Sound / Simulacra at Jazz Central Studios

Starting January 25, 2017 Cody McKinney and I are booking a monthly series at Jazz Central Studios titled Sound / Simulacra. The series explores musical improvisation as a “faithful and intentionally distorted” representational process. Sound / Simulacra will bring together some of the Twin Cities most unique voices to “recreate, distort, and create the hyperreal”.

Cody McKinney works with sound by actively theorizing, organizing, practicing and challenging its properties. He studied bass and improvisation under many luminaries including: Johannes Weidenmueller, Bruce Gertz, Jim Black as well as composition under Kirk Nurock, Rory Stewart, Steve Lehman and Diane Moser. Cody’s group, Bloodline, along with John Keston and Pete Hennig, have recently recorded an album due out mid 2017.

Volume 1: Wednesday Jan. 25th 2017
Cody McKinney & Jeremy Ylvisaker

Jeremy Ylvisaker is a multi-instrumentalist from Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is a member of the indie rock bands Alpha Consumer (with Michael Lewis and JT Bates) and The Cloak Ox along with Andrew Broder of Fog, Mark Erickson and Dosh. He plays guitar in Andrew Bird’s touring band alongside Martin Dosh on drums and Michael Lewis on bass.

Volume 2: Wednesday Feb. 22nd, 2017
John C.S. Keston and Graham O’Brien

Graham O’Brien is a drummer and electronic music producer/composer from St. Paul, MN. His most recent work is focused on the interplay between his unique drumming and composition styles. Currently he is performing new music written for solo live performance, utilizing a customized electro-acoustic drum set concept. As he puts it, “I’m exploring ways to perform my music – or rather, conduct it – via the rhythms of my drumming, in real-time. My performance concept is a practical way to extend the range of my drum set to include control of melodic and harmonic electronic instruments.”

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!

Audiovisual Granular Synthesis of Water Objects

This is a screen capture from a Max project I developed that does interactive, synchronized, granular synthesis of corresponding sound and video that’s tentatively titled AVGM for Audiovisual Grain Machine. I have used the software during aperformance at the Echofluxx festival in Prague and at the Katherine E. Nash gallery for the opening of The Audible Edge exhibition during Northern Spark 2014.

Novation Bass Station II Self Oscillating Filter Demo

I have recently been trying out a Novation Bass Station II monophonic analogue synthesizer. I am quite impressed with this big sounding synth in a small package. While digitally controlled, Novation have focused on packing in proper synthesis features rather than trying to gloss over the sound with onboard effects. For example, as I have illustrated in the video, the filter self oscillates nicely with a clean sine wave that can be modulated in unique ways especially with distinct features like oscillator slew.

The video starts with the self oscillating filter getting modulated by LFO 2 using the triangle wave. After that I switch to using the sample and hold setting creating the well-known 60s computer sound of random notes. Here’s where it gets interesting though. Once I switch the LFO to sample and hold I start turning up the oscillator slew I mentioned earlier. What this does is variably smooth the wave shapes created by the LFO. You’ll hear this come in at 0:28. It sounds like portamento. At 0:35 I switch the LFO to the square wave, but with the slew on it sounds more like a sine. As I reduce the amount of slew the square wave regains its recognizable character. Next I switch it to the saw tooth wave. The nice thing here is that the LFO amount can go into negative values allowing the saw to be reversed.

Another distinctive feature is the oscillator filter mod setting. This modulates the filter with oscillator 2. Since the oscillators range from subsonic to almost supersonic this feature offers modulation effects that are not possible with the LFOs. At 1:29 you will start to hear the oscillator filter mod come in using a pulse waveform. What makes this interesting is that while oscillator 2 is modulating the filter it can also have the pulse width modulated by LFO 1. This can cause bit-reduction-like effects that can be heard between 1:49 and 2:19. At 2:20 I start tapping the octave and waveform buttons on oscillator 2 illustrating what happens when the modulation source is instantly shifted an octave at a time. After a bit more messing around I added a final, manual filter sweep at 3:20.

Temporary Free Download: Ostracon Debut Unauthorized Modifications

Currently the entire debut album from Ostracon, Unauthorized Modifications, is available through August for download on SoundCloud. Please enjoy and thanks for listening. Comments are appreciated. A new Ostracon record has been recorded and will be released after editing, mixing, and mastering has been completed.