I can just barely hear you

Good to know it’s not my ears:

Here’s Why Movie Dialogue Has Gotten More Difficult To Understand

A big part of it comes down to sound being a second-class citizen compared to visuals — the same story in film as it so often is with video games.

I won’t rehash my complaints about how poorly considered sound has been in game projects I’ve worked on… much. When an often-heard dialogue line done by someone in the studio can’t be re-recorded so it doesn’t have an annoying rhythmic cadence, when the dialogue is a combination of professional voice actors recorded in a studio and programmers mumbling into a budget headset mic, when you can’t spare two minutes to tone down a particularly loud sound so it doesn’t overwhelm everything else, when you ask for music and don’t inform the composer it’s going to be limited to 8kHz mono WAV so they can make appropriate sound design choices… and none of that is considered a quality problem? It’s pretty obvious how much regard the studio leadership has for sound… and how much better an experience competing games will be.

Anyway. When watching streaming shows we usually have captions on. Sometimes there is dialog in the captions that isn’t unintelligible but 100% inaudible, to the point where it makes me wonder if the line was cut from the audio. I’ve also found captions can reveal character names that we are not explicitly told, and spellings that would otherwise be difficult to guess at, which can be nice for someone who’s more of a reader than a movie watcher. But I feel like this shouldn’t be necessary if the story were being told well, and than includes both dialogue writing and good clear sound.


Speaking of sound, I think I’ll record one more track for the next album and then go into artwork/mastering.

Every album is at least a little different from the previous, but some definitely have their own flavor. Sometimes there’s an intentional creative direction — but this time I think it just happened that way.

Overall, this one has been a little less droney. There’s a bit more interplay between parts — call-and-response, off-grid sequences that trigger something else, generative parts based on the audio from another source. The Model:Cycles comes out to play a little, though you won’t find any four-on-the-floor techno or indeed many “drum” parts. Software has a bigger role than I’ve given it in a while, with Grid and VCV patches, plus a little bit of OPS7, Vital, and Quadra. Part of this is because the Launchpad X makes it a joy to play expressive parts on software synths, and VCV’s ability to send MIDI spices up the sequencing and tuning, so I’m using software synths for more than a few supplemental drones. I’m doing more with xenharmonic tunings, making them battle 12TET-tuned parts, and slipping between quantized and unquantized (and “semi-quantized”) tunings. And we’re hearing more Noise Engineering here, with Melotus and Lacrima frequently adding something, a bit of Loquelic Iteritas, and finding my way with the Ruina plugin without necessarily pushing it to extremes.

Given my thoughts about my musical near future, the albums of 2022 stand a fair chance of shifting yet again. More on that as it develops!

rack ’em up

I think the current stand situation is going to be okay, for now, once I put the anti-slip mat between the Minibrute’s guitar stand and the metal base of the laptop stand. I may still go for the KVGear stand eventually though.

I tried VCV Rack 2 standalone. Of all modular software, it is probably the closest it comes to Eurorack. But it inevitably just doesn’t feel the same, and I would generally rather patch the hardware.

However, using it as a plugin inside of a DAW changes the story. After reading a few users’ experiences (positive and negative) I went ahead and got the full version at its intro price.

I feel that its role is different not just from the hardware, but from Bitwig Grid.

Bitwig, without Grid, is still mighty. You can route audio and control signals around not quite willy-nilly but more flexibly than in other DAWs I have used. A very handy part of that is that the audio and control signals can cross over: if I want to modulate one of the drawbars in an Organ device with the output of a Eurorack oscillator coming in on hardware input 5, I can do that. If I want a tempo-synced LFO in Bitwig to modulate something in my Eurorack gear, I can do that too.

Grid sort of coalesces that into a view where you mostly connect inputs, modules and controls, and outputs a little more directly. There are still a few invisible hands turning virtual knobs, where in Eurorack you’d have a patch cable. And there are a few places where you need somewhat silly workarounds to get signals between Grid and elsewhere in Bitwig.

Some of Grid’s big limitations:

  • Feedback patching is disallowed under most circumstances. You can work around it with some of its routing tools (though this adds an unknown, if small, amount of latency.)
  • Grid can’t generate MIDI. You can work around this (imperfectly) using the Replacer device.
  • Grid’s audio outputs within the DAW are limited. This too can be worked around. (However, the hardware I/O is wide open, which makes it great for working alongside hardware modular.)
  • Getting modulation sources out of Grid to control other things can be a little awkward depending on where those “other things” are, but again: there are workarounds.
  • Grid cannot host other VST plugins… although (again!) there’s a workaround. A very awkward workaround which gets worse if you want stereo.
  • Only Bitwig can create more Grid modules, there’s no third-party development.

And VCV:

  • Allows feedback patching. There are matrix mixers and so on. There’s one sample of latency in feedback, which is as tight as digital can get.
  • Can generate MIDI — convert V/OCT pitch signals and gates to MIDI note on/off messages, or CV in general to CC. It’s pretty cool having Marbles and Stages playing Aalto!
  • Can assign VST automation parameters to knobs, or use MIDI CC to CV conversion.
  • Its audio I/O is limited to whatever the host DAW allows — no direct hardware access. Unfortunately in Bitwig, this means a total of four audio inputs (two if stereo). This limits just how much weaving back and forth between hardware and software one could do within a single instance.
  • VCV can host other VST plugins inside itself as a module, but that’s an additional $30. With that I suppose one could use ReaStream or Senderella to work around the previous limitation. And yes, you can host an instance of VCV inside of VCV if you want to. Unless I find a specific need for it though, I won’t go this route.
  • There’s robust third-party development. Not without some community issues which I’ve mentioned before, and not without more than a few ugly designs, weird panel layouts and kind of pointless things (but the same could be said in Eurorack to no small extent).

There are definitely some gems in VCV’s free library, and that’s before some of the major players like Instruo and Alright have updated their modules to work with version 2. If I want 8 parallel instances of Rings, now I can do that. Supercell, with its very different vibe from Beads, is back on the menu. Two Befaco spring reverbs for stereo — why not? The kind of garish-looking Plateau delay/reverb sounds impressive, I’ve found some tasty waveshaper/distortion options, and there are some microtonal quantizers I’ll definitely be making use of.

So VCV isn’t a “replace my hardware” option nor as much of a “shore up the weak spots in Bitwig Grid” as I might have thought, but it’s going to pull its weight.

stand in the place where you live

I had a nice road trip, a good visit with my parents and Thanksgiving and birthday and all of that. I didn’t want to go back to the routine. So… let’s say it’s not a routine, it’s a continuing journey?

Things I like (in no particular order):

  • Mountains.
  • Driving, up to a point.
  • Getting to see my parents! And generally just talking to people who I like and haven’t seen in a while.
  • Cats.
  • Good food. Aside from a relatively traditional Thanksgiving meal (with some great sides) we had a good stir for my birthday dinner, some tasty breakfasts (blueberry french toast!) and desserts (pumpkin cake!).
  • A break from routine.

Things I don’t:

  • A really long drive all in one day.
  • Aggressive drivers. But to be fair, I feel like the St. Louis area has more than its share of enraged primates who think they have to prove their manhood behind the wheel — my #1 argument in favor of self-driving cars.
  • The weird stuff my digestive system does to me when traveling.
  • TV news (and all-day TV in general).

A common topic among synth folks is “mise en place” in one’s home studio — having gear set up on stands/shelves/etc., ergonomically placed and ready to play. It can be a challenge in a small space with many different needs and gear that comes in radically different sizes and shapes.

My parents’ birthday gift to me was a laptop DJ stand I’d asked for, and I’ve been trying some different layouts. The current one has some compromises:

  • The upright bar of the new stand is in front of the Minibrute 2S. It’s not 100% in the way, but I need to try patching and playing it to decide if that’s going to bother me. Unfortunately there aren’t too many other places I can put the new stand without a more radical rearrange.
  • The Model:Cycles is atop that, pretty high up and at a flatter angle than I’d like (so it’s not in the way of the MB2S…) I need to see if it’s playable like this.
  • My LCD monitor is shoved back more into the corner so the second, laptop-holder arm can extend in front of it with just barely enough clearance for the Launchpad X. I think that will work.

If not, the most likely thing is a KVGear Adapt L2 stand, which should fit the Minibrute on one tier and 1-2 other pieces of gear on the other. That is a less ideal playing angle for something like the Launchpad, but other stuff should be fine there. I’ll only go this route if the current setup bugs me, though.

Trying to solve for this set of gear just makes me think: where I would I set up a Strega if I got one? How about the other gear I have that rarely/never gets to have any fun anymore (the Wavedrum, theremin, bass, lap steel, acoustic instruments etc.)? This sort of thing almost makes me want to go back to 100% software.

Okay, not really… but that makes a good segue. VCV Rack 2 was just released, and the paid version can run as a VST plugin. I am considering it, as another extension of the modular. Replacement of hardware modules is really not a goal, but then, if I let go of 60HP of stuff I can put a Strega where the Pod60 is.


I am pretty happy with the current state of the next album. I’ll record a couple more things and see what fits where, but I really could just master it and release it now and be satisfied. If I prioritized it, I think I really could finish 9 albums rather than 8 for the year… but let’s not be hasty.

I’m starting to consider my goals and plans for next year. I think I’m going to put some non-synth musical efforts into that list. More on that in the coming days.

neato

Not all good synth gear is physical. Some of it’s software, and some is even free.

Vital “spectral warping wavetable synth” pretty obviously takes inspiration from Serum. In a side-by-side comparison, I’d say Serum’s UI is a bit more polished (but that’s exactly what the Vital devs are working on right now), its filters more interesting, its effects suite a little nicer. Vital’s oscillators can do a bit more and that’s really where it shines. It can also do audio rate modulation up to a point. Overall it’s my kind of synth, fun to design sounds with and can respond expressively to velocity and pressure from the Launchpad. And it’s free — at least a “basic” version with a limited set of presets and wavetables. I really don’t care about presets, and it has enough wavetables to do a lot of interesting stuff with, and you can create your own. So there’s that. 🙂

Not free but cheap thanks to Black “Friday” (the longest “day” of the year), are Audiority Plexitape and Tube Modulator. The former is a tape loop delay plugin, with a bit of a different vibe than the also excellent Cherry Audio Stardust 201 and the do-everything-incredibly-well Valhalla Delay. Tube Modulator combines a selection of tremolo/vibrato/vibe effects with a stereo panner, Leslie rotary speaker emulation, or tape wow and flutter. for all kinds of retro, liquid warble. Effects like this are an important part of sound design, which is why I kind of think forum arguments about synth presets are silly and pointless. I personally create all my synth sounds from scratch, but if I didn’t, I’d still be routing them through chains of effects (much like a guitarist does with their one “preset” sound!) and making them my own. No judgement here — using presets is just a different approach.

42 minutes recorded for the next album, but I kind of think I’m going to reject one of the tracks. I wound out on a limb with it and I think I went too far. There are a couple of gorgeous tracks though, and yes, I do say so myself. On what I think is going to be the album’s closing piece, I have some call-and-response going on between two main parts:

  • A harmonic oscillator patch quantized to a 7TET scale (so there’s some interplay between the Pythagorean and… weird ratios). Faders control the levels of six harmonics, and another fader applies some FM and saturation.
  • A synth patch in a standard minor 12TET scale, doubled with an oscillator that’s following it two octaves lower using Bitwig’s Zero Crossing module and a sample-and-hold. Again, faders control the relative levels of the upper and lower registers.

So overall it’s very dynamic and expressive, and flows smoothly between octaves. The aforementioned Plexitape and Tube Modulator give the 12TET part’s lower register some width and wateriness, while the 7TET part is relatively dry at lower frequencies but has some Supermassive reverb on the higher end. Overall it just works really well.


If I sounded a little bit lukewarm on Arcane before, well… I’ve just finished watching the full season and I have to say it gets better with every episode. The drama and emotion, the animation… it just really comes together. I’m super impressed and looking forward to that next season they’ve announced.

(I could do without the Imagine Dragons song though. Really not my thing. Using it as the theme song is one thing, but also using it in an episode? Bleh.)

legendary

I don’t know anything about League of Legends except (A) it’s a game and (B) there are approximately six thousand different characters with different powers and stuff and (C) it has fantasy and maybe SF elements? I’ve never played it, nor Fortnite, nor DOTA, nor really do I know in what ways those games are similar or different except that Fortnite kind of ate their lunch in terms of popularity. I don’t even know if that’s still true.

But I started watching Arcane last night, a Netflix animated series based on League of Legends, because I’ve read that it’s very good and you don’t have to know anything about the game. It drops in 3-episode blocks, so I watched the first three.

Impressions so far:

  • It’s pretty good. I’ll watch the rest. But it’s not going to be my favorite thing ever.
  • I’m glad I’m watching it with captions on, so character names are revealed whenever there’s dialog. Otherwise there’s quite a bit that might not have been as clear.
  • I suspect that it is chock full of Easter eggs and references for people who are familiar with the lore, but I can still mostly follow what’s going on.
  • For a group of poor street urchins, one of the kids is a bit chubby and I figured there’d be fat jokes (there was one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it almost-fat-joke). But he turned out to be very competent and tough.
  • There are some weird, non-human character races and one of them is quite goofy and Muppet-like and really strikes me as out of place. Perhaps it isn’t so weird to people who play the game?
  • Also distracting: one of the characters is voiced by Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays a favorite character in the Expanse series. Her animated version looks kind of like a slightly younger version of her who is into weightlifting. It was about like hearing Ellen McLain as GlaDOS as Gipsy Danger in Pacific Rim — it just instantly transported me to a different fictional world.
  • The 3-episode block was almost like a very short series in its arc, and it got quite a bit darker than I expected.
  • It’s another Netflix animated series where the animation style is changeable. Sometimes it looks almost like anime. Sometimes it looks very videogame-ish, a sort of Borderlands look or obvious polygonal shapes in faces. And sometimes it looks very much like human characters and maybe rotoscoping or weird color enhancement. Occasionally these shifts work. Occasionally I am struck by just how amazing good it looks at that particular moment, and sometimes by how like a very low-budget kid’s animation.

Just found out another great thing about turning 50: my health insurance premiums go up by $300 a month (though my employer covers half of that). Can’t you just taste the sheer freedom and liberty of not having universal healthcare coverage? ‘Murica!

This is a non-ACA grandfathered plan and they’re looking at changing plans again (like we do every. single. year. and they get worse every time) for 2022.

next in line

I’ve got almost 25 minutes of music recorded for the next album, so I expect my count for 2021 will indeed be 8 albums.

The thing is, it doesn’t feel like a lot. It just feels like the year was long, especially the stressful summer. It’s a little too early for “year in review” posts but that’s the mood I’m in. It seems like the last quarter of the year points so much at the holidays; if several neighborhood houses can have their Christmas lights going already then I can talk about 2021 as if it’s almost over, can’t I?

An insurgency of idiots. Coronavirus continuing to be a political and identity issue, which is probably why it is still dominating everything instead of being well on its way to being crushed like smallpox. Biden being as disappointing as expected. Supply chains disrupted. We lost our sweet dog Gretta, a couple of months after she had to have her leg amputated, which they thought for sure was cancer and then the biopsy said it wasn’t. Work got 10x more stressful after my supervisor left and I became the person who’s supposed to know everything (even though I’m not a manager per se). Two music community websites with awful names changed those names and life went on.

I read a book about drone music, then put together a 30-minute continuous set for an online radio show, decided I really liked doing that, and ran with it for a few more albums. The last album has a few crossfades but mostly separate tracks, and I think this one is going to be all separate tracks again — and I even used the Model:Cycles, probably the first time I’ve recorded an actual hardware drum machine since 1989. But it’s probably not what it sounds like…

I told myself I wasn’t going to change much of my gear, then I did. Deliberately, then somewhat experimentally, then with a sense of closure as I resolved to change how I think about gear. I still want a Make Noise Strega (announced at the start of the year) and I might get one next year — I’m not setting specific “don’t buy stuff” rules but more “it ain’t broke.”


In less than two weeks I’ll be 50 years old. That doesn’t quite make sense to me. Half a century? Some part of me is still 15, awkward and nervous and having no idea what I’m doing. My back muscles and knees feel like they’re about 85. So I guess if you average them it works out.


Recently read: A Memory Called Empire and A Desolation Called Peace. Two wonderful, beautiful books, and I hope there are more coming from this author. The setting and conflicts are very human, very “here are the wonderful and terrible things about us in the same culture, and often within the same person.” And I would like to see Mahit and Reed resolve their probably unresolvable cultural differences and live happily ever after. But they probably won’t get what they deserve, because generally people don’t.


A mini rant:

Software plugins that have X-day free trials and those trials don’t reset.

A few months ago I tried AAS Multiphonics CV-1, a software modular synth. It was kind of neat, a little bit flawed/limited, and I decided I didn’t need it because I had Bitwig Grid as well as hardware modular. Then they announced an update, with some new stuff. I kind of want to try it again, but I can’t, because my 15 day trial ended many weeks ago.

Same goes for one of the Cherry Audio analog synths. I was reading something about the hardware synth and thought “I tried an emulation of that before, didn’t buy it, but now that I’ve read this I want to give it another try.” And I can’t, because my trial from way back whenever expired.

By all means, in your demo versions, have some soft noise bursts or occasional dropouts to silence or even talk once in a while like the Sonic Charge demos did. Disable saving and shut down the plugin after 30 minutes (or 10, or whatever). But this is just killing off your own second chance to sell your product.

the lowest Quelic

Loquelic Iteritas arrived last week. I find it very much to my liking, though a bit quirky.

I normally laugh off claims that something “sounds digital” or “thin” or “cold.” But in this case, the aliasing can be obvious and much of its range does seem “thin” — not in a disparaging way, but like a knife. Sharp and shiny. It’s a great complement to something like Manis Iteritas which is heavy and dark. However, it does have some territory where it can sound quite solid, or bold and brassy.

Tuning can be a challenge. Where most complex oscillators have a clear primary/modulator relationship — even if cross-modulation is possible — the frequency knobs for oscillators A and B here are independent. It makes sense, but unfortunately, if you have the perfect ratio dialed in but need to retune, it calls for extremely careful tweaking of both frequencies rather than just turning one knob.

Also, the minimum frequency is a moderately fast LFO. Sometimes there is pure sonic gold with that kind of modulation but I want it to be just a bit slower. The Bass/Alto/Treble switch of newer Noise Engineering oscillators, or responding to negative voltage on the pitch inputs, would have gotten there.

Those quibbles aside, I like it a lot. I don’t feel like it’s redundant with my other oscillators in any way — even its phase modulation algorithm sounds different from anything else I have. So I’ll be happy to hang onto this and put it to regular use, not just have it satisfy a few years of curiosity.

lost my marbles

ADDAC503 Marble Physics turned out to be kind of a disappointment to me. Without diving too far into specifics, it’s less controllable than I’d hoped, and the two patches I was particularly dreaming of aren’t doable. It seems like a fun module for the right kind of person, but not for me. So I’ve found someone selling a used Loquelic Iteritas and will go for that instead.

I have to say that ADDAC’s red panels are gorgeous though — they’re metal, not PCB like I assumed, and have a nice satin finish. The white text is still completely legible.


The new album is ready to go and will be released Friday (for Bandcamp Friday). I decided to cut one of the tracks that I felt just doesn’t flow well and was a bit jarring, but it’s still 51 minutes.

I find it interesting just how consistent the sound and feel are between tracks made with very different gear. That feels like validation. I think not making a big deal about the stuff is really the right course.


I saw this image in a review this morning and immediately thought not of a meatless burger, but of Obvious Plant.

The UK version of this is vegan (and that means, sad vegan cheese). The US version is… cooked on the same grills as the beef, making it not suitable for many vegetarians. The same thing that BK did with the Impossible Whopper before backlash caused them to change it. Why not just skip right ahead to that?

I was a vegetarian for 7 years when I was younger, and I still go through occasional periods of wanting to eat less meat, particularly beef. Beef has a much heavier climate impact than anything else, requiring more clean water, more land use and more fuel per pound or per calorie than chicken, pork, or especially plants. A shift in global food production away from beef toward more plants is WAY up on the priority list of climate solutions, more so than things like public transit or electric cars or LED lighting. I do like beef occasionally, but will happily choose a meatless alternative when it makes basically no difference in the experience of the meal — as in most burgers, nachos, etc.


Kraftwerk has announced a 2022 North America tour, with a St. Louis appearance in May. I had a ticket for the 2020 tour which was cancelled, but I think this time I won’t go for it. 3D video is part of it, and those glasses rarely work well for me over my normal glasses (Tron Legacy was fine, Avatar was a garbled mess of not even being able to see characters’ faces.) I have a preference for the original versions of Kraftwerk’s music rather than the digitally reworked, rhythmically neutralized, over-polished remakes which have generally been all they’ve done since 1986 (aside from Tour de France Soundtracks, itself based on a single from 1983). And the touring group consists of Ralf and three others who are not Florian, Wolfgang or Karl. As I understand it, it was Ralf who pretty much ruined the band’s momentum. So… I can talk myself out of going pretty easily.

closing arguments

New album is almost there. I have a little bit of editing to do on one track, then the art and mastering and release. This will be #7 for this year… there’s still time for an eighth!

You can still see how things were slower at the start. There were gaps where I’d recorded something, had major doubts about it, tried to rework it into shape, gave up and rejected it, then reconfigured my mind’s idea generator.

There is a common claim among musicians that “Gear Acquisition Syndrome” gets in the way of being creative. My last round of gear rethinking/trades ran October 7-25, so… not so much. (One of those tracks was recorded on October 7, though its last edit was a bit later.)