Recently I came across a modular synth system called Patchblocks, and thought I’d give it a bash, as the components themselves weren’t too expensive.
The idea is pretty simple, but deceptively powerful. Essentially you get various inter-connecting blocks that all have two nobs and two buttons, as well as stereo audio out/in ports. By connecting them up to a computer via USB you can use dedicated software to program them to do a whole host of different things, such as simulating drum beats, or acting as effects processors. The latter is what I am particularly interested in.
The device itself is pretty sweet, and doesn’t take up too much room, with a footprint just over the size of a credit card. I plucked for the clear blue plastic version, which apparently glows in UV light… you know… for all those times I’ll be playing live.
The build quality is good, and despite an exposed PCB on the sides, it feels pretty solid.
The coolest thing about these blocks is that you can set it up in whichever way suits your workflow best, rather than just ‘making do’ with workarounds. I’m always on the look out for different audio effects, and one of the things I miss when recording is having a hardware panning control. Sure, I could always just make use of a MIDI controller, but that still routes into Logic’s automation feature, which has never quite agreed with me. So, I set up one of the knobs to correspond to audio panning. That left me with two buttons and one knob free. I added in a filter, with the remaining knob controlling the frequency, and the right button switching through between High-Pass, Low-Pass, etc. The other button I set up as a bypass, so when it was ‘on’, the filter was active. The LEDs also correspond to the particular different modes.
Here’s what that all looks like in the patchblocks software:
It looks complicated, but it isn’t really when you get used to it. Just like that, I have an effects unit that’s customised to do exactly what I need, and which I can modify at any point. Pretty cool.
If you’ve got a patchblock yourself you can check it out here. You’ll need the custom ‘LED Helper’ block that you can get on the Community download section of PB.
Sadly the block I received seemed to have a dodgy output when the audio input circuit was running, so I’ve sent it back for a replacement. The PB people couldn’t have been any nicer about it though, so I’m looking forward to testing it out properly when it comes back.
If you like hardware controls, but want to be able to fulfill a host of different functions in just a few boxes, check out the patchblocks. If you’re into the synth side of things more than the effects, there’s even a dedicated block to provide MIDI DIN in/out functionality. That’s something I might have to explore at a later date.
Update: I got my replacement unit back, and whilst some of the artefacts have been cleaned up, the quality is still noticeably worse than the input. It looks like it’s down to the sample rate of the unit itself, which is a shame – as it limits their usefulness as effects processors.