poke, poke back

It’s nice to finally get some autumn-like weather again. We waited until last night, marshmallows and cheddar turkey sausages at the ready, for the opportunity to “camp” on our back patio and enjoy it. The later dawn, earlier sunset, fall colors, and more human-friendly temperature and humidity generally brings a lift to my mood and general energy level.

The Lyra-8 has been working out well for me. I’ve started a collection of some decent recordings of improvisations with it, and submitted two of them to Ambient Online’s next compilation. A couple of times I’ve worked from “what’s the most utterly horrendous noise possible?” to something really gorgeous.

I know its self-modulation will never really be tamed — there are singularities along the range of the “Mod” knobs that defy all explanation. But so long as I avoid those, I’m developing a better sense of the combinations, modulation, effects, techniques, performance etc. that give me results I like. Natural Gate is a yes for sure, as it adds more definite articulation and really enjoys chewing on those full, harmonically rich and noise-infused sounds. Stereo delay as well as Haaze can give it width and depth, and delay and reverb can help turn the instrument’s generally loose sense of pitch into a fuller “ensemble” feel. Low shelf EQ, notch filtering and dynamic EQ can tame some of the overwhelming pressure the instrument puts in some bands, while a high shelf or noise reduction algorithms can reduce or shape some of the noisiness of the built-in PT delay. CV modulation requires some offset and attenuation to work well, as the first couple of volts often seem to have almost no effect. With that knowledge I want to revisit external FM sources and see how they differ from the internal modulation routing. I haven’t tried pitch sequences with the SQ-1 or Stages yet, but that’s coming.

The Lyra is certainly responsive to touch and expressive to play, but it invites a bit more.

  • I’d like some subtle performance control over vibrato and pitch bending. It can be achieved somewhat through modulation between voices, but you’ve got to play multiple voices for that, and that’s more like “influence” rather than control. Trying to use the tuning knobs for micro pitch fluctuations is a bit awkward and risky, and the vibrato toggle switch is very organ-like and heavy-handed.
  • Likewise, dynamics control with the touchplates can be a bit tricky. Some of it is down to technique, combining different touches/brushes of the plates with the envelope switch and Hold knob settings — and is a pretty delightful aspect of the feel of the instrument at times — but more control is welcome.
  • Expressive control over other aspects of the sound — like the mix level of an effect, or a manually controlled phaser or something — seems like it would be extremely welcome with this instrument.
  • When I’m playing non-Lyra synths now, I feel like I’m missing a dimension.

I’m considering the Expressive E Touché SE. It’s a highly adjustable touch controller inspired by the touché d’intensité control (aka the “lozenge”) on the Ondes Martenot, but with 4 degrees of freedom rather than one. You can press, tap, rock, and shift it, and assign different directional controls as needed — most typically, downward pressure to affect volume and brightness, and sideways movement for vibrato and bending. You can adjust its sensitivity and its feel, through a combination of electronic settings, software settings, a mechanical balancing slider, and physically changing out an internal cylinder if you want to get that deep. I tried its more expensive sibling at Knobcon a couple of years ago, and it felt very good. The “Software Edition” is USB-only and gives up direct MIDI and CV connections, but I can get around that easily with the Bitwig/Expert Sleepers integration. The full version could be a smarter choice if intended to play live without a computer, which… right now I assume I don’t.

But: desk space. I’ll have to figure out if it will fit and if the ergonomics will be right.

There are other possibilities, with… mostly fewer benefits other than fitting in the modular rack. Intellijel Tetrapad, Meng Qi Hand, Adventure Audio Skin, FSRs (force sensing resistors)… I have a lot of questions about some of them, doubts about others. A couple of them are cheap enough I might add them on for giggles even if I go for the Touché, if I make other small changes to the modular.

lyrical

My Lyra-8 arrived yesterday, and it’s certainly a beast. The designer’s intent was:

  • Taking inspiration from neurology, build an electronic instrument where everything is interconnected rather than defined by a limited set of one-way linear flows. Simple parts with a network of many connections between them allow for rich and complex behavior.
  • Taking inspiration from both the violin and Theremin, make the instrument tactile and direct, with minimum automation or quantization.
  • Taking inspiration from Indian ragas, where “the art of mastering your mental and emotional state is essential.” I’ll mostly take the designer’s word on that, but I agree that it does seem to ask for a certain mindset.
  • An intro video for the smaller Lyra-4 claims it’s an instrument for communicating with the subconscious of whales via household plumbing, using recovered Soviet military technology from the 60s. Ummm.

My very first impression of the instrument was, it weighs a LOT. My second impression was several minutes of confusion and disbelief. Understanding parts of the instrument arrived within the first couple of hours. Mastery over the whole thing does not seem possible in a human lifetime, but intuitive partnership with the cetacean subconscious seems to be imminent 🙂

The cross-modulation stuff is basically FM, but I’ve read that it’s neither linear nor exponential FM since the oscillators have a nonlinear voltage-to-frequency relationship. Notes often, but not always, drift in pitch as volume changes or slide from one to another. There are probably all kinds of DC offsets, crosstalk, and unspecified feedback going on as well. It’s not that uncommon for sets of voices to go up when you expect down, lock themselves into perfect sync, or drop into silence (perhaps because they’re not thru-zero capable? or is it ghosts?). And it’s all based on gestures, and sometimes the tiniest movements of knobs, and humidity and temperature.

You can turn all those modulation switches off and it’s much more predictable, but still on the weird side. As Loopop said in his video, “forget East Coast or West Coast, this synth is from outer space.”

The sound, and the feeling you get when playing it (after the initial overwhelming confusion) is an amazing combination of alien and humanistic, delicate and forceful.

I recorded two jams with it last night, as well as playing with running drums through it (which was amazing, but pretty far from what I’m doing as Starthief). I expect the next album after… whatever the scenes-but-no-places-one is called …will be Lyra-heavy. I’ll just record a whole lot of stuff and publish the best.

For a taste, here’s the first thing:

I can imagine playing this instrument live, which isn’t something I’ve felt very inclined to do with the Eurorack gear or plugins. It’d be very edge-of-the-pants… er, seat-of-the-seat? Fly by night? Creatively risky and adventurous, though I don’t know if the audience would know just how much so. Just the Lyra and maybe a couple of guitar pedals; if I wanted to change directions, a drum machine too.

I kind of want to take it upstairs to our crafts/jamming room and plug it into the little amp I’ve got up there, and then maybe record that with my portable recorder (if I can find the thing! It’s so small I lost it somewhere in the house). But I don’t want to crawl under/behind my desk to reroute the power every time, so perhaps I’ll look for a second power adapter.

I also intend to try it together with the modular, of course. It is a natural drone monster, for one thing. The effects (a fantastically dirty PT delay and surprisingly controllable distortion) can be used with an external input, and if also using the voice section, the combined output can modulate the voices in a feedback loop. It has a few CV inputs, though from what I’ve read it’s less “control voltage” and more “humble suggestion voltage…”

from Russia with drones

That didn’t take long…

In my deliberations of instruments that could work well in my musical context I kept circling back around the Soma Lyra-8, as I have for a few years now. The earliest Russian-built units had a waiting list and commanded high prices, so I figured it was something to daydream about at best. The maker contracted a Polish manufacturer to help meet demand, and prices steadily creeped down. (EDIT: it seems price weirdness was more due to exchange rate pains and VAT/shipping/customs issues more than rarity.) But US retailers still have a big markup, and a lot of owners who resell are still pricing them like their cases are made of gold instead of steel.

I found someone reselling a more recent Russian “Black Beast” at a much more reasonable price, did the math and went for it.

8 independent oscillators, tuned at will, played via very expressive touch plates. They can FM each other for more growly and intense sounds. There’s an interesting “hyper LFO” modulation source, and a delay and distortion so good that Soma has had success selling them as a separate FX-only Eurorack module. I’ve heard the Lyra-8 cross the spectrum from gentle angelic ambient through harsh industrial noise, often within a single performance. My musical neighborhood is right along that same path, and I’ve often thought this could be the perfect instrument for me. I hesitated mostly because of past prices, but also because it might threaten my use of other gear.

I’ve heard it’s got something of a mind of its own, and some people just don’t get along with its quirks and style — it’s a love-it-or-hate-it instrument. In the designer’s words, it’s more about improvisational performance and emotional connection than predictable, reproducible results, and I’m certainly fine with that. I expect I’ll love it, but if not it should be an easy resell.

I’ll close with a link to one of my favorite videos featuring the Lyra-8:

milestone

Last night I recorded my first “real” song with the new setup, and it went mostly smoothly. In fact… my goals during the mastering stage are -1db true peak and -14dB integrated LUFS, and look at where this one landed:

I think this is mostly coincidence, but it’s a good sign. Usually I add several stages of compression with manually drawn curves, followed by maybe Presswerk and a few rounds of adjustment. This time it was just Bitwig’s peak limiter when recording, and a very light touch of it again when rendering.

I could streamline away the extra step of recording and then rendering, but it’s an opportunity to do some of my processing and automation right there in Bitwig before moving to Sound Forge.

Sound Forge Pro 13 only lets you scan 3 locations for plugins — and that’s supposed to cover VST3, VST2 64- and 32-bit, I guess? But VST installation is not well standardized and there are a few important bits not in line, like NI Transient Master. I’m going to have to shuffle some stuff.

This was also my first recording with Mimeophon and Via Scanner. Mimeophon is an excellent delay, but as a sound source in its own right it’s amazing too. The “flip” input, which toggles the direction of delay playback, can be modulated at audio rates for some incredible textures.

Scanner is complex and unconventional, but once you grasp a couple of important things, it’s not hard to use as an audio waveshaper. (Its affect on CV signals is going to take me some time to work out with a scope.) It can sound like a traditional wavefolder, Plaits’ waveshaping model, or more like a wavetable oscillator. It can also get glitchy and weird when you start self-patching its logic outputs.

The thing about wavefolders is that their tone depends on the gain of the input — the stronger the signal, the more it folds over on itself and gains extra harmonics. So they tend to have a big gain boost at the input, controlled by a VCA. Scanner has two output VCAs (bipolar, in parallel and mixed) to allow for some other tricks, but no voltage control over the input… so it calls for a separate VCA. But I don’t need Origami anymore, and Cold Mac fits into that space… it can be my input VCA or a crossfader or compressor or a lot of other things.

And with that, I have my “final” setup for Synth Farm 3.1.


wiggling the wiggy bits

I went through a highly recommended video course for Bitwig beginners, by Thavius Beck. It walks you through creating a… frankly pretty awful tune, but it’s a good demonstration of navigating around the software and using many of its features, and by the time it wrapped up and I slapped together another couple of quick, bad songs it felt pretty comfortable to use.

I really like Bitwig’s flexibility. For audio/effects routing, there are usually multiple ways to achieve any particular goal, and you can pick the one that makes the most sense at the time. For recording and sequencing, there’s a linear arranger as well as a clip-based, loop-oriented one, and you can transfer material between them or record from one to the other. The interface itself has multiple different layout options and it’s easy to switch them as you switch tasks. Several different hardware devices can be used for controlling it (though sadly not the Maschine mk2). And I appreciate that it can run brand new VST3 plugins right alongside 32-bit VST plugins from 2003 with no fuss whatsoever.

I’m confident this will work better for me than Maschine, though I’m holding onto the hardware for a while to make sure. I’m not as confident it can also replace Sound Forge entirely, but I’ll probably do at least some of the post-processing work in Bitwig.

This weekend I briefly poked around the Grid device — modular building blocks to create instruments or effects. Rather easily, I put together exactly the kind of additive oscillator, controlled by the 16n Faderbank, that I had used on the ER-301 on Passing Through. And then I phase modulated it with the Hertz Donut for some fantastic growling tones. That was about 90% of my motive for wanting the SMR, SWN or Just Friends.

Grid also has a whole set of phase-related modules, including a sine lookup module… so I could implement a lot of the stuff I wrote about in “Sine Shaping and You” as well as phase distortion, etc. And they all apply to audio signals too; like Eurorack, Bitwig Grid doesn’t actually care whether any given signal was supposed to be audio, a pitch CV, a gate or whatever.

So the new way of things for me is going to be to keep a core of awesome modules in Eurorack, and throw open the borders between hardware and software. One of Expert Sleepers’ ADAT interfaces will be perfect for this, giving me plenty of inputs and outputs for CV and audio at Eurorack levels with minimal latency.

That gives me a new focus for checking things out at KnobCon, because a lot of situational or utility modules could be handled by Bitwig instead.

Synthesis Technology has “pre-announced” the E520 Hyperion Stereo Effects Processor, about which Paul Schreiber says “we are focusing on FFT/spectral/frequency domain transforms that have not been done 600 times in the past.” Frequency domain effects are nearly nonexistent in Eurorack and other hardware, and rare enough in VST plugins. Panharmonium was a bit of a bust for me, but this emphasis on effects processing rather than resynthesis is very promising.

out of phase

I have a title and some maybe-final artwork for the new album. It’s a secret for now though. Mastering is done, and was a little bit of a chore in places this time around but my efforts paid off, at least in a creative sense. I just have the notes page to write up and it’ll be ready to upload.

Before work on the next album gets seriously underway, there’s Knobcon, a few more gear changes and that new computer coming. I’ve figured out which plugins and sample collections I’ll want to install on the new machine, but that’s going to take a few days to set up. There are also newer Sound Forge versions to try. This will give me some time to ponder themes for a bit.


Make Noise’s imminent Mimeophon matches, almost line by line, a list I wrote back in February of the features of the delay module of my dreams. But it’s reinterpreted through in their own style, which is mostly a bonus. It was going to be a prime candidate to try out at Knobcon, but a couple of recent demo videos have convinced me it’s better than ideal. It’s so good as a resonating micro-delay I could even end up selling one of my Rings. Waiting for Knobcon is really just a formality with this one.

But what does require some deliberation and demoing is the question of the 4ms SMR vs. 4ms SWN vs. Mannequins Just Friends vs. just using Stages’ Ouroboros mode.

My SMR did indeed have something wrong with it, which excited the tech, was one of the first ones 4ms built and thus had an old, incompatible bootloader, but should be ready to ship back to me today or tomorrow. I want to give it a proper chance.

SWN (Spherical Wavetable Navigator) is a newer module that evolved from the SMR, but does exactly what I was looking for. Six oscillators with their own VCAs, which can be tuned relative to each other or independently, mixed to a stereo output. It uses a 3D wavetable setup that doesn’t beat SynthTech but does go well beyond the SMR’s sines. It’s more expensive than the other options, but well within my “sell more stuff than I buy” budget. It can’t be used to process audio as SMR can (if I decide I like that), but alongside the VCOs it also has a set of 6 LFOs that can be related or independent and can act as its own sort of algorithmic rhythm generator.

I also worked out how Just Friends, with the help of a Teletype script and the 16n Faderbank, can go without a separate VCA mixer. It’s a little bit of a hack, but smaller, cheaper, and will do FM. When not acting as a VCO it can do envelopes and LFOs, extending Teletype’s modulation capability without a tangle of patch cables.

Aside from that, I think I’ve probably settled on Mannequins Cold Mac as a crossfader/VCA/utility thing. But I want to look into the MSCL stereo compressor especially if I keep the SMR, and also potentially for Clouds and Mimeophon. Otherwise it takes Dynamo, 2/3 of Shades, both channels of Tallin and a lot of tweaking to compress/limit a stereo feedback path.

shine on

After 11 years with a Core i7 960 on which I upgraded/replaced literally everything except the case, cooler and motherboard, I have bought a fresh new computer.

CyberPowerPC
InWin 101 Mid Tower
+ 600W 80+ Gold PSU
+ 3x InWin Sirius Loop RGB case fans
+ professional wiring
ASUS TUF X570-Plus Gaming motherboard
+ 16 GB DDR4-3200 RAM
AMD Ryzen 5 3600 CPU
+ MasterLiquid Lite ARGB cooler
+ Cooler Master thermal paste
GeForce GTX 1650 4GB video card
1TB Intel 660P M.2 NVMe SSD
+ Windows 10 Home

It’s a compromise of latest new stuff and budget/efficiency — the 3600 is within a few percent of other Ryzen chips that cost a lot more. That particular SSD is a little slow for its class, but that’s like saying the Indian Ocean is a little small for an ocean, and it was half price (the SSD, not the ocean). There are faster video cards in that price range, but they run hotter and use more wattage. (If I were buying components individually and assembling it myself, I’d have used my old video card… and the total would have cost about the same as this computer anyway.)

Like my old computer, I chose a white case, but this one isn’t the size of a SmartCar. I didn’t pay extra for case lights, but all the fans glow with adjustable colors. This plus the large window have the benefit of making it easily to tell when it’s time to open it up and blow out the accumulated dog hair. 😉


Supercell arrived yesterday — the maximal version of Mutable Instruments Clouds, which I chose to replace Panharmonium. It has a dedicated knob, CV input and attenuverter for every parameter and a few other improvements to the interface, making it 34HP (compared to the original’s 18HP, and alternate versions that run between 8 and 14HP with varying interface compromises). I believe it’s worth the extra space.

The original mode allows for all kinds of possibilities beyond the stereotypical smearing-and-reverb, and the “Superparasites” firmware makes 7 other modes relatively easy to access. (If it had mode names printed on the panel that would have been nice.) There’s no unified documentation for it, so I found myself summarizing FIVE manuals into one brief text file. For the most part there’s a relative consistency in usage, and I have just tested my memory of the mode order (Granular, Pitch Shifter/Timestretch, Looping Delay, Spectral Madness, Reverb, Resonator, Beat Repeat, Spectral Clouds) and was right. So maybe I won’t have to refer back to that very much.

The delay has some nice character but won’t 100% replace other delays. Mimeophon remains the most likely other candidate and I don’t expect to keep Prism or T-Rackonizer. Some of the other modes make me downgrade SMR’s chances a little bit too. As far as how well Clouds “replaces” Panharmonium: the sound character is not even a little similar, but the freeze-and-harmonize action is somewhat so. I find it more generally useful. It fits within the whole “focus” thing without being too much of a one-trick pony that will get old quickly.

last first impressions

I picked up the last three bits of traded gear from the post office yesterday. My thoughts:

Bastl Dynamo is what I remember, but the aluminum faceplate is much, much better than the wood one (which had poor visual contrast, poor fit, showed signs of wear quickly and just didn’t match anything else.) Itcan assist in keeping feedback loops infinitely but safely sustained, alter a voice based on its own dynamics, and so on.

Delta Origami is an acceptable wavefolder. It sounds fine but has an absolutely minimal feature set. Thinking about that makes me realize that I currently lack a good way to crossfade signals which doesn’t tie up both channels of Tallin.

Jomox T-Rackonizer really wants to be its own instrument. It’s not that I can’t patch it with other stuff (especially SMR), it’s just that it’s poorly behaved and needy — it violates the focus thing by trying to steal focus, make me pay special attention to it to see why it’s misbehaving. If I wanted to make it the central instrument of more of a pure drone thing, or harsh noise wall or something, it might be fine. It’s only staying in my rack until Knobcon because I decided to give everything at least that much of a chance, but I see only a little probability that it will stay after that.

Estimated survival chances of all the new gear:

HD mk3 100%
Dynamo 100%
Origami 80%
Panharmonium60%
SMR 50%
Prism 30%
Racko 10%

EDIT: of course, minds change. Mine usually changes immediately after I commit to “wait until Knobcon” for something.

I was watching Mylar Melodies’ tutorial on Clouds and had a revelation: this is the stuff I am using Panharmonium to do. And from a technical standpoint, Panharmonium is choosing the most cussedly difficult method of doing it and sharing that burden with the user.

Sure there are things Panharm can do that Clouds can’t. And vice versa. But to me, the more attractive things, and those with more long-term appeal, are on the Clouds side.

Somehow I’ve always avoided Clouds. Part of it was that “Rings into Clouds” is Eurorack’s biggest cliche, and as a big fan of Rings I wanted to buck that trend. But avoiding a thing because it’s popular may be even less wise than choosing it because it’s popular.

I believe it might be best to resell Panharmonium while it’s still extremely new and there’s no competition in the used market.

And at the same time, I’m considering the possibility that Prism is worth keeping as seasoning inside of other feedback loops (even inside other delays’ loops) for its filter, decimator and comb. So its survival percentage ticks up a few points.

first imp*: Hertz Donut mk3

The Hertz Donut mk2 was one of my favorite oscillators. When the mk3 was announced, I was intrigued by some of the new features but even more skeptical of messing with perfection.

The magic of the HDmk2 was that its raw oscillators had a sort of sparkly/dusty digital character, just on the edge of lo-fi. That combined really well with a clean and very easy to use implementation of TZFM. The structure was classic “complex oscillator” with a single mod bus — simple to use despite the name.

In comparison, the mk3’s raw oscillators are sterile and bland. But its magic is giving you a whole spice rack to kick things up a notch. You can make it sound a lot like the mk2, or like Noise Engineering’s bright and sharp-edged oscillators, or some synths of the 80s or early 90s, or lots of other things besides.

I thought the waveshapers (three of them, simultaneous, independent, and good) would be the main advantage over the mk2 (one shaper with three modes, all ugly). But having a third FM operator and a flexible routing matrix/bus hybrid, is golden. Monitoring Main and Op A in stereo while Op B modulates them both is an experience.

There are things I could be picky about — like having 6 styles of knobs where three would be fine — but honestly none of it poops the party. I think I might have a new favorite oscillator.

first impressions: SMR and Prism

The 4ms SMR is a bank of 6 bandpass filters that can act as a graphic equalizer or as (approximate) sine wave oscillators. It has an unusual system for assigning frequencies: built-in or custom scales assigned to a ring of 20 notes, and LEDs that light up in the color of the channel assigned to that note. The channels can rotate around the ring or be spread out, can be “nudged” by external inputs or locked to a specific pitch. It’s a design that encourages unusual new composition practices, but at the same time, can complicate more traditional ones. It’s also a very pretty light show.

What I was hoping to use it for was:

  • Modal synthesis, similar to Rings or Rainmaker. Fewer bands, but specific control over their frequencies and levels. In this area it’s kind of a disappointment, but it’s possible that it can still be a partner in feedback loops with other gear.
  • The sort of few-oscillator additive/harmonic patch like I did a couple of times with the ER-301. This… might still be doable, but requires (A) customizing a scale to give nice harmonic multiplications, (B) multing a pitch signal into both “nudge” inputs, which might wind up requiring a buffered multiple, a utility module which I’ve dodged so far, and (C) adjusting the “nudge” input tracking so it properly tracks 1V/OCT. Which it does not, right now.

The procedure in the manual to adjust tracking didn’t work — and while the newest firmware is supposed to improve tracking, trying to upgrade to it also didn’t work. I’ve written to 4ms tech support about it.


Qu-Bit Prism is a filter, delay and bitcrusher in one smallish module. The sound of it is quite good, and the delay gets into comb filter territory (a super short delay with the right feedback configuration does phase cancellation stuff that acts as a filter instead of an echo). But the delay doesn’t react well to modulation, and a single knob controls the delay mix and feedback. You can’t have a loud single slapback, nor a pure delay without the dry signal, nor chorus or flanging, nor physical modeling uses except at a fixed pitch. (You can change the pitch but it takes a second or so to slide to the new one, so it’s not practical.)

A delay with this much limitation is mostly good as an end-of-chain effect, or possibly in feedback loops with a mixer. For end-of-chain, I might as well use a plugin. For feedback loops, I’ll have the T-Rackonizer which I expect to be way ahead of it (though minus a bitcrusher, but that’s not something I care a lot about).


Here’s my plan now:

  • Judge SMR on its own merits, rather than hopes, expectations and disappointments.
  • Don’t worry too much about the additive oscillator patch. If SMR can’t do it, Stages can (if a bit primitively) and it’s not a common enough thing to warrant buying gear specifically for it.
  • Don’t buy anything until KnobCon.
  • Don’t sell anything until KnobCon that wasn’t already on my sell list. That will give me time to settle in with this new and somewhat thorny gear, see how it all interacts and make better decisions.
  • New gear arrives today. Check that out, enjoy it, see how it interacts with the other new stuff… maybe Dynamo is just what SMR needs, maybe T-Rackonizer makes the Prism moot, maybe the HD mk3 is so awesome I want to sell two other things and get a second one.
  • But after KnobCon, be kind of merciless about the focus thing. Not necessarily with snap decisions, but resist feature creep.