first impressions: SMR and Prism

The 4ms SMR is a bank of 6 bandpass filters that can act as a graphic equalizer or as (approximate) sine wave oscillators. It has an unusual system for assigning frequencies: built-in or custom scales assigned to a ring of 20 notes, and LEDs that light up in the color of the channel assigned to that note. The channels can rotate around the ring or be spread out, can be “nudged” by external inputs or locked to a specific pitch. It’s a design that encourages unusual new composition practices, but at the same time, can complicate more traditional ones. It’s also a very pretty light show.

What I was hoping to use it for was:

  • Modal synthesis, similar to Rings or Rainmaker. Fewer bands, but specific control over their frequencies and levels. In this area it’s kind of a disappointment, but it’s possible that it can still be a partner in feedback loops with other gear.
  • The sort of few-oscillator additive/harmonic patch like I did a couple of times with the ER-301. This… might still be doable, but requires (A) customizing a scale to give nice harmonic multiplications, (B) multing a pitch signal into both “nudge” inputs, which might wind up requiring a buffered multiple, a utility module which I’ve dodged so far, and (C) adjusting the “nudge” input tracking so it properly tracks 1V/OCT. Which it does not, right now.

The procedure in the manual to adjust tracking didn’t work — and while the newest firmware is supposed to improve tracking, trying to upgrade to it also didn’t work. I’ve written to 4ms tech support about it.


Qu-Bit Prism is a filter, delay and bitcrusher in one smallish module. The sound of it is quite good, and the delay gets into comb filter territory (a super short delay with the right feedback configuration does phase cancellation stuff that acts as a filter instead of an echo). But the delay doesn’t react well to modulation, and a single knob controls the delay mix and feedback. You can’t have a loud single slapback, nor a pure delay without the dry signal, nor chorus or flanging, nor physical modeling uses except at a fixed pitch. (You can change the pitch but it takes a second or so to slide to the new one, so it’s not practical.)

A delay with this much limitation is mostly good as an end-of-chain effect, or possibly in feedback loops with a mixer. For end-of-chain, I might as well use a plugin. For feedback loops, I’ll have the T-Rackonizer which I expect to be way ahead of it (though minus a bitcrusher, but that’s not something I care a lot about).


Here’s my plan now:

  • Judge SMR on its own merits, rather than hopes, expectations and disappointments.
  • Don’t worry too much about the additive oscillator patch. If SMR can’t do it, Stages can (if a bit primitively) and it’s not a common enough thing to warrant buying gear specifically for it.
  • Don’t buy anything until KnobCon.
  • Don’t sell anything until KnobCon that wasn’t already on my sell list. That will give me time to settle in with this new and somewhat thorny gear, see how it all interacts and make better decisions.
  • New gear arrives today. Check that out, enjoy it, see how it interacts with the other new stuff… maybe Dynamo is just what SMR needs, maybe T-Rackonizer makes the Prism moot, maybe the HD mk3 is so awesome I want to sell two other things and get a second one.
  • But after KnobCon, be kind of merciless about the focus thing. Not necessarily with snap decisions, but resist feature creep.

just like that

Researching my various options, a couple of sales and trades, and a bout with insomnia, led to the realization that I’ve been avoiding my ER-301. I’ve only used it once in the last 9 recordings I’ve finished, and that was just as a noise source. And I’ve been planning/hunting the things I tried to replace with it: Hertz Donut, an analog wavefolder, a straightforward delay module, because I miss them.

So what else have I used it for?

  • A dynamics processor — but I could go back to a Bastl Dynamo like before, or with some effort Maths & a VCA, or try a Eurorack compressor like the MSCL. (And honestly I think Dynamo kept stuff in line a little easier due to an all-analog path and not having to be so cautious about clipping.)
  • A harmonic oscillator, or really an additive one since I wasn’t using scan/tilt functions. I traded for a 4ms SMR which should arrive Saturday, and among other things it’s likely to be able to take over this duty. If not, there are other options.
  • A couple of utility functions, for which I can just keep my uO_C around for such relatively rare occasions.

ER-301 is a powerful module to be sure, but I guess I’m just not really connecting with it on anything but a technical and rational level. So, in my pursuit of a more focused musical instrument, it makes sense to let go of it, with appreciation for what I’ve learned.

…and in the course of writing this while also waiting for slow stuff to run at work and reaching out on synth forums, I managed to trade the ER-301 for a Dynamo, Origami wavefolder, Jomox T-Rackonizer (dual delay/reverb/filters in a feedback matrix configuration, something I’ve thought several times about getting in its non-Eurorack form) and the cash difference which paid for a Hertz Donut mk3. So everything has come together quite quickly. I still have more gear to sell that will clear out 90HP of space and put a chunk of money back into the bank.

Work might have been a long, unproductive slog this week, but in the synth world things are resolving nicely and looking pretty shiny!

panharmonius

The Rossum Electro-Music Panharmonium I pre-ordered almost 4 months ago arrived yesterday. It’s a unique piece of gear that broke my brain a little at first — some of my preconceptions about it were wrong and others didn’t quite grasp all the implications.

What it does is analyze incoming audio and break it into a frequency spectrum, like a prism does for light. Then it uses that data to set the pitch and level of a bank of oscillators to approximately recreate that spectrum. If it did it perfectly without altering anything, it’d be boring… but it isn’t perfect, so it isn’t boring.

It’s a physical law that analyzing the frequency spectrum of audio requires time. (Frequency is a function of time after all.) And the analysis is a bunch of math that also requires at least some computing time. The fastest that Panharmonium can “slice” audio into spectra is 17ms, which is pretty quick but still noticeably chunky to the ears — it can sound a bit like bad MP3 compression depending on the signal and how you’re trying to recreate it. I’ve generally found that slowing it down yields, a little paradoxically, more harmonious results — let it work on a musical event timescale rather than a micro timescale. Synchronize it rhythmically or just let it drift and it can work really well.

On the reproduction side, it’s also intentionally imperfect. You can choose from 1 to 33 oscillators, blur the spectral input to those oscillators, and feed the results back in to the analyzer for a decaying chain of events not unlike reverb. Though the analysis is done with sine waves, you can also set the oscillators to triangle, saw or pulse waves to make them brighter or emphasize harmonics. You can also pitch shift them or skew the relative frequencies. You can do all of this “live” like an effect, or capture a spectrum and then play it back like a VCO, or at high blur and feedback settings kind of a little of both.

The best results I’m getting with it tend toward a sort of psuedo shimmer reverb, harmonization, counterpoint by capturing and holding some notes in the background, turning single notes into chords, supporting notes with bass undertones, and so on.

There are a few quirks that I’d like to see cleaned up in future firmware updates. It’s easy to overload the dynamic range and make it clip — though to its credit, it does so softly and beautifully; it would still be nice to allow some adjustment to keep it clean. The FM range is beyond insane and the knob that’s supposed to tame it needs its curves tweaked or something. The different waveforms don’t blend smoothly into each other, which would be really nice since they can be CV controlled. And all the oscillators in the swarm are fixed in mono, where it might be nice to have a mode to separate them between left and right channels and detune them a little relative to each other for a stereo image. What the chances are of these sorts of updates happening, I have no idea, but sometimes Eurorack developers are really responsive to suggestions and are able to implement all kinds of miraculous fixes and expansions after a release, so I’m hopeful for at least some of these — if not some other stuff that I can’t even conceive of yet.

My only other complaint, and it’s pretty minor, is that the shiny silver-capped knobs on the otherwise lovely panel reflect a lot of light, and the glare makes the little black pointer arrows a little hard to see. I’ve had other modules that are worse about this though. I might move the module to a different row just to see if I can reduce the glare, if I don’t replace the knobs.

Overall it seems like a good module for the sort of dirty ambient that I make — though not an intuitively obvious choice. There’s not really anything else like Panharmonium in the hardware or software world. I thought, when first considering buying it, it might be a bit like Unfiltered Audio SpecOps — also a spectral processor but with a very different focus. Instead, I think comparing it to Red Panda Tensor is more apt — the method couldn’t be more different, but it still creates a sort of harmonized background blurring of time.

I’m curious to try it in a feedback loop with Rings, or to use its output to FM the signal that feeds it… that sort of thing.

tighten up the graphics on level 3

With an eye toward a more tightly focused instrument, I went over my current modules and what I really feel about them. I did so with the assumption that I’m not going to radically downsize to a smaller case, but still plan to take away some options I don’t need. (I could wind up with a row of blank panels, but that’s okay.)

Safe modules: ADDAC200PI, A-196 PLL, Contour, Filter 8, Kermit, Marbles, Maths, Natural Gate, O’Tool+, Rings (both of them!), Shades, Stages, Tallin, Teletype, Trim, and TXb will stay through this next transition.

Chopping block: I sold my Sampling Modulator already. cvWS, Dynamic Impulse Filter, Gozinta, uO_C and tanh[3] might also go.

Low priority replacement: A-138m, Bastl Multiples, and Ladik P-075, if I find alternatives and sufficient motivation.

Terrarium: I love the E370, but a quad VCO has always felt like overkill. The E352 is more streamlined in size and usage, and I think it makes more sense for me. It’s a slightly weird situation since my 370 is a beta test unit, but then the firmware has been stable for a while and the feature gaps between the two models have closed since their initial release.

Side effects: the Erbe-Verb, Doepfer BBD and Rainmaker collectively are excessive. I’m considering replacing all three with a Qu-Bit Prism, which will cover comb filter, clean syncable delay, and grungy character delay. With Rings, Panharmonium, ER-301 and pedals I think I will have my delay, reverb, and resonator needs pretty well covered.

Oscillating complexity: When I got the ER-301, I sold my Hertz Donut mk2 thinking it was redundant. When I missed its feel, I went for a DPO instead… but I haven’t fallen in love with the DPO’s character. The first thing to try is see if “permanently” assigned knobs for the ER-301 will help recover that lost feel. If not, I’ll think about getting a Hertz Donut again. Either way, the DPO is probably on its way out.

Things to try at Knobcon:

  • Controllers suitable to my musical style. I’m particularly curious about the Tetrapad and Planar.
  • Analog wavefolders. My wavefolder custom unit can sometimes be pretty good, but doesn’t quite satisfy me at this point. I’m not ruling out going back to the FM Aid either.
  • The 4ms Spectral Multiband Resonator, which might be great fun in feedback loops.
  • The Hertz Donut mk3, which sacrifices the mk2’s knob-per-function ease for a much more compelling folding section, a second modulation oscillator, and more comprehensive internal routing.
  • Omsonic Stochastic. You dial in the probability of each note, octave jump and rhythmic division, and it generates sequences — it could be a fun partner for Marbles. It could also be not really within my focus area though.
  • Soma Lyra-8. Because I’d really like to try one in person.

focus on focus

First off: that’s right, spammer, I’m not monetizing my website.

Okay then. I’ve been pondering my modular journey and where it goes next. I feel like Synth Farm 2.0 is really good, but not perfect yet. There’s something of a conflict between focus and flexibility that I feel I need to resolve one way or the other if possible. I started my modular journey with exploration, but I’m making specific music. There are questions I need to ask myself about what’s essential, what’s optional, what’s irrelevant or distracting.

Instruments like the Lyra-8 really appeal to me: focused on human expression and improvisation, made for the general region of sound and feel that my music has. I may yet end up with one, but I want to make sure it’s not just “greener grass” and that it doesn’t create more redundancies. If I would use it to create the kind of music I’m already making, do I really need it? …or if I can make the same kind of music with a Lyra-8 as I can with an entire modular synth, do I need the modular synth?

I’ve been listening to the new-ish Esoteric Modulation podcast, among other things. It deals with the more boutique and exotic electronic instruments even beyond Eurorack, the intersection of music and other arts, and the thought that goes into instrument design. So it’s some excellent food for this kind of thought.

I’ve also been thinking about Knobcon, which is upcoming in about 6 weeks. Two years ago I was at a different place in my journey: I had a good feel for the synthesis techniques I wanted to work with, but a smaller system, hadn’t gotten into sequencing and control questions very deeply yet, and I hadn’t really found “the Starthief sound” quite yet. I went in hoping to try a few specific things, and to just get some overall perspective. What I wound up with was impressions of specific modules and instruments, some enjoyable performances, and feeling overwhelmed (I also didn’t have a handle on anxiety at the time).

My goals for this Knobcon are to relax and take it slow, retreat or stop and collect my thoughts when I need to — and to try things in the context of the music that I make, and think about focus.

I put on my robe and wizard hat

Elon Musk’s company Neuralink was in the news this week, and I pretty much ignored it because I’m skeptical of the man. He overpromises, he thinks he’s an expert in more fields than he actually is, doesn’t treat his workers well — really more on the Edison side of things than the Tesla side.

But thanks to a link on some crazy facts about sound, I found myself poking through Wait But Why and came across this article from a couple of years back:

I’m reading William Gibson’s The Peripheral — the first of his novels I’ve thoroughly enjoyed since the Sprawl series — and the technology level there is based on motor control and sensory feedback from machines and biomechanical “peripherals.” It’s a lot to think about in terms of who we are, but this article goes well beyond that.

I hope that, in the current wave of realization that giving our data to big corporations and letting them mediate our personal relationships, we’ll also be cautious about letting those corporations into our brains. Yes, I’m excited about the potential for enhanced human… humanness, that this technology could represent. But I don’t think the threat is from evil AIs, so much as it is from human greed and malice.

I usually roll my eyes at warnings on becoming too dependent on technology. We’re not all dumb because we learned to use pocket calculators, and we haven’t lost the skill of communication now that we don’t write things in cursive. It’s the opposite… mostly. Misinformation and disinformation, it turns out, aren’t conquered by simply giving people access to information. Now imagine, instead of garbage like Gamergate and QAnon and Pizzagate and anti-vax spreading via YouTube and Facebook and Twitter, those ideas just arrive in your brain as if you had thought them — disguised alongside all the true information that you rely on. That truly scares me.

detour

I had, over the last couple of days, decided I was going to make some music based on a particular esoteric insight that has been reinforcing itself. It would have fit nicely with the planned album theme.

Instead, I did something spooky.

I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise.

I’m going to go ahead and blame Stranger Things, and last night’s drive home. “It looks like we’re making a bad choice,” my spouse said as we drove from a relatively bright and sunny world into a sinister, gloom-shrouded one, where night fell three hours early and the wind whipped leaves from the trees, “…but this is where we live.” Neither of us realized at the time that she had just named a song.

Only the lack of fiery streaks divided it from the sky that Will’s “shadow monster” descended from.

I’ve already used “Cumuloominous” as a title, but I think this one is more intense than that. Not calmly foreboding, but fully foreboding. Maybe angrient.

gradually

Overall this album has felt like pretty slow going so far. I’ve been gaming, reading, napping, and occasionally firing up the music rig. A little slower is okay; there’s still momentum. Especially when I consider that I did record two more pieces for Ambient Online during this period. Honestly, I think it feels like more time has passed than actually has.

If the momentum does stop, or I feel unhappy with the quality of my work, I’ll pull the alarm and go back to a song-a-week-or-more format until I reboot myself. Hopefully that won’t be necessary.

Anyway, a month ago I thought I had a theme for this — waveshaping and nonlinearity — but I things haven’t really solidified that way. Instead, they have picked up the less technical, more emotional and esoteric themes of incubation and hesychia from the Kingsley book. It’s a more appealing choice, but it’s honestly not too far off from where my music tends to go anyway, so it feels a bit like no theme at all.


Speaking of books, what I’m into right now is K. J. Parker’s Sharps. In a setting similar to Renaissance Europe, a small, poor kingdom decides the path to maintaining a fragile peace with a neighbor is sending a national fencing team for Olympics-style diplomacy. Everything goes wrong due to some coincidence of bureaucratic incompetence, basic human laziness, corruption, and colliding conspiracies, and it’s often hard to tell which is which. Much like the news in 2019, only a lot more fun.

The book makes me want to learn some things about fencing. What the heck is a demi-volte? What just happened in that big action scene? Why was the thing that somebody just said significant? I’m missing some of the story here I think.


I’m still on Guild Wars 2. I’ve gotten to level 80 with 4 characters:

  • A sylvari Mesmer, who went through the Path of Fire story and converted to the Mirage spec, which I’m not really certain is either more effective or more fun. (It’s not like converting back is hard now though.)
  • A human Necromancer, who I kept at the core spec because Death Shroud — which looks and feels a lot like the wraith world of the Nazgul in the LOTR movies — just seems a lot cooler than summoning sand shades. This is probably my most capable character in a solo situation.
  • A sylvari Engineer, who converted to the lightsaber-ish Holosmith spec, and who looks extremely cool. But I had serious trouble in Southsun Cove (due to “quiet” Confusion applied by some of the monsters there which causes you to injure yourself) and found the intro to the Path of Fire area much more difficult than with the Mesmer.
  • A Norn Ranger, who went for the Soulbeast spec. It’s kind of cool to take on some of the aspects of various animals, but the special effects are lackluster and the actual effectiveness is questionable.

I also started a couple of thieves and an elementalist who got a little ways in and I just found they weren’t as fun or effective to play — though that could just mean I need to adopt to a different spec and playstyle. I’m now on a sylvari Guardian, who feels fun and flashy, intending to go for the Firebrand spec.

I haven’t visited all the level 80 zones, though I think between all my characters combined, I’ve covered all the below-80 zones. I figure once I max out this Guardian, I’ll pick a character and try to get 100% map completion. After that I might chase after achievement titles, unlocking more cosmetic gear, and maybe even try WvW, which I’ve never done before, or solo Fractal Dungeons. There’s a ton of content in this game and as much of it as I’ve seen, there’s a lot more — not like when I had 70+ characters in Champions Online and had done basically everything except the premium mission content.


There’s also Stranger Things. We just watched Season 3, and then rewatched Season 1 (which I’d only sort of half-watched and missed a few key things). It’s far from a perfect show, and some of its appeal is in intentional 80s cheese (turned up to 11, so to speak, for the third season). But it’s a pretty fertile setting for more stories — who knows what else might come from the Upside-Down, whether there are other otherworlds, what else went on in that lab or elsewhere in US and Russian psychic research, whether there are any other psychics besides Eleven and Eight (maybe Will’s developing something?)

Of course in my circles, a big part of Stranger Things is the synth soundtrack. It’s kind of become the Stairway to Heaven of synth players, and Season 3 brought with it a whole new wave of covers. I like the music, but please, people, create something new. Or do a creative rather than an imitative cover of anything else. Or go ahead and do your imitation, for your own amusement and learning purposes, and then don’t post it anywhere. Ask yourself whether the world will be a better place because there is one more cover of the Stranger Things theme.

(I had thought Season 3 was a lot heavier on the licensed 80s music than previous, but Season 1 did have quite a few — including sneaking in Tangerine Dream’s “Kiew Mission”, itself an 80s all-synth track that slides right in alongside the score.)

As I have recently posted elsewhere, I like it when artists take iconic 80s style synth sounds — or at least, the “synthwave” sounds we identify as 80s sounds now, though they’re not entirely representative — and then do something fresh and new with them rather than going pure retro. I feel like SURVIVE, Makeup & Vanity Set, and some others do that pretty well.

what happened to the past’s future?

This was going to be a much longer post, where I wrote a little about the futurist books Future Shock, Megatrends and particularly The Singularity is Near and where either they or reality went wrong.

I was also going to dive into a comparison of technological progress by decade with specific examples. I’ll cut that down to a short version: the 70s were a time of background breakthroughs in electronics, whose impact wasn’t really felt until the 80s — when computers and media technology started getting personal. That all went online in the 90s. In the 2000s that jumped into the palms of our hands, and social media began demanding our attention.

But a time traveler to 2019 from 2009 — if they didn’t watch any political news(*) — might not even notice anything different. Popular fashion, music, the kinds of movies we’re watching are the same. YouTube, Twitter, Skype, Wikipedia, Netflix, Uber, AirBnB, KickStarter etc. are a decade old. None of the “next big things” of the 2000s have really arrived yet.

(*) I don’t want to write about politics now, it’s tiring and upsetting.

The interesting bit to me isn’t “futurists were wrong” but the question of why 2019 looks so much like 2009 in so many ways.

Miniaturization of electronics is unlikely to go much further than it already has — power requirements and heat are limits on computing power in a small size. So there’s not nearly as much opportunity for entirely new classes of consumer electronics the way there was in the 80s, 90s and 2000s. One could predict things like better batteries and faster networking speeds opening up a few opportunities, but not making major changes in how we do things.

We know there’s a lot of development going on in the background in various areas. Biotech, for instance. Self-driving cars and commercial drones are in not-quite-ready-for-market-but-maybe-soon phases. We’ve been getting more warnings about automation replacing more jobs, though it’s hard to tell how serious that threat is. Cellular agriculture is just starting to show up at fast-food restaurants and might make the big time soon. It’s possible that, overall, we’ve been in sort of in a 70s phase and a lot of the impact of this stuff will arrive in the 2020s.

Vanity Fair did a survey where 18-26 year olds agreed with other adults that 2010s pop music is the worst. The best music of previous decades is more accessible than ever and people tend to prefer it.

Movies and TV have arguably been mining the recent past too, at least some extent.

As for popular fashion and other trends: I wonder if social media has a sort of stabilizing and homogenizing influence. At the same time, we could be differentiating ourselves more through online persona and interactions than offline. People may also be more invested in their individual identities, meaningful affiliations and overall human solidarity than in a sort of fashion-based tribalism, though that kind of sounds like wishful thinking.

collapse

I’ve just read John Varley’s Slow Apocalypse… while deciding not to keep reading the “Climate Collapse” thread on the Lines forum because it’s usually too depressing.

I don’t like disaster movies, or even trailers for disaster movies. It turns out the same is generally pretty true of novels by otherwise excellent sci-fi authors. Though I keep confusing Varley with Vernor Vinge for some reason and crediting them with each other’s’ work, I did enjoy the Thunder and Lightning series.

To summarize the book: a scientist develops bacteria that render crude oil unusable (presumably as revenge against Saudi Arabia for 9/11). It goes out of control, spreads around the world, destroying oil wells and stockpiles. Transportation, power (dependent on diesel trains and trucks for supplies), communication, emergency services, medicine, food, etc. and the rule of law all become scarce.

Okay… maybe an interesting premise. I could see the book being a lesson of some kind, or a story mostly about ingenuity and the triumph of the human spirit, or some such. NOPE. Somehow, it is barely even a story about the climate crisis, much less presenting an acceptable way forward.

Instead, it does the disaster movie thing of dumping one horror after another on the protagonists, and feels a bit like Final Destination. (Ugh.) LA is struck with a 9.8 earthquake, mudslides and fires and lawless violence. The main character — not the “ordinary guy” the back cover blurb says, but medium-rich in Hollywood — faces all kinds of horrors and tragedies he can’t do anything about, as well as repeated internal conflicts over whether to help strangers or defend his family’s hoard.

In a way, the book is about wealth and privilege. The protagonist’s main fear (except when facing immediate threats to self and his family) is losing his wealth. At the start of the book, he’s looking for another lucrative script that will let him maintain the lifestyle he’s accustomed to. Later on, he’s worried about his wealth (in the form of stored food, water, fuel, guns, and other supplies) being redistributed — he’s afraid both of thieves and of his neighborhood going socialist. Life in refugee camps and on the crowded aircraft carriers the Navy is using to move people out of LA, is the poverty he fears. But it’s a muddled message; that “wealth” actually has a practical value to him, in reducing his own family’s suffering. This is unlike reality where a few people sit uselessly on billions while others starve.

It wasn’t a bad book, other than the ending feeling a bit weak and a few quibbles. I just really dislike this kind of… torture story, really. There’s very little justice or hope or satisfaction in it, just a grind, just shock and grimness and deprivation. If I wanted that, I could have turned on the news.