planetary, a sequencer.

01 March 2020

I wrote a music sequencer of sorts yesterday. It’s called planetary.

It looks like this:

Planetary m

and more importantly, it sounds and works like this:

In short: it’s a sequencer that is deliberately designed to work a bit like Michel Gondry’s video for Star Guitar:

I love that video.

I’m primarily writing this to have somewhere to point at to explain what’s going on, what it’s running on, and what I did or didn’t make.

It runs on a device called norns.

Norns

norns is a “sound computer” made by musical instrument manufacturer monome. It’s designed as a self-contained device for making instruments. It can process incoming audio, emit sounds, and talk to other interfaces over MIDI or other USB protocols. A retail norns has a rechargeable battery in it, making it completely portable.

There’s also a DIY ‘shield’ available, which is what you see in the above video. This is a small board that connects directly to a standard Raspberry Pi 3, and runs exactly the same system as the ‘full-fat’ norns. (A retail norns has a Raspberry Pi Compute Module in it). You download a disk image with the full OS on, and off you go. (The DIY version has no battery, and mini-jack I?O, but that’s the only real difference. Still, the cased thing is a thing of beauty.).

norns is not just hardware: it’s a full platform encompassing software as well.

norns instruments are made out of one or two software components: a script, written in Lua, and an engine, written in SuperCollider. Many scripts can all use the same engine. In general, a handful of people write engines for the platform; most users are writing scripts to interface with existing engines. Scripts are certainly designed to be accessible to all users; SuperCollider is a little more of a specialised tool.

Think of a script as a combination of UI processing (from both knobs/encoders on the device, and incoming MIDI-and-similar messages), and also instructions to give to an engine under the hood. An engine, by contrast, resembles a synthesizer, sampler, or audio effect that has no user interface – just API hooks for the script to talk to.

The scripting API is simple and expressive. It lets you do things you’d need to do musically, providing support both for screen graphics but also arithmetic, scale quantisation, and supporting a number of free-running metro objects that can equally be metronomes or animation timers. It’s a lovely set of constraints to work against.

There’s also a lower-level thing built into norns called softcut which is a “multi-voice sample playback and recording system” The best way to imagine softcut is as a pair of pieces of magnetic tape, a bit over five minutes long, and then six ‘heads’ that can record, playback, and move all over the tape freely, as well as choosing sections to loop, and all playing at different rates. As a programmer, you interface with softcut via its Lua API. softcut can make samplers, or delays, or sample players, or combinations of the above, and it can be used alongside an engine. (Scripts can only use one engine; softcut is not an engine, and so is available everywhere.)

norns even serves as its own development environment: you can connect to it over wifi and interface with maiden, which is a small IDE and package manager built into it. The API docs are even stored on the device, should you need to edit without an internet connection.

In general, that’s as low level as you go: writing Lua, perhaps writing a bit of Supercollider, and gluing the lot together.

Writing for norns is a highly iterative and exploratory process: you write some code, listen to what’s going on, and tweak.

That is norns. I did none of this; this is all the work of monome and their collaborators who pieced it together, and this is what you get out of the box.

All I did was build my own DIY version from the official shield, and create some laser-cut panels for it:

Norns clear top

…which I promptly gave away online.

Given all that: what is planetary?

Planetary

To encourage people to start scripting, Brian – who runs monome – set up a regular gathering where everybody would write a script in response to a prompt, and perhaps some initial code.

For the first circle, the brief gave three samples, a set user interface, and a description of what should be enabled:

create an interactive drone machine with three different sound worlds

  • three samples are provided
  • no USB controllers, no audio input, no engines
  • map

    • E1 volume
    • E2 brightness
    • E3 density
    • K2 evolve
    • K3 change worlds
  • visual: a different representation for each world

build a drone by locating and layering loops from the provided samples. tune playback rates and filters to discover new territory.

parameters are subject to interpretation. “brightness” could mean filter cutoff, but perhaps something else. “density” could mean the balance of volumes of voices, but perhaps something else. “evolve” could mean a subtle change, but perhaps something else.

I thought it’d be fun to take a crack at this, and see what everyone else was up to.

A thing I’ve found in my brief scripting of norns prior to now is how important the screen can be. I frequently think about sound, but find myself drawn to how it should be implemented or appear, or how the controls should interact with it.

So I started thinking about the ‘world’ as more than just an image or visualisation, but perhaps a more involved part of the user interface, and then I thought about Star Guitar, and realised that was what I wanted to make. The instrument would let you assemble drones with a degree of rhythmic sample manipulation, and the UI would look like a landscape travelling past.

The other constraint: I wanted to write in an afternoon. Nothing too precious, too complex.

I ended up writing the visuals first. They are nothing fancy: simple box, line, and circle declarations, written fairly crudely.

As they came to life, I kept iterating and tweaking until I had three worlds, and the beginnings of control over them.

Then, I wired up softcut: the three audio files were split between the two buffers, and I set three playheads to read from points corresponding to each file. Pushing “evolve” would both reseed the positions of objects in the world, and change the start point of the sample. Each world would run individually and simultaneously, and worlds 2 and 3 would start with no volume and get faded in.

The worlds also run at different tick-rates, too: the fastest is daytime, with 40 ticks-per-second; space runs at 30tps, and night runs at 20tps.

I hooked up the time of day to filter cutoff, tuned the filter resonance for taste, and then mainly set to work fixing bugs and finding good “starting points” for all the sounds.. On the way, I also added a slight perspective tweak – objects in the foreground moving faster than objects at the rear – which added some nice arrhythmic influence to the potentially highly regular sounds.

In the end, planetary is about 300 lines of code, of which half is graphics. The rest is UI and softcut-wrangling – there’s no DSP of my own in there.

I was pleased, by the end, with how playable it is. It takes a little preparation to play it well, and also some trust in randomness (or is that luck?. You can largely mitigate that randomness by listening to what’s happening and thinking about what to do next.

Playing planetary you can pick out a lead, add some texture, and then pull that texture to the foreground, increasing its density to add some jitter, before evolving another world and bringing that forward. It’s enjoyable to play with, and I find that as I play it, I both listen to the sounds and look at the worlds it generates, which feels like a success.

I think it meets the brief, too. It’s not quite a traditional drone, but I have had times where I have managed to dial in a set of patterns that I have left running for a good half hour without change, and I think that will do.

planetary only took a short afternoon, too, which is a good length of time to spend on things these days. I’ve certainly played with it a good deal after I stopped coding. It’s certainly encouraged me to play with softcut a bit more in the next project I work on, and perhaps to keep trying simple, single-purpose sound toys, rather than grand apps, on the platform.

Anyhow – I hope that clarifies both what I did, and what the platform it sits on does for you. I’m looking forward to making more things with norns, and as ever, the monome-supported community continues to be a lovely place to hang out and make music.

I’ve greatly been enjoying A History of Music And Technology from the BBC World Service. It’s an eight-part series in conjunction with the Open University, available through the World Service’s “Documentary Podcast” (which syndicates recent documentary programmes). My friend Andy tipped me off to it, and it’s just wonderful.

Presented by Nick Mason, it casts an eye over the role of technology in 20th century music. To do so, it doesn’t just focus on the technical or artistic angles; it also takes time to look at economies of manufacturing, the nature of innovation, and the role business plays; lots of overlaps into STS in the best possible way.

It also manages go deep enough into all its topic areas to be satisfying, picking interesting interviewees – especially from the archive – and telling good stories. The Telharmonium pops up in both Electronic Music Pioneers and The Hammond Organ, for instance, and I enjoy the focus it places on ‘recording’ and ‘the studio’ as topic areas.

Episode 2, Electronic Music Pioneers, is particularly striking. It looks at early electronic music – covering the Theremin, the WDR, and so forth – but manages to retain focused by announcing early that The Synthesizer and The Hammond Organ are going to get their own 50-minute programmes – so it’s freed up to talk about the foundations for later innovation, rather than ramming it all together. (The show on the Hammond is a particularly fine one, looking at the way that instrument developed life and culture outside and contrary to what Laurens Hammond had intended for it).

Yes, there’s a bit in the episode on the electric guitar about the role of the guitar in a culture of increasingly electronic music that has a familiar, wooden clang… but by and large it’s a self-aware series that acknowledges the biases implicit through musical history.

Deep, meaty, and rewarding; I recommend listening before it goes off air. Individual episodes are here to be listened to:

I made a record.

31 December 2017

It’s the last day of 2017. I released a record today. It’s mainly electronic, a bit ambient, and there’s quite a lot of piano music on it. You can stream it in its entirety, or pay a little to download it.

I wanted to write a bit more about it.

I’ve been a musician for a long while. Sometimes, I forgot that. I always knew I had things in my hands (which is where I think that knowledge lies) but I didn’t call myself a musician any more.

Towards the end of 2015, I was playing with music again, exercising my hands and brain, building electronic instruments. It was still tough going: the war of art always is, and I found it hard to be happy with my work, to create an environment where I was comfortable with it growing slowly. I always wanted everything finished immediately, couldn’t work out how to be comfortable with the work in progress.

So I set a slow goal. In 2016, I decided I was going to try to make four pieces of music in a year that I was happy with. Just four. One every three months. That made it a goal that’d be achievable, rather than impossible. And I did! By the end of 2016, I had a few things on my hard disk I was happy with. More than four.

And something else had changed: I’d started calling myself a musician again. In doing so, certain small quadrants of my head began to unlock. One night, at End of the Road, I played the piano on the Piano Stage in the middle of a grizzly rainshower. The few people who were there enjoyed it; I remembered that I could play this instrument, and I should give myself permission to do so more. So I did what I’d been wanting to do for a while, and bought a full-size electric stage piano. Keys have always been my main instrument, and now I had space to have one. Not just space in the house: space in my head.

Come 2017, I set a new goal: not necessarily “an album” of music, but recording ‘more’ tracks I was happy with. I continued to play with music: building and tinkering with modular synthesizers, practicing the piano, selling synthesizer kits. Music was slowly growing into the corners of my life again. It’s still a challenge: sometimes, it’s difficult to compose or invent at the end of the long day. Sometimes, I need to let myself be tired, or let myself switch off. And I also need to be kinder to myself when I don’t have the energy to make a thing – because another time, I will.

One thing that’s always helped is the Disquiet Junto, weekly creative briefs organised by Marc Weidenbaum. I don’t participate that often, but I’ve done enough that have led to fun, interesting, or good results, and which timebox the effort. Half the record is Junto tracks, and that’s telling, I think.

Another thing that helped was being fairly quiet about this. It’s a thing I do for myself, not other people. I’m wary of the performative nature of pasttimes in the 21st century: not everything is made better by being shared immediately; not everything is made better by being open to critique the second it leaves my hands. I’ve been sharing in some small, close music communities, but not more widely, and that’s been somewhat deliberate. It’s been liberating making things primarily for myself, rather than as part of some public social portfolio. (Hence: a name, and a Soundcloud account, just for this; a fresh start).

It’s the end of 2017. It turns out I have a decent pile of tracks I’m happy with on my hard disk. So why not put them together as some kind of record? It’s not mastered, and it’s not work that was originally intended as an album. Think of it more as a sketchbook; a collection of work over a year. It’s available on Bandcamp to stream for free, for as long as you want. Many of them exist elsewhere online. Or, it’s a fiver to download. I don’t know if anybody will. I don’t know if that’ll put them off. But why not put a value on art, eh?

I’m still calling myself a musician. I’m making instruments and tools I use in my own work. I know that it’s probably only ever going to be part of my life. Not an entire career, but a thing I do nonetheless, and I know it’s going to take many forms – I’m probably never going to stop playing jazz at home, for instance. But at the end of a year when I’ve felt busy at work, and quiet outside it: a reminder I wasn’t doing nothing, and I wasn’t that quiet.

Beautiful live performance from Marcus Fischer, captured by Datachoir (whose other videos I must clearly check out). I particularly enjoyed the way the pinecone bed anchors the piece, and the drone ebows on the miniature zither. Gorgeous; a style and manner I aspire to, but that’s clearly emerged from a lot of careful practice and listening.

Don Buchla died. This is the Guardian’s obituary.

Although Moog is often credited with having invented the first modular synthesizer, Moog even admitted during his lifetime that Buchla was the first to have a full concept of how to put all the modules together to add up to an instrument. Buchla tended to avoid the term ‘synthesizer,’ preferring to use terms such as ‘electronic instrument.’

That is, I guess, the neatest summation of what I valued most about Buchla – who I came to late. Not just neat synthesizers with tangles of wire, but a clear understanding of how they were instruments. Whilst the System 100 and 200 are all obviously hugely important, for me, nothing summed that up more than the Music Easel. I might still write something about how perfect the Easel is as an electronic instrument; I’ve found that the more I stare at Buchla’s instruments, the more cleverly put together they are. (Not to be a downer on Moog, but some days, I’m sad how dominant the Moog-subtractive East-Coast model is. It’s a great model for synthesis, but god, therea re so many others.)

This also reminds meme of the work I did on Twinklr, and the work I’m continuing to do on something like an instrument:

“…if a designer expects to design legitimate instruments, he has to design them from the outside in,” Buchla continued. “He has to build the outside of the instrument first. This is what the musician is going to encounter. You cannot become obsolete if you design a legitimate instrument from the outside in.”

It was all there, right from the start, and he kept playing and making throughout his life. As somebody pointed out on Twitter: even if you don’t know his instrument or name, his influence is in every music studio in the world, every softsynth, every EDM track. It was all there.

Then again, maybe the most pertinent quotation from the obit is Suzanne Ciani:

“He never wore matching socks, but oddly, as an enthusiastic tennis opponent, always wore pristine tennis whites.”

Some music notes

27 June 2016

I wanted to gather various notes about musical things I’ve been up to or enjoying. It seemed sensible to write them all down.

I suppose, most notably for me, I’ve been making music again. What do I mean by ‘again’? I guess I mean ‘with a degree of conviction and purpose’. I’ve always been tinkering with composition and production again – mainly at arms’ length – over the past, well, 10 years. But I’ve never quite settled into the routines I had in my late teens and early twenties, when, in what once upon a time might have been called ‘a tiny bedroom project studio’ I recorded some quite bad electronic music that almost nobody’s ever heard.

It may have been quite bad, but I was turning up and doing the work. Then, life happened, and I stopped.

Somehow, in the past 12-24 months, I’ve slowly been getting back in the saddle. Not just tinkering from time to time, but doing so with a degree of purpose; something like conviction.

Some of what’s changed is giving myself a surprising amount of permission to fail. I have no huge ambitions; in the list of goals my partner and I shared with each other at New Year, I said (as one of mine) “I’d like to record four pieces of music I’m happy with in the next twelve months“. Four doesn’t sound like a lot, does it? But that makes it achievable. I’m fantastic at setting myself unrealistic goals and then being disappointed. Rampant realism was important to me.

By those goals: I’m succeeding, and definitely on track to make that much. I’m slowly finding something like a voice, even if my approach is somewhat scattergun.

You can see that I’m dancing about the subject, can’t you? Not saying what it is or showing off. That’s partly down to a degree of caution and, frankly, the fact it’s very exposing to talk about creative work. Somebody in my circles – and I’m afraid I forget who – pointed out that at some point, around the dawning of Web 2.0, hobbies became performative (it crops up in this newsletter from Dan Hon, but I’m sure I came across it a while before). We did things we enjoyed, but sharing the output was part of the validation. Look at me! I’d been a photography enthusiast since I was a young teenager, but Flickr changed a lot of things about what that interest meant, and how it was perceived.

And whilst I was perfectly happy to share my photo albums – perhaps even joining in the performance of promotion, or over-sharing, or making things in order for them to be liked… music is much more personal for me. I’m acutely aware I don’t meet the standards I set for myself, and actively don’t want to self-justify.

It has been liberating keeping so much to myself for the past two years. Even if most of it went in the virtual bin, I have to remind myself that I enjoy the process and that time spent enjoying oneself is time well spent.

Right now, though, it feels like things are slowly sticking; that I’ve started to move forward the tiniest bit, rather than turning in circles. So I wanted to write about that. This is why, if you follow me on Instagram, there are occasionally cryptic photos of instruments, or computer screens, or strange electronics.

Interlude: here’s a piece I wrote a few months’ back:

One of the things I’m also doing is “making things to make music with”. The past twelve months has seen me spend more and more time building things to make sound with. Yes, I’ve tinkered a lot with Arduinos and so forth in the past – but I’m now at the point of building (though not exactly ‘designing’) analogue circuits, designing and manufacturing PCBs, and so forth.

It’s very satisfying making things to make with. Much like building any kind of tool, I guess – although more interesting when you’re building things to afford creative possibility, rather than straight utility. As part of this, I’ve been getting into modular synthesis, building a small and esoteric Eurorack synthesizer. Some of the things I’ve been building for it might become open-source, or shared as kits; currently, I’m trying to take a prototype of a particular module that some people have been enthusiastic about to Brighton Modular this weekend.

And, of course, I built a touchscreen music box over the past six months. That reminded me how much I enjoy working in and around this space, and how I’d like to spend more time making that part of my practice.

But it’s not just about making and gadgets. The point of all this is turning up. So some days I just play and don’t hit record. Some days, I do. Some days, I take advantage of a nearby piano and rattle through some standards. Playing in every sense of the word is what’s important.

I’ve also been taking part in a few Disquiet Juntos. They’re run by Marc Weidenbaum over long weekends; one a week. Each is a provocation to make sound or music or both or neither; a constraint to start with. (“[Weidenbaum] writes reviews of music that doesn’t exist yet and then gets internet strangers to make it.“). Some of my entries were given up on when it was clear they weren’t going anywhere; others have been more surprising. Here’s one, my response to treat the notes that make up a chord:

The juntos force you to examine process a bit – but also listen to very different responses to the same provocation. It’s also striking how happy I am with the outcomes – a few might get polished a bit more into longer pieces.

Oh, and every other month or so, I’m singing again, with this lot. That helps: a brilliant way to clear and empty my head.

I’ve been spending some time in musical communities, too. I’ve found much of the community around modular synthesis depressingly gear-focused in the least interesting ways; the Pokémon-like attitude of so many modular fans is exhausting – not to mention almost antithetical to the idea of building an instrument. The DIY synth community is a lot of fun, though, and I’ve particular enjoyed spending time at Lines, the monome community forum: it has an attitude and thoughtfulness that’s very welcome.

And finally, I’ve been enjoying a fair few podcasts:

  • Why We Listen is wonderful: Marc Kate talks to interviewees about three pieces of music they’ve chosen to listen to; not nearly as Desert Island Discs as it sounds, but great to take time over listening.
  • Meet the Composer is wonderful – deep, meaty, well-produced, it interviews modern classical composers about their process in depth.
  • Radio 3’s Composers’ Rooms is lovely, in part because of its pared-down nature: short, focused conversations with composers about their workspaces, which vary wildly. Nice as audio documentary for its necessarily heavy amount of acutality; it’s a very simple programme but Sara is a great interviewer, and the conversations are meaningful and concise.
  • Darwin Grosse’s Art + Music + Technology does what it says on the tin. Tends to focus on a few particular communites – modern electronic composition, modular synthesis, the Max-and-similar world, computational music – but again, by giving interviewees time to think and discourse, Darwin goes some interesting places fast. Nicely connects the technical and artistic – and never loses site of the artistic nature of all music technology; the plusses in the title are very deliberate.
  • And, of course, Song Exploder, which felt like a neat secret when I started listening and is, of course, now wildly popular. Fair play; it’s an accessible format, well produced, and speaks to that need of wanting to understand the art we see and here.

One final piece. I wrote this last weekend, mainly on a QWERTY laptop keyboard, as an entry into Junto 233. I wasn’t sure it’d turn into anything, but doing everything on earbuds and a laptop keyboard felt like another interesting constraint.

I’m keeping going, making the path by walking, under this moniker that seems to feel about right for what I want to do, even if the music I’m making isn’t always living up to it yet. I’m probably not talking about it again for a long while. But it’s freeing doing this for myself, for finding a way to share something without feeling a need to make it for a particular audience or listener, and seeing what – and who – sticks.

KiNK on Beat This

01 April 2015

Beat This is a regular show on Don’t Watch That TV that challenges producers to put together a track in ten minutes. They’re all quite varied – some people are clearly assembling things from the depths of their sample libraries; others are starting from somewhere more barebones. (I love the Swindle one for his piano chops.)

Anyhow, they teamed up with Novation to do some promotional content – showing off producers producing on Novation kit. And I completely loved what KiNK then went on to do: he just started playing.

It’s a lovely, ten minute live performance. At the end, you can hear the producer say ‘can you play the track?‘ and he points out that was the track. He didn’t record it.

It’s also amusing to see how little of the equipment he’s using. Mainly, he’s using an old headphone into an audio input, and then feeding that into a variety of effects in Live to variously be a kick, snare, all manner of other percussive sounds, and then at the very end he uses the audio signal to gate or side-chain the Bass Station loops he’s recording.

It feels right: straightforward, relatively improvised, space to layer without having to hit stop or break frame. I’m really into live performance techniques for electronic music; as such, I enjoyed watching someone perform and compose all at once.

Sounds of the Summer

04 July 2010

russchimes.jpg

I’m pretty sure that my sound for the summer is going to be Russ Chimes’ Expressway Mixtape (pt. 1). An hour of stompy, sunshiney electro; it’s carried me around the South Bank, the South Circular, and it’s probably going to slingshot me along the M4 in a month’s time. Solid tunes, and some great, subtle mixing. If that sounds like your thing – bouncy, dancy, blissful and slightly dirty electro – you should head straight over and download it. It’s very good.

(I’ve been recommending this so much in the past week that it made sense just to give it a permalink, and share it here.)