Regular readers of this space (all five of you) will be aware that I’m fussy about intonation. And yet, I’ve acquired an analog modular synthesizer. Go figure. Analog synthesis is good at many things, but precise intonation is not one of them.
In order to integrate a computer with the modular synth, I’ve acquired Expert Sleepers ES-3 and ES-6 modules. These nifty devices can talk to a computer via ADAT lightpipe, with a very nice PreSonus 1818VSL interface shuttling the 24-bit audio back and forth.
The computer happens to be running Csound. One of my bright ideas is that I’d like to be able to write a fairly complex step sequencer in Csound (not especially difficult to do) and have it play the modular synth.
The oscillators in a modular system of this type are calibrated, in theory, so that when an incoming voltage rises by 1 volt, the oscillator’s frequency rises by one octave. This is called the 1-volt-per-octave standard. My oscillators have 1v/oct inputs.
The output of the ES-3 has a range of +/- 10 volts, and Csound’s audio signals are defined as having a maximum amplitude of +/- 1.000. From this, it’s easy to see Read the rest of this entry »
I can’t imagine that any of the music tech magazines I write for will want me to review Musyc Pro, so I may as well tip you off to it here. It’s for the iPad, it’s a toy, it makes pretty sound patterns, it’s clever, and it’s at least modestly addictive. Good for an evening or two of entertainment, at least, and a way to amaze your friends. It’s on the App Store.
It’s sort of a user-designable pinball machine. Little circles and squares and triangles bounce around, and when they hit something they play a note. You set up the “rails” and optionally insert a couple of other objects that the bouncing objects will interact with, such as a gravitational attractor. You can choose from a variety of soundsets, or even import your own samples (though I haven’t tried that yet — don’t know if I’ll bother).
A sequencer object can spit out new objects in a regular rhythm or a steady stream. You can attach one object to another with a spring, so that they swing around one another.
The output conforms to some diatonic scale, but you can insert a scale object and give it several different scales. The played notes will switch from one scale to another depending on where the scale object is located as it bounces around.
The output is an irregular flurry of ambient tinkling — a highly programmable iOS wind chime, if you like. There’s even a reverb effect. You can capture the output as a soundfile, or upload it to your Soundcloud account. It’s all very silly, but extremely cute.
After struggling a bit earlier today (see the previous post) with intonation in my modular synth, I felt I should do a few more tests. There’s some good news to report, and some bad news.
Bad news first: The output of the Toppobrillo Quantimator simply doesn’t match the desired 1v/oct input of my analog oscillators across more than an octave or so. Nor does there appear to be a calibration trimpot on the Quantimator’s circuit board. At least, if there is, I haven’t found a document where it’s mentioned. The quantizer for the Make Noise Rene is pretty much the same. Across three octaves, it just doesn’t produce a reliable 8:1 increase in frequency.
The only oscillator in my system that produces perfect octaves is the Mutable Instruments Braids. This is a digital oscillator, and does its own quantizing of the input CV internally. No surprise that it’s perfect; digital audio is all numbers. The Intellijel Cylonix Shapeshifter, on the other hand, is also a digital oscillator — yet it suffers Read the rest of this entry »
Yesterday a friend brought his hurdy-gurdy over to my house and let me play a bit on it. The hurdy-gurdy, for the benefit of those among my readers who don’t attend outdoor strolling Renaissance fairs, is a stringed folk instrument that sounds a bit like bagpipes, though perhaps not as pleasant.
You make sound by turning a crank, which rotates a rosined wheel. The wheel rubs across the strings. One or more of the strings produces a constant drone — a pitch that never changes. Melodies can be played on one or two other strings by pressing keys that force a little wedge up against the string, shortening it. It’s quite a sophisticated concept, if you’re living in the 17th century and don’t have enough money to buy a musical instrument, so you have to build one yourself using scraps of wood you find lying out behind the barn.
Also, it’s portable. You can wear it on a strap around your neck and play it standing on a streetcorner, at which point people will pay you to go away.
Be that as it may, there’s a very long tradition of music in which melodies are played over an unchanging drone. The Indian raga is perhaps the finest example of this. Also, many musical traditions get along perfectly well with a limited set of pitches for melodies. Pianists will cringe, but you don’t actually need 88 keys to play a complete musical idea.
I found myself wondering if I could patch up my modular synthesizer to transform it into an electronic hurdy-gurdy on steroids. This led to several discoveries Read the rest of this entry »
Modular synthesizer hardware is a wonderful thing. I love being able to reach out and grab a knob. I love being able to plug in a cable and hear the results instantly. And some of the newer modules in the euro-rack world are amazing! Even so, there are certain things you might want that no hardware module will do, as far as I’m aware. Other things are available in hardware, but only in relatively primitive form or at considerable expense.
On the other side of the coin, Csound is an immensely powerful music synthesis language. There just about isn’t anything it can’t do sonically. But — no knobs and no patch cords. Making music with Csound is about as spontaneous as cooking breakfast. First you get the eggs out of the refrigerator….
But what if there was a module that would run Csound code? Then you could have both the spontaneity and tactile gratification of hardware and the versatility of software. A new company called QuBit is releasing such a module. It’s called Nebulae. But while I wish them great success, Nebulae is really quite limited in some important ways. It only has one output jack, for instance.
After mulling it over for a week or two, I broke down and ordered the Expert Sleepers ES-3 and ES-6 modules. Also a PreSonus 1818VSL audio interface. Why the combination? Because the ES-3 and ES-6 connect to a computer using ADAT lightpipe cables. The 1818VSL is one of several relatively affordable interfaces that has ADAT connectors. I had to order a pair of cables too; the cost adds up. But I already have a perfectly nice 5-year-old Macbook Pro that runs Csound, and I know how to program Csound.
After a few hours of testing and troubleshooting, I seem to have a stable system. My MacBook is now, functionally, a Read the rest of this entry »
One of the plusses about a euro-rack modular synth is that it’s almost endlessly reconfigurable. That’s also one of the minuses, because reconfiguring can all too easily eat a hole through the bottom of your wallet.
In trying to solve an ergonomic problem, I’ve managed to shine a spotlight on an entirely different problem — namely, this instrument is less than a month old, and already I’m thinking I’ve bought about three modules that I don’t want.
The ergonomic problem had to do with how the modules were arranged in the cases that I’ve bought. Or rather, how the cases themselves were arranged. I found that I was spending too much time with my arms raised, reaching up to patch modules that were as high as my head. This is a guaranteed way to suffer neck and shoulder pain, and the possibility that the vertebrae may not be happy about it is not to be ignored. So I needed to spread the cases (there are four of them) out more horizontally rather than quite so vertically.
In order to do that, I had to rethink which modules went where. This required more than an hour of unscrewing modules from the mounting rails, unplugging and re-plugging power cables (very carefully, so as not to bend the pins), and then Read the rest of this entry »
Maybe a modular synthesizer is never a finished instrument. Some mad scientist can always develop a new module that you just have to add to your system. Nonetheless, I feel I’m making progress. Most of the modules I’ve bought are amazing. Three or four others may end up on the used market.
Most of the gaps have been filled in, and I’m determined not to add any more panel space. I have plenty. Some people would call what I have a large system, but I’ve seen photos of synthesizers (not vintage photos — recent ones) that covered an entire wall. I call it a mid-sized system — 27U x 84hp, numbers that will make sense only to the euro-rack in-crowd.
In case you’re keeping score, here’s a quick summary of three of the more brilliant and useful modules I’ve acquired and am learning to use:
Top honors (this week, anyway) go to Mutable Instruments Braids. Calling Braids a digital oscillator doesn’t even begin to do it justice. It has about three dozen algorithms — FM, physical modeling, analog Read the rest of this entry »
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.
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.