I got to a few more booths today, and wanted to share some more conversations and observations about some of the current directions in modular synthesis. I’ve included links when available if you want more detailed specs on specific modules I mention.
Malekko Heavy Industry
Malekko is one several companies joining the Eurorack case and power supply fray. This is a good thing, because we’ve learned quite a bit about how we all use these beasts in the course of the past few years, and this is being applied to new designs. The Malekko cases are designed for gigging, coming in 6U and 12 U (2 row and 4 row) models with heavy duty construction and nice additions like an LED light strip across the top. The big feature for me was their new power supply: 2.5 amps on the + and -12 volt rails and 1 amp on the +5v rail per 6U, with extra heavy ground planes and additional filtering on the bus board all to help cut down on noise. Poor power supplies has been one of the knocks against the Eurorack format in general, and it’s nice to see companies stepping up to improve this. I also had a very encouraging conversation with Joshua Holley of Malekko about steps they’re taking to improve the entire power supply chain.
A recently released module Malekko was featuring was the Varigate 4, one of several new timing related modules with a performance bent introduced at NAMM (Make Noise’s Tempi was another). I particularly appreciated how easy it was to set up different timing divisions to play off of one another. Something that’s not immediately apparent is that the sliders tend to be quantized into 8 steps, which is actually a bonus in live performance to assure you hit a desired setting, instead of being continuously variable and increasing the chances you just missed the setting you were aiming for.
(As an aside, I haven’t personally been paying much attention to drum sound modules so far, but the Noise Engineering’s Basimilus Iteritas modules in their rack was really cutting through the noise at NAMM and making a solid impression on my ears.)
The Harvestman’s Stillson Hammer mkII 4-Track Performance Sequencer garnered a lot of pre-show buzz, and for good reason. I was impressed by the depth of the live manipulation options, and personally appreciated touches such as the stages being able to have different gate durations (so many of the clock-based performance modules announced had fixed length gates, or use the same gate duration for all the steps; I consider gate duration to be another excellent opportunity to introduce variation into a sequence). On the one hand, it still had a lot of button combinations you had to memorize to access various functions, but on the other hand there were a lot of useful shortcuts such as being able to edit just one slider to affect all of the steps in a sequence.
Scott Jaeger of The Harvestman also mentioned that firmware updates were coming for a few existing modules, including the Kermit LFO which I happen to own. The update will improve its performance as an audio oscillator, and also make the tap tempo sync much more solid.
Snazzy had a trio of new modules at the show (as well as their trademark plastic dinosaurs) that reflect their dual life as a guitar pedal company. Two of the modules included guitar level FX loop with envelope follower (using modulars as guitar processors seems to be one of many new trends to watch), and a “character filter” called The Eternal Spring with dual resonant peaks and generally unstable behavior.
The focus, however, was on hi_GAIN: a quad level booster and voltage controlled amplifier. It is designed to overdrive signals in extreme and interesting ways, in response to what Dan Snazelle of Snazzy FX feels has been a desire for more extreme sounds among Eurorack modular users. Each of the four channels uses a different transistor-based circuit design to get different sounds – both to get that vintage guitar fuzz pedal sound, and also to keep the price down (Dan noted that although op amps costs 50 cents each, transistors cost only 5 cents). Each input has voltage controlled gain, meaning you can envelope the amount of overdrive. The CV inputs can be modulated up to audio frequencies to add more character and overtones to the result.
Sputnik has been announcing and releasing a number of new modules recently, including the Dual Multisegment Function Generator. This is meant to be a generalized control voltage source that can act as a sequencer, a preset voltage programmer, a complex modulation source, or a complex envelope generator. An input control voltage can be used to scan between the stages; you’re not stuck with sequential steps. (I was involved in the design of the old Sequential Prophet VS, which borrowed the idea of looping envelope generators from the Buchla 400; we found that back-and-forth scanning of the stages creating a complex, glitch-free LFO during the sustain stage – a design I wish more would copy today. Roman Filippov of Sputnik suggested that one use a sine or triangle wave to control the stage scanning to simulate a similar effect.)
I always admired the design of Sputnik’s 6-Channel Stereo Mixer, but was put off by some users complaining there was audible signal leakage when a channel was muted. Roman admitted there is some leakage (which is hard to avoid in most designs – crank the volume up loud enough, and you’ll often hear something), which he thought was acceptably low when he originally released the module, but based on feedback he has gone through a couple of revisions of the circuit board and will be releasing a much quieter version later this year. In related news, his Spectral Processor (which I am also interested in – I want access to those envelope follower outputs per channel to divide up drum loops and selectively trigger modular sounds) is also due out in a couple of months.
I revisited Danjel van Tijn of Intellijel to get a demo of the Rainmaker “16-tap stereo spectral rhythm delay and comb resonator” they created in conjunction with Cylonix, and found it to be even deeper than the name implied. It is indeed a clockable 16-tap stereo delay that can be used as a comb filter (capable of some very deep flange effects), but it is also a granular synthesis engine, a pitch shifter, a Karplus Strong plucked string simulator, and more. It comes with a load of presets, as well as a randomizer to create new combinations of parameters. It even has a noise burst generator (the Trigger button in the middle) to inject an impulse into a resonator model.
I personally approach modular synthesizers as a large collection of building blocks that I combine to create my sounds, but there are a number of modules such as the Rainmaker that are quite complex as stand alone blocks. Danjel confirmed that this is part of the Cylonix philosophy (also seen in their Shapeshifter meta-oscillator): create really deep modules that the user can spend weeks or months learning the full depths of. This presents an alternate way to configure a personal modular system: a small number of select really deep modules that you spend time mastering to get a wide range of sounds out of, creating a very particular instrument instead of a very generalized one.
Meet the Maker: Modular Synths
Today’s panel of note included (from right to left) Dieter Doepfer of Doepfer Musikelecktronik, Dan Green of 4ms, Gene Stopp of Moog Music, Tony Rolando of Make Noise, Brandon Ryan of Roland, and William Mathewson of WMD. The panel was kicked off by noting that Eurorack modular synthesizers was arguably the fastest growing vertical market segment in musical instruments today; some noted that the “golden age” of synthesis appears to be now rather than some time in the past. The sheer number of manufacturers (well over 100 now) – and their willingness to co-exist – no doubt contributes to that. Brandon Ryan noted that when Roland decided to join the party, it wasn’t to displace others, and that they never had any desire for people to have a Roland-only system. (I’ll note this is similar to the philosophy that led to the creation of MIDI, which exchanged proprietary systems for a much larger market – and more freedom for musicians.)
It was interesting to hear the panel discuss approaches to designing modules. Dieter Doepfer noted that although it’s important to listen to users, you have to be careful not to design modules that only one user may be asking for (a point echoed by others); on the opposite end, when too many add their voices to the mix, a module design may become so unwieldy that it has to be abandoned. William Mathewson is a tinkerer that likes to grow circuit ideas into modules for his own WMD line, whereas the joint WMD/SSF modules had their front panels designed before they started on the circuits. Tony Rolando likes to start with a written “essay” of what a module should be before starting actual circuit design; Dan Green starts by answering the question “what’s missing?” when he creates music. Gene Stopp also made the interesting observation that the Model 15, 35, and 55 modular systems that Moog re-issued are considered to be continuations of the original systems rather than recreations or clones – but in the process of making them, they learned just what gave them their unique sound which can be applied to future products.
After two full days, I feel like I’ve seen fewer than half of the modular manufacturers at the NAMM show this year. Fortunately, my remaining prey are all clustered in the same section of Hall C, so that’s where I’ll be for a few hours on Saturday. I’m on the road immediately afterward, so it may take awhile to file a final report, but it’ll give me more time to ponder what overall trends seem to be flowing through the modular market today.