drone day

I just learned about 3 hours ago that today is Drone Day. That is, a day to celebrate drone music, rather than the flying kind (there’s an International Drone Day for that too).

I don’t think there’s anything locally going on for it, but then I didn’t look either. Instead, I made a thing.

If there are drone purists, they might scoff at some of what’s going on. They might say “this is more like dark ambient, not really drone.” That’s okay. I still like it.

(th)inking

For many years now, I’ve thought about getting a tattoo. Mostly not seriously, but sometimes more seriously. Indecision about what to get and whether I really wanted it has always held me back.

At one point I was interested in “invisible” tattoos that glow under blacklight. I like the symbolism inherent in a hidden thing that only reveals itself under certain circumstances. The downside of those is that they’re not really “invisible” because the scars still show, apparently.

When my spouse did the cool pyrography design for my modular case, I thought the central element of it, inverted, would make a pretty cool tattoo design. It’s got a star of course (gotta have that), and spirals that are somewhat reminiscent of both wind and my spouse’s own tattoo. It bears some coincidental similarity to the “Sesa Wo Suban” symbol which apparently means “transform your character,” and also to symbols for “void” in various fictional settings.

I’ve got some other thoughts about symbols that are personally meaningful that would work for a tattoo. I doubt I should cram all of them into a single design, though. (And once again I shake a metaphorical fist at Starbucks for ruining any combination of mermaid and star I might have otherwise run with…)

The reason I’m thinking of this now is I’m reading Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit, wherein one of the main characters has a fascinating conversation with a tattoo artist. What resonates with her — and with me! — is the idea of a tattoo as unifying mind and body. Turning a mental image into a physical one; exercising some control over a thing that doesn’t always cooperate with our mental images.

And then coincidentally, someone on the Lines forum started a thread about tattoos (from artists’ perspective). And I overheard someone at lunch talking about getting a tattoo, too. Bauder-Meinhof phenomenon or not, I was paying attention.

Of course, the most likely outcome is I’ll think about symbols for a few days and then not make any decision about a tattoo. You never know, though…

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

one better than Filter 7

…or I could end up selling the QPAS to someone and turning it around into a Joranalogue Filter 8, which ticks all the right boxes for interesting filters and then some, sounds great and I’m pretty confident will not get traded for some other filter in the future.

One of the keys to this choice is, when it’s self oscillating it can be either a VCO or an LFO — and it has 8 outputs at different phases that can be patched back into itself to change the shape. And it also goes slow enough to act as a sort of resonant slew limiter for CV signals. Fun times! And it has both exponential FM (which most filters do) and linear (which most don’t) and a hold function (which none do, and is a bit more like the first Tides version).

CS 101

The Reface CS is set up and I’ve whiled away a few hours messing around with it. It is indeed fun! The warm fuzzy glowing reviews are only a little overstated. The synth’s limitations as I see them are:

  • There doesn’t seem to be any internal limiting/saturation keeping levels sane; the max volume setting for normal synthesis turns into clipped mush if you make the filters self-oscillate. There might be some DC offset or something eating into the headroom too, because it doesn’t sound all that loud… this isn’t too serious a problem, just a matter of a bit more tweaking while working with it.
  • I hate to sound like the people who claim that digital isn’t as “warm” or as capable of solid bass as analog is, but this particular synth does not have much bass junk in its trunk. This is something I can compensate for, where it matters — but I’m more inclined to use it for what it is natively great at instead.
  • The controls are steppy, in the manner of 7-bit MIDI CCs. This is only an issue when trying to slightly offtune filter resonance (a trick I like with Roland SH-101 and clones) and a pretty serious lack of precision in the ringmod oscillator type.
  • The second slider in FM mode adds noise to the mix as well as changing the ratio. This can sound good, but isn’t a choice I would have made.
  • The pitch bender seems to have some built-in slew that I’m not sure I like. Doesn’t really matter much to me since I rarely use pitch bend and almost always edit automation curves for it when I do.

That aside, it is really good at some things. Especially supersaw pads with the phaser lending it a lush 70s “string machine” sound, “singing” organ-like tones with the filter resonance, and some unusual tones with the sync, ringmod and FM types. Right now I feel like I’m going to need to rotate and jiggle things to get the Reface to fit in with my vibe — but that’s a challenge I welcome. The keyboard feels better to me as a controller than the Microbrute.

I dug up my “DJ” “laptop” stand and have the Microbrute hovering above the Reface, but unless I want to steal an input from the modular, right now I can’t use them both simultaneously. I had a dodgy little analog-to-SPDIF converter that theoretically should work with my audio interface, but Maschine has a max of 8 inputs anyway for some reason. If, over time, I find I’m just not using one or the other of the keyboards I’ll likely move it upstairs to the Jamming Room.


Those headphones at work are just not getting better. I can listen to some things without too much disappointment, but others I really can’t — and it just feels like I’m wearing buckets on my ears. I get why people called headphones “cans” back in the day when they were all closed-back liked this.

But all will be well. My favorite pair of headphones, which I’ve used at home for years now for music production and everything else, is the Superlux HD688B with a velour ear pad replacement. If I spent 6 times as much I might get slightly more accurate sound reproduction, but I’m totally used to these. Well, I found a barely-used pair with the pads already replaced, and also a tiny Bluetooth receiver I can attach right to the thing and stay wireless at work.

I’ve finished a first skim through the big Curtis Roads book, and gleaned a few things I might want to play with in the future. I’ll do another pass just to make sure I’m not missing anything since I don’t need to return it for another month. A lot of the book covers material I’m already familiar with, or am not interested in personally working with, and a lot of it is oriented toward academic experimentation and technologies from the 90s and earlier. Overall it was worth looking at but I’m glad I didn’t pay full price to own my own copy.


While I’m overall not planning on doing more buying/selling until after Knobcon at least, I don’t think I said anything about trading. 😀 I went ahead and put up a very specific “have these, will trade only for these” list, and as I did it, realized I kind of miss the Three Sisters filter. Its general sound was my favorite among them, it’s straightforward yet has a few neat tricks, and does FM and self-oscillation really well. I’ve got a potential trade lined up for my QPAS, and if that goes through I’ll just stick with that for my filter needs.

the comfort food of synths

Back at KnobCon 2017, among all the gear I tried, aside from Natural Gate the thing that stuck with me the most was how pleasant the Yamaha Reface CS was. It uses the AN1X virtual analog engine, and relatively simple controls and no patch memory in the style of a classic synth. My impression at the time was that it just can’t go wrong, can’t be made to sound bad; it was pure fun to play and tweak. That’s what its owners and reviewers say too — you play with it a bit and it just takes you somewhere that you want to curl up inside and play with it for hours. A feel-good instrument.

It had a few things going against it in the market:

  • It looks kind of like a toy. Mini keys, built in speakers and simple controls don’t really say THIS IS A SERIOUS PIECE OF HARDWARE. It’s got to be black, and optionally have wood side panels or ravey bright lights. (Even Moog can barely get away with colorful panels.) And some people just hate mini keys. People look at it, think “another Yamaha toy” and move on without trying it.
  • The feature list isn’t exciting. It’s a “virtual analog” synth (“digital subtractive would be a better term) released in a time when real analog had surged in popularity. If I hadn’t had the chance to try it myself and experience what it’s like to play it, I wouldn’t have believed it was anything special.
  • It was one of a line of four keyboards with a similar format, also including the electric piano Reface CP, the organ Reface YC and the FM synth Reface DX. The latter stole most of the attention, because the DX-7 was one of the most popular synths ever made.
  • When people think of a Yamaha CS synth, they jump right to the CS-80 — the 200 pound monster that Vangelis used for the lush and expressive Blade Runner soundtrack — and this is not that at all. (It’s inspired a bit more by the CS-01, which was a little grey synth that was Yam’s answer to the Roland SH-101. Again: simple, easy to dial in something good, and just satisfying to play.)
  • The retail price was too high at the start, and prices have been bizarre since then. Occasionally deeply discounted, but often higher than the original price. They’re hard to find used because of few owners ever want to let them go. So you just have to sort of watch for deals.

I found it at that discount price though, and it fits within my “I’ve still spent negative dollars” budget. So there’s one on the way.

Whether I’ll attempt to keep both it and the Microbrute with a 2-tier stand, or make them compete for my favor, remains to be seen. Microbrute went from being used in 1/3 of my recordings for quite a long time to much more rarely used recently, but I still have a pretty high opinion of it.

slow going, but going

The current album project has been ticking along a bit more slowly than I often go. Much of the blame goes to illness; I “got over” my cold a couple of weeks ago but a lingering cough and chest congestion has put a damper on everything.

I’ve been occasionally reading up on bits of subject matter related to the theme, and writing a thing that I keep trimming back. A whole lot can be said about conformity, individualism, authenticity, their less healthy aspects in our society, how it relates to music and what the actual relevance is when you’re trying to use it as an album theme. But my goal here is to write an album, not a book.

I’ve been playing a fair bit of Guild Wars 2, instead. It’s been a couple of years or more, so I deleted all my old characters and started over, finally settling on a condition Mesmer. I also noticed I had 97% of the Steam achievements in Bejeweled 3, and maybe that’ll be the first (possibly only) game I ever hit 100% with. Heh. I don’t want to get too much in the habit of gaming instead of making music, though.

My spouse did the interlibrary loan thing and snagged me a copy of Curtis Roads’ The Computer Music Tutorial for a month or so. I knew there was a lot in it, but didn’t realize it was a five-pound, 1200+ page tome. While some of what it covers I’m already familiar with, there are a lot of methods I’d heard of but didn’t really understand, or things that have been tried but for various reasons never became popular methods. It doesn’t get into deep details of implementation, nor explosions of impenetrable calculus — it stays on a level to inspire patches, experimentation and insight. (Oh, that’s why exponential FM works that way…). I’m taking a few photos and notes as I go. It remains to be seen whether I decide I’ll need to own my own copy.

That new audio interface is working out just fine. I even found I can use the Mutable Instruments style Rogan knobs on it, so now the main volume stands out clearly from the row of smaller knobs.

I had to replace my headphones at work — cheap QY Bluetooth earbuds, which got all intermittent in the left channel. I made the mistake of going for closed-back headphones, and I’m not sure I like them. It’s a bit like holding seashells up to your ears, or perhaps buckets. The semi-open ones I have at home are fantastic, with clear highs and solid bass and just the right amount of isolation where I can still hear some of what’s going on outside them. I’ll keep using these to see if I get used to the differences, and because I don’t want to immediately buy another pair of headphones. They’re pretty comfortable, at least.

My current musing on gear is, I’ll probably stick to my 2.2 plan with the DPO. It strikes me as being an instrument, with a particular character that I like, and that feel of a classic complex oscillator. Also it conveniently needs a bit less current on the -12V rail than my other options. Generate 3 would be awesome I’m sure, but I really feel like I couldn’t go wrong with DPO.

it’s always sunny in Berlin

Okay, that seems dubious. Philadelphia is about the same latitude as Madrid, Sardinia, and Ankara, while Berlin is about the same latitude as Saskatoon, or halfway between Minsk and Kiev. In the States we kind of forget how far north European cities are compared to our own.

But it’s definitely not sunny at the national park where we were going to camp this weekend with my parents. (Which has a latitude near Málaga, Tehran, Nagano, and San Jose.) The forecast calls for tornadoes and major flooding. So that’s called off. Boo 🙁

But about Berlin: its Superbooth is by far the biggest synth þing of the year at any latitude. The announcements, press releases, Instagram teasers, and hype trains of shiny new objects with knobs on them — both from exhibitors and others strategically timing their releases — began earlier this week. So those of us not in Berlin are now down to waiting on video demos.

There are a lot of clever designs and a fair amount of filling in waiting niches. For the most part I am just nodding and moving on, but a few items have caught my attention.

  • I made a tidy plan for Synth Farm 2.2, but the Joranalogue Generate 3 may shake it up. Leave technical bits aside, this is an analog oscillator with incredible modulation and shaping potential. It may be perfect as the primary VCO of a complex oscillator pairing, as well as pushing past other frontiers — but I have to hear some demos.
  • Endorphin.es has several new small modules. One of them, the Godspeed+, is the Strong Zero Core and wavefolder from the Furthrrr Generator — so it would also be a fine contender for complex oscillator use. Another is the Airstreamer, the function generator from their Grand Terminal which can also act as an oscillator.
  • One of the most creative new things is the Gamechanger Audio Motor Synth. It’s a polyphonic synth that uses 4 pairs of electric motors as oscillators — both magnetically and optically — in a clever little box. Whether or not there’s one in my future, I definitely want to hear more about it. The thing is apparently going to be 1200 euros. Dear me no.
  • Last year we learned of the u-he CVilization, and this year there will be more demos. It’s maybe not super-thrilling, but it could replace my matrix mixer in less space and more functionality. The developer makes some VST plugins I like quite a lot, so it’s worth watching. [Just saw a video on this; it seems a bit confusing and do-everything-y; maybe easy to learn but I’ll want to see tutorial videos or a really good manual before I really think about getting one.]
  • I had been curious about the Pittsburgh Modular Voltage Research Laboratory synth. With the details revealed, I can tell it’s going to make some people very happy but it’s not something I need at the price.
  • I’ve just heard there’s an Industrial Music Electronics Kermit mk3. There are no photos, videos, sound demos, etc. I can find yet. Apparently it’s gone from dual to quad, but no word on whether its gorgeous “dusty” digital character has been sanitized for mk3 as IME’s other modules have, nor on size, nor other changes. My guess is it’s probably a couple of years away from release anyway.

Current plans:

  • Replace my audio interface. I like a lot of things about my Focusrite Saffire Pro 40, but I don’t particularly like (A) that it uses Firewire 400 when I’m thinking about getting a new computer, and (B) that the main monitor output’s “Dim” switch (lowering the volume a lot but not muting it) keeps switching itself at random, and (C) some of the playback/dropout problems I’m having might be related to Firewire or the drivers.

    But it happens that the Behringer U-Phoria UMC1820 has a slightly better feature set, uses USB and is one of the cheaper replacement options. And I found a used one on Reverb — so that should be arriving in a couple of days.
  • The ETA for Panharmonium shipping is “late spring” / June.
  • Rumor has AMD’s third-gen Ryzen chips releasing in early July — at that point I upgrade my computer.
  • KnobCon is in September. Use it to try a few things and see if that shakes up my plans any. Specifically I want more hands-on time with a DPO, I’d like to try a Cš-L if there’s one there, and consider alternatives to the MicroBrute.

My tentative Synth Farm 2.2 plan before any of the new stuff was announced, was simply to trade Plaits for a DPO, and rearrange the case a bit for better ergonomics and flow. There’d be 4HP of space left and wiggle room for other possible substitutions. With the options of Generate 3 and/or Godspeed+ instead, there’d of course be more free space.

Not much else going on now other than

  • Thinking about music and how to make it. And how the personal freedom/authenticity thing relates to it, and writing some about that.
  • I’ve been contending with chest congestion and the cough that too often lingers for weeks after other symptoms are gone. I had a few planned vacation days but used them to do not much.
  • I reinstalled Guild Wars 2 and am running yet another Necromancer — my spouse wondered if it was meant to be one of her fictional characters, but really I just thought a particular hair option was neat and designed the rest of the look around that (and the limited and somewhat gratuitous wardrobe choices of a new character).
  • I read the rest of the Laundry Files novels I had, then immediately got online and ordered the newest which I was missing. Very bad things, tension, and the good guys’ deeply scary sorcery all keep escalating beyond where I ever thought it would go… and yet it holds on to its humor.

aftershocks

I didn’t play a lot of Quake. Just a little of the first game, and I picked up Quake 3 Arena on sale at some point. I was never any good at it, and was a little more into Unreal and a lot more into the Rainbow Six games (up through Athena Sword, before the series became a very Hollywood thing) and Half-Life.

But it’s still a thing, and there’s still a community making maps for it — and they need music for their trailers. I answered a call for “a rhythmic dark ambient track”; I’m told about 20 others did too and mine was the favorite.

For the current project, I’ve been thinking I would make more music in this vein. It keeps coming out differently. That’s okay though; my process is to follow the music where it leads and I don’t consider it any kind of failure if it takes an unexpected turn.

slightly delayed

Next weekend is Superbooth — modular synthesis’ biggest trade show / gathering / bunch of performances, in Berlin. There will be announcements of new stuff. I’ll be out in the woods, camping and not following the hype (or if there’s a good connection, checking websites a couple times a day maybe).

But right now when I look at my system, I think “geez there’s a lot of stuff here to explore” — partially because of the wide and deep ocean that is the Rainmaker. I don’t want to add to that for a bit, I just want to grab a spoon and start digging. So the gear is going to sit as-is for a while, at version 2.05 or whatever it is, and not commit the last 20HP. I have a few thoughts on it, but I’ll reserve most of those for my personal “what if” notes.

One thought I’ve been having is that I kind of miss having nice hands-on complex oscillators. ER-301 is capable, and is a fantastic blank slate. But neither the unit that I wrote for it, nor the Volca Modular, are quite filling that ecological niche. I have some thoughts about a different way to solve this in the ER-301 — separating the oscillators onto different channels and routing via a combination of patch cables and “prewired” internal connections. If that doesn’t get me there, I see a Synth Farm 2.2 plan (not one that replaces the ER-301, but other things).

Between the recent release of the long-awaited Valhalla Delay and especially my first explorations of the Rainmaker, I’ve gained some new insights into the relationship between delays (especially multitap) and comb filtering, and what can be done with them. And I’ve taken that insight back into exploring the older Valhalla UberMod, which is a multitap delay with a quite different paradigm. The result is something a little like the big knowledge download I recently got with wavefolding/FM/PM, but more on the intuitive side and much less geometric.

I haff come to inspect ze tapestries

Sonic Tapestries #23 is now available in the MixCloud archive. This is an episode of a radio show on London’s Resonance Extra which, this month, featured modular synth artists.

Roughly 11 and a half minutes in, they introduce my piece “and then gone” from Passing Through. Here’s what the guest, Simon Morgan, had to say:

This is someone I came across online, an American artist named Starthief who I think is really excellent, and embodies what I would consider the modern spirit of modular, which has got its roots in the early days, the Gong track you just played. And along with all the other artists and contributors and builders and designers in the scene is giving modular this rebirth. This is someone that I think makes really, really lovely sounds.

Thanks Simon! And the discussion afterward:

Mat Hart: That was really nice! It kind of progressed from sort of more ambient stylings to sort of more… sawtooth?

SM: It’s kind of got that edge to it in pieces, which I really like.

MH: One of the things that I listen more and more now to modular synth music is trying to discern what elements are analog and what elements are digital. And I feel personally quite lost in that minefield. I know you’ve got quite an impressive knowledge of both worlds, can you listen to that and sort of go ‘ah, that is that synth?’

SM: To some extent I think one can — and one can always slip on the banana skin of your own preconceptions as well when you’re doing that. Starthief is someone I’ve come across on one of the modular forums, so I happen to know a little bit about how he makes his music — I stress a little bit — and I know that he has some digital elements to what he does, and I think knowing that I can probably identify those where they show up in that track. And I think the analog/digital debate, which has many facets, is in some ways overstated. Given modern technology, personally I’m much more about results than tools. If something gives me the results I want, I’m not that bothered whether it’s analog or digital technology. I use both those worlds in my own music and am happy to do so. I believe Starthief — probably, not knowing him but knowing a little bit about how he works — probably would not be very far from that position. There’s some digital in there, yeah.


To address that last bit: a lot of agreement here. In the last three decades we’ve been through a few cycles where digital was king and analog was demonized, and vice-versa. In retrospect it all seems silly and kind of embarrassing. Analog and digital each have their strengths, and there’s no reason not to use them together.

I would characterize my system as mostly digital now, with a few key analog pieces — and of course the analog control paths and signal paths that define Eurorack. This particular piece is no exception — the sound source is the ER-301 Sound Computer, which is partially modeling an analog circuit. FM is from Kermit, a proudly lo-fi digital oscillator, but slower modulation is from Maths, a proudly analog modulation and signal-mixing tool.

Somewhat in this vein, here’s something recently posted on Lines in a thread debating “inscrutable” musical tools, which resonated with me:

My favorite colors happen to include both analog and digital. (And of course the bit about artist as critic very much hits home with me, as that’s what I finally realized in 2017.)


Anyway, Simon’s own piece in this show is lovely and as ghostly as its title suggests, and there are some other very highly regarded musicians featured as well. Suzanne Ciani, Richard Devine, Tangerine Dream… I’m kind of dizzy to have my music included among theirs, really. So maybe go have a listen. 🙂