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.



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

A* Algorithm implementation in Python


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:


This is the path found (the ‘*’s):


Here is source code

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

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

Current Music Setup

I like to dabble in making and playing music. Here is the equipment and setup that I use.

Ableton Live Intro

This is the DAW I use. I have been using Ableton Live for several years now, and I know my way around it. I have tried others but they never really felt as comfortable. Live comes in three flavours, ‘Intro’ is the most basic paid-for version. I was surprised how cheap the ‘Intro’ version was, and how little I find myself needing the features of the more expensive versions. I only have one paid-for VST plugin, and that is the KORG Legacy Cell MS-20, which I use on almost all the music I’ve made.

ableton live example

KORG Electribe R-1 MK2 Analog Modelling Drum Synthesiser

This is what serves as my drum machine. I picked it up on the cheap, but I’m really happy with it. I really like the built in step sequencer, and the drum synth itself. The sounds you can make from it are quite varied, and I really like the way you can put together live compositions on the fly. I’d be interested in getting some more KORG boxes, such as the EMX Electribes or the Volcas.


Waldorf Rocket Monophonic Analogue Sythnesiser module

This is my analogue synthesiser, which I use mainly for leads. In practice I find it quite annoying not being able to play real chords, and the lack of a sequencer is difficult because it means I can’t put together patterns away from the PC, or even really play it without a keyboard. I do like the sound, and the filter is great. The ‘fake chords’ option is great fun I just wish you could more easily change between the chords on the fly. The arp is pretty cool also. I think this will become a lot more awesome when I get a hardware sequencer, I already have my eye on the cheap BeatStep to pick up when it is released.


KORG Monotribe Analogue Sythesiser and Drum Machine

I don’t really use this for anything, unfortunately. It was my first synthesiser and although I liked it at the time, nowadays I find the lack of MIDI and the ribbon keyboard a major problem. I might either sell it or get a MIDI mod and install it. I find it quite noisey when recording anyway, so maybe I’ll just try and sell it. It does has some nice acid style sounds though. A shame.


Yamaha P35 Digital Piano

I was looking for a decent MIDI out keyboard that would allow me to put together more complex melodies and learn how to play keyboards for possibly joining a band in the future. The Yamaha NP31, which was my original choice, was out of stock and so it got me looking at others. I thought it would be interesting to learn to play the piano, as we had one growing up but I never really learned before. In the store I really liked the feel of the P35′s hammer action keys, so decided to buy it. I can play some simple tunes with it but want to get piano lessons so I can improve. This will also function as my main MIDI controller for my other hardware.


Line 6 Mobile Keys 25 USB Keyboard Controller

This is a nice little keyboard controller that I use with Ableton. Unfortunately it does not have MIDI out, only MIDI via USB, but I can run it through the MIDISport to control audio hardware. The keyboard action is very nice, much better than the M-Audio Keystation 49 which I had before and would not recommend.


M-Audio MIDISport Anniversary Edition 2×2 MIDI/USB Interface

This is a fairly standard cheap MIDI to USB interface. I used to use the M-Audio Uno, but that has only one input/output and it has problems with some audio hardware.


Setting up Kindlefire HDX for Development under Ubuntu 12.04


I wanted to get a Kindlefire HDX running under Ubuntu 12.04 with adb.

First I needed to setup the udev rules:

1. Edit /etc/udev/rules.d/51-android.rules as root, and add the following line (create this file if it does not exist):

SUBSYSTEM=="usb", ATTRS{idVendor}=="1949", MODE="0666"

2. Change the permission of this file by executing the following command as root:

chmod a+r /etc/udev/rules.d/51-android.rules

3. Reload the rules by executing the following command as root:

udevadm control --reload-rules

4. Run these commands to restart adb:

adb kill-server
adb start-server

5. Now when I run


I can see the device listed.

6. Next I needed to enable adb access on the Kindlefire HDX device itself by going to Settings -> Device -> Enable ADB.

7. Finally I could run:

adb devices

within Ubuntu and have it recognise the Kindlefire HDX.

My Aeron Chair

A good ergonomic chair is a wise investment if you’re going to spend a lot of time at your computer. One of the better known ergonomic models is the Herman Miller Aeron Task Chair.

Picture of Aeron Chair

What Other People Say About the Aeron

Jeff Atwood (from Coding Horror) says:

In fact, after browsing chairs for the last few years of my career, I’ve come to one conclusion: you can’t expect to get a decent chair for less than $500. If you are spending less than that on seating – unless you are getting the deal of the century on dot-bomb bankruptcy auctions – you’re probably making a mistake.

I still believe this to be true, and I urge any programmers reading this to seriously consider the value of what you’re sitting in while you’re on the job. In our profession, seating matters:

Chairs are a primary part of the programming experience. Eight hours a day, every day, for the rest of your working life – you’re sitting in one. Like it or not, whatever you’re sitting in has a measurable impact on your work experience.

Cheap chairs suck. Maybe I’ve become spoiled, but I have yet to sit in a single good, cheap chair. In my experience, the difference between the really great chairs and the cheap stuff is enormous. A quality chair is so comfortable and accommodating it effortlessly melts into the background, so you can focus on your work. A cheesy, cheap chair constantly reminds you how many hours of work you have left.

Chairs last. As I write this, I’m still sitting my original Aeron chair, which I purchased in 1998. I can’t think of any other piece of equipment I use in my job that has lasted me ten full years and beyond. While the initial sticker shock of a quality chair may turn you off, try to mentally amortize that cost across the next ten years or more.

Joel Spolsky (from Joel On Software) says:

Let me, for a moment, talk about the famous Aeron chair, made by Herman Miller. They cost about $900. This is about $800 more than a cheap office chair from OfficeDepot or Staples.

They are much more comfortable than cheap chairs. If you get the right size and adjust it properly, most people can sit in them all day long without feeling uncomfortable. The back and seat are made out of a kind of mesh that lets air flow so you don’t get sweaty. The ergonomics, especially of the newer models with lumbar support, are excellent.

They last longer than cheap chairs. We’ve been in business for six years and every Aeron is literally in mint condition: I challenge anyone to see the difference between the chairs we bought in 2000 and the chairs we bought three months ago. They easily last for ten years. The cheap chairs literally start falling apart after a matter of months. You’ll need at least four $100 chairs to last as long as an Aeron.

There was a post with a large set of comments on Hacker News about chairs and cheap alternatives to Aeron Chairs, with a lot of people saying that there is no cheap alternative to a good chair.

What I Say About the Aeron

I just got a refurbished Aeron chair for Christmas. I am really pleased with it. It comes in three base sizes, being larger than normal I went for the Size C. Once it arrived it was a good fit, but it was easily configurable to make it into an excellent fit. I prefer my chair not to recline, so I can’t comment on whether it is not a good chair for reclining, as Jeff Atwood says, but I will say it felt comfortable and stable reclining.

The real benefit so far has been on my posture; I did not know how much back pain I was having before with my really cheap office chair. Only when I got up from a 4 hour session on my Aeron chair did I notice how much better my back was feeling. It moulds your back into a good position, and I have noticed my back clicking and popping into its proper shape, after using the chair for a couple of days.

I ordered my chair from, who I am very happy with, as they provided an MK2 Size C chair with lumbar support for less than £400, which is an absolute bargain compared to the retail price of a new chair. This also included delivery! It seems like new – there are no scuff marks and everything works perfectly.

I highly recommend getting an Aeron chair or an equivalent ergonomic chair recommended in the above resources, as I have really noticed a significant difference.

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