what I did on my autumn vacation

It was nice having a week off. Not as nice as an actual road trip, and I could have done with less rain and another walk around the lake, but it was all right.

For Thanksgiving, we had jerk chicken and zucchini on the grill, sweet potato fries, coconut rice and cornbread. My spouse also made me a German chocolate cake for my birthday. We Skyped with our families, which felt pretty special and holiday-like since it was the first time for my side and almost the first for her side (and we got to see the new house and our young nephew).

I recorded three tracks for the new album project, and am confident the theme is going to work.

I wasn’t tempted by any Black Friday sales, but did get my Christmas shopping done. [UPDATE: I did get four little Puremagnetik plugins at 50% off on the Tuesday part of “Cyber Monday” though.]

I was tempted to pick up the last Mystic Circuits Portal in the special edition black panel — having decided that I don’t need another delay or reverb in my modular, nor more modulation sources. Portal is a unique distortion module that, above a threshold, wraps around to 0V instead of folding over or clipping. And it can wrap around a ridiculous number of times, feedback itself into ultrasonic ranges, generate interesting rhythmic crackles, perform “oscillator sync” with only one oscillator, and other things. This got my attention because (beyond “Black Portal” just sounding kind of badass) it’s similar in concept to an experimental plugin I wrote years ago, but takes that concept much further. There are two other derived outputs, one of which is a somewhat gentler quasi-quantized output, the other a spiky delta output. While the module can do ludicrously heavy distortion, I’m more interested in the other things it can do. So this is definitely more about curiosity than absolute confidence I will love this module, but satisfying curiosity is a valid use of remaining rack space.

I played my usual Dirt Rally 2.0, Noita, Bewejeled 3 and Guild Wars 2, all of which have been in rotation since before this pandemic struck, and Art of Rally which has been out for a couple of months. Noita has been getting significant updates even after leaving Early Access, with surprise new spells and monsters, so it’s always fresh.

I also grabbed Drag, which is neither about drag queens nor drag racing, but rather, an Early Access game of futuristic-ish off-road racing. The setting is a little strange, with sleek driverless rail buggies that have what seems like a vestigial roll cage too small for a human driver, with a long steering column ending in an odd bracket where the driver’s head would have been. Two of the courses are muddy wilderness roads that occasionally cross concrete or metal bridges or overpasses, bounded by forcefields to either side, occasional radio towers and oddly shaped concrete towers in the distance; the third is a raised bridge-like track mainly covered in a mound of mud, in an arctic setting with mysterious cranes and towers numbered in Arabic numerals but Cyrillic text. Graphically it looks good, within its sparse design. In terms of physics, it’s challenging, slippery and feels fairly realistic (although, once you’ve started to roll over it goes a little nuts, like many racing games do — and wheels are prone to pop off at the slightest provocation). Gameplay-wise there is not much to it yet, just different sections of course to do time trials on, with no sense of competition or career progression. I’m curious to see where future development takes it.

Probably where I spent most of my time was reading Rhythm of War, the fourth and longest book (at ~460,000 words) in the Stormlight Archive.

(I also read Dawnshard, a novella that takes place a little before Rhythm of War. I technically should have read it first, but at least thus far, it’s almost entirely a side story. It may very well become important to later novels, but if so, it will probably be retold.)

One thing I like about Sanderson’s novels is the “hard SF” approach to magic; there are definite rules and mechanics, the magic is highly integrated with how society works, and in most cases there’s a very scientific approach to determining the limits and applications of magic. This extends to the Cosmere as a whole — an overarching setting uniting most of Sanderson’s series, permitting some characters to cross between them and carry exotic artifacts with them.

But what I love about his books is the emotional impact of the story, both the lows and the highs. I care about the characters and want them to stop hurting and being frustrated. I celebrate with their moments of incredible triumph. I reel from the big revelations, shudder at the implications and cheer on their discoveries.

For a while I felt that the Stormlight Archive books kind of “cheat” at this; human emotions attract “spren” that can telegraph how they’re feeling even if they’d rather hide those emotions (or hide themselves!), while the Parshendi people speak and hum to rhythms that make their attitude explicit (with some conscious control when they concentrate). But this ties in nearly with the nature of this world’s role within the Cosmere, and it’s not as if his stories in other settings don’t convey emotion just as effectively.

Without even considering connections to other worlds, there are a lot of characters in this series. That is both a strength and a weakness of epic fantasy, I feel. This particular novel concentrates on three in particular, with lesser concentrations on a couple of others, and interludes, flashbacks and side trips to keep up with a few more. But the three main ones get a lot of development and growth and some of those great emotional moments that I love. The book also crams in a ton of that “scientific” discovery, and revelations about the greater universe and historical perspective on current events. Mental health is a huge theme — when you put people under continuous stress as these have been, they break. Their ability to hold it together, heal from emotional trauma, or just get some rest for once, is as important as how they face external threats. The truly important battles in this book were — for the most part — either against personal demons, or battles of wit and cunning rather than spear and sword.

I don’t think this book would make a lot of sense without reading the previous Stormlight Archive novels. It should be fine without reading any other Sanderson novels, although one would miss recognizing many tidbits scattered throughout. But then, there’s so much going on that I’m not sure even the wiki-article-writing superfans are able to catch everything. I don’t feel too bad not realizing on my own that so-and-so mentioned by a minor villain in this novel might be such-and-such character from a different series, who died, and now has a different name and completely different goals… while Sanderson’s novels are full of that sort of thing at this point, that’s not the main attraction for me.

da funk

My (replacement) DAFM Synth arrived, and it works just fine. Apparently, the one I returned also works fine in the hands of the seller, which is weird because it definitely overheated its USB power cable within a few seconds and wouldn’t turn on for me at all… but whatever, I definitely have a working one now.

The interface, while far from knob-per-function, is pretty clever. Rather than one mid-sized display it has four tiny OLED screens; in most modes each shows the parameters for its associated FM operator. The preset loading screen is different, and a bit weird and hard to figure out at first with the sparse documentation.

The navigation can be a bit awkward. FM synths have this challenging aspect where sometimes you want to divide up the parameter space functionally — setting all the ratios on one page, the envelopes on another, etc. as this does — and sometimes you want to to divide it by operator, so the ratio, level, envelopes etc. for a single operator are all together. I think if I were working with this physical design, I would have had the left encoder always “move” (selecting parameters, or press-and-turn to change pages) while the right encoder always edits whatever the cursor is pointing to. But this is still a million times better than trying to edit on an old-school DX synth.

There’s a tiny 11-note keyboard at the bottom, which is best reserved for emergency “no MIDI controller” purposes. The chip of choice — in my case the noisier YM2612 — is on display behind a transparent window, while the rest of the top is dark tinted acrylic.

That chip has a weird design flaw called the “ladder effect” that gives it its characteristic sound. There seems to be a ton of nerdy analysis of this and maybe not that much agreement on the details, but it comes down to: some Yamaha engineer cut one or two corners too many. The upshot is a sort of a characteristic digital fizziness that is not simple low bit resolution or low sample rate, and sounds pretty nice with some kinds of ambient pads and bass sounds. You can also set very long decay times that sound a bit like stuck notes, and it just kind of flows nicely with the noise and a touch of reverb or delay.

Possibly the truest and most universal trope from cyberpunk is “the street finds its own uses for things.” It can be an important principle in design in general, and we definitely see it all the time in electronic music. I’ve got my favored way to work with Bitwig, which absolutely baffles some other Bitwig users. I’ve got specific roles I like to throw at the Microfreak, which it might not have been designed for but it wasn’t designed against. And here’s this budget chip from an 80s game console, built into a mini synth with a cheap MCU from 2007, (mis)using USB as a power supply, and I’m using the synth in specific limited ways to serve my music.

I’ve entangled myself in deeper uncertainty about how to divvy up the remaining space in my modular case. As a result, I took the Euphoria off my wishlist (but hey, if you’re a family member reading this and you bought it for me already, worry not, it will not go to waste.)

Noise Engineering is doing cool stuff. Desmodus Versio has gone from a cool reverb to a whole platform, it seems, and the temptation is rising. (Although I think they misstepped when they didn’t put the USB port on the front to make it easier to flash; perhaps they will offer an expander that helps with that.) Some things I’ve read and watched about the Serge SSG or its cousin the Sport Modulator make me ponder that. The idea I originally had, to put in a Doepfer 256-stage BBD, is still there, but the much smaller Erica option would allow some other choices… and of course I still don’t know what the mystery release from Mutable Instruments will be.

So, I’ll just wait, and play with what I have, until a path is clear. I have a fine set of delays (and reverbs) already and so some of these, despite having a different vibe, might not really be the best choice but just FOMO.


Test results are back and my spouse is negative for COVID-19. Whew!

It was what we expected, but it’s still a relief. Aside from the threat of actual harm from the disease, to have to quarantine and wear a mask and feel possibly unsafe in one’s own home, which is supposed to be a sanctuary, is not a great feeling. Nor is separating yourself from a loved one (in my case, pretty much the only person I interact with directly at this point).

I’ve finished reading Chris Hedges’ War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning and woo boy, is that not the book to read when you’re already down. It’s in a somewhat similar vein to Smedley Butler’s War is a Racket, but if anything it’s darker and bleaker. It was not a fun read, but I do think more people should read stuff like this to immunize themselves from the mythologization of war — the nationalist propaganda, the very idea of “a just war,” the canonization of murder and martyrdom, the self-destruction of culture and memory.

Perhaps ironically, the book I am looking forward to (in just a couple of days) is Rhythm of War, the fourth in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series. But then, major themes in this series are the questioning the assumed rightness of one’s cause, and the realization that “honor” and “glory” are amoral at best.

For now I’m finishing the Sprawl trilogy with Mona Lisa Overdrive. If I do choose a cyberpunk theme for my next album, I think it’ll be specifically Neuromancer-inspired rather than just general tropes or a fiction of my own. But it won’t be particularly about Case, Molly, Wintermute, etc. or a “soundtrack to the novel” sort of thing necessarily, either; it will be a step removed from the story but more closely related to the language and feel of the thing. I’ve gathered 15 possible song titles, though I like some more than others.

I’ve also been watching High Score Girl, about gamer kids in Tokyo in the 90s. The story centers not on a girl, but a boy who is a slacker and doesn’t really have anything going for him but his skill at Street Fighter II. The main female protagonist never speaks, and in fact is completely absent from a few episodes… which is unusual given that a lot of the story seems to be parodizing and dismantling sexist tropes. Overall it’s kind of sweet and kind of dumb, but entertaining enough.

A major part of the appeal for some is the nostalgia, of course. As a nostalgia vehicle it is certainly less obnoxious and one-note than Ready Player One and its ilk. But for me, arcade nostalgia is centered in the early to mid 80s. My dad worked in an arcade and I’d often accompany him on Sunday mornings to help out a bit and then play a lot of games free. In the early 90s I was in college, and in the mid-90s I moved half a continent away and was playing PC games and PlayStation (I mainly favored racing games, thanks to Wipeout, Ridge Racer and Gran Turismo). The Golden Age of arcades had faded by the mid 90s too. So my nostalgia is more for Marble Madness, 720°, Tetris, Galaga ’88, Joust, TRON, Xevious, Gauntlet, Out Run. I strongly suspect that a lot of my love for FM synthesis and certain kinds of synth sounds comes from the games of that era, particularly the Atari ones.

“out of an abundance of caution”

That’s a phrase we have been hearing a lot this year, isn’t it?

Over the weekend one of my spouse’s coworkers tested positive for COVID-19, and her workplace is temporarily closing while everyone self-quarantines and the place is disinfected. Since she’s in a high-risk category, she was advised to call the county coronavirus hotline. They told her to get a “real” test since the rapid tests have too many false negatives, and because of timing, it wouldn’t show up in a test for a couple more days anyhow. She has to quarantine herself from me — spending most of her time in the guest bedroom and wearing a mask otherwise — and the test is on Thursday. Of course if she tests positive, I will get tested myself. I’ve also read now that wearing masks does offer some protection to the wearer as well as preventing outward spread, so I’ll wear mine in the house too when necessary.

Last week seemed to last forever while waiting for election results, and this week-or-so (however long it takes to get the results) looks like it’s going to feel even longer. And of course, every little headache, or the throat irritation I had briefly last night (probably allergy related) is going to make me even more paranoid than it has since March.

And now for a software update…

Plugin Alliance had super deep discounts for Halloween, and I tried several things and wound up going for Noveltech Character. The description of its technology is kind of vague, but through some analysis/feedback mechanism it does “adaptive filtering” to make stuff sound better different. It’s not something I will slap onto every track, but it does add a little extra something to some parts.

In the charity auction I won three things. The first (in no particular order) is SoundRadix SurferEQ2. It’s a flexible equalizer made especially for monophonic parts, which can track the pitch and adjust its bands to match. So no matter what note is playing, it can boost or cut particular harmonics, or filter out unwanted noise outside the desired region. It can also act as a resonator, so it’s as much of a synthesis tool as a sound engineering one. It’s frankly awesome, and gives me some ideas about ways I can use Shelves in my modular.

Another was the AtomicTransient/AtomicReverb bundle, of which I was much more interested in the transient processor. While most transient effects can reduce or enhance the impact of transients relative to sustained sound, this one can create a new envelope or apply the detected dynamics to a filter, with cool results. There’s even a polyphonic mode that sort of separates the envelopes of individual notes. (The reverb on the other hand, has a ton of parameters and doesn’t sound better to me than Valhalla & company.)

The third was a Voxengo premium membership, giving me licenses to all their products current and future. I’ve tried several of their plugins and wound up installing CRTIV Tape Bus (a saturation plugin), Elephant (a limiter, which I might use next time I master an album), OldSkoolVerb Plus (a mostly retro but also creative reverb), OVC-128 (a hard clipper with 128x oversampling), and SPAN Plus.

And recently, AudioThing released Wires, an emulation (and enhancement) of a Soviet wire recorder, which was developed in partnership with Hainbach (a musician who is into all kinds of exotic gear for making music, including old test equipment and lo-fi dictaphones, and whose YouTube channel is a delight). It imparts some nice lo-fi character as well as having a very tasty delay. Wire recorders are a neat piece of tech history. The hair-thin wires were more compact than tape and could have a longer recording time, making them great for flight recorders and spy devices (as well as a few consumer models, but they could only record in mono, the fidelity wasn’t great, and editing was problematic.


I really wish that in US elections, there were NO exit polls reported and NO news about counts that have not yet finished. But then, there are a lot of things that are broken about our electoral processes.


I may have just made a last-minute day change to track order, but the new album is ready to be released tomorrow (or possibly tonight). This is my fifth for the year, 16th as Starthief, and — this is kind of weird to realize — 32nd album overall. And I may already have the seeds of an idea for the next one.

I started reading Neuromancer last night, and within the first few pages, encountered a few phrases that would make good song titles. Many, of course, are already taken — it is now a classic piece of science fiction, a vision of a possible future from 36 years ago. The joke now of course is that we’re living in the wrong kind of cyberpunk dystopia.

A cyberpunk-themed album in my style might be interesting. It was done so frequently with EBM and industrial music that the music was even called “cyberpunk” for a while, and there was (is? I don’t know) a whole cybergoth club scene. Billy Idol had an album called Cyberpunk, which was pretty bad cyberpunk but pretty good rock. And of course, the themes are pretty big with synthwave/vaporwave.

I need to think about how I could approach this. No movie dialog samples. Anything involving drum machines would be a departure for Starthief, since “no drums” was one of the biggest revelations/self-imposed rules from my 2016-2017 experiments… but I am not necessarily ruling it out. I don’t particularly want it to sound like EBM, or synthwave. FM synthesis seems obvious though, since I already love it. In fact, if I wanted a fresh challenge I might someday try an album with no FM synthesis 😉

Speaking of FM: Kasser Synths wrote to say that the DAFM Synth I was returning for repairs still hadn’t arrived — not surprising, given that it took most of a month to get here from Spain in the first place — and they’re going ahead and sending me a replacement to help speed things along.

Dreadbox announced another couple of entries in its Chromatic line of small, cheap and colorful modules. The Antidote is a Karplus-Strong BBD delay, which I first thought might be a good replacement for the Doepfer BBD I had on my wishlist. But in demos so far I’m not convinced it would serve me better than Mimeophon.

On the other hand, the Euphoria — with the unfortunate choice of white labeling on a bright yellow panel, almost guaranteeing third party replacement panels to come soon — is a BBD-based 8-stage phaser that sounds gorgeous and weird. E520 and FX Aid both have phaser, flanger, frequency shifter etc. modes but I don’t think any of them can quite touch it. I’m impressed enough to replace the Doepfer on my wishlist with Euphoria.

And speaking of regrettable panels and colors, Thonk now has Tall Trimmer Toppers to add a little size and better grip and color to mini-pots… which would have been great for the AI008 when I was trying to color-code that. Ah well. My current system has 68 (!) of those tiny little knobs, but most of them aren’t a problem. A few, though, have no contrasting color for their pointers, which is annoying — so I will get some for that. That gives me an excuse to pick up a few other knobs that it wasn’t worth paying for shipping on.