ringmod with µmod

I recently got a pile of new modules, replacing a bunch of old modules. Most of these are by Intellijel, a new manufacturer/designer from up in Vancouver (but whose website is way out of date). Intellijel announced a bunch of new designs in late December, and they’ve come to fruition recently. I got a new quantizer called the µScale replacing my A156, a panning/crossfading VCA called the Azimuth to replace the A134 (and maybe the A132-3, as this thing is really great). I also got a module called the µMod which replaced the A133 dual polarizer. I bought the A133 last year for its use in screwing with CV, but I found that I usually ended up using it with audio, as a ring mod. When Intellijel announced the µMod, the description seemed to cover the same territory as one half of the A133, plus a bunch of other features in the form of two rectifying switches and a “Q” knob. Since I never used more than one half of the A133 at a time, I sold that sucker and screwed in the µMod.
Below are three tracks recorded the first night I had this thing. They’re all using very short poppy envelopes made with Maths, and using the Azimuth as a VCA (which is fantastically quick).

The first one here is not exactly “musical,” as it sounds like tapping on a small block of wood. But one thing I love about a ring mod is the percussion.

This track makes use of my Stereo Memory Man w/ Hazarai pedal, with some semi-random triggers clocking its delay.

In addition to the above additions to the system, I’ve also replaced the Hertz Donut with a Malekko/Wiard Anti-Oscillator, and added a STG Wave Folder (which has not yet been installed). I’ll get some sounds from these dudes up soon. Oh, and have I mentioned that I’m obsessing over my new guitar?

random, on a saturday morning

I’m coming up for air for a minute here. Every morning and every evening I walk through my little music room on the way from or to the bedroom, and I stop and stare at the modular and the Machinedrum and all my cables and audio interface and I tell these things “soon, my children. Soon…” A couple of things have conspired to keep me from making anything that I feel like I’m wanting to share. The holidays, of course. I’m also late on a book I’ve been writing and drawing that will be out later this year. Actually, late on several books. So the nights and weekend where I’d normally be making noises, I’ve been in the studio drawing pictures.
However, I’ve not been completely unmusical nor uninspired. So with this post I’ll go over some of the things I’ve been doing and get some ducks in a row to start the new year.

1. Everything Goes: On Land
I don’t cross-post often. That is, I don’t talk much about my musical goings on when I’m wearing my illustrator hat, and I don’t toot that horn when I’m walking around the music-room. However, I’m nearing completion of this huge book and I’m pretty excited about it. It’s 56 pages of cars and trucks and bikes and here’s a small piece of one of the images.
the daily grind

2. Guitars
I have to admit something. I’ve not been completely faithful. I tell my synth that I’m busy working and drawing and that I’ll spend time with it soon. In reality I’ve been seeing another instrument. I didn’t mean for it to get out of control, to get this far. I didn’t think I’d fall in love.
See, it all started when someone gave me an old Squier Stratocaster. I once tried to learn to play guitar, but it didn’t stick, and one of my true regrets is that I didn’t learn when I was younger. This Strat sat in its case for six years. Then a few weeks ago I attend my son’s Christmas concert at school and I learn that he is playing the bass guitar. And he’s playing it well! So I got inspired and I decided to get the old white Strat out and see if I can figure it out. My kids got guitars and small practice amps for Christmas, and I thought it would be great for Elliot and I to take guitar lessons together. However, the old white Strat, once plugged in to the amp, sounded like crap. Scratchy and hummy and sad. Normally I’d likely have gotten frustrated and stuck it back in its case for eternity. But with my new-found fearlessness around electronics, I took the guitar apart to learn what makes it tick. Now, please understand that I know ZERO about guitars, especially electric ones, coming in. So I was happily surprised when I understood immediately how the internals worked. The pick-ups are wired to a five-way switch, which in turn goes through a couple of 500k potentiometers, and then to the output jack and to ground. Simple! The thing was that the wiring was brittle, the pots felt dirty, and the whole thing was just a mess. But hell, I can fix this. I have some 500k pots up stairs. All I need is a new switch, right?
Not so fast. I spent an evening on the internets and quickly realized that there are a million options. Different pick-ups, some switches are higher quality than others, if Fender makes it than it’s twice the cost than other switches (and I’m pretty sure Fender didn’t actually make the switch, so it’s probably the same switch…). I happened across a link to a company called Stewart MacDonald in Athens Ohio. They specialize in parts for guitars, and hallelujah they actually sell a pre-wired pickguard/electronics kit that comes with the pots and switch and new pick-ups and wires and all it needs is to be soldered to ground and to the output jack. I wanted a black pick-guard anyway, so for just a few more dollars than the switch and new pots, I had the whole set-up.
It took twenty minutes two night ago to put the old Strat back together. No more scratch, no more loose parts, nice black and white look, and hum only when expected (switch positions 1,3 and 5 — that is, when only one pick-up is selected). I don’t know good when I hear it, so to me it sounds great.
So now I’m jonesing to learn this thing and reading all I can about guitars and, of course, guitar pedals. (If you’re anything like me, and since you’re reading this there’s a good chance that you are, you’ll understand completely when I admit that I stayed up in bed the other night with headphones and watched pedal demo videos on YouTube for three hours…) Of course, I’m starting with basics so last night for instance I played B C D E F G on strings one and two until my fingers hurt so much I couldn’t feel the frets. I also got pretty good at playing “Shoo Fly,” which sounds especially stupid with my daughter’s 12w Orange Amp set with the overdrive and gain turned up.
Here’s the guitar.

I didn’t take any “before” pictures, but it looked just like this.
I would like to do a few more things to the guitar to make it even better. It could use a new bridge, for instance. Stewart Macdonald sells these for $70, but when the guitar new cost $120 I’m not sure if it’s worthwhile. I mean, does it make sense to put in a new bridge and maybe better pick-ups and tuning machines when I might as well take that cash and look for an actual Fender on Craigslist? In any case, I decided I’m not going to spend any money on guitars — this one or another — until I get good enough that I can sit down at Guitar Center and know what I’m listening for when I play different instruments. This Squier sounds okay to me.
(That said, the American Standard Telecaster in Crimson sure looks spectacular…)

3. This

It’s a Dancing Robot. Get it? It just made me laugh when I ran across it.

4. Pressure Points
I’ve had my modular synth for about a year now. And you know how I feel about it. I love making music on this thing. I’ve been really good at keeping the system I have to an enclosed amount of space, fitting it in the case I bought last May. Recently, however, I’ve been seeing that I could use just one more row of modules to do some stuff that right now I cannot do. One of the things that triggered this was seeing the new MX6 case from Monorocket. My current case is a Mission 9, also from Monorocket, and I like it a lot. If there’s anything I don’t like, however, it’s that stuff on the bottom row is hard to get to because it’s on the bottom row. In addition, I’ve been planning to build a joystick module that would have to go in a separate enclosure. The MX6 is built as a suitcase that opens. My Mission 9 is somewhat like this, but the difference is that the MX6 can hold modules in it’s “lid.” This allows two rows of modules to rest on the table horizontally and two rows to be vertical. What this encourages is the modules on the bottom two rows to be “performance” oriented, so I’d want to put the modules down there that would get a lot of use. Things that modulate, things that are physical controllers. Things like the joystick and my Z8000 sequencer, for instance. While thinking about this I realized that it would be perfect for the Make Noise Pressure Points as well. It’s a touch-sensitive controller, so it makes it possible to “play” the synth as one would with a keyboard (kind of) but with much more expression. Make Noise also makes a module called “Brains” that turns Pressure Points into a full-blown sequencer as well. Just as I was thinking about all this, I found a Pressure Points for sale used, and then a Brains on eBay. So out with the old, in with the new. I unloaded a couple of modules of mine that weren’t getting much and spring for the PP/Brains.
The Pressure Points arrived the day before I put the aforementioned guitar back together and if I had any fears that my obsessing over the guitar would make me love my synth less, one evening with Pressure Points assuages those worries. This thing adds a whole new world and dimension to playing the synth. No longer is it necessary to just clock a sequence and watch it go. I can play the thing now. A lot of folks who got a Pressure Points quickly got a second. I can really see how that makes sense. For now I’ll stick with one and get the joystick finished, and then see how I feel about it.

Here are some samples and small phrases from about an hour of playing with it the night I got it.

three videos

En lieu of me actually having anything to post that I made (it’s been a month of drawing) I have these three videos I’ll put up instead. The first two I found about a year ago and were instrumental in my getting into modular synthesizers. One is Charles Cohen working his Buchla Music Easel. I saw Charles at a synth meet-up here in Phailadelphia about the same time and he’s just great. The second is The Subliminal Kid working a big Macbeth M5 with a Moog sequencer. I really like how the beat just kind of appears out of no where. The third movie here I just found today. It’s Keith Fullerton Whitman playing his modular. I have a couple of cds from KFW (Generator is my fave) and I just have no idea how he’s pulling the sounds and sequences out of this thing.

donut and noisering and machinedrum


This is basically part 3 in the series of doing stuff with the Noisering, the Hertz Donut, and the Plan B low pass gate. Go back and listen to that which is posted on 3 August and 5 August. This patch is essentially the same. The Noisering sends its random CV to the Hertz Donut, attenuated slightly. The Donut is in “Good” mode, and is connected to the Plan B Model 13 in “both” mode. The signal from the Donut is also attenuated somewhat, as it’s really easy to completely overdrive the Model 13. The envelope for the M13 is provided by Maths. Now the difference here is that the triggers for the whole thing are coming from a Machinedrum. The Machinedrum has a machine called GND IMP which is just a trigger pulse made for things like pre-MIDI drum machines and analog synths. I can sequence these triggers just like any other drum or sound on the MD. I have the track routed through external output F to the CLK IN of the Noisering. That triggers the random CV of the Noisering, and also sends through the clock out the trigger for the Maths envelope.

Now the interesting part here is in the first half of this track. You can hear kind of a little double trigger on each note. I couldn’t figure out what was going on here, thinking it was something happening with the Maths. But then realizing that the notes were changing between each of the little triggers on each beat, meaning that the Noisering was getting two triggers, I realized that the event was taking place on the Machinedrum, not the modular. I noticed that I had the wrong machine chosen for the Machinedrum. It was set to a ROM machine, which is meant for playing back samples, and not the IMP impulse machine. I don’t know — and I wish I’d checked — what the ROM machine was playing. I’m assuming that it had two distinct peaks, whatever it was, which created two triggers. In any case, it sounds great. Like it’s got this funky little swing going. At 1:04 you can hear it change back to single triggers as I swapped the machines out.

The track loops a lot with most of the change coming from the notes played by the Noisering. But closer to the end I’m punching in random steps on the Machinedrum’s sequencer, keeping everything quantized to 16th notes. (In case you want to try this at home, I’m using generic 1/4″ to 1/8″ mono cables I bought at Radio Shack for $5.99. Don’t forget to set the routing for whatever track you’re using for triggers to one of the four external outputs rather than the main output…)

more about donuts

The Hertz Donut VCO has become my favorite source of noise and tones. At one moment nice and calm and soulful, the next minute with a few tiny knob-twists or introductions of voltage, it rips your head off. That’s a good thing, and surprising to me since the main reason I like synthesizers is distinctly not for the head-ripping-off that they’re capable of (re: blinky boopity subtractive synths).
I spent an hour the other night working on variations to the church donut sequence I posted previously. The main difference is in the use of the Noisering as the clock source, and to a lesser extent, modulation of the FM index of the Hertz Donut’s second oscillator. These three sequences were outtakes from that hour of recording. On a synth forum I frequent, I was informed by James Cigler that when nothing is plugged into the clock-in jack on t he Noisering, the randomness of the clock is controlled by the EXT RATE knob, which leaks the random signal from the 2nd output into the clock. The EXT RATE knob basically attenuates this signal, allowing for full-on crazy clock, or when turned counter-clockwise, barely any random signal. This is great, and turns the Noisering into a very useful clock source for me. The only problem with it that I see is that the randomness isn’t voltage controlled, and when something is plugged into the CLK IN jack, it breaks the connection. It would be the monkey’s uncle if somehow the source plugged into the CLK IN somehow controlled the amount of that randomness. Instead it’s the other way around, the EXT RATE attenuates whatever signal is plugged into the CLK IN. Both are useful, but I suppose it would take a second jack and knob to make this work.

In any case, this first sequence is the Noisering clock being rate-controlled by a slow LFO sine wave into the CLK IN jack. (When a trigger source is plugged into the CLK IN, that becomes the source of the clock. This merely controls the rate of the internal Noisering clock).

This next one has nothing plugged into the CLK IN jack. About halfway into the sequence I start turning the EXT RATE knob which adds the random signal to the clock.

And this last sequence is longer at eight minutes. It’s also clocked by the Noisering, with some randomness in the signal. In this one there are a lot of different kinds of tones with various modulations being applied to the Hertz Donut and to the Maths, lengthening and shortening the envelope (which for you non synth-heads, means shortening and lengthening the note itself). Near the end the Plan B model 10’s ramp output is all over the second Hertz Donut oscillator, which adds that audible rise in the tone behind the decay of the sound itself. I love that.

All the delay is provided by the Boss DD-3 pedal. It’s convinced me that I need a voltage controlled delay like the Flight of Harmony Sound of Shadows real soon…

how kids draw synthesizers

I recently was asked to drop by the third-grade science class of a local elementary school and show off/explain my modular synth. The class was studying sound and it seemed like a perfect fit. Modulars are graphic, in that they have the shapes of the sound waves printed right there on the VCOs, and they are easy for kids to understand since everything is right there and accessible. This is opposed to, say, digital synthesizers where one knob might do eleven things and everything is hidden beneath multi-layered menus. The visit was a bunch of fun and as I expected the kids just loved pulling cables and turning knobs and hearing the immediate results. I’m sure that the subtleties of the way a four-pole filter resonates vs a vactrol filter was lost on them, but they seem to grasp some of the fundamentals.

In return for my visit, I later received a pack of thank-you cards that the class made. This is one of the perks of visiting schools (which I do often in my “real” job as a children’s book illustrator). Kids love writing and drawing thank-you notes. The cool part of these particular thank-you notes is that many of the students drew modular synths on their cards. Some of the drawings are fairly accurate representations, but most of them are more abstract. It’s wonderful to see what the kids took away from this — matrices of dots and lines representing the knobs, jacks and cables.

So here for your viewing pleasure, I’ve scanned my favorites. I posted a photo of the synth as it looked when I took it to the school at the bottom. Just to show what the kids were looking at.

100215_modular with seq02_006

a good Z8000 video

I’ve been planning to sit down and write a post about some of the new additions to my modular synth. One of these is the Z8000 sequencer by Tip Top Audio. It’s a matrix sequencer and while incredibly simple in concept and design, it’s incredibly rich and complex in practice and use. Just the two or so hours I’ve spent with it made my head spin, and I’ve been jotting down all sorts of patching ideas in my notebook when I’m away from the synth. One thing I’m really looking forward to working on is clocking the Z8000 with my Machinedrum’s triggers at different intervals and steps.
I acquired this sequencer with having seen only a couple of decent videos, and after reading a long thread on the Muffwiggler’s forum about it. Today I noticed a new video from Tip Top with Stretta putting the Z8000 through some paces, with a good explanation. Take a gander.