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Musikmesse 2015 – Eurorack 101

MarcoMarco

Among all the new products introduced at NAMM 2015, some things immediately captured our attention. Today I’m going to focus on a particular category. Somebody call them “bread and butter” modules, some others prefer the word “classics”. Those are the kind of modules that remind me why, as a kid, I got incredibly excited by those amazing new sounds. At the same time, these are the ones I’d use to teach synthesis to someone who’s new to such a thing. It’s all about the simple layout, the carefully implemented features, the omissions, the fact that modules actually do one thing and beg you to patch them together. Regarding this approach, Doepfer is the first name that occurs to me…but let’s see what this year’s Musikmesse brought to the Eurorack ecosystem.

Roland System 500

Roland Aira Modular complete lineup - courtesy Roland

Roland Aira Modular complete lineup – courtesy of  Roland

Many words have been spent. “Will they really do it?” You may have read it here too, in our “Big Fish, Little Fish” article. At last, at MusikMesse 2015 we discovered it was true: Roland finally dipped its toe in the modular pond. Well, actually it’s a bit more than a toe. The AIRA Modular series brings 3 eurorack related if rather polarizing news:

  1. System 1-M, a semi-modular, patchable and digitally reprogrammable analogue-modeled synth (SH-101, SH2 and Pro-Mars plug-out are available at the moment)
  2. Bitrazer (crusher), Demora (delay), Scooper (scatter) and Torchido (distortion): digital, cv-controlled sound effects that will be expandable with 15 patchable software submodules;
  3. If Roland going modular wasn’t enough, there’s the thing almost nobody imagined, and someone might still have missed if he limits his information source to shadows projected on the wall of his modular cave: Roland System 500 modules.

Back in the 1976, the System 700 was officially advertised as “Roland’s finest creative answer” to Moog’s and Arp modulars, with 47 different modules available and a price that was suitable to those giants. Word is that production figures of complete systems never reached triple-digits.
Fast forward to 1978. The cheaper System 100m was presented to the world as “A flexible system for today’s creative musician”. Suddenly, modular synths were “affordable”: modules like the M110, packing a VCO, a VCF and a VCA in a small brick, were the gateway to modular in a world that was attracted to cheaper analog mono-synths.
Today Roland presents the new System 500 as “an all-new, fully analog modular synthesizer (…) with all the advantages and reliability of a modern instrument”.
For the first time after more than 30 years, Roland is back to analog modular synths and it’s not alone. That little stylized “M” logo at the bottom of the system 500 modules is a hint to a great story behind them.
Malekko’s Josh Holley got in touch with Roland at the Tokyo Modular fest in 2014; apparently, their chat had been so pleasing that, when he wrote them proposing a collaboration on new Roland modules, they responded that they were thinking pretty much about the same thing. Suddenly, Josh found himself in Hamamatsu, where he’s given all the schematics he asks for; moreover, he’s encouraged to add features instead of cloning a particular module. So, he went on and expanded on the system 700 or the 100m. Here are the first five modules.

Roland 500 Series Modules - Courtesy of Roland

Roland 500 Series Modules – courtesy of Roland

512: Dual VCO with discrete square, triangle and sawtooth output. Pulse width can be manually set and voltage controlled; then, there’s a nice hard/soft sync switch beside the SYNC IN and OUT plugs. Finally, the lower part of the module is dedicated to modulation, with 3 inputs and 3 attenuators. All the controls are sliders except for the coarse and fine tuning knobs that shine proudly in the middle.

521: this dual VCF can be fed through its 3 input mixer. The filter itself should sound more like a 100m or SH-100 because, according to what we heard, it’s not a diode filter. So, 2 knobs for the low-pass filter and resonance control, a 4 -position switch for the high-pass filter (OFF, 1, 2, 3). Again, there’s a modulation section with 3 inputs and attenuators that will certainly make for some interesting modulated cutoff patterns.

530: dual 3-input VCA, with switchable linear/exponential response and the added bonus of the multiple mod input we’ve seen on previous modules.

540: dual ADSR envelope generator that can be triggered manually, with a trigger, a gate signal and, by flipping a switch to cycle mode, you get a looping envelope. The cherry on top is the LFO, squeezed between the two envelope generators. Square, triangle, sawtooth, reverse sawtooth and sine -looks promising.

572: no, this is not a dual module. It’s more than that. There’s a deep sounding and appealing phaser with a useful CV controlled wet/dry crossfader. Then, there’s a delay section with control over time, resonance and mix; I’m expecting a very short delay, Roland M172-style but I’d be more than happy to be wrong and discover they went for a 4096 stages BBD instead of a 512 one! The last two functions of this busy module are a very simple LFO, normalled to the phaser MOD, and a useful gate delay.

The modules we’ve seen at the Messe 2015 are prototypes in various stages and quoting Josh Holley, “I met the gentleman who made the System 100m at NAMM last year (…) and I want his final approval before we go into production”.

Electronic Music Works

EMW is not a new company. Some of us, shallow pocketed gear junkies, even managed to get some of their modules but that’s not news. The real news that made me raise an eyebrow in a creepy way is that their entire module range will be distributed in Europe by french music store Univers-sons.
It means that more of us will get the chance to lay their hands on the modules made by this interesting Brazilian company. Take a look at the EMW-200, one of the first synths they made, and you’ll see a  system deeply inspired by the EML ElectroComp Model 200. In the late sixties EML started making some simple semi-modular synth equipment for the educational market, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Paulo Sergio dos Santos, EMW’s designer and owner, told me that’s what inspired him to make these simple but somehow enticing modules that started popping up on his site in the summer of 2012.

Right now you can count 96 modules on EMW’s website.
Among the current list of modules, you’ll find a selection of filters inspired by classic ones by EML, ARP, Roland, Moog, and Steiner-Parker Synthacon.
Take a look at these:

courtesy of EMW Brazil

Courtesy of EMW Brazil

VOLTAGE CONTROLLED WAVETABLE LFO
This module has a selection of 31 internal samples ranging from simple waveforms to noises, rhythmic and asymmetrical shapes that can be used as is or internally smoothed.

MULTI BP FILTER
What would you do with a voltage control over 3 band-pass resonant filters housed in a 10 HP module?

NOISE STATION
It sports 6 noise generators: white, pink, yellow, silver, shimmer 1 and shimmer 2; and that’s covers only a third of the modules functions.

MIX SEQUENCER
Vaguely reminiscing the 1050 Mix sequencer on the Arp 2500. A module that does exactly what it says on its box. Soon to be released.

If you’re still reading, I presume you’re liking the quirky, funky details and there’s more: midi in and thru ports on most oscillators, sample based modules like digidrums that can be factory-customized with your samples, a 6dB/Oct low-pass filter. You get the idea.
There are also a lot of utility modules including an interesting selection of switches, logic, multiples, mixers and so on.
Beware that some modules don’t have voltage control over some parameters and all of them are approximately 50 mm ( 2 inches) deep including connectors, so that could be a deal killer for skiff enthusiasts.
By the way, there’s an interesting selection of rather cheap modules on their way and, if you don’t like the “mini-MU” look, you can also get them with aluminum panels. To me EMW’s products are the kind of things you tend to ignore because you’re dreaming of something more exotic and feature-packed but, in the end, they’re so cheap you could build a starter system for the price of a single (insert pricey module here). Otherwise, you could slip some here and there in your rack and avoid ending up with a patch cable in your hand struggling to find a free VCA.

erica synths

erica synths' Black Series Modules and 6U case - courtesy of erica synths

Black Series modules and 6U case – courtesy of erica synths

This came as a surprise to most. Their booth was packed full of new modules, cases and all the classics the got them known among us, Eurorack addicts. The queen of the show is the Black Line series, coming this year with a growing range of wittily designed modules. These modules, with their nice, chunky black knobs, sacrifice some HPs in favor of ergonomics and features. There’s little info about that, at the moment, but you could take a look at their website while you wait for an upcoming horizontalpitch interview with Girts Ozolins, erica synths’ founder.

The fact is, we live in a world lit by synth stars of the past. Classics lead to inspiration. Inspired minds keep building upon this legacy and give us something we’ve never seen before.

Next stop: modules from the future.

Marco is a human being who believes in musical "moments of being" and likes to find beauty in spontaneity 4Nd errors. He spends most of his time making music that sounds like a mix between vintage Russian sci-fi soundtracks and those tunes you can't stop humming in the shower.