sound computer

So the ER-301 is pretty brilliant. It arrived Thursday, ahead of the estimated arrival, and I’ve spent several hours learning to navigate it, building up a few custom units (such as a complex oscillator and a wavefolder), experimenting with its delays and loopers and feedback and so on.

It’s essentially a software modular system (where the modules are “units” which form “chains”) inside of a hardware modular system. With four audio outputs and 20 audio or CV inputs, as well as accepting up to 100 simultaneous control values and triggers from the Monome Teletype over an i2c connection behind the panel, it has plenty of ability to integrate with everything else.

It’ll happily do some things I can’t achieve otherwise. It’ll do other things more simply, or with much greater flexibility and control, than equivalent modules, or in parallel with them. There are some things it can do but with less hands-on-instrument-feel than equivalent modules — some of which will be improved by the Faderbank (likely arriving today or tomorrow), and some are probably best left to other modules.

It does have some limitations:

  • It’s got a learning curve — several of them, in fact — and documentation is incomplete and sketchy. There are some excellent tutorial videos, a helpful forum, and a somewhat helpful wiki, but the purpose and applications of some of units are still kind of a mystery. I would never recommend this module to anyone inexperienced in modular synthesis, nor anyone without a really solid handle on theory, or who is even a little bit uncomfortable with computers.
  • It’s not good at reverb. It has a Freeverb unit, which honestly sounds pretty bad for most usage. It also has an Exact Convolution unit which has a high CPU load, a practical limit of about half a second, and no controls. Theoretically I could build a reverb from the existing units, but that’s expert-level DSP, and trying to work out a feedback delay network (FDN) from trial and effort is probably not a good use for my effort when I can use excellent pedals or software plugins. (For more experimental reverb within the modular context, I plan to pick up a Make Noise Erbe-Verb later on.)
  • While I know I need to explore its sample slicing capabilities a bit more, it really doesn’t seem as easy as Maschine’s or as precise as Sound Forge. But it’s adequate to certain uses for the feature, and for everything else, I can transfer to the computer via SD card.
  • One of the most fundamental utility units, the Mixer Channel, really could use a variant that just takes an input from leftward on the chain instead of an assigned input. I should be able to build that myself if I learn just a little Lua.

Overall, it’s incredible. I went ahead and put my Hertz Donut and Chronoblob up for sale, confident in their replacement. I’ll keep the Kermit at least for now, because I’ve been unable to identify what makes its character with complete confidence, and my attempts to replicate it have been… interesting and useful but not close. Kind of like the story of Post-It Notes being invented by a chemist trying for a strong adhesive.

Last weekend I also sold the last of the previous batch of modules, and ordered the Volca Modular — the wee, mad, fierce, Nac Mac Feegle of synthesizers. I’ll wait to sell more stuff before grabbing the Erbe-Verb or anything else, keeping up with my goal of offsetting gear purchases with sales.

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