Getting into modular synthesis can be eye-wateringly expensive. Tangible Waves believe they have an alternative in AE Modular. A fully modular analog synth system that’s small, cheap and full of character. They’ve just popped up on Kickstarter with the hope of raising €19,000. Could this be the way into modular synthesis that the less wealthy of us have been waiting for?
Abused Electronics is a great name for this sort of project. The evil genius behind it is Robert Langer who says that he likes the concept of abusing electronics. His approach is certainly unconventional in that he has ignored all modular conventions and form factors and has developed his own. These modules are not Eurorack compatible, they are much smaller and compact about 10 x 2.5cm and you can fit up to 16 modules in each case.
He has pushed all of the patch points to the top of the module and the knobs towards the bottom. This makes for a very clear signal path but goes against the preference of most modular builders to physically locate patch points next to the parameter it is controlling. Rather than using jack cables and the large expensive sockets they require he’s opted for patch wires – like you’d find in an electronics project from Maplin.
There are currently 13 modules covering all the expected synthesizer functions. There’s a Master I/O module with input and output jacks plus MIDI and CV/Gate. There’s an oscillator, noise generator, filter, envelope, VCA, LFO, sample and hold, attenuator, mixer, delay effect, logic gate and a 10-step sequencer. Many more will be along if they get the funding.
Modular synthesis on the cheap?
The key point here is the price. To buy the Rack 1, which is a single 16 module case with 11 modules pre-installed, will cost you a pledge of €385. That’s a fully functional modular synthesizer where you can arrange and patch the modules however you like. In Eurorack you could probably buy a small case and a single module for that sort of price.
They are also offering the Rack 2, which is a two row case with 18 modules for $490. That’s amazing! If you were ever unsure about getting into modular then this is a fabulous way of trying it out, seeing if it actually appeals to you while at the same time enjoying an interesting synthesizer.
However, it does look a bit crap. Robert’s presentation in the Kickstarter video is somewhat endearing but doesn’t fill you with masses of confidence. He should talk less and make noises more. The design is very basic, the knobs look fiddly to me and the wires don’t seem that secure. It’s designed to be somewhat utility in appearance. He talks about the rubber stamping of the text on the panels and how he likes the “unperfect” look. That might be cool, I’m not sure.
There’s an aesthetic in modular and I don’t think this quite cuts it. Although I have to say that the potential is enormous. Maybe he needs to cosy up with a few artists who could splash some unique designs or colour onto the face-plates. Or maybe get hold of some slightly more funky knobs. Perhaps that’s what will happen in the community of users – it’s a starting point that will become more elaborate as the DIY-ers and hackers get their hands on it.
There’s no doubt that this is a massive opportunity to play with real modular synthesis at an affordable price. And to get in on something that might well become a bit of a thing. I’m really tempted.
All the details can be found on the Kickstarter page here.