making noise

I’m done recording my second 2023 album. There’s about an hour of music, in two suites split almost evenly down the middle — it could have been a vinyl release but that’s purely coincidental.

As I said, I’m going to change gears once this one is released. I’ll split my music time between intensive gear studies (and some technique perhaps), and bass practice. I don’t know how long I’ll stick with that before starting to work on another album, but probably don’t expect to see 6 or 8 albums from me this year.

The ModWiggler forum thread about Make Noise Mimeophon is 59 pages, and approximately half the discussion is about noise (ironic given the name of the brand, which has been pointed out). There are at least three different noise issues with the module. One in as an acoustic “coil whine” some (but not all) people have noticed which doesn’t find its way into the signal at all but apparently scared one YouTube influencer. There’s a noise that gets louder when you set the mix knob to fully dry. There’s a noise that is sort of gated, which hushes when there’s no input and the transition from quiet to noisy is noticeable.

But in my experience and testing, none of these are at all serious. With some wildly improper gain staging I can amplify the noise enough to hear it. I can measure noise in Voxengo Span, but it’s below reasonable audible levels; it is also extremely easy to filter out if one wants. There’s been a lot of speculation about variation between modules due to hardware tolerances, power supplies and power distribution (often a wild variable in Eurorack), susceptibility to interference, firmware bugs and so on. Frankly if I want mine to be noisy I have to really be trying, and I make some intentionally noisy music because it’s just more interesting than super-clean sounds.

There was a recent firmware update whose description is simply “performance improvements” — and people are convinced it has drastically improved the noise levels. According to my measurements, it’s done nothing — it’s got the same low level of noise it did before. But whether it’s a placebo effect or it corrects something that was a problem for some units but not others, maybe people will now concentrate more on how awesome the module is instead of hunting for imperfections in an imperfect universe.

Speaking of delays and noise, Noise Engineering just announced Yester Versio yesterday, a “simple” 3-tap delay that has chorus/pitch shifting, wavefolding, low/highpass filtering, nice panning options and is just plain fantastic. I was a beta tester, and it very quickly became my favorite Versio firmware. At first I felt like I really wanted the ability to use a single tap, but a lot of the magic of it is in those three taps. With the “chorus” (which disrupts delay times on the three taps) plus some feedback you can get some lovely psuedo-reverb effects that frankly I like better than Valhalla Supermassive and that’s saying a bit.

If Noise Engineering comes up with another one that I like as much as Yester and Lacrima, I might be tempted to get a third Versio module. And where would that go? Yikes.

I’ve been reading Shadow & Claw, and realizing when I used the weirdness comparison in my review of The Spear Cuts Through Water I was greatly underestimating Gene Wolfe in my memory. It is profoundly weird, and not just in its far-future, post-interplanetary space travel, dark age setting. It’s not entirely clear whether everything has some scientific/technological explanation that the characters just don’t have the context to grasp, or if there’s some actual magic (and gods and demons) at work, but several signs point more toward the latter than not.

The story is (after the first part) a journey in which very random (OR ARE THEY?) encounters and tangents happen, and some are quickly glossed over as if the narrator didn’t want to talk about it (even if they of considerable importance) while others are lavished upon. A lot of things are connected, but you don’t really know if each new event is really part of an overarching plot or just something interesting and notable that happened. There’s some confusion about time and memory and identity going on, and when you add that with the setting’s vagaries and the archaic/exotic terminology, it can be really disorienting. And the main character himself… Severian is oddly sort of innocent and naive despite being raised as a torturer’s apprentice, and people (especially women or dashing romantic heroic men) take advantage of that; at the time he writes the account, he is older, presumably wiser, but also stranger, but he lives so deeply in his own memories that you don’t get that perspective from him. Sometimes all of this is frustrating but mostly it works.

I’ve been watching Shadow & Bone on Netflix. It was promoted because the second season was just about to start, and looked interesting. In some ways it is a very typical YA fantasy story — when I was talking about it, my spouse said “is there a love triangle?” and I said “no, not so far” and lo, in the very next episode, there absolutely was a love triangle. But there’s some pretty creative stuff going on with it as well. It is charmingly a bit low-budget-ish like a BBC production but with 2020s CGI, and also seems a bit uneven in character motivations in a way that is also oddly charming. So it’s a good popcorn series and I’m enjoying it, though it’s not exactly a masterpiece.

central substandard time

The time change was yesterday, so imagine that I wrote a rant about what a crock daylight savings is, and I won’t have to actually write it, just grumble vaguely into my coffee. Also, “spring forward” doesn’t feel right when it’s 30 out in the morning and there are sparse snow flurries at noon. Though the grass is starting to be green again, so there’s that. Mumble grumble.

As it turns out, the gain boost offered by Befaco A*B+C isn’t nearly enough to bring the West Pest’s main output up to the level I want. Using a single input, the module can double the incoming voltage… sounds like a big change, right? +6dB. Not enough. Using two inputs you can triple it, for +9.5dB. Nope. Okay, chaining both channels together for 9x gain, +19dB? Still not enough!

I should probably have metered it or put it on the scope in the first place, because it’s really hard to guess at relative volume differences just by ear. But it’s not like the module doesn’t add a bunch of other utility to the BrutePest setup.

After looking at several options, and realizing that the very shallow depth of the Pod60 case is a serious limiting factor, I’m going with a York Modular (“YoMo”) vBST for more gain. And since this means Inertia does have to come out, I also went for their ADSR envelope generator. It’s really basic, but should do fine to supplement the synths’ built-in envelopes.

I also considered moving Inertia back to the main case and selling Synchrodyne instead. They’re both unique modules that haven’t been seeing a lot of action, but this is my second Synchrodyne and they’re no longer being made, so I figured it needed more of a chance. Some things about Synchrodyne I don’t like:

  • I really don’t like the panel design. Those grungy, hard to read fonts, ugh. Controls that are all a little too close together. Really poor placement of the input jack.
  • There is no “right” setting for Track Speed and Damping. If you want it to be relatively stable and smooth, it’s going to react slowly to changes in cutoff frequency. If you set it faster, it bounces around a lot.
  • I’m still not sure what “Influence” does to the PLL.
  • The manual claims the internal VCO is normalled to “Clock in” and can be replaced by some other clock. But very clearly, the VCO rate still affects the PLL and thus the filter even with an external input.
  • Sometimes it’s more squealy and aliased than I would like. That’s just the nature of the thing though. The lower the cutoff frequency, the lower the clock speed and the greater the aliasing — so it’s not suitable for some of the standard ways one uses a filter in synthesis.

But I found what I do like:

  • Its rough sound complements the Ataraxic Iteritas. Especially when using it for highpass filtering, or in some cases bandpass, where you’re not filtering out the high end and then putting an incoherent high end signal right back in. In fact, as a highpass filter I think I like it more overall.
  • I found some compromises with the track speed/damping. I was getting some interesting stuff from it that’s not entirely dissimilar to what I like in Grainity demos, so… hmmmm.
  • I feel like I have more to learn from it, regardless of how long I’ve had one. Like I’ve mostly been struggling to get it do what it’s not suited for, rather than getting to know what it can do for me.

So it’s staying off the chopping block for now — and even if I do decide to set it aside, I’ll probably keep it around because they’re going to be very hard to find in the future, and other switched-capacitor filters are even rarer.

However, the demos for the upcoming Random*Source Serge GTO have been blowing my mind. It’s an updated take on the Serge SSG, Smooth/Stepped Generator. Like a lot of Serge modules, the SSG is a sort of abstract, oddball general purpose module; in a nutshell, the left side acts as a slew or triangle LFO while the right side is a sample&hold and slew. Depending on how it’s patched it can do a wide variety of modulation, generative, and audio duties.

GTO starts from that concept, but was redesigned as a dual oscillator primarily for audio rate use, with faster rates and more precision. The folks at R*S are saying so far, they haven’t found anything SSG can do that GTO can’t, but oh wow does it sound delicious. Really beautiful FM, gnarly but gorgeous sync sounds, analog filtering and downsampling, etc. And since I’m so reluctant to give up any of my current oscillators for it, Synchrodyne seems like the #1 candidate to set aside. (I’d also have to shuffle some stuff to the BrutePest, but there’s room.)

But again, it’s one of those things where I should probably compare my current gear to what I’m hearing in demos. Because I can make very awesome sounds with what I have, and maybe GTO wouldn’t really contribute anything I can’t do already? Hm.

Oddly, this is making me think about Shapeshifter, and its capabilities vs. my usage. My choice of that one was a middle ground between wavetable VCOs like the E352, and a complex oscillator like the Hertz Donut. Most of what I use it for is the CO aspect. I do use the combo modes sometimes, but mostly the ringmod, and I have Ana. The more exotic stuff, less often. This is a dangerous line of thought, but, wow.

I think what I should do is, after the release of the current album, switch gears for a bit. Instead of focusing on recording and releasing music I should take time to do some really deep exploration of the more complex modules — Synchrodyne, Shapeshifter, Beads, Odessa — and probably even some of the simpler ones. And also, to get in that bass practice I said I needed but haven’t really started yet…

Because I compared aspects of The Spear Cuts Through Water to Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series, and then realized I enjoyed those but didn’t remember much aside from a few specific scenes, now I’m rereading those. I’m also looking up words a lot more than before. Much more convenient when you can do that with a phone rather than a dictionary. Wolfe has a way with language, and that way is the road less traveled, and that road is choked with weeds and fallen branches and takes a bit of time to traverse. There’s more than a little humor in it though, besides the grim and creepy and weird.

I found someone claiming Wolfe’s use of “bartizan” was an anachronism because it’s a 19th century word created by mistake for a medieval castle feature. Dude, the Torturers’ Guild tower is the ancient ruins of a former spaceship; we’re waaaaay in the future here and everything is anachronistic.

but this “AI” is good

I had my routine diabetes checkup today. My hemoglobin A1C is the lowest it’s been in several years; there’s room for improvement but it’s encouraging news!

The doc says that the tingling in my pinky may or may not be diabetic neuropathy. Basically I shouldn’t worry about it too much unless it spreads. It could go away on its own after a while, or not. If it’s diabetes-related, all I can do is keep working on my glucose control. If not, and it grows to be a problem, there are tests and possible fixes.

My eye appointment last week was fairly encouraging too. I still have early signs of diabetic retinopathy but it hasn’t progressed in 15 months, in fact the worst spot has healed.

In recent news, the big pharma corp Eli Lilly has announced a 70% price cut and a cap of $35 copays on Humalog, the most common rapid-acting insulin, which is one of the ones I’m on. Hopefully this will put pressure on Novo Nordisk and Sanofri, the other two giant insulin manufacturers, and the ridiculous prices on long-acting insulin will drop too. It’s not the national health care program we need but it’s not nothing, either.

Ataraxic Iteritas is here. My initial feeling was surprise that it sounds so different from its ancestor Ataraxic Translatron. Just listening to it drone by itself, it’s kind of unpleasant, “thin” or harsh, lacking in weight, weirdly glitchy and beepy in ways I didn’t quite expect. But if you feed it through some saturation and a filter (say, Lacrima Versio) or sometimes just EQ or a delay, it very much comes to life. If you sync it to another oscillator, things get really interesting, more so than any other VCO in my experience. If you feed it through Koszalin to shift its various fighting overtones around it can be magical. Just using a snappy envelope and VCA to turn it into mysterious percussive bits is really effective. It is intriguingly different, and I feel like approaching it from the start as something unique rather than a typical VCO, is going to keep things fresh.

I have a nice sturdy supporting shelf and the white overlay for the BrutePest. I’ve found the setup is a potent combination — but both the Pest’s main output and the Brute’s Ext input are a little quiet and a gain boost could help. So I went ahead and bought a Befaco A*B+C, since it can do that as well as the other mixing/attenuversion/crossfading/VCA/etc. stuff. I am leaving the Inertia up for sale on MW, and if it sells, I’ll consider what smaller, simpler modulator to put in its place.

The album is coming along, not fast by my own standards perhaps but not stalled either even though I’m going easy on it. 7 tracks so far and 48 minutes, with some prep work in place for the 8th. There is so much more music to make…

In last weeks’ Bandcamp Friday I wound up grabbing 8 albums, 6 of them in that 21st century darkwave/goth vein. Boy Harsher’s Lesser Man EP is probably in the top two, with “Pain” being the hit single I suppose but the whole EP is an extension of it in sound design and some compositional elements. Sort of Moogy 16th note bass sequences with occasional other additions, minimal drums that owe a lot to Kraftwerk, short/high feedback metallic echoes accenting the warm but anxious-sounding vocals… it’s good. I’m going to have to seek out more of their stuff.

Memoria’s From The Bones is my other top two pick, almost opposite in style while still being in the same room. The synths and harmonies are often lush and full, the sound design meticulous but not overproduced, the vocals often reminiscent of Siousxie. I’m also absolutely going to have to look for more of their work.

Keluar’s Vitreum is closer to New Wave even than Boy Harsher — you can almost hear the VHS tape, and could easily imagine them doing a very competent, darker cover of Berlin’s “The Metro.”

Phosphor’s Youth And Immortality immediately reminded me of Soft Moon with the first track, but with a female vocalist who kind of reminds me of Concrete Blonde but sadder and reverbier. The more retro influence is certainly there but it sounds like the mid-2010s. There are some good songs on it, yet overall it kind of sits back in your consciousness the way ambient theoretically is supposed to.

Minuit Machine’s 24 is sort of… more EBM-influenced dance floor pop but shadowy? Like Ayria but more cynicism and despair than vengeance? The adjectives are failing me, I am not a music critic. I’ll have to be in the right mood for this probably, but it’s well done.

The Weird West Original Soundtrack by the Weird Wolves is something else. It’s got the Western twangy guitars but also some (really rocking) biting bass guitar, some solid almost industrial synth work, driving drums, female vocals that remind me a little of Portishead but more solid, and male vocals that make me think of a (slightly too young and clean-cut an actor for the role) nattily dressed villain cajoling a potential victim over a ghostly telephone line. The combination of genres feels like it shouldn’t work and yet it does, and it’s fascinating.

In books: The Spear Cuts Through Water has been an unusual tale. The layers of storytelling and/or dreaming and/or the performance of a play all intertwine in time (and probably space). The world where the main events are happening is rich and weird, reminding me of Gene Wolfe without being quite so doggedly literary about it. The world (or one of them?) where the story is being told makes me think of a poorer, not entirely free, slightly behind the times South American or Asian country perhaps, and it comes across very colorfully without any specifics whatsoever.

The “chapters” (if that’s what they are) are often just a few paragraphs at most. The story is interrupted mid-paragraph with reactions and commentary from the dead (or those who were present) in a way that’s jarring at first, then kind of expected, and then integrated into the plot itself very cleverly. Overall, the book is the sort of thing where you can read for a while and then have to stop and return to it another time. But I’m enjoying it quite a bit.

The Red Scholar’s Wake was the previous book I read. I’ll get the criticism out of the way first: the beginning felt like a story the author really wanted to tell but had no idea how to start, so she just did it as quickly as possible to move on to the good part. A powerful pirate queen approaches a captive on one of her ships, and proposes marriage to her as a “business arrangement” (because said captive is good with bots). It’s either that or death. (The fun twist? The pirate queen is actually a pirate ship, a cyborg who might or might not have ever been human but is currently some organic blobs attached to a computer. But she still has needs, understand.)

The romance aspects of the book are mostly sweet and fun even though the power dynamics are never not completely weird, and some of the physical stuff also pretty far out there. It’s the sort of story where you know how their relationship is going to shape up and you’re just sort of rolling your eyes (in a fun way) at all the miscommunications and almosts as it unfolds. It’s very light reading.

The science fiction part is… hmm. Neat ideas, but not always well executed in terms of the descriptive language and details. Like a movie script with some good art direction ideas but some fill-in-the-blanks that never got filled in.

(It’s still better than the quest items named “Thing” in Hellgate London, or the unforgiveable Unobtanium of Avatar. (I haven’t seen Avatar 2, and don’t really care to.))

The cultural stuff was neat, Vietnamese inspired with the names and customs and food, nobody caring even a little about gender roles, and — for all that the story mostly seems a bit fluffy — some nuance and seriousness where it comes to class, an individual’s place in a larger society, and justice.

ELIZA doesn’t know

I’ve talked about AI art tools a few times here, because I use them sometimes, always in ways that (A) are not harmful to artists’ livelihood and (B) not nefarious in other ways, and I’m pretty tired of the hot takes about them.

But I haven’t gone after the text tools like ChatGPT yet, and I guess it’s time. Because, wow.

Big tech companies and investors are jumping into these glorified ELIZA programs because they don’t want to be the ones that missed out on the Next Big Thing. But it’s pretty gimmicky, a “solution” in search of a problem, much like blockchain or VR (excuse me, “the metaverse”).

“AI” has gone from amusing toys that generate absurd flavors of ice cream or names for action figures, to a thing that can write stories and essays and poems and advice if you ask for it. And people are starting to trust it, for some reason. These tools don’t understand or know anything, they just mimic language.

It’s like a parrot who has hung out in doctors’ offices for a while, and now people are asking it for medical advice and trusting the results. It’s worse in many ways than just asking some internet rando. That rando might have a medical degree, or they might spout misinformation or bullshit, but unless you’re completely gullible (and yes, some people are) you’re going to take what they say with a grain of salt. But ChatGPT is guaranteed to have no knowledge of anything, no ability to judge truth, no ethics or responsibility or accountability, and its “sense” of context is focused entirely on patterns of grammar rather than information.

I’ve literally seen someone respond to my criticism with “how can it be wrong, when it writes working code?” Because if you ask for it, it also writes non-working, bullshit code with completely inappropriate syntax that demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge of the thing you’re asking about, and presents it with exactly the same 100% confidence that it assigns to everything.

As far as I’m concerned, this has more potential for danger than self-driving cars.

that sound

The BrutePest stand is assembled, and I’m pretty happy with it.

The XL stand legs aren’t a triangle but have an open side, which in the steep orientation like this, is on the bottom. That rack box is shallow and there’s very little margin for error — I don’t want the stand to slip off the front or back, so I’ll be looking for or cutting a shelf to extend the depth a little more for safety. But the stand itself is stable and sturdy, so that’s good.

Still waiting on an Oversynth overlay for the West Pest to cover up the cartoony graphics and make it a little more readable.

It didn’t occur to me until last night that this modular subsystem is all analog in its audio path (and most of the modulation, but not the sequencing). Certainly both the West Pest and the Minibrute 2 have a kind of common character — I hate to say “analog warmth” or the dreaded “phat” but there’s a kind of loose squishiness, roundness, something to it. I love my digital stuff of course, but this is a flavor that is also called for at times.

In the 90s, there was this “whoosh” sound effect I heard in all sorts of places. It was in the boss level of some shooter but I wasn’t sure exactly which (I was thinking Doom or Half-Life); it was a weapon sound in Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, and a few times in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and elsewhere. It was almost like the Wilhelm Scream, where I’d laugh when I recognized it but nobody else ever seemed to.

Well, finally I found it. DSBOSPIT.wav from Doom, the “spawn cube” sound for the final boss. Aka “Fire, Ball – Impact And Large Fire Burst, Rumble” from the Sound Ideas Series 6000 collection.

One source says the sound was originally created for Disney’s The Black Cauldron (1985), and another says it was for Twice Upon A Time (1983). But it just happened to reach peak overuse in the mid to late 90s.

This is one of those things that’s been driving me crazy for years, just like the thing with the Laser Attack board game that was a mystery for so long.

not Chuck Tingle

Ever since the visit to my parents, I’ve had this bit of tingling in my left pinky. At first, I thought it was because I slept on it wrong (the bed we slept in has a super firm mattress and we’re not used to that, and at this point a full day of driving will kind of mess me up anyway), and indeed, it seemed to clear up after the first couple of days… but then it came back.

It’s not what I would call numbness, because I can feel contact and pressure just fine. Not pain but it’s annoying and distracting, and at this point a bit worrying. Diabetic neuropathy is certainly a possibility. It more typically starts with the feet, and I keep getting the impression that just tingling without other symptoms isn’t usual. It could also just be the kind of thing that goes away on its own after a few weeks or months. But I happen to have an appointment with my diabetes doc next week so I’ll definitely mention it.

jroo Loop is quite cool. The interface is mostly as expected — something like a simplified Tyme Sefari or Phonogene. Unlike those two, the sound is clean, but it does get pleasantly lo-fi if you turn the rate down. It works well for classic looping, as a delay, or as something to capture drones and detune and layer them. The two nitpicks I have:

  • No(*) way to sync it to other things. This was by design, sticking to the tape loop metaphor. The length is determined by the recording length — as soon as you turn off recording it will reset the buffer and start playing back from there. There’s no end-of-cycle output to sync other things to it, nor a way to tell it to restart from the beginning, nor to change the length (aside from changing the speed, which also changes the pitch.)

    This would be generally okay, but the loop length seems to be just slightly off. If I have a sequenced loop running and set the record gate to turn on for exactly one bar, the recorded loop will drift out of sync with the sequencer in short order.

    jroo has said he’s been considering an alternative firmware where one of the CV inputs becomes a reset input.

    (*)That said… an old trick with multitrack tape was to record clicks or triggers to a channel, to synchronize other gear to the tape. Since the module is “dual mono” (no funny interaction between “left” and “right” channels) I could do this as long as I don’t need to record stereo.
  • To erase the recording so you can start fresh with a different length, you have to set the speed to zero, then rapidly flip the Record toggle switch up and down three times. It feels a bit awkward and hacky and is giving me flashbacks to W/, a looper that had entirely too much functionality crammed into an absurdly minimalist package. A dedicated erase button would have been preferable. But this is a minor nitpick; it works fine and I don’t think it’ll be too hard to remember.

The stand for the “BrutePest” should arrive within the next couple of days — it’ll be nice to get that set up and see how things go with that.

Also I’ve sold off a couple of modules, and now there’s an Ataraxic Iteritas on the way. I’ve been curious about it for some time — it’s the only Noise Engineering oscillator I haven’t tried, aside from the more basic Sinc Iter. It’s a “proudly digital” module based on their original Ataraxic Translatron, their first module and one of my first as well. While I don’t necessarily need it in my rig, I think it has potential — I didn’t need the Strega either and yet it swiftly became a VIP.

My thought process was this: I really don’t need more utilities or modulation in the main rack (we’ll see how BrutePest goes), nor another controller. Most of the available filters that are interesting to me at this point are the big/expensive ones that I won’t go for anyway. I think I’m covered well enough on waveshaping/folding. Effects can certainly be fun, but I also feel really well covered there. But oscillators… those are where everything begins, and there are so many interesting options it’s hard to hold back curiosity.

A user on TalkBass posted a couple of examples of modern gothy, darkwave, minimal synth music, and Boy Harsher really surprised me. I guess when I hear about a new band through certain channels, I have a set of assumptions including “I’m not going to like them” — and often when I try, I don’t. Sometimes the vocals just turn me right off, if not the overall style. So that was a pleasant surprise which led me putting 9 more albums on my Bandcamp wishlist so far. I won’t grab them all this coming Friday, but there’s at least 3 I have in my sights for sure.

good reads

I’m a software developer, or software engineer if you like. (Which isn’t “IT” nor really the old-fashioned “data processing” but “computer programming” I’ll allow.) I’ve long had a certain skepticism about computer science as a discipline, or at least the way people in my experience have tried to apply it to practical problems.

During my career I’ve had a few coworkers who had been Computer Science majors, and who wanted to (and sometimes did) build these complex structures full of indirection and obfuscation, with multiple layers of “controllers” that didn’t control anything, “handlers” that didn’t handle anything, generic interfaces that were always used for one specific purpose to which they were not well suited, and so on. The code took longer to develop, was harder to follow and maintain, and often not a great performer compared to a more direct approach. Some of them also disliked the idea of caching or of shortcutting algorithms because it wasn’t “elegant” even if it improved performance very noticeably when I was asked to improve its performance. A classic collision of theory and practice, I thought.

The second-to-last book I read though was Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, and I’ll allow that the field maybe wasn’t well represented by its advocates. A lot of the book (and the field) deals with finding “good enough” solutions for intractable problems, or making decisions with insufficient or unreliable data. The book gives several different categories of examples and how they can apply to personal decisions as well as political approaches and policies.

It turns out to be very practical. Like, sometimes the best sort algorithm is to not sort at all, because the time required to sort data is not justified by the time saved when searching it. For that, you have to have a pretty good idea of how much data you’re going to deal with, and how it’s going to be used.

Sorting efficiently is non-trivial, but it’s a solved problem, and developers are just going to call a standard library function and not worry about it. Other problems are quite different, especially when human behavior gets involved.

In life there are plenty of situations where everyone behaving rationally in their best interests turns out worse for everyone, and occasional situations where acting irrationally or taking risks turns out better for everyone. In almost every case, it’s because the system sucks, and a change to the rules will improve everyone’s outcomes. This applies to everything from network traffic to auctions, economic systems and policy, criminal justice, etc. (So the meta-question as always is, how to change the entrenched political system so that it’s willing to actually apply changes that are in everyone’s best interests?)

There were a couple of computer science metaphors where I could see applications to my own creative endeavors. For instance, Early Stopping and perhaps Overfitting. There’s a point where you should just stop working on a piece instead of trying to perfect it, because you’re just making changes that aren’t improvements. In the case of art/music, I think it’s because you’ve been exposed to it too long, and anything different has novelty value. It’s often better to stick with first instincts. This is a lesson I learned some time back, but with more recent changes to my editing process where I’m tending to layer in more things after the initial recording, it’s good to have a reminder.

Simulated Annealing comes from metallurgy, where annealing is a process of melting a metal and letting it cool very gradually to align the crystalline structure and make it stronger. Heat is just random motion, so carrying the metaphor to simulations and modeling, the idea is to begin with some amount of randomness but decrease that randomness with each iteration. This turns out to be a good way to “jiggle” the solution away from getting stuck in local maxima.

It also is, if I understand correctly (and my understanding is admittedly vague, though better informed than some), the way that “AI” art algorithms work (in a very general sense), with the generator network starting from raw random noise and refining it to try to satisfy the discriminator network (which decides whether the pixels look like a duck), each iteration using less randomness and more of its “knowledge”.

My creative process has a similar pattern. I will generally start with an idea, but will take wilder swings and wobbles at variations and then gradually settle down. The last couple of voices I add during my patching phase (not necessarily the last to be played chronologically) are designed to complement the rest; there’s less experimentation and more drawing on existing experience.

The latest book was No One Is Talking About This. I didn’t know much about the book before checking it out, just that it was highly recommended and had something to do with internet culture. I had the impression that it was going to lean toward science fiction, about someone trapped online (either in a more literal cyberpunk sense, or a mental health sense of obsession/addiction).

Instead… it’s almost non-fiction, an extremely relatable stream-of-consciousness journal of 2016-2019, a sort of satire by way of simply reporting life and culture and letting the absurdity stand out on its own. To summarize, I’d have to say it was about how people connect (or don’t), whether they’re strangers or family, and about how people react to each other. I will avoid spoilers, but about halfway through, the narrator is shocked by personal life events out of their Extremely Online life into something else, and it’s both heartbreaking and heartwarming.

It felt very odd somehow to read a story that was very clearly about the Trump era and our cultural/political response to it, that cut off right before the pandemic and the January 6 fiasco that both loom so large now. It’s almost scary to think about, but it goes back to what I had said about COVID being one of those definite “before” and “after” points in history.

a salute

I make a point of not really having “heroes” as such. For one, it’s a great way to be let down when they turn out to be Milkshake Duck. For another… being particularly creative, smart, funny, etc. doesn’t really make you a hero. Even someone like Dolly Parton, famously growing up poor, becoming wealthy through talent while remaining extremely down-to-earth and generous and kind and wholesome, isn’t a hero really. But I certainly can admire peoples’ talents or creations, and the inspiration they provided.

When I was a kid, the absolute coolest cartoon ever was Star Blazers, or Leiji Matsumoto’s Space Battleship Yamato. It’s more than a little weird and unlikely, and frankly a poor military design, for a literal ocean-going battleship to be converted to a spaceship — but making the metaphor literal worked extremely well in the anime medium. That ship itself I’m sure had more cultural residence for Japanese people of the time than an American kid who, at that age, probably couldn’t have found Japan on a map. But even without that, it made points immediately just with its looks; it pushes nostalgia buttons, and it ties the story in with Odysseus and other mythic voyagers. Not just the spaceship design, but the look of the characters and costumes and technology, were all very well thought out.

At the end of each Yamato episode, the audience was reminded how many days the crew had to return to Earth before it was lost to environmental catastrophe. Okay, we know that’s not how environmental catastrophe works, but it was an extremely effective story device. Dread and suspense were ramped up right at the end of each episode — often right after a thrilling victory or narrow escape, making me wonder whether it was the first instance of mood whiplash in anime. It certainly made me eager to see the next episode. I was reminded of the device when I watched The Ring and it had a similar countdown.

If diesel ships in space is odd, sailing ships is odder, and steam trains in space is just completely bizarre. But Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999 just worked. As did the funky guitar-shaped ship of Interstella 5555, but honestly that was more about the character designs. (There’s even a whole extended scene where the Crescendolls, the visual stand-in for Daft Punk, are put through this whole industrial process disguising their alien bodies as human pop stars, a sort of high-tech dressup as if they were actual dolls.)

The DVD of Interstella 5555 opens with excerpts from an interview with Matsumoto, where he is quoted “musicians are magicians, that’s what I always say.” I took that to heart, but also… it takes one to know one.

where I left off

So, halfway through February. Jamuary is behind, as is a trip down to visit my parents on my mom’s 75th birthday (and a rare opportunity to see my brother and his wife as well). And one more track recorded for the next album, which is currently now past the half-hour mark.

West Pest has its charms — the combination of its oscillator and folder with its dynamics gate has some amazing sweet spots. It’s also got a fair number of limitations, but being of a semi-modular nature, those can be shored up by patching it with other gear. I found the Minibrute 2S is a great partner for it, both to share modulation/utility resources and to combine forces. Two independent oscillators with their own folders blend really nicely. I started thinking in terms of a “BrutePest” station that would be mostly self-contained rather than patching it to the main modular.

I indeed didn’t have a good place for the West Pest to stay, and I was pondering this on the drive south. Since WP can be mounted easily in a standard Eurorack case, my first breakthrough was the idea of picking up a Rackbrute, the powered case made to mount on the Minibrute. That’d give me several more HP to fill in with some extra stuff to really make the BrutePest feel complete.

At one point this plan had grown to:

  • The Minibrute 2S and West Pest.
  • RackBrute 6U.
  • Inertia, which I’d had up for sale, as additional modulation source and occasional extra VCO or filter.
  • Warm Star The Bends, an unusual sort of matrix crossfader that would cover foreseeable utility wants.
  • Mimeophon moved over from my main case, because I felt like that would greatly enhance the BrutePest’s independence.
  • Ana also moved over from my main case, for a little more utility and combinatorial powers, and to make room for…
  • Verbos Multi-Delay in the main rack. When I was researching interesting delays, it blew me away. It’s an 8-tap delay with individual outputs per tap, multiple preset mixes and mix sliders, flexible feedback patching with a pitch shifter and reverb, and envelope followers for each tap. It’s one of those things that’s not just an end-of-chain effect but an instrument in its own right, as well as a modulation source… people have done amazing things with it.

And then I hit the brakes. A month ago I wasn’t going to get anything new, then I gave in and got one cheap, used semi-modular. And there I was planning to add another 6U modular case and a big fancy module and having lots of spare space to tempt me with even more stuff? Whoa there.

I remembered my old plan of a 2-tier stand that can hold the Minibrute and something else, which was going to be the Strega before I made other arrangements. A couple of days of research and I bought a Loci XL with expander, for much less than even the smaller Rackbrute was going to be. I’ve moved the West Pest and Inertia into my Pod60, which can sit atop the second tier (I could potentially also put the WP back in its own case and use the rest of the Pod for other things, once I see how things work with the stand).

I am also going to replace the Mini PEG in the main cast. I don’t love it as much as I thought I was going to, and I have more than enough modulation without it. I can always have Teletype or Bitwig generate some signals if Stages, Function, Just Friends, Kermit, 0-Ctrl etc. are all busy.

I used to have The Harvestman Tyme Sefari, and I really liked how it worked. It would behave as a delay, looper, or sampler not through different modes, but combinations of recording status and feedback amount. The main issue was it was really lo-fi. It was also an awkward 15HP plus an extra 8HP for the expander which allowed for a second channel (for stereo, multitap tracks or whatever).

Well. jroo Loop happens to be a delay/looper with two channels in 8HP, with a user interface that reminds me of TS, but not lo-fi unless you intentionally slow down its rate. Bingo. As well as missing the Tyme Sefari’s methods, and to a lesser extent the Phonogene, I’ve been wanting a better way to loop when playing bass. And here it is.

oceans of what?

I know I’m a Brandon Sanderson fan, and likely to enjoy pretty much everything he writes. But his latest book Tress of the Emerald Sea is super charming and funny, with a wholesome romance plot driving the adventure… it reminded me of Stardust and The Princess Bride and maybe a bit of Terry Pratchett.

As it turns out, the catalyst for the book was watching The Princess Bride with his family and having them point out that the title character didn’t have any agency. So it was a “what if Buttercup goes off on an adventure to rescue her beloved from pirates?” With some other plot/trope reversals (as Sanderson likes to do), and in the Cosmere on a weird-ass planet, and narrated by the immortal trickster and storyteller Hoid. The narrator is very much a character, and so it almost reads more like a Hoid book than a Sanderson book. Substitute puns, sarcasm, anachronistic references, and “I’ll just call them all Doug” for the Branvalanche and the huge emotional victories and defeats. While I’m glad the Stormlight Archive isn’t told entirely in Hoid’s voice, this book was a whole lot of fun. 🙂

I wound up picking out several tracks from Jamuary; I think 16, but I forgot to turn on my cloud sync after the last session so a couple of files aren’t visible from work. They’re all mastered and have names. It turns out there’s a common thread to the style, as if I had done that on purpose, and I really like it, so I used that as my final criteria for choosing what to include. We’re going on a trip later this week but I should be able to release it maybe tonight or tomorrow. No reason to rush, it just it would be nice to launch right into new stuff and bass practice after returning from the trip.