Modular synthesis from the perspective of a bassist

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [BG]' started by Snaxster, Mar 22, 2018.

  1. Snaxster


    Nov 29, 2008

    At first I was going to title this thread “Modular synthesis for bassists”. Then I saw that I was not thinking about the craft of modular synthesis as it might concern bassists. Rather I noticed in my synthesis work some tendencies: the influence of my bass experience on it, and of it on my thinking about bass.


    In fact, though I first picked up a bass guitar in 1979, I already played synthesizers during the few years prior. The first was an ARP 2600. Next up was a large Buchla modular. And just before starting with bass guitar I bought my first synth, a used EML 500. Thus I was a synthesist before I was a bassist. A musician since early childhood, it was as a young teen that I discovered electronic and electric instruments and recording.

    Now, after very recently returning to synthesis with real intention, I assembled for the first time a modular synthesizer of my own. Currently my synthesis sessions usually take the same path: study leads to music making. Even if I don’t like the music that results, I always try for a musical outcome.

    (This is something I was taught to do as a child, by my first serious flute teacher. She almost boxed my ears one day. But instead, after making me complete the etude, she let me play her 1923 Haynes flute. That Haynes changed my life. I felt the power. Thus in those two moments, that young woman transformed me into both a disciplined musician and a lifelong gear head.)

    Bass culture

    That I see, here on the forums sound synthesis is usually mentioned in four ways as it relates to bass:
    • using pedals to make synth-like sounds with a bass
    • using a synthesizer as a signal processor for bass
    • playing a synthesizer along with a bass in performance
    • notable bassists who play “synth bass” alternatively.
    Though in years past I did some version of each (except being notable, which I never was), my interest here is different.

    Synth view? Modular. World view? Bass.

    What I’m noticing is that nowadays, though on the synthesizer 1. I never consciously design bass sounds to resemble physical bass instruments, 2. often I design them anyway, and 3. when I do, the resemblance is a feature, while the core of the sound is all synth.

    This suggests to me first of all that I am the product of all my experience. By background I am a musician, tinkerer, producer, visual artist, composer, sound designer, bassist, and synthesist. All of those, yet something other than the set.

    That's true of anyone, I think. But in this case it means that as a bassist I make different decisions about arrangement, time, texture, timbre, etc. when creating modular synthesis music than a pianist, trumpeter, non-physical instrument musician, or dancer would.

    As for the bass-like sounds that happen, listening to my recordings I notice that, in keeping with the non-physical essence of the instrument maybe, sometimes I stretch the sound slightly, but clearly past what a physical instrument could do easily (or at all), save possibly with signal processing.

    Also I find that the synthetic sonic space as it overlaps bass guitar can skew my perception of bass guitar sound. This can be for the better or the worse. One synth sound can inspire me to approach my bass sound differently, while another makes bass guitar sound seem dull or limited.

    Related is that, as relatively tactile as a modular synth tends to be, in the range of electronic instruments (assuming it has a fairly knobby, pad-y, slider-y interface), when I play bass guitar after synthesizing, I am struck anew by its physicality. Even as an electric instrument, bass guitar is by its construction and function more acoustical and in use is more physical than a purely electronic instrument. Though music is music to me, my relationships with bass and synth as music making tools differ accordingly.

    Some music

    Here are examples of my recent synth music that feature either bass-like sounds and/or bass world view, as I described above. Each is one patch with no overdubs.

    Note that my modular synth does not have a black-and-white keyboard. I own a keyboard, but have yet to use it. The synth's sequencer has playable pads, but so far in performance I use them only to change logic settings (while recording, that is; I don’t gig anymore). Lastly, I’m not playing any samples. All sounds are from scratch.

    My music welcomes short attention spans, but does not reward them. :D

    Last edited: Apr 15, 2018
  2. Snaxster


    Nov 29, 2008
    Recently I acquired the now rare Bass VI - The Anthony Jackson Contrabass Guitar Library.


    Here are my first attempts at making use of it. Since I don't have a software-based studio, I adapted the library for use with my modular synthesizer:

    From the session notes for those tracks (emphasis added):

    one patch, played and mixed live on a modular synthesizer. albeit in a musical setting, this really is just a sound study.

    using “Bass VI - The Anthony Jackson Contrabass Guitar Library” in a way that its makers did not intend, this study employs a Eurorack sample player populated with two series of samples from the library, ‘open attack, DI’ and ‘muted attack, miked speaker’.

    this approach required that the audio files be 1. renamed so that the file system would order each series by ascending pitch, then 2. converted to a format honored by the sample player. as of this performance, the problem of occasional audible clicks at the start or end of samples’ playback remained unsolved.

    none of the sonic nuance enabled by the library’s design is possible with this approach. but absent a software sample player, sequencer, and DAW, here it is possible to hear some of the library at all in a basically musical context.

    short of sheer hyperbole, it would be difficult to overstate the excellence and importance of Anthony Jackson’s contributions to music generally and to the evolution of the bass guitar design and playing technique specifically. likewise Fodera Guitar’s role in their decades-long collaboration with Mr. Jackson. that partnership produced, among others, the AJ Presentation contrabass guitar used by Mr. Jackson the longest of any example, that he named “Number 10”.

    sustained bass notes, single guitar notes: Bass VI - The Anthony Jackson Contrabass Guitar Library, ONE, Varigate 4+, disting mk4 (adder)

    hammered and scraped metal strings: Telharmonic, STO, Rings, Boomstar SEM VCF, René, El Capistan pedal

    percussion: Basimilus Iteritas Alter, Twin Waves, Knight’s Gallop

    with: Pamela’s New Workout, Quadra/Expander, Wogglebug, Function, Rnd, The Mullet, Tangle Quartet, Black Dual EG/LFO, Mix 02, Mixology, MSCL, Lifeforms Outs

    recorder: Ditto X2 Looper

    mastering: Audacity​
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  3. Snaxster


    Nov 29, 2008
    Three new studies. Now with the clicking problem fixed!

    Listening to studies 4 and 5 just now, my great admiration for Anthony Jackson and Fodera Guitars is rekindled. What a sound:

  4. BassChuck

    BassChuck Gold Supporting Member

    Nov 15, 2005
    Are you aware of this group and the work they do?

  5. nbsipics

    nbsipics Ours' is the only Reality of Consequence Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 8, 2016
    I think it's very cool what you are doing here. ( Edit: I am totally capable of being an idiot )

    Then again: I like AJ live better - which these days is as hard to come by as "AJ in Midi" ( at least that's what the playback of the sounds above sound like in my humble playback device :).

    Last time for me and AJ was with the Hiromi Spark tour ( with Simon Phillips! ) in Chicago. Then AJ took a hiatus, for some now-well-known reason.

    Keep it up! I swear that is where all this is going: Software-infused-jazz-automated-musicofsomekind....
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  6. nbsipics

    nbsipics Ours' is the only Reality of Consequence Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 8, 2016
    I think I need another cocktail and joint...
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  7. Snaxster


    Nov 29, 2008
    Not as such, thanks. I saw the name around recently, but knew no more about it.

    My ex was with a similar organization. Board, conferences, awards, authors, speakers, etc. From that episode I developed a deep dislike of... organizations. But I will try to consider this one on its own merits. :D
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  8. Snaxster


    Nov 29, 2008
    Thank you. I hear what you're saying. But FYI, currently I don't use MIDI or software to make this music. I master the stereo recordings in Audacity, which is software; but by then the music per se is already made.

    In fairness, it's true: the digital circuit-based hardware instruments I use (a few of the modules in my modular synth) are effectively just software with a hard shell. Otherwise, technologically my synth setup is pretty old school.

    The only reason I got the little sample player module, thus breaking my personal rule not to use any sample players, was to try my wacky idea to play some of the Anthony Jackson sample library with the modular synth.

    I have nothing against sample players in general. For designing sounds in synthetic audio, however, my current focus is on creation from scratch as much as possible. Yes, there is some "macro synthesis" in my racks. But it all has to be manipulated in a traditional sort of way if anything interesting is to result.

    More power to Anthony Jackson. Though I never knew him or even saw him play live, I miss him.

    In his statement accompanying his Bass VI library, Jackson refers to it as his "paternity", citing an evolution of instruments that includes the lute. How did he envision his sound library being used, then, now, and in a far future? I don't know. But even though I can't do justice to his playing, in these my first uses of his library, I try to pay tribute to his instrumental voice.
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  9. Badwater


    Jan 12, 2017
    This is some very interesting sounds. I've never heard anything like it before. Much to complex for my mind to follow.
    That must have taken a lot of time to compose such unusual tones. The mix must have been interesting with the synth and midi combination.

    With your experience in MIDI and synth, perhaps you can help give me a few pointers on something I created for my cinematic videos. It's with a MIDI using the DAW synth and keyboard controller. And with midi drums. No bass or guitars. Let me know what you think... Thanks.
  10. knumbskull


    Jul 28, 2007
    Can you post a pic of your modular? Enquiring minds want to know :)
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  11. Basshappi


    Feb 12, 2007
    You might find this thread very interesting
    Experimental Fully Modular Bass Rig.

    Member Flux Jetson abruptly disappeared which is a shame, he was doing some very interesting experiments.
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  12. Snaxster


    Nov 29, 2008
    Thanks for that. It looks interesting. Very 1970s, which the OP cops to at the start. I have yet to listen to the examples. But I think it's mostly about the thought process and the fact that he made the effort to bring his idea to fruition. Quite cool.
    Last edited: May 17, 2018
  13. Snaxster


    Nov 29, 2008
    Though I am rather secretive about sound design (and have been for decades), so I won't post detailed photos of my synth patched, here are these:

    ModularGrid-derived mockup image of my cases as they are now, with the exception of Plaits, whose arrival is still pending in the US (for most of us anyway)


    My cases as they were some weeks ago, showing how they are arrayed, with the auxiliary case on a Make Noise blued steel stand (which is an excellent piece of kit)

    Last edited: May 17, 2018
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  14. Snaxster


    Nov 29, 2008
    Hello. It doesn't have to take a lot of time, but for me it almost always does. I can dwell on one sound for hours. (Though years ago I read a Wendy Carlos interview in which she cautioned against working on any one type of sound for too long. So now I flit from sound to sound, to prevent becoming desensitized to any one of them.)

    Such MIDI experience as I ever had is almost 30 years past. However, I would be glad to critique your music. Only before I do, please tell me what kind of pointers you are looking for.
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  15. knumbskull


    Jul 28, 2007
    thanks :)

    i count 6 VCOs... is that right? I have a very small rack (90HP / 3U) with only one dedicated VCO and the main thing i find lacking is multiple sound sources.

    I'm also interested in "in-rack" mixers like the Mixology, as opposed to using an external/desktop mixer – how is it?
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  16. Snaxster


    Nov 29, 2008
    My pleasure. :D

    One VCO is tough. You did say "dedicated", so you could have others doing double duty. But only one, that's quite austere. If it isn't a complex VCO, and there truly is no other module that can do VCO-like things, you won't even be able to do FM at audio rates with the one VCO, I believe. I suggest that if you can make room for one more sound source, you will increase the options for not only multiplicity of sounds, but of depth, too. For example, in but 4 hp you can have either a disting mk4 or a Doepfer A-111-3v.

    You asked a simple question about VCOs, but to be descriptive I have to give a less simple answer. I prefer to count what I call "primary sound sources". Some of them are or contain a discrete VCO: ToneStar 2600, STO, Slim O, E950, and disting mk4. Others are otherwise, most being examples of what I think of as macro-synthesis:
    • Basimilus Iteritas Alter (1 algorithm, 1 discrete sound source; percussion-oriented, but is in fact more versatile)
    • E950 (1 wavetable osc OR ca. 1970s-based speech synthesis with optional circuit bending)
    • Plaits (15 models, 1 discrete sound source plus contextual aux out; from classic waveforms to inharmonic string modeling)
    • Rings (3 resonator models, 1 discrete sound source with optional odd/even harmonic outs; pseudo-polyphony up to 4 voices)
    • Telharmonic (4 algorithms, 3 discrete sound sources; including “For the Harmonic Algorithm, H-OUT, each of the three voices is a 24-partial harmonic oscillator, using high-resolution sine wave generators.”)
    • Twin Waves (20 algorithms, 2 discrete sound sources; including single wave, multi-wave, self-sync, ring mod, bit crushing, and noise)
    Each of those has only one pitch CV input per sound source (except Telharmonic, which has only one 1v/oct, but also CV inputs for its music theory side) but some take triggers and/or audio input, play chords under CV control, etc.

    Mixology is excellent. Even after owning it, I revisited other mixer modules' specs, wondering if I could do better. Each time, I concluded that for the size, ergonomics, feature set, and price, there was no other production module like it. And it sounds good. Mixology is indispensable in my setup.
    Last edited: May 18, 2018
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  17. knumbskull


    Jul 28, 2007
    Thanks for the run down! interesting stuff. I'd forgotten Rings could be a sound source too... Plaits is so new I hadn't even read about it yet :)

    My rig – as you say, just one sound source would be a tough gig. I have a filter (Ripples) that can be set to self-oscillation, and a hybrid wavefolder/filter/synth voice that i do often use as a sound source (Tidal Wave). it's just not as flexible as having multiple dedicated VCOs, i think.

    (I've also got Maths, which can push its cycling envelopes into audio range but is not 1v/oct.)

    just listened to the tracks – Five is my favourite, and the AJ-sampling stuff.
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  18. Snaxster


    Nov 29, 2008
    Glad to oblige. Only I forgot to list the little sample player, ONE.

    Sounds as if you're pretty loaded over there. It's always good to have a few more oscillators; but you should be able to really make some noise with what you have now.

    Thanks for listening. I like "Five", too. It makes extensive use of the Doepfer A-185-2V Precision Adder. That's a good module that I still own, but for which I'm not allocating space now.
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  19. Snaxster


    Nov 29, 2008
    Two new pieces:

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  20. Snaxster


    Nov 29, 2008
    Laid up sick much of this week, I used some of the time to study new releases in the Eurorack modular synth world. The Qu-Bit Electronix Nebulae v2 got my attention, so much so that I revised my "creation from scratch as much as possible" directive to allow that I might add such a granular synthesis module to my synth. But it was the new firmware for the Make Noise Music Morphagene that closed the deal.

    So, out for now will be the E950 Circuit Bent VCO and the Plaits that was still pending. In will be the Morphagene granular synthesis module plus two tiny modules I already own, the Qu-Bit EON and the Malekko Buffered Mult. My revised cases will look like this:


    At first I'll want the Morphagene for only a few things. One is to sample me playing bass guitar.

    Consider that for time synchronized music between the bass and the synth, I'll be able to either 1. sample me playing bass while monitoring the synth, or 2. design the synth patch around a sample of me playing bass, or 3. both 1 and 2 in either order. And the material can be sliced and diced in many ways, all in stereo.

    I think that it's going to be... really something. :D
    Last edited: Jun 3, 2018
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