Review: Cherry Audio’s “Voltage” Eurorack Soft Synthesizer. Thumbs up.

Cherry Audio has a modular softsynth, called “Voltage.” It’s currently (as of October 8, 2018) $150, in a bundle that includes the core product, plus 69 modules as well as an additional set of percussion modules and settings for the synthesizer.

It looks like it’s a competitor for four softsynths with which I have varying levels of experience: Softube Modular, VCV Rack, Arturia’s Modular V, and, lastly, Native Instrument’s Reaktor 6.

It works similarly to VCV and Softube Modular: you have a selection of modules and slide them onto a virtual modular rig. You then drag cables between input and outputs on the various modules to create sonic palettes. I’d love to show you images, but I’m awful at creating them, and the Cherry Audio has a number of workable videos that demonstrate the functionality.

It’s quite servicable in that regard. The cable-dragging mechanism is fairly common; Modular V has it as well, and you see the same thing with Reason, so it’s a workable adaptation of a real-world patch bay.

The sound quality and module selection is pretty good, too. You get the standard array of components: oscillators, LFOs, envelope generators, amplifiers, gate generators, sequencers… quite a few, actually; check the Cherry Audio shop for a complete list.

The module inputs make sense and mirror their real-world components pretty well. I was pleased with the selection and their quality, but nothing stood out that screamed that a particular component was especially compelling.

One of the things that does stand out about Voltage is that modules are written in Java, a fairly popular and free-to-use language and runtime environment. I haven’t tried this out, but the possibility of writing new components with Java is actually pretty enticing; Java’s a very simple language to master, allowing component developers to focus on the actual sonic characteristics they’re trying to create.

Comparisons to other products

Modular V is quite flexible, but costs about the same. The module selection is largely fixed to what Arturia offers, and the modules are based on the modules available in the Model 50 series of Moog synthesizers, if memory serves the Moog catalog properly. If you’re looking for a soft synth analog to the Moog sound, the Modular V is quite nice… and it’s very flexible. But it’s not a traditional Eurorack modular system, so if you’re used to the free-form chaining of modules, Voltage might have the upper hand.

Softube Modular is the closest commercial analog to Voltage. It’s actually cheaper, but doesn’t come with as many modules; they do, however, have aftermarket modules to die for, mirroring many, many well-known real-world modules including Buchla generators, Intellijel, and others. However… I can say that Voltage is actually easier to use, because the CPU requirements for Softube Modular are really high. Also, Voltage’s authorization mechanism is license-based (as is Softube Modular’s) but Voltage doesn’t require Gobbler.

I like Softube Modular, if only because the modules are so flexible… but Gobbler and the CPU usage mean that if I had to use one of Voltage or Softube Modular, I’d reach for Voltage every time.

VCV Rack has the same kind of expansion ecosystem that Softube Modular does, with a couple of differences: it’s open source, and is a free download, and… it’s more of a “traditional Eurorack”, meaning that its integration into a DAW like, oh, Cubase is a lot less clean. There’s a VST of VCV Rack, but I haven’t tried it (and it seems to be a bit of a red-headed stepchild for VCV Rack). I love synthesizers with the heart of one who loves synthesizers, and I enjoy physical synths just as much as soft synths, but DAW integration is pretty much a “must have” for me to prefer a soft synth, even if it’s a good modular emulation.

Reaktor is the oddball in the group, being fully modular, but not being truly based on the “cable drag” paradigm. Reaktor is more a virtual whiteboard for components; you make modules available and connect inputs to outputs (but not with a model of a physical cable). You also have far more flexibility with Reaktor than you do with any of its competitors, in that you don’t have to use modules; you can use mathematical functions or other such things, including building your own modules (in Reaktor) if you so choose. It’s more intimidating than the other products included here, and it doesn’t really pretend to be a Eurorack or traditional modular synth, but in terms of raw power, it’s the beast in the group.

Summary

I’m actually pretty impressed by Voltage. It’s nicer than Modular because it’s got reasonable CPU usage, and no Gobbler; it’s more Eurorack than Arturia’s Modular V and Reaktor; it’s well-integrated as a VST, to differentiate it from VCV Rack. It fits the Eurorack niche VERY well, as a soft synth, allowing you to do west coast and east coast synthesis with a Eurorack look and feel very easily.

Recommended.

How I See Rush’s Albums from Ten Thousand Feet

This is how I think of Rush’s entire studio catalog, in short summaries.

Rush

This is a set of young rockers trying to follow their dreams. Raw, immature, full of pride and purpose. Surprisingly good, especially when you consider that “Working Man” was an earnest staple of the band for their entire career.

Fly By Night

Sophomore effort; apparently switching drummers to the new guy worked out. The sound’s a lot lighter, the playing is far less raw, and the topics are much better than on “Rush”, even though it still had songs like “Rivendell” on it. This is a band trying to figure out its new sound, and it’s working.

Caress of Steel

This is a band indulging itself after Fly By Night; it’s almost like they said, “Hey, Fly By Night worked, let’s do that, but more of it.” It sounds indulgent in retrospect, but it’s still Rush and it’s got some great stuff on it – Bastille Day, The Necromancer, even The Fountain of Lamneth has value despite the indulgence. The sound didn’t grow a ton from Fly By Night to Caress of Steel, and neither did the writing… they grew some, but not much. It ends up feeling uncommitted.

2112

Commitment time! With Caress of Steel feeling unfulfilled and the band teetering on the edge, the guys decided to go for it and do what it feels like they really wanted. Instead of trying to figure out what someone else wanted, they did what they wanted to do, and gosh, it seems to have worked. The sound was a little better than on Caress of Steel – the sound really hadn’t taken a leap yet – but the playing and writing is very, very strong. This one might be a classic.

A Farewell to Kings

An album produced by the confidence gained through 2112 and a successful live album. It sounds like they were inspired by doing well when they did what they felt like doing. It’s a confident album. It also had a giant leap in sound quality with Cygnus X-1. They introduced more instruments, too – the synths finally started really rearing their heads, becoming core parts of Xanadu and other songs. The synths were an interloper in the sound spectrum; this becomes important.

Hemispheres

Wait, did we say A Farewell to Kings was confident? Then Hemispheres takes that confidence and multiplies it by ten. This feels like they decided to challenge themselves to do listenable progressive rock, yet still propelled forward by things other than pastoral sounds. The actual sound of the album is a little fuzzy, a little dark (where’s the sustain on Geddy’s bass?) but the album itself… you either love it to death or hate it. (I love it. Probably my favorite Rush album.) The synths were still trying to find out where they went, though; La Villa Strangiato won with them, Circumstances… used them. But when Circumstances is the weakest song on your album, you have a winner.

Permanent Waves

They finally moved away from the indulgence of prog rock. Tightened the songs dramatically. Also opened up the sound a good bit, and the synths fit well here. If Hemispheres wasn’t the perfect Rush album, Permanent Waves was.

Note that this is a crappy summary. Permanent Waves is a freaking great album. Natural Science, Freewill, Spirit of Radio, Jacob’s Ladder (which gave me chills, seeing it live on their last tour), Different Strings, Entre Nous… all fantastic songs. And that’s every song on the album.

Moving Pictures

Here, they took Permanent Waves and amped it up again. The sound is brighter and entirely … Moving Pictures. This is Rush’ best-sounding album – it’s also one of the best sounding albums (IMO) from anyone, anywhere, and it’s built on nothing but fantastic songs all the way through. The synths are still lurking, still looking for where to really be used, but they’re just right – just like everything is on this album. If Permanent Waves wasn’t the perfect Rush album, Moving Pictures was.

And if we’re telling the truth, Moving Pictures is the perfect Rush album.

Signals

Signals is what happens when you don’t know where else to go – and you choose a different direction. The underused synths from Moving Pictures took the limelight, so to speak, and the sonic spectrum suffered dramatically for it – the synths collided with everything, drowning out the drums (which sound muddier than ever before, even compared to Hemispheres) and the guitars (Rush had a guitarist?). It’s a great album, really; the music as written is fantastic, but the sound really hurt it. If Moving Pictures wasn’t the perfect Rush album, Permanent Waves was. Not Signals.

Rush chose to go a different way with Signals – on later albums, they would just stick with what worked. I liked the choice they made here, even if the sound suffered from it. I wish they’d have been as adventurous later. Apart from Vapor Trails and Snakes and Arrows, this is the last experimental album Rush made (and neither of those later albums was as experimental as Signals, for Rush’s sound.)

Signals was my introduction to Rush – from here I went to Hemispheres and then to… everything.

Grace Under Pressure

Grace Under Pressure was an album where they tried to figure out how to fit synths in with everything else, trying to craft their sound. The synths actually tried to duck the guitar (which was what hurt Signals) and the bass (now a Steinberger headless, not sure what model) also tried to dodge the drums. The band was trying to find the perfect mix again, but with more instruments to choose from. Songwriting was still very tight; Peart sounds like he’d pretty much done everything he wanted to do, from a drummer’s perspective, and was basically playing around (something that had started on Signals.) Geddy went from a melodic bass approach (where every line was a melody, duh) to more of a traditional bass player’s approach, where he was holding down the low end of the sound when he wasn’t playing keyboards. Song construction stabilized; guitars, then synths in the chorus, lots of ringing guitar chords.

Geddy changed his singing technique – his deep vibrato started to disappear at this point. I missed it.

Power Windows

Grace Under Pressure, amplified. Clearer sound than Grace Under Pressure, still great songs, but it feels like they just did Grace Under Pressure with newer instruments and more of them. I think it’s still the Steinberger bass, but it doesn’t matter. (Later research: nope, it’s his Wal bass, which he used for this and the next three albums.) It’s still got little meat because it’s trying to dodge the drums.

Hold Your Fire

More of Power Windows’ attitude of “let’s run with this synth thing.” The sound is great, even though I find Geddy’s Wal bass to be really weak here, and the snare was… weird. Alex’ sound was meatless because of the sonic spectrum. Great playing, but still strangely lifeless. This album is sort of the Grace Under Pressure’s gutless grandchild; the genes are there, but the heart isn’t, even though the songwriting, as usual, is about as good as you could hope for. (Song construction was still kinda boring, with the same guitar-driven then synth-driven shifts throughout.)

Geddy’s enunciation during this period drove me nuts. “Hold yuh fiyuh,” indeed. Thankfully, this was a vocal tic that lasted for only this and the live album that accompanied it.

Presto

At last! Back to guitar rock! The song construction finally changed, and the band sounds like they’re trying to work out how to get back to playing with meat. It’s not here – this album sounds really light, apart from subject matter – but they’re searching for the sound again instead of saying “Where is it? Let’s add a synthesizer.” Who knew Rush had a guitarist?

Roll The Bones

Having rediscovered that they have one of rock and roll’s unheralded heroes at guitar, they decided to use him. More bass (and low end, period) than Presto, it’s a funny, great album. Good mix, but still a little top-heavy. Ged’s still on the Wal. Neil still sounds like he’s searching for a reason to play the drums.

Counterparts

Having rediscovered that they have one of rock and roll’s unheralded heroes on bass, they decided to put him in the mix… big time. Geddy finally abandoned the Wal and went to a good bass for him, his Jazz. One of Rush’s better bass guitar sounds. Very heavy album, almost a reaction to how light the previous six albums had sounded. Has “Alien Shore” on it, which would make any album good. It’s still only a decent Rush album, though. (Most bands wish they had something as good as this.)

Test for Echo

This is where the song construction finally overtook the songwriting. (This was a one-album phase, thank goodness.) The songwriting here feels… tired. The playing’s pretty good, even Neil sounds interested on drums (he started taking lessons from Freddie Gruber for this album). The sound itself is a little raw, but still mature – it’s a good, bright sound. Not as good as Moving Pictures, but few albums are. This album was a Rush album – again, most bands would kill to have something as good as this, but for Rush, it’s another album that’s good to listen to, but it’s also “meh” because of high expectations.

Vapor Trails

Years have passed, with much tragedy for Neil, between Test for Echo and Vapor Trails. The sound took a giant, giant, humongous leap backwards – this can be a hard album to listen to, because of the recording quality (everything is brickwalled). Very few examples of dynamics, and even when they’re there (“Secret Touch,” “Ghost Rider”) they’re still pretty much brickwalled. Everyone is playing incredibly hard the whole way through – Alex sounds like he’s kinda where Neil was on the prior seven albums (“What’s left to do? Oh, I’ll noodle.”) but Neil’s playing like a man who needs an income again. Unfortunately, he’s also playing like he’s done most of what can be done.

I totally love this album. If not for the sonic quality, I’d have it on a pedestal along with the “Golden Era” albums from 2112 through Grace Under Pressure – and given that it sounds like Rush was actually interested again, it probably belongs on the pedestal despite the sound quality. And if you’re wondering, I actually find I still prefer the original flawed release; the remaster sounds much better but I love the rawness of the original.

With this album, we started seeing more live stuff from Rush than studio work. Rush is a great live band, but… I wanted studio albums more than live.

Feedback

“Hey, let’s record an album of covers so we can make a lot of money on tour! Maybe we can go on tour again afterwards just so we can promote that we were on tour! And then go on tour! Where’s my money?”

Let’s just say that while I like a lot of these songs and am always super-excited when Rush gives me stuff to listen to… I was not impressed.

Snakes and Arrows

New producer who doesn’t want the band to rest on its laurels in any way, Neil’s actually invested in lyrics again… Nick R. wanted the sounds to harken back to the classic sounds from the band (so you get echoes of every great Rush album here, it feels like), so in some ways it sounds like they’ve freshened up a ton of their catalog… and it all works. Great mix, great songwriting, adventurous. Their best album since Moving Pictures, in my opinion, although if I had to make a choice between this and Signals, Signals would probably win.

Clockwork Angels

Let’s do Snakes and Arrows, except in a concept album! It’s actually really good, but the sound didn’t mature much from Snakes and Arrows, and the concept album part felt a little lazy to me. It’s still a great album, and it’s definitely something for the pantheon, but it’s not a competitor for “best album” like Snakes and Arrows would be.

And the endless “give us money” tours preceding and following the album finally broke Neil for the road.

Essential Slick: a review

Essential Slick” is a book by Richard Dallaway and Jonathan Ferguson, published on underscore.io. It’s designed to be a compact guide to Slick, a database-access library for Scala, and succeeds admirably in its goal, even in early-access form.

The book is very easy to read; it’s published in multiple forms (epub, HTML, and PDF). I chose to read the HTML version, as I’m reading it on a Macbook, and HTML just seemed the most generic.

However, the content is the most important part.

I’ve tried to play with database access in Scala; I usually end up working with a model written in Java, accessed via Hibernate, because of familiarity with Hibernate and, more importantly, because the documentation for various Scala database access mechanisms is simply inaccessible to me – generally being unclear or simply not working.

I have tried Slick tutorials, for example, and the Hello, Slick example projects – only to have them fail out of the box or simply not working, without clear explanations.

I’m pleased to report that this has not been the case with Essential Slick – the code has worked very well, and been explained clearly.

While in early access, there are a few minor problems – for example, in the book’s source code they use durations early on without specifically including them or describing them. (The example project, however, does include all required types.) Likewise, the output from the example project is slightly different (being far less verbose) than the book’s project code.

These are not real problems, at all; durations are fairly obvious, and the debug output is actually very informative. It just wasn’t entirely expected.

The exercises are useful, and are accompanied by explanations of various problems you might encounter; this is very newbie-friendly (as one would hope from an introductory text) and therefore targets its audience perfectly.

Topics proceeding through the book include selection, modeling, and combining actions (i.e., building complex transactions). Along the way, some assumption of Scala knowledge is expected, but it’s not written arrogantly – Scala beginners can expect to understand the content.

By the end of the book, even in early access form, readers can expect to have functional and useful knowledge on Slick, and can expect to be able to write workable applications leveraging relational databases and Scala.

I’ve found the book to be highly informative – and, if you’re using Slick, necessary, compared to the other Slick resources out there. Highly recommended.

“I wish that I could live it all again…” – Rush concert!

Last week, my two oldest sons and I went to catch Rush in Greensboro, NC. It was a great show, and I wish that I could see more of them – both in terms of their careers and in terms of, well, this exact tour. If you’re a fan of Rush, get to this tour – they’re not likely to have any more tours after this one, if they do much at all.

There’s no album for this tour – it’s just a cruise for them, because the band’s 40th anniversary has passed and they’re celebrating it with their fans. Neil Peart’s shoulders are apparently showing some wear, so they’re saying this might be their swan song.

But if you had to have a swan song for a band, this would be the way to go out! The last few tours have been a struggle, because of set selection (to please fans who feel that certain parts of the catalog have been underplayed) and because of wear and tear on the band members themselves (Peart’s shoulders, and Geddy Lee’s voice, which has been audibly worn during the tours.)

This concert, though, saw the band in rare form. I felt fortunate that my sons were there with me.

The set was awesome. They opened with a minimized version of the Clockwork Angels stage (steampunk theme and equipment, although no string section) and played a set of killer Clockwork Angels songs. Then they started working backwards, including “Far Cry” from Snakes and Arrows, “How It Is,” off of Vapor Trails, which I’ve never heard live.

It was beautiful.

As the set progressed, the stage was deformed – amps were removed, or dressed differently (Geddy Lee’s Clockwork Angels amps were slowly reconfigured to be clothes dryers as stage placeholder, as he used for a few years.)

The first set was really, really well done, with my personal highlight being Grace Under Pressure’s “Between the Wheels.” “Subdivisions” was also very very well done, and watching Peart kill his drum kit was… memorable, as always.

The second set, though… that’s when everything got REAL. They opened with “Tom Sawyer,” cranking everything past eleven and up to twelve-and-a-half, and never really turned down from there.

Neil Peart used a new drum kit for the second half, a throwback kit based on the drums he played before 1981 or so. Instead of a wall of eight hundred drums, he was down to a wall of forty drums… plus bells… plus crotales.

Alex Lifeson struggled finding the key for some of “The Camera Eye,” which was a little surprising and not-surprising, but did that take away from the awe and glory of seeing it played live and in person? Not at all, because these guys are so professional that they covered for each other and picked everything up as they went.

Then they hit “Jacob’s Ladder.”

Look, I love the song – the original studio performance is beautiful, the version on Exit: Stage Left is one of my favorite songs to hear ever.

But to see it live? After 35 years of knowing it’s not been played at all?

That was just beyond everything. Incredible. Light show, performance, pacing… everything was awesome. I mentioned earlier that I was glad that I could be there with my kids… and this was the moment when that was solidified for me.

Then they played Cygnus X-1. And Xanadu. With the doublenecks… plural. Geddy Lee hasn’t played his doubleneck on stage in decades, but it is on tour now.

The show ended on a similar high note, with the band playing with amps mounted on chairs (and a backdrop of a school gym, just like when they started). Incredible stuff, well-played. Enjoyed. Fantastic.

The show was great… and I really wish that I could attend the same show multiple times, because the awe and glory of the show were so cool that it’s all fading for me, honestly – I remember bits, but what I really want to do is re-experience those moments, over and over again.

Review: Pink Floyd’s “Endless River”

TL;DR Go get Pink Floyd‘s Endless River. I did, and it’s great – as long as you enjoy Pink Floyd.

I bought the Floyd’s latest release – “The Endless River,” as mentioned – because it’s Pink Freaking Floyd, and it’s a new release. It’s awesome – but wants immersion. If you’re looking for something that hits you in the head crying for attention, this is not your album. If you’re looking for something that enriches your life, well… first, make sure you’ve listened to “Wish You Were Here,” but then get this release.

It’s very laconic, like most of Pink Floyd, especially their best work. Most of it’s instrumental – it only has one song with vocals, “Louder Than Words,” the last song on the album, and that’s actually the weakest song on the release for me. (I’m sorry: when Pink Floyd uses the word “diss,” it just… no. Just no.)

It makes me miss Rick Wright – the keyboardist for Pink Floyd, and the secret sauce for their best sound when working with David Gilmour – even more, and gosh I wish Roger Waters and David Gilmour could work together.

Repost: Brandon Sanderson might actually understand people

I’ve been reading Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, trying to finish it at last after having abandoned it fourteen years ago or something like that. I abandoned it because the books were becoming repetitive, and because Robert Jordan created characters who were plastic and immature even then; his fondness for corporal punishment was vaguely offensive.

I had written a critique of the series up through book seven, as I’d given up during book 8; there were a few good books in the series (four and six) but much of the “advancement” involved abuse and misinformation among allies; I’m not a feminist, but the women in the series are portrayed as such buffoons (and powerful buffoons, at that) that I couldn’t quite swallow some of the premises about culture. Unfortunately, my review has been lost in the mists of time.

But the series is finished now, surviving past Jordan‘s fatal encounter with cardiac amyloidosis; the final three books were written by Brandon Sanderson, who had Jordan’s notes and the blessing of Jordan’s wife and editor. It’s basically fan fiction as canon for the series.

Book eleven (“The Knife of Dreams“) actually showed some progress – I don’t know the timing involved, but it’s almost like Jordan realized that his cash cow wouldn’t be very useful to him once he had passed away. (I am unaware if he knew of his disease by the time he was writing book eleven.) With that, though, Sanderson seems to have decided that it was time for the series to actually wrap up as quickly as it could, while respecting the historical (and glacial) pace – he finished in three books, and I’m only halfway through the first of the three.

But it’s a marvelous change so far! People actually react in ways that you could imagine real people reacting.

For example, the women in the series are all bullies and buffoons; those women who can use magic (or “channel”) are among the worst of them, except for their social peers who are unable to channel. They are the worst. The men, bullied and chastised (and often beaten), simply take it, with the suggestion that they just don’t understand women, but that this is somehow valid behavior.

It’s not.

It’s especially not valid when you absolutely need the investment of the target of bullying.

The main protagonist (among what seems like hundreds of protagonists) is the Dragon Reborn, a reincarnated and tragic hero from the distant past, destined to combat the “Dark One,” dying in the process. He takes a number of wounds – some through ignorance, because even if people have useful information – a rare event – they still won’t share it with him. He takes a number of wounds that will not heal and cannot be healed; he is maimed and marked over and over again.

It’s not an easy role to fulfill. Everyone fears him; many see him as a target, because they’re idiots. Those he loves are targets, and he loves a lot of people.

So naturally, the bullies – remember, this is where I started this thought – spend a lot of time bullying him and those closest to him. “You may be the Dragon Reborn, boy, but I need a fresh cup of tea. Now travel five hundred leagues and get me one. Jerk.” They make promises they can’t keep, but so what? He’s a man, he’ll never be able to tell the difference just because you kept an artifact fatal to him just lying around.

… at least, that’s the way it is in the books Jordan authored.

In The Gathering Storm, the Dragon runs into an artifact that’s, um, fatal to him and his purpose. And commits himself to a path from which he may not be able to recover in order to survive. Because, well, survival. There’s no guarantee that he will win against the Dark One – but if he doesn’t survive to fight the last battle, there’s absolutely a guarantee that he’ll lose. (And for some reason, despite all the bullying, he cares.)

So after he commits himself to this irredeemable path, one of the people who keeps putting him down as a boy who needs to learn his lesson in order to die in battle … runs into him, head on with her failure to protect him from this artifact that she’s had in her possession. Sure, she put it in what she considers a safe place… in her room… in the same house in which one of the Dragon’s most powerful arch-nemeses is kept prisoner. Sure hope the arch-enemy doesn’t somehow break free, maybe through the aid of the arch-enemy’s allies and spies!

Because if the enemy did break free, well, the enemy is super-duper powerful, more powerful than anyone except for the Dragon! And the traps set for anyone trying to reach that artifact, well, the enemy might be a lot stronger!

In other words: “Whoopsie-doodle, boy! I suppose I screwed up a little, for the first time ever. Glad you survived, I guess. Now you’d better pay attention to me and what I have to tell you to do…”

And bless you, Brandon Sanderson! Because the Dragon, the Big Bad of the side of Good, has had enough.

The person who’s been whining at him, derisively calling him “boy,” using the idea that she is supposed to be somehow a trusted advisor, the one who kept that dangerous artifact around? She’s exiled. And all of a sudden, she realizes that if he actually needs her – and apparently he does – her exile would be fatal for the world. All of it. Fatal. Cataclysmic.

Whoopsie-doodle, indeed. And Sanderson doesn’t even write it as if I’m supposed to pity the poor old whiny woman. She’s been abusing the most powerful man in the world, constantly putting him down and punishing him despite his maturity and necessity. And all that abuse and insult comes home to roost, and he’s done with it. Surprise!

… and surprise for me, too, as a reader, because I can’t see Robert Jordan as having allowed the Dragon to have human responses. (Or, well, anyone, but especially the Dragon.)

Excellently done. The rest of the series might redeem the long, long, interminable stretches of dreck that the Wheel of Time had been. I’m now looking forward to seeing what happens.