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tag: modular

How Instruō Went Virtual

The story of how the Glasgow-based hardware company ported its synthesizer modules to VCV Rack software

Just as December 2020 was coming to a close, and the year’s surprises, both good and horrible, were seemingly behind us, a new surprise — quite the former — popped up for modular-synthesizer enthusiasts. The hardware manufacturer Instruō, based in Glasgow, Scotland, announced that it was making almost all of its modules available in software form, 17 total, and better yet: entirely for free. The modules run on the free VCV Rack software platform, which is available for macOS, Windows, and Linux. (Visit Instruo at instruomodular.com, and VCV Rack at vcvrack.com.)

The response was immediately enthusiastic. At cdm.link, writer Peter Kirn said, “It’s got just enough of the sorts of tools that let you get adventurous with sound design, while remaining accessible and balanced.” The gearnews.com website praised the originals for their “beauty, depth and innovation,” and pondered whether the free versions would disincentivize hardware sales (its verdict: “I don’t think so”). Discussion boards quickly started chiming in, paying particular attention to the Instruō hardware modules that weren’t ported over, including Arbhar and Lúbadh.

I reached out to Instruō founder Jason Lim to learn more about the process and decision-making. Why weren’t those few modules included? How did the company manage what must have been a considerable undertaking? Why had they opted to make them free, since VCV Rack has introduce “premium” (aka paid) modules from a range of developers? As many of the original Instruō modules are analog or analog hybrids, what was the experience of porting them to the purely digital domain? How did the company approach the differences between the hands-on, knobs’n’sliders originals and the software versions? Lim graciously agreed to be interviewed via email, and below is the discussion, along with visual examples of both the original modules and their virtual offspring, as well as the process involved in bridging the gap.

The Instruō modules in hardware (above) and VCV Rack software (below)

Marc Weidenbaum: How did this project come to be, making the hardware modules available in digital form on Rack? Were you or anyone else at Instruō using VCV Rack before initiating the process of porting the modules to it?

Jason Lim: There were a few factors that led to this project, but it was very much a case of very fortunate timing. The planets aligned, so to speak, and allowed for this to become a reality. For a bit of background, I quite regularly have internship placements ongoing here at Instruō. Some positions have been coordinated as more formal partnerships with various educational institutions. In many cases meetings are more personal, friend of friend introductions and the like. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have Instruō develop so rapidly. At first it was me alone in the spare bedroom. Since those days I’ve been able to grow the team quite quickly with a really creative group.

I am Glasgow-based, and there are a number of very good universities and colleges here. My friend and collaborator, Dr Sebastian Lexer (co-dev of the Arbhar and Aithēr modules with myself), teaches at Glasgow University in their Sonic Arts department. He splits his time between education and working at Instruō. He gave recommendation to me for a couple of Master’s students last year who were approaching their final years of study. Their program requires an industry work placement in which they would work on, document, and develop a project within the field of music technology. This was of course all put in place pre-COVID and their start dates were planned for mid-June 2020. As the time approached, we had to rather quickly shift gears and figure out a new project that would be better suited for remote working.

I’ve followed VCV as a platform since its release, with great interest. What Andrew Belt has brought to the community is huge! It’s the sort of thing you’d read in forums as speculation and pipe dreams. It’s an immense undertaking and I think he’s built something truly groundbreaking. I occasionally teach a synthesis/sound design course here in Glasgow at subSine | Academy of Electronic Music (subsineacademy.com). (This is my friend’s music school, and we operate from the same premises in the Southside of Glasgow.) Several years ago I developed a curriculum for a 10-week course, which I have taught there semi regularly. I have since reformatted it as a shortened weekend-long intensive workshop. Modular synths are the primary tool I use, but it is a broader look at synthesis in general. Working from the modular building blocks really helps build a strong foundational knowledge.

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ClockSkip In Effect

Simple evening beat experiment

Simple evening beat experiment: four pulses in sync, each triggering a different percussive envelope of a different spectral subset of a pair of waveforms heard in combination. One of the waveforms is having its pitch alerted occasionally, both in and out of sync with the overall rhythm. The element of chance results from the four triggers all being muted on occasion (slightly less than 50% of the time) by the ClockSkip function in the Hemisphere alternate firmware in the Ornament and Crime module. Envelopes courtesy of the Xaoc Zadar. Waves courtesy of a pair of Mutable Instruments Plaits (here in the form of clones: the Antumbra Knit).

Video originally posted at youtube.com/disquiet.

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The First Button

Of many, at Perfect Circuit in Burbank

In Los Angeles for the long weekend on a project, I finally had a chance to visit Perfect Circuit for the first time. Perfect Circuit is one of the best synthesizer (and related) retail outfits in America, with superior mail-order service, excellent videos (on YouTube, where they blessedly employ limited voiceovers, letting the music do the talking), and most importantly a wide-ranging and deep stock of equipment (plus books and other merchandise). Much of that equipment is on view and available for fiddling with inside the nondescript corner storefront operation (which doubles as a warehouse) in Burbank. There are large table tops loaded with gadgets, a small wall of effects pedals, and several massive (well, massive to me with my modest little rig) modular-synth setups. And that’s just the main room. There’s a smaller secondary room of equipment, and another room dedicated to vinyl releases. The place is also deceptively quiet, because everyone walks around with a pair of headphones, jacks in, and plays.

But before you get to turn any of those knobs, or slide any of those faders, or push any of those buttons, there is a more important button you need to push: The door to Perfect Circuit is locked during business hours. There’s a doorbell out front that you need to press. And for all the noise you may generate once you’ve entered, the single sweetest sequence of sounds you are likely to experience during your visit is the combination of that doorbell registering your presence, followed by the click of the door when it is unlocked.

(Side note: If you’re in the area, the carnitas at Taqueria El Tapatio on W Victory Blvd are smoky and delicious.)

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The Virtue of Virtual Cables

Andrew Belt talked about the VCV Rack software at Stanford on July 3.

Over the past two years, a remarkable piece of free software has helped make modular synthesis widely available. The software is called Rack, from the company VCV, which like many small software firms is essentially a single person serving and benefiting from the efforts of a far-flung constellation of developers. Andrew Belt, who develops VCV Rack, this past week visited the San Francisco Bay Area from Tennessee, where he lives and works, to give talks and demonstrations. I caught his presentation at the Stanford University’s CCRMA department this past Wednesday, July 3. It was a great evening.

Belt spoke for an hour, starting at around 5:30pm, about the origins and development of VCV Rack, how it began as a command-line effort, and how then he went back to a blank slate and started on a GUI, or graphic user interface, approach. That GUI is arguably what makes VCV Rack so popular. Rack provides emulations of synthesizer modules that look just like actual physical modules, including virtual cables you drag across the screen, much as you’d connect an oscillator and a filter in the physical world. The occasion of his visit is the release of version 1.0 of VCV Rack, following an extended beta honeymoon. He covered a lot of material during the talk and subsequent Q&A, and I’m just going to summarize a few key points here:

He talked about the “open core” business-model approach, in which the Rack software is free and open source, and how third parties (and VCV) then sell new modules on top of it. (This is a bit like a “freemium,” the difference being that the foundation here is open source.)

Belt went through various upcoming modules, including a “timeline” one, a “prototype” one, a “video-synthesis” one, a DAW-style “piano roll,” and one that is a bitcrusher emulating super low-grade MP3 encoding. He didn’t mention which existing synthesizer module companies are due to port theirs over to Rack, and no one asked, likely because, this being CCRMA, the conversation was way more deep in the DSP (digital signal processing) weeds — which was great, even if 90% of that material was way over my head. He showed tons of examples, including how the new polyphony (up to 16 voices) works.

There was a great moment midway through the talk. Belt was discussing the employment of a type of synthesis in Rack called FM synthesis, and he asked if anyone in the audience could remind him who had first developed FM synthesis. One of the senior CCRMA professors chimed in and explained that we were all in this room precisely because of FM synthesis: CCRMA was funded for many years thanks to profits on the patent for FM synthesis, which was developed by Stanford professor John Chowning. FM synthesis was what made the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer a massive success during in the 1980s. For many years to follow, Chowning’s FM synthesis patent was, reportedly, the single most profitable patent in all of Stanford’s existence. After drinking in the impromptu history lesson, Belt pulled up a DX7 emulation in Rack. Someone in the audience noted how things come full circle.

I highly recommend giving VCV Rack a try. It’s available at vcvrack.com.

This is lightly adapted from the July 7, 2019, issue of the free weekly Disquiet.com email newsletter This Week in Sound.

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Synth Learning: “Tako Friday”

The soap-opera narrative of my modular synthesizer diary is me breaking up with and then getting back together again with my Soundmachines UL1 module. I think we finally committed to a long-time engagement last night. Season-ending episode.

This evening, to celebrate the 24-hour-versay of our vows, I ran a slow arpeggio of a series of electric guitar chords through the UL1, and through four other processing units.

Here’s more technical detail, as part of my modular diary, mostly for my own memory: All five of these separate processings of the guitar play simultaneously, though two are being gated, meaning you don’t hear them consistently. The UL1 is a lofi looper, and it’s the thing here being pushed into glitch territory. The UL1 is receiving a narrow, high-end band of the guitar signal, as filtered by the Make Noise FXDf. Another narrow band, also on the high end, is going from the FXDf straight out. A third narrow band, the highest of the trio, is going into a slowly clocked Befaco Muxlicer, the relative volume of the signal changing with each pulse. That same pulse is determining whether a fourth channel, the guitar through the Make Noise Erbe-Verb reverb module, is to be heard or not (as clocked by a slow square wave on a Batumi). That Erbe-Verbe is also having its algorithm flipped into reverse, on occasion, based on the same clocked pulse, but the gate delayed a bit (thanks to the Hemispheres firmware running on an Ornament and Crime module). And finally, the guitar is running through Clouds, a granular synthesis module, which is also being clocked to occasionally snag a bit of the guitar signal and turn it into a haze.

It took awhile to get the chords right. The only note the four chords have in common is an open D. The piece fades in with the D played on two strings, setting the backing tone. It also took awhile to get the right processing decisions made. I started with the UL1, and then built up and adjusted from there. I’m working on having more randomness in the triggering of the UL1, but this is pretty good, far as it goes.

It sounds a bit “Octopus’s Garden,” so it’s titled “Tako Friday” (tako being Japanese for octopus, and this being Friday). In retrospect I hear a bit of “The Dark Side of the Moon” in there, too. The audio was recorded through a Mackie mixer into a Zoom H4n, and then trimmed and given a fade in and fade out in Adobe Audition.

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/disquiet.

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