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Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code. Rewinding the soundscape.

Firmware Party

Dongles required

I spent last night performing the routine if time-consuming update of the firmware for various synthesizer modules while the rain provided a white noise background just outside the living room window. A few months ago I acquired a new laptop, one that thankfully came with an SD card slot built in. This old-school upgrade (retrofurbish? untweak? phoenifix? deminimalism?) from the previous laptop model presumably meant no more dongles. But of course, the work I was doing required a microSD card, so an adapter in the form of a dongle was necessary. And another piece of hardware required a USB-A type connector — and, thus, another dongle, since the new laptop only has USB-C type connectors. The phrase “two steps forward, one step back” took on new meaning while I shuffled Zip archives, searched BBS discussions, consulted with friends via social media, and kept track of mental bread crumbs amid nested file folders.

The word firmware is the term for software that provides hardware with its underlying functionality. Often with music hardware, there are alternate versions of the standard firmware. These alt-firmwares add utilities and other tools, sometimes extending the life of sunsetted equipment, other times serving as a parallel development process to the real deal. Such alt-firmware may ride side by side with or entirely overwrite the original firmware. Sometimes the alt-firmware is such a great realization of the hardware object’s potential that it’s hard to believe the hardware wasn’t designed with it in mind. Among the more widespread examples is a package called JJOS, a full replacement system for some of the MPC line of Akai beat machines. I’m not sure if the identity of the creator of JJOS is publicly known or not. I’ve read that it’s a former Akai software engineer.

The piece of alt-firmware I use most often is Hemisphere, a suite of several dozen virtual modules replacing (or complementing) the software that comes with a module called Ornament and Crime (which has a great home URL, ornament-and-cri.me), the title borrowed from architect Adolf Loos. Unlike the Akai MPC line, the Ornament and Crime module is entirely open source, not just software but hardware, so it’s quite possible to be running alt-firmware on alt-hardware, which is the case with my o_C (as Ornament and Crime is abbreviated) setup.

Another device I updated recently made the step of taking its formerly closed source code base and turning it open-source, thus unleashing a lot of opportunity that hadn’t existed previously, such as virtual instances that run on standard computers. I located an interesting piece of third party software for the device, which required another piece of third party software in order to run. Neither of these two pieces of additional software were directly related to the device’s new open source status, but they did reflect the interconnectedness of individuals’ efforts.

I doubt I’ll ever have the skills to produce or even contribute to alt-firmware myself. The best I can do is employ it, make something with it, celebrate it, and occasionally note a shortcoming or propose a tweak. Last night, all I was doing was updating software, swapping in and out cards, attaching cables. And there’s more of this to come. Before bed, I did finally have a few moments to test out what I had done, and to marvel as my devices made sounds they never had before.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • about

  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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