Talking About Modular Synthesis
Updated: Sep 18, 2021
This week I talk about my first modular Synthesizer I built over a long period of time. Bellow is a video which expresses not only the sounds, but also a few key points I felt needed to be addressed if you are interested in modular synthesis. I also address in a way what took me so long to not only purchase, but also buy the components which make up my first modular synthesizer.
To simply put for those who would like to read where this journey even started. We should start about three to four years ago when I first learned about modular synthesis. My personal synthesis journey started with a analog/digital synthesizer which in hind sight I wish I could have started with a different machine to learn from. However, by learning how to create sounds off my first synthesizer, it has not only made other synthesizer easier to jump into, but also launch into modular synthesis.
Modular Synthesis is just what's in the name of it. Every piece of your synth will be what YOU want to get out of it. Thus by piecing everything together and making every component talk to one another, hopefully the output is something musical. At least this is the goal after all; to have a music easel which can create amazing sonic tones with simplicity. However, before we even start buying parts, the first step is to have a plan. I cannot stress this enough because to invest and build into a modular synthesizer is like diving into a deep pool. Instead of just blindly going about it and hopefully building a synthesizer correctly I decided to take to what the professionals had made already by replicating them via modular synths. I thought it would be easier to try and make a synth based off of East coast synth pioneer Robert Moog's miniMoog. However, thankfully Behringer has such a semi-modular synth called the Model D which does nearly the same thing! It's not the exact same machine, however, it is in heart and soul the same machine. Also, at the time I had not experienced modular synthesis, this machine was (is) my gateway into thinking about the process. What parts do you think I need to make my own personal synth?
Then I began learning about another pioneer named Don Buchla. For those who do not know, he is an engineer and professor from UC Berkley. He created his own style of synthesizers which he wanted to be known as actual music instruments, and not just some computer. With the help of many artists like the Diode Diva, Suzanne Ciani, these synths became popular in the music world. I realized there had to be some way the parts which make the Buchla Easel had to be readily available in some way. Unfortunately this was not the case, however, as a frugal electronic artist I kept an eye out just in case. Then pandemic days came and I was spending hours surfing the web to find Arturia released a software synth which expanded the technology of the Buchla Easel and because of this, and hours of experimenting on the software, it finally lit an old idea to find parts which could make my own personal Buchla Easel. Not to say the Buchla Easel V wasn't fun. However, there's a tactile feeling of working on a musical machine with flipping a switch, twisting a dial, plugging in a cord or two. This re-lit the idea of creating a modular easel again.
The plan: Build a Buchla Easel with modules for my own personal synthesizer keeping the parts within a reasonable budget based on availability. Without these two parts of the plan can we imagine how much I could have spent vise actually trying to find a Buchla Easel for sale? For example the price of an oscillator alone is pin wheel eye spinning. Though I've heard many people say, "Any Oscillator will do..." I say this is a falsehood.
The Modular Community: It goes without saying a lot of people around the world are very helpful with new artists. Even people who have worked on non modular synths for a long time and finally jumping into modular. However, the market is saturated with so many possibilities, types and manufacturers. After about an hour of shopping for oscillators I honestly couldn't make a honest choice which machine I would want. Furthermore, there's so many videos on YouTube of what people use, which kinda helped before I made any purchases.
Parts List: The obvious list after considerable hours watching youtube and learning about the basics of modular synthesis means a little more planning was involved. I'm personally not an electrician, so now I'm not only filling the 'performer' role, but now the personal engineer role to make this machine come to life.
The first of many purchases over a long period of time was a case to pretty much place the pieces needed to be snug whilst I patch those pieces together and make whatever sounds I desire. There's quite a lot of cases in the world to buy and so I settled with the most affordable case I could find. The added bonus of the case I purchased was two fold. First it also came with two modules I required along with it. However, shortly after I swapped one of them out for two separate modules. At the end of the day most importantly I needed a case which had the exactitude of dimensions which can hold the modules. Specifically with the case I personally selected, I also had the added restraint to also understand I only had ten modules I can install. Again, limitations....
Talking about the components of a Buchla Easel... If looking at a Buchla Easel (the photo below) wasn't crazy enough with all the colours and switches and sliders, as well as endless possible patch points. It is easy to feel a little excited to just dive in. However, what are the components of a Buchla Easel?
From left to right a Buchla already gets a bit bonkers to look at because of the idea of a five step sequencer, or a piece of the machine which moves the tonality up and down in musical scale. Most synths are even stepped where as the Buchla Easel, though it allows 4 step and less, is already causing artists and musicians to think outside of the box. Because of this, it became apparent in heart of the machine I am emulating would require something of a sequencer in the same vein. Unfortunately a strictly five step sequencer is hard to run into, however there are back door clocks which can reset and jump a step to emulate a fifth step in a four step sequence much like a syncopation. It is not the same, however, it is clever and nearly what I am looking for, and already I had known from the get-go I lost the goal of creating a Buchla Easel for myself when realizing "limitations" reared it's ugly face to me. And we've only been talking about one module.
When thinking about the other components, just to list a few, a Random Voltage Generator, Attack/Decay/Sustain/Release (ADSR), Complex Oscillators, Wave-folder, Low Pass Gate and Reverb. It has quickly become a realization the amount of space vice what the components on a modular will fill in regard to how it is presented on a Buchla Easel is night and day. Where a Random Voltage Generator is just a small square with four outputs spread throughout the Easel, I only have one output, however, thanks to splitter cords I can send out multiple signals.
Execution: Whilst I already stated above the goal of creating a modular Buchla Easel was already not going to be achievable. Also I had realized the 'limitations' were just about to amp up even more. What I decided to accomplish was the following.
Cre8audio's "Chipz" is my two in one module for the following parts. 1. A sequencer which can be triggered by a Low Frequency Oscillator (LFO) or by a Random Voltage Generator. Pretty much something which can send a signal to say, "MOVE!" 2. Whilst looking at Chipz we also can change the 'tone' of each step as well as take a different approach and use the touch plates just like the Buchla Easel's keyboard which is typically a separate piece in Buchla-Land.
Dreadbox released not too long ago the Chromatic series. Brilliantly built in a Buchla like style with the 'sliders,' I immediately gravitated to the Ataxia module because I could control each Oscillator with separate Attack, Decays, Sustain and Release (ADSR). From here I felt I already optimized the Buchla Easel in a way by hi-jacking what the Complex Oscillator is doing as well as the Modulation Oscillator. Instead of both of them being slaved by the same ADSR on my music easel at least I had this option to play with.
TWO59 Voltage Control Oscillator (VCO): ***or any oscillator based on complex oscillator technology*** Though the Buchla has two Complex Oscillators, we must break it down by two parts. The first is the Complex Oscillator in the RED zone. This Oscillator is simply a wave folded sine wave with the option of a combination of a Triangle, Saw, or Square wave added to it. This is what 'complex's' the Buchla sound. The other Oscillator is quite simply the same set up, but modulating the Oscillator spoken before.
When thinking about modular synthesis the original Oscillator I received was cute for the building phase to see if everything worked. However, upon reflection it would not live up or two the specifications I required. Which is okay, sometimes those deals are made.
Wave folding: This is a module which is all on it's own in modular land. Thankfully the module I found not only had wave folding, but also what is called ring modulation. When it comes to the Buchla Easel this is like switching between the Bal. Ext. setting and allowing the Modulation Oscillator switch to Frequency Modulation with a switch. For myself this action is done with a plug into one or two modules between that of the Oscillator or the Wave folder.
When thinking of wave folding, we can think of it as if it was a 'filter' but not really filtering. Instead it's like asking yourself, how many times can I pinch the peaks and valleys of a sine wave? The sound is then like a white light going through a prism and showing a strip of colours on the wall. We the artists get to pick how many cuts or facets are in the prism to produce how many colours are seen on the wall. If one is to ruminate on this idea of what wave folding is, it become easier to understand unlike East coast synthesis which is filtering a range of the tone to be heard. West coast synthesis doesn't choose to dilute the tone.
Low Pass Gates: In the world of modular synthesis the saying, "You can never have enough VCA's" is strong! There is water in the bucket when considering this. At first, I was skeptical because I did not want to get into the weeds of modular synthesis. Then I realized how versatile the Low Pass Gate was to opening and closing the tone of the synth I was building. Again with limitations abreast, the Buchla Easel is internally routed to some degree too. Especially with the Complex Oscillator and the Dual Low Pass Gate. Also, furthermore, I can only afford to have one Low Pass Gate and having two would be too much for the grand total piece of modules I can have.
Why get a Voltage Control Amplifier (VCA) then? Well, the Low Pass Gate kind of has a dull and bright tonality which is, again, that "Buchla sound." Where the VCA comes in is just allowing the tones and Control Voltage (CV) to combine and output as a pure sample of tone rather than have the Low Pass Gate also add it's 'quality' to it.
We can already see with only talking about five separate parts of a Buchla Easel and the modules I purchased as well, it is quite a feet to even try to replicate something "Buchla-like." However, this is the fun of modular synthesis. Even if it wasn't replicating the Buchla Easel, a modular synth which happened to produce 'any sound' would have been grand to achieve in life. Which is the joy of making music.
At the end of the day, and hours of creating sonic tones and bleeps and bloops, I am satisfied with the experiment and journey of creating my first modular synthesizer. I reaffirmed my confidence as a musician. I learned how patience, and the process of creating a musical computer with a dedicated goal and purpose helped strategically create an easel-like machine I think even Don Buchla would have appreciated.
I hope you enjoyed the video and the simple patch I routed to create a simple set of tones. There will be plenty of other tones you will hear in the mere future on the PostOmnis album Turn to Stone. I'd like to hear what you think about not only my modular synth in regard to the Buchla Easel, but also, what pieces would you have picked?
Till next time.