use what you got

One day last week as I was wrapping up at the studio, my son was asking about some of the modules on the synthesizer. In particular he was wanted to know what the ring modulator (Doepfer A114) did. We had some time so I patched some stuff together and tried to explain a concept that I’m not even totally familiar with.
We got something kind of cool going, using the Seq02 to trigger gates, send CV notes to the VCOs, and send CV to various parameters like the filter frequency. We didn’t have the computer with us so there was no way for me to patch the modular in via the MOTU Ultralite. So remembering that I had this little Blue Mikey microphone for my iPhone that I was given for Christmas, I grabbed that thing, attached it to the phone and opened up FiRE, which is a terrific recording app from Audiofile Engineering. I have the original Blue Mikey, which doesn’t have any line-in, so what you hear was recorded from speaker to microphone. The result turned out much better than I’d have imagined it would. FiRE has some gain control so I could keep the sound from clipping for the most part, but also keep the levels up near the limits. The phone was sitting about 18 inches away from my monitor and about four feet from where we were standing at the synth.

I like this clip as you can hear Wilson asking me about the patch as we pulled cords and tried new things. About 1/3 the way through we patched in the noise from the A118 through a mixer into the second input of the VCA. The result was a periodic drumming, which I believe you can here him “yeah yeah keep that!” at around 2:16. A bit later he asked about the A150 VC Switch. So we pulled a cord from one of the CV tracks out of the sequencer to turn the switch from in/out 1 to in/out 2, and we ran the A118 noise to the 2nd input of the switch with the original ring-modded patch going into the first input.
We played around with the switching starting at 4:14 and found something we liked at about 5:50. It was a pretty complicated patch for a little two-row system like mine, and you can hear Wilson say “you used up all of your wires!” near the end.

After we turned off the recording, I sent the file directly to SoundCloud from the iPhone itself, never processing it through anything on the Mac at all. I really love this system as it does a terrific job in a pinch, and while I can’t use much of the recording in any songs later on, it is a real “live recording” of the playing of that synthesizer. I’m impressed enough with the Blue Mikey that I’ll be upgrading to the new version with the line-in jack as soon as it is released next month.

Wilson’s been playing with Reason and Live about the same amount of time that I have. He’s built a small synth in Reaktor, and he’s got dozens of songs made in Garage Band saved on various CDs and hard drives. The modular is really interesting for him because of the tactile and physical approach to patching and knob-twisting. Nothing is hidden behind GUIs or multiple pages or magic computer dust. Here’s a picture taken of him about a year ago working with Sonic Charge’s Synplant synth in Ableton.

working with Synplant

i got a sequencer

I have sequencers running out my ears on my computer. I regularly use Numerology, Reaktor, Ableton and Volta to sequence soft synths and, lately, my modular via midi. However, a good part of the reason I’ve become sort of kind of obsessed with this modular business is the tactile control of buttons, switches and knobs.
To that end, I added a sequencer in the form of the MFB Seq02 last week. This thing is incredibly versatile for such a small thing. It can run twelve separate CV sequences of up to 32 steps each, or six CV and six trigger/gates. It’s got its own clock and it can be controlled by an outside clock as well.

I’ve not had much time this week to work with this thing, but today I set up a simple four note repeating sequence and just started patching. These are variations using pretty much the same four note patterns. Each track on the Seq02 can have one of either an A or B 8-step sequence, or both in a row. A three-way switch chooses which mode. So I just made two different four-note sequences, started the sequencer, and switched back and forth.

The sounds are coming from the A110 VCOs in various waveforms, and filtered at different times with the Model 12, the A120 VCF, and the A101-2 Low Pass Gate. The A101-2 is the thing that creates the plucky acoustic sounds. When you hear it you’ll know. I used MOTU’s Volta to send various trigger and step-sequences to both the Seq02 as a clock, and other modules for various modulations. I sometimes wanted various numbers of steps, where the Seq02 only allows one to choose steps on a global level. Meaning if I want one sequence of triggers to be four steps and another to be seven, I have to rely on the software.
The delay was added in Ableton because it sounds nice.

a little sequencing?

practice

I was giving a small demonstration of my modular and Volta last night, so I had to wrap the brain around some stuff that I’d not otherwise understood. Here are some recordings from that 90 minutes. All of the tracks use Volta to run a sequence into the modular. There are some arpeggios in there and a delay from Ableton. I really like where one can go with this. When I’m noodling around with LFOs as a sequence and clock source, one can forget that the modular can actually sound like something more mainstream. Not that this is always a good thing….
Now I’m really looking forward to getting the Seq02 set up.

model 10 tweaks

I keep the “record” button close by when I’m working with the modular. I don’t really know yet exactly what I’m doing and I never know when something surprising and great will get spit out. These two files are cases in point.
They’re both caused, for lack of a better word, by the Plan B model 10 Polyphonic Envelope. The first one is using the m10’s End of Attack output to send a second trigger to the envelope that is opening the VCA. Because the rise, or attack of the envelope is quicker than the release, it gives it this little swinging feel.

The second one here happened when I was cross-modulating the frequency of the sine output on an A110 oscillator with a LFO as well as the model 10. The LFO was, I believe, sending the triangle wave out, and I was fidgeting about with the ‘fall’ knob on the model 10, as well as a little bit with the time base. It caused some great bubbling.

I’m trying to take time to explore each of the modules I have one by one and really understand what it is that they do. I suspect I’ll have more module-centric posts here coming along. I just bought a couple more pieces — a voltage controlled switch, a low pass gate, and a sequencer — as well as a larger case, so… lots to play with.

songs for the building of puzzles

When I make these little animated movies, I typically believe that I’ll able to simply dig into my huge folder of songs-in-the-works and various four-bar clips I’ve recorded and find something that will fit. And often that’s the case. However sometimes it’s not and i have to start something from scratch.

On Friday I recorded a little time lapse of my building a puzzle. This puzzle is one I illustrated for Mudpuppy last year. I like to put these things up on MrBiggs.com. I spent an hour or so first going through Ableton clips and song files, then through some of the stuff I’ve played around with in Numerology. Nothing really piqued my interest so I tried recording some sequenced loops using the analog modular I’ve been putting together. This should have been enough, but it just wasn’t coming together. I found myself getting wrapped up in the knob turning and sound making and not in the song making like I should have been. I couldn’t get the sound to even work until I realized that I had some settings wrong in Volta/Ableton. I was feeling rushed as the day was slipping away so I knew it was a doomed effort. After taking some time off and drawing (you know, my actual job) I fell back on what I know works. I opened up Numerology, dropped in a matrix sequencer Reaktor’s Oki Computer synth, which I know will give me some funny bleepy sounds with lots of modulation possibilities, perfect for this little movie.

Oki Computer, Reaktor
Oki Computer, Reaktor

Oki is an interesting little instrument in that it’s basically a wavetable synth and specializes in digital sounds and odd noises. I had Reaktor for a good two years before I started wrapping my head around this synthesizer, but now I can make it do what I want, more or less, and I have quite a few of my own presets that I use as starting points. Along with the matrix sequencer in Numerology, I had a modulation sequencer running Oki’s wavetable position knob all over the place. So I recorded about three minutes worth of playing the matrix “live.” This works really well for me with TonePad and other iPhone apps that I have, and it game me something useful here as well. I posted the five sequences I recorded. These are all recorded using the method described but with adjustments in the first five waves of the wavetable. About 1:15 into the song titled “Oki seq5” you can here the beginning of the loop that I ended up using in the final piece.

Once I had the main clip down I was able to add in some drums made out of bits of sampled electronic toys and various other bloopy beepy oddness, mostly cut and manipulated from these bits of recorded Oki.

When you watch the movie, you’ll hear a weird reversed-and-speeded-up bit as the puzzle is being taken apart. This is the main melody just reversed and, yeah, speeded up to about 180 bpm from 130 bpm. The kick drum and snare come from Audio Damage’s new Tattoo (not a good use of a terrific drum machine but still…), adding some frenetic banging. Then a few snare hits as I reposition the box, and a final little beep — originally an accident of the song looping back to the beginning at the end, but I liked it so I added it into the sequence.

I’m hoping to soon get something useful out of the modular. This weekend I’m planning a few hours with it so we’ll see what happens. Thanks for listening.

tattoo you

I’m a fan of the effect plug-ins that Audio Damage puts out. I own several of them and they are among the few that I have that are both utility plugs as well as just fun to work with. I also really like drum machines. So this morning started out just right.
Last night they posted their anxiously-awaited drum machine called Tattoo. So I spent this morning making beats over coffee. I’ll add some more and probably have more to say about Tattoo later. Here’s the first thing. It’s five separate patterns recorded into Ableton Live, with some delay, EQ, and compression tacked on in pieces.

say hello to my little friend

Several months ago, I sort of stumbled upon the concept of modular synthesizers. It was kind of a backdoor thing. I got interested in step sequencers first through Numerology and some tools in Reaktor. From this I began searching for videos of sequencers in action, and often they were running modulars in various iterations. This led me back to Reason for a while, string CV cables around for the first time, really, and realizing a lot of what I’ve been missing in that app. The Matrix sequencer suddenly became a lot more fun.
Having immediate access to the various controls and switches and knobs seemed pretty great and made my Alesis Micron suddenly less interesting. I imagined working with these actual controls to be far more creative than staring at the virtual versions afforded to me with the software I have. I recognize that tools like Reaktor and even Reason allow me to do things that there is no way I could do with actual hardware, no matter how complex, but watching and listening to these clips and grasping how they work, I learned more about how the software worked as well. Entire parts of Reaktor and even smaller tools like Jasuto for my iPhone suddenly seemed accessible.
So, a week or two ago, I went poking around eBay and landed myself a little modular synth. This is the baby version of the Doepfer A-100 system. It only includes ten modules — just the basics for making sounds and affecting them in limited ways. It’s not even remotely as flexible or powerful as even the more basic synthesizer plug-ins that I use regularly. But it’s a nice little fenced-in area for me to work and learn. Modulars are a very deep hole and it would be very easy for me to fall in it and have no idea why X is making that sound and Y is affecting it. Also, these things aren’t cheap.

Doepfer a100 mini

laboratory

This A-100 Mini has two oscillators, a low-pass filter, a mixer, a noise/random voltage generator, an envelope generator, one LFO, a ring mod, and a VCA. And it has a midi interface, which will end up being more useful than I originally thought. When I like sounds that modular synths make, I usually like the self-running burbly beepity patterns that seem almost random. These patches are normally made up of various triggering devices and multiple LFOs that this synth doesn’t have. Eventually I expect to grow this beast and get it there. In the meantime I’ve also bought (used!) a copy of MOTU’s Volta, which will run as a plug-in in something like Ableton Live and through sending control voltages over my audio interface, will give me a LOT of control over that which I have. Without Volta, I likely wouldn’t even be interested in such things.

I plugged this thing in on Sunday, hooked it up to an input in Live, and recorded the first ten minutes or so of whatever I could get it to do. These are pretty simple sequences, controlled entirely with the random voltage generator and the LFO, modulating the VCO frequencies, the filter cutoff, and some gain. Just after this short time of playing with it, I know I want/need at least one more LFO, preferably voltage controlled; another ADSR envelope, also voltage controlled; and maybe another filter — or a low pass gate. There has been a real explosion of interesting and creative design going on in the modular synth universe with many small homebrew companies building and selling odd little modules.

Here is the result of the first time spent with the A-100. Essentially it’s various modulations of the oscillators and filters with the LFO, along with various knob-turns. I expect to add more as I get a grasp of what to do with it. Stay tuned.

sequenced carbon

I have a feeling there will be more of this coming. I’m liking some of the results I get just driving along with sequencers. This is a Reaktor sequencer from the user library called Scale Step SEQ 16 and the synth is Carbon2. The changes are just noodling with various parameters of each.

This was used as a soundtrack for another little video, too. Taken from the roof of my car as a storm rolled in.

above the studio from Brian Biggs on Vimeo.

This is a grab of the sequencer. It’s by Eric Ahrens and is modeled after any number of analog step sequencers. You can find it at the NI user library here.

a small soundtrack

A short thing made for a little video.
It’s arranged in Ableton Live, the synth is Sonic Charge’s Synplant, and the numbers came from a Speak & Spell. “Four” and “Six” are from somewhere else, actually, but I don’t remember where.


Here’s the movie. Roscoe Riley is a book series that I illustrated. The final book, number seven, was just published a couple of weeks ago so I thought I’d commemorate the event.

Seven Roscoe Rileys from Brian Biggs on Vimeo.

pretending a modular

I’m finding that I am really interested in modular synths, especially the idea of driving them with step-sequencers. Sometimes using a traditional piano keyboard and editing midi is no fun. When I troll the user library on the Reaktor site, I download all the oddball sequencers I can find. Inspired by this terrific video of The Subliminal Kid, I thought I’d just set up something in Reaktor and record the output.
This is the Monoliner sequencer running a patch in Carbon. The drums are a simple set-up in SineBeats. I mixed them together with a little mixer and recorded it in RecorderBox. It was more than five minutes long so I edited a bit in Ableton and added a little BeatRepeat in the middle part.

I have books on deadline, but I’d spend an entire week doing this if I could.