Wednesday, November 28, 2012

SSL Double Deka VCO -- first look

This beast is the Synthetic Sound Labs Double Deka VCO, based on the original design by Ian Fritz.  SSL just completed a limited run, which was marketed through Muff's.  The module, as you can see, is a three-unit-wide module in Dotcom (aka MU) format.  It takes power through a standard Dotcom 6-pin MTA-100 connector.  

To be honest, I'm not yet fully up on how this beast actually works.  As I understand it, the VCO proper runs in the ultrasonic range (around 100 KHz, I think), and it divides that down to produce square waves of varying ratios, which can be mixed in inverted or non-inverted via the banks of sliders that feature so prominently on the panel.  There are actually two, but they share a set of frequency control voltage inputs -- 1V/octave, variable-ratio exponential, and linear inputs are all available.  There is an octave selector for each bank, and a mix control for mixing the two banks.  There are a bunch of other control voltage inputs that I'll detail in a review after I've had a bit more time with it.

Before it's installed, let's look at the back:

We see three boards: the large board taking up most of the surface area of the panel appears to be the "main" board; it has some surface mount, and most of the panel controls are mounted to it.  The long board at the bottom mainly carries I/O jacks.  The extension board sticking out from the right edge is show in a better view below:

Interestingly, this board appears to be carrying the actual VCO circuitry, since the tempco mounted to the expo-converting transistor array is obvious if you look closely (under the blue trim pot).  The power input connector is also here; you can see it as the white component at the left edge in this picture.  That location caused me a slight bit of trouble during installation since it's near the top edge, and I had to bend the power cable some to keep the top cover from pressing on it.  

So how does it sound?  Well, I've only had about 20 minutes so far... It's a VCO that has a lot of capability for generating various timbres.  Adjusting the sliders has so far been a trial-and-error process; I'm still trying to find the design documentation (which doesn't seem to be present on Ian's Web site at the moment).  So far what I've managed to do with random tweaking has been mostly pulse-sounding things, although I have hit a few times on combinations that had the effect of greatly emphasizing certain harmonics (particular the 2nd and 3rd).  The fact that you have two banks, and that the mix between them is voltage controllable, creates possibilities for morphing between three timbres: the A bank, the B bank, and the timbre that results when the two are mixed.  (You can get a lot of cancellation between them, to the point of the output almost disappearing with certain combinations.)

There are modes for syncing to an external oscillator, which I don't quite understand yet; the terminology used on the switch is not the standard hard/soft selections.  There are control voltage inputs for making the banks change octaves, and a "ring in" jack that I haven't quite figured out -- it doesn't seem to be ordinary ring modulation.  I'm thinking what it might do is square up the input signal and then XOR it against the output.  

I think it's going to be a good module to have and to work with.  By itself, it doesn't zingy outer-space sounds, although I did manage to get a few weird things with external modulation.  There's undoubtedly a lot more timbral capability in the slider banks than I've uncovered so far.  And SSL's service was great; it took a few months to build this batch, but once they were ready and I paid my balance, I received my module within a week.  One minor complaint: no power cable was included.  Not a big deal to me since I have the tools to make my own.  Packaging was very good and my unit arrived in fine shape.  

And yeah, there are those cool LEDs in the sliders.  

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Discombobulator changes

Several months ago I purchases a Rob Hordijk Designs Phaser Filter.  At the time, I didn't have a place to put it.  Last week, I did a rearrangement of the Discombobulator, and I removed a few modules that I haven't been using much, and a couple that weren't working right.  That left me space to install the Phaser Filter.  But, when I went to connect the power cable (it can take the MOTM-format or Dotcom-format power inputs, I found a small problem: The module uses a "sandwich" of two circuit boards, and the space between isn't quite large enough to get the female connector in over the ends of the male connector's pins:

The fix was pretty easy, though: remove the two screws holding the rear board to the standoffs at that end, and loosen the two screws at the other end.  That lets the rear board move away from the front board enough to get the connector in:

The Phaser Filter is a combination of a 5-stage phaser in series with a 3-stage lowpass filter.  It's rather unusual in that, if no modulation signal is plugged into the mod in jacks for each function, the modulation defaults to the incoming audio signal.  I'll have a review with a few audio examples up soon.  Here's the module, ready for installation:

Here are the five blocks of the Discombobulator, brought together on top of the Hammond A100:

The current composition:
Tethys (upper left):
1.  Synth Tech MOTM-310 micro VCO
2.  Synth Tech MOTM-310 micro VCO
3.  Synth Tech MOTM-310 micro VCO
4-5. Rob Hordijk Phaser Filter
6-7. Encore Electronics Frequency Shifter
8.  open
9.   Synth Tech MOTM-890 micro mixer

Iapetus (lower left):
1-2.  Synth Tech MOTM-650 four-channel MIDI interface
3.  Oakley EFG envelope follower / gate generator
4-5.  Synth Tech MOTM-820 voltage controlled lag processor
6. Q128 A-B routing switch
7-8.  Encore Electronics Universal Event Generator
9. Q108 VCA

Dione (upper right):
1. Q130 clipper / rectifier
2-3.  Synth Tech MOTM-410 Triple Resonant Filter (modified)
4-5.  Synth Tech MOTM-510 WaveWarper
6.  Cynthia Steiner Filter (jacks converted to 1/4")
7-8.  Synth Tech MOTM-440 OTA lowpass filter
9.  Synth Tech MOTM-890 micro mixer

Titan (middle right): 
1. Q141 oscillator aid
2-3. Q106 VCO
4.  open
5.  Synth Tech MOTM-190 VCA / ring modulator
6. Q109 ADSR envelope generator
7. Q123 voltage / frequency standards

Rhea (bottom right):
1-2. Q106 VCO
3. Q161 oscillator mixer
4-5.  Synth Tech MOTM-320- voltage controlled LFO
6-7.  Synth Tech MOTM-101 noise source / sample and hold
8-9.  open

Monday, September 17, 2012

First attempt at panel fabrication

I decided to take a crack at fabricating a module panel on my own.  I've got a couple of spaces in the Discombulator that are not quite wide enough for a module in any current 5U format.  So I decided I'd make a multiple that will be a one-half-MOTM-unit width.  "How hard can it be?", I told myself.

So I ordered some sheet aluminum from  This place is nice because the sell sheet, bar, tube, etc. metal goods in retail quantities.  I ordered a 12x24 inch sheet of .0125" 6061 aluminum.  While I was waiting on it, I made a full-size template of the panel, with the locations for the jacks and mounting holes, as well as a switch.  When the metal came in, I used this to mark the length and width of the piece that I wanted.  I bought a metal cutting blade for my circular saw, and had it.

The results, as you can see, were not terribly satisfactory:

The printed template is show here next to cut metal.  As you can see, the cut metal isn't a consistent width; it's wider in the middle.  I found it difficult to cut a straight line with the circular saw because I had to go so slowly, and because the guide on my saw isn't that good.  The burrs were also really bad -- it was like the saw melted some of the edge and it built up an irregular edge on both sides.  I worked on it with a Dremel armed with a diamond-grinding bit, and that got a lot of that cleaned up, but eventually melted metal clogged up the bit.  Nonetheless, I think I'll proceed with drilling and assembly and see how it goes.  I haven't decided yet what to do for a finish.  

Here is the template overlaying the metal:

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What is electronic music?

We pause today to ponder the question: what, exactly, is electronic music?  What does it mean for music to be "electronic"?  We ask this question in part just to be smart alecks, but also because it appears that electronic music is experiencing one of its periodic brief bursts of fashionable-ness.   (Hat tip to "meatballfulton" at VSE.)  Such are always fraught with potential danger: loss of creativity, hyper-inflation of gear prices, and annihilation of the universe by previously-unsuspected interactions between the electron neutrino and pretentious hipsters.

Back in the simpler days of the '60s and '70s, the answer to the question was easy: if electronics were employed in the creation of the various tones, the music was electronic music.  This was because the early synthesizers, and the various pre-synthesizer electronic devices, were not designed to re-create familiar instrument sounds.  In fact, they were designed (or improvised) to do the opposite: the ethos of the day was finding a way to create new sounds and timbres, not reproduced old, tired ones.  (Okay, that last bit may have had some of its own age's hipsterism in it.  Nonetheless, the dedication of early pioneers like Cage, Buchla, and the Radiophonic Workshop gang to pushing the sonic envelope had a lot to do, indirectly, with creating the sounds of a lot of popular music today.) 

Then Yamaha created the DX-7, and whether it intended this result or not, it irreversibly changed the nature of the synthesizer market, as well as defining the not-yet-existent market for things like soft synths and music analysis software.  Before the DX-7, most synth performers created their own patches and sounds; after the DX-7, these people found themselves in a distinct minority.  From the first bar-band keyboard player who glommed onto the DX-7 as a replacement for the venerable Rhodes electric piano, the purpose of synthesizers, as far as 90% of the market is concerned, is not to create new sounds but to reproduce existing ones.  The DX-7 begat the romplers which begat the modern "arranger workstation", such as Roland's Fantom line and Yamaha's Motif line.  Although some of these have some fairly powerful sound-designing features, they are marketed using pitches along the lines of: "Thousands of sounds!  More sound banks available!  Every sound you need in the studio!"  So much so that the ironic comment that modular synth owners often ask each other is: "How is the piano sound?"  The arranger workstations have made the cost of producing music much lower: they can imitate almost any non-electronic instrument, without a huge investment in guitar wood, trumpet brass, or violin catgut.  They work overtime and odd hours without issues.  They never get sick and none of them belong to a union.  Yes, it's true, they don't have down all of the style and mannerisms of a real player playing the actual instrument, but for most purposes in today's pop music, they are good enough.  And anyway, as far as more accurately reproducing all of the nuances of the imitated instruments, the software smart guys are working on it.

So this leads us to a dilemma:  there is a lot of music these days for which electronic instruments were used in its production, but there is no sense that anything in the music is "electronic", except for maybe a certain sense of something being not quite right.  The intent is that it not sound "electronic"; in other words, it carefully avoids that territory that the likes of Buchla and Moog wanted to explore back in the '60s, or Jarre or Fast in the '70s.  The 10% of the synthesizer user market who actually use synths as synths, and not as lower-cost replacements for the Wrecking Crew, are stuck: when they describe what they do as "electronic music", the first thing that comes to mind for the average music listener is the latest pop-tart album, as opposed to, say, Boards of Canada.  The point being that there is probably nothing in the pop-tart stuff that could not have been done without electronic instruments -- it's just cheaper to produce that way.  If we can agree that this does not meet the definition of "electronic music" since it does not take advantage of any of the unique capabilities of the hardware and software, then what shall we call electronic music?

The above statement leads to a possible definition: Electronic music is music that employs electronics to produce tones and timbres that could not have been produced without electronics.  This admittedly is a bit squishy -- does something qualify as electronic music simply because it was run through a flanger? -- but it does leave open the inclusion of music for which the original sound source was non-electronic, but it was processed sufficiently with electronics that the resulting sound is something that could not been done without electronics.  A fair number of modular synth users use their modulars this way part or all of the time, using the synth to mangle things like electric guitars and horns.  I think that qualifies.  But it leaves open another issue, that arises mainly with the users of drum machines, and it goes like this:

There are a lot of guys who are absolute demons at designing drum patterns.  And even though they may be using sampled sounds of real drums, the patterns take the sounds way beyond what a human player would be capable of, such as the familiar hyper-fast rolls in which individual drum hits are so fast that the next one actually chops the end off of the previous one.  Taken to a far enough extreme, it actually becomes a tone rather than a series of individual hits.  And this can be done with any sound originating from an electronic source, not just a drum machine.  The patterns can be replicated and combined as much as desired, with timing as accurate or as inaccurate as the performer desires.  This then leads to a second definition of electronic music: Electronic music is music that employs electronics to produce patterns and sequences of sounds that could not have been played by an unaided human performer.  Like the above, this is a bit squishy -- if you had 20 drummers playing different parts at once, could they copy a complex drum-machine pattern?  Maybe they could, but getting 20 drummers and drum kits together in a studio all at once, and teaching them the pieces and expecting them to synchronize perfectly without hours and hours of practice, is pretty impractical. 

There's a problem with this, though.  We may have let something leak in that we didn't intend.  Consider the current trends for how most popular music is recorded these days.  What happens to drum tracks?  They use quantizing software on the drum track to pull all of the drum hits to exact beats.  Then they use something like Sound Replacer to replace all of the recorded hits with sampled ones.  When the track is done, every hit is on a perfect beat boundary, and every accented or non-accented hit of a particular drum sounds exactly alike every other hit of that same drum.  Levels are all perfect; toms don't ring, kick pedals don't squeak, and cymbals are never cracked.  Similar for other tracks: bass is probably recorded as individual notes which are sampled and then played by a sequencer to produce the track, again with every note perfectly intonated and exactly on the beat.  Even vocals aren't spared: they get Autotune so that every sung note is perfectly on pitch, and envelopes are manipulated so that every sung note is at the exact right level and of perfect duration.  Take this all together, and what do you have?  Music that could not have been produced without electronics!

And yet, the mind reels at classifying this as "electronic music".  Why is that?  Really, it's a matter of what does and doesn't become cliched due to overuse.  This is an area that electronic music, and its audience, have always been very sensitive to.  It's a holdover from that '60s/'70s ethos: back in the day, the audience expectation was that a performer's new album would always be more daring, more mind-blowing, and contain more unconceived-of sounds and ideas than the previous album.  The idea survived into the '80s; when synth pop began, it almost by definition was fresh and unique in itself.  Synth pop died when its practitioners ran out of ideas in the late '80s.  Hip-hop turntabling was the same; the very idea was unique when it began.  Same for the '90s first wave of electronic dance music.  It's an aesthetic that demands constant improvement.  In electronic music, sitting on one's laurels is not tolerated by the audience for very long. 

And maybe that's the real answer: electronic music is the creation of original music and sounds, using electronics. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Not my computer... me!  Last winter I contracted a viral infection that caused me problems for months afterwards.  It's called "pitiriasis rosea" and it gives you a skin condition like a very bad sunburn.  It makes it uncomfortable to wear clothes or lay on a bed.  It wasn't until March that I finally got rid of it, and then afterwards for several months I had Epstein-Barre-like symptoms.  It's only been since July that I've really been myself again.  That's why no posts in so long -- it was all I could do to go to work and do basic personal maintenance, and my synths went untouched for several months.  But I'm getting back to it now. 

As you can see, the format of Sequence 15 has changed drastically.  It was time for that green to go, and the old template was not working well with the latest Blogger software and had developed a lot of formatting bugs, which required a lot of hand-editing of the HTML for every post.  Plus, I never really liked how much screen real estate that template wasted.  I'm still tweaking on this template, so don't be surprised to see more changes over the next few weeks. 

I'm noticing that several of the modular manufacturers are asking customers to fund development of new modules, via the placing of deposits or through Kickstarter.  There's been a certain amount of resistance to this; customers are leery of long delivery times and seeing their money tied up in modules that they have not received.  However, the economy is bad and I understand the manufacturers not being able to take the risk of designing and producing a module that doesn't sell.  The Great Modular Revival has now been ongoing for nearly 15 years; users are getting more sophisticated and are asking for more complex and capable modules that require more up-front money for design and manufacturing setup.  And as this occurs, surface mount is becoming more popular in the modular world, which more or less eliminates the one guy slaving over his workbench cranking out modules via hand inserting and soldering; to go big time surface mount takes the facilities of a real assembly line with pick-and-place robots and reflow equipment.  The one-man-shop can contract for that service, but it takes a minimum order and setup money up front.  So let's have some patience with the designers and manufacturers who have been cranking out some great module designs.  On the other hand, the days when customers could be expected to pay up front and then wait two years for their order has passed.  Some of the culprits are realizing that they can't work this way anymore and are changing the way they operate, for the better.  The others (and they know who they are) will probably find themselves out of business before too much longer. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Fizmo Project progress report

About two years ago, I launched something called the Fizmo Project, which was an attempt to decode the Ensoniq Fizmo's patch dump format and identify where all of the parameters are. I've posted on it here before, but after working on it for a while, I gave up in frustration because identifying individual parameters in the 3097-byte-long patch dump proved to be quite a challenge. However, that wasn't the only problem; the other issue was that none of the changes that I could see in the patch dumps seemed to correlate to the actual values of the parameters in any way that made sense.

Well, last summer I finally devised a way to partially automate the process, using the Unix "tr" and "diff" tools in Mac OSX. With this, I can now compare two dumps and it will find all the differences and list them out for me. And the mystery started unraveling. Some info: The patch memory structure on the Fizmo is a bit unorthodox. It stores 64 "sounds", each of which consists of two layers. Each layer is basically one complete sound path, with a Transwave oscillator, a filter, a VCA, three envelope generators, an LFO, and some other modifier sources. Within a sound, the two layers can be overlaid or split across the keyboard. Each sound has its own name.

The Fizmo also stores 64 patches, each of which consists of a combination of the 64 sounds, plus a few other parameters. A sound can appear in more than one patch. Each patch has its own name, in addition to the names of the four sounds selected in the patch. A patch also contains a global effect; it can choose one of about 20 available effects, and each effect has its own set of parameters.

When you do a patch dump, you get a big ugly lump of 3097 bytes. There's a header area, followed by four blocks of 640 bytes, one for each sound loaded into the patch. All four sound blocks have the same layout. The parameter layout is really, really ugly. Don't listen to anybody who tells you that it is similar to the layout used by the Ensoniq MR and ZR models. Not even close. Very few parameters start or end on a byte boundary; most span across bytes, and most bytes that contain any data at all contain pieces of two parameters. There seem to be unused bits and bytes scattered about everywhere at random. Some parameters which take up seven bits go from 0-127, like you'd expect, but others only range from 0-100. The character strings which contain the patch and sound names appear to be stored in reverse order, last character first. There's a lot of dead space. I haven't yet made any effort to identify where the effects parameters are, so it's possible that a lot of the apparent dead air is taken up by them, but we'll see.

Following is a screen shot of a file that I'm building to describe the dump layout in detail:

This file is available on my Web site here. It's an Open Office spreadsheet. Open Office is support on both Windows and Mac OSX platforms; you can download it for free from The row number is the number of the byte in the dump, where the sysex beginning-of-exclusive byte (F0) is byte 1. Column A lists which of the four sounds the parameter belongs to, if it is specific to a sound. Column B shows which parameter or parameters appear in the byte, and which bits. The rightmost bit is bit 0, and the leftmost bit is bit 6 (remember, only 7 bits are available in a MIDI data byte). Column C provides any additional notes, such as parameter range or bit encoding. The next seven columns with the color-coded blocks will match up (in most cases) with the colors used in the text, to show which bits in the byte each parameter is using. Looking at the screen grab above, you can see how much empty space there is, and how many parameters wrap across the byte boundaries.

For those who didn't know, the Fizmo has a huge number of parameters which are not editable (or even viewable) from its own panel; you have to use an external editing device to see or change them. Given that there are about 200 parameters for each sound, the only practical way to do this is to use a computer editor. However, the only editor that has ever been available for the Fizmo is a bastardized version of Sounddiver that Ensoniq made available to Fizmo buyers, before Creative Labs (the company that bought out Ensoniq) shut them down. My experience has been that this version of Sounddiver is incredibly buggy; it never quite does the same thing twice, and nearly every time I run it, I have to try to figure out what set of magic incantations is required that day in order to get it to basically work. The librarian features are untrustworthy and I've trashed many of the patches on my Fizmo in the process of doing this investigation (fortunately, I didn't have anything on it that I particularly wanted to keep).

Given all this, there is strong motivation to work towards creating an open-source editor. That's one reason I'm doing this project. The Fizmo has the potential to be a very powerful synth, but most of its power can't be unlocked until there is a reliable and supported patch editor for it. I'm maintaining a thread concerning the project on VSE; I'd like to get some people interested in starting to write some code.

The main things remaining to do with the patch dump are: (1) figure out how the parameter values work for the parameters that specify wave selecting and offsets into the wave table (they appear to be memory addresses, but I haven't poked at it much yet), and (2) start working out the locations of the effects parameters. After that, although it isn't an absolute necessity for a basic patch editor, I'd like to start documenting the single-parameter sysex messages that Sounddiver uses to transmit individual parameter edits to the synth.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Realizing the Realizer

This post was inspired by Big City Music's announcement this week that they are offering a PPG Realizer for sale. The Realizer, as many synth enthusiasts know, was the legendary attempt by Wolfgang Palm's PPG company to pioneer the soft synth concept using 1980s technology. However, the development costs became the final straw for the financially struggling PPG, and led to the company liquidating itself in 1988. The Realizer never went into production; rumor has it that two prototypes were built. (If this is true, I don't know where the other one is; I've checked the listings of the Audities Foundation, the New England Synthesizer Museum, and the Eboard Museum. None of them list a Realizer, but that doesn't mean they don't have one in their collection somewhere.

Realizer control desk -- from

So what was the Realizer actually? Modern legend has it that it was the first virtual analog synthesizer. Actually, however, it was both more than that, and possibly less than that. According to Palm, the Realizer was an early attempt to build what we now call a "workstation"; it would have been capable of synthesis, multi-track recording, processing, and mixing. The unit you usually see in pictures, which PPG called the "control desk", is not the whole system; it's only the control unit and user interface. The control desk could interface with a combination of sound modules that actually did the audio processing, and hard disk units (HDUs) which provided audio and data storage, up to 8 units total. The sound modules and HDUs were intended to be somewhat mix-and-match with other PPG products, such as the Waveterm B.

The sound module was the piece of the Realizer that did most of the work. Like many of today's digital synths, it contained a bank of digital signal processor ICs -- in this case, eight of the TMS 32010 -- and a Motorola 68010 that managed everything. (The HDUs also contained a pair of 32010s, but it appears that they were not used in the Realizer configuration.) PPG developed three synthesis packages that ran on the sound modules. The one that everyone talks about in regard to the Realizer was the "Minimoog" virtual analog software that reproduced not only the features of the Mini, but also its panel layout. However, there was also application software for additive synthesis and for the sampling and wave scanning method of synthesis that PPG was know for. Further, according to Palm, the software allowed individual processing functions to be mixed and combined in the style of a modular synth. (You could say that PPG invented Reaktor in 1986!)

LinkPPG HDU with stand-alone control unit (in foreground). From

Further, the Realizer also incorporated the functions of what we now call a digital audio workstation. It was capable of multi-track recording and editing using the HDUs as storage. It had "plug-ins" for adding common studio effects (although, according to Palm, the reverb software was troublesome and was never completed to a satisfactory degree). And it could do mixdowns, producing a digital master that could presumably be transferred directly to CD mastering systems, although it is not clear how that would have actually worked.

The control desk is the part of the Realizer that everyone has seen. It contains a monitor (which was to have been color in the production version, but the prototypes had green-phosphor monochrome), 31 knobs, 6 faders, a data entry wheel, a keypad with numeric and function keys, and a graphics tablet. Each of the knobs and faders had line graphics drawn on the panel from the control to the edge of the screen opening; the software generated lines on the screen that led from the screen edge to the parameters on the screen, and by that method, the user got a visual indication of which knob or fader controlled what on a given screen. The graphics pen would have been used for drawing, and probably also for selecting commands from menus, in the fashion of the Waveterm. The best photo I've been able to find that shows a screen and illustrates the layout and the knob graphics is the following, taken from Palm's old blog on Myspace. Palm describes this photo as being a photo of an early mock-up, which accounts for the crude-looking panel.

So what made the Realizer so expensive to develop, enough that it killed the company? One thing that Palm mentions is that in the timeframe when the Realizer (and presumably the Waveterm B also) was being designed, PPG had decided that laying out the circuit boards by hand, which was how they had done all of their previous products, wasn't going to work given the density of the boards they wanted to design. So they purchased an electrical CAD software package (which would have been very expensive in 1986), and then leased a computer system to run it. Unfortunately, apparently the leased computer didn't have sufficient performance, and the system ran very slowly, harming productivity. There probably would also have been a learning curve for the engineers. Palm also mentions, in his account of the Waveterm B development, that the Waveterm B and Realizer were PPG's first products to use 16-bit sampling, and that they had a hard time getting their 16-bit analog-to-digital converters working properly. (In order to build the initial sample library to be shipped with the Waveterm B, they hacked a Sony F1 digital tape system and used its converters.)

However, I'm guessing that the real killer was the software. Even though there was probably some commonality with PPG's other products, there would have been a ton of new software to be written. They had to write a lot of new software for the control desk displays and user interfaces; the Moog emulation and the additive synthesis was new, and they had implemented a lot of improvements to the sampling which required new software. (Plus, knowing how things were done back in the day, the 12-bit sample handling software used in the Wave keyboards probably did a lot of "tricks" with unused data bits, which would have had to be re-written to handle 16-bit samples.) The sound modules required a bunch of new software to manage all of the DSPs, not to mention the actual DSP processing code. Also: they were writing all of this in assembly language. Palm states that a C compiler was not available for their systems at the time -- a statement which puzzles me, since C compilers were readily available for most processor families by 1986, and Sun, to name one, had one for the 68000-series CPUs.

The final factor was that, due to a combination of circumstances, PPG found themselves without a lot of money to spend on R&D. In 1986 they had invested money in moving production to a larger facility, in part due to robust sales of the Wave, but at about the time the new factory opened, Wave sales began to decline. The Wave, especially by the time of the 2.3 revision, had very sophisticated capabilities for wave scanning and manipulation of samples, but a lot of users didn't care about that -- they only wanted basic sampling and playback, or just playback of canned sample libraries, and so they gravitated towards less expensive samplers like the Emulator or the Ensoniq Mirage. The Wave was PPG's bread-and-butter product, so when sales declined, the company's revenues suffered. A few Waveterm B's were sold, and a few HDUs were sold as stand-alone products, but the Realizer never reached production before Palm and the other founders realized that they were going to run out of money. They liquidated rather than continue and be forced into bankruptcy.

Going back to the sale by Big City Music, I don't know exactly what it is that they are selling. The ad shows only the control desk. Although that item no doubt has significant collection value by itself, the point remains that if the goal of a buyer is to get the system actually running again, it won't do anything without at least one sound module and one HDU. Perhaps Big City has these items and is including them in the sale; the ad copy doesn't say.

Below is a link to a 1987 demo, from Palm's Myspace page. The Realizer's control desk can be seen on the left for much of the video. (The device that the demonstrator is holding appears to be a stand-alone control for an HDU, and not part of the Realizer configuration.) Note that the demonstrator never touches the Realizer control desk, which suggests that the software was still not stable at this point.,mr=60628615,t=1,mt=video

Finishing up with a historical curiosity: The astute observer may have noticed that in the photo of the control desk, following the first paragraph of this post, the desk does not have the data entry wheel. I don't know if this implies that prototypes were built both with and without the data wheel, or if it was added to the pictured unit after the photo was taken.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Thoughts on panel graphics

Happy New Year to synthesists everywhere! Looking back at the last year, I see that for a while I've been focusing almost exclusively on gear. That was not really my intent. I'll let you in on a little secret: One of the reasons I created this blog was to use it, in a sense, as my own notebook; a lot of the things that I post are things that I want to be able to refer back to myself. For instance, since I did the detailed description of the MOTM-650 MIDI-to-CV interface back in 2010, I've referred back to it several times when I needed to sort out some parameter or other.

However, I'm not doing this just for myself. If I was, I'd just keep a notes file on my computer, and not bother with a blog. My New Year's resolution, in regard to Sequence 15, is to share thoughts of all sorts with regard to synthesis and electronic music. Just blogging about gear is too limiting, and accounts for the dearth of posts.

So here goes... In the ongoing discussion about the differences in the user community between modular synth performers who prefer the Eurorack format, and the performers who prefer the "5U" formats (MOTM, Dotcom, and Modcan-A), one thing that's often debated is the style of panel graphics commonly seen on Eurorack modules, versus the usual style of 5U modules. Let's compare: Here is a (rather murky) photo of my Encore Universal Event Generator:

By comparison, here, from Analogue Haven's Web site, is a photo of the Makenoise Maths:

The Encore UEG clearly maintains the tradition of the vintage Moog modulars: white graphics on a flat back background, and controls in neat rows and columns. (Further, it follows the MOTM format convention of putting the I/O jacks at the bottom, although it doesn't really conform to the whole MOTM standard grid due to the large number of knobs.) All the controls and jacks are labeled in a clean font, and the panel has index marks for the knobs. Line graphics are used to indicate associations between controls. Most MOTM, Dotcom, and Modcan-A format modules follow this pattern; in the world of 5U, Modcan's B-series modules (which are MOTM format) are considered a bit radical for having black graphics on a white background. There have been a few other makers of large-format panels who have used colored text and line graphics, but even they tend to stick to the black background and standard fonts.

Now let's compare with the Maths. White background with a red border around the edge of the panel. (And that's considered conservative in Euro-land.) Zig-zaggy graphics that show the flow of signal through the module. There's four input jacks; they are at the top of the module, and you have to read the manual to realize that they are the four jacks pointed at by the small arrows. Knobs and jacks scattered hither and yon, although the panel is symmetrical. (It has two processing channels; the two outside ones do basically the same thing, and the same goes for the two inside ones.) Functions of some of the jacks are indicated only by the signal flow graphics. You have to look rather closely to see the little math operator symbols that label some of the controls. The knobs don't have any indexing, and there are two illuminated pushbutton switches whose purpose is not indicated at all. And I don't know where the hell Makenoise came up with that font; maybe they made it themselves.

If that sounds like I'm ragging on Makenoise, I'm not intending to be. If you go to Makenoise's Web site and look through the descriptions of their modules, you realize that Makenoise has its way of doing things, and once you've studied it and gotten into that groove, most of those panel markings make intuitive sense. Where you start to run into problems in Euro-land is when you realize that the Makenoise way of doing things is not the same as the Harvestman way of doing things, which is not the same as the WMD way of doing things, etc.

Euro users put up with this, in part because it looks cool. But I think there is also more of an aesthetic in the Euro world of being more willing to patch something up, turn some knobs, and see what happens, where in the 5U world, users tend to want things to be more precise (or "anal" if you prefer). This is just a general statement based on anecdotal data; it certainly doesn't apply universally. However, I do note that there are a few small makers in the Euro world who are willing to silkscreen something on a panel that has nothing to do with a panel's function, or just leave a panel blank; almost no one in the 5U world would ever do that. I do note that even in Euro land there has been a bit of a reaction to some of the more excessive panel designs. Pittsburgh Modular makes a wry comment on it with their 1960s-embossed-label aesthetic.

Other aspects of small vs. large format have been discussed to death already: 5U takes up a lot more space; Euro/Frac knobs are too small for large fingers, 5U panels cost more to make, 3.5mm jacks break off too easily, etc. However, I think there's one other, very practical concern. It's been noted that 5U users tend to be, on average, older than Euro users. Here's the other reason us 5U guys like things nice and clean: when we look at something like the Maths panel above, we can't see the panel! Our eyes aren't as good as they used to be. If we had a Maths, we'd have to get a magnifying glass out every time we wanted to use it. Panels like that give us headaches. We have to stick with nice high-contrast panels with clean labeling that we can see.

And besides, we like the laboratory-test-equipment aesthetic. Our moms all say it reminds them of their father's ham radio gear.