Revisiting Dogmatic Music with the Novation Circuit, PreenFM2, and Moog Sub 37

I composed this track and performed it live while limiting myself to using three electronic instruments: Novation Circuit, PreenFM2, and a Moog Sub 37. Afterward I added a recording of a Tibetan tingsha bell that I captured using a matched pair of Rode NT5 condensers. The instruments were sequenced using the Squarp Pyramid, which might technically be considered a fourth instrument, but it is not a sound source.

I continually revisit dogmatic approaches to making electronic music and this approach in particular may yield some interesting results. The last collection I made like this was back in 2013 and can be found in the post Builders of the Fauxpocalypse: a Dogmatic Approach to Music Making.

The Most Powerful Tiny FM Synth: PreenFM2


The purpose of AudioCookbook is not to promote or review musical instruments, electronic hardware, or audio software. This site is a more personal (perhaps narcissistic) look at music composition and sound design techniques. “Recipes for Sound Design” is one part of that, but experimentation also plays a significant role. I understand that some my experiments are interesting for ACB readers. My approach has been, if it’s interesting to me then I’ll write about it here. In this case I’d like to highlight an extraordinary, boutique, FM synth that has been unfairly overshadowed by the Korg Volca FM. This amazing musical device for sound design and experimentation is the PreenFM2 designed by Xavier Hosxe.

This synth is by no means new. I first heard about it in August of 2013 on At that time I was fully invested in the Yamaha FS1R and didn’t see a need for another FM synth in my setup. However, more recently I started researching it because I wanted a portable polyphonic synth for live performances. I’ve brought luggable rack synths to shows including the FS1R and Roland MKS-80, but it’s expensive, awkward, and risky to transport them. I love the Korg Volcas for their sound and portability, but both the Volca Keys and Volca FM have a mere three voices available for polyphony.

The low profile and compact PreenFM2 can be purchased pre-built or in kit form with either a sturdy metal case or an elegant plexiglass design that shows off the inner workings. Either option takes up little space and is effortlessly packed up and transported. Its looks belie its broad feature set and massive capacity for sound design and experimentation. But one of the main reasons I recruited it for polyphonic duties is just that: polyphony. Depending on the algorithm the polyphony ranges from eight to fourteen voices. In comparison the Volca FM has a maximum of three voices.
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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!