Hello and good evening folks. I haven’t written in a while and I thought, “hey, I’ve been doing some particularly nerdy things, I could write about them.” Hope you’re ready, though if you weren’t… you probably wouldn’t be reading this.
Terminal Update: 1
You may remember I named my, um, ‘portable’ setup the terminal. Not necessarily to indicate that it will kill you, though the current sounds coming out of it might. Oh no, it’s a total geeky reference to, uhhh, you know, vt100s.
But basically, it’s a huge fucking pile of synths, sequencers, and effects all connected by real true-to-life wires. In my last post I went over the majority of the big pieces. I wrote that article on October 31st – it’s almost exactly one month later and thus, I got some changes to share with you.
Twisted Electrons – AY3
Aaaaaaand I got a new synth. Yep, the Twisted Electrons AY3.
You may remember that as of late I’ve been a little extra down with the old school sound. Feeling like my Arcano NES might not have enough options I began looking around a bit to see if I could find some sweet vintage video game sounding stuff out there. All my digging introduced me to a whole class of SID synthesizers.
SID meaning “Sound Interface Device”, these are the chips you’d find in old video game consoles and desktop computers, like the Commodore64. There are various chips out there, all with their own sound. And, a couple of our favorite synth manufacturers have turned them into full fledged, fancy pants synthesizers. And I very specifically mean Elektron (who also makes my sweet drum machine, Analog Rytm).
Isn’t she pretty? Well, Elektron doesn’t make this anymore, but other people make synths out of these SID chips, though the most common way to get a SID synth is a DIY (do-it-your-fucking-self) kit; you gut a C64 and solder the SID to a pre-fab pcb, building your own fancy little box and everything.
That said, I really didn’t want to solder a damn thing – I want to make sounds, not electronics (tell that to my college professors eh?). After some serious digging, I came across this beast from a manufacturer all-to-familiar with the modular community. This is the Twisted Electrons Therapasid:
This thing is pretty cool as apparently Twisted Electrons has a whole stack of SIDs, and you can even stick your favorite SID in here if you don’t like the one supplied. Watch the video demoing if you can, it’s a seriously cool music device.
I want it bad, I do. Sadly, there aren’t any ready. Luckily, my need for instant gratification lead me to their AY3, another SID synth, though a bit less fancy. It’s got two SID chips in it boasting 8 dirty bit crushed voices of awesome. Here’s a picture – its definitely a synth about the basics, but it’s got a handful of cool features extending the creative flexibility beyond something like the Arcano:
I’m still getting my head around it – but I promise an update soon. A video perhaps?
The Great Midi Bus
Last time we spoke I had a significant issue: I had a lot of synths, an epic sequencer, and despite all that cool shit… I couldn’t connect it all at one time. Nope, I was counting on all of my synths providing a ‘midi thru’ feature which basically means, if a midi signal isn’t for them, they simply just pass it along. That was a silly assumption as two out of, I dunno, 8 devices have this feature. Yep, true story.
The solution for this is a midi through box, a.k.a. a midi ‘splitter’. One signal in, several signals out. That’s it, however there aren’t too many of these around in the land of computer based synth plugins. I think I found 3 that were still made, and a couple shops that stopped making them years ago. The most popular on the forums being this guy:
That said, I needed to be, you know, different. I found the Banana Split – and while it required a 9v power supply it also provides six outs, has cool LEDs, and it’s fucking yellow.
Yellow. And it’s handmade by a dude in Britain, which is kinda cool too.
Okay so maybe I only have five synths – but now I can hook them up to a single bus. Note that a bus can support 16 channels of midi data – the Squarp Pryamid will drive 2 Buses, not counting another bus via usb. Given I’m a wire junkie, with a couple more of these I could control up to 32 devices. But again, I only have 5 (and one has a midi-thru port…).
Well, minus maybe the Arcano… just kidding, I figured out how to use it on one big bus, too.
Defeating the un-changable configuration of the Arcano MIDI NES Synth
You might remember from my prior article – the Arcano MIDI NES, while super cool, is also super limited. It’s audio output is super close to the noise floor, you can’t manipulate the sound outside of the presets, and you can’t configure what MIDI Channel it listens to.
Stepping back for a second – a Midi channel is meant to be a discrete line of communication. That is, if I say, “this message is for channel 16” then only devices listening to channel 16 will respond. Get it? Good.
Now, just because you send something on a particular MIDI channel doesn’t mean things have to respect that. Each manufacturer can implement the whole MIDI spec, just part of it, or heck, they can go buck wild and do whatever the fuck they feel like. That means they can do things like have a device respond to all midi channels. Channel 1? Yay. Channel 6? Yay. All channels? Fuck.
Why fuck? Well, take the banana split above – one in, six outs. I’m supposed to be able to have up to 16 devices on a bus (16 available channels). If I have a device that responds to absolutely everything that means I can only have other devices on that bus that I want to respond to precisely the same control messages. Fuck indeed.
How does one work around these issues? You can buy a MIDI event processor. MIDI goes in, the event processor does it’s magic, something else comes out (unless you tell it not to). Midi solutions makes one; it’s about 130 bucks, can do anything, and has a huge manual on how to program it. Let’s just say I wasn’t super stoked on this idea.
But wait, I just said the Arcano isn’t configurable. I only assumed this to mean that it responded on all midi channels. The fact of the matter is, this isn’t true; it responds specifically on channel 1. This is great news because, as long as I have nothing else that requires channel 1 (meaning, I can configure everything else), I can put all MIDI devices on the same bus.
Yep, one in, 6 outs – one port to spare. And with 18 channels of MIDI left, I have a lot of options. Of course, just because a synth uses 1 port doesn’t necessarily mean it exclusively uses 1 channel. As if things would be so simple.
MIDI Channel Mayhem, Default Pyramid Setup, and the Scribble Strip
Okay, so, all devices can be on the same bus but to control all of them from the Squarp I need to think a bit. I have to think about how they can be controlled; I have to think about how I want to control them; I have to think about my options for hooking them up, what’s efficient, and what’s manageable. This isn’t impossible, but it absolutely takes some thought.
First – I like options (or perhaps, I don’t like tiny little boxes). I want flexibility with my synths based on their capability. I also don’t want to remember a ton of stuff if I don’t have to. How do we work all of this out? Let’s talk capabilities and desires for a moment, shall we?
- NES – okay well it’s on channel 1 and it has to be. Easy – don’t set anything else to this channel.
- Nord LEAD 2x – This synth can drive 8 voices all from a single midi channel, or up to 2 voices at a time over 4 midi channels (up to 2 per channel). This means I can have one instrument, or 4, or any combination in-between. I want my MIDI configuration to allow me to use “up to 4” by default – thus, channels 2, 3, 4, 5. Ha, but it’s not that simple. If I have four instruments, then I have to remember to load settings for all four, right? Yea… I’ll get to that in a later article (cause, let’s be real, this shit is already forever long).
- Juno 66 – Thanks to the mod, I have MIDI and the channel is programmable. This synth isn’t that fancy so one channel is all it can deal with. Channel 6
- Twisted-Electrons AY3 – Yea, the new girl in the bunch. This synth is also pretty simple, well it can be. According to the manual you can drive each of it’s voices on it’s own MIDI channel AND you can drive other stuff on additional channels. This is overkill as, for this sound, I really just want one instrument. Channel 7
- Elektron Analog Rytm – This is the drum machine. Mostly I just need it to start and stop when the sequencer starts and stops; these message are channel independent (all channels). Does this mean the Rytm needs it’s own Midi channel? For me, yes, but for a particular reason. You see, the Rytm will eat up as much midi as you want to give it. You can assign 1 channel per sound (up to 12 channels), 1 channel to drive FX automation, another channel to drive program changes (on the Rytm this means selecting a different pattern) and probably another one I can’t remember – so you know, ~14 channels if you let it (almost a whole bus). That said, I like the sequencer in the Rytm and don’t intend to drive individual sounds on their own MIDI channels. Really, all I want to do is to have sequences on the Squarp to load their respective drum loops. Thus, one channel will do – Channel 8. I can use this channel for FX automation if I end up going that route too (though maybe it’ll be interesting to share it with another instrument…).
8 channels so far, half of our bus though we’re only using 5 ports. Technically that’s not all of them, but I think I’m done talking channel assignments for the night.
8 Channels, specific to 5 instruments – how does one remember all of this? Scribble strips. You know, just like on a real recording console, but out of gaffers tape on the actual instruments themselves.
Easy enough eh?
And, okay, sure that helps, but that’s not quite enough yet still. When I’m sequencing on the Squarp, I have 16 buttons across 4 banks (64 buttons). Each button can have a loop on an instrument (technically on two instruments). Now, let’s say on bank 1, I have a loop on button 2, and on bank 3 I have a loop on button 6… all for channel 1. And let’s say, for each song I do something different.
That is, picture these buttons doing about a billion completely different things across 20 different songs:
Think about the permutations? The possibilities? THE MADNESS!? How the fuck am I going to remember that? I’m not.
I’m going to make it easy to remember is what I’m going to do. If I use the same buttons for the same instruments on each bank this is a much easier things to remember. Button 1 is always MIDI channel 1 is always the NES (unless I make an exception). And, you know, leave a few open in case I want to get creative; bottom row and all. Easy peasy, though it does create a new constraint… a constraint I’m super okay with. And, thanks to the 1.0 PyraOS release from Squarp, this is suddenly oh-so-possible.
4 Synths – One Keyboard
You may have noticed, two of my synths don’t have any keys at all (don’t believe me? scroll up and look at the NES). How do I play these? I can certainly just program in the notes, but that’s a very rigid way of interacting with a musical device. My fingers want to dance out their sonic dreams. To make matters more interesting, the Nord can have up to 4 instruments on it but only has one keyboard. This is a lot of control I’d like to have and I’m clearly short on interfaces to do so.
Integrated Midi Controllers
Luckily for me in the MIDI world, you can pretty much control anything with anything else you want. I.e. Just because keys are physically connected to one synth doesn’t mean that those keys have to play specifically that synth. They can play other synths, any other synth, any other synth in the whole world… as long as it listens to MIDI messages. Both the Juno and the Nord can output these messages, which means they are both capable of playing the huge pile of synthesizers I have available to me.
Of these two synths, the Nord has a lot more flexibility in how it can be used as a MIDI controller; it’s not even worth discussing the Juno in this regard. Basically, that flexibility is that I can tell the Nord not to play the Nord when I play the Nord. Confused? Good.
The Nord’s keyboard is a MIDI controller like any normal midi controller you find, it’s just integrated. By default, when I play it, it routes it’s midi signals to the synthie bits that are packaged with the Nord based on it’s active configuration. If I select slot A then the keys play slot A. If I select slots B and D, then the keys play slots B and D.
But this is just a default – I can break this functionality. Instead, we tell the Nord not to play itself but to just output what it would play on the Nord’s MIDI out. And with that MIDI out I can do anything I want, like route it to another synth and play that synth… instead.
Playing a pile of synths with one keyboard
That’s all well and good, except when you think about how you setup one controller to play 6 synths (4 on the Nord, Ay3, and NES). Okay, 7 synths (why not have it play the Juno too?).
Squarp Pyramid to the rescue. The Pyramid has 1 midi in and can route that in to your devices (err… channels) in various ways. Well, two ways;
- Incoming data on a particular channel is routed to the track of the same number
- Incoming data is routed to whatever track is ‘active’ (selected)
That’s it. I think mode one is omnimode – and I only think that because I decided not to use it and you know, forgot stuff.
How this works: I use the squarp to select a track, knowing what that track will control (remember my template in the section above?) and that selection will route the MIDI output of my Nord to whatever track I’ve selected. If I want to play the NES using the Nord I select track 1 on the Pyramid; if I want to play the AY3 I select track 7 (button 7). Get it? The Pyramid functions as a multiplexer or switch depending on which branch of engineering you studied in college.
And just like that, I can control every single synth I have from one keyboard. Boom. Done. Winning.
The Big Picture
Okay, one month later and we’ve worked out busing of control signals and some workflow organization. Things are coming together. That said, there’s still plenty to do. I mean, come on folks, I am planning on writing a whole article about program change messages, think about how fucked up that is. And of course, I haven’t even started talking about making any music, though a little bit of that is happening too.
All of that said, I did think it would be interesting to make a diagram of the setup. Cause you know, pictures are cool and Friday nights are for diagraming. This is just the MIDI cabling of course – if I showed the digital power routing, midi message, and the audio routing this picture gets a bit more complex. Maybe I’ll save that for next time.
Oh, and I guess I physically re-arranged shit too. You know, to make shit easier to reach: