MATRIXSYNTH: ReSynthesizer (Autonomous Synthesizer Installation at MIT's PSFC, Spring/Summer 2018)


Sunday, June 12, 2022

ReSynthesizer (Autonomous Synthesizer Installation at MIT's PSFC, Spring/Summer 2018)


video upload by ParadisoModular

"In December of 2017, as part of the 50’th anniversary celebration for MIT’s CAVS (Center for Advanced Visual Studies), I was invited to install my large, custom built-and-designed modular synthesizer system into the experimental hall where Alcator C-Mod was residing, MIT’s most recent tokamak reactor used in plasma fusion research. Known as being a pioneering melting pot for art and technology during the 60s, 70s and 80s, the CAVS was a place where scientific fields like physics would commune with performance and music. Modular synthesizers, as used there by early adopters like Paul Earls, were part of the Center’s original vernacular, and after many decades they are being enthusiastically re-discovered, re-embraced, and in many way re-invented by the current young generation of electronic musicians. Such reflected synergy into the present led to my invitation (as well as this installation’s name), as did the match between the aesthetic and technical grandeur of a large heavily-patched modular synthesizer and the huge mélange of custom, elegantly-kludged electro-mechanical systems that surrounded the tokamak. Similarly, the researchers’ quest to manage the chaotic nature of an energetic plasma (as expressed inside the tokamak’s torus during the peak of plasma confinement) resonated with my efforts to ‘sculpt’ my autonomous and likewise chaotic huge synthesizer patch into a definable aesthetic.

As I have my PhD in high-energy physics (having worked at CERN at various times between the late 70s and early 90s) in addition to having designed, built, and used electronic music systems of various sorts over the last 45 years, I was anticipating having access to actual Alcator data and using it in the patch that I would compose when the installation would go live in late March of 2018. My plasma physics colleagues resonated with this idea, and I was provided with several waveforms coming from various sensors on the tokamak acquired during its record-breaking run from a few years ago, when Alcator C-Mod had attained the largest recorded plasma pressure. Listening to this data as audio, I was immediately transfixed. This didn’t sound like bland digital noise, but instead felt alive – some strange kind of muted rattlesnake here, burbling life forms on a weird water planet there, perhaps other samples evoked the barely scrutable control room of an alien spaceship. These sounds, played at various rates and filtered into audible bands, were strongly otherworldly. This dictated the flavor that I’d strive for in my patched composition. Accordingly, I loaded banks of Alcator’s waveforms into an array of Eurorack samplers that I could control from processes running in my synthesizer. While most of these signals were used as direct audio, some were adopted for modulation envelopes and slow control – the tokamak cycle exhibited a variably noisy build-and-release structure as the magnetic fields were ramped up to concentrate the plasma before it went terminally unstable, which worked well here.

My patch evolved considerably during the installation, which ran from late April through late August of 2018. I worked on it weekly, and it achieved its ultimate balance between form and complexity by the beginning of July. At the end, I used every patch cord that I owned (on the order of 700) and nearly all modules in the synth, in addition to an assortment of outboard effects and commercial Eurorack modules that I coaxed to work with my system. Towards the end, when I was starting to run out of cords and hardware capacity, I resorted to kludging in simple wires and electrical components hanging in the air between modules to attain effects and sounds that I still wanted but didn’t have the modules available to make. This was the most extensive and ambitious synthesizer patch that I’ve yet composed – it pushed me to extremes of being simultaneously a composer, synthesizer musician, engineer, and scientist. Having designed, built or custom-modified nearly everything in my setup creates a special rapport for me that goes deeper than interaction with commercial synthesizer equipment – my system has its own unique capabilities and quirks that reflect my personal audio nuances and what I want to achieve with them.

At various stages during the 4-month run of this installation, I digitally recorded the patch’s stereo mix – in all, I have archived probably on the order of 60 hours of audio. The excerpts provided in this video all came from different sections of this long set of recordings. Aside from cross-fading between different excerpts, there was no manual intervention or overdubbing in these clips – the sound was made entirely from the patch running on its own after I set it on its way, with updates and augmentations I made every week or two based on ideas I got while listening to it stream online. The video also features a brief example of some of the raw plasma data sounds that I used."

And in the studio:

Synth Patch For Chaos Unit, Sitar Pedal, and NightSky'ed Keyboard (August 2021)

video upload by ParadisoModular

"In the summer of 2021, I put in a synth patch to test out my newly-arrived Sitar Pedal as well commemorate the tweaking/repair of my voltage-controlled chaos module. This was a very simple patch compared to my usual - nothing too deep or thought out, and the master sequence is a bit shallow - but it has its vibe. Plus, at 2:30 in, I added a keyboard line over what the patch was doing. This was all live - the synth patch ran autonomously and I just recorded as I played - no preparation, overdubbing, or refinement here - hence it's raw and not even close to what I'd term finished or a 'demo' - but I kinda like its intrinsic 'hopeful' feel.

The basic sequence is running through the sitar pedal, which locks on fine (it can separate the drone sounds and re-synthesized lead into separate channels). I'm running a fixed tone also through my chaos generator, which I move in a complex way into and out of stability - it locks onto subharmonics or devolves totally/partially into noise as it sweeps. This sound goes through several signal processing paths that periodically fade in, involving filters, unstable phase-locked loops, and a Boss guitar synthesizer pedal (which does wonderfully noisy gyrations as it tries to lock onto the chaos signal between stable moments).

At that time, as opposed to collecting Eurorack modules, I was slowly accumulating and modifying pedals - pedals are all about modifying an input sound in interesting ways, and which generally appeals to me (I hack them, of course, to accept voltage control in different ways).

The only keyboard sound here (aside from one chord and arpeggio at the end) is from the little cheezebox Casio 'toy' that the Minskys gave me at a Media Lab event some years ago - I abandoned my more sophisticated synths for this one in this piece, as it fits easily on your lap (that's how I played it in the excerpt here) and it sounds amazing if you feed it through one of the new complex reverb/echo/delay pedals like the NightSky or Micropitch (those pedals can put any sound into an evocative space).

The video is indeed of this patch and me playing atop it (shot while I was holding the phone in my other hand), but it's not the live segment that you hear in the piece, so pardon if things don't line up entirely, but you get the vibe.

OK - I figured I'd let this one get a bit of air in case it hits some resonance... It radiates a bit of melancholic positivity, which is something we all relate to these days."

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