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tag: modular

The Virtue of Virtual Cables

Andrew Belt talked about the VCV Rack software at Stanford on July 3.

Over the past two years, a remarkable piece of free software has helped make modular synthesis widely available. The software is called Rack, from the company VCV, which like many small software firms is essentially a single person serving and benefiting from the efforts of a far-flung constellation of developers. Andrew Belt, who develops VCV Rack, this past week visited the San Francisco Bay Area from Tennessee, where he lives and works, to give talks and demonstrations. I caught his presentation at the Stanford University’s CCRMA department this past Wednesday, July 3. It was a great evening.

Belt spoke for an hour, starting at around 5:30pm, about the origins and development of VCV Rack, how it began as a command-line effort, and how then he went back to a blank slate and started on a GUI, or graphic user interface, approach. That GUI is arguably what makes VCV Rack so popular. Rack provides emulations of synthesizer modules that look just like actual physical modules, including virtual cables you drag across the screen, much as you’d connect an oscillator and a filter in the physical world. The occasion of his visit is the release of version 1.0 of VCV Rack, following an extended beta honeymoon. He covered a lot of material during the talk and subsequent Q&A, and I’m just going to summarize a few key points here:

He talked about the “open core” business-model approach, in which the Rack software is free and open source, and how third parties (and VCV) then sell new modules on top of it. (This is a bit like a “freemium,” the difference being that the foundation here is open source.)

Belt went through various upcoming modules, including a “timeline” one, a “prototype” one, a “video-synthesis” one, a DAW-style “piano roll,” and one that is a bitcrusher emulating super low-grade MP3 encoding. He didn’t mention which existing synthesizer module companies are due to port theirs over to Rack, and no one asked, likely because, this being CCRMA, the conversation was way more deep in the DSP (digital signal processing) weeds — which was great, even if 90% of that material was way over my head. He showed tons of examples, including how the new polyphony (up to 16 voices) works.

There was a great moment midway through the talk. Belt was discussing the employment of a type of synthesis in Rack called FM synthesis, and he asked if anyone in the audience could remind him who had first developed FM synthesis. One of the senior CCRMA professors chimed in and explained that we were all in this room precisely because of FM synthesis: CCRMA was funded for many years thanks to profits on the patent for FM synthesis, which was developed by Stanford professor John Chowning. FM synthesis was what made the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer a massive success during in the 1980s. For many years to follow, Chowning’s FM synthesis patent was, reportedly, the single most profitable patent in all of Stanford’s existence. After drinking in the impromptu history lesson, Belt pulled up a DX7 emulation in Rack. Someone in the audience noted how things come full circle.

I highly recommend giving VCV Rack a try. It’s available at vcvrack.com.

This is lightly adapted from the July 7, 2019, issue of the free weekly Disquiet.com email newsletter This Week in Sound.

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Synth Learning: “Tako Friday”

The soap-opera narrative of my modular synthesizer diary is me breaking up with and then getting back together again with my Soundmachines UL1 module. I think we finally committed to a long-time engagement last night. Season-ending episode.

This evening, to celebrate the 24-hour-versay of our vows, I ran a slow arpeggio of a series of electric guitar chords through the UL1, and through four other processing units.

Here’s more technical detail, as part of my modular diary, mostly for my own memory: All five of these separate processings of the guitar play simultaneously, though two are being gated, meaning you don’t hear them consistently. The UL1 is a lofi looper, and it’s the thing here being pushed into glitch territory. The UL1 is receiving a narrow, high-end band of the guitar signal, as filtered by the Make Noise FXDf. Another narrow band, also on the high end, is going from the FXDf straight out. A third narrow band, the highest of the trio, is going into a slowly clocked Befaco Muxlicer, the relative volume of the signal changing with each pulse. That same pulse is determining whether a fourth channel, the guitar through the Make Noise Erbe-Verb reverb module, is to be heard or not (as clocked by a slow square wave on a Batumi). That Erbe-Verbe is also having its algorithm flipped into reverse, on occasion, based on the same clocked pulse, but the gate delayed a bit (thanks to the Hemispheres firmware running on an Ornament and Crime module). And finally, the guitar is running through Clouds, a granular synthesis module, which is also being clocked to occasionally snag a bit of the guitar signal and turn it into a haze.

It took awhile to get the chords right. The only note the four chords have in common is an open D. The piece fades in with the D played on two strings, setting the backing tone. It also took awhile to get the right processing decisions made. I started with the UL1, and then built up and adjusted from there. I’m working on having more randomness in the triggering of the UL1, but this is pretty good, far as it goes.

It sounds a bit “Octopus’s Garden,” so it’s titled “Tako Friday” (tako being Japanese for octopus, and this being Friday). In retrospect I hear a bit of “The Dark Side of the Moon” in there, too. The audio was recorded through a Mackie mixer into a Zoom H4n, and then trimmed and given a fade in and fade out in Adobe Audition.

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/disquiet.

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Ornament and Candy

Soon to be upgraded, and eaten

Why, yes, a five-star review on Reverb.com to the person from Poland who included the lovely rainbow power cable and a bonus region-specific candy bar* with my, speaking of candy, (mini) Ornament and Crime synthesizer module (due to be updated momentarily with Hemispheres alternate firmware, though by “momentarily” I mean after work, and though “after work,” this being Friday, will likely mean this weekend, which is to say before Monday, if I’m lucky).

*”Milk chocolate bar with creamy flavoured filling (contains alcohol).”

Update: Who knew? Updating the Ornament and Crime module to the alternate firmware called Hemispheres took approximately five minutes, tops. I’m all set.

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Sleepless in San Francisco

I Dream of Wires is the incorrect title for that great documentary on modular synthesizers.

It should be titled: Couldn’t Sleep Because I Read Manuals Too Late at Night and My Brain Wouldn’t Stop Patching.

. . .

In the meanwhile, here is where my system is currently at (or will be when two of those modules arrive from, respectively, Poland and down in Southern California). The blank space at the bottom is, indeed, bank. Likely other modules will go before it is filled. We’ll see.

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Modular Synthesizer Statistics

In a nutshell

Number of comments when the module is teased: 1,000

Number of comments when the module is announced: 100

Number of comments when the module is released: 10

Number of comments when an album comes out using the module: 1

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