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Modular Synthesizers

I am putting together a small modular synthesiser setup. Modular synthesizers are synthesizers composed of small individual modules, which are wired up to create a circuit for producing sound. They were very popular in the 1970s, with big bands such as Emmerson, Lake and Palmer, Kraftwerk and Jean Michael Jarre all owning big modular setups:

Keith Emerson's Modular Synthesiser

Modular synthesisers have had a resurgence in recent years with modern versions becoming available. One producer of modular synthesiser modules is Doepfer, a German company who’s modular synthesizer standard ‘Eurorack’ has become very popular recently. I have decided to build a small Eurorack modular, here it is so far:

IMG_0161

The blank plates are spaces for modules that I haven’t bought yet, I am slowly accumulating them. I have currently been wiring my modular setup to my ‘semi-modular’ synths. They include the Microbrute, and 2x Dark Energy MK1s synths, shown below:

IMG_0162

A semi-modular synth is a similar to a standard synthesizer, where all the synthesizer functions are self-contained in one case e.g. they are not just lots of modules. A semi-modular synth will work in its own right, without any additional wiring required. However, a semi-modular synth also has inputs which allow you to optionally wire up the semi-modular synth to other modules and semi-modular synths. So, it allows you to make one big sound processing circuit with all your synths wired together. Which is what I’ve been doing:

IMG_0160

So, not quite Keith Emerson, but it’s a start! But why would you do this, I hear you ask. What possible reason would you have for wiring up synthesisers in this manner? Well:

  • It expands the creative potential of your synthesizers. Instead of just having a few ways of creating sounds, you now have a lot more. Modular synthesisers have been used heavily in EA Games ‘The Sims 3′ for sound effects. Oscar-winning ‘The Social Network’ soundtrack by Trent Reznor uses modular synthesizers heavily, and more.
  • It allows you to build a synthesizer exactly the way you want to, with all the features you wanted for the type of music you make.
  • You end up learning a LOT about synthesis and how synthesizers are made, which can feed in to better sound design in the future, not to mention if you have an interest in electronics and music technology, this is a great way to learn.
  • If you are inspired musically by the technical side of music technology, (and a lot of producers such as Deadmau5 are) then it gives you another creative workflow to experiment with.
  • It’s fun. Wiring up things experimentally and creating sounds you never could have predicted would happen. The combinations are so exponential that you usually have no idea what will happen, and it’s almost like the machine created sounds just for you.
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microKORG Original + Novation Impulse 61

I picked up a rather ugly (but very cheap!) customised microKORG, and also the excellent Novation Impulse 61 USB/Midi keyboard controller.

mkplusnovation

The microKORG I like a lot. It was my first synth, and at first I couldn’t make any sense of it. I do agree with the Reddit /r/synthesizers view that it is not the best synth to learn on. Their view is that the best synth to learn on is one with a one-to-one mapping between controls and sound engine parameters. To put another way, the best beginners synth is one which has lots of knobs and buttons on it that you can tweak and hear actual results in the sound. It makes it more difficult if the sound engine is hidden away behind a large menu system with lots of daunting menus, like the microKORG has.

However, now I know the basics of synthesis, I’m finding it much easier to get the most out of the microKORG. You can also map a midi controller to a lot of the parameters, turning it into a poor man’s MS2000. The older MS2000 shares the same engine as the MK.

The Novation Impulse 61 is great, although it does take up a lot of desk space. The keybed is much better than any controller I’ve tried before, and even though it’s not weighted like my digital piano, it is very playable. The aftertouch and the velocity sensitivity are settings I will no doubt appreciate more in the future, for now I just turn them off. The arpegiator with the step sequencer is amazing! It turns the arpegiator into a little groovebox. It is quite similar to the arp sequencer on the microKORG, where you can hit the pads to change the notes on the fly. However the Impulse pads are a lot more sturdy, and responsive.

There is a lot about the Novation Automap functionality that I haven’t explored. I want to wire up my old Remote Zero SL unit as a controller for the microKORG, so I have more of a one-to-one mapping between knobs and the MS2000 parameter functionality exposed via MIDI on the microKORG.

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Pioneer DDJ-SR Serato Controller Review

dj controller

I decided to buy the DDJ-SR controller because it was cheaper than even the cheapest pair of Pioneer CDJs. I’m no stranger to using a laptop and controller, before the DDJ-SR I used my trusty Faderfox DJ2 controller, which is a basic no-frills ‘play buttons, 3 EQs, crossfader and volume faders’ unit.

I was considering getting the Native Instruments Traktor S4 DJ controller, which is one of the most popular full-size controllers for Traktor. However, after borrowing one from a friend, I compared the build quality of the DDJ-SR versus the S4, and there was no contest! The Pioneer DDJ-SR has the same buttons and jog wheel as the Pioneer CDJ units, which are rock solid and industry standard. For anyone wanting to use CDJs in the club after using the DDJ-SR at home, you will find the feel very familiar.

I looked at the DDJ-SR’s big brother, the DDJ-SX1. The SX is much bigger in size, and not as portable as the SR. This was a major factor for me, as it’s often difficult enough to find space in the DJ booth, even for a small controller. The DDJ-SX1 (not the newest model which may be out by now) has a pretty similar feature set to the DDJ-SR. There is only one main difference that is significant to me. That being the fact that the SX is a full 4-channel mixer, which can operate without being connected to a computer. But it wasn’t enough to justify the larger footprint and the much increased cost. So I decided to opt for the more portable DDJ-SR.

I tried out the controller at my local music shop, Dawsons (Manchester) . I recommend trying out the controller and also buying locally if you can, because it’s much easier to return a controller to the shop than it is to send it back to an online store, if you are not happy with it. I also believe in supporting your local music stores.

Being used to Traktor, and having used it since 2006, I was initially a bit cautious over switching to Serato. After I played around with it, and for my typical use, there was not a lot in Traktor that I didn’t find equivalents for, in Serato. One thing that was very nice is seeing the waveforms from each deck, and how you can visually ‘sync up’ the starting track with the beats of the one that is already playing. I have been surprised about how useful this is, it really makes beatmatching so easy when you don’t want to use the sync button, which I often don’t.

Pioneer_DDJ-SR

The DDJ-SR comes with 8 pads under each jog wheel. They are very responsive, every bit as responsive as Akai drum pads used for music production. The pad FX definitely expand the creative potential of laptop DJing. The ‘slicer’ is my favourite so far, it cuts the upcoming music into 8 slices. You can choose to play a slice (or beat) out of time with the progression of the track, for example, instead of 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 you can opt for 1-2-2-4-5-6-6-8. You can play combination you like, assuming you hit the right pads in time!

The ‘slip’ feature is very nice. When toggled on, the track plays on as you trigger samples and loops. It is as if the track is kept playing in the background while you pick out sections earlier in the track and play samples over the top, and when you have finished, the track snaps back, not to where you left it, but to where it has progressed to. You can use this feature to replace whole loops with other loops in the track and keep the rhythm of the track going. It is really powerful.

There is a four knob ‘FX’ section above each jog wheel. This is used to add FX such as delay, reverb, flanger, and so on. I don’t find myself using this much for my style of DJing. I do wonder how much of the FX and pad hammering you can actually do to a track before you start to annoy your crowd. They are great to use occasionally though.

Overall, I am very happy with my purchase. I had a pair of Pioneer CDJ400s and mixer back in 2009 which had a lot less features and cost over twice the price as this unit, and yet had the same build quality. Even if you ignore the ‘which is better’ argument of digital DJing versus CDJs, if you already have a laptop, this is a great setup for the money.

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New Synthesiser Additions: Microbrute, Nord Drum and Access Virus A

I bought some new synths.

Access Virus A

access virus a

This is the original 1998 Access Virus A. It, it was a staple synth for trance and electronic music in general for the early 00s. I am very happy that I managed to get this secondhand for less than a MicroKORG. It cost over £800 when it came out in 1998. Old digital synths seem to be unpopular at the moment, I’ve heard comments along the lines of ‘if it’s digital then I might as well use a plugin in my DAW’. But I think this is ignoring the tactile control surface that you get, and how it gets your head outside the computer and playing an actual physical instrument. The presets are really inspiring, several sounds that you will recognise if you were into electronic music in the 00s. VNV Nation, one of my favourite bands, produced their entire ‘Empires’ album with just the Access Virus A and a couple of samplers.

It has two oscillators which have extra functionality, as you can choose the waveform from a large selection of presampled waveforms, in addition to the usual sawtooth, sine, square. There is also a suboscilator, two filters, each with a ASDTR configurable envelope, the usual ASDTR for the amplifier, and three LFOs. You can choose to map the LFOs to almost anything, allowing a great amount of flexibility. It also has effects – delay and unison, as well as multiple timbers, meaning that you can have up to 12 different patches playing at the same time, each controlled with different MIDI channels. The whole thing is extensively controllable via MIDI also. It is my first polyphonic hardware synthesier, and so has opened up a whole range of new composition possibilities around chords.

Microbrute

microbrute

The Microbrute is fully analogue, and it can produce a good number of sounds through its one oscilator, by allowing you to blend in different quantities of sawtooth, sine and square, along with some extensive extras, such as a metalizer. It has a Steiner Parker filter, a LFO and a step sequencer. You can get more technical details about the Microbrute in Marc Doty’s great series of videos.

It has a hard aggressive character to the sound, especially when used with the ‘brute factor’. I like its sound, but sometimes wish for a little bit more warmth. However you can make all sorts of sounds with it, and I particularly like making chiptune arpeggio with the square wave, such as in my track ‘Blue Sky’.

It also has a mod matrix that I haven’t fully explored yet, but is very powerful, especially if you want to link it up to other CV capable synths.

Nord Drum

Nord-Drum 1

This is an analgoue modelling drum synthesiser. It is the first Nord Drum so it only has four channels, but the presets sound great in the mix. I haven’t even looked at the synthesis options on this yet, as I’ve been really happy with the presets, but there is a whole range of options that you can shape and edit for your own sound.

My synth ‘shelf’

I have swapped out the older synths that I don’t use anymore. Currently I’m using the three synths above. The keyboard at the top is my Alesis Q25 MIDI controller, there is a ZED 10 mixer on the middle shelf which I use as a recording device, as well as a gold EMU Orbit which I don’t have plugged in at the moment.

My Synth Shelf

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A* Algorithm implementation in Python

pathfinding

Lately I’ve had the idea of creating a text-based Roguelike in C++. This lead me on to think about the game AI experiments that I worked during my degree in Computer Science and A.I.. Essential to game AI is the notion of pathfinding, or finding a path from ‘A’ to ‘B’, past any obstacles that get in the way. One way to do this is to use the A* algorithm. I decided to implement an A* pathfinding algorithm for possible use in a Roguelike later, and chose the pseudocode from the Wikipedia example to implement.

The program finds a path from the top right hand corner to the top left, avoiding impassable ‘7’ obstacles. The ‘*’ are the steps along the path. The algorithm is guaranteed to find the shortest path between the goal and the start, which means it can optimally solve any solvable maze, given time.

This is a sample board with obstacles setup:

00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000777000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000777000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000777000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000777000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000777000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000777000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000777000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000777000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000777000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000777000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000007777000000000000000
00000000000000077777777777777777700000000000000000
00000000077777777777777777777777700000000000000000
00000077777777777700000000000000000000000000000000
77777777777000000000000000000000000000000000000000
77777777000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
77777777777777777707777777777777777777777777777777
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
70777777777777777777777777777777777777777777777777
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
77777777777777777777700000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000777777777777777777777707777777
00000000000000000000700000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000700000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000700000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000700000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000700000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000700000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000700000000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000700000000000000000000000000000

This is the path found (the ‘*’s):

**000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
0***********************************00000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000777*00000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000777*00000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000777*00000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000777*00000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000777*00000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000777*00000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000777*00000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000777*00000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000777*00000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000777*00000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000007777*00000000000000
00000000000000077777777777777777700*00000000000000
00000000077777777777777777777777700*00000000000000
00000077777777777700000000000000000*00000000000000
77777777777000000000000000000000000*00000000000000
77777777000000000000000000000000000*00000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000*00000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000*00000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000*00000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000*00000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000*00000000000000
000000000000000000******************00000000000000
777777777777777777*7777777777777777777777777777777
000000000000000000*0000000000000000000000000000000
0******************0000000000000000000000000000000
7*777777777777777777777777777777777777777777777777
0*****************************00000000000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000**0000000000000000000
000000000000000000000000000000**000000000000000000
0000000000000000000000000000000*000000000000000000
0000000000000000000000000000000***0000000000000000
000000000000000000000000000000000*0000000000000000
000000000000000000000000000000000**000000000000000
0000000000000000000000000000000000**00000000000000
77777777777777777777700000000000000***000000000000
0000000000000000000000000000000000000**00000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000*00000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000**0000000000
000000000000000000000000000000000000000****0000000
000000000000000000007777777777777777777777*7777777
000000000000000000007000000000000000000000**000000
0000000000000000000070000000000000000000000*000000
0000000000000000000070000000000000000000000***0000
000000000000000000007000000000000000000000000**000
0000000000000000000070000000000000000000000000*000
0000000000000000000070000000000000000000000000***0
000000000000000000007000000000000000000000000000*0
000000000000000000007000000000000000000000000000**

Here is source code

Amit’s A* pages were incredibly useful in developing this.

(Perhaps one day I will do a flashy JavaScript version!)