Who needs aliens?

May is my favourite month of the year for weather. It’s warm but not humid, and there still aren’t too many insects about. Apart from these buggers that is. For the past few years we’ve had centipede incursions every May. This particular one was waiting in the doorway when I arrived home one night last week. I usually catch insects and let them out, but for these nightmares I make an exception. Boiling water does them in.

A couple of experiences.

One time I was sitting at the computer. You know those comedy horror films where there’s a person and this huge monster is behind them? They’ll mistake the monster’s claw for their wife’s hand or something and bat it away? Well I was that person and one of these creatures was the monster. I thought it was a thread on my jumper touching the back of my neck. I kept brushing it away until I realised what it was. I hit the ceiling. Never moved so fast.

Then, one time I was sitting watching the telly. No warning. Something’s up my trouser leg! Pain!! One of the little buggers had slipped up unnoticed and rammed its horns into my shin. Again, I’ve never moved as quickly in my life. The two holes took over a week to heal.

This one here is about the length of my middle finger. Very meaty and has a weight when you pick it up. More like a little animal than an insect. And look at the colour. Who needs aliens when these things are lurking nearby?


Incoming: Moog Etherwave Plus Theremin

I’ve wanted a theremin for years, but spare cash has always gone on other things. This time felt like the right time. First there was the Google doodle in March, which started me checking prices. I found this very attractive customised Etherwave. Then Prince died. There’s nothing like celebrity musician death for inspiring (justifying?) gear purchase. Not that Prince used one – just the old mortality, no second chances thing.

So now I have a theremin. It’s the Plus model that has CV out, so I can hook it up to the MS-20 or Microbrute and drive those. It’s a lot more difficult than it looks. An hour with it and I still can’t produce anything remotely resembling music. Call me if you need a retro horror movie soundtrack though.

Check out this wonderful performance. Unbelievable precision.

Prince and Tomita one after the other. What a shame.

Prince was probably the only artist I’d count myself a fan of. Well, him and Kate Bush. Flawed but brilliant. Funky as hell. Unswerving. Always true to his own music. The first song on his first album could have been the last on his final.

Then Tomita, who gave the world one of the best electronic music albums ever in “Snowflakes Are Dancing”. I started listening to it in my teens and it still calms me now.

Sad to see them go.


A break between equipment change didn’t really work. I should have started up again the week after switching. Instead, no music and no posts for over a month.

This is the three analogue Volcas – beats, bass and keys. They’re all running through a Mini Kaoss Pad 2S ping pong delay and a Behringer RV600 hall reverb for width. I’m doing the Volcas to learn how to tweak parameters rather than play my way through a piece, but keeping things evolving and interesting turns out to be a lot harder than it looks. I’ve failed miserably here. Can’t keep my fingers off the keys.

This is the kind of thing I’m aiming for.

Incoming: volca fm


The Korg volca fm was released today and mine arrived this afternoon. It’s a three voice six operator FM synthesizer that can also load old Yamaha DX patches. I started it up and went through the preset sequences. I’ve never been deeply into FM synthesis, but to my ears it sounds great. It has the same 1/4 tempo setting as the volca keys, so you can stretch out one measure to last four. Plus it’s the first volca to have an arpeggiator, and it looks like that can be used as a filler for 1/4 tempo sequences. Patch two – musicbox – is set to do that and it sounds fantastic. Sounds like 16th or 32nd notes throughout the four measure sequence.

So, there are five volcas for me to get through now. I’ve been playing around with the beats, bass and keys, but it’s taking a while to get used to tweaking instead of playing. Maybe another week or two and I’ll be able to post something.

I also bought the new Korg Minilogue last month, but that’s still in the box while I find somewhere to put it. I’ve been waiting thirty years for an affordable polyphonic analogue synthesizer. It’s a mystery how they’ve managed to do it. It has its limitations, but for the price it’s amazing. The sound reminds me a lot of my old Casio CZ-101. It’s a very modern-looking, clean-sounding synth, but a lot more versatile. The first patch I got out of it was a really crisp, harmonically rich, FM-like bell sound. Not the kind of sound you’d think was easily achievable with a basic analogue synth.

Korg started the recent analogue revival with the Monotron in 2010. The volcas, the MS-20 Mini, the ARP, then the Minologue followed. There are so many interesting options. Other makers have tried to respond in their own way – both Roland and Yamaha releasing compact digital versions of past synths – but failed to hit the spot in the same way that Korg has. They’re gadgety, but not quite gadgety enough. And they’re not real analogue.

My house is starting to look like a Korg showroom. Even my daughter has one.

U Robot

The last littleBits Synth Kit I’ll be doing for a while.

I’ll come back to it if they release the LFO bit that’s supposed to be in development. A proper ADSR envelope would be nice too. In the meantime, I’ll keep my eye on prices and try to snap bits up when they’re cheap. One more oscillator, another filter and two more mixers would be useful. Also a second speaker so I can split outputs to different effects.

There’s another problem I’ve found with the kit. The pink connectors at either end of each bit are sturdy, but the supports on the underside of the keyboard and mixer bits break far too easily. The mounting boards are part of the problem – you really have to push to get a bit in then prise and pull to get it out. So I’ve broken the keyboard and a mixer trying to get them from the board. I’ll have to glue the supports back on.

It’s been fun using the littleBits kit, but I think I’ve fallen in love with the Volca Bass. What a fantastic little instrument it is, especially for the price. You can tease so much variation out of it, and it all sounds amazing. There are no effects on the “U Robot” bass at all. I’m not even using all three oscillators, just two of them slightly detuned. The LFO is synced to the tempo and is modulating the filter cutoff with a square wave to give a delay effect.

It’s time to move on to the Volcas in fact. Up until now, I’ve been using the Bass and Beats for backing only – simple sixteen step sequences that run from the beginning to the end of a piece. But the Volcas’ real strength is in their tweakability. It’ll be the same sixteen step sequences as before, but instead of keeping things interesting by playing a melody over the top, I’ll be muting/soloing, tweaking parameters, swapping parts, that kind of thing. My instinct is always to play, to avoid too much repetition. So tweaking without playing is going to be a challenge.

Jelly Tot

I thought I’d try to stick to the littleBits Synth Kit’s natural sound this time and do something robotic, but I veered way off course. I ended up with this vaguely latin-sounding thing. Not one of the better ones.

One more from the Synth Kit, then I think I’d better move on.

A couple of things I’ve learnt using the Synth Kit and two Volcas. First, it’s ok if the Volca Bass is out of tune. The bass in “jelly tot” is a full semitone out with respect to the SQ-1 sequence, and if I hiked the pitch up an octave it would sound awful. But if there’s enough bottom, you can get away with it. This gives you more freedom to move about with the melody.

Second thing, if you do keep the melody moving and interesting, you can get away with those sixteen step sequences for quite a while. In “jelly tot”, the SQ-1 sequence, the drums, and the bass are all simple sixteen step sequences that last about two seconds. The piece is over two minutes long, so they all repeat over sixty times!

End Game

It turns out the littleBits keyboard isn’t faulty – it’s the oscillator causing the problem and it’s not a fault. The littleBits oscillator has a potentiometer labelled “pitch” and a little dial labelled “tune”. This is misleading. What the dial label should actually read is “calibrate”. I bet almost everyone using the kit thinks it’s a fine tune dial, but its real purpose is to adjust how the component maps incoming voltage to outgoing pitch. Very confusing.

Another piece using the sixteen steps of the SQ-1. This time you can hear clearly what the El Capistan is doing to the sequence. I wish the littleBits synth kit had a full ADSR envelope. It’s only attack and decay. Once you put the envelope in the chain, you lose the ability to sustain. The envelope just runs its course.

The Next Day They Were Gone

February, the darkest month of the year. Freezing temperatures. The flu. And this year, I’m working my way through a box set of soul-crushing slaughterfest “Game Of Thrones”. There’s no way I could do anything but a dirge this week.

The humble littleBits Synth Kit producing some fairly good strings. Of course, it’s the not-so-humble BigSky that’s doing most of the work. It’s set on cloud mode. And the El Capistan is mangling the wave pre-reverb to give some depth. More detune between the oscillators would give a richer sound, but for the reasons listed below wasn’t practical. Volca Beats providing barely audible drums and Volca Bass filling in the bottom end.

The biggest problem with the littleBits Synth Kit is tuning and tracking. I can have two oscillators perfectly in tune, but come back the next day and they’ll be out of whack. This is at the same room temperature and after they’ve had some voltage through them. Then there’s tracking. Regardless of conditions, an octave on the keyboard is never an octave on the oscillator. And the margin of error seems to vary depending on which oscillator module I’m using. That’s why much of this stuff I’m doing sounds out of tune half the time. There’s no way to compensate.

Long Run

I bought five new bits for the littleBits Synth Kit, three of them to give me some interface other than the teeny-weeny keyboard – a button, a slider and a bend sensor. The other two are the inverter and logic XOR bits. I found a video showing how to emulate ring modulation with the XOR, so I thought I’d try that.

The arpeggio sequence is one littleBits oscillator driven by the SQ-1. The lead sound I’m playing is two oscillators sending through filters to the XOR bit. I have the bend bit modulating the frequency of both filters. Depending on the filter cutoff and peak settings, it’s possible to get some seriously screaming distortion going. I tried attaching the bend sensor to my index finger with elastic bands. That was fun, but difficult to control accurately enough. So I fixed it to the board and I’m just bending it with my left hand.

This series of doodles with the littleBits kit is to find out how much useable music I can get out of it. I thought I’d do ten in all before moving on to the next thing. So, six down four to go.