season of lists

It’s Halloween, and this morning as I arrived at work I met a witch on the elevator, with a fantastic, cheerful yet goth black and purple outfit. She indicated her broom and rolling suitcase, and explained (in a suitably witchy accent) that she’d have flown on the one but had to bring the other. As she got off on her floor she said “I hope that I have brightened your day at least a little.”

Makes me a feel a bit lazy for just wearing my new [spooky synth music playing] t-shirt and usual green hoodie and jeans. But the one time I dressed up for Halloween at this place — as a ninja pirate, with a black pirate shirt, tabi boots from my taiko days, awful gold jewelry and plastic katana — I just confused people and felt out of place.

Anyway, today being the main event of Spooky Season, we’re moving swiftly into Festive Season, and also the time when people make lists of the best Whatever Of The Year even though there’s still 1/6 of the year left. But instead of doing a “best new gear” post I’ll frame it as new stuff that wasn’t just cool, but really had an impact.

  • The Maurizio Über Basses Miezo is the big highlight and delight of 2022. While sometimes my fingers fumble when playing, that will get better with time; the instrument fits my body and the space where I play, and it sounds and looks and feels great.

The UBass would go on the list too, except that I bought it late in 2021. Certainly picking that up changed things for me. And even though I kind of ignored it in favor of the Miezo on this latest album, I picked it up a couple of days ago and it’s still a joy. The two instruments are not really replacements for each other.

The Ibanez Mikro was really more educational; it showed me I did indeed want something else the UBass didn’t offer, but pointed toward the Miezo’s much more compact form.

  • Make Noise Strega is my favorite new piece of modular hardware… even though it’s more than a module, and even though it doesn’t feel “new.” It’s more like some part of me has always had it. When the thing was released I avoided getting it because it seemed like it would be too much of a perfect fit. Correct assessment, wrong decision at the time. But I’ve made up for lost time.
  • There were a handful of “favorite” and “neat” new modules, but the one I feel has had the most impact has been Xaoc Koszalin, for giving me a whole new way to warp sound.
  • The Line6 FBV Express foot controller was a solid addition. Obviously nice for volume swells and reverb/delay feedback freezes with the bass, but also just fading in parts in general. The footswitches have been useful as well. Ideally I’d have 2-4 expression pedals, but I do have limited space under the desk and it’s sometimes shared with a dog. So I’m good with this one.

    I could count the Launchpad Pro mk3, but that was just sort of an upgrade from last year’s Launchpad X. The added sequencer mode has been a nice occasional bonus but not necessarily a gamechanger.

    I thought subMatrix BeetTweek was going to be an amazing controller, but in practice it’s turned out to be the kind of thing I could use but usually don’t. I’ve decided to put it up for sale.
  • Jam Origin MIDI Bass has been excellent — by far the most reliable pitch conversion I’ve tried, good for doubling voices, using the bass to simply control a synth voice, or processing with a ring modulator or filter or Rings or whatever. And sometimes I just use it as an amp sim without even doing the MIDI conversion. A win! The developer claims he’s made some progress on an even better algorithm, so that might be something we see in the next year or two.

    Bitwig spectral suite, in spite of the brouhaha associated with its release, offers me some tools I’ve been wanting, with plenty of flexibility. I’ve used it for wild and unusual stuff, but also for some cleanup during editing and mastering on this current project. It was certainly worth the price, but I won’t complain about getting the price converted to an extension.

    Two delay plugins have really stood out: Noise Engineering Imitor (which I received as a beta tester) and the Moogerfooger MF-104 Delay plugin. The former is a very powerful multitap delay with an interface that makes sense to me, and some sweet modulation of the taps and feedback path alteration stuff that… just comes together. The MF-104 has loads of character, and makes my earlier purchase of the Hinder BBD-esque delay feel a little bit unfortunate. Plus there are 6 other Moogerfooger plugins that came with it which aren’t bad either.
  • Surprise, a game category: a lot of what I’ve played this year has been old favorites, like Guild Wars 2, Noita, Art of Rally. WRC 10 was new to me this year, and the driving and graphics are generally good even if the career mode stuff is kind of janky. But the fresh one for me is Moonbreaker — there’s something really relaxing about painting miniatures, especially when there’s no mess and an undo button and lots of assists. The game itself may or may not be relaxing (Cargo Run gets pretty tense and challenging) but is also fun.

    Trombone Champ is the other winner in this category. It’s just a ridiculous game, humbling for a musician to play until you just accept the inevitable. You’ll play out of tune and off the rhythm and practice doesn’t seem to help (I bet if there was a slower practice mode that might be different though). But it’s just full of absurd joy, and has been updated very frequently to bring new tunes to suck at and new cosmetic and configuration options.

longest Friday ever

Apparently even though it’s not even November yet, it’s already Black Friday, according to music software developer Cableguys on Monday, October 24.

But in less ridiculous news, last night I recorded the final track of the next album, which I’ve been tentatively calling Möbius Panorama. (And yes, the end does tie back to the beginning; it would be easy enough to crossfade them together and make it a loop.) Now that I’ve started on album art though, and also realized how much stuff is associated with the Möbius name (kind of including Morbius), it might get renamed.

judging AI books by AI covers

Last night I was playing around with and had it cook up some book covers for me. I just gave it genres and the world “novel” or “book cover” and let it go to town. Some of them took a few tries, some of them nailed it immediately (even if they gave the spy a tiny gun with an electrical cord, the “Teerrirr” skull an extra row of teeth, and Warron there appears to be wearing Minas Tirith as a hat.

I’d read some of these for sure though.

life, the universe, and a bit more

I’ve got a bit over 42 minutes of music recorded for the next project, and some parts ready for the next session. So that’s moving right along.

I’ve started thinking about next year’s list of goals. I have a “lol @ 2022” comment next to this year’s. I still think it’s a worthwhile exercise, even if inability to predict the future and a distorted idea of how I’m going to experience that time make them a little off. For instance, I said “no new basses until at least July” and then bought the Ibanez in January and ordered the Miezo in April because I was better aware of my needs and wants.

I have some thoughts to work out about how the bass integration is going. The Miezo solved my problems with playing at the desk, but that doesn’t mean it’s always smooth sailing. My main hindrance now is a general lack of adroitness — I’m still a beginner! The solution is (A) more practice and (B) work out how best to record multiple tracks live and in sync, so if I’m recording and let out an awful clanky twang, I can rescue the take. On the creative side, I also continue to work out what kind of role/sounds I want from it and how it fits in.

One of the other items on my goal list, perpetually, has to do with online interactions. I don’t want to get involved in heated online arguments. I think my new way to specify this is “let people be wrong.” I think I tend to step in because I feel like people need correction, and… that’s only going to lead to frustration and animosity (and the Dark Side).

Moog recently released plugin versions of its Moogerfooger line of pedals. The original hardware was heavy-duty analog stuff with CV jacks on the back, and prices that started high when new, and went stratospheric after they were discontinued a few years ago. The set of 7 plugins is reasonably priced, and vary in usefulness from a gorgeous delay up to a ring modulator, PLL oscillator, and weird resonant EQ preset sequencer. I frankly don’t care whether they sound 100% authentic, they are full of character and a couple of them have been immediately useful.

Despite what some of those wrong people on forums have been saying, I feel like it’s been a great couple of years for music software. VCV Rack as a plugin, CLAP, Bitwig Spectral Suite, the Moog stuff. Strymon Big Sky, one of the most popular pedals for ambient and shoegaze reverbs, also was released in plugin form (though the price could be argued to be a bit high, at least to those of us with plenty of great reverbs already; you really have to specifically want the Strymon ones to go for it). Noise Engineering continues to release its Eurorack modules as plugins, and Arturia’s new Minifreak comes with a VST plugin version directly controllable by the hardware so you can have multiple instances of it. (Hopefully someday they’ll decide to sell the plugin separately). Overall, I don’t think the hardware synth renaissance has hurt software plugins at all — the main things that have hurt have been venture capitalists mucking up perfectly good companies, and the trend toward subscriptions rather than selling licenses.

cleanup on aisle 4.4

Bitwig resolved the controversy in the best possible way for their customers:

We’ve had time to reflect on last week’s Spectral Suite announcement and the responses from our community. We apologize for how we handled this and want to make this right.

Spectral Suite is now part of Bitwig Studio 4.4, which has an official release date of October 5, 2022. Anyone with a current Upgrade Plan now owns Bitwig Studio 4.4 and the four Spectral Suite devices. We will contact everyone who purchased Spectral Suite to offer a choice of a refund or an extension of their Upgrade Plan.

Moving forward, all of our Bitwig Studio feature development, including devices, will be covered by the 12-month Upgrade Plan.

So that’s quite a resolution. I’ll probably use my refund to extend the upgrade plan.

And yes, there are still people complaining on KvR, but of course they are, it’s KvR. Now it’s back to the same old “the update had features other than the ones I wanted!” I’ve been hearing complaints about development priorities since the 90s when I worked for an MMO and had the audacity to release a bunch of updates for one class’s spells instead of another, because obviously I hated the second class. So it’s basically just background radiation.

I do think Bitwig wasn’t wrong to try to draw a line between “upgrades” and “addons” and that a lot of people overreacted. But I also think they messed up the communication. This is a bigger step than I expected and I salute them for it.

And I’m going to disentangle myself from pointless arguments about it on KvR.

“It’s all supernatural.”

I picked up Moonbreaker on Steam over the weekend. The game digitizes the tabletop miniatures wargaming experience — of the sort with big unique “character” units rather than generic groups of spearmen, cavalry etc. — including the painting. It adds voice acting, an audio drama (and other lore) written by Brandon Sanderson, some simple but clever animation of pieces (they’re not articulated but the way they bounce, slide, rock, spin etc. is unique per character and surprisingly expressive) and some nice particle effects.

The combat took a bit of getting used to. Positioning is super important, and there are lots of ways to disrupt positioning. If you’re a simple melee grunt, be prepared for a frustrating chase as you keep getting pushed, pulled, blocked, thrown, slowed, immobilized, or generally outrun.

Of the three available Captains so far, by far my favorite is Zax Ja’kar. Besides his flamboyant dead-guy-hologram style, he has an okay ranged attack, can summon explosive mines which arm one turn later, and a Gravity Disc which is one of those position-disrupting abilities. Strategy guides are calling him the weakest of the three, but I disagree — those mines are terribly good at distracting the AI away from attacking your captain and crew. I find his abilities less situational than those of their favorite, child prodigy Astra.

The painting part of the game is super chill. It has things like washes, dry-brushing, a palette for mixing paint colors, etc. but also:

  • Undo!
  • No mess, no worrying about whether the paint is wet, no brushes to clean
  • No need to awkwardly hold the miniature
  • Zoom in close to see details, and get the brush into places that’d be super awkward to reach. Change the size of your brush easily while keeping the same color.
  • Opacity slider!
  • Automatic masking of sections
  • The ability to save and copy a scheme to make variations
  • Undo!

There’s still skill involved. Probably planning, note taking, making good use of the palette, and doing things in a smart order would help with replicating the cool effect you got in one spot elsewhere on the model. But I get much better results than I ever did painting real miniatures; where I used to dread painting faces, now I’m adding rust streaks for tiny bolts that are far too small to see during gameplay. It’s just satisfying.

This weekend’s recording session didn’t go according to plan, but was a success anyway. I was going to attempt to drone on the bass while playing a synth part over it. What I wound up with was several different takes of interesting stuff from the bass: plucks and scrapes and EBow, and the results of the effects (including a wobbly slow spring reverb plugin and a feedback chain), with the synth taking a backseat.

So I cut together pieces of the takes to create the main line, then recorded another synth pad in one take to go with that. Then I started pasting in snippets from previous tracks, as I have been, as well as recording a tiny bit of additional material to bolster it. There’s an element of collage or maybe quilting to it, but that one-take pad to go with it helps tie it to my usual practice as well.

spectral madness

Yesterday Sugar Bytes announced a cool granular effect called Graindad, which seems to have several tricks up its sleeve that the likes of Clouds or Beads or Melotus Versio don’t. Some of it is an overcooked modulation system, but still the rest of it seems like it’s full of potential, with buffers that can be automatically separated by transients. I’d planned on checking it out today, but something else dropped that stole my attention.

Bitwig announced their first add-on, Spectral Suite. It’s a set of Bitwig devices — kind of like plugins but specific to Bitwig — which split audio into multiple chains (which can host other effects, be rerouted elsewhere, or simply be used to adjust level or panning) and merge them back together. There’s:

  • Transient split: separates audio into transients (e.g. initial attack, sudden changes in level) and tonal sounds.
  • Freq split: subdivides frequency bins into some number of groups (1 to 1024) and then round-robin distributes them among 4 chains. This can sound great when panning each chain a little differently, or putting delays of different lengths on them, and you can rotate/change the grouping to get cool phaser-like sounds.
  • Loud split: categorizes each frequency bin as loud, medium or quiet depending on some settings, and then separates them into their categories. This is an incredible tool; I’ve experimented with much less sophisticated versions before (including writing my own slow, lo-fi mess). This would pretty much be worth the price of admission on its own.
  • Harmonic split: analyzes the sound to identify the harmonics, then separates them into fundamental/other/inharmonic, odd/even/inharmonic, or Nth/other/inharmonic. Incredibly cool for distortion or reverb or just all kinds of things.

These are all great effects, blowing away all competitors and at a price lower than many of them. But people are soooo angry!

Bitwig’s upgrade plan is weird and controversial. It works like this:

  • When you buy the software, you get 1 year of free updates.
  • When that year runs out, you can still use the software but can’t download new versions (except point release bug fixes).
  • At any time, you can buy a license to get another year of updates. You can do that while it’s on sale and then not activate it until later, if you want. A lot of people wait until there’s a major update with features they want before they activate those licenses.

From a user perspective, it’s obviously not as good as “free updates forever” like with FL Studio. It’s better than a regular subscription where you can’t use the software until you pay more. But… it’s kind of like gambling. When you activate the update license you don’t know what you’re going to get in the next 12 months. Maybe two days after it expires a big exciting update will drop. So people don’t like it, and Bitwig might be better off charging for every version update as some companies do.

I think their system does have advantages. They roll out cool new features in point releases pretty frequently and things get improved steadily by user feedback. If they went to a system where they charged for major point releases, I kind of think the pace of development would be slowed some.

The release of Spectral Suite complicates things by not being included as an “update”, but considered an “add-on.” A lot of people are (dramatically of course) saying they feel betrayed, that this is fraud, that Bitwig are greedy, that they’re going to go look for some other DAW even though they think Bitwig is the best, and so on.

If this suite had been released by literally any other company, those angry people would be celebrating how awesome it is and how the price is more than fair. Maybe Bitwig should have created a fake new brand, give them credit for developing the tools, and then “partner” with Brand X to sell it on the Bitwig website. That’s literally being dishonest and yet people might have accepted it better.

Personally, I’m not mad — I’m very happy with the huge boatload of new potential that just sailed in to port. But I’m tired of arguing with people about it online.

Maybe another day I’ll check out Graindad. It seems pretty good too 🙂

some assembly required

I say it every time, but: every album has its own style that emerges on its own. It can become a matter of conscious choice — but first I have to notice it already happening.

This one has a bunch of loops and drones and noises sampled separately and then incorporated either into the improvisation while recording, or mixed in during the editing phase — and I am keeping them and reusing them in subsequent tracks. I’ve also been overlaying unwanted noise with more desirable, cooler noises. Overall it lends a certain kind of continuity. There’s also a continuity in tempo, because the length of one loop determined the LFO time to drive it in Bitwig Grid, from which I derived triggers to clock 0-Ctrl, and then captured a loop from that and used it to drive an envelope follower to filter some noise, which became another loop… so without the explicit “everything is X BPM” rule I followed for Pulse Code I still have a steady rhythm. My plan for the next track is to simply have a drone that I solo over and keep it simple — but I may use that same tempo as either an inaudible guide, or the basis of some modulation, just to keep it going.

Aside from set of related beats from 0-Ctrl modulating Synchrodyne, there was a brief improv in OPS7 which became a sort of shifting chordal drone, a sustained note on the bass with an EBow, Strega feeding back through Peradam, and some bits sampled out of finished takes and then pitch shifted. It’s not like any of this is completely new to me, but the way I’ve been approaching it, and saving the pieces for later re-use, has sort of become a “thing.”

let’s engineer some noise

I just wrote up a page of Noise Engineering Plugin Tips if those interest you. And if they don’t, well, I wrote it up anyway.

It’s some stuff I’ve found with their various offerings from the Freequel Bundle, Bundle 1 and Bundle 2, particularly with Ruina but there’s a bit there for everything.

Why? Because someone happened to post about it on TalkBass, and it got me trying things and learning a few things, as well as recalling stuff I’d discovered before that this time, I wanted to make sure I remembered. And writing a big post about it was the best way to do that.