The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
The opening sentence of William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer has become accidentally but brilliantly ambiguous as technology marched on. The average gray of analog TV static gave way to a vibrant sky-blue or the night-time black of a VCR, digital device or smart TV declaring “NO SIGNAL.” The 80s wave of cyberpunk is fully retrofuturistic now.
If this album were an unofficial soundtrack to the novel, it would cover the story’s events more evenly rather than lingering on the opening in Chiba and entirely neglecting the last five chapters. It’d have a leitmotif for Wintermute and Neuromancer, lending an undercurrent of foreshadowing to the scenes with their human or simulated proxies. And it would most definitely have a righteous dub for Maelcum!
A cyberpunk-inspired soundtrack also could very well have meant following in the stylistic and sonic footsteps of Vangelis or John Carpenter, or perhaps Gary Numan or Front Line Assembly, or something in a more modern retro-ish synthwave vein.
Instead, I chose to stick to my own drone-adjacent, not-really-ambient-but-what-else-would-you-call-it style — and mined the novel for song titles the way industrial musicians in the late 80s mined sci-fi and horror movies for samples.
I did take the opportunity to use a lot of FM synthesis though, as that was one of the biggest new music technologies making waves (so to speak) at the time. Early FM synthesis chips had both a bright and shiny aspect to them along with a dirty, glitchy, distorted undercurrent of data rushing by. It just seems perfect to me for a cyberpunk setting.
Throughout the Album
The Sky Above The Port was recorded with:
- a 516HP Eurorack modular synthesizer. Among other things, this includes an ALM Busy Circuits Akemie’s Castle, which an FM synthesizer based on the Yamaha YMF262 (OPL3) chip from 1994, but voltage-controlled and with plenty of knobs to make it much more accessible. There’s also an Industrial Music Electronics Zorlon Cannon mk2, which is a linear feedback shift register battery (the familiar squarewave-based digital noise heard in many 80s video games, but at slower rates it can be used for pattern sequences).
- an Arturia Microfreak synthesizer. Simple, versatile, a great little synth which I used for improvised melodies, simple looped parts and drones.
- a Polyend+Dreadbox Medusa synthesizer. Its architecture of three analog and three very simple digital oscillators would have made it not too far out of place in the 80s, but its grid-based sequencer and playing surface are modern and can take it to some very unusual places, and it is also an amazing drone machine.
- a Kasser DAFM Synth with the Yamaha YM2612 (OPN2) chip from the Sega Genesis, dating from 1988. This chip was noisier than some earlier FM chips, due to a low-budget and very questionable DAC. Here I’m using it mainly for drones and atmosphere. To avoid confusion with the popular Moog DFAM (Drummer From Another Mother), I’ll refer to the synth as “DAFM YM2612” here.
- Bitwig Studio with several software plugins. Not used much for sequencing, but for effects, mixing, routing, recording and editing, and expanding just a little on the modular hardware. Rather than multitracking, I record “live” in a single take with effects baked in (though sometimes, background layers of samples or drones are added in an editing phase afterward).
- Tesseract Sweet 16 controlled both Eurorack and DAW parameters (especially mix levels). Make Noise 0-Ctrl was sometimes used for modular control/sequencing.
- Sound Forge Pro 13 for additional editing. CraveDSP CraveEQ, DDMF MagicDeathEye, Voxengo TEOTE, u-he Presswerk, and Voxengo Elephant for mastering, with Voxengo Span Plus, Voxengo Correlometer and Youlean Loudness Meter for metering. A little extra help from ZPlane Peel, Izotope RX7 De-Click, and Waves X-Click because those old FM chips are really dirty sometimes and it can be tricky to isolate the good noise from the unwanted clicks.
(My patch notes for each track below don’t necessarily name all the modulation sources, utility/”plumbing” modules, and EQ/dynamics/noise reduction plugins. )
01: Chiba City Blues
- The sound of television tuned to a dead channel was created with two layered noise samples from Detunized through AudioThing FogConvolver (to make them sound like they’re coming from inside a TV speaker/cabinet), mixed with a 15.62kHz sine (to imitate the CRT scan rate) and a layered “clunk” sample for the power switch.
- The first drone is Intellijel Shapeshifter through SynthTech E520 (Resonators algorithm), WMD MSCL compressor, and BPB Dirty Filter.
- The second is the DAFM YM2612 through ValhallaPlate reverb, Bitwig’s pitch shifter, and ZPlane Peel restricting PureMagnetik Bitfight83 to a narrow band.
- The sub drone is Mutable Instruments Blades resonating and using its second stage for overdrive and filter FM, with Schlappi Engineering Angle Grinder modulating the second stage’s filter mode.
- The “chords” (sort of) are 4ms Ensemble Oscillator (ENOSC), modulated by Mutable Instruments Stages and Harvestman Zorlon Cannon mk2. Plogue Chipcrusher affects the center of the stereo field, and then AudioThing Miniverb on the whole field.
- The melodic sequence at the end is the Arturia Microfreak with Bitfight83 and Wavesfactory Echo Cat.
02: Livewire Voodoo
- Noise sweeps are from Zorlon Cannon’s mix output, through Valhalla Supermassive and Freakshow Industries MISHBY.
- The main voice is the Microfreak with Valhalla Delay and Plogue Chipcrusher. Its internal sequencer is combined with some manual playing.
- There’s a drone from sonicLAB Fundamental.
- One of the individual pattern outputs from Zorlon triggers Make Noise Maths, with another pattern output modulating the fall time. The Maths output self-modulates its “both” time through an LFO-controlled VCA.
- Shapeshifter through Random*Source Serge VCFQ, Happy Nerding FX Aid (delay w/freq shifter algorithm) and Valhalla Delay.
- In Bitwig Grid, a zero crossing detector fed by the Maths voice controls a triangle oscillator.
- Plogue Chipsound provided some bass drone reinforcement.
03: Black Medicine
- The main voice is the Microfreak through Bitfight 83, Dirty Filter, Supermassive, and three instances of Puremagnetik Shadow.
- FM drone accompaniment is from Akemie’s Castle.
- These two voices are processed with Shameless (a digital distortion effect I wrote), Puremagnetik Clusters, and Bitwig’s frequency shifter.
- Additional background noise layer from the DAFM YM2612.
04: The Poisoned Silver Sky
- Again, the main voice is the Microfreak, this time through SoundRadix SurferEQ, AudioThing Wires, and Supermassive.
- And also again, the background noise overlay is the DAFM YM2612, through u-he Uhbik-Q, Potty Mouth (a distorted chorus plugin I wrote), and Wires (on the stereo sides but not the center).
- A soft background FM drone was synthesized directly in Sound Forge during editing.
05: Dark Angles of the Arcologies
(Yes, angles not angels.)
- The primary drone is Akemie’s Castle through Valhalla SpaceModulator.
- It’s accompanied by ENOSC processed by the E520’s Spectral Drone algorithm.
- Once again, the main melodic line is the Microfreak, with Dirty Filter, Voxengo OldSkoolVerb Plus, and AudioThing Miniverb.
- DAFM YM2612 provides a growly FM drone with the help of Valhalla Supermassive.
06: Grievous Angel
(Yes, angel not angle.)
- The odd scratching/static noises that later become resonant are from a feedback loop with Mutable Instruments Rings through Mystic Circuits Portal and Mutable Instruments Shelves, processed with AudioThing Wires. Mutable Instruments Stages performs simple sequencing.
- Madrona Labs Kaivo through Wavesfactory Spectre, Puremagnetik Shadow, and AudioThing FogConvolver provide a layer that was added during editing.
- Another resonant howl is generated by Make Noise Mimeophon, through Wavesfactory Cassette.
- The “air raid siren” is Intellijel Shapeshifter, with a manually triggered Maths envelope into its pitch and a VCA, with its timbre modulated by Stages.
- Sub-bass heartbeat and rhythmic pulsing are from Bitwig E-Kick processed by MolecularBytes AtomicTransient, Valhalla Room reverb, and Audio Assault Headcrusher (limited to a narrow frequency band with ZPlane Peel).
- Snippets of several layered weather radio alerts, heavily processed by AudioThing Speakers and Valhalla Plate. The source material is here.
- The DFAM YM2612 controlled by a slow and simple MIDI sequence, with Arturia JUN-6 chorus, Bitwig Bit-8 and Valhalla Delay.
- Zorlon Cannon through Mutable Instruments Beads and d16 Decimort, providing a mix of noise and square drone.
- Doepfer A-110-4 Quadrature Thru-Zero VCO FMd by Mutable Instruments Blades, with SurferEQ, Puremagnetik Clusters and Bitwig Pitch Shifter.
- Akemie’s Castle’s two outputs crossfaded by Intellijel Planar 2, with Miniverb and Valhalla Delay.
- ENOSC through Mimeophon mixed with Bitwig Grid oscillators (adding some stability and solidity to a wide and decorrelated stereo image, which can be a common thing with ENOSC), through Supermassive.
- A sequence in Dreadbox+Polyend Medusa, with Audio Damage Ratshack Reverb and Valhalla Room.
- Entire mix processed with Decimort.
08: MAX REVERSE
I think it’s hilarious that a cyberdeck would have a MAX REVERSE button, and I think someone should make custom MAX REVERSE keycaps to replace boring old Esc.
- Drone 1 is Shapeshifter through Portal, with Shifter’s second oscillator into Portal’s Track input. The Spike output from Portal triggers Maths to create smoother oscillations, and is mixed with Portal’s Round output. Shapeshifter’s pitch is slightly modulated by an envelope follower on the Round output. Processed in Valhalla Vintage Verb.
- Drone 2 / Rhythm 5 is Bitwig Organ, FXPansion Maul distortion, JUN-6 chorus, Valhalla Delay and Arturia Plate-140. Faders control the organ drawbars and crossfade into rhythmic modulation.
- Drone 3 is the Medusa through Supermassive, Cassette and Valhalla Delay.
- Rhythm 1 is the pulse output of Shapeshifter, through Xaoc Tallin, Mimeophon, CableGuys Shaperbox, amd Coda Labs Szechuan Saturator.
- Rhythm 2 is Zorlon Cannon through Tallin, Blades, Bitfight83 and Valhalla Vintage Verb.
- Rhythm 3 is one wavetable oscillator in Bitwig Grid phase-modulating a second one, with envelopes triggered from the modular hardware.
- Rhythm 4 is a swarm oscillator in Bitwig Grid, gated by the modular hardware, feeding two comb filters, and disrupted by writing into a buffer which is read asynchronously.
Pitch and rhythmic sequences are produced by Monome Teletype scripts and Mutable Instruments Marbles. The “ringing” at the start of the song is caused by Mimeophon self-oscillating while some of Teletype’s trigger outputs are bypassed.
09: Dreaming Real
- Mimeophon oscillating, with its zone, Flip and time parameters modulated by Zorlon Cannon, Color by Maths and Halo by The Harvestman Kermit mk2, processed by Puremagnetik Shadow.
- The other Zorlon Cannon section’s outputs at audio rate, mixed with Planar, through Blades which is phase-modulated by Maths and FMd by Angle Grinder, with Valhalla Vintage Verb.
- The “clunks” are Rings linearly FMing the A-110-4, with Valhalla Delay.
- A sequence from Madrona Labs Aalto, captured in Make Noise Phonogene.
- Phonogene’s output captured in Beads, through u-he Twangstrom.
- 4ms Ensemble Oscillator modulated by Kermit and Stages, through E520 (Spectral Crusher), FX Aid (Vocal Reverb) and Valhalla Delay.
- Luftrum Nano Electronoics samples in the background.
All clocks and gates are synced to the Phonogene’s end-of-splice output, with gate sequencing in Teletype, “clunks” pitch from Marbles, and Beads is sequenced from Stages.
10: We Create Flexibility
- Drone/noise from Akemie’s Castle through Portal, with Valhalla Delay. Modulated by synchronized slewed CV from Teletype.
- Drone from the DAFM YM2612, with u-he Uhbik-Q, Native Instruments Raum reverb and Maul.
- Drone and soft pings from the Microfreak, through WMD MSCL, E520 (Prime Delay algorithm) and Valhalla Room.
I had originally set up two sequenced parts, manual playing of the Akemie’s Castle pitch via Make Noise 0-Ctrl, and an unusual rhythmic pulse from ENOSC and the FX Aid spring reverb algorithm with its wet/dry mix modulated. During the recording process I was feeling the drone vibe and decided to just skip all of that, and I think the results are better for it.
11: Bright Crabs Burrow There
- ENOSC, with envelopes from Maths into its CrossFM parameter, processed by Beads and Valhalla Delay.
- Noise is from Zorlon Cannon outputs mixed in Planar, through Tallin with envelope from Stages, through E520 (Resonators algorithm), Wires and Valhalla Room.
- The low drone and glitchy rhythm are from Phonogene (with a recording of the Shapeshifter), through Shelves, Atomic Transient, Voxengo CRTV Tape Bus, Native Instruments Supercharger GT and AudioThing Speakers.
Marbles sequences the pitch of Beads and provides triggering rhythms, some of which are multiplied by Teletype.
12: How Do You Cry?
- Madrona Aalto with its internal sequencer, with quantization alternately enabled and disabled, through Puremagnetik Parallel.
- A second sequence (and later a woozy and delirious “solo”) from Medusa, through Plogue Chipcrusher, AudioThing Miniverb, Wavesfactory Spectre and Valhalla Delay.
- Phonogene (with a single note captured from Aalto), through Beads, highpass filtered in both VCFQ and Angle Grinder with control from Planar, and Sonic Charge Permut8.
- DAFM YM2612, sequenced by the Microfreak, through Surfer EQ, Horse (my own chorus plugin), Raum, and an automated peaking band from CraveEQ. The squeaks are a fun artifact of SurferEQ not quite perfectly tracking the DAFM’s pitch.
- Some processing at the start and end with Valhalla Plate, Supermassive and Cassette.
13: Gradual Accommodation of the Machine
- The drone and rhythmic bleeps are from Akemie’s Castle, with VCFQ highpass filter on one of the outputs, mixed and modulated with Planar. Processed with Valhalla SpaceModulator and Raum.
- Clicks and glitches from Phonogene (with captured envelopes from Maths as used in the fourth voice), through Parallel.
- A drone from ENOSC, modulated by Kermit LFOs, with Valhalla Delay.
- Noise chatter from Zorlon Cannon triggering Maths envelopes, with the rise time and cycling toggle sequenced by Marbles. Processed in MISHBY, Goodhertz Lossy, and Chipcrusher.
Sequencing is from Teletype and Marbles; all pitch CV is purely the result of gates (even though it sounds much more complex). Many of the gates are manually muted via switches or Teletype logic.
14: The Cores Know Everything
- A drone from Medusa, through DigDugDIY Purple Rain, WMD MSCL, FX Aid (spring reverb algorithm), and JUN-6 chorus.
- Akemie’s Castle, E520 (resampling delay algorithm, oscillating), and Blades.
- Shapeshifter, Decimort, OldSkoolVerb Plus.
- Zorlon Cannon through Echo Cat.