The best-laid plans…they rarely work out as intended, do they? I planned to re-wire the studio in June, but that has been delayed waiting on critical components. I did get the power supply moved out of the Monster and into the equipment closet, and although that had some unexpected twists, the studio is now a much quieter, cooler place. I also recorded, mixed, and edited the performance for my upcoming Live From the Studio with Franck Martin interview coming up on July 10, and to start planning for some in-person studio visits and travel – more on those in the Upcoming Events and One More Thing sections at the bottom of this newsletter.
But first, I want to talk a bit about my approach to performing and composing with my modular. I’ve had both non-modular people and other modular users wonder how I don’t get overwhelmed when confronted with the myriad choices the Monster provides; the answer is I treat it as if it contained musicians in my personal ensemble. More on that in the main article below.
- featured article: I don’t see myself as a “modular musician” as much as a conductor or band leader writing for and collaborating with a particularly versatile machine – one that I’m trying to get to be more human.
- new posts & videos: I go into great detail on how I composed, patched, and performed my recent piece Devotion.
- Patreon updates: The main subjects this past month revolve around dealing with noise – from my power supply, as well as my output modules.
- upcoming events: In addition to the streaming Live From The Studio with Franck Martin on July 10, I have in-person performances planned for September and October.
- one more thing: I’m hitting the road, visiting Arizona and Colorado in August and September. And I’d like to hang out with some of you while I’m there.
My Modular Ensemble
When friends see videos of me performing music, I get a lot of befuddled reactions. Friends who are modular musicians see my large system, and wonder how I even start a piece without getting overwhelmed by choices. Friends who are not modular musicians see a combination of knobs, lights, and patch cables plus minimal movements on my part (Trovarsi referred to me as a “modular zen master” during my Synth Society Summit performance), and wonder what I’m doing – if anything at all!
The reality is, I view my Monster modular synth – as well as the other components of my hybrid studio (hardware & virtual polyphonic synths & sample players) – as members of my own personal musical ensemble who help perform the pieces I write. As such, I don’t walk up to it and say “so – what should we do?” Instead, I usually have a plan in place before I approach it.
I do have what I call “R&D” (research and development) sessions with the modular where I’m learning a new module or technique. But when it comes to playing a song, I’ve already been working out the overall structure of the piece – akin to writing the bare bones of a song – before I turn to the modular and ask “my band” to start working out the sections of that song.
Assigning parts to the “musicians”
For example, most of my pieces start out with the bass line – maybe even something as simple as one-note “throb” on the root note of the key of the song. Most of my bass patches start out with an analog VCO (usually the Animated Pulses of the Livewire AFG, or the filtered sub-octave output of the Birdkids theBateleur) doubled with a wavetable VCO (often the Waldorf nw1 or the Dove Waveplane). These are typically mixed and patched to a low pass filter (often the Rossum Evolution), and then into a VCA (usually a vintage Aries-design one in my custom Gentle Electric cabinet). Since my bass lines tend to be slow, I like to have a complex envelope modulating the filter cutoff to add detail, so that means either the Xaoc Devices Zadar, or my own “chaotic envelope” patch I’ve been developing.
Then when it comes time to work on the first melodic sequence that goes on top of that bass line, I tend to then focus on my brighter, pluckier sound sources and filters. Indeed, I often work out the sequence using just the Mutable Instruments Rings or 2hp Pluck, as they are complete sound sources in a module and take a minimal amount of time to patch up before I can then focus on the notes of the sequence. If their sound still seems appropriate after developing the sequence, I’ll stick with that module; otherwise, by then I’ll have an idea of what type of sound I would prefer instead, and can focus on the modules that will give me that sound.
In short, I’m not looking at my entire modular synth when I patch a sound. Since I’m already familiar with the modules I’ve carefully selected for it, I put blinders on and go straight to the modules that are going to help me achieve the sound I have in my head for a particular part. That way, I don’t get overwhelmed with unnecessary options.
If I haven’t learned a module yet, it often gets ignored during this process; that’s one of the things my “R&D” sessions are for. Indeed, my R&D sessions also tend to be focused on learning just a particular module or trying out a specific idea, rather than be free-form (which could also lead to creative paralysis).
The same goes for my polyphonic synths: My first R&D session with them is spent going through their factory and commercial patches, noting which ones fit my personal aesthetic for possible future use. Subsequent R&D sessions are spent customizing those patches, or creating my own from scratch. Then when it comes time to use them on a new song, I have a “short list” of sounds I can go straight to.
Teaching the “musicians” to play their own variations
Most of my pieces over the past few years have been performed and recorded in real time, meaning all of the parts are playing at once. Since I only have so many hands (and so much focus), often I am physically playing only one of those parts, and then directing the instrument as it plays the other parts.
Sometimes, I am just tweaking an already-composed part (such as changing the oscillator mix or envelope time), akin to a conductor pointing at a section of the orchestra and giving them instructions on how to play. Sometimes, I am just switching which musical phrase is to be played next (queuing up a new sequence), akin to cueing a band member that we’re going to change on the downbeat.
However, I also like to patch automatic variations that cause a part to evolve on its own. This is where I borrow philosophically from chaos theory. Unlike the impression its name might give, chaos theory is not about complete randomness; it’s about allowing variations within certain prescribed boundaries.
For example, the sequencer I use – the Five12 Vector – has an entire section called “Chance Operations.” This allows me, per note, to set up the chance type – such as playing a note at a different interval to the root, resting instead of playing a note, doubling up a note (“ratcheting”), etc. – and then to set the probability that variation will be played each time the sequence phrase is played. By careful programming of chance operations, the sequencer can randomly play a phrase slightly differently each time through, but within the musical limits I prescribe. This is akin to allowing a member of my ensemble come up with their own carefully-considered variations and flourishes during a song.
Another trick I will use is to patch random control voltages to alter the timbre of a sound throughout the piece. I might use a sample & hold (or randomized velocity in the Vector) patched in small amounts to the filter cutoff, envelope time, or “position” of a plucked string emulation so that every notes sounds slightly different, even if it is repeating the same pitch. Or, I’ll use slow, smoothly-changing random voltages to evolve other parameters of the sound – such as crossfading between different waveforms – so that each repetition of a phrase sounds slightly different, or so that a part sounds different mid-way through a song than it did at the beginning.
And then, there’s actual work
My other “tricks” are good old-fashioned work. After I’ve settled on the overall composition and arrangement of a piece, I’ll rehearse it for one or more days, making little tweaks as a I go and making notes about what I liked in each rehearsal pass. Then I’ll spend a day or so recording multiple takes of it, and choose my favorite of those performances. Often I will use every part of that favorite performance; on rare occasions (such as discovering later that I played a part too loud and it distorted unacceptably) I’ll borrow a line from an alternate take and paste it into the “final.”
I know this is counter to the “Modular on the Spot” or live performance philosophy of a recording being a document of the exact space (physical and mental) you were in at that moment. And I have nothing against that approach; it’s often exhilarating. Instead, you could say I’m trying to document “the space I’m in” in a wider context: my ideas, tastes, and skills during a particular segment of my life, rather in a particular place on a particular day.
As a result, I’m trying to create “finished” pieces (subject to minor tinkering later) for future inclusion on an album. Even more importantly, I’m trying to create a version of the current piece that I’m happy enough with that I can let it go, pull out all of the patch cables, and move on to composing the next piece.
New Videos & Blog Posts
As a companion piece to the article above, I’m publicly sharing a piece I just wrote for the Learning Modular Patreon channel that shares details of the composition, patching, and performance of my recent piece Devotion (video embedded above). This video is one of the more explicit in showing how I’m “conducting” my modular during a performance; the companion post goes into more detail about what I’m doing, and the underlying patches.
(And by the way, that post is an example of the type of deep content I create for my Patrons. Consider joining us as we evolve how to use your modular for sound design, recording, and performance.)
In addition to the “Track Breakdown” post for Devotion, during June my Patrons were treated to articles on:
- Creating a “chaotic envelope” that has the main qualities I love about the Xaoc Devices Zadar, but which creates its own variations on every single note. (available to all subscribers)
- Signal to noise and output level tests for a variety of balanced output modules (all subscribers), followed by a listening test including a 24-bit/96 kHz file you can download and audition on your own system. (+5v subscribers and above)
- The details behind moving the linear supplies out of the Monster studio modular and into their own remote case, including the reasons why, lessons learned along the way, and the results (+5v and above subscribers)
- I also offered a bunch of modules and other modular-related gear for sale to my +5v and above Patrons at below-market prices; that list will be deleted soon, with the remaining modules going up for sale on Reverb.
And what about the articles I promised on how my early effect-heavy bass-playing days relate to the current modular scene, or explaining my move to recording all of my new pieces at 32-bit/96 kHz? Those got shoved aside by the power supply and output module issues discussed, instead. I promise these will get written up during July.
- July 10: Live from the Studio with Franck Martin of PeachyMango fame, including a streaming interview and performance of a new piece that shows yet another new direction for me. You can set yourself a reminder on the YouTube page to make sure you don’t miss it.
- September 11: Knobcon in Schaumburg, Illinois. I will be in the chill-out room Saturday night, performing both solo, and possibly in Meridian Alpha with Jim Coker.
- September 23: Synthacider at Locust Cider in Lakewood, Colorado. I will be one of several acts performing live and in person. So far, Facebook is the place to look for more information on these events.
- October 9: Albuquerque Electroniqué at the Press Club in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Again, I will probably be performing solo, and possibly in Meridian Alpha with Jim Coker and Jason Fink.
One More Thing…
Before the pandemic hit last year, I had a different road trip planned virtually every month through the fall to perform, jam, record, and in general hang out with my fellow modular musicians. All those dreams quickly disappeared.
However, now that many in the US have been vaccinated, new plans are afoot this year: In addition to the events listed above, Trovarsi is coming out for a studio visit during July, and I have road trips planned to Phoenix & Tucson in early August plus Denver & Boulder in later September. I also plan to fly to Dublin, Ireland in later October, and need to figure out when I’m going to Southern California next (especially since I’ll probably miss Synthplex).
If you live in any of those areas and have been vaccinated, let me know of any modular events that may be happening…or let’s create our own while I’m out there! I’ll have the Tardis (my gigging case) with me for the US trips, re-learning this concept of playing with others (smile).
The adventure continues. Next up is composing a new modular-only piece for potential inclusion on a compilation, further updating the studio, and recording more pieces for another album or two before the end of the year.
Best wishes to all of you on your respective paths.
take care –