Modular Diary – 001

I’ve been toying around with the idea of a third 100 Day Project – this time with modular synthesis as its theme. I don’t have any modular gear but I do have Audulus. While remaining a somewhat open (visual) programming environment for creating sound, Audulus has embraced modular synthesis as a model and provides a number of modules as basic building blocks. Recently there’s been a lot of activity on the forum focussed around recreating (Eurorack) hardware modules. I’ve been digging through the threads, looking at videos and schematics, and generally learning a lot.

I thought it might be useful to get some of the journey written down.

Modular Diary – 002

For a long time I’d shied away from looking at the modular world more closely simply because the cost of the hardware put it out of reach. Discovering the MakeNoise O-Coast on the Audulus forum a few moths ago awoke my interest – it was affordable and manged to pack enough into its compact form to get going with some generative patches. And that was what I found myself longing for – spending some time directly involved with sound without the implied direction of a keyboard or DAW. An instrument to listen to and interact with: ‘Watching’ the sound and making adjustments to steer its course.

Modular Diary – 003

I wasn’t in a position to get hold of an O-Coast though, and as much as Robert Syrett’s Audulus ‘O-Toast’ provided a fascinating look into how the MakeNoise synth was put together I found it frustrating to play with – at least when attempting to recreate O-Coast patches from the MakeNoise manual or their series of video tutorials. (One can get a lot out of the O-Toast, but it is perhaps better approached as a thing on it’s own.) Fortunately around that time Bram Bos’s Ripplemaker appeared and I turned to it as a software version to play with.

The Ripplemaker is well made, clearly layed out, and easy to patch. The inclusion of a sequencer along with having all controls comfortably visible on a single screen makes it a lot of fun to play with. (It also integrates nicely as an Audio Unit within an apps such as Jonatan Liljedahl’s AUM.) One can also adjust more than one control at a time, which is an advantage over Audulus’s lack of multitouch control on iOS, and having the workings of the softsynth thoroughly taken care of means that one can get on with exploring its sounds.

Modular Diary – 004

The only thing with the iPad as an interface is it’s not quite possible to ‘play’ those knobs in the way that, say, Mylar Melodies might.

I decided to take a look at another modular synth on the iPad – Moog’s recreation of the Model 15. The attention to detail in this app is incredible, both from an aural and a visual/interface point of view. It looks and sounds amazing.1 Unlike the Ripplemaker, there is too much to fit onto the screen at once, and so one has to get used to scrolling around and zooming in and out. While sliding around the interface is an unfortunate necessity, the ability to zoom in on a specific module or knob and make adjustments with an incredible degree of finesse (there’s also a handy little tooltip at the top of the screen) is something that I miss when moving back to the Ripplemaker.

One drawback with the Moog app is that one can only adjust a single control at a time. Tom Simmert got around that by building a custom MIDI controller specially for it. Patching still takes place on the screen, but there’s a physical knob for each control.

And that takes me back to an aspect that I’ve been enjoying with making music on the iPad – the fact that there needn’t be an intermediary controller.

  1. Since it’s modules are running constantly, even if there’s no sound coming out of them (as is the case with Audulus), the app uses quite a lot of CPU power, and so the visual aspects are handled using Apple’s Metal framework

Modular Diary – 005

Tom Simmert’s custom hardware controller for the Model 15 App reminds me of Robert Henke’s specially built Monodeck from a time before Ableton developed their Push controllers.

With many external controllers there’s often a mental overhead in relating the controller to what’s being controlled. There’s a joy in being able to open up AUM on the iPad and adjust the faders. Direct manipulation: the faders are the faders.

David Zicarelli in conversation with Gerhard Behles on the anouncement of Ableton buying Cycling 74:

…the landscape of the computing devices people use for music and media is changing radically. And we can’t just count on the entire world having a laptop… because of the computing devices getting easier to acquire, easier to use, easier to embed into new contexts.

For Max and Ableton there’s a glimpse of the new broswer based control possibilities in the Max for Cats Pallas semi-modular synth. You still have to navigate to what it is you want to control though. Even with Lemur fanciness I never managed to get comfortable trying to work with synths in Ableton via a controller.

The great thing about modular hardware is that there’s a direct correlation between the physical controls and their functions. Funnily enough, Rob Hordijk has a nice take on how control voltage, one of the central aspects of modular systems, basically grew out of a need for some kind of remote control, given the large size of the equipment and spread out nature of the electronic music studios in the fifties.

Modular Diary – 006

A third excursion I made was to the iVCS3, an iPad recreation of EMS’ famous VCS3. As with the Model 15, an incredible amount of care has been put into the app, with delightful touches like the inclusion of a scope on the back panel. The routing matrix takes a little getting used to as there’s a level of abstraction that one doesn’t have with patch cables, but it does have the advantage of being very flexible and free of clutter. My biggest frustration is having to scroll back and forth between the matrix and the modules – I wish that they’d based the app on the later suitcase version, the EMS Synthi AKS where everything could have been on a single screen. Perhaps it would have gotten a little tiny, but everything would have been at hand at once – the Ripplemaker is also proof of how much it is possble to fit on an iPad display and still be functional. Something else I find myself wishing for after having used the Model 15 App is being able to zoom in on the controls – not that I wish to get caught in another Moog/EMS battle.

A JavaScript browser version of the Synthi AKS recently appeared – perhaps a little to sluggish to perform on, but a good place to start learning, as CDM points out. The educational angle is also part of Moog’s marking pitch and to some degree that fits in with the value I’ve been finding in these apps – a great way to learn about these seminal instruments in all their intricacies.

Modular Diary – 007

Some general thoughts on interfaces today: A few months ago Dianne Verdonk, at a Frankenstein’s Lab session, mentioned her dislike for the knob as an interface mechanism. While that dissatisfaction prompted her to create her own quite fantastic instruments, I was left thinking that, from my own point of view, the knob is perhaps the ideal control form.

Dianne’s objection was centered around the fact that minor changes of a knob can effect huge changes in sound, and that this resulted in a disconnect between the movements of the performer and the sound produced. Seen from another perspective, the closed position of the hand while turning a knob involves the least possible tension in terms of musculature. Even with the fingers slightly streched out for longer periods of time, as when typing or playing a keyboard, or swiping on an iPad screen for that matter, the hand begins to be stressed.1 In that way modular hardware knobs might be seen as a perfectly suited to humans, even though the visual clarity offered by sliders also certainly makes sense for certain functions – see Darwin Grosse’s discussion with Scott Jaeger in the latest episode of Art Music Technology.

  1. John Siracusa discussed this on one of the ATP episodes a while back.