Eurorack: Adventures in Modular Synthesis

My current setup

This summer I stumbled down a somewhat new path when I discovered Eurorack. I was in Montreal and stopped by the Moog Audio store and was blown away by some of the cool modular synths they had on display.

Eat, sleep, flip knobs, repeat

I’ve always been interested in music but I have no formal training, can’t read nor really play anything. But I like making noise. I picked up a Thingamagoop2 (BleepLabs) while at Moog Audio:

A video posted by John Biehler (@johnbiehler) on

I then immediately started sourcing other fun ‘noisemakers’ that you solder together like the Minty Synth:

My #mintysynth @adafruit kit is assembled (minus the tin) & it works! Just need to learn how to play it

and the miniAtmegatron:
Received & built my @soulsbysynths miniATMEGATRON today & it's awesome! #8bit

both of which I’m still learning to play.

After some reading and scouring of the internets, I then came across the I Dream of Wires documentary (available on Netflix but watch the Hardcore edition if you can) which delves deep into the world of modular synthesis.

At first I thought there is no way I can afford a modular synth – some of the display units I’d seen at Moog cost well over $5k (the cases that hold the modules alone can cost thousands)…until I found out that many of the modules that make up the modular part have extensive DIY/maker backgrounds and many of them can be bought as kits for a lot less than the fully assembled module. Plus you don’t have to buy them all at once…it can be gradual.

I think this costs more than my car #eurorack

When I was in Portland for XOXO in September, I spent a bunch of time at Muff Wiggler (yup, that’s the name) and Control Voltage – two well known modular sources with Muff Wiggler being one of the most definitive modular forums on the internet.

At Muff Wiggler in Portland

At first glance, it was incredibly overwhelming as there is just so many options and I had no idea where to start. After staring at a rack of modules at the Muff Wiggler store for 10 minutes, trying to figure out the ‘on’ button, I walked away. Then the store manager went over and pressed the right button and it came alive. Chatting with him for a while about how to get started really opened my eyes that it didn’t need to be crazy expensive and totally DIY-able.

At Muff Wiggler in Portland

Cue more internet researching and came across a thread where someone had used OpenBeam to make a frame to hold their modules. I just happen to have a box of OpenBeam left over from my mini Kossel 3D printer build so I started building a frame. I also ordered my first build it yourself module, the Turing Machine which is a kit I picked up at Control while in New York City a few weeks ago. It’s a random sequence generator that can be voltage controlled. I also cobbled together a set of rails and a used power supply from Control – basically my own version of TipTop Audio’s Happy Ending Kit (which seems to be the entry point for a lot of folks) except bigger (104hp rails vs 84hp standard) and cheaper since some of the parts were used.

Eurorack

I figured I’d start there with the Turing Machine controlling the bleeps and bloops of the Moog Werkstatt (with the CV expander) I got through MassDrop on a pretty good deal (despite slow shipping). The Werkstatt comes unassembled and was meant for a workshop class at an event in 2014. They only made 150 of the kits but it was so popular that Moog eventually sold them to the public.

Moog Werkstatt

Moog Werkstatt

While there isn’t any soldering involved in the Werkstatt to assemble it (you basically just bolt the PCB to the case and screw on a lid), it was designed with hacking/modding in mind and the board itself is really well documented. They even have a dedicated workshop site with projects using arduinos and other maker bits to further enhance the Werkstatt.

imperial-10hp

Eurorack

Add in a few modules I made based off the Werkstatt workshop projects, a Craigslist module purchase and some 3D printed panel covers and I’ve got the beginnings of a Eurorack. Since it sits on OpenBeam, I’m able to make a lot of custom parts for the rack, like this flying bus cable holder:

Flying Bus holder

I even soldered up some homemade ‘jacklights’ which you plug into a jack to see the voltage (positive or negative) via a bi-color led:

Homemade jacklights

So far it’s been a lot of fun. When I turned it all on, I was able to make some crazy sounds and it’s just making me want to explore more. Here’s the first thing I’ve recorded that resembles something audible (not calling it music quite yet):

Modulargrid.net is an amazing resource to help you plan your rack, figure out price and power requirements and generally prototype it in your browser.

ModularGrid

You can view my current rack here (although it’s mostly filled with wishlist items). I’ve got lots of space to grow so it will be constantly changing as I figure out what I want to build next.

UPDATE: Thanks to friends in the right places, I’ve been asked to bring my rack to an event this Saturday, November 7th called Bent: A Showcase of Circuit Bending at the Vivo Arts Centre. If you want to see this creation in person along with a ton of other cool circuit bent instruments and performances, come out on Saturday night!

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