So, my modular synth might be done now. Or it might not…
The A-110-4 Quadrature Thru-Zero VCO arrived a couple of days ago, and the Mazzatron Quad Audo AC Coupler a couple of days before that. In general, the QZVCO sounds good… but not entirely mind-blowing I would say. Perhaps the folks that were blown away by it are the type who avoid digital modules, so linear TZFM is novel to them?
The idea here is, you can use this as a carrier for FM, and feed it a separate oscillator as the modulator. You can use exponential FM like most analog oscillators, or linear FM and it will flip its phase to go “thru zero” for a deep modulation range. Its design is unusual though, with the LFrq knob in essence just being a selector between three states (no TZFM at +/- 5, “pretend you’re a waveshaper” at 0, and TZFM anywhere around the 1-4 or -1 to -4 ranges, with choice of positive or negative having no consequence).
The problem my unit has is that at any LFrq setting (except 0, and possibly even there), increasing the modulation amplitude will shift the VCO’s frequency out of tune. At some LFrq settings, it goes flat. At other LFrq settings, it goes sharp. And in between, it goes sharp and THEN it goes flat as the amplitude increases. There’s no neutral setting where it stays in tune.
It’s far enough out of tune that, with a base frequency of 300Hz, it might drop all the way to 200Hz. That’s not just a little bit that I can live with. It’s way out of tune and whole new FM sidebands appear that shouldn’t be there with my chosen ratio.
Normally, I would expect this to be caused by a DC offset in the modulation signal — and I would expect it to travel in a consistent direction, always sharp if the DC offset is positive, always flat if negative.
I know there is no DC offset because I’m using the QAACC. I also tested highpass filtering with Blades, Angle Grinder, and VCFQ. I confirmed lack of a DC offset with the O’Tool+. I tried adding my own DC offset with Blinds. None of that helped.
The upshot of this is, I don’t get to use dynamic FM amounts — which is the major advantage that linear TZFM has over the much more common exponential FM. Angle Grinder can already do expo FM well and has not just the 0 and 90 degree outputs, but 180 and 270, and the comparator waveshaping stuff too. And Blades can also do expo FM well and crossfade from 0 to 90 to 180 degrees.
There are some calibration trimmers on the circuit board that might or might not be relevant, but these are supposed to be set at the factory and not need adjusting when new. I’ve written to Doepfer’s hardware support email for advice, but it turns out they’re closed until January 10.
I’ll decide what to do once they write back. I can see scenarios where I return or resell it and don’t count it against my 2021 gear plan. But I also could see keeping it even if dynamic FM isn’t going to work well, because with LFrq at or near 0 interesting things do happen. There might be some benefit in keeping it, flaws and all, and learning what it can do.
I have already touched on part of this, but here’s the “official” post with what I intend for 2021.
Music: 1. Keep making it! 2. Make time to just listen without other distractions. Make sure everything in my music collection gets the time and attention it deserves. 3. Do keep supporting other musicians on Bandcamp, Patreon etc. (but I don’t have to buy as much as in 2020)
Gear FOMO / GAS: 1. No selling/trading any music hardware until at least May 1. 2. My Eurorack is complete. Limit any selling/trading of modules to a maximum of 3 in 2021. Don’t buy modules that won’t fit in the cases I have, or put modules in storage, or buy more/bigger cases. 3. Don’t buy/trade any other synths or FX or music toys. Maybe a nOb controller. 4. With software, consider if I really need something else. The answer is probably no. 5. (Exceptions: beta testing, replacement in case of equipment failure, an unambiguous one-for-one upgrade. All unlikely.)
Health: 1. Do better than in 2020! (That… should not be hard.) 2. Do some walking/moving/stretching. 3. Test blood sugar at least every Friday morning.
Online: 1. Don’t engage with bad actors/hostile people, or in threads where everyone is just talking past each other. This pretty much includes Behringer threads, analog vs. digital, hardware vs. software, most political threads, and so on.
So we did the slightly awkward socially distanced Christmas, and really it wasn’t too bad. Being able to Skype with family isn’t as good as being there in person, but it’s better than nothing!
I have to show off the fantastic synth covers that my mom made for me:
The photo doesn’t really do them justice. Deep purple airbrushy swirls with silver and white stars. The Medusa cover fits perfectly over the top and front/sides. The one for the modular works quite well given its large size and strange shape. The cover for the Microfreak is a little awkward to put on, partially thanks to its awkward stand, which I might decide to replace. But they all do the job and look sharp!
Aside from this, my spouse got me some BoredBrain patch cables which match the length/color scheme of the Modular Addict skinny cables I have, which seem to be unobtanium. They seem like well-made cables and they drape from the cable hanger in tidy lines, which I like. And now I will definitely have enough cables in each length even in more complex patches.
I also got low-profile right-angle MIDI and USB cables so there’s not so much length poking out of the backs of the Microfreak and DAFM, an electric kalimba which should be fun to process with the modular and with plugins, a small but hefty-sounding Bluetooth speaker (which I could use to re-amp parts for natural room reverb, but it’s mostly just for listening), a USB power bank, a Defiant t-shirt (from Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward series, in glorious neon 80s style) and several books.
For the cyberpunk album, I made another ill-fated attempt at not doing drone/ambient music. Sort of an electro thing. It did not go particularly well. Individual sounds were cool, snippets of the song were evocative or attention-grabbing, but on the whole it just did not pull together. I may drop this particular cue from my list entirely rather than struggling to interpret it, but first I’m just going to move on and work on other bits.
I grabbed Madrona Labs Kaivo on sale. I’ve been such a fan of Aalto that it’s a little weird I never got into its younger sibling, but I think I must have just browsed some presets and given up quickly. Maybe the color scheme was a turnoff:
It’s a unique semi-modular synth. There’s a granular section, set up in an unusual way with multiple source samples and smoothly modulatable overlap amount which can have all kind of timbral consequences. A polyphonic string/bar/spring resonator, quite different from Rings in its implementation, and a single “body” resonator as well. There’s a lowpass gate a bit different from Aalto’s, a two-dimensional LFO that can be phase-modulated, a “noise” section that can split into multiple Gaussian bands, and Aalto’s familiar ADSR and repeat/delay/attack/release envelopes.
It’s a synth where the presets aren’t necessarily fun, but sound design is both fun and unusual. Much less “pure synthesis” sounds that I tend to favor, and more of a hybrid uncanny valley quasi-acoustic-sounding scary thing — but that has its place too. The resonators have a bit of a “boxy” sound compared to Rings, even without using the body resonator, but it’s not insurmountable.
The latest Ambient Online Themed Compilation has been released, available on Bandcamp for pay-what-you-want. And the theme is… Earth!
This compilation is a bit shorter than many of AO’s, possibly due to a shorter deadline and busy, worn-out participants… but we’re still talking about 54 tracks here. 🙂
This time I just squeaked my second track in a couple of days before it was due, and I had to talk myself into participating. The issue is, I feel like it was in a different headspace from the cyberpunk album I’ve been working on, and it took some time to switch. And then switching back, I felt like I could feel the gears meshing again almost tangibly.
I usually just start making something, and then decide what it is and what to call it partway through or after it’s done. I often have a list of possible titles to go with my theme, and I always have a bigger list of titles I like in reserve. But this one is more directed. I have a specific set of phrases from the book, each related to a specific scene, to write for, and each brings a particular mood and associations with it. I can’t use a pensive drone piece for a panicked escape scene, for instance. So far I’m happy with what I’ve done, but it does require a bit more mental gaming.
It’s time for another book report, but now also with anime and gaming.
The Ministry For the Future was a bit surprising overall. As I said before, it’s a science fiction story about how humanity finds the leverage to make the changes to cope with climate change, climate justice and related social justice issues. However, some of those levers and some character arcs were unexpected. Overall I found it mainly plausible, and both heartbreaking and heartening, if that makes sense. People are people — both foolish and wise, selfish and generous, callous and compassionate.
Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower is a shortish book by the author of Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth. This is a very different book — simpler, even predictable, but a fun and subversive parody of fairy tale and fantasy RPG tropes and a satire of traditional gender roles. It kind of is and isn’t a children’s tale, so parents of younger children might want to read it themselves first.
I’m most of the way through rereading/semi-skimming Musimathics Vol. 1. Not so much entertainment, in fact it’s very dry and textbookish at times. But it covers some of the science of sound, from basic physics to harmonic motion, vibrating systems, the anatomy of hearing and psychoacoustics, tuning systems and scales, and composition.
I figured I’d go back through it looking for inspiration. Haven’t really found much this time, but I do understand the Bohlen-Pierce scale a bit better now. (It works very well with cross-FM on the 4ms Ensemble Oscillator because the intervals are very consonant.)
Volume 2 — which I don’t have but have just ordered — covers digital audio, musical signals, spectral analysis and resynthesis, convolution, filtering and resonance, and other topics extremely relevant to sound synthesis and processing.
Scissor Seven is a Chinese anime, or I guess donghua, about a hairdresser / soup cook / would-be killer for hire who never kills anyone, the blue-feathered chicken who rescued him, the martial artists that are out to get him, the technocratic empire out to get everyone, and a pheasant with a taste for vengeance.
It’s as wacky as it sounds, and it has no trouble whiplashing between utterly goofy, deadly serious, super cute, disturbing, tragic, and romantic. But it’s pretty consistently good no matter which emotional buttons it’s pushing at any given time.
The Disastrous Life of Saiki K is completely silly. The main character is a super-powerful psychic, with clairvoyance, mind control, psychokinesis, teleportation, invisibility, super strength, super speed and whatever else the plot needs… and he hates it and just wants to keep his secret and live a quiet, unremarkable, normal life, avoiding attention. But of course, there is nothing “normal” about life in high school, and attention inevitably falls on those trying hardest to avoid it.
“But the pink hair and the antennas,” one might protest. But he knew you were wondering about that, and explains in one episode that he’s used his mind control on the entire world to make them think unusual hair colors are completely natural. It’s not just a convention to help audiences distinguish dozens of simply drawn black-haired people, and for more information we can read his manga, he says.
A major part of the fun is that we get to hear his inner monologue, and he can hear the inner monologue of everyone around him (except for his “pal” Nendo who is too dense). And nearly everyone is either incredibly shallow, completely ridiculous, or likely to get him into trouble.
Yes, I’ve been playing Dirt Rally 2.0 fairly solidly since its release. But my employer gave out Amazon gift cards for Christmas and I decided to splurge on a Logitech G29 force feedback racing wheel.
A far cry from the old Atari paddle controllers or the plastic wheel thingy you can fit a Nintendo Switch controller in, wheels like this are motorized so they can transmit simulated friction, road bumps, the tendency of a car to straighten out on its own (or oscillate wildly under some conditions), and so on. It feels much more like actually driving a car, and gives feedback that helps you react more quickly and accurately.
At least in theory. It’s going to take some practice, particularly with the faster and less stable cars, to figure out how to correct my course each time things get a little off kilter. It took a while with a gamepad too — where there was very little physical feedback aside from rumbling, where instant swings from left to right were simple (but translated indirectly into wheel turning in the simulation), and quick little full-range flicks were often the most effective adjustment.
The wheels comes with a set of pedals, which are much more precise feeling than the short-throw triggers of an XBox style controller, but I can say that stomping a “real” brake pedal leads to a more convincing sense of panic than squeezing a plastic button. And it allows for a clutch, which is optional in the game but provides another method of control for turning or regaining stability. It’s just a matter of trying to play Dance Dance Revolution below the desk while armwrestling with a robot atop the desk.
I didn’t get the optional H-shifter accessory. There are shift paddles on the wheel itself which I thought I would prefer anyway, since I liked them on the Steam controller. But it’s pretty hard to downshift while also turning the wheel hard, so for now I’m mostly sticking with “semi-automatic” transmission so I don’t have to worry about it. Reversing is a bit awkward either with sequential paddle shifting or automatic — requiring either rapid taps of the left paddle to get all the way to reverse, or a sort of double-stomp on the brake pedal to start rolling backwards. But even with an XBox or Steam controller, if you ever have to back yourself out of being stuck you’re already going to lose several seconds and possibly slide around like a fish out of water and find more cliff faces and trees to ram into.
So my racing times are much worse right now but should improve with practice. It’s a lot more fun and exciting this way though, and a little bit of a workout too.
Mutable Instruments Blades (along with a magnet that’s the front half of a wooden deer, very cute) arrived on Saturday.
Using words to describe the subtleties of sound is kind of a hopeless prospect, and people certainly have their own preferences in filter characteristics just like they prefer different seasonings. There are certain filters whose resonance I really don’t like in anything other than a very small amount, for instance, Korg MS-20 style filters or typical squeaky TB-303 stuff. Some people really hate Steiner-Parker filters, especially Arturia’s “Brute” versions (and those people are wrong.)
To me, when using a single one of Blades’ filters, the words that come to mind are clean, tidy, stable, pleasant. But it’s not boring, partially because of the continuous sweep available on filter modes, so you can tailor the shape to the material. It doesn’t have the “ripping” sound of Ripples under fast modulation, it doesn’t sound like it always has some resonance like Three Sisters, it’s not as sweet and organic as VCFQ. Just considering the sound of a single filter, without the drive — it’s pretty solid, maybe 8.5 out of 10 overall? I sure wouldn’t complain about a synth that had it as its only filter.
But it DOES have that pre-drive/wavefolding stage and it’s got two filters. When you use them together, in parallel or serial or some hybrid, and/or with one modulating the other, it really opens up possibilities. You can get a kind of “shiny” sound with an extra peak, or you can drive it hard serially and get really mean and nasty. This, I believe, is why it’s described as a dual filter rather than a stereo one (though of course it can be used in stereo quite easily).
It pings better than some filters, but not quite as well as VCFQ, or a Hordijk Twin Peak. On the other hand, it resonates very easily too… and it makes for a fantastic complex oscillator.
It has accurate 1V/OCT tracking, and a “shift” button that lets the second filter follow the first with an offset. And crucially, it can do phase modulation, as the three filter modes (lowpass, bandpass, highpass) are shifted 90 degrees relative to each other. Crossfading smoothly between them results in a smooth phase shift (and a minor variation in amplitude). So one can do audio-rate, dynamic phase modulation, with a strikingly different character than Yamaha DX synths. It is also capable of exponential FM too, of course.
There are some downsides to using it this way. None of them are insurmountable, and some present opportities:
There are no fine tuning knobs. The range of possible offsets for the second filter makes it tricky to tune to the first exactly. (Workaround: use a DC offset into the second frequency input for finer control.)
The relative tuning is not necessarily perfectly stable, and it doesn’t have sync or an automatic ratio lock like some digital complex oscillators. (But you can blend in some of the first filter’s output into the second filter, and it sort of “entrains” into place… not something a more conventional complex oscillator can do!)
Since the drive stages come before the filters, you can’t simultaneously use the second filter to modulate the first and then wavefold the result all within Blades. But that’s what other modules are for… and you can do some waveshaping via feedback in ways a conventional oscillator can’t (though some of them will affect the tuning).
You do need an external VCA to control the modulation depth. Not a problem.
The output is loud, phase modulation increases that level, and it’s enough to clip my ES-6. But I have several ways of dealing with that.
So overall, this is now my favorite filter module!
Last night I “buried” the Expert Sleepers ES-6 inside my case, but it’s connected through the Mazzatron Mult+Passthru — so now all of the inputs to my audio interface are on one module, I renumbered them to match, and it gained me 4 more HP.
And then this morning I was decisive for once, and bought a Doepfer A-110-4 Quadrature Thru-Zero VCO, and a York Modular rHPF to go with it (since the FM input is DC-coupled). That fills up the remaining space in my case.
And I’m declaring it “done.” My plan is this:
Sell/trade no music gear until at least May 1.
Sell/trade a maximum of 3 Eurorack modules throughout 2021.
Buy only what can fit; no more/larger cases or putting stuff in storage to make room.
Don’t buy any non-Eurorack hardware synths or effects.
I’m allowed to sell (but not replace with other gear) the DAFM or Purple Rain if I feel like I’m just not using them at all (this seems unlikely.)
Exceptions: beta testing, equipment failure/replacement, unambiguous version upgrade. (Also unlikely.)
Buying software is okay but I should really consider whether I need it (and I probably don’t)
Overall, I want to move away from thinking about what I should get next, what I can sell to make space for it, and so on. I’ve gone through a lot of hardware since 2016, and… yeah it was fun exploring all of that stuff, but it’s time to break that habit.
It didn’t get in the way of my music-making, but it is kind of a drag on my confidence — almost a kind of constant second-guessing, and a lot of personal energy expenditure. That quote about “commodity fetishism” and “agential inversion of musician and instrument” really struck deep.
I have explored pretty much everything in the modular domain that really interests me. To practice some of it I need to use software rather than hardware, but I’m okay with that. I really like where my setup is now, the music I’m making with it and the inspiration and possibilities it offers, and I don’t need to keep shuffling my deck just because there are other cards out there in the world.
Perhaps once the incoming stuff settles, and more likely after the final Mutable Instruments module (which, yes, I’ve been beta testing) is revealed, I’ll go over all the bits and how I’m using them.
Yes, I already have three Eurorack filters, which seems odd for someone who claims to not use subtractive synthesis all that much, and yes, I ordered this one too.
The cool things about this one are the continuous blend between lowpass, bandpass and highpass configurations — which, when oscillating, allows phase modulation. And the routing between the two filters, from single to parallel to serial, is also smoothly controllable and can be used as an input mixer. And the drive sections are smoothly adjustable from overdrive to wavefolding. And a button switches filter #2 to follow #1’s frequency but with its own offset, making variable-width bandpass or notch as well as harmonically tuned resonant peaks/oscillation easy.
In a sense, this is not just a dual filter but an analog complex oscillator, and those are magic words to grab my attention.
I think my protest about subtractive synthesis is a little misplaced. There have been several times where I used both Angle Grinder and VCFQ in stereo, mid-side, or serial HP/LP configurations. Or Angle Grinder as an oscillator, and VCFQ and Shelves in stereo… and so on.
My plan at the moment is to keep all these filters around, unless there is something specific that really calls to me more later. (More on that when I write up my goals for 2021.) VCFQ has a lovely sound to it and its pings are very nice. Angle Grinder of course is a great oscillator and weirdness maker. Shelves… is not quite what I expected but can be patched in some surprisingly cool ways, and it’s very possible it will make sense to pair it up with Blades for even more serial/parallel goodness.
The other bit of modular fun is Mystic Circuits Portal, which arrived yesterday. It claims to be “harmonic distortion” but what it is is a glitchy weirdifier, yet more useful than I first thought. The idea is it’s like a wavefolder but wraps instead of folding — but the “track” parameter causes it to crawl along and add motion in its own unstable way, enough so that with no input it can still burble and tick and hiss and sputter. And it also seems to pick up and amplify noise and exaggerate small motions in the DC range.
The second output is a sample+hold of the input triggered whenever the main part folds, and that includes the crawly motion so it’s this cool animated sample rate reduction effect.
The third output sends quick little triggers whenever the main part folds, and those can happen frequently enough to make a buzzy oscillation of their own, or with the feedback setting, act as a crazy little burst generator. I’m looking forward to trying a few experiments with this.
It’s a weird module to be sure, not something to use in every patch — but I feel like I have slack since all my actual needs for the music I make are well covered. So why not have something odd, unpredictable and sometimes inspiring in there?
My spouse got me three books from my wishlist for my birthday. The authors wrote them, the publisher was responsible for marketing blurbs, and I chose them and am the reader. So any disappointments here were not my spouse’s fault, but I’ll give her some credit for where I find delight or enlightenment in them. 🙂
Currently I am reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry For the Future. It is a fictional story of an international organization tasked with saving the future from the present, mainly in terms of climate change and equitable distribution of resources. There’s a fair bit of nonfiction sprinkled throughout. It grapples with all kinds of geoengineering, carbon capture, and energy technologies, the question of how to value human and nonhuman life (present and future), and most importantly, where and how to apply the leverage necessary to do what must be done. It is excellent so far.
Sonic Possible Worlds was, unfortunately, a hard pass. When I was quickly going through lists of books about music and sound, it seemed interesting. From the introduction and the start of the first chapter though, maybe it is brilliant and esoteric in some way but to me it is just impenetrable word salad. I gave up.
Sound Objects is a set of essays that mostly center around Pierre Schaeffer’s concept of objets sonores. Schaeffer was famously the inventor of musique concrète — a sort of musical collage assembled from snippets of audio recordings — and performed studies categorizing sounds according to their actual characteristics rather than what produced them. (I may be oversimplifying that.) Most of the essays are drily academic and philosophical arguments about what the words mean and what words would have been better, and honestly not exactly inspiring.
However, “Spectral Objects: On the Fetish Character of Music Technologies” by Jonathan Sterne grabbed my attention — it is about the relationship of musicians to instruments (and other equipment) in terms of the Marxist concept of “commodity fetishism.” That is: a sort of worship of goods as having intrinsic value, without recognizing the labor and social relations that produce that value.
The highlighted last couple of sentences in particular is what really grabbed me.
Where is the magic located — in the wizard, or in the wand? Or did it come from whoever made the wand? Or is it in the mind of the one witnessing the magic? That can be a key question in fantasy fiction or in roleplaying games, but I think this article has a good point where it comes to musicianship.
I can’t bring myself to say that in electronic music, the instruments are unimportant. I’ve often found switching gear (heh) or finding the right kind of setup to match one’s temperament helps bring inspiration, and certainly each instrument has its own character which can contribute to the music. But I do think there is something skewed about many electronic musicians’ relationship to gear, and perhaps that is more true in both modular and software-based electronic music. Like we do a lot of chasing more and different things, when we already have more that we can handle. Perhaps the related concepts of magic and agency are the right way to contemplate this.
The end of 2020 is approaching — finally! — and it’s time to start thinking about how I did in my goals for the year and what I want to focus on next year.
Gear: uh. I changed a lot of stuff again. Not sure I stuck to any goals here all that well. I did track all my purchases, sales, shipping costs and software. Unlike 2019, I wound up spending a bit overall.
This is okay, because we (oddly enough) saved money thanks to COVID lockdowns and working from home. The amount of money we didn’t spend at restaurants, including breakfast and lunch on most weekdays for me at work, was much more than the increased amount we spent on groceries and on food delivery (and some extra goodies like my entire music gear budget and then some).
About 1/4 of that budget went to software. A good chunk of that went into the charity auction, which I probably wouldn’t have spent otherwise. I might still recover a portion of the rest if I can resell a couple of licenses — Soundtheory Gullfoss is great, but then TEOTE was released and I prefer it (and it was cheaper). Audio Damage Enso isn’t one I’ve been using at all after demoing it seemed promising, because it just doesn’t seem to fit my workflow.
My hardware budget included the E520, which I technically paid for last year but counted this year. It was well worth it. Considering trades and all, I did add the DAFM synth, the Purple Rain, the 0-Ctrl, and additional HP from getting the Pod 60.
I have some more detailed thoughts that need mulling over and writing about in terms of gear, before I figure out next year’s goals. I will say that I don’t expect major shakeups or additions next year, but some slow churn is possible.
Music generally: I was very good about supporting other musicians this year through Bandcamp (and more rarely through other means) rather than streaming. Certainly the whole #bandcampfriday thing helped encourage that, and I hope they continue it, perhaps even post-COVID.
I was also good about continuing to make music. 5 albums released, and it looks like I’ll be ready to release the next either at the end of the year or early in January. Participation in 5 compilations (6 before the end of the year).
I didn’t manage to increase my pure listening time the way I wanted to, though.
Less exercise this year than any previous year I can think of.
Stopped tracking things like meals after the first couple of months, and didn’t really keep up with blood sugar testing.
In terms of mental health, COVID and the election did me no favors at all. I didn’t have many panic attacks once my office switched to working from home, but constant tension and occasional serious (and entirely justified) worry.
Online health: I stumbled a few times. But, considering, I also backed away from the crazy and the infuriating more than I ever used to. Asking myself “is this going to be worth it?” and “is anything good going to come out of posting this?” was very helpful.
Where it comes to skipping even reading stuff… I had that goal before “doomscrolling” was a word. I could have skipped a lot more. But I feel like three previous years of a Trump presidency and other disheartening bullshit before that (racism, crapitalism, climate collapse denial, anti-science idiocy etc.) built up some cynicism with which I didn’t get too burned by the giant garbage fire.
So, yeah. Not a great year!
The best thing I can say is, I made music, and I am pretty proud of the music I made. I survived, and all of my friends and family that I know survived. (Some former acquaintances had a really rough run-in with COVID though.) And I wasn’t completely miserable the entire time despite everything.