Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Manifesto for self-generating patches

Ideas for the implementation of autonomous instruments in analog modular synths (v. 0.2)

The following guidelines are not meant as aesthetic value judgements or prescriptions as to what people should do with their modulars  as always, do what you want! The purpose is to propose some principles for the exploration of a limited class of patches and a particular mode of using the modular as an instrument.

Self-generating patches are those which, when left running without manual interference, produce complex and varied musical patterns. Usually, the results will be more or less unpredictable. In this class of patches, there are no limitations as to what modules to use and how to connect them, except that one should not change the patch or touch any knobs after the patch has been set up to run. An initial phase of testing and tweaking is of course allowed, but if preparing a recording as documentation of the self-generating patch, it should just run uninterrupted on its own.

A stricter version of the same concept is to try to make a deterministic autonomous system in which there is no source of modulation (such as LFOs or sequencers) that is not itself modulated by other sources. In consequence, the patch has to be a feedback system.

The patch may be regarded as a network with modules as the nodes and patch cords as the links. Specifically, it is a bidirectional graph, because modules usually have both inputs and outputs. (The requirement that there be no source of modulation which itself is not modulated by other modules implies that, e.g., noise modules or LFOs without any input are not allowed.) Thus, in the graph corresponding to the patch, each node that belongs to the graph must have at least one incomming link and at least one outgoing link. The entire patch must be interconnected in the sense that one can follow the patch cords from any module through intervening modules to any other module that belongs to the patch.

Criterion of elegance:
The smaller the number of modules and patch cords used, the more elegant the patch is. (Caveat: modules are not straightforwardly comparable. There are small and simple modules with restricted possibilities, and modules with lots of features that may correspond to using several simpler modules.)

Aesthetic judgement:
Why not organize competitions where the audience may vote for their favourite patches, or perhaps let a panel of experts decide.

Standards of documentation:
Make a high quality audio recording with no post processing other than possibly volume adjustment. Video recordings and/or photos of the patch are welcome, but a detailed diagram explaining the patch and settings of all knobs and switches involved should be submitted. The diagram should provide all the information necessary to reconstruct the patch.

Criterion of robustness:
Try to reconstruct the patch with some modules replaced by equivalent ones. Swap one oscillator for another one, use a different filter or VCA and try to get a similar sound. Also try small adjustments of knobs and see whether it affects the sound in a radical way. The more robust a patch is, the easier it should be for other modular enthusiasts to recreate a similar patch on their system.

Criteria of objective complexity:
The patch is supposed to generate complex, evolving sounds, not just a static drone or a steady noise. Define your own musical complexity signal descriptor and apply it to the signal. Or use one of the existing complexity measures.

Spread your results and let us know about your amazing patch!

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