Terminal Update: May 2017

Posted by on May 8, 2017 in Uncategorized | No Comments

Hot damn folks, it has been a minute and I have been busy.  So much to report on… so much learned.  I suppose one of the problems of having a lot to tell you is… well, it’s hard to know where to start.  Maybe we’ll just have to go back to the specific lessons another time and today, we’ll just start with… well… status and see where that takes us.

Song Updates

The main news is that I’m working on songs 2 and 3 on the terminal.  And yes, this means that song 1, “Warehouse” is done (ish).  I’ve recorded it.  It is in the computer.  I can even perform it.  Sure sure, little tweaks to the song come up but I can mix it any time I want.  Oh the mix..  yea… uh, not sure when that will happen.

Recording from the terminal was a solid learning experience.  Just about everything went wrong.  True story; I figured I’d just need maybe 2 to 3 hours to capture everything.  After almost an entire day I had done it.  Mostly I lost time to midi issues but at least I only have to learn those lessons once.

Let’s just say, I knew this would happen.  I’ve never once gone into the studio and had it go ‘smooth’, and absolutely never when new methods of using technology are involved.  That said, I won’t be recording any of the other tracks until much later in the album making process.  I’ve done enough to know what I’m up against – and that’s fine with me.

Besides Warehouse there are two others I’m actively working on:

  • Cables – this is a bit moodier gentle flow sorta piece.  It definitely has a bit more darksynth vibe to it.  It’s not quite to say it’s industrial, though it draws from those influences.
  • Another Warehouse – haha, uhhhhh, I’m reusing a buncha sounds from warehouse, adding  some new sounds, modding patterns, whatnot and well… yea.  It’s another warehouse.  This is gonna be a dance tune (I bet you guessed this didn’t you?)

I’m definitely committed to finishing both of those tracks.  And I’ve got a couple on the burner that I’m excited to get to when I finish those:

  • Three – this is a two hour jam from last week that I found really inspiring.  The idea is to connect three different parts of the song at very different moods and energy levels.  It starts dark, it becomes hopeful… and well, I haven’t written the third part yet but I’m thinking… excited.  Hopefully this pans out into something I can put on the album
  • A Thought – another jam inspired from the piano.  Change starts with a thought, and so did that piece.

Who knows when I’ll get to these, but it’ll likely be a while given how quickly Cables and Another warehouse are coming along.  But you know, it pays to stick to a track or two at time.  I’ll get into it in another post, but massive changes to instruments, board, and effects are somewhat costly, so I want to minimize those until I’m honing the live set.

Terminal Updates

Heh – this supposed ‘portable’ studio is the car engine I can’t stop working on.  I have to say, I have a lot of fun figuring out how to do things better.  How do I handle wiring?  How do I make it easier to drive?  What options are available to me during song writing and how can I find new ones?  There’s so much going on here that I’m simply feeling subheadings.  Mmhmm.

Moar Synths

As if I was done getting new synths.  I may have already written about them to some degree but if that’s the case you just get to hear about them twice.  There are two synths making their way to my house (or sorta here, depending on how you look at it).

  1. Therapsid MkII – An incredibly cool 8 bit synth from Twisted-Electrons leveraging Commodore-64 sound chips
  2. Gameboy – As in… Nintendo Gameboy.  Yea, I’m turning my Gameboy Color into a midi controllable synthesizer.  Yes, I’m a huge fucking nerd.

Therapsid

I’ve been looking forward to this synth for a long time.  I’ve literally checked the Twisted Electrons site every day for a month waiting for the announcement.  I just didn’t want to miss it and, with these synths, yea, they can sell out (I actually found out about it because I was trying to get a mk1 and quickly learned that would be impossible).  As soon as the notification arrived I preordered with the quickness.

This synth uses the 6581 SID (sound interface device) chip that was commonly found in the old Commodore 64s.  Therapsid can use two of them, detuning them, for wicked 8bit fatness.  Of course, if you want the second chip you have to supply it yourself.  And of course, I did; having it shipped straight from some guy in America to some guy in France (that some guy being the Twisted Electrons dude himself; he reads his email and everything).  Let’s face it people, detuning 8bit synthesizers for fatness is just the business.

Now, Therapsid is more configurable than what I mentioned.  It can, in fact, two different SID chips.  More ‘modern’ sounding chips if you like that sorta thing, and you can even mix and match (old and new).  It’s fair to say, there may not ever be two of the same sounding Therapsids.  Oh, and if you’re curious, I kept it old school because old school is better (duh).  A comparison of the two chips Therapsid supports is below.

Resources:

Gameboy

Okay so what now?  A Gameboy?  Yea, and it turns out there’s a whole huge culture of nerds that do this.  I’m serious – you can buy the shit you need to turn your gameboy into a synth online.  And, and, and, you can even buy this shit from different people.  There’s competitive homebrewn gameboy electronics.  Maybe they’re all friends – but I never once thought I’d have choices when it came to buying a midi interface to my gameboy.

To top it off, there’s a whole culture of modding these things too.  You can make your gameboy sound better; you can make it easier to see; you can also break the shit out of it.  But a new gameboy’s only 15 bucks so fuck it.

Without getting stupid detailed, here’s the list of crap swirling around my new (not really new, I’ve had it since the 90’s), tiny, 8 bit synthesizer:

  • Nanoloop – a sequencing software for gameboy.  They make little cartridges; sweet deal.  It’s also available on Gameboy advance and DS, should you hate yourself and desire 16bit sound (gross).  I’m actually not going to use Nanoloop though… but the cartridge provided extra memory that I can dump whatever I want onto.
  • mGB – this is the synth software I intend to stuff onto the Nanoloop Cartridge
  • A link cable – cause I didn’t have one.  Also, it’s so I can hook it up to an adaptor to usd.  Yes folks, a Link->USB adaptor.  This is what I’ll use to flash the Nanoloop cartridge.
  • ArduinoBoy – Midi-to-Link hardware.  This is actually a ‘do-it-yourself’ electronics thing.  People buy arduinos, get some parts, follow the instructions, and voila, they have a device that passes midi along to their gameboy.  There are all kinds of blogs about people doing it in different ways; quite a passion project for some.  Fuck that though, I don’t have time to build shit.  I sent 100 bucks to some cool nerds that like to make ArduinoBoys to sell.  Mine’s even gonna look like an NES controller.  There are a number of choices out there should you not want to build your own either.  Modern society – ain’t it great?
  • Pro-sound mod — this is the only mod I feel I have to do.  Why?  Turns out the Gameboy preamps make them sound worse (yep, not lying).  If you bypass the preamp altogether you get a much cleaner, much louder signal.  I have yet to do this mod, but it’s high on my list.

And that’s it.  Turns out there’s a lot to this gameboy synth thing if you wanna go deep.  Did you know each model of gameboy produces different sound?  Gameboy, Gameboy Pocket, Gameboy color, etc – each have their own distinct sound characteristics (I always thought it’d be due to a speaker difference or something).  Yep, people take this shit seriously – and thank god they do as it means I don’t have to.  So thanks guys, I can’t wait to play with all this gear.

Resources:

Effects

What is food without salt and spices?  It’s bland; real fucking bland.  And music with just instruments?  Well, it’s great actually, but spice is great too.  Okay, who am I kidding, I like my shit spicey (af).  Maybe I don’t like things salty though; just enough salt will do.  And don’t forget, you can use some vinegar and you won’t need as much salt.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is, synths are great, but synths and effects are… uh, greater.  Takeaway: fuck you, I need more shit.

Delays

Minor changes in the effects department as of late.  My Alesis unit started getting weird and well, fuck that thing.  I don’t think I ever really liked the Alesis Microverb.  It was one of those times where I had shown up to buy something without really looking into it, and despite being disappointed, I brought it home anyway.  You know, I wanted to “find it’s potential”.  Or something.

There’s no potential in shitty old digital delays.  At least, not in the more basic models.  They don’t have much in the way of a ‘character’, they don’t really do things other delays don’t do, and shit, this one had completely fixed delay times and errything.  I remember being in the store, and the salesman was like, “bummer man” – bummer indeed…

No sir, today is a fucking good day; I can buy a new delay.  And new delay I did:  Boss DD500.  Here she is:

The DD500 is intended to a guitar stomp box.  Fine with me, as long  as a unit has the features I want.  In the case of the DD500 there were just a few things I knew I wanted:

  1. MIDI – you know, for tempo syncing.  FFS this shit makes life easier.
  2. MIDI – you know, for program changes.  See subnote above.
  3. Editability – can I make my own patches easily enough?
  4. Sound – Please don’t sound like shit (duh)
  5. A solid feature set.  When it comes to delays there’s very very basic ones out there that don’t do much, then there are delays that are fucking crazy (you see these a lot in software plugins).  I was going for a decent feature set, but I didn’t need crazy.

So yea, the DD500 has all that stuff.  Honestly, I bought this unit because it was literally the only unit in two local stores that had what I wanted (impulse buy!).  That said, after getting it home and playing with it a little, I’m pretty happy with it.  The screen is nice, it’s got a rich feature set, the DD500 sounds great, and the midi works as expected.  There are a couple things that suck about it, and while I’ll be over looking them, I’m happy to point them out now:

  • The manual is complete shit.  They list hundreds of parameters and don’t really bother to say what they do.  You get plenty of half assed descriptions though.  It’s like saying you have an ass, but not saying what your ass is for.  Ah well, experimentation is part of the fun eh? (insert butt joke in 3… 2…)  Note, seems like about everyone who’s bothered to write about this unit on the internet feels the way I do about the manual.
  • The direct vs effect sounds are per patch instead of a unit-wide mix knob (you know, like every other fucking effect that exists?).  I suppose it’s making me avoid all the presets so I don’t have to set this thing a thousand times, so that’s good.  I’ve worked around it for now by setting a default on patch 1 that I clone everything from (see photo).

But hey, outside of that, the unit does what it’s supposed to do and feels pretty solid.  I’m looking forward to using it; and use it I will.

Now, folks, I’m the type of guy who needs more than one delay.  In a DAW I’d use 3 or 4 to create sonic raindrops.  In hardware that’s not cost effective (yet), though I do have a second delay handy.  This is served from my mixing console (link below).  While this delay sounds fine, changing it between songs is a bitch, it’s not tempo synced (I have to tap the tempo), and tweaking it is difficult.  Truth be told, I’ll probably stop using it in favor other another hardware delay unit at some point.  What will that one be?  Not sure, but i’ll probably get a bit weird so hang in there… coming soon 😉

Resources:

Distortion

I’ve been eyeing a particular piece of gear for a bit and while I don’t have it yet… it’s in the mail.  I’ll tell you about it now, or at least announce it – but sounds will have to come later.

What is this piece of gear you ask?  Elektron Analog Heat.  It’s an analog distortion box, it sounds wonderful, and I’m stupid excited to play with it.  It’ll probably be here tomorrow.  But for now, feel free to check it out:  https://www.elektron.se/products/analog-heat/

Chorus

Another point of note – I’m wildly on the hunt for a chorus unit.  I might end up using my board for it once I replace the delay.  If you know of anything particularly interesting, well, let me know.

Workflow Changes

A huge component to operating a studio is setting it up such that your time and energy is most effective.  With so many pieces of gear, knowing how to use them all can be daunting to say the least.  A lot simply comes with practice, but you constantly find yourself digging manuals up and looking for this, that, or the other thing.  I even have a process for integrating manual reading time into my weekly activities (over french toast at the local cafe yo).  That said, learning takes time and some things are so friggen complicated that well, there are better ways.

Better ways like…  labeling things.  Ha, yep, I label the shit out of everything.  Sure the cables have always had labels (I have a lot of cables okay), but recently I’ve been working on streamlining my midi workflows.  I have, in fact, been labeling all my knobs and goodies.  Why?  because looking up CC numbers in manuals gets old, and no synth manufacturer does them the same way, despite there being standards.

Yep, I’ve labeled just about every damn knob I have.  Don’t believe me?  Here’s a picture of my Nord, which is a synth but also my primary control interface to The Terminal.

That white stuff is cut up ‘console tape’ – no residue and easy to see (previous I used gaffers tape but it was pretty hard to see honestly).  In this image:

  • a number on a knob is a MIDI CC number
  • I also label all midi channels I use for the device – the nord gets 5 (yea srs).
  • I also note CC numbers that don’t have a knob, i.e. bank messages go to CC32

The Nord really drove this idea.  I had two problems, the first I already mentioned about not wanting to look up the CC numbers when I want to automate things.  The second though is that I use the Nord to control all of my other synths remotely.  Sometimes I use their knobs, and sometimes they don’t have knobs for the things I want to do, or I want to adjust a value while I’m playing.  Putting the CC numbers on the Nord allows me to cross reference them by examining my notes on other synths.  If I have a CC on the Nord that another synth uses for something, guess what?  I can change that mother fucking value.  True story.

Consider the Juno – because of it’s mod, it has a few parameters that it doesn’t provide an interface for:

Sample and Hold fuckers, sample… and… hold.  So yea, if I want to use any of these params I need another midi knob somewhere.  I figured, before I buy yet more knobs along with midi merge devices to hook it all up, I’d see what I could tweak from my main control unit.  Long story short, some but not all.  Knobs incoming, but hey, all these labels are super helpful in knowing what I can do at a glance.

That’s the big workflow change anyway – there are others more device specific.  I think I’ll save those for articles where I go deeper into specific gear (cause you know, I do want to finish this blog post someday).

Resources:

Infrastructure

Things are, uh, getting complicated in here.  This requires thinking about, well, piping.  A couple small updates.

Electrical

Electrical is something I’ve been thinking about for a while.  Not because it’s a problem, but because I don’t want it to be a problem.  Well, okay, it is a problem too, but not in the way you would think.

The problem:  A lot of fucking plugs

The fear: I’ll burn my house down.

You see, in the 80’s they told us all that if we plugged too much stuff in we’d burn our houses down.  You don’t want your parents to die in a fire do you?  THEN DON’T PLUG ALL THAT SHIT IN.  Truth.  Given I already had two power strips full of plugs, just for they terminal (not counting the rest of the studio), I got a little nervous.  That said, a little research later and I’m not that nervous.

Long story short, if you aren’t drawing much current you probably won’t burn your house down and you can plug as much stuff as you want in.  Daisy chaining power strips isn’t necessarily bad, but if things are getting complicated, use a star configuration (all power strips go into the same master power strip).  Easy peasy, I just need to check out how much current I’m drawing and deal with problems from that side.

I picked up a power strip with an amp-meter in it from amazon, plugged it in, and found out I was drawing… 1.2 amps.  Yep, for everything.  I have plenty of electrical bandwidth left to me.  I definitely have nothing to worry about.  None-the-less, I re-configured the power strips to a star configuration (I’m now running 3).

Now none of this necessarily solves the problem of, “how are we gonna quickly set all this up for a live performance” but we can deal with that later.  For now, electrical is good and I’ve got plenty of room to integration the additions I’ve outlined above.

Midi

Midi is about maxed out.  Not from a sequencer/channel perspective, just from a cabling perspective.  My hub is full you see.  I can do some daisy chaining to work around this, though it could become a problem if I have to do too much of it.  I’m trying to make sure long daisy chains are for devices where latency doesn’t really matter (i.e. they’re on the bus for program change messages).  Sadly, due to this issue, and the fact that I need more midi routing, I’ll probably need another midi hub.  I’ve got my eye on one, but I’ll announce that later when I make those changes.

Sends/Returns/Buses

This is another rising issue.  How do we plug in the effects units, the instruments, and maximize our capability while not incurring configuration mayhem?  I’m trying out some clever things to sort this out, though I need to experiment more here.  Updates coming soon.

Fancy Pants Midi Diagram

For whatever reason, I like having a drawing of this thing.

This is just the midi routing.  Let’s pretend all of these have audio outputs and electrical cables too.  I’d love to diagram all that some day, but that will take a while – for now we’ll keep it to the control routing.

There are a couple things to note here:

  • Therapsid, heat, and gameboy aren’t really integrated yet.  These are tentative plans.  I think they’ll work out though.
  • Almost out of channels on Bus A.  When this happens, that’s it  – a bus gets 16 channels.  Then we have to use the second bus.  I don’t think this will happen any time soon though unless I get frivolous (I mean, the Rytm can use all 16 channels if it wants…).
  • I’m daisy chaining cause I have to.  I’m putting the heat last in a chain because I’m not expecting latency to be an issue there.  I’m pretty sure one jump will be fine for therapsid, but if its not, well, we’ll know what to do.  Note also that daisy chaining is only done on devices that support it, which is specifically the ones I’m using.
  • The gameboy is tentative on bus b because the software I’m going to use on it appears inflexible.  mGB seems to be hard set to channels 1 through 5.  That totally sucks, but I haven’t played with it yet.  Maybe it’ll be better than what the manual seems to indicate?  I’m not holding my breath.  But then again, mGB is open source so… maybe I can hack it?
  • I tend to keep musical stuff on channels starting from 1 moving up.  I put control and effects from 16 moving down.  Like the Nord Global channel is just for program change messages, as is the Rytm (well, and clock pulses).  My mind really likes this separation and it keeps space for additions on both ends, without things being intertwined.  For whatever reason it seems more difficult for me to remember that in a range of 1-10, 3 and 8 are the effects.  And yea, I know I got labels, but it’s still faster to remember.
  • The Nord feeds back into the Pyramid to act as the primary terminal controller.  Boom.  Winning.  Duh.

Wrap Up

Shit, I had a lot more I wanted to tell you about.  Console recall, the music I’ve been listening to, mods to some of the gear.  But well, my back hurts, which means it’s time to stop writing.  Maybe we can talk more about that stuff another time eh?  Well, if and only if I remember to do it.  The take-away here is – man, the terminal is constantly evolving.  Like the studio, there’s always a new piece of gear, a new idea for how to do something, a new, I dunno, inspiration.  I suppose that’s what studios are all about – a place where we can be inspired.  How do we make better tunes?  How do we work more easily?  How do we sound better or more interesting?  Where am I going to find a place for another synth or effect?  Is there enough electricity?

How the hell are we going to make this stuff… portable?

All questions for later.  But for now, I’ll leave you all with a current photo of The Terminal