Like many of you, I've found myself venturing out of the Max-bounded world and returning to the place I first began: analog synthesis. Like Max itself, that landscape has, over time, undergone "a sea-change into something rich and strange," to quote a little Shakespeare. It's no longer about simple oscillators, filters, ADSRs, and VCAs. As the things I've written for Cycling '74 over the years will suggest, I'm interested in ways to generate and organize variety, so it's probably no surprise that I happened upon the work of the Chinese Eurorack and instrument designer Meng Qi. What struck me most strongly about his work was the way that he explored the transitions between control and randomness — both in terms of algorithm, but also interface design. Then, one day, in the midst of hunting for something else entirely, I stumbled across a Max for Live device he'd made. "Wow. This guy's a Max user, too...." I thought. So I went full fanboy and dropped him a line, and our correspondence started.
Meng has recently released a lovely new little hardware resonator - the Wingie2 - (that resembles the Max patch that first caught my attention, by the way), and he was kind enough to sit down for a brief chat about who he is, what he cares about, and how he goes about his work.
Hello, Meng. Thanks very much for the opportunity to chat. I'll start at the beginning: How did you get started?
I started by making simple circuits online. The first circuit I ever built was an Atari Punk Console, and I made a small frequency modulation modification to it. It succeeded, and that gave me a lot of confidence in my first attempt.
Were you a musician before you became a designer of instruments?
I was a musician before I became a designer of instruments, and one of the reasons I started designing instruments is that I was not fully satisfied with the instruments out there.
Where or how did you learn your craft? In short, how did you get here?
I learned my craft from online resources, articles, circuits, videos, etc., and — more importantly — through trial and error, as well as experiences in music playing and listening.
Here's my "fanboy moment:" I confess that I’m still waiting for the next build of Wing Pingers and waiting for my Wingie2 to arrive in the post.
Thank you so much for your interest in my instruments!
You're welcome. I was wondering where the inspiration for both of those machines came from, and how you fleshed out the original idea/concept to create the versatile and creative instruments they became....
Some instruments are built for meeting the needs or answering the questions of musicians. But I am way more interested in raising questions than in answering them - what would you do with the instrument? And what kind of musical expressions will a new human-machine relationship yield?
Let's start with the Wing Pinger. Where did the idea for the instrument come from initially?
Rob Hordijk's Blippoo Box is an elegant example of standalone synth that raises those questions — it's almost an entirely atonal instrument. I wondered what it would be like if tonal elements could be brought into the mix. As humans, we are very sensitive to melodies and the subtle colors of harmonies... they are major paths of human musical expressions. Wing Pinger started from that point, and it emerged over the course of many revisions before it assumed its current form.
My goal of designing Wing Pinger is to fill the musicians' palettes with the ability to travel between tonal and atonal sounds with speed. It's always an experiment, and one which is still ongoing. New ideas emerge from the older ones — it has kept developing as my understanding and experiences grows.
I also love to collaborate with other synth designers. At the moment, I am collaborating with Trent Gil of Whimsicalraps on a standalone instrument — he is a very ingenious synth designer.
Did you see the connections between the parameters in the User Interface of the Wing Pinger and the Wingies right away, or did you arrive at them by experimentation?
Both ways, but more from the experimentation. I found it interesting that reality can differ a lot from expectations. For musical instrument design, you have to play it to know what it feels like. The placement of controls, or the knob sizes and even rotation resistance can make big difference in how they are played.
No instrument is complete with a dedicated interface for the sound engine, it's the link between the sound engine and human. With the three elements we make a triangular feedback loop.
The Wingies are such perfectly sized and versatile tools. Was their form factor a reaction to the Wing Pinger?
That's a great question. I created Wing Pinger to allow the mix of tonal and atonal sounds along the axis of time. The next step will be making tonal and atonal sounds that happen simultaneously and mixing them on the axis of their spectra.
One of the differences between the Wing Pinger and the Wingie is that the former is analog and the latter is digital. How did you prototype the Wing Pinger as you began work on it? It seems like the interface must have required quite a bit of experimentation for the circuitry itself as well as the interface in order to create an instrument that swings between order and chaos with such ease.
You have a point. In fact, the circuit design of Wing Pinger went fairly fast. But months were spent on tweaking the controls.
The first prototype of Wing Pinger is on the breadboard. Some parts are salvaged from damages by scratching before the photo below was taken.
The potentiometer I wound up using has a large idle travel at both ends. I take advantage of that by using the minimum range for the tonal behavior. It's very easy to turn a potentiometer to both of its ends, and the large idle travel allows for minor small changes made on knobs as offering the possibility for lucky errors.
The Wingie2 came from an experiment of putting a resonator in the feedback loop of the Wing Pinger. The first step was that I built a Max4Live plugin for this task.
Click here to download the Wing Pinger Resonator Max for Live device It works wonderfully as the Wing Pinger excites the resonator. The Max4Live plugin also emphasizes / damps certain frequency ranges to "select" the harmonics to make the resonator interesting. And it provides generative modulations that result in a dynamic sound.
All of these result in a mix of tonal and atonal sounds with a controllable character and a controllable amount of chaos. I built a DSP resonator into the Wing Pinger to try this out - the Wing Pinger DR, and there is also an unfinished experimental unit which uses an acoustic tongue drum shaped resonator, as well - the Wing Pinger AR:
Those are really interesting ideas in terms of extending the Wing Pinger — for one thing, I'll bet that the interface and interconnections will be an interesting challenge. Will this appear on the next builds of the Wing Pinger, or is this something very much in its early stages?
Those two Wing Pingers are merely experiments — the DSP portion of them evolved to become the Wingie & Wingie2. In its first version, I'd put two identical stereo outputs for the purpose of easily creating feedback loops. In the second version, I've replaced one output with a MIDI input. It pairs really well with the MIDI functions on the Wing Pinger.
Now, the collaborative standalone instrument collaboration with Whimsicalraps is my next major project....
When I look at the Eurorack modules you’ve designed, most of them seem like interesting solutions to problems that we have either faced, or will come up against in the near future. So I’m curious about how you became a module maker. Were your first designs “personal” solutions to musical/audio problems?
There is a major difference in the mind state needed to design standalone instruments and synth modules. I would say that the former would need "designed gestures" and the latter requires "openness".
I consider work created using modular synths, Max, Pd, and so as a sort of half instrument, with the players completing the other half and designing the playing gestures themselves.
Most of my eurorack designs are tools and utilities that I needed in my modular setup. Now I don't have a giant system anymore so I discontinued most of them. Only those that sell well have remained in production.
In the case of more idiosyncratic modules such as the Karp (great name, by the way) or Hand or Lines or the Voltage Memory or Arcade Manifold, it seems like those designs are solutions to more complex problems – ways to generate and organize variety. How do those devices fit into your musical practice?
It's great that you bring those out — they are my more "creative" modules.
The first Eurorack module (also the first eurorack module design from China) Voltage Memory came from my attempt to make Ciat-Lonbade Plumbutter more melodic.
Wow. I didn't see that one coming, but it fits so well with what you've said about work between order/melody and chaos. Was the device originally thought of as something you'd add on to the Plumbutter, or was it a case where you took the parts of the idea that you found compelling and then worked from first principles with your desires in mind?
Your second description is closer to the truth. I've been playing with a lot of Ciat-Lonbarde and other chaotic instruments. I've had enough chaos, but not much control. I'll put it this way: The thing I am looking for has always been the balance.
The Karp came from a happy accident — a piece of imperfect code that generated beautiful sounds. Later, I collaborated with Detroit Underground to issue a special version of it: the DU-KRPLS.
The Hand module is something I created when I had a full IFM modular system. With Hand I would like to bring the familiar bar control of Sidrassi together with an additional feature - looping.
Lines comes from an idea called "gestural patching". I try to convert the logical, conscious, and slow patching process into muscle-memory based and spontaneous real-time playing.
There are some other designs based on this idea. Including the Magnet Patchbay you see above. The Arcade Manifold was built during the time I played with synth pedals to create noise music. It can be used as a multichannel a momentary on / mute switch and a passive mixer, so it's quite versatile.
But back to an answer to your original question: They were made to meet my personal needs or had their origins in happy accidents or new ideas. Now as my musical goals changed, I stopped production on most of them.
I’ve followed your development of Eurorack modules and instruments such as the Wing Pinger and the Wingie, but I was interested to discover that you’d also developed a Max for Live device that was meant to complement your instruments, as well. So obviously, I’m curious about your engagement with Max/MSP. How did you encounter it? Did you teach yourself, or was there a community of users in China?
I did quite a lot of online searching in my early phase of music creation. I found Max, and I taught myself. So far I think the help section of Max still remains the best help resources of any software. Max patches as interactive help is a positively brilliant idea.
I've been a Max user for quite some time. As I remember, it was from Max version 5 or 6. It's a great platform. The workflow is super fast and the connectivity is top notch. And when I work with other developers with different coding background, transferring between platforms is also easy, like compiling C++ code to an external for quick prototyping. In short, for me it's a mind map that runs, a handy tool that I can pick up any time.
Here is a fun photo of me teaching Max to a 7-yr old boy named Cheng Cheng last week.
Do you use Max as part of your artistic practice?
Yes, I've been using Max in my performance as well as some commissions in art installation works.
There were some Max instruments in the old days including the Autoharp, which you can download from the Monome community's Github site here.
Here's a photo of a Max class in action in 2018 (when I was much fatter!). On the screen, you can see a Max patch that utilizes the image data from a webcam to adjust the modulation matrix of 16 oscillators frequency modulating each other. I also built a Eurorack and computer controller box to pair with a Max patch back in 2013....
Do you use Max as part of your development workflow?
As with the development of the Wingie and Wingie2, Max is my go-to platform when I want to try out ideas.
I also use it a lot when I am teaching. Putting the bare bones of a sound synthesis structure on screen is so much clearer than showing it on a full-blown synthesizer. And it's amazing how we can make some fun interactive stuff going on just within 2 minutes... instant fun for the whole class.
What are you working on now? Any new music coming soon?
When it comes to music — as I said — I am still in the process of searching for the instrument I am going to focus on.
But I've been working on little pieces of music and doing improvisations here and there; It's also great to play without purpose, which provides me with fun and soothing experiences after all is said and done.