It’s dubbed a “Waveform Research Centre” – and Rotterdam’s gear-stuffed WORM laboratory is a science fiction playground for voltages, making music and visuals alike. Let’s go inside.
Dennis Verschoor is a mainstay of the Rotterdam experimental electronic scene, with some decades of artist experience to his name and the legendary Noodlebar performance series. Filmmaker Steve Guy Hellier joins Thonk’s Steve Grimley-Taylor to produce a short film about him and this amazing space: (thanks, Sonic State, hat tip)
From the description:
I first met Dennis whilst I was in the WORM studio on an artist residency in 2017. The WORM studio is like a geological trip through electronic music’s history but I was about to travel even further back. Strange ghostly tones emanated from the old vocal booth next door, it was this space that Dennis had filled with mid 20th century audio test equipment, going back to the roots of audio electronic experiments before commercially available instruments from Moog or Roland, before keyboards, back to Stockhausen, Else Marie Pade, Daphne Oram, Raymond Scott and the like. Why now? is this the logical conclusion of Mark Fisher’s cultural hauntology? do we end up back at the source? the sound of past futures? For Dennis it seemed more a way to dodge the hipsters, and invite collaboration.
Dennis and I had a friend in common Steve Grimley-Taylor, a lover of all things electronic and sound related (founder of Thonk.co.uk). When I expressed the idea of making a film about Dennis, Richard Foster from WORM kindly agreed to let us. This is a short film about Dennis, his journey and his room.
Steve Guy Hellier 2018
You know what time it is, kids? It’s gear pr0n, time. Some waveform pics to get your Friday night started right.
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.
It’s equal parts Polish Radio Experimental Studio and starship control panel. The Apparatum by Warsaw’s panGenerator proves that not only can everything old is new again – maybe it’s even newer.
Take a look:
The Apparatum is a new installation that reboots Communist-era work from the space age, bringing visual and optical and magnetic concepts into a playful synthesizer concept. It’s the latest work from interactive/media shop panGenerator from Warsaw.
In the early adventurous work in electronic music, there was nothing to take for granted. So it makes sense that Polish pioneer Bogusław Schaeffer would imagine an entirely new visual language to accompany the new sounds humans were hearing from their circuits. His Symphony – electronic music cued the engineer with those hieroglyph-like visuals, and inspires the sounds and visual language here.
But maybe that’s what modernity is now: now that we’re no longer wowed by digital, we’re sophisticated enough to see new potential for magnetic and optical techniques that had been discarded in the march to the new. Artists/researchers like Andrey Smirnov, who delve into the world of Soviet optical synthesis and Theremin, have regularly wondered what an alternate future would be like if radical optical and electro-magnetic techniques had continued to develop. Now, in works like this (and work by artists like Derek Holzer) make that alternate reality our own.
The work also draws from the design aesthetics and the engineering of the original, legendary Polish studio:
The physical form is inspired by the general aesthetics of the Studio’s famous “Black Room” designed by Oskar Hansen. The electroacoustic generators and filters were arranged in a modular fashion inside two steel frames – the construction element that we’ve referred to in our design.
Magnetic tape was the primary medium used in the Polish Radio Experimental Studio. We’re also using two types of “tape samplers” – two 2-track loops and three one-shot linear tape samplers. To obtain noise and basic tones we’re utilising purely analog optical generators based on spinning discs with graphical patterns.
This may just look like digital tech aping the original, but they’ve genuinely made a hybrid. DC motors spin discs made of plexiglass, covered in opaque black foil on one side, with an LED and photoresistor. That optical detector feeds an analog signal, fed directly to the mixer. They’re real, opto-analog oscillators.
The magnetic part is real, too. 2-3 second tape loops record samples, with variable-speed playback, on top of 3 one-shots that move the magnetic head along the tape (with in turn varies pitch). So you have digitally-controlled magnetic tape and opto-analog synthesis – a fusion of past and present tech. It takes the historical sound techniques, but produces a more accessible, dynamic interface with the computer – digital input, analog output.
And visitors to the exhibition get real recorded results, too – just as they would if they stepped into the historical electroacoustic studio. There’s a printout of the score, plus a digital record uploaded to a server.
The historical use of tape is reimagined with real, digitally-controlled magnetic tape sampling.
The historical gear that inspired the new invention, side by side with the results.
Visual scores accompany the sonic creations.
The Apparatum will make the trip this weekend to Karlsruhe, Germany, where it will accompany an exhibition on now through the start of next year on the historical Polish studio:
Part of the appeal of modular systems is there in the name – modularity. But as the modular market grows, there’s increasing demand for modulars that are again designed as coherent systems. The ACL System 1 is ready to serve as a synth on its own, or the centerpiece of a larger modular rig.
The ACL System 1 launched this week, available here in Berlin from Schneidersladen (and shipping elsewhere). And here’s a look at how all those pieces come together:
The Audiophile Circuits League do their assembly in Berlin – joining a growing number of boutique makers, including Koma, MFB, Jomox, and Verbos, just to name a few. With a direct-order price of 3930 EUR, it’s not exactly a budget synth. But figure that even pretty recently, digital workstation polysynths were going for near this … and a whole modular rig is a lot more fun. (The price of modular synths as a category, meanwhile, have absolutely dropped – this high-end model is far less than the historical instruments that inspired it, calculating for inflation, to say nothing of prices that drop down to literally zero if you go to software).
Okay, so what’s in there?
6U 84HP Eurorack configuration in their EVZ-1 case
Two Variable Sync VCOs, linear and exponential FM
Dual State Variable VCF
Gate Mix for summing up to four sources
VC Panning Amplifier
M/S Matrix (for mid/side processing)
Three ADSR envelopes (Envelope X3)
QLFO with phase-shifted sine waves
Basically, you get a synth that’s very inspired by Roland’s System 100M. (Roland, for their part, have also been resurrecting the Japanese modular lineage – something I hope we’ll look into soon.)
So you can make freaky synth sounds, lots of effects, and (of course) precise, thumping kicks. And the whole thing feels really nice, including some really luxurious knobs (they’re “Vernier dials” for anyone interested).
But… if you don’t know what the above means, then this probably isn’t for you.
There’s also an audio interface module and nice touches like a low impedance headphone jack – all the sorts of things that sometimes get overlooked by odd DIY modules.
Also, in a nod to the fact that this is a modular, they did leave a little (tiny) space for expansion, though those 4HP aren’t going to accomplish a whole lot! Most of the people I’ve seen buy these kinds of systems, though, already own a smattering of modules and are upgrading to an integrated instrument that sits at the center of it. (Yes, for those people warning of “Eurocrack” addiction, it’d look like that.)
I’m not personally in the market for something like this, but I always find them interesting to play around with and as a demonstration of how designers approach building a modular system. Nice stuff:
Software modulars are the new hardware modulars. And a steeply discounted summer sale from Softube might mean it’s time to reconsider their offering.
Softube Modular is a beautiful, complete emulation of modular tools on a computer screen. It’s demanding – you’ll want a recent computer with decent specs and updated software – but stable. The problem is, even though it’s a lot cheaper than buying “Eurocrack” hardware, I suspect the price turned some off. A hundred bucks is actually a great deal for a bunch of modules in software, but then some add-on modules cost nearly as much as just the base platform. And a lot of users may already have something like Reaktor already installed, with its free user library, or the free VCV Rack and its free and inexpensive add-ons.
But wait a minute – now all those prices are slashed for summer, presumably because normal people in the northern hemisphere are out, like, at the beach or something.
And now it’s worth giving Modular a second look. US$89 is great; $45 is must-buy. And some of those lavish modules you might have thought were out of reach start to look tempting, too.
So here’s why you might want to think about Modular, even with other offerings available.
All those modules are available virtually, via a friendly selector.
It’s the most stable, polished software, coming closest to the hardware experience. Nothing comes this close to hardware, down to the Doepfer modules that defined the Eurorack format. And while Reaktor is also stable and mature, it doesn’t have front panel patching or other expected modular features. VCV Rack is wonderful, but it’s also a bit of a Wild West of weird developer modules, constant updates, and frequent development. (In some sense, maybe it should be that way, as the open source and experimental offering – but then Softube is worth investigating when you need something stable and reliable.) And tools like Pd and SuperCollider are just, well, geekier and more DIY. (Also nice, but a different experience.)
It’s got all the basics. This isn’t in Reaktor or VCV. Doepfer’s modules are vanilla, but by design – they’re ideal for learning synthesis and getting creative with your actual patch rather than the module designer doing it for you. In addition to Softube’s built in utility modules for dealing with clock and control signal and MIDI and the like, you also get the full range of Doepfer essentials. (A-110-1 VCO, A-108 VCF, A-132-3 Dual VCA, A-140 ADSR, A-118 Noise/Random, A-147 VCLFO, A-114 Ring Modulator)
There’s full plug-in support. VST, VST3, Audio Unit, and AAX Native formats for Mac and Windows mean you can drop it in your existing DAW.
You can set it up for live performance. There are a lot of interface details that make this, bar none, the easiest-to-use computer implementation of modular environment – and arguably far easier and more convenient than actual hardware. (Ducks) But one of the most important is the ability to design your own performance panels and consolidate lots of parameters into a few – essentially combining the performance friendliness of desktop synths with the patchability of modular.
It might be worth splurging on deluxe add-ons. It’s a bit funny to buy a software module for the price of a decent, say, guitar pedal in the real world. But if Softube wanted our money, they sure picked some nice ones – Mutable Instruments Clouds, the Buchla 259e Twisted Waveform Generator, and the gorgeous 4ms Spectral Multiband Resonator (SMR) are on a lot of our “if I only had money” hardware wishlist. So whereas the prices might have stopped you before, now at $29, $69, and $35, respectively, you might change your mind. (There are some fine Intellijel offerings, too.)
There’s integrated hardware control with NI and ROLI gear. Support for Native Instruments’ NKS format means you can dial up presets and parameter controls – with on-screen text labels – on both the Komplete Kontrol and Maschine. (Maschine might be ideal, actually, because it also includes handy scene and pattern support, making Softube viable live.) ROLI’s Seaboard RISE – the squishy futuristic keyboard – might seem bonkers when you just want to play a grand piano solo, but out-of-box support here with modulars totally makes sense, too.
Softube have equipped some of their other tools to run inside Modular. Buy Softube’s EQ tools or their lovely Heartbeat drum synth, and you can use them in the Modular environment, too.
All in all, it’s a lovely package; I hope to spend more time in the rest of summer and fall diving in myself, so I’ll try to write y’all back if I can tear myself away from the patches. (Uh oh.)
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.
Yes, nests of patch cords and racks of modules will make noodle-y noise for chin scratching. It can also make pounding techno – and we’re going inside some of the sonic brains who’ve mastered that.
Our mission: let’s learn how people are actually using modular synthesis to express their musical ideas, and demystify some of the basic concepts in sound creation behind all those cool flashing lights and tangles of wire.
To do that, we need musicians like Florian and Leonard.
Florian Meindl and Leonard de Leonard will join us tomorrow in Berlin thanks to Roland organizing a visit in the artist center they’ve set up in Kreuzberg. These are two producers with a deep knowledge of music history and production skills as well as technical knowledge. They’re proof that musicianship is a combination of engineering and intuition. So whether you’re interests tend to beats or beatless, the main takeaway is that they can master creative sound design as an instrument.
Florian in the studio.
Florian has been a guest with CDM (and Roland) once before. He’s a real workhorse of Berlin’s techno scene, having produced music for about a decade and a half, various high-profile remixes (Hot Chip & Royksopp), and helmed a label (FLASH) that has released a who’s who of quality techno from around the world – with a stunning 130 releases, ranging from Sigha to Noncompliant, and not a dud in the bunch. I have to say from trying to juggle multiple threads like this, this stuff isn’t easy. He’s also some kind of ninja of social media.
Plus, for synth lovers, his Riemann Kollektion and Riemann Modular build businesses around boutique sounds and DJ tools and Eurorack modular, respectively.
Florian’s hybrid DJ sets effortlessly mix from club bangers to fluid modular improvisations – I saw particularly heavy, concrete-shaking sets at both Berlin’s Arena and Griessmuehle recently. I think the key was, the modular stuff never sounded like filler – it was just as dead-on.
Here’s a beautiful example of his music, which goes full-on dark and industrial without ever losing site of groove.
And because the future of DJing is also playing live, here’s his round-up of mixes and live sets:
Leonard’s stunning Sound Provider studio, otherwise known as “okay, that’s a good motivation to try to go to heaven when I die instead of Hell, maybe?”
Leonard de Leonard is a kind of sonic polyglot, a deep expert in modules and synths (well beyond my own modular knowledge – let me be totally clear about that), and with a resume across various genres, in composition, arrangement, and production. He’s also worked in sound design. You can tell a really clever producer/sound creator when it’s musically satisfying to listen to samples of their loops – like, his loop libraries sound better than a lot of producer’s tracks.
We’ll also get to look at Roland’s entry into Eurorack modular, a collaboration with Portland, Oregon boutique maker Malekko. What I appreciate about Roland’s work in modular, and why I would chose to work with them, is that they’re helping give back to the odd and wonderful underground collection of people now making modules. So apart from bringing back some of the vintage Roland System 100 designs that helped shape what modular looks like today, they’re also making a point of showing how their modules fit with other smaller makers, in a larger ecosystem.
With the proliferation of modules, the phrase “Eurorack bubble” has been floating around for a while. But now it appears to be translating into falling prices.
The basic problem is this: more demand means more interest, which translates into more manufacturers, and more production. So far, so good. Then, more distributors pick up the goods – not just boutique operators like Schneider, but also bigger chains.
Where’s the problem? With too many modules out there in the marketplace, and more big retailers, it’s easier for the big retailers to start to squeeze manufacturers on price. Plus, the more modules out in the world, the greater the supply of used modules.
Andreas Schneider has chosen to weigh in on the issue personally. You can read his statement in German:
There’s actually a lot there – though the banner revelation is seeing the cost of new modules suddenly plummet by 30%:
You asked for it: Due to the increased demand for Eurorack modules in Europe, even the large retailers for musical instruments are now filling the last corners of their warehouses and buying complete production runs from manufacturers and everything else they can get. Some manufacturers might be happy about this, but the flooding of the market already leads to a significant drop in prices here and there, some modules are already available with a 30% discount on the original calculated price and yet were still quite hot the other day!
As SchneidersLaden we have decided to go along with this development and of course offer corresponding products for the same price to our customers, although most of them have already bought them when the goods were still fresh and crisp! We’re almost a little sorry about that, but hopefully the hits are already produced and the music career is up and running? Nevertheless, sorry – but the decision for this way lies with the manufacturer and was not our recommendation!
By the way… we don’t advertise with moneyback-warranty… we’ve always practiced it. But please: get advice first, then buy – like in the good old days. Because it’s better to talk to your specialist retailer – we know what we are selling. And by the way: We do free shipping throughout Europe and there are Thursdays on that we are in the shop until nine o’clock in the evening …and real CHAOS serves creativity.
That had to be said – end of commercial break.
Okay, so some different messages. To manufacturers, with whom Schneider seems to place a lot of the blame, the message is to avoid glutting the market by selling so many units that then they lose their price margin. (That seems good advice.) There’s also a “dance with the one that brung you” attitude here, but that’s probably fair, as well.
To buyers, work with specialists, and please research what you buy so you don’t shoulder retailers and manufacturers with lots of returns. That seems good advice, too.
(Hope I’ve paraphrased that fairly.)
It does seem there’s a looming problem beyond just what’s here, though. For the community to continue to expand, it will have to find more new markets. It does seem some saturation point is inevitable, and that could mean a shakeout of some manufacturers – though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The used market should also be a worry, though on the other hand, some people do always seem to buy new.
I’d echo what the two posts here say, which is the synth maker world will likely be healthy if manufacturers and consumers do some research and support one another.
Before anyone predicts the sky is falling, I’ve had a number of conversations with modular makers. Those with some experience seem to be doing just fine, even if some have expressed concern about the larger market and smaller and newer makers. That is, those with some marketing experience and unique products still see growth – but that growth may not translate to greener manufacturers who are trying to cram into what is becoming a crowded field.
Electronic music is understood by the general public mostly through artists – tech is just something in the background with knobs. But there’s more to the story than that.
And while it’s certainly well known in synth loving circles, Berlin has accordingly been techno capital and club capital, but is finally getting recognition as a mecca for technology.
These two films take you inside one retailer and one manufacturer that have each championed the return to boutique sonic electronics, to patch cables and modular synthesis, and that have resisted anything like mass market mentalities or commodification.
They could have easily been mistaken as throwbacks, but there’s some futurism to the visions of both Mark Verbos and Andreas Schneider. Schneider’s name is associated with Berlin, having established his shop as the hangout, wallet emptier, and community pillar of the synth scene. Verbos, who was himself once a Berlin resident, has only recently brought the modular business he established in New York City across the Atlantic. And even though their wares are unmistakably fetish objects, I’d say both brands make their value proposition through a commitment to adventurous sound. So yes, you get vintage-looking knobs and slightly anachronistic telephone switchboard interfaces. But the investment, their message says, is in exploring strange new worlds and undiscovered sounds.
Schneidersladen, toured by Synth Anatomy, is a clinic and community hub as well as a place to surrender to gear acquisition syndrome. And it retains the same personality and idiosyncracies that mark the larger synth loving scene.
Mapping the Schneider empire is getting tricky these days, but the short version: Schneidersladen in Kreuzberg is the new retail iteration of what was once Schneidersbüro (at Alexanderplatz, the old location)). ALEX4 is a distribution company. Superbooth, while once just an actual booth at the Musikmesse, is now an event series with its own production company.
At Verbos Electronics, Mark – who cut his teeth as a Buchla expert and repairperson – walks through the passion that drives his business in high-end modules. Side note: Mark is also a consummate live techno musician on his own instruments, having fired up these boxes in the likes of Berghain (and, back in the day, the old Ostgut and Tresor). Hearing him play should leave little doubt that these machines are for dancing, not just chin scratching. (You can, of course, attempt doing both at once. Full support.)