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Moog MuRF Demo

MuRF Demo

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Effects processing
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Using a Wiimote to control the Nord Modular

A while ago I listed the Nintendo Wii as one of the distractions that was slowing progress on recording the album. This morning I turned that distraction on its head, and have integrated the Wii into the recording process by connecting its motion sensitive controller up to the Nord Modular. Now I can control the sounds, sequences and textures of the different musical parts by waving my arm around like a crazy person!

The first and most important thing you need in order to do this is a piece of software callled OSCulator that converts the Bluetooth data sent by the Wiimote into MIDI control data. Once you have that running, you just press the 1 and 2 buttons on the Wiimote to sync it up to your Bluetooth enabled controller, and off you go. Actually, I tried syncing them up on both my laptop (Intel Macbook) and my studio desktop (dual G5 tower) machine, and with both computers the program crashed the first time I tried to sync things up. After that though, it worked fine, and it is pretty easy to both configure what things get mapped to which MIDI controllers, and filter out the controller information you don’t want to see.

Next I loaded up Logic, which could see the MIDI controller information being spewed out by OSCulator, and which easily lets me map that data out to the Nord Modular. Then it was just a matter of making sure the morphs in the Nord Modular patches were being assigned to control the proper Wiimote motions. Since most patches have two main morph controls (a result of tailoring them to be controlled by the Kaoss KP3 X-Y pad), I assigned one to pitch (hold your arm straight forward and move up and down) and one to roll (hold your arm straight forward and twist your wrists from side to side). It has a ton of other controls, and I think you can hook up the nunchuk attachment as well, so I’m going to experiment to find which ones are the most useful and expressive. I’m also going to assign a control to change what sequence is playing, and possibly modify some patches to have several more controls to make things really complex, and see what sort of results we get.

In general though: it was easy to hook up, it works, and it’s pretty fun to play around with!

So far the three things that OSCulator doesn’t do that I wish it did:
- Instead of creating its own MIDI port to send data out to, allow me to pick an existing port, so I don’t need to run Logic to use it.
- Allow me to map buttons on the Wiimote to MIDI note values, which would let me change sequences like on the KP3 (you can currently map Wiimote buttons to keystrokes, which has potential)
- Allow the use of multiple Wiimotes! These things are relatively cheap ($40) and if we could connect eight of them to various synth parts, and hand them out to the crowd, we’d have an extremely interactive and fun music set…

Anyway, we now have another fun controller to use with the remaining songs.

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Roland TR-606 Drumatix

The TR-606 is the more affordable little brother of the better known TR-808 (hip hop and electro) and TR-909 (house and trance) drum machines. The sounds are generated with analog circuits, not with samples, but you have no real control over the sound parameters other than volume. There are some custom kits available to modify these boxes to have more control over the sounds, but mine is currently not modded. The 606 has the intuitive step sequencer the x0x drum machines are known for, can be synced up with other machines using DIN-SYNC, and has trigger outs that can be used to sequence gate triggers on other boxes (such as the Moog MURF effects processor). It’s got a nice electro 80’s drum machine sound to it that improves considerably with some distortion, EQing and compression.

This is a short demo of TR-606 sounds, with only light EQ/compression/reverb/limiting by UAD plugins: 606 Dry Demo

This is another short demo of the TR-606, first dry, then through the Frostwave Funkaduck envelope filter, then also through the Moogerfooger Phaser, then also through the Moog Delay: 606 Effects Demo

Demos

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The Submodern Approach to Mixing – Part 1, The Tools

As we get ready to do the final mix for “Stuck”, I’m going to write a couple entries about our approach to mixing our songs. Please note that we are basically self taught, and only have experience mixing our own material. Which is to say, there’s a good chance we don’t know what we’re talking about, and an even better chance that the things we’ve learned when mixing our music may not apply to you mixing your music. But if you don’t have a lot of experience with mixing, maybe it will help you avoid making the same mistakes we did.

This first part will describe the tools we use to do our mixes. Your approach to mixing a song matters a lot more than the tools you use to mix it. Nonetheless, if you don’t know what any of the tools are or what they do, it’s kind of hard to talk about the approach, so this is where we’ll start. We chose these particular tools because we like them, but other (cheaper) ones would work fine also. In my experience, better tools usually do not by themselves result in better mixes, they just sometimes make it easier to get there. I’m lazy so I bought some nice tools to make things easier for myself. You can get the same or better results with cheaper or free tools if you work a bit harder, so don’t let yourself use lack of a particular plugin as an excuse. The most important tool you have is your ears and they don’t cost anything.

The first tools we use when mixing are EQs (equalizers). EQs are used to shape the sound of a particular track by emphasizing or de-emphasizing particular frequencies of the recording. By setting extreme EQ values you can completely change the sound of an instrument. This can be useful if you are mixing a track that was recorded poorly, or if you are remixing a song containing a sound someone else recorded that you don’t particularly like but can’t re-record yourself.

Since our music is created primarily with synthesizers that we have a lot of control over, most of our tracks already sound pretty much like what we want them to sound like. With the “Slowburn” project in particular, we are recording the sounds through specific effects processors and want them to sound pretty much exactly like that on the album. So we will use EQ less as a creative tool to change the sound, and more as a practical mix tool to stop the various sounds from interfering with each other.

Our bread and butter EQ for this project will be the UAD Neve emulations. The original Neve EQs were built in to the large mixing desks in big studios around the world that recorded a lot of your favorite records. They have a classic sound to them that just sounds good even when you crank the high frequencies (a weak spot traditionally for EQ plugins). Whether it sounds good because there were some magic components used back then that nobody uses any more, or they just sound good because we are so used to hearing them on all our favorite songs, I don’t know or really care. They just sound good. When discussing the charactereistics of different desks, Neves are often referred to as sounding dark, full, warm, etc as opposed to something like an SSL which you will hear called crisp, punchy, etc. We are going for dark, warm feel so the Neves are a good fit for the project.

These Neve EQs will be used to emphasize the parts of each sound that are important, and de-emphasize the frequencies that aren’t as important. This helps clear out some of the “garbage” parts of each sound that you can’t really hear in the context of the mix, which makes the overall mix sound a lot more clear and each part sound more distinct. For a mid-range lead sound, you would chop out most of its low frequencies, de-emphasize some of it’s high frequencies, and possibly emphasize the frequency range where you want it do be most prominent. I’ll talk about this more in the approach section, but for now what’s important to know is that we use the EQs to reduce the amount of frequency space each sound is taking up, so that we can still hear the important parts but there is also room for all the other sounds to fit in.

The Neve EQs are great for this purpose because they left you shelve off the high or low frequencies at various values, and they also let you emphasize particular frequencies in a very harmonically pleasing way. Some EQs are mostly good at removing frequencies, these ones let you add more of some of the ones you want in a way that just makes things sound (for whatever reason) really good. What the Neves aren’t good at is working on very specific frequencies in surgically precise ways. Their controls have set values that you can choose between, not a range of values between which you can sweep anywhere you want specifically. For this project, that is a good thing; we want to limit the EQing we are doing, mostly shelve the things we don’t want, and make broad, general adjustments to other areas. We don’t want to spend a lot of time tediously moving the various points on a 16 part graphic EQ up and down and around until every part of the sound is absolutely perfect. We already like our sounds, we just want to fit them together in the mix.

We will also be using a couple other EQs for specific purposes. The UAD Pultec is another model of an older, vintage EQ that has been used on tons of records, and that just sounds good when we run things through it. We really like what it does for bass sounds in particular, it lets you boost the bottom end in a nice sounding way without making everything sound muddy and bad. Like the Neve, the Pultec paints in broad strokes, even broader in fact as its knobs have even fewer settings. For “Stuck” we’re going to use it on the heavy bass pad that you feel in your gut and that glues everything together when it comes in.

The last EQ is the UAD Cambridge which is a graphic EQ with multiple points that you can move up, down and around as you desire. This will be used for fixing problems at specific frequencies when needed, and possibly on the drums and field samples which have more going on and may need a more surgical approach to tweak than the synth sounds do. We don’t plan to use this EQ very much on the project, but it’s good to have a more precise EQing tool available when needed.

Compressors are used in mixing to control the dynamics of a track. Like EQing, they can also be used at extreme (and sometimes not extreme) settings to change and color the sound in an interesting way. We’ve done this with previous projects to give sterile sounding softsynths and virtual analogs a little extra color and add some analog-sounding goo, and to crush drums and give them a distinctive distortion sound. With “Slowburn” we will mostly be using them as a tool to limit level spikes and keep things at a constant volume. They can also be useful for “glueing” together groups of separate instruments, such as all the drums, by applying them lightly on several instruments at a time.

A description of how compression works is beyond the scope of this entry. In general, what they do is reduce the dynamic range of a track so that it is, you guessed it, compressed. For example when you record a singer, there will be parts of the recording where they sing louder, and parts where they sing quieter. Sometimes an individual word will be quieter than the others, often not intentionally. The difference between the loudest part and the quietest part determines the dynamics, so the more compression applied, the less volume difference there will be between all the parts. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s the simple explanation. Compressors generally let you set how much they’ll compress, which parts they’ll compress, and how fast or slow they kick in and fade out. By tweaking the various settings, you can go from a light “glue” that subtly brings parts together in a way you hardly notice much at all but that makes things fit together better, to an extreme crushing where there are little if any dynamics remaining and the end result sounds more like distortion. Needless to say, for the ambient project we will be using compressors primarily for the former, the “glue”. We’ll also be using it to compress the occasional unwanted volume spike.

The three compressors we’ll be using are again all UAD models of old vintage gear: the Fairchild 670, the Teletroniks LA-2A, and the Neve 33609. The Fairchild has seen heavy use in previous Submodern projects to add some of the previously mentioned color and goo. It can also add an interesting color to drums, and do some interesting stereo tricks. The hardware version was originally built as a mastering compressor, is fairly rare these days, and will run you about $25,000 used. Needless to say, the plugin model is significantly cheaper. The LA-2A is one of the most simple, yet pleasant sounding plugins you will ever use. It basically has two knobs, is easy to use, gentle on what you put through it, and sounds great. The Neve 33609 is a new plugin we’ve never used before, it was originally the built-in bus compressor on the Neve consoles along with the EQ models we are using. I’m not sure what we’ll use it for, but we’ll probably try it on drums…

As mentioned before, we’ll mostly be using the compressors as a problem solver for tracks that need some smoothing out. Some of the stompbox effects in particular can add some weird spikes when they do their thing, and we’ll use the compressors to reduce those. Drums and field samples are also likely candidates for compression.

When mixing it’s nice to be able to double-check what you’re hearing with a more precise visual display of what’s happening. For this we use plugins from a company called Elemental Audio that graphically show us what is happening in various frequency ranges, and various stereo positions. This way you can see exactly which frequencies and stereo pan positions are crowded, which ones are empty, and you can see how much frequency space or energy a particular sound is occupying which can give you a head start on deciding which parts of it to EQ. Note that this can also be a trap… you can start mixing with your eyes instead of your ears, which will just bring heartache and awful sounding mixes. Mostly we use these visual tools to double-check our ears and make sure we didn’t miss anything, whether it be some weird unwanted noise at a certain frequency or just noticing that we haven’t done a lot of panning and the stereo field is sparse. They are also just cool to look at.

Logic Pro provides a number of useful tools that are helpful when doing a mix. The first one we use is called simply “Gain”, and that’s what we do with it, adjust the gain (volume) of the signal. It’s particularly useful for adjusting the gain in between other plugins, so you can control the level at which the signal hits each effect, and also at the end of the effect chain so you can set how loud the signal is coming into the virtual mixer. In general we set it that so 0db in Logic’s mixer is the average, default volume used for that sound. That way we can glance at the automation at any point and know if that track is set particularly loud or soft during that part of the mix.

Next is a plugin called “DirMix”, which allows you to set the panning position and spread of the track. Being able to constrict the spread is particularly useful, as it allows you to do crazy extreme panning things with some other plugin, and then restrict that panning to only a certain portion of the stereo field. For example, the panning might be going full left to full right in some crazy fast pattern, which will sound interesting by itself but it is fairly extreme and takes up a lot of stereo mix space. So with DirMix, you then restrict that panning to just the left side of the mix, so that it pans from the extreme left to the center. Then you restrict it even more so it now occupies an even smaller space on the left hand side of the mix. Now your sound still has interesting movement, but it also has a specific place it is coming from and stays in. A similar plugin is StereoSpread which allows you to psycho-acoustically spread the sound and make it extremely wide, even so wide that the ears perceive the sound as coming outside of where the speakers are. This can be useful on pads in particular to give the a wide and spacious impression.

The final two plugins are used to create the impression of stereo movement from mono tracks. The Tremolo plug would be used as described above, before the DirMix, to pan the signal from left to right, back and forth. You can set how fast it will move, the shape of the movement which determines how much time it spends in the center and at the edges, etc. A tremolo effect can also be used to create swelling sound, like volumes waves going slowly (or quickly) up and down, but we’ll be using it mostly for stereo purposes with this project. The “Rotor” plugin emulates old Leslie cabinets used with organs, which were spinning speakers in a box that result in some stereo spread and a distinctive Doppler-effected sound that can gives an otherwise sterile sound a lot of movement. The Beatles famously used this effect on John Lennon’s vocals on the song “Tomorrow Never Knows”.

The final category of plugin we use are the special effects. Normally we use a lot of different types of these inside the computer: distortion, phasers, flangers, delays, all sorts of things. For the “Slowburn” project we are trying to do most of the effects processing with external hardware as we record the music, so we are limiting ourselves to using only a few effects plugins to add a little something extra to a couple parts in each mix.

One of the plugins we’ll use to do this is yet another UAD emulation, this time of the Roland Dimension D processor, which is a very simple stereo chorus unit whose interface consists of only four buttons. Nonetheless, this thing has been a secret weapon in studios around the world for a couple decades now, and it adds a little something special to whatever you put through it, making it sound bigger and more spacious. The biggest challenge with this one is to not overuse it, since it makes everything sound “better”…

Reverb is an effect that we do plan to do primarily with plugins as we mix. This effect is generally added at the mixing stage rather than during recording because the same reverb is usually shared by all of the tracks in a mix to give the whole song a sense of space and place, and you want to be able to adjust the amount of reverb on each track as you listen its place in the entire mix. For plate reverbs, we’ll use the UAD Plate 140 which emulates a specific old real plate reverb, and a plugin called Reverence from Audio Damage that emulates an old Lexicon unit. We will also use the external Kurzweil KSP8 for this as it has a nice variety of room and hall verbs and sounds fantastic, but we will still apply the reverb as we mix, not as we record individual tracks. To do this we’ll send it back out the Mac, into the KSP, and then record it again on a separate track.

Those are the tools we plan to use when mixing the songs, it seems like a lot of different plugins but in fact we are trying to limit ourselves with this project to just the basics: EQ, compression, some utility plugins, a couple special effect secret weapons, and reverb. Part 2 will talk about our mental approach to mixing a song.

Technical

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Using Guitar Pedals in a Synth Setup


The Barber Launch Pad, used at the end of the pedal chain before we go back to the mixer.

I promised in an earlier entry to write something about using guitar pedals (which expect a high impedance, instrument level input like a guitar) with synthesizers (which typically have a low impedance, line level output). Here’s something adapted from what I wrote on the Harmony Central synth forums about how we do this, if the tech stuff bores or confuses you (it definitely bores and confuses me) just go to the last paragraph which basically just tells you what you need to do to make it work:

Going in to a guitar effects pedal from an unbalanced line level synth, what you need to worry about is volume/gain. Instrument level signals (what the pedal expects to see) are lower/quieter than unbalanced line level signals (what the synth will output), so some pedals will overload if you feed them something that’s too loud. Try to err a little on the quiet side coming out of the synth by turning down the volume, while still trying to maintain a decent signal/noise ratio. A good approach is to decrease volume until you can’t hear any distortion going through the pedal, and then back off some more. How much you will have to turn down the volume depends on how hot the synth output is, some are louder than others.

As far as impedance mismatch goes when going into a pedal, my personal belief is that it doesn’t matter. Your big worry with an impedance mismatch is when you have a (relatively) high impedance signal going into a (relatively) low impedance input. Doing this will audibly affect the sound, and it is a bad thing. But, with a synth you have a low impedance output going into something designed to handle a higher impedance, the opposite situation from above and not a problem. In general, I’ve read you want to keep a ratio of at least 1:10 output:input, but the higher the ratio the better. Your mixer, for instance will have a 10k-20k ohm input impedance to handle the 600ohm impedance coming from a typical synth. Again, all guitar pedals should have an even higher input impedance than the mixer, so you are fine.

Now, you might make the argument that the pedal is still expecting a higher impedance coming in, and even though the lower impedance from the synth will result in less distortion, maybe the pedal was designed to color the sound in a particular way with that higher impedance signal. The problem with this argument is that guitars all have different impedance outputs, and pedals all have different impedance outputs, so any given pedal can’t be expecting a particular impedance value anyway. Some pedals, like the Moogerfooger phaser, have an output (1000ohm) close to what you’d expect from your synth, others like the Moogerfooger delay (5000ohm) have a higher one. What this says to me is that plugging your Mooger phaser into the next pedal in a chain is just about as “bad” as plugging your synth in to a pedal… which is to say, it isn’t bad (as long as it sounds good to you).

Going out of the pedal might be a different matter! The two pedals I mentioned above, while they both look nearly identical and might be expected to have similar tech specs, would actually have impedance ratios of 1:10 (good) and 5:10 (not good) when hooked up to a 10kohm mixer input. Two very similar pedals by the same manufacturer, but one will work well and one maybe not so well. So, at the end of your pedal chain before you hit the mixer you will want to make sure you have a low impedance output, which you can get by using a DI, or a preamp with instrument inputs, or just always use a particular pedal with a known low impedance output. Again, you always want to go from low impedance output to high impedance input. The mixer’s input impedance was designed to handle low impedance signals, so if the last pedal doesn’t have an impedance output in the 600-1000ohm range you will want to fix that. And if you don’t want to bother looking up specs for all your pedals, which trust me is time consuming and annoying, just always put something there so you don’t have to worry about it. A couple solutions for this:

Boost/buffer pedal: Barber Launch Pad
Preamp with instrument input: FMR RNP

Again, this is just my experience with pedals. I haven’t experimented with using amps (they are probably more finicky) and I don’t run balanced cables… if either of those was the case, I’d want to experiment with a re-amp device before the amp. I did try putting a re-amp between my unbalanced synth and my pedals, honestly I heard no difference and it was just a hassle, so I’ve stopped using it. Your experience may differ. I could also just be doing it wrong! I’m not an EE, I don’t understand all the impedance tech stuff at a deeper level, and most explanations I’ve seen on the subject seem to be targetted more towards EE theory and how to design a circuit rather than how to go about chaining together instruments and pedals and recording them. That said, I’ve tried a number of solutions at both ends of the pedal chain, and this one works for me…

Bottom line: watch your volume going into the pedals, and remember you always want low impedance outputs going to high impedance inputs. The place you most need to worry about impedance mismatches is at the end of the pedal chain, before you go to the mixer or back into an effects rack, because some pedals have high(er) impedance outputs. Putting something like Barber Launch Pad pictured above or a preamp at the end of the pedal chain will fix this problem, and then you don’t have to think about all the technical crap and can just make music.

Effects processing
Technical

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Plugins with Mojo

Okay, so previously I mentioned we were using a bunch of external analog effects for this project because digital multi-effects and computer plugins don’t have a lot of “character”. While it’s true there are plenty of cheap plugins and digital rack equipment that will do the job but also sound sort of sterile and lifeless, it’s not true that they all sound that way. And, it’s important to note, sometimes it’s a good thing to be able to put some effects on your tracks without ending up with “character” and “mojo” dripping all over them. Anyway, here are some of the plugins that we plan to use on this project.

First is Phase Two by Audio Damage. This one is cheating a bit because while it isn’t an old vintage analog effect, it was designed to emulate one. Nevertheless, the important thing is that it sounds great, it’s a plugin and we plan to use it. It is patterned after the Mutron Bi-Phase, which is a really cool old phaser that I would love to own if it didn’t cost $1000 on ebay. Audio Damage have a bunch of other great effect plugins, another one that we plan to use on this particular project is Reverence, which is modelled after an old Lexicon reverb module.

Hey, guess what, more digital models of old vintage analog effects! Universal Audio makes fantastic plugins, and in particular they have modelled a trio of old Roland effects that I can’t resist using much too often. The RE-201 Space Echo, pictured above, is a model of an old tape echo that again is overpriced on Ebay, and is also a pain in the ass to maintain since you constantly need to replace the tape and clean the tape heads. I have still come close to buying one on multiple occasions, and probably will be tempted again in the future, mostly because everyone I know who has ever owned one always raves about it. For now, the UA plugin will have to do. Luckily it sounds great, just wish the delay was a liiiiittle bit longer so we could eek out dotted 1/8 note delays at the slowburn 94bpm tempo. The other two effects are both choruses, the SDD-320 Dimension D and the Boss CE-1, and they also both sound fantastic.

The Universal Audio compressors and EQs are the best plugin ones I’ve used. You run things through them and they just end up sounding better. I don’t know why, and I don’t ask, I just run lots of things through them. We’ll be using the Fairchild, 1176LN and LA-2A compressor models, and Cambridge, Pultec and Neve EQ models for all our compressor and EQ needs for this project. UA also has a fantastic emulation of the EMT 140 plate reverb that we’ll be using on a lot of tracks.

This one may look like it’s also an emulation, but it’s actually not! PSP make some great plugins with vintage style and feel and sound, including the Nitro multi-effects processor shown above. Other than the previously mentioned Universal Audio plugins, Nitro has the best software chorus we’ve heard. It also has great filters, can do phasers, delays, flangers, all sorts of stuff. Great plugin! PSP also makes an emulation of an old Lexicon delay that we’ll probably use on the project, and some tube/tape saturation emulations that will come in handy at the mixing stage. Added bonus, they just released the UB versions (finally!) of Nitro and the delays today, so I can use it on my Macbook!

Finally, we have Izotope Trash which we used all over our last EP. This plugin combines distortion, compression, EQ, guitar amp modelling, and delay. We mostly use the distortion and amp modelling parts; once we started using this plugin on drums, we couldn’t stop. We had so much fun putting drum and synth sounds through the amp models that I was tempted to buy a real guitar amp just to run things through it, mic the sound, and re-record it. So far I have resisted the temptation, but one of these days I will probably be weak…

We also have a lot of other plugins that also sound great, and also get a lot of use, but these are the ones we’re going to restrict ourselves to for this project. And even these will see limited, specific use… in general we would like to record everything through the external effects live, for several reasons. First, we want the album to have a live, loose feel, and it’s hard to get that when you have the option of manually automating and tweaking every parameter in your plugin at mix time to make it sound absolutely perfect. Also, we’d like to control the effects in real time along with the synth parts, and hopefully get some sort of synergistic interaction between all the devices. And finally, we wanted the chance to try out a bunch of new and old analog effects and see if they really do sound better than their digital counterparts. The plugins have the benefit of being convenient, consistent, and easy to use, so they won’t be going anywhere even if they don’t “win” the contest. The external effects, on the other hand, are going to need to give us something special to make up for the hassles associated with them. Either way, it will be fun to play with them for a few weeks at least…

Effects processing

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More pedals: Analogman Chorus, Ibanez FL9 Flanger

Two new toys, err, tools arrived today… an Analogman chorus and an Ibanez flanger. Like the Roland PH-1R I mentioned in an earlier entry, they are analog stompbox effects intended for use with a guitar. Unlike the PH-1R, both of these are still in production and were bought new.

The Analogman chorus is a clone of the old Electro-Harmonix Small Clone chorus, as used by, among others, Kurt Cobain. This one is made by a boutique effects pedal builder who also wrote a great book on vintage effects. EH has since re-issued the original box using the same Small Clone name, but now they use some different chips and circuits and it allegedly doesn’t sound as good (of course) as the old version. Eh, whatever, anyway… the Analogman clone of the Clone also has some improvements over the old version, it looks purty, it’s handmade in the good old USA, and chorus is pretty much my favorite effect. So I got one even though they’re kind of expensive. It sounds great and looks cool and I love it already.

Next is an Ibanez FL9 analog flanger. It sounds nice, but it’s fairly polite and clean, and so far hasn’t grabbed me by the throat and yelled “Keep me!” However, it’s important to remember that an effect that sounds very distinctive and noticeable and cool will also usually grow old very very fast when you use it too much, and in some cases if the effect is dramatic enough, too much can equal “twice”. So we’ll see how this one fares through the recording process, how much it gets used, and what it gets used for before deciding whether or not to sell it on. Also important, just like using a synth, it can sometimes take a while to find an effect’s sweet spot. But, sometimes you never find a spot you like within its settings, so eventually you trade it for something else. The most important thing the FL9 will need to do to stay around is find some way to distinguish itself from the digital flanger models we have in the Kurzweil KSP8 and some of our plugins, because currently my impression is that it’s lacking the distinctive character necessary for me to go out of my way to use it.

Ibanez FL9 Flanger demos on Nord Modular synth sounds with some Line 6 Echo Park delay:

FL9 on Lead Synth. Dry, then progressively more and faster flange.
FL9 on Bass Synth. Dry, then progressively more and faster flange.
FL9 on Pad Synth . Dry, then progressively more and faster flange.

You can make flangers sound more dramatic by adding some distortion before the effect. I didn’t do that in these demos, but will experiment with that some more as we record things.

Chorus and flanger are both delay based effects, and are closely related circuit-wise. Chorus is generally used to thicken up a part by adding a short modulated delay or delays to a sound to make it sound like multiple instruments — a chorus of instruments — are playing. A flanger also thickens things up, but is stereotypically used as sort of a special effect: the jet plane whoooosh you hear on a lot of late 60’s and early 70’s music is often a flanger (though sometimes a phaser, as mentioned in an earlier entry). Like a chorus effect, a flanger also works by adding a short delay and modulating it, and you can in fact often make a chorus-like sound using a flanger pedal by setting it on less extreme settings. The flanger effect was invented by the Abbey Road engineers while recording a Beatles album; they played back multiple copies of the same take on the tape reels, and manually slowed one of them down a bit by pressing on the reel with their finger. Later, both chorus and flanger effects were implemented in an analog circuit fashion by using BBD delay chips. These chips have recently gone out of production, and the only currently made mass produced substitutes are some allegedly noisier and inferior chips cranked out from China, which is why many people prefer either older versions of these pedals or smaller run boutique versions that use hoarded remnants of the old chip stocks.

So why are we using guitar pedals for our synthesizer based music? Shouldn’t we be using, uh, synthesizer pedals? Well we would, but nobody makes synthesizer effects pedals. Most synth players use multi-effects processors, which do everything in one box, which is cool, but not always distinctive. You often end up with a jack of all trades, master of none type device. The latest crisp, clean, digital based models always sound great, but also somehow lack… something. Since we are limiting ourselves to using just one synth for this project (the previously mentioned Nord Modular), we decided we would try to get some more variety in our sounds by using a bunch of unique and/or weird effects that have a distinctive character of their own. Since most of those types of effects are currently made for guitarists in the form of pedals, that’s what we’re going to use. We will still be using some rack based effects when they offer a cooler or more controllable alternative than pedals, such as in the case of analog filters, some types of delay based effects, and reverb. But we’ll also be experimenting with stringing together a bunch of random guitar pedals that weren’t designed for our synths and see what happens.

That brings us to the question of whether or not you can even safely use a guitar pedal with a synthesizer. Keyboards run at line level with low impedance, the pedal expects a guitar type signal with higher impedance. We will talk about this more in a later entry, and I am not an expert so don’t take my word for it… but for now, the short answer is yes, as long as you are careful with your volume levels going into the pedal (it most likely expects a lower level than you will be sending into it), and as long as it sounds good to you coming out of the pedal, you’re okay with just plugging in the stompbox directly after your synth just like you would a rack effect. The longer answer involves buying some extra equipment when just plugging it in doesn’t sound good, but we’ll talk about that another time.

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Roland TR-606, TR-808, TR-909

The original ambient slowburn set was all Nord Modular, with no drum samples or sounds. We wrote it this way because we wanted to play at the Center Camp Cafe, which is sort of an informal social hub of the Burning Man festival where a lot of people tend to hang around, and the Cafe specifically asked us not to use any drum machines. Without getting into boring detail, there’s a lot of dance music at Burning Man playing 24/7, and a lot of people who get sick of that real fast, and even though our music has always been intended for listening rather than dancing, when people hear certain drum sounds they associate it with certain bad and boring music that we again won’t go into detail about. The Center Camp Cafe wanted to be a safe haven from those omnipresent and ever pounding beats, and so they basically told us flat out that we could only play there if we ditched the drum machines. At first I was a little taken aback by the request, because I have a healthy ego and can in fact be an arrogant schmuck about music related things sometimes (I think my initial gut reaction was something along the lines of “YOU want ME to re-write all of MY music that I’VE spent years creating just so I can play MY music the way YOU like it? What do you think I am, a glorified jukebox?”). But, I quickly realized that yes, I actually did want to play there enough to re-write everything and that it would actually be a really great excuse to do so. And hey, some of my best friends are jukeboxes…

Anyway, I am getting distracted from the topic of drum machines… in short, we did re-write everything, we didn’t use any drum machines, and the live set actually got noticeably better for it. One of the nasty secrets of making electronic music is that you can write some really mediocre music and when you put a beat behind it, it still ends up sounding pretty damn good. This is particularly true if you use either of two of the machines pictured above: the Roland TR-808 and TR-909. The 808 has been a defining drum sound in hip hop, from old school to present day, as well as electro and pop and everything in between. The 909 is, was, and will continue to be the defining drum sound in electronic techno and house music, there simply is no other substitute other than… samples of the 909. Basically, the sounds these two machines make are so familiar, and so ingrained in the subconscious of many an electronic music lover after having heard them pounding out beats for eight or twelve hours at a stretch long into the night and through to the next morning, that you can get away with murder as long as they sit there banging away and doing their thing behind the rest of your crappy song. Take them away, and you have to work a lot harder to write something that will interest people for an extended period of time.

So, in the end it turned out to be a good thing that we were forced to leave them behind, and focus instead on the melodic and textural aspects of the music. Even just the process of re-working our old songs into a new style was good for us, but I still think taking away the crutch of beats was the real key. Once we got back from the craziness of Nevada though, and started looking for other places to play this set, we had a thought: now that we had music that sounded good even without drums, hey, maybe it would sound even better if we then put them back in? And so that’s what we did, and it did in fact sound even better with the drums back in, which was great.

For this studio recording, we are going to try to balance the two extremes, and use drums in some parts and leave them out in others. This album is definitely intended to be a kick back on the couch and space out sort of experience, and not a party all night dancefloor packer. The beats will most often kick in to accentuate the building and releasing of tension, and they will all be heavily processed by external effects equipment much like the synth sounds will be. We will be exclusively using the three drum machines above: the 808, the 909, and their little brother the 606. We will also limit ourselves to sequencing them using only their internal sequencers, and we will resist the urge to sample and re-process them. So there will be no fancy computer tricks, just basic old school patterns and sounds made by quirky old analog drum machines.

Perhaps the best thing about these drum boxes is that beyond just sounding great, and they do sound great, they are really easy to use and just flat out fun to play around with. Hopefully they will be able to add some of their magic to the slowburn recording process.

Drum machine demos:

TR-606 Drum Loop. Dry, then through Frostwave Funkaduck filter, then through Frostwave + Roland PH-1R phaser, then Frostwave + PH-1R + Line 6 Echo Park delay. Meant to use a distortion for one of the stages, but I forgot…

TR-808 Drum Loop. Dry, then through Culture Vulture distortion, then through CV + Moogerfooger Phaser, then through CV + Phaser + Moogerfooger delay. Infamous cowbell included…

TR-909 Drum Loop. Dry, then through Moogerfooger Murf overloading the input only, then through the Murf overloading and also with the filters mixed in a bit, then through Murf + Mutronics Mutator + Moogerfooger delay. Meant to use the Sherman Filterbank on this one but I spaced…

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Nord Modular virtual modular synthesizer

The Clavia Nord Modular (original rack version) is the center of the slowburn setup. All of the synth sounds are sequenced and synthesized on this machine. The original live set we played at Burning Man consisted of two Nord Modulars making all the sounds and two Kurzweil KSP8 effects processors doing all the effects (our friend and sometimes collaborator Bryan Campbell also joined us for a couple of the performances using an x0xb0x). Each Nord Modular had a set of four patches for each song, so each of us had four sets of sequences we could mix in and out and control. Additionally, sequences were in most cases compatible across songs, so one of us could slowly transition to a new song while the other one kept playing the older one, resulting in a continuous mix of music. You can hear a recording of what the hour long set sounded like here.

For this studio version of the music, we are sticking with the Nord Modulars as our primary sound source, but adding some additional external effects boxes to spice things up. The Nord is extremely flexible, indeed probably one of the most versatile synthesizers ever created, but it still has a recognizable sound and character that will always be there. And that’s the danger of recording an entire album’s worth of music with one synthesizer; at some point the sounds you make will all start to kind of sound the same. With a live set this is less of a concern, because the audience will only be listening to the performance one time. When you listen to an album repeatedly, though, the similarities between songs start becoming much more apparent, which is something several people told us about our first studio album. Perhaps we’re just a little paranoid of the same thing happening again, but by using a variety of external effects processors, we’re hoping to be able to take off some of the Nord’s edge and make things interesting enough that you don’t notice the similarities as much. In any case, limiting ourselves to using only one synthesizer provides a nice challenge, and more importantly, gives us a good excuse to buy and play with and learn how to properly (and improperly) use a bunch of weird random effects.

The Nord Modular is an extremely cool and flexible synthesizer. It’s a modular synthesizer, which basically means it’s very configurable and can do a lot of different things. The way it works is you connect a bunch of simple (and sometimes not so simple) modules together using an editor on your computer, ending up with something that sort of looks like a Rube Goldberg like device. Here’s an example of a patch from the slowburn set:

Pretty complicated looking, huh? For a Nord Modular patch it’s actually pretty basic stuff, it’s just doing several very basic things at once: choosing what note sequences to play, synthesizing a sound to play them with, and assigning controllers to various things so you can control both those note sequences and the charactereistics of the sound with various knobs. None of our patches do any of these things in a particularly innovative way, but they do a lot of things simultaneously, so they end up looking complicated. The best part of this convoluted looking mess? Once you finish it up and save it in the Nord Modular itself, you can disconnect the computer and never have to look at it again, but you can still recall and use the whole configuration at any time.

What’s really cool about this is that you can program it to be a self contained music machine. You might have noticed from the picture on top that our Nord Modular doesn’t have any keys. Instead of playing it in the way you would play a piano, you pre-program in individual sequences of notes, and then assign some method for triggering and changing those sequences. The way we did it was pretty simple: for each part, you have one knob that selects between the various sequences that have been programmed in. As you turn the knob, the synth changes from one sequence to another, and a new melody is played. You can also patch together much more interesting sequences that contain semi-random elements, or that are affected by multiple knobs/controllers, or use pre-determined logical rules to decide what to play, or all of the above at once. Cool stuff, and those are just the notes to play! Then you have to patch together some modules that make a sound…

The original slowburn set consisted of fourteen songs, each of which had eight patches like the one above. While there were a lot of similarities between the patches, every single one was different, every one required unique melodic sequences, and every sound was created from scratch for that patch. You do the math, that’s a lot of patches! Our ambient set was loosely based on sequencer driven modular synth acts from the 70’s, in particular, Tangerine Dream. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t have the ability to recall entire new modular configurations at the press of the button, they had to do it the hard way by moving cables around and twisting knobs frantically. Even doing so, they were constrained by the laws of physics and there was basically no way for them to accomplish technically (creatively is another matter entirely…) what the Nord allowed us to do extremely easily. It really is a fantastic little box.


Picture of Tangerine Dream with their modular synths from The Archive Plus via Matrixsynth

Yet another cool thing about the Nord Modular is that it is flexible enough to be used in many different ways. We decided to focus primarily on melodic and control aspects when designing patches, to create a melodically interesting hour or two of continuous music. This resulted in over a hundred similarly structured but nevertheless musically interesting patches. We could have taken the same synth and spent the same amount of time working on just one really interesting and innovative patch that did crazy and weird and new things with sequences and/or synthesis. It’s an extremely flexible synthesizer and we can’t recommend it enough to anyone who is interested in really learning synthesis.

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Boss PH-1R Phaser

A new toy from ebay arrived today, an old analog Boss Phaser. Boss is the guitar effects division of Roland, who released several phaser effects in the 70’s under the Roland name, but then decided to switch them over to the Boss brand when the pedals got smaller and cheaper. The oldest Roland branded ones are now very expensive and collectible, and so far I have successfully resisted purchasing any of them, but early Boss pedals can be bought for a reasonable price (around $100) and contain lovely analog circuitry presumably based on the same Roland designs.

You can read more about phasers on here, but note that when an effect is called a “phaser” that usually refers to the all-pass filter version described there, while the time-delay version they describe is almost always called a “flanger”. The two effects can sound similar on certain settings, but the methods they use to accomplish their effects, and the resulting circuits and devices that implement them, are completely different. Without getting into a technical description of what a phaser does, it imparts a sort of psychedelic, moving, whooshing character on a sound that can give it a sort of 3-D feel in the proper listening environment and/or state of mind. We plan on using a lot of phasers for this project, in most cases very subtly so you can hardly hear the effect, but also sometimes in a very much over the top fashion that will scream phaser.

This particular model (the PH-1R) is distinguished from the first compact pedal version that Boss released (the PH-1) in that it has an extra knob to control resonance, and more control is almost always a good thing. The next version (PH-2) added an extra knob/switch to control the type of phasing, but from reviews the general consensus seems to be that the basic sound of the PH-1R is “better” so I got that one instead. More control is still a good thing, but not if you have to sacrifice the basic sound to get it, especially when you are talking about one effect pedal with a specific purpose. The latest version (PH-3) is a digitally modeled phaser and that one apparently doesn’t sound all that great if you are a fan of the smooth analog sound, which I am. I might buy a PH-2 off ebay and compare it with the PH-1R for myself, but I probably won’t bother since the PH-1R sounds great, and I already have several other phasers.

These audio demos contain five snippets each. First, the unprocessed sound. Then all knobs at 3 o’clock, then all knobs at 6 o’clock, then all knobs at 9 o’clock, then all knobs maxed. These are not the best demos because it basically treats the pedal like it has one knob, going from light to extreme. In reality you would want to find the sweet spot for each of the three knobs so that you could get, for instance, a slow but deep and resonant phase, or a faster but shallow and medium resonant phase, etc. The demos do however let you hear the general character of the effect. All parts are Nord Modular, and also include a light delay effect from the Line 6 Echo Park.

demo #1: PH-1R phaser on a lead part
demo #2: PH-1R phaser on a bass part
demo #3: PH-1R phaser on a noise part
demo #4: PH-1R phaser on a pad-like part

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