Nov 06 2010

One of my projects this past spring and summer was to assemble an analog modular synthesizer system. Those who recall my Groupshow post from last spring may remember my experience visiting Schneider’s Buro in Berlin. While that visit got me to think seriously about a system of my own, visits to the Analog Haven booth at the Winter NAMM show over the years planted the seed.

Okay, so why in 2010 would anyone consider getting an analog modular synthesizer? Many systems are essentially monophonic, there’s no memory for loading and saving patches –unless you go for the uber-expensive Buchla system– and they’re usually housed in large, bulky boxes that make them hard to travel with. For me, there were two issues: the sound and sound design possibilities, and the tactile way of working. Over the last ten years, the audio quality of software instruments has improved enormously, and better DA converters have made a big difference in what we hear when working with them. At least my ear was convinced they sounded good. In April of this year I had the opportunity to see synthesist Richard Lainhart perform in New York using his analog Buchla rig and a Haken controller. The sound was as exotic, fresh, and challenging as anything I’ve become accustomed to using software, but there was an added richness and texture that made the sound seductive. The laptop performers who followed were excellent, and their sound design was interesting and inventive, yet the quality of sound lacked the appeal of what I heard earlier. Lainhart was a tough act to follow.

One of my goals this year was to work more with controllers, to gain some sense of performing with sound. There was a certain sense of physicality that I was beginning to miss working with a computer. In doing so, I spent a lot of time programming a Lemur touchscreen controller and working out with a Monome, in addition to an assortment of physical sliders and buttons. From this, I began to get more of a sense that there was some tactile connection between myself and software like Ableton Live and Reaktor. Still, I felt somewhat removed from the actual process of creating the sound, I wanted it to feel "handmade."

Starting in the spring I did quite a bit of research on current systems, and it didn’t take long to settle on the Eurorack format. While some manufacturers like Buchla and Wiard build closed systems, where only modules they manufacture can be used, Eurorack is an open format with many smaller developers getting into the game. The system itself originated as Dieter Doepher’s A-100 system, which has become very popular with a wide range of artists because of its the cost, quality, and wide range of available modules. With a large user base, smaller independent manufacturers can justify designing and building modules for the Eurorack format. The result is that there are some very innovative implementations of traditional analog designs available.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Matthew Davidson, aka Stretta, for his wisdom and help in getting started. The system I ended up with is what I consider a starter system, with a combination of classic modules such as envelope generators, LFOs, and sample and hold making up the control signal path, and modules from Livewire, TipTop Audio, Maleko, Harvestman, and Cwejman making up the oscillators and filters in the audio signal path. Following advice from Stretta, I invested in a high-quality Cwejman VCA as the final output from the system, a kind of main mix bus. Rounding things out are two modules from a company called Make Noise, that take their inspiration from classic Buchla modules. The QMMG and Maths will provide some unusual twists to both the audio and control signal paths.

My work with the system is in it’s early stages, but I’ve already been using it in rehearsals to develop new ideas and sounds for pieces I’m working on with Birdsongs of the Mesozoic. I’m using Ableton Live as the centerpiece of the system, with a MIDI to control voltage converter to tempo sync the modular with Live. With the modular’s audio routed through Live, I’m able to record any ideas I come up with, making the best of both analog and digital worlds.

Here’s a list of what’s in my current system:

Doepfer A-114 Ring Modulator
Doepfer A-118 Noise/Random Generator
Doepfer A-132-3 Dual linear/exponential VCA
Doepfer A-143-2 Quad ADSR 
Doepfer A-147 LFO
Doepfer A-148 Dual S&H
Doepfer A-154 Sequencer Controller
Doepfer A-155 Sequencer
Doepfer A-156 Dual Quantizer
Doepfer A-170 Dual Slew Limiter
Doepfer A-180 Multiples 1

Make Noise QMMG
Make Noise Maths
Cwejman VCA-4mx
Bubblesound uLFO
4MS Rotating Clock Divider

Cwejman MMF1
Wiard Borg 2 FILTER
Tip Top Audio Z-2040 LP-VCF
Flight of Harmony Plague Bearer

Live Wire AFG
Tip Top Audio Z3000 mk2
Cwejman VCO-6
Harvestman Piston Honda

Kenton Pro Solo MkII MIDI to CV converter
MonoRocket Gemini 4-shelf case