So; I got into Eurorack.
A number of years ago; (back in the 90's!) I was REALLY into building simple little sound circuits. Most of these were triangle-core VCO's, fixed filter banks, 555's as square waves or pulse trains, but I could never figure out decent sequencing. Now looking back, doing a simple chain of shift registers with a resistor-ladder based DAC.
Hindsight is always easier than the alternative.
I have little formal music training. I was a band geek in middle and high school, I played a few different instruments for my first year before settling on the Tuba. I was never an AMAZING Tuba player (by a long stretch!) but I always really enjoyed the theoretical aspects to music.
Over the last few years I've purchased and built up various instruments.
I started buying small-but-capable units like the Korg Volca FM the Bastl Microgranny, and the Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator series. I moved into complex-and-capable units like the Elektron Digitakt, and the Synthstrom Deluge. These combinations of units provided me a LOT of creative potential and really motivated me to keep going to keep learning and MAKING music.
To this day, the Deluge is still my go-to groovebox for tossing together a simple song idea. I REALLY have to get more recordings of sounds together to build up a solid sample library for the thing, it has a pretty simple 2 oscillator synth engine; but the sample-based synth engine is amazing and I need to spend more time exploring the potential of the unit.
After experimenting with these instruments, spending evenings deep-diving into "what can I make this do?" on each device I had on the table, I decided to start adding some string instruments. (I've always had a love of stringed instruments, Guitars, Basses, Violins, Cellos, etc!) I picked up a general Yamaha Bass (A Yamaha TRBX174EW If I remember correctly!) and really enjoyed learning and playing, I have yet to record some bass lines to go into some upcoming music (I really need somewhere quiet that I can mic a cabinet to get the sound I like!)
Next; I picked up a used Cort Guitar, (A Cort Viva Gold-II). I am a pretty terrible guitar player, but the body design was exactly what I was looking for and the price was too good to pass up. I take the guitar out now and then to record a chord or to simply capture a sound bite. This is an instrument that I'd love to spend some more time getting to know.
I found myself wanting a bowed string sound, but while trying to find a violin, cello, bass, or other stringed instrument: I was unable to find anything available, or was unwilling to pay the extremely high prices that people were asking for used instruments.
So, I built a bowed stringed bass:
It's, FAR from perfect, and essentially functions like a bass guitar (fretless, and intended to be bowed!) It has it's issues, and due to the shape of the bridge I built and the narrow spacing I left, It's VERY difficult to play the inner two strings. As a plucked bass it's pretty awesome!
What is Eurorack?
For some history; See the Wikipedia page on Eurorack, it explains the standard, the history, and provides some insight into the direction the industry has been heading.
In late 2018, right when Eurorack was quickly becoming the dominant hardware format for Modular Synthesizers: I started running into the wall that is "I hate having to remember 200 different menu options to find what I want to change". I was looking for a system that offered me a "knob/slider per function" that allowed me to grab exactly the control I wanted and adjust it quickly.
I started looking around online and was familiar with Modular synths, but had never seriously considered buying into the extremely cost-prohibitive world that was 3U Eurorack.
At first glance; Eurorack can feel like a very expensive format to build a custom synthesizer out. One of the most important things to keep in mind when designing a system is: Keep your goal in mind. Are you looking for a monophonic subtractive synth voice that is MIDI controlled? Grab a VCO ($200), Filter ($200), VCA($120), Envelope generator $150, Output module($120), and a Midi module($150): Total build cost (Including a generic case and power supply ($300)) is going to be ~$1250.
Wow; that seems a little steep for a single tone at a time, doesn't it?
Well, let's take a step back and review: what is our goal?
Don't buy more than you need, (unless you want to!)
What midi controller are we hooking this up to? An Arturia Keystep? We already have a CV Output (Gate and Pitch) and don't even need the MIDI module. There's $150 saved.
Next, we need a VCO + VCA + Filter + Envelope generator: why not just grab a Mutable Instruments Plaits (which has everything BUT the filter built in; you can KINDA filter using the Timbre knob, it's not quite the same but it will get us up and running!) Plaits runs around $360 (where I live) and is effectively a full synth-voice-in-a-module.
The only thing we need is a Eurorack-to-line-level "output" module. This can be done in MANY ways, at the DIY end is a simple passive attenuator and on the "buy" side there's hundreds of options. (~142+ at the time of writing!)
The case is something that I highly recommend you buy something decent from the get go. I have always built my own cases, as I enjoy the challenge and like building things to open standards. This requires a LOT of dissimilar skills and as the case is the foundation of your entire system: don't cheap out here. Grab something like an Intellijel 4U Palette Case and the 1U tile for Stereo Line Out; (~$500) or the Make Noise 3U 104HP Skiff ($400). Both are great case options and they will retain their value for many years. (If you decide to move on to a larger case; people are always looking for solid starter cases so selling these used can be lucrative!)
Our little one-voice system is now totaling to $860 (Excluding the Artuia Keystep). Still very expensive for a single voice synth, but toss a single LFO into this case and suddenly you've grown your synth to ~$960 in total cost, yet added a LOT of power and flexibility!
Here; we see the magic that is Modular: Once you know what you want, building a system that does EXACTLY what you want it to do becomes a very easy problem to solve. (Abet a costly one!)
What kind of system do I want?
That's a question only you can answer.
I went for a "6 voice" system with plenty of sequencing and self-generating options; I like the idea of setting up an "interesting sound" and letting a set of rules define what actually pops out into the mixer. I enjoy the ability to sculpt a sound to be exactly what I hear in my head and then to pick a scale and trigger pattern and to let chance and randomness drive until I hear something I like.
So how did I get started?
In 2019 I had been in Berlin (Germany) for work in late September and early October and finally made the trip out to Schneidersladen: One of the world-leading modular shops.
To be honest; I was completely overwhelmed trying to narrow down my system focus after seeing the gamut of modules available.
I had been seriously considering purchasing a new Make Noise Shared System but was unable to justify the price of such a system to myself. Don't get me wrong, Make noise designs and builds awesome modules, I love the dizzying array of synthesis options that such a system offers: it was simply more than I could justify to myself.
Many people online were recommending the Pittsburgh Modular Lifeforms Foundation system, it seemed like a solid option but never really "called out to me".
I had handled and experienced the Erica Synths Black System II while browsing the shops in Berlin, it was an amazing system and I have leaned more and more towards picking one of these up, but while browsing their site I came across their 84HP DIY system (which has since been discontinued alas!)
This system offered incredible value for the price; Without a case or power supply the entire kit was under $600 CAD SHIPPED and I decided to pull the trigger.
While the kit was on it's way; I deep-dived down the muff-wiggler forums, Took inventory of Modular Grid, and discovered dozens of manufacturers that I had no experience even hearing of: that were doing some incredible things that really resonated with my personal creative style.
I HAD to DIY a case to go along with this system: I immediately ordered 5 pairs of Vector Rails from Digikey (there was a pretty good price break on this quantity; I only needed 2 sets at the time!), and ordered a Befaco Excalibus linear power supply (along with a few DIY Befaco kits!)
I needed a 16-24V DC supply for the Excalibus, I ended up finding a perfect [email protected] at a local thrift shop for $5. It's still going to this day and has been an amazing power solution for a smaller case!
While waiting for the kits and parts to arrive; I stumbled across and started browsing Reverb. (The largest used-gear marketplace for musicians). The week while I was waiting for parts, I happened to see a Make Noise Rene (v2) and a Mutable Instruments Clouds derivative (Monsoon) for prices that were too good to pass up; IN WINNIPEG!? I messaged the owner, and bussed over to pick them up the same day.
Soon parts started arriving and I started building. It was a glorious week of 2-3 kits a night; working 8-5 and then sitting down and soldering. It was blissful.
I hadn't even started building the case yet; My synth lived like this with a power distribution board flapping around like this for a few weeks, I'm honestly surprised that I never once shorted anything!
Part 2 coming soon(ish). I have a LOT more to say on this topic; there's just never enough time to get to documentation!