If you caught our eurorack introduction and have the bug to start embarking on your own system, then you’re in the right place. If you didn’t, I do highly recommend reading it, as some of the terminology in this will be more properly explained in the first part. However, this is for beginners, so I’ll do my best to be as plain-speaking as possible too.
You may remember a casual reference to the east vs west coast synthesis philosophies. This time around, we’re going to be looking at the east coast, which started out with Bob Moog in (unsurprisingly) the east coast of america.
Without too much of a history lesson, the primary purpose of Dr Moog was to create modular systems for musicians. To be fair to him, modular systems were the first kind of synthesisers, the ‘all-in-one’, hardwired counterpart wouldn’t really be invented for a few years. But, importantly, his focus was on making the machines musical.
This is what east coast synthesis really is; it’s what you might expect if you picked up your average run-of-the-mill analog synthesiser; a couple of oscillators, a filter, some modulation sources. It’s also worth having a read of this subtractive synthesis guide, as a lot of the terms used in this article.
When we have a look at east coast’s estranged evil cousin west coast synthesis, these concepts still broadly apply, but are more esoteric and concentrated on sonic manipulation, rather than sounding like Tangerine Dream.
East is East
This type of synthesis is perfect for beginners, because not only is it probably the most similar to synths you’ve used within your DAW before, but it can generally produce quite pleasing sounds.
I was to reaffirm a few things about modular synthesis too before moving on, they tend not to handle polyphony well (it’s possible but costly) and they tend not to do stereo top well (there are stereo units but most modules are mono).
So, what are you going to need to get this thing going? Obviously some sort of tone generation in the form of an oscillator or two and white noise, some way to mix the balance of these, a filter, VCAs and envelopes…. that’s it really!
I want to keep this guide as compact as possible, so I’m going to avoid listing every possibility for each module, this is just a starting point. Let’s assume you’ve got your case and power supply fully up and running, you’ve stocked up on patch cables and are itching to make some krautrock…
A good place to start is some modules that actually make a sound. There’s many examples on the market, with nearly every eurorack manufacturer producing one, but as this is an east coast article, I’m going to avoid stuff like the DPO or The Richter Oscillator.
Let’s start off with one of the grandfathers of euro; Doepfer. Their A-110-1 Standard Oscillator was my first sound source, and it’s served me well. Featuring separate outputs for sine, triangle, square and sawtooth waves and a handy ‘sync’ input allowing phase restart of the oscillator (for more complex sound or just fattening up basslines).
It also has two CV inputs, one with an attenuator, the other assumingly for 1 volt/oct input. The 10HP width and lack of flexibility with the tuning knob lets it down slightly (mine ranges about four semitones) but it’s staple in many people’s rigs. They do offer more complex synth voices but for just over £100 / $150 it’s a bargain.
Continuing with the budget end of the market, Pittsburgh Modular’s imaginatively named ‘Oscillator V2’ is our next stop. A whole 4HP narrow than the Doepfer and offering three of the same outputs (no sine wave). Some complain Pittsburgh Modular has a little bit of bleed, but if you can deal with that this is another great option. Retails at around £130 / $199.
Lastly, Intellijel’s Dixie II is another 6HP module, doubling up as an LFO too. Like the previous three examples, linear FM and pulse width modulation are available, and we’ve got some extra oscillator outputs too; what Intellijel calls a zigzag wave. Intellijel are known for cramming a lot into a small space, and that’s what they’ve done here. At £150 / $ 220 it’s the most expensive of the lot, but easily the most flexible.
We’re all of the edge of our seats too waiting for Roland’s continued venture in eurorack, as the System-500 release too. They’ll offer modules that could slot into nearly all of the following sections, but as at the time of writing this they’re unavailable it wouldn’t be fair to include them proper.
Filter Types and Clones
There is probably hundreds of filter clones for eurorack, and this is really one of the beauties of the format. Doepfer alone offers clones of the Roland TB-303, EDP Wasp, Oberheim SEM, Korg MS-20, Korg Polysix, Mono/Poly, PPG Wave and Emu SP-1200, and of course the famed Moog 24dB/oct Ladder (I’ve not even listed them all!).
Euro obsessive and all-round good egg Mylar Melodies has made a fantastic video for Future Music on filter clones too, definitely well worth a watch (make sure you’re wearing headphones or listening through decent speakers!)
Other manufactures fill in all the gaps. I would seriously suggest having a read of this post about filter clones on MuffWiggler to see if your favourite filter has been reincarnated into euro.
Weather it’s short snappy arpeggios or long evolving string swells, you’ll need an envelope or three or as a modulation source on your modular. While there are more complex envelopes on the market like MATHS and intellijel’s Quadra, a simple east coast system might not require this level of control.
Pictures above are three of my favourite envelopes, the Frequency Central System X Envelope, a Doepfer A-140 and the intellijel Dual ADSR. The latter two have retrigger functions, great for triggered sequences. The Dual ADSR also has the two envelopes normalled together, meaning less need for multiples or stacked cables.
Envelopes can be engaged by gates, clock generators, trigger sequencers, LFOs, trigger sequencers, logic modules and even other envelopes, so there’s a plethora of potential for them. It’s certainly worth having at least one or two in your system.
You can never have too many VCAs. VCA stands for voltage controlled amplifier, and they’re essential to having some sort of control over your patch’s volume. Traditionally controlled by a gate triggered envelope or modulated by an LFO in a tremolo styled patch, having one or two of these is key to any rig.
If you want to push the boat out a little more there’s a west coast option form Make Noise with their modDemix which also offers ring modulation, mixing, polarization, and attenuation!
The other main type of modulation is an LFO, standing for low frequency oscillator. LFOs can facilitate vibrato, wub-wub-like filter modulation, tremolo and even pseudo ring modulation when running at audio-rate and R2D2 bleeps and bloops.
When looking out for an LFO you might want to consider what waveforms you’re likely to need – normally the more on offer the better, weather or not it can have its phase restarted (useful if you want to try and sync the rate), and rate CV potential.
The MFB Dual LFO (below), like the name suggests, offers two independent LFOs with CV-able rate. LFO 1 has a ramp, triangle and square waves, LFO 2 has ramp up, triangle and sample & hold. It’s quite cheap so a good place to start for smaller systems.
Some other useful options are the aforementioned Dixie II, which is a VCO/LFO, as is the Pittsburgh Modular Oscillator 2. For more extra flexibility, something like the brightly coloured Harvestman’s Polivoks Modulator can handle LFO duties as well as having a noise source, sample & hold and pseudo random CV capabilities.
MIDI to CV
There’s a good chance you might want to hook your modular up to your laptop or keyboard and play in popcorn or whatever. As a keyboard player (albeit a bad one) I always wanted to utilise the capabilities of my chopsticks skills with my modular.
Years before I’d bought an analog synth (a Teisco 60f) but was disappointed at the range of the keyboard and the contacts underneath some keys were… rusty, to say the least. So I purchased a Kenton Solo MIDI to CV converter.
Naturally when I moved to modular, I sought out this same module in euro format. At 10 HP and 80mm deep (therefore not skiff friendly) it might put some off. There’s options from most of the main euro manufacturers, so be sure to check Modular Grid or similar.
Sequencer and Quantizers
Not only is sequencing a modular an absolutely classic sound, but it’s a fantastic way to inspire ideas that you wouldn’t come up with drawing notes in or playing fragmented scales and arpeggios.
The Xaoc Devices Moskwa seems to be very popular for it’s added features and if you want to go all out be sure to check the TipTop Audio Z8000 or intellijel Metropolis – be warned these are wide modules (28 and 34 HP respectively).
Quantizers are a mandatory unit if you want to use sequencers to control an oscillators pitch. Without them tuning your sequencers is near impossible (not entirely impossible, but far too time consuming).
Popular quantizers on the market are the Doepfer Dual Quantizer, intellijel µScale II, Toppobrillo Quantimator and newcomers Sonic Potions with their Penrose. Worthy mentions go to the multi-talented Expert Sleepers Disting (which does about sixteen different functions!) and the exotic ADDAC2 07 Intuitive Quantizer. If you didn’t fully understand the concept or just need more convincing, here’s the µScale in action – sounds heavenly!