rosin up, and put on your speculation spectacles

Listening to Unfolding this morning, I was struck by how “strings-like” many of its voices are in general timbre, regardless of what was producing those sounds. I kind of wish I could take credit for brilliant imitative sound design, but honestly: I didn’t actively set out to imitate string ensembles. There’s just something that really works about that kind of sound though.

The basic formula for a synth string ensemble is fairly simple: sawtooth waves, preferably from a stack of detuned oscillators or a chorus effect later, with a lowpass filter to tame it a little, a sustained volume envelope, and typically some reverb. Playing chords helps with the illusion, as does vibrato. To get a little fancier, a fixed filter bank or physical modeling can be employed, or a modulated wavetable that adds a bit more motion. None of this will necessarily fool the ear into thinking it’s actual strings being vibrated by actual horsehair stretched across actual wood, but it can definitely put the sound of a string section in mind.

While I also approximated strings with the Hertz Donut, Lyra-8 and others — thanks mainly to generous chorus and reverb — most of the points on the album that sound most convincingly like a string section or a double bass were Ensemble Oscillator. It’s not really any wonder; the right shapes for it are easy to dial in, the self-FM can add just the right kind of growl and bite so you can practically hear the rosin gripping the strings, and it eats detuned chords for breakfast.

ENOSC of course can do pipe organs with embarrassing ease — so much that when you first try it, it feels difficult to avoid them. It can also go to all kinds of astonishing, unexpected places. You can tune it so its lowest oscillators drop down to LFO rate but set the spread so its highest sing soprano and are modulated by those LFOs. You can coax patterned static bursts and growly flutters and metallic resonant hums and all kinds of oddities.

I am leaning harder toward “I have plenty of oscillators” because the likes of ENOSC, Shapeshifter, and Akemie’s Castle are each just so much in themselves already. And there’s Kermit, Rings, Mimeophon, Angle Grinder, Zorlon, Phonogene, Clouds, Maths etc. to act as sources. And the Medusa, the Microfreak, and the incoming YM2612 synth. And software integrated with the modular.


Mutable Instruments announced a new revision of the Veils quad VCA last week, and also that there will be two more releases. It’s been more than strongly hinted that one of these is the successor to Clouds. The other — which sounds like it’s going to be another successor-with-a-new-name sort of thing — is unknown. So I’ll speculate baselessly!

Edges/Yarns: Edges was a quad chiptune-inspired oscillator, discontinued some time back. Yarns was a MIDI to CV converter that also could act as simple oscillators, discontinued recently due to relatively low sales (and a general decrease in demand for MIDI-CV converters). I could see some kind of quad oscillator with a minijack MIDI input as well as CV perhaps, but I wouldn’t rate it as highly likely.

Peaks: Arguably, this LFO/envelope generator/drum voice was supplanted by Stages as a much more powerful modulation source and Plaits as a more powerful percussion module. With plenty of more basic EG and LFO modules out there I can’t see a compelling reason for a more direct Peaks successor. So I’d rate this as even less likely.

Streams: It could be made non-modal, with a VCA/VCF balance and some integrated compression ability. Maybe not the strongest contender for a remake, but not impossible.

Branches/Grids: in a sense, Marbles does some of this. I honestly don’t have any experience with Grids, but it seems fairly robust already and there’s a lot of other competition out there for pattern sequencing stuff. It’s a possibility, though.

Rings/Elements: my wishful thinking here is that there’s room for another resonator in the Mutable lineup. Perhaps something that emphasizes the pure resonator aspect more, while offering new resonator models (perhaps a continuous morph between models) — or something that leans more to the bowed/breath side as opposed to Rings’ pluck/mallet. Not a “replacement” or “successor” to Rings so much as a complementary module. I can’t even guess if this is likely or just my own daydream though.

Warps: maybe? There are a lot of ways a revision could go and I don’t really have a clear vision of what that would be. I can tell you though, I would go for it.

Frames: I feel like it was a brilliant concept but it suffered somewhat in the implementation. If I were designing my own keyframe-based CV mapping module, it’d have an LCD display on it — but there are other ways in which the interface could be redesigned for clarity. It could also perhaps add individual CV inputs, making it (in some minor sense) a sort of fusion with Blinds, yet remaining at or below 18HP.

Regardless, my plan is now:

  • Continue to wait on the charity auction to see what else comes up.
  • Plan to pick up a Doepfer A-188-1y (256 stage BBD).
  • Reserve the remaining space for Mutable Instruments gear, at least until I see what that’s going to be. And if it’s not a must-have, don’t fill in that space with another oscillator, but consider other options.

pieces

I don’t want to write about the whole election/COVID/”president” thing right now or give it any more attention than it needs. I’ve voted. I don’t need to have dreams about this crap or wake up immediately wanting to know the current status of… things. Gah.


I have four recordings so far that might appear on the next album, and they suggest a theme by each having only one or two voices. I think I will continue in this vein. There are a couple of ways I could go with a title, but I’ll decide that when I get closer to a release.


I finished reading Harrow the Ninth and… whoo boy is it different from the first book in tone for the most part, and confusing for a while, which reflects the protagonist’s state. Excellent though. Such a unique setting for these books, and enjoyable characters. I look forward to the third book, and will have to start a new necromancer in Guild Wars 2, even though they’ll be nothing at all like Harrowhark and her rivals/comrades.


I’ve now color-coded my matrix mixer, and it does indeed provide a better visual cue to the inputs-knobs-outputs relationships, reducing the cognitive load when patching. Not quite as straightforward as having inputs in a vertical row and all jacks aligned with the knob matrix, but good enough!

I also received the Ana and Blinds, and sold the Shades. Ana is great as a waveshaper, as a general thing to plug multiple signals into and get a variety of other things out. Even with Shapeshifter’s multiple combination modes, plugging the 1 and 2 outputs into it, maybe with an envelope too, yields some fun variations. And Blinds is pretty much exactly as I expected; if it had bipolar/unipolar switches and maybe mute buttons/toggle switches it would be perfect, but it’s at about 94% as it is. But I’m going to hold onto the matrix mixer I think, as it seems a little more intuitive for feedback patching than Blinds.

I have my Starling VIA and its 4 faceplates up for sale now. META doesn’t sit entirely well with me due to its modes and unclear interface, SCANNER doesn’t fascinate me like it used to (and I have plenty of waveshaping options now that make more sense), OSC3 has some neat tricks but I crashed it a few too many times to want to rely on it, and SYNC3 is cool but I feel like I have enough tools that will cover its range of abilities.

That leaves up to 36 HP free (34 if I keep the blank next to FX Aid where it’s helping a bit with tight knob spacing). I’m waiting to see what happens with the charity auction, but here are some options I’m considering:

  • Pittsburgh DNA Symbiotic Waves. It’s an older digital oscillator that’s sort of a gritty and lo-fi proto-Cyclebox (which was the precursor to Shapeshifter). It’s a little limited in CV control and flexibility compared to more modern things but I can’t argue with the sound. Again I remind myself, I have plenty of oscillators to go around. But… it’s cool, and with a Rings and Via out, I could indulge this.
  • A real BBD. ValhallaDelay is nice but imitates a “clean-ish” guitar pedal with its filtering, lack of clock whine and inability to underclock to the point of aliasing. The Doepfer BBD I once had offered some delicious mangling opportunity, although I found 1024 stages was an awkward compromise between short resonator lengths and longer echo lengths, not great at either. I’m leaning toward a Doepfer 256-stage, which I could always patch into the feedback path of longer delays if I wanted longer times — but the Erica Pico BBD (4096 stage) has the appeal of being much smaller, a little cheaper, and letting me fit in more stuff.
  • 2hp Freez. I had one before, and while the actual freeze effect is not terribly exciting (Phonogene, Mimeophon, Purple Rain all can do it anyway), its sample reduction had a lovely character to it. This is pretty optional though, as there are some mighty tools in software to lo-fi-ize sounds.
  • A quantizer like Intellijel Scales, Sonic Potions Penrose etc. where individual notes in the scale have buttons, rather than dialing in a scale selection. I could keep using Marbles or Teletype, but the hands-on, instant setup appeals. The important thing here is, something sparser than a full scale seems to work nicer for quantization.

auction action

Luftrum’s 10th annual music industry charity auction is now underway. This time the proceeds go to MusiCares COVID-19 relief.

This one’s just getting started, and it typically takes a couple of weeks to really get rocking. But last year’s auction raised $31,075 for the World Wildlife Fund to help protect rainforests in the Amazon and Indonesia. Dozens of plugin and sample library developers and some notable hardware manufacturers contributed a lot of cool stuff to the effort. If you happen to be a maker and seller of music gear, please follow the link and click on “Contact Organizer” to join in.

4 years ago, this auction is what started me in modular synthesis with Mutable Instruments Rings (and a quick purchase of Tides and Peaks to go with it). So it’s like passing a personal milestone when it comes up each year. In subsequent years I’ve seen a couple of others buying their first modules and growing into modular synth buffs.

And if some tempting modular goodies make an appearance, I’ve got 24HP of free space now with no specific plans. As it turns out, what I’ve actually used my Disting EX for in recordings has mainly been crossfading and ring modulation. Mutable Instruments Blinds, which I was already considering as a replacement/consolidation for the AI008 Matrix Mixer and one of my two Shades, can do those things. The Disting sold very quickly, since demand is still higher than production and shipping speeds can handle, and I ordered the Blinds.

I’m holding onto AI008 for now because I’m still waiting on that pinstripe tape to try color-coding it. Could be the available space will expand to 32HP though.

I also decided I don’t need two Rings anymore — the combination of Mimeophon, FX Aid, E520, Shelves, and a mixer are quite potent for resonator purposes. But I’ll always keep one Rings to rule them all. 😀 The spare one also happened to go quickly, traded for a Mystic Circuits Ana, which handles some of the other things I used Disting for occasionally plus a few other fun tricks.


And now, it’s book review time! Only in my usual style of “I read this and I liked it” because being critical is a lot of work and I read for fun.

I had this pair on my wishlist for a while, but borrowed electronically from my local library. A fun, mostly lighthearted fantasy thing that borrows more than a little from D&D monster manuals and surprisingly a lot from rock & roll. There is a wizard named Moog. In the first book, old crusty mercs “get the band back together” to save one of their daughters (and in the process, a city, and the world); the second was said daughter wrapping up her own adventuring career.

I’ve just finished the first of these, and it was brilliant. It’s kind of equal parts fantasy and horror but in a science fiction setting; the writing style and characters are hilariously snarky while the subject matter is as grim and creepy and moody as you’d expect from a story about space necromancers.

The setting is creatively different, mysterious and, well, cryptic — I kind of get a Gene Wolfe vibe from it without the pretentiousness. The characters are the best though. Some of the language is very much present-day slang (e.g. “I couldn’t have noped harder”) but it completely works to convey the kind of attitude the main characters have. These are books that I might want my own copy of, depending on whether I feel like the second one is as strong as the first.

bad hair day, good synth day

The Medusa arrived yesterday — a bit late, box damaged, but synth intact.

It’s the sort of synth where, if I tried it for five minutes at Knobcon or something using its factory presets, I’d almost certainly have walked away and not looked back. Probably in under five minutes. The presets are, for the most part, awful.

But once I figured out what I was doing with both the synth section and the grid, and started exploring a little… this is one extremely cool piece of gear.

I understand why so many of the demos and several presets are bland: the analog oscillators only do the classic simple shapes, the digital ones are raw and basic but not in a particularly gnarly or exciting way, and the filter doesn’t have much character of its own. It’s a clean slate and you have to do your own color mixing, to mangle some metaphors. With judicious tuning, use of the oscillator sync, FM, copious modulation sources and all sorts of clever tricks available with the grid sequencer/performance controller, if it sounds boring it’s the musician’s fault. Synthesis means the assembly of smaller parts into a whole, and that’s what has to happen here. It can certainly do beautiful, brutal, quirky or scary, and it’s not even difficult to get there. It can’t do everything, but that’s why I have more than one synth… 🙂

As with most synths it really benefits from some reverb or delay. Every other Dreadbox synth has one of those built in; this doesn’t. This is not a problem for me at all, but it does contribute to some of those lackluster demos since people seem to think it’s “cheating” to add external FX.

The grid is brilliant. Note mode lets you select (or create) a scale, and also set the layout to the interval of your choice (or a “guitar” mode); it’s a combination that is really great for jamming, thinking differently about intervals and chords, or playing runs that would be (almost?) impossible on a piano-style keyboard. The velocity setting doesn’t work very well with the onboard synth and honestly is best turned off, but pressure and X/Y movement can be assigned to various parameters. Grid mode is a sequencer that’s mostly intuitive (with a couple of odd quirks) and lets you assign not just notes and chords to any individual step, but ties, steps that randomize on each playthrough, and parameter settings. Between that and the paraphonic modes — and the way those modes interact when you’re using FM or sync — it’s definitely got some unique capabilities.

The Lyra-8 was inspiring and influential, leading me toward the 0-Ctrl and certain techniques. But I do think the Medusa is the better choice for me now and for the future.

worries

Last night I read another article that speculated on plausible scenarios involving the November election. Overall, it seems clear the Trump campaign strategy has been to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election — an old GOP favorite, where “voter fraud” is used as the excuse to disenfranchise voters in Democratic-leaning areas (who are proportionally more black and poor than not) but cranked up to 11. And of course this fits right in with the cultish, Orwellian strategy of calling the news media and science into question so that the Regime can lay sole claim to the truth. Trump, unless defeated in an absolutely crushing landslide, is almost certainly not going to concede but will attempt to bend space and time around the black hole of his ego.

Reading the article was a mistake.

I dreamed last night of being at a college for some kind of artist residency thing in electronic music — COVID wasn’t a concern in the dream world — when it was announced that the school was closing due to widespread outbreaks of election-related violence. It was perpetrated by right-wing militias and by police forces (which are not that far from being the same thing), but of course blamed on antifa and George Soros…

The scene changed to the school’s auditorium, and the woman in the seat in front of me pulled a small pistol from her purse and started pointing it at people and waving it vaguely around while spouting off some QAnon garbage and accusing me of being an anarchist. And that’s when I woke up. (I realized later it was Patricia McCloskey, of the couple in St. Louis who threatened protesters by waving guns at them illegally.)

Sigh. 40 days until Election Day. 118 days until the next Presidential term begins.


I went ahead and traded my Lyra-8 to someone directly for a Medusa. After both were en route, I got a really weird set of messages from USPS about how the Medusa’s address had been changed and it was being held for pickup in the post office in the sender’s city. So that was another recent worry: had I been scammed or something? After a few moments of thinking about it, it didn’t really make sense. I figured it was a mistake, and yes: the sender had accidentally reversed the To and From addresses when buying the label, someone from USPS figured it out and fixed it, and that looked really bizarre to their tracking system. I’ll still be relieved when it arrives, and also happy I hope. I think Medusa is going to work out very well.

I have also gone for a DAFM Synth Genesis, which sports the Yamaha YM2612 “OPN2” FM chip — as found in the Sega Genesis, and also that MegaFM synth I had been thinking about. This is smaller and significantly cheaper, and though it doesn’t have a dedicated slider for every parameter, I’ve heard it’s pretty friendly to work with. I’ve already familiarized myself a bit with how the synth engine works, since Plogue Chipsynth MD is an emulation of it. It’ll be nice to have the real deal and all its wonky fuzzy noise for drones and textures. If I seriously fall in love with the sound, it might be worth reconsidering the MegaFM (and possibly setting Akemie’s Castle aside).

don’t look now

Good thing I didn’t jump immediately for the Quadrantid Swarm, because I have another thought.

Polyend Medusa Black Analog and Wavetable Synthesizer with Sequencer  (Limited Edition) | Sweetwater

The Polyend + Dreadbox Medusa is another one of those synths I didn’t pay that much attention to upon first release, because of its price and my assumption that I didn’t want a grid-based sequencer.

The price of a new Medusa now is almost down to half what it was and the “special edition” panel shown here also looks better than the original. And as it turns out, that grid-based sequencer is also a touch controller, and it is mighty.

In “note mode”, you can select a musical scale as well as the interval between rows — so you can set it up for handy chord fingering patterns or octaves or whatever makes sense to you. Each of the 64 pads also sends X, Y and pressure modulation signals which can be assigned to synth parameters.

In sequencer mode, each pad not only stores a note value but parameters. If you want, you can have each pad play a completely different sound, set up like a drum machine. Or you can use a row or column to sweep across parameters. Or assign the notes you want to use in your composition to a few pads, and simultaneously play those and parameter pads. You can copy/paste to arrange assignments into a sequence, or just step sequence more normally. I’m not sure whether you can sequence the sequencer’s own clock rate from there, and the sequencer’s motion seems to be strictly linear, but it’s still a pretty great concept.

The synth itself is more conventional in some ways, with 3 analog oscillators (with sync and expo FM) and 3 basic digital oscillators (with non-morphing wavetables). But you can assign them to play in unison, 3-voice mode (each voice is 1 analog + 1 digital) or 6-voice mode — note rotation as you play can lead to some interesting variations. The synth has a single multimode filter, making it paraphonic like the Microfreak. There are no built-in effects, which is a difference from other Dreadbox synths.

There are, unfortunately, some really bland-sounding demos out there which have turned a lot of people away from the synth. But there are also some stunning counterexamples — this is not a boring synth, but rather one that requires and rewards some sound design effort, and at least a touch of reverb or delay. Among actual users, opinions seem to be split — some absolutely love it, some just never quite get along with it.

Many of those best demos are using it exactly as I would, for drones and ambient stuff, and I kind of suspect I’m more likely to be in the “love it” group.

Quadrantid Swarm is a synth made to give instant gratification with weird, angry, dark and/or metallic sounds. It does have semi-modularity and that sweet spring reverb going for it. But overall it is much less expressive and flexible, and I think in the long term, the Medusa would likely serve better.

So as soon as either the Lyra or Reface sells or I encounter an extra-good deal, I expect I will go for a Medusa.

something completely different

I don’t write that much about the games I play, partly because there’s just not a lot of change there. I tend to grab onto a game, or at least a genre, and stick with it for a good long while if I don’t burn out and get bored quickly.

What I’ve been playing for the past several months is Dirt Rally 2.0, Noita, Bejeweled 3, and (in the past month-ish) Guild Wars 2.

Dirt Rally 2.0 is currently doing its second World Series event, in both rally (on trails) and rallycross (on a mixed-surface gravel/asphalt track) categories. The finalists will compete for a $20,000 prize pool, and the rallycross winner also gets to test-drive a real-world electric car that’ll be used in the new eRX2 rally category. But everyone who participates will unlock a car in the game, so that’s nice.

I’m not a serious racing simmer, I’m a filthy casual who plays with an XBox controller, “bonnet view” (outside the windshield in the center of the car), and usually with automatic transmission enabled. I had low expectations going into this. But I’m very happy with coming in just below the top 10% overall, so I guess this post is a brag of sorts.

That still puts me a few light-years away from any sort of prize, as each qualifying round will take only 6 drivers in the final and send two of them to the semi-final. But hey, I don’t completely suck at this game after putting in (according to Steam) 261 hours in it 🙂

I did much less well in the Rallycross qualifying, squeaking into the top third. But then I don’t find rallycross as much fun to drive as roads and trails that go somewhere, which is a bit reminiscent of the off-roading I used to do with my dad in the 80s, with (at various times) a rail buggy, go-kart and motorcycles. Just a lot faster than we ever used to go 🙂

still not an exact science

My Ancestry.com ethnicity estimate has been updated again, as it was in mid-November last year. Here’s what it said before:

And here’s the new version:

However, in the details it does say that Scotland could range from 7%-43%. Most of the rest are within a few percent one way or the other.

DNA and statistics both being what they are, adding more data to the pile and re-evaluating everyone doesn’t necessarily make for a more accurate assessment for any specific individual. Mostly this is just a bit of fun.


3/4 gaffer tape covers the ugly graphic strip on the Microfreak just fine. The downside is, it looks like there’s a piece of tape on the synth. It’d be nice if there was something a little more professional looking. But really this is just splitting hairs.


I’ve decided to let go of the Lyra-8. I like the way it plays, but it is fairly rigid about the way it sounds, and I’m just not into it anymore.

The most likely replacement is the eowave Quadrantid Swarm. Like the Lyra, it has 8 touchplates for oscillators that can be individually tuned. But instead of the organ oscillators, it has digital oscillators with different shapes and a unison mode, two analog filters in series, a spring reverb and a sequencer. It’s semi-modular and can also accept MIDI input as well as its touchplates. From the few demos I’ve seen on YouTube, it has a really nice wide range of sound character and should fit right in.

I’ve put some thought into other options, such as the Moog Subharmonicon or Dreadbox Nyx, but I think I’ve convinced myself that the QS is what I want to run with. I do want to sell some gear before moving it in, though.

lil’ oddball

The Microfreak showed up this afternoon and I’ve spent enough time with it to get solid first and second impressions.

While many of the oscillator modes are directly taken from the open-source code for Mutable Instruments Plaits, for the most part it doesn’t sound like “Plaits in a keyboard.” It’s its own weird little thing.

A lot of people think it’s kind of ugly, but some have said to reserve judgement until you see it in person. I think the only real sin is the graphic strip with the Arturia logo, which is a needlessly busy pattern right next to the already necessarily busy-looking textured touch keyboard. I’m just going to cover that with some gaffer tape.

The touch keyboard itself felt a bit awkward at first but I got used to it relatively quickly. It’s very sensitive, in a good and expressive way once you get to know it. There is a useful Hold button which works for drones as well as the arpeggiator, and the arp can be saved into the sequencer for further editing and manipulation. The “spice and dice” buttons can trigger either permanent or temporary random variations to the sequence which always seem to be musically compatible, if not necessarily brilliant.

There’s a modulation matrix that is cleverly implemented, and modulation amounts can be modulated by other modulators. As in, the touch pressure can increase the amount of vibrato, or an LFO can affect how much the cycling envelope affects the timbre. Circular and self-modulation patches are also possible and quite spiffy.

It’s paraphonic, in that there can be multiple oscillator voices playing simultaneously (with their digital envelope and VCAs) but there is a single analog filter, and a single cycling envelope. Many of the oscillator models are pretty complete without the filter anyway. One particular strength of this setup is that drones or arpeggios going through a single resonant filter can use it to glue the sound together and to emphasize particular harmonics. In fact, the moment I discovered this is when the last doubt about keeping this synth evaporated — I expect this to be one of the major ways in which this synth will fit into my music. I’ve been enjoying drones for hours today already 🙂

Like its predecessor, I have it running through the Elektron Analog Drive. It can add a nice bit of warmth and solidity, or dirty it up beautifully.