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

tag: software

Harmonica Clouds

And variations within

The layering comes quickly in this video from Ryan Kunkleman. A button is pushed and the harmonica disappears off-screen. We hear a few notes, and we expect the playing to complete a phrase, for the player to pause for a breath. This doesn’t occur. Instead, before the original phrase ever ends another one is layered atop it. Looping has been enacted. There will be no pause for breath for the nearly 13 minutes of this piece. What there will be is a steady accumulation and movement between the held tones of the harmonica, chords giving way to phrases giving way to chords, little moments occasionally peeking (and peaking) through the sonorous clouds.

The tools, in addition to the harmonica and microphone, are a recent piece of software called Cheat Codes (, running on a Norns, an open-source sound computer from Monome (

This is the latest video I’ve added to my YouTube playlist of recommended live performances of ambient music. Video first posted at Kunkelman’s YouTube channel, under the moniker esc.

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White Noise, Dark Theme

Version 7.6.2

This is an alert from iOS informing me about the updates to the latest version of this white-noise app, which has reached version 7.6.2. Now I’m wondering how dark-theme white noise differs from regular white noise, and if we’ll get to a point where we start employing the retronym “light-theme white noise” for regular old white noise, and yes I’m joking.

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Red Means Recording

UX, consent, and emotions

I was interviewed yesterday morning for something related to the Disquiet Junto, and the interviewer began, appropriately, by doing that standard interview thing where they ask if it’s OK that they record your voice. I’ve done this countless times myself, and I’m still getting used to it, to being on the other side of the proverbial and literal microphone. It turns out (and this was news to me, hence my making note of it) Skype now has a recording feature built in, so there’s no need for a handheld recorder, or for using a second app (though I would still recommend a backup). For privacy’s sake, when your Skype interlocutor elects to employ this in-app recorder, a little alert pops up in your window. The image shown here is from the upper left corner of my screen (in this case an iPad) as it appeared when the interviewer hit the record button. (I had, in turn, asked my interviewer if I could take this screenshot.) The message is a little reminder. The color red here is a standard “currently recording” tell, but in our global moment of heightened surveillance awareness it feels, as well, like a warning. Which is to say, there might be a nicer way for Skype to frame such an interaction.

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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

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

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Speaking Privately to the Algorithm

What happens when we assume that always stating our opinion is in anyone's best interest

I spend a good amount of time watching YouTube videos by musicians. Not just of them, but generally by them: studio-journal videos that musicians make to show how they work. Not just recordings of their music, but videos of the process, of the effort, required.

And I marvel at (which is to say, more directly: am dismayed by) instances when a positively received video on YouTube also receives a small handful of dislikes. By this I specifically mean mute negative gestures, devoid of any comment, just a downward-facing thumb. Say what you will about haters, at least when they comment they leave some fingerprint on their dissenting opinion. There’s a uniquely buzz-killing pall cast by the unqualified, unidentified, anonymous thumbs down.

Certainly everything will have its detractors, but I wonder if something else might be going on here. (Now, by “popular” I don’t mean the given video has racked up hundreds of thousands of views. I just mean maybe a couple dozen accounts have given it a thumbs up, and the video is innocuous, not to say inconsequential, just a musician doing their thing.)

I wonder if the issue is that the YouTube interface should provide an opportunity for the watcher/user to say, privately to the algorithm, “I’m not interested in this.” That suggestion is in contrast to requiring, as YouTube currently does, that you register your disinterest publicly.

Right now it’s like the waiter asks how your meal was, and your only option is to stand up and announce it to your fellow diners. And the issue may not be the food; it may not be that you didn’t like the food. The issue may be that it just wasn’t your sort of food, or you would have liked this for lunch but it didn’t satisfy your dinner appetite.

As I’ve thought about this user-interface conundrum, I’ve become entranced by the concept of speaking “privately to the algorithm.” Perhaps that should be capitalized: “I’m speaking, privately, to the Algorithm.”

In that formulation, it’s like a confession, not a religious confession toward addressing your personal spiritual and all-too-human shortcomings, but a confession in the hopes of tailoring your reality. That is, toward addressing the shortcomings you perceive in (digital) reality.

And this is where the constant request for feedback can have (big surprise) unintended consequences. The tools have trained us to let them know what we think, because it’s in our best interest. But is it in anyone else’s interest that you found the given musician’s music uninteresting? While making your world better, have you yucked someone else’s yum? What is the good in that? What does it mean when acting to address the shortcomings you perceive in your digital reality has the direct effect (not merely a side effect, but a direct and immediate one) of negatively impacting the digital reality of other people?

Note the following three different scenarios on YouTube and how the user’s feedback is constrained, even directed, by the interface.

Below is a screenshot of the egregious situation I’m currently describing. If you’re on the page for a video, you have only the options to ignore, comment, or give it a thumbs up or thumb down, and of course to “Report” it, but that’s a different situation entirely:

Contrast that with the option you have for videos that YouTube serves up to your account based on what you’ve viewed before. Note that here, there is a plainly stated means to say “Not interested”:

And note that this isn’t merely a matter of whether you arrive at the video through your own actions or through the recommendations of YouTube. For example, if you subscribe to channels on YouTube, you can still, from the Subscriptions page, elect to Hide something:

Now, perhaps if you select “Hide” that is all that happens. Perhaps it just takes the video out of view. Perhaps YouTube doesn’t register your action as a means to adjust how its algorithm triangulates your viewing taste. But that seems unlikely, doesn’t it? We use these interfaces today with the impression that they will inform our future use of a given tool. Which is why when faced with no “Not interested” or “Hide” equivalent on a page, the user is, if not justified in registering their disinterest, forgiven a little for registering their dissatisfaction.

The issue is that the user’s dissatisfaction isn’t necessarily with the video. It is, indirectly and yet significantly, with YouTube.

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