Studies in MASS
“Below up where is room to grow”
The contents of this sample CD were created over the better part of a year, where I went from not really knowing anything about modular synthesis to having a better idea of exactly what it is that I didn’t know about modular synthesis. I wanted to document the result, but I arrived at the idea of a sample CD only after most of the material was already prepared. Since then I have heard real sample CDs, so maybe the term is deceptive.
The CD consists of the following.
1) .cda recordings of three long evolving patches, readable on any CD player.
2) .wav samples of all 150 patches. On some occasions I have recorded several different settings of the same patch, or muted a delay module to provide a drier recording. As a result, there are some 175 samples.
3) All MASS source files used to generate the above samples (*.msl), located within the folder “Studies in MASS” and grouped thematically by subfolder, excluding the CD audio patches.
4) Archives of all patches assembled in the course of development. Most of the 150 patches above have been drawn from this morass. I’ve included the archive as a warning for anyone who is thinking of using an alphanumeric system of classification for, well, anything at all.
5) A .zip of the MASS application itself. Installation and pottering about is free, however in order to save modifications the software should be registered at www.9barrecordings.co.uk/. Support shareware – support Stewart!
All .wav samples are monophonic 44.1kHz/16-bit resolution, and recorded directly to hard disk from within the MASS environment. Aside from normalization and fade/loop-point editing done on Sound Forge, there has been no postproduction – everything is straight out of MASS. In some cases artifacts or aliasing persisted on a few samples, but I considered the sounds interesting enough to warrant inclusion. Development was done on a PC (MASS is PC-only), using a Korg Oasys PCI card and Mackie HR824 monitors – therefore, all sounds are THX-approved!
All sound files and source patches are copyleft under EFF Open Audio License. All material on this CD is also considered trackware – if you use it in a track, do be kind enough and send me a copy.
Despite my limited experience, it seems to me that MASS has some very nice features. One is the oscillator design, which goes from 0.001Hz to 22050Hz continuously (with the break in significant digits occuring between 4.999 and 5.0). Thus a simple mouseclick turns an LFO into a tone-generating oscillator or vice versa – no need to mess around with exchanging modules.
Another is that every aspect of a module’s output can be controlled by another module’s output. While an oscillator has a single output, all aspects contributing to that output – frequency, slide (ie, portamento), wave form, amplitude, phase, hard sync – can be modulated by any other signal from any other module, including the osc itself. Long amplitude and/or frequency modulation chains are thus possible. Also, through the use of splitter, splicer and amplifier modules, any number and variety of feedback circuits, subroutines and parallel processes can be generated.
Hardly any of the assemblies use envelopes. I found them annoying to work with – always opening and closing. This may seem odd, but not if every sound file on this disc was created with a mouse and not a keyboard (MASS doesn’t require a MIDI connection, although the MIDI implementation is quite easy). Well, now I’ve got it out of my system, so my next project should involve patches designed to be played from a controller.
The majority of assemblies in the archives were built around consonances of 60Hz, however, I’ve attempted to retune much of the final group of 150 assemblies and the resulting samples to 55Hz, in order to remain consistent with the A3 = 440Hz paradigm. Sometimes I’ve had to keep patches at the original fundamental simply because they don’t sound as good any other way. Other patches, like percussive or sample-and-hold- driven sounds, obviously will not have a fundamental tone per se, and still others will have upper and lower tones as suggested “boundaries” for the sound generated (eg, patches that make heavy use of frequency portamento, or patches where the cutoff frequency is the principal determinant of tone, as opposed to a tone generated by an oscillator). The accompanying MASS Catalogue gives, where possible, the frequency employed by each patch, as well as the length of each sample, and whether loop points have been set.
Since these patches weren’t necessarily designed to be components of a larger compositional architecture, there aren’t as many “single sound” examples as one might expect from a sample CD. Nor did I have any interest in emulating other synths, although I’m certain this would have been a good exercise (some patches, like “303 Generator”, just wound up this way). Nor was there much interest in emulating actual instruments or objects. I did get a lot of pleasure out of mimicking metallophones, but the technique’s discovery seemed about as accidental as anything else.
What I did find intriguing in the design process was the chance to create evolving patches, and these constitute the majority – soundscapes that can stand on their own and develop over the course of seconds, even minutes. Also, on several occasions I have recorded several settings of a patch, eg removal of end-of-chain delay module to produce a dry sound perhaps more appropriate for future production work. Spawn of Sinclair, for instance, is a handy illustration of the development process – only the final build exists as a source file.
Within the .msl files themselves, I have made an attempt to describe the functions of modules, particularly the oscillators’. For those of you who would strenuously contest usage of such terms as “metamodulator”, I invite you to set me right. I have also attempted to give the inheritance of each patch within the “Notes” view, so if you continue developing patches, send them back to me with an updated inheritance, including instructions, if any, on how to play them. Before attempting to play and/or record from MASS, note that I used a 533MHz 640Mb RAM PC, and that in several cases the processor was quite maxed, so I had to use a much faster machine for recording.
New York, July 2002