It was only a year ago at the first SynthFest UK event that I was bitten by the modular bug. Now that I’ve sold my kidneys (and my children’s future) for new Eurorack modules it’s interesting to return as a less wide-eyed and perhaps more knowledgeable attendee to the Sound On Sound hosted synthesizer manufacturer show and modular meet.
SynthFest UK 2017
It was held again at the Octagon Centre which is part of The University of Sheffield. The basic layout is that you have one huge hall filled with rows of mostly smaller, independent modular and synthesizer manufacturers. Alongside were “modular meet” rigs, curiosities, University course stands, shops and classic bits of gear. Downstairs are a few rooms where the big guns have taken up residence. Arturia and Moog in one, Korg in another and Roland in a third (no Yamaha this year).
Downstairs is also where we find the seminar room. There was a schedule of talks and demonstrations happening throughout the day from the likes of Martyn Ware, Radiophonic Workshop, and Adrian Utley. Strange instruments and experimental electronic stuff were performed and examined, questions were asked and hopefully, answers were forthcoming. Last year some of this was done in the main hall where you could watch for a bit and then wander off and look at more stuff. This time it was all in one small room and you had to queue, and they seemed to bolt the door once it started. As I was never in the right place at the right time to queue up I didn’t get to attend any of the seminars. I didn’t think they were very well advertised and seemed rather hidden away. They need a bigger space and one in which you can come and go a bit easier. Needs a rethink for next year I think.
Onto the cool new stuff. Well, there wasn’t a whole lot of new stuff to be found, but here’s what took my eye.
Justin from Abstract Data was there with his now familiar skiff of silver modules with blue patch cables. This year he was showing a couple of good, solid and simple new modules. The first was a 4 channel mixer. 4 knobs, 4 inputs and 4 outputs. Handles audio or CV and can be setup as two 2:1 mixers or a single 4:1. Nothing remarkable, but a good quality mixer module, that doesn’t take up much room and are always in demand. He’s supplying it with interchangeable caps on the knobs so you can do a little bit of colour coding which is a nice touch. The other module was a prototype pattern generator that would take various gate and clock inputs and output one of 36 patterns.
Abstract Data website.
Soulsby had a prototype of their first Eurorack module running last year based on their popular desktop boxes. Now it’s an ongoing product and I asked Paul about how the reaction has been to the module. His response (loosely paraphrased) was along the lines that Eurorack is a funny old game and difficult to make an impact when there are so many modules being released all the time. They can’t make enough of their desktop Atmegatron, they are always selling out, but the Eurorack version seems to be a much harder sell. He’s going to keep at it but feels that perhaps there’s a lot more talk going on in Eurorack than actual money changing hands. I thought that was a very interesting perspective.
Soulsby Synthesizers website.
I’ve always liked the Data Duo concept of a synth that’s built for two. And now that I’ve been able to have a play I can say that it sounds great and is completely adorable. I just can’t cope with the £300 price tag. My 10-year-old, who I dragged along to take photos, quite liked it. But it just needs to be fifty quid. Build it on an Arduino or something.
Data Duo website.
In amongst the University stands was Noise Orchestra and their Noise Machines. They generate sound and noise from light sensitive components in a DIY style. They had some great wooden box receptors, lightbulbs spinning on turntables and a general workshop feel that looked a lot like someone had taken a screwdriver to Orac (obscure sci-fi reference for Terry Nation nerds only). I spoke to founder Vicky Clarke about their installations, workshops and performances and it sounds all very interesting.
Noise Orchestra website.
Transistor Sound Labs – Stepper Acid
It’s not a new product but you don’t often get to see them because they only make small batches and they sell out very quickly. It was great to speak to Zoé Blade who writes the Stepper Acid firmware and see it in action. It has the heart of the TB-303 sequencer built around a very musical approach. They’ve like taken what was great about the 303 but also taken nods from Rebirth and other evolutions of the concept and built as much creative musicality as they can into this module. While Zoé crunches the software it’s Nina Richards who designs and builds them. They produce them by hand in batches of 25 and struggle to keep up with demand. They do have plans for further modules but are not able to find the time at the moment.
Transistor Sound Labs website.
Expert Sleepers – General CV
Os (Andrew Ostler) of Expert Sleepers had a go at convincing me that the General MIDI module he’s called General CV is a fabulous idea. He didn’t do a bad job either. I think if you can ignore in naffness knee-jerk reaction to what we have when someone mentions GM sounds then actually this is a module packed full of usable, polyphonic sounds. And sounds that can be completely messed with using Os’s firm grasp of CV-to-MIDI integration. The Chord mode is completely brilliant where any CV input can generate a 3, 4 or 5 note chord. Once being modulated and running through effects it does get rather interesting. This can also be an arpeggiator, pattern generator or you can simply use a sound as an oscillator. There’s an awful lot behind the scenes that can be modulated, and although an Orch Hit is still cheesy you might be surprised by what you can do with it. Any criticism I tried to give on his choice of sound source was met largely with a shrug saying that it’s just something he felt he wanted to tackle. Which is fair enough!
Expert Sleepers website
It’s all about the big and bold colours with Analogue Solutions. They had their Fusebox, which stands there, bolt upright, quite unlike any other “desktop” synth. And they had their Synth Blocks, the Mr Hyde and the Dr Strangelove. They were most enjoyable to play with. Although much to my horror I discovered that the headphones were also patched to massive speakers so everyone could hear your feeble attempts at synthesis and modulation while you were unaware of the audience.
Analogue Solutions website.
Down in the recesses of Korg UK was a table covered in Driftboxes from Reon. These are brand new and in from Japan and haven’t yet got their EU certification. Korg UK wanted to try them out at SynthFest in order to gauge the interest and reaction. “High” and “warm” was probably the result of that. I think there were somewhere between four and eight boxes, but there may have been more. They all followed the same form factor and style of packed in knobs, a row of switches and the odd joystick or two. There were at least two synthesizers, a digital paraphonic and a dual VCO analogue synth. A 4 channel mixer box and a sequencer/CV generator with the two joysticks, and maybe another one. The joysticks felt great to use and the “Drift” function on the synths was really interesting and fun to use. I might not have got all the information right but the price for each box seemed to be around the £450 mark. That’s in the area of the Mother-32, the 0-Coast and other well-regarded desktop synths including Korg’s own Minilogue. So they are aiming quite high with these. They are bright and distinctive although the layout is a bit squashed and uniform. It will be interesting to see how they are received and how many there actually are.
Japanese Driftbox website.
Roland promised to bring the D-05 for us all to have a play on. It was there – I touched it – but for some reason they had it up out of the way. Unfortunately, the Roland demo guy seemed to spend the whole day in his own zone jamming away to himself with his back to the room. And being frightfully English I didn’t feel able to interrupt him in order to have a listen to the D-05. I pushed a few buttons, reminded myself of how terrible it is to program and left it at that.
Roland D-05 webpage.
There was plenty of stuff to see and have a go on. One thing I didn’t get to see was the Tasty Chips GR-1 Granular Synthesizer. I’m sure I passed it once and then couldn’t find it again. AJH also had some new modules that I didn’t manage to get to.
It seemed well attended but not so busy that you couldn’t get close to the gear. Once again I was impressed by everyone’s willingness to talk to you about their stuff (Roland aside), and you really get a sense of passion from the independent makers. I think Sound On Sound should give some thought to the layout of the main hall. The rows in the middle were quite tight and difficult to move down when there was loads of space around the outside. That, and make the seminar room larger and more accessible. Apparently, there were also performances going on all day but I never came across them. Maybe some better signage would help?
In some ways the novelty of modular has worn off a little bit so there’s not quite that level of excitement in the room. But there’s no better place or event at which to experience the gear and talk to the people behind it. Looking forward to next time.
- SynthFest website.