Making Music with the Internet’s Most Reviled Synthesizer


I recently bought a Red Sound Systems DarkStar eight voice, polyphonic, tabletop synthesizer. This feature packed virtual analog (VA) was released in 1999 by the British manufacturer. Despite a glowing review from Sound on Sound on arrival, the instrument didn’t quite take off and was discontinued, along with its younger sibling the DarkStar XP2, after just a few years in production. Even more curious than that is the amount of vitriol amassed for the DarkStar on forums all over the web. I could go on, but suffice it to say that “piece of shit” was among the milder comments.

So why bother trying to make use of an abandoned device that broad swaths of the community dismiss while more zealous members condemn? Well, digging a little deeper led me to discover that although the instrument does have its shortcomings it also has its strengths and at least a handful of people seem to appreciate the character and flexibility of the DarkStar. Five part multi-timbral, two MIDI clock sync-able LFOs per part, low-band-high pass switchable 12db filter, full MIDI implementation, and loads of modulation routing add to the depth of the synth. It also has some quirky features like a formant waveform on oscillator 2, ring modulation, and a random LFO shape that interpolates between the values.

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MNKINO Film Fest: Familiar Pavement with Aaron Marx


On August 13 I had the pleasure of performing an original film score to picture at the Landmark Center in St. Paul for MNKINO Film Fest 2015. The event featured more than twenty short films with original scores. Most of the scores were performed to the films by a talented orchestra assembled for the event. I wrote and performed the music for the film Familiar Pavement by Aaron Marx.

Performing my four minutes of electronic to the film in real time was quite challenging. I did not use any time lock, relying on the original BPM and finding a good starting point to get the timing right. What made the timing critical (and a little tricky) was that I had processed the original film audio with filters and reverb so that it sat well within the arrangement. However, once I found a good marker in the film and practiced it several times I was well prepared.

The original score used the DSI Tempest for all the drums and the Elektron Analog Four for bass, pads, and an arpeggio. The melody line was sequenced on the Analog Four control voltage track and played on a Korg Monotribe (if you didn’t know that was possible read this). At the event I added the Moog Sub 37 to the setup so I could harmonize and embellish the melody lines.

Vintage FM: Swapping Bricks for Loaves of Bread


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.


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!

Video: DKO Debut Album Absinthe Referent

SuBTR4CT1V3 is track five on the debut DKO album Absinthe Referent, now available for download or streaming at bandcamp or via the player embedded below:

Here’s how video artist Chris LeBlanc describes his work on this project:

I used VHS source material of sci fi movies from the 1990s that never made it to DVD running through Tachyons + processors, a homemade video feedback processor, and a modular video synthesizer mostly for colorization. I love scenes with virtual reality and the song brings out a pretty sinister feeling in some of this and lets you make up a story pieced together from 10 or so movies.

We are celebrating the release by performing at the Turf Club in St. Paul, Minnesota tomorrow night (Wednesday, May 20, 2015) with Dosh, A Love Electric, and Batteryboy sharing the bill. Please read on to check out some amazing stills from Chris’ video: Continue reading

Moog Sub 37 1.10 Firmware Demo Part 2

Now that I have had some more time to experiment with the new Moog Sub 37 1.10 firmware I made a new video that is more in-depth than the last one. In this video demo I show seven new features within the sequencer and arpeggiator sections of the instrument. Although I did edit the video for length, each feature was demonstrated without having to stop the sequence at any point.

First I review how to turn steps on and off while in step edit mode. This is simply done by pressing the step buttons (patch button 1 through 16) while in step edit mode (bank + latch).

Secondly I show how to set the start and end positions of the sequence while it continues to run. This is really great for repeating any number of consecutive steps in the sequence.

Thirdly I show how to create or disable ties between two or more notes on the fly. This is much faster and accurate than the original way of apply ties while the sequencer continues to run.

Fourth I demonstrate how to turn on/off step ratcheting and how to modify the number of ratchets. Ratcheting is an interesting new feature that repeats a step from 1 to 8 times.

For the fifth feature I adjust the swing amount. Having swing as a feature for the sequencer is fantastic, but it can also be applied to the arpeggiator and the LFOs when they are synched to the clock! I haven’t tried this yet, but I love the idea of manipulating the LFO waveshapes this way.

The sixth feature is modulation sequencing that I applied to the filter envelope amount. The mod sequencing can be applied to a huge list of parameters. Unfortunately is it one destination per patch/sequence, but never-the-less a welcome and useful addition.

Finally for the seventh feature I demonstrate how to shift the sequence back or ahead of the first step using bank + arp range (+ or -).

There’s a lot more still in this release that I have yet to explore. A huge THANK YOU goes out to Moog Music and especially Amos Gaynes for making an already great synth greater!