The horribly named Gearslutz is finally changing its name to Gearspace. Years of pressure from the community to be more inclusive and professional can actually work. I might actually take a look around there once it’s done.

Your move,

I’ve been listening to my albums today, reviewing my own starting from the very recent Luminous Phenomena and working backwards, in a combination of enjoyment and judgement. I’m not taking notes on technical issues or anything like that, but just the overall emotional impact and enjoyability (granted that’s in my current mental state, so these opinions are always subject to change).

So far I’m finding confirmation that I have a “sound” in a general sense, and should stick to it. I would rank my 5 most recent albums in this order:

  • Luminous Phenomena: an intense ride, with a good balance of continuity and contrast. I want to keep doing things in this vein.
  • Unfolding: really solid, some great textures and an emotional ambiguity and tension that I like. Not as intense as LP, but good.
  • Pieces: pretty strong, with some good melodic use of the Medusa. I didn’t enjoy “Energy Exchange” as much; it goes a bit outside my Goldilocks Zone.
  • Carefully Introducing Problems: there’s certainly some good work here, but some of it just isn’t grabbing me as much — a bit uneven.
  • The Sky Above the Port — this was a difficult album; I was trying to make music for specific scenes and settings, and not really doing what comes naturally to me. It feels like my weakest recent work. So I’m asking myself some questions about the process. Was the concept doomed, did I need to change the plan a bit, or just spend more time on it and be more discriminating? Or is there not really anything wrong with it and it just didn’t hit me in the right frame of mind today?

I’ll probably keep listening to my older work and contemplating until I get back to Nereus, but I feel that the most recent work is the most relevant.

five point oh

I’m happy to say that I rearranged my modular case with a relatively simple organizing principle with only a couple of minor fudges to make everything work. This might be a good time for a fresh walkthrough — not of the “what is it?” kind but more how I feel about each module.

Top row: FX, and a little space on either side for further expansion.

Phonogene: its crude lo-fi nature, particularly when slowing parts down, makes it charming. You can grab almost any audio and turn it into some kind of interesting noisy texture with this.

Desmodus Versio: currently shipping to me. Desmodus itself sounds great but I was going to wait for the VST plugin — but the recent addition of Electus and Ruina firmware and the likelihood of even more in the future put this over the “must have” threshold. And I’m pleasantly inclined toward Noise Engineering after interviewing with them and getting a Manis Iteritas again.

Mimeophon: it has great character, works very nicely as a resonator and is very friendly toward modulation. It’s most of what I wanted in the ideal delay module.

FX Aid XL: this is like having a whole bunch more effects plugins, many of which sound great, and with the benefits of no latency and the ability to mess with and modulate the sample rate it runs at.

Beads: an endless abyss of possibilities. I experimented a bit with hardcore granular techniques, but am happiest using it as a way to add space and texture to other voices, or occasionally for its wavetable oscillator.

Rings: yes, I’m counting it as an effect because I use it that way more often than not. It’s a massively parallel set of bandpass filters or tuned delay lines with particular spacing. One of the first modules I owned, and I will use it as long as I use Eurorack at all… unless some other developer picks up the torch and takes modal synthesis to the next level with a true successor to Rings. So far, other developers’ idea of physical modeling is either just a delay, or a “complete” voice with no audio input.

Row 2: the oscillators.

Akemie’s Castle: a serious drone monster, and a ticket to the FM synthesis sounds of the late 80s/early 90s that I love so much.

Manis Iteritas: throbbing sometimes, noisy often, dark at its best, unique. The Smash parameter was the aspect I once liked least, but I’m finding ways to make it work for me. Very glad to have this back in my rack after a 3 year absence.

Odessa: brilliantly different. True additive synthesis, which can be twisted to many purposes. It can sound “very digital” — mostly in a good way! — but if you want to start sonic riots, just detune the partials a bit and feed it through some distortion.

Shapeshifter: it’s not just a complex oscillator, it’s a complex2 oscillator. A huge parameter space to explore, and it can be hard to find your way back to any given point. I suppose that’s why it has a preset system, but I never use that except to let it boot up to a “safe” default setting.

Ensemble Oscillator: I think where people get lost with this one is that the quantizer isn’t for melodic control, but controlling the ratios between its oscillators. It’s sort of a hybrid between additive synthesis and “West Coast” sine-FM-waveshaper territory, and sounds unique and fascinating to me. I often use it for gentler chordal pads at one extreme, or noisy weirdness at the other.

Row 3: mainly modulation.

Mazzatron Mult+PassThru: with a 1HP gap on its left for cables to escape from behind it, this is a super handy way to patch from the modular into my audio interface. Getting it was a good idea.

Maths: you’d have to combine the features of 5 or 6 different function generator modules to get the ideal one for me, but Maths is a pretty solid “close enough.” Usually the first module I turn to for envelopes (looping or not) and sometimes does audio rate duties.

Stages: I probably use it more for basic LFOs than anything else, but occasional simple envelopes or slew, and rarer sequences, S&H, or more complex envelopes and hybrid modulation. I would probably be 95% fine with Zadar instead, but I don’t feel compelled to make that change.

O’Tool+: (with Shades and P-075, I put these utilities on this row instead of the bottom to make them more physically central.) Super useful for learning new modules or figuring out new techniques, checking levels, tuning and calibration, and generally knowing what’s going on. SCIENCE!

Shades: my favorite of the simpler scale/invert/offset modules, it has a good feel and is very precisely 1.000000x gain at max knob level.

Ladik P-075: simple but clever, with both latched and momentary switches for mutes. Or with Shades, sudden transitions from 0V to some other level, which is great for transposing drones.

Clep Diaz: musical and smart. I don’t have a lot of experience with it yet, but I like what it’s done for me so far!

Kermit mk2: easy to use, flexible wavetable LFO which also sounds gorgeous at audio rates.

Marbles: the module that changed my mind about random sources, mostly because it’s so good at taming randomness. And more quantizers should be as musical as the one in this, prioritizing notes by their consonance.

Teletype: anything Pam’s New Workout can do, Teletype can do better. And also a lot of other things that you might want to do with gate or CV processing or generation. As a full-time software developer, I find its simple scripting language to be refreshingly simple — but I recognize a lot of people just won’t want to interact with modules in this way, and that’s okay.

TXb: just a doodad to let Teletype query the Sweet Sixteen’s fader values. If I need to free up exactly 1HP of space in the future I could “hide” it inside the case and leave a gap instead.

Bottom/front row: utilities + misc.

ES-3 (and hidden ES-6, thanks to the Mult+PassThru): channels of communication with the DAW. I use it for audio much more than CV. I can’t imagine going back to only having the analog audio inputs now.

Gozinta: rarely needed, but sometimes I do want to boost a signal a lot.

CVilization: as a basic matrix mixer it’s dead simple to use. Getting into the more advanced possibilities requires looking at a cheat sheet, but it’s not a bad experience. This is a tool I definitely don’t need in every patch, but can do some clever things and once in a while it really justifies itself.

Natural Gate: I don’t use it as much since getting more into drones, but it is gorgeous. Demand vs. supply is so skewed that I could easily resell it for almost 3x what I paid for it new, but I would probably regret it immediately if I did.

MSCL: good for when I want a signal to be hotter, but not too hot — protecting inputs that tend to clip in unpleasant ways for instance, or keeping feedback loops right on the edge without exploding.

Tallin: still a favorite VCA thanks to its distortion options, and compact size without feeling cramped.

Drezno (and space reserved for Jena): amazing as a waveshaper and noisifier. Very good as a pattern extractor/maker/mangler.

FM Aid: not often used for its stated purpose, but as a variation on a wavefolder. I have a lot of FM stuff already, but once in a while it’s good to mix things up or do the impossible.

Blinds: like a super-Shades, but also a ring modulator/crossfader. I should have had one earlier in my modular journey.

Ana: multiple ways of taking two signals (or one signal and a reference level) and doing something to them makes for some fine waveshaping possibilities and alternatives to FM.

Portal: this should really be in the FX row I suppose, but I’ve used it to generate impulses and noise to drive other things. When I got it I was worried it would be harsh and not very commonly useful, but it can be tamed and put to good use.

Planar: there is no more fun way to crossfade between sounds, or tweak a couple of parameters together, or both at the same time.

Bonus level: the Pod60

Blades: overall favorite (dual!) filter ever, due to its considerable versatility. I like my filters to be more than filters, and this has a heavy drive or wavefolding stage, can act as an analog complex oscillator with phase modulation, etc.

Angle Grinder: another example of versatility, as an oscillator it can sound remarkably wavetable-like thanks to its “grind” section. It can be really stable or chaotic and weird depending on how you dial it in. And the highpass just sounds really great to me for some reason.

Sweet Sixteen: the control center for my recording sessions, I have it handling mix levels in the DAW, effects amounts and parameters in both hardware and software, custom/quantized pitches in Teletype, and simple attenuator duty all at once.

taking it apart and putting it back together

Just a second… why the title of the previous post? I was going to say something about the musical term ostinato, which of course, means obstinate.

“A motif or phrase that persistently repeats in the same musical voice, frequently in the same pitch.” Examples given include Donna Summer/Giorgio Moroder’s “I Feel Love”

This is something I latched onto at a young age, before electronic music (and thus simple sequenced loops) was common. I used to noodle a repeating passage on the piano, sometimes playing with nuances of timing, sometimes just repeating it obstinately. Though I hadn’t heard of Brian Eno, I was exploring the idea that repetition is a form of change. It infuriated my grandma because I “wasn’t playing proper music” — which meant a tune someone else wrote and was printed as sheet music. Improvisation barely counted as music to her; my proto-exploration of drones and reverb with the sustain pedal most certainly did not. We were both obstinate toward each other quite a lot.

Of course ostinato in Western music dates back at least to the 13th century and has (appropriately) never stopped. It’s also prominent in sub-Saharan African and Indian classical music and probably appears in most cultures’ music, honestly.

Anyway, I’ve been using short repeating sequences as part of music for a while now, and it occurred to me it’s somewhat related to drone. I only recently recalled the term — being more used to thinking of them as “loops” or even (incorrectly) “arps” (for arpeggio, which should only refer to spreading out the notes of a chord). I had a good chuckle about the meaning of the name.

So: Drezno! A few days ago I described what it is, and what I thought I could use it for. Now I have some practical experience, and opinions.

As a waveshaper, it is fantastic. By simply blocking a bit, you add kinks into the waveform, and thus harmonic content, which varies with the dynamics of the input. Much like a wavefolder! You can also rearrange bit order or plug other sources in, for instance, to mix two oscillators in unusual ways.

As a digital noisifier it’s also pretty amazing. Simply blocking lower-ordered bits reduces resolution. Since lower-ordered bits tend to change faster (and thus have more high frequency content) and be more subject to analog noise, replacing them or boosting their positions up the chain can have some nice effects, and using them to clock the DAC is also very nice. I’m getting sounds reminiscent of the YM2612 and also some more unique artifacts.

These things hold true for LFOs and envelopes too, turning smooth ramps and curves into steppy fractal patterns, and shifting the levels of steppy CV sequences.

Patching a couple of low-order bit outputs into the high-order inputs and clocking the DAC externally gives those “Atari noises” I was looking for, and with feedback from the DAC to ADC and slower clocks, shift register patterns. The patterns tend to be more volatile than typical LFSRs like Zorlon Cannon — probably because analog noise is a factor, and because exactly matching the scale and offset of both ADC and DAC is difficult. But there are some interesting results. I’m currently deciding whether or not to keep Zorlon Cannon — my current modular plan still has room for it, but I should be able to cover its abilities well enough between Drezno and Teletype and plugins.

Experiments have shown me that clock dividers, logic etc. aren’t going to be all that fun when processing audio through Drezno, and Teletype and other stuff can handle it should I want to use it at lower rates. Maybe a switch/rotator of some kind eventually, such as the upcoming Noise Engineering Vice Virga or one of the 4-way options, but I’m not necessarily going to plan on it now. I also won’t bother with the Lipsk expander. Jena is a yes for sure though — more waveshaping and patterns, Walsh functions and phase modulation sound like great options to add.

So, right now I am figuring out how I might rearrange the case — the gaps are looking a bit weird with E520 and Zorlon out. The goal:

  • The mult+passthru needs to be on the left, with a 1HP gap to pass cables through. The ES-3 needs to be very nearby.
  • Teletype needs to be on the right, next to TXb or a 1HP gap to allow the i2c cable to pass through. (This could balance the other 1HP gap.)
  • Drezno/Jena need to be adjacent.
  • Planar should be on the front/bottom row.
  • LCDs should be at a good reading angle.
  • All the free space should be contiguous, like defragging a hard drive, to prevent having to rearrange to fit other modules later.
  • It’s helpful to have certain modules that can act as mults (Shades, the Ladik switch, O’Tool+, maybe an actual mult) near the horizontal center.
  • Preferably, black panels aren’t adjacent — I find they tend to get a bit lost that way.
  • Some modules “like” to be near each other — Shades and the Ladik switch, Clep Diaz near an attenuator, Drezno near O’Tool+, etc.

That’s a lot of priorities to shuffle, and there will be some failure of the less important goals. Oh well!

prolific, obstinate

Surprise! I have all the material I need for another album release. All I need to do is master it, make the art and the webpage, and release.

The first half of the material was recorded from March 11 through 14 — spurred by the arrival of Odessa. And the second half was recorded from March 18 through 21, spurred by the arrival of Manis Iteritas and Clep Diaz.

The new (and “new”) gear is good stuff, but it doesn’t get all of the credit for inspiration. There’s the recent read of Monolithic Undertow, and the Stridulation-Yukon-Relay set that I recorded for The Neon Hospice, pushing me toward more of a long form, continuous mix, reaffirmation of “the spirit of drone” sort of thing. There’s a bit of influence from the music I’ve been listening to more lately — the spooky synthy retro-SF/horror (psuedo-)soundtrack stuff, a collection of xenharmonic albums and a few heavy drones. There’s perhaps some influence from the horror podcasts (Old Gods of Appalachia, The Magnus Archive) and paranormal YouTubers my spouse has been listening to and I’ve been half-listening to. There was a technique cribbed from Mylar Melodies, of running vocal samples through Rings for a sort of metallic ringing echo, which reminded me of the Front Line Assembly song “Right Hand of Heaven.”

The use of Odessa, and thinking about letting go of the E520 led me to playing with spectral processing a bit more than usual — and Rings, which is kind of an indirect form of spectral processing. Spontaneous musical phrases and pulsation can happen as a result of the source material passing into and out of processing bands, and on Odessa, through cancellation and reinforcement of partials that have been twisted until their frequencies overlap.

The new album will be called Luminous Phenomena (unless I change my mind). It consists of three tracks, ranging in length from 16:26 to 28:17. Like Stridulation-Yukon-Relay, each track was recorded in two or three shorter sessions and mixed into a continuous piece with transitions.

Even though I record “live” and improvise, before the recording is a lot of not audience-friendly patching, tuning, setting up FX, and planning and practicing maneuvers. After, some editing (cleanup of glitches, taming some harshness, and occasionally more). Extending my editing process a little bit, and adding just a little bit of planning for smooth transitions, fits naturally in this process.

While I probably have the gear to perform longer single-take pieces of, say 20-30 minutes, it would impose limitations that I don’t have with this method. People who perform longer sets with modular tend to have bigger rigs with duplicates of favorite modules, and spend more time patching and planning things out — ironically, live performance can lead to less spontaneous creativity because of a need to prepare more and to manage risk.

And also this method works out creatively. The overall pieces have a sense of scale, with more weight and more time to build up and more time for the listener to settle into it, and offer some continuity while also giving a sense of travel from one scene to another. I’m really happy with how both S-Y-R and Luminous Phenomena have turned out — they give me chills.

Manis Iteritas is not new to me, but it’s been about 3 years since I sold the previous one, so there’s been a bit of a process of rediscovery.

Manis can range from simple “sawtooth through a filter” sounds, to dark, heavy, pulsating drones, to whippy percussion and gritty swarms. While I like a lot of its sonic range, but the raw “chaotic beehive” sound of the Smash parameter is… not my favorite. And the Bash parameter applies the internal envelope to Smash along with the others, so things can feel a bit limited. I think this might have been one of the reasons I let go of the module in the first place.

But this time I know more, and have learned to put every feature of the module to work for me. Subtle use of Smash can be very rewarding. It also works well with heavy processing — such as Rings, SpecOps, or massive dark reverb. The key, as with many other modules, is to not treat it as a self-contained voice in isolation but as part of a whole.

Clep Diaz, or Clepsydra Diazoma, is a nice addition. It primarily generates “stair step” signals — upward, downward, or alternating. The Count control/CV determines how many steps are in the cycle, from 0 to 16 — and like a staircase, fewer steps means a bigger rise per step. The levels can be even or randomized, and there’s also an LFO mode that does smooth random that’s still somehow related to the input clock in a way I haven’t really investigated yet. There’s also a “beginning of cycle” gate output so you can use the module like a clock divider, and a reset input if you want to shake the pattern up some.

I’ve made good use of it and feel like this is a keeper. It’s helped bring some interesting animation to drones, and I’ve used it for pitch both with and without quantization. Using it to play with clock speeds is also fun!

I do wish that it was 6HP rather than 4, and a little less crowded. (And I think the tighter jacks that NE has been using contributes to this cramped feeling somehow.) The LEDs count steps in binary, which isn’t the most intuitive thing even for a nerd like me; it could have had a little one-digit hexadecimal display like some of their other modules. Since there’s no attenuator on board, I think the bipolar output could have been skipped, in favor of a Reverse gate input to flip the step direction. But it’s still a handy little module that is going to get a lot of use.

Drezno arrived in the mail just now — experimenting with that will be my next project. I’ll need to determine what I can and can’t do with it, whether I want to keep or sell Zorlon Cannon, as well as determining what else I might want to accompany Drezno — Jena, Lipsk, CMOS clock divider, CMOS boolean logic, a simple pattern sequencer, some kind of addressable switch, etc. I will have plenty of space to work with here, and want to keep my modulation and processing pretty interesting.

I’m now certain that I want to grab one of the Versio modules — probably Desmodus with its bat logo, or the new Ruina for its beholder logo and DOOM knob. Ruina (distortion/wavefolding) and Elector (clocked delay/reverb based on Desmodus) both sound fantastic, and I no longer believe that waiting for the Desmodus VST plugin is going to be enough for me 😉

Other than that, I’m also still kind of thinking that an Erica Pico BBD and/or a WMD/SSF DPLR could offer a lot of character in a little space for not much money. And I should leave some space for beta testing (they said hopefully) or surprise must-haves.

make room! make room!

I have emerged from deep contemplation and have plotted a course for the next leg of the modular journey:

I really don’t want to give up Akemie’s Castle. So I won’t.

But the more I think about it, the less sure I am that the E520 is the best use of its space. I have told myself that it does things I haven’t been able to replicate elsewhere in hardware or software, and convinced myself that those effects are valuable to me. But my findings are, in short:

  • Spectral Crusher/Threshold is my favorite effect by far… but I recently found I can get very close in Unfiltered Audio SpecOps, with the MP3ify and Decapitate filters.
  • Spectral Crusher/PeakHold is a bit more unique, with SpecOps’ Freeze and Resonant Freeze being closest perhaps, though without the decay time. But I haven’t used this one in any recordings.
  • Spectral Time Machine is unique! But I haven’t used it that much. SpecOps does cover freezing, which seems like my most likely use for it.
  • Spectral Delay can be almost covered by two instances of Melda MSpectralDelay. Close enough.
  • Granular Pitch and Dirt: I can cover these with Bitwig or plugins quite well.
  • All the delays, all the modulation: some of these are very good, but I have so many options here that I rarely use the E520 for them.
  • The rest: not my cup of tea really.

So I’m thinking, despite my initial excitement and ongoing appreciation for the E520, I will probably sell it and free up a lot of space to give myself options.

And then there’s… the bits.

Give us the bits!

I’ve been considering the Xaoc Devices “Leibniz Binary Subsystem” off and on since it was first announced. It’s a bit esoteric in usage, but the basic pieces are:

Drezno: an 8-bit analog-to-digital converter paired with a digital-to-analog converter. It provides jacks for each bit (out and in) as well as scale and offset controls and external clock inputs for both of the converters.

Lipsk: an expander with buttons and gates to invert/XOR individual bits. Or it can connect to Odessa instead, to enable individual spectral banks.

Jena: an expander that acts as a lookup table of various waveshapes, rhythms and Walsh functions, addressed by the 8 bits from Drezno (or Lipsk), returning 8 bits as output, with a phase offset CV.

I’m thinking I would skip Lipsk (unless using the other two shows me it’d be super useful). With those, I could:

  • Extract individual bits from an LFO for rhythmic gates, or from audio for “Atari noises.”
  • Skip low-order bits to decrease resolution, or skip high-order bits for a crude wavefolding effect.
  • Tweak the scaling and offset to clip/decimate.
  • Rearrange bit order, skip middle bits or use logic to change the shape of waves.
  • Use high-order bit as a comparator.
  • Use the DAC separately to create stepped CV from other gates.
  • Clock the DAC and/or ADC at lower rates for sample rate reduction, or sample-and-hold.
  • Use Jena for wavetables or nonlinear distortion, alternate rhythms and noise, override some but not all of the original bits, etc.
  • Feed the DAC output back to the ADC, and use scaling, bit order changes, Jena and/or analog shaping to create a (non)linear feedback shift register, to produce patterns of CV and gates/squarewaves. Possibly externally clocked, possibly just at its maximum internal rate.
  • Clock the DAC from one of the bits of the ADC, effectively holding values for different lengths related to their level…???
  • Probably other things I haven’t thought of!

In fact, I have just talked myself into buying Drezno, without even the Jena at first. I am betting that its flexibility will beat Zorlon’s dual clocks and multiple (but less flexible) LFSRs. A new Drezno is less than the resale value of the Zorlon, and a little smaller — I could rearrange things to fit Jena without even selling the E520. But I’ll see how it does on its own first.

the sound of pure mathematics

Odessa arrived yesterday and I love it. Lots of textures are bursting out of it. Simple sawtooth or square waves with tilt EQ. Very sweet or very exotic flangers/phasers. Surprisingly resonant-sounding “filter” sweeps by cutting back on the number of partials. Vocal formants. Shimmery glassy tones. Train horns. Eerie atonal chords. Deep growls. Resonant wind noises. Harmonically tuned casino slot machines. Between-radio-stations atmospheric noises. Crickets singing while a silver UFO descends in a dew-covered field. Gentle, smooth tones that fade in and out gently like the waves of a lake lapping at the shore. A ghostly confetti of arpeggios that alternate between left and right as they descend in an orderly but complex fractal pattern.

It’s also great as an FM carrier or modulator.

In two weekdays I’ve already used it in two ten-minute recordings. And, thanks to a noisy fan vibrating my desk in harmony with today’s work, a bit of transition to glue them together — so I’m well on my way into the next album project.

The one hesitation I have with this longer-form idea is that, when I choose albums to listen to, I have tended to prefer a more moderate track length and individual tracks over a continuous mix. I might be starting to come around, though. Maybe I’ll decide to keep it glued together but still use separate track markers; maybe I’ll do it both ways with the final “track” of the album being a continuous mix, as some recent releases by others have done.

As pleased as I am with Odessa, I found I still want that Manis Iteritas again. So, having sold two of the three modules I pulled out so far, I went ahead and bought one along with a Clep Diaz.

I could rearrange things and make space for up to a 4HP module, but for now I think I’m going to put changes back on hold for a bit. Akemie’s Castle will move when it needs to — to make room for a beta test module or if some other “must have” comes along (which could be Sport Modulator v2, but I’m kind of cooling on the idea at the moment).

A small part of me wishes I could say at the end of 2021 that I stuck strictly to my plan. But getting Odessa instead of Shelves and A-110-4 was definitely the right thing for me to do, and once my mind was made up it felt silly to postpone it. I’m also confident that Manis/Clep will serve me better than VCFQ, nice as VCFQ may be.

[drone intensifies]

I finished reading Monolithic Undertow. Here are my thoughts.

The first part of the book, a general intro and discussion of the drone in ancient times, was pretty fascinating. The conclusion/outro was brief, but resonated with me (so to speak).

The bulk of the book was pretty much “the begats.” This artist influenced that band, which influenced that artist, who started this movement, which this other artist combined with other influences, which influenced another artist. From Ravi Shankar’s influence on the Beatles and psychedelic rock, through free jazz, kosmische music, no wave, drone metal, ambient, chillout, drone techno etc. there’s arguably some clear lines of succession, rather than convergent evolution.

And speaking of influence, it seems most of them were under the. The book dwells a lot on drugs, which… I suppose is central to psychedelia. But I started to wonder if there were any 20th century musicians who could break down barriers of thought without chemical assistance, or if the author just really likes his acid and weed. And I guess in an area of music that on a scale of 0=Apollonian to 10=Dionysian, lives somewhere between 9.5 and 11, it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.

Anyway, through that evolution, it was good to see a not terribly strict and literal definition of “drone” — and yet, a coherent one. The drone does tend to change one’s perception of time in music, but that doesn’t mean it has to completely obliterate time. It doesn’t have to be hours long (or infinite) and purely static. It can shift. It can have texture and even articulation. It can be the harmonic basis of a song, in lieu of chord progressions. There can be melody, harmony and rhythm playing off of it. The drone can be all, or explicitly central, or implicit.

Often when I read books on music history, genres, technology, philosophies etc. I make myself a list of things to listen to. And most of the time, most of it disappoints me. Music and techniques that were groundbreaking at the time might have become commonplace afterward, or evolved into more compelling forms. Sometimes the examples are more academic and experimental than musically engaging. And sometimes I just don’t appreciate particular genre/style elements as much as the author did. For instance, I’m just really not going to get into the Velvet Underground, no matter how important a node they were in the graph, nor Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. But maybe I’ll like something on this list — I am enjoying the Blackmoon1348 album I found after the author mentioned them in an earlier section.

I found the book inspiring overall. The set I was working on was originally, more or less, going to be a short album of individual pieces. Instead, it wound up as a triptych of drone improvisations that fit together seamlessly into one half-hour work. It gets pretty intense at times, and I am generally very pleased with it. This might be the direction my future music goes.

The set, “Stridulation-Yukon-Relay,” is scheduled for May 15 on Sonic Sound Synthesis at The Neon Hospice.

here’s what went down

So the thing I’ve been a bit cagey about is, I applied for the programming position at Noise Engineering. I didn’t get it, due to the quality of competition, and congratulations to whoever did. They did invite me to be a beta tester though, which is cool.

I’m satisfied with my current job — it’s solid and stable, the pay is decent given the cost of living here, and it’s generally low pressure. Even though we are understaffed, there’s very little stress over deadlines, no abuse by the management, no screaming customers, no crunch time, no “emergency” cancelled vacations that you planned four months in advance, and no wondering if the next paycheck is going to arrive on time or who’s going to get laid off next. Instead, it’s simply “this is a difficult puzzle” which tends to yield to a satisfying “I just solved the puzzle.” While I don’t really share many interests with my coworkers and am not really friends with them, they seem like decent people and we get along fine.

But the idea of making musical instruments for a living? An end product I actually am passionate about? Working with other musician nerds? Being a part of the design process? That would have been pretty nifty, so I had to try for it.

Career move stuff is always a bit stressful. Less so, when you’re already in a decent job and are just trying for an upgrade. But more so when you’ve got anxiety and a weird misplaced sense of guilt over it. I felt bad about leaving the team more understaffed, and felt like I was sneaking around behind their backs… even though rationally, it’s just part of a normal employer-employee relationship. So I’m glad the process is done one way or the other. I did enjoy talking to the folks at NE though; we’re pretty much in the same tribe.

I’m kind of thinking about whether I want to get back to experimenting with writing plugins again. On the one hand, I don’t know if that’s what I want to do after an 8 hour shift coding for someone else. But maybe a bit of that would be nice from time to time. What I know I don’t want to do is get stuck supporting code that I only wrote out of curiosity and am not getting paid for.

Thinking about whether I was going to need to find a way to rack a bunch of Noise Engineering modules (a good problem to have!) got the wheels turning in my head. So here’s what’s going on with my gear plan now:

  • Not waiting for May 1 anymore.
  • I will still only sell three modules this year, right now (Shelves, VCFQ, A-110-4).
  • If I decide I need the space — for beta test modules or simply other things I decide I really want — I may set aside (but not sell in 2021) the Akemie’s Castle, or get another 4ms Pod or similar to shunt Castle or E520 into.
  • I will still not sell, trade or buy non-modular desktop gear in 2021.
  • I ordered an Odessa last night:

This is a pure additive synthesis oscillator that generates up to 2560 harmonics simultaneously (!) and offers ways to detune them, change their relative emphasis, distribute them in stereo, etc. There’s also both linear TZFM and exponential FM. Demos vary; this oscillator is capable of being extremely piercing and exhausting, but in motion or with the right detuning it can be gloriously liquid and crystalline and all sorts of other words that are not music so they don’t quite fit.

That leaves 16HP of free space (or 18HP if I pull out the passive DC blocking filter that I got for the A-110-4 and rearrange things a bit more). I have a few thoughts about what could go in:

  • Toppobrillo Sport Modulator v2. It’s currently being designed, in an unusually public manner. It’s been unobtanium for years, but has a strong loyal following, and I’m curious. It’s similar to Maths in many ways but not in specifics, where simple circuits, in different clever combinations, can perform a hundred different functions. The new version will have volt-per-octave tracking and a sync input, as well as other enhancements.
  • Noise Engineering Loquelic Iteritas. Noise Engineering’s dual oscillator, with phase modulation as well as summation synthesis and VOSIM, each with twists… I feel like this is potentially the same sort of case as Shapeshifter, where I should probably have tried it earlier on because how could this not be perfect?
  • Noise Engineering Manis Iteritas. Every time Blakmoth posts a snippet of music on Instagram, I ask myself why I ever sold mine. The SawX algorithm in Microfreak, though based on it and awesome in its own right (*), doesn’t have the same gravity. I used to think it was because the Microfreak doesn’t transpose low enough so that with SawMod adding harmonics, the fundamental is in deep subsonic territory — but you can force it down there, and that’s not it. Maybe the filter? Something in the output stage? Whatever, Manis is magic.

I could name other Noise Engineering stuff, but at least some of it (Desmodus!) is coming in plugin form. And there are beta tests to look forward to 🙂

(*) playing with it while writing this gave me a delicious drone that’s going into my current project, today.

light bulb goes “ping”

I tend to think of myself as having Summer SAD, since the combination of heat and humidity and bright sunlight can make me wig out. But, having just read someone saying their anxiety and depression are at their most troublesome in winter made me recall that, late winter through the earliest part of spring can be a little rough too.

Being aware of these things can help a lot.

Putting it in perspective, I think I’m doing pretty well compared to last year at this time. A few episodes of getting overly wound up, a bit of a lull in my creative drive (often overcome just by turning on the synth gear, patching and listening). But no feeling trapped, or under siege, or super-frustrated. And a few things to be pleased about, no matter the outcome.

Such as: I started working on a set for the Sonic Sound Synthesis weekly show hosted by The Neon Hospice. (It’ll probably be a couple of months before it airs.)

I started reading Monolithic Undertow by Harry Sword, a book about drone music in all its forms and cultures. It’s pretty fascinating so far, and I am finding a bit of inspiration in it. It even seems relatively balanced about its claims of the psychoactive power of drone or assumptions about ancient cultures (though I’m still keeping grains of salt on standby).

I tend to not be that deeply into more strict, static drone, but prefer some interplay between stasis and change. But then a lot of the music referenced here is also not 45 minutes with no texture or rhythm, either, and a lot of music that people describe as “drone” sounds nothing at all like a drone to me.

The term “drone” is a bit like “ambient” — it had a precise meaning but it got applied in wider umbrella fashion, for lack of a better word which can encompass a set that shares some general characteristics, but not the key characteristic that defines the term.

I would say that the set of characteristics for “drone” is even more nebulous… but then, there’s some music categorized as “dark ambient” which strike me as some kind of slow sludgy doom metal. Kind of a similar mood I guess…?

I have been thinking about gear again (of course). I’m confident now that I want to replace my Shelves and A-110-4 with a Xaoc Odessa — in fact, I’m probably not going to wait for May 1 after all.

After that, there’s more uncertainty and several possible paths — more later as it develops, as Cecil Palmer of Night Vale Community Radio would say.