It’s been a fun couple of months since the previous newsletter. I played a series of gigs, had the chance to patch vintage Moog and Polyfusion modular synths, raised some money for the Moogseum, attended Knobcon where I demonstrated my Osiris WavPak with a new idea for morphing between waves (which I hope others steal), shared how I’ve integrated the SSL BiG SiX analog mixer and digital audio interface into my workflow, created a video for a new Ornament & Crime app I commissioned to manage all my sound sources, and no doubt more than I’ve forgotten in the whirlwind. So let’s get to it:
- featured article: I got tired of all of my oscillators and other sound sources not tracking each other, or requiring a couple of extra modules to try to tame them. So, I commissioned a custom app for the Ornament & Crime module – Calibr8or – to make it easier, and have made it available free to everyone.
- Alias Zone updates: My three gigs in North Carolina ranged from a between-two-palms fundraiser to Berlin-style basement club. Here’s a few photos.
- Learning Modular updates: I demonstrated my new-way-to-crossfade WavPak for DivKid at Knobcon, and wrote about how I’m using the SSL BiG SiX to warm up my digital modules and plugins synths. Also, some news about my online course pricing.
- Patreon updates: Since the previous newsletter, I finished my Superbooth reports, showed how I’ve been updating my travel case for a new series of gigs, and shared my experiences patching a vintage Moog modular.
- upcoming events: I have no gigs planned for the immediate future – which means a welcome return to the studio to finish no fewer than four album projects (anyone want to recommend or make an introduction to a label I should be working with?). Plus, I’m open to potential bookings for 2024.
- one more thing: Why has it become expected that we should listen to some forms of electronic music at ear-damaging volumes?
Improving Oscillator Tracking & Transposition: the Calibr8or app for Ornament & Crime
I hired DJ Phazer to write me an app for the Ornament & Crime (o_C) hardware – Calibr8or – that allows me to easily adjust the tracking and tuning offsets for my various sound sources. It also adds scale quantization, sample & hold functions, and presets. A single o_C can handle four different sound sources. We’ve made it available free for all o_C users; it’s part of the Phazerville suite of apps. The movie above demonstrates it; the post linked here explains it in more detail. Click here to download the latest version of Phazerville (most will want the version with just the hex code at the end of the name; click here to have the different versions explained).
I’m human: Sometimes when I consider playing with my large studio modular synth, I am daunted by the amount of work that will be involved to create a patch. One of the tasks that is the most daunting is dealing with oscillators and other sound sources that don’t track each other or conventional instruments for over an octave. Having modules go out of tune, and spending the time to calibrate each of them by hand, definitely kills creativity. You would think this is a problem that would have been fixed by now, but instead it’s actually rare (in my experience) to find a sound source that does track correctly for more than a couple of octaves right out of its box.
Some of these problems can be blamed on poor quality components or calibration procedures used by some manufacturers. But also, some of the potential problems users encounter are out of the manufacturer’s control:
- Not all MIDI to CV converters, keyboard controllers, and the such are properly calibrated, or don’t use digital to analog converters that are accurate enough from note to note (12 bits is not great; 14 bits is fair; 16 bits is preferred – and yes, each step up costs more).
- The pitch control voltage may go through several intermediate modules – including buffered multiples, CV mixers, sample & holds, slews, and the such – which may introduce inaccuracies in that voltage.
- Your own case of modules may run hotter, cooler, or with different actual power supply voltages than the manufacturer tested with. (There are some ways to design around that, but new manufacturers in particular may not realize there is a potential problem until users start reporting it.)
This is a problem I’ve been trying to cure for years. I’ve tried hand-calibrating each module. I tried using the AJH V-Scale. I tried using the Klavis CalTrans. I tried using both together. And each of those certainly helped. But they weren’t perfect, and didn’t have some extra features I wanted – such as holding off transposition changes until the next note or downbeat, rather than it happening immediately.
I considered either designing my own tracking & transposition module, working with another manufacturer to create it, or trying to find a programmable general purpose module that had all of the features I needed. While following that last idea, I realized that the Ornament & Crime module fit the bill perfectly.
I talked to a few different o_C developers, and ended up working with Nick Michalek (aka DJ Phazer), paying him to write custom code to my spec to do what I wanted. I also decided to make it available for free to everyone. Nick includes it with his Phazerville Suite of apps for o_C. The result is called Calibr8or (Nick gets the credit for the name).
The video above demonstrates the 1.5.1 version of Calibr8or; click here to go to a public post on the Learning Modular website that explains it – as well as changes in v1.6.6 – in detail.
In very simple terms, Calibr8or:
- quantizes the incoming pitch CV to conform it to semitones or a chosen scale, which cures most problems with poor MIDI to CV converters, multiples, mixers, etc. (this quantization can also be turned off)
- multiplies that voltage by a user-adjustable scale value (100% being no change) that tilts the tuning sharp or flat as you play higher notes, compensating for the most common tracking problems with oscillators
- adds user-adjustable offsets to that voltage to tweak the overall sound source sharp or flat, with more accuracy and less hassle than the tuning controls on most sound sources
- can optionally hold off changes in transposition & tracking or the incoming voltage until a trigger is received (its sample & hold modes), to allow changes to be made before the note when they are supposed to take effect
It does that for each of its four channels, meaning one o_C can control the tracking of up to four sound source modules. There is also the ability to save and recall presets.
The main ways I am using this in my own modular systems include:
- assigning one Calibr8or channel for each of my sound sources (VCOs, pluck & struck sound modules, etc.), and using Calibr8or to pre-adjust their tracking and pitch so I can patch any combination of them to a pitch voltage source while composing and know they will all track together – which greatly reduces apprehension when working with the modular
- changing transpositions of different sound sources that are layered together without having to touch their own tuning controls
- changing transpositions as part of live performance, and using the sample & hold feature to hold off those changes until a trigger for the downbeat of the next measure
- recalling different presets during a performance to quickly change the tuning intervals of my sound sources
How happy am I with the result? I currently have six micro Ornament & Crime modules in my Monster studio modular plus one in my Pandora’s Box performance system dedicated to running Calibr8or, and might add one more for the system I use to create educational videos with. For this to work, you need an o_C module that has been built with high quality components (as recommended on the build page) and which has been well-calibrated. I have o_C modules from three different vendors (most from After Later Audio) and they all work fine.
Some have asked why I don’t just use the Autotune routine in the original o_C app References. On the positive side, Autotune custom builds a tuning table with an adjustment per octave of its range, and the resulting table is automatically available to all the other apps in the stock firmware. On the negative side, References does not itself include the combination of scale quantization, sample & hold functionality, and other features of Calibr8or that I love. But also, the Autotune routine does not work with plucked / struck / percussive sound sources, and by calibrating only octaves it also runs foul of the same quirk in some oscillators where they go out of tune just a semitone or two before 0v – with possibly even worse results, as you would now have a bad data point for 0v.
That said, Nick is looking into adding References (or at least the Autotune routine) to his Phazerville Suite, with an eye toward allowing Calibr8or to take advantage of it – while keeping the scale quantization, sample & hold, and other features of Calibr8or. I’ll let you know if and when this happens, including updating the text for the YouTube video and the posts on Learning Modular and Patreon.
Alias Zone Updates
In October I played live gigs in Durham, Asheville, and Charlotte, North Carolina, including the Slingshot Festival (images shot by Jamie Rosenberg), a fund raiser for the Moogseum (first image in the slideshow above shot by Geary Yelton, second one by me), and a gathering of the Charlotte Synth Meet. Click on the image above to expand it, and then the arrows on the left or right to scroll through the images; press Esc to exit the viewer.
I’m looking forward to spending the rest of this fall and winter in the studio. I have a lot of material recorded over the past few years that is waiting to get out in album form, which keeps getting pushed aside by other projects. (By the way, I am interested in working with a label to get these some wider exposure; suggestions for or introductions to an appropriate partner are welcome.)
I am also starting to think about future performances. If you’re interested in having me play a local event or festival, please get in touch, and we’ll see what can be arranged!
Learning Modular Updates
In addition to helping develop the Calibr8or app earlier this year, I’ve also finished a long-term project of creating a custom WavPak (set of four banks of waveforms) for the Modbap Osiris VCO module, which is one of my favorite wavetable oscillators.
My main goal with this WavPak is that I wanted to try to adapt an idea from the Sequential Prophet VS synth to modular oscillators. X/Y morphing oscillator wavetable modules tend to use the same tuning for each of the waves they are morphing between. However, the Prophet VS actually morphed (crossfaded) between four independently tunable oscillators, meaning the result of the morph could also be a change in pitch – think of it as a type of arpeggio per note.
(Credit where credit is due: My initial idea for Vector Synthesis included doing the same thing as modular wavetable oscillators do today, to save the amount of computational power required. After testing, Josh Jeffe – the product manager for the VS – didn’t think that sounded “fat” enough, so he insisted that the source sounds could also be tuned differently than each other. The result is far better than my original plan.)
My idea for how to bridge that gap was to do the normal waveform morphing in the X dimension, but to create waves in the Y dimension that packed different numbers of wave cycles into a single “waveform” – in essence turning them into harmonics of the fundamental wave:
- one full cycle inside the space for one wave is the fundamental frequency
- fitting two entire cycles into one wave results in a sound that is an octave higher than the fundamental
- three cycles results in a sound that is an octave and a fifth higher
- four cycles is two octaves higher
- five cycles is two octaves and a third higher
- six is two octaves and a fifth higher
- (seven cycles does not fall on a normal twelve-tone-scale musical interval, so I skipped that one)
- eight cycles is three octaves higher
You can best hear this interval if you layer the result with a second oscillator tuned to the same fundamental pitch; in the case of Osiris, it also has a sub-octave generator that it can mix in with the morphed waveforms. When the original patch I sampled changed timbre as I changed pitch (such as with formant filters or filter banks), you get a tonal as well as a pitch change.
While I was at it, I decided to sample some of my favorite sounds from my studio modular. This included interesting oscillators, some patch tricks like audio-rate crossfading between waveforms, different filter, rectifier, and folder modules, and tube saturation. This allows me to personalize the sound of my performing modular system with sounds I love from my studio modular.
Many thanks to DivKid for recording the video above at the recent Knobcon show; I’ve also recorded my own demonstration video that I’ll release in a few weeks. The WavPak is available now for free from ModBap.
I was also interviewed recently by Solid State Logic (SSL) about how I use their hardware and software in the studio. One of the main pieces of hardware of theirs that I use is the BiG SiX analog mixer + digital audio interface. I also wrote a detailed article on exactly how I use the BiG SiX to warm up tracks from both my modular and computer.
Finally, inflation has caught up with me, and I had to raise the prices for my online courses. Since I feel bad about doing this, I’d like to offer you a coupon for 33% off of any of my courses, good during the month of November 2023. When you check out, look for the button that says “Redeem Coupon” and enter: ThirdOffAny112023
It’s also been a busy couple of months on my Patreon channel, including:
- “Early bird” posts with additional information on the Calibr8or app and my Osiris WavPak (both posts available free to all)
- An in-depth patch breakdown of using the Moogseum’s vintage Moog modular inspired by modern Eurorack patches; one on using Toto’s vintage Polyfusion modular will follow soon (for +5v and above subscribers)
- My final Superbooth 2023 report, covering WMD/AMMV and Frap Tools (for +5v and above subscribers)
- The latest installment on the evolution of my performance modular, this one covering the module changes I made for my October mini-tour (for +5v and above subscribers)
- The start of a new series – Tales From The Road – on challenges I’ve encountered performing live and how I plan to solve them; this first post was on using Run/Stop versus Reset signals when coordinating multiple sequencers and rhythm pattern generators (for +5v and above subscribers)
- An early version of my article on how I use the SSL BiG SiX mixer + audio interface in my own workflow (for +5v and above subscribers)
As always, I encourage you to check out the index check out the index for my Patreon channel: There’s a lot of content up there, and a 7 day free trial if you want to try out a subscription to access a particular post that’s not already free.
After my October mini-tour in North Carolina, I think I might be done for this year. Although I am looking forward to some studio time, I already have one eye on next year’s calendar. If you are interested in having me play at one of your events, please get in touch using the contact form at the bottom of this web page (or at the bottom of the Alias Zone web site).
One More Thing…
Confession: I’m often one of the loudest acts when I play live. In particular, I like bass you can feel.
However…there is such a thing as too loud. And for some reason, when it comes to concert sound levels, waaaaaaay too loud is “the standard.” Plus, we’ve been trained to think it’s our fault – not the venue’s or the band’s – if we find music to be too loud. Maybe it’s time that changed.
A few recent concert experiences are what’s made this a front-of-mind topic for me lately:
At the recent Knobcon show, I really wanted to hear POB (and other friends) perform in the Big Room. But I did’t bring hearing protection. During POB’s intro – before the drums came in – my phone was measuring ~95 to 105 dB, which is a level that can cause hearing loss in ~15 minutes. For the sake of my already-damaged hearing, I sadly got out of there before he dropped the beats, and warned others I saw walking toward the room.
Thankfully, I brought custom-fitted Sensaphonics ear plugs to a Tangerine Dream concert when they played locally. It was a great concert, but they were playing even louder: over 110 dB at times (where hearing loss can occur in just five minutes) – and my phone was probably missing some of the extreme bass. The sound was so loud that it vibrated the chair I was sitting in, and caused my ears to actually distort while listening without hearing protection. Popping in the plugs brought it closer to conversational level and actually cleaned up the sound for my damaged ears, making it more enjoyable to listen to – I could hear more of the details, rather than cringing at the sound level.
I talked with people who attended Tangerine Dream gigs in other cities during their North American tour, and this was apparently the norm. I also heard reports of people leaving well before the concert was over because it was too loud. What I did not hear about in relation to the Tangerine Dream shows was anyone complaining to the venue, or asking for a refund.
Why is that? If we paid to see a film where the projection was blown out and distorted, many would would ask for a refund immediately. There seems to be a “macho” element at play when it comes to sound level. For example, when I warned one person who was going to an upcoming Tangerine Dream show to bring hearing protection, he replied “if it’s too loud, you’re too old.” (For the record, I first damaged my own hearing in my 20s, and then did it worse in my 40s, so age is not insurance against hearing damage.)
A few weeks later, I saw Peter Gabriel play live at the Ball sports arena in Denver. Most of the time the level was very comfortable, only peaking for a few of the “big hits” – and then receding back down for the newer or more thoughtful material. Same when I saw kora master Sona Jobarteh play a small venue in Albuquerque: the level was reasonable without hearing protecting, and not distorted. Both were far more enjoyable listening experiences.
I think it’s time we start to push back. If you are the venue, why are you allowing the hearing of your patrons to be damaged? How is that a long-term business plan? If you are the sound person, what is the point of making it so loud that someone has to wear protection to hear the sound properly? You may think you’re cool; in reality, you’re failing at your job – and endangering us while you’re at it.
A lot of hearing damage is permanent. What concert was enhanced enough by its high sound level that it was worth damaging your hearing for the rest of your life? I myself have non-stop tinnitus; it’s so loud that it’s often close to conversational level. It affects my sound design; it affects my mixing; it affects my entire quality of life. I would not wish this on any of my friends.
So let’s not take it anymore, nor accept it as “the norm.” Complain. Ask for refunds. Or if you’re in control, turn it down. It will be worth it in the long run.
When I was at the Moogseum in October, I signed some copies of Patch & Tweak, thanking the prospective purchaser for their support of the Bob Moog Foundation. They are offering them at a premium as a fundraiser – excellent for a gift, or just to support a very worthy cause. As of the time I am writing this at the end of October, there are six signed copies left; click here to get your copy before they disappear.
wishing you the very best –