Some other 70’s shit we could bring back

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I used to bite the heads off first.

Casual racism for a start.

Yeah. The 70’s. Analogue. Vinyl. Wood panelling. Coming back like a bout of gastric reflux. It’s no longer just a timid retreat from the future, it’s now a complete and shameless rout of any progress at all.

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This is Mother Goose. They were from New Zealand. I seem to recall that the Bee was the drummer.

Laugh all you like at the feeble futurism of the 80’s, the techno tribalism of the 90’s – it at least aspired to a cyberpunk future of purple translucent plastic and some pseudo Japanese fonts. It was butt ugly but at least it gave it a go. It punched back.

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Everyone has given up. They’re cell phoning it in. Even the terrorism is a throwback, actually it’s lamer because you could at least imagine the fake Maoists had some point somewhere, whereas the fake Caliphate is just in it for the chicks and ransom.

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I bet at this exact moment you measuring this thing for your man cave.

Actually the real 70’s were pretty innovative. Almost every music style you care about came out of the 70’s. The films were fucking excellent. People even went to see Australian films. The 2010’s have produced nothing vaguely worth remembering 40 years later unless you think Social Media start ups are anything more than pyramid schemes.

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I had one these fucking things as a small child. No one ever bought one for themselves, they were always inflicted.

I don’t know if we’re ready for all the shit that goes with it – the “silent majority”, the poofter bashing, masons and moustaches, The Me Generation, stagflation, Pol Pot and snake plants?

YOU THERE, seriously considering buying a Walkman. Are you really ready for THIS?

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Yamaha FS1r : This was bullshit now it’s good.

Pre-amble - the fates are strange, the fates are tempestuous. As soon as I wrote this article I was presented with a FS1r for a considerably lesser price. I thought to myself “is this a cosmic trick? A calling out of my hubris?” Then I thought “who gives a fuck?” and scored. Let me say on first contact this is still not the holy grail that it purports to be. More here.

FS1r

$4000USD. This is a healthy hearty heap of bullshit. A single rack synthesiser, launched 1998 into oblivion by Yamaha and thus rare – the collectors crawl all over it like picnic ants and bid like it’s a Hurst skull. Does it create the voice of the siren? Does Bog and all His angels descend when you turn it on?

Let’s put it this way – when the electric piano patch is a stand out, along with a metallic Santa laugh – no. It’s yet another bloatfish – all diagrams, no meat.

What you get is an 8-operator FM synthesiser, which is cool for all those people (zero) that found 6 operators far too easy to manage. Alongside these are 8 noise sources fed through formant filters. When you arrange those in the right way you get vocal forms – a e i o u. The manual is particularly unhelpful about how all this fits together but the general plan appears to be to stack the formants on top of your FM to get consonants, breath, rosin – that sort of thing. You can sequence the formants to create speech but only by hacking the pre-set ‘formant sequences’.

It sounds vaguely interesting if the machine cost 1/10th of the asking price. But at over $4000 why don’t we look behind the curtain? Why did this rack appear so unexpectedly in 1998? As always the case, the technology did not spring from the primeval soup, instead being an adaptation of another, far less glamorous device.

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The PLG series was Yamaha’s big idea for the late 90’s, a series of cards that allowed the owner to expand their keyboard with different synthesis systems. The PLG100-DX is a DX7 on a card, the PLG100-AN is a An1x virtual analogue and here is the PLG100-SG which, like a hipster rock band, you probably didn’t know about. It sings, with many different voices, although only in Japanese, using exactly same formant sequencing system as on the FS1r.

You might have the inkling of something come to your mind – yes, that’s right. This is the first Vocaloid virtual singer, performed in hardware. It becomes clear that Yamaha developed the FS1r as a gesture towards ‘professional’ music production, but in the long run found a much more lucrative income from virtual girls in scanty clothing.

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Now, if you’d like something a bit like the FS1r, you need a PLG100-SG, a PLG150-DX and any Yamaha rack that can house both at once – the MU128 is pretty cheap. The most expensive bit is the DX board, but I reckon all up about $800 max. I’m well aware that the FS1r does more than combine these two sound sources, but you know what? For $3200 discount you can live with it.

But actually, I don’t need to to do any of that. Because now I understand something about the Korg Radias. When I first started playing with this I found it offers ‘formant motion’ which seemed a weird thing when sampling would be a more obvious choice. You speak a vocal phrase into the microphone and the Radias converts it into phonemes, which can be saved and then used to drive the vocoder. Of course it makes sense once you remember that Korg was once part of Yamaha, probably had a few drinks one day and broke into the cupboard where the dev kit for the old FS1r was stashed. Formant motion is an extension of formant sequencing, but performed in real time.

If Vocaloid is the main evolutionary pathway from the SG card, then the Radias includes the alternative universe where it attempted to become a viable professional tool. But that is another story.

Improving Kubrick’s Spartacus.

Everybody says what a great film maker Stan Kubrick was. But his early films aren’t all that great. Take Spartacus, the camerawork is very wobbly. Kirk Douglas is all over the place and so I decided I would rework it to put him front and centre. Now it makes much more sense. What do you think?

(Sorry about the sound, my main VHS machine is crook, and that made editing harder. You can put your own sound track there if you want.)

A new album

Ellard-RhineWith much trepidation and soul searching, I announce a new album. Most of the time I think the world is already full of albums and has already heard enough of me. But I’ve spent about two years fussing over this, it entertains me, and might entertain someone else. It’ll also the excuse the manic collecting of musical machinery.

For most of the year I wasn’t sure who should be the artist, invented a new one, thought better of it and have decided that I’ll just have to wear the sniggers of the children.

This will be my first pop LP since 2006. Nine years exile is long enough. It will be lavishly packaged to be ready early in the new year.

Ether versus Esther

Probably like yourself, I’ve got a bit of work leave and an overwhelming desire to waste some time. That means getting to play some of the computer games I buy in sales all year and never get around to trying.

Actually, as the author of small game that didn’t set the world on fire, it’s really some valuable research time into what I could do better next time the opportunity comes. I’m really not interested in “shoot monsters, shoot nazis, try jump up on a edge 100 times, flap my bird through endless columns” – basically I am clueless about what a ‘game’ means to 99 percent of people. But I’m actually just as clueless about what I want to achieve to better the existing tropes.

ether1-1920x1080Been playing a game called ETHER 1. The premiss is a good one: you get ‘inserted’ into the failing memories of a dementia patient, with the job of cleaning them of damage. She’s grown up in a small English seaside town, and much of the game is spent wandering around its deserted buildings, looking for fragments of recall which are represented by red bows for some reason. Just find these and you’re led like a tourist through a very pretty game world – that by itself is an advance on the tedious wandering of Dear Esther.

But the cacophony of clues and unfinished business drives you to start poking around in drawers and breaking into rooms to find out what’s really going on. For a start the therapist that’s working with you on the case is obviously up to no bloody good, and then there’s the way the patient herself screams bloody murder if you start snipping out the bad things. It’s quickly apparent that shit is going down and the story inside the lady’s brain is connected with the whole apparatus of the mind insertion technology itself. In fact I already have a pretty clear idea of what’s coming and just want to get at it.

OK, so cool story. But the problem is now the mechanism of adventure gaming, which after all these years remains:

  • find a bit of paper with some stuff on it or get told something by a NPC
  • go find a thing and carry it elsewhere
  • put that thing with another thing to open a door
  • turn a bunch of stopcocks
  • repeat
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Oh no, more bloody Stopcocks with numbers next to them.

Seriously, there’s a endless array of combination locks in this old duck’s mind, that require bits of paper with combinations written on them and … UGH. Also the mechanism of carrying stuff around is disconnected from actually solving a story and gaining insight. It’s simply just slowing the story telling.

That’s doubly disappointing because you would expect the memories to be pretty screwed up and that would make a far better reason for the parcelling of information. Here and there you come across a section where the image is fuzzy and surreal – but it’s not The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is what it really needs to be. Even Dear Esther has a few moments where you’re confronted by the surreal, and they are by far the most interesting bits.

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The false Denver Airport in the facsimile space.

In HH there’s a few sections where the surreal gets out of hand – for example the level where you move through the stacked ‘mind forms’ of aircraft. The ‘princess’ is being forced to create endless airplanes for some urgent purpose on the surface of the game world – that’s not explained. If I was actually telling a story, what would work better? Hopefully not combination locks. Actually, playing ETHER 1 is telling me something – if the story is wild, then the wild has to be conveyed in the difficulty of the world. If I am going to make my story more evident in H3H as planned, then the story must be evidenced in the game mechanics. It being a variation of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, that must be in the barriers that the player faces – no more doors.

That’s going to take a long time :(

Disney is killing my soul

A new Disney animated blockbuster. Oh joy, oh bliss.

BIG-HERO

Look at this shit. Look at it. I am going to be looking at it for the next four years. I am going to see slight variations of the characters as drawings, referential plot lines, tacky 3D animations (mostly of the big white blobby guy because he’s a bunch of spheres). It’s set in fucking SanFranTokyo or some other animé hell basket. Every little weeaboo student is going to be pumping this crud out for four years as I slowly crawl in a mental corner and die.

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Thankfully just a search for ‘worst anime’.

Because they will come in, and they will say I WANT TO BE A 3D ANIMATOR and MY FAVOURITE FILM IS BY PIXAR and any attempt to wean them off this dream will be met by angry ratemyprofessor feedback and ‘we are not studying enough animation skills’ and ‘why is not every single course at university about how I will work at Pixar someday?’

Because you will never work at Pixar. You will not be listed at the end of a Hollywood animated film any more than you will be president of the fucking united states. And meanwhile the world is a cruel hard place where you might have to get a real job where the fonts on a local government website are the only creative act you get all month. And it is my job to somehow pack you onto the bus and then as soon as the bus is moving tell you that it’s not a choo-choo to dream land.

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likewise

You will have to write essays, you will have to solve problems, you will have to draw people so their heads are in proportion to their bodies. I will give you hell because your story idea is unbelievable, tacky and stupid and no one wants to watch your animé Disney rip off crap. But most of all you are going to have to make somebody believe that you are somehow better than the 90,000 other Arts students that graduate in this tin pot country every damn year. That means you are going to have to become research active dammit – even if it kills you (or me).

I am become Death, destroyer of (animated) worlds.

If I didn’t care it wouldn’t matter. But I actually care about the munchkins, and sometimes when somebody is going the wrong way, well, you just have to take a stand.

And a reminder of places that don’t really care…

Been some management going down.

This is not a real manager. They look too happy.

This is not a real manager. They look too happy.

Some people want to be managers, so celebrate their insanity for they are sheltering you from that odium. Others are taken to one side and given a little talk about the good of the company, that we need a steady hand, that it’s either take it or your nemesis Batshit F. McInsane gets the job and so on. This has been my first year as a manager and if I have nothing particularly new to say, let me just say it for my own peace. I think everybody should be made a manager for at least a little while, so that they can feel what it’s like to be somewhere between Solomon and one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Solomon because you’re going to become the focus of every built up grievance that you probably didn’t expect or deserve. Like A* has been with the company for 50 years and along comes B and this new prick is changing everything and what do they know, it was already fine and A wants you to make everything go back to 1995 when they were last happy in life. Being a manager means not laughing in their face for finally being challenged to actually develop a new idea. No. You understand their viewpoint and value everything they have achieved but put to them that the marketplace has changed and really the tasks at hand have evolved and so must we all must meet these new challenges. Perhaps they could finish off that very important filing system they had proposed back in 2005 we would all appreciate that.

Or then there’s C that says every time that D and E call a research meeting they just ignore everything C says – obviously because of C’s gender and that look they both gave in the corridor – well it tells you everything doesn’t it, they want C out of here, C can tell. Management does not mean telling them to for fuck sake get a grip. It means reminding C to understand that D & E are not excluding C as such, just that they are collaborating on a new phase about which we are all concerned and so stress plays its part and really your own important research is just as valuable and perhaps we could call a meeting where we could all have an adult discussion about our shared progress.

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Horseman because you will be first to hear from above what needs to be explained below. You are a sub manager in the widget department. Your boss tells you that widgets are in decline, the demand is falling and the company must diversify into thingamajigs or fail. You remind the boss that you have 20 people who are world experts in widgets. Some of them have spent their whole lives in widget making and to now make thingamajigs would require retraining, which isn’t possible in the time available and means that both thingamajig and widget quality will suffer. The boss smiles and ushers you out the door. In the room outside the 20 widget makers are waiting for you.

This is why I buy cheap keyboards off eBay. There is nothing finer than inanimate objects with instruction manuals, racks, screwdrivers and cables. They have no feelings to hurt.

In general the Australian tertiary education industry is being ‘challenged’. The government, partly through ideology and partly because they think the main population won’t care, are proposing to save money by deregulating fees, while the same time allowing a wave of private colleges to enter the market. So if you are a student you are now supposed to ‘shop around’ for the price versus quality. My workplace is a top end university and think they can put fees up and hang in there. That might work for engineering students, but it might not win over potential fine arts students. The solution to that seems to be to re-badge as a “design faculty with lots of cool engineering shit like robots”. That’s a bit hard on staff in painting and drawing.

My concern is that one day Harvard and MIT will open their doors here. Why not? They can get funding from the government. At that point we will feel the pain that the regional universities already feel.

But in the meantime the effort to steer an art college into a design/engineering model requires endless cuts and adjustments and soothing of ruffled feelings and sympathy. Yes, X is an important art form and certainly one that we must always cherish, however there’s not really a future for it in a design faculty and so I’m shutting down classes even if you do hold your breath and turn blue. It brings me no joy, it really doesn’t. But I’ve seen the future in the management meetings and it’s like The Dead Zone. The number of people that are going to get a job in X is dropping, the news will reach the people that plan to study X and you, dear worker, will no longer be gainfully employed.

Don’t point your finger at tertiary education, for the grim reaper is hanging around your industry as well. Be happy that you can’t see him, as much as I am unhappy that I now can.

* All stories are hypothetical and blended from all kinds of experiences, so.

Fleacore tough love.

A small amusement – watching prices on eBay. There is an antique that sounds like a flugelhorn out a frog’s arse and it’s going for thousands of dollars. Next to it is something that no one will touch even if Jesus came and delivered it on a cloud. On the Internet are grown men – well I guess that’s an assumption but anyway – grown men shouting hoarsely about ‘converters’ and ‘ROM revisions’ and ‘stereo presence’ and all kinds of complete twaddle. Read between the lines and it becomes obvious – none of them know how to use the gear they’re binging and purging.

I want to make amends to the universe for this shameful display.
Learn to use your damn equipment.

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Dog of the Week.

Look at this: it’s my JV1010. You can get one for tuppence. The advantages include being very small and having a Session ROM – an extra set of sounds. If you have a PC then you need to get a hold of the free JV editor that Roland included with the unit. If you are an OSX user then you’ll need some other editor – or get an JV1080 with some knobs on front. No Session ROM included, never mind you can get that later.

Now this is a Sword and Sandals machine. Each voice has four tones. You get 64 tones all up. Each tone is a waveform, a filter, an amplifier and 2 LFOs. So you can make a nice sound with just one tone, by putting a waveform through a filter and so on – I don’t need to explain that. When you stack up these tones you get very thick sounds, and the synthesiser has an analogue control which makes the oscillators drift a little – so that traditional Roland sound is quickly there.

But you’ll eventually become dissatisfied because S&S relies on samples and they are going to be the same every time you push the key. At this point Mrs. GearSlutz throws her hands in the air and goes back to mooing with lust for a Moog. But really there’s some interesting techniques that Roland have put in there, found that no one cared, and not bothered to explain very well. Allow me.

At this point I have to assume you are reasonably familiar with the S+S idea.

structure

Two tones can be connected in a structure. The first structure is parallel, so that each tone has its own envelope and 2 pole filter. No.2 is serial, running the two through the filters to make a 4 pole filter with two distinct cut off settings. That’s nice for more overt filter sounds. The third structure has the waveforms mixed together through a booster. If you try this without quite knowing what it does, it just seems to make a horrible fuzz. Instead, think of it as Roland’s attempt to make FM without touching Yamaha’s FM patent.

Turn on the first two tones. In the first one put a pure sine wave. In the second put a pure waveform of some sort, but with some harmonics to play with – a saw is fine. Select the 3rd structure with the booster. Now as you turn up the gain on the booster, the combined waves will start to ‘fold over’ – what would have been a volume peak is forced down and new harmonics are created. Use the top tone like a modulator, and the bottom tone as the carrier – the analogy is false, but the process will reach some comparable results. Detune them for chorused harmonics.

But notice that there’s both a filter and amp in front of the booster. Obviously that amp can be used like the amp on an FM modulator. You can also use a resonant filter sweep to move the new overtones around. The result is a very nice harmonic sweep that sounds a bit like an FM or a pulse width modulation sweep. If you use structure 5, you get a ring modulator – rather than adding the waves, you’re multiplying them. Different sound but same workflow.

Always more to learn.

The ring mod is a fine way to get modulated sounds, even just by supplying two of the same waveforms (in structure 7 for example) and detuning. Look carefully in the waveform list and you will see ‘low’ versions of the simple waveforms. These are like LFOs in the signal path and do slow movements with the ring mod, which works well with some careful use of ‘chaos’ LFO to get variations of tone.

The FXM control is still mysterious. It’s like a fixed FM effect with a few settings… what use? Roland aren’t that talkative. “FXM (Frequency Cross Modulation) uses a specified waveform to apply frequency modulation to the currently selected waveform, creating complex overtones. This is useful for creating dramatic sounds or sound effects.” Meh, not really forthcoming for something they they’ve included in every keyboard in 20 years. Sound on Sound suggests it’s a good way to vary hi hats!

The other interesting part of this little box is the effects section. The later XV machines had a bigger effect palette but there are still plenty of treatments to try. One that’s particularly nice is the Feedback Pitch Shifter which allows quite long delays between each re-pitched feedback loop. It’s the eventide harmoniser effect that the Residents used for decades (and I used on the Ant Can See Legs). Here also the Time Control Delay you can sweep by your modulation wheel for really nice tape delay effects.

With a bit of care you can get noises out of this thing which are more interesting than the big expensive toys. The point I’m getting to is that the music that people are crazy for at the moment, all this reissued culture, was made by people who had to work with whatever cheap 2nd hand tools they could get. If you want to bring back the excitement of whatever ‘old days’ you crave – this is where it starts. Learn to use the stuff you own!

Update to Big Iron – Fingers Crossed

About a year ago I wrote about a project to start an experimental video lab. And since then, very little to report.

It started well as we leased the digital switching gear, but ran into trouble when Stephen R Jones became unwell, and as often is the nature of visual music only he was able to prepare his equipment. There’s been plenty of other things to do at work so we took time out. But a year is a year and suddenly there had to be a plan B or the whole deal was off.

Big Iron 2 copy

One of the things I have learned over the last few years is whenever you reissue old albums, there’s a whole bunch of unfinished business that comes back to life. You have an equal chance that everyone is sweet, or that people are ready with a pump action shotgun. There was some business here as well, in-between these two extremes, but I have to get on with it, so the plan became to get a functioning rig now and sort out who shares the credit later. I don’t have the technical skill to trace that (I’m a middle manager).

By strange coincidence Ant, the Severed Heads ‘mother hen’ for many years, also works in A/V at the university and knows some of the local people who make contemporary video synthesisers. We’re hoping for a catch-up soon, where we can check out the latest toys. But it turns out they know the guy that bought the “Supernova 12″. That was Stephen’s last video synthesiser design, and is quite different to the “Fridge”, which is the one we used in Severed Heads.

Noting had been heard of it in years, when suddenly Ant got a mail to say, it exists, it needs some repairs, but if we can find a way to move it, it can come to the video lab. Which is kind of like when somebody says, ‘I found a box with MASTER TAPE written on it, do you want it?’.

Overview

In fact there was another Supernova based machine shown last year at Campbelltown. Maybe that can join its sister – I’ve asked the current user about joining in the project.

Catching Light, Campbelltown Arts Centre, 2013

Stephen agrees that the Fridge does some things better – the SN12 is a bit more brutal, doesn’t have quite same range of expression due to the way the colour is mixed. But I’m more hopeful now that we will have something to show for this and perhaps some day as many as three of Stephen’s machines in the one space.