Modular Diary – 066

Sitting in a room, somewhere in the world, making something.

After looking through some of the snapshots documenting the early days of building Serge systems, I for some reason got to thinking of the Orthogonal Devices website that I bookmarked a few months ago. Perhaps it’s the picture of the tree on the about page that helped establish it in my mind as a place where someone is quietly going about making something with a very particular character and focus.

Mantra: To create tools (as in pencils and violins) for self-expression.

Looking at the videos on the page for the ER-101: Indexed Quad Sequencer is an exercise in what at first seems like excruciating patience. But while taking a look at How far can I get in 10 minutes? I found that my attention remained very much on what I was hearing as I watched the programming actions on the screen and gradually got accustomed to the world of hardware and sound as it unfolded.

Modular Diary – 065

A little further down the Serge paper-trail: Yesterday while looking for images of the early ‘paperface’ systems I came across the site which collects a wide range of documentation including an early 1976 manual which I found particularly interesting, partly because of the graphic symbols that help to clarify the various functions on the modules, and partly because of the wealth of information it offers on modular synthesis in general. As with the Buchla Easel manual that I mentioned a few posts back, both a fascinating insight into the early years of modular synthesis, as well as a fine, still relevant, way to learn about the basic principles today.

I’m not sure of what other sources that might be at play, but looking at the current Make Noise graphics I see a trace of the early Serge systems. Not only visually but also in the move towards treating elements in terms of function – an envelope used as an oscillator or viewed as a waveform, for example – rather than parameter.

Modular Diary – 064

The unlabelled look of the ever growing Audulus µModular collection got me thinking of the early Serge modular synthesizers.

Originally, the module configuration for Serge systems could be selected by the user. …These were originally arranged by applying paper graphics to the metal panel… Early systems could have custom graphics—or no graphics—depending upon the whims of the artist.

Serge adopted a series of geometric designs denoting signal types, input, outputs, and triggers. Colored 4 mm sockets were used for most connections - blue, black, and red jacks for (unipolar) control voltages, bipolar signals (NOT necessarily AC coupled) and pulse/gate signals respectively, although these were not rigidly enforced. Later, other colors were introduced, e.g. yellow for triggers.

Ben Edwards (aka Benge) used one of these early ‘paper’ systems for his Works On Paper, the second track of which is a favourite among the modular pieces that I’ve come across during the last few months. Here are are some images of his system. And here some images of someone getting creative with theirs.

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.