Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Modular Synthesizer at last!

My earliest synth memory was seeing a film featuring Wendy (then Walter) Carlos and Bob Moog operating the modular Moog synth in the 1960s (old blog post about it here). For just a few decades, any idea of owning or playing my own synth remained a pipe-dream.

Years later, I got into music making and synthesis via Computer and "virtual synthesizers" and have until recently only ever used software synthesizers. I haven't bought any self-contained synths or other hardware but have collected countless software modules on my desktop (iMac) and more recently on the iPad.

My interests in modular synthesis stayed and I purchased the excellent movie - I Dream of Wires when it came out. Modern modular equipment is a pricey proposition and requires a great deal of assembly and electronic knowledge. Eurorack systems are popular and I've always toyed with the idea of getting into them but these too are costly and laborious to configure and change. Many of my more interesting software synths emulate modular systems such as the Arturia Modular V, iVCS3 and more low-level options such as Reaktor and Adulus.

One reason I tend to prefer the software options is that it is so fast to prototype, mock-up and change any music making ideas I have without having to resort to screw drivers or soldering irons. Nonetheless, the lure of analog and tinkering has remained.

This Christmas, my wonderful wife (at the advice of my older son) bought me the littleBits Synth kit and suddenly, I have a modular system at my fingertips that I can configure/reconfigure in seconds with its brilliant magnetic connection system and self-contained modules. Korg collaborated with littleBits and produced some excellent oscillators, sequencers, keyboards, filters and envelopes in a very simple, lego-like configuration. This kit is extremely easy to use, is cheap (compared to other modular setups) and quite powerful.

All by itself, the kit provides enough to put together a two oscillator synth with basic envelope, sequencing and filtering. The keyboard isn't going to produce too much with switches for each note, but you can put int basic notes and run through the sequencer to get some synth rhythms. I bought a few extra modules (splitter, mixer, mounting boards and another oscillator) and put together a basic piece in just a few hours of tinkering. I used the filter in its self-oscillating mode to get a sine wave to mix with the simple saw or square that the Korg oscillator provides.

One thing I have to get used to is recording analog audio! Up until now with mostly MIDI synthesizers or my iConnectMIDI2, the input comes through USB cables or via the iConnectMIDI. The analog synth goes into my somewhat noisy microphone jack on my iMac. I might need to consider an audio interface at some point.

Another work in-progress for me is connecting the modular synthesizer into my music-making via MIDI. There is a module "in the works" for MIDI control but some littleBits users have already solved this by using a littleBits Arduino module to plug into the kit. I bought the littleBits arduino and am working on the MIDI integration.

There are a few projects already outlining how to do this here and here. The second link has a much richer MIDI sketch and is probably the one I will adapt. For my needs, I am more interested in a MIDI solution to integrate with external sequencers and MIDI controllers in my studio rather than for live performance. An added bonus is that I get to do some programming as well :).

I've put the arduino beta programming environment onto my iMac and have got the basics working so stay tuned and I'll update my progress as it goes.

No comments:

Post a Comment