As you have probably already seen, Plymouth tutors Matt Ward and Phin Head, once again headed over to Superbooth in Berlin. This time not only did they travel with a cohort of dBs Music students, they delivered an amazing guest lecture and performance demonstrating musical temperament using the µTune module by TUBBUTEC. While on their academic and synth-nerd fuelled travels, we asked Matt and Phin to show us their favourite synths and modular kit from Superbooth 2018 that might have been overshadowed by the Behringer clones and Roland announcements.
1. SyntoNovo: Pan
Phin: "This was the undisputed #1 pick of the week for both of us. If you’ve ever been in any of my lectures on control, you’ll know I take a fairly dim view of most modern synths, not because of their sound, but their control options. Right there in Dave Smith’s MIDI spec, from the start 35 years ago, was the ability to shape each individual note’s onset, lifespan characteristics such as pitch, timbre, volume, modulation and offset, polyphonically i.e. independent from every other note in a chord, with your playing technique alone. Attack was how fast you struck the note, vibrato was how fast you wobbled the note once it was down, and release was how fast you let go. Envelopes? Shmenvelopes. Use your fingers!
"In the early 80s, keyboards did this, Smith’s Sequential T8, Kurzweill MIDIBoard, Elka MK88, Yamaha CS80, Roland A80, most Ensoniq synths, and several more. Then, for a quarter of a century, we went back to the dark ages. Keyboards were just rows of black and white switches, while we all just got excited about laptops. Boo.
"Happily, things turned a corner in the last few years, lead by the Hakan Continuum and Eigenharp, and now the Roli Seabord, Linnstrument, Madrona Soundplane, TouchKeys and McMillen K-board are all driving the new ‘MPE Standard’: Multi-dimentional Polyphonic Expression, just officially adopted. Here, every finger has XYZ control over every note, just like with most acoustic instruments. The only snag is that these are all non-standard keyboards. That’s fine, but it means players like me who’ve spent years developing our fingers and minds for one kind of surface, have to relearn all that for another.
"Now enter Pan. Developed by the guys behind the legendary Synton Syrinx back in 1983, and now in association with dBs Music's new friends at This Is Not Rocket Science, Pan is, first, an incredible sounding hybrid analogue/digital monosynth. Almost unlimited internal cross-patching combines with an incredibly intuitive physical user interface to achieve it, so Pan can patch anything to anything within its monstrous sound source, but with full patch memory. But that’s not why we like it.
"We like it because of its keyboard. They have cracked how to incorporate full XYZ control into a standard keybed. It’s so good, it’s already patented. This makes this thing a true instrument in a way that, for me at least, nothing from the big three manufacturers has been for many, many years. Strike a note fast: slow build. Let it go quick: sudden choking. Rock your finger left to right: vibrato. Front to back: tremolo. Up and down: filtrato. Or any combination, routed anywhere, to achieve whatever the piece you’re playing requires. A masterpiece of design: watch closely, it’s going to be revolutionary."
Matt: "Plus, seven oscillators all of which are all fully assignable as above with everything you would expect from a mono synth. BUT…..The thing is a beast! If you want big growling gnarly strings or earthshaking bass with full control over everything via MPE, then this is it. Yes, sure we want the POLY version and the keyboard is poly-ready, but first: just take our money for the mono one… This stood head-and-shoulders above the rest. Phin and I were gobsmacked, chin drop, Synton rocks. Truly the synth of the conference and has everything we ever wanted, watch this space!"
2. 4MS - Spherical Wavetable Navigator
Phin: "The first module I bought for my system was 4ms’ luminous sounding Spectral Multiband Resonator, the SMR: 6 self-oscillating resonant filters which can be tuned to fractions of a cent precision ‘nanotones’ and can create anything from ethereal breath pads to screeching Penderecki-esque microclusters: I used the SMR as my ‘strings section’ for the Tubbutec piece in fact, dirtied up through Mutable’s Warps set to a Chebychev Wavefolder.
"On first inspection I’d thought this was a blackpanel version of the SMR, they look very similar, but it wasn’t: this was the secret prototype I’d heard rumours about in hushed tones from 4ms themselves, in some email discussions a while back.
"The Spherical Wavetable Navigator (SWN) is 6 wavetable oscillators, individually addressable and tunable, in one 26hp panel. You can play it like a polyphonic keyboard with the white buttons at the top. You can voice and tigger chords, or control it like a standard (but very fat) single voice VCO. The idea is that the wavetables are navigated within spheres, which really makes sense given what a wavetable is: a single looping period of a wave stored digitally. Most wavetable oscillators like the Erica Black Wavetable VCO, think linearly, so you ‘wipe’ through the waves with a single knob, and they morph from one into the next. Some, like the E350 Morphing Terrarium think ‘2 dimensionally’, so your current sound is the wavetable located at the X/Y position defined by two knobs or CVs. The SWN extends this, to position each wavetable in a virtual sphere, with a Radius, a Latitude and a Longitude. By altering any of your 3 parameters, the sound morphs continuously and smoothly. This is of course great for picking a rich starting point for some traditional old school East Coast filter action, but its real strength lies in drone music, where the constantly morphing and evolving sound can unfold like the undulations of some vast unmapped landscape. At 26hp wide, and €350 it’s big, and not the cheapest module out there, but then consider the sheer voice power you have, the 6 additional LFOs, chord options, and playable surface (‘key’ buttons and faders) and you have not only a very serious system ‘heart’, but also a very inexpensive option compared to the equivalent functionality in separate modules. Formidable.
3. TINRS - Wobbler
Matt: "TINRS stood out last year firstly because of their non purist approach to modules and secondly their creator Stijn who once you meet, you will not forget. We planned to go see him on day two for a demo of his new modules. Paddy, one of our EMP students had already checked out the TINRS stall and confirmed that we should be checking their ‘Wobbler’ module - he was very pleasantly impressed. Well...within 5 minutes Phin and I were hooked on it: an advanced LFO with Twang, Chaotic Double Pendulum, S&H...wooohaaa! wooohaaa!
"So to put into words is not easy... This is a plug and play module. As I said to Stijn. 'I’m going to plug this in and use at our gig tonight', which was exactly what I did. Just applying one LFO to the parameters of my chimera was a joy to use and offsetting the other LFO via the phase control and patching live. Sweeping through the different LFO shapes is unpredictably good with the MOD parameter working slightly different for each mode. Eg Twang a Physical modelling mode, controls the damping and regular modes control sweeping sine through saw, tri and pulse. Sending pulses to the sync input can match your timing automatically for you and every time the LFO begins a new cycle it sends a trigger out of the trigger outputs. When I got this home and started multing out the LFO outputs and trigger outs to MI rings OMG the fun begins. This has hours of fun installed and is an absolute must for anyone needing to twist, bend, morph, tweak and evolve their setup, it’s hard not to like a module like this leapfrogging what a normal LFO can do. Who wants a normal LFO anyway?!"
Phin: "This was so good we both got one! As Matt says, we have Paddy to thank for the initial spot, but we were due to visit TiNRS anyway - we just love their approach to modular, they have absolutely hit the sweet spot between crazy-nuts-but-actually-usable. Some companies do off the wall stuff which is great, but only good for maybe half of one song. Not so with TiNRS. My favourite aspect on the Wobbler is the ability to employ chaotic rather than just periodic or random voltages. So, what’s the difference? Huge.
"Periodic processes are rule governed and totally predictable, like a repeating triangle LFO. Random processes are not rule governed and entirely unpredictable, like S/H white noise. Stochastic/Probabilistic processes are ‘weighted random’ processes: you have some but not absolute confidence what’s going to happen e.g. the probability gates on a VariGate. Chaotic process are quite different. These are a mathematical process over which you can have a complete understanding, and which are totally rule governed but whose outcomes are totally unpredictable. The best examples of these are so called ‘cellular automita’ like Langton’s Ant and the Logistic Map.
"Now, my other favourite LFO, Xoac Systems’ Batumi implements the Logistic Map, so the Wobbler’s Double Pendulm model is a match made in heaven. Why? Check the image.
"Those beautiful curves are the trace of a real physical double pendulum. Now imagine they are a graph of voltage against time, and imagine how you could use those melodic fragments!
"Owner/inventor Stijn is a brilliantly likable and eccentric salesman but also a powerfully intelligent developer and musician and he really knows the line between viable experimental exploration and dead-end noodling, so we love his stuff. And, we’re also totally stoked to be able to announce that TiNRS is the second ‘dBs Music Beta in Association’ company, following our success with Tubbutec! We’ll be sure to keep you posted, but this is looking massive."
4. Polaxis: EMY / KAIWA
Phin: "I always urge caution of ‘one trick pony’ modules. On first inspection, it would be easy to carelessly throw a ‘robot speech’ module like this into that category, and other lesser examples you can find might well be. However, if you have any interest in computer vocals, textures, elektro-beatbox and just plain Japanese craziness then we think this is the module for you.
"To set the scene, we need to set the DeLorean for 1978 and Texas Instruments’ Speak And Spell. This educational toy helped kids spell by, you guessed it, speaking the words they typed. What made it cool was that the words were not recordings but were synthesised from scratch on their custom TMS5220 microchip, by combining computer generated ‘voiced’ (vowel) and ‘unvoiced’ (consonant) sounds using a clever idea called Linear Predictive Coding. In the early 2000s the Speak And Spell came to prominence in electronic music where they were bought for pennies on EBay and ‘circuit bent’ - altered to glitch and loop by exploring the effect of making and breaking random connections on the circuit boards.
"EMY takes this as its starting point and takes it to the next level. What you get is not only the full Speak And Spell phoneme [letter sound] set, CV access to all the parameters; pitch, formant, time/length, loop etc... but canned sets of words, ranging from the full NATO phonetic alphabet to all the words to Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity! Everything can be stored and read from an SD card, and EMY can form random or ordered words just by combining CV selected strings of word sounds called allophones every time it gets a gate.
You can even load in sound sets from different languages, including actual Japanese via Rōmaji text! Best of all, and totally our favourite bit, you can attach a standard USB QWERTY keyboard to the module and type your lyrics live in the set: EMY then speaks them in rhythm! Using the speed controls can generate great textures and careful selection of ‘stops’ [ts, ps, bs etc.] can make a great percussion track. It's 16hp and priced at £174.
Kaiwa is the sister module to Emy, with the Japanese firmware already on board, so you only need to switch between languages on the front panel: you get both English and Japanese for only an additional €20 or so.
5. WMD Fracture
Matt: "High on Phin and my list of priorities was to catch up with Alex from WMD Devices and check out the Fracture Module. Last year we had a demo on their ‘then’ prototype Tamborine module which was later renamed to Chimera [pronounced Kia-meer-ah] I bought one of these off the back of our trip last year and can vouch that it really, really is a fantastic module for all things percussive. Next up is Fracture, the tricky second album, follow up percussion module that is far from a Chimera V2 in fact…. it pairs seamlessly! Granular percussive voice, conceptually designed from a crowd audience perspective and how the pitter patter of noise to a single clap or rapturous applause. This is all controlled via CV and the guys at WMD have done what they do best and designed this with the performer in mind adding 3 filter types, tweakable envelopes and a nice addition of classic reverb types. You cannot go wrong with this module for percussive duties, it’s unflappable and unbeatable!"
Phin: "Yes, this was totally great - I’m a bit less on the percussion side than Matt but it was clear that this was massive, translating their winning formula from Chimera, focussed on hat-like metal percussion: cymbals, triangles, car-keys, to snare-like percussion; snares, obviously, but claps, bangs and all manner of percussive whacks too. A Chimera, a Fracture and a BIA and you’re in drums Valhalla."
6. MuX VR System
Phin: "Computer-based music is the main reason I love using acoustic instruments: despite or maybe because, I’m programming them most of the time, I’m really suspicious of computers playing too great a role in the creative part of music making. Yes, fine for recording it, fine for generating the sounds, but surely no substitute for your fingers, an instrument, or at least a control surface and some paper? I was therefore initially not that fussed when we stumbled on a room in Fez’s space-station with a bunch of blokes wearing VR goggles. I wasn’t even that fussed watching Matt do it, although he seemed very pleased indeed. However, putting the goggles on myself and interacting with the world that Mux had created won me over almost instantly. This is a musical world of vast exploratory possibility. For 20 bucks.
"What MuX have done is a lot more than a mere software modular environment. It is that, kind of but in very cleverly–and deliberately–ensuring that nothing looks like a synth module, they have succeeded in creating a system where the number one goal is musical exploration. So, you won’t find anything resembling traditional hardware: what you see are beautifully conceived Steampunk…’prototypes’ I suppose you’d call them. I don’t want to say ‘modules’ because they aren't in the normal Eurorack sense, but they do the same kinds of things (as well as other kinds of things too). If I’m sound vague, it’s because the system is beautifully open ended, and somewhat defies easy description.
"So, you start with a set of ‘primitives’ like a speaker and an oscillator that looks like a tiny steam engine and you manipulate these in 3D-space with your virtual ‘hands’. By combining together with other objects, you build up increasingly complex musical contraptions and eventually you have a system that is doing something musically satisfying and interesting. Manipulating this on screen with a mouse would be fun no doubt, but the illusion of reality with the VR goggles and handsets is so fantastically compelling that I think it’s pretty much essential to the experience, and certainly elevates this system way above ‘just another virtual rackmount’.
"They are currently in closed Alpha testing but we think this would be a really fascinating introduction to virtual musical environments, and were talking to them about educational applications, so as always, watch this space."
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