Wello folks (that’s well, hello, ftr). It’s been a while since we’ve been in communication. I’ve been busy (as per usual) and things are finally calming down. That, and sometimes it takes a bit to have enough interesting things to say.
What’s been going on? Well, the first portion of the year I was involved in audio engineering projects and I’ve been spending a lot of time building up some piano playing ability. While all of that was going on there simply wasn’t enough time to write much music, though that shouldn’t imply that wasn’t also by choice.
You see, I’ve been wanting to try some new things out. A different way of working; a different way of composing. And, during all that audio engineering stuff I was doing, I was also working on whatever this ‘difference’ might be. What is it you ask? I’ve come far enough to finally tell you… at least a little bit.
Introducing: The Terminal
For what it’s worth, I building ecosystems of names. Anyhow, let’s get to it.
My goal is quite simple really: I want to have the ability to play out. You know, go to a place, set some stuff up, perform music for people. I used to do it a lot when I was in bands, and I miss it. But I want to do more than play bass in a band (though I want to do that too), I want vt100 to play out in all his, uh, splendor.
Djing though, isn’t as enticing to me. Don’t get me wrong either, I’m not knocking it. I gave it a good whirl a few years back, tried to learn the art of mixing on some deep house tracks. I learned a lot, though I never really was able to do it. I also learned, I wasn’t inspired. At least, I wasn’t inspired enough to choose to do it over the plethora of other things I was inspired to do. In fact, that exercise is what ultimately lead me to decide that I want to play the piano. I played my first piano performance yesterday – so I’m glad I did it.
But, writing the kind of music I want to do and not wanting to DJ was a bit of a problem. That’s how a lot of people perform programmed music. That said, my music isn’t always necessarily “dj-able” anyway, and that wasn’t something I want to consider while writing music.
I want to be able to improvise at more granular level than I felt I could as a DJ. I also didn’t want to have to have tracks worked out and mixed down. Maybe I wanted to ride a loop and jam for a bit, or bring in another musician, or just change a small part of a song for a single performance. Not saying that a DJ can’t do these things, but I didn’t feel that this model would fit the way I was hoping to work.
That aside, I had a secondary goal: less computer. Way less computer. What if I just engineer stuff on the computer, or even use it as a tool to model a live setup – but I composed… somewhere else? I know my back would love me, for one.
Too many words? Let’s summarize:
- vt100 leaves the house
- less computers
- Okay, maybe there’s a third goal: a tight system of constraints. Through the constraints I’d like to see where the music goes. Not that I don’t appreciate the blank canvas of the DAW… but what if I had… less?
How do I acheive this goal? Simple really.
- Figure out what the computer does, get hardware that does that stuff.
- Learn how to use all that stuff
- Learn how to write tunes using all that stuff
- Figure out how to perform all that stuff
I bet by now you’re wondering, wtf is up with this ‘terminal’ name anyhow? vt100 is a terminal (google it); a little screen and keyboard that would allow individuals to interact with a mainframe – the company’s big ass computer. In the old days computers were expensive, really expensive so a company would buy one with as much horse power as they could afford and then they would purchase terminals allowing all the users to share the mainframe. The analogy here is, the mainframe is my studio, and the terminal is the remote workstation. Get it?
How do we build our terminal? This should be easy right? Well, that’s not so simple it turns out. The computer really obscures a lot of pieces as it looks like one big ass functional black box that does it all. Luckily, I’m a nerd and think about these pieces even when I’m using a computer. Ultimately, we’re lead to a series of questions we need answers to, and of course… those answers will lead to more questions.
- Which of those pieces do I need in hardware?
- What hardware exists that provides me that functionality?
- What functionality can I actually afford?
- What can I live without?
- How do these components factor into composition versus performance?
- How will whatever components limit me? What limitations can I manage? What will I need to learn to circumvent those limitations
Yea.. this one is a bit of a rabbithole, though a fun rabbithole. Extra fun if you’re an approaching middle aged, single working professional with no children and a lust for technology (lust is my middle name – update 11/06/21 — actually it’s syn). But I disgress, let’s back up a touch. If we breakdown our mainframe a bit we can end up in a couple of categories:
- Capture, edit, mix – or otherwise engineer audio
- Compose, perform – or otherwise make music
We only need to approach number 2. We’re not building a relocatable recording studio. Okay, given that we can break things down somewhat further:
- Things that make sounds – synthesizers
- Things that play sounds – sequencers
- Things that make sounds particularly interesting – effects
- Human interfaces to the above bullets – controllers
- Things that bring all those sounds together with some amount of control – mixer
Of course, you can argue a couple of these bullet points if you want to. Adding some clarity – I have two hands and two feet, I would like to perform entire ensembles by myself. This requires the creation of notes with timing and rythym, the modification of sounds (given the style of music I’d like to do), and several layers of instrumentation (again, relative to the style of music I want to do). So yes, you can go in with a single synth and rock the fuck out of a stage – but that’s not vt100, that’s somebody else – thus, my gear list.
Synthesizers make sounds. Audio synthesis if you will. They receive a message saying, “play this note” and, based on some configuration, play that note. Easy peasy. It also just so happens that I have a few hardware synthesizers already as this is a lust I’ve had for some time. I even used a couple of them on strangle.
- Korg MS2000B – a virtual analog synth. I don’t love it, but I love it’s sub. I inherited it from my father.
- Nord Lead 2x – definitely not rich in the lows, it has a wide range of sounds and a vast array of configuration options. This thing can do a ton and has a nice interface to get to all of that stuff
- Juno 6 – the old school analog beast. This thing predates midi and it’s idea of a preset is a piece of paper where you draw notches on all of the faders to mark their settings.
Out of this pile, the Nord is definitely in. The Juno.. well, it will be in, but it needs some work first. The Korg… maybe. Again, I’m not in love with it, and it is starting to fritz out a bit. Let’s say it’s not in. Before we continue, let’s discuss a couple synth options in more detail
66? What? Didn’t you say 6? Yes I did. But remember above where I said it didn’t have any midi? Yea, that means I can’t program anything else to play it. It’s a LIVE-ONLY synth. But with two hands and all the things I want to do that’s a severe limitation. Luckily for me someone solved that problem via a modification called the “Juno-66” – it adds midi, make it make new sounds, and a couple other goodies too. Sure, I don’t get presets, but who cares, I’ll be able to do all kinds of cool stuff with a truly unique, analog syntheizer from the late 70’s.
Read up on the Juno-66 here. I’m just waiting for it to get back from the shop 🙂
Nord Lead 2x
This synth I really see as my versatile, “i can do anything I want with it” synth. Sure, this requires a lot of time with the manual. But, when driving it from midi, it’s quite versatile. I can load up to 4 two oscillator patches simultaneously and drive them together or independently. I have four outputs that I can configure in different ways too. These two data points provide a ton of versatility. I can do pads, layer basses in interesting ways, you name it. Perhaps it’s not quite as rich as my Juno (virtual analog and all) but that’s okay, orchestras aren’t interesting because each instrument and musician is exactly the same, after all.
Okay, chip tunes? Maybe you weren’t expecting this, but I’ve been inspired as of late. There’s this guy out there on the internet ‘Random‘ and he makes hiphop. In his catalog of hip hop… he makes hiphop with megaman music. I found this particularly inspiring and thought, “it sure would be cool to have an NES in my system of constraints”. And so I purchased an Arcano MIDI NES Chiptune Synth II board. Not sure if this will be the chiptune sound I’ll use forever, but i’ve been having a lot of fun with it. Turns out chiptunes is a whole ‘nother rabbithole… for later 😉
Ah, I didn’t really mention drums before. This falls probably into a couple of categories, though syntehsizers seems to be a good place, at least how I solved this problem. I always program my drums and this is a very midi/synth/sampler heavy operatation. Anyhow, drums are special. They work in a unique way and there’s a level of control that one needs in order to make interesting, lively, drum performances. The hardware world recognizes this too and I’m sure you’ve all heard of the illustrious… ‘drum machine’. These are usually synth/sampler combos that have unique sequencing capabilities suited to… well… drums.
In the computer realm I have two ways I like to do drums. In Logic, I would use Native Instruments Battery 4; an incredibly powerful piece of drum software. That said, it almost has too much power and is easy to get lost in. But hey, it’s meant to do all kinds of things beyond how I use it, and, with all that power, I learned what was important for me in the world of drums.
The second piece of software I like to use for drums is Ableton Live. Ableton Live is, in fact, my preferred way of programming drums. They provide the best workflow I’ve found, and the DAW integration is paramount (that’s how ableton does it of course). The one thing that always made me want to use Live was the drum racks. Logic is certainly trying to rip it off… but their implementation just sucks. Regardless… what I do in software isn’t as important as the fact that, drums are special.
So.. how do we deal with this in software. One idea is to simply do drum synthesis on the nord and drive it using some sequencer. This is a particularly arduous way of dealing with drums though, drum machines really do it better, though this wasn’t something I had to think about much.
Given that drums are so important to me, this was actually the first problem I solved, too. Which piece of gear did I get? The Elektron Analog Rytm. I love it; it’s a lot of fun and is really versatile. They have a unique way interacting with the drums too which I appreciate.
Synth Round Up
Ha – so much to say about synths, let’s do a summary. Here are the sound processing devices:
Phew, lots on the synths front eh? But how do we drive all that stuff with only two hands? Sequencers.
Brief intro: a sequencer plays sequences of notes. You remember those pianos with the rolling sheet of paper that could auto-play? Same thing. They generally go deeper than ‘just playing notes’ – but fundamentally, that’s what they do. When you program midi into your favorite DAW, upon playback, it’s a sequencer (among other things).
Using hardware sequencers was the way for a long time (laptops weren’t really suited for that sorta thing until more recently). Since the dawn of Ableton and all, sequencers had sorta fallen off the radar but with the modern world of synth nerds, modulars, and so on, sequencers are making a comeback. And while there aren’t a ton of them on the market, there are some really great boutique options, and it seems that momentum is picking up here (mostly driven by the modular folks).
For drums, I had sequencing taken care of – the Analog Rytm provides its own sequencer and it’s suited quite well to drum programming. But, for the other pile of synths I have (and some day effects), I need a central way of doing it and I needed it sooner rather than later.
Why sooner? Well, I started out by using the computer to sequence the synths. Basically, program whatever the way I had always done it, drive the hardware synths. Pretty standard stuff. There were some downsides to this as, managing piles of midi synths was a huge PITA, programming was slow, and, while I was dicking with sounds I regularly had to run over to my computer to do stuff. This wasn’t in alignment with my goals, and was an impedement, so I raised the priority of the sequencer front.
I dug around a bit and came across a number of exciting sequencers. The one ultimately settled on was the Squarp Pyramid. A friend showed it to me about a year ago and I drooled over it ever since. Is it the best on the market? Not sure, but it’s interesting, easy to use, super powerful, and Squarp supports it really well. I just got it about a week ago and have been having a lot of fun with it so far.
Note also: sequencers can easily sync with other sequencers. I’ve got the Pyramid rigged to the Rytm, and when I hit play… everything is super locked. Just in case the multi-sequencer thing raised any questions.
Effects, Mixers, Controllers
Hey, guess what? Not a lot to say here. Why? Cause I don’t know my needs yet. I’ve got a lot of experimenting to do first. Trust me, this is the way to do it. Figure out what I can do, figure out what’s good about that and what’s not, and then go spend more money on stuff. For now, at least for the most part, I’m modeling whatever I don’t have in hardware on my computer. For example, hey, I can do reverb in realtime using the UAD – it will probably stay that way until I’m almost ready to play out, honestly.
That said, I did upgrade the studio to allow for me to experiment more. Mostly this means inputs and a patch bay – and I already wrote about all of that stuff.
When it comes to effects, beyond modeling in my computer, I’ve got a couple pieces of hardware from my days as a bassist I’m playing with. In addition, the sequencer, Rytm and synths also have varied effects. Once i’ve got a handle on all of that, then I’ll explore the effect world more. Plus, the effects I do get will have an impact on whatever I end up getting to mix all this stuff. Anyways, I expect this topic to flesh out more in the year to come.
Phew, okay, how does all of that come together? Really, this deserves a picture, but I don’t feel like drawing one. I’ll describe it though. There are two basic signal routes that we have to consider: audio and midi (the notes being played).
- Just about everything goes directly to the computer. I pair down the outputs a little bit to stay humbled until I know I need them. Why? Because I still have to buy a mixer and I want to pretend I’m not going to buy a big one.
- One exception to the computer is I’ve got a hardware compressor between the Nord and the computer. It’s side chained to the kick of the Rytm. This gives me some fun pumping/gating possibilities
Midi gets a bit more interesting. There’s a lot of subtlety to each instrument that I’ve got to sort out. This has a lot to do with how I’m going to use it relative to the capabilities of the hardware device. I could really write for a long time on how this could work out. And it keeps changing, to boot. I think I’ll spare you the gory details here, though once I sort things out a bit more I’ll get into how I analyze and make decisions surrounding midi routing. For now, know this – the Pyramid is the center of it all. It’s got two midi outs and each midi out can drive 16 channels of into. One chain is all the synths but the NES, and the NES has it’s own chain due to a limitation in the hardware I haven’t worked around yet (I can’t select a midi channel on it).
Of course, there’s also the question of input too. Not going to get into that either. But trust me, once I sort this out, there will be more details to it than you can shake a stick at. An engineering problem for sure.
Here’s my text diagram of it right now though:
Pyramid Channel A -> Rytm (receives clock, start/stop) -> Nord (channels 2, 3, 4, 5) -> Juno (channel 6) (when it gets back from the shop)
Pyramid Channel B -> Arcano NES
The learning process… it’s a lot. A lot of, “can i do this?” “how do I do this?” and then experimenting. I think i’ll save this topic for another time. But, I’m learning, and it’s fun. I think i’ll give this one it’s own blog post too as I progress.
Phew – that was a lot. Whenever I write down all the things that I’m working with and thinking about I realize just how much it takes to put together this stuff. Sometimes I forget, as for me, these changes are incremental over long periods of time. I have a dream in my head, and that drives these decisions, but I get lost in the little details. The big picture is pretty exciting. Anyhow, this is the terminal so far. It will be exciting to see where it goes.
The setup thus far, sans Juno and NES (the nes is on my workbench due to some wire limitations I have) 🙂