I failed. I intended to visit the remaining modular manufacturers on my last half day at the show and cover all of their new releases, and fell woefully short – that’s a testament of how many manufacturers and new modules there are these days. Fortunately, there are others (like Synthtopia, Sonic State, FluxWithIt and more) who make it their job to report specs and prices on every new piece of equipment. I’m going to focus more on my own impressions and reactions to some of the new and recently released modules I did get demos of.
As the story goes, STG Soundlabs started out with the intention of being a boutique, vintage-influenced module manufacturer hand-soldering components to old-style through-hole circuit boards, as it was done Back In The Day. This works fine for large 5U (vintage Moog-style) format cases. However, many in the smaller 3U Eurorack format market prefer shallow “skiff” cabinets that can be laid flat on tables and are easier to haul to gigs. Reacting to these demands, they introduced a shallow version of their Sea Devils 3 pole (18db/octave) diode ladder filter (I know; you’re thinking TB-303 – instead, think EMS) using modern surface mount component technology. The price remains $250.
Also at NAMM was their long-awaited, almost-finished STG Envelope Generator in both Eurorack and 5U formats. I had a chance to spend some time with Suit & Tie Guy (STG) after NAMM, and he explained it was designed to emulate two classic modules: the Moog 911 Envelope Generator with the 911-A Trigger Delay, and the Trapezoid Generators in the EMS Synthi-100. In Moog-like ADSR mode, the four “T” timing sliders control delay, attack, decay, and release rates; the “E” slider controls sustain level. In Trapezoid mode, the T sliders control delay, attack, “on” (hold), and decay. Both modes have simultaneous alternative “B” outputs – for example, attack/hold/decay/sustain/release in ADSR mode. He also added a third “pyramid blaster” mode that arranges the envelope stages as attack to maximum/decay/sustain/attack to maximum again/release (twin peaks), or delay/attack to sustain level/sustain/attack to maximum/release (think of it as a reverse ADSR).
The envelope curve may be continuously varied between linear and exponential, and there are various play modes including loop (“free run”). The rate of each stage may be varied from 200 microseconds (that’s extremely fast, for sharp percussive attacks as well as for creating tiny “snick” sounds) to 100 seconds across three different ranges. In addition to voltage control for each of the slider-controlled parameters plus individual gate outputs for each stage, the STG Envelope Generator also connects to their internal Time Buffer clock bus to follow a master clock that may be distributed throughout a system, including to their sequencing modules. In this mode, the sliders are aware of where beats fall and don’t actually change settings until the next beat, which is a boon for pre-setting controls before the next beat during a live performance. Price is not set yet; it will probably be between $300 and $400.
Sharing space with STG Soundlabs was Joe Grisso of Detachment 3 with his very well thought-out Archangel 4-row 16-step sequencer with multiple outputs, built-in quantizer, and multiple clock division as well as sequence direction modes. It’s available with 1/4” or 3.5mm jacks, both at the same price of $1900. He was also showing off the 4-row expander for it; dozens of these may be attached to the main unit to slave well over 100 rows if needed.
While Joe was describing the Archangel’s touch plate keyboard that can measure vertical position as well as “pressure” (more on that when we get to Pittsburgh Modular), engineer extraordinaire Gene Stopp of Moog Music joined us. Gene pulled out his smart phone, tapped its face, and noted that these devices are the reason why we’re seeing touch keyboards appear from so many manufacturers these days (Sputnik and Verbos included) – the chips that help decode finger position and the such have become ubiquitous, and therefore a lot less expensive to include in designs.
Although 4ms did not have a lot new to show (they were downplaying the one prototype in their booth as being very preliminary), I had a really good chat with Dan Green about a few subjects, including their Spectral Multiband Resonator (SMR). In addition to creating formant-style filtering to simulate the resonating chamber in some acoustic instruments, I’m interested in the multiband envelope following several of these modules offer. A lot of my personal work is based on using acoustic percussion loops as the source material to trigger other sounds or modulate a vocoder. Having multiple envelope followers dedicated to specific frequency bands means I can tease out individual instruments as trigger sources. Dan explained that not only can the SMR output an envelope follower voltage based on the amplitude in each frequency band with two levels of smoothing, it can also output a trigger (reducing the need to use an external comparator to derive a trigger from the envelope follower’s output).
We also talked about power. I’ve heard good things about 4ms power supplies; they’re one of the companies using a two-step process where an external power supply provides 18v, and then they regulate it a second time internally to the +/–12 required by Eurorack modules.
In other news, the long-anticipated Dual Looping Delay (DLD) designed by Gary Hall of Lexicon PCM42 fame is near shipping – “spring” is being quoted. Also on display was a prototype of a dual triggered sampler. I often play back short vocal drops or longer ambience beds as part of my live performance, and had been frustrated by the 22kHz sample rate (half the bandwidth of a CD) of many Eurorack sample playback modules; Dan assured me he was looking at 96kHz sample rate support at a high bit depth.
Pittsburgh had on display their new generation master modules as well as new cases and extremely beefy power supplies. Their Lifeforms SV-1 analog synthesizer voice module replaces their Synthesizer Box I mentioned in my Should You Go Semi-Modular or Full? article on choosing a starter system. It contains two VCOs with a nice complement of waveforms including sub octaves, a multimode filter, VCA, LFO, ADSR, noise, sample and hold (S/H), dual mixers, and a built-in MIDI interface with arpeggiator and MIDI clock sync for the LFO and S/H.
They also have a nice little touch-sensitive keyboard with mono and duophonic modes, arpeggiator, voltage preset memories (which can be used a sequencer), and clock sync for $499. Like many touch-sensitive keyboard, they bill the Lifeforms KB-1 as “pressure” sensitive, but what they keyboards are actually doing is measuring the surface area of your finger on the pad – which increases as you press harder. Another approach to playing these is to roll your finger from the tip to flat against the pad, which gives greater variation in surface area and control.
Pittsburgh also was showing off their new line of handsomely stained hardwood Structure enclosures, and perhaps the highest current power supplies currently on offer. For example, their 3 row by 120 hp EP-360 case has three separate switching power supplies delivering 6 amps on both + and –12 volts, and 5 amps on the +5 volt bus. This is delivered to three bus boards with 15 power connections each and thicker traces than their previous design to better deliver all that power; the EP-360 case with power supply runs $999. Even their small 2 row by 48 hp case features 1.5 amps each on + and –12v and 1 amp on +5v, all for $299. Interestingly, Pittsburgh did not go the two-step route for their power some others (such as 4ms) have gone down, and do not include additional filtering on the bus boards; they feel the output of their supplies is stable and clean enough as is. Although I personally prefer the overkill approach of additional regulation and filtering, Pittsburgh is certainly not alone in feeling a well-designed switching power supply is more than adequate for the demands of a modular synthesizer system.
I’m a fan of their Disting as a utility module to round out the functions in a modular case; I’ve included a Disting mkII in the teaching rack for my upcoming course and I’m planning on including a mkIII in most rows of the rows of my personal system. “Os” (Andrew Ostler) was demonstrating the version 3.2 firmware, which adds several new functions including a clockable ping-pong delay effect, 10 different envelope generators (including clockable envelopes, dual envelopes and combined envelopes/VCAs), plus random voltage and trigger generators. He also was showing off beta firmware that uses the microSD slot in the back of the Disting (normally reserved for firmware updates) to turn it into a sample player. I followed up with Os after the show and he said he’s been testing 44.1 kHz playback the most, put it’s handling virtually any sample rate, 16 bit mono (he’s also tested stereo). He plans to support variable speed playback – certainly slowing down; possibly limited speeding up. Sounds files are currently selected by the Z knob/CV. And by the way: We talked about the loose-feel jacks in the Disting, which gives some users pause; the mkIII’s jacks are marginally tighter. Personally, he prefers jacks that aren’t too tight, to reduce wear & tear pulling cables out of a patch.
I also talked to Os about my plans to use Ableton Live with my modular, and he recommended I look into the Expert Sleepers ES-3 Lightpipe/CV interface. Not only can it be used to send control voltages and gates from the computer to a modular, it can also send audio (limited to the old ADAT spec of 48 kHz/16 bits if you want to use all 8 channels, or 96 kHz if you double up channels). Several users have reported success with this – the ES-3 is not a platinum high-end audio interface, but it seems to be perfectly fine for a lot of work. After the show, I also chatted with Jim Coker (creator of the Five12 Numerology sequencing software) who says Numerology can also take advantage of the Expert Sleepers hardware. The results overall seem to give tighter timing than using MIDI as a messenger between the computer and modular system.
William Mathewson Devices (WMD)
There were a few new Eurorack mixers introduced at NAMM; one of my personal favorites was the WMD Performance Mixer. Channels 1-6 are mono, with two inputs per channel and an A/B/A+B switch. Channels 7 & 8 are stereo. All channels feature voltage-controlled level; channels 5 & 6 also feature voltage-controllable pan. You can pre-cue channels before you send them out to the live mix. There is also an auxiliary FX send per channel, and a stereo mix input. (I put in a feature request for gate controls over the A/B switches for channels 1-6, but I suspect I’m too late.) Pricing looks to be in the $650-700 range.
T2 (Tyler Thompson) of WMD was also showing off his new Aperture bandpass filter based on the Butterworth filter circuit design. Bandpass filtering is created by placing a low pass and high pass in series; the region where both let frequencies through – the gap between their respective cutoffs – is the “band.” The Aperture filter allows you to tune the width of that band as well as the center frequency (displayed through a set of LEDs along the top of the module), and also the resonance peak for the low and high pass components individually. There is also a feedback circuit that can be set for positive or negative feedback, creating what Tyler described as a third peak. All parameters may be voltage controlled. Overall this filter has been designed to create an unhinged, extreme sound – especially when you crank up the feedback. The cost of this madness is $350. Aperture is also available as a “colour” submodule for the Black Market Modular Colour Palette system of configurable modules.
Another great entry in the Eurorack mixer sweepstakes is Qu-Bit’s Mixology. Inputs 1-4 include an envelope follower and a VCA, making it possible to create side-chain effects such as compressors. Inputs 5/6 and 7/8 are paired as simpler stereo inputs. The prototype had voltage control of level and pan, as well as mute, solo, and a pre/post fader switch for headphone monitoring. Shortly after NAMM they announced the final version would be slightly larger, adding auxiliary sends and returns. This module is still several months off, with the final price not yet set.
A trio of other fun modules they featured included the Chord analog polyphonic oscillator (“harmonizes seventh chords with control over chord quality, inversion and voicing”), Octone sequencer and the Ana 2 hp analog oscillator. The Octone has been out for a while, but I admit I missed it initially; it’s an 8-stage sequencer with built-in pitch quantizer that can be easily linked to a second Octone. It also includes a ratcheting mode (where a note is repeated multiple times during a single “step”), analog glide, and each step has its own gate output plus the ability to set rests per stage.
The Ana follows in the footsteps of their popular Eon 2 hp digital square wave oscillator/noise source/envelope generator. In this case, Ana is an analog VCO with multiple waveshapes and FM (there was some confusion at the show about whether or not it supported through-zero frequency modulation; apparently it does not). Its price is supposed to be $150, like the Eon. I’ve been looking for some simple oscillators to tune to intervals to my otherwise complex “main” VCOs; this is certainly a space-efficient candidate.
Eurorack modular synthesizer founding father Dieter Doepfer had a slew of announcements for NAMM, including black faced “vintage” versions of a collection of modules, more special color schemes including classic cream for their A-106-5 SEM VCF (a personal favorite), the upcoming A-121-2 12dB/octave multimode filter based on their Dark Energy II tabletop synth, the A-168-1 PWM module, A-184-1 combination ring modulator/S&H/slew limiter module, and two new oscillators featuring through-zero frequency modulation, based on a couple of different core circuits: the triangle core A-110-3, and the very new trapezoid core A-110-6.
Dieter said the A-110-6 is based on a new oscillator design idea first put forward by Don Tillman in 2003; the original design was implemented digitally, but Dieter figured out how to implement it in analog. The “core” of an oscillator creates a basic waveform; all of the other waveshapes offered by that oscillator are derived from this core waveshape using additional circuitry. In the case of the trapezoid core, it creates two different versions of the trapezoid (which has a sound between a triangle and a sawtooth) that are 90 degrees out of phase. If you add them together, and you get a triangle; subtract them, and you get a triangle that’s 90 degrees out of phase. More details can be found on the web page for the A-110-6.
By the way, those wild graphics for the new modules will not be offered commercially; they are “design studies.” However, Doepfer plans to release the graphics templates for these modules so you can add in your own graphics and print out your own custom faceplates using self-adhesive foil and a laser printer.
I ended my NAMM visit by catching up with Tom Oberheim, who I worked for over 25 years ago at Marion Systems. Although there was a huge buzz around the new OB-6 announced by Dave Smith Instruments (Dave was another former boss of mine, at Sequential Circuits), Tom himself continues to offer modern the SEM Plus two-VCO full synthesizer voice is due this year at a price of $899. Improvements over the original SEM include a full ADSR (instead of the original Attack/Sustain/Decay), a triangle wave added to the VCOs, additional LFO waveforms with an LFO one-shot mode, and a MODE control that allows additional flexibility for modulating the pan between LP and HP (one of my favorite features of the SEM’s filter). The patch panel includes many breakout points including voltage control over parameters such as the VCF resonance.
Tom is also offering his expanded Mini Sequencer – a component of both the original and newly-updated Oberheim Two-Voice – in Eurorack for $599 with up to 16 steps, two simultaneous sequences, MIDI support, and sequence memory including the ability to string sequences together into songs. He’s also added a ratcheting feature to it. Unfortunately, ratcheting requires a higher clock input speed (or an internal phase-locked loop to synthesize a higher tempo from the original clocks) to create the repeats per step, so external clock input is not looking like it’s going to be offered.
My apologies to all the companies I missed; I really wanted to get to you too. Maybe I’ll have to go to Knobcon this fall (September 9-11, 2016) to atone for my sins. (And discover more modules to buy…)