Modular synthesis is complicated, expensive and completely awesome. We can’t seem to get enough of it these days. If you don’t already have a rack bursting at the seams with modules then you are probably thinking about perhaps getting a small case and a couple of modules. Ha! Fool! That’s how it all begins, just a few hundred quid and a couple of modules, just to test the water and before you know you’re homeless and hungry but with an awesome modular synthesizer.
From all the 2018 releases, how can anyone choose just 5 bits of modular gear? It’s not like we’re talking about the best synthesizers, we’re talking about the best parts of synthesizers. For instance the SSF MUTON. I think it an awesomely useful 8 channel mutable VCA, but it’s also just a VCA and how can that be better than a full synth voice in Eurorack form? It’s best not to think too hard about these things. So, from what I’ve seen this year here are some wonderful modules.
Strymon Magneto Four Head dTape Echo and Looper
Boutique guitar pedal makers Strymon brought this along to NAMM right at the start of the year. Magneto is a beautifully designed, deep and organised digital tape echo and looper. It looks the business, black and clear with more knobs and patch sockets that any delay box has any right to have. I’ve had one for 6 months and I’m still only scratching the surface of the possibilities in this box. You have control over everything, from speed and head placement to repeats and panning. You have transport control over direction and tape stop effects and at the bottom are 5 knobs that’ll corrupt the soul of your sound with vintage distressing. Magneto is musical, rewarding, deep and interesting which is all you can ask for in an effects box. It’s already become a classic for those who can afford the cover charge and the HP.
- Strymon Magneto webpage.
Mutable Instruments Marbles
Mutable have taken it upon themselves to discontinue a number of classic modules over the past year, most notably Braids and Clouds. Plaits arrived as a worthy macro-oscillator successor to Braids but we’ve still seen no sign of any kind of Clouds replacement. But what we did see was an unassuming little module called Marbles and it’s a tour-de-force in randomisation. Marbles is a source of random gates and voltages that are generated and output in various ways. On the one side it loves to generate drum patterns on-the-fly, throwing in the random crap timing of musicians and making 2 channels of beats from a coin toss, random ratcheting and rhythms. On the other it has 3 channels of randomness in smooth or sharp, quantized or free, repeating or full on Turing Machine. There are 7 outputs in total each with its own take on the probability of existence. It drums, it modulates, it makes tunes and could turn your Eurorack on its head.
- Mutable Instruments Marbles webpage
Endorphin BLCK_NOIR 7-channel hybrid drum generator
Spanish modular makers Endorphin moved a million miles from their bright and bouncy modules into a dark and brooding place where they found the annoyingly named BLCK_NOIR. It’s a comprehensive 7 channel drum voice that’s far too much fun to have in a rack. The sounds are synthesized using digital noise with spectrum animation injected into analog circuits. The generation is discrete analog using indictor coils instead of op-amps. They say it was inspired by the Roland CR-78 but in any case these noises have a great deal of character and you are blessed with all sorts of ways to mess with them. The Throttle knob controls a bi-polar filter whereas Flaps takes the resonance into screaming self-oscillation. The onboard effects processor brings in 8 types of effects and an auxiliary input. The effects can be scanned by CV for some really interesting zaniness. It’s a complete drum solution with a shed load of creativity and tweaking potential in a single module.
- Endorphin.es BLCK_Noir page.
Erica Synths Techno System
Obviously not just a module but a well thought out, comprehensive and intentional family of modules put together into the perfect modular bass and drum groove machine. The Erica Synths Techno System is a playground of beats and basslines. You’ve got 6 analog percussion modules and the digital Sample Drum. You’ve got mixers and effects, overdrive and utilities and the beating heart which is the mechanically keyed Drum Sequencer. It’s an awesome system but that’s only half the reason it’s here. The other cool factor is that it has produced a range of high-quality modules that you can incorporate into your own rack. It’s like Erica Synths released a groovebox but you can buy all the parts separately and use them however you like. That’s the beauty of modular. The beauty of the Techno System is that you can spend a couple of minutes with it and you’re making banging techno – you can’t help it.
- Erica Synths Techno System webpage.
Probably weren’t expecting that were you? This isn’t a module it’s a case but one which I believe has tempted more people into Eurorack than ever before. What Arturia did with the RackBrute is nailed down the biggest barrier to entry – the case and power supply. Now you don’t have to fiddle around on websites trying to put power supplies into cases and worrying about power draw and rails and bus cables – RackBrute is a branded product you can buy in a regular music shop and it will just work. It’s also brilliantly designed and will integrate with a MiniBrute if you have one – and you don’t have to have one. It’s available in 3U and 6U versions and it folds up so that you can carry it about. I’m still annoyed that the power supply isn’t internal but other than that the RackBrute is a brilliant way to start your modular journey.
There you are
So that’s my Top 5 from 2018 in the world of modular. It could easily have been a Top 20 – there was the Hermod sequencer, the 808 drum machine, the Delta CEP A, Coma Reactor, Sample Slicer 2, Noise Engineering in 5U and on and on and on….