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.