I’ve long felt that if an artist truly believes in what they’re doing, they should honor their own work as well as their audience by crafting their pieces to the highest standards they’re capable of. Putting my money where my mouth is, I’ve recently rewired both the power and audio in my studio to “raise my game” for the projects I plan over the next few years. In the main article this month, I detail those changes.
- featured article: More signal & less noise are the goals of my recent studio revamp.
- new videos and posts: Sharing another Alias Zone performance on my Learning Modular channel.
- Patreon updates: It was a busy month, with a Patch Breakdown of my latest performance, a new patch idea, the first of my Patreon Zoom sessions, and two vintage synth stories from my time at Sequential.
- upcoming events: On October 9 I play live in Albuquerque, New Mexico; on October 10 is my next Patreon Ask Me Anything with guest host Kim Bjørn of Bjooks.
- one more thing: I was an editor and historical consultant on a new book: Synth Gems 1.
More Signal; Less Noise: Rewiring the Studio
When I create my visual art, I always try to use archival-quality materials. They are more expensive, but my feeling was that if someone liked my art enough to buy it, that it shouldn’t start degrading shortly after they bought it. I’ve adopted a similar philosophy when creating music: If someone is going to take the time to listen to it – hopefully very closely – I want to present it in the best fidelity I can, and without them being distracted by noise, hum, and the such. This philosophy drove a lot of the equipment choices for my recent studio upgrade.
Laziness also was a large factor in this upgrade. I have a lot of potential outputs in my studio: 16-24 channels from the Monster studio modular, 16 channels from the Tardis gigging modular, 8-10 channels from the polysynths, plus external effects, microphones, and other instruments. I didn’t want to keep re-patching which of these went to a limited number of inputs to the computer every time I worked on a different song.
Another challenge is that my equipment is spread out: The studio modular is on one side of the room; the poly synths are on the other side of the room; the computer is in a closet on the other side of a wall. I also wanted to have the audio interfaces near the instruments feeding them (both to shorten cable runs, and to be able to double-check signal levels on their front panels) rather than put them in the same closet as the computer.
New Audio Interfaces
The thought process above led me to explore a networked audio solution, where I could place the interfaces near the sound sources, and then run a single ethernet cable from each interface to a special switch and then to the computer. After doing some research, I decided to go with AVB-equipped interfaces: they were more cost effective, and according to an expert I consulted AVB arguably has better synchronization. (Dante-compatible interfaces are more common, and may be the better choice for those who prefer more of a plug-and-play experience.)
As you can see from the list of sources above, I needed a lot of inputs. RME in particular makes a high-quality AVB-compatible interface with lots of inputs in 1U of space, but I was trying to keep the overall budget closer to $5k USD than $10k. I ended up getting a pair of MOTU 24Ai interfaces, as they offered 24 balanced inputs at under $1k each. One can be seen in the rack above; a second one is in a separate rack closer to the Tardis and the poly synths.
In addition to the bulk inputs provided by the MOTU interfaces, I also wanted some high quality inputs and outputs for more critical tasks such as microphones and monitoring. For these tasks, I chose a Focusrite Red 8Line. The Focusrite happens to use the Dante standard for networked audio, not AVB, and the two are not directly compatible. So instead, I used optical connections (SMUX over pairs of ADAT interfaces) to make the Focusrite an extension of the one of the MOTUs.
I run the entire system at 96 kHz. I know a lot of artists have made great recordings at 44.1 or 48 kHz, but enough artists I respect say they’ve heard the difference by going to 96 kHz, and my mastering engineer (Howard Givens of Spotted Peccary Music) has a strong preference for that rate. To squeeze more performance out of the MOTUs, I also connected all of the interfaces to a Black Lion Audio Micro Clock mkIII, as the stability of the sample rate clock has an important impact on audio quality.
And yes, I still have a “conventional” USB audio interface – a Roland Rubix44 – connected to the computer as well. Sometimes it’s easier to just have a simple interface the computer can talk to (for example, when monitoring audio from a Zoom session), compared to a complex network of devices. I also still have patchbays in order to get external instruments into the interfaces, patch in different effects, override what is patch to the monitoring system, etc.
Getting this system up and running smoothly was not easy; I’m creating a post or two for my Patreon subscribers that goes into more detail (including audio files for the power cord tests below). But once I figured everything out, I’ve been very happy with the results; everything appears in Ableton Live, which I use for mixing and recording.
New Power System
I intended to update the audio interfaces earlier this year, followed by the power system later. However, I broke my leg while I was waiting for all of the audio equipment, including custom-built multichannel Mogami audio snakes from Pro Audio LA – which were surprisingly cheaper than buying pre-built ones. When I finally recovered enough to move between my wheelchair and the floor (as rewiring required a lot of crawling around underneath desks), I decided to do both at the same time.
I know of several musicians who have reported a noticeable improvement in audio quality – particularly in their modular synths – when they filtered the power entering their studio. Based on Howard Givens’ advice, I bought a Shunyata Venom V16 power filter/distributor, as well as a set of Furman SS-6B-Pro power strips with under- and over-voltage protection (note: the non-Pro version lacks that protection!) that fan out from the V16 to reach the different workstations around my studio. I bought these – as well as the power cables mentioned below – through Stereotypes Audio where Howard also works.
A highly controversial subject is how much of an impact better cables have on actual sound quality. I’m an engineer, a little bit skeptical by nature; I also look for good price/performance ratios rather than saying price is no object. All that said, I’ve learned it’s important not to judge something before you’ve heard it – it’s far smarter to listen first, and if you hear an actual difference, then worry about the science behind it. (And if you don’t hear a difference, don’t be swayed by the supposed science.)
Many years ago when I reviewed equipment for Recording magazine, I laughed at the idea that speakers cables could make a big difference – until my jaw dropped when I heard how much better a set of even lower-end Kimber Kables sounded than the already-good Canare Star Quad we were already using in the studio at Roland R&D. I still have those Kimber Kables today.
Likewise, Howard Givens kept trying to tell me that power cables can make a big difference in sound quality. Again, I was skeptical, but I decided to listen before passing final judgement. I set up a patch on one my synths that had a very wide frequency range and really sharp transients, and loaded an arpeggio to play it over several octaves. I then recorded this into my new audio interfaces, swapping between the standard power cables they came with, a $145 power cable, and a $1k power cable. I recorded the results in parallel tracks in my DAW, and played them back over the course of a few days using both headphones and my studio monitors.
Although the difference were subtle, I did indeed hear slightly sharper transients and slightly extended bass using the $145 cables – so I now have a set of Shunyata Venom V14 C13 power cords for each of my new audio interfaces. (Thankfully, I had difficulty hearing a difference when switching to the $1k power cords!) I will be creating a post for my Patrons where I upload these test files, if you want to hear (or not hear) the differences for yourself.
Howard goes as far as to use a Shunyata Venom V14 for each of his synths. I haven’t gone that far yet, but I have been looking for lower noise wall transformers for my synths and effects that use them, as I know from my experience with modular systems that cheap switching power supplies can inject noise into the final output.
Crazy? Maybe. But I’ve already gotten over the pain of paying for all of this new gear that doesn’t make sound itself, as well as installing it – and I plan to enjoy the benefits of using it for many years to come.
New Videos & Blog Posts
As I mentioned last month, I’ve been uploading my latest music videos when they become available to my Alias Zone YouTube channel, as I’m working to establish that more an my musical identity (so please subscribe!). However, it’s a simple fact that my older, more established Learning Modular channel has a much larger following – so I’m starting to upload videos to that channel as well, several months after they’ve been released on the Alias Zone channel. The most recent one I uploaded is Devotion (shown above), which is a companion to last month’s piece Náhuatl that I performed for Steve Roach’s SoundQuest Fest earlier this year.
It’s been another busy month on my Patreon channel, including:
- Updating the Monster: a continuation of my Feeding the Monster series from last year, detailing which modules have changed (and why) over the past year and a half. The first two installments covered sound sources and modulation sources. (Both of these are for +5v level subscribers and above; all of the remaining posts below are for all subscribers.)
- A “thought piece” on layering and modulars: poly synths do it all the time in their presets; why don’t we do it more when creating modular patches?
- The latest installment in my “Notes from the Studio” – this time on updating firmware in modules.
- Linked indexes for each of the topics discussed during my Ask Me Anything sessions with co-hosts Trovarsi and with Todd Barton.
October 9: Albuquerque Electroniqué (7:30 PM MDT, Albuquerque, New Mexico)
I am headlining a live in-person event of electronic music by New Mexico residents and friends. This will be my first in-person performance since the pandemic started, as well as my first on a “hybrid” system of my portable gigging case, poly synths (sampled & live), and pedals. Click here for more details on the Facebook Event page.
October 10: Ask Me Anything with co-host Kim Bjørn of Bjooks
The latest in my Learning Modular Patreon subscriber “Ask Me Anything” Zoom sessions, this time with guest host Kim Bjørn (pictured above) of Bjooks. As many of you know, we co-wrote Patch & Tweak (although he did all of the gorgeous page layout). Kim asked me to be an editor and historical consultant on his latest creation, the just-announced Synth Gems 1. We’ll be talking about and answering your questions on that new book, as well as modular-based topics such as live performance. A pre-registration invite has already gone out to my Patreon subscribers; followers of Bjooks will also be seeing an invite soon.
November 5: Dublin Modular (7-10 PM Irish Standard Time, Dublin, Ireland)
The folks at Dublin Modular are planning a series of great events between October 30 and November 6. I will be among the artists for the November 5 event at Unit 44 Stoneybatter (44 Park Shopping Centre, Prussia St, Dublin), playing a video of a pre-recorded performance featuring my Monster studio synth, followed by me breaking down the track and answering questions. To learn more about Dublin Modular and all of these events, visit DublinModular.com (site goes shortly after October 4).
November 13-14: SoundMiT (streaming online from Turin, Italy)
I am tentatively scheduled to be one of the performers for this year’s edition for SoundMiT. More info once the schedule is set.
One More Thing…
After I got home from surgery on my broken leg but before I could re-enter my studio, my dear friend Kim Bjørn of Bjooks thought he’d help keep me distracted by asking me to look over some text for a new book he was working on. That initial invitation quickly grew into me becoming an editor and historical consultant on the latest Bjooks project, Synth Gems 1 (written by another old friend, Mike Metlay). This book has an unusual premise: The early synthesizer as a work of art, worthy of exhibit in some sort of museum. But in addition to numerous museum-catalog-quality images of each instrument, we also dove into the history of each one: speaking whenever possible to those who had an actual hand in creating them, and placing them in a timeline of the evolution of the modern keyboard synthesizer. We found that the “conventional wisdom” was wrong for a few of the instruments; we were glad to set the record straight.
The book should start shipping October 1 in Europe, and November 1 in the United States and the rest of the world. If you can’t find it at a favorite musical equipment reseller, you can order it direct from Bjooks.
In addition to rewiring my studio, I’ve been plunged into thinking about what my “on the road” performance system is going to look like post-pandemic. This past year, I had gotten so used to using my entire studio to compose and perform solo pieces, the restriction of “what do I feel comfortable taking onto an airplane?” is proving to be quite a tough constraint. My performance on October 9 is the first step in this direction, and I expect it to change again before the new year. Hopefully next year we can meet in person as I get out and start performing again!
best regards –