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.

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.