This month on the Blog, I wanted to review a beautiful album written by Australia-based artist and technologist, little-scale. Created by using modular synthesizers, this album works with a niche form of sound design well known to those into various forms of synthesis. I had the opportunity to talk to little-scale this month and it was my mission to get their take on why moving from Gameboys to modular is so appealing, while sharing the specific modules used during the performance of this album.
The world of modular is super in depth, hectic, and beautifully chaotic. Pictured here is a Buchla 200e I grew to get to know and love a few years ago.
Album art for ‘The Mountain Is Hollow’.
Enter: Modular synthesizers. If you’ve never heard of them or are unfamiliar, this type of synthesis is comparable to mixing paint colors: Each hue adds to different final result, just as connecting modules hosting sound sources, effects, and parameters with patch cables 0r banana cables adds to a different sound. There are ins and outs you connect to, there are hundreds of different modules to start from (Do you want analog oscillators that may fall slightly out of tune, as old synths often did? Or, do you want digital oscillators that stay pitch perfect?), and between sending MIDI data to control your sequences from a computer or using a sequencer built into your system, the choices are endless. While, surely, the process may seem daunting, it’s that same process that leads to a sense of accomplishment, unique audio creation, and a deep understanding of synthesis.
little-scale successfully created something beautiful with a medium that sometimes wrongly gets categorized as being always chaotic, yet never melodic. Though the release is only three tracks long, it takes us on a journey that not only seamlessly explores gorgeous textures, but also makes it easy to keep on repeat.
‘Alternate Moon’ kicks off ‘The Mountain Is Hollow’ as track one. Sawtooth chords that go from flowing to gated and back again sit over arpeggios and raw percussion. The transition at 2:04 just has the most beautiful atmosphere to me. It’s got so much acoustic space in it, and I could just picture little-scale adjusting different parameters on the fly.
‘The Mountain Is Hollow’, our album’s title track, comes in abruptly after ‘Alternate Moon’, a transition which I loved. Though the first part is percussive, the second has the most meditative and eerie sound design. I pictured driving a car on rain soaked road, and getting out to walk through fields on a grey day.
‘Other Dreams’ really made me feel like there is a film out there waiting for little-scale to score with this album. Though repetitive, this track’s beginning needed to be just that, because I never wanted to hear enough of it. Later pairing up with noise, ‘Other Dreams’ sounds like the sea. Right when I hit 4:15, I was dying to find out what sequencer little-scale uses.
I was lucky enough to get little-scale to chime in for an interview, so without further ado…
Hi little-scale! Your new record is great. Tell us about yourself!
Thank you! Well, I’ve been making sound and music for just over 10 years, and chiptune has been a huge part of my journey. I was drawn to chiptune because I love exploring and exploiting limitations in creative ways.
I’ve made music on lots of different platforms and consoles, and I’ve also created plenty of tools, projects, and other bits and pieces so that others can be more creative, as well. My favourite consoles to write music with are Atari 2600 (such unique waveforms and crunchy samples!) Commodore 64 (love the filter!) and SEGA Mega Drive (such a wide variety of sounds and instruments!).
Lately, I’ve been getting into modular synthesis, which has been very different from chiptune in some ways (method of synthesis and control, as well as composition and structure) but also has some similarities (very clear finite resources for sound generation / manipulation, and the need to push things to their extremes in a playful way).
How was the transition from Gameboys to modular? What drove you to get into eurorack?
At the start of 2017, I was thinking that my life was becoming too… categorised and compartmentalised. Perhaps this sense came from living in a city, and having a working life that is partially disconnected from the natural world.
My interest in digital synthesis represented part of this issue; setting parameters using exact values, and then experiencing expected results meant that making music felt a little mundane. Therefore, I started looking around for different approaches to synthesis and making sound than what I was used to, and the modular world has offered an interesting paradigm for making sound.
I haven’t enjoyed just building up a patch / instrument / sound this much in a long time, and this has been nicely refreshing.
It’s certainly been a bit of a jump getting into Eurorack, and the main concepts are very removed from chiptune (control voltages, triggers, gates etc) – but I’m slowly getting there. My aim is to end up with a live rig that will consist of a small modular setup plus Nanoloop 2 running on a Game Cube, as well as a larger setup for the studio.
What modules did you use to create this album?
I only used Doepfer modules (oscillators, envelopes, amplifiers and filters) and Make Noise modules (Maths, STO, Optomix and LxD). Doepfer has this straightlaced, serious vibe, and Make Noise has this somewhat strange, lateral feeling going on – and I reckon they work well together in a system. Out of the modules that I used for this release, I think the Optomix was my favourite. The frequency response is smooth, the ability to ‘strike’ the vactrol is useful, and the side chaining is perfectly imperfect!
Was the recording one take of 100% modular, or were there different synths? Was anything overdubbed?
100% modular, no overdubs – just keeping it simple.
What were the first modules you bought?
I picked up a few modules at the same time – a quad LFO, a quad VCA, a quad decay, an analog delay and a spring reverb – and I’ve been falling down the rabbit hole every since, by adding some Make Noise and others into the mix.
I know you’re in Australia — Is there a eurorack shop there that you go to, or do you just purchase online?
Adelaide has a good synth store, but the Eurorack selection is not huge. I’ve bought from stores interstate and overseas, but I think I’ve picked up most of my Eurorack gear from Germany, because the Australian dollar is doing OK against the Euro.
What was the inspiration behind the album?
Really, it’s my first attempt to record anything modular. It can be difficult to know when to hit record, and when to just explore a sound. ‘The Mountain is Hollow’ is about this sense of dread that I’ve been feeling (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) about what we’re doing as a culture / civilisation / species to the world around us, and we’re in desperate need of some introspection.
How long did it take for you to write it?
This release is made up of my favourite tracks that I’ve submitted in the first quarter or so of Weekly Beats 2018. Here, participants write a new, original track every week for the whole year. So I would say a few months, but only working on it maybe an hour or two each week.
What are you working on right now?
More of the same, for the most part! I’m hoping that my next release will have a more upbeat footwork sort of vibe to it, whilst retaining the modular goodness. Besides this, I’m in the process of designing several modules! Woo!
I spied on your blog — did you create a probability module?
I’ve made a few Eurorack things – including an eight voice MIDI to CV converter, a four voice CV to MIDI converter, a quad probability gate, and I’m also working on a few sequencer ideas.
The quad prob gate has a gate input, a cv input and four gate outputs. The cv level determines the likelihood (from 0% to 100%) that a gate at the single input is mirrored on one of the four outputs. It’s an advanced adaption of a velocity to probability device I once made (and used lots!) in Max for Live. You can make some nice textures and things with it!
What’s your day to day like?
Busy busy! My job is at an Electronic Music Unit in a University, and it’s been great. When I’m not busy working and teaching, or creating music, I’ve been enjoying the outdoors – I’ve got a two-week desert hike planned for this winter, which should be fun.
What’s your proudest moment in the music technology world?
I’ve got lots of things I could be (and am) proud of. But basically, there are lots of times when something I’ve done or contributed has inspired someone – and they thank me, or verbalise this in some way, even if I’ve only just met them. Always feels really nice!
Anything else you want us to know?
Hmm, not really – but I would like to say that the chipscene is so warm and friendly, and I’m thankful for having met so many awesome people!
I hope everyone follows up with what little-scale is doing; not only is his music wonderful, but his blog provides some really informative music technology posts. This is one artist worth supporting and I look forward to more that they do in the future!