There is no right way to ZOIA

October 25 2020

Christopher Jacques

How do you use ZOIA?  Whatever you answer, I am here to tell you that your way is right.  At the same time, I'm also here to argue that no way is right (for everyone).  I contain multitudes.  So does ZOIA.  So do you.

When people describe ZOIA, they inevitably resort to a language that is comfortable to themselves -- we always speak to ourselves, first.  So, ZOIA becomes a "modular synthesizer" or a "multi-effects box."  But here's what ZOIA really is:  a blank slate.  Tabula rasa.

Open an empty patch on ZOIA and it stares back at you, this blankness.  However you fill that void reflects what you want to get out of ZOIA at that moment.  Perhaps it is some wild, generative sound machine, an eldritch thought finally given form.  Perhaps it is a noise gate, because you need a noise gate, right now, dang house lights!  Perhaps you just really need ZOIA to display fruits and vegetables for you when you play.  This blankness might be filled with a creation of your own making; it might be the work of another patcher, who you are suddenly in communion with through this strange conduit.

I've shared this advice, from time to time, in private conversation:  "ZOIA wasn't designed to be anything in particular.  That is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness."  Some speak of it as a "platform," but this simple statement can overlook what a platform is:  it's  just something that you construct something else on top of.  If you need any further proof of ZOIA's inherent blankness, go back to Empress's delightful teaser for ZOIA, which features ZOIA asking Steve Bragg plainly, "What am I?"

Tabula rasa.  No one knows what ZOIA is, because ZOIA becomes whatever you make it.  Steve and Jay, ZOIA's designers, have both told me that people use ZOIA in ways that they could never have imagined.  That isn't because they lack vision; it's because you possess it.

But this open-endedness invites a trap of the mind, too, called solipsism.  With so many possibilities, it becomes easy to believe that because one's approach to ZOIA suits their inclinations, it ought to be the ideal for everyone; we always speak to ourselves first.  The most common form this solipsism takes is when some users tell others that ZOIA doesn't come alive, that you don't get the most out of it, that you don't really appreciate it, that you don't use it the right way until you begin designing your own patches.

But I wonder, who made the Octavia?  Roger Mayer or Jimi Hendrix?  One built the circuit; the other made it sing.  Did Robert Moog and Don Buchla make the synthesizer iconic, or did Wendy Carlos and Suzanne Ciani?

Design without application is as good as Penrose's staircase:  a fantastic concept which goes nowhere.  I've had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of that wonder Steve and Jay and everyone at Empress must feel, seeing my own patches used by musicians far beyond my ability and imagination.  Did the patch make the music, or did the musician?  Which of us was using ZOIA "the right way"?

And -- mea culpa -- in the past, I've fallen into the trap of solipsism as well.  I'll probably fall into it in the future, too.  We all skitter along its edge; sometimes, it is hard to remember that my experience and yours don't need to align.  In fact, we're all better for this diversity of method and insight and passion.

It leads to things neither of us could have imagined on our own.

Who am I to say this?  No better place to introduce oneself than at the end.  My name is Christopher Jacques.  I've designed an awful lot of patches for ZOIA and written an awful lot about patching.  Most of my future writing for this blog will focus on patching, too, whether it is explaining audio processes or long, earnest love letters to comparators -- that's my experience.  But if that writing doesn't speak to your own experience with or interest in ZOIA, I ask:  How do you use ZOIA?

Whatever you answer, I am here to tell you that your way is right.