Vintage FM: Swapping Bricks for Loaves of Bread

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I recently picked up an eighties vintage Yamaha TX81Z FM synthesizer. I’ve always loved the sound of frequency modulation synthesis, but like many of us, lacked the patience to do the programming; especially since most FM synthesizers have hundreds (thousands for the Yamaha FS1R) of parameters that one is expected to edit via a few buttons and a thirty two character LCD.

Understandably FM has largely taken a backseat to subtractive synthesis, wavetable synthesis, and sampling. In the 80s FM was great because memory was expensive. Bell tones, plucked instruments, strings, and brass could be simulated by cleverly selecting an algorithm and adjusting the frequency, levels, and envelopes of the carrier and modulator operators. The price of that sound quality was handling the complexity of the instrument and the time investment that that required.

Soon memory fell in price and the cost of sampling and wavetable synthesizers dropped with it. By the mid-90s the broad popularity of FM synths like the Yamaha DX7 had given way to samplers, ROMplers, and wavetable synths. Perhaps we were attracted to the realism of sampling, or the uncanny quality of pitching familiar sounds into unfamiliar territory. But, all of these synthesis technologies have their place, and what makes FM synthesis relevant to this day is not simulating brass or bell tones, but its ability to uncover new sonic palettes through the complexity of maths, parameters, and algorithms versus the brute force of digital memory banks.

So, how do we navigate this world of nearly infinite possibilities? There are many approaches to this dilemma. Software editors are available, and FM synthesizer plugins like Ableton’s Operator and Native Instruments FM8 are much, much easier to program than their hardware counterparts. All while maintaining flexibility and sonic range. FM8 can load DX7 patches, morph between sounds, or randomize parameters. My approach to this experiment was to exploit a hardware instrument (the TX81Z) already limited by its design.

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I composed this piece by designing a Max for Live process to “degrade” patches in the the Yamaha TX81Z over time. The TX81Z is fairly simple within the scope of FM synths. However, the spectrum of sound is still vast thanks to a few clever features; each of the four operators can have one of eight waveforms, while older FM synths only had sine waves. The degradation process occurs as shuffled parameters in the synth are randomized at a specified pace. Imagine pulling bricks out of a wall and then replacing them with things like a loaf of bread, Legos, or a shoe. The degradation can be interrupted at any moment by the performer to “freeze” a patch for later use, or looped to generate chaotic textures that morph continuously. This excerpt stacks two layers of the degradation process with some panning and reverb to add ambience. Based on these results I anticipate that a lot more is available to be discovered through this and similar techniques. Currently I am working on a way to interpolate between the existing parameter and the “degraded” one for a more legato feel to the entropic process. Stay tuned!

How Do You Do Your Live MIDI Sequencing?

Arturia BeatStep Pro

While advancements in music technology have led to amazing new instruments, some popular musical devices and applications fail to accommodate musicians with rudimentary to advanced skills in traditional techniques. Don’t get me wrong! I am all for making music technology accessible to the masses. However, with the inclusion of a few key features these devices and applications could not only be good fun for those without formal music education, but also useful for those with it. Furthermore, including those features would encourage non-traditional musicians to develop new techniques and expand their capabilities, knowledge, range, and interaction with other musicians.

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One example of this is the step sequencer. Once again, don’t get me wrong! I love step sequencing. I even built a rudimentary step sequencer in Max back in 2009. Later on I made it into a Max for Live device that you can download here. Step sequencers are everywhere these days. At one point I remarked that it’s hard to buy a toaster without a step sequencer in it. To date that’s hyperbole, but step sequencers have become ubiquitous in MIDI controllers, iPad apps, synths, drum machines, and modular systems.

I love step sequencers because they encourage us to do things differently and embrace chance. However, for pragmatic music making anyone with some basic keyboard technique will agree that being able to record notes in real time is faster, more efficient, and more expressive than pressing them in via buttons, mouse clicks, or touch screen taps. Simply including a real time record mode in addition to the step sequencing functionality would improve the demographic range and usability of these devices and applications. Many instruments already do this. Elektron machines all have real time recording, as does the DSI Tempest (although it lacks polyphonic recording). Arturia has gone a step (pun intended) in the right direction with the BeatStep Pro allowing for real time recording, also without polyphony. Also, most DAWs handle real time MIDI recording beautifully. So if all of these solutions exist, what’s the problem?

For the last five years I have been developing ways to perform as a soloist without the use of a laptop computer. Q: Wait a minute, don’t all those machines you’re using have computers in them? A: Yes, but they are designed as musical instruments with tactile controls and feedback. They also rarely crash and don’t let you check Facebook (yes, that’s an advantage). There’s a whole series of arguments both for and against using laptops for live performance. Let it be known that I have no problem with anyone using laptops to make music! I do it in the studio all the time. I may do it again live at some point, but currently I have been enjoying developing techniques to work around the limitations that performing without a dedicated computer presents.

Cirklon courtesy of Sequentix

These performances include two to five synchronized MIDI devices with sequencing capabilities, buttons, knobs, pads, and/or a keyboard. I may start with some pre-recorded sequences or improvise the material, but usually it’s a combination of the two. As a musician, producer, and sound designer I have been collecting synthesizers for years and have no shortage of sound making machines. What I am lacking is a way to effectively and inexpensively manage sequencing my existing hardware in real time and with polyphony for live performances. Solutions that do more than I need and therefore cost more than I’d like to spend include the Sequentix Cirklon and Elektron Octatrack. There are also vintage hardware solutions like the EM-U Command Station or Yamaha RS7000. This is something I’ll investigate further, but usually they are bulky and difficult to program on the fly.

Pyramid euclidean screen

What I’d like to see more of are small, modern devices that push the capabilities of live sequencing into new realms while maintaining the practical workflow techniques trained musicians rely on. It’s happening to an extent and internally on the Teenage Engineering OP-1 with their frequent firmware updates. It’s happening on a few iPad apps, but most of the MIDI sequencing apps still lack real time recording and/or polyphonic recording. The Pyramid by Squarp is the most promising development I have seen in this department recently (more about Pyramid at a later date, but for now read this from CDM). Have you found a device or app that handles all your MIDI needs? Do you know about something on the horizon that will make all your MIDI dreams possible? What devices do you use manage your live MIDI performances?

Moogfest 2016 Dates Announced

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2016 is still more than five months away, but it’s not too early to start preparing for Moogfest! If this next biennial of music, art, and technology has even a fraction of the fantastic artists and speakers that they had in 2014 then it will still be an amazing event. The dates are May 19–22, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina instead of the usual Asheville.

Past Moogfest performers include the likes of Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Chic, Massive Attack, Holly Herndon, Flying Lotus, Terry Riley, M83, The Flaming Lips, Suicide, Pet Shop Boys, Grimes, TV On The Radio, MIA, St. Vincent,Tangerine Dream, Keith Emerson, Moderat, Squarepusher, Shigeto (one of my favorites from 2014), and loads more. Moogfest are releasing several EPs featuring “Moogfest artists – past, present and future”:

In celebration of today’s announcement, Moogfest releases “Translational Drifts: Moogfest Vol. 1,” the first EP in a series of free digital recordings that feature Moogfest artists – past, present and future. Volume 1 showcases five contemporary acts reinterpreting seminal electronic music influencers that have shaped past Moogfest lineups. This premiere installment includes YACHT, ADULT., Julianna Barwick, Moses Sumney and Dan Deacon translating tracks by Devo, Pet Shop Boys, Suicide, Laurie Anderson and Brian Eno. Their renditions pay tribute to a rich history of electronic music, with new sounds that continue to push further into the future. YACHT, a contributor and previous Moogfest curator, praises the company behind the collaboration, “We love how Moog brings artists together. The sound of the machines and the culture of the company are like a bridge across genres and generations.”

As a Moogfest presenter in 2014 I have nothing but praise for the event. It topped most of my career highlights for the sheer, unlimited inspiration it provided. For more information visit MoogFest.com. Earlybird tickets are all also available at a steal for $99.00.

Recent Praise for Isikles

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I am very excited about praise we have received for Isikles, a recent album I produced with Chilean producer Lister Rossel. Ironically yesterday was the Summer Solstice, but Lister has returned to Chile in the Southern Hemisphere where the climate is in the midst of winter. Everyone who has taken the time to listen to Isikles has appreciated the mystery and depth of this work. For example artist, musicians, and educator, Piotr Szyhalski said this after listening:

It’s interesting how it seems to transport my mind in both directions on the timeline. Certain elements send me back, sometimes way back, while others have a future oriented thrust. There is a sense of silent disaster unfolding. I imagine that this is what dying might feel like: when your mind brings you a sense of comfort, which masks the finality of the event…
Piotr Szyhalski

Richard Devine, whom I had the pleasure of performing with recently at the Dakota in Minneapolis, shared these thoughts:

Isikles puts the listener on a beautiful elegant journey of ambient, soundscapes, pulses and textures. One of the best chill out albums to come out in a long time.
Richard Devine

If you haven’t had a chance to listen, try the track Corvus in the player below. It’s one of my favorites. This album filled with analog synthesis, sound design experiments, and field recordings of ice and other things, was a joy to produce. Lister’s talent, work ethic, and conceptual clarity made it a very special collaboration. The full album is available for listening or download on our BandCamp page. Thank you for listening!

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The Taming of the CPU Part 2 at Honey

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On Wednesday, June 10, 2015 at 10pm (in other words, tomorrow) Taming of the CPU is happening at Honey in Minneapolis. I’ll be performing a set of new material using the DSI Tempest, Elektron Analog Four, and Moog Sub 37. This set was only played once before last January. Live coding artist, Mike Hodnick (Kindohm), and Ableton guru, Lucas Melchior (MKR) are also on the bill. All three of us are recipients of the Minnesota Emerging Composers Award (MECA) for electronic music.

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Chris LeBlanc will be performing live visuals at the show in response to the musical performances. This time he will be driving projections and a CRT video wall with an LZX modular video synthesizer hooked up to receive audio, MIDI notes, and/or gate clock in order to respond to the rhythms and amplitude of our sets.

Please visit the Facebook Event Page for additional details.

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