So I’m sitting here after dinner, eating a cookie, and the phone rings. It’s an unsolicited call from AT&T, and there’s a real human on the other end, not a recording. Remarkably, it’s not a sales call, and not a phishing attempt either. The young lady just wants to know if my high-speed Internet and phone service is working okay, or if I have any concerns.
At first glance, it makes no sense whatever for AT&T to pay people to phone millions of random customers and ask this kind of question. It would seem to be a money drain for them with no plus side. If I have a problem, wouldn’t I take the initiative and call tech support?
But then the other shoe drops. At dinner I was reading a long article in Atlantic Monthly about data mining. Specifically, about how corporations are using seemingly irrelevant data to find the right people to hire.
Why should my account have popped up on an AT&T data mining operation, prompting them to call me? Easy answer: Last week I stopped turning on the TV. I bought a new synthesizer, you see, so I’ve been busy in the studio. The TV (AT&T cable) has not been active in about 10 days.
The caller didn’t ask specifically about my use of cable, but it’s not hard to connect the dots. Why else would they have called? George Orwell envisioned this kind of thing, but he didn’t go nearly far enough.
Here’s a clip of a very unfinished piece. I’m posting it because I think it shows off one of the many, many things that can happen when you combine an analog modular synth with Reason. But first, the story:
I’ve been doing Beatles tunes in Reason. Uploading my mp3 arrangements is, of course, entirely illegal, but so far Sir Paul’s attorneys haven’t contacted me. I had started working on “Blackbird,” but I wasn’t happy with where it was going. Meanwhile, on another channel, I teach cello to kids. One of the pieces in one of the Suzuki cello books is a movement from Bach’s English Suite No. 3. The movement is called a musette. It’s named after an obsolete French bagpipe, if you can believe that. Being a clever fellow, Bach wrote a gavotte that lies perfectly above an unchanging drone note — hence, a musette.
I liked the piece, so I learned it on piano. So now I have a synthesizer that loves to make drones, and a version of “Blackbird” that isn’t quite working yet, but might work if it were redone as a musette. Okay, let’s try it:
This kind of patch, all you can do is keep nudging the knobs until the rhythm comes into focus. Trigger Riot is doing the clock, but two envelopes are coming out of Maths, and it doesn’t know about sync.
Everything but the drone is Reason instruments. A second and more hard-edged drone starts right at the end. Not sure where I’ll go with it, but it should be fun.
It takes years to learn to play the cello. Expecting instant magic when you start working with a modular synth is probably expecting too much. It’s just another musical instrument, after all. In addition to learning various techniques, you need to learn to become sensitive to the sounds you’re hearing.
Not being a complete novice, it’s taken me only a few days to come up with a clip that I don’t mind showing off. It’s only a rhythm track, not a piece of music, but I don’t feel it’s without points of interest:
The sound source was my new euro-rack modular, but not by itself. I recorded two tracks into Reason, and you’re hearing them both, with compression and echo added by Reason devices. The two tracks basically use the same patch, but with a little tweaking, which included tuning the oscillator down an octave for the second pass. The rhythm comes from a Tiptop Audio Trigger Riot, and the envelope variations are mostly due to a Make Noise Maths, with a little help from a Tiptop z4000 envelope generator. The filter is a WMD Micro Hadron Collider.
One of the hazards of buying a modular synth is that there are too many options. Sometimes a module does more than you expect. Sometimes, after you’ve bought it, you find out you don’t need it.
I know I’m not alone on this merry-go-round. Today, in an offshoot of a conversation I started on the muffwiggler forum, another individual is thinking about purchasing a Make Noise Rene for the third time, having purchased it twice before and then offloaded it.
I’m planning to keep my Rene. It has an annoying habit of ignoring my finger-taps on the pads, because my fingertips are dry, but other than that it’s a winner. A module that you have to lick your fingers in order to program it — for a digital device, which Rene is, that’s definitely an analog front end.
I returned five modules — a couple of basic mixers, the Steady State Fate Propagate gate/trigger delay, the Doepfer A-148 dual sample-and-hold, and a Pittsburgh Modular dual LFO called a Bender. Instead, I’ve ordered … we’ll get to that.
I never knew I could get so exhausted sitting in a chair, but I guess six hours of intense concentration will do that. I’ve been testing and/or exploring my new modular synth. I guess this is my 65th birthday present to myself. There are other ways to look at it, too. I have a friend whose travel plans for the next two years include Machu Picchu and an African photo safari. I don’t travel, so I haven’t spent any more money on my recreational activity than she’s going to spend on hers.
Already I’ve learned a few things, and had a few experiences. Most of what follows will be of marginal interest unless you’re a synthesizer junkie — but hey, it’s my blog. I write about whatever interests me.
First and foremost: In constant, inflation-adjusted dollars, this instrument is both more powerful and less expensive than the 4-panel Serge system I owned 30 years ago. With one exception, which may or may not be significant: There is no euro-rack module comparable to the Serge TKB step sequencer.
I have two sequencers, both made by Make Noise. The Rene is a 16×1 sequencer, but it’s configured as a 4×4 matrix with separate inputs for the X and Y clocks. Oh, and it has a quantized output, in case you like standard scales. I think it has a memory too — I haven’t looked at that yet. The other sequencer combines Read the rest of this entry »
System arrived tonight at supper time. First a cool snapshot — explanations follow.
To answer your first question, yes, there are gaps in the panels. Three or four of the modules that I want were out of stock, so it will be a few weeks before the gaps get filled in.
For those who have just arrived at the party, this is a euro-rack modular synthesizer. Calling it “analog” would be stretching a point; if you squint, you can probably see the four-digit LED on one of the modules. A couple of them have digital brains. But all of the audio and control signals that reach the panel are analog.
Its mission in life is to make funny noises. And here’s my first attempt:
I picked out the modules by reading about them online and downloading manuals. Possibly one or two of them will prove to be bad choices, and will have to be swapped for other items. I know what oscillators do, and filters, and envelope generators. I’m a lot less certain about the Make Noise Maths, but I think it pretty much has to be a keeper.
The black panels at the bottom are a Make Noise Rene on the left, and two Make Noise Pressure Points on the right (with a Brains attached). These are both step sequencers, and they both have touchplate interfaces. The main difference between a system of this sort and a computer-based music machine is precisely that it can be touched.
My next job is to test everything, make sure it’s all working, and where necessary figure out how it’s supposed to work. Should only take a week or two.
My very first synthesizer, back in 1981, was a modular — a four-panel system from Serge Modular. I was enchanted by having a sort of blank canvas on which to configure my own sounds. Besides, the other guys at Keyboard were all buying Prophet-5′s, and I wanted something different.
Then MIDI happened. The Serge sat in its road case while I got into MIDI sequencing using an Atari 1040 ST. (A whole megabyte of RAM! Wow!) Eventually I sold the Serge, which was a mistake, but at the time the road case was functioning as my coffee table, so what was the harm, right?
In recent years, music software has gone through the roof. I’m a big fan of Propellerhead Reason, which in some sense is an enormous modular synth lurking on your hard drive. Reason has a dozen powerful modules, which can be interconnected using on-screen patch cords. As you start buying some of the great new Rack Extensions your module list grows.
I’m also enamored of Csound, which is, again, modular in concept and insanely powerful. Also insanely affordable (as in free, which Reason isn’t). Other musicians swear by Pd, which is also free and powerful.
I dislike getting in wrangles with people on Facebook. Nobody’s mind ever gets changed as a result, and I seldom learn anything worth knowing. Still, these tiny tempests keep getting stirred up. Quite often on the topic of religion, I’ve noticed. Somebody posts something, I point out the fallacies in it, and before you know it we’re strapping on the gloves and stepping into the ring.
I’ve also noticed that those who adopt a religious position in such discussions are, virtually without exception, impervious to logic and not even faintly interested in logical discourse — unless, of course, they can twist the logic into a form that they can pretend justifies the conclusions they have already reached and are determined to defend.
In order to short-circuit the whole cycle of controversy, I thought I’d write a brief statement, to which I can link whenever it’s needed. It may end up being not entirely brief. We’ll see.
Two thousand years ago, slavery was commonly practiced throughout the world. At that time, women had essentially no rights. Divorce was allowed in Rome, but largely unknown elsewhere. Capital punishment was routinely meted out for trivial offenses. Law enforcement agencies routinely used torture. The concept that citizens Read the rest of this entry »
This isn’t a piece of music, it’s just a sketch. But it illustrates something slightly odd that you can do with Reason 7 and a couple of simple Rack Extensions. The CV-8 (from DLD) is a simple device — it accepts up to eight channels of gate and CV signals (pairs of CVs, in fact) and outputs the most recent values. Strap that to three Matrix step sequencers that are playing sequences of different lengths, and you can generate a complex pattern.
Then send the pattern to three different synthesizers, each of which is being processed by a delay line — but delay the CV and gate signals to two of them using Jiggery-Pokery Lolth. Here’s the result:
Do I really need the big, expensive box with all the knobs on it? Or will Csound do the job?
This morning I challenged myself to create something resembling a step sequence that might be produced by an analog modular synth, complete with a few simulations of knob-wiggling. For a first attempt, I don’t think it’s too shabby:
Csound provides both a VCO model and an emulation of a Moog ladder filter, both of which are employed in this clip. While crossfading between a sawtooth and a square wave, I made five other changes, all coordinated from the same crossfade envelope: The filter cutoff drops, the filter resonance increases, the filter/amplitude envelope length shortens, pitch portamento is added, and the attack modulation goes away.
The delay send amount is on a separate envelope, as is the rate of the panning LFO, which starts rapidly and then slows down. Yet another envelope gradually ramps up the center frequency of the bandpass filter in the delay loop, so that what starts as a rather muted delay ends up gliding off into space.
All that could probably have been accomplished in hardware, though I’m not aware of a stereo delay module with filtering in the delay feedback. The changes in the sequence rhythm (there are two of them) might be more difficult in hardware, although I think there are some digital sequencer modules that have storage buffers. The tuning, once again, is pure just intonation, which might not be easy to manage.
Oh, and if you’re a Csounder and want either of these .csd files, drop me an email. I’m happy to share.