Doing more with less

Anything modular synth related that is not format specific.

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Rob Kam
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Doing more with less

Post by Rob Kam » Sat Feb 08, 2020 6:02 am

Reading an interview with Brian Eno in Keyboard magazine, July 1981. Jim Aikin interviewing asks what features would he like to see in a synthesizer. Eno talks about having a "limited palette," and says "... You see, there are really distinct advantages to working within a quite restricted range of possibilities, and getting a deeper and deeper understanding of those."

The point is not about having simple, minimal sounds. Eno gives some examples such as the Minimoog or that Jimi Hendrix always worked with a Stratocaster and a particular type of amp.

How to go about achieving a modular synth system like this, (one to use for music that makes you want to get up and dance)?

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Re: Doing more with less

Post by hippo1 » Sat Feb 08, 2020 9:17 am

...I think the simple answer is: Go over to your wall of Eurorack, select seven or eight modules... and just use them. Period.

(Oh, and make sure one of em's a bass drum module, for the "Get up and dance" aspect of your experiment.)

But actually: I enjoyed re-reading that interview. I remember eagerly awaiting the next month's issue of Keyboard, to see who was interviewed... and what cool new synth got checked out. (I never did get that PPG 2.3 I wanted...!) You could be cynical, and remark that Eno (at that time) was very well-known both as a producer AND an artist; he could well afford a lot of the then-recent gear. A minimalist approach could be a reaction to the well-underway trend of 'stock sounds', and the burgeoning preset/soundpack industry set in motion by the DX7; that may be the reason for his disdain of the 'best keyboard' as having limitless possibilities, and wanting to remain a master of one or two instruments, rather than a dilettante of twenty. Interesting that his choices were two of the more (most?) tone-and-voltage-unstable instruments at the time. [One could say Enoesque? But that's the lot of having one's name associated with a mindset or genre...!] When I was starting my journey, I was using the Realistic MG-1 (horrible for staying in tune, and occasionally wonky in hot weather) and my brand-new Poly-800 (which my friends and I thought was super-cool!); looking back through rose-tinted glasses, they were very kitsch, and worked well to inform me about synthesis... But I wouldn't want either nowadays, with the plethora of very cool analog AND digital synths of today. I guess I fall in with the vast majority of consumerist people, GAS still not in check despite being aware of it.

In any case: Fun to reminisce. And have fun with your experiment.

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Re: Doing more with less

Post by xcc » Sat Feb 08, 2020 9:26 am

Limits definitely breed creativity.

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Re: Doing more with less

Post by lisa » Sat Feb 08, 2020 9:38 am

xcc wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 9:26 am
Limits definitely breed creativity.
I don’t know. I’ve heard that being said at least 1000 times but I’ve never seen any proof. What I have seen are people who are really creative even with limited tools but those same people are always creative; they are creative with little and with and a lot in front of them.

Then there are people with no creativity, no matter how much freedom or how many limitations that they have. They tend to focus on buying and selling stuff instead, if they are into ”making music”.
New modular track! My first in six months. :party: Messy and unglued.


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Re: Doing more with less

Post by xcc » Sat Feb 08, 2020 9:46 am

lisa wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 9:38 am
xcc wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 9:26 am
Limits definitely breed creativity.
I don’t know. I’ve heard that being said at least 1000 times but I’ve never seen any proof. What I have seen are people who are really creative even with limited tools but those same people are always creative; they are creative with little and with and a lot in front of them. Then there are people with no creativity, no matter how much freedom or how many limitations that they have. They tend to focus on buying and selling stuff instead.
That can be, but I’ve seen plenty of proof. Not just in myself, but I’ve seen lots of sessions with great (normally broke) musicians going into studios that have everything you ever wished you had. Besides the option paralysis, it often ends with far more boring music than what was happening in the rehearsals/practices with limited tools.

Whether or not you believe in it (doesn’t matter if you get things done), there’s truth in truly learning a limited tool set before having everything you ever wanted all at once.

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Re: Doing more with less

Post by lisa » Sat Feb 08, 2020 11:20 am

xcc: sure, but you are talking about learning to use your tools. That has very little to do with limitations. You can have a huge studio with tons of stuff that you know well, no? Or are you saying that people with loads of gear can’t be creative?
New modular track! My first in six months. :party: Messy and unglued.


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Re: Doing more with less

Post by Rob Kam » Sat Feb 08, 2020 12:51 pm

lisa wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 11:20 am
xcc: ... Or are you saying that people with loads of gear can’t be creative?
Having loads of gear is irrelevant, creative types could get an interesting sound from a Stylophone if that's all they have to hand.

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Re: Doing more with less

Post by KSS » Sat Feb 08, 2020 1:32 pm

Rob Kam wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 6:02 am
How to go about achieving a modular synth system like this, (one to use for music that makes you want to get up and dance)?
Hippo1 gives good advice. And Lisa's point that it really isn't about size, but depth of understanding and practice which ultimately matters.

But if you want more than a theoretical generalized answer, you'll need to tell us more. A 7 year member with few posts is not really enough to go on.
Do you have a modular already?
When you say you want to make "get up and dance" music, what kind of dancing?
Are you well schooled in the use of your modular and now inspired by the hypothesis Eno presented?
Or still very new at all this?

One of Eno's most famous quotes says you can learn to play a synth in a very short time, but to play it *well* takes a lifetime.
Which is both absolutely trivially obvious, and also an easily missed point.

i've seen mostly two types of synth operators. Those who are somewhere along a path of seeking a deep, personal, relationship with their instrument. And those who basically just want to have a good time. Please don't misunderstand this to have anything to do with the quality of the sounds produced, the inner and outer effect on the operator, or the commitment one has to synths over the other. That's not the point.

Constraints -which may be inherent, or applied- are simply a way of forcing refinement. They're like an "end" sign on a road or trail. For one person this means -in the classic New England parlance- "Sorry, you can't get there from here." And this is where Eno's meaning shows itself.

It's what you do when that "end" sign shows up. One person simply turns around and goes back and chooses a new goal. Another does not let -or at least makes every effort not to let- that end sign keep them from continuing to go where they were headed.

It's as much about what you do when you hit the edges as it is about the edges themselves.

To answer directly your question above, I've always suggested that mixers are a key component too often in short supply. I'd rather have a small system with plenty of mixers than a large system with few.

When you look at someone like Noddyspuncture or CZRider with their modular moogs -which are far more limited than they might at first appear, if one goes by modern whizbang standards- you see someone who has kept deepening their relationship with a mostly fixed setup. Or at least returning to the core over and over, learning and finding nuances and depth no good-time knob twister's likely to reveal. Or a 2600 owner who treats it like a professional symphonic musician treats their instrument. There's an attitude of exploration within a specific goal, which over time encompasses many goals.

What I'm trying to say is that constraints by themselves aren't enough, and IMO they are only a verbal shorthand representation of what Eno was trying to set forth. The longhand version includes the attitude you bring to whatever set of tools you approach.

Put rather candidly, it's not the size of your tools, it's what you do with them.

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Re: Doing more with less

Post by Pelsea » Sat Feb 08, 2020 2:12 pm

I often counseled my students to limit their options on specific assignments. I even went so far as to hide advanced equipment during the first quarter. That's for skill development. Eventually I'd give them a taste of everything from tape splicing to Kyma, and they'd pick their own limitations. As a practical matter no one could afford, or find the time to learn everything that is available in our field. If nothing else, new things appear before we can learn the old.

I limit myself by working in cycles. I'll spend a period just acquiring gear--then I lock the studio down and ignore the market for three or four years while I get some music done.
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Re: Doing more with less

Post by xcc » Sat Feb 08, 2020 3:20 pm

lisa wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 11:20 am
xcc: sure, but you are talking about learning to use your tools. That has very little to do with limitations. You can have a huge studio with tons of stuff that you know well, no? Or are you saying that people with loads of gear can’t be creative?
I’m sure I’m not getting my point across, but those are two different situations hat can sometimes be related. And no, I’m not at all saying people with loads of gear can’t be creative. I think history has pretty thoroughly disproven that idea. I’m just saying that sometimes limiting yourself can bring out a forced creativity that can be surprising. Does that make any sense? Or maybe I’m alone.

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Re: Doing more with less

Post by beatcleaver » Sat Feb 08, 2020 3:39 pm

lisa wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 9:38 am
xcc wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 9:26 am
Limits definitely breed creativity.
I don’t know. I’ve heard that being said at least 1000 times but I’ve never seen any proof. What I have seen are people who are really creative even with limited tools but those same people are always creative; they are creative with little and with and a lot in front of them.

Then there are people with no creativity, no matter how much freedom or how many limitations that they have. They tend to focus on buying and selling stuff instead, if they are into ”making music”.
...so this is very irish I think but I can both agree and disagree with you :)

I've had the same experience; met loads of creative people who'd create no matter they have at hand, whether it's a little or a lot.
,
But I don't think that the whole story.

Reading between the lines of some posts on the forum I think many people found themselves more focused and made more music that they liked when they had smaller setups (I guess I'm substituting that for "being creative").

I don't necessarily feel like that myself, but I have definitely spent more time exploring and wringing the most out of a piece of gear when I use less and attempt to focus. I've found that no matter how much gear you have it really is worth trying to limit yourself sometimes and just see what you can do.

The shiney magpie, "oh cool, look what this can do" thing is real. I think it has an affect on us all in some way if you make music with technology. It can take hold of people with no creativity as you say, but I think it can take hold of people even if they do have some creative output. Sometimes people get lost along the way, you just hope they find their way back some day.

edit: so I actually read the rest of the thread now :-)

I think all of this is absolutely tied up in mastery of what you have to hand. Maybe I'm being dumb here, but it seems obvious to me that for the same level of effort and time, more people are going to master their instruments with 5 synths at their disposal rather than 20.

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Re: Doing more with less

Post by Rob Kam » Sat Feb 08, 2020 3:54 pm

KSS wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 1:32 pm
...
Do you have a modular already?
When you say you want to make "get up and dance" music, what kind of dancing?
Are you well schooled in the use of your modular and now inspired by the hypothesis Eno presented?
Or still very new at all this?
...
I'm still very new at this and I don't have a modular. For various reasons I'm looking to DIY one.
I find myself often listening to psytrance (although it often gets a bit cheesy or has too much thumping).
Eno expresses the way I already feel. I'd rather master a smallish collection of simple adequate analogue modules. Knowing what is enough and when to stop adding more is difficult to gauge. Swapping an inadequate module out to replace with something audibly better, (but not more complicated) would be okay.

E.g. would this be too limited or does it lack a little extra something or other?
Two VCOs, one of which is a TH 555 VCO.
S&H and noise.
One LFO
A mixer with enough inputs.
Two ADSRs
An interesting VCF, e.g. SSM 2040
One VCA, (but "you can never have too many VCAs").
Some sort of reverb
Add some 808 modules.
Last edited by Rob Kam on Sat Feb 08, 2020 4:15 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Doing more with less

Post by wackelpeter » Sat Feb 08, 2020 4:14 pm

Rob Kam wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 3:54 pm

E.g. Would this be too limited or does it lack a little extra something or other?
Two VCOs, one of which is a TH 555 VCO.
S&H and noise.
One LFO
A mixer with enough inputs.
Two ADSRs
An interesting VCF, e.g. SSM 2040
One VCA, (but "you can never have too many VCAs").
Some sort of reverb
Add some 808 modules.
S&H + noise sounds good
mixer also, have spread various of them within all my racks, usually use the CGS ones which you can easily do on perfboard or stripboard, but eventually i would use at least one CV processor which is based on the same basics...

instead of a VCA perhaps a LPF would be cool... can work as a VCA, VCF or a combination of both...

otherwise i would suggest to include any of the VCS/USG slope generator incarnations as they can work in so many different ways and are something like the swiss pocket knife of the modular synth world. They can be used as VCF, VC slew, LFO, VCO (well with some limitations in tracking), VC clock divider, VC AR envelope generator, etc.

And well, from my experience i can tell you that a lot of modules do not cover up the lack of musical talent or inspirations... ;)

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Re: Doing more with less

Post by Dragonaut » Sat Feb 08, 2020 4:18 pm

xcc wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 3:20 pm
lisa wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 11:20 am
xcc: sure, but you are talking about learning to use your tools. That has very little to do with limitations. You can have a huge studio with tons of stuff that you know well, no? Or are you saying that people with loads of gear can’t be creative?
I’m sure I’m not getting my point across, but those are two different situations hat can sometimes be related. And no, I’m not at all saying people with loads of gear can’t be creative. I think history has pretty thoroughly disproven that idea. I’m just saying that sometimes limiting yourself can bring out a forced creativity that can be surprising. Does that make any sense? Or maybe I’m alone.
You’re not alone. It just might not be as sagely as you’re reading into it. Focus. That’s all he’s really saying but people sometimes want to take this old chestnut and turn it into a fetishization of the poverty stricken artist.

Hip hop was created on a pair of decks, a microphone, and funk b-sides but now it’s recorded in multi-million dollar studios. Some good stuff by my measure too.

Really, most of the conventional wisdom is worth consideration.

Focus
Concentrate
Keep it simple
Don’t get ahead of yourself
Stay humble
Respect your elders
A penny saved is a penny earned
Hard work pays off
https://soundcloud.com/acaciabridge (IDM, Ambient, Bass, Downtempo)
www.instagram.com/dr_science_phd (synths, hikes, and views.)

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Re: Doing more with less

Post by snakejaw » Sat Feb 08, 2020 4:24 pm

This is an interesting question. I'd like to expand on it a bit. The notions of limitations, and by extension, simplicity and minimalism can be helpful and productive for at least some people. "Some people" is the operative term. The unfortunate thing is that these kind of discussions often lead into certain pathways and exclude other pathways. What I mean is that when ideas such as limitation are brought up some folks want to defend their non-limited methods, as if the subject is a judgement on their ways. This is normal, fine, but perhaps unnecessary. We end up with a debate about why it's perfectly OK and not at all wrong to have a giant modular setup or a house full of books, etc. But what if the question wasn't about people who happily had big modular systems, or non-minimal modular systems, or anything like that? What if instead it was a way to explore different ways to be creative that might work for some people at some points in their lives? This is what I think is the interesting part.

I happen to be, let's say, easily overwhelmed. I love seeing other people's wonderful, maximal audio setups. Same thing for their extensive book collections, or incredible bicycle collections, richly appointed houses, etc. I so admire what they can create on their modular systems. It never enters my mind to think "Ugh! You could have done the same thing with less stuff!" or anything else like that. It's just that through long experience, that non-limited approach doesn't seem to work for me. I could spend a few more years trying to get comfortable with lots of modules and other stuff, but why should I spend the time when part experience suggests failure? Not gonna happen.

So, that's where ideas such as limitation, simplicity and minimalism can be rich and fruitful for some people. By putting the focus, for example, into trying to really understand one pretty flexible synth, in my case the Novation Peak, I hope to create more and noodle less. That's because I _want_ to create more and noodle less. Not because I look down on noodle masters. I suspect that they are often more creative and satisfied than I currently am. This limitation stuff just seems be working for me.
Last edited by snakejaw on Sat Feb 08, 2020 9:17 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Doing more with less

Post by KSS » Sat Feb 08, 2020 5:03 pm

beatcleaver wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 3:39 pm
I think all of this is absolutely tied up in mastery of what you have to hand. Maybe I'm being dumb here, but it seems obvious to me that for the same level of effort and time, more people are going to master their instruments with 5 synths at their disposal rather than 20.
I agree with what you have written. It does not seem dumb at all. But let me throw a muddling thought your way.

One might benefit more from mastering *their* sound. And that might *not* require mastery of any of the available synths. One can win the decathlon with relatively 'average' performance over a number of events. The overall result can often afford some areas of less than mastery.

In creative endeavors the actual sum value is often greater than the simple arithmetic sum. It's another path to do more with less.

I think this plays into how creative people can make do and get great results with anything. They might be simply more focused on the result than the process. Though i've often discovered that truly creative people seem to have crammed quite a bit of mastery into their path along the way!

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Re: Doing more with less

Post by KSS » Sat Feb 08, 2020 5:11 pm

snakejaw wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 4:24 pm
This is an interesting question. I'd like to expand on it a bit.
Well said! May your inNovation PEAK! :mrgreen:

Some people need a band. Some only a guitar. Some get by with a harmonica, or just a single voice.

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Re: Doing more with less

Post by beatcleaver » Sat Feb 08, 2020 5:30 pm

KSS wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 5:03 pm
beatcleaver wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 3:39 pm
I think all of this is absolutely tied up in mastery of what you have to hand. Maybe I'm being dumb here, but it seems obvious to me that for the same level of effort and time, more people are going to master their instruments with 5 synths at their disposal rather than 20.
I agree with what you have written. It does not seem dumb at all. But let me throw a muddling thought your way.

One might benefit more from mastering *their* sound. And that might *not* require mastery of any of the available synths. One can win the decathlon with relatively 'average' performance over a number of events. The overall result can often afford some areas of less than mastery.

In creative endeavors the actual sum value is often greater than the simple arithmetic sum. It's another path to do more with less.
Thank you. That is food for thought.

Completely agree. There's a lot to be said for having your own voice regardless of all this tech that surrounds us. That's a great way to explain it... how to see proficiency differently. The decathlon analogy is prefect cheers :guinness:

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Re: Doing more with less

Post by Rob Kam » Sat Feb 08, 2020 6:02 pm

wackelpeter wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 4:14 pm
...
mixer also, have spread various of them within all my racks, usually use the CGS ones which you can easily do on perfboard or stripboard, but eventually i would use at least one CV processor which is based on the same basics...

instead of a VCA perhaps a LPF would be cool... can work as a VCA, VCF or a combination of both...

otherwise i would suggest to include any of the VCS/USG slope generator incarnations as they can work in so many different ways and are something like the swiss pocket knife of the modular synth world. They can be used as VCF, VC slew, LFO, VCO (well with some limitations in tracking), VC clock divider, VC AR envelope generator, etc.
...
Which CGS mixer? It could be any of ten or so?

Which CV processor? CGS lists at least 24.

I don't understand how a LPF be a VCA/VCF? There is already at least one VCF (SSM 2040). The VCF/LPF is one module that could take a lot of trial and error to find one with just the right sound. Maybe there should be more than one of these anyway, depending on the sound of the day.

VCS/USG I guess CGS75 VCS or CGS114 Serge DUSG?

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Re: Doing more with less

Post by moremagic » Sat Feb 08, 2020 9:54 pm

pretty sure that was a typo where they meant LPG instead of LPF. i think thomas henry does boards for a well regarded diy version.
you should probably have a couple vcas still, for CV and audio modulation, as well as the main audio path.
mixers are hugely useful as well, 2 of the 3 modules in my rack the first time i powered it on were mixers. i personally think theyre more usefull than VCAs, but i did come to the modular after no inout mixing after fixed architecture synths + moogerfoogers

the VCS & DUSG are p much the same circuit, the DUSG has more CV ins so id go with whichever seems easier to build or fit into your case.

personally i find a smaller modular easier to patch & unpatch, so much easier to play often. i like to patch from scratch, and just thinkin bout unplugging a wall of modular gives me the willies. i spent a good couple years getting my system sorted out, but i had a pretty solid single row after about 4 months. having a decade's experience playin synths beforehand helped me get there with relative speed

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Re: Doing more with less

Post by KSS » Sun Feb 09, 2020 2:45 am

moremagic wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 9:54 pm
pretty sure that was a typo where they meant LPG instead of LPF. i think thomas henry does boards for a well regarded diy version.
That was DJ Thomas White. Mr Henry has some great modules, but AFAIK not any LPG's.

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Re: Doing more with less

Post by wackelpeter » Sun Feb 09, 2020 4:22 am

Of course i meant the LPG and not an LPF... obvious typo...
Having at least one as an option as a final output stage would be fine imho due to it's special characteristics on sound (of course i then would also inlcude one gate to trigger converter being able to ping it, which enhances it's special characteristics but those triggers would be also fun to ping a VCF with)
When using my LPG's as a final VCA (i then use them mostly in VCF mode) and mainly pinging them, for getting those plucky natural sounds, i rarely use a VCF on it's own in the whole audio path.

and the CV processor i meant was this one:
http://www.synthpanel.com/modules/cgs81_proc.html

can be used as a normal signal/CV mixer but also has the ability to offset signals manually or mix in a offset voltage.

As already mentionend Thomas Henry has a good number of great modules (i for example have 4 of his 555 VCO's in my rig and i'm happy and excited with them).

But well, listing here everything i have in my rig would perhaps be counterproductive to the initial "doing more with less" question.

So to say i mentioned the Serge slope generators (or any of their clones and re-incarnations) as modules which can do several tasks and thus could be used to limit the number of modules.

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Re: Doing more with less

Post by half.cto » Sun Feb 09, 2020 12:12 pm

Thanks for sharing this article! :tu:

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Re: Doing more with less

Post by Rob Kam » Sun Feb 09, 2020 2:15 pm

wackelpeter wrote:
Sun Feb 09, 2020 4:22 am
Of course i meant the LPG and not an LPF... obvious typo...
Had me baffled, ha ha.

Thanks that's some food for thought there ...

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Re: Doing more with less

Post by KSS » Sun Feb 09, 2020 7:00 pm

beatcleaver wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 5:30 pm
how to see proficiency differently. The decathlon analogy is prefect cheers :guinness:
Upon reflection it seems prudent to add that nearly every successful decathlete Performs at least one event at a *very* high level of proficiency.

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