Narrative, Media Art and Donald Duck

In which I go looking in Halloween USA for the pumpkin spice of contemporary media art, and find that interaction design is better done with personalities than push-buttons.

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I’m in Los Angeles. Touristing, but following the hunch that contemporary media art is best studied from leading commercial practitioners than any academic project. That is, if I want to observe the cutting edge, I’m better off at Disneyland than Carnegie Mellon.

A commercial entity has no excuses – it has to study, set and hit strongly defined goals. If an audience doesn’t respond to the work, it gets fixed or folded. There is constant war between companies to seize the state of the art. If one creates the leading experience, the others are in quick pursuit. But by itself technology is not the key to their success, and I am keen to understand the storytelling design that underlies the best work.

(There are of course ‘living museums’ – that understand the join between the two worlds. They are also inspiring sources).

I’ve no illusion that I can produce anything that compares, but I’d rather fall short of the target than the periphery. I’m keen to understand commercial ‘360 degree’ media design – experiences, movies, rides, and merchandise, so I’ve been studying the two most successful theme parks (by audience) operated by Disney and Universal.

The full essay would be much longer than you’d bother to read here, so let me just provide an executive summary and some points.

In the best case, the narrative rules for storytelling hold true for 360 experience – people care for, and identify with a hero or group of heroes, they prefer a narrative that conveys learning and morals. I believe that the centre of any interactive media is the character (rather than e.g. the mechanics of interaction). This is why e.g. it’s called Harry Potter’s Wizarding World – immersion involves identification with a person or persons, in a world that is formed to illustrate their personal journey.

The audience does not care for interaction without meaning – it must be in the context of the narrative and world. And this Interaction must involve the same cascading levels of jeopardy as set out in a linear narrative.

The Narrative Arc is across all outcomes

I always come back to the standard lead line: somebody, somewhere, wants something. They discover a gift, which then involves them in conflict. In overcoming an antagonist, win or lose, they gain insight and are uplifted beyond the power of the gift. This progression is obvious in movies – but it is found in roller coasters as well.

In all the cases I’ve seen in LA, the movie (incorporating book, play, TV series) is the first outcome but there are alternate cases such as the game Five Nights At Freddies. In creating the movie, the designers necessarily come up with the elements that serve all the other formats.

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Is this a hero? Or scenery?

There is a someone who wants something. The hero. What do they look like? What’s their past? What do they want? What instead do they need? Harry Potter is 11 years old, an orphan, treated like a slave – copied from Cinderella (which addresses the same teen yearnings) he will be given a gift – with consequences. When the battle starts, hubris may bring him down. The character is crafted with a back story, desires and motives, a physicality, emotional weakness and so on.

The Character is the store of narrative ‘reality’, and includes at least

  • motivations (goals, back story etc.)
  • limitations (lack of insight, point where their risk-taking tips into failure)
  • embodiment (colours, physical attributes, clothing, etc.)
  • totemic items (things that illustrate the gift)

By defining the motives and limits of the hero and villain, the plot will mostly write itself. A movie follows a segment of the inevitable action up to the moral outcome set in a third act, after which a sequel will hopefully be required. The experiences are endless, a perpetual storytelling.

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Harry Potter land. Bring your haptic controller, pardon me, magic wand.

This action needs a somewhere, and I’d argue that it too is generated when the characters are properly defined. In film these are generally called worlds. The theme parks I’m visiting are divided into lands, each being a confined sub-area in which the features are strictly designed to appear part of a world. Examples include Disney’s Fantasyland, Pixar Pier, and Universal’s Harry Potter’s Wizarding World, and Springfield. Usually there is a gate to each land, or at least a bend in the road that obscures one land from others.

(It’s reminiscent of computer game design, with walled levels, NPC’s, collectable weapons etc., and tempting to think that RPG gaming inspired this physical immersion. But the theme parks are much older than gaming – Disney derived his park in the mid 1950’s from older European parks he saw on his own study tour. Instead parks and games have common requirements and have cross pollinated.)

(When Disney broke these rules in Disney California Adventure, they suffered badly. The changes made since that ill-fated opening illustrate the point being made here).

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My hunch is that the tale of Nemo requires an ocean in which to be lost, and Toad requires a shiny automobile. Or, more accurately, the attributes of the character, such as Toad’s vanity and privilege, demand a situation in which they can be presented as a morality play. Design questions are answered by asking ‘what can, and would the character do in this situation, given their motives and failings?’

Rides

The Incredicoaster is the latest part of DCA to be reformed from the disastrous ‘mock California’ launch. It now has a story line based around the physical abilities of the Incredibles characters, expressed as movements of the coaster through chapters, defined by figures placed in tunnels on the track. The ride is narrated by speakers built into each seat, presenting a moral about the family working together. Notably the ride itself is not made longer or faster than before – it has instead been improved with an arc.

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The scream tubes first enforced to reduce noise pollution were made even longer to add in the narrative elements.

Jeopardy points in the story-line become the (apparent) jeopardy in the adult rides. For example, in Universal’s The Mummy a tussle between good and evil is enacted by throwing of the riders into a dark abyss filled with scarabs by the god Imhotep, from which they are retrieved (backwards!). Splash Mountain, Forbidden Journey, even The Simpsons Ride – all are narratives where a machine shakes emotion into the story. Some of the small children rides like Snow White’s Scary Adventures are obviously also narrative, while the carousel doesn’t seem to suggest any at all.

I also couldn’t see the jeopardy expressed in most of the lands, where the audience is free to wander. Perhaps events like Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights are the start of something, which could be expanded outside of the horror genre.

The last point I can fit here, and one that still puzzles me, is about totems. The bears, mice, dogs and whatever-the-hell Goofy is supposed to be are all well within the long tradition of fables. Rabbits have been heroes all the way back to Africa, so that’s well documented. I wonder if the modern cartoon character – Minions for example – are the same psychological device and I think, yes, we have now adopted machines as we once did creatures.

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The second question is about totemic objects or ‘merch’ – the hats, t-shirts, lanyards, plushies etc. that bulge throughout every land. Are these simply souvenirs, or do they bring identification with the hero, or some more complex process? And what is their role when used inside the land, such as the wands used in Harry Potter than are actually haptic controllers for various ‘magical’ events?

Still a lot more to think about.

Man Cave: Sampler Battles – HALion meets Kontakt

I recently wrote about sampling, and the joys of not losing hardware in a seething pit of wires. That leads to a discussion about whether hardware is really worth it, but that’ll come when my flame-proof pants arrive from eBay. For now, let’s question an assumption I made – about Kontakt.

Good Olde Kontakt

Kontakt is the default software sampler. If you buy samples it’ll come as Kontakt for sure, occasionally with a dog bone for the Reason and Logic people. In a way it’s good that there’s some kind of standard, but it’s not an open or versatile one. I hoped SFZ would be the one, but Alchemy went Apple-Embrace-Expand-Extinguish. Kontakt is a good sampler, but that’s about it. No great innovation has taken place in a while and others are trying ideas that NI seems to have abandoned

Due to secret men’s business I have the opportunity to review some Steinberg products. Today I want to look at the strangely capitalized HALion 6. We will see it’s not just a sampler, but more akin to a workstation such as the Yamaha Motif.

Bear with me

Rather than provide various ‘zooms’ of interface (such as Alchemy) there are three different versions of the software:

  • Daddy Bear – the full HALion, which makes new programs. If you’re a big tough electronic dude like me, you get this one.
  • Mummy Bear – HALion Sonic which can play back programs from a rather large library of Yamaha sounds and synthesisers.
  • Baby Bear – HALion SE which is free, comes with no libraries at all, but can still play programs, some of which you can get for free.

Straight away I must try to explain the terminology. A program is a virtual instrument based on the HALion engine, which may have a macro GUI, and up to 4 layers in which multiple zones can be placed. Try as I might I still get layers and zones muddled. The easy way to think about it is a layer is a split on the keyboard – bass down the bottom, piano up top. Or different articulations of a single instrument. A zone is like a single sample spread across pitches, but each can be an entirely different synthesis type. Middle C could be a virtual synthesiser, A# a wavetable.

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A simple program might have a layer with sampled piano. A complex program might have a GUI resembling a Blofeld, driving two layers of wavetable synthesis combined with a layer of virtual analogue synthesis, all passed through effects. You may have 32 programs running through the mixer in stereo or 5.1. There is a complex system for natural musical phrases and arpeggios, but a host sequencer is still needed.

A HALion owner can sell their work to HALion SE owners without royalties to Steinberg. A program provides all aspects of the HALion engine to any version – loading samples, wavetables, virtual analogue etc. It’s a bit like Reaktor or SynthEdit but based around the paradigm of sampling.

The price of great flexibility is great complexity. You have to move back and forward between multiple windows which show the program at different magnifications – a sample waveform here, a stack of layers there. It’s rarely skeuomorphic, sometimes tending to the look of a database. Never quite as confounding as Reaktor but not for the casual user.

Layers and zones

Most of the time you’ll just drag and drop a sample onto a layer, creating a sample zone, and get to work. Unusually, you can also sample sounds directly into HALion. Otherwise you can create new empty zones – a 3 oscillator virtual analogue, or drawbar organ, wavetable, granular, or sample. You can convert a sample over to a wavetable or granular sample. I didn’t find the wavetable conversion to work especially well for anything but simple waveforms. Being spoiled by Alchemy, I would really like to see an additive synthesis mode someday. The granular mode works fine, but not at the default settings – you will always need to fiddle to get a good result. The VA does a pretty good MOOG thingy. I’m not that interested in organs.

An Achilles file format

One thing I like about Kontakt is that it can be made to save monolith files – all the samples, compressed with all the settings bundled into one. That’s a killer advantage when you have multiple drives, 1000’s of samples and only hell knows where that one disappeared. But a monolith file takes your sounds behind a proprietary wall, locked away from any other software.

Here’s the problem – I have difficulty in explaining the way HALion saves files. Like most samplers, by default it saves a pointer to existing audio files unless told otherwise. It can also be asked to collect samples into a new folder structure. But the equivalent to a monolith is a complex business – a VST sound container is something that bundles everything from the macro GUI to the samples, that must be registered with the MediaBay and located in a library which can only be moved about by a library manager – it’s daunting to the new user. You could argue that it’s good shared studio practice, especially so that users of the smaller Halion Sonic can load up sounds. But it’s not an inviting part of music composition. Given the problem of accessing sounds from multiple hosts most people will just keep the samples where they are and pray that none go missing.

The Verdict

Unless you are a dedicated sound designer, you probably should stick with Kontakt, which does what it does and no more. Then, if you admire the extensive Yamaha library or the Motif, you can go for HALion Sonic. But if you have dreams of being a sound designer, and given that HALion SE is free to all, you could master the full HALion and come up with some impressive synthesisers that others may buy.

I’m really torn between having a Fantom style instrument and my existing neat and tidy Kontakt monoliths. Sadly I think the moment I start actually making music the latter will win.

Barbara rUFO

For the last 12 years, every four years, I have made music about a mythical place called Barbara Island. This year sees the fourth and last chapter, titled Barbara rUFO, and I would like to tell the whole story of how it came to be, and why it finishes in 2018. This is a longish story, but don’t worry I’ll keep it tight.

We could start late in the last century, when I found two painted wheat bags on a telegraph pole outside my house. One of them looks like this:

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At the time 2018 seemed a long long time away. But time speeds up.

Over Barbara Island

In 2006 the National Art School held a fund raiser. I was asked to contribute a live performance, and I said yes. The school is housed in a very old prison with small stone cells, but the show was to be held outside. As it was winter, they would supply tiki lamps. I thought ‘tiki lamps!’ and started to make something a little Martin Denny and a bit stormy. As it turned out the night was very stormy itself, and the show had to be held in a small jail cell. Not very exotic.

At the time I was making what was to be the last Severed Heads album, called Under Gail Succubus. This was a silly band name I had come up with years before – I always thought it worth using someday. I added the live show to the main album as a bonus, and thought it would fun to call it Over Barbara Island. And so – Gail and Barbara.

It was the last full Heads album (although many years later some shorter special projects went out under that name). In 2008, the band was lowered into a grave.

A funny side note is that a local agency tried adapting some of Barbara for a Coca-Cola advert. Three attempts did not get run-it-up-the-flagpole, and so sadly Things did not Go Better With Barbara.

Return to Barbara Island

In 2010 the body was exhumed for the Sydney Festival, and as a consequence I was asked to perform at another charitable event – this time for Rainforest Rescue. Again, yes, and again it seemed a good time for palm trees. This event was more bumpy bumpy and so Return to Barbara Island is a lot more streamlined that the volumes before or after. I made videos for each track, but the screen was a gaggle of hexagons and so no one really saw what I was showing. And like the previous event I don’t think there was too much benefit for the Rainforest, but I got an album out of it.

Around this time I wondered of there really is a Barbara Island, and there is. It’s very cold, but maybe not forever.

Barbara Channel Three

In 2013 Severed Heads played the Adelaide festival. We were both dead and alive, an echo, and I was desperately trying to come up with new material with which to move on. But being a full time academic, delivering a computer game for the festival, and being carer for an invalid spouse I was overwhelmed. It wasn’t going to happen in time.

It was 2014 before this material came together, and here was the four year cycle demanding that it be obeyed. So it was to be Barbara again. Channel Three refers to radio and there are many radiophonic touches – but much of what appears to be shortwave is actually synthesisers. I’d regained a hardware sound studio, including some of the gear I had owned back in the 1970’s, so there’s some familiar old sounds in there. But to buy the gear I needed the job that meant I never had time to use the gear.

When the UK magazine The Wire requested some music from ‘Severed Heads’ it was a horrible dilemma – this was me, Tom, not Severed Heads. But without the old name there was no interest. I had to supply them with some of Barbara, which mean ‘moving on’ was yet again defeated.

This is around when I pulled out my wheat bag with the UFO message. 2018 was four years away, and it dawned on me that there must be a Barbara FOUr, actually a Barbara rUFO in this year. I needed to go back to the wheat bags.

Barbara rUFO

By now I knew of the UFO Man, Alan Philp. I had seen him standing out in the mall, sun hat on and wheat bag around his neck. But by this time he had faded from the collective memory and needed to be brought back. In 2017 Severed Heads toured on an image that recalled his message.

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But it was only in 2018 I found his image on a older blog site. This is Mr. Philp.

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We must respect the message that he gave us for decades. When the UFO comes this year, what will it want? Will be a handshake or a spanking? Will we end up gods, or meat Popsicles? This is what Barbara will tell us I hope.

Since 2014 I have become successfully underemployed, the band continues, the bad times that ran through all the previous chapters have faded away. I have just finished Barbara rUFO today. It is the last Barbara, and perhaps, UFO willing, the last normal album I do. It is time for change.

I hope you will like it, but please also hear the earlier chapters, they do not cost. I will let you know when the UFO lands.

White Board

There’s a white board on my wall on which multiple projects are set out. A few are finishing up – the 200 Aversion2 rat boxes are sent out, with a few still in doubt and replacements in progress. Some are items already promised – the last of the Barbara Island albums Barbara rUFO is here under the heading of LEGACY, along with a note that I spoke with Stephen R Jones about fresh copies of the old videos for YouTube. Some are new constructions, such as ‘Server360’ which I hope to evidence soon. But others are blue-sky-bullshit ideas – still just diagrams in notebooks. It’s these that have me hiding the white board from you, but as silence can seem like death, I want to give some kind of limited update.

(Plus, right now the house is under repair and there’s wood, bricks and rubble everywhere -– any work at all is a trial. At least the chance of sudden building collapse is being addressed).

Let me give a general outline of some of the projects.

One is called ‘Offog’ for reasons that once were obscure, but not now that Google is your friend owner. We’ve made quite a few small and inexpensive musical objects – starting with Blubberknife in 1982 and most recently with Aversion2. Following your feedback, we will attempt something more exuberant, exquisite, and expensive for a very few discerning customers. Something with bragging rights, made more valuable over time through the extra quality. A signal that we care enough about our work to take risks.

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This is not it.

We have some cool ideas competing for ‘Offog’. One is a more portable version of the Home Clavilux made by Paul Greedy and myself in 2013. That’s worth thousands of dollars – but what can be made for $50-$100? The touch surface computer alone was over a grand, but computers have become very small and very cheap.

‘Pretzel’ and ‘Las Vegas’ are entwined. I must stay vague – but I can point you at my previous game landscape albums – ‘HH’ and ‘Snowglobe’ (now combined as ‘Super Snowglobe’ as part of the experimentation). These are not so much games as virtual walking narratives, in which the participant is a sonic protagonist. I now move from making ‘built environments’ to ‘stages’ – which is more honest (does not claim an entire world), a smaller canvas, more strictly designed and controlled. Stages are not narrative landscapes with sounds here and there – they are strong visual frames for particular musical works.

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‘Pretzel’ will engage one person at a time, whereas ‘Las Vegas’ is a more ambitious system to entertain a large audience in many places at once. Their architectures should cross over, I hope, to keep the labour under control. Later this year we’re off to the USA to experience/document some of the leading theme parks – where I believe the state-of-the-art in staging, media production and presentation will be found. I think there is more to learn from Disney Labs than any traditional academic source.

‘Server360’ is not a complex idea. It follows up the Sevcom Music Server series of 1998 – 2004 but adds 360˚ sound reproduction. Although I’ve released experiments with ambisonic versions of our pop tunes, this kind of slow moving ‘textural’ music lends itself better to positional design. In an age where most people wear headphones, and quite often the same type of Apple bud headphones, there’s some certainty that you can deliver consistent ambisonic sound to a wide audience, and I feel this will eventually be a common feature. Both ‘Las Vegas’ and ‘Pretzel’ will feature 360˚ sound, and so this is a side mission to improve my craftsmanship for these larger projects.

You’ll notice that none of these things are standard albums. Like I’ve said in the past – I am not some sort of hyper-chicken laying out endless albums like eggs. Three albums – Aversion, Publicist and Barbara rUFO are supposed to tide us over for the long term. You could always listen to them twice! I also recommend the last Severed Heads albums – Beautiful Arabic Surface and Donut. There’s no use by date!

Man Cave: The Arturia Strikes Back

IN our last installment of the Arturia franchise, the once diminutive Smurf village took on a certain virility, which having been mentioned allows us to enjoy this image all over again.

The 6th version of the V Collection doesn’t advance the collection as a whole, at least not in matters that appeal to me, but introduces four new instruments of mixed virility. Two of them remind me of the bad old days of weakling Smurfs. So much so that I’ve waited on the 6.1 update to see if this lethargy has been corrected – it has to some extent, but not to my satisfaction.

Clavinet V sounds like a clavinet. Take the time to blow a party horn once, sadly, and move on.

DX7 V is very exciting at first glance. The original DX7 was such a inscrutable closed fist of a thing that I’m amazed I got anything out of mine. Every software replica is an improvement in that you have increasing hope of rapport with the sound, and I think Arturia have come up with the best interface so far. It would be the bee’s knees – if it could only manage more than piffling polyphony.

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Like the bad old days of the first V Collection, the CPU meter is halfway up the scale before you even play a note. I have a fast i7 machine, other complex tools run fine, Native Instrument’s FM8 runs fine, but DX7 V shits itself with any more than 6 or so notes. Something is trying to emulate the constant buzz/fuzz of the old Yamaha circuitry and it’s really not needed at all. Allow us to turn it off. I know that some accuracy will be lost, but it’s a tool, not an idol.

When it does work it’s a pleasure. The way in which operators are selected, tuned, filtered and modulated are all intuitive and effective. You must like being able to place on a resonant filter on a modulator, along with feedback, otherwise you’re heartless.

The other instrument with the problem is the Buchla Easel V. I see these come up on eBay for stupid amounts of money and I ask myself – why do the same people that complain about the short throw of the System-1 put up with that nasty touch keyboard? Where is the filter? No filter is like having a mouth with no lips. Humph. I don’t get it and I don’t like it, and so when it overloads the CPU I just don’t bother. There’s already Aalto out there, and I guess that’s enough of this sort of thing for me.

Which leads us to the two big ticket items, well big ticket in 1980 something. The Synclavier was the first, the Fairlight CMI 2x was next, both were insanely expensive and both rather laughable in this day and age … or not?

Synclavier V has the advantage of the original programmer leading the project. It was always a synthesiser foremost, and all sampling features have been left out, being a little quaint. Unfortunately that includes the ability to convert a sample via Fourier synthesis. What you get is additive synthesis by frames, plus complex FM modulation. You can find better additive synthesis in Apple’s Alchemy and IL’s Morphine, but the FM is more than a bit special, getting you to complex DX7 like sounds quickly and elegantly. And there are 12, not 4 channels of this which stack up rather nicely into lush space boings. Do you like ooooiiiiimmm-aaaaah-klunk? I do.

The Fairlight was sampler foremost, and inspired a whole chapter of music. Which is all the more impressive when you hear, yet again, how utterly crap the sampling quality was and is. No one in their right mind is going to swap Fairlight V for Kontakt. It’s probably there because you can re-synthesise the audio and get busy with Fairlight V’s own synthesis features. Two main techniques are on offer – a Spectral synth (not in the original machine) which bows through harmonic clusters to make a cool relative of a filter sweep, and the Time synth which moves through additive frames much like the Synclavier V.

What pumps this emulation are the Assigns and Function Generators, which map LFOs, envelopes and controllers to just about any part of the synthesis process, sensible or not. The rather stolid sampler becomes a wonderland of stupid unexpected what-the-fuck as you bend and stretch parts of the sound that we never supposed to do that sort of thing. If you love the Ensoniq ASR, you will love this too. There is hope for Arturia yet, I think they are letting their hair down.

There is also Page R. You may blow your party horn again, forlornly.

Cowardice

This last year I’ve done the things I was never going to do. I’ve abandoned Independence, I’ve abandoned quality, I’ve joined the cold grey mush that passes for online society. I’ve rolled over, four legs in the air and said fine, you win. Have a sniff.

Because when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter a rat’s. It’s not even as if I’ll get abused for it – no one cares that much.

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You can find my last two albums up on YouTube, put there by me. Which is kind of like taking your painting and leaning it against a dumpster. Partly because I kept finding it there anyway, and partly because a lot of people seem to eat out of dumpsters these days. It’s the banquet room of culture for the people who get their McDonalds delivered by Uber Eats.

There’s two ways you could run this thing. You could be completely uncompromising, willing to hang on to the final drop of blood. People like that get remembered long after they’re dead in somebody’s PhD thesis that no-one reads. I was raised on that stuff – the lone artist, the visionary blah blah – truly inspiring to 20th century me, but not that relevant in the 21st century. Horse and buggy heroics.

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And who am I to claim any special virtue? I make some pop music and some cute videos. This is the same disposable media that filled dumpsters since the beginning of sound recording. Am I trying to enthrone my bubble gum?

The other way is to say, OK, you can’t prejudge progress. Progress may be something you don’t expect, can’t anticipate. If you are progressive, then you ride with the changes, no matter where they might wander. Maybe shitty low quality audio on a video server is akin to the shitty low quality audio of a 7″ vinyl record. You go there, bravery rather than cowardice.

I have no idea which one. Which is why Aversion is a limited edition object, while Publicist is a throw-it-at-the-wall download.

I think this conversation is being held by an ever dwindling number of people, who think that the wider audience give a toss. They are under the illusion that e.g. vinyl sales mean a resurgence of interest in albums. I think it means a surge of interest in antique toys. It will give way to hula hoops. Music will not go back in the sleeve, it will wander wherever it finds a listener.

Meanwhile, abyss and staring.

Two albums! OMG are we going to drown? etc.

Yes, two albums!

You may recall we were talking about a subscription model. You were generally not keen on the idea, but the question was then really about, well, staying power. Because a subscription means you have to get something nice on a regular basis. Could the Sevcom team (yes, there is such) provide this? We can!

We were going to release these things late last year – and then an ancient Canadian radio recording got released on vinyl which sucked up all our air. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. Some more time to refine.

Item one is the long anticipated Aversion 2 box, with cards and wire rat. The music and rats were completed mid last year, but there’s been some considerable fussing since that time. We needed 200+ cases made in Japan. The cards had to be thick, but not so thick as to exceed 10g in weight. The whole thing has to be less than 2cm deep to be machine sorted and therefore ‘a letter’, and weigh less than 50g, or cost another 6 dollars postage. We have these things. It will go on sale soon, and you will get the music as a download straight away.

We anticipate that not every person wants to order an object, and so the other album is just a download. In 2015 I released a pop music record called Rhine, and since that time I’ve pottered away at a sequel of sorts called Publicist. That’s three years of agonizing over details, but at last I’ve worn out my patience with turning sounds up or down ever so slightly.

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“Staying Power”

I wouldn’t call Publicist a cheery title but it is pretty when it wants to be.

Both will be available very soon (I was thinking Easter Sunday was a good idea). In the meanwhile why not grab the free ‘taster’ which has moments from four albums coming some time this year?

https://severedheads.bandcamp.com/album/a-sevcom-sampler-2018

Man Cave VS Sample Robot

Congratulations! You’ve bought near a thousand synthesisers, and now spend all your ‘quality time’ swapping internal batteries, making line diagrams, racking and unracking, piling up dead Behringer patch bays and all kinds of other non-music related busy work. You’ve just bought a keyboard you already have, same as the one under the one propping up the table on which all the Korg boxes sit dust farming. This is out of control!

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Sometime in the last year you managed to create some patches on one or more of them (which ones it’s not clear, maybe a black one) that would sound great on that tune you’ve been nursing forever. How the hell do you get all those sounds in a place where you can actually use them?

The simplest way is to sample the sounds. Plug the keyboard into a sound interface, play each note over MIDI, and cut them into individual samples. The first few times you don’t mind doing it manually, but you soon realise it’ll become yet another task that’ll keep you away from actually being creative.

There are tools that will automate this, the most prominent one being SampleRobot. That’s because it’s been around for a long time, back from when a MOOG was something you hired by the hour. Venerable it is, and venerable it looks, a little bit-mapped interface that would look right at home on a 90’s beige CRT. (The authors are aware of this and promise a new version soon that will stretch). Actually it’s not just the size of the interface that confounds people born after 199x, it’s the metallic robot/car/can opener detailing. Little metal buttons on little metal remote controls.

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I am old and had an Amiga so I understand where this aesthetic comes from. I also understand that coders used to be free to develop their own interface rules. SampleRobot will often send you back to the manual trying to figure out WTF is going on. For example, having bought the Pro version, I get a tool called WaveRobot, which helps edit loops. I kept wondering how the hell to get the ‘Open File’ menu item to be available, eventually discovered that it’s disabled, and you can only load by right clicking an on-screen keyboard in SampleRobot. Of course.

A ‘wizard’ will set you up for your first sampling adventure. It’ll ask you questions about what you’re trying to achieve and set up the numerous parameters for capturing the sounds (is it a pad or a piano? How many keys did you want to capture?) If you try to do it yourself you’ll find the parameters spread over a number of dialog windows all over the screen. Chances are good that you’ll miss one of them and so you’ll be wizarding for a while.

Assuming you’ve got it set up properly, you then start the recording and the robot plays each key over MIDI, waiting a while between each, attempting to find loop points. It’s not the best at looping (that would be Zero-X Seamless Looper which sadly has left this world on the sky train) but if you take some time to practice with all the settings you can get close to a good loop straight off.

More likely you’ll want to load up each sample in WaveRobot, which as I said took a lot of figuring out, as did the controls to make the waveform sit properly on a large screen. But, like the old hardware you’re sampling, once you get the logic of how it works you can get quick at it. It leans a bit on the crossfade, and you will need to tune things. The overlapping visual waveforms at the loop point are very helpful.

Now hopefully you’ve produced a set of samples that you can work with. Although it claims to save out Kontakt files, it actually saves out Reason’s sampler format which Kontakt must then convert (as NI licenses Chicken System’s Translator software). If you aren’t careful SR will save new truncated samples into its own folder, inside C:\Program Files which is evil, and probably why they want you to launch the software on an admin account (double evil).

Now you have a monolith file in Kontakt … and no more frigging around with MIDI cables, patchbays or that kind of vibe-killing drudgery. Kontakt of course has its own filters, envelopes and so on, so you might sample some of your sources as pure oscillator and enjoy tweaking the filters later, making up multiple versions.

I started with the UltraProteus, from which flows very long complex sounds. It was difficult to get the start point right, and SampleRobot had little chance of finding a loop point by itself. Although it looked like my volume level was good, my first samples came out much too quiet. Turning up the inputs revealed that the UP makes a lot of hum, which of course pitches up and down as the samples are played. I made it not too noticeable. I really liked being able to attach effects to each sound in Kontakt, which isn’t really possible with the UP hardware.

Sampling the MR Rack makes perfect sense as (a) it has no inbuilt resonant filter and (b) the battery is flat whenever you want to use it – but no sense because (c) transwaves don’t play back the way they are supposed to and (d) neither do the wacky FX. SampleRobot wasn’t much help here, and the best thing to do is manually play each transwave, load in Alchemy or Morphine, translate that into an additive wave which will then pitch shift nicely over the whole keyboard without multi-samples. You then modulate the wave point and get perfect Fizmo like results.

p_p_MorphineGeneratorAPanel

Really the process is best for sounds that don’t rely on your active or programmed modulation. It’s fine for an MKS-80 bass, perhaps for Korg Radias chime, but not much use for a modular sequence. Getting SR working is a complete pain in the ass up front, but I know it beats playing each note by hand and then editing it apart manually.

And once you’ve grabbed Lately Bass from your TX81z you can leave that turned off forever.

12 Excellent Reasons Why I Should Be Able to Post Your Stuff on YouTube

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Tom, you prick, you took down MY damn video just because you made it.
This is wrong as you will plainly learn from this list.

  1. Everyone else is doing it so why can’t I be the 33rd person to post up another “Dead Eyes Opened Spook Mix”?
  2. No one else is doing it so I think it justified that I be world leader in going through your garbage bins.
  3. It’s not as if you’re posting the material yourself. Well maybe you did, I didn’t look hard.
  4. I am a Curator! Your work is simply a small part of my vision, which presents a culturally significant view of media I remember from 30 years ago.
  5. None of the other bands have complained so I’m pretty disappointed that you’re making an effort here.
  6. It’s Fair Use for Educational Purposes, as I’m a Professor of History and my course is the period before I was too fat to go to the disco.
  7. I played it faster/slower/backwards/wearing a funny hat so it’s now my work.
  8. I’ve incentivised the product through agile redeployment in a way that you will never conceptually grasp.
  9. Did you see the video where the record label spins around? Did you do that? No, you didn’t. So now it’s just a soundtrack, feel lucky I chose you.
  10. Gift economy (if you buy YouTube Red).
  11. All your efforts: live shows, videos, streaming, objects – all of that achieves nothing. It’s my YouTube VHS that keeps you from obscurity
  12. The viewers prefer my ancient capture off TV to your elitist ‘master copy’. It’s like Stranger Things.

See also (from 2011) http://tomellard.com/wp/2011/03/audio-mouth-breathers/