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.

Sneak

Noodle on Friday, refine on Saturday, record and up on Sunday, forget on Monday. The best thing about doing music this way is that you needn’t spend weeks (in my case years) with an idea trying to make it perfect. Once it’s presentable, you can let it go and you’re free to move on to the next thing. Nobody’s going to listen anyway! Who cares!!

Actually, I do care a little. For the first time ever I feel like I belong to an online community, although no one has taken notice yet. There are loads of people doing the same thing, many with similar equipment. It’s interesting to see how they use it and what kind of music comes out.

The Volca Beats for drums and Volca Bass for bass. No effects on those. This time I’m splitting the output from the SQ-1 all over the place. It’s going to drive the arpeggio sequence on one littleBits oscillator, and to trigger the envelope of the melody line I’m playing. I also have it triggering filters on both the sequence and the lead, although in the end I left it as a subtle effect rather than ramping it up to squidge level. The melody I’m playing is two oscillators. One is tuned, but the other I’ve turned all the way to the right. That’s what’s giving it the percussive tone you can hear especially on low notes. LittleBits is running through a Strymon Big Sky set on room reverb.

Everything into an Alto ZMX52 mixer and aux out to a Tascam DR-07MKII recorder. Single take. No dubbing or processing. Video recorded on a Pentax Q.

I Am Not Ashamed

It’s not easy to escape musical roots. For me, everything veers towards the eighties. Ten years ago, that would have been embarrassing. But as far as I can tell, previously uncool eighties-style musical elements have been sort of welcomed back into the fray in the same way that fifties was in the eighties and seventies was in the …. I’m struggling to think. Sixties in the nineties? It’s a funny business, music and fashion. No absolutes. Everything resurfaces. Everything comes around for a second try.

I am not ashamed.

I bought another oscillator and a fork module and I was planning to do some big orchestral sounds but this is what came out. Three voices from the littleBits Synth Kit …. the main arpeggio driven by the SQ-1, a bit of percussive dirt using the random module (also driven by the SQ-1), and the plucked lead sound. These are all going through the BigSky on shimmer again.

The Volca Beats is providing drums, the Volca Bass the bass. No effects on those. The Sync Out on the SQ-1 is connected to the In of the Volca Beats, but for some reason I’m only getting the first eight steps cycling. I tried testing the Volca Bass and it ran the whole sixteen step cycle. Something to solve.

Everything into an Alto ZMX52 mixer and aux out to a Tascam DR-07MKII recorder. Single take. No dubbing or processing. Video recorded on a Pentax Q.

Debut on bass for my left index finger!

Up A Gear

Exactly what I need to do in 2016 – go up a gear.

This is the littleBits Synth Kit again. It’s amazing what this thing can do. I’m putting it through the BigSky and a Behringer RV600 for a bit of presence, but even without effects the patch sounds pretty impressive.

There are three sounds coming out of littleBits. I have the keyboard module pushing one oscillator. The output of that oscillator I’m splitting. One channel goes to the filter and the other to a further oscillator. The filter is being modulated by the Korg SQ-1. That’s the main sound of the piece. I’m not using the SQ-1 for pitch modulation this time. The other channel is basically the first oscillator modulating the second. That’s the big sound that comes in at 1:20. From the modules left over – a Random module and a filter – I set up a bit of percussion, the snare-like sound you can hear from the beginning. That’s also being driven by the SQ-1.

The BigSky is in shimmer mode, but with a very short delay. Shimmer mode allows you to double, actually triple up the pitch at various intervals. So it’s producing an extra voice one octave lower and one an octave higher.

The Volca Beats is doing the drums. More Volca next time.

Something Simple

I’ve dabbled in music for years. I was hitting teenage when synthesizer music took off. My first electronic instrument was a Casio VL-Tone. My first monophonic synthesizer was a Teisco 60f. My first polyphonic a Casio CZ-101. I had a ROMpler workstation in the nineties, and switched to Sonar on the computer in the noughties. The last year or two I’ve been building a setup so I can move away from the computer again. But even now, I never get anything finished. Doesn’t seem to matter what I use.

So I thought I’d do something similar to my animation project – simple stuff first and build gradually. I have a littleBits Synth Kit. It seemed a good place to start.

I’m cheating a bit. I ran it through a Strymon BigSky reverb. You could put nails down a blackboard through the BigSky and have it come out sounding like heaven. But still, littleBits is fun. Too bad it’s so expensive here, especially with the weak yen. The kit is divided into components – oscillator, envelope, filter etc. – that snap together using magnets. The pink bits you can see are the magnetic connectors. Because you can order the components in any way you like, there are many many possibilities for sound synthesis. Maybe next week I’ll try something a little more ambient or ethereal.