The Death of the Man Cave. Is music hardware really better than software?

For some years I’ve been collecting and writing about electronic music hardware – good, not so good, and utter garbage. I’ve had fun popping a few bubbles while handing out praise where it was really due. But I’ve arrived at a larger goal than just sniping at the low hanging piffle. I finally feel empowered – I’ve used up considerable money and time crawling around the floor and behind racks, sourcing SCSI cables and voltage adapters, and wondering why the fuck this MIDI signal went the wrong way. I have seen for myself. I am one of you.

So, in this year 2019, is music hardware really better than software?

Better? We need to set some rules. Firstly, we are talking about musical instruments being used for music. Slavishly copying a sound plucked from some antique recording is not music. Matching the shape of a waveform on an oscilloscope is not music. These are feats for athletic carnivals or

Implicit in music is a listener, and that something humane is being communicated – awe, hope, fear, something worth listening. What does the sound of the device offer for others? You may be pleased by the feel of the knobs, or the type of wood at the cheeks of the thing, but what does this do for a listener? Maybe the wood inspires you to delicate adjustments, but it’s not a violin.

The way your machine looks, how pretty the lights, the styling of it – that has no bearing on its purpose. It may as well be a Dyson vacuum cleaner or an Apple phone. Sure, it’s well designed, by that’s not specific in any way to synthesis.

Some hardware running software to sound like hardware

Some hardware running software to sound like hardware

We need to verify what we mean by ‘hardware’ and ‘software’, because quite a lot of ‘hardware’ is a hybrid. A Moog model D is all hardware. A Blofeld is software in a box. But the Arturia Origin is software that runs only on a very particular microchip – when the chips are gone, the machine is extinct. Same is allegedly true for the Access Virus. Is this hardware? Because no specific hardware – no sound.

I am tempted to judge that only the resulting sound matters, but I have to concede that a dedicated controller might make reaching that sound more likely.

I’d also like to say that synthesis was once a futuristic thing, a desire to hear new sounds, make new music, go places that hadn’t been heard before. That idea started to die with Tomita and is now truly dead when you’re trying to emulate some noise from 40 years ago. Synthesis, as a mainstream activity, has become terribly OLD FASHIONED.

The Answer.

OK, so let’s start by my telling you I’m selling the majority of my hardware, such is the faith I have in my answer.

A mangle

A mangle

The time spent racking, un-racking, cabling around the back of things, assembling A frames etc. is like the days when people would run clothing through a mangle before hanging it on a clothesline. You can definitely run into problems with virtual studios. I have. But generally, when I visit other people’s hardware studios the damn things are NEVER FINISHED – a great excuse for why no music is being produced. In my case I’m now trying to reduce the hardware down to a single, stable, mobile rack. When one is carefully limiting the amount of hardware (like cholesterol) so that you can actually create something – that’sthe whole story right there. Are you a musician, or are you building a model railroad?

Fundamental point: the sound of hardware is often not that interesting. I’ve just sold a venerable (and very heavy) old Roland keyboard for some good profit. The reason being that if you divided the sound by the amount the damn thing weighed, you’d have no change left over for coffee. Any half decent virtual analogue could make that noise – especially Roland’s own. Do a blind test. Can anyone really hear the difference in a piece of music? You are a musician, aren’t you?

(Some hardware is interesting. For example, I’ll keep my UltraProteus because of the weird thought process behind its operation, the SY77 because of its particular timbre and the Super Jupiter because it has a deeply exotic stomach-ache. But I’ve sold the Yamaha FS1r because as crazy as it is, the sounds it makes aren’t that great. And that’s what matters.)

I’d like to jump to the last point, the most important point. Synthesis shouldn’t be nostalgia, it should be futuristic, progressive. Why did we even start this thing? Because we wanted more than the instrumentation that we once had. But now we’re cowards emulating old safe things. I say fuck recreating the Blade Runner soundtrack when we’re in the year the story was supposed to take place. Synthesis can now pull a sound apart, make a wavetable, or an additive snapshot, change every aspect of it, build entirely new sounds from audio atoms – and people are still talking about ladder filters?

If for example you spend enough time with additive synthesis in Alchemy you will find a world of experimentation. Or take a recording and hack away at it with spectral editing – that’s what I did with my records Donut and Aversion. It’s synthesis, but it’s not hiding in the last century. I can now say what I mean by ‘better’ – I mean true to the goals that synthesis is all about.

Or is synthesis really like steam punk – doomed to be a paleofuture?

Pottering, descriptions thereof.

Rather than leave the year on that last sour note, I thought to mention a few things that are making my little corner of the world just that bit neater. That’s of no interest to anyone, but seeing as no one reads this it’s incredibly relevant. has been running for a long time. Actually I can’t remember how long exactly, must be about 18 years. The Australian Film and Sound Archive did a backup earlier this year and I was going to let it decay gently, but turns out that there’s just one more thing. The site’s been converted to a WordPress install which is going to make updating more likely in an era where I’m middle management, time poor and unlikely to want to do jack shit after work. Please visit.

Christmas follows the law of diminishing returns and at this stage of life, where family are dead, diaspora or insane it’s simply a period in which my middle management position gets a back seat to vague attempts at having a creative life. A year ago it was all HH computer game all day, this year the vacation is pretty vacant and so pottering about.

potter2 vb

1. (intr; often foll by about or around) to busy oneself in a desultory though agreeable manner

(Apparently the Internet has decided that Pottering means shoving a broom up your backside, jumping in the air and pretending to be Harry Potter. The Internet is wrong, because many opinions divided by each other tend towards zero.)

This is an innate behaviour of the ageing male. Young women and the *gendered are welcome, but it really does seem to go with ugly pullovers and odd socks. My old man had a large model train layout that never got anywhere. I worried why he never seemed particularly worried, but having reached middle management I see the sheer beauty in incompleteness.

However, my generation are about synthesisers – their purchase, arrangement, connection, twiddling, reading of manuals, disconnection and rearrangement, augmentation and every now and then actually using the stupid things to make music. I have enough synthesisers real and virtual to equip a large orchestra. It’s very messy and that’s the entire point. Most of all I’m obsessed with redeeming Thing 04.


You’ll recall that this was a frugal purchase on the basis that it was nearly useless. It will require a great deal of tweaking and fussing and seemingly being cross about it while secretly enjoying the pointlessness of it.

I can poke numbers at it over MIDI and get a hint of the potential. But the editing software is old and it doesn’t ‘see’ my keyboard, so I have to type the notes as numbers and I need a modern way to talk to it. Because it’s one of Roland’s JV series of synthesisers I could adapt something that works with them. That leads to looking at Roland JV’s, thinking it would be easier to use one instead, finding something cheap, tabulating the included waveforms, learning I need an extra voice card, seeing that they only can be found in America, realising that it’s not the bloody point and all I’m doing is trying to get this bit of junk to make a useful noise.

That can fill endless happy hours. I’m probably a Mastermind contestant for Roland synthesisers of the 1990s.

With VST instruments you’re using Continuous Controllers – e.g. CC#43 might control the filter. Machines of 90’s use System Exclusive messages – much harder. My Yamaha boxes are not too bad, they use messages that go something like this:

  • DX200
  • NUMBER 10
  • TO 127

Roland boxes aren’t nearly as friendly:

  • D2
  • NUMBER 10

Instead of referring to a particular knob, the Roland way is like sending a letter to a street address, a consequence of the way JV’s work. The Yamaha AN200 has 5 voices that are all two oscillators through a filter making the one noise. The Rolands have many patches, each of which is made of as many as four tones, each of which is two waveforms and a filter. So you might have 64 filters to talk to and each of them set to a different patch. There’s also a checksum in the message to double check that the box got the right set of hexadecimal. Like a Facebook relationship, it’s complicated.

And in moments of sanity I ask if it would be easier to just rip the waveforms out of this thing and put them in a more modern box. The JV’s are sample players, so if you got JD8000 SAW out of the box and put it in Thing 01 instead that would be enough? Not easy. Here I am, money in hand, ready to buy the waveforms from Roland. Here is Roland, unsold hardware in warehouse, in no way allowing the waveforms off the physical chips. I’ve sampled the D2 sounds, edited them into single cycles (yes, they mostly are) and they are in the Blofeld. But you know, that’s messy.

Here a entire universe of pottering about is opened. What’s the difference between a JD8000 SAW and a JP8 SAW? Why would you choose one over the other? That’s very interesting if like myself you thought A = A.


Three square waves. Half the people not reading this say ‘yeah of course’, the others say ‘since when are any of these square waves?’ I say, how do I make waveforms like this? I’ve used FM and additive and subtractive and yada yada and I don’t quite know a control method which will create sound shapes like this. I’m looking at the output of various Things on a VST oscilloscope and it’s being instructive. Found a waveform designer. What could come from all of this?

Thing 04 : jumped the queue with sheer brilliance.

I’m so proud one of my colleagues heard I was collecting bad synthesisers, and offered one I might like – it shows my reputation for quality is growing. From that day I mercilessly hounded him for the transaction which he seemed to then mysteriously avoid. Perhaps he worried that a man of my standing knew something about the box that made it worth more. Perhaps it was pity for such a fool as would take this thing that he’d been using upside down as a stand for something else. But I was not to be turned and exchanged some trifling DOEPFER box that was just well made and useful.


A photo doesn’t do the D2 justice. It’s bright orange, made of metal and reminds me of something that would have steered a model boat in 1973. When you turn it on it spends the first few minutes doing a light show. Every time you turn it on. (It then dies, or at least until I got the right 9v adaptor.) When you push the play button it emits the most enticingly flabby, tired and hackneyed ‘dance music’ that the mind of Roland could devise. Ladies and Gentlemen, if a synthesiser could be compared to a font – this is Comic Sans.

Why would I want this thing? Well let me tell you about the time I spent 400 bucks on a new Roland box which was uglier, less versatile, harder to use, and in every way a miserable excuse for pathetic shit, so much so that I gave it away. Of course I mean the TB303 Bassline in 1982. I was one of (if not the) the first people in the world to make ‘dance music’ with it (referring to Eighties Cheesecake) so I am pulling rank and saying – if the Bassline is a classic, then this is a super duper classic.

Don’t just take my word for it – listen to this Internet guy:

I LOVE MY GIRL D2! I use a Krog microKONTROL midi usb keybord on her and let me tell you its the best! Im on my 2nd D2 groovebox! The 1st one i had I lost it at the pawn shop!(im still mad)Now this one i have now i got off Ebay and i LOVE HER! the 1st gear i had was the Roland mc-303 groovebox! The year was like 1999 i was poor! then i saw the Roland mc-505 and i fell in love with her! i never got one but i all ways played with

Actually, don’t listen to that guy. He’s nuts.

OK so how do we tame this shrew? Some reading tells me it’s the same as a MC505 Groovebox, but with all the controls reduced to a simple XY touchpad. That’s like ‘the same as a championship wrestler but with no arms.’ The noise is the same but the controls have had a pre-frontal lobotomy. The big issue for me is that Roland has left no way to change the damn waveforms. Seeing as the D2 is sample based that’s really bitter and twisted. Roland! Spend the 5 bucks!

Some more reading tells me that the MC505 uses the same voice structure as the JV series, although I’d have to quibble that ‘same as’ means ‘selected’. The sounds are half samples of Roland drum machines, and much of what’s left are saw waves of some sort particularly those from the wretched TB303. There are however a range of inharmonic clanks, bangs and noise loops which sound like they could work nicely once I load them up into the right patch. There’s four tones per patch, each being an oscillator with associated filter and LFOs so a bit of stacking should get somewhere.

The touch pad is much the same deal as a Kaos pad. The only fun thing is a DJ mode where you ‘spin’ the sequence backwards. That never gets old, ever. The XY mode is more useful in live tweaking the filters and LFOs, but not to any level of precision. Probably there will be a time where I will risk using the sequencing and arpeggio for some kind of improvisation but I need some decent noises first.

So I thought to myself – if I found a way to control a MC505 then maybe I could control the D2. Again and again I would read about a particular piece of home brew software that did this, but when I’d follow the link the Geocities or Angelfire host was long gone. I almost despaired, but after a titanic struggle of mouse clicks I found it. And it works!


It is in fact identical to the MC505, and rather shocking to see how much is hidden in the engine that’s ignored in the manual. For example there’s some kind of FM modulation as well as a delay mode that I’ll have to read about in a JV1080 manual I guess. You can at least change the waveform and sweep the filter and do pretty much everything you could hope from a bright orange tugboat. Once you have this ability the box becomes a decent sound module that can e.g. play four pianos through a ring modulator. By nature it wants to have the keyboard mapped to include all 8 parts, switching it over a multi mode fixes that by moving each to a different MIDI channel. It’s not yet victory, but I think there’s a distant chance that one day I will carry this thing on stage, push the button and produce that which will define 21st century music.

Thing 02: RADIAS


If Internet Nerds ran the world: all that Roland has to do is reissue their oldest equipment. The world is dying for an SH1 all over again. Why does Roland not see this!!1!!?

Actually like any large company Roland are pretty good at market research, and what they have found is visible right there in the product: nerds aren’t the customers. The buyers are the one man bands that play Bye Bye Miss American Pie at your local. They’re the suburban church or the guy that has to come up with 23 minutes of incidental music for some cable TV show. The people that need a decent piano are 50x the ones that whine about analogue fatness.

The Roland Bassline 303 was designed for the one man band, and when he found it was useless for Miss American Pie he hocked it. The next guy bought it for 40 bucks, and mistaking it for a Roland MC202 (the real source of ‘acid’) started pushing buttons at random, which is easy enough to become a fashion. The one man band guys didn’t actually want any of that, but they wanted to feel like it was an option just in case, and Roland carefully supplied boxes called MC-something-or-other that still worked for the choir practice on Sundays.

And so to the RADIAS.


The rumour starts here: they were originally going to call it the ULNA.

My reasons for buying a RADIAS are a bit iffy, but not entirely unreasonable. Right in the middle of the hilarity when I denounced the MS20 Mini, I was actually seeking a positive – what would Korg themselves consider their progress from that point – where had the MS20’s ideas gone after it was retired for the first time?

Straight after the MS period was a muddle – amidst a bunch of random ideas only the Poly6 and Mony/Poly were careful responses to the American keyboards of the time, but considerably cheaper. Korg took on this budget area with a succession of ever more hideous digital keyboards bottoming at the loathsome Poly800. It wasn’t until the M1 that they seemed to have any clear idea of where to advance themselves, and once they found it there was no shifting them from this ‘high end workstation’ identity. The baroque OASYS physical modelling system and the many splinters of it were the capstone of an edifice that Roland has tried to invade ever since.

Suddenly in 2000 we have the MS2000. Why? The full OASYS keyboard failed to sell, probably because Korg are good at potential but not good at designing its daily use. The big idea was sliced into workloads, and one of these (having belatedly reached the mainstream buyer) was the dance club; thus the Electribe, the Kaoss pad, and the 4 note MS2000. On the evidence it’s not so much an evolution as a de-evolution of an overblown idea and unless there’s been a hero in Korg ruining every design meeting with ‘What are we doing about aceeeeeeeed!?’, my interest is misplaced. Too bad.


We designed OASYS, the world’s most advanced synthesis system and you didn’t want it? Fuck you, have this crap instead.

No really, on to the RADIAS

Despite the complex history the RADIAS does present some kind of connection with the MS2000 and the MS system before it. There are some quality differences that our Polish friend can explain better than me; I’m really more interested in the oddness, and here it is.

Delete all the factory presets. They’re not terrible, but they make you think the wrong thing right away.

There’s a conscious attempt to lay out a MS style panel, with the 2 oscillators, 2 filters and so on, including a SQ10 down the bottom. I found it easy to set up my test MS sound which is a fake formant made by a hi pass and low pass combination. Not the same sound as the MS20 but pretty nice. To answer GearSlutz question number one: your tendency is to turn up oscillator 1 with your tricky sound then try to put a sine from oscillator 2 under it to add the bass. This will fail. Put the sine in first, then add the tricky sound gently into that. Now use the drive before the filter to warm up this mix and you are done. If you need it, turn up the bass EQ, that’s why it’s there. You now have the phat sound you always use for everything, so go away.


The rest of us can notice useful features spread all over the signal path in unexpected places. There’s a sub oscillator in the amplifier as part of the wave shaper, which must have been where it was needed technically, but logically should be visible alongside the others. Also in this section is ‘punch’ which adds a square wave to the attack only. Osc 1 is the fancy one with PCM samples and supersaws and the like – you’re not going to use the string sound much but the inharmonic spectra are pretty good when detuned as are the various waveform distortions. Osc 2 is less fancy but ready to detune, ring and synch.

While you can ring modulate the two main oscillators, there’s a stereo ring modulator in the effects which adds another LFO and saves you the voice. And in general the three effects sections are all part of the noise making circuit – while something like reverb is obviously for the master effects, the grain shifter seems part of the patch. I’m not dead sure but it also looks like using the FX doesn’t cut into the voice budget, whereas most knobby treatments will halve your polyphony. The strategy is not that of an analogue signal which overcomes circuits downstream, you instead work back and forwards across the whole flow to get the sound you want.

The phrase sequencer is new to me, as I was too poor to buy anything at the time the Electribe was in style. You arm a recording and then tweak a knob to make a ‘phrase’. Now the tweak is part of the sound patch – you can have it do the tweak on each key press, or keep doing it in a loop. Much easier than my SQ10, although the bottom row of knobs can be twiddled in the old way, and I have done so to create burblings that remind me of 1985.


Behind this Vocoder is a door to another dimension.

Right. Vocoder. Shit idea that restarted with the MS2000 and infected everything after with a bad case of Robot Concept Album. But there’s some strange things going on here as well. The first is Formant Motion, something that records up to 7.5 seconds of you yelling YO EVERYONE IN DA HOUSE but only as a modulator for the vocoder. Why wouldn’t you just make it a sound sample? Simpler, more versatile, would still work? I don’t get it, except the Korg engineer guys thought it was extra cool to convert your voice into phonemes. I have to get some time to throw a bunch of stupid sounds in there to see what it does.

Better still is that with much reading and re-reading of the manual I found that you can send a voice’s output to an internal bus, and then have that bus sent to the vocoder such that one voice vocodes another, which is what vocoders were always about in the good old days. So far it sounds horrible, which is a good sign for the future. It was only after I’d turned off the gear for the night that it struck me – what happens if you feed a voice back into itself? Will it explode? It was that moment I knew that the RADIAS is my kind of machine. If you don’t hear from me again – it was a glorious success.

Thing 01: Blofeld

Let’s get this over with quickly:


which is basically Waldorf’s sense of humour in one image. The humour is essential to the inner mind of the Blofeld synthesiser, although there will be times when you want to road rage their clown car, for reasons given below.


Around 2004 Waldorf’s strategy of ‘sell really frikken expensive keyboards that are all basically the same painted different colours’ earned them a life prize at the insolvency court. Three years following, the reborn company’s new idea, ‘sell a little box for a lot less and pack it with good shit’ paid off and is a lesson for anyone that runs a music company. You will meet people that carry on about how Waldorf’s older large digital synthesisers are better than their new small digital synthesisers because of wood grain, yellow paint or some such garbage. These people are wrong.


Actually the Blofeld is software, wrapped up in metal. They’ve made the metal heavy so you think there’s something inside. But there’s actually nothing there, which is spooky if you think about it. In fact they sell a software synthesiser called Largo which is exactly like Blofeld except for various mischievous alterations that fool no one.

So why then did I buy a Blofeld? Because it’s odd, and I give nothing for warm or phat or analogue or any of that, what I want is something ODD. It’s also at that sweet middle age where no one cares. The very young and the very old synthesiser are treated as mythical, while Blofeld is six years old and no one came to the birthday. That makes it cheap even new, and small/cheap is the best of the best. And I really like wavetables.

Of course you should first check out Nave, running on the iPad. It’s more advanced than Blofeld, and certainly prettier. One day there will be decent way to both power and MIDI connect my iPad at once and then maybe it will actually be useful.

The Big Picture

In broad terms the Blofeld is a subtractive synthesiser. Three oscillators are mixed and sent through a filter, amp and effects. The basic waveforms are the usual sine/triangle/saw/square, and with a touch of overdrive included the unit is able to perform as a ‘virtual analogue’ which will please small children and GearSlutz commenters. One of the filter modes is a PPG filter, which I have half an idea was just a sidestep around Moog’s patent but is now a selling point.

The first two oscillators will also play wavetables, which are sets of waveforms arranged such that when played sequentially you get interesting harmonic progressions – filter sweeps, bells, spoken words and so on. It holds a standard library of these which have grown as the PPG and Waldorf synthesisers have been developed, and some of them date back to 1979 when Wolfgang Palm drew a filter sweep on a piece of paper. It’s good that the old tables are there, but it’s the mysterious ‘user wavetables’ that caught my attention. The manual says nothing, and we must rely on some intrepid reverse engineers that have road raged the clown car.

Stromenko loves his Waldorf and PPG toys and has pictures to prove it, which he says I must not show you. More than that, he has done some investigation into wave tables and created some that fit into the Blofeld’s reptile brain – including Ensoniq SQ80 waves, which is wonderfully perverse and inspires an idea below.

Kotró László Lehel is the ultimate dude for Blofeld dudeness. Behold his software for drawing waveforms and pushing them into the reptile brain. There is much more that can be done with this, and I’m only beginning to to figure it out, but it’s pretty much what I wanted from life in general, to draw horrible sounds with a pencil.


Of course my great idea is to take the transwaves of the Ensoniq FIZMO and get them into the Blofeld, which will cause an ultimate oddness singularity. I will then paint the Blofeld purple.


Instead of addressing the wavetables, Waldorf is more keen to sell you sample storage in the unit. The sample memory is there, or perhaps another phantom presence inside this empty box – you just can’t see it until you send a MIDI code which translates as “another 99 euro passed our lips like sweet wine”. I was curious enough to pony up. Sounds are transferred to the machine en masse over MIDI, which takes about 18 minutes. The factory set is an indifferent lot of pianos and voices and whatnot, but you can make your own, and I certainly will.

Once a sample is loaded into an oscillator it just plays from start and loops as far as I can tell. There seems to be no effect from modulating the play point. But most of the other features are there, including frequency modulation. When I owned a SY77 I was able to FM a piano sound with itself. It was horrible then, and I was pleased to find it equally horrible here. Success!

Pretty much the samples are there to add natural elements to the synthetic oscillations, which is reminding me of Roland’s LA synthesis and now I feel a bit queasy remembering all those ‘chiffs’. No, samples probably not needed on the Blofeld.

A warning: if you use the MIDI controller from Soft Knobs and then load a sample it will go to a very dark place and cry uncontrollably.


I wanted something with character and by Wolfgang I got it. I used to own things that were good and I ended up getting rid of them because they were just good, when deep in my heart I wanted something that was a helpful irritant. These are the tools that by their obscure rules help you develop ever more obscure paths to creativity. I am also very fond of owning something that cost a few hundred bucks that does exactly the same as a vintage something which sells for $10,000. Vindictive bastard.

Liminal Synth

As promised, a look at Studio Artist.

I think it’s part of the story that John Dalton is one of the bad old boys of DECK, the first Mac based multi-track recording system that would one day be absorbed into Studio Tools, later to be known as Pro Tools. Sounds like those days were a bit like knocking over grave stones while doing wheelies on your hot rod, so the contemplative aspect of Studio Artist could be part of a healing process. More relevant – the interface and operation feels like an elder program, & none of this Kai Krause gobbledegook. SA looks like it existed before the grand wizards of MetaCreations got their orbs together, & get off my lawn.


Studio Artist is a complicated thing, like a Tower of Babel halfway built, parts of it are lounges, parts of it are holes. It looks like the author is somewhere near to putting it together, but always has a few more more loose nuts & bolts to tighten. To try explain the complexity I’ll underestimate it, then expand the idea.

Goodbye Tonsils

At the most basic level SA is a Paint Synthesiser that takes photographs and turns them into paintings by splotching brush strokes at the edges of things. Fractal Painter does this, as does Filter Forge. Along with presets, SA provides a multitude of settings for the way the paint is applied – does it start at the top? does the brush follow the edge? does it dab or stroke or mop? So many settings that it can be discouraging to work through them like reading a phone book from cover to cover.

Goodbye Tonsils paint

But there’s sense in this. Example: the problem with painting movies is that the usual algorithm dabs at random over the source image, which makes for 25 irritating random dabblings a second. One of the controls here forces the dabs into a regular grid which reduces the noise a little. SA doesn’t presume to decide what you might need, it just gives you one of everything.

The Image Operation mode filters the entire image with blurs and blocks and colourisations. The big difference here is that there’s no brushing, the pixels are modified as a plane. This contrasts with the interactive Warp, where you brush in spheres & waves & kaleidoscopes. Similarly the Adjust brushes in colour, levels & other Photoshop style changes.

Goodbye Tonsils iopGoodbye Tonsils warp

The Texture Synthesiser modulates the entire image to produce abstractions with rhythmic distortions & colourations. It’s different to the Image Operation in that it imposes a pattern over the image, modulating it. Different again are Modularized Synthetic Graphics, which are complex chains of smaller graphical modifiers. The manual says there’s over 500 of them & then wishes them into the background, which is disappointing. It’s difficult feature & I guess most users wouldn’t want to get into detail with it, but if you primarily bought the software as a synthesiser (as I did) you’re left scratching out the details unaided.

Goodbye Tonsils texGoodbye Tonsils msg

If you’re keen to make synthesis in real time the DualMode Paint mode follows the brush about the drawing area, creating shapes & echoes that have a particular Yellow Submarine look to them.

The Paint Action Sequencer is really nice, because it thinks musically. The usual case for this kind of sequencer is ‘do this, then do that’. Here you have the capability to ‘do this every couple of bars & that four times’. The grid is like an array of notes, with each note being a painterly activity. So you can make melodies of these actions, if your mind can figure that out.

Animation is something that comes close to brilliance without kissing it. It’s dead easy to load up a movie & have SA perform all kinds of painting & twists & turns on the frames & save it back out again. But in my experience the way it works a frame at a time means there’s always a jangling movement over everything, it seems impossible to make something smooth & flowing. There’s a Temporal Image Operation module which tracks & flows & jumbles frames and so on & probably the secret is in there. But as I said the tower is unfinished, bits are over here & others over there & the end user is hard pressed to make it a coherent whole.

Kai Krause is revered because he would limit your options in such a way that you’d get to a good outcome early on. You’d then have to fight to get anywhere else, with Kai laughing at you. Dalton doesn’t play this game. He says, ‘here are a couple of thousand controls, see you on the other side’. Each tactic has worth, & in SA‘s case there’s the serendipity that’s been missing from software for a long time. This really is the spiritual successor of the Fairlight CVI, knobs and menus everywhere – and maybe you won’t know how you got there, but the result is a real trip.

Additional notes from John Dalton:

A few comments. The kinds of things going on under the hood of Studio Artist are much more technically sophisticated than some of the other programs you mention. And incorporate a lot of academic research results associated with how the human brain perceives visual imagery, and how that relates to artistic visual representation. Also, those other programs basically draw what we would call a single paint nib (single dab of paint), and while you can certainly do that in Studio Artist, you can also automatically draw complete paint strokes, so the automatic painting is emulating the way real paintings are generated, as opposed to just being an image processing filter effect.

The trick to generating fluid non flickering paint animation is to build temporal continuity into the paint animation. This involves constructing the Paint Action Sequence you will use to process the source movie in such a way that the paint build up taking place builds temporal continuity into the resulting paint animation output. Temporal continuity basically means that there needs to be continuity in the appearance of the painted output frames across several adjacent frame times in the output movie file. The simplest way to do this is to overdraw on top of the previous output frame, but you can get much more elaborate, which leads to all kinds of great paint animation effects.
We have some tutorials that go into how to do this in depth on our online Studio Artist documentation. Here’s one place to get started.
And here are 2 simple tutorials on building temporal continuity in a Paint Action Sequence.

If you look at my vimeo posts, you can see some examples of smooth non-flickering paint animation generated with Studio Artist.

You are right about the need for more documentation associated with MSG. Anyone interested does have the option of asking questions on the Studio Artist User Forum
which includes a MSG group.We’re very responsive to providing additional technical information to anyone who asks.
And if you look in the doc folder in your main Studio Artist folder, there is a lot of additional html documentation on MSG processors hidden in there.
And, here are some links to some MSG tips
You can also build a paint tool that incorporates a MSG preset in the paint tool, so that provides essentially an unlimited way to expand the functionality of the paint synthesizer.

What is great about Studio Artist (in my opinion) is that the synergy that occurs as you start to combine together different features provided in Studio Artist, which work together to create really an unlimited range of different visual effects. Here’s some more information on the philosophy behind the design of Studio Artist.

Oxygen Mask

Funny how the last post ended with the Video Cox Box. I thought that was a known reference – and was dead wrong. Obscure video equipment hasn’t the same general interest as musical equipment – everyone is well versed in Rolands and Korgs, especially in over-pricing them, but the Cox Box raises only the most feeble of online presence, and when you do find it mentioned it’ll be somebody from the old school of experimental video in Australia.

I feel like a Moonie, raised in a parallel culture. But there is such a thing:

Big Iron 12 copy

The rack thing with 9 knobs plus the bits underneath. Red, green, blue for each of 3 grey levels.

Synthetics must be only art form where the visual is completely dominated by the sonic. I don’t fully understand why this would be; I suspect it’s related to the floating problems of abstract art (that is, butt ugliness) that I’m trying to solve.

Plug In Wastelands

Using the KVR site as a source, there are now over 5500 VST plug ins, 2700 being VST instruments. If you exclude anything made with SynthEdit, the number is still 1400 – which just shows what a phenomenon SynthEdit has been.


You’d struggle to even find an equivalent to VST for video synthesis. Let’s use the open source FreeFrame as nearly all VJ software tools claim to support it. The project page mentions about 200 plug ins; there should be more as this very old page still lists software makers that died many years ago (Macromedia!) or have since become mainstream IT consultants. The same figure appears on IntrinsicFX’s home page and it seems almost every surviving FreeFrame plug-in comes from one or two vendors. If it weren’t for BigFug it’d be dead. Hero Alert.

This virtual tumble weed is much the same as the SynthEdit phenomenon. Apple Computer picked up PixelShox to dominate live visuals. Binding synthesis to QuickTime was excellent marketing – everyone started to develop in Quartz Composer killing the open source format, and once that was achieved Apple moved on to their next bit of Embrace, Expand, Extinguish. Even the people that have done well out of QC have realised that Apple has rolled on to the next bit of scorched earth and they’ll have to create something to fill the dead space. If VUO becomes a thing that’d be sweet. But you can understand why I’m not confident.


It goes so well with my coffee table!

Simon Hunt points out that the rabid interest in old audio hardware is likely a consequence of virtual instruments. That is, it was software like KORG’s Legacy collection that inspired the surge in KORG prices as people wanted the ‘real thing’. That would need a lot of research to decide – VST came in 1996, but it wasn’t wide spread for a few years after. Certainly in the late 90’s I could buy a MonoPoly for $250*, which now sells for around $1,500.

It matches my Persian rug!

It matches my Persian rug!

Had someone created a CoxBox or a Fairlight CVI in software, would these would now be equal in their mythology to the 303 Bassline? More importantly; would we now be able to enjoy the same spread of ‘looks’ as we currently enjoy ‘sounds’? How would we do this, and what format would we use? Should we make this part of the ‘Big Iron’ project?

Musty Old Castles

How many online synthesiser museums are there? More than stars in the sky or grains of sand? Then how many video synthesiser sites are there? Battered, and bruised with lava lamps half empty, AudioVisualizers is the original and the only. There’s more missing animated GIFs than you can shake a data glove at, but still nearly all the wikipedia articles use it as the definitive reference for visual synthesis. That’s pretty worrying and I see that part of the ‘Big Iron’ project needs be a web site that collects that info in case it dies.

Some old-school VJ Tools have lasted through the millennium bug. Arkaos is most venerable, Resolume still kicks along. Both now have versions that address the more lucrative media server market, the projection of video clips and DMX lighting in large events like the UK Olympics. Other tools like Salvation and Visual Jockey have become only media servers, joining ones like Ventuz that always were. New contenders like VDMX are keeping the flame lit.

Still the community is nowhere near that of sound and music. Fragmentation is part of it. Video edit guys are not live visuals lads are not interaction design gals. Maybe Isadora tries to unite the latter two users.

Max/Jitter has recently gone all-out to be less inscrutable more accessible via Vizzie, but it’s still like driving an 18 wheeler to the corner shop. Way too big and hard to steer. However the excellent adaptation of Vizzie into VizzAble by Zeal Hero Alert might bring Max4Live into focus as a living, breathing video equivalent to Reaktor. That’s currently my best hope for one day sharing the distinct ‘looks’ of these old video machines with everyone.

* No, I sold it again quickly because the MonoPoly is actually pretty boring.

Operation “Big Iron”

Over the years I’ve been lucky to have many artistic opportunities – but I don’t need to tell you that opportunity rarely equals reality; good ideas often fall apart in the planning stages. When I was young and even more stupid, I would tell everyone wonderful things were going to happen, then eat socks in penance when nothing came of it. But I still get very excited & so I only announce project code names – if they die I can always pop them in a memory hole. There’s mystery in project naming as well as making merry with corporate culture. But at risk of sock eating I’d like to break protocol and talk about Big Iron because I think it’s on the verge of coming together and it relates to the last post.

2013 and the new broom.

I work at an art college, which sometimes feels like being a waiter on the Titanic. Of all the things that are waiting to be swept away, the art college is the one with KICK ME pinned to its backside. In consequence our executive are dragging the place over to be a research laboratory of some sort. We have a robotics lab now, which says, ‘do not shut us down we make potential weapons,‘ I guess.

My area is the sound and image coursework. That’s been about production – making movies, recording music. Given that plenty of places do that, there’s a need to be unique and not second fiddle to the competition. I have formed an idea – and it relates to the old band.


First you should know that Stephen R Jones wrote a history of the synthetic image in Australia. The book stops in 1975, but the study goes on – he has collected the original masters of important works going back through the complete history of the subject. The collection is private but some of it may be seen online through the Scanlines website which was put together by a team at the college including Stephen, Ross Harley and John Gillies.

Stephen wants to find a home for some of the hardware he’s built. Part of the old studio is on display at the Powerhouse Museum – but in a glass case where you can’t touch it. We both think that a museum should be a living place. So the idea comes to build a space on campus where the history of the synthetic image can continue to be made.

Experimental Television Workshop?

I want to build what used to be called an Experimental Television Workshop. ‘Television’ is no longer the right word, and there’s a few problems that need discussion.

A workplace that pools production equipment for artistic access has been tried all over the world many times. Perhaps the best known is the Experimental Television Centre. In Australia we’ve had Bush Video, Heuristic, Metro Screen, and more. They provided people with access to new equipment that was too expensive for their alternative ideas. One reason why the workshops have declined is that you can now buy a HD camera, a copy of VDMX and a laptop and have more power than the pioneers could even conceive. Access is no longer the problem.

Rather, this ETW is planned to disrupt the historical lineage. ‘New’ and ‘old’ are worthless ideas and the value is only in the outcome. If you use a tissue and comb and the result is beautiful, then all is good. The only reason to collect historical devices is that they encapsulate ways of thinking otherwise unavailable and therefore expand the creative potential.

I can illustrate this with tape recorders – I find no importance in recording to analogue tape compared to a digital system that emulates tape. But I do find value in analogue tape as a way to grab and bend and scrub sound recordings.

Big Iron 2 copy

Some of the ‘Fridge’. Needs some love.

The heart of the system would be the Stephen Jones ‘Fridge’ video synthesiser from the mid 1980’s. There were models before and models after, but this one has a story that Stephen and I share, and for this reason alone I wish to fund its reassembly. I think the colour that this version makes is nicer than the models afterwards, due in part to the included Fairlight Paintbox.

The college owns equipment which is suitable as well. One favourite of mine is the Panasonic MX-30 mixer which I use to do things like this:

These old things will need to be tied to new things in such a way as it doesn’t matter whether you’re using The Fridge or VDMX, just that the outcome is what you wanted. I see a lot of Blackmagic Design in my future.


The workshop will be part of clearly structured coursework that covers the history and meaning of synthetic video. It must never be allowed to degenerate into a meaningless VJ fetish, and that means carefully chosen artists in residence and plenty of background research before people get to twiddle.

It’s fair to ask why synthetic visuals should be the focus. Why not high definition or interactivity? Why not documentary, after all that’s one of the courses I teach?

I think that linear documentary and narrative are not dependent on video, they are film. Sure, video solved issues of community access and cost and there’s live broadcast, but these are not things unique to an art college and the Film & Television school is a better venue for this. An art college should first consider the relationship between painting and video.

Interactivity is the business of iCinema. The ETW should cover performance, which is a very different thing.

High Definition is nice to have but hasn’t prevented great work that inspires this project, and at worst aspires to be filmic. You can think I’m being bigoted and I welcome the guidance, but in the long run somebody has to put their personality into a creative environment, just as much as an artwork.

What happens next.

I have to make sure everybody at the college is in agreement. There is much to build and repair, it will probably be a year before the facility could be working. In America all the bits and pieces I need are all over eBay, here they are rare and I will have to meet people who have collected the parts I need and see if they have unwanted things they would like to contribute.

So if you happen to have a Video Cox Box sitting in storage, do let me know!

20X CS3 Professional

Marketing have announced a rebadge for 2013. They’re going to launch the year as 20X CS3 Professional. The problem is the whole ‘6 month in advance’ planning cycle has made next year part of this year, and no one is inspired to pay for the upgrade. It’s at the point where the end of the world is one of the few things that gets us to look at the calendar and even that is tiring out. Compare the hysteria for the Mayan Apocalypse to the Y2K bug – no contest.


This is dangerous. Remember the 2000 Election in the USA? No one gave a shit between the candidates, where in fact one of them rose to great challenges in less than a year with all the sense and dignity of Bubbles The Chimp. By 2008 the good news was that the White House had not yet burned to the ground. The bad news was that few people still had a house to burn down apart from the directors of Halliburton. Oh and there were lots of dead people.

So I’ve got a slogan for the coming year that will hopefully get you thinking hard about the possibilities: 20X CS3 Professional: Giant Demons Are Tearing My Face Off which I think is kind of catchy, if a tiny bit hyperbolic. I can’t promise giant demons but if there was the slightest chance of them coming and doing you know what, would you be prepared?

Here’s a nightmare scenario: by the end of 20X CS3, Psy has 6 billion views on YouTube and now more than half of Google’s income comes from advertising on that one page. But an automated copyright claim blocks the video, leading to Google not paying rent on 200 of its data centres. Searching for cat macros becomes catastrophically cut back leading to a collapse of the world economy. And then demons tear your face off.

Or on a more personal level, image if my Ferrari neighbour plays that same Bruce Springsteen DVD 3 times every weekend for the next 52 weekends and I finally crack and go around with the ICS-190 GLM grenade launcher (that I rightfully have only for self defence in case a gunman attacks my teaching labs) and shove it up his Born In The USA? That could impact on my employment. And then demons etc.


Order one now for the festive season. The kids will love it.
The ones that survive.

Neither of these things may happen – but that’s the point. You don’t know what might happen but that sense of dread will keep you up and sprightly all the coming year.

So how was your Christmas break? I had a (what remains of) family get together for the first time in years which ended up with too many tequila shots and a massive headache. I even got a gift!


Apparently you can use it as a remote control for the TV. I intend to use it as a remote control for the Ferrari neighbour’s sound system. Either that or make it control some piece of sound gear which will get a breathless write up in Create Digital Music.

But like everyone I have to buy my special own gift, and seeing as I haven’t bought a synthesiser in over 20 years I thought I maybe could have one.


It’s a MiniNova and it’s top-tastic. I’m amazed at what you get for less than 500 bucks these days. I’m not going to do the specs you can do that anywhere. But I must say it is loads of fun to actually use a physical piece of equipment after so many years – even if you do tend to use the computer to edit patches. More on this later!