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. 🙂

in lost Carcosa

Did I mention here that the next Ambient Online Themed Compilation is going to be “Death & Rebirth?”

And of course I mentioned I was reading The Laundry Files. Which features necromancy — and specifically, a very disturbing bone-white violin carried at all times by a “combat epistemologist” and music theory professor, who’s occasionally sent on missions around the world to neutralize the worst hauntings and cults. The agent finds all this traumatizing but the violin loves to feed…

Anyway. Yes, I did the thing.

up

I’ve been told that episode #23 of Sonic Tapestries — a radio show on London’s Resonance FM — featured ambient music using modular synths, and specifically one of my own tracks. I wasn’t told which one though. The specific episode hasn’t made it to the archive as of this writing, but hopefully soon. I’m eager to hear which one was used, what they said about it if anything, and especially what other music it shared the show with. The show is described as “a sedated sojurn through worldly, mystical sounds past and present.” Hmm.


I might not be thrilled with my job, but I’m glad to be back to work after spending Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in sick-limbo. Still got some congestion, but I’m about 80% functional.


Sampling Modulator is pretty neat. Kind of mesmerizing to watch those 8 LEDs flicker sequentially through the steps. My first attempt to use it with the PLL to multiply a clock tempo didn’t work, but at those speeds I can use Teletype or Marbles for that anyway; its strength is more in manual control, rates that are fast enough for audio or clocking the BBD, and of course the built in sample-and-hold that gives it its name. I can’t help but think a slew would have been a cooler addition than the fine tuning knob — making it more akin to Sport Modulator or Wogglebug — but I’ve got that available elsewhere anyhow.


The latest in the MW story is a post from Chris Meyer of Learning Modular and the Patch & Tweak book. Alongside more general praise, he reveals that back in August, Mike was talking about changing “MW” to something else, and in fact had preemptively registered the domains “ModularWorld” and “ModuleWorld.” This puts things in a somewhat different light from the years-ago post that said “I know it’s a puerile name but it’s not hurting anyone” and makes me a bit more hopeful.

Mind you, some of the current moderators on the site sure don’t give me any warm feelings.

sniffing and reading

Sinus congestion and its usual entourage of symptoms, plus extra back pain from sleeping poorly/in the recliner, have been keeping me down for the past few days — so I have been spending more time reading than diving into musical projects or accomplishing much else.

The Erich Fromm books I picked up were not as mind-blowing as I could have hoped. It’s partially that he was less radical than some things I’ve read in the last couple of years, partially that the subject matter only partially intersected what I was looking for, and partially that the titles and descriptions of posthumously published books might have been a little misleading.

The Art of Living is definitely more on a personal psychological level than a sociopolitical one; the idea behind it is to be “more authentically human” through self-knowledge (meditation and psychotherapy) and resistance to materialistic/consumerist modes of thought. On Disobedience is a bit of an anti-bureaucratic manifesto with equal disdain for capitalism and communism; it repeatedly decries nationalism and the nuclear arms race, praises Bertrand Russell, and provides an outline for a humanist democratic socialism.

The most important point he makes isn’t the details — he’s not an economist — but the general drive to put people first, and make the economy serve humanity instead of the other way around. Rather than abolishing property, seizing the means of production, or even an emphasis on income/wealth equality, the goal is to provide for everyone’s basic needs and education and to put businesses under partial social control of their workers and community. Work should be fulfilling and something to take pride in, rather than mind-numbing and dehumanizing. Anyone should be able to leave their job at any time to pursue further education, a career change, creative pursuits, etc.

It might be somewhat idealistic, but I prefer that to the “capitalist realism” that says that the unjust state we’re in now is the least worst possible option available.


After that, I blazed through The Apocalypse Codex and am well into The Annihilation Score. When I can’t sleep very well and need to sit up to relieve the congestion as much as possible, I get through a lot of reading. So far it seems like the Laundry Files series gets more intense with each successive book. Codex is the first to be told from the POV of someone other than Bob — in this case, Mo or “AGENT CANDID” — and I think the author scores about a 90% on making it feel like a different narrator. (In The Black Company novels, one of my favorite fantasy series, the narrative voices blur together much more and don’t feel quite as much like a real character as the people they write about.) There are two more of them on my shelf, then I’ll have to dig up The Labyrinth Index to catch up fully.


The one thing I have been doing musically is trying out the Rainmaker, which arrived yesterday afternoon (thanks to my spouse picking it up from the post office; no thanks to the lazy postal carrier who slipped a “missed delivery” notice in the mailbox instead of carrying the package to our door during one of the few times I was actually right there ready to answer it…) While I haven’t delved super deeply into it yet — and there’s a lot there to swim around in — I find it’s almost exactly what I expected from the videos I watched. Complex rather than simple and immediate, but also not difficult thanks to a well-designed interface. With a few minutes of button tapping and knob turning, I can set up neat little bouncy patterns of echoes, or warbly drunk echoes, or the sound of being at the other end of a long metal or concrete tube, or plucked strings, or all sorts of things. The pitch shifting is fairly rough granular stuff, but serviceable — and the artifacts that creates are actually useful as an effect in their own right. Overall I think this was a good choice of module for the mad sound designer in me.

The Befaco Sampling Modulator just arrived today and is sitting on my desk in a box. I’ll get to it in a bit.


As I’ve written before, the unfortunately named muffwiggler.com is something of a central hub for the synth community, especially modular synths. It went down this weekend, and one of the moderators informed people that the funds that had been donated to cover its expenses had been misappropriated for months and the owner/founder, Mike McGrath, was incommunicado.

But it had been known that Mike had been suffering from health issues, and it was already rumored that the donations were covering his medical expenses rather than the site. I… kind of can’t fault that, though I think if it were my project I’d want to be more up front that the most important creditors get paid first.

As it turns out, Mike has passed away. I didn’t know him, but those who do say he was kind, generous, and funny. I’ll take them at their word. He does deserve some credit for running a site that became such an important community and repository of information, but as I’ve also written before, the culture there was not without its problems. Specifically, toxic masculinity problems. Starting with the name of the forum (which was Mike’s own online handle, and came from a pair of Electro-Harmonix FX pedals from the 70s), which establishes a sort of locker room atmosphere, there are also several users with lewd (just short of pornographic) profile pictures, mildly transphobic or sexist jokes, and just a general sense of… stuff that doesn’t need to be on a synth forum and doesn’t make women, nonbinary, queer, or just generally tasteful people feel comfortable. And those things are all unnecessary and could be fixed with a name change and a small policy change. But of course, to a certain type of white guy, it’s just a bit of fun and no harm done and us SJWs need to not be so sensitive… 😛

Discussions of that have run headfirst into (A) the kind of people who deny that toxic masculinity exists or is a real problem, and (B) people calling for respect for the dead.

SynthCube, who sells DIY kits, covered the past due bills and got the site running again. The moderator team is deciding what to do next, but promises that the content will be preserved and they are committed to “preserving Mike’s legacy.” By that I hope they don’t mean preserving the unnecessary sexism. But any discussion of that is killed immediately by the moderators, so I don’t have a lot of hope for that.

The latest word is that Mike wanted his daughter Kira to take over running the forum, which she will do after some time to grieve. She and the rest of his family seem to be fine with the “Muff Wiggler” name at the moment, but I have some hope that she’ll take an active role in the forum and community and make at least some of the changes so many of us want.