Modular Mojo, Day 2

I never knew I could get so exhausted sitting in a chair, but I guess six hours of intense concentration will do that. I’ve been testing and/or exploring my new modular synth. I guess this is my 65th birthday present to myself. There are other ways to look at it, too. I have a friend whose travel plans for the next two years include Machu Picchu and an African photo safari. I don’t travel, so I haven’t spent any more money on my recreational activity than she’s going to spend on hers.

Already I’ve learned a few things, and had a few experiences. Most of what follows will be of marginal interest unless you’re a synthesizer junkie — but hey, it’s my blog. I write about whatever interests me.

First and foremost: In constant, inflation-adjusted dollars, this instrument is both more powerful and less expensive than the 4-panel Serge system I owned 30 years ago. With one exception, which may or may not be significant: There is no euro-rack module comparable to the Serge TKB step sequencer.

I have two sequencers, both made by Make Noise. The Rene is a 16×1 sequencer, but it’s configured as a 4×4 matrix with separate inputs for the X and Y clocks. Oh, and it has a quantized output, in case you like standard scales. I think it has a memory too — I haven’t looked at that yet. The other sequencer combines two Pressure Points panels with a Brains. Two Pressure Points make an 8×3 sequencer. This could be expanded to 8×7, and has an up/down directional CV input … but it still wouldn’t match the 16×4 configuration of the TKB.

Somehow I think I can live with this limitation, though, especially since a Tiptop Audio Trigger Riot is stationed just above the Pressure Points. This monster has eight separate trigger/gate outputs. It will do complex rhythms, and it has a memory for storing your favorite patterns.

Second lesson: Don’t invest in a euro-rack system unless you’re ready for at least a little do-it-yourself activity involving circuit diagrams. I bought this system from Analogue Haven, and Shawn Cleary very kindly volunteered to install the modules in the cases for me. Even so, in my first 24 hours I’ve had four encounters with multi-connector ribbon cables. One module wasn’t installed, another was hooked up incorrectly, and a third got unhooked from the power supply somehow while I was fiddling with something else.

Fortunately, I didn’t toast anything, but my eyes aren’t good, so at one point I had to shine a flashlight on the circuit board to make sure I knew which end was up.

I have two dual filters — the Intellijel Korgasmatron II and the WMD Micro Hadron Collider. Each of them can run its pair of filters in series, or parallel, or independently, and both can be overdriven for rich tones. It’s kind of hard to describe that richness. Analog circuits can overload and misbehave in unpredictable, yet pleasing ways that digital instruments can’t.

Third lesson: The folks in the modular synth community are friendly and helpful. The written instructions on how to connect the expander panels to the Hadron Collider were rather sketchy, so I picked up the phone and called the company. These are tiny companies, so I was probably talking to the guy who designed the module. He walked me through it.

After I got off the phone, I discovered that one of the expander panels wasn’t working. Rather than freak out, I unscrewed the modules and had a look. Sure enough, I had attached one of the ribbon cables wrong. I fixed it, put the rack back together, and it worked.

That’s another lesson: Don’t freak out. Test stuff first, then freak out if need be. With one of my envelope generators, the Tiptop z4000, the ADSR knobs didn’t seem to be working at all. I was afraid I might have to send it back, but eventually I discovered I had plugged the gate signal into the wrong input. Mystery solved.

I have nine assorted contour generators, some of which will loop or send end triggers for chaining purposes. Some of them also have manual trigger buttons, which are nice both for testing and for improvisation. Speaking of improvisation, twisting the knobs is at least half the fun. Tones can change in surprising ways.

I have seven 84hp rack panels, and they aren’t full yet. While ordering the system I was thinking, “I’ll need another three panels to have a complete instrument.” But now I’m thinking, no. This will be just fine. I do plan to add the Intellijel Planar, which is an absolutely spiffy joystick, and probably a waveshaper and a couple of buffered mults.

But even a waveshaper … my Serge had a terrific waveshaper, and it was highly useful, but a good part of its utility was that it could make the otherwise rather straightforward oscillator tones more animated. The Serge had nothing like the MOTM Morphing Terrarium, a digital oscillator that can sweep smoothly through an incredible variety of waveforms.

What kind of music will I make with this instrument? I’ll get back to you on that, maybe in a month or so.

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One Response to Modular Mojo, Day 2

  1. Tom Bitondo says:

    Jim, thanks for the updates. Since I don’t know anyone currently using a “real” modular, your experiences are great reading and very informative. Keep ’em coming!!!

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