Kind of Blue

A couple of months ago I got myself in some trouble — got some people mad at me. I had initially agreed to write the manual for a Buchla synthesizer (the “affordable” $15,000 Skylab system) in exchange for getting to keep the hardware. The job became less attractive to me when I realized I already had a far more capable modular synth on my hard drive, at a cost of $0.

Namely, Csound.

Not to rehash that series of events at this late date; the point is, I regret the way it went down not only because I hurt some people’s feelings (including, I’m sure, Don’s) but also because I kind of enjoy writing manuals. I had previously written a book on Csound (Csound Power, available on Amazon), which is not quite a manual — more an introduction to the software. Csound also has a swell online manual on the Floss site, plus a fat book edited by Richard Boulanger and the bundled HTML docs. There’s no shortage of information on how to use it.

This week I’m kicking around a few ideas about what I might want to do indoors during the winter months. As it turns out, Steven Yi is about to release a new version of blue, his amazing front end for Csound. blue is also a free download. Steven is updating the manual prior to the release — turning it into a wiki and documenting the new functionality. But to my knowledge, nobody but Steven has written anything about how to use blue. And that’s kind of a shame. You have to learn Csound before you can really expect to get anything out of blue, but once you’re up and running, blue makes it relatively easy to do complex things that Csound does only grudgingly. Word is, he may release the software before the updated manual is ready, so there will be an information gap.

I also have the impression that Andres Cabrera is about to release version 0.7 of CsoundQt. This is one of the things I love about the Csound community — active software development, on a number of fronts. (Remind me to tell you about Cabbage sometime.) Whether he will update the documentation, which pretty much stopped at version 0.4, I don’t yet know.

Not only is there likely to be a need for third-party documentation of blue, there’s also a fairly shocking paucity of Csound-related tutorial videos on YouTube. Andres has done some good CsoundQt videos, but Csound itself is sort of in a video dead zone. One individual has, to be sure, done a series of Csound video tutorials, but he neglected to zoom the screen in far enough that you can read the code he’s typing. That’s a pretty basic requirement, or so one would think. (He also misused the term “additive synthesis.”) Steven did a video demo of BlueLive, but … well, I couldn’t make heads or tails of the video.

I’m just thinking out loud here, but it appears I may have spotted a genuine need for the utilization of my alleged skill set.

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3 Responses to Kind of Blue

  1. Andrew Schlesinger says:

    I know your work from the beginning of time, your reviews on Keyboard all the way back. You clearly have a grasp an command of music technology and a long history of working with an extraordinary plethora of tools both hardware and software.

    What I find odd is how out of sync you seem to be in regards to analog modular synthesizers….buchla, serge, euro etc and the reason these are so enticing, refreshing and satisfying to so many who are involved with electronic music.

    Having been around the block as well from the early 70’s and both witnessed and been directly involved in the evolution of our tools for making music it seems to me that you have, or have a developed a specific perspective, one that discounts a few key and fundamental factors that differentiate something like the Buchla 200e, Serge Modular or even the Moog Little Phatty from the behemoth software platforms like CSound, Reactor or even Reason for that matter.

    Firstly, NOT having the abilityt to do everything under the sun and working with the inherent restrictions of a closed system can be a wonderful thing. It forces you to think differently and push th boundaries of what is capable from the “instrument” as opposed to having and endless array of possibilities. This can be an extremely creative, enjoyable, and rewarding process.

    It is virtually impossible to become truly intimate with most of not all of the comput based systems specifically because they are so endless and this can be frustrating as well as wonderfully exciting. Did anyone ever say to Jimi Hendrix…”Man, you need a Les Paul, Rickebacker, Gretch, Epiphone and SG if you REALLY want to make great music…you’d have SO many more options!!!” No, the dude got way deep into the Strat and took it places nobody else had or maybe has since (debatable).

    Let’s forget a moment that both the Sege and Buchla cost a LOT of money…which may o the surface seem like a lot but if you consider the size of the operation, the quality and uniqueness of the hardware ( and software with the buchla ) they are not so whacked out. What do you think an iPhone would cost if it was made in the US instead of China? However that is not as material as what these systems offer in opposition to a computer and CSound, Reactor etc….both of which I tried and gave up on as I don’t want to be a computer programmer to make ” sounds and music”.

    Software is removed, distant and inn many ways soulless….always waiting for the next version and upgrade. They ARE amazing sound tools but they a so fundamentally different than a modular synth I don’t think a comparison makes sense….not in this context.

    The immediacy, interaction, tactile feedback, variations, explorations with a modular are so much more satisfying ( to me ) tan any software I have used. I don’t have a buchla 200e ( will soon ) but do have a two panel Serge and have used that “instrument” ( important distinction ) for years. Now, is have ZERO interest in making tonal music, dub step, rave, new age, jazz, rock or anything that resembles tonal. I am into “sound exploration” and MAKING the patch to make the sound to me is part an parcel of the musical exploration and composition.

    I’d go so far as to say ” the patch is the music”…. It is an art and if you don’t know what you aree doing you will be as easily frustrated as I likely am with Reactor. However, the sonic territory that I can cover with even my small Serge is incredibly vast, evolving and in many ways “alive”. I work on a pitch sometimes for weeks and then just sit there and listen as it folds, undulates, squelches and morphs into itself. I LOVE IT….others would think it sounds like a broken blender trying to have sex with a vacuume cleaner running backwards inside a trash compactor. That is my approach but I have also heard some astonishing tonal works done with these systems as well…..too each his own.

    The bottom line is that the comparison you made ( in my mind ) is not one that is really apples to apples….it’s more like…hmmm…being in a flight simulator that allows you to defy gravity and go at any speed and flying an airplane….both can be thrilling in their own way but one forces you to work within a set of constraints but povides a tactile immediacy that the other does not.

    When it comes to buchla you are talking about a whole unique way of looking at making sound and music….he’s always had a unique approach that is different and designed to send you into a certain path. I fell in love with synthesizers when I heard both the solo in Lucky Man and Touch from Morton Subotnic…..opposite ends of the spectrum in approach to sound and resulting music.

    Based on your response to the Skylab I think we can chalk it up to a badly arranged marriage. You had certain preconceived ideas and an approach that once you turned on the light did not jive with what you hoped or expected….something like that.

    I troll most of the sites for music technology of all kinds and the fact that there ARE free tools like CSound or Reactor enables many who otherwise could not afford the price of admission to explore sonic territories that they could not have. Just like Garage Band empowers people to make great ( or awful ) music but still, bands go to studios and even seek out “old school” studios BEACUSE they inherently have restrictions and force a certain approach. I think Sgt. Pepper would have been a very different album if 16 track machines were available but nobody can refute the brilliance of the output from what they had to work with…to this day.

    Bottom line is nobody forces someone to spend the (stupid?) kind of money a buchla 200e costs and most i think that buy know why they are doing so. Based on my observations I think a very high percentage would say they think the investment is worth what they get in return.

    It’s just not for everybody and I can see why you did not sync with it. Not sure of the all means anything and I have no skin in the game….just felt like hearing myself talk I guess.


    Andrew Schlesinger/ Synthetic Productions

    • midiguru says:

      Andrew, I appreciate your sharing your views. I remember and respect your work, going clear back to your presets for the CZ.

      I’d like to summarize the points you’re making, so as to address them in a somewhat coherent manner. (1) Working within the limitations of a closed system can inspire creativity. (2) Computer-based synthesis systems are so complex that they’re almost impossible to “become intimate” with. (3) Don’t think about the expense. (4) Software is soulless. (5) Software modular synthesizers are so different from hardware modular synthesizers that the two shouldn’t be compared. (6) Hardware systems provide tactile feedback and instant interaction. (7) Sound design is an art unto itself. (8) A Buchla system is a particular (non-generalized) instrument. (9) Some musicians seek out “old school” gear because its restrictions enforce a desired approach to music-making. (10) Most people who buy a Buchla system know what they’re getting (or rather, and this is not at all the same thing, they know why they’re buying it).

      I may have skipped over something, but I think those are the main points. Taking them in order….

      (1) True, absolutely. Having too many options can lead to creative paralysis. There are, I’m sure, inspired bagpipe players and inspired conga players. Most hand percussionists, however, seem constantly to be on the lookout for new instruments; those who play ONLY the congas may be in the minority. And the number of truly inspired bagpipe players is probably very small. Conversely, if you have a fairly open-ended system such as Csound at your disposal, nothing prohibits you from setting up artificial limits so as to inspire yourself. You can make an entire piece using nothing but sine waves, if that seems like an interesting limitation. If it does prove interesting, you can make five more pieces using the same limitation. This, to my way of thinking, is preferable to having a locked-down system in which you’re going to be working with the same limitations every time, whether or not you’re happy with them today.

      (2) A computer-based synthesis system is inherently no more difficult to become proficient with than, say, a violin or a cello. Years of patient, dedicated work will be needed. I guess I don’t see that as a problem.

      (3) Having written several hundred product reviews over the years, I’m always conscious of the relative costs of various music-making gear. I think most product reviewers would agree that a system that does significantly more and costs significantly less is, generally speaking, preferable.

      (4) The argument that software is soulless is amusing, because exactly the same criticism was made, forty years ago, of hardware analog synthesizers. Today we value their “warm organic sound.” Forty years ago they were reviled for sounding cold and soulless. It’s true that writing a line of code is a more abstract procedure than plugging in a patch cord — or is it? In both cases, you’re doing something with your fingers. The main difference, as far as I can see, is that you don’t have to know what you’re doing to plug in a patch cord. Ignorance is not quite as likely to lead to bad results, and may even lead to unexpected good results. When writing a line of code, the intellect must be engaged. I guess that might be a problem for some musicians; I will refrain from commenting.

      (5) I don’t think the idea that the two systems are so different as not to be comparable is a valid position to take. Musicians routinely compare very different systems, with an eye solely to the functionality they will get. A hardware modular is limited in so many ways (a fixed number of oscillators, for example) that it’s absurd to suggest it shouldn’t be compared to a system that doesn’t suffer from those limitations. In addition, a Buchla modular system is to a considerable extent digital, not analog. Don himself takes the view that it doesn’t matter whether an instrument is digital or analog, and I’m pretty sure he’s right. So really we’re just talking about the user interface, not the guts of the machine. Or rather, we’re also talking about how the digital guts of the machine have been implemented. God knows, Csound always has a few bugs lurking here and there, but they’re around the fringes, not in the core functionality — and they do get fixed! There’s an active crew of developers, which is certainly larger than the software development staff at Buchla. In addition, Csound will remain functional when running on newer, faster processors. With a Buchla system, the processors will never be upgraded.

      (6) You’re absolutely right that hardware systems are superior with respect to tactile feedback and instant interaction. I wouldn’t dream of disputing this point. It is technically possible to assign MIDI sliders to sound parameters in a software-based system, but this is more complex to set up and doesn’t provide at all the same level of tactile interaction. Nor do you get the nice blinky lights — although there are fringe systems, such as touchOSC on the iPad, that do let you set up blinky lights.

      (7) Again, you’re right. Sound design is an art. And Csound excels at it. Personally, I have come to feel that music that lacks the concept of notes is inferior to music that uses notes. But that’s a topic for another time.

      (8) A Buchla system is a particular musical instrument, not a generalized system — that’s true. It’s true of ANY musical instrument. A piano is not a clarinet. Each is suited to different musical tasks: If you want to play chords, don’t take up the clarinet! I don’t deny for a moment that a Buchla system is the right choice for some musicians. My concerns are with the relationship between the cost and the broad profile of the instrument as a whole.

      (9) I’m not a devotee of vintage gear. I’m aware that some musicians swear by the sound of the SSL console, the Stradivarius, or whatever. I personally could care less. A basic level of functionality is necessary — I wouldn’t want to be restricted to mono recording as opposed to stereo, for instance, and I wouldn’t want to have to record 8-bit audio. Once that base level of functionality is reached, however, what interests me is the music — the notes that are being played.

      (10) If someone knows what to expect when they buy a Buchla system, that’s terrific, and I’m sure they’ll be very happy with it. It must be noted, however, that access to this type of instrument for purposes of exploration and consideration is very limited. Unless you’ve studied at a university that has a Buchla, I would hazard a guess that you’ll probably buy it based entirely on its reputation, not on the basis of any hands-on time with one. That being the case, a discussion of its less than obvious limitations is not unwarranted. In addition to the lack of tuning resolution in the oscillators, the standard Skylab system has no general-purpose voltage attenuators or inverters. This fact is of enormous significance musically, and it’s not obvious when you look at the spec sheet. You have to puzzle it out for yourself. The lack of tuning resolution leads to some odd artifacts, such as the tendency of a CV input for oscillator pitch to jitter between two adjacent values. Analog synthesizers (such as the Serge) don’t have this problem. If these facts don’t concern you, then fine — by all means, buy a Buchla! My job as an independent product expert is simply to give people access to information. What they do with the information is entirely up to them.

      In conclusion, let me add that I like the sound of the Skylab very much. But then, I like the sound of Csound too. Once a certain level of sound quality is reached, my main concern, both as a musician and as a person who writes about gear, is with functionality.

  2. Andrew Schlesinger says:


    I had to laugh as some of the references you made I actually took out….clairnette vs a piano etc. Your points are all valid and there is of course room for many points of view.

    I hope that nobody buys a buchla without some experience with modulars or checking them out in some way ( spending the money to fly see one is minimal in comparison to making a $15,000 mistake ).

    I indeed do think there is a difference between writing a line of code and grabbing a patch cord, turning a knob and the immediate feedback. In fact after years of being a keyboard/ synth player I took up the guitar specifically to play an instrument that gives me even more immediate response to touch. I completely suck but I have a LOT of fun and have found that a more expensive guitar does play and sound different… MUCH different depends on your level and ability to notice the small nuance and how important it is to you or how capable you are of extracting the difference. Guitar players don’t normally seek out expensive guitars because they are expensive…they do so because they are usually “better” instruments.

    For me, i think iit comes down to a combinations of: intention, type of approach, need, desireed results and of course cost.

    I have, like you used, tried, owned and played with many, many systems. I used to write some obscure SIG files for Eventide to get the DSP 4600 to make some lags that were not available. Sometimes it was worth the effort, others not.

    The Skylab and the 200e in general does indeed have one major missing piece which you accurately pointed out… attenuation. A problem it’s pretty much every modular. Jim Mitchmerheisen (sic) who wrote the ARP 2600 Owners Manual was known to say “”You can NEVER have too many attenuators!!!”

    But I digress. It do believe the Buchla cannot/will not provide some functionality that is clearly fundementally important to you and thus at the price it seems kinda stupid…understandbly so. But to others (me) these are not an issue.

    As stated I have the Serge and after 20 years of owning a small system I STILL find new things every time I turn it on and it has some very signficant missing pieces that frustrate the hell out of me. BUT….I have yet to find any software/ hardware combination that provides to immediacy of “thought to action” and multiple changes happening concurrently.

    My need at an intrinsic level is to have that immediacy and my gaol for the resulting output is zero…meaning I have no preconceived intention of what I WANT when I use the Serge. In fact what I want is random, weird, unexpected, strange results….chance/music and sound without desied results.

    You should check out an iPad app call Jasuto. It is something that has come close for me to a modular though setting the parameters is a bit obtuse. But the interaction and variability are quite amazing…and the iPad finger control makes it tactile.

    In closing, I think that the Skylab is one expensive erector set for sound and “personally” I old choose a very different set of modules for a 10 module system. I have to say, that with all the modulars, synths, effect boxes and gear that I have touchd and used in over 35 years there is STILL something about the Buchla ascetic that sets it apart from an ergonomic/interface and sound perspective.

    It is not something I can put my finger on, but it is very different from the Serge and for me, personally, one of the most attractive “instruments” ever. I grok it and I know what I can would do with it. Crazy expensive….no doubt…but for me ( in my own configuration ) I absolutely know it will be worth every penny in what I will get out of it.

    Again, based on your needs, approach, and comparatives it clear is not the right tool for you and that is cool. I still think that the comparison between cSound or any other platform and the 200e is a little…..weird….or strange. Somehow, at least in my mind I would not be making a comparison. serge to buchla to euro to modcan to wiard to make noise to Macbeth….maybe yes. CSound to Reactor to Max to (?) yes as well.

    The truly great thing is that there seems to be a dog for every bone in the yard and hopefully everyone can find something that taste good regardless of the budget. All good by me! 🙂

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