just like that

Researching my various options, a couple of sales and trades, and a bout with insomnia, led to the realization that I’ve been avoiding my ER-301. I’ve only used it once in the last 9 recordings I’ve finished, and that was just as a noise source. And I’ve been planning/hunting the things I tried to replace with it: Hertz Donut, an analog wavefolder, a straightforward delay module, because I miss them.

So what else have I used it for?

  • A dynamics processor — but I could go back to a Bastl Dynamo like before, or with some effort Maths & a VCA, or try a Eurorack compressor like the MSCL. (And honestly I think Dynamo kept stuff in line a little easier due to an all-analog path and not having to be so cautious about clipping.)
  • A harmonic oscillator, or really an additive one since I wasn’t using scan/tilt functions. I traded for a 4ms SMR which should arrive Saturday, and among other things it’s likely to be able to take over this duty. If not, there are other options.
  • A couple of utility functions, for which I can just keep my uO_C around for such relatively rare occasions.

ER-301 is a powerful module to be sure, but I guess I’m just not really connecting with it on anything but a technical and rational level. So, in my pursuit of a more focused musical instrument, it makes sense to let go of it, with appreciation for what I’ve learned.

…and in the course of writing this while also waiting for slow stuff to run at work and reaching out on synth forums, I managed to trade the ER-301 for a Dynamo, Origami wavefolder, Jomox T-Rackonizer (dual delay/reverb/filters in a feedback matrix configuration, something I’ve thought several times about getting in its non-Eurorack form) and the cash difference which paid for a Hertz Donut mk3. So everything has come together quite quickly. I still have more gear to sell that will clear out 90HP of space and put a chunk of money back into the bank.

Work might have been a long, unproductive slog this week, but in the synth world things are resolving nicely and looking pretty shiny!

panharmonius

The Rossum Electro-Music Panharmonium I pre-ordered almost 4 months ago arrived yesterday. It’s a unique piece of gear that broke my brain a little at first — some of my preconceptions about it were wrong and others didn’t quite grasp all the implications.

What it does is analyze incoming audio and break it into a frequency spectrum, like a prism does for light. Then it uses that data to set the pitch and level of a bank of oscillators to approximately recreate that spectrum. If it did it perfectly without altering anything, it’d be boring… but it isn’t perfect, so it isn’t boring.

It’s a physical law that analyzing the frequency spectrum of audio requires time. (Frequency is a function of time after all.) And the analysis is a bunch of math that also requires at least some computing time. The fastest that Panharmonium can “slice” audio into spectra is 17ms, which is pretty quick but still noticeably chunky to the ears — it can sound a bit like bad MP3 compression depending on the signal and how you’re trying to recreate it. I’ve generally found that slowing it down yields, a little paradoxically, more harmonious results — let it work on a musical event timescale rather than a micro timescale. Synchronize it rhythmically or just let it drift and it can work really well.

On the reproduction side, it’s also intentionally imperfect. You can choose from 1 to 33 oscillators, blur the spectral input to those oscillators, and feed the results back in to the analyzer for a decaying chain of events not unlike reverb. Though the analysis is done with sine waves, you can also set the oscillators to triangle, saw or pulse waves to make them brighter or emphasize harmonics. You can also pitch shift them or skew the relative frequencies. You can do all of this “live” like an effect, or capture a spectrum and then play it back like a VCO, or at high blur and feedback settings kind of a little of both.

The best results I’m getting with it tend toward a sort of psuedo shimmer reverb, harmonization, counterpoint by capturing and holding some notes in the background, turning single notes into chords, supporting notes with bass undertones, and so on.

There are a few quirks that I’d like to see cleaned up in future firmware updates. It’s easy to overload the dynamic range and make it clip — though to its credit, it does so softly and beautifully; it would still be nice to allow some adjustment to keep it clean. The FM range is beyond insane and the knob that’s supposed to tame it needs its curves tweaked or something. The different waveforms don’t blend smoothly into each other, which would be really nice since they can be CV controlled. And all the oscillators in the swarm are fixed in mono, where it might be nice to have a mode to separate them between left and right channels and detune them a little relative to each other for a stereo image. What the chances are of these sorts of updates happening, I have no idea, but sometimes Eurorack developers are really responsive to suggestions and are able to implement all kinds of miraculous fixes and expansions after a release, so I’m hopeful for at least some of these — if not some other stuff that I can’t even conceive of yet.

My only other complaint, and it’s pretty minor, is that the shiny silver-capped knobs on the otherwise lovely panel reflect a lot of light, and the glare makes the little black pointer arrows a little hard to see. I’ve had other modules that are worse about this though. I might move the module to a different row just to see if I can reduce the glare, if I don’t replace the knobs.

Overall it seems like a good module for the sort of dirty ambient that I make — though not an intuitively obvious choice. There’s not really anything else like Panharmonium in the hardware or software world. I thought, when first considering buying it, it might be a bit like Unfiltered Audio SpecOps — also a spectral processor but with a very different focus. Instead, I think comparing it to Red Panda Tensor is more apt — the method couldn’t be more different, but it still creates a sort of harmonized background blurring of time.

I’m curious to try it in a feedback loop with Rings, or to use its output to FM the signal that feeds it… that sort of thing.

tighten up the graphics on level 3

With an eye toward a more tightly focused instrument, I went over my current modules and what I really feel about them. I did so with the assumption that I’m not going to radically downsize to a smaller case, but still plan to take away some options I don’t need. (I could wind up with a row of blank panels, but that’s okay.)

Safe modules: ADDAC200PI, A-196 PLL, Contour, Filter 8, Kermit, Marbles, Maths, Natural Gate, O’Tool+, Rings (both of them!), Shades, Stages, Tallin, Teletype, Trim, and TXb will stay through this next transition.

Chopping block: I sold my Sampling Modulator already. cvWS, Dynamic Impulse Filter, Gozinta, uO_C and tanh[3] might also go.

Low priority replacement: A-138m, Bastl Multiples, and Ladik P-075, if I find alternatives and sufficient motivation.

Terrarium: I love the E370, but a quad VCO has always felt like overkill. The E352 is more streamlined in size and usage, and I think it makes more sense for me. It’s a slightly weird situation since my 370 is a beta test unit, but then the firmware has been stable for a while and the feature gaps between the two models have closed since their initial release.

Side effects: the Erbe-Verb, Doepfer BBD and Rainmaker collectively are excessive. I’m considering replacing all three with a Qu-Bit Prism, which will cover comb filter, clean syncable delay, and grungy character delay. With Rings, Panharmonium, ER-301 and pedals I think I will have my delay, reverb, and resonator needs pretty well covered.

Oscillating complexity: When I got the ER-301, I sold my Hertz Donut mk2 thinking it was redundant. When I missed its feel, I went for a DPO instead… but I haven’t fallen in love with the DPO’s character. The first thing to try is see if “permanently” assigned knobs for the ER-301 will help recover that lost feel. If not, I’ll think about getting a Hertz Donut again. Either way, the DPO is probably on its way out.

Things to try at Knobcon:

  • Controllers suitable to my musical style. I’m particularly curious about the Tetrapad and Planar.
  • Analog wavefolders. My wavefolder custom unit can sometimes be pretty good, but doesn’t quite satisfy me at this point. I’m not ruling out going back to the FM Aid either.
  • The 4ms Spectral Multiband Resonator, which might be great fun in feedback loops.
  • The Hertz Donut mk3, which sacrifices the mk2’s knob-per-function ease for a much more compelling folding section, a second modulation oscillator, and more comprehensive internal routing.
  • Omsonic Stochastic. You dial in the probability of each note, octave jump and rhythmic division, and it generates sequences — it could be a fun partner for Marbles. It could also be not really within my focus area though.
  • Soma Lyra-8. Because I’d really like to try one in person.

focus on focus

First off: that’s right, spammer, I’m not monetizing my website.

Okay then. I’ve been pondering my modular journey and where it goes next. I feel like Synth Farm 2.0 is really good, but not perfect yet. There’s something of a conflict between focus and flexibility that I feel I need to resolve one way or the other if possible. I started my modular journey with exploration, but I’m making specific music. There are questions I need to ask myself about what’s essential, what’s optional, what’s irrelevant or distracting.

Instruments like the Lyra-8 really appeal to me: focused on human expression and improvisation, made for the general region of sound and feel that my music has. I may yet end up with one, but I want to make sure it’s not just “greener grass” and that it doesn’t create more redundancies. If I would use it to create the kind of music I’m already making, do I really need it? …or if I can make the same kind of music with a Lyra-8 as I can with an entire modular synth, do I need the modular synth?

I’ve been listening to the new-ish Esoteric Modulation podcast, among other things. It deals with the more boutique and exotic electronic instruments even beyond Eurorack, the intersection of music and other arts, and the thought that goes into instrument design. So it’s some excellent food for this kind of thought.

I’ve also been thinking about Knobcon, which is upcoming in about 6 weeks. Two years ago I was at a different place in my journey: I had a good feel for the synthesis techniques I wanted to work with, but a smaller system, hadn’t gotten into sequencing and control questions very deeply yet, and I hadn’t really found “the Starthief sound” quite yet. I went in hoping to try a few specific things, and to just get some overall perspective. What I wound up with was impressions of specific modules and instruments, some enjoyable performances, and feeling overwhelmed (I also didn’t have a handle on anxiety at the time).

My goals for this Knobcon are to relax and take it slow, retreat or stop and collect my thoughts when I need to — and to try things in the context of the music that I make, and think about focus.

drive

I ran out of CBD oil caplets a few days ago, and decided not to restock just to see if I noticed a difference.

Today anxiety definitely made itself felt — I was very tempted to go home early from work. I’ve also felt more worn-out and slow to start in the last few mornings. But on the other hand, the trouble I’d been having with constipation also disappeared.

So I think I’ll get back on it but at a lower dosage, and see how that works.


I picked up an Elektron Analog Drive in a blowout sale. I was expecting a fairly normal-sized stompbox, but it’s a big metal box as tall and deep as the Microbrute, more than half as wide and twice as heavy.

It sounds pretty great with the Reface CS, lending its sound a lot more authority and/or face-melting screaminess, depending. If I wanted to do rock leads or organs that would be a pretty great setup. I don’t, but I’ve already put it to pretty good use turning chords into a variety of textures via intermodulation distortion.

One issue with the Reface though is a high noise floor. I’ve dealt with it on other recordings, but high gain settings on the Analog Drive really makes that noise stand out. I had a couple of ideas as to the cause, but someone suggested it might be picking up noise over the USB connection; if so there are isolators to fix that. I’ll give it a try.


Last weekend we got an estimate on removing our alarmingly wobbly deck and replacing it with concrete steps and a bit of fence, and the number was… much. It wasn’t itemized, which raises a red flag for me, and we’re going to get estimates from other contractors. But I suspect I’m going to put that computer replacement plan on hold for a bit. I don’t have to jump right into it as soon as the 3rd generation Ryzen chips hit the market. It could be smarter to wait for Black Friday/Cyber Monday/Consumption Season deals anyway.

Something else I am looking at from a bit of a distance is the Chase Bliss MOOD pedal. Like the Dark World, it’s a collaboration between other pedal designers, with two sides that “talk” to each other in various ways. Hainbach — who does nifty atmospheric stuff with small synths, old cassette recorders, MiniDisc players and retro test equipment — called his video on it “The Most Ambient Guitar Pedal.” But nobody is launching this one with a discounted price, so I’m going to hang on a bit and look for it used or discounted, or decide I don’t really need it.

Another one is Soma Labs Ether. It’s a small sensor/amplifier that picks up electromagnetic fields from various electrical/electronic devices, made especially for exploring urban environments. It’s very cool, but:

  • It’s just an improvement on an induction coil gizmo I already have. Mine is passive and needs a lot of amplification just to catch signals leaking from nearby LCD screens, electric motors, light switches etc.
  • While there are a variety of clicks, hums, buzzes, whines, rhythmic patterns etc. it picks up, they tend to have a similar character and I feel like the “language” would be exhausted pretty quickly, in a musical sense. It’s probably not something I would want to use in a lot of releases.
  • (On the other hand, someone said their walk around a shopping mall with one was “the best ambient/drone gig I have been to in 2 years.”)
  • One of those super-cheap radios meant to tune into broadcast TV audio is pretty great at plucking weird signals out of the air. Sometimes those signals are coming from the next continent over. I believe I should still have such a radio around here somewhere. Of course, broadcast signals and natural “sferics” are different from local EM fields, and the focus is much less on exploring one’s local neighborhood with a different sense.

easy

With about 5 hours of minimal effort last night, Internal Reflections is mastered. Once again, I didn’t really leave myself anything difficult to work with, just a few spikes to manually tame, a couple of generally-too-loud tracks and a couple that benefited from a pass with a compressor/limiter.

I’m sure if I hired a professional who’s used to this genre, like Nathan Moody, to master my work it’d come out a bit better. But I don’t think I can justify the expense as it is. That’s almost a reason to wish I had a bigger audience right there though 🙂

I’m certainly happier with my own mastering work than with super-cheap or free services I’ve heard that seem to either pass everything through a single algorithmic process, or… completely neglect to address major differences in loudness between tracks on the same album so you wonder whether they did anything at all.


I have put together some high-contrast art this time — not the original idea I was going to work with, but I think it’s better — and I’m trying to decide how to work the text in. I might even forgo text, but I have some graphic design ideas for it that I’d like to work in somehow. I also have the concept blurb finally hashed out, and making the patch notes more readable isn’t that much work… so the release will be quite soon!

The Panharmonium got held back for a month for some new software features their testers asked for, which as I see it, just gives me more time to get familiar with the DPO before learning something new. I’ve had a few insights with it — figuring out why the FM felt so wild at first, delineating where the “sweet spots” for less noisy sounds are, and coming up with a set of experiments I want to try.

prismatic!

My Make Noise DPO (Dual Prismatic Oscillator) arrived yesterday.

The other Buchla 259 style complex oscillators and related constellation of similar-ish configurations didn’t really prepare me for the experience of using this one.

The word I’ve settled on to describe the DPO is feral. If you approach it slowly and make no sudden moves, it might let you pet it or eat out of your hand. But it might run away or bite you.

To compare: the Hertz Donut mk2 uses linear TZFM and has a convenient tracking mode that has the modulator perfectly follow the primary oscillator, so it can easily remain true to pitch no matter how intense the modulation. The shaper — while it’s a dirty digital “waveform discontinuity” thing — just has one 3-way mode switch and a single intensity level to work with.

The DPO does exponential and/or linear FM in both directions simultaneously if you want; even the linear FM in the traditional modulator-to-primary direction varies the pitch with intensity. There’s a vactrol-based “follow” feature that tries to follow the pitch input — but not the knob, making transposition less easy — but always has at least some slew to it. For perfect tracking one can mult the pitch to two inputs, but the knobs are still independent. (There are two sync modes for the carrier and one “is it even working” subtle super-soft-sync input for the modulator, which don’t really lock things down to steadiness.) The shaper has three different parameters to choose from, which each make radical changes to the sound (and are radically different from each other).

The DPO is made to growl and wobble and get weird. And that’s a good thing; if I want the smooth Hertz Donut style dynamic FM I can do that with the ER-301, or Rings in FM mode.

It’s going to take a while to really learn the DPO in an intuitive sense. But it’s one of the most exciting bits of synth gear I’ve tried in a while.

filtration

My Filter 8 arrived yesterday. I’m pretty sure I made the right choice (instead of keeping QPAS or trading for Three Sisters). It’s as good for basic filter and VCO duties as I thought, is wicked cool as an LFO, and it turns out to be pretty great at waveshaping too. This morning I had 20 minutes to play with it before heading to work, and I had it turning a simple sine wave into an 80’s “brass” synth sound.

And then I happened to spot someone selling their DPO for a fair bit less than I’d seen elsewhere. Reader, I did not close the tab, sit on my hands and wait for Knobcon as previously planned. I bought the DPO and put a couple things up for sale that were previously “trade only.” The risk here is minimal; I know I love the sound of the DPO from other peoples’ recordings, and I know from previous module experience that the essentials of its design are exactly what I wanted. So Synth Farm 2.2 is now settled.


The current album project, now likely to be titled Internal Reflections, has 51 minutes of completed work. I could certainly stop now and move on to mastering, but I think one more song will do. I’ll get that in before the DPO arrives as a sort of chapter close.


The new headphones and mini Bluetooth receiver for the office are working out great. I don’t know why semi-open back headphones aren’t more popular — the sound and comfort are fantastic, there’s still enough isolation for anything that doesn’t require close mic recording or jet engine level noise cancellation, and they clearly don’t have to be expensive either. I’m currently using them to listen to the 4th Ambient Online Themed Compilation, Death and Rebirth, on which I have a couple of tracks. It’ll make for a chill day of listening.

CS 101

The Reface CS is set up and I’ve whiled away a few hours messing around with it. It is indeed fun! The warm fuzzy glowing reviews are only a little overstated. The synth’s limitations as I see them are:

  • There doesn’t seem to be any internal limiting/saturation keeping levels sane; the max volume setting for normal synthesis turns into clipped mush if you make the filters self-oscillate. There might be some DC offset or something eating into the headroom too, because it doesn’t sound all that loud… this isn’t too serious a problem, just a matter of a bit more tweaking while working with it.
  • I hate to sound like the people who claim that digital isn’t as “warm” or as capable of solid bass as analog is, but this particular synth does not have much bass junk in its trunk. This is something I can compensate for, where it matters — but I’m more inclined to use it for what it is natively great at instead.
  • The controls are steppy, in the manner of 7-bit MIDI CCs. This is only an issue when trying to slightly offtune filter resonance (a trick I like with Roland SH-101 and clones) and a pretty serious lack of precision in the ringmod oscillator type.
  • The second slider in FM mode adds noise to the mix as well as changing the ratio. This can sound good, but isn’t a choice I would have made.
  • The pitch bender seems to have some built-in slew that I’m not sure I like. Doesn’t really matter much to me since I rarely use pitch bend and almost always edit automation curves for it when I do.

That aside, it is really good at some things. Especially supersaw pads with the phaser lending it a lush 70s “string machine” sound, “singing” organ-like tones with the filter resonance, and some unusual tones with the sync, ringmod and FM types. Right now I feel like I’m going to need to rotate and jiggle things to get the Reface to fit in with my vibe — but that’s a challenge I welcome. The keyboard feels better to me as a controller than the Microbrute.

I dug up my “DJ” “laptop” stand and have the Microbrute hovering above the Reface, but unless I want to steal an input from the modular, right now I can’t use them both simultaneously. I had a dodgy little analog-to-SPDIF converter that theoretically should work with my audio interface, but Maschine has a max of 8 inputs anyway for some reason. If, over time, I find I’m just not using one or the other of the keyboards I’ll likely move it upstairs to the Jamming Room.


Those headphones at work are just not getting better. I can listen to some things without too much disappointment, but others I really can’t — and it just feels like I’m wearing buckets on my ears. I get why people called headphones “cans” back in the day when they were all closed-back liked this.

But all will be well. My favorite pair of headphones, which I’ve used at home for years now for music production and everything else, is the Superlux HD688B with a velour ear pad replacement. If I spent 6 times as much I might get slightly more accurate sound reproduction, but I’m totally used to these. Well, I found a barely-used pair with the pads already replaced, and also a tiny Bluetooth receiver I can attach right to the thing and stay wireless at work.

I’ve finished a first skim through the big Curtis Roads book, and gleaned a few things I might want to play with in the future. I’ll do another pass just to make sure I’m not missing anything since I don’t need to return it for another month. A lot of the book covers material I’m already familiar with, or am not interested in personally working with, and a lot of it is oriented toward academic experimentation and technologies from the 90s and earlier. Overall it was worth looking at but I’m glad I didn’t pay full price to own my own copy.


While I’m overall not planning on doing more buying/selling until after Knobcon at least, I don’t think I said anything about trading. 😀 I went ahead and put up a very specific “have these, will trade only for these” list, and as I did it, realized I kind of miss the Three Sisters filter. Its general sound was my favorite among them, it’s straightforward yet has a few neat tricks, and does FM and self-oscillation really well. I’ve got a potential trade lined up for my QPAS, and if that goes through I’ll just stick with that for my filter needs.

it’s always sunny in Berlin

Okay, that seems dubious. Philadelphia is about the same latitude as Madrid, Sardinia, and Ankara, while Berlin is about the same latitude as Saskatoon, or halfway between Minsk and Kiev. In the States we kind of forget how far north European cities are compared to our own.

But it’s definitely not sunny at the national park where we were going to camp this weekend with my parents. (Which has a latitude near Málaga, Tehran, Nagano, and San Jose.) The forecast calls for tornadoes and major flooding. So that’s called off. Boo 🙁

But about Berlin: its Superbooth is by far the biggest synth þing of the year at any latitude. The announcements, press releases, Instagram teasers, and hype trains of shiny new objects with knobs on them — both from exhibitors and others strategically timing their releases — began earlier this week. So those of us not in Berlin are now down to waiting on video demos.

There are a lot of clever designs and a fair amount of filling in waiting niches. For the most part I am just nodding and moving on, but a few items have caught my attention.

  • I made a tidy plan for Synth Farm 2.2, but the Joranalogue Generate 3 may shake it up. Leave technical bits aside, this is an analog oscillator with incredible modulation and shaping potential. It may be perfect as the primary VCO of a complex oscillator pairing, as well as pushing past other frontiers — but I have to hear some demos.
  • Endorphin.es has several new small modules. One of them, the Godspeed+, is the Strong Zero Core and wavefolder from the Furthrrr Generator — so it would also be a fine contender for complex oscillator use. Another is the Airstreamer, the function generator from their Grand Terminal which can also act as an oscillator.
  • One of the most creative new things is the Gamechanger Audio Motor Synth. It’s a polyphonic synth that uses 4 pairs of electric motors as oscillators — both magnetically and optically — in a clever little box. Whether or not there’s one in my future, I definitely want to hear more about it. The thing is apparently going to be 1200 euros. Dear me no.
  • Last year we learned of the u-he CVilization, and this year there will be more demos. It’s maybe not super-thrilling, but it could replace my matrix mixer in less space and more functionality. The developer makes some VST plugins I like quite a lot, so it’s worth watching. [Just saw a video on this; it seems a bit confusing and do-everything-y; maybe easy to learn but I’ll want to see tutorial videos or a really good manual before I really think about getting one.]
  • I had been curious about the Pittsburgh Modular Voltage Research Laboratory synth. With the details revealed, I can tell it’s going to make some people very happy but it’s not something I need at the price.
  • I’ve just heard there’s an Industrial Music Electronics Kermit mk3. There are no photos, videos, sound demos, etc. I can find yet. Apparently it’s gone from dual to quad, but no word on whether its gorgeous “dusty” digital character has been sanitized for mk3 as IME’s other modules have, nor on size, nor other changes. My guess is it’s probably a couple of years away from release anyway.

Current plans:

  • Replace my audio interface. I like a lot of things about my Focusrite Saffire Pro 40, but I don’t particularly like (A) that it uses Firewire 400 when I’m thinking about getting a new computer, and (B) that the main monitor output’s “Dim” switch (lowering the volume a lot but not muting it) keeps switching itself at random, and (C) some of the playback/dropout problems I’m having might be related to Firewire or the drivers.

    But it happens that the Behringer U-Phoria UMC1820 has a slightly better feature set, uses USB and is one of the cheaper replacement options. And I found a used one on Reverb — so that should be arriving in a couple of days.
  • The ETA for Panharmonium shipping is “late spring” / June.
  • Rumor has AMD’s third-gen Ryzen chips releasing in early July — at that point I upgrade my computer.
  • KnobCon is in September. Use it to try a few things and see if that shakes up my plans any. Specifically I want more hands-on time with a DPO, I’d like to try a Cš-L if there’s one there, and consider alternatives to the MicroBrute.

My tentative Synth Farm 2.2 plan before any of the new stuff was announced, was simply to trade Plaits for a DPO, and rearrange the case a bit for better ergonomics and flow. There’d be 4HP of space left and wiggle room for other possible substitutions. With the options of Generate 3 and/or Godspeed+ instead, there’d of course be more free space.

Not much else going on now other than

  • Thinking about music and how to make it. And how the personal freedom/authenticity thing relates to it, and writing some about that.
  • I’ve been contending with chest congestion and the cough that too often lingers for weeks after other symptoms are gone. I had a few planned vacation days but used them to do not much.
  • I reinstalled Guild Wars 2 and am running yet another Necromancer — my spouse wondered if it was meant to be one of her fictional characters, but really I just thought a particular hair option was neat and designed the rest of the look around that (and the limited and somewhat gratuitous wardrobe choices of a new character).
  • I read the rest of the Laundry Files novels I had, then immediately got online and ordered the newest which I was missing. Very bad things, tension, and the good guys’ deeply scary sorcery all keep escalating beyond where I ever thought it would go… and yet it holds on to its humor.