Nov 122017

Calibrating the Ornament & Crime Eurorack Module

The pain of learning something complex is exacerbated by the risk of exposing oneself to the perceived notion that ridicule could be an outcome of accomplishing anything less than perfection. This dilemma and fear of allowing others to see your incompetence as you struggle forward is real and unfortunate.

I have endeavored for more than a year to learn about making electronic music on an incredibly deep and complex machine where I’m confronted with difficulty every time I turn it on. For example, just last night I spend a couple of hours trying to calibrate my Ornament & Crime modules. While I’ve had these for quite some time it has not been necessary prior to now to have them properly calibrated.

As a matter of fact it was not my intention to even start that process last night, I was simply looking for the instructions of how to change the time until the screensaver kicked in because one of the units was set to 15 seconds and the other 25 seconds(?). So I set them both to 30 seconds, but while I was on the instruction page I saw the information regarding calibration. I didn’t build these modules (they are DIY units) so I figured the two guys who built them surely calibrated them before they shipped them to me. They may have but as I would come to learn, other factors can interfere with how accurately they are calibrated.

On my first pass I had to contend with the fact that my Mordax Data Oscilloscope only reads out two decimals of accuracy and the instructions were telling me to take it to four decimals. I started the process and decided to get as close as possible. After finishing the second unit I glanced over the instructions again but this time I see that it clearly says that as you go from say 3.99 to 4.00 volts there could be a flicker of the numbers, rotate the dial just until the flicker stops and you’ll probably be extremely close to 4.0000V and so I started over and readjusted my calibration. For the calibration point around 0.0000V, as soon as I got to -0.00 I adjusted the encoder until I had a solid -0.00V without flicker.

Mostly done with the second unit and my eyes straining in the poor light I turned on two LED USB lamps that are mounted directly in my Eurorack case. They each have 10 LED’s so I get some great bright light on my instrument. There’s a problem though, as I turned on the lights the calibrated voltage shifted. I turned off the lights and the voltage returned to near perfect calibration. Turned them back on and sure enough I was seeing a shift in voltage that would have a small, maybe imperceptible impact on the notes being sent out of this module.

Lucky me I was also starting to think about that -0.00V reading and got to wondering if there wasn’t a point between the negative zero and positive zero. Seeing I was going to start over again anyway I sent directly to the zero reading and sure enough there were quite a few turns of the encoder before I got to the point where the readout was flickering between -0.00V and 0.00V. Once the minus sign stopped flickering on and off I figured that I had a near perfect zero voltage point. With that I had to calibrate these units one more time.

This issue arose because I finally took time to look for something in the manual and upon finding one thing I casually and not very accurately read another and because I didn’t even try to be meticulous in the slightest I moved forward without enough information to do things right the first or second time.

Now finally we get to the gist of why I started this blog entry. Eurorack synths, foreign languages, electrical engineering, coding for things like deep learning and complex network systems, and a host of other non-intuitive endeavors/hobbies can tax our faculties and make us scratch our heads why we sought out something that at times feels impossible to excel at.

Our egos at these weak points ravage us with uncertainty and can make us not only angry with ourselves, but with others around us. Case in point; forums!

How many of us want to be mad at a thing and its creator because the version we bought is obviously broken? Most often it is not broken, on the contrary it is us that is broken. We have been set up by a system that doesn’t have much room for mistakes and failure. You have one chance to win, one chance to get good grades, one chance to get things right or risk getting fired from your job.

We then apply this to the things that should bring us a sense of personal accomplishment, but our conditioning from a relentless march into incremental often meaningless rewards is then applied to our passions. From the inability to master difficult situations and complex learning scenarios we don’t want to risk our egos and allow shame to hammer away at us so we lash out and blame something or someone else. We are not adulting when this happens. Instead we go to a forum and rant, as a poor exercise in catharsis that only works to alienate the hostile blowhard who is likely feeding the anxiety of those who would like to help, but are put off by the toxic volatility of the poster.

This then begs the question, “So what do we do as a society to correct this broken process?” The answer is too complex and would require another few thousand words to start to offer my thoughts on some of the structural and cultural issues that could be part of our dialog, but this blog entry is already too nerdy and long so maybe that’s a topic for another day. It’s kind of like starting the calibration process only to recognize there’s more to know and you’ll just have to do it again and again anyway so persistence at least should be a large part of the key.

Nov 072017

The past couple of weeks I was offered the opportunity to beta test a new firmware for the Stillson Hammer MKII from Industrial Music Electronics. The Stillson Hammer is a Eurorack format modular synthesizer piece of gear from Scott Jaeger out of the state of Washington.

I first learned of this device in the late spring of 2016 and by the summer I was ready to place my order. The Stillson Hammer had a rocky start when it first shipped in March 2016 with more than a few bug reports and frustration getting it to play nice. By the time I made my order in July the firmware had been updated to version 1.5, but it was still less than perfect. Hot on its heals was firmware version 1.666 which was poetically appropriate seeing that the list price of the Stillson Hammer was $666.

Even with its share of wonky behaviors this sequencer was building a dedicated fan base. In mid-September I finally received notice that my unit was shipping, my enthusiasm had not been tarnished by the negative reports. I guess my many years of testing software braced me for dealing with a product that is evolving.

Stillson Hammer MKII from Industrial Music Electronics

What made the Stillson Hammer so desirable was its emphasis on live performance and modulation possibilities. While the MakeNoise Rene was arguably more popular that summer it wasn’t suited for live shows. The other big point of differentiation was that this sequencer had 4 CV and 4 gate outputs. That in addition to the 16 sliders for snappy adjustments of gate and CV values for each of the steps per track; it appeared that we were on the verge of a huge shift in sequencers for the modular market.

The ER-101 from Orthogonal Devices may have been more fully packed with features and it was certainly out a lot longer than any of the competition having been released in December 2013. The companion device known as the ER-102 followed a year later but with the full system price at over $1000 it was out of reach for many. What it had going for it was deep programmability, 4 tracks, 99 steps, 8 CV’s, and 4 gates, with the ER-102 the capabilities skyrocketed. While this module remains a strong contender as the best sequencer for serious composers, it is a bit difficult to program on the fly during live performances. Colin Benders is certainly the exception to the rule regarding this last claim.

So creating something that went beyond the 1 track, 1 CV, 1 gate dominant design that could be had for only $566 on sale was something the market was hungry for. Scott Jaeger hit on the right design at the right time. Keeping an impatient fan base happy while he nearly single-handedly dealt with the pressures of manufacturing, creating new products for the next big trade shows, maintaining existing products, dealing with customer service, and having a life maybe proved as difficult for him as it does for the majority of small companies operating with between 1 and 5 employees.

When my Stillson Hammer arrived it may not have been perfect, but I was even less so. This was my first dedicated Eurorack sequencer and I honestly didn’t understand the first thing about tracks, steps, gates, scales, ratchets, delays, and transposing. As I stumbled through some rudimentary tutorials in exploring this thing of complexity I had plenty of other options within my rack to distract me from the other things I didn’t understand.

Around the same time all of this was happening I was expanding my company that had just gone public and was taking my employee count from 20 to 30 people after raising another round of capital. I was busy. As the end of the year rolled around I was mostly oblivious and unaffected by the issues I was reading about the Stillson Hammer in the forums, as the topics were mostly beyond my comprehension and fully in the domain of people who apparently knew what they were doing. I’ve since come to learn there are a lot of people new to Eurorack who also have no idea what they are doing.

January 2017 saw a lot of chatter about pending firmware updates, I took the opportunity to order a Picket 3 device for $20 so I’d be ready when it arrived. In April firmware version 1.777 was being delivered along with my skill-set having to come to grips with updating my Stillson Hammer.

To someone already lost in the confusion of this modular synthesis entanglement of complexity, it is easy to feel updating your device is a near impossibility. First I needed this strange little red electronics device known as a Pickit that I’d never used before. Next I needed an application called MPLab IPE that’s a 600MB download and on first glance is intimidating. The Stillson Hammer user manual offered nothing in the way of help, fortunately some friendly soul on the internet shared his story about how to update the firmware.

Still being a green user of sequencers the advances from 1.666 to 1.777 were invisible to me. Then in September Scott started releasing a quick succession of updates starting with 1.85 and culminating with 1.852. By this time I had cultivated enough familiarity with the Stillson Hammer that the improvements earned quality of life points for me.

Just a month later Scott reached out to me after he and I exchanged a couple of emails regarding an order I had made for a Plexiglas window replacement for the red film that shipped with early units. He asked if I’d be interested in testing firmware 2.0. My answer was an enthusiastic yes.

How Scott thought I’d be a good candidate to test his firmware is beyond me, but as I accepted I was determined that I was going to give him some kind of feedback.

What was great about the next few weeks was that I had to methodically go through every single detail that I could explore to the best of my ability. My familiarity with the Stillson Hammer was going up exponentially. The previous year spent learning about the multitude of other things I was needing to understand was starting to pay dividends in my overall understanding.

There were a lot of rough spots and inconsistencies still in the firmware prior to this push for 2.0. There were probably many things I reported to Scott that were not issues but design choices for things I wasn’t familiar enough with to understand why they worked the way they did. All the same Scott took the time to read each of my short missives and on occasion explain why something was the way it was. As I progressed from beta 1 to 2, 3, 4, and finally release candidate 1, I saw more than a few things I’ve reported fixed and at least a couple of new additions. The capability and maturity of the Stillson Hammer is now rock solid in my humble opinion. With the new firmware it will be an interesting next couple of weeks as others start to dissect and push the boundaries of what this sequencer does, I hope to learn a lot more from these enthusiasts.

Through all of this the tutorials from Robotopsy and a Japanese language tutorial from Clock Face Modular were watched more than a couple of times each. The user manual in its first incarnation didn’t help me that much, but it promises to get better with the final release of the 2.0 firmware. Giving yourself some dedicated time to methodically dig into a sequencer while reading and watching all that you can will ultimately pay off, but it’s a tough slog when you come from knowing nothing about music composition prior to diving into the world of Eurorack.

Oct 172017

TimefireVR Crew 2017

Diversity, camaraderie, dedication, commitment, loyalty, and an effort beyond anything I could have ever dreamed of. That is what best describes this group photo of the team that I had assembled.

The majority of these amazing people have had to go on to explore other opportunities but I am forever grateful for what they gave to a dream that had been percolating in my imagination for over 25 years. This summer just after the 4th of July holiday I had to do something that was the single most isolating and distressing thing I’ve had to do as the founder of a company; I had to let them all go.

It has taken me more than 90 days to bring myself to look at these faces and seeing them again simultaneously warms my heart and strikes me in the gut with how much I miss them. I can never fully explain the profound disappointment I felt and continue to feel that on the verge of trying to find our place in the world we ran out of options and money and were no longer able to keep them employed. While we had all the growing pains one would expect from a startup that was simultaneously trying to invent and innovate, on the whole we had an awesome team.

There are a few people not in the photo, notably my co-founder Jeffrey and myself. In the days this photo was taken we were scrambling looking for options to make payroll. The hoped for bump in sales or attracting a partner with deep pockets never materialized. This was especially difficult for us, as we were in active conversations with some larger players following our favorable press comparing us to being the “Virtual Minecraft meets Facebook.”

Doors started opening but funds to meaningfully engage in those conversations were greatly inhibited. Over the course of the summer we were able to maintain a skeleton crew that not only kept the platform alive but have revamped many things that have put us in the position to release our title anew and are we are now compatible with not only the HTC Vive but the Oculus Rift from Facebook too.

The old adage “A dollar short and day late” certainly applies here, though that doesn’t absolve me of the guilt I feel in letting these people down.

I do not know how to repay them or even honor them. Along the way I have felt a lot of gratitude and a fair share of outright hostility and hatred for how I chose to do things or how things were done due to the compromises that comes with spending other people’s money, but life goes on or at least it should.

My ambition was large and enthusiasm great as a group of mostly amateurs strove to create something I hoped would be beneficial to society by not diving into the tropes of violence, misogyny, winners and losers.

Oct 162017

A Glimpse At Some Of Hypatia From TimefireVR

Sometimes, in an effort to create something extraordinary, we take chances on unproven markets and ideas that have no precedence; this is the path to innovation. We are in an age that demands participation from better educated populations on a global scale. We cannot allow geographic and/or economic isolation to limit our being able to enjoy the benefit of what deep cultural integration and a strong education can bring. We must all be afforded the opportunity to be the right person in the right place at the right time. Our world now more than ever requires our innovation and ability to develop workable solutions that do not rely on outdated technology. We cannot survive in isolation and ignorance. We truly are living in the future many of us have dreamed of and must learn to live accordingly.

TimefireVR through Hypatia has been a labor of love that has been toiled on for more than three years. Through a million lessons learned and a host of methods explored on how not to create a VR title we finally reached the point this summer that we thought we were ready to test the waters. The only problem was that by then our funding was running thin and we would have to try to find customers without a marketing budget and being limited by being “ready” for just one platform; the HTC Vive.

Stumbling blocks were encountered shortly after our early release, as happens in many small companies still in the startup phase; but with a reduced crew we have endeavored to correct some of our shortcomings and are close to being able to roll out an update to Hypatia.

First of all, we are making changes to our pricing model for Hypatia and a BIG surprise is around the corner. In order to help with this change we have worked over the summer to bring a trade and commerce model to Hypatia that will allow better economic participation with our city.

Next, we have been updating our map for easier navigation, updated the entry into the world, updated the avatars, and have been making a ton of improvements for an all-around better experience while people visit, play, and learn in Hypatia.

Finally, we are just about ready to launch in support of the Oculus Rift.

For those of you who have been our early adopters we offer you thanks for trying to help us create an early economic model that was hoped to help bring visibility to our efforts. We have something in mind to reward you for your participation and will discuss that in a future blog post. Again, thanks for your contribution.

[Edit: I posted this as a blog entry on my other website: as an update to what has happened to our company over the summer]

Sep 242017

Iberi at The Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona

For the first time in what feels like a long while we made it over to the Musical Instrument Museum for a live performance. Tonight we were enchanted to be able to take in the Georgian folk choir “Iberi.” Taking us back in time and across the geography of Georgia which lies between Russia to the north and its southern neighbors Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The ensemble put on a solid performance though we would have loved just a bit more dancing, that guy on the far left definitely has some skills.

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