The Patch Cord Jungle

Maybe a modular synthesizer is never a finished instrument. Some mad scientist can always develop a new module that you just have to add to your system. Nonetheless, I feel I’m making progress. Most of the modules I’ve bought are amazing. Three or four others may end up on the used market.

Most of the gaps have been filled in, and I’m determined not to add any more panel space. I have plenty. Some people would call what I have a large system, but I’ve seen photos of synthesizers (not vintage photos — recent ones) that covered an entire wall. I call it a mid-sized system — 27U x 84hp, numbers that will make sense only to the euro-rack in-crowd.

In case you’re keeping score, here’s a quick summary of three of the more brilliant and useful modules I’ve acquired and am learning to use:

Top honors (this week, anyway) go to Mutable Instruments Braids. Calling Braids a digital oscillator doesn’t even begin to do it justice. It has about three dozen algorithms — FM, physical modeling, analog emulations of a sawtooth through various filters, PPG-style wavetable stepping, a multi-saw with detuning, and so on. It has a trigger input and its own miniature envelope generator. Also its own quantizer for equal-tempered half-steps.

Also astounding is the Make Noise DPO. This is an all-analog oscillator, or rather a dual oscillator, loosely based on the design of a Buchla dual oscillator module. Each of the oscillators can FM the other. There’s also a built-in three-stage waveshaper, among other useful features.

AntiMatter Brain Seed is the kind of module that you buy because the description makes it sound cool, even though you can’t figure out exactly what they’re describing. Well, it is cool. For starters, it’s a sample-and-hold, and in the classic analog sense: It will sample any input, not just a noise source. But then the fun begins. Press a button or send it a trigger, and it will start looping the last 8, 16, or 32 steps it sampled. It has a quantizer on the output, again ideal for playing harmonically sensible patterns, and a transposing voltage input so that the pattern can move up or down while looping.

Several of my favorite modules are digital. The control inputs are analog, but the brains are tiny computers. The Trigger Riot even has a memory for 16 user presets. But the nature of the circuitry isn’t important. What’s important are sound and functionality. Feed a slowly rising or falling voltage to the frequency input of Braids, and the pitch changes smoothly. It’s a cinch the input voltage is being sampled and the sample (a number) is changing the pitch of the digital oscillator in discrete steps, but the steps are so small you never hear them. For practical purposes, the distinction between analog and digital audio is no longer meaningful. Except when we want it to be, of course.

Much more could be said about these modules, and others. But that’s enough news for today. More soon, I’m sure.

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1 Response to The Patch Cord Jungle

  1. tom bitondo says:

    Hi JIm, it all sounds intriguing! I’m getting “module envy” as I read the description of “Braids”…. wish I had a modular system myself!
    Keep us posted…. it’s fun enough to hear about the adventures as you report them.
    Of course, I still wish I had a modular!

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