A Solution on Artist Bios and Statements

There is a personal part of me which deeply despises artist bios. This is especially true since I do abstract instrumental music. As much as I can say there is a deeper message, there is not. I like to explore different methodologies and concepts, but they are intellectual exercises in sound.

I hate writing about myself. Self promotion on that level is not my strong point. In fact if I can avoid writing an artist bio, I often do. Sometimes I put in utter absurdities about cats and robots, just because I like cats.

But writing about myself for an artist bio, it is something which is often feels very stilted. I would say it is borderline creative torture in many cases.

Thankfully somebody realized that like much of life, some things are just better automated. Thus a site called Arty Bollocks which generates beautifully tortured statements for bios.

A small sampling of the brilliance of the Arty Bollocks site:

My work explores the relationship between multiculturalism and urban spaces.

With influences as diverse as Derrida and John Cage, new insights are generated from both orderly and random layers.

Ever since I was a student I have been fascinated by the traditional understanding of the zeitgeist. What starts out as vision soon becomes corroded into a tragedy of temptation, leaving only a sense of failing and the prospect of a new understanding.

As intermittent phenomena become reconfigured through diligent and critical practice, the viewer is left with a hymn to the edges of our culture.

Of course you can edit these to fit your needs as a musician or performer. The point being is if somebody asks for some bio or statement you can deliver some proper nonsense.

Sound Hacking and Creative Coding

The Shbobo Shnth

There is a device that sits on my desk. It is a little wooden box with 4 barres and antennas on back. It is beautiful, because unlike my other synths it is not hardware with patch cables, or a plugin for computers, it is something else.

There is this persistent commonality that seems to be with both music technology and coding. There are both very few women doing electronic music, but also very few women doing any type of computer programming.

Many of the early women in electronic music in the US were talented computer programmers. Suzanne Cianni was a product of Stanford’s AI program, and Laurie Spiegel, developed computer software both inside and outside Bell Labs. The legacy of women using code creatively for music and art goes beyond this though.

There are very few women who program right now in any fashion, and this has been pointed out repeatedly by a number of sources. Even worse is the fact that many parents do not introduce their daughters to programming so the problem is starting to take on inter-generational aspects. This is needless to say an ongoing embarrassment, and there no real excuses.

There are a few issues upfront, one is the fact that computer science is not something that is well covered in schools period. This means it is often not introduced early on and in a universal way.

Then there is the issue of messaging that dates literally back to the 1970s and 1980s. Computers were almost exclusively marketed to boys. There is a great deal of sexism in much of the messaging, some cases worse than others. The messaging issues with regards to women and girls with regards to computer programming are well documented, the infamous Barbie book being probably one of the worst examples of this institutional sexism.

There are also  the problems in universities computer science programs, but this is not what I want to talk about, this is a music and gear site after all. This is not coding as a profession, but programming  as part of a creative act. While the number of women in computer science of critical importance, I think there is another important message that may be a bit lost. The ability to use programming beyond just technical professional endeavors, but in all aspects of life. Code can be used for creative expression, for art, music, and life. The creative aspects of coding may of the most accessible gateways to programming, but it is also one of the least explored and introduced. This is a matter of how code is presented, and I think music offers a world of exploration in terms of programming.

Which gets me back to the little wooden box with four barres and two antennas. It is a programmable synthesizer using a unique musical programming language that uses a text editor called SCHLISP, and a visual variant called FISH. The device that uses these languages, the little wooden box is called a Shbobo Shnth that is pictured at the top of the page. Like my Dousk, it came from Peter Blasser, who was local to me, and the devices were made in Silver Spring, which is a short walk from where I now live. The beauty of the device is the sound is based on how the user programs it, the instrument itself takes on the imagination of the the person coding it. Even if one does not want to use its internal processor, language, and operating system, it can work with other musical  and creative programming languages with a computer using the OSC protocol, such as PureData, MAX/MSP, SuperCollider, ChucK, and others.

There is a simple immediacy of creative programming that I think invites the user in. The magic of making something useful quickly, and a more immediate connection with how it is useful that feels tangible. While it may feel strange to make an emotional connection with code, the reality is that when code meets creativity and music, an emotional connection on the part of the performer can happen. With music this means you can hear the results, and the effects of little changes. Creative coding, while it requires some testing, can be  more of an exercise of expression and discovery. Part of the reason I love the Shnth is I can play delightfully with the algorithms and functions.

The shnth is is a fun instrument and a great introduction to creative coding, but the reality is the possibilities of creative coding extend far beyond it. People have used creative programming with arduino and raspberry pi devices to create custom instruments and games such as Noisy Jelly.

There is the fact that both PureData and MAX/MSP, which are visual programming languages, can also be used to create both software musical instruments, but also elaborate videos and visual presentations with ones computer.  Visual programming languages for creative endeavors are not hard to learn at first. While visual programming may be ill fitted for extensive software engineering, its use for creative purposes is extensive.

With that being said, text coding has it’s place. I have seen incredible live performances of both light and sound using SuperCollider. Some of the text coding creative programming languages can be far deeper in functionality and what one can do with them. Some do take a little more time to learn, but the results are often incredible.

The possibilities for creative programming are extensive, and really I will be discussing it much more in the future. My hope is more people will take a look at things like PureData, and not fear the concept of programming, but rather see it as something they can use in their art and music. I especially hope more women and girls take this up, because it is a way to bring beauty into the world. One is never to young or old to be introduced to programming, and it can and should be used for art and music.

Beautiful Synthesizers: The Lunetta and CMOS

The Lunetta is an electronic instrument that uses primarily CMOS chips for gates, Boolean logic, and mathematical functions for sequenced sounds.  A Lunetta is basically a simple rhythmic modular musical computer that makes abstract sounds in sometimes unpredictable ways. It is a beautiful experimental synthesizer.

Lunettas are most typically DIY instruments, although there are a few small boutique manufacturers that sell them. ElectroLobotomy for example sells a few simple Lunetta synthesizers on Etsy.

The most beautiful part of a Lunetta is that one can make one for themselves and experiment with its functionality and layout. The guide for making a Lunetta can be found here: Intro to Lunetta CMOS Synths. The introduction goes into Stanley Lunetta’s concept, and provides an introductory guide for making them. Every Lunetta though is made a bit differently, as they often reflect the makers preferences.

While there are DIY Lunetta’s out there, some manufacturers have expanded the CMOS synth concept, and created some more advanced synthesizers that use CMOS functionality. Nonlinear circuits has done this more than any other manufacturer, and has integrated CMOS functionality into both 4U and eurorack modular synth formats. One of the most interesting CMOS modules that Nonlinear Circuits make is the cellular automata sequencer.

 

Getting Started: The DAW

No matter what form of electronic music one records, something to record on is absolutely essential. A DAW is short for a digital audio workstation, and is the best way to record music. A DAW uses a personal computer to record audio, it is also a host for plugin software synthesizers and effects.

My advice is to start out by getting an inexpensive DAW. For those with MACs, Garageband will do the trick. For those who are starting on a PC or Linux, Reaper or Tracktion are likely the best option for a low cost platform.

There are a large number of DAWs and everybody has their favorite. If you do research and find something you can both afford and fits what seems like you would like to use and learn it. I only mention Reaper and Tracktion because of their affordability. My advice is to make sure the DAW is compatible with the native platform for plugins for your mac or pc.  For Macs this is the AU format, for Windows and Linux this is VST. A word of warning though, not all VST plugins or hardware can be used with Linux. While Linux is becoming more common in terms of compatibility.

Since each DAW is a little unique in terms of functionality, I highly suggest you watch and read the tutorials and manuals for the specific one that you will be using. I personally use Ableton Live, it is a great piece of software, and a lite version often comes with many controllers, which are either keyboards, drum pads, or other physical devices to control software. If you chose a controller that comes with Ableton lite, it is also a more than appropriate DAW and host to get started. With that being said one does not need to start on with Ableton Live and Ableton Live Suite, both of which carry a high cost. Ableton Live is a wonderful tool for those who are experienced, but the more expensive software out there is not necessary to get started.

A USB Midi controller is a nice thing to have when starting out. Smaller ones are easy to find both new and used that would likely be appropriate.  Controllers can range from relatively inexpensive keyboards, to esoteric ones such as the Eigenharp which cost thousands of dollars. I highly suggest just getting a decent inexpensive keyboard. If you want to go for both the hardware synth and software synth route though, something like the arturia microbrute can also be used as a controller.

All DAWs also work with audio interfaces which work with either USB or Firewire. This will allow you to record audio signals using either lines in or microphones. This however is not needed for doing music with plugin synthesizers. However,  if you do move onto hardware synthesis or incorporating musique concrete it is recommended to get some type of audio interface. The microphone plug into your computer is generally not sufficient to record high quality audio.

The one thing I do not recommend to get started is Pro-Tools or Reason. While these platforms are frequently pushed for a synthesist the insistence of an exclusive plugin format is problematic for both. They do not take Native plugins as a result there are barriers to some of the best software instruments with these platforms.  Other than that most DAWs will do the same job, but in slightly different ways with different interfaces and features. But outside of the exceptions, most can host native software instrument and effects plugins on most DAW platforms.

Once you have chosen your DAW and have installed it on your computer, the next step is to identify some soft synth plugins, and start to record music.

 

Electronic Music Without The Dance

I have written about synthesizers extensively at this point, but I think it is time to bring up electronic music itself. While electronic dance music has exploded in popularity, I think when one approaches electronic instruments they should not feel limited to making such music. The beauty of electronic music is the fact it can be expansive in scope, it has unlimited potential. One can approach synthesis as a way to make music one loves, or to expound the boundaries of what is considered music.

Electronic music has modern classicists like Wendy Carlos and Suzanne Ciani, it also has deep roots in the Avant Garde. In fact much of early Avant Garde music was produced with electronic instruments and techniques. The technological innovation of these instruments was coming out of participants in the avant-garde community. Some of these instruments were solely created by and used by composers, Daphne Oram’s Oramics synthesizer being a prime example. Others, like Don Buchla’s modular synthesizer found a wider commercial market. The intent of both the instrument maker and those playing the instruments  was to push the boundaries of music with these new concepts, and to create unique sounds and experiences.

Electronic music works within the bounds of existing and potential technology for sound. This can be as simple as a tape player, or as complex as an artificial intelligence.  The reality is there really is no right way to make electronic music, and no wrong way.  There may be a right way or wrong way to operate equipment, but that is all.  Electronic music does not have to follow the  constraints of notes, rhythm, and melody. Musique Concrete, noise, and drone are all legitimate forms of musical expression, in electronic music. As such synthesizers can take on many forms, and the instruments themselves can become as abstract and strange as the music. Music is nothing more than intentionally presented sound, how that music is intentionally presented is only limited by invention and imagination. What the listener gets out of these sounds comes from our pattern matching biases as a species. which is by in large, subjective.

What an electronic musician does is use technology to present that sound of intent. This can be to evoke a response, such as fear or agitation, or to make a person dance by presenting a structured melody and rhythm.  While traditional musical knowledge can help in that presentation, so does learning how to use the underlying technology and it’s limits.

My Own Musical Philosophy and Approach

For the past few years I have had an electronic music project myself called PraxisCat, here is a sampling.

I should note, I composed much of this album on a unique modular/semi-modular instrument made for me by Peter Blasser of Ciat-Lonbarde called a Dousk. My interest in modular synthesizers largely stems from having instruments that match both my workflow and philosophy, the dousk is one of the primary instruments I play these days.

My Ciat-Lonbarde Dousk.
My Ciat-Lonbarde Dousk.

 

My own music is not notational, it is more sculptural, organic, or mechanical. It is laid out in a forest of patch cords, or waves on my computer screen, and the effects I use to refine my sound. The goal is not to even have a clear structure around the music I present. I embrace the more chaotic and unpredictable elements of music to present a mood, feeling, or even a sense of place.

I have a very good understanding of my instruments and how they work and can sound, this is especially true with my synthesizers. I have also been playing musical instruments for years, and took years to develop the music I make now.  I have a pure obsession about learning about synthesis and sound design, and have very clear concepts of the type of music I wish to make.  While I do take on some aspects of musique concrete, ambient, and radiophonics,but I am not limiting myself to that history, or those constraints. While I bring chaos into my compositions, that does not mean I do not interlace it with melodies, and more rythmic elements to bring a sense of order or beauty.

I am an avant-garde composer and musician, and I compose and perform with musical happenstance, sequences, and noise. The point is to present the beauty in the seemingly random, or just as often, to make weird and interesting music.

Getting Started: DIY Synthesizer Kits

Building a synthesizer or synthesizer  module is one of the most enjoyable things in life.  At least to me. One of the things I noticed about many of the early synthesists, many learned on how to make. Daphne Oram, Laurie Spiegel, and many other synthesists were introduced to electronics very early in their childhood. I highly recommend if you have daughters, that you please introduce your daughters to electronics DIY. Especially if they have a crafty side. I know this may sound like a record on repeat at this point, but there are far too few women in technology and engineering. Building synths from PCB boards  and electronic kits is one only a great introduction to synthesizers, but also having a deeper understanding of how technology works and making in general.

This is a little bit of a warning, building DIY from synthesizers does entail some risk for some kits. DIY electronics often involves soldering, and all of these have an appropriate age and maturity level to get started. If you are doing this with your child, and  feel your kid is not ready for a soldering iron, there are alternatives I will list later in this post. As fun as it is, and make no mistake, soldering  involves a very hot device, and testing things sometimes that involve electricity.  With that being said, the kits I am going to be recommending to start are pretty simple and easy to get started on, they often include comprehensive documentation. If following the instructions in the documentation the risk for injury is low. Also some kits are explicitly made for a wide age range.

First off, if you are planning on building synthesizers from PCBs, you will need the following things: a Soldering Iron ideally with a temperature gauge and multiple tips, good solder (Kester No-Clean Flux 63/37 Solder), flux, a good multimeter (there is no reason to spend a ton), wire cutters, a wire stripper, a solder tip cleaner (non-wet), a solder wick, a solder sucker, and small screwdrivers. It is also good idea to have a decent lamp and magnifying glass with a gooseneck.  This may seem like a great deal but it will all last a long time. One option is to have an oscilloscope for calibration as well, but that is not necessary to get started with building.  It is a good idea to always do this in a well ventilated room with a fan. In terms of safety, safety goggles and a mask are recommended if you are soldering. The mask for the fumes, the goggles are for obvious reasons.

There are so many good guides on “how to solder” on youtube.  Instead of providing an explanation, I actually think that watching one of these videos is more helpful than anything I can explain.

It should be noted, that in general you should start by checking the board with the multimeter, and the components. Start by soldering the resistors first, then the rest of the smaller components like the caps and chips. This is called stuffing the board. Once you get those out of the way, then the other components come into play, with the LEDs, pots, and wiring usually being the last things that are done. During the last steps of the process you begin testing the device to confirm it’s functionality before mounting it to it’s case or panel. Again, this will be covered in the documentation for what you are building, or any online build guide.

While there are several companies that make appropriate DIY kits to start out with. I will be starting a page with all the resources for things such as DIY kits I can find. However, for this purpose I will start with the two which are both the most commonly found, but also the most beginner friendly.

Adult and Older Child Beginner Friendly

4MS

4MS has become known in the modular DIY community as one of the best starting points for DIY synthesizer modules. Their Eurorack modular kits have some of the best documentation for DIY electronics out there. These guides are not just good for building their modules, but as a general educational resource for getting started with modular synthesizers. The downside to the 4MS modular kits is you already have to be into modular synthesizers, since it requires you already have a eurorack case and power supply to start off. But if you are already into modular synthesizers and have a eurorack system, this is a great place to start.  With that being said, their guitar pedal kits offer a good alternative to their eurorack systems.

4MS also makes guitar pedal kits that are self oscillating in some cases. The pedals themselves in many ways are mini-drone synths. There are people in the experimental community that “play pedals” for drone and noise music. The 4MS pedals are appropriate for this. Some of these pedal kits can be used as stand alone devices, so even if you do not have a modular synthesizer this does not mean you will miss out on these great kits. The cool thing about pedals is in some ways you can create your own signal chains.

Kid Friendly

Moog Music

While the werkstatt-01 and the moog theremin kits are not the strongest start for adults as they do not introduce full component building, they do both provide a quick introduction to some of the very basics of both DIY and synthesis. These kits are highly recommended for people who are doing this with their kids, and want something that is both fun and educational. The best part of the werkstatt is it can expand outside just what is provided with the kit.

Korg Music and littleBits

Korg Music worked with littlebits for an introductory synth kits. littleBits is a beginner DIY electronics system that is meant for education and experimentation. The company was founded by Ayah Badier, a female engineer. I HIGHLY recommend if you have kids you introduce them to littleBits period, and the Korg kit is one of the most common and fun. The nice thing about little bits is if you feel your kid is not ready for soldering, they can still make with these kits. I should note, littleBits beauty is they are also useful for adults to get started and play with.

Other Notable DIY Resources:

Ken Stones CGS

Ken Stone is where one can get Serge and CGS PCBs. These PCB projects are considered rather advanced.

Electro-music forum 

The electro voice forum has been around for a very long time. It is one of the largest synth DIY communities on the internet.

Muffwiggler Forum Music Tech DIY Subsection

While I would not recommend spending time on some sections of the forum, the DIY subsection is an incredibly useful resource and the site of many new and interesting DIY projects. If you keep just to this section of the board your experience will be positive.

Adafruit

Adafruit is a source for DIY supplies and in some cases kits. It has all sorts of interesting DIY electronics projects and 3D printers as well. It is also a female founded business, Limor Fried the founder is also behind the legendary xoxbox project. Adafruit always seems to have some smaller DIY music projects worth exploring.

Mouser

mousercat

Mouser is one of the largest component retailers in the world. This is where you get resistors, caps, chips, and other fun stuff.

Synthcube

Synthcube is both a resource for rare parts, but also many pcbs and panels for synths

Thonk

Thonk sells various synthesizer kits and sometimes components. They are UK based and highly recommended for those in Europe.

Elby Designs

Elby designs sells both component kits, stand alone synth kits,  as well as Panther DIY modules. Panther is produces many of the IAN fritz DIY kits for Eurorack.

The Bridechamber

The bridechamber sells a large number of DIY kits for dotcom and MOTM 5U modular format.

COA Modular

COA has both DIY synth workshops in SF and frequently releases the serge panels that can be used with CGS PCBs. Dmitri can also make custom designed unbuilt serge panels if you have a specific idea, but do not have the resources to make the panel.

 

 

The Paradox of Choice and Eurorack Modular Systems

My Eurorack system these days is looking kind of sad. I cleared out and sold many modules to fund a Serge/Ian Fritz (4U) modular synthesizer system.  They were mostly modules which were no longer fitting my specific workflow, so they rarely were used. This was not for an active dislike of Eurorack modular synthesizers, I am not religious about format as some others are outside of my preference for smaller sized systems. I appreciate being able to gig with a modular system.

My Eurorack system is not quite it used to be...
My Eurorack system is not quite it used to be…

With that being said, I have pretty complicated feelings about Eurorack these days. It was my introduction to modular synthesis, and I do like it. It is a decent format that provides a great deal of functionality in a small format.  As somebody living in a city were smaller row homes and apartments are standard living, this is appreciated. While some people have massive systems, it’s largest advantage is one of size.  It is a modular system that one can fit complete systems in very small cases.

Overtime the format exploded in popularity because of it’s relatively low price, high functionality, and portability. The thing is with it’s expanding popularity, also came a flood of new manufacturers to the format. This has left me in a bit of a conundrum. With so many boutique manufacturers producing so many modules with varying degrees of functionality, it can lead to frustration.  This frustration is not coming from  lack of options, but one of too many.

There was a book not to long ago called the Paradox of Choice, it focused on how too many options often left people confused. For the longest time I did not quite understand really if the concept held water. After all choice is wonderful in most cases, and to few if they do not match your personal preferences can be frustrating.

However, during the last few years of Eurorack I began to understand the paradox. I get it completely get it now, and it is very true.

The reality is there are so many spins on oscillators, complex oscillators, filters, low pass gates, random, vca, envelopes, LFOs, chaos, etc from an ever growing list of manufacturers, it is pretty easy to get lost in it all.

There was one point where one could keep up with the new modules, and make a determination on whether the functionality was something one wanted. That is becoming much harder right now. While there are some that try to buy as many modules as possible with a Pokemon type obsession of “catching them all”, for those of us with limited budgets, or room, this is not a wise position.

While the paradox of choice creates a conundrum for those of us who have been around for some time, it also presents confusion for those who are very new. The were to get started question has become something in which there is no easy answer with Eurorack. A complex oscillator, low pass gate, and some modulation, sure, but which ones?  In some ways this is where the smaller complete systems by Make Noise, EoWave, and Pittsburgh Modular help. With that being said, these focused systems often limit exposure to the wider universe.

For those of us who have experience there is a bit of a knee jerk reaction to stick with our favorite manufacturers, which are often well established. This is sometimes done without giving new ones a real shot. After all there is modules outside of intellijel, cwejman, and make noise, but these are the most desired manufacturers. Part of this is quality, but part of it is familiarity and the issues that arise from the paradox of choice. We seek what we know we faced with an array of choices.

As it stands my Eurorack system is neglected at the moment. I am still keeping it though, largely because things can change. The largest reason I am keeping it around is because most DIY eurorack modules just take a few hours to complete. Right now for DIY synthesizers Eurorack modules is all I personally have the bandwidth for, and I would like to refresh my soldering skills before diving into DIY serge format. There may be finally something that will break through my own conundrum of the paradox of choice and offer something very compelling in Eurorack. I have no clue what it will be at this moment though. In fact the solution may be at the end of my soldering iron after all.

Suzanne Ciani: A Life in Waves Documentary Meets Funding Goals

The documentary on Suzanne Ciani reached it’s kickstarter fundraising goal.  This is great news, Ciani was one of the earliest adopters of modular synthesizers. She is also one of the most prolific synthesists in the film industry ever.  In addition to being a composer, her ability to sound design is in fact legendary. She is most associated with her beautiful compositions using an early Buchla modular synthesizer system.  Like Laurie Spiegel, she worked closely at one point with Max Matthews.

The one depressing thing that does not get mentioned with the fundraiser, is there were likely more women involved with the music technology and modular synthesizer community back when Ciani started then there are today. The community was much smaller back then, but there were a number of high profile women composing and recording with synthesizers between the 1960s-1980s.  There actually seems to be fewer women playing modular synthesizers, even though they are more widely available. While people like a Ciani who laid the groundwork for modern synthesists, in some ways it feels like things have not improved much in terms of women’s involvement.

My hope is this documentary further raises the profile of the early women synthesists, and maybe encourages a few to pick up a patch cord.

The kickstarter is still open and you can still provide some extra bit of funding here: Suzanne Ciani: A Life in Waves