detour

I had, over the last couple of days, decided I was going to make some music based on a particular esoteric insight that has been reinforcing itself. It would have fit nicely with the planned album theme.

Instead, I did something spooky.

I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise.

I’m going to go ahead and blame Stranger Things, and last night’s drive home. “It looks like we’re making a bad choice,” my spouse said as we drove from a relatively bright and sunny world into a sinister, gloom-shrouded one, where night fell three hours early and the wind whipped leaves from the trees, “…but this is where we live.” Neither of us realized at the time that she had just named a song.

Only the lack of fiery streaks divided it from the sky that Will’s “shadow monster” descended from.

I’ve already used “Cumuloominous” as a title, but I think this one is more intense than that. Not calmly foreboding, but fully foreboding. Maybe angrient.

gradually

Overall this album has felt like pretty slow going so far. I’ve been gaming, reading, napping, and occasionally firing up the music rig. A little slower is okay; there’s still momentum. Especially when I consider that I did record two more pieces for Ambient Online during this period. Honestly, I think it feels like more time has passed than actually has.

If the momentum does stop, or I feel unhappy with the quality of my work, I’ll pull the alarm and go back to a song-a-week-or-more format until I reboot myself. Hopefully that won’t be necessary.

Anyway, a month ago I thought I had a theme for this — waveshaping and nonlinearity — but I things haven’t really solidified that way. Instead, they have picked up the less technical, more emotional and esoteric themes of incubation and hesychia from the Kingsley book. It’s a more appealing choice, but it’s honestly not too far off from where my music tends to go anyway, so it feels a bit like no theme at all.


Speaking of books, what I’m into right now is K. J. Parker’s Sharps. In a setting similar to Renaissance Europe, a small, poor kingdom decides the path to maintaining a fragile peace with a neighbor is sending a national fencing team for Olympics-style diplomacy. Everything goes wrong due to some coincidence of bureaucratic incompetence, basic human laziness, corruption, and colliding conspiracies, and it’s often hard to tell which is which. Much like the news in 2019, only a lot more fun.

The book makes me want to learn some things about fencing. What the heck is a demi-volte? What just happened in that big action scene? Why was the thing that somebody just said significant? I’m missing some of the story here I think.


I’m still on Guild Wars 2. I’ve gotten to level 80 with 4 characters:

  • A sylvari Mesmer, who went through the Path of Fire story and converted to the Mirage spec, which I’m not really certain is either more effective or more fun. (It’s not like converting back is hard now though.)
  • A human Necromancer, who I kept at the core spec because Death Shroud — which looks and feels a lot like the wraith world of the Nazgul in the LOTR movies — just seems a lot cooler than summoning sand shades. This is probably my most capable character in a solo situation.
  • A sylvari Engineer, who converted to the lightsaber-ish Holosmith spec, and who looks extremely cool. But I had serious trouble in Southsun Cove (due to “quiet” Confusion applied by some of the monsters there which causes you to injure yourself) and found the intro to the Path of Fire area much more difficult than with the Mesmer.
  • A Norn Ranger, who went for the Soulbeast spec. It’s kind of cool to take on some of the aspects of various animals, but the special effects are lackluster and the actual effectiveness is questionable.

I also started a couple of thieves and an elementalist who got a little ways in and I just found they weren’t as fun or effective to play — though that could just mean I need to adopt to a different spec and playstyle. I’m now on a sylvari Guardian, who feels fun and flashy, intending to go for the Firebrand spec.

I haven’t visited all the level 80 zones, though I think between all my characters combined, I’ve covered all the below-80 zones. I figure once I max out this Guardian, I’ll pick a character and try to get 100% map completion. After that I might chase after achievement titles, unlocking more cosmetic gear, and maybe even try WvW, which I’ve never done before, or solo Fractal Dungeons. There’s a ton of content in this game and as much of it as I’ve seen, there’s a lot more — not like when I had 70+ characters in Champions Online and had done basically everything except the premium mission content.


There’s also Stranger Things. We just watched Season 3, and then rewatched Season 1 (which I’d only sort of half-watched and missed a few key things). It’s far from a perfect show, and some of its appeal is in intentional 80s cheese (turned up to 11, so to speak, for the third season). But it’s a pretty fertile setting for more stories — who knows what else might come from the Upside-Down, whether there are other otherworlds, what else went on in that lab or elsewhere in US and Russian psychic research, whether there are any other psychics besides Eleven and Eight (maybe Will’s developing something?)

Of course in my circles, a big part of Stranger Things is the synth soundtrack. It’s kind of become the Stairway to Heaven of synth players, and Season 3 brought with it a whole new wave of covers. I like the music, but please, people, create something new. Or do a creative rather than an imitative cover of anything else. Or go ahead and do your imitation, for your own amusement and learning purposes, and then don’t post it anywhere. Ask yourself whether the world will be a better place because there is one more cover of the Stranger Things theme.

(I had thought Season 3 was a lot heavier on the licensed 80s music than previous, but Season 1 did have quite a few — including sneaking in Tangerine Dream’s “Kiew Mission”, itself an 80s all-synth track that slides right in alongside the score.)

As I have recently posted elsewhere, I like it when artists take iconic 80s style synth sounds — or at least, the “synthwave” sounds we identify as 80s sounds now, though they’re not entirely representative — and then do something fresh and new with them rather than going pure retro. I feel like SURVIVE, Makeup & Vanity Set, and some others do that pretty well.

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.

bits

First, a link. Someone came up with a brilliant patch for Rings, feeding it clocked random noise, which makes for a very convincing cello.

I’d generally rather hear a real cellist than a perfect imitation of one — but the ability to imitate a real instrument demonstrates the ability to create sounds that are unreal and otherworldly but have the characteristics of physical, acoustic objects. That’s where the magic is.

This is making me wonder a little about the Uncanny Valley phenomenon as it applies to sound… if it does. Slightly-off human-like voices can be a little creepy, but not nearly as much as a subtly wrong human visual appearance. Slightly-off musical instrument sounds, animal noises and sounds generally categorized as foley, usually don’t bother us at all.

That thought ties in with my current reading: R. Murray Schafer’s The Soundscape: The Tuning of the World. It’s not quite the book I expected, but I’ll stick with it. So far it’s sort of a catalog of descriptions of the sounds and soundscapes of the world, in both poetic and scientific terms — with an emphasis on things such as noise pollution, the lowered sensitivity toward sound that people have had since the Industrial Revolution, the lost sounds of extinct species and traditions and obsolete technologies, and so on.

And before that was Peter Kingsley’s In the Dark Places of Wisdom. That one was a combination of fascinating and infuriating. While I believe the author’s style and the structure of the book were intentional, it grated on me and left me frustrated at the end.

The general thrust of the book was the story of the pre-Socratic philosopher (and mystic) Parmeneides, who was Zeno’s teacher. (That’s the Zeno’s Paradox guy — if you step halfway across a room, and then halfway again, and halfway again, etc. you will never, according to math anyway, reach the other side. Although in practice you get down to atoms and then the Planck length, and statistically merging some non-zero number of the molecules of your foot with the wall, and… yeah.) Kingsley has a non-mainstream interpretation of who Parmeneides was and what his poetic writings were referring to. That interpretation is criticized by other scholars, but came off as relatively plausible to me at least — I was mostly reading this for inspiration, thanks to a tip from someone online.

Kingsley argues for a Western tradition (with bidirectional Eastern and African influences) of mysticism and holistic thought that was basically killed off by Socrates, then ignored by modern scholars because it didn’t fit the mold they expected. Except he never really concludes that argument or explains why it’s so important for modern people. He never really gets into a sort of Stoic-sounding-but-also-something-else world view that he hints at, either. He does try to sell the next book at the abrupt end-but-not-completion of the first, though. Argh. Nonfiction books shouldn’t be cliffhangers.

Anyway, it was still interesting. All we learn in grade school history about Greece is, basically, Socrates, Athens, and Homer. We don’t really find out about Apollo’s associations with the underworld (the sun goes into a cave at night, just like in Egyptian myth), the tradition of incubation (lying still in a small enclosed space as a means of contemplation / mystical journeying), Greek hero worship (almost literal), how Pythagoras used scientific/mathematical knowledge as a lure to attract people to his mystery cult (basically), or how Athens was kind of a colonialist bully to the rest of Greece.

There was a fair bit about silence, darkness, stillness, and the mystical that mostly didn’t come off as terrible woo and resonated with my own experiences. This might have me reconsidering the theme for the next album — it’s a much richer and more evocative theme than “nonlinearity.” But perhaps I will work both a technical theme and an emotional theme simultaneously, and I might yet find inspiration that merges the two.

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.

onward

I’ve got a bit over 58 minutes recorded for the new album. I’ve just gone through a full listen, and aside from two minor edits, mastering and artwork are next (and I have a solid idea about the artwork). I will still need to bash on the accompanying text, because the initial concept sort of proved itself, but also proved itself trivial? It’s hard to explain, and that’s why I need to work on that explanation some more.

In some sense I feel like the album’s cohesion arises naturally rather than due to conscious effort on my part. Aspects of the composition, sound, feel, etc. just come together a certain way. The previous album was different, and the next will be different again, but this one hangs together. This is a big part of why I prefer albums.


I’ve been playing a lot of Guild Wars 2 recently. I finished the Personal Story for the first time — despite having had several level 80 characters previously. There was some tedium and frustration and eye-rolling, but I made it.

Then I started on the Path of Fire expansion. This skips 3 years of “Living World” story and a prior expansion (and apparently enough happening to the player’s character to make them much more brash and forceful in personality), so I read up on that and… wow. This game and the lore behind it are huge, and kind of crazy at times. There’s a frightening amount of content, past and present.

I was hoping to unlock the Mirage specialization for my character quickly, but circumstances require a bit more effort. Meanwhile I’m mostly enjoying the ride with the story, though the area design — based on training various mounts for jumping, flying etc. — has stymied me a bit. The setting is much more gorgeous and creative than I expected, with minimal “faux Egypt” elements and much more “desert/oasis region with its own rich history and present story.” Overall, it feels like a different game — still partially an open world explore-fest, but far more like a single-player, story-driven adventure.

details

Mastering’s done. I’m happy with the sound and I’m working on the image and the words. I have some patch notes and a bit of explanation to write up. That was going to happen tonight but I wound up exploring some sound experiments a little instead, and reading The Rhesus Chart.

I don’t often like to choose single favorites among wide categories. But it’s safe to say that The Laundry Files is my favorite series in the horror-comedy-spy-fantasy-software development genre. It’s up for a Hugo award this time (and it’s got good company; the Sick Puppy bloc aka “everything must be made by, for and about white manly men” must be too busy with QAnon or MAGA rallies these days to bother with merely extinguishing diversity and creativity in genre fiction).


A survey of the patch notes from Passing Through told me:

  • As expected and hoped, the ER-301 has taken a central role.
  • Surprisingly, Kermit was the second most referenced module. It’s become my go-to LFO, it makes a nice modulation VCO, and has a unique and lovely-weird sound on its own.
  • The E370 is still a good workhorse, and I discovered two new techniques with it which will get some more exercise in the future.
  • I only used the Natural Gate in one song, and the Dynamic Impulse Filter not at all. Me, the LPG junkie (according to the designer of Natural Gate and my own admission)! There are a bunch of plausible reasons and one weird one (putting all my black-panel modules together makes them visually blend in with each other). Regardless, I’m holding onto both of them for now, especially the NG.
  • Tides 2018 was underused. Even with some of its extra abilities, it’s just not pushing my buttons even when I try pushing its. So I’m putting it up for sale.
  • tanh[3] is a good module, but not an everyday module and I can do what it does in the ER-301. I’ll probably let it go too.

The newest synth trade show, Synthplex, took place in California last weekend. Less news than I expected came out of it given the amount of hype around it, but the Rossum Electro-Music Panharmonium stood out. It’s basically an FFT spectrum analyzer which then controls a cluster of analog oscillators — not quite a vocoder, but an odd and intriguing take on a spectral resynthesizer. I literally had dreams about the thing. I may find myself picking one up before Knobcon after all, once I’ve sold a little more gear to fund it 100%.

Speaking of synth trade shows, Knobcon has now also missed its postponed date for opening up ticket sales. The Facebook page still says March 1, with no updates since January. The website itself still says “Tickets On Sale in March 2019” and the “Buy Tickets” link still goes to the exhibitor registration page (which sometimes appears broken or closed). I hope things are okay with everyone involved.

writing while listening

Writing this while mastering the album. A few tracks have given me minor difficulties, and Sound Forge Pro 10 continues to be about as stable as a game of Jenga running on a Packard Bell laptop running Windows Vista on the back of a neurotic chihuahua on a ship in a storm. Or something like that. But it progresses.


Because listening to the same new songs several times in a row and making minor adjustments isn’t enough I guess, I’ve started a sequential listen through my Starthief albums. And I noticed something.

A few months before starting Nereus I had felt like I’d “found my sound” and was refining it. If you listen over the course of a few hundred songs in 2017 it does sound a bit like I’m closing in on something, and Nereus is the pinnacle as well as the end of that phase. The album is full of sequenced bass/melody lines with hard attacks and exponential decays and octave leaps; lots of snappy LPG plucks and saturated triangle waves, and backgrounds made busy with exotic modulation techniques.

And then there’s a line. Or perhaps an ellipsis…

And then there’s Shelter In Place. That was when I really got into the improvisational, drones-and-rhythm thing. As I listened to it, my thought was “I bet that was when I traded away the 0-Coast.” I just doublechecked, and yes, it was. In a sense, SIP is really the first proper Starthief album, and Nereus is the end of the transitional phase that created Starthief.

My 2019 albums felt more like they stood on opposite sides of a line: this change from “modular 1.1” to “2.0” that I kept on about. One saw me paring down my gear, the other saw the first usage of a lot of new stuff. But the gear change was carefully arranged to preserve and streamline the things I wanted to keep doing, and so these two albums really aren’t very far apart in composition, technique or sound.

My interpretation of the Passing Through theme varied per song — sometimes I carved out more breathing space (which is where I think the album sounds a little more different), and sometimes I layered things on like those interpenetrating energy fields I was talking about. In both cases, I was exploring some new technique as well as the gear. But it all still sounds like Starthief to me, and I should know 😉