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.

Jun 282017


Took a random clock signal from Ultra Random Analog into Pamela’s New Workout that was clocking the Stillson Hammer and the Eloquencer. The Stillson was driving the Mutant Bassdrum, BD9, Snare, and Hihat while the Eloquencer ran the 808 Maraca, 909 Clap, DuKRPLS, and Basimilus Iteritas Alter. The percussion was mixed on a couple of Levit8’s and fed into the Expert Sleepers ES-8 on its way to Bitwig where I added a tiny bit of reverb from the Fabfilter Pro-R.

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.