Thoughts on Eurorack

The whole reason I ended up getting into the world of electronics was in a never ending quest to find new and different sounds that I could incorporate into my music. Based on that, it was probably inevitable that I would turn to the black hole of the modular synth – in Eurorack format.

I’ve been building up my collection over the past few months, and thought it was time I shared some of my thoughts on the medium. So here goes: my notes on Eurorack.

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It never ends: The well documented curse of the Eurorack comprises both its greatest asset, and its deepest problem. The awesome thing is that you can build up a system that does exactly what you want it do. If a particular module isn’t getting much use, you can switch it out and trade or buy something that performs the exact function you do want. The problem is that pulling together the perfect synth is a never ending task, and there is always more that you can imagine adding on to do extra things.

The problem of rows: This leads on from the above. Let’s say you have a 6u, two row system, and you’ve limited yourself to that size. Now let’s say that you have a great setup, but you realise that to really make your patches sing, you need another envelope generator, or VCO. Just one. The problem is that there is no cost effective way to just get and power that single module; you may as well just get another whole row, but then you have a whole row to fill, and it’s inevitable that you will.

It’s bloody expensive: Whilst the range of modules on offer is awesome, the financial outlay is substantial, even for small systems. You can get full featured synths for the cost of a couple of modules that only perform single functions each, which is something I can’t dwell on for too long, or I’ll cry.

If you want to get an idea of the problem of expanding setups, check out the pictures below. Before, then after.

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Now for some positive things…

Modulate all the things: With Eurorack, you get an amazing level of control over the different elements of your synthesiser. If you want to vary the volume of a certain element, or the kind of filter, or… anything else really, you can do so in seemingly endless ways by taking the output of different modules and using them as controllers. So for example, you can automate filter sweeps with an envelope triggered by the 4th step in a sequence, or whatever else. Trying to make all of those changes by hand on a traditional synth would be a nightmare, and opens up lots of possibilities.

The community is great: The online modular synth community is great. People will go out of their way to help you, and the whole thing is rooted in the open source ethos, and a DIY spirit.

So many modules: Okay, I’ve kind of mentioned this already, but the number of different modules that you can get that do interesting things is crazy. One of the things I like in particular is that there are all sorts of unusual sequencers that change up the way you approach things, which you would never be able to find on a stand-alone instrument.

Composing is FUN: Tweaking all of the different parameters is a source of endless amusement, and it’s great fun exploring the possibilities for an hour, only for it all to suddenly come together and produce the most amazing sounds. The tactile nature of the Eurorack really feels great, and like a naturally evolving creative process.

I find myself writing a whole lot more music, but with a different approach. Instead of finishing everything that I record, I now end up with a lot more in the way of loops, that I dig through later to find those that stand the test of time on a fresh listen. This is partly because finding ways to develop melodies on the Eurorack that don’t just repeat variations of the same sequence is a real challenge. That said though, it’s a refreshing change from writing full tracks on the Game Boy. It definitely won’t replace it, but it’s good to have a different outlet.

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I still need to work out how the Eurorack could possibly be incorporated in a live environment, as changing patches over between tracks seems like an impossible task at this point, and not able to replicate sounds consistently enough. I really hope that I can manage it at some point though, as taking the rig with all of its lights to perform with would be amazing. 

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Thanks to Lee and Grace for the pictures.

 

 

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This week hasn’t been the easiest. This track felt like an appropriate reflection.

Recorded with some Commodore 64 SID chips, a bunch of Eurorack, drones, some guitar, and far too many effects pedals.

Chipmusic in Japan

I’ve spent the past few weeks travelling about Japan, and had an amazing time. Coming back to the UK has been a proper reverse-culture shock. Take me back?

As part of the trip, I got in touch with some fellow chipmusicians and chiplovers thanks to tips from pselodux and ended up playing my first live set at the Space Station in Osaka.

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Thanks to Al and Jarrod Chappell for the above pics.

Expect more live stuff to come now that I’ve made the leap from the studio… Special thanks to these two for being so nice and hanging out:

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In addition to playing in Osaka, in Tokyo I met up with chiptune historian Takashi Kawano, aka akaobi. He tipped us off to an awesome underground electro gig in Koenji, with folks like SunaMachiSoundSystem performing with a Game Boy Advance and Nanoloop, and tobokegao who was rocking a DMG/LSDJ combo with tracks from his Picnic album. You should definitely check them out. Everybody was so friendly to a weird gaijin who didn’t speak a word of Japanese, so thank you for that!

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To mark the occasion, I’ve uploaded a new track to SoundCloud, which will feature on an upcoming album. Here’s BCN:

 

Osaka Gig and New Track

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I’m going to be in Japan in the next couple of weeks, and have confirmed my first live outing as unexpected bowtie, at Space Station in Osaka, which is apparently in the ‘Top 30 Recommended Sights of Japan as Chosen by Foreign Visitors‘. The set will be stripped down to a single Game Boy only, given that we are travelling, so should be something a little different. If you happen to be in the area, it’d be awesome to see you there!

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To mark the occasion, I’ve written a new track that’s up now on Soundcloud. Composition wise, it’s just a single Game Boy, with a tiny little added bit of Commodore 64, and extra drums. Enjoy!

drouth (reprise)

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Writing vocals for electronic tracks is a totally different ball game to other kinds of music, and can be particularly daunting if you come from a more traditional style of songwriting. Because of that, back when I was writing drouth, I found myself hitting a wall fairly frequently, and I wondered what it would be like to ask some other artists I know to give their own take on the tracks if they had free reign to do whatever they wanted to them vocally.

I pulled together a few talented folk who were up for giving it a bash, and despite some initial protests (‘wtf am I going to do with this!?’), they have re-imagined the tracks in some amazing ways… to the extent that the new versions are even better than the originals.

Here’s a bit more info on who is on there…

Andrew Howie

Andrew Howie is a Scottish singer-songwriter with an incredible voice who has been making music on a whole variety of different instruments for as long as I can remember. For this release, he turned his hand to ‘bottle neck’, which resulted in the seriously cool ‘bottle neck heart attack’. You’d think he had been doing this electronic stuff all along.

You can find more from Andrew on his bandcamp.

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Christy Scott is an old young friend and tcheuchter upstart from the true North-East of Scotland. Usually found foraging in the more traditional music world, she brought some impressive soul to new versions of both ‘mex’ and ‘bottle neck’.

Follow along with her inevitable successes on her Facebook page.

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Carly Stambaugh is a fellow Automattician, from across the pond in San Francisco. She wants to be Cyndi Lauper when she grows up, and lended her vocal stylings to a new take on ‘obsolete by design’. Photo credit: Marcus Kazmierczak

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Pulco aka Ash Cooke is a Welsh madman who lives in the middle of nowhere, and a long term collaborator and friend. He is one of the most prolific musicians I know, with a huge back catalogue up on Bandcamp – well worth checking out. He brought his unique brand of spoken word beauty to two tracks: ‘wealth sprouts wings’, and ‘Mr. K’.

As for the music itself, you can download it for free over on Bandcamp, stream it below, or check out Spotify in a couple of weeks when it appears. If you like any of the tracks in particular, give the folk above a shout. I know they’d appreciate the support, and they definitely deserve it!

cup fungus – defame the dead

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Following on from the release of drouth, I found a new project quickly formed and gathered steam. Rather than use Game Boys to compose, I started exploring different electronic instruments. The result was a much more unpredictable, experimental, and far noisier sound than I’ve had before. That shift meant that it didn’t quite feel like an unexpected bowtie album, and so I’ve chosen to release it under a different name: ‘cup fungus’.

Today is the official release date where it crashes angrily into the world.

You can download the album for free on Bandcamp, or stream it via Spotify as of right now (search ‘cup fungus’). If you are interested in something a bit more physical, there are also an extremely limited number (only five!) of hand painted cassette tapes available from my label – cow tongue taco records.

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‘drouth’ up on Spotify

Just saw that the latest album drouth has been approved for Spotify, so those of you fiends who don’t like Bandcamp can stream it to your heart’s content. It makes no difference to me where you get it!

 

The really something EP was already on there, but the oldie habeas corpus was not. I gave them a prod, and that’s available now too. It’s worth noting that the Spotify version is slightly different to the actual album version, as their licensing requirements precluded me from including a couple of bits in the distribution… so if you want the full, unadulterated thing, find it on Bandcamp.

 

Calculator Music with Houston Tracker

Not too long ago I read about how some genius called ‘irrlicht project’ had hacked old Texas Instruments graphing calculators so they could be used to make 1-bit music. Naturally, I had to have a bash at this myself. There’s something particularly special and rewarding about being able to compose whole tracks on devices that were never intended to work that way.

The models that support the ‘Houston Tracker‘ software are seemingly everywhere in the US, as they were apparently a mandatory purchase for many schools. That means they can usually be picked up fairly cheap second hand over there. However, as it turns out, these weren’t all that prevalent in the UK, so they are still fairly pricey – coming in at around £30 on eBay.

I finally got an okay deal though, and got to work getting Houston Tracker onto the device. It’s not all that straightforward, as you need a specific kind of cable – which costs almost the same as the damn calculator. Importing one from America worked out to be the most cost effective route in the end. Installation wise, there’s a lot of fiddling about to get the dependencies right on OSX, unless you use MacPorts – which saved the day. Once it was all up and running though, it was pretty good fun to use – with a whole host of features that I didn’t expect.

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I recorded a fairly simple tune to find my way around the controls, and decided to record it. The raw calculator sound was a bit too bare for my tastes, so I threw in some minimal effects and overlaid some glitchy guitars/harmonised vocals. Here it is, my first calculator music track:

Mr. K

It’s been a while since I got pished on a Saturday night and just recorded some music. Well, I ended up recording after an hour of fighting with my mixer to work out why the stereo output was only producing mono…

There’s always the risk that it could have been my crappy soldering, which meant testing out every possible step. So many variables. Surprisingly, it wasn’t actually any of the Gameboys, but the mixer.

I’m pretty pleased with the result, and it should give a hint as to what the next album will sound like. Listen to and download it below:

To finish off, here’s a picture of my tidied up workspace.