this album is fire

Ambient Online Themed Compilation #2, Fire, is now available. I have two tracks on it (one also appears on Materials).

Based on what I’m hearing so far of the album, I might be pushing the boundaries of what’s commonly considered “ambient” — but I’m not the only one, which makes me happy.

Brian Eno’s concept of ambient music was “as ignorable as it is interesting,” meant to work on many different levels of attention. I never actually try to achieve that, and I think most other musicians in the genre don’t either. The genre has evolved. It’s not quite a meaningless word, but it’s not quite right.

It would be great to find a more like-minded… er, like-sounding (?) community of musicians to run with. Start our own label, build up a reputation, come up with a genre name that really fits, etc. Nathan Moody uses the word “angrient,” which is kind of clever but little of his music (or mine) actually comes off as angry. I have similar mixed feelings about my own “uneasy listening” tag.

A lot of genre names are terrible, though. I guess the real problem is that words aren’t music, and to know what the music sounds like you have to actually listen to it.

Anyway. I was waiting for this compilation’s release — and to give Materials a little while as a Bandcamp exclusive — before submitting it to streaming services. Those will be ready soon though; meanwhile here is a link to pre-save it on Spotify.

incoming

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

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

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

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

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

release the brain clutch

One of the reasons I like the Lines forum so much is to get peoples’ random insights. Sometimes those come in the form of quotes by other artists. Sometimes they are in the form of art itself. This time it was both:


Bruce Nauman, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, 1967

I don’t know if I agree or disagree with this statement. I reflexively flinch at “true artist”, I don’t think mystic truths can be revealed except by themselves (and mostly they defend themselves), and “helps the world” can sound more than a little conceited. But at the same time… yeah, kinda.

It turns out the artist thought the same thing.

Anyway, the thread where that was posted, along with some other thoughts about what it means to “figure out how to be an artist”, had my head spinning but also inspired me to overcome the lethargy of the last several days and record something.

Four minutes into the first take, which was going excellently, the phone rang. Oops. Gotta remember to put it in airplane mode next time. The next several takes were flubs, but then I finally nailed it.

I’ve decided that the next album will definitely have no theme. In fact, no-theme kind of is its theme. Action over contemplation.

Some time back, while I was Kemetic Orthodox, I was unsure about my musical direction at the time and did some divination to get unstuck. What came to me were the words “use force.” While a lot of music is about control and dexterity (either physical or mental) and is often a very intellectual exercise, sometimes you just have to pull out all the stops. (This phrase refers to the controls on a pipe organ; pulling them all out makes the thing as loud and dense as it can get. It’s like turning the amp up to 11.)

That’s… not exactly what my plan is here, but the idea is: just turn the synth on and do something.

sharing leftovers

The year being at an end and all, I went through my “2018 album candidates/other unreleased” folder looking for treasure. A lot of stuff got moved to “2018 album candidates/NO” and one was promoted to 2019 because it might show up on the next album.

Share with, no. Burn, maybe.

There were three survivors, all recorded in January and February. At the time, I didn’t feel they fit in with either Nereus or Shelter In Place. I deemed them not dark enough, or 2% below the standard of the other tracks, or something that escapes me at the moment because now I think they’re all right.

Here they are, with the original patch notes and translations to English (more or less).

Opening


1: E370 2OP through NG; gates into Wogglebug modulate Z + Index; Replika
2: Microbrute; PianoVerb
3: BEV
4: Donut, both oscs mixed in uFold & NG, Uhbik-G + Ratshack
4b: NG out from above through A-189; TBEQ, Ratshack, Val Room

The first voice is SynthTech E370 in 2OP FM mode through Rabid Elephant Natural Gate. I’m sending sequenced gates into Make Noise Wogglebug to generate weird little envelope-like things to modulate the wavetable morph and FM index. Through Native Instruments Replika delay.

Second voice is Arturia Microbrute through PSP PianoVerb.

Third voice is Arturia Buchla Easel V (approximately $4900 cheaper than the real thing, and good enough for me until I win Powerball).

Fourth is the two VCOs in The Harvestman Hertz Donut, mixed, through Intellijel uFold and Natural Gate, through (A) u-he Uhbik-G (granular pitch shifter) & Audio Damage Ratshack Reverb, and (B) Doepfer A-189-1 Bit Modifier, Toneboosters EQ, another Ratshack Reverb instance and Valhalla Room.

Phony

1: SH-01A – Runciter, FogCon, HY Delay
2: Donut, uFold, NG – ValRoom, GMonoBass, TBEq
3: Microbrute – Ratshack, Uhbik-T, Replika, Uhbik-F

This should be easier to decipher. The actors here are:

  • Roland SH-01A (which I had briefly, before deciding LuSH-101 was really just as good after having a little perspective and teaching myself some tricks in the hardware)
  • u-he Runciter filter/distortion
  • Audiothingies Fog Convolver reverb
  • HY-Plugins HY-Delay
  • GVST GMonoBass (prevents low frequencies from causing stereo phase issues and kind of sounds more solid)
  • ToneBoosters EQ (I actually use it so often I skip putting it in my notes)
  • u-he Uhbik-T Tremolo
  • Native Instruments Replika delay
  • u-he Uhbik-F Flanger

Scorby-Babbersy

1: Plaits 5 through Disting synced delay (using note trigger as sync source)
Horse, Permut8, Val Plate
2: Busy noise from self-modulated E370, Transient Master (favor transients), TB
EQ, Replika, UberMod
3: Kermit stereo cross-modulating table pos, dynamix, SpecOps, Val Room
4: Lush-101, Ratshack Reverb, TB EQ
5: Hertz Donut, mod square and XOR mixed through NG, Haaze, MTransformer, Replika

The name for this probably came from aiweirdness.com.

First voice is Mutable Instruments Plaits’ Harmonic Oscillator model (the fifth LED lights up green), through Expert Sleepers Disting mk4 in clockable delay mode. I’m giving it the note triggers to sync to, so the delay time continuously adjusts to the time between the last two notes. Through a VST chorus plugin I wrote and named “Horse”, Sonic Charge Permut8 glitch delay, and Valhalla Plate.

Second voice is the E370 with some self-patching going on (there are no voice samples here) through Native Instruments Transient Master and Replika, and Valhalla UberMod.

Third is both voices of The Harvestman Kermit, each modulating the opposite’s wavetable position, recorded in stereo through Unfiltered Audio SpecOps and Valhalla Room.

Fourth is self-explanatory. Fifth is Hertz Donut, with the modulation oscillator’s square output mixed with the XOR output in Natural Gate, with Klevgrand Haaze, Melda MTransformer and Replika.

Material goods

Yippee skippee, the new album is released!

There’s a page of patch notes with a bonus track (which is in the blog sidebar anyway, heh) and some words.  But the important thing is, there’s music.

Any feedback (heh… feedback) is welcome, as is pushing this at your friends who like weird music, your uncle who runs a highly successful dark ambient record label, etc.

It’ll be submitted to streaming services in the next few days (where I get almost a penny per minute of my music streamed… really, Bandcamp is better).

that’s a wrap… almost

I am so bad at gift wrapping.  I think I inherited that from my dad, who is not above using cardboard tubes, newspapers and duct tape to get the job done.  I failed this evening at wrapping a perfectly rectangular package and had to throw the paper out and start over.

I’m doing a better job with the album mastering…. except, it turns out, I’ve been doing it wrong.  

MusicTech magazine’s current issue has a feature about mastering.  I read it, and most of the advice is on the order of “use this $4000 worth software and these $3000 monitors” and uh, no thanks.  But I did learn that editing the beginning and end of a track is “topping and tailing”, and that electronic music technology magazines in 2018 are pretty much overpriced garbage.

I got more specific, up-to-date advice from the first website that popped up on a Google search.  It turns out that in general, you should meter in LUFS (“Loudness Units relative to Full Scale”) for loudness and dBTP (decibels True Peak) for peaks.  Nobody thinks you should compress heavily to make your music as loud as possible, because many streaming services normalize everything to the same volume level anyway.  And while I was being relatively gentle with my own work compared to the previous album, I was still going beyond recommended levels.

I’d been ignoring metering plugins because there’s nothing more boring than that, and I assumed dbFS peak and RMS as shown in Sound Forge were good enough anyway.  But the free version of Youlean Loudness Meter shows the relevant info and how I’m breaking the rules.  (-23 LUFS is a European broadcast standard; -14 seems to be a common goal for streaming audio but the important thing there is more “don’t over-compress”).  And -1 dBTP is a recommended peak maximum so that MP3 converters don’t accidentally cause clipping.

Of course it would have been smart to do this research before “nearly finishing” all 11 songs.  In a lot of cases I think I can just turn it down and be fine, but I’ll double-check I didn’t compress too much.

Sound Forge Pro 10 has been crashing on a semi-regular basis, and it’s a few years old now.  I’m happy to see that it’s not abandonware and there is a new version — though Sony (having bought it from Sonic Foundry) sold it to Magix.  Unfortunately, the demo crashes immediately on startup.  I can use it okay after that as long as I never close the bug reporting window, but it doesn’t say a lot about the potential stability, so I’m not sure I want to pay for an upgrade.  Maybe I will look for another tool in the future, though I do like Sound Forge’s dynamics tool and the ease of crossfading every edit.

master blaster

I’ve mentioned I’m in the process of mastering my fifth album of the year.  But what is that, really? Or what is it to me?

What it used to mean was the preparation of a “master” copy of the final mix, to be duplicated — almost like a mold for casting.  For CDs and DVDs, there’s a digital file of course — but for large-scale duplication, a physical glass master is prepared in a cleanroom with a laser burner and a nickel deposition process, and then a “mother” is created as a sort of negative of that, to stamp pits into the actual CDs.

Mastering requires making some adjustments to suit the limitations of the medium.  For instance, if the difference in bass content between the left and right channels on a stereo LP is too great, it will throw the needle right out of the groove.  Digital media have their own limitations, and some master for specific sound systems in clubs.  “Mastering for MP3” or “for iTunes” might be a little snake-oily, but certainly earbuds or headphones are a different sort of target than a big speaker system.  (Generally, I use headphones throughout the whole process, including as my mastering target.)

Historically, recording engineers found this was the best time to make adjustments to the final mix as a whole, so it sounds as consistent and appealing as possible.  That generally means having a nice balance in different frequency bands, but mostly it means means loud.

Quiet recordings are more susceptible to noise, from random particles and errors in the medium to cosmic rays and other interference getting amplified along with the music.  Also, louder music generally sounds “better” than quiet from a psychoacoustic standpoint.  Some stereos have a “loudness” button which fakes a louder sound by changing the curve.  But too much loudness causes distortion.

Certain kind of distortion sound great.  The sound of the electric guitar is dependent on it.  Different kinds of distortion are involved in synthesis.  Saturation involves nice smooth curvy distortion that sounds “full” and “warm” if it’s kept subtle enough; you can get that by recording to tape a little bit louder than it was designed for.

But distortion can definitely be undesirable, too.  There’s a reason why chords on electric guitars tend to be very simple, such as the open fifth “power chord.”  Distortion creates more harmonics in the signal, and if the harmonic relationships are already complex going in, what comes out will be mushy and gross (technical term).  And a too-loud digital recording is subject to “clipping”, where the peaks of waves are sheared off in a flat, sudden way that is very inharmonic and does not sound natural or organic at all.

Dynamics are important — the balance and change of quiet and loud over time.  Dynamics in playing style creates drama, and is an important element in groove.  Many instruments, such as drums, are highly dynamic in themselves.  But excessive dynamics in a recording can be annoying (when you constantly have to adjust the volume to hear clearly) and cause technical challenges (too quiet overall, subtle details are easily missed, or the recording gets too loud at times).  Often to make a recording louder and more balanced overall, the engineer has to reduce the dynamics through compression and/or limiting — usually in a way that doesn’t noticeably sound like the dynamics have been changed or anything has been lost — as well as “riding the gain” more gradually.

The actual dynamics in a file can include all kinds of weirdness we don’t perceive — lots of little spikes of volume that our ears and brains just smooth right over.  That’s why these tricks can work. Both compression and limiting basically just turn down the volume as the signal gets louder, and back up as it calms down — but the devil is in the details.  At what level this attenuation takes place, how smoothly or suddenly it applies on a volume scale, how quickly it applies on a time scale, and so on.  It’s part science and part art.

(Don’t confuse dynamic compression with the kind of compression that makes an MP3, WMA or OGG file smaller than a WAV file.  Lossless audio compression uses algorithms to represent the same data in less space, and is guaranteed to sound exactly the same as no compression.  Lossy compression removes data that contributes little or nothing to what we can actually perceive, and is generally a compromise between size and perfection.  Blind tests on thousands of listeners have shown that on average there’s a barely discernible difference between a 192kbps VBR MP3 and a CD it was ripped from, and nobody can distinguish 320kbps from the real thing.)

If you lower the relative volume of the spiky bits, you have more room to turn it up overall.  There was something of an arms race or “Loudness War” which reached its peak (so to speak) in the mid 2000s, with Metallica’s Death Magnetic frequently cited as one of the most egregious examples.  Things have calmed a bit since then.

There’s also equalization (EQ) — this is the raising or (more usually) lowering the volume of particular frequency ranges to get a nice, balanced, full sound.  This can be combined with dynamics processing in tools such as dynamic equalizers and multiband compressors.

Of course both EQ and dynamics can be used for “creative” effects as well; it’s common to compress drums more than is strictly natural-sounding, or to “squash” a singer’s voice into a narrow, telephone-like or old-timey-radio range, or to really bring out the breathiness in a voice or squeaks on a guitar fingerboard, and so on.  Usually that’s done as part of the mix rather than mastering, though.

There are a lot of tools out there to help with mastering.  Some plugins or services promise to do it all automatically with a single button or knob, and usually that’s better than nothing.  I have a whole process and a set of tools I use.


I try to get levels reasonably okay in the original recordings, with the compressor/limiter ToneBoosters Barricade.  I don’t push it very hard at this point because I won’t be able to undo it.  The idea here is mostly to keep any unexpected spikes from clipping, and having a good monitoring tool to make sure I’m not recording too quietly with my headphones turned way up or vice versa.

My first pass at editing in Sound Forge Pro does only a little dynamics work to get levels generally okay — it’s mostly about overall sound, good first and last notes, and so on.  I save the more strenuous mastering work for a separate step.

 Sound Forge has a few built-in dynamics tools.  There’s “normalize” which can raise everything to within a certain threshold, either by peaks (safest) or RMS (useful for general “perceived” loudness but risks pushing the peaks too far) and is good at reporting maximum peak and average RMS levels to compare the different songs on an album.  There’s a fantastic graphic dynamics tool that lets you draw the response on a graph, and you can compare to levels shown in a recording.  There’s a “clip detection and repair” tool that’s a kind of gentle compressor that lowers peaks to safer levels.  And sometimes I highlight a section and crossfade into and out of a general “volume” tool to raise or lower the volume in a specific area.

I use other plugins with Sound Forge as well.  u-he Presswerk is a full-featured compressor that goes a bit beyond my pay grade, but I have some standard favorites among its presets.  I’ll almost always try “A Touch of Glue” and/or “AF Master Transparent” to see if either of them brings out subtle details and reigns in peaks a bit, but sometimes neither of them really helps.  Undo is just a click away.  The aforementioned Barricade is also good to try for a big boost; it can produce what looks like clipped-off peaks but in practice are carefully set to sound clean while maximizing overall volume.

I don’t do a whole lot of fiddling with EQ in mastering.  Sometimes I’ll decide that if I cut out some sub-bass I’ll have more room for everything else, or that a particular note or frequency band is a little too intense.  Sound Forge has a good graphic EQ (for more general changes) as well as a parametric EQ (for surgical edits to specific bands).  Sometimes I want to reduce the strongest frequencies a little bit all across the file, whatever they may be, to enhance the timbre and make it “howl” a bit less — for this I use Melda MSpectralDelay‘s level transformation tool, being careful to disable the delay, spectral panning, and frequency shifting first.

EQ changes the dynamics, and often it’s best to cycle between different tools, make small and gradual changes, and keep getting feedback from one’s ears and the various measuring tools in the software.

Write drunk; edit sober.

— not Hemmingway, who wrote in the mornings, avoided alcohol until the afternoon, and was to avoid hangovers.  It was Peter de Vries, and was not meant literally but to encourage both “spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”

Between the ultra-close attention this process demands, and the changes to dynamics bringing out more detail, it can expose flaws that were previously unnoticed.  I suspect that sometimes the Firewire connection between my audio interface and computer gets a little overwhelmed, and there are any number of other things that can find their way into a recording.  Usually it’s just subtle quirks of the modules and effects I’m using, or sometimes I pushed something a little hard for effect and got more than I bargained for. I accept a certain amount of this as a part of the process and the charm of working this way, and I’m sure Tony Rolando would agree.  Sometimes I even bring these “flaws” out intentionally, such as enhancing background noise through manipulating dynamics and EQ — or creating the noises intentionally via modular or plugins.

But other times I want to repair things.  Smoothing them out is rarely as easy as using Sound Forge’s “Clicks and Crackles” automatic tool, which has a penchant for making things worse.  Sometimes I just need to zoom way in and literally draw a smooth curve over where there was a sudden jump, an edit affecting the tiniest fraction of a second.  Or it might require some careful copying and pasting from another part of the file, being especially careful to keep the transition smooth, or just cutting out a tiny bit and stitching the edges together.  Reverb can smooth things over so long as it doesn’t cause a sudden shift in timbre, or it’s done in an intentional-sounding way and fits in with the busy things that are already present.  Sometimes mixing in something else will help mask it.  There really are no hard-and-fast rules, and this bit can be time-consuming, but persistence usually pays off.

One of the goals of mastering is consistency in volume levels across an album, and generally in line with other music of a relatively similar nature.  My goal is to get them where Sound Forge’s Normalize tool reads about -0.3dB peak and -10.5dB RMS. 
I wouldn’t read too much into those specific numbers though, because other tools are likely to report differently.  (0db is the maximum possible level in a digital recording; “bigger” negative numbers are quieter.)  That allows a little bit of room for the playback device to hopefully not clip, and seems to match the volume levels of other modern albums.  I’m not too worried about a little deviation here, as long as it doesn’t sound so different from one song to the next that you want to reach for a volume control too frequently.

This sort of work can be tiring to the ears and mind, so I break it up a bit, get the headphones off and reset myself.  Mastering Materials has seemed particularly grueling so far, but of course I hope the result is worthwhile.

three moves ahead

Is this chess or Tetris?

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

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

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

a few bits

  • I’ve just submitted two songs to the Ambient Online “Fire” themed compilation, which should be released late this month or in early 2019.
  • I have one called “Electrostatic Dust Fountain” in the previous compilation, The Moon.
  • Cover art for Materials is done.  I need to jump into mastering it, but with my process that doesn’t take too long.  (If I sold enough to justify it, I would definitely look into professional mastering, probably checking with Obsidian Sound first.  But I think I do pretty okay at it.)
  • I expect the next project will be an unthemed album, and there is no ETA at this time.
  • Having written up my modular system as it currently stands, I’m thinking about shaking things up a bit for a version 1.2, or 1.5 perhaps.  More on that in another post, probably, once I’ve worked out some plan versions.

One GIF to represent two shows!
  • I’m not that much into TV, but sometimes get caught up in whatever my spouse is watching.  The latest thing is The Great British Baking Show.  All too often it makes us want desserts, and I’ve had a couple of dreams about it.
  • Bee and Puppycat is a mostly excellent, weird, cute, occasionally creepy show.  The whole first season (if it can be called that) is a little over an hour.  Marina Sirtis and Ellen McLain have minor roles in it.   Here’s the pilot and here’s the rest.  There will be more in 2019. 
  • Steven Universe, my favorite show, is finally going to end its 4-month hiatus on December 17.  It’s a Christmas miracle!  It feels like it could be the end of the whole show, except that we’ve been told it’s not.
  • I was kind of into The Expanse and need to remind myself to look for season 3.

show & tell, part 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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