This is what was going to be my Best of Jamuary release, but almost all the best stuff was consistent in style: dark, noisy drone “ambient” stuff, full of controlled chaos.
(Since I went so heavy with the Make Noise Strega, I thought… winter month + witch = …hmm, I don’t want to name it after the Snow Queen or White Witch specifically, but how about a spooky yokai? Yes, that works.
Which caused me to read up a bit more on yuki-onna. Apparently there are many different varieties of them and conflicting stories about what (not) to do if you encounter one. If a granny or a woman with a baby or just any visitor comes along, begging for water or shelter, you can’t just leave them in the cold… but maybe make sure they have a hot bath. And dress warm and maybe carry a shovel. Or don’t live near a valley in Japan in winter.)
I’m happy to say that I rearranged my modular case with a relatively simple organizing principle with only a couple of minor fudges to make everything work. This might be a good time for a fresh walkthrough — not of the “what is it?” kind but more how I feel about each module.
Top row: FX, and a little space on either side for further expansion.
Phonogene: its crude lo-fi nature, particularly when slowing parts down, makes it charming. You can grab almost any audio and turn it into some kind of interesting noisy texture with this.
Desmodus Versio: currently shipping to me. Desmodus itself sounds great but I was going to wait for the VST plugin — but the recent addition of Electus and Ruina firmware and the likelihood of even more in the future put this over the “must have” threshold. And I’m pleasantly inclined toward Noise Engineering after interviewing with them and getting a Manis Iteritas again.
Mimeophon: it has great character, works very nicely as a resonator and is very friendly toward modulation. It’s most of what I wanted in the ideal delay module.
FX Aid XL: this is like having a whole bunch more effects plugins, many of which sound great, and with the benefits of no latency and the ability to mess with and modulate the sample rate it runs at.
Beads: an endless abyss of possibilities. I experimented a bit with hardcore granular techniques, but am happiest using it as a way to add space and texture to other voices, or occasionally for its wavetable oscillator.
Rings: yes, I’m counting it as an effect because I use it that way more often than not. It’s a massively parallel set of bandpass filters or tuned delay lines with particular spacing. One of the first modules I owned, and I will use it as long as I use Eurorack at all… unless some other developer picks up the torch and takes modal synthesis to the next level with a true successor to Rings. So far, other developers’ idea of physical modeling is either just a delay, or a “complete” voice with no audio input.
Row 2: the oscillators.
Akemie’s Castle: a serious drone monster, and a ticket to the FM synthesis sounds of the late 80s/early 90s that I love so much.
Manis Iteritas: throbbing sometimes, noisy often, dark at its best, unique. The Smash parameter was the aspect I once liked least, but I’m finding ways to make it work for me. Very glad to have this back in my rack after a 3 year absence.
Odessa: brilliantly different. True additive synthesis, which can be twisted to many purposes. It can sound “very digital” — mostly in a good way! — but if you want to start sonic riots, just detune the partials a bit and feed it through some distortion.
Shapeshifter: it’s not just a complex oscillator, it’s a complex2 oscillator. A huge parameter space to explore, and it can be hard to find your way back to any given point. I suppose that’s why it has a preset system, but I never use that except to let it boot up to a “safe” default setting.
Ensemble Oscillator: I think where people get lost with this one is that the quantizer isn’t for melodic control, but controlling the ratios between its oscillators. It’s sort of a hybrid between additive synthesis and “West Coast” sine-FM-waveshaper territory, and sounds unique and fascinating to me. I often use it for gentler chordal pads at one extreme, or noisy weirdness at the other.
Row 3: mainly modulation.
Mazzatron Mult+PassThru: with a 1HP gap on its left for cables to escape from behind it, this is a super handy way to patch from the modular into my audio interface. Getting it was a good idea.
Maths: you’d have to combine the features of 5 or 6 different function generator modules to get the ideal one for me, but Maths is a pretty solid “close enough.” Usually the first module I turn to for envelopes (looping or not) and sometimes does audio rate duties.
Stages: I probably use it more for basic LFOs than anything else, but occasional simple envelopes or slew, and rarer sequences, S&H, or more complex envelopes and hybrid modulation. I would probably be 95% fine with Zadar instead, but I don’t feel compelled to make that change.
O’Tool+: (with Shades and P-075, I put these utilities on this row instead of the bottom to make them more physically central.) Super useful for learning new modules or figuring out new techniques, checking levels, tuning and calibration, and generally knowing what’s going on. SCIENCE!
Shades: my favorite of the simpler scale/invert/offset modules, it has a good feel and is very precisely 1.000000x gain at max knob level.
Ladik P-075: simple but clever, with both latched and momentary switches for mutes. Or with Shades, sudden transitions from 0V to some other level, which is great for transposing drones.
Clep Diaz: musical and smart. I don’t have a lot of experience with it yet, but I like what it’s done for me so far!
Kermit mk2: easy to use, flexible wavetable LFO which also sounds gorgeous at audio rates.
Marbles: the module that changed my mind about random sources, mostly because it’s so good at taming randomness. And more quantizers should be as musical as the one in this, prioritizing notes by their consonance.
Teletype: anything Pam’s New Workout can do, Teletype can do better. And also a lot of other things that you might want to do with gate or CV processing or generation. As a full-time software developer, I find its simple scripting language to be refreshingly simple — but I recognize a lot of people just won’t want to interact with modules in this way, and that’s okay.
TXb: just a doodad to let Teletype query the Sweet Sixteen’s fader values. If I need to free up exactly 1HP of space in the future I could “hide” it inside the case and leave a gap instead.
Bottom/front row: utilities + misc.
ES-3 (and hidden ES-6, thanks to the Mult+PassThru): channels of communication with the DAW. I use it for audio much more than CV. I can’t imagine going back to only having the analog audio inputs now.
Gozinta: rarely needed, but sometimes I do want to boost a signal a lot.
CVilization: as a basic matrix mixer it’s dead simple to use. Getting into the more advanced possibilities requires looking at a cheat sheet, but it’s not a bad experience. This is a tool I definitely don’t need in every patch, but can do some clever things and once in a while it really justifies itself.
Natural Gate: I don’t use it as much since getting more into drones, but it is gorgeous. Demand vs. supply is so skewed that I could easily resell it for almost 3x what I paid for it new, but I would probably regret it immediately if I did.
MSCL: good for when I want a signal to be hotter, but not too hot — protecting inputs that tend to clip in unpleasant ways for instance, or keeping feedback loops right on the edge without exploding.
Tallin: still a favorite VCA thanks to its distortion options, and compact size without feeling cramped.
Drezno (and space reserved for Jena): amazing as a waveshaper and noisifier. Very good as a pattern extractor/maker/mangler.
FM Aid: not often used for its stated purpose, but as a variation on a wavefolder. I have a lot of FM stuff already, but once in a while it’s good to mix things up or do the impossible.
Blinds: like a super-Shades, but also a ring modulator/crossfader. I should have had one earlier in my modular journey.
Ana: multiple ways of taking two signals (or one signal and a reference level) and doing something to them makes for some fine waveshaping possibilities and alternatives to FM.
Portal: this should really be in the FX row I suppose, but I’ve used it to generate impulses and noise to drive other things. When I got it I was worried it would be harsh and not very commonly useful, but it can be tamed and put to good use.
Planar: there is no more fun way to crossfade between sounds, or tweak a couple of parameters together, or both at the same time.
Bonus level: the Pod60
Blades: overall favorite (dual!) filter ever, due to its considerable versatility. I like my filters to be more than filters, and this has a heavy drive or wavefolding stage, can act as an analog complex oscillator with phase modulation, etc.
Angle Grinder: another example of versatility, as an oscillator it can sound remarkably wavetable-like thanks to its “grind” section. It can be really stable or chaotic and weird depending on how you dial it in. And the highpass just sounds really great to me for some reason.
Sweet Sixteen: the control center for my recording sessions, I have it handling mix levels in the DAW, effects amounts and parameters in both hardware and software, custom/quantized pitches in Teletype, and simple attenuator duty all at once.
Mutable Instruments Blades (along with a magnet that’s the front half of a wooden deer, very cute) arrived on Saturday.
Using words to describe the subtleties of sound is kind of a hopeless prospect, and people certainly have their own preferences in filter characteristics just like they prefer different seasonings. There are certain filters whose resonance I really don’t like in anything other than a very small amount, for instance, Korg MS-20 style filters or typical squeaky TB-303 stuff. Some people really hate Steiner-Parker filters, especially Arturia’s “Brute” versions (and those people are wrong.)
To me, when using a single one of Blades’ filters, the words that come to mind are clean, tidy, stable, pleasant. But it’s not boring, partially because of the continuous sweep available on filter modes, so you can tailor the shape to the material. It doesn’t have the “ripping” sound of Ripples under fast modulation, it doesn’t sound like it always has some resonance like Three Sisters, it’s not as sweet and organic as VCFQ. Just considering the sound of a single filter, without the drive — it’s pretty solid, maybe 8.5 out of 10 overall? I sure wouldn’t complain about a synth that had it as its only filter.
But it DOES have that pre-drive/wavefolding stage and it’s got two filters. When you use them together, in parallel or serial or some hybrid, and/or with one modulating the other, it really opens up possibilities. You can get a kind of “shiny” sound with an extra peak, or you can drive it hard serially and get really mean and nasty. This, I believe, is why it’s described as a dual filter rather than a stereo one (though of course it can be used in stereo quite easily).
It pings better than some filters, but not quite as well as VCFQ, or a Hordijk Twin Peak. On the other hand, it resonates very easily too… and it makes for a fantastic complex oscillator.
It has accurate 1V/OCT tracking, and a “shift” button that lets the second filter follow the first with an offset. And crucially, it can do phase modulation, as the three filter modes (lowpass, bandpass, highpass) are shifted 90 degrees relative to each other. Crossfading smoothly between them results in a smooth phase shift (and a minor variation in amplitude). So one can do audio-rate, dynamic phase modulation, with a strikingly different character than Yamaha DX synths. It is also capable of exponential FM too, of course.
There are some downsides to using it this way. None of them are insurmountable, and some present opportities:
There are no fine tuning knobs. The range of possible offsets for the second filter makes it tricky to tune to the first exactly. (Workaround: use a DC offset into the second frequency input for finer control.)
The relative tuning is not necessarily perfectly stable, and it doesn’t have sync or an automatic ratio lock like some digital complex oscillators. (But you can blend in some of the first filter’s output into the second filter, and it sort of “entrains” into place… not something a more conventional complex oscillator can do!)
Since the drive stages come before the filters, you can’t simultaneously use the second filter to modulate the first and then wavefold the result all within Blades. But that’s what other modules are for… and you can do some waveshaping via feedback in ways a conventional oscillator can’t (though some of them will affect the tuning).
You do need an external VCA to control the modulation depth. Not a problem.
The output is loud, phase modulation increases that level, and it’s enough to clip my ES-6. But I have several ways of dealing with that.
So overall, this is now my favorite filter module!
Last night I “buried” the Expert Sleepers ES-6 inside my case, but it’s connected through the Mazzatron Mult+Passthru — so now all of the inputs to my audio interface are on one module, I renumbered them to match, and it gained me 4 more HP.
And then this morning I was decisive for once, and bought a Doepfer A-110-4 Quadrature Thru-Zero VCO, and a York Modular rHPF to go with it (since the FM input is DC-coupled). That fills up the remaining space in my case.
And I’m declaring it “done.” My plan is this:
Sell/trade no music gear until at least May 1.
Sell/trade a maximum of 3 Eurorack modules throughout 2021.
Buy only what can fit; no more/larger cases or putting stuff in storage to make room.
Don’t buy any non-Eurorack hardware synths or effects.
I’m allowed to sell (but not replace with other gear) the DAFM or Purple Rain if I feel like I’m just not using them at all (this seems unlikely.)
Exceptions: beta testing, equipment failure/replacement, unambiguous version upgrade. (Also unlikely.)
Buying software is okay but I should really consider whether I need it (and I probably don’t)
Overall, I want to move away from thinking about what I should get next, what I can sell to make space for it, and so on. I’ve gone through a lot of hardware since 2016, and… yeah it was fun exploring all of that stuff, but it’s time to break that habit.
It didn’t get in the way of my music-making, but it is kind of a drag on my confidence — almost a kind of constant second-guessing, and a lot of personal energy expenditure. That quote about “commodity fetishism” and “agential inversion of musician and instrument” really struck deep.
I have explored pretty much everything in the modular domain that really interests me. To practice some of it I need to use software rather than hardware, but I’m okay with that. I really like where my setup is now, the music I’m making with it and the inspiration and possibilities it offers, and I don’t need to keep shuffling my deck just because there are other cards out there in the world.
Perhaps once the incoming stuff settles, and more likely after the final Mutable Instruments module (which, yes, I’ve been beta testing) is revealed, I’ll go over all the bits and how I’m using them.