details

Mastering’s done. I’m happy with the sound and I’m working on the image and the words. I have some patch notes and a bit of explanation to write up. That was going to happen tonight but I wound up exploring some sound experiments a little instead, and reading The Rhesus Chart.

I don’t often like to choose single favorites among wide categories. But it’s safe to say that The Laundry Files is my favorite series in the horror-comedy-spy-fantasy-software development genre. It’s up for a Hugo award this time (and it’s got good company; the Sick Puppy bloc aka “everything must be made by, for and about white manly men” must be too busy with QAnon or MAGA rallies these days to bother with merely extinguishing diversity and creativity in genre fiction).


A survey of the patch notes from Passing Through told me:

  • As expected and hoped, the ER-301 has taken a central role.
  • Surprisingly, Kermit was the second most referenced module. It’s become my go-to LFO, it makes a nice modulation VCO, and has a unique and lovely-weird sound on its own.
  • The E370 is still a good workhorse, and I discovered two new techniques with it which will get some more exercise in the future.
  • I only used the Natural Gate in one song, and the Dynamic Impulse Filter not at all. Me, the LPG junkie (according to the designer of Natural Gate and my own admission)! There are a bunch of plausible reasons and one weird one (putting all my black-panel modules together makes them visually blend in with each other). Regardless, I’m holding onto both of them for now, especially the NG.
  • Tides 2018 was underused. Even with some of its extra abilities, it’s just not pushing my buttons even when I try pushing its. So I’m putting it up for sale.
  • tanh[3] is a good module, but not an everyday module and I can do what it does in the ER-301. I’ll probably let it go too.

The newest synth trade show, Synthplex, took place in California last weekend. Less news than I expected came out of it given the amount of hype around it, but the Rossum Electro-Music Panharmonium stood out. It’s basically an FFT spectrum analyzer which then controls a cluster of analog oscillators — not quite a vocoder, but an odd and intriguing take on a spectral resynthesizer. I literally had dreams about the thing. I may find myself picking one up before Knobcon after all, once I’ve sold a little more gear to fund it 100%.

Speaking of synth trade shows, Knobcon has now also missed its postponed date for opening up ticket sales. The Facebook page still says March 1, with no updates since January. The website itself still says “Tickets On Sale in March 2019” and the “Buy Tickets” link still goes to the exhibitor registration page (which sometimes appears broken or closed). I hope things are okay with everyone involved.

writing while listening

Writing this while mastering the album. A few tracks have given me minor difficulties, and Sound Forge Pro 10 continues to be about as stable as a game of Jenga running on a Packard Bell laptop running Windows Vista on the back of a neurotic chihuahua on a ship in a storm. Or something like that. But it progresses.


Because listening to the same new songs several times in a row and making minor adjustments isn’t enough I guess, I’ve started a sequential listen through my Starthief albums. And I noticed something.

A few months before starting Nereus I had felt like I’d “found my sound” and was refining it. If you listen over the course of a few hundred songs in 2017 it does sound a bit like I’m closing in on something, and Nereus is the pinnacle as well as the end of that phase. The album is full of sequenced bass/melody lines with hard attacks and exponential decays and octave leaps; lots of snappy LPG plucks and saturated triangle waves, and backgrounds made busy with exotic modulation techniques.

And then there’s a line. Or perhaps an ellipsis…

And then there’s Shelter In Place. That was when I really got into the improvisational, drones-and-rhythm thing. As I listened to it, my thought was “I bet that was when I traded away the 0-Coast.” I just doublechecked, and yes, it was. In a sense, SIP is really the first proper Starthief album, and Nereus is the end of the transitional phase that created Starthief.

My 2019 albums felt more like they stood on opposite sides of a line: this change from “modular 1.1” to “2.0” that I kept on about. One saw me paring down my gear, the other saw the first usage of a lot of new stuff. But the gear change was carefully arranged to preserve and streamline the things I wanted to keep doing, and so these two albums really aren’t very far apart in composition, technique or sound.

My interpretation of the Passing Through theme varied per song — sometimes I carved out more breathing space (which is where I think the album sounds a little more different), and sometimes I layered things on like those interpenetrating energy fields I was talking about. In both cases, I was exploring some new technique as well as the gear. But it all still sounds like Starthief to me, and I should know 😉

the next medium-sized thing

I’m declaring Passing Through “feature-complete,” as is sometimes said in the software development business. I’ve got everything recorded and have the order worked out, I just need to do some minor editing, and then mastering and artwork and that’s that.

I thought I had a pretty neat idea for a title for the next album, but it turns out to be the same title as a Christian Rock song. I’ve already had the displeasure of seeing one of my album titles as the title of a novel on a convenience store shelf.

…You know what, I’m not even going to check if “Passing Through” is already the title of something because it’s really a common enough phrase.

lost and found / on mirrors

At the office, above all other things, I like to fidget with magnets. (It was originally BuckyBalls, but those were subject to a recall thanks to the CPSC because it’s dangerous to swallow them. For some reason, safety warnings are deemed sufficient for every other relatively powerful, small magnet on the market, including some produced by the same people, just not the BuckyBalls brand. So you can’t get those anymore.)

From my original set of BuckyBalls, I dropped a few somewhere, could not find them, and assumed they were lost. Several months later when the other business that shared our floor moved out and we raided the stuff they left behind for salvage, I happened to find my missing magnets on their floor. It seemed a stunning coincidence, but hey, I got my magnets back for a while. (Eventually the coating wears off and they get gross and you’re not supposed to handle them anymore.)

At the end of last year I got these Speks magnets as either a birthday or Christmas gift, but managed to lose three of their number within days of bringing them to work. Today, 3-4 months later, I found them sitting on the floor in the middle of my cube, plain as day.

And that’s my creepypasta for the day.


From time to time I’ve contemplated the idea of doing a musical project that is more directly and personal and emotionally intense, less abstract than Shelter In Place was, with no obfuscation. This means it would get political. And thus, mostly angry and frustrated and tired and afraid.

And maybe that’s the way some artists have to operate, but I think I am the opposite. Maybe going abstract is my way of dealing with the world’s crap. It’s not explicit escapism, but almost a case of not wanting that dirt in my sacred space.

I’m thinking about my phrase “paint the mirror” from a couple of years ago:

The title for this track is a clue to something, I’m sure. I was walking around the plaza on a break from work, thinking about art as a reflection of life, and that maybe that goes both directions. I can’t do as much to fix the world as I’d like, but I can make music. The words “paint the mirror” came to me at that moment.

In other words, show the world a better reflection of itself. I’ve said things before about art and magic being types of each other, and the point of them is to change the world. Maybe just a small part of it, just a little — the emotions and thoughts of those who experience the art (or if no one else, the artist themselves!) And then that spreads out in ripples, influencing a wider area in subtle ways.

What I want to bring into the world isn’t more anger and frustration and fear. It is… well, I’ll have to think about it some more, but wonder, weirdness, and acceptance of others’ weirdness seems like a good starting point.

inharmonic collision

Monday evening, I set up my composition idea as planned: three triangle oscillators feeding a sine shaper, with two of them under polymetric control from Teletype (3-in-8 vs 4-in-9 Euclidean rhythms) and one under manual control.

It was frankly pretty boring when I was just using octaves. So I decided to go off the rails a bit and sequence pitches with the Sputnik 5-Step Voltage Source. I clocked it with the master clock, regardless of the rhythmic pattern; the first voice used a channel directly and the second sampled a channel every 8 clock steps. So what we’d get is a complex pattern that starts something like this:

Where time runs left to right, and each color in each lane represents a knob on the 5-Step (not necessarily indicating what the pitch value is set to, nor is “red” on the top and bottom necessarily the same pitch but sometimes they are, and different colors within the same lane are in some cases tuned to the same pitch). The pattern in the top lane runs for 40 beats before repeating, and the bottom lane runs for 72 beats. Because these two are interacting thanks to the sine shaper, they can’t be thought of as individual parts and so it’s going to take 2880 beats for the pattern to repeat. At the tempo I used, the whole recording is roughly 1/10 of a full cycle. (Or… it would be, except I put the two patterns under manual control, suppressing the triggers while letting the sequencer keep clocking. Monkey wrench!)

Complex patterns from relatively simple rules. But that was kind of a tangent — the point is, the frequencies I dialed in, relative to each other, often collided in non-integer ratios. Even if they sound good as individual notes played together, when you use them in phase modulation things get a bit dissonant and skronky, with new sidebands at weird frequencies.

An unlikely scenario.

This is the 21st century — beauty is complex, artistic merit isn’t directly tied to beauty, we’re not limiting ourselves to Platonic perfection, and the idea that certain intervals and chords could accidentally invoke Satan isn’t something we lose sleep over anymore. I think the result I got is pretty neat! But it’s not really what I had originally imagined. So I’m going to keep the basics of this idea, follow a different branching path with it and see where that goes.

The third voice, I controlled with the 16n Faderbank — one slider for level, one for pitch. The latter went through the ER-301’s scale quantizer unit, so it always landed on something that fit reasonably well with the other two voices. It turns out this unit supports Scala tuning files, and TIL just how crazy those can get.

Scala is a piece of software and a file format which lets you define scales quite freely — whether you just want to limit something to standard 12TET tuning, or a subset of that (such as pentatonic minor), or just intonation, non-Western scales, xenharmonic tunings, or exactly matching that slightly-off toy piano. The main website for Scala has an archive of 4800 different tuning files and that’s just too much. This is super-specialist stuff with descriptions such as:

  • Archytas[12] (64/63) hobbit, sync beating
  • Supermagic[15] hobbit in 5-limit minimax tuning
  • Big Gulp
  • Degenerate eikosany 3)6 from 1.3.5.9.15.45 tonic 1.3.15
  • Hurdy-Gurdy variation on fractal Gazelle (Rebab tuning)
  • Left Pistol
  • McLaren Rat H1
  • Weak Fokker block tweaked from Dwarf(<14 23 36 40|)
  • Semimarvelous dwarf: 1/4 kleismic dwarf(<16 25 37|)
  • Three circles of four (56/11)^(1/4) fifths with 11/7 as wolf
  • Godzilla-meantone-keemun-flattone wakalix
  • One of the 195 other denizens of the dome of mandala, <14 23 36 40| weakly epimorphic

With all these supermagic hobbits and semimarvelous dwarves and Godzilla, and all the other denizens with their Big Gulps and pistols, where do I even start with this? The answer is, I don’t. I’ll just try making a couple of my own much simpler scales that I can actually understand. Like 5EDO — instead of dividing an octave into 12 tones, divide it into 5.

think tank

Today’s an especially slow workday and I’ve been reading a lot of interviews and articles at The Creative Independent. I haven’t had any particular epiphanies as a result, but it’s stirring the brain juices a little.

But I did have a minor revelation this morning about the connection between wavefolding and phase modulation thanks to Open Music Labs being, well, open about their designs. In particular, the Sinulator, which is similar to the Happy Nerding FM Aid — a module I owned once, let go of because I figured I had enough FM/PM capability in my system. (Frequency modulation and phase modulation are very closely related; the simple version is that a continuously advancing phase is frequency, and PM is basically indistinguishable from linear FM in terms of results.) I’ve wished a few times that I’d kept the FM Aid, but could sometimes get similar results out of Crossfold. I didn’t understand why, though.

OML’s description and blessedly simple mathematical formula (no calculus or funny Greek letters!) make me realize, this is basically the same thing described by Navs some time ago (I think in a forum post rather than the blog though). And it ties in with my recent efforts to do nice-sounding wavefolding with the ER-301.

“Sine shaping” is a commonly used shortcut to wavefolding as well as triangle-to-sine shaping. It’s literally just plugging an audio input in as x in the function sin(xg), where g is the gain.
If g is 1, and x happens to be a sawtooth or triangle wave, you’ll get a sine wave out of it. If the input is a sine, you get a sine that folds back on itself a bit… and the higher g goes above 1, the more the output will fold over on itself and get more complex and bright. (Better sounding analog wavefolders and their digital imitators don’t map to a sine exactly, but it’s a similar-looking curve. Also they use mulitple stages in series for more complex behavior. But a sine totally does work.) What I learned here is that adding another term inside that function will shift the phase of the output… tada, phase modulation exactly how Yamaha did it in the DX series (and then confusingly called it FM). A whole lot of puzzle pieces clicked together.

Anyway… in this model because one just adds the two inputs, it doesn’t really matter which is the carrier and which is the modulator. Why not use independent VCAs on both, and sequence them separately? Maybe some kind of polymetric, occasionally intersecting thing where it’s like two interacting fields, totally fitting the theme of the album I’m working on? To lend form to the piece, one of those inputs can be transposed, have its envelope or intensity changed, or a third input can be added (it’s just addition)…

I don’t normally plan my compositions quite so much when I’m away from the instrument itself, and I almost never get this… academic about it. (Is that a dirty word?) But I’m eager to try this one.

So there’s a free peek inside a process I don’t usually use.

put some clothes on, Your Majesty

Reading about the history of synths, or about the use of synths in rock, one always comes across worshipful descriptions of Keith Emerson’s “Lucky Man” solo and the Moog Modular he took on tour to perform it.

I never really bothered to check it out. I don’t think I ever heard the song, or paid attention if I did. But I took the authors at face value: that this was a blistering, awesome performance that was part of the pincer maneuver which made Moog more or less a household name and doomed Buchla to relative obscurity (Switched-On Bach being the other) and that Emerson was a master both of modular synthesis and rock performance.

My curiosity was finally prompted by the MST3K riffing on Monster A-Go Go which made references to both “Fly Like An Eagle” and “Lucky Man” during a particularly synthy part of the soundtrack.

So I watched a couple of videos, and… well. Maybe a rock fan in 1970, having seen nothing like it, would have been blown away. But the first thing I noticed is the patch is really, really simple. Five years later he could have been playing that on the one-oscillator Micromoog. At the time, he could have pulled out 95% of the patch cable spaghetti draping the thing. Sure, it had an impressively powerful bass sound which Emerson made good use of, but there was nothing very sophisticated about the patch. The synth was mostly serving as a prop. “Look at all this equipment and all those cables, this guy must be a wizard!”

(I’m not disparaging Emerson’s synthesis skills — maybe this is the exact sound he was going for. Maybe it was set up for a quick between-songs repatch to do something completely different; pull one cable here and plug one in there and it’s ready to go. But I do think a lot of it was for show.)

The second thing is, the timing was really sloppy, at least in the performances I watched. Particularly in a more recent performance, there was a slow portamento and I wonder if that’s throwing off his playing, because he’s just not playing to the tempo of the rest of the band. It didn’t feel like expressive timing but just bad timing. Otherwise, what he played was… okay, but not the most acrobatic or virtuosic or creative solo I’ve ever heard by any means.

So, yeah. I guess this is just one of those cases where the historical context was the fuel and the art was a spark; with the fuel burned out we can see that the spark was a small thing.

it’s time to talk about Uranus

The third Ambient Online Themed Compilation is now available. There are 74 tracks on it (!) and two of them are by somebody named Starthief. I’ve only listened to a few of the others so far, but I like what I’m hearing.

“Georgium Sidus” may be as close to conventional ambient music as I’ve come lately. “In Cyan” had to go weirder. Both of them are studies in tension, in their own ways.

A couple of the pieces on the upcoming album are a little more chill, providing relief from the oppressiveness of a couple of the others.
But maybe sometime I should just make an album of relaxing yoga music or something.


It’s been 4 months since I set out my 2019 goals. How am I doing?

  • “Keep making music”

Pretty well! I released The Rule of Beasts, submitted to the compilation above, and have recorded 42 minutes of music toward Passing Through. The latter was slowed a little by gear and layout changes but I think this is an acceptable pace.

I haven’t done anything related to playing live. I looked into some ambient labels and haven’t decided to submit anything to them yet. I changed all my albums on BandCamp to pay-what-you-want.

I booked a hotel for Knobcon (registration for the event itself has changed from “tickets on sale March 1” to “tickets on sale in March” with no indication of progress).

  • “The gear plans”

Swimmingly! I’m basically at version 2.0 now (just waiting on one module to arrive from Portugal, and may make one more substitution), and it’s as good as I had hoped.

I’ve been diligent about tracking money spent on gear and received in sales, and in fact have stuck to the stricter idea that I’m going to spend less than I sell. There’s still some leeway in that for a couple more toys if I want — though I will wait at least until KnobCon for that — but right now nothing’s really on the menu.

  • “The health plans”

Physically: I don’t see my endocrinologist in May, and have been measuring nothing. I’ve been generally eating healthier, I think.

Mentally: really haven’t had the “maybe a panic attack” symptoms for a while. CBD oil is not a miracle cure but has helped with general mood stuff and seems to relieve tension a little bit. I have been pretty good about avoiding, or quickly disentangling from, pointless online bickering.

  • “The house plans”

I finally finished the vinyl plank floor. Haven’t done much else really.

  • “Other”

I guess?

best case scenario

Last night my spouse finished pyrography on the new case, and I spent about 4 hours getting everything (except the FX pedals) installed, wired up and tested.

The art takes some inspiration from a diagram of black hole evaporation, and some clipart and tattoo designs. But it also has more of a feeling of fantasy and whimsy and magic, and I like this combination a lot. 🙂 I’m really pleased at how this turned out and it was definitely worth waiting a couple of extra weeks for.

I’m still waffling on the tattoo thing though.

Outlining the changes from version 1.1 to 2.0:

  • ER-301 replaced Tyme Sefari/A Sound of Thunder, Chronoblob, Hertz Donut mk2, Warps, Cinnamon, Dynamo, Crossfold, and the Geiger Counter pedal. (Plus it does more things that those never could, and continues to gain new abilities…)
  • Maths replaced Function, Mini Slew, 321, and Pico A Logic.
  • QPAS replaced Twinpeak.
  • Sputnik 5-Step Voltage Source and Selector replace Mimetic Digitalis.
  • I let go of Maze, Double Helix, G8 and the Monobius pedal.
  • I added the 16n Faderbank, Volca Modular, Doepfer BBD and Erbe-Verb.
  • Incoming: Xaoc Tallin is replacing ModDemix and DTA.
  • Incoming: ADDAC200PI Pedal Integrator is replacing S.B.G.

Overall that’s 21 modules and two pedals out, 9 modules and an awesome controller and a tiny standalone synth in. I feel like I expanded the system, but it’s smaller, less expensive, arranged better, and still has a little space to grow later on if I’m careful about power requirements.