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

tag: studio journal

Guitar + Synth Learning: Ultomaton Software

This is a quick, initial attempt on my part with a new piece of software called Ultomaton. The name is a play on the word “automaton” because the software employs Conway’s Game of Life, the famed “cellular automation” simulation, as a source of triggers and other controls, such as volume and place in the stereo spectrum, for all manner of sonic processes. These effects include stutter, backwards audio, looping, and granular synthesis, several of which are heard in this test run.

What I’m playing on electric guitar as the source audio is the first of the 120 right-hand exercises by composer Mauro Giuliani (1781 – 1829). I’ve been working my way through these exercises for the past few weeks, and sometimes experimenting with ways to make practice even more enjoyable, such as prerecording the chords to supply accompaniment. The real-time processing of Ultomaton provides accompaniment as I play, built from the very things I am playing at that moment. The accompanying screenshot shows the Ultomaton controls as they were set for this recording.

The electric guitar went into the laptop, a Macbook Air (2013), via a Scarlett audio interface. After recorded, the audio was cleaned up in Adobe Audition: volume increased, bit of reverb added, and fade-in/fade-out implemented.

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/disquiet. The Ultomaton software is the work of Benjamin Van Esser, who is based in Brussels, Belgium. The software is free at github.com/benjaminvanesser. More information at benjaminvanesser.be.

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The Module’s Underbelly

The wriggly life of synthesizer printed circuit boards

Yesterday I said goodbye to another synthesizer module. I packed it up into a box and now it is on its way to the interior of Japan, where a new owner will nestle it into a new rig and where it will make new sounds in a new context, amid a new set of modules. I bought this module used from Toronto. I don’t know where it was before that.

Many modules will emit some sort of sound on their own if you push them hard enough — well, almost all still need to be connected to a speaker somehow — but almost all modules are intended for use with other modules, as a local network passing audio as well as commands in the form of electricity. When a module is in the rig, its innards go out of view. I often joke I wish I had a Lucite case for my modular synthesizer, so those innards, the close stacks of printed circuit boards (PCBs), were always available to be pored over. Part of the joke is I can’t stand Lucite, but the real impossibility of the joke is that a rack’s power supply, interior wiring, and structural support would occlude even the most transparent of synth boxes. Once a module is installed, its underbelly is disguised by a faceplate, knobs, and jacks.

Some of those synthesizer PCBs are wildly colored and arcanely inscribed, while others are as generic as the materials that allow your microwave to heat popcorn. Much of this is purely aesthetic, but aesthetics mean something. If the utilitarian appearance of one speaks of a company’s goal to reduce costs and perhaps a mission to make widely available what was once lavishly expensive, the filigrees of another’s speak of the whimsy, the fantasy, at the organization’s — often, an individual creator’s — heart. I’ve wondered about the intentionality and readability of these visual characteristics previously (at length — see my article “Is the Printed Circuit Board a Form of Musical Notation” at NewMusicBox) — and the upturned module reminded me of just how much I still have to learn.

This module in my hand is of a fairly homebrew variety. It is from the Ieaskul F. Mobenthey family, designed by the inventive Peter Blasser. Some are made by Blasser himself, while others are built in synth workshops that he runs, like some PCB Johnny Appleseed. The module goes by the name Fourses, because it is designed around a quartet of oscillators, the circuits that produce the frequencies we experience as sound.

Before I mailed off this module, I did what I always do during a sale. I investigated it for any shortcomings. What struck my eye were the paramecium-like formations of this tiny machine’s even tinier components. A chip resembles a little bug under most circumstances, but the asymmetrical, angled gang here have the look of things scurrying intently. Exposing the underbelly of the module felt like pulling a rock from a garden and exposing all sorts of wriggly life. The relative sizes and shapes of these things, how they’re all nestled together as part of coherent integration, suggest the presence an ecosystem. And the lines seen in the green of the board, often committed with rectilinear certainty, here have a topological quality, the squiggles of a mapmaker making sketches of new territory — territory explored subsequently by the people who, over time, invite the module into their sonic world.

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Guitar Learning: Maybe (A minor on EBow)

A chord in individually held guitar lines

This is the first attempt I’ve made to record something with my newly obtained EBow. It’s also about ten minutes into my first attempt to even use the EBow. The electric bow employs a magnetic field to strum individual strings for you, which explains the gorgeous and limitlessly held tones it is capable of. Here I layered three notes, one by one, from a single chord, an A minor, and then put a separate note on top of that — the device was so new to me, I didn’t even pay attention to what the fourth note was; I just listened for something that sounded complementary. The accrual process isn’t evident in this recording. I didn’t hit record until the chord was accomplished.

I did this all in a Ditto Looper, recording directly from my amplifier into my cellphone. I used Adobe Audition to limit the higher frequencies in the audio, and to introduce a fade-in and a fade-out. The track’s title is “Maybe” (adapted from the first two letters each from “EBow” and “A minor — E, B, A, M — backward).

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/disquiet.

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Module Learning: Fixed Fourses

My most and least straightforward synthesizer modules

A fixed filter bank provides direct access to the spectrum components of a given signal, breaking it into narrow bands you can fiddle with individually. Just lending an LFO to contort the low end of a guitar phrase, or letting a square wave impose a rhythm by turning on and off some mid-range — it’s an approach I have come to love. In this patch, a fairly rich noise source is being sent through a fixed filter bank. Four spans of the filter bank are going into a voltage-controlled mixer, and those each are being modulated by a synchronized quad LFO. In addition, the bounds of the noise source are being affected slightly by a slow LFO, separate from the quad LFO.

The filter bank is the newest module for me: the FXDf from Make Noise. The noise source is the Fourses module from Peter Blasser’s Ieaskul F. Mobenthey. The mixer is the ADDAC 802. The quad LFO is the Batumi from Xaoc. The additional LFO is the Dixie II from Intellijel.

The audio was recorded on a Zoom H4n via a Mackie mixer. The track was then trimmed of some high end and given a fade-in and a fade-out in Adobe Audition.

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/disquiet.

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Module Learning: Spectral Swoop

Give and take as structure

It’s a little-known fact that the low-level drones experienced as much as heard in large office buildings aren’t the result of overlapping signal byproduct from various infrastructural activities — the off-sync relations between HVAC, electrical, and IT, for example — but, instead, are unattributed ambient sound-art installations funded by forward-thinking c-level thought leaders and artistically progressive boards of directors.

Well, no, not really. It is just noise whose happenstance subtle complexity can reward close attention, when it isn’t causing low-level discomfort.

In any case, this recording is a Saturday-morning attempt to combine the rough timbres of one module with the elegant spectrum analysis of another, all in the service of a certain HVAC je ne sais quoi. The main sound is a rich triangle coming from the Ieaskul F. Mobenthey Swoop, sent in turn through the 4MS Spectral Multiband Resonator, several bands of which are tweaked thanks to various low-frequency oscillations. The pace is set by the Delptronics Trigger Man, which, throughout, rotates the scale of the 4MS module two steps forward, one step back.

In addition, a bit of pink noise waves in and out, coming from an SSF Quantum Rainbow 2. The interwoven LFO patterns yield a song-like sequence of give and take, if not full on verse and chorus.

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/disquiet.

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