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A Noob’s Tale

Fiddling with my first modular synth rack

20140520-instamod

I’m just getting started fiddling with modular synthesis. Everything I know up to this point is pure book-learning. I’m like the Prioress in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. She has no firsthand experience of the culture (“And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly, / After the scole of Stratford-atte-Bowe, / For Frenssh of Parys was to hir unknowe”).

Here’s a snapshot (well, a ModularGrid simulacrum) of my rack, which I’m barely a week into starting to assemble. The stuff on the right of the rack I now have set up, while the stuff on the left is currently being nestled in bubble wrap and shipped to me. Mine is at http://www.modulargrid.net/e/racks/view/96941; if there’s nothing on the left of that rack when you read this, it’s because everything has arrived. (The photo up top I originally posted to my instagram.com/dsqt account.)

20140520-modular

Since it’s possible there are noobs even noobier than me, I’ll explain that ModularGrid.net lets you construct virtual sets of modules. I’m working in the Eurorack format, which is more compact than its predecessors. Many Eurorack modules are loving recreations of items from early in the development of audio synthesis. ModularGrid describes itself as follows: “a database for modular synthesizers with an integrated planner where people gather information and sketch out their modulars.” It’s a very helpful service. Every individual module links through to information about the module, and you can view racks that employ a given module, or share general characteristics with yours. Some helpful people assited me in getting my ideas together for an initial rack by posting their own rough starter sketches in ModularGrid. Speaking of noobs, whatever you read here that isn’t self-explanatory can be easily digested thanks to the numerous resources on the web about Eurorack modules in particular and audio synthesis in general. That’s how I’ve been learning. The discussions at muffwiggler.com/forum have been useful.

I have this equipment all in a Tiptop Audio Happy Ending Kit with the “z-ears,” which put it at a slight angle. And I have some colorful 6″ and 12″ cords.

The rack currently doesn’t have outputs or a mixer because I’m just putting it through my Behringer 802 mixer.

In advance of the arrival of the VCO, the EKO, and the Gozinta, I’ve mostly been (1) reading up and (2) doing some basic filtering of sounds that I feed into the Polivoks and then influence with input from the A-145. The sound quality should improve significantly when the Gozinta gets here. Mostly I’ve been using my Buddha Machines and my Gristleism as sound sources, but I’ll be using notes from my ukulele soon enough.

Once the VCO is here I’ll spend a lot of time on (re)learning synthesis fundamentals, mainly how the VCO and the LFO interact. (I spent way too much time wondering which VCO to get, and then waiting to hear back from non-responsive Craigslist people. I also missed out on some Muffwiggler.com forum sale items because I misunderstood the 100-post limit. I thought it was a 100-post requirement to participate in the marketplace. But I later learned that it’s a 100-post requirement to post items for sale. Anyone can buy. So, I lost on on a Dixie II. So be it.)

My main goal in this modular exploration is to learn how the tools work. But I know the best way to learn is to have a project, so I want to work on hazy ambient-quality sounds and some basic beat-making. I imagine I may add a step sequencer of some sort soon, but I’ll probably use Loopy on my iPad for awhile. If I add too many modules at the start, I’ll just get lost. Also, as inexpensive as the core components are individually, they do add up. Fortunately there is a large marketplace of secondhand modules.

I’d like to get a case with a proper cover and handle. I dig the waterproof Synthrotek ones, though I’m not informed about what to use that narrow 1U tile section for.

Anyhow, that’s where I’m at. If you’re already deep in modular/Eurorack activity and anything here looks like it’s gonna blow up, or anything looks like it’s missing, I’d appreciate being told so.

By Marc Weidenbaum

Tags: , / Comments: 8 ]

8 Comments

  1. Ryan
    [ Posted May 20, 2014, at 3:51 pm ]

    Glad to see you getting into modulars, I did two and a half years ago and it really helped to rediscover the joy of music making. Looking forward to more posts tagged “modular” :)

    I’d say in the beginning the most important thing is power – always double and triple check the red stripe orientation – it must always go to -12v! You might have cables that will only fit in certain way, don’t rely on that alone, always check if the red stripe is connected to -12V if you can (some modules will actually mark it as “red stripe here” or something similar). The only exception is Cwejman modules. Bottom line – if not sure always check on the manufacturer’s web-site or on the MW forum, not all modules have power protection so there is a very real danger in damaging modules if plugged the wrong way.

    Second, make sure your power consumption is sufficient. You need to add up power consumption for all of your modules, don’t rely on Modulargrid info – it’s often incorrect when it comes to power, check manufacturer’s websites. Also, there are two catches with uZeus – some of the power supplies it comes with don’t provide enough power, check which one you have and search on MW for more info and recommended power supplies. Also check the manual, there is a jumper that needs to be removed to have full power range, otherwise it’s lower than in the specifications.

    In terms of module selection, especially since you’re planning to use it for ambient I’d add more modulation sources, LFOs / envelopes, but in the end it’s so personal and part of the fun is researching it on your own :-) I’d replace A-145 as you can’t CV the frequency and part of the fun is modulating the modulators – sorry if you already know all this! Will be glad to help with any questions otherwise.

    • Marc Weidenbaum
      [ Posted May 20, 2014, at 4:13 pm ]

      Thanks for all this, Ryan, especially the power matters, which have been on my mind. I got the A-145 (that’s an LFO, a low frequency oscillator, for the fellow clueless noobs reading this) used, and that played a not small role in my selecting it. But the point about modulating the modulators is definitely on my mind.

      One step at a time. Or is it one step sequencer at a time?

  2. Ryan
    [ Posted May 20, 2014, at 5:30 pm ]

    Glad to help! Also forgot to mention – the 1U tile section in Synthrotek cases is for the Erthenvar 1U tile modules (originally created for their Lunchbox cases): http://erthenvar.com/store/tilemodules

    Also, here is a link to a list of eurorack tutorial videos for individual modules that I semi regularly maintain: http://goo.gl/ezebKr

    One step sequencer at a time if you can manage it :) – it’s hard to go slow sometimes as there is so much temptation (and for a good reason, Eurorack has a lot of truly innovative mind blowing stuff with more coming out every day it seems) but it’s all part of the journey.

    • Marc Weidenbaum
      [ Posted May 20, 2014, at 5:38 pm ]

      Holy moley, that is an amazing resource you have there. Thanks for sharing it. I’ve been looking through those 1U tile modules. The outputs seems like a space saver, and the V-Noise looks especially interesting. I really like that Synthrotek case. We shall see.

  3. Mikael
    [ Posted May 20, 2014, at 8:03 pm ]

    Congrats. I’m incredibly fascinated by modular synths. For me the singular reason I haven’t gotten into them is a lack of space. I’m pretty much restricted to making music on the computer – and the closest thing I’ve gotten to modular synths is Propellerhead Reason where any device pretty much can modulate any other one. But I miss the whole tactile thing. Where an actual knob and patch cable makes something happen somewhere else.

    Keep us posted on your experience. I’ll be following it with great interest. :)

    • Marc Weidenbaum
      [ Posted May 20, 2014, at 9:44 pm ]

      Hi, Mikael/Colab — yeah, I thought about Reason, but between Ableton and Pd and slowly inching toward spending serious time with Max/MSP, I wanted not to be at my computer all the time. Space is fairly tight here. I sold my turntables when my kid was born. But I have room for a small suitcase. We’ll see what comes of it.

  4. Brian Biggs
    [ Posted May 21, 2014, at 7:05 am ]

    You’re making a huge, large, and big mistake. Go back to your Buddha Box and ukulele while you still can. Clem needs a father, not a zombie-eyed twitchy Wiggler who walks around San Francisco scanning the BST and Craigslist…

    • Marc Weidenbaum
      [ Posted May 21, 2014, at 7:29 am ]

      The colorful patchcords will have the little zombie by my side.

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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