Finished Planning My Eurorack Modular Synthesizer

In January 2015 I put in an order for my first Eurorack case. Little did I know that I would end up filling that case and buying a larger one. Finally, 2 years and 3 months later, I have nearly finished assembling what will be the complete Eurorack. I have been buying a module or two per month, researching what I need and playing a lot with what I have got already to find out its limitations and areas for possible expansion. It’s much like incrementally building and upgrading a gaming PC really, although with very different results.

Today I have come up with a final plan for what the cases will contain. The picture below is slightly misleading, I have two cases, so the case below is actually split down the middle into two enclosures. The left-side case is 2/3rds the size of the right hand case, that is why there is a grey unusable area at the top left.

With the purchase of 4 modules this month, I’m nearly at the end. The remaining 3 modules will be bought and installed over the next month or two, depending on budget.

Screen Shot 2017-04-16 at 22.58.16.png

In addition to the Eurorack modular, I also have a polyphonic MIDI->CV converter called the CV.OCD which plugs into the modular, a Nord Drum semi-modular analogue drum synthesizer, which also plugs in and allows me to make and play drum sounds, a Korg SQ1 sequencer which allows me to add 2×8 step sequencers to the mix, a MS20 Mini semi-modular synthesizer and a keyboard controller which allows me to play notes and chords on the whole damn thing.

Design

I have built a synth roughly around three goals. The first is keeping a traditional ‘East Coast’ 3 voice subtractive synthesiser format, e.g. 3 oscillators, 3 filters, 3 envelopes, lots of LFOs and modulation, 3 VCAs, mixers, an FX unit including delay, reverb and others, 4×8 step sequencers which can be chained together (plus the 2×8 step in the SQ1). The second is that I wanted 3 voice polyphony – not ‘true’ analogue polyphony because that is difficult to achieve – but 3 of everything, wired together with a polyphonic MIDI -> CV controller, allowing me to play chords and experiment with traditional musical structures. The third goal was to keep the cost down! I am really not one of these modular synth heads with a huge studio and a near infinite budget, I have a lot of financial outgoings which I have met while building this. Building a modular synthesizer is never really ‘cheap’ in any sense of the word I would use, but this is definitely a lot cheaper than many other modulars I’ve seen, without compromising on quality.

 

What I have Learnt

  • Modular synthesizers can be built on a relatively low budget to achieve a good result.
  • I have sold all but one of my other synthesizers that I had before starting this project, finding the modular approach much more fun and rewarding then the in-the-box techniques and non-modular hardware synths.
  • Ignore what others might term as ‘conventional wisdom’ in building a modular, the freedom of Eurorack is that you can build whatever you want, and exactly what you want, so go with what works for you.
  • Slowly building up a modular synthesizer is likely to be much better than buying everything at once, you will experiment with what you’ve got, and learn its limitations and that will guide your purchases. It is impossible (in my opinion) to truly know what you want before you have started.
  • Use Modulargrid.net to plan out your synthesizer. It is very useful and has a huge database of modules. You can rearrange modules countless times on Modulargrid before you do it in reality, so you can plan and achieve a productive workflow.

 

 

 

Goals for 2017

Looking at my past posts, you may notice that I didn’t set myself any goals for 2016. Looking back, this was a mistake, so I’m going to remedy this by setting some for 2017.

Goals:

  • Lose a significant amount of weight – this is very important for health reasons.
  • Study maths courses – I intend to sign up for some maths courses at the OU. This will improve my mathematical knowledge, allowing for further study in subjects I’m interested in, plus allow me to work in more mathematically-heavy careers. This equates to 10 hours study per week, so it’s not a light commitment, but one I think I need to make.
  • Exercise more – this is important as it improves my mindset, stamina, and makes me feel good.

Not too many goals this time, but some important ones, and I think I’m in a good position to commit to these thanks to the support of my partner, and therefore I am in a position to improve my life.

Will post updates at some point during the year to chart this progress.

 

Studio Setup

Studio

This is my current studio setup.

I have the following gear:

Eurorack 9U case
Eurorack 6U case
KORG MS20 Mini Synth
Roland TB3 Synth
AY3 Chiptune Synth
Roland A500-PRO Keyboard Controller
Nord Drum Synth
Macbook Pro with Ableton Live 9 Suite
MIDI.OCD Polyphonic MIDI->CV Converter
Samson Patchbay

I am looking to sell my Acces Virus A and concentrate on filling up the remaining Eurorack case holes.

Music Workflow 2017

In 2017 I want to build a relatively static hardware-based workflow. This is what I’ve chosen:workflow-setup

The components are:

Current Music-Making Setup

With my current setup, I’m trying to make as much music ‘out of the box’ as possible, away from the computer as I find it more fun.

Synths:

KORG Minilogue: I use this for a keyboard controller, and I use the 16 step sequencer to run simple sequences. It connects to the PC via USB and has MIDI output. I can also use this as a synthesizer its own right, it’s good for backing chords and pads.
KORG MS20 Mini: I’m borrowing this from a friend. I will use it as a bass synth mostly. I’ve got a Harvestman English Tear module which connects it to my Eurorack.

Effects:

Electro Harmonix Stereo Memory Man with Hazarai: This is an effects pedal with reverb and delay, which I use to add a bit of effects to modular synthesizer before I record. I will also use effects within Ableton, but I like the sound of this pedal in general.

Drum Machine:

Nord Drum Mk1: This accepts triggers from the Eurorack I’ve recently discovered, so I have a drum machine that I can connect up to the Eurorack with 4 different drum voices.

Modular:

This is equivalent to a fairly standard three oscilator synth, with ring-mod, S&H and noise out. I have a few different filters, an XPander style filter, an ‘extreme’ filter which is loosely modelled on the MS20 filter, and a triple resonance filter which I use for noise soundscapes. It has two envelopes, and a Make Noise Maths and a Serge VCS equivalent for some modulation madness. It also has a 16 step sequencer.

My Eurorack Modular
My Eurorack Modular

Workflow:

I still use Ableton Live as a midi sequencer, creating midi clips for drums and the hardware synths. I will build up a patch on the synth, tweaking until it sounds servicable, then make a midi clip, record some loops from the synths, and cut up and move the audio around to compose a track. I might add some soft-synths and effects such as reverb and delay on the PC and mix the track. Then I will upload it to soundcloud and show it to musically minded friends. Depending on what they say, I may tweak the track and upload it again. This whole process usually is done within the space of a day or two, I sometimes spend longer for tracks that I want to be more finished and professional, but I am not really usually making music for more than a few people at the moment, so I don’t spend ages finetuning each track.

Narrative-Led PC Games

80 days poster

When I first started getting into computer roleplaying games in the 90s/00s I remember playing the Infinity Engine games by Bioware and Black Isle, such as Baldur’s Gate 2, the original Fallout games, and of course Planescape: Torment. It was the quality of writing that drew me in and took me to another world, the graphics were just a background setting to that writing.

Somewhere in the 2000s RPGs became more action orientated and prioritised mechanics and visual appeal and combat over branching stories. Nowadays a lot of popular RPGs are those such as Dark Souls, which seem more about combat and atmosphere than anything else. Blockbuster games such as Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher 3 still show that great writing, characterisation and real player choices can still be popular.

I still prefer the classic RPGs of yesteryear, those with mountains of dialogue and that take direct influence from fantasy novels and pen and paper, Dungeons and Dragons type games, which I grew up with. Here are some games which capture some of that great writing for me, although some are more interactive fiction than technically RPGs:

80 Days
You are the butler of Philleas Fogg, the man Jules Verne writes about in ‘Around the World in 80 Days’. Your task is to choose how to get around the world not more than 80 days, as you plan routes between cities, buy and sell items and manage the finances of the trip. It really captures a sense of adventure in the world, and builds on Jules Verne’s steampunk theme as you encounter fantastical means of transport such as mechanical ostriches, airships and others. Every route is different and you can choose how the story unfolds by selecting different actions your character will take. The writing is the best I’ve ever seen in a mainstream game.

http://store.steampowered.com/app/381780/

Sunless Sea
In this game which also takes influence from Jules Verne, the city of London has fallen through the crust of the earth into hell, where there is a giant underwater cavern called the Underzee. You sail across this underground sea, exploring islands and immersing yourself in this Vernesque/Victorian/Lovecraftian setting. The writing again is amazing; it reads like poetry.

http://store.steampowered.com/app/304650

Torment: Tides of Numenera
Another outlandish game, this time set in the world of Monte Cook’s Numenera, the writer behind the Planescape world which Planescape: Torment was set in. It hasn’t fully been realised yet but this game in early access form is already weird and wonderful, and much more interesting to me than yet another copy of on the elves and dwarves Tolkien formulaic settings.

http://store.steampowered.com/app/272270/

Eurorack 2016

eurorack

So.. the problem, as so many people have said, with getting into building a Eurorack modular synthesizer is that it becomes addictive, and you inevitably spend more than you can really afford. That said.. I now have a great fully customised synthesiser for what I want to do 🙂 The layout is:

Top shelf:

3 oscilators and noise generator in the top left, 4 VCAs and S&H and Ring Mod sections in the mid center, LFOs in the top right.

Middle shelf:

Filters! I love filters. 3 large format filter modules, and a Triple Resonance Filter which consists of an additional 3 filters packed into one unit. A quantizer is also there which I currently don’t use much.

Bottom shelf:

Envelopes in the bottom left, Voltage Controlled Slew Generator and Make Noise’s Maths in the center left, center right is my trigger sequencer setup from LADIK, bottom right is attenuators and linear and exponential mixers.

OSX Fish Functions to open Chrome from the Shell

These functions are quite handy, and allow you to do things such as copy and paste errors and google for them without having to manually open a browser. You have to enclose arguments to both functions in single quotes, e.g. ‘chrome ‘http://www.google.co.uk’ and google ‘one two three four’. You should add these to your config file at ~/.config/fish/config.fish and make sure Google Chrome is already installed.

function chrome
  /usr/bin/open -a '/Applications/Google Chrome.app' $argv[1:]
end
function google
  /usr/bin/open -a '/Applications/Google Chrome.app' "https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=$argv[1]"
end

My vIM Configuration

Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 04.00.46

I use a heavily customised setup for vIM, the text editor that annoys me the least in ~30 years of using a computer. You can see my exact setup in my dotfiles repo on github, https://github.com/wordswords/-.

Here are the plugins I use:

  • ConqueTerm – Opens a shell window inside vIM, allowing you to have a REPL environment within vIM.
  • NERDTree – A filetree plugin that you can see on the left of the window above. It replicates the Sublime text editor’s filetree.
  • vim-airline – This is a statusline plugin for vIM that allows for a nicer status view for windows and buffers.
  • vim-devicons – Allows for UTF-8 icons to make vIM editing slightly more graphical. Used by airline to display more info in less space, and by NERDTree to show filetype information.
  • vim-fish – Syntax highlighting for fish shell script editing.
  • vim-rails – Syntax highlighting and more for rails.
  • vim-ruby – Syntax highlighting for Ruby.