The Sound of 2017

As I’ve done since 2013, I’ve made a top songs list for 2017. And as usual, it’s stuff I listened to this year, whenever it was released, and it’s 12 songs because why not. During the year, I keep a playlist of songs I hear, and at the end of the year I distill it down to the ones that define the sound of the year for me and my absolute favorites.

This year’s themes were deep, minimal techno and house, old-timey hip hop, and dub. I couldn’t get enough of several of these tracks and listened to them over and over, when I wasn’t obsessing over the Beatles’ songwriting. This year was all over the map.

Here are my 12 best songs of 2017:
– Marie Davidson: Naive To The Bone
– Maya Jane Coles: What They Say
– Eric B. & Rakim: Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em
– Kriss Kross: Warm It Up
– The Frightnrs: All My Tears
– Jah Shaka & Mad Professor: Wig Wam
– The Beatles: I Saw Her Standing There
– Mr. Flagio: Take A Chance (ItaloConnection Rework Vocal)
– Anthony Rother: My Name Is Telekraft
– Boris Brejcha: Dark Planet
– Digital Underground: The Humpty Dance
– Dead Can Dance: Song For Sophia

The Books of 2016

Fortunately, Goodreads does most of the work for me: here’s what I read in 2016.

My year in books was pretty much dominated by N.K. Jemisin. I read pretty much all her published novels, all three series, and loved basically all of them. I’m sad that I don’t have any more of her to read (until The Stone Sky comes out next summer), but at least I can recommend her to everyone I know. She creates good characters and stories, but even more remarkable are her strange and fascinating worlds. The year’s other obsession is probably Usagi Yojimbo, which both Nora and I have been working our way through avidly. Fortunately, there are decades of Usagi stories to read, and they’re all good. It’s a samurai rabbit, wandering the world, righting wrongs; what’s not to like?

Here are my top books (or series) of 2016:
– Anything by N.K. Jemisin
– Cinda Williams Chima – the Seven Realms books
– Stan Sakai: All of Usagi Yojimbo
– P.D. James: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
– Cixin Liu: Death’s End
– Mary Doria Russell: The Sparrow
– Robin Sloan: Annabel Scheme
– Many things by Joe Abercrombie
– Hiroshi Sakurazaka: All You Need Is Kill
– Noelle Stevenson: Lumberjanes
– Madeline Ashby: Company Town, Vn (but not iD)
– Max Gladstone: the Craft books
– Ursula K. Leguin: A Wizard of Earthsea

The Sound of 2016

As I’ve done since 2013, I’ve made a top 10 songs list for 2016. Same as always: it’s not all stuff released in 2016, and it doesn’t contain 10 songs. This year’s has 15 (up from 12 in previous years, because why not), and, as always, it’s music I discovered, rediscovered, or just listened to in 2016, whenever it was released. During the year, I keep
a playlist of songs, and at the end of the year I distill it down to the ones that define the sound of the year for me and my absolute favorites.

This year’s theme was cheezy 80s retro. And I don’t just mean classic synthpop, but also modern throwbacks and some true cheese. FM Attack’s Deja Vu got a lot of play this year, and most of the album is great, retro or not. But I have to make a special callout to Laser Dance’s Power Run, a truly stupid and awesome song. It’s so gloriously terrible, I at first thought it was a deliberate retro parody, but no, it’s actually from 1987 and, I guess, was composed in all sincerity. Stop whatever you’re doing and go listen to it.

Anyway, here are my 10* best songs of 2016:
– Depeche Mode: Fools
– FM Attack: With You Tonight
– Tears For Fears: Mad World
– Bomba Estereo: Soy Yo
– Fujiya & Miyagi: Serotonin Rushes
– Ibeyi: River
– Cat Power: Free
– Jungle Fire: Snake Pit
– LCD Soundsystem: Get Innocuous!
– Depeche Mode: New Life
– FM Attack: Activate
– Wild Beasts: Get My Bang
– Colder: To The Music
– Clive Tanaka y Su Orquesta: Neu Chicago
– Charles B.: Lack of Love

The Novation Circuit

The Novation Circuit has been one of my favorite new pieces of gear in a long time, which is impressive considering all the wonderful new gear out there these days. It’s almost perfectly designed for what it is: both a curl-up-on-the-couch music sketchpad and a serious sequencer for playing electronic music. This isn’t a review, but I’ll just say that I’ve found it to be very intuitive to use, capable in both its sounds and sequences, and just a pleasure to hold and use. You should all get one. My only real problem with the Circuit is that I want more: I’d like to make it the centerpiece of my non-computer setup and I need it to do a little more, since I don’t feel like buying four of them. So, this is an open letter to the geniuses at Novation, with a few requests for changes to the Circuit, and then a big request that the Circuit get a big brother. Let’s call it the Circuit Pro.

Here’s my Circuit wishlist (in priority order):
* Ability to edit a single pattern while multiple patterns are playing (i.e. editing doesn’t follow the playing pattern)
* Make note gate time shorter than a single step
* Allow a macro knob to be assigned to oscillator waveform in the patch editor
* Squeeze in a couple more drum tracks
– Assign a midi controller number to each macro in the patch editor, send knob movements as controller data
– SH-101/JX-3p sequencer-style programming (i.e. you play notes and they get entered in one step at a time, with rests and ties possible). Ideally, be able to do this while the Circuit is playing
– Open firmware a la the Launchpad Pro
– Switch modes between 2 synths/4 drums to 0/8 or 4/0 configurations
– Another synth LFO

Here’s what I want in the Circuit Pro:
* 16 tracks in total, 12 drum and 4 synth
* 16 knobs, so that level, sends, etc can be 1-to-1 with the tracks
* 16 macro controls available in synth programs
* Everything from my Circuit wishlist of course
* More sample memory
* Load samples directly with USB drag-n-drop; SD card slot
– More patterns and/or sessions
– More control of drum sound parameters (ideally editable like the synths)
– 2-4 additional audio outputs
– More wavetables in synth oscillators
– Play loaded samples in oscillators
– Finer control of effects settings, maybe a second delay effect
– A couple of analog trigger outs linked to drum tracks


The Sound of 2015

As I’ve done since 2013, I’ve made a top 10 songs list for 2015. Same methodology as always: it is music I discovered, rediscovered, or just listened to in 2015 (whenever it was released), and it includes 12 songs. Over the course of the year, I kept a playlist of interesting songs I heard. At the end of the year, I made two more lists: The Sound of 2015, the stuff I listened to and enjoyed enough that they define the sound of the year for me, and The Best of 2015, my absolute favorites.

If I had one musical obsession this year, it was with Klein & M.B.O., whose “Dirty Talk” was my favorite song in 2014. I could as well have put it on top this year; it’s in there, along with several more of their tracks. Not only did I listen to “Dirty Talk” while walking to work many mornings, it inspired me (along with “Acid Trax” and “Intro”, also on the list) to return to my live techno roots in my own music. The other thing that had an impact on my listening was KEXP’s day of Paul’s Boutique, which got me listening to that album and a lot of the songs it samples. My top album this year would have to be Yppah’s “Eighty One”, which I listened to in its entirety fairly often. Nothing else really broke through for me beyond single songs.

Here’s the list:
– Yppah + Anomie Belle: Film Burn
– Simian Mobile Disco: Audacity Of Huge
– Klein & M.B.O.: Dirty Talk
– LFO: Intro
– Beastie Boys: Shake Your Rump
– Rose Royce: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
– The Chemical Brothers: Go
– MC 900 Ft. Jesus: The City Sleeps
– New Order: Tutti Frutti
– Led Zeppelin: Poor Tom
– Klein & M.B.O.: Last Call
– Fujiya & Miyagi: Photocopier

Nora’s Sound of 2015

In our ever-growing Perkosmith family tradition, Nora kept a playlist throughout the year of songs she was listening to, and selected her top ten at the end of the year. Both are on Spotify: Nora’s Best of 2015 and Nora’s Songs of 2015. I was sad that “Join in the Chant” didn’t make the top ten list, but it was fun driving around with her blasting it out the windows.

Nora’s top ten:
1. Stereo Total: L’Amour
2. Fumio Hayasaka: Rice Planting Song (from The Seven Samurai)
3. Kraftwerk: Numbers
4. Edvard Grieg: In the Hall of the Mountain King
5. Erasure: Blue Savannah
6. Fumio Hayasaka: Samurai Search (from The Seven Samurai)
7. Steve Martin: King Tut
8. Katy Perry: Firework
9. Michael Jackson: Thriller
10. Mark Ronson + Bruno Mars: Uptown Funk

The Books of 2015

The last couple of years, I’ve been making lists of the music I listen to all year and my favorites. I’m working on my 2015 music lists, but I thought I’d do the same with books this year. As with music, these aren’t necessarily books that came out in 2015, but ones I read. The unquestioned top books for me this year were the first two books of Liu Cixin’s “Three-Body Problem” trilogy (the third is due to appear in English translation in 2016, I believe). They are amazing. If you like any kind of science fiction or speculative fiction (or even if you don’t), you should read them. “Ancillary Sword” (and its sequel) was another science fiction book I really like this year, with a great protagonist. “Fingersmith” was another one that I recommend to all, with a great, twisty, Dickensian plot and cast of characters. It turns out that Goodreads will also summarize your year in reading; here’s mine.

Without further ado, here are my top 10:
– Liu Cixin – The Three-Body Problem
– Liu Cixin – The Dark Forest
– Sarah Waters – Fingersmith
– Ann Leckie – Ancillary Sword
– Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo – The Terrorists
– Karl Schroeder – Ventus
– Richard Price – Samaritan
– N.K. Jemisin – The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
– Katherine Addison – The Goblin Emperor
– Richard Roberts – Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m a Supervillain

And here’s the complete list, in chronological order:
– Terry Pratchett – Monstrous Regiment
– Maj Sjowall – The Terrorists
– Steven Erikson – House of Chains
– Sidney Perkowitz – Universal Foam: From Cappuccino to the Cosmos
– Darin Bradley – Chimpanzee: A Novel
– Richard Roberts – Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m a Supervillain
– Hannu Rajaniemi – The Fractal Prince
– J.R.R. Tolkien – The Hobbit
– Rosalind Wiseman – Queen Bees and Wannabes
– Nick Harkaway – Tigerman
– Anthony Hope – The Prisoner of Zenda
– Daphne du Maurier – The Scapegoat
– Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch
– Donna Tartt – The Little Friend
– Donna Tartt – The Secret History
– James S.A. Corey – Leviathan Wakes
– Ann Leckie – Ancillary Justice
– Tim Kreider – We Learn Nothing
– Liu Cixin – The Three-Body Problem
– George Pelecanos – The Cut
– Ann Leckie – Ancillary Sword
– Richard Price – Samaritan
– Leonora Carrington – The Hearing Trumpet
– Dennis Lehane – Gone, Baby, Gone
– M.K. Smith – Serena’s Fall
– Karl Schroeder – Ventus
– Liu Cixin – The Dark Forest
– Karl Schroeder – Lady of Mazes
– Judd Trichter – Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
– Robert Charles Wilson – The Affinities
– Derek Raymond – He Died With His Eyes Open
– Simon Reynolds – Rip it Up and Start Again
– Derek Raymond – The Devil’s Home on Leave
– Nick Mamatas – The Future is Japanese: Science Fiction Futures and Brand New Fantasies from and about Japan.
– James Ellroy – The Best American Noir of the Century
– Sarah Waters – Fingersmith
– Katherine Addison – The Goblin Emperor
– J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
– N.K. Jemisin – The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
– Philip Reeve – Mortal Engines
– Diana Wynne Jones – Howl’s Moving Castle
– Warren Ellis – Trees, Vol. 1: In Shadow
– C.S. Lewis – The Screwtape Letters
– J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
– Zoe Heller – What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal]
– C.A. Higgins – Lightless

The E-mu Morpheus Review, 20 Years Later


I remember when the Morpheus came out, I read the descriptions and thought it sounded fascinating, though a bit of fiddling with one in a store was completely underwhelming. Since then I’ve occasionally wondered:

  • How does the Morpheus really sound?
  • Can it do things no other synth can do?
  • Do later “Z-plane” synths carry on its essence?
  • Is it worth having one today?

Luckily, I got to borrow one for a few weeks, enough to get some decent answers, though I don’t claim to be a Morpheus expert. Here are my basic observations, which I’ll go into in more detail below.

  • It may have the worst presets ever created. They are almost uniformly muddy, cheezy, boring, and/or unrepresentative. They provide essentially no information about the sound of the synth.
  • The annoying button-mashing edit UI isn’t really that bad. Sure, it’s not great, but it’s at least linear and the synth is not that complex. If you otherwise like the Morpheus, the UI isn’t really going to hold you back.
  • For such a sophisticated, nerdy synth, it’s surprisingly limited. The set of things you can modulate, particularly in real time, is limited. The handles you have for tweaking the wondrous 14-pole, Z-cube filters are disappointingly few.
  • There are truly some interesting options among the 197 filters, though more than half I don’t see ever using, a number of the rest I’d use only rarely.
  • I honestly don’t think anyone, even E-mu, has really created filters like this before or since. You could try to recreate them in a virtual modular, but it will
    get very complicated.

If you want the spoiler: in my opinion, while the Morpheus has some interesting, unique capabilities, enough to inspire some serious sound design, it’s too frustrating overall due to its limitations. If E-mu had updated the Morpheus (Morpheus-2000!) with more power and flexibility, it could have been an amazing synth, a true classic. I doubt I’ll ever get one of my own (unless I find a real bargain), but I’m already taking inspiration from its filters into virtual modular designs. Now on to the details.


First, let’s get right to a demo. This is a very basic patch that runs a sawtooth through a sampling of the filter types available. I’m tweaking knobs mapped to the three main filter parameters: morph, frequency tracking, and transform2. On a few of the patches, I’m also modulating the morph position with a short decay envelope and/or a random note-on S&H. Each filter goes for 16 measures (30-35 seconds).


The Morpheus has a fairly typical rompler architecture: each patch is composed of two parts (“primary” and “secondary”; most romplers seem to go with four), each consisting of a sample oscillator, a filter, and an amp, modulated by envelopes and LFOs. In most romplers, these parts are almost completely separate, but in the Morpheus they’re a little more integrated, sharing LFOs and aux envelope (independent amp envelopes) and a single modulation matrix. The Morpheus also offers two “function generators” per patch, essentially an 8-stage envelope, with some crazy extras. One caveat: the LFOs seem to always retrigger at note-on, ruling out slow sweeping filters on fast arpeggiated synth lines. Furthermore, they don’t seem to do the “random value at note on” trick properly either. Aside from the standards, there are four MIDI CC sources available, set globally. Many modulation destinations can be for the primary part, the secondary part, or both. There are plenty of modulation slots, but the matrix is somewhat limited in that some destinations (particularly filter params) can’t be modulated in real time, only at note on. I generally like E-mu’s realtime/note-on distinction, because it makes it very easy to do some nice per-note effects, but of course I want more real-time options. The Morpheus is mostly comparable to romplers of the time, though a little less complex simply in number of layers and programmable parameters.


The samples are pretty good. For non-romplery synthesis, there’s a decent collection of basic waveforms and synth waves. Given the existence of the UltraProteus, I think they could have just tossed most of the real instrument samples and put more synth waves in, but it’s fine. The Morpheus does offer a few wave options you don’t often see: you can turn looping on or off, reverse the wave, and offset the sample start (though you can’t modulate it). You can also “double + detune” each part, which I assume plays a second copy of the same wave, detuned (halving the polyphony), which is handy.


But of course we’re here for the filters. The basic idea is that, with its 14-pole filter dealie, the Morpheus can offer all kind of filters from simple 1/2/4-pole low/high/band-pass filters through flangers, comb filters, and EQs to complex networks of bandpass filters tuned to formant frequencies. Furthermore, the Morpheus can morph seamlessly between these different filter types. The most Morpheusy of the filters involves a “cube” where three dimensions of modulation can morph among the 8 filters at the “corners” of the “cube”. In theory, this is pretty great, but in practice the Morpheus doesn’t give you control over all of this. Each of its 197 filter settings is an assignment of various filter types to the corners of that cube, and all you control is those three morph dimensions (called, confusingly, “morph”, “frequency tracking”, and “transform 2”). That is, if you’re morphing between a low-pass filter and a high-pass filter, you don’t get independent control over the frequency, resonance, or slope of each of those filters, just the morph position between them. Typically, in a setup like this, the second dimension might control cutoff frequency while the third controls resonance; but not necessarily. Many of the 197 don’t use all of these dimensions — some of the 8 corners are identical – and in many more the corners are fairly similar so that one or two of those dimensions don’t change that much.

The final blow is that only one of these dimensions (“morph”) can be modulated in real time; the other two are note-on only. This means that you can’t, say, hold down a note and turn knobs to morph that sustained note all over the place, which pretty much kills the “I’m going to make an ambient track with one finger like on the Wavestation” vibe. In fact, you get the most satisfaction out of sending the thing a rapid arpeggio run, where you can tweak all three filter dimensions at note-on with knobs to get some nicely varying sounds (though you can’t do slow LFO sweeps). My assumption is that by the time they implemented these insane filters they had no processing power left over to compute realtime modulation, which is why a modern revival of the Morpheus could be so great. Too bad E-mu is no longer around.


Again, don’t even pay attention to the presets. Many of them are kind of weak and muddy-sounding, which does the Morpheus a disservice. Depending on the wave and filter settings, the Morpheus can sound quite strong and full, though of course many of its more distinctive sounds are weird vowel-like or strangely filtered sounds that you wouldn’t use for techno-bass or anything. It should fit nicely in a mix. However beware: some of the filters vary wildly across their parameter range and you can blow a speaker. Many of the especially peaky filters have a sweet spot where just the right combination of settings causes an explosion. It’s fun in practice but can be a pain if you’re trying to do some musical modulation.


To me, the main question about the Morpheus today is: does it do something I want that nothing else can do? Surprisingly, no one in this era of cheap digital processing power seems to have really copied the Morpheus’s raw filter capabilities. The closest hardware is E’mu’s Proteus-2000 synth and Ultra sampler families, which both include a limited set of Z-plane filters and limited or no morphing (the manuals are unclear, and I haven’t had a chance to demo either recently). E-mu’s X3 or other software seems to have advanced filters, but it’s all seemingly obsolete and hard to buy (or authorize). The only other option is really to assemble your own morphing filters using modular or virtual modular synths. While it’s not too hard to build a nice morphing filter in something like MAX, copying the full morphing topology is a pretty big project; I intend to give it a try but don’t know if I’ll succeed (or, if I do, whether it will sound good or be very usable). Granted, just because nothing reproduces the full Z-plane morphing filters of the Morpheus doesn’t mean that you can’t get pretty close; I suspect that the Proteus-2000 (or other modern synths with lots and lots of filter options) can get most of the way there for most people. But still, the Morpheus (and its sibling the Ultraproteus) is apparently still unique.

For me, even having the Morpheus for a short time, I got frustrated with my inability to modulate it the way I wanted. If I owned one, I can imagine it occasionally showing up for some interesting filter effect, but not being something I would turn to most of the time, which doesn’t seem to make it worth the prices they usually command. The concept though is inspiring — aside from wanting to revisit the Proteus-2000 or Ultra, I’ve been working on some Morpheus-inspired filter ideas in MAX and hope to eventually create my own Morpheus homage.

Favorite Filters

With 197 different filter types and several dimensions of variation, just dialing up a good sound can be daunting on the Morpheus. One of the first things I did when I got my hands on one was set up knobs mapped to morph, frequency tracking, and transform2 and work my way through all the filters, noting down the ones that I liked and thought I might use. Here they are, organized loosely by type. This is, obviously, totally subjective.

F044 BrickWalLP.4
F045 BrickWal LP2
F046 MdQ 2PoleLP
F047 HiQ 2PoleLP
F048 MdQ 4PoleLP
F049 HiQ 4PoleLP
F050 2poleLoQLP4
F051 4 PoleLoQ.4
F052 4PoleMidQ.4
F054 LowPassPlus
F060 HighAccent.4
F061 HiPassSweep.4
F069 VarSlope.4
F077 PZ Notch
F078 Band-aid
F079 LowQHiQ
F098 EZ Rhodez4
F136 V>FcQuad.4
F142 Comb/HP.4
F144 Cavatate.4
F145 GentleRZ4
F161 HiEndQ.4
F167 SynthWow4
F170 MdlySweep4
F186 MellowPeaks
F189 MildQPole

F004 CubeFlanger
F006 Flange 4.4
F007 Flange 5
F011 BriteFlnge.4
F012 Flng>Flng1
F013 O>Flng2
F016 Flng>Flng5
F157 Intervallc4

F022 AEParaVowel
F025 AUParaVow.4
F029 Vocal Cube
F030 C1-6 Harms4
F035 Ee-Yi.4
F036 Ii-Yi.4
F041 YahYahs.4
F042 YoYo.4
F043 VowelSpace

F065 Rev Peaks
F066 Notcher 2.4
F068 Odd>+
F081 WaWa
F090 LoVelTrum
F092 ShakuFilter
F100 MoogVocSwp
F122 1.5/3KNBPR4
F143 Swirly
F149 Lo/High4
F168 CntrySweep4
F171 StrongShimr
F190 Bonk>CO
F193 Separator

F073 BassDrumEQ
F074 Snare LPEQ2
F075 HiHatLPEQ

F084 0>Muter
F088 BrassSwell
F155 HighsTwist4
F175 Harmo
F181 0>Odds
F182 Comb Voices
F184 OddHrm+rez
F185 EvnHrm+rez
F187 AHmBnd.4

F101 StrngThing4
F102 StrSweep.4

F196 ApDistB6.4

Three-branch chandelier


Compared to the original Adelman chandelier, this one is flatter and doesn’t hang as far, better for a smaller room with a lower ceiling.

Main body:
– (1) BOLG3 Large cluster body
– (1) SV140 Adjustable swivel
– (2) BOT2 Tapered brass cluster body
– (1) PIBR06-0X8 6″ pipe
– (1) PIBR05-0X8 5″ pipe
– (3) PIBR04-0X8 4″ pipe
– (1) PIBR03-0X8 3″ pipe
– (2) PIBR02-0X8 2″ pipe
– (1) RE1/8FX1/4MS Reducer with shoulder
– Plenty of black and white wire (say, 10 feet each)

For the five fixtures:
– (5) SR0-3/8 Slip ring
– (5) CU578 Cup w/ 1/8″ hole
– (5) SO10045 Porcelain socket
– (3) BUEG16C40 Globe Edison clear bulb
– (2) BUET10C40 Tubular Edison clear bulb

For the canopy and hanging:
– (1) NE449NP Straight coupling
– (1) NI0-1/2X1/8 Steel nipple
– (1) CA34 or CA04 Black canopy

Nora’s Best of 2014

We listen to a lot of music with Nora, and every year I keep a running playlist of whatever she’s currently listening to and compile and save it at the end of the year. This year, for the first time, Nora actually made her own “best of” list with my help. Here it is! If you see some overlap with my list, well, we listen to a lot of music together. The influence goes both ways; how do you think I ended up with “Happy” and “Everything Is AWESOME!!!” on my list?

– Erasure – Blue Savannah
– Falco – Der Kommissar
– Pharrell Williams – Happy
– Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody
– New Order – Love Vigilantes
– A Tribe Called Quest – Ham ‘N’ Eggs
– The Cardigans – Lovefool
– Yaz – Situation
– Del the Funky Homosapien – Mistadobolina
– Phil Collins – In The Air Tonight
– New Order – Ultraviolence
– The Chemical Brothers – Swoon
– Erasure – Brother and Sister
– Eagles – Hotel California
– Tegan and Sara – Everything Is AWESOME!!! (feat. The Lonely Island)