Modular Diary – 016

The ARP Odyssey marks is an interesting point in the development of sythesizers with some of the flexibility of the modular systems it grew out of and the fixity of a portable performance instrument that became the norm. I’ve been thinking about the development of synthesizers over the years – the gradual change from modular systems that lent themselves to ever-evolving textures to banks of presets and large libraries of relatively short sounds. The Art + Music + Technology episode with E-Mu’s Dave Rossum provides a good example of this arc – and the spiral back to the beginning that we’ve now reached.

Benge’s 20 Systems presents 20 pieces of music created with 20 different synthesizers, one from each year between 1968 and 1988. Starting with the Moog Modular 1968, moving through ARP, Serge, Roland, Oberheim, and Yamaha in the 70s, and ending with the Fairlight and Synclavier, amongst others, in the 80s. I was thrilled to receive the CD as a gift when it first came out nearly a decade ago, feeling that it nicely mirrored the first 20 years of my own life. It too provides a good trace – a journey in sound of the arc from evolving textures to precise presets.1

  1. See also Junkie XL’s historical overviews of his classic synth collection. 

Modular Diary – 014

One of the recent guests on Darwin Grosse’s Art + Music + Technology podcast was E-Mu Systems Dave Rossum. Along with tracing the beginnings of the E-Mu Modular he also mentions the modular sequencer developed for the system. The idea of a sequencer broken into smaller component modules intrigued me, but I haven’t been able to find much information on it on the web.

What I did find was a video of Benge demonstrating it.

Benge also provides a grand tour of basic sequencer techniques demonstrated on Moog, ARP, Roland, Serge, and Buchla modular systems, as well as a little diversion with the VCS3.

Following up on Benge’s sequences I came across this thorough demonstration of classic Berlin School sequencing with a Doepfer MAQ16/3 and a Q960 (a recreation of the Moog 960).

While Benge uses a quantizer after the 960 Martin Peters tunes his sequencers by ear/hand – and that’s the possibilty that intrigues me. Hand (micro)tunings, and the possibility of setting up special tunings for a sequence without having to account for a complete system as one would be inclined to when thinking in terms of a keyboard.

Modular Diary – 011

The arpeggiator of the Model 15 App is a step into getting an idea of how early analogue sequencers were set up: A voltage control knob for each step of the pattern. For pitch those voltages would typically be passed through a quantizer before being routed to an oscillator, but they might just as well be used to control velocity or filter cutoff, for example, perhaps with a parallel row for controlling gate times.1 It’s quite a different world from the piano roll visualizations one is accustomed to with DAWs, and encourages a different way of thinking – a different approach to creating and using sequences.

When I first started using Audulus I was somewhat puzzled by some of the sequencer modules included with it. I’ve since come to better understand (and appreciate) the old analogue models on which they are based. The great thing with Audulus is that all knobs can be linked to any other form of control – that means that the knob for each sequence step can potentially be controlled by an LFO or Random generator, to pick two examples. The sequencer can not only send out a set of control signals, but also be modulated itself.

  1. The Korg SQ-10 is a good example. Here’s a video with the SQ-10 controlling the MS-20 filters. 

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 – 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 – 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