When I was a young boy back in the ’70s I happened to catch a late-night showing of Brian De Palma’s campy horror movie The Phantom of The Paradise. In the movie disfigured composer Winslow Leach is taken in by his tormentor, renowned record producer Swan, and tricked into completing the musical score for a rock opera. Leach looses his voice in an accident and Swan hooks him up to a vast array of synthesizers to allow him to sing so that he might complete his work. This synthesizer turned out to be the legendary TONTO synthesizer. TONTO is a synthesizer built by Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff and stands for The Original New Timbral Orchestra.
At the time I knew none of the synthesizer’s history. I only knew that one day I wanted a musical machine with knobs, dial and cables just like it!
At the time I was about 12 years old and already playing drums. Still, I enjoyed visiting music stores and playing around with the synthesizers of the day. These were legendary synthesizers by Moog, Korg, Arp and others. I had taken piano for several years and could make some very cool sounds with them. One day, I decided, I would have a room filled with synthesizers the likes of the machine I saw The Phantom playing.
Flash forward 39 years…
After a long career in Information Technology (so long that it was called Data Processing when I began) I built a home studio and populated it with instruments I had only dreamed of owning as a youth. While I have a collection of percussion and stringed instruments it is my keyboards that I think I love the most. If you’ve followed this site you may have read about the Yamaha DX-7 II, Yamaha Motif XF6 and even the Moog Sub 37 I’ve added to my collection over the past few years. All these machines are wonderful and have their own unique character. The Moog in particular with its meaty analog sound. Still, none of them have the wild look and feel of a modular synthesizer. More importantly none of them have the limitless patchability offered by modular synthesizers.
Earlier this year I began my venture into the modular world by building a PAiA 9700 modular synthesizer. The building experience was quite awesome and being rewarded with a very cool musical instrument at the end of my journey was wonderful! The 9700 is a great entry level synth for learning the ropes of modulars and it has taught me many things. I’m very happy with it.
Wanting to move to the next level I had to decide whether I wanted to expand the PAiA with more modules or veer off in a different direction. The PAiA uses a form factor known as Frac which is 4U or 5.25″ tall. The more popular EuroRack format is a bit smaller at about 3U or 5″. Still my heart yearned for the wall of synthesizers that I had seen as a kid. I learned that those modules were of the larger format known as Moog Units or MU. This was because many of the modules in TONTO were made by Moog. MU is 5U or 8.75″ tall. Perfect!
I then began research into MU form factor modular manufacturers. While I would love a Moog Modular they are extremely expensive. I discovered that a company called Synthesizers.com was making MU sized modules and they were doing it in a manner which closely replicated the actual Moog components. I also discovered that Synthesizers.com (or DotCom) synthesizers were very highly regarded and widely used by professional and non-professional modular synth players.
It was at that point I decided to make the DotCom synthesizer the foundation of my modular synthesizer project. The modules and cabinetry are all hand made in Texas and the quality is absolutely incredible! Using their free application SynthInvent I was able to piece together a starter system which would get me on my way to building the wall of synths I desired. I started with a basic 22U wide oak cabinet. After choosing a power supply I then added 2 Q106 Oscillators, 2 Q109 Envelope Generators, a Q107 Voltage Controlled State Variable Filter and a Q108 Voltage Controlled Amplifier. These are the core elements which make up most analog synthesizers, modular or otherwise. I also added a Q174 MIDI Interface to connect my keyboard and the Q175 MIDI Interface Aid. This latter provides extra MIDI interfaces, an arpeggiator and a glide feature. To round off the initial system I included a Q110 Noise Source and a Q124 Multiples module. The Q124 is like a one-to-many splitter which allows one signal to reach multiple modules. I filled in the blank spaces in the panel with a Q134 Octal Blank panel. This wasn’t the best choice for a space filler as I learned later but not a fatal mistake.
This, at last, was the start of my journey into the large-format modular world! Since my initial purchase I added the Q115 Spring Reverb. Because it is an analog reverb the unit incorporates a reverb tank with 3 springs. The tank mounts inside the case and it was very easy to do.
I’ve also started building some modules by Oakley Sound Systems in the UK. These are DIY modules and they are very good quality. The only problem I encountered (aside from a glitch or two due to errors on my part) are that the supplied panel drawings are MOTM style and don’t quite fit into the DotCom cabinet. I am presently working on a work-around which I will post about later on. The modules I am have built are the 4014 Ring Modulator and the Dual LFO.
The sounds I get from the DotCom synth are amazing. The Oscillators provide a full, rich tone with deep lows that rival even my Sub 37. The VCF is very flexible and really makes the sound incredible. I am experimenting with the various optional patches I can make using the gear that I have.
I am also interfacing the PAiA 9700 with the DotCom and vice versa. I have got sounds out of the PAiA that I never thought possible and altering the DotCom’s control voltages with output from the 9700 has yielded some amazing results. I intend to expand both synthesizers and see what I can come up with.
Modular synthesizers are very different from standard synths which feature presets. Once I get a sound on my Sub 37 I can store it, move on and then recall the exact same sound I originally programmed. With the modulars even if I set the patch cables the same and the knobs in the same positions the sound produced is not always exactly the same as what I first patched. Close and sometimes the same but not always. For this reason I have begun to record samples of the patches I make which I can then either program into my Yamaha Motif XF6 or incorporate into tracks in my DAW. I can even alter them in the DAW and then store them as samples. The possibilities are limitless.
I also plan to get the Q118 Instrument Interface so I can patch in guitar, bass, vocal and other sounds which I can then mash up with the modular’s components. Anything imaginable is possible with these units. It’s a truly amazing technology for something that was invented back in the 1960s. The fact that we still use it today says something about its longevity.
I only wish I bought more patch cords : )