The modular synthesis scene continued to grow this year, with even more companies getting in on the action and the whispering of a survey that supposedly 50% of keyboardists claim to aspire to own some modular equipment as well. I’m spending all four days at NAMM this year in hopes of seeing as many modular companies as possible (woven between attending sessions and catching up with old friends), and I suspect I still won’t get to everyone.
The following few days I hope to share my impressions of what I found interesting at this show. I make no claims that I’m going to cover every product announced or released; this is what caught my eye and ear, with a liberal dose of personal commentary thrown in. This report will be in several parts as I write it in the evenings between and after the NAMM show days.
Big or Small?
The image up top is from the Modular Addict section of the sprawling Malekko Heavy Industry booth, which provided a home to several manufacturers (there was even a serious Roland setup in there). All of the modules you see pictured are available as DIY kits, showing the breadth of modules available. An interesting conversation I had with them was that they plan to make a big move into the larger 5U module format (and not just Eurorack circuit boards behind taller panels), as some users are getting tired of the cramped Eurorack format. Again showing the diversity of the modular market, at the same time you have companies such as 2hp (below) thriving by creating extremely compact modules; some retailers won’t even carry larger, arguably more ergonomic modules because they say their users demand compact modules for their live rigs (or just to save money on the cases).
Ignoring a human’s need to sleep, 2hp announced another ~8 new modules at NAMM in addition to the new ones they started shipping just in the last couple of months. The new modules fall mostly into $79-99 price range; just more complex ones like their new-ish sequencer and the original 2hp modules such as the VCO cost more.
Among the recent additions are a voltage-controlled clock divider/multiplier as well as a new sequential switch (you know how I like me some ratcheting), a trigger burst generator, a logic module with AND and OR functions, an ADSR with two different time ranges, an AD module with linear or exponential shapes (in this case, it is indeed an expo instead of a logarithmic attack, which is the opposite of the shape I personally prefer but which is implemented in popular modules like the Make Noise), a sample & hold, and even a stripped-down Turing Machine(!) random voltage source. Look for more details soon on their web site. And then even more modules later this year…!
After the release of their SV-1 semi-modular synth and KB-1 touch keyboard last year under the Lifeforms Modular brand, this year they showed a large number of brand new as well re-badged modules under that name with the same clean, updated graphics.
The headline grabber is the Double Helix complex oscillator. Their take on the popular West Coast oscillator-modulating-oscillator design includes a waveshaper, linear (although not through-zero) FM, and a novel internal modulation bus with switches and CV inputs for fast changes as well as lots of control. It lists for $449, which is very reasonable for a dual complex oscillator.
They also have two new filters, if you include the Dynamic Impulse Filter ($229) they released in December. This is their update on the classic low pass gate (LPG) design, developing a new circuit that has a vactrol style response without the normal limitations: performance is consistent from module to module (there are usually variations between individual vactrols), a controllable decay parameter they call Dynamics Response (rather than the unique but fixed decay each vactrol normally possesses), and much better muting when the control voltage falls to zero. It can be switched between VCA, VCF (a Sallen Key design), and LPG modes, and includes a resonance parameter. I’m anxious to get my hands on one to hear how their update on the beloved vactrol sounds. (Fun fact: The cadmium mineral used in the photoresistor portion of a vactrol is highly toxic, and soon you will not be able to import them into Europe.) The Binary Filter ($179) is their other new addition in this area, featuring a State Variable Filter design and a “stable/unstable” switch that goes between more predictable, smooth resonance, and resonance that goes into feedback with broader control over the chaotic edge-of-oscillation region some of us like to exploit.
Other new modules include the very flexible Mod Tools ($199) with a noise source, sample & hold, mixer, dual slope circuit that can be used as a two-stage envelope or an LFO, and an “analog logic” section that the higher of different signals inside the module; a straightforward ADSR ($119) with classic envelope shape, a dual 2:1 mixer that can be combined into a 4:1 mixer or even used as four independent attenuators ($99), and a very interesting looking System Interface 6-input mixer ($249) that includes an auxiliary bus, switchable main or aux monitoring, and amplification on three of the inputs for bringing in external signals (including externally looped effects) or adding crunch to certain channels. (Another fun fact: rather than using audio taper controls for mixing, they add circuitry to linear taper controls to get a modified response between the two, which they find to be more flexible or pleasing to use.) They even have a new percussion sequencer, which I admittedly did not get a chance to try. Kudos to Pittsburgh (excuse me, Lifeforms) for already having information about their new modules up on their web site.
Their new module is the Bark Filter Processor ($749), which has already made appearances here and there but which is not yet into full production – 100 units have been released into the world, in stock at select retailers such as Perfect Circuit; another couple hundred need final assembly and calibration once the dust settles from their recent move from New York to Berlin. I had a chance to talk to Mark Verbos at length about the design of this module.
This is Mark’s updated take on the Buchla “spectral processors” including the model 296. Those classic units were essentially a row of voltage-controlled bandpass filters coupled with envelope followers. Some of the characteristics of them that Mark felt could use improvement included that their frequencies were significantly based on octave spacings (which means the sound being processed may or may not line up with the bands, based on whether the note’s frequencies lined up with the filters); they had gentle filter slopes per band (meaning each control had a broader effect than you might imagine); the filter topology had a substantial amount of phase shift (adding, shall we say, “character” to the sound); and they used a lot of individual trimmers per band, meaning there could be considerable variation between units as well as service issues.
Mark’s version is based around Bark Frequency Scale, which is a set of 24 bands based on perceptual experiments rather than pure math such as octaves. Each band also has a unique bandwidth to create smoothly overlapping regions. There are 24 Bark bands defined; Mark used 12 in his Filter Processor with 36 dB/oct filters that have minimal phase shift. He also uses precise, precision parts to align the frequencies and bandwidths as needed while avoiding trimmers.
Each band’s strength is under voltage control – including direct inputs per band, and spectral tilt and center controls as used in the Verbos Harmonic Oscillator. Each band is also connected to an envelope follower (with adjustable decay), creating a control voltage for the relative strength of the input signal in each band. You can even use the even and odd bands independently from each other, including using the envelope followers from one set to drive the strength of the filtering in the other set – creating a crude vocoder in the process.
I have one of the initial 100 Bark Filter Processors, and plan to record several videos about it over the next several months as it has so many uses from formant style filtering to surgical envelope following to some unique vocoder-like functions such as using a sound fed through the Bark Filter to control the harmonic output of a Verbos Harmonic Oscillator.
Moog is building a reputation for having unusual booth displays. Last year it was a cactus garden, furnished with a wide selection of their modular synths (including Mother-32 based Eurorack systems that included modules from other manufacturers) with pillows and headphones inviting synthesists to have fun; this year their booth was all but empty with a somber reminder of the many great synthesists we lost this year – and an invitation for visitors to share their remembrances on Twitter or Instagram (#namm2017 @moogmusicinc).
Elsewhere on the show floor I encountered Gene Stopp of Moog, who has been central to the re-issue of their modular systems as well as the Moog Model D. Gene told me they scanned the circuit boards of an original Model D to replicate the exact same component placement, circuit board traces, and the such. The one difference is the new circuit boards are two-layer instead of one-layer, with the top layer used for the jumper wires that previously had to be soldered into place to complete the circuits. The keyboard is different, being digitally scanned so they could implement MIDI, but the sound-making electronics are indeed as physically close to the original as they could make it.
And now, I need to get some sleep so I can tackle the show floor for another 8-hour day. I’ll catch up sometime…