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.

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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Sep 162017

Caroline Wise holding a basket made of Yucca fiber at Tuzigoot National Monument in Arizona

A rare Saturday mini-roadtrip took us north to Tuzigoot National Monument in Clarkdale, Arizona. We’ve visited Tuzigoot previously but never before for a talk. The subject that interested Caroline enough to ask me to accompany her was a presentation by archaeologist Zack Curcija about the use of Yucca fibers among indigenous people of the southwest. As happens so often when I’m reluctant about something I’m not sure I’ll have an interest in, it turns out that listening to just about anyone who is passionate about something is enough to draw me in and start wishing I knew more or wonder when their next talk is scheduled.

Jul 162017

Roads and rivers we've traveled in Alaska

Anchorage leaves a lot to be desired and so does Fairbanks, but there’s big nature between the two so those less-than-ideal realities will have to be endured. To be fair, their lackluster impression probably has more to do with our budget than with a totality of blanket statements that cast aspersions upon the aesthetics and services either of these cities have on offer. We did after all have an amazing dinner riverside in Fairbanks that will stand out as an enduring memory, but the lodgings one is offered for under $200 a night are deplorable. So let’s move past these temporary stopovers and get on with why we came up here.

We came up this far north for a number of reasons: one was because Alaska, two, Denali, and three, to add to our map of America, more specifically the map where we track which roads we’ve traveled throughout the United States. While we’d had a brief stay in Anchorage on our previous trip into Alaska all we did was grab a rental car for a few hours to head in the general direction of Seward; we didn’t have time to see anything else. That trip was at the tail end of a rafting adventure that saw us rafting the Alsek River between Haines Junction and Yakutat, Alaska. This time we are once again here to raft the Alsek, but we left Phoenix early to get a couple of days in some unexplored territory before we hit the river.

Caroline and John Wise at Denali National Park in Alaska

Because Anchorage is right on the coast it turns out they get their fair share of cloud coverage, as we came in under clouds so shall we go. Our drive out of town went north on Highway 1 towards Denali National Park and Preserve and with gray skies there wasn’t much on the horizon for the first few hours of the drive.

Sometimes the legend and myths surrounding a thing can make that thing much larger than it truly is and with that magic of the unknown dreams cascade in ways that no reality will ever compare to. Then again reality sets into motion an entirely new sense of knowledge that replaces the fantasy with experience that often have the affect of drawing us back in for return visits and creating the fertile ground for new dreams.

Denali National Park is one of those places whose scale and reputation comes with some big expectations. First of all it’s not as remote as our imaginations had already plotted on the map. From Anchorage where we landed the day before it’s a mere 237 miles to the park. Next, based on other anecdotal stories we approached this place with the idea that the crowds would be on par with Disneyland on Thanksgiving, fortunately for us that is hardly the situation.

On the Roadside Trail in Danali National Park

First stop had to be at the visitor center, as a trip to a National Park wouldn’t be complete without Caroline working to get her Junior Ranger badge. While kids can get by doing an activity or two from the workbook, Caroline tries to answer every question and complete as much as possible from the tasks to at least show some serious effort. Seeing we didn’t have all day to spend in the park, she’d have to limit herself and chose to do the Sled Dog Demo. I didn’t come to Alaska to spend even one minute on a bus that could take us there, so we get on the Roadside Trail for the nearly two-mile hike to the kennels.

The forested trail is a nice introduction to the flora of the area though the fauna is either in hiding or has already suffered the sixth great extinction. We make it to the kennel minutes before the demo with enough time to get a quick pull of water from the hose nearest to the dogs. As I’m drinking from it I’m simultaneously wondering if any of the dogs lifted a leg on this thing?

Alaskan Huskies in Danali National Park during a demonstration of sledding, summer style.

These Alaskan Huskies are a beautiful spirited breed of dogs with the pack instinct fully intact. They appear to love moving as a unit and dragging the wheeled training cart around the track that has been set up just for the purposes. The skilled handlers take pride in showing us visitors the working life of these dogs that we learn are most comfortable when chilling on a ten degree below zero winter day.

Caroline snuggling up with one of the huskies in Danali National Park

With ranger autograph in hand that proves Caroline attended a ranger-led program we take the Rock Creek trail back to the Visitor Center and at 2.9 miles long we relish the idea of our creek side return. So it turns out that the Rock Creek trail is not aptly named as there is no sight of the creek, though we do hear it twice on our hike back to the visitors center. Regarding that aforementioned extinction we do learn it’s not complete yet as we pass a couple of squirrels and the shiny berry infused scat of a bear.

Squirrel in the wilds of Alaska

Back at the Visitor Center Caroline is ready for swearing in though we are reminded that it is actually a pledging to maintain a code of behavior and giving good example to helping be a steward while visiting our public lands. Win of wins for being here today as Caroline is leaving with a commemorative centennial wood badge that sadly would be lost by the time we got back to Arizona.

Caroline Wise earning her Junior Ranger badge at Danali National Park in Alaska

One more thing to do before leaving is head up the road to Savage River which for this trip to Denali will be the end of the road for us. Going beyond this point requires the visitor to sign up for a bus trip to one of several points along the 83 mile long gravel road. The longest journey into the park takes 13 hours or about 12 hours we don’t have right now. Reaching the bridge over the not-so-Savage river we have not yet gleaned a view of the mountain formerly known as Mt. McKinley now known by its native name Denali and have every reason to come back at a future date to see more of this enormous park and preserve.

Savage River at Danali National Park in AlaskaOn the way to Fairbanks, Alaska

By the time we reach Fairbanks we are hungry and head directly to the Pump House which seems to be the most popular place in the area. Rightfully so as it’s in a National Historically Registered building right on the Chena River and the food is perfect from the fresh seafood appetizer to the rhubarb cobbler. As a matter of fact it is so perfect we will talk of the meal from the Pump House months from our fantastic meal.

Seafood tower at the Pump House in Fairbanks, Alaska

At 10:30 p.m. the sun is shining bright as though it were maybe 5:00 p.m. back home in Arizona, this is unsettling. It’s not even sunset and everything is closed. Some people say it is the endless night of January that is disturbing but for me here right now this apparent still early part of the day demands that people should still be active doing normal day time stuff. I think I might have the opposite issue with this long day if I were living here, as the long night would be perfect for long runs at making music, crafting, reading, and doing all the other stuff that requires hours of mindful focus for extended periods of time.

Our hotel is an abomination and lends a pallor to the entire idea of what Fairbanks is. The state of Alaska would be well served to create a board of standards of how quality and service is managed when a typical visitor spending a couple hundred dollars for a room probably has an expectation that exceeds the type of room on offer that would cost $10 a night at a flop house on Skid Row anywhere else. I have to remind myself that we are not in Alaska for the accommodations but for the expansive nature and beauty that surrounds us outside of the city limits.