I learned something important about the Spectraphon yesterday.

I’d been a bit frustrated with the array creation process. I’d have something that sounded great in SAM mode (live “vocoding”) but in my array, it would sound pretty lifeless and squashed. I was going to write either to Make Noise support or to Tom Erbe about it, but watched Walker Farrell’s video on array creation one more time to see what he said about normalization of spectra.

I noticed he had Focus set pretty low during the array captures he did in the video, and I tend to keep mine higher when I want more accurate reproduction… so I thought, maybe there’s something about that.

That’s not it, but even better, I figured out what it is.

In my example here, the first few pings are from Rings, dry. I chose it because it’s a bit inharmonic, so things are going to happen to the timbre when Spectraphon interprets it

Next we hear Rings through Spectraphon in SAM mode — Partials at max, FM at none, Focus quite low, Slide and Freq adjusted to taste (not for “accuracy”). I captured an array from that, at the default clock rate — no attempt to sync to the tempo that was triggering Rings.

At about 6-9 seconds, we’re hearing SAO mode, with a linear ramp into Slide. It sounds all wrong, very plain, and that’s what was bugging me before.

Then from about 10-13 seconds, we hear SAO mode being clocked instead. That’s much closer to what SAM was doing. The rhythm is a bit weird because of the lack of sync — you can’t set start and end points for the clocking, it goes through the entire capture. But still, encouraging.

The last segment is using a linear ramp with Focus instead of Slide. It’s not quite as good as the clocked option, but far better than Slide, and offers control over the range, rate and direction of movement. It’s possible I could have tweaked these things to fit a bit better, too — this was a quick experiment.

So with some timbres, movement through the array, without the heavy interpolation that Slide does, is critical. But moving through the array the way one might want to can be kind of a challenge.

I still have a list of questions to ask and suggestions, but now with a little less ignorance:

  • Issues about addressing the array in SAO. Clocking is limited to forward only and has no start/end settings (I have suggestions for that). Modulating Slide has so much interpolation it ruins the timbre. Modulating Focus doesn’t have enough range to traverse the whole range.
  • Some weirdness with clock rate behavior. Sometimes I can slow down the clock and it speeds up advancement through the array, until I slow it down to much slower rates again.
  • Regions in SAO where there is crackling noise, as I described in an earlier post.
  • Beat frequencies audible sometimes in SAM when Spectraphon’s frequency clashes with the incoming audio; not sure how this is possible since it should be independent
  • What is the array file format? Some tools to edit arrays (e.g. trimming to desired length, possibly shifting frequencies or creating new arrays from scratch) on a computer would be fantastic.
  • This is completely a side thing, but any recommendations for pitch tracking solutions, especially for bass guitar? I feel like having Spectraphon track the pitch of an instrument it’s resynthesizing has a lot of potential.

Bitwig 5 finally came out of an unusually long beta test. The major new stuff is:

  • Places to attach modulators and remote controls that can control project-level settings (like tempo) or group- or track-level settings (mixer settings and every device within the track).

    A nice improvement, but not the any-modulator-can-reach-anything I had hoped for. That would have allowed Grid patches, or VCV Rack or CV from modular hardware, to also participate. I’m not sure the actual implementation lets me avoid any of the odd workarounds I’ve occasionally had to employ.
  • Performance features for the Clip Launcher that I am not paying attention to because I only record audio into the Clip Launcher.
  • MSEG modulators (“multiple stage envelope generators”). Not just envelopes though, but drawable shapes for LFOs, oscillators, waveshapers and a “Curves” Grid module. All nearly the same thing from a modular standpoint, just a question of what serves as the index into the lookup and some details about interpolation. It’s a cool feature, much niftier than I imagined in all the preceding years when people complained about the lack of MSEGs in Bitwig. I have rarely found complex envelopes that useful, but once you start to loop them, or use them as transfer functions for other things, the game changes.
  • A new browser. This is the thing that lets you choose which plugins, or native devices, or samples or presets or whatever, to add to your project. And this change was the contentious one and likely the main reason the beta took so long.

    The old browser was fine, most of us seem to feel. Not glamorous, but not too awkward or complex either. The new one is overly complex in some ways, there are places where it looks like you should be able to do something but you have to do it in some other part of the interface, it doesn’t seem to remember your choices where you expect it to, and just generally causes a lot of friction.

    After fighting with it some and reading the manual — which shouldn’t have been necessary — I’ve managed to set it up so it more or less does what I want. It is maybe slightly neater in some ways than the old one. But I would be surprised if all of the hassles are behind me, and I’d happily just go back to the old browser.

intergalactic planetary, planetary intergalactic

The Xaoc Rostock module I was curious about is a set of 8 parallel shift registers for the binary data of the Liebniz system, which can be individually clocked — kind of a neat way to mess with patterns, or potentially even program sequences, or perform all kinds of audio glitch duties. But unfortunately, it has no outputs of its own and there’s not a good way to get them from Drezno; if I wanted access to its binary output I’d have to buy another module as well. My curiosity about using it doesn’t run strong enough for that.

Something got me thinking again about the Schlappi Engineering Interstellar Radio. This is a module that purports to simulate an FM radio transmitter and receiver, but a square wave carrier frequency in about the 0-22Khz range instead of a sine at 88-108MHz. Which means a couple of things:

  • Any audio you signal you put through it is going to be extremely dirty at best, if recognizable at all.
  • Since the carrier is in audible range, with or without audio input you can use this as a sort of complex oscillator (though it doesn’t track 1V/OCT)

Put simply, it’s a noisemaker that does fun things when you turn the knobs. It can make various kinds of hums and buzzes and growls and chords and clicks and beeping and noise and that radio tuning sound. Kind of the essence of a synthesizer in its purest form.

In a more practical sense though, it can make a nice little drone machine, especially through some ambient reverb, or a delay with heavy feedback and some filtering. It can easily create the sort of noise used in synthesized cymbals. It sounds good making other percussion noises through an LPG.

Used as an effect, there are a few ways to get cleaner audio through it, dirtied to taste rather than extremely crunched. In particular, substituting a higher rate oscillator such as Synchrodyne’s, or bit output outputs from Drezno (whether it’s just translating the system noise or another audio signal) can give that level of control.

So I think it was a good choice. 🙂

release day: Memory Palace

The new album, Memory Palace, is now available on Bandcamp (free/pay-what-you-want). Today is Juneteenth and Bandcamp is donating 100% of their cut to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Like I’d said, lots of synth choir stuff on this one. Those sorts of sounds make me think of 70s and 80s music, Isao Tomita and stuff with Mellotrons and whatnot. Of course the context I’m using them in is very different.

I’ve learned a bit more about Spectraphon (which I’ll call “Spoon”) since my last post.

The first thing is, that pitch drift was, oddly, caused by touching the front panel. More of a pressure thing than an electrical thing. Tightening the Knurlies with a driver instead of by hand helped reduce that, and now that I’ve moved it to another spot in the case, it stopped entirely. Weird.

The second is proper tuning of Slide and Focus in SAM mode.

  • Regardless of how the analysis actually works, think of it as a set of bandpass filters and envelope followers. Slide moves the filter frequencies, and its range is about 400Hz at the top, with 100Hz being around 1 o’clock on the knob. Focus sets the filter bandwidths (lower = wider) and follower rates (higher = slower). The filters can be wide enough to overlap, so that any given partial in the input might be detected as multiple partials in the output — combined with setting Slide too low you get the “dirty sines” phenomenon I wrote about before. But also, if you set the bandwidth narrow, you have to tune Slide more carefully to make sure the input doesn’t land between all the filters (and that’s why I thought high Focus meant a quieter signal).
  • Tune Spoon to the same pitch as your input signal by monitoring Spoon’s sine output, not the spectral outputs. Ideally, you want to keep this 400Hz or below; if it’s a piccolo or something you’ll have to adapt.
  • Patch Spoon’s sine output to its own input. Set the input level — I find a little lower than the panel marking for “Euro level” prevents saturation.
  • Start with Partials up fully, Focus at about noon, and Slide at minimum. Turning up Slide should give you a downward harmonic sweep, until it reaches the fundamental, then it’ll go quiet after that. Tune Slide so the fundamental is at its loudest.
  • Adjust Focus as low as you can but where the input isn’t detected as the second harmonic. You can use a spectrum analyzer, or expect silence from the Even output. (This is why we used a sine first.)
  • Now patch the real signal into the input and have fun.

I haven’t mastered the art of array creation yet and it doesn’t look like anyone else has either, so far. But keeping Partials at max seems to be definitely key, to avoid getting stomped by the normalization that happens in the process. I actually wonder if a firmware update is going to change that to make the whole process a bit smoother. Then there’s the question of clocking it — default rate vs. a slower clock vs. manual steps. And once you’re in SAO mode, how best to modulate Slide (coarse array index with a bit more interpolation) and Focus (finer array index)?

Something I noticed is my arrays can have frames where a partial that was in previous frames suddenly disappears for one frame, then reappears in the next. Perhaps the time window for the capture was small enough that it just didn’t pick it up at the time. When modulating Slide in SAO mode, this tends to get smoothed over, often completely unnoticed. But turning Focus by very small amounts can result in a radical timbre change when this happens.

Less easy to rationalize, there are small regions in my array that exhibit a sort of crackling noise — a few dozen inharmonic partials whose amplitudes dance around with apparent randomness, even though Slide and Focus are unchanging and there’s no other modulation. I confirmed it’s not a dirty/scratchy Focus pot causing values to jump around. It only happens on the Even output. It just shouldn’t be possible and I suspect it’s a firmware bug. Kind of a neat one though 😉

I’ve found that Spectraphon is not a substitute for Akemie’s Castle, nor for Shapeshifter or anything else. So I started the early stages of planning how I’d split my modules if I picked up a Mantis or similar case for the left side of my desk, and the very thought of it was making me unhappy. I really prefer keeping the modular unified, which is why I got the big case in the first place.

As it turns out, I can fit Sweet Sixteen, Teletype, Just Friends, and the TXb i2c hub that links them, in the Pod60 case. It’s a tight fit with their cables, and TXb is turned sideways under a 4HP blank panel, but hey, it works.

That gave me room to put Akemie’s Castle back in, plus space for a Xaoc Rostock once those arrive in US shops, and another 16HP to spare. Groovy.

West Pest is probably getting sold. It does have a few nice tones but overall just doesn’t seem to be a good fit for my rig.

Strega is now on the stand with the Minibrute 2S, and having jammed with it a bit, I would say that WitchBrute is an ideal pairing. They’re very compatible, playable, versatile, and have no real need to patch to anything else. (The option is there, via my little DIY patchbay, but I feel that cross-patching between the two sides is going to be pretty minimal and uncommon.) I’m very satisfied with how this has all worked out.

not at all likely

Anyone else tired of answering survey questions after everything? Eat a meal, fill out a survey. Buy something online, fill out a survey. Pick up your meds at the pharmacy, get a survey. Make a deposit at the bank, fill out a survey. Bring your car in for service, get a survey from the dealership and another one from the manufacturer.

But nobody is asking in a survey how people feel about all the surveys.

Yep, this. Almost every “would you recommend this to a friend?” that I answer is pretty much a lie if it’s not about music gear, or maybe a book, album, video game, or movie.

We’re being asked to do unpaid labor — and some of these companies are holding their employees hostage over it to boot. Yay.

paging Sam Sao…

My Spectraphon was finally delivered yesterday evening and I’ve formed some first impressions.

any resemblance to the Flying Spaghetti Monster is probably coincidental.

My theorizing about how it works goes right out the window along with a lot of my expectations.

SAM Mode
This is the mode that monitors an input signal, analyzes the frequency content and then translates that to the oscillator. You can adjust the frequency range it monitors with the Slide knob, but Focus has been a bit confusing. Now I realize it controls the size of the time window being analyzed. Smaller values mean faster response to short-term events (transients, sharp attacks) but the actual frequency is more of a guess, leading to (honestly kind of cool at times) noise and growliness. Larger values mean better frequency accuracy and thus purer tones, but slower response and generally quieter output. But at any setting though, the latency is extremely minimal, and I still don’t know how they’re doing it.

The result of this is, even feeding it with a sine gives you more interesting timbres on the output. You can modulate Focus, Slide, Partials, give it some FM and sync, and get a whole variety of unique synth sounds from it. Or you can use slightly more interesting sounds — not meant to be heard necessarily, but simply used as a catalyst. Learning how it reacts to these I think is a big part of getting to know the module.

Running field recordings into it to lend texture to drones is another cool thing, as is tracking the pitch of another voice so it can harmonize.

SAO Mode
This is like the spectral equivalent of wavetables, and the sound can be very similar. I haven’t explored array capture yet, but even the default array can be useful.

It’s not like anything else — clean like Shapeshifter, but much brighter and edgier at what otherwise seems to be a similar index. And the maximum index is much more intense than most other things (except maybe Odessa). I’ve found sometimes I prefer the character on Shapeshifter, but Spectraphon’s greater intensity really suits some patches, so it’s a matter of letting each module play to its strengths.

It might seem big when contemplating fitting stuff in the rack, but it’s perfect in usage. I’m glad they didn’t try to cram this into a smaller space and make compromises, even if that makes choices a little more difficult.

Minor Gripes
Some of this could be due to my unfamiliarity with it or have good design decisions behind it, but:

  • It can be a little tricky to keep the tuning ratios in line. There’s a handy LED to show them but it seems like the frequencies either drift or the coarse tuning knob is easy to nudge. I find myself using the fine tuner more than usual. But it honestly could just be the LED is making me more sensitive to it than my ears would be.
  • A wet/dry control would have been nice for SAM mode. Patching a mix of the input and output is going to be a pretty common usage I think.
  • The SD card that stores arrays is on the back panel. I guess they didn’t expect people to want to transfer them to a computer (and possibly edit them) very frequently, but putting a slot on the front would have been a nice touch.
  • No inputs for external FM or sync.
  • You can’t drop the oscillator frequency to sub-audio rates even with external CV. That could have been handy for the “TZFM an LFO” trick.
  • I’m not sure why in SAO mode, Slide and Focus become coarse and fine controls for navigating the array, instead of Slide shifting the partials like it does for SAM. Maybe the way it’s implemented that’s just not practical.
  • At high Focus, SAM can get really quiet. A little gain compensation could have helped — but you do have to be careful with automatic gain controls because they can be counterproductive, so this is a “maybe”.
  • An instant spectral freeze mode would definitely have been cool. This is something Panharmonium could do, but latency kind of ruined it.

Rack Changes
This is going to take me a while to figure out, and I’m putting all decisions on hold until after I’ve used Spectraphon for a while. It’s unique, and the idea of trying to use it as a replacement for one or more things I already had may not fly. I’m going to play more with “super doomful” chords to see if Akemie’s Castle can go. I doubt I’ll be letting go of Shapeshifter or Odessa; they’re all just so different. But it’s possible that instead, I’ll replace the Minibrute 2S and Pod60 with a small, not so shallow modular case and move some things there, so I can keep the Castle and have a little room for the future. I’m pretty committed to this Eurorack thing after all.

hits and misses

The new album is done. I think it’s going to be named “Clearing the Air” after one of its tracks, but I haven’t 100% given up yet on naming it after the speech synthesis theme in some way.

In mastering the first couple of tracks, I discovered that somehow Sound Forge had somehow been set to use “DirectSound Surround Mapper” which was robbing it of both volume and presence. Uh. It’s supposed to be set to my audio interface’s ASIO driver without any craptastic Microsoft quasi-driver. Guess that explained why some of the detail I was hearing when previewing tracks in plain old VLC, I couldn’t catch in Sound Forge. 😐

The Thursday driveway resealing didn’t happen, because they said “it’s too far gone.” And yeah, it has… flowed a bit. Cracks and ripples and patches that don’t look like they’re lined up with what they originally were supposed to patch anymore. Asphalt is a very slow liquid, and this has had some time I guess. But the driveway is still functional as far as I’m concerned, so rather than paying another contractor more to fix that, we’ll just run with it unless it becomes a problem.

My Spectraphon was due to arrive yesterday by 7PM, until about 5PM when suddenly it said “Monday by 7PM.” This morning it said “Out for Delivery” but also still “Monday by 7PM.” And now it’s back to “On The Way”

off to the races

I got my Spectraphon shipping notice Tuesday, and decided to race its arrival to finish the current album — when it shows up, I stop recording new material for it. I’ve got 53:35 recorded so far and it’s due to arrive tomorrow, so it’s in good shape even if I don’t get anything else done.

This album’s particular vibe, besides the synthesized choirs, has been heavy saturation at times, and making a kind of melange of parts that don’t necessarily have a specific harmonic relationship but which work anyway. Like the deli near the office with its “Mad BLT” that includes red onion and peanut butter and it’s amazing. The usual response to “this isn’t quite working” is to strip out elements and realign, do something more pure. But there have been a few places with this one where my response instead was “add something else” or “go heavier.” It might bridge the gap, or add enough different kinds of clashing that it transforms the feel into something else. A dent in a smooth surface is unfortunate, but dozens/hundreds of overlapping dents is texture (and millions is shot peening).

The battery charger I ordered brought my car’s battery from about 25% to 100% in a couple of hours. That struck me as strange because I was expecting it to take a full day. But the charge doesn’t hold and I had to do it again last night. It’s going to the shop Saturday.

Yesterday we had our regular HVAC maintenance/checkup. I mentioned to the guy that when the AC kicks in, the lights dim a bit. He recommended a surge protector for the compressor and wrote up an estimate — but that didn’t sound quite right to me, and Google confirmed my understanding. A surge protector prevents damage caused by excess voltage/current, which can happen during brownouts or lightning strikes. Lights dimming when the compressor starts are because it’s drawing a heavy load. The surge protector doesn’t do anything to even out that load — that’s what the start capacitor is for.

Apparently a little, brief dimming is fairly normal, and more common with older, slightly worn units than newer, smoother ones. It only indicates a possible problem if the dimming lasts more than a second or is “more than 50%” (however you’re supposed to measure that with your eyes in the span of a slow blink). I don’t think ours has crossed that threshold, and those problems tend to be the very things the guy was inspecting, plus possibly wiring or the breaker panel.

And today, we’re supposed to have the driveway resealed. Supposedly you’re supposed to have that done every 3 years. We’ve never had it done, and to be fair, the surface is a little crumbly in spots. Why the driveway is asphalt rather than concrete slabs I don’t know… although as our back patio can attest, that’s also vulnerable to wear, weather and weeds. Nothing’s safe from entropy I guess.

quick coffee review

I used to be an occasional coffee drinker — maybe if I felt like I wanted the caffeine for work or driving, or if it was something a bit more dessert-like. Working with a bunch of engineers, in an office with a good automatic coffee machine, increased my coffee consumption considerably. Black, sugar substitute, milk or cream, flavored, iced, frozen drinks, whatever.

Then one year various family members wanted flavored coffees from Christopher Bean for Christmas, and I got a couple of them myself out of curiosity. Not bad, not world-changing though. It took me a while to get through those.

Once the pandemic hit I started drinking coffee at home a lot more. This increased once I got a handy single-serving machine (I don’t use disposable K-cups though — first I used a reusable K-cup, then when that machine gave up the ghost, I got a better one for my birthday which has its own internal scoop). The nice thing about flavored coffees is, there’s little to no actual sugar unless you add it, just the flavor. Some overall ratings in the Japanese style:

S Tier:

  • Cameron’s Highlander Grog
  • New England Coffee Sabro blend (cinnamon/vanilla/nut, inspired by horchata!)

A Tier:

  • New England Coffee Butter Pecan
  • New England Coffee Blueberry Cobbler

    B Tier:
  • Christopher Bean, just in general
  • Cameron’s other flavors that I’ve tried

    C Tier:
  • New England Coffee Pistachio Ice Cream
  • Entemann’s Chocolate Donut Coffee

    D Tier:
  • Bones Coffee, except for Electric Unicorn

    F Tier:
  • Bones Coffee Electric Unicorn
  • Tortuga Rum Cream

So with that in mind, I’m putting in my next New England Coffee order: Strawberry Shortcake, Chocolate Cappucino, Coconut Almond Candy Bar, and Swiss Chocolate Almond. Don’t tell the engineers I’m not drinking plain black coffee…

summer rhymes with bummer

The days are getting too long, the sun too bright, the air too warm. I’m mostly staying inside, and the air conditioner has been keeping up so far. But it’s still getting to me. The sun and the cat (the reason we don’t have blackout curtains) are both up well before my alarm clock and usually wake me up too.

So that makes me more susceptible to a kind of mild depression and anxiety both. Enter into that: yearly performance reviews coming up, and with it the silly SWOT thing I have to fill in with basically the same text every single year. I’m very good at what I do and always get heaped with praise but that doesn’t mean it’s not a nerve-wracking mess until it’s over.

Also, my Prius C, which has been perfectly trouble-free for nearly 10 years now aside from tire pressure, doesn’t start and does kind of random weird things when I try. I figure it’s almost certainly the 12V battery. (10 years is a pretty great run for a car battery, honestly.) It isn’t in the usual place, it’s under the backseat in a little compartment. First I read that it’s difficult to get to and requires professional installation, which boosted my anxiety, then I saw some stuff about how it’s really not hard, which didn’t lower it that much. I bought a charger online that’s supposed to arrive today; if I can get the car started I’d rather bring it to the dealership to fix. If not, I guess I’ll buy a battery and install it myself to avoid having to pay for towing. At least I work from home most of the time and we’ve got the other car to fall back on.

Other than that… I guess things are OK. Progress on track 6 was a little slow, because I was just not in the mood to follow through on my ideas until I made myself put in some time. Right now it’s several pieces of audio that need to be put together like a collage, then I’ll figure out what else it needs (and if the idea worked at all). I think I prefer just recording pieces live in a single session as much as possible.

I’ve got to say, I’m pretty happy with the sound of the album overall so far.

Waiting on that Spectraphon shipping notice. I’m not quite going to my email and hitting F5 every few minutes, but I *am* in suspense. I don’t know what a tenterhook is, so maybe I am on them…

I’ve read a few things recently, but what has stood out is Hannah Witten’s The Foxglove King. It’s almost a “you can’t spell necromancer without romance” sort of thing, but the main draw is the intrigue and magic and dread.