Category Archives: Launchland

Voxel EP is now available on Spotify and iTunes

Voxel EP

Voxels are these square things you can use to represent three-dimensional space. They’re like pixels but in 3D.

Voxels are used in 3D games and brain imaging. Minecraft has voxel blocks you can use to build cool stuff, virtual stuff. Legos are like voxel blocks in real life.

Voxels are cool. Square, but cool.

The Voxel EP is now available on Spotify, iTunes and all major digital distributors.

Listen on Spotify.

Get a copy on iTunes.

Write a comment below.

Finders Keepers (lyrics)

You can run and you
You surely can hide

You, the fleet-footed hare,
Can run from the sky

Dive deep enough
You can crouch in the rough

The green never
Has had this mesmerizing sheen

Rolling in the hay
Diving like Scrooge

This, my friend, this is life
In livelies hues

Sun ups the pace
Speeds up in the race

You see, rules are
It’s finders keepers all the way

At this rainbow’s end
Hid in the pot

A green hanging, ticking fish
Thrones wrongly got

Looking glass games
Don’t quite work with true names

You see, rules are
It’s finders keepers all the way

Yamaha SY99

yamaha-sy99-390543

I used to run a couple of music studios over a decade ago with lots of music hardware packed in. This was back in the day when music software was just making its way out. For a long time I had mixed feelings about software synths and mixing gear; Pro Tools was, of course, great, but much of the offering in the turn of the millennium just wasn’t that good. To that end, you had to rely on hardware. At my last studio, I had more than twenty hardware synthesizers, with racks full of mixing gear.

Now I work on a laptop, and I gradually phased out all of my hardware except for one synthesizer. The fact is that you can now load a basic laptop with software that sounds exactly as good as a high end studio, perhaps barring some of the more vintage analog gear. But for basic sound design, recording and mixing, a laptop will go a long way.

That being said, hardware still makes sense for some occasions. For me, the biggest reason is character.

The only hardware synth I have left is not a street-credible Moog or a cool Arp rig. It’s a digital synthesizer from the early 1990’s: the Yamaha SY99. For me, this one piece of gear is easily the most significant piece of musical hardware I have ever owned.

To begin with, its the first synth I ever did own. I was fourteen when I got it. This means that when I was a kid, the first songs I wrote at home I did on this workstation. (I used to work at a local studio before that.)

But it’s not just nostalgia. The SY99 is in many ways quite a unique piece of work. First of all, it combines two distinct types of synthesis: Yamaha’s sample-based AWM and – what made Yamaha famous in the synth-world – an FM synthesizer upgraded from the good old DX7. But what is more, the instrument actually combines the two. That is to say, you can also use a sample-driven oscillator as an FM operator in sound design.

In addition to the choice of FM waveforms, and with the possibility to import your own samples (this in a synth from 1990!), the possibilities for sound design are endless. After all, even the most sophisticated sampling workstations of that time would let you work at best with envelopes and filters. With FM routing, the sky is the limit.

But most importantly, this instrument is a labor of love; a unique piece of work that collaborates with you to generate the sounds that you hear – and the sounds that you want to hear even when you didn’t know you did. (Check out the cool way the gradually shifting FM modulation works in the song below.) To this end it is no wonder that for the first three years of working with the synth, I practically never touched the presets.

I used to love music hardware. But in addition to the validity of modern music software, I believe in simplicity now. To that end, I don’t have that many soft synths either; rather I focus on the few that I really love and really can work with.

That being said, there is this one piece of hardware that I am doubtful I will ever part ways with.

Top 10 Science Fiction Novels

I have found it really useful to skim through the various top ten and top hundred lists of best sci-fi novels in search for new reading so I thought I’d put up one of my own here. This list appears to me to be in constant flux, but at this moment, my best of the best looks something like this.

1. Alastair Reynolds: House of Suns

I don’t know what it is about this Reynolds piece that really hit it off with me, but for some reason this is the book that has in the recent years stuck with me the most. Maybe it is the fact that it was in some sense something completely new for me, and yet without going to overt depths or difficulties with weird vocabulary or concepts.

The star struck love story of Campion and Purslane touched me to the extend that I wound up making a Lego stop motion animation about it.

2. Frank Herbert: Dune

Frank Herbert’s seminal novel tops the top charts all around the internet, and with good reason. The book is a treasure trove not only of possible futures, but also of deep and inspiring philosophical thought about identity, time, thinking and various other themes.

Being an intuition researcher in my day job, I especially connected with the division between the intuitive Bene Gesserits and the rational mentats – and the fusion of the two in the genius Paul Muad’Dib. As a side note, it is interesting that such fusion seems to have happened with practically all the great thinkers we usually call geniuses like Leonardo or Edison.

3. Arthur C. Clarke: Rendezvous with Rama

It was a tight call whether I would include Rama or Childhood’s End here, what with both being fantastic novels. But there is something that’s so real and gripping about Rendezvous with Rama that it won the draw.

The story about the handful of astronomers who explore the alien spacecraft that has entered our Solar System is a great look at both space travel, alien intelligence and political intrigue. And, like most of Clarke’s other works, it’s a really great read.

4. Dan Simmons: Hyperion

It is an outrageous idea: setting Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in space. And yet the hyper-literate Simmons pulls it off. The story teems with literary references; Simmons certainly wants to let us know he’s read books. But none of this matters, since it all fits like a glove.

And it’s a damn good novel to boot. The backstory, which grew out to be a series of three more independent novels is enchanting and grasping. And the stories-within-stories express a great range of various scifi tropes. Normally when somebody shows off their talent this much, the result falls somehow flat. Not so with Hyperion, one of the best scifi books I’ve ever read (twice).

5. Alastair Reynolds: Revelation Space

Revelation Space was the breakthrough book by Reynolds, and with good reason. The book opens up what grew to be a long series of novels and short stories set in Reynolds’ idiosyncratic gothic scifi universe.

In this book, the scope is already reflecting what later grew to be Reynolds’ trademark. And the ending of the book with its quantum paradoxes has my brain still doing somersaults, which is actually quite fun.

6. Orson Scott Card: The Worthing Chronicle

I thought first whether I should include something from the Ender Saga here (the first one, probably), but then again, while they’re all great books (even the Shadow ones), there is something that doesn’t quite strike that last chord.

Whereas the Worthing Chronicle does. I’ve read the book set in an Asimovian universe several times, and just now started thinking I should read it again. More similar in tone to, say, Vernor Vinge or Asimov than typical Card, this is a truly enticing fantasy-meets-scifi tale. It is also supplemented with a number of great short stories wrapped up together with the novel in the book The Worthing Saga.

7. Vernor Vinge: A Fire Upon the Deep

When I first read this book as a kid, I understood maybe one third of it, and was still completely blown away. When I re-read it a couple of years ago, it felt conceptually much easier to grasp, but was still a great read.

Vinge explores themes like AI and swarm intelligence in an intriguing universe where the maximum speed for information dispersal and travel depends on the “zone” you’re located in the universe. The closer we are to the center, the dumber we are, in other words.

8. David Zindell: The Broken God

The story of the Neanderthal-cum-ace-pilot Danlo and the ice city Neverness is one of the more original pieces of scifi I have read. Even though the basic backdrop is typical space opera with space battles and political intrigue, Zindell’s epic spans vast proportions in both dramatic and conceptual scope.

It is also a part of a great trilogy plus a prequel Neverness, all definitely worth reading through. And the space travel trope is somewhat unique, what with the pilots being actually ace mathematicians solving complex equations quickly to navigate through space.

9. Iain M. Banks: The Algebraist

I was thinking that I should include one of Banks’ Culture novels in the list, because at the time I read them I was really blown away with practically every one of them. But the problem is that once I started thinking back to their impact, I could not really remember much of anything that took place in the books! It is weird: I have this meta-knowledge that they were great but no idea why.

The Algebraist is one of Banks’ rare science fiction novels that does not take place in the Culture Universe, and I think one of his best too. The story involves weird gas-giant dwelling creatures and an intricate Banksian plot. It has stayed with me for a long time.

10. Isaac Asimov: Caves of Steel

Perhaps one of the most important of Asimov’s robot novels, this introduces two of his most compelling characters, the detectives Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw. The latter is, of course, a robot, and Asimov succinctly explores the limits of what machine intelligence and robotics mean when the lines become blurred.

In the novel Asimov showed that you can use science fiction as the backdrop for another kind of genre novel, in this case the detective story.

Revelation Space

I just finished reading Turquoise Days, which marks for me the last of the stories I’ve read set in Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space Universe published so far. So I thought it proper to say a few words about the journey through this universe.

And what a journey it has been.

The first novel I ever read from Reynolds was House of Suns, which is still my favorite of his work (and pretty much the no. 1 scifi novel of all time for me). But the Revelation Space Universe does certainly compare, even if it is spread out through several novels and short stories. The scope of the world, both in terms of spacetime and imagination is mind-bending. And still, the stories remain interesting and grasping also on the human level from the first page to the last.

I started reading these stories from Revelation Space, Reynolds’ first novel and his breakthrough work. It is an amazing piece in itself. The politicking and the archaeological intrigue on the planet Resurgam, as Dan Sylveste tries to uncover a millennia old mystery is original and suspenseful. The tensions between Sylveste, the space-faring Ilya Volyova and the assassin Ana Khouri are memorable. The convoluted ending of the first RS book is somehow reminiscent of thinking about Schroedinger’s superposition principle, with a twist of 2001 thrown in, although I am still not quite sure what the hell just happened.

Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap tie up the storyline for the characters of the first novel. Redemption Ark introduces us to the conjoiners in more depth. They are a hive mind sort of community that is the most technologically advanced of the human factions in the RS Universe. The obiwankenobish Neville Clavain is sympathetic, whereas the mentally challenged Felka is one of the most intriguing characters in the series. And the zealous Skade makes for an impressive bad guy (girl) here, even though all the while the human characters are fighting for the possession of outlandish scifi weapons, a more sinister enemy is approaching in the background. Absolution Gap flirts a lot with gothic horror. The story of Quaiche has some shakespearish connotations, with a lost love that drives the man insane and creates a bizarre culture from that insanity. I really love the way the trilogy ends, with the looming threat eliminated, but with the hint of a new threat in the form of the greenfly, which are delightfully powerful and definitive to the entire RS Universe and yet are never shown in full light.

Chasm City is another of my favorites, with The Prefect not trailing far behind. They are set in the Yellowstone system that is something like the the Trantor or Coruscant of Reynolds’ universe: the commercial and political hub where it seems everybody passes through eventually. Both Chasm City and The Prefect tie in nicely with the Revelation Space trilogy, the former explaining some of the motivations of an influential character and background figure in the latter two novels of the trilogy, and the latter giving us interesting insight into the fundaments of the world itself, such as the eventual fate of the unfortunate Philip Lascaille. Both Chasm City’s Tanner Mirabel and The Prefect’s Tom Dreyfus are solid and intriguing characters that drive the story forward. The Prefect and Chasm City also give a great before/after comparison of the Yellowstone world in terms of the defining event in the RS Universe: the Melding Plague. The plague is a really cool twist that renders much of the more advanced scifi stuff defunct and gives the whole universe intriguing and gritty overtones.

It’s cool that you can hint at (and actually show in The Prefect) all the cool stuff that there once was, but have the characters actually struggle with some bubble gum and rubber band to get by. It reminds me of the New Hope / Phantom Menace and the Galactica / Caprica contrasts, but unlike these two, Reynolds manages to keep also the shiny chrome and silver version of his world intact, whereas both George Lucas and Ron D. Moore somehow lost the soul of their work with the grit.

Then there’s the collection of short stories Galactic North that gives both prequel-ish glimpses to the RS Universe, as well as ties the whole thing up in the eponymous story that works as a kind of an epilogue to the whole thing, with a cool Reynolds trademark: the thousand years chase sequence. I loved this trope to pieces when I bumped into it in House of Suns. A chase scene that takes 60 000 years and yet maintains the intensity of a 1970’s police flick is quite the stunt to pull. When it was repeated in Redemption Ark, it still stood up, and the same here. Even if the third time around this became already something to expect from Reynolds, it’s still awesome.

And last, and certainly not least the two novellas Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days. I was quite apprehensive about these two, or more particularly the first one. While I was a horror fan as a teenager, I have developed some squeamishness for the more visceral style of horror, and tend to try to avoid it whenever I can. So when I learned that Diamond Dogs draws inspiration from the scifi slasher The Cube, I almost gave this a pass. Thank goodness I didn’t, though. While the first novella is probably the bloodiest work I’ve read from Reynolds to date, for some reason the bloodshed seems warranted.

This is not gornography, but rather quite classic gothic horror, somehow reminiscent of  H.P. Lovecraft. Yes, good people find themselves in an unfixable mess, and yes, it gets nasty. But there is still something behind the story that keeps it together. Even with its weirdness to the tenth power, and the occasional gory detail, Reynolds’ work has a good heart. Not in a fluffy-happy sort of way, but rather in the way you find in Lovecraft, Shelley or Poe. There are not many happy endings. Many things are inherently skewed. But there is still some deeper notion of purpose, of depth that keeps things going.

And this brings me to Turquoise Days which I just finished. In a sense, it is a fitting end to the Revelation Space journey. While its scope is much smaller than that of many of the other stories, it has a true sense of finality and closure to it – even more so than “Galactic North”. Its bittersweet tones fit the RS Universe perfectly. The short glimpse we get to the life of Naqi manages to convey many of the themes of solitude, outsiderness and simply the weird of the world present throughout the RS books. And while the alien Pattern Jugglers are an obvious nod to Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, Reynolds manages to give the strange algae beings a personal character of their own. The very ending is, I feel, a very suitable way to put the full stop to the series.

It has been an amazing journey. I don’t think Reynolds’ work has so much changed my world than given me an entire new world to live in. It is a rare imagination that spins up an entire living universe. And here Reynolds joins in my opinion the pantheon of great worldbuilders such as Isaac Asimov, Iain M. Banks or Dan Simmons.

What a journey indeed.

impOscar – a Synth with a Soul

A couple of months back, I claimed I was not a very technically oriented musician; and I guess if I look back ten years, compared to that I’m not. But I guess there is a degree of geekery that just sticks to you when you start working with synths and music gear.

The last big studio I ran about ten years ago had over 20 different hardware synths, not to mention the plugins. So lots of stuff to fiddle with. These days, I like to keep things simple. I think getting the right gear is important, but it’s even more important getting rid of the wrong gear. Music is in the person, not in the gear – and surrounding yourself with all the latest toys can, at least in my experience, even distract you from the actual music itself.

That being said, there are a few little widgets which I would not like to do without. One of them, the Valhalla Shimmer reverb I wrote about a while ago. The other is the Yamaha SY99 (the only hardware synth I have left), which I’ll maybe write more about later. The third is this amazing synth plugin from GForce, called the impOscar.

The impOscar has been, after a fashion, modelled after the classic monophonic Oscar synth. But GForce have done a tremendous job with enhancing the classic. First of all, the impOscar is polyphonic. Secondly, this little thingy has such amazing range of expression that it’s boggling. You really don’t need much more than this one plugin for a huge range of analog sound beauties, ranging from basses to leads, from sound effects to lush pads.

While it is not quite as versatile, its sound quality brings to mind when I got my first Access Virus: it just blows everything else straight out of the water. (And I got rid of the Virus eventually, because it was *too* good: you really didn’t have to do much with it to make it sound great.)

The impOscar is challenging enough to have you do some intriguing tweaking, yet intuitive enough not to frustrate you to death. It sounds great enough straight out of the box to even slap some great presets on songs, but also invites you to do some tweaking to really take it off the ground. If there is one synth plugin out there that I think stands above all the rest, this is it. So go check it out on GForce’s website; they just released a new version of it.

Valhalla Shimmer

These days, I am terribly un-technoogy-oriented. I used to be a real tech geek back in the day, checking in at GearSlutz several times a day, dropping in at the music store twice a week. But at some point I realized it’s not the gear that makes the music – it’s the human being.

Anyway, lots of tech or not lots of tech, its usually not the tech that makes the difference. Except when it does. I try to make do with a handful of plugins I know really well, and having narrowed down the set, there are a few ones I would not really feel comfortable working without. One of them is this outstanding reverb plugin called Valhalla Shimmer.

I used to have a selection of top notch reverb units from Lexicon, TC Electronic and the likes, but nothing has ever come close to Valhalla Shimmer. It’s nowhere near in fidelity to its more successful siblings, but for what music I write, it’s a perfect fit. No, you can’t tweak a great snare room out of it. But boy what can this little piece of genius do to a piano lead or a synth pad.

There are a lot of synths and sample sets out there that promise a spacey timey-wimey ethereal sound – synths and sets that have been programmed by some of the best sound designers out there. But I think none of these capture the straight simplicity and elegance of Valhalla Shimmer: you can run pretty much any hand-picked synth line through its frequency modulated reverbs and they come to life unlike really anything much out there.

It’s also not terribly expensive. So if you like your music ethereal, be sure to give it a go.