’d fit in great with the music that I make. After the first demo and interview I had mixed feelings, but my resolution to stick with my current gear in 2021 is a guiding principle here. I can get some similar, though not identical, sounds with the gear I have and there is no lack of inspiration to be found there.

The second demo convinced me that I would really enjoy one of these.

I’m going to be firm though. I might figure out where to put one in 2022, but I’ll worry about that when the time comes.


Gretta is recovering nicely from her surgery — getting onto and off of furniture and up and down steps without assistance. She even trotted through the snow a little this afternoon, which was really encouraging to see!