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analog synths

On the Kitchen Table

That modular thing, that escalated quickly.

It’s like building a character in a role-playing video game. You distribute endurance, strength, dexterity and such to make the avatar/modular reflect your play style. Some builds will render an East Coast synth voice, while others are suited for a more experimental kind of noise.

My first iteration of modules was based on dedicated, no frills core functionalities, such as Doepfer’s essential modules. It was good to start with the basics. By doing this I was able to test different routings, patch them in how I wanted and learn the signal path.

I did want to build a complete system, made entirely from one manufacturer’s modules. Because part of the beauty with modular is putting together an own rack made of different modules from different places and with different approaches.

From the beginning I decided for a quite small system, a limited case of 6U, 84 HP. But one or a few function per module demands more space, so after a while I began to replace some with functionally dense modules, in other words, I levelled up. Still I didn’t want to go to far; I don’t want a computer-like module that solves everything – I reckon that would be contra-modular.

For the time being, I run sequencer/clock outside of the system. Maybe it’s a little bit cheating, but this way I save space in the case. Anyway, I’m using my Analog Keys, and with it I can drive two separate sequences, process the modular signals through the synth’s filters, envelopes, effects and so on, and trigger my TR-606. And using all four voices of the synth itself at the same time. The Rosie output module has send and return for external effects, so I’ve my BigSky plugged in there. All in all, it’s quite a powerful and portable little setup.

As for the case, I just cut up a cardboard box and gaffered it together to fit the Happy Ending Kit rails. It’s very slim, very light, maybe not so stylish though.

And the housing is really a project. It’s like a doll house that is defragmented, partly from an interior design thinking. Well, I want it to look nice and neat. Then again, most time is spent researching which modules go in and out, based on functionality and compability with the ecosystem.

Nevermind the patch in the picture, I just needed something so sound and didn’t want to clutter the image too much. The photo is from the kitchen table.

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Delayed LFO on Eurorack

Many of the vintage Roland synths – like Jupiter-8, MC-202 and Juno-106 – feature a delayed LFO which could sound like a vibrato that comes in after a while on longer notes.

It’s possible to do this effect with Doepfer A-147-2 VCDLFO, but the module can be a little confusing. So here’s how to do it (involving Make Noise FUNCTION but don’t worry, it’s expandable):

  1. Apply a gate to Signal Input of Make Noise FUNCTION.
  2. Send the EOR (End of Rise) output of FUNCTION to Delay Reset on Doepfer A-147-2.
  3. CV pitch goes in CV (1 V/octave) input of a VCO.
  4. Connect the signal from Out (not Delay Out) of A-147-2 to another CV input, preferably with an attenuator, on VCO. (If the VCO doesn’t have multiple CV inputs, then use a linear mixer.)
  5. Set the Delay knob on A-147-2 between 1 and 2; delay time is actually the wrong way around.

Now I just sold my A-147-2 module. It was nice an full of functionality but it overlapped, and every HP counts. Although, this cool delayed LFO effect, I’m no longer able to patch. I think.

Tips for the monotribe

The Korg monotribe is a desktop analog monophonic synthesizer with an additional three preset drums sounds. Its sound is warm and rich but quite clicky and noisy – although I think I prefer this timbre over the newer volca series. The monotribe was released in 2011 and is now discontinued.

image

How to Silent the VCO When Processing External Audio

The synth has an audio in port to feed external audio into 12 dB/oct lowpass filter (which uses the same circuit as the classic MS-10/MS-20). The crux is that the synth engine must be triggered to run the filter, meaning it’s not possible to process external audio solo (without being modded). But the LFO can modulate the oscillator so that it becomes nearly inaudible. The workaround below is not exactly neat, but should do the trick. On the monotribe, do as follows:

  1. Press PLAY button and then REC.
  2. Set RANGE select switch to WIDE and press the highest key on the RIBBON keyboard during the whole sequence.
  3. Set EG to GATE.
  4. Switch TARGET to VCO.
  5. Set MODE to 1SHOT.
  6. Set WAVE to SQUARE WAVE.
  7. Set LFO RATE knob to minimum speed and INT. to maximum depth.
  8. Select TRIANGLE WAVE on modulation waveform WAVE.

How to CV Control the monotribe with the Analog Keys’ Keyboard

OS version 2.11 allows the SYNC IN connection to be used as a pitch CV/gate input. This makes it possible to control the monotribe with an external keyboard or sequencer (which is great because the ribbon keyboard is almost impossible to play). There are many ways to do this, but the theory is the same: send CV and gate via a TRRS 4-pole mini jack – where gate is tip and CV the second ring.

Now I got an Elektron Analog Keys which can send both tip and ring from the same CV output, but to do that to the monotribe I’d need a special cable (sort of TRS to TRRS) and I haven’t soldered any yet. So until then, I hacked a workable cable with many different pieces I found laying around (e.g. the composite video cable was provided with a TV I acquired last year). Again, you can build this patch cable more streamlined, but here’s my solution:

  1. Connect a composite video cable to SYNC IN on the monotribe and connect a RCA connector, white male to white female and red male to yellow female. On the other end, connect a pair of adaptors, RCA female to mono 3.5 mm mini jack male and then another pair of adaptors, 3.5 mm mini jack female to 6.3 mm jack male and plug white in CV AB and red/yellow in CV CD on Analog Keys.
  2. While this setup only uses the tips, and demands both CV ports on Analog Keys, set CV A to Gate, V-Trig, 5.0 V and CV C to Pitch V/oct, C 3, 1.000 V, C 6, 4.000 V. (CV B and D are not used.)
  3. Download and install System Updater 2.11.
  4. Prepare the monotribe as described in the documentation that came with the download package. Activate CV/GATE mode, set the Pitch CV curve to V/oct and GATE polarity to high.

P.S. It’s also possible to create a feedback loop by feeding the headphone output back into the monotribe’s audio in. This will render a mild thickening, and if you have some kind of attenuator on the feedback signal path, you can dial in some overdrive too.

Minimal Bedroom Studio

As a consequence of scaling down my home studio, I sold two audio interfaces, Apogee Duet for iPad & Mac and Propellerhead Balance, to acquire an Apogee Quartet instead. (Yes I was checking out the newer Element 46 and even if the Element series audio quality and mic pre technology are a step above, the Quartet’s specifications are good enough for me, and more importantly I wanted/needed 8 outputs and a convenient front panel control.)

I decided for a 4-channel audio interface because I didn’t need 20+ hardware synths and drum machines up and running all the time. All that stuff took up too much space and I didn’t really use them. They were connected to a mixer – functioning more or less as a patchbay – and now that mixer is redundant. Remember, limitations drive creativity and all.

With the current setup, I’m able to insert outboard gear, not only to use Minitaur and Mopho as analog instruments, but also as signal processors/external filters. That is, with a little bit of routing in Ableton Live, I can send hardware and softsynths to the Moog ladder and Curtis low-pass filters.

Right now I got three analog monosynths (Minitaur, Mopho and SH-101) connected, and Analog Keys operating as an analog polysynth, master keyboard, sequencer and MIDI to CV converter. I can record all synths mentioned on separate tracks at once.

The plan is to switch gear depending on the project. It’s a clean, minimal setup which seems to suit me.

Recently, most time has been spent tweaking the setup, experiment with the gear, and programming and sound designing on the synths. I haven’t made any real compositions for a while though.

Next up could be a cassette tape recorder (to be able to make some lo-fi tape compression/saturation). And I think I’ll get the Strymon Deco pedal and put it in an effect signal chain.

Downscale for Creativity

At one point I had all gear connected, like this. That’s over 20 hardware synths and drum machines, integrated in a working and sort of intuitive ecosystem. The idea was to be ready and not having to unpack and reconnect shit, which could be time-consuming and kill inspiration in the meanwhile.

But, I tried this setup for a month, and for me it didn’t work that well. Every time I saw the pile of stuff I suffered a little from some kind of performance anxiety, I froze. It was like all this premium gear was looking at me and saying, “we’re just perfect and you got all possibilities in the world man, why can’t you produce better music? You’re not worthy.”

In spite of its purpose, the setup with all gear mounted and routed had become counterproductive. Truth is, I always worked best with constraints, regarding concept or gear, and to some extent, even budget. For me limitations do drive creativity.

Therefore I disassemble the gigantic keyboard stand and everything on it. (Also, I live in a relative small flat and a home studio like this takes more space that I can afford.) I haven’t yet worked out a storage system for all gear, but I think I put (hide) them in some drawers.

The new idea is to only have a master keyboard/MIDI controller, an audio interface, a mixer, a pair of studio monitors connected to a DAW, and then temporarily plug in the hardware I want to use for a certain project. Right now I’m working on three tracks and there are only four synths on my desk: Elektron Analog Keys, Moog Minitaur, Roland SH-101 and Casio CZ-101.

https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/292135058/stream?client_id=3cQaPshpEeLqMsNFAUw1Q?plead=please-dont-download-this-or-our-lawyers-wont-let-us-host-audio

“Hope my haters keep a special place in their heart for me”

Hardware versus Software

Firstly, most listeners wouldn’t care if a piece of music was achieved using real analog gear or virtual analog emulations. And the quality and tone of different sound sources could be so similar that no-one could tell which one is which, at least not in the context of a finished track.

However, which synth is being used does matter for the musician, due to the sound is only one of many equally important factors for the operator.

Different instruments affect creatively and playability. And different purpose-built interfaces inspire different musical ideas and sound designs. For me, it’s just more fun with knobs and switches on a hardware synth. (Also there’s the resale value. Many hardware synths hold their value well, and vintage synths increase over time.)

Options to the Original

A real Roland Jupiter-8 possesses an unmatched tactility, but its sounds could be copied.

For example, Arturia has programmed a recreation of the synth, the Jup-8 V, and while it may sound quite like the original, softsynths by their nature have no physical controls (tweaking sounds and sweeping filters are being done with a mouse, keyborad or with a generic MIDI controller).

One could of course sample the original Jupiter-8, but samples are merely captured snapshots (even when using a round-robin algorithm) and samples may not convey all the nuances of playing the original instrument.

Roland’s own JP-08, a digital hardware synth with lots of controls and a dedicated set of processors that’s using Analog Circuit Behaviour technology to reproduce Jupiter-8’s sounds could be a third option in this case. Now this small device don’t deliver all the actual characteristics of the original hardware, but it has its own right and does step outside the in-the-box-environment.

Analog Hardware

Nowadays, many home and even professional studios are run with a digital setup, combining software and MIDI controllers. And as electronic instruments, there some are benefits of softsynths, like instant recall of settings when loading a project, and not occupying any physical space.

For a long time I used mainly used softsynths and a small MIDI controller, the Oxygen 8, and I was good with that. But I like unruly analog sounds, and analog synths with analog circuitry need to be hardware. While, in terms of digital synths, most things they do are technically feasible with comparable software.

Worth mentioning is that Arturia, that made a name for itself by making faithful software emulations of hardware vintage synths, has manufactured a few solid analog monosynths too since 2012.

What I don’t get is when a software company like Softube release a virtual modular plugin based on Doepfer’s Eurorack standard. The most obvious reason for these modular synths is tactility. The concept (already being done with Reaktor by Native Instruments) and sound of a modular system could of course be imitated, but the physical aspects just don’t translate. One of the main point here is manually signal routing on a physical, expandable and flexible modular grid.

Anyway, I think the sound of analog hardware per se can be comparable, if not equivalent, to software, but sound is not all when making music.

https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/266445111/stream?client_id=3cQaPshpEeLqMsNFAUw1Q?plead=please-dont-download-this-or-our-lawyers-wont-let-us-host-audio

Here’s something.

One Year Today

On this day one year ago I started a group on Facebook called Synth Farm. It’s a place where members post demos of gear (both new and vintage electronic musical instruments) so that other can listen to user-made sound examples, and don’t need to look to the polished promos of marketing campaigns. Maybe some of you guys are interested?

https://www.facebook.com/groups/synthfarm/

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