moving parts

The Synthesis Technology E520 Hyperion Effects Processor arrived Saturday. It is indeed a lovely and powerful piece of synthesis technology. As with every one of the brand’s modules, the build quality is really solid and sharp-looking. The LCD on this module is the brightest and has the best contrast of any I’ve seen on a piece of music gear (though this photo really doesn’t show it that well). More importantly, the interface is really smooth and easy to use, with very little shuttling around in menus (with the exception of one feature I will never need) and some of the things it can do to sound are nearly unbelievable.

The E520 has several different algorithms, with the possibility of more to come in future updates. I could (and started to) write up descriptions and mini-reviews of all of them, but that would be long, and probably boring to most people, and you could just look at this for the dry technical version.

So I will just say: there are a bunch of delays, each with unique features and character. Like the ability to change the sample rate of a delay while still staying locked to a tempo, or just shift the sample rate way down to make the delay darker and warmer. Or filters, pitch shifting, pattern-based delay, a “beat repeat” style delay, or a spectral delay that shifts different frequencies by different amounts of time.

There are some other time-domain effects, like a shimmer reverb, granular pitch shifter, sound-on-sound looper/recorder (with beautiful lo-fi tape degradation stuff you can dial in), frequency shifter, flanger with diffusion (which also doubles as a Karplus-Strong short delay), phaser, chorus, wah, etc. And there’s a “dual mono” mode which lets you select two simplified effects and chain them or run them independently.

There are some spectral effects which are kind of out of this world. If the module only had the Spectral Crusher algorithm, it’d still be formidable. Several years ago, I wrote some experimental VST plugins that manipulated sound in the frequency domain — but they were awkward, put a heavy burden on the CPU, and mostly just gimmicky. But Spectral Crusher does several of those in a way that is highly useful.

A normal (time-domain) filter reduces the strength of certain frequencies — for instance, a lowpass filter lets lower frequencies pass, while suppressing higher ones. (Filters generally also have side effects on phase, resonant peaks where they increase levels of some frequencies, and so on which are exploited musically.)

But imagine turning that sideways — filtering out frequencies based on their incoming strength. You could take the strongest bands in a signal and cut them off, letting other harmonics and noise through — and then since the fundamental was probably one of the strongest frequencies, maybe pitch shift the results down an octave. Or you could apply compressor logic to thousands of individual frequency bands. Or you can force the levels of individual bands to decay more slowly than normal, yielding a kind of reverb.

Honestly, as much awesome stuff as this one particular algorithm can do, I feel like there’s incredible potential for even more manipulation of this kind. Granted, a lot of it would probably just sound like mush — but it’s an area I think we will see explored more in the future.

Anyway, there are some other spectral effects — a “drone maker” that slowly samples and sustains bands with a slow fade, a delay with spectral pitch shifter, a delay that applies variations in delay time to different bands, and a “Spectral Time Machine” looper that reminds me of Red Panda Tensor but more (and smoother, since it’s spectral rather than granular). It records audio in the frequency domain, applies feedback effects to it, and lets you play it back and overdub at any speed — backwards, forwards, even completely motionless — with pitch shifting independent of the speed. It’s pretty magical, although apparently was a little underappreciated by the beta testers.

So, yes, it’s quite good. Worth the large amount of rack space it takes up — though honestly, I think for 95% of usage it could get away with half the knobs and jacks. It’s got that flexibility for the edge case situations though, and in modular, that can sometimes be a make-or-break issue.

What else in the Eurorack world? The Pod 60 has been sitting here waiting to be filled up. The Sweet 16 controller should arrive today, so I could move everything over — but I will wait a few days before setting everything up, because my custom snake cable is also shipping now. That way I can rewire the rack with my audio interface and PDU all in one go. I bought a used Shapeshifter and it should be on its way soon. So all this is coming together pretty quickly.

I tried a couple of other firmware options on my Starling Via. META strikes me as a mini-Plaits and mini-Zadar in one module — doing different things depending on mode and looping settings. Oscillator and drum synth; wavetable-based envelope and looping envelope; “sequencer” and looping sequencer (although really those are just “envelopes” with weirder data). I liked the oscillator and drum stuff, but I think I’d rather go with an actual Zadar for the fancy modulation source if I were so inclined, since its display and warping capabilities make it more intuitive.

I tried OSC3 next, and will stick with that for a while. Basic oscillator shapes plus phase modulation, but with two “side” oscillators that have unique detuning features. It has an output that signals the beating frequency between the oscillators, so you could synchronize other modulation to it; you can also synchronize the beating to an incoming clock, which gets pretty wild if you use varying rhythms. And it’s got a chord mode that sounds nicely thick in a chiptuney sort of way, which complements the Via platform’s VCAs and sample-and-hold for some wild AM drones. I’ve got faceplates for OSC3 and META incoming, so I can switch between thus (and the SCANNER and SYNC3 I’ve already got) without being confused about the interface.

I figure I am headed for a “version 4.0” of my modular, but I don’t quite know what that looks like specifically yet. It all comes down to how I feel about Shapeshifter in usage and sound. My rough prediction is this:

  • I’ll probably like Shapeshifter very much in terms of sound and feel. It’ll probably be “grab and go” enough to replace the Hertz Donut.
  • Shapeshifter’s design is primarily a complex oscillator, which happens to use wavetables — wavetables are a weaker feature in it. E352 is primarily a wavetable oscillator, which has other tricks (and TZFM was literally an afterthought). The way I use my E352 in general is that the unison, FM etc. are the primary feature and wavetable morphing is a secondary axis of modulation and variation — so therefore, chances are I will feel like Shifter can replace the E352 as well.
  • Unless Shifter has a very specific FM character to it, I will probably decide — after stewing about it — to keep Akemie’s Castle for now. Yeah it’s big, yeah it’s power hungry, but nothing else I’ve heard in modular sounds like it, and it’s not just the chords or the quasi-harmonic-oscillator thing I do with it.
  • And I’ll probably decide against filling the available space with a Verbos Harmonic Oscillator. It’s big, and pricey, and I’m kind of already using some similar techniques with Castle anyway.
  • I could decide I do want another oscillator though — perhaps Rubicon (a top-notch analog oscillator that does TZFM and is praised for clarity) or Orgone Accumulator (a sort of generalist digital oscillator with some neat sounds) or Odessa. Or I might recognize that Shifter, Castle, Kermit, and whatever the Via is being today, and also the Angle Grinder when it’s not being a filter, are enough 🙂

just when I thought I was o̶u̶t̶ done

Okay, I know what my priorities are going to be with gear stuff.

That Pod 60 case arrived, and it’ll fit fine in the intended space. I’m waiting on the Sweet 16 module before setting it up — and hopefully, that custom snake cable so when I dig around inside the 3U box that has the PDU and audio interface in it, I can switch everything over all at once.

Paul from SynthTech showed off a completed black-panel E520, so I’m expecting my shipping notification any day or hour now.

After that, the next thing I will try is the Intellijel Shapeshifter.

Early on in my modular journey, I look at this thing and my brain shut down. I saw that 2-line LCD and the word “Preset” and thought of desktop synths I’ve used in the past that didn’t work out. From that day forward, I blocked out all awareness of the module entirely.

Yesterday I happened to start reading a thread about it and then watched some videos and then, strictly metaphorically you understand, slapped myself on the forehead. Because this thing is most of what my favorite oscillators are, plus more. It is:

  • a complex oscillator with TZFM (like Hertz Donut mk2)
  • that uses wavetables (like the E352)
  • and also does phase modulation (like the E352)
  • and can do unison detuning (like the E352)
  • and has a chord mode (like Akemie’s Castle)
  • and has a logic output (like the HDmk2) but which can do multiple different types of logic, not just XOR
  • and has a wavefolder (like HDmk2/E352), but it’s analog and can independently process external audio
  • and can use an external signal to do waveshaper-like table lookup (like Jena)
  • and has a sort of bank-spanning interleave mode
  • and can do a form of phase distortion
  • and has a delay synced to its modulation oscillator, which can go into audio rates and act as a comb filter
  • and can do ring modulation and other combinations of two inputs
  • and can act as a vocoder

And sounds pretty fantastic in demos. I will have the space to try it next to everything else I already have, but it may displace some of those old favorites.

E352 does have some features Shapeshifter doesn’t, though in theory I strongly favor Shapey’s feature set. I fully expect that this is a battle that’s going to come down to sound character, I expect.

Whereas HD mk2’s survival in my case is likely to be more about feel. I tried to replace the Donut with several different things and finally circled back to it — I don’t want to make that mistake again — but if Shapeshifter feels as comfortable and inviting to use, there we go.

Akemie’s Castle is a somewhat different beast and Shapeshifter is not really a direct replacement… but it could still step into a similar functional role, especially paired with some other option. I like what Castle can do for me, but I always have in the back of my mind that it’s big and consumes a lot of power. I can imagine replacing my E352/HD/Castle with a Shapeshifter and a Verbos Harmonic Oscillator perhaps. (VHO is another one that I have loved in other peoples’ music and in demos; it’s large but not quite as large as Castle, and a bit pricey but if I’m replacing three major oscillator modules with two it could make sense.)

Of course there’s also a chance that I won’t actually like the Shapeshifter, and everything else will stay as is. I had a Rainmaker for a while, another complex Intellijel module, and found I preferred working with something simpler. But I feel like this is a bit different. We’ll see.

After working this out, the next step is likely to be a Casper/Bastl Waver. I doubt I would then go for Drezno and Jena, since Shapeshifter will have covered the Jena side of things. And then, well, we’ll see what happens. So much for being “almost finished” with changes to my modular 🙂

knock knock

Who’s there?

Opportunity.  It's Opportunity.

Thanks to an offer I could not sanely refuse, I have a 4ms Pod 60 coming. This is a slim, 60HP powered Eurorack case that I don’t have room for… unless I replace my 16n Faderbank with a Tesseract Sweet 16, which I totally can do. (And the Sweet 16 has CV inputs it can convert to MIDI and i2c messages along with the faders. Neat!)

So that gives me +36HP of free rack space (for a total of 40, or 48 without the arcade button) and some relief to the -12V current burden on my main case’s power supply, for pretty much no budget hit.

Aside from the Sweet 16 itself — and the cheap little Mazzatron Mult+PassThru I ordered before this happened, which might free up another little bit of space — am going to sit on my hands and not order more stuff until the E520 arrives… really for real this time. That doesn’t mean I won’t plot and ponder!

slow churn

I haven’t been feeling super creative lately, so there are only two candidates for the next album recorded so far. Otherwise it’s just been a little bit of experimentation, and bit of thought into “finishing” the modular.

Back when preorders opened for the SynthTech E520, it was offered in both aluminum and black panel versions. I chose the black to match my E352. Naturally, production of the black panels was delayed, so while some of the other early birds have been receiving their modules, mine is probably going to show up around the start of next month or so.

I have a WMD MSCL compressor/limiter on the way. While I have a couple of strong favorite compressors in the software world (DDMF MagicDeathEye and NI SuperchargerGT), having one in analog hardware might have some benefit in feedback loops, sidechaining, or overcooking signals a bit. A lot of people who don’t use software like it for “mix glue,” but I’ve also heard some demos of it used on individual channels, and it seems promising.

That leaves 4HP unclaimed in my case, or 12HP if I put the arcade button aside. I’m thinking about waveshapers, and there are a few options:

  • There have been leaks about the upcoming Intellijel Bifold, which is 8HP and has both Buchla and Serge style wavefolders and a crossfader between them; they can be used independently or together, or it can act as a ring modulator or VCA. So that’s a neat option.
  • WMD C4RBN (Carbon) was also recently announced: a 4HP filter with an input saturator and an output wavefolder. But I don’t like the filter character at all from what I’ve heard, although to be fair, most sawtooth-through-resonant-filter-sweep demos make me cringe. I didn’t much like their MMF filter when I demoed it at Knobcon before either, though.
  • Casper/Bastl Waver is a badass “wavefolding drone mixer” that seems extremely relevant to my interests. I absolutely love the sound of it in demos. My concern is its hefty power consumption. I suppose I could still add a secondary PSU to the case if it comes to that, though.
  • Xaoc Jena is an 8HP “binary transfunctioner” — essentially a wavetable without the oscillator. It’s part of the “Leibniz Binary Subsystem” — requiring the Drezno module, which is 12HP. As Deckard in Blade Runner might say, this is both a benefit and a hazard. I’d have to pull out another 8HP of something to make way, and that’s a hard choice.

Leibniz is a cool system. Drezno is basically two modules in one: an 8-bit ADC, converting an analog input into 8 binary outputs which have their own front panel jacks and are also passed to the next module in the subsystem. (With that section alone, you can use it as a sort of multi-step comparator, turn an LFO into rhythmic gates, or send those “bits” into a mixer to create other waveshapes from modulation or audio signals.)

The right side of Drezno converts 8 bits to an analog output. The fun here is that bits can be manipulated in between — ignored, inverted, cross-patched, delayed, divided, or independently generated — and can be processed by other modules in the subsystem. Both the input and output clocks can be overridden externally, so you can use it for sample rate reduction and bitcrushing effects, or clock it like a sample-and-hold at the speed of a sequence. You could patch it as a binary shift register, freezing patterns of bits that rotate left or right or travel in unusual paths.

Jena interprets the 8 bits from the ADC as the index into a wavetable, and outputs its own 8 bits. Typical use would be to feed Drezno a linear ramp “phasor” so that Jena moves smoothly through the table. The tables consist of interesting audio and LFO stuff, Walsh functions (which let you combine complimentary sets of square waves at different harmonics for an alternative form of additive synthesis), and drum patterns. Jena also has a synchronous mode which can use the input signal as a “hint” but remove any imperfections in how it scales or resets, plus a phase modulation input.

So that offers a lot of possibilities, but something’s got to be sacrificed if I go that route. Perhaps I could put a module in reserve and rotate things in or out as the whim strikes. Or I could pull out my rarely used Gozinta and one of the Shades and see how that goes. Perhaps the E520’s scope mode will make me feel less need for the O’Tool+. Perhaps I could DIY or acquire a breakout box to patch my modular to the audio interface without using the Bastl mults (or make a very simple box for those two mults). Or maybe reconsider a 4ms Pod, which is a compact case I could put controllers in and a little overflow space — though fitting it right in front of the case could be a little awkward. Hm. (For that matter, that could fix the power issues and allow for that Waver…)

Anyway — not making any decisions until I play with the E520. I don’t really need another waveshaping option, it’d just be cool. 🙂

a few mini reviews

That ChuWi Hi10 X tablet is pretty nice. Noticeably faster than the Asus, fits in the case that I bought (not perfectly, but close enough) and the keyboard is much more solid and laptop-ish without being overly bulky. Hopefully the thing will last a while!

Planar 2 is a joy to use. It turns out mixing/crossfading/panning with a joystick, and also modulating a bunch of things in a coordinated way, is fun and inspiring. The joystick movement recorder, polar-to-Cartesian conversion mode for the CV inputs, and flexible routing options are all excellent extras. I thought about what I could add to complement the module, but it’s basically got just about everything it needs.

FXDf is not very exciting on its own — but paired with a matrix mixer and delay/reverb, or splitting bands to send to Planar’s inputs or ring modulators or something, it’s a win. Small size, flexible, and funky.

EMW Fixed Filter Bank less so. Instead of acting like a set of bandpass filters, it’s more like an EQ with +/- 10dB per band. That’s often not enough to cut out all of the high end from a signal nor boost the low end where I might want that. It does work nicely in a delay or reverb feedback loop, but I feel like software EQ is better. The jacks along the right side are kind of baffling, since they don’t isolate the bands, are dependent on the knobs and emit almost identical signals to each other. So the FXDf stays and this one doesn’t.

Snails! My spouse bought me some snails to hopefully control the algae in my aquarium. But they arrived super tiny — not much bigger than the micro pellets I feed my fish — and I’m kind of afraid the barbs or maybe even the tetras might have eaten them. :/ Hopefully, they are just in hiding.

I devoured The Bands of Mourning — the third, but not final book in Brandon Sanderson’s “Wax & Wayne” era of the Mistborn series. Lots of laughing out loud, a couple of really dark moments and a couple of really glorious triumphs, and a bunch of new questions raised for the book that was originally scheduled to publish in 2018 but got moved back to 2021 or 2022 by his decision to start another series (Skyward) and another graphic novel and some other projects before finishing Stormlight (10 books), Mistborn (probably 10 books), Alcatraz (who knows how many?), or planned sequels to Elantris, Warbreaker or the Rithmatist. He says he works best interleaving the various projects though, and I guess I can’t argue with the results… even if it will probably be 2035 before Stormlight is complete.

Started reading Elantris which somehow I’d missed before. It’s certainly got a grim beginning. I think once I’m done with this, that means I’ll have read all his published novels except the five existing Alcatraz vs the Evil Librarians books and the White Sands graphic novels. Phew!

Not a mini review: I may have a seed of inspiration in mind for the next album. Keeping it to myself for now and letting it germinate.