Hello Shnth: A Timbered Enigma in the World of Synthesizers

Modular Synthesis and Computer Music Encapsulated

Eldar Tagi · 06/09/23

When asked to envision a modular synthesizer, for many the likely image to surface is a substantial, expansive case filled with a constellation of knobs, patch points, and a tangled web of cables. While this picture accurately represents the traditional form of modular synthesizers, both historically and in the present day, there exists an emerging category of instruments—compact devices that encapsulate an entire virtual modular ecosystem within a sleek, portable form factor.

A sampling of sonic oddities from the Shbobo Shnth

This concept first gained traction with the release of Clavia's groundbreaking Nord Modular in the early 1990s, and since then, various manufacturers have ventured into designing such instruments. Over the past decade, fueled by the growing fascination with Eurorack modular synthesizers and advancements in microcontroller and DSP technology, an array of hardware-based virtual modular instruments have emerged, including devices such as Monome Norns, Orthogonal Devices ER-301, Empress Effects ZOIA and Euroburo, Poly Effects Beebo and Hector, and so on.

The subject of our discussion today belongs to this lineage of virtual modular hardware, yet stands out from its peers in numerous ways. Introducing the Shnth—a whimsical, palm-sized digital modular synthesizer crafted by the innovative designer Peter Blasser. In this article, we will delve into the fascinating world of the Shnth, exploring what sets it apart from other instruments in its class and why it remains unparalleled even among its contemporaries. Furthermore, we will examine Peter Blasser's distinct approach to synthesizer design and how it is embodied within Shnth's framework.

First Things First...Who is Peter Blasser?

While your visit to our website indicates a likely familiarity with Peter Blasser's work, for those who are less acquainted, it seems fitting to commence with an introduction to this innovative instrument designer and his broader body of work. One's first interaction with his enigmatic wooden electronic musical instruments will undoubtedly pique your curiosity, perhaps challenging your preconceived notions about synthesizers. Even after "mastering" one of his instruments, the aura of intrigue remains. So, who exactly is Peter Blasser, and why is his approach to instrument design so significant?

[Above: Peter Blasser, from a 2015 article on Wesleyan's blog.]

Blasser embarked on his foray into instrument creation in the early 2000s, while studying at Oberlin College. His scholarly pursuits were diverse, extending from Chinese and antiquity studies to music technology and computer science. Rather than confining himself to one domain, Blasser ingeniously amalgamated these disparate interests to carve out a singular career path, adeptly coupling the roles of an artist and an inventor. He also alludes to his occupation using an inventive term of his own creation, synthesynthesist—one who synthesizes synthesizers.

To truly appreciate the breadth of Blasser's inventive spirit, I recommend poring over his blog. This digital canvas brims with his creative musings, featuring a vibrant medley of ideas, sketches, concepts, photographs, and a host of other unconventional expressions that Peter employs to chronicle his instrument creation journey. The blog posts serve not only as an enlightening resource but also offer an engaging read, often punctuated with humor—an element that adds a refreshing touch to the common discourse on synthesizers, art, and music.

This interdisciplinary perspective lies at the heart of Blasser's approach and is vividly reflected in both the philosophical underpinnings and practical design of his instruments. Consider, for example, one of his most renowned creations—the Plumbutter. Blasser describes the Plumbutter as a "drum and drama" machine. It hosts an array of unique modules that collectively are capable of producing rhythms, textures, noises, and drones. However, this is far from any electronic percussion instrument you've encountered before. Its functionality is deeply entwined with layers of symbolic meaning, offering a fresh perspective on music and technology.

[Above: Ciat-Lonbarde Plumbutter 2, followed by two illustrations from the story of Plumbutter's conception on the Ciat-Lonbarde website.]

At its core, Plumbutter incorporates an androgynous pulse circuitry—a series of nodes that simultaneously serve as inputs and outputs. When interacting, these nodes create intricate, complex rhythmic structures. But this design isn't merely a novelty. Blasser leverages it as a functional commentary on gender stereotypes prevalent in music technology. Furthermore, there seems to be a personal layer as the instrument's layout narrates the relationships between Cleveland and Baltimore—an area Peter used to live and work in—contrasting industrial urban environments, suburbia, and the surrounding forest. Blasser's classical studies also influence the instrument's design; the modules' layout employs boustrophedon—an Ancient Greek writing style that reverses the direction of writing and letters with each new line. This unconventional approach is initially disorienting, but once acclimated, it prompts users to approach the instrument with a spirit of exploration.

The Plumbutter serves as a singular example, but it embodies the depth and nuance of Blasser's design philosophy. While Peter is widely recognized for his work under the brand name Ciat-Lonbarde, his inventive prowess extends to a myriad of other synth-making ventures—each distinct and innovative in its own right.

Welcome to the Synth Mall!

In the early 2000s, Peter made a drawing called At the Mall, which imagined a kind of shopping center filled with synthesizer boutiques, each with a unique name, and eventually a distinct design philosophy. Over time, Blasser brought many of these imaginative enterprises to life, crafting a plethora of instruments under each brand's unique ethos. This creative endeavor spawned a network of individual websites, culminating in the creation of a central online sales hub, synthmall.com (now defunct).

For the longest time, Blasser was building each instrument out of the backyard woodshed, but things changed a couple of years ago when he received an opportunity to expand his practice by collaborating with Berlin/Lisboa banana-format synth store/manufacturing outlet Patch Point. With an expanded number of CNC machines, and a good amount of helping hands the volume of instrument production increased, and as a big bonus this allowed Blasser to have more focus on research, design, and development. With Patch Point acting as the primary physical and online home (and now, international distributor) for Blasser's inventive creations, the original synthmall website was taken offline. Nevertheless, despite the relocation and change of the business structure, all of Peter's brands remain intact, so let's introduce them:

Ciat-Lonbarde emerged as the flagship outlet, encapsulating decades of Blasser’s explorations, research, and musings on the nature of analog synthesizers. Renowned instruments such as Plumbutter, Cocoquantus, Sidrax, Deerhorn, and the new Peterlin were born within its orbit. (Each of these peculiar creations is pictured above.)

Shbobo, co-founded by Blasser and Steve Korn, began as an experiment to explore whether analog circuitry from Ciat-Lonbarde could be translated into a digital format. The endeavor resulted in the creation of Shnth, a programmable touch synth, which is the focal point of this article. Later, the Shbobo line expanded to include Shtar—an enigmatic 17-EDO string instrument inspired by the Persian tar, boasting the same level of programmability as Shnth and an added analog ring modulator. (Both Shnth and Shtar are pictured above.)

Ieaskul F. Mobenthey represents Blasser’s platform for developing Eurorack-format modules. The distinctive swamp-green panels with embedded cutouts of Ieaskul modules stand out in any setup. The series, unified by the theme of chaos, is ideal for exploratory sound expeditions and includes several expressive gesture controllers such as Mocante, Mr. Grassi, and Barre controller. (A selection of IFM modules—specifically, the Swoop, Sprott, and Dunst—are pictured above.)

Tocante is a series of compact touch synthesizers that primarily investigate the relationship between sound and solar energy. These solar-powered instruments are perfect companions for outdoor adventures, with each instrument producing unique sounds and tuning derived from matching various capacitor values. (A variety of Tocante instruments are pictured above.)

The Din Datin Dudero Stuber, an oval synthesizer by Peter Blasser of Ciat-Lonbarde.

Din Datin Dudero (DDD) is a series of oval-shaped instruments inspired by the way Peter's toddler interacted with the knobs on a home stereo. Central to each instrument are two large wooden control knobs, flanked by a dazzling array of unlabeled banana patch points (or touch studs) that promote explorative engagement. Without explicit information about the patch points' functions, users are encouraged to experiment and uncover the correlation between their actions and resultant sound alterations. (The Din Datin Dudero Stuber is pictured above.)

While each of Blasser's brands is distinct and comprehensive, different lines of instruments are imbued with cross-references to his ideas and design philosophies. For instance, among Shnth’s opcodes, you will discover emulations of Plumbutter’s Gong and AV Dog modules, as well as Iaskul F. Mobenthey’s Swoop and Fourses.

Blasser’s instruments also commonly offer an intuitive and expressive means to journey from simplistic primitive tones to complex, chaotic textures. Chaos theory, as a common thread, intricately weaves itself through Blasser's body of work, mirroring the influence of Rob Hordijk's designs on his personal inspiration. Touch and manual interaction are paramount. Furthermore, Blasser places significant emphasis on using alternative materials and promoting unusual ways of synth production. By incorporating locally-sourced wood for the instruments' bodies and focusing on solar technology, Peter clearly demonstrates an inclination towards sustainability in electronics manufacturing.

Shnth—Where Sound and Gestures Unite

The Ciat-Lonbarde Shbobo Shnth, a digital modular synthesizer designed by Peter Blasser.

Let us now journey into the mysterious world of the Shnth. As we've already established, Shnth is a programmable digital synthesizer, embodying an expressive touch interface and a powerful 16-bit microcomputer that can be reprogrammed using Blasser's distinctively esoteric shLISP language. The device houses a rechargeable NiMH battery, enabling it to operate independently of a computer once the patch is loaded. On a full charge, the battery boasts an impressive duration of several hours.

The Shnth's interface features four wooden touch bars (similar to those on the Sidrax and Tetrax organs), eight buttons, two woven antennas at the back, a built-in microphone, stereo line in and out ports, and an array of status LEDs. Also, at the top-center of the instrument is the red tar button, which has a special purpose in the architecture of the instrument, and can be used for switching patches, or resetting the device if it gets stuck on the upload (I'll talk more about this in a later section of this article). Each interface element can be independently and creatively configured to serve a unique purpose. For instance, a single touch bar can be used to dynamically control an oscillator's volume, while one button steps through pitch sequences and another randomizes waveshaper values. With nearly 90% of the interface still available, the possibilities are immense. Moreover, the Shnth is recognized as an HID (human interface device) by computers, allowing all its interface elements to control software simultaneously (the accompanying files include application examples for Max/MSP and SuperCollider).

What sets Shnth apart from its peers is its exceptional emphasis on interaction and performability. While many comparable devices prioritize software features, such as high-resolution virtual synth modules and effects, and delegate controller solutions to the user through MIDI and CV ports, Shnth boldly tackles the difficult problem of computer music—performability. Eschewing screens and menus, the instrument makes every aspect interactive and immersive. From its design to its functionality, Shnth manifests itself as an instrument that fosters the musician's creativity and expression.

Programming Shnth: The "Hard" Way

Shnth and Shtar, alike, can be programmed in a couple of different ways. At its core, the language utilized to transcribe artistic intentions into these instruments is shLISP. This language, conceived by Blasser, mirrors the structure of the physical universe in symbolic form, akin to how complex matter decomposes into atomic and subatomic components. shLISP allows you to generate dynamic sonic expressions by intricately nesting functions within its structure. Despite its syntax mirroring LISP's parenthesized prefix notation, shLISP shares stronger ties with CSound and SuperCollider, as it's inherently about sound synthesis, performance, and composition.

Composite patches or presets created in shLISP are dubbed situation vectors, and encased in curly brackets "{ }". Within these "situations," you work with m-expressions—encased in square brackets “[ ]”—corresponding to musical opcodes, and s-expressions—nestled within round parentheses "( )"—forming functional declarations of how sound's parameters are modified. The m-expressions could represent a triangle wave, for example, while the s-expressions specify its modification, such as waveshaping or scaling. Importantly, Shnth and Shtar allow only a finite number of m-expressions per situation, but do not impose limits on the usage of s-expressions. Surmounting the situation vector is the soup layer. Serving as a meta-patch loaded onto the Shnth/Shtar, a soup enables you to seamlessly transition between multiple situations, by stepping or even sweeping through them, thereby offering an elevated level of creative flexibility.

The 32-bit arm cortex processor employed in Shbobo instruments works in conjunction with a 16-bit signal patching system. Each bytecode, an instruction you key into the program, is an 8-bit "char," which could be either signed or unsigned, depending on the context, ranging from 0 to 255 or -128 to 127 respectively. However, an s-expression called short enables you to set fine values, achieving 16-bit resolution within the instrument. This is a deliberate software-hardware interplay, designed with Just Intonation tuning applications in mind. Many opcodes, such as waveforms horn and saw, feature a numerator and a denominator for setting the frequency, allowing you to specify pitch in simple ratios, with tools available for deviation from JI.

Alright. Let's look at some examples. Here is a very basic piece of shLISP code: { ( [left] ([horn] 22 66) ) }. [horn] is a triangle wave oscillator, and [left] represents the left channel DAC on the instrument. As you may expect, uploading this snippet of code to Shnth will result in a steady tone from one of the speakers. Not so complicated, right?

( [srate] (arab ( [corp] 200 20) ) )

( [left]
( [water] (square ( [saw] 1 80) 8) 1 ( [scale ( [smoke] 72 72 ) ) )
( [string] (minor) ( [sawb] 40 120 ) 80 ) )

( [right]
( [waterb] (square ( [sawc] 1 82 ) 7) 1 ( [scaleb ( [smokeb] 72 72 ) ) )
( [string] (major) ( [sawd] 40 100 ) 120 ) )

Shnth sound produced from the shLISP example above.

What is happening here? Let's start at the top. First, we establish the global sampling rate of the patch via the [srate] m-expression. However, we don't set a fixed sampling rate but make it a dynamic element of the patch—we dedicate one of the [corp] antennas to modulate the parameter. Next, we fill the left channel with a couple of s-expressions. One features an opcode called [water], which is a pingable resonant filter. Here it is continuously pinged by a square wave oscillator (a blend of [saw] and (square)), and the pitch is modified via a random melody quantized to 17-EDO (a blend of [smoke] and [scale]). Following the resonant filter, we have a Karplus-Strong opcode [string] with frequency modulated by a sawtooth wave set to be triggered by the lower-left button on Shnth. This is effectively the gist of this patch. The right channel features nearly identical content, albeit with some alterations in values to intensify the stereo effect. This is a relatively simple patch, with most of the instrument's interface elements not even activated, however, as you can hopefully hear in the example it already offers a glimpse of the wild character of this instrument.

If you feel overwhelmed by the technicality or the swarming brackets and parentheses, worry not! This paragraph serves merely as an introduction to the shLISP language's underlying structure. Even if shLISP isn't explicitly visible, it's always involved in your interaction with Shnth. For those interested in diving deeper into the language, please refer to this document. As for us, it's time to transition to the graphical interface version of the language.

Programming Shnth: The "Easier" Way

If the textual complexity of shLISP doesn't appeal to you, Peter Blasser has crafted an alternate visual language for programming Shnth/Shtar—enter the vibrant realms of Fish and Jish. Besides delighting the eyes with dynamically randomized color palettes, these programs empower you to structure your patches with much less mental strain, deploying expressions via simple drag-and-drop actions and bypassing any potential syntax frustrations associated with brackets and parentheses. Here's how the above shLISP example would look when programmed in Fish:

Our example patch for the Ciat-Lonbarde Shbobo Shnth in the Fish language.

Fish and Jish are parallel applications with no substantial functional differences. Fish, now in its second version, is the original interface developed by Blasser, built upon the JUCE framework, popular among audio plugin developers. Jish is the newer iteration, completely rebuilt using Java. While there are minor usability nuances associated with each program, they perform exactly the same function. However, Jish seems to be the one that will continue to see active development and it boasts strong stability, evidenced by its crash-free performance.

In line with Blasser’s penchant for symbolism and metaphor, the expressions are not specified via conventional descriptions like "triangle wave," "envelope," or "sequencer," but rather bear intriguingly poetic tags like "horn," "swoop," or "ladder." While this might initially seem disorienting, rest assured that familiarity rapidly takes root, especially with ample examples included with the instrument. Plus, in Fish, hovering your mouse over an expression will reveal a brief description of its function, and in Jish the descriptions are provided at all times in the expressions library window. Embrace the underlying logic, and you'll soon appreciate the intuitive programming experience and perhaps even admire Blasser’s unconventional nomenclature. The choice to sidestep technical jargon fosters a refreshingly distinct cognitive approach towards synth interaction, a choice made to inspire, not to confuse.

At this point in the article, you might be wondering about the types of expressions available—what are the building blocks for making sound and music with Shnth? Well, at present there are over sixty different expressions, broadly categorizable into three distinct groups: ops—opcodes responsible for actual sound processing and production, like oscillators, filters, and envelopes, nuts—expressions that occupy a role of essential utilities, such as DACs, VCAs, offsets, waveshapers, and global sample rate, and finally butts—this actually stands for buttons, although it encompasses all of the gestural interface elements of the instruments. As I have mentioned earlier, the beauty and uniqueness of shLISP lie in the blurred boundaries between these categories, fostering a playground for hacking and experimental exploration. For instance, an expression like [srate], generally employed to set the patch's sampling rate, can be ingeniously manipulated and made part of your sound when placed inside one of the DACs.

Where to Start

Ready to give Shnth a try, but unsure where to begin? Right out of the box, the instrument is essentially a blank canvas, waiting for your first patch upload to bring it to life. So, how do you go about this? A few years ago, Peter made the Shbobo code open source, now available on GitHub. Visit the page and download the "shbobo-main" zip file—it houses everything you'll need. Additionally, the GitHub page itself offers comprehensive instructions and helpful suggestions, such as how to install Java on your computer, should it be necessary.

The most straightforward way to dip your toes into the world of Shnth is by uploading one of the included examples using either Fish or Jish. Launch your chosen program, navigate to the "examp" folder from the file menu, and open a patch. I chose a patch called "neilYOUNG":

The neilYOUNG example patch for Ciat-Lonbarde Shbobo Shnth in the Fish language.

Now, it's time to "serve" it to your Shnth. Connect the instrument to your computer via USB, then either select "Serve" from the Shbobo menu in the header, or simply double-click in the vacant patching area. Now, you're ready to explore the sonic capabilities of your Shnth. Enjoy!

Additionally, you'll find a few other applications bundled along with Jish, Fish, and Shlisp. These include JustInts, JustIntstoo, and Mickey—fun tools worth experimenting with. Give them a try!

Finally, when experimenting with Shnth you need to know about the orange mode. It may happen that you upload an erroneous piece of code, and the instrument will get stuck and not emit any sound. This is normal, and all you need to do is to reset it by entering the aforementioned mode. The GitHub page has the instructions for that.

A Hardware Virtual Modular System...or Computer Music Encapsulated?

Additional sounds from Shbobo instruments; the first example featuring Shnth, and the other two with Shtar, a Shnth engine married to a string instrument.

In closing, I would like to accentuate the distinctiveness of Shnth, even in contrast to the multitude of virtual modular instruments now prevalent in the musical landscape. Rather than conforming to the trend of high audio fidelity, Shnth, empowered by shLISP, opts for singularity and character. It surpasses being a mere digital modular system, standing instead as an authentic instrument with a unique sound, and a characteristic gestural interface. Shnth intricately interweaves sound and gesture, fostering a unique relationship between the two.

Drawing inspiration from time-honored computer music practices, it's safe to assert that Shnth gives a nod of respect to the history of electronic music while transcending traditional boundaries, thus spurring a radically fresh perspective on sound synthesis. Its strength resides not solely in its technical features but also in its capacity to stimulate, captivate, and exhilarate.

Without question, Shnth is a device that both demands and rewards curiosity. Engage with this instrument with an open mind, and a readiness to venture into the unanticipated. In return, this compact powerhouse will persistently serve as a wellspring of expressive, boundless inspiration.