Modular for dancing: Florian Meindl and Leonard de Leonard

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.

Join the Facebook event to tune into the live stream
Roland + CDM + Florian Meindl + Leonard de Leonard, talking modular synths
Wednesday July 18
7 PM Berlin / 1 PM New York / 10 AM San Francisco / 2 AM Thursday Tokyo

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:

https://soundcloud.com/florian-meindl/sets/mixes-dj-live

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.

To tune in, you can join the Facebook event from Roland:
https://www.facebook.com/events/199047457455896/

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Eurorack’s prices are dropping, as Herr Schneider laments

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:

Jetzt auch XAOC bei Thomann ..

And in an English translation (with more commentary by Schneiderladen in English):

HerrSchneiders statement on current developments in the Eurorack market [stromkult]

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.

Other thoughts? Let us know.

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Go inside Berlin’s synth heaven – and one of its top modular makers

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.)

Check out the online presence of each:

http://www.verboselectronics.com/

https://www.schneidersladen.de/

Photo: Verbos Electronics.

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Erica Synths announces new Drum Series modules

Erica Synths Drum SystemErica Synths has announced that its first drum modules are now available for ordering, including Bass Drum, Snare Drum, Toms, Clap, Mixer & Mixer Lite. The company’s Techno System will be a set of 15 modules put together, as one of the most advanced techno/industrial music performance instruments ever created. The Techno System contains a […]

Oliver Greschke releases iLep modular instrument/effect app for iPad

iLep 02Oliver Greschke has launched iLep, a modular instrument/effect for live-electronic performances. The app features 6 different effects with a 16×16 patch matrix to route audio through different effects, much like in a modular system. The iLEP (Live Electronic Patch) is the result of many years of collaboration between composers and software engineers with the aim […]

Meet the ultimate Scottish Eurorack module, from Expert Sleepers

The UK may be Brexiting, but Expert Sleepers is leaving England and moving to Scotland. And one special-edition module celebrates – and proves how just much one tiny spot in a rack can do.

Expert Sleepers began its life in 2004 (roughly around the same time as CDM, in fact), created by Andrew Ostler. They started in software, but entered Eurorack around 2008.

And now, they’re pairing up with Scottish music and equipment retailer/distributor Rubadub, who have a similar storied history and loyal fans, back to the store’s birth as a record shop in 1994. The distribution partnership was followed this year by the modular maker moving to Scotland. So what better way to celebrate than with a module faceplate emblazoned with a map of the Scottish highlands (as created by artist Andrew Beltran).

The module in question is the latest revision of Disting, a multifunctional module. In just a slim, single 4HP module, you get a ridiculous amount of features – a bit like having 80 modules in one. Here’s a really great walkthrough of the MK4 unit by synth vlogger loopop:

And I really do mean a lot of features. The Disting is an oscillator / envelope generator / modulation source, yes. But it can also be used with audio recording, sample playback, physical modeling, and effects. In short, it has a lot of the multitasking usefulness you associate with a computer, but you get to stay with something you can bolt into a rack and never have to boot and that isn’t constantly asking you for software updates. (Ahem. But yes, if you’re thinking “so this sort of is a computer,” then you’re right – albeit one that packs all this stuff onto a little CPU brain.)

All of that makes the price of £139 a steal… and the salvation of people with limited budgets or limited space in their flight case.

It makes me inspired on behalf of the fine Scottish people, so I’ve composed a poem to honor the occasion, starting with a stanza from their national anthem, yadda yadda beating the English in the 14th Century yadda yadda try to make that fit with current events even though I’m an American and don’t fully know the tune so it probably doesn’t fit:

“O Flower of Scotland,
When will we see
Your like again,
That fought and died for,
Your wee bit Hill and Glen,
And stood against him,
Proud Edward’s Army,
And sent him homeward,
Tae think again.

O in mine studio,
Thy gleaming bolt
That once were bare,
It now is filled up,
With modules fair,
And from yer chip,
that beating heart,
Does modulation
Spew with art

O sleeping experts,
Be Scottish brave!
Give us machinery,
Us bonnie lass and lad do rave!
And what sonic tools
We may now lack
Our wallets and credit lines salute thee,
Ye Eurocrack!”

Sort of lost the rhyme scheme there, but my heart was in it.

Expert Sleepers Disting MK4 Eurorack Module Rubadub Special Edition [rubadub]

Documentation, firmware [Expert Sleepers]

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Trump’s tariffs could be costly for made-in-the-USA music gear

Industries like automative (and motorcycles) may be getting the attention, but music gear and even Eurorack could feel the impact of trade restrictions in the United States.

This is CDM, not the Economist, so let’s back up and review the issue but stick to the impact on makers of synthesizers, guitar pedals, and the like.

First, it’s important to note that for now, this is all talk – a threat by the Trump Administration meant to provoke rival China. Specifically, we’re talking about a the Trump Administration threat last week to impose stiff import tariffs on $200 billion in goods produced in China. But even the talk is relevant, as tensions between the superpowers can turn a threat into reality – especially if they cause the negotiations to fail.

Here’s what’s happened. Early last week, the Trump Administration threatened new tariffs on Chinese goods:
U.S., China Rattle Trade-War Sabers in Vowing Harsh Tariffs [Bloomberg]

Bloomberg immediately speculated that electronics could be hit hard. The result could be higher prices for consumers of those goods in the USA – presumably including some Chinese-made electronic music gear. CDM readers from South America, for instance, can attest to this reality – ask someone from Brazil, for instance, how expensive it is to get a popular music controller or mixer. Those tariffs hit the bottom-line cost of goods, so the penalty is passed on to the consumer, not necessarily the manufacturer (though more on that in a moment).

Then things got more specific – and interesting. The US Trade Representative (USTR) – essentially the office that both develops the President’s trade policy and represents the US on behalf of the Administration – published a list of just which Chinese goods it had in mind.

There’s a lot in that document, if you feel like reading it:
https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/files/Press/Releases/301FRN.pdf

According to the USTR, this exhaustive list of products is selected based on goods that “benefit from Chinese industrial policies, including Made in China 2025.” (That in itself is a pretty striking statement – even in a western country like the USA, it’s hard to imagine that industries don’t benefit from government policies.) Then, from that list, the USTR claim they’ve removed products that would disrupt the US economy.

And then the whole lot of these products gets a proposed 25% increase in tariffs – on top of what’s already there.

The whole process of identifying this list is based on public hearings and comment. So if you’re a US citizen, you can actually participate in a public comment process if these tariffs would impact you.

And then you get into the list. The way the global trading system works is, you have a set of codes that describe specific categories of goods, to an absurd level of detail. Here, you have pages of particular kinds of steel and aluminum and machinery.

But one thing the list has a whole lot of us is electronics components: motors, batteries, but also LEDs, capacitors, diodes, transistors and the like. There are also a whole lot of machines and components used in the manufacture of electronics, from injection molding to electronics assembly.

There are also weird things, like electrical particle accelerators and nuclear power reactors, but we can forget about those.

The bottom line is, a lot of the ingredients of electronics are included under the tariffs, but then a lot of the assembled goods – including, as near as I can tell from this list, musical instruments and music and sound electronics – are excluded. Assembled TVs and (perversely) tape VCRs are taxed. But most other finished goods aren’t.

So if you thought your made-in-China pocket recorder or keyboard would be slapped with a tariff, that’s not what’s happening – not in the proposed list. In fact, it’s the made-in-the-USA gear that winds up getting more expensive, because American makers use components purchased from China.

The tech press has responded accordingly:

Gadget makers are bracing for Trump’s trade war: Trump’s tariffs could spell doom for small hardware startups [The Verge]

But maybe even more interestingly, DIY-focused site Hack-A-Day weighs in:
MAKING ELECTRONICS JUST GOT 25% MORE EXPENSIVE IN THE US

For example:

This will hurt all electronics manufacturers in the United States. For a quick example, I’m working on a project using half a million LEDs. I bought these LEDs (120 reels) two months ago for a few thousand dollars. This was a fantastic buy; half a million of the cheapest LEDs I could find on Mouser would cost seventeen thousand dollars. Sourcing from China saved thousands, and if I were to do this again, I may be hit with a 25% tariff.

(Emphasis mine.)

Potentiometers are included. PCB components.

A 25% increase in parts costs is fairly significant. It’s eating directly into profits. And what’s strange to me is, an easy way to avoid the tariffs would be to assemble the product outside the United States, since for most product categories – as ours are in music – the components are impacted but assembled products are not.

Sourcing from China saved thousands, and if I were to do this again, I may be hit with a 25% tariff.

For now, all of this is hypothetical. And I don’t want to overstate the case here. Trade and economic instability would likely threaten boutique music gear makers far more than these kinds of tariffs. That is, those boutique synth makers might be able to work out a way around the increased tariffs, and/or adjust prices. But if a massive trade war between the US and China erupts and crashes the economy, lost demand for synths would hurt more.

I do think this illustrates two important points, however.

One, even as electronic music offers some respite from politics and headlines, the news will inevitably reach electronic music and gear. You can’t escape the news in the end.

Two, it’s more clear than ever that the world is an interconnected place. DIY music and independent boutique music gear makers have exploded thanks to both the Internet and global trade. That’s included cheap access to prototyping, cheap components and machinery – even for those makers producing in the USA. For other engineers, cheap and expanding Chinese manufacture has allowed people to become manufacturers who otherwise never would have done so.

That’s not to get into the deeper questions of how positive these trends have been, or what impacts they may have had along the way – societal, environmental, human.

But the world of 2018 sees musicians and inventors tied together across borders and distance in ways they never were before. And with that world order shifting fast, those connections are likely to change along with them, in unpredictable ways.

Okay, you’re now free to go apply some unpredictable modulation to an oscillator if all of this made your head hurt.

All comments welcome. (I’ve reached out for comment to some manufacturers; I expect an ongoing conversation here around these issues, especially as we get more news.)

Feature photo (CC-BY Paul Downey.

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Softube Quantizer & Doepfer A-114 Ring Modulator free for Modular users

Softube Modular Quantizer & Doepfer A 114 Ring ModulatorSoftube has introduced two new modules for the Modular plugin that gives you both the sound, flexibility and expandability of a true analog modular synthesizer. With the World Cup continuously delivering excitement (or teeth-grinding disappointment for some), Softube introduces two new players for your Modular Team; the Softube Quantizer and the Doepfer A-114 Ring Modulator. […]

Downtempo & Chill and Modular Sequences at Sample Magic

Sample Magic Downtempo & ChillSample Magic has launched its latest sample pack Downtempo & Chill, a collection of loops and samples, synth presets for Serum, and more. Hazy melodics, eclectic instrumentation, lo-fi aesthetics and chilled out beats form the backbone of Downtempo & Chill: an expansive 1.5GB+ collection subsuming elements of leftfield electronica and beyond. Including an assortment of […]

This free tool could change how you think about sequencers

Context, built in Pure Data, is a free and open source modular sequencer that opens up new ways of thinking about melody, rhythm, and pattern.

Sequencers: we’ve seen, well, a lot of them. There are easy-to-use step sequencers, but they tend to be limited to pretty simple patterns. More sophisticated options go to the other extreme, making you build up patterns from scratch or program your own tools.

The challenge is, how do you employ the simplicity of a step sequencer, but make a wider range of patterns just as accessible?

Context is one clever way of doing that. Building on modular patching of patterns – the very essence of what made Max and Pd useful in the first place – Context lets you combine bits and pieces together to create sequencers around your own ideas. And a whole lot of ideas are possible here, from making very powerful sequencers quick to build, LEGO-style, to allowing open-ended variations to satisfy the whims of more advanced musicians and patchers.

Where this gets interesting in Pd specifically is, you can built little feedback networks, creating simple loopers up to fancy generative or interactive music machines.

It’s all just about sequencing, so if you’re a Pd nut, you can combine this with existing patches, and if not, you can use it to sequence other hardware or software instruments.

At first I thought this would be a simple set of Pd patches or something like that, but it’s really deep. There’s a copious manual, which even holds new users by the hand (including with some first-time issues like the Pd font being the wrong size).

You combine patches graphically, working with structures for timing and pattern. But you can control them not only via the GUI, but also via a text-based command language, or – in the latest release – using hardware. (They’ve got an example set up that works directly with the Novation Launchpad.)

So live coder, live musician, finger drummer, whatever – you’re covered.

There are tons of examples and tutorials, plus videos in addition to the PDF manual. (Even though I personally like reading, that gives you some extra performance examples to check out for musical inspiration!)

Once you build up a structure – as a network of modules with feedback – you can adapt Context to a lot of different work. It could drive the timing of a sample player. It could be a generative music tool. You could use it in live performance, shaping sound as you play. You might even take its timing database and timeline and apply it to something altogether different, like visuals.

But impressively, while you can get to the core of that power if you know Pd, all of this functionality is encapsulated in menus, modules, and commands that mean you can get going right away as a novice.

In fact… I really don’t want to write any more, because I want to go play with this.

Here’s an example of a performance all built up:

And you can go grab this software now, free (GPL v3) — ready to run on your Mac, Windows PC, Linux machine, or Raspberry Pi, etc.:

https://contextsequencer.wordpress.com/documentation/

https://contextsequencer.wordpress.com/

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