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Getting Started with a Modular Synth
Old 8th September 2020
  #1
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Getting Started with a Modular Synth

Hello All,

I'm looking to get my kiddo started with a modular synth (and by kiddo, of course, I mean it's really for me - this just helps me to stupidly justify the ridiculous cost...). I've grown (I mean my kid has grown) so tired of simulations and we just want a real deal synth, and something with some serious "Rad!" factor.

As this is a rather intimidating field for one starting at zero, I have some basic questions:

1) Do CV's get thrown off by MIDI after-touch messages?
2) Any reason to avoid the 88 key fully weighted controllers?
3) If so ^ ^ ^ what is a good keyboard controller to consider?
4) What do I need if I want polyphony? A module with multiple VCO's?
5) What is a fair budget to get started with, $2k?
6) If I wanted to sum multiple VCO outputs, would you recommend a mixer module or an actual outboard mixer?
7) Same thing ^ ^ ^ but for time-based processing, module or outboard?
8) What is the best option for a non-pro hobbyist, Eurorack?
9) What module types do you recommend I start with: MIDI->CV + VCO + LFO + VCA + Line Out of some form?

Thanks a million!
Old 8th September 2020
  #2
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1) Not sure what you mean but if your midi to cv interface extracts aftertouch from the midi stream then it will be available as a separate modulation source that you can plug into whatever it needs controling.

2) Oscillators generally don't track over such a large range. Worst ones are about 2 octaves, best ones about 5 i think, probably some exceptions to both.

3) That's up to you. With a midi->cv converter you can use any midi keyboard. There are also more dedicated cv/gate controllers.

4) You don't want polyphony in your modular. It will be hard enough to deal with one voice at first, learning synthesis, learning to patch and whatnot. IF you still want it, what you need, at the very least, is a polyphonic midi->cv module and as many VCO->VCA/Envelope groups as you want, mixed together before going to a filter. That will give you paraphony. Not true polyphony, but you can play chords. But better is to recreate the whole synth voice per poly note, including filter, vca and modulation.
But be warned. Polyphony will be pricey, will eat lots of time setting up where you're not playing it and will probably be hell to keep tuned and have all parameters match on each voice.
If you want a poly synth, just buy a poly synth and be done with it.

5) Sure. Could be lower, could be much much higher.

6) You'd use a module. The voltages on an audio mixer are completely inappropriate.

7) Effects can be applies afterwards on the line out module and are of the typical variety. If the effects are to be integrated in the synthesis path then you need eurorack modules or level conversion.

8) Eurorack is currently by far the biggest standard, both semi and pro.

9) Good start, but you'll definitely want a filter with that and an envelope generator or two. Maybe an extra lfo would be nice. Also one or two more oscillators and a 4-way mixer would expand the sound significantly. Generally one oscillator gets boring real fast. For instance, you could detune 2 oscillators. Than what you get is a much fuller sound. More so with three oscillators.
Old 9th September 2020
  #3
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i would suggest looking into the small systems, like the erica pico and maybe something like a mother 32 or dfam. the moog you can easily sell afterwards but it will offer a lot of tools, though if i was learning, i would go with the mother 32. add the pico system to it adn you get all sorts of options without spending sooo much cash. once you/your kid gets the hang of it, and knows what the wants out of a modular rig, you can look at options for an appropriate case and modules.
pittsburgh modular also have the sv1b synth voice with lots of patching and any of the parts in it can be used independently as well. it's a much better bet to get a synth voice with tons of patch points, especially if you are just starting out. if you are already experienced with synthesis in general, than you can start building a voice or be more experimental but keep in mind that just building a regular mono synth in euro land can get expensive real quick. hence my suggestion to go for the moog or similar.

one other option would be to get 2 dfams and a mother 32. one dfam for drums, mother for melodic stuff and second dfam for percussion, fx etc. but the possibilities are endless. if you give us more details of the type of music you want to make, a realistic budget, level of experience and so on we could make better recommendations.
Old 9th September 2020
  #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sebastian N View Post
if you give us more details of the type of music you want to make, a realistic budget, level of experience and so on we could make better recommendations.
Thank you. I'm interested in generative textures, leads, sequenced pitch patterns, and pads - although it sounds like polyphonic sounds are going to be cost & technically prohibitive.

Quote:
Originally Posted by monomer View Post
4) You don't want polyphony in your modular. It will be hard enough to deal with one voice at first, learning synthesis, learning to patch and whatnot. IF you still want it, what you need, at the very least, is a polyphonic midi->cv module and as many VCO->VCA/Envelope groups as you want, mixed together before going to a filter. That will give you paraphony. Not true polyphony, but you can play chords. But better is to recreate the whole synth voice per poly note, including filter, vca and modulation.
But be warned. Polyphony will be pricey, will eat lots of time setting up where you're not playing it and will probably be hell to keep tuned and have all parameters match on each voice.
If you want a poly synth, just buy a poly synth and be done with it.
Although I am interested in drums, I would say at the moment, they are low on my priority list.

The thing I'm most interested in, however, is something that inspires the children to take an interest and divert Nintendo attention and use it for music, electronics, physics, math, science, and art.
Old 9th September 2020
  #5
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Richie Witch's Avatar
1) Nope, you get to decide what CV responds to, or not.
2) As others have said, most oscillators won't have this octave range.
3) Why get a keyboard at all? This is modular, baby! LOL
4) A much larger budget, upwards of $10k
5) For a fairly simple mono synth or a basic drum machine, yes.
6) You'll need a modular mixer, probably several, to get your modular to route sound the way you need it.
7) Same as above, do it all in the modular
8) Eurorack has the most module choices by far. Go to Modular Grid to get some ideas.
9) That works... but you might find a sequencer more interesting for a set up this simple, rather than MIDI to CV, especially for the kinds of sounds you're trying to generate.

The biggest recommendation I can make is don't try to recreate a typical fixed-architecture synth in modular--it will cost you two to three times what it would cost to buy a regular synth that does the same thing. Use modular as a spring board to create something that could not possibly exist any other way. That will take time, analysis, and deep thought, but is far more rewarding IMHO.

And since you're interested in physics, math, science, etc., take a look at Elby Designs Chaotica module, based on the analog computer chaos generator designed by Ian Fritz.
Old 9th September 2020
  #6
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Better yet, go to Modular Grid, sign up for a free account, and have the kids help you design the system there. The site is very visual and interactive, the kind of thing kids would love, especially if it means they will see their "invention" become a reality over time. Some modules allow virtual patching too, so you can get an idea of how the modules would work together.

And Modular Grid will also keep track of the system cost (without the cost of the case) and what your power requirements will be.
Old 9th September 2020
  #7
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@ camacozie

i would seriously suggest the dfam. it's very easy to understand, especially the sequencer. it can't make a bad sound and can be mellow and round or aggressive and in your face and something always happens when you turn a knob. you could also pair it with a noise engineering cursus iteritas percido which is very fun and even more on the experimental side but driven from the dfam sequencer it's great and you can have the two modules interact with each other for even more complex textures. plus, don't let the name trick you, i never use the dfam for drums but more for melodic content. for pads or polyphonic(chords) sounds you can look into getting a mutable elements. a clone runs at less than half price of the original. i always go back to this video to sell people on it

a small 84hp case isn't too much these days and you can get some other modules like lfos (look into erica synths octasource for example), a small mixer and some fx. keep things hands on. the dreadbox colourful line has great prices but also some basic doepfer stuff.

Old 10th September 2020
  #8
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monomer's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Richie Witch View Post
Better yet, go to Modular Grid, sign up for a free account, and have the kids help you design the system there. The site is very visual and interactive, the kind of thing kids would love, especially if it means they will see their "invention" become a reality over time. Some modules allow virtual patching too, so you can get an idea of how the modules would work together.

And Modular Grid will also keep track of the system cost (without the cost of the case) and what your power requirements will be.
See, i don't agree with this. I mean, what does a picture of a module tell a novice? lf you don't know what to expect from modular it is completely useless to browse modular grid and make your own config. You'll end up with modules you won't, or worse, can't use and with others missing. Without experience and without a good goal you can get lost in re-arranging pictures of modules real fast.

So i would say, get a simple set first, then you'll have an idea of what you'd like and will also have a better idea where various modules may fit your set.
Old 10th September 2020
  #9
Jtt
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I think an all in one highly modular semi modular is the best place to start. It won't leave anything that you need to make music out, while learning the ropes.

The Behringer Neutron is a good and reasonably priced; really quite an insane value--with an extensive cv patchbay. If you have basic questions about the nature of cv, it could help you avoid spending a ****-ton of money making mistakes.

Otherwise something like the Mother 32 would be good.

A cheap original keystep has cv outs, a sequencer, and can connect to your computer as a midi to cv converter for your modular. A huge controller is probably overkill at the outset, for monophonic sequencers or keyboard parts.

Last edited by Jtt; 10th September 2020 at 07:18 PM.. Reason: keyboard controller
Old 11th September 2020
  #10
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Richie Witch's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by monomer View Post
See, i don't agree with this. I mean, what does a picture of a module tell a novice? lf you don't know what to expect from modular it is completely useless to browse modular grid and make your own config. You'll end up with modules you won't, or worse, can't use and with others missing. Without experience and without a good goal you can get lost in re-arranging pictures of modules real fast.

So i would say, get a simple set first, then you'll have an idea of what you'd like and will also have a better idea where various modules may fit your set.
It's for the kids, man.

The OP sounds like a fun-loving dad who just wants to get the kids to put down the Nintendo long enough to work on this music project with him and maybe get them thinking about music, science, physics, etc.

So what attracts kids to something like this? A cool, interactive, graphic-intensive toy! And it costs nothing! Of course, they're going to mess around and come up with impractical and nonsensical modular designs! They're kids!

But dad can take those designs, and his own, and start doing his research so he can make sense of all this while the kids are having fun with it. Out of this group effort, something really novel could come out of it, and the kids will feel like they contributed, even if it turns out to be in some small way, which will make them even more eager to participate when the modules start showing up. To me, this seems like it checks all of dad's boxes.

Sheesh! Adults can take the fun out of anything.

Heck, he could even get some math and accounting in there and limit them to a certain max power or budget! Then how smart would they be? LOL

Last edited by Richie Witch; 11th September 2020 at 12:57 AM.. Reason: expanded
Old 11th September 2020
  #11
Gear Maniac
 
camacozie's Avatar
 

Thanks everyone for your awesome input. Although self-contained synths do have an ease-of-use appeal - especially for beginners - I liken myself to that of Joe Jackson (father and esteemed manager of the Jackson 5). You see, if she can't remember the difference between a comparator and a logic gate, I will belt whip her in front of the damn neighbors kids, and as such, I ain't scared of some flimsy patch cables.

Just joking.

While I was supposed to be working from home, I instead have been playing around in modulargrid and I think I came up with a concept. I'd like all those willing to please weigh in. I'm not married to any brands or any modules specific to this, more just looking for an effective concept. Let me know if you think there's too much or too few of something. Also, the plan is to build this in stages, one VCO at a time. "Begin with the end in mind", right? I'd like to note a few things you should keep in mind:

1) I don't know what the hell I'm doing.
2) This is for fun, but also to teach the child - they are our future after all and if we don't take action now, soon they'll all be listening to songs comprised of only flatulent samples. There are modules in here that are less performance-based and more guidance-based.
3) We have a Roland V-Drum kit, so drums aren't important at this time
4) I'd like to teach how to improvise with scales, modes, and harmony. While this is not a traditional learning approach, I think it's a great way to simplify these concepts and way cooler than Hot Cross Buns on a recorder. She will be using a MIDI controller.
5) I, unlike the child, will not be playing with this in any sort of performance way. For me, I intend to do all sequences in the DAW. So, I'll need a clock source from MIDI.

This design is a two VCO synth that can be played either as a monophonic or duophonic (learn the kiddo 'bout harmonies and start a solid foundation for chords). The two VCO's and related shaping tools mostly exist in the top and bottom (A & C) rows while global (and one dual ch shaping tool) only live in the center row (B).

I will refer to each piece as {A:C}:{1:11}, indicating row and module (1 on left and 11 on far right).

To begin (keep in mind I am not married to any of this and some of these like A1 isn't the best tool for the job):

In the Global section:
1) B:1 - MIDI to CV Converter with two CV outs, two Gate outs, and a clock out ({mono;duo}phonic or arpeggio)
2) B:6 - Sequencer
3) B:2 - Rotating Clock Divider
4) B:3 - Mult
5) B:4 - O-Scope - Dual channel <!-- One of them learning tools I mentioned -->
6) B:7 - 4 ch mixer
7) B:8 - Master PPK Meter (Stereo) <!-- Also a learning tool -->

On to the tones:
8) A:1 & C:1 - VCA's
9) A:2 & C:2 - VCO's
10) A:3 & C:3 - Tuners <!-- Another learning tool, and the first thing to go when more room is needed -->
11) A:4 & C:4 - Distortions <!-- PANTERA!!! ->
12) B:5 - Envelope Generator - Dual Channel
13) A:6 & C:6 - LFO's
14) A:7 & C:7 - EQ's <!-- The more I think about it, the more I think these aren't needed. Is there a lot of harmonic content from a typical VCO? -->
15) {A;C}:{8:9} & C:10 - Choruses, Delays, Reverb
16) A:10 & C:11 - PPK Meters (Stereo) <!-- yep, learning tools -->


So, I think I could build this in three stages over the course of a year or two. What do y'all think? Thanks again for your input.
Attached Thumbnails
Getting Started with a Modular Synth-mysynth.jpg  
Old 13th September 2020
  #12
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That Mangrove isn't going to be easy to find (at least 4 sale at what it actually costs)... Though more are scheduled towards the end of the year I guess.
Old 14th September 2020
  #13
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monomer's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by camacozie View Post
Thanks everyone for your awesome input. Although self-contained synths do have an ease-of-use appeal - especially for beginners - I liken myself to that of Joe Jackson (father and esteemed manager of the Jackson 5). You see, if she can't remember the difference between a comparator and a logic gate, I will belt whip her in front of the damn neighbors kids, and as such, I ain't scared of some flimsy patch cables.

Just joking.

While I was supposed to be working from home, I instead have been playing around in modulargrid and I think I came up with a concept. I'd like all those willing to please weigh in. I'm not married to any brands or any modules specific to this, more just looking for an effective concept. Let me know if you think there's too much or too few of something. Also, the plan is to build this in stages, one VCO at a time. "Begin with the end in mind", right? I'd like to note a few things you should keep in mind:

1) I don't know what the hell I'm doing.
2) This is for fun, but also to teach the child - they are our future after all and if we don't take action now, soon they'll all be listening to songs comprised of only flatulent samples. There are modules in here that are less performance-based and more guidance-based.
3) We have a Roland V-Drum kit, so drums aren't important at this time
4) I'd like to teach how to improvise with scales, modes, and harmony. While this is not a traditional learning approach, I think it's a great way to simplify these concepts and way cooler than Hot Cross Buns on a recorder. She will be using a MIDI controller.
5) I, unlike the child, will not be playing with this in any sort of performance way. For me, I intend to do all sequences in the DAW. So, I'll need a clock source from MIDI.

This design is a two VCO synth that can be played either as a monophonic or duophonic (learn the kiddo 'bout harmonies and start a solid foundation for chords). The two VCO's and related shaping tools mostly exist in the top and bottom (A & C) rows while global (and one dual ch shaping tool) only live in the center row (B).

I will refer to each piece as {A:C}:{1:11}, indicating row and module (1 on left and 11 on far right).

To begin (keep in mind I am not married to any of this and some of these like A1 isn't the best tool for the job):

In the Global section:
1) B:1 - MIDI to CV Converter with two CV outs, two Gate outs, and a clock out ({mono;duo}phonic or arpeggio)
2) B:6 - Sequencer
3) B:2 - Rotating Clock Divider
4) B:3 - Mult
5) B:4 - O-Scope - Dual channel <!-- One of them learning tools I mentioned -->
6) B:7 - 4 ch mixer
7) B:8 - Master PPK Meter (Stereo) <!-- Also a learning tool -->

On to the tones:
8) A:1 & C:1 - VCA's
9) A:2 & C:2 - VCO's
10) A:3 & C:3 - Tuners <!-- Another learning tool, and the first thing to go when more room is needed -->
11) A:4 & C:4 - Distortions <!-- PANTERA!!! ->
12) B:5 - Envelope Generator - Dual Channel
13) A:6 & C:6 - LFO's
14) A:7 & C:7 - EQ's <!-- The more I think about it, the more I think these aren't needed. Is there a lot of harmonic content from a typical VCO? -->
15) {A;C}:{8:9} & C:10 - Choruses, Delays, Reverb
16) A:10 & C:11 - PPK Meters (Stereo) <!-- yep, learning tools -->


So, I think I could build this in three stages over the course of a year or two. What do y'all think? Thanks again for your input.
It's hard to make out the modules in that picture. Do you have a link to your rack or a high res version of that rack?

Yes, VCO's can generate buckets of harmonics, but normally you tame it with filters. You modulate the filter cutoff frequency with for instance envelopes to change the harmonic content over time.
That is, unless you go the FM route or use some other way to control harmonics.
Anyway, EQ's can be handy, but maybe not the first thing you'd want.

You probably don't need any of those meters on the right. Not sure why you'd need them since knowing the exact voltage is not that important. Modular is mostly about listening anyway, tho that scope will give you a lot of 'inside' information about what the hell you're doing and will tell you more or less what voltages you have. So if you have the scope you don't need the meters is my reasoning. Maybe just one to quickly check what kind of signal you have, but meh, generally not needed imo.

You probably don't need more than one tuner.

You may also want some precision active mults. The CV signal that controls the pitch of an oscillator need to be pretty precise. Splitting a CV signal to multiple oscillators with a passive mult often results in a droop in the pitch because each oscillator 'leeches' away some voltage. You need good quality active mults to regenerate the CV signal to multiple oscillators.
Pitch CV signals are ones that you want to take care of if you want things to be in tune. The rest is generally not that important when it comes to precision.

MIIIIX is possibly overkill but could be handy nevertheless. Alternatively you could get a simpler mixer without the CV control. Kindof depends on what you do with them but it's overkill for if you just want to mix oscillators together. Basically this module is 4 VCA's going into a mixer, but you already have some VCA's so.. up to you.

You may want another mixer tho, one specifically for mixing CV signals. One that is DC-coupled so it allows for non-audio sources.

Couldn't be bothered hunting down the other modules since i can't properly read the model numbers in your picture.,
Old 14th September 2020
  #14
Yes, I think you are coming at this from a slightly odd angle.
Of course THERE ARE NO RULES, but having said that there are some approaches that are more logical than others - from a position of experience.
Personally I wouldn't try to fill a system on day one. I would also start with far fewer modules.
Do you need two fx/reverbs, or any fx at all?
Do you need a chorus fx?
You definitely don't need all those dual meter modules, or two tuners and an oscilloscope.

I use my modular as a single voice, mono sound source 99% of the time. That's what modular was originally designed to be, and what it was for the first three decades of it's use.
Of course with modern Eurorack there is much more capability for stereo. But it's not a 'must have' IMO.
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