Thursday, September 29, 2016

A Refreshing Change

Made a little change - can you tell what it is? The sharp-eyed among you might have said "Hey, you have a silver-faced Rosie now!"

You are correct! As my friends already know, I'm a complete tweak about certain things, and panel coloring is one of them. When he saw my setup, Wes Milholen of dropped me a line with an offer for a grayscale panel for my black-faced Rosie and I jumped at the option. That had always seemed like a bad anchor to the lower right of my system, and I was hoping it would be as cool as the PEG and Ardcore panels were.

And it is. Love it - thanks, Wes, for keeping our systems clean looking!


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

This Week in Northern Cali

Writing from Dillon Beach, CA, where I'm at a little work retreat with my teammates...

If you get the Cycling '74 newsletter, today you'll be seeing a bigger version of the above image, along with my rave-ola about a Max for Live tool I've started using for quick-hit track creation. But the key to the device - and my excitement about it - is the use of the iPad and the Mira app to control it.

This is a kind of 'modular' that I really like: moving functionality to appropriate devices in order to better serve the artist. Moving this user interface (and, in fact, many interfaces) to something like an iPad makes the system more focused, easier for the audience to appreciate (rather than seeing your head stuck inside a laptop lid) but maintains the full value of your computer/software/plug-in investment. This, control surfaces (like the Maschine, Push 2 and Livid Alias 8 - all of which I currently use) and Arduino-based sensor systems all provide alternative interfaces to your work, and represent one of the exciting futures of modular-based artistry.

Right now, I've been diving back into C++ and writing an extreme looper for my live use - I want something as versatile as the RC-404, but with a little less clown makeup and a few more channels and options. I also want to prevent menu diving - which is at the heart of the 404. So I'm writing the heart of a looper in C++, embedding it into a Max object, then building the interface in Max - and exposing with Mira.

I'm not sure that Max people have paid attention to what's happened with Mira lately. The price was dropped to $10, it now has a wired USB option (for Mac computers) and is a lot more stable. It's been incredibly stable for me, and is going to be Main Interface #1 for my looper system. I'll make sure I do a video as this develops...


Monday, September 19, 2016

Keystep Power Test

So, whenever I get a cool piece of gear that can work standalone - and that can run off of USB power - my first idea is "Oh man, I could just run that off the power on the Synthwerks LAMP-1 module!"

I can hear James from Synthwerks crying from here!

I know I'm not supposed to do this, and I'm sure that I'm risking clouds of locusts and hot hail, but it seems worth a try, right? A few things that I've tried in the past:

- McMillen Qunexus (worked as far as I could tell - the damned stereo output prevented a deep test).
- Arturia BeatStep Pro (did not work - too much amperage draw).
- Monome (it just laughed at me - in that evil Vincent Price laugh).

Since the KeyStep has a lot fewer blingy lights and stuff, I thought it would be worth a try. I wasn't too hopeful, though - the back has a plug for a 9VDC, .5 Amp input. If it actually needs .5/9V, it wasn't going to be happy with the output of the LAMP-1.

And it wasn't. In testing everything, I was able to get note and modulation CV voltages out, but the gate didn't produce enough of a voltage bump to wake up my Intellijel Dual ADSR or my Maths. Further testing, which included running the gate through the CV Tools (so I could buffer, amp-up and monitor the voltage) proved that I couldn't get anything decent even through that combo.

Now, there's nothing saying I couldn't just use a USB-power wart for this purpose. In fact, for you, I tried that as well. I grabbed the first crappy USB-wart I could find (this one was from some P.O.S. Asus Android tablet that I had, or maybe it was from an old Kindle), plugged it in, and everything worked perfectly: good CV and Mod voltage, good gates firing up any and all envelopes. Everything (including the sequencer and arp) worked fine, and I dropped a bit of time having fun with that.

In fact, the Keystep is just that: a fantastic sink-hole of fun. My word to you...


Thursday, September 15, 2016

Finding a Good Poly Pairing

So, as I'm reworking the writing/performing rig, I've got some decisions to make. Probably the most difficult for me is the selection of a polysynth. I'd love to have a hardware poly, but I just don't have the cash right now; instead, I need to choose from among the plug-ins that I currently have in my library.

My first thought was to focus on the Korg Legacy Polysix. The Polysix (which, IRL, is my favorite keyboard in history) works pretty well, but I find it incredibly unfulfilling. Why? I have no freakin' idea. For some reason, the UI makes me avoid making my own presets, and it's no fun to twiddle in real time. It also has That Virtual Analog Sound - a little hollow, not quite loose enough - in a way that doesn't work for me. So... not that.

The other obvious one is Madrona Labs' Aalto. I love this synth; for me, it is the Buchla that I want without having to write a check to Fake Buchla Inc. And it poly's up OK - a little heavy on the overhead, but generally worth it. It's also fun to program (although a touch small for live tweaking). If I have pause about it, it is that sometimes the patches are a little overwhelming, so a 4-voice chord can make All The Noise. So this is one that I'll use, but I also have to craft the right patches for the gig.

Next up on the checklist is Absynth, but I'm having problems buying in. Not sure why, because I've been using Absynth for as long as it's been around. Maybe I'm just exhausted with "the same ol'" and need something new - which reminds me...

I did a review of the Arturia recreation of the Synclavier, and that gives me some of the poly movement that I normally get from Absynth, but a different perspective (and programming interface) to spice things up. Maybe this is the tool-of-choice. Gonna give it a try, anyway.

So there you go - stream of consciousness decision-making right in front of you, but now I've got a plan. Aalto with some careful patch development, and Arturia Synclav for wash-y move-y stuff. Let's see how it goes!


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Maschine has the Driver's Wheel (ATM)

Started playing around with a different setup - one that would allow me to change up my play environment from my work environment. I ended up pairing my Maschine (v1) on a Windows box with my modular, and am in the process of adding a few select plug-ins to the Maschine setup to round things out (mainly, a few effects and a polysynth or two).

The first thing I had to do was to make a group/sound for the modular to be sequence by - and to be mixed into - the Maschine workflow. This was pretty basic; I just had to make a sound that did MIDI out and audio in, then set up a keyboard layout to suit. Works fine, and the new arpeggiators and scale modes are quite easy to use.

But I really depend on one thing in Live that isn't available with Maschine: a tuner. I could use that hardware tuner I wired up a few months ago, but it would be nice if it was built into the system. Luckily, I ran across the MeldaProduction MTuner plug-in. It is part of their MFreeEffectsBundle, and was easy enough to drop into the machine (and not necessarily install a bunch of other goop). Pairing this into the user preset for my modular sound/group and I am set.

Similar to my experience working with the Push and Push 2 devices, I have a tendency to write things completely different than I do with a keyboard. Loads of fun, and a neat jumble-up of my system.


Thursday, September 8, 2016

Doepfer A-185-2 Breakdown

Tom Hall put a comment into a previous post about the Doepfer A-185-2 module, and reminded me that I’ve really wanted to talk about what an exceptional and useful module it could be for almost anyone, but especially someone that is focused on maintaining 1 V/Oct pitch scaling even when you are heavily modulating the pitch. It’s called a “Precision CV Added”, which is pretty clear labeling: it adds CV voltages, but maintains a strict throughput of 1 V/Oct scaling.

Prior to getting this module, I tried modulating using smaller and/or ‘cooler’ modules such as the Intellijel Unity Mixer, my Synovatron CV Tools and a variety of other mixers. If the mixers didn’t have any gain (Unity, Manhattan), the pitch CV would lag – and octaves weren’t matching up. Mixers with gain could scale up to suit, but were almost impossible to tune correctly – it’s really hard to tune scaling. Then I stumbled on the A-185-2 and haven’t gone without at least one ever since then.

Here are some things you can do:

  • Precision mixing: This is the core duty of the 185. You put in your 1 V/Oct pitch voltage (from a MIDI-to-CV converter or sequencer), then add other voltages that will be used to create exponential pitch modulations. LFO’s, other oscillators, envelopes, slews – you can spend months trying every voltage in your system as a pitch modulation. Huge fun!
  • Attenuated precision mixing: Put your primary pitch voltage into any input other than the top one. Then put a modulation into the top voltage and use the attenuator to set the modulation amount. This control is a simple attenuator for the top-most input, but it really handy for FM and vibrato effects.
  • Pitch and Modulation Inversion: The switch on each input allows you to turn on (left), turn off (center) or invert (left) the input’s effect on the mix. You can do some rather insane stuff, including keyboard inversion (invert the pitch input), more complex mixing (invert some envelopes for dipped modulation) and performance-time on/off switching. But the inversion is something that takes practice before you fall in love.
  • Octave switching: A secret addition to this module is the fact that 1V voltage is normalled to each input. This means that any inputs that don’t have voltages coming in can be used to add (+ switched) or subtract (- switched) and octave from the main CV input. Since there are multiple CV inputs, you can actually add/subtract up to 3 octaves in addition to the standard voltage input.
  • Arbitrary pitch shifting: That top-most input channel is really special; not only does it normal to 1V input, but that 1V value runs through the attenuator. So you can set this channel to go down a fifth (7 semitones) to create more interesting pitch sequencing. Now, if you have this set up to a fifth, and use one of the other channels for octave switching, you can go [- octave], [- fifth], [unshifted], [+ fourth], [+ octave]. Put in a simple sequence, but actively switch between these options and you’ll find a real nice location for live performance.
  • Buffered multiple: Whatever is created from the precision mix is sent out all three outputs – and these are buffered. So you can use them for oscillator inputs and never get any pitch sag.
  • Output flip: There is also an inverted output, which may seem a little silly – except that some functions (like FM routing) can actually benefit from inverted output. I see so few people trying inverted modulation – and this dedicated output is actually a good reminder to keep trying it out!

Hopefully this gives you a reason to give this module a try. Totally worth the $99 you’ll have to spend to get one into your system.


Recording Magazine Review - Softube Console 1

Recording Magazine, September 2016

Just a heads up: The latest issue of Recording Magazine has my review of the Softube Console 1; I took it for a very long drive and wrote up my experience for the folks in Boulder. No spoilers here, but a quick spin through the mag (available at B&N and other magazine retailers) will give you the gist.

BTW, you should support these music magazines! A subscription costs less than a pack of cheap patch cables. And after all is said and done, if you are playing your modular but not recording it, did it actually make a sound?


Thursday, September 1, 2016

Where I'm at - and why...

So here's a current Modular Grid image of my Tiptop Station 252 rig:

I've ended up making a few rather interesting decision in constructing this thing, and I thought it would be useful to go through some of the thinking about it, row-by-row:

Row 1: The Intellijel Row

  • I used to think it was sort of funny that so many people build up system from one manufacturer's modules - until I build a few mix-and-match systems. Not always great. You get used to one modulation curve or tuning 'throw', and everything else starts to feel wrong. And one of things I'm getting from this system is how important feel is. So yeah, a row made mostly of Intellijel bits.
  • The non-Intellijel stuff are the following: The LAMP-1 (which is too cool for working in the late evening), Analogue Solutions SH-NZ sample and hold noise (which has a crazy quirk I've come to depend upon) and the Div6 Filtare SEIII, which has become one of my favorite filters.
  • I used to have a Dixie II+ in here, but I couldn't stand the switches. Octave switches work on a 5U oscillator, but somehow seem completely wrong in Eurorack. That, plus the fact that my Dixie II oscillators do a lot of duty as LFOs, means that the non-plus version hit the sweet spot for me.
  • The Rubicon oscillator is sort of my midnight playground right now. Half of it is (seemingly) unknowable, and the other half just works properly. This is a lot of real estate to hand over for a single oscillator, but that through-zero FM really does have a unique sound.
  • I've got a uMod in there right now, but I'm tempted to put the uFold back in there. Or maybe the uFade and something else. But there is a lot of depth to the uMod that I've not dug into yet, so maybe I keep it around for future exploration.
  • I tried a Polaris filter in this row, but I thought it sounded horrible. I'm sure I'll get beat up for saying this, but...  Intellijel is fantastic at making oscillators, VCA's, envelopes, and everything else, but I have never liked their filters. Not a one. The Filtare fits into this system so perfectly that I couldn't begin to consider anything else right now.
  • I know that the ADSR envelopes make this a little east-coasty, but I don't have to use 'em, and the Maths is right underneith, and it's nice to have ADSR's sometimes (for - sigh - techno night in my basement).
  • The uVCA is the best VCA anyone has made, hands-down. That's one I'd get in a fistfight over.

Row 2: The Make Noise Row

  • And this is what most people think of when they think "I'm gonna get me a modular system." But maybe there's a good reason for this - like the fact that it really does kick ass? The only non-MN stuff in this row is the Ijel multiple and an O'Tool scope module. The multiple is part of my Master Layout Plan (I like it when the cables do sort of an X pattern on the face of the modular), and the scope is the most important playing live tool in my toolbox - when it is hard to hear, I can get an idea of what is going on by watching the scope, and when it isn't making any sound, I can figure things out by scoping parts of the patches. That scope has bailed me out during dozens of gigs.
  • I know I crapped on the MMG in an earlier post. For most cases, I maintain that stance. However, following a DPO, it just sounds right. And the loose-ish knobs that MN uses really make for some excellent performance-twiddling.
  • The Moddemix is another reason I might drop the uMod in the row above. It really does sound great as a ring mod/AM module.
  • I think that I could work with a modular made completely of Maths modules. I love that thing more than I can tell. The ultimate do-everything module that actually makes you want to do everything, it is like have a Swiss Army Knife that was actually a best-in-class knife, best-in-class bottle opener and BIC fish hook remover. It defines awesome for me.
  • The DPO is such a great thing, but I hate tuning it - and keeping it in tune. Using those leetle trimmers for fine tuning (over an octave!) is not my idea of fun. I seldom do melodics on the DPO because of this.

Row 3: Soup-to-Nuts

  • This is the row where I put stuff that I neeeeeeed. The Yarns is the best possible MIDI interface for me. Love it! And the Rosie is the best outbound level+mixer combo I've used. In the middle are a bunch of gotta-haves: the A-185-2, which lets me do groovy pitch modulation without losing my 1v/Oct scaling. The Synovatron for control mixing, and the ArdCore with my custom quantizer/recorder/looper patch - I've gotta have it for live performance. The 4ms PEG is the anchor piece here, and something I use in almost every patch.
  • I didn't mention the AD Dub Jr. delay. I've got issue with those guys - a hurt-ass thing from over a decade ago. Nevertheless, this is the delay that features voltage inputs where I need 'em, so I'm gonna use it.
  • I had to use the Gray Scale panel for the PEG. I tried not doing it, but the clown colors really got under my skin. Believe me, it's hard enough having a black panel for that Rosie; I'm not putting up with blue and red! I like my Eurorack silver, my 5U black and my steaks medium well...
  • Similar with the faceplate of the Ardcore.
  • Why waste so much space with the CV Tools? I've tried, believe me. I've replaced it with an Invy several times - but the way that this thing is laid out, combined with the exceptionally clear and accurate LED metering, caused me to come running back every time I tried replacing it. So it stays.
  • The ArdCore expander may have to go, because I've got a Monome module that I'm dying to mount permanently in the modular. Right now it gets swapped in as-needed, and I really depend on the expander giving me clear status on the complexity of the sequence that I've recorded into the ArdCore. So I don't know - I'm going to have to sleep on this for another 6 months. Maybe I should get one of those little cases for my Monome set...?
So that's the verbalization of some of my choices. Think I'm crazy? Stupid? Due for a beatin'? Drop me an email or leave a comment!