frickin’ laser beams

Today ends my 8th week of working from home (more productively than I ever did in the office), and about 11 weeks of COVID-19 being something to worry about in the US. St. Louis County is opening some businesses on a limited, restricted basis but so far, it looks like we’re going to keep working from home. Given news about other places having spikes in cases and having to close back down again after reopening, it could still be a while.

Given events, maybe the Stormlight Archive wasn’t the best thing to read. I’m most of the way through Oathbringer now, and it’s an apocalyptic mess of magical extreme weather, war, monsters, betrayals, and all the major characters being completely traumatized, broken and lost. It is a really entertaining set of books, with bright spots of humor and insight and triumph, ridiculously epic worldbuilding, the gamut of lovable and hateable characters, etc. but there’s no doubt that it’s a tragedy (even if, 7 books from now, some remnant of humanity is probably going to survive). “Heroism” and ethics are largely a matter of perspective. There are times when the story goes shockingly dark.


Google Play Music, which I’ve been subscribed to since 2014, is also going dark in the near future. I happened to be prepared for it though — my New Year resolution to support musicians through Bandcamp, and having a phone with plenty of storage, has meant streaming much less and listening much more to my MP3 collection. I gathered a list of albums that I want to make sure I own, and cancelled my subscription.

Unfortunately not every musician is on Bandcamp, and for some of those albums I’ve had to track down CDs on eBay. I’ve got a collection of CDs that I really should at least rip some of, and when I traded Eurorack modules with Kid606 he generously sent a couple of CDs to me. I wound up buying an external DVD drive rather than continuing to bother Alisha to rip them for me and transfer via USB stick (because Windows LAN networking still sucks in 2020). Chances are, any computers we might buy in the future won’t have optical drives built in anyway.

My MP3 collection is about 25 years old and has 840 (!!) artists in it. There are some-hundred CDs in my collection that spans roughly 1990-2005. I certainly don’t plan to rip all of them, but there’ll be a bunch. So I’m thinking: I’ll set up a personal streaming server with a rating system, or else cull the collection a little so there’s an archive and a “live” collection, and stop having to copy the whole collection to three different devices.


Two modules arrived this week. The Disting EX, previously described, is a bunch of different utilities in one module. The improved display is TINY and a challenge for my poor eyesight, and I rearranged modules a bit to bring it a little closer to my eyes and hands. But still, the module is easier to navigate than previous versions, and I think a dozen or so favorite algorithms won’t require much referring to a cheat sheet or online reference. I’ve encountered a few bugs, many of which will be fixed in the next firmware release.

I’ve got i2c commands from the Teletype working with it, although it doesn’t support slew, which is going to limit the matrix mixer morphing I thought might be particularly special.

The algorithms I like most are different from the set I originally liked, with more of the basic building blocks (like comparators and sample-and-hold) and fewer oscillators and effects. There are still some “macro” items though, like a pitch and envelope tracker and a wavetable-based waveshaper, that are pretty special.

The polyphonic multisample player is cool, if kind of mind-bending in Eurorack. Not something I’ll probably want to use frequently, but like everything else on the Disting, it’s nice to have it in reserve for when I do. The Disting can also record samples, and an auto-multisample mode is coming that makes use of the MIDI breakout panel — play several notes on a synth into it, and it will sample them and format it for the multisample player — so I might have to make room for that. It could be kind of neat sampling software synths with it and then playing them back with Eurorack sequencers…


The other module is Schlappi Engineering Angle Grinder, and it’s glorious.

The left side is the “grind” section, a set of four comparators that blast the smooth edges off and add more upper harmonics. The “spin” section on the right is a nice filter/quadrature oscillator. As a filter, it sounds like it has a little bit of a resonant peak even at minimum; it can work pretty conventionally but the highpass and notch sound particularly sweet. As an oscillator it’s quite smooth. I feel like I should put in some time exploring what a quadrature LFO/oscillator can do for me, aside from synchronized push-pull on different modulation targets.

The real fun is in the combination. The Spin outputs feed Grind’s four comparators and subtract from the input, changing the shape. The output can then feed back into Spin. The bandpass/allpass output from Spin also feeds back into Grind if not interrupted by a different input. The results vary quite a lot depending on whether Spin is oscillating or filtering, and the phase-shifted and clipped feedback results in many different waveshapes and pitch shifting, under CV control.

Overall the thing can range from a conventional filter or sine oscillator, to something with a little more edge, to a weird noise generator that can produce chirps, atmospheric noise, “toy with dying battery,” self-pinging filter and other weirdness. The feedback loops make it inherently chaotic, but the knobs control the amount of that chaos. Also, it provides several excellent ways to combine other oscillators to create complex drones.

I do kind of wish it had CV control over the “Damping” (aka reverse resonance) and “Grind->Spin” controls since both can influence feedback. To some extent I could manage that with external VCA(s) and mixer though, if the block diagram in the manual is correct.

I have absolutely no regrets about trading my Filter 8 for this one. In fact, it’s so good, I’m considering one of Schlappi Engineering’s other modules, the Interstellar Radio. It converts a signal to a high-frequency “radio transmission” and then back, but with different clocks or even external ones, to generate a variety of errors, aliasing and distortion and other oddities. If I let go of my A-196 PLL — which I believe I can do without losing any functionality, because of the Sync3 and Disting’s pitch tracker, comparator and XOR algorithms — I’ll have room for it. I won’t leap too quickly though, and give myself some time to get to know the new stuff.

I didn’t wind up going for TAL Sampler, at least not yet. I still might!

I did pick up Goodhertz Lossy though, which was an accidental discovery when checking out their Vulf Compressor plugin. Which was designed as an emulation and expansion of the “LoFi Vinyl” setting on the Roland SP303 sampler, which is highly prized among some hiphop and dance music producers and which I’ve been hearing a lot about lately, thanks to investigating lo-fi samplers. It turns out, not doing the sort of drum stuff where that particular flavor of compression works best, the compressor itself didn’t grab me.

Lossy imitates MP3 compression artifacts — the filtering, loss of detail, smearing of transients and, well, blorpy smudge that happens with low-bitrate MP3s. It has a few other models of digital artifacts and glitches as well, including packet loss and packet repeats that can happen with UDP data streams. (UDP packets are smaller and have less bandwidth overhead than TCP, but are not guaranteed to arrive in order or even at all — which is acceptable for some kinds of real-time streaming where a little lost data is better than long dropouts and pauses, an ever-increasing time delay and eventual traffic jams.) It combines these with a filter and reverb, in a way that delightfully smears sounds. It works nicely in feedback loops and to take the edge off of sounds in a mix.

This is the time of year when Superbooth would normally be happening — a synthesis convention (modular and otherwise) in Berlin, a big expo and new product announcements and performances and drinking. With the pandemic, instead there’s been “Superbooth Home Edition” as well as Hainbach’s “Special Reserve Livestream.” Far more video than I’ve had time or inclination to watch, but a bunch of product announcements and performances and interviews nonetheless.

To me the most interesting announcement has been the Expert Sleepers Super Disting EX Plus Alpha, aka “Disting EX.” This is, sort of, a module I had been wishing for; I even referred to this dream module as “Super Disting” last September.

Disting (*) has been a series of small digital Eurorack modules capable of a wide variety of useful functions — envelope generator, comparator, VCA, oscillator, delay, sample player, exponential-to-linear converter, etc. — one at a time. The mk1-mk2 versions had 16 different algorithms, with binary code on LEDs telling you what mode it was in; the mk3 had more banks of algos added. The mk4 had a much improved 8×6 LED display which could show a couple of characters of text, but with 105 algos it still required patience and/or a cheat sheet to use. I had one for a while — it was my introduction to wavetables in Eurorack and prompted me to go for the E352 — and I found it excellent overall but a bit tedious. I thought a module in about 8-10HP, with a larger OLED display, would make navigating it and editing parameters much more workable, as well as give it the ability to act as an oscilloscope.

Well, this one has a small OLED display of the kind I tend to think of as a “window” for some reason — wide but short in height. It doesn’t do categorized menus, but reading the names of algorithms at a glance instead of waiting for them to scroll by or looking them up on a cheat sheet looks like quite an improvement (and a preset and favorites system can help reduce the search further).

The big deal though is that it is the equivalent of two Disting mk4s running side-by-side independently (with the display optionally “zooming” to show more detail of the one currently being edited) but with more memory and a higher sample rate; it can also run more involved “single mode” algorithms that use more inputs and outputs and processing power. Right now these include polyphonic multisample playback, “drum sampler” style playback, a tape delay based on the old Augustus Loop software, and a matrix mixer. And it can be controlled via knobs and CV but also MIDI and i2c — making that matrix mixer a VCA matrix, which is a whole other level of hot stuff.

(*) I figure it’s either named after the ancient yearly market in Uppsala, Sweden, the Dísablót Thing — or “what is dis ting?” Perhaps both.

To make some room for dis ting, I have swapped out my trusty Doepfer A-138m matrix mixer for an AI008 4×3 matrix mixer, which is half the width. Yes, I did just say Disting EX has a matrix mixer mode — but an analog one dedicated to the task, with no DAC latency, can be good for feedback purposes and letting the Disting do other things. I’ve also gone ahead and sold off my LS1 Lightstrip (which was redundant since getting the 16n Faderbank) and Flexshaper (which was a cool concept but I never really put it to much use). That leaves 12HP open, though I have no particular plans for that space right now.

Teletype got a firmware update recently, with a few cool new features. My favorite is the NR op — a rhythm pattern generator based on bitwise multiplication of a set of patterns, as found on the Noise Engineering Numeric Repetitor. With NR you can imitate the Repetitor pretty much exactly, but you have the freedom to do many other things with it. If I made something more akin to techno and I didn’t already have Noise Engineering’s pattern generation line of stuff, I would be thrilled beyond comprehension at this gift; as it is, it’s pretty cool and will likely get as much use as Euclidean patterns do now. Slow, odd time signatures can still benefit from repeating patterns whether the listener notices them consciously or not. It almost feels like I got another new module with this update.

closure

We’re now under a stay-at-home order and I’ll be working from home for the first time starting about 15 minutes from now. It’s not very comforting that we have no official contact from management about it, and it makes me wonder if heads are still buried in sand or if they’re just bad at communicating outside the office. Either way, the foot-dragging on this most likely means not everyone is going to be ready and able to work from home yet. I don’t envy our IT person.

I’m ready and willing though. I’ll have a clearer idea of how this goes later, but I kind of think this should be the norm in order to reduce emissions anyway.


The other bit of closure is that I’ve bought a used Zorlon Cannon mkII, and that will “finish” my modular. No more available space remaining (given that I’m reserving a big slot for the E520), nothing else that I feel I need, no plans to change anything. It could still happen of course — maybe there will be some future must-have module — but overall, it’s complete.

The short version of Zorlon Cannon: it has two sections, each of which can run at a different rate, and can generate either 4 random/patterned gates and a related CV output, or four Atari 2600-like audio channels and a mix of them, depending on their rates. I’ve heard it used to generate fantastic drones, and CV generation method isn’t far from techniques I’ve used in the past with multiple gates and a matrix mixer. So this should be a fun one to play with.

The name comes from the 1982 Atari game Yar’s Revenge, which was wildly original for its time. The 2600’s TIA (Television Interface Adapter) chip, which handled graphics and sound and input in the most awkward way imaginable, uses linear feedback shift registers (LFSRs) not too dissimilar from the ones in the module, for various purposes including sound. Yar’s Revenge leveraged that nicely with an eerie sort of ambient drone soundtrack.

if FM overkill is wrong, I don’t want to be right

In the last few weeks I’d been thinking seriously about selling off Akemie’s Castle, having convinced myself that I have more than enough FM capability and can use Sync3 among other things for the big chords. So I was trying to decide between the Odessa or the Ensemble Oscillator as a replacement, but honestly I wasn’t totally fired up about either of those choices. They can both do cool things but I’m not fully convinced either of them is truly what I want.

Last night I was feeling pretty bleh and unmotivated, but after making a pretty crappy recording I decided to mess with Akemie’s Castle… and it brought immediate joy. The chords are huge, the FM is glorious and not quite like all my other FM synths, and it sort of does the additive thing from a different angle. I have a bond with this module, and it would make no sense at all to swap it out for something else.

With that settled, I decided there’s really no point in waiting for the E520 to sell stuff: the DSM-03 Feedback, tanh[3] and Cold Mac have been sitting in a drawer and I’ve left HD mk3 unused, and I don’t think I will miss any of those. Also the Supercell, which I’ll replace with Typhoon (unless I happen into a great trade deal for Monsoon or Microcell).

What makes much more sense is to not buy anything else, including pedals, for a while. I don’t have any particular gaps I can think of. E520 of course is going to cover a lot of effect territory. I don’t see a good argument for another oscillator, and I feel pretty happy with my set of modulation sources. Bitwig Grid and Teletype cover most things that aren’t directly present. I’m sure eventually there will be something I will want to try out, so I’ll just leave the empty space for that future eventuality.


I’ve been reading Greg Egan’s Diaspora. It starts off in a wild and weird post-human future, and only gets wilder and weirder from there. My only gripe is that while the physics might have more dimensions than we can imagine, the characters mostly tend to have one or two. It seems like the more interesting a character becomes, the more likely they will be ignored, fall into the background, or be killed off in the background in the next chapter. I’m still enjoying the scale and uniqueness of the ideas though, and the rate at which they are introduced.

nope.

The Strymon AA.1 arrived yesterday, after an inexplicable FedEx delay. And:

  • Yeah those cables I bought to work with it were too short and super awkward. Letting the pedal lie prone (like they normally do) atop my modular case (like they normally don’t), it barely reached.
  • It doesn’t actually attenuate hot Eurorack-level signals enough to work well with the Particle, even at Particle’s max input level tolerance setting, without another stage of attenuation. Thus, the more important half of the pedal is basically useless.
  • Stereo on the Particle is just a matter of applying the exact same effect to L and R channels individually. So all the random grain density, detuning, reverse etc. is synchronized and thus not nearly as interesting as it could be. (To be fair, Clouds is mostly like that too, except the panning of grains can be randomized or modulated.)
  • As I fought with it, I realized I don’t really love Particle all that much anyway. I switched the patch I was testing over to Clouds instead, and found I could get into a somewhat similar ballpark — and it was more fun to tweak and in some ways sounded better.

So I’m returning the AA.1 (setting a new record for shortest time any module has spent in my rack), and reselling Particle. The pedal is definitely exempt from my “don’t sell stuff yet” rule, and I think a return of something that literally does not do the thing it was made for is a fair play too.

In my rearranging of stuff I wound up pulling out Cold Mac and setting it aside. Sort of a test to see how I feel about selling it later. I can set up the crosspanning stuff and other utilities in Bitwig Grid without too much trouble. When the FM Aid arrives this evening, I expect I will do the same with the DSM03.

(* another nope: effing UPS does not follow the delivery instructions you set for them, so they did not “Leave at Front Door.” I specifically had to phone their customer service about that a few months ago to change it to that, because literally everything they delivered even if it was worth $3 was set to require a signature. But at least this time they’re not trying to charge me $5 to pick it up from one of their locations tomorrow.)

(For the record: I hate dealing with USPS, FedEx, UPS and DHL. Somebody invent that teleporter…)

Pandatastic

I guess I didn’t mention that I had found a discounted Red Panda Particle V2 that was used as a store demo. It arrived a couple of days ago and I put it through its paces.

I’ve heard Particle described as “standalone Clouds” but I don’t think it’s an entirely accurate comparison. Clouds strikes me as a genuinely granular processor, capturing overlapping sound snippets either as an effect or as a means to synthesize new sounds. While Clouds can be choppy and rhythmic if you choose short enough grain size and sparse grain triggering, it can also do smooth (or overdo it into blurry and drowning in its own reverb), or places in between that yield interesting textures. In its original firmware algorithm, Clouds can act as a delay but that doesn’t seem to be its forte or its primary design — although now I find I’m going to want to revisit it and see how well it can pretend to be a delay without using the alternate delay algorithm.

Particle strikes me more as a delay first, with a granular twist. You can get a fairly clean-sounding delay out of it that doesn’t have any granular modulation. From there, you can lower the grain density (by randomly dropping some grains) or reverse grains (with adjustable probability of being reversed) to chop it up a bit, repitch it, randomize the delay amount or pitch for each grain, or traverse the delay buffer with an LFO which sort of “bends” the playback in an indescribable and unintuitive but sometimes interesting way. It can also freeze the buffer, either while one of the switches is held down or when the level falls below a threshold that you set.

Not all of the features are available simultaneously from the pedal’s knobs. There are hidden settings accessible only via MIDI over USB; otherwise the Mode knob determines what the Param and Delay/Pitch knobs will do, and Chop and the Freeze threshold are combined onto one knob. I don’t much like that, to be honest, although I understand that’s all the original version of the pedal allowed. Thankfully working with it through MIDI lets you get at all of those parameters simultaneously, and I can modulate them via Bitwig — for instance, increasing the particle density along with the dynamics.

Right now, I am running Particle with mono input, with Tensor immediately afterward. Particle V2 supports stereo input and output (on TRS jacks, not typical for pedals), but right now I’ve just got the ADDAC 200PI Pedal integrator to get the modular (and computer) talking to pedals, with two mono inputs and outputs. So that I can use Particle in stereo, I’ve ordered a Strymon AA.1 pedal interface and the cables I need to hook it up. (For some reason the AA.1’s “return” input is TRS, but its “send” output is a left/right pair of TS jacks.) Honestly I’m not sure how stereo is implemented with Particle — if it simply does the exact same processing to both channels, or if randomized values affect the left and right sides differently. I’m hoping for the latter, though. Even if stereo turns out to be a little lackluster, the extra pedal interface module will be helpful if/when I decide to add a couple more goodies, like the Freqout or Dweller perhaps.

Hertz Donut mk2 vs mk3: the details

I spent much of the weekend with the Hertz Donut mk2 and mk3 side by side. Re-familiarizing myself with the mk2 didn’t take long and I quickly felt more comfortable with it than the mk3. Applying what I’ve learned about FM in the past year, I extended my exploration of the mk2 and compared the two modules in some detail.

I also spent some time with Akemie’s Castle because this is part of my calculations. Direct comparison of that one is more difficult, but my goal is to eliminate overkill and choose what I’m going to be happiest with in the long term. Two Donuts and a Castle is definitely FM overkill, and it’s possible than one Donut and a Castle is too. I’ll say more about that at the end of this post.

Feature set, layout, usability

The HD mk2 has very typical “complex oscillator” architecture: one primary oscillator, one modulation oscillator. The modulation oscillator is just as fully featured as the primary, except it doesn’t feed through the waveshaper. Both can be switched between, sine, triangle and saw outputs and also feature a pulse.square output, and there’s a dedicated XOR output that mashes them together. There’s a single modulation bus which can be assigned to FM, waveshaping, tracking, and/or AM.

HD mk3 is more complex. It has the fully-featured carrier, and two slimmed-down modulation oscillators. The modulators (OpA and OpB) have no sync inputs and there’s one pitch input assigned to OpA, switchable for OpB. There’s one assignable output where you can select OpA, OpB, a mix, or XOR. There’s also a routing matrix where OpA, OpB, and an external input can be assigned to various destinations with different levels — this dictated the interface design to a large degree and necessitated multiple modes and a menu system. This matrix has a single master modulation amount knob and CV.

Mk2 has a waveshaper with three selectable modes. Mk3 has three waveshapers, with modes and menus determining how its single control and CV are assigned.

Mk3 has a small display and a preset saving and morphing system. I don’t personally like it, and wish the module would at least remember your favorite settings on startup outside the context of the preset system. Mk2 also does not remember modes on startup, but the modes are much simpler, accessed by button presses or very simple button combos.

Mk3 also has a Unison mode where it doubles the output with detuned, octave, fifth or fourth-shifted copies. I don’t think I’ve ever used this other than to turn it on, listen, be disappointed and turn it back off; it doesn’t have the depth of the E352/E370’s Cloud mode.

Mk2 on the other hand, has AM as one of its modulation destinations. It’s not very strong compared to using an external VCA, but for more subtle effects or in combination with other modulation destinations, it can be occasionally useful.

Despite the smaller feature set, I find more joy in the simpler setup and feel of the mk2. It just feels more open and inviting to patch. The menus and modal controls in the mk3 feel awkward to me, and the mk3 lacks some of the patch points of the mk2.

Raw sound

The mk2’s raw sine output (with no modulation and no waveshaping depth) has some noticeable aliasing. A lowpass filter at about 4500Hz will clean it up if desired. The waveshaping mode does play some role in the sound even when the depth is at mininum; the orange mode is cleanest. Stability isn’t perfect but isn’t bad. With no CV input and in “VCO” mode, the oscillator ranges from below 20Hz to 3937Hz with a knob turn; max with CV seems to be about 5380Hz (above which, the frequency starts going down as the voltage increases).

Without the waveshaper, the mk2 also offers triangle and sawtooth options from the main output, and a separate pulse output. The triangle seems fairly clean or else is good at masking aliasing, while the saw aliases at higher base frequencies. Again, both are cleaner in the orange waveshaping mode. The pulse output is narrow by default on the primary, though red and green modes act as a width control. It seems to be a square from the modulation output.

The mk3’s raw sine output is clean and free of aliasing. With the octave set to 0 in the menu, the frequency range on the knob is below 20 to only 273Hz; at +2 octaves the range is 69 to 1084Hz. I would certainly have preferred a wider range available on the coarse tuning knob, and an LFO/VCO mode selection rather than octaves. Max frequency seems to go above 20Khz.

I feel like the mk2’s triangle, saw and pulse outs give it an advantage here. I can live with (and even appreciate) some aliasing or filtering as necessary, given the kind of music I make.

Tracking modes

The mk2 has four tracking modes:

  • Off: the modulation oscillator frequency is independent of the primary
  • Red: I think this was literally called “stupid mode” on the mk1. The modulation oscillator frequency tries to follow the carrier’s base frequency (not its FMd frequency), but it does it via random-ish jumps at an adjustable speed, which eventually home in on it. This is a very distinctive and almost never useful sound.
  • Orange: the modulation oscillator is perfectly locked to the primary. This is also rarely useful, as it disables the FM bus; all I can think of to use it for is selecting different output waves.
  • Green: the modulation oscillator follows the carrier’s base frequency, with the knob and CV acting as an offset.

In green and orange modes, the tracking CV and knob act as a phase offset. But the CV is unipolar and doesn’t respond well at audio rates. It’s also a destination on the mod bus, where it reacts better — but since the modulation oscillator always modifies its own phase, the result can be weird. It can be used to disrupt the pitch a bit if used alongside FM, or add some interesting noise textures.

The mk3 has three tracking modes for its OpA and OpB, plus a related mode switch, accessed from a menu:

  • “Discrete” is the default. This is like the mk2’s green tracking mode, except that the offsets are locked to a specific set of pleasant-sounding harmonic ratios. OpA can be fine-tuned off the ratio a little to introduce some beating.
  • “Follow” is exactly like the mk2’s green mode.
  • “Free” disables the tracking.
  • “A-B Link” determines whether OpA’s V/OCT input is also used by OpB (which has no input of its own).

Two of the modes on the mk2 are almost useless, but it’s easy to switch between them. Discrete mode on the mk3 — despite my initial resistance to its being the default — is often pretty useful. I would give this to the mk3…

…except that I found I can imitate Discrete mode for the mk2 with a simple Monome Teletype scene. It sends predetermined voltages based on the knob position into the modulator’s V/OCT input, so I can still flip easily between neat-sounding ratios with a knob turn. With that in mind, I will call this one a draw.

FM

The basic FM character — at least when the mk2’s waveshaper is in orange mode — is very similar between the two modules. When the modulation bus is fed a linear envelope, the mk3 seems to behave linearly while the mk2 seems to have a logarithmic curve.

When in red or green waveshaping modes, the mk2 has more of a buzzy edge to its FM. And of course the modulator and carrier shape selection (sine/tri/saw) can have major effects on the FM.

The mk3’s second operator effectively makes it a 3-op FM synth. To my ears, when OpA and OpB are both FMing the carrier (parallel FM) or when OpB modulates OpA which modulates the carrier (serial FM) it doesn’t sound as nice as familiar Yamaha FM. However, treating OpA as a second carrier and modulating them both with OpB is extremely effective.

The mk3 has a dedicated external modulation input which can be routed through the modulation system. The mk2 has individual FM inputs for both oscillators. Serial FM on the mk2 isn’t nice, but as with the mk3, using both oscillators as carriers modulated by an external source can work very nicely.

Both the mk2 and mk3 also have exponential FM inputs. On the mk2 this is unipolar 0-5V, which is somewhat ludicrous. But on both, audio rate expo FM is not at all clean and not very usable.

Before this test, nostalgia told me the mk3 is smoother and “too clean” at FM compared to the mk2, perhaps more band-limited. In reality, the mk2’s extra bite comes from the waveshaper modes and the selectable oscillator shapes. I honestly feel like this is a bigger advantage than having a third operator for FM, since I can easily use an external oscillator for that. To me, the mk2 wins this round.

Waveshaper(s)

The mk2 has a single waveshaper (labeled “waveform discontinuity”) with three modes:

  • Orange: the cleanest of the three when the depth is at minimum, but immediately the noisiest as the depth is increased even a little bit. It introduces a complex fractal shape, beginning with higher harmonics and then filling in downward toward the fundamental, which remains strong throughout the range. Internal modulation of the amount at audio rates can introduce beating and subharmonics, but the noisy, sizzling character remains.
  • Red: this mode adds a little bit of buzz even at minimum, especially with FM. As the depth increases, it resembles mathematically precise digital wavefolding, with a sine folding over into “cat ears” with sharp edges. Not as smooth as a classic analog wavefolder, but definitely usable, especially with an LPG.
  • Green: this mode also adds some buzz at the minimum setting. As the level increases, the waveform begins to clip at the top and bottom, and then begins folding somewhat smoothly. It can give FM an edge without as much harshness as red mode. When modulated internally, it can sound quite pleasant and combines very well with FM on the mod bus.

The mk3 instead has three waveshapers which can operate simultaneously:

  • PDist: phase distortion, with varying effects on harmonics. As the level increases, it first shapes the sine into a saw-like shape, and then at about the halfway point it yields a smooth double sine/triangle with a strong 2nd harmonic. Above that, it brings in richer high harmonics. The overall impression I get is less of a Casio CZ phase distortion synth and more of a wavetable. Sweeping PDist itself isn’t that nice, but it does combine smoothly and predictably with FM, and modulating the level at audio rate gives results that are buzzy without being excessively harsh.
  • Umbrage: a fractal waveshaper, with a different harmonic profile than mk2’s orange mode. It’s strong in the second harmonic at first and then shifts toward the third, but also rich in upper harmonics. A more aggressive sound than PDist. Audio rate modulation of Umbrage can actually sound smoother than keeping the level static, and can introduce chord-like tones. It also complements FM well, though the tone is particularly buzzy and seems to be asking for an LPG to tame it.
  • Reso adds harmonics progressively, while adding a resonant peak to them. It sounds very much like a resonant lowpass filter, even though it’s being applied to a sine oscillator. This one can’t be the target of internal modulation. I don’t feel it complements FM very well, but it does combine decently with the other waveshapers.

On both models, external audio-rate modulation of the waveshaper is generally very rough. Envelopes and LFOs make better input there.

Before this comparison I would have given this to the mk3, but now I find the decision more difficult. While I think the mk2 sounds better with an analog wavefolder or sine shaper, there are some uses for its modes, particularly the green. On the mk3, I find PDist disappointing, and Reso a bit gimmicky for my tastes since I don’t really use that kind of filter sweep. Both modules have a lot of high frequency “LPG fodder” options.

I think on both modules, the waveshapers compliment the rest of their design and are strongest when used to complement the FM and be modulated at audio rates. I’m going to call this one a draw.

Overall

I won’t pretend that these categories have equal weighting, or that a slight advantage should count the same as a big advantage. But it’s pretty clear that, while my ears do appreciate some of the mk3’s unique abilities, my heart is with the mk2.

Akemie’s Castle?

Using old Yamaha OPL3 chips rather than code running on a microcontroller, it’s a different beast. Four operators with selectable algorithms, and two separate voices with independent pitch controls that work off the common operators. One of the voices has a chord voicing knob. All the operators have selectable waveforms rather than just sines. There are all kinds of quirks with this one — most notably, “leaky” internal VCAs so that some modulation always sneaks through even if the depth is supposed to be zero, and a steppy, glitchy response to changes in modulation depth.

These days I prefer 2op FM over 4 or more, but the algorithms with multiple carriers, or which divide the assignments between the A and B oscillators are useful. Ridiculously thick clusters of chords can be had when combining B’s chord mode with differently-tuned carriers and some of the more chord-like waveshapes, as well as the independent tuning on A. This makes it excellent for drones, and I recorded a piece this weekend which takes full advantage of that. It also does much more old-school sounding FM plucks and, well, cuteness, than the Hertz Donut or other Eurorack oscillators can achieve — a sound I like on its own, but which won’t necessarily always fit in with my musical style.

On the downside: it’s big, and it drinks deeply of -12V current. (And I also think its current position at the top of the case isn’t ideal for experimentation; if I keep it, it deserves to move a little closer.)

One of my options is to keep the HD mk2 and Castle. I will probably worry about the focus vs. overkill issue though. This is a lot of FM, particularly given that other modules, the Reface CS, and software all can also do FM (albeit each in their own way).

Another option is to let go of Castle and keep just the mk2. If I want those big chords I could achieve them with Bitwig Poly Grid or Plogue’s retro FM plugins, or I could layer them in other ways if so inclined. I don’t feel like the plugins are as satisfyingly hands-on or authentically glitchy as I might like, so this does put those sounds at some remove. It does open up some space that could go to a Xaoc Odessa perhaps, or just stay empty.

A third choice would be to let go of both Donuts and keep the Castle. This feels a bit radical and scary, because missing a “real” complex oscillator was the impetus for the big shakeup where I sold the ER-301 — but in many ways the Castle can perhaps step into that space. It has some appeal in terms of consolidation and focus. The features (and cleanness) that Castle lacks are still available through Rings’ FM mode and my two waveshaping modules, plus Bitwig.

I think my next move is to work extensively both with and against Castle. Can I duplicate those big chords with Bitwig in a satisfying way? Can I get close to that retro kawaii sound that way? And, can I get satisfying “complex oscillator”-like results with the Castle and without Donut?

Also: would rearranging my case help? Something’s got to be on the top row, but perhaps I need a rethink here.

it begins

I didn’t mention that I bought the Flexshaper, did I? I did, and it arrived yesterday from Glasgow in a relative jiffy. Signal Sounds is a helpful resource to the synth community, and even though I’m unlikely to ever attend any sort of event there or check out their mini-museum of vintage synths, I am happy to support them a bit.

Flexshaper is pretty brilliant in its flexibility. Basically it takes this:

And lets you set the height of each point, to remap the output to something like this:

That’s essentially what the Instruo tanh[3] does, without any control over the actual shape. One could instead choose something more like this:

You can use it to reshape audio or control signals — whether envelopes, LFOs, pitch sequences or whatever. Add saturation or folding, invert signals, make a simple decay envelope into something with an extra bounce. With a mode button and two outputs, it can convert in either direction between unipolar and bipolar signals, or you could use the knob settings to flatten or invert half the signal.

And then there’s the even more clever bit: CV control over each of those five levels. You can alter an envelope shape with a sequence, or alter your waveshaping with an envelope, or set up a sort of waveshaping tremolo with a quadrature LFO (like Filter 8). It’ll even respond at audio rates, but at lower resolution — so that means it’s also a bitcrusher. You can run audio through the “Middle” CV with nothing into the main input if that’s what you want, or even (kinda) fade between the crushed sound and a clipped sound by altering the input level (since quieter signals spend more time in the middle area, and louder signals proportionally less).

Overall I’m quite pleased with the module. I need to play with it a bit more as a relatively simple saturation tool, but I expect I will go ahead and let go of tanh[3] at the appointed time.

And just a little while ago, I pounced on a used Hertz Donut mk2 at a price I liked a lot. I look forward to comparing it to the mk3. I fully expect the mk2 will win, but I will know for sure after a few months with them side by side.

refocus

Been a few days since my last post — we went to my parents’ place for Christmas, and caught colds, and also my digestion is in some chaos due to switching diabetes meds. And I often write blog posts while at work rather than at home, where I can make music, read, play games or catch up on The Expanse (for instance).

(The Expanse is kind of fun for me for an additional reason. I turn captions on to catch all the Lang Belta, but I get fun bonuses like this:

(There’s also a lot of [pensive music], [tense music], the occasional [dark ambient music] and some [rhythmic electronic club music]. Fun!)



Other than the cold, Christmas was nice. It’s been a year since I got to see my family. Mom fed us very well, especially in the breakfast department where I’m used to just having cereal or yogurt, or a McDonald’s sausage biscuit at my desk at work. We tend to exchange a lot of gifts, and I wound up with a nice Luna ukulele, a variety of books, and various bits of electronic stuff including a hand crank generator that I want to experiment with wobbly CV input to the modular.

I still have another week off, and tonight we’ll be visiting the brand new St. Louis Aquarium which just opened on Christmas day. Hopefully we can fit the new Star Wars movie in sometime as well, if we’re feeling up to it.


In 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons, one of the actions your character can take on your turn is to “refocus” — to wait a little bit for other characters or enemies to go first, and reset your turn’s timing. I feel like I have refocused in terms of my thinking on album 12. I woke up ridiculously early a couple of mornings ago and wound up listening to my recent “misfit” recordings in reverse order… and for the most part, it worked nicely. I found if I drop out most of the ones I was originally trying to match, I have 48 minutes of material with a pretty consistent feel to it. It’s generally more “calm” than “calmly foreboding,” and I think I will run with that. No idea yet for an album name, but it’ll come.


In writing up posts for forums, I’ve come up with gear priorities. While yes, I plan to keep my modular setup pretty stable this year now that it’s in a really great place, I do have some changes in mind:

  • Klavis Flexshaper. Not yet in stock anywhere, this is what Oberheim for some reason called a “Tracking Generator” in its synths — a sort of waveshaping lookup table, where you can map an input to a different output shape. Good for distortion, wavefolding, frequency doubling, rectification, inverting, and generally altering audio and control signals in many interesting ways. I have space for one right now, and I could see maybe having two eventually if I decide it replaces the tanh[3].
  • Hertz Donut mk2: I want to find a used one and compare it directly to the mk3. With both of them in my rack, I will be more easily able to choose a favorite, and sell the other later. My guess is I will choose to keep the mk2.
  • OBNE Dweller and Red Panda Particle pedals: I can’t decide which of these two would be better for the kind of textures I want, but both are on my list. Probably the order will be based on which one I see a good deal on first, and whim. But I don’t feel like I need either of them.
  • Digitech Freqout pedal: I’m mostly just curious about whether this’ll work for me; it’s fairly cheap and there will be little risk in trying it, but it’s not a high priority.
  • DSM03: it doesn’t really distinguish itself in my rack, despite some more interesting audio rate modulation than the Mimeophon. It’s probably going away when the E520 arrives, and I’m only keeping it in place for that sense of stability.

But my higher priority above all of those is working more with the Akemie’s Castle in particular — because I feel there’s a lot more in it than I’ve made use of so far, having been distracted by the Lyra and learning mastering and everything else. And also working more with the sound generating possibilities of Mimeophon, and exploring Via Scanner.

crushed

I finished reading PEDAL CRUSH, the third of the “Bjooks” series…

Each of these is a big, heavy, beautifully produced book that’s somewhere between a coffee table book for admiring the art and design that goes into the equipment, and lots and lots of content. They skew more toward the latter, though.

PUSH TURN MOVE is a discussion and showcase of the interfaces of electronic musical instruments, both hardware and software. What controls should be provided, how they should be laid out and presented, and how the instrument or effect should look, feel and behave. It’s a big important subject with many facets. For me it was mostly a matter of curiosity and something of an art object, though I think it should be required reading for designers.

PATCH & TWEAK is all about modular synthesizers: the history, the different formats, the basics, types of modules, patching techniques, and interviews with instrument makers and musicians. For me, it was more of a review but still a fun read in places.

PEDAL CRUSH is about guitar FX pedals/stompboxes. Different categories of pedals, their histories and variations, typical and non-typical uses, why the order of placement matters, technical and creative considerations about amplification, and look and feel. Lots of interviews with designers and musicians again. Not being a guitarist, just an occasional user of a pedal or two with synths, I found it very informative and fascinating, but I was less interested in the interviews with guitarists.

As a result of reading it and doing some online research, I have a new list of techniques I want to try with my current hardware and software — and a short list of pedals that I would like to try myself.

Many pedals are convenience devices for guitarists to quickly dial in their sound and concentrate on performance — a synthesist can replicate them with little difficulty. But in many other cases, there’s something more complex going on, or a specific character unique to the pedal, vital to its sound, which ranges from difficult to monumentally difficult to imitate.

My list right now, in rough priority order:

  • Red Panda Particle: a granular delay with a generally grittier and glitchier character than Clouds. I don’t expect I could imitate most of its capabilities. The older V1 is cheaper, but I’m convinced V2 is worth the difference with its nicer controls, enhanced sound and extra features.
  • Old Blood Noise Endeavors Dweller: a phaser with a delay between each stage — a simple addition which greatly expands the effect’s repertoire into some neat places I’ve never heard before. I tried imitating it in Bitwig Grid to no avail.
  • Digitech Freqout: I have no clue how it actually works. It creates “natural feedback at any volume” with particular harmonics emphasized or isolated. It may not be as magical on synths as guitars, but it’s cheap enough on the secondhand market that I feel like I should give it a try.
  • Walrus Audio Slö: a beautiful ambient delay, heavily modulated and dark and dreamy, which can do extended freezes and gradual volume swells. I think I’d be smart to wait for the E520 first and see what I think of its shimmer verb and other potential ambience though.
  • Montreal Assembly Meet Maude: a BBD delay with random modulation and a compressor. It has a lot of mojo and is widely loved… but I am particularly well covered in the delay department. Again, I think waiting to see how things fall out with the E520 is wise.

There are plenty of other interesting delays out there I could go for. Adineko, Black Fountain, Rose… but I can’t collect all the cool stuff, because that game is expensive and has no winning condition.