Hands on Erica Synths Techno System, dream industrial modular

The modular world is replete with ideas – but what would a complete modular concept look like? Erica Synths’ Techno System is just that rare kind of concept, a modular made for dancefloors rather than chin scratching, and a total vision instead of just components parts. So we thought it deserved a proper techno test drive.

The modular for techno

We’re one year following the debut of the Techno System at last year’s Superbooth show in Berlin. But with this year’s edition having brought still a fresh avalanche of gear – from Erica, alone – now seems the perfect time to take a step back.

To give Techno System a proper run, I teamed up with producer Jamaica Suk. Apart from running her own label Gradient, Jamaica is a rising star on the techno scene, as well as a resident of the impossibly hot Pornceptual queer party series. (Full disclosure: we also share a studio. Pornceptual for its part is hot enough that its Boiler Room wound up – no joke – on Pornhub after YouTube dropped it.)

The Techno System is a Eurorack modular, so it’s both a complete system you can buy in a case – that’s what we tested – and a set of modules. That is, you may not personally drop four grand on this full rig, but at the same time, the Techno System itself serves as a nice demo for all the individual modules inside.

Making a “Techno System” isn’t just a marketing ploy. Techno – and related industrial and EBM sounds – can be safely said to be a big driver behind the growth of modular. The days of modular just being about noodling and chin scratching are over; these machines pound dance floors and top charts. And while DJs now turn up to gigs with just USB sticks, the pro techno circuit, particularly around Europe, is such that it makes sense at a certain point to graduate to using something that feels like a real instrument.

So, yeah, the elephant in the room – the Techno System definitely isn’t cheap, at about four grand for the full system. That’s a steep ask compared to desktop, though as Jamaica pointed out to me, it compares favorably to the cost of building your own rig – often winding up without something that’s terribly usable. And it is something some artists, at least, will pay off by gigging with the machine.

For Jamaica, that meant even a small skiff full of modules already cost about half the price of Techno System on its own. And Erica’s hardware offers an escape from her previous hardware workflow – doing a lot of menu diving. (Jamaica compared the experience to the menu-oriented work she does on Elektron gear.) The only menu on the Erica rack is on the Drum Sequencer; this rack is bestrewn with knobs. And it’s covered with patch points, meaning you can make sounds that are dynamic and organic and weird and unexpected.

So let’s see if this system can live up to its aspirations – and if there are individual modules you should watch out for onboard, too.

To set the mood, here’s a jam on the system as Jamaica and I were hanging out in the studio with it. (My arms, in case the hair didn’t give that away.) Mayhem and destruction? Oh, yes, indeed. Expect more; I was quickly filling up my drive with song ideas. Maybe I’ll put them out under a psuedonym. “DEATHBL0GG3R?” “D0RKDUSTRIAL?” No?

A complete system

The Techno System is a set of modules for “rhythm based music production” – think techno instrumentation, but of course what you do with it is up to you. On the surface, it seems fairly obvious: you get a bass module, percussion parts (kick drum, snare, toms, clap, hats, cymbals). There are processors (two-in-one effects, two-in-one drive). And there’s stuff to compose and put this all together: a modulator, an expansive sequencer, mixers, and jacks to the outside world.

As you’d expect at this price, you get everything – a handy patch book and user manual, a bunch of nice patch cords, the power supply, and a lovely rugged case. (You have to pay extra for a leather strap; we left that bit out.) The case is solid and surprisingly luggable – you could absolutely take this as a carry on and tour with it. (For the love of God, avoid checked luggage.)

The thing is, that description sounds vanilla – and this beast is the opposite of vanilla. Latvian builder Erica have imbued this with their usual, raunchy, violent post-Soviet sound aesthetic. There’s just a whole lot of engineering detail here that gives this set up of modules its unique character.

And it’s clear straight away. The first time I saw it live, as sweaty Erica associate and Riga-based producer Kodek destroyed a dance floor with it. That’s not just to gush – there’s a specific reason Erica have gotten that sound. Module by module (and to be honest, I wound up looking at this after playing with it – as in “why the heck does it sound this crazy, anyway?):

The heart of the sound: a distinctive, brutal combination of bass and drums.

Bassline. This module to me is the star. The oscillator is a newly remade version of Doug Curtis’ legendary CEM3340 analog oscillator – the sound you know from classic Oberheim, Korg Mono/Poly and Poly- synths, Roland SH-101 and Jupiter-6, and many others. Instead of using someone else’s clone, though, Erica work with Riga’s own Alfa, who have been manufacturing their own version in Latvia.

Erica’s stroke of genius here is combining that three-waveform oscillator with a transitor-based sub-oscillator for more bass, plus their ultra-violent Acidbox-style filter, plus a detune that’s actually not a detune but two bucket brigade delays acting like one. What you get from that potent brew is leads and basslines that can go full spectrum from melody to noise, and a filter/detune combination that makes it absolutely punch people in the gut. And it makes perfect sense in a modular, because all that insanity lends itself to patching, from the frequency modulation input to modulating the filter.

I should, like, talk about the rest of the modules, though.

Bass drum. I briefly mistyped “ass drum.” Freudian slip. Yes, this will give you classic kick sounds. Again, though, Erica worked a ton of magic here – the tune depth and tune controls are immensely satisfying, you get a Drive in case this thing isn’t dirty enough for you, and ample CV.

Snare. The Snare is probably the unsung hero of this rack – Jamaica has taken to using it even for hats. So even though Erica call this “909-inspired,” the fun is really making full use of the Noise Tone and “Snappy” control and patching in CV, which makes this more of an all-purpose percussion module.

Toms, Clap. The Toms and Clap are actually the only particularly vanilla modules here – they’re conventional toms and clap circuits, just with loads of patchability, including on accents. But that’s the advantage here of buying a modular – you don’t have to leave these in their normalled behavior. Both sound great; I just wish the Toms had some more control or variety, maybe more a complaint about analog toms generally. (Decay is 370ms – 955ms, which in practice means you don’t touch that knob much.) As set it and forget it modules, though, they’re great.

Hi-Hats D, Cymbals. These are PCM-based, but they’re run through a voltage-controlled amplifier that again have that snappy, aggressive Erica envelope sound. This time, Erica work again with Latvian maker Alfar for their version of the 3330 VCA chip – and then add their “I’m at a sweaty warehouse rave” envelopes to them. (Maybe I’m projecting.) If you leave these normaled and don’t dig into them, they also could go a little vanilla. But there’s a twist on each. The hats module will loop open hi hats, which can almost sound like a unique decay. The cymbals have ten custom crash and ride samples – and combined with CV patching and decay controls, just as with the snare, you can abuse the cymbals module into stuff that sounds nothing like a ride.

Sample Drum. We actually got our Techno System delivered without the Sample Drum, but it’s a worthy module inside or outside this system – a pretty essential implementation of sample playback in a Eurorack format. There is a hole for it in our system… but more than that, the Sample Drum is a place you can augment the unique Erica sound with additional sounds of your own, obviously.

The sequencer acts as heart of the system – with quick-to-access controls by push encoders and buttons, and lots of patch points.

Sequencing and workflow

So that covers sound – and you could actually just pick your favorite modules and drop them into a rack. But the system part of the Techno System is really about combining the sound engine with modulation, mixing, and sequencing in a coherent way.

The Drum Sequencer is normalled to the percussion parts inside the rack, so while you can re-patch triggers, you can very quickly punch up a drum pattern quickly.

Drum Sequencer. One Erica idea I wish I had thought of – the sequencer uses a numeric keypad that feels like a classic IBM keyboard, with LED indicators behind – instant 4×4 grid. No velocity sensitivity, but that’s not really what this brutal machine is about, anyway. Everything else is select-able via some (mostly) intuitive trigger buttons and two push encoders. Once you squint your way through the included manual, you’ll find working is really quick, with all the expected basic figures – set last step per part for basic polyrhythms, set sequence play modes (back/forwards/pingpong/random), copy, mute, and string together multiple patterns.

So far, that sounds like a conventional sequencer, but the Drum Sequencer’s modular side gives you 16 full dedicated triggers, and 12 accents. The accents are really what it’s about when it comes to making more dynamic productions – enough so that Erica even implore you in the documentation not to forget them.

There’s also a dedicated CV/gate track. You can map pitch to one of a set of fixed scales and modes, then dial in or play melodies with gate. That could serve as a melody for the Bassline, or something else. (Sometimes I found myself using the Modulator for the Bassline CV in, instead.)

Erica have also included two LFOs on this module, which augment the LFO outputs on the Modulator module. These LFOs are optionally tempo-synced, so you can quickly generate rhythmic LFOs directly from the sequencer. It’s hidden in some menus behind the encoders.

Having all those triggers makes sense if that’s what you’re looking for from the Drum Sequencer in a larger modular rig, but it feels a little unbalanced in the context of the Techno System. I would gladly sacrifice a few of those sixteen triggers and twelve accents for even one more CV/gate track or another LFO, for instance.

Overall, though, working in this unit is terrifically fast and enjoyable.

Finally, a numeric keyboard for something useful – doing techno instead of doing accounts.

Erica have done a lot with the hardware since its release, too, adding more musical features (like CV slide, gate tie, song mode, auto copy bars, and more), plus tons of fixes. Check the full changelog:

https://www.ericasynths.lv/news/drum-sequencer-update-changelog/

Modulator. This module is totally essential – otherwise you wouldn’t want a modular system like this in the first place. There are two independent LFOs with morphable shape (including noise waveforms) and phase / rise / envelope controls. You can sync them from an external clock – here, that means probably patching the Drum Sequencer into them – in which case the rate controls divide or multiply the clock signal. Or you can run them free, though I long a bit for a switch to give me different ranges. Cleverly there are both outputs and phase-shifted outputs for each LFO, and you can link LFO2 to LFO1 but still use the rate knob as a divider.

Probably the confusing element of this is the triple-function RISE/PHASE control, which determines envelope fall time, and phase shift, and filter cutoff. (Actually, it’s even quadruple-function, since there’s both a lowpass- and highpass-filter.) But in practice, part of the pleasure of those knobs is to stop worrying and experiment, anyway, so they’ve been arranged in a way to encourage some intuition.

Dual Drive. You want more distortion? You get more distortion – three additional flavors of overdrive, in each of two independent circuits, with really flexible patching. If you haven’t gotten it yet, yes, Erica are all about industrial, distorted, concrete-shaking sounds. “Dual” is right, too – if you don’t patch the second input, the two distortions will operate in series. (Hey, dawg, I heard you like distortion…)

Dual FX. This is a wildly powerful effect, but here I do wish we got a small OLED – its power is largely hidden. A push encoder hides different delays (mono/stereo/high-pass), reverb, still another distortion called Ripper, plus a unique dual pitch shifter. There’s also a save function so you can store parameters with each effect. The effect sounds fantastic, but is also fantastically confusing – Erica’s only feedback is in binary on the LEDs.

The Dual FX’s saving grace is that it sounds like some very expensive effects, even though inside is the fairly conventional Spin FV-1 digital chip. And you do get two patchable CV inputs. But I think this particular module is due for some rethinking. That may be partly my own bias – I think the whole point of hardware modular ought to be giving us intuitive hands-on control, not taking away useful visual feedback from digital hardware and software.

Mixers. Rounding out the Techno System are some terrifically useful mixers – and if Erica show off their approach to aggressive envelopes and raunchy sound on that side, here they show they can also make things functional and practical. At first, it seems a bit odd that you get a stereo mixer, a 7-input Drum Mixer, and a 6-input “Mixer Lite.” But in practice, the arrangement adapts itself to a variety of use cases.

The 7-input Drum Mixer neatly pulls together a percussion grouping, with vactrol-based compressor on each for still more punch. And you can send to mains or aux sends. The Mixer Lite gives you more or less the same idea in a more compact 6-input version.

The Stereo Mixer, as advertised, lets you position across a stereo field but also includes flexible routing and internal limiting.

Multiple modules for mixing and routing help you integrate the Techno System with the rest of your studio or live rig.

The result of all of this is, you can easily compose a mix of percussion both when it comes to live performance and production. Actually, maybe it’s telling even that both Jamaica and I liked it. She had a setup that worked well for her largely outboard, hardware-based setup; I had configurations that worked well for composing in the box in the computer and making stems. And when we wanted to jam live, the separate mixers worked well, too.

Really, the only challenge is working out whether you want to rearrange them in the rack, as the mixing component is where you tend to wind up with a bunch of cable spaghetti. So I do wish here Erica had normaled outputs as they did with the sequencer, and then just let you override that behavior.

But at the very least, if it looks like Erica just filled out a rack with every mixer module they make (which honestly was kind of my kneejerk first impression), that’s not the case at all; this grouping makes loads of sense.

The outside world. I expect a lot of people will use this rack alongside a computer, so it’s worth noting: the Drum Sequencer has a MIDI input, which you can use for clock. That saves you a more expensive arrangement. The Link module also provides convenient full-sized jacks which attenuates outbound signal.

In use

A modular system that already has ideas about how it’s going to be used may sound like an anachronism. But in practice, it’s anything but. There’s a natural workflow here. Punch in rhythms on the Drum Sequencer, reroute some accent tracks and triggers to add some spice. Wire the Modulator into FM on the Bassline and dial in unruly timbres, then tune the filter envelope so it’s banging up against the drums. Add drive and effects to the percussion until it sounds dangerous.

Part of what I think makes Erica special is that they come out of a particular context – both engineering and musical. The engineering has grown out of the legacy left behind in one of the USSR’s former major manufacturing hubs, the city where a lot of Communist-era noisemakers were fashioned. And they’ve connected to the grimy, industrial warehouse-friendly music weirdos of the former east, too and … well, all of those of us with similar natural tendencies. They sit at that essential overlap of engineering and sound practice.

So I do recommend getting to hear a Techno System whether or not you’re even going to buy one. The sum of these parts really is something greater – this thing hums and breathes and growls and bangs around and spits out big bursts of noise like clouds of exhaust. Sometimes we wound up recording random accidents that came out when we stopped the transport. This is one of those pieces that feels alive.

While I focused on sound, Jamaica focused on ergonomics. Trouble with repetitive stress makes it hard to use the computer for long periods of time – and even hardware menus can be painful, literally. She says that the Techno System has helped her work more comfortably, and that means more musical productivity.

Conclusions

The Techno System is a luxury item, without question. I am happy that one has taken up residence in our studio. (Thanks, Jamaica.) If you want a complete vision of percussion, modulation, sequencing, and a killer bass, and this is in your budget, it’s a beautiful choice. And of course we’re not in an outrageous price range for something you plan to make an instrument.

Just as important, the Techno System represents a lens on how a modular rig can be coherent, and can offer some new ideas. And it can apply to a popular genre, not just experimental ones.

I also think it’s worth really endorsing some of the modules inside – which proves the idea that a great way to sell individual modules is to give them a larger context. (That’s something Erica has done in a way few others have – other than those largely echoing historical systems.) I wouldn’t mind seeing more of these in desktop form, too, which knowing Erica may be possible.

The Bassline is simply genius. I’d buy a small skiff just to work with it. The Dual Drive also is a convenient way to add signature Erica distortion. And my gripes about programming Dual FX aside, there really isn’t a single dud in the group.

That said, of course working with modular comes at a cost. I think software and desktop systems should continue to push this kinds of hand-on control, but apply modularity that copies this accessibility without the wires. (Yes, they still get tangled and you still wind up with the wrong lengths.)

So can you use cheaper gear, software, non-modular stuff, battery-powered stuff? Of course! And some of us really should keep going that route. What’s comforting about the Techno System is, it proves the modular route is also staking out sound, personality, and utility all its own. It’s not just gear fetish. Whether you buy this rack or not, anyone who loves sound is likely to appreciate the very fact that it exists. And that’s a good sign for our maturing music tech scene.

More videos…

Still want more? Check these:

A terrific sound demo from Erica that really represents the system nicely:

We didn’t yet get to fully test the Sample Drum module that has now been added to the Techno System – but first impressions are great. Here’s a walkthrough:

And while it’s the earlier revision of the rig, you get a full-on extended jam from Erica’s “garage” streaming:

https://www.ericasynths.lv/shop/eurorack-systems/techno-system/

The post Hands on Erica Synths Techno System, dream industrial modular appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

Hands on Erica Synths Techno System, dream industrial modular

The modular world is replete with ideas – but what would a complete modular concept look like? Erica Synths’ Techno System is just that rare kind of concept, a modular made for dancefloors rather than chin scratching, and a total vision instead of just components parts. So we thought it deserved a proper techno test drive.

The modular for techno

We’re one year following the debut of the Techno System at last year’s Superbooth show in Berlin. But with this year’s edition having brought still a fresh avalanche of gear – from Erica, alone – now seems the perfect time to take a step back.

To give Techno System a proper run, I teamed up with producer Jamaica Suk. Apart from running her own label Gradient, Jamaica is a rising star on the techno scene, as well as a resident of the impossibly hot Pornceptual queer party series. (Full disclosure: we also share a studio. Pornceptual for its part is hot enough that its Boiler Room wound up – no joke – on Pornhub after YouTube dropped it.)

The Techno System is a Eurorack modular, so it’s both a complete system you can buy in a case – that’s what we tested – and a set of modules. That is, you may not personally drop four grand on this full rig, but at the same time, the Techno System itself serves as a nice demo for all the individual modules inside.

Making a “Techno System” isn’t just a marketing ploy. Techno – and related industrial and EBM sounds – can be safely said to be a big driver behind the growth of modular. The days of modular just being about noodling and chin scratching are over; these machines pound dance floors and top charts. And while DJs now turn up to gigs with just USB sticks, the pro techno circuit, particularly around Europe, is such that it makes sense at a certain point to graduate to using something that feels like a real instrument.

So, yeah, the elephant in the room – the Techno System definitely isn’t cheap, at about four grand for the full system. That’s a steep ask compared to desktop, though as Jamaica pointed out to me, it compares favorably to the cost of building your own rig – often winding up without something that’s terribly usable. And it is something some artists, at least, will pay off by gigging with the machine.

For Jamaica, that meant even a small skiff full of modules already cost about half the price of Techno System on its own. And Erica’s hardware offers an escape from her previous hardware workflow – doing a lot of menu diving. (Jamaica compared the experience to the menu-oriented work she does on Elektron gear.) The only menu on the Erica rack is on the Drum Sequencer; this rack is bestrewn with knobs. And it’s covered with patch points, meaning you can make sounds that are dynamic and organic and weird and unexpected.

So let’s see if this system can live up to its aspirations – and if there are individual modules you should watch out for onboard, too.

To set the mood, here’s a jam on the system as Jamaica and I were hanging out in the studio with it. (My arms, in case the hair didn’t give that away.) Mayhem and destruction? Oh, yes, indeed. Expect more; I was quickly filling up my drive with song ideas. Maybe I’ll put them out under a psuedonym. “DEATHBL0GG3R?” “D0RKDUSTRIAL?” No?

A complete system

The Techno System is a set of modules for “rhythm based music production” – think techno instrumentation, but of course what you do with it is up to you. On the surface, it seems fairly obvious: you get a bass module, percussion parts (kick drum, snare, toms, clap, hats, cymbals). There are processors (two-in-one effects, two-in-one drive). And there’s stuff to compose and put this all together: a modulator, an expansive sequencer, mixers, and jacks to the outside world.

As you’d expect at this price, you get everything – a handy patch book and user manual, a bunch of nice patch cords, the power supply, and a lovely rugged case. (You have to pay extra for a leather strap; we left that bit out.) The case is solid and surprisingly luggable – you could absolutely take this as a carry on and tour with it. (For the love of God, avoid checked luggage.)

The thing is, that description sounds vanilla – and this beast is the opposite of vanilla. Latvian builder Erica have imbued this with their usual, raunchy, violent post-Soviet sound aesthetic. There’s just a whole lot of engineering detail here that gives this set up of modules its unique character.

And it’s clear straight away. The first time I saw it live, as sweaty Erica associate and Riga-based producer Kodek destroyed a dance floor with it. That’s not just to gush – there’s a specific reason Erica have gotten that sound. Module by module (and to be honest, I wound up looking at this after playing with it – as in “why the heck does it sound this crazy, anyway?):

The heart of the sound: a distinctive, brutal combination of bass and drums.

Bassline. This module to me is the star. The oscillator is a newly remade version of Doug Curtis’ legendary CEM3340 analog oscillator – the sound you know from classic Oberheim, Korg Mono/Poly and Poly- synths, Roland SH-101 and Jupiter-6, and many others. Instead of using someone else’s clone, though, Erica work with Riga’s own Alfa, who have been manufacturing their own version in Latvia.

Erica’s stroke of genius here is combining that three-waveform oscillator with a transitor-based sub-oscillator for more bass, plus their ultra-violent Acidbox-style filter, plus a detune that’s actually not a detune but two bucket brigade delays acting like one. What you get from that potent brew is leads and basslines that can go full spectrum from melody to noise, and a filter/detune combination that makes it absolutely punch people in the gut. And it makes perfect sense in a modular, because all that insanity lends itself to patching, from the frequency modulation input to modulating the filter.

I should, like, talk about the rest of the modules, though.

Bass drum. I briefly mistyped “ass drum.” Freudian slip. Yes, this will give you classic kick sounds. Again, though, Erica worked a ton of magic here – the tune depth and tune controls are immensely satisfying, you get a Drive in case this thing isn’t dirty enough for you, and ample CV.

Snare. The Snare is probably the unsung hero of this rack – Jamaica has taken to using it even for hats. So even though Erica call this “909-inspired,” the fun is really making full use of the Noise Tone and “Snappy” control and patching in CV, which makes this more of an all-purpose percussion module.

Toms, Clap. The Toms and Clap are actually the only particularly vanilla modules here – they’re conventional toms and clap circuits, just with loads of patchability, including on accents. But that’s the advantage here of buying a modular – you don’t have to leave these in their normalled behavior. Both sound great; I just wish the Toms had some more control or variety, maybe more a complaint about analog toms generally. (Decay is 370ms – 955ms, which in practice means you don’t touch that knob much.) As set it and forget it modules, though, they’re great.

Hi-Hats D, Cymbals. These are PCM-based, but they’re run through a voltage-controlled amplifier that again have that snappy, aggressive Erica envelope sound. This time, Erica work again with Latvian maker Alfar for their version of the 3330 VCA chip – and then add their “I’m at a sweaty warehouse rave” envelopes to them. (Maybe I’m projecting.) If you leave these normaled and don’t dig into them, they also could go a little vanilla. But there’s a twist on each. The hats module will loop open hi hats, which can almost sound like a unique decay. The cymbals have ten custom crash and ride samples – and combined with CV patching and decay controls, just as with the snare, you can abuse the cymbals module into stuff that sounds nothing like a ride.

Sample Drum. We actually got our Techno System delivered without the Sample Drum, but it’s a worthy module inside or outside this system – a pretty essential implementation of sample playback in a Eurorack format. There is a hole for it in our system… but more than that, the Sample Drum is a place you can augment the unique Erica sound with additional sounds of your own, obviously.

The sequencer acts as heart of the system – with quick-to-access controls by push encoders and buttons, and lots of patch points.

Sequencing and workflow

So that covers sound – and you could actually just pick your favorite modules and drop them into a rack. But the system part of the Techno System is really about combining the sound engine with modulation, mixing, and sequencing in a coherent way.

The Drum Sequencer is normalled to the percussion parts inside the rack, so while you can re-patch triggers, you can very quickly punch up a drum pattern quickly.

Drum Sequencer. One Erica idea I wish I had thought of – the sequencer uses a numeric keypad that feels like a classic IBM keyboard, with LED indicators behind – instant 4×4 grid. No velocity sensitivity, but that’s not really what this brutal machine is about, anyway. Everything else is select-able via some (mostly) intuitive trigger buttons and two push encoders. Once you squint your way through the included manual, you’ll find working is really quick, with all the expected basic figures – set last step per part for basic polyrhythms, set sequence play modes (back/forwards/pingpong/random), copy, mute, and string together multiple patterns.

So far, that sounds like a conventional sequencer, but the Drum Sequencer’s modular side gives you 16 full dedicated triggers, and 12 accents. The accents are really what it’s about when it comes to making more dynamic productions – enough so that Erica even implore you in the documentation not to forget them.

There’s also a dedicated CV/gate track. You can map pitch to one of a set of fixed scales and modes, then dial in or play melodies with gate. That could serve as a melody for the Bassline, or something else. (Sometimes I found myself using the Modulator for the Bassline CV in, instead.)

Erica have also included two LFOs on this module, which augment the LFO outputs on the Modulator module. These LFOs are optionally tempo-synced, so you can quickly generate rhythmic LFOs directly from the sequencer. It’s hidden in some menus behind the encoders.

Having all those triggers makes sense if that’s what you’re looking for from the Drum Sequencer in a larger modular rig, but it feels a little unbalanced in the context of the Techno System. I would gladly sacrifice a few of those sixteen triggers and twelve accents for even one more CV/gate track or another LFO, for instance.

Overall, though, working in this unit is terrifically fast and enjoyable.

Finally, a numeric keyboard for something useful – doing techno instead of doing accounts.

Erica have done a lot with the hardware since its release, too, adding more musical features (like CV slide, gate tie, song mode, auto copy bars, and more), plus tons of fixes. Check the full changelog:

https://www.ericasynths.lv/news/drum-sequencer-update-changelog/

Modulator. This module is totally essential – otherwise you wouldn’t want a modular system like this in the first place. There are two independent LFOs with morphable shape (including noise waveforms) and phase / rise / envelope controls. You can sync them from an external clock – here, that means probably patching the Drum Sequencer into them – in which case the rate controls divide or multiply the clock signal. Or you can run them free, though I long a bit for a switch to give me different ranges. Cleverly there are both outputs and phase-shifted outputs for each LFO, and you can link LFO2 to LFO1 but still use the rate knob as a divider.

Probably the confusing element of this is the triple-function RISE/PHASE control, which determines envelope fall time, and phase shift, and filter cutoff. (Actually, it’s even quadruple-function, since there’s both a lowpass- and highpass-filter.) But in practice, part of the pleasure of those knobs is to stop worrying and experiment, anyway, so they’ve been arranged in a way to encourage some intuition.

Dual Drive. You want more distortion? You get more distortion – three additional flavors of overdrive, in each of two independent circuits, with really flexible patching. If you haven’t gotten it yet, yes, Erica are all about industrial, distorted, concrete-shaking sounds. “Dual” is right, too – if you don’t patch the second input, the two distortions will operate in series. (Hey, dawg, I heard you like distortion…)

Dual FX. This is a wildly powerful effect, but here I do wish we got a small OLED – its power is largely hidden. A push encoder hides different delays (mono/stereo/high-pass), reverb, still another distortion called Ripper, plus a unique dual pitch shifter. There’s also a save function so you can store parameters with each effect. The effect sounds fantastic, but is also fantastically confusing – Erica’s only feedback is in binary on the LEDs.

The Dual FX’s saving grace is that it sounds like some very expensive effects, even though inside is the fairly conventional Spin FV-1 digital chip. And you do get two patchable CV inputs. But I think this particular module is due for some rethinking. That may be partly my own bias – I think the whole point of hardware modular ought to be giving us intuitive hands-on control, not taking away useful visual feedback from digital hardware and software.

Mixers. Rounding out the Techno System are some terrifically useful mixers – and if Erica show off their approach to aggressive envelopes and raunchy sound on that side, here they show they can also make things functional and practical. At first, it seems a bit odd that you get a stereo mixer, a 7-input Drum Mixer, and a 6-input “Mixer Lite.” But in practice, the arrangement adapts itself to a variety of use cases.

The 7-input Drum Mixer neatly pulls together a percussion grouping, with vactrol-based compressor on each for still more punch. And you can send to mains or aux sends. The Mixer Lite gives you more or less the same idea in a more compact 6-input version.

The Stereo Mixer, as advertised, lets you position across a stereo field but also includes flexible routing and internal limiting.

Multiple modules for mixing and routing help you integrate the Techno System with the rest of your studio or live rig.

The result of all of this is, you can easily compose a mix of percussion both when it comes to live performance and production. Actually, maybe it’s telling even that both Jamaica and I liked it. She had a setup that worked well for her largely outboard, hardware-based setup; I had configurations that worked well for composing in the box in the computer and making stems. And when we wanted to jam live, the separate mixers worked well, too.

Really, the only challenge is working out whether you want to rearrange them in the rack, as the mixing component is where you tend to wind up with a bunch of cable spaghetti. So I do wish here Erica had normaled outputs as they did with the sequencer, and then just let you override that behavior.

But at the very least, if it looks like Erica just filled out a rack with every mixer module they make (which honestly was kind of my kneejerk first impression), that’s not the case at all; this grouping makes loads of sense.

The outside world. I expect a lot of people will use this rack alongside a computer, so it’s worth noting: the Drum Sequencer has a MIDI input, which you can use for clock. That saves you a more expensive arrangement. The Link module also provides convenient full-sized jacks which attenuates outbound signal.

In use

A modular system that already has ideas about how it’s going to be used may sound like an anachronism. But in practice, it’s anything but. There’s a natural workflow here. Punch in rhythms on the Drum Sequencer, reroute some accent tracks and triggers to add some spice. Wire the Modulator into FM on the Bassline and dial in unruly timbres, then tune the filter envelope so it’s banging up against the drums. Add drive and effects to the percussion until it sounds dangerous.

Part of what I think makes Erica special is that they come out of a particular context – both engineering and musical. The engineering has grown out of the legacy left behind in one of the USSR’s former major manufacturing hubs, the city where a lot of Communist-era noisemakers were fashioned. And they’ve connected to the grimy, industrial warehouse-friendly music weirdos of the former east, too and … well, all of those of us with similar natural tendencies. They sit at that essential overlap of engineering and sound practice.

So I do recommend getting to hear a Techno System whether or not you’re even going to buy one. The sum of these parts really is something greater – this thing hums and breathes and growls and bangs around and spits out big bursts of noise like clouds of exhaust. Sometimes we wound up recording random accidents that came out when we stopped the transport. This is one of those pieces that feels alive.

While I focused on sound, Jamaica focused on ergonomics. Trouble with repetitive stress makes it hard to use the computer for long periods of time – and even hardware menus can be painful, literally. She says that the Techno System has helped her work more comfortably, and that means more musical productivity.

Conclusions

The Techno System is a luxury item, without question. I am happy that one has taken up residence in our studio. (Thanks, Jamaica.) If you want a complete vision of percussion, modulation, sequencing, and a killer bass, and this is in your budget, it’s a beautiful choice. And of course we’re not in an outrageous price range for something you plan to make an instrument.

Just as important, the Techno System represents a lens on how a modular rig can be coherent, and can offer some new ideas. And it can apply to a popular genre, not just experimental ones.

I also think it’s worth really endorsing some of the modules inside – which proves the idea that a great way to sell individual modules is to give them a larger context. (That’s something Erica has done in a way few others have – other than those largely echoing historical systems.) I wouldn’t mind seeing more of these in desktop form, too, which knowing Erica may be possible.

The Bassline is simply genius. I’d buy a small skiff just to work with it. The Dual Drive also is a convenient way to add signature Erica distortion. And my gripes about programming Dual FX aside, there really isn’t a single dud in the group.

That said, of course working with modular comes at a cost. I think software and desktop systems should continue to push this kinds of hand-on control, but apply modularity that copies this accessibility without the wires. (Yes, they still get tangled and you still wind up with the wrong lengths.)

So can you use cheaper gear, software, non-modular stuff, battery-powered stuff? Of course! And some of us really should keep going that route. What’s comforting about the Techno System is, it proves the modular route is also staking out sound, personality, and utility all its own. It’s not just gear fetish. Whether you buy this rack or not, anyone who loves sound is likely to appreciate the very fact that it exists. And that’s a good sign for our maturing music tech scene.

More videos…

Still want more? Check these:

A terrific sound demo from Erica that really represents the system nicely:

We didn’t yet get to fully test the Sample Drum module that has now been added to the Techno System – but first impressions are great. Here’s a walkthrough:

And while it’s the earlier revision of the rig, you get a full-on extended jam from Erica’s “garage” streaming:

https://www.ericasynths.lv/shop/eurorack-systems/techno-system/

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Here’s what Polyend’s Medusa can sound like

By laying out faders, encoders, displays, and an 8×8 expressive grid, Polyend hopes you’ll play their Medusa’s synths sounds. So here’s some sound of what was going on in my studio.

Here’s a live jam, just getting a bit lost in the Medusa world:

It’s not really a demo so much as me enjoying what the instrument can do. Because they’re new, we rely on musical performance of instruments. But that’s not to say it’s obvious how to do so. We “demo” an instrument – even though we’d never expect to “demo” a violin (not any more, anyway).

A few features stand out to me as useful to play, which you’ll see getting some use:

  • Swapping and modulating wavetables: this was recently expanded with a bunch of additional wavetable sources; there’s a particular character to the Medusa offerings that I really enjoy
  • Grid Mode: this lets you sequence and even ‘play’ different parameters stored in each individual grid
  • Different internal scale modes (no custom scales/tunings or Scala support yet, though there’s a nice scale/mode assortment, and you can set custom tunings in Grid Mode by manually tuning them in)
  • Envelopes and modulation: obviously, this adds additional motion in the music; what sets the Medusa apart is on-the-fly assignment, which you can think of as a digital equivalent to patching cables
  • FM adjustment – well, just because this can sound wild, as frequency modulation does (both on the filter and oscillators)
  • Mixing oscillators: with three digital + three analog + noise source, you can add and subtract layers in the sound via the faders

I also went ahead and added some effects and an extended version of this live set:

The first recording is dry apart from some very very light plate reverb and compression. The SoundCloud upload includes my favorite Eventide effects – Ultratap [multitap delay], Omnipressor [compressor], Blackhole [reverb].

Here’s a more straightforward play with the different oscillators and basic voice structure:

And, of course, be sure to read the full review:

Beneath Polyend Medusa grid and knobs, a wealth of possibilities

https://polyend.com/medusa/

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You can make music with test equipment – Hainbach explains

Before modulars became a product, some of the first electronic synthesis experiments made use of test equipment – gear intended to make sound, but not necessarily musically. And now that approach is making a comeback.

Hainbach, the Berlin-based experimental artist, has been helping this time-tested approach to sound reach new audiences.

I actually have never seen a complete, satisfying explanation of the relationship of abstract synthesis, as developed by engineers and composers, to test gear. Maybe it’s not even possible to separate the two. But suffice to say, early in the development of synthesis, you could pick up a piece of gear intended for calibration and testing of telecommunications and audio systems, and use it to make noise.

Why the heck would you do that now, given the availability of so many options for synthesis? Well, for one – until folks like Hainbach and me make a bunch of people search the used market – a lot of this gear is simply being scrapped. Since it’s heavy and bulky, it ranges from cheap to “if you get this out of my garage, you can have it” pricing. And the sound quality of a lot of it is also exceptional. Sold to big industry back in a time when slicing prices of this sort of equipment wasn’t essential, a lot of it feels and sounds great. And just like any other sound design or composition exercise that begins with finding something unexpected, the strange wonderfulness of these devices can inspire.

I got a chance to play a few days with the Waveform Research Centre in Rotterdam’s WORM, a strange and wild collection of these orphaned devices lovingly curated by Dennis Verschoor. And I got sounds unlike anything I was used to. It wasn’t just the devices and their lovely dials that made that possible – it was also the unique approach required when the normal envelope generators and such aren’t available. Human creativity does tend to respond well to obstacles.

Whether or not you go that route, it is worth delving into the history and possibilities – and Hainbach’s video is a great start. It might at the very least change how you approach your next Reaktor patch, SuperCollider code, synth preset, or Eurorack rig.

Previously:

Immerse yourself in Rotterdam’s sonic voltages, in the WORM laboratory

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KORG’s nutekt NTS-1 is a fun, little kit – and open to ‘logue developers

KORG has already shown that opening up oscillators and effects to developers can expand their minilogue and prologue keyboards. But now they’re doing the same for the nutekt NTS-1 – a cute little volca-ish kit for synths and effects. Build it, make wild sounds, and … run future stuff on it, too.

Okay, first – even before you get to any of that, the NTS-1 is stupidly cool. It’s a little DIY kit you can snap together without any soldering. And it’s got a fun analog/digital architecture with oscillators, filter, envelope, arpeggiator, and effects.

Basically, if you imagine having a palm-sized, battery-powered synthesis studio, this is that.

Japan has already had access to the Nutekt brand from KORG, a DIY kit line. (Yeah, the rest of the world gets to be jealous of Japan again.) This is the first – and hopefully not the last – time KORG has opened up that brand name to the international scene.

And the NTS-1 is one we’re all going to want to get our hands on, I’ll bet. It’s full of features:

– 4 fixed oscillators (saw, triangle and square, loosely modeled around their analog counterpart in minilogue/prologue, and VPM, a simplified version of the multi-engine VPM oscillator)
– Multimode analog modeled filter with 2/4 pole modes (LP, BP, HP)
– Analog modeled amp. EG with ADSR (fixed DS), AHR, AR and looping AR
– modulation, delay and reverb effects on par with minilogue xd/prologue (subset of)
– arpeggiator with various modes: up, down, up-down, down-up, converge, diverge, conv-div, div-conv, random, stochastic (volca modular style). Chord selection: octaves, major triad, suspended triad, augmented triad, minor triad, diminished triad (since sensor only allows one note at a time). Pattern length: 1-24
– Also: pitch/Shape LFO, Cutoff sweeps, tremollo
– MIDI IN via 2.5mm adapter, USB-MIDI, SYNC in/out
– Audio input with multiple routing options and trim
– Internal speaker and headphone out

That would be fun enough, and we could stop here. But the NTS-1 is also built on the same developer board for the KORG minilogue and prologue keyboards. That SDK opens up developers’ powers to make their own oscillators, effects, and other ideas for KORG hardware. And it’s a big deal the cute little NTS-1 is now part of that picture, not just the (very nice) larger keyboards. I’d see it this way:

NTS-1 buyers can get access to the same custom effects and synths as if they bought the minilogue or prologue.

minilogue and prologue owners get another toy they can use – all three of them supporting new stuff.

Developers can use this inexpensive kit to start developing, and don’t have to buy a prologue or minilogue. (Hey, we’ve got to earn some cash first so we can go buy the other keyboard! Oh yeah I guess I have also rent and food and things to think about, too.)

And maybe most of all –

Developers have an even bigger market for the stuff they create.

This is still a prototype, so we’ll have to wait, and no definite details on pricing and availability.

Waiting.

Yep, still waiting.

Wow, I really want this thing, actually. Hope this wait isn’t long.

I’m in touch with KORG and the analog team’s extraordinary Etienne about the project, so stay tuned. For an understanding of the dev board itself (back when it was much less fun – just a board and no case or fun features):

KORG are about to unveil their DIY Prologue boards for synth hacking

Videos:

Sounds and stuff –

Interviews and demos –

And if you wondered what the Japanese kits are like – here you go:

Oh, and I’ll also say – the dev platform is working. Sinevibes‘ Artemiy Pavlov was on-hand to show off the amazing stuff he’s doing with oscillators for the KORG ‘logues. They sound the business, covering a rich range of wavetable and modeling goodness – and quickly made me want a ‘logue, which of course is the whole point. But he seems happy with this as a business, which demonstrates that we really are entering new eras of collaboration and creativity in hardware instruments. And that’s great. Artemiy, since I had almost zero time this month, I better come just hang out in Ukraine for extended nerd time minus distractions.

Artemiy is happily making sounds as colorful as that jacket. Check sinevibes.com.

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IK UNO Drum: portable, $249.99 analog-PCM drum machine

Like the UNO synth before it, IK Multimedia’s new drum machine is a collaboration with boutique Italian maker Soundmachines, runs on batteries, takes up very little space, and it looks like a whole lot of fun, for EUR/USD 249.99.

As with some of the best-known classic drum machines, the sound engine is a combination of analog circuitry and PCM samples.

On the analog side of the sound engine, there are six drum parts: two different kicks, snare, clap, closed high hat, open high hat, and of course controls for shaping each.

On the PCM side, the default parts are toms, rim, cowbell, ride, crash. There are 54 samples onboard in total. And again, you can adjust Tuning, Snap, and Decay.

Sound samples are interesting – the kick sounds appropriately heavy and analog, and it sounds like you can glitch out those PCM samples, so … yep, I’m happy.

The voice architecture evidently lets you freely swap analog and digital parts as you wish to customize your kit, with up to 12 elements in each kit (and 11 of these can sound at the same time).

They’ve also added Drive and Compressor, both analog effects.

So that sounds already like a winning combination: customizable kits, plus some analog processing to make them punchier.

And then there’s the playing and programming bit. Touch entry has two velocity zones which you can map to sound parameters – so you don’t have to dive into a separate accent mode. You get 64 steps (with step and live performance), some serious automation recording (eight parameters per step), and even chaining up to 64 patterns together (for a kind of song mode). And you can trigger patterns live on the fly.

There are also some “performance effects” in the sequencer – Roll, Humanize, Swing, and Random.

More specs:

USB
2.5mm MIDI (with cables included)
Audio input for chaining – also routed through the compressor
400 g
4 AA batteries or power via USB
Ships in June
249 EUR/USD (not incl. VAT)

That little audio input with compressor makes this a nice companion to a number of little boxes.

They don’t say that you can customize samples, which may sound like an odd thing to complain about on a $250 box, except that some inexpensive machines have actually provided that (albeit some made it exceedingly difficult to do, like the KORG volca sample).

So sure, while everyone else eyes modules with prices starting for around this, I bet you could do a lot of damage with this little box.

https://www.ikmultimedia.com/products/unodrum/

And they have a ton of tutorial/demo videos up already:

Uh… my music doesn’t sound like this, but maybe yours does?

And the specs with… okay, more of that song. (To be fair, my mood today for a mega-distorted 150 bpm acid techno track is probably not the best music bed underneath someone trying to explain how you feed power via USB or AA batteries. You could, like, shout over it into a vocoder?)

(You can still hire me to do your voice over / demo video. UnO drUM g1vv33s yoU meg444 Cr444zYYY ACID DRUGGY SPACECAT psych0000 so888uunnddsss! L0000kieee!! No? I charge by the hour, it’s easy. I’m sure Dr. Walker / Liquid Sky Berlin will join in our tripped out machine PR agency.)

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Ableton release free CV Tools for integrating with analog gear, made in Max

It’s all about voltage these days. Ableton’s new CV Tools are designed for integrating with modular and semi-modular/desktop gear with CV. And they’re built in Max – meaning builders can learn from these tools and build their own.

The basic idea of CV Tools, like any software-CV integration, is to use your computer as an additional source of modulation and control. You route analog signal directly to your audio interface – you’ll need an interface that has DC coupled outputs (more about that separately). But once you do that, you can make your software and hardware rigs work together, and use your computer’s visual interface and open-ended possibilities to do still more stuff with analog gear.

This is coming on the eve of Superbooth, and certainly a lot of the audience will be people with modular racks. But nowadays, hardware with CV I/O is hardly limited to Eurorack – gear from the likes of Moog, Arturia, KORG, and others also makes sense with CV.

CV Tools aren’t the first Max for Live tools for Ableton Live – not by far. Spektro Audio makes the free CV Toolkit Mini, for instance. Its main advantage is a single, integrated interface – and a clever patch bay. There’s a more extensive version available for US$19.99.

Rival DAW Bitwig Studio, for its part, has taken an entirely different approach – you’ll get a software modular engine capable of interlinking with hardware CV wherever you like.

Ableton’s own CV Tools is news, though, in that these modules are powerful, flexible, and polished, and have a very Ableton-esque UI. They also come from a collaboration with Skinnerbox, the live performance-oriented gearheads here in Berlin, so I have no doubt they’ll be useful. (Yep, that’s them in the video.) I think there’s no reason not to grab this and Spektro and go to town.

And since these are built in Max, Max patchers may want to take a look inside – to mod or use as the basis of your own.

What you get:

CV Instrument lets you treat outboard modular/analog gear as if it’s integrated with Live as a plug-in.

Trigger drums and rhythms with CV Triggers.

CV Utility is a signal processing hub inside Live.

CV Instrument, with complements existing Ableton devices for integrating outboard MIDI instruments and effects with your projects in Live

CV Triggers for sequencing drum modules

CV Utility for adding automation curves, add/shift/multiple signals, and other processing tools

CV Clock In and CV Clock Out for clocking Live from outboard analog gear and visa versa

CV In which connects outboard analog signal directly to modulation of parameters inside Live

CV Shaper, CV Envelope Follower, and CV LFO which gives you graphical tools for designing modulation inside Live and using it for CV control of your analog hardware

And there’s more: the Rotating Rhythm Generator, which lets you dial up polyrhythms. This one works with both MIDI and CV, so you can work with either kind of external hardware.

I got to chat with Skinnerbox, and there’s even more here than may be immediately obvious.

For one thing, you get what they tell us is “extremely accurate broad-range” auto calibration of oscillators, filters, and so on. That’s often an issue with analog equipment, especially once you start getting complex or adding polyphony (or creating polyphony by mixing your software instruments with your hardware). Here’s a quick demo:

Clocking they say is “jitter free” and “super high resolution.”

So this means you can make a monster hybrid combining your computer running Ableton Live (and all your software) with hardware, without having to have the clock be all over the place or everything out of tune. (Well, unless that’s what you’re going for!)

If you’re in Berlin, Skinnerbox will play live with the rig this Friday at Superbooth.

They sent us this quick demo of working with the calibration tools, resulting in an accurate ten-octave range (here with oscillator from Endorphin.es).

Watch:

To interface with their gear, they’re using the Expert Sleepers ES8 interface in the modular. You could also use a DC-coupled audio interface, though – MOTU audio interfaces are a popular choice, since they’ve got a huge range of interfaces with DC coupling across various interface configurations.

CV Tools is listed as “coming soon,” but a beta version is available now.

https://www.ableton.com/en/blog/cv-tools-live-coming-soon/

What do you need to use this?

For full CV control of analog gear, you’ll want a DC-coupled audio interface. Most audio interfaces lack that feature – I’m writing an explanation of this in a separate story – but if you do have one with compatible outputs, you’ll be able to take full advantage of the features here, including tuned pitch control. MOTU have probably made more interfaces that work than anyone else. You can also look to a dedicated interface like the Expert Sleepers one Skinnerbox used in the video above.

See MOTU and Expert Sleepers, both of which Skinnerbox have tested:

http://motu.com/products

https://www.expert-sleepers.co.uk/es8.html

MOTU also have a more technical article on testing audio interfaces if you’re handy with a voltmeter, plus specs on range on all their interfaces.

Universal Audio have already written to say they’ll be demoing DC coupling on their audio interfaces at Superbooth with Ableton’s CV Tools, so their stuff works, too. (Double-checking which models they’re using.)

But wait – just because you lack the hardware doesn’t mean you can’t use some of the functionality here with other audio interfaces. Skinnerbox remind us that any audio interface inputs will work with CV In in Pitch mode. Clock in and out will work with any device, too.

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SOMA’s PULSAR-23 semi-modular drum machine sneak peak

SOMA laboratory and enigmatic “romantic” engineer Vlad Kreimer have already delivered the strange and wonderful LYRA “organismic” synths. Next up: a drum machine.

The PULSAR-23 takes on that same “organismic” design philosophy, complete with rich, layered, deep space exploration sounds. With a full 23 independent modules, those powers turn to a drum machine design.

And maybe even “drum machine” doesn’t quite do this justice – you could just as easily imagine this as a percussion-heavy synthesizer. There are four independent loop recorders which trigger events, which you can clock into a single groove or leave to independent timing for more experimental rhythms. You can even set each channel to a sustain, so this is a noise/drone synth, too, not just a dancefloor object.

The PULSAR-23 was first announced last year, but now we get to see it move into its production form factor and – wow, it looks great:

It could be a gorgeous standalone machine, or you could see it as part of a larger modular rig. Full specs:

– 4 drum channels: Bass drum, Bass\Percussion, Snare drum, Cymbals\Hi-Hat
– 4 envelope generators with the unique ability to generate a sustain for the drum channels, turning them into noise\drone synthesizers.
– 4 independent loop recorders with the option for individual clocking. They record triggering events, not audio.
– Clock generator with an array of dividers as a very powerful tool for rhythm synthesis.
– Wide range LFO (0.1 – 5000Hz) with variable waveform.
– Shaos – a unique pseudo-random generator based on shift registers with 4 independent outputs, sample and hold and other cool features.
– FX processor with CV control incl. CV control of the entire DSP’s sample rate.
– Distortion.
– 2 CV-controlled gates.
– 2 CV-controlled VCAs.
– 2 controllable inverters.
– 3 assignable attenuators
– dynamic CV sensors for CV generation etc

Plus there’s MIDI control and sync, in addition to all the CV options. And if you want the really important specs – 52 knobs, 11 switches, 100 inputs and outputs for patching.

There’s also – “live circuit bending” whatever that entails, exactly?

This is the video from June 2018, where the PULSAR-23 was still just a bunch of guts – no pretty red case – but at least gives you an idea of the sound possibilities.

No lie here: SOMA will be way on the top of my list of gear to check out at Superbooth. I think this is poised to be a 2019 highlight.

Previously, we checked this out from SOMA this spring:

SOMA’s Ether is a high-sensitivity ear for your electromagnetic world

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Moog Matriarch puts all your analog sound shaping in one keyboard

Moog has taken the elements of their semi-modular line and given it a flagship – a patchable, calico-colored keyboard with sequencer, 4-voice paraphonic synth, and effects in one keyboard.

The pitch: even before you plug in cables to the copious patch points here, you can quickly get evolving strings of dreamy chords (or rich melodies), complete with delay and modulation. Those extra (analog, they want you to remember) specs aren’t just about more features. They’re about dialing in imaginative sounds. And so the Matriarch is an all-in-one keyboard that draws from Moog’s modular legacy, but in an integrated design you can use both with and without patching.

We’re definitely living in a weird timestream. When I started writing about music tech and joined Keyboard in the early 2000s, “workstation” keyboards were digital affairs, with functionality hidden deep in menus and screens. The key was to put as many instruments as possible – analog synthesis being seen as something retro and niche. Moog for their part had the Voyager, which took the Minimooog line in the direction of new analog exploration. But even Moog’s offering was primarily connected with MIDI cables, and had a touch panel right on the front.

Now, CV and gate – analog interconnects – are standard equipment alongside MIDI. People are happy to twist knobs rather than just dial up presets. (We, uh, could have told manufacturers that all along. Here’s a hint: if it’s fun, we’ll like it. Hence the term “play” music.)

And even if Moog are still (happily) outside the mainstream, there’s nothing saying their Matriarch has anything but broad appeal.

So here’s a keyboard proudly with wires popping out the top. And while Moog prominently tout “all-analog signal path” and “retro” design, we’re really seeing ourselves back in the parallel universe where analog synthesis never went away. On one hand, we’ve come full circle to some of the features first introduced in analog synthesis, but now it’s clearer what they’re for and how to make them more accessible. So for all its 1970s-derived features (Moog name included), the Matriarch is inventive in a way that makes sense in 2019.

Moog are pulling from the modular world, too, more aggressively than ever. Not only is this patchable, but the design does imagine a series of modules. So you get Minimoog oscillators, a mixer, classic Moog filters, envelopes and sound shapers. They’ve also built in a sequencer/arpeggiator.

The voice configuration allows mono, duo, and paraphonic playing modes, plus you have four notes per step in the sequencer.

My sense is what will make this interesting is the multiple modes on the filters combined with a Moogerfooger-like analog delay and tons of modulation. So you have dual ADSR envelopes and dual analog amplifiers, and two filters you can use in parallel or stereo or series. The delay is stereo (and ping/pong if you want) up to 700 ms – still waiting on Moog to tell me how short that delay can go.

Oh yeah, and ring mod possibilities also sound interesting. Plus they’ve got mults in there for making patching deeper onboard.

Specs:

Mono, duo, and 4-note paraphonic playability
Stereo analog delay with up to 700ms of stereo or ping/pong style repeats
256-step sequencer with up to four notes per step and 12 stored patterns
Arpeggiator with selectable modes (Order, Forward/Backward, Random)
Semi-modular analog synthesizer—no patching required
90 modular patch points for endless exploration
Expressive 49-note Fatar keyboard with patchable velocity and aftertouch
Four analog oscillators with selectable waveshape and hard sync per-oscillator
Full-range analog LFO with six selectable waveshapes
Dual analog filters with parallel (HP/LP), stereo (LP/LP), and series (HP/LP) modes available
Dual analog ADSR envelopes
Dual analog VCAs
Three bipolar voltage controlled attenuators with ring mod capability
2×4 parallel wired unbuffered mults
Additional simple analog LFO useful for adding modulation to delay, filters and VCAs
1/4″ external audio input for processing guitars, drum machines, and more through Matriarch’s analog circuits
Stereo 1/4″ and 3.5mm Eurorack level audio outputs

This is a Moog and a “flagship,” so it doesn’t come cheap – US$1999. That’s not to complain about the price, but it does mean if you’re in that budget, you have a lot of options. (Sitting next to me as I write this is Polyend’s Medusa along with Dreadbox, which has 6 voices instead of four, and some digital oscillators and modulation options that take it in a radically different direction from the Matriarch. Oddly, people complained about its price, and it costs half as much.)

I would personally be pretty tempted by Moog’s own Grandmother, the Matriarch’s baby sibling – with a street price around $800. It’s a monosynth, and the whole architecture is scaled accordingly. (It also has a spring reverb tank in place of the Matriarch’s delay). But you could use the saved money for a little Eurorack skiff.

That said, the Matriarch is a thoughtful, colorful, appealing new top-of-the-line for this family of Moogs. And it gets a Moogfest limited edition at the festival happening now – plus a lot of artists gathered who I’m sure will really want one.

https://www.moogmusic.com/news/introducing-matriarch

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Founder of music tech forum has died; outpourings of support for Mike McGrath

One of the largest forums for music tech nerd-kind this week reports the loss of its founder: Muff Wiggler’s creator, Mike McGrath, has died. The Internet responds.

I want to first say, my heart goes out to all of you who have lost a friend, a family member, a personal connection, or even a far-off but meaningful Internet connection.

Muff Wiggler, the forum, has for more than a decade been the single most influential online community for people interested in modular synthesis, as well as a range of DIY topics – it’s a common go-to for how-to documentation on electronics, among other topics. It has also hosted widely trafficked official forums for a number of brands, including the likes of Expert Sleepers, Hexinverter, Metasonix, and Snazzy FX. It’s been the object of love, of hate – but always has played a central role in conversations about music making technology and the voltage and circuits pulsing underneath.

And it’s worth saying that the whole project really began with one person, Mike – known by many exclusively online, but host to a community of strangers who often grew close. Like a lot of the blogs and forums that support the music tech community, Muff Wiggler and its creator have even become synonymous. I know personally how demanding that can be.

It wouldn’t be any exaggeration to say that part of the explosive growth of Eurorack and modular synthesis is because of Mike’s creation of the forum – one that inspired rabid consumers at the same time as it collected knowledge of how to engineer the modules.

Photo above, at top by I Dream of Wires, who interviewed Mike in their work on the evolution of the modern modular synthesis fandom.

The Muff Wiggler platform grew into other projects – a store, live events (like a collaboration with TRASH AUDIO in Portland, Oregon), and others, which helped people meet the man behind the forum in person, some of them flying from literally the other side of the world to do so.

About that name – it comes from a handle Mike chose that combined the names of two popular Electro-Harmonix effect pedals, Big Muff and The Wiggler.

For their part, a message from Muff Wiggler’s team promises they’ll keep the site going in Mike’s absence. Kent writes on a admin post: “The moderator and admin staff are going to take the needed time to get things in order and ensure the smoothest of possible transitions. It’ll be rough for a bit.”

In the meantime, there is an outpouring of sadness and gratefulness from people who knew Mike personally and those who knew him in the virtual arena – from the community of people for whom he created a home where none had existed.

The main thread on Muff Wiggler

Synthtopia obituary

Modular giant Ken MacBeth writes: “Mike McGrath……….I hope that you find your peace now……..RIP.”

Mike himself wrote in 2017 about his passion for the project in a Facebook Group, saying it began from wanting to learn about modular synthesis, amidst options that were “intimidating” – to create instead a place where you could make friends. And he talked about the importance of music and his machines in his personal life – in good times and in dark times.

Matrixsynth has a heartfelt obituary which traces some history – even before the forum, including the first blog posts by Muff Wiggler (back when it was just Mike’s alias):

Mike created the de facto modular synth forum on the internet … and he did it in a way that put members first. He created a platform for makers and users of synths to come together and engage directly with each other.

And yeah, I think all of us who have run enterprises on the Internet for music feel this one in our gut. Again quoting the mighty Matrixsynth:

I just can’t believe he is gone. As the host of this site, I feel like I lost a fellow compatriot. Someone I had history with through the ups and downs. Running a site can be a challenge, and just knowing he was out there doing his thing helped. I am going to miss him and the lost experiences we would all have had with him around.

RIP Mike McGrath of Muff Wiggler

Finally, long-time collaborator Surachai writes, “Mike is the connective tissue that bound almost every modular user when information was scarce.”

He goes on to say:

I invited whoever was interested in welcoming the overlord of the synthesizer community to a BBQ at my place and we were met with one of the kindest and smartest people to grace our lives….

His contributions to and maintenance of information cannot be overstated. His reach and ability to connect people cannot be overstated.

Mike McGrath / Muffwiggler

You’ll also find some videos online.

http://muffwiggler.com/

https://www.muffwiggler.com/forum/index.php

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