released: The Sky Above The Port

New album release!

The first recording was made on November 22, so really the amount of time I’ve spent putting this album together hasn’t been that much, but it still feels like it’s been a journey. There were a couple of tracks I recorded that just didn’t work at all, as I pushed beyond boundaries where I just don’t have much artistic confidence and the results were not great. There were a couple others whose inclusion I debated, and then finally dropped one and kept the other at nearly the last minute. I had to adjust my headspace a few times to work on this project after doing other things. I spent more time than usual on the patch notes/commentary, trying to decide how much or how little I wanted to quote from or comment on Neuromancer and the cyberpunk genre in general.

But I am pleased with the finished product, and as happy to release it into the wild as I am to move along to the next project.

Our older dog Gretta had her surgery Thursday, and has been resting and recovering. When she wants to, she can stand up and walk on her own and even made it up the stairs back inside the house without being carried. She’s had some interest in at least a little food, too. Mostly she just wants to rest, with one of us nearby as a comforting presence.

Today I finished reading Musimathics Volume 2. Compared to Volume 1, it is much more relevant to music synthesis, especially digital. But the math is, by my standards, brutal — complex numbers and a lightning-fast introduction to calculus — and I wound up just skimming over a lot of it. There was still quite a bit of revelation though about how certain things work and are connected.

I don’t know if any of it will translate to actual practice, or synthesis experiments. The main lesson I took from Dr. John Chowning’s talk at KnobCon in 2019 was to try using a spectrum analyzer a bit more, but I haven’t really made it a habit. Much of the same material was presented in this book in a briefer form (and without the live audio examples) in its section on FM.

The book does make me wonder why there aren’t more modules out there to let people experiment with waveguide synthesis. Simple Karplus-Strong is okay, but having scattering junctions — simple bipolar mixers — would allow for modeling plucking or bowing in the middle of a string with two ends, and all the reflection and radiation of sound waves that happens. I suppose Rings, Plonk and Surface do this in a closed system (though Rings does have an input, which is a big deal), but I’d like to see a module designed for experimenting with it. Just using Mimeophon allows me to have a terminated string, but the impulses go into one end and radiate from both ends, rather than being able to pluck the string in the center. So it’s a little off, but still useful.

Also I feel inspired to play more with distortion synthesis, though probably a lot of that will be in Bitwig Grid as I’ve done already. The many kinds of shapers and phase distortion modules, and the wavetable oscillator are all good for that.

Unrelated to the book, I might reinstall FM-8 and start using more clean FM patches in my music. If it weren’t for my 2021 pledge I would consider trading the Kasser DAFM synth for an Elektron Model: Cycles, a Volca FM or even the new Korg OpSix, but software might honestly be just as practical and I might still want that noisy YM2612 anyway, so I’m glad I have the brakes on.

The other thing I finished reading today was Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. If that sounds a bit familiar, there was a widely circulated article a few years ago. This is a greatly expanded discussion of the phenomenon, the causes, the likely political two-way feedback and a potential fix (UBI).

One reason why bullshit jobs are tolerated — rather than automation and efficiency allowing us to have a 15-hour workweek or most people being able to lead lives of leisure and independent projects, as was predicted in the early-mid 20th century — is a culture where working, though widely hated, is also considered necessary to be a full, functional human being. Behind this work ethic (and disdain for the unemployed poor and living “on the dole”) is the idea that work is punishment, but punishment is good for you.

I also watched Donny Darko today. I’ve seen occasional references to it online, and there are samples from in it a few songs, but I’d just kind of skipped over it until now. It’s 20 years old now.

People have said it tends to be a love-it-or-hate-it movie, but I thought it was entertainingish and not necessarily brilliant and thought-provoking. It’s got its funny bits, but some don’t really hold up in 2021 that well I think. But at least now I get the references.


I’ve been “almost done” with the cyberpunk album for quite some time, and I’ve probably recorded 4-5 tracks since then. But I think I am finally ready to move on to mastering, and finishing the artwork that I started.

I already have a thought about what I might work on next. I’ve done “studies” (more or less) of Rings, Akemie’s Castle and the Lyra-8; this would be a study of… a particular eagerly anticipated module that has been in beta for quite some time. A very versatile module which I know is capable of more than I have used it for, and the point is not just to demonstrate it but to advance my own mastery of it.

Yesterday, Arturia released a firmware update for the Microfreak. It includes three new oscillator types created by Noise Engineering — “Bass” based on an Electronotes circuit, “SawX” based on the Manis Iteritas, and “Harm” very loosely based on the Basimilus Iteritas. The lineage of SawX is pretty obvious to me but none of them really feel like NE modules in a keyboard any more than the original oscillator types felt like Mutable Instruments Plaits in a keyboard — the context makes them different. In particular, SawX doesn’t sound as crushingly heavy as Manis — but it is very good and works well with the Microfreak.

Along with some other changes that don’t concern me much, the update also added a Unison mode, layering 2, 3 or 4 oscillators and allowing them to be detuned up to an octave relative to each other. This allows for not just typical “supersaw” stuff (already possible with a couple of oscillator types) but some truly scary inharmonic drone clusters. I love it!

I still have not heard back from Doepfer about the possibly defective A-110-4. I know they took a holiday, but this should be the 5th day they’ve been back from that. Are they really that swamped with email, or did all email from that time just get pitched and I’ll have to ask again? How long should I wait to send another? Hmmph.

I’ve decided that if the A-110-4 is defective and they advise me to return it, I’ll get a Manis Iteritas instead (and not count that against my “no changes” goals). Some great, doomy music from a couple of Instagrammers I follow that uses it has made me miss mine, and I feel like SawX is more different from Manis than the A-110-4 is from other FM options I have.

Recent/current reading has been:

The rest of Thinking, Fast and Slow: after a while it seemed to drag as the major interesting points had already been made by the time the book was half done, and it got increasingly repetitive. But the first half was pretty interesting, showing just how much we shortcut mental effort in ways that bias our decisions and beliefs… including biases that bias us against recognizing our own biases.

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory: a study of jobs where the employees know that they perform little to no useful work. “Duct tapers” is one of the categories — people whose job it is to do some nearly mindless task that only exists because of a problem that could easily be fixed. My first job involved a lot of that: for instance, hours spent manually turning a plastic gear to advance the ribbon on an old printer because the boss wouldn’t buy a replacement motor; clearing frequent jams in an envelope printer because they stored the envelopes in a humid warehouse; doing manual data entry from an address list that a customer printed from their database because they didn’t trust us with a floppy disk with the data and our OCR software couldn’t read their font.

That was also arguably a “second-order bullshit job” because the company itself did something of no real value to society: pre-sort, address, and drop off bulk junk mail at the post office.

The Order of Time: a rather poetic book about the science of time in physics, from the major proponent of loop quantum gravity theory. Every so often, there’s a book or article about how weird time is, either due to relatively or subjective perception or other reasons. There are no things, this book says, only events; time is not as serial, universal or “real” as we tend to believe, and it emerges as a phenomenon entirely from entropy — the most fundamental equations of the universe do not have time as a variable. And entropy itself is probably relative in some way…. honestly this book is not what I would call clear and illuminating. But the main point is to illustrate that the subject itself is not clear — and in fact, the “blurriness” of perception is a major feature of both how the universe works and how we perceive it.


When I was a kid, we had this board game that I barely remember. It was science fiction themed. At the center was this black plastic thing — a tower, in my memory — with a spinner and a small flashlight bulb. The spinner had a nice mechanical feel and made a satisfying thunk as it moved, and thanks to some kind of spring arrangement, always landed in one of a few directions. When it stopped, a light would flash a few times from a window at the base of the tower. I loved fidgeting with this thing.

The game pieces to move around the board were translucent, brightly colored spaceships with “pods” that stacked on top. They would catch the light from the central tower dramatically, letting you know you’ve been hit.

Several times over the last few years I’ve searched online to figure out what this game was called, and I kept failing. It’s not Dark Tower, which was something different — a fantasy game, recently reissued via a Kickstarter campaign, that used a more sophisticated (by 1981 standards) electronic tower to drive gameplay.

Last night I finally found it, by going through the entire list at

Now that I know, I’m not actually all that keen to find a copy of it. The Dreaded Enemy Laser and the not-really-fluorescent spaceships were much cooler in late 70s childhood memory than in 2021 reality. Although I suppose if there’s a fancy reissue like there was for Dark Tower, I might consider it.

as if it were just an arbitrary way to measure time

In ancient Egyptian religion, the year is 360 days long — a number that can be factored very nicely. In between years there are 5 or 6 days, each the festival of a particular god, which are a bit chaotic but also holy and celebratory. And then, the new year is like hitting the reset button on a cycle. Everything starts fresh, the slate is wiped clean.

Though in Egypt this happened in summer with the flooding of the Nile and now we celebrate (very approximately) the winter solstice, we still have a weaker version of this idea. Christmas/Hannukah kicks off a sort of in-between-time where school’s out and a lot of people take vacations, have parties, gather with family etc. and then January 1 is supposed to be a kind of reboot, where some people try to live more healthily and so on.

We really needed this for 2020. Close all the programs, install updates, and reboot without any of that old crud in RAM.

But we still have COVID-19, and we still have Trump for the first 3 weeks. January 6 was a stark demonstration of that.

What a weird day. With my health insurance deductible resetting, I paid a $664 copay (after a $200 coupon) for a month’s worth of one of my meds. The Georgia election results were sufficiently counted to declare victory for both Democrats and break Mitch McTurtle’s stranglehold over the Senate. And then of course… the riot, or coup attempt, or terrorist action or whatever it should be called. (Not “protest” though; I will at least make that argument.)

I could say a few things about that event, but I would rather not dwell on it personally. It could have been much more tragic and shocking and had much worse repercussions. It also could have been mitigated much better than it was, and it should have been avoided completely.

The other event of that fateful day was more personal. I took our sweet old dog Gretta to the vet, because she’s been limping and avoiding putting weight on her front left leg, although not actually showing signs of pain when the leg was handled. She even seemed to want us to massage it. The vet thought at first what we did — that it was arthritis or some other kind of soft tissue injury — but an x-ray showed severe bone damage due to cancer. She has to have the leg amputated, and the soonest that can be done is in two weeks. After that, she’s likely to go on some kind of chemo treatment because osteosarcoma is aggressive. Even though nothing showed up on a chest x-ray or in bloodwork, it’s likely there are cancer cells throughout her system. From everything I’ve heard, dogs adapt really well to having a limb amputated and her quality of life should be much better afterward. I hope so, and that whatever time she has remaining with us is free of pain and suffering.

After a little rethinking about what to include in the new album, I believe I have just one more track to go. Finding the motivation to record it has been a little challenging given those events, though.

Patch: The Card Game, announced a little before the holidays, is designed to be played with a modular synth. Each card gives you instructions on either how the patch should be constructed initially (“Abstraction”), or modified (“Progression” and “Disruption”). It’s meant to be a creative nudge, getting you to think of new ways to patch and arrive at places you wouldn’t normally.

I wasn’t sure it was for me, but after watching a couple of videos of experienced musicians playing it, I thought the results were pretty neat. You do have to find a balance between your own judgement/autonomy and just following what the cards (and dice/coins/etc.) say.

Well, my first experiments with it this morning were mixed. The start was promising, followed by the patch immediately getting clobbered by Disruption cards. Sometimes it will just not survive “choose a module and unpatch it” or “for every connection, flip a coin and unpatch if heads.” Maybe I need to build up more complex patches first, or would be better off exploring alternate ways to play — there are a few suggestions for variants on the website, and it is pretty open-ended. Or just stop with the cards as soon as I hear something that inspires me, which might be pretty close to immediately.

This deck was developed by James Cigler with art by Nathan Moody, both of whom have been helpful and inspiring, so I’m happy to have supported them even if I don’t personally wind up getting a lot out of the deck.

I’m about halfway through reading Thinking, Fast and Slow. I put it on my wishlist a few years ago and my sister-in-law gave it to me for Christmas. The general idea is that people can be thought of us having two cognitive systems. The first one evaluates situations continuously and rapidly, alerts us to sudden change or danger, makes snap judgements, is associated with emotion, and operates at a low energy level. The second requires more effort (literally burning more calories), is slower but more rational, and is associated with self-control. The two feed each others’ calculations, but overall we are “designed” to be energy-efficient aka lazy, and tend to go with the intuitive answer, resisting more strenuous thought.

This is the basis behind a lot of cognitive biases and errors we have. We tend to make judgements with available information even if it’s inadequate or irrelevant. If a question is hard, we answer the wrong, related question instead. We search for, or invent, associations and narratives rather than crediting luck and statistical factors. Even statisticians are bad at this, and expert opinions based on individual evaluations are usually worse than a simple statistical algorithm. And we want to believe our first instinct, often even if we know that there’s a visual or cognitive illusion at work.

In other words… people can be rational but mostly aren’t. Not really a surprise I suppose, but in the author’s career he’s found many shocking examples of just how egregious this gets.

QueaZee VCO

So, my modular synth might be done now. Or it might not…

The A-110-4 Quadrature Thru-Zero VCO arrived a couple of days ago, and the Mazzatron Quad Audo AC Coupler a couple of days before that. In general, the QZVCO sounds good… but not entirely mind-blowing I would say. Perhaps the folks that were blown away by it are the type who avoid digital modules, so linear TZFM is novel to them?

The idea here is, you can use this as a carrier for FM, and feed it a separate oscillator as the modulator. You can use exponential FM like most analog oscillators, or linear FM and it will flip its phase to go “thru zero” for a deep modulation range. Its design is unusual though, with the LFrq knob in essence just being a selector between three states (no TZFM at +/- 5, “pretend you’re a waveshaper” at 0, and TZFM anywhere around the 1-4 or -1 to -4 ranges, with choice of positive or negative having no consequence).

The problem my unit has is that at any LFrq setting (except 0, and possibly even there), increasing the modulation amplitude will shift the VCO’s frequency out of tune. At some LFrq settings, it goes flat. At other LFrq settings, it goes sharp. And in between, it goes sharp and THEN it goes flat as the amplitude increases. There’s no neutral setting where it stays in tune.

It’s far enough out of tune that, with a base frequency of 300Hz, it might drop all the way to 200Hz. That’s not just a little bit that I can live with. It’s way out of tune and whole new FM sidebands appear that shouldn’t be there with my chosen ratio.

Normally, I would expect this to be caused by a DC offset in the modulation signal — and I would expect it to travel in a consistent direction, always sharp if the DC offset is positive, always flat if negative.

I know there is no DC offset because I’m using the QAACC. I also tested highpass filtering with Blades, Angle Grinder, and VCFQ. I confirmed lack of a DC offset with the O’Tool+. I tried adding my own DC offset with Blinds. None of that helped.

The upshot of this is, I don’t get to use dynamic FM amounts — which is the major advantage that linear TZFM has over the much more common exponential FM. Angle Grinder can already do expo FM well and has not just the 0 and 90 degree outputs, but 180 and 270, and the comparator waveshaping stuff too. And Blades can also do expo FM well and crossfade from 0 to 90 to 180 degrees.

There are some calibration trimmers on the circuit board that might or might not be relevant, but these are supposed to be set at the factory and not need adjusting when new. I’ve written to Doepfer’s hardware support email for advice, but it turns out they’re closed until January 10.

I’ll decide what to do once they write back. I can see scenarios where I return or resell it and don’t count it against my 2021 gear plan. But I also could see keeping it even if dynamic FM isn’t going to work well, because with LFrq at or near 0 interesting things do happen. There might be some benefit in keeping it, flaws and all, and learning what it can do.

plan/goals for 2021

I have already touched on part of this, but here’s the “official” post with what I intend for 2021.

1. Keep making it!
2. Make time to just listen without other distractions. Make sure everything in my music collection gets the time and attention it deserves.
3. Do keep supporting other musicians on Bandcamp, Patreon etc. (but I don’t have to buy as much as in 2020)

Gear FOMO / GAS:
1. No selling/trading any music hardware until at least May 1.
2. My Eurorack is complete. Limit any selling/trading of modules to a maximum of 3 in 2021. Don’t buy modules that won’t fit in the cases I have, or put modules in storage, or buy more/bigger cases.
3. Don’t buy/trade any other synths or FX or music toys. Maybe a nOb controller.
4. With software, consider if I really need something else. The answer is probably no.
5. (Exceptions: beta testing, replacement in case of equipment failure, an unambiguous one-for-one upgrade. All unlikely.)

1. Do better than in 2020! (That… should not be hard.)
2. Do some walking/moving/stretching.
3. Test blood sugar at least every Friday morning.

1. Don’t engage with bad actors/hostile people, or in threads where everyone is just talking past each other. This pretty much includes Behringer threads, analog vs. digital, hardware vs. software, most political threads, and so on.

Christmas wrap-up

So we did the slightly awkward socially distanced Christmas, and really it wasn’t too bad. Being able to Skype with family isn’t as good as being there in person, but it’s better than nothing!

I have to show off the fantastic synth covers that my mom made for me:

The photo doesn’t really do them justice. Deep purple airbrushy swirls with silver and white stars. The Medusa cover fits perfectly over the top and front/sides. The one for the modular works quite well given its large size and strange shape. The cover for the Microfreak is a little awkward to put on, partially thanks to its awkward stand, which I might decide to replace. But they all do the job and look sharp!

Aside from this, my spouse got me some BoredBrain patch cables which match the length/color scheme of the Modular Addict skinny cables I have, which seem to be unobtanium. They seem like well-made cables and they drape from the cable hanger in tidy lines, which I like. And now I will definitely have enough cables in each length even in more complex patches.

I also got low-profile right-angle MIDI and USB cables so there’s not so much length poking out of the backs of the Microfreak and DAFM, an electric kalimba which should be fun to process with the modular and with plugins, a small but hefty-sounding Bluetooth speaker (which I could use to re-amp parts for natural room reverb, but it’s mostly just for listening), a USB power bank, a Defiant t-shirt (from Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward series, in glorious neon 80s style) and several books.

For the cyberpunk album, I made another ill-fated attempt at not doing drone/ambient music. Sort of an electro thing. It did not go particularly well. Individual sounds were cool, snippets of the song were evocative or attention-grabbing, but on the whole it just did not pull together. I may drop this particular cue from my list entirely rather than struggling to interpret it, but first I’m just going to move on and work on other bits.

I grabbed Madrona Labs Kaivo on sale. I’ve been such a fan of Aalto that it’s a little weird I never got into its younger sibling, but I think I must have just browsed some presets and given up quickly. Maybe the color scheme was a turnoff:

It’s a unique semi-modular synth. There’s a granular section, set up in an unusual way with multiple source samples and smoothly modulatable overlap amount which can have all kind of timbral consequences. A polyphonic string/bar/spring resonator, quite different from Rings in its implementation, and a single “body” resonator as well. There’s a lowpass gate a bit different from Aalto’s, a two-dimensional LFO that can be phase-modulated, a “noise” section that can split into multiple Gaussian bands, and Aalto’s familiar ADSR and repeat/delay/attack/release envelopes.

It’s a synth where the presets aren’t necessarily fun, but sound design is both fun and unusual. Much less “pure synthesis” sounds that I tend to favor, and more of a hybrid uncanny valley quasi-acoustic-sounding scary thing — but that has its place too. The resonators have a bit of a “boxy” sound compared to Rings, even without using the body resonator, but it’s not insurmountable.

that’s where I keep all my stuff

The latest Ambient Online Themed Compilation has been released, available on Bandcamp for pay-what-you-want. And the theme is… Earth!

This compilation is a bit shorter than many of AO’s, possibly due to a shorter deadline and busy, worn-out participants… but we’re still talking about 54 tracks here. 🙂

This time I just squeaked my second track in a couple of days before it was due, and I had to talk myself into participating. The issue is, I feel like it was in a different headspace from the cyberpunk album I’ve been working on, and it took some time to switch. And then switching back, I felt like I could feel the gears meshing again almost tangibly.

I usually just start making something, and then decide what it is and what to call it partway through or after it’s done. I often have a list of possible titles to go with my theme, and I always have a bigger list of titles I like in reserve. But this one is more directed. I have a specific set of phrases from the book, each related to a specific scene, to write for, and each brings a particular mood and associations with it. I can’t use a pensive drone piece for a panicked escape scene, for instance. So far I’m happy with what I’ve done, but it does require a bit more mental gaming.

arts & entertainment

It’s time for another book report, but now also with anime and gaming.

The Ministry For the Future was a bit surprising overall. As I said before, it’s a science fiction story about how humanity finds the leverage to make the changes to cope with climate change, climate justice and related social justice issues. However, some of those levers and some character arcs were unexpected. Overall I found it mainly plausible, and both heartbreaking and heartening, if that makes sense. People are people — both foolish and wise, selfish and generous, callous and compassionate.

Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower is a shortish book by the author of Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth. This is a very different book — simpler, even predictable, but a fun and subversive parody of fairy tale and fantasy RPG tropes and a satire of traditional gender roles. It kind of is and isn’t a children’s tale, so parents of younger children might want to read it themselves first.

I’m most of the way through rereading/semi-skimming Musimathics Vol. 1. Not so much entertainment, in fact it’s very dry and textbookish at times. But it covers some of the science of sound, from basic physics to harmonic motion, vibrating systems, the anatomy of hearing and psychoacoustics, tuning systems and scales, and composition.

I figured I’d go back through it looking for inspiration. Haven’t really found much this time, but I do understand the Bohlen-Pierce scale a bit better now. (It works very well with cross-FM on the 4ms Ensemble Oscillator because the intervals are very consonant.)

Volume 2 — which I don’t have but have just ordered — covers digital audio, musical signals, spectral analysis and resynthesis, convolution, filtering and resonance, and other topics extremely relevant to sound synthesis and processing.

Scissor Seven is a Chinese anime, or I guess donghua, about a hairdresser / soup cook / would-be killer for hire who never kills anyone, the blue-feathered chicken who rescued him, the martial artists that are out to get him, the technocratic empire out to get everyone, and a pheasant with a taste for vengeance.

It’s as wacky as it sounds, and it has no trouble whiplashing between utterly goofy, deadly serious, super cute, disturbing, tragic, and romantic. But it’s pretty consistently good no matter which emotional buttons it’s pushing at any given time.

The Disastrous Life of Saiki K is completely silly. The main character is a super-powerful psychic, with clairvoyance, mind control, psychokinesis, teleportation, invisibility, super strength, super speed and whatever else the plot needs… and he hates it and just wants to keep his secret and live a quiet, unremarkable, normal life, avoiding attention. But of course, there is nothing “normal” about life in high school, and attention inevitably falls on those trying hardest to avoid it.

“But the pink hair and the antennas,” one might protest. But he knew you were wondering about that, and explains in one episode that he’s used his mind control on the entire world to make them think unusual hair colors are completely natural. It’s not just a convention to help audiences distinguish dozens of simply drawn black-haired people, and for more information we can read his manga, he says.

A major part of the fun is that we get to hear his inner monologue, and he can hear the inner monologue of everyone around him (except for his “pal” Nendo who is too dense). And nearly everyone is either incredibly shallow, completely ridiculous, or likely to get him into trouble.

Yes, I’ve been playing Dirt Rally 2.0 fairly solidly since its release. But my employer gave out Amazon gift cards for Christmas and I decided to splurge on a Logitech G29 force feedback racing wheel.

A far cry from the old Atari paddle controllers or the plastic wheel thingy you can fit a Nintendo Switch controller in, wheels like this are motorized so they can transmit simulated friction, road bumps, the tendency of a car to straighten out on its own (or oscillate wildly under some conditions), and so on. It feels much more like actually driving a car, and gives feedback that helps you react more quickly and accurately.

At least in theory. It’s going to take some practice, particularly with the faster and less stable cars, to figure out how to correct my course each time things get a little off kilter. It took a while with a gamepad too — where there was very little physical feedback aside from rumbling, where instant swings from left to right were simple (but translated indirectly into wheel turning in the simulation), and quick little full-range flicks were often the most effective adjustment.

The wheels comes with a set of pedals, which are much more precise feeling than the short-throw triggers of an XBox style controller, but I can say that stomping a “real” brake pedal leads to a more convincing sense of panic than squeezing a plastic button. And it allows for a clutch, which is optional in the game but provides another method of control for turning or regaining stability. It’s just a matter of trying to play Dance Dance Revolution below the desk while armwrestling with a robot atop the desk.

I didn’t get the optional H-shifter accessory. There are shift paddles on the wheel itself which I thought I would prefer anyway, since I liked them on the Steam controller. But it’s pretty hard to downshift while also turning the wheel hard, so for now I’m mostly sticking with “semi-automatic” transmission so I don’t have to worry about it. Reversing is a bit awkward either with sequential paddle shifting or automatic — requiring either rapid taps of the left paddle to get all the way to reverse, or a sort of double-stomp on the brake pedal to start rolling backwards. But even with an XBox or Steam controller, if you ever have to back yourself out of being stuck you’re already going to lose several seconds and possibly slide around like a fish out of water and find more cliff faces and trees to ram into.

So my racing times are much worse right now but should improve with practice. It’s a lot more fun and exciting this way though, and a little bit of a workout too.

these blades will never rust

Mutable Instruments Blades (along with a magnet that’s the front half of a wooden deer, very cute) arrived on Saturday.

Using words to describe the subtleties of sound is kind of a hopeless prospect, and people certainly have their own preferences in filter characteristics just like they prefer different seasonings. There are certain filters whose resonance I really don’t like in anything other than a very small amount, for instance, Korg MS-20 style filters or typical squeaky TB-303 stuff. Some people really hate Steiner-Parker filters, especially Arturia’s “Brute” versions (and those people are wrong.)

To me, when using a single one of Blades’ filters, the words that come to mind are clean, tidy, stable, pleasant. But it’s not boring, partially because of the continuous sweep available on filter modes, so you can tailor the shape to the material. It doesn’t have the “ripping” sound of Ripples under fast modulation, it doesn’t sound like it always has some resonance like Three Sisters, it’s not as sweet and organic as VCFQ. Just considering the sound of a single filter, without the drive — it’s pretty solid, maybe 8.5 out of 10 overall? I sure wouldn’t complain about a synth that had it as its only filter.

But it DOES have that pre-drive/wavefolding stage and it’s got two filters. When you use them together, in parallel or serial or some hybrid, and/or with one modulating the other, it really opens up possibilities. You can get a kind of “shiny” sound with an extra peak, or you can drive it hard serially and get really mean and nasty. This, I believe, is why it’s described as a dual filter rather than a stereo one (though of course it can be used in stereo quite easily).

It pings better than some filters, but not quite as well as VCFQ, or a Hordijk Twin Peak. On the other hand, it resonates very easily too… and it makes for a fantastic complex oscillator.

It has accurate 1V/OCT tracking, and a “shift” button that lets the second filter follow the first with an offset. And crucially, it can do phase modulation, as the three filter modes (lowpass, bandpass, highpass) are shifted 90 degrees relative to each other. Crossfading smoothly between them results in a smooth phase shift (and a minor variation in amplitude). So one can do audio-rate, dynamic phase modulation, with a strikingly different character than Yamaha DX synths. It is also capable of exponential FM too, of course.

There are some downsides to using it this way. None of them are insurmountable, and some present opportities:

  • There are no fine tuning knobs. The range of possible offsets for the second filter makes it tricky to tune to the first exactly. (Workaround: use a DC offset into the second frequency input for finer control.)
  • The relative tuning is not necessarily perfectly stable, and it doesn’t have sync or an automatic ratio lock like some digital complex oscillators. (But you can blend in some of the first filter’s output into the second filter, and it sort of “entrains” into place… not something a more conventional complex oscillator can do!)
  • Since the drive stages come before the filters, you can’t simultaneously use the second filter to modulate the first and then wavefold the result all within Blades. But that’s what other modules are for… and you can do some waveshaping via feedback in ways a conventional oscillator can’t (though some of them will affect the tuning).
  • You do need an external VCA to control the modulation depth. Not a problem.
  • The output is loud, phase modulation increases that level, and it’s enough to clip my ES-6. But I have several ways of dealing with that.

So overall, this is now my favorite filter module!