lost and found / on mirrors

At the office, above all other things, I like to fidget with magnets. (It was originally BuckyBalls, but those were subject to a recall thanks to the CPSC because it’s dangerous to swallow them. For some reason, safety warnings are deemed sufficient for every other relatively powerful, small magnet on the market, including some produced by the same people, just not the BuckyBalls brand. So you can’t get those anymore.)

From my original set of BuckyBalls, I dropped a few somewhere, could not find them, and assumed they were lost. Several months later when the other business that shared our floor moved out and we raided the stuff they left behind for salvage, I happened to find my missing magnets on their floor. It seemed a stunning coincidence, but hey, I got my magnets back for a while. (Eventually the coating wears off and they get gross and you’re not supposed to handle them anymore.)

At the end of last year I got these Speks magnets as either a birthday or Christmas gift, but managed to lose three of their number within days of bringing them to work. Today, 3-4 months later, I found them sitting on the floor in the middle of my cube, plain as day.

And that’s my creepypasta for the day.

From time to time I’ve contemplated the idea of doing a musical project that is more directly and personal and emotionally intense, less abstract than Shelter In Place was, with no obfuscation. This means it would get political. And thus, mostly angry and frustrated and tired and afraid.

And maybe that’s the way some artists have to operate, but I think I am the opposite. Maybe going abstract is my way of dealing with the world’s crap. It’s not explicit escapism, but almost a case of not wanting that dirt in my sacred space.

I’m thinking about my phrase “paint the mirror” from a couple of years ago:

The title for this track is a clue to something, I’m sure. I was walking around the plaza on a break from work, thinking about art as a reflection of life, and that maybe that goes both directions. I can’t do as much to fix the world as I’d like, but I can make music. The words “paint the mirror” came to me at that moment.

In other words, show the world a better reflection of itself. I’ve said things before about art and magic being types of each other, and the point of them is to change the world. Maybe just a small part of it, just a little — the emotions and thoughts of those who experience the art (or if no one else, the artist themselves!) And then that spreads out in ripples, influencing a wider area in subtle ways.

What I want to bring into the world isn’t more anger and frustration and fear. It is… well, I’ll have to think about it some more, but wonder, weirdness, and acceptance of others’ weirdness seems like a good starting point.

inharmonic collision

Monday evening, I set up my composition idea as planned: three triangle oscillators feeding a sine shaper, with two of them under polymetric control from Teletype (3-in-8 vs 4-in-9 Euclidean rhythms) and one under manual control.

It was frankly pretty boring when I was just using octaves. So I decided to go off the rails a bit and sequence pitches with the Sputnik 5-Step Voltage Source. I clocked it with the master clock, regardless of the rhythmic pattern; the first voice used a channel directly and the second sampled a channel every 8 clock steps. So what we’d get is a complex pattern that starts something like this:

Where time runs left to right, and each color in each lane represents a knob on the 5-Step (not necessarily indicating what the pitch value is set to, nor is “red” on the top and bottom necessarily the same pitch but sometimes they are, and different colors within the same lane are in some cases tuned to the same pitch). The pattern in the top lane runs for 40 beats before repeating, and the bottom lane runs for 72 beats. Because these two are interacting thanks to the sine shaper, they can’t be thought of as individual parts and so it’s going to take 2880 beats for the pattern to repeat. At the tempo I used, the whole recording is roughly 1/10 of a full cycle. (Or… it would be, except I put the two patterns under manual control, suppressing the triggers while letting the sequencer keep clocking. Monkey wrench!)

Complex patterns from relatively simple rules. But that was kind of a tangent — the point is, the frequencies I dialed in, relative to each other, often collided in non-integer ratios. Even if they sound good as individual notes played together, when you use them in phase modulation things get a bit dissonant and skronky, with new sidebands at weird frequencies.

An unlikely scenario.

This is the 21st century — beauty is complex, artistic merit isn’t directly tied to beauty, we’re not limiting ourselves to Platonic perfection, and the idea that certain intervals and chords could accidentally invoke Satan isn’t something we lose sleep over anymore. I think the result I got is pretty neat! But it’s not really what I had originally imagined. So I’m going to keep the basics of this idea, follow a different branching path with it and see where that goes.

The third voice, I controlled with the 16n Faderbank — one slider for level, one for pitch. The latter went through the ER-301’s scale quantizer unit, so it always landed on something that fit reasonably well with the other two voices. It turns out this unit supports Scala tuning files, and TIL just how crazy those can get.

Scala is a piece of software and a file format which lets you define scales quite freely — whether you just want to limit something to standard 12TET tuning, or a subset of that (such as pentatonic minor), or just intonation, non-Western scales, xenharmonic tunings, or exactly matching that slightly-off toy piano. The main website for Scala has an archive of 4800 different tuning files and that’s just too much. This is super-specialist stuff with descriptions such as:

  • Archytas[12] (64/63) hobbit, sync beating
  • Supermagic[15] hobbit in 5-limit minimax tuning
  • Big Gulp
  • Degenerate eikosany 3)6 from tonic 1.3.15
  • Hurdy-Gurdy variation on fractal Gazelle (Rebab tuning)
  • Left Pistol
  • McLaren Rat H1
  • Weak Fokker block tweaked from Dwarf(<14 23 36 40|)
  • Semimarvelous dwarf: 1/4 kleismic dwarf(<16 25 37|)
  • Three circles of four (56/11)^(1/4) fifths with 11/7 as wolf
  • Godzilla-meantone-keemun-flattone wakalix
  • One of the 195 other denizens of the dome of mandala, <14 23 36 40| weakly epimorphic

With all these supermagic hobbits and semimarvelous dwarves and Godzilla, and all the other denizens with their Big Gulps and pistols, where do I even start with this? The answer is, I don’t. I’ll just try making a couple of my own much simpler scales that I can actually understand. Like 5EDO — instead of dividing an octave into 12 tones, divide it into 5.

think tank

Today’s an especially slow workday and I’ve been reading a lot of interviews and articles at The Creative Independent. I haven’t had any particular epiphanies as a result, but it’s stirring the brain juices a little.

But I did have a minor revelation this morning about the connection between wavefolding and phase modulation thanks to Open Music Labs being, well, open about their designs. In particular, the Sinulator, which is similar to the Happy Nerding FM Aid — a module I owned once, let go of because I figured I had enough FM/PM capability in my system. (Frequency modulation and phase modulation are very closely related; the simple version is that a continuously advancing phase is frequency, and PM is basically indistinguishable from linear FM in terms of results.) I’ve wished a few times that I’d kept the FM Aid, but could sometimes get similar results out of Crossfold. I didn’t understand why, though.

OML’s description and blessedly simple mathematical formula (no calculus or funny Greek letters!) make me realize, this is basically the same thing described by Navs some time ago (I think in a forum post rather than the blog though). And it ties in with my recent efforts to do nice-sounding wavefolding with the ER-301.

“Sine shaping” is a commonly used shortcut to wavefolding as well as triangle-to-sine shaping. It’s literally just plugging an audio input in as x in the function sin(xg), where g is the gain.
If g is 1, and x happens to be a sawtooth or triangle wave, you’ll get a sine wave out of it. If the input is a sine, you get a sine that folds back on itself a bit… and the higher g goes above 1, the more the output will fold over on itself and get more complex and bright. (Better sounding analog wavefolders and their digital imitators don’t map to a sine exactly, but it’s a similar-looking curve. Also they use mulitple stages in series for more complex behavior. But a sine totally does work.) What I learned here is that adding another term inside that function will shift the phase of the output… tada, phase modulation exactly how Yamaha did it in the DX series (and then confusingly called it FM). A whole lot of puzzle pieces clicked together.

Anyway… in this model because one just adds the two inputs, it doesn’t really matter which is the carrier and which is the modulator. Why not use independent VCAs on both, and sequence them separately? Maybe some kind of polymetric, occasionally intersecting thing where it’s like two interacting fields, totally fitting the theme of the album I’m working on? To lend form to the piece, one of those inputs can be transposed, have its envelope or intensity changed, or a third input can be added (it’s just addition)…

I don’t normally plan my compositions quite so much when I’m away from the instrument itself, and I almost never get this… academic about it. (Is that a dirty word?) But I’m eager to try this one.

So there’s a free peek inside a process I don’t usually use.

put some clothes on, Your Majesty

Reading about the history of synths, or about the use of synths in rock, one always comes across worshipful descriptions of Keith Emerson’s “Lucky Man” solo and the Moog Modular he took on tour to perform it.

I never really bothered to check it out. I don’t think I ever heard the song, or paid attention if I did. But I took the authors at face value: that this was a blistering, awesome performance that was part of the pincer maneuver which made Moog more or less a household name and doomed Buchla to relative obscurity (Switched-On Bach being the other) and that Emerson was a master both of modular synthesis and rock performance.

My curiosity was finally prompted by the MST3K riffing on Monster A-Go Go which made references to both “Fly Like An Eagle” and “Lucky Man” during a particularly synthy part of the soundtrack.

So I watched a couple of videos, and… well. Maybe a rock fan in 1970, having seen nothing like it, would have been blown away. But the first thing I noticed is the patch is really, really simple. Five years later he could have been playing that on the one-oscillator Micromoog. At the time, he could have pulled out 95% of the patch cable spaghetti draping the thing. Sure, it had an impressively powerful bass sound which Emerson made good use of, but there was nothing very sophisticated about the patch. The synth was mostly serving as a prop. “Look at all this equipment and all those cables, this guy must be a wizard!”

(I’m not disparaging Emerson’s synthesis skills — maybe this is the exact sound he was going for. Maybe it was set up for a quick between-songs repatch to do something completely different; pull one cable here and plug one in there and it’s ready to go. But I do think a lot of it was for show.)

The second thing is, the timing was really sloppy, at least in the performances I watched. Particularly in a more recent performance, there was a slow portamento and I wonder if that’s throwing off his playing, because he’s just not playing to the tempo of the rest of the band. It didn’t feel like expressive timing but just bad timing. Otherwise, what he played was… okay, but not the most acrobatic or virtuosic or creative solo I’ve ever heard by any means.

So, yeah. I guess this is just one of those cases where the historical context was the fuel and the art was a spark; with the fuel burned out we can see that the spark was a small thing.

it’s time to talk about Uranus

The third Ambient Online Themed Compilation is now available. There are 74 tracks on it (!) and two of them are by somebody named Starthief. I’ve only listened to a few of the others so far, but I like what I’m hearing.

“Georgium Sidus” may be as close to conventional ambient music as I’ve come lately. “In Cyan” had to go weirder. Both of them are studies in tension, in their own ways.

A couple of the pieces on the upcoming album are a little more chill, providing relief from the oppressiveness of a couple of the others.
But maybe sometime I should just make an album of relaxing yoga music or something.

It’s been 4 months since I set out my 2019 goals. How am I doing?

  • “Keep making music”

Pretty well! I released The Rule of Beasts, submitted to the compilation above, and have recorded 42 minutes of music toward Passing Through. The latter was slowed a little by gear and layout changes but I think this is an acceptable pace.

I haven’t done anything related to playing live. I looked into some ambient labels and haven’t decided to submit anything to them yet. I changed all my albums on BandCamp to pay-what-you-want.

I booked a hotel for Knobcon (registration for the event itself has changed from “tickets on sale March 1” to “tickets on sale in March” with no indication of progress).

  • “The gear plans”

Swimmingly! I’m basically at version 2.0 now (just waiting on one module to arrive from Portugal, and may make one more substitution), and it’s as good as I had hoped.

I’ve been diligent about tracking money spent on gear and received in sales, and in fact have stuck to the stricter idea that I’m going to spend less than I sell. There’s still some leeway in that for a couple more toys if I want — though I will wait at least until KnobCon for that — but right now nothing’s really on the menu.

  • “The health plans”

Physically: I don’t see my endocrinologist in May, and have been measuring nothing. I’ve been generally eating healthier, I think.

Mentally: really haven’t had the “maybe a panic attack” symptoms for a while. CBD oil is not a miracle cure but has helped with general mood stuff and seems to relieve tension a little bit. I have been pretty good about avoiding, or quickly disentangling from, pointless online bickering.

  • “The house plans”

I finally finished the vinyl plank floor. Haven’t done much else really.

  • “Other”

I guess?

best case scenario

Last night my spouse finished pyrography on the new case, and I spent about 4 hours getting everything (except the FX pedals) installed, wired up and tested.

The art takes some inspiration from a diagram of black hole evaporation, and some clipart and tattoo designs. But it also has more of a feeling of fantasy and whimsy and magic, and I like this combination a lot. 🙂 I’m really pleased at how this turned out and it was definitely worth waiting a couple of extra weeks for.

I’m still waffling on the tattoo thing though.

Outlining the changes from version 1.1 to 2.0:

  • ER-301 replaced Tyme Sefari/A Sound of Thunder, Chronoblob, Hertz Donut mk2, Warps, Cinnamon, Dynamo, Crossfold, and the Geiger Counter pedal. (Plus it does more things that those never could, and continues to gain new abilities…)
  • Maths replaced Function, Mini Slew, 321, and Pico A Logic.
  • QPAS replaced Twinpeak.
  • Sputnik 5-Step Voltage Source and Selector replace Mimetic Digitalis.
  • I let go of Maze, Double Helix, G8 and the Monobius pedal.
  • I added the 16n Faderbank, Volca Modular, Doepfer BBD and Erbe-Verb.
  • Incoming: Xaoc Tallin is replacing ModDemix and DTA.
  • Incoming: ADDAC200PI Pedal Integrator is replacing S.B.G.

Overall that’s 21 modules and two pedals out, 9 modules and an awesome controller and a tiny standalone synth in. I feel like I expanded the system, but it’s smaller, less expensive, arranged better, and still has a little space to grow later on if I’m careful about power requirements.

I’ve got the power

My esteemed spouse put in a noble effort toward the pyrography on my new case this weekend. There are still some hours more of work in it (lots of stippling!), and things like rheumatoid arthritis pain, Captain Marvel, and a bit more complexity in the task than expected have slowed the process.

In the interim I’ve done some thinking about the specifications for the power supplies in the case, vs. the listed consumption. Sparing you my limited-understanding description of Eurorack power supplies, my modules need close to 100% of capacity on the -12V rail and that’s not a good thing. Meanwhile the case can supply a ton more +5V current than it needs to, but apparently converting from +5 to -12 isn’t an easy matter. I may pop some USB power sockets into my case to grab some of that sweet +5V.

My solution was going to be: try it, but keep my old add-on PSU (which I’d really prefer to sell) to run a couple of the hungrier modules if necessary.

Instead, I started looking at which modules are hungriest for that rare and exotic -12V:

  • QPAS stands out as the most gluttonous by far (and rumor has it the listed specs are even a little lower than what it actually demands), but I like it and would prefer to hold on to it.
  • Natural Gate is absolutely going to stay in this system no matter what, I don’t care how much power it might need.
  • Crossfold is up there… oh hey, I have the ER-301 which can do wavefolding. My first attempt sounded good-ish but not good enough. My second attempt though — after reading some research on the subject — was much better and I feel confident in letting this go.
  • Sputnik 5-Step is also pretty hungry — but I think I will hold onto it.
  • Maths, the BBD, and the E370 are all significant, but fair compared to what they do for me.
  • ModDemix needs a good bit of -12V, but I don’t tend to use it very much and can now easily duplicate what it does in the ER-301. DTA has unknown power specs, probably fairly mild but I don’t know for sure. I can replace both with a Xaoc Tallin, which has some nifty features and sweet overdrive should I want that, for modest power, space and cost savings.
  • ALM S.B.G, the FX pedal interface, isn’t one of my favorites and also is a little greedier than options I like better. The ADDAC200PI seems ideal (and at 1/3 the power) but everyone is sold out — I wrote to the maker to see if it’s available at all. The Retro Mechanical Labs GPI seems an okay backup option.

I also have a Make Noise Erbe-Verb arriving today. Broadly, it does for reverb what the Doepfer BBD does for delay — an experimental, open, slightly crazy thing. Normally reverb goes at the end to put a sound into a contextual space; this one can do that but can also generate sound itself, and/or be modulated in all sorts of alarming and dramatic ways. People are still discovering and sharing completely new uses for it and there’s even an entire EP made with nothing but Erbe-Verb, and I find that pretty exciting.

Aside from maybe switching my Tides for a Xaoc Zadar and keeping an ear out for what u-he CVilization will have to offer, that’s the end of my planned gear changes. But I plan to attend KnobCon in September, which might lead to something.

I also plan to upgrade my computer this year. It’s an 8 year old machine where literally everything but the motherboard, CPU and case have been replaced at least once; the case is not my favorite and the CPU is a first-generation Core i7. Moore’s Law died a few years back, but still a budget AMD Ryzen could eat it for breakfast. I’m just waiting on the third generation of Ryzen chips, rumored to be 15% faster, with more cores and less power consumption and coming in June, to make that change. Intel still leads them just a little on single-core performance, but costs about twice as much for the privilege. Whether I’ll go prebuilt, choose my own pieces using PC Part Picker, or somewhere in between with a barebones or customized gamer setup, I’m not sure.

droning on

I wrote up a forum post in a “how to synthesize drones” thread which, I think, contains the most coherent thoughts I’ve put together on the subject. Maybe that’s not saying much, but here it is for posterity, expanded a little bit.

I use the word “drone” in a more general sense than some people, but more strictly than others. If I control a sound in terms of level rather than “playing notes”, I generally consider it a drone. It’s not an absolute rule, but drones usually have a (more or less) fixed pitch. There may be rhythmic accents.

I don’t quite understand how a band like Earth is considered “drone” when they’re clearly playing riffs, have melodies and standard chord progressions and so on. That’s far too loose a definition for me. Nor does it have to be an unrelenting, 25-minute long pure sine wave.

When I create drone-based music, this is what I think about:

  • Depth, width, power, distance, gentleness vs. forcefulness, cleanliness vs dirtiness, spectral balance, harmonic structure.
  • Texture. Micro-structure, granularity, etc. This can come from FM or other (near-) audio rate modulation, the beating of inharmonic frequencies against each other, repeating delays, granular synthesis, timestretching, the content of any samples used, or other sources. It could be a “natural” and inherent part of the means of sound production, or it could be intentionally added modulation. As an example, the sound of the carrier of a dial-up modem is a steady beep, which I would categorize as having little or no texture, but when the actual signals modulate it, we can hear structure in it even if it’s too rapid for us to follow — that’s a kind of texture.
  • The balance between stasis and change in the medium term. Perhaps it’s a weakness of mine, but I want some motion to take the place of discrete notes and melodies. That motion could be the result of random or periodic modulation (including rhythm), “natural” feedback processes, or manual (usually improvised) control.
  • Form. That is, structural change over time on the “song” scale.
    Simply fading in, holding steady for some minutes, and fading out is usually unsatisfying, regardless of any meta-narrative about separating music from time, or a temporal window on an endless vibration. Changes in volume, timbre, adding or removing layers, changes in harmonic structure or spatial cues or background noise add interest even when they are not the defining feature of the piece. Usually I don’t plan form in advance, but set up opportunities for improvisation and then let the form flow naturally as I record. If that’s not effective enough, I will edit the recording to enhance or expand these structural changes, or reject the recording if I feel it just doesn’t say anything.

I almost always set up at least two voices, because relative variations in level, spatial characteristics or timbre can be much more interesting than absolute variations of a single voice, and because they can lead to shifts in texture or the creation of new textures. Sometimes extra voices have their origin in the original voice, and just involve additional or different processing.

Although I’m talking about drones here, this corresponds quite a lot to Curtis Roads’ concept of “multiscale composition.” As I’ve said before, my act of composition is spread out between pre-recording, recording and post-recording phases — but it’s all composition, even if there are no “notes”, some is spontaneous, and some a reaction. Why not use the ears as a tool of imagination, and not just the brain?

No Sudden Moves

I’ve shared this recording elsewhere, so why not here?

  • Plaits in waveshaping mode (with an LFO over the level) feeds the audio input of Rings in inharmonic string mode, which feeds the ER-301.
  • In ER-301 channel 1, three Schroeder allpass filters in a feedback loop are manually controlled by a 16n Faderbank. In channel 2 there’s just a grain delay in a feedback loop with its time manually controlled. There’s a bit of cross-feedback.
  • The two channels are recorded as mid-side stereo, and some ValhallaRoom is applied.

I’m really enjoying the 16n Faderbank as a controller for all sorts of things. In another recent recording, I used it to control levels in Maschine over USB MIDI, as well as the levels and timbre of a harmonic oscillator in the ER-301. In this one, constant manual micro-adjustments of the allpass filters prevented the feedback from building up into something piercing and unpleasant, and changes in harmonic content were a combination of tweaking Plaits and Rings as well as the filters. The impression I get from this piece is light refracting off the curved surface of some mysterious alien artifact, perhaps… which might have been better title inspiration than what I chose. Ah well.

I’m reading A Study In Honor, a novel set during a near-future civil war. A post-Trump leftist government implements universal healthcare, guarantees LGBT rights, and does much for racial justice and income inequality and so on — and then radicalized right-wing idiots are so upset about it that some states start a war, and federal centrists are in the process of eroding rights and breaking the economy again to placate the crazies. Our protagonist is a wounded veteran of that war, a queer woman of color who suffers from PTSD, a poorly fitting, irritating, poorly functioning prosthetic arm that the VA won’t replace, and fresh waves of alienation. Needless to say, this has not been a happy story so far. It’s well-written and gripping, though.

So with that bouncing around in my subconscious, last night the infamous Shitgibbon-in-Chief actually appeared in my dreams. This cartoonish con man has been a mental health threat to the entire country for the last 30 months or so, but up until now he’s avoided direct appearances in my brain at night. Well… he’s officially banished.


I figured out what to do with those pesky pedals. Simply using a wire tie to strap a couple of composite shims to the back will let them sit vertically atop the modular case and prevent them from tipping over — assuming I push the back of the case up against the wall. We’ll see.

Pyrography on the case isn’t underway quite yet, but there’s a heat transfer from a laser printer on it. I kind of like the looks of it as is, but there are sections not filled in (to conserve ink) and some guide lines that came through dark and muddy. So I’m willing to wait a bit more for actual pyrography.

Those small speakers are not wonderful. They’re cheap and small and unobtrusive, but even for gaming I definitely hear the difference. Still, I’ll get used to it, and it’s not like the acoustic setup really did justice to the studio monitors I had.

I haven’t yet mentioned the Doepfer BBD I picked up, for a price I found too hard to resist. This is a “Bucket Brigade Device” — the precursor to a digital delay, which works by passing signals like a hot potato along a chain of capacitors. It’s obsolete technology. So are vacuum tubes, but that doesn’t stop a lot of guitarists from preferring their character…

The length of delay in a BBD is determined by the number of stages (which is fixed on the chip) and the clock rate. Slower clock rates result in two or three kinds of signal degradation as well as an audible whine. For that reason, most BBD delays have heavy low-pass filtering and restricted clock rates, and only give “dark” echoes. For some musicians, just throwing an LPF onto a digital delay is a close enough approximation to get that kind of sound.

But Doepfer’s BBD is special. To encourage experimentation, it eschews the filters and clock rate restrictions, and opens up the circuit to manipulate or synchronize to it. 1024 stages is ideal for flanging, and short enough to work for comb filtering and Karplus-Strong synthesis, but for actual echoes it needs a slow clock which adds a lot of dirt and whine. But there are software plugins that can surgically remove the whine while leaving the more interesting grunge, and without making the whole echo super-dark. Or I can insert a clean delay into the BBD’s feedback loop, extending the echo time while having full control over the sound character. Direct manipulation of the clock, and using the clock itself as an audio source, leads to all kinds of other places that you just can’t get outside of modular synthesis in general and this circuit design in particular.