The end of June/early July was a busy time, as I performed in quad at the Currents New Media Festival, and then played at SynthaCider in the Denver area. The main article this month will be some of what I learned about quad sound; I also edited together and posted a video of the SynthaCider performance.
After that, I had Part 2 of my Oceanachine interview with Shueh-li Ong, became re-acquainted with my Monster studio modular after a year away, composed and recorded a piece for an upcoming modular-only compilation, and more. The details:
- featured article: I had the pleasure of performing in quad at the Currents New Media Festival, along with Sine Mountain (David Soto) and Jill Fraser. Here are some notes on how we approached quad for that show.
- Alias Zone updates: I edited together an “official bootleg” of my performance at SynthaCider.
- Learning Modular updates: Part 2 of my Music & Chat interview with Shueh-li Ong, this time focusing on modulars as well as MIDI. Also, the course sale is over…but I dropped my prices anyway, for those outside of the US having to deal with the strong dollar.
- Patreon updates: Several new posts for my Patrons, covering some new module choices, recording techniques, and more.
- upcoming events: I will be playing at the Chill-Out Room during Knobcon in September.
- one more thing: A classic electronic music book is being re-issued – but you only have a few more days to reserve a copy.
Some Notes on Performing in Quad
There is nothing like a deadline to force you to learn something! Back in October, when our local modular group New Mexico Control Voltage was asked to organize a night of performances for the Currents New Media Festival, we discussed presenting it in quad. As it so happens, the performers we were considering – myself included – had little to no prior experience composing and performing in quad. But we all accepted the challenge, and came up with different solutions on how to present our music.
Choosing an Approach
First was deciding how to approach the quadraphonic space. One option is a “cinematic” presentation, where the main sounds are in front of the listener, and then special effects and other sounds appear behind or all around the listener. Some refer to this as the “mullet” layout, which Jim Coker of Five12 summed up as “business in front; party in the back.” This is the approach Jill Fraser and myself took. The other approach is an “all equal” approach where all four speakers are treated the same, with no inherent front and rear; this is the approach Sine Mountain (David Soto) took.
David performed with a modular case plus a stere effect pedal and 1010music Bluebox digital mixer. The Bluebox – like most mixers – is not set up to inherently handle quad, but it does have effects sends as well as a stereo master bus. The solution most employ to make a stereo mixer work in a quad setting is to use the master left/right channels for the front speakers, and then use two effects sends – pre-fader, so you can keep the signal out of the master bus – for the rear left and right outputs.
David then chose which signals from his modular went to which speakers, after panning the sounds into and out of Intellijel Rainmaker and Mutable Instruments Clouds modules. For quad panning, David used a u-he CVilization module, which can auto-pan up to four inputs in a circle at different speeds, with four outputs.
I visited Jill earlier this year after spending two days at Richard Bugg’s Non Compos Mentis studio. Richard gave me a crash course in surround sound and allowed me to experiment with a few ideas (which I wrote up in an earlier newsletter) – and I shared my initial findings with Jill. We both use Ableton Live as our main DAW, and employed the Surround Panner plugins that come with recent versions of Live on each track. We chose the 4-Center configuration, where the rear left and right speakers are reversed; this gives a better image when panning stereo sound sources around in a continuous circle. Jill then used a MOTU M4 audio interface to send the four resulting signals out to the monitors; she was also able to use the M4 as an input for the row of Serge modular gear she brought.
The pieces Jill performed were from her Earthly Pleasures project, which are rooted in old hymns. For the piece When We All Get to Heaven, she created patches that simulated vocals, and moved from back to front as if entering the rear of a cathedral. On another piece, the parts did a question and answer between all four speakers.
One of the most clever tricks she used was employing a Genki Wave MIDI ring, which followed the movements of her hand and translated them into quad panning position for select sounds. She primarily used the roll and tilt functions to do this: tilt for front to back, and roll for side to side. For example, on her piece I Stand Amazed, she had a series of little sounds she thinks of as memories, and used the Ring to float them around, in and out of earshot.
Chris Meyer’s Alias Zone
When placing my sounds in quad, I mainly focused on a “call and response” approach. For example, most dry, direct sounds were in front, and most effects returns – reverbs and delays – were in the sides and rear. This was particularly true for my processed voices: the original speech samples were front dead center, and then the granulated versions (processed through a Mutable Instruments Beads, with a long, scattered delay and played backwards) were spread around the rear. The main exception was a pair of percussion patterns – shaker loops, and semi-random roto-tom samples triggered by a Mutable Instruments Grids – that were set up to slowly pan in a circle around the audience. This was the element of my composition that most people noted afterwards.
With my hybrid modular + laptop system, I’m already using all of the channels on an Expert Sleepers ES-9 for the two to talk to each other. The ES-9 has a master stereo output, but I needed quad. So, I added a Focusrite Clarett+ 4Pre to my system to handle the additional outputs. It also has two headphone outputs, and host software that makes it easy to configure what goes to them – so I was able to set up one headphone output for a pre-fader cue from Live, and the other as a sum of the two output pairs so I could hear the quad mix collapsed to stereo. The ES-9 and 4Pre are bonded together in the macOS Audio MIDI Setup app as an “aggregate” interface; physically, I ran an optical cable from the ES-9 to the 4Pre to lock together their sample clocks.
Click here to view and download a video of the performance, with Dolby Atmos-encoded surround sound (courtesy of quad electronic music advocate Franck Martin of Peachy Mango) and eye-candy video live-mixed by Jim Coker which was projected during my performance (with a brief iPhone insert so you get a better idea of my performance system). You will get a good stereo mix with normal headphones or speakers, and a sense of the immersive experience with an Atmos-compatible monitoring system such as Apple AirPod Pros. I’m looking into making the four individual channels available as downloads for my Patreon subscribers.
Setting up the Venue
We performed in a small movie theater at CCA Santa Fe, under the banner of Sandbox Music who organized most of the performances. CCA wouldn’t let us use the theater’s 5.1 surround sound system, so we had to bring in our own speakers. Jim Coker brought a pair of powered Mackie speakers plus a subwoofer he’s been using for our New Mexico Control Voltage outings; they went up on speaker poles at the front of the room. We were able to borrow another pair of what we thought were identical Mackies for the back. We didn’t want to take up any of the available seating (we sold out the venue that evening), so we placed them on top of soffits that were on either side of the room, aimed toward the center-front of the seating area.
When we first auditioned the speakers, the front and rear pair sounded radically different, despite being the same model and using the same settings. Fortunately, Jim had a pair of dbx DriveRacks, which can listen to the room through a reference microphone and automatically creates EQ curves to flatten their response. They got the front and back pairs fairly close; we did a little hand-tweaking of the dbx-generated curves and were satisfied. Jim used their internal crossovers to create a pair of mono signals – one each for front and back – which were sent to the subwoofer.
Ideally, for quad, the performers are either in the center of the room, or have their own monitoring. Neither was practical in this small theatre, so instead we moved the performers as close to the front row of seats as possible to get a better front/rear balance, with the performers facing the front – in the same direction as the audience – so the perspective they heard was the same as the audience. Fortunately, everyone had rehearsed their pieces – including their quad mix – well enough that we didn’t have to rely on what we heard to make on-the-spot mixing decisions.
Despite this imperfect setup, we received very nice reactions from the audience. Which goes to show that just because you can’t do something perfectly, that shouldn’t stop you from doing it at all. Get out there and do it; what you learn will make the next time easier. (And speaking of the next time…check out the Upcoming Events section below.)
Many thanks to Richard Bugg, Michael Stearns, and Franck Martin for their advice on performing in surround sound environments.
Alias Zone Updates
In early July, I performed a special version of The Cave at the SynthaCider event in Lakewood, Colorado, incorporating my ATV aFrame electronic frame drum along with a few other new sounds. The event was streamed live on YouTube, but unfortunately the internet bandwidth at the location was poor, meaning there were a lot of frozen and stuttered frames in the video – along with a few brief audio dropouts.
Fortunately, my wife Trish shot a substantial portion of my performance on her iPhone, which ended up having higher quality as well. So, I edited together a composite of the two, using the best available source at any given moment, and repaired the worst of the audio glitches. The result is the video above. I call it an “official bootleg” because the quality isn’t up to my normal videos, but I thought the performance was worth preserving and sharing.
(Click here for the stream of the entire event (including sets by Modulus10, El Roachy, and Moss Pig); click here for the original studio version of The Cave.)
I also composed and recorded a new piece for the next installment of an all-modular compilation. That should be out by the end of the year; I’ll let you know when it ships. Before then, I plan to break down each of the individual tracks for my Patreon subscribers.
Learning Modular Updates
Shueh-li Ong of Oceanachine and I had so much fun with our interview back in June, that she invited me back for a Part 2 in July. That stream of that interview is above. This time around, we focused on two main topics: the early days of MIDI, and my involvement with modular synthesizers both past and present.
Also, fun fact: Roughly 2/3 of those who visit my web site, Facebook page, etc. are from outside of the United States, where I am based. And right now, the US dollar is very strong against other currencies, making things like my courses more expensive for those outside the US. That (along with inflation) was one of the reasons I ran a sale on my courses during June. The sale is over, but I decided to go ahead and lower my normal prices, hoping to make it easier for those of you who are outside the US.
It was an interesting month, as I transitioned from live performance using my portable system (including Pandora’s Box – my new gigging modular case) to using my studio modular (The Monster) for the first time since I broke my leg last July. While I was at it, I wrote the following posts for my Patreon subscribers:
- Going Hybrid Live, Part 6: Percussion Sounds: Although I keep fine-tuning the mix of modules in Pandora’s Box, the percussion sound modules have remained pretty stable this year, so I detailed all of my choices for those – including the support modules I use to make triggering and processing them more interesting.
- Mini Track Breakdown: aFrame + Modular intro to The Cave: For the introduction and ending to the special version of The Cave that I played at SynthaCider last month (see the Alias Zone Updates section above), not only did I play the ATV aFrame; I also processed it through three channels of effects inside the modular. I detailed each of those processing chains, as well as a few other sounds plus some timing tweaks I had to make for my echoes to be more stable and glitch-free.
- Notes from the Studio 14: Why I Record at 96 kHz: In my quest to get the best sound quality I can out of my equipment, one of my habits is to record at 96 kHz (as well as 32 bits, which I discussed previously). This usually results in people remarking “but you can’t hear frequencies that high” – which is correct, and not the reason I do it. I spell out my actual reasons in this post, plus reference an interesting article and demo by Craig Anderson on the Sweetwater web site about this this issue.
- Random Notes from Rehearsal Heaven – Studio Edition: After recently detailing things that had been going wrong while rehearsing for recent performances using my live system, last month I shared a few changes to my studio modular that were working out nicely – including some stereo processing modules and tricks, using filters as equalizers to clean up the sound of patches, playing with the original state variable filter design from the ARP 2500, and explaining the differences between patching the VCF in front of the VCA versus putting the VCA in front of the VCF.
All of those posts are available to +5v and above subscribers. (For $5/month, you get access to these plus a few hundred previous posts, and you can cancel any time; if you sign up for a year, you get two months free. Patreon is where I’m posting all of my educational content these days, covering modules as well as composition, recording, and performance; if you want to take your skills to the next level, please check it out – even if for just a month.)
September 10: Chill-Out Room at Knobcon, 8:30 PM
I will be performing in quad at the Saturday evening Chill Out Room during Knobcon Number 10 in Schaumburg, Illinois. Meridian Alpha (Jim Coker) and I will be among several of the acts playing in quad; I will be on of the earlier sets.
I am also tentatively scheduled to perform at the next New Mexico Control Voltage event October 1 at the Press Club in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and possibly in quad October 29 at the Synthplex show in Burbank, California (with Jim Coker as Meridian Alpha in a duo configuration). I’ll keep you posted as those dates draw closer.
One More Thing…
One of the first comprehensive books that taught electronic music was Allen Strange’s Electronic Music: Systems, Techniques, and Controls. It is long out of print, and original copies are very expensive if you find them.
This prompted Dr. Jason Nolan to track down Allen’s partner Pat and secure rights to reproduce the book, complete with new clearer photographs, plus new introduction and testimonials. Jason launched the book as a Kickstarter project, and it is already successfully funded; the campaign closes August 5 – so if you want to reserve a copy, click through to its Kickstarter page now and place an order!
(And if some of you are wondering if this is competition to Kim Bjørn’s and my book Patch & Tweak, both Kim and I are supporters of this project. Allen Strange’s book is very much “of its time” including patch techniques on now-vintage equipment to get around limitations of the technology at the time – such as using repeating envelopes to fake then-expensive echo machines. It is a fun historical reference to have around, and might even give you some new compositional ideas based on these older ideas and techniques.)
Thank you again for your support. I get to spend the rest of August in the studio – editing my next album among other projects – before hitting the road again in September. I hope I get to see some of you at my upcoming gigs!
still having fun –