Case Studies

Making Up for Lost Time

It’s been far too long since my last update, so let’s dive right in. It’s my intention to keep the site live and current once the Seaboard arrives, and it looks like that time is drawing nigh. ROLI has let me know they are working hard to ship in February, and I’ve never been happier that February is the shortest month. I understand that one never knows for sure with a new product launch, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed; I know everyone at ROLI is eager to get the fruit of their labors out into the world.

Three book covers

Interesting; I had to consciously stop myself from typing “labours.” I have the feeling there’s going to be some cultural bleed-through here between British and American spellings. I’m currently reading several British-intensive books: the third volume of The Last Lion, William Manchester’s bio of Winston Churchill; Lawrence in Arabia, a fascinating revisionist history of the formation of the modern Middle East; and Dominion, an alternate-history novel in which Britain surrendered to Germany the day before Churchill became Prime Minister in the real world (or at least our version. Not even a fictional Churchill would ever have let that kind of nasty business go down while he was PM.) All that exposure to British English is bound to add a little “colour” to my typing.

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Several weeks ago, I received a special package from London; the folks at ROLI were kind enough to send me an official ROLI t-shirt and hoodie! True to their off-the-beaten-track group ethos, they enclosed a hand-written note instead of corporate letterhead; I don’t think they’ll mind if I transcribe it here:

To our friend Randy –

All the best from the ROLI team. We wanted you to be the first person not working here in London with a ROLI sweatshirt. Hope it keeps you warm and well.

As previously promised, here’s a photo of yours truly modeling said sweatshirt – and a very high-quality garment it is! I’ve been wearing it around home in lieu of turning up the heat. Thanks so much; I really appreciate it. The first time I put it on, watching in the mirror as I pulled it over my head and saw the stylized “R” appear on my chest, I had the strangest sensation… it was like that moment in a superhero origin story when the protagonist becomes aware of their destiny, and vows “to use my powers for good, not evil…!”

Self portrait with hoodie

Let it be known that when it comes to haircuts, my philosophy has long been “twice a year, whether I need it or not…” Clearly, it is never a good idea to be photographed immediately after one of those infrequent occasions. Live and learn.

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While we’re awaiting The Dawn of the Seaboard Age (hey, that sounds like a track from a Yes album; I’ll have to use it) there’s still plenty to keep me occupied here in the project studio.

Ever since I first worked with quad back in the ’70s at Brown University’s MacColl Studio for Electronic Music, I’ve been a surround hound. I just love the immersive and psychoacoustic properties a good surround system brings to the composer/performer. There are distribution challenges; while standards exist for surround monitoring systems, studios in general (mine included) play fast and loose with them, and once music makes it out into the real world, there’s generally no telling how your work will be played back.

If your audience is fortunate enough to actually have a multi-speaker surround system instead of one of those cursed little “surround bars,” it’s almost certainly at the mercy of the logistics of the living space. Its primary duty is inevitably soundtrack support for a home theater, and 90% of the time the subwoofer(s) will be cranked to foundation-crumbling Sensurround® levels… because they can be. That’s return on investment.

I don’t want to perpetuate a groaning relationship cliché, but it is a fact that there are disagreements between spouses/roommates about the validity of/necessity for multiple speaker enclosures and wiring (yes, I’m going there) in a space that is often perceived/defended as the sovereign territory of one party or the other. This reality can result in the tragic “compromise” of in-wall speakers, which are of so little use to anyone that the defending party is generally more than happy to allow their incursion, as the end result is truly “just like they’re not even there.” If that’s what you set out to achieve, that’s very likely just what you’ll get.

Still, you play the hand you’re dealt, and the glories and sheer joy of creating a good surround mix outweigh the unknowns. I suppose that’s just as true of monaural music in the era of free cellphone earbuds. So I persist in gearing up for as compelling a surround experience as I can possibly create.

The most recent additions are:

• A five-microphone array for on-location ambient and performance recording. Good mics get expensive in a hurry, so I expanded my existing set of Russian Oktava small-diaphragm mics, upgraded with Michael Joly’s stellar internal electronics. So now I have a matched L/R Oktava pair and a center Oktava for the front, and Michael’s own matched MJE-384 SDC mics for the rear surround pair. More about this setup in the weeks to come, when it’s not quite so frigid outside and I can do some field recording.

• To do the actual surround recording, there were a few options. I have a Metric Halo Firewire audio interface that’s superb for stereo recordings with a laptop, but upgrading to a quality portable interface that would handle five or more channels would be more of an investment than I was willing to make. And I wanted to eliminate the laptop, so I’d be able to readily use the recorder while shooting digital video.

Tascam DR-680

I chose the Tascam DR-680 8-channel portable field recorder, and had six preamps modified by Busman Audio to lower the noise floor by more than 8db – a very substantial improvement. It’s a fantastic little unit! It supports 96khz/24-bit recording, and is perfect for surround work. My first tests with the mic array have delivered excellent results, and I know it’s going to be a great workhorse for any number of applications. Surround sampling and environmental recording are both high on my list.

Goal Zero Yeti 150

A Goal Zero Yeti 150 portable power supply will provide plenty of juice for extended recording/shooting sessions when there’s no AC available. And I haven’t forgotten Hurricane Sandy and last year’s winter storms, which resulted in power outages that sometimes lasted for several days. It’s reassuring to know I’ve got backup power on hand for the various iDevices.

• Anyone doing music production winds up with software tools they depend on like their own right hand; for many years, I’ve used Audio Ease’s Altiverb convolution reverb software. It performs flawlessly, delivers superb results, and the Audio Ease impulse response mavens continue to scour the planet, delivering an ever-expanding library of exotic environments and spaces – all for free to the end user! It’s an incredible feeling to get an email announcing that the Great Pyramid of Giza is now available as a free download. And this sort of thing continues, year after year.


I finally upgraded from the stereo version to the XL version, which supports up to 5.1 channels and sample rates over 96k. I have some fantastic pipe organ samples from Budapest, and when I dropped them into Notre-Dame Cathedral in surround… well, it’s not hyperbole to say that it approaches religious experience. Even when I’m not recording, it’s a fantastic tool for practicing and developing ideas for new music; it transforms your perception of what you’re playing. I love this software.

• Back at Brown’s electronic music studio, we had a handmade 4-in/4-out box with four joysticks, perfect for panning sounds around a quad environment. It was also great for mixing stereo, as sounds would fade as you panned them to the unused rear channels. This memory left me less than satisfied with using a mouse to manipulate a tiny virtual surround puck onscreen. Contemporary hardware surround joysticks tend to be part of a larger control console, and are generally quite expensive.

Logitech Extreme 3D Gaming Joystick

My DAW (digital audio workstation) of choice, Digital Performer, supports the use of an inexpensive USB joystick as a surround panner. I found a Logitech 3D Pro gaming joystick for all of $25, and it works like a charm – and looks wikkit cool (that’s New England talk) on my desk. It’s covered with buttons that can be assigned to all sorts of MIDI functions, and I’ve assigned the “firing trigger” to turn the panning functionality on and off. Even though the joystick is spring-loaded to automatically return to the center position, all I have to do is release the trigger, and the sound I’m panning stays exactly where I left it. Using automation, I can manipulate one track at a time into extremely complex surround motion. Now, this is the sort of thing that’s easy to overdo, but in the right circumstances, it’s a lot of fun.

• My last post described the Kyma system, and how it requires an audio interface of its own. I’ve been having great fun getting to know Kyma, and I still have a long way to go. For the time being, I’ve held off on upgrading my Mac’s older surround interface to match the Kyma’s new one – the final step that will allow me to monitor the Kyma in surround. That will come, but for now, I’ve got my hands full working with the Kyma in stereo – a perfect subject for a future post. Thus concludes the surround portion of today’s update!

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Just a couple more brief mentions, as they involve very recent additions, and I’m just beginning to get hands-on experience with them.

Teenage Engineering OP-1 Portable Synth

I’ve had my eyes on Teenage Engineering’s portable OP-1 synth for several years now, and I finally made the plunge and picked up a barely-used (less than 10 hours) unit from eBay. Always a bit of a risk, but this one turned out to be in perfect condition, as advertised. It’s got a very appealing Mattel®-toy vibe, but the bright colors and tiny size don’t change the fact that this little guy is actually an extremely flexible and powerful tool.

My intention is to use its unique capabilities to create one-off sound events that would be difficult or impossible to manage with my other instruments, and then bring them into the studio to be assembled via my DAW. It’s apparent that there are lots of possibilities for round-tripping, where audio is exported from the studio into the OP-1, manipulated, and then returned to the DAW. But not to put too fine a point on things… whatever other goals I have for the OP-1, ultimately it’s all about FUN.

This week, I’ll be taking Amtrak to New York City for Keith Jarrett’s solo performance at Carnegie Hall; according to the New York Times, it’s the only solo concert he’ll be performing this year. I was there for his 2005 concert, which was released by ECM on CD, and it was an extraordinary experience. I’m expecting the sublime… but I’ll be taking advantage of the round trip to spend some quality time being ridiculous with the OP-1. Since all of my headphones are open-backed Grados, I’ve thoughtfully picked up a pair of closed-back Sennheisers so I can bop to my heart’s content without being thrown off the train. I’m looking forward to a fantastic couple of days.

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When I was finishing my time as a student at Brown, a couple of events took place that had me thinking “Of course! I should have known… just as I’m leaving…” The music department moved to a snazzy new building just around the corner from the student co-op where I was living, and the electronic music studio acquired a Synclavier – an early digital sampling, FM/additive synthesis beast. This was a very big-ticket item at the time; guitarist Pat Metheny and well-known iconoclast/composer/guitar virtuoso Frank Zappa each made extensive use of the instrument. I never actually got hands-on experience with it, though I did witness a demo that left me agog. (sigh)

Of course, during the ’80s I was able to go hands-on with sampling (Casio FZ-1, among others) and FM synthesis (the ground-breaking Yamaha DX7, TX-7 and TX816!) but never got any significant experience with additive synthesis beyond Hammond organs (yes, that’s what those drawbars are all about) and some relatively primitive work with the Apple II+ based Alpha Syntauri. (Still, I had a *lot* for affection for the Syntauri; it was my first digital instrument.)

That’s a shame, because additive synthesis can be an extraordinarily powerful technique, and can produce extremely complex, utterly dazzling sounds that no other technique can manage. It can be a beast though, as you’re literally building sounds harmonic by harmonic, assembling individual sine waves into your final sound. If you’re going to produce anything beyond unchanging organ tones, each harmonic will need to be given an amplitude envelope of its own, and things can get ridiculously complicated in a hurry.

I’ve just come across a soft synth that promises to make additive synthesis accessible, manageable, and more mainstream. While following NAMM coverage, I learned about AIR Music Technology’s Loom soft synth. Apparently it’s been out for about a year, but it’s news to me.

AIR Music Technology Loom

And what news it is. On the basis of a couple reviews and a few demo sounds, I went ahead and purchased the plug-in… and immediately disappeared down the rabbit hole. While simply auditioning presets, I was hearing things I’d never heard from any other instrument I’ve played; just holding down a few notes was enough to produce evolving tone clusters that evoked Gyorgy Ligeti’s Atmospheres. In case you can’t tell, I’m very, very excited about this new tool, and looking forward to putting in the time to get to know it inside-out. I believe the Seaboard will be well-suited for controlling individual sound parameters in real time, and like Kyma, I can’t wait to marry the two!

If you’ve stuck with me through this post, thanks for hanging in there. I’m planning to keep them coming more regularly, and I have high hopes that the Seaboard will be here soon to help me do just that. I’ve got to start earning my domain name!

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