Recently a I completed a sample pack for Sample Magic with a good friend of mine titled Modular Electro. Readers of this blog know I am keen modular synth collector and I was in my element with this pack. In this article I want to take a quick look in some detail at some of the production techniques that went into it. You can buy the pack here.
Combining the best of modular-sourced sounds and sequences with the dark, dirty sound of modern electro, Modular Electro is a boundary-breaking collection combining elements of eclectic techno and electronica. Dive into over 900MB+ of quirky squelching sequences, retro-inspired drums, full fat basses and more. With loops tempo-synced and key-labelled at 125 and 130bpm plus a large selection of custom kits and one-shots, instant genre-defining electro inspiration is just a few clicks away…
Here are some of the demos from the pack:
Sample Magic Modular Electro
Here’s some of what I had to say on the pack’s conception and development:
“As with all of our packs, we began developing our ideas with several artistic references ranging from Simian Mobile Disco, Tiga to Boys Noize. Stylistically this collection covered some elements of electro, techno, and nu-disco as well as electroclash and tech house. There are moments of bleak minimalism with just booming 808s and sparse reverb and elsewhere moments packed full of distorted synth leads, chunky arpeggios and over compressed snare drums.”
“At the heart of the modular is the MIDI to CV interfaces as well as several sequencers and clock generators that interpret triggers from Logic and Ableton and spit them out in a musical way. Pseudo-random sequencers like the Turing Machine can be tamed by looping short CV phrases and coupling them with pitch quantizers allows their output to be used in a more musical context.”
“For oscillator choices, we opted for a mixture of classic subtractive waveforms with some more brutal digital offerings like FM and wavetable. Most of these can either be run at audio rate or at sub-sonic frequencies creating perfect modulation sources for filters, pitch or volume. There was a plethora of distortion, overdrive, and fuzz pedals along with other gain sources used to process synths, drum machines, and FX.”
“The Pulsemonger Mk1 uses variable duty cycle pulse waves to modulate incoming audio signals. It has built-in LFOs but also CV inputs allowing for modular sequences to vary the pulse width in time with your DAW. Additionally, the Supersonic Fuzz Gun made a return for this pack; a classic gated fuzz that clamps down on the audio signal as soon as an input drops below the threshold, leaving you with bitterly clipped and chopped signals, perfect on drums and arpeggios.”
Below are some tips I wrote for the .pdf booklet. I’ve expanded on each stage for this blog, including some images and audio.
There are numerous ways to achieve distortion and depending on where in the signal path, you clip a signal introducing different harmonics and artefacts. In a typical modular synthesis patch the oscillator(s) can be clipped via the filter’s input attenuator, at the VCA stage or even with a line mixer before the signal hits your AD converters.
The below rack is a quick mockup of a single voice synth that can be distorted in various places. Both oscillators (the MiniMod and Cwejman) can be clipped into the 4-channel mixer and have the 2HP Noise module modulate their pulse width or frequency, causing chaotic timbres.
The μFold is a distortion that rather than clipping waveforms, inverts their phase as they approach the ceiling – this creates phase modulation-like tones. The two filters I’ve selected (the Wasp and Plague Bearer) are both known for their unique distorted resonances. Also both have input level attenuators, allowing for extra gain.
Lastly we have a Roland-style VCA, WMD pre-amp and 1 watt speaker. Each will have an optimal level of operation, so cranking the input level beyond that will introduce all sorts of gritty harmonics and overtones.
Similarly, modulars aren’t just for processing oscillators – running your favourite soft synths into your system can achieve some interesting results. Send a copy of the MIDI out to a MIDI to CV converter, so you can trigger envelopes with your audio signal. Note that modulars don’t handle polyphonic signal or stereo information that well.
For this you’ll need a soundcard that has multiple outputs (there are some work arounds using headphone outputs but it’s a bit fiddly and monitoring can become an issue). Route your synth of choice out of an external output. In Logic/Live you can do this straight out the channels trip or use the dedicated external device plug-ins.
Your soundcard will spit the audio out at line level, which can be a little quiet for eurorack, so ensure you have a something that can add some gain to it like a modular pre-amp or similar. Additionally running into mono is going to give you better results.
Next, route the MIDI from your DAW out to a MIDI to CV unit (such as a Kenton Solo) and output the gate to an envelope or two. Then you can patch as if you had modular oscillators, but using Massive, Serum, FM8 or whatever your synth of choice is with the addition of analog VCFs and asynchronous LFOs and modular sequencers to breathe some life into your sounds.
Logic’s Space Designer as well as a plethora of other convolution reverbs don’t just offer emulations of a vasty array of spaces but work as a neat EQ device too. You can download numerous convolution responses of classic amps, analog desks, guitar pedals and even circuit bent instruments. This can radically change the timbral qualities of your sound.
In Logic’s Space Designer, head to the Warped Effects folder. There, the Speakers and Analog Circuits contain a wide variety of interesting impulse responses perfect for changing the timbral characteristics of your sounds.
Here’s an example loop, first dry:
Warped Effects > Speakers > Amp Cabinet 1
Warped Effects > Speakers > Mini Cassette
Warped Effects > Analog Circuits > LFO Band Pass Filter
Warped Effects >Analog Circuits > Vintage Fuzz Pedal 1
Layering Drum Sounds
Often ordinary drum machines can be beefed up with layering with atypical sounds or even oscillator tones. Kick drums in particular can benefit from a low-tuned sine wave (somewhere from 45-60 Hz). Simply add an amplitude and pitch envelope to give it the right shape and snap. It can really beef up drab samples.
Nearly any subtractive or FM synth will work for layering with drums, and Sample Magic’s Stacker is a prime candidate too. In the below example I’ve used Ableton’s Operator. Firstly, fix the tuning of Operator A, I’ve tuned the kick to 45 Hz and stuck with the default sine wave. Ensure the phase is being restarted at either 0º or 90º to get a soft transient or sharp punch. I’ve used amplitude and pitch envelopes to shape the sound, tweaking the decay parameter to taste.
Here’s the dry kick to begin with:
..and here it is layered with Ableton’s Operator.
While you’re at it, why not throw in some frequency modulation? Here’s the second operator is having it’s level adjusted in real time:
Audio Rate Modulation
Cranking LFOs up into the audio range can produce some interesting timbres when modulation pitch, filter cutoff frequency, amplitude or nearly any parameter than has a control voltage input. Similarly oscillators can make good modulation sources, and using their volt/octave input allows keyboard tracking. Use with a stepped voltage offset to create modulation index like frequency modulation effects.
Plenty of software synthesisers will offer audio ratio modulation, either between oscillators, from one oscillator to the filter cutoff frequency or potentially having LFOs run at rates faster than 20 Hz. Experiment with using conditional modulation such as velocity or keyboard tracking to adjust how much modulation is being applied.
All sorts of different parameters at audio rate will have a different effect on the overall sound. Here’s a short video explaining frequency modulation in the analog domain:
Modulars are fantastic at creating chaotic and complicated modulation signals, whether that be running different rate LFOs into boolean logic gates, having sequencers running at different tempos transposing other sequencers or having sample & hold triggers feeding scale quantizers. DAWs are great for control and precision, sometimes modulars can be the remedy for too much of this.
Regardless of where you stand on the analog vs digital debate, one thing hardware and more specifically modular forces you to interface with the synths differently to sitting at a computer, and this can lead to some serendipitous results. There is so much that can be said here, buy Mylar Melodies has said it much better:
- 883 x 24-bit Wav files
- 596 x Apple Loops
- 596 x Rex2 Files
- 2 x Ableton Sessions and adg files.
- 5 x Custom Kits for Maschine 2, Battery 4, Kong, EXS24 and Ableton Drum Rack
- 15 x Claps
- 16 x Cymbals
- 35 x Hats (open, closed)
- 51 x Kicks
- 43 x Percussion
- 31 x Snares