Pandatastic

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

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

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

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

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

Hertz Donut mk2 vs mk3: the details

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

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

Feature set, layout, usability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raw sound

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

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

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

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

Tracking modes

The mk2 has four tracking modes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

FM

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waveshaper(s)

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

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

The mk3 instead has three waveshapers which can operate simultaneously:

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

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

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

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

Overall

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

Akemie’s Castle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

it begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

refocus

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

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

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



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

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


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


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

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

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

crushed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My list right now, in rough priority order:

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

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

starting 2020 a little early

I decided I’m absolutely sure about selling my Dark World pedal, and was tempted by the cheaper Paradox Arquitecto Fictional Space Reverbator. There was one discounted on Reverb in custom colors:

It’s a dual modulated echo that’s pretty much retro, swampy, dubby and ambient. It seems right up my alley. I couldn’t quite imitate the demos with my current hardware and software, though I did reach some other fun places while trying.

The main doubt I have about it is the lack of knobs to control time or modulation rate, but I’ll see how it goes. That was one of my dislikes with the Pittsburgh Verbtronic — but that module also lacked some of the other flexibility this pedal has, and it was annoyingly sensitive to input and feedback levels. If it turns out to be too much of a limitation for me, it’ll be no problem to resell it.


I realized I have 256GB of storage on my phone, which is more than twice the size of my MP3 library — and MediaMonkey has an Android version that syncs to the Windows version. It’s supposed to sync over WiFi, but I haven’t had any luck with that yet — could be the VPN on my phone though. Anyway, this gives me more flexibility in music listening anywhere without relying on streaming, and might shortcut a couple of steps when I buy music on Bandcamp. I’ll still keep my GPM subscription though; it can be good for music discovery or casual playlists.

the Magic Death Eye of the beholder

I am on the hunt for favorite compressor plugins, particularly for mastering purposes. I really would like to have one standard choice I can always be confident in, instead of hot-swapping several different plugins and tweaking them while tiring my ears with minute differences. I might have found it.

The fantastically named Magic Death Eye is a boutique, hand-built, retro-inspired modern vari-mu tube compressor, which happens to have an officially licensed version. And it’s excellent. (At least the plugin is, and I assume the hardware…)

yes, I took a photo of my computer screen with my phone, to capture the “real analog warmth” and room tone of photons 😉

I tested it against my recordings for the next album, and found it always beat something like 9 or 10 other compression plugins (some of which have multiple models). With some material, the difference between it and the best options is almost subliminal, but it’s there. In other cases, it’s a pretty clear winner. And the controls on MDE are nice and simple, and I feel like it just can’t sound bad even if you push it relatively hard. As some others have described, it’s “respectful” of the source material.

I’m pretty confident I could just use MDE for mastering 100% of the time with no worries. That leaves Supercharger GT, 6050 and a few Presswerk presets to cover more aggressive and “high mojo” compressor and saturator needs and limiting. Fair enough!

it’s electric

So there’s finally going to be a new Half-Life game

…and it’s apparently VR-only.


I’m reading a slightly tedious book about the more or less simultaneous rise of popular interest in science and fairy tales in Victorian England, and how they influenced each other and the literature of the time. It mentions L. Frank Baum’s The Master Key: An Electrical Fairy Tale — the story of the wish-granting Demon of Electricity summoned accidentally by a boy’s scientific experiments — and it occurred to me “An Electrical Fairy Tale” might be a fun name for the next album. Because, if what I’ve recorded so far is any indication, it really is that different from the darker stuff I’ve been doing lately…

There’s apparently a yearly music festival called “Electric FAIRy Tale” in Fresno, but I don’t think I’m going to let that stop me. I may come up with a name I like better anyway, though.


The Sequential DSM03 Feedback module that I won in the charity auction arrived yesterday. It’s basically a Karplus-Strong synthesizer in a single module: a white noise generator with built-in envelope generator, a short delay with 1V/octave tracking, and a lowpass filter; there’s an external audio input which you can use instead of its own noise generator. It’s got a couple of issues though — I don’t think the feedback is strong enough for all circumstances, and adding filter resonance tends to suppress the feedback and make it very quiet. It’s capable of some interesting sounds regardless. I’ll pledge to keep it in my rack at least until the E520 comes along.

plug it in

I have written a lot in this blog about music hardware, but not nearly as much about the software that is also a vital part of my sound. Maybe it’s time. I won’t go into Bitwig’s built-in effects, nor the occasional synth plugins, but here are the third-party effects plugins that I use on a relatively regular basis.


Delay: super important to me, adding space, movement, character, rhythm and of course just plain echoes.

  • Valhalla Delay: for me this is the top of the heap for sure. A perfect combination of simplicity, flexibility and character, and it keeps getting better (there are three new variations in the current beta and they’re all fantastic).
  • Arturia 3 Delays You’ll Actually Use: some nice character here, particularly when overdriven and using their parametric EQ. Second fiddle to Valhalla, but it’s nice to have alternatives.
  • u-he Colour Copy: largely superseded by Valhalla, but for liquid, chorusy modulated delays it has a special lushness.
  • Audio Damage Ratshack Reverb: while I can probably get a similar sound with Valhalla, it’s just right there on tap. And the distortion it offers is pretty special.
  • Sonic Charge Permut8: when what I want isn’t a delay so much as a glitchy repeating weirdness thing, this is where I go.

Reverb: for making space and distance, smoothing out textures, as a medium to apply other effects in a feedback loop, or sometimes extending the duration of tails that I faded too quickly.

  • Valhalla Plate, Room and Vintage Verb: All excellent, though Plate is my favorite.
  • u-he Twangström: a fine emulation of spring reverb, when that kind of character is called for. I sold my real spring reverb because of this plugin.
  • AudioThing Fog Convolver: for applying real acoustic spaces, including some weird ones. I usually keep this one subtle, but I’ve found building a feedback loop around it can be fun too.

EQ: the scissors to generally shape my sounds and the scalpel to cut out problem areas. My music doesn’t tend to have the same kind of mixing applications for EQ that more mainstream music does, but this is still pretty vital.

  • Toneboosters Equalizer 4: My go-to general purpose and corrective EQ, whether full stereo or mid-side. It’s frankly unbeatable.
  • u-he Uhbiq-Q: I keep finding myself turning to this one for character, and for “blind” EQing where I want to trust my ears without graphical assistance.
  • Honorable mention: I just picked up McDSP 6050 and am learning it; among other things, it has 12 different analog-style EQ models with relatively subtle differences between them. There might be a favorite character EQ lurking here too.

Limiters: for keeping peak levels in check and feedback loops from exploding, and increasing loudness as the last stage in mastering.

  • Toneboosters Barricade 4: combines a saturator, compressor and limiter, but I use it primarily for limiting — its saturation can often get ugly and I find it very situational. I could probably just use Bitwig’s peak limiter instead, honestly.
  • u-he Presswerk: it’s a big fancy compressor plugin, but lately I’ve been using it almost exclusively for one of its limiter presets that can be pushed hard and does some nice soft clipping. The exact peak can’t be set, so I often use it as my first limiting stage before Barricade.

Compressors: I’m still trying to work out favorites here; this is an area I have long neglected in favor of the Graphic Dynamics tool in Sound Forge Pro.

  • NI Solid Bus Comp: I feel like it works well for subtle compression, and is fairly easy to dial in.
  • Klanghelm MJUC: a vari-mu tube compressor emulation, with a little more flavor than Solid Bus Comp but not over the top. For mastering purposes I’ve frequently found myself trying both of them and choosing my favorite (usually but not always MJUC).
  • NI Supercharger GT: To me this is best for more aggressive saturation and compression, but works nicely when mixed in parallel at a low level.
  • Honorable mentions: Graphic Dynamics still does have its uses. I used to try a couple of favorite Presswerk presets and A-B test them to see if they improved the overall clarity — and I should probably try its simplified modes against other options. McDSP 6050 has several analog style compressor models to choose from and seems promising. But I may find myself with FabFilter Pro-C2, since it’s very visual like my favorite EQ.

Tape: recording to tape is like acid-washing jeans — it adds character and/or grunge and it’s a good thing. In a plugin, you can control the variables with less hassle, expense and time than real tape.

  • Wavesfactory Cassette: this is a relative newcomer. It’s great for a touch of saturation and subtle compression, or heavy blown-out saturation, or extreme “4th generation copy using a warbly microcasette recorder and worn-out tape” effects.
  • XLNAudio RC-20 Retro Color: this one does vinyl, sampling and tape, with particularly tasty distortion and EQ sections. It’s really flexible and can do very non-tapelike things, and again works well both for gentle and extreme use.
  • Denise Bad Tape: a very up-front effect, with heavy and weird saturation. Sometimes useful though!

Downsampling: for retro digital sound, or just another flavor of dirt.

  • d16 Decimort: a pretty flexible sample rate and bit reducer with some anti-aliasing options, jitter and EQ.
  • Plogue Chipcrusher: realistic bad old digital encoding methods, with added noise and filter/speaker/cabinet impulses to sound like it’s coming from an old PC or game console or handheld toy.

Utilities:

  • haSound MSLR: mid/side left/right encoding and decoding. I use it pretty frequently with two different signals from the modular to create a wide stereo field. Needs some caution to prevent phase alignment issues though, and I may switch back to Voxengo MSED for its built-in scope.
  • Izotope RX6 DeClick: doesn’t work on 100% of clicks and pops, but when it does, it “just works” with no hassle or side effects.
  • Klevgrand Brusfri: a real-time noise reduction plugin that can listen to an example of your noise floor, and then dampen it pretty effectively.
  • Melda MAGC: automatically compensates for volume differences caused by an effect, which can help remove the illusion that louder=better, or confirm that a compressor’s make-up gain is set wisely.

Metering/Visualization:

  • Voxengo SPAN: an excellent spectrum analyzer with a phase correlation meter.
  • Voxengo Correlometer: a multiband phase correlation meter that can show which frequency ranges have problems. It makes fixing those areas with mid/side EQ a bit easier.
  • Youlean Loudness Meter: shows real-time true peak and LUFS readings, and can synchronize its display with the host’s transport time.
  • Honorable mention: the Statistics tool in Sound Forge Pro. Much faster than Youlean, but it measures what has already been done to the file.

Weird stuff:

  • Unfiltered Audio SpecOps: various kinds of spectral filtering, mangling, and freezing. There’s a lot going on here. It could be dethroned by the SynthTech E520 when that ships, though.
  • Melda MTransformer: I find this pretty interesting mostly for spectral compression or formant shifting. Again, the E520 might bury it.
  • Melda MCharacter: it attempts to synthesize extra harmonics, and/or spectrally filter the input, but it’s kind of touchy and situational.

Have any favorite effects plugins, or recommendations especially for dynamics? Let me know!

assembly

I’ve passed the 1 hour mark for the Lyra album, but I’m going to edit the 12-minute improv I recorded last night and add one more piece, I think.

I’ve found that my UMC1820 audio interface gets hotter than I would like. The front panel hit 99.7°F at one point last night — even with a fan trying to exhaust air from the back of the case — which implies the electronics inside might be above where they should be in the long term. (For a PC CPU, the general rule is the core should be below 40°C (104°F) when idling; I can only guess that’s roughly true for some of the parts in the interface.)

My old interface ran cool, but the new one crams more electronics into a housing half the size. There’s no ventilation in the rack case I’ve got it in, so I guess I’ll be switching to a 3U rack, possibly 4U. First I need to figure out whether to go for 6″ or 9″ deep (depending on how much platform I need for the 3DWaves stand that’s on the way & the laptop stand behind it), and where to arrange the gaps and any fans/blowers etc. (depending on temperature measurements of the top and bottom of the interface after it’s been running in the box for a while).


3 years ago I was making music experimentally with no particular focus, and I acquired my first Eurorack modules to explore “sounds I can’t make with software,” on the theory they were going to provide an extra voice to accompany my MIDI piano-roll sequences and software synths.

Now what I have is an instrument/system attuned to the music I make and the way I like to make it, rather than the other way around. The last waves of changes really brought it together: intentional focus, hardware/software unification, and hands-on expressive performance. I’m not just fascinated by it, as I have been by a lot of synth gear — but genuinely satisfied. I expect to make very few gear changes in 2020, and will be writing that into my goals for the year.

Here’s what I do have planned:

  • I pre-ordered the SynthTech E520. The Resampling Delay sounds pretty fantastic to me (based on E580 demos), with the character that was the one thing I really liked about Mannequins W/ but a full-featured, sane interface. While the Spectral Crusher does have some overlap with software, it’s got a few other tricks; the Peak Hold sounds a lot better than the one from my own FFT experiments and everything can be modulated in real time, whereas my code barely even runs in real time. That should be shipping next May.
  • Akemie’s Castle. I’m gonna get one. I just really like that crusty character of the old FM chips, and the drone/chord potential is strong even without freely tuneable FM operators.
  • Sequential DSM03 Feedback. I’ve got a winning bid on one in the charity auction, but I won’t raise if someone outbids me.
  • Small gaps: probably going to arcade buttons.
  • Possible displacement: I may find that with Castle I don’t also need Donut. Or that Supercell, Mimeophon, E520, and (possibly) DSM03 is overkill. Or that I’d rather have one Rings and the DSM03 than two Rings. Or that with Castle, my power supply can’t keep up with the -12V requirements and something else has to give. I’m not particularly “looking to get rid of” anything here, but acknowledge that it’s possible.

Other than that, I expect to say “that sounds nice but I don’t need it” a lot in 2020.