starting 2020 a little early

I decided I’m absolutely sure about selling my Dark World pedal, and was tempted by the cheaper Paradox Arquitecto Fictional Space Reverbator. There was one discounted on Reverb in custom colors:

It’s a dual modulated echo that’s pretty much retro, swampy, dubby and ambient. It seems right up my alley. I couldn’t quite imitate the demos with my current hardware and software, though I did reach some other fun places while trying.

The main doubt I have about it is the lack of knobs to control time or modulation rate, but I’ll see how it goes. That was one of my dislikes with the Pittsburgh Verbtronic — but that module also lacked some of the other flexibility this pedal has, and it was annoyingly sensitive to input and feedback levels. If it turns out to be too much of a limitation for me, it’ll be no problem to resell it.


I realized I have 256GB of storage on my phone, which is more than twice the size of my MP3 library — and MediaMonkey has an Android version that syncs to the Windows version. It’s supposed to sync over WiFi, but I haven’t had any luck with that yet — could be the VPN on my phone though. Anyway, this gives me more flexibility in music listening anywhere without relying on streaming, and might shortcut a couple of steps when I buy music on Bandcamp. I’ll still keep my GPM subscription though; it can be good for music discovery or casual playlists.

putting some money where my ears are

I decided to get a bit of a head start on my “support other musicians through Bandcamp” goal for 2020 by paying for some of the albums that I’ve streamed many times, thoroughly enjoyed, but which probably earned about 37 cents for the artists up until now.

An industrial techno-ish duo using hardware modular, Reaktor and Maschine, they have just this one 2017 album and a remix EP… and I want more. Somewhat similar artists include Pact Infernal, Ancient Methods and (sometimes) Shifted, but they’re not quite on the same plane.

This is the kind of music I thought was going to emerge as the direction for Starthief in 2018. I went somewhere else instead.

Hands down my favorite minimal modular album. Just an ER-101 sequencer and a Verbos Harmonic Oscillator, with some delay and reverb. “Patterns” is definitely the right word, and comparisons to Bach are entirely fair.

While my music also tends to employ a minimal number of voices, this album is the opposite in many ways. It’s precise, mathematical, and tidy where mine is improvised, messy and tends to complicate itself.

There are a few artists who merge chiptune with rock guitar — elements of prog rock, metal and jazz fusion sort of colliding with 8-bit nostalgia. Danimal Cannon is among the best of those. The chippy solos and explosions of shift register noise are as intense as the guitar licks.

Dark and broody and a bit gothy synth pop with minimal, vintage analog synths. I just like it.

Where it comes to ambient music, I prefer the more shadowy and textured zones, perhaps not quite “dark ambient” most of the time but not just bright shiny stringlike pads and pretty plucking noises. This has got that texture and murk and mood to it and is firmly in the “what I like” zone.

There are a few artists who… wait, I already said that. Stemage is my other favorite in this category, improving on a couple of 80s soundtracks that were already excellent electronic compositions in their original form. Also he co-composed stuff and played guitar for Steven Universe (the best cartoon ever) and a lot of other stuff.

¡goooooooooooools! 2020

I’ve been accumulating and considering my goals for 2020. A quick review of my 2019 goals shows success in some areas, mixed or minimal results in others, and ways I can improve on them for next year. Without further ado:

Gear: I’ll continue the spend/sell/trade tracking that I began in 2019, but will also include software and any shipping costs.

My guiding principles:

  • The gear I have now is excellent, satisfying, and complete.
  • Everything should fit the “focus/charm” and “hybridware” concepts. (E.g. no overkill; character is more important than “flexibility”; don’t duplicate excellent software with good hardware.)
  • I don’t need to change anything. I can change some things.
  • Think less about gear, think/feel more about technique, process, flow.

I won’t sell or trade any modular gear until I’ve got my hands on a SynthTech E520. (This allows wiggle room for beta testing though.)

I am likely to look at some other FX pedals in 2020, keeping in mind those principles. Analog Drive is a big success with the Reface CS, and the CS or Lyra could benefit from some other partners, maybe. I know Dark World is a little redundant for me. Tensor is very cool but I don’t use it very often; why?

Music generally: Reserve some time just to listen. Eyes closed, headphones on (probably), and not multitasking.

Give more support to other musicians through Bandcamp. I know I appreciate the same. Streaming is convenient for listeners, but a lousy deal for musicians.

And of course, keep making music. This year I don’t plan to do Knobcon, nor to really worry about promotion or live performances, or popularity. But making music and putting it out there is deeply satisfying, and I’ll keep doing it my way.

Health: tracking my gear trades worked out nicely for me, so what happens if I log food and exercise? And maybe even my blood sugar once in a while like I should be doing anyway? Keeping myself aware may lead automatically to better habits.

In terms of mental health and overall mindset: three words. “Relax. Calm. Wonder!”

Online health: Some questions I should ask myself before wading in, particularly given that this will be an election year:

  • “What effect do I want my comment to have? (And is it a likely outcome?)”
  • “Am I reacting defensively (to something that’s not really about me)?”
  • “Is this worth the effort? Is it helping?”
  • “Can anything good come out of even reading this thread/article/etc?”

the internet is a tiring place…

We switched from (an increasingly evil carrier) to Credo Mobile, and replaced our 4-year-old phones with a couple of Galaxy S10e. I wish I could say the signal level at home and work are stronger but Just like setting up a new computer, it takes a few hours of poking at settings and looking up how to disable various stupid defaults to make it feel less like Samsung’s or Google’s phone (with some territorial pissing contests between them) and more like one’s own.

Something I never asked for and don’t want is Google parsing my email to pop up notifications to remind me when bills are due. (The bill in question is set to autopay anyhow, which GMail doesn’t know…) It’s a reminder than I kind of want to switch to ProtonMail, but updating my email address in 150 different online accounts doesn’t sound like a lot of fun either.


Something I read yesterday that disturbs me: That Uplifting Tweet You Just Shared? A Russian Troll Sent It

My thoughts on this:

  • Enemies of the American state “undermining trust in American institutions” sounds bad, sure. But in many cases those institutions have betrayed that trust themselves. It wasn’t the Internet Research Agency that shot Mike Brown, tortured people in Gitmo, put children in cages, etc.
  • One should also wonder if this piece is itself some kind of psyop. Why wouldn’t both Russian and American agents work to influence American opinions by posting things that are at least partially true, including about each other? We know there are organizations dedicated to climate science denial, promoting anti-abortion or pro-police or pro-gun stances, etc. for some combination of voter manipulation and profit.
  • (And to be fair, no doubt progressive groups employing similar tactics. And plenty of companies targeting progressive values for profit reasons, with varying levels of honesty vs. hypocrisy.)
  • And in a similar vein, how many legitimate criticisms have, at this point, been blamed on Russia? Claiming that something is Russian propaganda is a form of propaganda. It’s the new “any criticism of Hilary Clinton, whether from the right or the left, is sexist.”
  • Outrage is how media companies sell ads. And it’s also how things that need changing get changed. And it’s exhausting… it’s why I gave up on Huffington Post and then MSNBC and then Facebook.

Paranoia aside, there sure are a lot of people out there who want to tweak your opinions and employ your sympathy for their own ends. I guess the main thing to do is be cautious of social media (and news articles/opinion pieces, including this one) and the ways it exploits and is exploited.

the 10 year challenge…?

I had a nice enough birthday, though the weather celebrated it with really strong winds that ripped a section of siding almost completely off our house.

Magic Death Eye is indeed going to be up for sale on Black Friday. Whoo! I also picked up Wavesfactory Spectre, an almost ideal saturation plugin which I had not noticed before, for half price. So sales like this work.

The Black Friday frenzy has continued to bemuse me though. Some folks at KvR have really been whiney and entitled, complaining 8 days before the actual day that the sales are just not as good as previous years, or complaining when the plugin they wanted is only 40% off and only for 4 days. And I felt the need to say something, and… yeah, I shouldn’t have. I’m going to be more specific about my goals for 2020 in terms of online communication…!

I have the artwork now for Vultur Cadens and just need to put a title on it and do the actual release. Now I remember that was the thing I had been planning to do today…

But today I recorded something for the next Ambient Online compilation (theme: Jupiter) as well as a fourth potential track for album #12. So I was still productive.


Over on Lines, there’s now a thread for “Most impactful albums, 2010-2019.” The top lists started a month or more ago and of course all of them are wrong, but personal favorites lists are exempt from criticism (’cause it’s kind of jerky to do that). Here’s what I came up with:

Caterina Barbieri, Patterns of Consciousness
Belief Defect, Decadent yet Depraved
Danimal Cannon, Lunaria
Dark Sparkler, I No Beast I No Angel
Dark Sparkler, Year One
Datach’i, System
Figure Study, Figure Study
Johnathan Fitoussi & Clemens Hourrière, Five Steps
Haujobb, New World March
iVardensphere, Bloodwater
Ernst Karel, Swiss Mountain Transport Systems
Kodo, Akatsuki
Leaves’ Eyes, Meredead
Nathan Moody, Etudes I: Blue Box
Nathan Moody, Etudes III: Red Box
Nero, Welcome Reality
Oedo Sukeroku Daiko, Les tambours de Tokyo
Patricia, Body Issues
Professor Elemental, The Indifference Engine
Prometheus Burning, Kill It With Fire
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Two Orb Reel
Stemage, Priority One: The Music of TRON
Stemage, Where Good Marbles Go to Die
Amon Tobin, Dark Jovian
Amon Tobin, ISAM
Venetian Snares, Rossz csillag alatt született
Venetian Snares, Traditional Synthesizer Music
Void Vision, Sub Rosa
Youth Code, Youth Code

I’ve certainly had some other favorites in the last decade, but their release dates were pre-2010. That list would be two or three times as long. But I think there’s a pretty good mix here: a lot of synth nerd fodder with minimal modular setups or the Lyra-8 or Music Easel; a taste of taiko; even a field recording album. A little bit of electro-punk and industrial protest music, Chap Hop, the tail end of dubstep, Viking symphonic metal. A surprisingly successful classical/jazz/breakcore blend, and even more successful chiptune/prog rock/jazz fusion hybrids.

This makes me wonder what kinds of music, newly invented or reinvented, that we’ll hear in the 2020s. Maybe it’s time for industrial ambient and “soft noise” genres to spike in popularity… 🙂

the Magic Death Eye of the beholder

I am on the hunt for favorite compressor plugins, particularly for mastering purposes. I really would like to have one standard choice I can always be confident in, instead of hot-swapping several different plugins and tweaking them while tiring my ears with minute differences. I might have found it.

The fantastically named Magic Death Eye is a boutique, hand-built, retro-inspired modern vari-mu tube compressor, which happens to have an officially licensed version. And it’s excellent. (At least the plugin is, and I assume the hardware…)

yes, I took a photo of my computer screen with my phone, to capture the “real analog warmth” and room tone of photons 😉

I tested it against my recordings for the next album, and found it always beat something like 9 or 10 other compression plugins (some of which have multiple models). With some material, the difference between it and the best options is almost subliminal, but it’s there. In other cases, it’s a pretty clear winner. And the controls on MDE are nice and simple, and I feel like it just can’t sound bad even if you push it relatively hard. As some others have described, it’s “respectful” of the source material.

I’m pretty confident I could just use MDE for mastering 100% of the time with no worries. That leaves Supercharger GT, 6050 and a few Presswerk presets to cover more aggressive and “high mojo” compressor and saturator needs and limiting. Fair enough!

not yet it isn’t

BLACK FRIDAY IS HERE declares a post about a plugin sale.

No. It’s the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Give things their own time.

The last couple of years have seen the rise of “Black Friday Week” — which makes as much sense as “No-Shave November Year” — followed by several days of “Cyber Monday”, only one or two of which are actually on a Monday. Though of course, the first signs of “Black Friday” begin on about November 1.

This is part of a general temporal smearing of the holidays though. The pumpkin spice frenzy began in August. My mom — a big fan of Christmas — wanted me to have a wishlist ready in September. Stores started selling Christmas decor before Halloween.

I like the holidays generally, but they all have their specific times. Stretching them out to cover 1/4 of the year dilutes them and can make us kind of tired of them before they’ve even happened.

And of course Black Friday seems as if it’s taken over as the second most important “holiday” of the year. I appreciate getting some online deals on things — music software is especially discounted for two or three weeks, even though it’s not something that is frequently gifted — but it kind of indicates where our minds are at as a society.

it’s electric

So there’s finally going to be a new Half-Life game

…and it’s apparently VR-only.


I’m reading a slightly tedious book about the more or less simultaneous rise of popular interest in science and fairy tales in Victorian England, and how they influenced each other and the literature of the time. It mentions L. Frank Baum’s The Master Key: An Electrical Fairy Tale — the story of the wish-granting Demon of Electricity summoned accidentally by a boy’s scientific experiments — and it occurred to me “An Electrical Fairy Tale” might be a fun name for the next album. Because, if what I’ve recorded so far is any indication, it really is that different from the darker stuff I’ve been doing lately…

There’s apparently a yearly music festival called “Electric FAIRy Tale” in Fresno, but I don’t think I’m going to let that stop me. I may come up with a name I like better anyway, though.


The Sequential DSM03 Feedback module that I won in the charity auction arrived yesterday. It’s basically a Karplus-Strong synthesizer in a single module: a white noise generator with built-in envelope generator, a short delay with 1V/octave tracking, and a lowpass filter; there’s an external audio input which you can use instead of its own noise generator. It’s got a couple of issues though — I don’t think the feedback is strong enough for all circumstances, and adding filter resonance tends to suppress the feedback and make it very quiet. It’s capable of some interesting sounds regardless. I’ll pledge to keep it in my rack at least until the E520 comes along.

plug it in

I have written a lot in this blog about music hardware, but not nearly as much about the software that is also a vital part of my sound. Maybe it’s time. I won’t go into Bitwig’s built-in effects, nor the occasional synth plugins, but here are the third-party effects plugins that I use on a relatively regular basis.


Delay: super important to me, adding space, movement, character, rhythm and of course just plain echoes.

  • Valhalla Delay: for me this is the top of the heap for sure. A perfect combination of simplicity, flexibility and character, and it keeps getting better (there are three new variations in the current beta and they’re all fantastic).
  • Arturia 3 Delays You’ll Actually Use: some nice character here, particularly when overdriven and using their parametric EQ. Second fiddle to Valhalla, but it’s nice to have alternatives.
  • u-he Colour Copy: largely superseded by Valhalla, but for liquid, chorusy modulated delays it has a special lushness.
  • Audio Damage Ratshack Reverb: while I can probably get a similar sound with Valhalla, it’s just right there on tap. And the distortion it offers is pretty special.
  • Sonic Charge Permut8: when what I want isn’t a delay so much as a glitchy repeating weirdness thing, this is where I go.

Reverb: for making space and distance, smoothing out textures, as a medium to apply other effects in a feedback loop, or sometimes extending the duration of tails that I faded too quickly.

  • Valhalla Plate, Room and Vintage Verb: All excellent, though Plate is my favorite.
  • u-he Twangström: a fine emulation of spring reverb, when that kind of character is called for. I sold my real spring reverb because of this plugin.
  • AudioThing Fog Convolver: for applying real acoustic spaces, including some weird ones. I usually keep this one subtle, but I’ve found building a feedback loop around it can be fun too.

EQ: the scissors to generally shape my sounds and the scalpel to cut out problem areas. My music doesn’t tend to have the same kind of mixing applications for EQ that more mainstream music does, but this is still pretty vital.

  • Toneboosters Equalizer 4: My go-to general purpose and corrective EQ, whether full stereo or mid-side. It’s frankly unbeatable.
  • u-he Uhbiq-Q: I keep finding myself turning to this one for character, and for “blind” EQing where I want to trust my ears without graphical assistance.
  • Honorable mention: I just picked up McDSP 6050 and am learning it; among other things, it has 12 different analog-style EQ models with relatively subtle differences between them. There might be a favorite character EQ lurking here too.

Limiters: for keeping peak levels in check and feedback loops from exploding, and increasing loudness as the last stage in mastering.

  • Toneboosters Barricade 4: combines a saturator, compressor and limiter, but I use it primarily for limiting — its saturation can often get ugly and I find it very situational. I could probably just use Bitwig’s peak limiter instead, honestly.
  • u-he Presswerk: it’s a big fancy compressor plugin, but lately I’ve been using it almost exclusively for one of its limiter presets that can be pushed hard and does some nice soft clipping. The exact peak can’t be set, so I often use it as my first limiting stage before Barricade.

Compressors: I’m still trying to work out favorites here; this is an area I have long neglected in favor of the Graphic Dynamics tool in Sound Forge Pro.

  • NI Solid Bus Comp: I feel like it works well for subtle compression, and is fairly easy to dial in.
  • Klanghelm MJUC: a vari-mu tube compressor emulation, with a little more flavor than Solid Bus Comp but not over the top. For mastering purposes I’ve frequently found myself trying both of them and choosing my favorite (usually but not always MJUC).
  • NI Supercharger GT: To me this is best for more aggressive saturation and compression, but works nicely when mixed in parallel at a low level.
  • Honorable mentions: Graphic Dynamics still does have its uses. I used to try a couple of favorite Presswerk presets and A-B test them to see if they improved the overall clarity — and I should probably try its simplified modes against other options. McDSP 6050 has several analog style compressor models to choose from and seems promising. But I may find myself with FabFilter Pro-C2, since it’s very visual like my favorite EQ.

Tape: recording to tape is like acid-washing jeans — it adds character and/or grunge and it’s a good thing. In a plugin, you can control the variables with less hassle, expense and time than real tape.

  • Wavesfactory Cassette: this is a relative newcomer. It’s great for a touch of saturation and subtle compression, or heavy blown-out saturation, or extreme “4th generation copy using a warbly microcasette recorder and worn-out tape” effects.
  • XLNAudio RC-20 Retro Color: this one does vinyl, sampling and tape, with particularly tasty distortion and EQ sections. It’s really flexible and can do very non-tapelike things, and again works well both for gentle and extreme use.
  • Denise Bad Tape: a very up-front effect, with heavy and weird saturation. Sometimes useful though!

Downsampling: for retro digital sound, or just another flavor of dirt.

  • d16 Decimort: a pretty flexible sample rate and bit reducer with some anti-aliasing options, jitter and EQ.
  • Plogue Chipcrusher: realistic bad old digital encoding methods, with added noise and filter/speaker/cabinet impulses to sound like it’s coming from an old PC or game console or handheld toy.

Utilities:

  • haSound MSLR: mid/side left/right encoding and decoding. I use it pretty frequently with two different signals from the modular to create a wide stereo field. Needs some caution to prevent phase alignment issues though, and I may switch back to Voxengo MSED for its built-in scope.
  • Izotope RX6 DeClick: doesn’t work on 100% of clicks and pops, but when it does, it “just works” with no hassle or side effects.
  • Klevgrand Brusfri: a real-time noise reduction plugin that can listen to an example of your noise floor, and then dampen it pretty effectively.
  • Melda MAGC: automatically compensates for volume differences caused by an effect, which can help remove the illusion that louder=better, or confirm that a compressor’s make-up gain is set wisely.

Metering/Visualization:

  • Voxengo SPAN: an excellent spectrum analyzer with a phase correlation meter.
  • Voxengo Correlometer: a multiband phase correlation meter that can show which frequency ranges have problems. It makes fixing those areas with mid/side EQ a bit easier.
  • Youlean Loudness Meter: shows real-time true peak and LUFS readings, and can synchronize its display with the host’s transport time.
  • Honorable mention: the Statistics tool in Sound Forge Pro. Much faster than Youlean, but it measures what has already been done to the file.

Weird stuff:

  • Unfiltered Audio SpecOps: various kinds of spectral filtering, mangling, and freezing. There’s a lot going on here. It could be dethroned by the SynthTech E520 when that ships, though.
  • Melda MTransformer: I find this pretty interesting mostly for spectral compression or formant shifting. Again, the E520 might bury it.
  • Melda MCharacter: it attempts to synthesize extra harmonics, and/or spectrally filter the input, but it’s kind of touchy and situational.

Have any favorite effects plugins, or recommendations especially for dynamics? Let me know!