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Attack & Decay ~ signalPaths

I thought I might kick off this second issue with perhaps a bolder endeavor than the first. I wish to
Attack & Decay ~ signalPaths
By RMBLRX • Issue #2 • View online
I thought I might kick off this second issue with perhaps a bolder endeavor than the first. I wish to go a bit deeper into the most fundamental aspects in our subject-matter of the electronic form of sound and music. You’ll find we end up a bit on the longer side, but this should provide us with plenty of material for future context.

The Brass Tacks of Electronic Music
I’ve been giving some thought lately as to just what electronic sound is at bottom. What occurred to me was that the predominant manner in which music is experienced today, and as has been the case throughout most of the last century, is by electronic means. Whether from a record, magnetic tape, broadcast, digital encoding, mere amplification of some present acoustic sound source, or otherwise generated by electronic means, eventually music must be piped through some bottleneck of analog circuitry in order to electro-mechanically induce a mass of air sufficiently contiguous to a listener’s eardrums to vibrate, effectively producing or, most commonly, reproducing an acoustic wave.
So what happens when we begin to manipulate the signal that passes through that circuitry in a considerably direct manner? a manner in which even the signal itself is not sourced by electroacoustical means but, rather, synthesized?
What The Future Sounded Like on Vimeo
What The Future Sounded Like on Vimeo
We’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit: Generating and Manipulating that signal is obviously intrinsic to the advent of the circuitry itself, even secondary in some ways (and indeed, practically indistinct, given at the very least some notion of achieving fidelity). Originally, such circuitry was but a means to convey or, more precisely, to transmit signals between two electroacoustical transducers, separated by significant distance or obstruction, accomplished by some electromagnetic means and merely as a way to facilitate the transmission of information in conversational form(i.e., the telephone). This alone, however, would have little immediate effect on how music is made, of course, yet the capturing of those signals–such as by routing them to a non-acoustical transducer like one which mechanically commits that signal to a material medium of some kind (and here we must pay due to the almost immediate invention of the phonograph the following year, which itself owed perhapsa great deal to the invention of the phonautograph about two decades prior and arguably positions recording as predominant to transmission–at least in terms of music, but we’ll come back to this later). More profound though would be the transduction of such a signal magnetically to a medium, most particularly as in the function of a tape recorder–this would prove more radical in its implications for music-making or any manner of sound production, really.
Musique Concrete
Musique Concrete
In this we find the very beginnings of a way to creatively relate to the electronic form of sound as such, which is to say: the means to manipulate the intermediary signal by which the generation of sound may transcend its originating mechanistic complexities — a feat accomplished by reducing those complexities associated with the source of its generation down to their most fundamental physical manifestation (mere vibrations). This is accomplished, of course, in the form of an electronic signal, allowing for the total dissociation of that sound from the source of its generation in time and space. Yet some significant mechanical and cognitive constraints persist when attempting to deal deftly with the creative manipulation of physical media in terms of the requisite knowledge and associated resources, both being of a highly specialized nature and not entirely unlike the playing of a musical instrument which — while it can make use of many instruments and performers as well as sounds not even generated by instruments or performers — still requires perhaps even more of the artist to use such exceptionally well, despite substantially lowering the barrier to entry.
The Delian Mode (Kara Blake, 2009) - Video Dailymotion
The Delian Mode (Kara Blake, 2009) - Video Dailymotion
The importance here is the trend signified by the very lowering of such barriers to artists. Let’s consider for a moment that artistry in music reaches its greatest heights when composition, direction, and performance achieve some synchronicity of excellence. Inevitably, any part of this whole can underwhelm or overwhelm any other part or parts, and when it is the result of a collaboration by discrete individuals or (often enough) institutions, the artistry is never found in the whole of the production, but merely in its parts and less a matter of art than of craft. Yet what happens when the whole of a production is under the sole discretion of a single individual? Here, I contend, we find the truest art-form in music, but in a capacity largely historically limited to that of the troubadour, so to speak (i.e., the paradigmatic singer-songwriter, though my use of the term certainly goes beyond lyrical artists–composer-performer? or the more contemporary role of the producer, perhaps?). It’s here that electronic music comes into its own in expanding the horizons of the artist’s capacity for taking a production firmly in hand by lowering barriers to entry.
This would only truly come to a head in the advent of the digital age. As Brian Eno put it:
The great benefit of computer sequencers is that they remove the issue of skill, and replace it with the issue of judgement.
And while the advent of electroacoustics begins most discernibly with the telephone, telephony was but an evolution of an earlier means of achieving the electrical transmission of information via transduction: telegraphy, a technology which predated its phonic successor by decades and utilized an early form of binary which in turn became the very thing which made the digital electronic form of computation possible by its application in the operation of the transistor. It would seem, then, that some germ of electronic sound’s earliest heritage lay dormant for more than a century before blossoming into a veritable wildfire of cultural and experiential evolution in both media and communication.
Laurie Spiegel - Waveshaper TV Ep.6 (Part 1 of 3: Bell Labs)
Laurie Spiegel - Waveshaper TV Ep.6 (Part 1 of 3: Bell Labs)
Bit by Bit: the digital nativization of music
(… or a brief personal accounting thereof)
I had very little inclination to make music and less of a clue of how and in what way I would do so in my youth–though neither for lack of a certain desire and enthusiasm (or exposure, for that matter, having grown up tinkering around on a Yamaha PRS-38 and even having engaged in a sort of digital Delian mode with Audacity much later on and at least several years before I would begin recording with the same software)–at least not until I sought to recreate what was perhaps a subtle but nearly lifelong earworm of mine: the sound of the Nintendo Gameboy (most particularly that of a TMNT game, the soundtrack of which just so happens to have been the work of a composer who would bear later significance for me in her work on the Castlevania series).
At the time, I figured this was a rather idiosyncratic notion of music-making and started off on the wrongheaded approach of simply trying to design or choose sounds evocative of the Gameboy (or my clouded impression of such) within a DAW, and never even staying that course, frankly (my first tracks made in FL Studio are… odd, to say the least). I quickly learned perhaps my first major lesson about the Internet following this brief folly however: Almost anything you can think of has been thought of and will be published somewhere online if it isn’t already.
I learned this well having almost immediately stumbled upon LSDJ, a home-brewed ROM image for the Gameboy which allows the system to be utilized as a synthesizer and music-tracker, created by a Swedish fellow named Johan Kotlinski. This was rather fortuitous, given my earlier exposure to classic game console emulation as both an early native to classic game consoles and a considerably early denizen of the Internet (and generally a digital native, overall, having grown up with a Macintosh LC). My earliest foray, of course, initially made use of an emulator and Audacity (one of the tracks even includes the artifact of an MSN Messenger notification sound, likely from a cohort of mine privy to my musical exploits of that time–perhaps one of the reasons I didn’t redo the recording), but it was at about the time of the founding of Moonside as such that I took to flash cartridges and the original Gameboy hardware in its various forms (and, as a sidenote, even soon thereafter recording the output of that hardware onto cassette).
Chiptune: Pushing the Limits Using Constraints: Dan Behrens(Danimal Cannon) at TEDxBuffalo
Chiptune: Pushing the Limits Using Constraints: Dan Behrens(Danimal Cannon) at TEDxBuffalo
Revision 2018 - Seminar - An introduction to Little Sound DJ
Revision 2018 - Seminar - An introduction to Little Sound DJ
So this discovery of what might be referred to as a truechip approach was what finally rounded out my love of the 8-bit music aesthetic and process, but while the 8-bit Gameboy was my first game system, my second, the 16-bit era’s SNES, was the one that best defined my fondness for vintage game and computer hardware and the peculiarities of its associated media (though its sound is certainly less iconic than either of its 8bit predecessors). Yet, despite the vast plethora of outstanding and memorable soundtracks managed by way of the system’s respectable sound chip, it was that of its arch-rival which remains today seemingly one of the best-loved bit of hardware for chipmusic enthusiasts and hobbyists: Meaning, of course, the Sega Genesis.
Sega Mega Drive / Genesis Music
Sega Mega Drive / Genesis Music
This is for two reasons that I can fathom and personally corroborate: the reminiscence of its primary soundchip to that of popular instruments of its time or times just prior; and the retention of the 8bit era soundchip of the console’s predecessor, if only originally for the sake of backwards compatibility.
Yamaha DX7 - The Synthesizer that Defined the '80s
The combination of a simple but robust take on FM synthesis juxtaposed with a PSG evocative of the dawn of home computers and game consoles makes for a uniquely tantalizing experience for composers and listeners alike. I, for one, was certainly smitten to discover this strange nook of the chipmusic scene.
There are at least a few approaches that I’ve discovered which are commonly used in making music for this hardware: composing VGM tracks which can either be played through a ROM on the original hardware (or some modification or faithful re-imagining), typically composed by way of software (Deflemask, in my case); or utilizing the original hardware (or the aforementioned re-imagining) or some partial employment thereof via MIDI.
SEGA Mega Drive / Genesis Controlled via iPad!
SEGA Mega Drive / Genesis Controlled via iPad!
DAFM SYNTH - Genesis YM2612 / YM3438 - MENU 1/6
DAFM SYNTH - Genesis YM2612 / YM3438 - MENU 1/6
The latter of which, I hope to touch upon in a later issue, but, suffice to say, the fact of the DAFM synth’s particular approach, which excludes the 8bit counterpart of the legacy hardware it features (the original YM2612 or the largely preferable YM3438), invites novel approaches to re-creating that juxtaposition. To accomplish this, we require at least some modicum of a modular approach… though why stop there?
A Modular Legacy and a Modular Future
We briefly touched upon the significance of analog sound synthesis earlier and why, perhaps, it is so fundamental to our modern experience of audio media and performance as predominantly by electronic means, even if not explicitly so. I would add also that the subsequent assertion of the electroacoustical transducer’s ability to reduce sounds originating from even the most complex or unlikely sources into a single signal means that, as a matter of consequence, the manipulation of that analog signal (whether acoustically generated or otherwise) can be seen as a way of exploring the very fundamentals of sound itself. This is even more pronounced when acoustic sources are removed altogether, necessitating the raw generation of such signals by way of electronic oscillation or similarly rudimentary ways of channeling raw electricity into some audible range of waveforms.
This is most particularly evident in the traditional approach to analog sound synthesis being referred to as a subtractive approach to synthesis (whereas, by contrast, the most familiar form of digital FM synthesis is an additive approach), which works by stripping a simple non-distinctive tone down into something more complex and distinctive. This works much in the same way a sculptor chisels a block of marble (or the way in which a lathe cuts a vinyl record, for that matter), but instead by the act of attenuating devices which directly alter aspects of the tone as an electrical signal.
Additionally, the circuitry by which the signal is routed and attenuated, filtered, or otherwise modulated could be altered by rerouting through various components by means of patching. This is what is referred to as modular synthesis.
MODULO: The analog synth documentary
MODULO: The analog synth documentary
But while analog is the basis of modular synthesis, particularly since the basic function of patching (the channeling of control voltage and gate as well as audio signals) and attenuation (typically by means of manipulating a potentiometer of some kind) is intrinsically analog, digital and even computer-controlled alternatives or supplements exist for practically every module in a typical synth patch. Such modules may even prove preferable in cases where their particular functions are too complex to reasonably replicate in an analog circuit (most forms of FM synthesis, for instance) or when the digital character of a component is uniquely endearing or evocative, such as in the case of vintage sound chips like the AY3 or the SID.
The sound of SID: 35 years of chiptune's influence on electronic music
And indeed, there is a modestly expansive range of such options in the world of Eurorack modular and Eurorack compatible semi-modular synths. On top of this, there are fully computerized modules as well as options for interfacing with modular synths using a personal computer. Yet the the very heights of sound synthesis today seems to reside in some hybrid of dedicated computerization or digitization and appropriate application of analog circuitry, each for its particular strengths. FPGA-based synthesis seems very interesting in this regard, and while FPGA’s inclusion in a hybrid approach is obvious in a modular system, it’s perhaps more likely to be used as a full substitution for analog components in standalone commercial synths (as is already possible and predominant in the more widely available but limited form of non-FPGA digital synths as well the practically limitless form of software synthesizers, both of which do typically virtualize analog functions) apart from perhaps the very high-end of the poly-synth market where we might find the inclusion of analog filters and the like.
Back to Bits
Interestingly, in this we see another potential convergence of vintage computer and game hardware and sound synthesis in music production as we see the rapid emergence of FPGA-based reproductions of such hardware, to include that of their sound chips:
Retrosynth FPGA Multi Chiptune Synthesizer Overview
Retrosynth FPGA Multi Chiptune Synthesizer Overview
And while I haven’t yet seen this applied to modular synthesis or any music production application whatsoever, the tools to do so largely already exist, and I daresay the future holds far more dedicated options. In fact, if (or when) the FPGASID does work in either of the following rather interesting options, then I suppose we’ve already arrived:
ALM012 - SID GUTS DELUXE on Vimeo
ALM012 - SID GUTS DELUXE on Vimeo
TherapSid MKII Overview and demos
TherapSid MKII Overview and demos
If not, well, there are still plenty of vintage chips floating around to get the job done, either for those SID-based synths or for other similar approaches which include their own simpler and more abundant chip-types like these AY3-based synths:
And we also shouldn’t discount the markedly more abundant and accessible approach to chipmusic production, the Gameboy, which has its own ways of interfacing in a modular manner:
Arduinoboy demo
Arduinoboy demo
Game Boy Analog Sync with Eurorack Modular Synth
Game Boy Analog Sync with Eurorack Modular Synth
GAMEBOY TRIPLE OSCILLATOR modular synth arduinoboy video
GAMEBOY TRIPLE OSCILLATOR modular synth arduinoboy video
SyncBoy | kitsch-bent, l.l.c.
While, in my case, I certainly will not forget about the Gameboy and have much yet to learn in LSDJ, I’ve yearned for something a bit more versatile and more… well, modular. Yet it’s not so much the chip and its particular sound capabilities that hasn’t quite satisfied me, nor even its interface and composing environment (though it’s true that the screen can get a bit tiresome, particularly since I haven’t modded any of my DMGs with backlights as of yet, I can easily overcome that for the most part using a recently acquired Super Gameboy 2); rather, it’s merely the limited output (no discreet audio channels apart from its stereo mix) and input capabilities (though certainly these are more robust, due to the surprising capabilities of the link port), but I do also find the workflow a bit tedious, given the nature of flash-carts.
In any case, what’s truly special about LSDJ is not just that it unlocks the the sound capabilities of the Gameboy, but how it does so. To this end, it employs a tried and true tool of with a long history in home computer music composition.
Our Missing Link: The Tracker
A music tracker is a piece of software which makes the sequencing of commands sent to each of a computer sound chip’s various channels or some predetermined or extendable number of virtual channels in the case of later, more advanced systems (which were designed for PCM, rather than programmatically modelling analog sound synthesis in the manner of a PSG) by way of a graphical interface in a considerably straightforward manner. Trackers began, unsurprisingly, in advanced 8bit computers like the Commodore 64 but were only coined as such with its tragically unsuccessful successor, the Amiga.
Amiga - Exploring Music Mod Trackers
Amiga - Exploring Music Mod Trackers
Making 8bit Music: An Introduction to Free Chiptune Music Trackers
Suffice to say, given that LSDJ is a tracker and that my most extensive experience in music composition has been within LSDJ’s environs, my inclination toward modular just wouldn’t feel right without porting over this manner of production, and I imagine the same would be true of almost anyone coming up from out of a chipmusic-centric orientation as I have.
Luckily, this problem had already been solved well before I was given to indulge any serious consideration of modular synthesis:
GAMEBOY TO SEQUENCE SYNTHS WITH MIDI ARDUINOBOY video
But while this is all well and good, the exclusion of the Gameboy’s own sound seems, to me, to preclude any reasonable use the Gameboy, specifically. Certainly there are some reasonable circumstances to use a Gameboy in this manner: such as, for instance, the need or desire for a piece of cheap and accessible dedicated hardware, and while this is a fair point, its use as such is a bit convoluted and not quite so modular as, say perhaps, a module:
XOR Electronics NERDSEQ at #Superbooth2018
XOR Electronics NERDSEQ at #Superbooth2018
The Nerdseq, to me, proved a tipping point. Here is where computerization, or my own particular sense of it, is finally visited upon a deeply hardware oriented approach (modular synthesis in general, Eurorack in particular) to make deft use of chip-oriented sound devices. Yet while this is true and practically implied by the nature of the device, the Eurorack format has long been home to the historically analog sound of modular synthesis, but such a device as the Nerdseq certainly does not preclude any due reverence to that legacy, despite seeming perhaps a bit of a departure in itself; therein lies the beauty of modular.
Machine Music
Dreams of Electric Sheep
Music trackers are among the earliest means of using a computer to compose compose and sequence electronic instruments. They offer a rather matter-of-fact approach to electronic music and resemble the spirit of the particular hardware they evolved alongside of in that regard: few sounds evoke digital the way that the sounds of the 8bit era of gaming and computation seem to; likewise, few means of composing music say computer the way a tracker’s downward progressing sequence of commands and parameters does; and both just scream electronic very much in the way we’ve come to understand it in the information age. Yet it could be said that what truly manifests the quality of electronic is that which best conveys the fundamental physical aspect of the electronic signal in itself. And what is digital but for the mere processing of information? And what is this but an aspect of computation?
Seen in this light, mine own favored approach of PSGs and trackers might well seem rather ancillary or superfluous to the nitty-gritty of electronic sound in music. And indeed there are, as I see it, at least two higher or more fundamental approaches: the generative approach to modular synthesis and the coded algorithmic approach to the computerization of sound control and generation.
Generative Sound Synthesis
This is a paradigm of electronic music that’s really ever only received anything like a formal definition in computer music thanks to the apparent popularization of the generative music concept by electronic music pioneer Brian Eno. Yet within the predominantly analog world of modular synthesis, it seems to have taken on a second life. Readers of this journal may recall my dropping an article in the previous issue which identifies an emerging trend among synth-oriented video-streaming producers to merely set up a patch and, for the most part, just let it run while they record the device itself as it produces a typically ambient collage of sound, animated only in the satisfying flickering of LEDs.
This technique has a very particular meaning and relevance for modular as an analog approach to sound synthesis, because while any module involved in this might have a digital or even computerized quality, they nevertheless interact in an analog fashion over the patching of those modules; and of course it’s in the patching that the generative magic happens.
An Intro to Making Generative Music on Modular
An Intro to Making Generative Music on Modular
This approach generally seems to benefit from an abundance of experimentation, know-how, and equipment, and thus it seems to me somewhat of a luxury for committed and well-established enthusiasts, at least on the hardware side. But whether through some modest quantity of available hardware or some nigh-infinite range of virtualized devices, I do feel the practice to be an essential diversion for any producer in the modular realm to dedicate some degree of study throughout their exploration and experimentation therein, particularly if they hope to reach into the higher potential of that particular ecosystem (which I certainly do).
let's build a Generative Patch in VCV Rack
let's build a Generative Patch in VCV Rack

Algorithmic Sound Design
At bottom, any sort of computerization in music is just a flow of binary information which is at some point interpreted into an analog signal or some likely discernible aspect thereof. This is a process which, by practical necessity, must be obscured for any possibility of meaningful human interaction with that flow.
In the realm of audio, the modern form of this obfuscation typically aims at achieving maximal complexity with maximal automation via some slick and approachable GUI, usually designed to resemble familiar hardware form-factors. The forerunner of this extreme level of obfuscation is perhaps the considerably more computer-native software approach of tracker software which, though offering a bit more interactivity (albeit of a constrained scope) at the expense of some automation and auspicious similitude, nevertheless indulges a considerable level of obfuscation insofar as what’s going on under the hood.
So what is going on under the hood of any these classes of audio production software? Simply put, what gets the bits churning deep down in the bare metal, what gets all those transistors flipping on and off, is code issued in some fashion assembled from a human-readable level down to a machine-readable level. And indeed, before most of the obfuscation we encounter today was even possible, let alone likely even conceived of, code was the way in which audio signals were made to conform to the logic of such machines according to the will of their users. It was only only a matter of time before this dark art was revived in the modular space:
Coding the Modular – horizontalpitch
Of particular interest to me is the Teletype, which allows for live and rapid issuance and execution of commands in coded fashion (oh, and we may soon enough get to play around with it in VCV Rack):
teletype introduction on Vimeo
teletype introduction on Vimeo
But perhaps of slightly greater interest to the matter at hand is a little something touched upon fairly extensively in the same article: Bytebeat.
Music from very short programs - the 3rd iteration
Music from very short programs - the 3rd iteration
Suffice to say, this makes more hardware-oriented approaches to low-bit computer sound seem a lot more analog and is perhaps no less a raw and almost brutalist approach to computer music. And of course, as featured in the previous article, here also do we have at least one option in the modular space:
Equation Composer - Equation Player mode
Equation Composer - Equation Player mode
The Well-Trod Path Less Taken
So what are we to glean from this little study we’ve undertaken regarding the electronic form of sound and music? Perhaps it’s that we’d be remiss to neglect or take for granted the diligent work done and still ongoing to push the envelope of the veritably cataclysmic convergence of technology of and music. Perhaps we’ve been in too great a hurry to embrace the fickle fruits of progress to stop and consider legacy borne forth therein.
We’ll take these matters into further consideration in future articles, to be sure, but for now, I’ll leave you with a clever little documentary to broaden our historical context a bit:
The New Sound Of Music (1979) BBC Documentary
The New Sound Of Music (1979) BBC Documentary
Did you enjoy this issue?
RMBLRX
By RMBLRX

The journal of a synth sound and music production hobbyist--Moonside Productions' own gravel-groaning, chiptuning magnetonaut and attenuatante extraordinaire.

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