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Alex Menzies is a Scottish producer and DJ. As Alex Smoke, he has carved out a unique path through the dance music world since 1994 with three albums and numerous singles that display a rare talent for combining modern compositional ideas with the demands of the dancefloor. His most recent album, the self-titled Wraetlic, marks a new project that is based more on stripped-down pop structures and expressive sound design.
Long Glasgow-based, Alex has recently moved to Berlin. By email, I asked him a little about his new music and his writing process.
I like this new music and also the name “Wraetlic” very much. It and the track titles prime me to delve into a particular kind of kind of story, but leave ample room for mystery.
Cheers! Yeah anything too explicit, and the mystery has gone……things are better left unsaid and just skirted around. Just ask David Lynch.
You are working in an territory that I think of as in between tracks and songs, from where a lot of my favorite music has come. Can you point to any influences in this area?
Yeah it's very fertile ground as far as I'm concerned, somewhere you can experiment completely but still be able to keep it comprehensible by having a vocal narrative. You can have the weirdest stuff happening in the background, but if there's a vocal, it's suddenly very accessible. People who do it well are Matthew Dear, Khonnor, How To Dress Well, Autre ne Veut, Hype Williams, to name a few. They all come from totally different angles, but the voice is like a hook for the brain to latch on to.
You said that Aalto was an inspiration on the album. Are you able to say anything about how that happens? For example, some people talk about synthesizers as tools that help you get sounds you’ve imagined in your head out into the world. Others approach them more as boxes of mystery and possibility.
Firstly, yes it is no lie that Aalto was a big part of the production of this album, and came along at the time I was just starting the project. It really inspired me. There are several things about it which immediately made it stand out and invited me to experiment, the first thing being the simplicity of the layout which just makes it so approachable, despite the fact that it is semi-modular. I know I can create interesting sounds if I have access to that routing, so it is instantly creative, and encourages experimentation. It has a purity of conception about it, if that makes sense!
I am also the kind of producer who likes to have the ability to really make the sounds in my head, and again Aalto has some very unusual features which make it possible to create timbres which I am very fond of, especially bells and clicky, unpredictable tones. The Waveguide too is a big part of the appeal for me. That sound is so much more alive than a normal oscillator, and you get the sense that you are playing with a living thing, that has to be coaxed to do what you want of it. Unlike the standard oscillator, which just blurts out its noise for you to cosh into submission with a filter.
I hear some short melodic parts that could have been done in Aalto’s sequencer. Was it useful that way?
I tend to use the sequencer as a control source for the pitch only when the sequence is either very simple or if the pitches aren't so important. For normal melodic sequences, I prefer the control of piano-roll, as it is much easier to create many pattern variations that way, and also to use that MIDI information for other parts etc. Where I do use the sequencer in particular is with the oscillator’s linear pitch input to create huge fast jumps between pitches, resulting in strange beeps and noises, especially in conjunction with the noise oscillator. Also, altering the offset of the sequencer at the same time creates some brilliantly complex tones.
What was your setup like for making this music? Do you stick to one software environment for recording? Do you do any hardware mixing or processing?
I am a simple man….I just use Logic for the sequencing aspects, although I also use Kyma as a sound design tool which is a separate environment. For me the most important thing of all is getting the ideas down fast so as not to lose any ideas, and software wins this battle hands down. I care a lot about my sound sources but again, the software is now so good that external synths are a largely unnecessary luxury for me. That's not to say I don't hanker after a Jupiter 4 or a Buchla, but they aren't strictly required, especially now that I have Aalto to fill that Buchla-shaped gap in my sound-arsenal! There is a certain amount of fetishism about hardware gear, and many people I think just have it for that added appeal. I am also less of an experimenter, in the sense that I want to write the stuff in my head, and hardware is especially suited to open experimentation where you approach with an empty idea.
Place is always important to making music, and software tools offer interesting possibilities that way. Some of this album sounds to me like it could have been made in a remote cabin or monastery. Any truth to that?
I will actually include a picture of my studio at exactly the time I was making the Wraetlic album, and you will be heavily underwhelmed……haha…… In a way you're right, in that my head is somewhere between a remote cabin and a monastery! I would still love to go on a retreat to write an album and I have always intended it, but this album was not the one. It is all down to your inner world, and that is I think the most brilliant thing of all about making music now. That you can take your inner world and express it, whilst surrounded by the most abject banality, anywhere at all. But it's that inner world that matters.
Would you like to mention any other tools (hardware, software, consumables, rituals) that are important to your process?
My working processes alternate between the shockingly simple (such as doing vocals using the MacBook's inbuilt microphone) and the heavily labour-intensive (programming Kyma), but the only common threads are a lot of tea and working late at night. I have favourite software (there's a list on my website if it's of any interest) but I find that ultimately you need very few tools, as long as they are just the right ones. I know I could have just Aalto, Absynth and Soundtoys and still make 90% of what I want to. Although I'd also miss Kyma for that last 10% of madness.
Alex Smoke presents: Wraetlic is out now on Convex Industries.
I've posted the Virta update with all the patches. Since the plugin code hasn't changed, the new installer is also v.1.8.3 but with all the patches.
We put on a big push for Superbooth, which was exciting. I'm working full time on Sumu (the next plugin) now. When Sumu ships I can return to work on the module.
Wow, so I looked at the installer and found some issue in my build here that clobbered most of the presets. Totally my problem and it was just something so weird I wasn't checking for it. I'll release a full update with all the presets tomorrow.
Meanwhile here's a .zip of all the presets separately:
sorted, please see your email.
No worries! I'm here to help.
OK, I get it now. I did not know if you meant versions of patches, or of the plugin. Updating to Aalto 1.8.3 should fix this. It's a free update.
Sorry, can you explain in more detail? I don't understand what you mean.
When the problem happens,
- what operation did you do immediately before the problem?
- what did you expect to happen next?
- what happened instead?
Of course having any sort of sound engine begs the question of why aren't there more sounds! I think just a few really solid ones might be a sweet spot though. Like some old analog synths that had 8 presets or whatever.
You can email me at support @ madronalabs.com if you like.
If you start from the default patch, which has no patch cords going into the sequencer, and just set the int/host toggle to host, you'll have a simple patch that should track the clock repeatably.
The Model B will be more refined but not have an internal sound engine. Maybe down the road!
That's weird. Are you possibly modulating the start point of the sequencer somehow in the patch? Because otherwise it should be totally repeatable.
What happens if you start from 0.0.0.0 every time? Does anything change?
Aalto's sequencer will start on the first note whenever the host clock starts. It synchronizes to the nearest beat (1/4 note.) So if you want it to stay in sync with your track you will have to start playback on the one, in general.
This is by design—it's a simple tool more like a modular looping sequencer than a score-based one.
Thank you for taking the time to make this clear example. This certainly seems to be a bug with the MPE handling. I'm currently working on this very system and hopefully I'll have a fix to try soon.
What kind of controller are you using? I'm just curious.
There have been some issues with Windows from time to time but hardly ever on a Mac. So I don't have too many ideas. Are you running any anti-virus software? You could try turning it off. Also, possibly the installer was corrupted so just downloading it again may work.
I would just use the default location on your startup drive and see if you can get that to work. With an external drive, permissions issues come to mind, but I can't think of why it would install 10 presets and then stop. Unless the drive is full.
Yes, there are around 150.
You could try reinstalling. What OS are you on?
Happy summer from the PNW, USA, where things are not bad, considering. I've just wrapped up some infrastructure work fixing some long-standing issues and resulting in an update to all the plugins that's available now for both MacOS and Windows.
The change list for Aalto looks like this:
- added handling of "all notes off" and "all sound off" MIDI messages
- fixed bugs with Scala .scl and .kbm handling
- fixed issue with step sequencer not quantizing to current scale
- fixed issue with step sequencer UI not reaching maximum when dragging
- added slower LFO minimum speed and finer adjust (0.0001 Hz)
- added response to "canDo" MPE query in VST plugin
- increased glide time to reduce zipper noise for panel parameters
- fixed possible DSP freeze with extreme LFO feedback
- fixed sometimes missing t3d light
- fixed sometimes missing label backgrounds
Kaivo and Virta have some additional changes to fix audio glitches when certain parameters were changed. See those "read_me_first" files for details.
Since so many parts of the plugins are handled by the same underlying code, I've tweaked the version numbering a bit to reflect this. All the plugins are now at version 1.8.3, which looks like a big step for Kaivo and Virta (from 1.3).
Hmm, I have always put out the beta call through the newsletter, which is mostly customers, so I never thought about whether it will be closed in that sense. I guess if you have an account you're good.
I haven't released any samples.
I haven't updated the instructions for Audacity for a while but they are at the end of the readme for Kaivo: https://madronalabs.com/media/kaivo/_read_me_first.txt If they don't seem to work anymore, please let me know.
I'll send out a Sumu beta testing invite soon, hopefully!
Thanks for your support and ideas! Enjoy the instruments.
I'll try to do some good general tutorial stuff on additive synthesis in the manual. I don't actually know any of the synths you mention because I kind of stay in my own little world when I'm designing. But I look forward to checking some out and hearing people's comparisons later on.
@nichttuntun, you can import any WAV format file. For making 4-channel WAVs I use Audacity. You can convince most DAWs to make this format. I would love to make this easier but I didn't want to spend the time writing my own audio editor. Maybe in the future.
@thetechnobear I did make sure the Soundplane repo is up-to-date. I haven't been able to test the libusb support. Please let me know how it goes!
I want to do it!
@hougaard, I'm not sure what problem you mean. Same as @spotta? The account looks OK. Please email me at support for faster response.
Thanks for the note. I'll be doing some work on MPE compatibility in the future and have added this item to the list.
@ian_craig thanks for the good words! That was a simple request from a user and in no way messes up the design, so... done!
@nichttuntun That wavetable granulator is what I'm pointing to with the 2D granulator in Kaivo. Have you tried making your own 2D waveforms yet? Of course, it only does 4 channels. More a limitation of the interface than anything else.
Dear music makers,
In appreciation for your support, Madrona Labs is having a summer sale this year. Use the code PARTICLES on any of the product pages to get 30% off any Madrona Labs plugin. From now through the end of August.
I've done yet more work on the Soundplane code. In addition to fixing an intermittent error that a few people ran into since version 1.5, this 1.7 release adds new Mac system code to get the lowest possible latency.
- allow running app hidden / in background without added latency
- fix redundant calibrate on startup
- fix a stuck notes issue
- add quick recovery after unplug / replug instrument
OSC has been tested here fully, MIDI less well. Please give it a whirl and let me know about any issues.
Full Kyma functionality may or may not be restored with this release. Unfortunately, I can't test that here. I'll try to get some quality time with a recent Kyma in the near future.
NOTE: the 1.7.0 release is final and available from the "STICKY: Soundplane client for Mac" thread.
August 21, 2018
link: Soundplane 1.7.0.dmg, 5.9MB
To install this version: move the "Soundplane" application to your Applications folder, then move the directory "ZonePresets" to ~/Music/Madrona Labs/Soundplane.
When you launch the Soundplane application, the menu at the top of the "Zones" page should contain three presets: chromatic, rows in fourths and rows in octaves, followed by a list of all the JSON files in the ZonePresets folder. If the JSON files do not appear, the ZonePresets directory is probably not in the right place.
The format of the zone .json files is human-readable and relatively self-explaining. Take a look to see how to make your own zone maps.
The Soundplane Max/MSP examples require the CNMAT Max externals to run. These can be found at http://cnmat.berkeley.edu/downloads .
The Soundplane application is open-source, available under a permissive license. For source code and more technical information see http://github.com/madronalabs.
- fixed possible crash starting for the first time with Kyma connected
- "destination port" menu now allows connecting to other hosts on the local network
- added wait on startup to resolve ports on other hosts
- added clear all notes when switching OSC destinations and on shutdown
- added test pattern mode
- allow running app hidden / in background without added latency
- fix redundant calibrate on startup
- fix a stuck notes issue
- add quick recovery after unplug / replug instrument
- improved isochronous USB driver: lower latency, allows restart after pausing app
- fixed an issue selecting cleanest carriers after "select carriers"
- fixed possible crashes on startup/shutdown
- now distributing as signed .dmg
- new touch tracker algorithm:
- consumes much less CPU
- improved latency
- improved pressure sensitivity
- improved pressure uniformity
- improved position accuracy
- allows better tracking into corners
- lengthy normalization step no longer required
- fixed hanging touches
- fix Kyma connection
- improve selection of lowest-noise carrier set
- fix a possible crash when switching zone presets
- fixed a window-related crash on shutdown
- fixed latency issue when in background for an extended time
- fixed a problem with MIDI output preventing slide between rows
- tweaked pre-touch filtering for lower noise
- (dev) new cmake-based build system
- (dev) experimental Linux build
- (dev) added HelloSoundplane command line app for low-level testing
- MPE MIDI support. Requires Aalto 1.7 / Kaivo 1.2.
- Implemented note splits to multiple ports over OSC.
- Improved stability and sensitivity of MIDI velocity
- changed "z max" control to more intuitive "z scale."
- fix crash with uninitialized driver on shutdown
- allow 1-500Hz MIDI data rate
- fix bug where pressure wasn't getting set w/o a MIDI connection
- send quantized pitch bend on MIDI note off
- fix touch tracker issues including zone-switch bug
- fix to allow MIDI note 0
- fix for double note off problem
- fixes for MIDI glissando
- [184.108.40.206] Fixed a crash on startup if no preferences folder was present.
- Kyma listener off by default to fix collisions on port 3124. Use 'kyma' toggle on Expert page to turn on.
- fixed automatic connection to selected OSC service on startup.
- restored some values from 1.1.2 to improve touch tracking.
- add automatic saving of window dimensions. This is saved in /Application Support/SoundplaneViewState.txt.
- fixed a problem resolving OSC services
- fixed wrong MIDI note offsets in default Zone setups
- rendering fixes for Retina display
- make touches easier to get into top and bottom rows
- code signing application
- turned Kyma polling over MIDI OFF by default
- fixed some state issues on startup that required reselecting zone to refresh
- clamp zone outputs to [0, 1] as documented
- fix touch rotate bug
- fix OSC browser
- made normalizing easier and mre accurate
- sending out x, y, and z from zones via MIDI.
- more complete fix to the note-off problem
- restored the note lock feature for new zones.
- fixed an odd font-related bug
- PLEASE NOTE: moved support files to ~/Music/Madrona Labs.
- fixed a problem where the wrong note value was sent on note-off
- fixed a potential crash sending MIDI if a MIDI device was not set
- made benign errors less alarming
- two new kinds of zones: z (pressure only) and a toggle switch.
- fixed an error where inactive touches were continuously sending their data
- shortened some JSON zone names (just remove "controller_" to fix your presets)
- updated Max/MSP examples
- moved matrix message into t3d OSC bundle with touches
- restored some debug printing in the in-app console
- added error info for JSON parsing
- fixed possible bug with zone parsing
- clarified the T3D format in docs
- fixed an error reading calibration files
- fix view issues for Retina display
-new Zone features allow mapping notes and controllers to key grid
-changed t3d format for wider OSC compatibility
-OpenGL accelerated graphics
-fixed graphics for Retina display
-fixed a bug where SoundplaneController was initialized twice
-fixed OpenGL errors on quit
-fixed a possible crash in adjustPeak()
-fixed note release when quantized
-new raw matrix output