it came to other people in a dream

A few days ago my spouse mentioned a dream with Michelle Obama in it. Apparently dreams featuring the Obamas dispensing wisdom are not an uncommon thing:

had a dream obama and the guy who plays air guitar at the mall were about to fight and obama said “ violence for violence is the rule of beasts “ and i woke up because that was the rawest shit i ever heard

http://kumagawa.tumblr.com/post/149460046939/had-a-dream-obama-and-the-guy-who-plays-air-guitar

There are t-shirts and podcast episode titles and a database of Obama dreams. So, why not an album of electronic music? Yep, I’m tentatively calling the next album and the last track on it The Rule of Beasts.

The last track stands out from the others in style (but is probably not “the rawest shit you eve heard”). I was trying out the Sputnik Five-Step Voltage Source I’d just received, driven rhythmically by Teletype and modulating Plaits’ various parameters. I recorded it but figured it was destined to be dumped on SoundCloud as too different from my ambient drone style. But a couple of ideas struck me right before publishing it, and it went back into SoundForge for a few more rounds of editing. The result works, I think, but I’ll wait to confirm that in a different listening environment first.

I’ve got 70 minutes of material now, but a couple of songs need final decisions about inclusion. For comparison, January 2018’s Nereus was a couple of minutes shorter and I’d rejected about 20 minutes of other recorded material.

I’d previously thought about calling this one Super Blood Wolf Moon, but that already feels like a dated and irrelevant reference already. It’s the title of one of the other songs though, if I don’t change it. The album art also was originally one of my dad’s photos of that event, but because the resolution was too low for DistroKid’s requirements, I started processing it… and now it’s a metallic tunnel/vortex thing. My approach to photo editing software sometimes resembles my approach to music making.

Science!

That Sputnik module is a bit quirky. The pulses coming from the top row when a step changes are ridiculously short and don’t reliably trigger every module. It works fine with Tides and Teletype though, and if the ER-301 is fine with it I won’t sweat it. Otherwise I’ve been able to massage the signal a little bit with tanh[3] to keep it over common trigger thresholds long enough to work.

I made a couple of wrong assumptions about controls in the Stage Select section, so it’s slightly less like the Buchla Music Easel sequencer than I thought — but cool in a different way. The Address input is exactly as expected and is easy to control via Teletype. Overall it’s a fun, hands-on multi-channel sequencer. Between it and the faderbank for the Teletype and the SQ-1, and good old MIDI, I believe that should settle the sequencing question.

I’ve got a tentative layout worked out for the new case. I took those guiding principles I came up with in the previous post, used the bubbl.us mind mapping tool to associate modules into groups, considered the impossible ideal of having all my modulation sources equidistant from any given destination, thought about geometry and pre-modern naval tactics and put together a compromise.

There’s a logic to each module’s placement, even if the logic was something a bit weak like “it was the right size to fit in an awkward gap” or “this keeps all the black-panel modules together.” Actual usage will tell me whether I want to shift things around, but I think this is a setup I can live with; I know the modulators are generally on the right edge, VCAs/LPGs clustered together, sequencing all at the bottom and so on.

remod(ular)eling

I decided on the MDLRCASE 12U at 456 total HP. In the 370HP range I was aiming for, cases tend to be shorter but too wide, or I’d need two cases and would have an awkward time integrating everything else — and it would have been pricier, required some awkward DIY at almost the same price, or perhaps a custom job from one of the makers that don’t answer their email… anyway, this one should suit me well. And my spouse has offered to do some pyrography on it, which seems a lot cooler than slapping synth brand stickers all over it.

When I started to experiment with modular sequencing, what I really wanted was a Sputnik Five-Step Voltage Source — but the company had shuttered and they were only available used. I tried to make do with other modules, such as Pressure Points and Mimetic Digitalis, but they weren’t quite what I wanted. I found someone selling their 5-Step plus the Selector companion module for half what I expected, so I went for it — it’s not small but I’ll have the space.

Aside from a couple of minor VCA and pedal interface substitutions I’ll do in trades if possible, and some re-knobbing and possible necessary cables — I plan to spend no more money until my “2019 Gear Spending Tracker” balance is back into the black through selling old gear.

Not that it matters much next to tomorrow afternoon’s pharmacy copay for 30 days of meds — I guess it’s important that I maintain my serfdom to America’s insurance billionaires. I hope we get our Medicare For All next year, so I can dance on the graves of Anthem and Express Scripts before they dance on mine.

Anyway, now it’s time to figure out how I’m going to arrange modules in the new case. Even this is something of an art, much discussed on modular forums, with several schools of thought behind it. (Surprise, nerds make everything nerdier!) You can group aesthetically, ergonomically, by signal flow, by function, at random, etc. There are some practical constraints, such as cases where some sections don’t accommodate deeper modules, or narrow modules with tiny knobs that need a little finger room on their sides — or simply finding places to fit modules of different widths.

Even if you pick something like signal flow as your priority, there are different methods. East Coast subtractive synthesis typically proceeds left to right from VCO to VCF to VCA — often with an envelope generator standing in for “VCA” on the panels of fixed-architecture synths, and any LFOs and secondary envelopes in a row below that. Buchla designs — more modular, but with a sharp distinction between control signals and audio signals — proceed from control to sound source to output, which reflects something of an acoustic mindset. But Eurorack modular synths require a little arbitrary shoehorning if you’re going to do this; many of even the simplest modules can fit in multiple categories.

The guiding principles for my layout are:

  • I have 20cm jumpers for my i2c connections since they’re supposed to be kept short — so Teletype, TXb, and ER-301 will be neighbors. According to some, I might have some leeway in placing the 16n Faderbank, though.
  • Modules with “permanent” exterior connections — I/O patchbay(s), pedal interfaces, TXb — should be kept to corners or edges so their cables can be routed out of the way.
  • Try to discourage proximity-based “cliques” among modules — a reason I wanted to merge back to one case in the first place. Since I don’t want to frequently randomize, I think this implies a functional grouping. The impossible ideal is that all modulators are equidistant from any given destination.
  • Try not to have scattered gaps throughout the case (which can complicate rearranging and require more small blank panels).
  • Try to keep like panel colors and brands together, but that’s secondary to all other concerns.

NAMM jam

The National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) has a big yearly trade show this time of year. Not every player in the synthesizer end of the instrument business attends — the thing has a reputation of being dominated by guitars, with a smattering of other traditional Western instruments, and it’s huge and loud and expensive, maybe not the best venue to show off more complex instruments or communicate their subtleties. There are more synth-friendly events throughout the year that are closer-knit and make more sense.

But for those who don’t go — like Moog Music or Make Noise — it’s still pretty common to announce and/or release new products at around this time. So the blogs and forums are a flurry of activity and it’s hard even for fans to keep up with all the videos, writeups, and discussion.

The one “YES I MUST HAVE THAT” item for me is Make Noise QPAS, Quad Peak Animation System — a fancy filter that I’ve decided will replace my Twinpeak and also, why not, my Cinnamon because I basically never use two filters in a recording and I’m going to have the ER-301 to do virtual filters anyway. There were intriguing teasers on social media that we speculated on, and then a short video demo, and then a livestreamed demonstration and talk by the designer Tony Rolando (who, through a combination of astute interviews and cool gear inventions, has sort of become one of my synth heroes*). So that’s pre-ordered.

Another likely one was announced a little early: the Korg Volca Modular, a miniscule but genuinely semi-modular, West Coast style synth that is either going to confuse a lot of people or win a lot of converts to the Way of Buchla (possibly both). Its existence makes me confident I can let go of my Double Helix with little pain.

A few other bits of gear have sparked brief passing interest and mild curiosity. A couple of them, I’m skeptical of and need audio and video demos to prove themselves to me. A couple of them seem very nice but not something I particularly need (the Moog Sirin “analog messenger of joy” for instance).

And then there’s the Arturia MicroFreak. Nearly everything about it makes me sad and screams “out of touch marketing” louder than any sound the instrument can make. The name is bad, the ad copy is bad, the video is painful; the graphic design is bad, the sound is… either kind of bland or the demos are extremely bland. What makes it notable, other than its weird looks and (kind of cool) touchplate keyboard, is the claim that they “collaborated” with Mutable Instruments.

According to Émilie (who is Mutable Instruments): they used some of her (open-source) code from the Plaits module, with both implicit and explicit permission. They invited her to one awkward “focus group”-like meeting after the instrument design was already finished, but she never had the chance to even playtest it, nor even see a photo of it until a week ago. But they slapped her logo and company name on the website and claimed it was a collaboration, and now people think the thing has her endorsement and participation.

UPDATE: Arturia apologized and changed their website. Instead of claiming collaboration it’s now “we’ve also integrated the open-source Plaits oscillator developed by Eurorack legends Mutable Instruments.” Much less misleading.

Also, as more demos come in, the sound might have more promise than it initially seemed. I may keep an eye on it because the keyboard controller frankly intrigues me.

Until Émilie posted a call outlining it in more detail and asking people not to be an angry mob, there was a bit of fan backlash. During that interval I contemplated alternatives to my Microbrute. Something very compact that offers MIDI control, immediate playability and tweakability and good sound — there aren’t too many options within the physical dimensions available really.

There’s a particular range of technique and sound I really love about the Microbrute — the interaction of its triangle oscillator output and its saturation and filter feedback — but if I can replicate that with other gear I have or which is easily available, I could let it go. Now that things are calmer, I’m thinking about that in terms of opportunity rather than boycott. If I can make those sounds with some combination of my modular and software, I could have more control over the subtleties. If I could use a more compact and/or alternative controller, that’s a plus too. But I don’t have to choose that just because of some bonehead marketing committee at Arturia.

Anyway: with the first day of the show over, so is most of the internet excitement. Now the focus is on waiting for clarification and demos of specific interesting gear, and mostly just getting on with our lives.

As I’d planned, I’ve been keeping track of money spent and recovered from gear sales — and also projecting ahead on planned purchases and sales. I’m currently a little in the red thanks to that pre-order, but overall, this plan has me unspending money. I am getting to be on a first name basis with Kevin at the local post office, who now knows I trade “studio equipment.” I may run out of boxes to ship things in, but I’ll get back to the idea of a relatively lean-and-mean but powerful synth setup like I’d planned in 2017, but which ran ahead of me for a bit.

(*) I could rant about “heroes” but I’ll keep it brief: I don’t really have “heroes” but people I admire for particular specific qualities while fervently hoping they’re not an animal abuser, bigot, rapist, supporter of vile causes, or a willing or unwitting pawn in a Russian intelligence operation. You know what a “real hero” is? A meta-concept from fiction and mythology. But in terms of people I have that cautious admiration for: a handful each of instrument designers, musicians, writers, artists and activists.

vision thing

In dealing with some health insurance garbage — the intentionally and increasingly obtuse system we have to deal with for getting refunds from our employer for a portion of the horribly large deductibles we have been stuck with for the past couple of years — I found some interesting messages in my account:

So is that… visions, as in premonitions of the future? Grand insights, perhaps? Because there’s got to be an upside to this thing…

Also, I was checked for eye in December. The optometrist confirmed that I have eye.

Not very good ones, but they still count.

I figure for all the stupid forms I have to fill out, get rejected, re-submit, appeal and finally get approved, there are four people getting paid a pittance to do the bullshit job of rejecting and/or approving them (who also are submitting their own claims and having them rejected by someone else), a manager to tell them they’re not rejecting enough, investors telling them all they need to be more profitable this quarter, a consultant paid by my employer telling them once in a while that they have to not reject claims so much, and time wasted by my employer’s accountant and president dealing with the consultant and getting their own forms rejected. Medicare For All now, please.

Anyway, I figured out a pretty good option for synth 2.0: synthracks.com makes many different custom cases; and a particular unpowered portable one that will be perfect. The power supply and busboards I put in the rack will be more than adequate. With some luck and perhaps a cheap studio rack box I may even fit all of my synth gear (except the Maschine) on one side of the desk; if not I can still get most of it together and just have the Microbrute on the other side perhaps.

Of course if I had better woodworking skills I could build my own case, but… I’ve seen the stuff I’ve cobbled together. It’s not pretty, or sturdy, or the right size, or lined up correctly, or attached properly or… yeah. The wood semi-frame I built for the back of my rack is attached with wire ties because I split the wood twice trying to put it together. So I’m leaving this to a pro.

save the queen, ditch the rest

Today I put some detailed thought into the 2.0 version of my synth setup. Given the minimal number of voices I typically use in each of my recordings, I really have too many VCOs right now.

The “trouble” started with the SynthTech E370 beta test. It was too large and too overkill-ish for my needs, where I formerly had the smaller E352 — but given the opportunity to test one and keep it gratis, I was not going to say no! So that was when I expanded to a second case and kept a bevy of other oscillators alongside it cover the areas where it wasn’t as strong.

Long story short, I worked it out today and found if I keep the E370, I can let go of most of my other VCOs — to be replaced by the ER-301, the tiny new Volca Modular, and a couple of my favorite software plugins. I’d keep Tides for modulation duties (the ER-301’s outputs are audio only) and provisionally keep Plaits to see if it thrives in a less choked pond. But with other consolidation, I am looking at reducing my Eurorack space from the current 460HP down to about 360HP.

There are a few ways this could go…

  1. Keep current Mantis and rack, just leave empty space in the rack. (Boring, but easy and cheap — and where I will start unless a surprise opportunity comes up.)
  2. Sell my Mantis, and buy a bigger case to unify things. (Big cases tend to be more expensive, but well within what I recover from selling the modules. It may not be as satisfying as other options though.)
  3. Sell my Mantis, and DIY a bigger rack or case with a second or bigger power supply. (Cheaper than 2, but once I work out issues with power, power distribution, rails etc. it’s probably not as cheap as I first thought. And it’s probably a bad idea in general.)
  4. Get a second Mantis. Bracket them together for a taller, unified setup. (These cases are a great value and easy to find used.)
  5. Keep the Mantis, but replace the rack with a Rackbrute 6U. That’s a row shorter than my rack, and optioanlly mounts onto a Minibrute 2 or 2S, which could replace my Microbrute. All of that for about the same cost of getting one big case, and it’s professional and portable. But in retrospect, I don’t actually feel like I want to upgrade the Microbrute that much…

Anyway, one step at a time: get ER-301. Learn it. Build up replacements via custom units and sampling. Sell unneeded stuff. Then figure out the case thing. Make music the whole time I’m doing it.

the road to 2.0

Things are moving. My Dark World arrived last Friday, orders for the ER-301 and 16n have been placed and both have estimated ship dates in 6 weeks. [Edit: 16n now looks more like 4 weeks.] I’ve rearranged modules to make room and put a couple more up for sale.

You know what I finished by Valentine’s Day at the start of last year? Nereus. I have four songs ready for the next one, so making that deadline should be a relative breeze. Due to the no-theme theme, I was thinking of calling the album “Wiggly Air,” but somehow that doesn’t quite fit the Starthief image.

So let’s just say it’s Untitled Album for now. Anyway, getting it done before getting potentially sidelined by learning a significant new piece of gear seems like a good idea.

Dark World is pretty great. I could wish it were stereo, had its own feedback knob (because some of its settings are glorious inside of a tight feedback loop) and had its jacks on the back instead of the sides so it could sit hip-to-hip with other pedals instead of sticking its elbows out. But the sound can’t be argued with, and it’s easy to work with.

Some of the changes for Starthief Studio 2.0 are going to be pedalboard related:

  • Geiger Counter can probably be entirely replaced by one of the units in ER-301.
  • Right now I have Tensor, Afterneath and MS-70CDR as end-of-chain FX. This is kind of unnecessary since plugins do EOC reverb and delay better. But Tensor loves to be in feedback loops with reverb/delay, EQ and a limiter — so I might keep the three patched together, set up the CDR for the EQ/limiter, and just rethink the context they get used for. Or I might sell the CDR and Afterneath and just loop Tensor through software plugins or the ER-301.
  • I might consider a cheap (or even DIY) feedback looper pedal for Dark World, rather than patching through a mixer in the modular every time, as a convenience thing.
  • Monobius, like Geiger Counter, loves to be patched into the middle of a modular patch so it needs to be separate from other pedals.
  • I’m not entirely happy with the S.B.G/Trim/Gozinta combo for interfacing pedals with modular. Either right-angle patch cables or some different pedal interface modules will be happening once I figure out available space in the next wave of module selling.

incoming

Someone started a forum thread about what new gear announcements we’re looking forward to in 2019. I half-seriously hoped for no new cool things, because I don’t want to be tempted. I’ll have enough going on!

The Chase Bliss Dark World I pre-ordered (from apparently the world’s last music shop to get it, but the discount was nice) is finally shipping. So I’ll have that to try out very soon. It’s a dual effect pedal with three “world” modes (spring, hall and plate reverb) and three “dark” modes (otherworldly freezes either based on dynamics or time, or lo-fi tape and grit) and filtering and modulation, and I think it will fit my music nicely.

The 16n Faderbank open-source build documents were just officially released, and builders are pricing parts and should be accepting orders soon. The ER-301 is 4 days away from orders opening up again. The TXb is rumored to be available soon too. So it looks like my phase 1 gear plans are going to be completed quite early in the year. (Phase 2 is figuring out what phase 1 replaces, selling those, and evaluating what’s next if anything.)

I made a couple of discoveries this week. One of them was a much better way to export wavetables from the Serum plugin into WaveEdit format for the E370 — so I’ve got some new content for that, and potentially more if I start looking at free Serum downloads again, or using it to build wavetables. Serum’s editor and WaveEdit complement each other nicely, I think.

The other discovery is that Teletype’s “Grid Ops” work without actually owning a Monome Grid, using a display mode I’d previously not noticed. The actual Grid hardware is expensive (if cool) and integration with Teletype seems awkward, but the software side of it gives me a few more options for visual feedback, gate sequencing, etc.

three moves ahead

Is this chess or Tetris?

I don’t know how many people are reading this now and how many might start following it later, but I find writing for other people helps me get my own thoughts in order.  So, thanks for being my rubber duck.

I started writing out a much longer and more boring post but then killed it off as things congealed.  In a condensed form, here are my hopes for “version 1.5” of my setup in the next few months:

  • A Sound Of Thunder goes.   The space is reserved against other uses.
  • Field Kit FX and its reverb tanks go — replaced functionally by Chase Bliss Dark World (shipping at the new year) and u‑he Twangström (currently in beta and f**king brilliant).
  • The fate of EarthQuaker Afterneath depends on how I feel with Dark World on the board and if I think something else would be more useful/fun.  
  • Reclaimed pedalboard space goes partly to a 16n Fader Bank, which is an open-source controller that works with MIDI, CV and i2c (used by Teletype).  This should be amazing for sequencing in Teletype and controlling everything else.  There’s no current ETA on a production run for it.
  • The rest of the space could go to a 4ms Pod or lunchbox case, giving me 32-60 more HP for Eurorack modules.  This is contigent on other module vacancies/replacements — if I don’t do it I’m likely approximately cost-neutral with all these changes.  Strong contenders for space include the successor to Mutable Instruments Clouds or a Qu-Bit Nebulae V2.
  • Of course another pedal or two could make it to the pedalboard, depending on space.  But there are no really strong candidates at the moment given what Dark World is likely to do for me.
  • Mimetic Digitalis and/or Maze get replaced.  (Maze is about to receive an update adding a feature I asked for which may be a game changer.)  But I’m expecting great things out of u-he CVilization, which is the size of MD and is a 4×4 matrix mixer with several sequencer-friendly features, plus three other modes that may make it indispensible.  It’s possible I’ll replace my A-138m with one also.
  • If CVilization or the 16n don’t come to fruition or I find them lacking, there are several other options.  For sequencing:  Befaco Muxlicer or Pittsburgh Micro Sequence.  For control, Noise Engineering Lapsus Os or Michigan Synth Works Plancks II.  For matrix mixing, the 4ms VCA Matrix or Rebel Tech Mix 04.
  • If Cvil and 16n and “Clouds 2” are all utterly brilliant, I see myself with about 19HP of free space with no claim on it, without adding a small case.  That’s my hope.
  • Since I don’t love the 2hp Trim for pedal conversion, it’d be nice to put in something better suited; it wouldn’t take much more space anyhow.
  • I have no plans to add more VCOs even if space becomes available.  If I want to change anything there, something’s got to go.  Double Helix or Hertz Donut perhaps, but I like both of those so it’s not highly likely.

show & tell, part 4

All but one in this final row are by Mutable Instruments, and all but three are 2018 releases.   Three songs on the upcoming album were done on this row alone.

Starting at left, Mutable Instruments Marbles is a humdinger.  The left half generates three trigger streams, from a steady clock to a jittery one to drum patterns and random variations; it can use its own timing or follow an incoming clock or learn rhythmic patterns.  The right half generates random CVs synchronized to the left half or an external clock; it uses a clever quantizer that filters notes by probability, which you can train by playing pitch CVs into it.  It can also sample CVs from an input and distribute them according to its clock timing and shift register logic.  For each side, you can engage “Deja Vu” which plays the rhythms and/or CVs in a loop, with an adjustable probability of altering that loop each time it plays through.  There’s also another random CV generator just for kicks.  It may sound like a lot of complex stuff, but it’s mostly easy to use and the results are fantastic — it made me change my mind about modules that generate random signals.  To me it’s a great partner for Teletype.  5/5.

A shift register passes a value along a chain each time it is triggered, in “Row, Row, Row, Your Boat” fashion.  Some variations on shift registers feed back into themselves in order to generate repeating or chaotic patterns; linear-feedback shift registers (LFSR) were used in the 80s to generate noise for arcade games.

Sporting six sliders, Stages is a very versatile modulation source.  Each segment can be set to ramp, hold, or step behavior, and segments can be grouped together by patching in gate signals.  In an intuitive way you can patch simple or complex envelopes, LFOs, sequencers, sequential switches, delays, sample-and-holds, slews, manual sliders, and combinations of those.  You can run audio through it to make it a little grungy and/or filter it, or generate chiptune-like audio.  You can chain multiple Stages together, or to itself for the “Ouroboros” easter egg mode, a harmonic oscillator (I haven’t tried that yet).  Extremely cool and very well designed, especially good for smaller systems but useful everywhere.  5/5.

Plaits is the successor to Braids, the company’s first big hit in the Eurorack world.  A digital oscillator with 16 different synthesis models, each with three parameters, and many having cool variants on the secondary output.  It also has a built-in decay envelope and LPG, so it’s possible to use it with a minimum of other help.  As I’ve said previously, it’s a very good partner for Rings.  A very solid module.  4.5/5.

Fourth and fifth from left I have a pair of Rings, the module that got me into all this.  I’ve mentioned it before.  I would not have it as the only sound source in my system (that would be Plaits for a tiny setup, or E370 for less small) but I do like it a lot.  At least for Materials, it was kind of awesome having two —  time will tell if I keep them both.  5/5.

With one red knob installed, Shades is a three-channel atteunverter and mixer.  Any channel without an input patched generates an offset, and without an output patched, mixes with the next channel.  It’s nicely controllable.  4.5/5.

The penultimate module is Tides, 2018 revision.  It’s a function generator, but one where you can set the cycle time and shape separately.  This is perfect for VCO and LFO use, and unusual but functional for envelopes.  Tides also has its own filter/wavefolder combination, and a PLL mode that follows an incoming clock or VCO.  The 2018 version, aside from being more accurate and having attenuverters for every input, has four modes that can shift the level, phase or frequency (with harmonic relationships) across its four outputs, which extends it capabilities nicely.  5/5.

On the corner is Livestock Electronics Maze.  It’s sort of a combination matrix mixer (like the A-138m) and sequential switch — there are 16 “pages” of matrix settings which can be selected by buttons, stepped through with a trigger or selected by CV, and it can jump or fade smoothly between them.  It’s a thrilling concept, but in practice I don’t find myself using it as much as I thought.  I often consider whether I should replace it, but then I come up with scenarios where it was exactly what I needed, and nothing else its size would do.  4/5.

This is the current state of my pedalboard, or really, a shelf hanging over the Mantis at a 45 degree angle.  Guitar FX pedals offer some neat alternatives to software-based effects or Eurorack effects, but they run at lower voltage levels generally, thus the need for attenuation before and boosting after to work with them.

In the upper left are a pair of spring reverb tanks.  I use those with the Koma Elektronik Field Kit FX, in the lower right.  The FKFX has a Eurorack panel option, but it’s pretty wide.  Aside from the spring reverb driver, it has a PT2399-based digital delay (cheap and gets weird and crunchy at long delay times, which can be great), a frequency shifter, a 4-input VCA mixer with tone control on 3 channel and overdrive on the fourth, a little modulation source that can be a 4-step sequencer or an ADSR envelope, and four assignable CVs.  I’ve used it particularly with the Dynamo for setting up feedback loops with the reverb and frequency shifter.  Spring reverb is kind of fun to mess with, but also very touchy to work with.  3.5/5.

In the upper right is a Rochambeau Musical Apparatus Monobius, custom 6-knob variant.  This is a combination ring modulator and fuzz with bandpass filter.  It’s very noisy and odd, and was one of those trades I did on a whim rather than a plan, but it adds some neat flavor.  3.5/5.

Left of the FKFX (because on pedals, the signal flow usually goes right-to-left) is WMD Geiger Counter, in a rare distressed black colorway (they are normally screaming yellow).  It’s an 8-bit waveshaper, distortion and sample/bit reduction device.  With precise enough control over input levels, it is a nice alternative to more traditional wavefolders.  3.5/5.

Next is Red Panda Tensor, a sort of quasi-tape looper, pitch shifter, time shifter, reverser, randomizer thing.  It is cleverly set up; it listens even when “off” so you can instantly get a reversed repeat of what you were playing; it can judge when to (smoothly) reset its buffer to prevent overflows when you’re playing back repeats more slowly than they came in, and so on.  Sometimes it feels like a human playing counterpoint to me; other times it just makes a neat background wash of stuff, or a sweet chorused sound.  Its stomp switches are the non-clicky type (and can be switched between momentary and latching), which I prefer since I don’t use it with my feet.  5/5.

Then there’s EarthQuaker Devices Afterneath.  It lives somewhere between delay and reverb. with a little chain of echoes that can be diffused.  It’s very easy to get infinite feedback going with it and keep it under control.  The minimum pre-delay time is longer than I would prefer, which limits the flexibility a little.  A nice non-clicky stomp switch on it.  4/5.

And finally there’s the Zoom MultiStomp MS-70CDR.  It’s a multi-effect with several classic and modern versions of chorus, delay, reverb, and other modulation and a few utilities like EQ, noise gate and compressor.  With three push encoders and an LCD screen it’s a little friendlier for my purposes than some multi-effect pedals, but it’s still occasionally just a little bit tedious to set up.  The processing is pretty great, the sound quality can be a bit noisy at times (as guitar pedals sometimes are) but not terribly so, and the price was fantastic for something this flexible.  4/5.

I have a Chase Bliss Dark World on preorder, which should ship around the start of the year.  It provides three reverb algorithms on the “world” side, and three effects on the “dark” side to add gloom or shimmer or the infinite void.  You can run the two sides in either order or in parallel and there’s a master tone control to darken it more if need be.  The demos have been impressive, and I may see this replacing the FKFX (thanks to a spring reverb model) and maybe the Afterneath too.  Hopefully a 5/5…?

show & tell, part 3

Since writing that last post, I had a bee in my bonnet about replacing the Tyme Sefari + A Sound Of Thunder, and spent the weekend researching the alternatives.

Long story short:  I have decided to keep the Tyme Sefari.  Sure it’s lo-fi, but I had occasionally thought about getting a Doepfer BBD (analog bucket-brigade delay) precisely because it is lo-fi, in kind of a similar-ish way.  Durrr… anyway, running Tyme Sefari’s main output through a filter and turning it down a bit dark actually sounds really lovely.

And I like the logic of how Tyme Sefari works, which is unique.  Only one other module I’ve found can do everything it can — SDS Reflex Liveloop — but that one works through a bunch of different modes instead of a unified, fluid design.

I’ll probably ditch the A Sound Of Thunder expander though.  The only feature on it I really like is the slightly awkward extra channel for stereo, and I can let go of that.  Most of my hardware stuff runs in mono channels anyway, or else mid/side encoding.

Mono (monoaural) vs. stereo is probably familiar — either one audio channel, or two related channels.  Stereo typically uses “LR” encoding — left and right, predictably enough.  “MS” or mid/side stereo, instead treats one channel as the middle of the sound field, and the other as the differences that happen on the edges.

Mid/side is not very intuitive to think about, but it’s pretty simple to convert from LR.  Just add the two channels together to get the mid signal, and subtract them from each other to get the side signal.  Some attenuation might be needed to avoid distortion if the inputs are already loud.

With mid/side encoding, you can’t make distinct left/right movements —  But it’s very handy for getting a balanced yet wide and dramatic sound by processing the mid and side differently or even using different sources, and I like working with it especially in modular.

There are a couple of mid/side encoder modules available, but I usually do the conversion with a plugin.

With that wrapped up, it’s time to look at the top row of the Mantis!

At left is the second half of the Doepfer A-180-9 Multicore mentioned previously.  Plugged into the top are the stereo outputs from one of my FX pedals, sent onward to my audio interface without really being processed by any of my modular gear.

The next module, with the amber-on-black screen, is Monome Teletype.  This module lets you write short snippets of code with a computer keyboard (wireless in my case) which run whenever triggers are received or its internal metronome ticks.  It has a single CV input, and can output gates/triggers and control voltages — so you can use it to manipulate gates, play stored sequences or generate them algorithmically, record CVs as a new sequence, generate envelopes or LFOs, and so on.  It’s extremely flexible, it just requires thinking a bit like a programmer — which I am.  Mine’s mounted upside-down with a firmware-flipped display, to keep the jacks out of the way of the screen.  5/5.

Algorithmic sequencing or algorithmic composition is the practice of using some relatively simple math and logic to determine rhythms and/or pitches, rather than explicitly composing them.  Algorithms may include some stored patterns, but these are the basis of further logical or mathematical operations.

Generative patches are those where the interaction of electronic circuits drives the music.  The Krell patch is an iconic example.

Sometimes the lines between the two are blurred or erased, with digital algorithms feeding analog processors and vice versa.

Circuit Abbey G8 is on its right.  It’s a clock divider or clock distributor, which is something Teletype can do very easily.  But unlike the Teletype, it runs fast enough to send audio through it and get back squarewave audio in lower octaves.  Sometimes I keep the Teletype busy with other things anyway.  It’s useful enough to justify keeping it around.  4/5.

And then there’s Noise Engineering Mimetic Digitalis.  It’s a 4-channel sequencer laid out on a 4×4 grid, which can be navigated via triggers or CV in two dimensions or linearly or randomly, all at the same time.  I really like this one in theory; the problem is I don’t often find myself using it that much in practice.  I can imitate most of its behavior in Teletype and in another module later in this row.  I still feel like I should give it more of a chance, though. 3/5.

Next, with some cables plugged in and sent overhead, is ALM Busy Circuits S.B.G  It attenuates an audio signal from Eurorack levels down to the levels expected by guitar FX pedals, and raises a pedal-level signal back to Eurorack levels.  It offers a dry/wet knob, and a further converter from Eurorack CV to 3V or 5V “expression pedal” inputs for FX pedals.  It does the job, though I feel like the knob response/ranges are a little odd and the layout could have been friendlier (I should at least turn it upside-down).  4/5.

Dry/wet or simply “mix” is a common control on FX.  The “dry” signal is the input of any FX unit or chain, while its output is “wet.”  Blending them is a nice way to avoid overwhelming your audio with too much of a good thing, e.g. reverb.

So slim you might miss it, 2hp Trim is next.  It’s a dual passive attenuator.  Along with the S.B.G I’m using it to lower Eurorack signals to guitar FX levels, since I’ve got a few FX I want to use separately.  It’s actually not calibrated for this purpose, with the right range being somewhere in the lowest 1/10 or so of the knob.  2/5.

To its right is Circuit Abbey Gozinta.  It’s an amplifier to give a clean boost to, you guessed it, signals coming in from FX pedals.   Or any other source where the voltage might be lower than you want, or where you want to overdrive a signal to distort it.  It does its job admirably.  4.5/5.

The wide module after that is Pittsburgh Lifeforms Double Helix.  It’s got a West Coast vibe overall, with a pair of oscillators, an LFO, a wavefolder, an LPG, and a dual modulation bus that makes it easy to assign things to modulate other things.  It’s also haunted by crosstalk and weird interactions within the module, which can annoy or please in equal measure.  The oscillators are kind of “chewy” and well suited to the character of the folder and LPG (which is a simplified Dynamic Impulse Filter).  It sounds great, and whenever I consider dropping it, its unique character grabs me and changes my mind.  4/5.

Next, with the big knob backlit in blue-green, is a DIY build (by someone else) of Mutable Instruments Warps.  The general idea behind this one is it combines and mangles two audio signals in various ways — though it also has its own VCO which does rather nice phase modulation.  I sold my first one, and months later, traded for this because I missed it.  I don’t actually use it a lot, but it’s occasionally welcome.  3.5/5.

Mutable Instruments is one of the popular Eurorack module brands.  Its founder started with open-source, DIY desktop synths and chose to continue using that model upon entering the Eurorack market.  This has its pros and cons; parts of Mutable Instruments code live on in many other open-source projects and people have made alternate firmware to add new functions to the modules.  People have also independently  done DIY builds of the modules, or smaller redesigned versions, for themselves or others.

The black module with the blue display is uO_C, or micro Ornament & Crime.  This is part of an open-source hardware and software project, which is itself partly based on Mutable Instruments code.  I have Hemisphere Suite installed on mine, which is a set of dozens of utility apps, ranging from envelope generators to Euclidean generators to quantizers to quixotic sequencers.  There’s almost always something useful for it to do.  4.5/5.

The narrower black module to its right is Erica Synths Pico A Logic.  Given two inputs, it returns the sum, difference, maximum and minimum voltages.  Hemisphere Suite can do that too, but this is better suited to audio signals since it’s not limited by rate.  I don’t use it a lot, but it fills an awkwardly small space for which I don’t have a better use at the moment.  3.5/5.

The neighbor with the red buttons is Ladik P-075 Dual Switch.  It’s a simple, passive module where you can connect or disconnect any signal via a manual toggle switch and button combination.  The button inverts the state of the switch, which is clever.  It’s handy to run constant voltages through just to use as a gate source, or to mute parts of a patch.  4/5.

The wood panel on the right side end is a Bastl Dynamo.  It’s a busy module, where the top part combines an envelope follower, comparator and some inverters and rectifiers to create a control source for a VCA for compression — lowering the level when it gets too high.  Of course it can be patched in other ways as well.  The bottom section is an inverter and a very fast A/B switch, and I don’t fully understand the intention of including it rather than a VCA, but it can do some cool stuff once in a while.  Again, I don’t like the wood panel and was supposed to have received an aluminum one.  3.5/5.

One more row to cover, plus some FX and mentions of favorite software and maybe a couple other things!

While writing this post, I started patching up a generative piece using two LFOs ANDed and XORed together, inverted, fed to the G8… all those gates clocked Mimetic Digitalis, some envelope generation, delay syncing and so on.   By the time I finished it was quite a busy patch, the kind that uses up most of my cables.  If I still think well enough of it tomorrow, I’ll be submitting it to the Ambient Online Fire compilation.