My latest modular is in its final phase of construction. Each phase had a different approach to module selection.
Phase One --Eager Beginning
I started my modular with a Mantis full of the sort of basic modules I have installed in innumerable educational systems. My fundamental criteria were:
- Single function modules
- Clear layout with obvious signal flow
- Good ergonomics
I was aiming for a four voice computer controlled system, so the VCOs, while different, have some common timbres. This led to several quad support modules like ADSRs and VCAs. About 1/3rd are DIY. Good ergonomics for me means knobs with a minimum of 3/4" spacing and graphics that don't obscure labels. There were a few misfires along the way. For instance, I wanted a multimode filter with deep slopes for a technique I like to use (popping harmonics out of a drone), and through a combination of deadlines and module availability, wound up with a Synchrodyne. Nice module, but a bad layout and labels in 6pt type. I used it in one performance, but it was soon replaced with an Ultrarandom dual S&H.
Phase Two -- The Wind Instrument
I soon realized that although the general purpose modules were usable with my WX5, they were not ideal. This led to a second case with modules focused on generating convincing wind sounds. I also wanted a pretty standard voice to generate bass lines to jam with (controlled by the laptop). To make this happen, I needed:
- MIDI interface with breath CV out.
- 2 VCOs
- VCA or LPG that responds elegantly to the breath.
- Several options for wave distortion--subtlety is required.
- A precision multiband filter to create formants.
- A natural sounding reverb.
- A switched mixer for instant patch changes
I wanted to make the case easy to carry, so I opted for putting utility functions on tiles. The criteria for the first case were still in effect, but the focus now was in getting the best performance. Often this meant trying several designs- and when I discovered the Serge Resonant Equalizer, I had to build a new case.
Phase Three-- Exploring New Ground
Up to this point (about a year ago) my module choices had been fairly conservative as I built an old school foundation for the system. Also, I had a few odd modules that hadn't made the cut for the wind instrument. So, deciding to explore new territory, I built another 6U case. The focus was to be drones and percussion. I was getting a feel for the Eurorack approach, so I relaxed my fundamental criteria somewhat. Now allowed:
- Mutifunction controls as found in Clouds.
- This case will not go out for performance, so tighter knob placement and tiny labels are allowed. The Synchrodyne found a home here.
- Hidden setup process like Plaits and SMR. (Yes Braids has menus, but I never use anything but model selection, and that's spelled out in the open.)
I wound up with a case that will produce a nice variety of drones. The Teleharmonic is central to this-- I had skipped over it in the early phases because is too complex. The harmonic features duplicate what I do in the computer and make it awkward to use as a "normal" VCO. However, diligent study of the (31 page!) manual, I was able to decipher what it does and how to produce diatonic chords with variable richness (perfect foe Sloth modulation).
Percussion was less satisfactory. I know the BIA is the gold standard percussion module, but I couldn't find one in 2020. So I tried a variety of simple kit bangers. All I can say is ugh! Turns out that modules I already had (Braids, Plaits, Plonk) were better sounding. All of the percussion modules save one were ejected as not worth the hp.
When I was building the wind instrument case, I tried a 4ms Spectral Multi Band Resonator as a general filter. It failed at this, primarily because I wanted more bands, but also because it has the most awkward way of setting the frequencies I can imagine (Do not buy this module if you are color blind.) However, it sounds good so I hope to soon get time to learn it well enough to use it in more patches.
Phase Four-- Back to the Future
Most of my patches with the system so far were driven by the laptop, as I developed an extensive library of Max patches for various generative tricks. However, I eventually began to yearn for the feel of sequencers under my fingers. So I began what will be my final case-- a sequencer driven EDM machine. My approach to module selection is now about the sounds-- farts and hinks and all of those blatantly raw things that defined electronic music before samples and sophistication came along. (And is now central to Eurorack.) I still consider clarity and ergonomics, but I'll put up with a lot to get a new sound. Here's the rack so far:
You will note that the sequencer I choose is a Klee. That is not simple to comprehend, but it has wide range of features that make it a solid performance instrument. Other things explore chaotic oscillation and analog through-zero FM. I will be expanding the case slightly to a add a row of utility tiles and a second sequencer.
So over the space of three years my shopping strategy has changed depending on what I was shopping for: simplicity for foundation modules, but an increasing acceptance of complexity and weirdness for special purpose items.