Monday, February 19, 2018

5 Hard Lessons of Buying Eurorack Modules

I haven’t blogged about the Mother 32 in a long time, a very long time. That’s because I’ve sold it and moved on. People warned me, and they were right, the Moog Mother 32 is a gateway into full blown Eurorack addiction. My Mother 32  was replaced with two TipTop Mantis cases and a menagerie of Eurorack modules.

Like any proper addict, I dove in head first, buying and selling modules at a furious rate. At the same time, I was trying to learn how to navigate the modular workflow. This was a frustrating way to enter Eurorack, but to spite all of that, I’ve learned a LOT.

“ From the errors of others, a wise man corrects his own. “ – Publilius Syrus

This isn’t a guide about what modules you need when starting out, which VCA to purchase, or how many HP you need in your first case. Those are all valid questions, and that’s another blog entry for another day. These are 5 of the philosophical questions I’d wrestled with as I went down the Eurorack rabbit hole, and the lessons I learned along the way.

1. Do I really want to dive through menus to use a module?

Sure, you can put Parasites and Bee's In The Trees firmware on Mutable Devices modules, or menu dive through a Disting MK4, but do you really want to? I hate having manuals, cheat sheets, etc laying around. I don't have a lot of free time and I just need to be able to sit down, learn modular, and hopefully be inspired. I’ve sold most all of my multipurpose software modules, including my Ornaments and Crime, and went with modules with a dedicated purpose.

OK, In all honesty I did keep my Warps and Disting MK4. The jury is still out on the Disting but Warps is pretty easy to use for a multi-function module. 

2. Do I really need the best bongo sounds?

You can run down a total rat hole trying to make bongo sounds on modular. Sure, the Rubicon is awesome but how bad do I want the most amazing FM to feed into a LPG? At this point I'd rather sample something and fire it out with a trigger using a sample module. Or better yet, I’d rather buy a Plonk and forget the whole Through Zero FM and Low Pass Gate scenario.

3. Do I really need the best LPG, or Low Pass Gate?

I've bought and sold a few LPGs and to be honest, I'd rather have a good 12db slope VCF and some good envelopes generators. I can dial the envelope in to be plucky, long, swell, or configure it as an LFO if the module supports that. Low Pass Gates tend to leak, and they all sound different so it can be a total crap shoot.

4. Do I need this module?

I know this sounds like a stupid question, but honestly, how many times have you convinced yourself you that you just HAD to have a Wogglebug, Braids, or Clouds? At times it’s seems it’s all but impossible to do Eurorack without those modules. There are reasons these modules are popular but the most important thing is that you’re able to sit down, be inspired, and hopefully make something creative. You don’t have to have all of the modules your Youtube Eurorack idols have to create an inspiring sonic pallete.

5. Do I really want a swiss army knife module?

Maths, this is another one of those “can’t live without it” or "swiss army knife" modules. But just like many of the Make Noise modules, it’s not exactly intuitive or self-explanatory. I know Maths has every function including the kitchen sink, but for envelopes I’d rather have a more conventional ADSR or ADR.

When Make Noise released their Contour envelope, I was sold. It’s very intuitive, but has some parameters that can be modulated with CV. At first, the lack of a cycle button was a letdown but I quickly learned you can patch that up and use it as an LFO. Contour gives you some of the rewards of a swiss army knife module without all of the frustration of learning something as deep as Maths, awesome!

So there you have it, 5 things you should consider when buying Eurorack modules. I hope this helps at least a few folks out there. If you have any Eurorack module buying lessons, please share them in the comments!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Meade Lightbridge 130 - Long Term Review - Part 1

Around October of 2016 I picked up a pair of Vanguard 8x42 binoculars to do some stargazing in Whittier NC at a cabin we rented. While the 8x42 binos were great for stargazing and meteor shower observation, a 7° FOV wasn’t enough to allow my lovely girlfriend and I to see anything super interesting. 

Fast forward about 9 months and I was thinking about visiting the mountains again in the fall. Knowing I wouldn’t see anything life changing with my binos I started researching telescopes. I considered the pros and cons of various scopes from small 90mm Maks on goto mounts to large 10” collapsible Dobs. I landed in the middle on a 5” reflector type telescope, aimed squarely at noobs, the Meade Lightbridge 130 .

Why did I choose the Meade Lightbridge 130mm over the vast array of other options?

First, I wanted a grab-n-go scope, something that I could plop behind the seat in my Tacoma and drive to a viewing site. I didn't want to fool with the alignment of a goto or equatorial mount when I decided to grab-n-go. The Dobsonian style Alt-Az mount is great for aligning a target and looking with no setup. Here is a basic formula that I wrote that explains the benefits of grab-n-go.

(Grab-N-Go) + (Wine and Cheese) + (Girl Friend) = Darn Good Night

The Lightbridge 130 cost around 200 bones on the street. The 130mm aperture of the scope combined with the fairly wide 650mm focal length results in a fairly bright scope for the money. More aperture means more light and more light means you see more stuff when you narrow the focus of the scope. 

Lastly, The optical tube assembly seemed to be of sufficient quality that it would benefit from other upgrades, new eyepieces, new finder, a nice 2x barlow, longer dovetail, and ultimately a better mount. All of the items displaced by upgrades are so cheap they're marginally serviceable. As a result, I won't feel bad replacing those parts with high quality components that I can carry forward or share with another scope.

I'll stop here and discuss my first impressions and basic use of the scope in the next post. Until then, may you have happy days and clear skies.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Expanding the Mother 32 - Part 4 - Adding a 2nd VCF

The filter in the Mother 32 is a sweet sounding VCF that does that wonderful Moog'y low pass thing so well. The transistor ladder VCF has a sophisticated richness and syrup like sound that you just don't get with any other design. But when you roll up the resonance the bass from the VCO just drops away. Also, there is no useful high pass to speak of. I'm not saying the Mother 32's VCF is useless, it's just not as flexible as I would like. I stumbled upon a great deal on an Intellijel µVCF as I was searching for the right filter to pair with the Mother 32. The little 6hp Intellijel filter doesn't have the most character of any VCF I've heard, in fact it's sort of a chameleon, but it's extremely flexible and has many uses.

Here are 8 reasons why you should consider the µVCF for your Mother 32 rig

1. µVCF can pull off some nice format sounds.

2.  The µVCF can self oscillate and produces a clean sine wave that tracks well. Sine waves are incredibly useful for FM synthesis. Just let the  µVCF's LPF output find it's way to the Linear FM input on the Mother 32 and have at it. To ensure accurate tracking, you'll need to buffer the KB output on the Mother 32 before patching it to the  µVCF, as you would most VCOs.

3. The µVCF doesn't loose bass output when you crank the resonance and sweep the cutoff down. This is helpful for patching big bass sounds and thunderous drones.

4. The µVCF has excellent BPF and HPF outputs that work correctly, unlike the Mother 32's HPF.

5. The  µVCF  is small at 6hp and laid out for easy use with the FREQ knob at the top and patch points at the bottom.

6. The µVCF is an amazing value both used and new.

7. The µVCF blends in, this filter is short on character but doesn't draw attention to itself. This can be good if you don't want your entire track to sound like patches from the same synth.

8. I'm a fan of filters that include commonly used utility functions such as dual inputs with a mixer. While the Intellijel μVCF doesn't have dual inputs, it does include attenuverters on the FM inputs which conserve attenuverters for other duties.

What Does The µVCF Sound Like?

I haven't seen any videos specific to the Mother 32 and the µVCF, minus one that has some West Coast style robot chatter, but here are a few nice videos that demonstrate the µVCF's utility.

What are your thoughts on the Intellijel VCF? What VCF did you add to your Mum?

Friday, December 30, 2016

Expanding the Mother 32 - Part 3 - All About That Bass

Where Is The Sub-Oscillator On The Moog ?

I pre-ordered my Mother 32 as soon as Moog announced it. After receiving it, the poor synth sat for months as I was disappointed that I couldn't easily access the sounds the baby Moog was capable of producing. It seemed that Moog omitted many essential features and one of those omissions was a sub-oscillator. Also, I was used to working with my Bass Station II and not a modular type synthesizer.

Rather than part with the baby modular, I decided to double down and purchased another Mother 32 along with a 2 tier stand kit. Initially this seemed like a great idea but I quickly understood that unless I was using the sequencers on both synths that my money would be better spent on building on a single Mother 32's strengths. So I sold one of the Mother 32 voices, kept the case, and went about choosing modules to expand the Mother 32.

I needed a 2nd oscillator and I noticed several VCOs didn't have sub-oscillator outputs. I learned that synth knob wigglers take the original VCO output and divide the frequency by 2 to produce an output one octave down from the original. This simple function is commonly performed by flip flop circuits. The resulting sub-frequency is then mixed with the original VCO signal by using a mixer. There are modules such as the Blue Lantern Subharmonics Generator that are dedicated for the purpose of providing sub-oscillator outputs but another option is to use a clock divider such as the low cost Doepfer A-160-1.

The Doepfer A-160-1 and the Mother 32

I chose the Doepfer A-160-1 module for my Mother 32 outfit for a variety of reasons.

1. The module is useful for more than sub-oscillator tones.
2. It's intuitive unlike more complicated modules such as Function or Maths.
3. It's cheap, around 80.00 USD new
4. It's small, 4hp, and it has six blinking LEDs. :)

If you've prepared your Mother 32 for expansion then adding an A-160-2 isn't a big deal. I've expanded my Mother 32 with a 2 tier rack kit, Moog 60hp skiff, and TipTop μZeus micro power supply with flying bus boards.

Patching the Mother 32 and the Doepfer A-160-2 

Here is a quick and dirty pic of the A-160-2 installed in the top tier of my Mother 32 outfit. As you can see, the Doepfer module is sharing real estate with a few other friends. Don't be surprised if some of these modules go, I'll rotate modules in and out of here until I settle on a single configuration for a bit.

Using the A-160-2 is super easy, start by feeding the Trig In with either of the Mother 32's VCO outputs. Next, connect one of the outputs of the A-160-2 to your EXT AUDIO jack on the Mother 32. The /2 output is one octave down, the /4 is two octaves down, and so on. Then use the Mother 32's MIX knob to blend the original VCO with your new sub-oscillator. If you desire more bass madness, connect a second output from the A-160-2 to MIX 1, and the original output you choose to MIX 2. Then take a patch cable and patch VC MIX to EXT AUDIO. Now you can blend the amount of sub-oscillator as before in addition to balancing the mix of the two sub-oscillators using the VC MIX knob. You could even modulate the VC MIX with the LFO by patching one of the LFO outputs to the VC MIX CTRL.

Final Thoughts

For the money, you unlock a LOT of potential from the Mother 32 by adding the A-160-2. Blending in lower octaves gives the Mother 32 a dark menacing presence it can't pull off in its factory configuration.  The VCO I choose and the A-160-2 consume a total of 10hp, you can easily find VCOs with a sub-oscillator output at that size, but not many VCOs output a sub-oscillator more than one octave down nor would they allow you to leverage the included clock dividing circuit for other uses. Do you have any creative patches using the A-160-2? If so, please share in the comments below!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Expanding The Mother 32 - Part 2 - In The Interim

So I've decided to take a few modules that I've planned to use in my DIY rack and put them in the Mother 32 skiff for now. I starting to think the Mother 32 will make a funky little groove box. Now if my AC adapter for the uZeus will just show up!

1. Roland System-500 512 - I'm hoping for some old school VCO action with this guy. I love the sliders.
2. Make Noise ModDemix - Useful for ring-mod and other bipolar VCA type functions.
3. Vermona VCDrive - I've never heard it. I bought it on a whim on Black Friday 2016. It was really $$$ for an overdrive so lets hope it delivers.
4. Intellijel uVCF - This should give me some good self oscillating sine waves to use for FM. Hopefully the high pass sounds nice so I can run it into the Moog low pass filter for some fat bass sounds. If so, I doubt it will leave this rack.
5. Erica Synths Quad VCA - A VCA that will definitely move to the DIY rack after I assemble my Synthrotek Dual VCA DIY kit.
6. TipTop uZeus - I've mounted it on the front for now. I'm going to attempt to cut a slot in the back of the case and mount it there in the future so I can free up 4hp in the 60hp skiff.

Expanding the Mother 32 - Part 1 - Always Measure First

Since discovering ModularGrid.Net I've spent far too much time attempting to stuff a 60hp wide Mother 32 skiff with the most essential companion modules to get the most out of the Moog Voice. As a result, there has been a parade of Eurorack modules showing up at my doorstep via UPS. Sadly, I assumed that my first choice in VCO, the slim and affordable Doepfer A-111-3, would fit into the Moog 60hp skiff, it does not fit. :(

The Doepfer A-111-3 is too deep due to the arrangement of the reproduction CEM 3340 chip on the circuit board. It's interesting how simple of a PCB the A-111-3 uses. Perhaps we'll see a DIY VCO based on the CEM3340 with buffered outputs in the near future.

The Doepfer A-111-3, circuit board view.

If you've never seen how thin a Mother 32 is, here is your chance. I've also included a photo of the little audio output / power supply Moog uses. The Moog power supply is NOT Eurorack standard however the Mother 32 has a Eurorack standard power connector on the PCB.

So , if you read this post, do you have any suggestions on a space saving triangle core VCO that I can put into this case? If so, please comment below.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Witness The Dreadbox NYX

You know, I really liked the Erebus but something about it just didn't quite do it for me. I nearly pulled the trigger a few times but I just couldn't get over the Erebus's lack of oscillator FM. I emailed Dreadbox about it and they promptly told me how to mod the synth but it wasn't a project I wanted to get into.

Ok Dreadbox, now you have this synth nerd's attention.

I love the idea of modular stuff but a self contained synth module is a thing of beauty. Have you ever heard an Intellijel Atlantis? Or better yet, how about a jam with both an Atlantis plus a Dreadbox. :)

A well conceived analog synth voice is easy to navigate and should lend itself to melodic creativity. The new NYX certainly sounds the part and I dig the easy modulation routing , intuitive layout, and sliders. I see Dreadbox isn't touting through hole construction on the NYX as they did on the Erebus. Regardless, kudos to Dreadbox on such a great box. It's a great time to be into analog don't you think?