Floaters

Creating static textures with a modular synthesizer is a piece of cake. Assembling a complex piece of music is a lot harder. But there’s a middle ground — a texture in which different elements appear infrequently.

This approach led to what I think is my first actual composition in VCV Rack. It’s more than a sketch, at least. Here are two different takes. It’s called “Deserts of the Heart.”

They’re similar, but with two differences that may or may not be obvious. The first is in 13 equal steps per octave, the second in 19. And in the second, the sustaining tones are played using slightly longer sequence patterns.

You can keep micro-massaging this stuff forever. Here’s a third version, back in 13 steps, but with a lower “bass” sound and an extra intruding sound.

And here’s a video capture:

The main sound source is three Seven Seas modules from Nysthi. They’re being played very slowly by the ReBeat, and each is processed by a couple of formant filters.

deserts_patch

Because the ReBeat’s trigger outputs have different patterns, the three sequencers playing the Seven Seas produce a constant variety of chords. The intermittent plucky bass phrase has different lengths depending on the value being transmitted from a slow LFO. Its echo is fed through a frequency shifter.

There’s more going on than that, but that’s enough to give you a flavor.

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Overtone Groove

Got to playing around with the new 16 AR envelope generator from Nysthi, which pairs well with the Nysthi Phasor additive oscillator. Added a ReBeat matrix clock divider from AS, and here you go:

For the second half of the clip, I turned up the delay effect. But what does it look like? Like this:

hey_16b

The oscillator is the big gray thing up on top. The 16 AR module is practically invisible behind its patch cords. A couple of LFOs are modulating the attack and decay times globally, while a couple of slow envelopes (the DAHD modules to the lower left) are causing a couple of the partials to sustain.

The key to this patch is the ReBeat (lower left), which divides the clock signal in odd-numbered ways. This module isn’t as complex as the Tiptop Trigger Riot, a hardware module for eurorack, but it was inspired by Trigger Riot and does much the same thing.

Rock on, if possible.

Here’s a video I did earlier, showing a more basic usage of these two modules:

Step by Step

There are lots of ways to do step sequencing in VCV Rack. Some sequencers have song modes, with which you can chain multiple patterns end to end. Some let you repeat steps or skip steps. Some let you chain multiple sequencer modules to one another for longer patterns.

Tonight I’ve been looking at a couple of systems that are sort of do-it-yourself. Each module consists of a single step, and you chain them to one another side by side to make a pattern.

Here, on the upper right, is the micro-synced pulse generator from Bidoo:

diy_steps_1

This is a rather strange module. For one thing, there’s no clock input. It manages its own step length, so you can rather easily create syncopated rhythms. The downside is, shutting your sequence off is a bit tricky; that’s why the Flow module with the big red button is attached to all eight “inhibit step” jacks. It also has an add CV input, which can be used to boost the value of a given step some of the time. That’s what the other modules on the second row are doing. The simple tone generators are at the upper left.

Here’s a quick sketch:

Ah, but what about that Alt knob? Might we be able to make a step sequence that branches some of the time? Yes, indeed! In this video, the upper row of pulse generators branches to the lower row about 50% of the time, depending on what decision is made by the Alt knob in the fourth module in the upper row.

The AS ReStep system lacks the variable step time of the Bidoo, but it has some other strengths. The clock input is handy, one has to admit.

diy_steps_2

The ReStep module can generate from one to four steps. The ReStepOne module only makes a single step, but it has a CV input for offsetting the value of the step. The ReFluke sample-and-hold module is sampling the DoLoMo LFO output and sending it to the ReStepOnes, so the actual amount added to those two steps changes each time the sequence plays through. The ReBit module at lower left creates syncopated rhythms by subdividing an incoming clock.

The results tend to be very trance-oriented, but not monotonous. Here’s what it sounds like:

What a Tangled Web We Weave

This morning I thought I’d try using touchOSC on my iPad to control VCV Rack. No special musical goals in mind, but touchOSC is a very nice tactile performance surface, and the Trowasoft modules for VCV can receive OSC messages.

touchOSC is made by Hexler. I have what appears to be a current version of the software: It’s version 1.9.10, and the copyright notice says 2018. However, the setup pages bear no resemblance to the setup pages shown in the online manual at hexler.net, so figuring out how to set up touchOSC is a bit of a puzzler. Also, their site offers a download of touchOSC Editor for Windows, but it’s for 32-bit Windows, and of course my computer is 64-bit. Will that run? We’ll find out shortly.

The Hexler documentation suggests testing your OSC connection using Pd. That’s fine — I have Pd. I have, also, a vague memory that I got this working a couple of years ago. Hexler provides a file called basic.pd, with which to test your setup. However, basic.pd uses objects called dumpOSC and sendOSC, which Pd 0.47.1 can’t create. Hexler has, quite evidently, failed to update either the manual or the downloadable file.

So I do a search for “pure data osc” and find myself on the Floss manual page where it tells how to set up Pd for osc. This page has a graphic of a file that includes an object called “import mrpeach”. But Pd can’t do that, evidently because the mrpeach library is not installed. So I search for that library, and apparently it doesn’t exist. There seems to be no release version to download.

My vague memory is that mrpeach was part of Pd Extended 0.43. That version of Pd is now, for some reason, deprecated. In the absence of mrpeach, the udpreceive and unpackOSC objects shown on the Floss page can’t be created. So the Floss manual is outdated as well.

Isn’t this just special?

Let’s try installing the 32-bit touchOSC Editor. Oops:

touchosc_install_message

What we see here is that the editor wants a Java Runtime Environment. I do actually have a JRE in this computer, but its Configuration box tells me it’s outdated. So I click on the update link and get sent out to java.com — where they detect that my browser is 64-bit, assume (on no valid grounds whatever) that I want to run Java in the browser, and offer to let me download the latest 64-bit JRE. Okay, we’ll give that a try.

Nope. touchOSC Editor still complains. At a guess, it needs a 32-bit JRE. Can I find such a thing at java.com? No, I cannot. The links with which to find the 32-bit download appear to be circular: They take me straight back to the 64-bit download, most likely because I’m running a 64-bit browser.

Well, maybe I don’t need the touchOSC editor. I was hoping to use it to test the system because Pd didn’t work.

Enabling OSC reception in the Trowasoft VoltSeq produces no apparent results. Wiggling a slider in touchOSC doesn’t change anything. That’s not even faintly surprising, of course. OSC requires a specific address for each parameter.

Time to consult the Trowasoft documentation. No, no help there. They do provide a touchOSC template that addresses VoltSeq parameters, but I’ll bet that template requires that I be running touchOSC Editor, in order to load the template across into the iPad.

I wouldn’t actually mind getting this thing up and running, if only for the momentary thrill of stroking a few sliders on the iPad and having VCV Rack respond. I think I’ll email Hexler and see what they have to say. It’s their product, after all.

Update: Someone in the Facebook group found the 64-bit editor. I downloaded it, ran it, downloaded the touchOSC template provided by Trowasoft, and sent that template over to the iPad. Progress — yay! After I got the bit about the IP addresses straightened out, Trowasoft trigSeq started responding to messages from touchOSC.

Sort of. TrigSeq has 16 little pads in a 4×4 matrix, which control when triggers will be transmitted. Touching a corresponding square in touchOSC would indeed turn the little pad on — but touching the square again wouldn’t turn it off! This isn’t user error, as far as I can see. It’s a bug in the template.

Can I edit the template in the touchOSC Editor software? No, I cannot. the Edit… item in the pop-up menu is grayed out. Also, the Trowasoft web page alleges that the template can address two of their other modules as well (VoltSeq and TrigSeq 64). There’s supposed to be “a tab” for choosing them. But no, there’s no tab. The tempo adjustment and pattern choose sliders in the touchOSC template work — but they don’t display the numerical values you’re about to send, so there’s no reliable way to select, say, pattern 3.

To paraphrase Bob Dylan, “I’m goin’ back to MIDI. I do believe I’ve had enough.”

Ambient (Dream)

Another day of pleasant self-indulgence. Here’s what I did:

 

 

The audio is from VCV Rack. The images are, I think, all in the public domain. They’re things a friend of mine who loves paintings has linked to on Facebook.

I’ve been doing some comparisons between Reason and VCV Rack, trying to work out why VCV just plain sounds different, when they’re both modular systems for digital synthesis. One factor, oddly enough, is that the signal paths in VCV are monophonic. Every sound is its own entity, and the chords are made up by stacking individual sounds. Another factor is that VCV is rich in logic modules. The occasional rapid doodles that you’ll hear in this video are not programmed directly — they arise because the quantizer module is capable of sending out a new trigger (that is, starting a new note) every time its pitch output changes. That’s a logical function that has no counterpart in Reason.

I think this is the best thing I’ve done yet with video — and perhaps the first thing I’ve done with VCV that amounted to more than a sketch.

Why I’m Giving Up Eurorack

I love modular synthesizers. My first electronic instrument was a 4-panel Serge (back in 1981). But after a couple of years, when MIDI happened, the Serge just sat their gathering dust. Eventually I sold it.

About five years ago I got interested in the Eurorack modular trend, or groundswell, or obsession, whatever you choose to call it. Between 2013 and 2016 I kept adding modules. Ooh, this is cool! Gotta have one of these! Only $600!

And now my large and handsome Eurorack system is, you guessed it, gathering dust.

A couple of months ago I decided to donate it to a university music department. Mills College has a good electronic music program, and it’s only 30 miles from me. I hope the students there will find this instrument a source of inspiration.

But why would I give up such a unique and wonderful instrument? Primarily because of the rapid growth and promise of VCV Rack. Essentially, VCV Rack is a free, open-source Eurorack synth system modeled in software. Granted, it’s not perfect — but a list of the pros and cons, hardware vs. software, quickly convinced me.

Pros of a hardware modular: (1) Real knobs to twiddle, which invites intuitive musical gestures. (2) A few other gesture controllers, such as a joystick and touchpads. (3) No worries about CPU overload. (4) A few unique modules that are unlike anything in VCV or any other software.(5) Will heat your house in the winter. (Okay, I’m kidding about that, but the truth is, a hardware modular is not energy-efficient.)

Cons of hardware: (1) Expensive. (2) Patch cords and jacks get a little unreliable after a few years. So do knobs. (3) With digital modules, firmware updates can be a pain. (4) Dropping those teeny screws down into the case while trying to install or move a module. (5) Power requirements for each case have to be considered when organizing your module layout. (6) Plugging in ribbon connectors in a crowded case is a royal pain. (7) Dust. (8) Recording your music to the computer requires extra steps and possibly extra hardware. (9) Takes up precious space in a small bedroom studio.

Pros of a software modular: (1) Way less expensive. (2) Patches can be saved to your hard drive and reloaded later. With a hardware instrument, when you pull out the cords the patch is gone forever. (3) Even with non-free modules, once you buy the module you can instantiate it half a dozen times or more in a single patch if you choose to. That’s totally not possible with hardware. (4) The entry cost and effort for module developers is way lower. In consequence, there’s more innovation in VCV, and a wider choice of modules overall. (5) When a module is updated by the developer, the updated version is a quick download. No need to pull the module out of the rack to plug a USB cable into a poorly placed rear-panel jack (or worse, ask the manufacturer to ship you a new chip). (6) Compatibility with MIDI and even OSC is much easier. (7) Some very good Eurorack hardware modules have been ported into VCV Rack as software! (8) Cables and jacks never wear out. (9) Never gathers dust.

Cons of software: (1) Occasional crashes or other weirdness. (2) Complex patches can cause CPU overload.

So there you have it. Most of the pros of software don’t apply only to VCV Rack, of course. Propellerhead Reason is basically a gigantic modular synthesizer (with a timeline, which VCV currently lacks). Cycling ’74 Max is also a brilliant modular system, and integrates flawlessly, or so I’ve heard, with Ableton Live. And then there’s Native Instruments Reaktor. Reason, Live, Max, and Reaktor are not free, but if you need a free software modular and don’t like VCV for some eccentric reason, you can turn to Pd, SuperCollider, or Csound. Those options are more intimidating with respect to the user interface than VCV, but they’re quite powerful.

There are a few hardware modules that I’ll miss: Rossum Control Forge and Morpheus are quite unlike anything in VCV Rack. Ditto for 4ms Spectral Multiband Resonator. The VCV clones of Make Noise Rene are — for now anyway — rather inferior to the real thing, and the step sequencer in monome white whale would take some effort to duplicate using VCV modules. Conversely, there are a lot of devices in VCV (to say nothing of Reason) that have no equivalent in hardware. So the existence of a few unique hardware modules is not really an enticement.

Yeah, I could keep the hardware and use both. But the students at Mills should have an opportunity to discover this technology. Also, there’s a tax advantage in making a large donation to a university. Not that I need the money, but if I decide to pop for a fast new computer with multiple screens, it’s already paid for.

Life goes on. Things change.