Sunday, 4 April 2021

A Trip Along the Suez Canal in Microsoft Flight Simulator

I pride myself on staying up-to-the-minute, so in honour of President Carter's recent negotiation of a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel let's fly along the Suez Canal in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020.

Port Said

The white square on the right is unmarked in both Bing and Google Maps, but it looks to be some kind of military installation - perhaps an anti-aircraft battery.

I took off from Port Said Airport at the north end of the canal. Port Said's international airport code is HEPS; HE is the international airport code for Egypt and presumably PS stands for Port Said. I landed at Ras Sudr, a small airstrip that just has a number. Judging by Google Maps it's just a strip of sand and might not even exist any more. In MSFS2020 it doesn't have an air traffic controller or even a parking area, so I just drove off the runway and parked in the dirt and tried not to worry about the effect of wind-blown sand on the aircraft's paintwork.

There are no scheduled international flights to Port Said Airport, which is surprising given that Port Said is Egypt's largest container port. Presumably people who have business there fly to Cairo and drive or take the train.

Heading south from Port Said

One of MSFS 2020's best features is the weather / time slider, which changes the weather and time of day in real time. Without it these screenshots would be mighty dark, because in the real world it was night-time when I took off.

Egypt and the Suez Canal loom large in the history of the British Empire. They were our gateways to India and the Far East. After the Second World War our strategic need for the canal gradually diminished, but it was still important as a source of ready cash. That lasted until 1956, when the Egyptian government abruptly nationalised the canal, so we conspired with France and Israel to stage an invasion and take it back.

On a military level our attack on Port Said was a roaring success. We bombed the city so hard that it has never threatened British lives ever since. On a political level however there were quibbles from lefty nay-sayers that Egypt had not attacked us; that our plans for the Middle East were fanciful dreams that we didn't have the resources to implement; that by ostensibly trying to ward off Soviet influence we were only encouraging the USSR to intervene in the region; that we had killed several thousand innocent Egyptian civilians for essentially a bit of cash; that we were throwing around weight we no longer had; that the world had changed etc.

Ultimately the United States told us to knock off the invasion and call a cease-fire, which we did, and the canal has been under Egyptian control ever since. Britain and the other European powers withdrew from the Middle East, leaving the region in a state of blissful peace that persists to this day.

Nowadays the Suez Canal is managed by the Suez Canal Authority, which earns over $5bn a year from tariffs. I learn from the internet that it costs $250,000 to sail a ship through the canal, so I ever find myself in a Brewster's Millions situation where I need to squander huge amounts of money, the Suez Canal is a good start.

Can you fly over the Suez Canal in real life? It's a major strategic waterway so my hunch is no, not in a million years, unless you're pally with the Egyptian government, and even then I'd be wary of being accidentally shot down.

This is the Al-Salam Bridge, which is near the northern end of the canal. It's a joint Japanese-Egyptian project built as part of an attempt by Egypt to drum up investment in the Sinai Peninsula. The Sinai Peninsula is bigger than Milton Keynes and also has a population bigger than Milton Keynes.

The Suez Crisis is fascinating if you're interested in conspiracy theories. On the one hand it was real. An actual multi-national conspiracy. It actually happened. On the other hand the conspiracy was uncovered almost immediately, and it failed, which is awkward because conspiracy theorists are convinced that conspiracies never unravel. They would probably argue that an even larger and more hidden conspiracy drove Britain and France to ruin in order to strengthen the United States' hegemony, but that way madness lies.

To complicate matters the United States' objection to the invasion was at least partially on moral grounds, which goes against the general view held by conspiracy theorists that the United States is evil, or that the hidden government that runs the United States is evil, or that the ancient hidden conspiracy behind the hidden government that runs the United States is evil etc.

And that bit about Milton Keynes came out wrong. The Sinai Peninsula is huge but has a very small population of only 600,000 or so. The central section has a road and some mountains but nothing else. It would be an awesome filming location if you could get there. Israel occupied the peninsula during the 1970s but failed to make anything of it. Egypt has spent a lot of money since then trying to make the coastal parts tourist destinations. The middle section is inhabited by Bedouin, who are probably sick of Instagram travel bloggers - the woman is a marketing executive, the man a former hedge fund manager - using them as photographic backdrops.

Imagine if Egypt found oil in the Sinai! Actually, no, that would be terrible. For the Bedouin, anyway. They would be forcibly moved away and replaced by imported workers, so they wouldn't benefit at all.

I really need to clean the window.

MSFS2020 seems to be slightly flummoxed by the flat, almost monochrome textures of the local area; some parts of the eastern bank in particular look very rough.

For the trip I flew a Diamond DA-62, a light twin that has become one of my favourite aircraft in MSFS2020. It has enough range to go on long trips, the autopilot is easy to use, the cockpit is laid out sensibly and it looks neat.

The game draws its imagery from Bing Maps. It's interesting to compare it with Google's aerial footage. The three circular fields in the image above are just sand on Google maps, perhaps because the photographs were taken in a different part of the year.

Why are the fields circular? It's a thing called centre-pivot irrigation. In the middle of the field there's a water pipe that connects to a big long hose held up on a metal framework that goes round and around, irrigating the field. You learn something every day.

I flew over Ismailia, which is on the north bank of Lake Timsah, one of the small salty lakes along the Suez Canal that are used as passing places for ships. Modern-day Ismailia exists because of the canal; it was essentially a big dormitory for the workers who built it. It's the terminus of a smaller canal that runs from Cairo and was built in the early 1860s to provide the workers with fresh water. The Ismailia canal is easily visible on Google Maps as a strip of green heading east from Cairo. Perhaps one day, when the world has got better, I might stroll along its banks.

This airport is south of the city. As you might expect from the compartmentalised aircraft bunkers it's a military airbase. MSFS2020 identifies it as Ismailia Airport, but it's actually called Deversoir, formerly RAF Deversoir. I learn from this Pathé news bulletin that it was pronounced dev-ah-swoir, and in the 1950s it had Vampires (the aircraft, not the supernatural beings):

The rest of the clip paints a surprisingly bleak view of Britain's time in Egypt. The canal is said to be in a state of siege from terrorists, with a £100 reward for the killing of a British officer, and "intimidation has forced most of the Egyptian workers to leave British work in the zone".

We originally ran the whole country, but by the 1950s we had withdrawn to the canal zone. We left in 1956, and to the surprise of no-one Egypt seized the canal, hence the unpleasantness described above. Part of our justification for military action was the fear that Egypt would run the canal into the ground, but we obviously underestimated them because it continues to function to this day.

Immediately south of Deversoir is the Great Bitter Lake, which goes well with vodka is very salty:

The lake is almost entirely dead, on account of the salt - twice the level of the open sea - and also pollution from the constant ship traffic. Furthermore there's a power station on the north-west bank.

Can you swim in it? Apparently not, or at least not without being arrested. Before the canal existed the lake was just a big sandy basin, which raises the question of whether any Victorian-era photographers captured the moment that water flooded into it. If they did I am not aware of them.

In the 1960s Israel and Egypt had a falling-out, and as a result the canal was closed from 1967 to 1975. The fourteen ships passing through the canal ended up stuck in the Bitter Lake. Luckily the crews were allowed to leave, and over the next eight years replacement skeleton crews were flown in on a rota system, staffing the ships for months at a time as they baked in the sun. Apart from the risk of being bombed or sunk by commandos or having unused ordnance dumped on their heads from aircraft returning to base I imagine it was a relatively cushy post.

And that's the Bitter Lake. As mentioned in the link above it's a major piece of strategic infrastructure, but there do appear to be a bunch of beach resorts on the western bank. On the one hand Great Bitter Lake doesn't sound an inviting name, but loads of people flock to the Dead Sea, so who am I?

Visible in the distance is Jebel Ataqah, the only mountain range for miles around. 

The Bitter Lake is two-thirds of the way down the canal, so we're on the final stretch. Port Suez itself was badly damaged during the conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s and was one of the flashpoints for the 2011 Egyptian revolution, but it looks pleasant enough on Google Street View. It's three hours from Cairo by train, so you could take a day-trip just to say you've seen the Gulf of Suez.

The southern end of the canal

And that's the Suez Canal. An awkward tourist destination in real life, but easily-navigable by air on account of the fact that the terrain is flat and it's only 120 miles long. It connects the Arabian Sea to the Mediterranean and is the fastest way to transport national resources from Malaysia to Britain, which is one of the reasons it was built in the first place.

Sometimes MSFS2020 goes odd. This blocky little fort doesn't appear on Bing Maps, and there's nothing that looks like a fort in that location, or indeed anything - the bay appears to be deserted.

As mentioned up the page Ras Sudr is just a strip of sand that doesn't appear to exist any more. Bing and Google Maps both show the runway, but it's surrounded by beach resorts, so perhaps it's only an emergency landing strip.

As a British person I find it hard not to pronounce Suez as "Syue-wezzz", and it immediately puts me in mind of Madness' "Night Boat to Cairo". Will I ever go there in real life? Who knows. The entire continent of Africa is bigger than Milton Keynes and has had more COVID-related deaths than Milton Keynes has had one-third as many COVID deaths as Britain, despite having a population twenty-two times greater and a land area unfathomably larger, so props to Africa. But will they want me?

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Strymon El Capistan

Today you're going to have a look at the Strymon El Capistan. There it is, up there. Sitting there all vulnerable like. It's a guitar pedal that digitally simulates tape delay.

What's tape delay? Imagine a loop of tape that goes round and round and round and round and round. And round and round and round. There's a record head at point A and a playback head at point B. Something something electronics. I really should draw a diagram. I'll draw a diagram.

That's how tape delay works. I mean, yes, there's some electrical trickery that erases the tape and makes the echoes gradually die off, but I'm not drawing another diagram. You get the basic concept. The record head records the sounds of a guitar or banjo - or whatever - onto the tape, and then the tape goes around and the playback head plays the sound back but there's a delay because it takes a split-second for the tape to loop around.

Tape delay was invented in the 1950s. Legend has it that Sam Phillips of Sun Records came up with the effect as a means of replicating the slap-back echo of a small concert hall. Tape remained one of the standard delay effects until the 1980s, when it was displaced by electronic bucket brigade delays and eventually sample playback pedals, although the effect lingered in the studio because tape had better sonic fidelity and much longer delay times than the early digital guitar pedals.

Nonetheless tape delay units were big and awkward and needed periodic maintenance, so they mostly died off. Mostly.

But not completely. It has a distinctive sound that arises as a result of limited tape bandwidth, small fluctuations in tape speed, damage to the tape etc. Do you remember those Pink Floyd records where Roger Waters shouts something, and it echoes and gradually fades out and gets muffled? Or those Police records where Andy Summers goes "ka-ching" and the note echoes away to nothingness? That's tape delay. It was all over dub reggae:

I. Am. Your singing telegram. Blam! I was a kid in the 1980s but I suspect the muffled, occasionally wobbly sound of tape delay was not beloved of Trevor Horn or Hugh Padgham etc, who instead had banks of digital outboard gear. I do however recall it coming back into fashion in the dub-techno-ambient scene of the early 1990s, although in the case of The Orb I suspect the effect was either simulated with samples or it came from an Alesis Quadraverb (or something):

Back then tape delay units were rare and expensive on the second-hand market, and nothing much has changed since then. The need to periodically calibrate them is a major bother. A few companies make modern-day tape delay units with actual tape, but I'm not that hardcore.

There are of course mountains of plugins, but I was drawn to the El Capistan. I have nothing against software - Strymon's pedals use DSPs, and are essentially software-in-a-box - but I like the idea of something that doesn't eat up CPU cycles and won't become obsolete when Apple changes something. A physical thing that I own. Not a licence that can be taken away. Plus knobs.

Strymon is a US-based company that makes digital guitar pedals. The company was originally called Damage Control, but that's an embarrassing name. The pedals are aimed at guitarists but they can be plugged into synthesisers as well, in fact there are frequent calls on YouTube for them to sell rackmount units. Strymon is particularly famous for its ambient effects; the BigSky reverb pedal, Deco tape saturator and, yes, El Capistan tape delay are precisely the kind of thing you'd use if you wanted to make pedal steel country music in a vast empty desert.

As with all Strymon pedals the El Capistan is solidly-built from chunks of thick, bent metal, although there are visible panel gaps. It's a shame it doesn't have a stereo input. The output has a subtle left-right stereo panning effect. There's no MIDI, so you have to set the tempo by ear, or use the tap button on the front. The El Capistan was launched in 2010 and is now quite old in Strymon's line-up.

Strymon's pedals are priced at a slightly awkward level. Depending on your outlook they're either expensive guitar pedals or bargain-priced professional studio effects. About the only thing that separates them from studio effects is that they have unbalanced connectors. The El Capistan sells for around £299, vs roughly a tenth that for a cheap delay pedal, vs free if you use Logic's built-in tape delay plugin.

What does the El Capistan sound like? Let's have some examples. The El Capistan has a simple range of controls. The tape age and wow/flutter controls change the fidelity of the echoes, reducing the bandwidth and adding quirks as you turn them clockwise. Even fully counter-clockwise the sound still has a bit of colouring. Here's what the El Capistan sounds like as a normal echo, with ever-increasing repeats:

And here's what it sounds like with the tape age turned clockwise about half-way and wow/flutter progressively introduced:

The El Capistan can also simulate multiple tape playback heads, which creates multiple echoes instead of just one. Towards the end of this example I change the delay rate, which causes the pitch to go haywire for a short while. This is what tape delay units sound like in real life, but I wish there was a way of turning it off:

There's also a spring reverb simulator as a semi-hidden feature. You hold down the TAP and BYPASS buttons and spin the delay knob to control the depth:

Incidentally the bypass light turns on when the unit is active and off when it is being bypassed, which seems wrong to me, but apparently it's normal. Perhaps I am the one who is wrong.

The El Capistan has a simple looper, activated by hitting TAP to start the loop, TAP to stop the loop, and TAP to erase the loop. My timing is awful, but here's an example of a couple of sequences looped on top of each other and then munged so that they sound horrible:

And in the last example I feed a Korg Monotron into the El Capistan, and then into a Strymon Big Sky, because why not. The result sounds a bit like early Tangerine Dream, before they bought a sequencer.

How does it sound in a mix? Here's a piece of music that uses the effects chain above - El Capistan into BigSky - but with nicer notes:

The effect is a little bit like the shimmery reverb that appears all over Brian Eno's 1980s records, but without the pitch-shifting element. Mostly you're hearing the Big Sky, but the droning mechanical sound at the end is reverberated tape delay.

Logic has a built-in tape delay, which has the benefit of synchronising to tempo, and of course you can stack lots of them and you don't have to run cables from your audio interface into an external unit. Conversely the El Capistan sounds much, much nicer when the echoes stack up - Logic's tape delay just distorts nastily at positive feedback levels whereas El Capistan produces a supernatural, saturated, but not distorted wash of sound.

And of course you might have a guitar. You might play live with a guitar and need a floor-mounted footpedal. How does the El Capistan compare to other tape delay boxes? I have no idea! By itself however it sounds gorgeous. At modest settings the delay effect isn't distracting, and I find that I can leave it on all the time. At higher mix levels the combination of modulation and the neat stereo effect sounds massive by itself - I find that feeding it into a reverb pedal is overkill unless I want a huge ambient soundscape.

And that's the El Capistan.

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Low Earth Orbit

A couple of months ago I built a modular synthesiser. A Doepfer LC6 Eurorack case with a mixture of parts from Doepfer, Mutable Instruments, Siam Modular, and modular newcomers Behringer. It's a work in process - most recently I've added a TAKAAB 2LPG low pass gate - and here's what it looks like in its almost-completed state:

"You say you dream of my face, but you don't like *me*, you just like the chase"

There's a stereotype whereby a man builds a modular synthesiser - or woman - whereby a man or woman builds a modular synthesiser, or buys their dream motorcycle, or spends a fortune on an actual Les Paul, or an expensive record player, or a collection of something, and then he or she - or they, this is 2021 - or they never actually do anything with it.

A middle-aged man with a wall of guitars that he never plays. Or a project car that he never drives. Or a dog that no longer excites him, or children he can't stand. I'm painfully aware of this stereotyped so I resolved to sit and down actually make some music, viz the track at the top, which ironically uses only a tiny fraction of my modular synthesiser's raw musical power, but you can't be 105% all the time.

It's essentially an experiment in reverb. The entire track is a simple sequence played with an Arturia BeatStep step sequencer, fed through a stereo panner. It's supposed to evoke the sound of a satellite orbiting the Earth. The background wash is a mixture of Korg ARP Odyssey and Plaits playing essentially the same sequence, but fed through a Strymon BigSky reverb unit so that it becomes a formless wash of sound.

What of the Sousse Palace? Back in 2011 I had a holiday in Tunisia, just after the Arab Spring. That's why the rooms are unlit. Judging by TripAdvisor it still exists; the hotel that I stayed in does not. I mean, the building is still there but it's not a hotel any more. I miss that place and perhaps one day I'll go back.

Monday, 15 March 2021

Doepfer A-199 Spring Reverb

Let's have a look at the
Doepfer A-199 Spring Reverb, a spring reverb unit for Eurorack modular synthesisers. The A-199 is surprisingly good value at around £120 new or £80 on the used market, and there are lots on the used market, because spring reverbs are irresistibly appealing but also very limited.

What's a spring reverb? It's an electronic effect that uses springs to simulate the sound of an empty room. Nowadays the sound is indelibly associated with 1960s surf rock, because Fender started to include spring reverbs in their amplifiers at exactly the same time surf rock took off. The basic sound is all over Les Jaguar's "Guitare Jet", along with masses of tremolo:

But there were spring reverbs in the classic old EMS VCS-3 and ARP 2600 synthesisers from the 1960s and 1970s as well, because they were intended to be compact all-in-one units that could do everything. As a kid in the digital 1980s I remember being amazed at the thought of an effects unit that used springs instead of digital circuits.

Victorian-era springs. Here's what the inside of the A-199's spring tank looks like:

An electrical loudspeaker at one end of the unit makes the springs wobble; at the other end of the unit a circuit converts the wobbles back into sound, but because the signal has been wobbled with springs the sound is wobbly. Wobbly in a complex way. That's how a spring reverb works.

The Doepfer A-199 comes in two parts. There's the faceplate, which has the controls and power supply, plus a separate reverb tank. They connect up with some cables.

The springs pick up electrical interference, which is why the tank is a separate unit, so that you can place it far away from your Eurorack power supply. In practice I found that the power supply in my Doepfer LC6 wasn't an issue, but I had interference from my MOTU audio interface, which was just underneath the LC6; when I moved it away the interference stopped.

Siting the tank is awkward. Doepfer expects you to mount the tank inside the case, using the rubber washers to insulate the tank against physical knocks. Sadly my LC6 doesn't have space to put the tank anywhere sensible. I found I could rest it on the bottom of the case, but there was slightly too much interference if I did that.

For a while I mounted it like this, outside the case:

It worked, but what if the tape lost its grip? Furthermore there's the issue of routing the cables from the back of the A-199 to the spring tank. It's a shame Doepfer doesn't sell a variation of the A-199 with the jack plugs on the front plate. In the end I gently hacksawed an opening in the top-right of the A-199 and put the tank in a little plastic box underneath my LC6.

Spring reverbs have a distinctive sound. Like the inside of a metal shipping container. There's no way to change the length or density of the reverb, short of using a larger or smaller tank. In my experience the effect thickens up the sound nicely at low settings, and at high settings it makes everything sound like a David Lynch movie. It also has a lo-fi, retro quality to it, not just because of the surf rock connection but also because it introduces a lot of noise. Not necessarily a bad thing. In the following clip the grinding, pulsing noise that comes through clearest in the last minute or so is the sound of an A-199 fed through a compressor (which amplifies the noise) and digital reverb, which smooths the noise into a wash of sound:

Here are some isolated examples. In the first sound clip I play a loop with my Behringer RD-8 drum machine, gradually turning up the effect volume. Mid-way through the track I introduce some more effects in order to show how the spring reverb can be used as part of a mix:

In the second example I'm using the A-199's feedback input to send the signal into a filter, then back into the unit again:

The result is a distinctive metallic sproing sound. Ordinarily the feedback circuit feeds the reverb signal back into itself. You'd expect this to create an enormously long reverb signal, but disappointingly it just makes a feedback howl. In moderation the howl is soothing, but it gets old quickly. The other control is emphasis, which boosts the mid-range a little bit.

In this video I mess around with the unit for five minutes while playing a bassline through it.

In this video I use it in a piece of music. It's part of the effects chain for the swoopy noise that flies around the other instruments. The sound is coming from a mixture of Plaits and a Behringer TD3, fed through a spring reverb, then a filter and some digital reverb:

Surprisingly for a modular unit the A-199 doesn't have any voltage controls. If you want to modulate the reverb you'll have to feed the signal through a mixer or filter, and modulate that instead.

Of note my A-199 is the third model. The original A-199 was 10hp wide, with the "feedback" and "emphasis" labels written out in full. The second model slimmed the panel down to 8hp, and the third model added jack plugs instead of soldered connectors for the spring tank. If you're listening, Dieter Doepfer, I would be very grateful if you could add a little cut-out in the front panel - perhaps with a plastic tab, or a rubber grommet, or a flap or something - so that the cables can route out of the case.

Does the A-199 make any sense? At low levels it works perfectly well purely as a means of thicking the sound without changing its character. At higher levels it sounds lonely, distant, metallic, like the bits of a Gdspeed! You Black Emperor in between the violins. At 8hp it's not excessively big, although the need to find somewhere to put the tank is awkward. It's not particularly expensive.

On the other hand almost every digital reverb unit made in the last forty years has a spring reverb simulation, and the howling sproinging crashing noises that are characteristic of spring reverbs are a novelty that quickly wears off. Nonetheless there's something psychologically appealing about having actual springs. Actual physical springs. Just like the BBC Radiophonics Workshop.

Actual. Physical. Springs. And that's the Doepfer A-199.