It’s been a little while since we last attended Church of Thee Super Sergeat Robotspeak in San Francisco, but we made a point of going this past weekend. For those who have not been there or read our past reviews, it’s an almost-ever-month show on a Saturday afternoon with live hardware-synthesizer performances. As the name suggests, some acts do include Serge synthesizers, but it is not required, and a wide variety of instruments are used. All three sets are featured in our most recent CatSynth TV episode.
The first set featured Lx Rudis performing on an Oberheim Xpander, a somewhat underappreciated instrument from the 1980s.
At its heart, the Xpander is a 6 voice analog synthesizer, but with a complex array of digital controls that can be programmed and applied independently to each voice. Lx Rudis took full advantage of these, especially the LFOs and lag generators, to create subtle and minimal metric patterns. He constantly moved voices in and out, configuring them on the fly, in a way that was very expressive and musical. I particularly liked the sections which had staccato rhythmic textures against slowly moving timbres deliberately out of sync with one another.
Next up was Franck Martin, who performed a solo set on a modular synthesizer with several standalone instruments.
Martin’s setup included a Moog Subharmonicon, which he built while attending Moogfest this year (we at CatSynth are a bit envious), as well as a DFAM (Drummer From Another Mother). There were also additional voices provided by Braids and Plaits modules from Mutable Instruments that he could bring in and out using a touch-plate interface. The result was a slowly changing beat pattern with an eerie inharmonic voicing and gentle undulation.
The final set featured our friends Gino Robair and Tom Djll teaming up as the brilliantly named Unpopular Electronics.
They had a wide variety of gear, including Serge panels in addition to Eurorack modules and standalone instruments from Bugbrand and others. In addition, Gino had an interesting small case that included touchpads.
The music was frenetic and intense, an avalanche of pops and hits and loud cloudlike tone clusters. And there were trumpet sounds entering into the mix at various points. But there was an exquisite detail to the madness with changes among the different instruments and sounds, and musical pauses and rests before the pair dived back into the frenzy. There were also many moments of humor and not just Djll’s book about why there aren’t any Zeppelin-style airships in the United States.
In between sets, it’s fun to browse around Robotspeak and see what’s for sale, or on display in the big glass case.
It’s also quite dangerous, as I am often tempted to leave with another module or instrument. On this occasion, I exercised restraint, but probably not next time…
NAMM is full of serendipitous moments. One of those occurred as we passed the WMD booth and saw a live performance unfolding with flute and woodwind virtuoso Pedro Eustache performing on a vintage wind instrument controlling a WMD Synchrodyne module. We featured it on CatSynth TV.
Eustache informed us that his wind instrument was an unusual one from the 1970s, and that he was using it as a CV controller for the Synchrodyne. He found the combination to be quite expressive and complete, and we can certainly hear that in his performance.
The Synchrodyne is intended to be a complete synthesizer voice in a module, and it has the combination of sawtooth VCO, filter, and VCA that are the building blocks of subtractive synthesis. But it also includes a built-in Phase-Locked Loop (PLL) controlling the VCO, which adds a variety of new sound and control dimensions. PLLs can be challenging to use – the concept implies stability but often includes chaotic phases – but controls on the PLL for dampening, speed and input influence provide more musical control. Additionally, the VCO provides support for frequency modulation. Finally, there is a wavefolder on the front end of the filter that provides additional non-linear signal processing and distortion options. WMD puts it succinctly in their description of the module:
Containing several pieces to a traditional synthesizer voice, the Synchrodyne is a powerful addition to any subtractive oriented system. However, it is designed primarily as an experimental sound source/filter, intended to push the limits of modular synthesis…WMD style.
This is not your classic subtractive analog synthesizer voice, as one might find in a Moog synthesizer or the Korg Prologue that we reviewed in an earlier article. It is a beast, but with practice, we see how it can be an expressive musical instrument on its own. We look forward to trying it out ourselves one of these days. And we thank Pedro Eustace for being so gracious after the performance and sharing with us his process making music with the Synchrodyne and his wind controller. From his official website:
“In Pedro’s own words: ‘I simply hope–and I really work hard at this, through ‘active submission’–that someday, whenever I see my Creator I would be able to give Him an answer worthy of the ‘package-of- grace’ he entrusted me with.'”
The monthy Church of the Superserge event at Robotspeak in San Francisco has been going on five years. We at CatSynth were on hand to mark this milestone during the May show.
Musically, the highlight was a solo set by Tom Djll on modular synth and mini trumpet. It was quite musical, blending rhythms and phrases with the timbral elements, even a “melody” of sorts from the processed trumpet.
The afternoon opened with a set by Normalien, also on modular synthesizer. Some delightfully weird sounds with rhythmic elements.
And Carson Day closed things out with a forceful set that included Novation and Dave Smith instruments.
It’s always a fun afternoon at Robotspeak. Not only do I enjoy the music and technology in the performances, but also just browsing the display cases on the wall, seeing what instruments I should covet next. This little DIY synth stood out this time, especially juxtaposed between the giant vacuum tube and the WMD pedal.
We look forward to next time, and perhaps playing again soon.
We opened this year’s NAMM coverage with a visit to the embarrassment of riches among modular synths at Booth 5000, so it is feeding that we return there for our final article. You can read the first installment (with a separate article devoted to the new offerings from Rossum Electro-Music).
We at CatSynth are fans of Make Noise Music and their modules. This year they introduced the TEMPI.
The TEMPI is a “six channel, polyphonic time-shifting clock module” that allows to create and store clock-signal arrangements using both algorithmic and manual techniques. The channels can be linked to do classic clock-divider and multiplier patterns, as well as manual entry. The divider/multiplier are continuous so can go beyond integer ratios. And it has storage for 64 6-clock configurations. I often complain about my current lack of clock sources (especially for driving the Make Noise Rene), so this would be a potential great addition.
Make Noise also released standalone synth, the 0-Coast.
Like the offerings from many manufacturers this year, the 0-coast is intended to be an integrated full synthesizer voice, complete with CV and MIDI control. As one would expect, it’s a bit more esoteric than the equivalents from Roland and Moog. The parameters remind me a bit more of a Serge or Buchla synth.
Pittsburgh Modular also released a new standalone modular system, Lifeforms.
The Lifeforms is a single-voice unit with oscillator and Pittsburgh Modular filter plus integrated controls. It can be paired KB-1 pressure-sensitive controller to make a fully autonomous instrument. You can here a bit of my attempt to play it in this video.
A video posted by CatSynth / Amanda C (@catsynth) on
The Lifeforms does seem like a rebrand. While the sound character reminds of me of existing Pittsburgh Modular synths and it retains the iconic knobs, the stenciling on the faceplates is different – the old “typewriter” look of previous modules has been replaced with a more contemporary style. The system would make a good entry to more advanced modular synthesis.
Endorphines was presenting their own colorful line of modules.
The heart of their system is the Furthrrrr Generator, a complex VCO reminiscent of Buchla synthesizers with its simple functions based on harmonic relationships. Similarly, the Fourierrrr module provides waveshaping using harmonic relationships. These are complemented by a serious of function and control modules, including the Shuttle Control that converts between USB, MIDI and CV. You can hear a bit of fun with their modules in this video featuring our little mascot.
WMD presented the new Aperture Filter, a full-module version of their existing Aperture Filter card for Black Market Modular’s ColourCV system.
It is described as “a variable width bandpass Butterworth filter (designed by Tyler Thompson).” You can hear a bit of this filter, along with WMD’s new Performance Mixer.
We conclude with the Haken Continuum, which was on display amonst the modular madness. Not a new instrument by any means, but one that is always fun to return and play. The control surface feels liquidy and comfortable, but familiar enough for an experienced pianist.
The demo included an iPad synth with a string patch that took advantage of the Continuum’s multi-dimensional degrees of freedom. But sitting among the modular synths, one can contemplate other possibilities. To this end, Haken has introduced the CVC that allows direct analog CV control from the fingerboard without the need for a MIDI converter.
There really was a lot at the show that I couldn’t get to, or did not fit into an article. It can always be a bit overwhelming, but very rewarding. In the end, NAMM visits are always a mixture of wanting the new instruments I see, and reaffirming things I wanted from previous years. I will be working on my list…
We pick up our post-NAMM coverage where we left off after the show. As stated in earlier articles, this was a great year for synthesizers, including analog modular synthesizers. For the first time, several manufacturers formed a super booth in Hall A in the main show floor.
Holding court in the center was Deiter Doepfer himself with a giant Doepfer modular system.
The new modules from Doepfer this year included an opto FET filter (an alternative to the popular vactrol filters), a quadrature thru-zero VCO, and a large trigger sequencer. The trigger sequencer has a nice appearance and provides a lot of outputs. It plays well with a new clock divider that Doepfer introduced as well. The FET filter has some interesting properties for doing FM filter effects as it can modulate much faster, though it apparently distorts at higher volumes.
JoMoX has been long known for its small tabletop instruments. This year, like several other manufacturers, they introduced Eurorack modular versions, including the T-rackonizer filter matrix along with some of their drum synths.
Black Market Modular collaborated with Foxtone Music to bring the Colour Pallete to the Eurorack modular format. It’s really a “modular inside a modular”, where one can mix and match up to three “colour palettes” (expansion cards) that operate as standalone modules, each with its own VCA. They hope to release more expansion cards over time, which will be compatible with their outboard system.
Another interesting collaboration featured WMD and Steady-State Fate (SSF). There are some basic modulesl, but also some specialized sound and control elements such as the Spectrum and Mini Slew modules. And all of them can put together in this neat little case complete with keyboard that supports MIDI and CV.
This is only the beginning of what was on display in the analog modular superbooth 6990. More will be presented in subsequent articles.
Analog-module makers WMD had a strong presence at this year’s NAMM show. In addition to their existing offerings, which include both utility and more esoteric modules, they presented a set of devices that were jointly made with Steady State Fate (SSF). You can see a demo in this video.
It was fun how they made Zip, our trusty stuffed kitty, rock out to the modular 🙂