My newest album is released! Patch notes are here.
The new album is now available on Bandcamp!
Production notes are here.
I’m happy to say that I rearranged my modular case with a relatively simple organizing principle with only a couple of minor fudges to make everything work. This might be a good time for a fresh walkthrough — not of the “what is it?” kind but more how I feel about each module.
Top row: FX, and a little space on either side for further expansion.
Phonogene: its crude lo-fi nature, particularly when slowing parts down, makes it charming. You can grab almost any audio and turn it into some kind of interesting noisy texture with this.
Desmodus Versio: currently shipping to me. Desmodus itself sounds great but I was going to wait for the VST plugin — but the recent addition of Electus and Ruina firmware and the likelihood of even more in the future put this over the “must have” threshold. And I’m pleasantly inclined toward Noise Engineering after interviewing with them and getting a Manis Iteritas again.
Mimeophon: it has great character, works very nicely as a resonator and is very friendly toward modulation. It’s most of what I wanted in the ideal delay module.
FX Aid XL: this is like having a whole bunch more effects plugins, many of which sound great, and with the benefits of no latency and the ability to mess with and modulate the sample rate it runs at.
Beads: an endless abyss of possibilities. I experimented a bit with hardcore granular techniques, but am happiest using it as a way to add space and texture to other voices, or occasionally for its wavetable oscillator.
Rings: yes, I’m counting it as an effect because I use it that way more often than not. It’s a massively parallel set of bandpass filters or tuned delay lines with particular spacing. One of the first modules I owned, and I will use it as long as I use Eurorack at all… unless some other developer picks up the torch and takes modal synthesis to the next level with a true successor to Rings. So far, other developers’ idea of physical modeling is either just a delay, or a “complete” voice with no audio input.
Row 2: the oscillators.
Akemie’s Castle: a serious drone monster, and a ticket to the FM synthesis sounds of the late 80s/early 90s that I love so much.
Manis Iteritas: throbbing sometimes, noisy often, dark at its best, unique. The Smash parameter was the aspect I once liked least, but I’m finding ways to make it work for me. Very glad to have this back in my rack after a 3 year absence.
Odessa: brilliantly different. True additive synthesis, which can be twisted to many purposes. It can sound “very digital” — mostly in a good way! — but if you want to start sonic riots, just detune the partials a bit and feed it through some distortion.
Shapeshifter: it’s not just a complex oscillator, it’s a complex2 oscillator. A huge parameter space to explore, and it can be hard to find your way back to any given point. I suppose that’s why it has a preset system, but I never use that except to let it boot up to a “safe” default setting.
Ensemble Oscillator: I think where people get lost with this one is that the quantizer isn’t for melodic control, but controlling the ratios between its oscillators. It’s sort of a hybrid between additive synthesis and “West Coast” sine-FM-waveshaper territory, and sounds unique and fascinating to me. I often use it for gentler chordal pads at one extreme, or noisy weirdness at the other.
Row 3: mainly modulation.
Mazzatron Mult+PassThru: with a 1HP gap on its left for cables to escape from behind it, this is a super handy way to patch from the modular into my audio interface. Getting it was a good idea.
Maths: you’d have to combine the features of 5 or 6 different function generator modules to get the ideal one for me, but Maths is a pretty solid “close enough.” Usually the first module I turn to for envelopes (looping or not) and sometimes does audio rate duties.
Stages: I probably use it more for basic LFOs than anything else, but occasional simple envelopes or slew, and rarer sequences, S&H, or more complex envelopes and hybrid modulation. I would probably be 95% fine with Zadar instead, but I don’t feel compelled to make that change.
O’Tool+: (with Shades and P-075, I put these utilities on this row instead of the bottom to make them more physically central.) Super useful for learning new modules or figuring out new techniques, checking levels, tuning and calibration, and generally knowing what’s going on. SCIENCE!
Shades: my favorite of the simpler scale/invert/offset modules, it has a good feel and is very precisely 1.000000x gain at max knob level.
Ladik P-075: simple but clever, with both latched and momentary switches for mutes. Or with Shades, sudden transitions from 0V to some other level, which is great for transposing drones.
Clep Diaz: musical and smart. I don’t have a lot of experience with it yet, but I like what it’s done for me so far!
Kermit mk2: easy to use, flexible wavetable LFO which also sounds gorgeous at audio rates.
Marbles: the module that changed my mind about random sources, mostly because it’s so good at taming randomness. And more quantizers should be as musical as the one in this, prioritizing notes by their consonance.
Teletype: anything Pam’s New Workout can do, Teletype can do better. And also a lot of other things that you might want to do with gate or CV processing or generation. As a full-time software developer, I find its simple scripting language to be refreshingly simple — but I recognize a lot of people just won’t want to interact with modules in this way, and that’s okay.
TXb: just a doodad to let Teletype query the Sweet Sixteen’s fader values. If I need to free up exactly 1HP of space in the future I could “hide” it inside the case and leave a gap instead.
Bottom/front row: utilities + misc.
ES-3 (and hidden ES-6, thanks to the Mult+PassThru): channels of communication with the DAW. I use it for audio much more than CV. I can’t imagine going back to only having the analog audio inputs now.
Gozinta: rarely needed, but sometimes I do want to boost a signal a lot.
CVilization: as a basic matrix mixer it’s dead simple to use. Getting into the more advanced possibilities requires looking at a cheat sheet, but it’s not a bad experience. This is a tool I definitely don’t need in every patch, but can do some clever things and once in a while it really justifies itself.
Natural Gate: I don’t use it as much since getting more into drones, but it is gorgeous. Demand vs. supply is so skewed that I could easily resell it for almost 3x what I paid for it new, but I would probably regret it immediately if I did.
MSCL: good for when I want a signal to be hotter, but not too hot — protecting inputs that tend to clip in unpleasant ways for instance, or keeping feedback loops right on the edge without exploding.
Tallin: still a favorite VCA thanks to its distortion options, and compact size without feeling cramped.
Drezno (and space reserved for Jena): amazing as a waveshaper and noisifier. Very good as a pattern extractor/maker/mangler.
FM Aid: not often used for its stated purpose, but as a variation on a wavefolder. I have a lot of FM stuff already, but once in a while it’s good to mix things up or do the impossible.
Blinds: like a super-Shades, but also a ring modulator/crossfader. I should have had one earlier in my modular journey.
Ana: multiple ways of taking two signals (or one signal and a reference level) and doing something to them makes for some fine waveshaping possibilities and alternatives to FM.
Portal: this should really be in the FX row I suppose, but I’ve used it to generate impulses and noise to drive other things. When I got it I was worried it would be harsh and not very commonly useful, but it can be tamed and put to good use.
Planar: there is no more fun way to crossfade between sounds, or tweak a couple of parameters together, or both at the same time.
Bonus level: the Pod60
Blades: overall favorite (dual!) filter ever, due to its considerable versatility. I like my filters to be more than filters, and this has a heavy drive or wavefolding stage, can act as an analog complex oscillator with phase modulation, etc.
Angle Grinder: another example of versatility, as an oscillator it can sound remarkably wavetable-like thanks to its “grind” section. It can be really stable or chaotic and weird depending on how you dial it in. And the highpass just sounds really great to me for some reason.
Sweet Sixteen: the control center for my recording sessions, I have it handling mix levels in the DAW, effects amounts and parameters in both hardware and software, custom/quantized pitches in Teletype, and simple attenuator duty all at once.
Mutable Instruments Blades (along with a magnet that’s the front half of a wooden deer, very cute) arrived on Saturday.
Using words to describe the subtleties of sound is kind of a hopeless prospect, and people certainly have their own preferences in filter characteristics just like they prefer different seasonings. There are certain filters whose resonance I really don’t like in anything other than a very small amount, for instance, Korg MS-20 style filters or typical squeaky TB-303 stuff. Some people really hate Steiner-Parker filters, especially Arturia’s “Brute” versions (and those people are wrong.)
To me, when using a single one of Blades’ filters, the words that come to mind are clean, tidy, stable, pleasant. But it’s not boring, partially because of the continuous sweep available on filter modes, so you can tailor the shape to the material. It doesn’t have the “ripping” sound of Ripples under fast modulation, it doesn’t sound like it always has some resonance like Three Sisters, it’s not as sweet and organic as VCFQ. Just considering the sound of a single filter, without the drive — it’s pretty solid, maybe 8.5 out of 10 overall? I sure wouldn’t complain about a synth that had it as its only filter.
But it DOES have that pre-drive/wavefolding stage and it’s got two filters. When you use them together, in parallel or serial or some hybrid, and/or with one modulating the other, it really opens up possibilities. You can get a kind of “shiny” sound with an extra peak, or you can drive it hard serially and get really mean and nasty. This, I believe, is why it’s described as a dual filter rather than a stereo one (though of course it can be used in stereo quite easily).
It pings better than some filters, but not quite as well as VCFQ, or a Hordijk Twin Peak. On the other hand, it resonates very easily too… and it makes for a fantastic complex oscillator.
It has accurate 1V/OCT tracking, and a “shift” button that lets the second filter follow the first with an offset. And crucially, it can do phase modulation, as the three filter modes (lowpass, bandpass, highpass) are shifted 90 degrees relative to each other. Crossfading smoothly between them results in a smooth phase shift (and a minor variation in amplitude). So one can do audio-rate, dynamic phase modulation, with a strikingly different character than Yamaha DX synths. It is also capable of exponential FM too, of course.
There are some downsides to using it this way. None of them are insurmountable, and some present opportities:
- There are no fine tuning knobs. The range of possible offsets for the second filter makes it tricky to tune to the first exactly. (Workaround: use a DC offset into the second frequency input for finer control.)
- The relative tuning is not necessarily perfectly stable, and it doesn’t have sync or an automatic ratio lock like some digital complex oscillators. (But you can blend in some of the first filter’s output into the second filter, and it sort of “entrains” into place… not something a more conventional complex oscillator can do!)
- Since the drive stages come before the filters, you can’t simultaneously use the second filter to modulate the first and then wavefold the result all within Blades. But that’s what other modules are for… and you can do some waveshaping via feedback in ways a conventional oscillator can’t (though some of them will affect the tuning).
- You do need an external VCA to control the modulation depth. Not a problem.
- The output is loud, phase modulation increases that level, and it’s enough to clip my ES-6. But I have several ways of dealing with that.
So overall, this is now my favorite filter module!
Last night I “buried” the Expert Sleepers ES-6 inside my case, but it’s connected through the Mazzatron Mult+Passthru — so now all of the inputs to my audio interface are on one module, I renumbered them to match, and it gained me 4 more HP.
And then this morning I was decisive for once, and bought a Doepfer A-110-4 Quadrature Thru-Zero VCO, and a York Modular rHPF to go with it (since the FM input is DC-coupled). That fills up the remaining space in my case.
And I’m declaring it “done.” My plan is this:
- Sell/trade no music gear until at least May 1.
- Sell/trade a maximum of 3 Eurorack modules throughout 2021.
- Buy only what can fit; no more/larger cases or putting stuff in storage to make room.
- Don’t buy any non-Eurorack hardware synths or effects.
- I’m allowed to sell (but not replace with other gear) the DAFM or Purple Rain if I feel like I’m just not using them at all (this seems unlikely.)
- Exceptions: beta testing, equipment failure/replacement, unambiguous version upgrade. (Also unlikely.)
- Buying software is okay but I should really consider whether I need it (and I probably don’t)
Overall, I want to move away from thinking about what I should get next, what I can sell to make space for it, and so on. I’ve gone through a lot of hardware since 2016, and… yeah it was fun exploring all of that stuff, but it’s time to break that habit.
It didn’t get in the way of my music-making, but it is kind of a drag on my confidence — almost a kind of constant second-guessing, and a lot of personal energy expenditure. That quote about “commodity fetishism” and “agential inversion of musician and instrument” really struck deep.
I have explored pretty much everything in the modular domain that really interests me. To practice some of it I need to use software rather than hardware, but I’m okay with that. I really like where my setup is now, the music I’m making with it and the inspiration and possibilities it offers, and I don’t need to keep shuffling my deck just because there are other cards out there in the world.
Perhaps once the incoming stuff settles, and more likely after the final Mutable Instruments module (which, yes, I’ve been beta testing) is revealed, I’ll go over all the bits and how I’m using them.
There are some module brands which can instantly create a holiday atmosphere among Eurorack geeks by announcing a new module. Mutable Instruments is one of the prime ones.
I did not see this coming at all. I had misinterpreted a previous hint and expected another successor to an existing module. But it’s a pleasant surprise!
Yes, I already have three Eurorack filters, which seems odd for someone who claims to not use subtractive synthesis all that much, and yes, I ordered this one too.
The cool things about this one are the continuous blend between lowpass, bandpass and highpass configurations — which, when oscillating, allows phase modulation. And the routing between the two filters, from single to parallel to serial, is also smoothly controllable and can be used as an input mixer. And the drive sections are smoothly adjustable from overdrive to wavefolding. And a button switches filter #2 to follow #1’s frequency but with its own offset, making variable-width bandpass or notch as well as harmonically tuned resonant peaks/oscillation easy.
In a sense, this is not just a dual filter but an analog complex oscillator, and those are magic words to grab my attention.
I think my protest about subtractive synthesis is a little misplaced. There have been several times where I used both Angle Grinder and VCFQ in stereo, mid-side, or serial HP/LP configurations. Or Angle Grinder as an oscillator, and VCFQ and Shelves in stereo… and so on.
My plan at the moment is to keep all these filters around, unless there is something specific that really calls to me more later. (More on that when I write up my goals for 2021.) VCFQ has a lovely sound to it and its pings are very nice. Angle Grinder of course is a great oscillator and weirdness maker. Shelves… is not quite what I expected but can be patched in some surprisingly cool ways, and it’s very possible it will make sense to pair it up with Blades for even more serial/parallel goodness.
The other bit of modular fun is Mystic Circuits Portal, which arrived yesterday. It claims to be “harmonic distortion” but what it is is a glitchy weirdifier, yet more useful than I first thought. The idea is it’s like a wavefolder but wraps instead of folding — but the “track” parameter causes it to crawl along and add motion in its own unstable way, enough so that with no input it can still burble and tick and hiss and sputter. And it also seems to pick up and amplify noise and exaggerate small motions in the DC range.
The second output is a sample+hold of the input triggered whenever the main part folds, and that includes the crawly motion so it’s this cool animated sample rate reduction effect.
The third output sends quick little triggers whenever the main part folds, and those can happen frequently enough to make a buzzy oscillation of their own, or with the feedback setting, act as a crazy little burst generator. I’m looking forward to trying a few experiments with this.
It’s a weird module to be sure, not something to use in every patch — but I feel like I have slack since all my actual needs for the music I make are well covered. So why not have something odd, unpredictable and sometimes inspiring in there?
My (replacement) DAFM Synth arrived, and it works just fine. Apparently, the one I returned also works fine in the hands of the seller, which is weird because it definitely overheated its USB power cable within a few seconds and wouldn’t turn on for me at all… but whatever, I definitely have a working one now.
The interface, while far from knob-per-function, is pretty clever. Rather than one mid-sized display it has four tiny OLED screens; in most modes each shows the parameters for its associated FM operator. The preset loading screen is different, and a bit weird and hard to figure out at first with the sparse documentation.
The navigation can be a bit awkward. FM synths have this challenging aspect where sometimes you want to divide up the parameter space functionally — setting all the ratios on one page, the envelopes on another, etc. as this does — and sometimes you want to to divide it by operator, so the ratio, level, envelopes etc. for a single operator are all together. I think if I were working with this physical design, I would have had the left encoder always “move” (selecting parameters, or press-and-turn to change pages) while the right encoder always edits whatever the cursor is pointing to. But this is still a million times better than trying to edit on an old-school DX synth.
There’s a tiny 11-note keyboard at the bottom, which is best reserved for emergency “no MIDI controller” purposes. The chip of choice — in my case the noisier YM2612 — is on display behind a transparent window, while the rest of the top is dark tinted acrylic.
That chip has a weird design flaw called the “ladder effect” that gives it its characteristic sound. There seems to be a ton of nerdy analysis of this and maybe not that much agreement on the details, but it comes down to: some Yamaha engineer cut one or two corners too many. The upshot is a sort of a characteristic digital fizziness that is not simple low bit resolution or low sample rate, and sounds pretty nice with some kinds of ambient pads and bass sounds. You can also set very long decay times that sound a bit like stuck notes, and it just kind of flows nicely with the noise and a touch of reverb or delay.
Possibly the truest and most universal trope from cyberpunk is “the street finds its own uses for things.” It can be an important principle in design in general, and we definitely see it all the time in electronic music. I’ve got my favored way to work with Bitwig, which absolutely baffles some other Bitwig users. I’ve got specific roles I like to throw at the Microfreak, which it might not have been designed for but it wasn’t designed against. And here’s this budget chip from an 80s game console, built into a mini synth with a cheap MCU from 2007, (mis)using USB as a power supply, and I’m using the synth in specific limited ways to serve my music.
I’ve entangled myself in deeper uncertainty about how to divvy up the remaining space in my modular case. As a result, I took the Euphoria off my wishlist (but hey, if you’re a family member reading this and you bought it for me already, worry not, it will not go to waste.)
Noise Engineering is doing cool stuff. Desmodus Versio has gone from a cool reverb to a whole platform, it seems, and the temptation is rising. (Although I think they misstepped when they didn’t put the USB port on the front to make it easier to flash; perhaps they will offer an expander that helps with that.) Some things I’ve read and watched about the Serge SSG or its cousin the Sport Modulator make me ponder that. The idea I originally had, to put in a Doepfer 256-stage BBD, is still there, but the much smaller Erica option would allow some other choices… and of course I still don’t know what the mystery release from Mutable Instruments will be.
So, I’ll just wait, and play with what I have, until a path is clear. I have a fine set of delays (and reverbs) already and so some of these, despite having a different vibe, might not really be the best choice but just FOMO.
New album released!
Patch notes are here.
I really wish that in US elections, there were NO exit polls reported and NO news about counts that have not yet finished. But then, there are a lot of things that are broken about our electoral processes.
I may have just made a last-
minute day change to track order, but the new album is ready to be released tomorrow (or possibly tonight). This is my fifth for the year, 16th as Starthief, and — this is kind of weird to realize — 32nd album overall. And I may already have the seeds of an idea for the next one.
I started reading Neuromancer last night, and within the first few pages, encountered a few phrases that would make good song titles. Many, of course, are already taken — it is now a classic piece of science fiction, a vision of a possible future from 36 years ago. The joke now of course is that we’re living in the wrong kind of cyberpunk dystopia.
A cyberpunk-themed album in my style might be interesting. It was done so frequently with EBM and industrial music that the music was even called “cyberpunk” for a while, and there was (is? I don’t know) a whole cybergoth club scene. Billy Idol had an album called Cyberpunk, which was pretty bad cyberpunk but pretty good rock. And of course, the themes are pretty big with synthwave/vaporwave.
I need to think about how I could approach this. No movie dialog samples. Anything involving drum machines would be a departure for Starthief, since “no drums” was one of the biggest revelations/self-imposed rules from my 2016-2017 experiments… but I am not necessarily ruling it out. I don’t particularly want it to sound like EBM, or synthwave. FM synthesis seems obvious though, since I already love it. In fact, if I wanted a fresh challenge I might someday try an album with no FM synthesis 😉
Speaking of FM: Kasser Synths wrote to say that the DAFM Synth I was returning for repairs still hadn’t arrived — not surprising, given that it took most of a month to get here from Spain in the first place — and they’re going ahead and sending me a replacement to help speed things along.
Dreadbox announced another couple of entries in its Chromatic line of small, cheap and colorful modules. The Antidote is a Karplus-Strong BBD delay, which I first thought might be a good replacement for the Doepfer BBD I had on my wishlist. But in demos so far I’m not convinced it would serve me better than Mimeophon.
On the other hand, the Euphoria — with the unfortunate choice of white labeling on a bright yellow panel, almost guaranteeing third party replacement panels to come soon — is a BBD-based 8-stage phaser that sounds gorgeous and weird. E520 and FX Aid both have phaser, flanger, frequency shifter etc. modes but I don’t think any of them can quite touch it. I’m impressed enough to replace the Doepfer on my wishlist with Euphoria.
And speaking of regrettable panels and colors, Thonk now has Tall Trimmer Toppers to add a little size and better grip and color to mini-pots… which would have been great for the AI008 when I was trying to color-code that. Ah well. My current system has 68 (!) of those tiny little knobs, but most of them aren’t a problem. A few, though, have no contrasting color for their pointers, which is annoying — so I will get some for that. That gives me an excuse to pick up a few other knobs that it wasn’t worth paying for shipping on.
I’m basically completely used to the new headphones now, and appreciating the extra detail I’m hearing with them.
Voxengo just released a plugin called TEOTE, an acronym for “That’s Easier On the Ears.” It adjusts the spectral balance of the input to bring it closer to a theoretical ideal — with minimal adjustment it just magically makes stuff sound better. This one uses multiband dynamics, which is a bit fancier than Soundtheory Gullfoss, and to my ears it seems to sound better on most material.
Tools like this are great for me. My mixing process isn’t the meticulous, surgical adjustment and perfect fitting together several individually recorded parts — rather, it happens partially as I build up my parts in preparation to record, and partially as a big part of the recorded performance itself. A tedious manual search for places in the spectrum that could use a tiny boost here and a narrow cut there would take me out of the creative flow, but slapping an automatic plugin onto the channel to see if it sounds better does not. (If there’s a drastic improvement, that means there was a lot to correct in the first place, and it’s probably worth a little of my time to investigate.)
Two things arrived on my doorstep today. First the bad news: after nearly a full month of shipping, the DAFM synth arrived from Spain. Its wonderfully crisp OLED display showed something for about 6 seconds and then died, the USB power cable unusually warm. Switching cables and chargers didn’t help.
Since I have had second thoughts about even needing another synthesizer, I’ve written to request a refund rather than a replacement. We’ll see how this goes.
The other thing is much happier: u-he CVilization. I spent about 90 minutes playing with the matrix mixer mode before even looking at the others, and… it’s a game changer honestly. It handles audio quite well, and is as easy and intuitive to dial in as I had imagined and hoped. But it also encourages taking control voltages to new places, and that seems to be its major strength.
It is a very good friend to a sequencer, especially something with multiple channels and not necessarily its own quantizer, like the 0-Ctrl.
Mode 1 can mix audio of course, but also CV, with handy muting, inversion, quantization and sample and hold. I had a patch going where it:
- served as a feedback mixer for Mimeophon-as-resonator (with mutes for the original input, the feedback, or the final output, and the option to invert the feedback for a different character)
- selected between or combined (using mutes) two pitch CVs from 0-Ctrl, with sample+hold and quantization. And also, allowed for mixing in some audio from another channel — which served to slightly randomize the pitch while staying within the scale and maintaining the overall melodic contour. It was gated by 0-Ctrl’s dynamic gate output, so I had control over the rhythmic pattern as well as swing/timing.
- routed both pitch and audio to Mimeophon’s frequency control, so it simultaneously tracked pitch and added FM… again with a mute switch.
That’s a heck of a lot more than an analog mixer can do. And also, since it’s 4×4 rather than the AI008’s 4×3, it’s easy to set up stereo feedback matrices with ping-pong and so forth.
Mode 2 is the sequencer and sequential switch, and though it took me more time to grasp it, it’s also a very powerful friend to 0-Ctrl. Rearranging incoming control signals and interposing other values (fixed or random) into the sequence, driven either by a clock division or using a different sequence length, can really extend and bring variations into what would otherwise be a short and very repetitive sequence. I didn’t even mess with self-patching, which could potentially be really useful with the sample+hold feature. (It can also route audio, switching different sources and destinations around or silencing it, and that is probably going to have some use as well.)
Mode 3 is the “Mucorder”, which is purely for control voltages. It’s less like Marbles than I first thought — but again, a really good companion for 0-Ctrl. Record up to 16 steps, and let it mutate either by overwriting with values from its own input, another channel, a random shift up or down, or harmonization with the first channel. Each channel can have a different recording length, which allows a lot of polyrhythmic interplay. It’s another winner.
I haven’t tried mode 4 yet, but rather than manipulating CV quite as much, it pans/routes its four inputs smoothly across four destinations. Planar can either pan one signal to four outputs, or four inputs to one output… but I suspect it will be a good controller to rotate multiple things around the world with CVilization, and likely a powerful tool for drones.
So, wow. I was expecting a mixer and a quantizer, but I got quite a lot more than that.