testing 142

I’m constantly figuring little things out about this synthesizer and I feel, in many ways, that in the five months I’ve had this modular thing I’ve learned more about synthesizers and sound than in the years and years previous working with software.

I recently added a Doepfer A142 to my system. This is a voltage controlled decay/gate. What it does is takes a trigger input, like from a LFO or in my case the MFB Seq02, and creates an envelope that consists of a very quick attack and a voltage-controlled and adjustable decay. What I was looking for was a way to create steps of different lengths from the sequencer to add some movement and, you know, funk. I could do this with my Model 10, but I like using the Model 10 so much that I figured I’d like to have something that is dedicated to sitting next to and serving the sequencer.

Soon after plugging it in, I started noticing that something wasn’t right with the A142. It didn’t have a “quick” decay, only a really muddy longish one. This was especially the case with manual control. When I plugged the CV in, I could get sharp clicky envelopes, but in manual they were anything but short even with the knob at 0. I discovered that on the PCB of the module there was a small trim pot, but I didn’t know what it did as the Doepfer site didn’t seem to refer to it.

So, as I do at times like this, I turned to the internets and started a thread at the Muffwiggler forum. I immediately got some help and much of it was quite thorough and technical. Just having others tell me that their A142’s work as expected at least narrowed it down to a problem with my particular module. One or two readers actually got deep into it and with this information I at least got the thing usable. The trimmer on the back adjusts the offset, which means that it adjusts the point at which the envelope starts getting longer. By turning it about a quarter-turn, it’s now set to where from 0 to 1, the envelope is about 1ms long. This is a good thing. A new problem begins at 1, because by 3 the envelope is more than 12 seconds. This in theory should take place at nearly a complete turn, like around 9 or 10. So the entire range of the envelope is now between 1 and 3, which means that very very small nudges to the knob result in very large changes to the length of steps from the sequencer. From incredibly staccato to very very legato.

To illustrate this, I made a video. It includes captions for clarity, but basically I set up a simple sequence in the Seq02 and make adjustments with the A142. You can see the minor little changes to the knob and hear the major adjustments to the step lengths. The advice from the forum was to solder a new resistor onto the PCB. I’ve been meaning to learn to solder…

use what you got

One day last week as I was wrapping up at the studio, my son was asking about some of the modules on the synthesizer. In particular he was wanted to know what the ring modulator (Doepfer A114) did. We had some time so I patched some stuff together and tried to explain a concept that I’m not even totally familiar with.
We got something kind of cool going, using the Seq02 to trigger gates, send CV notes to the VCOs, and send CV to various parameters like the filter frequency. We didn’t have the computer with us so there was no way for me to patch the modular in via the MOTU Ultralite. So remembering that I had this little Blue Mikey microphone for my iPhone that I was given for Christmas, I grabbed that thing, attached it to the phone and opened up FiRE, which is a terrific recording app from Audiofile Engineering. I have the original Blue Mikey, which doesn’t have any line-in, so what you hear was recorded from speaker to microphone. The result turned out much better than I’d have imagined it would. FiRE has some gain control so I could keep the sound from clipping for the most part, but also keep the levels up near the limits. The phone was sitting about 18 inches away from my monitor and about four feet from where we were standing at the synth.

I like this clip as you can hear Wilson asking me about the patch as we pulled cords and tried new things. About 1/3 the way through we patched in the noise from the A118 through a mixer into the second input of the VCA. The result was a periodic drumming, which I believe you can here him “yeah yeah keep that!” at around 2:16. A bit later he asked about the A150 VC Switch. So we pulled a cord from one of the CV tracks out of the sequencer to turn the switch from in/out 1 to in/out 2, and we ran the A118 noise to the 2nd input of the switch with the original ring-modded patch going into the first input.
We played around with the switching starting at 4:14 and found something we liked at about 5:50. It was a pretty complicated patch for a little two-row system like mine, and you can hear Wilson say “you used up all of your wires!” near the end.

After we turned off the recording, I sent the file directly to SoundCloud from the iPhone itself, never processing it through anything on the Mac at all. I really love this system as it does a terrific job in a pinch, and while I can’t use much of the recording in any songs later on, it is a real “live recording” of the playing of that synthesizer. I’m impressed enough with the Blue Mikey that I’ll be upgrading to the new version with the line-in jack as soon as it is released next month.

Wilson’s been playing with Reason and Live about the same amount of time that I have. He’s built a small synth in Reaktor, and he’s got dozens of songs made in Garage Band saved on various CDs and hard drives. The modular is really interesting for him because of the tactile and physical approach to patching and knob-twisting. Nothing is hidden behind GUIs or multiple pages or magic computer dust. Here’s a picture taken of him about a year ago working with Sonic Charge’s Synplant synth in Ableton.

working with Synplant

i got a sequencer

I have sequencers running out my ears on my computer. I regularly use Numerology, Reaktor, Ableton and Volta to sequence soft synths and, lately, my modular via midi. However, a good part of the reason I’ve become sort of kind of obsessed with this modular business is the tactile control of buttons, switches and knobs.
To that end, I added a sequencer in the form of the MFB Seq02 last week. This thing is incredibly versatile for such a small thing. It can run twelve separate CV sequences of up to 32 steps each, or six CV and six trigger/gates. It’s got its own clock and it can be controlled by an outside clock as well.

I’ve not had much time this week to work with this thing, but today I set up a simple four note repeating sequence and just started patching. These are variations using pretty much the same four note patterns. Each track on the Seq02 can have one of either an A or B 8-step sequence, or both in a row. A three-way switch chooses which mode. So I just made two different four-note sequences, started the sequencer, and switched back and forth.

The sounds are coming from the A110 VCOs in various waveforms, and filtered at different times with the Model 12, the A120 VCF, and the A101-2 Low Pass Gate. The A101-2 is the thing that creates the plucky acoustic sounds. When you hear it you’ll know. I used MOTU’s Volta to send various trigger and step-sequences to both the Seq02 as a clock, and other modules for various modulations. I sometimes wanted various numbers of steps, where the Seq02 only allows one to choose steps on a global level. Meaning if I want one sequence of triggers to be four steps and another to be seven, I have to rely on the software.
The delay was added in Ableton because it sounds nice.

a little sequencing?

model 10 tweaks

I keep the “record” button close by when I’m working with the modular. I don’t really know yet exactly what I’m doing and I never know when something surprising and great will get spit out. These two files are cases in point.
They’re both caused, for lack of a better word, by the Plan B model 10 Polyphonic Envelope. The first one is using the m10’s End of Attack output to send a second trigger to the envelope that is opening the VCA. Because the rise, or attack of the envelope is quicker than the release, it gives it this little swinging feel.

The second one here happened when I was cross-modulating the frequency of the sine output on an A110 oscillator with a LFO as well as the model 10. The LFO was, I believe, sending the triangle wave out, and I was fidgeting about with the ‘fall’ knob on the model 10, as well as a little bit with the time base. It caused some great bubbling.

I’m trying to take time to explore each of the modules I have one by one and really understand what it is that they do. I suspect I’ll have more module-centric posts here coming along. I just bought a couple more pieces — a voltage controlled switch, a low pass gate, and a sequencer — as well as a larger case, so… lots to play with.

say hello to my little friend

Several months ago, I sort of stumbled upon the concept of modular synthesizers. It was kind of a backdoor thing. I got interested in step sequencers first through Numerology and some tools in Reaktor. From this I began searching for videos of sequencers in action, and often they were running modulars in various iterations. This led me back to Reason for a while, string CV cables around for the first time, really, and realizing a lot of what I’ve been missing in that app. The Matrix sequencer suddenly became a lot more fun.
Having immediate access to the various controls and switches and knobs seemed pretty great and made my Alesis Micron suddenly less interesting. I imagined working with these actual controls to be far more creative than staring at the virtual versions afforded to me with the software I have. I recognize that tools like Reaktor and even Reason allow me to do things that there is no way I could do with actual hardware, no matter how complex, but watching and listening to these clips and grasping how they work, I learned more about how the software worked as well. Entire parts of Reaktor and even smaller tools like Jasuto for my iPhone suddenly seemed accessible.
So, a week or two ago, I went poking around eBay and landed myself a little modular synth. This is the baby version of the Doepfer A-100 system. It only includes ten modules — just the basics for making sounds and affecting them in limited ways. It’s not even remotely as flexible or powerful as even the more basic synthesizer plug-ins that I use regularly. But it’s a nice little fenced-in area for me to work and learn. Modulars are a very deep hole and it would be very easy for me to fall in it and have no idea why X is making that sound and Y is affecting it. Also, these things aren’t cheap.

Doepfer a100 mini


This A-100 Mini has two oscillators, a low-pass filter, a mixer, a noise/random voltage generator, an envelope generator, one LFO, a ring mod, and a VCA. And it has a midi interface, which will end up being more useful than I originally thought. When I like sounds that modular synths make, I usually like the self-running burbly beepity patterns that seem almost random. These patches are normally made up of various triggering devices and multiple LFOs that this synth doesn’t have. Eventually I expect to grow this beast and get it there. In the meantime I’ve also bought (used!) a copy of MOTU’s Volta, which will run as a plug-in in something like Ableton Live and through sending control voltages over my audio interface, will give me a LOT of control over that which I have. Without Volta, I likely wouldn’t even be interested in such things.

I plugged this thing in on Sunday, hooked it up to an input in Live, and recorded the first ten minutes or so of whatever I could get it to do. These are pretty simple sequences, controlled entirely with the random voltage generator and the LFO, modulating the VCO frequencies, the filter cutoff, and some gain. Just after this short time of playing with it, I know I want/need at least one more LFO, preferably voltage controlled; another ADSR envelope, also voltage controlled; and maybe another filter — or a low pass gate. There has been a real explosion of interesting and creative design going on in the modular synth universe with many small homebrew companies building and selling odd little modules.

Here is the result of the first time spent with the A-100. Essentially it’s various modulations of the oscillators and filters with the LFO, along with various knob-turns. I expect to add more as I get a grasp of what to do with it. Stay tuned.