As you may have read in this thread, modular synthesis, particularly DIY modular synthesis came to Lower West Side Studio in May of 2015. The PAiA 9700 modular became the first truly analog modular synthesizer I had ever personally worked with.
Excited by this new / old technology I got more and more involved in the modular synthesizer world. October 2015 marked the addition of a Synthesizers.com modular system and things took off from there!
The initial system consisted of the components required to build sounds; MIDI to CV interface, Oscillators, Envelope Generators a Filter and a Voltage Controlled Amplifier as well as a Noise Source. These modules lived happily in a Dotcom 22U walnut cabinet on top of which I stacked my PAiA 9700.
Very soon after acquiring the new modular I got into the DIY world of building my own modules. Numerous vendors produce modules for 5U / MU format synthesizers and I began to build a great number of them.
Here are some of the experienced I’ve had with my modular synthesizers as well as the world of DIY.
There are several formats for synthesizer modules with Eurorack easily being the most popular and providing the largest number of modules. Personally though I prefer stick with (at least for now) the Moog Unit or MU format. From a usability standpoint I like the large knobs and switches and the clean, consistent layout of the panels. I also prefer the way that each module generally performs a single function. I find that it makes creating and debugging patches easier.
Eurorack does have a lot to offer though. The small form factor makes portability very easy. Coupled with the feature that modules often provide several functions per module you can take a lot of synthesizer with you in a compact case. The jangley graphics, tiny knobs and inconsistent format don’t appeal to me but a huge number of synthesizer users out there really prefer it. That is why the bulk of modules available are created for this format.
Cases / Cabinets
Presently my modular system is installed in walnut cabinets. The first cabinet I received, a 22U (unit) cabinet, was from Synthesizers.com. The quality and finish are absolutely beautiful. The problem with living in Canada, though, is that when most of the gear is manufactured in the USA or overseas there is a large cost for currency conversion, HST (yes our greedy government takes a cut of merchandise not even sold in this country) and of course shipping. Shipping 44U cabinets not to mention the other expenses makes them cost prohibitive. My solution was to find a local carpenter who could produce the cabinets for me and match them to the Dotcom finish so the entire system would appear as a single unit. Once I filled the 22U system over the Winter of 2015 / 16 I purchased a 44U cabinet for expansion. After building several modules (more on that later) I filled the cabinet and by late summer I had ordered a second 44U cabinet giving me a total of 110U and a wall of modules.
One very critical point to remember is power. My original Dotcom QPS1 power supply was not going to be able to power 110U worth of modules. There might have been a chance it would as just because there is 110U doesn’t mean there will be 110 modules. Running a power supply at its limit, however, does not yield the best performance so I replaced it with a QPS3 power supply.
As you can imagine this system is not very portable. While it could be moved from location to location it’s not something I would really like to do. For starters the cabinets are all bolted together so removing and reinstalling the connecting brackets would really wear and tear the wood.
Instead my plan is to build (or buy) a portable cabinet. I will use my displaced QPS1 power supply to power the unit. With a portable I can install modules required to produce sound on the go (VCOs, VCFs, VCAs, a sequencer and support modules) while utilizing it set up next to my main modular unit when it’s not on the go. The best of both worlds!
The Do It Yourself side of modular synthesis is very appealing to me. I got my start in the computer field decades ago by building Apple Computer peripherals from the PCB on up. Those skills translate very well into the world of DIY synthesis. MU format modules generally utilize Through-Hole components which are easy to handle and to solder.
The first synthesizer in the studio, the PAiA 9700, was completely DIY and is an excellent way to dive head first into this area. The 9700 is in FRAC format and while I was able to integrate the 9700 with my Dotcom modular through the use of 1/4″ to 1/8″ conversion cables it never seemed a true part of my system. To remedy this I mounted the PAiA modules in MU format panels and replaced the 1/8″ jacks with 1/4″ jacks. I also replaced the tiny potentiometer knobs with larger 1″ knobs (the pots stay the same though). Overall the conversion was quite simple.
Building new modules turned out to be both easier than expected and quite fun. There are numerous vendors providing Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs) for MU format or for multiple formats (which allows them to function in MU format systems). The important thing is that they run on +/-15 volts which is what the MU format (with the exception of Moog themselves) utilizes.
The bulk of the modules I’ve built since beginning the DIY adventure are by Oakley Sound Systems. I find their boards quite excellent to work with. The quality of the boards, their clear labeling and good documentation makes them easy to build. The best part is they sound and function outstanding. I have also built numerous modules from Cat Girl Synthesizers. The CGS modules are often quite unique and while not documented as thoroughly as the Oakleys are not too difficult to get completed. Because both of these manufacturers produce DIY only products they are not as widely found as say something like Synthesizers.com or other vendors (Moon, STG, COTK, etc…) who only provide full working modules. There are several companies (Lower West Side Studio for example) who will build these DIY boards for sale as completed modules.
I have also found some terrific vendors for DIY products. While Oakley sells their boards directly to the end user products by CGS, Barton, Moogah, Yusynth (to name a few) can be obtained from companies like SynthCube.com or ModularAddict.com. I’ve found both these vendors to be excellent at providing quality products for a good price and on time.
Now to the panels. The toughest part of DIY modular synthesizer building I have encountered is obtaining panels for the boards once they are built. Some companies such as FreeState FX and SynthCube.com sell finished, drilled panels for many popular modules. I have used several methods in obtaining panels including having them screened at a printing company but all have been quite expensive. I have been silk screening my own panels as of late and even produce the screens themselves. I will be writing a detailed article on this aspect of synth building in the very near future.
While most of my modules are built in-house I have a large number of modules which have been purchased ready-made. These (so far) are all by Synthesizers.com. There are a large number of MU format vendors out there but up until this point I have found everything I need with Dotcom products. From their oscillators to their sequencers I have not found a module I am dissatisfied with. Their products are excellent and their service and support is outstanding!
That isn’t to say that I won’t be buying modules from other vendors. While a wide variety of vendors each make oscillators, filters, amplifiers, sequencers, mixers and other similar modules they are all quite different from one another. In a way they are like cars. Sure cars have four wheels, an engine and a steering wheel but they are still all quite different. Similarly, different modules from different vendors all have their unique attributes. Some, for example, are workalikes of modules by very well known and respected manufacturers such as Moog, ARP, Oberheim, Korg and others. Other vendors have their own take on how modules should sound and perform. It is my desire to have a wide variety of modules from a large number of vendors to allow my modular to produce an extensive variety of sounds. At this writing my modular, dubbed SWAN (Synthesizer With A Name), has six oscillators from three vendors and eight filters from eight vendors and five amplifiers from four vendors.
Oh… And The Sound!
While I have heard a large number of synthesizers in my experience, nothing holds a candle to the wide ranging capabilities of modular synthesizers (except maybe the Minimoog). The extensive patching capabilities can’t be matched by slab synthesizers. The ability to select just the right filter for just the right oscillator and just the right support modules in any situation gives these synthesizers an ability to produce sounds that can’t be beat. Further, the degree of understanding that goes along with sound production grows as you delve further into each modules abilities. You can visually follow the signal paths and alter the sounds as you see fit. There are no rules for what can plug into what and therefore you can achieve sounds that are difficult or impossible to obtain otherwise.
Having said that, there is of course the difficulty in duplicating sounds once you’ve created them. There are a wide variety of methods of documenting patches but sometimes even plugging the right cables into the right jacks and setting the knobs the way you’ve got them written down doesn’t cut it in reproducing the sound you originally documented. Maybe the machine was on for eight hours when you first made the sound. Maybe there was something electrical going on that affected your original sound. Don’t get me wrong, patches can be reproduced, however, it’s not always a one hundred percent guarantee that if you document a patch you’ll be able to reproduce it. That’s where recording and / or sampling the patch comes in very handy. There is something to be said for the ability to call up a preset sound at the press of a button.
There are already several modules being built and on order here at Lower West Side Studio. While there are still lots of spaces available in the 110U rack I expect them to fill up quickly. Expansion will take place first in one portable unit but likely more will follow. There are just too many cool toys out there to try out. We will also be expanding our product offerings here at the Studio so remember to check out our products page and watch for new modules which are often hard to come by but available here.
Finally I should mention the greatest resource for the modular synthesizer aficionado ; Muff Wiggler’s Forum. Sure the name sounds a bit odd for a synthesizer group (read the backstory though, you’ll laugh) but there are a large number of extremely experienced and talented members who are very generous with their knowledge and expertise. You’ll get your questions answered and learn a pile to boot. Give the site a look and remember to keep on wiggling.