I’m writing this newsletter while out in California, where I lived for over two decades before moving to my current home in New Mexico. While out here, I’ve played the Southern California Synth Society’s NAMMless JAMuary on January 22nd, spent two days at Richard Bugg’s Tonstudiochaos learning how to mix in quad (the subject of the main article this month), a day visiting the Vintage Synthesizer Museum (as well as the Virtual Van Gogh exhibit), and then a day at Jill Fraser’s studio listening to each others’ recent work and discussing a potential future collaboration. Earlier in January I also wrote a quartet of new posts for my Patreon subscribers, and released another of my Learning Modular Conversations to the public.
The week this newsletter is coming out I’m in Palm Desert, getting in some hiking, art-viewing, and shopping in between rehearsing for my performance at the Phoenix Synthesizer Festival on February 11 (more on that in the Calendar section below). No rest for the wicked, as they say! Let’s dive into the details…
- featured article: I’ve started to learn how to mix my modular in quad, using Ableton Live. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.
- Alias Zone updates: The video of my performance at NAMMless JAMuary.
- Learning Modular updates: I shared a recent Alias Zone performance, as well as the fourth installment in my Learning Modular Conversations series.
- Patreon updates: Another installment in my Updating the Monster series, two installments in my new Going Hybrid Live series, and an Industry Stories piece on a mutant Moog Sonic Six.
- upcoming events: Live performances in Phoenix, Arizona and Santa Fe, New Mexico, plus a streamed performance for SynthFest France.
Learning to Mix in Quad
Quadraphonic sound – and other forms of surround sound, in general – have been enjoying a resurgence in interest, especially among electronic musicians and composers. I might have the opportunity to play a concert or two in quad this year, so I figured it was time I learned more about it. I’m just beginning my journey – there are others far more experienced than me – but I thought I would share my initial steps for those who may be in a similar position.
My long-time friend Richard Bugg (of Cosmic Debris fame; he also plays on most of my Alias Zone albums) specializes in multi-channel surround sound for Meyer Sound Laboratories (MSL), and his studio is set up to quickly switch between different speaker configurations – so I spent a couple of days at his place to learn. Richard is used to getting a number of individual inputs and using MSL tools such as their Spacemap Go and D-Mitri to position and animate sounds around the room. It’s a very powerful system, but outside of the budget of many individual musicians like me.
Since I have started mixing my modular inside Ableton Live, I wanted to use tools that worked inside of Live and would integrate with any speakers I had access to through my own audio interfaces. I started with the Max for Live based Surround Panner pack. It has a popup that allows you to choose from several different speaker configurations, which can be routed to any audio output your computer can share. My live performance system is already using an Expert Sleepers ES-9 to run audio between the computer and modular, so I added a MOTU UltraLite AVB interface, created an “aggregate” audio interface using Apple’s Audio MIDI Setup utility (shown below), and routed the speaker outputs in the Surround Panner to four analog outputs on the MOTU (as seen in the figure above).
The Surround Panner then takes the mono or stereo signals that are on normal channels in Live and allows you to map them to an X/Y coordinate in this space, rotate them around this space, and to determine how “focused” the signal is – in other words, how much is mixed into the other speakers to create a tighter or looser sense of position. In the images you see here, the orange ring is the “point source”, and the larger transparent gray circle is how spread out the sound is.
The first thing I learned is that the Surround Panner supports three different “quad” speaker configurations: 4-Room, where the front and back speakers are treated as left/right pairs; 4-Circle, where speakers are treated as alternating left/right/left/right channels as you rotate around the room; and 4-Center where the speakers are centered in each wall of the room rather than placed in their corners. These three configurations are shown left to right below; note that the “left” speakers are yellow and the “right” speakers are orange, which helps you spot the difference between the 4-Room and 4-Circle configurations:
Since more and more of my sources and effects have stereo outputs by default, I found that how stereo signals were handled became one of the more important things to consider in quad.
The 4-Center configuration is favored by some sound engineers in larger rooms for the practical reason that each speaker has a shorter “throw,” only having to reach across the room left to right or front to back instead of along the longer diagonal from one corner to another. This means smaller power amps can can be used; the tradeoff is each speaker (or speaker array) needs to have close to 180° of coverage instead of the 90° required by corner placement. I found 4-Center was excellent for when you wanted to have a mono sound source such as a vocal coming very distinctly from the front center of the room, and good for rotating sounds around the room; on the other hand, it was far less satisfying for using traditional left/right stereo sources as they had less distinct positioning in the space.
The 4-Room configuration would seem to make the most intuitive sense, as both the front and back speakers were in sync with the left/right stereo panning moves you are already familiar with. However, if you take a stereo signal and start to rotate it around it around this space using the Live Surround Panner, it will vary from being in stereo in front, collapsed to mono on the side, back to stereo in the rear, and back to mono on the other side. I didn’t like that.
That meant I settled on the 4-Circle configuration for the channels and speakers. The main weakness I found with that configuration is that if you were sitting in the center of the room, and had a stereo signal also centered in the room, the stereo field was very indistinct as the speakers in alternating corners cancelled out the stereo image. However, as Richard pointed out to me, only about 20% of the audience is lucky enough to be seated near the center of the room – most are off-center, and are going to hear one or two of the speakers more loudly than the others. This is where the 4-Circle configuration excelled, because it was better at distributing stereo signals around the room.
Indeed, another thing I quickly learned was that it is crucial to get up from your mix position and walk around the room to understand how different members of the audience were going to hear your mix. It may be tempting to place sounds at extreme positions such as the very front or very back of the room with little “bleed” between speakers, but that results in a less satisfying listening experience for most of your audience. I found I was often pulling sounds a bit more towards the center of the room, and widening their focus so people seated near speakers that were away from where you positioned a sound source still got to hear little bit of it.
Next came automatically panning signals around this space. There is an LFO plugin as part of Live which is a good place to start. The simplest thing to try is to set it up for an Up or Down ramp shape, and connect that to Rotation. However, that forces the sound to go around the outer edge of a circle around the room, which may be too extreme for subtle effects.
The more flexible approach is to use a pair of LFOs. To circular path with these, you need to:
- Choose the Sine shape for both. (Advanced trick: choose the Random shape, and increase Smooth in the Surround Panner for random quad pan moves.)
- Map one LFO to the X dimension of the Surround panner, and the second LFO to the Y dimension.
- Set the Phase for one to 25%. (Different phases will collapse the circle into an oval, ending up with a diagonal line at 0%.) You will need to stop and re-start playback in Live to re-synchronize the LFOs for this to work; otherwise they may be running at random initial phases to each other.
- Initially set both LFOs to the same speed in Hertz, or division of the beat. Using the same timing division for both creates a circle; choosing different timing divisions creates different Lissajous patterns.
If you want to change the shape of the pan path to more of an oval, edit the Depth and Offset of one of the LFOs. For example, I would do this for the LFO mapped to the Y dimension to restrict the path to be more towards the front or more towards the rear of the room. One of my favorite tricks (inspired by advice from Michael Stearns) is to place a dry stereo sound in the front of the room, its reverb return in the rear of the room, and then have the LFOs swirl the reverb slowly around the rear to animate the sound.
The next panning trick I want to try is to record panning automation moves in Live, and then to play them back on demand to create special effects. Live normally saves the sound source being played (audio or MIDI) together with its automation into a “Clip.” Cynthia Malaran (aka DJ CherishTheLuv) taught me how to work around this: To be able to apply a stand-alone automation move to any source (including live audio), you need to create two tracks – one with the sound source, and one with the Surround Panner. In the Surround Panner track, record your automation moves for the pan into a clip. Then assign the sound source track to go through the panner track (instead of directly to the Master output). This will replace the sound source for the automation move with the sound coming from the source track.
Beyond those basics, the rest comes down to practice, and personal taste. Dramatic moves and placement have a great initial “surprise” value, but can lose their impact if you use them too often. I found that careful placement of stereo sounds, and some simple automated pans of repeating mono sounds such as sequences or percussion loops, worked very nicely to create an immersive environment that did not wear out the listener.
My next steps will be to get a set of four small powered speakers and stands to place around my studio to try out ideas in quad, and then to try out alternative surround panners in Live such as the Envelop plugins as well as the Dolby Atmos tools. I also plan to learn more from those who are already mixing in quad or other surround environments, including my friends Richard Bugg, Michael Stearns, and Franck Martin who in particular has been sharing his exploits in various surround formats.
Alias Zone Updates
I spent December and the first couple of weeks in January putting together and practicing with a new hybrid modular + laptop performance system. I’m very happy with how it’s working out; in just a couple of weeks I composed two new pieces with it and started on a third.
I performed one of those pieces at the Southern California Synthesizer Society’s NAMMless JAMuary streaming event, linked to above (it jumps straight to my performance, but that video contains all seven artists from that evening). The SCSS normally holds an in-person “NAMM Jam” during the annual January NAMM music convention in Anaheim California, but due to Covid NAMM got pushed back to June, and it wasn’t a good idea to gather together in a club like they normally do. So instead, they streamed it from the patio outside of Trovarsi’s studio. Everyone was vaccinated and boosted, and passed rapid tests before showing up for this live performance.
SCSS performances tend to focus on techno and related forms of electronic dance music, so I rehearsed a piece that was a bit more beat-centric than my recent work. I think the result would sound at home on the “chill” channel of any number of streaming services – although I’ve since played around with a more open, ambient version of it as well. We’ll see if it makes it onto an album in one form or another later this year. Or maybe I should release this “chill” version as an EP? Opinions welcome.
Learning Modular Updates
My latest music videos get released first on my Alias Zone YouTube channel, and then a few months later on my Learning Modular channel. The piece above – Iceland – was the first piece I composed and performed after I broke my leg last year. I played it first in front of a live audience at an Albuquerque Electroniquè show in New Mexico, and being pleased with how it went, I recorded a studio version for SoundMiT 2021 – which is what you see above.
I also publicly released my fourth “Ask Me Anything” session for my Learning Modular Patreon subscribers, renamed Learning Modular Conversations. This one was with Steve Turner and his Australian Control Voltage (AU-CV) user group. Our main focus was on processing acoustic sounds through the modular synth, including breaking down a few different patch examples in detail. We also talked a lot more about what got me into synthesizers, as well as other subjects. That’s the video above.
I’ve been documenting the process of creating my new performance system for my Patreon subscribers. Two updates I posted during January covered dividing up the musical duties between the modular and the laptop, and how I pass sound between the modular and the laptop (including variations for studio recording, and quad performances). Both are available to +5v and above subscribers.
The studio modular has not been neglected entirely; last month I also wrote a post describing changes to the effects, mixing, and audio output sections of The Monster. That post is also available to +5v and above subscribers.
Finally, I shared a story about a mutant Moog Sonic Six that I had inherited from John Bowen during my time at Sequential Circuits, detailing how Gene Stopp updated and modified it for me, and its return to John during a NAMM show a few years ago. That post is available to all level of subscribers.
As a reminder to those who are not already subscribers, Patreon is where I post my deep-dive content as I explore composition, performance, new synthesis techniques, and bits of synthesis history. Check out the index to get an idea of what I’ve posted so far, and consider joining me on that journey.
Assuming I remain healthy and that the world doesn’t implode again, I have performances planned for 9 of the first 10 months of 2022. Here are next two:
February 11/12: Phoenix Synthesizer Festival (Paradise Valley Community College, Phoenix, Arizona)
I’m very excited about this one. Friday night I open for Steve Roach, and then Saturday afternoon both Steve and I give workshops about our approaches to live performance. Saturday night features additional live performances including friends Trovarsi and Tsone, and in between they will be streaming pre-recorded performances by others including Serena Gabriel and CherishTheLuv, including breakdowns by each artist about their pieces.
Tickets to attend Friday and Saturday nights in person are on sale now. The workshops Saturday afternoon are free, but require tickets (not yet available on the web site as of the time I write this) to limit the number of attendees. All will be streamed for free, as well. Check out the Phoenix Synthesizer Festival web site for more details.
March 5: Sound for Art (Currents 826 Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico)
This will be something quite different: Performers will be spread out between different rooms in the Currents 826 gallery, performing extended ambient pieces. Attendees are free to wander between the rooms to create their own mix of performances (as well as view the high-tech sculpture exhibition that will be on display). We should be playing between 1 and 4 PM; attendance is free. Other performers include Jim Coker of Meridian Alpha, Trovarsi, Jason Fink, and Anthony Ballo.
I’m also tentatively scheduled to appear virtually at SynthFest France the first weekend in April, and in person at Mountain Skies in Asheville, North Carolina during May. I’ll share more details as those dates draw closer.
As you can see from the above, this year is off to a good start. Here’s wishing you a great year as well.
best regards –