Yes, nests of patch cords and racks of modules will make noodle-y noise for chin scratching. It can also make pounding techno – and we’re going inside some of the sonic brains who’ve mastered that.
Our mission: let’s learn how people are actually using modular synthesis to express their musical ideas, and demystify some of the basic concepts in sound creation behind all those cool flashing lights and tangles of wire.
To do that, we need musicians like Florian and Leonard.
Florian Meindl and Leonard de Leonard will join us tomorrow in Berlin thanks to Roland organizing a visit in the artist center they’ve set up in Kreuzberg. These are two producers with a deep knowledge of music history and production skills as well as technical knowledge. They’re proof that musicianship is a combination of engineering and intuition. So whether you’re interests tend to beats or beatless, the main takeaway is that they can master creative sound design as an instrument.
Florian in the studio.
Florian has been a guest with CDM (and Roland) once before. He’s a real workhorse of Berlin’s techno scene, having produced music for about a decade and a half, various high-profile remixes (Hot Chip & Royksopp), and helmed a label (FLASH) that has released a who’s who of quality techno from around the world – with a stunning 130 releases, ranging from Sigha to Noncompliant, and not a dud in the bunch. I have to say from trying to juggle multiple threads like this, this stuff isn’t easy. He’s also some kind of ninja of social media.
Plus, for synth lovers, his Riemann Kollektion and Riemann Modular build businesses around boutique sounds and DJ tools and Eurorack modular, respectively.
Florian’s hybrid DJ sets effortlessly mix from club bangers to fluid modular improvisations – I saw particularly heavy, concrete-shaking sets at both Berlin’s Arena and Griessmuehle recently. I think the key was, the modular stuff never sounded like filler – it was just as dead-on.
Here’s a beautiful example of his music, which goes full-on dark and industrial without ever losing site of groove.
And because the future of DJing is also playing live, here’s his round-up of mixes and live sets:
Leonard’s stunning Sound Provider studio, otherwise known as “okay, that’s a good motivation to try to go to heaven when I die instead of Hell, maybe?”
Leonard de Leonard is a kind of sonic polyglot, a deep expert in modules and synths (well beyond my own modular knowledge – let me be totally clear about that), and with a resume across various genres, in composition, arrangement, and production. He’s also worked in sound design. You can tell a really clever producer/sound creator when it’s musically satisfying to listen to samples of their loops – like, his loop libraries sound better than a lot of producer’s tracks.
We’ll also get to look at Roland’s entry into Eurorack modular, a collaboration with Portland, Oregon boutique maker Malekko. What I appreciate about Roland’s work in modular, and why I would chose to work with them, is that they’re helping give back to the odd and wonderful underground collection of people now making modules. So apart from bringing back some of the vintage Roland System 100 designs that helped shape what modular looks like today, they’re also making a point of showing how their modules fit with other smaller makers, in a larger ecosystem.
With the proliferation of modules, the phrase “Eurorack bubble” has been floating around for a while. But now it appears to be translating into falling prices.
The basic problem is this: more demand means more interest, which translates into more manufacturers, and more production. So far, so good. Then, more distributors pick up the goods – not just boutique operators like Schneider, but also bigger chains.
Where’s the problem? With too many modules out there in the marketplace, and more big retailers, it’s easier for the big retailers to start to squeeze manufacturers on price. Plus, the more modules out in the world, the greater the supply of used modules.
Andreas Schneider has chosen to weigh in on the issue personally. You can read his statement in German:
There’s actually a lot there – though the banner revelation is seeing the cost of new modules suddenly plummet by 30%:
You asked for it: Due to the increased demand for Eurorack modules in Europe, even the large retailers for musical instruments are now filling the last corners of their warehouses and buying complete production runs from manufacturers and everything else they can get. Some manufacturers might be happy about this, but the flooding of the market already leads to a significant drop in prices here and there, some modules are already available with a 30% discount on the original calculated price and yet were still quite hot the other day!
As SchneidersLaden we have decided to go along with this development and of course offer corresponding products for the same price to our customers, although most of them have already bought them when the goods were still fresh and crisp! We’re almost a little sorry about that, but hopefully the hits are already produced and the music career is up and running? Nevertheless, sorry – but the decision for this way lies with the manufacturer and was not our recommendation!
By the way… we don’t advertise with moneyback-warranty… we’ve always practiced it. But please: get advice first, then buy – like in the good old days. Because it’s better to talk to your specialist retailer – we know what we are selling. And by the way: We do free shipping throughout Europe and there are Thursdays on that we are in the shop until nine o’clock in the evening …and real CHAOS serves creativity.
That had to be said – end of commercial break.
Okay, so some different messages. To manufacturers, with whom Schneider seems to place a lot of the blame, the message is to avoid glutting the market by selling so many units that then they lose their price margin. (That seems good advice.) There’s also a “dance with the one that brung you” attitude here, but that’s probably fair, as well.
To buyers, work with specialists, and please research what you buy so you don’t shoulder retailers and manufacturers with lots of returns. That seems good advice, too.
(Hope I’ve paraphrased that fairly.)
It does seem there’s a looming problem beyond just what’s here, though. For the community to continue to expand, it will have to find more new markets. It does seem some saturation point is inevitable, and that could mean a shakeout of some manufacturers – though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The used market should also be a worry, though on the other hand, some people do always seem to buy new.
I’d echo what the two posts here say, which is the synth maker world will likely be healthy if manufacturers and consumers do some research and support one another.
Before anyone predicts the sky is falling, I’ve had a number of conversations with modular makers. Those with some experience seem to be doing just fine, even if some have expressed concern about the larger market and smaller and newer makers. That is, those with some marketing experience and unique products still see growth – but that growth may not translate to greener manufacturers who are trying to cram into what is becoming a crowded field.
Electronic music is understood by the general public mostly through artists – tech is just something in the background with knobs. But there’s more to the story than that.
And while it’s certainly well known in synth loving circles, Berlin has accordingly been techno capital and club capital, but is finally getting recognition as a mecca for technology.
These two films take you inside one retailer and one manufacturer that have each championed the return to boutique sonic electronics, to patch cables and modular synthesis, and that have resisted anything like mass market mentalities or commodification.
They could have easily been mistaken as throwbacks, but there’s some futurism to the visions of both Mark Verbos and Andreas Schneider. Schneider’s name is associated with Berlin, having established his shop as the hangout, wallet emptier, and community pillar of the synth scene. Verbos, who was himself once a Berlin resident, has only recently brought the modular business he established in New York City across the Atlantic. And even though their wares are unmistakably fetish objects, I’d say both brands make their value proposition through a commitment to adventurous sound. So yes, you get vintage-looking knobs and slightly anachronistic telephone switchboard interfaces. But the investment, their message says, is in exploring strange new worlds and undiscovered sounds.
Schneidersladen, toured by Synth Anatomy, is a clinic and community hub as well as a place to surrender to gear acquisition syndrome. And it retains the same personality and idiosyncracies that mark the larger synth loving scene.
Mapping the Schneider empire is getting tricky these days, but the short version: Schneidersladen in Kreuzberg is the new retail iteration of what was once Schneidersbüro (at Alexanderplatz, the old location)). ALEX4 is a distribution company. Superbooth, while once just an actual booth at the Musikmesse, is now an event series with its own production company.
At Verbos Electronics, Mark – who cut his teeth as a Buchla expert and repairperson – walks through the passion that drives his business in high-end modules. Side note: Mark is also a consummate live techno musician on his own instruments, having fired up these boxes in the likes of Berghain (and, back in the day, the old Ostgut and Tresor). Hearing him play should leave little doubt that these machines are for dancing, not just chin scratching. (You can, of course, attempt doing both at once. Full support.)
Oh, look, a new MIDI controller keyboard ranks there with “wow, a new moderately-priced mid-sized sedan.” But… Arturia may have a hit on their hands with the MKII KeyLab. Here’s why.
While everyone else guns for the elusive entry level “everyone,” Arturia has won over specific bands of enthusiasts. The BeatStep Pro is a prime example: by connecting to both MIDI and control voltage, these compact pad-sequencer units have become utterly ubiquitous in modular rigs. They’re the devices that prevent modular performances from turning into aimless noodling. (Well, or at least they give your aimless noodling a set of predictable patterns and rhythm.)
Now, is the modular market big enough to sell the majority of BeatSteps Pro? Probably not. But the agnostic design approach here makes this a multitasker tool in every kitchen, and so word of mouth spreads.
So, keyboards. Native Instruments, love them or hate them, have had a pretty big hit with the Komplete Kontrol line, partly because they do less. They’re elegant looking, they’re not overcrowded, and their encoders let you access not only NI’s software, but lots of other plug-ins via the NKS format.
But the KeyLab MKII looks like it could fit a different niche, by connecting easily to hardware and DAWs.
Backlit pads. 4×4 pads (with velocity and continuous pressure – good), which can also be assigned to chords in case finger drumming isn’t what you had in mind.
DAW control. A lot of people record/edit while playing in parts on the keyboard. So here’s your DAW control layout with some handy shortcut buttons.
Faders/mixing. You get 9 faders with 9 rotaries – so that can be 8 channels plus a master fader. There are assignable buttons underneath those.
Pitch and mod wheels. Dear Arturia: thank you for not being innovative here, as wheels are what many people prefer.
And a big navigator. This bit lets you pull up existing presets.
Okay, none of that is all that exciting – we’ve literally seen exactly this set of features before. But Arturia have pulled it together in some nice ways, like adding a dedicated switch to move into chord mode, letting you change MIDI channel with a button on the front panel (hello, hardware owners), and even thoughtfully including not only those shortcut keys for DAWs, but a magnetic overlay to access them.
Still, keyboards from Nektar and M-Audio, to name just two, cover similar ground. So where Arturia set themselves apart is connectivity.
Class-compliant USB MIDI operation. No drivers mean you can pair this with anything, including iOS and Android and Linux (including Raspberry Pi).
Control Voltage. 4 CV/Gate outputs, controlling pitch, gate, and modulation. Yes, four. Also one CV input.
MIDI in and out.
Pedals. Expression, sustain, and 3 assignable auxiliary pedal inputs.
Software integration. This is obviously a winner if you’re into Arturia’s Analog Collection library, which has gone from varied and pretty okay to really, really great as it’s matured. And since there are so many instruments, having this hardware to navigate them is a godsend. There’s also the obligatory software bundle to sweeten the pot, but I suspect the real draw here is out-of-box compatibility with the DAW of your choice – including Pro Tools, Logic Pro X, FL Studio, Bitwig, Cubase, Ableton Live, Digital Performer, and Studio One.
Made of metal. Okay, not the keys. (That’d be awesome, if… wrong.) But the chassis is aluminum, and the wheels are event metal.
There’s a pretty nice piano and a bunch of analog presets built in here, making this a good deal.
I think if your workflow isn’t tied to Native Instruments software and plug-ins, the connectivity and standalone operation here could make the Arturia the one to beat. The thing to check, obviously, is hardware and build quality, though note that Arturia say the keybed at least is what’s found on the Brute line.
There are 49- and 61- key variations, and they come in either black or white, so you can, you know, coordinate with your studio and tastes.
Performing voltages. The notion is now familiar in synthesis – improvising with signals – but what about the dance between noise and image? Artist Oliver Dodd has been exploring the audiovisual modular.
Integrated sound-image systems have been a fascination of the avant-garde through the history of electronic art. But if there’s a return to the raw signal, maybe that’s born of a desire to regain a sense of fusion of media that can be lost in overcomplicated newer work.
Underground label Detroit Underground has had one foot in technology, one in audiovisual output. DU have their own line of Eurorack modules and a deep interest in electronics and invention, matching a line of audiovisual works. And the label is even putting out AV releases on VHS tape. (Well, visuals need some answer to the vinyl phonograph. You were expecting maybe laserdiscs?)
And SIGINT, Oliver Dodd’s project, is one of the more compelling releases in that series. It debuted over the winter, but now feels a perfect time to delve into what it’s about – and some of Oliver’s other, evocative work.
First, the full description, which draws on images of scanning transmissions from space, but takes place in a very localized, Earthbound rig:
The concept of SIGINT is based on the idea of scanning, searching, and recording satellite transmissions in the pursuit of capturing what appear to be anomalies as intelligent signals hidden within the transmission spectrum.
SIGINT represents these raw recordings, captured in their live, original form. These audio-video recordings were performed and rendered to VHS in real-time in an attempt to experience, explore, decipher, study, and decode this deeply evocative, secret, and embedded form of communication whose origins appear both alien and unknown, like paranormal imprints or reflections of inter-dimensional beings reflected within the transmission stream.
The amazing thing about this project are the synchronicities formed between the audio and the video in real time. By connecting with the aural and the visual in this way, one generates and discovers strange, new, and interesting communications and compositions between these two spaces. The Modular Audio/Video system allows a direct connection between the video and the audio, and vice versa. A single patch cable can span between the two worlds and create new possibilities for each. The modular system used for SIGINT was one 6U case of only Industrial Music Electronics (Harvestman) modules for audio and one 3U case of LZX Industries modules for video.
CDM: I’m going through all these lovely experiments on your YouTube channel. How do these experiments come about?
Oliver: My Instagram and YouTube content is mostly just a snapshot of a larger picture of what I am currently working on, either that day, or of a larger project or work generally, which could be either a live performance, for example, or a release, or a video project.
That’s one hell of an AV modular system. Can you walk us through the modules in there? What’s your workflow like working in an audiovisual system like this, as opposed to systems (software or hardware) that tend to focus on one medium or another?
It’s a two-part system. There is one part that is audio (Industrial Music Electronics, or “Harvestman”), and there is one part that is video (LZX Industries). They communicate with each other via control voltages and audio rate signals, and they can independently influence each other in both ways or directions. For example, the audio can control the video, and the control voltages generated in the video system can also control sources in the audio system.
Many of the triggers and control voltages are shared between the two systems, which creates a cohesive audio/video experience. However, not every audio signal that sounds good — or produces a nice sound — looks good visually, and therefore, further tweaking and conditioning of the voltages are required to develop a more cohesive and harmonious relationship between them.
The two systems: a 3U (smaller) audio system on the left handles the Harvestman audio modules, and 6U (taller) on the right includes video processing modules from LZX Industries. Cases designed by Elite Modular.
I’m curious about your notion of finding patterns or paranormal in the content. Why is that significant to you? Carl Sagan gets at this idea of listening to noise in his original novel Contact (using the main character listening to a washing machine at one point, if I recall). What drew you to this sort of idea – and does it only say something about the listener, or the data, too?
Data transmission surrounds us at all times. There are always invisible frequencies that are outside our ability to perceive them, flowing through the air and which are as unobstructed as the air itself. We can only perceive a small fraction of these phenomena. There are limitations placed on our ability to perceive as humans, and there are more frequencies than we can experience. There are some frequencies we can experience, and there are some that we cannot. Perhaps the latter can move or pass throughout the range of perception, leaving a trail or trace or impressions on the frequencies that we can perceive as it passes through, and which we can then decode.
What about the fact that this is an audiovisual creation? What does it mean to fuse those media for a project?
The amazing thing about this project are the synchronicities formed between the audio and the video in real time. By connecting with the aural and the visual in this way, one generates and discovers strange, new, and interesting communications and compositions between these two spaces. The modular audio/video system allows direct connection between the video and the audio, and vice versa. A single patch cable can span between the two worlds and create new possibilities for each.
And now, some loops…
Oliver’s “experiments” series is transcendent and mesmerizing:
If this were a less cruel world, the YouTube algorithm would only feed you this. But in the meantime, you can subscribe to his channel. And ignore the view counts, actually. One person watching this one video is already sublime.
Plus, from Oliver’s gorgeous Instagram account, some ambient AV sketches to round things out.
Moog’s Mother line have all had patch cables. Now, the Grandmother adds something else – keys. Oh, and a heck of a lot of colors. We talked to Moog to get the inside scoop on the new Grandmother.
Patch-ability is all the rage these days. There’s the rack modular scene, of course. But then we’re increasingly seeing patch points on desktop synths and keyboards, too. The idea is, you can create different modulation effects and a wider range of sounds by changing the routing of signal through the instrument. And while that’s possible on some electronic instruments using switches or menus or other features, here you just plug a cable from one point to another.
Moog’s own Mother-32 brought that concept to their modern desktop rangorie, followed by its drum synth sibling, the DFAM (Drummer From Another Mother). Now, it’s the Grandmother’s turn. (Any bets on whether they’ll keep going with ‘mother’ names after this?)
The Grandmother moves the patch points out of the big matrix found on the side of the Mother-32 and DFAM, and distributes them across the hardware. That makes it a bit easier to follow where signal flow is – though you’ll also need longer cables.
And you get keys.
Plus this definitely comes in colors, as you may have noticed. The Grandmother plays up the modularity by color coding each section individually. At first glance, it appears as though the Grandmother is a rack of separate modules, but that’s just a visual flourish – it’s an all-in-one design. (If you do want a keyboard that lets you change modules, see products like Waldorf’s kb37, or Arturia’s RackBrute, which attaches to their MiniBrute range, or any number of boutique products.)
• Hardware Spring Reverb can be used to process external sounds
• ¼” External audio input for guitars, drum machines, and more.
• Semi-modular – no patching is required
• Easy to use Arpeggiator and Sequencer
• Store up to 3 sequences with up to 256 notes each
• 2 Analog Oscillators with selectable waveshape and hard sync
• Classic 4-Pole 10Hz-20kHz Ladder filter
• Patchable 1-Pole High Pass filter
• Analog ADSR Envelope Generator
• Analog LFO with audio-rate capabilities
• 32-note Fatar keyboard with velocity
• All normalized connections can be interrupted for full modularity
• DIN MIDI In/Out/Thru and USB MIDI
• Patchable bipolar attenuator
• Works with Mother-32, DFAM, Eurorack modular systems and more
• 41 patch points with 21 inputs, 16 outputs and a Parallel-Wired 4-jack Mult
That makes a really interesting instrument, though I think it’s worth noting that some of the competition comes from Moog itself – the SUB PHATTY has a pretty powerful architecture for roughly the same price, and while it lacks those patch points, still has some flexibility for routing modulation and analog I/O. It also has patch storage.
But I think there’s more to the Grandmother than specs, and the formula runs like this:
A semi-modular design + spring reverb = far out, man
Adrian Younge did this wonderful artist video that demonstrates that:
Grandmother price is US$899 street. (List is US$999.)
We talked to Moog Music about the thinking behind the Grandmother. Here’s what we learned:
Lots of space for patching. Moog emphasize that you can play this instrument even without patching anything if you want. But if you do want to take advantage of the semi-modular side, now there’s room to grow – figuratively and literally. Moog tell us:
In designing a keyboard instrument, we have more panel space than we do in the pure eurorack format (where space is always a consideration), giving us more room for the patch points. The patch point locations also make connecting cables to other devices, like Mother-32, DFAM or Eurorack much more convenient.
Having said that; Grandmother can do extremely complex things, particularly through patching. For seasoned synthesists, all normalizations can be broken and Grandmother can function as a fully modular instrument.
The Grandmother can be a modular gateway. You can patch the Grandmother, DFAM, and Mother-32 in various combinations – or it can be a gateway to Eurorack.
The origins of the Grandmother circuitry. There are some new sounds here – and they give you access to some Moog modulars from the past. Moog tells us: “All three instruments share the same oscillator genealogy, but the rest of Grandmother’s modules are based on classic Moog modular circuits. The Mixer is based on the CP3, the Filter is based on the 904A, the Envelope is based on the 911, the VCA is based on the 902, and the Spring Reverb is based on the 905.”
About those colors. Moog will definitely get your attention with that color coding. It’s obviously partly there for show, partly to make it obvious that the different sections have different functions. And back to the original Minimoog, our modern subtractive synths are essentially all derived from combinations of modules.
There is some history here. Moog points to their Sonic Six, the Concertmate / Realistic MG-1, and the Moog Source as instruments that all carried the Moog name. That’s actually a little surprising – Moog haven’t traditionally focused much on those chapters in their legacy, as they’re not connected with Bob Moog. (Not to be blunt, but that’s like talking to Ford PR and having them compare something to the Edsel.)
To me, the Grandmother really has the most in common with the Sonic Six. It used just one color, but the color overlay was meant to suggest the modular structure beneath.
I’m going to guess this design will inspire some love/hate reactions. But yeah, to be fair, there is some Moog history of “bold color choices,” as Moog tells us, other than, you know, brown.
The keybed. Moog: “It’s a Fatar TP-9 with velocity sensitivity, which is a really great and solid feeling keybed.”
You can gate the keyboard. Moog points out something else of interest:
“One other thing worth mentioning is the ( Envelope / Keyboard Release / Drone ) switch on the VCA. Envelope and Drone may be obvious, but the keyboard release selection is actually very useful. It works like Keyboard Gate on older Moog synths, where a pressed note immediately sets the VCA to maximum sustain level. The difference is when a note is released in this mode, the VCA will follow the release setting of the Envelope. This option opens up a lot of added possibilities while keeping the panel fast and easy to use.”
Built in the USA. Yep, these do get put together in Moog’s factory in North Carolina.
If you’re going to Moogfest this week: I’m not at Moogfest this year, but if you are, you get a special treat. Moog tell us:
For those near Durham, NC this week – Guitar Center will have Grandmother synthesizers available for play and purchase starting 10:00am this Thursday at the Moog Pop Up Factory (free and open to the public), where visitors can also watch as we live build the new instrument on site. Then at 3:00 on Thursday, Moogfest attendees can hear Grandmother used in a long-form Moog drone performance guided by Nick Hook and Gareth Jones of Spiritual Friendship.
If you love synths, you’ll want a guide to Berlin’s Superbooth. What was still just an actual booth a few years ago has grown into one of the world’s biggest synthesizer showcases. There was so much new, it’s actually hard to keep track. Here’s some assistance.
About the festival: Superbooth, held in a former East German children’s community center in the city’s Köpenick suburb, was more packed in 2018 than ever.
That’s partly a sign of the growth of modular makers. This event calls Berlin home thanks to Schneidersladen (née Schneidersbüro), the boutique synth shop that became a landmark and a beacon to lovers of electronic instruments, particularly as analog circuitry and Eurorack modular synths have seen major growth in the 21st century. Andreas Schneider and his team, and later their ALEX4 distributor and the Superbooth operation itself, have helped champion those instruments.
But like that shop, Superbooth also gathers boutique makers of many stripes, plus big manufacturers like KORG, Elektron, and Roland, each of whom had commanding presences (among others).
The overall feeling is of a place where synth makers and musicians come together, with gear at center stage. (There are panels and performances, too, but they feel a pleasant side show to the workshops and booths.)
This year’s themes: There are still wires everywhere. But “analog” sound sources aren’t the major concern they once were – or, for that matter, classic gear as models (even if Behringer clones were a big buzz). Now, you’ll see plenty of computer-like sequencers in racks, digital oscillators (including FM synthesis), more alternative control interfaces (from touch to gestures to biosensing), and fresh ideas built around digital tech.
Actually, maybe the openness of ideas is a big part of Superbooth’s easy-going atmosphere. Because modules aren’t complete products in themselves, they often seem as much a physical embodiment of an idea as a product. Even with some builders marketing complete “systems,” there was a hunger to connect gear.
But even if you’re not into modular… Here’s the funny thing. Superbooth has managed to become the world’s premiere synth show, not just modular show. Computers were mostly eclipsed, and you didn’t see a lot of guitar- or vocal-focused gear, but every other object that generates sound – from desktop synths to Theremins – was on hand, with some pretty big news.
Okay, there’s so much stuff – I’m going to make this a really fast log with some in-a-nutshell descriptions.
Things I left out of this list:
1. Stuff introduced earlier / shown before (as at NAMM in the USA, earlier this year)
2. Things I forgot / didn’t see
On #2, please feel free to remind me or make a case for something you found interesting. There’s actually way too much stuff to cover everything, though, so I did intend to pick highlights but …. I’m sure there’s more.
Erik Norlander (also creator of the Alesis Andromeda) shows us the IK Multimedia UNO he worked on with Soundmachines’ Davide Mancini.
I’ve covered these already, as they made some of the biggest impact at the show (and on general audiences), perhaps with the exception of the Behringer clones (more on that in a bit).
MFB’s Tanzbär-2 was instant drool-worthy stuff, combining analog drum sounds, digital drum sounds with sample loading, and an analog bassline with easy access to sounds and faders. And it’s made in Berlin, so – score one for the home team.
The Polyend/Dreadbox Medusa is a deep synth paired with an expressive grid and extensive live recording and sequencing features. And as with the MFB, pretty much everyone I talked to instantly wanted one, so there’s that.
The $199 IK Multimedia UNO. Combining a powerful analog synth with a sequencer and lots of modulation, all in a battery-powered unit you can play right away at a low price, is an easy win. It’s also the work of a collaboration between soundmachines and IK.
Erica Synths Techno System just does everything you need for percussion and bassline and distortion and mixing thereof, and sounds amazing.
Roland’s SYSTEM-500 modules strike a nice balance between features of the 100m line, the SH-5, and newer ideas. Plus, again, Roland got to stake out the super-cool space-themed part of the building.
Bastl’s modules are noteworthy, even if not the most buzzed-about gear at Superbooth this year, for two reasons: one, I think they’ve got waveshaping interface down with Timber, and two, the 1983 MIDI-to-CV module does clever automatic tuning, for polyphony across modules.
Desktop synths and toys
The Center for Haptic Audio Interaction Research chair.audio. This is perhaps the most exciting innovation shown at Superbooth. Vibration-based sensing and haptic technology produces a control interface that behaves more like an acoustic instrument. It’s the result of a research team based in Weimar, Germany – check their complete site for an explanation, but more on this on CDM soon, for sure. The results are stunning – suggesting a new kind of performance interaction, and a window to the worlds of electronic sound that descends more from acoustic percussion and less from organs and keyboards. Watch – it’s jaw-dropping:
Dave Smith Instruments Prophet X. Dave Smith have gone to the high end with this one – it’s a new flagship Prophet, combining a digital 8-voice stereo digital synth, a new sample-based sound engine, and those signature DSI analog filters and circuitry. Basically, you get a Prophet workstation – part Prophet synth, part sample engine with 150 GB content, and all the extras. And it costs four grand, though this seems like a new generation of workstation keyboard / computer sample engine replacement. (Dave Smith for Hans Zimmer?) DSI have posted a complete product page. It’s sort of a shame Keyboard Magazine (USA) is no longer printed on trees, as obviously this would be on the cover.
Soulsby Atmultitron. This is like the 8-bit workstation to DSI’s high-res one. No gigs of samples or high resolution here – just a keyboard packing all of Paul Soulsby’s brilliant and weird 8-bit creations into a single keyboard with joystick and controls.
Pittsburgh Modular Electronic Sequence Designer. Sequencers were all over the place at Superbooth, but perhaps the most useful was Pittsburgh Modular’s entry – a 4-channel, 32-step sequencer with loads of performance and composition options. It’s a little like having a KOMPLEX Sequencer from KOMA, but in a more manageable form factor.
Twisted Electrons introduced some toys in the best sense. The 8-bit uAcid8 borrows from their bigger acid8 wavetable synth, while the 4-voice hapiNES is “inspired by” the NES game synth. Both have push-button access to some clever features like filter wobble, and both cost just 99EUR. The inspiration of the Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators was left in the open – they even had a couple of those plugged into these, jamming together.
A hardware tool for the Prologue. KORG hinted that they were bringing hardware SDKs to play with that would allow developers to make stuff for their Prologue polysynth. KORG’s Etienne Noreau-Hebert talked to us about it. It’s basically one Prologue voice on a board (with cute lasercut side stands), with audio in and out jacks so you can hear what you’re doing, and exactly the circuitry you’d have on the full keyboard. Writing in C (with limited C++ extensions), you can make your own oscillators and effects, then ship them to the Prologue user base. There’s not much to this other than that, apart from a handful of conveniences like lookup tables, but it still seems like fun. And it’s the first instance I can think of that a hardware platform worked in this way.
Holon bio interface. This was crazy fun to play with. Using an Apple Watch or a custom wristband sensor (or just your iPhone), this interface tracks your pulse as well as movement. The upshot: jog around, and music responds. It’s like having a generative composer following you around, writing music for your workout – so that even when you pause to wait for a light to change at an intersection, the music answers accordingly. They also have a modular interface for this. Awaiting Apple approval. (holon.ist site seems not to be up quite yet, either).
Soundmachines Arches. Touch interfaces were everywhere, but Soundmachines’ Arches was a standout. Not only does it provide touchable strips, but you get light-up feedback, recording and looping, pressure sensitivity and z-axis control, and tons of patchability in addition to MIDI and USB. It’s really a gestural sequencing instrument as well as control interface, with loads of pattern controls for automating as you play. See the full product page for more.
Snazzy FX pedals. If you feel a bit left out of the fun as an instrumentalist looking for pedals, Snazzy has you covered – some brilliant and completely weirdo guitar pedals from the USA, found in the Erica Synths booth.
u-he Civilization. With lite-brite rainbow colors and just a few pots, the entry of plug-in developer into the modular world was a strange one. This module is a 4×4 matrix mixer – but, with some taps of those pots, it’s also a quantizer and sample & hold module – and all of that is color coded. Basically, a single space lets you command a bunch of connections and modules quickly, making Civilization an interesting choice for saving space.
It’s a bit nuts, but it also shows some of the advantage of multi-functional thinking from software blurring over into hardware.
Humble Audio Quad Operator. Hailing from San Francisco, Humble Audio have delivered a four-operator FM synth in a Eurorack module – complete with a matrix of pots. Everything can be modulated – and you can patch in audio signal. You can choose algorithms, or mix together your own sound shapes. It’s basically everything you’d want from a software FM synth, but in modular form – brlliant stuff, and hope to look at it more.
NERDSEQ is a chip music-style tracker in a module. It’s not new – I saw some pre-modular prototype years ago even at Musikmesse – but each year, its developer takes it further. This year, cartridges containing open source synths, including the full MeeBlip anode with analog filter, were available. So you can plug in an entire synth and use it in the tracker, just as easily as you would play Excitebike. Don’t blow on the synth cartridge, though.
You can plug in a game controller, too.
Hexinverter Mindphaser. Well, this is basically your dream oscillator – an analog “complex oscillator” with phase modulation and waveshaping. And in addition to beautiful controls and patching, it just sounds ridiculously good:
In a way, maybe this is one of the best Superbooth moments. It demonstrates analog circuitry, behaving futuristic – voltages making those computer bits a little jealous. (I may seem like I’m now anthropomorphizing numbers whilst my hypocrisy takes down the very name of my site, but just remember the CDM motto – the ‘d’ stands for whatever you want it to.)
I just wish I hadn’t failed to get on the Eurorack manufacturing craze or the cryptocurrency thing, because now I … can’t afford all that mindphasing. (Or at least, thinking about it is causing some mindphasing.)
Insane Clone Posse
Behringer have gone clone mad – with Roland Corporation circa 1980 (give or take a couple of years) being a particular target.
Roland’s SH-101 synth (1982), VP-330 vocoder (1979), TR-808 (1980), and even two pedals based on the JUNO-60 (1982) were on the show floor, not to mention the announcement that Behringer’s cut-rate Eurorack line will be based on the SYSTEM-100 module line. And no one can argue that Behringer are bringing back products that Roland won’t, since Roland has unveiled the SH-01, VP-03, TR-08 (and TR-8S and TR-8), and JU-06, plus their own SYSTEM-500 Eurorack, respectively. Behringer aren’t just copying Roland from decades past, in other words – their whole brand strategy comes straight out of the 2017-2018 Roland product catalog.
Behringer’s offerings are cheaper, yes. But those aren’t profits going to some rich fat cats: they pay for the marketing and support operations of Roland worldwide, which arguably helps create the market Behringer can then come in and exploit (and certainly which pays for some jobs).
It’s not just Roland. Behringer copied Sequential Circuits (now Dave Smith Instruments) Pro-One, though the prototype on the floor copied the look and feel more effectively than the architecture. There was also the ARP Odyssey, which had recently been re-engineered and re-released by KORG. And Behringer also showed the Neutron, which looks suspiciously in board layout like Moog’s Mother-32 semi-modular.
Nowhere to be seen: the DeepMind, the one synth Behringer created that’s actually new.
On the other hand, maybe what makes this less remarkable at this point is that the 101 and 808 in particularly already have countless clones in software and hardware. Behringer is, perversely, almost trading on their reputation for being the clone maker.
Behringer’s strategy (via parent Music Tribe) and its impact on the industry deserves more investigation. Past clones have landed the company in legal trouble with Roland/BOSS and Mackie. I’m researching that story and will report more separately.
But were there new products from Behringer? Well, no – not unless you’ve been in cryogenic stasis since 1982.
Meanwhile, the oddest reaction to this has to be this, from Synthtopia’s comments:
It justifies Behringer’s hardware clones with a reference to all the human … cloning … going on. Really, human cloning? Wasn’t aware.
Oh, so much weirdness. Want a beer tap in a module, for instance?
Polish maker Polyend has one special grid – expressive sensing meets powerful sequencing and recording. And now, combined with a dedicated synth made with Dreadbox, it starts to really come alive.
The first impression of Medusa, the new instrument shown last week at Superbooth, is a little bit of a Dreadbox synth tacked into a case with the grid sequencer from Polyend’s SEQ. But that’s really not what you’re getting here. For one thing, Polyend had a hand in the synth portion of this instrument, too, suggesting new architectural features. And for another, because every single parameter on the synth side can be played live and sequenced from the grid, you really get the sense of a complete, integrated instrument.
That’s not to say that SEQ, Polyend’s expansive sequencer product, doesn’t work well at these features, too. In fact, Medusa acts as a nice calling card / advertisement for what SEQ can do. But there’s something about immediately getting sound when you press into a space on the grid that makes a big difference.
And even before you start up the step sequencer, Medusa’s grid is irresistible to play. Each pad responds to x/y/z input, not just pressure. It’s sort of the opposite of the lifeless, on/off digital feeling of the monome – every continuous variation of the finger, every movement around the pad controls the sound. (Apologies to the monome, but that to me is a significant evolution – now that we’re accustomed to the once-radical grid interactions of the monome, we might well expect this kind of expressive dimension.)
Polyend have equipped that grid with a dedicated display, and mapped every parameter from the synth. So you can play live, you can record those performances, or you can increment through steps and play or program detailed changes as steps, then play back and jam.
This is what it’s all about – deep control of parameters, which you can then assign to individual pads and automate step-by-step.
Of course, the other advantage of an integrated instrument is, you don’t have the bandwidth problems of MIDI. The internal architecture is there both for synth and sequencer, so you can modulate everything as fast as you like. (Richard Devine was on hand to turn up the bpm knob really high to test that.)
The Medusa is planned for availability August/September 2018 at 999€.
That’s 999 including VAT and shipping, so figure even a bit less in USD.
And yeah, if you want to know my favorite thing from Superbooth – this is it. It seemed to be a crowd favorite, as well.
Here are the full planned, confirmed specs as provided to CDM – though Polyend hinted there may be more in the works by launch, too. (Dreadbox may have more to say about this, too; I only had time to talk to Polyend!)
64 customizable three-dimension-expressive pads for a controller/sequencer
Step, live, and incremental sequence modes
256 independent sequences and voice presets
Per-step sequencing of notes, parameter locks, or even entire synth voice presets
Assign X and Y pressure axis to any modulation parameter, per pad
Randomization of voice and sequence
OLED display with customizable user menus
The synth is a nice digital-analog hybrid – 3 + 3, analog + digital wavetable (and comes with its own separate OLED display):
This synth end of Medusa means business, too.
Three analog oscillators with sync, four wave types per oscillator
Three wavetable oscillators
24dB Dreadbox analog multimode filter (2- or 4-pole lowpass, highpass)
Play modes: monophonic, paraphonic x 3, paraphonic x 6 (so you can route the digital oscillators through the analog filter, yes)
Frequency modulation for oscillators and filter
Noise generator with color shaping
Powerful, assignable envelopes and LFOs let you shape the 3 analog + 3 digital oscillators… and all of this is accessible from the grid/sequencer, too.
Modulation + control:
5 independent LFOs, which you can route into almost anything
5 independent DADSR envelopes with looping and its own parameter assignment
Mixer for all seven analog/digital/noise voices
Separate volume control for headphone and main audio out
USB MIDI in + out and DIN MIDI in + out + thru
Here’s Piotr talking about it in a couple minutes to FACT:
What if you had all the modules you need to make techno and industrial in one rack? Meet Erica’s line of drum and synth modules. They seem to know their market.
Now, it’s meaningful this is coming from Erica. The Latvian-based company with some ex-Soviet Polivoks lineage has a knack for making simply mental boxes that bring that grimy, dirty industrial sound straight out of the actual post-Communist industrial landscape of Riga. If I had to sum up that user experience, it’d run something like this: turn knob, machine screams.
But that’s saying something. Making wild sounds intuitive is a feat. And Erica have earned their reputation by putting those sounds into boxes that are reliable, easy to understand, and deliver a punch without hitting the high end of the cost spectrum.
Running down these modules, you just have to keep nodding – yes, that’s what I want out of this module, and yes, that’s the sensible way to lay out these controls. I can’t really judge sound quality at a trade show, but the sound was good enough that it actually blew me away over the din of Superbooth, out of some small monitors – and that’s saying a lot. We’ll get to check out Erica’s crew at a club tonight here in Berlin, and this is one I think we’ll need to give a full review.
(Bonus: they’re also coming with the effects collaboration they built with Ninja Tune. I’m keen to see that, as well.)
I also think it’s totally reasonable to build systems around musical applications like techno. Plenty of modular instruments have morphed into particular configurations to make them musically accessible. And then since this is still patchable, you don’t have to make this sound like techno you’ve heard before – you can push that flexible sequencer and patch things together to bend something into your own genre and voice. Or, this being modular, you also have now a big line of components that could fill gaps in whatever setup you choose.
Here’s a look at those modules.
Sample slicing and triggering, WAV file (even imports CUE points), with assignable CV inputs. Actually, there’s nothing to say this has to be a drum module – it’s also a general-purpose sample slicer/module.
microSD for loading sounds.
Well, here’s your distortion. Three dedicated modes for each side, cascaded in series for extreme distortion. This is really the heart and soul of the Erica Techno System sound, and even if you didn’t get the rest of the line here, this one could be a must.
Built on the Spin FV-1 chip – a custom reverb platform – the dual FX has a set of custom mono and stereo effects from Erica’s in-house musician-madman KODEK.
It’s all about the bass – and here, those basslines will be more than a little acidic. Erica’s Acidbox proved how crazy their filters can be. It apparently inspired the filter here – so expect really aggressive, terror-inducing acid.
Full analogue circuit
BBD-based VCO detune emulation
Built in VCF and VCA decay envelope
External VCO FM and VCF cutoff CV inputs
Of course, what keeps this compact is, the sequencing all falls to the dedicated sequencer unit (or a sequencer module of your choice – Superbooth has had a lot of them).
Toms can easily be a throwaway, but here there was a lot of attention to detail. Toms has dedicated controls for low, mid, and high, and promises 909-inspired tom sounds. Erica says they built this in collaboration with e-licktronic – that’s the boutique/DIY maker who’s perhaps best known for their Roland clones and custom kits.
Erica are actually introducing three different hat/cymbal models. There’s an analog module (“A”) with accent and individual CV controls of everything, also made with e-licktronic. There’s a digital sample-based “D.” And there are sample-based cymbals (“Cymbals”).
It’s easy to overlook this one. But when you’re actually in the heat of the moment playing live, you need that ability to just reach over, twist a knob, and add in a particular part.
And the Drum Mixer looks just about perfect. It boasts vactrol-based compression to keep everything properly loud and intense without losing clarity, plus a stupidly easy setup for controlling compression and the various parts, with seven inputs and both main and aux outs.
Erica also plan a more compact 6-input “Lite” version of the same, and a 4-channel Stereo Mixer.
Oh yeah, and if you’re not into the black craze, they plan to release everything again in white.
Lastly, the sequencing here comes from the Erica Drum Sequencer. Announced in January, it debuted in March – but now it has some modules to sequence:
Features of that are numerous:
12x Accent outputs
1x CV/GATE track
2xLFO with independent or synced to the BPM frequency
Time signature per track
Pattern length per track
Shuffle per track
Probability per step
Retrigger per step
Instant pattern switching
Step/Tap record modes
16 Banks of 16 Patterns
Instant pattern switching
Midi sync in with start/stop
Firmware upgrade via MIDI SySex
It’s an analog drum machine plus bassline synth. It’s a digital drum machine with sample loading. It’s packed with live features and modulation. The coming MFB box could be … The One.
While big brands have focused on digital machines (or even software/hardware combos), MFB out of Berlin are the little boutique brand who have come out with a steady stream of analog boxes that are nonetheless compact and accessibly priced. And it’s not so much the fact that they have analog circuitry inside them as the fact that they’re different. Those drum timbres will hammer through your music when called upon, just like the Roland classics and whatnot, but they also sound distinctive. And with so much music already made on the well-known machines, different is good.
That said, for all the lovely sounds packed into any of these boxes, they all fell a little short of “must-have” – great-sounding but a bit fiddly and more focused on sound than performance features and sequencing. Then there was the confusing availability of two similar compact boxes, the Tanzmaus and Tanzbär Lite, alongside the Tanzbär flagship which was also … a bit similar to the other two.
Well, forget all that: because even in prototype form, the Tanzbär-2 is a whole new beast. If Roland’s TR-8S and Elektron Digitakt look poised to be the live drum machines for the mainstream, then the MFB might be the best boutique rival.
Or to put it another way – plug this thing in, and you can jam like a crazy person, with bassline and drums all ready to go.
Highlights (there’s no press release so … I’m doing this from memory):
A built-in bass synth that sounds totally brilliant, with internal melodic programming
Analog drum parts, plus digital drum parts (hey, it worked for the 909)
Sample loading, via MIDI dump or over USB, so you can load your own samples
Tons of front panel parameters for hands-on control of both the analog and digital sections’ parts
Dedicated faders for all the parts’ volumes
Two additional parameters for each part (accessed by the screen)
An LFO you can route to absolutely anything
Step sequencer, with per-step parameter automation
Separate outs for each part
And it’s really compact, too – not exactly lightweight (though that’s okay when you’re jamming hard on it), but easily slipped into a bag with a small footprint.
Really the only missing feature is, there aren’t internal effects … but that would complicate the design, and it does have separate outs.
The TB2 is really three instruments in one. There’s a simple analog bassline synth. The analog percussion section houses kicks, toms, congas, and snares. And then a digital section handles hats and additional percussion – or load your own digital samples for more choices. Sounds about perfect.
Faders! Dedicated outs! And it’s all really compact. Those knobs feel great, too, if you had a more fiddly experience with older MFB gear.
There are already a lot of parameters on the front panel, but parts also have additional parameters accessed by the two data knobs, with feedback on this display. (You’ll see some hints as to those features on the silkscreen, too.)
I’m sold. I think the fact that it includes a bassline synth internally is already great. I’ve got lots of questions, but they’re working on finishing this up this summer, so it’ll be better to make a separate trip to MFB after Superbooth. Then we can get some real sound samples without a convention going on behind us, and learn more about the details.
Cost isn’t confirmed, but they’re planning for under a grand (USD/EUR). Given you could pretty much do all your live dance sets on this box alone, that sounds good.
But wait — there’s more! MFB also new modules coming, too. Here’s a sneak peak of that: