Making Music with the Internet’s Most Reviled Synthesizer

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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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Art + Music + Technology

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Recently I had the honor and pleasure of having a discussion with Darwin Grosse for his podcast Art + Music + Technology. If you’re not familiar with his interviews I suggest that you check out his program. Darwin’s straight forward conversations with a broad range of media artists seem to fill a void that no other programs do. It’s hard to single out any of the programs specifically because they are all entertaining (and educational), but some of my favorites (sorted alphabetically) include:

Brian Crabtree
Richard Devine
R. Luke DuBois
Mark Henrickson
Andrew Kilpatrick
Keith McMillen
Ali Momeni
Pauline Oliveros
Gregory Taylor
David Zicarelli

TX81Z Patch Degrader with Interpolation

This quick demo illustrates how TX81Z Patch Degrader is interpolating between previous and newly generated parameter values. TX81Z Patch Degrader is a Max for Live MIDI effect that chips away at patches on the TX81Z by randomly changing (or degrading) parameters at a specified rate. What makes the process interesting is that it is possible to ramp up or down (interpolate) to the new value rather than changing it instantaneously.

To create the Max for Live MIDI instrument I started with TX81Z Editor 1.0 by Jeroen Liebregts who was kind enough to share his work on maxforlive.com. I added in the degradation process features and made some adjustments to the interface to make room for the controls. Once I get things shaped up I’ll be happy to share the patch if anyone is interested.

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The features I added are visible in the second panel of the TX81Z Patch Degrader Max MIDI effect. I’ll describe them from the top down:

  1. Level bypass prevents the operator levels from being included in the degradation process so that the sound doesn’t completely die out.
  2. When the interpolate switch is on new values (as long as they have an adequate range) are ramped up or down to the new value based on the rate.
  3. Loop causes the degradation to continue indefinitely by reshuffling after all 73 parameters included have been degraded.
  4. Free/sync toggles between changing the parameters at an arbitrary pace set by rate, or note divisions based on the project’s tempo (therefore sync will only degrade while playing)
  5. Rate adjusts the rate of degradation when in free mode, and the time it takes to ramp up or down to new values when interpolate is on. Rate is milliseconds and ranges from 15ms to 2000ms.
  6. Below rate are the note durations for sync mode ranging from a 1/128th note up to a dotted whole note.
  7. Finally the degrade button starts the process while interrupt stops everything so when you hear something you like you can save the patch on the TX81Z.

The TX81Z has a fairly small buffer for MIDI values, so spraying values at it too quickly will generate the “MIDI Buffer Error”. However, even after getting the error it will continue listening to the incoming data, so even though it might be skipping a parameter here and there it lets me keep throwing things at it. The video below shows how the LCD display responds to the stream of values coming at the machine.

TX81Z Patch Degradation with Interpolation! #glitch #fmsynthesis

A video posted by John Keston (@jkeston) on

I’ve saved quite a few very interesting effects so far and have nearly run out of the 32 patch positions available on the unit. Perhaps the next step is to add a library feature especially since I’m not thrilled about the idea of saving patch banks to cassette!

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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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Richard Devine Presentation and Performances

Left to right John Keston, Jon Davis, James Patrick, and Richard Devine (not shown Graham O'Brien) Photo by Dave Eckblad

Last weekend I performed with and attended a workshop from the extraordinary electronic musician and sound designer Richard Devine. His presentation was at Slam Academy (a Minneapolis based school for electronic music and arts where I am also on the faculty roster). Later that same evening Jon Davis, Richard Devine, Graham O’Brien, James Patrick, and I performed a couple of sets at the Dakota Jazz Club (photo by Dave Eckblad). This was quite different from previous performances. Richard brought in eerie ambient textures while I played Rhodes and Moog Sub 37 along with Patrick’s deep house rhythms, O’Briens acoustic drum-n-bass fills, and a solid foundation of bass grooves from Jon Davis. Finally Richard played a solo set at an afterparty back at the Slam Academy.

Richard Devine at the Slam Factory. Photo by John Keston.

It was a pleasure performing with Richard and his presentation beforehand shed light on his detailed knowledge of the history of electronic music. He brought up electronic music pioneers like Morton Subotnick, Tod Dockstader, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. He discussed equipment from the legendary ARP 2500 (only one hundred ever made) to the EMS Synthi, and followed it up with modern softsynths of note like the Madrona Labs AALTO. After all that he graciously exposed the contents of his “Current Live Setup” Eurorack in great detail. Thanks to the Slam Academy, the Dakota, James Patrick, Jade Patrick, Richard Devine, Jon Davis, Graham O’Brien, Gregory Taylor, and everyone else involved for a memorable day of learning, playing, and performances.