home stretch

Coincidentally, not long after what I said in the last post about additive synthesis, GuyaGuy on the MW forum said this about Arturia Synclavier V:

“Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys playing with harmonic oscillators and spectral transfer filters in modular but wants polyphony and similar-but-different tonal options.”

Those were the magic words. I’d kind of stayed away from the synth because the interface is a bit weird. All of the “V” synths have skeuomorphic UIs that at least somewhat imitate the original hardware they emulate, for better or for worse, plus some extras. In this case, they gave the main panel more knobs (good, even if they are virtual!) and put the “screen” interface on a separate tab. There’s a lot going on with this synth so there’s probably not much choice about that. It seems complex at first glance, and that’s because in total, it is. It doesn’t help that the Synclavier uses “partial” to describe one layer in a voice, rather than the usual definition it has in additive synthesis. But each “partial” is a relatively simple additive synthesis layer (or a sample player) with an FM modulator.

Once I sussed out the interface though, I found that I like it a lot. The “chorus” option isn’t an effect (except that it has an FX section too, in its additional goodies) but a doubling of the voice, at a freely tunable ratio. A few of those, some inharmonic FM, and you can make some pretty wild sounds with this thing.

The Synclavier was an extremely important piece of digital synth history. Originally an additive synth in 1977, over the next few years it added multiple layers, FM, and then the first 16-bit sampling available, then the first polyphonic sampling, all at very high spec for the time. It was built entirely on custom hardware and software — some of which was repurposed for scientific research and medical applications, as nobody at the time was building off-the-shelf analog-to-digital converters — and each unit was in the $25,000-$200,000 range depending on options.

And it sounds wild. The iconic opening sound to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” was done with a Synclavier II preset, exactly mimicking a sequence that was on an obscure synth demo record. There’s still very little out there like it; additive synths have generally been rare, and Yamaha FM synths have a very different architecture.

Sometimes I just have to reflect on how amazing software plugins are.

Another thing I’m planning to give a serious try is Fabfilter Saturn, a flexible saturation/distortion plugin. I have Wavesfactory Spectre and some other options, but this kind of seems to be the king in this area, and another forum comment associating it with resonators seems encouraging…

I tried a new third-party Versio firmware over the weekend, and found it wasn’t really to my liking. Rather than putting Yester or Melotus back on, I went with Ruina and found it’s got some different flavor than the software plugin. It inspired a doomy dark ambient recording, with Rings as the sound source (again, not sounding “like Rings”). I think I’ll run with this for a while.

That album really is moving along — I expect I’m now just one track from calling it complete, and I have the foundation of that track already recorded. Bandcamp Friday is this week, and it’s kind of tempting to push hard and get it finished in time, but I don’t want to rush it either. We’ll see.

That new office chair was a nice boost in comfort and tends to improve my posture. (I’ve also found I can play the Miezo with the arms still on the chair, no problem.) Now we’ve got a new cat bed upstairs too, and that has calmed Rico down some, and that has meant more and better sleep. When we had our big power outage a couple of weeks ago, I noticed he slept more peacefully and bothered us a bit less. Cats do tend to run hotter than humans, so I thought he might appreciate a self-warming cat bed (reflecting his body heat). And indeed he does.

So why does my back still insist on hurting? 😛

quick update

Yumi and the Nightmare Painter crossed some kind of threshold and I’m very much into it now. It’s got some of the hilarity and sweetness of Tress of the Emerald Sea, but with different flavors. Some pretty clever puns that ambushed me, a fun pair of magic systems based on art, and a great weirdo character (different from the now fairly familiar weirdo world-hopping narrator/artist/trickster).

TVTropes probably has a name for a character that doesn’t quite fit in — an alien or spirit or other fish-out-of-water type who knows a lot more than they let on, but isn’t very good at pretending to be a normal human, and is kind of random and goofy. They are simultaneously endearing to the reader, exasperating (although possibly also endearing) to other characters, and yet often they are also deeply alarming and disquieting. They often have a combination of childlike innocence and deep insight and the questioning of aspects of humanity and society that we take for granted.

I love those sorts of characters.

This evening after work I managed to record two more tracks for the next album. The first one was just sort of a normal process. I had a couple of looped samples of some complex modulated Euclidean rhythms already recorded from a previous session of messing around, extracted gates from one of them with an envelope follower and comparator in Bitwig Grid, used those to trigger Rings, and ring-modulated the sample against Rings. (Blah blah Rings always sounds the same blah blah snort.) Added a drone from Odessa through Beads and Koszalin to it, and then added a second layer where I used jroo Loop with modulated rate as a crude and wobbly means of detuning. Added a lead part with Akemie’s Castle through the WitchBrute, played from 0-Coast. It all flowed nicely and I was pleased.

The second one wasn’t going to be a recording… just an experiment to answer a question on a forum. But it led to a bit further tinkering, which led to a little more, and the next thing I knew I had a lovely drone going, with about seven different controls I could fruitfully tweak to vary the timbre and chord. It was Shapeshifter being phase-modulated in Mimeophon by the other Shapeshifter oscillator, with some tweaking and cross-modulation between them, feeding into Spectraphon. A touch of Raum on the result. Very rich raw material to work with. I just let it drone, modulated Shifter’s Osc1 with a random LFO from Clep Diaz, turned some knobs and zoned out. Lovely.

Before I did my Shapeshifter study, I usually kept the module in the Basic1 wavetable all the time. Afterward, I usually keep it in Harmo3 all the time. Very simple additive harmonics, going into some kind of distortion, and/or used as a carrier and/or modulator, is really fertile ground as far as I’m concerned — and it’s something I’ve been doing quite a lot of over the years. Harmonic oscillators, drawbar organs, certain FM patches, Odessa with the partials set low. Spectraphon too now. Rings, to some extent, is in this neighborhood. It’s related to my fascination with FM and wavefolding and their relationship.

Music of the spheres, I guess — simple harmonic motion. It’s all circles, sine waves, or masses and springs, pendulums, etc.

please remain seated until the ride comes to a complete stop

The chair I’ve been using at home for the past few years was a little bit of a compromise, so it could be a reasonable price to put on my wish list. It had the required weight capacity, good reviews, armrests that fold up out of the way, and nice aesthetics. It was a decent chair for the price — but given how much time I spend in that chair between working, gaming, web browsing and making music, more comfortable is always better. It’s always had odd pops and squeaks, but more recently it’s started randomly sinking too.

Andaseat had a Prime Day special (even though it’s not affiliated with Amazon) on the Kaiser 3 gaming chair, so I went for it. It’s a very good chair! Sturdy, heavy, not fun to assemble or get through doors, but worth it. It has serious padding, a nice tall backrest, a magnetic pillow you can place wherever you like, an adjustable lumbar support, adjustable armrests, and tilt/rocking but also an adjustable backrest angle. It can go way back into a sleep-friendly position. It’s not making any distressing noises under my weight.

I do miss the retractable armrests of the older chair. Too bad there’s no release button for them, instead of having to unbolt them to remove them. I’ll do that if they interfere with musical instruments, but I find them nice to have when leaning back a lot.

Sunday we took a short trip to Columbia Bottom Conservation Area, which is sort of a managed and planted area not primarily for industrial/food agriculture but meant to benefit wildlife (mostly waterfowl and pollinators, in this case). They have impressive fields of sunflowers, each one keeping 1-4 bees at a time gainfully employed. It was a hot day (but not overwhelmingly so, yet) and the gravel roads were extremely dusty, each car kicking up thick clouds that obscured the road for everyone else, but I enjoyed the experience.

I don’t think my photos really do justice to standing among hundreds of 5-foot tall flowers. They weren’t “as far as the eye can see” except for a short person (and there were shorter patches as well) but still, it was really neat.

I’ve reread the Imperial Radch trilogy, and it was maybe even better than I remembered. This sort of rereading is helpful, as the newer book shone a light on some of the little mysteries of the trilogy, and vice versa. But now I’m curious to read the short stories too; one of them goes into Justice of Toren‘s (or is it One Esk Nineteen’s?) history as a religious figure in the Itran Tetrarchy, which should be fun.

Currently reading the 3rd Brandon Sanderson Secret Project book, Yumi and the Nightmare Painter. While I didn’t find myself immediately charmed and engaged with it like I did Tress of the Emerald Sea, the setting has got some cool concepts to it. It is a very odd, fantastic, and extremely visually striking world — and with a magic system based on painting too, I kind of want this to be a very stylish animated movie or graphic novel. But I’ll stick with the words and see what my imagination can do for me visually.

(I have aphantasia — I don’t “see with my mind’s eye” except in rare circumstances, or when I dream. I don’t really imagine characters’ faces or what buildings look like when I read books. I wonder if this is related in any way to my poor navigational skills and sense of direction. But I do find some kinds of visual cues helpful, for instance, viewing signals and audio with an oscilloscope, or graphs and charts to visualize data.)

I have 31 minutes of music recorded toward the next album. And, same old story, I went through a phase of feeling a little lost and unsure where I was going with it, and recorded a couple of things I wound up rejecting or partially recycling. But then I found kind of a common thread. It’s just the natural result of chronological proximity, and exploration of the new gear, new arrangement and the new techniques they’re leading me toward.

The gear influences the composition. Interstellar Radio doesn’t track 1V/Oct, so sequencing it tends more toward free tuning and atonality. Spectraphon, while it does track pitch very well, will give different timbral results if its input pitch is sequenced. Univer Inter and the Seaboard Block give me new ways to control and play things — a bit more rhythmic stuff and some generative MIDI with UI’s clocks, and more pressure-controlled polyphonic goodness among other things. The Strega/Minibrute pairing seems really fruitful to me and I’ve been loving that. And of course, having access to different timbres leads one to different density and complexity and rates of change in composition, in general. And so the new stuff influences how I use some of the old stuff too.

killing joy

Over the past 10 days, the sudoku.com app has been running a tournament. Every puzzle you finish, in any category, contributed to your point total — more points for more difficult puzzles.

The weird thing is, users of the app don’t register any kind of nickname, but the leaderboard listed them anyway — randomly-generated names of the format [Adjective] [Animal]. My rival for the top spot was Puzzled Wolf. I had a strong lead when I went to sleep last night, Puzzled Wolf managed to just squeak ahead of me, but a few minutes this morning while getting ready for work put me in the lead again. I won, but… I have no idea what my own name is. I’m quite curious about it.

(It occurs to me, I probably could have looked at the leaderboard just by going to the sudoku.com website… but now that the event’s over, there’s no way to see it! Argh.)

I had the thought that maybe the whole thing is completely fake, with fake scores updated by an algorithm based on my own performance, meant to provide the right amount of challenge and instill some competitive spirit. But I’m guessing no, just some overlooked UI features.

Winning was such a lackluster occasion that I’m just not going to bother with any future tournaments. Pictured here is the only evidence, acknowledgement and reward for the effort.

So how did I get on this Sudoku thing anyway? I used to use a different app, HappyDevs Sudoku. It was both free and ad-free and didn’t have a horrible interface. But it created some brutally hard puzzles that, as far as I could tell, required guessing. If I guess wrong, I could just undo and try again, an indefinite number of times. That kind of takes the fun out of it though.

Since I’d heard that you should never have to guess in Sudoku, a few weeks ago I started looking into the technique. There are a bunch of patterns you can search for to eliminate candidates, some of which I’d reasoned out for myself but several of which were new. These… kind of helped sometimes but not always. There are some advanced Sudoku solvers which not only find a solution but also the patterns required to find them logically, and rate them on how tedious they are. Even the second-hardest difficulty level in that app was capable of creating some incredibly tedious puzzles at times. Apparently there are techniques you should follow when creating a good puzzle, not just a valid puzzle, and that app wasn’t.

Sudoku.com promised to have “smart hints” that coached you in techniques, and I guess I also assumed it would generate better puzzles. Those hints, it turns out, are dumb as dirt and sometimes wrong. The puzzles are generally better constrained — anything lower than Evil difficulty is almost trivial to solve with basic techniques. But Evil doesn’t usually fall to the kind of intermediate techniques I wanted to practice, and I often have to work through in a brute force way after a while.

At this point I think I might have had my fill of Sudoku.

The Roli stuff arrived. Obviously the previous owner was a heavy smoker, and I’m pretty sensitive to that so the packaging got thrown out right quick. The surfaces of the devices are silicone rubber, which absorbs scents; it wasn’t that bad though and you can clean them with a baby wipe (no alcohol, no bleach, preferably unscented).

The Seaboard Block feels great. It requires a little more force than I would prefer for maximum velocity and pressure, but there are adjustments, and it’s smooth and consistent. Playing softsynths using real MPE (not just poly aftertouch) is a joy — especially the Noise Engineering Vereor plugins and Aalto (once I realized there’s a setting to accept MPE rather than regular MIDI).

The Lightpad Blocks on the other hand… they are clever in concept, flexible controllers where you can write software that determines their behavior, creating X/Y pads, sliders, buttons that play notes or toggle CC values, sequencer, even primitive games. But it’s not quite there in execution. A short list of shortcomings:

  • This is not Roli’s fault, but MIDI-over-Bluetooth doesn’t work in Windows — so you need a USB connection. This is fine for the Seaboard Block, but kind of a bummer for these smaller units. However, I’ve heard that the latency over Bluetooth is pretty bad anyway.
  • They’re supposed to share power and MIDI with other Blocks via their magnetic link (you can snap them to the front, back or either side of other Blocks). In practice, that link isn’t stable. So they might work for a while, then the link breaks, the Lightpads start trying to pair over Bluetooth and never re-establish their connection to whichever unit has the USB connection. So in practice, every device needs its own USB cable. Which means if I wanted to use them all at once, I’d need another USB hub.
  • Even over USB, they feel a bit sluggish and not as smooth as they should be. You can’t really rely on it for precision either in time or position.
  • On the sliders I find it’s very hard to hit exactly 0 — it needs some kind of negative offset to compensate.

would you like some tea?

Yesterday I finished reading Ann Leckie’s Translation State, which is set in the same SF universe as her other novels. The Imperial Radch trilogy had a lot of gender stuff in it — a narrator who didn’t understand or recognize gender, to whom everyone was “she”; various types of nonbinary characters, etc. — but this one even more so. It deals with issues of identity and choice and social expectations. The authoritarian types who want to take choice away one of the main characters for their own gain also had the habit of misgendering him and being not the least bit apologetic about it.

When Ancillary Justice came out 10 years ago, I don’t recall there being nearly as much nonbinary representation in fiction. I mean, SF always had a little of it, if only because of alien races and robots. Some writers touched on gender issues, it’s just… now it seems like more than half the SF books I’m reading have at least one trans or enby character, perhaps even the protagonist. Part of that I’m sure is because I’m seeking those books out to some degree. But I think part of it is, these issues are very much in the forefront today and SF has always been political.

I notice it a lot less in fantasy, but it’s there too. I think fantasy also tends to have just a bit more of a conservative streak. The authors telling the queer, trans, and nonbinary stories in fantasy often seem to have some SF elements in it too — not really content with genre barriers any more than gender barriers, maybe.

Anyway, I enjoyed Translation State for the most part, and it made me want to go back and reread Leckie’s other novels. The first one I have in paperback, and that means I’ll have to dig around for it, and that makes me realize I really do prefer ebooks now.

I guess I’m a phase of upping my MIDI game. Noise Engineering Univer Inter took the place of the extra Befaco A*+B+C that I’d moved out of the Pod, and I had some fun revisiting techniques I used to use with the CV.OCD. Also, an enhanced version of what I used to do with the Polyend Medusa: use polyphonic voice assignment, but with different-sounding oscillators which modulate each other. Note order and duration determines which ones get assigned to which notes, and thus the frequency ratios of those modulations. It adds extra interest to both sequences and played parts.

I also have a used ROLI Seabord Block and a couple of Lightpads on the way, at a price I couldn’t resist. I’m not always happy with playing the pressure control on the Launchpad Pro, and this should not only be smoother but also allow some more expressive playing. Some of my software synths support MPE, but for those that don’t, I expect I can use Bitwig and/or VCV to reassign the extra dimensions of control to other modulation signals.

feeling powerless

Last week was really something in terms of weather. Heat wave, smoke from the Canadian wildfires finally reaching St. Louis, lots of storms with strong straight-line winds and some hail and a whole lot of rain. The storms actually kept the heat down some… which is good because we lost power Saturday afternoon and it hasn’t been back on since, and the house is too hot as it is. The ETA for repair just kept getting pushed back, and as I was typing this I just got a notification that it’s back on. 47 hours!

We had something similar two years ago, when mask-wearing was still the norm. We went to see Black Widow, as much because we wanted to sit in air conditioning as for the movie itself. This time we saw Asteroid City, both because the trailer had intrigued us and for the kind of AC that isn’t the movie title’s acronym. Hmm, is Scarlett Johansson sabotaging the power grid just to get us to watch movies she’s in?

It was a fun, absurd, surrealist sort of movie. I haven’t seen other Wes Anderson stuff and I’m not sure I particularly need to, but this made a nice change from the superhero/Star Wars/Disney stuff we have mostly been seeing.

I’m contemplating getting a generator. The kind that run off natural gas and can power an air conditioner cost a bit, and installation labor’s a considerable factor in that, and it’s another thing that needs regular maintenance. But throw away enough food from the fridge and freezer, sweat through enough hours, and it starts to look like a good choice.

Before the power went out Saturday, I had another bit of a breakthrough with Spectraphon. In SAO mode, the Slide parameter is skipping over entries in the table, seemingly choosing just 8 entries and interpolating between those. I figured that out by experimenting with arrays that have a small number of entries.

  • At less than 8 entries, you can’t navigate the array at all.
  • If you want to morph between two timbres, you can capture the first one 4 times and the second one 4 times, and then interpolate between them with Slide.
  • If you have 16 entries and every even-numbered entry is silent, you can span the entire range of Slide and never hear silence… unless you tap Clock once or offset Focus, in which case, the entire range of Slide is silent.

This all explains some of the seemingly odd behavior, and why some complex sounds go kind of squished. I’ve written for confirmation/details, and to suggest a mode where Focus can address the full range of the array. Right now you have a choice of Slide’s skipping/interpolation, Focus’ short range, and Clock’s inability to control the start/end points, reset or go backwards, none of which are ideal in a lot of cases.

(I did get a short first reply back from Tom Erbe — he’ll get into the other details later, but he confirmed that Spectraphon isn’t using FFT, it’s entirely in the time domain. So it’s cool to have one of my early speculations confirmed, even though I started seriously questioning it after I got the module…)