I recently attended the Knobcon show, which was their biggest one yet – in terms of exhibitors, live performances, and attendees. I spent most of my time focusing on the live music side, but I did get a chance to go around the show floor, and noticed what I consider to be a positive trend in module design – that’s the subject of this month’s main article.
I also made a few Patreon articles public, mainly focusing on the Serge modular as there will be a talk at the upcoming Synthplex show on that subject. And speaking of Synthplex, I will be performing there as part of the duo Meridian Alpha – as well as at a show in Albuquerque on the first of this month. Without further delay:
- featured article: Modular synths are nearly 60 years old now. Fortunately, today’s module manufacturers are still finding interesting new things to create.
- Alias Zone updates: I’m going to be reworking a recent album.
- Learning Modular updates: I’ve made a few previously-private articles on the ARP 1047 multimode filter and the Serge modular system available publicly for free.
- Patreon updates: New posts on my performance modular, as well as both music and modules from the recent Knobcon show.
- upcoming events: I will be playing solo at the Press Club in Albuquerque in October, plus as part of the duo Meridian Alpha at Synthplex at the end of October.
- one more thing: Did you ever wonder what was the first musical instrument to use force sensing resistors (FSRs)? You may be surprised…
Positive Module Design Trends
As instruments go, the synthesizer is still relatively young. However, it’s easy to think that everything has been done already – especially with literally hundreds of manufacturers trying to come up with new module ideas on a regular basis (supply issues notwithstanding).
This is something I think about a lot, because the reason I got into synthesizers back in the late 1970s was to hear and create music with new sounds. That’s why I’m not personally not as interested as others in most traditional analog synths (even though they do sound lovely); I’ve already been playing with the four basic waveforms (sawtooth/square/triangle/sine, repurposed for LFO waveforms a well), filter modes (low pass/high pass/band pass/notch), and envelope stages (attack/decay/sustain/release) for over forty years now.
This is the point where I put on my lecturer cap and remind us that a lot of those traditional tools we use to synthesize music were not created for musical purposes. Those initial waveforms were not chosen because they had special musical properties; they were simply easy to create with analog circuits, and served certain purposes for circuit testing. The same goes for those filter modes. It’s a testament to the ingenuity of electronic musicians that they’ve been able to create so much music with those test equipment components – but there is little to no musical reason why those circuits should be enshrined in sacred tablets of stone as if they were handed down by some power above us; they were merely what was available at the start.
The “second coming” of modular synths has certainly been through a few phases, including recreating as many past instruments as possible; exploring old sound and instrument modeling techniques such as Karplus-Strong string synthesis and waveguide blown tube synthesis; slicing, splicing, and especially clipping waveforms in different ways (often generating a hash of additional high harmonics); et cetera. I’ve applauded the appearance of various granular synthesis modules (although the original micro-sound synthesis ideas they came from remain under-explored) in addition to the other unique modules that are out there.
But, I had become a little concerned that we entered a phase where a number of more traditional modules started re-appearing – largely because newly-manufactured synth chips made it very easy to (re)create those designs. I was worried that portions of the industry was folding back on itself, rather than continuing to move forward. Yes, there are exceptions to every rule, and some cool new modules have appeared…but I was losing my enthusiasm, and was becoming uninterested in new module releases.
A trip to the recent Knobcon show has reinvigorated my enthusiasm. Yes, there were instruments like the EMS Synthi-100 inspired Analogue Solutions Colossus which assembles large numbers of traditional modules in an otherwise very attractive package. But there were also companies like Therevox taking the oscillator section from the classic Ondes Martenot – complete with waveshapers developed for musicality, rather than using the raw classic waveforms – and releasing it as a Eurorack VCO. Like the collaboration between Electroserf and Catalyst Audio to create tube circuits that don’t just crunch sounds, but create new waveshapes and noise textures, which means different starting harmonic content to play with when creating sounds. Like Five12 creating different modulation sources, and New Systems Instruments finding different ways to bend those modulation shapes.
There has been a lot of movement in the land of filter designs in particular. This is a case where the new filter chips are opening up some new possibilities, rather than rehashing the same classic modes. For example, Sound Semiconductor has an application notes sheet that shows how to get 45 different filter mode combinations using their SSI2164 quad VCA chip, including tips on how to create asymmetric distortion (which in turn adds warm-sounding even harmonics to a signal), a variable slope filter, and more. By no coincidence, more filter modules are appearing that offer modes beyond the simple low/high/bandpass/notch configurations that also sound great.
Of course, it’s not like we’ve already figured out how to get every sound possible out of the modules and gear we already have. But I’m personally happy instrument designers are continuing to look for new territories to explore – especially when those are based on creating musically useful results (for whatever type of music you may create!).
Alias Zone Updates
Early last year, I released the album We Only Came to Dream. Despite it being my first new album in 20 years, I was under a bit of time pressure to get it out before my performance at Steve Roach’s SoundQuest Fest 2021. Therefore, rather than selecting a set of tracks that worked together thematically as an album, I chose the three best tracks I had that were near completion: the Berlin School flavored Ash Tree Window, and the more mystical, ethno-ambient tracks The Dream Catcher and Náhuatl.
Although I still personally love Ash Tree Window, it just doesn’t fit with the other two tracks. Fortunately, this year I found the time to finish an alternate ethno-ambient track – Devotion – that was recorded around the same time as the other two. It is off being mastered along with my upcoming album, and when it’s ready, I’m going to insert it into We Only Came to Dream on Bandcamp in place of Ash Tree Window.
As for the Ash Tree Window track, it will be moved onto a later album that includes other tracks in a similar, more Berlin-school style. If you already bought We Only Came to Dream, I’m working with Bandcamp to make sure you can continue to access to it as a bonus track (although you might want to download it, to be safe). And for those who have purchased my original Learning Modular Synthesis online course, you will continue to have access to the bonus videos that show how it was created.
Learning Modular Updates
On Friday, October 28th, at 1 PM during the upcoming Synthplex conference in Burbank California, Mike Peck will be giving a talk titled History, Philosophy and Application of the Serge Modular System which “will delve into the history and design philosophy of this remarkable instrument.”
While researching Patch & Tweak, I had the good fortune to become friends with Serge Tcherepnin, and I wrote a couple of long posts on Patreon about our conversations and his approach to synthesis. In honor of Mike’s upcoming talk, I’ve made both of those posts public:
- Conversations with Serge Tcherepnin
- The Serge Approach (CISC versus RISC in module design)
Also, related to the main article above, I had been talking to a few people about filter design. As part of the ARP 2500’s 50th anniversary two years ago, I created a series of videos about particularly interesting portions of that system – including the Module 1047 Multimode Filter/Resonator, which was one of the first multimode filters created for sound synthesis. Despite being arguably the first multimode synthesizer filter, it had additional features you don’t see on many modules today, such as a notch filter that could be offset in frequency from the other filter modes. Here is a detailed article I wrote about that filter.
The Learning Modular Patreon Channel is the “access all areas” pass to what I’m currently working on and learning in the modular music world. I wrote four new posts during September, including:
- Going Hybrid Live: Patching Strategies where I share how I patch my gigging modular, including the “backbone patch” that stays intact from gig to gig, and how that differs from the live patching I do during rehearsals and performances as well as the song-specific patching I do for each set. (available to all subscribers)
- Going Hybrid Live, Part 7: Melodic Voices which details my choices for melodic synth voice modules in my gigging case, including favorite settings, routing pitch control voltages for maximum flexibility while playing, and a few other patch ideas. (available to +5v and above subscribers)
- Knobcon 10: Chill-Out Room Performance Notes where I include photos of all of the live performance systems used by the “chill” performers, and links to short video excerpts of most of their performances. I also talk about tuning the sound system beforehand, and share a video of how David Godgluck of Road Flare Visuals creates his old-school ink drop images live. (available to all subscribers)
- Knobcon 10: New Modules that shares my thoughts about several of the new modules demonstrated at Knobcon. (available to +5v and above subscribers)
Check out the index of all past articles I’ve written for Patreon (which are still available – subscribe at the +5v level or higher to get access to all of them), and come join the fun!
October 1: New Mexico Control Voltage, Albuquerque, New Mexico
I am the final act during a night of free electronic music performances at the Press Club in Albuquerque. I will be playing an updated version of my set from Knobcon, with Jim Coker of Five12 as guest soloist. The fun starts at 7 PM. Click here for more information.
October 29: Synthplex, Burbank, California
I will be joining Jim Coker’s Meridian Alpha for a duo performance in quadraphonic sound. We will be playing on the Courtyard stage starting at 7:30 PM. Click here for more information about the overall show – even if I wasn’t playing, I’d be attending as the first one was an excellent opportunity to hang out with my electronic music family.
One More Thing…
There’s a good chance that you own or at least have played an instrument or controller with a “force sensing resistor” (FSR for short). This is the device that resides under many pads and other playing surfaces that respond not just to touch, but to how hard you are pressing that surface.
Recently, I encountered an electronic toy called the Magical Musical Thing while browsing an antique store (my wife has recently gotten into vintage typewriters and sewing machines). I did a bit of research on it, and discovered it might well be the first musical instrument to use FSRs. The video above is a great combination of historical research plus a review of the instrument, including how to fine-tune FSRs to get the exact resistance needed for a particular application (such as instructing an oscillator to play a specific note). Spoiler alert: it involves using a pencil, and a knife…
I’m excited to be entering this “final push” for what has been a very rewarding year musically. Thank you again for joining me on this journey; I still have that feeling of just getting started!
still having fun –