studio slimdown

Last weekend, almost exactly five years after I bought my Blofeld synth, I sold it. With plans to move to the US well underway, I’ve been thinking about the things I use often enough to warrant dragging them along with me, and the Blofeld just didn’t make the cut. At first, the Blofeld was the heart of my studio — in fact, if I hadn’t bought the Blofeld, I may well have given up on trying to make music under Linux — but lately, it’s spent a lot more time powered off than powered up.

Why? Well, the music I’m interested in making has changed somewhat — it’s become more sample driven and less about purely synthetic sounds — but the biggest reason is that the tools available on Linux have improved immensely in the last five years.

Bye bye Blofeld -- I guess I'll have to change my Bandcamp bio photo now

Bye bye Blofeld — I guess I’ll have to change my Bandcamp bio photo now

Back in 2009, sequencers like Qtractor and Rosegarden had no plugin automation support, and even if they had, there were few synths available as plugins that were worth using. Standalone JACK synths were more widespread, and those could at least be automated (in a fashion) via MIDI CCs, but they were often complicated and had limited CC support. With the Blofeld, I could create high-quality sounds using an intuitive interface, and then control every aspect of those sounds via MIDI.

Today, we have full plugin automation in both Ardour 3 and Qtractor, and we also have many more plugin synths to play with. LV2 has come in to its own for native Linux developers, and native VST support has become more widespread, paving the way for ports of open-source and commercial Windows VSTs. My 2012 RPM Challenge album, far side of the mün has the TAL NoiseMaker VST all over it; if you’re recording today, you also have Sorcer, Fabla, Rogue, the greatly-improved amsynth, Rui’s synthv1/samplv1/drumkv1 triumvirate, and more, alongside commercial plugins like Discovery, Aspect, and the not-quite-so-synthy-but-still-great Pianoteq.

I bought the Blofeld specifically to use it with a DAW, but I think that became its undoing. Hardware synths are great when you can fire them up and start making sounds straight away, but the Blofeld is a desktop module, so before I could play anything I had to open a DAW (or QJackCtl, at the very least) and do some MIDI and audio routing. In the end, it was easier to use a plugin synth than to set up the Blofeld.

Mystery box of mystery!

You can probably guess what’s in the box, but if not, all will be revealed soon

So, what else might not make the cut? I only use my CS2X as a keyboard, so I’ll sell that and buy a new controller keyboard after moving, and now that VST plugins are widely supported, I can replace my Behringer VM-1 analog delay with a copy of Loomer Resound. I might also downsize my audio interface — I don’t need all the inputs on my Saffire PRO40, and now that Linux supports a bunch of USB 2.0 audio devices, there are several smaller options that’ll work without needing Firewire.

I’m not getting rid of all of my hardware, though; I’ll definitely keep my KORG nanoKONTROL, which is still a great, small MIDI controller. In fact, I also have two new toys that I’ll be writing about very soon. Both are about as different from one another as you could get, but they do share one thing — they’re both standalone devices that let you make music without going anywhere near a computer.

sketchbook: aspect and sequent

I got two great new studio toys for Xmas: Loomer Aspect and Sequent. This sketch is a quick demo I made while getting a bit of a feel for them both. Loomer’s plugins are all available as native Linux VSTs (as well as Windows and OS X), so they work well within Ardour 3.

Aspect is an analog-style soft synth with hugely flexible modulation options — it’s very easy to route its modulation sources, including three envelopes and three LFOs, to a wide variety of parameters, which gives you a lot of creative power. My favourite feature so far is its unison control, which lets you use up to five voices for each note. The coolest part of this is that the unison depth is a modulation source, so you can, say, route the unison depth to the pan control to spread those voices out across the sound stage, or route it to oscillator pitch to create massive detuned sounds.

It’s not as flexible as my Waldorf Blofeld, but Aspect is far more flexible than TAL NoiseMaker while remaining quite approachable to program. My RPM album really taught me the benefit of having synth plugins to use; now I’ll be able to do a lot more in-the-box, saving time and effort.

Sequent is an entirely different beast, and it’s not the easiest thing to explain — the simplest description is that it’s a multi-effects module that lets you sequence the parameters for each effect. It can create rhythmic delays, pans, and distortions, but perhaps its most versatile effect is the looper, which lets you slice, reverse, and loop the incoming audio to produce all manner of glitchy, stuttery effects. You can sequence everything precisely, or use any degree of randomness that you like, and it’s even MIDI-controllable, which opens possibilities for live use.

Now, for the sketch. It’s based on an Aspect pad that uses a clock-synced LFO routed to the filter cutoff, giving it a rhythmic rise and fall (I tried this using MIDI clock sync on the Blofeld on an RPM track, but it didn’t quite work). On top of that, I’ve added some simple percussion, again using Aspect — the kick is one of the included presets, but the hat and snareish-thing are my own patches.

While the kick keeps time, the hat and snare are sent through Sequent to glitch them up. I used a Sequent preset for this, which operates mostly randomly — if I was using it for real I think I’d want to either remove the randomness, or record a bunch of random loops to audio and hand-pick the best ones.

As you’d expect, I recorded this in Ardour 3 — it’s shaping up very nicely right now, so I’m hoping we won’t have much longer to wait before the final 3.0 release.


mp3 | vorbis | 26 seconds

spooky october project: candy grapple

Things have been quiet here of late, but I’ve actually been quite busy! I’ve just finished the sound design for Candy Grapple, the latest game from my good friend Switchbreak. It’s based on one of his Ludum Dare games, Waterfall Rescue, but it’s been fleshed out in to a full game, with much more complete gameplay, many more levels, and a spooky Halloween theme. It’s out now for Android, and there’s an iOS version on the way, too.

Switchbreak asked me to make some suitably spooky-cheesy music for it, and I happily agreed; once I started working on that, I realised he’d also need sound effects, so I offered to create those, too. Read on for details!

Background music

The bulk of my time went in to the in-game background music. Halloween music was new territory for me, but my mind went straight to The Simpsons Halloween specials, and the harpsichord and theremin closing credits. I thought about other “spooky” instruments and came up with the organ, and while it’s not spooky as such, the tuba seemed suitably ridiculous for the kooky carnival sound I was after.

I didn’t want to over-use the theremin, so I stuck with organ for the melody for the most part, and saved the theremin for the bridge, where the harpsichord and tuba drop away in favour of some organ triplets and piano bass notes.

A standard drum kit didn’t seem like a good fit (with that bouncy tuba part, it was in danger of becoming a polka), so I stuck with more random, wacky bits of percussion, like castanets and a vibraslap. I did use some cymbal rolls and crashes in the bridge, though.

Now, for the instruments: I used Pianoteq for the harpsichord and piano, as you’d probably expect; the percussion sounds were from the Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra, played using the LinuxSampler plugin; and the theremin was a simple patch on the Blofeld.

Pianoteq doesn’t just simulate pianos — it also handles other melodic percussion, like harpsichords

The tuba and organ, surprisingly, come from the Fluid GM soundfont. I’m not usually a fan of instruments from GM sets, and I did try a few alternatives, but the Fluid sounds were very well-behaved and sat well in the mix, so I didn’t let myself get hung up on where they came from.

Faking the theremin was fairly straightforward — it’s just a single sine-wave oscillator, but with some portamento to slur the pitch changes and an LFO routed to the oscillator pitch to add vibrato, both of which make that sine wave sound suitably theremin-ish.
I used TAL NoiseMaker at first, but switched to the Blofeld so I could use the modwheel to alter the amount of vibrato (the Blofeld’s modulation matrix makes this sort of thing easy); in hindsight, it would’ve been just as easy to stick with NoiseMaker and alter the vibrato by automating the LFO depth.

The mix came together fairly quickly. There’s a bunch of reverb (I had trouble getting the IR plugin working, so I used TAP Reverberator instead), a little EQ on the tuba and organ to brighten them a bit, and some compression on the piano to add sustain, but that’s about it as far as effects go. The only tricky part was making sure the transition in to the bridge wasn’t too abrupt, but all that really required was some careful balancing of levels.

It was, of course, all recorded and mixed in Ardour 3 — it has an annoying MIDI monitoring bug right now, but I’m hoping that’ll be fixed soon.

Intro music

I wanted to add some music to the title screen, too, so I come up with a little organ fanfare-ish thing and recorded it in to Ardour. The organ is the setBfree plugin, a Hammond B3 emulation based on an old app called Beatrix.

Beatrix had taken on near-legendary status in Linux audio circles, partly due to its great sound, and partly due to being near-impossible to run. It lacked JACK support and had various other issues, and its strict licencing forbid forking it or distributing patched versions.

Somehow, though, the setBfree devs managed to negotiate a suitable licence, and have added JACK support, LV2 plugin support, and a basic GUI. The GUI is a separate app that talks to the synth engine (whether it’s the JACK app or the LV2 plugin) via MIDI; it lets you configure the organ stops manually, or load presets.

setBfree’s GUI is a stand-alone app that talks to the synth via MIDI

The thunder sound was my own recording — I have a habit of setting up my Zoom H1 and letting it record during thunderstorms, and that’s finally come in handy!

Sound effects

Sound effects are hard; I’ve had a little experience with this, working on another game for Switchbreak which is still in development, but it’s all still fairly new to me. I used synths for some — Pianoteq came in handy once again here, for its tubular and church bells — but the rest were recorded sounds, mostly of me using things to hit other things. For the flapping bat wings, for instance, I slapped rubber gloves together, and idea I saw on this list of sound effects techniques.

I’m pretty happy with the fact that there are two vocal samples in there, too — the ghost and the witch are both me. The witch’s cackle just took some pitch shifting and a bunch of reverb.

Trailer video

Video editing in progress, using Kdenlive


As the game neared completion we realised it’d need a trailer, so I volunteered to make one, using Kdenlive. I used ffmpeg to record video from the Flash version of the game, then brought that in to Kdenlive, where I composited it on top of the phone image and background. It was a fairly straightforward edit, but I had some fun with it — I hadn’t played with wipes before now, for instance, so I took the opportunity to ham it up and throw some in.

not-quite-announcing my next project!

Things have been decidedly quiet here after the flurry of activity across March and April, but thankfully, in the real world, things haven’t been quite so quiet. I’ve been working on a new project with a couple of really talented guys, and while I can’t say too much about it yet, I can at least reveal that it’s a game!

Unsurprisingly, I’m taking care of the audio. I was initially brought on to write some music, but as we discussed the game’s design and setting, it became clear that the soundtrack would be much more sparse and ambient than my usual video game ditties. I do have a lot of ideas for the music that will fit the mood of the game, but for now, I’m focusing on the sound effects.

Designing those sound effects has definitely been a challenge. I’ve been creating sounds from scratch on the Blofeld, and using Ardour and Audacity to process recorded sounds from my Zoom H1 recorder, and while those tools are all quite familiar, these sounds are unlike anything I’ve created before. Part of the challenge is just getting an understanding of what sounds I need to make, so I’ve been playing a few different games and even watching bits of movies to get ideas on what different things should sound like.

A new prototype of the game should be ready soon; hopefully then I can real a bit more about what the game is and who I’ve been working with!

rpm 2012 post-mortem, track 9: escape velocity

“In physics, escape velocity is the speed at which the kinetic energy plus the gravitational potential energy of an object is zero. It is the speed needed to “break free” from a gravitational field without further propulsion.”

I had no intention of putting an industrial track on this album — or of ever writing one, to be honest — but serendipity is a funny thing sometimes. While working on oberth I took some time out to play with some patches on the Blofeld, and I found a nice arpeggiated lead patch that went mad when I started playing with the filter cutoff and resonance. It became a thumping kick drum, with higher notes giving a more subdued sound, and lower notes sounding brighter, so playing arpeggios resulted in some crazy, but interesting, kick drum patterns.

With some drums recorded, I wasn’t sure what to do next, but a distorted bass (TAL NoiseMaker with TAP TubeWarmth) seemed like a good idea. I then added an arpeggio part (TAL NoiseMaker with TAP TubeWarmth again), which was initially continuous, and then tried to add some progression by adding some cutoff automation and a breakdown toward the end. However, I wasn’t pleased with the results (that’s putting it mildly, in fact!), and I came very close to scrapping it and hoping that I’d have time to come up with something better to replace it.

Eventually, it occurred to me that adopting a two-bars-on, two-bars-off pattern for the arpeggio would help a lot. That pattern fit in well with the existing bass line, and it opened up some space that I could fill with random crazyness from the Blofeld. I created a patch featuring heavy distortion (almost to the point of atonality), and then just played a few notes that fit in with the bass and arpeggio, flipping the modwheel (mapped to the filter cutoff) back and forth to go from low, rumbling gurgles through to crazy screams.

I did like the breakdown in my initial cut, but I thought it needed something extra, so I tried a trick that I used on texel — I added a Decimator plugin and used automation to bring the “bits” value right down in some places, which causes some really wild, crunchy distortion. The final touch was to add some extra drums, and I went for the easiest, most cliched option — a 909 kit — but with an Invada Tube Distortion to give it some edge.

After the overhaul, I still wasn’t completely happy with this track, but it was definitely in much better shape, and good enough to go on the album. It was fun creating such distorted sounds, but I’m not sure if I’ll be in a hurry to follow up with more industrial tracks.

rpm 2012 post-mortem, track 7: oberth

“In astronautics, the Oberth effect is where the use of a rocket engine when travelling at high speed generates much more useful energy than one at low speed.”

I’d been wanting to write something in 6/8 for a while, and RPM seemed like as good a time as any to give it a go. I started this track by creating a simple triplet beat in Ardour, using the Hydrogen 909 kit, and then playing with ideas for a looping bassline using TAL NoiseMaker. Once I had a bassline, I added a simple pad part. Initially, I used presets for the bass and pad sounds, but they didn’t quite fit the sound I was after, so I soon replaced them with my own patches.

Even though I used a Hydrogen kit, I didn’t use Hydrogen to load it at first — instead, I used a new LV2 synth called DrMr, which works with Hydrogen drum kits. It’s early days for DrMr, and it’s promising, but I ended up swapping back to Hydrogen when I discovered that DrMr doesn’t yet respond properly to velocity information.

With the bass and pad in place (with some cutoff automation to spice them up), and the drums fleshed out a bit, I added the arpeggio part, using a TAL NoiseMaker preset, and then the lead, using a proggy patch on the Blofeld. After my experiences on tracks like hohmann, I wasn’t shy about using the pitch bender here, but I think it helps breathe some life in to the lead part, and makes the whole thing sound a bit like a Jean Michel Jarre track.

This was one of the last tracks I worked on; I started it on day 22, and wrapped it up at the start of my final sprint, on day 27. I wasn’t quite happy with the drums (I don’t think that 909 kit works as well here as it did on periapsis), but everything else came together pretty well. It’s not particularly outstanding, but it’s a good, solid track.

rpm 2012 post-mortem, track 4: eclipse

    “An eclipse is an astronomical event that occurs when an astronomical object is temporarily obscured, either by passing into the shadow of another body or by having another body pass between it and the viewer.”

This started as a quick experiment at the end of day 3 — taking a recording of Pianoteq’s tubular bells instrument and running it through Loomer Cumulus, a granular synth that lets you vary the pitch and playback speed of a sample, among other things. Playing it slowly through Cumulus revealed some really nice textures, so on day 4 I recorded the output in to Ardour and started arranging it in to a track. By the end of day 4, it was done.

Loomer Cumulus, a granular synth

To flesh things out, I added a piano sound (Pianoteq again), which I recorded, stretched, chopped up, and then ran through some distortions and a compressor, and then a pulsating bass part from the Blofeld. I doubled up the tubular bells part, too, stretching and pitch-shifting it and adding a rotary speaker plugin, which makes it sound almost string-like. TAP TubeWarmth adds a touch of distortion; I automated the drive level to add varying amounts of distortion to different sections.

This track is more of an audio collage than a sequenced track, so unlike the other tracks on the album, there aren’t any MIDI parts. The synth parts were all played live and recorded straight in as audio. I’m really happy with how it turned out — it has some interesting sounds and textures, and a bit of progression. It’s definitely one of my favourite tracks on the album.

rpm 2012 post-mortem, track 3: free return

“A free return trajectory is one of a very small sub-class of trajectories in which the trajectory of a satellite traveling away from a primary body (for example, the Earth) is modified by the presence of a secondary body (for example, the Moon) causing the satellite to return to the primary body.”

This is perhaps my favourite track on the album, partly because it’s the closest to the direction I want to head in, with chilled-out but downbeat vibe. It was also the first track I worked on, on day 1. It started as a live SooperLooper jam, using a Rhodes sound to play some chords and melodies over some Blofeld drums.

On day 5 I picked up that jam and imported it in to Ardour, though I ended up replacing those recorded loops with MIDI versions almost immediately. I kept the chord progression from the initial jam, but replaced the Rhodes with a pad sound from the Blofeld that uses an LFO synced to the MIDI clock to pulsate up and down in time with the music (in theory, at least). The Rhodes is still there, though, but just for the lead part, using the MDA ePiano plugin.

By day 6 the arrangement was mostly in place, and I added the bass and the synth lead parts, both using TAL NoiseMaker, and several extra drum parts, using the Blofeld. I also used my Behringer VM1 delay pedal on the Rhodes sound, to give it some lo-fi feel. The “snare” in the chorus is from TAL NoiseMaker, too; I was never entirely happy with that sound, but it was the best I could do at the time. I posted it to Soundcloud on day 6, but I ended up tweaking it a bit more after that on day 7.

Even though I really liked this track, I could make a list of all of the things that are wrong with it. In fact, let’s do that:

  • The lead sound is a bit too clean and proggy, and its levels are a bit up-and-down
  • The rise and fall of the pad sound doesn’t always fall in line with the beat
  • The kick drum all-but-disappears sometimes, due to a cancellation problem in the patch that I’m yet to sort out
  • While I initially liked the sound of MDA ePiano, I found myself liking it a lot less by the end of the recording process — some of its limitations had started to shine through
  • That “snare” sound in the chorus needs a rethink, or at least a lot of work

With some work, though, I think this could be a really good track — the basics are definitely there, and none of the above is unfix-able by any means.

rpm 2012 post-mortem

Before the process of making my RPM 2012 album becomes a distant memory, I wanted to get down some notes on the album as a whole, and on each track. This post is about the album as a whole; I’ll follow up with separate posts about each track shortly.

The whole album was definitely a rush, and there are plenty of things that could be improved, but overall I’m really happy with how it ended up. Even if it hadn’t produced useful results, the project would’ve been worthwhile in itself — I learned to get things down more quickly, and learned more about what does and doesn’t really matter when working on tracks. Perhaps most importantly, though, I feel inspired to start working on more new material.

I’m also pleased that many of the tracks sound more musical than my earlier work; there’s more of an emphasis on melodies and chord progressions rather than just rhythm and sound. Some of the musical styles forced me to use more melodies (the chiptune tracks in particular), but I think the time constraint helped force me down a more musical path, by limiting the time I could spend on sound design and effects.

General production notes, workflow changes

Though it’s still in beta, I used Ardour 3 for all of the tracks; one used samples, but the other nine were entirely MIDI. I expected a few bugs and crashes, but I didn’t hit any major problems, and didn’t lose any work — the worst problems were with some notes not starting/stopping properly at region boundaries. Over the next week or two I’ll update my Ardour build and try to reproduce those issues so I can report them properly.

The time constraints caused a few modifications of my workflow in the name of simplicity and brevity:

  • I relied much more on synth plugins than usual — in fact, several tracks used only plugins. Being able to whip up a quick synth sound in TAL NoiseMaker, and then apply effects without having to route or bounce anything, was a huge time saver. I still used Hydrogen on some tracks, and my Blofeld of course, but much more sparingly than usual.
  • Mixing work was kept to an absolute minimum — for the most part I just set some reasonable levels and left it at that. I did apply level automation to some tracks, but I didn’t add any compression or EQ, apart from the odd plugin used for creative effect.
  • Keeping the mixing simple let me skip an entire part of my usual workflow: bouncing. In the past I’ve always recorded MIDI parts to audio before mixing, and taken effort to ensure that things like drumkits have separate tracks for their various parts, to give me maximum flexibility during mixing. With the minimal mixing on this project, I didn’t see the need to bounce anything.

To my surprise, the result doesn’t sound terribly under-mixed, at least to my ears. It’s easy to get carried away with minor tweaks while mixing, so it was refreshing to hear how effective a simpler approach can be. This will definitely influence my future work — I can imagine getting a few tracks in to this sort of state and then mixing them all at once, or simply skipping mixing entirely if I don’t think a track is good enough.

Track notes

I want to go in to a bit of detail on each track, so I’ll be adding a separate post about each track, outlining the tools I used and the process I followed to create them. I’ll try to get one of these posts out each day, but with the release of Mass Effect 3 tomorrow I may be a little distracted!

rpm 2012 update: day 5

It’s the end of day 5 of the RPM Challenge, and I think I’m making good progress! I may have to pick up the pace a little to finish by the deadline, but I’m still fairly confident that I’ll manage it. The strategy that’s been working for me is to brainstorm and come up with demo ideas of a weeknight after work, and then flesh out those ideas on the weekend when I have more time to work with.

So far, I have one finished track (an ambient experimental piece), one half-finished track (a lo-fi downtempo track a la Texel), and two short demos (a chiptune and a solo piano piece). I’ll try to finish the track I have in progress tomorrow, so with any luck by this time next week I’ll have three or four finished tracks, and four or five demos ready to be expanded upon.

Some random things I’ve learned so far:

  • Plugin soft-synths are super, super handy when you’re in a hurry — just drop them in a MIDI track, load up a preset, and you’re good to go, without worrying about routing signals or configuring external software or hardware.
  • Speaking of soft-synths, the TAL-NoiseMaker native VST synth is my new go-to synth. It’s a standard analog-style synth, but it sounds great and has a straightforward UI and a solid feature set.
  • Ardour 3 is still a bit crashy while working with MIDI, but it’s made some nice improvements recently, like being able to double-click to enter or leave note edit mode, and the addition of a drop-down list of synth plugins in the “new track” dialog, so you can start composing more quickly. I could switch back to Qtractor, but even with the crashes I think I’m more productive in Ardour, just because I’m more familiar with it.
  • Sound design is fun! It’s hard not to have a good time when I fire up the Blofeld and start twiddling knobs. I should do it more often!
  • In fact, I should do this whole music thing more often. I might not come up with something interesting every time I sit in front of the keyboard, but definitely won’t come up with anything if I don’t try.