This album is a study of Mutable Instruments Rings: one of my first, and favorite, Eurorack synthesizer modules. Rings is a “modal resonator” — a series of carefully tuned bandpass or comb filters which resonate when excited by either an internally generated impulse, or an external audio source. With the internal impulse, Rings sounds like plucked or struck strings (individual or chorded) — or a mallet or chime instrument or other percussion. This seems to be the most common way to use the module, because it’s relatively easy to understand and produces beautiful results.
Rings is a very popular module in the Eurorack community, and unfortunately with its popularity comes a reputation for cliché and easy recognizability. This is a shame, because the real power of Rings comes with using the audio input. This can simulate a musical object being bowed, excited by moving air or other vibrations, or act as a sort of complex filter or delay. It opens up a whole world of physical modeling — often more eerie and unusual than realistic.
I’ve never been one to stick with the basic plonky sounds. In fact, my very first recording with Rings was inspired by a science-fiction musical instrument both challenging to play and to listen to. I fed Mutable Instruments Tides into Rings’ input, and used the output to modulate Tides’ frequency. Not my best work, but consider it sort of a bonus track for the album, if you like:
I’ve never done public or detailed patch notes for my albums until now, but it seems appropriate to shine some light on how these sounds were created. The notes I take are vague because my main purpose for them isn’t to recreate a specific sound, but to document what I’ve used in a more general sense and inspire future patches; I’ve tried to expand on them here but it relies a bit on memory. I have a philosophy of “always looking forward” with modular synthesis.
Four voices, with levels manually controlled via mixer.
Three of the voices in this one are based on a common drone source. This is a feedback loop consisting of Artificial Noise Cimmerian Caves V2 into Red Panda Tensor. The changes in pitch are the result of Tensor’s Random function occasionally negating the dialed-in pitch shift.
Voice 1 is the drone through Mutable Instruments Warps with wavefolding partially dialed in, into Mutable Instruments Rings input. Rings is in sympathetic strings mode; Position is modulated by LFO, and Brightness and Damping are manually controlled. The two outputs are recorded as a mid/side pair and run through Valhalla Plate.
Voice 2 is the drone through Instruo tanh as an alternative to mixing it “dry” with Rings; it is mostly not perceived as a separate voice.
Voice 3 has the Doepfer A-196 PLL trying to track the drone’s pitch in order to control The Harvestman Hertz Donut mk2. Heavy Valhalla Room reverb is applied.
Voice 4 is a separate drone. Korg contact mic attached to my Yuento Elefan desk fan; it is fed through Little Bear R.Attack, Earthquaker Afterneath, and Zoom MS-70CDR.
This song is an example of using Rings as more of a filter than anything else.
This is a single voice, consisting of two Rings in 4x polyphony and Karplusverb modes. They share common V/OCT and Strum inputs, from a MIDI sequence that runs during the middle of the song, letting the voice drone at the beginning and end.
Each Rings’ Odd output feeds the opposite Rings’ input, and the two Even outputs are recorded in stereo, through Valhalla Vintage Verb. Separate LFOs from Mutable Instruments Stages modulation Position on both, giving the phase shifting effect.
Karplusverb and Inharmonic String modes, when fed by external audio and allowed lots of brightness, are great for this sort of “fizzy bowed string” sound among other things. This is one of my favorite uses for Rings.
Kronos Ate His Children
Of all the songs on the album, this one may sound the most like people expect Rings to sound — because the audio source for Rings here is Mutable Instruments Plaits in its “Inharmonic String Modeling” mode, sort of a scaled-down Rings. Rings’ Brightness setting is kept relatively low. The mid channel is Rings Even output; the side channel is the Odd output through Tensor. Valhalla Plate for reverb. If I recall correctly, Rings was in Modal Resonator mode, and this was a generative sequence by Mutable Instruments Marbles clocked by Monome Teletype with separate x outputs feeding Plaits and Rings.
With the right input, Rings can easily give you gorgeous sounds on a continuum between strings and chimes, much more sonically interesting than the default exciter. Patches don’t have to be very complicated to sound rewarding.
Plaits is a great companion for Rings, as it can generate multiple types of noise, a variety of percussive and continuous audio signals, and approximate Rings itself with either a sustained or struck internal excitation signal.
The main voice starts with Mutable Instruments Tides 2018 edition in “Different Frequencies” mode. Its four outputs are mixed in Livestock Electronics Maze and fed into Rings input. The second Tides output is fed into Rings FM. Tides’ parameters, including Shift (changing the harmonic ratios) are modulated by slow LFOs from Stages synchronized to Teletype, which is manually paused at times. Manual buttons separately transpose both Tides and Rings. Rings’ Odd output runs through Valhalla Vintage Verb.
The second voice, a background drone occasionally punctuated by shuffling noises, consists of a Korg contact mic and Crank Sturgeon Perpetual Spring Device on either side of a desk fan, through Unfiltered Audio SpecOps and u-he Colour Copy.
This, again, is about Rings primarily acting in a filter-like way, and about melodic sequences that don’t involve pitch sequencing as such. Keeping the frequency of Rings fixed while the input changes is something like tuning a 60-stringed zither to a particular chord, then playing music through it by magnetically inducing the strings to vibrate.
The Eye Like A Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity
Voice 1 is Rings in FM mode. Brightness and Position (FM index and feedback) are modulated by Stages envelopes. Structure (FM ratio) and Pitch are sequenced in parallel in Noise Engineering Mimetic Digitalis. The Even (modulator only) output is the mid channel, and the Odd (main) output is the side channel; gentle filtering, reverb and chorus are via Unfiltered Audio BYOME.
Voice 2, the soft sustained pads, is The Harvestman Kermit. Its first oscillator feeds the second in PLL (pitch following) mode; the two outputs are fed in parallel through tanh and The Harvestman Tyme Sefari channels; the first is chorused via modulating one of Expert Sleepers Disting mk4‘s delay modes with an LFO. Mixed in mid-side stereo through Valhalla Room and u-he Uhbik-F.
Voice 3, the soft “trumpeting” calls in the latter half of the song, is Tides in Different Frequencies mode. Both Smoothness and Shift are modulated by an envelope. The four outputs are mixed in Koma Elektronik Field Kit FX, one through the spring reverb and another through the delay; then through Afterneath and MS-70CDR.
The title of this song is directly borrowed from Symbolist painter Odilon Redon’s whimsically disturbing piece. I feel it’s a shame this artist, a precursor to the Surrealists, isn’t more widely known.
I wanted at least one song in this collection to use one of the alternate modes in Rings. Perhaps not every song calls for a modal resonator, but there’s nearly always a place for a basic FM synthesis voice or even a pure sine, so in a small system Rings never has to sit idle. There’s also a “Disastrous Peace” Easter Egg mode that acts as an old-school organ or string machine like the Roland RS-09; I find it a little more challenging to get results that I love out of it, but it can be used simply as a formant filter, chorus or reverb for external input.
Voice 1 is a drone in Pittsburgh Modular Lifeforms Double Helix, with some self-patching to create a variety of timbres and modulation, through R.Attack and MS-70CDR.
Voice 2 (the main voice) is Noise Engineering Manis Iteritas into Rings in Karplusverb mode. Both outputs are fed through tanh for further distortion, are recorded mid/side and run through ColourCopy. Pitch sequencing is via a MIDI sequence which is manually paused at times. The modulation of both Manis and Rings is a combination of Teletype, Marbles and Stages. The tail of the recording was played back through Rings in Modal mode with low brightness during post-processing to create a longer fadeout.
The title comes from the 1997 computer game “Dungeon Keeper”, and is the name given to the former Wishvale after its conquest.
Even in my attempt to use Rings in diverse ways, I found myself coming back to Karplusverb for these noisier sounds. It pairs well with the rusty edginess of Manis Iteritas.
This Is Not Rocket Surgery
This is Plaits‘ vocal model into a pair of Rings in parallel, each in Sympathetic Strings mode with the frequency drastically lowered via a negative voltage offset. Hemisphere Suite‘s VectorLFO and VectorMorph apps modulate the timbre on Plaits and the Position parameters of the two Rings. Teletype provides the pitch and trigger sequence for Plaits. The two Rings outputs are recorded without additional effects, with a little bit of Plaits’ output through Afterneath & MS-70CDR.
This song uses Rings as a lo-fi delay/reverb by drastically lowering the frequency. At least one forum-goer has referred to this trick as “Starthief Mode,” but credit properly goes to the module’s designer for suggesting it in an “Unusual Ways To Use Rings” forum post.
Calling Fire From Water
This two-voice piece is based on a mobile phone recording of a diesel generator and water sprinklers.
Voice 1 feeds the recording to the V/OCT input of one Rings, with LFOs modulating Structure and Position. Output through ToneBoosters Reverb 4. (I didn’t make a note of which mode Rings was in.)
Voice 2 feeds the recording into the input of the other Rings, with an LFO modulating Structure and a quantized random sequence into the V/OCT and Strum inputs.
This song also appears in Ambient Online Themed Compilation 02: Fire.
I don’t often work with field recordings, but they can make interesting source material for Rings. Modulating the V/OCT input, which triggers rapid-fire excitation of the module as well as rapid shifts in pitch, often creates noise-like results whose character can vary with the content and the settings. I have a snare drum patch for Rings which involves simply running an amplified contact mic in a wooden box into the V/OCT input.
Piercing the Gloom
This patch is a bit more complex, but is still essentially one voice. A single MIDI sequence controls an instance of Rhythmic Robot Hurdy-Gurdy, two Rings and a Tides.
The sample is played into Rings 1 input, in 4x polyphony / Inharmonic String mode. One output is fed into Rings 2’s input (in 4x poly / Modal Resonator mode). Rings 2’s output feeds back into Rings 1 input.
Tides modulates Rings 2 FM, while white noise modulates its Position. An algorithmic sequence from Teletype modulates Structure on both Rings, and vector LFOs from Hemisphere Suite modulate Tides Shape and Rings 1 Position.
Rings 1’s other output runs through Tensor, Afterneath and MS-70CDR. It is mixed with Rings 2’s other output, and the “dry” sample. The mix run through Colour Copy and BYOME (for reverb and saturation).
Tensor’s tape speed and Rings 2’s feedback amount were manually played during the recording.
If you have two Rings and a penchant for experimentation, this sort of complex feedback loop is inevitable. I like how the result sounds metallic and resonant and very physical, but not like any particular identifiable type of object.
Voice 1 is a double feedback loop with The Harvestman Tyme Sefari & A Sound of Thunder stereo expander and two Rings in 3x polyphonic, Western Chords mode. One Rings is inside the Sefari’s open feedback loop (which mixes its two channels and feeds into both), while the second Rings processes the left output and feeds the right input. (Or possibly the reverse; my notes are unclear.)
Tides modulates Rings positions and Sefari’s sampling frequency. The Tempo output of Tyme Sefari triggers a Circuit Abbey G8 clock divider, which triggers Strum on the two Rings as well as toggling Tyme Sefari’s direction. The two outputs of Tyme Sefari are recorded in stereo through Valhalla Room.
Voice 2 (a drone) uses 2 VCOs of the Synthesis Technology E370 modulated by a third, through two Rabid Elephant Natural Gate channels and Colour Copy. Manual pitch transposition via Mutable Instruments Shades and Ladik P-075 Dual Switch; wavetable morphing and cloud spread are controlled via SoundMachines LS-1 Lightstrip.
When you have another module that loves feedback, such as a delay or reverb, intertwining it with Rings and then disrupting something within the loop can give lovely and semi-unpredictable results. Feedback is very much a component of physical modeling synthesis, and fun to experiment with when not modeling any particular acoustic assembly.
This is The Harvestman Kermit with its waveshape modulated by WMD/SSF Mini Slew, into Alright Devices Chronoblob. An LFO modulates Blob’s delay time. Rings is in Blob’s open feedback loop and is in 4x polyphony/Western Chords mode. Rings pitch is sequenced by a Korg SQ1.
Sub-voice 1 is the Chronoblob output; sub-voice 2 is the Rings output through Pittsburgh Modular Lifeforms Dynamic Impulse Filter and Valhalla Plate.
Another case of putting Rings inside a feedback loop. Choosing which mode to use for Rings and where to set Structure in cases like this can be a challenge because it sounds good, but different, in many configurations. Tapping a feedback loop at multiple points makes for some nice opportunity for sonic variation or for a nice wide sound using mid-side stereo.
Honestly, this album barely scratches the surface of what’s possible with Rings. I feel like I’m publishing a dictionary that ends at the letter H. There are many audio sources and techniques I did not get into, such as:
- Contact mics tapped with a finger or other object.
- Acoustic percussion or plucked string sounds, sampled or live. (I even have a Jackalope v2 by A Wonderful Kind of Impossible which I picked up specifically for the purpose, as well as and a paper tape music box which would likely be perfect, as well as a propane tank drum, marching xylophone, several shakers, and a few stringed instruments…)
- Many more field recordings.
- A variety of short impulse sounds to create variations on plucked string and tuned percussion sounds.
- A variety of sustained filtered noise to create variations on bowed or blown strings, tubes etc.
- Sine tones with rapid frequency sweeps, exciting different bands at different times.
- Many more synthesizer sounds. Classic “Buchla bongos”, FM bells, granular synthesis, anything really.
- Letting Rings process or create sustained tones, but patching the output through a VCA or LPG in the manner of a typical modular oscillator. (I can’t believe I didn’t do this during the course of the project!)
- Pitch shifter, comb filter, or other processing in Rings feedback loop.
- Rapid jumps from negative voltage to specific tuned voltages in the V/OCT input.
- Envelopes or LFOs into the V/OCT input in polyphonic modes.
- More use of the FM input.
- Crossfading between two Rings with an envelope, LFO or perhaps even at audio rates.
- Ring-modulating, phase modulating or amplitude modulating a VCO against a Rings-processed version of that VCO.
- Somewhat imitating Madrona Labs Aalto but with Rings in sympathetic string mode in place of the waveguide delay.
- Progressively feeding samples of Rings back through Rings in a deconstructed feedback loop, in the manner of Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room.
- I found once that smooth LFOs, supposedly below audible frequency range, can contain surprising amounts of noise which makes an interesting sound source. Empty mixer channels amplified heavily, and other “quiet” outputs also can act as noise sources. I also wonder how Rings would react to frequencies well above human hearing, if it does at all.
- Probably several other ideas which I’ve forgotten.
Thanks for listening, and for reading these notes. As a bonus here’s an extra track featuring Rings, originally recorded for one of the other albums.
Several layers of noodling in Rings, overdubbed in Mannequins W/ with feedback loops in Koma Elektronik Field Kit FX. Played back at a slow “tape” speed through Doepfer A-101-2 LPG, Erica Synths Pico DSP, Audio Damage Ratshack Reverb, Sonic Charge Permut8 and Valhalla Plate.