A Self-centered Introduction

My anorak.
My anorak.

In this blog I’ll talk a little bit about my journey into Eurorack-hood. What modules I’m looking at, what I want to do with the system and perhaps some reviews of the components once I get a working system installed. Hopefully it can function as a kind of beginners guide to Eurorack modular synths. But why would a person choose to expose himself to a sordid world of holy wars, rabid gangs and addiction? Is it even a choice, or is it an inevitability caused by the social structures of my upbringing? The answer must surely be found in a brief narcissistic soliloquy…

My youth was profitably wasted playing computer games, reading about computer games and collecting huge stashes of pirated computer games (on cassette tapes, no less). At about the same time I graduated from my trusty C64 to an Atari ST I started to get interested in synthesisers. The ST was the musicians computer of that age because it had built-in MIDI. The Atari magazines would sometimes include reviews of sequencer softwares like Cubase and sometimes even actual hardware synths. I listened to a lot of Front 242 and played with an interesting tracker-type program called Quartet and dreamt of having a synth that could make cool sounds. Then I bought a Roland D5. I kept dreaming of having a synth that could make cool sounds.

The slightly less than classic Roland D5.

Well, perhaps that’s a bit unfair. The Roland D5 wasn’t that bad. The keys were good and the “LA-synthesis” was a kind of poor-mans sample playback that made some decent impressions of real-life instruments. But the D5 had no effects (I should have gotten a D10), no sequencer (I should have gotten a D20) and was easier to program than a Yamaha DX7 (I should not have gotten a DX7). It was programmed by stepping cryptic 8-bit values using a plus and minus key while peering confusedly at the lavish 16 by 2 character display and wondering wether “TVF Freq KF” would be better at 1/2 or 5/8 and why. On the plus side it did have a Cowbell patch.

You always need more cowbell.

Basically, I couldn’t make the D5 sound cool and Front 242 had an Emulator II and there was no way in hell I could ever afford that so I went back to computer games.

After a while though, I read about the Nord Lead virtual analog synth and thought that that seemed like a much better way of learning synthesis. It had knobs for everything. It was Swedish. It was red. Jean-Michel Jarre had 5 of them. I drooled for months and then splurged on a slightly used Nord Lead 2 and (wiser this time) a Zoom 1204 multi-effect unit.

Jean-Michel Jarre receives the very first Nord Lead 2.

This turned out to be a lot more fun. I could actually learn the basics of subtractive synthesis on the Nord Lead 2 and I could even put some reverb on it. Ok, I drenched everything in reverb. I’m a real sucker for reverb.

I could totally not play though. I never really got the hang of the sequencer programs: I played so poorly that they never could quantize my creations properly and when I tried to program using the grid they would never keep an accurate beat.

On the theory that more gear would cure my inability to play I bought a Yamaha A4000 rack-mounted sampler which had both knobs and a pretty cool Grand Piano sample if you could stand waiting for it to load. I really wanted to use the A4000 more than I did but every time inspiration struck it would be 30 minutes of swearing over Windows sound drivers, 10 minutes of staring at the A4000 display, 10 minutes of playing around with the sound and 240 minutes of Baldur’s Gate.

The Yammy A4000 in a restful pose.
The Yammy A4000 in a restful pose.

Then came Reason. I loved Reason because I didn’t have to muck about with all that other stuff. It just worked. I would play around with the Subtractor and it was a bit like the Nord Lead (which isn’t all that surprising if you know the history). I took the leap and switched from Windows to Mac, which is perhaps less dramatic for a Unix-nut (they both suck, but at least the Mac sucks less). But it was when I got Reason 6.5 that the penny dropped. Thor. Thor was complicated and scary and could say “I Am Thor” like a deaf person. It turned out that a guy named Gordon Reid had written a series of Thor tutorials that were published on the Propellerhead web site and once I started going through those the truth emerged : Thor is awesome. One thing in particular makes it awesome (for me) and that is the modulation matrix. Having a bunch of switchable oscillators and filters is all well and good but it’s when you want to control the LFO rate with an envelope, and you can, that the excrement gets tangible.

So now I’m a happy Reason-user. My Nord Lead 2 and A4000 gathers dust, the D5 was donated to the needy. I’ve even managed to put together some “music” that I will only inflict on my closest friends and most hated enemies. So why the heck do I want to ruin my life with a modular synth?

First and, let’s be honest, foremost, modular synths are cool. Like a bowtie or a Fez. Who wouldn’t want a wall full of knobs, patch cords and blinking lights, and where can those people get help?

A modular synth is _this_ cool.
Modular synths are this cool.

Secondly: I’m renovating an old room so that I can finally have the space I need to keep all my gear connected and organised. It has to have a 19-inch rack for my rack-mounted gear. Tallying up the height requirements of my vast equipment stash I came up with 3U. 2U for the A4000 and 1U for the 1204 effect unit. I will never use them again and they have to be rack mounted so they won’t figure that out. But a rack with 3U used is just pathetic, I need more rack-mounted gear!

Thirdly: While I have a fair grasp of the basics of subtractive synthesis and have a non-strict “no presets” policy for my music, there is lots more to learn. If I need a flute-sound or an analogue bass drum I can dial that up from scratch but once you need the more advanced stuff like ring-modulation, oscillator sync or (god forbid) FM, I can play with it, but I can’t use it with a goal in mind. Now it turns out that Gordon Reid (remember him?), that titan among men, has written a hugely ambitious series of articles about synth programming called “Synth Secrets“. Synth Secrets ran in 63 (!) installments in the great magazine “Sound On Sound” and is available online. It is also the final motivation for my modular future : I’m going to build a Eurorack system (because it is cool) and use it to build the patches in all 63 articles of Synth Secrets. After that I’ll come out the other end poorer, older and slightly harder of hearing. Or, if my 45 minute epic “856Hz Sinewave and Timpani” becomes the hit it will deserve to be, a millionaire. I’m not saying I will blog about all 63 lessons, or necessarily any of them. I will primarily write about designing and installing the actual system and, perhaps, review some of the modules once they are making noise properly.

So the goal here is not to build a 1000-module behemoth (at least not yet), but a pretty basic system. I’m going to control it from Reason, so no sequencers, and I won’t be digging into any of the esoteric math modules or any of the other crazy stuff.


Beware, for I am not an electrical engineer. While I have some hazy mental model of voltages and currents, and have managed to solder simple components without setting myself on fire, I really have no clue what I’m talking about. So please, for your own safety, judge all information on these pages as if I’m actively trying to kill you. Another way of looking at it is to read every sentence as if it ended with “, apparently.” Corrections are most welcome!

You should perhaps also know that I’m far from an audiophile or an analogue nut. I don’t think the terms “analogue” or “digital” really tells you anything about the sound and I don’t expect my modular system to sound better than Thor or the Subtractor in Reason. It might, and I’ll be interested to hear what my ears think, but I don’t expect it to. The attraction of the modular for me is the immediacy of knobs and the flexibility of patch cords.

In closing: Welcome and lets geek out!

Free running oscillators in Thor

Sometimes when I’m messing about with Thor in Reason I find myself wishing it had free-running oscillators. In an analogue modular synth the oscillators are “always on” — if you connect the sine wave output from an oscillator to an audio playback output you will hear a steady tone playing indefinitely. While this is not what you want for most sounds, it is a mode that makes it a lot easier to hear and understand what filtering and various modulations, such as AM; FM or sync, do to the sound. Without this I find myself having to trigger notes all the time to hear what I’m doing which is both a bother and something that affects the sound since it re-triggers the envelopes.

Now Thor apparently has free-running oscillators in the sense that their cycles are not restarted when it receives a gate signal. I think this is to avoid having several oscillators starting in phase if they are triggered by a note simultaneously. So the Thor oscillators are “running” all the time, but they are not playing if they are not getting a gate signal. What’s worse: the amplitude envelope does not have an infinite release time. The maximum release time is 30 seconds so you will definitely hear it decaying. Fortunately, Thor’s awesome modulation matrix can come to the rescue!

The solution I came up with (and I’m sure there are many, many others) goes like this :

1. Go to the modulation matrix and route “Shaper” to “Audio Out1” as well as to “Audio Out2”.  Set the amount to 100%. This bypasses the amplitude envelope (and everything after it).


2. Disable “Gate trig” on the amplitude envelope. This stops the envelope from affecting the sound.


3. Go to the Thor sequencer. Set the mode to “Repeat” and the number of steps to 1. Use the edit knob to select “Gate len” and turn the knob above the active step fully to the right (100%). This causes the sequencer to generate a continuous note when it is running.



4. Press “RUN” in the sequencer section and start twiddling.

This seems to work pretty well. It doesn’t have any external dependencies so it works on the iPad version of Thor as well. The downside is that both the third filter and the chorus and delay blocks are bypassed. Still, whenever I’m programming a pad or drone sound, or if I’m just experimenting, I find it useful to start a patch this way and only activate the amplitude envelope once I’m happy with the basic sound.

Here’s hoping the Propellerheads adds an envelope disable option to the amplitude envelope in Thor in a future release!