another step

Done mastering the next album, I think — I need to do some test listening. It needs the art, notes written up etc.

I only gave the album a name yesterday (after one of the tracks; a name with a story that I’m not sure whether I will tell in words or just let the music speak). I have had another album name in mind for almost a year now and I haven’t used it yet. Maybe next time!

Have been playing Soulstone Survivors more than anything else lately, after learning some things about the mechanics that have led to some really great builds. And then they went and added a new class, the Myrmidon. Who’s really more mermaid than myrmidon, with sea-related powers. And queue the usual internet suspects complaining about historical accuracy because myrmidons were men, in a game that has a Dwarf with machine guns and robots, where you can swing a sword in a 60-foot radius 5 times per second, where you can throw an infinite number of knives while also casting fire spells and stabbing with a spear and wielding a warhammer made of ice. Okay. Anyway, I really dig the Myrmidon’s theme and she’s quite an effective character, much more capable than the Monkey King when he was introduced (at least before I learned the aforementioned mechanics stuff).

a self-haunting

There’s a thread on MW, “Some thoughts on people asking for advice on their rack.” Long story short, this got me thinking about when I was a beginner. How would I have answered the common questions people ask? What sort of advice would 2024-me give to 2016-me if they started a “please advise” thread now?

At the time, my goal for modular was “Explore. Get some sounds I haven’t been getting from software.” My plan was to go for a small case of modules to give my Microbrute superpowers, or a single synth voice to complement the mostly-softsynth, linear MIDI sequencing habits I had known.

My original Plan A — precipitated mostly by Mutable Instruments donating modules to a KVR charity auction — was this:

Elements / Warps / Tides / Peaks / uZeus

In a DIY, approx. 75HP box. Because cases were expensive and I only wanted a few modules. Before I actually got started, this got mutated to:

Rings/ Tides / Peaks / uZeus

With hindsight I can say the following:

  • Tiny cases seem like a good idea, but actually that’s expert difficulty. You need very well-defined goals and limitations; this is the opposite of what somewhat who wants to explore should be doing. Trying to cram a lot of stuff into a small amount of HP means you’re limiting your choices to some more mediocre options that compromise sound, features, playability etc. (A smarter choice for exploration on a budget would be software like VCV Rack and/or semi-modulars, or maybe AE Modular. Those weren’t so abundant and wonderful in 2016 though.)
  • Utilities! This is what people always say. These modules being paired up with the Microbrute, it desperately needed attenuverters. I discovered that very quickly on my own though.
  • A particular interface quirk of Peaks made it unfun for me to use, and it’s a particular interface quirk I hated on desktop synths before that and should have studiously avoided. But it would take several more modules that do this before I learned that lesson. (If there’s ever a preset or a mode that changes the value of a parameter out from under the knob that’s supposed to control it… yuck.)

Anyway… I started listening to some of my older, pre-Starthief, pre-modular music. Some of it I don’t enjoy, because I got so much better at production skills. Some of it’s obviously trying stuff and not quite reaching what I wanted. There was a lot of exploration of styles and genres…

But some of it sounds like I recorded it yesterday and even matches the specific aesthetic I’ve been into for the past few weeks. With no modular, no hardware of any kind, only a portion of the plugins I regularly use now, and linear MIDI sequencing in FL Studio. There’s even a moment that sounds like I used Rings.

So… it’s really not about gear.

I have suspected for some time now that, with the mindset and workflow that I’ve developed since getting into modular, I could go back to 100% software-based music creation, albeit with some nice MIDI controllers, and still make similar music. This is confirmation that even without what I have learned and developed and practiced since then, I could be making that music. It’s just sort of… me-music.

but wait there’s more

Our 20th wedding anniversary is this Sunday. There’s not much to say that isn’t repeating cliches and being all mushy, but I’ll say: I love her very much and I’m very glad the universe conspired to get us together.

We have general plans, or really more the idea, of taking a nice vacation for ourselves in the fall when the weather is more enjoyable. Probably through the Smoky Mountains to the East Coast — mountains and aquariums, islands and beaches and lighthouses.

My yearly performance review at work is Monday, which means I’m stressing about that. It always goes well and usually means at least a small raise (sometimes not small!) but the formality/bureaucracy/awkwardness of it sets off the anxiety. This time, I’m also sitting in as an observer on the other two developers’ reviews, but being nervous about mine overshadows that.

I’ve been reading The Big Book of Cyberpunk, which at 1116 pages is appropriately named (even if not all the stories are perhaps strictly cyberpunk). I should have gotten a digital version, it’d be much lighter. Anyway, some of the stories hit especially hard, with “Thoughts and Prayers” the thorniest — a story about tragedy, memory, media and internet trolls. It takes a storyteller to turn something that has become an everyday occurrence, a statistic, back into something that goes right to the heart. (Cyberpunk stories are fundamentally about being human in the face of an increasingly dehumanized society, both literally and figuratively.)

While working on some music, hitting the point where I knew I had the start of something I wanted to finish, and casting about for a title, “Thoughts and Prayers” immediately came to mind. And it kind of set the direction of the rest of the musical effort. So that’s track #5 for the next album. If it sounds both haunting and, well, pretty messed up… that’s why.

This may seem like a weird segue but bear with me for a minute:

The world (or at least, modest village) of tape simulation has two main regions. In one, there’s an attempt to make audio sound like it was recorded on a professional, well-maintained tape machine, on good high-quality media, in a fine studio. It’s very subtle, because those machines were intentionally as transparent as possible, and to me the benefits are questionable. But some people claim if you run every channel through those and then the full mix there’s some subliminal extra “warmth” or what have you.

The other one is going for extremes. Cheap tape (whether it’s cassette, reel-to-reel or VHS), erased and reused too many times, left in the heat to warp. Crinkles and dropouts. Misaligned, dirty tape heads. Hiss, maybe even a little hum or mechanical noise. Warble, wow and flutter. Saturation, compression, emphasis or loss of low and/or high end frequencies. Techniques that, if one were using real (or reel) tape, require some combination of neglect, shoddy equipment and intentional abuse of the media. Faking it with effects is maybe less “authentic” but more convenient and offers more control to the musician.

There are plenty of other lo-fi-ization options besides tape. There’s vinyl, old samplers and bad DACs, telephones, MP3 compression, mistuned radios… it goes on. But something about cassette (and to a lesser extent, vinyl) ramps up the melancholy factor — ask William Basinski or The Caretaker — and invites thinking about the nature of memory and nostalgia. There’s an association with ghosts and EVP. It can also bring some funk and swagger and street cred. It can harden or soften the music, or both simultaneously in different ways; it all just depends on what you’re putting into it and how you’re using it.

Wear & Tear by && (Ampersand Ampersand) is a module that is definitely on the more extreme side. (Maybe it could do subtle but that doesn’t seem to be the point.) I watched a couple of videos and was impressed by its particular charm, and started figuring out how I could make space for it. It had me going through my plugins, looking for something that, if not identical, offers as much satisfaction in similar ways.

Wavesfactory Cassette is one I’ve turned to many times, often using it to mask less desirable distortion artifacts or just rough up the sound a little bit. But it wasn’t delivering the flavors I wanted here. Nor were Tape Mello-Fi, Lo-fi-AF, Bad Tape, PlexiTape, Stardust 201, Echomelt, etc. Nor the demo of SketchCassette that I tried. But as I was starting to write a “please recommend a plugin so I don’t have to buy this module” post on the Lines forum, I remembered RC-20 Retro Color, which for some reason I didn’t have in my go-to list of lo-fi plugins.

Oh, there it is! Not identical of course, but it’s living on the same floor of the apartment. Good enough to keep me from buying more hardware right now. (I may still choose to grab W&T later on.) RC-20 in general is just really fantastic at a lot of different things and I’ll probably be going through a phase of using it a lot more in the near future.

Also during that quest I found a new appreciation for ValhallaDelay’s tape mode — with no delay or feedback and mix at 100%, the Drive/Age/Wow/Flutter and EQ settings can offer some lovely lo-fi-ness.

This all dovetails nicely with using Strega, Integer, Lair, etc. on this album.

There’s another new module that piqued a little interest too, though. Noise Engineering Gamut Repetitor seems (at first) to be their answer to Mutable Instruments Marbles — loopable random quantized pitches with trigger outputs. Though the more you compare them the less similar they seem.

GR offers CV over pattern length (which I’ve wished for on Marbles) and a reset input. But it doesn’t have an internal clock, the y section (which I honestly don’t use much), Deja Vu (which I use a lot, but sometimes it gets me in trouble and maybe the way GR works randomization can be “goosed” to only partially change a sequence), the ability to sample external CV (which is very cool even if I don’t use it a lot), the smart scale limiting (though it has a near equivalent) or slide.

It’s not a must-get, and I’m not really sure about it. I’d like to try it sometime, but now is not that time.

weighs the same as a duck

This week, Make Noise announced Bruxa, a module based on the prototype “Time/Filter Experiment” from the Strega. The delay is based on the PT2399 chip, a super cheap digital delay with analog feedback path, used in dozens of guitar pedals and quite a few Eurorack modules. It’s often meant to imitate an analog BBD, and it has similar characteristics — a fixed buffer length, limited fidelity — but it does use memory rather than capacitors. (Some marketing copy will call it an “analog delay” anyway, some hybrid, and some “digital”. It’s just words.)

The PT has a characteristic distortion, and when clocked too slowly (trying to extend the delay time longer/slower than it can handle) it tends to generate weird insectile/crunchy noises. In a lot of designs, the clock rate range is limited — using multiple chips in series if longer delays are needed, instead of slowing them down too much — and the signal is filtered and companded to reduce the noisiness but give pleasant, dark echoes. But in the Strega, and now the Bruxa, that noise and degradation is celebrated rather than suppressed. It does use multiple chips but also multiple parallel feedback paths to tailor the sound.

Bruxa is apparently only going to be available for preorders, and the price is a bit on the high side. Given that this one is quite close to what the Strega offers anyway — maybe some subtle differences in the feedback paths? — I don’t feel like I’d benefit all that much from also having this one, and making space for it means giving up something else. But contemplating it has got me patching up Strega in new ways, running other audio through it from the DAW or modular rather than using it as a self-contained instrument (or as a pair with the Minibrute 2S) and finding a new appreciation for not just the gritty delay, but its integrated filter and what happens when you modulate various things.

The sound of Strega’s delay fits with where this album has been naturally heading. Far from avoiding delay and reverb and going “dry” like I’d considered a few months ago, this one is celebrating noisy, distorted delay and reverb, and some similar textures achieved via other means. The new Aberrant DSP Lair reverb and Audiority Doomagorgon fuzz plugins have featured, as has Sinevibes Integer (which was inspired by BBD and PT delays). At one point so far, Noise Eng Morbus Legio adds some sub-audio noise to a distorted signal, which also has a crawly sort of texture though very different from the PT. (And again, I want to emphasize that while the gear certainly contributes to the sound and often its “natural” behavior inspires it, the biggest factor is me. This is the sound that is right to me at this time. If Lair and Doomagorgon and Bruxa hadn’t been released this month I’d still be heading in this direction, even if the exact path and destination are different.)

Anyway, I’m at about 34 minutes of material for the album and going strong. There was one rejected track, but that’s fine… a lot of the ideas that went into it (both in terms of patch design and general musical concepts) went into the next attempt, which worked. Sometimes you just have to let your brain reboot and take another stab.

underway again

I’ve got something recorded for the next album project. It’s been a while — the previous album went out on April 19. Since then:

  • I got Dawesome Myth & Madrona Sumu & Harmony Bloom & Lair.
  • I got Ana 2 and RYK Algo, and did a case rearrange.
  • I did studies of Akemie’s Castle & Xaoc Drezno.
  • Superbooth happened. Even not going, there was a lot to take in via the internet…
  • Drone Day was my one actual bit of music-making.
  • Guild Wars 2. I’ve been keeping up with the daily and weekly PVE Astral Acclaim rewards. Not always all of the tasks — I’ve been skipping Cantha (I haven’t been there yet, though I bought the expansion) and fractals and some of the more annoying jumping puzzles — but enough of them to always get the daily and weekly bonus rewards. To be honest, the daily rewards probably aren’t worth much effort so I’ll be taking a more relaxed attitude toward them from now on.
  • Soulstone Survivors. They released another new class, and I caught up on all of the unlocks for all of the classes. It’s kind of a regular go-to game.
  • Instruments of Destruction. A physics-based vehicle building and demolition game, like an erector set + Red Faction: Guerilla + a bit of Battlebots. There’s a campaign with prebuilt vehicles, a “Build & Destroy” campaign where you build your own (although most of them could be easily finished by loading an existing campaign or bonus vehicle, it’s usually more fun to make something from scratch or modify designs for the specific task at hand), and a Sandbox mode for doing your own mad engineering. In the latter, it’s very easy to lose hours just coming up with weird designs, tweaking them, and smashing buildings to smithereens in very satisfying ways.
  • Visiting my parents! We took them to the farmer’s market and bought some native wildflowers, pulled weeds and cut out some invasive Japanese honeysuckle, dug through layers of rocks to plant flowers in the area in front of their front sidewalk, anchored bookcases to the walls and set up their big TV (and then the replacement because the screen got messed up during the move). And we just went for meals and to hang out, several times. I really don’t love yard work, but it’s good to be able to visit them without the round trip requiring 22+ hours of driving.

As a side note, back in January I got that big fantasy Lego set and the cases to organize things, and I honestly haven’t done anything with them since. They’re sitting there waiting for a day when I want to get away from the computer and do something more directly with my hands (aside from making music). It’s just that I don’t often feel a need to do that, I guess! It was diverting for a few hours during a period of a few weeks. If I don’t end up getting back to it, I guess I can always give them to my nephew once he’s ready for Legos.