Manul Override at the Garden of Memory 2019

I have attended the Garden of Memory at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland many a summer solstice since moving to San Francisco – and written multiple reviews on these pages and even presented a CatSynth TV showcase last hear. But 2019 is the first time I have performed at this annual event as a named artist. It’s a very different experience from the inside looking out. This article describes the adventure.

My friend and sometime collaborator Serena Toxicat and I were excited to be accepted into this years program for our project Manul Override. We joined forces once again with Melne Murphy on guitar and also invited Thea Farhadian to sit in with us on violin.

I had a rather elaborate setup, anchored as usual by my trusty Nord Stage EX. The Sequential Prophet 12 has also become a mainstay of my smaller collaborations, providing rich ambient sounds. The Arturia MiniBrute 2, Moog Theremini, and a collection of Eurorack modules rounded out the rig.

Getting everything into place in the catacombs-like building – a renowned landmark designed by Julia Morgan – was a challenge in itself. Fortunately, I found parking nearby and was able to load everything onto carts or wheeled cases, and had plenty of help getting things downstairs where we were playing.

The acoustics of the space are also quite challenging. It is a set of oddly shaped stone chambers, some large, some small, so echoes abound from both the crowds and other performers. Figuring out how to balance our sound is not easy, and I don’t pretend to have gotten it right on the first try, but it’s a learning experience. But we did get ourselves sorted out and ready to play.

Photo by Annabelle Port

The set unfolded with an invocation, a drone in D mixolydian mode set to Serena’s text Mau Bast, read first in French and then in English. It seemed a perfect piece for the occasion. We then switched things up with a more humorous piece (Let’s Hear it for) Kitties, which was a crowd favorite. You can hear a bit of it in this video from the event.

I have learned how to best follow Serena’s style of speaking and singing, with a more open quality; and Melne and I know how to work together well both in terms of timing and timbre. Thea’s violin added an interesting counterpoint to the voice and electronics. Her sound was sometimes masked by the other instruments and the acoustics but when it came through it added a distinct character and texture. The remaining two pieces were more improvised. One was a free improvisation against one of Serena’s books Consciousness is a Catfish, and another was based on a graphical score with 16 symbols that I first created in 2010 but have revised and reused over the use. The newest version included a cartoon pigeon in honor of my bird-loving co-conspirator Melne.

The performance was well received. Crowds came and went throughout the evening, but many people stayed for extended periods of time to watch us, and others came back a few times. We played two hour-long sets, and in between I had a small amount of time to check out some of the other performs. In particular, I enjoyed hearing Kevin Robinson’s trio, with whom we shared our section of the space.

His spare group and arrangements with saxophone, upright bass, and drum, provided a distinct contrast to our thick sound. The moved between long drawn-out tones and fast runs with short notes that reverberated around the space in between. Robinson’s music often has a meditative quality, even when it is more energetic, so it fit well.

Around the corner from us was the Stanford Laptop Orchestra (SLOrk). They had a quiet set featuring performs seated on meditation cushions with laptops as well as various percussive objects as sound sources.

I was particularly inspired by Anne Hege and her Tape Machine, an instrument with a free-moving magnetic tape and several heads, pickups and tiny speakers. She sang into it at various points and moved the tape, created an instrumental piece that was part DIY-punk, part futuristic, and somehow quite traditional at the same time.

Her performance gave me ideas of a future installation, perhaps even to bring to the Garden of Memory in years to come…

Thea pulled double duty during the evening, also performing as part of a duo with Dean Santomieri, sharing a space with Pamela Z. Our friends Gino Robair and Tom Djll brought the duo Unpopular Electronics to one of the darker columbariums, and IMA (Nava Dunkelman and Amma Arteria) performed on the lower level. In retrospect, our group might have been better placed sharing a space with them, as we are both electronic groups (all women) with large dynamic range.

Overall, it was a wonderful experience, and with the opportunity to play as well as listen it’s my favorite to date. Thank you Sarah Cahill, Lucy Mattingly, and the rest of the crew at New Music Bay Area as well as the Chapel of the Chimes staff for letting us be a part of this event!

CatSynth Pic: Orange Cat, Behringer Neutron, Arturia Keystep

A pretty orange tabby plays some notes on an Arturia Keystep and Behringer Neutron synthesizer. From Karl Garcia via Facebook.

In the middle of a patch this cat just sits down on the keyboard and gets the arpeggiator going lol.

Of all the synthesizers in Behringer’s growing catalog, the Neutron is one of the two that most interests me personally, the other being the new VC340 Vocoder. You can see my encounter with Behringer’s synths before NAMM in this video.

CatSynth Pic: Numbers with Arturia, Novation, and Korg

Meet Numbers the black cat. He sits on a custom synthesizer rack made from recycled wood that houses an Arturia MiniBrute 2S, Novation keyboard, and a MicroKorg. From Sam Brubaker via our Facebook page.

A photo of my cat, Numbers. Here he is inspecting the room lighting while sitting on a synth rack I built out of recycled wood from a shipping palette.

CatSynth Pic: Studio Panther (Arturia, Elektron, GameBoy)

A gorgeous house panther shows off her studio, which includes a MicroBrute and controllers from Arturia, an Elektron SidStation, and a Nintendo GameBoy. From Shaun Steven Struble on Facebook, who says this about the GameBoy:

My main composition machine. If I can write it in three voices on the gameboy and it sounds good, I know itโ€™ll sound good when I expand it to the other synths.

CatSynth Pic: Nepal and synths (Moog, Novation, Arturia, Yamaha)

Nepal sits in the studio ready to compose a magnum opus on an impressive collection of synths including a Moog Sub Phatty, Arturia MiniBrute 2S, multiple Novation instruments, and several vintage Yamaha boxes with that cool diagonal front panel. Submitted by Brian T Geigner via our Facebook page.

Nepal composing a new song.

We can’t wait to hear what Nepal comes up with ๐Ÿ˜ป๐ŸŽน

CatSynth Pic: Scout with Roland Juno 106, Dreadbox Hades, and more

Scout sits atop a vintage Roland synthesizer. We are pretty sure it’s a Roland Juno 106. In the back, we see a Dreadbox Hades, as well as offerings from Novation and Arturia. From Carl Peczynski via our Facebook page.

CatSynth Pic: Mojo, Arturia Keystep, Moog Minitaur

Mojo the cat looks on as a musical performance with an Arturia Keystep and Moog Minitaur unfolds. He seems to quite enjoy it. Submitted by Bruce Oliver via our Facebook page.

Mojo was my little buddy for 17 years. He loved synth sounds but would vacate the room if you picked up a guitar!

CatSynth Pic: Kasey, Roland, and Arturia

Kasey finds a comfy spot between a Roland Plug-Out system, Roland modules, and an Arturia Beatstep Pro. Submitted by Chris Bentley via our Facebook page.

Kasey the cat. Passed away at the age of 19 back in August 2017 but used to love to hang out on my desk while I was tinkering in the studio.

We are very sorry to hear of Kasey’s passing, and our hearts go out to Chris as the rest of Kasey’s family. A wonderful studio cat who lived a long and loved life ๐Ÿ’•

CatSynth Pic: Bonnie in the Studio

Bonnie has definitely found a nice napping spot in this studio. Submitted by David Lemur via our Facebook page.

Bonnie says: ‘More of John Cage’s 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence please Donny’.

We see an Arturia Keystep, Roland TR-8, a TB-303 clone, a vintage Korg sequencer, and even a bit of Buchla in the upper-left corner.

NAMM 2019: Arturia MicroFreak (First Look)

One of the most talked-about releases at NAMM (at least within our circles) was the new MicroFreak from Arturia. So, of course, we at CatSynth had to check it out.

It is a unique-looking instrument. The panel is etched with a variety of iconography; and then there is the flat PCB in place of the traditional keyboard. No moving parts here. But it is quite expressive, including polyphonic aftertouch.

Beyond its looks and keyboard, the main feature of the MicroFreak is its digital oscillator. There are several different “types” for the oscillator, including wavetable, sampling, physical modeling, virtual analog, and something called “texturizer”. Within each there are selections for parameters labeled wave, timbre, and shape, that do different things in different types. These can be selected in real time via the knobs, and wave and timbre can also be destinations for modulation.

The digital oscillator followed in the signal chain by an analog filter, specifically an Oberheim SEM-style filter, which sounds quite good when the oscillator is set to a rich source. There also the usual array of modulators, including envelope (one-shot and cycled), LFO, and arpeggiator. The sequencer includes a bunch of compositional functions with cute names like “Spice” and “Dice” to help build and modify patterns, which then can be routed via the modulation matrix.

It is quite a powerful instrument, but attempting to play it was a bit intimidating at first. Unlike the MiniBrute (analog) or even the Sequential Prophet 12 (hybrid), the knobs weren’t quite as intuitive for someone used to a lot of subtractive or semi-modular synthesizers, especially the oscillator with its various modes and the composition functions. I suspect it was an easier first-experience for those who use beat and sample boxes like those from Elektron. Indeed, I was able to get more out of it by turning on the arpeggiator and then turning knobs. You can see a bit of my initial attempts in our recent video.

In order to really understand what this little beast has to offer, a deep dive in the studio would be required. We at CatSynth hope to be able to arrange that in the not-to-distant future, and will report back here and on CatSynth TV.