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A blogzine about modular synthesizers, music experiments and life without presets


“This life-like quality makes our approach very different from what’s called the classical electronic music studio, which uses oscillators, filters, equalizers, and other laboratory instruments, […] Luening and Ussachevsky were getting started with that at the same time we were. I felt that that was the wrong direction, because laboratory instruments are made to be very precise and very definite, and people aren’t. Art isn’t.”

— Louis Barron (on Keyboard Magazine February 1986: 54-65)

Musikmesse 2015 – Eurorack 101

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 [...]

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In our sonic microcosmos we have the modular and the world around it, with only a very narrow path connecting the two. It all starts in our mind, we imagine a sound, or at least we imagine an action that will result in one. We interact with the instrument by turning the knobs, pressing some buttons, sliding our fingers over capacitive touch surfaces. Through our gestures the outside world enters the modular and becomes electric tension and digital data. These then exit the circuits as vibrations, speakers make the air move. The sound has been released into the world.

Now, if you’re like me, you’ll sometimes feel that this narrow path, connecting the modular to the outside world, could be made a bit wider, or the paths could be more numerous. Musikmesse 2015 brought us some modules that might be doing just that. Let’s see them in detail.

New Ways to Control your Instrument

soundmachines already have a wide selection of control modules in their portfolio, from the very basic (but also very useful) LS1lightstrip, to the more exotic BL1brainterface EEG sensor module. At this year’s Musikmesse they presented two new modules: a heartbeat sensor and an alcohol tester module. While it has to be seen if the latter will be more of a gag, than a really usable device, the first one opens up some interesting possibilities.

The soundmachines booth at Messe2015, photo curtesy of Davide Mancini – soundmachines

The soundmachines booth at Messe2015, photo curtesy of Davide Mancini – soundmachines

In 2014 I was involved in a project called sen | xor, which focussed on the use of biometric sensors to control modular synths and other electronic instruments. For that project we developed both a brain-to-modular and a heartbeat-to-modular interface. Both sensors were applied to the listener and the resulting data was used to control the music and the visuals. The heartbeat was used to generate a clock signal, which we used to sync the modulars to. This resulted in a very human rhythm, which would change over time and create interesting feedback effects (since an increase in speed would in turn affect the heart rate of the listener). While this might be a bit too specific for “everyday use” it’s still a very interesting addition to the limited landscape of currently available control modules.

To get a taste of what their new modules do I’ll refer you to the excellent Messe coverage by Tuesday Night Machines.

A very promising newcomer on the eurorack market this year has been Bastl Instruments, based in Brno, Check Republic. Apart from cranking out 17 (yes seventeen!) new modules in what feels like a very short time, they also have some really interesting ones! For example they have an upcoming any-type-of-analogue-sensor-to-CV-or-GATE module which opens up a huge array of possibilities. From using standard light dependent resistors to modulate parameters, to converting water drips into random gates. These modules are quite obviously the development of Václav Peloušek’s diploma work, which we had seen last year. In case you missed it, let me post that video again!

The Motorised Modular

Bastl has a lot more in store for you though! What really caught our attention (apparently everybody’s attention from what I see online) are the new motor modules. You get one module for every type of motor on the market, be it solenoid, DC or servo. Again, the possibilities are vast and extremely exciting. From using your system to play an acoustic drum set, to creating that mouse organ you’ve been dreaming of. Again Tuesday Night Machines has a nice video about these modules.

Btw. if you’ve been hiding on the dark side of the moon lately, check out their channel for a complete Messe modular coverage.

We’ll soon be back with two interviews: one with Davide Mancini from soundmachines and another one with the guys from Bastl!

Musikmesse2015 – the Modular and the World Outside

In our sonic microcosmos we have the modular and the world around it, with only a very narrow path connecting the two. It all starts in our mind, we imagine a sound, or at least we imagine an action that will result in one. We interact with the instrument by turning the knobs, pressing some buttons, sliding our fingers over capacitive [...]

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Rosenboom and Buchla: Collaboration in Performance (photo courtesy of David Rosenbaum)

Rosenboom and Buchla: Collaboration in Performance (photo courtesy of David Rosenbaum)

If you’re into modulars, you may have heard several times words like east coast and west coast. I guess you also read a lot of things about Don Buchla and Bob Moog, their approach to synthesis and their contribution to music making as we now see it. Let’s focus about a slightly less discussed feature instead: the enclosures they came with. The creations of Bob Moog were encased in tall, deep upright cases; sometimes, upper rows may have been tilted forward to improve usability but the only thing that was supposed to lay flat was the keyboard. Don Buchla’s machines, on the other side (no pun intended), weren’t designed with chromatic keyboards in mind: sequencers and touch controls took the place of Moog’s keyboard and were housed in shallow tabletop cases.

This isn’t meant to be a history lesson: it’s all about the legacy of these modular giants and their influence on Eurorack synths and their sweet cases, boxes, racks, boats or skiffs.

Nowadays, you can get a decent modular without the need to sell your Fabergé eggs collection. At the moment, there are more than 150 companies in the Eurorack market producing a total number of modules easily passing the four digits. So many modules to choose from and then…you’re stuck again shopping for the right case: you can get small 3U, 84HP enclosures or monster cases that will hardly fit in your car unless it’s a Hummer. At first, choices were scarce but, in the last few years, the spectrum got wider and wider.
Today I’m starting with a selection of cases but consider it the first part of a series…

The Classic

Doepfer A-100 P6 

Doepfer System 1 in portable 6U case A-100P6 - (picture courtesy of Doepfer Musikelektronik)

Doepfer System 1 in portable 6U case A-100P6 – (picture courtesy of Doepfer Musikelektronik)

Introduced in 1997 at the Frankfurt Music Messe as the portable versions of the A-100 base frame and slightly modified through time, the P6 can be considered a classic in its own right. It’s 84hp wide and 6U tall, has got a built-in PSU and, in case you didn’t notice the handle on top, it’s portable.

This case is as tough as it looks. The flight-case-style construction gives strength to the whole structure and that thick rim around the edge looks like a warranty against terrible things waiting to happen: just imagine the guy who’s playing with you thinks it’s 1969, on Woodstock’s stage with billions of eyes waiting for him to set his guitar’s on fire and…well, he flips your case over. It’s not the first thing you notice when you’re looking at Doepfer’s portable case but, since the modules sit slightly recessed in the case, the knobs won’t even touch the ground. Yes, you may want to do some careful “module-Tetris”, bearing in mind that feature-packed modules with lots of knobs on the sides, may sit too close to the rim and feel hard to reach. Do you want to know another advantage of such design choice? You can close the case when patched: knob wiggling is just a couple of latches away! Just check your modules aren’t deeper than 10 cm (3,90 inches) and remember that, given the presence of a chubby Toroidal transformer, the lower right side has an approximate usable depth of 7 cm (2,75 inches). The two 84 HP rows are easily powered by a sturdy PSU giving 1200 mA on both +12V and -12v.
If you’re way under this power requirement, you could consider its bigger brother, the A-100 P9, where number 9 stands for, you guessed it, 9U. So, you get one more row of modules in a rather compact package but be sure you do your maths right and factor in at least 20% of headroom and stay below 1A.
The latest revision on sale now sports a mains outlet on the rear panel whereas the 1st revision used an 8HP panel on the front; you lose the chance to use it horizontally but gain 8 HP. Its rubber feets make it easy to stack and at the same time quickly close and transport like a simple briefcase. Oh, did I mention it’s got a handle?

The Stylish Classic

WeedyWhizz 6U

WeedyWhizz 6U 104 HP (picture courtesy of WheedyWhizz)

WeedyWhizz 6U 104 HP (picture courtesy of WheedyWhizz)

Steffen Ahmad is an IT guy with outstanding woodworking skills. He started making cases  as a hobby, sold some on Muffwiggler, then, when somebody thought he gave up, he popped up with a nice selection of Buchla, Serge and Eurorack cases.
WeedyWhizz Euro cases can be built to custom sizes and finish and the website shows an interesting selection of genuinely inspired enclosures with a bit of Buchla boat and early system 300/700 wood sides. In a certain way, they start with the same approach as the 4ms modular rows or Tip Top’s Station 252 but, while the aforementioned cases are aluminum, WeedyWhizz cases are entirely made out of wood with the exception of the hardware – and you know this makes everything sound more analog.
The one that gets my attention today is the little 6U. You get a total 208 HP in a case that feels at home both in a studio and a living. I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable touring with it and bringing it on stage given its beautiful finish and the lack of a proper lid but, please, prove me wrong. Bus boards aren’t included in the build but Steffen has clearly put a lot of effort into making it as easy as possible: you can get a TipTopAudio Studio Bus and slot it in. Everything’s pre-wired and almost ready to go. It will accommodate modules up to 64mm deep and, if you go for the recommended bus boards, you’ll get plenty of power, with 2,6A on +12V, 1,6A on -12V and 600mA of 5V power (Braids, Monome…anyone?)
I bet you could easily convince the maker to paint it the same color of your favourite My little pony character but, you guessed it, I like this case a lot and would certainly go with this Oak and black combo that makes it hard to stop staring at it and start churning out some bleeps and bloops.

The Tiny Gem

Sound Machines FMJ3

3 FMJ3 Cases ready to be patched up (picture courtesy of Davide Mancini - Soundmachines

3 FMJ3 Cases ready to be patched up (picture courtesy of Davide Mancini – Sound Machines)

Sound Machines, as you can find out on their website, is “the brainchild of a part electronic developer part musician and a company named SPES, active since 15 years in Italy and Europe in the market of research and development of electronic platforms for appliances, industrial automation, home automation and fitness equipment.”
Their recent plunge into Euro market has brought several interesting modules like the LS1 and LP1 touch controllers and the BI1, the first commercially available brainwave to synthesizer interface. All of their modules deserve a better treatment so I’ll stop right here and promise to continue on a dedicated article.
The FMJ3 is their first modular case. It’s an 84 HP, 3U brushed stainless steel enclosure finished with a nice clear coating that keeps it from getting so dirty it changes color. What sets this tiny silver box apart from everything else is the interesting addition of an integrated VESA 100 mounting hardware. There are so many VESA mounting options on the market that you might even find it hard to make a choice. You could follow Soundmachines’ lead you find pictured here, make it into a modular Octopus Synth or, who knows, maybe your significant other would agree to rip the TV off the wall and revel in your modular’s light show.
On the power side, you get 800 mA on both +12V and -12V, with a 1A 5v build option. Just grab a suitable DC adapter and, there you go, you get a sweet little case that can be used as a tabletop standalone synth, used as a skiff in front of other cases or float above everything else.

The Mysterious Case of the Expanding Modular. Eurorack Case Guide – Part 1

Rosenboom and Buchla: Collaboration in Performance (photo courtesy of David Rosenbaum)
If you’re into modulars, you may have heard several times words like east coast and west [...]

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