This past month has been about setting things up for the future. I’m settled into my new studio space and have everything wired up, including an extensive patchbay system and my new Blackmagic Pocket Cinema camera; my gigging case (The Tardis) has been rebuilt; 1970s-era extensions to my studio modular (The Monster) are finishing refurbishment. In case you’ve also been busy this past month, let me get you caught up on what I’ve been doing:
- featured article: as I re-introduce some vintage gear into my modular system, I discover a few features I wish more modules supported today
- new videos & posts: new webcasts and module reviews
- course updates: adding the ability for you to comment and ask questions after each movie in a course
- Patreon updates: posts on my gigging case, restoring my custom Gentle Electric cabinet, musings on triangle waves, and correcting an urban myth about why vintage modulars supposedly sound better than Eurorack
- upcoming events: Covid cancels more plans
- one more thing: want to learn about more modular artists?
Wisdom of the Ancients?
In addition to new Eurorack modular systems, I also have some modular gear from the 1970s. I certainly don’t think the original modular designers got everything right the first time they tried. However, are there any useful features they thought of back then that we’ve forgotten along the way?
I’ve recently finished refurbishing a custom three-panel system made by Carl Fravel of Gentle Electric in 1978, plus Tyler Thompson (ex-WMD) also “re-capped” (replaced old and potentially failing capacitors) my circa-1979 Korg MS-02 Interface. As I’ve been re-learning their functions, I’ve found a few small features I wish more Eurorack modules had today.
Let’s start with the simpler of the two: The Korg MS-02 Interface, which was designed to adapt between different synthesizers of the era. For example, back in the 70s Korg, Yamaha, PAiA, and a few other synths used a linear volt/hertz system for pitch, while most others used an exponential volt/octave system; the MS-02 can convert between these two systems in both directions.
An unassuming but important section of the MS-02 is its Adding Amp (utility mixer) section. Its level controls can multiply a signal by up to x2 to compensate for the different control voltage ranges used by different instruments, instead of just attenuating their voltages from x1 (unity) down to zero. For ages, most Eurorack utility mixers could only attenuate and not boost a signal as well. As many modules don’t observe the same voltage ranges, it’s important to boost as well as to cut a signal’s level – and I’m happy to see more Eurorack utility mixers adopting this approach (it’s a deal-breaker for me when I buy a utility mixer).
The two Trigger Processors are simple comparators that derive a gate from an incoming control voltage. They include logic inverters (Reverse) switches for each channel, which are a nice touch; surprisingly few logic modules in Eurorack have inverter sections, and I’m finding them to be increasingly important. The +15v volt output is on the high side – some Eurorack manufacturers recommend you do not send their modules a voltage higher than it’s ±12v power supply limits – but of course you can always route it through the Adding Amp to reduce its level.
The most prominent feature of the Gentle Electric cabinet are its 15 VCAs. Although they all use the same Aries AR-314 core, different banks of them make different features available on the front panel. Although this cabinet has a ±15v power supply internally, its audio and control voltage levels are in line with modern Eurorack systems. In Linear mode, a control voltage input of +10 volts equals unity level (full volume, with no additional gain); in exponential mode, 1 volt = 10 dB, with the ability to amplify the incoming signal. They are all DC coupled, making them useful for both audio levels and modulation depths, and they can handle Eurorack’s ±12v maximum signal levels without clipping.
One feature common to virtually all of the VCAs in this cabinet is they have two control voltage inputs. What’s important is that the first input on the left is normalized to the second input on the right. If nothing is patched into the second input, the control voltage at the first input is then doubled, meaning a CV of +5v equals full volume (+10v CV internally) in linear mode.
This is a great solution for different modules having different control voltage ranges. Although some manufacturers are standardizing on 0-10v for unipolar modulators like envelope generators, there are still a lot of modules that output 0-8v, and others that output 0-5v. When using them with this Gentle Electric cabinet, I just patch 0-5v sources into the left Control jack, and 0-10v sources into the right jack. In this particular bank of VCAs, the knob under the VCA’s number is an attenuator for that first CV input, making it easy to dial in the desired response for modulation sources that fall in between (i.e. 0-8v).
To the right of the VCAs in two of the three panels are a set of simple 4-into-1 unity gain summing mixers. This system came with the schematics for a second set of modules that were never built; one of the sections was supposed to include a set of “self-leveling” mixers. The idea behind these are that the more inputs you patched into them, the more they divided down the output to match (1 input = ÷1; 2 inputs = ÷2, etc.), so that you wouldn’t clip the mix circuit or the modules downstream from it.
This would be wonderful for quick-and-dirty mixing of VCOs before a VCF or VCA. As an alternative to Carl’s original design (which I shared with my Patreon subscribers), imagine a four input mixer where input 1 is normalized to input 2, input 2 is normalized to input 3, and so forth. Then imagine the mixer attenuated all of the inputs to 25% of full level. Patch one VCO into input 1, and it would be normalized to all of the inputs, providing 25+25+25+25 = 100% = unity gain. Patch a second VCO into input 3, and each input would have a level of 25+25 = 50%, adding up to 100% Patching into the other inputs would give different pre-determined gain amounts for those VCOs.
The same idea could work for control voltages, such as adding together two envelope generators to create more complex envelope shapes without clipping or creating flat spots in the composite envelope. This would be a very cost-effective way to build mixing + attenuating into the input of almost any module, as pots and knobs are way more expensive (and take up more room) than just jacks.
There are several other clever ideas built into this case, but the features above are the highlights, and are ones I would love to see on more modern modules. (If you want to know more about this Gentle Electric cabinet, I wrote a series of posts about it for my Patrons – see below.)
New Videos & Blog Posts
Since the last newsletter, Ben “DivKid” Wilson and I did a Patching the Tardis webcast that went on for over 3 hours, including a very active chat room (also preserved with the video playback). I demonstrated a few different sections of my live case, and Ben and I got into issues of music performance and production well beyond just discussing individual modules.
The week after, I participated in the second annual Colorado Modular Synth Fest. I was part of the Saturday morning session that went over module updates from WMD, Empress Effects, and Five12; I gave a tutorial at the end on how to create what I call “ghost beats” where you use probability and logic to knock holes into an existing pattern while keeping its overall structure intact. This link will take you to a slightly higher quality excerpt of just my presentation. For more on using logic modules when creating patterns (a central part of the Ghost Beats technique), see this movie I created August of last year on the subject.
Modular Courses Updates
The platform I moved all of my modular courses onto earlier this year recently added the ability to add comments after each “lesson” (video, in my case). This gives you the ability to ask follow-up questions, share your own tips and experiences, and so on.
The downside is I have to manually enable it for each and every lesson – and there’s hundreds of them. So far I’ve enabled them for all except Eurorack Expansion Tier 2 and Tier 3; I will be finishing those off later this month.
Look for the “Discussions” button in the upper left of each lesson window to automatically scroll down to the Discussions section; it will be a text bar below the last part of the lesson. If you don’t see it, try clearing your browser’s cache and reloading the page.
July was a busy month on the Learning Modular Patreon channel. Some of the highlights include:
- Annotated versions of the second Feeding The Tardis webcast (here’s the link for notes on the first one) as well as Patching The Tardis, which include a linked time index for the major modules and discussions that came up in each episode, plus follow-ups to some of the questions that came up during and after each webcast.
- A new My Gigging Case (MGC) installment, where I go into more detail about updating the power system in The Tardis, plus also detail my mostly successful attempts to chase additional noise out the system.
- A three-part series on restoring my custom Gentle Electric modular cabinet from the 1970s, including the planning stages plus refurbishing the power system, tracking down problems with and repairing the individual panels (plus a bit on its new custom case), and a detailed breakdown of how each section works.
- A set of patch ideas on how to make simple triangle wave modulation sources far more interesting.
- Tackling the urban legend that vintage modular systems sound better because their power supply had a wider range. (Spoiler: Many vintage systems had a more constricted power supply than Eurorack..but their signal levels were constricted even more.)
In the pre-Covid alternate reality, I was planning to attend and present at Modular Meets Leeds this month. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen in the reality we currently live in. There’s murmurs of a possible virtual version (but no solid plans); if it happens, I’m going to see what I can contribute to that.
One More Thing…
If you can’t get enough of modular – both its music and its creators – here are a couple of podcasts that you might be interested in:
- If you would like to hear a weekly dose of new, often modular-based music, follow Data Cult Audio. It features a new audio-only no-talking set of music from a different musician each week. A.M. Filipkowski has been curating and hosting this free service for over three years now, so there’s quite a back catalog of artists – both well-known and new – for you to check out.
- If you want to hear in-depth talks about creating both electronic music and its tools, Darwin Grosse’s always-thoughtful Art + Music + Technology podcast has been running since 2013. He recently created a Patreon page, which includes bonus content and background stories for the podcast as well as his personal adventures in electronic music – I highly recommend it.
The urge to compose is striking me stronger than ever these days. I am yet to come up with a good plan on how to balance that against creating videos as well as other content. Watch this space as I try to figure out how to deal with too much of a good thing (smile).
best regards –