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To begin, let’s get acquainted with the layouts of each iteration of norns – stock and shield:


figure 1: stock norns and shield legend

power on

stock

  • Hold K1 for four seconds.
  • Until you’ve performed this process a few times, it might help to look at the light next to the POWER jack. You’ll see it transition from white, to peach, to amber – you can let go of K1 at amber.
  • In a few seconds, you’ll see a sparkle animation on the screen. Some call it a dust. Either way, norns is on.

shield

  • Confirm that you’ve followed all of the steps in the norns shield assembly guide.
  • Attach a high quality Raspberry Pi power supply that provides at least 2A at 5V to the micro USB port on the Pi.
    • If using a power supply which has a detachable USB cable, make sure the cable is 24AWG or less. Lower AWG = lower noise & more stable voltage delivery for better performance.
  • The red light on the Pi will be steady, while the not-red light will flash.
  • In a few seconds, you’ll see a sparkle animation on the screen. Some call it a dust. Either way, norns is on.

After norns powers up, it will launch the last script that was loaded. On a fresh norns, this will be awake, a set of looping sequencers with delay.

There are two layers to the norns UI – a multi-page menu interface and a script’s playable interface. A quick tap of K1 is how you swap focus between these layers. In the diagram below, a quick K1 tap toggles between the multi-page menu layer (top row) and the current script’s playable interface (bottom image). While you are inside of the playable interface, the encoders and keys perform script-specific actions. Once you are in the menu interface, use E1 to switch between the different menus (LEVELS, TAPE, HOME, PARAMETERS). We’ll explore each of these menus in the rest of the docs!


figure 2: interface layers

power off

stock

  • Press K1 and navigate to HOME.
  • Use E2 to select SLEEP.
  • Press K3. You’ll be asked to confirm.
  • Press K3 again to go to SLEEP.
  • After a few seconds, norns is off.

shield

  • Press K1 and navigate to HOME.
  • Use E2 to select SLEEP.
  • Press K3. You’ll be asked to confirm.
  • Press K3 again to go to SLEEP.
  • Wait until you see the not-red light on the side of the Pi stop blinking and go out completely.

Only after the not-red light on the side of the Pi is no longer on can you safely remove the power connector from the Pi. If the not-red light is steady or blinking, do not disconnect power.

core terminology

As you navigate these documents, you’ll encounter a few key phrases which have specific meaning in the norns ecosystem. To help ease the cognitive load, here’s some of the core terminology:

term definition
script Analogous to a Game Boy cartridge, a script re-defines what norns is right now. When loaded, it takes over the main interface and translates button presses, encoder turns, grid button holds, incoming MIDI, etc into musical activity as defined by the script’s summary (eg. live sampling manipulator, no-input drone box, polyphasic sequencer, etc). Only one script can run at a time, though individual scripts can do many things at once. A script typically has two main components: a SuperCollider engine and Lua code.
SuperCollider An open-source synthesis platform which creates sound in the norns system.
engine SuperCollider code which defines the types of sounds that a currently-running script will make. Some scripts bundle their own engines, while others might rely on engines from other scripts. Some scripts don’t use any SuperCollider engine at all – these most often use the built-in sampling layer (see softcut) or create streams of data (eg. MIDI) to be interpreted by other outboard gear.
softcut A six-voice sampler bundled with the norns software, which can be addressed through live-code or scripting. Each of the six voices can programmatically record into and play back from either of two ~5 minute mono audio buffers. For examples of scripts which creatively explore softcut’s power, see: mlr, cheat codes, oooooo, and wrms.
Lua A powerful, lightweight, and approachable language which is used to create the playable structure of every norns script. Lua glues together SuperCollider engines, incoming audio, grids, arcs, crows,  MIDI, OSC, etc into an easy-to-use interface for performing artists.

awake

Before we dive into exploring the system menus, lets play with the script that loaded when you turned on your norns and has been happily generating music as you read.

Here’s a quick guide to each of the modes in awake.

E1 switches between modes

STEP

  • E2 navigates position, E3 changes position
  • K2 toggles the sequence to edit. K1+K2 clears all steps
  • K3 morphs the current sequence. K1+K3 randomizes

LOOP

  • E2 / E3 sets loop length
  • K2 resets to play to zero
  • K3 jumps to random position

SOUND

awake uses the PolyPerc engine to generate the synth tones. awake also uses softcut configured as a monophonic half-second delay. Both PolyPerc and softcut have a number of useful parameters to change the sound of what’s playing.

  • K2 / K3 changes parameters
  • E2 / E3 adjusts selected parameter

    parameters:

    • cut: filter cutoff frequency. higher hertz/hz values reveal more of the engine’s timbral character.
    • gain: filter resonance. higher gain creates tonal focus at the cutoff frequency, further shaping the engine’s output. careful: high values can create unwanted self-oscillation.
    • pw: pulse width. adds string-like timbres as the distance between waveform cycles widens or closes.
    • rel: release. extend or shorten the length of a played tone.
    • fb: feedback (for delay). control how much past material should remain in the delay buffer.
    • rate: rate (for delay). with delays, duration and pitch are linked. if there is past material in the delay buffer, changing rate will change the pitch of the playback while adjusting the time it takes for the delay to loop.
    • pan: panning (for engine). change the placement of the engine in the stereo field.
    • delay_pan: panning (for delay). change the placement of the delay in the stereo field. very fun to offset from the engine panning.

OPTION

  • E2 adjusts BPM
  • K1+E2 change division
  • E3 changes root note
  • K1+E3 selects scale

(bonus: try plugging in a grid.)

Most norns scripts rely on these types of interactions — re-definable encoders, two-button presses in the form of hold-one-press-the-other, turning an encoder while a modifier button is held, etc.

levels

DO NOT plug modular-level signals into norns (neither stock or shield) – norns is designed for line levels only.

To begin our menu dive, let’s adjust the audio levels.

Tap K1 to come up from the script layer to the menus layer and turn E1 counter-clockwise until you see pairs of vertical sliders.


figure 3: setting levels

  • K2 / K3: select previous pair / select next pair
  • E2 / E3: adjust left level / adjust right level

The horizontal notch represents unity. All levels can go to +6dB.

out
controls the final output of the global mix
in
determines how much of an external input is fed into the script
mon
allows the input to be monitored as part of the global mix
eng
controls the output level of the script's synth engine
cut
determines the mix presence of softcut, a flexible sampling layer
tp
adjusts the level of a playing tape, which is fed into the global mix as well as softcut

parameters

The PARAMETERS menu is where you’ll find helpful system controls as well as performance-centric settings for each script.

changing the sounds

Use E1 to navigate to PARAMETERS, and enter the EDIT menu with K3.


figure 4: editing parameters

At the top of this menu are controls for each component of the global audio chain.

LEVELS
controls output, input, monitoring, engine, softcut and tape levels
REVERB
adjusts the system reverb and send levels for the currently loaded engine, softcut, monitor, and tape
COMPRESSOR
adjusts the system compressor, which is the final stage of the audio processing
SOFTCUT
adjusts the output and send levels for the six-voice system sampler
CLOCK
reveals controls for the norns global clock. The clock can be synced to a number of sources, including MIDI, Ableton Link, and crow. We'll dig into specifics about clock later, but it's good to know about!

Scrolling down further, we find some of the script’s parameters. These are chosen by the script’s author and can be adjusted by using E3.

saving presets

To recall and build on the changes you’ve made in a future session, we can save all the parameters as a PSET (preset).


figure 5: saving parameters / PSET

Use E2 to navigate down the left column of the PSET screen.
Use E3 to navigate down the right.
The currently loaded PSET will have an asterisk * next to it

save preset / PSET

  • select SAVE and press K3 to open the naming dialogue
  • use E3 to switch to the alphabet and E2 to choose letters
  • K3 enters the selected letter
  • use E3 to navigate back to the controls (use E2 and K3 on DEL to delete a letter)
  • press K3 on OK to save

load preset / PSET

  • select LOAD and use E3 to choose a saved PSET
  • press K3 to load the selected PSET

delete preset / PSET

  • select DELETE and use E3 to choose a saved PSET
  • press K3 to delete the selected PSET

tape

norns has a built-in mechanism to play audio files underneath a script as well as record system audio, so you don’t need connect a separate recording device to capture your creations.

play

These changing melodies are lovely, but they’re a bit removed from the natural world. Let’s load a field recording of hermits to loop underneath.

Jump to the menus interface and use E1 to navigate to the tape screen.


figure 6: playing a tape

select loop

  • with the PLAY lane selected, press K3 to open the audio folder
  • the audio folder contains both folders and single clips
    • folders will be prepended with /, without a duration
    • clips will be prepended with their filetype (eg. .wav) and a duration
    • want to import more clips into your norns? see wifi + files.

PLAY expects 48khz files (both stereo and mono supported). WAV, AIFF, FLAC and other uncompressed header / sample formats supported by libsndfile will all work (including RAW).

start/stop loop

  • when a clip is loaded, its name will be reflected on the PLAY lane
  • press K3 to START playback
  • during playback, press K3 to STOP and clear the sound

As of this writing, sounds always loop and there are no additional transport controls.

rec

This all sounds pretty nice – perhaps you’d like to record it?

On the tape screen, press K2 to switch between the PLAY and REC lanes.


figure 7: recording a tape

record

  • with the REC lane selected, press K3 to open the naming dialogue
  • name your tape, or feel free to use the pre-populated counter
    • see figure 5 for tips on navigating the naming dialogue
  • when you arrive back at the tape menu, press K3 to record

REC creates 48khz stereo WAV files and stores them under we/dust/audio/tape

stop recording

  • with the REC lane selected, press K3 stop an active recording
  • the tape will be saved as a stereo 48khz .wav file with the name you gave it

what gets recorded exactly?

In the simplest terms, everything you hear from the main output is committed to a recording tape. This includes the system reverb, compressor, monitor audio, as well as any tape that might be playing. If you are recording for further processing in a DAW, you may want to turn off the system reverb and compressor for a more barebones sound.

select

Now that we have a nice awake session under our belts, let’s explore some of the other scripts on norns!

Tap K1 and navigate to the home menu, then press K3 on SELECT:


figure 8: selecting a script

  • use E2 to scroll through installed scripts
  • press K3 to open a description of the selected script
    • press K3 again to load the selected script
    • press K2 to return to the SELECT menu

favorites

When you entered the SELECT menu, you might’ve noticed an asterisk next to awake – this signifies a favorite script, which places it at the top of the scroll. This makes it easy to quickly access your go-to’s!

To add a favorite, turn E3 clockwise on any script in the SELECT menu.
To remove a favorite, turn E3 counter-clockwise on any already-favorited script.

keyboard

Many of the top-layer menus are also navigable with an attached USB keyboard. Current support is minimal, contributions welcome.

When the screen UI is on the menus interface:

  • F1: LEVELS

  • F2: TAPE

  • F3: HOME

  • F4: PARAMETERS

On all menus:

  • arrow up / arrow down: E2 with delta +/- 1

  • pageup / pagedown: E2 with delta +/- 6

  • arrow left / arrow right: K2 / K3

where to next?

Now that you know the basics of navigating the system, adjusting a script’s parameters, and recording the results, you should feel free to explore the dozens of community scripts preloaded on your norns. To learn more about the default scripts, check out the app page!

Want to connect to WIFI to download more scripts? Want to transfer TAPE files? Want to make sure norns is up to date? Check out wifi + files!