Vermona Retroverb Lancet

Much of the time, effects are sprinkled over the top of a song or recording that add depth, texture, or movement. On more seldom occasions, effects are used more like extensions of the instruments being played in order to reach the desired outcome. The latter is the case with the Retroverb Lancet.

This is a one-hundred-percent analog effects unit with a multi-mode filter (we are given the option of high, band, and low pass settings); a real spring reverberator (which can be set in the unit’s signal flow either before or after the filter; a low-frequency oscillator with a variety of modulation wave forms and routings; envelope generator; and a voltage controlled amplifier which can respond to the LFO or envelope generator, and can even be driven to distortion. Each of these functions seem a bit random to have been grafted together in one box, but in practice they work together to create some serious magic.

A few years ago I began doing sound design for a scary Halloween themed installation, and I experimented with recording found objects being struck and scraped by miscellaneous other found objects. This was taken a step further when I decided to loop these recordings into rhythmic patterns, and route them through the voltage-controlled filter on one of my analog synthesizers. That was great fun, but there were a few hiccups along the way: the MicroBrute has a 1/8th inch input socket for incoming audio, and in my experience those cords don’t last long before they start hissing. Also, the MicroBrute does not have a “gate latch” or similar function to let the envelope hang open, so a key must be depressed in order to hear the affected sound coming out the other side of the filter. I remedied this by strapping one of the keys down with a length of Scotch tape. Another issue was the fact that the amp in the MicroBrute does not sound good when it’s overdriven, which makes feeding external audio into it a laborious task of tweaking levels until everything sounds decent enough to record (forget live performance). None of these problems were major enough to dissuade me from using the MicroBrute as an effect; though the experience did get me thinking: what if I had an effect pedal that gave me the joyous sound of an analog filter, without the limitations and frustrations of being hard-wired to a budget keyboard? Thus, my quest began.

I did a hefty bit of internet research: watching demo videos and reading reviews of several of these “filter-in-a-stompbox” thingies, and I was dismayed by the number of “filter envelope” pedals in existence that force musicians to satisfy themselves with a semi-adjustable automatic “wah” effect. There were only a select few devices which provided the programmability that I craved. The cheapest one I came across was the Waldorf 2-Pole, though I much preferred the depth of a four-pole, Moog-style ladder filter. Not to mention, I never liked the look of those little plastic Waldorf boxes.  I waited. The Moogerfooger Ladder Filter was an obvious option, but I thought the omission of an LFO was a bit of a deal breaker. I finally discovered the Filter Lancet from Vermona, and, though it was the most expensive one apart from the possibly-overpowered Sherman Filterbank, I felt myself drawn to its compact, rugged look and smooth, juicy, Moog-like sound. I talked with some people who had used it, and they told me to spend the extra money and get the Retroverb: “It will change the way you write music”, they said. So, I did. And it did.

I had never really considered myself a spring-reverb-kind-of-guy, personally harboring a fondness for pristine digital reverb units like the Boss RV-2 or the Alesis Midiverb. However: I have been won over by the little metal springs inside the Retroverb. They sound fantastically gritty when cranked, and provide a subdued, roomy texture when used in moderation. The “tone” control gives us the option to roll off the top-end frequencies in a kind of basic high-pass filter, leaving behind a low rumble which can be a bit much if you’re cranking the resonance on the lowpass filter in conjuction with the “balls” knob being set past fifty percent. It would have been nice to see a simple “high” and “low” EQ section for the reverb letting us dial in the precise tone of the springs’ output pre-filter. Nevertheless, I find the spring reverb here to be wonderfully suited to giving a little headroom to damn near anything with a quarter-inch output (especially drum machines).

As stated before, the filter section is sweet and musical, with a real Moog-esque character. I assume this is the same filter present in the Mono Lancet (Vermona’s monophonic synthesizer desktop box), which I owned years ago and thoroughly enjoyed for the most part. Setting the resonance above fifty percent and sweeping the cutoff provides that “singing filter” phenomenon where it grabs on to frequencies in harmony with the frequency of the input audio. It is much more kind to the ears than the Steiner-Parker filter in the MicroBrute, which I believe is a twelve-decibel-per-octave design. It could have something to do with that; as far as I know, twenty-four-decibel-per-octave filter designs have a wider frequency range and must therefore have a “deeper” sound. Correct me if I’m wrong.

My final statement on the Retroverb Lancet is that it has transformed me from being the kind of person who prefers a pristine, clean sound to a person who thoroughly enjoys a saturated, grainy, overdriven, and slightly dirty sonic character. The amp sounds  great when driven to distortion; the reverb, despite its obvious limitations, provides a kind of physically aggressive reflection that could be described as intimidating, and even menacing at times. The Retroverb has absolutely changed my sound as I find myself using it on everything. It has a magical, gritty crunch that I simply cannot get enough of, as it has the uncanny ability to make polite electronic devices sound instantly “rock ‘n’ roll”, if you follow me.

 

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Yamaha PSS-480

FM synthesis, at its core, is not difficult to understand. Most people who know something about subtractive synthesis are familiar with the term “modulation”, and are aware of the effects of an LFO on an audio oscillator or a voltage-controlled filter. In FM synthesis, the “modulator” has the same effect on a “carrier” that an LFO has on an oscillator: it modulates the frequency. The difference here is that a modulator in an FM synthesizer usually modulates the carrier at such a high frequency that you can’t actually hear the modulation happening; instead the perceived effect being a change in the wave shape. Routing a sine wave carrier through a sine wave modulator results in a more complex waveform than a simple sine, and the frequency of that modulator, as well as the modulation amount, can result in different wave shapes. This is FM at its core, yet people continue to shy away from it because of its reputation of complexity. The reason why it has attained such infamy is most likely the Yamaha DX-7: it has six operators which are arrangeable in different algorithms to determine which operators (an operator in FM speak is basically a sine-wave oscillator with an amplitude envelope attached) act as carriers and which ones act as modulators, and which carriers are routed through which modulators. Obviously this is rather more complicated than simply having one carrier and one modulator, but when paired with the DX-7’s tiny LCD screen and confusing button interface, FM suddenly seems very cryptic and unfriendly. I had a similar experience during the time I owned a DX-7, and needless to say I didn’t own it for very long.

 

My relationship with FM became a healthy one when I stumbled across a little “toy” keyboard in a local guitar shop: a Yamaha PSS-480. The PSS-480 is one of those keyboards loaded with cheesy preset sounds like “E. Piano 1”, “Elec. Guitar”, “Bagpipe”, Harmonica”, and so on. It has the to-be-expected auto-accompaniment section with grainy sampled drums and silly reggae-tinged basslines and chord progressions. All the ingredients of a keyboard that you’d expect to find at a Toys ‘R’ Us circa 1988. Something most of the people buying these in the late twentieth century probably didn’t know was that it is, in fact, a two-operator FM synthesizer. The PSS-480 has only one carrier and one modulator, and with obviously no room to figure complex algorithms into the mix, altering the relationship between operators is decidedly less mind-numbing than it is on more complex FM machines like the DX-7. There are six buttons allowing users to select a parameter to edit. Tapping the button once will engage that parameter for Operator One (the modulator); tapping it a second time engaging the same parameter for Operator Two (the carrier). The parameters we have access to are as follows: “attack rate”; “decay rate”; “frequency”; “feedback level”; “modulation level”; and “total level”. With control over these parameters, we can change any of the ninety-nine preset sounds, transforming them from their silly, eighties “home keyboard” selves into strange, harmonically rich, sometimes even eerie, alien sounding FM voices; snarling, punchy basses; percussive blips or bell sounds. When you’re satisfied with what you’ve done to a sound, you can save it one of five slots dedicated to storing user patches, and call it back up simply by pressing the “bank” button you saved it to. The PSS-480 has five “effects” that can be applied to any sound: “vibrato”, “sustain”, “reverb” (don’t get excited about this one: it does the same thing as “sustain”, just more quietly); “portamento”, and “duet”. “Vibrato” is rather self-explanatory. If you don’t know what that does, sing a sustained note and press your finger rhythmically into your Adam’s apple. “Sustain” in this case lengthens the release time, “portamento” is an adjustable parameter that creates a slide between notes played on the keyboard; “duet” plays automatic harmonies with the key pressed in the “melody” section of the keyboard depending on which note is held in the “auto-accompaniment” section. That’s really all there is to the sound engine, so obviously you will reach the limit of sound creation much sooner than you will on a DX-7 or something similar. I actually like that about it, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn the basics of FM synthesis without the tedious algorithm system that frankly made me want to tear out my hair.

 

I want to take some time to discuss the actual sound quality of the PSS-480, as I find it to be charming. I have fond memories of playing MS-DOS games as a kid, and the sound that comes out of this synthesizer brings back the music from those games instantaneously. Most computers that ran MS-DOS back in the early 90s had AdLib or Sound Blaster sound cards in them, which were essentially FM synthesizers that took MIDI data from computer programs and spat out that data as music and sound effects. The component that breathed life into this era of computer game music was indeed an FM synthesizer chip made by Yamaha (if you’re interested, it’s called the “YM3812”), and that exact chip can be found inside other home keyboards of the late eighties: the PSS-470, PSR-12, and PSR-32, among several others. The chip inside the PSS-480 is not a YM3812, but a very similar one nonetheless. I’ve found that the actual YM3812 chip has a grainier, grittier sound and the one inside the PSS-480 is a bit cleaner (I suppose what I mean by that is “having less character”), but I prefer the 480 for its ability to save user presets and a wider range of parameters for editing the sounds. The YM3812 models also do not have MIDI, which is essential if you have sausage fingers like I do, and need to use an external keyboard to control it. Though the PSS-480 does have a less-distinct sound than the YM3812 models, the nostalgia factor is not lost, and it will be a matter of moments before you’re figuring out how to play all the old video game themes from your past. Nostalgia aside, the 480 also has a quarter-inch audio output jack, so you can easily connect this keyboard to effects, which it takes to very well in my opinion. Spend some time getting to know the synth engine in this simple but fun instrument, and perhaps one day you will be ready to tackle the tedious but all-powerful DX-7.

Yamaha AN1x

A while ago I posted a spreadsheet in which I converted my personal opinions toward several different synthesizer models into statistics. As the numbers make it easier to see where different synths triumph over others, and in what areas they fall short, it may be difficult to determine my emotional response to each one. I wanted to write a few paragraphs here to make it known that the Yamaha AN1x is my favorite synthesizer on that list, and in the lines below I will tell you why.

First it seems necessary to note that, in another life, I was an analog purist. I believed that there could be no purer a musical experience than placing my fingers on a vintage Moog and letting the thick, meaty, discreet circuits wash over me in all their juicy thickness. I still appreciate the immediacy of playing an analog instrument, but am now able to appreciate that “warm” and “cold”, “analog” and “digital” are not synonymous with “good” and “bad” respectively. Rather, they are different methods of creating an electronic sound, much of the time having vastly opposite sonic characteristics, though more often than expected the two overlap. Thus, I have been converted to another philosophy: “if it sounds good, use it”. I realized, through many YouTube videos and websites documenting the capabilities and personalities of various bits of electronic music-making gear, that digital equipment can offer musicians a broader palette of sonic possibilities, and, once this fact revealed itself to me (or when I was finally able to bury my emotions beneath a heaping pile of reason), I got excited.

My foray into digital synthesis began about five years ago, with acquisitions like the Alesis Ion, Korg DW-8000 (not strictly digital, but a hybrid with digital oscillators and analog filters), Roland JP-8000, and Yamaha DX-7. While I never fell completely in love with any of these instruments, I enjoyed the time I spent with each of them; they showed me that I had been missing out on a world (or perhaps several worlds) of sound that is not accessible to those whose feet are planted firmly in the analog camp. The Ion and the JP-8000 provided to me the joy of knob-per-function editing and lucid, modern sounds that my analog mono-synths were not capable of. The DW-8000 and DX-7, while offering up slightly infuriating user interfaces, gave me the ability to produce futuristic, otherworldly textures and wave-forms that, with no prior experience outside the analog world, were bizarre and wondrous to behold.

By way of synthesizer demonstrator / audiovisual master WC Olo Garb (otherwise known as “Jexus”) and his syntezatory.net.pl, I was then subjected to a 43-minute-long demo of a curiously angular, blue plastic synth from the 90s called the Yamaha AN1x. The sounds achieved by Garb were mind-numbing. I had never heard such things. Screams, shrieks and growls that were both hideous and beautiful. Cavernous howls, swarms of buzzing dissonance that were frightening yet mysterious and wonderful. I sat through every minute, and by the end of it, knew I had to have this instrument.

I bought one from someone on eBay later that week. When it arrived, I unpacked it, and took in the shameless mid-nineties design. It was tacky, and adorable. Though I felt a little lost during the first few moments spent clicking through patches, I could hear its character and sonic vitality shining through in even the most bland of its factory presets. The user interface is, admittedly, not the most immediate in the synth-world, but it isn’t cryptic, and I knew the initial stage of clumsiness would pass. Everything was clearly laid out, so I knew it would take only a bit of muscle memory kicking in to allow me to reach for things without thinking about them too long.  I would soon be able to create sounds without taking my head out of the space it needed to be in for fully-fledged sonic experimentation.

One of the first things I noticed about the AN1x (and how it sets itself apart from other virtual analog synthesizers) is the stability, strength, and clarity of its sound: there is scarcely a time when you will hear aliasing or glitching . To illustrate, I had the JP-8000 for a while and liked it for its strengths, but didn’t like that it wasn’t able to produce extreme modulations in a convincing way. If its LFO was set to modulate the filter cutoff, and subsequently had its depth and rate sliders pushed all the way up, one would be subjected to a garbled, static sound that didn’t remotely sound like filter modulation. That’s not unusual for a virtual analog synth from the nineties, but I am happy to report that the AN1x is happy to allow fast, extreme filter modulation (or any modulation) without any glitching. In fact, its LFOs can extend quite a ways into audio-rate territory, retaining a pleasant, musical quality all the while.

Weeks passed. I started to feel comfortable in the synth’s surprisingly shallow menu system. I learned how to do things like setting up the free envelope generator, which is more of an envelope-controlled phrase recorder that plays back parameter changes instead of notes. This free envelope can be set to “loop”, can be synced to MIDI clock, and can affect four parameters per patch. I also began to wrap my brain around the synth’s ability to “morph” between “scenes” (a “scene” is a patch. The AN1x allows two patches to be saved to each program, and selecting both “scenes” at once configures the mod wheel to act as a cross-fader between the two. You can get some interesting timbres by setting it somewhere in limbo between 1 and 2, though as the mod wheel has only 127 steps, sweeping between scenes results in some serious digital zippering). While I’m here: I feel compelled to make apparent that each of its controllers (eight knobs, pitch/mod wheels, ribbon, velocity, aftertouch) are limited to 127 values, meaning that there will be some audible stepping depending on what you have assigned a controller to affect. Setting a highly resonant filter to be swept by the mod wheel or ribbon will absolutely result in this, but setting that filter cutoff amount to the envelope or LFO will give you liquid-smooth modulation. You don’t always get everything you want with one synth.

Something that most people don’t know about the AN1x is that, while being primarily marketed as a “virtual analog” synth, it is also capable of some complex sounds not possible with its contemporaries. I recently made a patch that employs its “ring-mod” function with the two oscillators slightly de-tuned, and their “edge” parameters set quite low so that they sound like triangle waves with an ever-so-subtle top-end sizzle. The patch has that recognizable “de-tuned oscillator beating”, but the ring mod transforms it from something subtle into a pulsating, rhythmic, breaking-apart texture that could be a kind of organic, alien instrument. Features on the synth that lend it programming deeper sounds like this include that “ring modulator”, which is more similar to oscillator cross-modulation in practice; control over an oscillator parameter called “edge”, which is a kind of wave-shaping tool something like what can be found on Casio’s CZ line of phase distortion synthesizers; oscillator sync, which isn’t that unheard of in other virtual analog synths, but opens up quite a few more doors when used in tandem with the last feature I’ll mention here: FM.

FM, or “frequency modulation” is the result of one oscillator modulating another. This can be compared to the basic synthesis technique of applying LFO modulation to an oscillator to create a vibrato effect. This is different from what is widely thought of as FM in that an LFO (which stands for Low Frequency Oscillator) typically cannot be taken into audible frequencies, or be scaled to a keyboard. FM is typically used to generate tonal harmonics that are not already present in the base waveform (early commercial FM synthesizers usually offered sine waves, but modern ones [including the AN1x] allow users to apply saw or square-shaped frequency modulations to saw or square-shaped oscillators). An FM synthesizer features what are called, in FM terminology, “operators”. An operator is synonymous with “voice”: it is essentially an oscillator paired with a set of multi-stage envelopes to control the amplitude and frequency of the oscillator. These “operators” are routed through each other or fed back into themselves in a series of algorithms that can be chosen by the user; each operator acting as either a “modulator” (modulating another operator) or a “carrier” (an audio oscillator). The quintessential FM synthesizer is the Yamaha DX-7, which offers six operators and thirty-two algorithms for routing these operators in different configurations to achieve a wide variety of sounds. The AN1x’s FM implementation offers four algorithms, and only two operators. However, its FM functionality can be used alongside oscillator sync and ring modulation to produce some truly otherworldly sounds that eluded me during my time with the DX-7.

Being the synthesizer freak that I am, something that is difficult to avoid doing is comparing different models with one another to see how they stack up against each other: which one excels at punchy bass lines; which one can produce the juiciest electronic fart sounds; which one is best for creating sublime, abstract textures. In fact, I might say that watching videos of people demonstrating various models and comparing them has become something of an addiction for me (I’m certain there is a support group for this). Because of my addiction, it had become customary for me to keep a synth long enough for me to record a few pieces of music with it, and then sell it when I found something that was more exotic, or would be better suited for whatever task or sound I thought was important at the time. The AN1x seems to have cured me of this illness. I have created hundreds of patches, recorded many pieces of music with the AN1x, and it still feels like there are mountains of possibilities hidden inside, waiting to be discovered.

A year has passed since I bought the AN1x; I have been utterly satisfied by my interactions with it, and that feeling has not subsided over time. In his review of the synth, Jexus said that the AN1x has a “sublime” sound; I cannot think of a better word to describe its sonic character. It is difficult to make the synth sound unpleasant: even if you don’t know what you’re doing and accidentally stumble into some kind of atonal, cacophonous sound, it still has this interesting, mysteriously cool vibe emanating from its stereo line outputs. To be sure, there is an X-factor behind the scenes doing something intangible yet all-encompassing to the sound, giving the AN1x a voice and character that are entirely its own. It has opened my heart and mind to another breed of synthesis, and presented to me an open door through which many sounds are now possible which were previously not, due to my own unwillingness to embrace a digital machine. I will always hold the thick, meaty textures of voltage controlled oscillators close to my heart, but that love has been asked to move aside to make room for another.

This is the video that sparked my lust for this synthesizer:

Otherworld, part one

In the year 3989 of the common era, mankind was greeted by that which had been the quarry of space exploration for the past two thousand years: a response to the question of whether man was alone in the universe. Officials from the International Space Program suggested they likely came from an earth-like world in the Betelgeuse system, their planet being slightly smaller, but a gravitational force almost as strong as that on earth. Because of this, these beings were larger than the average human by a small measure. An adult male sheoli (as they referred to themselves) stood roughly eight feet tall, and had an appearance not unlike that of an Earth man.

Anatomically, they were often quite lanky, with long, spidery limbs; long necks, knobby five-fingered hands, and facial features that on Earth might be considered Asiatic. They had smooth skin; a range of complexions, similar to the many ethnic groups of the human race though the differences in skin coloration among the sheoli was more dramatic than on Earth. Some had skin that was black like charcoal, and others had skin that shone like snow in moonlight. The sheoli adapted to the intense gravitational pull of their homeworld, and so were a rather well-muscled, powerful race.

When the ship broke through the clouds over Kigali, the world went absolutely silent. Space administrations across the globe had, of course, detected the large intergalactic vessel, though all attempts to make pre-terrestrial contact with it went unanswered. The first to notice the ellipsoid craft were engineers stationed at the Thulian Radial Transmission Apparatus, located thirty kilometers from the Moon’s largest permanently inhabited colony, Selene. The ISA (International Space Administration) control center in Nairobi had been notified immediately by the personnel who had detected the ship, though no immediate course of action had been agreed upon.

After reaching a position of approximately six kilometers above Kigali, the ship hung still and silent. Leaders from all over the world gathered beneath it, and there was assembled an official, international welcome committee, waiting to greet the interstellar travelers. After a period of thirty-six hours, a small pod-like craft detached itself from the large vessel suspended in the air, and made its way down to the ground where the welcoming team waited, and the world looked on. It landed, and a group of nine beings emerged from inside the pod, each of them between seven-and-a-half and eight-and-a-half feet tall. They were greeted by the welcome crew, and, although spoken language was almost immediately abandoned as a form of communicating with these beings, it was relieving for the people of Earth to find that the visitors’ written language was a form of pictographs that, not unlike the hieroglyphs of ancient Earth civilizations, was not difficult for the people of Earth to decipher.

Over the next several hours, leading language and ancient manuscript experts acted as translators between the sheoli and Earth’s leaders. The sheoli displayed thoughts, ideas, and explanations on tablets of a strange, metallic material which could change instantaneously at the stroke of one of their spindly fingers to display a new idea, once the original idea had been conveyed. They explained who they were, where they had come from, and why:

They called their homeworld by the name Sheol (the word “sheoli”  meaning “of Sheol”), the sixth planet in orbit around a large red star over three hundred light years from Earth. This star, known on Earth as Betelgeuse, was called “hwan” by the sheoli people, a word which meant both “light” and “heat”. The word could be translated literally into English as meaning “vital” or “essence of life”.

The sheoli explained that they had monitored Earth’s technological and social advancement for thousands of years, and had grown fond of it, wishing to present themselves as a sort of “big brother” civilization. They offered to share with the people of Earth some of the secrets of the universe. The sheoli had been an advanced, space-faring people for the past ten thousand years, and had thus learned things about the reality of space-time that were simply beyond the comprehension of the human mind. They proclaimed their alliance with all the peoples of Earth and promised to aid them in the forward-movement of Earth as an intergalactic civilization, and that all the human population had to do to win the favor of the sheoli was to provide them with a group of six hundred Earth natives to accompany the sheoli back to their homeworld in orbit around Betelgeuse. These people had to be ethnically diverse, equally men and women, twenty years of age exactly, and of sound physical and mental health.

The International Confederation of States agreed that this group of six hundred people would be determined through a draft. The six hundred would be chosen by sifting through the Comprehensive Database of the People of Earth, to find the healthiest, most-fit candidates to fulfill the request of the sheoli. Over the course of one month, these people were selected for their objectively “perfect” physical and mental form, and given a year to tie up loose ends before their permanent departure from Earth. At the end of the year, they left their lives behind, allowed by the sheoli to carry only what they could wear on their persons and one small bag of personal effects.

The sheoli took the six hundred into the pods they had used to reach the earth’s surface, and returned to the vessel which had brought them into the atmosphere which has floors, walls, and ceilings that are all completely transparent to allow those inside to see outside the ship in any direction. The men and women are herded into several rooms with strange, organic structures that resemble canopy beds, and instructed to lay on them. The rooms are filled with a fog, and the six hundred men and women fall asleep. When they awake, they are able to see that the ship has begun entry into the atmosphere of another world. The vessel makes contact on a landing pad inside what is called “jenederyam” by the sheoli, which translates roughly to English as “cosmodrome”. They are shepherded outside by a group of sheoli who guide them into the concourse, and they are brought what seems to be a large auditorium with an arched ceiling hundreds of feet tall. It seems there are no seats, so everyone stands until egg-shaped objects form in the floor and push themselves upward, becoming separate from the floor. The six hundred are instructed to be seated. 

A dark-skinned sheoli woman steps onto a platform made of similar material to the seats which appeared out of the floor, and it floats, carrying her upward toward the ceiling so she looks down over all of them. She speaks: 

“I assume you all speak or at least understand some Arabic. It is the most commonly spoken tongue in your world, is it not?” Not one of the six hundred spoke out, yet they did indeed understand the words that poured out from her mouth in a strange accent that could only come from a speaker anatomically different from the six hundred earth men and women. She goes on to explain to them why they are there: the sheoli need them to help prevent the desolation of their planet. The sun grows too hot, and the sheoli have begun the process of terraforming a planet in a neighboring solar system. They require the presence of the earth men and women to participate in experimental population of the newly habitable planet, to ensure its safety for the sheoli.

…………………………………………………………………

Prosper awoke on the morning of his departure with his head strangely empty. He had said his goodbyes. His parents had been tearful on the night prior, but they were also excited. In their eyes, Prosper would be an ambassador to a new world. A hero. His girlfriend Abri hadn’t shared the feelings of his parents. She’d been every bit as tearful (if not more), but she failed to see the good in it. She was angry with him for not trying to escape his obligation, to run away with her and grow old with her. He’d valued her opinion, and wondered why indeed he had not tried to get out of the draft. Plenty of people he knew made efforts to dodge it, with many of these attempts having proven successful. Most of these efforts consisted of the use of narcotics, but some went as far as self-harm, stripping themselves of the “physically healthy” title. He had been congratulated by most of his friends and colleagues, hearing the name “Ambassador Prosper” more times than he could count. In his own mind, there was nothing to convince him that this was the role the sheoli would expect of him. He had seen them on his news feed, watched them converse through a broken creole of their own language and Anglish, and been certain of their benignity. There wasn’t anything about the interactions he’d seen to give him reason to think of them as unfriendly, but he still wondered why they had made the request they had.

It made sense to him that the sheoli wanted someone from Earth to accompany them back to their homeworld for diplomatic reasons, but six hundred? Why did they need so many? It was possible, he thought, that they needed laborers. But then, they were so much bigger and stronger than anyone on Earth. It would be a tough sell to get them to believe a human was capable of any physical feat that would amount to anything on Sheol. Did they want them as pets, perhaps? That seemed unlikely as well. He couldn’t think that they would have traveled over three hundred light years for some exotic gifts to their children.

Prosper was at a loss for the reason of his departure, and this was what made him nervous. Sure, he was ecstatic to be given the opportunity to visit another world: this had been his fantasy since early childhood. What ten-year-old boy had not dreamed of boarding a space ship and journeying to a distant star, meeting strange beings and experiencing a place fundamentally different from the Earth he knew as the extent of reality?

It mattered less and less as his mind cleared itself of the lucidity of sleep-thought. He realized that he’d passed up the opportunity to evade emigration to this new world, and he now had mere hours left on this planet which had been the home to the human race for the past hundred millennia or so. He felt as though he was leaving part of his human identity behind, a thought which tightened his throat and made his eyes sting. He buried it as he packed his bag with a few books, a photo of himself, aged three years, his parents holding him upside down, each of them grasping an ankle. three-year-old Propser’s face was contorted in hysterical laughter. He remembered that day well. It had been a day of wonder at Kigali City Park. His parents had brought a picnic, and he had delighted in the flock of peafowl that had spent the duration of their meal pecking up bits of food he’d tossed to them.

Prosper felt his throat tense again, and he threw his packed bag into the closet and walked out the door. It wouldn’t do him any good to dewll on things he couldn’t get back. Soon, this life would be behind him, and any item he brought with him would simply remind him of the fact that everyone he’d ever known would go on without him after he’d gone. His Abri would soon start dating other men. She’d likely get married, have children, and by the time Prosper arrived on Sheol, she might have even forgotten his name.
He arrived at the Welcome Center that had been built directly beneath the sheoli space vessel, thirteen minutes early by his watch. He was greeted after passing through the front doors by a woman in a well-fitted suit. She looked sharp in her expensive-looking Fiona Martell glasses.

“Prosper Kagame”, she stated, rather than asked as he approached the front desk.

“Yes”, he said rather feebly. In his mind, he’d sounded more confident when he imagined the morning in his sleep.

“You’ll be joining your group before boarding. Mr. Hizu will escort you to them”, she said without looking up at him even once. Prosper turned around to see a large man in a suit and sunglasses walking up behind him.

“Good day, Mr. Kagame”, he said in the same sort of emotionless monotone that the woman at the desk had used. Were they trying to mask something? A feeling, perhaps? Were they sad to see him go, or did they know something he did not, about the intentions of the sheoli and their odd request for six hundred humans to take back to their planet? It was unsettling. “If you’ll follow me please, sir. We haven’t much time”, he repeated. Prosper hadn’t heard him the first time, being deeply buried in his thoughts again.

“I’m sorry. Yes, of course. Lead the way”, he said in that feeble voice he couldn’t seem to shake. Was everyone as nervous as he was? He suspected he’d find out soon. The large man named Mr. Hizu guided him outside into a wide, open courtyard type area that Prosper assumed was a landing area for shuttles going back and forth from the monolithic ship that had been hanging in the sky above Kigali for the past year. It had almost become a part of the city’s skyline, more massive than anyo of the buildings on the ground, yet somehow never bathing the city in darkness. The craft was made of some foreign material that was not opaque, but allowed sunlight to pass through seemingly unaffected. It did not cast a shadow on the ground beneath it, and that, Prosper thought, was the strangest thing about it.

The rest of the six hundred were already there for the most part, only a few others came after him. He saw that they were sectioned off into groups by ethnic background: Caucasians off to his left near the north side of the courtyard, a hundred Asians or so next to them. He was told by Hizu to join his group, so he found the cluster of black Africans and joined up with them. He tried to look through them for someone he knew, but at first glance it seemed they were all strangers. They had, he supposed, been selected seemingly at random from a population that was in excess of twelve billion, and realized the immense improbability of bumping into an acquaintance. He felt stupid for thinking otherwise, and wished he could stop feeling so alone. He turned to the man beside him.

“I thought I would be early, but it looks like I’m one of the stragglers”, said Prosper.

“I guess we were more anxious than you”, said the man, quickly throwing a sideways grin at Prosper, so as not to seem rude. “Thaddeus”, he added, and held his hand out to Prosper. Prosper took it in a firm clasp, and introduced himself. He felt a bit better.

“What do you think of all this? I mean… ” Prosper struggled to find the right words.

“I didn’t try to get out, if that’s what you mean”, finished Thaddeus. “Sure, I’m a bit apprehensive. I don’t think there’s anyone here who isn’t. But, there probably won’t come another opportunity like this in our lifetime. Perhaps ever”, he said, gesturing up at the sheoli spaceship. “We’re going to see a new world. Can you believe that? Really think about it. That’s something people were saying wasn’t possible. Now, all of a sudden…” he shrugged and tossed out another one of those care-free grins that Prosper thought Thaddeus used often: he didn’t seem overly concerned with their current situation, and Prosper didn’t think he had done nearly as much emotionally charged reflection before showing up here with his small bag (which Prosper would later find to be filled with snacks and a bottle of whiskey).

Thaddeus stopped talking abruptly and turned to face the sight of a man pushing a podium mounted onto a repulsor-lift, which caused it to hover a few inches from the ground. He positioned it, adjusted it slightly, then went away. Sasha Ardu, president of the Central African Federated States stepped up to the podium. She spoke, her voice amplified for all to hear.

“Let me first thank you for your cooperation. I can’t tell you how much effort went into assembling the lot of you to stand here before me today, but let me assure you of one thing: you are the most perfect representation of Earth’s human population we could find. Take pride in that,” she said as her eyes swept over them like a proud parent.

She continued: “Not long ago, it was common knowledge that humankind would never be able to travel to another galaxy. For thousands of years, we have known of over a hundred earth-like worlds that could likely support human life, but the hard fact of the matter is that these worlds lie outside of our reach. The journey across the stars to just one of these planets would take millions of years: a period of time that we cannot even fathom. We have done our best to study these worlds from afar, but there is only so much one can ascertain from a distance so great. As many of you know, research of these planets came to a grinding halt in recent years. We learned all we could by monitoring the movement of the stars, the positioning and orbit of their planets and satellites, but we had to come to the sad realization that we could not determine whether or not these planets hosted intelligent life or not, and, with no way of reaching out to them, there was little else to be done. Funding was cut by international administration. The study of space and planets has been stagnant for the better part of a century”, she paused, still looking over them with her scrutinizing eyes.

“A year ago, everything changed”, she went on “A year ago, we met the sheoli, and since then they have taught us many things about the nature of our universe. We now know things that we never could have known without their wisdom, and they have promised to guide us through the stars on our path to previously unattainable knowledge. This is an alliance that I think we can all agree benefits every inhabitant of Earth equally, one that will influence civilization for millennia to come, and one that now rests upon each of you”, Sasha Ardu paused again, this time with a strange look on her face. Prosper detected some burden concealed within her, and, slowly, she spoke again:

“I do not know why our guests wish you to accompany them back to Sheol. Their intentions were not made known to us, I must be clear about that. However, you must see it as your sole responsibility to do as you are instructed. Please them, so they may please us. Bestow upon them your compliance so they may bestow upon us their universal wisdom, which will in turn better the Earth, and move us toward a global civilization. A unified society. Utopia. Do this, and you shall be remembered as the ones who moved Earth into the Galactic Age. You will be remembered as the greatest heroes this planet has ever known. Thank you, and farewell”, she finished, and stepped down from the podium. Prosper thought he was tears streaming down her face as she turned away, returning to the inside of the Welcome Center with an entourage of bodyguards and journalists in tow. The man who had led Prosper to where he now stood, Mr. Hizu, now stood behind the podium.

“You will now be handed over to the sheoli. A team of them will be here shortly to escort you up to their ship, which will transport you to their homeworld. Thank you once again, for your cooperation. I, along with the entirety of humankind, wish you a fair voyage. Godspeed.” He stepped away, and each of the six hundred people in the courtyard burst into fevered discussion; Prosper couldn’t determine whether it was excited or nervous. He felt both.

A formation of six pods left the ship far above, and after an approach that lasted several minutes, landed on the ground inside the courtyard, each in a spot designated with sheoli pictographs that guided the pilots to set the craft down. Doors appeared in the hulls of the pods, and three sheoli emerged from each one. They conversed with each other in their language which many Earth scholars had studied; none of whom had been able to become fluent. They were apparently taking attendance, checking their strange metal tablets to verify that each human present matched the profile of the person selected to travel to Sheol. After a brief period, it seemed that all was in order, and they began to usher their human wards onto the pods.

Prosper’s nerves replaced themselves with a cold, numb feeling as one of the sheoli pointed at him and waved him up to the entrance to the pod. As he walked up to the tall, powerful being from another world, he lost feeling in his legs, and he began to feel as though he were floating. His foot glanced off a rock; he felt himself crumple to the dust-covered ground in a heap of human jelly. He was a pile of limp flesh. He couldn’t get up. He felt cold, and, as the sheoli strode over to him he grew fearful.

The alien stood over him, looked down at him with its strange, almond-shaped eyes, and shouted something out to the others. The other two from his pod came over to discuss something, and, for one wild moment, Prosper thought he might be told to go home. This ray of hope, initially a mere thread of light, faded quickly as he was lifted to his feet as two sheoli grasped his arms tightly beneath his armpits. Fleetingly, the memory of his parents laughing and picking him up by his ankles flashed in his mind, gone again as he looked, up-close for the first time, at the face of the sheoli.

Vaguely human, different enough to shock him into further discomfort, the one who had waved him over had unnaturally smooth, white skin. He was tall. Taller than any man Prosper had seen before, and deep, gleaming black eyes that looked like portals to other worlds themselves. He looked down at Prosper with an expression that was unreadable, then, said to the others:

“Mehejjdet”. The sheoli behind Prosper to his left responded:

“Hessanguihm… ehnaadan eyhrro”. They spoke slowly, almost slurring their speech to the point of giving an outsider the impression of laziness. Their language seemed efficient, though, as one never heard a sheoli utter more than one or two words to another before waiting for a reply. They were obviously capable of conveying even complex ideas to one another with a simple word or two. Prosper imagined that it must be similar to the way they wrote: a kind of verbal image that acted as a kind of metaphor to convey an idea. It could be, he thought in a moment of clarity, that they have become such skilled interpreters of metaphors that the process of elimination was a simple part of their system of communication. One would deliver a short phrase; a haiku of sorts to another. The listener would internally process the metaphoric phrase, and, taking all aspects of the current scenario into consideration, decipher the meaning of the phrase. Over perhaps tens of thousands of years of this sort of spoken poetry, they would have become so gifted with insight that they would seem telepathic in the eyes of a human.

The first speaker gave something that looked like a nod of approval, and waved them into the pod. The two sheoli supported Prosper into the pod, then set him down in a kind of seat. It was extremely comfortable, and Prosper tried hard to clear his mind of the desperate, rapid stream of thought that burdened him presently.

The next events washed over him like a dream remembered: Thaddeus slid in a pseudo-casual manner into the strange cloud of a seat next to him, and, as smoothly as Prosper could have imagined, the pod lifted off into the air and began its gradual ascent to the wondrously large ship in the sky above. Prosper had not remembered being able to see into the pod from the outside, but from its interior he could see everything around it: the ground below, tens of thousands of spectators gathered outside the Welcome Center. He could see the skyline of Kigali surrounding the courtyard he’d just left, his home and the home of his family for hundreds of years. As the pod gained altitude, he could begin to see the outlying towns, the Rwandan countryside, and the serpentine shape of Lake Muhazi. He remembered the fishing trips with his father, filled with carefree laughter, all those years ago in another life. He felt hot tears well up in his eyes; they stung and he gave an uncontrollable shudder. He buried his face in his hands; let out a deep, desperate sob. He felt a hand grasp him tightly on the shoulder. When he looked up, he met the gaze of Thaddeus, who gave him a tight, but warm, bracing smile.

“We’re gonna be okay, mate”.

The passengers aboard the pod gave a synchronized lurch forward as the pod made contact with the surrealistically large ship that would take them to Sheol. The door through which they’d left behind the surface of their homeworld reappeared, this time into a spacious chamber, brightly lit, seemingly by its own sun. The sheoli who had shepherded them into the pod now got up from their seats to guide them all into the ship. Prosper got up at the behest of one of them, and he followed the line of passengers out into the vast open chamber of the ship’s interior. He then realized that the chamber was not lit by its own sun, but by the Earth’s sun. As the pod had been, the hull of the sheoli ship was completely transparent: the walls were completely visible and tangible, but did not inhibit one’s ability to see outside. He could see the gray of the streets and the mirrored shine of the glass skyscrapers from Kigali, so far beneath him now that he could hold his hand a foot in front of his face and block out the city’s sprawl in its entirely. He looked up into the deep blue of the Earth’s atmosphere, looking into the bright, fierce light of Sol for what he knew would be the last time.

Prosper returned his gaze to the Earth below, then looked up at the horizon: he could see Lake Victoria, a hundred miles from Kigali. He was overwhelmed by what he could see, and vertigo washed over him. He collapsed once more, this time onto the transparent floor of the sheoli spacecraft, and he fell into a foggy, troubled sleep.

The Hive Mind is Upon Us

Star Trek: The Next Generation featured a civilization of hostile alien cyborgs, known by the Federation as “the Borg”. The crew of the Starship Enterprise had many treacherous encounters with them, and faced great difficulty overcoming the formidable obstacle they presented. The Borg, unlike humans and other sentient life-forms like Vulcans and Klingons, did not exist as individuals, but instead functioned as one singular collective, or “Hive-Mind”. Their goal behind this was to attain perfection through the pooling of information, by way of assimilating beings of different cultures and species into the collective. Effectively, no one Borg mind was capable of independent thought, but the unified consciousness of the Hive contained a wealth of knowledge (accessible to all members of the collective) that spanned hundreds of centuries and across many thousands of planets. More wisdom than any one human could ever hope to attain.

When I was a kid watching the show in the 90s, this was entirely science-fiction. Everything about the Borg, from their monolithic cube spacecraft; to their cybernetic implants; and the concept of the Hive-Mind, was utterly surreal. There was never the vaguest reason to believe that anything about the show could be some kind of prophecy concerning the real world. Fast-forward to the year 2016, and the idea has begun to present itself a little closer to home for me. The cube; the implants; and the pale, hairless bodies may still seem like fantasy, but the Hive-Mind, in its infant stage, exists here on Earth.

Written language has existed in some form or another since around 3200 BCE, and has always been used as a means of sharing information. A way to relate thoughts and opinions to our fellow humans. The Internet, born as a means of communication between universities, saw rapid expansion in the 1990s with file sharing and public domain ownership, and now, with over two billion smartphone users worldwide in 2016, we humans have begun to evolve in a way not at all dissimilar from the Borg.

When engaged in casual conversation, I have lately experienced a decrease in the recollection of personal knowledge and wisdom in favor of fact-checking on the Internet (this does not exlude myself). The scenario is familiar to everyone in my generation:

“What’s the name of that guy who plays Matt Murdock in Netflix’ Daredevil”?
“I don’t remember, here, I’ll pull it up”…
*brief moment of silence as a screen is poked, stroked, and scrutinized*
“Ah, Charlie Cox”.
“Yeah! What else was he in? I know I recognize him from somewhere”
*more silence, stroking, and staring*
“Stardust! That one with Claire Danes and Robert De Niro”

This is not, by any extent, meant to be taken as a condemnation of the use of technology in the pursuit of information: that’s what it’s meant for, and I’d be a liar to say I didn’t spend at least an hour surfing the web, checking my facts about Star Trek and Daredevil. The “Hive-Mind” isn’t necessarily bad: it unifies us as humans of Earth, instead of Americans and Chinese, whites and blacks, Christians and Muslims, men and women. Each year, thanks to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and the advent of online newspapers, is experienced increasingly similarly by a person in Indonesia and a person in Indiana. Of course it would be inaccurate to say that cultural diversity is disappearing: we haven’t become the Borg completely! But there is a constantly expanding singularity that exists at the heart of humanity, and the Internet is its brain. I expect this to become more prevalent in the years to come, and it’s exciting to imagine what we will accomplish as a species through the sharing of experience and wisdom with one another.

However much there is to be gained by the pooling of information and the further evolution of the collective mind, I can’t help but wonder: what is there to be lost? The ability to create, or even the concept of self? Is it possible that we could become just like the Borg, with no sense of inividuality, a race of drones seeking the betterment of society as one collective organism? Imagine what the state of affairs will be in the year 3016 (assuming that civilization remains on its current trajectory), and certain aspects of Star Trek don’t seem completely out of the left-field.

The one who thinks and acts independently has historically been the one to break through the noise and take civilization leaps beyond where it stood: Einstein with his Theory of Relativity; Mandela’s political and social revolution and battle against predjudice; Wendy Carlos’ embrace of modern electronics technology for use in the fields of art and music. These people have shaken the very groundwork for how we percieve existence, and they accomplished that not through the easy access of common knowledge, but through independent, original thought and creativity. If we continue along the path of trading in our personal experience for collective wisdom, will we lose the ability to innovate?

Again: my aim is not to shame the use of technology; simply to provoke creative thought and imagination. While it may perhaps be overtly dramatic to say that the Internet will drain humankind of its ability to innovate, it may not be completely unreasonable to examine the effects it has had on the individual mind, or where it is taking us as a race. The Internet, like rock music, is here to stay; and so it may be beneficial to take two steps backward and look inwardly at ourselves; to identify ourselves as individuals and reach out to personal experience and wisdom instead of gravitating automatically to one’s pocket for an answer. Sometimes the mere act of wondering can spark an original idea, where an immediate answer would only have stopped the train of thought in its tracks.

An Observation

“Cheese” says singularity. It is uniform; it causes one to think all cheese is one in the same. Irreverent, and plain. Fine for those bags of pre-shredded dairy by-product.

“Cheeses” denotes quality: it evokes the thought that there is more to life than cheddar. It tells of diversity, and a multitude of selection. This is classy: used for things like Asiago and Fontina and Mascarpone.

Darrel’s Cheese

or

Montepierre’s Fine Cheeses

We must ask ourselves: which sounds more inviting?

The difference one letter can make is astronomical.