Review: Futuresonus Parva

The Futuresonus Parva Desktop Polysynth

I learned synthesis on hardware polysynths, but they are not a thing I keep around for the most part. They have kind of become more utilitarian rather than inspirational, which is why I use modular and experimental synths more extensively in terms of hardware. When I need a polysynth, I usually do just fine utilizing the many virtual instruments at my disposal that do not take up valuable space inside my house in the city.

With that being said I missed having a hardware polysynth around, and the Futuresonus Parva caught my eye. It had the right combination of features that it made me long for it. So I eventually bought one, if only to add to my repertoire. Above all it was something different and new. What surprised me is just how deep it was, and how it was the first polysynth in years that felt inspirational to me.

The Basics:

So the Parva is an analog synth that has a flexible hardware from anywhere from 1-8 voices. This is in large part a result of the voice cards which the synth supports. In fact if there is a problem with a voice card, it is easy to remove and replace, which in terms of repair ability is pretty straightforward. The specs of the synth can of course be found on the website. The synth is digitally controlled using encoders. I would not knock the digital control though, this synth is without question an analog. It is a desktop synth with a reasonable footprint, especially in comparison to some desktops. It supports USB hosting as well as MPE controllers, and it was the first synth with both of these features. This has since become more common, but it should be credited that they saw the benefit of these features from the outset.

The Sound:

The sound of the Parva is without question analog and full of character. This is not a refined Dave Smith Instruments synth. It is something else entirely. Sometimes growly, sometimes out there, other times it is klangtangerous. Don’t let the “Digitally Controlled” aspect fool you, this is about as raw and warm as analog can get.

This is the thing, the only way to really pin it down is it has a character of its own that is distinct. It can often be bell like, but not in the same refined way as a digital synth. It can go very deep on the bass side, but it is also completely unlike anything I have heard. There is this lo-fi character that can come out in a beautiful way if pushed the right direction. There are many sweet spots with this synth in terms of sound design, and many strange an unusual places. It is one of the first analog polysynths that I have connected with in years as a result.

The reality is the demos out there do sound good, but they may very well be selling the synth short in terms of its overall depth in terms of what it can achieve.

Modulation Madness

With a synth with 3 oscilators, 4 LFOs and 4 Envelopes, one would assume the modulation options are interesting. Well, they did not disappoint me, in fact they surprised me. This is the first poly synth I played where one can modulate the various element of the ADSR envelope. Want to modulate the attack with a random wave…done. This allows for some deeply out there complex synthesis one does not usually find on a polysynth, but rather a modular. While there are some small shortcomings in terms of modulation, it goes much further than most analog polysynths which often have rather simplified modulation options, if there are any. The beauty of the parva is while that it seems simple in terms of its interface, it has a considerable amount of depth. The hardware design begins to make far more sense when one takes into account this aspect of the synth, there was no way to get that many knobs and switches on a device.

The Experimentalist Polysynth

The Parva is a polysynth for those who like to dive into synthesis rather than be content with presets. For me…this is its beauty, it forces you to program and find your voice with it. It is probably the closest analog polysynth to a modular in that respect. It has the ability to pull off simple beautiful sounds, but also complex synthesis. The thing is if you are one of those people who just does presets, this synth will punish you. There is not that many with it. It is really for diving into synthesis. As much as I love this synth, it is probably not the best one to start out on. This is not a Juno 106 or SH-101. This is for those that want to explore deeper programming, and maintain an analog sound.

The Support:

There are not many companies where one can reach out and speak to the person who created the synth when there is a problem, but Futuresonus really does go out of its way to support the Parva. I was able to reach out regarding an issue, and had an almost immediate response.

Gripes:

Though I will be direct with a minor gripe, the two filters are used in combination rather than being able to adjust and modulate the parameters separately. If both filters were able to be controlled separately it would greatly enhance the sonic possibilities of the synth. A low pass to high pass parameter would have been nice too, especially since it is supposedly a state variable filter. Especially with considering the number of LFOs on this synth.

The other gripe is there needs to be a much more formalized page with the latest firmware. Tracking down the latest firmware updates in the forums was a bit of a challenge as it is hard to tell which page it is on. This firmware updates really should be on the page outside the forums, as well as the latest updates. This is a new company, so I am not holding it against them, especially considering the brilliance of the Parva itself. But it would be incredibly helpful, especially as the userbase grows. A nice seperate page with a list of all the firmware files and installers that is kept up to date would do a world of good.

Summary

The Futuresonus Parva, even with some minor gripes, is a deep polysynth that allows for the ability to dive deep into synthesis. It is a synth with a great deal of analog character, in an era where analogs have lately been a bit too refined in terms of both polysynths and monosynths.

My Response Regarding the Synthrotek/Steve Harmon Situation

The rape joke that started it all.

Steve Harmon from Synthrotek ended up making rape jokes on a facebook post.  There was no apology in response to the community response to the sexist jokes, just hostility. This is not the first time this type of thing has happened though in the community, and sadly not likely the last. This time felt different though, the community did a better job of policing the behavior. To that, I applaud the modular synth community. It took a step in the right direction towards being inclusive. I think Andrew Tomasello’s response speaks volumes to how far the community has come, as he openly detailed a pattern of problematic behavior from Steve Harmon (EDIT: the post has since been made private).  His response to this was direct as it was personal, such a response would not have happened in the past. What we are finding out is the issue went far beyond this single joke, but rather a pattern of sexist and problematic behavior over years that was not known to the public.

The modular community has had its share of sexist garbage, some worse than others. For a time a few years ago it seemed like it was getting worse. In some ways, it inspired me to launch this blog. I chose to disengage and stay away from the toxic parts of the community and to create my own voice. I don’t need sexist noise in my life, I just wanted to make music and talk about synths. I also know openly fighting against sexism sometimes can result in backlash that is an outright danger. A big reason women don’t speak up about anything from sexual assault, harassment, or anything else is that we are well aware of the possibility of backlash.

During a period where I was less engaged, something changed, and surprisingly for the better. More women picked up synths, and more men also got sick of the sexist crap happening within the community. With more women becoming synthesists, I think it would be a good idea to make sure the community is a welcoming place. The less toxic sexist garbage there is, and the more the community focuses on making music, the better. The truth is the community will be better off it is open, inclusive, welcoming, and focused. While the community is not perfect, and it still has a long way to go, I am more hopeful today than I was in the past.

EDIT:

There is an interesting thread on the synthesizers subreddit regarding this, which you can find here.

Review: Arturia Drumbrute

The Arturia DrumBrute

I have a soft spot in my heart for analog drum machines, but I really never fell in love with one. In many ways this is really kind of understandable, the classic ones, the 808 and 909, are exceedingly expensive and sought after.  There are others out there which while beautiful, are often deeply complex and often have a steep learning curve, or lack immediacy.

Connecting with one, has been a bit of a trial, as such I either used my weird modular equipment or my computer for rhythmic happenings. The Arturia Drumbrute however offered me an opportunity, a drum machine that the more I play, the more I love. The one thing I would have liked is some delay, but we cannot have it all. Love after all often does involve compromise.

There has been some debate on the sounds of the drum machine, but let me state this is a subjective judgement. It does sound like an analog drum machine, and I really like the sounds. The sound though is not the reason I love this drum machine, it is the high degree of weirdness that it inspires. It is the sheer fun of playing it and performing with it.

I believe a drum machine should being fun and interesting to play. There is also a great deal to be said with an instrument like this having immediacy. With synthesizers in general I take a great deal of pleasure diving deep into synthesis, the more complexity the better. Drum machines I am almost the exact opposite, I want ease of use. I want to dive right in and have fun. This is something the DrumBrute delivers

This is where the beauty of the DrumBrute lies really is in its ease of use. It is have the right set of features right at ones finger tips to dive right in. I think what many people forget is what made the Roland 808 and 909 popular was not just the sounds, but the very fact the instruments were fun and easy to program. The Drumbrute goes off of this strength more so than anything else, and builds on it, offering both interesting and useful features. Yes other drum machines have more powerful feature set, more effects, and possibly better sounds (debateable, but whatever). But they are often not as immediate and fun to play. Almost every feature of the drum brute is basically right there. Those features are almost all designed for expressiveness and the ability to give the machine a soul. The random and swing are about as good as they can get. The beat repeat strip can be used to really make things crazy or for more subtle rolls on each drum track. The per-drum part lengths open the door to polyrhythmic experimentation. This is all beautiful, immediate, and lovely, as one can quickly go between these elements with ease.

In terms of the drums there is lots of individual outs. My biggest gripe is lack of stereo with the main out, and the aforementioned lack of delay. The curious omission was the fact “brute factor” distortion that was found on previous “Brute” products was missing. This would have likely be beneficial to the drum machine, adding a bit of grit.

The one core word of advice with this drum machine is to get a decent delay pedal.  It adds quite a bit in terms of the performance aspect of this machine. I have performed live with a boutique delay, and it enhanced the DrumBrute  to my expectation.

With that being said there is no Analog Drum machine that is this feature rich for $449. It basically does not exist. I personally really like the drum sounds, but this is ultimately a subjective judgement.  While there are other budget drum machines, such as the Akai TomCat, they often lack some critical features. The closest competitor is the MFB Tanzbar, which is wonderful in its own right, but also twice the cost and is hard to find. The Arturia DrumBrute is a beautiful drum machine for rhythmic experimentation, and there are not many drum machines that match its feature set and possibilities whether you are making electronic dance music, or in my case, beautiful weirdness.

My Music Community, Under Seige

Normally when news is covered, it is not your friends which are impacted. This has not been the case as of late for me.

I have had friends who have been harassed, local venues which have been targeted, and I could go on. The DC music community has had a rough couple of months. Conspiracy theories and intentional targeting has basically impacted people and venues in my community. This has not been easy emotionally, as people walking into a pizza place that host shows with a weapon kind of has an impact on ones psyche. As does finding out your friends house parties are getting doxed on the darkest corners of the internet.

I have not written in the last few months, because it has not been the brightest period. I also have been focusing when I could on completing an album. I do have a few reviews and other pieces in the works, including a review of the Arturia Drumbrute. So the blog is still active, and likely will be more active in the future.

 

On the Death of Don Buchla

A picture of Suzanne and Don Buchla taken by Larry Klug
A picture of Suzanne Cianni and Don Buchla taken by Larry Klug, source: sevwave.com

For those who do not know, Don Buchla died on Wednesday September 14, 2016. He is of course one of the simultaneous co-inventors of the modern synthesizer. He was a beloved figure in the modular synth and experimental music community.

Buchla’s synthesizers were the instrument of choice for many women I have personally admired as composers and artists, specifically Suzanne Cianni and Laurie Spiegel. Laurie in fact divulged some of her experiences with Don Buchla and Suzanne Cianni in New York in the early 1970s.

People really do not grasp how often the people who do play modular electronic instruments often know their makers on some level, either personally, or through correspondence. These experiences and interactions often touch people closely who play these instruments. Don knew many musicians in his life because he was an active experimental musician himself, and he developed friendships that lasted a lifetime.  He will be deeply missed by his friends and family.

Review: Arturia V Collection Ver. 5 and the Synclavier V

The Synclavier-V
The Synclavier-V

Arturia recently released a new version of its long running V Collection. Normally I would not spend time reviewing it, the product has been around a long time. Even though there has been various iterations and new additions to the keyboards that are part of the software instrument collection.

This year is special. Two things happened, and I am legitimately impressed. The first is they basically revamped their entire line of synthesizers. The second, more importantly Arturia brought back one of the world’s most exclusive and complex digital synthesizers, the Synclavier.

The Updates

Before I get to the Synclavier, let me start with the fact they basically updated every single synth in their product line. The major improvement that everybody who previously used Arturia’s plugins will notice immediately is the UI. The long frustrating aspect of Arturia instruments is while they sounded pretty good, the UI was frustratingly small at times. While it was pretty easy to navigate the mini (their version of the minimoog), it was difficult to read things such as the CS-80 V, Modular V, etc. This made creating patches a bit more of a pain. Thankfully the era of the tiny-hard to read Arturia’s is over. The size is now adjustable! Much rejoicing!

In addition to changing the size, they also updated the UI itself. The UI is much more crisp, exploring patches is much easier. This makes the entire experience of using these software instruments better.

There were some other tweaks as well along the way, many of the instruments also saw an update to their synthesis engine. While some of this is likely refactoring of the algorithms that underlie these synthesizers, it means the sound has improved, sometimes significantly. This is not to say Arturia’s synths sounded bad to begin with. But for some instruments, namely the Prophet 5/VS, there is a considerable bump up in quality and they are closer to the real thing.

There are also new features, this is most noticeable in the Modular V, which saw some important updates. The modular V now features FM on the oscillators.  It may seem like a small thing, but it really does help expand the utility of the instrument. This may be a deviation from the Modular V being true to the original Moog Modular, but this is a major improvement in functionality, and more reflective of modern modular synths.  There are other places here and there that saw new functionality, but the list is likely long and more incremental.

The other major aspect I noticed is the Arturia plugin synths are less resource intensive on the CPU compared to previous versions.

So we have a better looking and sounding synths, with some new features, that take less of a CPU hit. Arturia made a major update which ended up in a big improvement.

In addition to all this, Arturia introduces several new organs and pianos. This is not something I am really focused on, but these are useful if you do not have other software that models or samples these instruments. I have personally used their electric piano and organ instruments in the past, so the are in no way disposable. But let us not kid ourselves, the draw to the product is the wide array of software emulations to classic synthesizers. Which gets us to the big one they introduced with this new release of the V Collection, and it is no mere emulation. The Synclavier.

The Synclavier V

Most Arturia synths are emulations of classic analog synthesizers using the best approximation of a hardware synthesizer, most often an analog synth.

The Synclavier was a different beast, the Synclaiver at it’s heart was a musical computer with a synthesis engine. It’s cost, and  unattainability came from this fact. The Synclavier’s synth engine, was driven by computer code. What makes the Synclavier V project different than other Arturia efforts is the fact they basically took about restoring and enhancing the core code from the Synclavier’s original synth engine. Basically the Synclavier V, is a Synclavier at its heart.  Synclavier Digital was a partner in this effort throughout the entire process. Even though it is a plugin, the original code is there.  What is missing is the nice Synclavier controller, but we have a range of midi controllers to choose from to these days to suit our own preference. Unlike the past, we also now have machines that far surpass the computers the Synclavier ran on.

It is important to note, the sampling engine and other add on modules that the Synclavier had are not here. This is the core synthesis engines, which is FM and Additive. This is enhanced for some deeper capabilities and now there is more partials (layers). Some of the other capabilities may be added in future versions, or they may not. But we should not dismiss the fact we are being handed possibly one of the best synth engines ever created.

I have not been thrilled with most additive synth engines that appear in synth plugins. Which is surprising since additive synthesis most computers should do very well. They often seem to be missing something. I cannot say this with the Synclavier, whatever that thing that was missing, is there. The fact that Arturia and Synclavier has basically re-introduced one of the classic additive and fm synthesizer engines should be lauded. Because what is here is a digital synth engine with a real soul.

The synthesis engine itself is a hybrid of additive and FM. This may be where it is special. The waveshaping  is done through an additive method using harmonics. This gets interesting when one is diving into the Time Slices, as the wave can be changed through time.  The time slices are where the enhancements to the original engine come out. Even though this has a fairly straightforward UI, the synthesis is seriously complex. one can spend years probably diving into every aspect. While I know quite a bit about FM and Additive, for the first time in a long time, I am being introduced to new sonic territory in terms of synthesis. Adding these two methods together seems like a revelation, especially in the way the Synclavier combines them. Most FM engines use fixed sine waves, in this case there is deep wave-shaping via additive synthesis of the carrier and modulator waves. This allows for the creation of complex waves, it is akin to wave multiplying and folding on a modular synth. This is very different FM than one would find in a yamaha fm engine.  Everything about the Synclavier feels new, because it is not just an engine many of us have never touched, it is the fact they changes are bringing new depth to that engine. This makes accessing it a bit wonderful, it feels like unfamiliar territory, there is a sense of discovery with every bit of a manipulation. A wonderful part of being a synthesist is learning new things, new approaches, and that is what the Synclavier-V offers.

Like most FM and Additive Synthesizers this synth thrives with complex pads, weird FX, and bell tones. But this synth never feels “cold” in the same way other digital synths can. There is a great deal of character, and may I say warmth. This may be because of the strength of the engine. It may also come from the ability also to dial in the fidelity, from its original 8 bit, all the way to 24 bit. But even when dialing up the fidelity nothing is lost in terms of character.

If you are used to the rather straightforward nature of subtractive synthesis one finds on most keyboard synths, this may not be for you. Complex digital synthesis is not for everybody. Like Yamaha’s DX engine it takes a bit more thought in crafting sound. Subtle variations can often change things in a big way, but there is no resonant filter here to help simplify things quickly. Almost everything is done through manipulating harmonics, Frequency Modulation, and envelopes. This is familiar territory for those used to digital additive and FM synthesis, but a conceptual leap for others in terms of sound design. I should note, I am not one of those people, as much as I love modular synthesizers, I have a love for FM and additive synthesis.  Arturia did produce a fairly in-depth manual, but it may take some experimentation to understand every concept within it for those who do wish to dive in. You will not become Suzanne Ciani overnight.

Arturia and Synclavier Digital has given a beautiful gift to synthesists with the Synclavier V.  While I love modular synths, the fact I can now play the Synclavier’s classic FM and Additive synth engine is a dream come true.

Conclusion

While this update cost a bit more than Arturia’s previous upgrades, it was worth every penny. There were major improvements here. The addition of the Synclavier V though, is also not to be dismissed. This is easily the most important software synth Arturia has released. It gives people access to a synth previously outside the range of affordability and access. Additionally, if anybody was holding off on the V collection, now is probably the time to jump in. Arturia right now has a  comprehensive selection of software instruments, and they are now much more usable as a result of the UI update. Between the product wide updates and the Synclavier-V, I highly recommend the Arturia V Collection.

On that Arturia Synclavier Plugin.

So I do not think many people really appreciate just how huge a deal this Synclavier thing is. This really was the pinnacle of digital synthesis. For me getting it is $199 upgrade away. $199 for one of the most advanced synthesizers of all time.

I will be reviewing it because how can I not. I also think this thing may be too advanced for most people. This is one case where complexity is not a bad thing either.  For those that love synthesis this is a dream synth. So having some version, even a software version, is impressive.

I look forward to exploring it in the coming days.

This is Not Us – On Moog, Asheville, and North Carolina’s Anti-LGBT Law

Moog responded to NC Anti-LGBT law by posting a picture of Wendy Carlos and Bob Moog, who were lifelong friends.
Moog responded to NC Anti-LGBT law by posting a picture of Wendy Carlos and Bob Moog, who were lifelong friends.

On Wednesday the North Carolina’s GOP legislature and governor crammed through a virulent anti-lgbt law. This law not only stripped localities of their local anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, but also included many specific anti-trans provisions.

For those who do not know North Carolina politics in the last few years, there has been an increasing gulf between the mostly liberal cities, and the arch-conservative GOP state legislature and governor. I highly suggest people to look up “Moral Mondays” to see how contested this has been. Asheville, where Moog Music and Make Noise music is located is very liberal city which includes many of these protections.

The response from Moog, well was pretty much perfect. Wendy Carlos is a trans woman who was Robert Moog’s lifelong friend. The picture is a deeply symbolic response. When Moog says they synthesize inclusion, they mean it. Wendy helped raise the profile of Moog, and synthesizers. Her “Switched On” classical albums basically exploded the popularity of synthesizers in popular music. To explain how popular these albums were, one must consider they have few real rivals. There are few albums that changed music forever, Switched on Bach was one of them. Moog and Moog Music has supported and promoted many LGBTQ artists over the years, Wendy was just the first.

This is the point, I get the calls for a boycott, I really do. I am pissed as hell about this law as a queer person. But by boycotting  some companies in NC, we may in fact be hurting the companies that will be in the front lines fighting against this legislation. Moog being one of them. There may be no better corporate ally with regards to these anti-LGBT provisions than Moog. Moog holds a massive music festival in NC, and has made NC a destination for many musicians who come through the state visiting their factory and Asheville. When they say #Thisisnotus they mean it. The fly by night efforts of the NC legislature’s exercise in bigoted anti-lgbtq law making should not be used against the very real efforts by NC businesses and cities which are trying to make themselves inclusive places. These are allies in the fight against intolerance, and they should be supported, not boycotted. I am not saying “don’t boycott”, but rather be selective. We need to boycott the money and businesses behind the intolerance, but we also need to  support those who are or will be fighting it.

EDIT: Moog Music’s Full Statement

Friends of Moog Music,

North Carolina has been home to Moog since 1978. We treasure the community we live and work in,however we strongly object to House Bill 2, which sanctions discrimination against members of our family.

As an employee-owned company, we are a group of wonderfully diverse individuals who share a passion for designing inspirational tools. Bob Moog believed, as do we, that the most beautiful and innovative solutions evolve from harnessing the collective power of divergent ideas and perspectives. Exclusion limits our path to progress and denies our living connection to each other.

The Moog factory and Moogfest are, and always will be, safe and inclusive spaces for the LGBTQ community and their allies.

Synthesize Love,

Moog

 

New PraxisCat Album…Decay.

Over the last 18 months I have played live extensively, more so than I ever had before.  I probably learned more in these shows than I would have had otherwise.

But…

I really enjoy recording music. Probably more so than performing live. Thankfully, the number of shows have slowed down in recent months. As a result of the slower pace in shows I have been able to record an album called Decay, and I am working on another one.  So the blog posts will be a little slower.

Late Reflections on the Death of Else Marie Pade

 

Over a month ago Else Marie Pade died, and this has stuck with me more than other recent musician deaths.

For the very fact Else did more in her life than most of us ever really will. She had an uncommon passion for jazz, musique concrete, and fighting Nazis. The last part by the way is absolutely true, she was a demolitions expert for the resistance during WWII, and was eventually imprisoned for it.

I have often linked the relationship between avant garde music and jazz, but Else really makes this connection especially strong as an electronic musician. While there are many other members of the Avant Garde music community in Europe who were jazz musicians at one point, Else had an uncommon passion for the musical style even if she didn’t pursue it in traditional way. She really did bring a love for it into her music.

This passion eventually lead her to musique concrete and early electronic music.    It is how she took this passion is what makes her unusual, in that she basically took oscillators to tape, and created the early groundwork to more austere experimental electronic styles. While Oram was playful in here compositions, Else droned and mangled. Else embraced the more chaotic elements of early electronic instrumentation. The reality is people like myself are in fact standing on the shoulders that Else laid the groundwork. Especially those of us who bring free improvisation and chaotic leanings to electronic instrumentation.

There is something that deeply interconnects those of us who are so rooted in passion for avant garde electronic music and improvisation with Else. It is a deep love, almost nerdiness, for the edges of sound. One does not go about making avant garde music without some deeper need to explore, to connect. Else had that, and the world is a better, and wonderfully weirder place for her contribution to the art of sound.