randy's Recent Posts

by Jason Caffrey
photo: Connor Bell

“I just mucked around until the machines made a sound.”

Karl Fousek laughs gently as he recalls his first forays into electronic music. Before he was drawn into the world of hardware synthesizers, the Vancouver-based composer and musician experimented with Madrona Labs software.

Multi-faceted VST beasts were too much for him to get his head around in those early days, while more straightforward soft-synths just weren’t “modular enough” to satisfy his appetite for manipulating tone and timbre.

“I couldn't get into the sound enough, so I needed the patch cables.”

Aalto hit the spot.

Fousek was impressed that Randy Jones’ plugin didn’t simply try to emulate venerated vintage West Coast instruments such as the Buchla Easel, but instead took the “synthesis ideals” the hardware embodied, and built on that heritage to forge a new instrument with its own distinct personality.

And he recalls time spent with Aalto as hours of happy exploration and learning.

“I really liked it. It taught me that with any piece of modular kit I could get my hands on, I could approach certain sounds or ideas that were baked into historical instruments. That was a huge lesson.”

Generating spontaneity

Fast forward to the current day, and Fousek is on a very different part of the learning curve. Broadly speaking, he has two primary creative concerns: playing live is central to his music, and he devotes much of his energy to making the electronics—in this case a Eurorack modular setup—work in that setting. Improvisation is a big part of Fousek’s performances, and he is constantly trying “to find a way to make electronics spontaneous, and playable, without losing what’s interesting about those kinds of instruments”.

And while he searches for ways to make his synthesizers perform “more like conventional instruments”, he also devotes attention to the other key aspect of his work: building generative systems that “produce things on their own without much intervention”.

These two strands might appear contradictory. On the one hand, building and refining a playable, responsive setup that can cope with the demands of live improvisation; while on the other, creating systems designed to execute predetermined processes with a considerable degree of autonomy.

But to Fousek, they are simply two sides of the same coin: complementary pathways to navigate in “pursuit of a similar goal.”

Generative composition is something Fousek is, by his own admission, “endlessly fascinated by.” Lacking experience of playing a conventional instrument, he gravitated towards electronic music because it “didn’t require the physical dexterity” demanded by, for example, a violin or a trumpet.

But there was another appeal too: the piano roll—that staple of computer sequencing—held a special allure.

Fousek “didn’t come from a formal trained compositional background,” and discovering music software that laid everything out in front of him “as if it was notated,” was a seminal moment. Indeed, finding “a generative system that didn’t have anything to do with those big Western traditions” was irresistible.

Fousek was hooked.

He also found huge appeal in random patterns. They “made a lot of sense” at the beginning of his musical journey, because a machine-generated sequence that was not strictly predictable gave him a platform to build on.

And while Fousek is now steering his work away from random elements, spontaneity is something that he still values highly in his music.

So how much of his work is composed, and how much is improvised?

“It’s really blurred,” Fousek says, explaining that his different album releases are composed or improvised to varying degrees.

His 2019 album, In The Forest—the soundtrack to a film of the same name by visual artist David Hartt—was, Fousek suggests, “probably the most composed. It had to meet certain requirements and some of the music was edited to visual cues.”

“Because I was working with another artist it had to match the overall project. That said, when I was working on it, there were really really long takes, like 20 minutes of just the machine doing certain processes. A lot of the composition was just going back and editing and juxtaposing some things.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Fousek’s 2017 album, Two Pieces for a Temporary Connection, is “almost all a huge live take.”

“Part of the B-side came straight out of the recording of a show,” he recalls. “The A-side was me rehearsing, doing 20-minute concert-length takes. And then just doing small edits afterwards to make it feel like a piece. It's a really raw, live thing.”

”Almost conducting”

Before taking to the stage for what could be a “loose improvised situation”, Fousek must first prepare his hardware.

That means planning his system setup in advance, deciding how much autonomy his synths will exercise—and how much he will need to intervene in what his machines are doing on their own. Increasingly, Fousek thinks of these preliminary decisions as compositional choices. Software remains an important studio tool, but he hasn’t been able to get comfortable with it on stage.

“The processes I run on a computer seem not to suit the immediacy of being on stage,” he says, and besides, “it’s not very hands-on.”

“I'll often build software patches that do really extended delays and other things that will capture bits of performance and extend them. And for me that works really well when you’re recording. But I find that stuff less easy to control in a live situation.”

The competing demands of improvisation and composed elements require careful calibration ahead of a performance. Which processes will the hardware handle itself? And how can Fousek assume control of any given aspect if need be?

The aim, he says, is to steer the performance, rather than take control of every detail.

Decisions such as the pitch of the next note, or the speed of a certain clock might be set up so that the synthesizer makes those decisions on its own. A feedback loop might, for example, then prompt the hardware to pick a new clock speed every eighth step in a sequence, “so the clock kind of becomes elastic”.

Fousek might restrict the hardware’s pitch range, or program an envelope so that the longer a note is sustained, the “more gnarly” it becomes. In this way he can keep the music flowing without having to command too many knobs and sliders.

“What you're doing when you're playing is you're almost conducting,” he muses. “You're guiding an overall process instead of actively being involved with every little micro part of the sound.”

The burden of pre-planning is lessened when Fousek plays live alongside other musicians, as he did for the 2018 album, Residual Time, which he recorded live in Montreal with saxophonist Yves Charuest and double-bassist Nicolas Caloia.

“I'm responsible for less sound and there's less responsibility for me to make all the transitions.

It’s a situation where Fousek can think of himself as an individual voice, and use a smaller setup for what is more responsive music-making. In a solo performance he is more inclined to let a process “play out for a while.” But in a group improvisation changes “might come faster – there’s a lot of snap decisions”.

“Those guys are also incredible musicians,” Fousek laughs, “so I don't have to worry about them. If I make a really weird sound, they'll figure something out.”

Buying and selling

With seemingly endless options offering limitless possibilities, modular hardware has gained a reputation for being an addictive pursuit. While newcomers might ask themselves where to start, for seasoned synthesists such as Fousek, the bigger problem can be where to stop.

“I have in the past definitely spent too much time online looking at gear and talking about gear, so I'm trying to wean myself off. But I'm not nearly as bad as some people.”

For Fousek, the need to develop muscle memory ultimately trumps the temptation to keep adding or changing modules.

“I don't think I could get any work done,” he insists, and “when you start playing a synth like an instrument, at some point if you're improvising, you need to remember where a certain knob is.

“I mostly work with a small system. You can't change up the rack too much.”

That doesn’t mean that his setup doesn’t evolve. Fousek tends to tailor his synths to a certain project or a piece he has in mind. He’ll play that for a couple of years before making a record, and then he’ll want to move on.

From there, it’s a matter of selling his current modules and spending the cash on new hardware.

It’s a process he says is “getting a little frustrating”, so he’s working more with computers to avoid that.

“I'm trying to build my own synths, to move over some of the processes I've been doing with hardware to computer systems, to just extend them a little bit. But that's a really long-term project.”

Meanwhile Fousek says that while he has no new material ready to be released immediately, he has plenty to keep him occupied.

“I finished an album that was off the tour I did last summer, but that's been sitting on the shelf. I'm not totally pleased with it, so I have to go back to that.”

And, Fousek says, there is “loads and loads of archival work” that he is slowly editing—most of it recorded on borrowed vintage gear.

Musical megalomaniac

Whichever tools Fousek chooses—hardware, software, or a combination of both—it is clear that he will be led by tone and timbre.

“I really like sound, I'm so inside of it,” he enthuses. “That was one of the reasons to get into modular synths - to be inside the sound in a really specific way. I can get it exactly the way I want to be. [...] Before having access to that kind of equipment, I remember being really frustrated.

“With off-the-shelf synthesizers, other people were making decisions about what the sound is. I want to go in and start with just the sine wave or something, and then add on parts, so it's only what I want.

“I don’t know if that sounds megalomaniac?”

Despite this obsession with building bespoke sounds from their most elemental raw materials, Fousek’s music can also nod strongly towards the rhythmic heritage of minimalist composers such as Steve Reich or Terry Riley.

“I do consciously make an effort to think about rhythm and deal with it. I'm interested in sound, and the texture of it, but so much of the music I grew up with is, is rhythmic first in a lot of ways, or doing interesting things with rhythm alongside timbre. I think I have a weird impulse to not want to make purely ambient music, and to not want to make functional dance music—which is mostly I think where people would go to when they think about rhythm.

“I don’t know why. That's just the music I want to make.”

Thanks for the clear report. I'll take a look ASAP.

Thanks for the kind words.

I can't think of any presets offhand that use the repeat dial. The value on it is the frequency in Hz. Turn it up to 1.0 and you should see the output light start blinking. You can set the attack and release to values near 0.5 to get a nice ramp up/down. And the envelope diagram will show you what's going on with the sideways bracket at the bottom showing the repeat duration.

You could set the seq rate to 0. Depending on what you are doing getting it to resync when it starts up may be an issue, but if you control it with say MIDI automation you should be able to put the startup control change anywhere near the right time, and the clock should sync back to the host clock.

You may or may not have noticed: ENV2 in Aalto has a repeat dial that makes it into another LFO.

Oh sorry re: attenuverter! They're the little dials on patcher outputs. Attenuator + inverter. I could have sworn this was in the manual. Some people started calling hardware modular knobs this originally.

Thanks for the careful report, I will investigate.

Have you tried Bitwig as a host? Its modulators make it easy to effectively have an LFO for every parameter you can modulate. I've tested it with Aalto and they work well together. Most any host could be used to set up a bunch of LFOs, but having a good interface as Bitwig does helps a lot.

Anything you can send an LFO to in Aalto you do via the attenuverters—and these give you the ability to invert the LFO and modulate the destination up or down.

The vox technique Christian wrote about also works in Aalto.

Thanks for the suggestion!

I agree an on/off switch is needed somewhere but yes, most hosts have them. Not a dumb idea! Glad you're enjoying Kaivo.

Nice, thanks for sharing!

Welcome, and thanks for the feedback.

I don't think a randomizing function is something I would add to Aalto. The main issue is that done simply, it would make really useless sounds a lot of the time, maybe painful shrieks sometimes, and a lot of work would have to be done to get around that.

There are some environments like Max/MSP or even Reaper where it's pretty simple to make scripts that do things like randomize a parameter. So with a little work you could set up a randomizer that meets your needs.

FL Studio and Bidule (hosts) also offer randomize functions, maybe with less or no scripting involved.

Sorry you're running into this issue. Please stay tuned for an update soon.

If you experience the problem with Aaltoverb again, can you please send me a screenshot? You can email it to support@madronalabs.com.

I think I've figured this one out. Stay tuned for an update soon.

Hi, sorry about the trouble, I'm not sure what's going on here. Are there any particular presets that seems to be giving you a problem? I haven't seen anything like this with Virta recently but I will give it a shot with Reaper and see if I can reproduce.

Meanwhile here's a 1.8.3 installer: http://madronalabs.com/media/virta/Virta1.8.3.pkg . Note you may have to delete your old plugins manually to convince the installer to go "backwards". You can find them in /Library/Audio/Plug-Ins/Components and /Library/Audio/Plug-Ins/VST.

if 1.8.3 changes anything I'm very interested in your results—please let me know.

If you use other DAWs / plugin hosts please let me know if this issue ever came up outside of Reaper.

Sure, I'd love to make one some rainy day soon.

You can send a MIDI program change message to Aalto, and then it will pick a preset from in the "MIDI Programs" directory inside the Presets directory. The MIDI message just has a number and picks from those presets in alphabetical order. I don't remember the Max/MSP side of things—either there's a special message to the vstplugin host object or you can just send the right sequence of MIDI bytes raw.

Please keep me posted. If it happens again, you can note if the output oscilloscope is still working. it shows the signal coming out of the plugin, so if there's any signal visible the problem is likely to be with the host somehow.

Re: Virta, some of the presets only work with audio input and some also work just with MIDI. You may know this, but it's the first thing I would check.

Sorry you're having trouble. I can't say I've heard of this problem before. I still test in Live 9 and I have not run into anything similar.

Does it happen every time?

How are you changing the patch, with the menu / arrows on the plugin or something else?

Very happy to hear, thanks for posting.

Hi there, thanks for the kind comments and for your patience. I appreciate the reminder and will give this request a bump.

Meanwhile you could put some scales you use a lot into the "Scales" folder directly if you like. Then they won't be in a second menu and if you star the names w/ a digit or "+" or something they will be at the top of the main menu (after 12-equal). This will save you at least a little menu diving.

I remember it well. I'd call it a learning experience for me. :-) It wasn't a lot of effort, but a few people sort of freaked out about the idea of their synths having some intentional randomness that was out of their control and wanted to know things like, can I turn it off? does someone else have a better sounding one?

The differences were all very subtle, and probably not audible unless you knew what you were listening for.

There's a deeper lesson somewhere about the contradiction between peoples' desire for control with digital instruments and their embrace of analog flaws and restrictions.

Thank you for posting again with the fix! I hope this helps someone in the future. I'll make a note and see if there's anything I can do about this in the installers.

Sounds like you are on Windows—Scales will be in C:/AppData/Roaming/Madrona Labs/Scales. But this shouldn't be empty, the installer should put the scales there. This is how the popup menu gets filed.

I have some new voice allocation code in the works that should fix this issue. Thanks for the feedback.

I don't have a fix yet. I haven't forgotten about it.

Yup, that makes sense. I'll see if I can make unison / MPE do something reasonable!

Sorry, the manual is not up to date on MPE outputs.

in MPE mode x is mapped to cc#73, as I answered in more detail here: https://madronalabs.com/topics/7440-aalto-s-key-module-outputs-in-mpe-mode-and-linnstrument

I'll investigate unison mode in MPE and at least make it try to do something reasonable. I don't think this was ever tested, because why would you use unison mode with MPE?

I'll check out Kaivo and see about changing it. Thanks for the feedback.

Thanks for the feedback.

Here is 1.8.5: https://madronalabs.com/media/aalto/Aalto1.8.5.pkg

I'm on the trail of this bug and should have an update available soon.

Some people contributed a few sounds that just went into the "Kaivo percussion" folders etc. It could have been some of those. I can't remember for sure.