when in doubt…

When I create songs, I do it in a single session whenever possible, or two if necessary.  From the point where experimenting/jamming crosses my “I have to make this a song” threshold to when I put the headphones down and walk away, it is rarely more than 4-5 hours.

Usually it’s fine.

Usually the first thing I say to myself when I have done so is “I’m not sure about this one.”  It’s too boring, it’s too harsh, it’s too weird, it’ll never work with the rest of the album…

The next day when I listen to it?  It’s fine!

It’s not that I have some kind of house elf who comes in and fixes my recordings while I’m off sleeping or playing video games, it’s just my perception.  (A) I’ve been listening to variations on the same thing for a few hours and am getting pretty jaded, vs. (B) I have fresh ears and am listening to a 4-9 minute song in the context of other things I’ve recorded recently.

Not everything I record gets released.  Turning songs into an album usually requires filtering a few things out to make it a stronger whole.  Some of them are weaker, some of them just don’t really fit.  I currently have 16 songs in a folder called “other unreleased” and another 6 simply called “no.”

This method of working quickly has been really helpful to me.  Through 2016-2017 I recorded over 380 songs this way.  After several months, I found myself consciously critiquing my overall output and realizing that some things worked and others didn’t.  Decades of scattershot music-making — trying to do almost everything that interests me, which is a lot — were brought into focus.  After a few more months of refining both my gear and technique, I started recording albums again with this new focus.

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear.  One of my favorite things I’ve read this year.

Going back to make little tweaks and adjustments and additions to a song dozens of times didn’t really serve me so well.  Many changes didn’t necessarily improve anything, just make it different, satisfying my ear fatigue.  More importantly, those changes only affected a single song — what I needed was to improve my whole practice.  I stopped arranging the pine needles in my forest just so when I realized I preferred oaks anyway.

It would be nice to tell the story that I went to this single-session thing as part of a grand plan.  Really, the single-session thing was driven by my transition from 100% software music-making to a mixed approach — and some faulty, unreliable little desktop synths I was trying to work with at the time — and the fact that using these synths meant taking up space on my desk that I needed for other things.  It was easier to just get it done and put it away, than to keep it set up and running for multiple days while hoping nothing would crash or get accidentally unplugged!

I stuck with these habits — to me it fits perfectly with the transitory nature of patching a modular synthesizer.  About which I’ll just throw out another quote:

“I think the modular sound has less to do with timbre and more to do with the fact that when people are patching a modular, they seem to be less interested in micro-management as a music-making process.  The extreme magnification of musical event time and pitch provided by modern DAWs seems to curate what people believe to be perfect music through the aid of a machine.

Music made with the modular system is, in my opinion, a pure and interesting collaboration between human and machine.  It displays well the beauty and the blemish in both (human and machine)… it might be less perfect by judgement of mainstream music taste, but perhaps more exciting to those of us seeking a deeper connection to the music.”

Tony Rolando, founder of Make Noise

My process is this:  I set up the entire song:  sound design, composition, sequencing and/or performance plan, mixing, effects, all of it.  And then I record it “live” to a stereo channel.  If I feel it’s a good take, that’s it — it’s committed.  I take notes to satisfy my later curiosity, shut it down and unpatch the modular.  There’s no multitracking, no going back and making small changes or revisiting mixing decisions.  The only editing possible from that point is on the “finished” mix.

Sometimes a lot does happen in that editing, but generally it falls into “mastering” enhancement and cleanup, or bold-stroke creative changes — not revisiting past decisions.  Always moving forward, no going back.

Regret that I can’t make those changes is rare and minor at most.  For all of the fear that some people have of working with a synthesizer that can’t save presets, this is never a thing that has bothered me about modular synths.  Instead of saving and loading sounds with perfect recall, I remember general techniques that will lead to new creations in the future.  Always moving forward!

it doesn’t sound like a hurdy-gurdy, either

As the sidebar currently says, my current musical project is an album called Materials.  It’s the kind of music that I have been making — the dark side of ambient, spooky, unsettling, etc. — but it’s also a study of Mutable Instruments Rings.  Rings, a physical modeling resonator, is one of the most popular Eurorack modules (#4 if you can trust ModularGrid) and with good reason.

The easiest way to use Rings is to just send it a pitch and optionally a trigger signal, and it produces a lovely plucked string or struck bar or membrane — sounding like metal, glass, wood, etc.  Guitars, xylophones, some types of drums and so on are in easy reach.  But its ease of use, popularity and beauty have made it something of a cliche, and there’s a backlash against its easily recognizable sounds.

Like any good backlash, there’s a counter-backlash.  The module’s designer and some musicians such as Billy Gomberg  point out you can think of it more as a sort of filter/reverb. Feed any audio source into Rings (including itself) and now instead of tapping those strings and plates, you’re bowing them, rubbing them, blowing air over them, vibrating them sympathetically… really it’s entire worlds of realistic and impossible materials for musical manipulation.

yes, this is my all time favorite XKCD.

Rings was the module that got me into Eurorack in the first place, and I was doing this “fancy” stuff on my first day with it.  To me it’s what makes Rings so good.

Early in October I read too many “it always sounds the same” posts and snapped.  And by “snapped” I mean “decided to record an album that proves them wrong.”

The challenge has been holding back from centering other stuff that I really like — but coming up with myriad ways to use Rings that don’t “sound like Rings” has been fun and easy.  I have a whole list of things I could try that I will probably never get around to.  I even wound up trading a couple of less favored modules for a second Rings — they work really well together.

oh yeah.

Overall, I feel like the best partner for a Rings is Plaits, Mutable’s versatile “macro oscillator” that incorporates many different synthesis methods.  But when you have a whole modular synth to work with, plus field recordings, software synths, samples of acoustic instruments, and so on there is really no limit.

Yesterday’s effort used Rhythmic Robot Hurdy-Gurdy as the sound source for the first Rings, which then fed the second Rings.  Strings vibrating strings vibrating strings!   The gurdy and both resonators were mixed and run through reverb and a touch of distortion and filtering.  Here is the result.

Piercing the Gloom

Doesn’t really sound like a guitar or xylophone, does it?

fury road

Things St. Louis drivers do not believe in:

  • Speed limit signs.
  • Stop signs.
  • Yield signs.
  • Exit Only lane signs.
  • Signs.
  • Any sort of stripes painted on roads or parking lots.
  • Headlights in rain, snow or fog.
  • Headlights in the dark (until the sun has been down for one full hour AND the car has been in motion for at least five minutes).
  • Turn signals.
  • School zones.
  • School buses.
  • Basic courtesy.

Things Chicago drivers do not believe in:

  • Lanes have a direction.
  • Newton’s laws of motion.
  • The Pauli exclusion principle.
  • Mortality.

Things Florida drivers do not believe in:

  • The use of pedals to control a vehicle’s speed.
  • The need to see.
  • Pedestrians.

blob blob concern

Maybe you’ve never wondered how I come up with song titles, but there is a thread on Ambient Online about that question, and reading it today coincided with an update from one of my favorite sources of name inspiration.

I’m sure I’ll write plenty later about my process(es) for creating music, but this is what happens after.  Or during.  Or before!

Sometimes, songs name themselves.  I’ll be finishing it up and stop to listen through, about to record, and some impression will strike me and lead to a name.  Or not, and I might just pick a temporary name so I can save the project file, and get around to a real name later.

Textura IKermadec Trench
Textura IIBathyal
Assorted CitrusHadal Pressure
TarnWhale Fall
Five BoolLoki’s Castle

Sometimes I have a theme in mind for the album, and that helps me choose a name.  Although in the case of Nereus, I already had most of the album done when the theme struck me, and I wound up renaming several songs (some of them, several times.)  I had to keep a chart for a while so I wouldn’t lose track. 

When all else fails, I consult my list.  Whenever I invent or find a turn of phrase that I think has a remote chance of working — or when my spouse suggests it — I put it on my “Song Names” note in Simplenote.  Most of the things on this list will never be used, and sometimes I cull the least interesting and least likely.  But sometimes going over the list and finding these goofy phrases will trigger a better idea.

Also contributing to this list:  the neural network antics featured on AI Weirdness.  During my period of prolific exploration in 2016-2017, I leaned on it quite heavily, giving such fantastic titles as “Zuby Glong,” “Crab Water,” and “Corcaunitiol.”  I haven’t used it so much on my album releases, but again, sometimes those random strings trigger some ideas.

Here are some great bits from today’s blog post over there:

lower blob blob blob blob blob blob blob blob blob blob blob blob dragon right , screamed . , as sneak pet ruined a whatever their sole elven found chief of their kind , at which involving died other bastard dwarven blob blob blob blob blob blob blob blob blob blob blob concern

he was a wizard, and explained that he was in a small town of stars. 

a rat in the darkness

in the blood of curious

How could one fail to be inspired by such poetry?

(I really like “Zuby Glong” though.)

Another great source of names, phrases, and inspiration is Botnik Predictive Writer.  Being both themed and somewhat human-directed, it tends to make actual coherent phrases.

With Salt On Your Arms
Of This Debris is a World Built
A Small Change of Wavelength

(I may actually use one or all of these.)

Really though, coming up with names is not the hard part.  I feel like, if you’re creative enough to do all of the other stuff then you should have no trouble with…


new blog, who dis?

So… there are all kinds of ways one could introduce oneself.  Let’s just go with a quick bullet point list here, because a lot of my future posts are likely to dive deep into specifics.

  • Name:  you can call me Starthief. 
  • Starthief?:  Yeah, It’s a nickname my spouse gave me once because I was playing dirty at Mario Party. 
  • Really?:  I mean, also I like stars generally, both in an astronomical sense and for various personal spiritual reasons, so at the end of 2015 when I wanted to choose a new band name, I went with that.
  • Age:  still younger than 30… in hexadecimal.
  • Gender: 
  • No, really…?:  non-binary.
  • Pronouns:  “they/them,” or anything, I’m not fussy.
  • Body type:  disappointing.
  • Day job:  software engineer.  C++ mostly.
  • But really:  an electronic musician!
  • Genre:  “uneasy listening”, spooky, dark, ambient, abstract
  • Music gear:  Eurorack, MicroBrute, pedals, Maschine, software.
  • Location:  St. Louis, Missouri.
  • Play live?:  not currently.
  • Pets:  1 cat, 2 dogs, fish.  Previously, lizards.
  • Politics:  democratic socialist, opposed to cruelty and fascism.
  • Religion:  complicated; generally pagan.

Anything I missed that you’re curious about?  Ask me in the comments.

Toot Toot

I’m starting up a new blog here because I’m finally breaking ranks with Facebook.  I’ve been unsettled by their ethics and business model for a while, but finding out they were trying to deflect criticism with the old “paid protesters funded by George Soros” while somehow simultaneously calling criticism anti-Semitic, and pretending to care about the state of democracy and the validity of news sources, was the last straw.

After dabbling a little with journaling on a Commodore 64, I started more seriously writing in the early 90s on a DOS machine.  I kept that going sporadically until the web became a real thing.  I may still have a copy of that kicking around somewhere.  Then I blogged with hand-coded HTML for a while.  Then there was LiveJournal, which was nice for a while.

*heavy sigh*

But somehow we all jumped ship for Facebook and Twitter (and then LJ kind of imploded anyway, bought by a Russian company that was decidedly anti-LGBTQIA+ among other things).  And with the rise of social media as such… well, you know how that went.

So this blog is something of a way to rewind to before social media was a thing, as such, and give me an outlet where I can write actual paragraphs.

Because unlike Facebook, some of my readers won’t already know me and will find this via my main site or stumble into it via Google, my next post will probably be a proper introduction.