Jun 262017

Stillson Hammer MK2

Let’s talk about DNA and sequencing though what I really want to discuss is rhythmic sequencing. It won’t be a deep discussion about genetics, just a note or two. While I certainly respect the work and have learned more than a little about our double helix blueprints from Kary Mullis to Craig Venter, matter of fact they are icons in my book of people who have inspired me, there is nothing from their body of work that will help me and whatever deficit of genetic material and gray matter I would wish I otherwise possessed that might help me better understand this wild beast known as music and more specifically sequencing.

There is a correlation I see between our DNA and music and that is; patterns. Our genetic base pairs are made of Thymine, Cytosine, Adenine, and Guanine known as TCAG and these four molecules are organized into patterns that repeat billions of times in order to bring sense and meaning to the building blocks of our very being. In popular music we are typically working with 4 beats per measure and 4 measures (4/4 music) and it is through these repetitions that the order of music and its rhythms become the most common sequencing’s of sounds that are appealing to us humans at this time in our history’s.

If you think that the study of genetics is difficult, that is where my mind is currently at in regards to building my first musical sequences. To the listener they may hear 120BPM and never give a second thought to the fact that they are listening to two beats per second, but a second is a lot of time. Try counting as high and fast as you can in one second, I can get to seven or eight as I speak the numbers out loud. So between the beats are pulses where things like snares could be triggered.

When you consider that it is not uncommon for a song to have upwards of over 100 voices that come in and out of the mix during the course of the track, you have to understand that all 100 of these have their own time signatures and hence they get sequenced in to the mix at a particular moment or their individual elements are conforming to the timing that has been dictated by the sequencer and clock timings.

While it might be too ambitious for me to begin considering even two voices simultaneously, just understanding one sequenced voice has been a hurdle. Yesterday I wrote about clock signals, it is from these timing devices that the master clock is used to set the rest of the voices in the track to work off the same beat structure. Okay, so what gates and triggers in what sequence make for interesting rhythmic patterns? This is where I need to start experimenting with the basics such as a bass line or pattern for a kick drum. I could use an already written midi track and set it down as the basis to start building a song upon, but then I don’t feel that I’d fully understand the fundamentals.

And so I struggle trying to learn the basics of when to trigger a pulse, send a gate to a voice, or attenuate a voice that was just triggered or modulated for pitch. Someday I will come to grips with this genetic soup of sounds and timings that feel like they are just beyond the horizon of my comprehension.

Jun 252017

Pamela's New Workout from ALM

Music to the casual listener is mostly about rhythm, melody, and lyrical content. To someone learning how to make music one of the first lessons that becomes obviously apparent is that music is all about timing. Clocks, triggers, gates, pulses, PPQN (Pulses Per Quarter Note), randomness, steps, and modulation of all of these play a central role in how the Eurorack modular system is going to stay in sync, create and evolve rhythms, and move your piece forward, even when going in reverse.

I’ve chosen Pamela’s New Workout (PNW) from ALM as my master clock, I had tried the Arturia Beat Step Pro before deciding I wanted everything in the box. Once settled on a clocking device there is still an incredible depth of knowledge that will have to be acquired due to details regarding the division and multiplication of the signal, if you will apply a Euclidean rhythm, or maybe you’ll choose to randomize its timing signature.

The PNW has eight outputs and each of them can be independently clocked. As the master clock I patch out from this source to sync other modules that need to stay in time with each other. Even a random clock event should typically be in time with the rhythm of the piece that is being created.

Each of the eight outputs can in turn be divided or multiplied from within the PNW and by routing a clock signal to something like the Doepfer A-160-2 Clock Divider or the Animodule Tik-Tok Divider/Multiplier. If I want a random synced clock I have a couple choices here too by taking a PNW output into the SSF Ultra Random Analogue or into the Makenoise Wogglebug, both specialize in random clock signals. I can take one of these external clock outputs into my Stillson Hammer sequencer and adjust the timing on a per track basis right within the Stillson, same goes for many sequencers. In all I currently have more than a few dozen devices that benefit from having a clock signal sent to them, while nearly everything else that follows these modules is the recipient of those perfectly or randomly clocked timings.

It’s daunting to try and think about the potential of which modules and sounds would benefit from particular timing signals. While I have more than a few passive signal multipliers also known as Mults (clock signals do not benefit from powered mults as CV signals do, as clocks send pulses that are not reliant on perfect voltage signals to convey their information accurately), I will still need to come to an understanding about which devices I want to send every manner of timing in order to achieve whatever it is that is stewing musically in my imagination.

Jun 182017

Level Meters on the Mackie 1202VLZ4

Ten days ago I wrote a blog entry about signal routing and the inherent difficulties encountered as an audio system becomes more complex. In that entry I explained that I’m trying to figure routing out so I can start learning about managing the quality of the audio signal for recording. I’m back today with a note about how my lessons for understanding audio levels is progressing.

First of all I have a potentially “hot” signal leaving my Levit8 mixer and going into my Expert Sleepers ES-8 audio interface that sits between my modular gear and my DAW. Once in Bitwig I can have multiple simultaneous audio channels from my modular gear for recording, but how do I modulate those signals so they don’t clip? In order to answer that (possibly incorrectly) I watched a number of videos regarding mixing and something called the K-System. Instead of regular VU meters I’ve opted for the K-System that was created by Bob Katz. I’m not going to explain why today, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the metering system for me.

Once a signal enters an audio channel in Bitwig it typically clips after I’ve armed the channel. Back at the Levit8 I need to attenuate the signal down, way down and super low in some cases. From there I throw a Fabfilter Pro-L Limiter on the track and adjust the output until I get an average reading of 0 dB on the meters. This feels like a mad science where I’m certain I’m missing something totally obvious, to everyone but me. I’m yet to tackle where compression and EQ come in to play.

There is a bit of dilemma here as I actually have two work flows I have to move through. On the one hand I have a bunch of mono outs from three Levit8’s, a Mutant Hot Glue, a Blinds, and  a floater I can plug into the Planar in my skiff or into the Moog Mother 32. Using this flow I take the outs into my Mackie 1202-VLZ4 and that signal is fed into my Universal Audio Apollo Twin USB which drives my audio monitors. This set up is great for just turning on the synth with no intention of recording anything and getting right to patching. It also allows me to leave the synth off and work just with Bitwig or use the Apollo for playback of audio from videos or other PC based media.

On the other hand if I want to record what I’m making on the synth I have to take those outs from above and feed them into my ES-6 and ES-8 modules from Expert Sleepers which are then delivered via a USB connection to my PC (Windows 10) and then to the Apollo Twin Duo. As I said in the previous entry, I require ASIO4ALL to make this work. I’d like to rely solely on the ES-8 and its helpers the ES-6 and ES-3 and feed that signal into the Mackie, but then I’d still have the issue of where to send my PC audio and how? Maybe a larger mixer?

Jun 172017

Makenoise Pressure Points Sequencer

Recently there was a post on The Muff Wigglers (the Facebook version of Muffwiggler) that asked the community of modular synthesizer enthusiasts, “Since the explosion of modular and boutique clones and the like why does most of the music simply suck? For example: bing, poop, dong dong, cling, sample and hold, shudder shudder, rumble, bong, derp derp, twang. Thoughts?”

The person asking this opened a firestorm of protest for generalizing that this type of music is somehow inferior or that it inherently sucks. The problem is that there are amazing examples of modular synth music out there that are now considered classics and contemporary musicians that are inspiring tens of thousands of us. On the other hand there has been a relative explosion of interest in the tools that are available for Eurorack and learning this craft. With this recent uptake in the field there are a lot more people who are exploring how these instruments work. This is where the problem rears its head.

Learning how to make sound is the first step in approaching any idea of some day making music with one of these complex configurations of synthesis modules. Many of us are approaching this endeavor with absolutely no musical training and that’s okay as this has always been the path of rock and roll and DIY culture. This guy who challenged a community to respond ultimately drew more than 1000 comments with the majority condemning him for using such heavy handed draconian language that was mostly interpreted as being flaming troll bait.

For anybody who has been close to the music industry or aspired to be a serious musician they know that most people are not born aficionados at picking up an instrument and owning it’s breadth of potential. Nor can we humans practice or exist in a vacuum and so we must make ourselves vulnerable by asking others for their input. Most synthesists will be the first to admit that their experimentation approaches the sound of blaring car alarms or cat’s meowing in various states of pain and ecstasy. While this may well be true it doesn’t do anyone any good to listen to or read abject cruelty. This kind of bullying does not inspire people to perform better or learn more, but it does often encourage people towards avoidance. Not to say that anyone should be treated like a snowflake and yes I can admit that we all benefit from criticism, but it’s a measure of civility and patience to offer valid critiques and constructive observations to help the novice find their way.

At 54 years old I don’t really give a squat whether people hate what I’m posting here, I’ll probably cringe when I listen to it in some months or years into the future myself. A big difference is this will never have anything to do with my career as it’s nothing more than a hobby, for others it’s part of a dream. Maybe there was a benefit in the 1960’s of practicing the electric guitar in the basement alone because no one else could here our hammering the instrument to death, but that was then and we are now living in the age of social media where content can be shared across disparate networks in a moment. Tolerance might be a skill that some of us should focus on acquiring more of rather than whipping an acid tongue of loathing against the unsuspecting.

Today’s patch of Bing Dong Dong was constructed using the following modules: Ultra Random Analog by Steady State Fate (SSF), Makenoise Pressure Points, Brains, Wogglebug, and Tempi, the Intellijel Planar, Varigate 8+ by Malekko, a Synthtech E950/951 combo, Spectrum and Aperture from WMD, an Ultrafold from WMD and SSF, Levit8 from Erogenous Tones, and finally the Dual Looping Delay from 4MS.


Jun 152017

Virtual Reality world Hypatia

Three years ago my friend Jeffrey Rassás put together my first working capital and we founded TimefireVR: a bunch of intrepid artists and developers starting on an endeavor to build a multi-player massive online social virtual reality application. We have now finally arrived at the day that it is being made available to the world. At midnight our team launched the VR city of Hypatia. Over the years, many people have worked on this, many are still striving to make it even better and will hopefully continue to do so for years into the future.

My ambition was to create a non-violent explorer that would go the extra mile to break down the geographic and economic barriers afflicting a large swath of all populations around our globe. It has been my belief that when we humans have the opportunity to play, explore, and extend our curiosity with others, we become better citizens of Earth and more importantly we become better persons to ourselves.

The original idea was born in 1994 while I was living in Frankfurt, Germany, with the working title “Zones.” Back then many of us thought VR was about to be the next big thing, turned out that the next big thing would be the internet. Zones was to be an environment influenced by Berlin and Frankfurt where transmogrifying insectoids would morph in and out of reality as they explored a world of art that would deliver them into the surreal. Today our VR city is named Hypatia, in honor of the first known female intellectual. The avatars are scaled back for now and are known as “Hoverbots.” The environment initially borrows architectural influences from Amsterdam, while being immersed in an alternative universe should certainly qualify as being surreal. So maybe I’ve achieved a few of those objectives from all those years ago.

It took 23 years until the performance of computers, the speed of the internet, and the capability of headsets began to deliver the quality necessary to make VR viable; though to me it feels like it took nearly a lifetime. Now that it’s here I’m amazed that I’ve had the incredible opportunity to participate with this ground breaking paradigm shift in how we view reality and the virtual one we are creating.

What has been created here in Hypatia is not a simple game, not by a long shot. It is the culmination of an acquisition of knowledge that started with ideas of invention and exploration I had as a small child, leading me to discover the evolution of the mind of humanity as seen through the philosophical filter of Aristotle and Friedrich Nietzsche to the sociology of Jean Baudrillard and Jürgen Habermas. Growing up in Los Angeles, living in Europe, and learning about the proto-city of Çatalhöyük played their parts in how my perception would lay the foundation of a virtual city meant to be a cultural and educational epicenter of the future. I’ve stood in the living room of the James Ensor House in Ostend, Belgium, and listened to Mozart’s music on the streets of Salzburg in Austria. I’ve visited Eisenach, Germany, where Bach was born and I walked through the Wartburg where Martin Luther translated the bible. From World War II Japanese internment camps in the California desert to the Yellowstone Caldera over to the streets of Manhattan, I’ve studied who and what we are and how we have moved through history and shaped our cultures.

Whether rafting the Colorado like John Wesley Powell or launching from a rocket to deliver the first humans to the moon, there is an imperative for people to go out in search of the extraordinary. Unfortunately not all of us can be so lucky. Virtual Reality can change that and afford humanity the opportunity to have a surrogate experience that allows us to touch the impossible. Hypatia is but a first step in helping teach the language of this new art and reality. Reduced to its very basics, reality is nothing more than a configuration of energetic particles that form the basis and material which drive the perception of the universe around us. In VR we are on the verge of harnessing the placement of light and illusion of matter in a setting that soon will be indistinguishable from what we know to be reality. So in a sense we are creating a new universe that we can explore, as where our real universe is too large for us to venture much beyond our solar system.

All of this is important to me as I find that the discovery of novelty and a healthy relationship to learning intrinsically complex things essentially make up a fountain of youth. We are children once because we do not yet have a broad foundation of knowledge regarding the world around us. Our best moments of learning are found in play. We learn language with the help of family and friends who dote on us as infants, encourage our unintelligible sounds, and reward us with love and amazement. We extend our developing skills by the exploration of what is immediately around us such as when parents fill the crib with toys, stuffed animals, a mobile, and musical devices. Then it’s off to find the house before wandering into the backyard and then the park. Every step of the way we are playing and venturing further out and no one asks that we do more than that. We are not graded to talk, we do not receive marks for achieving an efficiency of play with our teddy bear. We do not pay children to go to make sand castles or fire them when they do not win at hide-n-seek.

This age of innocence and exponential learning comes crashing to a halt as soon as we find out that our teachers are allowed to be disappointed with us and worse. They embarrass us, tell our parents that we are failures in their eyes; even our peers are allowed to wreak havoc on our developing sense of self by ridiculing us for not being as fast, as pretty, as smart, as tough, or as rich. After all of this social conditioning we want well balanced adults who are prepared to enter a work force and not be burdened by mental illness, alcoholism, violent tendencies, or laziness. Our system is broke, yet while it’s wearing the Emperor’s New Clothes many think it’s better than the alternative of the Emperor not wearing any clothes at all.

Someone has to step up and offer something different. While no one person or group is likely to have a universal answer that will solve the predicament that we as a society and global population are in, it is obvious we are in need of greater imaginations and ability to adapt to complexity. We must strive to discover alternatives to an education process that is not inspiring the generations to dream of going to the figurative moon.

If we cannot dream without fear of failure or laugh at the absurd that makes us challenge our perception of what is possible then I feel that we are heading into a cultural dark age. A large problem I have with that is that I cannot believe the opportunity that all of us have right before us here and now. We have greater access to knowledge than at any other time in human history, including even recent history of just 20 years ago. We have access to tools that allow people of limited skills to develop a vocation by simply seeing it out and applying oneself. Music from across history is available immediately as is billions of minutes of on-demand video that can share nearly any information or teach most every topic known to us. Unless we are able to embrace what is difficult as we get older, a stagnation can only harm our self-respect and the economic opportunity that we might have otherwise carved out for ourselves.

But who wants to try something difficult if it means we can get bad marks, be embarrassed by our peers, or find ourselves destitute because we were fired for not achieving the goals others have set for us? Play is just as important for the two year old as it is for the 12 and 72 year old. Hypatia is a place where play takes center stage. Developing the city of Hypatia and inviting people in we have witnessed over and over again people of all ages fall into amazement followed by fits of joyous laughter and disbelief that they are exploring a magical place where it appears that all things are possible.

Over the years investors asked me who our target market was and they wanted specific answers, but they rarely asked for or wanted a truthful answer: our target market is not solely 12-17 year old. Our market is humanity from all walks of life, all religions, all colors, genders, orientations, or levels of intellectual and economic success. I understand this is too broad for most people to wrap their head around, after all they stopped dreaming big once they were pulled from the sandbox and dropped in front of a book about equations and rules of grammar.

Just as anyone reading this can see I voluntarily conformed to the rules of spelling and was able to use common words to convey my thoughts in order for me to remain in the social fabric of cohesion. If left to my playful self I can learn anything and enjoy staying within the shared rules that govern our ideas for civility that allow us to interact with one another. Hypatia is my attempt to create a playground where the sandbox of potential is forever within our grasp, allowing us to dip out of our competitive reality and re-energize our playful self. One in which we are able to climb any monkey bars, go down the longest slide ever, swing until we spun around the bar, or build sandcastles of such epic proportions they would certainly lead us into magical underworld dimensions or stretch into the sky so far we might be able to touch Jupiter. We must dream of play and play to offer ourselves dreams worthy of inspiring our waking selves so this life need not be of drudgery and fear of failure, anger, or violence.

It’s time for us to evolve. It’s time to take a step into the unknown and reclaim the pioneering spirit of our species that was never afraid to cross a desert, climb a mountain, travel an ocean, or risk everything to visit the bottom of the sea or the surface of the moon. Virtual reality may be the place where we all start to understand it is our place in this universe to explore, document, and share our discoveries so we might once again have stories of amazing adventures to tell each other around the campfire. Hypatia is my contribution to the story of the people of our Earth.