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.

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!

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!

store pct #30_full

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.

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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/

A completely biased guide to DAWs

Your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) is a matter of taste. As you have appalling taste, you are lucky that I have found time to instruct you in the matter.

Ableton Live.

Notably not called Ableton Compose, because trying to write actual music with this tool is like keyhole surgery, one little box at a time. Live was first developed for deejays to string together bits of other people’s music to a click track. Since that time, it has been encrusted with a tower of technical jiggery pokery that makes Live the premiere tool of ‘barbeque boys’ the world over. If you want to synchronise two machines, or write code that burps every third bar, or run a bassoon through a duct simulation you are well served. But the vast forehead of this thing remains built on the reptile brain underneath, and it fails at facilitating any attempt at flowing empathic music.

If you have live performances where you need six of this followed by seven of that and the whole thing must be panned just so – you will use Live. If you want to surprise yourself with a tantalising melody you will not.

Bitwig.

See Ableton Live.

Pro Tools.

If you have an uncle with a large recording studio; custom furnishings, several thousand dollars on each microphone, grand piano in room C – you may be a candidate for Pro Tools. It will slot nicely into this high-end milieu, easing your work up to the top shelf. But buying Pro Tools, in itself, does not manifest this uncle, any more than red Ferrari brings forth a trophy wife. There are many tools that will do exactly same thing for much less.

True, Pro Tools is well made. Most of their stupid bullshit such as real-time mix downs and forced hardware is gone, but there are still AAX plugins –  an industry standard unused by anyone else in the industry. They cost an insulting amount, which can be paid off every month. Or you know, you could just go elsewhere.

Reason.

The curious thing is that Reason’s illustrations of hardware racks appeared just when real hardware racks were going in the garbage. Such that many Reason users are convinced that actual hardware is a clever manifestation of the GUI (and if you don’t believe that you’ve never met a child amazed that ‘wow you have a collectable of the save icon!’).

I grew up with racks and damn, I like them in Reason. They are cheerful. I like scrolling up and down and hitting the tab key to plug wobbling cables in the back, and hitting the tab and scrolling up and down and actually… that cable thing gets tedious. You need a really big screen to see what you’re doing, and then a magnifying glass to read the controls on all those boxes you’re trying to navigate. Reason completely fails at scale, being too small and too large simultaneously.

Now I must admit I’ve never bothered to use Reason as a DAW. It’s my modular synthesiser which I plug into real DAWs and in that respect, it’s a damn fine thing, better than any eurorack.

Logic.

Platform limited is bullshit. Same goes for Sonar.

Cubase.

Like if your grandad got a hold of monkey glands or something and kept living way beyond a natural span of existence. I had CARD32 on a Commodore 64 way back in dinosaur times. Then it was on the Atari and it still gets out of the coffin every night. I guess I am Grandma, and got used to Cubase and throw my hands in the air and go “Whelp! That’s Grandad For Ya!”. (Actually, at one time I tried using Logic back when it was on PC. That was foul, like ‘locked in some taxation consultancy for weeks on end’ foul. The Environment – what the fuck.)

You are not ever going to get super excited about Cubase, but like Microsoft Excel it is going to do the job well enough, and in software that’s probably all you can hope for.

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Traction.

They changed the name to Waveform and added a mixer and MIDI editor. In version 8. Yeah.

Renoise.

No, typing hexadecimal into a grid is not cool, it’s the antithesis of music.

Reaper.

There’s a lot to like about Reaper as a sound editor. In an age where ambisonics is taking on increasing importance, restricting waveforms to 5.1 or stereo is shooting yourself in the foot, and the only competition are the overpriced Nuendo and Pro Tools HD. It makes serious attempts at reducing bloat, embracing formats, and providing a range of useful tools in the box. And it’s CHEAP.

But you’re not out of the woods. Once past the basics it’s got a lot of idiosyncrasies, not cute ones, but mind numbingly painful ones, the sort that drives you to scream WTF and to curse the manual which is (a) a fan written wiki and (b) always out of date with the five new versions a week. Reaper is not open source, but it sure smells like open source.

And MIDI handling is not handled well at all. It’s an audio editor with some MIDI tacked on, and you’ll need to buy a real MIDI tool alongside Reaper.

FL Studio.

I used FL Studio for ages. Then I stopped for a while, to try change my working methods. When I tried to go back to it, I found myself outside a mental wall. All the things that seemed normal before seemed weird and twisted. I could still get old projects up and running, but the thought of doing anything new with it was perverse.

Then I realised I’d been in a cult. I’d since become deprogrammed.

FL is like if you put a drum machine on steroids, lots of steroids, INSANE levels. It’s a drum machine levelled up a billionity-billion times. I mean, I scored a motion picture on FL once upon a time. It can do it, hell – it can probably do anything, but it will do it in a way that makes no sense anywhere outside the cult headquarters, because it’s built on layer upon layer of feature additions. Things rarely get designed in a holistic manner in FL, they get layered on top. Like if you want to freeze the audio on a track, there was some convoluted procedure with placing an Edison plug in on a mixer track… these days I just freeze the track.

I can’t hate on it, and hell, you might even be enthralled by it. See you when you get out.

Put up or shut up.

It was nice to have a talk about subscriptions. Seems that people like to pre-pay for a particular project. We’ll think about that when we have an expensive thing in mind for which we need help. Until then we have enough resources to make first, and only then bug you for funds. We put up or shut up.

We are going to be performing in the USA in about three weeks, so any product is going to be after we get back and sleep off the lag.

Here’s one of the things that are happening. I intended to get an album called Aversion out last year, to be cover versions of classic rock songs and psychedelia. It followed the old truth that a new band, especially electronic or weird, have to make cover versions before they get any attention (we did Strange Brew). It’s about demonstrating exactly how you differ to the mainstream. Aversion was mostly finished by late 2016 but I had a really good listen, and admitted that it just had nothing to offer that hadn’t been done better before. The classics include the Residents Third Reich and Roll, and Laibach’s Let It Be – you probably have some others you could add to that list.

Aversion is not bad, it’s on the level of Strange Brew which people seemed to like. Maybe it will arrive later. Meanwhile I decided to start on Aversion 2, which is subtitled Classic Rock Simulation. In this case it’s existing rock music that’s been edited and processed to make new songs. For example I took the first bar of a very famous 60’s song and processed the individual notes to play a variety of riffs at both normal and half speed. I added bass and drums and some vocal samples that have been tuned a word at a time to sing a melody. The result is a kind of Soul R&B number akin to these weird images that Google AI spits out.

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It sounds like rock but only a memory of it, or an approximation made by an algorithm. I like some rock music, and there’s no criticism implied, just some curious misrepresentation which allows me to practice some heavy psychedelic production.

Because we’ve found that people like to buy a physical object, like Blubberknife*, or Showbag, we’ve been working on a neat little package for you that also might be expanded to other titles. The theme is lab rats, experimentation, the work of Harlow on infant monkeys. My partner creates wire forms of the sort that have already appeared on Donut. She has worked hard to not only create a complex wire rat for the cover, but has so far made over 100 wire rats to go one inside each of the packages.

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This mockup has the wrong art showing inside, but gives the feel of it.

The music is on a credit card USB and there’s also a stack of credit card sized artwork. We think it’s going to be light enough that postage won’t be too harsh, but as always you have to expect it’ll cost at least the materials, the postage and something to repay the eventual 200 rats that will be needed.

I’ll be posting some examples of Aversion 2 soon, but meanwhile here’s a bit of a making of.

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* Does anyone have a 1982 Blubberknife in the TV set innards? We have no pictures 🙁