Rabid Elephant's Drums... but more of a "Where Are We Now"

Gruetzi!  Hello!  We have a major update for y'all - this time for our Portal Drum/Drum/Kick (name still TBD).  This is a pretty long article and goes from lightweight stuff to some pretty darn fundamental philosophies for us and how that has shaped where we are now.  But let's start with the lightweight stuff:

We took an early prototype to SuperBooth 19 that many folks got a chance to try/see. 

(but dont' get too attached to that guy :D)

This prototype has gone through *massive* changes.  I've said before I wasn't 100% happy with the prototype.  The base kick sound was surely there.  But something lingered that didn't sit right with me.  I couldn't quite pin-point it but I know that my gut is usually right when it comes to these sorts of things.  The good news is now my feelings are good about this thing but I figured I'd give y'all a little background on how it is coming, what changes to expect (!), and some of the reasoning.  

Firstly, this module started off for us just to make LF type drum sounds based around at least 1 membrane - mostly kicks.  At the point of the SB prototype, it made really great kicks - esp. those in what we call the 'pillow kick' sound.  These are kicks that mix really well due to the special envelopes we developed for it and have, for us, a very nice artistic quality to them.  They were definitely 'new' sounding to us and we liked that as we were pretty bored with the typical fare and didn't want to do some variation of these.  So this module was good.  Initially, my lack of feeling 100% with it was caused by my thought that it needed to go to different places under modulation.  If we were to make a kick module that made great, static kicks (which is arguable how many kicks do reside in a mix - static, unfortunately (?)), then why would this make a good module unless the modulation was on-point?  Modular is mostly about modulation - using the jacks.  Through this exploration we found that the circuit was far more flexible without losing any of the original kicks it could develop.  Mostly, this was just a matter of tuning it higher or lower.  As not to avoid losing sounds in poorly ranged controls, we felt it a perfect reason to simply add a coarse fine tune.  Keeping the FINE to be the same range as the original module.

OK!  Next.  The pillow kick is awesome.  But what if we could take our envelopes but add more power and air movement ala the classic 909?  We do not mean the 909 sound - which this wont really do as it has different FM and AMP envelope shapes as well as a different VCO, filters, transient generation, etc. - but what we mean is can we get our sound to serve a similar functional role on a dance floor?  We explored this quite a bit and we found this space.  We put a switch on there for choosing pillow or more punchy/powerful types of kicks.

We then went through and worked more on the various circuit elements: the VCO, click/tick generation, portal (wave folding), EGs, VCAs, gain staging, and the EQ-ability of the drum.  Every section received refinements.  From a 1V/oct tracking HPF and VCO, reformulation of the click-tick topologies (we found some counter-acting controls that hid click/tick too much for our liking), the EGs got more tuning, and the EQ got a massive overhaul.  And so the drum was quite nice!  It was substantially better than the prototype by quite a large margin. 

At this point, we'd been working on a way to macroise controls and this is our DynaControl system.  DynaControl is a way to control many parameters with a smaller amount of parameters.  A dimensionality reduction.  In the case of the kick, it could be just 1x dimension... 'how hard you press the kick pedal or hit the drum with the stick.'  Drums are easy in this way (insert drummer joke here :D).  DynaControl was added.  OK!  Let's dig on in now.  I promised this would go a bit deeper!

Fun Hardware and its Relationship to Creation

Human Empathetic Hardware

At this time, we were already at work on our sequencer and also this colour workstation unit.  For both of these, we knew we didn't want to only put them in the modular format.  Why?  For the sequencer, we were working on a highly playable almost instrument-like way to 'play programmings' so we could make hardware (at least) exist on the fun side (we formalise what we mean by this in a bit).  And so this (currently) is looking like it will be a lap instrument like a flat-neck guitar (I miss my Dobro :( ).  Great ergonomics and a box you can just plug into some other system - be it a modular, another voice or set of voices, a MIDI synth, or even just a computer running various plugins.  That became important to us.  To build something like this in hardware means you are really interfacing to a human.  And hardware instruments must be human-empathetic instruments for us.

A modular is very restrictive in the ergonomics department.  3U Eurorack is particularly difficult to design for and it usually means making many ergonomic concessions.  For one, we have little control over the shape or how or where it is mounted.  This immediately unravels any work we put into careful UX design.  We are thinking of a human here! 

Patching Flexibility and Default Curation

For the colour workstation, we wanted a 'make stuff sound better' playground but also to make sure the default 'patching' of the device is well curated.  We also realised this box, too, should be able to self-modulate and be reconfigurable, incrementally, as the user wishes.  We like this semi-modular or 'selective' modular approach.  You start with something curated, then beyond this, you can do whatever you like but it's different than pure modular.  Pure modular puts the burden on the user before any sound at all comes out.  That burden isn't really needed, and there are ways to ensure that the flexibility is at least as good (or in our case, as we mention below, better flexibility). 

It started reminding me of systems like the MS-20.  Immediately, out of the box, it's a well curated set of sub-modules.  And then you have a solid starting point and an instrument with a clear identity.  Even the cheap plastic and feel of the machine becomes a part of this.  It's an object with identity.  If each piece of the MS-20 were separate modules, you realise a few things: 1) there is no default curation between the modules, 2) we have minimal control over the UX, and 3) there is no strong identity.  Now!  That is partially what modular is about.  It's about doing whatever you want.  It's very unconstrained.  That is great for certain things, but in our experience, it can be a very laborious and cumbersome process - even just to start having decent sounds come out.  We are modular users - but it routinely takes us at least about an hour every time we go to the machine to work on something new.   And an hour is being generous.  Most times, a solid patch we end up liking and using in music takes several hours to several days.  Some patches took over a week of tweaking.  And you will NOT get it back.  This became a problem at some point in the musical workflow for us, overall.  We aren't saying modulars should have preset-systems - to the contrary - a modular is the ultimate volatile machine and that's where it works best (trust us, we've done the whole presettable-modular path already).  It set us onto a path trying to figure out 'where' these machines exist in the musical workflow.  But first, we spent a great deal of time working on a model of the creation workflow, itself.  We think the following is a very solid understanding of this (it's been active without major tweaks for over a year now and seems to be holding up!):

A Creation Workflow

Now, folks should realise that we are constantly in motion.  Most of this motion is at a very high-level and has to do with how these machines are used to create music.  Sounds simple enough, but it wasn't entirely clear until we started formalising a pretty stable understanding of how musicians create music with instruments.  How they transcribe ideas, compose/arrange, perform, and curate.  These are all very human things and far, far away from the reaches of low-level circuit design and whatnot. 

Farthest to the left is where you begin a journey of creative output.  And farthest right, you are finished the output.  Now think about various creative outputs you've not finished and also those you have completed.  Think about the process you took.  Think about your placement from Genesis to being Finished.  What tools did you use?  What mind-sets did each point require?  And also think about the iterative element - how many times did you go backwards?  You will find that things you have completed require a net forward movement (including any iterative loops).  Think, in particular about all of the projects you've started that have died.  Think about why that might be.  In the 100s of hours we've spent thinking about this and developing this workflow, we came up with some very powerful conclusions.  It now has control over our music and the way we make instruments for humans that want to make music.

And so we began looking into where various instruments or tools fit into this paradigm.  They have a location positioned right to left in the timeline but also a width!  For example... look at a guitar instrument.  Where would you place it and what would its width be?  For me it can easily exist all the way to the left - the Genesis - as a pure beginning.  I would pick up a guitar and have no finished music or solid concept. Maybe I'm just noodling around when something I hear ignites a fire (curation).  Now I stay on that instrument and carry forward and refine the concept.  It might be adding a variation or interest or even working on different sections (you see, it does have a width!).  How wide is up to the needs of the tune but also where you find this 'tool' no longer can do what you need.  You are moving to the right now and for that, things get more specific.  There's less fun rigour now - and at some point it's like you are actually working.  For guitar based music, you actually just record the guitar onto some tape.  That's it.  You play it right, how you want, and it's done.  There's no intermediary steps.  You could even argue you do a bunch of basic mixing before it's even recorded onto tape.  You might use the neck pickup vs the bridge for a solo, which sits it differently in the mix.  Anyways!  You ask yourself how far right have you gone with that instrument?  And during this time, are you having a good ol human time?  For me, the answer is yes, I'm having a great time with this object and I've gone very far enough to the right such that the concept doesn't die.  This death is usually the result of not enough forward momentum and energy with a note that fun can revitalise energy.  You've spent too much energy getting to some point in the timeline for a particular intermediate output and the output is not 'good enough' for you to want to come up with more energy to carry it forward.  It's dead.  You are too tired before the thing is finished.

Now.  Think about electronic instruments.  Think about your electronic instruments.  The first thing to notice is that many producers of electronic music don't necessarily need to play an instrument real-time.  In modular, you may even develop (program) a completely generative system.  Or you may use the benefits of a sequencer (which even folks who can play the shit out of a piano or other input device still use for its benefits)!  What we found, in general, was that most electronic instruments are not very wide, nor are they necessarily 'far left' devices that are fun to use.  At least not like ripping on a guitar or what not... And hardware electronic instruments always seem to have very narrow widths.  You run into all sorts of walls and so you can only go so far to the right - to the completion side of a song.  So!  We don't want to keep going on this workflow stuff as this article would be much longer than it already is!  The gist of it is that our goal for *hardware* instruments is to 1) make it fun (we are interacting with a human in a creative mind-space) and 2) make it go as far right as we can without sacrificing 1).  3) is being able to go backwards a bit in order to iteratively improve.  Simple! 

One thing we notice is that not all hardware is inherently fun or exciting to use. I like using the idea of programming an entire musical passage just using encoders.  Is that fun?  Is it even faster than just using a mouse in a PRV?!  Probably not.  At least not for us.  We discovered this early on when we would spend 5x the time entering data with some encoders or 'unfun' hardware than just hopping on a laptop and scribbling in the notes into a PRV with a mouse.  Now, some people hate computers and have fully hardware setups.  But what we realise is that if you build a piece of HW that tries to rival the power of a DAW, you will greatly sacrifice it's left side creative/inspiring/fun performance.  And so you ask yourself "why?"  Why do I have this hardware touching my fingers?  Why have I sacrificed the point of human-touchable hardware in the first place by saying you want it to control so many different things - now you need hidden menus, shortcut keys, encoders, etc.  Feature by feature, you slowly reduce the machine to a box with little identity and that sits in an unusual space in the creation workflow.  Many of these hardware machines don't even start at the far left.  They start somewhere towards the middle.  So then what do you do on the far left? 

Now some hardware is fun only.  It might be placed extreme to the left.  It is fun, exciting, and inspiring.  But what of the width?  Think about the most fun hardware you have.  Think about how far right you can actually go with it.  Have a fun HW sequencer?  Think about what you do to add a musical variation.  Or to refine it.  Or even just to bake it in so you can work on another song section or part.  I'm sure everybody has been here... in modular, the wheels fall off the wagon pretty quickly if you expect too much non-volatility.  And we also realise, if you've thought about the above workflow enough, that Finished recorded music is completely non-volatile.  It's fully baked.  It plays the same every time.  And Genesis is purely volatile.  Think about that some.  This crossfade of volatility vs non-volatility.

So!  We take the best of what it means to be 'hardware' and make sure it's on the left and fun - 1) above - and then make sure it has a nice width so you can travel to a reasonable distance to the right - 2) above - and then make sure there is a mechanism for iterative development - 3) above.  Note the backwards arrow in the Creation Workflow diagram above.  Creation requires some movement backwards to refine/improve/change, etc.  Can fun hardware allow this?  (the answer is yes, if you do the HW properly!) .  This iterative part is actually where we had the biggest breakthrough with our sequencer.  Iterative hardware that is still WYSIYG (which means its super fun and intuitive for the human) was elusive for us for a very long time.  But we have seen the light and this high-level workflow has allowed us to reap the benefits of a glipse at these bright rays!

Back to the widget!

OK, sorry for the off-shoot there but it's important to know where are heads are at.  We can do a separate article on the creation workflow at some point with more detail but this is good for now.  We were talking about the drum module.  At this point in time, we had what we would consider old and dated philosophy in the prototype.  We'd already agreed that HW should be fun an inspiring.  It should also have suitable width.  Why?  Because fun-only HW can simply turn into just toys to have fun with.  But we need to go to the right.  If something fun isn't moving to the goal post, then it gets placed by the wayside in favour of something that is creatively productive - even if those tools are not fun or exciting.  And so we've lived most of our lives in a DAW and using the DAW much farther to the left than we feel is appropriate for us as humans.

Well, the big news is that the drum unit will likely be released as a standalone box.  There are so many powerful reasons for this and we simply cannot ignore them any longer.  Here are some reasons:

  1. We have more room for making the ergonomics correct.
  2. We have more room to add completely patchable submodules - even more patchability of the submodules can be exposed than we could on a modular unit where limited size is a factor in the format.
  3. We can place the unit on extreme far left - the Genesis - of a musical beginning.
  4. We have come up with a simple, yet extraordinarily powerful method to make the widget 'move' over time as well as a way to curate sounds beyond just one at a time or in an entirely volatile way.  This makes the unit have much more width than a module-only version meaning you can go farther to the right while still keeping that fun anchor positioned at Genesis (before about 2 weeks ago, we had not figured out how to do this without also having the unit's starting point slide away from the Genesis left - but we had another breakthrough here).
  5. We can make the unit free-standing in the sense that it can create actual musical lines without requiring any other widgets.  This gives the unit a strong identity and we get to do more of what we are good at: instrument design.

We are currently debating whether to release a modular version of the drum.  It's entirely possible and we have several proposals.  One benefit is we can make it more compact.  But since the standalone system has much higher musical and creative value for us - and frankly, much more modular potential than even a module oddly enough - we will finish the standalone design first (as it is more comprehensive), then determine what pieces of this make sense to put in a module.

Big news, eh!?  It is for us!  We are darn excited about this and it also gives us a head start on the next unit - the Colour Workstation (name TBD) and even our full sequencer.  They will also all operate and play together nicely as a cohesive system.

So!  Break's over!  Back on your heads! 
<3 RE Team

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