Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Monomachine Couples Counseling

As I mentioned back in September, I had traded both my MKI MachineDrum and MonoMachine for a MKII MachineDrum. Then, in December I decided to pickup a MonoMachine again, this time a MKII to match the MD. The initial reason was to try and fend off the severe Buchla lust I was enduring at that time (which I'm happy/sad/confused to say has not fully gone away).

But, in the months since then (particularly, the new year and onward), I had been once again using the MnM less and less, paying more attention to the modular than anything else and working on ideas for a new album. I was coming very close to selling it, I even made a half-hearted post on twitter about it, but there were no takers.

So there it sat on my desk, next to it's sibling, which does still get regular use, unlit and uninviting. It wasn't until I started thinking about putting together performance material that it crossed my mind to fire up the MnM again. I was again considering a small modular performance system, but I tend to like a lot of complex sounds, swirling in stereo, and I like the performance to be somewhat consistent from performance to performance, otherwise I get frustrated with it not sounding right. Both things that the MnM can handle...and there's the whole recall and syncing with the MD thing.

So, for the last couple of days, the MnM and I have been in "couples counseling". i call it that because that's sort of what it feels like. This on again off again relationship that I would really like to make work (then again, I've never been to couples counseling, so I really have no idea).

The first night was spent with just the manual. Just reading over the feature set and mentally re-aquainting myself with what it can do. I purposefully didn't want to sit down in front of it, tweaking randomly with an empty head and getting stuck in a "sound rut" like I had many times before with it. That approach seems to be no problem with the modular, but doesn't really work for me with the MnM for some reason. The manual quickly reminded me of the arpeggiator and more importantly, the independent trigger tracks and how para-locks work with "trigless trigs", a implementation concept which is fundamentally different from the MD in that you can set param-locks on steps which do not trigger any other aspect to the sound (PITCH, AMP ENV, FILTER ENV, or LFO TRIG).

Building ideas on these concepts *before* actually laying hands seemed to pay off quite well. The following evening I had a long session experimenting with sequencing out lots of param-locks with trigless trigs, separate FILTER and LFO trigs, and never actually laying down pitches; simply playing the sequence of "timbre automation" and holding down notes. It made some very nice drone-y noise-y stuff. I'd love to share, but I did this from the comfort of my couch, away from all the accoutrements of the studio.

Another concept that never initially crossed my mind before was using the arpeggiator to play the DBOX drum "machine" (basically the drum sample sound engine). While it was a little time consuming to search up and down the octaves of sounds (each octave of the keyboard is essentially a different sounding collection of sounds, grouped along the lines of a typical sample kit) to find a "chord" of the right samples for the arpeggiator, the results were very good, especially since the arp can run at different rates than the main sequence and can have shorter than 16 steps in length, including odd numbered steps. Using two different tracks with two different arpeggiators was that much more time consuming, but that much more rewarding as well.

Last evening was spent dealing with "the sound". I dare say I've become quite spoiled by the modular and that much more picky about the "quality" of the sound, and I certainly lean more analogue in my preference, but I certainly don't hate the sound of digital. But, many aspects of sound of the MnM just don't sit well with me and in writing down what those were, they were all ones that either attempt to sound analogue, or ones that I expected to sound analogue. Chief among these are the SWAVE machine and the filters. So, I decided to avoid those as much as possible (easy enough to avoid the SWAVE, not so much the filters) and focus specifically on the most digital aspects of this digital synth - the DPRO and the FM+. Now, the FM+ had long been a favorite since it offers pretty complex FM algos with a very simple (if sometimes unclear) set of controls, but I had not really explored the DPRO wavetable machine that much. Once again, diligence to constrain my scope paid off and I found myself getting sounds that I really liked and did not find myself relying on the filters to dynamically alter the sound and instead only found myself using the filters to shape it a little better, more like an EQ. Now, these most certainly did not resemble anything analogue, but it was digital being as digital as it can and I really liked that.

Now, it's not like I'm totally in love with the MnM again, but I have a new found appreciate for devoting time to it and getting better results from focusing on very specific features/functionality of the instrument. I think the MnM, moreso of the MD, requires more mastery of the device to really extract really unique and great stuff from least for me anyway.

Another interesting rule I set for myself in this process was to NOT SAVE ANYTHING. I know, that's weird right, but I starting thinking about how I get in these "ruts" with this thing and a lot of these ruts start because I'm doing more or less the same process over and over again, and a lot of the time it's because I'm starting by revisiting something I worked on last time, when I stopped because I felt in a rut. It's also a practice that's not possible with the modular, and I wondered if the fact that you cannot save or fully and immediately recall your work on modular makes you think that much more creatively and retain more important bits about what you're doing as your explore the instrument. My early conclusions are that, yes it does.

One of the main downsides I'm still hung up on this point is the lack of a common reverb for all tracks. For example the MD has a global reverb and delay, and a reverb and delay send amount for each track. The MnM conversely has an independent delay for each track (which is fantastic for sound design reasons), but to get a reverb you purpose one of the six tracks as an FX track, and even in that case, it's not a send-return configuration like on the MD. You can route multiple tracks to the FX track running the reverb, but you do not have control over the volume level of the signal from each track going to the reverb, so there's no way to control the amount of reverb for each track. :( It's just as well I guess, upon actually recording it's likely one would just take each track out of the 6 independent mono outputs of the unit and mix in the box.

In the end (end of this post anyway, I'm certainly not through with this whole revisiting the monomachine process), I'm glad I didn't sell it and I've taken the time to explore it again. I may just have some Elektron-based live sets worked out after all.


Kent said...


I have a very similar relationship with my MD. I totally understand what you are saying here. I'm gonna try some of your concepts with some 'couple's time' with my MD & myself...all alone-like. :sb:

Kent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
alka said...

i took me awhile to fully grasp the power of the machinedrum and it sounds as if the MnM is similar. i don't consider myself an analog purist, but sometimes i wonder..

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