I know a lot of the folks at Novation on a personal level well enough to say – they’re synth lovers, day job and after hours. What’s great about their latest video series is, some of that comes out.
Of course, yesterday we saw at least one user really hacking a Novation product, the Launchpad Pro, by modding the hardware using a firmware release from the company. And as one frustrated developer shouted at us in comments, that requires a bit of effort. (Not so much for you – you can download a file and use this easily – but modifying real-time firmware of hardware takes some practice!)
This isn’t quite that. These “hacks” have more to do with creatively abusing some features to push the hardware synths to the limit – Circuit, Circuit Mono Station, and Peak. The Circuit in particular has a user community that proved surprisingly advanced, squeezing everything they can out of this budget-priced hardware. But lately the more recent Mono Station and Peak are finding an equally devoted following.
Here’s the whole playlist, which covers sound design techniques (like oscillator sync – okay, that’s more a conventional technique than a ‘hack’), approaches to performance (patch change), working with clock and CV, and other features.
This raises a question, though – these are recent Novation products, so it’s pretty easy to get the manufacturer to do some hot tips.
But which instruments would you like to see covered – new or old – and in what way? What’s missing in tutorials? Let us know in comments. (I realize I just self-selected the answers to that with people who own these Novation synths, so I’ll keep asking this … but also curious what other stuff you Novation lovers own, too!)
Modular isn’t just about building synth sounds; it’s also about routing signal and mixing in a new way. So we welcome the return of Czech superstar Nikol Štrobach, who continues her mission to make modular accessible to beginners.
Nikol is juggling mom duties with modular – we’ve even seen her kid Lumír. And our patching professor, after a year and a half of video production, did have to take a parenting sabbatical. But she’s returned with a new set of advanced tips and tricks, say our friends at Bastl Instruments. And she’s even added English-language narration (though we rather enjoyed the Czech).
Next up, panning (ooh, stereo!):
And ducking (using amplifiers to have one signal control another):
Bastl tells us this is just the start – two episodes are finished and scheduled for the next couple of weeks, with more in production.
Out of a huge landscape of modules, Mutable Instruments stands alone with some of the best options. And those Mutable tools continue to make their appearance, for free, in VCV rack in software.
As we reported previously, VCV Rack are porting the open source, digital module line from hardware to software form once they’ve been shipping for a while.
The latest is another special addition: Marbles is a random voltage generator, reborn in the onscreen Rack software as Random Sampler. (That term also describes me, at a buffet.)
Well, basically, Marbles is both a source of randomness and a sampler that can reproduce patterns. On the randomness side, you can generate clock or control signals – or modify external inputs – and add variation, from subtle to chaotic, slight fuzziness to branching patterns. That keeps things from getting too repetitive.
And then, in case you actually want some repetition or a recognizable phrase, you also have a sampler that stores and recalls patterns of voltages, cleverly dubbed “deja vu.”
That’s to me is a beautiful model of how you might want to control chance and variation, giving ears new and recognizable sounds, compositionally. Of course, this being a Mutable module, that power is consolidated in a few knobs, which can also be a delight to play with.
To try these in VCV’s Rack application, first install Rack, then look to the Audible Instruments preview plug-in:
And a lot of us are now installing multiple modulars on our computers and choosing to use a particular one when the use arises. So if the constantly-under-construction, wild and woolly developer side of VCV Rack makes you long for a more stable solution, it’s worth mentioning that Softube’s excellent Modular and all the paid add-ons are now steeply discounted. That includes an implementation of Mutable’s superb Clouds:
Kudos to Mutable and creator Olivier Gillet. He’s proven that software can be open source but sustainable commercially, and that it can be successful across multiple platforms at once – hardware and software. For anyone bold enough to follow, that could be a compelling direction for musical tools to take.
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.
Sometimes, tech looks stylish in the way you’d expect it to look on the deck of a starcraft. So if Eurorack makes you think “old-fashioned,” meet the Klang, a chord creation module from Norway.
After years – okay, decades – of noodling about mostly in monophonic space, the modular scene is discovering polyphony. But that generates an interesting compositional question: how do you make chords accessible with the twist of a wrist, with patch cord signal and encoders?
Klang is a kind of dial-a-chord solution: there’s an encoder for each of the four voices in a chord, so to get a four-note chord, you twist four knobs. That’s straightforward enough, but it’s the visualization that gets interesting: there’s a retro-chic clock face on a color display, showing both octave and pitch. And naturally those encoders and the clock face are color coded so you can keep each pitch separate.
What time is it? Chord time. You can store up to 99 of these four-note chords, and step through progressions by button, or trigger or gate signal. Then you output each voice (note) via separate voltage outs.
That’s clever enough, but it’s really the presentation and packaging that make it. It’s probably the prettiest module I’ve ever seen.
Cost: unknown. But a few people did grab (less pretty) videos of it in action at Superbooth in Berlin earlier this month.
Rune Warhuus is the creator of this module. Please do follow him to encourage him to make more gear like this and post more gear pr0n. Thank you.
After years of somewhat similar wheels and pads and keys that wiggle, we’re finally seeing the ability to get physically expressive with sound in new ways. The Expression E Touché is one of the most compelling cases of that – but to understand, you have to watch, and listen.
So the French company and its fearless young leader Arthur Bouflet have cleverly taken Moogfest as a chance to do just that.
You’ll spot the wooden paddle-looking device beneath Arthur’s hand. It’s something that looks simultaneously vintage and historical and futuristic – a design object whose origin and time can’t quite be placed. And your first reaction, probably, is some skepticism – until you watch just how sensitive and intuitively gestural it is. You may or may not be taken with Arthur’s musical sensibilities – hey, I find it rather cheery and groovy, myself – but pay close attention to the gestures that are possible with it, and I think you’ll be impressed.
There’s more than one connection here to Moogfest, the festival-cum-technology meetup coming to North Carolina this week. There’s the custom, limited edition overlay for festival goers, yes, and the fact that Expressive E are going to the festival themselves. But the company have also made great effort to make custom presets for loads of gear, Moog’s equipment included. So that includes apps (Moog Model D for iOS), and hardware (DFAM, Subsequent 37, just to name two in the video).
It’d be hard to demo an expression or sustain pedal, but there’s no need. And it’s easy enough to map those two inputs to any synth. Open-ended, gestural expression is something else – there’s some prep work involved. Hats off, then, to Expressive E for both making an exhaustive library of presets and producing lovely-looking video demos to show why this all matters. (They’ve even mapped our MeeBlip synth.)
With USB, CV, and, MIDI connections, there are all sorts of possibilities for connecting to instruments – hardware and software, digital and analog. And all of these connect to the high-resolution sensing data from the Touché.
I’ll do a full review of this hardware soon, with some advice for DIYers and musicians. But in the meanwhile, these videos really get the point across.
In the age of MIDI Polyphonic Expression, you’ll see a lot of new controllers adding dimension to the inputs they read. And that makes it clearer than ever that part of what was holding back more expressive electronic musicianship was simply the common standard to describe a wider range of human performance.
But this particular hardware is special, in that it suddenly opens up sound where it had once been static. Uh… well, the name fits. Touché.
Let’s watch some more, featuring Dave Smith and Ableton and Mutable and Novation and more:
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
With a lumberjack-themed timbre-shaping module and a powerful auto-tuning MIDI interface, Czech builder Bastl are back to modular. And they might just solve polyphonic tuning in Eurorack, finally.
Bastl Instruments have staked out the quirky end of synth manufacture in past years. But this is probably the biggest modular news since their rollout of a whole line in 2016. There are just two modules coming out this week, but those two are each pretty powerful – and more is in store.
TIMBER (get it?) is a timbral-themed “Dual Waveform Lumberjack” module. There are two wave shaping circuits, each inspired by the sought-after, unique sound of the Serge Modular – a design beloved by composers since its early 70s introduction at CalArts, and one that has seen a resurgence (uff, sorry) of interest.
Best idea here: you can crossfade easily between signals, including using an external input.
It’s one of the friendliest, most sonically interesting modules we’ve seen from Bastl, and it looks like it just might be a must-have.
Okay, on the surface, this is a MIDI-to-CV module with a clever name (the year MIDI was first demonstrated).
But it’s more than that. It’s actually a solution to creating polyphonic racks without having everything fall out of tune. And while microtonal and experimental music is good fun, you generally don’t want those microtones being accidental because you can’t get your modules working together.
I’ve been talking to the Bastl engineers for some months about this problem, especially as virtuoso Brno musician HRTL, who has worked with Bastl on this problem, has been keenly working on a solution. (HRTL’s Windowlickerz duo with Oliver Torr makes heavy use of thick polyphony – and keeps it in tune.)
Here’s how it works: you get four channels of CV and gate. Each channel listens to the waveforms and with a press of the TUNE button, adjusts to whatever tune you want. It’s basically the same idea as having an orchestra tune – think of the 1983 unit as the oboe. It even maps across seven octaves.
There are a bunch of other features here, including transposition and other creative features. It could prove to be one of the most important modules of the Eurorack age, because it finally opens the format to practical, modular polyphony. Sure, you could add a polyphonic module, but that rather defeats the purpose of customizing a rack in the first place.
No pricing yet, but they promise “around 250EUR.” Due in September. We’ll watch this one.
Last time we caught up with Bastl at Superbooth, they had unveiled their own line of roasted coffee. (Seriously.) They’re up to more now, too. THYME, shown last year, is finally shipping at 439EUR. And they’re heading to host events in Prague and Brno, Czech, helping open the new _ZVUK_ and Synth Library spaces in Prague, co-organizing a festival, and releasing music on their new Nona records label.
Serendipitous collaboration can be magical. Combine an eccentric high-tech guitar company from Switzerland with some high-powered nerds from the USA, and you get some spectacular ways of adding sub octaves and picking apart and modulating sounds.
From Memphis to Messe: on a hot tip from one of the engineers, I found myself roaming Hall 8.0 at Musikmesse in Frankfurt Friday. Just this one hall is already cavernous; I passed a portrait of Hillary Hahn in a violin booth, stumbled across two nice women giving away CDs of unsigned Estonian concert music, and strolled past the signature-blue of the G. Henle Urtext (which my piano teacher called the “Voice of God edition.”).
But this is how music instrument design should work. It should be collaborative; it should have unexpected combinations of new and old. I love Berlin’s SuperBooth, but by no means would I ever imagine modular synths to exist at the center of the music world.
And so I found myself in the narrow booth of Paradis Products. They’re a legendary, boutique guitar maker out of a Swiss small town, producing exotic creations that look like what you’d splurge on if you’d just won a Eurovision contest. But they know their stuff, from electrical engineering to woodworking.
The woodworking side of the equation is who I got on Friday afternoon, so apologies to Heinz for I think terrorizing him. (I kept repeating the word “Eurorack” to his utter befuddlement. I unfortunately have less to say about mechanical engineering and wood. Matthias Grob is the engineer who’s more to the electrical side. )
Paradis make wonderful guitars, but they also make leading guitar technology. The Polybass is an instrument that seems enchanted – as bass notes follow every articulation. It’s analog technology which means there’s nothing stopping it from appearing outside guitars.
Side by side comparisons of the original and the new Polybass board – the latter coming soon to a Eurorack near you.
So here’s the plan: take the Polybass, and make, hopefully, a Eurorack modular by the end of the year. That’s where America’s Delta Sound Labs comes in. They explain to CDM: “Polybass by Paradis is a radical rework of the legendary Polysubbass that provides an audibly clear, sub-octave effect below performed notes.”
On the guitar, I could already hear how it sounds – that is to say, incredible. I can’t wait to hear this applied to other things.
And there’s more. The CHOPhilter is a classic attack detection and modulation VST. It’s got a UI that’s ugly as sin, but Paradis, Mathons, and Delta Sound Labs will work together to port it to 64-bit (done) and add a more aesthetically pleasing Delta skin (coming soon).
This is also a very Good Thing: apply amplitude modulation on note attacks, with amplitude and filter modulation effects and envelope controls. It also responds to MIDI input for more live performance options. (A quick play-around revealed some crazy possibilities – look past the UI at those parameters for a sense of what this can do.)
Memphis-based Delta Sound Labs, for their part, have done sound research and technology from gaming to film to music industries. And they do modules. And they’re musicians. Here’s Ricky playing around with their other project – a pitch follower that interfaces both with Ableton Live and via control voltage with other gear: