This plan behind this album was to put one of my Eurorack modules on trial: the ALM Busy Circuits Akemie’s Castle. It’s a dual oscillator based on the Yamaha OPL3 chip from the early 90s. (Mylar Melodies made an excellent video about it if you’re curious.)
I may be a little obsessed with FM synthesis, but I also want to keep this synth setup focused, and having so many different FM modules seemed excessive. I certainly wasn’t going to let go of my Hertz Donut mk2 or Happy Nerding FM Aid a second time, but Akemie’s Castle is large and demands a lot of -12V current from my modest power supply. I figured, if I could use it heavily throughout an entire album I’d be able to make an informed decision.
(Verdict: it passes with flying colors. In fact, before I even started the actual recording for this album, I had fallen for its "super doomful" chords and drones, and decided to embrace FM Overkill with my module selections. I just enjoy all those different flavors of it so much! So I continued with my plan in order to explore what the module could do for me.)
Second, I wanted to challenge myself to use my filters more. I’m not much into “classic” subtractive synthesis, and I find myself skipping filters even though I recognize their utility and have a few favorites in terms of sound and function. It was time to put them to work.
(Verdict: I was somewhat successful, but I have more work to do. A side benefit is that thinking about filters also translated to a bit more work with wrapping software FX inside of bandpass or highpass filters, which I found helpful both for enhancement and creative purposes.)
And finally, I wanted to work on techniques with Mutable Instruments Clouds. I was a bit tired of referring to a cheat sheet for Supercell (Grayscale’s large, maximal implementation of Clouds), and decided rather than be distracted by all the shiny alternate firmware modes, I’d just dig deep into the main granular processing mode and explore its considerable potential.
(Verdict: success. I don't miss those other modes at all. I found a few favorite techniques, including using it as a psuedo-VCA by triggering individual grains with their envelopes.)
Not planned in advance, but it happened: in three tracks I used loops that I created in a separate session, and then had those loops playing continuously as if they were oscillators when working on the actual recording.
(Verdict: this is a fun way to work, which I'll continue to explore in the future. I kinda want to get into tape loops, but I figure I don't actually need the tape itself...)
Of course, the main point was to make music!
Partway through the project, SARS-COV-2 reached pandemic status. I started to think about “castles” in light of people huddling inside their homes, defending themselves against the siege of disease. I’m frankly more than a little tired of the dozens of quarantine-themed music releases I’ve been seeing lately, and didn’t want this to be another. But a couple of pieces on this album certainly felt like responses to the oppressive anxiety of the last couple of weeks of March 2020.
Throughout the album
In addition to the Eurorack modular, I used a 16n Faderbank, Korg SQ-1 sequencer, Soma Lyra-8 synthesizer, Catalinbread Adineko delay pedal, Bitwig Studio and several VST plugins.
As is my habit, songs were improvised and performed in real time with minimal sequencing and no MIDI, recorded directly to a stereo file. In a couple of cases I pre-recorded a loop which was then used in a loop like an oscillator.
Nearly every track used Toneboosters Equalizer 4, Unfiltered Audio G8 noise gate, Voxengo MSED, and Izotope RX7 Declick in recording, so those plugins aren’t specifically mentioned below. I also don’t necessarily mention every utility module in my patch descriptions.
My mastering chain for each track on this album consisted of EQ4, DDMF MagicDeathEye compressor, u-he Presswerk as a limiter, and Toneboosters Barricade 4 as a second limiter. In some cases I also used Voxengo Overtone GEQ for additional mid/side EQ adjustments and/or Wavesfactory Spectre for saturation.
A Bit about Akemie’s Castle voicing: it has two separate oscillators with their own pitch control and outputs. Oscillator A also has chord and detuning modes with 5-note chord stacks. Assignment of FM operators to the two voices depends on the selected algorithm:
Since each operator has its own tuning multiplier, that bottom right algorithm allows up to eighteen different pitches simultaneously. That’s the secret to the massive chord voicings possible with this thing.
Voices in the following descriptions are listed in order of appearance.
1: Castle Anthrax
Named, of course, for the too-perilous home of the grail-shaped beacon.
The first voice is Akemie’s Castle A output (no chord mode), through Bitwig’s pitch shifter and Wavesfactory Spectre (bandpassed), and Valhalla Plate reverb.
The second voice is Castle B, through d16 Syntorus, Wavesfactory Cassette and Valhalla Delay.
The third voice is the Synthesis Technology E352 through Joranalogue Filter 8, Xaoc Tallin for some extra drive, Mutable Instruments Clouds, and Native Instruments Replika XT. This voice is sequenced by a Korg SQ-1.
16n Faderbank faders control the Castle’s operator levels, Bitwig pitch shifter and pitch transposition, quantized by Monome Teletype into 16/100 of a volt. (This unusual scale takes 4 octaves to complete a full run, and yet I think it sounds pretty nice.) An LFO from The Harvestman Kermit controls operator 2’s level.
2: Bouncy Castle
Some people call these “bounce houses,” but why bounce around in an inflatable house when you can bounce around in an inflatable castle?
The first voice is Castle A through Clouds; the second is Castle A through Rabid Elephant Natural Gate with level-dependent rectification in Bitwig Grid. Both are processed by PSP Pianoverb 2 and Arturia Delay Tape-201.
The second voice is Castle B through Natural Gate with Valhalla Delay.
Third is the Industrial Music Electronics Hertz Donut mk2’s two oscillators in Happy Nerding FM Aid, with Klevgrand Brusfri, u-he Runciter, Valhalla Room, Valhalla Delay, and e-phonic XPressor.
Last is the Soma Lyra-8 feeding the Starling Via Sync3, with Sonic Charge Echobode, u-he Twangström and d16 Syntorus.
The full mix was processed with Wavesfactory Spectre and u-he Uhbik-Q.
Clocking was from the SQ-1, while pitch and modulation sequencing came from The Harvestman Zorlon Cannon mk2 with Mutable Instruments Marbles.
3: Castle in the Sky
I know it’s a common phrase, but I was thinking of the Studio Ghibli film, which I barely remember because it was many years ago and I was dead tired at the time. I probably owe it a rewatch.
Castle A and B each run through a Natural Gate channel and a Mutable Instruments Rings in Western Chords mode, with both Rings’ frequency dropped well below normal with a negative voltage offset, through Native Instruments Supercharger GT.
Both Castle voices also were processed by Clouds (triggered by Teletype) and Make Noise Mimeophon, with Valhalla Vintage Verb and Uhbik-F.
The full mix was processed with Spectre, NI Raum reverb and Wavesfactory Casette. Sequencing for Castle and one of the Rings was Marbles with Monome Teletype, while the other Rings remained fixed.
One of Odin’s halls, from which he can watch the entire universe. It’s good to be able to work from home in a time like this, if worrisome to have to keep up with what’s going on out there.
The first sounds heard are a small section of a loop (played back by Bitwig Sampler) that was built up from Rings, Catalinbread Adineko, and Clouds with additional processing.
Voice 2 is the E352, being FMd by The Harvestman Kermit’s B oscillator and modulated by Hertz Donut mk2. Voice 3 is Rings #1 in FM mode mixed with Castle B output, and voice 4 is Castle A output. All of them have their FM amounts modulated by the Random*Source Serge VCFQ acting as a quadrature LFO, and are processed by Clouds, Audio Damage Ratshack Reverb, uand -he Twangström.
Voice 5 is Kermit’s A oscillator, exponentially FMd by Rings #2 in FM mode, through Make Noise Mimeophon with Plogue Chipcrusher and Arturia Rev Plate-140.
The full mix is processed with Cassette, Uhbik-Q, Bitwig’s pitch shifter (bandpassed), and Valhalla Plate on high frequencies and under envelope control.
5: Castle Grayskull
I have the power!
The sampled loop used here was created with Felt Instruments Wolno, Twangström, Denise Bad Tape, Valhalla Delay and Fog Convolver.
The first voice is Bitwig Sampler playing this loop, through Plogue Chipcrusher’s Haar transform and downsampling.
The second is Clouds holding that same loop, with some pitch modulation. The first two voices both share a Valhalla Plate instance.
The third voice is Make Noise Mimeophon also holding the loop, and “psuedo-granulating” it via its Zone control, with Valhalla Room.
The fourth voice finally brings in Castle B, through VCFQ, Uhbik-Q, Ratshack Reverb and Arturia Memory Brigade. The sequence is Mutable Instruments Stages sampled/quantized by Marbles.
And finally, Castle A through Mutable Instruments Ripples, with Valhalla Delay.
6: Sand Castle
Not much explanation behind the name other than that some of the textures here made me think of sand.
The loop for this one was Wolno, Unfiltered Audio Sandman Pro, Uhbik-Q, and Spectre, captured first in Audio Damage Enso and then resampled. Bitwig Sampler shuttles through this loop, with Native Instruments ReplikaXT, Sonic Charge Permut8, Klevgrand Brusfri and Cassette.
The deep melodic voice that comes in is Kermit through VCFQ’s highpass and lowpass outputs, FMd by Kermit’s second oscillator.
Voice 3 is the E352 FMd by Castle B, through Natural Gate. It’s sequenced by the SQ-1 sampled by Marbles, with gates and rhythms from Teletype.
Voice 4 is Castle A through Filter 8, being FMd by the other E352 output. Voices 3 and 4 share a Valhalla Delay instance.
Voice 5 is the Mimeophon processing clicks from Teletype, feeding into Rings #1, which feeds Rings #2. Both Rings are mixed through Casette, NI Supercharger GT and Hornet Elliptiq.
The full mix had some harshness removed with NI Transient Master, Klevgrand Brusfri and Valhalal plate in higher frequency bands only, plus Spectre, a bandpassed Ratshack Reverb, and Cassette.
7: Caer Sidi
“Revolving Castle,” a fortress in the underworld in the poems of Taliesin. It seems to be a square prison, rotating on its axis, made of glass, and full of wealth..?
In the poem, three shiploads of men went to Caer Sidi but “save seven, none returned”. In a way this a mourning song.
This begins with the Lyra-8, tracked by Sync3, with Maths acting as envelope follower. Sync3’s I output phase modulates its II and III outputs, which run through Tallin, VCFQ, Clouds (clocked by Mimeophon’s pulse output), Mimeophon, Twangström and Syntorus.
Voice 2 is Castle B running through Filter8’s “BB-N” output, and Castle A in detune mode through Ripples’ bandpass, both through PSP Pianoverb.
Valhalla Ubermod processes the song’s ending.
8: Star Castle
A vector-graphics arcade game from 1980, which was the inspiration for Yar’s Revenge, which lent a name to the Zorlon Cannon module… which I didn’t use in this song. Huh.
Like many early arcade games, it had an entire circuit board with discrete electronics dedicated to sound, which you can read about here if you’re a nerd like me. Or you can play a remake on the web., but the sound isn’t as charming.
The first voice is filtered clocked noise from the E352, with a lag processor and dual comb filters under envelope control in Bitwig Grid, through a feedback loop consisting of EQ, three parallel delays and a frequency shifter.
The second voice is Kermit with both its oscillators cross-AMing, in mid/side stereo with Valhalla Plate.
Third is Castle A & B into a modulated crossfader. Below 300Hz there’s an octave-up pitch shifter, and then Valhalla Delay.
Fourth is filtered white noise from the E352, through Tallin and then Mimeophon for Karplus-Strong-like synthesis. The same envelope modulates both the noise amplitude and Mimeophon’s color. Mimeophon’s Flip is modulated at audio rates by Hertz Donut. Processed through Clouds, Cassette, MagicDeathEye and Valhalla Room. Distortion caused by extreme subsonics that are only filtered out after pushing Cassette’s saturation.
Marbles sequences the Akemie’s Castle, Mimeophon and Hertz Donut; Teletype provides clocking for Marbles, envelopes and Clouds triggering.
9: The Dark Tower
There was a board game I had as a kid, which was probably something of a ripoff of Milton Bradley’s The Dark Tower but wasn’t Milton Bradley’s The Dark Tower. I can’t find the name now but it had cool translucent game pieces
Lots of Zorlon Cannon here, with bank A running at audio rate and B clocked by Marbles at “sequence rate.” The B Mix output acts as the pitch sequence for its A section, and also feeds Marbles’ sampling input; Marbles pitch outputs control Castle and Rings as well as other modulation. Mimeophon (clocked by Marbles) has its zone modulated, and its clock output, processed by Teletype, triggers Clouds. Zorlon’s other B outputs modulated various parameters. And yes, this recording spurred me to buy more patch cables because I nearly ran out.
Voice 1 (the initial melody and glassy ringy sounds) is Zorlon A4 into Rings input while A2 modulates Structure. Replika XT delay.
Voice 2 (Atari-like LFSR noise sounds) is Zorlon A3 through a Bitwig Grid envelope triggered by Zorlon B Mix through a comparator, with Valhalla Delay, d16 Decimort and Cassette.
Voice 3 (bassline) is Zorlon A1 through Natural Gate.
Voice 4 (plucky rhythms) is Zorlon A Mix through Natural Gate and Mimeophon. Voices 3 and 4 are mixed through Supercharger GT and Fog Convolver.
Voice 5 (the plaintive synth line) is Castle B out, highpassed by VCFQ, through Clouds and NI Raum.
Voice 6 (the drone that comes in for the last section) is Castle A out, through FIlter 8 through stereo phasing, Bitwig pitch shifter, Spectre and Valhalla Plate.