slightly delayed

Next weekend is Superbooth — modular synthesis’ biggest trade show / gathering / bunch of performances, in Berlin. There will be announcements of new stuff. I’ll be out in the woods, camping and not following the hype (or if there’s a good connection, checking websites a couple times a day maybe).

But right now when I look at my system, I think “geez there’s a lot of stuff here to explore” — partially because of the wide and deep ocean that is the Rainmaker. I don’t want to add to that for a bit, I just want to grab a spoon and start digging. So the gear is going to sit as-is for a while, at version 2.05 or whatever it is, and not commit the last 20HP. I have a few thoughts on it, but I’ll reserve most of those for my personal “what if” notes.

One thought I’ve been having is that I kind of miss having nice hands-on complex oscillators. ER-301 is capable, and is a fantastic blank slate. But neither the unit that I wrote for it, nor the Volca Modular, are quite filling that ecological niche. I have some thoughts about a different way to solve this in the ER-301 — separating the oscillators onto different channels and routing via a combination of patch cables and “prewired” internal connections. If that doesn’t get me there, I see a Synth Farm 2.2 plan (not one that replaces the ER-301, but other things).

Between the recent release of the long-awaited Valhalla Delay and especially my first explorations of the Rainmaker, I’ve gained some new insights into the relationship between delays (especially multitap) and comb filtering, and what can be done with them. And I’ve taken that insight back into exploring the older Valhalla UberMod, which is a multitap delay with a quite different paradigm. The result is something a little like the big knowledge download I recently got with wavefolding/FM/PM, but more on the intuitive side and much less geometric.

I haff come to inspect ze tapestries

Sonic Tapestries #23 is now available in the MixCloud archive. This is an episode of a radio show on London’s Resonance Extra which, this month, featured modular synth artists.

Roughly 11 and a half minutes in, they introduce my piece “and then gone” from Passing Through. Here’s what the guest, Simon Morgan, had to say:

This is someone I came across online, an American artist named Starthief who I think is really excellent, and embodies what I would consider the modern spirit of modular, which has got its roots in the early days, the Gong track you just played. And along with all the other artists and contributors and builders and designers in the scene is giving modular this rebirth. This is someone that I think makes really, really lovely sounds.

Thanks Simon! And the discussion afterward:

Mat Hart: That was really nice! It kind of progressed from sort of more ambient stylings to sort of more… sawtooth?

SM: It’s kind of got that edge to it in pieces, which I really like.

MH: One of the things that I listen more and more now to modular synth music is trying to discern what elements are analog and what elements are digital. And I feel personally quite lost in that minefield. I know you’ve got quite an impressive knowledge of both worlds, can you listen to that and sort of go ‘ah, that is that synth?’

SM: To some extent I think one can — and one can always slip on the banana skin of your own preconceptions as well when you’re doing that. Starthief is someone I’ve come across on one of the modular forums, so I happen to know a little bit about how he makes his music — I stress a little bit — and I know that he has some digital elements to what he does, and I think knowing that I can probably identify those where they show up in that track. And I think the analog/digital debate, which has many facets, is in some ways overstated. Given modern technology, personally I’m much more about results than tools. If something gives me the results I want, I’m not that bothered whether it’s analog or digital technology. I use both those worlds in my own music and am happy to do so. I believe Starthief — probably, not knowing him but knowing a little bit about how he works — probably would not be very far from that position. There’s some digital in there, yeah.

To address that last bit: a lot of agreement here. In the last three decades we’ve been through a few cycles where digital was king and analog was demonized, and vice-versa. In retrospect it all seems silly and kind of embarrassing. Analog and digital each have their strengths, and there’s no reason not to use them together.

I would characterize my system as mostly digital now, with a few key analog pieces — and of course the analog control paths and signal paths that define Eurorack. This particular piece is no exception — the sound source is the ER-301 Sound Computer, which is partially modeling an analog circuit. FM is from Kermit, a proudly lo-fi digital oscillator, but slower modulation is from Maths, a proudly analog modulation and signal-mixing tool.

Somewhat in this vein, here’s something recently posted on Lines in a thread debating “inscrutable” musical tools, which resonated with me:

My favorite colors happen to include both analog and digital. (And of course the bit about artist as critic very much hits home with me, as that’s what I finally realized in 2017.)

Anyway, Simon’s own piece in this show is lovely and as ghostly as its title suggests, and there are some other very highly regarded musicians featured as well. Suzanne Ciani, Richard Devine, Tangerine Dream… I’m kind of dizzy to have my music included among theirs, really. So maybe go have a listen. 🙂

in lost Carcosa

Did I mention here that the next Ambient Online Themed Compilation is going to be “Death & Rebirth?”

And of course I mentioned I was reading The Laundry Files. Which features necromancy — and specifically, a very disturbing bone-white violin carried at all times by a “combat epistemologist” and music theory professor, who’s occasionally sent on missions around the world to neutralize the worst hauntings and cults. The agent finds all this traumatizing but the violin loves to feed…

Anyway. Yes, I did the thing.


I’ve been told that episode #23 of Sonic Tapestries — a radio show on London’s Resonance FM — featured ambient music using modular synths, and specifically one of my own tracks. I wasn’t told which one though. The specific episode hasn’t made it to the archive as of this writing, but hopefully soon. I’m eager to hear which one was used, what they said about it if anything, and especially what other music it shared the show with. The show is described as “a sedated sojurn through worldly, mystical sounds past and present.” Hmm.

I might not be thrilled with my job, but I’m glad to be back to work after spending Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in sick-limbo. Still got some congestion, but I’m about 80% functional.

Sampling Modulator is pretty neat. Kind of mesmerizing to watch those 8 LEDs flicker sequentially through the steps. My first attempt to use it with the PLL to multiply a clock tempo didn’t work, but at those speeds I can use Teletype or Marbles for that anyway; its strength is more in manual control, rates that are fast enough for audio or clocking the BBD, and of course the built in sample-and-hold that gives it its name. I can’t help but think a slew would have been a cooler addition than the fine tuning knob — making it more akin to Sport Modulator or Wogglebug — but I’ve got that available elsewhere anyhow.

The latest in the MW story is a post from Chris Meyer of Learning Modular and the Patch & Tweak book. Alongside more general praise, he reveals that back in August, Mike was talking about changing “MW” to something else, and in fact had preemptively registered the domains “ModularWorld” and “ModuleWorld.” This puts things in a somewhat different light from the years-ago post that said “I know it’s a puerile name but it’s not hurting anyone” and makes me a bit more hopeful.

Mind you, some of the current moderators on the site sure don’t give me any warm feelings.

sniffing and reading

Sinus congestion and its usual entourage of symptoms, plus extra back pain from sleeping poorly/in the recliner, have been keeping me down for the past few days — so I have been spending more time reading than diving into musical projects or accomplishing much else.

The Erich Fromm books I picked up were not as mind-blowing as I could have hoped. It’s partially that he was less radical than some things I’ve read in the last couple of years, partially that the subject matter only partially intersected what I was looking for, and partially that the titles and descriptions of posthumously published books might have been a little misleading.

The Art of Living is definitely more on a personal psychological level than a sociopolitical one; the idea behind it is to be “more authentically human” through self-knowledge (meditation and psychotherapy) and resistance to materialistic/consumerist modes of thought. On Disobedience is a bit of an anti-bureaucratic manifesto with equal disdain for capitalism and communism; it repeatedly decries nationalism and the nuclear arms race, praises Bertrand Russell, and provides an outline for a humanist democratic socialism.

The most important point he makes isn’t the details — he’s not an economist — but the general drive to put people first, and make the economy serve humanity instead of the other way around. Rather than abolishing property, seizing the means of production, or even an emphasis on income/wealth equality, the goal is to provide for everyone’s basic needs and education and to put businesses under partial social control of their workers and community. Work should be fulfilling and something to take pride in, rather than mind-numbing and dehumanizing. Anyone should be able to leave their job at any time to pursue further education, a career change, creative pursuits, etc.

It might be somewhat idealistic, but I prefer that to the “capitalist realism” that says that the unjust state we’re in now is the least worst possible option available.

After that, I blazed through The Apocalypse Codex and am well into The Annihilation Score. When I can’t sleep very well and need to sit up to relieve the congestion as much as possible, I get through a lot of reading. So far it seems like the Laundry Files series gets more intense with each successive book. Codex is the first to be told from the POV of someone other than Bob — in this case, Mo or “AGENT CANDID” — and I think the author scores about a 90% on making it feel like a different narrator. (In The Black Company novels, one of my favorite fantasy series, the narrative voices blur together much more and don’t feel quite as much like a real character as the people they write about.) There are two more of them on my shelf, then I’ll have to dig up The Labyrinth Index to catch up fully.

The one thing I have been doing musically is trying out the Rainmaker, which arrived yesterday afternoon (thanks to my spouse picking it up from the post office; no thanks to the lazy postal carrier who slipped a “missed delivery” notice in the mailbox instead of carrying the package to our door during one of the few times I was actually right there ready to answer it…) While I haven’t delved super deeply into it yet — and there’s a lot there to swim around in — I find it’s almost exactly what I expected from the videos I watched. Complex rather than simple and immediate, but also not difficult thanks to a well-designed interface. With a few minutes of button tapping and knob turning, I can set up neat little bouncy patterns of echoes, or warbly drunk echoes, or the sound of being at the other end of a long metal or concrete tube, or plucked strings, or all sorts of things. The pitch shifting is fairly rough granular stuff, but serviceable — and the artifacts that creates are actually useful as an effect in their own right. Overall I think this was a good choice of module for the mad sound designer in me.

The Befaco Sampling Modulator just arrived today and is sitting on my desk in a box. I’ll get to it in a bit.

As I’ve written before, the unfortunately named is something of a central hub for the synth community, especially modular synths. It went down this weekend, and one of the moderators informed people that the funds that had been donated to cover its expenses had been misappropriated for months and the owner/founder, Mike McGrath, was incommunicado.

But it had been known that Mike had been suffering from health issues, and it was already rumored that the donations were covering his medical expenses rather than the site. I… kind of can’t fault that, though I think if it were my project I’d want to be more up front that the most important creditors get paid first.

As it turns out, Mike has passed away. I didn’t know him, but those who do say he was kind, generous, and funny. I’ll take them at their word. He does deserve some credit for running a site that became such an important community and repository of information, but as I’ve also written before, the culture there was not without its problems. Specifically, toxic masculinity problems. Starting with the name of the forum (which was Mike’s own online handle, and came from a pair of Electro-Harmonix FX pedals from the 70s), which establishes a sort of locker room atmosphere, there are also several users with lewd (just short of pornographic) profile pictures, mildly transphobic or sexist jokes, and just a general sense of… stuff that doesn’t need to be on a synth forum and doesn’t make women, nonbinary, queer, or just generally tasteful people feel comfortable. And those things are all unnecessary and could be fixed with a name change and a small policy change. But of course, to a certain type of white guy, it’s just a bit of fun and no harm done and us SJWs need to not be so sensitive… 😛

Discussions of that have run headfirst into (A) the kind of people who deny that toxic masculinity exists or is a real problem, and (B) people calling for respect for the dead.

SynthCube, who sells DIY kits, covered the past due bills and got the site running again. The moderator team is deciding what to do next, but promises that the content will be preserved and they are committed to “preserving Mike’s legacy.” By that I hope they don’t mean preserving the unnecessary sexism. But any discussion of that is killed immediately by the moderators, so I don’t have a lot of hope for that.

The latest word is that Mike wanted his daughter Kira to take over running the forum, which she will do after some time to grieve. She and the rest of his family seem to be fine with the “Muff Wiggler” name at the moment, but I have some hope that she’ll take an active role in the forum and community and make at least some of the changes so many of us want.

early reflections

Last night I put a couple more items up on Reverb that had previously only been listed on a couple of forums — since MW’s creaky forum software is having another one of its biannual total failures of the search feature.

Four hours later, in the wee hours, I found I’d made three sales and gotten an offer on a fourth. And now the next morning, I’ve sold the two pedals as well. I like it when these things happen together; it saves trips to the post office, and makes numbers go up in a satisfying way.

I’ve decided to march onward with the Synth Farm 2.1 plan, because I’m pretty confident in it. If there’s some must-have at KnobCon (assuming KnobCon still happens…) then I will find a way to shuffle things and make it work, at least if it’s small enough.

So I’ve put in an offer for a Sampling Modulator and bought a discounted Rainmaker. I’ll be keeping an occasional eye out for a used Zadar or Loquelic Iteritas if the opportunity comes up — but Zadar’s got a fresh round of Hot New Thing status since its firmware update and is kind of unobtanium right now.

I’m just going to leave these here

“Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.

– Donald J. Trump, upon learning that Mueller was appointed as the Special Counsel… as quoted in the Mueller report

Dare we hold out any hope that this will come true?

Does it sound like the statement of someone who isn’t guilty? I know this isn’t how our justice system works, but… wow.

we determined not to apply an approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the President committed crimes.”

“we recognized that a federal criminal accusation against a sitting President would place burdens on the President’s capacity to govern and potentially preempt constitutional process for addressing presidential misconduct.”

The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the President’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.”

” if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state.”

“while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

– the Mueller Report

So yeah, this supposed “corrupt rigged witch hunt by Democrats” started with the premise that they were not going to charge Trump with anything.

But the report provides plenty of examples of Trump obstructing justice, and even preemptively shoots down arguments that “it’s not obstruction if guilt is not proven.” And it’s probably as close to saying “wake up, Congress, and smell the impeachment” as they felt they could say.

that’s my jam

I dreamed I was playing synths in a band that was in its first stages of formation. We didn’t really know each other, nor have any particular goals, but we were going to jam for a bit and see what came of it.

The first bit came together spontaneously (probably too easily) as kind of a funky late 70s rock groove… except for me. I did some kind of awkwardly out of place noodly cool jazz electric piano thing. Everyone knew I was the loose screw in an otherwise well-oiled machine.

I was prepared to bow out and go home with as much dignity as I could muster, but a couple of them stopped me. One of them said something to the effect of: “What you were playing wasn’t you. It wasn’t you at your best. Don’t try to fit what you think we’re doing, play your own way, . Let’s go again.”

And instead of jazz noodling, I played like Starthief. I set up the sort of drone/rhythmic pulse combo thing with Natural Gate that I started with Shelter In Place, synced to the band’s beat and with a rhythm I felt worked… and it was transformative. They were still all doing their thing, but weaving in and out of the rhythm I was providing, while I reacted to what they were doing. Instead of a solid backing rhythm and a bad secondary melody, we were meshing — we were killing it. And then I woke up in mid-jam with huge grins on all our faces.

This fits so much with my recent thoughts. I’ve pretty well finalized the theme, and even chosen a working title, for the next album — despite not actually getting around to reading Fromm yet.

I’m currently reading Iain Banks’ Matter. I’m determined to finish all the Culture novels one of these days. Even if the Culture is the Mary-Sue of utopian far-future “Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism” civilizations where everyone is deeply eccentric and many characters have godlike powers, I still want to live there, and the books are creative and funny when they’re not going entirely too far to the grim side with less enlightened civilizations. The Hydrogen Sonata features, as one might guess, a piece of music and a musician and a very weird, kind of awful instrument — and that makes it one of my (many) favorite SF novels. Anyway, while I’ve got more Laundry Files books in the queue along with a couple more Culture novels, I’ll read Fromm after this book, I promise.

I’ll bypass the thrilling saga of trying different patch cords, and move on to thoughts about Synth Farm 2.1. Yes, that’s my name for it now, despite the starry artwork that might suggest something else. It’s in contrast to my spouse’s “shrimp farm” (a few tanks of blue neocaridina shrimp).

It’s been on version 2.0 for less than a month, but I have a well-considered plan for amending it.

  • Rossum Panharmonium is already ordered and previously described. I expect it to be somewhere between oscillator and effect for me; sort of the mirror counterpart to Erbe-Verb which is somewhere between effect and sound source.
  • I’ve been convinced that the Intellijel Rainmaker would suit me very well. It’s “the last word in Eurorack delays” according to Mylar Melodies. It’s a 16-tap delay where each tap can have independent or coordinated level, pitch, filtering, and stereo pan, and there are various algorithms for stacking and timing the delay taps — aside from things like subtle detuning, Doppler shift, octave shimmer etc. you can sequence a whole polymetric call-and-response melody with echoes. Mind blown. That’s just half the module; the other half is a comb filter/resonator which is more raw than Rings but quite flexible. It’s the sort of thing where you can dig deep into sound design and theory to create unique effects. It’s big and relatively expensive, which means it’s gonna replace something and consume the budget surplus I was running, but I think it’ll be worth it.
  • I’ll hold onto my G8 clock divider. No wait, I have another idea.
  • I’ll let go of the Sputnik 5-Step and Selector. At the start of 2018 I was excited about the idea of a sequencer that let me address steps directly via triggers converted from MIDI notes. But my workflow has changed enough that this isn’t an exciting prospect anymore; I can get what I need through Teletype. The rarity with which I’ve used the module at all makes it hard to justify the space it takes up.
  • In their place, I may go for a compact manual trigger sequencer of some kind. A trigger sequencer can also act as a clock divider. Befaco Sampling Modulator, which I’ve had my eye on, is a trigger sequencer attached to a sample+hold, and can go fast enough to mutate or generate audio and do a lot of other stuff besides. Why have two modules that do things I’ll occasionally want, when I can have one module that does both those things and more?
  • I’ll move a couple of things around. Shades and O’Tool+ can go in the center of the case, where they can act as passive mults on those occasions where I want to patch from corner to corner — meaning I shouldn’t really need 36″ long patch cords. I’ll also break up the blob of modules with dark faceplates that blend in to one another.

escape or embrace

I’ve been thinking more about that article I linked to last night, the concepts of “positive liberty” and so forth. Wikipedia — sometimes useful — pointed out that Erich Fromm wrote on the subject well before Isaiah Berlin did.

Based on some quick summaries I think I like Fromm. A political psychologist, a Jew who left Germany as the Nazis came to power, he theorized about why people support authoritarian rule (extremely relevant then and now!), argued that true freedom is defiance of social expectations, was firmly against warmongering and nuclear proliferation, and supported humanistic democratic socialism. One of the reviews I’ve read describes Fromm as the antithesis of Ayn Rand. Sounds good to me!

So I’m definitely going to read some of his work, and I might have a theme for the next album.

I feel like what Fromm was getting at is what got watered down to a vague “be yourself,” meaninglessly repeated by children’s media while I was growing up. A much less strongly reinforced message than all of the entertainment, advertising, news, peers, authority figures, family etc. driving home the lesson that you better not be yourself. And that’s a shame.