Music & Synthesisers

Jam of the day: Not your dad’s vocoder

The Mutable Instruments Clouds is one of the most popular Eurorack modules ever. It was intended to be a “texture synthesiser”, an instrument which uses granular synthesis in order to extract a texture from an incoming signal.

Granular synthesis is just the “default” mode, however. There’s other ways of extracting texture from sounds and sure enough, buried on secret firmware number 4 is a happy little phase vocoder! Rather than explaining how it does what it does, take my word for it that it can smear any dynamic sound into a static timbre using complicated maths which gives engineering students lifelong PTSD. I was using this trick to create drones back in 1999 by “misusing” the noise removal feature of Cool Edit Pro.

Anyway – sound goes in, drones or whooshes or wibbly noises or crackles come out. Here’s what it sounds like.

There is no actual synthesiser in this recording aside from Clouds – I played a D5 chord in on the electric mandola (2200 if anyone’s keeping score) and froze the timbre in place to create the drone. Then I played in some other notes live over the top. Add a bit of delay to smooth it out and that’s all there is to it!

Despite its popularity, the designer of Clouds discontinued it earlier this month, citing disappointment that “feedback and reverb got stuck to the maximum setting, resulting in a never-decaying smudgy howl of hype”. This is part of the reason I avoided it for so long, because I didn’t want to.

Patch of the day: Wire speaks to wire

Reverb is an electronic effect which gives any sound signal the illusion of reverberation. Spring reverb does it by electromechanically vibrating one end of a set of springs in a tank, then recording the vibrating strings to create a pleasantly “wet” metallic ringing.

Behold my happy little Belton spring reverb tank, ready to be patted soothingly.

This short ambient piece was made using a spring reverb effect, but it’s not actually reverberating anything except itself. I sent its output back into the input to create a feedback loop. This made the springs ring uncontrollably after a few seconds, but I can mute the springs with my fingers to quieten them down.

There’s been a bit of reverb and delay added afterwards to space it up a bit. 🙂

Jam of the day: Brainburner (excerpt)

 

This is a jam for anyone who enjoyed the harder house tracks like Rollin’ and Scratchin’ or Rock’n Roll on Daft Punk’s album Homework. It’s a spiky glitchy drone with some nice polyrhythmic percussion and that’s it – maybe not everyone’s cup of tea but I like it. 🙂

Tech notes

I used two of my new modules for this! The Music Thing Modular Pulses mk 2 is outputting a randomly generated six note rhythm tapped at two points for the clap and the hi-hat. The modulation state of the drone is being sample-and-holded in sync with a Euclidean rhythm out of the Little Nerd. The drone is feeding into the Voltage Control Lab VCF-74 Mk 1 where it’s being frequency modulated; that’s fed into a Ladik Waveform Animator then on to the Eowave Fluctuations Magnetiques filter bank through a parallel low-pass and band-pass filter.

The drone is just sitting at one steady note. So why does it sound so lively? The experiment was to see what would happen if I put a pulse wave through a low pass filter and then put that through the waveform animator. The animator only works on waves with gradual transitions which means a pulse wave goes in and out unchanged, but a low pass filter can introduce those transitions into the pulse wave by filtering the sharper frequencies away to make it transition more like a sine wave. The texture of the drone comes from crazy chaotic interactions between the filter frequency modulation, the waveform animator and the pulsewidth of the original oscillator.

Patch of the day – Augmented vocoder

 

I got an Expert Sleepers Disting Mk 4 module on Friday. It is Eurorack’s designated swiss army chainsaw. Amongst its 76 modes, it can be a vocoder. I took it for a spin with a John Cage lecture as the modulator signal on Friday evening and the above is what came out.

Analogue and analogue-style vocoders are a system of band-pass filters, envelope followers and amplification. Two signals enter the vocoder: a carrier signal which supplies the timbre of the output sound, and a modulator signal which supplies frequency and amplitude information.

A bank of band-pass filters cut each signal into strips of frequency (think bass and treble, but much more precise). The vocoder tracks how loud the modulator signal is at each strip, then adjusts the volume of the carrier’s strips to follow the modulator’s strips. The carrier’s strips are combined back together as a whole signal and out comes Cylons.

One of the challenges with vocoders is getting output that’s as intelligible as the input. The intelligibility of the Mk 4’s vocoder was not great, so I mixed in a filtered version of the original speech. The filter is tuned to sibilant sounds (like s, f and th) which were getting lost in the vocoder process. It’s an old trick – the EMS Vocoder used for the Cylons has a cleverer version which lets sibilance through as it’s required – but a dumb version works in a pinch and as a result you can understand Mr Cage just fine.

For further fun, I’m modulating the pitch of the carrier signal with a random signal. This makes Mr Cage sound much more floaty than usual as the carrier floats up and down in pitch, giving him a rather more vague delivery.

Patch of the day: They interrupt ladies and gentlemen

Have some sound art.

The original sample is a snatch of the Mercury Theater’s infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast, looped to twist its meaning. The chief glitch mangler effect here is a PT2399 digital delay chip living inside the Befaco Crush Delay v2. Its delay length is being automatically modulated by four stacked modulation sources – two random, two cyclic – via a Befaco A*B+C attenuverter/offsetter. The strength & offset of the delay modulation and feedback strength of the delay were manually manipulated during the recording.

tl;dr = it’s like autechre but funnier

Sample source from http://mercurytheatre.info/

Patch of the day – frequency splatter

Finally took delivery of a Synthesis Technology E560 Deflector Shield today! This first patch tweaks the speed of the frequency shift in reaction to the volume of John Cage‘s speech. The louder John Cage speaks, the more bubbly and swirly he sounds. Sounds wicked sci-fi in headphones. 🙂

Patch of the day: Space drips

It’s rainy here so I made some cosmic trickling noises.

I start with a clock signal. That clock signal goes into a random shift register which spits out a different new voltage every time the clock ticks. The voltage goes into a voltage-controlled filter with its resonance control set high so it’ll ring if it stays on one voltage for more than a fraction of a second.

The bandpass output of that filter goes into the aux path of a (crunchy) digital delay – this means there’s feedback path between the delay and the filter which “remembers” what noise the filter was just making and feeds it back to the filter as an input. This creates a subtle fade effect from one “drip” to the next.

Enjoy! 🙂

Introducing DASYRAC!

What’s a DASYRAC then?

DASYRAC is my voltage-controlled Eurorack modular synthesiser. It’s a synthesiser because it creates positive and negative voltages which turn into vaguely musical positive and negative sound waves when they’re sent through a speaker coil. It’s modular because it’s built up from modules and instruments which each have a specific role to perform in the process of synthesis. It’s Eurorack because the modules use Doepfer’s Eurorack specfications for size (3U) and voltage (+/- 12V & +5V supply rails, plus gate and pitch CV buses which only Doepfer’s modules seem to use).

Finally, it’s voltage-controlled because the modules are connected by patch cable and signal one another using voltages. Signal types include:

  • triggers – a very short pip of steady positive voltage used trigger a modulation source or function generator, reset a sequence, etc
  • clocks – a series of short triggers used for timing, usually evenly spaced
  • gates – a sustained steady positive voltage which is held “high” for the length of a note or other event
  • modulation – a non-steady voltage which is used to control module functions
  • pitch – a voltage which is used to represent the pitch of a note, where one volt corresponds to one octave (1v/oc); usually steady, but not always
  • audio – a varying voltage which rapidly swings positive and negative and is intended to be heard at some point

Because they’re all made of the same stuff (flowing electrons), these signals can play one another’s roles – audio and gate signals can both be a modulation source, sufficiently fast clocks can be an audio source, audio can also be a clock source, pitch can be a modulation source, modulation can be a pitch source, and triggers can even be an audio source as long as you’re into snaps and clicks. Part of the fun of modular synthesisers is just seeing what happens when you connect modules together in unconventional ways.

Here’s a recent photo of a cable-free DASYRAC with colour-coding to show what the different modules do. If a module has more than one function, it gets more than one colour.

A rainbow of possibilities!

The multicoloured thing at the bottom left is a Make Noise 0-Coast synthesiser – it’s not a Eurorack module itself, but it can patch into and out of DASYRAC just fine. As you can see, it’s like a tiny self-contained modular system in and of itself. There’s also an ARP Odyssey floating around somewhere.

Everything starts with a supply of tasty electrons from two power supplies (in red). All the active modules connect to the two power supplies at the back by ribbon cable.

  • Middle row: 4ms Row Power 30
  • Bottom row: Tiptop uZeus

Maybe I’m being too specific about what makes noises…

The green modules are audio sources. They speficially create oscillating voltages which are intended to be heard aloud at some point. Some are more fully featured than others – the green module in the centre top row is an entire self-contained instrument – it’s a recreation of the clap sound from a Roland TR-909. Audio sources which produce a musical tone – oscillators – have a 1V/Oct socket which takes a pitch voltage. The green module at the top left is a sound playback instrument.

  • Top row: Music Thing Modular Radio Music (digital sample player); Music Thing Modular Turing Machine (noise source); Mutant Clap (TR-909 clap instrument)
  • Middle row: Befaco Even VCO (saw-core analogue oscillator)
  • Bottom row: Doepfer A-110-4 QZVCO (through-zero quadrature sine wave oscillator); Befaco Crush Delay (crackly lo-fi digital noise); Bastl Instruments Noise Squared (digital square oscillators and noise sources)
  • Tabletop: Make Noise 0-Coast (triangle and square oscillator)
  • Not shown: Korg ARP Odyssey (fixed-architecture synthesiser which can be run as a plain CV-controlled dual oscillator if need be)

The blue modules are “non-audio” voltage sources and include function generators like the Rampage, step sequencers like the SQ-1, procedural sequencers and clock sources like Tuesday, and random voltage generators like Turing Machine. Their job is to provide discrete or continuous voltages which can drive melodies, rhythms, filters, or whatever else accepts voltage control. If they’re running fast enough, voltage sources can also be used as oscillators in their own right.

  • Top row: Befaco Joystick (gate source and fun voltage generator); Music Thing Modular Turing Machine (random voltage & trigger generator); Hexinverter Galilean Moons (two slope/attack-sustain-release generators)
  • Middle row: Befaco Rampage (dual complex function generator); TINRS Tuesday (procedural phrase sequencer and clock source)
  • Bottom row: Sonic Potions Mal-2 (random smooth voltage generator)
  • Tabletop: Make Noise 0-Coast (MIDI-to-CV converter; low frequency oscillator source; clock generator; stepped random voltage generator; simple slope function generator; attack-decay-sustain-release envelope generator); Korg SQ-1 (simple sequencer)
  • Not shown: Arturia Beatstep Pro (complex sequencer with 2 x gate, modulation and pitch channels, 16 x trigger channels, clock source, etc); Arturia Keystep (keyboard with gate, modulation and pitch out ); Korg ARP Odyssey (gate, trigger and pitch source)

Many of these blue things make excellent audio sources in their own right..

If the voltage sources put out voltages which aren’t quite right, that’s where the orange modules come into play. These modules are for manipulating voltages in different ways.

  • Top row: Befaco Joystick (adds/subtracts incoming voltage); Befaco Dual Attenuverter (multiplies incoming voltage then offsets it)
  • Middle row: Worng Electronics 3×3 mult (routes incoming voltage to multiple places); Thonk AT-AT-AT (triple signal attenuator to make things quieter); Befaco Rampage (turns gates into attack-sustain-release slopes); Erica Synths Pico Input (dual signal amplifier to make things louder); Mutable Instruments Links (makes exact copy of incoming voltage and sends to multiple destinations); Doepfer A-151 Sequence Switch (voltage controlled signal router); Befaco Slew Limiter (limits the rate of change of incoming voltage)
  • Bottom row: CMF Half-Wave Rectifier (splits off positive and negative halves of incoming voltage); Befaco Sampling Modulator (samples and holds incoming voltage when triggered); Sonic Potions Penrose (quantises incoming voltage to equally tempered steps); Worng Electronics 3×3 mult
  • Tabletop: Make Noise 0-Coast (signal attenuverter and summer)

The yellow modules are the effects and filters. Filters in particular make the incoming sound quieter at particular frequencies and also colour the sound in characteristic and desirable ways. They are “voltage controlled filters” (VCFs) because they take an input voltage to control their cutoff frequency, which is the frequency where the filters take effect. There’s also some effects modules for even more retro colour. Many of these modules can be made to create noises of their own without any input,  which also makes them audio sources in their own right!

  • Top row: RYO Aperture LPG (low pass gate, also usable as a VCA); Music Thing Modular Simple EQ (two-band EQ and EQ “tilter”)
  • Middle row: Befaco Chopping Kinky (dual wavefolder); Doepfer A-106-6 XP VCF (state variable voltage controlled filter based on the Oberheim Xpander); Doepfer A-199 Spring Reverb (mechanical reverberation effect)
  • Bottom row: Vintage Synth Lab VCF-74 (serial highpass and lowpass filter based on the Korg Minkorg 700s); Befaco Crush Delay (circuit-bent delay effect)
  • Tabletop: Make Noise 0-Coast (integrated wavefolder and waveshaper)
  • Not shown: Korg ARP Odyssey (switchable vintage low pass filter with CV cutoff control via the pedal input)

Violet modules are a special thing called VCAs – voltage controlled amplifiers/attenuators. A VCA takes two signals – an input and a modulating signal – and outputs a quieter/louder version of the input signal with amplitude/volume tracking the modulating signal. VCAs are where a long steady beeeeep sound is contoured into a short pip or a long mournful wail. Even better: a quadrature VCA can invert the incoming signal – chuck a sine wave into it as a modulator and you’ve got Dalek voices.

  • Top row: RYO Aperture LPG (also usable as a VCF); Hexinverter Galilean Moons (with integrated envelope generator)
  • Bottom row: Befaco A*B+C (dual full quadrature VCA with offset, also usable as a mixer); Bastl Instruments Skis (character VCA with integrated envelope generator)
  • Tabletop: Make Noise 0-Coast (VCA stage including overdrive)

You can never have too many VCAs..

The last set of modules in indigo is for combining signals together. The modules can mix audio as well as control voltages.

  • Top row: Bastl Instruments ABC (dual three channel mixer); Worng Electronics LRMSMSLR (left-right to mid-side encoder/decoder)
  • Middle row: Doepfer A-138a linear mixer (four channel mixer with CV source on channel 1); Mutable Instruments Links (two channel unity gain mixer; three channel mixer)
  • Bottom row: Doepfer A-185-2 Precision Adder (for combining pitch signals together, e.g. to transpose them)

Overall, DASYRAC is an eclectic system with features from the mainstream East Coast school (character filters, rich saw/pulse oscillators), the artier West Coast school (waveshapers, function generators, sequencers, low pass gates), old timey classics (spring reverb, shift register noise) and fun new possibilities (digital audio playback).

If you want to hear the sounds I’ve been making with it lately, check out my SoundCloud.

Hello cocky!

It’s been 30 July to 5 August 2017. I took this week away from the day job to relax and recharge, catch up on some movies, maybe get Shot 3 of AAAAAAAAA done. but mostly I wanted to get on top of an impending backlog of soldering.

The soldering I managed, and I made at least some progress on the middle goal too!

Do you think their arms get tired while they’re in T-pose?

This cute little cockatoo will be riding the cactus in Shot 3. I want to have it rigged and ready to animate tomorrow. Since I have no more synthesiser kits to build, that could very possibly actually happen…

On Monday I’m back at the day job next week and I’ll be hitting the ground running, so we shall see whether this cocky gets to dance or not. Hope so!