The joys of knobs. And patch points. And empty bank accounts.
While this may be old news to my followers on Soundcloud, Twitter and Instagram, I’ve configured my first Eurorack-format modular synthesizer. These cabled amalgamations of faceplates, cables, circuits, and glowing LEDs are desirable, fetishized, addictive, and steeped in history. But, really, they’re just tools.
But what tools they are. Modular synthesizers are no longer relegated to the dustbin of history, nor an underground elite (as well documented in the excellent documentary, I Dream of Wires). They have come roaring back, arguably leading the way in technical synthesis innovation, and are a commonplace instrument in many studios. This boom has even gotten the heavyweights of mass market synthesizers, like Roland, to (re)release Eurorack modules, and pop musicians like Martin Gore to release all-modular electronic albums.
Everyone’s path to modular synthesis is different, as is mine. But why did I go modular? How did I even know where to begin? And how can I hope to stem the addictive nature of constantly adding low-cost modules, which leads it to be known as “Eurocrack?”
It’s tempting to just buy flavor-of-the-month new products, but that way lies financial ruin and a studio full of stuff you don’t use. The way to stem the financial bleed and random module selection is to place limitations on the process. For me, the limitations were as follows.
I’ve got a significant investment in existing software and hardware that I want to honor and leverage, not duplicate. I’m designing an additional instrument, not building a new studio.
I have limited physical space in my home studio. Therefore my case will be on the small side, and that will enforce limits on the number of modules I can purchase.
I will “version” the modular synth and roadmap it, as if I was designing an actual instrument or a piece of software. I will buy modules in two initial rounds: v0.5 to instantiate the most basic system to ensure that the workflow and gestalt of modular synthesis does actually speak to me, and then a v1.0 that I will live with for a year. Only after user testing – my own, of course – can I roadmap a meaningful path to a v1.5, v2.0, and so on.
Everything’s a Design Problem
I’ve spent my career breaking down everything, from human relationship challenges to sound design, as a set of design problems. This helps frame the real problem so that solutions are more meaningful. So, I asked myself: What’s the problem I’m trying to solve, or am I just lusting after gear? (Spoiler: It’s both!)
My current system lacked in two key areas: complex modulation options and the ability to support serendipity. My existing tools didn’t have much in the way for allowing for happy accidents, randomness, and cross-modulated signals and patterns of control. When my most interesting and complex synthesized rhythms and timbres I was creating were coming from Propellerhead Reason during my morning bus commute, I knew something was missing in my main studio.
Software is an expense, hardware is an investment. Software suffers from instability and, over the long haul, the danger of becoming incompatible that many hardware units do not.
With the above considerations, the idea of a flexible, modulation-rich instrument to add to the stable seemed to make sense.
Plus: Blinky lights.
Create Rules of Engagement
Modular synths are, well, modular: Flexibility is what they’re all about. But you are building your own instrument. Without a sense for what you want to accomplish, you’ll overspend and not get what you really need…and, more dangerously, you won’t know when you should stop buying modules. Most of us don’t have the disposable income to buy modules willy-nilly.
Here were my rules of engagement for assembling my modular synth. These will change over time, but it helped me understand what the first iteration of this instrument would be. I wrote these down and re-read them any time I started to think about adding a new module.
No analog oscillators. While that may seem against conventional modular wisdom, I have a total of ten analog oscillators across four other devices. I’ve got this covered. Go for something really unusual as a sound source.
No effects. I know that even if I monitor a track with effects on, I always record dry and have effects as plugins or rendered to separate tracks. I use tons of plugins and stompboxes: I have effects covered already.
Go nuts with modulation. Having enough tools to generate and modify clock signals and control voltages will be critical, because I don’t have digital tools that excel at this. Get more modules that control modulation than produce sound (or, ideally, ones that can do both).
Don’t forget the DAW. I’ve got a significant investment in a computer-based audio workstation that should be leveraged, so ensuring that modulation and clock signals can drive the modular was critical.
Embrace multi-tracking. Look at the modular as a sound design station, instrument, or voice, not as a complete studio. Get enough expressive options to do drones, melodies, and unusual percussion…but I don’t have to do all these things at once. That also means no more than 2 channels in or out of the modular synth.
There’s nothing mysterious about putting a modular together or how it’s used, as long as you have a good grasp of signal flow inside a typical synthesizer. It doesn’t really take any other technical skills other than using a screwdriver, reading directions, and doing simple math around power consumption.
I’ve got solid sync with my DAW.
I’ve got an instrument that can do things none of my other instruments can, and vice-versa.
I’ve got methods to interface with effects pedals, external semi-modular instruments (even with different interconnects), my DAW, and even my iPad. It’s deeply integrated into the rest of my studio.
It’s small. Full, but small. It’s even able to be self-contained if I decide to embrace limitations and create sounds or music only with this instrument outside of my studio or otherwise away from my DAW, even with my vintage Roland TR-606 drum machine.
It’s capable of percussion, melody, and drones that can modulate in complex and random ways over seconds or many minutes.
Modular users have a reputation for noodling and sound designing, but never actually completing songs or projects. It’s like an aural sandbox. The satisfaction of signal routing is autotellic: It’s its own reward, constant discovery and following or rejecting conventional wisdom. It’s also extremely meditative once you’re past the initial learning curve.
I’ve already broken the “no effects” rule, but only with modules that can be “self-patched” and act as sound sources in their own right.
Even having only purchased digital oscillator modules, analog modulators like LFO’s can often be used as analog oscillators when they are pushed into the audible range, as can filters that self-oscillate when their resonance is set high. I even wound up with four analog oscillators without knowing it.
Once you realize that anything can be routed into anything, all synthesis rules go out the window. LFOs and filters can be oscillators, as mentioned above, but clocks can be triggers, envelopes can be clocks, envelopes can be LFOs, audio amplitude can modulate anything…that’s the mind implosion and creativity that modular synthesis brings.
Over time, will I jettison older gear and go all Eurorack? Will I dispense with the computer entirely for making music? Probably not. But I’m sure my system will slowly expand, change, and evolve with my interests, just as I’ve shifted from oils to acrylics to pastels to pencils to pixels in my visual arts career. The initial rules I started with will morph, change, get relaxed, and get updated. My initial configurations has gaps and weaknesses, but nothing’s perfect. And now I’m good to go with a new palette of sonic colors.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have field recordings to run through my modular.
After getting to know the Tetrax Organ, profiled in my last post, I became interested in what other devices used banana jack interfaces for control voltage (CV) modulation. The eurorack standard for modular synthesis is wildly popular, but its buzz drowns out other equally interesting platforms, like the banana-based Buchla and Serge systems.
This research led me to BugBrand, a quirky English manufacturer of both modular synths and desktop formats (who also happens to be a top notch guy, not to be confused with The Bug, who I’ve been following since his first release in 1997, which is based on The Conversation, which is about a sound recordist…talk about circular references…). I had heard great things about, and from, his gear, especially a well-regarded but often-overlooked device called the DRM1 Major Drum. This filled a hole in my gear list: a dedicated all-analog, super-flexible drum synthesizer. And with a Tetrax Organ and a Low Gain Electronics UTL-1/2 format converter, I could easily drive it from pretty much any source that output CV.
In short, I picked one up, and am thoroughly enjoying it. It mixes well with other gear, especially if I’m rolling all-analog. It overdrives naturally, aesthetically, and quickly, lending itself to aggressive styles, but not limited to them. I especially like the ability to create rising or falling triggered envelopes via the “Bend” feature. Having two trigger inputs (three if you include the big red button) and CV control of both its oscillator and filter are great. I do wish the filter was steeper for more extreme sculpting of the noise generator, but you do get the choice of bandpass or lowpass/highpass (the latter switchable with an internal jumper) via a front-panel switch.
In all my research, though, I never really came across a single piece of media that really dove into its sound design abilities. While its tone can be varied a little based on the strength of the trigger signal it’s fed, it’s a single-voice synth, and no video demo or Soundcloud track really seemed to express its breadth of sound design possibilities.
So, I decided to do something about it.
The sounds in today’s track are entirely made from the BugBrand DRM1. About half of the tracks are sequenced via the EHX 8-Step Program sequencer pedal (including the dubby melodic loop), and the rest are hand-edited, and one track features modulation form the Tetrax Organ’s touch pressure, and another using the Tetrax’s oscillators to drive the DRM1′s oscillator and filter. Effects include some delays, one reverb, and a bunch of high-pass and low-pass filters and EQ’s, with some compression on the output bus.
The sounds all have a very strong flavor, sharing a lot of timbral qualities, regardless of the function they serve in the mix. That can be good or bad, depending on what you’re after. But still, I think it’s impressive that this is all from a device with only one oscillator, one filter, and only three CV inputs. And this thing has a truly massive frequency range: its lowest pure tones drop to at least 20Hz, and it’s pretty easy to get spikes near or above 20kHz!
Pro tip: BugBrand products are tough to get a hold of, as Tom Bug doesn’t hold much inventory at any one time, so when he makes a production run, they sell out in a heartbeat. If you want to get in on Tom Bug’s next manufacturing runs/releases, get on his list.
This blog is nearly six years old, and it’s time for a facelift!
You might notice that there is a new logo in the header of the website, and a few new fonts. Thanks to the design machinations of GergWerk, Noise Jockey now has a new visual identity and design system. Many thanks to Gerg and his hard werk…especially given that his client, your humble author, is a picky designer himself.
Expect a few visual tweaks over the next few weeks as the new identity works its way more fully into the website and other channels, like my Twitter and Soundcloud accounts.
In honor of the first visual change here since launch, I figured I’d post a little ditty that referred back to my first post, back in 2009: A short piece done on the Casio Magic Sound Dial SA-40 toy keyboard. It was multi-tracked, miked with Ye Olde Shure SM57, and run through a Red Panda Particle pedal as well as a few plug-in effects.
In playing around with Samplr for iOS, it struck me that it could behave like a mellotron of sorts, too. Sure, Samplr (and other similar apps, like Curtis, csSpectral, and Sector) is great for mashing stuff up in an extreme way, but I decided if I could play it a bit more like a piano.
Since Samplr only slices samples into increments of four, I output a little more than two scales of a synth sound in G# minor. Then it was a simple as loading that sample in, selecting 16 slices, and then playing Samplr as a keyboard.
The results were odd, glitchy, loose, and interesting. I liked that I could hold chords while also dialing in reverb, delay, even playback loop length. The loop points were obvious, but at the right lengths and tempos, they can become rhythmic or simply textural. When playing single melodies, possible by dragging my finger between slices simulated piano runs. Then, inspired by Mr. Cortini’s solo albums, I decided to make a track with samples just from one single synth, played back from Samplr.
Today’s audio clip features a live recording in multiple passes. All of the sounds are from the TAL Bassline101, an amazing emulator of the Roland SH101. I output only two audio files, each with a unique patch but in the same pitch range and scale, and the rest of the variations are from Samplr.
Today’s track is comprised of several ominous improvisations with analog synths: Korg Volca Beats, Korg Volca Bass, Waldorf Pulse +, and Grendel Drone Commander. A couple of virtual analog software synths were also used to round things out in the edit.
Nice to get back into the pure subtractive synthesis world for a whole, in terms of sound design. I need to grow more hands if I’m to tweak this many knobs at once…
I love handmade soundmaking devices, but outside of my beloved Grendel Drone Commander, a lot of the weird noise boxes and effects I have are, well, noisy. They tend to be aggressive, loud, and blippy. Some accept MIDI, some accept CV, some accept no sync signal at all.
One evening I wondered if I could coax them into some semblance of ambient drones, to loosen myself up and not record to a fixed tempo, and to not get too “precious” with editing in post. Somehow the angry nature of these devices just seems to bleed through anyway. Or is that my angry nature?
So, the result of this cathartic experiment was “angry ambient.” Or, angrient.
This track features the following:
All takes recorded live into Logic Pro X: No sync to anything, no MIDI, no CV.
One track of a Bleep Labs Nebulophone, with its alligator clip clamped onto a key for a sustained drone, recorded through a Red Panda Particle pedal set to Reverse, both tweaked live. The dry and effected track were tracked simultaneously.
Another droned Nebulophone track went through the Particle set to Delay, and then through a Seppuku Memory Loss pedal, with its clean microchip inserted, all three tweaked live. The dry and effected track were tracked simultaneously.
One track of the RareWaves Grendel Drone Commander, recorded 100% dry. That thing needs no love, especially when its bandpass filters gets overdriven at low frequencies. Yummy.
Sometimes sound design requires thinking inside of multiple boxes.
I’ve developed a small collection of handmade and boutique electronic effects and instruments over the years, like the Grendel Drone Commander, Lite2 Sound PX, and many more (perhaps the subject of another post). Longtime readers may recall that I just love supporting independent makers and small cottage industries: That’s where all the weird, truly innovative stuff happens, and I (like many of you, dear readers) am more interested in cool sound design possibilities than straight-up distorted guitarrrrrrrr sounds.
Hand-built one at a time by Eric Archer, the Grendel Drone Commander is a two-oscillator synth built inside of a metal surplus ammo box. Its apparent simplicity belies its sonic complexity. I’m still feeling my way around the thing, but I wanted to post an example of what it makes possible. (Next step: Play with CV control!)
This heavy, drone-y, smeary track was created using only the Grendel Drone Commander, recorded live thee times, each on a different track, in Logic Pro (with a few plug-ins as well).
Inspired by the work of Toshio Iwai and originally conceived (and entirely developed) by the insanely talented Josh Santangelo, I led the creative direction and interaction design, and I also created all the sounds for the piece. Our goal in making TouchTones was to ensure that anyone could use it with only a few seconds of exploration, and create beautiful music without any musical training. It was all about immediacy and richness, and the sound needed to support this.
TouchTones is a grid-based music sequencer: the user sets a sprite in motion that, when passing over a grid node, makes a specific sound. Each sprite is a different instrument, moving at different speeds, but are all locked to a master tempo. There are four sprites (voices) and 32 nodes (pitches/notes).
The main challenge was placing notes on the grid. I started by composing short pieces of music that featured a lot of arpeggios of varying note durations, which mimicked how the nodes on the grid would get triggered. This helped me figure out the best note durations for certain sounds, and to establish a key to work in. Since the user is the one who creates the final melody, the only way to really stress-test the sounds and key was to prototype and have real people play with it.
The sound palette itself went through several iterations. The first featured somewhat realistic sounds with a pretty complex scale, so the likelihood of atonality was too high. The second iteration featured purely electronic sounds in a more harmonious scale, but the sounds were too aggressive (probably owing to my own past attraction towards angry music). The third and final iteration finally hit the mark: Cleaner, primarily acoustic sounds, a key that’s pleasant and even a bit wistful, and a note distribution that isn’t always linear, preventing unnatural shifts into inappropriate pitch registers. Internally, we jokingly call the final result the “indie film about autumn in Central Park” palette.
All the sounds were created in Logic Pro, primarily using the EXS24 sampler. A lot of tonal and envelope tweaking ensued. Rather than provide sound clips like I usually do, I encourage you to watch the embedded video above to get a sense of how the application feels and sounds.
All my posts to date have featured what’s newest to me: sound gathering in the field and only slight manipulations to said sounds. But synthesis is a longtime love of mine. In my studio, hundreds of small snippets of synthesized sounds exist scattered across terabytes of hard disk space. I usually have no clue what the source material was, or how I created them.
Luckily, I (re)discovered several unusually well-documented synthesized sounds for this post: a collection of samples that were oriented towards making impactful, short sci fi sounds, but created using virtual synthesizers in software rather than real recordings. These sounds all wound up evoking lasers, blasters, and other sci-fi energy weapons, or discrete layer elements for the same.
Ben Burtt defined this sound for generations with his struck-guy-wire laser blasts in Star Wars, and I (like most) tend to agree that these real sound sources make a big difference in the complexity and character of the final sound. But synthesizing these sounds from scratch is a fun exercise, as well: deconstructing what works about that classic sound (amplitudes of high and low frequencies offset in time), figuring out how to execute it, and then modifying the sound for different emotional effects.
(I’ve found other real-world objects that also make Burtt-style blaster sounds, which will be featured in an upcoming post!)