Happy Hostilidays

Rules for my new holiday:

1. Festivities start the Wednesday before Thanksgiving when we file frivolous lawsuits against all of our nearest and dearest.
2. Instead of sending Xmas cards, we serve papers. Beware carolers.
3. Mediations will be held at all the most inconvenient times between then and Xmas Eve, when we all get together and agree to settle out of court for bottles of alcohol.
4. Then we drink around a burning Xmastree, while exchanging neuroses.

Symbols of the holiday:
Aside from the tree to be burned, decorations also include a half burned Xmas wreath and wine stained carpet.

Who wants to celebrate with me next year?

Oh..and instead of “happy holidays” or “merry christmas”, the greeting for hostilidays are either “talk to my lawyer” or simply “fuck you”.

Workflow? What workflow..

A lot of talk is is done in electronic music about workflow, which I take to mean the process of creating tracks. Everyone out there, including myself, is looking for a workflow that works for them. Some people prefer hardware, some people prefer software. Some people won’t use tablets because they don’t like the workflow. Some people prefer Mac workflow to PC workflow.

And then there is me. I am just going to stand up and admit.

Hi, my name is Tony, and I have no workflow.

Well, perhaps I do…but I think chaos is my workflow. Lots of jiggery pokery until something comes out sounding good. Plug this into that, record that, process that. Stuff this sample into that software and then through the guts of my modular. I do my best work when I’m kind of all over the place.

The current track I am working on started with the modular and OmniSphere in live, includes a sounds from Reason Compact and a processed drum loop from my iPad, a bunch of sound FX from the MPC live, and at least 3 tracks who’s origin I’ve completely forgotten (with such detailed names as ‘audio 1’ and ‘loud thing’, I’m amazed I forgot).

So chaos is my workflow. Ok then. Admission is the first step.

Fractal Audio Axe FX III – First Impressions

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I’ve had a lot of synthesizers over the years.   In fact, it’s harder to name a synthesizer made since the mid 90s that I haven’t owned or used in some incarnation or other.  The same goes for Drum Machines and those sorts of noise makers.   Effects have been a different animal, though.   I haven’t had a lot of effects boxes, and certainly none that I really actually loved.  They were always tools that helped me achieve the goal of making a recording, and not really awesome creative tools in themselves.

The reasons for that are many.  First, sound quality was always an issue.   At the price points I could afford, truly professional processing was just out of reach.   I used a lot of cheap guitar pedals and processors, or settled for the FX internal to the synths.  I knew when we got to studio time, there would be better FX there that I could use.

Second, most FX boxes either had 2×16 character LED display and a cryptic operating system, or they were pedals that had 3 knobs and no preset storage, and the only way I remembered how they were all hooked up was by pen and paper.  I am far, far, far too lazy for that.

The third and final reason would be…I just didn’t care.  Effects felt utilitarian to me and not really a part of my process.  I was very focused on learning how to push the synthesizers and samplers I had at my disposal that effects seemed peripheral to that.

Fast forward to today, when Ive just taken delivery of a Fractal Audio Axe FX III. The first generation machine was one that I absolutely *loved*. It was the first FX processor that I’d ever really bonded with, and I did so at a time when I was working on my first album (you can find it here). This was also a time when I was getting heavily into Eurorack Modular, and had cut down my gear because I’d recently had a kid I had to pay for. Because it was all I had, I dug into it *deep*.

My first impressions of the Axe III over the original is that Fractal has definitely become a mature company with regards to their industrial design. The unit a big, beefy 3U and it’s front panel dominated by a huge color display (not a touch display). This makes the unit much more usable from its from panel, than the Ultra was. That unit almost required Axe Edit to operate effectively.

Operation is largely via a set of 5 control knobs under the display, a set of cursor buttons and a large value wheel. If you’ve had any experience using a piece of pro music gear in the 30 years, it will be familiar to you.

Around the back, it’s got a Lot of connectivity: 4 audio inputs (1 mono instrument input, and three stereo inputs) along with 4 pairs of outputs. You’ve also got digital I/O in the form of SPDIF/AES (and if I had one grip about the Axe, it would be this. I’d like to see ADAT or Dante or some other multi channel I/O option OTHER than USB). You will also find the usual MIDI ports and a USB port for connecting to your computer (which I haven’t yet tested, but will).

One thing to note for keyboard players: Input 1 IS only mono, and is optimized for guitars. Fortunately, you can easily plug your keyboard or stereo send into Input 2 or the digital input and very easily re-reroute things in the UI. Also, if you’ve got a smaller synthesizer rig you take live (as I do), the IO on the Axe may be enough for you to use it as your digital mixer. I’d bet it could do the job, with some planning.

Taking a trip through the presets didn’t mean much for me, being a keyboard player. I’m sure that all these vintage cab simulations and FX chains are excellent (and they did sound amazing with my TR-8s plugged into them). Just because of how I’m wired, I decided to go straight for the initialized patch bank and start rolling out my own FX.

Bottom line: the results are magnificent.

One of the reasons I like guitar processors so much is because guitarists are freaks about getting their ‘sound’ and they are totally uncompromising on this. If a processor is going to claim that it can be the only processor they need, then it’s going to have to let you go as deep down the rabbit hole of tweaking to have a chance of living up to that statement. The Axe FX totally succeeds at this.

The first patch I setup was to mangle the aforementioned TR-8s. I had a patch on Octatrack that I was attempting to duplicate, which looks like Compressor->Distortion->Delay->Low Pass Filter (if you haven’t put a delay into a filter running on a drum loop, you have your homework assignment). The Axe handled this, of course, flawlessly, but with far, far, FAR more power to customize the tone than on the Octatrack. The I discovered Channels and scenes and was even MORE impressed.

Scenes are kind of what they sound like. Each patch has 8 of them, and you can switch between them on the fly. This lets you change the settings of all the blocks without having o change programs and reload the DSP. Very useful for live use. Scenes can also be named, which is very useful indeed.

Channels took me a little longer to get my head around. Their name is a little confusing, I think, they would be better thought of as ‘block scenes’. Each block in a patch has 4 ‘channels’ you can switch between. When you consider all you can do with Channels and Scenes, you can see how it may be possible to run an entire live set through just one or two presets.

Overall, I couldn’t be happier with this thing. I know I’m going to use the hell out of it over the next few years. So far, I’ve used it on drum sounds, keyboards, and even played with a vocal mic going into it. It’s just a sound hacks dream. I may even hook up a guitar to it at some point!

Collaboration

(If you are one of my contributors, please do not take this as any sort of slight.   I am not trying to diminish your contributions…but rather express my need for more of that)

I’ve decided that NoiseTheorem needs something more than the on again / off again contributions of random persons.  I need to find someone who would like to be a part of this project as part of their own artistic exploration and vision, and not just as ‘hey, yeah..that could be fun’.  I need to find someone who wants to be a part of this and have their name on it.

In my vision, this person would fit the following description and have the listed skills:

  1. They would be able to sing, mainly choral sorts of things.  This isn’t going to be pop music, after all.   On this note, they’d also be able to wing it and come up with stuff on their own.   They wouldn’t be afraid to be a little weird and silly with their voice. Their microphone technique would be superb (kinda kidding, but not really)
  2. They’d be into the weird sort of ambient electronic industrial mish mash of sounds. They’d like the idea of running around a forest preserve or a construction site with a field recorder and collecting.
  3. They have two fully functiong ear systems, to counter the deficit I face
  4. They’d live somewhat locally, be able to get together about once a month at least, but would also have some capability to do recording on their own that they could send me.
  5. They’d have ideas that we could run with so I’m not stuck always being the idea person.
  6. In my mind, this is a female vocalist, but that’s not at all required.
  7. They can play some sort of instrument (guitar, bass, tambourine, glockenspiel….something we can add to the mix of talents).
  8. They’d be interested in possibly performing live if the opportunity presented itself.

Now the problem is actually *finding* some human like that in the great conservative creative desert that is the NW suburbs of Chicago.  I’m posting this to my blog because I honestly don’t know where I could find an individual to help out.  Everyone seems either to far away, or lacks the emotional bandwidth to contribute and commit at the level I’m asking.

So what to do?

Video Killed the Radio Star

I miss the radio.  Maybe that’s a sign I am old  But I do.  I really do.

Back when I was a kid, there were a few programs on that I’d listen to every week.   One of them was the Dr. Dimento show.  When I was about 11 or 12, I used stay up just long enough to start a tape recorder so that I could listen to it the next day.   This went on for years, until my musical tastes expanded and I started doing the same thing with shows on WXRT that also played the music I enjoyed (don’t ask me the names…I’ve long forgotten….yeah…about that getting old bit..).

Eventually, though, MTV had 120 minutes, and I stopped listening to the radio and instead started programming the VCR to record.   Then, eventually the internet came a long and you could just find what you wanted when you wanted it.  Then napster and streaming….

But in all of that something was lost.   There was a certain satisfaction in discovery that was taken away by having such a tailored an curated experience.   With streaming and targetted advertising came a very sort of siloed environment.  There was that moment when someone would play something totally unexpected that you hadn’t heard before and it would just open up your world to something new.   It was exciting.

Now, everything is so targetted that never seems to happen.  The entire basis of these services is to give you what you want to hear rather than perhaps playing something that you should hear.   I realize I sound like an old man shaking his fist at the clouds right now, but…fucking clouds!

But there is one way the internet has redeemed itself.   By giving me internet radio streams, I can still enjoy passive listening and discovery guided by persons who have listened to the music far longer than I knew it was around.

Right now, I have three radio shows I listen to.   Monday nights, I listen to ‘Into The Deep’ on WEVL out of memphis, the Galactic Travels on WDIY on Thursday nights.   These too are more electronicall focused, with WDIY being definitely the ‘weirder’ of the two.

The final program I listen to is on KCUR-FM and it’s called Night Tides.   This is a nice and gentle show, good for preping my nerves for the crazy work week I’m trying to forget is coming.

I also *try* to listen to ‘At Waters Edge’, which is a pure internet radio stream, but usually only catch up with it in podcast form since it’s at a time of day that’s generally busy for me.

There have to be more stations out there playing ambient, electronic and industrial music, though.   And I can’t be the only one listening.

What else is out there?

Studio Changes

IMG_4541Back when I worked on the ‘Dust’ album, one of the pieces of equipment that I was most inspired by was my Fractal Audio Axe FX Ultra.  It was an amazing box, and really the only time I’ve ever really ‘bonded’ with an FX devices.   I found its workflow perfect for how I think about FX and how I want to work with them.

Unfortunately, it was a victim of the post-separation, pre-divorce financial crunch that required my studio shrink.   Then the Axe II came out, and I considered upgrading…but I was still in the financial crunch.

Now, a few years later, the Axe FX III is out and, honestly…I couldn’t wait anymore.   I sold off odds and ends in the studio that had been replaced by software and pulled the trigger on Friday.   It will get here some time next week, and I’m sure you’ll be hearing me spout about it for a while (and, hopefully, hear it in my work).

Also changing is my eurorack system.   I’ve been digging into it much harder than I have in a long time and I’ve been learning it all over again and getting a sense for what it is I want to do with it.   As luck would have it, STG Sounds Labs got my order of a Switch and Post Lawsuit Filter on the way and they should also be here this week.  I preordered the Switch when it was announced and the PLF has long been on my short list as it completes my STG Filter collection (from an audio quality standpoint alone, they are some of the best you will find in any format).

On the eurorack, I’m starting to get a sense of what’s going to happen in that second case.  It was overflow for while, but now it’s slowly starting to have a true purpose.  It’s becoming the ‘weird’ side of the rig, where I put the modules that I don’t use every day, but I wouldn’t ever want to be without.   It will also be it’s own complete system, having enough components for a voice or performance.  Eventually, I want to replace the case, though with a second hand Gemini or Lexington…but that’s for future discussions.

On the software front, the single best thing I’ve done recently was to upgrade an old license of Specrasonics Atmosphere to Omnisphere 2.5.  It’s not quite having my Korg Kronos in software, but it’s been a missing piece in the software stack that I’ve been wanting for a LONG time.  I don’t see the need for a standard S+S synthesizer in my hardware rig with this one.

Another change has been my return to using Ableton Live.  I’m still on V9, but considering the upgrade to 10.   I think it’s because i’m using the modular more again and it’s just the right environment for the way that workflow happens.   I don’t know..I love reason as a virtual studio environment, but it just doesn’t take in audio from the modular and make it easy to edit after that.  Their time and pitch correction UI’s need a lot of work.

There’s also some other good things happening, but I’ll save those for another post.

 

 

Fractal Audio Axe FX III….To get, or not to get?

For a while, I’d been planning to dump a huge load of cash and get myself a Fractal Audio Axe FX III for the studio.   I had the Ultra version of the original, and it’s not a stretch to say that it was an extremely inspiring piece, that changed the way I approached FX.   The III is everything the Ultra was and a lot more.

Now that I have the cash, though, I’m not so sure.

See, I have a certain workflow that’s developed since then, particularly with regards to my modular.  I tend to work with simple FX while I’m writing, but then I almost always track dry to give myself the most options possible once I’m in the box.  Does it make sense to buy a $3000 processor that’s mostly going to just be bypassed anyway?

Aside from the aforementioned workflow, also going against, obviously, is the price and all that Eurorack I could buy for that chunk of change.   Or I could use it as the down payment on a Moog One.   The opportunity cost of this thing is not to be sneazed at.   Really, that’s the biggest issue I see.

In the yes column, we have to consider that I bypass my external FX because, for the most part, they are nowhere near as good as what I’ve got in the box.   My outboard FX consist of a few Eurorack modules and an Elektron Octatrack (which I use mainly for it’s FX and almost nothing else).

Also for getting the axe FX is the fact it has enough inputs to process a lot of stuff at once, and I could (potentially) replace it as my mixer into the Mac.  That’s a bit far fetched, but not an impossible idea.

Finally, the Ultra was such an expert mangler of audio, it was practically a synth in it’s own right.   You could feed it anything and, if patched up right, be totally surprised and delighted by what came out the other side.

So that’s my current dillema.  Fortunately, I don’t have *all* the cash collected yet, so I’m still waiting.   If I happen to miss that ‘introductory price’ on their site, then I guess fate makes the decision for me.   I’m about 60/40 in favor.

What do you think?