Sunday, 11 November 2018

Distortion using Irony - a Max For Live experimental device

For too long, I have been working on an update to Waverne, the 'wave-sliding' synth written in Max For Live for Ableton Live, that I adapted from Laverne written by White Box Synth Makers (Now known as Flintpope (who makes superbly amazing devices for Reaktor, DAWs etc.), who said:

"I really enjoy the sound of this. You've done a terrific job. I was going to try and mix your work into my prettified visual version of laverne but so far I'm not up to speed on all that patching.

You've made a "working class synth" sound classy."

(I couldn't find Laverne on the maxforlive.com web-site when I searched today, so I guess that makes it a collectors item!)

Anyway, one of the recent additions to Waverne 2, the 'project that won't finish', was inspired by zipper noise, which anyone who lived through the early days of the analogue-to-digital transition in the 1980s will immediately recognise as one of the least wanted of the many ways that signals get degraded: hiss, aliasing, quantisation noise... and zipper noise. Zipper noise is particularly nasty because it isn't continuous, it only appears when you move a controller, and so your ear is naturally attracted to this nasty unwanted intrusion. So, naturally, it is a useful side-effect for Waverne 2's armoury of 'crazy things you can do with wavetables that don't get used very often...'.

And it got me thinking. Suppose that, in the future, digital acquires the same sort of nostalgic appeal as analogue has now. Instead of 'Vinyl' plug-ins that add hiss and clicks, you would have plug-ins that add all of the distortions associated with the digital sampling and reproduction process. Yep, so now you know how my mind works, because before I knew it, I was deep in another project that sucked more development time away from Waverne 2, yet again...

(When I demoed the then-current prototype of Waverne 2 at Ableton Loop 2017, I thought that the release would be happening soon...)

Irony as distortion

The result, after a tidy-up of the initial release, is 'Ironic Distortion mr 0v02', a Max For Live device for Ableton Live that allows you to add distortions inspired by Aliasing, Quantisation Noise and Mains Modulation to any audio, which probably belongs in the 'Mastering' section of your audio effects library. (I think this is my first 'mastering' tool ever...) This isn't totally serious - the distortions are not exact scientifically honed reproductions of real-world digital distortion, and they have not been rigorously tested using trained ears and expensive measuring equipment. Instead, I have used irony, a powerful technique that works well in comedy, satire and wit, and that sometimes has alternative applications in music technology. What Ironic Distortion does is provide vague emulations of the sort of digital distortion that you get in digital audio processing systems - using a digital audio processing system!


Ironic distortion has four sections, although the final section (on the far right) is just the Input monitor/switch and the 'Reset' button. The three main sections provide the aforementioned distortions: Aliasing, Quantisation Noise, and Mains Modulation. Each section has controls at the top, graphic displays showing the spectrum and a scrolling sonogram, and a combined level meter, gain control/fader and Mute switch. The gain controls let you adjust the mix of distortion types, and the Mute switch allows you to switch them in and out quickly.

All of the sections are based around spectral mirroring (followed by various other bits of processing), something that I wrote an unreleased Audacity plug-in for some time ago, and which is another on the list of 'things to release at some stage'. Cycling 74's Max makes it easy to do the required frequency-domain processing (ring modulation, alternate sample inversion, etc.) and so made turning an ironic idea into a digital reality very quick and easy.

Version 0.02 changes the 'Mains Modulation' to replace the low-pass filter with a 'Drive' rotary control because I found that I was always opening up the filter anyway, and there wasn't enough 'Umph'. This modification sounds much more like the sound that I associate with problems like faulty power supplies and hum loops, and could be used maliciously to upset recording studio engineers...

Version 0.02 also adds in preset storage, and should store settings between sessions in Live.

Back in the pre-digital days, things called 'exciters' and 'enhancers' were used to add small amounts of distortion to audio to try and counter/hide/disguise/obfuscate the hiss that using analogue tape recorders ends to generate, and you could think of Itronic Distortion as a re-imagining of this type of thinking for a digital world.

If you are used to distortion devices that work in the time-domain and directly affect the waveform, then a frequency-domain device like Ironic Distortion could be an interesting alternative approach. Use at your own risk, and don't forget to apply your own irony to the results.

I'm gradually getting more experience at doing 'demo' videos, so one may appear here at some stage...

Getting Ironic Distortion mr 0v02

You can download Ironic Distortion mr 0v02 for free from MaxForLive.com.

(The links above should now be fixed!)

Here are the instructions for what to do with the .amxd file that you download from MaxforLive.com:

     https://synthesizerwriter.blogspot.co.uk/2017/12/where-do-i-put-downloaded-amxd.html

(In Live 10, you can also just double-click on the .amxd file, but this puts the device in the same folder as all of the factory devices...)

Modular Equivalents

In terms of modular equivalents, then reproducing this functionality in my modulars presented a number of problems, since many of the modules I have are digital inside, not analogue, and so they are already intrinsically 'corrupted' with their own digital distortion. In the end, I resorted to my stand-by: that useful, catch-all, vaguely-described 'utility' module (no matter how many you have, you always need another one with a new and different function that you never knew you needed or would ever use), a couple of VCOs and VCFs, and giving a sub-total of about 6 ME per section, which makes an impressive grand total of 18 ME for the whole thing. Basically, that's an entire small Eurorack just for this one MaxForLive device...

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