What is Eurorack? Getting started with modular synthesizers, a simple guide. The current popularity of analogue synthesizers and synths in general can’t be understated. With so many innovations and inventions arriving on the market all the time, it’s hard to keep up with everything that’s available. If you're even remotely bothered by synthesizers, you've probably come across this oddball term "Euro-rack" or "modu-lar" and if curiosity has struck, well......that's probably how you've ended up here! Amongst the piles of wires and flashing lights there is sense to be made in this modular world, and here I'll attempt to provide everything you need to know to get started in with Eurorack synthesis so you can be up and running in no time. A little history of modular synthesis. Synthesizers themselves have fairly scientific beginnings, with early synths being made by guys in lab coats and consisting of modules with dedicated functions interacting with each other to make sound. It took some time for the synth market to add a keyboard, do away with cables and turn them into musical instruments to make the synthesizers we’re now familiar with. Early innovators of the modular format included the likes of Moog, Buchla, Roland, ARP, Serge and EMS. eurorack modules adhere to same 3U height standard, but many vary in width (aka HP or horizontal pitch) they also vary in power consumption and of course functionality. The Eurorack market is a thriving, vibrant marketplace of unique designs being produced by all kinds of different companies with multiple bustling forums dedicated to the subject. This approach to synthesis was completely fresh. Instead of buying a pre-designated system, people could now build synthesizers with the modules of their choosing. They could make the decisions that ultimately lead to the creation of their dream synth. Eurorack is the definition of expressivity in the electronic music realm. You build the synth, you make the choices on what modules and functionality you want and no single system is ever the same as the next. How you operate your system would be totally different to how everyone else works. It is the most inspiring and individual sound design tool available on the market right now.
The beauty of a modular is that no two systems are ever the same. You make the decisions.So you’re looking to explore this world of modular synthesis, what do you need? What can you do to get started? In this article I plan to explain exactly what’s required to get up and running and hopefully get you on the road to creating the synth you’ve always dreamed of. So first things first, let’s get the real basics out of the way and then we can move onto the juicy details. I’ll assume that most of you reading this have some idea of what a synth is and how it works, but for those that don’t, here’s a really brief overview of the concept of synthesis. Normally when people talk about synthesizers, most picture a keyboard encrusted with knobs and controls, with most modern synthesizers being based around a subtractive synthesis concept. All classic subtractive synthesizers are based around and include four main elements;
- An Oscillator for sound generation.
- A Filter for sculpting the timbre.
- An envelope generator for creating dynamic variation.
- An LFO for modulating the sound.
- And an amplifier for controlling the amplitude of the synthesized sound.
Verbos Electronics Complex Oscillator, complex by name, complex by nature.A blend of analogue VCO’s and digital oscillators is always a good bet; you can mix the two signals together to get some really interesting results. I should mention here that most digital synths are based around DSP sound generation and don’t quite fit into the subtractive context mentioned earlier, but more on that later. Filters, VCF’s and modulation: One of the things that instantly drew me into Eurorack was the ability to pair any sound source I wanted with the filter I wanted, so for example if wanted to use a complex digital source like Mutable Braids with the warm analogue filter from the Sequential Prophet….then I could! Happy days. The staggering array of different filters on offer is something to research and enjoy. Since most vintage synthesizers had their own filter characteristic, it’s only natural for those highly desirable filter circuits to find their way into the modular standard. For example: If you want an MS-20, get the Intellijel Korgasmatron II, if you want a Yamaha CS-80 get the Studio Electronics SE88, if you want the Sequential Prophet Filter, get the Dave Smith DSM01, if you want a Moog filter then buy the AJH Synth Minimod VCF…..I could go on for hours, there are a hell of a lot of filter options out there.
- Attack denotes how quickly the envelope produces the sound, a faster attack, the quicker the sound responds, the slow the attack, the more progressive the signal raises in volume.
- Decay decides how long the note is held for at the maximum attack level before the sustain stage kicks in.
- Sustain decides how long the note is maintained at its maximum level until the key is released.
- Release takes place when the key or gate is released, the longer the release the longer the sound sustains for and vice versa.
The erebus is a great way to get into the modular workflow without breaking the bank.It’s not a bad choice to buy a pre built system or invest in a semi-modular synthesizer if you’re unsure if you want to get into modular, since these systems remove the need to pick modules, case and a PSU and provide a completely built system you can get stuck into right away. But if you’re set on building your own personalized custom system, then read on. Let’s get designing: So to get started, the first thing you need to do is decide what kind of synth you want to build, since the only limitation is your imagination, so do what do you want?
- A complex monosynth with a wide array of modulation and routing options?
- A performance focused sequencing system with immediacy and easy programming?
- A system designed for audio manipulation and sound design?
- A drum machine?
- An effects processor?
Meet your new best friend, the 3.5mm jack cable. Make sure you buy lots.Once you have an idea of the modules you want to start with you should also have an idea of the case requirements, there are a healthy choice of options when it comes to cases: Companies like Lamond Designs offer a custom build service which means you can tailor your case to fit the modules you want in a case that’s built completely for you. TipTop audio also offer a system called the happy ending kit, which provides a 19” rack chassis that you can easily house in any compatible 3U rack case if you already own a spare one or have space in your case for example. DIY is also an option here, TipTop offer a product called Z-Rails, which are the mounting rails found in Eurorack cases. You option here is to build your own box and mount the rails into the case. DIY is a great option for those handy with a saw and a sander! If you’re more inclined to get a lower cost option, then your best bet is to look to Doepfer. Their line of cases spans basic wooden enclosures such as the LC6 to gig ready systems such as the P6 and P9. firstname.lastname@example.org By Tom Lewis