No Updates from Gakken

Well, it’s now been one full year since the last Otona no Kagaku kit (the electric steel drum, Sept., 2014) and there’s been no updates to the main Kagaku page since January. I haven’t seen anything new showing up on, and the last post on the Facebook page was about an unrelated Maewa Denki event in August.

I have to wonder what the point of this blog is now, if Gakken isn’t going to release any more kits. Sigh.


Prime Eval, Part 1

Some weeks ago, I was out in Kagoshima, watching a local festival event and trying to find things to video for my other blog. It was a hot, humid day, with occasional rain, and after a couple hours I felt that I needed a snack. In Japan, bottle coffee is extremely popular. This stuff is high in caffeine, may have artificial sweeteners and creamer, and is probably made in bulk from very low-grade beans. But, it tends to be more expensive in Kyushu than in Tokyo, between $2 and $5 USD for one liter. So, when I found a 1 liter carton for 149 yen ($1.20 USD), I figured I’d get that rather than a fruit juice with a lot of corn syrup, plus a package of grocery store donuts. I retreated to the roof top of the Maruya Gardens department store and scarfed everything down before returning to the street to shoot more video. My stomach got gurgly in the afternoon and stayed that way all evening. That night, I went to bed and completely failed to fall asleep AT ALL. My mind was racing, thinking up all sorts of stuff for hours. At about 4 AM I started revisiting my complex numbers blog ideas, and realized that I may have the beginnings of my next series of entries. My thoughts were very vivid, and the concepts felt like they were being etched in place. Naturally, when I finally sat down to start writing everything down on paper a couple days later, I was too tired to remember any of it.

But, I’ll try anyway.

It’s been said before that language colors perception, and culture colors language. If you live in the desert, you’re going to place great importance on finding water, avoiding direct sunlight, and trying to figure out what to eat. You’re going to have clear, open skies at night and you’ll almost always be living with the constellations as they change during the year. Things like glaciers, overcrowding, waste disposal and being late for a dinner appointment aren’t going to be gnawing at the back of your mind very much. Time will be elastic and more relaxed. And the words you use to describe time probably won’t sound like “the days are just ticking away, aren’t they?” And vice versa, if you live in a crowded city filled with trains and buses running on tight schedules, your language may not include “look at the grand flow of space and the dance of flickering stars year upon year”.

In science and math, the idea is to remove that tinted perception and look at the underlying principles driving various phenomenon, or to create a “pure” mathematical language of symbols that transcends cultures and national languages. But, there’s still a cultural bias that permeates certain words in English that, I think, gets in the way of those fundamentals. Things like “real” and “imaginary” numbers, “color” (“green and blue” for Americans and Europeans is “blue” for the Japanese), and “planet” have historical baggage that should have been discarded long ago, but probably never will. What I want to do is identify some of that baggage and determine if there’s a way to “measure” it’s impact on what we understand of reality and the universe around us.

Looking back on that sleepless night, I really have to wonder just how much sugar and caffeine is healthy when binge snacking.

Bokaro P ni Naritai, vol. 26

(Images used for review purposes only.)

I want to be a Vocaloid Producer, vol. 26, 1,500 yen, plus tax.
New magazine features:

In the 4-panel comic, Rana is wandering around the school wondering where everyone has gone. Meanwhile, the school staff is in Rana’s room, preparing to throw her a surprise birthday party and they’re starting to ask why she’s so late in getting back. The classroom section talks about the use of noise in electronica music, and introduces two new synth plug-ins for Singer-Song Writer (see below). There’s also a mention of the most recent 2 dance stages – Night View and Arena – as being a kind of sop for the students that don’t get to travel on international trips because their study schedules are so strict (that is, if they can’t travel, they can at least stand on one of the stages and pretend they’re in Hong Kong or Greece). The genre this time is electronica, and the featured artist is Miktronica. The MMD tutorial section introduces the Greek Colosseum-inspired arena, and the Unity-inspired ribbon models. The final page talks about Unity (a video game development community), and their official Japanese mascot – Unity-chan (see cover above).

The VST plug-ins are:
Oscine Tract and Wind, from
Oscine Tract models bird songs.
Vinylizer, from
Vinylizer adds the skips and scratches you get from old vinyl records.

New DVD Features:
No pick-up artist this time.
The extras include the arena dance stage, and Unity ribbon accessory model files for MMD. And, there’s a jpg image of Rana saying “Don’t pirate or illegally copy this software”. The MMD models are good, but I’m not seeing a lot of call by users for the “don’t forge me” picture.

(“How to use the camera.”)

While the magazine talks about electronica, the video tutorial goes into great depth regarding soul, and how the soul genre uses different motifs for the melody. There’s virtually no mention of electronica at all, while the demo song itself doesn’t remind me of either format. In fact, I think it’s got a bit of a fast, bouncy goth vibe to it. Anyway, the video just discusses the theory behind the construction of the melody for the demo song (“Little Hunter”) and has no instructional element to it this time.

The focus is on the use of noise within an electronica song, and how to generate it. The first of the two approaches shown here are to use the Alpha3 plug-in, and mess with the envelope, filter and noise mix settings to get a hissy pink noise effect that varies with the pitch of the notes on the piano roll. The second approach is to take an analog instrument loop, such as a bass guitar, or one of the drum voices, and cut and paste only the attack portions of the envelope on the piano roll. The publishers refer to the results as “glitch types”, and the second approach as “cut up”. Then, the Alpha3 has the filter MIDI cc code mapped to the Velocity settings in the strip chart, so when you change Vel for each of the notes, Filter Cutoff varies instead. With the second approach, the publishers go to the SSW Mixer to play with the Distortion and BitCrusher settings for the Drum channel. In this example, Distortion works more like Reverb, while BitCrusher applies a Sample and Hold to the track, making it very noisy for large Sample Divide values and small Bit Widths. They demo BitCrusher on Rana’s vocal track as well, creating some really ugly muddy sounds with high pitched ring noise. Interesting, but of rather limited use outside of turning the vocals a little bit mechanical. The finished demo song has so much noise on Rana’s voice that it’s sort of painful on the ears. The good part is that the tutorial does encourage a lot of experimenting by the student.

(Rana 1.1 with the Unity ribbon accessory and the “Europe arena” (AKA: the Colosseum) stage.)

This section is primarily just laying down the basics for using the camera, relating terminology (fixed shot, pan, zoom, dolly and rotate) with how MMD handles the camera for each move, and what it looks like on the screen. This is then coupled with the need to storyboard the camera along with the rest of the video components to establish the mood or atmosphere you want before you get started. It’s all just primer. The main warning is to avoid changing focal length while doing close-ups of Rana’s face because you’re going to get an unpleasant fish eye effect (unless that’s what you’re trying to get).

Additional comments:
In a way, I get the feeling that using Singer Song Writer is really more a matter of picking whatever vocal track you’ve pre-recorded, and then building up the instrumentals behind it. What I mean is that using Rana is kind of getting in the way of what the music could sound like. Sure, she’s just another instrument and the point is to create a finished song using her, but in the last few demo songs, the editors have her voice pitched so high that it clips fairly badly and sounds auto-tuned. It’d be just as easy to record your own voice, save it as a .wav file and import that to SSW. The software works the same either way and it might be a lot less work…


I know, these guys have been around for a few years, but this is the first time I’ve heard about 2cellos. They rock. Plus, I love the electronic cellos. (My favorite video so far is still the cover of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck.)

(Image from Cecilio Music.)

Welcome to the Jungle


Wake Me Up

They Don’t Care About Us


Tron comments

(Image from Amazon, used for review purposes only.)

One of the artists featured in Analog Days is Wendy Carlos (at the time, Walter). In the early 70’s, there was still a big marketing problem in getting the public to buy synthesizer music, which the record companies considered a novelty small-niche market. Wendy’s use of the Moog to reimagine Bach, on Switched-On Bach, was a huge game changer. The music was played on the radio almost non-stop for a year, and other musicians suddenly started coming out with their own rubber-stamp material, including “Switched-On Santa” and “Switched-On Country”. This was also a watershed moment for Robert Moog because his product’s name became irrevocably connected in peoples’ minds with the word “synthesizer”. However, Wendy herself refused to get up on stage and establish herself as a pop artist in the media.

Largely, this was because Walter was in the process of her gender change, while the surgical operation wouldn’t actually take place for another couple years. Sex changes were extremely uncommon at that point, and Walter would be one of the higher-profile personalities to undergo one. So, “he” shunned the spotlight at the peak of “S-OB’s” popularity, and, in part due to continued religious-influenced backlash, has continued to do primarily movie soundtrack work. She’s also very protective of her copyrights, and has managed to keep most, if not all, of her music off youtube. Unfortunately, most of the music on Amazon is in the form of CDs, rather than downloadable mp3s, and the CD’s are expensive. So, when I was trying to find something I could download and listen to right away, I was getting pretty frustrated. Then I discovered that she’d done the soundtrack for Tron, and Amazon had the mp3s from Walt Disney Records; a 2009 remix with 2 songs from Journey. The Journey songs, “Only Solutions” and “1990’s Theme” are both ignorable.

Before listening to the soundtrack, it may be helpful to read the article Secrets Behind the Soundtrack of TRON, written by Bob Moog. It describes how Wendy was selected to compose the soundtrack as well as the main sound effects for the film, and which machines she used. Once that’s out of the way, the next step is to listen to the album. Unfortunately, it’s pretty generic on its own.

I recently read an article (don’t remember which one) that said most SF films depend very heavily on the sound effects. If you watch something like Star Wars with the sound off, it looks like slapstick. And I’m afraid that the reverse holds true with older SF movie sound tracks – if you listen to the album away from the visuals of the film, it’s just derivative classical music or something from Loony Tunes. There are places where I’m wondering if I’m listening to Stravinsky or Bach, and other places where there’s no apparent connection to TRON the movie at all. The key piece that’s recognized as the “TRON theme” shows up in the main opening song, and reappears in a variation in “A New TRON and the MCP” as well as throughout some of the other minor theme pieces in small-sample form. Otherwise, the album sounds like the kind of classical music that I normally don’t listen to. Don’t get me wrong, I love the TRON movie, and I still think that it has a great supporting soundtrack, but the two parts have to be running together to be fully appreciated. For the most part, the music is produced by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with some electronic sounds interwoven between the cracks. There’s very little to interest a student of synth music, in my opinion.

I guess I’m just going to have to wait until I can find a discounted copy of S-OB

Open Reel article

I encountered the Open Reel Ensemble when they were mentioned in one of the Gakken Otona no Kagaku kit mooks. The group uses reel-to-reel recorders to create experimental music for live performances. They have a new album out – “Vocal Codes”, and are currently on tour in Kyoto. The Japan Times ran an interview with some of the members a few days ago, and I decided to save it to file. The author of the piece makes the statement “With four giant reel-to-reel audio tape recorders behind it on stage, Open Reel Ensemble could almost be mistaken for a Japanese version of Kraftwerk.” I don’t know if this is supposed to be a compliment or an insult. Anyway, here’s the link if you want to read the article.

And, One Reel’s latest official youtube video.

Multiples, CD commentary

When I was reading Analog Days, the Buchla Box 100 kept getting mentioned. I did a cursory web search on it and turned up a few pictures, which were interesting. I’d never heard of Buchla before, but the description of the synth in the book wasn’t really inspiring. The authors kept referring to it as a machine for expanding musicians’ options for making music in “non-traditional ways”. It didn’t have a regular keyboard; instead, note events got triggered from a random gate generator which could then be used to fire off various sequencers, and there was a ribbon controller. So, it’s an atonal, random oscillator box. While Buchla himself is still selling modern versions of the Box, it never gained any real popularity and is probably going to stay in the novelty category for eternity.

Anyway, I was going through and typing in various search terms, including Moog, MiniMoog, etc. When I searched on Buchla 100, I got a hit on Multiples, an electronica album from Keith Fullerton Whitman. Keith was born in 1973, making him way too young to have experienced the events described in Analog Days. On the other hand, he is an electronic musician, and has been making music since around 1999. In 2002 he was invited to Harvard for “a week of lectures, concerts and recording sessions” along with the duo Matmos. He was invited back in 2003 for a residency to teach workshops in exchange for access to Harvard’s collection of old synths, including the Serge modular synth from the 70’s, and several Buchla Boxes from the 60’s. Keith used these machines to record Multiples, which came out from the Kranky label in 2005.

Multiples does have a strong 60’s, 70’s feel, combining primitive harmonies with “cosmic background sound effects” for support. Since all of the early synths were monophonic, meaning that you could only play one note at a time, the only way to get chords is to use multi-track recording and just keep playing the same song over and over again to layer the additional chord notes down in multiple passes. This isn’t really feasible if you’re using a machine that generates random sequences. So, most of the songs are gentle, non-threatening new age pieces. The titles are more-or-less descriptive, simply listing the machines used for the piece (i.e. – “Stereo Music for Serge Modular Synthesizer – Part Three”). The results are things like simple piano-like sequences repeated over and over, with cello-like base notes rolling up from the bottom of the scale and shifting over time. All of the songs are throwbacks to the early days of synth development, when musicians had been split into two camps – one trying to make all-new sounds with a machine no one understood clearly, and the other trying to make traditional music with something that could replace the piano and organ while still having the same keyboard interface.

Multiples would have a decent place in music history if it had been composed 40-50 years earlier. As it is, though, it’s a retro CD that will appeal mainly to new agers, and minimalists. I bought the mp3s because I wanted to know what the Buchla Box sounds like, and on that count I’m disappointed. There’s nothing that specifically screams “this is a really cool synthesizer”, or even “what IS this?” I’ll keep the files, because I did pay money for them, but this isn’t something I’m going to add to my regular playlist. To an extent, Multiples is to new age what Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” is to whatever fugues are. That is, fine in small doses but boring if you have to sit through the entire album at one time.