A few days ago I realized I kind of missed finger drumming on the Maschine, even though I don’t really make that kind of music. There’s something to be said for just playing, enjoying the journey without any thought of a destination. For many years that was 100% of my music making.
I’m grateful to have found the flow, to where I can just start making sounds and follow them to a finished recording, which is almost always worth keeping and listening to again. But I think a little bit of less “productive” music will do me good as well.
My thoughts immediately turned to the Elektron Model:Cycles. I very nearly went for one in the past but made other choices. It’s a drum machine, but it’s also an FM synthesizer — and “an ambient powerhouse in disguise” according to some.
I was pretty pleased to get a trade offer: a Cycles and some cash for my DAFM Genesis YM2612 synth (which I haven’t really used since The Sky Above The Port) and the Behringer interface. It arrived extremely quickly, and also extremely wet — the mail carrier left it on the front porch but failed to push it back one more foot where it would have stayed dry in yesterday’s rain. The outer box was soaked and disintegrating, but the inner box was barely damp and the machine itself was just fine.
And fine it is! Lots of fun, mostly not too confusing despite Elektron’s reputation (I haven’t really gone through the whole manual and have a pretty good grasp of things). Great sound too, of course tailored to drums, but it does indeed do the ambient thing, with some limitations. The envelopes are decay-only; if you want a slow attack you need to use the LFO, and there’s only one LFO per voice. It’s not going to take the FM drone prize away from Akemie’s Castle, but it was never meant to and it has its own charms.
My plan is to not integrate this with my other music gear for a while, leaving it as a spontaneous playtime instrument (running off a USB battery pack once the appropriate cable arrives). I can definitely see the possibility of using it “solo” to create tracks or a full album, with minimal external processing… someday. I’d rather get in the habit of just jamming with it though.
The crackling problem I was having with the new interface is solved. A lot of people had said “sounds like a clocking issue.” As it turns out it wasn’t firmware, drivers, some kind of surprise incompatibility, power/grounding problems, USB interference, a defect, etc. — it was a very simple cable issue.
The interface is connected to the ES-3 via an ADAT Toslink optical cable. It’s weird and toylike, like a very thin plastic straw. The core is transparent plastic, wrapped in a reflective coating. An LED (not a laser) on the output connector pulses at very high rates to transmit data through the tube to a detector on the other end. I guess the advantage is, electromagnetic interference isn’t a factor and you can transmit a lot of data over a very thin “wire” — but it’s kind of needlessly complicated.
If you bend the cable too sharply, you cut off the signal. Or if the connector isn’t firmly snapped into place, or there’s dust in the way, you don’t get a great signal. I’m pretty sure it was one of the latter that was the problem. Pulling out the connectors at both ends and dusting them with compressed air fixed the crackling.
I’m not using any Behringer gear anymore. (Yay!)
The Scarlett is physically much deeper — it extends all the way to the back of my rack box, making the jacks much easier to access.
Either the size of the chassis is acting as a much better heat sink, internal spacing of parts prevents heat buildup, or it’s better designed or using better parts in an electrical sense (or all of the above); it runs cool without needing to use the fans I put in that rack box. I could probably put another 1U device into that box if I had a need for it rather than dedicating it to ventilation.
It looks a bit nicer 🙂 and has LED indicators to make levels very clear on the analog inputs, a mute button with a light to tell you it’s muted, etc.
Total latency is very low. ASIO latency is almost nothing. I have the buffer set to 64 samples and might even be able to go lower than that — I’ll see what I can get away with in a complex setup with multiple ins/outs and a bunch of running plugins and MIDI data flowing. Also, I’m not using the best USB port for the job yet; a USB C-to-C cable is on the way. Anyway this is good news for modular integration with the DAW — I may not have to do any timing correction at all.
My hope is that the extra speed will mean I won’t get the random glitches I had before. Sometimes these would make it into the recording (and I’ve had to apply some creative edits to fix those), sometimes they were audible while recording or during playback but not actually present in the data. What prompted me to actually go for this upgrade was hearing from a couple of people who’d also gone from Scarlett 1st gen or Behringer’s clones to 3rd gen, and had these problems disappear.
The zero-latency monitoring features in the thing make it easier to diagnose routing issues and other problems. Also if I were going to play live I could still use the interface without a computer, in theory.
It may be psychological, but it seems like the headphone amp sounds better.
With that resolved and the new VHO, things are ready for a new album. I’ve been concentrating my thoughts elsewhere, with work and other changes. I do have a possible idea for an album that has a consistent pulse in a single tempo, never stopping, slowing or speeding up. That would be unusual for me, but I’m curious to see how that would fit into an “ambient”/drone context and with the idea of a journey.
My first couple of days back in the office, and things seem pretty okay. The initial weirdness wasn’t Covid-related anxiety, but lots of little things like the chair, keyboard, going back to dual LCDs instead of one ultrawide, and really: the fact that nobody was talking much. It felt quieter at the office than it does working from home, where there’s the dogs and the aquarium and the AC unit outside the window, and me talking to myself and sometimes Alisha playing a game or watching videos or commenting on stuff.
I don’t think there’s any real benefit to working at the office, in terms of actual job stuff. On a personal level, it was kind of nice to have bookends to the day, a better place to walk around during breaks, and I guess the chair is a little better than the one I have at home. But being in the office is kind of a performance, and I somewhat missed not having to do that. There’s also dealing with the warm drinking water, public-ish restrooms, having to refrain from talking to myself too much and swearing at the computer, etc. So it’s mixed.
As far as the other stuff goes: after the general dev meeting and my performance review, things are a bit more straightened out. S. (the product team lead) and K. (the supervisor who’s leaving) asked whether I wanted to pretty much keep a similar role to what I have been. There were already plans to change a few things in the process and distribute/delegate some of the responsibilities. It sounds like I’ll be making a few task assignment decisions but won’t really be a “supervisor” in an administrative sense. Good! I’ll also probably be picking up a contract that involves a medical diagnostic application for our software — which will involve updating some 20+ year old code so it can run on Windows 10. So that’s cool.
My fancy music library sync plan is foiled because Veracrypt mounts the USB drive as FAT32 format, while Icedrive sync requires NTFS. So I’ll have to do my syncing a bit more manually, either mounting Icedrive or just bringing the stick home to sync. No big deal.
The VHO does not have the immediate wow factor of many of my other oscillators — it seems a little bit plain at first, although certainly with some character. But a little modulation here, a little combination of its outputs there, and it can really come alive.
The higher partials are not just weirdly shaped sines as if waveshaping is a little off, but contain a lot of other harmonic content in themselves.
This is the spectrum of a 60hz sine from Shapeshifter — you couldn’t ask for a more ideal sine wave.
This is what Blades looks like when it’s resonating at 60Hz. (Well, 62.55 because I didn’t get that picky about tuning it.) There’s a little harmonic distortion there; you can see a touch of the second harmonic, a bit more of the third and fifth.
This is the VHO’s first partial output, with the core tuned to 60Hz. You can see there’s a bit more distortion or stuff “leaking” into the output maybe.
Here’s the 4th partial, with the core frequency dropped two octaves to 15Hz to compensate. Trying to decode this a little, it looks like other partials are getting into the signal and there’s also harmonic distortion of the one we’re trying to monitor.
And here’s the 8th partial, with the core frequency dropped another octave down to about 7Hz. Some of what we’re seeing here must be harmonic distortion of the lower partials, and… it all gets pretty crazy honestly. But it has harmonics in common and therefore sounds pretty great when run through further distortion.
A fun thing to do is to take one of the partial outputs, or the triangle or saw, and the “final” mix output and combine them in something like a ring modulator, FM Aid, comparator etc. while modulating the scan/tilt or individual partial levels. The first output gives it some stability and the second some timbral variance. You can achieve things not entirely unlike formant filter sweeps this way, but weirder.
Some of Behringer’s recent antics got me thinking about replacing my audio interface, just to be done with that company entirely. I realized there’d be an actual benefit, because the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 3rd gen has much less latency, can run at much higher sample rates (if I weren’t tied to 48kHz max by the ES-3/ES-6) and has better analog parts. (The UMC1820 was almost certainly Behringer’s clone of the 1st generation 18i20, but a little bit lesser.) So I went for it. And it’s pretty nice overall — it’s not running anywhere near as warm (possibly due to the larger, metal casing acting as a heat sink, but more likely due to higher quality overall) and even just listening to music, I feel like the headphone amp is better.
I’m getting crackling on the ADAT inputs from the ES-6. A couple of channels will crackle every few seconds when silent, but all of them when there’s a signal. It doesn’t seem to depend on any of the settings that I can find. It seems like it might be a clock problem, but I’m not sure what I can do about that. The ES-3 gets its clock solely from the ADAT signal over the optical Toslink cable, so it relies on the interface’s internal clock. The ES-6 gets its clock from the ES-3 via a ribbon cable on the back, and then its own Toslink cable goes into the interface’s input. I get the crackling whether or not I set the 18i20 to internal or ADAT clocking. So… hmmm. It could be a dodgy optical cable I suppose.
I’ve written both to Focusrite and Expert Sleepers to see if they have advice. I really want to use this thing; I’m getting latency so slow it’s hard to hear without setting up tests specifically for it, and I suspect my occasional random glitching days are over if I can straighten out the lots-of-glitches I’m getting right now.
the Verbos Harmonic Oscillator was supposed to be delivered today. Instead, I got a “Delivered” notification from FedEx that says I signed for it (with a random squiggle that’s not one of my random sqiuggles). But there was no truck here, no dogs barking, no knock on the door, and no box with electronic goodies inside. UPS did this with some coffee I ordered a few months ago; with FedEx it was was a little easier to get past the gatekeeping automated system and have an actual human start investigating it. [UPDATE] a few hours later, it was actually delivered, and I’m playing with it now. More on that when I have some coherent thoughts!
my supervisor at work is leaving for another job, as of July 1. This is something I was nervous about before, and was a factor in applying to Noise Engineering: I don’t want to do management stuff, I just want to write code. Now that it’s been announced I’m…. kind of numb to it. One of the final things K is going to do is my performance review, so maybe I will get a bigger than normal raise out of this or something, since I will now be the senior developer on the staff…? At any rate, there will definitely be some discussion of things.
a third thing: today is not Bandcamp Friday (where Bandcamp waives their cut of proceeds and the artist gets it all, aside from credit card processing fees)… but they are donating proceeds to the NAACP for Juneteenth. So I filled out my music collection with 8 more albums and emptied my wishlist again.
I’ve been culling my music library a bit faster than I’ve been adding to it. Stuff I just don’t have much interest in listening to repeatedly anymore, or honestly was never that much into in the first place, gets set aside. Not deleted though, in case I change my mind. Currently, the main library has 690 artists and 925 albums, and the archive has 264 artists (no easy way to count albums, but probably about 280?)
For music at work, I’m using a VeraCrypt-protected USB stick (not because my music library is a huge secret, but because all portable drives must be encrypted by policy), which will be perfectly synchronized with my main music library before I bring it to the office. And I’m also using an encrypted cloud storage service: syncing my music library, current works in progress and some other stuff from my home machine up to the cloud, and syncing it down to the portable drive. I don’t know whether I want to try two-way sync — if the USB stick gets its encryption locked or is removed but the sync monitor is running, will it think all those files got deleted and try the same in the cloud? This isn’t a big burden for my music library, but for password management (which I definitely don’t want to get broken) I’ll have to be sure that changes are made only from home.
And a fourth thing: a few weeks ago I mentioned that Linda Nagata’s Vast was one of my favorite books, but I had not previously made the effort to track down the rest of the series. I got used paperbacks through Alibris and started on “Book 0” of the series, Tech-Heaven. It is almost not recognizable as the same setting.
Vast is in the far future, centered on a spaceship whose “soul” is the uploaded consciousness of a criminal who was sentenced to separation from his body and servitude in the fleet; the other crew are humans whose bodies are modified for space to varying degrees; the conflict is an encounter with an automated ancient battleship left over from a war that ended before life even crawled out of Earth’s oceans. If I remember right, Earth was long ago mined for materials to build a Dyson sphere, which was then lost in a nanotechnological plague that was part of a religious war? Something like that.
Tech-Heaven though? An early 90s vision of clunky VR-helmet cyberpunk, with orbital colonies just beginning. The main plot is that a man is preserved cryonically in hopes of future revival, by his wife’s wishes but against the objections of his sister, who happens to be a powerful and influential senator. His wife has to endure her next decades not really sure what to think of her relationship status to anyone. His sister winds up leading an anti-technology conservative faction that, oops, spawns terrorist groups and a whole new political movement that becomes a de facto government as old nations lose their cohesion. The man himself, not much of a participant in things at least so far, has really bad dreams loosely connected to whatever small bit of consciousness is still hanging on after he’s declared legally dead and goes through the freezing and/or revival process.
All this is to say, this is definitely not the same kind of book. The line of continuity between this book and Vast seems tenuous at best, though of course I will be better able to judge that after reading the whole series. The writing itself doesn’t come off as assured and as brain-grabby. It took some time to get into it, and I’m still mainly just skimming the nightmare stuff. And when the frozen guy’s wife interacts with certain other characters, it’s like Charlie Brown and Lucy with the football every damn time and I really wish she would learn.
My spouse’s first day on her new job is today. It was quite a long search for something that met her criteria. It isn’t the most exciting career on the planet, but there is a lot to be said for a dull-ish, stable, non-irritating job with decent management and minimal exposure to the public.
I’m feeling more accepting about going back to the office myself, at the moment — I’m actually kind of looking forward to it to some extent. (Maybe part of this is because I now have a jury summons a couple of weeks later to fret about instead!) The COVID stats are trending downward. The county’s at about 50% adult vaccination. We poked around a couple of stores this weekend, including an outdoor outlet mall on a ridiculously hot and sunny day (probably the most sun I’ve gotten since 2019) and the idea of being out of the house is generally feeling less weird and scary.
Speaking of weird and scary, I noticed a few days ago that Phonogene and Portal combined are the same size as a Verbos Harmonic Oscillator. I feel like neither of these are essential modules for me — Phonogene because my Bitwig sample looping game has improved, and Portal because it’s just a weird distortion thinger and was always kind of a situational oddball.
The VHO is something I’ve been wanting since at least 2017. It featured prominently on two of my most favorite modular albums — Caterina Barbieri’s Patterns of Consciousness and Nathan Moody’s Etudes III: Red Box. It’s a clever design that I have imitated (to good effect) in the ER-301 and in Bitwig Grid, and to a lesser extent with Bitwig Organ and SonicLab Fundamental — though without really capturing the full flavor, nor all aspects of its flexibility.
I’ve held off until now because it’s big. Originally, I just didn’t have the space. Then I had “too many oscillators” and told myself to make room for VHO I’d have to drop Akemie’s Castle. Which, despite considering it many times, never happened because Castle is just too charming.
So despite adding Odessa and Manis Iteritas to my “too many oscillators” I’m getting this one too. Because I want it, and there aren’t any other needs or wants that can outweigh it.
The design is a single analog oscillator core, with the typical outputs — plus individual outputs for the first eight partials of the harmonic series, and a mix output controlled by sliders, CV inputs, and a “scan” function (like a bandpass filter) and tilt (like low/high pass). In terms of additive synthesis, eight partials is pretty primitive compared to a monster like Odessa — but having a combination of direct and macro control, individual outputs, and an analog flavor with characterful rather than pure sines and some saturation in the mixer, makes all the difference.
Even my software-based attempts at harmonic oscillators have been pretty nice in conjunction with some waveshaping and/or FM. I’m expecting this to be more than that.
I don’t normally talk about stuff this mundane, but
My old standby hiking boots were pretty worn out after however many years of service, and some lesser sneakers rotated into and back out of the, um, rotation during that time. But I decided at some point, I was going to get some really comfy work shoes and take the advice of the people who know: nurses and restaurant staff. Even though I don’t stand or walk around all day, I figure, any shoe good enough for them should work fine for me.
One of the branches that led down was Crocs or Profi Birkis (Birkenstocks made for work, non-slip tread, waterproof and super easy to clean, and supposedly really comfy). I chose the latter, and… eh. They have this really high arch support that took some getting used to. Plus I got a size too big and they liked to wobble all over or slide right off my feet. I made it work with some stick-on pad thingies, but not ideal.
I decided since I’m going back to work, I might as well try Crocs On The Clock. Same general design, but instead of big arch support they’ve got more memory foam (yay!) and are just slightly less slip-on (and slip-off). They don’t look like weird plastic clogs like many Crocs do, they cover your whole foot sort of like a… I guess a loafer? And they’re like 3x more comfortable at a cheaper price.
There are no problems with WFH, and the development team prefers it. We literally just hired a developer who lives out of state anyway. Our product manager and our head of QA live on two other continents. It works! In the past year we released our most ambitious major version and an update to it. We are well organized and communicate very effectively online.
I’m thinking the only reason we’re going back is that mechanical engineers, particularly older ones, tend to be very conservative and traditionalist (not just in a political sense but in all things) and they want a return to “normal.” And probably the boss is a much more social person than anyone on the development team and just misses being around people and assumes we feel the same way.
But, all this said:
I’m going to try to make the most of it. The feeling that it weird and dangerous to be around other people is going to eventually pass (I hope) — honestly I think it’s less about personal COVID fear now, and more a matter of convenience and comfort and efficiency, and the frustration that it’s not necessary to be in the office.
My commute is really not far at all. The money I saved with WFH was mostly in breakfast and lunch, and I can continue saving that money. And I did honestly miss the availability of a much better environment for walking during breaks (a big, mostly flat space outside in good weather, and laps around the air conditioned atrium in hot/cold/wet weather) and it’ll be good to get more exercise just from moving around a bit.
Perhaps I will be able to negotiate partial WFH after things settle down.
One thing I need to figure out is music at work. I used to maintain a music library at work on a thumb drive and update it via cloud storage. That was kind of a hassle and things were pretty far out of sync generally. Part of the problem is, I might acquire new music either at home or at work, and I might decide to prune my collection in either place.
Shortly after WFH began — when we all assumed it was going to just be a few weeks — I set up a Plex media server, which I could theoretically use on my phone and at work to listen to my MP3 library at home. In practice, it meant occasionally losing connection even at home, a substandard phone app, and possible security issues. So I killed that, and switched to SyncTrayzor/SyncThing to automatically keep my phone synced to my media library. That’s worked beautifully.
I could install SyncTrayzor at work too and sync it from the phone, but that makes the setup on the phone side more complex and probably violates cybersecurity policy.
USB stick, either treating my home collection as “master” or the stick itself as master. The former requires a little discipline to keep things in sync; the latter requires not losing the stick or forgetting it, and also making sure to make backups just in case.
I could just listen to music directly from my phone. This is good for security and doesn’t add any more library management (except, again, buying music at work is an issue). It does mean I’d need a headphone mixer to use both the phone and computer audio.
Go back to some kind of media server, or cloud storage. My MP3 library is currently > 75GB; I’m gradually culling it but also still gradually adding to it.
[UPDATE] I bought a 128GB stick on eBay that comes with encryption software. But then I also signed up for Icedrive, which (like Dropbox/Box.net) can mount like a hard drive in Windows but supports stronger encryption, and is cheap at (much larger than) the level of storage that I need. That should do it.